Collecting a Napoleonic Army

A battle at Chris Walton’s place with his beautifully painted miniatures.

This is an article I originally wrote for patrons of my Curated Quarantine series last year. Posting it today because I think I’ve finally worked out what I want to do. More on that later.

If you’ve been reading Curated Quarantine for any length of time, you know that Revolutionary/Napoleonic France is a topic of interest for me. I’ve covered many Napoleonic games during this series. I’ve also noted that for several decades the Napoleonic Wars were the most popular period for historical miniatures gaming. I own many more sets of Napoleonic miniatures rules than I’ve featured here, yet I’ve never collected an army for the period. My play experience has been confined to conventions or games at my buddy Chris Walton’s place, because he painted up complete French and Austrian armies and he periodically hosts battles (or did, before quarantine). So, why don’t I own such an army? Let me break down the decisions you face when you consider collecting a Napoleonic army.

Which Army?

As with any miniatures game, the most important decision to make is what army to collect. The heavyweights are France, Austria, England, Prussia, and Russia. Those are the armies that will give you the most flexibility because they fought in many different campaigns. There are many more armies to choose from though. Germany and Italy were a patchwork of states, and France created new client states as well, such as the Batavian Republic and the Duchy of Warsaw. If you want to do something a little different, you’ve got options like the Portuguese, the Bavarians, and even the Mamelukes from Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian campaign.

The thing to bear in mind though is that the wars of Revolutionary France and Napoleonic France lasted from 1792 to 1815, from the War of the First Coalition to the War of the Seventh Coalition. This is a long period and one with great change in military affairs. That means that organization, uniforms, and equipment of the armies changed quite a bit. It’s thus not enough to say you want to collect a French army. A Revolutionary French army from 1794 is a much different beast than the Grand Armee that invaded Russian in 1812. You need to pick a period and maybe even a campaign, as troops available in one theater might not be available in another.

Which Rules?

Another key decision is what rules you plan to use for your Napoleonic gaming. There have been literally hundreds published since the 1960s, and these range from the very simple to the mind-bendingly complex. The first thing to determine is what scale of game you are looking for. Games run from the skirmish engagement to the grand tactical. You need to know what size force you are putting together and what one mini is meant to represent. Organizing a skirmish force where one mini = one soldier is different than trying to simulate a brigade where one mini = 33 soldiers. Settling on a ruleset helps make those decisions. Most games let you know what a typical unit is meant to represent and how many figures you need to model it on the table. Many also specify base sizes for various types of troops (infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc.). More modern games are looser about this, but older games often had precise rules for base sizes.

Once you know what sort of game you’re looking for, it’s still quite a job to narrow it down. There are just so many to choose from and new contenders appear regularly. This is really a topic for an entire article on its own, but popular current games include Black Powder (Warlord Games), General de Brigade (Partizan Press), LaSalle (Sam Mustafa), and Sharp Practice (Too Fat Lardies).

Which Scale?

Another important consideration is the scale of your miniatures. Some games are designed for a specific scale, so by choosing the game you are choosing your scale as well. Most games can work at several scales though, so it’s usually something you must consider. 15mm and 28mm are the most popular so they’ll provide the most flexibility. You will find Napoleonic minis at all scales though, from the miniscule 2mm to the classic 54mm toy soldier. 2mm, 6mm, and 10mm figures allow you to make more realistic looking units with many soldiers but lose something in the way of detail. 20mm, 25mm, 28mm, and 54mm model the individual soldier better but are also more expensive and take up more room on the table. While I like 15mm for World War 2 minis because it works well with tanks, I generally prefer 28mm myself.

Which Unit Organization?

The game and scale of miniatures you’ve chosen will dictate the types of units you’ll be building. When you get to the stage of buying the minis, you have to keep this in mind. Basic units of companies, regiments, or brigades will require a different mix of figures. Some companies make this easy by selling units packs. Napoleon at War, a game from 2011, has boxed sets with the correct mix of figures to form a brigade and the appropriate bases. Not all miniatures manufacturers are tied to a specific game system, so more often than not you’ll need to figure this out for yourself.

Who Will You Play With?

Something else to think about is who you hope to play with, and a little planning here can be a big help. If your friends all collect 10mm armies, you will have a problem if you go ahead with a 28mm army. You need at least one opponent interested in the same rules and scale as you, and you’ll want to make sure your forces are compatible too. It’s not helpful if everyone brings a French army to the table.

Your other option is to collect two opposing armies yourself. That way you know you have everything you need to put a game on. Just invite a friend over and you’re good to go. This is the approach Chris Walton took and he’s put on some great looking games. This is obviously a more expensive option, as you’ll be paying for two armies instead of one. More time consuming too if you plan to paint them yourself.

One Day…

As you can see, there are many considerations that go into collecting a Napoleonic army. It’s not as simple as getting into a Warhammer game, for example. It requires you to do research into history, game rules, miniatures lines, and unit organization. I’ve had this idea that I’d one day find the game that really spoke to me, that I’d have an aha moment and say, “Yes, this is the one!” That hasn’t happened, and only a few of my friends are even interested in Napoleonic minis gaming. Maybe when I’m an old man and have completed my transformation into a true grognard, I’ll finally get that army!

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