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Posted on Aug 6, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

The Fate of France hangs in the Balance with GMT Games ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’. Board Game Review.

The Fate of France hangs in the Balance with GMT Games ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’. Board Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

At Any Cost: Metz 1870. Publisher: GMT Games. Game Designer: Herman Luttmann. Price $ 50.00

Ray Garbee

Passed inspection: Colorful counters depicting the troops of both combatants, map board graphics that are evocative of the French countryside, core rules tested in two prior games. Good mix of scenarios that capture the pivotal moments of both battles. Captures the feel of battles in the Franco-Prussian War period.

Failed basic: Rules lack an index and tables of contents. Multiple pages of errata for rules and playbook. The full battle scenarios are quite long and require multiple gaming sessions to play to completion.

The battles along the Western Front in the fall of 1914 were shaped in part by the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War. In turn, the result of the Franco-Prussian War hinged on the outcome of a pair of battles fought west of the city of Metz in August of 1870. Herman Luttmann explores those battles in GMT Games ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870, the third game in Herman’s Blind Sword series focused on battles during the end of the rifle and bayonet era (the others being ‘Stonewall’s Sword’ and ‘Longstreet Attacks’, both from Revolution Games).

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In ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’, players will face off as either the French Empire or the rising North German Confederation (aka Prussia) in the events spanning the pivotal battles of Mars-La-Tour and Gravlotte-St. Privat. Victory for the French means the opportunity to continue the fight with some hope of winning the war, while victory for the Prussian’s will advance their chances of ultimate victory and the formation of the German Empire.

Aside from being the crucible that formed the German Empire, the Franco-Prussian War was notable for the use of technological advancements in the fields of small arms and artillery. The French excelled at the former with their formidable Chassepot rifles and mitrailleuse machine guns while the Prussian fielded a variety of superior Krupp breech loading field guns with deadly effect.

‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ comes in the standard, heavy duty game box from GMT Games. The contents are what we’ve come to expect from GMT – a 22”x34” cardstock, unmounted color map, two counter sheets of 9/16” counters, a rulebook, a playbook, five charts and dice.

The game board is a four color, unmounted map board of the landscape west of Metz. The map depicts the rivers and streams, hills and woods that are the physical geography of the battlefield. The map also depicts the towns, villages and isolated farms connected by the road network. In addition, a couple of the outlying forts defending Metz appear in the southeast corner of the map. A hex grid is overlaid on the map to measure distance and fix locations. Terry Leeds and Mark Simonitch did nice work in creating the map. The artwork conveys a sense of a late 19th Century landscape while clearly delineating the terrain type found in each hex.

The counters are rendered in rich color format. Generally, a counter represents a regiment/brigade of infantry or cavalry and artillery units representing 2-4 batteries of field guns. Each counter has a picture of the troop type to convey the unit type. Background colors represent each side, while header bars depict unit the parent formation with unit id of each counter. Counters are not cluttered with information, you’ll generally find three types of key data on each counter – tactical proficiency, combat strength and movement points.

In addition to the fighting units, there are a number of administrative and information markers to track things like entrenchment status, performance degradation, ammunition shortages and special events (more on these later).

The rule book lays out the rules of play for the game. At 28 pages long, the rules cover all the procedures for playing the game. Don’t let the page count intimidate you as the last four pages are a detailed example of game play to use as a reference and guide in learning the game. The layout of the rules is straightforward and well-illustrated with relevant graphics accompanying the various rules section.

The playbook is your source for the details on all the individual scenarios for the game. There are six scenarios in all, though two of the scenarios represent the campaign games that portray the full battle over a several days. The playbook also includes Hermann’s designer’s notes on the game. The notes are worth reading even if you never play the game as they form a well written essay on the Franco-Prussian War viewed through the lens of the battles around Metz.

‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ comes with six double-sided charts and tables – two combat results tables, two player charts and two scenario charts. The two identical combat results tables have fire combat results on one side and assault combat on the reverse face of the chart. Perfect for supporting both players as they walk through resolving charges and firing. There are several sub-tables of modifier and adjustment tables that serve as a reminder of how combat is resolved without being a detailed flow chart. The player charts (one for the French and one for the Prussians) share one side with terrain effects table, and assorted admin tables. The other side of the chart contains the details on the respective players event chits. Lastly, the scenario charts are a summary of the detailed scenarios found in the playbook as well as the event tracks specific to each scenario.

To facilitate play, ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ come generously stocked with a set of four (4) d10 dice – two white and one each of red and gray. These divide into two sets of two, color coded for the French (red) and German (gray) players. The color coding matters and is tied to the fire and charge mechanism. Think of it as a ‘to hit’ and a ‘save’ die roll done at the same time. With practice, you’ll be able to toss the dice and recognize if the results merit follow-through or are an obvious miss, either due to the hit die being too low a number or the save die being so low that even a solid hit will have little effect.

Gameplay is straightforward. After populating a draw container with the eligible activation and event chits, play proceeds by drawing one chit at a time and either playing the event chit, holding the event chit for later or activating the army corps listed on the activation chit. An active corps can fire units, then move units, possibly taking defensive fire in the process, and then conduct assaults. After the smoke clears, the active unit may regroup or possibly dig in if it’s sitting on the defensive.

While the corps is active, the owning player has a lot of freedom as to the actions their sub-units (brigades or regiments) take. With each activation, the player puts on the hat of that corps commander and manages its activity until all actions are done. Then you draw the next chit and move forward with the game turn.

Morale is a key feature of the game as units can become disordered or degrade further to shaken. After that, further morale losses result in the unit starting to rout off the field until it folds and is removed from play. One of the many challenges that ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ presents the players is the opportunity to recover the morale of broken units – but doing so means shifting to the defensive and keeping your opponent from engaging with the troops you wish to rally. Doing this successfully requires you to make good use of reserves, screening forces and the local terrain.

‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ certainly captures the feel of the period. The French infantry and mitrailleuse can rain down fire on Prussian units, inflicting heavy casualties on Prussian troops that move into range. Fortunately for the Prussians, the disadvantage they face in small arms technology is offset by their own advantage in artillery, with the well-handled and more numerous Krupp guns both outranging the French as well as bringing a greater rate of fire to bear. The firepower of all these ‘modern’ weapons provides a foreshadowing of the horrors of the Great War almost half a century in the future. Try to stand in a firefight and both sides will quickly suffer heavy losses.

Also hinting at the future, ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ incudes rules and counters to represent units going to ground and digging in – first through creating hasty works that then develop into full blown entrenchments. You feel history marching onward when the game treats the shovel and pick as a weapon of war as important as the rifle and bayonet.

The event chits built into the unit activation mechanism do a good job of representing Prussian tactical superiority and aggressiveness vs. the lethargic French tendency to stay put and pour rifle fire onto their enemy. The nice thing about the chit system is the ability to fold all manner of special cases into the game while keeping their frequency to a manageable (and randomized) level.

Sounds good so far, right? Well, that’s because it is pretty good! But as with so many things, there are a few items that didn’t work as well as could be hoped. The good news here is that most of these are what I’ll call administrative issues as opposed to mechanical issues with game play. The rules organization could be better. While it’s laid out nicely, there could be more cross-referencing. A lot of these issues boil down to the lack of a table of content or index in either the rulebook or the playbook. We had to keep leafing through the books to find rules references or refer to the scenario description. It cost time. Yes, with experience the need to reference the rules constantly will fade, but until that happens, we were burning precious daylight trying to hunt down things like cavalry charge eligibility and charge combat resolution.

Then there is the errata document. This is a good news/bad news affair. It’s great that the errata have been identified, codified and made available through GMT’s webpage supporting the game. At the same time, it was disappointing to find eight pages of errata. In the first two scenarios, time was lost looking for units that had already been placed because of typos in the setup order of battle. You’d do well do download both the errata and a PDF file of the rules and playbook so you can mark up a copy with the revisions.

None of the above directly impacts the mechanics of the game. And with time, you’ll integrate the rules into your memory and not need to constantly refer to the books.

