Eylau 1807 – Absolute Emperor

I recently bought Absolute Emperor, the new Napoleonic big battle rule set from Osprey Publishing. Every unit presents and entire division in order to be able to field big battles with moderate figure collections. After a small test battle I decided to tackle the Eylau scenario (day 2) from the rulebook.

Set Up

The French goal is to capture and hold the river crossing in the Russian Center zone for two turns. This has to be achieved within 20 turns or the Russians win.

This is a winter battlefield with occasional heavy snowfall impacting visibility. Although in the following battle the lowered visibility was rarely an issue for either side.

The scenario, like the others in the book, are rather high level approaches of the battles they portray. The terrain is simplified, Benningsen is present the whole day instead of meeting with L’Estroq. The Prussians and Ney are also not part of the battle, though Ney wasn’t really in reality.

The entire battle will be viewed from the French side. Napoleon orders a straightforward general attack on paper. But there is a bit more to it. Augereau has to attack into the center and will probably receive heavy casualties. He is not expected to break through. Soult and Davout (arriving later) will attack as well to keep enough heat from Augereau. This will hopefully weaken the Russian center enough to break through with the huge reserves Napoleon has at his disposal.

Absolute Emperor advanced rules model the differences between Napoleons C&C and the early allies. The French use the Corps system where each Corps commander can give orders to his troops. Order changes are costly but can be put into effect quickly.

In contrast Benningsen has only Tolstoi as independent commander. All other troops have to be commanded personally and his command radius is rather small. This necessitates a lot of travelling around the battlefield to issue commands and therefore a more sluggish behavior.

There are further advanced rules to distinguish Nationalities which I didn’t use in order to not burden myself with too many rules in this first large scale outing of Absolute Emperor.

Battle

The battle starts with Soult and Augereau advancing their infantry past Eylau in assault columns.

After taking light artillery fire Soult engages his Corps into a prolonged firefight. To his right Augereau advanced as far as to the crossroads but will soon take deadly crossfire from all sides.

Davout joins the battle some time later on the French far right flank. His orders are to keep the enemy from reinforcing the center.

Soult’s infantry breaks the enemy and advances to their objective.

As Napoleon expected, Augereau’s Corps in the center took the blunt of enemy fire and has to retire. But Murat’s cavalry is already advancing even before Augereau gives the order. Just out of the image the Imperial Guard deploys in front of Eylau.

There are still a lot of units in the Russian center but most are close to breaking. Benningsen has shifted his attention to the center and activates his only reserve infantry division to cross the bridge and defend it.

As the battle hangs in the balance in the center, Davout keeps the Russians occupied on the right. In the background you can see the Russian reserve area, a huge empty space.

It has come to the final push. Murat’s cavalry, supported by Soult’s infantry and artillery prepares for the charge. The last Russian defenders are running for their lives as they see the French heavy horse charge.

With no other defenders present and Benningsen low on command points the French will have no trouble of capturing and holding the river crossing. The entire Russian right is gone while French casualties are manageable. A resounding victory for the French, although everything came down to timing as precious few turn were left to achieve the goal.

This view from Eylau towards the Russian center at the height of the battle shows Murat’s cavalry attack.

Thoughts

For the most part, Absolute Emperor is a good rule set. It’s goal is similar to sets like Blücher. Get big battles on the table without insane amounts of figures and finishing the battle in an acceptable time. This will be at the cost of details in the depiction of Napoleonic warfare, units or scenarios.

Most mechanics are easy and quickly executed during play. Command rules are deeply ingrained into the rules which is important for battles at this scale. Advanced rules add a lot of flavor.

The scale is a problem, though. In battle it feels like units are regiments or brigades at most. Divisions of about 5,000 men seem like a stretch. Bloody Big Battles and Age of Eagles are also dealing with higher tier units but these have a more distinct footprint on the table and feel big.

Footprint is only one issue. The other is durability. Combat in Absolute Emperor is attritional but entire division can still vanish far too quickly for my taste. It quickens gameplay but again, fells like a Regimental or brigade level game. Again, some rule sets make those big units more durable.

