OK, this was a tough one. After Talonsoft tanked so many years ago, a small firm called HPS Simulations took up the mantle of John Tiller software central. However, with the start of Tiller’s own JTS software company, that relationship nosedived so that while games like France ’14 are still sold by HPS, the follow-on game of East Prussia ’14 is not. How could HPS recover?
Well, one way was through the start of what they call their Portfolio Series of computer games, a budget line designed to be inexpensive ($24.95 digital vice $49.95 for one of the games mentioned above), easy to play, but really light weight in the graphics department.
Marching Eagles: Waterloo is the first release in this series and I’ve taken it for a spin. It’s surprisingly good in the gameplay department, both innovative and quite competitive. As for the graphics… did I mention it has surprisingly good gameplay?
I normally don’t start my reviews with this particular aspect, but because this is the strength of the game, it’s time for an exception. In short Marching Eagles: Waterloo (MEW) is a (grand) tactical game, with some shiny chrome thrown in, covering all the battles of the famous 1815 Campaign of the Hundred Days. This includes various scenarios and what ifs from the famous four Ligny, Quatre Bras, Wavre and Waterloo plus Hougoumont as a separate battle, Frasnes and also a tutorial based on the small engagement at Gilly. Units within the game include leaders, infantry regiments or brigades (with an independent battalion here and there), cavalry regiments/brigades as well as artillery batteries. Time scale is 30 minutes per alternating turn with the AI and movement is area based using “mega-hexes” consisting of variable numbers of individual hexes within. Surprisingly, these individual hexes play no role in the game that I can ascertain.
Each unit is rated for such things as quality (e.g. ‘Experienced’), strength points (one per battalion or squadron), weapon (sabre, carbine), current status (Disordered), Action Points available, current Cohesion (called ‘Order’ here) level and unit formation. This last attribute is where some of the pure tactical chrome comes in as you can change the formation of your unit into another such as square, column and so on. There is a skirmish formation and even a “No Formation” depicting units shaking out to occupy a town.
The key to MEW is Action Points, or APs. Players performs functions with one unit at a time up to the maximum APs allocated for his side that turn. Thus APs are sorta Command Points with charging the enemy costing two APs to do so. Every other function in the game, and I mean ALL of them (shooting, moving, changing formation, rallying, rotating units within an area, receiving ammunition, drawing a Tactical Card, seriously, all of that and more), costs one AP each to perform, with a unit only able to conclude one function per turn. This is what makes the game a tense contest because you, as commander, will never have the APs you need. For example, I played the Wavre scenario for this review and found France’s Marshal Grouchy got 11 APs per turn, and trust me, there are more than 11 units in his command and there were many times I needed all of them to step out smartly.
Now, combine that with a two tiered card system. At the beginning of the game each side has a single-use Tactical Card each for infantry, cavalry and artillery. Once it is played, it is lost forever. In general, these three cards allow you to convey bonuses to all combat units of one type for that turn only. The second tier is that the game AI will randomly allocate an Event Card at the beginning of the turn giving a bonus AP or two because “Napoleon appears” or similar. In my game I actually got two regiments of French militia (Garde Nationale) as reinforcements this way, and while this did not happen in Belgium, such units did fight in other areas of France during the Waterloo campaign, so there is precedent.
Ranged combat within MEW is primarily for artillery, and is easy to perform. Click on the Artillery Dialog button and a small window opens up showing all batteries eligible to fire (and all unit designations are historical and in their parent language BTW 18e Compagnie 2e Regt FA 10e Div). Click on a line item, a crosshair cursor appears for you to drag and drop over an eligible target. Close combat occurs when your units move into an area occupied by the enemy, of which three is the maximum number that can so occupy. In a nifty second bit of pure tactical chrome, a close combat attack pulls down a window with several tactical options appropriate to the combat situation. These can include a Combined Arms Attack, Frontal Assault, Skirmish or even Bombardment if artillery is available. Your AI opponent (or human if PBEM) does likewise, accounts for environmental modifiers and then adjudicates the combat. Losses are taken both in strength points and in Cohesion points. As units lose the latter, a status bar on the side of its counter changes color from green thru orange, yellow and so on down to red, when the unit is considered destroyed.
