Combat Mechanisms in Napoleon’s Battles
How Things Work
Napoleon’s Battles combat mechanisms are deliberately intended to extract the player from the nits and bits of battalion and squadron level decisions. You make a choice about the overall tactical formation of your units, which is something typically specified by higher command on their lofty perches behind the ‘deadly space’ and you move them on the tabletop. You decide what risks you want to take, and how to minimize them at the brigade level and above, given the mechanics of the game. You target enemy units, concentrating fire as appropriate and chose to either destroy enemy units, seize key terrain, or both. In short you are functioning as a General of Division or higher, and the decisions of your subordinates are largely reflected by dice rolls. Roll a ‘10’ and your subordinate did everything perfectly; roll a ‘1’ and the subordinate choked.
When first published, this idea wasn’t exactly revolutionary but it was pretty new. The typical way to play a large scale battle like Waterloo was to model every battalion, cavalry regiment, and battery and play out the game. The first part took years of modeling (I know, because my wargame group did it in the ‘70s) and the second part usually required about 24 hours of gaming. Napoleon’s Battles has stood the test of time unlike some of similar offerings because the mechanics were ‘elegant’ which is just a different way of saying they covered all the important features of battle at the corps/army scale without sacrificing playability.
This doesn’t prevent players from being concerned about tactical (battalion level) activities but using microscopic focus sometimes obscures the true beauty of the game’s mechanics. So let’s take a look under the hood, so to speak, and see what lays there.
In order to keep what I’m talking about clear, I’ll be referring to ‘Fire Combat’ and ‘Close Combat’ to make explicit the kind of activity being discussed. And the Napoleonic Wars used the term ‘division’ interchangeably to describe ‘division de la battalion’ and ‘division de la armee’. When I’m talking about a piece of a battalion normally consisting of two companies I’ll be using ‘division’ while ‘Division’ with its capital letter is referring to the formation comprising two Brigades. Lastly, the Prussian Army elected to skip the ‘Division’ entirely, having a large scale formation the size of everybody else’s Division called Brigade. I will still call that formation a ‘Division’.
Napoleon’s Battles uses a brigade as its standard unit. The basic game represents a 4-base infantry unit as the minimum size with it representing 1,900 men and possibly 2-6 cannon. The smallest basic game cavalry unit represents 960 troopers and no cannon. In some armies, these units could be large regiments, but large regiments usually deployed and maneuvered by sub-units so that on the battlefield, they functioned much the same as other nation’s ‘brigades’.
Napoleon’s Battles uses standard nomenclature to describe the formations you may adopt with your ‘brigades’. Infantry may use column, line, square or march column. Cavalry may use column, line, or march column. Unfortunately, the terms in the game do not give the new player accurate information about the internal workings of the unit. As the developers have pointed out in other forums and this one before they passed away, the brigade formation name was simply a convenient label and does not reflect what is actually going on in your wargame unit at the micro scale.
It’s useful to talk through a particular example for infantry and cavalry brigades and so we’ll focus on the smaller brigades with the understanding that you can use the same analogies for larger brigades. Many Napoleonic battlefields saw the basic tactical unit (battalion of infantry or regiment of cavalry) at 500 infantry and 350 or so cavalry. So it’s convenient to think of an infantry stand as representing a battalion of infantry or a regiment of cavalry. There are always exceptions, of course – it takes every bit of a three stand cavalry unit in NB to represent the Polish Lancers of the Garde in 1813, for example, but then the single stand of that regiment represents a pair of squadrons operating together. However, the position of the individual stand in no way represents the position of the battalion or regiment on the field.
For example, my four-base infantry unit represents four battalions and a couple guns. It occupies a front of 300 yards of real space at game scale when deployed to ‘line’ on the tabletop. If you allocate a yard per man, that means my ‘line’ is 6.5 ranks deep and if I have guns, may exceed 7. It would also be about 3 yards deep deployed that way, and so the depth of each base is enormously overstated. But that’s not what’s being represented. With the exception of the British Army, Napoleonic brigades rarely deployed everybody in 3-rank line because of control issues, and the 6-rank line was last regularly seen as a battlefield formation in the time of Marlborough.
Instead, what you are looking at is a brigade optimized to fight in close combat, and the depth of bases represents the space occupied by reserve battalions, usually formed in columns for quick movement to reinforce the main line or cover gaps. Battalion columns were really a succession of lines with each line consisting of one or two companies. The French, for example, preferred to form battalion column by ‘divisions’, i.e. two companies, and usually the ‘divisions’ were separated by quarter or half deployment distance, so that the interior companies of the column could wheel out to form the flanks of a square. The French battalion column was thus 9 ranks deep, but with large gaps in between each set of three ranks. This put the ‘divisions’ 20 or 40 yards apart, and also facilitated a movement to a flank of the brigade if threatened by infantry attack. If surprised by cavalry, the entire formation could collapse into closed column in 80 seconds by having the leading division stand fast and the rear divisions double-time to fall in behind it before facing flank in a hedge of bayonets.
So think of the brigade ‘line’ in our sample unit as 4 battalions, with two battalions and a pair of guns deployed more or less in line across the front of the brigade area, and two battalions in columns at the back of the brigade area.
The next formation to consider is ‘column’. This is the brigade’s all-round formation, neither optimized for close combat (‘line’), nor movement (‘march column’) or cavalry protection (‘square’). On the tabletop the unit is deployed 2 stands deep, and the 4-stand brigade now occupies a 150 yard front with a 200 yard depth. Looking at the placement of the battalions, the leading battalions are now probably in column of divisions, but closed up to quarter or less distance, with the pair of guns centered. They are likely positioned with one battalion column in the front corner of the brigade’s area, and the other shifted so that when the two battalions deploy to line of battle, their second and third divisions move right or left, extending to the position of our brigade ‘line’. When moving in column, the leading battalions were positioned so that each could readily form line without interfering with each other or the guns. The second pair of battalions were placed in the gaps left empty by the leading battalions collapsing out of line, so that the formation was distinctly checker-boarded.