As the overall combat mechanics seem solid otherwise it might help to just increase the number of “hit points” each unit has. Otherwise I feel there is not enough time for maneuver warfare before the line buckles.

There is nothing standing in your way to simply downscale the game though. The command system should handle it fine as well.

The real problem I had was movement. At a glance it is very simple. But when you read the rules cover to cover you are left with surprisingly vague movement rules and an astonishing amount of movement rates for all different kinds of unit types, formations and terrain. Instead of establishing standard rates and adding global modifiers like half movement in difficult terrain, I have to look up everything all the time. Infantry in line moves 4 in open, 2 in cover, cannot move in difficult and 4 on the road. In attack column the rates are 6, 4, 2, 6. In march column the rates are 8, 8, 4, 12. There is no easy rule or modifier to remember here. All of this has to be extracted from paragraphs of text, that sometimes doesn’t mention particular terrain types. This was part of the reason I chose Eylau, as it was light on terrain effects.

There are other parts of the rules which could benefit from more clarity as well and a QRS would go a long way to alleviate some of these problems. That we still have to remind rules writers about Quick Rules Sheets in 2021 is baffling me, to be honest.

All in all an interesting set which needs some interpretation and tweaking for me.

Big Bloody Scharnhorst – Day 4 Battle of Bolkhov

While the Russians suffered a major defeat at Inask (orange frame) there was also an even larger battle raging to the north at the same time. This is the story of the battle of Bolkhov (blue frame).

The six sectors translated to the following tabletop after additional terrain placements and deployment. Note, the battlefield is rotated 90° counter clockwise. North is to the left in the image below. Every unit shown on the map is a division. Prussians are dark blue, French are light blue, Russians are green.

I have been tinkering with these maps. They are just a rough draft. Tell me if you find these helpful to follow the battle.

Both sides faced several challenges on this battlefield. The French had fewer numbers but a good defensive position if they managed to block all three bridges over the Msta river (impassible). As the Prussian contingent started on the wrong side of the river and the French center was only occupied by the cavalry reserve, it was not a given to achieve.

The Russians could just sit on their side of the river and defend as well. Their position would probably be even stronger but they had superior numbers and limited time before their flank at Inask would be rolled up towards Bolkhov. Their strategic position felt a tad like Waterloo from Napoleon’s perspective here. A strong force to attack with on a battlefield with limited space and the clock is against you.

Initial Orders

I wrote two sets of orders, one offensive, one defensive for both sides divisions and let the dice decide. These orders could be changed during the game but the basic mindset (offensive/defensive) would be a principle factor for order changes.

The French and their allies decided on defensive orders:
-Von Steuben (left flank): Cross the Msta and defend south of it.
-Collin (center, cavalry only): Stay in reserve.
-Merle (right flank): Defend the hill in the southwest.
-Lessard (right flank): Defend the central bridge.

The Russians decided to attack:
-Koltsov & Vorodnin (right flank): Attack the enemy in front of you.
-Medhorovsky (center): Stay in reserve.
-Nosov (center): Advance and cross the Msta.
-Davydov: Cross the Msta and take the hill in the southwest.

So the Russians plan to cross a river with superior forces to crush the French. Suddenly I get a whiff of Friedland…

Early Morning

The stage is set. French have the initiative but let us watch the action from the Russian side first, as they are the attackers.

Davydov arrays his men to cross the Msta near Bolkhov. Their crossing will be unopposed as Merle on the other side has orders to hold its position. Merle doesn’t even have artillery to harass the Russians.

In the center, Nosov sends his Cossacks in first to scout and is slow to reorganize his men for the crossing. On the far side you can see the bulk of Lessard’s division marching up to the river to oppose Nosov.

On the Russian right flank the battle starts in earnest. Koltsov sends swarms of Hussars to harass the Prussians. Zimin is repulsed by Hülse’s Prussian Cuirassiers while Polunin sneaks around the flank to attack infantry in march column. He is repulsed as well. This wouldn’t be a believable result in small scale games, where cavalry will eat march columns for breakfast but here it is. ~3000 bayonets won’t be ridden down by light cavalry in just one attack. Hasty squares will be formed, everything gets in terrible disarray (disordered) and men will die but eventually the Hussars don’t have the numbers or stamina for a prolonged attack and retire. Yellow markers are disorder markers.

