HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDOn 22 September 1805, the seasoned General Mack, accompanied by Archduke Ferdinand, advanced at the head of 70,000 Austrian soldiers towards the Black Forest crossings near the Rhine River. This advance, Mack believed, would serve two ends: it would intimidate the pro-French Bavarians into abandoning their support for Napoleon; and it would also discourage any French forces in the area from moving east into the Danube River Valley.
The Austrian military commander was largely unconcerned about the threat of French offensive operations because, like most of the senior Austrian and Russian officers and nobles of the newly-formed Third Coalition, he believed that Napoleon would, as he had in the past, make his main effort against the Coalition forces in Italy. In the unlikely event that Napoleon’s army did strike east, Mack’s Austrians were expected only to temporarily slow the French advance until Kutusov’s Russians, approaching by way of Vienna, could join with Mack’s troops on the Danube. Thus, in keeping with this plan and supremely confident of allied prospects, Mack had decided that his army should adopt, as its center of operations, the ancient fortress of Ulm which was strategically sited at the confluence of the Iller and Danube Rivers.
This decision, it soon became obvious, was a costly miscalculation on the part of General Mack. It would not be his last. Within a week of the Austrian army’s ill-considered advance to Ulm, powerful French forces suddenly appeared without warning to the Austrian army’s front; and Coalition misapprehensions as to Bonaparte’s plan of campaign were immediately dispelled. Napoleon had again completely outwitted his enemies and seized the initiative by choosing to move directly against Austria, and not to march against the allied armies in Italy, as his Third Coalition adversaries expected.
The French offensive was stunning in its speed and ferocity. In the final three days of September, Napoleon force-marched the 210,000 men of the French Grande Armée east into Bavaria in search of a decisive engagement with the Austrian army. The French Emperor, with characteristic decisiveness and energy, had, through furious marching, catapulted his army against the allied forces in the Danube region before they could even react. Blinded by Murat’s cavalry and unsure as to either French strength or intentions, Mack hesitated. His delay proved fatal. By the time the Austrian commander realized his danger, it was already too late. Events were moving too quickly for the allied situation to be saved, and even as Mack’s army began a belated withdrawal towards the east, Napoleon’s hard-marching soldiers were already enveloping the allied flanks. Despite several courageous Austrian attempts to break through the French cordon, the Austrian commander and much of his army was trapped. The inevitable end to this Coalition debacle was not long in coming; almost exactly one month later, the unlucky General Mack was compelled to parade a force of 25,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry out of Ulm to surrender to the victorious French Army drawn up at the foot of the Michelsberg Heights.
Napoleon's Ulm campaign had been a military masterpiece: an entire enemy army had been destroyed at almost no military cost to Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Moreover, Ulm was only a portent of things to come for the now reeling allies: another military disaster still lay in the future for the surviving soldiers of the Third Coalition; and Napoleon’s star would reach its zenith near the Moravian village of Austerlitz on 2 December 1805.
LA GRANDE ARMÉE (1987) is a brigade/division level simulation of the series of campaigns waged by Napoleon against the various coalitions that united to oppose French military, economic, and political power in Central Europe from 1805 through 1815. Although this game shares the same title as the SPI game: LA GRANDE ARMÉE, that was designed by John Young and published fifteen years earlier in 1972; it is neither an expansion nor a refinement of the original game. Rather, it is much more reminiscent in feel and scale to Kevin Zucker’s design, NAPOLEON AT BAY. As an interesting aside (at least to me), Kevin Zucker was responsible for the four-color game maps in the new version; and they’re gorgeous. The cardboard game counters are easy to read and functional, but unlike those of many more recent Napoleonic titles, are not particularly colorful or visually interesting. Still, although significantly different from its predecessor, this newer version does offer an intriguing and richly-detailed approach to the problems confronting commanders during the wars of the Napoleonic Era. Regrettably, the game is not particularly accessible to beginning players: the rules, for example, are both lengthy and oddly-organized, and the game mechanics are not simple. Moreover, almost all of the additional simulation detail is unoriginal: in short, almost everything that sets this game apart from John Michael Young’s earlier SPI design can be traced to the game systems of other, widely-available Napoleonic games. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does suggest that this title’s author drew heavily on previous Napoleonic and Civil War designs for his simulation architecture and game mechanics.
The outline of the typical game turn in LA GRANDE ARMÉE (1987) reveals a great deal about the focus of the newer version’s design. Each game turn follows the same sequence of play: the Command Phase (both players secretly decide which of their commanders will command and which will receive orders); the Initiative Phase (the French player rolls to see who will move first); the Weather Phase; First Player Skirmish Phase; First Player Movement Phase; First Player Battle Phase; the Second Player Skirmish Phase; Second Player Movement Phase; Second Player Combat Phase; the joint Supply Phase; the joint Siege and Assault Phase; and the joint Rally Phase. Unlike the original 1972 version of LA GRANDE ARMÉE players certainly won’t finish the Ulm-Austerlitz scenario in a few hours; but for those looking for a detailed simulation of Napoleonic Warfare with a strong emphasis on command and control, and logistics, this game certainly attempts, at least, to fill the bill.
LA GRANDE ARMÉE (1987) offers eight comparatively short scenarios covering Napoleon’s operations against particular nations and/or coalitions; these are: the 1805 Campaign (France versus Austria and Russia); the 1806 Campaign against Prussia; the 1806-1807 Campaign (France versus Prussia and Russia); the 1809 Campaign against Austria; the 1812 Campaign against Russia; the 1813 Campaign (France versus Russia and Prussia, and eventually Austria and Sweden); the 1814 Campaign for the defense of France against the same coalition; and finally, the Campaign of the 100 Days (France versus Prussia and Britain). In addition to the shorter scenarios, the game also offers three Grand Campaign scenarios: Grand Campaign I (1805-1807); Grand Campaign II (1812-1814); and Grand Campaign III (1805-1815).
