GAME ANALYSIS: SPI'S 'THE BATTLE OF BORODINO: Napoleon in Russia, 1812'




HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

At 6:00 am on 7 September 1812, French artillery opened fire on the troops of Marshal Prince Kutuzov's Russian army who were deployed in strong prepared positions astride the main road to Moscow about a mile from the small Russian hamlet of Borodino. Kutuzov's force, numbering approximately 120,800 men with 640 guns, occupied a powerful defensive line, improved by extensive fieldworks, that ran east to west along the Kalotchka River and extended on his left through the village of Semenovskaya to the forest in the southwest. Napoleon's force numbering some 135,000 men and 587 guns followed up the artillery bombardment with a major assault against the Russian left. The battle raged all day, with fieldworks changing hands over and over again, as first one army and then the other attacked and counterattacked over the same bloody ground. By the end of the day, Kutuzov's army was forced to retire, but it did so without interference from the exhausted French. Russian losses from the battle totaled about 15,000 killed, including Prince Bagration, and another 25,000 wounded. The French Army suffered about 30,000 casualties, including twelve generals killed in action. Napoleon's forces had carried the field and thus, could claim a tactical success. Kutuzov's men had managed to fight the French to a standstill for most of the day and had then withdrawn in good order. However, in the end, it was Kutuzov and not Napoleon who scored the far more important strategic victory.


GAME DESCRIPTION


BORODINO is a grand tactical (brigade/division) simulation of the final major battle between the main body of the advancing French forces and a well-entrenched Russian Army positioned to block Napoleon from capturing the ancient city of Moscow. The Battle of Borodino was also the French Emperor's last opportunity to gain the decisive military victory that he hoped might finally, after months of campaigning, bring his war with Russia to a successful end. The game uses a modified version of the familiar NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO Game System to model the bloody, see-saw nature of Napoleonic warfare as it was waged at Borodino. The accordion-fold game rules are well-organized and clearly written; rules errata and corrections are minimal. Probably because BORODINO was originally a magazine game, there are no separate play aides: map, rules booklet, and 100 counters are all there is. Besides the September 7th Battle Game which covers the main action of the historical battle, the game also offers scenarios for both a September 5th and a September 6th Battle Game. Each of these three scenarios covers the military actions of only the day in question. There is also a Grand Battle Game that ties all three days together; it begins on September 5th and continues through to the last night turn (game turn 42) of September 7th.

Because it encompasses only the immediate area of the Borodino battlefield, the 22" x 34" two-color game map covers a playing area that only extends about 7 miles both east to west and north to south. Each hex is 400 yards across. Interestingly, of the total map surface, only about half of the map -- an area about 17 inches square -- is actually devoted to the playing area; the rest of the map is used to display Scenario Set-up diagrams, the Turn Record/Reinforcement Track and other assorted tables and charts.

The popular NAW game system used for BORODINO is very accessible and quite easy to learn in just a few minutes. Rules governing game operations are simple, and intuitively reasonable. For example, terrain effects on movement are negligible. Entry into forest hexes is prohibited except along roads. Rivers are impassable except at bridges which are treated like clear terrain, or at fords which cost all units two additional movement points to cross. Units crossing a stream hex side incur a one movement point penalty. Russian Redoubt and Fleches hex-sides are special cases: movement through the front of these hex-sides is prohibited to French units, except as a result of combat, but they can be entered from the rear without penalty. In addition, Russian Redoubt and Fleches hexes double Russian units only, when attacked exclusively through these fortified hexes facing hex sides. Town and forest hexes double the defenders' combat strength. Attacks across rivers are prohibited except at bridges and fords; when assaulting across bridges and fords, the attacker's combat strength is halved. In addition, all terrain effects on combat are cumulative.

All combat units and the "facing hex sides" of Russian Redoubt and Fleches hexes have zones of control (ZOCs). Zones of control in BORODINO are "sticky:" this means that once a unit enters an enemy ZOC, it may not exit except as a result of combat. Only river hexes block ZOCs, and they do so in all instances, even in the cases of ford hex sides and bridges. Stacking is prohibited in all cases. Combat is mandatory between adjacent units unless they are separated by any type of river hex side. In addition, there are two types of combat: regular combat between adjacent units, and artillery bombardment. In artillery bombardment, artillery-type units may use their combat strength to attack nonadjacent enemy units that are no more than one hex distant. Because of the time scale of the game, there are no supply rules.

