Some thoughts on “Age of Napoleon”

I recently acquired the boardgame Age of Napoleon by Renaud Verlaque, a strategic boardgame over the Napoleonic wars. As such games go, it is pretty unique, allowing you to play the entire conflict in 3 hours of gaming time. One would find it hard to complete a game of classic Risk within that time.

Despite this, Age of Napoleon isn’t what one would call a particularly simple game (as one might think from the playing time). Of course, compared to Empires in Arms, Age of Napoleon’s 14 page rulebook is slim, but with zones of control (interception rules), diplomacy, and march attrition all covered, the game far exceeds the complexity threshold of the average non-wargamer. In any case, simplicity alone would be unable to account for the succinct gameplay (compare with the short rulebook of the other golden age Napoleonic mastodont – War and Peace – which I also own).

I find the differences between Empires in Arms (hereafter EiA) and Age of Napoleon (AoN) interesting, because the development from one to the other somewhat reflects the way in which the design of Imperium has developed, along with the changes in my personal gaming preferences.

AoN resembles EiA in many ways, and implements many things similar concepts. In each case, however, AoN implements things simpler and more “tightly”. Both EiA and AoN are “area-based” games, but the map of EiA is smaller-scaled than AoN. For instance, all of Italy consists of 3 areas in AoN, whereas the same area is more than 25 regions in EiA. Both games are Corps-level games, but where a Corps in AoN is either fresh or spent (representing battle losses or low morale), Corps in EiA are made up of “combat factors” representing infantry, militia, and cavalry and have individual morale. EiA also have fleets, whereas AoN abstracts the entire naval war (simply ruling through card play when total British dominance is initiated at Trafalgar). EiA has detailed economic management of gold and manpower points for each province, whereas AoN abstracts this with fairly simple deployment and maximum mobilization levels per state.

Despite the vastly greater use of minutiae in EiA, there is no doubt (to my mind at least), that AoN is by far the better game about the Napoleonice wars on most levels.

This is most obvious from the “game technical” point of view. The total number of actions allowed a player in AoN are strictly limited by the game mechanisms (up to a maximum of 11 per “year”), and as a result the player must always weigh the alternatives. Between equally matched players, each decision becomes very important, not only what is done, but also the timing of when things are done. This is only rarely the case in EiA where the sheer number of decisions needing to be taken means that most of the individual actions a player takes are of minor importance – micro-management in board game form.

AoN loses out slightly on the “feel” of the game. In EiA, the player balances the budget and recruits his infantry, cavalry and cannon; it is easy to feel in the role of a Napoleon or Alexander in this game as you agonize over whether to pay supplies for your troops or let them forage. AoN, on the other hand, has little in this way, and the use of cards as an abstract ressource to drive actions and historical events detracts from the “feel”. Proper card management is an important element of all card-driven wargames (like AoN), but the real Napoleon didn’t have to consider whether to hold onto the “Brittania” card in his hand in order to deny it to his opponent. Despite this, AoN succeeds in having a fair amount of chrome in the game, with individual Corps commanders and other nice features that add up to a nice feeling of immersion,even if not quite up to the quality of EiA.

The funny thing is that, despite its far greater simplicity and its lack of attention to the nitty-gritty details in the gameplay, AoN is the far superior historical simulation. A game in AoN is far more likely to move along historical paths than its equivalent in EiA; in fact, it is a rare game that features completeley implausible events. EiA, in contrast, often veers off into decidely strange directions. Of course, EiA is a multiplayer game, whereas AoN is two-player; but this is only a part of the reason for this tendency. A problem with any game system is that it can be “gamed”; the more complex the game system is, the more vulnerable it is to being “gamed” (in other words, exploited in ways that hardly reflect historical realities). The funny thing about this is that game designers usual reaction to this problem is to add more complexity, which usually simply fixes one problem by adding two new ones (a good example of this is the so-called “bad-boy” system in the original EU; those who followed the series from the beginning, will remember what I’m thinking about).

AoN, on the other hand, is completely focused around its goal of being a short, but historically sensible game. To that purpose, all of the careful mechanisms that Mr Verlaque put into the game are devoted; not always in the historically most logical way, but always with an eye to creating an enjoyable, historical game. In my opinion, he succeeds admirably, and I can only hope that I succeed as well with Imperium as he does with his game.