The Boardgaming Life

“This One’s Going to Take Careful Timing!” A Boardgaming Life Review and Analysis of Vento Nuovo’s Bloody Monday

By Paul Comben

 Designer: Emanuele Santandrea

 Publisher: VentoNuovo Games

 

(N.B. Blocks are shown exposed in photos for illustrative purposes)

Yes, the title quote is from the film Waterloo, and the game is about Borodino, but the quote, nevertheless, is entirely apposite and appropriately Napoleonic.  Bloody Monday is a game very much about timing – timing and unit movement/placement; timing and the ordering of attacks; timing and the waiting game; timing and the implied sense of having not too much time to do anything.

Those who have played Vento Nuovo’s Waterloo 200 may wonder how the system here compares to that earlier title?  Superficially the games indeed look similar, but beyond the purely cosmetic stuff and the obvious introduction of dice to the combat system for Bloody Monday, the feel of this new design is very different.  Leaders in charge of formations have a greater range of capabilities; combined arms make an appearance; the shielding mechanism has been changed and simplified; the ability of armies to sustain themselves is at least partly linked to success on the field, and the potential of forces to inflict hurt or suffer catastrophe is seriously pronounced.

In short, the decision can come surprisingly quickly – quick within the context of the game’s already brief length; or quick within the context of the fortunes of war causing one or other force to unravel and collapse with frightening immediacy.

Bloody Monday is a game very much about timing

But before we get to conclusions, let us start with a look at the armies and the presentation of the field.

The armies of Bloody Monday wield serious destructive power.  As is the practice with Vento Nuovo titles, the physical size of a unit (mainly divisions of infantry or cavalry, or a corps’ worth of artillery batteries), is expressed in the number of “dots” on the relevant side of the unit’s sticker – this is the number of dice combat units will roll most of the time when engaged.  Unit quality, which is largely about the result range each rolled die will hit on, is shown as a colour – dark blue/green (French/Russian) dots hit on 3-6; red on 4-6; white 5-6; and black (militia and some Cossacks) on a 6.  A lot of the units in both armies have the better die ranges, and all artillery supporting attacks from adjacent areas hit on a 4-6.  However, artillery that finds itself in the same area as a combat is severely comprised, being reduced to one die and hitting only on a 6.  It will also succumb to elimination if it receives (and must take) any kind of hit.

Certain units, including artillery, have a shielding provision (a further representation either of quality or simply of battlefield/tactical realities) – the first hit for such targets being negated, with the further addition of artillery and leaders not suffering hits in a combat area until all the friendly infantry and cavalry have been eliminated first.

In the matter of battlefield terrain, this comes in three basic types, each defined by the background colour of an area’s id number.  Green areas denote clear terrain, and in line with that, are capable of accommodating up to four units from each side.  Green areas cost 1Movement Point to enter – activating/engaging in any area is an extra 1MP.  In addition to their greater capacity, green areas are the only regions of the field where combined arms tactics (one side having infantry and cavalry in the same combat, and the opponent lacking one or the other) can be brought into effect.  Combined arms is a very powerful tactic as all such hits are applied before the opponent can respond, and therefore, with potent units involved, an unbalanced force can be cut through before it gets a chance to do anything in response.

Yellow areas pertain either to portions of the board that are wooded (quite a lot of it!) or are the location of one of the several villages around the battlefield.  Yellow areas cost 2MPs to enter and will absorb one hit before defending units begin to suffer.  They can only accommodate a maximum of two units from either side.  Red areas (field works such as the three fleches areas or The Great Redoubt), can house just one unit apiece, again cost 2 MPs to enter, but these locations provide two hits’ worth of defensive bonus.

Areas that are linked to the victory conditions are marked with a star – such locations are also the arrival point for the limited number of reinforcements both players can call for and then randomly draw from the army pool.

Overall, the physical quality of the design, even without any of the Kickstarter extras, is simply stunning – nice dice, easy on the eye rules presentation, and alongside everything else, stickers that will bear being removed and replaced if the first fitting is a bit askew.  I will refer to other aspects of the game’s “look” later on, but as I have heard this from several US friends now and as it is a sentiment I share, I must say that it would be nice if US companies upped their game in terms of the physical/aesthetic side of their designs.  European companies are disappearing off into the distance in this regard; it is not that US games are in any way ugly or functionally inferior, they simply do not look so good, and even where a real effort has been made, such as with Academy’s Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal, the beautiful map work there was desperately compromised by a hex grid that is often totally lost.

