Background image is Les Dernières Cartouches (The Last Cartridges) by Alphonse de Neuville

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Boardgame: The Napoleonic Wars

My gaming opportunities have been unusually numerous of late, for which I am very grateful. Last Sunday, two friends and I managed to squeeze in a learning game of GMT's The Napoleonic Wars. The game has a well-deserved 7.06 rating on BGG; my own rating for it is higher, as it seems a very enjoyable game, with a lot of replayability, a lot of historical authenticity, and a high but not outrageous level of complexity. ADG's Empires in Arms will probably remain my all-time favourite Napoleonic game at the strategic level, but this comes a close second based on the most recent playing and rather vague memories of my first time through the game, several years ago.

TNW is another in GMT's stable of card-driven games (CDGs). Each of these titles has its own unique design elements, but they share a general mechanic: the meat of a turn's action consists of players alternating plays from hands of cards, each of which either results in a historical event taking place (with specific game-defined effects) or the player receiving a certain number of generic command points to conduct various operations. At the end of the turn, players refill their hands from the common deck based on some limit, sometimes being allowed to retain one or more cards from their old hand.

Events are often one-off (a given event can occur only once in the play of a given game), and players are often required to play a card for its event effect under a certain set of circumstances. Playing a card for event effect often puts it out of play for the remainder of the game (especially if the even effect is very powerful), whereas other cards are continually recycled. The more beneficial the event effect, the larger the number of operational resources allotted if the card is not played as an event, thus creating tension for the player in choosing between the two options, particularly when playing the event will remove the card from play. And the number of cards players receive is never sufficient for them to achieve all the tasks they would like to, presenting an excellent example of the quandary of resource allocation.

Some CDG innovations include splitting the deck into segments to represent different phases of the conflict, splitting the deck into opposing sides (so no cards are shared), varying the effect of event cards based on which player puts them into play, requiring  that Card A must have been played as an event before Card B can be played as an event, the opposite effect in which playing a particular event prevents another event from being played in the future, and giving players some "home" cards with event effects specific to their faction that they can play every turn.

My gaming comrade Eric (aka Mr Invisible) and I have played several of GMT's CDGs, including Paths of Glory, Here I Stand, and Stalin's War. Other CDG favourites of mine include Thirty Years War, Twilight Struggle, Wilderness War, and We The People/Washington's War (which I think started the whole CDG genre). TNW is a worthy entrant into that field.

Phil (Britain/Austria) contemplates his capture of Madrid, as Eric (Prussia/Russia) deplores the loss of Berlin.

We realized we would not be able to learn and play the entire TNW five-turn campaign scenario in the time we had for gaming Sunday (roughly six hours). We tried to shorten the learning process by reading ahead in the rules (the "living" version of the rules and the playbook are available on GMT's website), but no one ever has as much time as they hope to for read-aheads (as I can attest from many a professional conference). So we picked the one-turn scenario for the 1813 campaign as our test piece. And we finished the game handily within about five hours, allowing time for the standard wargamer "social conversation" periods in and around actual game learning and game play.

We took sides more or less by default after setting up: Phil got Britain, its minor ally Spain, and Austria, which begins the scenario neutral but enters after one complete round of play by the other powers. Eric got Prussia and Russia and their minor ally Sweden (ruled by the turncoat French Marshal Bernadotte), and I rather uncharacteristically played France and its tiny ally Denmark.

France starts out with a large hand of cards, which give it several advantages. First of all, it gives France lots of options and a better shot at getting the high-value cards. Second, it makes France the preempting player at the start of the scenario. This role is a TNW special feature; it allows the power with the largest hand (when players control more than one power, they must keep their cards separate) to interrupt a power before it plays its card. The interrupting power plays a card of its own, then the interrupted power may take its turn. Various details prevent the interrupting power from completely dominating play, and the more times a power interrupts, the fewer cards it has and thus the sooner it lose the ability to interrupt.

Joseph Bonaparte: Bro, can't you spare a general?
France starts with a moderate-sized army in Spain, but one that is spread out and has no army commanders to unify it and get it moving. The largest French armies are in Germany, with a few garrisons in Poland and Ruthenia and leaders in Paris and Naples ready to raise new armies and move them toward the theatres of war.

Britain has its classic small but powerful army in Spain; per the 1813 scenario rules, it cannot attack elsewhere until it has conquered Spain (naval action and diplomacy, two big British occupations historically, are not used in 1813; the Ottoman Turks are also omitted).

Russia and Prussia start with various armies scattered across north and eastern Germany, Poland, and Russia. Their greatest problem is coordinating their efforts; apart from Blucher, they don't have any leaders capable of commanding large armies to start with, so they have to subsist on army groups, which take more resources to move. Also, none of their generals are as good as Napoleon in battle, so they have to exhaust him with numbers. And the Russian numbers take time to build and move west to where the fighting is.

