Jim Owczarski, 13 October 2018
There is a sea-change afoot in wargaming and it is honestly unlike any I have seen in my lifetime. For those keeping score at home, I am old enough to have watched “Good Times” before syndication.
designers should seek, using clear rules and transparent systems, to make a historical “argument”
The coming of the hobby boardgame, particularly the euro, has washed through the industry like a Spring rain. Companies that were once almost exclusively committed to chits, hexes, and CRTs are letting heresies like wooden pieces, cards, and even table-free combat systems into their offerings. Perhaps nothing is bigger, though, than the demand that consims should be more than elaborate statistics, detailed maps, and tottering stacks of chits. There is a desire — which I first heard spoken by Dr. Bruce Geryk — that game creators no longer try to supplant design with detail or, perhaps more accurately, to conceal poor design under a mound of detritus. On the contrary, designers should seek, using clear rules and transparent systems, to make a historical “argument”, if you will, regarding the event they are portraying and let the players make their way through it. In the end the player can agree or disagree with the argument, but through this process the designer will communicate to the player and open up the history on the table. This must not be taken as an excuse for ahistorical nonsense masquerading as simplicity, but instead a demand that designers, well, do better.
I am, to avoid burying the lede, delighted that the little French company Shakos has, in its Napoleon: 1806, created a Napoleonic game that is very much a part of this consim gully-washer. This is a game that may not satisfy those who want to lay hands on and thereby command every battalion that served the Emperor in the Fall of 1806, but the loss will be entirely theirs.
Napoleon: 1806 is about Napoleon’s attempt to shatter the army of the King of Prussia which had taken up arms against him as the result of real and perceived slights int he months previous. Napoleon drove his army through the passes of the Thuringian mountains and eventually defeated the Prussian army at the twin battle of Jena-Auerstedt.
The game is played on a lovely, hand-drawn map of Thuringia, with major and minor cities forming the game’s play spaces.
Units, each represented by a wooden block, are corps, meaning density is extremely light.
Unit strengths are not depicted on the blocks — a bit of a variation on their usual use — but on a card kept by each player off the board. Strengths are marked using small wooden cubes with one color set aside for infantry and another for cavalry. The link here to euro games is obvious, but it is not to be denied that there is a little bit of “fiddling” associated with keeping track of unit strengths in this way.
The game is card driven with each player drawing cards from a unique deck. Players take turns nominating a unit or stack of units to move and then will draw a card from the deck, each of which includes a number indicating the number of movement points granted. Movement is usually one point per space, but moving stacks of units is more costly. Moving out of and into areas with other units is also more expensive. Trying to move too big a stack into or out of combat, then, might prove impossible if a small number of movement points is drawn. An incautious player can find his or her units stuck until the next turn as once units are nominated and a card drawn, they must be deactivated for the remainder of the turn.
Moving a unit or stack generates fatigue, marked on the unit card with orange cylinders. Too much fatigue can cost units strength and, if it gets bad enough, remove it from the battlefield.
Moving a unit or stack onto a space with an enemy halts movement for the turn. The commander must then make one of the great choices in the game: wait to pursue combat until the unit’s next activation or move and attack with a significant reduction in the attacker’s combat strength. This little decision brilliantly represents the choices that confronted commanders in this era. Even if one could find his opponent, there were rarely opportunities to force him to battle if the opponent was not inclined to fight. Maneuver attacks were possible, but they came with risks, not the least of which was the limitation it placed on the number of forces that could be brought to bear.
Units in combat draw a certain number of cards from the deck depending on their own strength and a few other factors. Each card indicates via simple symbols whether the opponent suffers no ill effects, fatigue, or a combat loss. The side suffering the most losses is compelled to retreat. The card combat system is an ingenious way of replacing the time-honored CRT. As I discovered through multiple plays, the French have far more “hit” and fatigue cards than their opponents, meaning they are far more likely to win a combat if they can bring sufficient forces in line.
Throughout movement and combat, cards can also be used, in the designated portion of the game, to trigger certain events or game states.
As nifty as the cards are, the designers suspected some gamers would rather use dice. So, they crafted a special set of five dice for each team with markings for fatigue and hits instead of pips. The French and Prussian dice are quite different with, again, the former more likely to inflict fatigue and wounds. The designers told me on-line that they now require the use of the dice in tournament play to prevent players from card counting, thereby being able to predict combat outcomes. This does, of course, mean certain events will come up much less frequently. For what whatever it might be worth, I prefer the dice.
Victory points for both sides are scored each time a unit suffers a combat loss. The French earn points by seizing the four key towns that were their targets for the campaign. At game start, however, the French control only one of these four towns. The Prussians hold the other three and the French have a set number of turns to take them. If they fail to do so by the time the “clock” expires, it is likely the Prussians will win.
This is the game’s great “argument”. If put to it, the French can win just about any combat that takes place on their terms. The Prussians cannot, under most circumstances, stand up to a direct fight. What the latter can do, however, is delay, snipe at, encircle, and ensnare the French. They can use the fact that commanders will never be able to move every stack when they want them to. They can blow up bridges (certain event cards allow this) to make movement more expensive or wait for rain (another event card) to sneak up on an impatient Emperor. The Prussians in many ways have the more challenging job, but it well represents the dilemma the kingdom faced.
All of this is done in a game with a booklet-thin set of rules that can be taught in a few minutes and which plays out, with experience, in under 90 minutes. From front to back the components are lovely and the production has far more in common with modern hobby boardgames than anything created by older wargame companies.
I know this campaign better than most and I will admit occasionally wanting a bit more granularity; I wanted to reach in and move the particular divisions of Lannes’ corps or split Bernadotte’s in two so at least half of it would support Davout. None of this, however, prevented me from being swept up in this game and the story it was telling. The closest parallel that comes to mind is the seminal Napoleon by Columbia Games which considers the Waterloo campaign. That I would favorably compare the two should be indicator enough of the regard in which I hold Napoleon: 1806.
Napoleon: 1806 was the result of a successful Kickstarter and all indications are that the 1807 edition is next. If Shakos can keep this level of quality and design, sign me up for the full 1807-1815 subscription and just mail them to me when they are done.