Operational Design in Wargaming Prelude Part I -Thoughts on Montebello

 From time to time a given historical scenario will put its hooks into my brain.  I love a good tactical puzzle.  15 years ago Jon and I both attempted to achieve victory for Junot at the the Battle of Vimeiro to little avail.  The problems with coordinating the French attack were well modeled in the scenarios which made executing a coherent plan difficult.  Thus, the historical outcome seemed to make sense!

This month, Jon has been gracious enough to host two gaming sessions with his Montebello 1859 scenario.  I do not want to give too much away, as Jon is surely working to generate a battle report to highlight the key actions as well as his impressive collection of figures for the time period.  I played the the French both times; once being fought to a standstill in the center and another achieving a breakout to the east.  In neither case, however, did I achieve a decisive result that would have crushed my Austrian foe.

It is a challenging scenario for both sides.  The Austrians enjoy a significant positional and numerical advantage.  However, they are hampered by large, unwieldy formations coupled with mediocre leadership.  The French enjoy superior flexibility, better leaders, and have their forces massed to conduct the assault. The restricted terrain and deep objectives will require audacity to win the day.

Strategically, the Austrians are engaged in a "Reconnaissance in Force" that seems too large for the recon mission and too small to mount a credible attack.  They begin the game spread out along the main road with elements focused in regimental strongpoints in the key towns.  Braum is essentially caught in the open with 2 battalions trying to take Cascina Nuova.  Hesse's brigade in the north represents the strongest coherent force on the Austrian side at game start.
A quick concept sketch for the Austrian side
Operationally, the Austrians are mounting a defense in depth, with Hesse's brigade positioned to conduct a spoiling attack against the French flank.

The French are mounting a response to the Austrian penetration that rapidly develops into a counterattack.  Essentially, Forey has his Cavalry acting as a covering force while he masses to attack towards the river.

In our first outing, I had looked at the map, and sketched out a hasty plan in my mind.

Yes, this is exactly how my mind's eye pictures things...
Looking at the disposition of forces, I tried to imagine how my opponent might fight the battle

Is it wrong that I naturally view Powerpoint as the only viable means to express tactical information?

For my part I am a huge nerd so I also generated some graphics

The above is translated from a pen and paper sketch/overlay
I rapidly discovered, however, that I let my focus slip.  The cavalry of the time period were not able to execute the mission I planned for them.  I focused on short gains, rather than the overall objective of pushing to the river.  I began feeding units into countering the Austrian counterattack, and essentially allowed it to accomplish its mission without actually doing significant physical damage.  My desire for force preservation prevented me from moving fast enough to threaten the Austrian rear area.  In short, I committed my own cardinal sin:  I failed to maintain Maintenance of Aim.  I established a Main Effort, but tried to support two main efforts.  I blunted my own offensive and my opponent pounced on the opportunity.

Following the game, I found myself mulling over the scenario.  I had not done a proper mission analysis.  I did not consider my array of forces.  I had not fully considered the affect of the terrain.  Where were my running estimates?  In short, I had been a p*&^-poor staff officer.  I knew I would be back up the following week for a re-fight, so what if I actually tried to use some of that expensive army officer training to actually come up with a potential solution?

These preparations bring me to the purpose of this upcoming series of posts.  I wanted to find a way to articulate some of my frustrations with rules development and general gameplay in a historical setting.  Historical wargaming is a unique hobby that allows me to explore history from multiple angles:  I read about the time period, look for the "Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)"exemplified by the conflict, and otherwise immerse myself in the time period/steep in historical goodness.  (I recognize that nothing I am saying is new to many people who read this.  Fortunately, blogs are essentially public diaries, so I will feel free to try and articulate my own thoughts with the comforting knowledge that others will stop reading when I meander too far.  You get what you pay for, and blogspot is free....)

The problem that emerges is the difficulty in modelling many of the key factors that resulted in success or failure in the conflict.  Games can show the dominance of a particular weapons system, but fail to model the critical logistical, environmental, and leadership challenges that prevented them from achieving victory on every battlefield.  We model the equipment, but not the Combat Service Support (CSS) elements that keeps it in the fight.  Our god's eye view of the battlefield allows us to know what lies in front of each formation.  We need not fear looking for our opponent's reserve, or where he has massed his tanks.  We fight balanced games, where both sides have an even chance to win.  Worst of all, sometimes, we play out a scenario as though it is a singular event rather a link of a chain of events.

