Goonhammer Historicals is our series looking at the incredibly diverse world of historical wargaming – different scales, different eras, different rulesets. Today in Goonhammer Historicals we look at getting started with gaming in the Napoleonic Wars, from the British declaration of war in 1803 to Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.
For many historical gamers, Napoleonics are historical gaming. Though World War 2 has become the most popular setting in recent years, for many decades Napoleonics were the bread and butter of wargaming, and even today it is one of the most played eras in all of history. The figure of Napoleon is a compelling one, but the complex tactics, vast scale and sweeping battles of the period are even more so. It is a natural fit for mass battle gaming, but there has been a vogue in the last couple of years for smaller-scale conflicts as well.
Though there are a multitude of theatres and conflicts to portray, there is no doubt that the most popular of them all is the 100 Days Campaign, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington’s victory, aided by European allies, is instilled in British culture to this day, and there are few people without at least a passing knowledge of the battle and personalities involved. Also popular for wargamers is the Peninsular War, known for messy running battles, small skirmishes in mountainous terrain, and some fierce fighting.
Distinguishing between the end of the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars is often difficult, but broadly for wargaming purposes when we talk about the Napoleonic wars we’re talking about four different specific periods.
War of the Third Coalition
Earlier on in the wars, Napoleon was seriously considering an invasion of Britain, but before this could be put into action he needed to achieve naval dominance. He came up with a plan to achieve this, threatening British colonial interests to divide their fleets and attempted to tackle them separately, alongside allies from Spain. Though land battles absolutely were common throughout this period between France and Britain, and their various allies, it is the naval conflict that looms largest, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar. Lord Nelson’s victory there, at the cost of his own life, would ensure British naval dominance for nearly a century. It ended Napoleon’s hope of an invasion of the British Isles, and forced him to focus on his continental wars instead. This is the golden age for Napoleonic naval warfare, and replaying the Battle of Trafalgar is something that many wargamers aspire to.
The Peninsular War
Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsular became one of the most enduringly fascinating period of the Napoleonic wars, as the British forces reinforced the beleaguered Portuguese and fought against the French armies who had made huge gains early on. It also marked a point of considerable decline in the quality of the French armies, as stretched supply lines and attrition forced less skilled soldiers into service. For those looking to play skirmish-level conflicts it’s the perfect choice, as the mountainous terrain made traditional warfare much more difficult. It is where the term guerrillas comes from, and the vicious ambush fighting elevated the British rifle-equipped skirmishers to a position of prestige, which would eventually change warfare forever.
The Invasion of Russia and the War of the Sixth Coalition
Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia has gone down in history as one of the greatest military blunders of all time. Historians are a little more sympathetic to it now, but this was really the true turning point in the French leader’s fortunes, as his advance into Russia and his many logistical issues and military defeats there were capitalised on by a new coalition on his western front. Caught between multiple forces, his lines stretched thin and desperate for victory, this is period of the most intense and brutal battles of the entire period. For those looking to portray vast vistas and sweeps of warfare in a huge number of regions between many difference forces, this is the period to choose.
The 100 Days and Waterloo
Probably the most iconic part of these wars in British culture, the War of the Seventh Coalition pitted a restored Napoleon against a broad coalition of opponents. Though Napoleon won several early clashes, it would all lead up to the sprawling, chaotic Battle of Waterloo. The victory of British and their allies would end the wars finally, and establish British dominance for a century. Though it is often depicted as purely a battle between the British and French forces, there were several nations at the battle itself, and in particular the Prussian army was instrumental in victory for the coalition forces. There is no single campaign or battle that is gamed more than this, and it is probably the single most iconic battle in all of wargaming. You can play Waterloo at any scale, in a dozen games, with support from a dozen or more manufacturers.
What games should I play?
Here are a handful of the most popular games designed for use in the Napleonic era. Here more than in most of these articles we’re truly only scratching the surface, as there are dozens if not hundreds of games focused on the Napleonic Wars. These however are a good representation of those which are most accessible, popular, modern or just best-liked by the Goonhammer Historicals team.
Sharp Practice by Too Fat Lardies
Perennial favourites at Goonhammer HQ, TFL actually have four Napoleonic games (five if you count their republication of the original Kriegsspiel rules used to train Prussian military officers), but Sharp Practice is our absolute favourite of the bunch. Perhaps a little ahistorical in scale, it’s designed for groups of 50-80 soldiers a side, and the primary setting offered is the Pensinular War (where this kind of fighting is a little more plausible). It’s fast and furious, with formations being a key element of the game but not everything. There are also some absolutely wonderfully characterful touches, such as the random events table, and the officer personalities, making it extremely fun and narrative to play. We’ll have a full review of the game in a couple of weeks.
