Accuracy vs. Overkill: An Overview of HistWar Napoleon

By Colonel (Retired) Bill Gray 20 Sep 2017 4

Whoa.

There’s not a lot that gets me speechless, ask anybody, but for about 20 minutes this past weekend that’s what happened. Mouth open, deer in the headlights stare, yup that was me.  I sat down to play perhaps the ultimate Napoleonic Wars tactical battle computer game, HistWar’s Napoleon (or HWN) and just, wow. Without question this software is far more a simulation than a game, but more than that it is a labor of love of one genuine French Grognard named J M Mathe. Designed many years ago under the name HistWar les Grognards (the Grumblers, Napoleon’s pet name for his Old Guard), the game was to be published by Battlefront but after four years of delay, negotiations broke down and JMM (as he is often called) decided to self-publish. HWG is in actuality a second, much improved edition of les Grognards, and hit the scene in 2013.

This is also a work in process, and one that will never end. The basic game is a digital download only and will run you 34,91 Euros at the HistWar Boutique, and more robust editions with pdf manuals and what not,  cost more. That said, the designer offers free upgrades and new editions for the life of the project, and given that well may be eternity minus a single day, it’s not a bad deal. And if you want to dip your toe in the proverbial water first, les Grognards is still available at a heavily discounted price as well.

Here are the particulars.

HWN Austrian Artillery

Installation and Interface

I purchased the basic software package titled General de Brigade, and this meant I was stuck learning the game thru its three tutorials and Help section. The transaction was by PayPal and although not automatic and instantaneous, it took only a day for the emails with the links and key codes to arrive. After that, download was flawless, but I thought quite long. On the other hand, installation went without a hitch and was lightning fast. I had no issue running the game in Win 10 and did not have to use compatibility mode. Official, recommended hardware specs are as follows:

OS – Windows XP, Vista, 7 or 8
Processor – Intel i5 or equivalent
RAM – 1 GB +
Graphic Card Memory – 1 GB
Graphic Card – NVidia GTX 650 Ti Boost or equivalent
Sound Card – Direct X compatible
Direct X – 9.00 (shader 3)

HWN Title Screen

The game took quite some time to load, but once the title screen was in place, it ran very fast. Like most games of this sort, the package included a Map Editor, an Order of Battle Editor, but in a bit of a surprise, a National Doctrine Editor. I didn’t delve too much here with the exception of the latter. What this thing allows you to do is change the attributes and specific reactions the military units perform in the game under certain conditions. For example, what type of combat mode does an infantry unit go into after it gains its objective? Would that be defensive or something else? The game also allows multiplayer if desired, but I didn’t so I dove right into the three tutorials.

The first tutorial is for Newcomers to the system and teaches the interface of the game, the next tutorial is called First Battle and shows how to move units and engage in combat, while the last for Commanders in Chief covers advanced operations such as controlling several corps in a semi real time environment. You really have to go thru all tutorials to “get it,”, but once done the game is actually pretty easy to play. The tutorials themselves, however, are a bit tedious because of an issue that plagues the game overall. This is the often imprecise translation of the French text into English. In that same vein, the designer obviously expects players to have some knowledge of the period because things like unit designations are left in their original languages. Thus Regiment de Legere is a French light infantry regiment and Chasseur a Cheval refers to French light cavalry.

HWN Options

The tutorials are all done under the standard game interface, which like the rest of the game is pretty Spartan and amateurish in design. There is a small battlefield map in 2D in the upper left corner of the screen and a similar unit data display in the upper right corner. At the center top there is a tool bar with several icons. This is a cascading tool bar in that any icon clicked might well replace the current tool bar with another unique, specialty bar. It all looks a bit old fashioned, but it works.

The rest of the screen is the 3D map, and here is where a highly calibrated mouse is a must. The center scroll wheel elevates the camera up or down, but the mouse with the right button held controls the camera’s direction uniquely. If the cursor is in the center, the view stays put. Move the cursor to the top the camera moves forward, to the bottom rearward, and to right or left as appropriate. However, the speed the camera moves is keyed on how far the cursor is away from the center point of the screen. Far away, to the edge, everything moves fast, but close to center point, the movement slows down. It took some getting used to, but again, it worked well.

HWN CAC Moving 2

Playing the Game

This game simulates individual battles at a grand tactical level. Units are artillery batteries, infantry regiments and cavalry regiments, as well as groups of commanders and staff, and watching them maneuver and shoot at one another is the first of two really hard hitting strengths of the game.

At the start of a scenario (and several historical are included) the player views a 2D map from above with unit icons using NATO symbology. The map is divided into layers so something like a “no units” view is easily done. The toolbar for this map also allows you to set unit boundaries or measure the ground between units and objective to determine both distance and march time. The real function of the map is as a battle planner, however. Here you can select a unit or a command, give an order (like Move) then draw an arrow from the unit to its destination. Clicking on the unit allows you to specify what type of movement – Scouting for example – and change formation before taking that first step.

