Been having a blast this past weekend, playing a computer game that always gets my “Best Game You’ve Never Played” Award. Hopefully this article will change all that, particularly with all the pewter pusher potentates out there.Huh? But this is a video game, right? Yes, so read on you must young Padawan. Wisdom awaits you.
The game in question is a 2004 release by Matrix Games with Adanac (notice its Canada spelled backwards) Command Studios titled Campaigns on the Danube, 1805 & 1809. It is still available on the Matrix Website for a mere pittance, only $19.99 US. Seriously, grab this thing while you can get it. It is an older title and thus will become abandon/vaporware soon enough, and also be sure to get the patch to update the game to Version 3.05. This not only makes a few changes and spritzes up the graphics a bit but allows full screen play up to 2560 x 1440 dpi, which is essentially for modern machines.
The Area of Operations
As the name suggests, the game covers two Napoleonic campaigns, both in central Europe, the first in 1805 pitting the Corsican against a coalition of Austrians and Russians, the second in 1809 against a renewed Austrian army under Archduke Charles. This is a great selection. The 1805 campaign covers the Grande Armee at its best against armies still steeped in the tradition of Frederick the Great. This was the entire problem of course, resulting in a single Coalition battlefield option known as DIP (Die in Place). In 1809, however, the Austrians had learned a whole lot, and under Charles’ (called by His Grace Lord Wellington the best Allied commander to ever face Napoleon) leadership gave the French one of the toughest fought and closely matched campaigns of the era.
Danube looks at the entire 1805 Ulm to Austerlitz campaign, with two additional variant scenarios, one putting Charles in command vice the ‘unfortunate’ General Mack, and the other allowing for an early arrival of the Russians (it was a calendar thing; you had to be there). There are three historical 1809 campaign scenarios, each with a different start date within the campaign. There is also a single variant allowing Charles to execute his campaign as originally intended, not as actually happened.
Danube is an operational level game. You are running a campaign, not fighting individual battles (but hold that thought). Thus units are cavalry and infantry corps or divisions, with an occasional independent brigade thrown in for good measure. For both foot and horse, each strength point represents 500 soldiers. Artillery units have an interesting composition with each representing 48 pounds (not a mistype) of guns. In other words, 48 pounds may represent four 12 pounder batteries (4 x 12 = 48) or six 8 pounder batteries (6 x 8 = 48) or another combination. There are also HQ units, engineers, supply trains and supply depots. Scale is 9 km per hex and each turn is a single day played out over 24 one hour pulses. As the game is older, hardware requirements are ridiculously low unless you’re running DOS.
This is also a hex and counter game and the best way I can describe the graphics is classy. The map is topographical and sorta looks like an overhead satellite shot, were those devices in use back then. Towns have individual, terra-cotta roofed buildings with a name plaque sporting a flag of the country in control. The roads, which look like grooves cut into a terrain map, are especially well done and the overall color scheme seems to change appropriately with weather and time of day. In a very interesting twist, the map is very wide but not very tall, so you are actually marching down a narrow but long strip of real estate. Expect a lot of scrolling.
Counters are light blue for the French and their allies, grey-white for the Austrians and light green for the Russians. They display a national flag and small, really well drawn soldier icon for which I’ll give Adanac about an A- in the historical accuracy department. For HQ there are Administration, Inspiration and Battle ratings, while combat units get by with the number of effectives and stragglers. Depots indicate the amount of supplies on hand or remaining. These numbers are obviously blanked out for enemy units.
Danube is one of the easiest games to play ever, and yet a bear to master. The 37 page manual is really about scenario description and informing the player as to what is actually happening when the CPU starts to hum. Honestly playing the game doesn’t involve performing a lot of detailed processes. Indeed, there are only 11 info buttons (compare Tiller’s East Prussia 1914; I count 34) on the left side of the screen for popping up a strategic map, saving games and what not. Instead, click on a unit or HQ and a very nicely but simply appointed window drops down from the top. It gives information about the unit in question to include current strength, replacements, fatigue, quality and morale. In this box you can also manually set the formation’s Tactical Stance (Fall Back, Defend, Engage/Screen, Build or Blow Bridge) as well as the Urgency needed when marching (Cautious, Slow, Regular, Quick of Forced March). You can also detach a unit, transfer a HQ, but most importantly you can Set an Objective for your troops to move towards. This is done by a button click followed by a destination hex click and then clicking a Send Message button.
