WATERLOO 1815 :  NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLE from Trafalgar Editions If my previous review Bloody Battles of T...

WATERLOO 1815 : NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLE WATERLOO 1815 : NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLE

WATERLOO 1815 : NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLE

WATERLOO 1815 : NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLE

WATERLOO 1815 : 

NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLE


from



Trafalgar Editions




If my previous review Bloody Battles of The Crimea took us to a seldom gamed conflict, here we are back in the thick of one of the most famous and frequently gamed battles of history.

What I found intriguing was how two games both aiming for a tactical representation of conflicts separated in time by a mere 40 years can take such distinctly different paths to simulating the combination of infantry, cavalry and artillery tactics.  From solidly hex and counter routines, we turn in Waterloo 1815 to that granddaddy of wargaming: the kriegsspiel blocks.  Their origins were in military training for Prussian and German officers and the traditional blue and red suits well for the two armies at Waterloo.

Perhaps the best known, recent manifestations of this format have been Rachel Simmons' Napoleonic games on Marengo and Austerlitz [and the ACW game Guns of Gettysburg].  However, these latter games did little more than use the blocks with a whole slew of innovative ideas on how to manage terrain and engage in combat.  Trafalgar Editions' product is much closer to its historical origins.  

Its dynamic box art depicting Ney's cavalry charge in the last hours of Waterloo has an immediate visual impact.  Opening the box reveals a very good mounted map in two sections providing a splendid impression that focuses attention on the basic contours of the landscape.


The four key fortified locations immediately stand out [even in my somewhat faded photo!] as do the string of hamlets and villages.  In muted shades of green it serves to create an excellent image reminiscent of the historical map sketches typical of the period.  Each player has an A4 cardstcock copy of the map with the set-up for their units printed on, while the Allied player has an additional copy to be used for the optional hidden deployment variant.  It is small bonuses like this that testify  to both the quality and care taken by Trafalgar Editions.



The blocks themselves are plain wooden ones to which adhesive labels have to be applied to opposite sides and this is a lengthy process that needs considerable care.  Personally, I've never had concerns about these sort of tasks, but I am aware that for some it can be off-putting.  The task is particularly fiddly  because the blocks are the slim rods typical of the game's kriegsspiel influence and the labels fit exactly to the blocks' different sizes that identify the three arms of infantry, cavalry and artillery as well as leaders.  I soon found that trimming the merest sliver off the end of the labels made a surprising difference to ease of application, but you will still find it a lengthy process.



However, the results look magnificent, once completed and the units have been deployed on the map.


The central focus of the battle




A closer look at the Allied deployment
The choice for one side to show the unit in line and the other side in column works admirably, making formation changes an easy element of the game.  Nevertheless there are markers needed to indicate such things as disorganisation and rout, as well as the single step loss that units can take before they are eliminated.  This combination of slender blocks and cardboard markers has definite drawbacks and makes for potential problems, especially when units come into contact for melee or are picked up to change formation or move.  It's very easy to start a cascade of markers and to displace units, especially when the supersize infantry square marker is placed!.

Though it adds to initial preparation time and  then time checking when playing the game, I've found it worth the effort to create roster sheets for the units on which the markers can be placed.  Moving from the aesthetics and practicalities of the map and units to the engine that drives them, namely the rules, these are very much drawn from a miniatures-influenced world.  But before looking at them in more depth, I have to say that I struggled with the very small print-size and the equally small examples of play, all in black and white.

Fortunately you can download a copy of the rules from BGG [BoardGameGeek] and these proved very serviceable and especially helpful in allowing me to make notes directly on to them, while I've been working on playing the game and preparing this review.  Unlike many gamers who are perfectly happy to annotate and highlight rule books, I just cannot bring myself to do this.

My first surprise and slight disappointment was that there is no orders system and that essentially we are in an igo-ugo format, where one player moves and attacks and then the other player does the same.  Leaders provide little more than a morale boost to the unit they are attached to.  However, the fairly close proximity of the units and the very obvious historical aim of both sides to ultimately survive and annihilate the other really renders an orders based game unnecessary.

As for the lack of such things as chit-pull systems and initiative die rolls that tend to be de rigeur in so many current board wargames, these were soon forgotten in the simple pleasure of manoeuvring the wooden units and enjoying the visual delight of the experience.  If you look at the handy reminder of the turn sequence below, you'll also see the typical intermeshing of attacker and defenders' actions that mean that both players are engaged in the action throughout the turn.

It was interesting to find that Combat [i.e. hand to hand combat/cavalry charge] is the end of a player's turn and that a player reorganises at the beginning, attempting via a morale test to recover from Disruption or Rout while automatically recovering from being Shaken.  Rather surprisingly a player also attempts to disengage from hand to hand Combat in the Rally Phase.

The Artillery Defensive Fire Phase and the following Artillery Fire Phase is an excellent rendering of the artillery duels familiar in the Napoleonic period.  This fire is conducted by units at range from the enemy and is a very straightforward process.

