PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN: Battle of Smolensk, July 1941 is an operational level (regiment/division) simulation — based loosely on the KURSK Game System — of the German operation to encircle and destroy the Russian forces around Smolensk, in the summer of 1941. This game was originally offered as the insert game in S&T #57 (Jul-Aug, 1976). Later it was reissued, first in the familiar SPI plastic flat-pack version featured here, and then — with modest changes to the counter mix and game map — by the Avalon Hill Game Company (TAHGC), in 1984. Interestingly, still another version of this title is currently under development at L2 Design Group and may soon make an appearance on the gaming scene. PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN was designed by James F. Dunnigan, and published in 1976 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).


General Guderian

On 3 July 1941, the German soldiers of Army Group Center resumed their eastern drive towards the Soviet capital, Moscow. The Wehrmacht’s advance had been stalled for almost a week while the panzer and motorized units of the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups waited for Army Group Center’s infantry to catch up with the fast-moving panzers. That wait was now at an end. The German strategy was for a repeat of the earlier encirclement battles that had already been extraordinarily successful near the Russo-German frontier. Thus, the planned operation was both simple and direct: it envisioned a massive pincer action with Hoth’s Panzer Group breaking through in the north, and Guderian’s panzers forcing a crossing of the Dnepr in the south. Once both panzer groups had gained freedom of maneuver, they would immediately push deep into the Russian rear and then turn towards each other to link up east of Smolensk. While all this was happening, the hard-marching German infantry divisions would be steadily fighting their way east to liquidate the Soviet units trapped in the steadily tightening pocket around Smolensk.

During the relatively quiet days before the battle, however, the Red Army had not been idle. In the short period between the end of June and the first days of July, the Russian High Command (STAVKA) had managed to deploy powerful elements from four Soviet Fronts (army groups) directly in the path of the German offensive. When the battle opened, four Russian armies — the 13th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd — were already dug into defensive positions in the path of the German advance, and two more Soviet armies — the 16th and the 19th — were rapidly forming to help meet the German attack. Although the early stages of the fighting would be around Orsha, Mogilev, and Vitebsk, the central focus of this campaign, both sides knew, would be the ancient, but strategically important Russian city of Smolensk.

Marshall Zhukov

The ultimate outcome of the Battle of Smolensk was a victory, of sorts, for both sides. Smolensk fell to the Germans on the 16th, but the panzers of Hoth and Guderian did not completely close the pocket until 26 July. Certainly, the Germans could claim to have won the battle in that Army Group Center satisfied its main operational objectives. However, for the first time in the war, sizeable numbers of Russians succeeded in fighting their way out of a major German encirclement. More importantly, those Soviet troops that escaped the pocket fell back to join in the defense of Moscow; and when the bitter winter battle for the Russian capital finally came, their presence at the front would help to deny Hitler any final chance for victory in 1941.

General Konev Talking with Officers

In retrospect, the Battle of Smolensk was clearly a critical turning-point in the first year of the War in the East. The defense of this important rail and road junction revealed a tenacious and determined Russian Army that, for the first time since the war began, was able to significantly delay the offensive operations of Army Group Center. Admittedly, the price that the Russians paid for this delay was high. The Soviets lost virtually all of the armor committed to the battle: probably at least 700 tanks; they also suffered somewhere between 45,000 and 85,000 men killed and wounded, and another 300,000 soldiers captured during the weeks of fighting. Nonetheless, the Red Army, to its credit, was still able to extricate over 200,000 troops from the pocket while successfully delaying the German drive towards Moscow for three crucial weeks. German losses, although significantly lower, are unknown.


PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN: Battle for Smolensk, July 1941 is a two-player simulation of Army Group Center’s operations — conducted in July of 1941 and spearheaded by both Guderian’s Second Panzer Gruppe and Hoth’s Third Panzer Gruppe — aimed at forcing the Dvina and Dnepr Rivers and seizing Smolensk in preparation for a future assault on Moscow. The various game counters represent the historical combat units that actually took part — or that could have played a role — in the actual battle. The game is played in game turns, each of which is divided into a Russian and a German player turn. A complete game turn is equal to one week of real time. The game is twelve turns long and spans the period from 3 to 26 July, 1941, during which the major events of the battle transpired. The game turn sequence for PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN is asymmetrical, and proceeds as follows (the Soviet player moves first): movement phase, combat phase, disruption removal phase, Soviet air interdiction phase; the German player turn then proceeds with an initial movement phase, combat phase, mechanized movement phase, disruption removal phase, and air interdiction phase. At the conclusion of both player turns, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins.

The actual mechanics of play for PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN are comparatively simple, but quite interesting, nonetheless. One of this title’s most notable innovations is that all Soviet combat units begin play with their combat strengths unknown, and with their ‘untried’ side face-up on the game map; thus, the actual combat strengths of Russian units are only revealed as a result of combat. Oddly enough, Jim Dunnigan also used 'untried' counters in INVASION AMERICA (another 1976 SPI title), but the effect of 'unknown strength' counters on the two games turned out to be both more plausible (from a simulation standpoint) and much more critical to play in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN than in his dystopian 'future war' invasion of America game. Other game rules are more conventional. Stacking, for both players, is limited to three combat units per hex; the Russian player, however, may stack up to four units in a single hex, as long as at least one of the units in the stack is a Leader unit. Interestingly, stacking limits apply only at the end of a movement phase, but throughout all of the combat phase; moreover, there is no penalty to stack or unstack with other friendly units during movement. Combat between adjacent enemy units is always voluntary. Defending stacks must be attacked as a unitary whole; in contrast, different units in an attacking stack may choose to attack the same or a different adjacent hex, or even to make no attack at all. Zones of control (ZOCs) are both rigid and sticky. This means that all units must halt immediately upon moving adjacent to an enemy unit and may not exit an enemy ZOC in a subsequent game phase, except as a result of combat. In addition, ZOCs block both supply paths and retreat routes; however, the presence of a friendly unit in the affected hex negates the ZOC in both cases.

The terrain and movement rules for PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, except for one significant innovation, are familiar and quite conventional. Terrain types are relatively few, and their effects on movement and combat are intuitively logical and hence, are easy to keep track of. For example, units defending in forest or major city hexes, or attacked exclusively through river hex-sides are doubled; units defending in clear terrain, in minor cities, or in swamp hexes, on the other hand, are unchanged. Terrain effects on movement are equally simple. All units, whatever their type, expend one movement point to enter a clear terrain hex and two points to enter a swamp hex. Mechanized units — unlike Leader, infantry, and cavalry units — expend two movement points to enter forest hexes, but both Russian Leaders and all mechanized units double their movement allowance when travelling along roads. Rivers, not surprisingly, pose an obstacle to both armies: German units pay two additional movement points to cross a river hex-side; while Russian units pay only one. In addition, a limited number of Soviet combat units (only) may travel by rail during each game turn. The one truly ground-breaking element in this title’s movement rules is the incorporation of a far more flexible type of ‘overrun combat’ into the movement phases of each game turn. Unlike earlier titles which also used ‘overrun combat’ as an integral part of their game systems, but required overwhelming odds for success; in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, ‘overruns’ do not require particularly large strength differentials to be effective. Even comparatively low-odds ‘overrun’ attacks are, with the right die-rolls, capable of clearing a path through an enemy line for the ‘overrunning’ and/or other phasing units to exploit. Moreover, the ‘overrunning’ unit or stack could, so long as it had sufficient movement factors, conduct more than one ‘overrun’ attack in any given movement phase. What this translates to, in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, is a game situation in which German mechanized units can potentially attack during the initial movement phase, again during the combat phase, and yet again during the mechanized movement phase.

Combat in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, as previously noted, can take one of two forms: ‘overrun’ or regular combat. These two types of combat differ in only one important respect: units defending against an ‘overrun’ are immediately ‘disrupted’ if they receive any type of adverse combat outcome other than an engaged result. ‘Disrupted’ units defend normally, but lose their ZOC and their ability to move or attack until their ‘disruption’ status is removed; in addition, ‘disrupted’ Soviet Leaders also lose their capacity to coordinate supply. Attacking units are never ‘disrupted’. Both types of combat utilize the same combat results table (CRT), and, as is typical of the KURSK family of SPI games, the CRT is relatively bloodless. Battle odds of 6 to 1 or higher are required before a defender eliminated (DE) result even appears on the CRT, and most combat results will take the form of attacker retreat (AR), defender retreat (DR), split results (requiring both sides to take a loss), and engaged results. All terrain, supply, and other effects on combat are cumulative. One intriguing feature of the game system is that German panzer and motorized divisions — if all component regiments are stacked in the same hex — are doubled in combat strength. Another innovative wrinkle in the combat rules is that losses, at the discretion of the owning player, may be taken either as ‘retreat hexes’ or as ‘step-losses’. This is actually a mixed blessing for the defender, however, because in the case of retreats, the attacker always chooses the retreat route for all defeated defending units. ‘Step-losses’ for the two armies are very different: each Russian combat unit or leader, when eliminated, counts as only a single step; German combat units, on the other hand, can all afford to lose multiple steps before being completely eliminated.

The supply rules impose very different requirements on the two sides. German units are in supply if they are able to trace a supply path of twenty or fewer movement points (not hexes) either from the west edge of the map or from an unblocked road that connects to the western map edge. Soviet combat units must trace their supply path to an undisrupted Leader/Headquarters unit that is then able to trace an unblocked line of communication, of any length, to the east edge of the map. Russian Leader units may coordinate supply for any number of friendly units, but all supplied units must be within range (determined by each leader’s rating) of the coordinating leader. All units of both sides are considered to be in supply on the game turn that they first enter the map. Supply effects are identical for both sides: unsupplied units are halved (fractions rounded down) for both movement and combat; ZOCs, however, are unaffected.

The winner of PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN is determined by victory points, and players may — depending on their accumulated victory points at game end — achieve one of three victory levels: marginal, strategic, or decisive. The German player gains victory points by capturing key Russian cities; he may also receive bonus points if the Soviet player chooses to bring in optional reinforcements at any point in the game. The Russian player, for his part, receives victory points (at the end of the game) for completely eliminating German mechanized and infantry divisions, and (instantly) for recapturing previously lost Soviet cities.

PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN offers only the Historical Game; there are no alternative scenarios. Also, there is only one optional rule: the ‘Evacuation of Soviet Leaders’ rule, which permits the Russian player, twice per game, to pick up a single surrounded Leader from the map and to then return the evacuated general to the game as a normal reinforcement during the next game turn.


General Rokossovsky with Commanders

The first time I sat down, back in 1976, to play my brand-new magazine copy of PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I assumed that the game would play pretty much like other, earlier KURSK type East Front titles. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In that first introductory match, I took the Russians and, in keeping with my usual aggressive style of play, attempted a forward defense of the central road and the southern Dnepr. By the fifth game turn, my main line of resistance had been broken and enveloped, and the fascist gangsters were pretty much roaming at will in the Soviet rear. Things just went downhill from there, and by game turn eight or nine, I was forced to acknowledge the obvious and resign. Clearly, I had seriously underestimated the underlying subtlety of what had seemed a familiar game system, and this lack of understanding had produced my unexpected and surprisingly lop-sided defeat. Where, I asked myself, had I gone wrong?

In reviewing this first match, I quickly concluded that I had not appreciated either the devastating effect of the ‘untried’ Soviet units rule, or the lethal potential of German ‘overruns’ to disrupt even a carefully-crafted Russian defense. Obviously, there was a lot more to this seemingly conventional East Front game than first met the eye. This was, I decided, definitely a case of live and learn. In the end, this first humbling experience, while momentarily damaging to my self-esteem, also went a long way towards convincing me that this was one of the best operational-level World War II game systems ever created. Thirty-four years have passed since PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN first made its appearance, and I still haven’t found a compelling argument for changing my mind.

The reasons for my continued affection for this title, and its ingenious design architecture, are several. To start with: the basic game dynamic is great. The PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game system contains a number of design features that make for an exciting, free-wheeling, sometimes frustrating, but always challenging gaming experience. The absence of a Soviet mechanized movement phase, Soviet ‘untried’ units, the effects of disruption, restrictions on Russian air interdiction, and constrictive supply rules, all impose significant limits on the Russian player’s range of strategic options. Nonetheless, the Soviet side is still both interesting and enjoyable to play. The German Army, of course, seems to have everything going for it: mobility, an extra mechanized movement phase, a significant ‘step-reduction’ advantage, air supremacy, a ‘divisional integrity’ combat bonus (for mechanized units), a powerful ‘overrun’ capability, and comparatively liberal supply rules. However, the German player, despite his many advantages, also has his own problems. The game clock ticks very fast, so a would-be Guderian or Hoth must accomplish a great deal in a very short period of time: one wasted turn, and victory can easily slip beyond his reach.

PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN besides being a great game, however, is also interesting because of where it stands in the evolution of armored warfare game systems. Of course, the highly-innovative features that James F. Dunnigan combined to make the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game system unique didn’t suddenly just appear out of nowhere. In actuality, a clear evolutionary path can be traced beginning with SPI’s introduction of the original KURSK (1971), continuing with THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN (1972), then EL ALAMEIN and THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE (1973), through WAR IN THE EAST, 1st ed. (1974), and finally to PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN (1976). Moreover, like other successful SPI game platforms, this basic game system went on to inspire a diverse collection of other titles including, but not limited to: KHARKOV; COBRA; DRIVE ON STALINGRAD; the quadri-game, FOUR BATTLES OF ARMY GROUP SOUTH; ‘WACHT AM RHEIN’; and even FULDA GAP. This means, for the efficiency-minded players among us, mastery of this one game system opens up a whole library of other game titles for interested players to try.

PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN is, admittedly, probably not a good choice either for the absolute novice (simply too much detail), or for the ‘chess player’ type gamer who both prefers to avoid the ‘fog of war’ and who hates nasty surprises. However, for anyone else who, for one reason or another, has never tried this game — whether they are a casual or an experienced player — I recommend it highly. It may be old, but it has aged extremely well.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 2 days per game turn
  • Map Scale: 10.5 kilometers per hex
  • Unit Size: regiment/division
  • Unit Types: leaders (Soviet only), tank/panzer, mechanized infantry/panzer grenadier, infantry, cavalry, air (interdiction) points, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: below average
  • Average Playing Time: 2-3 hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 32” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Track and Terrain Key incorporated)
  • 200 ½” back-printed cardboard Counters
  • One 8½” x 11” PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN Rules Booklet (with Set up Instructions, Combat Results table, and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One 3¾” x 8½” SPI Customer Complaint Card
  • One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and Title Sheet

Related Blog Posts

SPI, KURSK (1971)
SPI, WAR IN THE EAST, 1st ED. (1974)
SPI, COBRA (1977)

Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.

THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU

Also recommended is Davud Glantz' new treatment of the battle.
Read On



Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, with Ralph Fiennes and David Morse

Kathryn Bigelow’s movie, The Hurt Locker, is a fictional account, set in 2004, post-invasion Iraq, of the day-to-day activities — both inside and outside the wire — of a three-man team of Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technicians as they go about dealing with the harrowing business of disarming various types of unexploded IEDs. The arc of the story is a simple one: the team’s original leader and ‘point man’ is killed in the first few minutes of the film, and a replacement, played by Jeremy Renner, is assigned to fill his place during the last couple of weeks of the team’s tour of duty. Obviously, this set-up is a little contrived, but so far, so good. The first few scenes of the film tell the viewer exactly what they should expect from here on out: a grittily realistic story about a thankless, nerve-racking, and paranoia-inducing mission in a very nasty, dangerous place. In short, the viewer is led to expect a contemporary war story, but with an unusual, psychological, and emotional twist. Unfortunately, that is not quite what the film delivers.

On its face, the basic premise of the movie would not seem to require a great deal of embellishment. The highly dangerous task of disarming IEDs is, in and of itself, probably about as good a narrative vehicle for creating dramatic tension in front of the camera as a movie director is ever going to find. Of course, real life is one thing and movies are something else. And it is clear very early on that 'The Hurt Locker' was never intended to be a pseudo-documentary about the uniquely-challenging mission of American Explosive Ordinance Disposal units in Iraq. Instead, the script sticks to a conventional and fairly predictable Hollywood formula wherein the arrival of the dead team leader’s replacement, nick-named ‘cowboy’, immediately creates both a physical and a psychological crisis for the two surviving members of the team. The new ‘bomb tech’, it turns out, is a bit of a loon. He may be very good at what he does, but he is also an 'adrenaline junkie': for him, disarming IEDs is not a job; it is the only thing that gives his life any meaning. Moreover, he is also utterly self-centered: pitting both his skill and his life against the cunning of an invisible bomb-maker is such a powerful rush that he barely even notices that, for his teammates, his constant craving for the next adrenaline rush is an existential threat. The message of 'The Hurt Locker' is clear: real heroes may be laudable for what they do, but they are also dangerous to be around.

This theme, of course, is a very old one: western ambivalence towards heroic characters goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Achilles and Ajax may have been impressive as warriors and great guys to have on your side in a fight, but who would want to have them spend the week as house guests? So the idea of a heroic, but deeply-flawed protagonist is not the central defect in this film; the main problem is that the script writer and the director just get too many of the little ‘nitty-gritty’ details of military life wrong. And, just to add to the viewer’s confusion, they also can’t quite make up their minds as to how emotionally isolated the Renner character actually should be.

The most obvious problem, at least for those of us who have actually served in a war zone, is that the three-man bomb disposal team in the film spends an awful lot of its time wandering around Iraq all by itself. Not to put too fine a point on it but, in the military, there is a chain of command. At no time in the film, does a commissioned or warrant officer ever even show up to see if these guys are still alive. Purely from a dramatic standpoint, of course, it is probably much more interesting if the story places the main characters in one vulnerable, highly-exposed situation, after another. However, in real life, the US Army just doesn’t operate that way. Highly trained, hard-to-replace technicians like these would virtually always have a platoon-sized or larger escort whenever they went outside of the wire. Moreover, ‘bomb techs’ don’t clear large multi-story buildings on their own, no matter how exciting it may be for a film-maker to stage such a scene; that’s why we have infantrymen: to do the initial ‘door-knocking’ and site clearing, before these guys actually go in to do their own very specialized jobs.

And then there is the very long scene, mid-way through the movie, during which our intrepid three-man team — on their own, as usual — runs into a group of five ‘civilian contractors’, led by Ralph Fiennes. This situation is so contrived and unrealistic on so many different levels that it is hard to know where to begin. For starters, the Army team happens upon the ‘civilian contractors’ in the middle of the Iraqi desert. Fiennes’ band of mercenaries is stuck because of a flat tire; it also turns out that they have two ‘high value’ Iraqi prisoners and lots of sophisticated armament, including a .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle; what they don’t have is a tire iron. Something else that they apparently don’t have — given that they have already called Bagdad for assistance — is a friend with the CIA or in Special Ops that is willing to get off his butt and help bring in these two Iraqi ‘persons of interest’. But not to worry, a boring get-together in the middle of the desert quickly gets more interesting. Almost as soon as the two groups have had an opportunity to exchange pleasantries, it becomes clear that both the ‘contractors’ and the bomb techs have stumbled into the midst of a local group of, quite possibly, the most optimistic, ‘can do’ insurgents in all of Iraq. Putting aside the question of why an outnumbered band of Jihadis, with no possible route of escape, would pick a fight with a larger, better-armed group of adversaries in the first place; the bigger question, left unanswered throughout the entire scene, is: why is it that the Americans never receive either reinforcements or even manage to persuade their superiors to authorize an airstrike against the single isolated building from which the insurgents are firing? Clearly, if there is a plausible reason for this curious lapse, neither the scriptwriter nor the director is disposed to share that information with the viewer.

