Age of Napoleon

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.

Age of Napoleon

After our Lock ‘n Load game, Matt & I still had a couple hours, so we broke out Age of Napoleon. Napoleon had a pretty tought time.

Invasion of Austria take 1, 1805: Napoleon gathers up whichever corps are at hand, the Austrians have some command indecision, and Napoleon makes it to Vienna – but only after a bloody battle which leaves the Russians unfought and the Austrians unconquered. The next year then begins with a lost battle against the Russians, and a general retreat to Bayern, followed by some peace talks which stall the second invasion of Austria until 1807.

Invasion of Austria take 2, 1807: Gathering up more scattered corps, Napoleon has another go at it. This results in him making it to Vienna again, getting hung up in yet another round of peace talks, yet again failing to drive off the Russians, and eventually being virtually surrounded in Vienna with only one additional corps and hordes of (admittedly incompetent) Russians and Austrians surrounding him. An assault by Messina into Innsbruch to help relieve the pressure is repulsed. Napoleon, the sole surviving unit of the invasion, is forced into Dalmatia but manages to skate through the enclosing perimeter to escape back to Bavaria.

Invasion of Austria take 3, 1809: Despite having virtually all his good corps in the permanently eliminated pile, Napoleon vows to take one more go at it; the only upsides are that Prussia has been kept neutral, and despite France’s much-weakened state, Napoleon manages to come up with a deal that takes Russia out of the war. With the odds much better now, France manages to crush the Austrians at long last.

This victory is followed up by a quick conquest of the hapless Prussians in 1809 (wow, do they suck without the Military Reforms – when they were crushed in one impulse, Matt’s comment was “they delayed the French as much as they could”), and when Matt failed to draw the Diplomacy cards required to bring Russia out of neutrality, I counted my blessings and took the marginal victory.

A fun game, although I fear the luck of the draw is really much too heavy. By all rights Matt should have won this game, given the hapless and badly depleted state of the French army, but he was unable to draw even a single Insurrection card, pulled only one usable Diplomacy card all game, and never got either reform card or was able to play Britannia. With this kind of card luck, it’ll take nothing short of a bloody miracle for the Coalition to win.

So while I enjoyed the game, I’m definitely going to play with the fixes that try to mitigate some of the luck of the draw.

Age of Napoleon

Milton and I got together for a rematch of Age of Napoleon tonight. Second time through we got most of the rules right, although not quite all – we still missed a couple little things, like flipping stacks whenever they roll on the attrition table. One of my complexity metrics for games is “how many games it takes to play entirely correctly”, and it looks like Age of Napoleon will lock in at the third game – not ideal, but not too bad either, and the second game was pretty close.

My impression of the game improved the second time through. What of the things that colored my judgment of the first game was that once Austria fell for the first time, there were a couple years in which really nothing happened. This time, now that we had a firmer grasp on the slightly convoluted victory conditions, things went more smoothly – there was always stuff happening. Austria fell promptly in 1805, and for a while Napoleon was master of Europe as Russia was neutral, Prussia was French-allied. and Britain had failed to play the Brittania card, so their armies were confined to the home islands. Napoleon got the jump on the invasion of Russia, beginning it in 1809, but as usual things started getting tough. Spain went insurgent, followed by Austria, followed by Prussia’s reformed military (both Austria and Prussia’s armies are pretty worthless prior to the reforms). It seems once the Coalition gets one or two countries into Insurrection, the French are more or less playing for the “Moral victory”. Aided and abetted by some bad dice (Napoleon was defeated and captured by a couple Spanish corps on a horrendous dice split), France was eventually buried under the mass of Coalition armies.

As I say, I liked the game more this time out. As we were more familiar with the rules, the game felt cleaner. The tactics also became a little more interesting once we had become comfortable with the rest of the game. The players actually don’t have a huge number of strategic choices (it feels a bit like A House Divided in this way), but there are a few, mostly centering around the timing of the invasion of Russia – you’ll have to do it eventually, but when is an interesting choice. The British have some interesting decisions about where and when to commit their forces, and there are always tough choices on how hard to push your troops – whether to force march now or take a slow and steady approach (although in truth, slow and steady seems to be the right answer 95% of the time).

I am still not entirely thrilled by the card deck. It seems there just often aren’t that many real choices. Most cards are no-brainers for either events or activations, so there really isn’t a lot of tension surrounding this; but on the other hand, you will often get events (like No Surrender or Force March) that will change how you’ll play a bit, and the Battle events seem a little better than they did on first inspection.

Playing time was about 3.5 hours to play through 1814, which was just a touch on the long side for me. I’d be happier for this game at 2.5 to 3 hours, but I think the playing time will come down to be close to the 3 hour mark.

Anyway, while my ranking remains about the same (I think it’s better than any other Phalanx game, but not as good as We the People due to We the People’s somewhat wider range of strategic options), it’s clicked up to a “buy” for me as a nice, lighter, simpler wargame, so I’ll be picking up a copy at some point here. The range of events gives it a nice fun factor and enough variation for each game to be rather different; and the events are powerful enough to affect strategy without making things wildly random. In an ideal world the rules would be a touch simpler so you could get them entirely right after one game, but close enough. And it’s a very nice-looking game, always a plus, without the usability issues previous Phalanx games have had. In the end, I don’t think it will be hugely replayable, but I should get my money’s worth.

Age of Napoleon, Take II

So, yesterday I posted a somewhat rambling “first impressions” of my first game of Age of Napoleon, and I think the trouble I’m having making up my mind about the game came through in the slightly incoherent style. I also realize the comments could be seen as slightly negative, which would not be right … so now having had a day for things to percolate around in my mind, I offer you this somewhat more concise, bottom-line summary:

– I did enjoy the game, and I would absolutely play again. It’s straightforward, it plays cleanly and for the most part briskly, it’s got a nice historical feel, and has quite a few interesting player choices. All very good stuff.
– That having been said, there are a lot of powerful, game-altering events. These events are nicely historical and so add a lot to the “fun factor” in the short term, which is a good thing, but my instincts are uneasy about how well this will hold up in the medium term, whether the game will get to that magic 5-10 plays that means it was generally worthwhile.
– For people who are big fans of We the People or Hannibal, I suspect this will be a fun game, one that they will enjoy but not one with a big “wow” factor. It’s good, it’s skillfully executed, the events are interesting, but it’s missing that hook, that extra something that really grabs you. This doesn’t make it less than a good game, but there you go. People who have never played either of these classics (a growing number, I suspect) may well have a much more enthusiastic response to the game.

Do I recommend the game? If a friend of yours owns the game, you should absolutely give it a play. If you’ve liked Phalanx’ games so far (ignoring the whole Nero thing), you should also definitely pick it up because I think it’s easily the best yet, definitely better even than the classic A House Divided. If you’re looking for a low-end wargame and don’t own We the People (it is out of print and fairly expensive these days), you should definitely consider it. But, it is a touch pricey (the list is only $30 from FunAgain, but shipping costs will jack that up pretty rapidly), and it isn’t a no-brainer.

And here my conflict comes through … because I do wish I could unequivocally recommend it. There is a good chunk of me that wants to, and it’s quite possible I’ll play another couple times, and then I will.

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.