The Waterloo Kriegsspiel: Conclusions


Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon, by Sir William Quiller Orchardson

I opened this series of posts with the following summary:

I recently concluded one of the more unusual, least sensible and most time consuming things I've done in this hobby: I and ten friends refought the Waterloo campaign via a play-by-email kriegsspiel game. It took over a year, and if you take one thing away from this series of posts, it's not to do what I did.

This remains true, but in this post we'll look more deeply into what went well, what didn't, and how (if at all) you might run something similar.

This is post seven in a series of seven; the others are:

Aims and Objectives

I said in the campaign introduction that I really wanted to focus on the free-form nature of the campaign, and the opportunities for the fog of war to influence proceedings. In addition, and less explicitly, I was also looking to run a game in a reasonable amount of time and for both I and my players to have fun.

Broadly, I succeeded in the first aim, failed completely in the second, and ended up somewhere in the middle on the third.

The fog of war worked very well; all of the players both during the campaign and at the debrief had instances of being surprised at how different 'reality' was from their conception, and in the end the campaign turned on a couple of mistakes made by the French on day three.

The best thing I can say about the duration of the game is that it did end! We'll look at some possible ways of improving on this below, but I remain convinced that there is no ideal way to run a Napoleonics campaign!

As for having fun; I certainly did at times and at others certainly didn't. My players were all gracious enough at the debrief to insist that it had definitely been 'worth it', but clearly there were frustrations - mostly down to the timing.

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

I said in the introduction to this series that the central problem with running Napoleonic campaigns is the need to support both the tactical and strategic timescales that generals worked at;

"any system has to support Wellington manoeuvering his reserves towards the battlefield at the Corps level over multiple days, and allow him to order the Guards forward at the critical moment"

Bluntly, I did not solve this problem, and it in turn caused several others. The biggest secondary issue was knock-on effects of players being late with their turns - it wasn't obvious to me beforehand but the likelihood of players holding other players up scales something like quadratically with the number of players. Not only does the likelihood of, say, someone having a busy week at work increase, but the number of people likely to be blocked by them does, and to make things worse politically you cannot really keep someone waiting on others for ten days and then demand answers for their next turn in ten minutes.

(I started with 11 players.)

Another issue that only became apparent after we started, is that a long running campaign extends itself. Momentum slows - not just waning enthusiasm, but practicality. You can expect people to block out an evening to play a game - perhaps even several evenings - but you cannot expect people to block out night after night, and so once a campaign has run long enough it will slow down under the weight of its own duration as people are forced to deprioritise it.

(My campaign ran for over a year.)

I don't think there is any perfect solution to either of these problems, but I have a few suggestions:

Fudge Your Timings

I admit it: I lied in the opening piece of the series when I said that I tracked time only to the nearest half hour. In actuality, I started off trying to do things properly to the minute. That lasted until about 10AM on the first 'day' of the campaign.

In reality, it takes time for orders to percolate down the chain of command  - a general ordering his Corps forward was likely to have to wait around an hour for that to actually happen, unless it was prepared beforehand. 

Half an hour was about the smallest unit of time that almost any meaningful decision the players made took to take effect. On the rare occasions where they needed to react quickly, I made things much easier by just not telling them how long had passed, and 're-syncing' them at the appropriate time. This is not the Somme, nobody is checking their pre-synchronised watches while attacking Hougoumont.

This, er, wasn't enough to make the game run smoothly, but it would have been literally unplayable without it.

Regularity, Regularity, Regularity

The Operation Sealion campaign we played before my Waterloo campaign fundamentally worked because it was more regular. Everyone got the results of the previous turn on Sunday, and everyone had to get their orders in by Friday night. All you had to do was find half an hour in between to scribble some orders. That's a much easier sell than finding half an hour on very little notice, with everyone else piling up behind until you do.

As I said at the start, you do lose a lot with a strict 'one turn per day' routine, but for campaigns like the 1812 Campaign with weeks and weeks of manoeuvre and only a couple of major battles, this would let you gloss over the marching and concentrate on the fighting - which we'll look at that next.

You don't have to apply this strictly either; if nine times out of ten you let the day proceed without intervention, and on the tenth give one player the option of marching to the sound of the guns, you've still gained 90% of the benefit.

I think this probably would not have been workable as-is for this because such a small area of operations requires a correspondingly shorter time frame; perhaps three ~four hour blocks per day would have made sense. Even then I suspect I would have had to delay certain weeks to play through the larger battles.