The Combat Results Table (CRT) is slightly less "bloody" than the "classic" Avalon Hill CRT. A 4 to 1 attack in BORODINO, for example, is exactly the same, at least in probable combat outcomes, as a 3 to 1 on the traditional Avalon Hill CRT. Even relatively high-odds combat results are weighted in favor of Retreats and Exchanges. For example, odds of 3 to 1 or above are required before the attacker has any prospect of rolling a D elim result. Even at 5 to 1 odds, although an attacker has a two-thirds chance of rolling a D elim, he still risks a one-third chance of an Exchange. Not until 6 to 1 odds is the attacker guaranteed a D elim, without any risk of rolling an Exchange. Because of this distribution of combat results, "toe-to-toe" slugging matches between the opposing armies tend to produce lots of Retreats and Exchanges; the real key, if a player wants to establish offensive momentum and favorable attrition, is the creation, through carefully- timed advances, of combat situations in which "surrounded" attacks against enemy units become possible. This is particularly true in this game because units may not retreat through enemy ZOCs!

The 100 game counters are clearly printed and easy to read. Russian units are printed white on a forest green backing; all French counters are light blue with darker blue print. The counters for both armies typically represent divisions with a few brigades included.

To determine who wins, players must refer to the victory conditions for each of the different scenarios. In the September 5th and 6th scenarios, only physical control of the Russian Redoubt hexes count for the purpose of determining the game's winner. The destruction of enemy units or comparisons of casualties are irrelevant. In the September 7th Scenario and in the Grand Battle Game, however, control of the Russian Redoubt hexes, and comparisons of the opposing Armies' casualties are used to determine both the game's winner and the type of victory. In addition, in these two scenarios, Napoleon can only achieve a decisive victory if he exits sixty combat factors off the east edge of the map between the Old Smolensk and Moscow Roads.


SITTING DOWN TO PLAY


BORODINO offers four different scenarios, and although it is tempting to go straight to the September 7th Scenario, I strongly recommend that players looking at the game for the first time start with the simpler September 5th Scenario. This scenario is only eight game turns long, and simulates the initial contact between the French Advanced Guard and the Russian forces on Kutuzov's left flank near Schevardino. The piece count for both players is relatively low, and the victory conditions are very straight-forward. Nonetheless, all of the combat arms are present for both armies, and most major types of terrain will typically be battled over in this introductory game as well. Considering everything, beginning with this shorter, simpler scenario is probably the best way for players to quickly develop an understanding of the mechanics of the game system, and of the probable flow and tempo of play.

The French are the first to move and attack in all of the scenarios. However, because of the different victory conditions attached to the individual scenarios, both French and Russian play will vary somewhat depending on whether casualties are a factor in determining the winner or not. In the first two scenarios, the only thing that matters for victory purposes is who is in possession of certain of the Russian Redoubts at the end of the game. Since the burden of attack is on Napoleon, the French are going to have to take a few chances with exposed combat advances and with unequal Exchanges. In the other two scenarios, on the other hand, both players will have to be much more careful as they try both to capture ground and, at the same time, to inflict disproportionate losses on their adversary while they husband their own combat strength.

Of all of the scenarios, the three-day Grand Battle Game is my personal favorite in spite of its length. Usually, although it is not stipulated in the rules for this scenario, I and my opponents play using the Kutuzov Slow Response rule from the September 5th Scenario. If this rule is not used, the Russian Army will almost invariably swamp the incoming French force before it can concentrate for battle. Typically, the first day will see a sharp action around the Schevardino Redoubt and Doromino, with the French attempting to turn the Russian left while pinning the units covering the center. The French commander, during this first action, will attempt to destroy the larger Russian infantry units and especially any Russian artillery units that can be engaged. The fighting should be pretty even during the early stages, but starting on game turn four, the heavy-weight French combat units begin to arrive: from this turn on, things begin to get much more difficult for the Russians. Despite the last minute flood of French reinforcements, Kutuzov's goal during this first day is to hold the French as far west as possible until the last turn or two of daylight, and then to begin an orderly retreat to link up with reinforcements that have begun to assemble near the Great Redoubt and Fleches. If the Russian can salvage his artillery and limit his losses, then he should be in about as good a position for the second day's action as could reasonably be expected.

