Thursday, July 21, 2016

Search For The Holy Grail--The Best Napoleonic Rules, Part 1

Which Napoleonic rules system is the best ?

Being a total rules geek, I played out 5 popular and well-weathered Napoleonic rules sets in order to rate and compare them to each other. This entry, Part 1, covers the first of the games played, with the rules From Valmy To Waterloo.

Besides FVTW, subsequent blog posts will cover Carnage and Glory 2, Le Feu Sacre, Black Powder, and General de Brigade (Deluxe Edition).

A warning:  all of the opinions and ratings are purely my own and not to be construed as an all-out attempt to insult any other gamer's favorite rules set. (Besides, I had fun with each and every one of them !)

When we discuss Napoleonic wargaming with miniatures, players around the world have extremely strong opinions on how they view warfare of the period. The search for the "holy grail" of Napoleonic rules is never-ending. I am no different than any other historical miniatures enthusiast. I began my search over 20 years ago with the ever-popular Empire and continued to dabble in many other rules systems over the years. It's safe to say, after experimenting with grand-tactical scales (Napoleon's Battles, Age of Eagles, etc), that I personally prefer battalion scaled games versus brigade or larger games. That's just my preference; I refuse to judge anyone else who prefers a larger or smaller scale. I realize that's the spirit of wargaming.....besides the artful side of painting and terrain, and the competitiveness of the game, we all yearn to experience a wargame that mirrors as close as possible how we each envision a Napoleonic battle to be like. Unfortunately, the disconnect happens because those days are dead and gone; we only have paintings and historical accounts to go by.

So......I have attempted to play out a simple scenario with various rules sets and to complete an analysis of each. I graded each rules system objectively based on 1. Playability and 2. Realism/ Historical Accuracy.  I limited the rules sets according to a couple parameters; first, they all were required to have a battalion as the basic unit, and none of the systems could have simultaneous movement. This entire experiment is still flawed due to my own inherent and individual bias and my limited knowledge of what it was really like to be alive on a battlefield in the years 1792-1815. was a lot of fun. I also experienced a few surprises along the way.

I decided to simulate the battle of Maida in southern Italy in 1806. The opposing forces were division-sized and within 1,000 soldiers of each other. The terrain was relatively flat and clear. Historically, the British held their ground and punished unimaginative and headlong charges of the French with disciplined musketry and artillery fire. After the French were repulsed, the British pursued and scattered the French forces under Reynier. The battle was only slightly larger than a skirmish but the victory was huge for the allies. For the first time since Napoleon became Emperor, a French force was soundly beaten in the field. Napoleon shrugged off Reynier's loss as " merely having  a bad plan." In reality, the battle not only demonstrated the discipline of British infantry, the victory also had an incredible effect on national morale.

As for the wargame, the French have a numerical advantage, but the quality ranges from conscripts to veterans. The French also had an advantage in light infantry, skirmishing capability, and a unit of light cavalry. The British troop quality was slightly higher overall and the British had a 10-6 advantage in artillery pieces. Leadership was roughly equal on both sides, with French General de Division Reynier slightly downgraded with respect to historical results. In summary, Maida is an excellent scenario to experiment with; the forces are roughly equal in capability.

The scenario is detailed in an earlier blog post (search under the label "Napoleonic Wars"). For each of the rules discussed, I won't go into a full-blown AAR of each of the games, but attempt to focus on the mechanics of each rules set.

From Valmy To Waterloo

FVTW has a reputation for historical realism and a corresponding focus on complexity. After studying the rules extensively, the playbook does simplify play....a bit. It takes a long time to master (and fully digest) these rules. I have always been impressed with the sheer amount of detail that William Keyser put into these rules. Ah....but are they playable?  The answer is yes, but there are some drawbacks. FVTW was a 1990s evolution of Empire and is admirable in many ways. But due to the complexity of the rules, it is difficult to find an opponent these days.  Let's see how it compares to other rules systems.

