The other evening I laid on a game of Absolute Emperor at the Staines Wargames Club. I put together a scenario based on the Allied attack on the morning of the first day of the battle of Leipzig, 16 October 1813. It was deliberately a smallish game, as two players were new and the rest of us are still learning the rules. Ian and Paul led the Allies against Nick and Chris commanding the French. We used the house rules/clarifications that Chris and I had pulled together after our first two games. These don’t so much replace any published rules as clarify situations that the rules don’t directly address.
I have uploaded the scenario here. The standard victory conditions were slightly modified by giving the Allies a bonus elan point for every town they take from the French during the game.
How it played and some more thoughts about AE
To cut a long story short, the Allies won, with the French line still intact at the end but withdrawn to near their baseline.
These are my thoughts after our club night christening:
What next? Well, we could find another bit of Leipzig to refight but even I am feeling the need for a change from the Battle of Nations. I am thinking of an 1809 game, perhaps the Wagram scenario in the AE rulebook. I do have a soft spot for Austrians. I am also wondering about doubling the size of infantry and cavalry units, to reinforce the message that these are big formations.
A quick game to sort out rules queries
This week, Chris and I met to work through some of the questions that arose during our multiplayer Leipzig game on 23 January. As I mentioned in the report of that game in my previous blog post, the limited format of Osprey’s blue books means that cases will arise that the published rules don't cover. Easy to sort out in a one to one game but as we intend to play Absolute Emperor again with two or more players a side, we wanted to clarify how we will deal with them in future. So we sat down with our notes from the 23rd and played a game through as a workshop.
Möckern: a tough little fight
To give us an interesting situation I adapted a Blucher scenario for the combat at Möckern on 16 October 1813 for AE. This didn’t give that many more units per side than the introductory scenarios in the AE rulebook, though it did give an interesting asymmetry where the French had cavalry advantage while the Coalition had more infantry. Plus, I find a game based on a real engagement more, erm, ‘engaging’ than one that’s been made up. Chris took the role of Marshal Marmont, defending Möckern and the high ground beside it against my army of Yorck’s Prussians and Langeron’s Russians. See the scenario here. Although the aim was to create some situations where we could test or agree house rules, we actually had a tricky and challenging game.
How the game played
Chris set up his main line from Möckern in the west to beyond Klein Widderitzsch in the east. He had infantry on his left and mostly cavalry on the right. My Prussians advanced down the road from Wahren to Möckern and the advance guard, which was classified veteran as it included Grenadier battalions, assaulted the village. In the east, my Russians arrived between Breitenfeld and Lindenthal, to find that Chris had pushed his cavalry forward to threaten any advance beyond these villages. Meanwhile my further Prussian reinforcements started extending the Prussian line eastwards.
The mid-game saw a steady grind in the fight for Möckern, in which I pulled back the advance guard as its strength nearly gave out, and fed in a fresh brigade to assault Chris’ unit in the village. Further east, my intended assault on his hilltop position was held up by effective artillery and infantry fire, which twice inflicted a Halt or worse result on the same Prussian unit. In retrospect I could have/should have spend some of Yorck’s elan to restore this unit’s forward momentum. At the point where two of my units were disordered by enemy fire, Chris launched a spoiling attack that swept one unit away and sent the other reeling backwards. In the same turn my assaut on Möckern village finally succeeded, but I had an embarrassing hole in my centre. Next turn, having more than done its job, Chris withdrew his army along the whole front, reasoning that his elan was now dangerously low and his cavalry in particular was close to breaking. We agreed that his aggressive forward defence had held up the Coalition advance sufficiently to give him the win.
Some rules clarifications/amplifications
We agreed various fiddly clarifications but these were our main house rules:
When we played AE with 15mm units, an infantry unit in line was 160mm wide so we used the standard AE movement and shooting distances. For this game, we used 6mm units which were 120mm wide in line. As this distance is 3/4 of the width of our 15s, we reduced all standard distances by a quarter. Thus, Infantry fire up to 3” instead of 4”, cavalry charge is 6” not 8” and so on.
I am running a game at our club next Friday to try to attract more players. No doubt more questions will arise that we haven’t thought of yet!
