Review: Peninsular War Battles

Despite its crucial role in the downfall of Napoleon, the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal from 1808 to 1814 has not received much love from computer gaming. AGEOD’s Napoleon’s Battles and Wars of Napoleon include it at an operational level; only John Tiller’s Bonaparte’s Peninsular War Battles has detailed tactical action covering the first half of the “Spanish Ulcer” with the last half still in the design stage. released its iOS version using its venerable tactical engine a few years ago. The release of that product to the PC, Mac and Android platforms calls for a new look at the game on an iPad 2.

Hola, el frances!

The graphics of Peninsular War Battles are pretty much what we expect from Hexwar games. Zoomed in with a pinch, trees, buildings, roads, marshes, streams and fortifications are clear as are the flags of objective points. Important to this particular game are hill slopes, boulders and broken ground. Slopes block fire by creating “dead” zones for units adjacent to them while boulders and broken ground disrupt formations on the move and sometimes halt them completely. Field fortifications are too simplistic, resembling simple iron bars along a hex side. Important defenses such as the fortress of Badajoz and the Lines of Torres Vedras are not even attempted.

Field fortifications protect these Spanish and British units.

Unit images need one more zoom level to obtain easily recognized uniform and formation details. Uniform colors and details can barely be discerned on the map but a clearer view can be had by tapping a button on the right of the screen. Column and square formations are clear enough but the difference between line, open and unformed units seem blurred. Fortunately, a button on the left shows the selected unit’s formation. Veteran and elite units are marked with gold chevrons while raw troops have white chevrons. Rifle battalions have crossed weapons and mounted cavalry have a white horse on their image. Each unit has its strength in white numerals and a French, British or Spanish flag. An alternate view is gained by swiping out, showing a stylized version of the whole field. This view can be aggravating when it appears as players are trying to tap a unit. Other features are a round meter with bars indicating how close the sides are to victory.

Sharp-eyed players can enjoy quick glimpses of animation as troops step out, level fire arms and fire with accompanying smoke. Leaders and cavalry gallop around the field. Cannon trundle along with shot streaking toward targets. Eliminated units fall into bloody heaps. Since most games have many units that move slowly, the ability to speed animation by double-tapping the screen is welcome. Sound effects are predictable: troops tromp, hooves clop, muskets rattle and cannon roar. Charges are highlighted by yells and the clank of steel. Collapsing regiments grunt as they drop. The five-mission tutorial and on-screen help do a fine job of explaining game mechanics.

A wider view of the field is shown in the stylized view.

The Never-ending Campaign

The mechanics of this game is similar to all other Hexwar games. Tapping a unit shaded blue shows possible hexes for movement outlined in white and targets are shaded orange. “Dead” zones are also orange. Possible routes for infantry or cavalry charges are clustered in yellow around the target. Enemy units have an invisible zone of control to their front facing prohibiting normal movement into that hex. Regular infantry in line can move one hex; in column, they can move farther. Special units such as light infantry and rifles (Eh, Sharpey!) can move even farther. Of course, leaders and cavalry have a much greater range. Infantry can move and shoot or change formation in the same turn but can’t move if they do either before moving. Artillery can only move or shoot. Most cavalry can only move and melee but dragoons can dismount to fire. Leaders can move by themselves or join a combat unit via a button to give the troops a bonus. The necessary tapping on an iPad is more work than for most other apps. Repeated taps are not only frustrating but can lead to unwanted moves. Play on a PC using a mouse would be much easier.

Game play is fairly historically accurate. Lines are usually the best formations for fire with columns the best for fast movement and melee. Cavalry is scarce but good for finishing off weak units and forcing enemies into square to be blasted by artillery. Squares usually handle cavalry charges well although raw troops may not form the formation soon enough. Unformed and open units retreat from charges and charging units fall back to their start line if they don’t destroy their target. A sort of a flank attack is possible if two units attack the same target from opposite sides.

The on-screen combat analysis predicts the outcome of fire from a uniformed British unit on a French column.

Army composition is also accurate down to the regimental level. All but a few Spanish units are raw so that the powerful, professional British regiments carry most of the allied water. Napoleon did not – except for his own brief appearance in 1808 – send his “A team” to the peninsula so the French army has many raw regiments. The much unsung Portuguese troops are often in the allied order of battle.

Anomalies exist. Some unformed units seem to fire better than those in line. Units can fire through friendly formations on the same elevation. The French AI is overly aggressive, sending raw columns to melee steady lines just to be repulsed. Batteries are excessively vulnerable to attack by columns. The biggest flaw is the lack of defensive fire; columns should be taking fire from units in range all the way as they advance but they just go their merry way.

Twenty-seven unlinked missions playable from both sides are in four historic campaigns that trace the course of the war. A fifth eight-mission campaign follows a British detachment through the travails of a four-day outing. A bonus mission is available if players sign up for the Hexwar newsletter. Any kind of replay must be done through the three difficulty levels as no two-player option is given.

For all the attention given to orders of battles and battlefield terrain, Peninsular War Battles remains a typical simplistic game. The recent Hold the Line shows Hexwar can do better. Thought should be given to upgrading their older games rather than just recycling them to different platforms.