The precise arrangement of the battalions was determined by the army’s drill for forming line from column. The older drill called for deployment from column to one flank or the other, using temporary company columns on a three-man front to move to the desired location. This took more time than the later drills of moving companies directly to their preferred position – but that was only possible if the column was spaced out at quarter or more deployment intervals between divisions. Whatever the choice, the important thing about brigade ‘column’ is that only about a third of the massed firepower and bayonets are immediately available for close combat, but it can quickly (by deploying the front battalions to line or by double timing the reserve battalions forward) double or triple that number. That’s why ‘columns’ have generally poorer combat factors than ‘lines’. At the critical instant of first engagement, they are usually outnumbered. The success of your brigade commander in bringing forward his assets to support the front line is one of the major things represented by the combat die roll.
‘March column’ is the fastest formation for long movements. Close inspection of the penalties for changing formation from ‘march column’ to ‘column’ makes clear that using this formation for less than two turns is inefficient. That’s why you normally see it as an ‘enter the game’ option and only rarely see it afterwards. The march column usually was formed by putting each company in the brigade in company column, usually fronting on the width of the road being used. Typically that was eight or ten men. If the ground was good, an efficient corps commander might close up by putting companies in similar columns on the other side of the drainage ditch, walking through the fields, reserving the road for the corps trains and artillery. This long, elongated formation was hideously vulnerable to attack, and had no firepower to speak of – the cannon were limbered and sandwiched in between two compact companies in one case and blocked by friendly troops on either side of the road in another, and the skirmishers were diffused over the long flanks.
‘Square’ represents the infantry adopting the best anti-cavalry formation possible, which usually was hollow square by battalions, but could be closed columns (essentially a solid block of troops, 9 files facing out of each side, and division frontage to front and rear). Some armies formed closed columns by divisions (Austrian division-masse) and that gave them an advantage forming ‘anti-cavalry formation’. Being in brigade ‘column’ made it easier to form ‘square’ because the leading battalions were in column. Some armies were so well-drilled that they form ‘square’ from ‘line’ as easily as from ‘column’. Generally, the anti-cavalry formations doubled their ranks when formed deliberately; when formed in emergencies they did whatever was convenient so emergency battalion squares might form only 3-ranks deep. In the game, all ‘squares’ work the same way - fire at a disadvantage, use SQ vs CAV modifiers against cavalry and vs OTR modifiers against infantry.
There are a couple issues with the game representation of ‘SQ’. The rules specifically give SQ line speed and then apply RGH/SQ modifiers. I’ve never understood that – a square, once formed, can easily move at LN speed unless closely involved with cavalry. But it’s the rules. The second is a game mechanics problem – if you have a large brigade formed in line (6 or 7 bases) and cavalry just barely contacts the line at one of the flank stands, the emergency change of formation to square can break the combat contact (the rules require forming square around the command stand). Since this is an artifice of game mechanics, my house rules require the square to maintain the combat contact, forming with the contacted stand maintaining position. You can deal with this as you wish, but be prepared for annoying side effects if you don’t think about it ahead of time.
One common question about infantry is, “Why is fire the same for ‘line’ and ‘column’ when the combat factors are different for those formations?”
The game provides distinctly different close combat factors for each of the brigade’s possible formations. The basic game does not, however, make the same distinction for ‘Fire’ combat. The reason is that the close-in volley combat at forty yards or less range is ‘factored in’ with close combat, and the give-and-take of that action represented by the possibility of multiple rounds of dice throwing. You can imagine that first toss of combat dice as being the first exchange of volleys, with subsequent ones representing bayonet charges by individual battalions and/or fire degenerating into ‘independent fire at will’.
Instead, infantry fire combat focuses on long range engagements by the two light cannon and the available skirmishers. The skill and aggressiveness of skirmishers has nothing to do with the formation of the troops behind them, so the range and fire factor don’t change with the ‘brigade formation’, save when in ‘square’ or ‘not in square attacked by cavalry’. With cavalry swarming around, the skirmishers were naturally less aggressive, and might not even be deployed.
The fire ability of infantry is affected by the ‘arc’ of fire possible to the front (only) of the brigade. The arc does not vary for ‘line’ or ‘column’ and doesn’t exist for ‘march column’. This seems a little strange, until you consider that the cannon at the center of our sample brigade likely have restricted arcs due to position of their own skirmishers. Skirmishers, you see, must close to about 100 yards to be effective. The fire zone represents where the concentration of skirmisher fire and cannon reaches the point of being able to cause one hundred casualties. ‘Square’ fires at a reduced value off any side (but only one side at each fire opportunity).
One additional important consideration is the interaction between fire combat and close combat. Units are required to fire into opponents that count as engaging them in close combat. This creates possible combinations that will be discussed under flanking combat. At times this rule seems odd, as it prohibits fire when the unit is contacted in flank and rear but still has targets to the front. However, after playing the game for years I’ve concluded that this is part of the subtle design of the game to get the ‘right’ outcome from flank and rear attacks. The rule also allows ‘soak off’ attacks by Landwehr or Foot Cossacks etc to direct the enemy defensive fire while allowing your ‘better’ units to shoot into the defender.
Fire is always done by the inactive player first, so when planning an infantry action you have to account for having a key unit disordered. Being shot by a ‘zero’ fire modifier creates a 25 percent chance of disorder for a unit with a disorder number of ‘2’. Being shot by a ‘+1’ unit creates a 30 percent chance, and a ‘+2’ creates a 35 percent chance. ‘Double canister’, a powerful artillery unit shooting with the optional ranged artillery rule, deals disorder a whopping 44 percent of the time.
The reverse is painful, ‘-1’ causing a disorder only 20 percent of the time, ‘-2’ causing disorder 16 percent of the time, and ‘-3’ causing disorder only 12 percent of the time.
