Napoleonic battle report and rules review: Leipzig 1813 with Absolute Emperor

On 23 January eight of us gathered in the shed for a refight of Leipzig, 1813 – or rather, of the key confrontation on the first day of the battle. The catalyst was Ian, who was back on a short break from South Korea. We were also able to tempt Matt back from Shrewsbury, less epic than coming from Seoul but still an achievement.

The rules we used were Absolute Emperor by Boyd Bruce, published in the Osprey blue wargames series. The basic unit in these rules is the division, which makes sense for recreating a battle as big as Leipzig. More on these rules later but the headline message is that the players picked them up quickly and enjoyed playing them, which gets them a big tick at the outset.

Setting up the game

You can find the scenario here. I’ve been playing games based on the battles around Leipzig since the mid-90s when I bought the first scenario book for Napoleon’s Battles, published at the time by Avalon Hill. I based the collection of my 15mm armies on the Leipzig order of battle and picked up as many histories of 1813 as I coud find. My German friend Clemens and I worked our way around the Leipzig compass, playing every scenario in the Avalon Hill book. Scott Bowden and George Nafziger both released books about the armies of 1813 and these led us to amend the Avalon Hill OOBs. After a break of a few years, in about 2010 I came back to Napoleonics and of course to Leipzig. In recent years we’ve played scenarios for Blücher and Lasalle and now, for Absolute Emperor.

Writing the Orders of Battle for AE was quite straightforward. The main challenge was to decide how to represent the historical Russian formations, which had shrunk drastically over months of campaigning. I decided to focus on overall strength rather than formal organisation. For example, one of the Russian ‘‘Corps’ is represented by only one infantry unit. So apart from the 5th Guards and 3rd Grenadier Corps, the Russians in this scenario are quite thin on the ground.

I also decided to start the game around the middle of 16 October, when several units on the table had already been fighting since the morning. I wanted to focus on the crucial struggle between Napoleon’s elite formations and the Coalition reserves, in which the French tried and failed to break the enemy centre. You’ll see that the scenario requires certain units to reduce their starting strength by 1 or 2 points, to reflect the losses they had suffered in the morning’s fighting. This wrinkle worked well and gave added punch to the fresh units on both sides that arrived from reserve.

Picture

The map. The city of Leipzig is behind the French table edge. One square is 6 inches.

Pre-game preparations

The 15mm figures are all mine, mostly Old Glory, Battle Honours, Essex and Minifigs painted in the late 90s with an injection of new models in 2020-22. They are based for Lasalle but I use movement trays for Blucher and now Absolute Emperor. You might notice the infantry stands are one rank deep. Old habits die hard: having started out on Napoleonics with Bruce Quarrie’s rules, I still have an aversion to two deep stands as to my eye, they make a line formation look too deep when playing units as battalions. I know this is not the majority view nowadays (and my 6mm Napoleonics are based two deep..).

The strip at the back of each unit has a sticker with its ID; a coloured sticker to show its starting quality; a dice cell to track losses and, where necessary, other stickers to show specific traits like heavy cavalry. The quality colours are orange (elite), red (veteran), blue (seasoned), green (conscript), yellow (exhausted conscript). A fresh unit with no losses begins with a die of the appropriate colour, showing 4 life points. When these run out, a die of the ‘exhausted’
colour is substituted. We found this a great help in play.

I added a few house rules, partly to give the players more choices. Army and Wing commanders were given elan points that they could use, either directly to support fighting units, or to top up the elan of subordinate commanders. I also decided not to use the written order counters, instead telling players that they must obey the orders of the player in command. In our experience, a multi-player game brings enough of its own command friction. I’ll certainly use order counters for one-to-one games in future.

What happened in the game

The French side had 4 players and the Coalition 3. Matt was Napoleon; Paul took II, V and VIII Corps; Nick was Murat with the reserve cavalry and Harry led XI and II Cavalry Corps. For the Coalition, Chris as Schwarzenberg took columns 1 and 2 and the Austrian reserves; Ian led columns 3 and 4; and Dan was Constantine with the Russian and Prussian reserves. This led to Harry and Ian locking horns on the Eastern flank; Paul and Chris in the West; and Matt facing Dan in the centre. Nick, meanwhile, seemed to have horsemen in every sector of the field at one point or another. He had no difficulty channeling his inner Murat!