Given how many of us don’t have the time – or opponents – to play long involved games, the ability to play a game solo is an important criterion in selecting a game. And make no mistake, if you play either of the campaign game scenarios, you are in for a long game! While ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ does not have dedicated solitaire rules like the ‘bots’ that are becoming more common, that does not mean the game is a bad choice for solitaire play. In fact, the opposite is true!

While the solitaire gaming enthusiast is forced to wear two hats and play both sides to experience the game, the random nature of the chit draw system lends itself perfectly to solo gaming. The chit draw selects the unit or event to implement, allowing the player to focus on that action and then proceed to the next chit. In this way, the player creates the narrative of the battle, flipping back and forth between the view from each side. The game provides a nice degree of randomness and the fog of war for the solitaire gamer.

While the mechanics of ‘‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’’ seems straightforward, the interplay of the chits in practice means that any two games are unlikely to unfold the same way as the chits can be drawn in many combinations. Add to that the decisions players make with each drawn chit and it’s likely that each game of ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ will provide a unique experience. With practice in the smaller scenarios, if we stayed focused, we were clocking game turns of 35-45 minutes leading to games in the two and a half to five-hour range; perfectly suitable for an afternoon or evening of entertainment.

The grand campaigns are a different beast. As these recreate the grand scope of the battle over several days, the game length is substantially greater. While the mechanics are not different (save for more special events and rules) the fact that there more units are in play will result in longer game turns. And there are many more turns – the campaigns range from either 54 turns or 72 turns. Assuming you can achieve a pace of 1 hour per turn in the campaign game, that’s literally a full-time job for a week or two! It’s no ‘Campaign for North Africa’, but the campaigns will offer many hours of entertainment.

During play I was reminded that I’ve drifted away from a lot of the classic hex and counter wargamers of my younger day. ‘At Any Cost’ is without a doubt a classic hex and counter wargame. This was highlighted as I fumbled through stacks of counters to calculate strength points. A large part of the fumbling comes back to motor control issues on my part (i.e., I’m a klutz!). You could have a brigade counter, with a shot up brigade counter and an artillery counter and the mitrailleuse counter. Then there are the associated morale status markers and the entrenchment markers. The irreverent thought that popped into my head was ‘Do you want stacks of counters? Because this is how you get stacks of counters!’ In fairness, it does not happen in every hex, but I was knocking over counter stacks enough that I was getting irritable. (Maybe it’s time for me to invest in a pair of tweezers?)

‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ contains rules required to implement special command rules for Marshal Bazaine and the poor command and control/lack of offensive spirit of the French Corps and Divisions. Many of these are handled nicely through the event chits, but others are dealt with through scenario specific rules. Yes, it’s an attempt to model the history of the conflict and create a French performance that tracks with the historical record. But ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ does not play into the myth of Teutonic martial greatness with the infamous attitude that ‘There’s nothing a German officer cannot do!’ feeling. The game does acknowledge and model the reality that the Germans were often more adept and aggressive than their French counterparts, especially on the attack. At the same time, the Prussian player by dint of being on the offensive will usually feel abused as they are on the receiving end of the highly effective and deadly infantry and mitrailleuse fire from the French units.

My general take on special command and control rules is I often end up feeling like they are an artifice bolted on to the organic rules as a check on a player’s ability. For example, in GMT’s Clash of Giants III there are special rules to replicate the effect of General Pope’s…unique… strategy that set up the events of the Second Battle of Bull Run. Many games depicting the Battle of Antietam have to hobble the Union player to replicate General McClellan’s timid strategic style, lest the game turn into a rout. ‘At Any Cost’ continues that same tradition with its special command and control rules.

In ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ these rules are included to constrain the French player (and to a much lesser extent, the Prussian player). It will sometimes feel like offering the French player an experience akin Charlie Brown having the football pulled away repeatedly as when you start to get you act together, the game pulls the momentum away from you. Historical yes, but enjoyable – maybe less so. However, it’s a great representation of a result straight out of Von Clausewitz’s ‘On War’ as it’s easy to see what you want to do, but very hard to implement the plan successfully.

