Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wargames Foundry's Napoleon Rules

My main historical gaming interest is the American Civil War, but I have a friend who is much more into the Napoleonic wars. He doesn't have an army or set of rules for the period yet, and I've been considering learning more about the Napoleonic period and maybe starting to put together an army. So when I heard about the "Napoleon" book from Wargames Foundry, and how it was supposed to be a good introduction to the period with a historical summary and uniform guides, I figured it might be a good way to start. I ordered the book from The Book Depository through It arrived very quickly and in perfect condition, so I was very pleased with their service and would definitely recommend ordering from them.

Having had some time to read through the book and digest the information a little, I thought it would be useful for me to post some first impressions, for those who are considering whether or not to get the book. So, having not yet actually played a game with the rules, here is my initial review.

The Book
First of all, the book seems targeted at beginning miniature gamers, or at least those new to the Napoleonic period. In addition to the rules of the game, there is extensive hobby information on how to collect, paint, and base your army, make terrain, and set up a gaming table. There is also a summary of the historical period and the major armies and campaigns, along with information about the various uniforms. I'm not sure how likely the book is to entice people who have never done any miniature gaming to try it out. It doesn't seem like it would be nearly as effective as the boxed sets Games Workshop sells to get people started on their main games. For people who have done some miniature gaming, but are new to the Napoleonic period (like myself), it seems better suited, though it contains some unnecessary information, such as how to paint miniatures and lay out terrain on a gaming surface. Then again, the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 rulebooks always contain this kind of general hobby information, and it doesn't hurt anything even though I have no interest in it.

The book itself is very nicely presented. Hard cover, 232 full color pages, sturdy binding. It has many drawings of uniforms and pictures of painted Foundry miniatures and games being played on tables packed with painted foundry miniatures. Quite inspiring to see, and helpful to get an idea of what the different uniforms looked like. Oddly enough, all of the pictures of battles look really boring. They always show a packed line of one army one one side, and a packed line of the other army on the other side, with no room to maneuver, and nothing but completely flat empty ground between them. You'd think they would try to set up more interesting looking battles to photograph. Aside from that, it is certainly well put together.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the quality doesn't extend to the words contained in the book. Like a Hollywood summer blockbuster that spared no expense getting great actors and special effects but didn't bother making sure they had a good script, it seems like nobody bothered to proof-read the book. A single casual read through the book could probably have fixed at least a couple dozen errors, mostly typos or misplaced words. For example, there are quotes from Napoleon scattered throughout the pages to add flavor, but I started to notice that many of the quotations are repeated. How did nobody notice the same ones being used multiple times? I assume nobody actually read the book before it went off to the printers. And if it the had been proof-read by someone who actually played miniature games, they also could have spotted many places where the rules are confusing, poorly worded, or downright contradictory.

Luckily there are many diagrams showing examples of how the rules work. Unfortunately, there are one or two places where a rule is explained one way in the regular text, and then completely contradicted in an example of how the rule works. So how is one to know which is the correct way to do it? Is it how the rule is written, or how the example is done?

Before I veer off topic too much, I'll just say that the book, in terms of how easy it is to read, is somewhat poorly written. Of course, this is nothing new for miniature game rules, and historical gaming rules are particularly awful in this regard. So they are probably no worse than your average historical rules, but considering this game seems to be aimed at new historical gamers, if not new miniature gamers, this might turn many potential players off right away. No matter how hard the cover is or how glossy the pages or how great the graphic design, a rule set is still going seem amateurish and unpolished if it isn't written clearly and it's full of errors. And it's going to be hard to get new people to learn to play if the rules are written in a confusing manner.

It certainly isn't unreadable or anything, so don't let that put you off too much. I just think a little more effort put into the actual text of the book would have really paid off in making it rise above games with clearly lower production values.

The Rules
Here's a quick summary of how the game flows. Most units are suggested to be 6 bases, except artillery (usually 4 bases), and some heavy cavalry units having 8 bases. Units seem to represent a regiment. The Penninsular War army list says that those units represent battalions instead, but the rules are no different. Units are organized into divisions (which I suppose for Penninsular represents brigades), each with an officer who gets a command rating.

Armies are deployed alternating between players a division at a time, with some deployment advantages given to the player that scouts better, determined by a roll off with some modifiers. Each turn there is a roll off for initiative, and the winner can choose to go first or second when revealing orders or moving.

