Impedimenta: Cardboard Logistics

By Bill Gray 21 Sep 2016 0

I don't know what the hell this "logistics" is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.” Admiral E. J. King

Tabletop wargamers do not do logistics. There, I’ve said it. Maybe, subconsciously, this is why we prefer miniature wargaming. Our games are tactical, grand tactical or sub tactical, and thus all logistics issues have likely sorted themselves out at the operational level long before battle is joined. Yes, there are a few exceptions, such as Napoleonic Russians whose gunpowder burned slowly and often misfired (and having 52 different musket calibers in each infantry battalion to supply didn’t help). Likewise when the Austrians tangled with the Prussians in 1866, most assumed the steel Krupp breech-loading rifled artillery of the latter would shoot the ramrods off the muzzle loading rifled artillery of the former. The opposite happened, in part because the Prussians were mortified at the loss of a single gun, but more because of leaving ammunition stocks WAY to the rear. This forced the guns to withdraw from the firing line to replenish, not recommended in the middle of a firefight. Fortunately, most rules authors take a results oriented philosophy to simulate stuff like this. The overall result was that Prussian artillery was less effective than Austrian, so Prussian guns simply don’t get as many Fire Points to use. After all, nobody wants to be pushing around ammunition caissons on the table, and rolling a die to see if a loose spark causes an explosion. That would be silly. OK, yes, we do push around courier stands and roll to see if the horse stumbles, but that’s not silly. That’s history. Seriously (ahem).

Board games, on the other hand, are a different consideration because authors do design play at the operational and strategic levels, and thus supply is a bit more important. However, it’s not more important than shooting tanks, and so most use the same results based process mentioned to keep things simple and relevant. Units often have their movement and combat values halved if they can’t trace a line of hexes back over a certain distance to a supply point. Here again there are exceptions, such as the manufacturing and production spiral for the Soviets (its similarity to Russian roulette is as noticeable as it is ironic) in SPIs War in the East. And who can forget that company’s behemoth Campaign for North Africa, absolute proof that both player and designer sometimes forget to take their prescription meds. The game’s hyper detailed logistics system actually gave the Italians higher water consumption rates due to their pasta based field diet!


Yet there is hope for both counter and pewter pusher, one that is not only appropriate to the scale, but operates effectively, realistically and with only moderate complexity. In this case, the state of the art cardboard counter game series is likely Kevin Zucker’s Operational Studies Group and its palette of campaign level Napoleonic games. Zucker is a household name to boardgamer and tabletopper, the former for obvious reasons, the latter due his boardgames’ almost universal appeal as a campaign system to generate miniature battles. The operational level mandates logistics, while the Napoleonic era boasted a supply revolution of sorts. This was France’s move away from a depot system to one that foraged everything needed from the countryside of whomever they invaded. Indeed, in 1805 Napoleon’s Grande Armee actually contracted with Austrian merchants and farmers for supply PRIOR to invading Austria. It sounds weird, but recall back then places like the Alsace could be German one year, and French the next, so loyalty was a bit of a fleeting commodity.

For my money, none of his games showcase Zucker’s logistical thinking better than the 2001 (zounds, has it been that long?) game Highway to the Kremlin – Napoleon’s March on Moscow, 1812. In this campaign, things were different than in the densely cultivated turf of Western Europe, with sparsely populated Russian steppes crisscrossed with dirt roads that quickly became wagon deep mud after it rained. Living off the land? Not so much in 1812. Then of course there is the impact of Marshal Winter, scorched earth and more. Napoleon’s 6000 supply wagons (and the newly invented canning process) were simply not enough. Some 680,000 men invaded Holy Russia with Napoleon, some 400,000 did not return. And just to make things interesting, Mother Nature went into a “friendly fire” temper tantrum and dispatched at least 210,000 Russians as well, all in 5 months, 2 weeks in 6 days.

Zucker’s logistics and supply process thus sets up Highway to the Kremlin as a three, not a two player game. It’s what makes this game, and this campaign, so unique. Here logistics is not a game mechanic, but an actual third opponent fighting both the French and the Russians. For both Napoleon and Kutusov, their war must now be fought on two fronts. Logistics cannot be manipulated to beat the enemy. Logistics is the enemy.

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Interesting? Then grab a deep breath and a glass of Smirnoff, and let’s take a very general, summarized look at how Highway to the Kremlin made this happen.

"Sire, there are many roads to Moscow. Charles XII chose to go by way of Poltava." Ambassador Balashov to Napoleon

In NATO parlance, the operational, or campaign, level of war is that where the commander maneuvers his forces to combat with the enemy under the most favorable conditions possible. In Highway to the Kremlin this simply means meeting the enemy in combat with as many combat Strength Points (SPs) as you can muster. Rude chap that he is, Marshal Logistics is going to fight you every inch of the way as you try to get that done.

