Napoleon in Russia review17 Feb 2020 1
Napoleon in Russia review
Released 05 Feb 2020
Few military disasters can match the scope and scale of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. It was a tragedy played out on a continental scale, a failed campaign that would lead to the unraveling of an empire, brought on by the unbridled hubris of one of history's so-called great captains. This titanic struggle, fought across a harsh and inhospitable expanse, is the backdrop of Napoleon in Russia, the latest offering from HexWar, a publisher and developer best known for its ports of both popular board games and old-school war games from tabletop to digital.
Once upon a time, HexWar operated a subscription-based service whereby subscribers would get access to PC ports of old SPI and Decision Games titles. In the past few years, though, the company has carved out a new niche, developing a massive portfolio of smaller and often visually similar hex-based war games to supplement their licensed ports from companies like GMT and Academy Games. Most of these titles can be picked up on either Steam, iOS, or Android. Napoleon in Russia originated as a mobile release but has just recently made the jump from the App Store to Steam.
As any strategy fan familiar with either the Steam or mobile scene can tell you, there is plenty of shovelware trying to take advantage of the unsatiated hunger for good, cheap war games. So, is Napoleon in Russia worth your time? The answer: yes, but with some serious caveats. This is because while it's undoubtedly a fun and addicting wargame, there are several glaring quality assurance issues that unfortunately drag the game down.
Napoleon in Russia covers five battles from the Grande Armée's ill-fated foray into the vast and unforgiving Russian Empire in 1812: the battles of Shevardino Redoubt, Maloyaroslavets, Vyazma, Loubino (also known as Valutino) and 1st Polotsk. In these disconnected small-to-mid sized battles, the forces of Napoleon and Czar Alexander I duel across austere hex-grid maps, scooting infantry, artillery, and cavalry into position to capture control points, take redoubts, and destroy the opposing force.
The game’s light, fun, turn-based combat is easy to pick up and understand, due in part to a detailed combat analysis system that provides clear, useful information when selecting an enemy unit to attack. Even on the game’s smallish maps, maneuvering, engaging, and outflanking the opposing force with your twenty or so units feels strategically rewarding, as does navigating the various simple terrain features that can alternatively disorganized your force or slow down an approaching army.
The “One More Turn” Check
On top of the five historical battles that make up the real meat of the game, Napoleon in Russia also includes various non-historic skirmish battles. These are generic engagements created to flesh out the space left between the five historical battles, and include non-specific scenarios like: "Hill Assault," "Valley," "Control Point Capture," and "Ascent." These sideshow skirmishes are fun distractions but lack the depth and detail of the five campaign battles. Worse yet, they detract from what little narrative throughline exists to connect the disparate engagements together. So, while the battles are enjoyable, they lack any feeling of context and fail to convey a sense of forward progress.
Even the historical battles, bizarrely, progress out of chronological order. In practical terms, this means the game is not meaningfully engaging with the history it ostensibly portrays. The lack of any clear connection between the battles makes the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion feel like so much window dressing. While the gameplay is addictive in the moment, it feels suspiciously like the kind of empty calories that so many mobile games trade in. Depending on what you're looking for, this may or may not be a bad thing.
All of these scenarios, both historical and skirmish, can be played on any of the three fairly competent AI difficulties that come built in for all battles and can be played from either the Russian or French perspective. For the grogs, there is also an optional historical mode that alters unit accuracy to make the combat a bit more realistic for the period.
As with any turn-based game, the true metric of success is if it can pass the "just one more turn" check. That is to say, are you constantly trying to squeeze just one more turn out before turning it off? In that regard, Napoleon in Russia is a success. While turns progress at a brisk pace, the limited range of your troops and the difficulty of completely enveloping an enemy hex means that the actual process of whittling down a full-strength line of infantry can take a bit of back and forth.
What this all adds up to is a decent amount of content for the relatively modest asking price of $9.99 (£7.19). Combine this with the fact that, on the whole, this is an entertaining tactical game, and Napoleon in Russia seems like a slam-dunk for anyone with an itch for a lighter take on an old-school hex-based war game. Unfortunately, a litany of glaring UI and audio/visual issues conspire to complicate this seemingly clear-cut picture.
QA, or Lack Thereof
Many of the Napoleon in Russia’s issues stem from the fact that it originated as a mobile game. Things that might pass muster for a phone game become glaring weaknesses when ported to the PC. The expectations are different. For example, even discounting what might charitably be described as a rough-around-the-edges graphical style, all of the battlefields feel small, conveying neither the vastness of the Russian countryside nor the scope or scale of the forces deployed. On an iPhone screen this is a necessity; on an 18” monitor, it is less than impressive, to say the least.
This is something that could be forgiven, if there was not also a number of UI issues that get increasingly irritating the more you play. On the AI’s turn, for example, the camera won’t automatically pan over to where your enemy is attacking. This means that you can hear the cacophony of muskets and artillery, but be left wondering which units were hit and for how much.
Other quirks, bugs, and glitches speak to a similar lack of QA testing. On the save screen, for instance, there isn’t enough room to fit the names of certain battles, leaving the load screen a garbled, incomprehensible mess. In the tutorials, a number of visual glitches cause units to pop into and out of frame. The handy battle analysis screen that pops up when selecting an enemy unit to attack will appear cut off if the camera is zoomed in too far. The end-of-turn pop-up window is perhaps the worst offender, occasionally warning you that you still have unmoved units even in instances when there are no units left to move, causing frantic searches for phantom regiments.
Audio issues will similarly grind on your patience. The single, short, looping tract that serves as the game’s background track gets old pretty quick, as will the repetitive click-clack of musket fire and the furious whinny of charging horses. Overall, none of these problems ruin what is otherwise an enjoyable, light experience with the feel of an older tabletop game. But, taken together, these little irritations make it seem like this port wasn’t given all the attention it deserved.
Napoleon in Russia is ultimately a fun, easy-to-pick-up-and-hard-to-put-down war game, bogged down by a number of irritating QA issues that should have been ironed out of the game before release. Because of this sloppy execution, it’s hard to give the game a full-throated endorsement. Sloppy may have flown in the past, but the field is expanding: promising systems like VASSAL are offering players easy access to the tabletop experiences they love in a digital space and the surge in developers and publishers, such as Avalon and Asmodee Digital, investing in quality ports of board and war games that both look and feel great.
As more developers and publishers enter this space, HexWar and publishers like it will have to keep pace in a field that's getting more competitive every day. So, if you enjoy a lighter take on old-school hex-based games and aren't getting your fill already, you could do worse for the price point, but know that you’re going to deal with some less than optimal design and an unambitious take on a period so primed for interesting stories.