August 16th marks the anniversary of the Battle of Mars-la-Tour and August 18th the anniversary of the Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat, both fought in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. These two battles were titanic struggles, yielding approximately 60,000 casualties in total. Both battles were tremendously important military events when placed into proper historical perspective. In fact, Bismarck himself stated that the Battle of Mars-la-Tour – “beyond argument” – decided not only the Franco-Prussian War, but the future of Europe as well. The subsequent Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat, two days later, sealed that fate by locking the French Army of the Rhine into its tomb at the Metz fortress. These battles simultaneously killed an aging French Empire and gave birth to a new German Reich.
Two such important battles fought in a war that, despite its undeniable influence on European and world history, seems to garner little attention or enthusiasm in the wargaming community. Aside from the obvious historical importance of the conflict, most of the battles were hard-fought, brutal affairs with the Prussians suffering the majority of the losses. Yet most gamers hold to the prevalent misconception that all Franco-Prussian War games are “slam dunks” for the Prussians. At the grand-strategic level, this may be true. The Prussian Army at this time was an efficient war machine that was well-prepped, well-led and confident after mauling the Austrians in 1866. Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the Prussian General Staff, was a master strategist and well-served by the talented General Staff. Moltke grabbed the initiative and outmaneuvered a lethargic and ill-prepared French Emperor Napoleon III and his “laissez-faire” generals. The French army in 1870 lived in the shadow of its former glory and its elite reputation was still alive around the world (particularly in the U.S.). Realistically, however, the French aura of military power and superior generalship was a mere facade. So indeed, on the grand-strategic tier alone, the Franco-Prussian War was probably a mismatch. Yet, most wargames that have been published about this war have covered it exactly at that level – a scale at which the game is unavoidably unbalanced in favor of the Prussians and their German allies.
However, upon closer examination of the battles that were fought during these campaigns, we see a much more interesting story. As pointed out above, the Prussians actually suffered more casualties than the French in most of the battles. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that they were almost always on the attack, but it goes deeper than that. In fact, the French soldier was very well-equipped to take on his Prussian counterpart and what he lacked in leadership and morale was more than compensated for with his superiority in other significant areas. Had the French leadership exercised any kind of imagination, opportunism and offensive spirit, these battles could have easily swung in the other direction and resulted in major French victories, thus changing the course of the war and possibly European history.
So one of the most interesting aspects of the Franco-Prussian War occurs at the tactical level and here we have a competitive, interesting and dynamic fight. The reason for this more balanced encounter rests with the fascinating newer technology that each side possessed. Both armies commanded a superiority in distinct types of weaponry and martial science and it is this very technological matchup – this clash of arms – that makes for a fun, challenging game situation.
The French infantryman was equipped with the Chassepot rifle, a weapon so advanced over its Prussian counterpart, the Dreyse Needlegun, that its deployment alone should have won the war for the French. It outranged the Prussian firearm by double and had a higher rate of fire. Its substantial range allowed the French regiments to rain down a shower of steel on the advancing Prussians with no reciprocal fire to be issued by the outranged Prussians. This “beaten zone” of infantry fire was an area of pure casualty infliction that had to be crossed in order for the Prussian infantry to come to grips with the enemy. More often than not, the unfortunate Prussians were forced to go to ground and endure the storm unanswered. When the French troops were deployed into their chosen “positions magnifique”, it was a deadly business to dislodge them without suffering horrific casualties. The downside of this tactic, as the French were to discover over and over again, was that it was a static method of fighting and the superior small-unit mission tactics of the Prussians (“auftragstaktik”) allowed them to eventually infiltrate and outflank the French bastions. Had the French commanders been a little more imaginative and at the opportune time allowed the elan of the French soldier (the famous “furia Francese”) to be unleashedupon the staggering Prussian columns, a different narrative would have been written for these battles. Alas, historically it was not to be, but the possibility does provide tinder for the wargaming fire.
Another technological marvel – and a legitimate “secret weapon” of the day – was the Mitrailleuse. The first ever mass-deployed machinegun, the development of this weapon was so secretive that even most in the French army didn’t know of its existence. It was a wheeled, hand-cranked device that had multiple gun tubes strapped in a circular arrangement on its chassis (and was affectionately called the “coffee grinder” by French troops). Its effective range was out to 1500 yards and it spit out an astounding 100 to 200 rounds per minute. Because it was setup on an artillery carriage and manned by specially trained artillerists, it was of course deployed with the army’s artillery batteries. In hindsight, this was a critical error, as its presence in the rear zone with the longer range artillery only made Mitrailleuse batteries prime targets for the Prussian artillery, with no possible counterbattery response by the outranged machinegun. However, when it was effectively employed, the Mitrailleuse caused devastating casualties and demoralized any Prussian that came under its fire. The Prussians had a saying that no soldier was ever wounded by a Mitrailleuse – if it hit you, you were dead!
On the other side of the battlefield, the Prussians did have one very significant technological advantage, an edge that was decisive to their cause. This was the Krupps breechloading steel cannon – a weapon that totally outclassed the French muzzle-loading cannon in every important category. It had a higher rate of fire, longer range and a deadlier “punch” than the French guns (due to its percussion shells). But just as importantly, it was handled by highly trained and very aggressive artillery crews who would actually lead the infantry divisions into battle! This superior ordinance combined with daringly flexible tactics allowed the Prussian artillery to command the battlefield and gave the beleaguered Prussian infantry a chance to close with the French wall of small-arms fire.
The other major Prussian advantage – though not a physical piece of equipment – was the training, initiative and overall superior leadership quality of their officer corps. Marching Prussian units covered much more ground than the French, as their officers relentlessly pushed them onward. Case in point, the furthest moving French division on August 15th covered 12 miles during the entire day. On the next day, a couple of Prussian divisions covered 28 miles in 10 hours – and then deployed for battle! Prussian officers led their men aggressively, marched to the sound of the guns and were instructed to exercise their initiative as they saw fit. Compared to the French army where officers were often politically appointed and displayed minimal initiative or imagination, the Prussian soldiers were far better led by their officers. This leadership and tenacity compelled the Prussians to overcome their material disadvantages in the infantry fight.
These varied approaches to tactics, firepower, generalship and maneuver combine to make an intriguing situation on the wargaming table. They provide each player with puzzles to be solved, obstacles to overcome and advantages to be taken. They generate glorious stories of bravery and cowardice – of brilliant generalship and poltroonery. And I haven’t even mentioned the cool uniforms and massed cavalry charges!
Our goal in designing At Any Cost: Metz 1870 is not only to capture the grandeur of the era but to highlight the critical tactical and operational decisions that need to be made on the Franco-Prussian battlefield. How players deploy their units, how each side’s advantages are utilized in the game, how players minimize their disadvantages, when to attack, when to defend and when to ask for that extra effort from their units are all important and agonizing decisions that need to be made by the game player. Reacting to a developing situation and commanding “on the fly” are key elements of the game. This player decision-making is then framed in the context of the era. All the important tactics, weapons and personalities of the Franco-Prussian War battlefield guide the gameplay through the “Blind Swords” chit-pull mechanic; a simply-implemented yet comprehensive method of capturing these critical aspects of a fascinating era of warfare. Players will be constantly challenged to use each chit to its maximum advantage by utilizing the weapons and tactics used during the war.
We feel that the Franco-Prussian battlefield has been shortchanged in the gaming world and this is our effort to show fellow gamers that this is an exciting and challenging place to play. And we hope you agree!