Updated: Aug 9, 2022
I suppose every Napoleonic wargamer eventually gets the urge to wargame The Battle of Waterloo. Recently, I became the victim of just such a desire, but I wanted to explore how it could be done with what I might call minimum effort. Not for me 6 months to create a railway-modelling style representation of the battlefield whilst getting together a team of dedicated wargamers to paint thousands of figures. I wanted to see how the battle could be re-created by an average gamer with average motivation.
My original thought was - could you do Waterloo with decent-sized miniatures (which for me would be 15mm and above) on a 6' x 4' table? Having decided that such a game, whilst possible, would lose quite a lot of the spectacle that a Waterloo game is supposed to encompass, I relented and decided to go for 8' x 6'. Which grew to 10' x 6' as I did my research and calculations - which then raises the question of what my research and calculations consisted of.
My main references were the Wikipedia account of the battle and three books. The latter were the Osprey Campaign 280 (Waterloo 1815 (3): Mont St Jean and Wavre), Alessandro Barbero's The Battle, and Mark Adkin's magnificent The Waterloo Companion. The first book has a great summary of the orders of battle, the second has a fine narrative account of the battle plus a very well done description of the deployments, and the third has wonderful colour maps, plus lots of additional detail.
The basic terrain was easy to establish from the large number of maps available online plus those in the Companion. As for the forces, I took the raw numbers present on the day in each of the various corps, and divided them by 600 for infantry, 400 for cavalry, and 8 for artillery, these being of course the standard size of units used in SotE. Then the resulting number of units was divided by 4. After this process, a bit of tweaking was naturally required to give the right flavour for each force.
The orders of battle that resulted can be found in the File Share section, but to summarise I ended up with:
French - 22 infantry battalions, 10 cavalry regiments, 9 artillery batteries.
Allies - 22.5 infantry battalions, 8 cavalry regiments, 5 artillery batteries.
Prussia - 13 infantry battalions, 6 cavalry regiments, 4 artillery batteries.
For Prussia, only those corps that arrived before the end of the battle were considered.
For figures, I was very fortunate to have the friendship of Roy Boss who contributed his magnificent collection of 20mm Hinton Hunts, lovely old-school models who had a few Waterloo reconstructions already under their belts. Infantry units had 24 figures, cavalry 12, and artillery batteries one model gun. So as you can see, the two main combatants had about 500 infantry and 100 cavalry each. A fine force indeed, but not so large as to be out of the question for reasonably committed Napoleonic gamers. I used the game distances for 25-30mm figures.
The basic terrain was constructed from some of my old TSS hills and ridges placed under a felt mat. The buildings again came from Roy, but I was able to supply my own trees, hedges and felt roads. It was necessary to hire a room at my local community centre to fit in the table and the very necessary side tables, as well as to accomodate the 9 wargamers who very kindly agreed to attend. I had recruited some old gaming friends to play the Allies, whilst the Cirencester Club led by Stuart C provided the French commanders.
Waterloo is quite a 'deep' battle, so the French reserve cavalry under Guyot, and the Old and Young Guard, had to wait off-table at the start of the game. Otherwise, the initial set-up was firmly based on the historical position of the armies at around midday on 18th June.
Excuse the occasionally fuzzy photos - once again my iPhone 7 was in use, and time to take careful photos was limited!
I was pleased that my ideas for victory conditions worked well in the end. These are in the 'scenario' download in the File Share section, but for the record the French got 2 VPs each for Papelotte and La Haye Saint, 4 VPs for Hougomont, and 1 VP for every unit north of the ridge road. 4 VPs would be lost to the French if Plancenoit fell. 12 VPs would mean victory for the French - if they failed, the Allies won. There would be no draw! Game length was set at 12 turns.
The last two moves were so full of action that unfortunately no photos were taken. La Haye Saint and Papelotte, both captured by the French, were re-taken, the former by the British and the latter by the Prussians. Plancenoit, in contrast, continued to be held by the French unopposed. But despite this, Zeiten was held off and the French had enough units north of the ridge road to make 13 victory points by the end of move 12. History had been reversed, but only just.
To be honest, I was surprised at just how well the game went. The 12 turns expired just before 4.00pm, so we had managed a turn every 30 minutes, pretty good with up to 9 people round the table. The result was in doubt until the final move, which is always satisfying for an umpire and organiser.
The game was full of action and surprises - in fact the only bit that went according to history was the game-long bloodbath at Hougomont, which the Allies still held at the end of the battle. La Haye Saint fell early, as did Papelotte, and after a tough struggle the French found themselves in control of the Mont St Jean ridge east of the Brussels road, with their cavalry wheeling round ready to roll up the Allied position. The elite French guard reserves had been used to help force a decision on the ridge, rather than being held back until the last.
But the Allies held on stubbornly, trusting the Prussians would arrive eventually. I had created an arrival table for the Prussians, based on dice rolls which would commence on move 6. But after a chat with Roy during the week before the game, he advised me to be more flexible and tailor the arrivals to the state of the game, so that balance could be maintained as long as possible. This made sense - if, for example, the French were struggling, dice rolls that resulted in a large and early Prussian reinforcement would kill the game half way through.
So, I used my arrival table as a guide but tried to judge what should arrive and when in accordance with how the battle was going. Whether by luck or judgement, this worked fine. Just as the French were preparing to finish off the Allies behind the ridge, they had the Prussians arriving behind them and had to take quick action. Papelotte fell to the Prussians, and an Allied counter-attack from the west re-took La Haye Saint as well. But in the end the French had enough units north of the ridge to win - the road to Brussels was open.
Other surprises? Ney remained at La Belle Alliance with Napoleon throughout the game - I had rated him as an inspiring army general and expected to see him being used to lead the French attacks. But there he sat. Plancenoit remained peaceful throughout the game, in stark contrast to the historical events. French cavalry did end up fruitlessly engaging Allied squares, but this took place west of Hougomont as Roy's French cuirassiers and dragoons tried an outflanking move. One cuirassier unit did eventually squeeze through and crossed the lateral road, scoring an important extra VP for the French.
I think this battle could be fought on an 8' x 6' table using larger size figures (15mm and bigger) with just a few tweaks, mainly to reduce the number of units a little more than I did. With 10mm figures or smaller, and the reduced game distances recommended in the rule book, a 6' x 4' table could certainly work.
So, my thanks to all who attended - the game was fought in a fine spirit of friendly competition, and my few errors in interpreting the rules were forgiven gracefully. It was worth all the preparation.
For a view from the French side, see this report from the Cirencester Wargames Club blog, who provided the players for the French side: