Sunday, January 23, 2011

Napoleon's War: Volume I - The 100 Days review

2010 was a bumper crop year for the Napoleonic battle game genre, with three highly anticipated titles appearing within a few months of each other. Fantasy Flight published Battles of Napoleon, GMT game us Commands & Colors: Napoleonics while Worthington was first out the gate with Napoleon's War Volume I -- The 100 days. Each game promised to be the first in a series and we already have confirmed sequels for two out of the three. I'll discuss how NW compares to those other titles later on.

The first out of the gate, Napoleon's War is an elaboration of Worthington's popular Wars for America series of games, which is probably best known for its handsome Hold the Line game of American Revolution battles.

Napoleon's War doesn't have the German Game production standards of HT, but it does have little plastic soldiers! The game comes with two dozen generic 1800s style infantry, eight cavalry and eight guns in each of three colors -- blue, red and gray for a total of 120 figures. The figures are, actually, the same figures used in Viktory II, a game by another manufacturer. The figures are small (the infantry is about 20mm tall) and made of hard plastic.

There are two double-sided 22-inch by 25-inch full color cardstock mapboards depicting the battlefields of Ligny, Quatre Bras, Waterloo and Wavre from Napoleon's Waterloo campaign. Unlike similar games all the terrain is printed on the maps, there are no separate terrain tiles.

There are also two card stock 8.5-inch by 11-inch scenario cards, one for each battle and a cardstock player aid card with terrain effects and information tracks needed for play. A die-cut counter sheet includes various informational markers, not all of which are used in this volume and counters for leaders.

The rules booklet is 8-pages long, on glossy paper and in full color. Finally there are some six-sided dice. All of this in contained in a fairly standard bookcase-sized box.

Overall the presentation is pretty close to current wargame industry standards, although certainly not cutting edge nor quite as nice as the German-style packaging in some recent Worthington designs.

The game system is essentially an elaboration of the Wars for America series rules with some key changes to represent European battlefield tactics.

Each player begins his turn by rolling a D6 and dividing the result by two, rounding up, and adding that total to a scenario-defined base number to determine a number of Command Action Points (CAP). In the Waterloo scenario, for example, the French base number is "4" so the French player will have from 5 to 7 CAP per turn. One CAP can generally activate a unit to move OR fire. Additional CAPs can be spent to order a unit to conduct "shock combat," conduct extra moves, rally and various other special actions. As a side generally has a dozen or so units there are clearly never enough CAPs available to do everything and the game's design tension come from managing limited resources effectively.

A unit is comprised of from 2-4 infantry figures, 2 cavalry figures or two guns, which represent the unit's ability to absorb damage and affect morale. Each hit removes one figure. Some elite units get counters that can absorb one or two more hits and provide a morale bonus like additional figures would and indeed, it's perfectly possible to buy extra figures (available from Viktory) and replace the counters with additional figures -- which is what I prefer to do.

A unit's fire power is NOT based on the number of figures it contains. All units roll 3 dice when attacking, with 6s as hits. At close range artillery hits on a 5 or 6 and during shock combat infantry and cavalry hit on 5-6 and 4-6 respectively. Some terrain such as woods, towns and ridges will subtract a die from an attack.

Terrain effects are very straightforward Besides reducing attacker's dice some terrain provides a morale bonus to the defender's and a few types slow down or stop movement.

Victory is determined by victory points with one earned for each enemy unit eliminated. In some battles there are also terrain features that are worth VPs as well.

Altogether its' a very simple and intuitive game system that's easy to teach and explain. Some additional rules account for specific Napoleonic tactics such as squares and morale. Some "Intermediate Rules" add rules for skirmishers, light infantry, British rifles, horse artillery and cavalry leaders. "Advanced" rules elaborate on the capabilities and limitations of squares while "Kevin Duke's Advanced Skirmisher Rules" (?!) add more detail and options for light troops. In turth, however, none of this is particularly involved or detailed or complicated by wargame standards. All of it is contained in just 8 pages of rules after all.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the brevity of the rules there are some point that may not be clear on a first reading of the rules and there's reason to think the scenarios were not playtested enough. The Wavre scenario, especially, looks virtually unwinnable for the French if the Prussian follow an ahistorical strategy and leave most of their army on the field instead of marching most of it off to help Wellington.

