The long, long road to Waterloo
When it was originally released in 1978, Napoleon at Bay – an operational game of the 1814 campaign in France - made a considerable splash. Bill Haggart described it in Fire and Movement as “the first game to simulate with accuracy the critical nature of roads in Napoleonic warfare…the first game system to reflect in a realistic manner the logistical and administrative considerations of Napoleonic campaign…the first game to allow a player room to manoever with all the sweeping scope that made Napoleonic’s career so fascinating…a considerable advancement of the state of the art.”
High praise indeed.
Not only that, right off the bat, producers OSG promised a series of nine games using this system on each of Napoleon’s European campaigns, the Campaigns of Napoleon series. 20 years of genius, at a 2 day per turn, 2 mile per hex scale. I don’t mind admitting, I was excited…
As things happened, all of the series (except Spain) were eventually published…but it took nearly 30 years and 4 publishers. Coping with campaigns as varied as the four day, 75 mile Waterloo, and the six month, thousand mile invasion of Russia needed changes of scale. In the last game of the series – Habit of Victory – designer Kevin Zucker has collaborated with the father of the Card Driven Game, Mark Herman, to graft a CDG element to the system. NaB itself has seen three iterations, yet through it all the essence of the system remains unchanged.
I have always loved this system, and NaB in particular. Playing it while reading Petre’s book on the campaign is as close to living history as I’ve experienced. Still, no game monopolises my table, and it had been some time since it had seen daylight. When a couple of local gamers suggested a game recently, we took it for a three handed ride.
Living the Living rules
It takes enormous discipline and commitment for a designer to make a series rulebook work. The temptation exists to revise the series rules whenever a new idea works, and the poor player can rarely remember just which rulebook wrinkle belongs with which game. I don’t think Kevin Zucker has that discipline – every game in the series is different, in small, important and infuriating ways. Luckily for us, Zucker has his Berthier – gamer Dick Vohlers has produced an outstanding combined rulebook, with revised special rules. No praise is too high for Dick’s effort. It makes getting into the series a walk in the park compared to how it was a few years ago.
The system itself is of medium complexity, but as many of its mechanics have been reused in other games over the years, much is pretty familiar. It is intricate, and interconnected…
As has become commonplace, only two types of units appear on the map – Leaders (mainly corps) and Cavalry Vedettes. All of these are placed are face down, so there is real limited intelligence. Combat units – mainly divisions – are kept on off-map displays, one track per leader. Immediately, this is a game where recon and deception are vital. The map looks denuded of units…
Play is regulated by the supply of Administrative points, which flow along primary road-based Line of Communications from a side’s supply source (on the map edge) to the Centre of Operations, a kind of mobile HQ represented by a single on-map counter. This keeps players tied to the road net. Most of the time a player must react with extreme vigour to a threat – or even a feint – to his LoC.
Players use their Admin Points to generate Movement Commands, which allow leaders to move. Leaders who are not allocated commands can move if they roll less than their initiative level, otherwise they stay put. This simple mechanism goes along way toward putting the players in Napoleon’s or Wellington’s shoes. You move your commanded leaders first, but you never know if subsidiary leaders will actually march as you desire. And there’s more…
Actually moving units is fraught with danger. Units lose men to attrition – often a lot of men. The actual attrition losses are determined by the size of the moving force (large forces lose proportionately more men,) distance from the Centre of Ops, distance moved and, crucially, the number of Admin points the player has retained unused. As you can imagine, this leads to some hard choices.
Between movement and combat the opposing player has a reaction phase, during which reserves can and do march to the sound of the guns. With this rule and the high levels of limited intelligence, there is no factor counting in this game – you march as many troops as you can into critical battles, and hope for the best. As Napoleon said, “First one engages, and then one sees.”
Combat is a pretty standard odds-based process. Only the winning side takes losses – usually a few thousand troops. The losing side is forced to retreat a number of hexes. Its losses are determined by how hard the victor’s cavalry pursues. At a minimum the loser will suffer the same losses as the winner, but if the pursuit is effective, it can be wiped out. Pretty cool.
