The Life & Games of Napoleon Bonaparte (Part 1)

BoardGameGeek divides their history-themed games in eras. Only one of them is named after a person (and the one after it indirectly, as Post-). So, how big must you be to have that honor? – Napoleon-big. As Napoleon was born 250 years ago (on August 15, 1769), here’s a post covering his life (from his early years over his mastery of Europe and finally his downfall) and the games about it. Not all the games, mind you. Not even close. In board gaming – as in history and public memory – Napoleon looms large.

Rise: Son of the Revolution

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on Corsica, just at the time when the island became a part of France. As the second son of a Corsican noble family, the military seemed like a decent career choice, so he joined a French cadet school at age nine. Another ten years later, the French Revolution brought down the ancien régime of king, aristocrats, and clergy in France – and it set the heart of the young lieutenant on fire. Many officers in the French army had been conservative aristocrats who emigrated after the revolution – or, if they were unlucky, were beheaded on that fancy new invention, the guillotine. Guillotine (Paul Peterson, Wizards of the Coast) is a black-humored take on the terreur of the Revolution – each player acts as an executioner, aiming to behead the most prestigious people.

Guillotine Cover

In tumultuous times, you better not lose your head. Box cover of Guillotine, ©Wizards of the Coast.

For Bonaparte, however, chaos was a ladder. A bright young man (and a fervent supporter of the Revolution), he quickly rose in the French army. His first important command was at the siege of Toulon (which had offered itself – and, most importantly, the French Mediterranean Fleet based there! – to the British) in 1793, where he commanded the artillery. Bonaparte drove everyone around him from his own men to his superior officers to a frenzy of action and spotted the weakness of the defenders: One hill close to the city was so prominently positioned that cannon placed there commanded Toulon. Once his men had taken the hill and brought the artillery up, Toulon surrendered.Liberté Map.jpg

Map of Liberté. Napoleon went to a military school in Champagne (north-east, orange), earned his first spurs in Toulon (in Provence, yellow, south-east) and the Vendée (purple, west), and ruled in Paris (red-purple, north). Quite an all-French man! Only his Corsican birthplace is not on the map. Image ©Valley Games.

Bonaparte served in a variety of roles thereafter: He put down anti-revolutionary uprisings in the west of France. He commanded a French army in northern Italy and defeated the Austrian forces there in a masterful lightning campaign. And in 1798 he sailed with an expeditionary force to Egypt, defeated the Mamluk armies there and aimed at claiming Egypt for France (and threaten the British connection to India), modernizing the country, and analyzing her cultural heritage with a second army of scholars attached to his military force. It was not meant to be. The Royal Navy, once duped when the fleet carrying Napoleon eluded them on the way through the Mediterranean, exacted its revenge on the French ships and destroyed most of them in the naval battle of the Nile. Bonaparte left an undersupplied force behind and returned to France.

Here we see that Bonaparte was politician as much as he was soldier. The Egyptian expedition was a military setback, but he parlayed it into a political triumph with his constant lobbying of the important men in Paris who were quite impressed with his daring spirit and intellectual brilliance. They even went so far as preferring him as the ruler of France to their current government, the not-very-inspiring „Directorate“ which had tried to set itself up as a moderate force after the terreur of the early revolutionary years. The Directorate was deposed in a coup in November (or, as the French revolutionary calendar called it, Brumaire) 1799, and Bonaparte installed as the First Consul of the new government. The struggle between French Republican revolutionaries, moderates, royalists, and the new men born of the Revolution but too big to fit into its egalitarian framework had taken a new direction. That struggle is depicted in Liberté (Martin Wallace, Valley Games). France in the years of the Revolution turns here into a bitter conflict over regional majorities – or maybe the one big leap for victory.
The First Consul Bonaparte continued in his usual fashion. There was still a war to fight, and once more with the Austrians (supported by the British) in Italy (as a part of the Second Coalition against France, the first one having been defeated by the revolutionary forces in the early 1790s). They had not learned much from their previous encounter, and once more Napoleon beat them soundly with his superior attention to the concentration of forces and rapid marches – most famously at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, in which a outnumbered French force was assailed by the Austrians. Bonaparte, correctly assessing the situation, remarked that the battle was lost, but there was still time enough to win another. When an additional corps of French soldiers reached the battlefield and set upon the Austrians, they fled and Bonaparte was once more master of Italy. This battle (which Bonaparte once more transformed into a major propaganda victory as well) is the subject of Bonaparte at Marengo (Bowen Simmons, Simmons Games): As in history, the arrival of the French reinforcements is crucial for the outcome of the battle in the game.

