The Wargamer's Guide to the Franco-Prussian War 1870 - 71

By Bill Gray 05 Feb 2020 4

Every year is the 25th, 50th or whatever anniversary of some major human conflict, and 2020 is no exception. This leap year marks the 150th anniversary of the often forgotten but deceptively important Franco-Prussian War, pitting the French Empire of Napoleon III against a German coalition masterminded by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

The struggle accurately predicted the two major reasons for the carnage that would become the Great War, yet so subtly that few took notice. These were the Prussian Flow-thru Reserve System, allowing nations to economically mobilize massive armies in a short period of time, and the expanding use of railroads to quickly move around.

With that in mind, consider this shopper’s guide an intro article to an infrequent series of weekly tomes looking into wargaming the fascinating contest between Chassepot and Needle Gun.

Franco-Prussian War Books

The Franco-Prussian War (or FPW as its known in lead land) was another of the many hiccups to the world order painstakingly researched and recorded in official military histories. Since these are now in the Public Domain, and thanks to the digitizing services of Google and the Internet Archive, almost anyone can access these and revel in the luscious detail... if you parlez vous Francais oder Deutsch sprechen. The literary recommendations that follow aren’t them (although see last entry), but rather an overview of some of the best English language books currently available.

Classic Historiesfranco prussian war book 1

There are two books in this category, the first The Franco-Prussian War, the German Invasion of France 1870 - 71 by Sir Michael Howard and the second cleverly named The Franco-Prussian War, the German Conquest of France in 1870 – 71 by Dr Geoffrey Wawro.

These are both general histories, in that they cover not only the fighting, but the politics, diplomacy and economics that influenced the FPW from start to finish. Not the easiest read, but the academic rigor is evident, and they are considered exceptional overall histories.

Quinten Barry Collection

This is not an official collection per se, but Barry is a modern scholar with a deep interest in all the so called 19th Century “hyphenated wars”. Barry is not an academic, but a retired solicitor and judge, and it pleasantly shows. His works are professionally researched, very thorough (as in around 400 pages a volume thorough), detailed and much easier to read. Only the small maps included are a partial negative.

Also, his works look primarily at the military aspect of the FPW, so are more wargamer supportive. His works include (and given most have Kindle editions they are quite inexpensive):

franco prussia war book 2France at Bay 1870 – 71, the Struggle for Paris

The book’s author, Douglas Fermer, is another popular military historian without an academic background, much in the style and quality of Barry. His strength lies in the subject matter of the book. Like Barry’s latter two works, these pages cover the Republican phase of the FPW, a subject oft neglected. It shouldn’t be, because it directly caused the lingering animosity between France and Germany that partially festered World War I.

Forgetting about the concept of a “nation in arms,” Bismarck expected the French to toss the towel after Sedan as any self-respecting government would do. France’s new Government of National Defense said not only “no”, but “Hell no.” Instead they extended the war well into 1871 and while the Germans won, the French made it a very, very painful experience. This was one reason why the final peace treaty was so brutal, and why this portion deserves more study.

Age of Valor Reference Portal

The author of this article (me) has his own set of mini rules for the FPW, and since he had to do a lot of research anyway, placed all his documentation into an online reference portal for free use by the general public. It's all Public Domain stuff, with not a lot in English, but includes images, loads of military maps and dozens of documents. We’re talking Henderson, von Moltke, the German General Staff, the works. It’s all free to download.

Franco-Prussian War Computer Games

Unlike their counter and pewter cousins, there isn’t a lot available. A check on Steam produced a single video game covering the FPW, the Franco-Prussian War 1870 DLC for the Matrix-AGEOD Pride of Nations operational level game. Bottom line, if you like the way AGEOD does business with its games at this level of command, this will work just fine for you.

pride of nations franco prussian war DLC

Oddly, there is a consumer mod supporting a couple of FPW battles available for Matrix's Pike & Shot Campaigns. However, while the scenario has great visuals and plays exceptionally well, its biggest take away is that even the best software engine is sadly not adaptable for all periods of military history. Our review of the Gravelotte mod is still up for reading if you like.

Franco-Prussian War Board Games

BoardgameGeek lists 41 entries for the FPW, but most are out of print or hard to find. Nevertheless, I have seen more than a few on places like eBay or offered by Noble Knight Games, so take heart. The following are what’s readily available or still in print.

on to paris war gameOn to Paris 1870 – 71, the Franco-Prussian War (Buy)

This game is published by Compass games and is based on the old Victory Games product The Civil War. This is an operational to strategic level game where counters represent corps or armies, with 15 miles per hex and 15 days per turn.

