Bonaparte’s Peninsular War – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Great historical accuracy of a neglected period, improved AI, useful graphics, fine campaign system
Failed Basic: Small font, lack of Mixed Order formation
Like so many periods that don’t deal with World War II or the American Civil War, the French experience in the Iberian Peninsula has largely been ignored by game developers. Players can force the issue in Western Civilization Software’s and Matrix’s Crown of Glory, but there’s no certainty France will invade Spain in 1807; Hunted Cow has released an iOS game on the subject, Peninsular War Battles. That’s about it for gamers interested in this part of the Napoleonic Wars.
This omission of serious, dedicated games degrades computer gaming’s opportunity to understand history and military affairs. The events of 1807–1814, though not as spectacular as the 1812 Russian invasion, were instrumental in Napoleon’s downfall, draining resources, tarnishing reputations and undermining domestic affairs. Fortunately, after a long wait, John Tiller’s team led by Richard White and Andrew Bamford have developed a dedicated tactical and campaign game, Bonaparte’s Peninsula War. This product is the first in a set of two. The developers wisely understood the conflict had two distinct phases: the French invasion of Portugal and subsequent occupation of Spain and the Allied offensive to drive the French out of the peninsula. This first game revolves around the defense of Portugal and the Spanish struggles with the French.
The Green Jackets are Green!
Of all the John Tiller games, the Napoleonic Battles series has the best graphics. The 3D terrain in both zoomed-in and zoomed-out views is clear and crisp with orchards, vineyards, buildings, field works, streams, paths, lakes and elevation standing out well. The 3D icons could use another zoom-in level, but they still give an idea of unit formation and type. The 3D unit icons at the zoomed-out level aren’t all that useful. Most players will use the 2D icons anyway and both zoom levels are useful in this mode. These icons are the usual board-style counters with NATO symbols. All units can have divisional colors and organization highlights toggled on and off. These functions are important for command and control purposes. Other togglable highlights illuminate fired, moved, fixed, disrupted, and low-ammo units. Other highlight options show reachable and visible hexes, invaluable for positioning troops, as is the jump map. By the way, the Bonaparte shown on the screen at the beginning of each turn is not Nappy himself but brother Joseph, made king of Spain by his big brother and in whose name this war was fought.
The unit figures in the hex info area provide data on unit strength, quality, movement points, morale and status on the front with chain of command and ability factors on the reverse. Yet, the real jewels are the unit uniforms. The figures are lovingly detailed down to the last button and piece of lace. This game is especially well-suited for this array because of the many nationalities and units presents. Ad hoc Spanish and Portuguese militia units are shown in mufti while regular Spanish units are peacocks. French units tend to wear the regular blue coats and tall shakos, although their cavalry can sparkle. British infantry are shown in red with correct regimental facings, but artillerymen appear in their black tunics. Rifle regiments are decked out in green, but Sean Bean is nowhere to be seen. Did Duco finally do in Sharpe? These details are best viewed using the free download Virtual Magnifying Glass http://magnifier.sourceforge.net/. Other graphics represent movement and fire lines. Combat results are floating text.
Sound effects are familiar but still evocative. Cannon crash, muskets rattle, marching troops tramps, horses neigh and clop while wagons creak. Bayonet charges are marked by cheers and screaming. The game is documented with many PDF manuals and excellent campaign notes explaining both the history and scenarios. The parameter PDF should be studied at the start of any battle. All of these documents can be accessed from the game by “F” keys but players should close any PDFs before opening another.
No Country for Old French Men
Despite the usual one kilometer per hex and ten or fifteen minute per turn scales, Bonaparte’s Peninsula War captures the unique trials of the French in clever ways. Of the 171 scenarios, the majority are between ten and forty turns long with a handful lasting up to eighty turns and only one, the “Lines of Torres Vedras,” weighing in at 250 turns. The number of units rarely exceeds a corps on each side. The trick is the map; it is huge and most French units are marching toward the action. The landscape is rugged with paths and tracks formed by goats that have no concept of straight lines. The French commander can choose to take the quickest route overland, having his troops arrive fatigued and disordered, or he could take the circuitous paths and have his troops arrive only slightly less fatigued and possibly too late for decisive action. This calculus explains why low quality but fresh Spanish and Portuguese can hold better French troops to draws and achieve minor victories. Objective hexes are often so spread out that even cavalry can’t reach them all in time.
The mechanics are Tiller trademarks. Orders are given via clicks, menus, toolbars and hotkeys. Infantry formations include column and regular, shortened and extended lines as well as squares to defend against cavalry if a morale check is passed. If more than one infantry unit is in a hex, only the front (“top”) unit can fire but players can swap each unit’s place in a turn. Regular infantry regiments can detach one company as skirmishers but light infantry regiments can dissolve into swarms of skirmishers. Skirmishers are useful in blocking enemy movement and line of fire while gathering better intelligence about foes. Some units are “restricted” and can’t detach skirmishers. Artillery can limber and unlimber. Dragoons can fight as regular shock cavalry or dismount to fight as infantry. Cavalry can melee at triple strength using the “Charge” order if they do not change facing or become disordered. Leaders are important for morale and rallying. Combat results can be loss of men, fatigue, disorder, low ammo or rout. Units with low ammo can be re-supplied from supply wagons. These formations and functions fulfill most Napoleonic tactics but one still yearns for the French Mixed Order formation.
Justly or unjustly, the AI in Tiller games has often been criticized. The design team for this product developed a good solution. Almost all scenarios are done twice, once with an Allied AI and once with a French AI. Thus, the situation gives the AI its optimum strength to make sure players have a satisfying experience. Some areas are shown several times in different years because places like Oporto and Badajoz saw frequent battles throughout the war. All battles can be played as hot seat and PBEM.
The crown jewel in this game is the campaign system. Three campaigns are offered: 1807–1808, 1809, and 1810–1811. The first two are French invasions of Spain and Portugal. The last starts out as a French invasion but can end with an Allied offensive. British troops are rare in the first two campaigns, thus showing how the French could be slowed by Spanish and Portuguese militia, a concept too often ignored.
The mechanics of these branched campaigns are about choice. Players choose their side, and then select whether the AI will be reckless or conservative. Players then can opt to play the full campaign or start with a battle sometime during the campaign. After all this, players are briefed on the situation and given operational options. Players can whip through the battle using “Expected Results” for a historical outcome or play the battle out tactically. Depending on the outcome, the game follows a branch to another battle.
Bonaparte’s Peninsula War covers a long-overlooked important part of the Napoleonic Wars. This game accomplishes its goal with detail and accuracy. Connoisseurs will appreciate the eye candy even if the graphic-fixated don’t. The multiple scenario system allows the AI to be challenging and the overall feel of the game transmits the realities of the era. The Tiller system may be old but this game proves that it’s one of the best engines extant.
Armchair General Rating: 95%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad.