Marching Eagles Marengo Review

HPS has just released their second Napoleonic battle game in their new Marching Eagles product line, this time covering General Bonaparte in Italy via the battles of Marengo, Caldiero, Castiglioni, Casteggio and Montebello. Part of the firm’s Portfolio Series of budget wargames and weighing in at $24.95 US, Marching Eagles: Marengo (MEM) follows the successful formula of its predecessor (Marching Eagles: Waterloo).

This means it’s a game easy on the purse, easy to play and authentic, but sacrifices a lot of visual appeal as part of the contract.

Nevertheless, this latest edition does come with some significant changes, mostly for the better. These upgrades will be our topic of discussion for today, so if you want to get in-depth as to how the game actually plays, take a look at my previous review of the Waterloo title.

What’s New?

Given that I originally took the Waterloo game to task for the bargain basement visual and related presentations, it comes as no surprise that a lot of improvements are cosmetic in nature. What MEM has actually done is make standard what the original Waterloo game introduced as an update.

For one, the AWI era pipe and drums background music a la Colonial Williamsburg and the US Army’s Old Guard is now gone. Instead one revels in fanfares and marches that were actually played during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, complete with those uber long drum rolls French military bands remain famous for. Admittedly, there is some Bach and Monteverde, but also Marche de la Garde consulaire à Marengo, in the Marengo scenarios no less. It’s ambience, but when you consider one eyewitness wrote that Napoleon’s Old Guard Military Band “could make a paraplegic charge,” it really does a lot to provide historical immersion. So do the battle sound effects, obviously taken from reenactments, and I only mention this because the “musket volley fire” audio tract is so surprisingly violent and quick it actually made me jump the first time I heard it.

On the visual side, the battle maps have been completely redone. Instead of the original, brightly hued hex-style layout reminiscent of wargaming in its infancy, we now have a more modern top-down presentation. The look is somber, more subdued, and more realistic, as if one were looking down from above on something akin to a cross between a military map and satellite imagery. Given that one of the scenarios is played during a snowstorm, the results can very well be striking, and the way crop fields are displayed makes such terrain easily identifiable.

The unit counters have also seen a change or two. Gone are those huge national flags used as a background in the previous game. Instead MEW substitutes a small flag in the upper left corner, and this leaves more space for other things. This includes larger and more distinct pictograms, as well as an enhanced ability to distinguish units in play or those who have finished their activities this turn. In the former category units in play now pop up with a white edge while those in the latter case change color from light blue (French) or yellow (Austrian) to grey. Nicely done.

I also think that while obvious, the historical venue of MEW should receive some attention here. There are 12 scenarios across the battles noted above, all from the Franco-Austrian squabble in Northern Italy towards the end of the French Revolutionary Wars. These are not set piece battles where the two armies are formally set up across from each other, the commanding generals looking at their pocket watches for the time to throw the first cannonball down range. Instead these are small smack-downs where armies are often spread out and moving into the combat area, or feigned retreats to lure the enemy into the open, or even battles over villages used as forts. Because MEM is an area-based movement game, this type of battle seems to fit the game much better. Units can be all over the place, not in regulation battleline, and this encourages maneuver in ways I did not see in the initial offering of this product line. In short, this gaming system seems much more at home within the rocky hills and steep meadows of Piedmont than Ligny did the rolling fields of Belgium.

Under the hood, however, not so much. Maybe I missed it last time, but about the only thing new that struck me was the ability of an infantry unit with five Strength Points or more to detach a point as a light infantry unit for special purpose missions. Think the Austrian use of the third rank of their line infantry for occupying a small copse of trees and such.

What is Not?

This is a good news, bad news situation, or that’s my assessment after playing a number of scenarios, once as the French and the rest as the Kaiserlicks (I like underdogs). The good news is that the core battle system has remained unchanged from what I described in the Waterloo game. The game is still built around a Command Point/Action Point combination which ensures tough choices because your army will never be entirely in sync when fighting, and you will never, ever have enough of these dual points to force everyone to execute at once. The random event cards the AI throws at you seemingly every turn – seriously, it made my entire Austrian army sit on its fanny and do nothing for a full turn – injects a sense of chaos that surely must have been even more difficult to control in the broken terrain of Northern Italy. It produces a different, more free flowing game than Waterloo, and overall produces accurate results in a very satisfying and historically realistic manner. It also allows for games that are pretty quick, easily playable in an evening, especially if you flip the button on limiting the time you have to make your move. Trust me, you want a challenge? Make it five minutes per turn, I dare you.

On the not so good side are some potentially significant historical details out of kilter, something I halfway expected might happen. A lot of times when designers produce Napoleonic wargames of any sort, the battle of Waterloo is often used as the core generic baseline. It is, after all, the best known of all the battles fought by the Corsican, and comes off as a pretty even contest because most Coalition forces had begun to copy the Master’s technique. But the earlier periods of this era are different, and to put it bluntly, the French army rolled. This is due in part because the French redefined military tactics away from their accepted Seven Years War concepts into something totally different, something that baffled the Allies early on. Light infantry skirmisher meant something totally different in 1796 than in 1756, at least in France.

Thus, in MEM the Austrians have lots of Grenzers, all drawn from guarding the Kaiser’s border with the Ottomans.  In the game they are designated Light Infantry armed with rifles and can formally skirmish. Um, no. First, only the 200-man sharpshooter company carried rifles out of a Grenzer regimental strength of 2600, or about 8%. Second, skirmishing Old Fritz style meant securing rough terrain or protecting the line troops as they deployed for battle, but not unformed swarms wrecking the enemy’s cohesion by sniping officers and gunners as Tirailleurs covered the advance of formed columns. Third, by the time of MEM the Grenz had been redrilled as line troops, generals complaining this “spoiled their natural aptitude for light infantry duties.” Indeed, Austrian General Klein noted the Seven Years War edition was “a much better light infantry than the present regulated and drilled Grenzer.”

The French, on the other hand, made such skirmishing baseline, universal training for ALL infantry, whether designated Legere (light) or not. No wonder French General Duhesme penned, “in truth, by the end of 1793, it can be said that the French armies had nothing but light infantry.” Yet in MEM Grenzers have rifles and skirmishers when they should have neither. For the French, the Legere can skirmish, but not the Ligne. In reality, both types of infantry excelled in such tactics. The only difference was in their name. There were exceptions of course, but in general MEM does not reflect this historical reality.

Unfortunately, the issues with uniforms and pictograms remain, but this time I’ll give MEM a buy on the flags. The Austrian flags are spot on, the French are not, but that’s OK. The French flag used is the 1804 Imperial pattern, but Revolutionary French formations actually had a common, mostly white flag for the 2d Battalion and a red-white-blue flag for the 1st and 3d Battalions sporting a design unique to each Demi-Brigade. Trying to keep track of this mess is tough for me, so Lord knows how the typical wargamer would react.

Nevertheless, count Grenzers and flags as pretty much a quibble, as over all the game works well.

In Conclusion

Pretty much the same as my previous review, but now I am shifting a bit more to the solidly recommended side of the ledger. There are several reasons for this, and oddly enough, the uber improved visuals are not that big a deal, though certainly the price point remains so. Let’s face it, with comparable JTS products going for upwards of $50.00 US, Shekels are a big consideration.

More important for me, however, is the fact that this part of the Napoleonic era is rarely done, and the very strong game engine behind MEM seems to be a more perfect fit for this historical environment. Most importantly is the scale of command used in MEM. Here the player is commanding large regiments or brigades, and this contrasts dramatically with the JTS product line that demands a player manage individual battalions. But outside the unexpected, army commanders don’t manage battalions, their colonels do. Army commanders manage armies and the overall environment their forces work in. They manage the Grand Tactical not the tactical, and in the hills of Northern Italy, with the small armies present, MEM affords the player the opportunity to do army commander stuff, not colonel stuff.

Considering this aspect, MEM seems not only an improvement, but one pointing a direction for even more good things. And this means I eagerly await the next installment.