When I was younger, computer games came in cardboard boxes—just like wine, Pop-Tarts, and McDonald’s chocolate chip cookies. I used to browse the clearance shelf at my local GameStop looking for bargains. For a long time, they had a copy of a game called Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Battle. Eventually, when it was marked all the way down to $2.99, I couldn’t resist any more.
I had enjoyed computer games like Age of Empires and Close Combat, so I thought I knew what I was getting into with Napoleon’s Last Battle. (Plus, like the box said, it was based on the critically acclaimed Sid Meier’s Gettysburg—whatever that was.) In no time, I expected to be outflanking Wellington and crushing all of Europe under my leather boot like a Corsican OG. However, sadly, that did not happen. It turned out to be less of a “game” and more of a “simulation so complex and accurate as to be devoid of any fun.” Basically, the Microsoft Flight Simulator of the Napoleonic Wars. I can still hear the clopping of my cavalry units as I tried ineffectively to maneuver them into position in the tutorial level.
Even though it didn’t grant me the hours of dictatorial satisfaction that I’d been craving, it did provide me with my first glimpse inside the world of Napoleonic history buffs. (I’m not sure what you call them. Like… Taylor Swift fans are Swifties… Bieber fans are Bieliebers… Napoleon aficionados are… Napoleonados?) There was a flyer inside the box advertising a new Napoleonic history magazine that would supposedly be appearing quarterly for the next 15 years, up until the 200th Anniversary of Waterloo in 2015. It was $29.95 for a preview issue or $120 for an initial eight-issue subscription. At those prices, I couldn’t help but absolutely not subscribe.
Ironically, though, I did find myself commemorating the 200th Anniversary of Waterloo. By playing an entirely different game about it—the board game Stratego Waterloo.
Stratego Waterloo is based on the classic board game Stratego. (Stratego is a bit like chess, except you can’t see which of the other person’s pieces is which.) In Stratego Waterloo, one player commands Napoleon’s forces and the other player commands the allies opposing him. Each player’s army consists of infantry, cavalry, and artillery units of varying strengths. The unit pieces are double sided so that you can see all of the information about your units, including their strength, but the other player can only see whether they are infantry, cavalry, or artillery. The goal of the game is to either cut off the other player’s supply lines (by getting two of your pieces to their edge of the board) or eliminate their commanders.
From a historical perspective, the game is massively inaccurate because Napoleon is allowed to win. However, it does incorporate many historical flourishes. The French player starts with a slightly larger and stronger army, but the allied player receives Prussian reinforcements partway through the game. Almost all of the pieces have unique artwork depicting the uniforms of the regiments involved in the battle. In the standard or expert setups, you add terrain tiles to the board to represent the geography of the Waterloo battlefield.
One feature sets Stratego Waterloo apart: semi-deterministic combat. In many war games, any piece could technically defeat any other piece. However, in Stratego Waterloo higher strength pieces always defeat lower strength pieces and you only roll a die when the attacking and defending piece are equal strength. For example, if you’re attacked by an infantry piece, it might turn out to be a nameless light infantry unit (strength 1), or it might be the practically invincible Old Guard (strength 6). If it’s the Old Guard and you don’t have any of your own pieces of strength 6 nearby (or fortuitously positioned artillery), there’s not much you can do to stop it from crashing through your ranks.
You choose the starting position of your pieces, so setting up the board is part of the game and you can strategize how to protect your supply lines, hide your commanders, and prepare for the arrival of reinforcements. As battles progress, you sometimes feel like you’re managing a few powerful units amidst a vast expanse of hapless cannon fodder, which is unfortunately probably an accurate simulation of Napoleonic warfare. As you’re narrowing down the location of your opponent’s supply lines or commanders and the game draws to a close, it begins to take on the tension and thrill of a suspenseful chess endgame. Overall, it’s an extremely engaging hybrid of a traditional abstract game and a modern strategy game.
Stratego Waterloo feels like a premium gaming experience. The box is large and heavy, with a perfectly configured insert. The artwork is gorgeously detailed. The board and tiles are linen finished. You get all of the rules and components for basic, standard, and expert versions of the game. It even includes terrain tiles specifically for designing your own scenarios. You’re getting a massive amount of content in a single box and it’s accessible enough to play with almost anyone so, if I was shopping for any Napoleonados, I would definitely consider getting them this game.
There is one flaw. The rulebook doesn’t do a good job of explaining exactly what constitutes an action. For infantry and cavalry, moving into and attacking an enemy unit is one action. For artillery, moving and firing are separate actions. I had to read the forums on Board Game Geek to figure this out.
It’s fascinating to me that Waterloo was only 201 years ago. Waterloo was closer to the start of World War I than the start of World War I is to today. Waterloo was only three years before Frankenstein was written. Waterloo happened after the Lewis & Clark expedition. Cars were invented less than 80 years after Waterloo.
Here and now, I find myself looking at the list of features on the back of the Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Battle computer game box. It turns out that the board game Stratego Waterloo has all of them: great artwork, exhaustively researched historical details, numerous units with accurately depicted uniforms, maps with geographical landmarks, ability to design your own battles, and even multiplayer with other humans. The slogan on the board game’s box is “relive and refight the Battle of Waterloo.” That’s what I wanted to do when I first pulled that computer game off of the bargain shelf. I just never imagined that I wouldn’t be doing that until 13 years later in a board game.