Toulon 1793 A BoardgamingLife Review


By Michael Stultz

Publisher: Legion Wargames LLC

Designer: Andy Loakes

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Recently, the Maine Historical Wargamers’ Association held its annual convention. Primarily a miniatures event, there are those blasphemers like me who prefer to battle on a map with cardboard pieces. Thankfully, the Association is happy to accommodate the grognards by making space available for us in a corner where we may huddle over our cardboard minions in deep contemplation. As is my custom, I usually host a game or two each year. This year, the simulation I brought to the table for my willing comrades in arms to play was Legion’s Toulon, 1793. A fascinating subject that I don’t believe has been the subject of treatment before, one that reminded me of the SPI game, the Art of Siege, or AH’s Siege of Jerusalem—two of my early favorites. Toulon was the battle that generally ushered Napoleon onto the European stage, and while rather obscure when compared against his later victories, it was here that Napoleon attracted attention and formed friendships and loyalty that would come to serve him in the years ahead.

Usually when one thinks of Napoleonic battles, what comes to mind is a combined arms battle that involves climactic cavalry charges, artillery bombardments, large formations of infantry marching into position for the assault, and a battle of maneuver. There is none of that in Toulon. This is siege warfare. Battle is methodical and development slow. There are no hugely bloody clashes. Playing this game is an exercise in planning and patience. Grab a cup of Earl Grey, hot (thank you, Captain Picard, for that enduring memory), and enjoy the experience for victory is the reward of careful resource management and thoughtful development of position. But, time is not eternal. Each player, especially the French, will be up against the clock and limited resources as they strive to defeat the Allied forces.

Game Overview

 This is really not a Napoleonic game, like those produced by Kevin Zucker and Operational Studies Group. Rather, it is a French Revolutionary Wars game for two to seven players. It is a very suitable candidate for club sponsored events. This game simulation presents what was a harbinger of things to come with Napoleon: the French against everyone. In this case, they are facing the British, the Spanish, the Austrians, the Neapolitans, the Sardinians, and the anti-Jacobins Toulonnais.  And why shouldn’t the French be at odds with most of their neighbors? For centuries you could always count on the French fighting somebody in Europe about something. Of course you could. I suppose it was only the inevitable result of Roman suppression for hundreds of years that produced such a tendentious and irritable rancor.

In any event, what is fascinating here is that the French army is divided into two wings, and they don’t and can’t really cooperate. (No wonder Napoleon was needed to stabilize France.) And while there are a large number of French troops, not only are they unable to work in concert, they are without significant operational points early on, and only gradually accumulate what they need. More about this in a bit.

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The other early observation I would make concerns the map. For me, a good map sells a game that might otherwise be somewhat disappointing in other respects. The map design captures the spirit of the time well. Among the various pieces of information shown on the map are areas containing numbers. These numbers are the maximum number of strength points that can enter the area as a single force (stack). A multiplier of that number is the total number of units that can stack in the area. The map also depicts victory point areas, as well as the bombardment positions that the French historically occupied to great effect by forcing the Allies to eventually evacuate from artillery battery positions largely organized and constructed under Napoleon’s direction. When Napoleon enters the game with his batteries, he will want to occupy these important locales. Lastly, the map shows not just the fortress of Toulon, but several area forts that were participants in the ensuing struggle for position.

Not just because of the map, but the game mechanics capture the feel of the historical event well: the French are numerous but handicapped, the British and Spanish are professional but few in number, and it is only a matter of time that probing French forces or Napoleon’s batteries, or a combination of both will likely overcome the coalition. But depending on how aggressively one or both sides play, victory may be tantalizing close but evasive. In that respect, the design gives a good sense for siege warfare: strike and counter-strike—parry and thrust.

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While still on the general subject of the map, one of the first observations players will make is that this is a an area-movement game. The rules note that the map is based on a period map of the siege and it certainly has that look and feel. These areas are used to regulate unit location, stacking limits, combat, and movement. One interesting feature about the map is that roads mark area boundaries rather than existing as a thoroughfare running through an area. What this usually means in practice is that roads are not usually controlled, rather, they are reconnoitered and temporarily become friendly, then resort to being “no man’s land.” Units move along roads, but then conclude their movement by exiting into an eligible area.

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As for the counters, there are combat units and there are leaders. Combat units have a fog of war side that shows only the type of unit and its nationality. This is the normal side showing until required to be revealed. The combat side of the counters shows a unit’s strength, its quality, and the turn of entry. Movement values are not listed because movement is governed by expenditure of operational points. Units may move repeatedly, though this may incur attritional costs, as we shall see. Leader counters simply depict the leader, his name, and his effectiveness rating. Of course, there are the legions of markers used to govern and indicate losses, supply, control, redoubts, and other administrative details.

