Halcyon Days: Remembering SPI's Franco-Prussian War (1972)12 Feb 2020 3
Last week’s article prompted me to relook at one of my recommendations, SPI’s 1972 boardgame The Franco-Prussian War, 1 August to 2 September 1870, selling for a whopping $6.00 US when it first came out. I’m glad I did and had an absolute blast. The reason? Because, to quote a 10-year-old article on this same game, “of the several different titles that have attempted, over the years, to simulate this somewhat obscure conflict, this game still remains my personal favorite. A number of other treatments have appeared since 1972, and a few of them have even been interesting, but I still keep returning to this one.”
I could not have said it better, and here’s why.
SPI’s The Franco-Prussian War (FPW) is nearly 50 years old now, so if you are looking for over the top color graphics fuhgeddaboudit. Outside the olive colored box sheet, the entire game is decorated in shades of blue and black. This is not a bad thing, because this elegant simplicity not only gives a very clean and tidy look but makes for an absolutely unambiguous game presentation. It is simply nigh near impossible to get confused about anything playing this game.
Two versions of FPW were run by SPI, and my copy is the one with the plastic game box. This means a black bottom with 24 compartments plus one extra for that uber tiny die SPI became famous for. There are two plastic lids in support, plus a clear plastic cover overall. The olive cover sheet carries the ubiquitous “An Historical Simulation Game – the time is” catch phrase, while inside there is a 22 x 28 inch hex map, a single counter sheet with 400 one half inch pieces, an eight page fold out rules pamphlet, two identical sets of game charts and (in my copy, at least) a single errata sheet. French counters are light blue with dark green markings, German counters colored exactly opposite. The counters are back printed in the national color.
FPW only covers the time 1st August thru 2nd September 1870, ending with the historical collapse of the 2nd French Empire. Each turn represents three days and each hex measures 7.5 kilometers. The unit counters are all infantry corps and possess strength points and eight movement points if German, six if French. Other counters include Entrained and Railway Construction (EB – Eisenbahnbautruppen) markers, Railroad Cut markers, Fortification Strength markers, Extended and Concentrated makers, and finally, Dummy counters.
FPW includes both a Basic Game and a Standard Game. For this review, we will look at the more advanced Standard Game, because let’s face it, all the game rules encompass only eight pages. Learning to play FPW isn’t that hard.
Actually winning the game, however... well, not so much.
Chassepot vs Needlegun
FPW is an IGO – UGO operational level game with an extremely low counter density, something I’ll detail later. As typical of games this old, things like Zones of Control (ZOC) and supply are pretty standard. However, beginning with the sequence of play, FPW starts to get interesting. This is as follows:
- Reinforcement Phase: The player brings on reinforcements as indicated by chart and can also return Dummy Counters to the board by placing them on a friendly unit. There are no stacking limitations.
- First Movement Phase: Units move, paying an additional movement cost to enter an enemy ZOC.
- Probe Phase: If the friendly unit does not wish to pay the additional movement point cost, it can still enter an enemy ZOC but must launch a Hasty Attack. The enemy unit is revealed, and the combat is resolved.
- Second Movement Phase: If the Hasty Attack revealed a Dummy Counter, the friendly unit may continue movement if it has any left.
- Combat Phase: Units that paid extra movement points to enter an enemy ZOC, resolve Normal Combat.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, sit back, hold on, maybe get a stiff drink, because from here forward, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.
Strategic Intelligence: At the beginning of the game all military units are deployed face down, to include a certain number of Dummy Counters. Surprise! Based on actual, historical alternatives, there are six different German initial orders of battle and six different reinforcement schedules. That’s 36 combinations, and the French also have six and six, so there are a total of... well a Hell of a lot, and if you’re playing against a live person, you haven’t a clue which one is on the board in front of you, at least initially.
Operational Intelligence: All combat units, to include fortress counters, are deployed face down alongside a specific number of Dummy Counters, also deployed face down. The counters are only flipped over when identified by combat or otherwise. If you think this doesn’t make a difference, consider my experience many (many) moons ago when my French opponent (grumble, grumble) decided to use all his Dummy Markers as fortress garrisons. Hysterical. And if you discover and toss a Dummy Counter, it could come back disguised as a reinforcement.
Step Reduction: Say the French army deploys around 10 corps d’armee. This means you can have a max of 10 combat counters on the game board. Say one of these is the French I Corps, which starts with 10 Strength Points. The reason FPW has 400 counters is that I Corps has 10 different counters to represent that one unit. Full strength is 10, but there is a counter for 9 Strength Points, one for 8, 7, 6, 5 down to 1. Fortress markers are the same way, with Strength Points for either lost due to combat or Out of Supply attrition. Here the French have a nifty wrinkle because besides reinforcements, Napoleon III’s lads get extra free Strength Points at Chalons to bring battered units back up to strength. Thus, that French corps you thought was down to 4 Strength Points might actually have 6.
Formation Status: This marker is placed upside down on German and French corps counters and when revealed identifies the unit as either in Extended or Concentrated Formation. In Extended status the unit has a ZOC but fights at half strength points. If in Concentrated status the unit has no ZOC but fights at full strength. Obviously, you don’t know the status of an enemy formation unless you move next to or pick a fight with it.
Railroads: This is where the Schnitzel eaters roll. Railroads increase the movement ability of infantry corps, of which the French can have only one corps entrained any turn, while the Germans can have two. It takes two Movement Points to entrain, and one to detrain. Otherwise, all remaining points may be expended at a ratio of one Movement Point for 18 rail hexes. Remember, the Germans get two, the French one.
The real zinger is in logistics with supply traced either to a nearby friendly fortress or a rail hex that extends back to the homeland. Enemy rail lines, however, can only be used to the end point where EB units have cleared. EB units move four rail hexes per turn, can repair sabotaged rail hexes and can never be killed or captured. The French get three of these formations while the Germans get as many as they want, and there are 22 of these. Given Out of Supply does nasty things to combat and so on, this can really hurt and certainly equalizes the uber large Strength Point counts for many of the French corps.
FPW is only 11 turns long, playable in about three hours, or a little more. Success is determined by Victory Points, awarded by occupying territory or roughing up enemy units. Prescription meds are optional.
First, yes, this game is available. I checked and found multiple copies for sale on both eBay and Amazon, and three copies at Noble Knight Games. There you can find a copy in Excellent condition for $35.00, and truth be told, it's actually one of the most sought-after games around. I’d also add another $15.95 and pick up the book The Military Legacy of the Civil War, the European Inheritance by the late Dr Jay Luvaas, US Army War College. It explains a lot of what happens in the game, like why railroads are so important. The Prussians recognized this, but neither of the combatants were able to wrestle the body armor away from their Cuirassiers. Heavy horse was created to charge, dammit! Thus, despite evidence to the contrary, the transition of all cavalry to a primary mission of reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance was something completely missed. In SPI’s FPW, this becomes excruciatingly obvious.
The result is not only one of the most playable yet historically accurate games on the 1870 tussle between Bismarck and Napoleon III, but unlike most, one that completely immerses the player in the same swamp of frustration and bewilderment of the original commanders. Easy to learn, tough to win, I have played many nail-biting simulations before, but this is one of the few able to make both players look absolutely stupid.
After all, did not Marshal Bazaine lament at conflict’s start, "Nous marchons à un désastre." Play this game and you will learn, understand and agree.
Images by the author, or from eBay and Boardgame Geek.