Players then place orders on any units within engagement range of the enemy. The orders are things like retreat, stand and fire, advance and fire, and charge. Once orders are placed, artillery fire is resolved. Basically each unit rolls a number of dice, and each one that beats a target number (based on target and formation) causes a casualty. Resolving howitzer fire is more involved.

The players alternate revealing orders. When each order is revealed, the player must roll based on the division officer's leadership to see if the unit sucessfully carries out the order. If the roll is failed, they stand still. (I think it would be more interesting if they had the chance of doing something completely different than ordered, but they don't). There are then some specifics about targets of a charge being able to react by immediately revealing their own order card and taking the leadership roll, and other things like that.

After the units in engagement range finish carrying out their orders, then other untis move, again alternating between players. All unit types have a standard move rate, and they can also march if in column, or in some circumstances peform a forced march. These obviously result in moving father, but with some downsides. If forced marching or going through difficult terrain, it is possible to suffer casualties from fatigue, which I like.

Then units which have not moved more than their standard move rate (by marching, charging, etc.) may volley fire. This includes, presumably, those that failed their command roll. Volley fire is pretty simple. Units roll a number of D6 based mostly on their formation, and have a target number mostly based on the target's range. Each success causes a casualty on the target unit. Then close combat is resolved, which involves each side rolling a number of D6 based on formation, with a target number based on the two unit types or formations (cavalry need 6s to hit infantry in square, for example). Sucesses cause casualties, and whichever unit causes more drives the enemy back, or wipes them out if the winner is cavalry.

At the end of the turn, any unit suffering casualties takes a morale test. This is done by rolling a number of D6 based on type of unit (militia roll less, guard roll more). If you roll over the number of total casualties the unit has taken, they pass. If they fail, they go on "Lost Command Orders", and must roll on a chart immediately to determine how they react. I'm not sure how this works out in a game, because some of the reactions allow the unit to charge or fire, which could seemingly allow them to fire twice in a turn, or move really far. It seems strange that failing the test could actually be a big advantage. Failing a second test when on Lost Command Orders means the unit routs.

That's the turn. There is a way to determine when the game ends and who wins based on percent of units that are routed or destroyed on each side. There is also a section on advanced rules, including things such as effects of weather and different kinds of terrain, deploying skirmishers, officer casualties, etc.

My impression of the rules went back and forth a bit as I read them. There are some really interesting ideas that I really like. One is the engagement zone concept. If your unit is within charge range of an enemy unit or able to charge an enemy unit, it is engaged and has to be given a command. This means that units far from the enemy can operate much more freely, and those close to the enemy will start to slow down and be less reliable. It also means that fast cavalry, with long movement and charge ranges, can be used to slow down and harass an enemy by getting close enough to require the enemy to issue orders and take the chance they will fail the command test.

On peculiar issue with this is that if you are engaging an enemy, then you are also treated as being engaged, even if they can't reach you. So a fast cavalry unit that is far enough away that they can't be charged by an enemy infantry unit, but close enough that they could charge the infantry unit, must also be issued a command. I suppose you could justify this by saying the cavalry unit is less free to move because they have to make sure they are deployed properly for a charge, if that is their intention, or whatever. Or it could be just a game balance thing, to keep fast cavalry from being invincible and really annoying. It's hard to say without actually playing the game how some of these mechanics would work out in a real situation.

In fact, there were quite a few rules that seemed strange to me when I read them. Many of them later made sense after reading the rest of the rules, or just realizing a situation that the rule is addressing. Others I never did understand the point of. I'm sure there are many things that you'd have to actually play some games and see how they work out in a real situation to understand the purpose behind them. However, I think it would have been extremely helpful if the author had just explained the purpose behind some of the rules. Especially since the game seems targeted at new players. Like I said, many of the rules I could deduce what they were getting at or what they represented from experience with other game mechanics. I think a player new to miniatures gaming, or even just new to horse and musket era wargaming, would find them much more difficult to understand, and might see some of them as arbitrary or pointless.

Some things are explained, like the differences between round shot, canister, and shell, why rifles have a longer range than muskets, etc. But other things aren't, such as what the roles of different kinds of cavalry were, what the actual ranges of the weapons were, how many men were actually in a regiment, what a "casualty" in the game represents, and other things. And some things are explained, but don't seem represented in the rules. For example, they say the attack column formation was good for less disciplined men because it made it harder for them to waver, but as far as I can tell, being in attack column formation doesn't seem to give you any bonus to morale tests. It's possible I missed it, though, as some of the rules (like with every set of rules I've ever read) are in a place you might not expect them to be, which might make them easy to miss when you are looking something up.

