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Timothy Smith
United States
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Napoleon at Waterloo
James F. Dunnigan, SPI, 1971

AASGC Game Review
Tim Smith, Annapolis-Area Strategy Gaming Club
November 2016

This review expounds a bit on remarks offered in the comments section of BGG’s Napoleon at Waterloo webpage, and PDF copy is posted in 'Files'.

Model Validity

‘Napoleon at Waterloo’ (NaW or N@W) is a training game for introducing novices to hex-&-counter wargaming. It is, in the AASGC categorization scheme, a ‘low-resolution, historically/scientifically accurate simulation model’. In other words, it’s very simple but elegantly depicts some important truths while serving to accomplish the very important training function. In fact, as it was in 1971, so it remains today: a micro-marvel of practical perfection. It captures enough of the fundamental aspects of tactical warfare in the Napoleonic era and of the basic principles of hex-&-counter wargaming to fulfill its purpose admirably. For AASGC, it is our de rigueur transition lever from plastic-piece multiplayer strategy games to true wargaming.

The game is simple of course, and N@W is no exception to the high standard of clarity, concision, and completeness that SPI rules almost always attained, so trainers will find it extremely easy to teach.
N@W’s order of battle, unit capabilities, and map features are accurate enough to fulfill the game’s purposes. The rigid, active ZoCs typical of SPI/DG folios & ’quadrigames’ capture some of the rigidities and challenges of linear warfare. Moreover, the morale rules capture the tendency of armies to fight until they break and then suffer rapid, cascading entropy. As was the case historically, Napoleon must make a clear, prompt decision as to whether to attack left, right, or center, and if he chooses to attempt to turn the Anglo-Dutch left, he must screen to delay the Prussian arrival.

Game Design: Challenge and Player Appeal

Here, as so often elsewhere, Dunnigan found the perfect balance between ‘accuracy and playability’ so as to enable the game to fulfill its simulation purposes – in this case, to train novices on hex-&-counter basics without overloading them with detail and show them how wargaming can simulate history. N@W poses the aforementioned operational-level challenge to the French, while tactical execution thereafter allows numerous opportunities to mass forces while economizing elsewhere, count odds, add artillery, and employ diversionary suppression and flank attacks (ZoC-blocked prevention of retreat). These basic hex-&-counter tactics can be surprisingly difficult for novices to grasp.

The original 1971 promotional copy of the game, sent free to ‘Strategy & Tactics’ (S&T) subscribers, reflected the standard graphics from that era: crude but serviceable. The 2nd edition’s graphics featured a colorful map and counters (with background-color X-bands and slashes for infantry and cavalry) that remain perfectly adequate for introducing today’s graphically-spoiled generation to the hobby (especially if trainers laminate the mapsheets). Decision Games’s new re-issuance brings the design into contemporary graphical standards.

Some students like hex-&-counter gaming more than others; however, in general, N@W is highly engaging because the scale is manageable while the problems are both challenging yet potentially solvable. The game is exciting, especially as Napoleon tries to turn or split the Anglo-Dutch line while the Prussians rush to the rescue. The issue often hangs in the balance until late in the day, and it is not unusual for a single local late-afternoon fight to determine the outcome by sending one or the other army into demoralization.

Pedagogical Value

N@W, and the entire ‘Napoleon at War’ (also abbreviated ‘N@W’) series, teach novice gamers many of the basic aspects of armies (infantry, artillery, cavalry, terrain, etc.), and of operations and tactics during that era. This game, as one of the series, poses challenges that demand sound application of the principles of war, including, inter alia, maneuver; mass; economy of force; front, flank & rear; interior-vs.-exterior lines, and screening, thereby creating numerous ‘teachable moments’ during gameplay. Pedagogically speaking, N@W falls neatly within the ‘zone of proximal development’ of most novices.

Recommendation: trainers should play the French once and then the trainee should play Napoleon least twice, and a 2nd, younger trainee can play Blücher before playing Wellington. The trainer should decide whether or not to employ a sound operational plan based on the skill and personal confidence levels of the trainee, and balance the mix of sound and flawed tactics as necessary to fulfill learning objectives (creating situations that allow trainees to cultivate the coup d’oeil necessary to contain threats and exploit opportunities).

In sum, N@W enables students to acquire a sound conceptual understanding of military basics appropriate to the elementary/secondary-school level.
Allow me to add that the esteemed Dr. Phil Sabin dismisses the entire genre of SPI/ DG folios in his book ‘Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games’, often with sound specific critiques. However, he is running a master’s program at King’s College and therefore has different pedagogical requirements than does the AASGC (see index.aspx).

Relationship to Other Training Games

This reviewer can offer only his own recommendations. The hobby has been blessed with numerous introductory games in recent decades. For AASGC purposes, however, all of these serve strictly as follow-on teaching tools.

Dunnigan’s later ‘Drive on Metz’ (DoM) is another fine training game, one that emphasizes the constraints of terrain and time. A few years ago Alan Emrich’s Victory Point Games (VPG) was especially helpful in producing trainers, including a number of at-that-time low-cost games in their ‘Battlesson’® series, featuring tightly-organized rules modelled on the masterpieces SPI produced in the 1970s (even in games that later turned out to need errata). One of these was a reprint of DoM, another, ‘Assault on Sevastopol’ (sp).

Avalon Hill games from the 1960s provide additional training tools, admirably suited for novices but, alas, graphically primitive in the eyes of the new generation (not including 1914 or ‘Anzio’, of course; I’m referring to the preceding 1st-gen wargames). A beautiful version of ‘Afrika Korps’ can be put together from new counters and maps available on line.

SPI’s 1970s folio/quadrigames provide additional training tools. The ‘Napoleon at War’ quad (also ‘N@W’) is highly valuable in this regard, especially ‘Jena-Auerstadt’ (sp), a game in which trainers can play the Prussians at Jena, challenging the trainee to replicate Napoleon’s romp there while two other trainees fight it out up at Auerstädt. Multiplayer training games are useful for clubs, and the ‘Battle of Nations’ is a second folio in N@W that features multiple forces.

Decision Games has reproduced many of these in their new folio series (to mixed reviews). DG accompanies this series ( Results.asp?Cat=84) with a diversified ‘mini’ series of teaching games of high value for the money (some of these are quite nifty and attractive; I’m especially pleased with ‘Eagle Day’ and ‘Cactus Air Force’). They’re also affordable in multiple copies – something club managers will appreciate.

For all of the value these follow-on trainers add, none beats ‘Napoleon at Waterloo’ as an introductory game, because none of them presents a package as compact as did the hobby’s first purpose-designed trainer, and none of them packs as much fundamental learning value into one package.

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