Condense the Action

You can't expect people to make themselves available all the time, but if you can get everyone together for a day or an evening, you can refight the more high-intensity parts of the campaign, in what is essentially a traditional Free Kriegsspiel - at this point you might as well be in person, but you could do it remotely so that the players can fill their down time with other activities.

For a campaign as short as Waterloo, you could do the whole thing like this - perhaps one weekend day a month, for three or four months. 
For the aforementioned 1812 Campaign, you could choose to run things by email right up until the Russian player decides to offer battle and the French player accepts, and then organise an all-dayer to do your own Borodino. This, of course, closely resembles a more traditional wargames campaign.

Both of these suggestions are really just ways of streamlining that tactical/strategic divide; the final suggestion is a little different.

Reduce the number of moving parts

This game ran slowly not just because I had 11 players, but because for most of the campaign there were ~7 player-led armies running about. If instead for most of the time players acted together or simply acted as advisors you could reduce the number of moving parts enough that you could perhaps make the full-fledged system run sensibly.

An example might be useful; the Corunna Campaign largely featured just two armies (plus cameos from Spanish regular and guerilla forces) which manouevred mostly together. If you were to assign a player each as Moore and Napoleon/Soult, and then the rest as divisional commanders, most of the time you would only really have ~four players making independent decisions - the two CinCs, the British rearguard commander and the French advanced guard commander.

The drawback here is that some players get more opportunity to make decisions than others. Matching those players with more time and enthusiasm to the 'bigger' roles will go a long way towards making that a positive rather than a negative, but I don't know the internal politics of your gaming group!

Finally on this topic, I would suggest that you combine these approaches if at all possible. 


I've talked at length about bits that didn't go so well, so let's change tack and look at the other bits, which broadly functioned as planned.

I communicated with the players partly through the 'voice of god', but mostly in the role of their various chiefs of staff. This worked brilliantly; it kept them thinking in-game rather than having to break the fourth wall all the time, it let me subtly steer them away from unrealistic courses of action, and went a long way towards covering up the inevitable mistakes. 
I would 100% recommend finding a way to get the players information in character.

I was also broadly satisfied with the basic 2d6 system for calculating results - I haven't personally fought any Napoleonic battles, but the results I got seemed plausible to me, and only once did a player tell me that they thought something shouldn't have happened. 
You may wish to handle things differently, but as long as it's hidden from the players you can get away with a startlingly simple method of conflict resolution and a bit of judgement!


The nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of the game mostly worked as intended too.

For delivering the actual text, Whatsapp was fine. The more conversational nature of instant messaging lent itself well to back-and-forths with aides, and Whatsapp's groups made it very easy to create ad-hoc groups when players were near enough to talk directly; I used a total of 16 groups, in addition to the individual chats.
Where it fell down a bit was when, halfway through the campaign, Whatsapp stopped allowing you to search your message archive properly in its web app; I had been relying on it as it's much easier than doing it all on phone.
Whatsapp also completely lacks any automation for any of this stuff, so I spent an awful lot of time manually cross referencing times of players with the message spreadsheet and the like. There's an (admittedly tiny) niche somewhere for an application that can keep track of time and the like for you to reduce the sheer volume of bookkeeping compared to running it all off spreadsheets.

Those spreadsheets...the simple ones with messages did exactly what they said on the tin. No automation, but no issues. 
The big 'Commands/Units' spreadsheet also did the job adequately.  There were a couple of columns I didn't use much - supplies and fatigue weren't much of a factor in this campaign - and a couple that I struggled to keep up to date (location was tricky as I didn't want to update it all the time). The only major change I would make would be to add slightly more detail to the strength tracking; at times it would have been useful to note men captured and the like rather than simply out of action.

Finally, the maps. I was lucky enough that good high-resolution maps of the entire area were available (the Ferraris Map of 1777). They were a little hard to read for players more used to modern OS maps, and their near-complete lack of height information caused a little trouble too, but they let me draw out the battlefield maps that I included in the previous posts in the series.

Where I struggled as - as with the other bits - keeping the maps in sync with the battle diaries and the two or more Whatsapp chats. I would recommend being pretty systematic in saving out snapshots of battles in progress, so you don't lose your place. 

In Conclusion

It's been over 18 months since I first put the idea forward to refight the Waterloo campaign. Writing these final sentences, I remain glad to have done it, but by god I wouldn't do it again knowing what I do now - not without some hefty changes to the format.

I hope you learn from my mistakes, and run sweeping campaigns that also finish in a reasonable timeframe - and if you do, please let me know how you managed it!


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