The Battle of Waterloo: A Comparative Exercise
What happens when our resident Napoleonicist compares all things Waterloo side-by-side(-by-side-by-side-by-side)? ~
Jim Owczarski, 23 April 2016
With respect to E.S. Creasy, lists of “greatest” or “most significant” battles are best left as the stuff of coffee shop debate or oversized, remaindered tomes available at your local discount book store. There’s just too much that goes into defining sprawling words like “greatest” that prevents the conversation from being useful much less dispositive.
That said, Waterloo is the greatest battle ever. Ever. I will not subject this to further debate.
Let us instead, at the request of the editorial staff hereabouts, visit some of the many consims to take up the battle, and, along the way, talk about how approaches to the battle have changed over the years. This is not a complete list and it is a subjective one, but I hope it gives you a small window into the world of Waterloo gaming — a place where I have spent an awful lot of time. Lest the tyro turn away at first glance, let the story begin with the simpler games that offer to take the player back to mid-June 1815.
I must here confess that I don’t think over-much of the Avalon Hill classic “Waterloo”. It’s not that both the board and the counters are, putting the matter generously, merely serviceable.
It’s not the mind-bending decision, which I remember puzzling over 30 years ago and have never had explained since, that the board’s “hexes” be called “squares”. These things, it seems likely to me, were a product of their time and the whole package can, if properly understood, give the gamer interested in the history of his hobby a lesson in the struggles early designers had to build games that were both historical and playable. Honestly, I’ve always been fond of the rule that declares you’re not supposed to move any of your pieces while your opponent is moving his.
My root problem is that the game, released in 1962, really has little to do with Napoleonic warfare or the Battle of Waterloo. The map is inaccurate, one notable error being the omission of the ridges behind which the Duke of Wellington famously hid his troops. Units are undifferentiated bundles of infantry, cavalry, and artillery which are assigned combat values which are compared and assessed in ratios laid out on the same combat results table (CRT) that Avalon Hill used in both “D-Day” and “Stalingrad”. There is no fog of war, even the Allies’ arrival on-board is preset, and no command and control (C2); the large number of HQ counters included in the game are notionally intended to allow a multi-player game, but otherwise have no game effect.
I also dislike the strange attrition rule by which the French player can remove double the value of Allied units for every strength point of French units exited from the board on the road to Brussels. This, my instincts and strategy articles lead me to suspect, is to make attainable the French victory condition which requires the destruction of the entire Allied army. How it can be explained as a matter of history is something else entirely.
“Waterloo” is a classic of the form and a fairly engaging game, particularly, I suspect, for those who like chess. As an historical consim, though, it’s hard to recommend.
I wish I could have been there when Columbia Games’ Tom Dalgliesh (I choose to believe it was him, whatever the facts) first set a wooden block on its edge and realized it would be a fine way to build fog of war into a wargame. One of the fruits of that revelation is “Napoleon” – now in its fourth edition – an operational and tactical game of the Waterloo campaign. Originally released in 1974, everyone but the archivist is directed to the fourth edition which is a highly polished product of a successful Kickstarter and which solves some of the ugly problems, notably block clutter, introduced into the system in the third edition.
The map, which in the fourth edition is wonderful, covers the familiar swath of Belgium surrounding Waterloo.
The game uses a point-to-point movement system instead of hexes, however, and both large and small municipalities are connected by both highways and minor roads. These latter form an important part of the game’s strategy as only a certain number of units may be moved over each kind of road.
Units come in French, British-Allied, and Prussian-Allied varieties.
It’s worth noting that this is one of those rare wargames that plays very well with three players. The “story” of the game is brutally simple: the French have got to get their units between the British and the Prussians before they can join up. Easier said than done given the limited number of units that can be moved along a particular road. The greatest weapon the French have is the fog of war caused by the blocks. As units are placed on their edges facing away from their foes (think “Stratego”), the Allies are never quite sure where the French have hidden their best troops. The only way to find out is to have two groups of units meet in a single location and have the action moved to a four-sectioned battle mat for resolution.
On that mat, units in combat are divided into “left”, “right”, “center”, and “reserves” groups. Only those in the first three can fight and only artillery can attack without stepping forward to engage the enemy. Each block is rated for a certain combat value that determines how many dice it can roll to hit. Hits are scored each time a “to hit” die achieves a result at or above a number that varies with the unit’s firepower. Losses are tracked by rotating the blocks to placed their reduced strengths at the top. Combats end when one of the three main columns is denuded of troops or one side chooses to retreat.
There’s a little bit of chrome sprinkled onto the above, i.e., units forming square, units and leaders sheltering in square, terrain chits for tactical battles and the like, but the game never quite leaves the “simple” category. And that is an excellent thing. In the puzzle of wondering where to strike — or where your opponent will strike — and of wondering how not to have your troops caught out on the difficult road grid of early 19th Century Belgium, “Napoleon” really helps the modern commander understand what Wellington meant when he said the whole of war lies in discovering what is on the other side of the hill.