Finally, victory is determined by Paris morale, which is affected by the capture of a small number of important locations, or the result of large battles.
Lest there be any doubt, I love this system. It’s smart, low maintenance, plausible, thoroughly rooted in history and it’s stood the test of time.
Blundering to glory
So, how does it play, this grand daddy of operational games and probably the best combination of history and fun in any game I know.
We played using counter sleds for ease of play and to give the game a nicer look. However, even this was not enough to save the game's graphics from a savaging from the assembled gamers at Paddington Bears game club in Sydney. "Look how small the hexes are", they opined. "Ooh, those are old fashioned counters," they sneered. And the unkindest cut of all, "I could never play a game THAT old."
All three players had some experience of the system, and we had a three hour walk through the week before playing to make sure that we had everything straight, and had an idea of the campaign and terrain. We each read the rules twice in preparation for the big day. Yet, in 7 pretty gruelling hours of play we managed only five turns out of the 30 plus in the campaign game. We are not slow players either.
Despite players who would rather concede a rules point than debate for 10 minutes, we had an unseemly amount of rules riffling. To put it in context, there was one major battle during the day. In the heretofore unremarked battle of Vitry le Francois, Napoleon routed Blucher. At a cost of 3,000 French dead, after a vigorous pursuit 20,000 Prussians will fight no more. The moment when the approximate strengths were revealed, and the French player stated 50,000 to the horror of the Allies, was probably the highlight of the day.
Yet I am still uncertain as to whether it was legal (Napoleon force marched adjacent to Blucher, who was himself adjacent to a French Vedette) and I am struggling to find an example, either in 1814 or in the whole "Campaigns of Napoleon" where such a disparity of losses resulted.
So at the very least I'd have to put a slight question mark over both the history and fun elements of my earlier claim, though it certainly is, as the designer intended, a game of maneuver more than combat. Even now I would claim that the play of the game is more closely aligned with the key histories of the campaign (Chandler and Petre, in particular) than any equivalent system I know.
We recorded the positions and fought on, both face to face and by cyberboard; I have certainly enjoyed the game more in reflection than at the time.
What about the series?
My rather high level summary would be as follows:
This is a series whose primary strength is representing maneuver at an operational level. The main thing you need for maneuver is maneuver room, and so the multi maps games tend to show off the system better than the single map games. However the single map games tend to be simpler, with a more limited range of strategic options, and so may work better for new players.
So, of the single map games:
Napoleon at the Crossroads has great graphics, is available and in print, and has the advantage of being the most recent iteration of the rules. The size of the opposing forces, the terrain and the configuration of the map makes NaC in my opinion the single map game with the greatest amount of strategic variety, and as a 3x game it is a little less granular. However, it is the only 3x game and so you would have to unlearn a (small) number of things before moving on to the 2x games.
Sun of Austerlitz is also attractive and easily available. It provides a sensational insight into the campaign - which is both its strength and its weakness in my opinion. Basically, the Coalition are going to retreat and the French advance, and the campaign will all come down to a battle around Brunn. For a first game, this is probably a good thing, as the players can concentrate on mastering the system without being distracted by a bewildering array of strategic options.
Bonaparte in Italy (new version) also looks good, and is available. It falls somewhere between SoA and NaC in its scope for maneuver, and who doesn't want to match himself against Napoleon at the start of his rise to greatness? For me, the fact that only the later period of the campaign is covered causes BiI to lose a couple of marks, but that's just personal taste.
The Emperor Returns is a very attractive game for its age. It also has the box office subject of Waterloo. However, it needs a welter of special rules to cover the 1 day scale and the invasion period, and so is probably the most difficult and least representative of the 2x games. It also can follow quite predictable paths, depending on the French choice of which invasion route to follow.