At this point I’ll reserve my comments on logistics for the Campaign scenario (there are four Battle scenarios that are slightly different) and from the French perspective. In the game the French army has a single Supply Source specified by a counter near a city called Kovno which leads off map. From there, not more than 18 unobstructed (by the enemy for example) hexes along primary roads, sits another counter called the French Center of Operations. The distance between the two occupied hexes can be extended in multiples of 9 hexes by establishing Depots, but for the French this really means capturing existing Russian supply locations. The Center of Operations is a logistics hub of sorts, because from its location one can collect Administrative Points (APs) from the Supply Source that are then distributed to allow leaders and the units they command to move, receive replacements and so on. The distance to leader led forces is called Dispatch Distance and is 7 hexes long. So from Supply Source to Center of Operations are 18 hexes, plus another 7 hexes from Ops Center to unit, or a total of 25 hexes, unless Depots are in play.

The French start the game with 19 APs, and collect more each turn. This is done by rolling two dice on a table keyed to the distance between the Ops Center and the Supply Source, ie, 0 hexes, 1 – 9 hexes or 10 – 18 hexes. For example if a 7 is rolled, 0 APs would be awarded if the distance between the two locations was 10 – 18 hexes, but 3 APs if 1 – 9 hexes. APs are accumulated from turn to turn, and 1 AP is used to allow a single commander and his formations the ability to move that turn so long as his gaggle begins marching within Dispatch Distance. It seems relatively simple, with only a modicum of planning ahead needed for success.

Except . . .

It’s called Attrition in the game, and nearly every combat force suffers under this quaint little concept every turn. Dice are rolled on a table that cross references the size of a force in SPs to the number of unused APs remaining in the French admin pool. The result of this roll will tell the player how many SPs that force loses to Attrition. For example, consider a combat force under Polish General Poniatowski with 30 SPs and 3 APs remaining in the French admin pool. The player rolls an 11 and this kills 5 SPs. If the French had 12 APs remaining instead, the loss would have been 2 SPs. Remembering that each SP equals 5000 men, this can sting. It also means that it is absolutely suicidal to use all or even a majority of your APs each turn as too few will lift your Attrition rate and turn by turn replenishment is pretty low.

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High die rolls here are bad, and did I mention that if the weather is Snow or Rain you add +1 to the die roll, if its Mud its +2 and if the force is besieged its + 3. If you Forced Marched a force that turn, for each extra Movement Point used, there is another +1 die roll modifier. Meanwhile, tracing your Dispatch Distance to a Depot instead of the Operations Center reduces your remaining AP pool by – 2. Yes, you also have the option to Forage in the game using the same table above, but instead keyed to a province’s Forage Rating, from 1 – 4, with the latter best. But for example, Grodno has a rating of +1, and the number of +4 areas is very sparse.

Believe it or not, (I swear I can see Zucker, whom I know personally, with a devilish grin here) there is more. To sidestep all the nasties noted above, the game does allow you to put units into Quarters, but this has to be in a town and the force cannot move, cannot attack and defends at half strength. And if there is a break in the hexagonal chain of Supply Source to Ops Center to leader and units, your remaining AP total goes to zero, replacements aren’t received and God knows what else. You can also try to alleviate things by moving the Supply Source closer to another preprinted location, or moving the Center of Operations to another hex as well. Again, however, the accumulated AP total goes to zero and nobody receives Movement Commands during the turn(s) this takes place.

Beginning to think that supply and logistics are a Hell of a lot more dangerous than Kutusov and the Russian Army of the West? Well, historically at least, you got the point.

My logisticians are a humorless lot...they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will execute.” Alexander the Great

The impact of all we’ve discussed is that you, as Napoleon (or Kutusov), are going to lose control of your army, as logistics bends your will to its own scheming machinations. You’ll cringe at fleeting opportunities that cannot be exploited or the lack of APs when that one corps and leader absolutely has to move right now. Your entire army will never be able to all move in the same turn, and combat related decisions will often have two options, bad and worse.

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Yet, this is a good thing, and not just because this is really how it was. The game can actually be a tense yet quite enjoyable experience. Relax and avoid frustration, not to mention copious amounts of alcohol, by remembering in this game, the Russians are not your enemy, the logistics system is. Understand who or what you are really fighting, and this game can be informative, challenging and rewarding, particularly when you finally stuff the 800 pound supply gorilla back in its cage. It is truly cardboard logistics at its best.

And now the good news! I’ve found a copy of this out-of-print gem at Noble-Knight Games for only $ 250 US, so consider that requisition your quartermaster’s first challenge. Good luck.



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