Two minor characters, both of whom briefly pop in and out of the story, also warrant a few comments. Interestingly, neither character moves the narrative forward in any significant way. Both characters in fact, contribute so little to the storyline that they seem to have been included mainly as props for short bits of cinematic audience manipulation, and nothing more. The first is a painfully sincere, well-meaning Army psychiatrist; the other is a hard-charging, unsentimental colonel, played by David Morse. The empathetic ‘shrink’, in an effort to help one of the team members who has been suffering from bouts of depression, finally goes outside the wire with the team on a mission and, not surprisingly, ends up having a very bad day. The David Morse character, on the other hand, immediately after his men come out of a firefight, instructs a medic to leave a badly-wounded insurgent untreated. “He’s not,” says the colonel matter-of-factly, “going to make it.” It is made very clear that sympathy for the people who were trying, minutes before, to kill his men is not at the top of the colonel’s list of priorities. However, when he later meets the Renner character, the same colonel is as excited as if he had just bumped into a long-absent brother. Courage, even of the ‘wild man’ variety displayed by the risk-loving bomb tech is something that the colonel both appreciates and admires.

Perhaps, the most cringe-worthy scenes in the movie, however, involve the Renner character’s friendship with a teenage Iraqi street hustler. Somehow, the viewer is expected to believe that an emotionally isolated man, who is incapable of forming bonds with his fellow soldiers or even with his own wife and baby, would — on the spur of the moment — choose to risk his life on an illegal, pointless, and exceedingly dangerous errand to find the Iraqi boy’s family. The message of this part of the film, if there actually is one, seems to be that the only way to penetrate the protagonist’s emotional armor is to peddle him poor-quality DVDs.

Not everything about this film, however, is disappointing. The scenes dealing specifically with the actual disarming of IEDs are all wonderfully-staged, tautly paced, and harrowing. And the cast, without exception does an excellent job; there are no weak or unconvincing performances. Moreover, the exteriors are all very good; and the director, when she turns her attention to it, conveys a very real sense of the menace and paranoia that shadows our troops on a daily basis when they serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is probably why, when everything is said and done, I am so disappointed in this movie. Certainly, it is both a serious and a well-intentioned look at one facet of the war in Iraq. And there are moments when every thing that appears on the screen works perfectly; unfortunately, there also moments when the grit of Iraq gets overshadowed by the civilian myths and tired conventions of theatrical filmmaking. In the end then, we are left with a simple question: Is 'The Hurt Locker' a bad film? No. Would I recommend it to others? I would, even with its serial defects. However, I must also note that when it comes to a realistic and detailed theatrical treatment of the topic of bomb disposal, the 1981 British series, DANGER UXB, is still probably second to none.

Read On



THE YEAR OF THE RAT: Combat in Vietnam, Spring, 1972 is an operational level simulation of the Communist Spring Offensive against the forces of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), in 1972. This game was originally offered as the insert game in S&T #35 (November, 1972). Later it was reissued in the familiar SPI plastic flat-pack version featured here. THE YEAR OF THE RAT was designed by John Prados (with help from James F. Dunnigan), and published in 1972 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).


In early 1972, American and South Vietnamese intelligence analysts gradually became convinced that the military leadership of the Peoples Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) was planning some sort of major insurgency operation in the coming months. Based on previous experience, and lacking any clear indicators as to the enemy timetable, both American and South Vietnamese commanders, including senior US General Creighton Abrams, tentatively fixed the date for a new North Vietnamese offensive for the period surrounding ‘Tet’, the Vietnamese New Year. Events would soon show that they were correct about North Vietnamese intentions, but wrong about both the timing and the scale of the impending offensive. The North Vietnamese offensive would come during the ‘rainy season’ and it would be much larger and more ambitious than anyone in Saigon had ever anticipated.

Unlike the 1968 Communist ‘Tet’ Offensive against the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) which was primarily insurgency-based, the ‘Easter’ Offensive of 1972 was intended to be a powerful and carefully coordinated conventional ground operation which would, from the very beginning, make liberal use of artillery, armor, and infantry. To this end, fourteen divisions and twenty-six independent regiments — virtually the entire North Vietnamese Army — was, from the outset, committed to the success of the offensive. US Airpower, the North Vietnamese military leadership realized, would be a critical factor in the success or failure of their attacks; so to minimize the effectiveness of both tactical and strategic bombing, the Communist ground operations were timed to coincide with the height of Vietnam’s monsoon season. Interestingly, despite their massive and meticulous military preparations, the goals of the Hanoi leadership were actually relatively modest, although quite subtle and far-reaching. First, it was hoped that renewing combat operations would significantly degrade the South Vietnamese military in advance of future, more ambitious North Vietnamese operations; second, that Communist forces would be able to seize and hold at least a token amount of South Vietnamese territory as a bargaining chip in future peace negotiations; and last, but not least, they hoped that continued fighting in Vietnam would further incentivize the pro-Hanoi anti-war movement that was steadily growing in political influence in the United States. Thus, the Communist planners made their preparations with one eye on the military situation in South Vietnam, one eye on Paris, and yet another on the US presidential election which was rapidly approaching.

The opening phase of the Communist ‘Easter’ Offensive began at 12:00 pm, 30 March 1972, with a sudden violent artillery bombardment against the dispersed and unsuspecting South Vietnamese army outposts in Quang Tri Province; these were the South Vietnamese defensive positions closest to the North-South Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The ferocious Communist artillery barrage was soon followed up by two North Vietnamese divisions, the 304th and the 308th, which advanced supported by two independent armored regiments (approximately 100 tanks). The two Communist divisions rapidly charged south across the DMZ and crashed into the still-reeling ARVN units that were entrusted with defending the northern gateway to the five South Vietnamese provinces that made up the ‘I Corps’ region of the Republic of Vietnam. As these two Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) divisions swept down from the north, the PAVN 334B division rolled across the border from Laos also passing into Quang Tri Province; it continued east along Highway 9 through Khe Sahn and then down into the Quang Tri River Valley. Once the initial PAVN attacks on ‘I Corps’ began to gather momentum, the original three North Vietnamese divisions were quickly reinforced by two additional divisions: the 320B and 325C divisions. In some places, the ARVN troops held, but in others, they collapsed; soon most of the forward South Vietnamese units were falling back, in varying states of disarray towards Quang Tri City.

On 5 April, the second phase of the Communist offensive jumped off with an attack by PAVN and NLF units out of Cambodia against Binh Long Province, northeast of South Vietnam’s Capital, Saigon. Heavy fighting soon erupted as the ARVN units in the immediate area quickly became surrounded by the advancing Communists. A week later, on April 12th, the third phase of the carefully planned Communist offensive opened with a major pincer attack from both Laos and Cambodia into the Central Highlands. The key South Vietnamese bases at Kontum and Pleiku were now in danger. The troops of North and South Vietnam were now locked in combat in three widely-dispersed parts of the country. The Communist ‘Easter’ Offensive would be the most severe test, yet, of the new American program of ‘Vietnamization’.


THE YEAR OF THE RAT: Combat in Vietnam, Spring, 1972 is a two-player operational(battle group/regiment/brigade/division) level simulation of the Communist Spring Offensive against the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), in 1972. The game is played in game turns, each of which is divided into a Communist and an Allied player turn. A complete game turn is equal to one week of real time. The game is thirteen turns long and spans the period from 30 March to 28 June, 1972. The various game counters represent the historical combat units that actually took part — or that could have played a role — in the battles that occurred during the Communist Spring offensive of 1972. Each game turn is composed of a set sequence of player phases, beginning with the Communist player. A typical game turn proceeds, as follows: (Communist player turn) Reinforcement Phase; Movement Phase; Combat Phase; Disruption Removal Phase; (Allied player turn) Reinforcement Phase; Movement Phase; Bombardment Phase; and Combat Phase. At the conclusion of both player turns, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins.

The actual mechanics of play for YEAR OF THE RAT are comparatively simple, but interesting, nonetheless. Stacking in a single hex is unlimited, and each hex on the map sheet represents 10 kilometers from side to side. Allied units are always deployed face-up on the game map. Communist units — whether real or dummy counters — are always inverted unless they attack or are attacked by an enemy ground unit, and once the combat is concluded all non-dummy units (dummies are eliminated once revealed) are immediately turned face-down again. Zones of control (ZOCs) are rigid but not sticky: units, however, must pay movement point costs to stack and unstack and to enter or exit enemy ZOCs. The supply rules impose different requirements on the two sides. Communist units (excluding National Liberation Front cadres which are always in 'Attack' supply) must trace a supply line of eight or fewer hexes to a supply center hex in order to be in 'General' supply (normal movement, full defense strength and one-half attack strength); they must trace the same supply line to and expend a Communist supply unit to be in 'Attack' supply (normal movement, full defense and attack strength); if they can do neither, Communist units are considered to be in 'Isolated' supply (halved movement and defense strength and attack strength reduced to “1”). Allied units are either 'Supplied' or 'Unsupplied'. Allied units are Supplied (full movement, full defense and attack factor) if they can trace a supply line of any length to an unbesieged South Vietnamese town or base, or if they occupy a friendly town or base, whether besieged by Communist forces or not. 'Unsupplied' Army of the republic of Vietnam (South Vietnamese) units are halved for movement and defense, and cannot attack; Unsupplied non-ARVN units are normal for movement and defense, and halved when attacking. Terrain effects, although relatively simple, are also different for each side. Communist units may move through all types of terrain; ARVN units may only enter rough or swamp terrain by moving along a road or trail and their ZOCs only extend into those hexes that they can enter. Certain elite ARVN units are airmobile; these crack units, however, are restricted to using this capability to transfer directly from one friendly town or base to another. Non-ARVN units play only a minor role in direct ground combat, but American air and sea bombardment are the critical elements in the South Vietnamese defensive arrangements. American air power, especially, can strike at PAVN and NLF (reconstituted Viet Cong) units anywhere on the map and, as the American air commitment steadily increases during the course of the game, the Communist player will see his own offensive opportunities rapidly diminish.

The winner of YEAR OF THE RAT is determined by the number of victory points that the Communist player is able to accrue in the course of the game. The Communist player gains victory points by capturing key South Vietnamese cities and towns; if he can capture all the major towns in a province then he receives bonus victory points for control of the province, as well.