The first stage of the game looked good for Napoleon and saw Harry push Ian back from his starting positions, while Paul headed down the river Pleisse. The Coalition lost several units in the east and the 3rd column was wiped out before the French had lost a single division. However, when the Coalition reinforcements arrived the confrontation became more equal. The Coalition were ready to give ground where necessary as all they needed to do was survive, whereas the French could only win by pressing their attack. The losses evened out somewhat when the Austrian reserves and 2nd Cavalry Corps took on Paul’s Poles and French in the west. In the centre the French Guard cavalry, V Corps and the Young Guard attacked the Prussian guard infantry who were, understandably, very tough to crack. In the west a minor disaster struck the French as Prussian heavy cavalry destroyed a French cavalry division and charged on into a march column of… Old Guard infantry! This division had been sent to bolster VIII Corps (as indeed happened in history) but was caught en route and in the worst possible formation.

Soon after, we agreed that the French were not going to achieve the breakthrough they needed and that Napoleon would decide, as he did on the day, to call off the attack to avoid further losses. We totalled the remaining elan and found that the French had 3 more points than the Coalition. Technically this meant a marginal win for Napoleon but by such a small margin that we agreed it was at best a winning draw. Our day had run from 11.30 to about 4.30 with a break for lunch and we had got through 8 turns.

Post match Analysis

At the point we stopped playing, I asked the players to leave the units in place. I’m glad I did. I had spent the game at the eastern end of the table, so could only see the centre and eastern sectors from a distance. My general impression was that apart from some cavalry charges, the French centre and right had not gained much ground. But after the game, when I walked round the table, it was clear that the French centre had advanced further forward than I’d realised. There was admittedly a solid wall of Russian Grenadiers and Guards in front of it but the French, in turn, still had a force of Young Guard and heavy cavalry capable of engaging them. In short, the French came closer to breaking through the Coalition lines than I had thought.

Could the French players have done better than their historical counterparts? It’s hard to see how, unless the Coalition reserves had been delayed in reaching the field (a possibility in the scenario, but an unlikely one). There wasn’t space for clever outflanking manoeuvres and the French attacks down the centre ran into too much tough opposition. There were some satisfying examples of game imitating history, for example when the Austrian reserves arrived to forestall the French right, while the Russian Guard Light Cavalry gave the French cavalry a bloody nose under the eyes of the Coalition monarchs. The biggest divergence from history was the retreat of Ian/Klenau’s troops in the east, effectively falling back on the big University Wood to form a refused flank. Ian did well in the face of a determined advance by Harry, supported by a couple of Nick’s cavalry divisions.

The players picked up the important elements of the rules quickly and soon got stuck into the game. As always, they played with good humour and tolerance. From the noise levels and general chatter, I think they enjoyed themselves. I certainly did!

Absolute Emperor: post-game rules review

A multi-player wargame can really test a rules set. As mentioned above, the players picked up the basics of AE quickly and were soon struggling with each other rather than with the rules. The mechanics made sense and there were no outcomes that seemed illogical or ahistorical. A couple of situations arose for which we couldn’t find a rule, but we agreed a way forward and made a note to clarify the picture afterwards. We also agreed that we would happily play with these rules again. So on the general level, I am very impressed.

If you are used to complete, watertight rules with extensive explanations and provisions for every possible situation, you may be surprised by Absolute Emperor. The full mechanics of some advanced rules are not explained. I have in mind particularly the rules for the Grand Battery and for elite formations. This shouldn’t put you off however. The Osprey rule book format is too restrictive to allow full explanations of every rules wrinkle, – but as these rules cost around a third of most available rule sets, I don’t mind joining some of the dots myself. The author runs a Facebook page for Absolute Emperor where he answers queries promptly. Also (and I love this!) he encourages players to adapt the rules to suit their interpretation of history. I admire a writer who is sufficiently confident in the core mechanics of his rules to be relaxed about individuals tinkering at the edges for their own satisfaction.

There are subtleties behind Absolute Emperor that might not be apparent from just reading the rulebook. An example is the Built Up Area, where I had wondered before our game if a garrison might be ejected too easily. In practice, we discovered that the BUA rules make it difficult to evict a garrison that has not been softened up or is not outnumbered, but neither is a garrison impossible to crack (as is the case with some rules). I reckon Boyd Bruce has got the balance here right. In short, I would encourage anybody who has a copy of the rules to play them before forming a judgement on them, since so much more makes sense when you work things through on the tabletop.

So AE will be back on the table again for more big battles. The only question now is which battle to choose.

Tales Wargame Shed