The Most Terrible Battle is designed by Mike Kennedy and published by White Dog Games. It covers the subject of Napoleon’s attack at Borodino, with individual game counters representing divisions, grouped into corps.
The rest of this post gives way to some general observations and some of the game mechanics highlighted by an AAR.
Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.
Borodino as a napoleonic topic needs little introduction. This title is specifically aimed as an introductory game, while also claiming to also be an interesting play for the already established hobby gamer.
For me, I have recently been looking for a small body of games that are very easy to pick up and play, ideal for that midweek game or short face-to-face session and which have enough grit to raise it above a generic style play.
I couldn’t really find anything anywhere about this recently released game, so bought it more in hope than anything else .... so does it tick the boxes to earn a place on my crowded game shelf?
The game comes in two formats, boxed and ziplock. I believe they are identical except for the packaging, I went with the ziplock and the saving more than off-set the postage cost (bought from Second Chance Games in the UK).
We have a 22” x 23” sized map, so the battlefield is presented in a square format, allowing space for the play aid with the turn track and Combat Table to be placed next to it and still only taking up the space of a standard sized map. The map has been done in very sympathetic tones, with a winterised look and the counters stand out nicely against it. The hexes are larger than the counters need and I appreciate that.
The counters are printed on a paper that has an open surface, so some of the vibrancy in colour and sharpness of the information is lost, compared to what is typically found in games. This paper is set onto a sort of wood pulp board and looks to be laser cut rather than die cut. I used a sharp modelling knife to carefully cut through the holding nibs, a process which needs a bit more heavily handedness than when cutting typical counters. The result though is a nice thick counter that is easy to pick up and handle.
My understanding is that the counters are part of the business model for lower production runs and though there are nicer looking counters around, I would rather have a good game with these than a game that is all sizzle and no beef!
Some of the units (27 of them) have 4 steps, so are represented by 2 counters and are swapped out as losses increase. (edit - This helps with the sense of the attritional style battle).
The rules are self contained in a four page booklet, printed sharply on a nicely surfaced paper. They are concise and in some respects on first appearance offer a good traditional system with a standard Combat table of retreats and step losses, but there is a depth to this system and the designer has worked to make a four page rule set punch above it’s weight.
Surprisingly perhaps, the bigger booklet is the eight page play booklet, which is just a series of play examples, all done rather nicely and clearly showing the system. The author is clearly adding the game’s ‘introductory’ credentials here, together with that rulebook of just 4 pages, plus a play sheet that re-iterates the major elements of the rules.
The play book gives interesting (almost conversational) examples because they are based around events. The first example is called the assault on the village of Borodino and so it covers a piece of terrain and those units that you are likely to use initially in the game - good idea.
Scenario and set up instructions are on a separate card and the package offers two identical play aid cards that have all the terrain charts, combat modifiers and things like movement rates and stacking levels on them (except for the CRT).
After an initial reading of the material and the first couple of turns of play, there were a few things that I thought were not fully nailed down, but I was able to work through them and will say more on this in the conclusions.
Regardless, I can’t remember the last time that I bought a game and wanted to get it to the table the same day!
Above - the setup. The French are on the left, the Russians to the right.
Here are some highlights from my first experience with the game. I will use some game moments to highlight various mechanics to the reader, rather than turning it all into a narrative.
I should start saying that victory is totally driven by the capture of objectives and that only the French score these. This firmly puts the French into the hot seat to break into the Russian fortifications and exploit deeper into the map. Whilst the victory conditions do not include losses, it will only be through attrition that ground will be won.
“There are no words to describe the bitter despair with which our soldiers threw themselves into the fray” wrote Captain Lubenkov. Page 271, 1812 Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski, published by William Collins.
And so it starts ...... Turn 1 of 16 turns. Initially looking at the map, there are two locations that the French have within immediate striking distance. The village of Borodino (2 hexes worth 5 VP’s each) held by weak Russian garrison units on the French left and the village of Utitsa, in front of the Polish V Corps on the French right at the bottom of the map and essentially these positions will define the flanks.
Borodino is a fairly easy take, but Utitsa looks quite daunting for the French and the value of pre-battle artillery bombardment immediately becomes obviously important.
Guns can fire through units to the enemy beyond. If guns bombard, they have to roll for a ‘hit’. If they hit and the defender is in defensive terrain, then the defender rolls to try and negate the hit. It does add a bit of tension to the game at key points.