THE YEAR OF THE RAT offers three scenarios: the Historical Game; the Standard (Free Deployment) Game; and the Variable Orders of Battle Option for the Standard Game. The Historical Game tends, in contests between equal opponents, to end in a draw. However, the Standard Game, and/or the introduction of the Variable OoB Options can really loosen the game up and turn it into a free-wheeling mêlée. In addition, the use of the Free Deployment option in combination with the Variable (secret) Orders of Battle magnifies the already significant effect of limited intelligence on the play of the game. The Historical Game is fast-moving and enjoyable, but the Free Deployment Game is, typically, a real nail-biting test for both players.


I have mixed feelings about THE YEAR OF THE RAT. On the one hand, it is actually a very good game; on the other, it could have been far better, both as a game and, I believe, as a simulation. First, the good points: the game — particularly in the case of the Standard Game — is an exciting, nerve-racking challenge that is rarely decided before the last turn or two. In addition, both Players are faced with real problems right from the outset: the ARVN player starts out with a lot of real estate to protect, an ill-prepared army with limited combat power, and only a vague idea of PAVN strength and intentions; in contrast, the PAVN player begins play with limited logistical support and the certain knowledge that his offensive options will steadily be degraded as his supplies are expended, his ‘dummy’ counters are revealed, and the number of available US air points increases. Typically, this means that the PAVN must overrun South Vietnamese cities and towns quickly during the first half of the game, and then hold on against both the inevitable ARVN ground counteroffensive, and the increasingly lethal effects of US airpower. In game terms, this basic dynamic is fine. My problem arises from what I consider to be design shortcuts that I believe hurt this title, both as a game and as a simulation.

The first issue I have with the game is the choice by the designers to represent the PAVN units only as divisions. This arbitrary and wrong-headed choice has two important effects on the game, and neither of them is particularly good. First, it greatly magnifies the effect of US airpower and makes clear terrain a virtual deathtrap for PAVN units. Second, it ignores both the flexibility of PAVN doctrine and the sophisticated types of ground operations actually conducted by the PAVN in the course of this campaign. Instead of divisions, it seems to me that a PAVN order of battle based on regiments or battle groups would have been both a more realistic choice from a simulation standpoint, and a much better option, purely in game terms. My other complaint applies to the severe restrictions placed by the game’s designers on ARVN airmobile operations. In all three versions of the game, the ARVN airmobile units may only transfer from one town, base, or city hex to another; no air transfers are ever permitted between any other types of hexes (even clear terrain) regardless of the proximity of PAVN and/or NLF units. This is historically wrong, and looks suspiciously like a rule included specifically for purposes of game balance and intended primarily to artificially limit the utility of ARVN airmobile units.

One final thought: THE YEAR OF THE RAT, in contrast to most of Prados’ other designs, does not have his usual ‘unfinished’ feel about it. Unlike THIRD REICH, CASSINO, or PANZERKREIG, for instance, this title actually looks and plays like a ‘finished’ game, and not like a ‘work in progress’. Thus, despite my several criticisms, I still recommend this game highly. It may not be perfect, but it does cover a complex topic reasonably well, and, at the same time, it provides an exciting and very challenging gaming experience.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 1 week per game turn
  • Map Scale: 10 kilometers per hex
  • Unit Size: battle group/regiment/brigade/division
  • Unit Types: armor, armored infantry, infantry, airmobile (South Vietnamese marines/rangers/paratroops and all US units), NLF regional cadres and garrisons, US air (bombardment) points, US Naval (bombardment) points, PAVN/NLF dummy counters, PAVN real & dummy supply counters, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: below average
  • Average Playing Time: 2-3 hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 34” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Track, Allied Initial Forces Chart, Communist Initial Forces Chart, Combat Results Table, Victory Point Index, Supply Effects Chart, Bombardment Results table, and Bombardment Points Holding Box incorporated)
  • 200 ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 7¾” x 11” YEAR OF THE RAT Rules Booklet (with Scenario Instructions and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
  • One 8½” x 11” SPI Errata Sheet (1973)
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and Title Sheet
Read On



Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson; Anchor Books (August 2002); ISBN-13: 978-0385720380

What happens when different cultures clash on the battlefield? More to the point: Do different societies with different worldviews conceive of both the ultimate goal and the conduct of war in the same way; and if they do not, are their different approaches to armed conflict — other factors being comparable — equally effective? One prominent and iconoclastic student of military affairs argues that the answer, at least to the last two of these questions, is a resounding: no.

In Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, California State University professor and classical historian Victor Davis Hanson puts forward the original theory that there is an explicitly Western approach to battle (a classical paradigm), and that this approach has been, and still is, the most effective one ever devised. Moreover, he also posits that the extraordinarily successful form of warfare practiced by the West throughout most of its history is primarily the product of cultural rather than technological, class conflict, or other ‘materialist’ factors. In fact, every one of the characteristics, he suggests, that now define the modern Western paradigm of ‘total’ war: extreme lethality, a ‘mechanical’ ruthlessness, command flexibility, organizational discipline, individual initiative, and technological and doctrinal innovation, can trace their origins all the way back to an Ionian culture that first rose to prominence almost three thousand years ago. Needless-to-say, this hypothesis directly contradicts both popular wisdom and orthodox ‘materialist’ scholarship. In place of the conventional historical view of war as a technology-driven, undifferentiated social phenomenon, Dr. Hanson proposes that the type of war-making that has come to dominate military clashes in the modern era actually traces its roots directly back to the citizen-soldiers of Ancient Greece.

The Battle of Cannae

This is an intriguing proposition, but it is also — in this age of reflexive ‘political correctness’ and ‘multiculturalism’ — a controversial one. None-the-less, the author forges resolutely (if insensitively) ahead and supports his provocative thesis by analyzing nine different, but epochal battles: Salamis (480 B.C.); Gaugamela (331 B.C.); Cannae (216 B.C.); Poitiers (732); Tenochtitlán (1520-21); Lepanto (1571); Rorke’s Drift (1879); Midway (1942); and Tet (1968). Each of these selections is, in an historically descriptive sense, unique in its own right; yet all of the military clashes detailed in this work still share at least two common features: they were all militarily decisive; and, although widely-separated by time and place, they all pitted adversaries with strikingly different worldviews against each other on the battlefield.

The Battle of Salamis

Dr. Hanson’s collection of narratives — once the inevitable introductory niceties are out of the way — begins with an historical analysis of the important factors that led up to and shaped the massive naval battle between the Hellenic City States and the vastly larger Persian Empire, 2,500 years ago in the straight of Salamis. In this deadly clash between triremes, a fleet of some 300-370 ships, under the Greek admiral, Themistocles, attacked and routed a combined Persian, Phoenician, and Egyptian armada of between 600 and 1,000 vessels. In the course of an eight-hour battle, hundreds of Persian triremes were sunk with the loss of as many as 100,000 seamen and marines; those few Persians who survived their ships’ sinking and did not drown immediately, were slaughtered as soon as they reached dry land; exact Greek losses are unknown, but probably numbered only a few dozen vessels. The magnitude of the Hellenic victory, interestingly, apparently even came as a bit of a surprise to the Greek commander, Themistocles.

Now standing firmly rooted in the present, but looking back at this startlingly lop-sided outcome, the first and most obvious question that presents itself to the modern military historian is: What combination of factors led to this decisive Greek victory and Persian catastrophe? Attempting to answer this fascinating question is the central project of “Carnage and Culture.”

The Battle at Gaugamela

At the Battle of Salamis (September 28, 480 B.C.), Victor Davis Hanson observes, the individual Hellenic oarsman, marine, or hoplite was probably no braver than the Persian who faced him. However, unlike his Persian adversary, Dr. Hanson argues, the Greek — whether he was an influential politician, an ordinary seaman, a rich merchant, or a subsistence farmer — fought not only for his city, but also to preserve both his own home and his own way of life; the Persian, on the other hand — whatever his individual station; slave or free — fought for his King. In plainest terms: the Greek believed that he had a personal stake in the outcome of the battle beyond his own survival, while the Persian did not. Moreover, while the individual Persian oarsman or infantryman, even if compelled to render service, might perform with as much energy and valor as his foe, the individual Greek voluntarily trained and fought as part of a disciplined unit. In the case of the navy, the Greek served as a member of a crew of relative equals. In the case of a hoplite, he marched and fought as an integral part of a mass infantry formation, the phalanx. And the well-ordered cohesion of either of these types of units, whether trireme or phalanx, was valued above all else; the pursuit of individual glory was not encouraged; but steadiness at the oars or in the ranks was. Also, an Hellenic admiral, like Themistocles, always led his fleet from the front, and a Greek general, unlike his Persian counterpart, almost always took a position in the very first rank of his phalanx; a position from which he could both more effectively control his formation, and better inspire his men by personal example. Finally, because the Greek sailor or hoplite was a citizen first, and a warrior second, war was considered to be a necessary, but inconvenient distraction from his day-to-day affairs. For this reason, the Greeks typically sought direct and decisive actions with the enemy; subtle maneuvers and elaborate stratagems were usually abjured in favor of quick and bloody, head-to-head battles. The Greek goal was, in almost every instance, not merely to defeat the enemy, but to destroy him in a single massive action. Thus, the attitude of the classical West was inelegant and direct: an enemy that had survived a battle, even if defeated, could always return; an enemy that had been annihilated, on the other hand, could not. These qualities, then and now, are what makes the Western approach to war unique.

The Battle of Lepanto

By choosing the naval action at Salamis as his first example, the author is able to contrast two successful, but utterly different cultures, each with its own distinctive approach to the conduct of war. And, in the military triumph of one over the other, the author claims to find the origin and cultural underpinnings for a specifically Western form of warfare. This foundation, he argues, relies on a collection of broad societal characteristics that are unique to Western civilization. These cultural traits include: personal freedom; a desire for decisive action; citizen soldiers; land-holding infantry; technology and rationalism; a free market for goods and ideas; discipline — soldiers instead of warriors; individualism; and a tolerance of dissent, coupled with the capacity for self-criticism. All of these characteristics, of course, are contextual: the ordinary Greek rowers at Salamis, for example — although, more often than not, seriously disadvantaged by today’s standards — would none-the-less have considered themselves free men compared to the Persian seamen against whom they fought. And so it has always been; the classical characteristics of Western culture have ebbed and flowed over time, but they have never ceased to exist completely. Fittingly, the historical description of Salamis in “Culture and Carnage” introduces virtually all of the basic themes that later serve to tie the rest of Dr. Hanson’s battle narratives to one another. By design, all nine military engagements chosen by the author represent historically unique clashes between competing worldviews; and each battle description, in its own way, also illustrates the influence of the classical approach to violent conflict on the long-term ascendancy of the West.

