Thursday, September 12, 2013

Napoleonics in the 1990s

What follows is an article I have recovered that I wrote in 1990 and was published in the Canberra Games Society's magazine, probably the one issued for Cancon 1991.  WORD wouldn't open the document, but WORDPAD would and all I had to do was reconstruct the tables.

I find it amusing as, anyone looking at my blog would know, I no longer do Napoleonics in 5mm.  However, when I wrote this, it was all the rage.

Napoleonics in the 1990s
A personal history and review of Napoleonic Wargaming
by Mark Haughey.

            Since the 1970s I have collected, and grown attached to, a few hundred carefully painted 20/25mm Napoleonic figures.  These are mainly AIRFIX with a few MINIFIGS and HINCHCLIFFE thrown in.  Many of the AIRFIX figures have been heavily converted and my total collection basically represents French and Anglo/Prussian forces of 1815.

            All this was initially inspired by the movie WATERLOO, a Dino De Laurentiis production, directed by Sergei Bonderchuk and shot (no pun intended) in Italy and the USSR.  It featured Rod Steiger as Napoleon, Christopher Plummer as Wellington and Orson Wells as Louis XVIII (a "small" part!).

            My first "re-enactments" were with playing cards which were soon replaced by pieces of cardboard inscribed with the exotic sounding names of "cuirassier" and "chasseur" (which I had great difficulty in spelling and pronouncing at that time).  I had some vague idea that the size of the cardboard represented the size of the unit and attempted to resolve conflicts accordingly.

            The first real rules that I tried were FIX BAYONETS by the South Australian Historical Wargaming Society (SAHWS).  While I acquired a later version of the society's Napoleonic rules called SABRE AND BALL by Mal Wright, a principal member of SAHWS, I never used them to fight any battles.

            FIX BAYONETS cost me $1.30 for 26 pages.  They used 60 figure battalions and a write order; move; combat sequence of play, with both sides moving simultaneously.

            I used cardboard bases to supplement my slowly blossoming AIRFIX Napoleonic figure collection, which, while relatively plentiful in terms of raw material, required time to paint and did not provide all the troop types required.

            I still continued with my cardboard after migrating to Bruce Quarrie's rules which appeared in the AIRFIX MAGAZINE GUIDE 4 - NAPOLEONIC WARGAMING, October 1974.  They cost me $3.90 for 64 pages and included some much needed historical information on organisation and tactics.  With 24 figure battalions they used a write order; move; combat sequence of play with both sides moving simultaneously.

            The most memorable things about the AIRFIX rules were the national characteristics and that cavalry melees could be extremely destructive (with both forces being eliminated in the 2.5 minutes of "simulated" action!).  They did allow me to effectively double the size of my army as previous battalions were now reformed to provide two.  This was an important factor for, as a "would-be-Napoleon", it allowed me to take on the role of a higher ranking general - a promotion.

            During this period I looked at TRICOLOR by Rick Crane/TSR produced in April 1974.  They cost $5US for 55 pages and used 36 figure battalions.  They provided useful organisational data and introduced to me the concept of movement trays or stands - a number of figures based together and moving as an indivisible unit, in this case basically a company.  They used a write order; move; fire; melee sequence of play with both sides moving alternately.  However, as their use would have meant a demotion in "field rank", I did not adopt them.

            With the 1980s came a switch to the WRG 1685-1845 rules of July 1979.  However I never really developed an attachment to these rules as a way of refighting actions from the Napoleonic Wars.  I did recognise the universal popularity of the rules though.  I paid $13.20 for two booklets totalling 86 pages providing both rules and army lists and including a quick reference chart.  They used 16 figure battalions and a response; fire; melee; move sequence of play with both sides moving alternately.

            With my interest in Napoleonic wargaming waning for lack of a set of rules that suited me I took to WRG Ancients, using the new figure scale of 15mm.  This became my major passion but it did not stop my searching for the ultimate Napoleonic rules and this lead to me being intrigued by EMPIRE 3.

            What drew me to EMPIRE 3 was a series of articles in BREAKOUT by David Morgan.  EMPIRE 3 cost $29.50 in late 1983 for 160 pages plus reference sheets, charts and status markers/counters.  Later I picked up the EMPIRE CAMPAIGN SYSTEM second hand for $10 (unused - as it still is).  EMPIRE 3 used 12 figure battalions and for me employed many innovative concepts including manoeuvre elements, strategic and tactical movement rates, and separate skirmish combat amongst others.  They had an extensive sequence of play comprising ten segments consisting of much player interaction (or so I thought!).  The sequence of play covered issue orders; attach leaders; declare orders; activate orders; grand tactical movement; tactical combat (each side moving alternately); bombardment; leader casualties; rally troops; and recover fatigue points.