Part of what differentiates historical wargaming from 'wargaming' for me is the existence of these types of true tactical puzzles.  Systems that depend on points systems and ad hoc scenario design lend themselves well to an enjoyable game but lack the challenges presented by the events that lead up to a particular battle.  You can design a scenario to challenge your players, but often this is done with a particular solution in mind.  A true historical battle allows for a unique situation where a clear solution does not exist for either side.  In the real world, units get intermixed, supply gets muddled and confusion reigns.

At Montebello, for example, I can see why Forey would have declared his men exhausted and not pressed on past the Coppa river.   The battle had started with a confused withdrawal, a rapid advance and been punctuated by several intense fights.  He had no idea what was coming down the road towards him, or how long until he would be reinforced.  We often forget what it would really been like to tell the men who just assaulted a town, to keep going to assault the next town.

With all the above in mind, I intend to lay out some ideas over the coming year to at least streamline my own thoughts on what I think matters in historical game play.  It is neither an academic paper nor an Officer Professional Development (OPD) opportunity.  Rather it is my contribution to the ongoing discussion.  I own many sets of rules, but play very few.  Obviously, there is something I am still searching to find.  Perhaps this will help me get to some sets of rules I could finally settle on.

With that in mind, I have sketched out my approach to the topic with some selected sub -topics for the future:

  • Writing Orders.  Why has it fallen out of favor?
  • The Military Decision Making Process in wargaming.  Would anyone actually do it for fun?
  • Point systems and choosing forces.  Fight with what you have, not what you want!
  • Too many modifiers.  What does a die roll actually represent? 
  • Stay in your lane!  Writing rules that keep the decisions at the right level.
  • Friction in Wargaming. Leaderships greatest question:  "What the hell is he doing?"
  • The Challenges of Modern Gaming
  • Campaign Play -What are the stakes?
  • Jomini, Clausewitz and Moltke -Why only discuss one of them? 
  • Logistical Considerations and what leads up to the battle.


  1. Excellent planning analysis, Jake! I quite enjoyed reading your thoughts on battle preparation and prioritizing game objectives. No wonder you pose such a formidable opponent to face on the battlefield.

    With travel for work, my BatReps on our two Montebello games have been tardy. Now, being home, this week ought to see some progress on at least the first battle report. Looking at the game table this morning and troop dispositions when we called the game on time, there remains plenty of interesting battle to be fought. The level of victory, however, would most likely remain unchanged.

    Your proposed series on a study in historical gaming looks fascinating. Your outline triggers many thoughts of my own on these topics and I await each treatise with anticipation.

    Both games were good fun and I look forward to swapping sides and giving Montebello at least one more try.

    1. I don't know about formidable, but I can definitely condense any problem into PowerPoint format. I am intrigued to see your summary of events. Part of the fun of preparing battle reports is how the perspectives affect the narrative.

  2. I very much look forward this series of yours, Jake! Part of what makes our hobby both interesting and so diverse is that we all have differing ideas when it comes to aesthetics, rules mechanisms, "game vs simulation", and more. I dislike order writing, despite the fact that it is very military in nature, I don't like savings throws as a mechanism, and I prefer my Horse and Musket troops based in single ranks (double ranks look good but further worsens the inherent depth distortion caused by the use of physical miniatures). I had my "simulation" phase back in my 20's,and now the game is the more important aspect. Almost everyone else's mileage, as they say, may vary!

    1. You raise good points. The line of simulation vs. game I think is quite different among players. I am most interested in the command/ decision making aspect of wargaming and less interested in the technical aspects of the weapons. Yet others think that we must account for armor penetration and range to have any applicable understanding. Basing is a issue I have grappled with in the past, and continue to struggle with! I suppose it is because I am still looking for rules that work for me.

  3. I just discovered this blog from Jonathan's post about this game on his blog. Great stuff; much to to digest. In the short term, just wanted to drop an appreciation.

    1. Welcome aboard! Jon and I have been gaming together off and on now for nearly 20 years, so there is some overlap. If you are looking for excellent presentations of ideas and well painted miniatures, go to Jon's blog. If you want to see the equivalent through the lens of a semi-literate chimpanzee, you have come to the right place!


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