The Battle of Poitiers, painting by Charles Auguste Steuben

Although “Carnage and Culture” has been described as a pro-Western apology or polemic by more than a few critics, it is not a triumphalist celebration of the innate superiority of Western over other civilizations. Rather, this work is a thoughtful consideration of those characteristics intrinsic to Western culture that have produced a consistent pattern of victories in war over the last two-and-a-half millennia. Dr. Hanson, although clearly disposed to favor those values of Western culture that first emerged during the Classical Age of Ancient Greece, none-the-less is mainly concerned with those particular aspects of life in the West that have translated directly into success on the battlefield. And it should be noted that those factors — given the historical context in which they operated — were just as significant to the European armies of the Middle Ages, and to those of the Renaissance, as they are to the armed forces of contemporary Western democracies, today.

The Battle of Tenochtitlán

Not all criticism of “Carnage and Culture,” of course, has been in response to the author’s disregard for either ‘political correctness’ or for its pernicious cousin, ‘multiculturalism’. More than a few critics have also challenged Dr. Hanson’s classical paradigm in a more oblique way, by pointing to the similarities between European dynastic warfare, particularly from 1337 (the start of the 100 Years War) through 1786 (the end of the reign of Frederick the Great of Prussia), and the dynastic wars of other non-European cultures such as China and Japan. The form of war-making in all three cases, these skeptics argue, was very similar: military campaigns during this period — whether in Europe, China, or Japan — were positional ‘chess-like’ contests between opposing armies that, with only a few notable exceptions, typically focused on maneuver and siege, rather than on achieving decisive battle. Thus, say the skeptics, these similarities convincingly show that genuine cultural differences did not actually translate into noticeably different approaches to warfare in any one of these three cases. This argument, on its face, seems plausible; but it fails to withstand serious scrutiny. Putting aside the extraordinary emphasis on subterfuge and treachery that typically characterized the dynastic conflicts in the East, this criticism, given the actual historical record, still seems feeble at best, and groundless at worst. The reasons for this weakness are several. First, and most obviously, none of the examples usually cited by this band of critics actually involved clashes between fundamentally different cultures or worldviews. Second, and perhaps more intriguing, those innovative European commanders that most closely adhered to the basic tenets of the classical Western form of warfare: Henry Vth of England, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and Frederick the Great of Prussia; are all three still remembered today for their often lop-sided successes on the battlefield. And third, the classical Western paradigm for war, as Dr. Hanson repeats throughout this work, does not depend for its success on the perfection of its various parts, but only on their underlying presence. In short, the Western way of war finds expression both in the specific military circumstances of a battle, and in the historical context in which the battle is fought.

Stand Firm, the 24th at Rorke's Drift, painting by Chris Collingwood

Those readers with an historical bent should find the descriptions of the famous battles in “Carnage and Culture” comfortably familiar, and hence, interesting from a purely narrative standpoint. And for those who find the author’s arguments persuasive, proofs of the advantages of the Western approach to war can be found in other historical settings, even where direct clashes between different cultures are not present. Thus, almost anyone with a reasonably broad knowledge of military history will be able to pick out a number of valid, less obvious historical examples — in addition to those offered by the author — that could, if the work were wider in scope, also have been included to support Dr. Hanson’s central thesis. For instance, when one considers — taking just two examples — the major changes that occurred in the armies of the Great Monarchies of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars or the German doctrinal and technological improvements that were adopted following the Central Power’s defeat in the First World War; it becomes abundantly clear that concerns about tradition, class, religion, or national pride have seldom prevented the military institutions of the West from either adopting new technologies or from correcting past failures with innovation and change. And in the final analysis, this openness to change could well be the single greatest strength of the classical Western approach to war, and the cultural characteristic that most makes it unique.

The Battle of Midway

“Carnage and Culture”, at 468 pages, is obviously not a short book; none-the-less, it is still both an enjoyable and a reasonably fast read. And considering the work purely from the readers’ standpoint, all of the battles and campaigns that Dr. Hanson chronicles in this work are clearly and succinctly detailed, and citations from original sources are plentiful. Also, for those not familiar with this author’s other books, Dr. Hanson writes gracefully and with a distinctively American voice; a writing style that makes all of his works a pleasure to read. As an added plus, the book is nicely illustrated with a sizeable number of plates and photographs; it even includes a short, but useful glossary. Finally, this work also contains a reasonable collection of maps; which, although not abundant, are well-chosen and helpful. One possible nit, however, should be mentioned: because of the inter-connected nature of Dr. Hanson’s core arguments, the text can occasionally seem repetitive, and the non-linear organization of the various battle sections can also be a little distracting.

The Battle of Tet

Victor Davis Hanson presents an original and very provocative thesis in “Carnage and Culture.” Moreover, the thrust of this work is generally persuasive, and although no single battle can perfectly illustrate every element of the Western heritage he examines, the examples offered in support of his thesis are well chosen. In short, Dr. Hanson offers both the student of military affairs, and the reader with a broader interest in history, a clearly-reasoned and even elegant, counter-materialist theory of the origin and development of the Western form of warfare. And for this reason, I strongly recommend this book.

Read On



MIDWAY is a historical simulation of carrier combat in the Pacific during the early months of World War II. It is a grand tactical representation of the crucial naval-air battle in the Central Pacific — for which the game is titled — that decisively turned back the Imperial Japanese Navy’s eastern advance towards Midway and beyond. This classic title was originally designed by Larry Pinskey and Lindsley Schutz, and published by The Avalon Hill Game Company (TAHGC) in 1964.


At 1222 hours on 4 June 1942, the planes of Air Group Six, which had launched from the U.S.S Enterprise a little over three hours before and were now at risk of running short on fuel, began their dive bombing attack on the four newly-spotted aircraft carriers of the Japanese Midway Invasion Force. The results of this attack were devastating. In the space of a few brief minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers — the Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu — were out of action and sinking, and the naval-air balance of power in the Pacific had undergone an irreversible, tectonic shift. By the end of the Battle of Midway, the American Pacific Fleet had lost one carrier, the Yorktown, and a single destroyer; the Japanese had lost all four of the fleet carriers present in the battle, including the Hiryu — unscathed during the first dive bombing attacks of the day — which, along with the cruiser Mikuma, was sunk by follow-up American carrier airstrikes later in the battle.


MIDWAY is a naval-air simulation of the critical four day period, from 3 through 6 June 1941, during which four of the best Japanese Fleet Carriers faced off in the Central Pacific against the remaining three American Aircraft Carriers that were still operating in the Pacific after the Battle of the Coral Sea, only a month before. This complex cat-and-mouse operation took place on a broad expanse of ocean near the American-controlled island of Midway. And the outcome of this brief, but decisive naval air engagement turned the tide in the Pacific War.

Play in MIDWAY begins at 0500 on 3 June 1941 with the entry onto the west edge of the “Search Board” of the first “fast carrier’ element of the Imperial Japanese Fleet which is steaming east to attack the American garrison on Midway Island. The American Fleet advances onto the game board from the east. On the first game turn ONLY, the American player may move up to six sea zones on the “Search Board;” this movement bonus makes a first day carrier action possible, even if the Japanese player does not move aggressively against Midway Island on 3 June. Each game turn represents two hours of real time, and there are seven daylight and two night turns in each “game day.” Ships may move normally on both day and night game turns, but air missions, as might be expected, may only be launched during daylight game turns. The game, if played to its conclusion, can be up to 34 game turns long.

MIDWAY follows a relatively simple game turn sequence: the first player (Japanese) brings in any scheduled reinforcements, and then moves his ship counters on his section of the “Search Board” up to two sea zones; the American commander then moves his ship counters in the same fashion. Next, the two players both inform their opponents as to whether they are readying aircraft for flight missions, and note on the player “Hit Record & Operations” sheets, which carriers now have readied aircraft on their flight decks. The players are now ready to begin the “search phase” of the game turn. First, the US commander calls out search areas in an attempt to locate enemy ships; he may conduct air searches against any four “search areas” on the board. Once the American player has completed his searches, the Japanese player may then reconnoiter three search areas, so long as they are all within twelve sea zones of at least one of his ships. In addition to air searches, both players may also conduct ship searches in any areas in which they have patrolling vessels. If either players’ searches locate an area containing enemy vessels, the player controlling the located ships must inform the searching commander of precisely in which of the search area’s sea zone or zones (there are nine “sea zones” in each “search area”) his ships are situated, and what specific types (i.e. BBs, CVs, etc.) they are. Once both players have completed their respective searches, they then write down their air mission orders, if any, in the operations section of their individual “Hit Record” sheets. They then reveal their operations orders to their opponent. If neither player is launching any air attacks against enemy ships, then the turn ends, and play continues on to the next game turn. However, if any air missions against enemy vessels are being launched — aircraft transfers between friendly carriers and/or Midway, by the way, do not count as attacks — both then simultaneously reveal their operational orders to the opposing player. These written orders must be detailed; they must include the specific sea zone or zones being targeted; the numbers and types of aircraft squadrons that are being sent against these target zones, and specifics as to any fighter squadrons being flown as CAP over the attacking or defending fleet. It is important to note that aircraft have a maximum range of fourteen sea zones. This is the TOTAL range of all aircraft squadrons; air missions may be flown in any combination of different distances (i.e., four zones on the approach leg to the target and then ten zones back to a landing zone) but the fourteen zones maximum air range may not be exceeded. To represent the vessels located in the target zone, the defending player now positions special ship counters (using over-sized markers specifically intended for this purpose) onto the “Battle Board” and play proceeds to the Combat Phase. In cases where both players are launching air strikes against enemy ships, engagements are fought one-at-a-time, but are considered to be occurring simultaneously.

