War and Peace: 1796 - 1815

By Scott Parrino 02 Apr 2003 0

Napoleon Lite

If you're the kind of wargamer who disdains products that come down harder on the side of "fun" than on ultra-detailed, accurate-down-to-the-jacket-buttons simulations of real historical campaigns, you might be tempted to pass by this French-Canadian epic with a Gallic sniff of disdain. That is, of course, your privilege, but if you can just relax and enjoy War and Peace for what it IS, instead of scorning it for what it isn't, you might get sucked into its eccentric, richly textured vision of what the Napoleonic world might have been. It is one of the better "theme-and-variations" games to come along in quite a while. "Charming" is not an adjective often found in game reviewers' vocabularies, but in this case it's appropriate and I do not use it disparagingly.

The designers are unabashed about their intent, spelling out their philosophy on the manual's inside front cover: "Our aim was not to painstakingly recreate specific battles. Instead, we asked ourselves questions like: What would have been France's destiny if it had not attacked Russia in 1812? What would have happened if England had contented itself with developing its huge colonial empire instead of getting mixed up in European affairs? What if France's ally, the Ottoman Empire, had declared war on its old enemy, Austria, in 1805?

Plausible "alternative histories", one must agree. Moreover, the dynamics of game-play, Microids further tells us, were inspired by the classic traditional conventions and tropes of board games and tabletop miniatures, rather than by any school of computer-age design philosophy. At first glance, this honest and no-doubt sincere credo sets you up to expect something like computerized Risk, but War and Peace is far from simplistic and it makes excellent use of computing power to generate a design of considerable sophistication, depth and tapestried onion-skin layers of detail. The 3-D graphics sometimes get in your way, but they are very pretty and more often than not they add gobs of atmosphere.

Great-Big-Mountains, Itty-Bitty-Soldiers - the scale of things takes some getting used to.

The World Map and accompanying Diplomacy Chart make it easy to keep track of who's fighting whom and who's expanding too fast for comfort. Too bad there's not a top-down tactical map - the game needs one badly.

No, War and Peace doesn't include detailed and ultra-accurate simulations of Borodino, Waterloo, and Austerlitz (and if that's what you want, God knows there are plenty of hardcore sims to choose from). But here there are equally plausible and highly entertaining battles equally pivotal in the context of the game's Alternate History timelines. The supporting elements of city-building, technological development and diplomatic horse-trading incorporate no great originality, but they do work, in context, as they're supposed to, for they enable the player to engineer some quixotic, even bizarre, alliances as well as crank out some really cool military units.

There is an impressive wealth of detail on display: lots of appealing little touches that might really be trivial in isolation, but which have the aggregate effect of presenting the games' events with a close-to-baroque use of decorative ornamentation. At first glance, the interface seems extremely fussy, but after a few hours of fumbling around, I began to appreciate how well-balanced and logical everything is. An on-screen tutorial helps you with basic orientation, and the manual is literate and well organized, although it leaves out a few minor items and at least one major feature. It would have been a lot more helpful if Microids had sprung for the cost of a larger page-count, in order to use a typeface that can be read without the aid of a magnifying glass, and had not made the bottom-third of every page close-to-illegible by printing it over dense historical engravings. Even so, I would rate it as one of the better hard-copy manuals I've seen in quite a while.

The manual doesn't tell you, but those "reef" are actually river fords - very useful for strategic maneuvering.

Navies are expensive, but they do provide a valuable amphibious capability.

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