If you’re British you probably remember the word BROM from your early school days, meaning Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet. These are the four big battles of the Duke of Marlborough, the first three which he won (and before anyone says, “but Malpla . . .” remember “Si Dieu nous fait la grâce de perdre encore une pareille bataille, Votre Majesté peut compter que tous ses ennemis seront détruits.”), with the first his greatest triumph. Now fast forward to 2018.
Last year US gaming concern Legion Wargames graced us with a refreshing new look at The Battle of Blenheim 1704, boasting a radical new yet old design concept concocted by Steve Pole. It’s called the Seven Hex System (SHS), and after plunking over $46 US plus postage during a post release sale (MSRP is $60 US), color scanning the counters to heavy cardstock for cut out (as I always do, to keep a pristine copy; don’t tell Joe, he might think I’m odd), I was able to play two games over the weekend. I found the game very enjoyable, one big reason being the SHS is not the only unique process presented in the game.
Interested? Read on and learn, young Padawan.
Inside the Arsenal, er Box
The game comes in a well decorated box listing contents thereof, and also noting high solitaire value (yup) and medium-low complexity (agree). The trinkets include a 22 x 34 inch map, a 20 page players manual, one counter sheet with 88 unit counters and 88 game markers, two each player aid cards and one of the most attractive set-up cards I’ve ever seen. Units are actually brigades or artillery groups, the former represent three plus battalions or 10 plus squadrons. Each hex (hex, remember this) represents 500 yards across and each turn duplicates 20 minutes of real time. There is only one scenario, the battle itself, and the game box quotes a max playing time of about three hours. I didn’t time my games, but they went pretty darn quick and I know you can finish the battle in a single evening. There are also poly bags for counters and two small 1D6.
Overall the graphics and presentation are quite nice and modern, though perhaps not quite as sharp as done by the big boys like GMT, as I did note some slight shadowing around the text on some cards. Language is very precise, and proofing was very good though not perfect, e.g. Combat Example 3. In the game manual only a little over 11 pages are devoted to the actual rules of the system, the others being some well-illustrated examples of play, an historical description of the engagement and mini-bios of the opposing commanders complete with color portraits thereof. A nice bibliography completes the sets, mostly popular works so don’t worry about learning German for Der Feldzugen von Prinzen Eugen von Savoyen. Overall the rules are done in outline style and closely follow the sequence of play.
The info counters in the game mostly involve the unit orders of Charge, Countercharge, Attack, Defend and Ranged Fire. The unit counters are in blue for the Franco-Bavarians under Marshal Tallard, and brown for the Allies under Lord Churchill. Leader counters have a portrait and a flag or fleur-de-lis, while units use a generic infantry, cavalry or cannon model plus the same flag or symbol as their leader. For example, Marlborough’s wing has St George’s Cross flag. The only thing printed on the counters is a single combat strength number (but three digits for guns at different ranges) and an Occupancy Value (OV, think stacking points). The reverse indicates the unit disrupted. Overall, the counters are attractive and pretty close historically, with different uniform colors applied to the models to represent different troop types or nationalities.
The game map is where it gets interesting. The design style uses softer colors and resembles period maps in presentation, and from an aesthetic perspective I like the top down look at things like trees with shadows added. History wise, the map is pretty spot on as well. Where Blenheim differs from most games of its ilk is by regulating movement, range and combat with what the author calls Areas, but for this tome I will call Megahexes, or MHs. Each MH consists of a central hex with six additional hexes wrapped around its edges, thus the SHS. The MH is totally outlined on the map, but the seven hexes proper within are marked only at the junction of two edged, plus an aiming dot in the center.
Different, right? Well grab some coffee while you wrap your head around that, because this concept is about to get real important.
Line of Battle
Each turn of Blenheim is divided into the following phases friendly Strategic Movement, enemy Ranged Fire, friendly Operations (Orders, Tactical Movement, Combat), friendly Morale and finally friendly Command Unit Movement. Strategic Movement comes in three flavors, the first for movement solely along roads, the second not on roads and the third for redeployment between normal hexes within a single MH. If along roads, the units may not move or end its march adjacent to an enemy occupied MH, though if not on roads this is permitted. Artillery, conversely, may use neither making it virtually immobile. Movement for infantry is 4 MHs on the road, 8 MHs for cavalry, or if off road, 2 and 4 respectively. Note this is from center of one MH ( and remember that’s the 7 hex Megahex) to the center of the next MH. Thus for cavalry on the roads, that equates to a total of 21 regular hexes and “Vorwarts marsch!” is automatic.
