May 22, 2024

Project: Quatre Bras, or Ten Ways to Four Arms

Jim Owczarski, 31 January 2021

Beginning this weekend, the crew from Saturday Night Fights and Wednesday Night Warfare have embarked on a bit of quest.  Approaching four years ago now, the last building left on the field from the Battle of Quatre Bras was razed.  Despite years of effort to try and preserve it, the demands of development prevailed and the last structural witness of the events of June 1815 were taken away.  All that remains are a few monuments and markers that seem strangely out of place and even a bit lost on a field devoid of structural context.

The irony is that, just a few miles to the north, the field of Waterloo remains one of the best preserved battlefields in the entire Napoleonic canon.  I have written here that I think Eggmuhl is the “purest” battlefield I have visited, but Waterloo is positively curated.  The recently-finished museum and visitors area to the side — and the weird ridge-killing Lion’s Mound excepted — the grounds and buildings of Waterloo are almost absurdly well preserved.  The story of why the field of Quatre Bras did not receive the same attention and affection is a long one, well-remembered in summary fashion here:

This one is a less organized, but in its chronological detail somehow more harrowing, alternative.

However told, it is a sad story for those of us who love to visit battlefields and see what was then.

This set me to thinking about the way wargames have treated Quatre Bras…. Although not rivaling its big brother, I think its broad appeal can be traced to a number of factors.

This set me to thinking about the way wargames have treated Quatre Bras.  It is a very popular subject.  Although not rivaling its big brother, I think its broad appeal can be traced to a number of factors.  First, and I believe foremost, it that it was that rare thing: a real meeting engagement.  We wargamers want these so badly because they feel “balanced” or “fair”, but it has become an aphorism that most battles did not happen that way.  When Marshal Ney’s late start met the Duke of Wellington’s stiff response, it opened a fight that swayed back and forth throughout the day, leaving a door open to victory for either side.

It is also a battle of manageable size.  As someone who just joined with a merry band to play Leipzig for 39-plus hours with several thousand miniature figures using rules where the smallest unit is a brigade, that is a welcome thing.  Depending on the granularity one seeks, it can easily be played out in a few hours’ time and, even with miniatures, on a table that does not require a purpose-built room.

And I think it is so common because it straddles the line between scales.  It can be run as a battalion-level exercise and still lend itself to a brigade-scale treatment.  For all these reasons, you will find that many rule sets use it as one of the introductory scenarios.  

Project-Quatre-Bras-GHOST-MottoTied into this, my now two-year love affair with Tabletop Simulator has brought into sharp focus the absurd number of rule sets that exist for miniature wargaming in the Napoleonic era.  I do not here intend to discuss the amazing number of home-brews and “modification” rules that seem to have been with us since von Reisswitz first dreamed great dreams.  Rather, if you are into cruel sport, just go into a forum or Facebook page dedicated to Napoleonic wargaming and ask the assembled what their favorite rule set is.  Then duck.  Even more amusing is telling them you like “Ruleset X”, you would like to run a Quatre Bras gaming using it, and could they proffer any scenarios?  I guarantee that before 10 posts have gone by someone will say, “oh, you do not want ‘X’, you want ‘Y’!  It is a much better system and experienced players can fit in the Battle of Wagram in a long afternoon!”  I have watched this happen for years.

So, with all this coming together, I give you Project: Quatre Bras (Subtitle:  We Will Remember).

It is my intention to play and stream the same battle with a loose group of loonies — nicely alliterative now that I write it — who love Napoleonic wargaming.  Those merely interested will be welcome, too.  We will gather and play the best published scenarios I can find for a given system and then we will evaluate both the rules and how they treat Quatre Bras.  This will be narrative rather than follow a rubric so, hopefully, those watching will be able to decide whether our sense of what works and what does not matches their own.  We will also have a go at a few well-known boardgames and even a PC game.

Which systems have been selected?  The list so far:

  • Black Powder 2
  • Blucher
  • Commands and Colors: Napoleonics
  • De Bellis Napoleonicis
  • Lasalle 2
  • Napoleon’s Last Battles
  • Scourge of War: Waterloo
  • Shako 2
  • Snappy Nappy
  • Volley and Bayonet

There could certainly be a late addition or two.  Of course the list is not anywhere near exhaustive.  Trying that is a madness not even those who do multi-year Kriegsspiels and 39-hour Leipzig games aspire to.  I do hope, though, that you will find it an interesting exercise and will think about coming along for even a portion of the ride.

We will remember.

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