Napoleon’s Triumph Schooled Us

William and I are in the middle of a game of Napoleon’s Triumph, the hard-to-find board game that models the battle of Austerlitz. The game jumped to the front of our to-play list when William finally acquired a copy in excellent condition two weeks ago, and after a few hours of tense in-game decision-making, we are already much impressed.

Although Napoleon is not necessarily impressed.

I’ve already mentioned the game’s elegant visual design, and it certainly looks beautiful set up on our table. But what has us most excited is the rule set – or perhaps, what’s missing from the rule set. Where many board games add rules to model terrain difficulty or the extra danger of getting flanked by an enemy army, Napoleon’s Triumph makes those difficulties and dangers emerge naturally through shrewd design choices. Example: instead of uniform hexes, the board is divided into different-sized areas according to the difficulty of travel. It is plain and intuitive to see how much more quickly and easily an army will move through open, flat terrain (large areas) than through steep areas or towns (small areas). No terrain rules necessary.

The game is psychologically demanding. Players have limited information about their opponent, and both of us expressed certainty of our impending defeat many times. This lack of information is, it seems to me, one of the most important aspects of Napoleon’s Triumph – key to its difficulty as well as its aura of authenticity. Battle is costly, but inevitable; minimizing losses requires a mix of sussing out the opponent’s strategy, clever maneuvering, and the SWAG method. Compared to a game in which you do know the details of your opponent’s army, this is such a different experience as to practically be a separate genre. Your own resources seem woefully inadequate, as you try to disguise your stretched-thin elite troops behind weak ones that pad out your corps but won’t be much good in a fight; at the same time, all your opponent’s corps seem to bristle with elites. Artillery comes as a terrible surprise.

The game can be played in teams, as well, and for team play, teammates each have a specific commanding role and may not communicate with each other except by brief written order at certain allowed moments. William and I are unanimously in favor of playing a team game, even though team play will undoubtedly magnify the game’s strategic and psychological difficulty; the appeal of what feels like even greater authenticity, and a challenge unlike what we find in other games, is a powerful one.

Immediately following our play session, the question came up of how to use Napoleon’s Triumph in a classroom. The learning curve is steep, and the game unfolds slowly because it demands so much reflection (although we also talked about playing with one-minute-timed moves). Though the rules are well-crafted, they are not necessarily simple or easy to grok. During play, we referred to our rulebooks continually, and at one point had an argument that had to be resolved with the help of the internet. Teaching the game to high school or even college students seems unfeasible for most circumstances, and fitting a play session into a class period, equally difficult. Yet the game made such an impression on us and did such justice to its topic, we couldn’t simply write it off.

What we learn from Napoleon’s Triumph may be, more than anything else, a lesson in design. That we should push our design to be more intuitive and independent, tightening our rules set wherever we can, freeing players from rules and using the pressure of real-feeling circumstances to constrain their decisions. Napoleon’s Triumph may be too deep for use in a time-constrained classroom, but perhaps we can borrow some of its tricks – and find inspiration for innovations of our own – on a smaller scale. I know I will certainly revisit Sans Papiers and EU v. Russia with this in mind.

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