OK, I’ll admit it, there are areas in which board wargames of the hex and counter variety still shine, and at Historicon recently I was able to purchase an example of just that. In this case the game is a 2018 release from GMT titled At Any Cost: Metz 1870, ripped from the headlines of the Franco-Prussian War (FPW). Weighing in at $50.00 Colonial, about the only issue I had was the name itself. At Any Cost (or for this little tome AAC): Metz 1870 implies an operational product on the siege of the great city from 19 August thru 27 October 1870. Nothing could be further from the truth.
AAC is a hybrid battle and mini-campaign game in the same vein as Kevin Zucker’s classic Napoleon’s Last Battles and its many descendants. Remember that one, where the four battles of the Waterloo fiasco could be fought as separate engagements, or a short campaign combining the four small battle maps? You can do the same thing here because, Hell, even the scale is the same. Each hex is 500 yards across and each turn represents one hour, with the entire game covering only three days, 16 18 August 1870. Units represent brigades or artillery groups, while the focus is the battles of Gravelotte-St Privat and Mars-la-Tour, fought just outside Metz. No, not the siege, explaining why the city isn’t even on the map.
Trust me, you’ll be so busy you won’t miss it.
Game components are of GMT’s usual excellent quality. Outside the box, the game contains a 22 by 34-inch map, two 9/16 counter sheets with 400 + pieces, two sets of combat/movement charts, one set each of Prussian or French event charts, two scenario related charts, plus two white, one grey and one red 10-sided die. Completing the set is a 28-page rule book (although four pages are devoted to a detailed game turn example) and a 32-page scenario book. The latter contains a total of six scenarios of which two are small engagements, two the full battles mentioned above and two mini-campaign games. One of the two small battles is called Twilight of the Guards and is meant as a tutorial to learn the system, as well as hearty fun for suicidal churls who like seeing 6000 Prussian Royal Guardsmen shot dead in 15 minutes by French rifles used as mortars.
Everything in this product is full color, professionally printed on heavy weight glossy paper. The map is not only a faithful reproduction of the terrain but is designed in color and style similar to maps produced for the official military histories general staffs mandated for the FPW and other late 19th century conflicts. It really looks classy and does convey a sort of Kriegsspiel type atmosphere for the many festivities that take place. Counters are equally colorful, but instead of NATO unit type symbology, use small soldier portraits instead. Thus, a brigade of French guards sports an 1870 Grumbler in bearskin while Prussian infantry shows a Pickelhauber shooting his Zundnadelgewehr. Heavy cavalry presents a Cuirassier, while light cavalry might be identified by a mounted Hussar or Uhlan. Personal preference here, but I’ve never been a fan of this style as it reminds me too much of the time SPI sold Heritage Napoleonette Miniatures to paste on their Napoleonic quad game counters. But a single figure does not a 3300-man (German, huge formations) regiment make, so it sorta looked like a corny attempt to make a counter game look like a miniatures game. It didn’t.
Otherwise, AAC offers scores of blazing color graphs and examples to explain not only how to play the game, but also how to not get yourself killed doing it. Everything is lavishly illustrated by famous military artists from the period, particularly the unchallenged Godfather of the genre, French academic painter Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille. This was the period of realism in military painting, with the pathos of the French soldier giving his all against insurmountable odds during the FPW a very popular subject. And nobody, but nobody, did it better than Detaille.
Vorwarts, der Kaiser ist Vatching!
In many respects, AAC is like any other counter and hex game. There are leader counters, status counters, unit counters with numbers for combat or movement, supported by movement, melee and fire charts with the usual suspects as die roll modifiers. Indeed, the so-called Activation Phase of the game’s sequence of play is nothing if not familiar. In order there is an HQ Command Step, Fire Combat Step, Movement Step, Assault Combat Step, Rally Step and Out of Command Step. If you think you can guess what happens in each, you’d be correct.
However, this is only the third phase of a four-phase control process running each turn. The other phases are 1) Planning Phase, 2) Chit Draw Phase and 4) End Turn Phase. Without question the most important are the first two as they convey the heart and soul of the game friction, Clausewitz’s own recipe in particular. Prussian Chief of Staff Helmut Graf von Moltke described it when he said, “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” Or to quote me, “The enemy always gets a vote, sometimes two.” It may be a frustrating way to play a game, but it is realistic, and Lord have mercy, AAC nails it.
