Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Austerlitz +204

Scenario set-up from Napoleon's Battles Module Two
copyright 1994, The Avalon Hill Game Co.

Despite the fact that a half-dozen or so of my favorite games are set in the Napoleonic era, I'm not really a Napoleonics fan. It's juts that the man is just about unavoidable if you're going to be an avid wargamer or serious student of history. He may have been a man of short stature, but he strides like a colossus through European History. Few individuals have had such an outsize influence in history that an entire era is named after them. His Maxims have been studied by aspiring generals since the 1820s and the attempt to understand and communicate his genius inspired two of the most influential treatises on military strategy ever written, The Art of War by Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini, and On War, by Carl von Clausewitz.

Napoleon personally commanded on at least 65 battlefields from Montenotte on Apr. 12, 1796 to Waterloo on June 18, 1815, but he reportedly considered the Battle of Austerlitz, fought on Dec. 2, 1805, as his masterpiece. It was definitely a battle won by superior generalship. Napoleon set a trap for his opponents and they walked right into it, allowing him to wreck a great army.

Yet it was not, despite its cleverness and lopsided casualty count, a decisive battle. As a matter of fact, Austerlitz merely inaugurated an intense period of fighting that lasted four more years and involved a dozen more battles including Jena, Eylau, Freidland, Aspern-Essling and Wagram.

And despite its lopsided outcome, that outcome was hardly a foregone conclusion. While the French Army was at its peak of effectiveness, having undergone intensive training for the planned invasion of Britain, was buoyed by a victory at Ulm and fresh from several years of peace, it was outnumbered by a substantial amount. And while the Allies were hobbled by antiquated organizations and a confused command structure, they had good troops on the field.

So the situation is perfect for a good wargame -- two evenly matched, but not identical, armies, facing each other on the field of battle.

Map detail from Austerlitz, Battle of Three Emperors
copyright 1973 Simulations Publications, Inc.

As I said, I'm not a big Napoleonics fan, despite appearances. There have been many good Austerlitz games published, but I only have a few. Austerlitz is a scenario in the Napoleon's Battles miniatures game system, but its not a scenario I've ever played. I have played the old SPI quad game Austerlitz -- Battle of Three Emperors, but that's merely because it's one of the games offered on The game is your typical quad game, which mean that it's not much of a simulation, really, but it is a pretty decent hex-and-counter wargame from that era. It's one of the more popular games offered on Hexwar and is reasonable well-balanced.

Map detail from Napoleon's Triumph
copyright 2006 Simmons Games

My third Austerlitz title is Napoleon's Triumph by Bowen Simmons, which I definitely bought based on the reputation of the designer. I was extremely impressed by his Bonaparte at Marengo game and I knew that the NT game system was inspired by the earlier game. It's not accurate to describe the two as being in the same system, as there are bigger differences between them than there are between, for example, the SPI quad games on Marengo and Austerlitz. It's an interesting bit of trivia that Marengo was the last battle Napoleon fought as General Bonaparte and Austerlitz was the first full-scale field battle he fought as Emperor-- and it was fought on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne.

Napoleon's Triumph is my current top wargame, even though I haven't played it anywhere near enough times to suit me. As important as I believe theme to be in wargames, I'm primarily a fan of NT for it's virtues as a game. A legitimate criticism of Bonaparte of Marengo is that it's a bit stereotyped in play and isn't good at replicating the historical battle. Napoleon's Triumph, on the other hand, manages to be much more free-wheeling while at the same time holding out the real possibility of replicating the general course of the battle.

It's also, of course, a handsomely produced game, but the best feature is the game play. Having the game has prompted me to look more closely at the Battle of Austerlitz, which I think is the hallmark of a good wargame -- it inspires a deeper appreciation of history.

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