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.
INTRODUCTIONWATERLOO — PART 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.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: the Game and History
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 ArmiesThe 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 BATTLE AREA: the “WATERLOO” Game Map
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
- Clear terrain hexes are neutral for purposes of movement and combat.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 ManeuverThe 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 GameWhen 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 SectionThis 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 SectionThe 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 SectionThe 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.
PART I: CONCLUSIONThis 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.
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: