Friday, 5 August 2022

Soldiers of Napoleon - First Games.

Because we are still exploring the rules I'm not going to do a battle report on what we have played. Rather, this is very short report about my own personal impression on how the rules worked in practice over three gaming sessions.

The first game (two sessions) was fought on a 6x4 as a one on one (with two players a side) game with four brigades (one reserve) a side. This was fine but, two players deciding how each card should be played slowed the game somewhat. Also, and this isn't really a rules related thing (beyond the game being designed for a table this size), everything felt cramped; I'm not used to fighting on a table a third of its usual size.

The second game (we are halfway through) we are fighting on an 8x6 (which felt much better) with each player having two brigades and his own cards (two cards + command stands) one player being elected Div. Com.; order of play was randomly determined for each hand by assigning each player an ordinary playing card (A,J,Q,K) and randomly dealing them out in a sequence of play (this worked very well); we used one 'last order' marker per side. I plan on the next game being played on a 12x6 with the same 'order of play' rules and seven brigades (each player will have three, his own Div Com, and there will be 1 reserve between them) and one 'last order' marker per player.

To start the ball rolling, Soldiers of Napoleon (SoN) is a damn fine ruleset. For games involving no more than two players a side I can wholeheartedly recommend them to you: One player a side would be optimum. 

Table Size Note: They are not really written for big tables and I will need to tinker with the movement rules (simply upping the measurement of a pace by 50% and having a 30" skirmish range will not look right) to suit my requirements but, that's nothing new.  Most rule sets are not written thinking everyone has a 12x6 table permanently set up in a dedicated hobby room. 

The cards (deck of 56) are the key game driver and everything about them works just fine and dandy. Using a card to order units is a great way to make players prioritise there effort, and it allows the flow of play to pass from one player to another quite quickly - even in big battles. It feels very similar to Piquet in this respect. 

The option to use cards as 'Events' or 'Rally' cards, instead of 'Order' cards, also speeds up play quite a bit. 
The card events have a noticeable effect on the course of a battle but they are not over powerful: I would describe them as well balanced - I like to play them but don't like them played on me! The way you use cards to rally is one of my favourite mechanisms in the game: it's novel, it's quick, it's logical, it's ingenious, you'll like it.

The combat mechanisms for fire and melee are nothing special but very clean, generally easy to use (see below) and give logical results. The rules governing skirmishers are particularly good; I think they are amongst the best rules I've ever seen for this aspect of Napoleonic warfare: Skirmishers are a very useful game component in SoN and perform their historic function on the table without ever being a fussy or finickity thing; again, ingenious!
That said, one thing we stopped playing after the first game is stand removal. I don't like it because after spending all that time painting I want to see my figures on the table for as long as possible and, as I don't own any 5 or 6 stand infantry units, not doing stand removal also allows a four stand unit to represent anything between 3-5 stands easily, 6 stands at a pinch. I'm presently using a big dice at the back of the unit to indicate how many stands the unit is presently 'worth'; at some point I'm going to buy some triple dice cells (from War Bases) to show stands and disruptions with smaller (10mm) dice. Finally, and not least, not doing stand removal saves time sorting out mixed up stands at the end of a game - time is everything. 

However, in consequence of units having a constant frontage when in line (okay, that's the fudge - I love fudge), we now need to measure all ranges middle to nearest, and one whole enemy stand must be in unit weapon arc to qualify it as a target to all; split fire is done by halving the number of dice, with any odd dice to majority side or player's choice if about equal. Actually, this has the added benefit of speeding up play by removing a lot of "is it, isn't it": In the first game play bogged down slightly working out (and it has to be said, agreeing) how many stands could fire at what.

SoN also has a couple of nice flavoursome rules that allow cavalry to do more than move and charge - which is their sole purpose in most rule sets. In SoN their presence can have a game effect even when they do neither. This aspect of the rules has not been fully explored yet but, it looks very interesting: Light cavalry can Harass Skirmishers, and heavy cavalry can Intimidate.  
Now, the downsides: The rules are pretty simple in essence but, there are some rules Mark and I misinterpreted even having read them several times before play, and even with four heads during play. Although the rules are, by and large, well written, one or two things are not made easy to understand, or entirely clear. 

