RPGPundit Reviews: Napoleon
This is a review of Columbia Games' wargame "Napoleon". I don't usually do wargame reviews, but Columbia games has been kind enough to send me several of theirs, which I've reviewed previously; and thus far none of them have been disappointing. Richard III, Julius Caesar, Wizard Kings, Crusader Rex; all of these have been consistently great.
Napoleon looks to be no different! Its a "slipcase" game, a pretty box to put on a bookshelf, and it contains a significant number of wood blocks (and a few dice), with particularly attractive unit-stickers to attach to them; these are the different military forces. There's some reference sheets (which detail how to initially place the different units to match the historical campaign), an impressively lovely full-color map of the area of the Waterloo campaign (unlike some of the other games, this map is hard board, not just paper), and of course the rules.
One of the things that's great about Napoleon (and all the Columbia games rules in this series) is that it hits what is for me the perfect sweet spot in wargaming. I don't mind some rules-lite strategy games that are quite simple, if they're well done (Memoir '44 springs to mind as an example of real excellence!), but I don't want something too simplistic. On the other hand, I also can't stand those strategy games with 40-page rulebooks that take 16 hours of play time to be resolved.
Napoleon, on the other hand, has a level of complexity that is interesting, strives to create an accurate reproduction of the historical campaign its based on, but the play time on the box is listed as 1-2 hours. In my experience, I'll note, its a little closer to 1.5-3 hours (potentially even a little over 4 hours if its the first time learning the rules for one or both players), but that's OK by me. That time range is just perfect; nothing so long, complex and involved as to be restrictive (like many other games I've liked but left sitting idle on my shelf for lack of time to play them, and more than a few that are lying there because they're long AND too complicated and I wouldn't choose to play them even if I had the time!). Napoleon is just the right length, pace, and complexity for my liking.
The Napoleon rulebook, by the way, is only about 8 pages long. For someone used to an RPG corebook, its like nothing. Its hard to believe that's the entirety of the system. And even by wargamer standards, its amazing to see how elegant and thorough the rules are.
So, first and foremost, in case you haven't got the hint yet, "Napoleon" is a game that simulates the 1815 Waterloo campaign; where the English under the great Wellington (along with a couple of continental allies) confronted the monstrous French tyrant and insured his final defeat. Of course, in the game, things could turn out the other way around.
This is an historical game; so the primary concern is not for the sides to be "balanced", in the sense of having the same likelihood of winning, but rather the forces are arranged by historical accuracy. Players can choose to make the initial setup match the historical positions at the start of the campaign, or to set up free-form.
The wooden blocks as units are a clever mechanic concept: they're placed upright in such a way that a player can see the units on his own blocks, but not the unit on enemy blocks; the blocks are only set down and revealed when combat occurs, this simulate the "fog of war"; you know where an opposing unit is situated, but not what its strength consists of. The blocks also allow for an easy way to keep track of the unit-strength (ie. its "hit points"), rotating the block 90 degrees whenever it takes a hit, reducing its strength (of course, a unit down to 1 strength taking another hit is eliminated).
One of the keys to the short duration of this game compared to others is that play runs fast, and (crucially) there are only a certain number of Turns in the game. When the turns are done, so is the game (assuming no one wins earlier than that). To win, the French player has to eliminate a certain number of enemy units before the end of the game, or manage to occupy two of the three major cities on the board anytime after the June 22nd turn (occupying any of these cities also result in losses for the allies each turn, as they are major supply points for the allied forces). In the case that both sides are simultaneously defeated, it is also considered a technical victory for the French.
The allies (the British and their hangers-on) are victorious if they destroy sufficient french units, OR if the game ends without the French meeting any of their victory conditions (it presumes that without a decisive victory, Napoleon would run out of steam, given his tricky position).
Pieces are positioned on the map and the game takes place in turns; one side resolves all their actions first in the turn, then the other. Actions include movement, where units will move along roads from one town to the next, with certain restrictions on how many units can move on a given road; and with cavalry or horse artillery or leaders getting to move further than infantry; and a special "forced march" rule that lets you move units further but risks reducing their strength.
Forces that move into the same location as enemy units begin a battle; if there's less than three units on either side then the battle is a skirmish, which has fast and simple resolution; if both sides have 3 or more units, its a full battle.
In the latter case, the blocks involved are moved to a special battle sheet, which features battle areas, each side having a left and right flank and a center, plus a reserve at the back. Players place units on each position and there are special rules each "battle round" for how they can move and fight. Combat is fast and simple, with units rolling a number of regular dice equal to their current strength, and must hit equal or under a certain target number to score a hit. Hits are applied to the highest-strength unit in the opposing forces (in the case of a tie, the opposing player gets to pick which unit takes the hit). Battle rounds are also done in turns, with the attacker going first, moving and fighting, then the defender gets to respond. There are morale rules for units who have been reduced to 1 point of strength; if they fail their morale check they may retreat or rout. Cavalry units can charge (getting a to-hit bonus), artillery can fire from outside their own zone, and infantry can "form square" for added morale and to protect leaders or artillery units (and making them more effective against cavalry, though less against enemy infantry or artillery).
The battle lasts until the attacking force fails to engage for two consecutive battle rounds, or when either side is the sole occupant of any enemy zone (in the latter case, the losing side Routs, causing serious damage to all fleeing units).
Three forces have leaders: the Prussians have Blucher, the English have Wellington, and the French have Napoleon. They grant special bonuses to any accompanying units of their own nationality, reducing the risk of forced marches, improving morale in battle, and having a couple of other modifying factors. Leaders can be eliminated; leader elimination does not cause defeat in and of itself, not even if Napoleon himself is eliminated.
So how to conclude? In short, Napoleon, like all the other games in this series I've reviewed, is an awesome wargame. I figure at this point the company knows that a positive review will be a foregone conclusion, which is why they keep sending me these games at no doubt considerable expense to them (a transaction that I'm quite happy about, of course). But there's no question to me that if you like historical wargames, especially within the parameters I've given, you're going to really like Napoleon.
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