Friday, October 30, 2009
Martin Wallace's Waterloo: A dramatization of the famous battle in game terms
After playing a few times solitaire and against live opponents, I think a review of Martin Wallace's unusual Waterloo game is in order.
The game caused quite a stir when first announced, especially when Mr. Wallace indicated it was going to be a limited run special edition. Wallace is a justly well-regarded eurogame designer, with some big hits in that field, but Waterloo was his first foray into wargaming.
And there's no mistake, Waterloo is definitely a wargame, although a highly innovative one, and not a merely Waterloo-themed Martin Wallace game. This caused some confusion among many Wallace fans, it appears, and not a little disappointment, as the game wasn't what many of them were expecting. It's not some super-elegant, stripped down intriguing game-puzzle of the sort prized among many eurogamers. Waterloo is full of the sort of procedures, modifiers, exceptions and quirky rules wargamers are used to seeing as their games try to wrestle the chaos of battle into some sort of game system.
On the other hand, Waterloo is not a simulation. In his designer's notes (another wargame staple rarely seen in euros) Wallace expressly denies any simulation intent and says there was no attempt to, for example, make his Napoleonic meeples represent a certain number of troops each or specific military units. But his rules do take into account the different arms of Napoleonic era warfare (infantry, artillery and cavalry) and the importance of troop quality (various rules benefit or penalize Imperial Guard, British, Dutch and Prussian Landwehr, for example).
So if not purely a game, and yet not really a simulation, then what is it? I'd say it's a dramatization of the Battle of Waterloo in game form, more than anything else. I think this characterization accounts for some of the details that euro-conditioned Wallace fans may have found so off-putting. There's a lot of little modifiers to remember and some of them may not make a lot of sense in game terms, but do in dramatization terms. While Wallace denies that there's a simulation going on, his rules do penalize British guns -- not because they were poor, but because there actually were not so many of them as he provides. He explains that they were spread out across the British front, a well-known fact to wargamers. Likewise there are rules for forming squares. Not because they're particularly relevant from a simulation point of view (few wargames set at this level -- roughly brigades -- use squares. that was tactic for battalions) but because, I suspect the British squares at Waterloo were too famous and dramatic element to leave out.
The game itself is probably best known for its use of Napoleonic "Meeple-style" wooden figures to represent the leaders, cannons, cavalrymen and infantry troops. This is not the only unusual aspect of the game, or even the most innovative, but it does illustrate the fresh approach Wallace took to the whole wargame genre -- something that I think many wargamers may have been uncomfortable with. Wallace's design accomplishes many of the same design goals of traditional wargames but gets there in fresh ways. For example, casualty markers and step losses have been seen before, but not quite in the same way as Wallace's use of damage cubes which sort of float around until a moment of truth requires them to be allocated.
Some love the Meeples, some hate them, but they are different. Myself, I think they're charming but they're not just there for decoration. Wallace uses their physical characteristics to include more dramatic elements while avoiding a lot of messy markers or rules. The British troops famously lay down to avoid artillery fire -- the player can lay his meeples down for defensive benefit. Blown cavalry mounts figure in most accounts -- so players may find their fresh upright cavalry units reduced to a "tired" status and have to lay them on their side.
And so it goes throughout the design. Although eschewing the rigors of simulation pretension, the game falls well within the mainstream of Waterloo presentations. One can quibble with design points on simulation grounds, but the overall effect is not "off" in any major way, except perhaps for pacing. It seems to unfold a little too fast, but that may be a function of player inexperience. I think casualty rates may decline a bit as players learn how to avoid costly blunders.
And the game is as intertwined with the history that it represents as any detailed simulation might be, so it's far from treating its theme as a decorative device far removed from the core game elements. Treating all the strongholds alike would have been simpler, for example, but instead each of the three key natural bastions in front of Wellington's line -- Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Papelotte -- has its own flavor, based on their historical impact.
Martin Wallace's Waterloo, not unlike Bowen Simmons' equally fresh (although systemically quite different) Bonaparte at Marengo/Napoleon's Triumph, shows there are different ways to skin the cat of Napoleonic wargaming other than hexagons and cardboard counters. From a wargaming design perspective it's an interesting design that questions some conventions and assumptions underlying conventional wargames.
And from a game player's perspective, the game succeeds in providing a very intense and involving and dramatic experience that does evoke the colorful aspects of Waterloo. British squares and impetuous cavalry charges, stalwart Prussians rushing to join the fray, Napoleon's grand battery blasting away and the Imperial Guard pressing forth to carry the day -- or perhaps La Garde Recule!
The physical presentation is absolutely first-rate, far above typical wargame fare and matching many of the nicer euros. As mentioned, the meeple troops will be a hurdle for some, but they do serve a useful game purpose while providing a distinctive look.
I'm very pleased with the game. I certainly wouldn't claim it's the ultimate Waterloo simulation and it's not the only Waterloo game I own. It might be the only Waterloo game in a more game-oriented collection, though, and I'd call that an excellent choice.