John Tiller Software recently followed up its 2015 tactical battles game Bonaparte’s Peninsular War (BPW) with the concluding volume of Napoleon’s War in Spain, the aptly named Wellington’s Peninsular War (WPW). This second title begins in 1809 and covers Britain’s attempt to drive the French from Spain, ending with Wellington’s invasion of southern France. Yes, the battles of Orthes and Toulouse (arguably a French victory and fought after the Emperor’s abdication) are here, as well as a side excursion to the battle of Maida in Italy, thus beginning endless arguments over column vs line.
Spain has always been very popular with English speaking gamers because, a) they won, b) the French lost, c) there were lots of battles involving redcoats, and d) the battlefield and operational environment was so much different than northern and Central Europe.
French General de Beurnonville described the turf thusly:
There are no roads, no transport, no houses, no shops, no provisions in a country where the people warm themselves in the sun and live on nothing. The Spaniard is brave, daring, and proud – the perfect assassin. This race resembles no other. It values only itself and loves only God whom it serves very badly.
It also makes this campaign tougher to model than Waterloo or Russia, but relax, JTS was more than up to the task.
This article won’t discuss the nut and bolts of the game this time around, such as hardware requirements or basic gameplay. The game engine running the Napoleonic, Musket & Pike, pretty much all these series is a good 20 + years old, harkening back to when John Tiller was first getting started at Talonsoft. In its present modified form, it owes much to 2018’s Seven Years War, but nevertheless, the engine pretty much runs and works the same way. Improvements thereof were evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, and if nothing else, assures a platform that is very reliable and stable. For those interest in things like scale, movement, combat with units and so on, the late Jim Cobb wrote an excellent review on Bonaparte’s Peninsular War back in 2015, while a review of the Seven Years War game in 2018 brought everything up to currency.
However, there were a few changes developed for this iteration, most designed to specifically model warfare in the anything but flat Spanish terrain. The changes include the use of two gun artillery sections instead of entire batteries, the possibility of disorder or rout when moving near enemy troops in good order (and the Spanish, in particular, have a lot of abysmal militia within their ranks), 10 minute turns as opposed to 15 minute, increased movement and disorder penalties due the greater amount of rough terrain, and isolated units unable to initiate combat. The game also increases infantry firepower, decreases cavalry melee strength and defines a command radius for all levels of command, army to battery commander.
While the changes may seem minor, they can make a significant impact. Here it’s wise to remember that battles in Spain are invariably smaller than battles in central Europe, with broken terrain and a veritable dearth of cavalry and artillery by comparison. And unlike the Prussians in 1806, all armies can deploy skirmishers, not just the French. When combined with everything above, the game does an excellent job of simulating Napoleonic warfare on less than Napoleonic battlefields. I played battles from Wellington’s invasion of France over the weekend and thought the gameplay and results very historical. The Anglo-Portuguese won the battle of Orthes, while Soult once again gave Welly fits at Toulouse.
And really, the scenarios included are the biggest reason for forking over $39.95 US. There are over 180 scenarios, many variants of the same battle to be sure, played out over 50 maps, the largest with 55,000 hexes. Of these, 60 were specifically designed for play against the computer AI, French or Allied. And although all the big-name battles such as Vitoria and Salamanca are present, so are a host of smaller battles or even larger fare few people have heard of. I’ve already mentioned Orthes and Toulouse, but the game also provides the siege of Zaragoza. And if you’re just dying to recreate the charge of Napoleon’s soon to be Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard against those Spanish guns, you’ll be happy to know that the battle for the mountain pass at Somosierra is part of the package.
Seriously, this makes the game a steal. Think not? Well, if by chance you can find a copy of the old Clash of Arms battalion level game on Corunna, it’ll set you back €130.00 plus shipping. At brigade (not battalion as is WPW), the still in print OSG Napoleon’s Quagmire will give you four battles for $98.00. Its not rocket science folks.
I really had only a couple of gameplay related issues with WPW, one I already spoke about in my review on JTS’s Seven Years’ War. Again, this is an industry related problem that may well be too-hard-to-do material. The units are still too flexible in their movement, looking like Porsche’s zipping hither during a TV Christmas commercial without any regard to the friendly or enemy units around them. Yes, by drill regulation they could do it, but alignment and control was crucial back then, so commanders simply would not allow it. Likewise, reacting to the unexpected was a painfully slow process, rarely done without someone with very gold epaulettes giving permission. Its tough to make a 21st Century gamer act like a 19th Century general, and the game’s leadership system (which is about giving combat and morale recovery modifiers) is inadequate, likely by design.
As regards WPW specifically, I only found one gameplay concern. While most people credit vaunted British firepower from a two-rank line as the raison d’etre for stopping French infantry attacks in their tracks, continuing study has proven this false. Per regulation and doctrine, French commanders consistently tried to deploy into line for fire and the final advance, but an impromptu redcoat bayonet charge almost always caught them in the act and sent them reeling in disorder. If the British allowed the deployment, the French normally shot them silly. As Ensign Andrew Leith Hay observed at Salamanca in 1812, “the only way is to get at them at once with the bayonet, that they can never stand, but as to firing, that the French will do as long as you like, and they fire much better than we do.”
So far as I can determine, there is nothing in the game that adequately simulates this practice, one so pervasive as to be considered automatic.
And the Ugly
And I mean, really, REALLY ugly. OK, I do realize I am delving big time into the realm of pure personal preference here, but IMHO the 3D graphics in the game are some of the worst I’ve seen, particularly the terrain. In contrast to the original Talonsoft series which used a “painted” terrain overlay, JTS stuff has long used a menu of roughly drawn generic hex patterns linked together to form a battlefield that is very granular, garish and harsh in presentation. Add to this a color palette that is a semi neon lime green color and you have something that not only looks bad but is very hard on the eyes. Dead serious now, but at normal 3D magnification I found it difficult – sometimes impossible – to find small units on the map, especially detached skirmishers, or commanders. Turning the bases on helped in the location, but not looks department, and determining elevation was a real chore. This is because WPW presents slopes as just an additional layer of hexes dropped on top of another. When you are fighting over real estate that is very hilly to begin with, this makes gameplay exceedingly tough. You cannot make out what’s a hill and what isn’t in many cases. In other nits, even big cities use more northern European buildings with dirt road patterns that remind me of places like Tombstone. Similarly, the Medieval walls of Toulouse look like garden walls any soldier can step over. JMTSW, and I’ve never been a fan of this methodology, but with WPW my visual experience has actually moved from just looks to negative gameplay impact.
And it really didn’t have to be this way. JTS BPW has the same system, but used a much softer, almost beige palette and doesn’t look half bad. Certainly, there are less problems finding and identifying units. Likewise, most all other JTS tactical games, such as the Mexican American War, have recently (as in November this year) received upgrades to the same softer, painted style found in the firm’s American Civil War battlefield series. These look exceptional, and this is without any modification to unit sprites. Change the latter and we’re talking life changing here, but regardless I think it way past time to retire this current graphics presentation package.
Fortunately, you do have the 2D switch with NATO symbology, looking very professional, easy to understand, just as I found when I first saw the redo in Seven Years War. Also, in this case, the somber colored 2D terrain palette more accurately captures the bleakness of the country, and I’ve been there.
But get it anyway!
Because you can easily flip to 2D until the 3D update comes out (hint, hint, JTS), and the game engine is as solid as ever. There are no bugs to speak of and gameplay is fast, fun and accurate. Combined with the almost obscene number of scenarios provided (plus the inclusion of all those otherwise little known but fun battles), and you’ve another reason cardboard counter games on the subject have cause for worry. Overall WPW is an excellent game with attractive pricing and represents yet another nail in boardgaming’s coffin.
JTS, please grab your hammer and continue.