Vorodnin brings up his infantry but is slow to do so. Even with the Hussar attack going on von Steuben might have enough time to cross the Msta to the save side.

Lessard gets his men to the center quickly and Plante starts to engage with artillery support. Enemy Cossacks and infantry are held in check on the far side of the river.

Von Steuben (center of the image) gets his infantry over the Msta while Hülse’s cavalry beats back repeated charges from Hussars. This is only possible by emergency unlimbering his substantial artillery assets to canister the Russian cavalrymen. Ammo reserves are further up the column and which turns out to be problematic.

Morning

Concerned about the huge number of Russian infantry crossing near Bolkhov on the French right flank, the French activate Courcelle’s heavy cavalry from the reserve to offer flanking support.

Meanwhile Merle’s infantry opens up with telling volleys. Return fire is effective as well, as the Russians have heavy artillery support from across the river.

A similar situation develops in the center with Lessard’s troops stopping the Russian advance with help from horse artillery of Collin’s reserve.

Pressure on the French allies mounts on the right flank. Hülse’s Cuirassiers are beating back enemy Hussars for hours now.

Midday

By midday von Steuben already received a slew of confusing orders from the French commander. As the C-in-C of the whole theatre is not present, the French commander is rash and micro managing. Luckily the bad orders don’t arrive in time and the good orders do. Meanwhile an order from the Russian command reaches Nosov with some delay. He is ordered to cease his advance in the center and hold his side of the river bank.

After the first unsuccessful attempt to cross the Msta he is happy to oblige and arrays his troops at the river bank. This is a strong defensive position but his men are bad shots and lack artillery support. They are quickly out of ammunition as well.

Merle and Davydov are fighting over the hill on the French right. French cavalry from the reserve is held in check by Pugin’s infantry in square (further back center in the image). Abramov and Bychkov have trouble to advance against thick clouds of French skirmishers.

Hülse is pressured to retire and Prussian artillery unlimbers again in an desperate attempt to keep the advancing Russians in check. At least von Steuben’s infantry forces are now in position to defend the bridge.

Early Afternoon

by now the frontlines are mostly drawn and the battle gets into its attritional phase.

Davydov’s brigades charge uphill but are repulsed.

Nosov and Lessard fight along the river bank. The French are gaining the upper hand.

Hülse rallies his men and sends them forward again to repel the enemy. Under the cover of his cavalry von Steuben can finally get his artillery over the Msta. The Russians are hampered by traffic jams and poor command.

Another attack goes in near Bolkhov and this time the losses are horrendous on both sides. Russian morale is still high though. Coudert’s brigade lining the hill becomes spent. Is this the end of the French right flank? French command thinks so and orders Lessard to extend his line to link up with Merle.

The order arrives but fighting troops are difficult to shift. Combat ebbs though, as the Russians retire with mounting losses. Behind Nosov (right side in the image), Medhorovsky is ordered to leave his reserve positions and prepare for a road march towards the Russian left flank. The intention is to support Davydov but the lead column is slow to move.

Von Steuben finally gets all his forces safely to the French side of the Msta. His infantry lines the river banks. A strong defensive position but he is outnumbered quite a bit.

Afternoon

As the line infantry retires on the French right flank, the entire Russian reserve is ordered to support Davydov.

Here is Medhorovsky whipping his march columns into shape. Nosov retired further back as telling artillery fire dispersed his cossacks. Farther in the back on the left you can see Plante’s brigade from Lessard’s division moving to support Merle.

Vorodin and Koltsov throw their forces into the fray as an order arrives to be aggressive. Casualties begin to mount on both sides.

Late Afternoon

Once moving Plante wedges his brigade efficiently between the other French forces and begins to push the Russians back. Pugin’s men face severe ammo shortages which makes it difficult to hold the ground.

