By Paul Comben
Designer: Grant Wylie, Mike Wylie
Publisher: Worthington Publishing, LLC
It plays fast, this one. Very fast indeed. Not one rule likely to confuse players. No time-consuming procedures. Just a rather clever model that gives you the essence of the 1815 challenge and leaves you and your opponent to get on with it.
I must confess to having a strong partiality for simple, fast-playing designs that get a good job done. With historical wargames, opting for this kind of approach can risk tumbling into a any number of pitfalls – including players taking a less than favourable view as to how much history they are actually getting to work with. Smooth things out too much, knock off all the bits of lumpy historicity, and the danger is that the design will lose traction in regard to the events it is seeking to portray. Thankfully, despite some mechanisms that have abstraction and notions of the ahistorical oozing out of them, Worthington’s Napoleon Returns keeps itself on the right side of the line between being a proper wargame as opposed to a game with some war in it, and in doing so delivers a rather spiffy and valid experience.
Ask yourself this: what was the essence of the 1815 campaign? Well, it was not hard-pressed squares or holding fast to reverse slopes; not Picton in his top hat; not Blucher smelling of garlic; not even Ney showing as much tactical aptitude as a wasp in a window. If you ask me, it was the use of time in relation to speed of movement, and timing in terms of when to get this or that army neatly arranged in the one place it needed to be. And that, from my take on things, is the essence of this game. Everything else is secondary – in fact, in some instances it is not there at all.
In short, Napoleon Returns is not the last word in terms of simulation detail for Napoleonic campaigning. But then, it was never intended to be. Instead, it presents the pure operational situation and challenges players to find a solution that will work…or heroically fail. Bringing the focus in tight, everything revolves around the French chasing the game and the two Allied armies (to some extent) letting the French chase after them. It may be putting it in somewhat exaggerated terms, but unless and until something notable and in their favour happens on the map, the French are losing. If the Prussians and the Anglo-Dutch/German armies, at anything like full strength, manage to combine anywhere near where the French need to go, Napoleon’s task will be bordering on the impossible. As was the case historically, the French therefore need to move fast, with the caveat that this is all properly coordinated and is not merely a series of desperate lunges that leave L’Armee du Nord spread like Belgian pate over the map and logistically worn-out. Tough decisions evolve out of very simple rules, but just when you think you have it all in hand…down comes the rain.
Given the identical subject matter and a few similarities in the models, players might lean towards comparing this new game to that venerable wonder, Columbia’s Napoleon. But while there are some shared elements in terms of feel and process, I do not think the Columbia game offers the best comparison. What design model does better fit the bill I will come to in due course.
In the meantime, let us take a look at the mechanisms of this Worthington design. The map shows much of Belgium, bar the actual coast and the more south-easterly parts of the Ardennes. Formations, that is, corps, move between city and town locations via the road network. Initial deployment can be historical or free, within certain parameters. All roads are treated the same and can carry whatever a player chooses to move along any given stretch. The one terrain effect is that of crossing rivers to get into battle – two extra combat cards to the defender in this case.
The game is played over a total of fifteen abstract turns – abstract in the sense that no timescale is offered (unless I missed it somewhere) and there is no sense of night ever playing an active part in things. At the beginning of each turn a roll is made for weather – 1 to 5 all remains clear; 6, it gets a bit wet. Rain cancels out force march for infantry corps (being able to move two locations like cavalry, instead of the normal one) and that is about it – although the arrival of rain can make things go seriously awry.
Each corps has its own embossed wooden block, as do the three army leaders. What is going on within these blocks in terms of military strength and aptitudes is displayed on several organisation cards – nicely augmented by art from several paintings of the battle. These cards (one each for the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch/German forces, and two for the French – owing to the sheer number of French corps) show a cohesion track for each such corps, plus combat card rating, plus a tactical rating. The army commanders also have combat card ratings and tactical ratings, but, rather obviously, no cohesion track. Strength is somewhat abstracted (cohesion can be seen as strength augmented by perceived quality producing a relevant total), but overall, the corps are represented in the right kind of ratios one to another (the French VI corps, for example, is appropriately smaller compared to the French I or II corps, but its quality means it is not that much smaller). Losses move a marker cube on the relevant track, and once past a certain designated point, combat cards for that corps are reduced.