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONNapoleon Bonaparte once observed that, in the course of his long military career, he had fought over seventy battles. He was not exaggerating. His record, whatever one’s personal opinion of the French Emperor, is one of amazing martial accomplishments. Thus, it is not surprising that the many campaigns of Napoleon have, over the years, provided game designers with a bountiful source of subjects for conflict simulations. Whatever else can be said about it, the Napoleonic Era is simply a great historical period to draw upon for game topics. Most Napoleonic games, not surprisingly, have focused on individual battles. In addition to specific Napoleonic battles, however, a number of designers have also looked at particular campaigns for inspiration, and many of these designs — NAPOLEON’S LAST BATTLES (1976), 1815 (1975), LEIPZIG (1972), and 1812 (1972), to name a few — have been both interesting as simulations, and enjoyable as games. A few foolhardy designers, however, have been still more ambitious and have attempted to simulate the whole or at least the greater part of the Napoleonic Wars.
LA GRANDE ARMÉE (1987), like WAR & PEACE (1980) and EMPIRES IN ARMS (1986), just to name two other examples, is an attempt to simulate — on a strategic/operational level — both individual campaigns and, for those gamers with too much time on their hands, the whole (or at least the greater part) of the Napoleonic Wars. In the case of this particular title, the designer’s success in meeting this complex set of simulation goals has, to say the least, been notably uneven. When it comes to modeling individual Napoleonic campaigns, LA GRANDE ARMÉE — like a number of other, earlier titles — seems to do a workmanlike, if uninspired, job of it. However, to actually play the game requires a bit of patience and inventiveness on the part of players because gaps in the game system seem to show up at the most inopportune of times. This has led some critics of the game to suggest that the TSR version of LA GRANDE ARMÉE is unplayable; that's probably going a little too far. On the other hand, as noted earlier, this new title really introduces nothing that is truly original or innovative into the Napoleonic design mix; which is to say that the game system when it can be teased into working, still feels very familiar in a derivative, "cut and paste" sort of way. To make matters worse, the “really big” 1805-1815 Campaign Game III just doesn’t — based on my own admittedly limited experience — seem to hang together at all when it comes to presenting a seamless, integrated simulation of all of Napoleon's major campaigns in Central Europe. To be fair, this is neither unusual nor that much of a surprise. Because of the very real limits that time and money impose on any commercial game’s development, it is very rare for a campaign monster game to work exactly as the designer intended, without post-publication tweaks to fix the inevitable problems that didn’t show up during the developer’s original play tests. Still, while these types of design stumbles may have been acceptable when GDW's DNO first appeared in 1973, it is really frustrating to find the same types of problems in a game published fourteen years later.
So where does all this leave us? First, although I am personally very fond of the older, John Young version of LA GRANDE ARMÉE, I am, none-the-less, willing to weakly recommend LA GRANDE ARMÉE (1987) as a flawed, but salvagable game system for anyone with the willingness to do the many fixes necessary to make the game work. However, for the player with a serious and wide-ranging interest in the various Central European campaigns of the Napoleonic Era, this title, although interesting, is probably more trouble than it is worth. Stated differently, as a comprehensive simulation treatment of the most important decade of the Napoleonic Wars, 1805-1815, I am only barely persuaded that LA GRANDE ARMÉE can, even with a considerable amount of post-publication player input, be made to deliver a manageable and realistic simulation of 19th Century European warfare. In view of that, when it comes to doing a good job of recreating, in abstract form, the entire Napoleonic Era, I am therefore strongly disposed to favor the less orthodox, more politically-grounded, and inclusive EMPIRES IN ARMS over LA GRANDE ARMÉE (1987). EMPIRES IN ARMS may be weak as a military simulation, but it covers all of Europe and it still seems to get a surprising number of this fascinating historical period’s other 'important' elements right. And besides, its graphics are uniformly excellent, and with a decent mix of knowledgeable, experienced opponents, it is a real blast to play!
- Time Scale: 1 week per game turn
- Map Scale: 15 miles per hex
- Unit Size: units are represented by strength points (one strength point of infantry or cavalry = 1000 men; one strength point of artillery = approximately 30 guns)
- Unit Types: leaders, infantry, guard infantry, light cavalry, heavy cavalry, dragoons, artillery, horse artillery, bridge, supply train, depot, partisan and information markers
- Number of Players: two-four (teams highly recommended, particularly for the campaign games)
- Complexity: medium/high
- Solitaire Suitability: low
- Average Playing Time: 4-200 hours (depending on scenarios)
- Four 22” x 34” hexagonal grid Map Sheets (with Turn Record Chart, Terrain Key/Terrain Effects Charts, Combat Results/Skirmish Tables, March/Forced March Attrition Tables, Weather Table, Minor Powers & Provinces Chart, Unit Construction Chart, and French Victory Point Track incorporated)
- 1,200 back-printed ½” cardboard Counters
- One 8½” x 11” Rules Booklet
- One 8½” x 11” Booklet of Army Organization Sheets
- One 8¾” x 11½” flat 20 compartment plastic Storage Tray with clear plastic cover
- One 9” x 11¾” x 2” bookcase-style cardboard Game Box
See my blog post Book Review of this title that I recommend for further historical background.
Here's a Giclee print map of the battle available in various sizes that is great for a Napoleonic themed game room's wall.