You are a paradox to me, a contradiction You're a predicament for me, and a prediction
There is a saying in military circles "Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics." If this were to be applied to wargame design, the clear winner would be designer Kevin Zucker's seminal game design on the 1814 campaign in France Napoleon at Bay: The Campaign in France, hereafter known as NAB.
Most people have probably heard of that crazy Napoleon guy, and how he got his proverbial handed to him on a plate at the battle of Waterloo. He’s short, French and immortalised in a song by Swedish supergroup ABBA, so an easy target of ridicule. Some more serious minded may have played a game based on the ‘most famous battle in history’ given the recent bicentennial of the battle in June 1815. Miniature gamers glory in recreating Napoleonic battles in splendid tabletop detail, forever arguing over whether their troops should form square, stay in line or form skirmish order and revel in the display of painted armies given the riot of colourful personalities and uniforms on offer, but sooner or later, the true Grognard will discover Zucker, Petre and the rallying cry of ‘ La Patrie en Danger’; the 1814 campaign for France.
Some historians state that the campaign of 1814 was Napoleon’s greatest effort. This is somewhat overstates the importance, particularly given the outcome but there is no denying that the ten week campaign between late January and early April stands out as one of Napoleons greatest martial achievements. Manoeuvring his vastly outnumbered troops between the approaching allied armies, he seems to have regained much of his old verve and energy, and in a dazzling succession of battles and skirmishes he began to confuse, demoralise and repulse his opponents.
Less than three weeks after the cataclysm at the battle of Leipzig in October 1813, Napoleon was back in France and with the astonishing resilience he often displayed in time of crisis, he at once threw himself into planning the defence of French soil. To anybody but a supreme egotist, France’s military situation in the last months of 1813 must have appeared hopeless. Following the rout of Leipzig, more than 300,000 allied troops would soon be poised along France’s eastern frontier ready to strike, while the French could muster fewer than 80,000 exhausted and disease ridden survivors to defend the 300 mile border.
At this point, enter Zucker….after an apprenticeship served in the glory days of game publisher, SPI, he stepped out in 1978 with his own game company Tactical Studies Group (TSG), soon renamed Operational Studies Group (OSG) to avoid confusion with the beast that was TSR. Using his deep knowledge of Napoleonic warfare, some key game influences from the S & T magazine game Frederick the Great, in particular the movement of leaders dictated by an initiative roll and a forced march segment in the enemy players turn; and his own Napoleon Last Battles Napoleon's Last Battles, Zucker produced a remarkable design that captured the operational essence of Napoleonic warfare.
Armies, at the ultimate day of battle require biscuits, brandy and above all bullets. No simulation until NAB had simply and clearly shown the importance that the humble Quartermaster General, the chain of supply wagons and lines of communications played in “get [ting] there firstest with the mostest". With a system of initiative and force marches in the enemy players turn (borrowed from Frank Davis’s also excellent Frederick the Great design), modelling of attrition on armies, particularly large ones and a simple uncluttered map board, emphasising the importance of roads and river lines, Zucker came up with a winning system on an campaign that until that time had received little attention.
The whole campaign was to centre on the control of important bridges and the speed at which demolished ones could be brought back into service. The gameplay models very well these key concepts. Three main highways were of paramount importance to the French in moving troops rapidly from one threatened sector of the campaign to another, with Prussian troops under the implacable Blucher thrusting in the North and the plodding but massive army of the Austrians under Schwarzenberg lurching forward in the South.
So skilled a soldier as the Emperor knew how much advantage could be derived from the river and road dominated terrain in mounting a defence using the principles of interior lines. With Paris as his main base of operations and shifting his centre of operations as required, Napoleon considered that he could dispense with long slow moving convoys and be able to prosecute operations of lightning speed against his heavily encumbered opponents. This aspect of the campaign is captured well in the game. Supply considerations are usually anathema to a gamer, involving numerous and tedious calculations. NAB has supply at the heart of its game engine, with it playing a critical factor in generating orders to far flung commanders, moving forces forward to battle and most importantly showing the impact of stragglers and general attrition on troops slogging through the mud, rain and snow that characterised much of the campaign.
What NAB does best is to model the “subtle and fast manoeuvring, of engagements against isolated enemy detachments on advantageous French terms, of slim forces manning the river lines to hold of the hostile allied masses.”
NAB and its design elements have stood the test of time. The first release of NAB was under the OSG label in 1978. For a brief time in the 80’s, following the demise of SPI, Zucker moved across the rival Avalon Hill and it was here he released The Struggle of Nationsin 1981 which took the NAB system to another, more complex level to portray the truly massive 1813 campaign in Germany. He also reissued NAB under AH imprint in 1983, with a cover that must truly rank as one of the all-time turnoffs in war gaming. Despite numerous criticisms, the artist in fact got the uniform details relatively correct.
