La Grande Armee at Austerlitz is one of those wargames trying to break down the barrier between real-time bustle and turn-based sobriety. It's got all the trappings of grognard-oriented, turn-based wargaming, but it puts them in a manageable real-time environment. The result is a sort of you-are-there approach to commanding an army in the 19th century. Call it Sim Field Marshal.
The Battle of Austerlitz was one of Napoleon's most notable victories. After seizing Vienna in the winter of 1805, he was chasing down Austria's Emperor Francis I and the remnants of his army. Francis managed to link up with a force of allied Russians led by their emperor, Alexander I. Napoleon caught up with them near the village of Austerlitz in what is now the Czech Republic. Depending on your source, Napoleon was either evenly matched or outnumbered by about 20,000 troops (the game supposes that he was evenly matched, with just under 70,000 men on either side).
On December 2 what came to be known as the Battle of the Three Emperors took place. It was a textbook action in which Napoleon anticipated attempts to outflank him, held them back, and then struck the enemy's weakened center. The battle ended with a decisive route that crippled the Russo-Austrian coalition, leaving it with no choice but to capitulate to Napoleon.
La Grande Armee is the re-creation of this battle by French developer Jean Michel Mathe. It resembles Sid Meier's Gettysburg, the breakthrough real-time wargame in which you marched miniature armies across a map as though they were formations of painted lead figures across a tabletop. Like Gettysburg, La Grande Armee puts you in the role of field marshal. But unlike in Gettysburg, you have very little control over your units once the firing and cavalry charges start. Regiments respond automatically, halting an advance to return fire or grouping into square formations to hold off cavalry. For the most part this works well, although there are occasions when you'd like to wring some AI lieutenant's neck for doing something questionable, like not pulling artillery back or not wheeling around to protect a flank.
Your input is a matter of linking regiments into corps and then your corps into armies. You set reserve levels and how aggressively a corps should attempt to advance or hold the line. You can detach cavalry scouts to flank the enemy line and arrange your troops into supporting elements on the fly. But La Grande Armee isn't about twiddling with formations and carefully watching casualty reports. The whole thing has a much more natural feel than most wargames. It's about formulating a tactical plan, putting it into effect, and seeing how well it works.
At its best, it's like a simulation. Instead of directly moving your forces, you send out orders that aren't always immediate or effective. As the battle continues, units will become fatigued and may disregard your commands. With historically accurate command delays, it takes time before your troops respond. A messenger has to travel from wherever you set up your headquarters to the corps commander and then down to the regiments under his command. This leads to tense and realistic situations where you can see your line starting to crumble, but you may not be able to get reinforcements into place in time. The lesson here is that there's not a lot you can do if you don't have a solid initial plan. Seat-of-the-pants thinking was rarely effective in 19th-century warfare.
Graphically, La Grande Armee is half ugly and half functional. The 2D view is the functional half. It reinforces the concept of looking down at a map spread out on a table. Each regiment is represented by an icon. These are all grouped into corps with a commander whose location is noted by a flag. Although you can detach individual regiments, the most common form of command is to draw a line for the corps to advance to or hold. This works very well on the 2D map, where movement and destinations are clearly marked with arrows. Unfortunately, the 2D map doesn't represent the terrain very well. Elevation played a part in the battle at Austerlitz, but there's no indication of this in the game. There's a confusing 3D view that doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than cosmetic. Supposedly, the idea is that once you've given orders, you can watch them unfold in 3D. Unfortunately, this is the ugly half of the game and not really worth poring over. It's also too hard to relate to the 2D map. A tighter zoomed-in level on the map would have been much more useful.
Although the victory conditions are pretty nebulous, this gives the game a solid historical feel. You're not capturing victory locations or scoring points based on casualties. At the end of the game, tactical and strategic victors are appointed based on the condition of your army at the end of the day and how much of the field you hold. There are also specific figures for the number of men killed, injured, and captured. However, these figures pop up over the map the minute night falls, and there's no way to go back and examine the battlefield. The documentation is good and there's a helpful tutorial, but the French translation is in dire need of a proofreading. Matrix Games could have saved the developer a lot of embarrassment and the player a lot of confusion by giving the text a once-over and correcting a few obvious mistakes and confusing translations.
When La Grande Armee was released, it wouldn't even run on many common video cards. After two patches, it runs smoothly, but certain features still aren't working. Currently, the AI draws from a handful of canned strategies, but Mathe has promised a more dynamic AI in a later patch, as well as multiplayer support. The message system, in which each corps reports significant developments with dispatches, was inadvertently disabled in the latest patch, making it difficult to keep up with what's going on. These dispatches from the front also added to the "Sim Field Marshal" feel. The option for limited visibility completely removes enemy units from the 2D map, so the game plays as if you're fighting a mysterious invisible army. Hopefully this extreme fog of war will be lifted in a later patch. As it stands now, you can only play with all of the enemy units in full view and without the historical command delay. Without these features, La Grande Armee plays like a poor-man's Gettysburg.
However, Mathe has been quick and responsive in terms of patching the game and addressing complaints. Although Austerlitz is the only battle in this release (there's a smaller battle that is little more than a tutorial), Mathe intends to cover some of Napoleon's other battles with the same engine. Mathe's unique and historically meticulous approach make La Grande Armee a series to look forward to. It may not be as accessible as Sid Meier's Gettysburg, but it's different enough from the traditional turn-based, hexagonal wargame that wargamers should sit up and take notice.