VPG’s Napoleonic 20 System and Tolentino 20/Waterloo 20, a short review.

The Napoleonic 20 System Games

I’m relatively new to this series of games published by the redoubtable Victory Point Games.  To summarize up front the 20 series games are a series of low complexity wargames that are designed to be low density, fast playing and easy to learn.  The “20” in the titles of games indicates that the counter mix for every scenario module contains 20 units per side or less, plus some generic system counters for unit actions, leaders and turn markers.   Individual battles were published before in this series in VPG’s older ziploc format from 2008-2011, so this is NOT a new system– it’s just new to me!

Operational level units, doing operational level things (from the Tolentino module)

As is somewhat obvious The “Twenty” series is a System Game.. meaning the basic rules and game mechanics rarely change, and the individual scenario/game module rules always change, to create the historical scenario being gamed.  Although at some level there may be exceptions in the historical game module that might “trump” the core rules, the historical material isn’t designed to do so, so this is a rare occurrence.   My philosophy on reviewing games Napoleonic 20 games (and I have 3 of them to get to) will be to review the series rules ONCE, and the modules at the end of this article and in follow on articles.  I’m not going to repeat myself, but I will link to this review in future reviews.

Components: Note that my comments refer to the newer components published in 2014-2015, after VPG had switched formats to thicker counters, better card stock and graphics.  I have some of the earlier ZipLoc games from VPG’s 2009-2011 period (not in this series) so I imagine they did a perfectly adequate job considering the small countermix and focused smaller map areas of this series.   With the current quality standard, VPG really shines.  As I’ve stated in many previous reviews of VPG games, they’ve migrated to a much higher standard in the last 3 years.  Counters are big, laser cut and chunky, card stock is professional (albeit a tad thin), maps look fantastic, and most importantly the ink doesn’t run or rub off!  That was my major whinge factor about earlier efforts.  As I’ve mentioned, each side has roughly 20 counters and some supporting markers, leaders and system markers.  The countermix is done very well.  The map was more than adequate, certainly up to an Avalon Hill or GMT standard, with bigger (18mm?) hexes and easy to understand graphics.  Some of my previous game maps were printed in a sort-of-mounted “jigsaw pattern” that I really like (and miss, a little), the maps in this game were heavy cardstock.  On the plus side, they fold back easily and line up perfectly.  There’s also a Player Aid Mat included (full color) and it is very useful indeed (as we’ll get to), and a staple bound, color illustrated rulebook for the Standard Rules and the Individual Game Rules (which trump the Standard Rules).   The graphical improvements are well worth the investment VPG made in improving the printing process– I suspect many of you are familiar with the VPG components by now and agree with me, but if you aren’t, there’s a sort of visceral thrill to big, chunky counters on a big, thick map that is satisfying in a hard to define, umami like way– it’s savory.

Standard Rules: At the heart of all this glitz is a very workmanlike, easy to play game system, originally by Joe Miranda from Decision Games (mostly).  the series rules recreate operational level campaigns, and thus aren’t exactly on the tactical level– they are simulating, by rough order of magnitude, units from divisonal to corps level (as the rules state, 8,000 to 20,000 men, and their equipage).  Think of “operational”, in this context, as ‘making decisions about largish bodies of troops moving around the countryside and bumping into each other for combat, then seeing what happens“.  Maps are covered with a hex overlay to regulate movement and zones of control.  Each hex space equates to a distance about one-half to one mile across, though this distance will be impacted by the Exclusive Rules for each individual game.  Unit counters depict a corps, division, or cadre sized unit, with a nice icon representing the troop type and the statistics at the bottom.  Those stats are pretty basic– Movement Allowance and Combat Strength.  Counters are one-sided and don’t change unless someone a card to combine cadre units with certain units at start.

Counters from the Tolentino Battle

Counters from the Tolentino Battle

Each game (I assume) come with a card deck for each battle.  These are random events that are bifurcated to reveal an event that transpires during the course of the engagement that impacts one side, the other or both.   The text on the card is shaded with a specific color associated with the side the event applies to.

Text of one of the cards from the Waterloo Module. If the phasing player was playing the French side, the blue shaded event applies to him. If the phasing player drew the card was playing the Allied player, the pink shaded text would apply to him.

Text of one of the cards from the Waterloo Module. If the phasing player was playing the French side, the blue shaded event applies to him. If the phasing player drew the card was playing the Allied player, the pink shaded text would apply to him.

