Gravelotte 1870, designed by Fred Serval, is the first game ‘published’ by Cardboard Emperors. It comes free with the first issue of Punched. It’s a fast paced and exciting rock-paper-scissors type of game. You can download the rules and components for print and play via the link below. There is also a Tabletop Simulator module here.

Directly below you can read Fred’s designer notes, and below that his notes on the historical backdrop to the game.

Designer Notes

This design is inspired by a Japanese game on the battle of Mukden that I brought back from a trip to Tokyo in Autumn 2018 (Houten 1905, by the designer Shownan). I enjoyed Shownan’s game quite a bit, as it was an interesting small bluffing game with a historical theme. I felt at the time that there was probably an opportunity to expand a bit on the core system by introducing some more thematic elements, which could make it more satisfying as a historical representation.

Two years later, I had completely forgotten about that idea when James reached out to see if I could contribute a mini-game for his first issue of Punched. This popped back into my mind and I started frantically looking through my collection to find Houten 1905. While re-reading the rules translation by Rob Duman, I wondered what battle I could apply the system to. As I am currently working on a game about the first two weeks of the Franco-Prussian War, the battle of Gravelotte/St. Privat felt like an obvious choice.

I made a deck and a map by implementing the ideas that I had two years prior:

  • Introduce asymmetry by changing the Fatigue Values of the cards
  • Add a layer of decision-making by introducing play-once Asset cards
  • Introduce some historical elements with the Bazaine mechanic and the Asset effects

My wargame nemesis and design compass, Joe Dewhurst, was once again available to help me refine the game. With his help, I could make sense of the rules and make it an almost polished game. In his own words, the game is “surprisingly good”!

For a design made at such short notice, I must say I am quite pleased with the results, and I hope that you’ll enjoy playing this small card driven game of rock-paper-scissors. And when you play it, keep this (slightly modified) quote from Clausewitz in mind: “war, of all branches of human activity, most closely resembles a game of cards.”


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Historic notes

The beginning of the end : The battle of Gravelotte – St. Privat on the 18th of August 1870

Start of the Franco-Prussian War

After Bismarck took power in 1862, as Minister President and Foreign Minister, Prussia quickly took the path of a Unified Germany. This union was built through clever internal politics and ‘defensive’ wars against neighbours: Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and finally France in 1870. The war with France was provoked by a minor diplomatic incident around the succession of the Spanish Throne. This quickly escalated to a full conflict between the two Empires, with France declaring war on Prussia on the 19th July 1870. Fighting began on the 2nd of August, when General Frossard and his II Corps crossed the frontier and occupied the border city of Saarbrücken. France, with an unprepared but confident French army, was facing a military genius: Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke.

After only 15 days, the French army’s leadership, headed by Marechal Bazaine, was showing its organisational limits, especially during the deployment phase. Though this was partially compensated by the quality of its troops and some technical advantages: the ‘Chassepot’ rifle and the Mitrailleuse. On the 17th of August, Prussian troops advanced toward the citadel of Metz, surrounding the French ‘Army of the Rhine’ in a pincer movement following the battle of Mars-la-tour, and blocking any potential retreat to Verdun. The final push happened the following day, when the Prussian First and Second Army led an offensive from the west of Metz, eventually forcing the French army to retreat into the citadel.

The battle

At 8am, French cavalry detects troop movements coming from the west toward the French army’s position outside of Metz. German troops are moving blindly: Moltke knows that Bazaine’s troops are somewhere on his east, but he still has to discover where they are and how extended his position is. Moltke’s plan is simple: the Second Army will advance from Mars-La-Tour toward St. Privat, covering the First Army’s advance toward Gravelotte. 

It is 9am when Bazaine receives the first report on movement toward his centre. The Second Army’s flank is exposed but Bazaine asks his troops to hold their position. An hour and a half later, the Second Army turns right and advances toward the French centre. Thinking that they are surrounding the French army, Moltke orders them to begin the offensive.

At noon, the Prussian’s still haven’t advanced far. The German command realises that the French front is extending further up north than expected, and that the infamous French Mitrailleuse are terribly efficient in close range. Von Steinmetz, heading the First Army, only realises this at 2.30pm, when he launches a reckless offensive on the French right flank, targeting a heavily defended position across the Mance Ravin.

Tactical adjustments are made, and at 4 pm the Prussian army now has a full line from St. Privat to the Moselle River to face the French position. The brand new Krupp canons are massed to support the offensive on the center. At around 5pm, under the command of Prince Frederick Charles, the Second Army with the support of the Prussian Imperial Guard starts an assault on the northern edge of the front: St. Privat.

On the German right, troops start to panic and disengage from the battle, but the massive assault on the left against tired and decimated French troops proves to be decisive. It is 8pm when Canrobert’s men start retreating. The French army is now outflanked and Bourbaki, in charge of the French Imperial Guard, refuses to commit his reserve in a useless attempt to turn the tide of the battle. The battle is all but over, and the German’s have won, signalling the beginning of the end of the war.

The Aftermath

The number of casualties are atrocious, revealing the dramatic change brought by technical innovations such as breech-loading guns and rifles. The Prussians lost in total around 20,000 men. The French army just under 8,000 (with another roughly 4,000 taken prisoner). For the Prussians the right flank was particularly ugly: 4,000 casualties in Steinmetz’s ranks, to just lost 621 by Frossard.

This was the largest battle of the Franco-Prussian war, and – as was often the case for the battles at the beginning of this campaign – the battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat could be considered a tactical victory for the French but a strategic victory for the Prussians. French troops held their ground and inflicted significantly more casualties on the army of the North German Confederation. But the strategic result was catastrophic: France’s main army was completely surrounded and would stay stuck in Metz until the Emperor’s defeat in Sedan a couple of weeks later.

Notice that on German historical maps of the era, French troops were represented in red, and Prussian in blue. For this reason, I decided to keep this colour scheme in Gravelotte 1870, even if the convention in wargaming is to represent French units in blue. I personally don’t have an issue with this as my first design, Red Flag Over Paris, has France represented in both colours (Communards and Versailles forces).

Historic representation in the game ‘Gravelotte 1870’

Even if Gravelotte 1870 is a (very) light board game, it integrates some historical representation of the battle:

  • The deck represents the efforts on the different fronts.
  • The Reserve cards contrast Bazaine’s incertitude with Moltke’s efficiency.
  • France’s tactical advantage due to its defensive position is shown by having cards with lower fatigue values.
  • The Asset cards representing France’s mitrailleuse, the key generals, notably the reckless Steinmetz, and the Imperial Guard led by General Bourbaki.

With all of these historical insights in mind, you should be able to come up with a relevant strategy for each faction, making it more interesting than a pure game of luck and bluff.

Have fun!


Gravelotte-St-Privat 1870, End of the Second Empire, Philipp Elliot-Wright, Osprey Publishing, 1993

Supplying War, Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Martin Van Creveld,  Cambridge University Press, 1977