HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDOn 14 June 1800, Napoleon was, for one of the few times in his long military career, taken completely by surprise by the actions of an enemy general. At 8:00 am in the morning, Austrian forces began to debouche out of the Italian fortress city of Allesandria and to press forward against the French divisions, under General Victor, that were screening the town. Napoleon, somewhat removed from the battlefield, initially thought that the Austrian movements were nothing more than a probe to test the strength of the French positions around the town. However, he was wrong. In actuality, the Austrians, under the seasoned General Mélas, were intent on breaking out of Allesandria and, in the process, on inflicting a defeat on the French. And, at least initially, events seemed to favor General Mélas and his troops. By 9:30 the French units facing the Austrian attack were giving way; the situation was now becoming critical and, even worse, was rapidly slipping beyond the young French general’s control. Fortunately for Napoleon, the energetic and able General Desaix arrived with his reserve division just as Victor’s line was beginning to crumble.
Desaix did not hesitate but immediately counterattacked the advancing Austrians. His attack came just in time. The newly-arriving French troops halted the Austrians long enough for the wrecked French divisions to reform behind the attack. This momentary check to the Austrian advance marked the turning point in the battle. Now Victor’s soldiers, as quickly as they could be rallied, were immediately thrown back into the French ranks to support Desaix’ division. The battered Austrian units, also under heavy pressure from the ferocious and repeated attacks of General Kellermann’s newly arrived French cavalry, began to give ground and then — their attack totally spent — to waver. Finally, the lines of exhausted Austrian soldiers, unable to resist the French counterattack any longer, began to disintegrate. Mélas’ army, having, only a few hours before, come so close to a decisive victory over the French, now turned into a disordered mob and began to flee the battlefield.
It had been a "near run thing," but Napoleon's luck, and the valor of his officers and men, had salvaged a victory from what looked, for a time, like the wreckage of a certain defeat. By the end of the day's bloody fighting, 31,000 Austrians had been in action against 28,000 Frenchmen, and the casualties had been high on both sides. Austrian losses numbered some 6,000 killed and wounded, with another 8,000 becoming French prisoners. The French lost at least 7,000 killed and wounded.
The hard-won victory at Marengo extended Napoleon’s run of both military successes and of good fortune in Italy. Just as lucky for the ambitious young Corsican as his dearly-bought victory, however, was that the charismatic, gifted, and potentially dangerous General Desaix had been killed while leading his troops. Through an unexpected twist of fate, an obvious political and military rival to Napoleon had gallantly acted to save the French army at Marengo from defeat, and then, quite conveniently for Napoleon’s future political plans, had gone on to meet a glorious end. Throughout his life, Napoleon never failed to celebrate his good luck at Marengo. One nagging question, however, still persists to this day as to which bit of good luck the French Emperor was actually celebrating with each passing anniversary of the Battle of Marengo: his near-run victory over General Mélas, or the fortuitous (and permanent) exit of a daring, brilliant, and well-connected political rival?
MARENGO is a division level simulation — based on the popular and widely-used NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO Game System — of the battle between the Austrians, under General Mélas, and the French, commanded by the young Napoleon, for control of a large swath of Italy. Napoleon’s victory at Marengo not only saved him and his army from virtual annihilation, it also restored control of much of northern Italy to Revolutionary France. MARENGO is played in game turns, and each game turn is further divided into two symmetrical player turns, each of which proceeds as follows: the first player movement phase followed by the first player combat phase; the second player then repeats the sequence. The French player is always the first player to act in any game turn. At the conclusion of the second player’s turn, the game turn marker is advanced one space, and the turn sequence repeats itself until the scenario ends. Stacking is prohibited at the end of the movement phase, and supply is automatic for both players. ZOCs are rigid and “sticky:” once units become adjacent, they may only exit an enemy unit’s ZOC as a result of combat. MARENGO uses the familiar “odds differential” type Combat Results Table, and terrain effects are typically represented by the doubling of a defending unit’s basic combat strength. Artillery plays an especially important role in this combat system. It can be used both to attack adjacent units, and also to attack (barrage) non-adjacent enemy units either independently or in concert with other attacking friendly units. The game is fourteen turns long. There are no “optional” rules.
MARENGO simulates the historical battle only; there are no scenarios. There are, however, two special rules: the French “first turn surprise” rule and the French “counterattack” rule. In the case of the first rule: French units have their movement halved and may not voluntarily enter Austrian ZOCs on the first turn of the game. In the case of the special “counterattack” rule: beginning on game turn nine, or any turn thereafter, the French player may declare a counterattack; once this declaration is made, all French units are doubled for attack (only) during the next three consecutive game turns.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
The NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO Game System is probably one of the most successful conflict simulation design architectures ever created. Besides being used in numerous SPI (and other publishers’) Napoleonic games, it also formed the foundation for the SPI BLUE & GRAY Civil War quadri-games, and showed up in at least one WWII title and even appeared in a modern naval game, SPI’s 6th FLEET. These games all share many of the same characteristics: they are easy and comparatively quick to play, full of action, and they usually model interesting and historically significant conflict situations.
Such is the case with MARENGO; it simulates one of Napoleon’s early battles, and his come-from-behind victory at Marengo was instrumental in burnishing the young general’s military reputation throughout Europe. It is a classic “surprise attack” situation, with the Austrian army suddenly surging against Napoleon’s pickets, while the bulk of the French army is dispersed and scattered across the battle area. Napoleon’s initial forces must contain the Austrians long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Once the Austrian juggernaut has been stopped, the French — if their losses have not been too great — will then have the chance to seize the initiative and mount a crushing counterattack. In short, MARENGO makes for a fascinating see-saw game situation. The historical events of the battle, combined with the NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO Game System, offers a fast-moving and exciting game that is easy to learn and enjoyable to play. Moreover, all of the games in the NAPOLEON AT WAR game series are both simple enough to serve as introductory games for beginners, and still challenging enough to make for an exciting contest for experienced players. For this reason, I recommend MARENGO for anyone with an interest in the Napoleonic Wars, or just an affinity for good, well-balanced, and fast-paced games.
- Time Scale: 1 hour per daylight game turn
- Map Scale: 800 meters per hex
- Unit Size: brigade/division/corps artillery
- Unit Types: infantry, cavalry, and artillery
- Number of Players: two
- Complexity: below average/introductory
- Solitaire Suitability: above average
- Average Playing Time: 2-3 + hours
- One 17” x 22” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record Track and Terrain Key incorporated)
- 100 ½” cardboard Counters
- 20 cardboard Random Number Counters (included in all of the “folio games” as a substitute for a six-sided die)
- One 8½” x 11” NAPOLEON AT WAR Standard Rules Booklet (with Combat Results Table and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
- One 8½” x 11” MARENGO Exclusive Rules Booklet (with Combat Results Table and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
- One 7½” x 8½” SPI Products Catalog and Mailer
- One 9” x 12” card board Game Folio
See my blog post Book Review of this title which I strongly recommend for those visitors interested in additional historical background material.