Duel of Eagles: The Battle of Mars-la-Tour – Board Game Preview

Game Preview

“What is certain beyond argument is that the war – and with it the future of Europe – was decided at Mars-la-Tour on 16 August 1870.”

– Otto von Bismarck, Versailles, 18 January 1871


The Battle of Mars-la-Tour was a critical turning point of not only the Franco-Prussian War, but arguably of European history. The French loss at this battle essentially led to the end of the Second Empire of Napoleon III and helped give birth to the Second Reich of the new German Empire. Why then has it received such scant treatment in the wargaming community? Other than Charles Vasey’s excellent Deathride for ATO and scenario treatments in various miniature gaming systems, this highly important battle has been ignored. Why is that?

For one thing, Mars-la-Tour has a reputation as being “just” a cavalry battle. This is thanks to von Bredow’s famous (and amazingly successful) “Deathride” cavalry charge, along with the huge cavalry battle fought outside the village of Yron at the end of the battle (and which was the last large pure cavalry engagement fought in western Europe). But more importantly, the military situation on the morning of 16 August, 1870 was quite an unusual one.


The entire French Army of the Rhine, almost 130,000 men and under the command of the newly-appointed Marshal Francois Bazaine, was moving ponderously out of the Metz fortifications toward Verdun. The goal was to escape the swiftly advancing Prussian pincers and join up with French Emperor Napoleon III (who had earlier escaped Metz) and a new army near Chalons. However, Bazaine carried out his task in an inexplicably lethargic manner. He seemed to have been paralyzed by the heft of his new command responsibilities and/or by the looming threat of two pursuing German armies. These burdens were just too much for him to bear and his resulting plan of action was no plan at all – Bazaine simply dawdled and ached for the protection of the fortress walls around Metz. In fact, the Prussian armies had become strung out and, while advancing quickly, were somewhat blindly searching for the location of the French army.

The Prussian command assumed that the French were much farther along, well on their way to Verdun. When Rheinbaben’s 5th Cavalry Division first spotted the French tents early that August morning outside of Vionville, the troopers assumed at first that they had encountered the rearguard of the escaping French army. To their shock, they soon realized that they were instead staring at the van of the entire French force. So what happened next? Well, in typical Teutonic fashion, the Prussians launched an attack! The horse artillerists aimed at the brilliant white French table cloths and polished breakfast china and began firing. Thus began the Battle of Mars-la-Tour and the audacity of the assault intimidated the French into near inactivity. It also highlighted a key advantage the Prussians possessed over their French adversaries throughout the campaign – offensive flexibility and initiative.

This boldness flustered an already desultory Bazaine, who needed to press west to Verdun, but who also refused to become separated from his protective burrow at Metz. The Prussian strategy and superior artillery pummeled the French into indecision and after a bitter and vicious day-long fight (inflicting a total of more than 30,000 casualties to both armies), Bazaine finally ordered a retirement during the evening to better defensive positions nearer Metz. This retreat and redeployment was pursued by the Prussians and resulted in the even bloodier Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat two days later.


So there existed a situation at Mars-la-Tour that makes, on its face, a difficult battle to simulate properly and a tough subject matter from which to make a challenging game – an intact French army facing the scattered elements of an unsuspecting Prussian advanced guard. The French outnumbered the Prussians 4 to 1 during the opening phases of the battle and should have, by all rights, crushed the Prussians as they force-marched piecemeal onto the field. Any competent French game player would easily destroy the Prussians in this situation. Having full knowledge of their size and deployment and then knowing the reinforcement schedule, the French would simply advance as needed and rout the Prussian forces as they entered the field. Perhaps this is the biggest reason Mars-la-Tour has not been simulated in game form very often: it is not an easy task to create a balanced, entertaining game on this battle.

Nonetheless, while Michael Kennedy of White Dog Games and I were discussing the play testing of his new WWI game, At Neuve Chapelle, the subject of the Franco-Prussian War came up. He asked me if I would be interested in designing a game for WDG on the Battle of Mars-la-Tour and, having a strong interest in this period of history I said that I would be excited to do so. My game design resume to this point includes four rather unconventional designs for Victory Point Games (Gettysburg: The Wheatfield, Dawn of the Zeds, High & Tight and In Magnificent Style) but no traditional hex-and-counter games. I thought that this would be a fun challenge for me to design my first hex-and-counter war game about an unconventional and under-represented, yet important battle.

