Wednesday 26 July 2023

Waterloo: "I have never felt so emotionally immersed in a game!"

The grand projet of compiling a book of BBB scenarios for all of Napoleon's bloodiest, biggest battles approaches completion. One rather important ingredient of that set is Waterloo. We first visited this for the bicentenary in 2015, when we did a demo game at our local military museum; reprised it later that year; then I ran it for my US buddies in 2016. Mark has now taken my original scenario and tweaked and polished it a bit. This week we playtested his version.

Everyone knows Waterloo. Napoleon is trying to prevent Wellington and Blücher from combining against him, so he needs to beat Wellington before Blücher turns up. In game terms, he has to hold 4 of the 5 Objectives for a win or 3 for a draw. These are Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Papelotte, which define the Allied line (Papelotte also represents a wedge between Wellington and the Prussians); and Plancenoit and Mont St Jean representing the French and Allied lines of communications. The French also lose an objective if either of the two Old Guard infantry units becomes Spent. (I know there are wargamers who think it is stupid to make Hougoumont an objective. I refer you to my essay, 'Victory Conditions in Wargames'. See also the thoughts at the end of this post.)

Dave donned Picton's top hat. Crispin put on his Wellingtons. Phil, with his particular affection for d'Erlon's corps, took the French right, leaving me to command the left and the Guard. Mark refereed and controlled the Prussians once they arrived.

The Allied line looked dauntingly solid. Phil and I decided not to attack it head-on. Our plan was an initial right hook with both d'Erlon and Lobau, while we built a grand battery to pummel the Allied centre. Reille was to shift right and sit behind the grand battery to keep us balanced. As for where to commit the Guard, that would depend how the first few turns went.

Eight pics below tell the story of how this plan worked out, followed by some reflections on the game as usual.

View from behind the French centre. Allied position on the ridge at top of pic. Hougoumont behind its orchard top left, La Haye Sainte top centre, Papelotte next right. D'Erlon's corps in the lead upper right, followed by Lobau around La Belle Alliance middle of pic. Reille is queuing up lower left, with the Guard bottom left. The Corsican ogre himself lower right, complete with Mameluke. (Nice armies, Mark, but come on - flock those bases, please!)

British view from behind a thin red (and green, black and blue) line along the sunken Ohain road atop the ridge, with a few reserves behind the centre in and around Mont St Jean, and garrisons posted forward in the three defensive bastions of Papelotte, La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. Note how the left is hanging in the air. This is what our right hook targeted, much to Dave's consternation.

One last panoramic pre-game shot, this time from the west. Top centre and left of picture are the woods through which the Prussians will eventually emerge. The Allied right is also somewhat open, though Hougoumont is an obstacle to any left hook and there is also Chassé's Dutch-Belgian brigade in Braine l'Alleud just out of shot at bottom left corner.

French Turn 3: plan view of almost the whole battlefield (still couldn't quite get Chassé in). D'Erlon was slow to move out, thanks to a series of poor activation rolls, but there are now six French units across the stream upper right beyond Papelotte and Smohain/Frischermont. Saxe-Weimar's Nassauers (not 'masseurs', Dave - that's a different game) have been expelled from Papelotte and are now Spent.

Close-up of the exploitation from Papelotte. Lobau's men are about to complete the rout of the Nassauers, then pile into Picton's best infantry and shove them back as well.

Now the French plan evolves. Lobau's success and the menace of Milhaud's cavalry on the Allies' left flank have drawn every reserve away from the Allied right. The grand battery has formed with Reille behind it in the centre. The time is right to commit the Guard and Kellermann's cuirassiers in a left hook. not least because there isn't much space anywhere else. Here we see them advancing along the ridge that leads around the left of Hougoumont. Green cubes denote 'Aggressive' and the purple counter 'Shock' - good things to have on your side when it comes to the assault.

The high point of Lobau's and d'Erlon's attack. Out of shot to the right, one of d'Erlon's divisions will storm an Allied artillery position and deliver deadly fire into the flank of the Hanoverian Landwehr bottom right. Top left, Allied reserves frantically march east to contain the breach. Top centre is our nemesis, the Household Brigade, kept in hand by Old Nosey himself. These heavy cavalry are about to unleash a series of devastating charges.