It’s also worth mentioning that this game blends almost seamlessly with Columbia Games’ “Eagles” collectible card game, also based on the battle of Waterloo. Once a costly investment when purchased in starter and booster packs, a complete bronze set of the cards is available on the company’s website for just under $60. With these in hand, you can use “Eagles” to resolve the battles created in “Napoleon”. The unit cards each represent a block and the more elaborate combat rules of “Eagles”, though based entirely on those in “Napoleon”, add some nice flavor to the experience. It also, of course, adds substantially to the play time, but I’ve always found it worth the effort.
As I sit in my game cave staring at a shelf of consims built by the legendary Kevin Zucker, I find it hard to believe that the same man who designed games like “Napoleon at Leipzig (Fifth Edition!!!)” and “Napoleon’s Last Gamble” once upon a time revolutionized Napoleonic gaming with one of the true classics of the genre, “Napoleon’s Last Battles” (NLB). Whenever I talk about this game I start to rave a bit, but I’ll try to stick to the point.
Released by S.P.I. in 1976, this brigade-level game is actually one of the famous S.P.I. quads that includes Ligny, Wavre, and Quatre Bras along with Waterloo.
While graphics evolved between “Waterloo” and NLB, the game is not to be compared with modern lovelies like those that Zucker’s own Operational Studies Group is producing today. The map, while a distinct improvement in terms of accuracy, is entirely 1970s earth tones and the counters are in basic primary colors. (As an aside, I far prefer the original counters to any of those included in the miss-able Decision Games reprints.)
Units are rated by combat value and movement capacity. There’s no hidden movement and, in the basic game, no C2.
The CRT, however, was and is something special. While controversial to some, it is surprisingly bloodless, preferring retreats to eliminations and even threatening nasty exchanges, situations where defenders are eliminated but attackers have to remove an identical number of factors, to high-odds attackers. This, along with hard-locking zones of control, results in lines of troops that push at one another in struggles for ground, rather than ahistorical battles of outright elimination. Retreating troops can only be destroyed if they’re surrounded by either enemies or enemy zones of control so careful players can manage withdrawals against all but the most determined and powerful attacks.
All this makes the four games by themselves worth playing. What makes this game special, however, is the campaign game that brings all four together. Not only is the resulting four-map game satisfying large, but the game introduces a simple C2 system requiring the presence of army and corps commanders to effectively maneuver troops. Commanders are assigned command radii and, in additional to ordering units, can also be used to reconstitute previously eliminated units, although at a diminished strength.
The wonder of it is that the game still plays as well as it does 40 years after its release. I’ve got two copies and am in search of one of the Designer Editions that came with a mounted board. While there have been some necessary tweaks to the game’s OOB, some of which were due to recent scholarship, the low counter density and simple, clean rules make this a game that my eight-year-old son not only understands but enjoys.
Mr. Zucker has been hammering away at essentially this system ever since the release of NLB and has added things that were surprisingly omitted (cavalry charges) and also made it much more complex. I own many of these later editions and games and will discuss one of them in a subsequent article in this series, but, for me, this remains one of the great games on Waterloo and one of the best wargames ever designed.
In 2015, a tiny Finnish company named U&P Games set the equally tiny Napoleonic gaming community on its ear when it released “W1815”. Shipping in a ziplock bag with a cardstock map, a small pack of cards, and a bunch of wooden blocks, this is one of the most delightful games about Waterloo you’ll ever play.
Built for two players, though it plays very well solo, each side is given a set of cards that are placed around the small map. Each card describes the abilities of either a French or an Allied corps that is, in turn, represented on the battlefield by wooden blocks. Players take turns activating one of these corps and trying to reduce their opponent’s strength. Attack odds are printed directly on the corps cards and are resolved with a single die roll. There are also special cubes meant to represent the famous grand battery from the French center-right as well as the skirmishers who held La Haie Sainte and Hougomont.
All this is simple enough, but the strategy comes in choosing the right corps at the right moment and, for the Allies, determining when to deploy reserves against an initially superior French attacking force. As casualties mount, lost units are placed onto a morale track that also serves as a game clock. When enough troops of a side are placed there, that side must begin rolling for a final rout that gets more likely as blocks are added.
The map is lovely — I’ve a nice copy framed — the units feel right if highly abstracted, and the whole business can be played to a decision in 15 minutes.
C2, fog of war, and the intricacies of consim are nowhere to be found save in some of the abstract choices, many of which are nicely evocative those faced at Waterloo. The only challenge with this one is finding a copy. The company has run through two editions and every time a supply pops up here and there it seems to vanish just as quickly.
Finally, a quick honorable mention: “Stratego: Waterloo 200”. I brought this game home with me from Waterloo in my luggage last August and have never regretted the effort.
My very first strategy game was “Stratego” and getting to play a version of it on a nice map of the battlefield, with units representing actual regiments from the battle is pretty cool. The rules, while among the most beautifully illustrated I’ve seen, are extremely simple. Some of them are poorly written, however, and one of the critical ones (pursuit) is so badly done that it can only be understood by watching the designer play it out in a YouTube video. Still, I’d never turn down a chance to play this one.
Thanks for coming along this far on the journey. Next time, we’ll visit with “medium” games and see many, many more blocks.