Age of Napoleon

Age of Napoleon is the new entry from Phalanx games. Despite the Nero debacle (from which I am still reeling – what a disaster, sometimes I think Richard Berg should just retire from game design already), I was willing to give Phalanx a chance to redeem themselves. So, Milton and I sat down to give it a shot.

This is a game that is clearly in the We The People/Hannibal family of games, and probably claims a spot right in between these two classics. It is significantly simpler than Hannibal but more complex than We the People. The cards can be used for events or activations (but not political control), but have no numeric value – each card just activates one stack in lieu of taking the event. There are battle cards, campaign cards, political cards, mostly solid interesting events that capture the feel of Napoleonic Europe without the level of padding with worthless cards The Napoleonic Wars had. Battles are resolved using a simple CRT (roll a die vs. your total combat strength to inflict step losses), unfortunately, no chit picks or battle cards to add excitement to the process. Political Control is handled a little differently here, instead of tracking who controls each region, instead entire nations have a status of Coalition, Neutral, or French-Allied, and everyone (except France and Britain) can move through these various states via card play or conquest. There is a final state, French Dominion, that’s sort of a “were being oppressed” version of French-Allied, and can lead to insurrections and many bad things (from the French viewpoint, anyway).

With these random comparisons out of the way, how does it play? There were things I liked, and a couple things I was perhaps suspicious of. The first thing, as I mentioned, is the fact that the battles lacked drama – it’s just a roll on a chart. One of the great things about Hannibal, or Empires in Arms, is how exciting it is just to resolve the battle. Sure, it takes a while, but the number of major battles in Age of Napoleon isn’t that great either and a little tension over combat results instead of this very flat CRT would be a big plus. The other thing I was a little suspicious of was the balance of the cards. There is a big variety in their strength, and many of them really there isn’t much choice about playing them as events vs. activations. Diplomacy cards and many reinforcement cards are no-brainers; for Diplomacy cards in particular, I think you’d have to be extremely desperate indeed to play a card to activate a stack when it could also be used to take an entire nation into/out of the war. On the opposite end of the scale, many battle cards are often not just marginal but completely worthless as events, and there are very few dramatic battle cards. While things here are far from being as bad as in The Napoleonic Wars, there still just isn’t quite the tension in the card play as there is in either We the People or Hannibal – while there are many cards that will cause some thought, there are also many that are clearly destined to be played one way or the other. This means the game feels a little heavier on the “luck of the draw” than would be preferred.

That having been said, there is a lot of good stuff too. The historical feel is surprisingly good for a game of this complexity, and the game really does play out in a plausible manner. You actually can see the French being forced to fight in Spain and Russia simultaneously, which simply would never happen in Empires in Arms, War and Peace, or The Napoleonic Wars. The deletion of the naval war and abstraction of naval transport is entirely a good thing from a game perspective. The initial campaigns develop more or less as expected, and the vagaries of international diplomacy are nicely reflected. The battles are very attritional as they should be, and force-marching or moving around in winter is very expensive in terms of troops. The cycles of war and peace are not likely to happen as they did historically – if Austria is defeated in 1805 as is quite likely, it’ll be hard to bring her back by 1809 unless the coalition gets awfully lucky – but it’s close enough. All in all, this is actually probably the best strategic Napoleonic games I’ve played … but I also must admit that is a fairly low bar for me. Most other competitors (War & Peace, The Napoleonic Wars, Empires in Arms, Guerre de l’Empereur) in my opinion have an array of problems ranging from irritating to quite serious.

We played through 1813 in about 3.5 hours, which to me is a little long. We the People, a very similar game in many ways, plays in maybe half that even for new players, and Hannibal plays in not much more. While I expect the playing time to come down with more play, I don’t expect it to come down substantially. This means the game may be a little long – like We the People, Age of Napoleon has a lot of powerful events and so can feel a bit control-light at times, which to me means it should be short; I fear it might not be quite short enough.

Anyway, as you can tell from these somewhat unfocussed comments, my initial impressions are a little mixed. There is a lot of good stuff, a few things I am still unsure of. I was reasonably happy, if not blown away, but I will hold off buying my own copy until I’ve played another time or two. The game is fun, though; can’t argue with that. It’s a huge step up from Nero (which is saying hardly anything), I feel on initial inspection probably a good step up from Waterloo or even A House Divided, but not quite up to We the People and certainly far short of the gold standard of Hannibal.

I shall have to play a couple more times, then write a real review.

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