Gamers’ Corner: Waterloo 200th

June 17, 2015–At the moment I’m actually on the other side of the world, writing about the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific War, but I didn’t want to let this moment go by without some remark. The 200th anniversary is a notable passage for anything–or person–and Napoleon is staging a remarkable comeback. Perhaps it’s not surprising that everyone’s favorite Napoleon, a French lawyer and re-enactor named Frank Samson, is choosing the big Waterloo re-enactment this week to retire in a blaze of glory.

Two centuries is both an eon and an instant. Scary to think about, but in that length of time the world has gone from the calculated and tightly-contained conflicts of the 18th Century to a point where we engage in global wars, now irrational ones, and where we are near to destroying the very environment that sustains us. The A-Bomb, the warplane, the mechanized army were instruments unthinkable in Napoleon’s day, but that man was instrumental in making those things possible in two ways: by introducing a version of state power that focused it more efficiently towards state goals, and by deepening the inculcation of a new vision of the “nation engaged” that reframed the individual as part of a mass movement. All those developments in a mere two centuries? Stunning.

Some things that exist today, such as the irredentism of Russia over the Crimea and Ukraine, are constants. In this sense the change is also that of an instant, and Frank Samson might as well be Napoleon.

But there is also an eon that has passed. The world is so different, as the A-Bomb reference suggests. Anyway, here I want to speak to my gamer friends. Not that we’ve been playing for two centuries (though games did exist in Napoleon’s time), but that an age’s work of development has occurred in gaming since Napoleon’s day. Then Bridge and Whist were common, and of course Chess, our closest progenitor for the modern boardgame. But Waterloo, specifically, became the subject for one of our first games. In fact Charles Roberts, who had made a hypothetical the subject of his first game, selected Waterloo in Europe, and Gettysburg in America as his first historical subjects.

The first insight was, you could take an event from history and make it into a boardgame. The first design innovations came on the heels of that insight–Avalon Hill’s published versions, in some editions, included an early sense for  formation (hence “front” versus “flank”) and ranged fire (with artillery units). That happened in the early 1960s.

What’s interesting to look at is the evolution of boardgames, viewed specifically through the lens of the Waterloo battle. The middle 1970s were a fulcrum point when the innovations flooded the hobby one after another. In 1974 Tom Dalgleish, Ron Gibson and Lance Gutteridge brought us the simply-titled Napoleon (Columbia Games), one of their clever assays in the use of wooden blocks to simultaneously insert a fog of war element (limited intelligence) and to afford the ability to portray attrition. Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) came out in 1975 with 1815: The Waterloo Campaign, in which Frank Chadwick brought us the concept of “blown” cavalry (horses exhausted after making a charge) and, if I recall correctly, line-of-sight checks for ranged fire.

You can’t discuss the subject without touching on the contributions of Simulations Publications, of course. They began with Jim Dunnigan’s Napoleon at Waterloo (NAW) in 1971 which reproduced the battle action more realistically than Charlie Roberts’s design, and zeroed in on Mont St. Jean where Avalon Hill had really done a campaign game. NAW became the foundation for a whole series of Napoleonic-era productions. Dunnigan used to say that everyone has at least one boardgame in them, and this shows it. Possibly the best-known of these Napoleonic games from SPI was Borodino (in 1972), on the famous Russian battle at the heart of War and Peace. The designer of that game, John Young, was actually SPI’s accountant. Point taken. Anyway, the Waterloo campaign lent itself to recreation, and when SPI introduced its quad-game format, one of them did all the Waterloo campaign battles on the NAW system. The drama of the situation also offered possibilities at the micro- level, so when SPI followed GDW into the world of “monster” games, it published Waterloo as Wellington’s Victory, Frank Davis’s 1976 game, which moved the action to the regiment/battalion level, at which the actions at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte acquire new meaning.

Kevin Zucker worked at SPI during much of this period and designed Napoleon’s Last Battle (1975), which has spawned an entire line of products from the company Operational Studies Group, which he formed when leaving SPI. I mention this separately because never pursued the innovations Zucker had made, and he took them with him to OSG. His NLB introduced a variety of design advances including portrayal of a chain of command by inserting leadership rules, backed counters to reflect partial losses, the idea of “march orders,” and more. This Napoleonic system has been extended and deepened through a long series of subsequent games, some on Waterloo, others on different Napoleonic campaigns.

At the strategic level David Isby did a game whose name escapes me now (I shall check) for Rand Games Associates in the mid-70s. I published Campaigns of Napoleon with West End Games in 1980. That was altogether a new approach, though it featured Waterloo as just one of many scenarios. (Incidentally, contrary to what appears on the web at BGG, Dan Palter was the publisher and claimed  no more than “contributing design” credit; and Eric Goldberg had nothing whatever to do with the design of Campaigns, only its development. The most recent entry in the strategic sweepstakes is also my game, which appeared as the 2011 annual for ATO, Beyond Waterloo  That features advances in many areas from battle portrayal in a strategic game to an ability to fight out the 1815 campaign somewhere other than at Waterloo.

In any case, as gamers reflect on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, we have real reason to appreciate the event, which has had a real impact on the quality of the boardgames we play.

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