There's no rules for linking the four battles in any way and the maps are not contiguous. The scale is also not consistent between the four battles. In Quatres Bras, for example, each unit appears to be about a regiment while they represent as many as two divisions at Waterloo.

Thats aid, the battles are entertaining and quick. While the preprinted maps reduce the flexibility of the game compared to the tile-based system in similar games it does simplify and speed up set-up immensely. All unit starting locations are printed on the maps as well, so set-up time should be less than 5 minutes. Playing time is likewise short, with most battles reaching a decision in less than an hour, so there's time to play several matches in an evening.

From a simulations standpoint it provides a reasonable impressionistic treatment of Napoleonic battles, covering most of the high points such as combined arms effects, battlefield leadership, morale and troop quality. It;s far from the last word in authenticity but it shouldn't offend historical sensibility and is probably comparable in simulation value to game systems such as the old SPI quads or the newer "20" series games.

The obvious comparison game for Napoleon's War is GMT's Commands & Colors: Napoleonics and both games shares some similar design concepts, although the execution is different. As to which one a gamer might prefer, I confess it's a hard call. Each has ts good points and if you can I'd say you should get both. If space, money, spouse or philosophy get in the way of having both on your shelf there are some distinctions that can be made.

First, Napoleon''s War operates generally at a slightly higher scale than C&CN. While NW depicts the entire battle of Waterloo, for example, C&C:N concentrates on portions of the battlefield such as the I Corps attack from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. NW units are brigades or divisions while C&C:N units are battalions to brigades.

Napoleon's War gives the player a bit more control over his fate. While you don't have enough CAPs to do everything you might want to do, you'll almost always be able to do the one thing you most want to do. C&C:N, because of it's card-based command system, will sometimes leave you frustrated with a dead hand. This does bother some people and if you're one of those people you'll like NW better.

Napoleon's War will set up much more quickly than C&C:N and playing times are similar, so if you don't have a venue where you can set up ahead of time NW will give you more playing time on average.

Napoleon's War and C&C:N are both well-supported by their respective companies with more expansions in the works and NW already has a couple of expansion packs which add another 8 battles. C&C:N seems to be somewhat more popular, probably because its part of the hugely successful Borg design train, Worthington's system is well-liked in its own right and you should have little trouble finding opponents either way.

I think C&C:N may be a little more dramatic with a stronger narrative style because of the cards. NW is a more straightforward wargame in that sense.

And, of course, Napoleon's War ha figures, whereas C&C:N has blocks. Some may have a preference.

Speaking of figures, some may also compare Napoleon's War to Battles of Napoleon, but don't let the fact that both games use figures fool you. They are much less similar to each other than NW and C&C:N are. Battles of Napoleon is considerably more detailed and intricate than either and drills down its focus more. In BoN units are usually battalions, although they are sometimes regiments and there's much more attention to things such as formations,lower-level command and control, morale and discrete types of units. It has altogether more of a miniatures feel than either of the other games It's tighter focus is illustrated by how it treats Waterloo, depicting no fewer than three discrete parts of that battle as scenarios. There's really very little topic overlap.

Overall I recommend Napoleon's War. It's an enjoyable way to spend an evening. Generalship will play a bigger role than luck in the outcome of your battles but there's plenty of scope for the unexpected appearance of the Goddess Fortune to keep things exciting. The figures add a very nice touch, although I'd recommend enhancing the visual effect by pimping out your game as far as your wallets and talents allow. I got a special 1-3 die from Chessex for command rolls, bought more troops from Viktory and replaced most of the cardboard chits with custom markers from Litko systems. But you certainly don't have to do that to enjoy the game, everything you need is in the box.

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