Sunday, March 24, 2013

4th edition Napoleon -- Familiar newness

Columbia Games' Napoleon has been around in some form for almost four decades. While originally published around 1974 by Gamma Two games, the best-known and most widely sold edition was the 1977 Avalon Hill version that appeared in 1977.

In many ways, a non-hex-and-counter design like Napoleon was ahead of its time, and the last 10 years or so have seen a huge increase in the popularity of so-called block game as their shorter players time, enjoyable tactile mechanics and handsome appearance seem to be more in tune with contemporary tastes.

The AH version of Napoleon was an excellent example of all these traits. The game could easily be played to a satisfying conclusion in 90 minutes, it was fun and it looked real fine with its embossed blocks. Some lack of clarity in the rules  and a confusingly laid out battle board hindered the game  a bit, but gamers looking for a good strategy game made it popular and it featured in several strategy articles in the Avalon Hill General. Eventually AH let it go out of print and the right reverted to Columbia Games (Gamma Two's successor).

When he decided to publish a new, Third Edition of the game in 1993, designer Tom Dalgliesh opted to boost the number of blocks and telescope the view down a level. Whereas the 2nd Edition did not formally indentify the blocks and each block represented about half a corps worth of troops, the Third Edition assigned  a historical ID to each block -- generally a division. This almost doubled the number of blocks in play, and at the same time some important adjustments were made in the relative proportions of each arm -- infantry, cavalry and artillery and also the relationship between the size of the French and the two allies. For one example, whereas in the AH edition the Anglo-Allied and Prussian armies were the same size  as measured by "Combat Values" (CV) at 39 each, in the THird Edition the Prussian Army was notably larger, with a CV of 72 compared to the Anglo-Allied 57.

Similarly, the new Third Edition improved on the historical accuracy of the order of battle, for example, the amount of Prussian strength accounted for by the cavalry and the artillery was reduced, proportionately.

Some news things were added to the Third Edition, such as the army leaders Napoleon Blucher and Wellington and a streamlined battle board procedure and some things taken away -- like the horse artillery. Being a much larger game another thing lost was the short playing time.

Opinions were mixed on the net effect of these changes. For many of us, the new version of Napoleon was really an entirely new game that didn't supplant the old one at all -- and it has its own entry in BoardGame Geek.

The changes were, overall, less than successful, in my opinion. While worthwhile individually, in sum they changed the game dynamic fundamentally. While not resulting in a bad game, the changes did result in a very different one. I attirbute this to a fundamental reshaping of the maneuver dynamic of the game -- which is not a small thing, as the essence of Napoleon in Maneuver, not the combat system.

This happened because the size of the map and the ability of troops to move on  it increased only slightly, while the number of blocks nearly doubled. For example  the French Army went from having 18 blocks to having 38 blocks, more than doubling -- but the maximum road capacity of a primary road only increased by a quarter, from 8 blocks to 10 blocks. Also, the number of orders available to each side did not increase in proportion. In the old AGH game each side had TWO orders and the Allies had to split their two orders to just one each. IN the new edition everybody got one additional order, but this meant the French increased by 50 % while having twice as many blocks to move on a road net that was only 25% more capable. Meanwhile the Allies got Twice as many orders as before to move 70% more units.

The net effect was that the French, which used to have a more agile and mobile army than the Allies, now had the more ponderous one, by a substantial margin. This made it difficult for the French to force the P-AA into action within the time limit of the game.

Some approved of the changes, but I think it's safe to say that most fans of the original, Avalon Hill version were not persuaded all the changes represented improvements, so it was good news when Columbia announced that a new edition of Napoleon was planned and that it would be more like the AH version than the 3rd Edition.

As it turns out, I'd rate this as partially true. In size, the game definitely resembles the AH edition more. According to the Beta version of the proposed OB sent to me by Columbia there will be 23 French blocks. This is much more comparable to the 18 blocks in the AG edition than the 38 in the Third Edition. Likewise, the Prussians are slightly bigger now, with 17 blocks instead of the AH 16 blocks and nothing like the 25 in 3rd Edition. The Anglo-Allied army is actually smaller, this time with just 13 blocks instead of 14, although the CV is slightly higher. There were 19 in Third Edition.