And this is where I briefly mention the game model that I feel is a bit closer of a match than Napoleon, and that is the 1806/1807 designs by Shakos/Golden Bell out of France. Some elements of their working with corps strength and some elements of the combat card play, combined with how the movement of corps is organised on a location map have a familiar feel to them; but ultimately this system for 1815 is very much a singular identity working to its own ethos.
Corps move according to what they are apportioned from a pool of movement points – base figure plus a random addition each turn. The French have a superior movement ability compared to either of the Coalition armies – for each army there is a base figure to which a random extra allocation is added. Then again, the French have more stuff to move – six infantry corps plus their cavalry; the Coalition has two armies, each with four corps.
Inevitably, those familiar with the 1815 campaign are going to question some of the numbers on the cards or on the map tracks (for movement). There is no impediment, other than getting several rain turns in quick succession (very unlikely), that is going to prevent Napoleon’s “First, we have breakfast, then we go chat with les braves, and finally we have a quick thieve or forty winks” army of 1815 moving like it is really 1805. But I would urge readers to look past that and concentrate on what the game offers in terms of feint, manoeuvre, and keeping (as the French) your opponent guessing as to what your objectives are.
This is one key area where the game differs from Napoleon. In broad terms the objectives in the two games are pretty similar; however, while in Napoleon it is up to the French player what objectives he or she ultimately goes for, in Napoleon Returns the game begins with the French player drawing two cards (blind) from a deck of six objective cards. These can locations or damage to be inflicted on a number of Coalition corps, and as you might imagine, some combinations are easier to achieve than others. The absolute nightmare, which I managed to pluck out at the commencement of my second play, demands the capture of both Ghent and Liege. Fine. They are about as far apart on the map as anything can be – not impossible, but certainly a bit more of a challenge than simply killing three corps and parading through Brussels.
Adding a little more apposite historical colour at this point is the one-off penalty the Coalition armies receive if key locations fall into French hands – Wellington really does not want to lose Ghent; Blucher, likewise, does not want to lose Liege, and both sides are also a bit touchy about Brussels and Antwerp. Penalties come in the shape of mandatory cohesion point losses for every corps the relevant army has on the map. This, apart from penalties for force march and having to retreat (cohesion losses again) is the only way corps lose effectiveness outside of actual combat itself.
And what of combat? This is probably the area where at least some people are going to feel a bit jarred out of their normal Napoleonic sensibilities because, while the system undoubtedly works, it is seriously abstracted. However, it must also be pointed out that there are some very relevant subtleties in play here, so the card paly mechanism really should not be judged prematurely. In essence, both sides will form a hand for the battle in question whose size will reflect the combat card value of the corps in the location plus an army commander if also present. The army commander card value no doubt reflects battlefield command ability and maybe just having something ruse-like up their sleeve. In total, there are six different types of card, with names such as “Grand Battery,” “Cavalry Charge,” “Infantry Assault,” “Combined Arms” (matches anything played immediately before it) etc. The attacker plays a card from their hand and it is then up to the defender to match it or “clear off” – not a card(!), but either not wanting or being unable to create a match, leading to anything from a masterly retreat to a complete routing mess.
Playing “Skirmish” cards at the right moment is one way to avoid defeat/retreat becoming extra painful, while “Cavalry Charge” going unanswered as an attacker’s card does create a danger of additional casualties as the defeated side’s losses are increased. Opportunities to counterattack, (if successful, changing who is the attacker and thus dictating card play) come via “Counterattack” cards and/or a best tactical rating-related die roll after each card round. Clearly, being able to pick cards first can have the defender dancing to your tune, but care is required. If you are looking for a decisive battle you really do not want to play a card you suspect might be unanswerable too early and have your opponent “clearing off” after the first whiff of powder. On the contrary, you probably want to pound away at him over numerous rounds and then deliver your coup de grace. More rounds equal more casualties as pairs of cards match – the loser gets the number of matches (completed rounds) translated into cohesion hits; the winner then suffers half the loser’s hits, fractions rounded down. But long battles can easily become a gamble. The more cards get matched/staked as the combat rounds accrue, the greater the danger that you are going to run out of luck, surrendering the tempo/initiative, or lacking the right card as the day drags on.
