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FIELD COMMANDER NAPOLEON Back to a leader and a period which is probably the most gamed outside of WWII: the Napoleonic wars.  Back ...

Field Commander Napoleon Field Commander Napoleon

Field Commander Napoleon

Field Commander Napoleon



Back to a leader and a period which is probably the most gamed outside of WWII: the Napoleonic wars.  Back too to a games company that I highly rate and to one of their signature solitaire series, the Field Commander series.  DVG [Dan Verssen Games] has always focused primarily on solo play and I cannot think of another company with such a consistent track record in this field.

Field Commander Napoleon is the third out of a quartet of games that began with Rommel, moved on to Alexander the Great and most recently came up to the C20th with Field Commander Nimitz that my American counterpart, Rob Peterson, is currently working on.  All employ outstanding art work, but I feel fortunate in Napoleon being assigned to me, both because of the leader himself and the magnificent treatment that this game has been given.

The cover art on the box is a sumptuous reproduction of one of the most famous equestrian paintings of Napoleon, David's Napoleon Crossing The Alps. Set against a rich, dark green frame, it provides what is for me the best box art in the whole range of DVG's games.  The box itself is just about the deepest too, a stunning 10cm or 4 inches deep and it needs to be to contain all that's inside. Namely, seven double-panel mounted map boards and a mounted Battlefield board and twelve sheets [the rulebook incorrectly lists only six sheets] of substantially thick and opulent counters.

The Russian campaign

All the games in this series are highly strategic and it may be argued that they handle their subject only lightly and with the broadest of brushes.  Here we span the whole of Napoleon's career in eleven Campaigns from the early Italian Campaign of 1796 through to the 100 Days of 1815.  En route via the various boards, we span so much history and territory, among them one of my favourites, the Peninsular, as well as the devastating Russian Campaign, two in Italy, two against the Prussians, the Egypt Expedition and more.

Though of fine quality and finish, you will see the marked similarities from this and other boards that I've included pictures of.  First of all the simple earthen hues and totally cosmetic touches of terrain that play no part in the game recur throughout, along with the repetition of the identical city icon.  Perhaps even worse is the use of much of the map to site all the critical information.  Special rules, starting forces and their location along with reinforcements, tables for rolling enemy orders and even the simple sequence of play cluster in the outlying geographical regions.

A favourite period, the Peninsular campaign

This makes for ease of play, but is offset by a uniformity and conformity that cannot help but make you feel that you are playing a very similar situation whatever country, whatever campaign, whatever year and even whatever the enemy.

Fighting in Russia, fighting in Spain or fighting in France and so on seems to make little or no difference.  I began to feel that I was solving a puzzle and learning very little about each Campaign.  Yes the Russian campaign has some very basic special rules about weather [and so it should], but by and large over the range of campaigns, Special rules are minimal.  

Other than the names changing and the configuration of where cities are, you gain no knowledge of why the campaign took place here.  Nor will you even follow anything like the path each campaign took, as will become clear when I deal with some of the basic rules.

Victory is almost entirely governed by city control and - to add to the lack of variety - all battles are played out on the one and only battle board.
The one and only battle board.

Attractively done, but no room for variation.  This aspect is for me the downside of the inherent and obviously intended simplicity of the whole game.  Visual compensation lies in the 512 military units.  So many, because each campaign has its own set of units marked with the campaign year.  
Half of the many hundreds of unit counters
They are the standard [and what a standard] thick, gleaming product with rounded corners that press out so easily, with none of the potential to leave fragments behind mentioned by Mark Hathaway in his most recent review.   These counters are characterised by their clarity of image and lettering/numbering: a letter for the Skill level and two numbers, one for Activation, the other Combat value.  Even to my aging eyes, these can be read across the table with absolute certainty in whatever light. 
A very small number of the counters all cleanly pressed out.

I particularly like the cavalry units that have a superscript Combat value, which means that if you roll low enough to equal or be lower than the superscript value you score two hits instead of one.  Added to the main forces of infantry and cavalry are static garrisons, fortifications and cannons.  

Arriving at the rule book, you'll find that the overall simplicity of design is mirrored in the rules.

I have no hesitation in saying that this is the most straightforward of all the rules sets not just for this series, but all the other series in the DVG canon.  The turn sequence is French Movement, resolve battles in all areas where there are Friendly and Enemy units, 2nd French Movement [but paying 1 supply point per Force, where Force means a single unit], resolve any battles resulting from this 2nd Movement, French Resupply and purchase of new units then Enemy units Movement, resolution of resulting battles and Enemy Resupply.  Even that list of steps makes it sound more complex and detailed than it is.

Of the 20 pages of basic rules, 10 are taken up by the Battle sequence.  Sounds as if it's going to be complex, but the length is largely because slightly more than half of them explain very clearly every single battle plan counter and insight counter used by you the French player or drawn by the solitaire system for the Enemy.  The game's strength does lie in this highly accessible and easy system, but so too does much of its limitations.

First of all tying victory almost wholly to city control means that history tends to fly out of the window, as bringing the enemy to battle and destroying the enemy army tended to be the goal far more often, especially for Napoleon. 
Mapboard for both the 1814 & 1815 Campaigns

Next the AI system for Enemy Movement produces a wholly arbitrary and random set of results.  All the units in one area have to be divided into stacks of three units and then each stack of units is rolled for separately.  The outcome - some stay put, some wander off away from the French and some advance towards the French.  This system is vital to break up the, at times, large and powerful enemy forces at start and, as we know from history, the various coalition forces that faced Napoleon were prone to some calamitous errors, but this is verging on the ridiculous.

In its way it does simulate the fact that Napoleon would manoeuvre to defeat his enemies piecemeal, but in many cases that would be achieved by his speed and use of interior lines to meet and overwhelm one force before it could unite with another.  Here it seems almost the reverse, that Napoleon waits to pounce when the united forces decide [on the roll of the dice] to wander away from each other.  Not to say that it doesn't make for an intriguing and interesting situation at times, but [to take a quote out of context] "Ce n'est pas la guerre!" 

Nor is battle very convincing on discovering that you, the French, can set up units in Line or Column, while the Enemy must always set up in Column [often a disadvantageous formation].  This may be intended to represent greater French flexibility, but as the Napoleonic army was famed for attacking in column, it is another point at which I scratched my head and wondered!

As always the rule book concludes with a very good, lengthy example of play.  With the simple set of rules, perhaps this is one occasion when it is less necessary, but still very welcome.

So, as I think you should be expecting, my conclusions are mixed.  Physically, a near perfect presentation.  Straightforward and fairly short rules.  Low complexity.  Ease of play.  But for me too random and, whether you start at his opening campaign or his closing one, too lacking in the feel of being either the Little Corporal or the Grand Empereur!