But now, back to Bloody Monday.

I suspect that some readers will have played other Borodino games, and that experience plus having at least a working knowledge of the actual battle’s history, will have created a certain comfort zone of familiarity and expectations.  Historically, the battle fought in the early September of 1812 was long and very bloody.  Most designs represent this with a certain kind of intricacy to the ongoing lethality, and combine this with a sack load of game turns.  By contrast, this design has only four turns (inferring a sense of flustering rush you must overcome to play well), and the intricacy, bloody or otherwise, will be unlike much you may have experienced.  Even if you have played Waterloo 200 or Columbia’s Borodino I would suggest you park that experience and take this game on board for what it is – brief, engaging and bloody fun, and with its own style in matters of realism.

Time to look at setup and begin moving things around.

The deployment of both armies is via the historical areas, but to a certain extent randomizes what precisely from each corps (or which army for most of the Russian force) deploys in each area.  The French army is rather tightly concentrated in the southwest portion of the map, with only Eugene’s IV Corps north of the river (Kolocha) that runs roughly west to northeast across the board.  For the French, most of the territory north of the river is a no-go region – there are no victory point areas other than Borodino village, and the Russians you might approach along that line of march are a long way off.  Taking Borodino is a must however – it is a victory area and such areas also augment the element that is called Logistics Value (integral to how armies restore leaders, replenish artillery, and strengthen units that have taken losses).  Furthermore, Borodino can act as a more forward reinforcement area – although its desirability in this regard will depend on how the battle is shaping.

Any other activity purely north of the river is most likely an utter waste of time – unless the Russians try some mischief by approaching you along that particular route.  Prepare, but let them come in that case – it is all action away from key areas and the Russians will be spending logistics to restore leaders before they actually get into contact with you.

Even if you have played Waterloo 200 or Columbia’s Borodino I would suggest you park that experience and take this game on board for what it is – brief, engaging and bloody fun

Directly in front of the French are two more victory areas – The Great Redoubt and The Fleches (all three fleches areas have to be held to get the relevant point).  And here we get to the nitty-gritty – activated leaders degrade, rotating through diminishing levels of command span/ability until they are exhausted. They can be pumped up again via replenishment in the Logistics Phase of the second to fourth game turns, but the ability of an army to do this, via its supreme commander, is finite, and likely to lessen as the battle goes on – N.B. whilst your victory point area possession may increase as the battle progresses, your supreme leader is very likely to be decreasing in capacity, and especially in the later game, and thus you may end up with more needing attention than there are resources available.

There is a golden rule to follow here: you cannot afford to dither around with aimless or speculative moves.  They waste leader levels to no good end.  Furthermore, attacking, when done properly, has certain advantages – it is in the attack that artillery goes in with full force, and where combined arms can often help further the destruction the artillery has began.  Attacks have to be delivered with the utmost force and violence, but at the same time with a control that watches for the enemy move after your move, and given the different area capacities, avoids blocking off approaches that you would really like to make use of – if not immediately, then soon.

The first French impulse will demonstrate how much of this the French army player has grasped.  If you are playing with the optional Grande Batterie rule, use it as a freebie to blast away much if not all of the Russian outpost screen, then deploy that artillery, carefully, in preparation for the violence you will want to unleash on the forward Fleches in the next French impulse – i.e. one impulse to position, the next to attack.  Understanding the mechanisms at work means launching a French unit, even a very good one, into the Fleches without copious artillery in support is an utter waste of time.  To overcome both defensive terrain benefits and the possibility of a unit with shield characteristics, you will need to drench the area with cannon fire, and then assault with a quality unit.

