Friday, 22 May 2015

Won by the Sword

Lately I've been playing a lot of Ben Hull's "Won by the Sword", which is an operational level board game of the Thirty Years War. As I've written previously, this is the historical period which most excites me and from a military history point of view I am more interested on the operational level of war (campaign manoeuvres, logistics, etc.) than on the tactical or strategic levels. Thus, this was a game right up my alley.

The game itself uses a node-based map where armies are activated alternately by the players by varying campaign cards. The map represents South-West Germany, and the game comes with a number of scenarios enabling you to game the major campaigns that took place in this theatre during the war. Other theatres and campaigns are expected to be released in the future. You can either play a shorter 2-3 month scenario or a full year of campaigning (8-9 months).

The map / game board

We decided to play the 1632 campaign, where Gustav Adolph's Swedish army attempts to conquer southern Germany and knock Bavaria out of the war. I played the Imperial-Bavarian side. The campaign took some 18-20 hours to complete, which isn't so bad for beginners.

I started the campaign strongly by holding the Swedes at bay. I had two main armies operating with the intention of securing the Main and Neckar rivers, whilst laying the mighty Swedish controlled city of Nuremberg under siege. Using a combination of cunning and speed, the Swedes thwarted my attempts to gain control of these rivers, but I managed to capture Nuremberg just before Gustav Adolph's relief column reached it. After defeating Tilly in a battle near Nuremberg, Gustav Adolph proceeded to besiege the might Nuremberg in turn. However, an imperial army under Wallenstein attacked the Swedish king in the nick of time and defeated the Swedes in battle. This was a major blow for the Swedes, who had lost over a month in the siege and were defeated in battle to boot.

Nuremberg is about to fall whilst Gustav Adolph is racing to the rescue

I used my triumph secure the Main river, but then proceeded to balance the scales by blundering with Tilly's army into Johan Baner's veteran army. This mistake was due to my misevaluation of our respective army strengths. With the exact contents of armies hidden from the opposing player and having failed to reconnoitre the enemy, I estimated Baner's army to be smaller and to include less veterans. I was further prompted to my rash move since I had several tactical advantages which I was about to lose unless I attacked promptly. The result of this blunder was that Tilly's army was practically wiped out and I had to send off half of Wallenstein's force to plug the gap in the western sector of the map.

Contest over the Neckar river moments before things go horribly wrong for myself

My blunder put me on the defensive for a long time. Using artillery captured from Tilly, Baner proceeded to capture city after city on the Neckar and Rhine rivers. Wallenstein, now outnumbered by Gustav, resorted to scorched earth tactics. These tactics worked remarkably well as it Gustav was severely constrained on where he could move his army if it wished to have supplies and had to spend a great deal of time husbanding supplies from where they could be got. I used this time to rebuild my strength but, after two months of relative inactivity Gustav was able to push through the devastated cordon I had created and lead his army south to the Danube.

The gaming board while the armies are still duelling in the north

Units are kept on a separate force card, which is hidden from the opposition

Campaign cards are played alternately, with the players controlling which cards to allocate to the first two armies but subsequent (3rd and 4th) armies drawing cards at random

The remainder of the campaign, from July to October saw a great drama unfolding in the south. Gustav seemed unstoppable as he captured the fortresses of Ulm and Augsburg and plunged into Swabia and Bavaria. A wary Wallenstein was hesitant to engage Gustav's army, but burned up the countryside around the Swedes. 

Whilst this game of cat and mouse was going on, an Imperial army under Heinrich von Holk and Baner's Swedish army were wresting for control of the Rhine. I made a spirited attempt at making reconquests on the Rhine and even taking the offensive north to Swedish controlled areas. However, Holk's army had no artillery and insufficient subordinates to establish a detachment to collect supplies. This combination was crippling, since his army made little headway against the Swedish-controlled cities whilst he could not sustain his force.

With the situation becoming untenable and Baner tied down besieging the fortress of Breisach, Holk made a feint followed by a hard march east, where he joined forces with Wallenstein. This left the Rhine undefended but gave Wallenstein the overwhelming force he needed to face Gustav. I further calculated that the siege of Breisach would take sufficiently long to give me time to defeat Gustav and retake some important cities.

It was the Swedish turn to make a blunder. Wallenstein managed to retake the few crossings seized by the Swedes on the Danube through a combination of wily stratagems and brutal assaults. Meanwhile a small Imperial detachment was laying waste to Swabia so that the Swedes could not sustain themselves in the area. 

Gustav's army cut off in Swabia surrounded by a hostile populace and Wallenstein's imposing army

Gustav's army was in quite a pickle. He could not retreat out from the area, nor sustain himself for long. Wallenstein's army was strong and only growing stronger. In the end, Gustav made a dash for seizing the otherwise insignificant crossing of Memmingen and escaping west towards the Rhine. Wallenstein pounced before this could happen and severely defeated the Swedish king. A relief force detached from Baner managed to take Memmingen from the opposite (western) bank, thus enabling the remnants of Gustav's army to escape.

Wallenstein faces off with Gustav in Swabia - battles are conducted by wings, with the cavalry wings on either side being more decisive as they can support the centre if they win their own fight

The position of the same battle after pre-battle manoeuvring. Wallenstein has strengthened his wings with infantry from the centre whereas the Swedes have concentrated as much force as possible on their right - hoping to win at least one of the three wings.

I used my success to retake much of the Necker line whilst harrying Gustav's army with another force. The campaign was drawing to a close and time was against me. Breisach fell much faster than I had anticipated, yielding control of the Rhine and a great number of victory points to the Swedes, who then began advancing east once again.

Before the campaign came to an end, I managed to corner Gustav a second time and effect a second crushing defeat on the humiliated "Lion of the North". However, this triumph was somewhat offset by Baner's army recapturing the Necker line and, with winter closing in, I did not have sufficient time to further capitalize on my success. Both armies had been mauled very badly and were only too happy to retire to winter quarters.

The end result was a narrow Swedish victory with 181 victory points to my 167. The Swedes had gained control of the Rhine whilst I had pushed them out of Franconia (most of the eastern sector of the map). I had won 3 out of 5 of the battles fought during the campaign.

All in all a very fun game, which modelled 17th century operational level war quite nicely. The game mechanics were quite simple, the game flowed nicely and the players had plenty of alternatives and abilities to interact with one another. I particularly liked the system of using smaller detachments to harass the enemy and collect provisions for the larger forces, whose actions largely revolved around the control of places via sieges.

The game did suffer from horrendous editing, including unclear and misspelled rules as well as misprinted cards and charts. However, the rules were not hard to figure out using the published errata coupled with a light sprinkling of common sense and the misprints were easy to amend.

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