The Tuesday Interview – Bloody Monday with Ventonuovo
Cyrano pulls up his Napoleonic britches for a chat about Borodino ~
Jim Owczarski, 4 April 2017
Vento Nuovo made no small statement when it blew into wargaming back in 2012 with Blocks in the East. A big, colorful map; hundreds of wooden blocks and other pieces; and an area-movement system that felt just friendly enough while at the same time satisfying wanna-be von Brauchitsch’s everywhere; marked it as a strong new-comer. Now seven games on, the Blocks in… system covers the whole of the ETO, it’s released Gortex game maps big enough to sleep under, and it even found time to release a game about the greatest battle of all time, Waterloo 200. (Author’s Note: Favorably reviewed here)
For his second run into the 19th Century, designer Emanuele Santandrea has chosen to have a go at Borodino, the climactic struggle between Napoleon and the Emperor of Russia that in many ways ended the First Empire. The game, Bloody Monday, Napoleon at the Gates of Moscow, has already hit its funding goal, so it was particularly nice of him to answer a few questions about his design philosophy, why Borodino, and the difference between Goretex and Magnatex.
The KickStarter, by the by, is here: Bloody Monday, Napoleon at the Gates of Moscow
Vento Nuovo has had quite a few recent successes on KickStarter and has become well known, certainly in wargame circles. Who, though, is on the team behind Bloody Monday?
Well, the list is so long I’m sure I will forget somebody. I can name Luca Preda, Jim O’Neill, Flip Labarque, Paul Comben, and Kevin Duke. But that’s just a part.
You seem to have a thing for area-movement games. There was a time when these were anathema to grognards as it was felt they didn’t adequately depict terrain and let to products that were more “game” than “conflict simulation”. What drew you to them and what do you perceive to be their strengths over good, old-fashioned, hex-and-counter games?
I think area movement allows the game to actually be more accurate than hexes. Let’s face it, the world is not made up into hex patterns, and sometimes fitting a map to hex patterns created some really awkward things. Hexes set up a “is there a part of a tree in the hex or not?” situation– or you have to shift the map terrain in order to make it fit. I prefer to have a map that more naturally follows the actual terrain and then divide it according to the terrain. So, for example, an area that would be very fast to get through can be “larger” than average, while an area that should be very slow to get through can be smaller. This allows us to suit the time-space situation better than 12 different movement rates or costs.
There are aesthetic reasons also. I prefer the look of area movement to a harsh grid that looks like chicken wire.
Your Waterloo 200 was very well-received, but the choice of the battle seemed obvious given the anniversary. Why choose Borodino for the next offering?
Maybe because I’ve been to Borodino and realize it is largely overlooked. It’s a key battle of the Napoleonic Wars that most people only know through War and Peace [Author’s Note: Nice game designer wildly over emphasizes reach of War and Peace.] and the various movies made about the book. Also, there have been a fair number of games about Borodino but they did not satisfy my interest. They seemed to lock players into a– to borrow from Wellington– a “pounding match.” There were many other options to both commanders there, and I wanted to offer players the chance to try them, and not restrict the winning conditions to “who can bleed less than the other.”
Isn’t the story of Borodino really the story of the long Russian withdrawal in the face of the Grand Armee, trading territory for time? Why a tactical rather than an operational or strategic approach? You did, after all, just wrap up Leningrad ’41.
Yes, we did just finish Leningrad ’41, and we are expecting to ship early from our KickStarter promise (what other game company does that?). I can think of several reasons but to name two:
Making Borodino tactical let players face one of the key moments in that long campaign. Yes, the “long withdrawal” is an important part of the story, and may be one reason that Napoleon did not try to be more creative in his battle plan. He suggests himself that he was afraid the Russians would slip away (again). But I wanted a tactical game because it allowed me to make the combat very different from, say, “Moscow ’41.” On an operational scale– and I know this will sound odd to some– there is not that much difference between 1812 and 1941. While most of the focus is on the panzers and Stukas, the majority of the German army in Barbarossa was still horse-drawn guns and supply wagons and leg infantry, and Napoleon’s time to reach Moscow was not all that different from Army Group Center.
And a tactical game allows us to get into the joy of Napoleonic era combat, where things like the differences between heavy cavalry, lancers, and Cossacks, or light infantry and grenadiers, can be displayed.
Given the armies and the strategic situation, how do you prevent a game about Borodino from becoming a grim slug-fest?
