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23 May, 2005

 Products Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary The Legend

Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary: The Legend


The Legend. The first question that could reasonably be asked is why this exists at all. The map boards of most games (including that of Bonaparte at Marengo) do not have a legend, so why does the map board for Napoleon’s Triumph have one? There are two reasons: one of which is practical and the other is purely aesthetic. In reading this diary entry, by the way, you may want to have the legend visible in a separate window, which you can acheive by clicking on it.

The practical reason is that it allows map elements to be identified in color. For economic reasons, the game rules are printed in black-and-white, which can make it difficult to clearly identify map elements therein. In Bonaparte at Marengo, for example, the rules tell the reader that primary and secondary roads can be distinguished by color, but the rules can’t show that difference; they can only describe it. A full-color legend, on the other hand, can identify the features on the map for the player much more clearly, in obedience to the old maxim: Show, don’t tell.

AlisonsLegend.jpg The aesthetic reason is that it makes the game board look more like a map, and that is the aesthetic goal of the game, to resemble nineteenth-century battle maps. To the right is a period example, taken from the Austerlitz map from the atlas accompanying Alison’s History of Europe (you might notice that this map used yellow to identify the Allies rather than the traditional red, a choice that does tend to make the Allied disappear into the terrain a bit, but I suppose I’m digressing). Anyway, if you look at the legend for Napoleon’s Triumph, the stylistic resemblance to the Alison’s legend is quite clear.

Although I do intend to say something about the information presented on the legend of Napoleon’s Triumph, I’m going to first talk about the graphic design for a bit. One of the striking and distinctively non-modern things about nineteenth century ideas of graphic style that is their love of using type faces as decoration. If you look at the legend from the Alison’s map, you can see the variety of type styles used in it: almost every line has a different weight, size, mix of upper and lower case, and character form. This love of type as decoration is even more evident in this example, a title page from a period military history book:


The type faces on the above are a complete riot. There is hardly a variation in type possible that is not used in this one page. The most extreme forms are of course the gothic and cursive faces, each of which make an appearance on one line each. But the type faces differ in other important ways as well: look at the relative weights of the horizontal vs. the vertical strokes in different lines in the page, the width of the characters (condensed vs. extended forms), not to mention the serif styles used (serifs are the short lines at the ends of the major strokes for the letters). This use of type is common not only in the nineteenth centuries but earlier centuries as well, although it has largely died out in the twentieth century in favor of a more disciplined unified style.

The legend in Napoleon’s Triumph is done in a more nineteenth century style, although some concessions to modernity have been made. There are seven different type faces used, with no real regard for their resemblance to each other, and most of them have been condensed or extended, used in all upper-case or varied in some other way. Apart from the type, the grid layout is somewhat irregular to give it a hand-drawn look (you may notice, for example, that the labels for “swamp”, “river”, and “Objective (Allied)” aren't actually even on the same line), but I'm probably going to chicken out a little and make the grid more regular prior to publication. There is another deliberate archaism in the language used in the tiny credit line under the game title: “An Original Game Based on the Famous Battle. Prepared by B. R. Simmons for Simmons Games”. An earlier version actually claimed that the map was “derived from an original engraving by B. R. Simmons”, but I decided that too many people would take that claim seriously, and so I contented myself with the current wording.

With regard to the content, (FINALLY! Say so those whose patience has been worn thin by the graphical design discussion above), it is worth going over the different elements in the legend by functional grouping.

The unit position symbols (French and Allied) are used as they are in Bonaparte at Marengo: they indicate where the pieces are to be placed at the start of the game. Unlike Bonaparte at Marengo, however, the pieces will not be positioned randomly (which was never anything other than an attempt to simulate French unpreparedness at that particular battle). The set-up method I'm aiming for is simultaneous deployment of both sides. To make this work, the locales and the number of pieces in each locale have to be set, with player freedom restricted to the selection of which pieces go in which locale (if players have more freedom than that, then they gain by waiting to set-up until they have seen what their opponent has done). The reason for simultaneous set-up is basically to keep both players busy at the same time. This avoids either player having to sit on his hands waiting for the other player to set up, and keeps playing time down. The piece positions in the final map will likely differ from the pre-production illustration. In fact, the current play-test map already differs from the one presented previously, and other changes are more than likely to follow.