Bonaparte at Marengo Histogame

The beginning of the battle of Marengo: Superior Austrian forces (red) are poised to break through the thin French lines (blue). However, French reinforcements are on their way (edge of the board). Image ©Histogame.

Shortly after the triumph of Marengo, France concluded a favorable peace treaty with her enemies. For once, Bonaparte had time to focus on his ambitious domestic reforms. He attempted no less than to lay the foundations of a new state there – the „granite masses“ on which the new France would rest. That included projects as varied as a new constitution and the respective political bodies to be founded, public education for the gifted (gifted boys, that is), or support for the budding French manufacturing industry. And he transformed the nature of his rule, crowning himself Emperor Napoleon I. of the French in 1804.
Peace had not lasted long. Barely a year after the treaty, hostilities between Britain and France resumed. Bonaparte amassed an army ready to invade Great Britain, and the British prepared for a naval confrontation to prevent it. At the same time, Britain worked hard to get other countries into their camp again, as they could not hope to stand alone against the much more populated and powerful France. In 1805, they succeeded with both Austria and Russia joining with them in the (third) Coalition against France.

Zenith: Master of Europe

1805 is the starting point of two strategic games of the Napoleonic Wars, and it’s not hard to see why: First, Napoleon was now firmly entrenched as the ruler of France. Second, from this year on, he enjoyed his most elated successes, often against several enemy powers at the same time. The two games are Age of Napoleon (Renaud Verlaque, Mayfair Games/Phalanx Games) and The Napoleonic Wars (Mark McLaughlin, GMT Games). Despite their shared starting points, the games have marked differences: Age of Napoleon only fields two players, France and the Coalition (led by Britain). Smaller powers might be wooed to either side (and will normally tilt toward the Coalition), but they are no agents of their own. Consequently, the game is full of tense calculation and maneuver to get a leg up over your opponent. That’s the perspective Napoleon employed himself, especially in his later years – the other powers were either in cahoots to work toward his downfall, or they could make middlingly useful supporters in his land campaigns over Europe or his schemes to break British naval domination. The Napoleonic Wars, on the other hand, plays up to five (in addition to France and Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia are playable). Each power wants to improve its position, chiefly by conquests. France alone has a shot at outright domination (and Britain must do everything to stop her), but for the other three it is a constant reassessment between balancing against an overarching power and joining it to make opportunistic gains. That’s the perspective of the British who despaired over the lack of commitment of their allies to defeat Napoleon (which, of course, was easier for a country protected from the French army by its island position). As you’d expect, The Napoleonic Wars is a wild romp to play.

Faced with the new double threat of Russia and Austria, Napoleon left his waiting position from which to strike for England. Instead, he marched east. An Austrian army headed by a general endowed with both the courage to march offensively toward France and the thickness to stop maneuvering then was surrounded at Ulm in the southwest of Germany and surrendered. Napoleon drove on and captured Vienna. By now, the Russian army had joined their Austrian allies, and together they outnumbered the approaching French forces. In the ensuing battle at Austerlitz, three emperors (Napoleon, Russian tsar/emperor Alexander I, and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II) witnessed Napoleon’s greatest battlefield triumph: He deceived his enemies into an ill-advised attack on the flank, held firm there while occupying a critical height in the center to split the enemy forces, and from there sent the fatal blow. It was the first anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation, and what a present he had given himself! The battle is covered in Napoleon’s Triumph (Bowen Simmons, Simmons Games), the sequel to Bonaparte at Marengo.

Napoleon's Triumph Cover

Cover of Napoleon’s Triumph. ©Simmons Games.

Despite making peace then, the Russians had not learned their lesson. Less than a year after Austerlitz, they were at war with Napoleon again. This time, they had convinced the Prussians to act as their junior allies (forming the Fourth Coalition together with Britain). Once more, Napoleon dashed through Germany and a smashed an enemy army which was too bold (this time the Prussians) to pieces (double battles of Jena and Auerstedt). Once more, he pressed on, took the enemy capital (Berlin), and met the combined host of his enemies. And once more, he defeated them (battle of Friedland). However, his success had become costlier in terms of the men he lost.
Another two years later, the oft-beaten Austrians decided that they had not had enough yet and declared war on France again (together with the stubborn British making the Fifth Coalition). And the war went by its by now established standard course: Napoleon advanced, won a convincing first battle (Eckmühl), occupied Vienna, and then went on to defeat the main army of his enemy. The losses his army sustained were even bigger than during the previous war, and, even more importantly, Napoleon even lost a battle (Aspern-Essling) in the course of the war – his first defeat in a field battle since he had retreated at Bassano during his first Italian campaign 13 years earlier. The Napoleonic nimbus of invincibility was gone. Even the God of War could lose at times.