To me, the worst thing about the rules is the vague treatment of distances and scale. Unlike most rules, they never really say anywhere that one inch equal so many yards of actual distance, or that a unit represents a certain number of men. So a lot of the ranges and distances seem arbitrary and abstracted for the purposes of the game. For example, an infantry unit in the game normally represents a regiment. With their suggested basing of 6 40mm wide bases, that results in a regiment in line being about 9.5 inches wide. At extreme range, muskets can fire up to 15 inches. I'd think a regiment (of two battalions) in line is going to take up at least 200 yards, so there's no way muskets should be able to fire so much farther than the width of a regiment in line as they can in the game. In general, they just seem to gloss over the distance scale of the game, and presumably just set all the ranges based on what makes the game playable, rather than what is to scale with the size of the units. To me this is kind of annoying, because the limited range of a musket and the long lines of infantry are pretty defining characteristics of that age of warfare.

Hobby Information
The book covers what miniatures you'll need, how to paint and base miniatures and assemble units of them, a bit about terrain and setting up a gaming table, and other general information about the miniature wargaming hobby. They, of course, recommend using Foundry miniatures and paints.

It is difficult for me to judge this aspect of the book, as it didn't really interest me. I've been gaming with miniatures for a long time, so I don't need basic information on how to paint them or make terrain for them. And it is hard for me to judge how good the hobby information in the book would be for a beginner. It seems like it has what a beginner would need to know to get started, so I suppose it serves the purpose of making the rules friendly for beginners. There's definitely nothing really advanced.

Historical Information
This is probably the part I was more interested in than anything else. The way this is presented is sort of a chronological summary of events separated by theater or campaign, interspersed with details about the armies involved, and the relevant army lists for that campaign. The information about the armies includes a lot of details about their uniforms. The summary of events isn't exhaustive, obviously, or even very extensive, but it seems to cover the major campaigns, events, and armies in a succinct manner. It seems like a good summary to help beginners get into the period and decide on an army they like. There is also an appendix with a brief description and army lists for many smaller or less central forces.

The army lists I see as guidelines to help new players have roughly even forces and choose armies that make sense. Every unit has a points value, and the points seem to be in 5 point increments. It doubt it is very scientific and I'm sure they didn't put much effort into making sure everything was perfectly balanced. So I doubt these rules would be useful for playing competetively, if you're interested in that sort of thing. I'm sure once people know more about the period and are capable of making reasonable armies on their own, they won't really need the point values. The army lists also contain special rules for the army, which in some cases can vary for an army in different campaigns. These seem like they would be effective in giving each army a different feel, so combined with the look of the uniforms and the historical information, it is another way to help a player decide on an army.

To someone who already know a lot about the Napoleonic period, or has been gaming in that period for a long time, this section probably won't be very useful, aside from the army special rules. For someone new to the period, I definitely think it serve the purpose of introducing the armies and their unique characteristics, and the major campaigns and battles of the period. And for those new to the period or gaming in general, the point values and army lists will be helpful. The only issue with this section is that some of the text seems to assume the reader knows some basic information that he may not, especially considering that the book caters to those new to the period.

The Verdict
Overall, it's a nice book that could have benefitted greatly from more proof-reading and more clearly explained rules. The rules themselves seem pretty good, and probably make for a fun game. As I have not played the game yet, it's hard to know for sure. I would certainly be willing to play a game. However, since I already have been playing American Civil War games with Piquet's Field of Battle (which also works for Napoleonics), I think I'll probably end up sticking with those.

For someone who is completely new to miniature gaming, I'm not sure this would be the best place to start due to some of the rules possibly being difficult to understand. Then again, compared to any other historical rules I've seen, it is probably more beginner-friendly than any. For those who are already gaming in the Napoleonic period, much of the book will not interest you, and the rules are unlikely to lure you away from the rules you are already using. For those who have done some miniature wargaming, and are interested in getting into the Napoleonic period, the book is definitely a good introduction with plenty of inspiration to motivate you, and some decent rules to start out with.


  1. Thanks for the thoughts on this....I'm currently going back and forth on buying this book (at the same time looking at Shako). I'll definitely look back at your thoughts as the time to decide on a rule set gets closer. Thanks again for taking the time to write this!

  2. I prefer Napoleons at War . Tried both and NaW is superior to my mind in terms of production, explanation and mechanics. Nappy buffs may complain they are bit FoW with muskets but fun to play in a couple of hours.