While the blocks again represent roughly half a corps each, like the AH game, there are some significant adjustments to the OB and some of those changes resemble things we saw in Third Edition. For one thing, the leaders are still there -- Napoleon, Blucher and Wellington are all 1CV units that also have some movement and morale benefits.

In a refinement borrowed from other Columbia block games, units now have Firepower Ratings ranging from F1 (hitting a die roll of 1 only) to F3 (hits on rolls of 1 through 3) Im earlier editions all troops of the same branch were the same. In the Avalon Hill edition the Imperial Guard was just another 4CV infantry block, no different in the game than the German troops in the Anglo-Allied Reserve Corps. Now the Old Guard is F# while the Landwehr is just F1.

While the number of blocks is similar to the AH version the CV values in the 4th Edition are much higher.  In the Avalon Hill edition there were no Prussian units with a CV of 4, now there are 8. Conversely the old AH edition gave the Prussians 9 units with a CV of 2, now there are just four. Similar boost apply to the other armies so that the average CV per block has generally increased.

The horse artillery is back, but only for the French, who have one block.

How all this hangs together is not clear. The new map is little larger than the original AH map but the maximum road limits are back to 8. Yet the two sides keep their 3rd Edition allotment of orders -- 3 for Napoleon and two each for Blucher and Wellington so I expect that all three armies will have agile styles more similar to the Avalon Hill version than the Third Edition. The P-AA retain their heightened mobility from the Third Edition, but an important change to the victory conditions limits how much of a rope-a-dope strategy they can employ. In every earlier edition the burden of victory is on the French -- and it mostly still is -- except that if the French can occupy all three Allied home bases at the end of the game they can also win. This would seem to negate the common anti-French gambit of a late game retreat if at least one Allied army could make sure it didn't reach its break point. This gambit was hard to pull off in the AH edition because of the French mobility edge, but in Third Edition it was a real problem and a big reason why I only played with the historical setup. A free set up made it too easy for the Allies.

In the new edition, each block carries an historical ID, although only by corps, not at the divisional level like 3rd Edition.

The tentative OB is as follows:

Napoleon CV1 F1
Guard infantry CV4 F3
Guard Cavalry CV3 F3
Guard artillery CV3 F3 & CV2 F3
I Corps infantry CV3 F2 times two
I Corps artillery CV2 F2
II Corps infantry CV4 F2 & CV3 F2
II Corps artillery CV2 F2
III Corps infantry CV3 F2 & CV2 F2
III Corps artillery CV2 F2
IV Corps infantry CV4 F2
VI Corps infantry CV3 F2
VI Corps artillery CV2 F1
Cavalry Corps cavalry Two @ CV3 F3, one CV4 F2 & one CV3 F2
Cavalry Corps horse artillery CV2 F2

Wellington CV1 F1
Reserve Corps infantry one CV3 F3 and one CV3 F1
Reserve corps artillery CV2 F2
I Corps infantry one CV4 F2 & one CV4 F1
I Corps artillery CV 2 F2
II Corps infantry one CV4 F2 & one CV3 F1
II Corps artillery CV2 F2
Cavalry Corps CV4 F2, CV2 F3 & CV2 F1

Blucher CV1 F2
I Corps infantry two @ CV4 F2
I corps cavalry CV2 F1
I Corps artillery CV4 F2
II Corps infantry one CV4 F2 & one CV4 F1
II Corps cavalry CV3 F2
II Corps artillery CV3 F2
III Corps infantry one CV3 F2 & one CV3 F1
III Corps cavalry CV2 F2
III Corps artillery CV2 F2
IV Corps infantry two @ CV4 F1
IV Corps cavalry CV2 F2
IV Corps artillery CV 4 F2

As always, these are subject to change in the final published edition.

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