HWN Planning Map

After this has been all done for all units, typing “P” starts the game in 3D and your forces execute their plan and the enemy react . . . or not. Little in this game is immediate or automatic, but must be triggered by a messenger from the boss to begin. Otherwise, the formation acts according to doctrine, if you remember that Editor we discussed above. During the battle you can manually direct any unit or higher level command to change formation, limber artillery and fire, among other things. There is still a time delay however, which is why moving commanders is important as well.

Nevertheless, the software is exceptionally quick and smooth, with absolutely no lag or stutter. This means some of the most realistic combat visuals I have ever seen become even better. Horses bob up and down when their regiment gallops, dust is kicked up, smoke from black powder weapons is much more intense than in other games and often blows back in the face of the firer. Troop formations are by regulation, to include the number of formations allowed and how they change from one to the other. It’s not just line or column, but column of divisions, column by platoons and more. And if you make the formation change, the AI will often do it for you based on terrain and other factors.

HWN CAC Moving

Seriously, I ordered a French regiments of Dragoons to move its four squadrons from column into line and it did it . . . doing a perfect formation en avant en bataille par peleton per the provisional ordinance of 1800 (Title IV, Article II, Paragraphs 551 – 559, Plate 107). I was stunned. I’ve read about the thing and even have the regulation, but I never thought I would actually see this movement executed. It was as if I and the Doctor had just stepped out of the TARDIS.

Anyway, the game continues like this until the software stops it and proclaims victory or defeat, and it seems to happen without a software hiccup one. Well, OK, the screen went dark a couple of times, but I flipped it back to 2D, then back to 3D and everything was perfect.

HWN Ligne Firing

Sound and Graphics

I found the sound a bit spotty and uneven, with no sound effects or music where there should be, or at least delayed for some 20 – 30 seconds. All of the commands and voices for the armies, however, were in the native language.

Graphics was something else however, and like the section above, is a huge plus for the game. First, the terrain is the best I have ever seen, particularly as it seems more animated than in other games. The hills, trees and towns seem as if they were designed specifically for each battle and not compiled from a generic set. Towns are especially sharp and much more detailed and period appropriate, and do not seem to blur when you pan close to them. Wind can actually be heard whistling if appropriate, while leaves fall from trees, grass and wheat sways and the clouds in the sky even move. Not only that, but the shadows on the ground produced by the clouds is represented, and move along with their skyward brethren. Fog lists in valleys and dissipates as the temperature rises.

HWN Leaves Falling

The military units and individual soldier sprites are all 3D, move flawlessly, realistically and are unbelievably accurate as regards uniforms and similar. For example, each French Chasseurs a Cheval regiment has its own historically accurate facing color displayed on their dark green uniforms. The flag is actually carried by a properly positioned ensign and the squadron commander not only has the requisite gold braid, but sits on the popular leopard skin saddle blanket. One company in the first squadron wear bearskin bonnets vice shakos as they were the regiment’s elite company, kinda light cavalry horse grenadiers. The trumpeters, meanwhile, sit on white horses in uniforms with the regular trooper’s uniform colors reversed. Heavy artillery come with six horses pulling the limber, not two, because that is what happened historically. And Napoleon’s command group isn’t just a couple of figures, but some 20 plus sprites to include marshals, aides, Guard Chasseurs a Cheval as security and even the Emperor’s personal Mameluke bodyguard, Roustam.

Alas, close up these doughty lads show they are no competition for the likes of the Total War series, or even the 2D representation of Scourge of War products. At a reasonable distance, however, they do look impressive, in part because of the game’s 1 to 1 scale. That’s right, an 800 man Chasseur a Cheval regiment actually has 800 3D sprites on screen, and the game’s Webpage says up to 500,000 are quite doable.

HWN Early French Ligne

Conclusion

So would I recommend this game? Well, no, or at least not without some heavy qualification. If you belong to that very small niche which worships uber detail and highly history oriented, then this is your game and I suggest you buy it right now. It does exactly what its designer intended and more. It is likely the closest you will ever get to seeing how a Napoleonic battle really, REALLY looked and worked. Seriously, just look at the enormous distance between units to allow for deployment in this game.

And that’s really the problem. The game is simply too damn good at what it does; the rest of the gaming world doesn’t have PhDs in the History of the 1st Empire. The visuals will be not only complex but confusing, and low non Hollywood casualty rates along with time delayed decision making will not attract customers. And truth be known, when I say the raw numbers of soldiers displayed for a 1 to 1 scale, I simply felt intimidated. I’ve studied this period of history for a good 40 years, and I knew the numbers, but seeing them deployed was jaw dropping. If nothing else, I just gained new respect for commanders back then, but  . . . just, wow.

I think for most folks the Scourge of War Waterloo series is a better choice as it seems to have a perfect mix of history and gameplay, not an overabundance of either. But if pure simulation and through the roof realism is your heart’s desire, then fasten your seat belt and get ready for one Hell of a ride.

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