The best way to block a punch is not to be there, and ideally you bring up a unit that outranges the defender and whittle him. His choices are stark; he can retire or advance, giving you the position or the advantage of firing at him first in his turn. If he has cover and a cunning plan on another part of the battlefield he may choose to stick it out, but when (inevitably) his unit becomes disordered in his turn, you will advance into the shaken unit and get to shoot him unopposed as well as fight with him at ‘-3’ for being disordered in the following combat phase.
Cover affects this battle calculus, making a second unit highly desirable and not outranging enemy in cover makes it absolutely necessary. Attacking an enemy who has chosen to fight in line makes this easy, as every brigade so deployed in the zone you’ve selected for attack can be opposed by two of yours. If the enemy has remained in ‘column’ he can pack his skirmish line too and more importantly, retains the mobility to come out and smash your disordered units. Only the British have the mobility in ‘line’ to be a threat, and they succumb to the rough ground penalty that comes with all the types of cover. Small wonder the canny British player prefers the reverse slope of a steep, smooth hill for his defense – the infantry are unaffected by terrain while the French cavalry are horribly slowed.
One important thing to remember is that infantry fire is only blocked by units, and this is determined by sectors on the fire/wheel template. The skirmishers swarm into available cover and use it to get close to their opponents, maximizing their impact. I played this rule wrong for years, unconsciously treating my Napoleon’s Battle units like battalions in my old rules (where the skirmishers are explicitly represented).
The most important thing to recognize is that the ‘Close Combat’ encounter represents close-range musketry as well as bayonet charges, with company-level rushes mixed in for good measure.
The second most important thing to remember is that the bayonet was largely a morale weapon. Surgeon Larrey did a brief study and found bullet wounds ran roughly 40 to 1 against bayonet wounds. Many misinterpret this as meaning bayonets were useless. The inverse is true – the bayonet was truly a terror weapon. Consider your position in the front two ranks of a company. You’ve just fired into the smoke to your front, and have no idea of the effect. Suddenly you see movement in the smoke, and you realize the musketry has suddenly dwindled, and a stray ray of sunlight catches steel in motion. You have three choices. First, you can run, because you know your musket is unloaded and you have no idea if the movement in front of you is a reserve company with loaded muskets or the guys you’ve been trading shots with. Second, you can try and load, but that’s at least a twenty second process in which time a running man can cover 60 paces – 50 yards. Third, you can fix your own bayonet and await events (generally, bayonets were left off muskets during a firefight because they slowed loading).
This tension is multiplied over the front of your company and perhaps the entire battalion. If the leadership is intact, the battalion stands fast and either speed loads or fixes bayonets, according to doctrine. If the enemy thrust is led by a reserve company or worse, a fresh battalion, your company gets shot out of its socks by a stunning volley. On the other hand, if the enemy is tired and thin on the ground your company probably gets in a ragged volley and may halt the enemy. A new firefight begins at closer range. And sometimes, even with empty muskets, the enemy comes on hard and your line collapses, throwing the contest into the hands of the reserve battalion. But what if the reserves have already been committed, or they don’t see the crisis in the smoke, or the brigade commander’s horse falls throwing command into disarray?
It’s worth putting a microscope on the actions of two opposing front-line battalions by using our old battalion level system and cranking the statistics. One side is a British battalion deployed in line; the other side is a French battalion advancing in column by divisions. Let’s suppose the French player is planning on jamming his second line battalions into the fight later, and so we have a one-on-one matchup except for the skirmishers from the second line battalion, who are temporarily occupying the space to the left of the French column, while the skirmishers from the column itself are deployed to the right.
The British player had skirmishers out, but they have been driven in, and he chooses to place them behind the battalion for the moment. He could order them to reform but that affected the whole battalion in our system, and what he really wants to do is shoot. Our system allowed players to place chits indicating ‘orders’ and you could give really complicated evolutions if you wished, with two caveats – (1) the battalion had to test orders obedience at -10 for each evolution after the first, and failure caused the unit to execute the first order penalized for disorder and do nothing else, and (2) opposing units stepped through the orders in sequence applied, so if you gave REFORM-FIRE to gain the benefit of you elite company’s shooting you could reasonably expect to see FIRE-CHARGE on the other side. Being shot first at close range could be unpleasant, and definitely not worth the extra stand.
Now both units checked. The British unit started with +75 and gained +5 for standing in line, having an 80 percent chance of completing the order. The French started with +70 gaining +5 for advancing in column or mixed order and +5 for its elite company for +80 but took two actions, reduced to +70.
56 percent of the time the two units blazed away successfully at each other. Two British stands were masked by skirmishers and their +3 for shooting was matched by -4 for skirmishers in cloud producing a net of -1, and the two stands shooting at the column whacked it at +3. A die roll of 5 would have produced 8 dead in each skirmish stand and 21 dead in the column. Our system converted that to 2 figures removed from the column and potentially one from each skirmisher (a separate die roll was required to confirm casualties less than one full figure; more than one was rounded down). The hit to the detached skirmish stands counted nil for morale of the assaulting column, so we’ll ignore them.
The British battalion took some hits too – let’s assume the French also rolled a 5. The 8 skirmish figures between the two stands delivered fire at +3, just like the Brits and took a -2 for targeting extended volley line (2-deep line). Each one of those stands caused 8 casualties. The two center companies in column fired at +2 against the same -2 target, and caused 7 casualties apiece, bringing the total to 32. Three figures died.