The Elevation colors are decorative. At no time will players actually be required to distinguish whether a piece is at 225 meters vs. 200 meters. The mere existence of formal topography, however distinguishes Napoleon’s Triumph from Bonaparte at Marengo. The battlefield of Marengo was extremely flat, with the only significant topographic feature being a gentle ridge running north-south in the center of the battlefield. Austerlitz, on the other hand, had much more varied topography, and much more important topography (the most best-known feature of the Austerlitz battlefield is in fact a hill: the Pratzen Heights). The fact that the elevation markers are “decorative“, however should not be misunderstood: it doesn't mean that elevations are unimportant, only that their importance is coded into the approaches on the map board and not into the color-coded topography.

The terrain key marks such features as villages, woods, ponds, etc. Most of these are visually self-explanatory even without the legend, and all are decorative. One point worth noting is the status of the frozen ponds: the ponds on the battlefield were quite shallow, and the ice was fairly thick. There was a legend circulated after the battle that huge numbers of Allied soldiers had drowned at the end of the battle fleeing across the ice, but this was not the case: Allied soldiers did cross the ice at a number of spots, but the ice largely held and few died as a result. The frozen ponds nevertheless do represent a real design problem: neither army had enough confidence in the strength of the ice to risk crossing them except until the very end and then only under extreme duress. Because the ponds could in fact be crossed (more or less) it is therefore tempting for the rules to allow pieces to cross them. This however, gives the commanders hindsight that their historical counterparts emphatically did not possess. On balance, it was decided to represent the ponds as uncrossable: the commanders on both sides treated them that way, and the game preserves history better in this case when it preserves what the commanders believed to be true rather than what was true.

Segment markers are one feature that is present in Napoleon’s Triumph, and which was not present in Bonaparte at Marengo and which are very far from self-explanatory. Segments (the markers for which are intended to resemble small signs) are the units of road movement in Napoleon’s Triumph. In Bonaparte at Marengo, road movement was counted off in locales. One reason this worked was that the battlefield was so flat that the locales could be reasonably made to conform to the road network, giving more or less consistent movement rates across the board when counting off distances in locales (the fact that movement slowed in towns was not viewed as a problem: a town would tend to bottleneck movement somewhat as walking next to the road ceased to be possible on entry into the town). In Napoleon’s Triumph, however, the locales had to conform primarily to other features, such as the topography, resulting in wide variation in movement distances when counting off movement by locale. The solution to this problem was segments: in general, a road crossing a locale counts as a single segment, except where a segment marker was present, it would break the road in that locale into two segments. Segment lengths are much more consistent than locale sizes, and this allows road movement rates to be made reasonably consistent despite the variations in the sizes and shapes of the locales and the angles at which roads cross them.

The objective symbols in the current version of the game represent the letters A, B, and C (the choice to use a black-letter font to represent them probably will be reversed and a more standard roman font used instead; the black-letter characters look nice, but readability will likely get precedence here in the end). The basic idea of the objectives is to give each side a choice of objectives, which are chosen secretly prior to the start of the game. Each player thus doesn't know what the other player is trying to do (although over time their chances of guessing are pretty good). Current plans call for the players to choose their objectives themselves, but active consideration is being given to an alternative in which they are chosen randomly (the use of random objectives would basically put the players in the position of taking over the armies in the morning of the battle, rather than the previous evening when the plans for both sides were determined upon and the commanders briefed.

The locale capacity and approach penalties are very similar to those in Bonaparte at Marengo and should prove easily recognizable by those familiar with that game. The approaches themselves are however different looking. The difference is cosmetic and was motivated primarily by the desire to have the approach symbols be very different looking from roads and so allowing the road network to be seen at a glance without approaches being confused with roads (and vice-versa). Some of course will prefer the old symbol, but I think the practical advantages of the new symbol are considerable, and that it has its own positive aesthetic qualities as well.

The map scales are decorative, but they are essential to creating the look of a map legend. It does help players no doubt to know what the ground scale is, but practicality here was certainly not a driving factor. My greatest regret about the legend is that I did not really have room for separate measures to give distances in military steps, German miles, or toises (a toise was an old French unit of distance, equal to 1.949 meters). Oh, well: we can’t have everything I suppose. At least I got to mark the distance in miles as being in English miles, suggestive of the pre-metric era when multiple measures of a “mile” were in use and it was necessary to indicate which one was intended.

In conclusion, the hope is that the inclusion of a legend will make the game easier to learn by making the terrain features more readily recognizable, and that it makes the game board more visually appealing as well: after all, however practical we might all want to be, who would want to go through life surrounded by ugly things?