The Emperor Returns - Napoleon at Leipzig Review

By COL Bill Gray 23 Mar 2013 0

In 1976 game designer Kevin Zucker created a revolution of sorts. Under the SPI (Simulations Publications Inc) label he created a simple Napoleonic quadra-game called Napoleon?s Last Battles. Simple, easy to learn and fast, the game had four maps and four sets of brigade counters that allowed the player to recreate the four great battles of Napoleon?s 1815 campaign ? Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre and la Belle Alliance (aka, Waterloo). And as a bonus, all four maps could be combined into one for a mammoth campaign game, where players would start at the beginning, deciding where and when battles would be fought. Perhaps Wellington and Ney would again clash at Quatre Bras, but then again, perhaps not. It was a game that begat a legend for one simple reason. It worked.

Fast forward to 1979, and a new improved version of the system appears under the OSG (Operational Studies Group) name, this time covering the multi-day battle of Leipzig in 1813. Napoleon at Leipzig introduced a few new concepts such as wing command, cavalry charges and so on, but the clean and elegant pedigree of its predecessor never left, and once again, the game just worked. In fact it worked so well that in that year the game was given the Charles Roberts Award for Best Pre-20th Century Boardgame. And the game simply would not die. When print runs were exhausted, Clash of Arms Games picked up the product and published it through three additional editions, adding new artwork and revised maps.

Now, 20,000 (that?s right, folks, as in twenty thousand) copies later, a fifth edition is hitting the streets, once again home with OSG, and just in time for the 200th anniversary of the behemoth clash known as the ?Battle of Nations.? But this is more than just another reprint of a classic game. Fully integrated into Zucker?s Complete Library of Napoleonic Battles, the new Napoleon at Leipzig has a bold new look and plays so much differently than the 1979 original, that one might be tempted to forget its ancestry.

Clearly, the Emperor has returned.



Napoleon at Leipzig is not an inexpensive game, weighing in at $99 US retail. This, however, is pretty much in line with other comparable counter games and a look inside reveals that there were a lot of trees killed in producing this product. The game is housed in a bookshelf type box, with a chocolate brown cover sporting both the title and an appropriate Napoleonic painting from the campaign in question.

The material inside includes three hex maps. Two of the maps are 22 by 34 inches and cover the northern and southern areas of the battle. A third 17 by 22 inch map covers the Battle of Hanau which occurred when an Austro-Bavarian force tried to block Napoleon?s retreat into France after his defeat at Leipzig (it didn?t work). Hanau is a bonus scenario that was not included in any previous edition.

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Hexes on the maps represent 480 meters from side to side, but otherwise there are two distinct differences from the maps included with previous versions. The first is that both maps cover an increased playing area, allowing for more maneuvering space, not a bad thing given the enormity of the forces engaged here. This was done by adding 11 rows of hexes to the top of the north and bottom of the south maps. The other difference is the color scheme, which is quite attractive, almost giving an antique feel to the paper. For those who remember the original, this comes damn near close to culture shock. The original was garishly colored bright hunter and light green, with forests in an ochre yellow to aid play during a blackout. Logic says it was hideous, but people loved it and I have to say I kinda miss the palate myself. It was unique.

The counters come in two sheets, for 560 total, and represents cavalry or infantry brigades (strength points equal 400-800 troops), ?battalions? of artillery, leaders and other informational concerns. The original 1979 counters were pretty standard in one solid color, a large corps designation in the background, and both overlaid with black numbers and NATO military symbols. In their editions, Clash of Arms introduced pretty much the same counter sheets, but based on the artwork of their popular la Bataille series. I was never too fond of this style, so I am quite happy that the new counters have returned to the NATO symbology. The counter colors generally correspond to the uniform or flag colors of the combatants, with the interior of the NATO symbol as well as a bar running along the top is colored to designate nationality and corps assignment. Leader counters now have a tiny portrait of the great man himself, while new counters not seen in the past include things like Vedettes (cavalry outposts).

There are three small rule-related booklets, one being the actual rules of play with 22 pages, another a study folder which gives scenario instructions plus historical commentary and a final four page folder covering how to use the 100 random event cards (which, by the way, make this game well worth any price of admission). Unfortunately the study folder of old, which included a complete regimental order of battle and the public domain narrative of the slugfest by renowned British author F. Lorraine Petre, did not make the cut this time around.

Rounding up all the material are 20 pages of charts, reinforcement schedules and player aids, 10 for each side, as well as a random event card deck of 100 cards. The Coalition uses 50 of these, the French the balance. As with most of these type games nowadays, plastic baggies for counter storage and dice are not included.


