December 02, 2011

PnP Game Review: Battle of Marignano

Battle of Marignano (Paperworlds/Alex Kremer, 2005)
2 players / 10+ / 30 minutes

A general danced to and fro on horseback in front of the massed formations of pikemen ready for battle.  He saw the doubt and fear in their eyes as the gazed across the plains at gleaming barrels of the enemy's canon.  "Sons of Switzerland, I am Mattheus Schiner."
A young soldier in the front ranks sneered with doubt, "Mattheus Schiner is 7 feet tall.  And a Cardinal."
Spinning around in response, "Yes, I've heard.  Kills men by the hundreds, and if he were here he'd consume the French with cheeseballs from his eyes and bolts of army knives from his behind.  And, anyhow, haven't you ever heard of warrior monks?  I AM Mattheus Schiner.  And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of Frenchery.  You have come to fight as free men to defend our cheese, and free men you are. What would you do without cheese?  Will you fight?"

The timid soldier shook his head, "Fight?  Against that?  No, we will run;  and we will make watches."

The general's resolve stiffened.  "Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll make watches - at least a while. And dying in your workshop, dressed in your funny tights, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, JUST ONE chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our CHEESE!!!"

What You Get:

You won't use all of the Swiss counters in one game.
Is what you put into it.  A bit of a different review for this print-and-play game.  First, you have to download and print the image files found here.  There is only one page of counters, a one page map, and rules.  The counters are quaintly illustrated, but a little graphically crowded so that some are difficult to read.  The map is plain and simple, but then so was the real battlefield.  I pasted the counter sheet and map on 1/16 inch cardboard. Certainly not the sturdiest, but enough to pick up and provide some dimension.  I then cut it all with a straight edge and box knife.  There are also a number of plain, white counters labeled "R" and "D" to mark a unit that is reduced or disorganized.  Hey, it's definitely worth what you pay for!  A special note about the rules: while they could really benefit from some editing, they cover the necessities - even including a few illustrated examples.  And there is a substantial treatment of the historical battle which was fascinating and provided a great, thematic framework for game play.  Unfortunately, the rules are fairly ho-hum on the end game victory conditions: either destroy or force off the map all enemy units, admit defeat, or play for 30-40 turns.  Um, okay...

The Quick Rundown:

The French Cheese Invaders!
Battle of Marignano gamely recreates the climactic engagement between the French and the Swiss (yes, the Swiss) in one of the Italian Wars' many phases.  The year is 1515.  The French, as well as other European powers, have had a history of being bullied by the big, bad Swiss (yes, the Swiss).  It seems that the not-so-neutral-at-this-time Alpine power had managed quite the anachronistic military machine composed entirely of formidable phalanxes of pikemen.  These well-trained, lightly-armed, democratically-inclined volunteers with their 16 foot pikes and tight formations made quick meat of enemy infantry and brushed aside heavy cavalry as so many gnats.  They finally met their match at Marignano, however, partly because of their over-confidence even though outnumbered almost 2-1, but mostly because the Frenchies had nearly 200 bronze canon.  Artillery doesn't mind tight formations; in fact, it much prefers them!  The defeat was so resounding that it convinced the little confederacy of yodelers that maybe banking was safer.  Therefore, they officially adopted neutrality, except for in supplying mercenary units since other kings highly sought after the military prowess of the Swiss (yes, the Swiss).

Kremer's light game models the historical battle very well.  Instead of familiar hexes that many war gamers know and love, the map is composed of squares.  Each unit can move a specified number and engage the enemy when in range: eight spaces for canon, three for crossbowmen, and toe-to-toe for infantry.  The Swiss army is composed almost entirely of menacing pikemen.  The French have better guns and more of them, plus a nice contingent of cavalry.  Fighting is resolved by basic Combat Result Tables as determined by 1d6 and various modifiers.  Battle ebbs and flows as desired until you meet one of the ambiguous victory conditions or have to replace the battery in your watch.

E for Everyone:

Marignano is a light war game covering a very unique period with a lot to offer new and young war gamers.  Want to know if your kids are interested in and ready for a war game but hesitate to spend too much money on even the simplest of titles to find out?  Well, is "free" cheap enough for you?!  This game is perfect in introducing time-honored war gaming concepts, basics, and lingo.  You have counters (albeit not on the more common hexes), limited movement, combined arms, ranged attacks, zones-of-control, disorder, CRTs, facing, flanking, various combat modifiers, and to a lesser extent, terrain.  These are core principles of war gaming writ simple.  Especially for ancient to pre-modern war gaming.  Therefore, even if your child proves lukewarm to the genre, he/she will have little problem learning the standards of it with this title.  At the moment, my kids grasp the game play and enjoy the tactical thinking.  They ask for it as, "Can we play that game you glued together!"

Initial set-up.
More than just the basics, Marignano also introduces the concept of variable strategy based upon historically derived factors relevant to the battle portrayed.  This is another common denominator across the war gaming hobby.  Essentially your play is determined largely by which side you choose.  As the Swiss, you must close with your enemy - and close fast.  First, because your superior infantry are more numerous and simply fight better.  Second, when cannon and crossbowmen fire on any unit already engaged face-to-face with another, there is a 50/50 chance of friendly fire.  This rule is far more favorable to the Swiss, who have only one artillery unit and no crossbowmen, yet are constantly subject to the numerous French guns.  As the French, you need to bring your deadly canon to bear as effectively as possible, and hold on until the cavalry arrives - literally.  These reinforcements tip the numbers in the Gauls' favor - and with fast moving troops to get around the flanks and cause disruption.

Ironically, this little war game also introduces some of the drawbacks in the genre that turn off many gamers.  First, it is very fiddly, even for a game with less than 50 unit counters.  Aside from the normal pushing and lifting of small counters, Marignano adds the stacking of additional chits to mark disorganized and reduced units.  Since it takes four reduced markers to eliminate a unit, you can easily accumulate a good number of cluttered stacks spread about a small circumference of the map where most of the action is taking place.  On a humorous note, this is not as major an issue with children, as they have smaller fingers to manipulate the tiny counters!  Game length is also often a turn-off in war gaming and, while not an all-day affair like many of it's bigger brothers, Marignano is still a bit long for what it is.  If one side were to concede victory after a dozen rounds, then perhaps the 30 minute length is feasible.  However, that is a very optimistic, though misleading, suggestion.  One final, seedy characteristic of the genre to note is the dice.  There is a luck element.  It can be mitigated to a degree by using your particular strengths effectively.  Small consolation when your guns can't hit the broad side of a barn.
The French guns (bottom) must fire with care on the Swiss engaged with their own infantry.
 Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

Personally, I rate Battle of Marignano a 6 on the Board Game Geek scale (OK game, some fun or challenge at least, will play sporadically if in the right mood.).  If it weren't for it's introductory nature which will limit the desire to revisit this title, I'd go a number higher.  Still, this nice concept serves an underrated purpose: it is a light and simple experience that will introduce young war gamers to fundamental aspects in the wider world of war gaming.  Can you buy a more polished game that serves as a nice gateway into the niche?  Sure.  Manoeuvre does many of the same things in a simple manner, too.  If you already own or have access to the game, then great!  But if you don't, Marignano is a free taste test which could prove worth the effort for your kid(s) to print and assemble.

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