The next phase allows your opponent to shoot at you with his artillery. Ranges are 3 MHs for all but heavy guns which have a range of 4 MHs. There is a priority for unit targeting and a die roll determines whether a hit is scored or not, the closer the target MH the more a hit is likely. A hit causes a unit to go Disrupted, and any subsequent hits eliminates the unit
The third phase is a combined Orders/Tactical Movement/Combat process and really concerns units who wish to attack enemy formations in an MH adjacent to their own. To attack all friendly units must be stacked in the center hex of the MH ( two brigades due to OV, with leaders and guns having an OV of 0), because deployment along the outside hexes indicates a defensive posture. In addition each army has an Order DRM that ranges from +3 (Allied) or +2 (French) down to 6. For the first Order given, you add the highest number such as Marlborough’s +3, and then roll a die to see if the order is obeyed. If it is, the function is executed and a second stack may be activated, but this time the DRM is +2 for Lord Churchill and the lads, the third time +1, the fourth 0, the fifth -1 and so on. Anytime an order fails, the player immediately stops and moves immediately into the Morale Phase. This means if you roll low and the first order activation fails, you do nothing, nada, zilch, zero that phase. And trust me, you will never get to activate as many units as you want, ever. Cavalry units Charge instead and there is also an opportunity for Countercharge.
In Combat, each unit (as in individual counter) has both a universal combat value, and these are added together then modified up or down cumulatively per unit based on things like the defender having a unit on an outside MH hex next to where the attack is launched (+2 per unit) or not (-2 per unit). If the defender has battalion guns +1 per qualifying unit, if the attacker has platoon fire infantry +2 per qualifying unit and so on. The attacker and defender both have their final totals I assume to produce an average between different unit types whose modifiers might be different and a roll off occurs with the results of the 1D6 added to the final, aggregate attack/defense values. If an Experienced leader is attached, you get an extra 1D6 to roll, and if the leader is Exceptional you get an extra 2D6 to roll instead, highest result selected. All Franco-Bavarian commanders are rated Experienced (Tallard, really?) and of course both Eugene and Marlborough are Exceptional. The highest score wins, and one half the difference is the number of hits the loser takes, the winner half as much again. The owning player decides how many hits each of his units takes and thus becomes Disrupted or dead, and if the difference is +4 in the attacker’s favor, a retreat of two MHs follows as well.
The Morale phase follows and here Disrupted units stacked with a leader auto-recover while those that aren’t and adjacent to an enemy MH have to roll for their fate. Leaders move in the final phase of the turn which then shifts to the other side for the completion of one full game turn. Here and there one also notices nice bits of period chrome such as distinguishing cavalry between Pistoliers and Trotters, or not permitting Tallard’s cavalry to stack with horse from Marsin’s or Elector Max’s wings of the army due to an outbreak of glanders. The author did his homework, an A to boot.
Final Camp Roster
I really only have a couple of negatives about the game, one being cost, something I have discussed before. The game is not expensive in comparison to similar products, its just I wonder how long this price point is sustainable. The demand for top notch graphics and low print runs demands legitimately demands lots of shekels, and now with upcoming tariffs likely impacting off-shore printing, I just don’t know. The other issue is a combat system that seems a tad convoluted with all the adding of modifiers then halving, then halving again. The process works and works well, but I wonder if it couldn’t work easier.
But now about my two games. Both were French victories and I kinda expected that. The French army was the 800 pound gorilla of the period and likely of higher quality than what Marlborough and Eugene fielded that day, even though surprised. Indeed, observers were astonished how quickly and smoothly the French broke camp and deployed as if acting out a script. But when your boss, commissioned an officer at the ripe old age of 15, is boss because he’s the king’s drinking buddy, that doesn’t help. Blenheim was where Marlborough not his army – unmercifully drubbed Tallard the man, as opposed to his army. Given most gamers can see everything happening and aren’t brain dead, this battle is really tough for the Grand Alliance.
But more important is the way this game shows how this happens. The SHS is innovative and unique, but I really like the way the Orders and the Strategic Movement concepts worked in tandem. Together they show that while marching into battle is easy, maintaining control within musket range, not so much. As Prussian Count Yorck von Wartenburg noted, “In modern battles the commander-in-chief has only two lines of action available the direction in which to introduce fresh troops, and the moment at which he may do so. Once in action the troops march straightforward, they may indeed leave the field again, but cannot be withdrawn at will.” Its why many generals at the time rode to crisis areas to take personal control vice sending a messenger. It does sound complex, yet after about the first three turns, the game went very quickly at least in part due to the low unit density and the Orders system restricting what could be done. In my second game, the closest of the two where I used a nifty optional rule on a more integrated sequence of play, I had either one side or the other do absolutely nothing five turns total. Regardless, as someone who plays this period a lot in miniature, the results were quite historical.
I really wanted to review another upcoming volume in the series, this time covering battles from the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden. More than one engagement is included, and the battles are as esoteric as the SHS system is itself. Alas, the project does not seem to be getting enough preorders to move forward, so I opted for Blenheim. I hope that changes because I like games that limit a player’s unrealistic control over his cardboard legions. Its more challenging, more realistic and here Blenheim delivers.
And if you don’t believe me, download the rules for free and see for yourself.