Game Play

The game includes four ? actually five ? distinct scenarios, to include the pre-battle cavalry engagement of Liebertwolkwitz (try saying that five time without stopping), both days of the battle for Leipzig proper, and then the attempt by a combined Austro-Bavarian corps under Karl Philipp von Wrede (who obviously forgot the lessons of Friedland) to stop Napoleon?s retreat at Hanau. Given the way the battle unfolded, the first day?s engagement can actually be played as two distinct scenarios centering around the towns of Mockern on the north map, and Wachau on the south. Each turn represents an hour during the day, but substantially more at night. Final victory is determined by the accumulation of Victory Points which are awarded for things like eliminated enemy units or captured hexes.

Like most counter-based board games, this production is divided into several phases. They are the Start Phase, where weather is determined and optionally cards are played, the Command Phase, the Movement Phase and the Combat Phase. Unless you are playing with the card deck, by far the most innovative of the several segments is the Command Phase.

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During the Command Phase the active player may attempt to recover units or bring back eliminated formations at a reduced strength. The important part of this phase, however, is determining what friendly units will be ?In Command? this turn. Each Commander (as in Napoleon or Blucher) has a command radius of four hexes and also a certain number of Command Points he may expend each turn. Napoleon, for example, has three Command Points. For each Command Point he may place in command one subordinate Officer AND one combat unit, so long as they are within four hexes. If an Officer (think Marshal Marmont or Count Pajol) is in command, so too are all his units so long as they are within HIS command radius of 3 hexes.

So what happens if the Officer is not within range? The Officer sports an Initiative Rating, and if he can make a die roll less than or equal to this rating, he?s golden. What if the combat formation is not within range of its Officer, then what? The brigade in question also has an Initiative Rating and goes thru the same drill, albeit in the next, Movement Phase. As an example, Marshal Oudinot?s rating is 4 while that of Marulaz? light cavalry brigade is 3. Out of Command units have their movement degraded and may not advance after combat.

The Movement Phase is pretty simple, simply allowing units of the active player to move them to the limits of their movement allowances or until they enter an enemy Zone of Control. In Command units move first, and as noted above, Out of Command units roll the die to see if they can meet their Initiative Rating and move normally, or are penalized. In a special segment called ?Repulse,? and similar to what other games refer to as ?Overrun,? friendlies may attempt to brush an enemy counter out of the way without stopping their movement.

The Combat Phase is next and subdivided into six segments. The first is called the Line of Sight segment, and refers to the fact that all units are covered and their identities hidden from the opposing player unless they wound up within three unobstructed hexes of an enemy unit at the end of movement. At this point both sides simultaneously reveal who is what. Several other segments follow to include allowing light cavalry to retreat before combat, allowing artillery to bombard at a range of up to three hexes, allowing cavalry to charge (which is different than normal combat), executing normal combat, and finally once again hiding the identities of units no longer within Line of Sight of the enemy. Combat is typical with Strength Points of attacker and defender compared, modified for terrain and so on up or down to determine a final ratio, with the die assessing victory or defeat. Results include the defender or attacker eliminated, retreating one or two hexes or the dreaded Exchange. There is also a special result called ?Shock? which requires an additional die roll on another table. If enough Strength Points are lost out of a particular major formation (like a corps), all the brigades and Officers within it become demoralized. When this happens Initiative Ratings are reduced by one, units may not advance after combat, cavalry may not charge and defenders lose the benefits of holding chateaus. It?s obviously not a good thing.

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At this point, the other player gets his shot, and while many of the things noted above may be familiar to a lot of gamers, please realize that this article really only scratches the surface. There are many other innovative play functions that really liven up the game. Tracing supply to corps/army logistical trains, and breaking down light cavalry brigades into multiple Vedettes to recon those hidden counters are but two.

And besides, in the finest tradition of Vegas casinos everywhere, the best is yet to come.


Poker Anyone?

Yes, by far the most significant, and in my opinion best, change from the original is the inclusion of what can only be described as a random events card deck. This feature simulates what Clausewitz called ?friction,? what others call ?fog of war? or even ?Murphy?s Law,? but regardless, it?s what really makes this game kick. The deck is 100 cards strong, 50 each for the French and Coalition players, full color glossy and printed on heavy stock. The cards are actually tailored to each scenario, so in some cases the rules may specify that a player remove one or more cards from his deck.

