By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I’ve had a thing for strategic games of the Napoleonic Wars for a long time. As a teenager I went through several, but eventually settled on the old Empires in Arms.
Empires in Arms was a mess. It took forever to play, and had an unintelligible rules set in which every word appeared to be written in English, auto-translated into Uzbek, and then auto-translated back into English. Someone did a knockoff version a few years ago that skipped the English-words step and went straight to gibberish.
Even so, I’ve fought through those rules with several groups of gamers. The idea of commanding the armies and fleets of one of the great powers of Europe, and leading it to conquests, is a powerful one. You get to build your fleets and armies, control your economy, conduct diplomacy and, of course, make war on your enemies.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve played the game, but I do know one thing: I’ve never played it to completion, nor seen it done. I’ve heard rumor that a game was once played all the way through from 1805 to 1815 by a local group, but I do not believe this to be true.
That’s the result of a structural problem in the game and its topic. A nation which suffers catastrophic defeat can recover, but it takes years of “game” time that can translate into months of “playing” time for groups only meeting once a week. The game rules give incentive for a player to make peace well before that happens, as was usually the case in the actual Napoleonic Wars, but players will refuse to do so because they’re wargamers. And then they don’t want to play on with a wreck of a country under their command. So the game crashes.
Soldier Emperor is built to avoid that problem. For starters, it’s a much shorter game: you should be able to complete the full 1803-1815 campaign game in a single, day-long session. If the game’s going to take place in just one session, even if it’s a long session, the social incentive to quit (and thereby not have to drive across town just to see your own Prussian corps revitalize from one infantry to five infantry) isn’t there. Have another beer; Prussia will be ready to fight again soon.
Next, it’s a dynamic game. Soldier Emperor is not a “card-driven game” as the term is usually used among hard-core wargamers, but the cards do help drive the action. They’re played in interrupt fashion, that is, you can play a card at any time, not just during “your turn.” The cards represent random events, like plagues and storms and treason, and also drive certain game functions like the appearance of new leaders or creation of new countries (like the Kingdom of Italy). That also means that everyone is involved in the game, at all times.
Soldier Emperor’s map is divided into provinces, which are linked by either normal or mountain routes. You maneuver your armies from province to province (and your fleets from sea area to sea area) and fight, using a pretty simple roll-a-six combat system. That allows for wildly divergent results on very rare occasions, but assures that most results will fall within a pretty standard range (the guy who rolls a dozen 6’s in a row becomes a legend precisely because such a feat is so rare).
The units are armies and fleets. Their strength varies, and you as the player have little control over their quality – when you purchase one, using your nation’s stockpile of money and manpower, you draw randomly from those available. So you have an idea that French armies are usually better than Spanish ones, but you have no guarantee that you just bought the very best of the French armies. Once you’ve bought your units, you also have to keep them maintained – that costs additional money and manpower. You also have to pay to use them, if you initiate a battle or a siege. Soldier Emperor has a simple economic system, but it impacts military operations in a most direct manner.
Crucially, Soldier Emperor has a very clean set of rules – straightforward and easy to understand. You can read them right here if you’d like. You need to be spending your game time arguing over why that idiot playing Turkey invaded Sicily with one army, not arguing over the rules for landing a Turkish army in Sicily. Stupid players are fun. Stupid rules are not.
And Soldier Emperor is a beautiful game. Earlier additions had beautiful thick tiles to represent the armies and fleets, each with an original Terry Strickland painting on it, and a very fine map. To that presentation we’ve added “real” playing cards – poker-sized cards with rounded corners, a full-color back and printed on casino stock. You’ll enjoy just holding them in your hands (you won’t hold them long, because you play them constantly, but they’ll feel good for those brief moments when you do have them in your hand).
We’ve gone to a somewhat larger map, to allow us to put the key charts along its edges. And each player has his or her own full-color player card to keep track of money and manpower and available units. You don’t really need these things, but they make playing the game far more fun and colorful.
The game engine we use in our Gunpowder Strategy games – Soldier Emperor, Indian Empires and Soldier Kings – is a well-designed, simple system that allows for maximum player interaction while keeping a pretty high level of historical verity. Nations rise and fall for the same reasons they did historically: by winning battlefield victories, maintaining good diplomatic relations so that even your enemies want to make deals with you, and tending to your economy at all times. Despite their apparent simplicity, the play itself has a great deal of nuance, particularly considering the chaos that opportune (or inopportune, depending on your perspective) card play can induce.
Now that we’re producing games on a regular basis again, we’ll definitely use this system for more games, both in this historical period and earlier. They’re simple learn, a great deal of fun to play, and with the current standards of physical presentation they are very nice to look at. Soldier Emperor is the sort of game we need to be publishing.
Click here to order Soldier Emperor!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.