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The Flare Path: Flèche Wounds

Simulation & wargame news

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.


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Tim Stone