Just as Lessard sent his biggest brigade away to support Merle another order arrives: Counterattack! With artillery reshuffling and nearly half his infantry not in place he launches the attack. For what its worth it is well executed and leaves Bogdanov’s brigade spent and bloodied. Nosov manages to threaten the flank with Kravchuk.

The tragedy about this can’t be seen in this picture. Just right of the image Medhorovsky’s reserve troops are still on orders to march away. The order to turn and support Nosov are late! Half of Medhorovsky’s men march away from the failing center while one of his brigades bumbles about, unsure which way to turn.

What started as a running battle for the Prussians now becomes a painful grind. At least Hülse’s Helden (heroes), as they are already called, have been pulled back in reserve and can get some desperately needed rest.

As darkness begins to fall a hodgepodge of troops from three French divisions shore up the French right flank against Davydov. The Russians are finished though. Losses, low supplies and constant threat from cavalry makes it impossible to take the hill before nightfall.

In the center Saindon and Verieur of Lessard’s division have crossed the Msta in a counter attack. Saindon managed to advance as far as the road and clashed with Modhorovsky’s bumbling brigade but they held the advance in check. With the Russian reserve streaming back the counter attack would probably be beaten back in time but French achieved their goal to cause losses and confusion.

Primakov breaks and Essen suffered heavy losses against concentrated Prussian artillery from across the Msta. Vorodnin and Koltsov still have more men but a breakthrough before nightfall is not possible.

Final positions after turn 10.

Aftermath

After ten hours of fighting the battle of Bolkhov ends. It is time to rally the survivors, tally the losses and decide the winner.

The French and Prussians rallied one infantry stand and chalk up 5 infantry lost. I was quite surprised as the Russians mounted so much pressure that losses felt higher.

The Russians rallied several stand back but still lost 11 infantry, 2 cavalry and one artillery is reduced.

Looking at the battlefield the French achieved their goals while the Russians didn’t. Both flanks are secure, albeit with a lot of help for Merle. The center delivered a successful counterattack. It is not complete success though. The Russians can retreat in an orderly fashion. Only Davydov at the left flank is a bit isolated but he has heavy artillery support which makes retreat of the Msta possible. In conclusion this is a French victory.

How did it play?

To be honest, the battle was a slog to play to completion. I wanted to have a variable turn number and roll if the battle continues after turn 10 but couldn’t encourage myself to play another turn.

So what happened? Basically I tripped over myself. I placed an impassible river at the center of the campaign map, I decided to battle there and I set it up as the map told me to do it. So I ended up with a table where I essentially fought three bridge crossing mini battles (to put it negatively). Take a look at the start and end position of all forces to see how static the whole affair was.

What I probably should have done was to combine both campaign battles into one and shift the battlefield around a bit or make the river fordable. BBB and its scale lends itself well maneuvering and that’s what I limited, funneling the Russians down three lanes.

Of course this is always a risk when playing campaigns where the battleground can be chosen by the commanders. It is a powerful reminder, of an aspect that is missing in most pickup battles. A good battle ground does not necessarily make a entertaining battlefield. The same holds true with troops arriving piecemeal and at sectors you don’t want them to be. From a period flavor perspective everything worked like a charm. Many things felt like I read them somewhere. Late and confusing orders lead to decisions a general might have taken but a wargamer wouldn’t. Counterattacks, attrition, the importance of artillery support, it went the whole mile.

From a rules perspective it also was a success. All these historical aspects of the period were achieved by Blücher’s Scharnhorst system, the order system and Big Bloody Battles with Napoleonic amendments. The French are responsive in command and have powerful skirmisher screens. The Russians are tough to crack, bad at musketry but a tad better in melee. They are slow to get into gears but then they roll towards you with numbers and relentlessness.

So overall I’m happy with the result. I learned a lot for future battles and campaigns and added BBB+period amendments to my top tier rule sets. Looking back at the battle I think I will have fond memories for these parts that worked. This is why I was more thorough in this battle report 🙂

The campaign

I will address the campaign implications of this battle in another post.