Effective bombardment hits cause Disorder to the stack, which doesn’t sound too bad does it? ...... but you don’t want to be disordered in this game. You can’t attack, have movement limitations, but most importantly, you are halved in defence, which throws the importance of pre- attack bombardment into sharp focus, you will start to rely on it for the start of every important assault. This gives a good period feel for very little rules overhead.
The nuances of the terrain become very interesting. In turn 2, having taken Borodino, the French can cross the Kolacha River at the bridge there, but this is a choke point and what looks like a fairly weak Russian defence, is enhanced by this terrain situation, allowing only one stack to get across. The French manage to get 13th Infantry Division and some artillery over the bridge.
One of the things I find strange for what is marketed as an introductory system is that combat odd ratios are not just simply rounded down in favour of the defender as in most games.
Instead they are rounded up or down, with the deciding point being .5 or lower gets rounded down. The impact of this is that the gamer is left with more complicated maths than might otherwise be necessary and this can become exaggerated in those circumstances of multiple stack attacks that get different modifiers depending upon which terrain side they attack across.
We can look at a couple of examples of how a combat runs. III Corps artillery fires at the Grand Redoubt and gets a hit. Units that are in defensible terrain will test to see whether they can negate the hit. The Russians test their defence and on a roll of 4 - 6 (this is the best defensible terrain) will negate the hit, they get a 5, so that is the end of that ..... however, I have already set up two III Corps 6 strength point divisions to attack the redoubt. Combat is not mandatory, but they attack the fully ordered redoubt and ..... bounce off, retreating, disordered!
If we look at the 13th Infantry Division with artillery support attacking uphill (as per the above photo), we see 12 French combat points attacking lone Russian artillery (3 defending points). In this system, the French can attack while ignoring other enemy units that may be adjacent to them, so ganging up is a tactic.
So, we have 12 points attacking 3. The French can ignore the Stonetz stream, because this would only hinder a cavalry attack (halving them). The artillery defenders do however get an uplift of x 1.5 strength for being uphill, so their strength goes up from 3 to 4.5
Unfortunately that makes the maths of this attack a little more awkward. Here we now have an attack ratio of 12 to 4.5 which we must turn into the usual ratio against 1, which works out as an attack of 2.66 to 1. Once calculated the ratio is rounded up or down with anything at .5 or smaller being rounded down to the defenders favour. Since .66 is higher than .5 it gets rounded up, so the final attack ratio becomes 3 to 1 for the French (in most games that I have played, this would have been a simple 2:1 attack).
They roll on the Combat table and cause a retreat result. The Russian artillery must retreat down the reverse of the hill, which causes them to also become disordered. But they crash into and displace Guard 1, who then have to retreat and become automatically disordered ...... but they in turn crash into II Cavalry B, who are displaced, have to retreat and themselves become disordered. Ouch, a nasty chain of events for the Russians ..... lesson one, leave avenues open for units to retreat into!
With the hill now vacated, the attackers can advance into the hex, but here, differing terrains have different stacking allowances. The top of a hill can stack up to 10 combat points, so the French must choose which of their two units will advance. They choose to send in the 13th Infantry division as the hex is almost certain to be subject to a Russian counter-attack.
A disordered unit can rally back to good order. It takes a test, but cannot attempt rally if adjacent to an enemy, so you get attacks and defences that become bogged down in disorder and have to disengage in an attempt to re-order. This brings about quite a bit of decision making and both brings moments of opportunity and danger to each of the sides.
Here, below, on the Russian left wing, we see the dangers of widespread disorder.
The French have taken Utitsa, disordering a couple of enemy units, but the Russians then launched a counter-attack, which fails and as they retreat into poor terrain or cause displacement of other troops, disorder becomes widespread with now 4 units are disordered.
If the French can keep in contact with them, they will prevent those Russians from rallying and also will be able to attack them at beneficial rates, as disordered troops are halved in value. Another lesson, don’t attack and gamble at 1:1 unless you can cope with the consequences of failure!
This wing is in a desperate state, the only hope is that the Russian Guard, held in reserve, that are moving down to stabilise things (below). They have checked the French advance and given an opportunity for the disordered units to break away.
The game moves along with artillery using bombardment trying to disorder units, followed up by assaults that can now attack any disordered units at half their strength. The system does lend itself to attack and counter-attack, which sees a couple of the redoubts pass hands back and forth ..... though The Grand Redoubt has been taken and kept by the French.
