On Saturday at The Panzer Depot, we refought the battle of Aspern-Essling (first day) using Napoleon's Battles and a whole lot of 15mm minis. I haven't played Napoleon's Battles for maybe 12 years and was afraid I'd be out of practice. But as one of my fellow players noted, it's like riding a bicycle. And so it was. Within a few turns I was back in the swing, but I shudder to recall what errors I may have made in my first few "learning" turns.
The scenario leaves no margin for error for the French side. A small force, only marginally reinforced throughout the game, needs to hold its ground against an increasingly larger Austria juggernaut. The French started with two infantry divisions (one each in the villages of Aspern and Essling) and three cavalry divisions (two light and one heavy in the center between the villages).
The French setup
Austrian forces are meagre on turn one, with a division of mixed infantry/cavalry/artillery poised to strike at the French left in Aspern. However, each turn brings on a new corps or two of Austrians. The ratio is roughly 3:1 in favor of the Austrians once all the forces have arrived on the field.
The Austrians attack Aspern
I played the French left under Marshall Massena and Jeroen Koopman played the French right under Marshall Lannes. The faceless Austrian horde was commanded by Steve Puffenberger, Ken Kissling, Mike Kennedy, and the father/son team of Pat and Morgan Clifford.
We opted not to use a previous house rule that limited the effect of firing into a village. The house rule was supposed to minimize the tendency to let attackers shoot a defender out of a village. Not using it in this game allowed the attacking austrians to shoot the French out of Aspern. The one Austrian attempt to take the village by assault met with failure, but they had enough muskets and cannon to make themselves masters of the village after about five turns.
The Austrians overrun Aspern
The French had a few significant counterattacks that staved off an early defeat. At one moment, Jeroen sent a heavy cavalry brigade into the advancing Austrians and in a marvelous string of luck, managed to destroy eight limbered Austrian batteries that were strung out on the march. It ultimately cost him half the brigade when he was counterattacked by Austrian cavalry outside of Essling and routed back behind the French lines to be eventually rallied by Marshall Lannes.
At one point, I was able to repulse two Austrian heavy cavalry brigades with a single brigade of light cavalry (lead in person by General Lasalle). Much action took place in the part of the French line beside Essling. At several points it looked as if the Austrians had a wide open opportunity to drive through the hole in the French center only to be stymied by desperate French counterattacks.
The contested ground beside Essling after the French cavalry counterattack
As French reinforcements eked in from the single road that lead from the bridge to Lobau island, we threw them into line where we could. The division of the Young Guard went to the French right to shore up the open flank beyond Essling. There they were instrumental in defeating a large attack of Austrian cavalry.
The division of the Young Guard advancing in column to hold the French right
After taking Aspern, the Austrians pressed the French left and center and started a division through the marshy land between Aspern and the Danube. The French reinforcements struggled in the restricted area to form from march column to combat formations. The situation demanded that divisions be deployed piecemeal and the French found it difficult to form a cohesive line.
The French reinforcements march on to shore up their faltering left flank
In the final turns of daylight, the French heavy cavalry and horse batteries finally showed up in time to form a solid cavalry force on the French right. However, the French infantry had been badly mauled in the course of the game and had very little that could hold the ground against the Austrians who kept up their inexorable advance despite taking as good as they gave in losses. One heroic French brigade held the line of the sunken road until it finally dispersed as a result of routing a superior Austrian brigade (the "winner's loss" took it to its dispersal level).
Massed Austrian reinforcements descending on Essling - Custer's Last Stand on the Danube
By the end of the game, the French barely held on to a perimeter just below where they started, but they had lost Aspern and would soon lose Essling as well. In his last hurrah, Jeroen made a desperate gamble with a combined arms attack on a brigade of the Austrian grenadiers only to get routed back beyond the town, leaving it wide open for the Austrians to stroll in at night.
French positions at nightfall
Historically, Napoleon held on the first day and only withdrew back across the Danube after a second day of fighting. In our case, Boney et cie. would need to withdraw without attempting a second day's battle.
It was great to play Napoleon's Battles again after such a long time away. Back in the 90s when I played it regularly with my friend Bob Mackler, it struck me as the ideal scale and level of detail for a grand tactical Napoleonic wargame. Unlike Empire, which was also grand tactical, but represented every battalion as well as companies of skirmishers, the play moves very quickly. We started the game at noon and ended by 4:00 having completed all daylight turns in the scenario. There is also never a dull moment. As Bob used to say, it's the fightingest Napoleonics game. The battle can go back and forth several times before a winner can be determined. Even though the French are massively outnumbered with no significant qualitative edge (by 1809 the French were less than they'd been in 1805 and the Archduke Charles had done wonders reforming the Austrian army), they can still perform well at Aspern-Essling.
Apparently, there is a third edition that will come out soon from Lost Battalion games. There's no more information about it than a brief announcement that confirms the rumor. I may be tempted to get it, but I can't imagine painting 100s or 1000s of gaudily uniformed 15mm men. Fortunately, I think, there are enough people who have whole armies already.