Big Bloody Scharnhorst – Day 4 Battle of Inask

After a long hiatus I finished the write up of the first campaign battle. It has been fought quite a while back but it has been a tumultuous year to say the least. See my prior posts to read about the days leading up to this battle fought with the Big Bloody Battles rule and Napoleonic amendments.

The battle of Inask (a small village not depicted) is happening in the lower (orange frame) of both battles fought at day 4 of the campaign:

These six sectors translated to the following map after additional terrain placement. The river in the upper right sector is impassable except by the bridge. Further down it becomes a stream and is passable.

Reinforcements will arrive in turn 3 at the earliest but usually later and sometimes never.

Zimin deployed his Guard Cavalry on the center hill. His orders are to buy time for reinforcements to arrive. Past the stream Ménard’s Division has deployed.

Another view from Zimin to the south. Pirot’s Guard Division in the distance has been ordered to attack the hill aggressively.

At first Zimin’s Cavalry keeps the French at bay by defending the river banks.

But the extremely aggressive Pirot soon pushes back Zimin before Ilyin’s Infantry and artillery is in place. The ensuing fight at the foot of the hill is chaotic. On the lower left French Cuirassiers of Penterre fall back from a long sweeping advance that began with routing Grishkin’s Cossacks.

A view of the western front. Glazkovsky’s Guards hold back Ménard’s entire Division but they won’t hold forever.

Beretschov arrives at the earliest possible moment but has to cross the bridge to get into the fight.

The Russians barely stabilize their lines at the foot of the hill as Glazkovsky’s Guards fall back (right). More French will soon cross the river.

Faltenbach arrives in the early afternoon with his massive, unwieldy columns. This photo and the next two are shot from left to right.

On the other side of the bridge. The Russians already suffered some losses and now Kirilov’s flank is threatened by the large Austrian Division.

Ménard sends Jetté’s Lt. Dragoons into combat again and again, making the Russian reinforcement road a dangerous place. Here is Frolov’s Brigade in square. By the end of the battle Jetté charged 4-5 times. Half of those charges against superior numbers or positions.

Russian reinforcements make slow progress due to bad command and French cavalry in the vicinity.

Kirilov and Katzbach falter. Kirilov is in square but after this photo has been taken, a massed cavalry attack from Penterre’s Cuirassier Guards and Beyen’s Hussars sweep away the disordered square and exploit into Kalzbach. During all this Ilyin got wounded and Zimin got killed by a French Cavalry squadron.

Remember Frolov’s brigade defending the reinforcement road in square? It’s gone. Aggressive French skirmishers harassed the square at will. As a shot hit Frolov, the tall commander fell down dead like a tree. His men routed immediately. With this gap threatening the reinforcement route and turn after turn of devastating cavalry assaults, partly into the flank of march columns, the Russians break and quit the field.

The Aftermath

Inask was a disaster for the Russians. Their initial position seemed to be well laid out for a defensive action but the French and Austrian forces attacked too soon and too well coordinated. The Russian reinforcement corridor was quickly contested as well. Boxed into a small area with cavalry roaming around the losses were high.

Zimin fell during the battle. His Division lost the Cossacks and Popov’s Guards lost too many men to be fielded again in this campaign. Though Popov stepped up to command the Division.

Ilyin lost one heavy artillery battery and Frolov’s Infantry is way too weak to be fielded again. Katzbach and Kirilov recovered some men in their retreat but are both at 50% strength. Ilyin himself was wounded, captured then freed and wounded again. He will continue to command his troops against the hated French. As Beretschov received the blame for Inask, Ilyin is already celebrated as a hero of Russia preventing an even worse outcome.

Beretschov was lightly wounded as well and had Rechensky lose a base. The campaign forces 7 and 8 are now both under 50% strength.

On the French side losses were surprisingly light due to several rally rolls during and after battle. Only Ménard’s Division suffered permanent losses. Both Routhier and Jetté lost a base each. Corbin’s Division didn’t even show up in time to influence the battle. In terms of bases lost this battle ended with a lopsided 2 French to 12 Russian. Several Russian standards and guns have been captured as well.