Bonaparte at Marengo is the first new offering from Simmons Games, a new game company that is located in Sunnyvale, California, just a few miles from where I live. The interesting thing about the game is not so much the game design in the traditional sense, but the fact it was designed around an interesting visual aesthetic. According to the game designer’s notes, the inspiration was the old battle maps, with units shown as red and blue elongated rectangles. The entire game was designed around trying to achieve this particular look. Here’s a photo on BoardGameGeek that demonstrates this.
What we get is very similar to a Columbia block game, but instead of the traditional square blocks there are elongated red and blue sticks, sort of like giant roads from Settlers of Catan. The sticks represent infantry, cavalry, or artillery of strength one through three. Step losses are taken by simply substituting new blocks for the old ones instead of rotating. These are clearly neither as elegant or as functional as the traditional blocks, but they serve the purpose of the game’s visual appeal quite well.
The game map is basically an area movement style map, but with an interesting twist. In general, units will occupy an area, but when opposing units occupy adjacent areas, the action moves to the area edges. Units in reserve, or in the area itself, can’t attack and are extremely vulnerable if attacked. Once moved to an area’s edge, though, they can then attack into adjacent areas and defend. Battles are resolved entirely deterministically, by comparing the strength of the attacking unit(s) with the strength of the defending units, and taking the difference as losses. Artillery can provide preparatory or defensive fire, and cavalry can inflict additional pursuit losses.
Command-and-control is reflected, as in Columbia’s Napoleon, with a group activation limit. Each side can only activate 3 groups of units for move or attack per turn.
I found Napoleon at Marengo to be an interesting and rather clever game. Not a great game; the design is tight and well-executed, but it’s missing a spark, a magnet. For a block game, it’s surprisingly tactical, with different units not varying too much in strength, and so it lacks the traditional block-game tension. Compare Bonaparte at Marengo to Victoria Cross, another new block game from a first-time publisher. Bonaparte at Marengo is unquestionably the more professional production, with better written rules, better graphics, and a tighter and more novel design. Victoria Cross, though, is just more fun. It’s got more excitement, more uncertainty, and more pressure to make critical tactical decisions; the game gathers more momentum and has more drive. Bonaparte at Marengo definitely has more individually interesting tactical decisions then Victoria Cross, but the latter game seems to have more excitement.
Regardless of all this, though, I like Bonaparte at Marengo as a tactical game. It’s not too complicated, it’s not too long, the pacing is perhaps a touch slow but the game is interesting throughout. While not groundbreaking, it’s different enough from the other games in my collection to be of interest for that alone. And the unique, historical look of the game does add to the pleasure of playing it. It’s not an obvious classic, but it is an interesting and promising first design from a new company, and is a fundamentally very solid game I think. I guess the bottom line is, I enjoyed it and I’ll play again. It’ll be interesting to see how well the comparatively constrained situation can hold up to repeated play.