The morning of September 6th should find the bulk of the Russian Army either moving toward or already deployed in alternating hexes along a front about two hexes west of the line running more or less from the Great Redoubt through Semenovskaya to the Fleches and then to the forest hexes to the south. In addition, depending on the actions of the French player on the 5th, Kutuzov may have dispatched a weak cavalry force to screen the eastern part of the Kalotchka River, but most of the Russian Army will have moved to support the defense of the Great Redoubt and the Fleches. The main trouble spots for Kutuzov, during the early part of the second day, will be the narrow, unfortified hex row south of the Fleches, and the Old Smolensk Road and forest gap near Utitsa farther to the south. The main fighting, however, will center on Semenovskaya and the Fleches. Initially, the Russian defenders should benefit from French movement problems. The groundeast of Schevardino is particularly difficult to maneuver on because of the several streams that meander in front of the Russian Redoubts. These stream hex-sides make rapid redeployment, especially of artillery, extremely difficult. The stream running east- west of the Fleches, however creates an identical problem for the Russian reserve artillery; so Kutuzov must take special care to provide adequate forces on both sides of this barrier. Nor are the streams the only impediments to maneuver. Forest hexes are also a problem. The French units attacking at the northeastern end of the Russian line, for example, must exercise caution lest they find themselves trapped by enemy ZOCs with their backs to the small copse of woods adjacent to the Kalotchka River southwest of Borodino.

Napoleon's goal for the 6th is to capture and destroy the Russian Fleches position. If the French can do that, then their powerful artillery and infantry units should be able to chew through the Russian line sometime on September 7th. The biggest obstacles to the French plan will often be the two powerful infantry brigades of the Russian Imperial Guard. Even when using the optional Imperial Guard rule, Kutuzov should be able to bring these units close enough to the front so that any French advance on the 6th automatically releases these two elite units from reserve status. Once these brigades have taken their respective places in the Russian battle line, they will be very hard to dislodge. Hard or not, however, they have to go. The French player should remember that this is a slugfest, and even if the flanking operations around Utitsa and the Old Smolensk Road have some success, the key to French victory will still be found in the Fleches. The Forest road and gap are just too easy to contain once a French unit moves into the exit hex. The two advantages that Napoleon does have are that he commands both more and better artillery and a slightly greater number of big infantry units than Kutuzov. Thus, if the French Army can destroy the Russian five factor and stronger units, then the French artillery should be able to stand off and really pound the weaker Russian infantry divisions to pieces.

Notes on Tactics

The NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO Game System is clean, logical, and easy to learn. This is probably the reason that SPI has used some version of this game system in an impressively large number of its different titles. It has appeared in a number of other Napoleonic games including, but not limited to, the quadri-games NAPOLEON AT WAR and NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLES; it has also been used for both of SPI's Civil War quadri-games, BLUE AND GREY I & II. The NAW game system even showed up, strangely enough, in SPI's magazine game on modern naval operations, SIXTH FLEET. Interestingly, almost every one of the titles that SPI published using this system possessed a few idiosyncrasies that subtly affected each game's play. BORODINO, like its cousins, is no exception. So what follows are a few tips, based on many hours spent playing this title, on using the nuances of this particular game system to help new players become more comfortable with a few of the tactical niceties of BORODINO.

The Rules of Combat


The very simplicity of BORODINO'scombat rules can trip up the unsuspecting. The first thing that a new player should understand is that, unlike most of the other games using this system, the attacker may NOT voluntarily reduce his combat odds in order to avoid potential exchanges. This is also important when a large unit is retreated and a much smaller unit advances after combat to pin it. There is nothing quite as sickening as being forced to exchange a "10-4" for a "4-4" just because neither friendly artillery nor enough other supporting infantry units could be brought into the battle either to absorb the Exchange or to increase the combat odds to 6 to 1! This rule needs to be borne in mind also when it comes to surrounded attacks. The best odds for a surrounded attack are 3 to 1, but there still remains a one-sixth chance of an Exchange. A 1 to 1 is safest, but it also means that the target unit is going to escape from the trap 50% of the time. Another of this game's odd rules pertains to bombardment: artillery, even if adjacent to an enemy unit, may still bombard another more distant unit, so long as a friendly combat unit can attack the enemy unit adjacent to the artillery. This rule makes artillery units even more powerful in this game than in others using the same basic NAW systemand, more importantly, it works to the advantage of the French player. In BORODINO,as noted earlier, the French enjoy a clear-cut advantage in canon; although the actual difference between the French and Russian artillery factors is not too lop-sided: Napoleon only has a six factor advantage over Kutuzov. However, where the French really benefit is in the larger average combat values of their artillery units. In a game without stacking, "bigger" really is better. The other truly curious feature of the BORODINO bombardment rules is that artillery may not fire over or INTO forest hexes, even if adjacent.

