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Review: War & Peace

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I saw the crown of France laying on the ground, so I picked it up with my sword.” ~ Napoleon

It is said that the only man in history to have more works written about him than Napoleon is Jesus.  Appropriately enough for his God-sized ego, his times will forever be named after the little emperor who seized opportunity from turmoil and changed history forever through blood and steel.  An untold number of games have also covered the wars and battles of this era.  Recently, Worthington Games has offered a new title of grand, epic strategy covering the entire period from 1805 to Waterloo.  Will history repeat itself?  Choose your side to reenact this period which witnessed some of the greatest and most terrible military campaigns of all time.

How it Plays

War & Peace is a standard, “dudes on a map” game.  There is area control/area movement, plastic armies, bold strategy, epic conquest, and pointing and laughing.  There is also lots of dice rolling combat to abstract the smell of gunpowder, sight of blood, and “left-right-left-right, little fingers along the seams of your trousers.”  If you’ve ever played Axis & Allies, you’re already well along the journey to learning this early 19thcentury tilt.  And if you loathe those types of slug-fest, strategy games, well then you’re already well along the journey of running away from this review.  I reference the iconic WWII classic because most hobby gamers are at least familiar with it; and the designer of War & Peace specifically admits that the marathon Milton Bradley title was both inspiration and model for his design.

Players can lead one or more of five warring powers: England, France, Spain, Austria, and/or Russia.  Prussia sits out at first, but may throw her bicorn in the conflict at some point.  The anti-Nappy, coalition nations of England, Austria, and Russia attempt to stifle the little Corsican’s European ambitions by capturing Paris.  The original anti-Monarchists, revolutionary French and Spanish hope to successfully invade England or completely isolate her politically – of which von Clausewitz would giddily remind us all that war is merely another means to achieve.

1805. The set-up as the War of the Third Coalition begins.

As is typical of the genre, War & Peace has different types of military units – in this particular case ubiquitous infantry, belching artillery, dashing cavalry, and mighty ships-of-the-line.  England has the Iron Duke who increases his infantrymen’s defense when accompanying them, while France has l’Empereurhimself to strengthen infantry assaults.  Each unit hits successfully in battle on different results of a d6 roll.  Ships can transport a unit apiece.  Most territories have a resource value which you can add up and spend on troops and political influence.  There are restrictions to placing new units, as well as some other bits of rules chrome relevant to the time period.  It’s all rather standard armchair general stuff.  Just add cigar and brandy and stir.

One unique aspect to War & Peace, however, is the political element.  England and France stand as the prime protagonists vying for continental influence.  The other powers are supporting actors upon the stage.  A political alliance track marks each “minor” nation’s leanings from 0-5 either toward the British or French.  Austria and Russia start out at +4 pro-England, while Spain begins +3 pro-France.  Prussia is neutral, but favors the House of Hanover just slightly at +2 pro-England, no doubt thanks to the British monarch’s German roots.

The political graph can influence events during the game.  If a neutral country ever reaches +3 towards one camp or the other, that nation will roll to see if her military muscle will back up her diplomatic leanings through an active alliance.  To move the needle on this ambassadorial compass, England and France will have to do things like pay resource points for a political alliance roll, capture enemy capitals, invade neutral countries, or have royal babies.

The political alliance track (royal baby not included).

Austerlitz or Waterloo (from Bonaparte’s point-of-view, of course…)?

Born of the generation baptized by fire in war gaming with Milton Bradley’s GameMaster series, I have a soft spot for this type of game.  Dudes-on-a-map titles still provide strategic gaming without overloading you with hundreds of hard-to-read counters, rulebooks the size of the Bible, and detailed historical minutiae that drowns out the “gaming” fun.  They still take an afternoon or better to play, but time mostly passes by quickly as you plan bold, sweeping moves and charge glorious into the fray with your dozens of cool, plastic minis.
One time period that suits this style to a ‘T’ is the Napoleonic Era.  I’m mean really, who can’t imagine Napoleon Bonaparte at his field headquarters, hovering over a map with his most trusted aides, pushing around little flags in planning the next Marengo, Austerlitz, or Dresden?  And while there have been a couple such designs addressing this tumultuous age, it has been ripe lately for revisiting.  The GameMaster series popularized the style with its flagship title Axis & Allies – and then brought the concept to Rome, feudal Japan, and even a fictional America under siege.  MB’s spiritual successor Eagle Games brought the Napoleonic Wars into the fold, but their title is now quite hard to find.  Therefore, as an “Axis & Allies meets Napoleon,” War & Peace is a welcome addition to the genre.