To put this in an historical context, picture Napoleon at Waterloo via this system. Cards are matching in a long succession of rounds as players work deep into their hands. But then the adjacent Prussians make some handy tactical rolls and start appearing on the battlefield. The Coalition hand gets seriously boosted by the Prussian corps allocation, while Napoleon is now down to his last plays Nevertheless, perhaps hoping Wellington/Blucher are lacking an “Infantry Assault” card, Napoleon plays that as the attacker, only to find that his enemies match it, then flip-flop the sequence with a counterattack tactical rating roll. They then play “Cavalry Charge” and…oh dear, Napoleon’s locker is bare (he, of course, played all his cavalry charge cards earlier in the afternoon!), and with all those completed matching rounds piling the hurt on, plus having to retreat, plus the cavalry card he could not answer, it is time for what is left of the French army to fall to pieces.
In other words, the card system works perfectly well providing you do not get too literal about particular card definitions and just go with the flow. If you are interested to how this combat system compares to the 1806/1807 designs, both do rely on random card draws based (per side) on overall strength plus anything that has come along by way of a played event. The players then blind draw cards from their own decks equal to the required total, noting indicated hits and stragglers inflicted on the opponent – these are dots divided by type (permanent losses/stragglers) in the relevant card section. While different to Napoleon Returns in this regard, I do feel these systems have more of a kinship that Napoleon Returns has with Napoleon.
Do I like the combat card mechanism here? If I am honest, part of me wishes there had been three individual decks, one per army, with a few cards unique to a particular army. One other thing I should add is that there is a workable set of solo rules on BGG. They do work as far as they go, but the option to get forces marching to the sound of the guns appears to have been omitted.
Physically, the game is a gem. The board is mounted, the blocks neatly embossed, and the combat cards have that plastic/linen finish suggesting robustness in the face of multiple use as well as a nice tactile feel. The real gripe I did have was that the rules needed a closer and more careful check for grammatical errors. After all, this is a splendid piece of design, backed with quality components and some very appropriate and well-chosen artwork. But, even without a bit of extra polish on the rules, you are still looking at something rather special.
Just to conclude, here is an illustrated example for the Waterloo “battle” referred to above. The photos show where the blocks would be (normally with their identity hidden from the opposing player) as well as a play of historically apt cards for Napoleon and Wellington up to the first Prussians coming across and the Coalition then getting (for a brief while) the role of attacker.
This first photo, showing the army deployments, illustrates an interesting design choice – no connection for the French III and IV corps to get directly to the field of Waterloo. That they are not already located in the Wavre location is a matter, in game terms, of prior rain plus lack of movement point allocation leaving them in their present very unhelpful place.
The second photo shows a game representation of “Day of Waterloo” corps’ strength/cohesion levels – factoring in reasonable losses for Quatre Bras and Ligny. Napoleon will begin the battle with eighteen combat cards, Wellington with fifteen.
Finally, what “historical” Waterloo card play might look like up to the initial Prussian arrival. The French have played first in each round to this point. Their cards, in play order, are on the left, Wellington’s on the right. The sequence presented here is intended to represent the initial attack on Hougoumont, the first bombardment of the Grand Battery, then D’Erlon’s mainly infantry attack on Wellington’s left, then the resumption of fire by the Grand Battery, and finally the French beginning to burn through their cavalry. Wellington’s responses/matches should be interpreted not as literally matching artillery with artillery or cavalry with cavalry etc. but being able to make the right response at the right time.
In big battles where both sides have a substantial hand of cards, the potential for many matching rounds is considerable – as will be the loser’s casualties when things take a wrong turn. The game also captures that essential battle tension of the day, of Napoleon eschewing any chance to pull out (refusing to play a card) and cutting his losses in the face of an increasingly unpromising situation. Instead, in game terms, he let the rounds continue to accrue and finally, in card play terms, got “busted out.”
About the Author
Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.
Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.