Combat in MIDWAY — at least in the Tournament Game — takes one of three basic forms: aircraft (fighter) vs. aircraft; aircraft against ship; and, on those rare occasions when opposing fleets occupy the same sea zone, surface (ship vs. ship) battles. All fighter combat is resolved first; however, any defending fighter squadrons in excess (comparing numbers of squadrons) of the attacking fighter escort may, if the defending player chooses, be assigned to reinforce the anti-aircraft screen of the surface vessels under attack. Aircraft versus ship combat involves enemy dive bombers (these attack from directly overhead) and torpedo planes (these attack from the sides) being placed on the “Battle Board” on top of or adjacent to their targets; once all attacking aircraft have been assigned to their targets, the defending player then allocates screening (antiaircraft) fire against the attacking squadrons in an effort to defeat or blunt the enemy air strike. Attacks are resolved, one-by-one, and results are applied immediately. Each of the three types of combat: fighter vs. fighter; ship-to-ship; and aircraft vs. ship, employs a different combat results table. In the case of fighter vs. fighter and aircraft vs. ship battles, losses are assessed against aircraft in terms of squadrons lost, and against surface vessels in terms of hits. Destroyed air squadrons are eliminated permanently from play; ships, according to their type, can absorb varying amounts of damage, but all vessels can be sunk if they sustain sufficient hits. Surface battles make use of the gunnery, rather than the antiaircraft factors of the opposing ship counters; it should be noted, however, that surface engagements are exceedingly rare, and, in those unusual instances when they do occur — because of the recurring possibility of fog — they are often inconclusive. While it should be obvious given the time-scale of the game, damage points (hits), once sustained, are permanent; damaged vessels may not be repaired in the course of the game. Finally, as was the case historically, any carriers caught with readied planes on their decks can be sunk with one less hit than would normally be required.

Victory in MIDWAY is determined on the basis of victory points. Both players receive points for hits on enemy vessels, and for sinking enemy ships. The two are often, but not always the same. For example, the Japanese carrier, Akagi, can sustain four hits before being bottomed, but once sunk, is worth ten victory points to the American player. Last but not least, there is actually a game incentive for the Japanese player to follow through with Yamamoto’s original battle plan: the US player receives one victory point — starting with the 5:00 am, June 5th game turn — for each additional game turn that he can delay the Japanese capture of Midway Island.

MIDWAY presents only the historical situation, but it does offer two versions: the Basic Game and the Tournament Game. The Tournament Game is identical to the Basic version except that it adds special rules for Fighters, Surface Combat, and the Reduction of Midway. There are no scenarios (although a number have been presented in the pages of the General over the years) and only a few optional rules. These published Optional Rules include: “Reduced Movement and Firepower” due to damage; “Anvil” attacks; and “Wave” attacks. In the years following the game’s appearance, interestingly, popular demand has led to a few additional rules becoming standard for MIDWAY. These post-publication rules-changes have been added to prevent the use of unrealistic or questionable game tactics, such as: one-way “suicide” air strikes (by either side); or the (with apologies to Monty Python) “Brave Sir Robin” practice of the American player exiting his ships off the east edge of the search board once he’d managed to pick up a tiny lead in victory points.


Since the publication of MIDWAY ’64 almost a half century ago, a lot of carrier and/or naval-air simulations have made their appearance on the gaming scene; and, at one time or another, I have probably played most of them. Some of these newer titles have been interesting, if occassionally disappointing (GDW’s INDIAN OCEAN ADVENTURE, BATTLE FOR MIDWAY, and CORAL SEA); some have been eccentric, if not downright odd (SPI’s FAST CARRIERS, SOLOMONS CAMPAIGN, and USN); some have been very good, if very big (Battleline’s FLAT TOP); and some have just been great fun (TAHGC’s VICTORY IN THE PACIFIC). None-the-less, MIDWAY, despite its dated rules, old-fashioned “squares instead of hexagons” Search Board, and generally “hokey” graphics, is still my personal favorite.

One reason, of course, is playability. Two experienced players can actually knock off a couple of games of MIDWAY in a single afternoon; I encourage anyone to try that little trick with FLAT TOP, or even better still, with FAST CARRIERS. Another is the “fog of war” limited intelligence aspect of the game’s search and operations routines: where the heck is the American fleet, anyway? And should I send up my CAP this turn, or did my opponent ready his planes on his last move as part of an elaborate bluff? And finally, there is the “historical” feel of the game. Both the intense “blindly feeling your way in the dark” nature of the opening maneuvers prior to the battle, and the stunning lethality of air strikes delivered against an unsuspecting enemy fleet, are features of the game that combine to convey a real sense of how this decisive action unfolded. MIDWAY certainly has its flaws, but it still does a great job of showing how, in the space of five devastating minutes, a few hundred resourceful and intrepid American pilots were able to reverse the tide of the entire War in the Pacific. That may not be everything when it comes to simulating the actual Battle of Midway, it but is more than enough for me.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 1 hour per game turn

  • Map Scale (Search Board): 15 nautical miles per square (estimated)

  • Unit Size: individual ships and aircraft squadrons

  • Unit Types: CV, CVL, BB, CA, CL, Torpedo Bombers, Dive Bombers, Fighters, and information counters

  • Number of Players: two

  • Complexity: average

  • Solitaire Suitability: below average

  • Average Playing Time: 2-4 + hours

Game Components:

  • One 14” x 22” hard-backed square grid American/Japanese Search Board

  • One 14” x 22” hard-backed rectangular grid tactical display Battle Board (with Combat Results Tables and Aircraft-Ship Assignment Boxes incorporated)

  • 195 ½” cardboard Counters

  • 40 ½” x 2¼” oversized “ship” Counters

  • One 5½” x 8½” MIDWAY Battle Manual

  • One 5½” x 8½” back-printed combined American/Japanese Hit Record, Operations Log, and Turn Record/Reinforcement Track

  • One 8½” x 19½” back-printed Search Board Screen (with Surface Combat Results Table, Battle Board Withdrawal Table, and Fighter to Fighter Combat Results Table incorporated)

  • One six-sided Die

  • One 5½” x 8½” Avalon Hill Game Catalog

  • One 11¼” x 14½” x 1¾” flat cardboard Game Box

Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background. A Glorious Page in Our History: The Battle of Midway, 4-6 June 1942; by Robert J. Cressman; Pictorial Histories Publishing Co; 1st edition (June 1990); ISBN-13: 978-0929521404

Also, see my blog post Book Review of this highly recommended title: Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson; Anchor Books (August 2002); ISBN-13: 978-0385720380

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PART I: the Strategic Situation and Battle Area

WATERLOO is a historical simulation of the Emperor Napoleon’s final, ill-fated military campaign against the forces of the Anglo-Allied and Prussian armies in Belgium in June, 1815. This classic title was originally designed by Thomas Shaw and Lindsley Schutz, and published by The Avalon Hill Game Company (TAHGC) in 1962. Some years later, the game underwent a relatively minor rules overhaul and, thereafter, was published with a 2nd Edition version of the standard rules.


WATERLOOPART I: the Strategic Situation and Battle Area is the initial offering in what will ultimately be a series of related essays, each of which will examine different, but important aspects of this classic Avalon Hill game. One important caveat: the 2nd Edition Rules, along with the WBC sanctioned Tournament Rules modifications should be considered to be in effect in this, and all subsequent discussions of game situations in this series of essays. That being said, this first post will focus on the initial starting positions of the opposing forces and the WATERLOO game map; it will also address the strategic implications that these two important game elements hold for the plans of both the French and the Prussian Anglo-Allied (P.A.A) players. For purposes of clarity, it is assumed that the reader is familiar with the traditional map “grid” unit location system. And, most importantly, that the reader has at least a basic grasp of the general flow of play in a typical WATERLOO contest between two experienced and knowledgeable opponents.


British 52nd attack a French battery.

Waterloo is, almost without question, the best-known battle ever to have been fought. Virtually everyone who has ever been exposed to European history has at least heard of this famous action. Of course, from a purely historical standpoint, other military confrontations — Lepanto, Poitiers, Midway, and Stalingrad, to name just a few — have been at least as important strategically, if not more so, than the decisive clash that occurred between the armies of Napoleon and Wellington on a field of Belgian ryegrass, on 18 June, 1815. None of these other engagements, however, has achieved anywhere near the same iconic status in western culture as has Waterloo. As battles go, this decisive confrontation between Napoleon and Wellington had everything: legendary, larger-than-life commanders; colorful supporting players; courage and cowardice; fateful blunders; and finally, the late-day arrival of Blücher’s Prussians on the French right, just in time to save Wellington’s hard-pressed and exhausted troops from defeat at the hands of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. In short, the Battle of Waterloo — besides offering large helpings of high drama — was, as Wellington, himself, observed: “a very near-run thing.”

Charge of Ponsonby's Union Brigade
Given the Battle of Waterloo's unique cultural cachet and its innate drama, once commercial board wargames began to appear in the late 1950’s, it was really only a matter of time before the climactic face-off between Napoleon and Wellington became a popular, and much revisited topic for the then rapidly-expanding field of wargame publishing. And so it has been. Waterloo’s iconic historical status and its many tantalizing (what if?) variables: weather, terrain, balance of forces, the mental state of the commanders, and the uneven performance of subordinates — all of which contributed, in varying measures, to the ultimate outcome of the battle — have combined to make this clash an irresistible and repeated subject for conflict simulations. Thus, it is no surprise that over the years, numerous game designers have attempted to model the major elements of Napoleon’s failed 1815 campaign: TAHGC’s WATERLOO; GDW’s 1815: The Waterloo Campaign; Gama Games’ NAPOLEON; and SPI’s NAPOLEON’S LAST BATTLES, just to name a few. Other designs, however, have opted to focus on one or more of the campaign’s four battles. Hence, we have SPI’s classic introductory game, NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO; the “stand alone” games in NAPOLEON’S LAST BATTLES (Ligny, Quatre Bras, Wavre, and La Belle Alliance); Yaquinto Games’ THE THIN RED LINE (Waterloo); SPI’s magazine game, NEY vs. WELLINGTON (Quatre Bras); and, most spectacular and detailed of all, SPI’s terrific tactical simulation, WELLINGTON’S VICTORY (Waterloo).