In FVTW, there is a tremendous focus on command/control, extensive tactical detail, and brigade/division morale. Each turn consists of various phases and corresponds to 15 minute time periods. Command definition is very restrictive and command distance at the divisional level is very rigid, with units finding themselves outside of this distance severely hampered with respect to maneuverability. The underlying philosophy behind the rules is to force players to constantly think about command and control. To ignore command distance is to see your plan unravel completely. The final results of our game definitely upheld this underlying philosophy. On a unit level, there are many modifiers and characteristics that make each unit unique as far as maneuverability, firing value, and melee value. I personally like this approach, but it necessitates a complex chart to illustrate each order of battle. As for the turn itself, there are many phases: initiative, order activation, measure command spans, charge moves, regular moves, fire, charge reaction (further broken down into clear terrain, woods fighting, and built up areas), melee, morale (unit, brigade, and division checks) and leader replacement. It is all very thorough (which I appreciate) but very ponderous (which I don't like). Almost nothing is abstracted, except for skirmishing, which is covered by a Fire Discipline test. As for scale, FVTW has a 60:1 figure scale and a 1" = 33 meter ground scale ( there is another option for this, but I used the primary single rank basing scale).

FVTW was successful in that the game played like a historical account. But it was clunky and slow in parts. The 7 turns played took 3 hours and 30 minutes and I found myself referring constantly to the rule book for clarification. Batteries seemed especially fragile in this game. Charging infantry had both advantages of mass and formed-vs-open order and melees were initiated in both instances (the French overran another battery on the British left late in the game). It's pretty universal that infantry will beat artillery if they close to melee. The problem is that, even with cannister losses in both charges, the infantry still easily closed into melee. Something seemed out of whack here. It seems that if the infantry would lose either the mass or the formed vs open order modifier, that would make it more realistic. Maybe that's what the author intended, but I was unable to find it in the rules. At a different point in the game, a multiple-unit melee also seemed awkward and unnecessarily complex. The final result made sense, but the process took a full 10 minutes to figure out. At yet another point in the game, the British commander was killed by a stray bullet (in fairness, an extremely low chance.....but I rolled it anyway). The effect of Sir John Stuart's death was devastating to the British; a domino effect sheared out of control, and in this case, I thought the game shined. I could imagine the British force wavering as word spread of the leader's death spread through the ranks. The only issue was that, because of the nature of the 1806 British, it took forever for a replacement leader to show up......the result, although entertaining and dramatic, paralyzed the British over the remainder of the game. It seemed a bit harsh. A bright spot was the Disorganisation system that modeled unit fatigue and disorder; one woud expect this from an ultra-detailed set of rules like FVTW. Unfortunately, most rules systems do not model this critical characteristic of combat well. Although it is considered the strong point of the rules, a weakness lies in the complexity of FVTW....due to the massive amount of details, there are many grey areas which are not fully explained in the rules (or difficult to find). This slowed the game down and possibly led to inaccurate results that the author did not intend.

I rated FVTW a 5 out of 10 in playability. It was a slow moving game due to the great number of die rolls and chart checks, and it had its share of hiccups. And I am reasonably fluent with the rules. Still, it played like a movie and the dramatic drop in British morale due to Stuart's death was very interesting.

I rated FVTW an 8 out of 10 for historical accuracy/realism. Most of the mechanisms and results made sense and seemed valid. I did subtract a couple of points for the overly fragile nature of artillery versus infantry and the absence of any initiative at all below the division commander level in an out of command situation. I can understand negative modifiers, but I cannot comprehend that a brigade commander, regimental commanders, and battalion commanders could not make any other decision but to run away when the division commander was killed.

Total score for From Valmy To Waterloo was 6.5 out of 10.

Note:  I highly admire the work and research that has gone into this rules set. It was my primary set of rules for many years. As for an educational read on the historical simulation of the Napoleonic Wars, I rate it very, very high.