Movement follows with all units that you want to come into contact with the enemy having to decide whether to engage them in melee at the beginning of their move.  I like this element of planning and decision making so simply built in.  By these means preparation for both melee and cavalry charges are handled smoothly and then executed after the next Phase which is Musketry Fire.  Movement itself is carried out using a series of small cardboard measuring sticks called UMs [standing for Unit Movement].  


French units in line formation about to make a simple movement forward
In essence a good idea, as they can be laid in sequence allowing a flexibility of gradual turning that the old style rigid measuring sticks of miniature gaming always made so difficult.  I've found them most useful for the wider sweeping moves of cavalry or the arrival [timely or not] of the Prussians.  However, as the armies rapidly close in battle, you're more likely to be using them to check infantry firing distance.

Just as the artillery fired before movement, infantry now engage after the movement phase in musketry fire with the Defender's Phase again preceding the Attacker's Phase.  A very good idea is that Defending artillery can decline to fire shot in the Artillery Phase in hopes of firing more deadly canister during the Musketry Phase.  Such fire takes place between units that are within half a UM or in contact, but not marked for subsequent melee .  

Finely, musketry fire between units that are in contact and marked for melee is the fore-runner to executing the melee or what the game dramatically calls bayonet assault.  Overall, fire and combat is well conceived with a definite logic and verisimilitude.  As units approach, there is the decision whether to engage in musketry duels and for how long or plunge in swiftly to attempt a bayonet assault.  Whatever you decide, the fire and combat chart is remarkably easy to use with each dice result's outcome being contained on a single line, with the non-highlighted result being applied to fire combat and both non-highlighted and highlighted being applied to melee.  This is a method that I've not experienced in any other game and works very well.



Similarly, movement whether at close quarters or over greater distances is easy to accomplish and the game has probably one of the simplest terrain charts with minimal detail.   

Central to all these elements of the game is morale and unquestionably morale is the heart of this game, being the stand-out feature on infantry and cavalry blocks.  Virtually all other data is on separate small, handy Army cards for the Allies, Prussians and French.  These give tables of modifiers for all three types of units referenced by such things as formation, full-strength and half-strength units, infantry in squares, unlimbered artillery etc.

So far so good, only the organisation of the information in the rule book brings an element of complexity and difficulty.  In part, I think this is because of a real desire to be thorough, but the outcome is that details tend to be repeated or amplified and sometimes aren't quite where you might have expected to find them.  

A good example of this is the section on the capabilities of the three different arms: infantry, cavalry and artillery.  Understandably we get quite a significant amount of information about such things as line and light infantry, guard infantry elite and, of course, the French Imperial guard, as well as three types of cavalry and foot and horse artillery.  But there is also considerable depth supplied in the section on artillery dealing with canister fire, artillery concentration and line of sight which you would expect to find appearing in later sections of the rules.
Shot and canister templates
The outcome is a game that has quite a substantial amount of detail to master, yet surprisingly easy systems to apply for all the most important and essential factors of a Napoleonic simulation.  Initially I did not worry too much about acquiring some of the finer details differentiating varieties of unit type, but focused on just mastering the basics of the three arms.

A further help is having the patience to play through the two additional mini-scenarios that are presented on very attractive glossy card.  Both provide partial elements of the big picture with small unit density and a limited play area.  




Scenario 1: The Prussians Are Coming in fact gives an object lesson in what the French player is likely to face in the later stages of the game and a good exercise to prepare  for that.  Scenario 2: Attack on the Allied Centre is another good lesson both in learning the rules and experiencing a focal point in the big picture.


Scenario: zooming in on La Haye Sainte

I know how hard it is to hold back from plunging in to the whole shebang at one fell swoop, but it is worth applying yourself to these smaller sections so that when you do move on to the full scale battle, you should be ready to gain maximum enjoyment with minimum rule checking.


Allied right flank about to undergo bayonet assault

As is expected with any game today, there are a selection of additional elements.  For me cards introducing Random Events always appeal. I know the old style Random Events tables used to do a very acceptable job, but the very attractive artwork of cards, plus there extra flexibility in using them is always an added draw. 



A very small section of Optional and Advanced rules complete the rules, among which I rather like the introduction of messengers allowing for a multiplayer session which may be as simple as a three-player game with the great commanders, Wellington, Napoleon and Blucher or extending to additional players acting as Corps commanders.


Messengers for multi-player participation
There is  a very substantial set of counters to mark the various states such as Disorganisation, Shaken and Routed and many other elements.  As these are all in Italian, there is an early acclimatisation needed.  By and large there is a fairly obvious correspondence, but perhaps a simple capital letter might have served better.

All in all, this is a strong addition to one of the most famous and much gamed  battles.  The rules do take time to be comfortable with, but working through them with either a few units or using one of the mini-scenarios is well worth the effort.  The visual aspect of playing the game is excellent and the designer has married elements of a miniatures system with a boardgame approach with an ease of execution and clarity of systems.  This a game to be enjoyed.

I would like to thank Trafalgar Editions for providing my review copy and I look forward to exploring soon their equally fascinating take on the most famous naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars - what else, but the company's namesake: Trafalgar.








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