Of course, popular attempts to simulate or “game” the events at Waterloo actually predate by many years the arrival of conflict simulations on the popular scene. Miniatures enthusiasts, for example, have been refighting this battle for many, many generations. However, in 1962, the Avalon Hill Game Company finally got around to publishing WATERLOO: the first traditional, commercially-produced board wargame to deal with this colorful and dramatic topic. And although the Avalon Hill game’s title was taken from the climactic battle of June 18th, this early design actually simulated the most decisive first days of Napoleon’s entire offensive campaign against Wellington and Blücher. By today’s standards, TAHGC’s WATERLOO is both nondescript in its graphics, and somewhat primitive in its game mechanics. Nonetheless, it remains, despite having been around for almost half a century, probably one of the best-balanced and most chess-like simulations of the 1815 Campaign ever produced by any game publisher. For this reason, and in spite the game’s several flaws and numerous historical shortcomings, this early classic continues to retain a dedicated and enthusiastic following, particularly among many of the older, long-time players in the hobby. And even after all these years, it still regularly shows up in face-to-face and PBeM play; and, as further testament to its durability, WATERLOO remains, to this day, an ongoing tournament event at the annual WBC Championships in Lancaster, PA.

THE STRATEGIC SITUATION: the Goals and Starting Positions for the Opposing Armies

The action in TAHGC’s WATERLOO begins at 7:00 am, on the morning of 16 June 1815, with the bulk of Napoleon’s troops across the Sambre River and ready to push north towards Brussels. It will be the task, in the coming game turns, of the initially dispersed forces of Wellington and Blücher to stop them. The French start the game at full strength: fifty combat units totaling 193 combat factors. There are no French reinforcements. The Prussian and Anglo-Allied armies (P.A.A.) begin the game with only thirty-five combat units totaling 116 combat factors. As the game progresses, another forty-three units totaling an additional 121 combat factors will enter the map as reinforcements. Given his numerical disadvantage once the P.A.A. forces are finally concentrated, Napoleon’s goal is to push steadily north and to defeat the armies of Wellington and Blücher in detail, before the rising tide of P.A.A. reinforcements can tip the scales against the French.

Napoleon addresses his guard during the Battle of Waterloo
Napoleon’s army starts play with the French Ist Corps (7 units; 29 combat factors) concentrated in the village of Machienne au Pont on the Sambre River. The reinforced and powerful IInd Corps (8 units; 36 factors) begins the game deployed in the village of Gosselies; a forward French position that sits astride the primary road that runs between the southern map edge and the cross-roads at Quatre Bras. The balance of the Armée du Nord (31 units; 128 combat factors) will be positioned wherever the French player chooses along the primary and secondary roads that connect the town of Charleroi in the far south, to the village of Fleurus in the northeast. The French player always deploys his units first.

The King's German Legion in action at the Battle of Waterloo
The Prussian Anglo-Allied player positions his units after the French player completes his opening set-up. Wellington’s Anglo-Allies begin with only two small contingents on the map: one detachment (3 units; 7 combat factors) is positioned to the far west in the village of Nivelles; the other (7 units; 12 factors) is located at the important central cross-roads of Quatre Bras. The balance of Wellington’s army (34 units; 87 combat factors) will enter play piecemeal as reinforcements during the first three days of the campaign. The Prussians are a different story; three-quarters of Blücher’s army begins the game on the eastern side of the map, and ready for battle. In addition, the various divisions and brigades of the three Prussian corps that make up Blücher’s starting force have — fortunately for the P.A.A. player — much more flexibility than the British units when it comes to the Allied player’s choice of their starting positions. The Prussian Ist, IInd, and IIIrd Corps (25 units; 97 factors) can be deployed anywhere on the game's map board north of Ligny and east of Quatre Bras. At start of the game, one-quarter of the Prussian army, the powerful IVth Corps (9 units; 34 factors), is not yet in play; it begins the game to the east of the battle area and will not arrive via the east map edge until the morning of 18 June.

French cuirassiers attacking a Highland square.
Once play commences, the French player wins by eliminating all of the P.A.A units on the game map, either through direct combat or through forced P.A.A. defections brought about by the exit of French units off the edge of the game map on or between the roads leading north to Brussels. Alternatively, the P.A.A. player wins if even a single Allied unit survives through until the end of the game.

A complete game of WATERLOO lasts 30 game turns (five days) when playing with the standard (box) rules, but is 28 turns (four days) long when playing with the WBC (one extra 7:00 pm daylight turn on each day) Tournament rules. The four-day WBC Tournament version, besides being two game turns shorter, also — through the addition of one extra daylight game turn per day — has the effect of delaying P.A.A. reinforcements from 16 June on. This means, for example, that the Prussian IVth Corps will enter play in the Tournament game two full turns later than in the standard game. There are no scenarios or other optional rules.


The hard-backed 22” x 28” three-color WATERLOO game map covers that region of northern France and southern Belgium over which the opposing armies maneuvered and fought during the 1815 campaign. Although the terrain scale is not provided by the game’s original designers — based on comparisons with other maps of the battle area — each hex can be estimated to be approximately 800 yards ( a little less than a half mile) across. This means that the map’s boundaries extend approximately twenty-three miles from north to south, and sixteen miles from east to west; a total playing area that represents about 364 square miles.

Charge of the Old Guard, by Richard Simkin
The WATERLOO game map serves up only six different basic types of terrain hexes: clear, river, forest, roads (primary and secondary), hilltop/crest, and towns/villages/hamlets. Despite their limited number, however, these simple terrain types are sufficient to provide both players with a wide range of challenges and opportunities as the game develops. Considered one-by-one, the direct and indirect effects of the game’s different terrain types are instructive.

Terrain Types & Effects

  1. Clear terrain hexes are neutral for purposes of movement and combat.
  2. Rivers impede movement by requiring a “crossing” unit to halt on the river hex before moving off (in any direction) during a subsequent movement phase; rivers also double units defending behind them when they are attacked exclusively from river and/or crest hexes. And as if all this wasn’t enough, even when crossed, rivers remain formidable obstacles: a unit forced by combat to retreat from a clear hex back onto a river hex is eliminated.
  3. Forests block maneuver by restricting movement to a single forest hex per game turn; in addition, units are eliminated if their first retreat hex is onto a non-road forest hex.
  4. Roads have no effect on combat, but both primary and secondary roads allow movement across or through blocking terrain (i.e. across rivers or through forests); primary roads also increase the movement allowance, by up to four hexes, of those units moving directly from one primary road hex to another.
  5. Hilltop hexes — that is: those hexes that represent the high ground adjacent to the thick markings of crest hexes — double the combat strength of defenders, but only so long as all enemy units are attacking from crest and/or river hexes; on the other hand, neither hilltop nor crest hexes affect movement in any way.
  6. Town, village, and hamlet hexes, somewhat surprisingly, have no effect on combat; however, town (i.e., Charleroi) and village (i.e., Gosselies) hexes are considered primary roads for purposes of movement; hamlet (i.e., Quatre Bras, Waterloo) hexes are present on the map apparently only to add a bit of additional historical color.

Map Scale and Movement: the Game’s “Built-in” Limits on Maneuver

The scale of the game map in WATERLOO, as previously noted, allows it to encompass a relatively large section of France and Belgium. Added to this, the combat units in the game are comparatively slow: in the absence of primary roads, infantry and artillery move four hexes per game turn, and cavalry only six. In “real world” terms, this means that the typical infantry unit, when marching across open ground, covers slightly less than one mile per hour; and only double that rate on primary roads. The combination of these two design factors means that maneuver across the WATERLOO game map is almost always slow, and, because of the effects of terrain, often difficult.

To help the reader visualize exactly how slow and difficult, consider that any of Napoleon’s infantry or artillery units beginning in Gosselies, and travelling along the central north-south primary road for the entire distance, would require — even if there were no Prussian or Anglo-Allied units barring their way — five to six game turns to exit the north map edge on the road to Brussels. And French infantry or artillery starting in Fleurus and marching north through Tilly — because of the absence of any primary roads for almost the entire route — would need, even without any P.A.A. opposition, at least eleven game turns to effect an exit from the north edge of the game map. East-west transfers for the French, again absent possession of a primary road and assuming no P.A.A. interference, are no easier. Any redeployment, for instance, of Napoleon’s infantry from the Nivelles front to the Tilly sector of the battle area would require a minimum of seven game turns to complete. The Prussian Anglo-Allied player, at least in the early game turns, has a much easier time of it, in this regard, than his French counterpart; this P.A.A. starting advantage, however, will be examined in greater detail at a later point in this discussion.

What all this means is that, in WATERLOO, both players must typically plan several, if not many game turns ahead, and that major maneuvers must be carefully considered before being initiated. In this game more than most, impetuosity is a very dangerous fault. Mistakes in deployment and force allocation, once exposed, are almost always costly and usually very difficult to correct.

Last but not least, the preceding section also underscores the importance to both players — because of the movement limitations of combat units and the scope of the WATERLOO map area — of bonus movement along major roads. The significance of the few north-south primary roads has already been alluded to; even more important, however, is the single major road that runs from the east edge of the map all the way to Nivelles in the far west. This lone east-west primary road is, quite simply, the linchpin of the early Prussian Anglo-Allied defense. This is because it allows the P.A.A. player to rapidly shift forces from one threatened sector to another across virtually the entire length of his front. For this reason, a skillful P.A.A. player can be expected to use this lateral communications asset very aggressively, and when it is threatened by the advancing French, to defend it tenaciously.

The Game Map: a Terrain-Based Overview of the “Flow” of the Game

When the whole WATERLOO game map is laid out and carefully inspected with an eye towards the long-term strategic implications that its different types of terrain hold for the two opposing players, a regular and predictable sequence of French moves and P.A.A. counter-moves logically presents itself. This consistent pattern of player actions and reactions is probably easiest to comprehend if the game map is first divided into three separate parts: the southern portion; the central portion; and the northern portion. Each of these separate map sections can then be seen to roughly correspond to a different stage of the game.