Downfall: The End of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

While Napoleon triumphed time and again in continental Europe, Britain remained implacable. And at Britain he could not strike as long as she was separated from the continent by the English Channel and as long as her navy ruled the waves. Napoleon made an attempt to gain temporary superiority there when he was allied with Spain – but shortly after he had already marched his invasion army off to the east to deal with the Austrians and Russians during the War of the Third Coalition, the Royal Navy under Admiral Nelson defeated the more numerous Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. The French and Spanish losses were so great that Napoleon could never again hope to invade Britain. If you like naval games, Wooden Ships & Iron Men (S. Craig Taylor, Avalon Hill) got you covered – an early classic of the genre. If you do not only like naval games, but also beautiful miniatures (and, judging from what’s going on over at Kickstarter, lots of you are positively rabid about them), look no further than Sails of Glory (Andrea Angiolini/Andrea Mainini, Ares Games).

Sails of Glory HMS Victory expansion

Miniature of HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s flagship in the battle of Trafalgar. Note that the ship is not included in the Sails of Glory base game, but is an expansion to it. Image ©Ares Games.

Spain was not only a disappointment to Napoleon at sea and when she was allied to him. Much more distressing, the country was the site of a drawn-out land war as his enemy. Relations between France and Spain had become strained, and finally Napoleon decided he was better off deposing the king of Spain and installing his brother Joseph on the throne instead. French troops killed Spanish civilians in a massacre named after its date, May 2, 1808, Dos de Mayo (also the name of a curious little game, 2 de Mayo (Daniel Val, Gen-X Games)), infuriating the Spanish populace beyond anything the French had ever seen in terms of local resistance. So, Spanish insurgents popped up everywhere like mushrooms, and like mushrooms, plucking one out by no means meant the roots behind them were gone. The Spanish led one of the first guerilla campaigns in history, more and more aided by a British-Portuguese army led by the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon left Spain to his marshals who despaired over putting down the insurgency. 300,000 French soldiers were tied down, did not manage to strike a decisive blow, and were finally worn out. And those 300,000 were lacking elsewhere.

2 de Mayo Cover

Cover of 2 de Mayo. The illustration is an adaptation of Francisco Goya’s painting (completed 1814) The Third of May 1808 which depicts the execution of insurgents by a French firing squad on the day after the uprising. ©Gen-X Games.

After the Fourth Coalition had been defeated, Napoleon had made peace with the Russians. For some time, he and tsar Alexander enjoyed cordial relations. These soured when Napoleon demanded of his allies to cease to trade with Britain (the „Continental System“), which deprived Russia of valuable imports of manufactured goods and colonial luxuries as well as of a market for her timber. Russia’s adherence to the continental system became ever less committed, and finally Napoleon decided to enforce compliance by means of invasion. This time, the Russians had learned their lesson. Instead of meeting him in the open field, their army withdrew slowly, keeping the French in check while their lines of communication grew ever longer. Napoleon forced – and won – battles, but he got as good as he gave, and thousands of kilometers away from France, he could not reinforce his withering army. Nonetheless, Napoleon took Russia’s old capital, Moscow, waiting for the Russians to sue for peace. But no offer of peace came. What came instead was winter. As Napoleon could not feed or supply his army anymore (that arsonists had burnt down Moscow at the command of the tsar worsened this situation), he withdrew. And the Russian army set upon him. In a campaign reminiscent of the great retreats in history back to Xenophon’s Anabasis, the French army braved the hardships of the march, the elements, and the enemy army, until they finally crossed the Berezina river (Napoleon’s brilliance as a commander ensured the crossing and saved the army from being trapped and annihilated). Out of the 500,000 men who had entered Russia with him, fewer than 40,000 survived.
Napoleon hurried back to Paris to reach the capital before news of his defeat could. And, of course, to rally a new army, as he knew his enemies would not relent. On the contrary: Under the impression of Napoleon’s crushing defeat, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden joined Britain for the Sixth Coalition. Napoleon marched his new army to Germany and managed to defeat individual Coalition forces during the campaign of 1813. However, he could not render them unable to fight, and they finally converged on his immense army at Leipzig: The combined Russian, Austrian, Prussian, and Swedish forces defeated Napoleon in the hitherto largest battle in history (over 500,000 combatants). One upcoming game to feature a scenario of this enormous battle is Napoleon’s Eagles: Storm in the East (Christopher Moeller, Compass Games).

