The Flare Path: Flèche Wounds

In the Spring of 1813 the inhabitants of the Russian village of Borodino noticed a new flower speckling their fields and verges. Resembling a buttercup but with crimson rather than golden petals, the blooms gave off a perfume that pricked eyes and turned stomachs. A nauseating mix of crushed flint and tanners’ urea, burnt wool and butchers’ leavings, the odour clung to clothes, unnerved horses and tainted milk. It drove away butterflies and bees. Only one creature seemed to like the smell. Moscow newspapers of the period contain vivid descriptions of vast clouds of blowflies rising from the city’s slums and midden heaps and swirling westward.

200 years ago today, Napoleon’s 130,000-strong Grande Armée attempted to blast, bayonet, lance and lop its way through a 120,000-man roadblock positioned by Prince Kutuzov on the Smolensk-Moscow highway at Borodino. The resulting engagement – one of the bloodiest 24hrs of warfare in European history – cost the lives of at least 60,000. For anyone struggling to comprehend death on that scale, historian Gwynne Dyer offers a useful visualisation aid; imagine “a fully-loaded 747 crashing, with no survivors, every 5 minutes for eight hours.”

If you’re a veteran wargamer, you’ve almost certainly helped those Jumbos plummet at some point during your gaming career. Videogame treatments of the Battle of Borodino have been appearing regularly for most of the last quarter of a century, a fact that might explain why The Search For The Perfect Borodino Wargame I’ve been engaged in this past week has proved so challenging.

My investigations began in the logical place – the beginning. In 1987 Stephen Beckett and Steven Krenek attempted to conjure up the battle with less than 100KB of code. The fruits of that labour remain surprisingly tasty to this day.

Napoleon in Russia: Borodino 1812 compensates for its lack of detail with tumbrel loads of pace and pith. Though primitive visuals make assessing army status difficult (you must manually select units to see their strength, morale, and fatigue levels) and the ruthless shorthand means subtleties like skirmish lines and Fog of War aren’t modelled, the design does manage to communicate many important Bataille de la Moskova truths, and do so in a remarkably friendly and fluid fashion.

The rudiments of this grid-based adjustable real-time pioneer can be grasped in 15 minutes, assuming you’ve got access to the correct manual (Several abandonware sites erroneously bundle the title with a txt version of another Borodino game’s manual). However, figuring out how to seize and hold the infamous redoubts and flèches that anchored the Russian defensive line, takes hours of thought and experimentation. The biggest compliment I can pay Napoleon in Russia: Borodino 1812, is that if I was sitting down to design a pop Borodino wargame today, it is – I suspect – the title that would influence my design most profoundly.

Krentek’s offering was followed by a weighty board game-endebted SSI title and a bold Peter Turcan treatment neither of which I was prepared to tackle without a hard copy of the relevant manual and map in front of me. Going by my Waterloo experience, I suspect the latter warrants an eBay excursion at some point. As any decent account of the battle reveals, Borodino was not an event fully choreographed or indeed, fully understood by its two supposed architects. That lack of information and control – that reliance on distant and distracted subordinates – is something that Turcan understood and simulated brilliantly in his creations.

After the pep of Napoleon in Russia and the vision of Turcan’s Borodino, the two John Tiller versions of the battle that arrived in the late 90s could seem a tad staid. I had vague memories of Battleground 6: Napoleon in Russia’s elaborate turn structures and pedestrian pace, but returning to the game this week via Matrix Games’ compendium re-release (also included: Waterloo, Prelude to Waterloo and Age of Sail) it was the quality of the cartography, the scholarship behind the generous scenario selection, and handy automation option (portions of your force can be passed to the AI) which left the deepest impressions. While these old hexy staples might not have the most sophisticated AIs or resonant FoW or C2 modelling, their challenge and charm remains considerable – especially as MP prospects. Is HPS Simulations’ Napoleon’s Russian Campaigns superior to its substantially cheaper Talonsoft forerunner? When HPS finally get around to offering a DD version (in the pipeline, apparently) I may endeavour to find out.

The following decade wasn’t a fantastic one for the Borodino battle tourist. Apart from a solid mod for Sid-Meier’s-Gettysburg-in-a-Shako Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Battle, and some lightweight high-bodycount carnage courtesy of Cossacks, there were few new invitations to re-retake the Raevsky Redoubt or send skirmishers scampering through the Utitza woods. It would take a shy strategy superpower from Sussex, England to end the drought.

Napoleon: Total War has probably introduced more gamers to the events of Sept 07, 1812, than every other wargame put together. Though a fair portion of the millions tutored by CA probably now believe the armies involved were tiny, the fighting done and dusted in 60 minutes, and the battlefield dominated by lofty escarpments rather than unremarkable rises, it would be churlish to deny that NTW’s interpretation wasn’t a) bally good fun b) seriously challenging, and c) rooted, if not exactly steeped, in fact.

The elements missing from CA’s depiction of Borodino are the very elements that make HistWar’s portrait so dashed interesting. The Boney sim I’ve spent the most time with this week, Jean-Michel Mathé’s steadily evolving solo effort isn’t flawless or totally successful in everything it attempts, but the risks it takes and the demands it makes ensure it captures the spirit and spectacle of Borodino better than any other game discussed on this page.

It’s the only game here that really gets across the size of the military machines that collided on the banks of the Kolocha River. Since the last patch HistWarrior’s have had the option to play with 1:1 soldier representation. In short, if you pick the right hillock, or choose to play without friendly FoW or a CO-linked camera, then you’ll regularly find yourself gazing upon snaking lines and columns of of marching and galloping soldiery that seem to go on for miles.

HistWar also dares to model the delicate command systems through which Bonaparte and Kutuzov attempted, often in vain, to shape battles. With orders carried about the vast venues in the invisible saddlebags of invisible couriers, you often have little hope of choreographing timely responses to setbacks and breakthroughs. Thanks to the optional FoW rules most of the time you’re lucky to even learn of developments in time to organise a sensible response. HistWar is a game about delegation, forethought, and learning to embrace chaos. You adapt and enjoy or walk away wracked by impotent apoplexy.

More reflections on HistWar next week, along with an interview with its creator Mr. Mathé.


The Flare Path Foxer

…was shot and eaten by a hungry French Voltigeur early this morning. Sorry. Back next week.



  1. DarkQuiGon says:

    I want Assassins Creed about that time period

  2. Mr. Mister says:

    Wasn’t there a fan-made expansion for AoE III called Napoleonic era or something?

  3. Jesse L says:

    The paragraph at the beginning of this post is excellent and eerie!

  4. CaspianRoach says:

    «Скажи-ка, дядя, ведь не даром
    Москва, спаленная пожаром,
    Французу отдана?
    Ведь были ж схватки боевые?
    Да, говорят, еще какие!
    Не даром помнит вся Россия
    Про день Бородина!»

  5. Tancosin says:

    I love reading the Flare Path. It makes me feel like an intelligent and distinguished gentleman.

  6. DigitalSignalX says:

    Great article!

  7. Italianmoose says:

    Ok, can someone explain what Flèche means? Because I am a fencer, and Flèche to me is charging headlong at people… Or am I getting my accents in a twist?

    • Devrey says:

      I read the pun as ‘flesh wounds’

    • Superpat says:

      Well in French it means arrow.

    • Italianmoose says:

      Aha, thanks, that makes sense in both contexts: As a sticky outy bit of land and as a name for charging someone.

    • kombatunit says:

      Fleches with regard to Borodino were entrenchments. From Wikipedia: The line with earthworks, including the Raevski Redoubt in the center-right of the line and three open, arrow-shaped “Bagration flèches” on the left.

  8. Neurotic says:

    That’s the best OP I’ve ever read. Stone, you magnificent bastard, you just keep getting better!

  9. Mechanicus_ says:

    I would love to see “command modelling”, for lack of a better term, being explored in more strategy games; there is probably an interesting game waiting to be made where the player only chooses the objectives and commanders for his forces, trying to match each up based on their various strengths/personalities, and then waits in nervous anticipation for the battle results while giving the overall battle relatively gentle nudges.

    One candidate would be an “Admiralty Sim” set in the Age of Sail along those mechanical lines – the player is responsible for managing the running of the Navy, and the recruiting of command officers; when it comes time to send ships out to sea they have to match the Captain, ship and crew to the mission: Easy pleasure cruise? Send that poor crew who just lost half their number in battle, and that newbie Captain along to get his sea legs; Patrolling contested French waters while trying to keep an uneasy peace? For Gods sake don’t send the Captain whose brother died in the last war with France.

    • Grayvern says:

      From ex sports interactive developers comes…

    • JiminyJickers says:

      Stop wasting time and start making that game, I want to play it now!!!

      A game like that would be pretty awesome.

  10. Ergates_Antius says:

    But what about the flower? I want to know more about it, you can’t just taunt me with a little morsel of information then leave it at that!!

    • hello_mr.Trout says:

      i’m with you! was it some kind of reaction with all the blood and gore and deadbodies and the soil? something chemical? did the flowers just eventually return to their original non-rancid state? has this happend elsewhere in other periods of intense conflict/loss of life? such intrigue

    • LintMan says:

      Yeah, I want more detail about the flower context also. I’m presuming that the “crimson” is blood flecked from the soldiers that fought there, but I’m left wondering about the soldiers all that blood came from. I’d think the blowflies would be more attracted by the 60000 corpses rather than the blood on the flowers. So perhaps the flowers are just a euphemism?

      • Apolloin says:

        It’s unlikely the bodies themselves caused the development of such a blossom. More likely the incredible amount of gunpowder seeped into the ground and caused issues – mind you they used to say in Spain that a good battle improved the quality of the pasture that next year during the same period, so I’m not sure…

  11. Bhazor says:

    “a fully-loaded 747 crashing, with no survivors, every 5 minutes for eight hours.”

    Isn’t that what she said about the battle of Cannae?

  12. JB says:

    Another lovely column, Mr Stone.

    While I’m here, the “Don’t Buy VirtualPilot3D” Flare Path piece isn’t tagged as Flare Path, so doesn’t show up with the others when searched for in that manner.

    And what was the result of the FP Foxer that week?

  13. biggergun says:

    I want a Napoleonic RPG so desperately it’s not even funny.

    Also, Cossacks 2 is a better representation of Napoleonic warfare that N: TW ever was, and it’s a 2D RTS from 2004. Just saying.

    • Docm30 says:

      I don’t recall any history books mentioning all of Napoleon’s army dropping dead from hunger in the middle of the Battle of the Pyramids. Cossacks 2 seemed pretty certain it happened, though.