Attacks have to be delivered with the utmost force and violence

An understanding of how the French army works (or does not) and the challenges it faces (some of which are identical for the Russians) can be further illustrated by looking at two of the French corps leaders deployed at game start.  At the elite end of the scale is Davout, who commands a large corps full of quality units.  Done with due care, Davout can be activated twice (though he can actually manage three activations before exhaustion) in the first game turn, and this with reasonable expectation that the second of those impulses can be used to seize one of the Fleches – and with careful coordination with Ney’s adjacent corps, it is possible to take another Fleches area at the same time.

With a likely Logistics Value of 6 going into the start of the second turn, this may well be enough to restore all the employed corps leaders (Davout, Ney, Eugene – assuming two activations each), to their highest state. Of course, you could activate one more corps leader as the French (Napoleon being at four star strength to begin with – each star equaling a standard Tactical Leader activation).  But if you do, you need to be clear as to why you want to do so.  Such a leader and his units will have little place to go, and in the case of the hideously mediocre Junot (VIII corps), one move will utterly deflate him.  In fact, moving Junot can be compared to trying to ride a bike with a rapidly emptying tire – you are going to get nowhere fast and will need repeatedly to pump the thing up for any more progress to be made.  The one reason you might possibly want to shift Junot is to clear a path for reinforcements or to give some elbow and sabre room for Murat’s substantial cavalry reserve to get forward.

Before turning to Kutuzov’s initial predicaments, there is one other nuance of gameplay and commands worth noting at this point.  Inevitably, achieving brutal attacks will sometimes mean using forces from more than one corps/army.  I tend to think however, that if you can avoid this, you should.  Activating two or even three corps to do the same job is a waste of resources – like that old joke about the number of people needed to change a light bulb.  There are strict limits regarding the number of battles that can be fought by an army in an impulse, and how much active fighting any individual formation can involve itself in at any one time.  If you do start drawing in forces from here and there, it will curtail your options on other parts of the battlefield.

As for the Russians, the pattern of their historical deployment has been the subject of criticism by numerous historians over the years.  In game terms, this is reflected by the Tsar’s armies being spread north to south across the entire board, with at least a few units out of command range (e.g. two Cossack cavalry units near Utitsa) at game start.  In addition to this, some of the best Russian units in the game, Lavrov’s guards, begin in a not particularly useful place (some are way back), and to make matters worse, their commander is not even on the map as battle commences.

What the Russian player does about this may well depend on how the first French impulse shapes up.  However, my own early plays tentatively suggest two probable areas of attention:

1)     It may be a good idea to replace the artillery unit in The Great Redoubt area with an infantry unit.  To reiterate, artillery in this model has formidable power on the attack, but is utterly feeble when left to fend for itself.  Even after factoring in the terrain benefit of the redoubt and the artillery’s shield, a four or five dice attack unit with a bit of artillery backing is going to clear the position.  The one alternative for the Russian is to let the artillery fend for itself whilst preparing something nasty a little further back.  In that regard.

 

2)     Immediately behind The Great Redoubt and The Fleches is a belt of clear terrain areas.  This is where you may well want to get massed artillery in place, along with combined arms forces – cavalry and infantry together.  Things are hardly likely to go absolutely perfectly for such a deployment, but look at the map – if the French have carried The Fleches and The Great Redoubt, well whoopee, now they have areas on their frontline where only one unit can be in place or traversing at any one time, where movement costs for entering said areas are higher at 2MPs, and all told, things for them will have a distinct possibility of getting gummed up.  In other words, the belt of areas comprising the fieldworks and immediately east of these fieldworks is a killing ground; if the French merely cling to their conquests or try to dribble further forward, hit them as hard as you can and start thinking about winning through unit elimination (ten units) rather than merely by star areas under control.

Of course, a competent French player will recognize this danger and make plans accordingly.  At the very least, however, both sides need to understand that the violence of the battle is likely to come to fruition in this part of the field, and there is no excuse for not getting forces organized to meet such an eventuality.

Certain aspects of the design in terms of “take note” and “how to” will also depend on what, if any, optional rules you are using.  One aspect of the game where this might be a factor, although I certainly do not have enough plays logged to form a definite opinion, is in the optional rule defining Russian army command in its more extreme forms of implementation – although this is not exactly irrelevant to the basic game either.