Napoleon's Eagles Cover

Two battles in one box: Napoleon’s Eagles: Storm in the East gives you both the battle of Borodino during the Russian campaign of 1812 and the battle of Leipzig of 1813. Image ©Compass Games.

Here Napoleon’s military and political mind parted ways. While Napoleon managed to retreat and fought a masterful defensive campaign in France in winter 1813/1814 (the first time France was invaded since the early years of the Revolution), he rejected successive (and successively less generous) proposals of peace by the Coalition. Operational brilliance, however, could not overcome overwhelming numerical odds when the Coalition was for once bent on defeating Napoleon, and so the situation grew hopeless for him. Even some of his most loyal marshals urged him to abdicate. And so he did, going into exile on the small island of Elba off the Italian coast. The victorious Coalition powers believed they had eradicated the Revolution and installed a king of the Bourbon dynasty again to rule France.
Napoleon, however, was not quite done yet. Less than a year after he went into exile, he returned to France and received a boisterous welcome. The army deserted the Bourbon king and joined Napoleon again. The Coalition would have none of it, however. All major powers fielded armies to march on France. Napoleon’s only hope was to defeat them one by one, so he dashed out to meet the closest armies – the British and Prussian – before the Austrians and Russians could arrive. And so Napoleon’s last, most famous, and most overrated battle came to happen (June 18, 1815): At the Belgian village of Waterloo, the British – for the first time facing Napoleon instead of the second-class French commanders with whom they had fenced in Spain for many years – held off assault after assault of the French troops. Finally, when the Prussian army reached the battlefield in the late afternoon, Napoleon had to retreat. The battle of Waterloo has been depicted in many a board game (often variations of the same tactical theme that Napoleon has to defeat the British before the Prussians come, and usually it’s a good idea for the French player to commit his elite Guard troops way earlier than Napoleon did in history). One refreshingly original game on the matter is Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 (Tom Dalgliesh, Columbia Games) which merges the operational and tactical levels of the campaign: Your skill in battle is just as important as knowing when, where, and how to bring about battle.

Napoleon The Waterloo Campaign Cover

Last days of an emperor: Napoleon looks grim on the cover of Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815. Image ©Columbia Games.

Once more, he abdicated in the face of his military defeat. Once more, there was an island exile for him. Just this time it was not a pleasant Italian island to rule and instead a forsaken Atlantic island to be imprisoned at – St. Helena. There he died in 1821.
In many ways, Napoleon was overcome by the same elements he had harnessed so masterfully before to subdue his enemies: The Revolution had provided him with a patriotic, spirited populace convinced of their mission for France and Europe. His own military reforms had allowed him to march faster and hit harder than his enemies. Once they adopted his ways of making war – and mobilized their peoples with nationalism – they were on equal footing with the God of War. The spirits Napoleon had conjured no longer answered to him exclusively.

So much for today! In our next post, we’re going to look at Napoleon’s military, political, and cultural legacy.

Games Referenced

Guillotine (Paul Peterson, Wizards of the Coast)
Liberté (Martin Wallace, Valley Games)
Bonaparte at Marengo (Bowen Simmons, Simmons Games)
Age of Napoleon (Renaud Verlaque, Mayfair Games/Phalanx Games)
The Napoleonic Wars (Mark McLaughlin, GMT Games)
Napoleon’s Triumph (Bowen Simmons, Simmons Games)
Wooden Ships & Iron Men (S. Craig Taylor, Avalon Hill)
Sails of Glory (Andrea Angiolini/Andrea Mainini, Ares Games)
2 de Mayo (Daniel Val, Gen-X Games)
Napoleon’s Eagles: Storm in the East (Christopher Moeller, Compass Games)
Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 (Tom Dalgliesh, Columbia Games)

Further Reading

For the political aspects of Napoleon’s career, see Englund, Steven: Napoleon. A Political Life, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2004.
Napoleon’s own thoughts about warfare are collected in Colson, Bruno (ed.): Napoleon on War, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2015.

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