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Trends in Historical Gaming – Napoleon rides again

August 10th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

Battlefront has announced that it is publishing HistWar: Les Grognards, a Napoleonic battle game with 15 countries, 10 historical battles and over 50,000 soldiers on screen. It’s Imperial Glory but bigger – and hopefully better.

So, it looks like Napoleon is back on the hotlist for computer wargamers. For a few years now it’s been nothing but World War II and ancient warfare. This year we have had three middling games set in the years around the Little Corporal – Cossacks II, Crown of Glory, and the aforementioned Imperial Glory. Matrix Games has Black Powder Wars and the long awaited port of the boardgame classic Empires in Arms on the way. Shrapnel’s naval game Salvo will spend quite a bit of its energy on the classic battles of Nelson versus the Frenchies.

True, there are still many more “Panzer Blitz ’42” or “Age of Cvilized Nations on the Rise” type games out there, but for afficianadoes of the period, more than five games in a year is quite a major haul. Of the above listed games, only Cossacks II and Imperial Glory could really be said to target a general gaming audience, but most gamers never hear about most wargames.

What decides which subjects will get mass coverage in the game development offices? Who decided that Napoleon was cool? The return of World War II war movies (with Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers) ushered in crates of WW2 themed games, including a number of first person shooters – history was now safe for everyone and not just wargamers.

Iain McNeil, tabletop wargaming champion and Slitherine executive, once pointed out to me that games, like all media, tend to trail in the wake of something else in the popular culture. He explained the increase in ancients games as an echo of both technical advances in moviemaking (allowing the epic to be feasible) and the familarity of the troops involved, as well as riding the trend started by the Gladiator movie.

Well, Gladiator gave us the movie Alexander. And the game Alexander.

Napoleon though is an odd case. He is a perennial favorite of tabletop wargamers. His battles are well documented, usually pose interesting tactical challenges and you get some outsized personalities that make the battles a rewarding study. There have been no breakout Napoleon games to lead the way, like Age of Empires did, and the cultural hold that Nappy holds on the imagination is much weaker than the good-versus-evil narrative of World War II.

One obvious explanation is that wargamers are coming to terms with the computer. Instead of waiting for one of the big wargame houses (HPS or SSG or Norm Koger) to make a Napoleon game, the wargamers will do it. The computer has a lot of advantages over the cardboard map, and no wargamer can looks at those Histwar screenshots and not be impressed. And of the titles I mentioned, most are wargamish – only the two pseudo-mainstream titles are really outside the wargame category in any meaningful way.

This explanation is pretty weak, though. There is dearth of new American Civil War material for the PC, and that’s the archetypal bro-v-bro conflict here in the US. But, aside from Mad Minute’s excellent but very poorly named Bull Run game, there’s not a lot on my shelf. Thankfully, they have a new game on the way, but I don’t see any others. Shouldn’t wargame designers be working furiously on this subject matter too?

I do sense a trend, though. It may not last long. It may only be for the next year or so. The trend could just stick in the wargame camp, or like Ancients, it could filter down to MMOs (Gods and Heroes) and action games (God of War).

And for the record, I think Histwar is a terrible, terrible name.


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