Siege of Manatee
Sometimes I wonder why I play games. Not in a terminal sense. I’m not about to kick the habit. Rather, in the sense that certain games, in particular those about warfare or politics or society, are more than mere playthings. They’re possibilities for illumination. I play for enjoyment as much as the next person. But I also play to explore ideas and history.
Amabel Holland’s catalog is rife with such explorations. It’s also full of trifles. That isn’t meant as dismissive. Sometimes, though, the line is blurry, scattering my expectations into disarray. So it is with Siege of Mantua, Holland’s first block wargame, which zooms in on a crucial slice of Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to break the first coalition’s efforts against the fledgling French Republic.
Not many topics are so perfectly fitted for the unique advantages of a block game. Napoleon was hardly unproven in the spring of 1796, but his promotion to general command over the Army of Italy was largely political. In spite of this, he proved his talent yet again when he forced Piedmont into an armistice in his first month. Not bad for a country that had resisted the French for three years. Victorious and reinforced, he marched across northern Italy, soon investing a siege at Mantua, one of four forts that gave the Austrians their iron grip over the region. When his first attempt to seize Mantua failed, the fort was approached by twin relieving armies. Surrounded and outnumbered, Napoleon was forced to outmaneuver his opponents both strategically and on the battlefield.
Spoiler: He won.
From a bird’s eye perspective, Siege of Mantua shows how. The Austrian player begins with numerical superiority. But because their blocks are spread out over two wings, without any clear line of communication between them, only one set can move at a time. Early on, their goal is largely logistical, striving to open a gap in the French position so their armies can coordinate. Napoleon naturally wants to prevent this. But while his troops are gathered around Mantua, any commitment threatens to open up that dire gap. Oh, and some of his troops are feints. Worse than being lost the instant battle commences, their disappearance also brings the French closer to overall defeat.
The beauty of block games has always been their ability to replicate fog of war. Armies are simultaneously tangible presences in the countryside, here represented by the largest dang blocks I’ve ever seen in one of these games, and potentially ephemeral. That wall of four blocks might conceal multiple columns of well-drilled regulars or a few patched-over stragglers. Or, in Napoleon’s case, rumors and deceptions. Without any real rules overhead, you soon settle into the mindset of an 18th-century field commander, probing and engaging, launching deceptions or smashing through them.
What truly sets Siege of Mantua apart, however, is that its examination of battlefield uncertainty doesn’t stop with the strategic. Whenever blocks collide, the game switches to a set-piece battle. Blocks dedicate their strength in units, also concealed, who march and attack, flank and die. Battles are chancy affairs, entire lines collapsing one roll after another. Appropriately, these have two long-term consequences, units leveling up (or down) depending on their performance, and blocks gradually withering as losses are sustained.
Where the strategic layer demonstrates how a skilled commander might feasibly turn an opponent’s advantage against them, something Napoleon was preternaturally gifted at doing, the tactical battles are deeply abstract. So abstract, in fact, that they belie the prowess of the game’s protagonist. At only twenty-six years old, Napoleon was already developing the maneuvers that would dominate the battlefield across the next century. In battles at Castiglione, Bassano, Arcole, and Rivoli, he experimented with what became the manoeuvre de derrière, employed feints and false retreats to draw superior enemies into hostile territory, and demonstrated how terrain and cavalry charges could screen the movement of large columns to engage enemy forces when they could least afford it.
Battlefield command is hard enough to model, let alone the possibility of old assumptions being swept away by innovation. Which is precisely why it’s too big an ask to expect Holland to include Napoleon’s grandest exploits in her game. That said, the set-piece battles here don’t quite achieve their stated goal. Conceptually, the idea brims with potential. At the outset of battle, a roll determines a set number of rounds before it can be disengaged. When that point arrives, players pass a “doubling cube” between them. This cube is a stroke of minor genius. When it’s passed your way, you either retreat immediately, losing block strength on the strategic map equal to the cube’s previous stakes, or continue the battle with the new doubled stakes. You’re incentivized to stick around in an uncertain fight, but continue too long and the stakes can prove overwhelming, knocking some of your blocks off the map altogether. Or worse, your army could be wiped out completely. Since both sides hope to destroy a certain number of blocks, these are grim possibilities.
In practice, however, the battles in Siege of Mantua almost never have enough elbow room to reach these exchanges of brinkmanship. More often, one side has been roundly whooped when the timer runs out. “More often” is short-selling it. “Almost always” is more accurate. It would be one thing if lines clashed for more than a blink. Instead, units crumple under such low rolls that entire columns are obliterated left and right, leaving awkward gaps and units pivoting after one another. None of Napoleon’s nimbleness comes through. Units are sluggish and about as stout as scritta paper. Rather than fights being testy enough to continue, it’s nearly always obvious who should retreat at first opportunity. Even when matched forces clash, bankable rolls lopside the fight before any stakes can be anted. There’s always the chance of an assault being turned aside by dreaded doubles, but more often the first side to fire is the one left standing when the smoke clears. In turn, this disincentivizes the simple act of marching forward — an odd outcome for a period dominated by Napoleon’s capacity to simultaneously maneuver and attack.
Siege of Mantua is undoubtedly a handsome game, and evocative at strategic concerns. Unfortunately, its engagements leave me wondering what more it could have done to reflect its dynamic on the ground. There are a number of great ideas here. If only they’d been given the chance to shine.
A complimentary copy was provided.