Matt and I had time for a shorter wargame this time, so we went with Age of Napoleon.
Last time we played, Napoleon got off to a slow start when the Coalition mired him in peace talks the first couple years. No such problem this time, and he quickly rolled over Austria and took Russia out of the game with Diplomacy. At the end of the second turn of the second year, there was nobody left opposing him on the continent.
This seems a pretty standard opening, and after this, my games always seem to peter out for a few turns with absolutely nothing happening. As in most Napoleonic games, invading Russia is suicide; while you’re vacationing in Moscow, the remaining 4 corps or so left in your order of battle are going to be grossly inadequate for the defense of the rest of your empire, and somebody is bound to go into insurrection before too long. Never mind that with no capability to do any strategic-type moves, replacing casualties in the invading army will be impossible. You could invade Prussia, but there hardly seems much point in taking the casualties since Prussia is so useless before their military reforms.
So the game seems to enter a quiet diplomacy phase. France tries to keep Russia out and Austria under heel, while England tries to either bring Spain into insurrection (once this happens, France’s chances in the game go down the drain due to the impossibility of committing over half the Grande Armee to simply occupying the country) or just keep somebody in the field.
In our game, Austria and Spain went rapidly into insurrection. This put me in a bind. I decided to try to crush Spain, on the theory that I needed to do this to have any chance of an aggressive victory, which might still be possible if I could conquer Austria and take Russia out with Diplomacy. This turns out to be very hard, because much of it is barren so you get reamed on the winter attrition, permanently eliminating extremely valuable corps. And while Napoleon is facing down the hordes from the east, you have literally no acceptable second commander (a failing of these autocratic states, I guess).
In the end, the constant attrition whittled down the French army to the point that they just couldn’t hold on against the Coalition masses (both Austria and Prussia reformed their military), and in 1814 France had been stripped of all her conquests. Matt then decided to be happy with the marginal victory rather than play out the attempt to seize Paris for the decisive (we decided he definitely had a shot at the decisive, but that it would be pretty boring to play out).
I have a conflicted relationship with Age of Napoleon in the end. On the one hand it’s a reasonably evocative game that can be fun to play. Unlike many Napoleonic grand strategy games, things develop in plausible ways and the events work to give the game flavor. It’s short, it’s not too complicated, and there is some strategy. The permanently vs. temporarily eliminated mechanisms give a good feel for the manpower crunch the French had. This particular game was probably the closest game I’ve played, and it was fun.
On the other hand, the game is also ridiculously random and often the result is decided by the fall of hugely powerful Diplomacy and Insurrection cards in the first 5 turns. If things go Napoleon’s way, as they have done in about a third of the games I’ve played, the game ends in 1811 and is boring. And for a pretty simple game, the rules have a surprising number of pointy bits (like how to take losses – I have to carefully read the process on the player aid after every battle, as it is rather confusing). I think the rules situation has gotten a bit out of hand … the printout of the most recent rules update is over 20 pages, and just reading them makes the game feel much more complicated than it really is. The living rules concept is obviously a nice one, spotting and fixing problems, but I think in this case things just spiraled out of control and now while they may have fewer holes, the overall usability is much worse.
In the end, it’s pretty easy to wish this game were better than it is, but as it is it works, has some nice features, and fills the niche of low-complexity wargames. Of all the Phalanx games, this is the only one (other than the so-far anomalous Maharaja) to be successful in maintaining interest. Hopefully their next wargame (The First World War) will lean more towards this than Nero or Waterloo.