Now to the multi map games:
Napoleon at Bay is the granddaddy of the system, still looks good, and show cases everything that is great about the system. Plenty of room to maneuver, an object lesson in how an outnumbered, higher quality force should use the central position. And a surprisingly small number of special rules allow history to be represented as well as in any game I know. If you read Chandler or Petre while playing NaB you will feel like you were really there.
Struggle of Nations is too hard for a first game; if you absolutely positively have to be in 1813 then play NaC.
Highway to the Kremlin is another classic. It is becoming harder to find I think. Rivals NaB in every way, but as the sole 5x game (so far) then it is probably not quite such a good choice as NaB as a starter game.
Bonaparte in Italy (original version) is pretty hard to find, and graphically the counters in particular have not aged well. Features two great campaigns though.
I can't comment on 1807 as I have never played it. With Habit of Victory now released, it may be better to try another game first.
I have never really warmed to 1809. I remember feeling so let down that it came without a historical booklet - and that from Victory Games, who were a class above everyone else at the time in the effort they spent on game components. It takes a lot of room to play, over 7 ft in length, from memory. And if I remember correctly, the French can do a slightly ahistorical opening maneuver which surrounds the Austrians at unfavourable odds (Napoleon has to be a subordinate leader to Davout, which for some reason always grated.) Decent game though and at $15 or so is a total bargain.
To summarise then:
- they are all good games
- the differences between them are of degree - you won't really go far wrong trying any of them first, with the exception of Struggle of Nations
- of the one mappers, I would start with SoA
- of the multi mappers, NaB would be my slight preference
Hope that helps.
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Yep Zucker and Petre are a great combination.
NAB series is probably one of the finest operational systems around. There are a lot of concepts mirrored in my other favourite, the "Great Campaigns of the American Civil War" series by Joe Balkoski and Ed Beach.
Unfortunately, in my last Campaign of NAB, Boney was surrounded by Prussians just North of Paris and captured...game over!
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The above was both educational and amusing. Educational because I had no idea that so many Napoleonic games were based on a single system. Amusing because I was once given (and still own) the one game the OP said shouldn't be one's introduction to the system - Struggle of Nations.
I agree that this is a good - that is, realistic - system, simulating - in the case of SoN - the grinding down of the French armies because they were trying to do too much with too little logistics and infrastructure; also the inability of allied armies to act effectively in coordination with each other. I would probably have bought more of the series had I started with any other title, and I say this only because of the huge chunk of my life my one solitaire campaign game took up. I couldn't keep the game set up between turns, so once or twice a week spent an hour setting it up, a couple of hours playing and an hour recording and putting it away. And how much of that time was spent poring through the (70-page?) rulebook is not anything I want to repeat.
I did really like the way the board looked, with just the rectangular leader counters with either inf or cav symbols on them. On the reverse side were just arrows, representing these units on the march. No movement factors, no combat factors, no numbers at all. The board looked as much like a battle map from a history book as it could be. The square counters with MFs and CFs were relegated to the off-board army displays, where they could be switched between commanders at appropriate times. IIRC, there were no artillery counters; this strength was considered intrinsic to certain formations.
In the game I played, the French just managed to take Dresden before the armistice, and when the armistice ended they crossed the Elbe and set out for Berlin. The allies, Prussians and Swedes I think, blocked their path, but would withdraw a hex or two at a time so as to draw the French away from their supply source while avoiding battle -- historical, I think. I was unable, despite many attempts, to switch the French supply source to a safer (i.e., further north) spot, and finally some Austrian cavalry came up from the south and severed the supply line. That forced Napoleon to withdraw in haste, but the French had foolishly allowed Prussian cavalry to get behind them and capture the bridging point at Torgau. That meant they had to scatter like chaff toward a further north bridge, and they never made it. They were finally forced to give up enough morale points to lose.
Excellent simulation, unbelievable complexity!
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- BulldozersUnited States
Thanks for the review and for providing the history behind the "series"
It is great to get some more of the history behind some of these Napoleonic classics.