With everything on the board, the Russians have Kutuzov as supreme commander, plus Barclay de Tolly and Bagration as the two army commanders, and Platov and Lavrov directly commanding the Cossacks and the Russian guard.  Barclay and “Bravo!” Bagration command a great deal of what is on the map for the Russians, but the guard and the Cossacks depend on Lavrov (who initially is not properly there) and Platov (who is there, but in a bit of an awkward place).  In the base game, whilst having a lot of Russians commanded by just Barclay and Bagration has its pluses (both start at four star level and can shift a lot of stuff around), with command range being equal to stars, there is always going to be a danger that some things somewhere are going to be out of range.  To quote the Waterloo film again, if tubs Kutuzov then decides to wage war by doing a bit more than “sitting on his ass,” the two army commanders may not get reflated enough in the late game to command more than what they are right next to.

The other big bugbear about only having the two Tactical Leaders in charge of so much, is that if one of them gets killed that is a large number of units left utterly leaderless apart from whatever might come by way of spending the Initiative Disk for a one-off push with units up to the Logistics value – assuming the Russian actually possesses the disk, that is.

The optional rules can make this even worse by keeping the two lads and their commands, (Barclay, the part Scottish one and Bagration, the partly shot to bits one), in their respective halves of the map…along with the units they command.  Not great.

By contrast, the French have seven Tactical Leaders, which does mean that Napoleon has no chance of getting near everyone forward at the same time, and in some circumstances, progressing things is going to mean making more activations than the Russians might need to make in response.  On the other hand, in one of my test games, Ney, The Bravest of the Brave, became the deadest of the dead with the battle still very much in the balance; but in addition to the doomed Ney leaving only a handful of units behind after losses, the French then went on to win (by units eliminated) with a general offensive (any units activated up to your present Logistics value) paid for with the Initiative Disk.  In that game, the instrument of victory turned out to be Murat and the various cavalry units he gathered up from here and there – another handy option, and in the historical context, a perfectly reasonable provision whose only real-life negative would be making the “Dandy Doyenne of Naples” even more insufferable than usual.

Seeing Murat’s fellows launch this charge was also the one thing this game had in common with my main test game of Waterloo 200, where Uxbridge chewed up D’Erlon’s corps with a mass charge that also led to victory by unit elimination.  In Bloody Monday however, I would have to be honest and say that I felt the pulse of things had a somewhat more authentic, less abstracted feel to them.  Nevertheless, early plays have also revealed a “gamey” issue lurking here and there, as well as one little rule refinement I think worthy of consideration.

 

The gamey thing relates to how reinforcements are placed.  As I said earlier, they go on the victory areas, and this in a set order for both sides – first obligatory choice for the Russians is an area on the eastern edge of the map (Tartarinova); for the French, it is next to where the unwell Napoleon first plonked himself down and where he is probably still moping away and sneezing from time to time – near the western edge.  As things stand, arriving units are placed in this set order until the area in question reaches capacity, at which point you place the excess in the next listed location.  Of course, the Russians may not fancy having their powerful guards arriving at a point where they can hardly smell the battle let alone see it.  And the French player might not want his Imperials so far back the bands will have gone through their entire repertoire before they get to anywhere useful.  So, the Russians might just be tempted to crowd the less handy areas with units (say, moving the hetman Platov and his hat to the space next door – Tartarinova), leaving the reinforcements to come on a bit nearer to the action.  And the same thing applies with the French – crowd out Shevardino and then see what else is free.

 

 

 

My other minor little issue is with the artillery only working from attack postures in adjacent areas.  A few games of witnessing that had me thinking that horse artillery, to give it more relevant historical distinction than simply its faster movement rate, might “deploy” and fire with full effect within an actual combat area.

No doubt I might be expected to ponder just how much proper Borodino I am getting in a game with a rather short set of rules, just four turns, and combat that makes ‘Bloody Monday’ seem a bit of an understatement for what will occur?

Regarding the rules, they are pretty clear, and what commonsense cannot divine a very brief Q&A should readily deal with.  Without doubt, there has been a lot of thought given to how to move on from Waterloo 200.  What has emerged is a different system, which is capable of carrying rather more colour – Murat leading anything on a horse, skirmishers, combined arms, Tactical Leaders inspiring a unit to make an extra effort, Grand Battery effects etc.

