By Tom Burgess
Napoleonics…it’s where war gaming all stared for me. When I was eight years old I had a friend whose father was a Napoleonic wargamer. I was instantly hooked when I first saw the Napoleonics collection and a Waterloo table that he had. I then convinced my father to buy me some figures, which even he painted the first dozen of for me. From that point forward I had always had a great affinity for Napoleonic history and wargaming.
It’s been over four decades since then. In that time I've played well over a dozen rule sets in the never ending quest for the perfect rule set and, along the way, often settling for popular rules sets just to get games in. These normally fell short for me because I wanted to play full battles like Waterloo, in which scales and game detail made that goal unattainable for most rules sets. Some came close. I even tried to design my own set once, but none really got that balance of playability with the “Grand Tactical” perspective I wanted. Then Sam Mustafa published “Blücher.”
Now I have to give a bit of disclaimer here. I was playtester for “Blücher” in its earlier days, but eventually I dropped out of that effort as I kind of felt left behind by the vast number of revisions and different directions the earlier versions went in. It’s really tough keeping up with Sam in play testing! Nonetheless, I still bought the Blücher rules and the 100 Days Card Pack when they were released. After playing a few smaller games to get familiarized with the rules, I really began to regret having dropped out of play testing. But when our gaming group refought the entire battle of Waterloo with five players in about eight hours, I knew for certain that it was big mistake to drop out of the process that resulted in this incredible rule set.
Massed French formations approach still "hidden" allied defenders in a 1814 battle
So what makes this rules set so incredible to me?
I’ll start off with this: it is an army level rules set designed to completely play typical Napoleonic battles fully. Even on large tables, that has a cost in level ofdetail that is reasonable. So with Blücher you have units that are brigade/regimental in size and many low level tactical aspects are abstracted. Now granted many “Grognards” may have some serious reservations with multiple historical battalion formations being amalgamated in to single unit, skirmishers being represented by a simple modifier during long range shooting, and the “holy grail” of Line, Column, Square being abstractly rather than mechanically represented. I understand and appreciate that perspective, but I am willing to accept those trade-offs in order to fight a full major battle like Waterloo, as my friends and I recently did, in one single fluid gaming session.
The next thing that really sells me on these rules is the “Grand Tactical” feel. In our recent Waterloo fight I felt like I was making decisions and directing actions much like Wellington. I’ll be writing an in-depth after action review of that game for WWPD later, but let me say for now that I was “feeling it” when the French I Corps had nearly broken through on my left and I discovered that I had waited too long to deploy my reserves to counter the threat and then had to scrape together local reserves to buy precious time. The maneuver of the French I, II, and VI Corps across my front not only looked spectacular in our 15mm game, but it progressed much like a Napoleonic battle should feel.
You’ll really have to think about reserves with “Blücher.” Units will get worn down and become vulnerable to breaking if left in the front line too long. You’ll need to plan on backstopping worn out formations with a line of fresh ones that the worn units can withdraw behind or you will find your army losing units more quickly than your army morale can sustain.
French attackers close in on the Austrians and their allies
The sheer simplicity of “Blücher” makes it imminently playable. Of four players in recent game my group played, each side had one player that had never played Blücher before. Nonetheless, we all played through the turns quickly with no need to refer to rules or even a quick reference sheet. Unit movement is very fluid with combat and shooting being handled with simple die rolls with intuitive modifiers. You are normally rolling about half a dozen dice to quickly and easily resolve shooting and close combat. We played a game with three corps on each side in about three hours.
French Chasseurs a Cheval see off repeated attacks form heavier enemy dragoons
The last thing I’ll hit on is flexibility. “Blücher,” like many of Sam’s other games, uses “Base Widths” as a unit of measurement. This is to allow players to use miniatures with any mounting system in the game. For example, in our recent Waterloo game, we use unit that had six bases and about a 5” front total. So 5” was our standard “Base Width” and it was just spectacular to see reserve moves of 60” (12 Base Widths) creating sweeping moves for grand tactical moves in our game. There is no need to remount figures to play this game. Just come up with a standard unit "base width" and go from there!
The battle reaches its climax with French assaults going in across the Austrian's front
One thing Sam had the foresight to do was to publish unit cards for this game. Initially I did not think much of the concept. I wanted a “miniatures” game, but the unit cards have really grown on me and I’ve bought the second card set “War to the Death” now.
Examples of unit cards form “Blücher”
These allow players to get into Napoleonics more quickly and a reduced cost. Cigar Box Battles makes a Waterloo mat that when combined with the “100 Days” cards allows players to game out the entire battle of Waterloo right out of the box and a fraction of a cost of a full miniatures collection and 3D terrain. The cards are also used even when playing with miniatures to add an element of the fog of war.
The Cigar Box Battles Waterloo Mat used with “Blücher” Unit Cards
Sam just released a Peninsular unit cards set. "War to the Death," and has plans further expansions into other Napoleonic Campaigns. I’m pretty sure that I wont be painting up a Russian Army for Borodino in my remaining gaming life, but I’m eager to fight that battle now with unit cards when they are released. Also, Scott Washburn of Paper Terrain is producing paper units in about 10mm size that look great if you’re looking to build great looking forces quickly and cheaply but want something more visually than the flat laying cards.
Paper Terrain's "10m" Paper Units for Blücher
Finally, I have to mention the 25 page "Scharnhorst" campaign system included within the 176 page rule book. The Scharnhorst campaign allows players to fight fictional or historical campaigns in a straight forward way that add some much more depth and realism to the table top battles the campaign system generates.
I will follow this rules review with a full AAR of my group’s recent Waterloo fight. This article started off as AAR of that game. However, I found that as I was describing the rules as an intro into the AAR that it really was best to break it up into two articles. In the interim, I hope you’ve found this article worthwhile and informative.
Tom has been playing wargames since the late 70’s, and Flames of War since 2007. He maintains a gaming website www.battlevault.com for the BattleVault Gamers of Kentuckiana and posts and moderates WWPD as Iron-Tom.