Seems even, but in our system losing 10 percent of a unit’s front to musketry or canister caused a morale check, so the French battalion with only an 8-man front has to check morale again to continue its activity. This morale check was at 70 (70 plus 5 for included elites and 5 for advancing, less 10 for each ten percent beyond the first 10 percent casualties), thanks to the relatively low casualties. The British, having lost three figures out of 16 take a similar check at 75. Finally, both units have to test impact morale for the French charge to hit home. The British still have a slight edge, but both units are likely to make this test as well. However, and this is an important feature of most ‘tactical’ level systems, the string of morale/obedience tests decides what happens, and the likelihood of the either battalion making it all the way through to melee without suffering some adverse morale result is only about 50 percent, slightly higher for the British with better morale.
With a column in contact with the British line, things swing a little the French way. The French will score 2.5, rounded up to 3, hits in melee with the two contacted British stands. With a matching die roll the Brits do 1 back. This time the lack of French casualties allows them to check at 80 while the British losing 20 percent of their strength count -20, taking them down to 65. If both stand, the French will again average 3 hits to the British 1, forcing the Brits to check again at -20 with an additional -10 for 25 percent total losses. If the fight proceeds this far, it’s clearly a French win. There are many branches thanks to the morale checks and ten-sided dice rolls. Any French failure before impact stops the French charge in its tracks, leaving them vulnerable to a British countercharge in the next phase. For example, the British fire could range from .8 French casualties (no check) all the way up to 44 (not quite enough for 5 dead but still forcing a morale check at a whopping -50) while the French fire would do as few as .2 casualties up to 44 (again, just shy of 5 dead, but this time only -20 to morale because of the benefit of being in line).
Unfortunately, the victorious French unit is now disordered by its exertions and there’s that pesky reserve battalion of British moving up to restore the line and the see-saw swings back.
That’s what’s going on in the battle between two battalions, and while there are other systems out there you get the idea of how many factors completely out of control of a Division General exist in that situation, and then expand your thinking to accommodate the OTHER pair of front line battalions dueling in the deadly space. Oh, yes, toss in a pair of cannon for good measure.
In Napoleon’s Battles this situation is synthesized down to three opposed die rolls. First the British unit, now a brigade, blasts away with a +1 fire modifier. The French, if they are lucky, reply at +0. Finally, the French brigade column at -1 or -2 fights against British or Portuguese at +2 or +3. It’s all over but the shouting in a couple minutes. Of course if either brigade was disordered by fire the -3 for disorder plays into the fight. Just looking at the difference in describing the same combat under the battalion level system and Napoleon’s Battles speaks of elegance. I don’t want to know if both British battalions perfectly executed their volleys and passed all morale checks, I just want to know if they rolled well enough to remain in the fight holding their ground.
Now let’s look at some obvious questions.
Having played battalion level games for years and test-driven other systems I spent a couple hours rooting through my first copy of the rules trying to find the penalty for being flanked. I obviously had no success. As I played the game over the decade that followed, I quickly noticed that it didn’t matter. Flank attacks were almost always considerably more effective than purely frontal assaults, and devastating when one of the units was cavalry. We’re only talking the infantry combat mechanism at the moment, so we’ll focus on infantry vs infantry and leave the cavalry combat mechanism for later.
The reason that flank attacks generally work better than frontal attacks even though the modifier doesn’t exist is actually buried in the rule restricting fire combat to front arcs. Nobody questions this, but most people overlook the implication and then miss the combination. If you hit an infantry brigade in the flank the defending unit gets no defensive fire at all. And if you hit the brigade in the flank while shooting it from the front, the units in front are immune to defensive fire, too. There is an expected result of .7 casualties from a +0 volley, with two units shooting giving 1.4 expected casualties. Referring back to the discussion above about shooting, both units have a 1 in 4 chance of causing a double hit and the odds of each unit contributing a single hit are 1 in 25, yielding a combined chance of roughly 50 percent that the average defending unit will be disordered by the enemy fire. (If you try this on Grenadiers you deserve what you get).
Of course, saying there’s a fifty percent chance of the enemy being disordered equally spells a fifty percent chance of him shrugging off the fire, and if he’s in line and your flanking unit charged in column, bad things are going to happen to your unit. So there’s still the feeling that somehow you’ve gotten robbed.
So let’s look back at my tactical level example. If your brigade of four battalions somehow works its way past my flank and then attacks it by a ‘telling maneuver’ it usually first produces combat with one battalion striking one of my battalions in the flank. However, unless your unit has magically sprung out of the ground, I’ve seen it coming and probably have anticipated your threat by orienting my reserve battalions so they can respond. Your initial attack possibly hammers my flanking battalion, but then the rest of the brigade shifts orientation (and probably goes over to the defensive) and the grind begins anew. Worse for you, unless you are literally striking the flanking brigade of the flanking Division of the flanking corps, I’ve got supporting brigades that can take you in the flank.
So while a battalion getting flanked by an infantry battalion was usually a catastrophe for the targeted battalion, and our old system had stiff penalties for it (-25 for morale/orders checks), it was less so for a brigade of infantry moving to the flank of another infantry formation because the enemy had time to adjust. Keep in mind that my putative brigade commander probably has skirmishers out that way if he has a brain, and if he felt that flank was threatened would either have posted his best subordinate’s battalion there, or placed himself there to supervise the problem area. Or even moved in echelon on that flank. Any one of which accounts for the ‘no flank penalty’ view of the rules.
If you’re still uncomfortable that your flank attack has a 50 percent chance of getting thrown back, consider the following. To be completely out of detection distance by the brigade’s skirmishers, your force would have to be more than 500 yards (5”) away. At the common time pace of 80 paces per minute, your force will cover that distance in 7 minutes. The reserve battalions of the brigade you are attacking are no more than 100 yards from that same point, covering the distance to the threatened point at the same pace in less than 2 minutes. So it is unlikely that you will strike the flank of the enemy brigade without interference from its own reserves.
You can of course hypothesize all sorts of bad things – smoke, fog, sudden rain, stupidity, key officers suddenly being rendered hors de combat – but in my humble estimation, that’s what the die roll is all about. The game mechanism gives infantry an adequate means of exploiting a flank situation, and if you lack confidence in your attack, try moving to 1” and ‘pinning’ the enemy brigade from the flank, and watching your opponent try to extricate it without a voluntary rout. He can only back up, and backing up in line is an exercise in futility.
