The Tuesday Interview – Didier Rouy
Part 1 of 2, as Cyrano starts asking more Napoleonic questions ~
Jim Owczarski, 11 April 2017
There aren’t too terribly many people who can claim to have designed games about warfare while at the same time being able to consult on a wound from a musket ball. Dr. Didier Rouy holds his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Paris – Diderot and his M.D. from the same institution, earning the former in 1992 and the latter in 1991. In 1989, though, he published the first of what would eventually be over a dozen different Napoleonic wargames. His Vive L’Empereur system has since produced eight volumes. Even dearer to my own heart, he is the creator of the three-volume Vol de L’Aigle, an operational Napoleonic Kriegsspiel, as well as Le Combat de L’Aigle, a tactical system that can be used to work out battles in the operational game.
Dr. Rouy took time recently to answer questions about how he got started, how the whole medicine thing figured into his wargaming, and what is his deal with oblong unit counters. His answers were so thoughtful — and so long — that this particular interview comes in two parts!
You’re far from a new-comer to the hobby, but, for those unfamiliar, how did someone with your background in science end up designing war games?
It doesn’t have to be one or the other, thanks God. When I was 10, I was already playing with Airfix 1/72 plastic soldiers, I remember my two first boxes, one was 12 French Waterloo cuirassiers and the other was 48 Scottish infantry, the former trying to break a square the latter were forming, and bit by bit I increased my collection to around 6,000 figures, setting up gigantic battles in my parents’ living room by pushing the furniture on the sides, recreating battles like Wagram or Waterloo based on maps. (Author’s note: Dilettantes do Waterloo, grogs do Wagram) I was not using any rules, just moving armies around and dropping figures as guns were firing. It was not elaborate at all, just all about the feeling of armies and battles. That was my only experience with “wargaming” between the age 10 and 18. But science and medicine were my real life from very young, and in 1979, I entered Med School. It turned out that 1979 was also the year wargames really appeared in France, in a new journal, Jeux et Stratégie, and its first issue contained a very simple wargame, La Guerre des Ducs. That was a revelation. I then bought Napoleon’s Last Battles, then the IT games on Iena, Austerlitz and Waterloo, then War and Peace and many others. I was hooked. I played every Napoleonic game published at that time, and others like Third Reich and the Europa series, but the Napoleonic era was really my favorite, and is still. As the wargame was becoming very popular in France, a fan magazine named Le Journal du Stratège was created (1983 I think) and I started writing in it, then I became its director of publication. Around 1988 I thought that the existing systems were too complex and I decided to create mine. The first game was published by Socomer in 1989. The adventure was just starting, And during all this time, I was in Med school, then research for a Ph.D., and I’ve never left the field of medical research since.
How old were you when you designed your first war game? What was it about and what do you think of it now?
I was 27 in 1988, the Vive l’Empereur system was much simpler than the existing La Bataille dans l’Age from Clash of Arms (Author’s Note: Little isn’t.), with common elements and elements I either invented or got from other games, like the rectangle shape that Yaquinto was using. The system slowly evolved over the games (8 volumes in 26 years) but the core set of rules has been stable for a long time now. I still look at Auerstaedt with nostalgia and wonder how the rules could fit in only a few pages. In hindsight the whole thing was really incomplete, but it got rapidly better.
Not that I need this explained, but, for the less-informed, why is the Napoleonic era the best in war gaming?
I don’t know if it is the best, but that is the one I prefer because it is rich in many ways : the armies have a variety of arms with strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities, the situations in 10 years of campaigns involve an extreme variety of battles and nations, and it is in history at a time where fire and shock were still balanced, after the rigid battles of the 18th century and before the overwhelming fire power of the second half of the 19th century. Another reason, and not the least important, is the LOOK. All we remember from this time is a short Corsican genius, glory and brilliant uniforms, charges and trumpets, booming cannons, and we tend to forget the suffering and blood, death and ruins. This is how humans think, their memory is very selective, but I must say that battles of the time have something spectacular and almost beautiful, difficult to explain to rational minds who roll their eyes when you explain that you “play at making war”.
The Vive L’Empereur system has produced eight games to date, the most recent being 2015 if I’m reading matters correctly. Having played half of them, I wonder:
a. What is it about the regimental level that you think best depicts Napoleonic warfare? I will confess a long-standing preference for the battalion as the basic level of maneuver.
Battalions have been my favorite for a long time, but large battles involved hundreds of units, larger maps, and a lot of calculations. Look at Mont St Jean from Clash, it becomes rapidly messy with counters ups and other down and a lot of markers. At first my choice was mostly practical, as I wanted to simulate large battles with not too many maps and counters. The regimental level allows just that. You need to sacrifice some of the tactical details, but most of the time regiments were using the same formation for their 2 or 3 battalions. Not always, of course, but I thought that was a good compromise.
b. Here and in The Eagle Fights, you use oblong counters rather than the more traditional squares. What brought you to decide this and why do you think it preferable?
For the Vive l’Empereur series, there are two main reasons, one is technical : a line formation is facing two hexes and can fire on a wide front area, and a column is facing only one which makes movement straight ahead easier. The other one is purely graphic, seen from the top a line looks like a line with a wide front and a column like a column with a narrow front. I have always thought that looking at a game should look like a battle seen from the top, this is why I use these little symbols of infantry and cavalry in most of the games (but the two first). As Marshall Enterprises, then Clash of Arms, had the genius idea of having counters look like uniforms, I wanted my counters to look like units seen from high above
For The Eagle Fights the choice was obvious, it is a tactical system derived from a system Kip Trexel and I designed years ago. From the top, units should look like real battalions with their various formations.
c. For new-comers to the system, what’s the best point of entry?
The two available games, Le Retour de l’Empereur on the Waterloo campaign, and Quatre Batailles en Espagne on the Peninsular war, are good entry points. One of the four battles in each game is of reasonable size (Quatre Bras for Waterloo and Salamanque for 4BE), the others are bigger or more complex. And for those who are not scared, Leipzig (sold out but can be found online) includes 16 scenarios, some of them very small, but this battle is a monster with 10 maps and 6 countersheets.
The Flight of the Eagle is my #2 table top war game, second only to the Kriegsspiel. I’ve been running an 1806 campaign in the Grogheads forum since last September and it’s still in good shape.
a. What first inspired you to create Flight? What were your influences in creating it? In particular, how aware were you of the von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel and what influence did it have?
The creation of the Flight started from a simple idea: wargames use hexagons and movement points, the movement phase converts a movement allowance to a distance that can be covered. I wanted to go the other way around and come back to the reality, which is converting speed and time to distance. A unit will walk for eight hours at three km/hour, therefore covering 24 km. The unit can walk longer that day (but not faster) but will pay the price in fatigue points that decrease the present under arms and then the unit’s efficacy in combat. Then I realized that moving a big unit want not a big pile of troops suddenly appearing at the end point, but a slow snake spread over tens of kilometers, including guns, horses and many wagons and carts. Sometimes the first soldier arrived at a time when the last soldier hasn’t even started walking. This matters for several reasons, the main one is that a corps or division cannot be fully available for combat hours after the first solider enters the battlefield. It makes also the roads very crowded and not all troops can pass at the same time. This is why Napoléon had to split his corps on several routes, and concentrate them for the battle, like before Iéna in 1806.
The other main axiom of the game is that players are blind, or almost, as they can communicate only through written messages. I wanted to put the players really in the shoes of the generals of the time, not knowing where the enemy was, and sometimes even not knowing where the rest of their army was. Using maps of the time also helps, not precise, with no numbers on hexagons, deceiving as far as distances are concerned.
There are others elements I like in the game, for example attrition is not simply removing combat points or people, they are stragglers that can join their unit after some rest, and the effect of morale.
I was also inspired by naval games, that have a lot in common, maps and rulers, mostly blind game, and a lot on the shoulders of the Umpire. The reference in France is called Amirauté, very popular, and some people have compared the Flight saying “it is Amirauté on ground”.
In fact I didn’t know Kriegsspiel but I knew of games used by the German staff a century ago or so.
b. The game has passed through three volumes, each more complex than the last. Are you pleased with the way the game wound up? In particular, there are pieces of a potentially massive Empires in Arms-esque game linking Flight operational campaigns to both a tactical and a strategic level in the third volume. Do you have any plans to evolve this further? Have you or anyone you know even attempted this?
Yes, not sure, and no ☺
Yes, I like the way the whole system turned out, after all I created the three volumes, I’d better be satisfied ! I wanted to start with three short campaigns in the volume one, with the possibility of changing rules and adapting them for longer campaigns and including complex parameters like supplies and hospitals. More complex combat systems also.
Not sure how it can evolve further. My first idea to include a strategic dimension didn’t really materialize, I wanted to include a high level of diplomacy, economy, management of industry and resources. The module of army construction in the volume three does part of this, and I like it as it is, because nobody has really asked before “where does this army comes from, and therefore what do I need to make another one ?”, I really enjoyed working on finding data, and I explain this in the introduction of the booklet, “the shoes of the King of Bavaria”.
And no, I don’t think that anyone did this before, there are many games with a production system but finding the number of points you can spend to create a division for example can be based on actual events. If Napoléon starts the 1809 campaign with only Davout’s corps, it means that in a few months he needs to create Oudinot’s 2 divisions, Masséna’s 4, enroll 3 Bavarian divisions and 1 German one, and so on. Easier to find how many production points the French need before the operations really starts.
Check this space next week for the conclusion of Dr. Rouy’s interview.