The way it works is like this. After shuffling the deck, during each daytime turn the player draws a single card from the top of his deck during the Card Segment of the turn. The player may play a card or keep it in his hand, but from the third day turn forward, one card must be played each turn. The instructions on the card will be executed the next complete turn, but in doing so, will normally reduce or increase the owning player?s Victory Point total by one or more points. Also, the card will set the movement allowance for units that turn if played. Thus if 2/3 is printed at the top of the card, this means infantry and artillery have two Movement Points, cavalry and horse artillery three, light cav getting one extra. Leaders and Vedettes always move normally.

Otherwise there are four types of cards that may pop up for play. These are Mode Cards (concerning such things as Replacements and the like), Arrival Cards (which vary the arrival of reinforcements), Tactics Cards (allowing such things as Countercharges or Turning Movements) and Game Cards (which may alter the rules in some way, such as allowing you a peek at your opponent?s hand). To me the most ingenious part of this system is that it tends towards impacting the player who plays the card in a positive way, thereby wigging out your adversary?s decision making cycle when he has to deal with what just happened. Thus the card system not only introduces a bit of extra unpredictability into the game, but does so in a way that good players will still be able to manage.

Certainly, this concept makes the contest somewhat less than a pure game of skill, but suck it up people, this is the way real war is. As Napoleon himself said when asked what makes the best general, ?Give me a general who is lucky.? Here the Emperor meant that the best generals were not those who meticulously planned, but those who could immediately exploit an unexpected opportunity, or mitigate an unforeseen disaster. And as someone who has ?Colonel, US Army (Retired)? as part of his signature block, I?ve seen exactly what Napoleon meant happen an awful, AWFUL lot in real life.

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It even happened for real at Leipzig, the very battle this game replicates. When General der Kavallerie Blucher attacked Marshal Auguste Marmont?s VI Corps near Mockern, he did so believing that the bulk of the French army lay to his northeast, not south around Leipzig where it really was. French deployment and unit withdrawals exposed the truth to Blucher who altered the direction of his attack directly south towards Leipzig.

And then . . .

Sashaying down the road from the northeast comes General de Division Antoine Delmas? French 9th Division, tardy to the festivities due to his guarding the III Corps logistical trains and artillery park. Blucher?s jaw hit the saddle and after a curse embellished, ?I knew it all long? hissy-fit, he pulled his Russian contingent from overrunning the badly outnumbered French and shifted them north to meet the threat. It allowed Marmont to hold the line against terrible odds until nightfall and give Napoleon his chance to defeat the Allies in detail.

Given how much players know about this battle already and what they see on the tabletop, something like this is unlikely to happen during a game. The random events cards fix this shortcoming and I LIKE IT!



Get the game.

If you don?t have any of this game series, there is no better time to start than now and Napoleon at Leipzig will be an excellent introduction. If you are collector of Kevin Zucker?s current efforts, with games like the Coming Storm or Last Success already on the shelf, you already know the quality of the system and Napoleon at Leipzig will be a worthy addition.

But what if you have the original game, or perhaps the Clash of Arms reprint? Again the answer is a resounding yes. The graphics are state of the art, the map is bigger for more maneuvers, the clash at Hanau is included as a bonus and the game system so radically updated as to nearly count as original. Honestly, given its price, I was wondering if I could say that I would have bought this game had I not reviewed it. Now I know I would have and I can?t wait until 2015 when an update of Napoleon?s Last Battles is promised. I have the original of that game too, yet am already making a place for the reprint on my shelf.

Sure I have a personal quibble or two, but the bottom line is I buy a lot of counter wargames, but rarely play them. Instead I use these games as research platforms for my miniatures wargaming hobby. Napoleon at Leipzig is one game I will actually play, and play again. As Napoleon advanced and perfected the military thought of his day, so has Keven Zucker done as well with a wargame design nearly 40 years old. Or as Russian Prince Pyotr Bagration said of the bold advance of the French 57th Ligne at Borodino, ?Bravo Messieurs, c?est superbe!?


Review written by: Colonel (Retired) Bill Gray 


About Bill Gray

Bill Gray is a retired US Army Military Intelligence colonel, with degrees in history and political science from Clemson University, graduate degrees from USC and the DIA Joint Intel College (he can do M's job). A long time historical wargamer with electrons, cardboard and pewter, his main emphasis remains historical miniatures wargaming. In that regard he has been both an officer and member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society for 20 years, having yet to miss an Historicon convention where you will often find him sponsoring games using his own commercially published rules. He also reads voraciously, and paints and paints and paints. Colonel Bill serves as the Institutional Research Director for Central Penn College, and lives near Harrisburg, PA with wife Paula and cat Hillary (he has also heard every Bill and Hillary joke around, so don't even try).

Forum username: ColBill 



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