Austria sits quietly for the first set of impulses, but once they enter, Schwartzenberg is a capable army leader and the access of forces Austria brings to the Allies will stretch the French ability to react in all theatres at once. If the French don't keep multiple forces operating in central Europe, the Prussians or Swedes can squirt past and start liberating north Germany. If they don't keep armies operating in Italy, Austria will burst across the Alps and start liberating its former possessions. And if the French don't send a serious army commander south to Spain, Wellington will roll right through the garrisons they've left around and start eating up southern France (which will also allow them to land troops elsewhere on the Continent).

Unless France manages to drive one of the Allies out of the war at the end of the scenario (an uncertain thing at best), players decide victory by comparing how many keys each possesses. The map is made up of linked points, representing regions, cities, or major formations. Some points are considered crucial to victory and are referred to as keys: national capitols (e.g., Paris, Vienna, Berlin), major cities (e.g., York, Orleans, Zagreb, Warsaw), or strategic locations (e.g., Gibraltar). Essentially, whoever had captured more of the others' keys by the time we ran out of cards would be the winner.

I rather rashly took a chance, gathering up a large force under Marshal Davout and attacking the main Allied army in Germany. What I failed to consider is that armies can either attempt to evade (flee to an adjacent space when attacked) or intercept (reach out and attack an enemy army moving into an adjacent space). The Allies attempted to flee, failed, then called on nearby armies to "intercept" and join them. I won the resulting engagement, doing some damage to the Allies, but lost some troops myself, as I had fought more of the enemy than I intended.

The Prussians, feeling their oats after battle with Davout, moved west and liberated Hannover. This was a bit of a blow, and it left them crouching like a black vulture over the Low Countries and northern France, but I had Soult and an army in Paris that could be reinforced if need be, so I looked at what they had left behind--an open path straight to the under-garrisoned Berlin!

Graf von Kleist
Napoleon sprang into action, picking up several corps, including the doughty Davout, and racing towards Kleist and his band of defenders. After a brief thrashing, we drove the Prussians out of their capitol! It was at that point that I realised that possession of the capitol only allowed a *roll* for conquest, it didn't mandate it. And that the roll comes at the end of the turn (in this case, the entire scenario) rather than immediately. Curses! If only I had read fully, instead of skimming. Still, I held another Prussian key, knocking them down to three (Davout had captured Leipzig from Blucher).

The Russians struck France with a corn shortage, but it had little effect. Spain tried to bleed my armies with guerrillas, but Joseph must have been ruling well that month, as no losses resulted. Clearly Jupiter and Mars were on my side!

Wellington advanced on Madrid and was beaten back by its small garrison. But he rounded up more of the British expeditionary force and attacked again, steamrollering the garrison and liberating the Spanish capitol. Well, the gods are fickle.

I brought Murat up from his Naples vacation to command a new Army of Italy. I moved Soult south to face off against Wellington, while building up the Paris National Guard.

But doom was coming. My memory of the next few impulses is sketchy (it was so painful!), but I think it went like this.

Phil and Eric spent some time discussing what the best way of combining *all* the Russian and Prussian forces so as to generate a kill stack that could take on Napoleon. A Russian army group joined up with Kleist, and the next step would be for Blucher to gather them up and descend on Napoleon. So Napoleon decided to preempt that attack and intercept Kleist and his Russian friends before Blucher could join them.

The problem with this plan was ... luck. Although the French went into the battle with good odds, they completely whiffed. Napoleon had the second-worst day of his career. The French Army of Germany melted like early snow on a warm day. Napoleon, Davout, and a few scattered divisions fell back on Leipzig while the Prussians and Russians celebrated.

Then Blucher gathered up his forces, swung through Berlin to pick up the recently victorious armies of Kleist and Tormassov, and descended on Leipzig. Napoleon had quite definitely the worst day of his career; only he, Davout, and a few thousand troops escaped this battle. And, at that point, I decided to concede.

I had, if I recall correctly, three cards left, which would have been enough to rebuild one army and bring it back into combat with Blucher. But I had lost Hannover and Madrid and was about (as soon as Austria moved) to lose both Munich and Milan, and there was no way I could recoup those losses with the hand of cards remaining before the end of the turn. I'd gotten tossed out of Berlin, so I wouldn't be able to Conquer Prussia at the end of the turn; ditto with Spain.

We agreed that the game was challenging and enjoyable, one we would like to play again. Not only does the full scenario beckon (starting in 1805 and running as many as five two-year turns, though capable of ending sooner), but there is also an aftermarket 1792 scenario that I'd really like to explore. My rating for this game is 8 out of 10.

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