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BORODINO - Napoleon in Russia 1812.  An Historical Board Game by Tom Dalgleish & Carl Willner.

Borodino has been made and remade so many times I have to admit that when I see a new game with Borodino as the title I cringe a little. It was such an influential battle though it is no wonder that everyone wants to put their stamp on it. Columbia Games have taken the power of the battle and transferred it to the tabletop through the use their renown Block system.

The Block system is visually more interesting than the use of card counters. It allows for quicker play and, in my opinion, opens more possibilities because Blocks are easier to read and move. The French won the battle but lost too many troops to hold their position when the Tsar wouldn't cede and the Russians reinforced. We found it wasn't easy to change history but it is possible, and it is fun attempting it. The rules make it easy to play and you can begin not too long after opening the box for the first time, though of course you have the job of putting the Unit stickers onto the Blocks first. Columbia have thoughtfully provided a few extra Blocks for both sides in case you find any are misshapen or have suffered chip damage - very rare in my experience of Columbia Games.

Here is an example of a Columbia Games Unit Block. This has all the information necessary for play, quickly visible and immediately recognisable by Army and Type. This example Block shows French (Blue) Infantry (Cross Muskets). Russian Units use Green Blocks.

There are two versions of the game available. The Elite version was the one that was provided for players who bought early using the Columbia 500 scheme, thus enabling the game to be viably published in the first place. The main difference between this and the regular version (except the cost) is that the Elite version comes with a mounted board. The regular version is every bit as playable and the components are top quality except this version comes with a paper map, the kind most tabletop wargamers are used to. Paper maps do the job they are intended to and Columbia make sure that their maps are sturdy and will stand up to fairly regular playing. The game plays the same whether the map is mounted or not but I have to say that the Block Unit pieces look so much better on a mounted board to me because I tend to think of paper maps being for cardboard counters and mounted boards being for games that are visually stimulating as well as strategic and/or tactical.

The game has scenarios for September 5th - 7th. Played in Game Turns that equate to one hour of real time there are four phases per Game Turn: Initiative, Action, Battles, and Supply.
Initiative: The French always have first turn for each scenario, thereafter dice are rolled to determine who goes first for the entire Turn with the French winning ties.
Both players take these Actions in Turn Order.
Action: Command: Flip over to face-up all HQs. The French have advantage in the Command phase as they control more Units per Leader than the Russians.
Action: Artillery Bombard: Fire into adjacent areas.
Action: Movement: Move any or all your units that you want to. Active HQs go down a step but can move.
Battles:  Battles are fought only after both players have completed their actions. The Player who won Initiative for the Turn determines the order in which the Battles are fought.
The attacker must win by the end of round 3 or take fire as they retreat in round 4.
Supply: This occurs for both sides after the battle. It is a carefully constructed mechanism that prevents players fully supplying every unit and this forces the players to actually make decisions, hopefully inspired ones.

BORODINO is a clever, tactical game that will keep even the most ardent Napoleonics wargames player thinking. Because the Blocks face their owner the opponent is never sure which troops they will be facing until
time comes to reveal. Block wargaming isn't new (Tri-Tactics etc used similar ideas but with stand-up cards for example) but it has advanced and improved and there is no better exponent of it than Columbia Games

These are the basic Units, the Letters denote the Units FirePower


Borodino Battle History
On September 5, 1812, the French Grande Armée under the command of Emperor Napoléon I, advancing along the main highway from Smolensk, approached the village of Borodino where the Russians under Gen. Mikhail Kutuzov had resolved to make a stand to save their ancient capital of Moscow from the invader. Three months before in late June, the French and their allies gathered from all across Europe had crossed the Niemen River with about 450,000 men, and over 225,000 more in reserve and covering the flanks. Though the Russians under Tsar Alexander I could also call on about 500,000 active troops throughout their vast empire, only about 200,000 were at the front facing the invader, and so the Russians began to fall back as Napoléon pursued closely, hoping to defeat them in detail. The two main Russian armies, the 1st under Gen. Barclay de Tolly and the 2nd under Prince Bagration, finally joined at Smolensk in August, where they fought for the city but were forced to abandon it to Napoléon's superior forces, after each side suffered heavy losses. Following this defeat, the Tsar appointed the elderly veteran Kutuzov to lead the two combined armies. By this time, heavy attrition, battle losses and detachments of corps to cover long flanks and supply lines had reduced Napoléon's Grande Armée to only about 135,000 men and 587 guns. At last the Russians, who had about 120,000 regulars and Cossacks and at least 624 guns, along with some 30,000 militia from Moscow and Smolensk, could fight an evenly matched battle. The Russians chose a position with their right flank covered by the Kolocha River, and improved their left flank to the south of the Kolocha with several redoubts, while further south their position was covered by marshy woods around the village of Utitsa. The stage was set for what Napoléon afterward called the "most terrible" of all his battles, immortalized by Leo Tolstoy in "War and Peace." After a preliminary engagement for control of the Shevardino redoubt on the Russians' far left on September 5, and a delay on September 6 while the rest of the French army arrived and moved into position, the main battle was fought on September 7, the single bloodiest day of fighting in the Napoléonic Wars. Borodino cost the French about 28,000-30,000 and the Russians between 44,000-50,000 casualties, and while the battle opened the gates of Moscow to the French, the Russians managed to retire in good order and rebuilt their army, while Napoléon could receive few reinforcements so far from France. The Tsar would not negotiate, despite the loss of Moscow, with his army still in the field. In the end, the French limited victory at Borodino only paved the way for the destruction of the remains of the Grande Armée during the Russian winter of 1812.

Columbia Games Notes:
Borodino was fought between the Army of Imperial Russia and Napoléon's Grand Armée on September 7, 1812. The battle ended with a French victory, but strategic defeat. Losses were terrible on both sides, but the Russians could replace theirs. One week after the battle Napoléon occupied an undefended Moscow, hoping to impose a peace, but after four weeks was forced to retreat home with calamitous results.  The historical battle involved wave after wave of frontal attacks by both sides, focusing on the Russian redoubts. However, the game shows all the options available to Napoléon and Kutuzov, including some not attempted historically. The French player has several possible lines of attack and the Russian player must try to anticipate and counter them all. The tactical interaction of Napoléonic infantry, cavalry and artillery is also emphasized, including cavalry charges and squares. This makes for exciting and tense gaming.  Movement and combat are resolved within areas. The game plays using the fast-paced Move-Move-Battle sequence seen in Shiloh. Players activate leaders to command divisions of the same corps. Game time is 3-4 hours. (chris's note: the box states playing time is 2-4 hours)

BoardGameGeek: On the BGG pages for this game there are several questions raised by players and in most cases answered by Carl Willner. It is good to see a designer responding so positively and understandingly to players queries and questions.

From Columbia Games: Carl Willner in Russia for Research:


Carl Willner's Borodino Photos on Picasa

A visit to the actual battlefield is one of the most enjoyable parts of designing a historical game.   Texas Glory took me to the Alamo, Goliad and the battlefield of San Jacinto.   But Columbia's newest release, Borodino, called for a much longer journey, all the way to Mother Russia.   

The field of Borodino lies some 70 miles west of Moscow.   Though today it can be reached by train and modern road, much of it still looks little changed from 1812.   There are just a few paved roads, and dirt tracks leading to villages of small wooden houses, a few distinguished by onion-domed churches, lying amid scattered forests and small hills, on either side of the winding Kolocha river.   Many of the villages that marked the events of the battle -- Borodino, Semyonovskoye, Shevardino, Utitsa, Fomkino, Gorki, and others -- are still there, though others have disappeared over the years.  There are, of course, monuments everywhere, as on Civil War battlefields here, with inscriptions in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, naming the generals, regiments and divisions that fought there 200 years ago.  Remains of the principal redoubts defended by General Kutuzov's Russian army can still be seen -- on the hill of Shevardino, at the Fleches (now marked by the beautiful 19th century monastery of the Savior of Borodino, with one of the three fleche redoubts right inside its walls), and most famously, at the Great Redoubt so bravely defended by Lt. General Rayevski's corps, where the highest ranking Russian officer who fell at Borodino, General Pyotr Bagration, is now laid to rest.   And in the village of Borodino itself still stands the one original building left from the battle, the Church of the Nativity, where from the steeples the Russian artillery observers could see the approach of Napoleon's Grande Armee on September 5, 1812.   About 130,000 French and allied troops from across Europe -- Italians, Germans, Poles and others -- now faced off against close to 150,000 Russians, including some 110,000 regulars, 10,000 Cossacks, and masses of ill-equipped militia from Moscow and Smolensk.

Exploring the battlefield, it is not hard to trace the course of the fighting, since all the key locales are readily accessible (though it helps to have a car if you want to see them all in a day, with several miles of ground to cover both north-south and east-west).    I have had the opportunity to visit it twice, in 2008 and again in 2012 for the anniversary year.  After the French crossed the Kolocha around Fomkino, Shevardino fell to a preliminary French attack on the Russian left flank on September 5.  Following a pause the next day allowing the rest of Napoleon's army to arrive, the main battle commenced at dawn on September 7, with the fall of Borodino village.  Napoleon and Kutuzov both observed the ever-growing slaughter throughout the day from their headquarters, by the hills of Shevardino and Gorki.  In turn the French took the Fleches, Semyonovskoye village, and the Great Redoubt in the Russian center, in gigantic clashes of infantry and charging cavalry, with both sides suffering horrendous losses.  Meanwhile the Russians launched a large but ultimately unsuccessful cavalry raid on the French left north of the Kolocha, and in the south Napoleon's Polish and Westphalian German allies took Utitsa village and the Kurgan hill behind it, but could not break through the Russian defenses to cut their supply roads.   With the French suffering about 30,000 losses and the Russians close to 50,000, at last Kutuzov chose to retreat and sacrifice Moscow.

Each year, Russia hosts a reenactment of the Borodino battle near the day of the actual battle, with thousands of participants coming from European countries and even the United States.   Napoleon himself has regularly been played by an American who closely resembles the Emperor!   For anyone seriously interested in seeing the historical battlefield as well as the reenactment, I recommend making two trips from Moscow, one on the reenactment day and another a couple of days before when the reenactors are just starting to arrive, adding some color to the visit, but the crowds are not overwhelming.   The reenactment takes place on part of the original battlefield, near the banks of the Kolocha, between the villages of Borodino and Valuyevo.  In most years, it is possible to get close enough to the action to see it, and take good pictures, but for the 200th anniversary the crowds were immense.   There were probably as many visitors on the battlefield that day as there were troops in the combined armies of Napoleon and Kutuzov in 1812!

For Americans used to seeing merely troops in blue and grey at our Civil War reenactments, the colorful nature of Napoleonic armies is amazing, especially in the many gorgeously uniformed cavalry formations, with cuirassiers, hussars, dragoons and Cossacks all riding about.   Along with the well-disciplined regular infantry in blue and green, bodies of scruffy Russian opolcheniye, the hastily raised militia, are also marching on the fringes and skulking in the brush.  The fighting typically begins with some cavalry and light infantry skirmishing as the main bodies of troops move into position and artillery is emplaced, while the  Russians prepare to defend a redoubt in the center of the field.   Troops are reviewed, and the armies start moving into action. Then the artillery commences its bombardment, with dramatic effect.  The Russian fire marshals evidently are not as strict as their American counterparts, or lawsuits are not such a concern, for the Russians have no problem with preplanted charges exploding all over the battlefield to mark hits as artillery is fired, or setting buildings aflame as mock villages are fought over.   Cavalry race back and forth, sabers clashing with each other, and infantry facing cavalry charges form into actual squares while the horsemen ride around them.  French infantry assault the Russian-held redoubt, and as the smoke of battle becomes ever thicker, it is not hard to appreciate the need for the colorful uniforms, or the huge flags both sides are carrying to rally the troops.  Meanwhile, Russian announcers describe the events of the battle, blow by blow, to the crowds lining the field.

At last the action dies down, and the armies assemble for review by their commanders.   Old Kutuzov in his cap rides along, accompanied by Barclay de Tolly and other generals.   On the French side, Napoleon appears in his trademark hat and grey coat on a white horse, followed by the magnificent Marshal Murat, King of Naples, in fantastic plumed white fur headgear.   Soldiers pose for pictures, ladies in historical costume stroll about, and one almost expects to see Pierre from War and Peace wandering onto the field.  All are at peace again, and the troops disperse to their camps around the battlefield, looking forward to another year.

Carl Willner
October 2012



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