The focus of Moment of Battle on the Roman Legion as a linchpin of Western Civilization doesn’t end at the Battle of Yarmouk. While the battlefields of Medieval Europe were ruled by the heavy horse, the preeminence of infantry returned in the late Middle Ages.
Amidst the contributions to the, shall we say, Renaissance of the infantry formations, the military innovations of Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus were many. Moment of Battle emphasizes his study and use of ancient Roman drill and his application of those lessons to the combined pike and shot formations of his time. He wasn’t the first to study and learn from Roman military writings; a rediscovery and appreciation of classical scholarship being a hallmark of the Renaissance. Furthermore, modern analysis suggest that he may occasionally be given too much credit personally – that the innovation is due to the Swedish system rather than the brilliance of a single mind. Also, his combined pike, musket, and cannon formations are best seen as part of a steady innovation following the introduction of hand-held firearms to the battlefield. Be all that as it may, the extent of his innovation should not be downplayed. The likes of von Clausewitz, Napoleon, and George Patton have all cited him of one of history’s great military innovators.
In the book, one particular innovation is highlighted. The Swedes found and translated the Roman parade drill. It took a flash of insight, however, to understand that the Roman two-beat commands were necessarily given by drawing out the first as a preparatory phase with the execution falling on the second (e.g. Attennnn – SHUN, Riiiight – FACE). It tells how the work the Swedish command update the Roman system to their time has survived, pretty much intact, to the militaries of the present day. From Gustavus Adolphus’ time onward, nations either learned from his example or would be conquered by those who did.
The other reason the Battle of Breitenfeld is included as one of the Twenty Clashes is that the authors credit Gustavus Adolphus as having saved the Reformation as a geopolitical force. Before the Swedish intervention, the Hapsburgs were on the verge of eliminating all non-Catholic rulers from Germany. That, in turn, may have been the beginning of the end of any Protestant power in continental Europe (although we also just witnessed the triumph of Elizabeth’s Protestant England over Spain, establishing the religious movement in Western reaches of Europe).
Breitenfeld is part of the 30 Years’ War stock campaign and, as such, I’ve played it before. Since that time, however, a user has made a mini-campaign of three battles featuring Sweden called Sweden’s High Noon. Once again, it provides an opportunity for a compare and contrast between scenario styles.
It uses a special events-based design language characterized by cut-to-the-chase initial setups, accessory counters, artillery & light troops abstraction, distance for activation time trade-off, reduced weapons range (arquebuses standing in for muskets) & movement rate (subjected to command & control and historical battle behaviour in lieu of pure physical capability), and most obvious of all, map overlays (impassible) that serve to channel units into their proper, historical sphere of action. It aims at placing the players within strict historical parameters.
In other words, the game engine is twisted and bent to attempt to reproduce the historical outcome in the most accurate and detailed way possible. Unfortunately, while this may have been an interesting exercise for the scenario designer, it’s not so great on the player. At least, not for me.
The first negative result is how that interesting period art that makes the map is wrecked by the impassible terrain that is striped across the map; there to prevent the wrong forces from engaging the wrong opponent and the wrong time. It also means you can’t look at the “board” and conceive of a strategy, because normal movement might not be available to you. Perhaps if you had a good idea about how the actual battle took place, you might be able to anticipate, as well as follow along, with how the events release your forces into play. And while it is nice to see the detail in recreating the historical forces as they were positioned that day, that benefit of that detail is all but offset by the fact that the designer has had to substitute out the historical unit types because they didn’t perform to his liking. There something missing when you command the forces of Gustavus Adolphus only to not have access to Sweden’s unique combined-arms formations.
I did play through the scenario and I lost, but I also got little out of the experience. I was initially excited to see a user-made scenario for this battle (because I had already played the 30 Years’ War version). I recalled eventually winning that scenario after one or two false starts, so I was hoping for something different – I wanted to look at the battle again in light of my Moment of Battle read but I’d rather not just play a scenario that I’d already found beatable. At this point though, I felt I had no choice but to return to that original.
Reloading the original version, I was rewarded with a view of the battlefield looking just how I thought it should look. One of the best things, aesthetically, about Pike and Shot is the animation of gunpowder units. The sound (which I’ve modded) and animated puffs of smoke (pictured just above) really give a visceral appreciation for the period. Most of what I’ve read comparing Pike and Shot with Field of Glory II in graphics term talk about how Field of Glory represents an upgrade. In general they are right, but I still think I favor the look of Pike and Shot and this is one of the reasons.
Now, the first time I played this, when Pike and Shot was new to me, I knew absolutely nothing about Breitenfeld. I did know that the allied Saxon forces would be controlled by the computer and realized they would be reluctant allies, but I did not realize the extent of that reluctance. My first play through started with an attempt to shore up a left flank that had no chance of holding.
Moment of Battle suggests that perhaps Gustavus Adolphus knew full well that his allies would be utterly unreliable. That left flank would have provided a juicy target, drawing in the Count of Tilly to attack it with his best Catholic forces. Those attackers would then unprepared for how quickly the Swedish forces could turn and move against them. So in a sense, the total failure of the Protestant left flank may have been a key to Swedish victory in the overall battle.
Refighting the battle with this theory in mind, I wanted to reproduce this mindset. Unfortunately, it seemed like I did worse than when I knew nothing about the strategy (although that might just be because I don’t remember how badly I lost the first time). My intention was to lend little support to my Saxon allies and save my strength for smashing Tilly’s own left wing, where he had his weaker forces. The problem it, in the calculations of Pike and Shot, the fleeing Saxons count against the Swedish score and break level. By the time I had managed to engage the Catholic center, I was starting to lose good Swedish forces on my left. My army broke before I could gain the advantage.
With this timing in mind, replayed the scenario. In fact, I played twice more, losing all three times. Each time I came a little closer. In my last try, screenshot above, I managed to hang the battle right in the balance, where it sat for several turns in a row. In the end, the numbers still tipped against me.
Again, I think of the inadequacy of the strategy game when it comes to simulating the iconic battles of history. After accounting for captured prisoners and desertions, the result was a lopsided victory in favor of the Swedes. Breitenfeld also introduced Sweden as the military power to reckon with for the foreseeable future as well as saving Protestantism as a national religion and as a major political factor for centuries to come. The totality of the victory, says Moment of Battle, was the inability of the Catholics to anticipate the speed and cohesion of the new Swedish pike and shot formations. Reproducing would mean a) giving the Swedish units transformational capabilities and b) making the German player forget that the units work that way. Neither of these fit into a gaming solution. Units differ from each other by degree. To somehow say that the Catholic formations cannot react to flanking maneuvers or that the Catholic commander must ignore the threat on his flank (Tilly shifted his entire force to the right which left him open to to the Swede’s battle-winning flanking maneuver) would hardly fit into any game. Without crippling the Catholic player, the forces are, in fact, fairly evenly matched and it would be almost impossible to reproduce the historical result.
One quickly sees what would tempt one to build a scenario such that the Breitenfeld battle in Sweden’s High Noon. It’s not clear, though, why one would want to play it.