Broadly speaking, a game turn consists of joint operation phases where each player determines how many operation points they will have for that turn, then reinforcements are placed, initiative is determined, then the side with the initiative takes his turn. A turn consists of determining Rade control—the harbor that Toulon protects, a spying phase (an opportunity for intelligence gathering that allows the contents of an enemy stack to be inspected), a supply determination (standard conventions here), a movement and combat phase, both of which we will discuss in more detail, a rally phase—where temporary losses may be recovered, a final attrition and an administration phase—where information markers are removed, attrition levels are set, and units are returned to their fog-of-war side. After both sides have taken their turn, victory is determined, operation point levels are set to zero, and the game turn marker is advanced.

The game ends as either a major victory or a minor one, or as a draw. The difference among them is a function of victory points earned, or when the Allies are forced to evacuate because the French control designated areas, or if the French lose either one of their supply depots, or naturally, if Toulon falls. If the game runs the full seventeen turns, spanning the period 25 August to 21 December (the Allies had completely abandoned the city on 19 December) with no major victory achieved, the side with the most victory points earns a minor victory; otherwise, a draw results.

Game Specifics

With that overview in mind, let’s focus attention on salient mechanics that govern the conduct of the game.

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Operation Points

The expenditure of operation points is necessary to conduct most activities. This represents the totality of intangibles that make an army perform poorly or well. It is commander’s effectiveness, esprit de corps, command and control, command presence, etc. I like to think of it as currency available each turn to spend.

What is important to recognize about operation points is that the mechanism is designed to work compatibly with the area movement mechanism. Taken together, the two mechanisms reflect that the campaign was fought over seventeen weeks and covered an area that extended over seventy square miles of territory. When considered against the fact that each game turn represents one week of time, the design nicely captures  the challenge of moving large numbers of troops over distance. I will return to this a little later.

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Attrition

Let’s discuss attrition. A conspicuous feature that I enjoy about the game is attrition and the manner in which attrition is handled. I tend to think this is a particularly effective way of dealing with the fact that the French Republican army was far from the organized and trained fighting force that it would later become under Napoleon. At the time of the siege, the Republican army sent to deal with the city consisted of a large number of unconsolidated separate companies and detachments, reflecting the fact that this army was scraped from odds and ends and included large numbers of volunteers. Given such an army, and the fact that the French were terribly handicapped by a disparate command structure, troop numbers were bound to fluctuate under the stresses of combat and time. The game deals with this by requiring attrition checks with movement efforts undertaken by units under specified conditions. Units are marked with accumulating attrition that will require a roll to determine whether they suffer temporary losses. Losses will in turn affect a unit in combat and potentially its ability to reconnoitre.

Speaking of losses, players will not typically suffer large losses of troops, either by attrition or by combat. Partly this is about the way combat is handled, but partly it is the product, I believe, of a mechanic that tries to capture the fact that large numbers of troops were not engaged during the siege, not compared to later Napoleonic wars, and total casualties were relatively light. According to one source, the order of battle for the French Republican forces around 11 December 1793 totaled 37,625 infantry, 343 cavalry, 1,656 artillerymen, for a grand total of 39,624. By comparison, the allies had 2,100 British, 6,800 Spanish, 1,500 Sardinian, 4,300 Neapolitan, and 1,500 French soldiers, for a total of 16,200.[1] Total losses for the Allies were 1,600 casualties, including 300-400 killed in action; for the French, about 500 killed and 1,200 wounded.[2]

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Combat

This segues to the combat resolution process. In order to account for the fact that significant losses were not suffered by the contestants in direct combat, the design implements both a two-round limitation on combat, and a combat loss system where reductions in unit strength alternate between temporary and permanent. At the end of the second round, all combat concludes with a victory to the attacker, and during combat, the first loss is a temporary loss, the next loss is permanent, then losses alternate from that point forward during the two rounds. Temporary losses may be recovered later in the rally phase. This simulation also uses a battle board, similar in concept to what is used in Napoleon by Columbia Games. The difference here is that the battle board is simply a tool of convenience to remove units from what may be a crowded map to an uncluttered area where units can be easily organized for the combat process.

