Sunday, 6 April 2014


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Han was in town recently, and brought Napoleon over to play. This is a 2-player block wargame first published in 1974 (40 years ago!) and is now in its 4th edition. It focuses on the Waterloo campaign, and plays over 8 (in-game) days, with only 3 turns total per day. The English and the Prussian armies are preparing to attack France, and Napoleon plans to catch and defeat them individually before they can meet and combine into a much larger force.

In game terms, the French are under time pressure to attack because they lose if time runs out. The French win by defeating a specific number of English and Prussian units, or by capturing two of the three supply towns. The Allies win by defeating a specific number of French units, or simply by holding out until time runs out. On your turn, you get to activate two groups for movement. In the case of the Allies, one group must be Prussian and the other English. There isn't much time for movement and manoeuvring on the main game board, especially for the Allies who only get one move per country per turn. The positioning on the main board is basically setting yourself up for the actual battles, which are played on a separate battle board. Positioning on the main board determines how many units you start with when a battle begins, and how much reinforcement you can draw from neighbouring towns during the battle. Turns on the main board can be very quick. Once battle is initiated, you shift to play on the battle board.

This is early in the game. The French is blue, the English red and the Prussians black.

The number pointing upwards is the strength of a block. It indicates how many hit points the unit has left, and also how many dice it rolls when attacking. The red text in the corner means firepower. F1 means the unit hits when rolling a 1. F2 means the unit hits when rolling a 1 or 2.

Like a Chinese Chess board, the battle board has two symmetrical halves, each half consisting of left, centre, right and reserve sections. You can advance to your opponent's side of the board, but you can't move laterally between left, centre or right sections. To win a battle you need to capture one section on your opponent's side, i.e. have a unit there while clearing it of enemy units. There are three types of units - infantry, cavalry, artillery - and each behave differently.

Losing a battle is quite devastating, because most surviving units need to take additional damage, and when they rout, the road capacity is low, forcing them to disperse. It is difficult to reorganise after losing a battle. In Napoleon there are no new units entering the board and no healing. What you have at the start of the game is all you have. Every loss is permanent.

The Play

Han let me play the Allies, because they can play more defensively. The French is under time pressure to attack. The game comes with reference sheets showing where each unit was located historically. However players have much freedom in setting up their initial placement. They just need to make sure the units are set up in their respective setup areas, and they obey the initial setup stacking limit. Once the game starts, there is no stacking limit. I did my set up according to history, and then made some adjustment. The initial stacking limit for the Allies is lower, which means they are forced to be less concentrated. I'm not sure Han followed history. His French stacks were huge.

He went for the Prussians first, and he went almost all out. I managed to position most of my Prussian units to be able to reinforce the battle, except for a few holding back to guard my supply town. The English armies could not get in position to reinforce the Prussians unfortunately. The Prussians were outnumbered. They had a slight battleground advantage - a house on my right flank in which one infantry unit could hide, a hill at my centre from which my cannon could get a better shot, and a river on my left flank which allowed at most two units crossing in any one turn. Surprisingly Han put his focus on my left flank, probably intentionally. He had cannons shooting at me across the river, and then cavalry rushing in to attack. My Prussians defended staunchly (i.e. I got lucky with my die rolls) and dealt a fair bit of damage to the French. However I dared not probe into Han's area from the centre or right sections, because he still had the numerical superiority and I might need to shift my units from those fronts to help defend my left flank. Eventually I could not hold back the tide, and my left flank broke. The Prussians lost the battle and were scattered.

This was when the first battle started. The French army attacked my Prussian group in the middle. All blocks in surrounding towns could reinforce the battle.

This is the battle board. Before the battle starts, the defending player draws two terrain blocks (green blocks) and the attacking player draws one. These are placed onto the board and will impact unit abilities. E.g. a cannon on a hill can shoot more effectively, an infantry hiding in woods can conceal its strength and type.

In this photo you can see that Han is targeting my left flank.

Han's French units have marched up to engage mine on the left flank, and he is using cannons in the centre to shoot at my units.

While the battle is in progress, the main board becomes cleared up because units are all moved to the battle board. I still have two black Prussian units waiting to reinforce their countrymen.

My left flank is starting to break. My units are getting battered. Those in the reserve area are mostly injured units. And Han has seven cannons raining hell on me in the centre.

This is the aftermath of the battle. The Prussians are scattered everywhere and it will be very hard to reassemble, because I only have one move per turn.

Han was still 3 units short of reaching the Prussian kill requirement, and needed to divert some of his units to catch and destroy my routed Prussian units. At the same time he had to prepare to attack the English. It was at this moment that we realised it might not have been a good idea for the French to attack the Prussians first. Even if they could beat the Prussians, there was only one supply town protected by the Prussians, and taking one supply town is not enough to win. The English side of the map had two supply towns. If the French could defeat the English quickly, there was a good chance of capturing both supply towns. If the French went for the English first, then it would be the Prussians coming under pressure to rush to help the English. At this point in the game, as the English I could try to avoid battle to ensure the French wouldn't get enough English kills to win. I just had to make sure the remaining Prussians could hold out against any French task force split from the main French army, and I then could afford to lose one English supply town. If the French sent a task force towards the Prussian supply town, that would be good news for me too, because that meant a weaker French army coming for my English army.

I didn't feel like running. I wanted glory! I knew the French took considerable damage in the fight with the Prussians, so even though they had more blocks, I knew some of them were weakened. My English blocks were all still fresh. Knowing what was coming, Han didn't bother to divert a taskforce to take out the Prussian supply town. He came straight for the English army. I managed to get three still-fresh Prussian units to join the English. In the end, our final battle was not in Waterloo, but right next to it in Brussels.

Han again picked my left flank as his target. He positioned a huge group of artillery there and rained cannonballs on my defenders. I tried to reply in kind, sending in my own artillery, but I didn't have as many as he did. I had to send some infantry just to help take hits, so that my cannons don't get killed off too quickly. Those poor guys must have been cursing "this is not what I signed up for". While Han battered my left flank, I decided to advance on my right flank, sending up my fresh English cavalry, and following up with some infantry. It was a race between who would break the other side first. Thankfully my left managed to hold up long enough for my cavalry to do its work. Han even had to send in Napoleon himself to keep morale up. Every turn units damaged down to one hit point must roll a die for morale check. If their morale breaks, they must disengage, possibly causing a rout if there are no more units defending a position. Leaders like Napoleon and Wellington reduce the likelihood of morale breaking. Unfortunately for Han his units were already injured, so my cavalry eventually managed to break through, trampling Napoleon to bits under their hooves. The Allies killed enough French units to win the Waterloo campaign.

Small scale battles (called skirmishes) where at least one side has three or fewer blocks are not fought on the battle board. Only one round is fought directly on the main board, and then the loser retreats. We did have a few skirmishes during our game.

After winning the battle against the Prussians, the French army killed some routed Prussian units and also reorganised themselves to prepare for the next big fight with the English army. Three Prussian units joined forces with the English, preparing to face the French.

This was the climactic battle on the very last turn of the game. It was do or die for the French. Han had a whole orchestra of cannons on the left raining hell on my units. I tried to return in kind, but I simply didn't have as many cannons. I attacked on the right flank, hoping to make a breakthrough before my left flank was reduced to smithereens.

My left flank was still holding, but things didn't look so good for Han on the right. Even Napoleon himself had to come to rally his troops. Eventually my units broke through and won the battle.

After the game, we realised we had made some mistakes. Once the French defeated the Prussians (i.e. killing the 9th block), all Prussian blocks should have been removed from the game immediately, i.e. they would not stay to help the English. If we had understood this correctly, we would have played differently after the Prussians lost their battle. Han would have had more incentive to hunt down three more Prussian units, since removing all Prussians from the table would make their supply town completely vulnerable. I would be more desperate to make the Prussians last longer. Also I might not have had those three Prussian blocks helping the English army in the final battle.

The Thoughts

Our game took about 2 hours, but what I remember most about Napoleon is how fast-paced it felt. There are only 3 turns per day over 8 days, which means 24 turns in total, i.e. 12 turns per player. A third of those are night phases which means movement only, no fighting. So that's 8 turns per player where you can initiate a battle. I felt I was pressed for time, and every move was precious. The positioning turns on the main board are very quick. The play on the main board and on the battle board feel like two distinct games. However I don't think they will work as individual games. The former gives context to the latter. It is preparation and build-up for the latter, without which the latter would feel like an orphan, bland and generic. These two layers of the game are not particularly memorable individually, but together they make an interesting whole.

Among block games this is at the easy end of the spectrum, even simpler than Hammer of the Scots (and it makes me want to play Hammer of the Scots again). It is much simpler than Rommel in the Desert.

Players have much freedom in game setup, and can try different approaches in handling this Waterloo campaign. That gives some replayability. However the victory conditions are the same, and the victory towns don't change, so you can't veer too far off from the Waterloo campaign. Martin Wallace's Waterloo has a fixed starting setup, but it is about what happened on the actual day of the battle, and not the overall campaign.

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