Designer: Richard J. Kane Sr. and J. Michael Ruttle
Publisher: Clash of Arms Games
by Harvey Mossman
I doubt there is a respectable wargamer who hasn’t thought what it would be like to wear the uniform and march proudly in the ranks of the Grande Armee, following your esteemed general, Napoleon Bonaparte into glorious battle? Well now Legion of Honor, the eagerly awaited game from Clash of Arms, allows you to don your shako and live the life of a Napoleonic Grognard. Where else can you re-create “the life and times of a soldier in the Army of France under the Republican Empire of Napoleon with each player assuming the role of a young Grognard of boundless ambition but meager means.” The game tries to capture an era when war still had an extraordinary yet brutal pageantry, where the individual soldier still believed in Glory, Honor and the chance to gain Notice from their beloved general.
The best way I can describe Legion of Honor is that it is a card driven role-playing game that does not require an umpire or game master à la Dungeons & Dragons. This type of treatment has pros and cons as it reduces the complexity by limiting the narrative and outcomes to the printed events on the cards thereby making the game approachable without having to tackle the sheer vastness of your typical role-playing game. Yet, the creativity and imaginative variability of an umpired game lends itself to boundless, unrestricted and rich story line that cards simply cannot reproduce. And, depending on your perspective, this may color your opinion of Legion of Honor.
The one thing about Clash of Arms is you can count on exquisite components which perfectly capture the era portrayed. The the cover depicting a French cuirassier is a joy to behold and when you first open the box there is a parchment reproduction of the Bulletin from 13 August 1792 calling the citizens to take up arms and join the Revolutionary army. All in all a very nice touch! There are 2 booklets in full color on magazine quality paper, one the Rules of Play and the other, a Playbook which contains optional rules, scenarios, and examples of play. The rules are 24 pages in length, fairly well-organized but make for some dense reading. It is not that the game is particularly difficult; in fact, once you play through a campaign season you will have a good grasp of all the concepts. It is just that there is a lot of interaction between the Grognard’s different attributes and this requires players to read the rules thoroughly, flipping back to prior sections in order to grasp all of their interplay. Things mentioned early on may not make immediate sense until you read about that aspect in the individual sections that follow. I have had my complaints about rulebooks from Clash of Arms in the past, but I think this one is fairly well-organized and gets the job done. The examples in the playbook also help greatly.
There are several decks of beautifully illustrated cards that are used to drive play. They are a bit on the thin side but on par with most other card driven games. One deck is used when you are In Garrison and another when you are On Campaign (more on this later). My only minor nitpick with the cards is that the rules refer to card numbers (for example card number 41 is titled Assigned to Spain) but they were a little difficult to find (they are on the lock in the right lower corner). This does not greatly affect play as the rules also specify the titles of the cards when referring to their numbers. A smaller Combat Card deck determines what happens to your Grognard when he is on the battlefield and another Duels deck allows for the resolution of the inevitable slights to your honor.
The counters are clear and concise and are used as markers to keep track of various characteristics of your Grognard on tracks that are provided on separate player aid cards. There is also a ledger sheet which substitutes paper and pencil bookeeping for the markers. All of the player aids are evocative of the period and are very well organized. There is no game map per se since all of the action happens on the Grognards ledger sheet. Finally, there are 6 pairs of different colored 10 sided dice included, one pair for each Grognard.
Creating your Grognard
You develop your Grognard’s persona by rolling 10 sided dice to determine several attributes before beginning the game. First you must determine his Assignment. The Assignment Sheet determines which Army your Grognard is placed and this can greatly influence his ability to find Glory, Wealth, professional advancement and Napoleon’s Notice. Historically, different armies were involved in Napoleon’s campaigns but if he is assigned to a peripheral army which is not active, he will find himself sitting in the barracks while all the Glory falls to others. A Grognard seeking combat action will have an opportunity to transfer to a more active command during the game turn while a player looking to ride on his laurels and stay safe in a non combat theater can chose a more remote assignment. This is one of the more important choices that must be made as you play.
Next your Grognard’s starting Rank, either as a Sergeant or a Sous-Lieutenant, is determined and then he rolls for his Standing, which is a measure of how well liked he is by his immediate superior. Standing can change based on card play, performing a heroic act, dueling, promotion and reassignment. Here is where you start to see the interplay of your Grognards attributes with the many other aspects of the game. Being in good standing with one’s superior officer will have a positive effect on the amount of Napoleon’s Notice and Glory you receive from a Combat Card. Of course, a poor standing will have the opposite effect.
