Albert Valente
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The Battles of Waterloo is called by its designers a "grand strategy game." And this is true. One gets a great sense of history in playing it, and for that reason one must really study the period in order to get the most out of it. The 200yr reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo on You Tube gives a sense of the action. When one sees those different colored hats and flags going by one can imagine the same as counters are moved on the map board. And oh what counters there are. Almost every one is different, and are all decked out in varying regimental colors. For this and many other reasons this game is special, and it really lends a sense of what combat was like in those days.

To begin with, the game does a marvelous job of simulating command and control. I occasionally find myself Googling a particular general or colonel to get a better sense of what they were thinking on that day. Leaders have their own movement segment, and require special attention to get the army moving in the proper way. Combat leaders essentially have sufficient staff to communicate with various units in the command. Superior officers stretch the wings of the army, and exist primarily to facilitate communications between combat leaders and the overall commander. Lastly, the overall commander is the one with all the strategic and tactical expertise whose job is to survey the battlefield and make final decisions. The larger the staff, the more orders it can issue, and Napoleon is the best at this level of control. Other command staffs, of Wellington and Blucher, are organized a bit differently, each with certain built-in advantages. Thus, not only does one need to master their own system, but also understand the enemy's capabilities.

Each turn is divided into seven phases, four of which are perfunctory. The essential phases are the Operations Phase, the so called No-LIM Phase, and the Out of Command Phase. The Operations Phase is where all offensive operations are conducted, and here the overall commander reigns supreme. Individual commands represent various segments of the army, mostly corps-level strength, and each of these are headed by a combat leader. When the overall commander runs out of capacity, individual combat leaders are essentially become on their own in the No-LIM Phase (LIM standing for Leader Initiative Marker). Without direct orders, the combat leader can only conduct static operations and defensive maneuvers. If individual units get out of range of their respective combat leader, they must wait to activate in the Out Of Command Phase. This final phase allows individual units to move, but not to engage in combat of any kind.

The maps are very well done and there's hardly a need to explain each of the terrain types. Roads were the most important to movement of large formations, consequently most of the fighting takes place around major intersections. The Belgian countryside is largely forested and hilly, punctuated with farms and villages. The walled farms, or Chateau's, were often employed to great effect as small fortresses. Certain of the terrain is ideal for offensive maneuvering and cavalry, but hills can be made most suitable for defense. Wellington was skilled in spotting terrain, and used crests to great effect. However, crests cut both ways as the the reverse slope sapped the French artillery advantage, so the same terrain nullified the Allied rapid fire capability. Darkness and rain also affects command, movement, and combat, to which players must plan for in advance.

The three basic units of the game are infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Besides combat value, the main factors of each unit are commitment and cohesion. Maneuvering and timing of movement is essential to infantry combat. Infantry fires out of either front or flank hexes, but shocks only through the front. The line formation is more powerful for musketry, but is weaker in shock attacks since its entire front must go at once, and usually against multiple defenders. The square formation is particularly effective in musketry because it does not have to split its fire as other infantry formations must. Given the singular advantage of Anglo-Allied rate of fire, Wellington used square formations to great effect.

Napoleon had come up through the ranks as a brilliant artillery officer, and for that reason the French artillery is the best of the era. The Grand Battery attack is the most devastating assault in the game, and learning when and where to employ it can make all the difference in a battle. Maneuvering artillery to advantage is a rare skill as hilly terrain often nullifies ranged attacks. Light artillery is otherwise useful right up in the line of battle where its reaction fire can effectively break-up enemy attacks or counter-attacks.

Cavalry is really the key to Napoleonic era warfare. As an aside, following the Grand Armee's retreat from Moscow the entirety of French cavalry was all but wiped-out. Russia then led an immense cavalry force across Europe and occupied Paris. It's no wonder Napoleon remained on Elba for nearly a year before planning his come back--since that was the amount of time needed to replenish the stables of French cavalry brigades. The game has two types of cavalry; light and heavy. French cavalry stands apart from the rest of the army, except for a few units directly attached to corps for infantry support and recon. Cavalry does it's most deadly work once the enemy has taken flight, and the game provides a few optional rules to give flavor. However, players should avoid taking on any optional rules until all the phases of the game are well understood and mastered.

