NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO is an grand tactical (division/brigade) level simulation of the climactic clash between the French Army, under Napoleon, and the Anglo-Allied Army, commanded by the Duke of Wellington, near the Belgian Hamlet of Waterloo, on 18 June, 1815. NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO was originally mailed, at no charge, to new subscribers of S&T Magazine. It was intended to be a simple, introductory game for those new to conflict simulations. The game was published in two versions: the original (two-color) brown on tan edition which was offered during the very early days of SPI (beginning in 1971); and a later (1979) edition, in which SPI reformatted the rules, colorized the game map, and added a colored title sheet. NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO was designed by James F. Dunnigan, and first published in 1971 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).


Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte astride his stallion Marengo at Waterloo.

The morning of 18 June 1815 dawned cold and overcast, but with the promise of fairer weather as the day wore on. It had rained steadily during the previous day and through much of the night. The change in weather was a welcome relief to the soldiers who were bivouacked in the open. With the morning’s first light, thousands of men stirred and stoked their campfires; those among them who had found food — often no more than a potato — ate, and were happy to have anything at all. Two armies, only a mile or two apart, began the mundane business of preparing for battle. The shambling disorder of milling men and snorting horses gradually gave way to the discipline of the military camp. And, on the commands of their officers and other ranks, men began to assemble: noisy chaos gave way to order; companies came together to become battalions, and then battalions assembled and became regiments. With an unexpected sort of rough grace, the regiments formed into columns and, on the shouted orders of their officers, thousands of grim-faced soldiers gradually began to array themselves across the valley from each other; each in their own carefully-dressed lines.

On the southern side of the field, the regiments of the Armée du Nord marched past their recently-returned emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Astride his Arabian stallion Marengo, the aging and now ailing Napoleon reviewed and acknowledged the cheering ranks of marching French troops as if they were passing by on parade. Across the still muddy field that stretched between the two hosts, Wellington rode onto a low ridge and, having already personally seen to the initial disposition of his men, dismounted from his horse and reclined in the shade of a tree. Once both armies had formed for battle, relative quiet again settled over the mud and beaten-down grass that would soon be the stage for the coming martial drama.

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, inspires his troops at Waterloo.

Initially, despite the flurry of preparation on both sides, nothing much happened. The morning sun climbed higher in the sky, and the soldiers of the two armies: 67,000 men under the Duke of Wellington; and 72,000 commanded by Napoleon; all stood in bright, multi-colored ranks facing each other across a shallow valley matted with rain-soaked grass. Movement and even time, itself, seemed to come to a stop; in spite of all of the early morning’s bustle and hurried activity: no one on either side of the valley, except for quartermasters and dispatch riders, stirred from their serried ranks. Hours passed. Both splendidly uniformed hosts stood silently, fixed in place, like insects in amber. Then, abruptly and without warning, the stillness was broken. The soldiers in the ranks of both armies were suddenly startled by the first sounds of canon fire coming from somewhere on the French left. The Battle of Waterloo had begun at last with a French bombardment of the Anglo-Allied outpost that occupied the château of Hougoumont. No one then, or now, can be sure of the exact time of these first canon shots, but the cannonade probably began around 11:30 am. Whenever it was, the French artillery had sounded the overture for the bloody drama to come. The unnatural quiet of the morning had finally ended for the men warily watching each other across a sodden expanse of ryegrass. This tiny corner of Belgium had become a battlefield, and the morning’s unexpected quiet would now — on a patch of muddy ground no more than two miles wide and two-thirds of a mile across — give way to the noisy, cruel, and violent business of war.


NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO is, as the title implies, a two-player simulation of, quite probably, the most famous single military engagement in history. At Waterloo, the two greatest generals of their age, Napoleon and Wellington, faced each other across a battlefield in Belgium for the first and only time in their long military careers. On the fateful morning of June 18th, 1815, the out-numbered Wellington had decided to offer battle to the French army confident that, unbeknownst to Napoleon, the Prussian army, under Marshal Blucher, planned to march to the Iron Duke’s aid. Thus, NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO is a race to see if Napoleon’s troops can break the poly-glot Anglo-Allied army before the Prussians arrive to turn the tide of the battle against the French. The game is played in game turns, each of which is composed of a French followed by Prussian Anglo-Allied (P.A.A.) player turn. Each player turn follows the same sequence, and is divided into two simple phases: the Movement Phase; and the Combat Phase.

NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO presents beginning players with game mechanics that are both simple and intuitively logical. To keep things uncomplicated, stacking is prohibited and terrain effects are minimal. In addition, because of the limited time-scale of the game, there are no supply rules. Zones of Control (ZOCs) are both 'rigid' and 'sticky'. This means that units must stop upone entering an enemy ZOC and may not exit such a ZOC except as a result of combat. In addition, combat between adjacent units is mandatory and is resolved using a traditional 'Odds Differential' Combat Results Table (CRT). Interestingly, although it is an introductory game, NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO does expose players to a number of useful game concepts; these basic concepts include: “locking” Zones of Control, Ranged Artillery, and the importance of Morale. And, while the consensus among experienced players is that the French have a marked advantage, it is still a surprisingly enjoyable game to play for both the French and the P.A.A. players. Player victory depends on the elimination of enemy units. The goal of each side is to inflict sufficient casualties on the other to cause the Demoralization of the enemy army. Each game turn represents one hour of real time, and a complete game is ten turns long.

NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO offers players only the Historical Scenario, and there are no optional rules. However, based on this introductory title’s wide-spread, if unexpected popularity, Dunnigan decided to revisit and upgrade his original design. The result of this second look, by the game’s original designer, was the Advanced NAW EXPANSION KIT. This expansion, which included new, more-detailed rules (stacking was permitted and artillery attacks were resolved separately) and an expanded number of new (brigade-strength) replacement counters, was intended to meet the demands of those players who already owned the basic game, but who wanted to add increased tactical complexity and realism to the original simulation.


Every once in awhile, I still dig out and set-up my old, much-worn, brown on tan copy of NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO, and whenever I do, I still feel a momentary rush of nostalgia for the early days of wargaming. This was not my first wargame, but it was the first of Dunnigan’s designs that I actually liked. I suspect that in this regard, I am probably not alone. It is also one of the best 'introductory' conflict simulations ever published, and it still holds up as an enjoyable “beer and pretzels” game, even today. But over and above all that, this simple little game also turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be a ground-breaking design. Ironically, the basic game system first introduced in NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO has proven, over time, to be one of the most popular and durable game platforms ever devised. Clean, simple, and eminently playable, the NAW Game System became the standard design architecture for most of SPI’s subsequent Napoleonic games, many of its Civil War games, and even a few titles that dealt with more modern combat situations. Thus, this game system appears in a broad array of later SPI titles such as BORODINO, AUSTERLITZ, the NAPOLEON AT WAR Quadrigame, the NAPOLEON’S LAST BATTLES Quadrigame, the BLUE & GRAY I and II Quadrigames, ROAD TO RICHMOND, 6th FLEET, and BATTLE FOR GERMANY, just to name a few.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: one hour per game turn
  • Map Scale: unstated
  • Unit Size: brigade/division
  • Unit Types: infantry, cavalry, and artillery
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: below average
  • Solitaire Suitability: high
  • Average Playing Time: 1-2 hours

Game Components:

  • One 17” x 23” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Track, Terrain Effects Chart, Combat Results Table, Demoralization Track, and Starting Set Up Locations incorporated)
  • 80 ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 6” x 11½” map-fold Rules Booklet
  • One 8½” x 11” back-printed SPI Introductory Letter with examples of play

Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Reviews of Waterloo, Day of Battle, and The Campaigns of Napoleon and Face of Battle; books that I recommend as highly-readable sources for those visitors who are interested in further historical background.

For decorating the game room with a Napoleonic theme:


  • Oh how I loved playing this game back in HS and when I would come home on leave from the Army. Both the Basic & Expansion were so much fun. I enjoyed the updated version in '79 even with the white background French.
    The game has stood well the test of time

  • Greetings Kim:

    No argument here; not only is this probably the best "introductory" wargame ever published, but it even offers more experienced players a challenging little contest.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • I love this game (and am looking forward to its big sister, Borodino).

    It is highly portable and playable. Two weekends ago, I played NaW with my wife, during the Superbowl, in Kaua'i....

    I now know what Heaven looks like.

  • Greetings Gideon:

    Yes, I and my friends played this charming little game -- as a great "decompressor" -- for years after SPI first brought it out. In the case of 'BORODINO', John Young's superb and highly-playable follow-on to Dunnigan's "classic" design, I haven't played it in years, although I wouldn't turn a match down if the opportunity presented itself, even now.

    On the other hand, while I haven't revisited 'NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO' or 'BORODINO' for many years, I have played virtually all of the titles in the 'NAPOLEON AT WAR' quadrigame as recently as just last year.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Borodino turned out to be dull (not much strategy, overlong). We finally played the original Waterloo (http://galacticjourney.org/june-2-1962-war-and-more-war-whats-new-in-gaming-1962/) and that was fun, but I don't know if we'd do it again.

    NaW is the classic.

  • Greetings Again Tak:

    Yes, the original SPI introductory game, NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO, is indeed a classic. However, for my own part, I actually prefer the SPI rendition of the battle, LA BELLE ALLIANCE -- which largely uses the same game architecture as NAW -- that appeared in Kevin Zucker's NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLES. If you have the opportunity to pick up a copy of this "quadri-game," I strongly recommend that you do so.

    Best Regards, Joe

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