Thursday, December 15, 2011

Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig Review

Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig, developed and published by John Tiller Software.
The Good: Many scenarios of various sizes, numerous optional game rules, AI can finish tedious turns for you, branching campaign, scenario and map editors, play by e-mail
The Not So Good: Slow pace with many units to move individually, lacks in-game tutorials, ugly useless 3-D graphics
What say you? This historical turn-based wargame should appeal to fans of the genre: 6/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The French weren’t always the butt of international jokes about surrender. Just ask Europe during the early 1800’s, when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered pretty much the entire continent with an outnumbered army. The battles that took place during this tumultuous time is fertile ground for strategy gaming, as exemplified by Waterloo, Crown of Glory, Napoleon's Campaigns, and Napoleon's Ambition. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig specifically concerns Napoleon’s assault on Germany and the allied forces he encountered there. How will this turn-based wargame stack up?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig, as you might expect from a hardcore wargame, features some very archaic graphics. Save yourself from potential blindness by never enabling the 3-D mode, as it is simply ugly to look at. Two-dimensional sprites and repeated textures and buildings are very outdated and simply look terrible. Not only is it downright hideous, but it’s also much less useful than the more simplified 2-D icons: it’s hard to simply tell unit type because they look so bad. I simply played the entire game using the 2-D mode and was just fine with that. This makes the terrain easier to deal with as well, and you aren’t missing any special effects, as the 3-D mode only features some token weapon fire with few animations. Still, I don’t think many gamers who enjoy wargames care that much about the graphics, but the interface is important.

The interface of Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig is driven by menus (remember those?) and the top toolbar of icons. Menus give access to all of the game’s commands: turning units, formations, deploying skirmishers, resolving melee attacks, viewing the reinforcement schedule, checking objectives, and evaluating supply. You can also display some alternative data, like objective locations, terrain, command range, and fatigued units, adjust the AI, or enable features for multiplayer. It is initially confusing that most of the options are toggled (like switching formations and rotating units) instead of picking a specific item from a list. The top toolbar gives you the same options that are quicker to access once you learn where they are located. In general, you click to select a hex, double-click to select units in a hex (that took some getting used to), and right-click to move and attack. You have to manually toggle between movement and attack; it seems counterintuitive that the game can’t figure out what you want to do, especially since you can only move one hex at a time, so clicking any further than that would be an attack anyway. Overall, it’s not the most streamlined approach, as you have to hunt down commands to change facing or formations or find superior units instead of having all of that information along the bottom of the screen, but you can learn and adapt.

The sound design is very minimal: some small effects and no music to speak of. That’s all I have to say about that.

ET AL.
In the fall of 1813, Napoleon said (this is a direct quote), “Germany? Let’s blow it the hell up.” The Battle of Leipzig, if Wikipedia is to be believed, pitted the French Army against Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, and Justin Bieber. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig features five campaigns that break up the battles into sizable bites. Interestingly, the campaigns are not simple linear collections of scenarios: instead, you get to make decisions regarding where to attack next, and random events determine the armies involved and where the fighting will take place. This is far more appealing than simply moving to the next battle in a gigantic list. You can also fight in standalone scenarios of your choosing. The official website purports “over four hundred scenarios,” which sounds really impressive, but in reality it’s sixty scenarios with different variations (head-to-head versus AI, ten versus fifteen minute turns, cavalry regiments). Now, sixty scenarios will still keep you busy for quite a while and using historically accurate orders of battle is impressive, but it’s nowhere near what was advertised. The battles surround the cities of Dennewitz, Dresden, Katzbach, Kulm, and Leipzig, featuring different lengths (from eight to five hundred (!) turns) and sizes (brigades to entire armies). Each battle can be customized with optional rules, such as limited routs, melee terrain modifiers, partial retreats, flank morale modifier, and multiple melee attacks. These alternatives let you customize the game as you wish, which is always preferred over having no choice whatsoever. Not only can you play against the AI, but direct play over the Internet, play by e-mail, and hot seat games are available. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig has a tutorial, sort of: you read along in a PDF file while executing moves in a beginner scenario. While this is better than giving no guidance, I would rather have a more directed in-game experience. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig does come with an assortment of planning documents, providing maps of the region, offering strategies for each scenario, and documenting weapon ranges and terrain effects. You can also build your own scenarios using the scenario and campaign editors, so that should extend the life of the title past the initial sixty scenarios.

The armies of the early 1800’s primarily featured infantry, cavalry, and artillery units engaged in an epic contest of battlefield dominance. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig also features the military leaders involved in these battles, in addition to more specific unit types like skirmishers, supply wagons, militia, Cossacks, pioneers, and dragoons. Each unit is rated according to quality, and fatigue and morale can affect their performance. Leaders are also rated based on their command and leadership abilities, so pitting your best units and commanders against the best the enemy has to offer is important for success. Units can be organized in a couple of formations (line, column, and square), each appropriate for different tactical situations. Artillery can also be limbered for movement to a better position, and cavalry units are mounted for the assault.

Depending on the scenario, Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig consists of ten or fifteen minute turns, and each unit can do a limited number of actions based on their available number of movement points. Because of the turn time scale, progress in Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig proceeds very, very slowly: typically, units can only move a couple of hexes per turn and make a single attack, which usually results in only a few enemy deaths. When units comprise of five hundred soldiers, it can take a large number of turns to resolve battles. Most battles take place on large maps as well, so it can take many tedious turns to advance your units towards the enemy. In addition, with large armies involved, it is very time consuming to move every unit one stack at a time. Unlike personal wargame favorite Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge, Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig doesn’t allow you to issue a single order to superior units and have the command filter down to the subordinates, so it’s up to you to move every single unit every single turn. Units in line formation can’t be stacked and attack, so even if you can save some time moving units by stacking them together, you’ll have to move them individually once you encounter the enemy. You’ll also have to initiate cavalry charges and melee attacks manually, by toggling the correct option in the game’s interface. Defensive fire, however, can be done automatically if you enable the option in the game rules.

Overall, I found the AI to have good command of the game rules and general strategies. The computer will attack vulnerable, isolated units, cutting them off from supply by encircling them. The AI also uses cavalry and artillery effectively, and uses terrain in an intelligent manner, moving efficiently by using roads and taking the high ground. One interesting feature is the ability to activate the AI at any time, letting the computer play the remainder of your turn. This is useful if you don’t want to spend the time moving all of the stragglers up to the front of the battle, which helps to counter a little bit of the tedious movement that Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig entails.

IN CLOSING
What makes Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig different from all the other historical wargames already on the market? Nothing, really, but it is a solid product honed from years of series development. The game gives you sixty scenarios (plus variants) to choose from, from small skirmishes to large-scale behemoths, satisfying those who like more intimate battles (me) or love to take hours to complete a single turn (the criminally insane). The units are detailed enough, with attributes to determine their effectiveness on the battlefield and combat results use fatigue, morale, and supply to determine a victor. The game’s slow pace means the appeal of Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig isn’t as broad, since you must individually move each unit on the map; stacking units for more efficient movement is only a temporary solution, as you must divide your troops when the battle lines are drawn. While the early 19th century combat focused on lines of musket-equipped soldiers, there is some variety with melee attacks, cavalry charges, and artillery bombardment. You can also enable some optional rules to customize the realism of the game engine, removing abstraction where you see fit. The AI seems capable enough, providing an intelligent foe to battle across the fields of Germany. Of course, you can opt for e-mail or hot seat competition as well. In addition, the campaign mode adds interesting player-directed choices of where to attack, giving you different battle scenarios each time you play. The interface has a bit of a learning curve and the graphics are decidedly outdated, however. Ultimately, the tedious movement of units in Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig will confine the title to niche status, but wargamers might find an appealing title.