The resulting game design, Duel of Eagles, is a game of moderate complexity and size. The game board is 22 by 17 inches and there are 176 counters, markers and chits. Each hex represents an area about 500 yards across, each turn is equal to approximately one hour, infantry and cavalry units represent brigades while artillery units are organizational groupings of batteries by weight of gun. As far as hard numbers and military abilities are concerned, the game accounts for unit sizes, equipment and morale in a rather straightforward manner.

The Prussian’s combat factors are inflated a bit to account for their high morale due to their recent victories in the war, their infantry training was second to none and the artillery was equipped with the superior breech-loading Krupp cannons. Prussian leaders also have an advantage in that they are more aggressive and can thus attack much more efficiently than the French. The French, on the other hand, have the edge in small arms firepower, as the Chassepot rifle allows the infantry to fire further and with greater affect. In addition, some French artillery units have Mitrailleuse batteries (a Gatling gun-like weapon) which are deadly at close range. And, finally, there are just a lot more Frenchmen on the field of battle than Prussians.

Obviously a major design problem to overcome was Marshal Bazaine’s bizarre performance as the French commander. The French Army was a well-equipped, brave and otherwise capable force. However, its training regimen had become sub-par and the men were generally demoralized by the spate of early Prussian victories. But they also knew that with proper leadership, direction and inspiration, they could be victorious. Unfortunately for the French, Bazaine was not that leader.


So, how to reflect the lack of French command and control without making the game feel forced and predictable (and thus not very much fun for the French player)? I didn’t want to just install “idiot rules” for the French player, so my solution was to utilize a chit-pull mechanic – but with a twist. Chits are used in Duel of Eagles to mirror chaos, fog-of-war, the friction of combat, and to activate corps. This latter function of the chit-pull system recreates the slow French reaction at the beginning of the battle by starting the game with one French corps chit and then adding a new French corps chit each turn to the draw pool, gradually increasing the number of French corps that are activated in a turn, and thus simulating a giant slowly awakening from deep slumber.

In addition to corps activation, players draw “event” chits that either side plays immediately or, in some cases, can hold to apply in a future situation. Events are era-specific and model the advantages and disadvantages of each side’s historic weaponry, tactics and leadership. For example, there is a “Beaten Zone” chit that allows the French player to issue immediate fire from an infantry unit (whether activated or not) or hold the chit for a future opportunity fire at a moving Prussian unit. The Prussians have a “Krupp Guns” chit that allows the same abilities but for Prussian artillery units. There are also “fog of war” chits that players can inflict against one another. The Prussian player has a powerful chit named “Bazaine’s Malaise” that allows the Prussian player to possibly force a French corps to skip its activation for a turn. The French have a “Prussian Aggressive Tactics” chit where the French player can move a Prussian infantry unit one half its movement allowance and require it to assault whatever French unit is adjacent. Events like these can frustrate player tactical plan-making but reflect actual events that occurred at this and other Franco-Prussian War battles. The chit system weaves player tactical opportunities with each army’s particular martial character. It attempts to give the game a realistic feel for warfare of this period while creating decision-making challenges for the players that their historical counterparts had to confront.

Both the French and the Prussian player have certain problems that they must overcome in order to win the game. It will not be an easy task for either player to gain a decisive victory. The French player is handicapped by sluggish command and control and poor overall morale but he has the strength to achieve victory if he handles his forces well and takes advantage of his opportunities as they arise. The Prussian player has an edge in the efficiency of his artillery and the morale of his infantry but he is heavily outnumbered and his forces come on in piecemeal fashion. If he has any bad luck or misses an opportunity to strike hard and fast at a surprised and initially vulnerable French army, he may find himself in deep trouble

In summary, Duel of Eagles is hopefully filled with challenging decisions for players to make while also accurately simulating a very important battle in military history and one which certainly deserves to be represented on more gaming tables.

Hermann Luttmann

Got some feedback for us? Email your opinions and comments to Hermann.

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