To be clear, War & Peace is not an exact clone of previous designs.  It has some unique aspects that improve upon the class.  One nice twist is that defenders have an opportunity to retreat, which is almost unheard of for this style of game.  The unit must survive the round of combat and roll a ‘6,’ but then may retreat to a friendly, adjacent territory, if one is available.  In naval combat, attacking rolls of ‘2’ will result in disabling the enemy, sending them back to the nearest friendly port.  This deviation from the “all-or-nothing” philosophy is welcoming.  Further, the inclusion of Napoleon and Wellington as generals adds an interesting touch, especially as they affect offense and defense respectively.

The battle board: a tried and true combat mechanic.

Also, players are limited to a certain number of armies to reflect the logistics of Napoleonic warfare.  While these armies can have, in theory, an unlimited number of troops in them (by placing poker chips under a miniature), you’re restricted to a certain number of groups that you can have as represented by the finite amount of minis.  Now for infantry, this is still quite a few.  However, the number of artillery, cavalry, and ship sculpts are far less.  So while you may have ten cavalry units in one army, you can only have four cavalry armies on the board, because you only have that many horse-and-man miniatures.  There are a few other aspects to add historical flavor so that the game can stand out from its older brothers in the family.

The political alliance track is a mixed bag.  Implementing this element does add some depth and nuance to what is otherwise a standard dudes-on-a-map cage fight.  Players – specifically England and France – will need to consider the political elements to international alliances and warfare.  The immediate peach ripe for plucking is Prussia.  Great Britain can expend resources to try and persuade her further to the coalition cause.  Meanwhile, France cannot simply march into that neutral power.  First off, it will cost resource points to invade any neutral or non-aligned territory.  Worse, such a move would immediately push the Germans into the anti-Nappy alliance, and at greater strength than if they would have entered under normal British pressure.

Neutral Prussia isn’t the only puppet in this diplomatic show, however.  England and France may also wine, dine, and bribe any of the other smaller powers, regardless of their allied status.  But just why would you flirt with a girl another guy brought to the dance?  That’s because you can increase and/or decrease the likelihood that a nation will surrender upon the loss of its capital.  Capturing Madrid, Vienna, Moscow, or Berlin does not automatically guarantee capitulation.  However, the lower that country is on the political alliance track, the greater the chance its military will lay down its arms when its capital has fallen.  Then it becomes neutral – and fair game again for either side to bring back into the conflict.

Britain owns the seas!

The problem with this political element is that, as written in the rules, it just doesn’t work very well.  The main reason is that the cost is too high and results rare.  For one political die roll, England or France must expend 3 points.  That is one third of England’s beginning resources, while France starts with just 11.  Then you must roll a result of ‘1’ to nudge the targeted nation’s opinion just one point toward your favor on the alliance track.  If you buy extra political dice to increase your chance of success and end up rolling multiple ‘1s,’ you can still only count one of them.  Further, once you’ve managed to get a neutral county to the +3 spot in your direction, then they must roll to see if they enter the war on your side by getting a die result equal to or less than their current political rating – which, at +3, is a 50/50 chance!  Essentially you’re spending precious resources for a low-rate of success.  Meanwhile, the enemy’s ranks grow while your bumbling ambassadors squander bullets for bread.  Sure, this is all nice in concept to represent the cost of war, both politically and militarily; but one still expects more bang for their buck.

There are two other unfortunate issues with War & Peace that compound one another.  The game is heavily imbalanced in favor of the French and, as a result, tends to play out in a fairly scripted manner.  The most glaring issue is that Vienna falls in turn two and – barring a lucky roll on the subsequent surrender check – Austria will then capitulate.  Sure, this may essentially recreate historical events, namely Napoleon’s greatest victory that led to Austria’s first fall in 1805 (Austerlitz).  In the game, however, it already sets the coalition back drastically.  Russia can produce some units to slow the French, but eventually Bonaparte’s wealth will create a sizable juggernaut which inexorably marches East; there will unlikely be a repeat of Borodino and the dreaded Russian winter that actually undid him 200 years ago.

Russia tries to hold back Nappy in Austria.

Britain does have a couple of realistic options, but if they falter early on, recovery is almost insurmountable.  Both of these involve an early expeditionary force, which she can easily manage because Jack Tar has nearly uncontested control of the high seas.  Seriously, there is very little reason for France and/or Spain to build up their fleets, but instead use the cash to bolster their armies.  At five resource points per ship, it will take too long to match the Royal Navy’s strength.  Sheer weight of numbers reduces France’s and Spain’s naval operations to mostly harassment.  Now, I realize this is quite historically accurate.  But, again for the game, it generally leads to scripted play.

