Game Name: Duel of Eagles: Mars-la-Tour, 1870
Publisher: White Dog Games
Designer: Hermann Luttman
Genre: Chit pull driven hex and counter wargame
Players: Two players
Playing Time: 180 minutes or more
MSRP: $38.00 for the boxed edition, $28.00 for folio, $12.00 for PnP
One of the most important conflicts of the late 19th Century is the Franco-Prussian War which took place in the short period from 1870 through 1871. The war would lead to the fall of France’s Second Empire and Napoleon III as well as the rise of Germany’s Second Reich. Many wargamers I’ve known, and even folks who take their history pretty seriously, always seem to look at the Franco-Prussian War as either simply a continuation of many of the tactics (which were already outdated five years earlier) of the American Civil War or as an impetus to much of the animosity between France and Germany leading up to WWI. The reality is the less than two year long war has a lot more to ponder than oversimplifying outdated means of making war or as fuel injected to the fire of the First World War.
The Franco-Prussian War brought a slew of new technology with more effective small arms, early versions of what would eventually become machine guns and higher velocity, deadlier artillery. As in nearly every conflict of the 19th Century, the new methods and means of killing weren’t always understood by those in command and in return the average fighting man would suffer from that lack of understanding. It’s possible there isn’t an overabundance of games tackling battles of the Franco-Prussian War (although They Died for Glory is a fine miniatures system, especially those who like the classic Fire and Fury ACW rules) simply because there aren’t dozens of large battles in which to simulate. One battle which is deserving of a title is that of Mars-la –Tour although until Hermann Luttman took up the challenge the only other simulation I’m aware of was Deathride published in Against the Odds magazine. I’ll be the first to point out I’ve never played Deathride.
I agree with Hermann there are two main reasons why Mars-la-Tour really isn’t simmed, although it was the scene of the final large cavalry clash on Western European soil, and the first is the misconception the battle is not much more than Prussian Major-General Friedrich Wilhelm Adalbert von Bredow’s famed ‘Death Ride’ as well as some cavalry engagements later in the day. More importantly, the second reason is because it’s difficult to “game” the two main factors which led to Prussian forces who were outnumbered four to one taking the day: French Marshal Francois Bazaine’s lethargy and paranoia of being caught in a trip hammer of two German armies as well as the Prussian’s audacity of staying on the attack even when faced with daunting odds which would have made more conservative leadership take pause.
This isn’t to say just about every wargame created doesn’t tackle events where there were winners and losers; that’s the nature of history, yet any designer worth their salt has to take that into consideration in order to make each side an interesting proposition to lead. The worst designs either include built in restrictions for one combatant in order to hamstring the commanding gamer in an effort to promote a historic result regardless of how much fun it will be or the design ignores the historical situation outside the men and material to make the fight much more straight up and even sided than the history leads us to believe.
Folks who visit TGG on a regular basis know I’m friends with Hermann so I always look forward to what he’s got up his sleeve because he never fails to bring something new to the table. Granted, I might not always agree with the complete package as presented by the company producing the game (High and Tight comes right to mind as I like the game but some of the peripherals of the small number of teams included in the baseball game surprised me) Hermann’s designs are always solid – my choice of game of 2011 was his Dawn of the Zeds, as the design completely turned the Victory Point Games States of Siege style of game completely on its head, and I’m sure plenty of people thought I must have been out of my mind with that choice but I called it as the most fun I had with a game for that year.
Now Hermann has turned his attention to not only what is in essence a pretty traditional style wargame while also tackling a battle which most experts would consider to be nearly “ungamable” as far as making the game entertaining for both the French and German player. Once again Hermann has brought something new to the table, this time for White Dog Games, and succeeds in what he set out to do although the title will have a much stronger appeal to traditional hex and counter wargamers than for those who have come to know and love the outside the box thinking his designs normally show.
As I mention, Duel of Eagles is rather conventional in much of its approach so I’m not going to tackle the minutia of the turn order, phases, counter breakdowns and so forth; needless to say the usual trappings of combat factors, movement allowances, combat result tables, command control and the like are here. In all honesty, going through what you’ll find will be like what you’d encounter in thousands of wargames which have been published over the last half century and discussing them will neither entice you nor dissuade you from picking up Duel of Eagles; if you’ve never played a wargame nothing I present is going to suddenly lead you jump on the bandwagon with Duel of Eagles since key concepts we grognards have taken as a standard aren’t going to come across as radically different. Plus if you haven’t played a traditional style wargame you probably aren’t paying much attention to this review anyway…
What Hermann has brought to the fore, which makes Duel of Eagles a good time, is some interesting mechanics to ensure taking the role of either commander at Mars-la-Tour an interesting challenge. The main stand out mechanic is the chit pull system for unit activation. Obviously this isn’t new nor is the inclusion of event chits which reflect historical aspects of the battle or those faced by the combatants during the war. Regardless, this chit pull allows the early confusion and reluctance of the French to firmly engage the enemy to be simulated to a certain extent while not making the French player feel like he’s only sitting around to be the Germans’ punching bag. A smart French player needs to pick his spots to harass the Prussians while keeping his events ready to spring at an opportune moment to knock the German player off his game. At the same time the Prussian commander knows he starts off in a good situation because of surprise with his better drilled and confident troops yet can’t just toss his units into a meat grinder because he’ll never find any way to replace casualties – in fact neither player is able to reinforce units losing strength steps. The Prussian player also has plenty of opportunities to toss monkey wrenches in the French plans too.