The Russian Redoubts and Fleches

The key to Russian victory is in holding The Great Redoubt and the Fleches, at least until the late afternoon of September 7th. If the French can seize control any of these defensive works long enough to destroy one or both of them before the afternoon of the third day, the Russians are pretty much finished. Kutuzov's troops simply cannot slug it out in the open with a French Army that has not already been severely crippled by combat losses. The Great Redoubt, of course, is a very tough nut to crack; for that reason, the Russians should relish a major French attack against this position, not just because of its intrinsic combat strength, but also because of the difficult terrain that surrounds its western approaches. Unfortunately, any attack mounted against the Great Redoubt by a competent French commander is much more likely only to be a diversion intended to tie down a few Russian reserve divisions and to make the Russian player uncomfortable. Instead, as suggested earlier, the most likely axis for the French assault is going to run right through Semenovskaya and the Fleches. There really is nowhere else for Napoleon to go. Artillery, not surprisingly, is the key to Kutuzov holding these positions against a determined French assault. For this reason, it is very important that the Russian player not lose his most powerful artillery units early in the battle. These big guns are going to be critical when it comes to powering the counterattacks against the swarms of Frenchmen advancing on the Russian fieldworks.

Optional Rules

Although the only two "optional" rules offered with the game both benefit the Russian player, I still recommend that both the "Moscow Militia" and the "Imperial Guard" rules be used. The units of the Moscow Militia aren't really strong enough to do anything to many of the French units besides cavalry; none the less, they can be a much-needed help to the Russian player, particularly around the Utitsa forest gap,and particularly in the late game. In the Grand Battle Game, the Imperial Guard rule really only restricts the French player. With a little planning, Kutuzov can virtually always get the Russian Imperial Guard into the path of the onrushing French. Napoleon, on the other hand, is going to have to release his Imperial Guard units the old-fashioned way: as a result of battlefield losses. The one other "optional" rule mentioned earlier pertains to the slow release of Russian units to the Schevardino battle area on the first day. For the reasons already discussed, this rule along with the other two optional rules should all be used: their inclusion will, I promise, make for a better game.

CONCLUSION

BORODINO, despite its age and primitive graphics, offers a simple and very enjoyable simulation of one of the great military clashes in history. Napoleon versus Kutuzov on the road to Moscow in September of 1812: the battle that represented the French Emperor's last chance to save his faltering campaign in Russia. The historical situation certainly works for me. No game is ever perfect, of course, but in so far as a very simple simulation is able to, this title helps bring to life the built-in drama of one of the historically critical turning points of the Napoleonic Era. Moreover, the inclusion of several additional scenarios means that a player can experiment for many hours with this title and never exhaust the possibilities offered by the game. Finally, although BORODINO does not rank very high as a detailed simulation -- it is, after all, probably the "gold standard" of "beer and pretzels" games -- none the less, it still has enough historical color to make it attractive to the player who is genuinely interested in the Napoleonic era. Moreover, BORODINOmakes a great introductory game: it is intuitively logical, and extremely easy, even for a complete novice, to learn how to play. And, lest we forget the regular game player, BORODINO certainly has enough competitive excitement to make it enjoyable to the casual gamer who is just looking for a fun, well-balanced, and interesting challenge.

Recommended Artwork

This map of the battle makes a fine wall decoration for the game room with a Napoleonic theme.
Buy at Art.com
Map Showing the Russian Positions at ...
Buy From Art.com

2 comments:

  • YEs Borodino still one of my favorite SPI games and one I still play every year. VEry nice article and great wargaming site here. enjoying it very much

  • Greetings Again Kim:

    Thanks for your interest and for your kind words; I appreciate both, very much.

    BORODINO, along with BATTLE FOR GERMANY and WAR AT SEA, is still one of my all-time favorite "simple games." I have played a number of more detailed and complicated (sometimes very detailed and very complicated) treatments of this battle, but John Young's design still delivers the goods, enjoyment-wise, every time I play.

    Thanks again and Best Regards, Joe

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