Following a long silence, Zucker and OSG (mark II) reappeared in 1997 with an updated release of his classic, now known as Napoleon at Bay: Defend the Gates of Paris.
Sporting updated graphics and some refinements to the original, the basic system has since thrown off numerous ‘Campaigns of Napoleon’ games under the 1x, 2x and 5x headings on almost every single Napoleonic campaign, excepting Egypt, The Prussian campaign of 1806 and the Peninsular War. Serious students of Napoleonic history can therefore follow the meteoric rise and fall of the Corsican in every imaginable theatre.
While owning both the first and second editions of NAB, my personal preference still rests with the original AH release. A comparison of the map board
and organisation display
may look old school, when compared with the more recent updates, but they were surprisingly functional.
The original map board clearly delineated the key roads, towns and river systems, and if you are interested in gaining an understanding of the campaign, the apparently crude components serve perfectly well, a point reinforced by no less that General George S Patton of World war two renown, “ In my opinion the use of large scale maps by senior officers is distinctly detrimental, because the use of such maps they get themselves enmeshed in terrain conditions…putting it in general terms , Army and Corps commanders are not so much interested in how to beat the enemy from a tactical standpoint as in where to beat him. The where is learned from a careful study of road…and river maps”.
The updated map , whilst more colourful, does not in my opinion add any great enjoyment or understanding of the campaign, in fact the hexes are somewhat smaller than usual, and prolonged staring at the somewhat glaring green can induce a sort of flashback to the horrors of the retreat from Moscow .
The original organisation displays, with simple graphics are also easier to use and give better period feel than the somewhat utilitarian displays of the updated version .
My interest in the campaign was initially fired by reading of the classic book on the subject, British authors F. L Petre’s work ‘Napoleon at Bay' issued almost a hundred years exactly after the events they describe. Petre released a series of five books in total on the major Napoleonic campaigns between 1906 and 1914 and was the first author to provide clear narratives to an English audience. It is testament to his work that some of the series are still in print to this day. His analysis benefited from the fact that he walked or cycled over the majority of battlefields he describes and generally within a hundred years of the original event, when little change was evident. A visit to many of these battlefields today often results in disappointment as they are much changed through urbanisation and development. In his narrative of the 1814 campaign, Petre had the advantage of accompanying units of the French army on manoeuvres through the area covered in the original 1814 campaign, which enhancers his narrative greatly, but the whole book is also overshadowed by the threat of a general European war which came to fruition in August 1914.
I cannot recommend Petre highly enough as a companion book for NAB. Simply reading the narrative and using the map board to understand the movements of the armies is invaluable. If you actually take the time to set up the pieces and move them across the map as Petre’s narrative unfolds, then you can gain a real insight into how high command works, and the great difficulties in knowing what lies on the other side of the hill.
I was fortunate in being able to fulfil a long held dream to walk over the 1814 battlefields and gain a greater understanding of the campaign in 2012, on a tour organised by the designer. In the company of other Grognards, tracing out the course of the desperate days of 1814, with the designer on hand to unfold the key points, can there be any better thing for a Wargamer?
Photo is of a group of fellow war gamers and myself on tour in May of 2012 visiting the key battlefields,that's me on the right of the picture.
For those wanting to focus more on the tactical nuances of this campaign, the gamer can also turn once again to Zucker and his game The 6 Days of Glory which sits between the operational scale of NAB and the more tactical Napoleon's Last Battles. Wherever you turn, Zucker seems to have a game on the subject.
How good is NAB as a game? Well, there are several gaming experiences I have had over a 35+ years in board gaming that remain fixed in memory. One of them was a full campaign of NAB, where as the French I held off the allied hordes almost until the very end of the campaign and was heading for a major French victory overall. Unfortunately towards the last day or two of the campaign I saw an opportunity to rush North with Napoleon and only a few of the Guard to smite Blucher, only to have the tables turned on me, Napoleon surrounded and killed in battle, an unfortunate but glorious ending!
"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
I totally agree, the AH map is my favorite of the two maps. Nice photo.
Great review of a great game and great game system!
I have had the pleasure of crossing wits and dice across the Magister's impressive games table and with his even more impressive game collection on many occasions. The NaB system games and ASL are favourites that frequently hit the table.
There is just something about the march/forced march system of NaB that draws you in. It is incredibly addictive. It is a game about initiative and you always feel you have to win by getting in the mind of your opponent.
If you haven't played any of these before give them a go. Start with one or two practice sessions so you understand the rules and then get right in. They are longish games and will take a few sessions to finish.
There is a bit of counting with forces and LOC distances but I usually use a pen and paper to keep temporary tallies. With something like half a million books published about Napoleon there is always something to read during the days between gaming sessions
We recently played Empire of the Sun. Though different in many ways, its Offensive/Reaction system feels very familiar and game play is a similar contest for the initiative.
Give NaB a go, you'll have a blast!