My wargaming started with the Napoleonic Wars, back in the early ‘80s. Airfix plastic men that would never stand up combined with Charles S. Grant’s Napoleonic wargames rules (photocopied from a library book) to make up the first games I played with a tape measure and dice. ‘Epic’ battles took place on bedroom floors and, when it was allowed, across a dining room table covered with a green Subbuteo pitch and scouring pad hedges for terrain.
It was terrible! No battle ended without acrimony, but it was the beginning of a lifelong hobby in tabletop wargaming. Our gaming passions soon moved to WW2, but the appeal of the Napoleonic period lingered. The epic battles, the grand and colourful pageantry, and the sheer scale of the wars - it was only matter of time before I felt to the need to go back to my wargaming origin tale and write a set of rules.
Napoleonics is the biggest period for one of my regular gaming opponents, who has large miniature collections and has played with various rulesets for 30+ years. Despite the plethora of rulesets available nothing’s ever quite worked as well as he’d like; he asked if I’d consider writing some new rules (to go along with the other Soldiers of games we often play (Soldiers of God and Soldiers of Rome)). Nostalgia was no longer the only motivation (it’s usually best if it isn’t) and Soldiers of Napoleon was born!
I am a big fan of games that use cards to create tension in game play. Back in the ‘90s I experimented with the Piquet rules, which had some brilliant ideas, but I felt they were weighed down with too much ‘other stuff’ that, frankly, made it hard to finish a game. Elements I really liked included the asymmetry of the turn sequence, the unpredictability of the cards, the hard choices of how or when to use a card, and how managing your card deck correlated to the command and control of an army. Another nice feature is that the cards can also give the armies their historical character, steering commanders into fighting with an army as it would have performed historically.
The way Piquet’s cards produced a pleasing amount of ‘friction’ within a quick to understand and, more importantly, quick to play system is something that inspired Soldiers of God and Soldiers of Rome. These first two titles in the ongoing Soldiers of series only deal with ancients warfare, of course, when men with pointy sticks tried to stab each other - a far simpler period for tactics and army organisation than more modern combat.
As warfare has developed, over the centuries, it has become increasingly complex and the basic rules for any Soldiers of book going ahead is evolving to reflect this. With my first crack at horse and musket rules, in Soldiers of Napoleon, I didn’t want to just re-write a set of ancient warfare rules with added muskets! No, for a change of time period, there would need to be a radical change in the game system too. The core mechanic that drives the action along would have to be altered, with the aim of reflecting the complexities and details of Napoleonic warfare. The game rules and card system need extra complexity.
My starting point for Soldiers of Napoleon was to change the engine somewhat. I’d redesign the core action-card game mechanic that would drive the game along. The cards provide a number of ‘Orders’, which are spent by a brigade’s commander on Actions for the battalions/regiments/batteries of his brigade. The greater the command distance, the more orders required for an Action – every 10 paces costs 1 Order. This keeps brigades together for efficient use of Orders, with very large brigades become unwieldy and costing a lot of Orders. Actions include the usual: marching, manoeuvring, formation changes, cannons bombarding, musketry fire is split into two ‘modes’, volley and skirmish fire (for which you’ll have to deploy skirmishers). There are also some specialist actions, like ‘harassing’ for light cavalry only (to try and sweep away enemy skirmishers) or ‘intimidation’ with heavy cavalry or lancers. Cards don’t have to be played for just Orders, they can also be played for Special Events or to Rally.
The next decision to make was what was I actually trying to recreate? What are the characteristic features of the period? What makes Napoleonic battle unique? What makes Napoleonic battle feel Napoleonic?
Big questions to work out the answers to and, on the subject of big, one of the defining elements of Napoleonics is exactly that word - big! For me, Napoleonic battles need to be impressive in their scale on the tabletop, they should have an epic sweep. They were large engagements by the previous standards of warfare, so at a very simple level they benefit from bigger armies.
There were many smaller engagements, of course, but Soldiers of Napoleon would be a game of battles, not skirmishes. There is great gaming to be had from Napoleonic skirmishing, I’m sure, but what attracted me to the period was the ‘big battalions’ and that’s what I still love - massed infantry, cavalry, and artillery all on the tabletop in their finery.
That’s great on paper and in the imagination, but the instant problem encountered while going down this path is that the battles are just too large for most tabletops. There are only so many toy soldiers you can have on a table, and I’m not a fan of the over-full tabletop in which miniatures have no room for manoeuvre. Figures that are crowded-in, shoulder to shoulder, restrict the two commanders to simply advancing on each other and meeting in a grinding war of dice rolling attrition.
Decisive movement makes battles interesting, it gives them more of a story, enables a to-and-fro feel. There can be a flanking move here, a heroic defence of a farm or village there, a swirling melee for a ford or bridge, the sudden collapse of a defensive position, the clearing of a wood - these are the events that tell a battle’s story and create the type of narrative that underpins the events of the best games.
When reading histories of real battles, they do not often become repetitive grinds until one side breaks. Only the most incapable commanders would pursue the mid-battlefield mass-melee as a key strategy!
There are smaller actions across the battlefield, a charge here, ground lost there, a hill taken then lost, etc. I want these events in my battles - a hill fought over, and wood cleared on the right flank, a farm defended on the left flank, so that the story of each game reads like the story of a historical battle. This, in part, comes down to having space on a tabletop for such fights to develop. As most of us do not have huge tabletops to play on and huge numbers of men to line up on those tabletops, I need to put on my designer hat to find another way to make it work.
I think there is perhaps a ‘golden rule’, a proportion of models to table space that works best. I don’t know exactly what it might be, but experience means I can get a feel for it and see it on the tabletop when playing game.
All of the above helped me to settle on a roughly ‘division-plus' sized game for Soldiers of Napoleon. The basic tactical manoeuvring element of the game is a battalion of infantry (or the roughly similar regiment of cavalry). This is as it was on Napoleonic battlefields. Regiments might be fielded together but divided into their battalions and these could execute different tactical roles if required. It seems only right that the game would us the same system.
In all, with infantry battalions, cavalry regiments, and the addition of artillery batteries, playing with maybe a dozen to fifteen units under your control on the tabletop is possible. This is scope for enough variety in units to keep things interesting, but not so many men that the tabletop is so packed with models that there is no space to manoeuvre in.
I’m talking about 28mm models; obviously smaller models equal more space. As with all Soldiers of games, Soldiers of Napoleon is model-size agnostic. All distances are set in ‘paces’ chosen by the players to suit model size and table space.
If, as a commander, you are in control of division, it seemed obvious that, although it’s a lot of men, you can’t expect to refight Austerlitz, Wagram or Waterloo on a regular tabletop. What you can do is recreate part of it - hopefully the exciting or crucial part! Hence the ‘plus’ part of the division-sized game, because once engaged a division is not often fighting alone, it is part of a wider force - its Corps and then Army, and they may well also become involved, as reinforcements.
These extra troops would play a big role in the game, to try and make it feel like you are commanding part of bigger whole – there is a larger battle raging, to the left and right of your tabletop that will impact on your actions despite it being out of your particular game’s scope.
You’re trying to win in your ‘divisional area’, which is slightly different to just commanding a division. It opens up the historical orders of battle somewhat. A Napoleonic division is fairly restrictive on models and variety, it’s going to be infantry or cavalry. The assumption that the tabletop area you are pushing figures around is just one part of bigger fight allows games to include elements that were not part of single divisions, like the heavy cavalry reserve (note reserve). Just because they aren’t in your division it does not then mean that cuirassiers can’t be in your games - they can be committed to your ‘divisional area’ and it still feels historically correct. In fact, their deployment just adds to the exciting story the game is creating - the arrival of the heavy cavalry or the grenadiers to apply the coup-de-grace or save the line is pure drama! An ‘exciting, emotional, or unexpected event or circumstance’ - that is what all wargames (and games in general, for that matter) need!
During the game, each side’s force has access to ‘Reserve Brigades’, drawn from the wider army and there is a chance these will be released to aid your area of the battlefield. This is all arranged pre-game, as part of set-up, on which turn and which table edge they’ll arrive, and this can be aided by the presence of more senior officers – Napoleon’s presence can get things done! Reserve brigades include the likes of the French and Russian Imperial Guard, grenadiers, the heavy cavalry and, well just about any other brigade really, an authentic way of placing the ‘central reserve’ and second line troops into the game without them becoming an overly common choice of forces. The faster the brigade, the sooner they are likely to arrive, so a light cavalry brigade can be moved up from reserve quickly, faster that the heavy cavalry, which is faster again than infantry. Sometimes the reserve can be strong brigades, other times weaker, will they strengthen the line on the left, right or centre? Will they be required to defend, or attack? All this part of the pre-game planning for the battle.
Soldiers of Napoleon is an ambitious project, covering eight different theatres and campaigns, from 1805 to 1815, with multiple army lists for each. The first book includes two theatres, for the wars of the Sixth and Seventh Coalitions. More will hopefully follow in the first supplement (but that’s getting ahead of ourselves).
The game, as it stands, has the feel I hoped for and includes a few new gaming twists. There are battlefield objective cards and, to answer the question you’ve probably all got waiting to go, yes, there are some named commanders too. These will not be a persistent feature on the tabletop, instead making the occasional appearance, to observe and assist on the part of their battlefield that you are gaming on. These commanders include the bigwigs: Napoleon, Wellington, Kutusov, Blucher, et al. who will bring their own variants to the flow of battle and give you the justification to collect and use their models!
This is an article, by me, first published in Wargames Illustrated magazine.