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Field Commander: Napoleon

Dan Verssen

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Rodeo Champion: Napoleon

First published: 2011

Publishers: DVG

Players: 1

Length: 120-180 minutes

story dice war long

While I was at university many moons ago (I started in the LAST CENTURY – man that makes me feel old), a friend set up a simple computer network in our student house, allowing us to play games against each other in those hours where we weren’t in lectures, or studying, or drinking, or partying, or sleeping, or watching TV, or out, or sitting around talking about stupid things. A few times we played Shogun Total War against each other. The first of an excellent series of strategy games on the PC which has since covered the Medieval period, Rome (used on a BBC TV programme where contestants fought battles of the period), Empire building of the 18th century and finally the Napoleonic Wars.

What I have always loved most about the games is that they cover three different facets of empire building (albeit simplified). You have the “at home” facet of building up of your lands with facilities and industry, taxing your people and dabbling slightly in politics. Then you have the “overseas” facet of moving troops around and the dealings with the other leaders. Finally you have the “fighty fighty” facet where you are moved from the strategic maps of the countries and plunged into the battlefield, ordering your units around, carrying out cavalry charges, forming brutal lines of troops, assaulting walled cities and the like.

Due to the nature of the games, it’s hard to put that into a board game. The calculations required, the actions of opponents and the ongoing changes on the map are hard to scrunch up into a single game that doesn’t then become the kind of “mega game” that only the hardiest of wargamers with hundreds of hours to kill can play and enjoy. So generally “shorter” games will choose to cover the battles (see my earlier review of Commands and Colours) or will take a larger strategic overview and boil the fighting down to a more abstract dice roll or two (For more mainstream games see Axis and Allies or Risk). To get a chunkier feel you need a “war game” and a few months of free time and a friend or two to play along with you.

This is where Dan Verssen comes in. This man is my new hero. While in the last couple of years GMT have become my favourite game publisher, Dan Verssen has become some kind of visionary personal guru with the games he works on and releases. At this point I must blow my own trumpet *snigger* a bit and mention that I design games as a hobby and have particular interest in building workable AIs and game systems for solo player experiences. Dan Verssen is rather excellent at this. He’s designed games such as Phantom Leader and Hornet Leader where you play through campaigns as the commander of a team of ace pilots making bombing runs in different wars. He’s also designed the Field Commander series (Rommel, Alexander, Napoleon) where you take the role of these particularly famous military leaders and play your way through their famous campaigns of old.

All solo. All against a built in board game AI.

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Just a small fraction of the stuff that’s packed into the box.

So after that lengthy and waffly intro that’s where we end up. Field Commander: Napoleon is a solo game in which you take on the role of the much loved/much hated/much admired/much reviled French First Consul/Emperor and play through ELEVEN of Napoleon’s campaigns across Europe and into North Africa.

Napoleon is the third in the Field Commander series and is generally regarded as having the best components, best gameplay and best scenarios. These scenarios are spread across seven attractive, mounted maps and each offer a variety of different flavours. For example, the Egypt campaign of 1798 leaves you struggling for men, with sickness weakening your forces with every step you take. The Peninsular Campaign of 1807 starts with you desperately holding on with a handful of units, waiting for the mighty arrival of Napoleon’s large force as Spanish guerrillas and reinforcements pop up all over the place, harrying you and slowly grinding you down.

The full list of campaigns reads like a full list of Napoleon’s campaigns. There’s the Italian Campaign of 1796, Egypt 1798, back to Italy and the Second Coalition for 1800, Third Coalition in 1805, Prussian Campaign of 1806, Peninsular Wars in 1807, Danube Campaign with fifth Coalition in 1809, the brutal Russian Campaign of 1812, the Confederation of the Rhine in 1813, the Retreat into France in 1814 and finally those 100 Days of 1815. There’s a load of replay value in the game as you try to complete the scenarios, scoring either better than Napoleon, similar to Napoleon’s performance or worse than the historical outcome.

Each campaign comes with a different set of unit counters. The counters themselves are attractive, with a small colour image of the unit, flag, unit experience, strength, skill and unit leader’s name. On the reverse is the unit’s weakened status, with lower ratings. You also get counters that are used for every campaign – fortification and garrisons, supply points, scouts, various bits for bookkeeping, order counters and so on.

The rulebook is glossy, full colour and well laid out. The game is pretty involved and does have a number of different rules and numbers to remember but they’re easy to find in the rulebook. Also the map boards have all the information required for the campaign you’re playing along with all the extra rules particular to the campaign. These include charts to check dice rolls, information on starting forces and so on.

As well as the map you will have a thin battlefield map for fighting the many battles that will crop up during your campaigns and another sheet that helps you to follow the steps through for the battles. Basically everything you want or need is there, stuffed into the extremely deep and impressive box.

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Napoleon with his big stack starts the march towards Austerlitz. This isn’t gonna end well.

