Napoleon: Total War

By Scott Parrino 24 Feb 2010 1

Author:  COL Bill Gray


OK, most folks know THIS is my era of history. If there is an Osprey book on any of the armies that fought in the Napoleonic Wars, I have it. And for me light reading after a hard day?s work is to once again review General of Artillery Alexandre de Senarmont?s after action report from the 1807 battle of Friedland.

In French.

In his own handwriting. Really, not kidding, because this stuff is why I don?t have a life, nor want one.

So hopefully it will come as no surprise I was initially disappointed with the opening animation for Napoleon: Total War. Here we see Napoleon Bonaparte, looking far more like Adolf Hitler without his Charlie Chaplin mustache, howling death and destruction polemics as regards his history of conquest. Having read most of Napoleon?s correspondence, and freely admitting the man had an ego matched only by his enormous ambition, the Napoleon I?ve read about didn?t sound like the genocidal thug on the screen.

Then the heavens opened up and the radiant sun drove away my rain. The scene turned to a coastline where HMS Victory lay on its side, looking all the more like a beached whale, with French infantry cheering all around. Napoleon orders the beast burned and in the light of the flames you realize la Grande Armee has landed on the coast of Britain, a stone marker indicating London just 54 miles hence. This game, I thought, has enormous promise.

The Campaign Game

If you have played Empire: Total War  picking up on the campaign system should be a snap. The campaign screen map covers all of Europe east to the Urals, and south to include North Africa and Palestine. Once again the map is beautifully topographic in design, with visuals that change to match the season, such as summer vs winter. Towns, cities, fortresses and ships are all indicated by 3D models, while the movement of spies, generals (with their armies in tow) is indicated by small toy figures in appropriate military attire marching around the countryside. I?ve always thought this last part looked a bit juvenile, particularly when matched to the drop dead gorgeous map, but it does seem to work. Generals and capitals of countries are further identified by the monarch?s civil  - vice military ? flag for each of the countries in play. Not only are the heavyweights such as France or Russia represented, but smaller countries such as Denmark and Saxony.

Clicking on a general, city, or whatever, populates a small oblong, tabbed window at the bottom of the screen, just to the right of the continental ?radar? map. Depending on the selection made, the tabs will information such as buildings available for construction, recruiting capacity or the current strength of military forces within the town or general chosen. The maps also automatically highlights an area of influence and/or movement for the item selected, while marching a general to the ?sound of the guns? is as simple as holding the right mouse button down while dragging the commander towards his destination. A blue arrow marks the route of advance for as far as one can go in a turn, after which the arrow becomes red. Movement is continued next turn.

Click for full imageClick for full image

The campaign map with diplomacy screen.

To the right of the window is a series of icons representing various aspects of running a country, such as government, diplomacy, game objectives and so on. Clicking on any of these will bring up another tabbed window which will allow the player to perform several functions as regards the upkeep of his country and its path to conquest and glory. For example, a player could raise or lower regional taxes for either the nobility or general population, or check the alliance status of a possible invasion target, perhaps extending state gifts or the generous role as protector to a neighbor. As in Empire: Total War, certain items, such as city management, can be left up to an appropriate minister, normally the Right Honorable PC Arthur Intelligence (Esquire).

All of this to include researching new technologies, raising and maintaining troops, new construction and the like, has a cost and a handy box at the lower right of the screen helps the player keep track of what?s in, or not in, the treasury, and also contains a turn record clock. The primary object, after all, is to continuously upgrade and enrich your country so that you can field the meanest army in Europe and complete your objectives to expand your kingdom or empire. A secondary goal, and perhaps one a lot more fun, is to generate battles for the game?s tactical system.

For Empire: Total War fans, all this likely sounds familiar, but there are some very different nuances that do come in the play. First, because this game covers a much shorter period of history than did Empire: Total War, all turns are two weeks long, named early May 1805, late May 1805, for a total of 24 turns per year. Second, as regards which campaigns are represented the player has a choice. If he wants to oppose Napoleon he can choose a Coalition Campaign and play as one of the big four - Austria, Britain, Prussia, or Russia. However, with this option there is only one start date, and that is 1805, with all victory conditions due for completion in 1813. If the player chooses to play as Napoleon, then there are a lot of campaigns to choose from, but they must be completed in sequence. In other words, the player must complete the initial 1797 campaign in Italy before he goes to the next one. You cannot select the 1815 Waterloo campaign, although it is short and very interesting, because the computer has locked out the choice until all the other campaigns are finished. I?m not sure how players will react to this restriction, but it was a negative to me.