  1. Random Events are resolved as the first step in the turn sequence.  Simply draw the top card of the face-down pile and apply the text to your troops or the enemy force, whatever it says.  This is not an option for the first player playing his first turn.   Note that many event cards are the mechanism for bringing reinforcing troops into the game.  Note, also, that the FIRST PLAYER designation is (apparently) determined by scenario.  The players alternate  thereafter.
  2. First Player Movement is next.  The first player may move some, all or none of his units, subject to constraints imposed by movement rates on the counters, terrain effects and enemy zones of control.
  3.  Second Player Reacts is next– if the second player has any cavalry on the map he may elect to move these in reaction to the First Player’s movement.
  4. First Player Combat is the next step, where the first player indicates which units initiate combat, if they are in command, and if he opts to commit reserves to get a bonus.  More on combat later, as it’s the most complex thing you will attempt with this system.
  5. If the turn track is in the night zone, First Player then opts for Night Operations.  Night operations covers Rally, Morale Recovery, and recovering Concealment.
  6. The SECOND player then moves through the same sequence above, with roles reversed for reaction movement.
  7. If there is a little Dice Icon on the current box on the turn track, that indicates Rolling for Sudden Death.  That means some portentous event has occurred to bring about an early end to the battle.

I’m getting a vibe that the units “activate in a certain way, move in a certain way, fight in a certain way, and retreat in a certain way” that is very familiar to anyone who has experience with classic hex and counter wargames.  So let’s take a closer look at crucial elements to this system: Combat Operations, Card Events  and Morale/Recovery.  I think you can arrive at what makes this system unique by studying these three elements of the design.  The rest is chrome layers added by the historical scenario.  NOT that there is anything wrong with that– I expect this approach from a series game.


Combat is handled as a differential based system which the initiative player brings on by moving into the Zone of Control of a target enemy unit.  ZoCs make sense in this game scale, recall we’re talking about 8,000 plus men per cardboard chit here, and it’s easy to imagine them having flanker units out and skirmishers, provided some level of control around the parent unit.   Combat is declared in advance before the dice are rolled.  What happens next is classic 80ss era wargaming.

The Combat Resolution Table for Napoleonic 20 games.

The Combat Results Table for Napoleonic 20 games.  Yes, a CRT, much maligned by Tom Vasel and company in a recent show.  I’m sure Tom’s a savvy wargamer with lots of experience, so he knows best, but the CRT does seem to work for this game and provides meaningful results.

A) Designate Attackers and Defender(s)
B) Total combat strength, Attackers. That’s the number to the left on each unit marker. You have the option to spend a Morale Point to commit reserve troops to bolster the attacking score by one.
C) Total combat strenth, Defenders. That’s also the number to the left. Also add or subtract the single best terrain benefit from the defender’s location (if he is defending from a woods, etc.). The Defender can also commit a morale point for a bonus, if he can afford it.
D) If you have special status troops (denoted by the colored attack numbers on the bottom of the counter), basically Guard Elite (red) or Unreliable (Yellow) attack numbers will create different results during combat resolution.
E) Check the differential column on the Combat Differential table.  This is a CRT, right from classic wargames 101.  Find the right column and roll a six sider.
F) Apply any one of these results immediately for either Attacker or Defender: Break, Routed, Withdraws, Exchange, ENgaged.  If you have experience with board wargames, you’ll recognize these results, but pay particular attention to BROKEN and ROUTED troops, as they decrimate your Army Morale.

Real combat result from my first game of Tolentino. The Neapolitans, all full of themselves, move down the road to intercept the Austrian cavalry. The Cavalry (though a mix of lucky dice rolls and a card draw), end up causing the Neapolitan cavalry to Withdraw (DW result). Could have been worse, at least this wasn’t a rout!

In general, this is a pretty bloodless CRT.  The worst thing that can happen as a result is Breaking, but in game turns that IS a pretty bad thing (as we’ll see when we look at morale, next).  I think it is very fitting for operational level games.  You’re not going to see horrific blood and guts at this level– we’re talking about 8,000 men or more per unit, here.. comprised of all sorts of brigades and regiments and demibrigades, and it’s those units that do all the bleeding.  A larger unit’s commander figures out that he has something more productive to do with his men and pulls them out of action after reverses… or he should at any rate.

Morale is the big element of this design that makes or breaks the game.  Army morale is tracked with a special counter on the army moral track on the player mat, I found it cumbersome to use this and just put the morale on a corresponding square on the turn track and moved it backwards when an Army took losses.  Army morale level is the general ‘Stance’ of your side in the face of battle.   Battles are a series of events that impact on Morale levels, and mostly negatively.  Fatigue from forced marches, Lulls during the fighting, units Breaking, units Routing and inhabiting objectives all have their effects on Morale Level.   The crucial take-away is that when an Army Morale level reaches zero, that’s it, game over and you have lost.

