Approaching Wargaming the Napoleonic Wars
Where the do I even begin? Few subjects begs the question quite like the Napoleonic Wars. This was the spot I found myself in when the idea to dwelve into Napoleonic wargaming was thrown around at the club.
In comparison, I am the first to admit that I was in no way well read on WW2 tactics when I started playing Chain of Command. But as a somewhat average wargamer with a historical interest, I had seen my shares of GIs mow down Germans in WW2 movies, and I had played computer games like Close Combat and Hearts of Iron. I knew that something called a Panther tank existed, even though I didn't know how many machine guns a German platoon carried in 1942. Putting together my first platoons required a fair bit of research, but it felt familiar. Approachable. Digestable. Safe.
Like your average wargamer however, I know far less about the Napoleonic Wars. Of course I know that blokes like Napoleon and Wellington were important, but what was the deal with Austria? Wait, it's not like one war, but a bunch of them, with different guys involved? What are the differences between a Chasseur-à-Cheval and a Hussar? What are flank companies, and those various strange puffs and feathers and stuff they wear on the hats? Hats that keeps changing from year to year?
Basically, when we decided to take on this unique topic of wargaming, I had even visited the Musée Masséna but could not explain the difference between a Grenadier and a Fusilier. Stepping into this new strange world was a challenge for me, and I assume that other Napoleonic beginners might feel the same.
The Napoleonic Appeal
Why even attempt Napoleonic wargaming, if it's such a pain in the butt? To quote George Mallory - because it's there!
On a more serious note, there are many reasons for why the Napoleonic era is popular among wargamers. It has immense depth. It has so many grand narratives, starring more intriguing characters than you can shake a stick at. It covers ambushes in rocky Spanish ravines to marches through parched Egyptian deserts and grim doom on the frozen Russian steppes. The names of many battles are known even to "normal" people - Austerlitz, Borodino, Wagram, Trafalgar, Waterloo. It was a set of conflicts that tore down and created not just dynasties but entire nations, and in many ways created a new, modern, Europe.
Militarily, it was a period of great generals decing the fate of nations with sheer willpower on the battlefields, the creation of the modern national armies, with entirely new ways to organize the now vast armies of conscripted troops and their abundance of rapidly produced small arms. There is something intrinsically wargamey about the rock-paper-scissor balance between infantry, cavalry and artillery, each of them deadly when used correctly but easy to waste.
For the miniature collector it is a period with a broad range of outstanding uniforms, vividly colourful armies clashing on green fields in comparison to the dull greys and greens of WW2. Thundering squadrons of cavalry in boastful plumes, charging rows upon rows of neatly uniformed infantrymen.
Yes, it can be pretty darned intimidating to start collecting all this. But if there's anything Mr. Bonaparte taught us, it's that you have nothing to lose by taking on a grand and imposing project.
A Step-by-step Approach
In this blog I will cover how I start out collecting my Napoleonic forces, and hopefully it can either be helpful if you are a new collector, or it could inspire you to try it out yourself if you never got to it. There's also bound to be posts from other clubmates, who have their own perspective on the experience.
My first step was to set a scope for my project. If you are collecting Napoleonics exclusively you might dream of huge armies that span entire tables, as battalion after battalion form impressive lines. However, I have several other periods and subjects I want to do as well, so the scope would have to be smaller than that. I also wanted to collect both 6mm figures, which are great for playing huge battles, and 28mm, which are great for smaller skirmishes. This would be another good reason for keeping my initial armies small.
The suitable size of your forces often depends on which ruleset you use. If you are starting out alone and have a club or other group of players nearby, you should consider using their ruleset unless you have a really good reason. In my case, our town has no established Napoleonic playing groups as far as I know. A group in the neighbouring town plays 28mm games of General de Brigade, which calls for large armies. It seems great, but our group wanted to start out with something smaller, so we did research on games that would suit our initial needs.
For 6mm, Lasalle (and Blücher) seemed to fit the bill:
For 28mm, Sharp Practice seemed to be good for playing small skirmishes:
5 Steps That Will Make Your Army
Given the vast amount of, well, everything in this period (Perry Miniatures carry around 200 blisters and boxes of Frenchies alone!), there are a few things you should consider before mustering your army.
Simultaneously diving into the all of the Napoleonic Wars as a whole can be hard. The subject covers several conflicts with different nations, and uniforms changed from the beginning of the wars to the end. Instead of researching everything first, it can be a good idea to find something smaller to get you started. If you have settled on some subject already, like the Scots Grey at Waterloo, the French Old Guards, or Preussian infantry, then you're pretty much set. But if you are like me, and don't really know that much, this can be a more investigative journey to find something that appeals to you.
Basically, at some point, you'll be decining several things about your force:
Great advice: it's easier and more fun to expand a small army than play with a half-collected, mostly unpainted husk of your grand dream army.
One of the things that made me excited about Sharp Practice is that it has small armies. Just some 40-50 miniatures? Count me in. Knowing that I was looking for a smaller army made me confident that I could keep this a small contained project, that I will hopefully be able to finish in a few months at most. This affects everything from how I buy the miniatures to the level of detail of my painting, so I prefer to have a mental image from early on.
When the idea of Napoleonics started to bounce around, it became obvious just how little I know of the period. This is the point where sources like Wikipedia are great for getting some very general grasp of a subject. I also went to the library, and found both general books about the period and a nice thick biography about Napoleon. Even if it's not necessary to read a ton of books, I find that they can be a great source of inspiration. Maybe you'll see a uniform that looks just great, or read about an interesting battle, or get stirred by the fate of one of the great personalities involved. Any of these things can help you settle on which army to collect.
If you are collecting together with others, this is the time when you ask yourself how much of a stickler to history you are. If you want to strictly re-enact historical battles, you should settle on armies that actually fought each other on the battlefield. If you want to fight somewhat believable battles, you should not choose to collect a Danish, a Portugese and a Mamluk army. And finally, if you are ok with whatever, just choose whatever appeals to you the most. But be prepared that there can be trouble if you approach this with a different mindset from your fellow gamers, so take the time to talk about it before you commit to an online shopping cart.
Since we already have a large amount of East European terrain that we built for WW2, and the fact that Shirty was planning to get Russians (of course), it would be pretty neat if someone could collect a French force. Looking at the uniforms, I could definitely see myself painting them, with the various cavalry uniforms breaking up the more monotonous blue and white infantry. They are a very versatile force for historical scenarios, as they fought pretty much everywhere against everyone. When I started researching miniatures I found several nice looking plastic kits that I could use to form the core of my army, which appeals to me as a miniature painter. As a bonus, I'm a big fan of the metric system. These were enough reasons for me to join the vanguard of the Empire - Vive La France it is!
Our budding plans on a Russian invasion kind of answered this question. Now that I knew I was collecting French, I read up on general information on places such as Wikipedia about the invasion of Russia. It was in 1812, so pretty late in the Napoleonic Wars. I'm not a complete rivet counter, but I also like to do research and get a pretty realistic force. So if I accidentially get something wrong I won't lose sleep over it, but settling on 1812 gave me lots of help when looking for the right uniforms and deciding on which miniatures to buy.
4. Unit Types
At this point I start browsing for miniatures and comparing with the army lists for Sharp Practice. I like using Google Image Search for this, as well as looking at message boards for wargaming. Pretty quickly I found that I really liked the look of Dragoons, and the idea of having troops that are trained to fight both mounted and dismounted would be an interesting twist to a skirmish force. Conveniently, Perry Miniatures has a great box of plastic French Dragoons, which comes with both mounted and dismounted miniatures. Finding a good box of plastic miniatures is a great way to get your forces started relatively cheap, and honestly I recommend checking the availability of good looking plastics before settling on an army.
France is maybe only second to British when it comes to the availability of plastic kits on the market, so I'm in a great position. A quick check later, and the Sharp Practice rules confirmed that I can have a force with Dragoons. They even have an example force with some Dragoons, Line infantry and Voltigeurs. At this point I knew little what that a Voltigeur is (maybe an electric type Pokemon?) but that's the beauty of it: you don't need to learn everything and do everything at the same time. A box of Dragoons it is!
Now, I'm almost at the point where I can get started with the painting. I have the Dragoons, I know they can make up a substantial part of my first French force. This is the point where you should look up a bunch of reference pictures. Thankfully, with the Internet of today, there are great sources out there. I found a great site for reading up about the various French cavalry types and their equipment here: Napolun
Together with a bunch of images found on Google or Pinterest, I could look through my miniatures as I assembled them and see what each part of them should be painted. Having these images available while painting your first miniatures is invaluable. I go back and forth all the time, wondering whether that specific flap was supposed to be red or green, and so on.
Now, you can live happily just painting your troops in some random colours, and they will look great. On the other hand, you could also paint them as real historical regiments! This is very much a personal choice, and how tricky it will be can depend on which nation(s) and period you decided to collect. But for me, I wanted to have a Dragoon regiment that actually saw action in Russia in 1812, since that's the starting point of all this.
Regimental colours is a big difference for me, coming from WW2 gaming. Basically, most armies had different ways to differentiate both unit types and specific regiments by varying colours on parts of the uniforms, and through other items such as epoulettes (the fancy things on the shoulders), plumes, and so on. In the case of my dragoons, some regiments had red collars, some had pink, some had white, some had yellow, etc. So if you want your miniatures to look really spot on, you'll have to do a bit of research to find their regimental colours.
Finding specific regiments can be a bit tricky, as places like Wikipedia will often merely say which corps or divisions turn up at battles. Again, Napolun came to the rescue, as it has much more detailed Orders of Battle. I looked at the Battle of Borodino, and could find several Dragoon regiments there, including the 7th Dragoon Regiment. On the previously mentioned page about cavalry I could find their regimental uniform colours: green coats, white breeches (pants), crimson collars, and crimson turnbacks (the inside lining that is visible where the coattails are folded at the corners). Those colours looks very fine by me, so 7th it is! With the colours of the uniforms settled, it's time to pick up the brushes and get to it.
So, that's it! Starting with a conflict spanning two decennia and dozens of nations, I gradually narrowed down the focus to France and the invasion of Russia in 1812, and then Dragoons, and finally the 7th regiment. Once I've painted them we'll see if I can figure out how French line infantry works, and then we have the whole scale of 6mm to tackle as well! It'll be fun, I promise.
À tout à l'heure,
"Glory is fleeting,