The game essentially has four (4) two-player scenarios and two (2) larger scenarios for three and four players. The beginner is advised to start with the battle of Wavre, since it introduces the command system and essentials of combat and maneuver. After that, the best scenario to play is Ligny, with its broad geography, free-flowing action, and multitude of units. The Quatre Bras is perhaps the most difficult of all given the restrictions placed on Marshal Ney, and should be reserved for advanced players only. The Mt. St. Jean scenario is obviously the most popular, however the map board is somewhat constrained given the number of units in play. The lack of maneuverability obviously works to the Coalition's advantage, exactly the way Wellington and Blucher intended.

Before starting on Battles of Waterloo, be advised that this game is rule intensive. There are over two hundred rules governing the Combat Segment alone, and that doesn't include all the various factors in die roll modifiers such as; column adjusters in shock and fire, Universal Disorder die rolls, reduced movement factors, square in reaction DR adjustments, retreat before fire DR adjustments, leader causality DR factors, retreat movement DR adjustments, shock commitment DR adjustments, charge reaction DR modifiers, disorder adjustments, and rout check adjustments (to name a few). The authors make mention of grumpy play, however the outcome often hangs in the balance if the rules are not properly applied. One problem is that rules are scattered all about in the booklet and often found in unexpected places. For instance, the special rule governing French Cavalry Reserve LIM is under "4.23 Combat Leaders." The proper interpretation of that rule means that those commands may activate in the Operations Phase independent of OC's command range--but nowhere is that spelled out in the Pool Placement Phase.

The authors have since released an updated rule book, which for the most part reorganizes the system in a more logical fashion. For instance, involuntary movement (withdrawal and rout) now comes before commanded activity such as tactical or strategic movement. This is good. Also, reduced movement is linked directly to the combat segment, another useful change. The nifty bow charts that go with the updated rules seem to capture and condense many of the rules, but not all--for instance: where is Wellington's defensive DR adjustment? Unfortunately, one updated rule went a bit too far. Rule 4.8.3 states; Commands that fail activation "may do NOTHING that turn." While that sounds right, consider that another rule states that out of command units in enemy ZOC are required to withdraw. However, the updated rule book changed that such those units must instead loose a step. This change essentially guts the OOC phase and denies individual units the ability to withdraw first. While such a change may work OK in the Mt. St. Jean scenario, it makes other scenarios such as Wavre virtually unplayable. Thus, it becomes necessary to employ a blend of old and new rule books, making comprehension and execution all the more cumbersome. Thus, despite this being an award-winning game, its rule-intensive nature is probably why Battles of Waterloo doesn't score higher in player likeability.

In closing, the goal of the game seems not so much to create alternate outcomes, but to permit one to step into the commander's shoes and understand why things happened the way they did. Realism in Napoleonic battle is produced through the Loo Shock Resolution system, and the fun is really in learning the combat system and putting the army’s through their paces. Life and death decisions hang in the balance in virtually every decision, and one really gains a sense of what the action was like at the time. Finally, as a grand strategy game the player must possess both excellent strategy and bold tactics. Napoleon had great strategy and tactics, but Wellington seems to have been his match, on defense at least. So, who was the better general in this campaign? Let's replay that Mt. St. Jean one more time just to see . . .

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Rory McAllister
Ireland
Derry
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Valentinan wrote:
Realism in Napoleonic battle is produced through the Loo Shock Resolution system...


Thank you for a terrific review of a wargame I had not heard of before. I am assuming the word "Loo" is a typo since the term "Loo Shock Resolution" conjures up a very unpleasant visual for those of us on this side of the pond! laugh

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Neil Mooney
United States
Quincy
Massachusetts
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Excellent review. I played the game this past spring/summer to coincide with the Waterloo Bicentennial.

I agree with most of your points, particularly about the rules, although I knew of the rulebook's poor reputation before my acquisition of the game. So I didn't bother with the original rules, at least initially, and instead downloaded the revised ones (available here and from GMT's website). The original rules, I have since gathered, do a poor job explaining how command activations work, a galling omission as this is an absolutely crucial aspect of the design. The revision clarifies this a great deal, and is well-organized generally, but has its own deficiencies. There's no table of contents, or index, or much cross-referencing of related rules. So I ended up using both rulebooks, as the original at least has an index, and illustrated examples of the counters and what their various factors mean.

Taken as a whole, the rules are entirely lacking in illustrated examples of play and other visual markers that are common today, and would have gone a long way towards helping me grasp formation, cavalry charges, LOS, and various other nuances of the game. Instead I engaged in much page-flipping, head-scratching, and cursing as I slowly learned the system.

Despite all that, I look forward to playing again!
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