I played SPI and other games back in the 1970s onwards and they did various quad games including for Napoleonic. They were simple but a very predicable game and basically after you had worked out the best initial moves it all went along in the same old way and just depended on the rolls on the combat results table (CRT) - i.e. it was all down to whether you could cut off and kill defenders by surrounding after advance after combat from earlier attacks or you ended up getting yourself surrounded because some later attacks failed.
There are a number of elements that make this system different:
The combat results table - CRT
It does not look that different from those early games on first look but the differences are quite profound, particularly as there are interactions with other parts of the rules. The traditional CRT had a mix of defender or attacker retreat (DR and AR), exchange (EX) and defender or attacker eliminated (DE and AE) results with a few 'no results' on some odds columns. The CRT columns for the Napoleonic 20 series are strength point differentials though rather than odds (mostly odds in older games). That works better as no rounding or wasted points.
The first change is that there are now two types of retreat - withdrawal and rout (DW, DR, AW and AR). A withdrawal is just like a traditional retreat result - fall back one hex. A rout is a more uncontrolled retreat and the length of the retreat is rolled for on a D6 with some modifiers to reduce the roll (e.g. in a fort or an elite unit and if the modified roll is zero or less then it stays put, if it is one then it is a withdrawal rather than a rout). The unit then goes back that far and gets a rout maker that removes the zone of control and halves the combat value -marker is removed at the end of the next players combat phase. If the rout length is greater than the unit's movement points then the army loses one morale - morale is key to the game as described later.
Next, retreating through a zone of control is not an automatic elimination but is a 'hazardous retreat' and has a 50/50 chance of the unit breaking (removed from the map for potential rally during a night turn). If a unit does break then that side lose one morale point but the other gains a morale (a routing unit that then breaks due to hazardous retreat just means losing a single morale point though).
Defender or Attacker break results (DB and AB) are essentially just like DE or AE results except that there is an immediate morale impact and the ability to rally during night turns. On a break result the losing side has their morale reduced by one and the winner get an increase in morale of one. So breaking and routing units is the way to win by reducing the opposing army morale to zero.
Exchange is just like the traditional games - kill the defender and at least as many attacker strength points (possibly in more than one unit). The difference is that the destroyed units break (and can then rally at night) and causes morale changes. Net result is actually all morale goes back to where it started if the exchange means the same number of units go on each side (best to avoid losing two for one!), but the effects apply to the defender first. So if each side loses one unit then the defender morale goes down one and the attacker's up one, if this does not put the defending army to zero and hence a game loss then the attacker loses one morale and the defender gains one.
Terrain effects are always adjustments to strength points not odds (as the CRT does not use odds but strength point differentials). Also they are not cumulative, you just get the best one - so defending over a stream in a town is no different than defending in a clear hex behind a stream. Defending in a fortified position behind a stream is just like defending in a fortified position without a stream. Streams and bridges/ fords over major rivers count as a hazardous retreat. This means taking a position behind a stream is a risky proposition - if you get pushed back after initial successes then it is back over the stream and a potential for the retreating unit to break.
Those traditional games either had nothing on army morale or a fairly crude army break point based on the number of strength points eliminated (or sometimes individual corps break points). Some games (such as OSG Leipzig - mine is the later Clash of Arms version) then have the potential to rally at a reduced strength. For Napoleonic 20 games, Morale is really the driving concept for how the game works.
Each army has a morale track from 0 to 10 (usually it is between 6 and 8 at the start of a game depending on the particular game and each side may start off at different points). You can't go over 10 and you lose if it goes to zero. Certain events change morale levels and you can also 'spend' them. This last part of the game is what makes it really interesting.
Things that change morale
- routing more than the units movement, morale down one;
- unit breaks, morale down one and opponent gains one morale;
- a guard unit couldn't advance after an attack, morale down one;
- some card events;
- if morale low enough and no activity in a turn (a' lull') then can gain back one morale point;
- during night having one of your objective hexes occupied by the enemy;
- during night having two or more Line of Communication points (LOC) enemy controlled;
- gain one due to rest at night.
Things you can spend morale on
- a forced march - spending one point (at most) to give all units plus one movement this turn;
- local commitment of reserves - spending one morale (at most) in a battle to add one strength point. Attacker decides first then the defender;
- to commit a guard unit (there are differences between elites that get various benefits and guards that get them too but have the commitment rules). Committing means being able to move into a zone of control. If your army morale is one then you can commit the guard for free - but also if your opponent's morale is one you can commit your guard for free too;
- to add one to a roll to rally a unit during night turns.
I have played a number of games when one side is well ahead on morale and the other side close to zero. But it can then often be tricky to force a result in a combat as usually less units around (and a very low unit density to start with) and hence less options. The temptation is often to add a morale point in combat to increase the differential and try to get a good result - ideally to break a unit. But it can never be guaranteed and if you are too cavalier with your morale point advantage you can suddenly find you are not that far off zero yourself and the result of the battle can then but much more in question that you would like! I remember doing that in a game of Smolensk. Very few Russians on the board to start with and my son was a bit too aggressive and got them wiped out. The French had to get themselves over the river and so this slowed them down as Russians gradually arrived on the far map edge. By trying to force a result before too many Russians arrived it ended up being really close and I only just squeaked home in the end.
