The Battle of Waterloo: A Comparative Exercise, Part 3
In the finale of our Waterloo comparisons, our resident Napoleonicist continues his side-by-side comparisons with the groggiest of the grog games ~
Jim Owczarski, 23 July 2016
The 201st anniversary of the Great Battle has passed, Spring has turned to the heat of Summer, and, for those who have come this far, it’s time to explore the rarefied air breathed by the more complex simulations of the Battle of Waterloo. (ed note, links to read part 1 and part 2)
I begin with a game to which I react much like that famous speech from the end of so many relationships, viz.: “it’s not you, it’s me.” Martin Wallace is one of the great Euro-game designers of our time and there’s much conceptually to admire in his “Waterloo”, but, despite my best efforts, I’ve never been able to bring myself to love it the way some do.
And, may I say, it’s not the Boneymeeples, Napoleo-toys, or whatever other insults you choose to heap on the game’s components. They’re certainly not what we’re used to seeing in games of this type; infantry that look like clothespins, cavalry straight out of “Flick ’em Up”, and cardboard cutout-looking cannon. The box comes with a pile of these bits, in colors that are occasionally too close to one another for their own good, along with activation chits and disks, damage markers, and all manner of other wooden detritus that reminds us we are playing a Euro.
It’s not the map either, which even Mr. Wallace concedes is far from scale, and is remarkably bland considering its origins in a form that cherishes vibrant components. This map looks all the worse in comparison to the other area-based treatment of this battle, “Waterloo 200”.
Where “Waterloo” and I parted company, I think, was in its attempt to bring a level of complexity to a game that, if I’ve sussed out the mechanics correctly, is really a resource allocation game overlaid on a battle.
Troops are deployed in strengths rather than units meaning that none of the warmeeples can be identified with an historical counterpart.
Turns begin by determining whether any of the Prussians have arrived, they show up later in the game as one might expect, and then both sides have an appropriately desultory round of skirmish fire.
Each turn your opponent then draws a chit that determines how many actions you’ll be able to perform in the subsequent action phase. This number is kept a secret, however, until you attempt to take one action too many and your opponent lets you know your action phase has ended. This is a mechanic successfully used in a number of recent games including “Tank on Tank” and creates a nice sense of uncertainty.
Actions are taken by spending differently-colored discs, each corresponding to a type of action and available in defined numbers to each side.
Most combat is resolved when one of these discs brings opponents into the same area of the map. Then the game unleashes one of the most bizarrely complex combat sequences I’ve ever seen in a game of this weight. The three classic Napoleonic unit types are permuted against one another six different ways, not counting artillery defensive fire, and resolved in sequence. This made my first several runs through a combined-arms battle a mind bending exercise.
Damage scored against infantry is not taken as losses directly, but is instead assigned as small cubes to an area. Each infantry unit may only sustain so many cubes of damage, but players may allocate these cubes between the infantry units in the same area. I understand this as a Euro resource allocation mechanic. I have no idea what it’s supposed to represent on a Napoleonic battlefield.
I’ll also here insert my dismay at the quality of the rulebook. I am informed by those that follow such things that Mr. Wallace’s rulebooks have greatly improved over the years. If so, I weep for their former state. I am driven mad by guides that have me flipping back and forth incessantly just to get a basic clarification and this one gets very low marks in that regard.
Victory in “Waterloo” is achieved by the French by occupying Mt. St. Jean or by inflicting a certain number of casualties. The Allies win if they take Rossomme or, again, by inflicting casualties.
As I said at the start, there’s much here that is thoughtful and worthy of notice, but this one, for me, needed to be pared back and clarified a good deal more.
Once upon a time, in the dimly-remembered recesses of the past, men (and the occasional woman) dreamed great dreams of games that would barely fit on dinner tables. They wanted to study battles at the smallest of levels — even tactical — and evolve systems that drew the world of hexes and chits as close to reality as the limits of mid-1980s printing permitted. From this place came games so large that their containers became known as “detergent boxes”. They had rules in typeface smaller than the “New York Times” and which were sometimes written with all the elegance and transparency of the Summa Contra Gentiles.
From this time emerged games possessed of a complexity that is itself a challenge to gamers. I here turn briefly and glance at “NATO: Division Commander”. Others are and remain classics of the form. In this regard, I would give special recognition to Richard Berg’s “Terrible Swift Sword” that suggested just how much was possible in hex-and-counter gaming. Its crunchy, ground-level depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg, combined with the glorious sweep of its maps and counters, was and remains inspiring. One of the games it inspired was Frank Davis’ “Wellington’s Victory”.
The game’s relationship to “TSS” is evident. Set at the battalion level with 100-yard hexes and 15-minute game turns, the central challenge (after setting up a game that comes with more than 2,000 counters) that it places before the gamer is managing the massive forces that contended at Waterloo and using them to do just enough damage to your opponents to achieve victory.
The map, which comes in four parts, covers most of a 4′ X 6′ table. It cannot be called vibrant, hued as it is in the beige, tans, and golds familiar to anyone who played SPI games in or from this era. Despite this, and I certainly show my age here, it remains my favorite map of the battlefield for gaming purposes.
The units are serviceable if unlovely and, unfortunately, often enough die cut off-center making corner-rounding an exercise in near-mutilation. I’ve gone so far as to acquire a second counter sheet just in case I go one corner too far. There’s also a surfeit of number counters needed to track the strength losses of units during the battle.
The rules are complex. Units face hex spines rather than faces to permit better representation of flanks and unit rears. Column, line, square, and extended line are all allowed for and movement rules blend this with consideration given to the terrain over which units march. Combat will be familiar to anyone who’s played games of this era with strengths being added, compared, and then resolution handled via die rolls. Special consideration is given to cavalry charges, some of the best rules on this topic available, and combined arms. In the case of the latter, formed infantry is nearly useless in the long term absent proper cavalry and artillery support.
The two most contentious aspects of this game are its treatment of skirmishers and what it calls “observation”. In the case of the former, many believe, although I do not share this view, that skirmishers are overpowered and unnecessarily difficult to remove prior to coming to grips with the main body of the enemy. My own view is that skirmishers caught in the open by cavalry will have a very bad day indeed and I’ve long felt that other rules haven’t taken skirmishers seriously enough.
The comments on the observation rules are better taken. Mr. Davis himself, in his designer’s notes, seems to concede that they weren’t as developed as he’d have liked. They’re supposed to be line of sight rules, which can certainly be opaque enough given the chance, but, although I have played portions of this game several times and the whole shooting match twice, I’m still not completely comfortable with the system. I’ve certainly never come to better appreciate three dimensions rendered in a two-dimensional space as some have alleged this system lets one do. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not broken or unworkable, but they are highly situational and they’ve never become intuitive for me.
At the end of Mr. Davis’ notes, he writes that he fears that his might be one of the last of the “monster” studies of historical battles. I am glad that this did not prove to be so. With the closing of so many classic game companies in the years since, though, it was certainly one of the harbingers of the end of a very special era in gaming.
Richard Berg’s “Battles of Waterloo” from GMT games pulls the view back a bit from the field depicted in “Wellington’s Victory” setting units largely at the brigade level and hexes at 210 yards each. In doing so it brings more of the battle into focus than was possible in the other title, enabling players to have at each other in a splendid combined Waterloo-Wavre scenario; provided, of course, they’ve got a table at least 7′ X 3′ in size (and who doesn’t?). By way of comparison, though, there’s never a chance, save through abstraction, to link the events of June 16th to those of the 18th as is the case in the more operational games.
The maps are nicely done; clean and clear. They’re certainly prosaic, but the more I write about this topic the more I’ve begun to wonder what else a designer could do to make this battlefield memorable. The units are another matter all together being, depending on your perspective, part of one of the loveliest sets of counters ever put together or a good example of excessive design. I like them, but their size can make them absolute murder on the eyes.
The rules, and, should you play, make certain to get the living rules available through the GMT website, are only 29 pages long, but there’s an awful lot going on. There aren’t too many games of which I’m aware that have seven different kinds of movement, each of which is intended to represent a particular way of moving about the battle space. Formations are familiar enough, but the C2 and combat systems are rare creatures. The former uses a LIM (Leader Initiative Marker) system to activate via blind draw the corps-sized units represented on the LIM. To be included among the LIMs available for this draw, the unit must have its commander present who must, in turn, be in command range of his overall commander. This is a game that, reasonably enough, punishes those who are untidy with their command structure.
Combat may be managed by a single die, but I am informed by those who have counted that this game numbers more than 200 rules governing the combat segment alone. Combat factors are added and compared between attackers and defenders, but they are then modified by a prodigious list of factors that make tattooing the chart to your arm seem desirable.
Despite these issues, I would be hard put to really call them criticisms, this is a better game than “Wellington’s Victory” if only because Mr. Berg seems to have digested the lessons of the intervening years in terms of rules clarity and system design. I love the thicket of designer’s notes that helps me understand what he’s getting at, often enough rule by rule, and lets me better judge whether I agree with his conclusions or not; a terrific historical exercise. The game is time-consuming, and at this scale I regret the lack of a four-battle linked scenario, but I am grateful that he was able to turn his scholarship and design talents to this beloved topic. Well, beloved by me in any event.
Come with me now to the mountaintop. To a place of true serenity where all the buttons are square, the cross-belts white, the hair queues taught, and everyone can still hear the sound of the guns. I am very fond of many of the games that have lead us up to this point, but for the Nappy Nerd, there are no two games greater than those others found here. Mind you, neither is particularly easy, although one is certainly easier than the other, but both reward study and patience in a way few other games do.
Forty years on, I’ve often wanted to ask Ed Wimble if he could have imagined the reverence with which his “La Bataille…” (hereafter LABAT) series would be held by tabletop grognards. The original games in the series weren’t overmuch to look at and there has never been a successful — note I say successful — set of rules that sought this level of granularity and realism with respect to the Napoleonic battlefield. Yet, at this year’s Origins, there was a team of fellows in the Columbus Area Boardgame Society (CABS) area grinding away at “La Bataille d’Aspern-Essling, 1809.” For the entire weekend. That seems to have been all they did from the opening Wednesday through much of Saturday. This level of devotion treads the dimly-scryed line between commitment and madness.
All LBAT games are played using the same set of rules, viz. the “Reglement” which have been issues in a series titles “Reglement of the Year…” or, more recently, distilled into the “Reglement Marie Louises”, something of an ASL Starter Kit for the Napoleonic tyro. While some have caviled at these rules, I strongly recommend them to the beginner and I’ve known many who have chosen only to play the “ML” set and never advance to full “LABAT” finding the extra detail and, frankly, chrome-y-ness (there’s a word), more trouble than it’s worth. The amazing thing is that you can study it all here.
It’s almost as if Clash of Arms, which publishes this series, is daring you to peek into the world of LABAT.
All these rules share certain conventions. The basic unit is the regiment, hexes are roughly 100 meters across, depending on the battle, and turns are 20 minutes each.
Units, whatever their notional command structure (and I should note that command does matter a great deal), are broken down on the battlefield into “Maneuver Units” or MUs. These can be entire corps or single units with a commander. I once spent an entire semi-sober weekend playing an early LABAT game with friends waiting for my turn and insisting they bow down before the Mighty MU. But I digress. MUs are activated by chit pull and individual units then activated in turn will be moved under a system that is the most exacting representation of Napoleonic field maneuver I’ve ever encountered. Column, line, square, and extended line are joined by General Order, Disorder, and the highly undesirable “Plus Grande Desordre” or PGD. Each formation has multiple variations and situational nuances that must be remembered or referenced and absorbing these was, for a me, a large part of getting better at understanding the game.
The best way of describing this system, in the end, is to say it’s likely the best representation of miniature Napoleonics in the world of hex maps and chits. For those raised on miniatures and rulesets like “Empire” and “Column, Line, and Square”, this is a welcome thing. I can well understand, however, how others find this horrendously off-putting. I love playing LABAT, but, frankly, I usually find myself playing it solo. For most of my gaming companions, it’s simply too great a commitment and, with the possible exception of a smaller game like Quatre Bras, there is no earthly way one is going to make his way through an entire game in a day or a weekend.
Which leads me to playing LABAT on the fields of Belgium. I have not played “La Bataille de Mont Saint Jean” in many years because — don’t judge me — I lent my copy of both it and Ligny to a friend and they never returned. In the year’s since its 1993 release, MSJ has become very hard to play because one needs pieces from Ligny to do so and the latter has become preposterously expensive on the second-hand market. I’ve yet to crack the shrink on the new edition of Quatre Bras that’s sitting on my shelf, this is the fault of many of my Groghead friends, but I am hopeful that the new edition of Ligny being available for pre-order means that a reboot of MSJ to the glorious standard of “La Bataille de la Moskowa” is in the offing. If so, no one without it will dare call himself grognard.
And so I end, in a fashion, at the beginning with the work of Kevin Zucker and the Operational Studies Group. Part of me wants to spare you the details and in true TL:DR fashion tell you that if you care at all about the challenges that confronted commanders during the Napoleonic wars you must play the games in the Library of Napoleonic Battles series. This is, after all, the “Last Battles of Napoleon” with 40 further years of research (particularly significant for OOBs), development and play testing for better balance, and the addition of rules for things like vedettes, weather, cavalry charges, (better) bombardment, etc. And all these things are added without messing too much about with what made the original such a joy to play.
The Waterloo version of all this is entitled “Napoleon’s Last Gamble” and is played out over a much larger map — albeit paper; I’m now officially spoiled by the mounted board that came with my “Last Battles” Designer’s Edition. That map, done by the well-known Charles Kibler, is so lovely that I have tried to figure out how to have a copy of it mounted and framed. The scale of the hexes is set at 480 meters per hex and units are typically brigades which, again, nicely keeps the counter clutter down. The units themselves are very well done although, I will always say, there’s something to the simplicity of the original SPI/TSR counters that has a loveliness all its own.
As was the case with its ancestor, turns proceed in an IGO/UGO fashion and, despite a number of fun nuances added to the mix, combat hasn’t changed much, particularly as relates to the “push” of battle being preferred to wholesale slaughter of units. There’s even that awful “exchange” result lurking on the Combat Results Table ready to turn a 4:1 whomping of the enemy into a very expensive win that costs the winner just as much as the loser. I speak from long experience when I say I will, despite understanding them as a matter of history, forever hate exchanges.
As much as I love the LABAT games, my first preference for gaming Waterloo will always be with these OSG creations. The reason, I think, is that, by the time Napoleon drives north from Rossomme to that little high spot North and East of La Belle Alliance (which can be really difficult to find, I must say) so much of the story has already been told. There’s much glory to be had in the hours after 11:30 in the morning of June 18, 1815, but the tale beginning on the afternoon of the 16th offers so much more.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through some of the varied consim approaches to the Battle of Waterloo. I’ve certainly enjoyed stacking all these games up against one another and taking some time to think about which I thought the best games, the best simulations, and which I just preferred. Before I go, I’d like to offer my own favorite five:
4. “Napoleon” (especially with a full set of “Eagles”)
3. “La Bataille de Mont Saint Jean”
2. “Napoleon’s Last Battles”
1. “Napoleon’s Last Gamble”