That’s pretty much it as regards ‘playing’ MEW. Sure there are some other complexities such as not being able to change formation in certain types of terrain, but suffice to say the player’s handbook is only 28 pages long (21 devoted to rules) with LOTS of illustrations, table of contents and FAQ outside the main text. The interface is John Tiller style but with far fewer options. For example, there is no zoom in or out and only two maps scales available; the normal gameplay map and an area map where units appear as small dots. In fact, sometimes this elegant simplicity can go a bit too far. While the Artillery Dialog, for example, lists the units ready to fire, they are not highlighted on the map, so you have to find them. Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one game option that I found damn near brilliant, though pathetically simple. You have an option to put a timer on each term so that after 5, 10 or 15 minutes, the AI automatically stops your turn finished or not and proceeds to start its own activities. Combine this with the low ammo option, everything above and you will soon find out why Napoleon was Napoleon.
Winning the game is via Victory Points which are awarded for capturing certain objectives, exiting the map or destroying enemy units.
This aspect of a game is often purely a matter of personal preference, but perhaps a lot more important than people like to admit. Good graphics provide game immersion, clarity vice confusion and often becomes the product’s first impression. If the visuals suck, particularly as regards a wargame’s historical aspect, the customer may well wonder how could game mechanics be any better. For MEW, let’s just say that if you want to know where corners were cut to drop the price to $24.95, look no further.
Right off the bat everything tells you MEW was designed to be a bargain bin product, not for the discerning gamer. Follow me on this for a sec: for illustrations of results, cards and a host of other things, the designers have chosen to use some historical paintings of the era, but mostly photos from modern day European battle reenactments of the Napoleonic Wars. This is not a problem per se, but when the photo used still has the “SHUTTERSTOCK” watermark emblazoned across it, you have to start wondering if the copyright police might come knocking. Likewise, the background music is provided by the US Army’s 3d Infantry Regiment Fife & Drum Corps playing selections from the American Revolution. No joke, as you lead His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards against the French, you could be doing so under the heart pumping refrain of “Yankee Doodle!”
The unit formation icons are the biggest problem, however. First remember the battle area graphics are very old school, boasting map graphics that while anything but state of the art, are nevertheless quite functional and do the job. Thus the units are portrayed by default using a counter with a flag and a small soldier of some sort vice a NATO symbol, the background of which is colored uniquely by army. So for example, a brigade of British Foot will have an infantry soldier on a counter colored light red with a British flag… as will the Dutch, the Belgians, the Nassauers and the “Black” Brunswickers. All are considered British for this game, at least in terms of visual identification. Likewise, when you click on one of these counters it will open up a panel giving all the stats of the unit and a larger color image of the fighting formation it represents. This is quite important as if the map area has, say, its maximum of three units on the ground, clicking on one will bring up data and image panels for all three so that you might see who you are actually sending forward “a la baionnette.”
So in the Fresnes scenario I click on the “British” infantry brigade holding Grand Pierrepont Farm, a stolid redcoat on a light red counter under the Union Jack. The data panel, however, pops up and exposes that this is actually the much less capable 5th and 7th Dutch Militia Battalions whose appearance is none other than that of a French Line Fusilier. Likewise the Prussian 3d and 5th Hussars show up as Saxon Kurassieren, complete with bright yellow uniforms, body armor and Grecian helmets. Bottom line is that the player cannot trust what he sees on the map is accurate at first glance and this specific situation in one way or another occurs in all three armies involved, and occurs often. While there is a disclaimer about this in the manual, and it may not be an insurmountable problem, I think many might find it confusing and I have to wonder if this wasn’t a corner cut too short.
Caveat emptor: I still recommend MEW, particularly at this price point, because it is fun, fast, authentic and an amazing challenge for a product with so little complexity. The combination of cards, Action Points and timer will make each and every one of the 15 scenarios provided a nail biter you’ll return to often, particularly for a single evening’s play. The graphics, however, are not equal to the gameplay which truly deserves better, especially as compuater war games advance in other areas. Consider my recommendation guarded. I hope budget concerns will not stand in the way of the corrections needed to make this concept a real winner.