I’ve always been a fan of good games using chit pull activations since it gives a greater feel for the ebb and flow of a battle as well as presenting a more realistic sense of the fog of war compared to an I Go/You Go style of play.
Also how each unit is modeled is a little bit different than you may find in quite a few wargames. The Prussians enjoy an advantage in their ability to assault defending units, their artillery is far superior to those of the French and have much higher élan than their opponent. Those marching under the banner of the tricolor find they have better small arms ability, Mitrailluese batteries and, most importantly, the strength of numbers. These factors are brought into effect by way of unit ratings as opposed to a massive checklist of special rules you need to refer to throughout the game.
Lastly, the victory conditions of each side in Duel of Eagles aren’t exactly the same and that adds to the interest of the design. The historical reality is the French were looking to make their way in secure a retreat route to Verdun to keep the perceived German jaws from clamping down, while also joining with the Emperor’s army in and around Verdun, so controlling specific southern map hexes leads to an automatic French victory. If the Prussians enter either hex of the town of Gravelotte ends in an automatic victory because the line of communications to the French defenses at Metz would be severed leading the Marshal to abandon the field.
In order to have a chance the French player needs to take a conservative approach to the early turns of the battle as it’s more difficult to initiate solids attacks to blunt the thrusts of the Prussians; the longer the French cleverly pick their fights the better as eventually the sheer power of numbers will overwhelm the limited Germans. The challenge here is to know when to fall back from cities you need to control at the end of the game in order to win when it’s important to make these withdrawls as costly to the enemy as possible. On the flip side, the Prussians need to stay on the offensive while avoiding a willy-nilly plan of attack which leaves the German player losing steps and units he’ll be hard pressed to keep up the heat without. As the German commander it’s a good to adopt a theory of playing with the head of the French player while consolidating your units while you can because your troops arrive here and there and everywhere throughout the battle.
You might be wondering what you can expect as to the components of Duel of Eagles. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not truly familiar with White Dog Games. The company doesn’t strike me as overly concerned with getting the word out about products and what they have available looks to run the gamut from what one would expect as the most basic of print on demand DTP games, with extremely bland artwork and maps, to the pretty sharp production put together for Duel of Eagles. As far as looking at what’s currently on the table from White Dog nothing jumps out and screams “Buy me!” and that’s not unusual for start up wargame companies. I understand many of the obstacles small gaming companies face but the fact remains people don’t like to buy or play games which strike them as appearing ugly and catering to the values of sixty and seventy year old grognards is obviously not the recipe of launching a viable gaming company. Thankfully, the fact Hermann has a relationship with Victory Point Games has no doubt led to VPG taking the helm of getting Duel of Eagles out to its intended audience in the title’s current state through Victory Point Press; if you’re happy to see the new direction VPG took with their boxed and folio games in the last six months or so you’ll be very pleased with what you’ll get with Duel of Eagles. I’ll point out the look and thickness of the counters is very nice yet the map is kind of ho-hum.
Overall I like Duel of Eagles and traditional wargamers are easily going to like the game as well. Taking on the role of either side of the battle provides unique challenges for a gamer and one gets a good sense of what the commanders faced on August 16th of 1870. The design is extremely playable and Hermann avoided the trap of loading the game with a lot of dummy rules which would make the French a complete drag to helm while not completely throwing out the historical situation to make the title an utter thrashing of the Germans due to sheer numbers alone.
While I do like the game, I’ll once again mention Duel of Eagles probably won’t hold the same kind of appeal for those who’ve come to appreciate the freshness Hermann Luttman’s previous releases have shown. This isn’t a knock on the design simply because I understand the want to tackle something from a much more traditional angle and taking on the battle of Mars-la-Tour in the same way of In Magnificent Style or Dawn of the Zeds most likely wouldn’t work. I’m just saying Duel of Eagles doesn’t do it for me in the same way as other designs in Hermann’s portfolio; he’s certainly pulled off what he set out to do and rest assured the intended audience of Duel of Eagles will be happy with his latest.
Here’s a look at the folio edition of Duel of Eagles:
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