Saturday, 7 April 2012

Marengo Playtest

Some weeks ago I popped up to visit my mate Mark Freeth who runs the Wargames Holiday Centre for a few days.  As well as an opportunity to see Mark and his family it gave us the chance to playtest the Marengo game which Mark is keen to add to the centres' catalogue of battles.  I had previously played the game once before when all of the garage crew went up for the weekend and though it had been an enjoyable fight, it bore very little resemblance to the historical record of the actual event.  Of course that isn't absoloutely necessary as the whole idea of refighting a battle on the equivalent terrain with the same forces as the historical commanders is, for me at any rate, to see how things can be done differently.  However in this case the game was so different from what actually happened that Mark wanted to playtest it with various amendments.

The central table with the village of Marengo in the foreground and the Fontanone stream leading away to Castel Ceriolo in the distance.
Perhaps a very brief retelling of the actual events might be useful to give an idea of the problems we faced.  June 14th 1800 the Austrians under Melas have outfoxed First consul Bonaparte and launched an attack with over 30,000 men across the Bormida river at Marengo.  Bonaparte could only muster 23,000 men to oppose them and after five hours of fighting and the combined fire of eighty Austrian guns the the Corps' of Lannes and Victor began to give way.  They were pushed back almost four miles to San Giuliano and at this point Melas believing victory was assured handed over control of the battle and retired to Alessandria.  The French attempted to reorganise and a fresh corps under the command of Desaix hammered into the advancing Austrians.  Desaix was killed almost immediately but his 6000 men along with Kellermans cavalry turned the tide and the Austrians were routed. 
The village of La Stortigliona which was held by the French for a large part of the game.

For the first day of playtesting we were joined by Chris and Julian and the commands were divided up with Julian and myself playing the Austrians and Mark and Chris the French.  The French formed a defensive line from the left of Marengo along the Fontanone stream and then back at a right angle to the front line.  The Austrians deployed on the back table edge and began to advance. 
    A large force of cavalry was sent to the Austrian left to capture the bridge close to Castel Ceriolo in order to put pressure on the French right but this proved more difficult than it appeared as the French were able to get a garrison into the castle grounds and the Austrians now were obliged to send infantry to dislodge them before the flank attack could continue. 
    At the Fontanone stream the Austrian infantry advanced but could do little against the superior firepower of veteran French units as they attempted make a crossing.  The stream was classed as half speed unforming and the Austrian infantry could make no headway at all.  on their right the small garrison of La Stortiglioni held out until it was eventually ousted by a division of Austrian grenadiers.

La Stortiglioni (foreground) and Marengo with French open order veteran light infantry from Victors corps holding the line.

At the end of the first day we were all agreed that it was going to be impossible for the Austrians to cross the Fontanone let alone push the French back four miles and so we decided to restart the game the next day with a few amendments.  These were mainly positional, with the Austrians being allowed a little more freedom in their initial set up and their start line being brought further forward to allow them more time to use their superior artillery.  They were also allowed to position troops over the bridge by Castel Ceriolo and the French right was pushed further back to allow the Austrians to develop the flank position.  Finally we also decided to get rid of the open order light infantry which the French had been using to such devastating effect. 

The Austrian left having deployed from Castel Ceriolo push on against the right flank of Victors' corps.

Once again the Austrians commenced their assault with high hopes of some success only to be brought to a juddering halt in the face of massed French volleys from the other side of the Fontanone.  It would have been an option for the Austrians to sit back and gradually whittle down the defenders with their artillery but this would have taken a long time and wouldn't have made for an very interesting game.  So again they made the attempt at a crossing, this time actually getting formed units across the stream at one point, but the French firepower was once again too much and they were sent packing.  Admittedly on the left flank the Austrians enjoyed a little more success but were matched by Lannes supported by heavy cavalry.  Again the conclusion was that the Austrians were going nowhere and so we decide to restart the whole thing again once more the next morning.

The Fontanone from the French side, by day three this was no longer half speed and gave hard cover to troops who were in it.

For our final attempt the Austrians were allowed to make their initial crossing with the Grenadier division and a division of infantry was added to the forces which started in Castel Ceriolo.  In addition the French lost half of their skirmishers and their infantry were reduced from 36 man to 30 man battalions.  This time the Austrians had more success but sad to say were still unable to get across the Fontanone in sufficient numbers to force the French back.  The Austrian left was more successful once again and there was a genuine threat developing on the French right by the end of play.  However the ideal of having the French pushed back and then being saved by the last minute arrival of Desaix was still very far off.  By the time we called an end to proceedings however we believe that we'd finally got it sorted out.  The decision was made to abandon the use of the battalion guns which the Austrian infantry battalions had attached to them in favour of two or three more foot batteries.  These should allow the Austrians to concentrate fire at the crossing point making it difficult for the French to simply line out and destroy the advancing lines piecemeal.

Some of the Austrian infantry which tried without success to emulate their historical counterparts.

Despite our inability to come up with exactly the right balance of troops and dispositions Marengo was a fascinating and absorbing game to play, even three times over.  It's definitely a game I'd like to go back and take another shot at from either side of the table.  Of course as long as the game is interesting and enjoyable it doesn't really matter too much whether everything runs like clockwork.  Both sides have their challenges to face and I think that with the addition of a more centralised artillery arm the Austrians will finally be able to make life difficult for the defenders.
   Finally if you're wondering why I'm only putting this blog entry up now it's because I left my camera at the WHC and though Mark sent me the SD card by post it didn't turn up until two days ago.