The game concentrates on initiative as a by product of leader capabilities and there is a Vassal Module available. Cost is $ 89 and we have reviewed the game.

At Any Cost, Metz 1870 (Buy)

This is a GMT product and is actually a tactical level game covering the battles in and around Fortress Metz at the beginning of the FPW. Units are brigades or artillery groups with each turn representing one hour of time and each hex 500 yards.

The game uses the Order and Chit Activation System so near and dear to many GMT games, and costs $50. Wargamer has a review on file for this product as well.

franco prussian war gameThe Franco-Prussian War, August 1 to September 2, 1870 (Buy)

OK, I lied. This 1972 SPI product is obviously not something easily obtained, but if you can find it, get it. It’s an operational-strategic treatment of the first few weeks of the war using corps with step reduction as the basic counter unit. What makes this game so special are two things, however. First, the entire game is played double blind with inverted counters, and second, the most powerful units on the board are the EB’s.

These are the Eisenbahnbautruppen, or railway construction units. These guys repaired sabotaged rail lines so they could be used for supply and LOC duties and thus move the army forward. Get a hint. The Germans have 22 and the French have three. Excellent historical representation. Do I have a copy? Yes. Will I sell it? Nope.

Franco-Prussian War Miniature Rules

There are lots of miniature rules – and figures – for the FPW and although many are out of print and many more are self-published, this is deceptive. It is the nature of this wing of the hobby that when a group decides upon a set of rules, they will play if forever minus a single day. Cue the rules They Died for Glory, totally out of print, hard to find and yet still played quite a bit. Below are those that should still be in print and are what I’ve seen at the several conventions I go to, to include a modest entry from yours truly.

1871 fast play rules1871, Fast Play Grand Tactical Rules for the Franco-Prussian War (Link)

This set of rules is actually a companion to author Bruce Weigle’s 1870 rules, still covers the entire war, but in a simpler and less detailed format. Weigle’s series of rule books on the FPW and other late 19th Century wars are undoubtedly the most popular and most respected out there, and though he and I are competitors (and good friends), I readily admit to his being the Master to my Padawan.

I mean seriously, the man goes on aerial photo shoots of the actual real estate to ensure his award winning battlescapes are pristine and perfect. Wargamer also has a review on file.

bloody big battles rulesBloody Big Battles, Rules for Wargaming the Late Nineteenth Century (Link)

Authored by Chris Pringle, this rule book is not FPW specific but allows play for all conflicts during the Age of Rifles era. Obviously the FPW is covered under this umbrella. The game is very high level grand tactical where each stand represents 1500 troops or 36 guns, organized into divisions and so on. Ground scale is 250 yards per inch and each turn represents one hour of real time.

The idea is to force the player into a higher level of command environment and thus end a game on the battle of Sedan in four hours. There is a companion volume that offers 25 pre-designed scenarios on battles from this time frame.

volley and bayonet rulesVolley & Bayonet, Road to Glory (Link)

Penned by noted boardgame designers Frank Chadwick and Greg Novack, this is the second, updated edition of the venerable V&B rules system. The idea was to provide a core set of rules to fight any battle between 1700 and 1900, so obviously the FPW fits.

In many respects, V&B takes the same simulation as Bloody Big does above. Although the ground scale is only 100 yards per inch, each turn remains an hour while each single stand represents an entire brigade. Unlike Bloody Big Battles, however, there is no separate pub with FPW specific scenarios.

Age of Valor, the Franco-Prussian War (Link)

This is a set of two digital expansion modules (PDFs) for the author’s (me again) Napoleonic Fire & Fury rules. One covers the Imperial phase of the war, the other (my favorite) covers the Republican phase. Cost is a mere pittance of $4.00 each, but you do need the base Napoleonic rules as well.

The Best 19th Century Miniatures (Link)

Finally, the toys. There are lots of firms casting this war, mostly in smaller 15 mm or below scales since these battles are really big and you need lots of lead to put on the table. As the name implies, however, these guys are sorta into the period and offer both the former Old Glory 15 mm line as well as the Rank & File 15 mm product line, which was also Age of Rifles specific.

In the latter we are talking about 151 separate line items, so there is really very little you can’t find, and many continue to be redesigned into more varied and animated poses. Except for artillery limbers. You can’t get those. But no sweat. Since everyone on the planet (to include Union and Confederate forces) used a copy of the standard French artillery limber, a few ACW packs will work just fine.

Got any suggestions of your own for this topic? Let us know in the comments! Wargamer is an Amazon Affiliate.

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