            While I used my 25mm figures for EMPIRE 3 I also started to invest in a 5mm army as a way of trying out the innovations of EMPIRE 3.  Other members of my local wargaming community were switching to 5mm for Napoleonics in conjunction with EMPIRE 3 and this provided the necessary inspiration for me to also try this scale.  I was careful in my selection of a 5mm army to choose something quite different from what I already had and settled on a Russian corps of 1812.  This change of figure scale was difficult for me as I found that the visual charm and romance of the uniforms was significantly diminished but, apart from some fiddliness at times, it did lend a general's eye view to a battle and that was what I wanted. 

            I found EMPIRE 3 slightly complex and realised that I would have to seriously study them before I could play with ease.  Unfortunately the number of games I attempted generally resulted in my troops failing to activate and therefore I tended to sit out the games while others played (and argued) around me!  I did enjoy the promotion as I now I felt that I was high ranking general participating in a significant engagement.

            However I found myself at the end of the 1980s still wanting innovation but also at level that I could easily absorb and readily use to refight Napoleonic battles (not skirmishes).  I also wanted preservation of investment - the one result of two decades of Napoleonic wargaming being that most of my 20/25mm army is based according to WRG which is also roughly suitable for EMPIRE 3.  I also had this 5mm army that I wanted to use.

            A check of my personal wargaming library shows I also bought GUARD DU CORPS by Rudy Scott Nelson ($6.50 for 67 pages) and RULES FOR NAPOLEONIC LAND WARFARE by G W Jeffrey, published by SKYTREX ($6.50 for 27 pages).  I have a second hand copy of NAPOLEONIC ARMY LISTS by R M Evans, dated August 1986.  I paid $2 for these and they provided 41 pages of data for 1:50 and 1:20 figure ratio scale armies.  I bought the September/October 1981 issue of THE COURIER as it contained indepth reviews of BATTALIONMASSE, VIVE L'EMPEREUR, GENERALSHIP NAPOLEONICS as well as EMPIRE.  The magazine also contained yet more "official amendments" to WRG's 6th Edition Ancient rules but while this is another subject, it helped to maintain my interest in things other than Ancients.

            Then, in 1990, I came across AVALON HILL's NAPOLEON'S BATTLES, their first (to my knowledge) foray into miniature rules.  They are a complete system including terrain pieces and die cut cardboard units as well as a comprehensive introduction to wargaming the period for those new to the subject.  NAPOLEON'S BATTLES and the separate "expansion module" cost me $73.72 (club discount at the local games shop - THE GAMES CUPBOARD).  This was for 160 pages all up plus reference charts. 

            The cardboard units included with NAPOLEON'S BATTLES means that you can have a "miniatures game" straight out of the box without any investment in painting and basing figures.  Great for first timers or experienced players with existing armies established for alternative rules (more about using NAPOLEON'S BATTLES for 25mm and the compatibility with WRG 1685-1845 basing later).  These cardboard units have also allowed me to easily take the game when travelling and thereby introduce it to friends with the option of being able to immediately play.

            NAPOLEON'S BATTLES use 16 figure brigades and an extensive sequence of play comprising seven phases consisting of much player interaction.  The sequence of play covers control phase (arrival, communication, rally, command and supply); manoeuvre (all-out attack, administration, movement, reaction); fire (representing skirmishing and long range artillery fire); combat (representing close range firing and melee); construction; pursuit; and isolation.  This sequence is repeated for each side however within it both sides get to fire (alternately) and the non-phasing side can interdict (react) with its cavalry.  Some of these phases are also optional depending on what advanced or optional rules have been decided to be used (for example: all-out attack - an advanced rule; and construction - an optional rule).

            I was attracted to NAPOLEON'S BATTLES from its completeness and as a reference source but did not really consider it initially for gaming as it was centred on 15mm.  I had rejected moving to 15mm earlier due to cost and the fact that this would have made my existing 20/25mm and 5mm collections totally redundant in my eyes.

            I was lucky to have my first game with Brenton Searle who had temporally rebased his EMPIRE 3 collection of 5mm Napoleonics using blue tack and light adhesives for NAPOLEON'S BATTLES.  The 15mm bases and scales were used with 10 to 12 5mm figures replacing the 4 15mm figures.  I think it was his second or third game and I was impressed by the ease at which the game system had been mastered and that I had an actual sensation of commanding my forces - deciding when to attack and allocating reserves.

            NAPOLEON'S BATTLES I found allowed me to expand my one corps EMPIRE 3 5mm army to two corps (with the consequential "promotion" for me as their "general").  This 5mm army has since grown and now represents the five corps (two infantry and three cavalry) of the Russian right wing at Borodino, 1812.

            At first I did not consider NAPOLEON'S BATTLES as a vehicle for battles using my 20/25mm collection.  Upon researching the base sizes I discovered that with only a 50% increase in dimension the 15mm base size was effectively equivalent to WRG 20/25mm basing for single figures.  The rules had suggested doubling the 15mm base size for 20/25mm figures but I believe this to be unnecessary. 

            I do not believe NAPOLEON'S BATTLES developers had given much thought to other scales.  Their advice on page 18 of the "Introduction to Miniature Wargaming" is in my opinion not up to the same standard as the rest of the game.  It fails to address to the same level of detail the important area of conversion from other rules and scales.  Given the popularity of WRG rules for the period (all Canberra Games Conventions have used them) having a compatible basing system means that other converts or participants can be readily found.  The investment in WRG based figures is preserved - or so I thought. 