Other than the first player turn of a game the first thing you do on your turn is to pick an event card. Each card either has a general event or two different ones - that each apply to a particular side and hence a single card can do different things depending on who picked it. Often cards depend on some condition that may not be met and hence nothing happens. Some are literally no effect for one side and then force a reshuffle of the cards (bringing the discard pile back in the deck). Some cards are specific to the battle, here are a few examples:
- Lannes dying at Aspern-Essling and boosting the effectiveness of his Corp;
- Weather effects such as at Dresden;
- Reduction in movement for one side (e.g. something about the battle meant one side was a bit tardy);
- you can't enter zones of control in the turn;
- you can pick an enemy unit and it can't move or sometimes not enter zones of control.
Others appear in many games, such as:
- free morale point to spend on forced march or in a combat;
- one unit get a movement point and strength point increase just for that turn;
- ability to look at a unrevealed unit if fog of war optional rules used (no effect if not using them);
- a dice roll to get an effect, often low bad, middling no effect high good (e.g. good may be gain a morale, bad may be that you can't force march this turn).
Even if the effect of events are the same in different games then the name of the event and perhaps flavour text set the scene around events in the actual battle.
Victory Point provide some examples on the web site for some of the games so here are a few to give a better idea (in each case click on next to see the other card examples available):
You can browse the Napoleonic 20 product page to see all the games and other examples of cards and components too.
The cards mostly provide a minor change but can potentially help swing a single combat or can disrupt things to delay your plans for a turn, or may just change what you do that turn a little bit. While a game will not be won or lost as a result of a card (losing a morale point might if you are down to one but then you are on the verge anyway and you are in that position as a result of a whole load of things), it does mean that there is an extra level of unpredictability so that games will always be a bit different.
The above three things are why I think this system is different from previous simple games and why it works so well. There are lots of other nice bits in the rules too and there have been 4 versions which always add a few bits as well as clarifying. I won't go through it all but here is just a list of some of the other
- cavalry retreat before combat or counter attack;
- light infantry that can act like cavalry on retreat before combat (these are just the key units like the British light divisions not all light troops);
- unreliable units - may lose a strength point in a combat, roll for it after all other adjustments (e.g. Saxons in 1813, some Spanish in the Peninsular);
- elite units, less likely to retreat and may gain a strength pint on an 'Elan' roll;
- optional rules like fog or war - units shown with their national flag until close enough to be revealed.
There are also special rules for each game that reflect the particular circumstances of the battle. While winning is about getting the enemy to zero morale the special rules will often have particular ways to get a minor victory.
Things will be a lot clearer when I review an actual game and when there are pictures of a game board etc. but I wanted to do this general overview to refer back to each time rather than cluttering a specific game review with observations on the standard system. Victory Point put copies of the rules on their web site and you can check out their latest standard rules version there.
Finally, not something about the rules but the design of the game.
While most early games (and some new attempts I have seen in S&T magazine which I have not liked either) focus on the final battle (from when the attacks first began to when the set piece engagement ended), the Napoleonic 20 series each cover a number of days, typically 2 to 4. This means you get a map that covers the area around the set piece engagement not just the final battlefield. For example, Waterloo 20 is actually Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre and Waterloo all on one map. But all the games basically cover the movement up to the engagement so you can choose to do it a bit differently.
The game system is called '20' because there are less than 20 units on the board. This low density combined with maps covering a wider area around the actual battle really emphasize the importance of maneuver. Some games are still mainly about set piece combat but others are much more about maneuver and getting the advantage in position.
I have played many board games of the Napoleonic wars. I have not found any games covering the whole war to be any good (e.g. Avalon Hill War and Peace was dire, and although it had some nice features I did not like the combat system in the later Empires in Arms at all. The GTD games were OK but a bit random on the combat but being quick kept my interest for a little while). I eventually gave up trying to find something on the war - I think you are better off with computer games to be honest, if you fancy putting in a lot of time that is.
Games of individual battles though have a variety of systems and different complexities and I have enjoyed many over the years. The most complex was Marshal Enterprises (later Clash of Arms) and it did work well and once you got to know the rules it played reasonably smoothly (nice colourful counters too). But they take quite a while to play and if you are also a figures gamer then the real question is why bother? Other systems have been less complex but still take up quite a while or just don't feel right and many games in recent years seem to be poorly play tested (TSR and S&T games especially). As I have got into Euro style games I have become less tolerant of the more traditional board war games that take hours to set up and play and focus more on moving counters about than they do on the decisions the generals need to make. As described above the simpler games were not that great.
So when I came across Victory Point there was quite a backlog of disappointment and fatigue to overcome. I was then very pleasantly surprised that they are so good and have a high level of replay-ability. The main positives I found were:
- simple rules but some nice enhancements that add to the flavour and reduce the dependence on individual dice rolls;
- quick to play;
- fun games that are almost always very close;
- cards that added variation to every game;
- low counter density that adds to the speed of play but emphasizes the importance of maneuver in games;
- large range and ever expanding;
- initially cost was very good price. The component quality has been improved over the years and now come in boxes so less cheap but still really good value, particularly when you know what a good game is in the box.
I don't really have any down sides. Others may also like a more complex challenge and a bigger game with more counters and rules complexity but if I want that then I will play miniatures and not a board game - but that is a personal thing that not everyone will share the same view. But whether you are an out and out board gamer or a figures gamer that will play board games then I think Napoleonic 20 series will be an enjoyable experience.
Keep an eye out on my blog as I will gradually do reviews of each of the games in the Napoleonic 20 series.