Cavalry can charge and infantry can go into square. Squares are robust against cavalry but are vulnerable to non-cavalry attacks. All of this seems to be giving us the essential ingredients that we might want to see on a napoleonic battlefield.
Although the units start the game grouped by corps, there are no command and control rules, though surprisingly, units do tend to stay in the proximity of the corps throughout play, though part of that might be my own inclination to keep them together and to plan by ‘corps’.
As the game entered the middle phase, the centre was bogging down, with attrition to both sides going on, units disordering, moving back, being replaced by ordered units and so on. Gains are measured by the hex and the whole affair does have a very ‘grinding Borodino’ sense to it.
The deadlock in the centre saw the fighting on the flanks begin to take greater significance, with the Russians crossing the Kolocha River at Maloya Selo (their right flank) to put pressure on French IV Corps.
By turn 9 those Russians have disordered the French left wing.
The Russians also started to make some gains in the centre, forcing the French Guard to intervene in the centre to stabilise the front, though in one place, even they were thrown back.
Time passes and the French are taking a pounding on both flanks, having lost Utitsa on their right to a counter-attack from the Russian Guard, Boronino (above) on the French left is about to fall.
The loss of Utitsa and Borodino will cost the French around 20 Victory Points. However to the centre, the Russian line is thinning and French forces are breaking through at Semenovskaya.
Their only problem is that they no longer have the cavalry reserves at hand to exploit the gap. This in fact has been part of my problem in handling the French, I have had the cavalry in the wrong place in bad terrain and allowed that to continue for too long.
The rest of the game, through to turn 16, progresses in much the same way. The French flanks have pretty much collapsed, but they have pierced the centre (above), though don’t have the units on hand to exploit that and to the centre right, the French Guard have got themselves hung up, wrestling for control of the two hex fortifications of the Semenovskie Fleches.
At the game's end, the French only control the Grand Redoubt for 10 VP’s and one of the Semenovskie Fleches for another 10 VP’s. This total gives them a ‘Major French defeat’!
Had they managed to keep hold of Utitsa and Borodino, they would have had another 20 points, which would have been a ‘Minor French defeat’. Any more points than that and they get into a Tactical Victory and so on, up to Major Victory ..... if only they had had a better commander :-)
Having played once, I really enjoyed the game and felt that a sense of the Borodino battlefield was given. As a French player, I would now have a better idea of how I should conduct their attack and so next time ...........
I started this article wondering whether my tentative purchase to see whether this game would meet my needs to have an easy accessible game that had a fairly fast play time that might be usable for that midweek game session.
Overall, I really like it and can see it getting played often. It won’t make that midweek short session unless I play the smaller scenario, but I don’t mind that. It will certainly do for our Friday night face-to-face session, in which I am trying to find games that will play to a conclusion and give a good game. I just don’t see the point anymore of playing a game to get half way through, only to have to pack it up and say ‘well, I think the game was going this way’ etc. Borodino will give a full game and be interesting and engaging, capturing the subject nicely.
I think the surprise that I got was that game described itself as introductory, coming as it did with a 4 page rulebook and then 8 pages of examples as if to prove it was bending over backwards to earn that ‘introductory’ status, however in practice, I felt there is more depth and nuance to this game than the short rules belie and perhaps one of the clues is that the company have given it a complexity rating of 5, which on the face of it does not jive with a 4 page rulebook. I happen to think 5 is too high, but it does affirm that there is quite a bit going on here.
It is not just that there is a ‘bit going on’ that moves it above introductory, but also that there are some ambiguities within the rules that are not a real problem to a regular player, but you do find yourself frequently checking against the rules and having to work some stuff out and that combined with the extra maths needed for combat, makes this more a game for the regular gamer, who will, I feel, enjoy it for the engaging play.
To get a lot of system into 4 pages, there has been some careful writing and even just an extra half page might have given the rules enough room to fully breathe.
For example, being disordered is a fairly important and prominent status within the game, yet there isn’t a disordered section that brings the effects of disorder into one place. So under Movement you will see ‘an Ordered unit’ can do this, under combat the same, under charge the same etc, so while the careful economically managed wording does give the rule, you may have to hunt a bit to capture it all. Likewise, we don’t have a section that deals with retreat path priorities, a sure area to cause frustration between players to prevent fancy footwork.