Black Powder by Warlord Games
The game that Warlord Games built their company on, Black Powder is the quintessential wargame for massed battle Napoleonics. It covers other conflicts than just the Napoleonic Wars, but it’s hard to claim that they are not at the heart of the offering. It focuses on the battalion as the standard tactical unit, which makes it a good fit for brigade or division level play. It’s possible to play at a corps or army level, but probably you’re better off looking at something like a hex and chit game for that, than a miniatures wargame.
Though the game is intended primarily for 28mm miniatures, you don’t need to feel obliged to keep to this as there are robust rules in the book for playing at other scales, and once again the Goonhammer Historicals team will admit to feeling like 6mm or 10mm is probably the ideal scale for this kind of conflict. You will have to accept that each figure represents dozens or hundreds of others, regardless of scale however, as the sheer number of soldiers in a battalion makes it impractical to do anything else. Running it at 6mm with a 1:1 figure to soldier ratio would make for an impressive demonstration game, but it would require tens of thousands of miniatures and a church hall to play in.
You can get the Black Powder rules from the Warlord website (affiliate link)
Black Seas by Warlord Games
Ever prolific, Warlord also make the most prominent Napoloenic naval wargame on the market, Black Seas. We’ve included it here because if you want to do age of sail naval wargaming it’s by far and away the most accessible, and though the rules have a few bumps and hangups, it’s well supported by Warlord and updates are regular, so nothing it’s going to be too game breaking for very long. It also have a really fantastic little selection of ships to play with, that after painting you hang and rig paper sails on yourself, making this just the most compelling game for your dad and retired sea captains everywhere.
You can buy Black Seas from the Warlord website (affiliate link)
General de Brigade by Partizan Press
The grand daddy of Napoleonics in many ways, published for the first time more than 20 years ago and still going strong, General de Brigade is a combination of enormous amounts of attention to detail, and surprisingly simple mechanics. It’s fair to say that to a new player these simple mechanics might be hard to spot under the weight of words and complex diagrams, which is a shame, because with a more streamlined presentation it would likely be an easier sell. In its third edition and beloved by thousands of gamers, it’s designed for division-level play, fielding several brigades of troops. The battalion is the smallest tactical unit, which puts it roughly level in terms of scale with Black Powder.
Bataille Empire by Herve Caille
Authored by Herve Caille originally in French, Bataille Empire is corps-level miniature gaming, something that is often avoided due to its sheer scale. And scale is definitely the focus of the rules, as they cannot be called anything other than eye-wateringly comprehensive. If you are looking for a game that lets you model almost every single element of the complex chaos of Napoleonic era war, then this is definitely the ruleset for you. You’ll find dozens of army lists, national characteristics, specific lists for specific battles, a dizzying array of basing, scale, and even measurement options, all intended to let you use the rules to portray a game with whatever collection you have as accurately as possible. It’s perhaps a little much for our tastes, and people may be turned off by the complexity and level of detail, but if you want the Full Package from a wargame for this era, it’s hard to claim this is anything else.
What miniatures should I buy?
As ever, if Victrix offer miniatures for an era, we’re going to recommend them heartily. Their Napoleonic offerings aren’t as comprehensive as some manufacturers, but it’s hard to be unhappy about the quality and cost of the miniatures available. They offer a variety of boxes at 28mm covering the British, French, and Austrians, with a variety of period within the wars covered in terms of uniforms and equipment. They also have a range of 54mm plastic Napoleonics, some of the only plastic 54mm figures for any era on the market, that are very nice indeed, so if you have a hankering for some absolute units, maybe this is the place to look.
We’ll have a miniature review of one of their newest kits – the Imperial Lancers – in the next few weeks.
The Perry brothers love their Napoleonics, and it’s absolutely obvious when you check out their model ranges – there’s a huge variety of absolutely amazing sculpts and kits on offer for very reasonable prices. They offer a range of plastic boxes, and also an extensive metal miniatures range for almost all the participants in the wars. The Perry sculpts are extremely characterful and distinct, and the plastics in particular are lovely and crisp, as well as being excellent value.
We’ll have a miniature review of their French Elite Companies set in a few weeks time.
Warlord offer the most comprehensive range of plastic Napoleonic miniatures out of any manufacturer, covering British, French, Austrians, Russians, Prussians and Portuguese with plastic kits, and supporting metal miniatures. They also offers some excellent starter armies, and starter sets for Black Powder. If you want 28mm Napoleonic miniatures, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for at Warlord. The quality is not always completely consistent, as the range has been built up over many years, so you may find sculpts you prefer elsewhere, but if you are looking for something and no one else seems to carry it, you can almost certainly go to Warlord for it.
Baccus as usual are our goto for small scale miniatures, and their Napoleonics range is extensive and of a high quality. Many of these sculpts were redone recently, so their line is up to date, and they even have minis for some of the less common nations in the wars such as the Duchy of Warsaw.
Editor’s note: this article contains affiliate links. These have been labelled appropriately where they are included. For more, please see our affiliate links policy.