On 23 January eight of us gathered in the shed for a refight of Leipzig, 1813 - or rather, of the key confrontation on the first day of the battle. The catalyst was Ian, who was back on a short break from South Korea. We were also able to tempt Matt back from Shrewsbury, less epic than coming from Seoul but still an achievement.
The rules we used were Absolute Emperor by Boyd Bruce, published in the Osprey blue wargames series. The basic unit in these rules is the division, which makes sense for recreating a battle as big as Leipzig. More on these rules later but the headline message is that the players picked them up quickly and enjoyed playing them, which gets them a big tick at the outset.
Setting up the game
You can find the scenario here. I’ve been playing games based on the battles around Leipzig since the mid-90s when I bought the first scenario book for Napoleon’s Battles, published at the time by Avalon Hill. I based the collection of my 15mm armies on the Leipzig order of battle and picked up as many histories of 1813 as I coud find. My German friend Clemens and I worked our way around the Leipzig compass, playing every scenario in the Avalon Hill book. Scott Bowden and George Nafziger both released books about the armies of 1813 and these led us to amend the Avalon Hill OOBs. After a break of a few years, in about 2010 I came back to Napoleonics and of course to Leipzig. In recent years we’ve played scenarios for Blücher and Lasalle and now, for Absolute Emperor.
Writing the Orders of Battle for AE was quite straightforward. The main challenge was to decide how to represent the historical Russian formations, which had shrunk drastically over months of campaigning. I decided to focus on overall strength rather than formal organisation. For example, one of the Russian ‘‘Corps’ is represented by only one infantry unit. So apart from the 5th Guards and 3rd Grenadier Corps, the Russians in this scenario are quite thin on the ground.
I also decided to start the game around the middle of 16 October, when several units on the table had already been fighting since the morning. I wanted to focus on the crucial struggle between Napoleon’s elite formations and the Coalition reserves, in which the French tried and failed to break the enemy centre. You’ll see that the scenario requires certain units to reduce their starting strength by 1 or 2 points, to reflect the losses they had suffered in the morning’s fighting. This wrinkle worked well and gave added punch to the fresh units on both sides that arrived from reserve.
The 15mm figures are all mine, mostly Old Glory, Battle Honours, Essex and Minifigs painted in the late 90s with an injection of new models in 2020-22. They are based for Lasalle but I use movement trays for Blucher and now Absolute Emperor. You might notice the infantry stands are one rank deep. Old habits die hard: having started out on Napoleonics with Bruce Quarrie’s rules, I still have an aversion to two deep stands as to my eye, they make a line formation look too deep when playing units as battalions. I know this is not the majority view nowadays (and my 6mm Napoleonics are based two deep..).
The strip at the back of each unit has a sticker with its ID; a coloured sticker to show its starting quality; a dice cell to track losses and, where necessary, other stickers to show specific traits like heavy cavalry. The quality colours are orange (elite), red (veteran), blue (seasoned), green (conscript), yellow (exhausted conscript). A fresh unit with no losses begins with a die of the appropriate colour, showing 4 life points. When these run out, a die of the ‘exhausted’
colour is substituted. We found this a great help in play.
I added a few house rules, partly to give the players more choices. Army and Wing commanders were given elan points that they could use, either directly to support fighting units, or to top up the elan of subordinate commanders. I also decided not to use the written order counters, instead telling players that they must obey the orders of the player in command. In our experience, a multi-player game brings enough of its own command friction. I’ll certainly use order counters for one-to-one games in future.
What happened in the game
The French side had 4 players and the Coalition 3. Matt was Napoleon; Paul took II, V and VIII Corps; Nick was Murat with the reserve cavalry and Harry led XI and II Cavalry Corps. For the Coalition, Chris as Schwarzenberg took columns 1 and 2 and the Austrian reserves; Ian led columns 3 and 4; and Dan was Constantine with the Russian and Prussian reserves. This led to Harry and Ian locking horns on the Eastern flank; Paul and Chris in the West; and Matt facing Dan in the centre. Nick, meanwhile, seemed to have horsemen in every sector of the field at one point or another. He had no difficulty channeling his inner Murat!
