Sunday, January 6, 2008

Featured game: Napoleon at Waterloo -- strategy

I got my copy of Waterloo when I first subscribed to Strategy & Tactics magazine in 1971. All new subscribers got a copy of the game as an "introduction" to wargames, complete with a letter from Jim Dunnigan explaining a bit how "simulation" games worked.
Of all the introductory wargames offered, NAW probably does the best job. It sticks to the basic mechanics common to the classic SPI/AH-style games without introducing any oddities like some other "introductory" wargames. It's well-balanced, with both sides having a good chance at winning. ( The latest version of NAW on Hexwar shows 6,264 French wins, 7,264 British wins and 1,162 draws). It plays quickly, allowing for several games in an evening and is quick and easy to set up with the initial deployment on printed on the map. This makes "restarts" easy to do, which is also a plus when you're teaching a game.
I didn't get to play it a lot back in the day, because my friends and I had already played a number of Avalon Hill games by the time I got NAW. It did manage to hit the table on occasion, however, and I always had a good opinion of it.
It was when I joined Hexwar that I got the chance to really explore the game, playing it a few hundred times now. For those who don't know about it, is an online game-playing service that provides a very user-friendly way to play a couple dozen classic SPI/Decision Games titles. Napoleon at War is the free, introductory game and you can play that one game all you want without charge. If you're like me, however, it wasn't all that hard to persuade me to pay the service fee. It's allowed me to play literally thousands of wargames over the past couple of years. It's been just about the best value I've ever had in my career as a gamer.
Having several hundred games under my belt with a winning record ( 116-53-11 under the latest version of NAW on Hexwar, similar with earlier versions) lets me feel confident I can offer a few pointers on strategy. Like any good game, there are no "perfect plans" that will always produce victory in Napoleon at Waterloo, but there are strategies that will succeed more often than others.

The French
The initiative in the game rests with the French. The burden of victory lies with Napoleon. He must exit seven units off the opposite map edge through designated exit hexes while eliminating at least 40 combat factors of allied (Anglo-Dutch and/or Prussian) units before losing 40 factors of French. The French start with an 89-73 advantage in combat factors, but they receive no more reinforcements while the British player can look forward to another 34 combat factors of Prussians showing up on the second turn.
The primary French objective is to eliminate 40 factors of British units. That eliminates any chance of a British victory (the best they can get now is a draw) and demoralizes the British army putting it under a severe handicap. Once demoralized all British attacks are reduced one level and all French attacks are increased one level. (British 1-1s become 1-2s while French 1-1s become 2-1s for example.) This is usually a big enough edge that exiting seven French units is not a problem.
Both sides have a mandatory and specified setup, so the main strategic decision facing an erstwhile Napoleon is which way to go with his main effort.

Go Right
The French army can attempt to attack the British left flank and then drive towards the exit hexes near Mont. St. Jean. The disadvantages of this approach include slow development, the certain early intervention by arriving Prussians and a narrow, easily defended route towards the exit hexes. The only mitigating benefit is, perhaps, some astonishment on your opponent's part that you'd try it! Really, this approach is so obviously unpromising that it's rarely tried. I haven't seen a French player win going this way, although I did see a draw. once.

Go Left
More promising is to shift the entire French Army left and advance on a wide front through the villages of Merbe, Le Mesnu and Braine L'alleud towards the exit hexes. This delays any impact by the Prussians to the latter part of the game. It allows the French to attack on a wide front, making the most of their powerful offensive capability. The doubling effect of the villages is not as helpful to the British as it may appear at first because the French can usually arrange to advance units after combat into village hexes, pinning British units with zones of control and forcing the British in their turn to counterattack at poor odds. There's a big jump between 1-2 odds (1/6 chance of an attacker eliminated result) to 1-3 odds (2/3 chance of an AE), meaning that British losses can quickly be disastrous.
This strategy can be very successful against passive British players, especially if they 're counting on those villages to help them stop the French. The main disadvantage of this approach is that is risks allowing an aggressive British player to seize the initiative. The British are not without offensive power and a vigorous counteroffensive can put the French in danger of losing the game outright on turn 3 or 4.
Generally this can be a winning approach, especially against inexperienced or less aggressive British players. Its pretty forgiving for the French, providing the maximum available time, so it can work well for less experienced French, provided the British remain passive.

Go Up The Middle
While appearing to lack subtlety, going up the middle does offer the French important advantages, so long as it's done aggressively enough. There are weak spots in the initial British deployment that can be exploited. It's important that the French turn end with as many British units stuck in French zones of control as possible to prevent the British from adjusting their line or putting together good counterattacks. The key ground is the small patch of hexes in the canter of the map between La Haye Sainte and Hougomont, inclusive. Whoever dominates these hexes during the first 3-4 turns is well on the way to winning the game.
The primary disadvantage of this approach is that there is a chance that the Prussians may arrive quickly enough to affect the outcome. The French will have to react to the presence of the Prussians on turn 3 and they will definitely be on the scene by turn 4, which doesn't give the French a lot of time to eliminate the 40 combat factors required.
This strategy provides the least opportunity for an effective British response and puts Napoleon's fate firmly in the hands of the French. It tends to result in an early decision. the game will generally be decided one way of the other before the end of turn 5. (It may take another couple of turns to exit the French units, but if the British army is demoralized the French should have little trouble pushing through the remnants to accomplish this while delaying the Prussians sufficiently that they can't stop it.


Naturally, a lot about British strategy can be gleaned from the prior discussion of the French. The British are usually forced into a reactive and opportunistic defense against whatever plan the French try. Keep in mind that the only way to win the game is to eliminate 40 combat factors of French units before you lose 40 yourself. Blocking the French from exiting units comes in second place. All that success there will do is salvage a draw.
The combat results table is not bloody enough in exchanges for the British to have a reasonable expectation of the French impaling themselves on your defenses. As the initiative player the French should be able to avoid many attacks at the bad odds of 1-3 or less or 4-1/5-1. Killing French units will require counterattacks.
If the French player doesn't press the attack strongly there's a good chance the British can seize the initiative. If the French allow it, I like to grab the central, Hougomont-La Haye Sainte position. This splits the French offensive into two, mutually unsupported attacks and puts the right half of the French army in danger of being caught between the British and Prussians, which often leads to defeat in detail.

Grouchy Arrives

This is an option that came with the NAW Expansion kit, examining some "what-ifs" involving Grouchy and the Prussians. Depending on pre-game die rolls, the French might get reinforcements from Grouchy's force and more or fewer Prussians could arrive. On average the French tend to benefit, with more results improving on their historical outcome than coming out worse. (Hexwar shows 2,858 French wins, 2,237 Allied wins and only 245 draws) While entertaining to consider, these outcomes should have surprisingly little impact on either side's strategy. It's a mistake for the French to slow down the game in anticipation of Grouchy's help and likewise the British are gambling if they hold back expecting that even more Prussians will provide them an advantage. The game will probably be decided on turn 4 or 5, which is before any of the optional reinforcements can intervene. It's always true that one side or the other will benefit more from the reinforcements and the other side therefore has a strong incentive to go for the early win.


Napoleon at Waterloo is far from the last word in simulations. The course of the battle will never follow history, mostly because Hougomont will always fall on the first turn, where historically it held out all afternoon and tied down a large part of the French army. ( That 7-4, 3-3 and 5-4 that start adjacent).
But it's an excellent little wargame. It plays quickly, it's balanced and there's more skill than meets the eye.

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