Saturday 7 March 2015

Napoleonics are Boring - aka - Transitional Periods in Warfare

I was thinking about my wargame interests, and how I found Napoleonic (and ACW) of such little interest compared to most gamers.  On reflection, I think I am attracted to "transitional" periods of warfare.

This is when a new technology has turned warfare on its head, and everyone is experimenting.  All sorts of weird and wonderful ideas are tried out.


1950-60s Jet Era is fun
This was what got me thinking about this topic.  A visit to the nearby Caloundra Air Museum confirmed this as a favourite period. The early jet era was so darn interesting.   Missiles could be wire guided, or heat seekers, or radar guided - heck sometimes they simply fired salvoes of dozens of unguided rockets in hope of hitting something.  My favourite - an unguided nuclear rocket. That's right - the AIR-2 Genie was a 1.5kt warhead fired in the 'approximate direction' of enemy bombers.  With a range of about 6 miles, it had a 300m lethal radius - although I bet it would cause anyone within miles to poop their pants!  With awesome cannons you can fit your arm into, these early jets have such primitive controls - going 900kph in using controls not much different than a early-war Spitfire.  It's such a fun mix of designs.  The weird P-38-style twin booms, fighters with twin engines underwing like Meteors, F-104 pointy noses contrasting with gaping blunt Mig-15 air intakes.  Delta wings, swept wings, straight wings.  Sometimes crew sat behind each other - sometimes side by side. You want to fit in a radar?  Simply add a metre of metal cylinder and stretch the nose.   You can tell the designers were really making it up as they went along.  Even the paint schemes are colourful - or just bare metal. 

Modern Air Combat is dull
For the modern era (1980s-) aircraft are so boring by contrast.  NATO and Russian aircraft look pretty similar.  Most have two engines.  Most have two tail fins. All have swept wings.  Most carry a pretty standard loadout - a single gatling-style cannon, a pair of heat seekers and several radar guided missiles.  Paint schemes are a subdued grey.  The biggest difference tends to be the electronics/radar - the stuff that is under the hood anyways.   (It's no coincidence, my favourite "modern" aircraft, the 70s-era A-10, rips up the rule book a fair bit!)  Aircraft, no matter who makes them, are getting more and more alike.  The technology is relatively mature, and hasn't changed a lot since the 70s-80s.  (Yes, I guess there is "stealth" but it isn't that widespread, and all the stealth fighters are clones of each other as well).


Early Renaissance is fun
You have pike, musketeers, aquebusiers, crossbowmen, halberdiers, sword-and-buckler men, cannon in a range of shapes and sizes.  Units are mixed in a range of ways and ratios.  You have cavalry in an equally wide range of varieties - dragoons, reiters, hussars, cuirassiers, harquebusiers, etc.  There is a glorious mish-mash of colourful and varied units.  Armour is still a "thing" and units wear varying amounts and types.   You can also go cool places - and fight foes as varied as Indians, Aztecs, Ottomans, or Africans. 

Napoleonics is dull
In contrast, Napoleonics seem pretty boring. It's mostly the pretty uniforms.  The technology and tactics of the muzzle-loading musket is quite "mature"and polished by now.  Everything is so "standardised" in comparison to the early days of gunpoweder.  You can get infantry, cavalry and cannon, and the main difference is the red or blue uniforms. For ACW, simply substitute the uniform colour to grey and blue.  That's why historical gamers from that era tend to be fussy (aka anal-retentive) about uniform - ' cos it's the only interesting thing from that era!

Heck, even Napoleonics naval (much as I like sailing ships) is pretty samey.  The French and British copied each other (and captured each others' ships) so often the flag was the main difference.  Ships were mass produced to a 'type' i.e. a 74, or a 36-gun frigate - often directly copied from rivals.

(In contrast, the ACW-to-pre-dreadnought era of naval warfare, where armour and explosive shells were only just becoming widespread, and steam replaced sail,  is weird, wacky and interesting - at least until warships became relatively "standardized" after WW1.)


Modern Combat is dull
As I've been painting some 28mm stuff, I've been realising it's actually pretty samey. Everyone has four man fire teams, with maybe a SAW and a guy with an underbarrel grenade launcher. Most nations have small arms and support weapons in similar calibre, capacity, and capability.  Even armoured vehicles are pretty similar - a 6x6 with a HMG, a IFV with a chaingun, a MBT with a 120mm.  Really, is there that big a difference between a Challenger 2, an Abrams and a Leopard 2?  Enough to care?  C'mon, they're functionally identical.

WW2 Combat is Interesting
Compare this to WW2 tank combat, where they were still experimenting with what made a good AFV.   We have tank destroyers, assault guns, bren carriers, infantry tanks, scout tanks, heavy tanks, medium tanks. Half tracks, tracked and wheeled APCs.  Was there a difference between a T-34, KV;  a Grant, Matilda, or Sherman; and a StuG, Panther or Tiger? You bet.   Massive change (and thus a massive variety of designs) occurred in the space of a few years.  

Small arms were varied.  SMGs, semi automatic and bolt actions were represented in various ratios instead of the ubiquitous assault rifle (though there were those too!)  A Bren gun, a MG42 and a BAR are not at all alike; whereas a modern SAW - if it isn't a Minimi or direct copy thereof - is functionally identical.  Even handguns were a mix of revolvers and automatics of different calibres, and not just all 9mm automatics. 

Admittedly, I don't play WW2 very often as it's so over-represented.  I'm about as excited by new platoon-level WW2 games as I am by near future sci fi (Vietnam in space) - or any game with zombies in it (i.e., not at all).  However, it is an interesting period of warfare than modern combat; as so much change occurred, and forces are more varied.

