The Life & Games of Napoleon Bonaparte (Part 2)

Welcome back to the Life & Games of Napoleon Bonaparte! You can find the first part dealing with Napoleon’s biography here. This second part is going to be a little more analytic, examining his military, political, and cultural legacy – and the games about it (see more games also in the first post).

Military: Tactics, Operations, Strategy

Napoleon was an exceptionally able military commander. One guy used a baseball-metrics inspired WAR (Win above replacement) model to calculate he was the best ever. He fought over sixty battles, of which he lost only eight. However, Napoleon was not quite known for a particular tactical inventiveness. The methods he employed to win a battle were simple: He liked to mass his firepower (his early years as an artillery officer show) and attack the enemy at a critical juncture (inspiring Clausewitz’s later writings of the Schwerpunkt or center of gravity). These moves remained mostly unchanged through his career, and Napoleon himself claimed he fought his last battle like his first, having learned nothing worthwhile in between. As there are so many battles during the time of Napoleon, there are just as many tactical Napoleonic board games. Some of them cover individual battles, others, more versatile, allow their system to be employed for many confrontations – the most popular by now being the block war game Commands & Colors: Napoleonics (Richard Borg, GMT Games). The base game includes blocks for the French and British armies, so you are limited to the battles in Spain and Waterloo. Additional armies have been released as expansions (accompanied by the respective battle scenarios). If you are looking for a somewhat more abstracted take and/or want all the relevant armies in the base game already, try Manoeuvre (Jeff Horger, GMT Games).

Napoleon’s actual military genius, however, was not on the battlefield itself, but rather the way toward it – the operational part of warfare. This is evidenced by the battles in Napoleon’s first Italian campaign against the Austrians: Napoleon’s army was numerically superior in 10 of 14 battles. However, all forces in the theater combined, the Austrians enjoyed a comfortable superiority of 50,000 to 37,000 soldiers (initial numbers). Napoleon achieved his local superiority not by having been given ample forces, but by concentrating his troops at focal points and bringing about battle when it was advantageous to him. Time and again, Napoleon would use rapid marches (having disposed of the cumbersome depot system in favor of foraging in the land) and superior communications to concentrate his forces and catch his enemies unaware or before they had the chance to combine with an allied army. The classic War and Peace (Mark McLaughlin, Avalon Hill) includes operational scenarios ranging from the War of the Third Coalition to the Waterloo Campaign.

War And Peace Fourth Coalition.jpg

An operational triumph: Napoleon’s campaign against the Prussians and Russians in the War of the Fourth Coalition. Setup of the respective scenario in the Vassal module of War and Peace, image ©Avalon Hill.

Finally, Napoleon was – for most of his career – also a very skilled strategist whose brilliant operational strikes got their true power by his astute assessments of the targets for which to strike. Napoleon identified the enemy’s center of gravity and struck at it as hard and fast as he could, whereas his enemies often had trouble identifying their priorities, wasted resources at theaters of secondary importance, and outright misjudged their own abilities to deal with France (more than once, the misplaced self-confidence of Coalition leaders was their own undoing). Only from 1812 on did this strategic gap close, as exemplified by the Russian campaign: The Russians had gained the insight that giving Napoleon battle early was a bad idea, and Napoleon incorrectly thought that the Russians would sue for peace if only he took Moscow. And who is to say they could have done better? – Well, if you do, prove it. Play Field Commander: Napoleon (Dan Verssen, Dan Verssen Games) and see if you can beat the score of the historic Napoleon in this solitaire game. Just make sure you don’t die by a stray cannonball in your first battle.

Field Commander Napoleon Box Cover

What a dashing fellow! Definitely did not cross the alps crouched on a mule. Box cover of Field Commander: Napoleon using the classic painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Jacques-Louis David, 1800), ©Dan Verssen Games.

Politics: Domestic Reform, Diplomacy, Grand Strategy

The second half complementing Napoleon as a general is Napoleon as a statesman. Many of his initiatives became constituent elements of the modern French state, or, in Napoleon’s word, the „granite masses“ on which the state was to built. Some well-known examples include

  • The Code Civil or Code Napoleon, the new legal code which remains the basis of the French law and has influenced law in wide parts of the world
  • The Bank of France, France’s national bank
  • The prefects as the heads of the French departments, administrators who only answer to the central government in Paris
  • The legion d‘honneur, the Legion of Honor to reward military (dominant in Napoleon’s times) and civilian merit
  • The lycée, a public high school for the gifted (back then, only boys, by now of course coeducational)

As to my knowledge, there is no game (yet) which gives these domestic aspects of Napoleon’s politics much attention – too easily are they overshadowed by Napoleon’s military campaigns and his ever-changing diplomacy. A wrong to be righted, as the domestic reforms are the most lasting aspect of Napoleon’s rule.
Napoleon’s diplomatic record was more mixed. For most of his career, he was able to parlay military success into advantageous peace treaties, and all major powers except for Britain were allied to him at one time or another (as well as a host of middle and small powers). Yet he often did not care for his allies to share in the gains of war, and so their loyalty to him was situational, opportunistic, and short-lived. Sure, the defections of allies from 1813 on – ranging from the German middle-sized states which he had helped create at the expense of their smaller neighbors to Sweden whose king had been a marshal of France serving under Napoleon – can be explained by the understandable wish not to end up in a losing camp. But Prussia, Spain, and Russia ended up as Napoleon’s enemies even though he still seemed to be winning and even though their rulers had believed before that cooperation with him was profitable – a clear diplomatic failure. And even France, with her large and mobilized population, her skilled generals and prefects, and the resources of most of Europe at her disposal, could not win without allies. This makes diplomacy a key aspect in the largest, most detailed simulation of Napoleonic times there is in cardboard: In the infamous monster game Empires in Arms (Greg Pinder/Harry Rowland, Australian Design Group), your success largely depends on your diplomatic skill. Sure, efficient micromanaging of armies and an excellent strategic plan for what to spend your limited resources on will give you an advantage, but if your allies turn on you it might all be for nought. As a campaign of Empires in Arms can easily take hundreds of hours (and therefore must be played in installments over months), you better cultivate the relationship with your fellow players. Maybe invite that surly Prussian girl for pizza before your group gathers for the next game Saturday to continue your campaign. And then discuss with her why joining the Russians is in fact a bad idea which will give either you nothing but pain.

Empires in Arms Cover

Napoleon looks weary. So would you after 100 hours of playing Empires in Arms. Image ©Avalon Hill.

In the end, Napoleon’s greatest political shortcoming was his lack of a grand strategic vision which would hold in the long term – a European peace order, if you will. Napoleon’s enemies had such a vision: The return to the Europe of the Ancien Régime before the Revolution and the balance of power on the European continent. That was neither particularly inventive nor realistic – the times had changed, and the new spirits of nationalism and widespread political participation could not be put back into the bottle again. And yet this defective vision was better than anything Napoleon could offer: As he believed that his rule in France rested on a continuous stream of military victories, a lasting peace was just not an option. So Napoleon was in constant need of enemies to fight and defeat – and the only nation in perpetual opposition to him was the untouchable Britain. And with France front and center of his thoughts, he could not even formulate a plan that would convince his current allies that alliance with him benefitted them in the long run.

Culture: Napoleon’s Long Shadow

Besides Napoleon’s direct military and political impact, he was and is a cultural phenomenon. In his own day, not only did everyone have a strong opinion about Napoleon (be it positive, negative, or switching between the two), but also scores of people were inspired by Napoleon to voice these opinions: Ludwig van Beethoven wanted to dedicate a symphony to Napoleon (and then decided otherwise when Napoleon crowned himself emperor). Georg W.F. Hegel saw in Napoleon a metaphysical phenomenon, the „soul of the world on horseback“. And Germaine de Stael wrote an entire book on Germany just to make a point about France under Napoleon, and toured from Austria via Russia to Sweden to raise anti-Napoleonic sentiment.
Napoleon occupied not only the minds of his contemporaries, but also of posterity. Until now, he is an easily recognizable icon – bicorne hat, hand tucked into waistcoat, probably shorter than the people around him. Add his larger-than-life personality and the mythos surrounding him – no matter if you want to see Napoleon as the young upstart, the product of the Revolution, the traitor to the Revolution, the God of War, the butcher of Europe, the law giver, the tyrant, the exiled – and you have prime material for any kind of cultural medium, including board games.
Lots of the board games about Napoleon have military themes. Sure, Napoleon spent a lot of his time campaigning and was very successful at it for most of his career, but that does not explain the preoccupation fully. I see the popularity of the Napoleonic Wars in wargaming based on three factors:

  • First, Napoleon’s campaigns do without the things that make many people uneasy about playing games set closer to us in time: Wars can be decided in a single-day battle instead of year-long attrition slugfests. The butcher’s bill therefore remains in the thousands, not in the millions. We are distanced from the political ideologies of Napoleon’s time – most people do not care much if their game side fights for the Coalition’s monarchical restauration or for Napoleon’s enlightened despotism, whereas many gamers at least feel a bit strange about trying to make the Confederacy or Nazi Germany succeed.
  • Second, among those earlier wars less blemished by industrialized killing ang and racist ideology, Napoleon’s are the most modern. They feature fast-moving armies based on conscription, they are conducted by entities which look at least at first sight like modern nation-states, their armies are structured from the company to the corps like a modern mass fighting force.
  • And third, like Napoleon himself, the armies of his time have a special charm to many – and that’s their colorful uniforms. I care less about the visual appearance of a game than most people, and even to me the visual force of a thin red line of British grenadiers holding a ridge or the calm composure of a French Imperial Guard grognard (it’s telling that war gamers have adopted this term as their moniker) is striking. That’s probably also the reason why miniature gamers are even more strongly excited about the Napoleonic age than board gamers.
Stratego Cover

The pieces might be shaped like medieval towers, but the soldiers painted on the back are as Napoleonic as you could wish. Box cover of Stratego.

So, Napoleonic warfare is a safe warfare on which to fall back if theme is of secondary importance. And thus games which could be about mostly any kind of battle or war adopt a Napoleonic design: Stratego (Jacques Johan Mogendorff) employs the military ranks and likenesses of Napoleonic soldiers to put the appearance of a battle on what is essentially an abstract deduction game. The probably most famous war game ever published since Napoleon’s times, Risk (Albert Lamorisse, Miro), is almost as abstract, and yet it clothes itself in many (all?) of its original editions in a distinctly Napoleonic uniform (dramatic cavalry charge on the cover, unit figures for 1, 5, or 10 armies designed as musket infantry, cavalry, and muzzle-loading cannon). Given that the British controlled Australia for the entirety of the Napoleonic Wars, it should not surprise us that they won in the end.

Risk Cover

In the game, you’ll say things like “I move three armies from Kamchatka to Alaska”. But it’ll feel like a mad cuirassier charge against a battery of redcoats. Almost. Box cover of a modern edition of Risk, © Hasbro.

However, Napoleon’s cultural legacy goes far beyond being the archetypal general for war games: Bohnanza is a set-collection game ostensibly about bean farming, but its expansion Bohnaparte (Hanno Girke/Uwe Rosenberg, Amigo) features a legumy likeness of the French emperor and can be sure that it will be instantly recognized. There is a Napoleon for everyone.

Bohnaparte Cover

Liberté! Egalité! Bohnité! Box cover of Bohnaparte, ©Rio Grande Games.

Games Referenced

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics (Richard Borg, GMT Games)
Manoeuvre (Jeff Horger, GMT Games)
War and Peace (Mark McLaughlin, Avalon Hill)
Field Commander: Napoleon (Dan Verssen, Dan Verssen Games)
Empires in Arms (Greg Pinder/Harry Rowland, Australian Design Group)
Stratego (Jacques Johan Mogendorff)
Risk (Albert Lamorisse, Miro)
Bohnaparte (Hanno Girke/Uwe Rosenberg, Amigo)

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.

6 thoughts on “The Life & Games of Napoleon Bonaparte (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: The Life & Games of Napoleon Bonaparte (Part 1) | Clio's Board Games

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thanks for reading! I found the Risk connection interesting as well – I mean, it could have been themed in any other way from Alexander the Great to World War II, but the publishers chose Napoleon. It might have helped that the game was invented by a Frenchman and originally published by a French company.


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  4. Pingback: Leben und Spiele des Napoleon Bonaparte (Teil 2) – Boardgame Historian

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