For my playtest I chose to be Prussia in the Coalition Campaign, using the historical objectives option vice the one for world domination. From this point on I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised. My objectives seemed very historical and required me to control 20 territories out of a specified list, The territories include the home provinces of Prussia as well as a plethora of small, adjacent German states such as Mecklenburg and Saxony, all of which would eventually join with Prussia to form the greater German Reich.

Also interestingly enough, my initial pop-up window advisor was female and promoted a strategy of preparing for war but avoid choosing sides until after it became clear who was going to emerge victorious in Europe, Napoleon or his opponents in the Fourth Coalition. The significance of this approach came from two directions. First was the fact that using a female character to convey advice marries up nicely with the fact that Queen Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King Frederick William II, was well known to be the power behind the Prussian throne, described as ?the only man in Prussia? by Napoleon. Interestingly, later advice urged a more aggressive stance, quite in line with Louise?s status as unofficial head of the Prussian war party historically.

Click for full imageClick for full image

Technology Tree and Government, with Queen Louise

available for advice.

Secondly, the advice mirrored what Prussia actually did. It was only late in 1805 did the King send Foreign Minister Christian Graf von Haugwitz to Napoleon on the battlefield at Austerlitz with an ultimatum that would have meant immediate war. The timing was not coincidental. With the French deep in Bohemia it looked certain that the Austro-Russian armies would prevail, thus making Prussian intervention a certain success. As it happened, Haugwitz . . . ?reassessed? . . . the letter and its message after Napoleon?s victory, meaning Prussia would not declare war for several more months.

For my playtest I began in early January 1805 and got thru late September, a total of 18 turns. Most of this time was spent using funds to build up both my infrastructure and military, while carefully negotiating trade and military alliances with the great powers. Eventually this meant joining the anti-French coalition of Britain, Austria, and Russia a bit earlier than happened historically, but with both Czar and Kaiser sitting on my doorstep geographically, I felt t I could only hold out for so long. This was exacerbated by the fact that a large Russian army entered Austria and eventually took up position near Vienna. Here again was another historical parallel as the army arrived and marched precisely along the same schedule as that of General Mikhail Golineschev-Kutusov when he let the warriors of Holy Russia forward in 1805 to support his Austrian allies.

Otherwise it was fascinating to watch events unfold around me, and how historically the computer AI seemed to be acting. The Kingdom of Northern Italy was formed and declared itself as allies of France, as did the Dutch Batavian Republic, while the Swiss Confederation was invaded and annexed by France. The Ottoman Empire declared war on Austria and this sparked a massive shift of resources south, not from Austria, but from Russia. Meanwhile, ship after ship from the French Mediterranean Fleet moved out to sea then north towards the English Channel. Conversely, ship after ship from the Royal Danish Navy moved out of the Baltic and into the English Channel. On occasion a French ship would slip up the Thames River where the Royal Navy was anchored, never to be heard from again.

Austria actually proved to be my main concern. Given I had to conquer several of the smaller German states to win the game, I always checked to see who was allied to who before launching an invasion. I had my eyes on Saxony, but as I began to mass on the Saxon border, I noticed a dramatic shift of Austrian troops towards the same area via the city of Olmutz. A quick check confirmed a new alliance between Saxony and Austria, and not wanting to tick off Vienna just quite yet, I turned my attention west. Austria politely got the message and returned her army to the Bavarian border where a major battle was fought with the French. Oddly, while I did see the animation, there was no news headline presented anywhere of a great battle being fought, something that would have been hot on the presses in reality. Thus, I was not unable to find out who actually won the engagement.