Another mechanism of infantry combat that causes confusion and some controversy is the withdrawal move. In the original game system, this move was part of a block of rules that was labeled ‘Advanced’ and wasn’t uniformly used. In later versions of the game, the ‘Advanced’ rules were either added to the basic rules or shifted to optional status. In the Marechal edition, the Withdrawal is integral to the combat mechanism.
Withdrawal only occurs when an infantry unit suffers disorder while fighting infantry, non-attacking cavalry, or artillery. Attacking cavalry always falls back disordered from a failure to rout opponents, as we’ll discuss later. Because of the down side of fighting infantry without the vs OT bonus, non-attacking cavalry will usually retreat before combat, but if it doesn’t there is a possibility that the infantry may be disordered instead of the cavalry, and as attacker it must withdraw.
When attacking a single artillery battery, the usual result is destruction of the battery, but multiple batteries ending in contact can see an infantry unit withdrawing.
What does this move represent? Disorder is something that is normally the result of something bad happening to the front line of the brigade. It can result from adverse interpenetrations or just having rallied from rout, both different kettles of fish. But if you find yourself in combat after these events it usually was the result of enemy actions, because disordered units cannot start a fistfight.
The other bad things can be fire casualties in the last Fire Combat before resolving the Close Combat, or it can be the outcome of the Close Combat itself. However it has happened, the brigade is now -3 compared to when the combat started.
It is almost an axiom of Napoleonic combat that when the first line of battle in the brigade falls apart under hammer blows producing 240 casualties in a short period of time, the brigade commander would order the first line to fall back and regroup, or see the battalion commanders so order, or see the troops vote with their feet. That’s almost 25 percent of the first line’s head count. In fact, in most infantry combats that turned into bayonet charges or close range firefights, the usual result was one brigade finding itself at an early disadvantage and falling back to regroup before continuing again.
In Napoleon’s Battles without the withdrawal rule the combat would continue until one side or the other routed under the weight of accumulated casualties. This in turn made purely infantry combat pretty infrequent – nobody liked throwing the line dogs into close combat until a lucky double hit by defensive fire created a target.
Historical fights to the finish were not exactly rare, but when you look at the times it did happen, it was usually something like the Old Guard or British Grenadiers that found itself on the initial losing end and just refusing to give up. That is adequately covered by giving such units high disorder numbers. So the original ‘basic game’ rules produced a poor reflection of history, and that’s why, in my opinion, the designers added the Withdrawal Move and made it mandatory in later versions.
The mechanism is quite elegant – the unit’s modified response number becomes its modifier in opposed die rolls. Instead of attached generals using their combat modifier, their letter grade affects the outcome, just like in rally attempts. This makes sense when you stop to consider that what is really going on is preventing the second line troops from stampeding when the first line troops retire through them to safety.
One complaint is that the withdrawing unit may become routed and yet more recent versions of the game don’t require the victor take a winner loss. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense because the winning unit is probably shooting into the departing units rather than actively chasing them. There wouldn’t be many more prisoners because the ‘rout’ probably occurred when the second line panicked and that happens at least a hundred yards in front of the victor’s final position.
Another, that has more validity, is that the rule penalizes units with low response numbers and high rout numbers – particularly the Russians. A Russian line unit ends up with a modified ‘1’ against an unmodified ‘5’ or ‘6’ and thus must roll very high to avoid taking hideous losses. The Russians must be careful assaulting French or Austrian troops, because they can be easily take eight casualties – 2 from fire, 2 to 4 in the resulting combat, and then 4 more in the withdrawal move. My answer is that the Russian troops were notably stubborn, frequently refusing to withdraw before being decimated, so again the result is historical, and the Russian unit that has been sheered in this fashion is still around because of its ‘B’ dispersal number. Friends who regularly play Russians complain of this outcome and would much prefer the fight to the finish instead. They were unimpressed by my offer to make it a modified response roll (which would still require a ‘1’ for Russian line) to continue each round of combat disordered.
Combat in a built-up area was not unusual in the Napoleonic Wars, but fighting inside a city was actually quite rare. City fights like Dresden or Smolensk require thinking about terrain modifiers in some detail and may require special scenario rules to give you the ‘feel’ for the battle.
The run-of-the-mill small town or village has proven difficult to simulate. The most recent change, requiring a ‘double-hit’ in fire combat to cause a single casualty on a unit shows promise in forcing town combats to run in the classic assault-repulse-assault-success-counterattack cycle which shows up repeatedly in the Napoleonic wars.
Visualizing the actual fighting in town combats requires stepping down yet another level. Town combats were very much a company commander’s fight, as the maze of streets, ways, small enclosures prevented effective control of battalions, much less brigades. This historical fact is the reason that winning a town combat immediately reduces an attacking unit to disorder – to win the fight, the brigade has broken down into many small units, and it takes time to reestablish the control necessary to move and fight as a brigade again.
The best picture I know depicting town fighting is by Mallinus and can be found on pages 170-171 of Lachoque’s Waterloo. A column of Prussians is pressing up a street; a company mass, perhaps on an eight-man front. They are taking fire from windows in a house to the right of the painting; the left is a partially ruined building packed with grognards laying low, waiting to fire into the flank of the column. One of the Prussians has turned to face the ambush, and the artist has captured the surprise in the man’s face. The action is obviously at the squad level, and the grognards are dying hard. Such was the see-saw fight for Plancenoit on June 18th, 1815.
Defending a town required the commander to deploy much of his ‘first line’ battalions in penny packets, barricading streets and occupying buildings to flank the barricades. The ‘second line’ battalions were formed in columns, usually by companies on parallel streets (depending, of course, on the size of the town). The town center usually incorporated civic buildings and a church, and this would constitute the pivotal point of the defense. The brigade’s guns would either be placed at the edge of town or in the center.