Two rules we definitely struggled to understand were At Risk and Buildings, and I've also found a minor omission regarding March Column. You need to read the rules very carefully for all these and even then, the one concerning At Risk is still as clear as mud - it seems to be the most commonly queried rule; the one for Buildings is actually clear if you read it very carefully but, it's in some fairly long and detailed sections and, because important bits are not repeated in the relevant sections, you can easily miss and misconstrue stuff:

At Risk: Clarity given by the man himself Warwick Kinrade "If you fail the test, by rolling a 1, you lose the card and have to run-off. Passing the test, then fine, carry on as normal. Just taking a test isn't enough." That settles that (and for the better) - here we all agree, the rule as written, no matter how many times you read it, says something else.

Buildings: For a unit to enter or attack a building it must move to contact and stop. On the next order a 'Manoeuvre Order' must be given to change formation, regardless of the unit's present formation, into a special formation that is counted as, but isn't actually, line (the unit doesn't need to physically be in line). If the unit doesn't do this it is not in a formation that can enter buildings or charge the occupants of buildings! 

If the building is unoccupied the unit immediately moves into the building, as part of the 'Manoeuvre Order', in disorder (I'm pretty sure about this but, there is a gap in the narrative on how this happens). A unit cannot rally from disorder whilst in buildings, and it will always exit in disorder. 

For a unit to enter a building occupied by the enemy it will require a subsequent order to 'Charge' - to melee the defenders, evict them, and take their place. 

In the melee, the defender is counted as being in line formation, disordered but in a superior position (these two factors cancel); having changed formation to get into the buildings the attacker (regardless of the formation the figures are physically in) is also counted as being in  line formation and because they are entering buildings they are in disorder (latter point confirmed by Mr. Kinrade yesterday). Both sides roll their respective number of dice, modified by any other pertinent modifiers (but definitely not including column of attack formation, Peter) in the combat table, and the defender re-rolls misses; if the building is fortified the attacker re-rolls hits. If the attacker wins, he throws the defender out and occupies the buildings in disorder; other results are treated normally. Attacking a building with more than one unit at the same time is definitely the way to go (grin).

Taking a step back, there is an important thing to remember, and this definitely threw me. I think fighting in this game is for individual model buildings, not a group of model buildings, and buildings have a limited capacity. Capacity is 1 to 6 stands depending on the size of the building and I suspect most should have a capacity of 2-3. Thinking about it logically, in real life large buildings with a capacity of 5 - 6 stands are probably things like cathedrals, a building with a capacity of 4 stands is something like a village church and it's attached heavily walled cemetery, or something with the real life footprint of La Haye Sainte. This means most of my modular 'town sections' will need to be divided into two smaller sections with small dice to indicate relative position and capacity. Most of my 'town sections' have a 7"x9" footprint, one or two buildings and a walled enclosure physically capable of holding 4 to 8 stands: I made them to represent something the size of a hamlet / village quarter / town section. I love 'em but this game requires something else.

That all sounds very simple but, all four of us read the Buildings rules the other night and not one of us read the rules as that. Surprising, because it's almost a cut and paste rule from classic Piquet by Bob Jones. Now I understand how it works I'm more than happy to play it - I wasn't happy to play the rule as suggested the other night - columns of attack charging into buildings, only becoming disordered after melee, I ask you!

March Column: As far as I can see (I'm happy to be corrected), this a case of a rule being inferred several times but never actually stated as a plain and simple rule - March Columns cannot charge. It certainly isn't disqualified in the charge rules section that lists the other things that are disqualified from charging. It was only the absence of factors for March Column and Line in the Attacker's Melee Combat Table that led me to try and find the rule that disqualified a March Column. A simple rule oversight but one that lost me an hour of my life. Eventually, the line in the Intimidate order section "Note, a cavalry unit in March Column cannot be given the Intimidate order, they aren't ready to charge." clinched it. 

Finally, a constant bugbear of mine and my last dig at the rules is this. What is the rule for crossing bridges in the face of the enemy? My thought, class the bridge as a building except you don't move in but cross. What is it about bridges?

There it is. My first overall view of the rules after three sessions. Even given my misgivings over the rules not being for a table the size of mine, and some rules being a bit hard to understand or vague, I'm going to keep to my original score because the rules play even better than I thought they would: A solid eight, verging nine out of ten. 

Excellent rule set. Buy 'em!

BTW: For those looking for card sleeves (its an expensive deck of cards - 1 per ruleset only) I also managed to get hold of this pack of clear card sleeves. This is the perfect size for the cards and being clear on the back allows the back of the cards to be seen as well as the front. Enough for the deck with four spares left over - Amazon £3.99


Daniel Moreno said...

