Bataille Empire Review18 Dec 2019 2
Bataille Empire Review
Released 16 Nov 2019
It was the very first thing I did at the 2019 HMGS Fall In Convention a few weeks ago. I stood in front of the Dealer Hall 30 minutes prior to opening, and when the gate lifted I bolted like an Olympic Sprinter (and at my age, that’s impressive) to grab a new set of Napoleonic miniature wargaming rules called Bataille Empire by Herve Caille.
Its publication in English was the current buzz, and given it was a rare French publication on the subject, by the same author who penned the uber popular Art de la Guerre Ancient-Medieval wargaming rules, I was all a twitter to try it out. So, I forked over my $48.00 to US vendor On Military Matters (it's also available in the UK at Caliver Books), found a dark, quiet corner and began to gorge on its 258 pages. Was it worth it?
Yes, and then some.
More than Just Rules
Bataille Empire (BE) follows a current trend whereby the book is more of a reference source with rules as a major part of the presentation, rather than simply rules alone. The game starts with a nine page summary on the art of war during the period, followed by 76 pages of rules, then 10 pages covering five scenarios (Introductory, Maida, Elchingen, Jakubovo and Plancenoit from Waterloo) followed by 151 pages of Army Data Tables, not to mention a one page Quick Reference Sheet (QRS).
Obviously, what we English speakers would call Army Lists is a really big deal in this game, and they are detailed and very comprehensive. The section for each nation begins with historical information about the basic parts of its army, to include infantry, cavalry, artillery, and foreign troops. Completing this part is a list of National Characteristics that impact gameplay. For example, one of the seven British National Characteristics are provisions for using the Reverse-Slope tactic within the game. Next comes a master army list where individual unit types (eg, Heavy Dragoons KGL) are defined for period of service, unit type (eg, Heavy Cavalry), Morale, Maneuver Class, Size, Special Abilities and Budget (love that term). Yes, although the author geared the game to historical battles, there is a Budget (i.e. Point) system that allows you to play pickup games using notional armies of between 200 – 300 points.
But here is where it gets interesting. Following the master list are related army lists keyed to specific battles or campaigns. For the British this covers eight additional pages and 15 additional lists, from 1792 thru 1815. A typical list of this type includes the Russo-British invasion of Holland in 1799, the British at Copenhagen in 1807 or the Anglo-Spanish in Castalla in 1813. These lists only provide morale data and the number of units of each type allowed, but there are notes to help fill in the blanks. Oddly enough, actual military commanders such as Lord Wellington or Marshal Soult are not rated by name in the rules. Instead and for example, in Holland 1799 the unnamed British Commander in Chief receives an Ordinary rating, while his unnamed subordinate commanders may have one rated Competent, the rest Ordinary or Poor.
This is comprehensive defined, and I also found the same perspective in another unlikely place – unit basing, the bane of miniature wargamers everywhere. BE’s battle scale uses either a universal battalion (600 infantry) or regiment (1200 infantry) as the standard unit, with variations of only 25% less or more combatants allowed. Ground scale is measured in UD’s (Units Distance, or the width of one base, obviously a European thing) but generally for 15 mm a UD is one inch. Time scale is between 30 minutes to one hour per turn, all of which makes the game more generic for defining combat units than historical.
It also makes the game very flexible so that one can use any basing system to play, at any scale. Sure, I know all games say this, but in BE Caille actually lists, with specific basing examples, five different options to include 3 cm width for 15 mm, 4 cm width for 15 mm, ¾ inch for 15 mm (as in Age of Eagles or Napoleon’s Battles), plus 28 mm basing and 6 mm basing. There are top down images of stands with figures for each option, and BE also defines exactly how this plethora of bases need to link together to form combat formations depending upon whether size is Small, Medium or Large. Once again, images and diagrams are plentiful.
In other words, BE leaves nothing for the gamer to ad hoc or guess, and this type of customer care should be a model for others.
But the Rules are REALLY Good
BE is a Napoleonics game, covering an era where combat was more complicated due to its diversity than other periods. Thus, Caille’s tome by definition is going to be more complex, and this makes its difficult to cover the game in the two + pages the Boss allows. Suffice it to say you need six sided die (God, they still make those?) to perform all the combat, fire and movement functions you come to expect from a rules set like this. Shock resolution? Here the defender and attacker each roll dice and modify the roll with things such as Infantry with Better Skirmishers (+1) or Cavalry with Cuirass vs Other Horse (+1). It's nothing most folks haven’t seen before.