At this point let?s talk about spies and Mecklenburg, the former first. Once again I came away from this game with the opinion that the lowly, despised spy is without a doubt the most important unit of the game. It isn?t a matter of sabotage or assassination, but a matter of getting decent information for campaign planning. You can?t have enough of it and you can?t have enough spies to collect it, especially as this game is historically inspired, not necessarily historical. I forgot about this fact, so guess what happened?

Stupid, stupid, stupid (beats head on concrete wall). In the same way as happened in Empire: Total War, I?ll be dipped if I didn?t get my head handed to me in this campaign system. I figured it?s September and I need to grab some territory to add a few more shekels to the treasury before winter attrition sets in. Taking a look, the only country Mecklenburg is allied to is Denmark with a trade agreement. So what if the two spies I sent to the place were either discovered or shot (I really want to hire their Chief of Secret Police)? It?s on my list of objectives, isn?t allied to anyone important and it?s Mecklenburg for Pete?s sake. Historically they provided only a 1900 man infantry regiment, one grenadier battalion and one guard cavalry regiment to Napoleon. I mean c?mon, how hard can this be?

Click for full imageClick for full image

Prussian Coalition Campaign screen alongside the Battles of Napoleon.

When you fight a campaign battle you get a choice of letting the computer AI resolve the fight, going into the game?s tactical system or having a ?drop-in? battle where you can fight the engagement with an online opponent via the Internet. I chose option two and figured this was gonna be quick and easy, until the game popped up with a little box informing me that three other Mecklenburg forces were in the vicinity and available to my adversary as reinforcements. With this slightly unanticipated twist I proudly marched into battle and easily handled my AI opponent for about the first 10 minutes. Then all the Mecklenburgers on the planet, and quite a few from elsewhere, roared into my left flank and collapsed my entire battleline, sending me packing back to Berlin to lick my wounds, rebuild my army, but only after I have my intelligence staff shot.

I ended the game here for now, but I was impressed, even if doughty Mecklenburg was a lot meaner than it should have been. The campaign game worked very smoothly, was easy to learn, has just the right balance of complexity and playability and it?s obvious someone read a history book or two. The latter has always been of utmost importance to me and I have to say that Prussian objectives were sound, obtainable and the rest of the continent acted in a manner I thought realistic and appropriate. The idea of grand tactical reinforcements arriving to turn the tide of battle also seemed well in character for the era. Kudos and well done for the campaign portion of the game (as I discretely prepare a bribe for the Mecklenburg Chief of Secret Police).

The Tactical Game

Fighting a tactical battle, whether on land or sea, can be accomplished three ways, the first being thru the campaign portion of the game. Like Empire: Total War you can also fight a generic, ?pick up? battle by choosing the type of terrain, the opponents, and amount of funds to procure units and so on. Here I was very happy to see some of the minor powers, such as Denmark, represented. You can also fight one of Napoleon?s historical battles such as Austerlitz (1805) or Dresden (1813), but with similar restrictions as with the campaign system. You have to fight the battles in chronological order, such that you can only choose Rivoli (1797) to begin, with battles like Borodino (1812) being locked out. Win Rivoli, you presumably progress to the next engagement.

Regardless of how you get to fight, all armies seem to be based on the 1813 Befreiungskrieg (War of Liberation) campaign. This means that in the early years of the campaign game, some countries will be able to raise units that did not and could not exist. Prussia, for example, gets to deploy Landwehr (provincial militia), which wasn?t created until 1813 as a final act of desperation to raise manpower. Like most monarchs, Frederick William was mortified about arming the population outside a well regulated army lest armed rebellion rear its ugly head.

Click for full imageClick for full image

Spectacular graphics, whether on sea or land.

Similarly all armies seem to be generic copies of each other, which admittedly does make for an even sided match. Each country has its own line, elites, light troops, skirmishers and so on.  This really hurts the French. Few military revolutions from this era occurred at the tactical level, but one that did was the use of skirmishers. All nations had specialized light infantry, but only for unique missions such as covering army deployment or securing rugged terrain inappropriate for line troops. The French concept of a widely dispersed swarm of snipers screening advancing foot while wrecking enemy cohesion via officer target practice simply didn?t fly. Doing so meant trusting the soldier outside the reach of the officer?s cane, totally insanity to most generals. Some nations such as Prussia, learned and modified doctrine, but the Russians and Austrians never got the hang of it. As Austrian Chief of Staff Johann Graf Radetzky in 1813 ordered, ?skirmishing should only be done in a very restricted fashion because neither we nor the Russians understand this type of fighting.?