The counter was usually a swarm of skirmishers, with company columns directed by the ‘recon by fire’ of the skirmishers to weak points. The attacking force would swarm in and if the attack went their way carry to the town center where the issue would be decided. Historical records emphasize the importance of the heavy construction of churches and civic buildings in providing cover for the defenders. Here the attack usually stalled to be swept away by the counterattack of carefully posted reserves. If the attack carried the town center the attacker’s reserves pressed forward, and usually succeeded in carrying the town. Then a reserve brigade would be committed to start the dance from the other direction.
An alternative to committing an entire brigade was to detach a battalion, or elite companies, to hold the town, and sheltering the rest of the brigade in the ‘lee’ of the town where they had some protection from long range fire.
Deploying a brigade properly to defend an urban area is depicted in the game by ‘deployed in town’ gaining the ‘line’ combat factor and picking up any bonus for the buildings. A brigade that is just passing through remains in its basic tactical formation and gains no bonus, other than being ‘in cover’ if fired on through the town.
The detachment rule provides for the alternative method, preferred by the French according to Bowden, and the game mechanics of fire prevent an attacker from shooting through the garrisoned town to affect the main body beyond.
The attacker’s options boil down to attacking with a single unit in line or several in column. If the defender is a full brigade, this combat is heavily weighted to the defender, but a single stand can frequently be evicted by an attacker in line, thanks to the ‘enemy outnumbered’ modifiers. A mass of artillery can eventually evict the defenders, but there are usually better targets for the guns elsewhere. As with any assaults, the best approach is launching an attack after the defenders have been disordered by your defensive fire in the defender’s previous turn. This is harder to do with the new rule, but not impossible with a combination of infantry in column and guns (three units have a fifty-fifty chance of doing so if firing at a +1 basic fire modifier). Taking a town frequently requires your elite troops, and if it is defended by elite troops, look elsewhere, particularly if their disorder number is ‘3’.
Napoleon’s Battles Cavalry units largely represent brigades and it’s convenient to think of each stand as a cavalry regiment. Long established European cavalry doctrine desired a cavalry formation into two lines, each of two ranks, and required separation of the succeeding lines by roughly 150 yards. This is why Napoleon’s Battles forms the cavalry on much deeper stands than infantry (2 inches rather than 1 inch). The wider front reflects the reality of cavalry; even riding ‘boot to boot’ the frontage of 80 cavalry troopers is seldom less than one hundred yards. The smaller troop scale (80 men per cavalry figure vice 120 for an infantry figure) is another elegant fix in this case to the problem of allocating casualties to horses.
Unlike the infantry discussion, I’m not going to delve into a detailed look at cavalry combat in ‘tactical’ level rules. I’ve already provided that in an earlier discussion of types and roles of cavalry.
Although you can find cases of cavalry shooting their carbines/musketoons/pistols/muskets in the period, the examples are mostly found as exceptions and usually the remedy for being caught on blown horses or heavily outweighed by an approaching enemy. They are thus properly considered as part of the die roll in close combat, and not a fixture of the game.
Cavalry has the peculiarity that it must either win outright or fall back disordered, another elegant solution to something requiring complicated mechanics in battalion-level games. Reality was that a charge met by a countercharge usually dissolved into a swirling melee and traffic jam, and the local commanders would call it off before other fresh enemy units took advantage.
Cavalry has three formations in the game: column, line, and march column. Line represents all regiments advancing abreast, in the typical two-line formation. Column represents a pair or three regiments advancing in line abreast, with one to two regiments following behind. Unless negotiating difficult terrain, cavalry usually moved with the reserve regiments in line. March column is, like infantry march column, a succession of small units following one behind the other. Because cavalry ‘line’ speeds aren’t significantly different than ‘column’ speeds (because the regiments are already deployed) it’s easier for cavalry to gain movement advantages by brief periods in march column. But the risk of getting smashed by enemy cavalry is still there, so beware!
When cavalry ‘charged’ it did so by advancing at the trot, reserving the gallop for the last hundred to two hundred yards before impact. They did this to preserve formation and to preserve the fitness of their horses. It was accepted practice that the second ‘line’ of cavalry from the regiment as well as any reserve regiments in the brigade checked their horses to prevent a massive traffic jam as well as maintain supports in case the first line was overthrown. Unfortunately, in many cases the check of the first line came as a surprise and the reserves got ‘involved’ allowing the entire brigade to be swept away. This event is why cavalry becomes disordered when it doesn’t win outright, simulating the rear lines uselessly ‘piling on’ into an already failed attack. Another common problem was the first line winning and taking off in pursuit at a gallop, forcing the second line and reserves to gallop as well, and effectively destroying the brigade’s formation and hope of quick recovery. This last phenomenon is what leads to a Recall move in the game.
Now let’s look at game implications for cavalry combat.
Cavalry combat has some of the same common questions as infantry combat. We don’t have to consider withdrawal moves because that is purely an infantry phenomenon – cavalry always withdraws disordered from a failed attack with no further penalty. Only rarely will cavalry be involved with infantry in towns. However, the question about flank attacks still applies, and needs discussion.
As with infantry, a flanking attack is met with troops from the brigade’s second line and/or the flanking squadrons of the front line regiment. The regimental formations included self-contained sub-units called battalions, squadrons or troops/companies (the names varied by nation) and usual practice was for the second line of each regiment to be intact squadrons. Cavalry regiment and squadron commanders were encouraged to use their initiative, and successful ones had bridged the gap of thinking at 3 miles per hour to 10 miles per hour. Threatened with a flanking maneuver, the squadron commanders would be expected to take matters into their own hands. So wheeling the second line flank squadron to meet a new threat would be the work of a moment. The calculus of distance still applies, with the reserve squadron(s) being closer to the critical point than the enemy front line. Thus it’s still valid to consider the success of the flanking attack to be represented by the dice roll and the benefit of attacking front and flank simultaneously to be represented by the ‘outnumbered’ bonus. Of course, the cavalry doesn’t fire so the extra bonus of being able to avoid defensive fire doesn’t apply unless the cavalry is supported closely by artillery.