Toulon is not a tactical combat game and combat resolution is fairly conventional, but it does contain some procedures and characteristics that carry it beyond simply totaling factors into the realm of tactical combat. This does slow the game down at times, but dovetails nicely with the attrition mechanism and reflects the fact that combat was not always a well orchestrated affair during this siege, especially for the French, and neither was combat particularly deadly, relatively speaking.

When forces clash, rather than simply total combat values, the attacker and defender lay out their respective forces on the battle board, and the attacker assigns his units against individual defending units. What this does is create a series of sub-battles. Unless an attacker is able to successfully co-ordinate units, his units must individually attack defending units. Additionally, regardless of the strength of a unit, a single unit’s maximum net strength is five when attacking or defending, with its numeric quality rating added in to determine the total combat strength. Again, the limit to maximum strength has the effect of keeping combat losses low. At the end of the second round of combat, the side occupying the attacked area and that suffers the least amount of losses (temporary and permanent) is the winner. The losing side must retreat.

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Artillery

Anyone somewhat familiar with Napoleon’s presence in Toulon knows that one of his great accomplishments was to organize artillery batteries that did not cause extensive damage to the Allied fleet as much as they drove it outside of effective range, thus exposing key Allied positions to a lack of necessary naval support. Bonaparte was a young man of action and if nothing else, the campaign against Toulon brought him to the attention of others. His efforts at building a series of batteries was certainly consequential in the campaign. Because of Napoleon’s accomplishment, artillery is given special treatment.

Most notably, as Napoleon’s batteries become more extensive during the course of the game, the possibility of evacuation by the Allies from Toulon increases. Once a certain number of points resulting from hits scored by the batteries occurs, the Allies will evacuate.

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Movement

This takes me to movement. Each turn represents one week of time. Rather than assign units movement values, units may be moved and moved again any number of times desired. However, as a unit moves, unless moving through friendly areas, it will need to take and pass quality checks and just as importantly, pay operational points.

If not already clear in my remarks, operations points are central to the design. Broadly speaking, they account for operational planning, effectiveness of command, and administrative effort. Points are assigned each turn that are then spent according to the costs listed on an operation point schedule. If MMP’s Operational Combat System games teach the value of logistics, this game teaches the value of operational costs. Put simply, an army requires a staff to plan out where and how its efforts will be directed. This is true for both sides, for different reasons. In the beginning, the Allies enjoy a surfeit of operational income to spend. The question is how best to expend those points while the French ability to respond remains emaciated. The problem is the size of the Allied force: it is meager relative to the task. For the French, they enjoy a significant numerical advantage, but they suffer from a paucity of operational points. This begins to change reasonably early in the game, but given the size of the territory over which they must move large numbers of troops, there never seems to be enough. In terms of movement then, virtually every activity undertaken in Toulon will require operational income to be spent. And believe me, there are rarely sufficient operational points to accomplish all the objectives, especially for the French.

Quality

All the units in the game are assigned a quality rating that includes a numeric value. The range runs from the best (A), to the worst (E), with better numeric values assigned to better quality units. At various times during play, units are required to undergo quality checks. This is generally the case whenever a force enters an area not controlled by by either force, or when entering an enemy area.

Quality is also consequential in combat. The higher a quality rating, the higher its numeric value. During combat resolution, that value is added to the combat value to arrive at a total strength figure. Not surprisingly, the French, British, and Spanish forces are the better units.

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Leaders

There are not too many game simulations focusing on the period from the Age of Reason to the Napoleonic Era that don’t take into consideration leadership. Toulon certainly is one of those, and it reinforces the lessons that leaders can be hugely consequential. Let me count the ways a leader can affect a player’s fortunes: If a player wants to co-ordinate units to achieve a better attack, you need a leader; if a player wants to pass those sometimes irritating quality checks, a leader will help, especially for units that stand a delightfully dreadful one-in-six chance of passing their check; if a player wants the initiative, a leader may make a difference.  Oh, are you desperate and need to recover some of your boys who quietly departed the scene when the lead started flying? A leader will help there as well. Want to reduce movement attrition? Right again, a leader will assist in the task. As you can see, you need leaders, and good quality leaders. Like units, they are rated. By the way, you can get your leaders killed or captured, everyone that is except Napoleon. If a leader is killed, victory points are awarded to the opposing player. The worst fate Napoleon can suffer is a serous wound; he cannot be killed or captured, though victory points are still awarded to the Allies as if he were killed. How fortunate for Napoleon and the French. Well, I guess we can’t  nudge such an esteemed personality off the world scene before he has a chance to infamously trample over Europe.