When playing the campaign, the French player has to realize that they are signing up to play the role of the underdog. The French Army suffered from a malaise that Sun Tzu defined as ‘Know thy enemy but not yourself, wallow in defeat every time.’ The French Empire has already lost two battles to the Prussians and now their last active field army will be tested on the hills and valleys west of Metz. This is the decision point at which the fate of the French Empire literally hangs in the balance.

The player has to acknowledge these difficulties and remember that he’s not just fighting against the Prussian player, but that the very game engine itself is conspiring against him. But don’t be discouraged! To quote the poet Ice-T, “Don’t hate the player – hate the game.” In this case, At Any Cost: Metz 1870 is doing a solid job depicting the historical nature of the French experience in the Franco-Prussian War. That experience was not pretty and it was not easy.

‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’: Metz 1870 provides a good gaming experience. It’s also a good representation of conflict in this period. But unlike battles of the American Civil War, there’s not a deep roster of games covering the Franco-Prussian War. While the chit pull system shares some of the same feel as GMT’s Clash of Giants: Civil War, the depth of the special event chits and the detail of the combat systems set it apart as a detailed look into how the causal decision chains from low level decisions could impact the course of the entire battle.

It’s not just the fog of war of not knowing when a unit will activate, but the friction generated from the random effects of the event chits. I cannot say enough good things about the chit pull activation system in this game. While playing the Twilight of the Guards attack, it seemed like Prussia had victory well in hand. All that remained was to play out the last two turns, seize the objective and pick up the pieces…

…and that’s when the Fortunes of War event betrayed Prussia with a ‘lull in the battle’ event. The entire Prussian attack stalled out with a small amount of offensive fire while the French rained down small arms on the lead elements of the XII Corps. It wasn’t a big change – but it was enough to help the French hang on to the end of the game and avoid a loss.

While GMT rates both ‘At Any Cost’ and ‘Clash of Giants III: Civil War’ as complexity level ‘4’ (the low end of a medium complexity game), ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ feels like a slightly more complex experience with its detailed fire and charge mechanics than did Clash of Giants: Civil War. Comparing it with it’s cousin game in the Blind Sword system ‘Longstreet Attacks’, ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ still feels more complex, in part due to having to deal with both lots of mounted cavalry and the effects of hasty works and entrenchments requiring additional rules.

Comparing ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ to the old GDW (now Test of Battle) Volley and Bayonet miniatures game (© 1994) is a nice contrast. Volley and Bayonet (V&B) was designed for quickly fighting large historical tabletop battles using miniatures. The key design goal was putting the player into the role of army or corps commander. The original edition of V&B included a scenario for St. Privat, which is very similar in scope to the Twilight of the Guards scenario in ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’. Both model the assault of the Prussian Guards and the flank attack of the Prussian XII Corps. However, the similarity ends there. What sets ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ apart from V&B is the dynamic activation process and the impact of the event chits. ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ delivers a much more process-based experience as opposed to Volley and Bayonet’s outcome-based experience and value on speed of play. You may end up with similar results at the end of the game, but how you get there is a very different journey with each game.

‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ is well supported with multiple articles that can be accessed from the GMT website. Herman Luttmann is a proven game designer and, as ‘At Any Cost: Metz 1870’ is the third game in the Blind Sword system, the core rules have been well tested and work quite nicely. I highly recommend the game to those with an interest in the Franco-Prussian War. With a diverse mix of scenarios, solid rules and an attractive map and counters At Any Cost: Metz 1870 is a great addition to everyone’s gaming library.

Armchair General Score: 90%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play): 4

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the great review, but there are, at least, three other games in the “Blind Swords” series, not two: Stonewall’s Sword: the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Thunder in the Ozarks: The Battle of Pea Ridge and Longstreet Attacks: The Second Day at Gettysburg (all from Revolution Games) and that doesn’t count “Duel of Eagles II” from White Dog Games and its earlier iterations. But those were mini-versions of AAC.

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