The cards add a nice random element to the design.   Many designers are using cards as a way of adding historical detail to a board wargame, which isn’t exactly a new thing.  In the Napoleonic 20 series games, they also serve a critical function of adding reinforcements into the battle in a variable fashion.  Since there are only 20 counters maximum, this doesn’t happen very often and every unit is critical.

Cards in action. This card contributed to the Neapolitan cavalry withdrawing back where they came from in the previous example.

Conclusions, Napoleon 20 series

I like the low counter density, and I like the speedy play of this design.  I rarely have had a game go over two hours.   However, you buy that speed and low complexity at the cost of a lot of detail.  I’ve played other games at this level of scale and even own a few– Le Grande Armee du Nord, Napoleon (Columbia) and if you want to simulate the campaign level (the decisions that make those large bodies of troops move around) this would be a fun and fast way to do that.  However, La Battaille it ain’t.  There’s not a lot of unit variation (even with the special troop rules) so in my opinion, I’m not really getting the Napoleonic experience that I personally enjoy, which is more on the grand tactical side of the house.   However, it is still fun and interesting to play, since it doesn’t require huge chunks of time.

The Historical Modules for 100 Days

Waterloo 20 — Napoleon’s Last Campaign and Tolentino 20 – King Murat’s Throne

Both of these play like old SPI microgames (though not at that level) tucked into a big box, so I’ll start with the more famous one and end with the one I liked more (hey, I’m not making a secret of it!).

Waterloo: Oh, come ON, do I even need to be typing this?  Arguably one of the most famous battles in history conducted by one of the most famous generals in history.  If you haven’t heard of this you probably need to turn in your wargaming card– because that’s nothing but a big bucket of fail.

At this scale, I was reminded more of NAPOLEON (Columbia Games) than anything else.

As I’ve said, I’ve played my fair share of Waterloo games. I have yet to find one that really sings to me, and Waterloo 20 maintains that fine tradition. Why?  A couple of reasons. The scale, for one. Marching Corps around the countryside isn’t what I associate with being the Battle of Waterloo.  When I think of Waterloo, I think of the Grand Battery shelling the Allies, Wellington sheltering on the reverse slope, the cavalry charge up the center, The spirited defense of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont, The Prussians marching in in the nick of time, and the final doomed attack in the center.     You don’t really get to see any of that in Waterloo 20.  It’s not like the Rod Steiger film, it’ s more like moving big map flags on a map.  Which is fine, but not my favorite.  Secondly, and more importantly, WATERLOO IS KIND OF BORING.  What?? You’re gasping, I’m sure.  Yes, it was the final dice throw of Napoleon’s empire, but as a *battle*, it’s almost a non-event.  The British sit there., sheltering on the reverse slopes, trying to Not Die as the French pound them here there and everywhere, mostly in the center.  Sure there are interesting points like La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont chateau, and the fending off of several attacks, but they don’t really maneuver at any point except that infamous cavalry charge.  The rest of the day, it’s like trench warfare.  The French are certainly active but unfocused.

Tolentino: This is a much more interesting small campaign going on at almost exactly the same moment in history.  Murat, the current King of Naples and Napoleon’s General of Cavalry, has turned his coat on Allies present at the Congress of Vienna, after hearing he would be deposed from his throne and replaced by the old Bourbon king, Ferdinand.  The Austrians react by sending two corps South under Baron Bianchi to depose the traitorous Murat and end his short-lived dynasty.  Tolentino is an interesting matchup to be sure.. the game starts with the Austrians spread out and reinforcements due from the West and North.  The Neapolitans are much more condensed and can support each other easily.  Gradually the Austrians will blunder into the Neapolitans, and then throw more and more troops into the mix as the cards are drawn.

Tolentino all setup and ready to go, cards dealt.

I like the situation. The Neapolitans are not a pushover and can certainly stand toe to toe with Austrians. It’s a fairly balanced game.

In general, I liked my first experience with the Napoleonic 20 system. It fills a certain niche for games that play fast and are easy to learn and easy to teach. The battles are interesting and fun to play.


2 responses to “VPG’s Napoleonic 20 System and Tolentino 20/Waterloo 20, a short review.

  1. I was the first publisher to do a “Series 20” game. I published Joe’s original Waterloo 20 in the June 2000 issue of Strategist, the monthly newsletter of the Strategy Gaming Society (now defunct). Three pages of rules, one of charts and tables, one-page map and only 18 unit counters (also two blanks, which you could use for dummies) The CRT is about the same as it was then!