the newest game from Martin Wallace's Treefrog Line, is uniquely a war game (and a pretty unique war game too, I suspect).
Playing Time: 3-4 hours
As is typical for the Treefrog designs, this box comes filled with wooden components.
The Board: A six-panel linen-textured board showing the battle field surrounding Papelotte & Smohain, La Haye Sainte, and Hougoumont. Most of the board is a pretty plain yellow, but you certainly won't notice that once you fill it with wooden bits (and it's probably best that the board wasn't more colorful, because of all those pieces). The starting places for both players' troops are helpfully noted. Tracks along the sides of the board keep track of actions, time, and troops.
The Troops: All of the troops are beautifully produced wooden pieces. There are three main figures: an army man, a cavalry man, and an artillery piece, each of which has sufficient detail to be quite attractive. The pieces also come in a stunning array of colors, allowing you to keep track of separate British, German, Dutch, Prussian, French, and Imperial Guard troops. I was a little dubious of whether so many colors would muddle things after I read the rules, but it played fine (though the Imperial Guards, in dark blue, and the Prussians, in black, were just a little too similar in color).
There are also a number of simple wooden bits, including: damage cubes for both sides, a variety of action disks, some large squares (which are used to represent the square formation), a set of eight numbered tiles (which are used to determine how many actions a player can take before his opponent responds), and a turn marker (which notes the time). All of these pieces are high-quality wood, just like the troop figures.
There's a set of four wooden dice too.
Bag: A cloth bag to draw the numbered tiles from.
Rules: A 20-page rule book. It's dense and full of special cases, but very good effort has been taken to make it accessible. There are plentiful illustrations, some examples, and a pair of quick-reference pages at the end that put everything together in a very easy to follow manner.
Even better, there are two single-sheet copies of it, for reference during play. They were the primary reference that I used throughout the game.
(Mind you, it still took a couple of reads and an hour of play to have a solid understanding of the game.)
Overall, Waterloo is gorgeously produced. I've given it a full "5" out of "5" for Style. Though I'll offer the caveat that some war gamers don't like the wood bits, which I discuss more later on.
Waterloo is a very complex game, and so I'm not going to go as far in-depth into the mechanics of the game as I usually do. Instead, I'm just going to try to summarize things sufficiently to give a feel of the game.
The object of Waterloo is to defeat your opponent, either by killing sufficient of his troops or else by taking a key location.
Setup: Players choose sides and place initial figures on the board. The Allied player will place his Prussian forces on an out-of-play track, since they'll come on the board later in the day.
Order of Play: Waterloo can last up to nine turns, each of which represents an hour during the battle. Each of these turns is split into seven phases:
- Take Action Discs
- Skirmish Fire
- Player Action Rounds
- Formation Changes
- Check Victory Conditions
- End of Turn
Take Action Discs: Action discs determine what the players can do. Purple discs only allow reserve movement, red discs only allow assaults, and green discs can be used for anything. The players will have a mix of these colors. At the start of each turn, both players get all their action discs back. For the first few rounds that'll be more discs for the French player than the Allied player, but that evens out at 4pm.
Prussians: Starting at 3pm, 2-6 Prussian units come onto the board each hour, to help out the Allied cause. These are a selection of leader, cavalry, infantry, Landwehr infantry, and artillery pieces. The troops come out in a specific order and at specific locations.
Skirmish Fire: Now all the infantry fire at each other. Essentially, one die is thrown for each infantry unit that has adjacent enemies. A roll of "6" scores a damage cube. If there aren't infantry, cavalry or artillery could be hit instead.
About Damage. The infantry are the troops that absorb the majority of the damage during the game. Each infantry is destroyed when it takes 6 cubes worth of damage. However, the damage cubes are much more dynamic than that explanation suggests. They're temporarily assigned to units when they are engaged in assault actions, but otherwise they're kind of free-floating. You can use this to your advantage to effectively "reinforce" your units, by moving units out of the front line carrying 5 cubes (the maximum that a unit can take without being destroyed) and moving up "undamaged" units to replace them. Because of all of this an infantry unit is only actually destroyed when there are so many cubes in a space that some unit must have six.
Cavalry is more fragile. It's harder to hit, because it can often retreat, but when it does get hit it's wounded and if it gets hit again, it's killed.
Artillery has three states: fine, unmanned, or destroyed. An artillery unit is unmanned if its integral soldiers are killed. That's marked by a damage cube. It's remanned as soon as infantry moves in (effectively absorbing the damage cube from the artillery).