Your Experience represents how well you are able to navigate the intricacies of 19th century military life and particularly how well you manage yourself on the battlefield. It is the quintessential Catch-22 since it is harder to survive on the battlefield without experience yet you need to be involved in battles to improve this precious skill.
Now any well-rounded Grognard knows that military life should not be all work and no play, and for that you need money! Money can be kept on your person in your Purse or safely stashed away in Paris, which will prevent its loss to thieves, ladies and plundering enemy soldiers on the battlefield. There are various ways to make money including gambling which you can do during your Idle Time when you are In Garrison.
Of course, you can have all the money in the world but if you are not charming then you are unlikely to have luck with the ladies. Charm is only used when the optional rules for the Fair Sex are being used and reflects the Grognards pleasing physical appearance, bearing and polish. You can brush up on your Charm while In Garrison (Charm school anyone?!)
Now you know what they say when “You have your health, you have everything” and this is particularly true in Legion of Honor. You initially roll for your Health and watch it slowly ebb away as the passage of time,(in the Aging Phase your Grognards health declines) battlefield wounds, hardships of being a prisoner of war, and fencing and dueling injuries take their inevitable toll. You just hope you can hang on until 1815 when Napoleon’s fate will finally be decided. Should your Health fall to zero you must involuntarily retire and convalesce (Hotel des Invalides anyone?).
And of course, what might be very beneficial to your health is to excel at Fencing, which is rather important when you are forced to Duel. Afterall, some other Grognard is bound to piss you off and honor requires a response!
After rolling for these attributes, you have given life to your Grognard and can begin to play the game.
The Play’s the Thing
It is impossible to cover everything that can occur while your Grognard’s story unfolds but I will try to give you an overall feel for how the game plays. If you refer to the campaign season sheet, you will see that there are 16 campaign seasons ranging from 1792, the Brunswick Manifesto, through all the Wars of the Coalitions and culminating in the campaign of The Hundred Days. Each Campaign Season has one or more Campaign Segments where you perform actions to court the Fair Sex, shift money between the Paris bank and your Purse, age a little bit, and earn your Glory. You then perform a round of being In Garrison followed by a round of being On Campaign. It is these 2 rounds that make up the heart of the game.
When you first start to play, learning about all the cards and their different effects keeps the game exciting but here, the limits of a card driven role-playing game are revealed. Each round you are dealt a few cards to resolve and, for some, the actions and events may become slightly repetitive. Yet the cards do build a wondeful and engrossing storyline….it’s just that there are only so many cards in the game and repetition is inevitable. Now I do not say this as a criticism of the designers because they have certainly labored lovingly to make the cards interesting and provocative. It is just an incontrovertible truth about the limits of a card driven system. Without an umpire, variability and imaginative interaction between Grognards may be limited yet, with the right group of players, the jocularity, banter and bravado can more than make up for this .
An On Campaign round is similar but the round associated event is usually a famous battle from Napoleon’s career. The campaign event will list which Army is involved and, if your Grognard is a soldier in that Army, he must resolve what happens to him on the battlefield by picking a Combat Card. He can choose to commit an Act of Glory, which puts him more in harm’s way but comes with greater rewards, or he can pick an Act of Discretion which might save his hide but brings him lesser distinctions. The coward must check for Disgrace which denies him increases to his attributes and lowers the Glory rating of all other Grognards in his command making them Injured Parties who can seek justice later by challenging your Grognard to a duel. Each Combat Card also has a Wound value and a Prisoner value that your Grognard must roll above or else he suffers one or both of those two misfortunes and of course performing an Act of Glory increases these values. Your rank also affects your chances of being wounded or captured. Finally each card will award experience and possibly some glory.
If two Grognards in the same command at the same battle draw the same battle card, they are considered Comrades in Arms and can perform an Heroic Act to help the other should he become wounded or a prisoner of war
Now there are many more activities to perform. Seeking Office depends on your Napoleon’s Notice rating, becoming a corrupt official gets you more money at the risk of being found out, applying to the Legion of Honor and advancing through its 5 levels gains Glory, gaining a title such as the Duke of Auerstaedt or seeking higher rank, even possibly the coveted Marshalate! And, if you think you have what it takes, you can earn your bearskin cap joining the Imperial Guard. Of course, many of these things will require that you have the prerequisite Experience, Glory, or Napoleon’s Notice. Bonne Chance!!
As you can tell, the game is simply dripping with Napoleonic flavor and historical chrome. Optional rules introduce wives and mistresses, the Fair Sex, with all their attending benefits and intrigues. You can also add Spain as a theater of war, be perpetually an injured party against your Mortal Enemy, rescue prisoners, or, if you are a Senior Commander, influence the outcome of battles by using the Battle Command rules (these use a separate table to determine outcomes of battles based on your senior commander’s choices). Much to the designers’ credit, they have taken great pains to add as much detail as possible without overburdening the game system.