Flow of play

As I indicated earlier, this is a siege game. Siege games tend to take on a cat-and-mouse character, where the besieger marshals his forces, probes for weaknesses, makes periodic strikes, slowly encroaches into favorable positions, then when the moment is right and various factors have elided into advantage, storms the walls. Naturally, the besieged defender employs various tricks of the trade to avoid calamity by counter-striking whenever possible to keep the opponent off balance. The hope is that either the defense will be relieved, or the attacker will abandon the effort as too costly.

Toulon starts with an amphibious landing by the Allied player, who then quickly moves his forces across the map to occupy key positions. As already observed, in the early turns, the Allies possess an abundance of operation points, a fact that an astute player will leverage to his advantage before the lumbering giant that is the army from France comes rambling down the road bent on occupying Toulon. A strategy for the Allied player will need to be settled upon in the beginning stages of play: whether to occupy Toulon without taking up many positions outside the city, or whether to occupy several key objectives that are not only worth victory points, but will deny the French early advantageous deployment of the Bonaparte Batteries. It is possible for the Allies to win early by taking multiple key positions that are worth victory points, but this requires some level of audacity and boldness, and will depend upon how aggressively the French respond.

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Once the Allies have committed their opening gambit, the game will become more tense as they try to hold on to their gains as long as possible, or to riposte at opportune times. Meanwhile, the French will continue to build and enjoy increasing levels of operation points. But this will take time, and while the French are assembling their forces, they will need to develop their supply network and move their troops forward.

The French approach is rather dull and conventional but necessary: a slow and steady progression designed to reduce the Allied position, forcing them back and crowding them into Toulon. This is not to suggest that opportunities to make sudden and unexpected forays against a supply line or exposed position does not happen, in fact, expect it, but the general tenor of the game will require patience and development from both players, though for different reasons and at different times.

Some general observations

The reason I purchased  this conflict simulation was the subject matter. I am not aware of any other treatment on the subject, well, sort of. According to Board Game Geek, Winning Moves France produced Monopoly Toulon, but that is not exactly what I had in mind.  Naturally, the besieged are disadvantaged. In this case, the difference is in the numbers. The French have a prodigiously large army compared to the Allied, nearly two and one-half times as large, and as good a quality, headed by leaders that are respectable. If you like a challenge playing the defender, this simulation is one to consider.

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I do have a few frustrations with the game. Let me first say that whenever I make a complaint, I always try to be mindful of the fact that producing a respectable game with quality components takes a lot of time and money. In my Euro-gaming group, we are blessed to have several game designers. I have watched them as they develop a concept and nurture and refine it into a solid design, one that is both challenging and enjoyable. It is obvious that  Mr. Loakes devoted significant time and effort into the product. Everything from the map, to the history pamphlet, to the charts and tables, to the rules. It all evidences a carefully considered design purposed to capture the spirit of the age. That said, I think the game would benefit from a few refinements.

Remember those wonderful days of Avalon Hill and SPI where it was not uncommon to have large stacks of units and informational counters? Well, this game partakes of that same spirit. Depending on how many units are in a stack, and how much attrition a unit or units suffer, a stack can grow tall. What this goes to is the attrition mechanic. Then there is the process of determining whether attrition losses remain or are removed. After all movement is conducted, but before combat, a single roll is made for all units checking within an individual area. Each unit that fails suffers a temporary loss. Following this is the final attrition stage where a roll is made and a table consulted to determine how many losses a nationality suffers.

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I feel like I have a love/hate relationship with the attrition process in this game. On the one hand, I like the fact that attrition is a part of the design. Men fatigue and not every man provides his best effort when called upon, and units suffer losses over time. In this respect, I appreciate the effort . But the administration is not as clean as perhaps it could be. It’s not that the attrition process is broken or fails to work reasonably well, but I wish there were a cleaner way to account for attrition rather than to keep a pile of attrition markers available to mark a unit each time it suffers attrition, followed by a die roll and consultation with the movement attrition table where each unit with attrition needs to be checked, followed by another die roll for final attrition and resulting losses applied with attrition markers.

Concerning the rules, I discovered an inconsistency that I think was missed in proof reading, that is of consequence. The rules provide under the discussion about the map that in those areas containing a number, the number is the maximum number of strength points that can enter the area as a single force. But they also provide that one-third of that number is the number of friendly strength points that may occupy or stack in the area. But then, the rules provide under the discussion on stacking that the number of units that can occupy an area is that area number tripled (3x that number). Big difference. According to the map, the occupancy limit is three times the number (x3). Fortunately, Mr. Loakes provides a “Rules Gotchas” in the Playbook. This states that an area can contain “3x” its value in strength points, and this is consistent with the design note given under the stacking discussion. It’s never easy proofing, especially something you have written. That said, these kinds of minor errors are avoidable and certainly save those of us on the playing end a lot of time and fuss.