So then, Britain needs to put boots on the continent.  Invading the “Republic” proper will likely lead to a French counter-attack crushing the invasion.  Instead, old George III might consider the historical route through Spain, building up as strong a foothold as possible and sacking Madrid before the main Gallic army can march to her weak ally’s aid.

Preparing for the invasion!

The second possible theatre involves Redcoats in Prussia.  This is trickier to pull off because, quite frankly, it requires some luck.  At the same time as building a strong enough force to help defend Berlin, England must also spend resource points to apply the diplomatic screws to Frederick, so that tiny Prussia enters the war just as Britain is ready to land.  Without any British reinforcements, Prussia will also fall in two turns.  Again, this is historically accurate (1806-1807).  But it’s hardly worth the coalition’s resources to bring a new ally into the fray that will subsequently fall beneath the boots, hooves, and wheels of le Grande Armée.

France could exert resources on political persuasion, but has almost no incentive to do so.  If England lures Prussia to her side, the French will promptly conquer it and half her lands, thus gaining the wealth of those territories.  And once Austria falls, it’s better to keep them neutral.  If France spent resources to gain them as an ally, then they’d lose the resource points for those territories, as they’d revert back to the Habsburgs.  And Spain just isn’t worth it.  At the other end, Moscow is so remote that it’s capture means the end of the game, so there is no point to woo the Czar at any time.  Meanwhile, France and Russia spend the remainder of the game building up their armies until one or both are satisfied to meet on the field of honor.  Unless England has a fair presence on the mainland to open a second front, Napoleon will win that showdown with Alexander by sheer weight of resources and numbers.

War & Peace is certainly well-produced with great components and a clean graphic design.  Overcrowding is not terribly much of an issue thanks to a well drawn map and the limited unit count.  The game will require some time commitment, but individual turns are actually surprisingly quick – at least relatively speaking.  With that said, it’s more fun as a two-player, head-to-head match.  Austria is out pretty quick, Spain is so weak they’re boring, and Russia takes a lot of patience to work right.  England and France, on the other hand, are a blast to play.

Best of all, it is an easy and accessible design that would work very well as an introduction to the genre.  That’s not to say it’s a gateway game.  However, for casual gamers looking to get into war games, this would be a good start.  In fact, that demographic seems like the game’s most appropriate target audience and as such, they would likely not be bothered as much with the issues of scripted play and replayability.

Groovy components.

I really, really wanted to love this game.  I do like it, despite its tendency to play the same each session.  To be fair, even its heavyweight inspiration, Axis & Allies, and other similar designs are fraught with similar issues of replayability, which again may not concern new and/or casual war gamers.  A good British player familiar with the game will challenge the French a lot more and ramp up the fun.  Otherwise, it’s always possible to house rule minor variants with portions as you wish.  That’s never stopped gamers before and it surely never will.  For those who like to experiment and tweak, who really enjoy dudes-on-a-map, and especially for Napoleonic fans, War & Peace is a simpler entry in the genre, good for a relaxed afternoon of war gaming, and has just enough historical flare to relive one of the most tumultuous and defining times in military and world history.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Worthington Games for providing a review copy of War & Peace.

Summary

  • Rating 6.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Accessible war game
  • Nice historical flavor
  • Great production quality
  • Axis & Allies meets Napoleon

Cons:

  • Play tends to be scripted
  • Grossly imbalanced
  • Political system really doesn't work
6.5 Average

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. I’ve played War and Peace once, as the Russians in a three-player game. We had fun with it. Despite your impression that the game is imbalanced in favor of the French, the English actually won our game, perhaps because the French overspent on political influence to maintain Prussian neutrality. Also, Vienna didn’t fall the first time France attacked it. I agree that there are problematic elements, but all in all, W&P is an enjoyable game.

  2. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

    I was able to win with England once. With luck. With the redcoats in Prussia. Prussia entered the alliance (only had to spend 6 pts. to get them to the necessary +3 which never happened before!) on a 50/50 die roll on the turn right before England was ready to land troops in Germany. It wasn’t a large army, but enough to keep Prussia surviving so that she and England could press from the north and Russia the east. Austria just keeps falling on turn two for us…???

    One of my boys also tried the Spain route with England, as historically happened. While Spain fell easily, France defended the homeland just easily and rolled eastward. England just didn’t have enough time to get to Paris before France could get to Moscow! And France could just ignore Spain for her victory condition. Odd! Fun what-if scenario, at the least! 🙂

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