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BATTLES IN SIEGE OF MANTUA (by Amabel Holland)

Mary Russell

One of the ideas at the core of Siege of Mantua is its bifurcated structure: maneuver at an operational scale, in which you strive to come to grips with the enemy, giving way to tactical battles. It requires two complementary but distinct skillsets.

It also of course runs the danger of feeling like two different games, so it was important that I integrate them as much as possible – that the operational sets the parameters for the tactical, and the results of the tactical have consequences for the operational – making them distinct, yes, but also impossible to separate from one another. Each aspect should be compelling, but neither is a full game without the other.

Conversely, I also wanted them to feel of a piece – to have the same flavor even if they're speaking different languages. It's kinda like Gold Diggers of 1933.

Gold Diggers is maybe my favorite movie musical: delightful cast (including ineffable ingenue Ruby Keeler at her most guileless), snappy patter, gorgeously choreographed numbers, hard-nosed leggy chorines that know the score, rich doofuses, fabulous hats, lots of pre-code naughtiness, weirdly horny toddlers, and then that bracing, breathtaking finale: perfection. It's a film with two directors: Mervyn Le Roy, who handled the scenes with dialogue, and Busby Berkeley, who handled the musical numbers. And there's no mistaking one for the other; in terms of cinematic language, they're quite distinct! But tonally there's the same humor, the same knowingly raised eyebrow, the same inventiveness – just expressed in very different ways. That's what I want Siege of Mantua's two halves to feel like: radically different ways of expressing the same ideas. Like Gold Diggers of 1933, only Bonaparte's hat isn't nearly as fetching as Joan Blondell's. 

(I want that hat.)

Being a block game, the maneuver model centers bluff and hidden information; so should the battles. The operational game unfolds in a series of quick-quick-quick alternating turns; the battles need to do the same. The movement rules are intended to be clean, elegant, and easy to internalize; while the battle rules would of necessity be a little more involved – it's hard to think of a wargame where the fighting is less detailed than the moving – I still wanted it to feel elegant and clean.

The battle mat is pretty straightforward, divided into twenty-four spaces (four rows, six columns). Each player has a home row where they deploy their forces, and between them are two central rows where they might advance to do combat with the enemy. Players alternate deploying units by revealing one of their blocks and drawing a number of units from their randomized pool equal to its strength. For example, if my first block has a strength of three, then I put three units in my home row. These are deployed face-down to hide their identity from my opponent. A few units at a time, each player's battleline takes shape.

Each space has room for up to four counters, and there are considerable defensive and offensive advantages to such a deployment – as well as considerable risks. While a very large battle will see a dozen or more units on a side, smaller battles give you less to work with. With a front six spaces wide, it might be more prudent to stretch your line thin to protect your flanks and rear – naturally, attacks coming from this direction are especially devastating! Of course a thin line might have a harder time withstanding an enemy attack, particularly if they manage to marshal overwhelming strength against a single point. Your deployment in and of itself might decide the course of the battle.

So, let's talk about how the fighty-fighty stuff actually works. On your go, you can activate a column of units to attack an adjacent column. You roll two dice, sum them, and add or subtract the difference in the number of units on each side. For example, three units attacking two is a plus-one, one unit attacking two is a minus-one, and four attacking one is a plus-three – so, you can see already the advantages of deep ranks. This modified total is then going to be compared to the morale of the first unit in the line – if they're still face-down, they get flipped over to reveal this. If the result is greater than the morale, the unit is broken, and then that same single die result is compared to the next unit in the enemy column, repeating until either you've routed the whole column, or until you run into a unit with a higher morale.

In a very, very early version of this, you made rolls on separate turns against each enemy, which took far too long and involved far too much wristage, and also felt far too attritional. But a single roll, a single push, routing an entire column in an instant? That felt absolutely right, and made room for dramatic reversals – your four-to-one plus-three attack stopping just shy of routing the last unit in the line. I leaned into this by borrowing the "don't roll doubles" mechanism from my Westphalia, in which rolling two identical dice will cause your own units to break. In this case, it will break the front attacking unit – unless that unit is one of the rare ultra-disciplined Level 4 elite units.

As I mentioned in a previous blog-thing, the contents of your unit pool will shift over time as a result of battles. As units break, they degrade – for example, a Level 3 unit, with a morale of 9, will be replaced at the end of the battle with a Level 2 unit, with a morale of 8. And if you win the battle, you'll get to upgrade a few units – Level 2 goes up to Level 3. Obviously, the more casualties you suffer, the worse the morale of your army gets overall – making it less likely that you'll triumph in future engagements. Force preservation is key.

So, how do you win these battles? Is it by eliminating so many of the enemy units, or capturing some particular space? Nope! You win when the other player admits that they've lost.

How this works is that at the start of the battle, the attacker rolls two dice, and the result is the minimum number of turns the battle has to go before either side is allowed to cry uncle. 2d6 probabilities being what they are, this will usually result in between six and eight turns, but of course could be as little as two or as much as twelve. Once the minimum turns have elapsed, either player can, at the start of their "go", throw in the towel.

The player that does so takes a single loss from one of their blocks – losing its last step, naturally, will eliminate it - and must retreat their blocks from the battle location. "That doesn't sound so bad," I hear you say. "What's to stop a player who's losing from never admitting it?"

Well, if all of a player's units are broken, their army has been annihilated – which is as bad as it sounds. All the blocks on that player's side of the battle are eliminated from the game. Eliminating five enemy blocks will win you the game.

"Okay, okay," says the loophole-crazed rules lawyer, "so, I can wait until the last possible moment, until I'm down to my last unit, then I can throw up my hands, suffer a single loss, and everything's hunky-dory."

This is where the doubling cube comes in. Just as in my beloved Backgammon, passing your opponent the doubling cube presents them with a decision: give up the ghost now, at the current stakes, or keep going, doubling the stakes. The loser will suffer two step losses instead of one, or four losses instead of two, or eight instead of four. It likely won't climb that high, as none of the armies have more than sixteen steps total; as in Backgammon, it's more of a tool to put pressure on the enemy, and it's often more likely for a player to resign the battle than accept the doubled stakes. The doubling cube, as with admitting defeat, is off-limits until the minimum number of turns have elapsed.

And I realize I haven't mentioned how those turns work, precisely. Each player has four commands at their disposal, which they spend one at a time to maneuver or fight. The number of commands spent is a function of the size of the acting column – for example, attacking with four units costs four commands. The presence of a Leader Block in the attacking or defending force will give that player six commands per turn instead of four. That perhaps doesn't seem like much when looking at a single turn in isolation, but over the course of say eight turns, it's a significant advantage.


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