The first stage of the game looked good for Napoleon and saw Harry push Ian back from his starting positions, while Paul headed down the river Pleisse. The Coalition lost several units in the east and the 3rd column was wiped out before the French had lost a single division. However, when the Coalition reinforcements arrived the confrontation became more equal. The Coalition were ready to give ground where necessary as all they needed to do was survive, whereas the French could only win by pressing their attack. The losses evened out somewhat when the Austrian reserves and 2nd Cavalry Corps took on Paul’s Poles and French in the west. In the centre the French Guard cavalry, V Corps and the Young Guard attacked the Prussian guard infantry who were, understandably, very tough to crack. In the west a minor disaster struck the French as Prussian heavy cavalry destroyed a French cavalry division and charged on into a march column of… Old Guard infantry! This division had been sent to bolster VIII Corps (as indeed happened in history) but was caught en route and in the worst possible formation.
Soon after, we agreed that the French were not going to achieve the breakthrough they needed and that Napoleon would decide, as he did on the day, to call off the attack to avoid further losses. We totalled the remaining elan and found that the French had 3 more points than the Coalition. Technically this meant a marginal win for Napoleon but by such a small margin that we agreed it was at best a winning draw. Our day had run from 11.30 to about 4.30 with a break for lunch and we had got through 8 turns.
Post match Analysis
At the point we stopped playing, I asked the players to leave the units in place. I’m glad I did. I had spent the game at the eastern end of the table, so could only see the centre and eastern sectors from a distance. My general impression was that apart from some cavalry charges, the French centre and right had not gained much ground. But after the game, when I walked round the table, it was clear that the French centre had advanced further forward than I’d realised. There was admittedly a solid wall of Russian Grenadiers and Guards in front of it but the French, in turn, still had a force of Young Guard and heavy cavalry capable of engaging them. In short, the French came closer to breaking through the Coalition lines than I had thought.
Could the French players have done better than their historical counterparts? It’s hard to see how, unless the Coalition reserves had been delayed in reaching the field (a possibility in the scenario, but an unlikely one). There wasn’t space for clever outflanking manoeuvres and the French attacks down the centre ran into too much tough opposition. There were some satisfying examples of game imitating history, for example when the Austrian reserves arrived to forestall the French right, while the Russian Guard Light Cavalry gave the French cavalry a bloody nose under the eyes of the Coalition monarchs. The biggest divergence from history was the retreat of Ian/Klenau’s troops in the east, effectively falling back on the big University Wood to form a refused flank. Ian did well in the face of a determined advance by Harry, supported by a couple of Nick’s cavalry divisions.
The players picked up the important elements of the rules quickly and soon got stuck into the game. As always, they played with good humour and tolerance. From the noise levels and general chatter, I think they enjoyed themselves. I certainly did!
Absolute Emperor: post-game rules review
A multi-player wargame can really test a rules set. As mentioned above, the players picked up the basics of AE quickly and were soon struggling with each other rather than with the rules. The mechanics made sense and there were no outcomes that seemed illogical or ahistorical. A couple of situations arose for which we couldn’t find a rule, but we agreed a way forward and made a note to clarify the picture afterwards. We also agreed that we would happily play with these rules again. So on the general level, I am very impressed.
If you are used to complete, watertight rules with extensive explanations and provisions for every possible situation, you may be surprised by Absolute Emperor. The full mechanics of some advanced rules are not explained. I have in mind particularly the rules for the Grand Battery and for elite formations. This shouldn’t put you off however. The Osprey rule book format is too restrictive to allow full explanations of every rules wrinkle, - but as these rules cost around a third of most available rule sets, I don’t mind joining some of the dots myself. The author runs a Facebook page for Absolute Emperor where he answers queries promptly. Also (and I love this!) he encourages players to adapt the rules to suit their interpretation of history. I admire a writer who is sufficiently confident in the core mechanics of his rules to be relaxed about individuals tinkering at the edges for their own satisfaction.
There are subtleties behind Absolute Emperor that might not be apparent from just reading the rulebook. An example is the Built Up Area, where I had wondered before our game if a garrison might be ejected too easily. In practice, we discovered that the BUA rules make it difficult to evict a garrison that has not been softened up or is not outnumbered, but neither is a garrison impossible to crack (as is the case with some rules). I reckon Boyd Bruce has got the balance here right. In short, I would encourage anybody who has a copy of the rules to play them before forming a judgement on them, since so much more makes sense when you work things through on the tabletop.
So AE will be back on the table again for more big battles. The only question now is which battle to choose.