Mary Russell

I had a problem: I needed a compelling maneuver model that ticked off a lot of boxes but remained dirt simple.

The game in question is my very first block game, Siege of Mantua, which takes as its subject the various Austrian attempts to relieve said siege, and how they were thoroughly trounced by this snot-nosed kid named Bonaparte. Specifically, I wanted the game's movement mechanics to account for (1) the efficacy of flanking attacks and the difficulty of coordinating converging columns, (2) the speed of smaller forces and the cumbersomeness of larger ones, (3) the advantages of interior lines, (4) the caution that results when marching near the enemy, (5) the role of deception and misdirection, and (6) the importance of momentum and controlling tempo.

And all this should ideally be encompassed by a system of very, very snappy alternating player turns, each resolved in a handful of seconds: boom, I moved, now it's your turn, boom, my turn again, fast, fast, fast. This is my preferred pace for operational games, and nowhere perhaps is this more in evidence than my Supply Lines games, in which each player's turn consists of moving a single stack of counters to an adjacent space. I began with a similar foundation here: a turn consists of taking one or more blocks from one space and moving them to another, easy-peasy. That of course left the question of how to model the speed of a smaller army versus a larger one, but I set that knot aside while I started pulling at some other tangly threads.

Moving into an enemy-occupied space may prompt a battle. In the chess-like Supply Lines, the enemy can choose to automatically refuse battle, retreating to a friendly space. That fit for that game, which was mostly focused on, well, supply lines. Whereas Siege of Mantua is more concerned with attempting to bring the enemy to battle at a time and place of your choosing, and so refusing battle would require a successful die roll.

John Theissen's operational games, which I admire an awful lot, use a simple Retreat Before Combat (RBC) die roll which succeeds on a three-or-better with a couple DRMs for terrain, leadership, et cetera. I briefly considered stealing borrowing that, but having a DRM chart seemed really off for a block game. It then occurred to me that I could make the die roll a function of the size of the moving force: count the number of enemy blocks, and roll that number or less to escape. A large, concentrated force moves slower and is easier to escape; a smaller force "moving" quickly is more likely to pull off a surprise attack. And a smaller force attempting to make itself look bigger by misdirection and demonstrations (e.g., dummy blocks) would also be easier to slip away from. "And, oh!" I said to myself as the light bulb went off, "if you're attacked from multiple directions, you make a roll to escape from each group, and only the groups you fail against get to attack."

Of course, that left the question of how exactly those kind of flanking maneuvers were going to work within what was intended to be a very snappy single move framework. How was I gonna regulate how many units could be activated in one go? Some kind of action point system? Eh, that's more stuff to track. An HQ unit, like in some of the Columbia block games? Eh, that kinda compromises the secrecy, and besides, the game only has ten blocks to a side. Roll for it? Eh, maybe, but I kinda liked the idea of the die being reserved for escape attempts only.

While I was puzzling over this, I was brushing up on the campaign and was struck of course by how much better Bonaparte was at coordinating his forces than Alvinczi or Davidovich or Wurmser. And while something can certainly be said for each commander's personal ability – an aspect that frankly I was less interested in – an equally important factor is that Boney was operating along interior lines. Well, why not use that? After you move blocks from one space, if you can trace an uninterrupted line of communication to another friendly space, you can move those blocks too, and you can keep doing that so long as each block is only moved once in a go.

This makes those lines of communication very precious, and the threat of the enemy cutting yours off – or, conversely, of a divided enemy establishing a new one – drives a substantial portion of the action. It also allows for multiple forces to converge against a single point, so long as they are in communication with one another. Again, this will make it harder to escape. If four blocks come from a single direction, I need to roll a four or less to skedaddle, but if that same enemy force is divided into two sets of two blocks, I'll need to roll a two or less twice.

Obviously, should it come to battle, having a highly concentrated defending force is a safer bet than spreading out. But armies of the day would spread out across a wider front to curtail the enemy's movement– to make it difficult to threaten their line of communication, and to prevent envelopment. To encourage this, I've changed my basic movement rule from "move to an adjacent space" to "move to an adjacent named space". At specific points on the map – particularly on the opposite side of river crossings – I've placed an unnamed point on the road between two named spaces. And, hey, because the rule is "move to an adjacent named space", usually you're just going to scoot right over these on your way over. But if the enemy occupies your named destination space, you don't complete that move all in one go – instead, you end this turn's movement at that midpoint. Next turn, you can complete the move.

Some of the best places for a good flanking attack are naturally lousy with these midpoints. Conversely, if you neglect to occupy a named space, your opponent can move very swiftly down long stretches of road. And if you have secured that space, then when your opponent stops at that midpoint, you can launch an attack on your turn, putting them on the defensive. And if you can keep them there, keep them reacting to you instead of the other way around, you'll be well on your way to victory.

So, in the end, the movement rules look like this: Move blocks from one named space to another; if there's a midpoint between you and an enemy-occupied space, stop at the midpoint. If you have a line of communication, you can move some more blocks. When you're done moving, if you've moved blocks into an enemy space, they can try to refuse battle, rolling against the number of blocks in each group. That's it, the entire maneuver model in the space of three sentences, nary a chart in sight, but with lots of opportunities for bold marches, cat-and-mouse chases, and fretting over your LOC.

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