Friday, 5 February 2010

Computer Wargaming


Napoleon 1813 was the first Napoleonic computer game I ever bought. In fact it was largely responsible for my buying my first computer in 1999. I had read about the game and it promised to be the ultimate wargame experience. Those of you who also owned this game will recall that it failed to live up to that promise.

It was a good game, and I spent many enjoyable hours playing it. But it was prone to “crashing”, usually in the middle of a battle. Eventually it became so frustrating that I just gave up.

My next attempt was Napoleon in Russia, one of the Battleground series. I never did master how this game worked. I read the instructions and spent hours trying to make sense of the game, but it was all in vain. I have never been a board wargamer, so I perhaps did not have the practical experience to help me understand the mechanics of the game.

Then came Waterloo Napoleons Last Battle by Breakaway Games. This was more like it. Good tutorial and easy to understand. The small games were easy to manage, but soon became boring. I never could manage the larger ones. No matter how many times I played the game, I could never seem to win. Using historical tactics never worked out well, and I always seemed to lose whatever I did. I found that the only way to counter the AI was to be in personal control all of the time. I was constantly moving units, changing formation, firing guns and trying to attack. OK with the smaller battles, but with the larger ones I always seemed to lose one area when I was trying to control another.

Next was Austerlitz Napoleons Greatest Victory, again by Breakaway Games. I had more success with this one, and I could win some of the medium sized games. But again the larger ones completely lost me. No matter how hard I tried I never could seem to keep control of the whole battlefield.

Both of these games seemed to rely on what I believe is called a “click fest”. You could not just deploy a formation and leave it to get on with it, you had to be constantly using the mouse to carry out movement and firing which should have been left to lower formation commanders. As Napoleon you were not directing corps attacks at Austerlitz or Waterloo, you had to be each battery, battalion of squadron commander.

Cossacks II Napoleonic Wars had great reviews. I bought it as soon as it was released, and was very disappointed. The tutorial was very good, and I thought I had mastered it. But I never seemed to be able to get beyond the first battle. And it took so long to get started I soon got bored and abandoned it.

My last attempt was Empires in Arms. The reviews boasted that this was the best Napoleonic board game ever, but now a computerized version. As soon as I bought it I realised that I had made a mistake. No tutorial at all, and a most complicated manual. I went on the forum to ask for advice, and it was obvious that I was not alone in having problems getting started.

So my experience of computer games has been disappointing at best. I have found them to be too either too complicated to understand, or rely too much on clicking the mouse. In either case they eventually proved too frustrating or too boring. None came close to recreating my idea of Napoleonic warfare.

For all of these games there are devoted followers, who will completely disagree with my comments. For example if you read the forum for Empire in Arms you will find that some posters will accept no criticism at all. Yet many others obviously find it impossible to understand. The critics are dismissed as not being prepared to put in enough work to understand the game. With a wargame using model soldiers you can “muddle your way through”. You may make mistakes, but it will not stop you playing the game. However with a computer game if you do not know which keys to hit next you grind to a complete halt. No amount of historical or tactical knowledge will help you if you don’t under stand the basic mechanics of the game.

The latest offering is Histwar Les Grognards. I first heard about this game about six or seven years ago, so it has been in development a very, very long time. It has always promised to be the nearest thing available to actually commanding a Napoleonic army yet available.
A couple of weeks ago the demo was made available. I have never used a demo before, but I downloaded it to see how I managed. I could not even get it to start! No doubt this is largely my fault, as others on the forum have done it and played the game. However many were not too impressed with the first demo.

A few days ago the final game was available for downloading by those who have pre ordered and pre paid. Apparently as many as 600! The reports so far have been mostly very favorable. But this is from devoted fans of the game, who were convinced that this was the best game ever even before the first demo was released.

So should I buy it and see? It’s very tempting, but so were all of the previous ones. And my last two experiences, Cossacks II and Empires in Arms, were a complete waste of money. Worst they were a complete waste of time. Worse still, they made me feel rather stupid because I could not master them. So perhaps computer wargames are just not for me.

I will continue to follow the progress of Histwar Les Grognards. Already it is becoming obvious that there are some problems with the game. Everyone is convinced that these will be solved by the developer – but they said that about the earlier games too.

I do wish Histwar all the very best. It would be wonderful to have a game which allowed you to use your knowledge of the period to command vast armies. Where the use of sound tactics led to victory – rather than a knowledge of how to “play the game”.

After more years than I care to admit to, my wargaming with model soldiers is approaching this ideal – or at least my understanding of the ideal. I doubt that any two wargamers would agree just how that should be achieved with traditional wargaming, so how much more difficult to achieve it with a computer game.

If the reports on Histwar continue to be favorable no doubt I will eventually give in and buy it. Meanwhile I will stick with my model soldiers and constantly upgrade and amend my wargame rules to try to achieve perfection.


  1. Nice article and it brings back the memories.

    I used to play Napoleonic boardgames as a kid but mostly I was just painting figures and I only went once to a wargaming club. It was all in the imagination.

    Napoleon's Last Battle and Austerlitz are both good, solid games. Nice graphics and with some real atmosphere. Yes, quite hard but most RTS games have quite a stupid AI so these games still play well now in my opinion. That is the main failing of the Total War franchise - a stupid tactical AI.

    We may have missed a few games as well. A lot of gamers liked the Battleground series. Napoleon in Italy is another hidden gem although it didn't work on my machine. Even Napoleon Total War is supposed to be quite good.

  2. A great place to find and play actual human opponents is:

    Napoleonic Wargame Club at

  3. Hi Anonymous

    I have tried to master the Napoleonic computer games available, but have never met one I really enjoyed.

    Its the failure to be able to use accepted tactics that always put me off the game.

    I seem to manage ok in the early stages, but as the game becomes more complicated I just seem to lose it.

    No doubt it is me - and not the game.

    As you quite rightly point out, games such as Battleground were very popular. But I wonder whether they were ever so popular with tabletop wargamers?



  4. Hi Aloysius

    Thanks very much for the link to Napoleonic Wargame Club. I looked at the site many years ago, but was put off by the fact that it was designed for playing computer games. Perhaps I should have joined when I was trying to master my own Napoleonic computer games. I always intended to expand into live opponents, but only after I mastered the basic game. And I never managed to do so.

    I tried to send you an email, but the email address failed. I have applied to join the forum, explaining what I do and asking if I could join in an attempt to recruit members. I have not yet had a reply.

    I notice that you are a moderator on the forum, and would like to be able to write to you direct for some advice. Perhaps you could send me an email to

  5. A new place for Napoleonic Wargaming.. I recommend giving it a try if you are into Napoleonic Historical and Strategic Wargames..

    Battle On...


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