The Argument:
Transitional periods in warfare, where a relatively massive technological change has recently occurred (introduction of gunpowder, automatic weapons, the transition from sail to steam, from propellers to the jet engine) is far more interesting than the later stages of that technology, where everyone has figured out the "best"way to use it, and are all copying each other/using cookie-cutter equipment. 


  1. Do you consider space fantasy transitional? Maybe not in a timeline fashion, but in the not fully sci-fi not completely fantasy kind. You know, tank commanders with swords and paratroopers with power fists. Could that be the appeal?

    1. Well, 40K does mix WW2 tech (pre-digital analogue dials/buttons) with fantasy tropes, so yes, I'd class it as "transitional" for sure!

    2. Recently I complained about the "sameiness" of near future sci fi. You have some pretty standard benchmarks - for example, railguns, normal rifles and lasers, and light, medium and power armour. In 40K, you have bolters (automatic rocket launcher); lasers, normal rifles, splinter cannons, railguns, primitive 'dakka' weapons (orcs); power swords, chainswords, normal melee weapons, psychic powers. Then there's light armour, Space Marine power armour, Tau battlesuits vs dreadnoughts, terminator armour, holo armour, force fields - so much more variety!

      - there's so much more variety.

  2. I was going to ask a similar question about 'future' transitional periods and what you think those might be like?

    1. The trends are towards miniaturization and automation.

      So nano machines, nano weapons, and more "unmanned" or smart vehicles/weapons. Tiny bot swarms. Even nano machines in the human body.

      Also, the offence vs defence paradigm has been weighted in favour of offence for years and I think it's bound to swing back.

    2. In case I wasn't clear - the "transition" will be when what we regard as conventional now (soldier, on ground, assault rifle) mixes with nano tech and smart weapons gear.

  3. Very well made point. The same is true for earloer peroids. Lets take hellenistic armies. Heavy lancers, mounted archers, elephants and warbands, pikemen, skirmishers etc.

    Great diversity from Carthage to India. The slightly earlier periods have just a phalanx everywhere...

    I never realised that this might be the reason why I liked some periods (bronze age chariot wars, hellenism, renaissance) so much more when I PLAYed them, then when reading about them.

    Classicsl antiquity, high middle ages and dark ages are fun in their own sense but not as colorful on the table.

    1. Agreed.

      I've been looking at classic antiquity and one guy with a spear, shield and sandal does seem much like another. Shieldwalls seem to work similarly no matter who uses them (there's even some similarity between vikings/romans/greeks, in the lock shields/push/lack of importance of missiles/cavalry). And high middle ages is a good example of the maturity of a period, though there are some exotic enemies (Islam, nomads/Mongols).

  4. I've just gotten into Napoleonic wargames, the main reason is the similarities in the forces. It gives a much more even playing field. Most forces can use a line infantry unit as anything from green to veterans, and there is the few national distinctive units to brake things up a little. Ultimately I agree with what you're saying but disagree that it's always a bad thing.

  5. Very interesting points, but I must raise one quibble: in terms of technology, the American Civil War was one of the most transitional conflicts I can think of. Rifled muskets, with much greater range and accuracy than smoothbores, were just becoming commonplace, with breech loading carbines in common use by the Union, and breech loading rifles introduced in the course of the war. Tactics, however, had not caught up, and generals were still using Napoleonic tactics for the most part, attempting to break the enemy line while advancing under a much greater weight of fire. Artillery, too, was greatly increased in range and accuracy, though the wooded terrain in which the campaigns were fought limited its effects. Most realised the futility of using cavalry in its traditional battlefield role, but the desire to make a decisive charge was always present.

    It has a lot of similarity to the First World War, in many ways, where the tactics of the opening campaigns were, in spite of the lessons of the ACW and other mid - late 19th century conflicts, still based upon solid formations.

    As for the Napoleonic era, while the technology was not new, the tactics certainly were, largely stimulated by the increase in the size of armies, and the use of conscription. It was the first war in which the entire nation was mobilised, rather than a relatively small professional army: with the exception of Britain, that is, which, furthermore, employed an evolved form of linear tactics, with great success, against French columns. What, may I enquire, is 'dull' about that?


    1. I noted ACW naval technology is whacky and interesting. But ACW ground warfare is only a mild variation (at best) on the "two armies identical apart from uniform and morale lining up neatly opposite each other and shooting until someone runs off" and so makes for boring wargaming....

      If columns vs linear groups of troops is the most exciting tactics in Napoleonics... ...well, I'm not going to argue against something that makes my case for me...

  6. Correction: that was two quibbles.

  7. On reflection my points really addressed the pure historical interest of the periods in question, rather than the excitement of the wargames. (In my defence, while I read history extensively, albeit not nearly enough to consider myself truly knowledgeable, my actual playing experience is limited, particularly in recent years). The lack of excitement you allude to - clearly from experience - may be a reflection on the rules commonly used, many of which - Blackpowder to name a random example, as well as the Wargame Research Group's rules and its many competitors from a previous era - try to cover 200 years or more on the grounds that the weapons were essentially the same, leading to the predetermined sameness of games set in different eras.

    On the other hand, there are many specific sets too, so perhaps it is essentially a question of taste. Frankly, I have no answer.

    For what it's worth, though, my interest in naval warfare only really begins with the ACW, for the reasons you cite, though I tend to blame this on my failure to grasp such tricky factors as the weather gauge. Earlier than the 16th century, naval battles were essentially the same as land battles, as vessels had to come to close quarters, leading to a mass melee, though ramming and shearing of oars adds a little spice, at least in theory. That's enough history from me, though.