Player Action Rounds: Now each player gets to take a series of actions, starting with the player with Initiative (which is the French until 7pm and could be the Allied forces afterward). Each player's action round is split into the following subphases:
Draw Tile. The inactive player draws a tile from the bag which shows either a "2", a "3", a "4", or a "5". This is how many actions the active player is going to take--but the active player doesn't know what number has been drawn, meaning that he has to take actions, never quite knowing when he's going to get cut off.
Formation Changes. Now, the player may change the formation of all of his units. This is most relevant for the infantry units which can be in mobile, defensive, or square formation. A unit needs to be mobile to be moved, but is much better protected against cavalry if it's in a defensive formation.
This sub-phase also lets you make leaders who had been activated and artillery which had been moved available for use again.
Perform Actions. This is the heart of the game, where the active player gets to take 2-5 actions. I'll talk about it in more length momentarily.
Move Action Discs. You record actions you take with your action discs, until the point that the inactive player tells you you're done, then you move all of your action discs from the "used this round" square on the board to the "used in previous rounds" box. They're not available again until the next hour.
Somewhere around here, you also check for stacking limits. A square accumulates a few damage cubes if it contains more than 3 non-leader units.
Switch Roles. Now the previously inactive player gets to respond to the active player's actions this round--unless he has no green discs left, in which case the player action rounds phase ends.
About the Player Actions: There are 7 actions that a player can take. Usually you'll activate an individual square, but you can alternatively activate a leader who can in turn activate two squares. The catch is that after a leader has been activated he can't be activated again until the player's next set of action rounds.
Here's the possible actions:
Close Contact Movement. The troops can move 1 for infantry, 2 for cavalry or 3 for leaders.
Reserve Movement. Movement goes up to 2/4/6, but the units moved can't be adjacent to an enemy unit at any time during their move.
Fire Artillery. Artillery fires at a square within 3 spaces. A cross-referenced table and a set of die modifiers tell you the results. As with most damage, it typically inflict damage cubes on infantry, but could spook horses or unman artillery if the infantry is gone. The French have a grand battery which lets them double their artillery action six times over the course of the game.
Assault. This is the big action, because it's what you use to actually trounce their troops with your troops. It has a complex 7-step process by which the results are determined--though in most fights you'll only do a few of them. Here's what they are:
- Defending Artillery Fire. Artillery devastates incoming forces, rolling against infantry at the "0" range column of the chart, or else hits cavalry or artillery if infantry isn't present.
- Cavalry v. Cavalry. Opposing cavalry rides at each other until there is only cavalry left on one side.
- Infantry v. Infantry. Infantry has up to two back-and-forths of fighting each other. Starting with the defender, each unit rolls on a simple table that has some die modifiers to see how many damage cubes it inflicts, then the other side usually has to make a morale roll which could cause some of their troops to flee (or even be killed, especially if the opposing side has remaining cavalry). After two rounds of back and forth, the attackers will withdraw if the defending infantry hasn't been destroyed.
- Cavalry v. Infantry. Infantry takes a set of shots at the cavalry (which could wound or destroy them). If there is any cavalry left, the infantry now must make a morale check. Infantry may have the option to drop into a square formation before the cavalry charge, depending on their defenses at the start of the battle. This improves their morale check. The roll could cause the infantry to be eliminated. If there is any infantry left afterward, the cavalry must withdraw.
- Cavalry vs. Artillery. The cavalry unmans any enemy artillery units.
- Infantry vs. Artillery. The infantry destroy any enemy artillery units.
- Cavalry Control Checks. Finally, a die roll is made for each cavalry unit. On a high roll (which varies depending on the sort of unit), the cavalry unit goes out of control, and must assault an adjacent enemy space.
The results of this all probably aren't obvious from casual reading. The most notable and interesting result is the fact that the three different types of units are really quite different in play. Cavalry, for example, can destroy enemy infantry units easily, but not if they're properly defended (which means that they were in a defensive formation or had cavalry units with them at the start). Conversely, it's really hard for infantry to go after cavalry who can typically panic them.
And with that exhaustive action possibility out of the way, let's move on to the remaining choices a player has for his action phase ...
Change Formation. The infantry and artillery in the selected space can change their formation.
Reinforce. A damage cube is moved to an adjacent friendly space.
Do Nothing. This is an action undertaken just to burn an action disc. You don't usually want to do it, but perhaps, right at the end of an hour you might.
And with that said, we're now out of player actions (phase four), and finishing up the hour with the three remaining major phases ...
Formation Changes: Each player gets a last chance to change the status of infantry and artillery units.
Check Victory Conditions: If a player has destroyed sufficient enemy pieces or taken the specified enemy town with infantry, he now wins.
End of Turn: Otherwise, you go on to the next hour, getting back your action discs in the process.
Winning the Game: The game ends at the end of an hour where one player met the victory condition for either killing enough enemy forces or taking the enemy stronghold. If both players meet their victory conditions, the player who killed more enemies wins.
Relationships to Other Games
This Martin Wallace game is the fourth in his Treefrog series of gamers' games with wooden pieces. It's also the only war game that Wallace has designed, though that topic requires some additional discussion ...
About the Genre
Waterloo is somewhat of an odd duck. On the one hand, Martin Wallace is known for writing games that fit into the Eurogame genre--though sometimes they're on the long and complex side for the genre (meaning 2 hours instead of 1). On the other hand, Waterloo has definitely been described as a war game. So, which is it, and how does it relate to Wallace's other designs?
I am not a war game player, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think that Waterloo is very much a war game. It's long, at 3-4 hours. It's very simulationistic, with units that truly feel different on the battle field. Much of that simulation is encoded in tables and die modifiers that you're going to need to keep looking up for at least a couple of games. The game has very in-your-face conflict and there's a real random element, with die rolls affecting combat results and tile draws affecting action counts. Pretty much every one of those characteristics feels pro-war-game and anti-Euro-game to me.
I do feel like Waterloo inherits one element from the Euro-field: there's been a lot of careful attention to the mechanics and how they work (though I'm also aware of the occasional war game that has some really elegant mechanics, so this isn't unique).
Nonetheless, I'd definitely come down on the "war game" side of things.
However, I also think this isn't a wide digression from Wallace's other designs. He includes a lot of war-game (or, as I call them, Anglo-American) mechanics in many of his designs. Byzantium, Perikles, Armies of the Ancient World, Struggle of Empires, and After the Flood are just a few of the games which include many of these non-Euro-elements.
So, if you enjoy the rest of Wallace's games, will you like this one? Take the in-your-face and complex-simulation elements of his other games, crank them up three or four levels, then double the playing time. Sound fun? If so, Waterloo should be.
The Game Design
As I've already said, I'm not a war game player. Thus, it's quite hard for me to say how well this game does when compared to the war game field as a whole. What I can say, however, is that it has a number of elements which I find pretty innovative. If you're a war gamer, you should compare these three elements to your own experiences, and judge how well they fare.
First, the action-management system is great. Any turn, you might get to take from 2-5 actions before your opponent can respond. And, it's hard to get any "big" move finished within the constraint of 2 or 3 turns. Thus you have to constantly decide between possibly leaving yourself open versus just taking a very conservative turn. I think it's a really nice representation of the unknown on the battle field.
Second, I found the damage-management system very interesting. Clearly, the damage cubes you use on your infantry are an abstraction, but they're an interesting one, because by moving cubes from one space to another, by glomming all the cubes in a space onto one unit, or by otherwise manipulating them in interesting ways, you're representing the ebb and flow of a battle as the wounded are pulled back and as fresher troops are moved up in a way more organic than I've seen elsewhere.
Third, I think Wallace did a great job of differentiating the infantry and cavalry. He says in his designers notes, "I ... wanted to treat each of the three different service arms, infantry, cavalry, and artillery, in a way that reflected their actual use", and he paid that off in spades, as I've already discussed.
Generally I felt like I had lots of opportunities for choice in Waterloo. I could make some long-term strategic plans, but I could also make interesting tactical moves that I tried to slip in under the wire, as it were, by exploiting a defensive hole before my opponent could close it.
However, I'll offer this caveat: the strategic and tactical possibilities were all based upon a complex game system with lots of special cases. The first hour or two, my opponent and I (who had each read the rules multiple times before we played) spent a lot of time going back and forth to the rulebook, and it took a full game before things really started to click. For the sort of game I play most often, I'd find all these complexities a bit much, but I suspect a war gamer would find them right in keeping with the field.
So, hopefully from the last two sections you've now got an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the game and whether you'll like it or not. But, given how the RPGnet review system works, I need to codify how good I think the game is, no matter how unqualified I might be to do so.
I'm certain Waterloo is a good war game. I think it might be a great war game, but without the experience I don't feel comfortable offering up that rating. So, I've given it a "4" out of "5", the highest I feel I could offer given its genre. If you're more familiar with war games I'd encourage you to leave comments on Waterloo in the connected forum thread, either based on your own plays, or on my descriptions of the more innovative systems (saying if you think they are or aren't).
Waterloo is a dense, well-designed war game by Martin Wallace. Whether you like the game or not will probably depend most on how you respond to the war game. This is most definitely not a Euro release, but if you enjoy spending 3-4 hours in intense competition with a single opponent, this is well worth a look.