By Paul Comben
It is far from unusual within the broad church of board wargaming to find designs based upon the use of wooden blocks. Columbia has dedicated itself to this approach for decades; and recently, alongside the occasional contribution from the likes of GMT, we have had the stunning visual effects of the VentoNuovo “Blocks” series – though, for my taste, the colour has run a little too extravagantly in the case of those designs. And then there are all those C&C offerings; but while there is an awful lot of timber included, they are not really part of this family in any real sense – they may walk the walk just a bit, but when they talk, it is another entirely separate language they go battling off into.
Whatever their subject matter, games that do belong to what we usually associate with the wooden block approach tend to share a range of common mechanisms – each block’s informational sticker gets rotated to show losses; there is often a measure of quality (usually a letter) to show who gets to fight first; and there is a number to indicate how many dice are tossed into the maelstrom of combat. Of course, some games are markedly more complex than others, but there has certainly been a carry-over of mechanical approach, and why not, when it has worked so well for a markedly long time.
But where does the work of Rachel (formerly Bowen) Simmons fit into the scheme of things? In her three games, Bonaparte at Marengo, Napoleon’s Triumph and The Guns of Gettysburg, yes, there are indeed blocks, and there are representative values of strength on one side of these blocks only; and like not a few other members of the family, the maps are divided into areas – but in this case it all adds up to a very different way of working, predicated on an entirely different ethos. For a start, whereas the vast majority of other block games will have you rolling multiples of dice at every turn, there are no dice in any of Simmons’ designs. Random chance, in terms of rolling your way to victory or defeat, does not exist in these three battle worlds – chance comes solely in the form of what the players do and what they think their opponents are doing…essentially, in the worst cases, being fooled, being foolish, or fooling yourself. What these games are not is an intense look at tactical evolutions on early to mid-Nineteenth Century battlefields. You are not forming square or sending the skirmishers out; those things may be considered within the system as “assumed.” What you are doing is deploying force, threatening the use of force, hoping to bluff your opponent into committing to the wrong deployment, and then folding up his/her disjointed position like a wet piece of cardboard.
And, for the most part, it is utterly brilliant.