So how does the game work then? Well after you’ve chosen your campaign, you lay out the map board and follow the guidelines on the board to lay out the unit counters in the correct regions. You then receive a number of “supply points” (which you use to break the rules and to buy extra units) and the enemy receives some too (which they use to improve their dice rolls). Each campaign scenario has a losing condition (such as if you lose all your units, or you don’t hold certain cities by a certain time) and a winning condition (usually scoring points at the end of the game and comparing the point score to Napoleon’s historical “score”).

The game is then split into two main parts – your turn and then the enemy’s turn. On your turn you advance the turn marker one space, then you can move as many of your units as you want by one region (unless you have enemy in your current region). You then carry out any battles, then units can move another region (force march) by spending 1 supply point for each unit. Finally you gain new supply points, usually for holding cities, and spend your supply points on reinforcements, garrisons, restrengthening your current units and buying scouts which allow you to make the enemy re-roll dice.

The enemy then takes “his” turn. This is done by you rolling dice for “his” units and moving the units around depending on charts on the board. First the units will move, then battle and then supply. The outcomes of these will differ slightly depending on the campaign but generally you will find the enemy will move towards your weaker forces, charge against your towns, retreat or hold their ground. Supply phase can be a killer in some scenarios, with Spanish forces popping up all over the place in the Peninsular War for example.

These AI movements are sometimes suboptimal and sometimes really screw you over. In other words, it gives you an idea of what could happen but can deviate from it if the roll is particularly low or high. It keeps you on your toes and importantly it never feels as if the game is cheating or being “cheap”.

As for the battles, you “zoom in” on a region by moving all the units onto the battlefield board. A pre-battle dice roll lets you know if anything sneaky is happening (sometimes good for you or for the enemy) and then you check the fighting forces. If the total strength of either force is three or more times higher than the other, the battle is a massacre. The weaker force is removed from the game instantly. This is great as it prevents too many pointless “waste of time” battles. You’re still going to play out a huge range of battles though – from tiny skirmishes, to epic history-definers. You’ll have battles where you’re marching your men up against towns bristling with cannon and you’ll have battles where you’re grimly maintaining a defensive line against terrifying forces. All this with a relatively simple core mechanism.

Battles, of course, have to be simplified somewhat but still capture the feel of the period. Units are placed horizontally (line) or vertically (column) in the different sectors of the battlefield. The enemy units will always follow a certain route of movement or attack and you have a number of orders for each of your units, such as advancing, changing formation or firing. Both sides also get to use special orders for some of their units each turn that allow extra movement, making attack dice rolls easier to succeed and so on.

So the game will see you moving between the overall campaign strategy and each specific battle within it, winning some that felt impossible, losing some that you were certain you were going to win and playing out your own personal story.

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Will those Austrians never learn?! 1805 Napoleon is the mack daddy!

Right, time to sum up my thoughts. Field Commander: Napoleon is, put simply, a triumph. It covers a lot of ground and it does it all in a decent play time, albeit too long for some evenings. The campaign boards are thick and attractive but the battlefield and battle information boards are a much thinner cardstock. The counters are all thick and attractive and physically the game really shines. It’s a definite step up from previous Field Commander games and is very strong for a “war game”.

The game provides an excellent opponent. Sometimes “he” is actually pretty tough and unforgiving, while at other times you’ll find yourself unconsciously smirking as you realise that “he” has made a mistake or missed something that you’re planning. Some campaigns are definitely tougher than others but they all offer different challenges and different struggles. You really can play the game over and over again.

Campaigns play in around 2-3 hours which isn’t too ridiculous. Long enough to really engage you but not too long to see you dragging your weary backside sheepishly to bed at 5am before work the next morning. Some people will find it hard to find that kind of time to themselves on any kind of semi-regular basis, but then actually managing to find the time makes it even more of an event as you settle down with a cup of tea with the brutal Russian landscape laid out in front of you.

There IS a lot of dice rolling in the game. Units are rated out of ten for their fighting strength and their general ability, with those numbers being compared against dice rolls for…well, practically everything during battle. You’re also rolling for enemy attacks and all the strategic decisions they make. This may put some people off and if it does I would have to say that this game really isn’t for you. However, this really does add depth to the story, it makes you nervous over pretty much every single dice roll, sees you fist-pumping a dice roll of 3 after an hour and a half of knife-edge campaigning. After all, you’re the commander – you only give the orders, you don’t fire those muskets yourself.

Ultimately, I really recommend the game and I recommend Dan Verssen as a whole. Put in the time and effort and you get a well-balanced and enjoyable game with plenty of thinking and a rich story…and you can play while your wife/brother/gaming buddy is busy. Fantastic.

AUSTERLITZ:

  • Mounted boards, good quality components and graphics
  • Every campaign feels different and offers different challenges – huge replayability
  • The AI, despite sometimes making strange “decisions” can be very smart and sneaky
  • Offers both campaign strategy and the tactics of battle

WATERLOO:

  • There’s a lot of dice rolling which isn’t for everyone
  • Campaigns can run a little long for a casual game in an evening
  • Unsurprisingly, not very sociable

9/10

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