Design notes for

Starting in 2005, I created a series of 19th century battle games whose design was inspired by the appearance of battle maps from that period. Their most distinctive aspect was the way the armies were rendered as strikingly geometrical long straight lines, one army in red and the other in blue. This appearance is what I came to call "The Look".

I had played many conventional hex-and-cardboard wargames over the years, but knew that they could never capture The Look – they had plenty of geometry but it was the geometry of hexagons, dominated by grid direction, not at all the geometry of linear warfare.

Ironically, early wargames, the nineteenth century German Kriegspiel, physically were quite close to The Look: they used rectangular wooden blocks on a gridless map. Really, what I was trying to do was not to give wargames something they had never had, but return to something they'd had but lost.

Of course, it can be asked why a fuss is being made about The Look anyway – isn't what really matters is how fun a game is to play, or how accurate it is, and not how it looks?

I think, however, that these things are bound together. How much fun a game is, how accurate it is, and how it looks are all grounded in the game as time machine. And we are visual creatures. We respond and understand first and foremost according to what we see.

But the strictly gridless representation of the Kriegspiel had shortcomings of its own: in such systems, measurement is used and typically there are huge differences between almost identical distances like 15/16 of an inch and 17/16 of an inch, resulting in a fussiness that is very dislocating to the sense of period – no Napoleonic commander ever worried about whether the enemy was 99 yards away or 101 yards away.

So some regulatory mechanism for quantizing position and distance had to exist: but what kind? My first thought was a point-to-point system, but soon switched to using an area-based system. Area-based systems had been used for many years, but with far more success in strategic than tactical games.

The key decision that transformed areas into a tactical model that worked the way I needed it to work was to allow pieces to be positioned not just in the centers of areas, but on the borders between the areas. And it was this choice that really locked in the basic physical design I would be working with.

Sadly, I had no game rules or mechanisms to go with them. I knew how the game would look, but how would it play?

My main game play objective was fast play. The goal was to make a game playable from start to finish in a single afternoon or evening session, and not to stick players with the situation of running out of time but still having only an incomplete game on their hands.

The first consequence of the quest for fast play was that the number of pieces would have to be kept small. It is very hard to have a game can be played in a reasonable time if it has a large number of pieces, even if the mechanics are simple, so the game system was scaled to keep that number small.

More than that, the game needed to not waste the players' time. The game needed to enable players to translate their decisions into moves quickly and efficiently. (Consider Chess: once a player has decided what to do, it only takes a moment to move a piece: players don't sort stacks of tiny counters, consult tables, do tedious distance counting through hex grids, do long division to calculate ratios, roll dice, none of that. Chess play is think, move, think, move: that's the game.)

But not wasting the players' time isn't only about mechanical efficiency: it is about not having unimportant decisions that have to be made. If a decision isn't important, it shouldn't be part of the game. Players should always feel like every choice they make matters.

Part of the solution was to not only keep the number of pieces small, but to keep the number of areas small as well. With few pieces and few areas, even a move of a single piece by a single area mattered. Another aspect fell into my lap quite by accident. Early versions featured movement that was far too fluid, that felt more like modern armor combat than 19th century tactical warfare. I needed to slow the speed down, to bring it into line with what could be done by couriers carrying messages across the battlefield. And that was done by limiting the number of moves per turn. With few moves, every move also mattered. A thing once done, could not be easily and cheaply undone.

And the above got me to where I wanted: Every piece mattered. Every area mattered. Every move mattered.

From a simulation point of view, the main thing I wanted was to strongly differentiate the arms, so that cavalry, infantry, and artillery felt very different in play. (This was a lesson I learned from Frank Davis's game on the battle of Waterloo, Wellington's Victory. Differentiating the arms is everything.)

The baseline arm is infantry. And one of the most distinctive things about infantry in my Napoleonic games is the intense violence of infantry combat. Casualties are inevitable when infantry clashes, and often heavy. Players used to wargames where "retreat" is a fairly harmless result can be shocked by how destructive it is in this game. The closed formations used historically to keep men under command could disintegrate when a unit was forced to retreat, rendering a unit useless for the rest of the battle even if most of the men survived.

By contrast, cavalry is flexible and maneuverable. Closed situations with little room for maneuver tend to be dominated by infantry, but in the open, with the armies on the move, cavalry rules the battlefield, excelling at both pursuing an enemy and screening a withdrawal.

Artillery is the opposite pole from cavalry: of no use at all in a fluid situation, and even slower to get into position than infantry, but brutal once in place, because of its ability to inflict harm without suffering it. It is the ultimate positional arm.

is the fourth of the games built around "The Look" as described above, and, by me at least, will be the last. It had its origins as a new edition of the first of these games, Bonaparte at Marengo, but over its design grew into becoming its own game in its own right. The order of battle is largely the same, but the map has been heavily reworked to both improve it graphically and to improve the accuracy of its terrain model.

There are many small rules differences between this game and its predecessors, but the pride of the design is the morale system, but which oddly came very late in the design process. None of the earlier games I did had anything like it. Its particular strength is the way that terrain features can take on morale importance, not because the design gives them importance, but because the players, through their choices, give them importance: armies don't fight over this or that position because the position is intrinsically important, but because the very act of fighting for it gives it importance. I do think that players will find that it gives a character of its own, that really sets it apart from its predecessors – in a good way.

Bonaparte at Marengo is a good game. I was proud of it in 2005 and am proud of it now. But I do feel that really only with this game, , was I really able to achieve all that I was going for with the older game. As it is, time and age have caught up with me, and I believe it will be the last game I ever design. I do feel that it is a good way to go out, and I do hope you will feel the same.

Rachel Simmons
alias Bowen Simmons
Sunnyvale, November 2021