As I indicated, this game was thoroughly researched. As something of an obscure subject, it does not benefit from a plethora of information, at least not within the customary military history sources available to members of the general public on this side of the pond. The effort invested is evidenced not only in the rules and their attempt to capture the period, but in the accompanying play book and history book. Mr. Loakes also has available an example of play covering the first two turns of the game that is very helpful. And Legion’s web-page is equally helpful in providing resources for their product. I do wish the video available on BGG showing how to play through a turn were contemporary with the final product, but that is a minor quibble.

The Game as History

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 I always ask of a conflict simulation game, what am I learning? As I just mentioned, the siege of Toulon is something of a recondite subject. In fact, unless one is a student of the French revolution and better, of Napoleon’s career, the events surrounding the period and its significance are likely unfamiliar. When I purchased this game, I was looking for a treatment of the siege that would educate me. I think it has succeeded.

Based upon the book by Osprey Publishing, there are some notable themes that emerge out of the campaign story. One of these was in the intervention of the Allies in occupying Toulon. It does make you scratch your head in puzzlement about why the French are attacking their own city.  Then you realize, “oh, right,” the French are fighting each other because it’s the Glorious Revolution, meaning, terror, bloodshed and mayhem are rampant. What you learn from the game is that the attempt by the counter-revolutionaries was a desperate act that called upon foreign intervention if it was going to succeed. In bringing the Allied forces ashore in the early turns of the game, you get a feel for how urgent was the need because the French army that responds is the product of the levée en masse. Before the full weight of that conscripted army descends on the city, the Allies must quickly move and occupy positions designed to retard the French advance. The game portrays this well.

Another theme that comes through was the coalition in operation for the Allies was a heterogeneous force and that the Allied goal in occupying the fort city was unclear. This means the the Allies do not generally share operation points, their troop numbers and quality vary, and the total force size is really inadequate for the long-term goal of preserving the city.

This takes me to what for me was the defining lesson in the game, namely, it is a question of time before the French advantage in numbers begins to take its toll. The Allies need to prevent Bonaparte from employing his batteries to effect. And they need to defend from several directions at once. But they don’t have many men to spare, especially of the quality they need in every location necessary. What to do? What to do? That is the question that will confront the Allies immediately: where defend, with what troops, and are there sufficient operation points to sustain the effort?

The Osprey book emphasizes that the siege and capture of Toulon was a defining moment early in the history of the French Revolutionary Wars.[3] The loss of the French fleet and the naval base was in many ways, a litmus test for the survival of Republican France. Had Toulon not fallen and the Republican faction prevailed, the Jacobins may not have succeeded in their bid to crush any challenge to their authority. The siege also witnessed the emergence of Napoleon and the beginning of his rise to power.

Thank you, Andy Loakes, for the journey back to 1793.

Citations:

[1] Forczyk, Robert, Toulon 1793, Napoleon’s first great victory, illustrated by Adam Hook, Osprey Publishing, 2005, 31.

[2] Ibid., 32

[3] Ibid.,11

 

About the Author

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Michael has been playing military simulation games since the mid-1970s, starting with his first game (which he still has in his collection), ordered from the back page of a comic book. He then quickly graduated to Avalon Hill’s Battle of the Bulge, with the blue American and pink German armies. He spent many long hours sitting with his maternal grandfather listening to stories about military history, especially the War Between the States. Having grown up in Baltimore, frequent trips to Avalon Hill’s row-house headquarters was a necessity. After graduating from college, he attended graduate school then law school before heading out to sea with the U.S. Navy as a Judge Advocate. Twenty-five years and various deployments later, he is still serving in the Navy, but now as a reserve officer. Military history and service is a life-long passion. In his civilian life, he works for the State of Maine’s municipal league.

Michael enjoys grand tactical and operational level games especially, with a particular affinity for ancients, Napoleonic and Age of Reason themes. He also enjoys World War II simulations. His collection is varied and includes both old and new titles, from Avalon Hill, Battleline, and SPI to VentoNuovo, Draco Ideas and Legion War Games.

Michael lives with his lovely wife and two daughters with whom he shares his gaming passion, but in the family-friendly form of Euro games.

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