Of even greater importance was the fact that French made skirmishing a common, required task for all infantry, not just specialized light formations. Yet in the game the French have no better, nor greater numbers of such troops than anyone else, as only their Voltigeurs and Chasseurs may skirmish.

Game controls for tactical battle are similar to Empire: Total War and are easy to learn and manipulate. Right clicking on a unit highlights it and then holding the mouse button and dragging it will not only change the brigade?s facing, but its formation as well. Right clicking the unit then clicking on a distant spot of real estate will cause the unit to march towards that location, using foreign voice commands that sounded pretty damn realistic (PS, Ich spreche Deutsch). Right clicking then selecting any of several buttons inside a nicely designed display at screen bottom allows you to order Fire at Will, unlimber cannon and more.

Typically the graphics and animation are absolutely superb, flow seamlessly and are a joy to simply sit back and watch whether you?re fighting Russia?s Pavlov Grenadiers or pounding HMS Victory into submission. The detail and visual impact is actually approaching the color photograph level of quality, while watching troops maneuver is like looking at a well-rehearsed reenactment. Soldiers march or stand their ground, not like robots in precision drill, but like real people who may not all carry their muskets at right should shift or march in step across a plowed field. It was truly a pleasure.

The games Artificial Intelligence, or AI, not so much. There have been improvements, as now cavalry charges in tight formation as opposed to Steven Spielberg ?Hell for leather? style. Likewise infantry now resorts to fire more often to break its foe, though there are still likely more open field bayonet fights in one Napoleon: Total War battle than happened in all of the Napoleonic era historically.

Nevertheless, other problems noticed in Empire: Total War, have still not been addressed. One of these includes the need to eliminate or rout every unit on the board to win. Seriously, even after the shellacking the Russian army took at Friedland, General of Cavalry Levin Bennigsen was still able to withdraw with half his army intact. Similarly artillery can still fire indirectly over hills and woods as if they had forward observers with a GPS link, while formations continuously pass through each other with no discernable penalty. It?s all good fun and makes for exciting play, but remains Hollywood history, not reality

Click for full imageClick for full image

Austrian Kurassieren und Hussaren, notice the trumpeter with

red helmet crest and no armor.

The biggest problem I had with the AI, however, is that the damn thing seems just a bit loopy, at least in the randomly generated, non-campaign battles. I could write a dissertation on this but one example from my first battle will easily put it all in perspective. I deployed a Prussian force to face a Danish army over rolling countryside. Given Berlin has always coveted Schleswig-Holstein, this kind of fight seemed very plausible. As I waited the Danish advance, the squirreliest thing I have ever seen happen in a wargame unfolded before my very eyes, all thanks to the Danish commanding general. Stout of heart if thick of head, this lunatic proceeded to advance in front of his marching army, completely outside infantry, cavalry or artillery support,  and then . . .

OK, wait for it.

Seriously, I am not making this up.

. . . the Danish army commander, with his small group of adjutants, aides de camp, brigadiers and butlers in tow, drew sabers and charged one of my infantry formations supported by a six pounder horse battery. My eyes morphed a ?deer in the headlamps? glaze while my lower jaw thunked on top of my keyboard as I uttered, ?You gotta be kidding me!? One Prussian musketeer and cannon volley later and the Danish commander was on his way back to Copenhagen in a pine box. The Danes did put up a respectable fight afterwards, but it was pretty much all over after that.

Now I am all for unpredictability in a computer AI, but . . . well, at least the uniforms were dead on, so let?s talk battle dress for a few.

Uniforms ? You Knew I Wouldn?t Forget, Right?

OK, I am sure my colleagues on the staff thought they would never see this in print, but Napoleon: Total War actually did a very fine, albeit not perfect, job on the appearance of the armies for this game. The military forces pretty much look like they did in real life, even for the minor powers such as Denmark. Two things changed to make this happen. First, the designers did not use a single generic soldier model for all armies, tinting the uniform color a different shade according to country. Instead if the appearance of a Russian Lifeguard Grenadier was different from the Swedish variety, then two distinct figures were designed to represent them.

Click for full imageClick for full image

Austrian Grenzen, Grenadieren und Artillerie.

All Hungarian troops wore light blue paints

Click for full image

The second change is that the game does not tint all formations of a country?s army a similar shade, eg, some shade of blue for the French, red for Britain and white for Austria. The accompanying images support this point. Austrian Hungarian infantry and grenadiers have their traditional mid-blue pants and white tunics, as do the heavy Kurassieren. Yet the Grenz (light infantry border troops) Infanterie wear dark brown tunics, while light brown and bicornes adorn the Kaiser?s artillerymen. Hussars wear dark green and red, obviously representing Hussar Regiment No 5 Ott. Detail is superb and accurate especially for officers, musicians or specialty units such as the Russian Lifeguard with their red lapels, eagle shako badge (a kiwir shako no less) and litzen (gold lace). I have to say it?s pretty impressive, and the game even got artillery carriage colors right ? muddy yellow for Austria, light olive for France and so on.

There are a few quibbles to be sure. Saddle furniture is generically designed and colored across all nations. Thus all heavy cavalry boasts a red, square cornered shabraque (saddle blanket) while all hussars have a pointed model with van Dyke edging. In France however, the color for heavy cuirassiers was dark blue with white edging while French hussars and chasseurs a cheval actually used a sheepskin saddle covering, no blanket except for officers. Likewise British guns boast the double trail configuration vice the single trail design that became so familiar in the American Civil War. And finally the flags are once again the state civil flag, not the flags actually carried by the army. In fact the Russian version looks like a personal flag flown by Nicholas II during World War I. At least you can now choose to turn the bobbing overhead flags completely off, leaving only that carried by the formation?s ensign. For me that change alone was worth the price of admission, although given the care otherwise, it is curious that the designers didn?t take that one extra step towards perfection.

Click for full imageClick for full image

Russian Lifeguard with state flag, right the real thing,

to include the two 1813 issues.

And yet, there are some spiffy, unexpected details that pop up here and there to compensate. For example, light infantry units use buglers, not drummers and none carry flags. This little bit of extra historical chrome reflects the fact that many nations did not issue flags to light troops, and some, such as with British and French light cavalry, ordered regimental colors returned to depot. The thought was that given the dispersed nature of light fighting, a regiment?s flag might be too exposed to capture.

Nice touch. One only wonders why it took Sega and Creative Assembly this long to get it right.


Overall I?d give the game a solid B. There have been significant improvements to historical realism for both the campaign game not to mention the visual appearance of the armies that fought within the legions of Imperial France, as well as against them. Only the tactical AI remains a bit of a mess in my book, but if you can remember the game is historically inspired (from a more Hollywood perspective) and not historical, you can easily suspend reality for a while and enjoy a very exciting and visually stunning game.

It has my recommendation for an honored spot on your wargaming software shelf.

Reviewer?s Rig. Medion (as in the German brand you can get thru the Aldi grocery chain) MD8825, AMD 64 bit Dual Core 2.6 GH, 4 GB RAM, ATI Radion HD4550 512MB, 320 GB HD, 500 GB Firewire HD, Direct X 9.0c, Windows 7.

Technical Note:  Napoleon: Total War requires Steam to play.  

References. I checked the Austrians against my copy of Rudolf von Ottenfeld?s Die Osterreich Armee 1700 ? 1867, published in Vienna in 1895, so far too many than any sane man should. Nevertheless, here are a few that might be of interest.  Where possible we have provided links where copies may be purchased.  For the others, we wish you good luck finding them.

Chandler, David G., The Campaigns of Napoleon, the Mind and Method of History?s Greatest Soldier. New York, 1966.

Griffith, Paddy, The Art of Warfare in Revolutionary France 1789 ? 1802. London, 1998.




Log in to join the discussion.

Related Posts from Wargamer