AAC is part of Hermann Luttmann’s Blind Swords system, two previous offerings covering battles from the American Civil War. The system works the same way here using the following tools and procedure. Each side has a number of chit counters at their disposal, divided into Activation Chits, Event Chits and Fortunes of War (FOW) Chits. In Phase 1, each player selects one Event Chit of his choice, and both place it unseen in a container. This is the Planned Event Chit. Of the 10 Event Chits remaining to each player, five are drawn unseen at random, then placed in the same container. The remaining five are discarded for this turn. The players then determine from the scenario rules which Activation Chits are available for both sides and these are also placed into the same chit container. There is an Activation Chit provided for each French and German corps, though all may not be available each turn. Finally, the single FOW Chit is placed into the same cup.
At this point play moves into the second phase, Chit Draw. The Prussian player (on even numbered turns) or the French player (odd numbered) blindly draws a single chit from the cup. If the chit is an Activation Chit, the corps selected may perform all the steps in the Activation Phase noted above, and yes Virginia, you could see yourself drawing an enemy Activation Chit and having said enemy combat formation do evil, wicked, mean and nasty things to your army. If the chit drawn is an Event Chit, the side owning it must enact it by playing it, holding it or discarding it as directed by the chit itself. Event Chits include things like Bazaine’s Malaise, which allows the German player to place it on top of any French Corps HQ counter to prevent the unit from activating that turn. If a FOW Chit is drawn, the player rolls a die and consults a short table for results, including such jollies as Prussian Wayward Unit (allowing the French to move any Prussian unit he selects one hex in any direction; seriously, this one is a hoot). Chits from the cup are drawn blindly, one at a time, until all have been selected, thus going circuitously into Phase 4 and turn’s end.
Yes, this does make for very long turns (I tracked one hour, 15 minutes per when playing solitaire), but also for turns that are unpredictable and never played out in the same functional order from turn to turn. This will drive some people nuts, but I am not one of them. It is historically accurate and frankly I enjoy reacting to the unexpected as much as I do watching a detailed plan come to fruition. It makes sense of Napoleon’s (the smart one) statement preferring generals who are lucky, and besides, it’s a great excuse for Cognac or Schnapps to calm your nerves.
But don’t think that is all this game has to offer. While the similarities of AAC to the Zucker series will become evident, one of them is not firepower. In AAC weapons are deadlier and have really long ranges for a game this scale. You won’t find French muskets at Waterloo firing four hexes, or artillery lobbing rounds out to I love Krupps eight hexes, but you will here. Also, this game while grand tactical overall, has a lot more purely tactical chrome than I thought it would, a bunch with a distinctly miniature flair. Assault Combat, as one example, uses column shifts as modifiers and the list thereof runs a) thru t) for stuff like entrenchments or having an Auftragstaktik Event Chit played. There are also rules for Low on Ammo based on die rolls, cavalry opportunity and countercharges, defensive fire, weight classes for cavalry and so on. This gives a level of detail I don’t find a lot on paper but given one of AACs references is the 1870 Miniature Rules by my main squeeze and colleague Bruce Weigle, I suppose I should not have been surprised.
AAC shows why there is, at least for now, still a place for good hex and counter paper games. First, only here will you find such an esoteric yet egregiously overlooked topic as the FPW covered. Computers, not so much. Second, it’s a great platform for a miniatures campaign, in part because just like Napoleon’s Last Battles, the party only lasts a few days and is confined to a small piece of real estate. Third, for folks who have been contemplating moving into toy soldiers, this provides an excellent taste of what to expect.
At Any Cost: Metz 1870 is simply an excellent and innovative game in its own right, showing that the final word in game design has yet to be recorded. Sure, its disaster management, and as such will be an acquired taste for many. But remember what General de Division Francois Achille Bazaine said when boarding the train from Paris to Metz in August 1870, “Nous marchons à un désastre – We are walking into a disaster.” Who wouldn’t enjoy the challenge of proving him wrong?