I recently bought Absolute Emperor, the new Napoleonic big battle rule set from Osprey Publishing. Every unit presents and entire division in order to be able to field big battles with moderate figure collections. After a small test battle I decided to tackle the Eylau scenario (day 2) from the rulebook.
The French goal is to capture and hold the river crossing in the Russian Center zone for two turns. This has to be achieved within 20 turns or the Russians win.
This is a winter battlefield with occasional heavy snowfall impacting visibility. Although in the following battle the lowered visibility was rarely an issue for either side.
The scenario, like the others in the book, are rather high level approaches of the battles they portray. The terrain is simplified, Benningsen is present the whole day instead of meeting with L’Estroq. The Prussians and Ney are also not part of the battle, though Ney wasn’t really in reality.
The entire battle will be viewed from the French side. Napoleon orders a straightforward general attack on paper. But there is a bit more to it. Augereau has to attack into the center and will probably receive heavy casualties. He is not expected to break through. Soult and Davout (arriving later) will attack as well to keep enough heat from Augereau. This will hopefully weaken the Russian center enough to break through with the huge reserves Napoleon has at his disposal.
Absolute Emperor advanced rules model the differences between Napoleons C&C and the early allies. The French use the Corps system where each Corps commander can give orders to his troops. Order changes are costly but can be put into effect quickly.
In contrast Benningsen has only Tolstoi as independent commander. All other troops have to be commanded personally and his command radius is rather small. This necessitates a lot of travelling around the battlefield to issue commands and therefore a more sluggish behavior.
There are further advanced rules to distinguish Nationalities which I didn’t use in order to not burden myself with too many rules in this first large scale outing of Absolute Emperor.
The battle starts with Soult and Augereau advancing their infantry past Eylau in assault columns.
After taking light artillery fire Soult engages his Corps into a prolonged firefight. To his right Augereau advanced as far as to the crossroads but will soon take deadly crossfire from all sides.
Davout joins the battle some time later on the French far right flank. His orders are to keep the enemy from reinforcing the center.
Soult’s infantry breaks the enemy and advances to their objective.
As Napoleon expected, Augereau’s Corps in the center took the blunt of enemy fire and has to retire. But Murat’s cavalry is already advancing even before Augereau gives the order. Just out of the image the Imperial Guard deploys in front of Eylau.
There are still a lot of units in the Russian center but most are close to breaking. Benningsen has shifted his attention to the center and activates his only reserve infantry division to cross the bridge and defend it.
As the battle hangs in the balance in the center, Davout keeps the Russians occupied on the right. In the background you can see the Russian reserve area, a huge empty space.
It has come to the final push. Murat’s cavalry, supported by Soult’s infantry and artillery prepares for the charge. The last Russian defenders are running for their lives as they see the French heavy horse charge.
With no other defenders present and Benningsen low on command points the French will have no trouble of capturing and holding the river crossing. The entire Russian right is gone while French casualties are manageable. A resounding victory for the French, although everything came down to timing as precious few turn were left to achieve the goal.
This view from Eylau towards the Russian center at the height of the battle shows Murat’s cavalry attack.
For the most part, Absolute Emperor is a good rule set. It’s goal is similar to sets like Blücher. Get big battles on the table without insane amounts of figures and finishing the battle in an acceptable time. This will be at the cost of details in the depiction of Napoleonic warfare, units or scenarios.
Most mechanics are easy and quickly executed during play. Command rules are deeply ingrained into the rules which is important for battles at this scale. Advanced rules add a lot of flavor.
The scale is a problem, though. In battle it feels like units are regiments or brigades at most. Divisions of about 5,000 men seem like a stretch. Bloody Big Battles and Age of Eagles are also dealing with higher tier units but these have a more distinct footprint on the table and feel big.
Footprint is only one issue. The other is durability. Combat in Absolute Emperor is attritional but entire division can still vanish far too quickly for my taste. It quickens gameplay but again, fells like a Regimental or brigade level game. Again, some rule sets make those big units more durable.
As the overall combat mechanics seem solid otherwise it might help to just increase the number of “hit points” each unit has. Otherwise I feel there is not enough time for maneuver warfare before the line buckles.
There is nothing standing in your way to simply downscale the game though. The command system should handle it fine as well.
The real problem I had was movement. At a glance it is very simple. But when you read the rules cover to cover you are left with surprisingly vague movement rules and an astonishing amount of movement rates for all different kinds of unit types, formations and terrain. Instead of establishing standard rates and adding global modifiers like half movement in difficult terrain, I have to look up everything all the time. Infantry in line moves 4 in open, 2 in cover, cannot move in difficult and 4 on the road. In attack column the rates are 6, 4, 2, 6. In march column the rates are 8, 8, 4, 12. There is no easy rule or modifier to remember here. All of this has to be extracted from paragraphs of text, that sometimes doesn’t mention particular terrain types. This was part of the reason I chose Eylau, as it was light on terrain effects.
There are other parts of the rules which could benefit from more clarity as well and a QRS would go a long way to alleviate some of these problems. That we still have to remind rules writers about Quick Rules Sheets in 2021 is baffling me, to be honest.
All in all an interesting set which needs some interpretation and tweaking for me.