Nice review! I like the change you made with not removing stands. One question I have though is, wouldn't it make more sense to measure from center of firing unit to center of receiving unit?


Maybe but, middle to nearest has become something of a standard measurement here- everyone knows it, generally likes it, and complies. It's often best, when making changes to change to the usual, if you get my drift.

Daniel Moreno said...

Oh yes, I know that well enough as I run most of the rules for my group as well. Again, enjoyed the review and your table and figs are amazing, thanks again!

Rob said...

I've been wavering over whether to get this set for a while - after reading your experience / impressions (and like you being a fan of Piquet) I've ordered a set - can't wait for them to arrive. Thanks for the write up.

David said...

An interesting and informative piece which I'm confident will be useful to many. I can't see us trying them though, new rules and aging memory being my issue! I enjoyed reading your review though, and seeing your toys. I do agree with not removing stand losses too.

45thdiv said...

You say two players per side is about the right amount. Would you say that more than that would be best with another card deck?


I think it's probably best one on one.

As we played it earlier in the week (see post) it rattled along at a fair lick but every player slows the pace and players will get to do less in the time available. The rules says multi-player games should be played as a series of one on ones, played side by side, going down the length of the table, each played as a separate battle and each player having his own army, Div Com, etc. We didn't go that way because we wanted interaction between all of the players but, I would see this as one way to go with three or more players a side just so the all the players were always involved.

Allowing all the players on one side to go at the same time without artificial boundaries would probably work (and would allow speedier play) but, at the intersections between players, I suspect that might mean players would seek advantage by playing cards in tandem against a single enemy - this I'm sure, even though it would be thoroughly unsporting, would become something of a tactic and might slant the way the game is played - but you couldn't really blame players for doing it.

However, I don't think this set of rules was ever written for big bash events and think it would struggle to perform well in that situation - a pity but, it is what it is.

I think for more than four players a side, one deck a side would also be the way to go.

Rupert Clamp said...

Hi James, how do they compare to General D'Armee? Ta. Rupert


I've never played General D'Armee. I have played General de Brigade / Grand Manner and think SoN is a much better, more interesting game. Then again, I'm a game player not a Napoleonic buff.

Chris said...

Thanks for the review and always enjoy your blog. Played my first game using the rules and was surprised at how deadly are skirmishers. Indeed, my French opponent’s skirmishers shot to pieces a Russian infantry brigade and cavalry brigade. Basically our lines were static due to skirmishing. Now, I probably didn’t play the game very well and definitely thought the mechanics were interesting but the skirmishing seemed overpowering. Perhaps we did not play it correctly.

Peter Clarke said...

I really appreciated this review, and I'm strongly tempted to follow your four base units ploy. I presume you don't remove a base when skirmishers are sent out; does it reduce the base count though? I presume it does., but I'm uncertain about the overall effect of this happening.


Thanks, it works very well, especially now that I've done dice cell trays for holding the stand count (black) and disruption (white) dice. See later posts.

It has virtually no effect on the game except that you must do ranges and so forth middle to nearest and be prepared to fudge 'how many can shoot' on that basis - which in big games makes thing simpler / faster anyway, and is how we generally do things for most / all games: Anything to rid us of the 'fuss and bother' of individual stand counting and the resultant points of 'argument' that result from being so pernickety in the first place.

If you send out skirmishers you reduce the stand count on your stand strength dice.

vlad48 said...

James, I've been playing this game since it launched and have been a big booster for its many innovations and mechanics. However, I do have a fairly serious question to you and other SoNers about your experience as to how the game progresses.
Warwick wanted rules that got skirmishers more involved - and these certainly do - handsomely. However, does the "punching up" of the skirmishers - especially for the French (at least in my games) mean that regular formations in line or attack column don't come to grips often enough, and sometimes not at all, as skirmish fire dominates, especially with its 20 pace range.
We find in our games that assaulting brigades often rely on Cautious Advance and attached battery fire for extended periods, instead of closing as rapidly as you'd historically expect. Is anyone else experiencing this or are we perhaps just playing too cautiously?


Hi Vlad,

Agree. It's proving to be a bit of an issue. Last week we decided to halt 'skirmish deciding outcome' by imposing a limiting factor. We decided that ALL SKIRMISH HITS were subject to a discipline test saving throw. It pulled the teeth of skirmishers in a very quick and easy way.

Closing to volley fire range and withdrawing skirmishers suddenly gained in appeal.

Amtmann B. said...

Impressive photos as always. I love your terrain - not too much, not too plain.