Of course, you will not suffer the depredations of Army life without incurring a slight or injury to your honorable reputation from another Grognard and you will be forced to defend your honor by acquiescing to a Duel. To challenge another player, you must have suffered some injury: Disgracing the Command, the Burger card, failing to abide by the terms of a loan extended to you, being cuckolded by your wife who dallied with another charming Grognard (yes relationships were just as complicated back then as now) or simply insulting another player during the lively banter of the game. Well, take your glove, slap the offending Grognard and pick a mutually convenient time and field of honor!
Dueling with pistols comes down to a simple die roll checking for Misfire and then determining who gets the first shot. The first duelist plays a card to determine if is aiming to wound or kill his opponent and must roll a 1-5 to hit. Once wounded the Grognard rolls on the Wound Table to determine the effects of his wound. If you win the duel you can show Magnanimity and let your opponent avoid the wound table which adds to your glory. But beware, your opponent can show Fanaticism forcing you to refight the duel!
In describing the duels, they seem to evoke much flair and excitement, but in point of fact , I felt the duels wer a bit too simplistic and missed an opportunity to add the same historical panache that the rest of this game exudes. As a fencer in medical school, I found the sport to be a compelling mix of swordplay, athleticism and tactical maneuvering. But here it is resolved very deterministically and I think a chance was missed to have a more colorful experience that better simulates the swashbuckling of the day. Now I certainly understand that Dueling is not the focus of the game, but given the historical detail present throughout the narrative of Legion of Honor, the dueling rules seem to have fallen a smidgen flat. In contrast, I compare this to a similar historical roleplaying game, En Garde published by GDW back in 1975, where a more intricate fencing system evoked all the dash and elan of the Three Musketeers era.
There are 3 scenarios, the first, the Age of Napoleon, covers the entire 16 campaign seasons. Scenario 2, The Republic ends at the crowning of Napoleon and scenario 3, The Empire, starts at the War of the Third Coalition and ends at the Battle of Waterloo. There is even a method to play solitaire.
There is a lot to like about Legion of Honor. There is a tremendous amount of historical research and Napoleonic flavor was lovingly woven into the very fabric of the game. A Napoleonic buff such as me, will find the narrative of the game extremely attractive. For someone who values story more than the simulation, Legion of Honor is extremely compelling.
And so I generally enjoyed playing Legion of Honor but I had to grudgingly agree with a few of our players who thougt game decisions lacked a certain import with many of the cards and events arbitrarily raising or decreasing specific attributes without any player manipulation or input. It is true that a fair amount of time is spent adding and deducting attributes on your ledger sheet . But one can argue that, such is life, and events happen beyond an individual’s control to affect life’s storyline. Perhaps this was the designers’ intent!
However, some thought it lessened an otherwise interesting playing experience. whereby decisions, such as activities during an Idle Time card or whether to perform an Act of Glory or Act of Discretion , started to become repetitive and perhaps a bit anti-climactic. Even I became a bit concerned that this would be more apparent upon repetitive play.
Finally, interaction and/or cooperation between Grognards can be rather limited only occurring during duels, loans and decisions about comrades in arms. Some may consider this a design flaw but, in our games , this tended to be overcome by the persistent bravado and lively banter which greatly enhanced our enjoyment.
Therefore, I have mixed emotions about this game. I can appreciate it as a brilliant piece of storytelling evoking the Napoleonic era in all its grandeur and brutality while somewhat disparaging it as a game that may not have enough player interaction or tense decision making to capture someone’s interest over the entire campaign. I imagine that depends on whether the players enjoy the narrative more than dilemma resolution. For anyone who is a Napoleonic buff, I recommend this game for the former. If you enjoy playing games to outwit your opponent based on well laid plans and thoughtful manipulation, this game is probably not for you. I believe the game is meant to be enjoyed much like a novel, where you identify with your Grognard as the protagonist trying to navigate through the small and large life crises a typical soldier would face in the Napoleonic era. In that the game appears to be very successful.
About the Author
Harvey Mossman has been playing wargames since the age of 13. While earning his degree in medicine, he continued to write historical articles, lecture on military history, design wargames and amass a truly staggering collection of conflict simulations. He is one of the editors of TheBoardgamingLife website and runs an annual wargaming convention on Long Island New York on the Friday after Thanksgiving affectionately known as FaTDoG (Friday After Thanksgiving Day of Gaming). He is also a regular contributor to Grognard.com, a renowned wargaming website.