No photos of what ensued on the French left as I was too busy actually doing it. The left hook ran into some murderous Allied volleys but managed to push the supporting units back from Hougoumont. The Old Guard stormed the chateau, then survived a sanguinary counter-attack. The Allied right was in tatters, its fragile Dutch-Belgian formations Spent and the British ones severely reduced.

'Die Teutschen kommen!' The Prussians began arriving halfway through the battle. They reached the environs of Papelotte at the same time as the Household Brigade smashed d'Erlon. Lobau was unable to resist this fresh force on his flank and was brushed aside in turn. Papelotte was retaken, though the Prussian focus there meant Plancenoit was never threatened.

However, in the meantime, the grand battery had done its work and Reille had taken La Haye Sainte. Counter-attacks were bloodily repulsed and the Allied centre was largely shredded as well. Little stood between us and Mont-St Jean! Albeit our right was collapsing even faster than the Allied right and centre.

Thus, as night fell, the French held Plancenoit, La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont - another classic BBB honourable draw.


Waterloo - it's a classic. Obviously it gets played and replayed so much because it is so famous and such an emblematic pinnacle of a quarter-century of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. But it also gets replayed because it has genuine replay value. We players try all sorts of different plans to prove that we're smarter than Napoleon. Left hooks, right hooks, smashmouth, combinations thereof, and the ultimate question of where to commit the Guard ... Mark described our French plan this time as 'very elegant'. Maybe so, but it still didn't work!

Identifying (and identifying with) units. Another good thing about Waterloo is that the commanders, formations and regiments are so familiar. It definitely helps bring a game to life when we can talk about 'committing the Household Brigade' rather than 'those red cavalry', or say 'stand firm the 52nd!', or when Dave can command his beloved Nassauers, etc. That in turn helps with players' engagement with the game. Quote of the night: 'I don’t think I have ever felt quite so emotionally immersed in a game – from frustration to elation to admiration to regret and finally despair!' (and bear in mind this was not that player's first rodeo).

Marshalling large forces. Echoing what I said after January's Borodino game, with over 20 units a side you really feel as though you are shifting weighty masses of troops around the table. Committing the Guard becomes a much more substantial decision when it's five potent units (plus artillery) rather than just one or two. It definitely gives a meaty, bloody big battle feel and makes it easier to pretend you're a Marshal of France.

Hougoumont: red herring or precious prize? I mentioned the fact that some think it is stupid to make Hougoumont an objective. There is certainly a case to be made that the historical French attack on Hougoumont was poorly planned and executed and didn't need to happen when it did. I am less sure about whether Napoleon could have ignored entirely. In our game, it wasn't my initial focus - I wanted to win by scrubbing away the weaker and less well ensconced units supporting it - but the chateau was a thorn in my side, and I actually found I needed to storm the chateau to break the line behind it anyway. If Napoleon wants to ignore the chateau, that means ignoring the Allied right. What does he do instead? As the scenario stands, the French don't have to take Hougoumont to win, but making it an Objective rewards them if they do capture this key to unlocking one sector of the Allied position. I think that's reasonable.


  1. Interesting post and AAR. Prompted me to read your original post on victory points and reflect on if/how that relates to SYW/AWI/ECW. No conclusions yet! One to mull over.

    1. Good question. I suppose in that respect SYW/AWI/ECW form a transition period between ancient/medieval and modern. They're still basically linear warfare that's mainly about breaking up the enemy line. But firepower has improved enough to make defensive bastions such as redoubts or fortified villages useful in a way they weren't before. ChrisBBB

    2. Hi Chris. I finally gave this a bit more thought and methodically worked through Frederick II’s battles in the SYW (and only those to limit the scope to something manageable). To create wargames out of many of them, that do reflect historical imperatives, I’d argue it is advisable to set terrain objectives. E.g. Rossbach - the Franco-Imperial player would not act in any historical way without being set certain terrain objectives.
      For a battle that is, in my opinion, all about terrain objectives, have a look at Burkersdorf in 1762. Concentric columnar attacks on a prepared position, with not a contiguous line in sight. Each column had set targets to seize. This looks like it would fit right in your BBB sweet spot!

      I’m thinking about writing the whole sequence up as a blogpost.

