Review: Bonaparte's Peninsular War

By James Cobb 04 Dec 2015 0

An Allied movement attempt to flank a French position in the zoomed-out view.

Of all the many neglected historical computer game topics, the French debacle in Spain from 1807 to 1814 must rank in the top five. The Russian campaign was a more immediate and catastrophic for Napoleon but the Spanish conflict was a years-long drain on the Empire’s financial and military resources, not to mention tarnishing Bonaparte’s prestige. As they have with other overlooked conflicts, John Tiller and his skilled associates have shone light on the “Spanish Ulcer”. The question is if an engine that is twenty years old capture the nuances of the war and attract gamers.

Pick a Level, Any Level

The scale of this turn-based game is 100 meters per hex and ten or fifteen minutes per turn. The map graphics have five levels; three zoomed-out levels are 2D while the two zoomed-in levels are 3D. The higher levels are great for getting a feel of the area. Streams, woods, rivers, paths and roads are clear while different elevations are indicated by colors. Possible overlays show hexes and contours. Other overlays and features deal with command range of leaders, visible and reachable hexes, army organization and divisional colors. Other highlights inform players of unit status. “Shift” will bring up town names and objectives are marked by national flags. The 3D levels depict rocks, bridges, house, walls, slopes and vegetation thus giving players a better feel for small but decisive line of sight and tactical moved. The levels are supplemented by a jump map and a hex info bar. The info bar describes what is in the selected hex; right clicking the info bar reveals possible paths and obstacles to movement.

Part of the flanking force is shown close-up.

The walls of Badajoz are formidable.

Unit graphics work the same way with the 2D level showing unis with NATO symbols and arrows indicating facing and formation. Zoomed-in levels portray units as sprites with proper uniforms and weapons. Although these sprites are entertaining and helpful in identifying formations, another zoom level would bring more details to light. The best graphics in the game are the depictions of units in the hex info box. Here, uniforms are shown with accurate historical detail down to the correct regimental lapel facings. These images are more than mere eye candy; they contain the name of the regiment and battalion number and six factors including strength, quality and morale. Right clicking on the image reveals the unit’s chain of command up to army level. Combat-inflicted status changes such as disordered and routed are seen in red across the uniform. Commanders have period portraits and values for command and leadership. Fire combat has red lines streaking to the target hitting with red bursts. Fire effects have floating labels showing fatigue and casualties. Melee effects are the number of attacker losses versus those of the defender.

Sound effects greatly enhance game play as cavalry movement is accompanied by the clop, neighs and snorts of horses. Artillery rumbles and supply wagons clank. Infantry trudge along with measured tread. Volleys rattle when fired and artillery has a double sound of cannon going off and explosions for hits. Melee evokes loud single musket shots and shouts of men.

The system may seem daunting to newcomers but no other system goes as far in taking the edge off learning. Two 100+ PDF manuals – one for the base Napoleonic Battles system and one for the Peninsular War product itself – explain the mechanics, interface and niceties of the game in detail. A solid “starter” scenario with a PDF walkthrough in windowed mode eases players into the game. The historical context of the game is laid out in the 21-page campaign notes while an on-screen parameter box gives the unique date for each scenario. Two more manuals explain how to edit and create scenarios and campaigns.

Maalox for the Spanish Ulcer

The interface is classic Tiller with movement by right clicking on adjacent hexes or drop-and-drag to the destination although the latter method is dicey over long distances. Hot key commands allow for easy handling of groups. Fire is usually ordered by a Ctrl-right click on the target but a fire mode button is available. Commands for formation changes, facing, special melee and march orders among others come from drop-down menus, tool bar buttons and hot keys. Beginners may overlook the menu bar but the many variations in views of maps and units, special commands like cavalry charges and bridge repair and computer control of the game come from there. Players are are advised to review the menu options.

A French regiment formed in square.

Game play captures the period’s realities in a turn-based system better than RTS systems. The keys to tactics are formations. Lines, the best firing formation, come in either shortened or extended form depending on the size of the unit. Columns are the best way to move until contact with the enemy and are useful in melee and assaulting walls. Squares are the infantry’s defense against cavalry but are very vulnerable to fire. Skirmishers are an essential part of Napoleonic battlefields. Each regular battalion can deploy one skirmisher company and light infantry units can be literally dissolved into swarms of skirmishers. Skirmishers are invaluable in disrupting the enemy and soaking up fire intended for the parent unit. Skirmishers can be reattached to the parent unit.

Dismounted French dragoons in a middle view form a screen for an infantry column.

Other units have special formations. Artillery is limbered or unlimbered and dragoons can be dismounted. Cavalry charges are a special case for melee. Charging cavalry units must move in a straight and not into terrain that will disorder them. They can ride over skirmishers and hit their targets with triple strength. An optional rule allows a single unit to melee more than once in such a ride. Combat results are loss of strength, fatigue, disordered and routed. Except for strength, all of these impacts have a chance to be improved given time and good commanders.

The same view in 3D.

This system fits into over 170 scenarios and three campaigns. The scenario count doesn’t mean that 170 separate clashes are represented as many scenarios double up on battles by having a separate solo scenario for both the French and Allies. Also, some scenarios are designed for multi-play or are hypothetical. To make things a tad confusing, many locations such as the fortress city of Badajoz were fought over several times. The campaigns are 1809, 1810 and the Vimeiro campaign of 1808. Each campaign offers players choices of AI stance, starting situation and beginning strategy for each battle. The outcome of battles determines the branch for the next battle. All three campaigns are in Portugal but a second volume of the series should offer Spanish campaigns.

The campaign tree shows all the options in the Vimeiro campaign.

Gameplay fits into the period and place perfectly. No terrain could have been worse for Napoleonic operations than Spain and Portugal. Combat usually occurred on rough ground, limiting the use of cavalry. Roads and paths were few and far between while twisting in the oddest ways. Streams interrupted routes frequently causing units to cross the scarce bridges one-by one. When troops finally met the foe, they were tired and perhaps disordered. Troop quality was not too good. The Spanish often had D level troops and the Portuguese weren’t much better. Only a few French troops rated above C and British troops, though better on average, were thin on the ground. An unusual French problem was mediocre leaders; Bonaparte rarely sent his best into the peninsula. Few battles are simple open country but are usually cases of attackers finding and assaulting well defended positions of ridges, forests and fortified cities. The game, then, is a good approximation of history.

A few quibbles exist. Artillery doesn’t damage walls so fortress must be taken by assault columns. Pioneers (engineers) only deal with bridges and not working against fortifications. Movement to contact takes a bit long sometimes. However, the hotseat, sliding advantage bar various optional rules assure gamers of hours of play. The old engine still has a lot to offer.

About the Author

Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Wargamer, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online. He is adjunct faculty at Cardinal Stritch University.

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