The Southern Section

This map area is significant primarily because it is where the French army sets up before the start of the game. It should also be noted, however, that from Napoleon’s standpoint, the Ligne River in the east, the Pieton River in the center, and the absence of any primary roads leading towards Nivelles in the west, also mean that this southernmost portion of the game map is generally unhelpful to the French advance. Only the central north-south primary road helps the Armée du Nord to rapidly close with the P.A.A. during the critical first few game turns. In view of these factors, the maneuvers of both armies, as they move across this part of the battle area, will tend to follow a carefully-choreographed pattern of French actions and P.A.A. ripostes.

The Prince of Orange at Quatre Bras, by J.W. Pieneman
At the start of the game, except for the obligatory Prussian sacrifice unit on EE24 which prevents the French IInd Corps in Gosselies from seizing a lodgment on the Quatre Bras Heights on the very first turn of the game, it is doubtful that the P.A.A. player will make any significant attempt to interfere with the initial French advance in the center. Hence, in most games, the bulk of Napoleon’s army will quick-march forward along the Charleroi-Quatre Bras road and then fan out towards Nivelles in the west and onto the open ground between the Quatre Bras forest and the Ligne River to the east. Most experienced P.A.A. players will deploy in strength near and south of the east-west road in order to delay an overly aggressive French advance towards the Quatre Bras gap; at the same time, the experienced Allied player will also start the game with a line of powerful Prussian divisions behind the Ligne River.

Confronted with a typical P.A.A opening set-up, the French units that start near Fleurus will usually move northwest to seize as much open ground as possible; at the same time, other divisions from this contingent will begin to maneuver against the Prussian river defenses on the Allied far left. Once the P.A.A. player has strongly garrisoned the Quatre Bras Heights (turn one), reinforced the Anglo-Allied detachment at Nivelles (turns two-four), and has begun to back away from the Ligne River (turns three-five), the game will usually settle — for the next few turns, at least — into a regular pattern of meticulously-planned, hex-by-hex P.A.A. retreats and sacrifices, followed by equally methodical French attacks and advances.

Beginning on turns four and five, the French columns that were dispatched towards the northwest should finally start arriving in sufficient strength to threaten both the forest corridors south of Nivelles and the south bend of the Samme River. Thus, by game turn five, the Armée du Nord should have completed the first phase of its advance to contact with the Prussian Anglo-Allies, and the southern one-third of the game board — except for the occasional effects on French movement of the Pieton River and the Trazegnies Road — will cease to have much further influence on play.

The Central Section

The middle one-third of the WATERLOO map is usually where the seeds of final victory or defeat are planted. Because this portion of the game board is cluttered with an interlocking maze of rivers, forests, and hilltops, it presents a formidable series of obstacles to the French advance; while, at the same time, it provides a treasure-trove of excellent defensive positions to the P.A.A.

Napoleon's problems begin, once his troops actually enter the "central" map section, with the paucity of passable routes for a French advance north towards Brussels. Because of the thick forests in this part of the battle area, there are only six useable paths through this very difficult terrain: the narrow (one hex-wide) eastern gap at Z12; the Tilly Corridor; the Quatre Bras Gap; the Q.B. Heights; the two forest gaps at Nivelles; and the Samme River crossings near the western map edge. By channeling the French offensive into one or more of these obvious funnels, the central map section magnifies the combat power of the P.A.A. defender, while restricting that of the attacker. In short, the combination of both blocking and doubling terrain, and the advantage to the P.A.A. player of possession of the game's single east-west primary road, makes for an extremely strong initial barrier to the French advance. To really appreciate the defensive depth of this portion of the game map and the many difficulties with which it confronts the French player, it is only necessary to examine — looking east to west — its various layers. And these layers are, beginning with the Allies' initial advanced positions, all very strong.

Starting on the first game turn, the P.A.A. player will usually move to establish a powerful forward line of resistance that starts with a doubled defense of the Ligne River and a light (one or two unit) screen deployed on the Ligny plain to cover the east-west primary road, and, at the same time, the southern approaches to the Tilly Corridor and the Quatre Bras (Q.B.) Gap; this line then extends through the hilltop hexes of the Q. B. Heights. Next, this early defensive line skips across the face of the central wooded hexes, but then resumes in front of the Nivelles forest gaps, and continues west to finally end behind the south bend of the Samme River. This position, strong as it is, however, is not invulnerable; the French army will, through a combination of combat and maneuver, slowly gain ground.

Once the Prussian Anglo-Allied left has been driven back behind the lateral road, a gap will gradually begin to open between the Q.B. force and the units defending in the Tilly Corridor. At this point in the game, these two newly-separated sectors of the front will, of necessity, become the responsibility of independent P.A.A. detachments. Thus, while the main body of the Allied army will remain close to Quatre Bras, a fairly strong independent force — often a full Prussian corps — will usually be assigned to cover the Tilly Corridor. This independent corps will typically use a mixed strategy of sacrificial blocks backed-up by the credible threat of powerful counterattacks to slow the progress of the pursuing French. At the same time, individual P.A.A. delay units, supported by powerful infantry stacks, will continue to grudgingly give ground, one hex at a time, in the Quatre Bras Gap; not surprisingly, heavy artillery and infantry divisions will maintain an intimidating presence both on the Q.B. hilltops and in the Nivelles forest gaps; while, in the far west, already-dispatched P.A.A. units will take up positions behind the fork of the Samme. The French, because of their preponderance in strength, however, will usually be able to steadily press ahead with their advance and — at some point, late on the first or early on the second day — these initial P.A.A. defenses will finally begin to give way. Defenders that have been newly-deployed onto the hillocks and ridges paralleling the east-west road, in concert with a careful strategy of delay, should succeed in preventing Napoleon's army from pushing forward too quickly. Nonetheless, even after these powerful forward positions have fallen (and they usually will); and even after the east-west road has finally been cleared by Napoleon’s troops, the P.A.A. player can still fall back on yet another formidable string of defensive positions.

This final line of resistance runs from the Dyle River in the east and then branches west to run along the banks of the Genappe and up to the pair of ridges in the center of the map; from these heights, this string of defensive positions then picks up and follows the Samme River all the way to the western map edge. Along this defensive line’s entire length, there is only one small sector (hex T34) that is not doubled against a French attack. Only when the Armée du Nord has decisively broken this final position, do things begin to look truly worrisome for the P.A.A.

The Northern Section

The battle area encompassed by the final “northern” section of the WATERLOO game board represents a significant change from that in the central section. Here, for the first time, the game map favors the French. Thus, when the action finally reaches the northernmost section of the battle area — that part of the map north of the Genappe River — the terrain, at long last, begins to present significant defensive problems for the P.A.A., while, at the same time, it offers much more favorable ground for the offensive operations of Napoleon’s army. And, most importantly, for the first time in the game, the P.A.A. player can no longer pick the time and place of battle.

The Duke of Wellington waves his hat for the final attack, "The Line Will Advance"

Once the P.A.A. player falls back from the Genappe River, he really has a lot to be concerned about. Unlike his situation in previous game turns, the Allied player — because of the proximity of the northern exit hexes — must now seriously worry about a French breakthrough towards Brussels, and must deploy accordingly. The good news for Wellington and Blücher, such as it is, is that the historical Waterloo position south of Mont St. Jean is difficult to turn. In the west, a long meander from the Samme River covers the Prussian Anglo-Allied right; in the east, the P.A.A. left is screened along its entire length by the La Lasne River. Regrettably, in the center, there is only open ground; that is, except for a single ridge that dominates the Brussels Road, but which — disappointingly for the P.A.A. player, at least — is oriented so as to favor the attacking French. Here the Prussian Anglo-Allied army must fight to the last; with both the Brussels exit hexes and the Forest of Soignies to their rear, there is little room for further delay or retreat. On the other hand, if Wellington and Blücher can hold out until the arrival of the Prussian IVth Corps, then these fresh divisions may, as was the case historically, be enough to tip the scales against Napoleon. If not, then the Armée du Nord will probably succeed in breaking the P.A.A. army and will then march off the map towards Brussels and victory.

British guards defending Hougoumont

From Napoleon’s standpoint, the final battlefield is advantageous on several levels. The threat to the P.A.A. flanks from French cavalry means that the Allied defense can be spread out and thinned at little cost to French combat power. In addition, the Prussian Anglo-Allied position has little depth; the Forest of Soignies is only a few hexes behind the Allied front. For this reason, the P.A.A commander must accept an attrition battle in the open whether he wants one or not. He really has no choice. If Wellington’s and Blücher’s troops can be pushed back even a few hexes in the center, then the P.A.A. army runs the risk of being split in two. Once this happens, the French army should then be able to defeat one or the other of the isolated Allied wings in detail, hopefully before Prussian reinforcements can make their presence felt on the French right.

Marshall Ney's massed cavalry attack on the Allied squares at Waterloo.

In most games between seasoned WATERLOO players, the northern map section is where the last bloody act of the campaign ultimately plays out. And, it must be admitted, the final great clash at Mont. St. Jean is always an exciting climax to the game. Neither the northern map section, nor Mont St. Jean, however, is really where the game is won or lost. Instead, victory or defeat is almost always the product of the many different decisions made, by both players, throughout the match; it is the accumulated outcomes from these many player choices that will, in virtually every case, finally determine how the drama actually ends.


This rather long post is the first in a new series of essays on WATERLOO that I will be publishing on this Blog as time goes by. In this initial offering, I opened with a discussion of the strategic positions and goals of both the French and the Prussian Anglo-Allied players at the start of the game. From there, I went on to consider, in some detail, the WATERLOO game board; specifically, the characteristics of the game’s terrain and map scale, and the effects of both on the overall flow and tempo of the game. Looking to the future, this inaugural post is only the first installment in what ultimately will be a whole series of WATERLOO essays. Part II in this series will discuss the game’s combat units (counters) and their tactical employment. Other, future essays will take a detailed look at the different phases of the game; at the tricks of movement and combat in WATERLOO; and still others will examine the game from the French and from the Prussian Anglo-Allied perspectives.

Recommended Reading

Book Review: Waterloo: Day of Battle; by David Howarth; Anthenum (1968); Library of Congress catalog number 68-27663

Book Review: “The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History's Greatest Soldier ;” by David G. Chandler; Scribner; Illustrated edition edition (March, 1973); ISBN-13: 978-0025236608

Those players interested in decorating their game room using a Napoleonic theme might consider the following:

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