When this happens a notional messenger is sent to the unit in question delivering your “orders” with the Admin rating of said formation and the distance away from the player’s HQ determining which hourly pulse the formation begins to march. There is going to be a delay, and its really kinda scary to see you direct a corps to swing left, then watch it continue on its merry way into undesired battle because your directive to change hasn’t reached them yet. Given one of the Fog of War options is to turn both friendly and enemy units off, forcing the player to depend on reports only, Danube can certainly not be for the faint of heart.
This is pretty much it, with other functions handled transparently with low player involvement. Yes there is a supply system involving a central source as well as outlying depots and assigned supply trains, but again, although the player can determine how many supply points to send to depots, etc, a lot if this is handled without player input. More important is keeping track of the effects of logistics, though AI managed.
Yet there is some interaction, and what there is provides a bit of glitz that really makes the game seem Napoleonic special. Within the system, for example, the player can order a corps to take a Rest Day to recover strength and stamina or build a hospital to cycle wounded back into the ranks. Likewise, when the French – and only the French – take a town or city, they can forage (Napoleonic for “pillage”) the surrounding hexes to further replenish supplies. Retreat locations can be predetermined so that formations know where to move if defeated, and finally, a formation can be given a standing “March to the Sound of the Guns” order so that no matter what their Status, Urgency and Objective, they will haul in the direction of cannon fire if they hear it. Nice, and impressive how such minor functions can really impact the historical flavor of a game, here all to the good.
But this is a wargame, this means battles and battle occurs when counters from opposing sides find themselves in the same hexagon. Typical, right? Well grab a Schnapps or Cognac because this is where Danube gets really, REALLY unique.
Computer Battles, Pewter Sub Routine
Minor skirmishes are handled automatically by the AI, but when a large battle occurs up pops a couple of screens that give info on the opposing forces, chances of success under varying conditions and six tactical options. These six are Frontal Assault, Feint Attack, Quick Attack, Escalating Assault, Probe and (wait for it) Miniatures! The first five options flip the battle over to the computer to resolve, but the Miniatures option stops the game and brings up a data screen where you confirm the forces involved, as well as the general type of terrain and the time of day the battle starts. Now save the game with the same name as the last auto save file, and then start sending Emails…
… because now you can set up and fight a miniatures game in lieu of the AI adjudicated combat. While battalion level miniature rules such as EMPIRE might be tough to handle, brigade based rules such as the author’s own Age of Eagles (shameless plug says what?-ED), David Esteness’ Et Sans Result or Frank Chadwick’s Volley and Bayonet are tailor made for such a transition, and the game’s designer further states you can also use any of Tiller’s Napoleonic battle games such as Napoleon’s Austerlitz Campaign, or the two companion games covering 1809.
Miniature gamers love using campaigns as scenario generators and have often used good hex boardgames for that purpose. The computer, of course, has the digital record keeping and analysis capabilities to make the whole experience easier and more fulfilling. Besides, designing a tabletop scenario isn’t that hard given Danube has already afforded the player unit designations, their strength (remember, one strength point = 500 men) and terrain type. Indeed, Austria’s 2d Military Mapping Survey begun in 1806 and available online, pretty well covers all the real estate, and then some. Miniature game terms for fatigue such as Fresh, Worn or Spent, or combat result terminology such as Disordered or Rout is easily translatable into Danube friendly wordage, and multiplying figures or stands by scale gives casualties for strength points. Add to this a mini player’s ability for instinctively calling victory or defeat without victory points, and voila!
Returning to the computer, run the game and open up your saved file. A screen should pop up with all the forces the AI said were in the battle. From there you simply edit the results of your miniatures game into the software by unit for Strength, Fatigue and Morale, giving a length of the engagement and an overall winner. Hit Update for each unit, then hit Finished. After this you return to the game and continue the campaign. All your data is now integrated completely into gameplay as if the AI had run the battle itself. Best of all, it works without a hitch.
Or you could just let the computer run the entire battle as well. These are relatively short campaigns using a game with a friendly User Interface, nice graphics, easy game play and results dead on the money historical. This means expect to see the Austro-Russians completely outclassed in 1805 as the French army runs circles around everyone. But this also means a much closer contest in 1809, the main reason the campaign is so popular in mini circles. Added to this is just enough chrome to convey a truly Napoleonic feel and a miniatures option that not only works flawlessly but is so rare in video game land that pewter pushers should be ripping their wallets apart trying to find a credit card. If not, what are you waiting for? And BTW Matrix, I’m talking to you as well.
Special Thanks: We don’t mention this often enough, but a special tip of the hat to the Lonely Gamers whose photos we often use. Check them out.