The Battle of Waterloo: A Comparative Exercise, Part 2
Our resident Napoleonicist continues to compare all things Waterloo side-by-side, and ratcheting up the difficulty level on the games ~
Jim Owczarski, 21 May 2016
The nice part about doing a series is one can leave aside the preliminary pleasantries and leap to the business at hand. For those who missed the first journey into the world of wargaming Waterloo (I may need to trademark alliteration that strong), it’s here.
For those already up to speed, what follows is a discussion of some of the medium-weight games to take up this greatest of battles.
It may surprise some that I do not find Richard Borg’s Command and Colors: Napoleonics to be a light wargame. It is, after all, the direct descendant of Memoir ’44, likely the greatest gateway wargame ever made. It borrows its predecessor’s left-center-right battlefield construction; units, though blocks and not little plastic man, are still formed of a few markers each; a hand of cards drawn from a common deck that shares many similarities with Memoir drives the action; and combat is resolved with dice that have symbols rather than pips.
As he did with Command and Colors: Ancients, though, Mr. Borg tweaked the system in ways that make if feel a good deal more Napoleonic — if the button-counters will never be quite satisfied. Unlike every other game in the system, units no longer roll the same number of dice as they take casualties; they become weaker on offense as casualties are sustained. Although I know the estimable Glenn Frank Drover dissents, he built an elegant mechanic for the forming of square by infantry confronted with cavalry charges, viz.: for each unit sent into square, the player must yield a command card from his hand. The unit will be almost invulnerable to cavalry charge, but his already limited command choices get even narrower. One seemingly small change with big results is the decision to greatly restrict the movement of infantry units. Line infantry plods along at a mere hex per turn making the distinction between it and the more fleet-of-hoof cavalry all the more dramatic.
The biggest difference between this game and Memoir, though, and the thing that has kept it out of the “simple” category to me, is the way Mr. Borg chose to handle national differences. When resolving combat, great care must be taken to distinguish between, British line while firing (it receives a bonus die) as opposed to French line in melee (it, too, receives that bonus die). British line meleeing and French line firing, however, gets no bonus at all. This gets particularly convoluted when trying to figure out modifiers for units firing into a melee, which is permissible, as opposed to units of that same nation when they themselves are the units engaged. At Waterloo, the soldiers of Wellington’s allies — all of them — are required to retreat more hexes on flag results than their notionally more resolute peers from the United Kingdom. As subsequent modules have come out, there are now five expansions with a sixth on the way, each nation has received a similar tweak requiring attention to the national ability cards provided in ample quantities in each box.
But this is, after all, an article about Waterloo and in this Command and Colors: Napoleonics just isn’t all it could be. The battle is provided as a scenario in the base game running at what feels to be the level of one unit being equal to a corps. Like The Universal Military Simulator a generation before, it inexplicably omits the Prussians. I know that’s what the Duke of Wellington himself wanted to do as he told the tale, but in a wargame that just cannot do.
Part of the problem is also the cramped confines of the map. Waterloo is a sweeping battle in the minds of those that love it and, especially for a tactical game, playing it in a space this small never feels quite right. As a side note, the sixth expansion will include Mr. Borg’s long-expected La Grande Battles (yeah, I don’t get it either) rules which will permit Austerlitz and Vimero to be played on an 11 X 26 battlefield. One can only assume that a Waterloo scenario will be forthcoming.
The order of battle is a bit weird as well, although, in a game like this, too much precision cannot be expected. At this scale, placing a special unit of rifle lights into the sandpit strikes me as far too much Sharpe and far too little good OoB design.
Please don’t misunderstand: this is a great series and a great system and, especially for the smaller battles, it’s a great way to introduce yourself to Napoleonics. I would be remiss, since I’ve already mentioned his name, if I did not mention that Mr. Drover once possessed 28mm figures sufficient to mount both the battles of Borodino and Leipzig using his own epic modification of this system. It allowed convention games to be played at which either battle could be fought to a conclusion in a four-hour time slot. This is no mean feat. This system has yet, however, to treat the greatest battle well.
While we’re on the topic of blocks, the folks at Vento Nuovo games have made quite a reputation for themselves creating consims that come with roughly a hojillion of them (h/t Penny Arcade). Not wanting to let a perfectly good anniversary pass, they created Waterloo 200, a mid-weight, area-based tactical take on the battle.
Conceptually, the game is very much in keeping with the modern trends in gaming generally and wargaming in particular. Initial placement is not strict; instead, areas are designated for certain corps and blocks are randomly chosen from those available to that corps, the remainder being set aside as possible reserves. Blocks are placed facing away from one’s opponent so, in proper block game fashion, Wellington is never quite sure what Reille has as he marches toward Hougoumont. This also adds a bit of replayability to the game.
Rote “IGOUGO” turns where each side alternates moving and shooting all its pieces are replaced by alternating activations by commanders who direct both movement and firing. The number of these activations per commander is limited over the course of the game so players have to husband them for key moments. Both movement costs and stacking are regulated by the color of individual spaces, which indicate types of terrain. One interesting choice is the creation of a special series of spaces, with attendant rules, that represent the ridge behind which Wellington sheltered his troops.
There are certainly some things missing, however. No consideration is given to formations including squares, reasonable enough I suppose given the scale. Cavalry are quick, but they don’t seem to have the speed I wanted them to. And it could be my inability to manage logistics, but the stacking regularly seemed to prevent my ability to mount assaults in areas of the battlefield I really thought I should have been able to.
On the component side of things, I sprang for the deluxe board and it is no joke: heavy, colorful, and sturdy. Special credit should be given to the obvious concern given to getting the ground scale correct — something that’s too often missed. Given the stacking restrictions, however, and the size of this board, there is no reason why Vento Nuovo should have opted for the small blocks that it did. There are certainly a lot of young folks who play games, but there’s also a great many of us who are having a harder and harder time making out tiny print and Columbia Games-size blocks and the similarly larger labels would have been welcome. I would also like to have a heart-to-heart with the sadist who decided that it was better to use a cluster of teeny horse’s hooves rather than a number for movement points.
Waterloo 200, especially with the deluxe board, is not a cheap game, but it’s likely the best mid-level tactical simulation of the battle available.
As Waterloo is history’s greatest battle (cf. the original article in this series on this topic), the Kriegsspiel is the greatest of wargames. Double-blind, umpired, map games are the finest way to experience the command friction, imperfect knowledge, and simple tension of generalship in the pre-modern era. I would also note that, when done properly, they make one feel like the Victorian gentleman many of us wish we had been born to be. I will, therefore, be eternally grateful to Pratzen Editions for its Le Vol de L’Aigle which allows one to experience a division-level Kriegsspiel of the Waterloo campaign.
Reisswitz’s original 1824 Kriegsspiel, as every schoolboy knows, is a battalion-level simulation pitting a fictional Red nation against a fictional Blue one and borrows heavily from the weapons, tactics, and casualty levels of the Prussian army. In its use of an umpire to oversee double-blind map movement, however, the Kriegsspiel not only inspired Gary Gygax to create the dungeon master, but it also inspired Dr. Didier Rouy to create an operational level game of Napoleonic warfare played on period maps.
The game itself is simple. Units are divisions and receive a combat rating equivalent to their strengths in thousands.
Movement is plotted in advance and then resolved by an umpire on maps similar to those that would have been used by the commanders of the era. As a consequence, large features like rivers, mountains, and forests are present, but details are omitted.
Units on the march are represented by lines, typically only as wide as a pen mark, crawling along the road or other terrain. Attention must be paid to the amount of space taken up by road columns, something that is missed by other games. In my own experience, new players are often stunned by just how long a division in road column was. These lines crawl towards one another — patrols can be regularly sent out — until units meet in combat.
Depending on the scenario, the time between game start and combat will vary dramatically. Once the fight begins, though, battles are set up separately from the main maps and the commanders in the area resolve them using combat strengths, simple modifiers, and buckets of dice. Units are placed in the “battle area” as they arrive — again, remembering how long it can take the entirety of a unit in march column to arrive at a battlefield — and units can be marched to the sound of the guns to join an affray already in progress. Battles end when the morale of one side or the other collapses or a commander chooses to withdraw.
Le Vol de L’Aigle is now comprised of three different volumes, each of which is more evolved and therefore complicated than the last. In my mind, the first volume is all one really needs to experience a top-flight Napoleonic Kriegsspiel, although the errata and clarifications of the later volumes are useful. Like all things Kriegsspiel, though, the downside of the otherwise magnificent Le Vol de L’Aigle is the need for multiple players and an umpire, the latter having to bear a fairly sizeable burden of preparation and administration. If you can manage it, there is no better way to game any Napoleonic campaign. The Waterloo campaign, although not part of the original release, is available as a free download from the Pratzen Editions’ website.
Victory Point Games’ “20” series is one of the better examples of the freedom the modern market has given designers to think differently. It’s premise is simple: design an operational-level game in which there are no more than 20 units on the board at any time. Components are, especially in the later iterations, of a better quality as there are fewer of them and the maps, though small, have typically been well done. While other periods have been represented, the Napoleonic era has received the most attention with battles from the Atlantic through to Borodino on offer.
Fading Glory was one of the few children to come of the marriage between VPG and industry-leader GMT Games. It was their attempt to bring the Napoleonic games in the “20” series up to GMT standards and the broader gaming market that GMT can access. It remains a great regret on my part that the P500 for Rising Glory, the next game planned in the series, never took off.
Whether in the VPG or GMT version, Waterloo 20 is a splendid little game of the campaign. Units are corps or, occasionally, divisions and are maneuvered over the familiar campaign area on a map with a scale of one mile per hex. Although it’s given as an optional rule, I cannot imagine playing this game without the fog of war created by inverting unit counters until proximity demands they be revealed.
The greatest resource in the game is morale as the loss of all of a side’s morale points causes it to be judged defeated. Morale, however, is not only lost through casualties. It can be spent to rally lost troops, force-march units, and, occasionally, add a die-roll modifier to a battle. I say occasionally because, while powerful, morale points are far too precious to be spent this way frequently.
The game also uses a small card deck made up of random events related to the campaign. Cards are drawn at the start of each player’s turn and can be boon or bane. Some have two different effects, one being chosen depending on the player drawing the card. Some dislike this sort of thing thinking it too random or too deterministic by turns, but I have found it helps create a sense of the campaign and doesn’t overpower play.
Combat runs on a differential system and uses a single die roll. Combat results feel appropriate to the scale with routs being reversible and even broken units being replaceable by smaller cadre units under an optional rule.
Those who point out that the “20” system, with its limited number of troops and smallish map, neglects significant aspects of operational Napoleonic warfare cannot be gainsaid. Missing out on games like this that try something original just for that reason is pedantry of the worst sort.
Before closing this chapter of our visit to Belgium, I want to nod to two small, medium-weight games that, rather than trying to tell the whole story, take up portions of the battle of Waterloo and do so to good effect.
The first is Hougoumont: The Rock of Waterloo that appeared in Command magazine. Focused, unsurprisingly, on the famous farm, it’s a game that feels like the Alamo, with the outnumbered Allies trying desperately to fend off waves of Frenchmen and, above all else, keep that main gate closed. The map is a pretty good guide to the farm as it was in June 1815 (I took it with me last year) and the gameplay is quick.
The second is Crisis on the Right: Plancenoit 1815 by White Dog Games. The Duke of Wellington famously wanted to write the Prussians out of his accounts of the great battle and this game does what it can to write them back in. The game features a small footprint and a manageable unit count, but does a serviceable job of depicting the fights that swirled around this little village during the battle. As the fighting in and around the church in Plancenoit was some of the bloodiest of the entire day, I am pleased to see a game like this try and redress this important omission in our consim historiography.
Special credit should also be given to the game pieces — lovely, laser-cut squares of wood — that, if they became universal in our hobby, would forever end the corner-rounding debate.
Before heading off into the Waterloo sunset (see what I did there?) the last part of this series will delve into that portion of Waterloo wargaming that many love and others shun like a Mennonite — the complex, “hard” simulations. One of the games considered may just have a title that rhymes with “rat tie”.