I almost called this article The French Connection because in many respects, that’s what it’s all about. If the UK is the center of the miniature wargaming universe, then the US is rightfully the center of the board (as in hex and counter) wargaming dimension. The hobby started here, spawning Avalon Hill and a host of other firms, the two 800 pound gorillas in the room today likely GMT Games and Decision Games (formerly SPI), along with a few notable independents such as Clash of Arms and Compass Games. Yet there are other countries in the mix that few even consider, producing high quality products with a unique gaming flair all their own. One of those countries is France, and the Pratzen Editions Vol VIII of its Vive l’ Empereur series, Quatre Batailles en Espagne (QBE), is the subject of this week’s tome.
QBE is designed by Didier Rouy and comes to us, fully translated into English, by way of Legion Games under the name Quatre Batailles en Espagne, The Peninsular War 1808 – 1814. It is a boxed game with dark blue packaging, but it’s what’s inside where the French flair for the dramatic begins to show. There are four counter sheets in this game, for a total of 560 double sided game counters, but they also are all double length – 1 inch by ½ inch. Thus in terms of normal size counters you are talking an equivalent of 1120. The unit counters are spectacular, obviously colored in hues reflective of nationality, but with symbology pleasantly unique. The units are actually top-down representations of actual infantry and cavalry in line or column, while artillery is actually two field pieces deployed or hooked up to limbers and horses for movement. Each counter also sports its country’s military standard, to include British King’s Color, French 1804 pattern (with the red/blue corner triangles and center white diamond, ie, the one Hollywood never uses), the very colorful Portuguese and Spanish royal regimentals, even minor French allied standards such as Nassau, Baden and the Poles.
Leader counters are just as colorful, and again, identifies the game as just a bit different. Coloring is again by nationality, and an historical portrait of the great man occupies the back side. The front side displays a picture of the general’s family coat of arms. Really? Hell, I didn’t even know French Count d’Erlon had a coat of arms and who looks up the same for Spanish General Areizaga? Well, obviously, the French do. There are also a plethora of admin counters for things like skirmishers, squares (both with top down presentation) as well as order markers and so on.
The maps are also unique in that the hexes are double size, and by that I mean one inch from side to side. Thus they are plenty big to hold the double length counters noted above. The style of the map is a rustic, 19th Century parchment style with subdued colors and bird’s eye view for towns, forests and the like, with a style similar to that used in Clash of Arms products (and given Charlie Kibler is listed as the graphics guy . . .). There are actually five maps included in the game of which three are 22 x 34 inches each. Number four and five actually join together to make a single 22 x 68 inch map.
The game also includes six game aid cards, full color glossy, to include a terrain and unit card, a single card with game functions such as movement and combat, then a card each for each of the four battles covering time and step reduction. There is a 36 page black and white rule book (large lettering and spacing, so it’s really not that long), a 24 page scenario book and plastic bags with two six sided dice. Finally, but not in the box, is an excellent Web based support site by Legion Games. Here you can find for free downloading things like errata, “living” rules and Play by Email (PBEM) modules
QBE covers four battles in Spain at the tactical level, to include Ocana (19 November 1809), Salamanque (22 July 1812), Vitoria (21 June 1813) and Sorauren (28 July 1813). The selection also stands out in that although two famous battles are included, two lesser so battles are as well. These are Ocana, a French victory over the Spanish and Sorauren, part of the Battle of the Pyrenees covering the relief of a siege. In terms of scale, each turn represents 30 minutes real time, each hex 250 meters across and each unit a regiment (or artillery battery) with each strength point about 300 men.
The sequence of play in order consists of a) Cavalry Charges, b) Regular Movement, c) Opposing Player Defensive Fire, d) your own army’s Offensive Fire, e) Melee Resolution for those units in contact and a final, f) Rally Phase. The military units conducting business throughout are all numerically rated for Firepower, Firepower Range, Melee, Movement, Morale and Step Losses. Leaders are numerically rated for Combat (melle) Bonus, Morale Bonus, Initiative and Obedience. Otherwise most of the supporting rules are pretty standard, like the sequence of play itself. There are rules on formations and facing, stacking, morale and so on, pretty familiar to most gamers. Likewise, with only one page of charts and four small tables, actually conducting battle, while not simple, is quick.
Yet even in the Standard Rules there are both snippets and full chapters that make QBE stand out in the crowd. In the former category are small things like Disorder counters that specify the turn number of initial effect, or infantry counters in full skirmish order that span two full hexes. In the latter category there are rules for Army Morale. Here when a specific “casualty” level is breached, all units therein receive a permanent –2 deduction for morale. In another area, one of the combat results in both fire and melee are Step Losses. This translates to an army chart that lists each unit by designation and blocks for the number of steps at full strength. As steps are forfeited, blocks are crossed out and some are shaded indicating an additional loss, this time in Morale. For example at Ocana the Spanish 1st Provincial Infantry Regiment has a strength of seven steps, and when losses drive it to a strength of four steps it takes a -1 to its Morale Rating of 6 (typical British units have a rating of 9), and then another -1 when it reaches two steps left.
It is, however, the Advanced Rules where some really big and nifty command-control concepts come into play, as leaders in the base rules do nothing more than improve morale and combat values if attached. In the Advanced Rules the player is given the option to use one to six levels of command, all adding additional realism to the previous. For example the third and fourth levels allow for specific orders (written or by using a predefined Order Counter) to be issued by the army commander to his subordinate leaders either by moving to the same hex or using an Aide de Camp. They must be obeyed and while the French can issue three such orders per turn, and the British two, the Spanish may only issue one. Once the order is received, the leader must roll less than or equal to his Obedience Rating to comply, with a second roll to determine delay if the first die roll fails. Likewise, in a subsequent turn if the order no longer seems appropriate, the leader can choose to ignore it if he rolls less than or equal to his obedience rating. There is also an option for an Interactive Game. The same sequence of play is followed, but instead of one side performing its turn then its opponent doing likewise, the two armies alternate by corps. First one side picks a corps to mix things up, and then his opponent does likewise, back to player number one for another corps and so on.
It might seem a little complex and time consuming, but I found it not, primarily because what was added in game function detail or realism has been countered by pretty simplistic and minimalist combat tables, and not a lot of them. But also remember that the battles in Spain were relatively small affairs when compared to behemoths like Wagram (there were only 24,000 British and allied troops at Sorauren for example) and this obviously helps. All in all, it works.
However, there is one negative, and please let me pontificate one last time. The problem is price. QBE sells for $98.00 US, though it is on sale for $75.00 as of this writing (seriously, grab it, NOW). This is not an unreasonable price by a long shot, and that’s the issue. QBE’s closest competition, Keven Zucker’s OSG 1809 – Napoleon’s Quagmire, sells for $109.00, on sale for $98.00 US. My generation will buy such games regardless as they make better campaign systems for minis than locked software, and paper often covers subjects digital won’t touch. Seriously, Scourge of War Peterwardien is likely far down the development list. But younger, more digitally savvy gamers who can pick up JTS Bonaparte’s Peninsular War with 170 scenarios and 40 maps for $39.95? One reader has already taken me to task for such dire prediction, but I remain concerned.
I digress. Being a bit of a Francophile, I played Ocana for this game review, and enjoyed the Hell out of myself, certainly more than watching the film Zulu (God Damn it Bill -ED) again. The game has spectacular and unique presentation graphics, while play was both innovative and a lot smoother than I anticipated in a game whose detail level approached that of a true simulation. QBE has certainly convinced me that great hex and counter wargaming does not have to have an American stamp on it, so I’ll be looking across the pond for future purchases. I recommend you join the safari, because it’s gonna be a lot of fun.
NB. Fair use images via Wikipedia and Legion games Website.