            When I finally became involved with some of the local Napoleonic wargamers, who I thought were WRG diehards, I was shocked to hear them exclaim when I pointed out the compatibility: "why would you want to ever use WRG again!".  To reinforce this sentiment they had rebased their entire 20/25mm collection for NAPOLEON'S BATTLES.  I should add that a number of previously EMPIRE 3 5mm players have done the same.

            20/25mm NAPOLEON'S BATTLES replaces the 15mm scale one inch standard unit of movement with 4cm.  In other words if the rules specify a 10 inch move, for 20/25mm this equates to 40cm.  The 20/25mm basing sizes are as follows:

Troop Type
Infantry stand (4 figures - 2 x 2)
Single Infantry figure
Cavalry stand (4 figures - 2 x 2)
Single Cavalry figure
Artillery stand (1 model, 2 to 3 crew)
Divisional Staff (single figure)

            The single figure basing is equivalent with WRG.  However the WRG stands are 4 x 1 for infantry and 3 x 1 for cavalry so some flexibility is required as is also the case with artillery.

            In my opinion the hardest thing about NAPOLEON'S BATTLES is adjusting to the use of brigades as the basic unit.  Once this mental leap is made everything falls into place.  Until this occurs however, players familiar with Napoleonics may struggle with the concept of units fighting better in line than in column in what appears to be melee and being able to freely interpenetrate.  It is in reinforcing the brigade unit concept that 5mm is particularly good.  As a stand in a 5mm unit looks like a battalion, a 5mm unit being a collection of stands looks more like a brigade (ie a collection of battalions).  The negative aspect of brigade sized units is in the lack of historical unit definition but then a brigade frequently had a historical designation itself.  Anyway for the Commander in Chief regimental distinctives were normally lost with distance and the smoke and dust of the battlefield.

            In basing my 5mm figures I have used fewer figures and based them more spread out for the lower quality troops (such as the Cossacks who I only give 6 figures per stand) and for higher quality, such as grenadiers, I have based 12 figures in a 4 x 3 formation at the back of the stand's base.  Such simple practises make the different troop types (the Russians have 16 at Borodino - 5 cavalry, 7 infantry and 4 artillery) readily apparent without straining the eyes.

            The "Introduction to Miniature Wargaming" booklet provided with NAPOLEON'S BATTLES in the chapter on background to miniature wargaming mentions that rules, along with figures, have progressed over the years.  This certainly has been my experience and in the following table I have included some simple data on the rules mentioned above.

Figure Ratio
Ground Scale
Time Scale

Inf 1:20
Cav 1:20
Artillery model = battery
1mm = 1yd
1 turn = 5 mins
Inf 1:33
Cav 1:33
Artillery model = battery
1mm = 1yd
1 turn = 2.5 mins
Inf 1:20
Cav 1:20
Artillery model = battery
1” = 1.25yds
1 turn = 1 min

Inf 1:50
Cav 1:40
Artillery model = 2 guns
1mm = 2.5’
1 turn = 80 seconds
Inf 1:60
Cav 1:60
Artillery model = 2 guns
1” = 32yds
1 turn = 60 mins
Inf 1:120
Cav 1:80
Artillery model = battery
1’ = 100yds
1 turn = 30 mins

            The critical observation is that the scales have increased with one figure now representing more and as a consequence the units in play representing higher formations.  By substituting more 5mm figures in place of 15mm or 20/25mm figures a wargames unit still gives a visible representation of a sizeable body of men. 

            The playing area now covers more ground allowing the significant engagements of the period to be reenacted on the table top and indeed NAPOLEON'S BATTLES includes a list of the major battles and provides them as scenarios for use with the game.  With one turn representing more time battles can be refought in a manageable number of turns.  The overall result being that players are now "Napoleons" refighting Napoleon's battles!

1 December, 1991


  1. Good morning Mark. Yours is the 2nd blog I read this morning with a theme of "Vingt ans apr├Ęs". I really liked the record of the cost of rules over the years.

    My own introduction to the world of miniature wargaming was with Airfix armies using Peter Young's Charge! in the early 1970s. Forty years later I have started to paint my first Napoleonic Army (15mm Russians).

    1. Good luck with the Russians, I need to do a few units to add in with my 15mm Prussians. Probably will be a mix of AB, Old Glory and Warmodelling miniatures.

      I still have my research books from when I did Russians in 5mm. The best is The Russian Army 1800-1815 by George Nafziger, published by Rafm Co Inc which I note is in Canada.

  2. Very curious... I bought NB in 1996

    1. Well put! The big thing NB had going for it was that Avalon Hill did a good job of laying out the rules - this has to be put into context: the other rules I was actively using at that time were WRG's Ancients. My fixation on basing also stems from doing the conversion from 6th edition to 7th edition around that time. Smartest thing the FOG rules did was use the WRG basing sizes.