One not-so-obvious outcome in cavalry vs cavalry combat is mutual disorder. The odds of mutual disorder in a combat with both units at the same modifier is high. For example, with two standard light cavalry units with disorder-rout numbers of 2/3 at a +1 for each side, the probability of mutual disorder is 45 percent (hint for the student: the reason it’s not 50-50 is the effect of game math limiting the best outcome to 10 and setting the worst outcome at 1). What is less obvious is that as you heap up good leaders and elite cavalry, mutual disorder becomes the dominant outcome – with +3 to +4, for example, the result is 59 percent. Factor in ‘elite’ cavalry with 4 for a rout number and most roads lead to disorder. This result gives the player with plentiful but average cavalry and decent cavalry leaders a method to deal with a small number of elite cavalry units – charging into combat while holding one or more units on react to take advantage of the presumptive disorder of the elite enemy unit.
This accurately represents the difficulty of retaining formation after launching a charge. Horses have to slow down from a gallop, and that takes time, and the reaction of the troopers in the second rank and the squadron leaders in the second line is delayed by their ability to perceive what’s happening in front. Cavalry charges break up for the same reason that chain reaction automobile accidents occur in bad weather or fog. The horse, being at least aware of the imminent impact, changes its gait and swerves and the resulting jostling disrupts the formation. Also, once the horse has been ‘given its head’ the differences in stamina, weight of rider, and immediate footing also open out the formation, allowing horses to pick their own way. Multiply that over a thousand horses, and you can see that the outcome is almost certainly disorder. Between disorder resulting from minor checks, and disorder resulting from the RECALL MOVE, counting on your Napoleon’s Battles cavalry to charge more than once without being disordered and out of action for a while is dangerous. As it should be.
Cavalry charges versus infantry brigades were an entirely different kettle of fish. Infantry under threat of cavalry charge would normally form square. At Waterloo, for example, Wellington himself is reputed to have issued the order ‘Prepare to Receive Cavalry’ and the Anglo-Allied army formed battalion squares from the Sand Pit just east of La Haye Sainte to Hugomont, despite the subsequent pain of being battered by long range French artillery.
The infantry response to cavalry determines much of what happens in this kind of cavalry combat. There is a lot of debate, even today, as to how often cavalry charges broke squares as opposed to overran infantry who had not yet properly completed the formation change. For example, the British hold that no square was broken at Waterloo yet the French claim as many as six, and cite ‘survivors’ reports of trophies (colors carried off). Two of those were from the KGL, where the Prince of Orange intervened to prevent Ompteda from advancing in square to the support of La Haye Sainte. Ompteda was killed in the second of these incidents, and so there is no official version from the KGL perspective. Did Ompteda attempt to form square, or was the small French attack a total surprise? You can read the various accounts and form your own opinions.
Similarly, the French claim to have broken Prussian squares at Ligny, and in particular two were claimed to be broken at the preliminary combat south of Fleurus. Yet the Prussian reports make no mention of that particular disaster, although Jagow’s Division of I Corps was roughly handled that day.
What is true is that very few reports exist of previously formed squares collapsing in rout under assault of cavalry only.
The tactical level rules I helped write had a complicated procedure for this kind of combat. Basically the cavalry attempted to charge, which required some form of orders test (but usually this first test was pro forma, because of all the positive modifiers available for supported cavalry). The infantry then responded with a similar test. With fresh infantry in square, this was also largely pro forma because of large impact modifiers for square versus cavalry, although the infantry could find itself disordered a small percentage of the time by negative modifiers resulting from being hit by lancers, Old Guard Cavalry or cuirassiers. The infantry tested orders to fire, again, largely pro forma. With enough casualties, the cavalry had to test morale.
The cavalry then had to test for impact, and the infantry likewise. These were less pro forma for the cavalry but it was rare for infantry to do more than become disordered here, unless already in some difficulty from previous disorder or casualties.
Finally, the cavalry rolled to break the square. We started with a base of 5 percent and modified up or down by small numbers for disorder, weight of the attacking cavalry, lances, etc. Most successful attempts owed more to the infantry being already on the verge of running because of successive morale failures.
If the first square hit broke, the probability of rolling up an entire brigade was then on the table. The rules prevented new squares hit by the cavalry from shooting effectively because of stampeding friends, and the sight of a unit running had a nasty effect on the two morale checks the infantry had to make. While taking out a prepared brigade of infantry was rare in the eight years we actively played the rules, it was not impossible – but usually involved a limited resource like the Household Cavalry or the Polish Lancers and a shaky infantry battalion as the first target.
When the infantry commander took the risk of remaining deployed, things got interesting. Under our rules the infantry unit had to test for orders to form square, and if it wanted to fire, it had to test for that to making a -10 orders test using its base with no benefit from formation. If it failed the test, it stayed deployed and the cavalry potentially had a field day. (Although it was not impossible for the infantry to win, it was rare – I had one regiment in my French Army that to this day has the inscription ‘Chevauxlegers et Hussards’ for wrecking both Vivian and Vandeleur’s brigades in a Waterloo refight without ever getting into square). The same penalties applied to nearby battalions after the cavalry broke through with, of course, the added problem that they, too, were likely deployed and ergo, toast if they made one mistake. This scenario saw far more cavalry success.
Napoleon’s Battles deals with this situation elegantly, like most of its procedures. You move your cavalry announcing the target, and the targeted units must roll their response number to form square. This neatly capsulizes a lot of preliminary die rolls. In optional rules the odds of making this die roll are lower if the attacking unit begins within 6 movement factors and the odds are further reduced by disorder. If successful the defending infantry is pretty much invulnerable to cavalry although cavalry units with big line combat modifiers can do dirt to infantry with weak ‘SQ vs Cav’ modifiers when a big dice swing occurs.
