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An Introduction to Wargaming

and How to Play Napoleon at Waterloo

by Redmond Simonsen


0. Introduction

Wargaming, and more broadly, conflict simulation gaming, is in some ways hindered by its own strength. The powerfully attractive concept of recreating a famous battle necessarily requires a body of rules much more complex and extensive than those found in the usual adult parlor game. Even the manner of moving the pieces and the progress of play is more exacting and foreign-seeming than most other types of games. As a partial answer to this problem, SPI has produced the third edition of Napoleon at Waterloo - a game specifically designed as a 'first game'. But even Napoleon at Waterloo has 3000 words of rules, some odd-seeming tables, and an intimidating array of playing pieces. Because even this simplest of wargames can seem perplexing at first, I'd like to describe what goes on in general in simulation games and specifically how to approach this particular introductory game.

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1. It is worth it all!

Such a simple declaration may seem silly, but it's heartening to keep in mind that simulation games are rewarding and enjoyable experiences - regardless of how mysterious they may seem at first. Once the basic techniques of gaming are understood, a whole family of fascinating hobby games become accessible to the new player. Unlike most other games, wargames share a lot of common features. Once these features are grasped, they need not be re-learned with every new game. This explains, in part, how experienced garners can so easily digest dozens of formidable new games every year without bursting at the mental seams. When you get a new game, you only have to discover the things that vary from the usual. To a great extent, it is this relatedness that makes simulation gaming a distinct hobby.

So whatever trouble you may have getting into gaming, rest assured that it will suddenly seem simple and easy to manage once the nuts and bolts are understood.

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2. In the game, you're in charge.

In simulation gaming, the player actually represents a leader or a group of leaders. In Napoleon at Waterloo, the players represent Napoleon Bonaparte (for the French) and the Duke of Wellington and Blucher (for the Anglo-Allies and Prussians).

In the game, the problems of command are simplified to present only the most significant and interesting aspects. In a game like Napoleon at Waterloo, the players make all the decisions about maneuver and commitment of forces - but are spared the tedious matters of supply and logistics. Some games concentrate very heavily on such factors and also deal with the problem and transmission of orders, doctrine, fatigue, etc. In fact, some games become so detailed that they take as long to play as the real event took to happen!

In Napoleon at Waterloo, you decide where each playing piece will move and which enemy unit it will attack (if any). This is quite unlike conventional board games (for example, chess) where you can move only one piece per turn or must move pieces in some rigid pattern. Always keep in mind that the game is an attempt to simulate a certain kind of reality (the movement and action of military units). Many times it is the natural, logical actions that are the hardest rules to understand (simply because most games don't have any real-world connection and we're not accustomed to them having such, either). If you think of your playing pieces as large, unwieldy groups of men and equipment moving over real territory, you'll have a better appreciation of the logic inherent in the rules.

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3. Winning isn't everything, but...

The usual focus of a parlor game is centered on winning. In many ways, the game is defined by the manner in which a player wins. Wargames are a little different inasmuch as the very process of play is itself meaningful and enjoyable. Wargames share this characteristic with many sports. The victory conditions in wargames are based upon the realities of the particular military situation being simulated. Thus, in Napoleon at Waterloo, the Allied Army seeks to inflict enough losses on the French Army to demoralize it (i.e. break its will to fight). The French have to demoralize the Allied Army and start their army on the way to Waterloo (as a way station to their strategic objective, Brussels). These victory conditions represent the judgment of the designer-as-historian as to what would had to have happened historically. In the real battle the French Army was indeed demoralized. Technically, it had the wherewithal to continue fighting - it had simply lost heart because of the very great losses it had sustained and the failure of a critical attack by the best French unit (the Imperial Guard).

Incidentally, you should keep in mind that when a unit is `destroyed` in a wargame, it rarely simulates the complete and utter destruction of that body of men and equipment. Once again, it simply means that that unit has lost its ability to fight as a cohesive force. Indeed, a unit that has lost ten or fifteen percent of its strength in a real battle would be represented as being destroyed (removed from the map) in most wargames like Napoleon at Waterloo. So, as units are 'destroyed' the crowd of disorganized and defeated men increases on the battlefield (even though the game map is cleared of these losers) which has an effect on the units that remain fighting. Ultimately, the still-effective units crack psychologically and the whole battle is lost.

The individual unit losses are, in effect, miniature versions of how the battle itself is lost: not by suffering complete annihilation, but rather by losing enough to make it impossible to go on. You'll see this criterion used in many wargames. Sometimes it is linked to some sort of territorial objective (as in the exiting of the French units towards Brussels). The way that each side wins a game is rarely identical. Because it simulates a real event, the antagonists in a wargame have different objectives - different definitions of what constitutes a victory.

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4. Lucky you.

One of the main elements in any wargames is the Combat Results Table. At first, the thought of rolling a die or picking a number from a hat to find out who wins a particular battle might seem a little arbitrary of chancy. The table, however, is actually a simplified but sophisticated statistical analysis of what happens in a battle. After you use it a few times you'll see how the greater the force you bring to bear, the more likely it is that you'll get a favorable result. The Combat Results Table in Napoleon at Waterloo also shows you that as the attacking force begins to massively outnumber the defender, the defender will always lose, but sometimes will take some of the attackers with him (by getting an Equal Elimination result).

Just as in real life, in wargaming there are few sure things. When playing you must allow for a reasonable number of well planned attacks going wrong. The Combat Results Table will indicate a good chance of winning, but you'll sometimes get the one result that goes against you. Statistically, if you make a large number of attacks with the odds in your favor, you'll win - but you may lose just a few critical attacks and have your entire plan ruined. Sometimes a string of really bad luck will actually cause your defeat in a game like Napoleon at Waterloo. This can happen even though you did everything `right` and you'll find it can be literally demoralizing on a personal level.

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5. How to get started.

Napoleon at Waterloo is a good introductory game for a whole host of reasons. The relative quickness of play makes it an ideal learning game because you can actually use it as a practice field - playing a number of games in a single evening. Usually a decision is reached in under an hour (even though all ten Game-Turns may not have been played). Unless you have someone experienced in gaming to act as your coach, the best way to learn is to play a few practice games against yourself. Just follow the rules and play for each side in order. This will give you quick exposure to everything in the whole game and since you play both sides, you'll always be doing something rather than waiting for the understandably slow moves of another beginning player.

Make sure you have at least a couple of hours free to concentrate on the game. You may not need all that time, but its better to be relaxed and under no pressure to finish in a hurry. Take a good look at all the components to the game, quickly skim the rules.

Look at all the starting units. These can be recognized by the four digit numbers printed in the middle of each of these pieces. These numbers correspond to specific hexagon numbers on the map. What you wind up with is 18 red Allied units arrayed against an oncoming army of 26 blue and white French units. Note that the hexagons on the map serve much the same purpose as the squares on a checkerboard - they regulate the movement and positioning of the pieces. The difference is that each hex is characterized by the terrain it contains. Look at the key on the map and you'll see that, effectively, there are two main types of hexes: those which units can enter (clear, buildings, roads, and woods-roads); and those which units may never enter (woods). Of the hexes that units can enter, two are important defensively: building and woods-road hexes. In these hexes, a unit has its strength doubled on the defense.

The actual play of the game takes place in an ordered sequence: the French pieces move, then attack; and the Allied pieces move, then attack. This sequence is repeated ten times and the game is over. When first set up, the situation can be thought of as two opposing football teams facing each other on the line of scrimmage (except that the French has more 'men' on the field). The French team moves and crashes into the Allied line.

As each attack is resolved by using the combat results table, either the French will be thrown back or eliminated or the Allies will. Because each attack is resolved separately (and there can be several attacks in the same turn), the French can push some Allied units back, advance into their positions, and surround other Allied units that they have yet to attack. Surrounded units are not allowed to retreat - so if the subsequent attack against them succeeds in getting a retreat result, the unit will be eliminated instead, thereby bringing the French closer to victory. It is a standard technique in land combat games such as Napoleon at Waterloo, to advance, surround, and destroy units. You'll see, by looking at the Combat Results Table, that it's fairly difficult to destroy enemy units without surrounding them. To use the football analogy, it's more effective to tackle the runner from two directions at once.

Because the victory conditions in Napoleon at Waterloo concentrate on the destruction of units, overall position on the map is not so important as it might at first seem. Although the French are attempting to get seven units off the map toward Waterloo, their primary objective is to demoralize the Allied Army by beating the tar out of them. The Allies should not be so concerned about French units getting by them to exit the map. More importantly, they should focus on beating the tar out of the French. If they destroy 40 points worth of French first, it doesn't matter how many French units exit the map - the Allies have won.

The Allies should not allow individual units or small groups to become surrounded by powerful French groups. They should maintain a continuous crescent shaped line of strong units with plenty of space to retreat when the need arises. It is important for the Allied Player to realize that he must be aggressive and vigorously attack the French (even though the French are the ones on the strategic offensive). Napoleon at Waterloo is won by the player who most steadily destroys enemy units.

Since the sequence of play is 'move attack/move-attack' the player should study the enemy position before moving, pick out some vulnerable units, and move to concentrate on them and destroy them. Don't try to attack everything at once. You'll simply make a lot of weak assaults that will gain nothing. If the enemy has a coherent line, you will have to make at least three or four attacks to yield a situation where an enemy unit can be surrounded and destroyed. After the French make their first turn attacks, the Allies should immediately try to pick off one or two French units by launching a strong counterattack. After that, it's a race by either side to remain ahead on points until the forty point limit is reached. Napoleon at Waterloo can be an extremely tense battle. A decision is usually reached around turns 5,6, or7.

In general, the French should drive into and around the Allied line in the center and to the west. This makes it harder for the Allies to bring the oncoming Prussian Army to bear (since they enter in the east). This is the commonsense tactic of being strongest where the enemy is weakest. The Allied forces should attack in good order (i.e., don't leave too many of your units exposed to counterattack) and not be afraid of losing ground so long as they are destroying French units. If the Allies are too cautious, they are bound to lose. The balance of the game is slightly in favor of the Allies (about 60-40). The French (as in the historical reality) have a tough task - if the French player is at all timid, he'll undoubtedly lose.

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6. Getting better.

The first few games you play will be less than smooth. You'll have to look things in the rules and you may not really feel you know what you're doing. Don't worry - few new garners 'click' immediately into the expert category. Just as in playing sports, practice improves your game. Because of the relatedness of wargames, much of what you learn in Napoleon at Waterloo will stand you in good stead in the more complex games to come. SPI has produced a number of exciting games using modified versions of the Napoleon at Waterloo system. Once you learn it, you'll be able with little additional effort to play the following titles:

  • Wavre
  • La Belle Alliance
  • Quatre Bras
  • Ligny
  • (and the preceding four all together as Napoleon's Last Battles)
  • Wagram
  • Battle of Nations
  • Jena-Auerstadt
  • Marengo
  • Dresden and Eylau
  • Borodino
  • Austerlitz
  • Chickamauga
  • Shiloh
  • Antietam
  • Cemetery Hill
  • Chattanooga
  • Battle of the Wilderness
  • Hooker & Lee
  • Fredericksburg
  • Road to Richmond

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From: Napoleon of Waterloo, 2nd Edition, December 1979.

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