Eylau 1807 – Absolute Emperor

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.

Set Up

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.

Battle

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.

Thoughts

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.

Battle of Mialensk – Blücher AAR

I decided to play a (fictional) straight forward pick-up battle to test out a terrain generator draft and get some soldiers on the table. The battle has the early French under attack by Russians somewhere in the vast Russian countryside.

Terrain generation worked well and gave me a table with many features. I replaced a swamp with a lake and had to improvise a bit with rubble. I use most hills as flat topped, so only the outer crest is important for defensive bonusses of course hills block line of sight. One could imagine these as minor elevation present on most battlefields.

Russians begin and play on the odd turns, french on the even ones.

Turn 1 & 2

The battlefield. French deploy in the south and have the blue objectives. Russians attack from the north with Mialensk as objective in their control.
French left wing and center: I Corps is arrayed in front of Lesobkin farm, its flank screened by some light cavalry. Back on the road you can see III Dragoon corps in reserve. On the lower right IV Guard Corps in reserve as well. Napoleon rides in front of them.
On the french right wing, isolated by the woods in the center of the battlefield II Corps protects the objective.
View from the russian left wing and center. Two corps of infantry with heavy artillery formed a line over the entire front. Behind them left of the town of Mialensk the Guard Cavalry is waiting in reserve. Right of the town another infantry corps is held in reserve.
From the center to the right wing numerous line brigades are deployed and in reserve. On the outer right wing there is another heavy battery on a small hill and a corps of light cavalry waits for flanking opportinities.
Russian artillery in the center open fire and the battle commences. The rather unknown general Taikonov advances his center and right against Napoleon’s forces.
French I corps advances as well to take the hill, though they are outnumbered.
In the centre french light cavalry maneuvers into position for a flanking charge on the incoming russians.

Turn 3 & 4

As the russian infantry advance on the hill french brigades open fire along the whole line with some effect.
Overview after turn 4 viewed from the french side. While firefights break out in the center, french light cavalry is seriously outnumbered on the far left side. On the right wing russians move closer more carefully in order not to strain command (MO points) too thin. Napoleon has no command problems at all but has to think about his reserves on the left wing already.

Turn 5

Russian light cavalry stream down the right flank near the village of Sevechny and send the lone french division flying.
With his forces committed Taikonov has time write orders for his left wing corps. Some turn towards the center while others stay as token force or retreat due to telling artillery fire from the french.

Turn 6

French cavalry tries to throw the advancing russians into disarray but are beaten back with heavy losses. Napoleon’s centre is already under threat.
The emperor decides to counter russian maneuvers with an attack order to II corps. Cavalry is swinging around lake Nargut while brigades advance on the thinning russian left flank.
But there is trouble brewing everywhere. Trusted ADC’s are send to the left flank to release II corps from reserve. Two Dragoon divisions rush forward.

Turns 7-11

During the next turns both sides are hampered by low command rolls. Napoleon’s release of the cavalry reserve proved to be just in time. At least some divisions can engage each turn and beat the russians back after bloody fighting. Fresh Divisions are brought forward slowly to exploit the situation.
The firefight on the central hill rages on for several turns and both sides are exhausted. The russian brigade on the lower left side of this picture just eliminated an artillery battery though and the french position suddenly becomes dire. In the upper right you can see Napoleon behind his troops surveying the situation of the unfolding cavalry battle.
On the other fronts, the lack of solid command and disorderd ranks make progress difficult. General Taikonov sees french troops in the centre wavering and orders the guard cavalry corps into the breach.

Turns 12-14

Emergencies keep popping up for Napoleon. Only his right wing is strong and fresh but has difficulties getting their troops moving. Finally II corps is shifted through the woods to get to the endangered centre sector faster. Russian infantry engages them in the woods and buys time for the guard cavalry to arrive.
After much deliberation and pleas from his marshals the emperor relases to Old Guard. Their task is to build a new defense line around Lesobkin farm. Meanwhile most of I corps is on the retreat.
At least the french Dragoons keep on pushing the russians and threaten to turn the flank. Maybe they can delay the russians long enough for the french reserves to build a new line.

Turns 15-19

Russian guard cavalry rushes through the center and charge the preparing Old Guard head on. Retreating frnech streaming from the hill are trampled under the hooves of the russian guards. It is now midday and the french lost four units against only one russian. Although several russian units are low on morale and three have retired from the battlefield. The battle is far from lost however. Napoleon still has a firm grip on his army. Taikonovs troops are scattered all over the battlefield trying to exploit french holes in the line. Commanding his forces becomes increasingly difficult for the russian general.
French Dragoons appearing in the russian rear also add to the problems of general Taikonov. Some reserve brigades are activated to salvage the situation. The heavy artillery in the upper right is too far away, however. It will be overrun next turn.
Although the russian infantry conquered the hill, reforming took too long. Most of the retreating french manage to slip away.
Taikonov rides forward to push his forces onward but the Old Guard has managed to dig and and keep the enemy in check.
French II corps slowly pushes onwards and suddenly the strong russian position in the center is in danger.

Turns 20-29

French Dragoons also still gallop at everything in the russian rear, crushing retiring russian troops. Russian losses mount rapidly while the french stabilize a bit.
Russian reserves are massed in the center and supported by the guard cavalry to get the situation under control again.
After hours of battle II corps light cavalry manages to loop around lake Nargut and threaten depleted russians in the rear. Both russian flanks are now turned and exhausted troops are scattered around trying to escape. The Russians are danerously close to breaking.
The “Grumblers” defend Lesobkin farm vigorously. They throw back several attacks. One russian brigade (center of the image) is caught in deadly crossfire and rapidly breaks.
French II corps pushing the russian center in under heavy losses. Light cavalry moves in to flank.

Turn 30

This is the situation after the battle (all markers removed), viewed from the french left flank. Lesobkin farm to the right.

Conclusion

The french are three units shy of their breakpoint (thanks to Napoleons morale boost). The next russian loss would seal their fate. The french are still in command of two objectives versus the russian one. A narrow win for Napoleon by the skin of the Old Guard’s teeth. Ultimately General Taikonov overextended his army to expoit every perceived weakness. The french managed to counterattack with a few units here and there stretching russian command structure to the point of breaking.

A very interesting game. The russians had the initiative and were in a good position to win the game. Napoleon’s ability to keep his army together under heavy losses gave him time to recover from the early game. His superior command ability was the reason to counterattack successfully, while general Taikonov was struggling to keep his forces together.

The terrain generation worked very well. The battlefield was interesting and challenging. I’m going to refine the system and post it later.