Like infantry, there is no direct benefit for attacking flank, but the obvious one is that the likelihood of being fired on depends entirely upon the success of the target’s Emergency Square roll. Close in to 6 movement factors from the flank, and you’ll likely see Albuera replicated.
Thus the Napoleon’s Battles die rolls is the outcome of the first thrust of one cavalry regiment into an unprepared unit. The success of the leading regiment in breaking one square (or catching it completely unprepared) is represented by that response die roll, and after that by throwing the big ‘10’ in the combat. If the lead cavalry unit fails, either by being thrown into disorder by a volley, or by not catching the infantry locally unprepared, or simply by failing to roll high, the resulting traffic jam throws the cavalry brigade into disorder, and if you have committed two cavalry brigades to the same attack, presumptively both met with the same wall of horseflesh and were forced to fall back and regroup.
Unsupported cavalry attacking prepared infantry usually fails as a result. In fact, an infantry division can form square and push into musket range, driving the cavalry before them. It takes horse artillery or infantry support to win. History supports this; Murat assailed Neverovski’s Russian Division on the road to Smolensk all day, refusing to halt long enough to bring up the supporting horse artillery, and mostly succeeded in wearing out horses, as well as allowing more of Bagration’s troops to reach Smolensk. However, a rapid approach with cavalry may turn a flank or create other opportunities so don’t overlook it. The real power of cavalry lies in combined arms operations.
Napoleon’s Battles puts a high premium on finding the right combination of units for a given situation. At the core of the Combined Arms combat mechanism lies the ‘vs OTR’ modifier, which is a big negative number for most infantry and an equally big positive number for most cavalry. Infantry uses the vs OTR modifier if facing ‘attacking cavalry’ and not in square or protected by difficult ground (woods and towns) while attacking cavalry gains their modifier versus infantry not in square. Infantry further is penalized if attacked by other infantry while in square.
By attacking the same unit with both infantry and cavalry, you create one variation of combined arms, and, in fact the most common found in the game. Depending on the sequence of your moves, the defending unit may or may not form square. You can absolutely prevent an opponent forming square by sending in the infantry first and then bringing in the cavalry on a corner.
This technique was difficult to manage on the large scale of Napoleon’s Battles, as witnessed by the disastrous French cavalry charges at Waterloo with most of French II Corps and the Imperial Guard infantry as spectators. The Marechal edition provides an optional rule requiring the second unit of a mixed force to test its success by making a response test before completing the move to combat contact. In most armies the cavalry have higher response numbers than the infantry, and in typical battles the infantry is more plentiful than the cavalry. So the likely combination with this new rule is still the combination most common under the old rules, sending the infantry in first to pin the target and then hitting it with cavalry.
There is a second method, nearly as effective, which involves bringing the infantry unit to the deadly space (1”) and thus preventing (or inconveniencing if using the optional rule for emergency formation changes within 1”) the defender from forming square. The attacking infantry unit always gets to shoot, because the defender may only shoot at the attacking cavalry. In this case, because the combat contact is by a single unit, the new rule does not apply.
When the enemy has already adopted square formation, the preferred approach is reversed, using cavalry (or another infantry unit, for that matter) to pin the target in its current formation and then hitting it with an infantry unit.
When both units make combat contact, the modifying attacking unit is the larger. For this reason my group prefers to build units of 16 cavalry and 16 infantry so that they have the choice of modifying unit. That way they can take advantage of the choice when it matters.
How does this compare to historical operations and tactical games? Remember first that the infantry brigade of Napoleon’s Battles is a number of discrete smaller units and the cavalry, unlike the infantry, tends to operate in long lines spaced in depth. When a combined arms attack occurs, what happens on the battlefield and on the tactical tabletop is that the movement of two or three regiments of cavalry puts a large section of the battlefield under threat. Defending infantry must either respond appropriately or accept a risk. When the attacking infantry closes into musket shot, the squares or closed columns are vulnerable to fire, and particularly vulnerable to light guns.
The most vulnerable subunit of the defending brigade is the one at the juncture between the attacking infantry and cavalry formations. Why? Remember that the attacking infantry is usually in a checkerboard of battalions. The cavalry commander can send a couple squadrons from his second line using a column formation to pass through the open spaces in the attacking infantry, putting the corner battalion under cavalry threat from two directions. The unit now cannot adopt line of battle or open out a closed column and usually an infantry bayonet charge sweeps it away. Making this work requires coordination, so the new optional rule provides a useful degree of difficulty.
The pinning technique also has considerable historic precedent. Bluffed cavalry charges were part of every army’s repertoire. This is how they manifest themselves in the game. And the advance of an infantry brigade into the deadly space almost always fully occupied the defender’s attention, giving opportunity for an alert cavalry commander to slip a few squadrons through the gun smoke to surprise the defender.
Now that we’ve looked closely under the hood of the Napoleon’s Battle combat mechanism, I think we can agree that it has a certain elegance in reducing dozens of die rolls found in tactical games to just a few, and in so doing allows you to fight a medium size battle in an afternoon, and a great one in at most a weekend. Considering the weeks my group sometimes invested in just one battle, this was a considerable improvement.
We’ve also seen that the combat procedures are underpinned by a great deal of understanding of the mechanics of Napoleonic warfare at the grand tactical level. The original authors may have seen further because they stood on the shoulders of giants such as Lachoque and Chandler, but they were also blessed with uncommon clarity of vision.
And if you are put off by a particular game mechanism, think about making your own optional rule (that is, after all, where most of the new optional rules came from). But beware of the Law of Unintended Consequences! As I learned to my sorrow during the last nine years of my military service, “The Enemy of Good Enough Is Better!”