There is no real sense of columns, lines, squares and so on, but that was never what the designer wanted to highlight.  If you are looking for intricacy in the system, it is to be found first and foremost in the degrading of an army in motion.  A Tactical Leader losing a step through activation can represent one of several things, or several things together – the wear on the nerves of the leader himself; the strain on his command of being in action; the general sense of things falling apart until, via replenishment from the supreme commander (another abstraction that might actually imply a pause to reorder the ranks or a new command/exhortation coming in), something like normal service is resumed.

As for that short number of turns, once battle is properly joined, rather a lot will be happening.  Remember, each of these four turns represents several hours of time.  My main test game (the one where I was most comfortable with the rules, had sorted out my options, and had a good feel for the armies and the system), ended on turn two.  Desperately short?  No, not really.  Relating events to real time, battle had been raging for about six hours by the time the Russians were defeated, and given that, post the actual game, mopping things up would probably take another one or two hours, a battle lasting from early morning through to early afternoon hardly seems that awry.

The same applies to the casualty rate.  Three hours per turn is time enough for a lot of drama to occur.  The system may have you feel that units are being nuked off the board, but these eliminations are really matters occurring over hours – advance, retreat, bombardment, sallies, surprise…and collapse.

The onus to attack, to do something, will naturally be on the French unless or until things turn very bad for the Russians.  But that is not the same as having them go “attack crazy.”  Things have to be paced.  The Russians are winning at game start – no units lost and most of the victory areas in their possession.  Beyond the activities I highlighted earlier, there is no real pressure on them to start (Waterloo quote coming up) “Running around like a wet hen.”  And yet, despite the fact that the French have to push hard, we all know that battles have their lulls and pauses.

Borodino is no exception.  In a game of four turns, you might wonder where a pause is going to fit in?  My answer is that it lies in not activating this or that available leader at all, or refraining from taking some other braided and epauletted fellow right down to exhaustion.  Yes, the battle can be decided swiftly, but it can also go the full distance.  Neither side should blindly stumble into a late game situation with nothing left in the caissons.  The nightmare situation lies in entering the last turn’s impulses with your supreme leader exhausted and the Initiative Disk in your opponent’s possession.  If that is ever the case, you will be unable to do anything to advance your own cause.  It is not a matter of having forces that are in every part bouncing with vigour and ready to go all-out, but you do have to have some force somewhere relevant that can make a move or a countermove and give you a last shot at seizing victory.

So yes, it is Borodino; not a Borodino, mind, of forming square or positioning a handful of cannon among the buildings of Utitsa; rather, it is a Borodino about the major moves, the timing and location of the attack or the riposte, and above all, a game that is fun rather than an administrative chore.

Which just leaves a final few comments about the components.  Yes, even in its basic “no frills” guise, the game looks great.  But if you want frills, there are the icon stickers instead of those with the mainly NATO symbols on them, and alongside those, some seriously attention-grabbing candidates in the map upgrade department. The fully mounted map is the same size as the cardstock map, but is a nice piece of kit if you want to up your game’s presentation.  The roll out Ubertex is HUGE – far larger than either take on the standard version, and will thus demand either club tables or a seriously large dining table to employ.  Of course, you could use it on the floor, but my days of kneeling next to wargames for any period of time are well and truly over.

Regarding standards of game production, I have no intention of making any overtly negative comment about the products of US wargame companies, but as I said earlier, I do think they need to catch up and also examine some aspects of their design philosophy.  This goes beyond simply “the look” to encompass issues of playability and overall complexity.  Producing designs that can take a long time to learn, having rules that look oppressive and lengthy and end up having to be substantially rewritten, are not things I am especially in favour of.  By contrast, I had a decent grip of the rules to Bloody Monday after no more than an hour’s worth of casual reading.  I could teach the basics of this game to an interested novice in ten minutes.  With a smidgen of familiarity with the system, two players could have a valid Borodino wargaming experience that would last no more than sixty to ninety minutes – and then you set up and go again.

Given some of the challenges presented by the hobby’s demographics, that last bit of timing may be the most significant.

In all, a very fine design.

About the Author

Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.

Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.

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