Instead I’d like to concentrate on a couple of areas I found both unique and challenging, not to mention a Hell of a lot of fun. This is BE’s integrated Sequence of Play and its Command Point (CP) management system. Trust me, if you ever play this game and hear its name again, this is what you are gonna remember. And that’s a good thing, and certainly what I took away from my games this weekend where Marshal Davout’s French ran into Brunswick’s 1806 Prussians, one of my favorite armies (because I like a challenge, not because I like pain).
Play begins with both players conducting a Strategic Command Phase, then a Division Activation Phase and finally an End of Turn Phase. Underneath the Division Activation Phase, once this formation activates it may then perform the following functions in the following order – Tactical Command, Preparatory Fire, Charge and Shock Combat, Movement and Rally, and then Final Fire. Opposing players function semi-simultaneously throughout these three phases, so there are no player turns, but simply an all-encompassing game turn that umbrellas everything.
It’s the Division Activation part of the sequence that really shows the integrated nature of play in BE. In the game every division or equivalent must have one of the following orders – Retreat, Maneuver, Attack, Engage or Hold. Each order is specifically defined in detail by BE, ensuring no deviation or creative player initiative. During this phase divisions from both sides with a Retreat order activate and function first, then divisions with a Maneuver order, then Attack, then Engage and then Hold. If both sides have divisions with the same order, players make die rolls for each division commander, adding to the general’s Command Rating. High die picks whether to go first or second, with opposing players alternating activating divisions under that order. Then play moves to the next order type and the system repeats.
Meshed into this system is BE’s CP management system, and in fact it’s the first thing used at the start of each turn. Strategic Command determines how many CPs the Commander in Chief has that turn, which the same occurs for division commanders under the Tactical Command sub-phase noted above. In the game each commander has a rating of Poor, Ordinary, Competent, Brilliant or Strategist, each with its own Command Radius. For example, a Poor commander (Brunswick) would have a radius of 4 UDs while a Brilliant commander (Davout) would have a radius of 10. Similarly, each class also has a set number of CPs it can use per turn based on a 1D6 die roll plus the officer’s command rating DRM, divided by two. For Poor commanders the DRM is -1 while for Brilliant the DRM is +2. So, for example, if Davout rolls a six he would add +2 for a total of 8, divided by 2 for an aggregate 4 CPs that turn.
CPs are used for just about everything in the game outside basic combat functions such as moving and shooting. In general, a single CP is used to perform the following activities, unless the unit triggered is out of Command Radius when 2 CPs must be used. These activities are Attempt to Change a Division Order (per a 1D6 roll based on command rating), Activate a Reserve, Transfer a CP to a Division Commander, Provide a Bonus to Initiative Test, Activate a Unit or Group (ie, Brigade) with a Division, Place or Remove a Garrison, Rally Unit and lastly, Move a Unit or Commander Extra UD. The Commander in Chief only performs the first four of the above, while any general can execute the remainder.
The last activity involving movement is a good pick to see how this works in detail. A general’s movement rate is 10 UDs, but he can move an extra 10 UDs by spending an available CP or 20 extra UDs by spending two. Likewise, an entire division using Operational Movement (at least 8 UDs distant from any enemy) can receive an extra move by expending an available CP, or a third time by expending more CPs based on Maneuver Class. In this regard, a Class A unit uses one additional CP, a Class B unit two additional, while a Class C unit is forbidden a third move. If this seems generous, remember that Davout, Napoleon’s Iron Marshal and likely the best general on the planet outside his master, gets a whopping four CPs per turn if he rolls max on a 1D6.
Or as Clausewitz wrote, “Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult”.
From a personal preference perspective, I tend towards more big battle games so I can refight Borodino or Wagram. From my two playthroughs over the weekend I judge BE to be just a little too complicated and down in the weeds for something like that. BUT, for smaller battles, maybe the size of Quatre Bras at the top end, I think I just found myself a new set of rules. It doesn’t look like I’ll need to rebase (hot diggity damn), and BE captures the essence of what is important to me in a Napoleonic game. The ebb and flow of battle, the inconsistency and randomness of what happens and when, it's all here. Now fuse that with a devilishly unique command system covering what is perhaps the most important, yet so avoided, part of what made the Napoleonic Wars 'Napoleonic,' and you have the potential for nail biting contests that show why Nappy once said, “Give me generals who are lucky.”
About the only negative I noticed is the game’s exceptionally supportive Website is still in French, even when you click on the Union Jack. Piffle. I don’t know if BE is indicative of the state of French Wargame design, but if it is then “Vive la France!” and show us more!