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I started with "at Bay" and went into to 1809 from there. I finally found the original version of "in Italy" on eBay a couple of years ago but to my shame it has yet to hit the table.
Like you I dislike 1809 not only for the reason you outline (we simply never allow higher ranked leaders to be subordinate to lower so your ahistorical opening has never occurred) but also as it revealed a problem with the attrition system. If you use the alternative set up and try to force march the Austrians into Bavaria in the historical fashion it is almost impossible with historical weather. Unless some very very lucky roles are made the Austrians will both come up short due to failed force march rolls and will end up with far fewer troops left than historically.
The same applies to a lesser extent in "at Bay" - if you try to move between two historical set ups you soon discover what I can only conclude is an in-built bias in favour of the French. Frankly this is a feature of many older US-designed Napoleonic games which show up as ahistorical hagographies in praise of Napoleon.
Fortunately Zucker's system is elegant enough that all that is required is a tweeking of APs, LoC rules and the attrition tables to recalibrate them so you "on average" will get historical results when simply moving over the hexgrids at historical speeds.
Sadly I have not had the time and energy to complete and play test that task but it is a problem I hope to return to one day as it is a great system. I only know the original version not any of the more modern system changes so perhaps somebody can advise if this has already been addressed by existing adenda. I would not be surprised as it is an obvious flaw that I cannot have been the first to discover.
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- Dick VohlersUnited States
"Luckily for us, Zucker has his Berthier – gamer Dick Vohlers has produced an outstanding combined rulebook, with revised special rules. No praise is too high for Dick’s effort."
Thanks, David, for the compliment. I have to say my motives were not altruistic--I created those rules for my own benefit. I'm please, though, that others have found them useful.
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You're very welcome, Dick - not only was it an enormous task, your combined rulebook puts most "professional" rulebooks to shame.
It ties the whole series together, in my opinion.
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One thing that has always bugged me is the following situation:
You attack at say 2:1, pick pitched battle and you get a 2-2 result where you retreat. But instead, you (both) lose 2 SP since you picked pitched. Now the other guy has to attack you at 1:3 and can roll a 1-8 result!
One should always have the option to retreat instead of counteratttacking.
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My son and I have spent the last day and a half trying to understand the rules for NaB. Is it me, or are they a difficult read?
I've played a number of games and find the rules in this are the hardest to grasp the way it is written They appear to need a good editing. Have glanced at the revised rules file here, might help a bit.
We hope to get our game started tonight.
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The rules are not easy to read, so no, it is not just you. In addition, everything is made harder by the way the rules split between series and specific rules.
Dick Vohlers' combined rules are better presented, but it is still a bit tricky first time up.
The good news is that the actual system is easier to play than the rules make it appear.
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We decided to start at scenario 2 since it was short, and have kept playing a couple turns past. My son has a gift of memory and has most of the rules down, I am still struggling.
The game does draw you in--somehow as a result of positioning after advancing after combat, the French (my son) managed to overrun both of my C Ops. I see what is meant in the original post about protecting them (in hindsight). We are ignoring the bridge rules for now. I managed to get a cavalry unit headed towards Paris (but currently out of suply) and Napoleon is nervous,
How popular are board games in Australia?
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One thing about NaB is that there is plenty of manoeuvre room, and plenty of ways for Napoleon to cover Paris.
Gaming is a minority hobby down here, but there are really good and active gaming communities in the capital cities. Here in Sydney we have a monthly group with around 30 members, so you can usually find an opponent for whatever you want to play.
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Thanks, David! One of the favorite games of a friend and I. As you mention, Struggle of Nations is the hardest of the bunch and not one to begin with. It was, of course, the first one I purchased and played. We struggled through the rule book and mechanics but, I seem to recall, had a great time nonetheless. (I think that is still the only wargame with hexes of that size.)
Since the semester has just ended and I have some time to relax a bit, NaB may be the one that hits the table this week to tinker with.
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