The latest offering from publisher Hollandspiele, Siege of Mantua (Hollandspiele Hex #68), designed by Amabel Holland landed on my gaming table recently. At the risk of Jim “The Gascon” Owczarski declaring me a heretic, I note that Napoleonic wargames are not really my thing. Which in turn makes me wonder how did this title featuring a lesser-known campaign of Napoleon end up in front of me? The answer is part curiosity at the production and part reputation of the designer. I was not disappointed.
Although the rule book for Siege of Mantua has some background material, I went in search of another explanation of the siege. One of the simpler ones I found was from Britannica:
Siege of Mantua, (June 4, 1796–Feb. 2, 1797), the crucial episode in Napoleon Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign; his successful siege of Mantua excluded the Austrians from northern Italy. The city was easy to besiege: the only access to it was via five causeways over the Mincio River. The two Austrian commanders, Count Dagobert Siegmund Graf von Wurmser and Baron Josef Alvintzy, in four successive tries, repeated the same mistakes of giving priority to lifting the Siege of Mantua, rather than first trying to destroy Napoleon’s 40,000-man Army of Italy, and of deploying their armies too far apart to coordinate their attacks effectively. Napoleon utilized his central position and greater mobility to “divide and conquer.”
After a series of battles, Napoleon forced the surrender of Mantua on Feb. 2, 1797, and the French conquest of northern Italy was virtually completed.Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Siege of Mantua”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 May. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Siege-of-Mantua. Accessed 2 July 2022.
Siege of Mantua takes as its starting point the third attempt to relieve the fortress in November 1796. Not that it really matters as the situation is presented in such an abstract manner the time of year is unimportant; the focus is on the general situation.
My my, what big BLOCKS you have…
In a roundabout way Siege of Mantua was birthed by a godfather of wargame design, Mark Herman. Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland relates how Herman’s children’s game for Hollandspiele, Ribbit, isn’t necessarily a hot seller. The result was a large collection of, ugh, large wooden blocks sitting around unused. As Amabel is prone to do, the pieces were nudged around and a new wargame design emerged. At this point, Steve Jones of Blue Panther, the printer for Hollandspiele (and other companies like White Dog Games) came forward with a method of printing directly onto blocks. If this process really worked, a major cost factor of block wargames—printing stickers—could be removed and perhaps more importantly that “player irritant” of having to apply stickers to blocks could be eliminated.
[In the past days I’ve handled the blocks in Siege of Mantua often in an attempt to see if the printing will rub off. Not that I’m trying to rub off the print, but I am very interested in how long it can last. Should I apply a clearcoat spray to help preserve it? Will it really last longer than stickers? So far, so good!]
So interesting did the new block production process for Siege of Mantua sound that my interest was piqued. Add to that the fact that Amabel Holland has, in my not-so-humble-opinion, an excellent track record in creating “interesting” wargames. My first Hollandspiele wargame was Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater 1775-1777 (Hollandspiele Hex #10, 2017). That game remains in my mind the best “logistics” wargame ever printed. The game mechanics of Supply Lines challenged me even back then to look at my personal defintion of a “wargame.” I mean, it has little wooden cubes and no hexes!
Speaking of wood, the blocks in Siege of Mantua are HUGE! These are not your panzer-pushing grandpappy’s Commands & Colors blocks; these are HEFTY 1.5″x1.5″ blocks. Flip the table and you’re going to be sanding gouges out of the wood floors from where these land.
But they really work for this game.
Siege of Mantua could be a small footprint game. The map is a generous 22″ x 34″ (by illustrator Ilya Kudriashov), maybe twice the size really needed. Maybe Amabel felt that the bigger blocks needed a bigger play area. At the end of the day the oversized component’s just work. Siege of Mantua may (barely) fit on that 3×3 card table to play, but any table you put it on will simply look gorgeous.
It’s a War GAME
While Siege of Mantua has incredible table presence thanks in no “small part” to the oversized blocks, what really struck me in play was how much “game” was in the design. Personally, I long have preferred to use the single word “wargame” when describing my hobby. To me, “wargames” are conflict recreations—not strictly modeling & simulation (M&S)—but paper recreations of war presented in a gamified fashion. I’ll freely admit that my preferred gaming tends to skew towards “realism” or “accuracy” or “less abstraction” but I never wanted to go all the way to M&S. Admittedly, there are some wargames that are highly abstracted that I love to play; though I have a hard time seeing a “war game” like Stratego as a wargame, I accept it is on the spectrum of wargaming.
In Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland assembles a grouping of game mechanism that individually are simple and even abstract. When put together, the resulting wargame is a very playable game that recreates the conflict in an easy to digest manner. While it certainly feels (looks?) more GAME than conflict, the call for strategy & tactics is right there in front of you.
Order of Battle
At first glance, the battle situation in Siege of Mantua seems very game-balanced. Both sides have ten blocks. The game starts with Mantua under siege by the French and the Austrians entering along two separate paths to relieve the garrison. The French have the advantage of interior lines.
A closer examination of the starting situation in Siege of Mantua reveals a far more challenging condition exists for the French. Three of the ten French blocks are Dummy blocks with no combat value; the rest of the force is Leader Napoleon and six combat blocks with 16 starting strength points. The Austrian force starts with two Leaders (one of which is under siege and cannot move unless the siege is lifted) and eight combat blocks with a total of 24 starting strength points.