    3. Thanks, Chris. I absolutely agree re Burkersdorf (a battle I'm reasonably familiar with) and you're probably right about Rossbach too. Likewise half a century earlier, Marlborough's 'Big Four' revolve around defensive bastions that make obvious objectives. Some of our group are collecting troops in tricornes and I am sure we will see SYW BBB games before too long.

    4. Years back I designed three Rossbach scenarios, one for an earlier edition of Twilight of the Sun-King (yes, I know the rules were for WSS), one for Volley & Bayonet and one for Might & Reason. All scenarios started when the Prussians crested Janus Hill, with the Allies strung out in marching columns before them. The victory conditions were for the Prussians to break the Allies by routing half of their units before a time limit. The Allies had a negative modifier for deploying from road column.

      For BBB, make the Allies passive, no positive modifier for road column moves, perhaps even a negative one for the first turn or two, some of the Empire infantry green and fragile, Prussians have destructive volleys, no Allied generals. Maybe Frederick gets to add his bonus to his 2nd in command.

      I recall some exciting games, except for one where the Prussians were cautious.

  2. Chris, you are cruel.
    I barely managed to avoid being drawn into WSS/GNW purchases at Joy of 6, after a hugely enjoyable BloodyBigBash event the day before. The last thing I need is another project. Then you go and do Waterloo.

    With Claymore fast approaching, I’d resigned myself to succumbing and was about to order ‘just a few foot and horse’ from WSS period. What harm would that do?
    Now look what you have done!! :(

    Like many of us, it all started as a schoolboy with the Little Red Airfix Book and Airfix figures painted using enamels.
    Your AAR and word of your “grand project” is now drawing me towards the Baccus catalogue and clicking the Napoleonic button of doom.
    Too late.. clicked it, and I’m now whistling “Victoire est a Nous!”
    Bash On! (Or should that be, "En Avant!")

    1. 'En Avant', I like it! You saw those nice Luetzen and Aspern-Essling games at the BBB Bash Day as well, right? I don't feel guilty about opening the Napoleonic door for you - only good things can come of this. :-) ChrisBBB

  3. Well I'm certainly looking forward to the Nappies book being published. Pre-lockdown Dave and I had a great game using the rules as they are for one of the pre-Waterloo battles and enjoyed it greatly. IIRC eventually French numbers won the day but at some cost due to sterling Prussian defence.

    For myself I would like to play Waterloo as the final game in the Hundred Days mini-campaign, to see how the earlier battles would affect the 'Big Day'. However I can't help but think if the French did win big at the start, Wellington would have just withdrawn and await the arrival of the Austrians etc in France to distract the Corsican Ogre.

    As for a plan of attack or defence, I always wonder why Wellington didn't commit the decent size force he kept on his right flank but at some distance away. Maybe they could not have arrived in time to affect the outcome? Plenty to mull over for sure which ever side you play.

    1. Oh, for sure, a Hundred Days mini-campaign would be even better than just Waterloo in isolation. One way is to make it just two games, one of Ligny+Quatre Bras on the same table and another of Waterloo+Wavre ditto. Another could be some sort of matrix decision structure linking the four battles. Of course, as you say, even if Napoleon did beat Wellington and Bluecher, he'd still surely have lost in the end - the odds were too great and everyone else had had enough of him, the coalition wasn't going to fall apart this time.

    2. "I always wonder why Wellington didn't commit the decent size force he kept on his right flank but at some distance away."
      Wellington, aware of Boney's tendency to go around flanks and attack supply lines, was very wary about his supply line to the coast. He hadn't paid much attention to Napoleon's central position strategy. But Napoleon's error was worse, assuming Blucher had gone away, despite previous cases in 1813 and 1814 where Blucher hadn't played fair.

  4. I know there are wargamers who think it is stupid to make Hougoumont an objective." Wellington seemed to think it important.

    "Nice armies, Mark, but come on - flock those bases, please!"
    An easier task would be to use the old school method - paint the bases green. Light shows the figures better than dark.

    1. Maybe so, but nobody* ever names their wargames rules after Wellington.
      *Apart from Buck Surdu

    2. How naughty, Chris, making me laugh on such a hot, steamy day.


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