That is a challenge. The best ways I found were to allow enough space for the armies to maneuver, if they want to, and to allow victory conditions that encourage taking chances with maneuver versus banging straight ahead. This is not to say players are prevented from having a “slug-fest,” and many will do that, simply because the “shortest distance” to victory places will look to be a straight line.
In my research I also found that the battlefield terrain at Borodino has tended to “enlarge” over time. This was not a great place for defense– it just happened to be one of the best places left available for Kutuzov to deploy an army of his size. The “hills” were mostly fairly low rises, and the Russians built their earthworks in the south because it was such an inviting place to attack. But I think Davout got it right– a good holding attack with part of the army while he did an end-around could have been a crushing blow, and the sort of action a younger Napoleon would have opted on. When you get close to Napoleon’s mind-set, you see a man fighting a bad cold, tired, frustrated that the Russians are not doing what he wants them to do, and worried about what else is going on in Europe behind him. He really thought he could have one big battle– and Smolensk could have been it– that whacked the Russians hard enough for them to say, “What can we do to make this war stop?” He might have asked them to release Poland (he had been dealing with conflicting promises there for years) and asked them to stop ignoring his trade embargo with Britain and been satisfied. But he did not get that chance, because he underestimated the Czar. They might have been “brother’s in law,” and I wonder how that might have changed history.
You go to some length on the KickStarter page to note that the rules for Bloody Monday will be different than those in Waterloo 200. What will a few of the biggest differences be?
Well, we wanted to make sure that folks knew it was not “Waterloo 200 in Russia.” While I like W200 very much, I’ve been using dice in my last few games and wanted to carry that forward, so that’s one difference there. Operationally, Bloody Monday is probably closer to Moscow ’41 than it is Waterloo 200. More interaction, more tension about initiative.
Getting deeper, Waterloo and Borodino happened in two fairly different fatal times. Waterloo was the last attempt of an already “finished” story to write another chapter, while Borodino happened in the most important tipping point of the Napoleonic era. A victory at Waterloo probably would not have changed anything (as did not Wavre, Ligny or Quatre Bras) while a full scale decisive victory at Borodino would have definitively convinced the Czar to negotiate peace and re-establish the continental blockade versus England. That might have put the final end on the Ancient Regime and removed a nagging threat for Bonaparte. So both the sides in the two battles were fighting for different reasons and motivation was different as well. For Russia it was really the last chance to stop Napoleon before losing Moscow–and they did not want to lose Moscow! Wellington certainly did not know he was fighting “the last battle” and, even if he lost, would have counted on a future battle and more resources and more armies to come and finish Napoleon off. This is well represented by the diceless combat system at Waterloo, as it seems to be linking with an already foreseen end, while anything could have happened at Borodino (and after!).
Speaking of differences, why the bigger blocks and stickers and any chance they might be made available for Waterloo 200?
That is a combination of physical scale and artistic impulse. The base maps I put into our games are as large as I can have made, so I start with that, and then see what sort of space I need for what I believe are the right number of areas and how large those areas need to be. I knew it would be nice to show off more color with the Napoleonic period, where there are not only different colors from one regiment to another but, in Napoleon’s army, multiple countries involved, too. When I began playtesting on the first draft of the map using our standard 16mm blocks, I realized that we had enough room for the larger size and felt like everyone would appreciate seeing things in the bigger scale.
As to retro-fitting Waterloo 200 for larger blocks, that is a good question. We will need to start by seeing whether the larger blocks will fit into the map without being too crowded, and then we will have to check for demand. We have to make at least 500 sets of stickers to be cost efficient there, so we would need to feel confident that the demand is high enough.
I must know: what is the difference between the Gortex map available for Waterloo as an add-on and the Ubertex map available for Bloody Monday? They’re both the same size.
It’s not the size, it’s the material. The Ubertex map is actually thicker than Gortex and also stronger, and it lays flatter. It also allows the printing to be much more crisp and the colors pop better.
Anything else you’d like us to know about this project?
Well, we are thrilled to have the rights to use the art of André Jouineau in the game. He is one of the best-known military illustrators, especially for this period. Initially, we were just going to use a few pieces for illustration in the rules and then we kept talking. We are using just 11 different images for the “icon” stickers which we are giving away as an exclusive for the KickStarter, but the full “Collector Sheet” will have more like 70 distinct images. What surprised us was that, after we negotiated the rights, Jouineau said that he wanted to re-draw the art for something as small as the sticker sheet because certain elements need different proportions, so the Collector Sheet is not merely going to be lots of André Jouineau art, but NEW art.
Thanks very much to Emanuele for taking the time!