Fog of War
In Siege of Mantua Amabel Holland takes full advantage of the fog of war game mechanics that blocks enable in wargames. This is the real strategic heart of the game as players move their forces about trying to gain a local advantage while deterring their opponent. You can see the block there, but what is it? Is it a Leader? What strength does it have? Could it even be a dummy? The fact the blocks are so big just adds to your frustration; I mean, its right there in front of you! Movement rules are relatively straightforward, but Special Moves interfere with your ability to track or guess what a particular block is or it’s strength.
Just Moving Down the Block…
Movement in Siege of Mantua is a point-to-point system. Doesn’t seem like anything special until you get to the rule for Communications. If your units can trace a path between them that is unblocked by enemy units they are In Communication. By the rules, in your Player Turn you can move one group of blocks from a single city to another city or point. But when groups of blocks are In Communication, you can move some, all or none of the blocks In Communication so long as every block only moves once.
Now the pursuit in Siege of Mantua becomes a subtle game of blocks and feints. A strategic move can cut Communications and prevent a rush forward. Split commands require twice as long to move as each grouping must move on separate turns. Napoleon starts with the advantage of interior lines but the Austrians need to collapse his defenses and cut his Communications while trying to maintain (and even create) their own
As befits a wargame, the mechanics of battles is also an essential element of Siege of Mantua. I am deeply impressed in how Amabel has represented combat in a simple abstract fashion. It starts first with your Unit Pool which is composed of a collection of 16 units split over four (4) levels. The beginning pool is 4x Level 1, 6x Level 2, 4x Level 3 and 2x Level 4. The higher the level the better the unit’s Morale Value (MV) or its ability to stand in combat.
When forces meet in Siege of Mantua, players take turns revealing their blocks. When a unit block is revealed, the current strength is the number of units drawn from the pool. Both players takes turn revealing blocks then secretly drawing and allocating units to the battlefield. I love the challenge this gives players; you might have big strength locks but you might end up drawing mostly low-level units from the pool. Is that lone unit in the Right Flank a high MV or a weakling?
Leaders play an important role in Siege of Mantua. Like so many other rules, the implementation is simple—if you have a Leader in combat you get five (5) Commands; if you don’t you only get three (3). Those Commands are used to order units to move or fight.
The combat rules themselves in Siege of Mantua are highly abstracted. Sorry, Jim, you won’t find infantry or artillery or cavalry, just “units.” Combat is accomplished by simply rolling 2d6 for each lane and adding the number of units attacking. The combat result is compared to the MV of the lead unit. If the combat result is greater than the MV of the unit, it is Broken and set aside. The combat result is then compared to the next unit and the process repeated until a unit with an MV equal-to-or-greater-than the combat result is revealed which ends the attack. If the attack is a Flank Attack, the combat result is compared to ALL defending units simultaneously and results assessed.
If a unit rolls doubles in combat in Siege of Mantua the attack is Repulsed with the lead ATTACKING unit Broken. There are a few exceptions, notably a Level 4 unit cannot be Broken (which you will see shortly is very important) and the rule that Flank Attacks cannot be Repulsed.
Battles in Siege of Mantua consist of a number of Battle Turns, the number of which are randomly rolled at the beginning of a battle. When the designated number of Battle Turns have been played, players have the option to Retreat. In a Retreat one retreating block must lose a single strength step. That is, unless you want to “Double the Stakes.”
Doubling in Siege of Mantua consists of passing the Doubling Cube to an opponent. Accepting the cube means the battle will continue, but the losses will be doubled. The doubling can happen multiple times for 2, 4, 8, or even 16, 32, or 64(!) losses. How’s that for push your luck?
When a battle in Siege of Mantua ends another simple, yet deeply important, rules kicks in. For every block (unit and Leader) on the winning side that took part in the battle a single surviving unit can be upgraded; that is, promoted to the next Level. Units on the winning side that were Broken in battle are degraded—losing a Level. Broken units on the losing side are similarly degraded before being placed back into the pool. Thus, to fight and win improves your forces for the next battle. Fight and lose and a downward slide begins…
While a game of Siege of Mantua is composed of turns, the end game does not automatically occur after a set number of turns but rather when your opponent has five or fewer blocks remaining at the end of YOUR player turn (regardless of how many block YOU have left). Like some Amabel Holland designs there is a risk that the game becomes a stand-off,; stuck in a seemingly perpetual loop. In my experience these sorts of situations usually occur when somebody(s) are not properly following Amabel’s rules. With the cat-n-mouse movement, Leaders in combat and adjusting force pools or the Doubling Die a stand-off never really happens and, if it does, it can be broken by a rigorous reading, processing, and enforcement of the rules.
Looks Simple, But Really Deep
As you hopefully can see, Siege of Mantua not only takes advantage of those big blocks to bring out the cat-and-mouse aspect of maneuvering forces, but also the decisions one makes in battles become very important. Are you willing to win that battle, no matter the cost? Winning means the chance to field an even stronger army next battle, but losing means your forces degrade. What are YOU going to do.
At the end of the day, Siege of Mantua delivers a highly visually appealing wargame that uses a collection of simple, individually abstract game mechanics that come together to seriously challenge players to make hard decisions in an imperfect information environment. In the past, I’ve used the phrase “simple complexity” to describe games that I feel are excellent examples of simple game mechanisms that, when combined in an innovative manner, create deep decision space for players. Siege of Mantua is the latest addition to the pantheon of “Simple Complexity” wargames in my collection, it just so happens that this particular title is also beautiful on the gaming table .
Feature image by self