There are also some uncertainties, such as whether the non-phasing player’s Reaction Phase is a separate phase (as indicated in the sequence of play) that follows the Phasing player’s Movement Phase, or whether those are in fact joint phases, in practice running them as joint feels right. Then cavalry charges look to be part of movement, while the resolution looks to be part of of the assault phase, but this is not entirely clear and there are no charge counters if that is the case.
Finally for combat modifiers, I was left guessing a bit how to deal with combats at hills with part fortifications. If you attack across the fortification the attacker is halved, if you just attack up the hill the defender is increased by 1.5, but in several instances I had multi stack attacks that involved both situations at once, so is this effect cumulative? or do you apply the worst effect modifier?
None of this is a real problem to the regular player (but it does keep your head in the rules, a problem made worse by there looking to be conflicts with some examples in the play book - which is not what an introductory game is about), who will work around it and get on with the game, as I did and the rules are short enough to easily check things, but I feel that prior to print, it could have done with another fresh pair of eyes playing through it to catch some of this and that it loses some ground in its 'introductory' claim.
However, all that said, I really like the game and what it is doing and look forward to more games. I don’t want the above to sound like an overly harsh criticism, as regular readers will know, I do not consider this a review site, I just write about things I have enjoyed playing, but hopefully I still remain somewhat objective along the way, so yes, bottom line is I like this, but some errata needs to be supplied.
This will be a good face-to-face game for me to pull from the shelves. The system has been well done and the elements come together to give a nice large scale napoleonic Borodino style battle and I would be more than happy to see other games follow this as a series.
The four page rule book is a huge help to doing a quick rule read before a game.
Overall, these are an engaging set of rules. They are doing some interesting things, denoting the differences between artillery, cavalry and infantry and the way disorder and rally work. The use of guns for bombardment before assault, the use of squares and the cavalry bonuses in charge (and going disordered after charge - I like that) work well together.
Artillery seems to be able to do a lot in the game, including evading enemy infantry and advancing after combat and does not face extra movement penalties in terrain, but I say this only as a comparison to other treatments of gun powder battles, it does all work in the game.
Overall a good buying decision, especially once some answers to the few questions that I had get answered.
Complexity - The box scores this as having a mid range complexity (5 out of 9). I think that rating is a little too high, this is essentially a low complexity game with a bit of attitude :-) though a new gamer taking advantage of this ‘introductory’ title may feel that a 5 is justified.
Size - A respectably small footprint that plenty of gamers will find convenient to accommodate. It does help to have the turn track / CRT play aid to the side of the map, but anything else can just be placed on the chair next to you. By the time the thick counters are cut and packed, I doubt that the ziplock saves any storage space if the box version is typical of the 1” deep box that White Dog Games generally use. It just saves cash. I played my game on my standard large pinboard, which keeps things mobile.
Solitaire - This is a two player game that like many two player games can be played fine as a solo experience, just play both sides to their best advantage. The box actually rates solitaire value low (3 out of 9), but I can’t really see anything to justify that low score. There is a short optional rule called Fog of War, but that is not what the name implies, it is all about marking hexes with FOG counters that puts limits on functionality of those hexes and frankly it looks to be easily managed by any solo player who plays in a fair handed way. I’m not that keen on the optional rule, so have not used it here. Basically if you are okay playing other 2 player games solo, then there is nothing to stop you playing this solo - my AAR for today was a solo play and the too and fro sense was never lost.
Time - The box says 1 - 3 hours. The lower end of this is simply to accommodate the shorter September 5th Scenario at the Schevardino Redoubt. The main battle (September 7th) is 16 turns long, and my game was taking around 20 minutes a turn at peak engagement, but I was taking notes and checking I had things right. Familiarity with the game would likely bring it back closer to, but a bit higher than the suggested realm of 3 hours, providing it is played to the full end and not called simply because victory does not look possible. Either way, it is a game that is suitable for single session play.
I’m glad I bought the game and enjoyed getting it to the table straight away - a strength in my view.
Official errata re set up;
1. The apparent missing Russian Garrison counter - use a proxy counter.
2. 5th Heavy Cavalry (1C) place in hex 0716 with 1st Heavy Cavalry.
3. The location of the two big Russian A/B artillery units from R 1A. Battery A in hex 1710 and Battery B in 1711
4. The two French ‘Garrison’ units, which are not given initial deployment, are optional units that can be deployed in any fortification that the French capture.
After consultation with the designer (though this still remains a little loose), I am playing that combat modifiers are not cumulative, the defender simple chooses the single most advantageous modifier that helps their defence.