Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Napoleonic Renaissance -- part I

Lack of postings for several weeks doesn't mean that wargaming activities have ground to halt -- quite the contrary! Juggling night feedings, diaper changes, a real life job and an equally real multitude of miniatures projects has been rewarding and challenging at the same time, and it resulted in blogging taking a back seat as more urgent tasks took precedence... but it is now time for an update!

Let's start by spending a word or two about the Napoleonic Renaissance that appears to be gaining some momentum, these days. True, the period has never really gone out of fashion: but for a few years I somewhat sensed it was stagnant, as far as generating new enthusiasm and energy in the hobby. Then, in a matter of months, if not weeks, we have been overwhelmed by several, very catchy products. Four new major rules have been released, and one fifth has been reissued in a new, expanded edition. I am talking about Foundry's Napoleon, Black Powder, Republic to Empire, Sam Mustafa's Lasalle, and TooFatLardies' Le Feu Sacre III ed.. As Mae West put it, "too much of a good thing is just wonderful"!

All these rules, for the most part (LFS being the exception), seem to share the same trend toward glossy, beautifully produced and printed rules booklet. The topic has been discussed ad nauseam in wargaming forum, and I will spare you to add my totally negligible opinion on the issue. The problem for this wargamer is that quality comes with a price, and at the average cost of $45-$50 per book I had to rethink what would have been my default course of action -- that is, go out and buy them all!

How to choose among so many offerings? Well, I look at the reviews. In recent weeks I have noticed the emergence of "playtesting vigilantes" on TMP, people ready to go out and clobber those dedicated gamers willing to share ASAP their opinions on a game, before conducting several playtests of the rules. I cannot stand these "vigilantes": yes, some playing mechanisms might make more sense after one game or two, but a lot of information -- the information we need to make an informed purchasing decision -- can be share just by reading the rules. I am grateful, therefore, to the people who did take the time to offer a peek into game mechanics, and an opinion about the rules. When considering a purchase, I usually focus on a few feature I deem important: scale of the game, how big a table the game requires (I need to accommodate my games on a 6'x4' space), how big the units must be (in the case of Napoleonic, my units are 12 miniatures based on four rectangular stands of three miniatures each), the sequence of play (I don't like IGO-UGO), how long it will take to play (I need to clear up in six-seven hours maximum), how many miniatures it will take for an average battle (I am a solo player and I cannot reasonably field more than 150-200 miniatures per side.) So, rather that rehearsing for zillionth time the basic of those reviews, which I bet many of you have already read, I'd rather offer some of my thoughts during my shopping decision-making process, with no pretence to be correct in my judgment, nor to be fully fair to the products in question.

NAPOLEON'S. I read good reviews about the book as an excellent introduction to the period, but nothing about the rules themselves really caught my attention. I am already an experienced Napoleonic player, so, while I welcome a product that will ease access into the genre for new players, I didn't feel compelled to add these particular rules to my collection. Thus, I passed on this item.

BLACK POWDER. Online reviews were consistent in stressing that these rules are for big units on a big table. That was an automatic NO for me. Other comments stressed the quality of the text, entertaining and tongue-in-cheek, with a soft "old school" feel. This was attractive to me, but not at $45+. Fortunately, Amazon is offering them for a fraction of their retail price, very much a mistake due to some confusion in regard of the currency. I could not say no at that price, even if I have to wait for the first week of February for delivery.

REPUBLIC TO EMPIRE. This set appears to belong to the family of detailed and process-oriented rules that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s: by what I read, I would associate some of their mechanisms to the tradition of Empire, Legacy of Glory, Valmy to Waterloo... I own all of these sets, that were read a lot and played not that much. Honestly, I do not have much appetite to add another one to my collection. Pass.

LASALLE. These rules are authored by Sam Mustafa, of Grande Armee fame. Regardless of some minor disagreements I may have with those, I strongly believe that everything Sam writes is well worth attention, and the price of the publication. Thus, I ordered and already read this excellent book, and I am very satisfied with the choice. There are some very intriguing concepts in this piece. The sequence of play is IGO-UGO, but with a twist. The size of the game is right, and the rules almost perfectly fit my basing scheme (but they are flexible enough to accommodate for almost every major basing scheme out there.) Other features are unusual for a Napoleonic game. The author tried to work out a compromise for rules that would please the traditional Napoleonic grognard, while appealing at the same time to the tournament crowd. For full disclosure, I have to confess I am not a tournament player, and I am actually very opposed to the whole tournament scene and culture. That said, cuique suum; and I would acknowledge that Sam's compromise is indeed very witty. Nothing prevents you to play Lasalle as a purely "historical" game, and nothing prevents you to play it in competitive settings; yet, Lasalle avoids all the silliness of army lists and points that, to my eyes, mar tournament rules. Instead, Lasalle introduces basic armies, standardized but historically plausible, that in turn can be beef up with additional units (think of them as "assets" in the modern jargon) for the game that are both balanced yet make historical sense.

LE FEU SACRE. This is the outlier, as a game that refrains from the bells and whistles of a glossy publication and it is distributed in PDF for a very reasonable $12. The reason why I bought it is that i have greatly enjoyed some other rules and game from TooFatLardies: I Ain't Been Shot Mum, If The Lord Spares Us, Troops Weapons & Tactics,Rock the Casbah, B'Maso. Thus far, I only had the opportunity for a quick read, and I noticed that LFS seems to be a more rigorous and detailed game than many of its TFL more free-wheeling predecessors. Nonetheless, some of the ideas are interesting, and there will soon be the opportunity to play test it.

TO SUM UP Here I am, sitting on my couch surrounded by two new Napoleonic games, Lasalle and Le Feu Sacre, and with a third on its way, Black Powder; on the shelf in front of me, some other classics from my collection: my favorite ever, Piquet - Les Grognards; two strong runner-ups, Grande Armee and Napoleon's Battles (the AH miniature game, a classic in itself)... you would wonder, something must be brewing into my napoleonic plans and projects... and this is indeed the case! For which, though, you will have to wait for the next post (I promise, it will come soon!)


jmilesr said...

Nice to see you back - I too have been a bit overwhelmed by all the new Napoleonic rules and try to avoid TMP as the discourse there reminds me of the worse parts of middle school. But I'd rather have more choice than less!

I've settled on Black Powder (which I have) and LaSalle (which has been ordered). I'm adopting Black Powder to use 6mm ACW figs so my son and I can battle over the Christmas Break - I'll let you know how it goes.

Enjoy your first Christmas with the baby - as the child ages it only gets better (even when they're 14!)

Merry Christmas

Snickering Corpses said...

I can't vouch for any of the Nappy rulesets, but is your LFS version the new 3.0 edition that just came out a few weeks ago?

I've heard there's some significant changes to take into account feedback from players.

DestoFante said...

@SC -- yes, I ordered LFS after the release of the 3rd edition. Thus, I cannot really comment on changes from the past, but for one instance. Earlier editions only covered 1808-1815; it happens that 1800 and 1806 are among my campaigns of interested, so I didn't bother about LFS until the new, expanded revision.