Tuesday, 1 June 2021

New Napoleonic rules - Absolute Emperor

This is the latest set of rules from the Osprey 'Blue Cover' range, authored by Boyd Bruce and released just a few days ago, it puts Napoleonic warfare onto the tabletop, with army commanders, corps commanders and individual divisions at the heart of the game.

My initial feeling was that this was not a level that I wanted to game at, preferring battalions, squares, column of attack etc ……… so I bought them!

And I have to say that I am glad I did. I have only just received them and not had a chance to put any of the mechanics to the table, but a full reading has left me with some impressions that this post can share for those who may be thinking about buying.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.

Absolute Emperor is a 64 page, well illustrated and well presented volume, just as we have come to expect from Osprey. Mark Stacey is the illustrator and much of the artwork comes from the hand of Peter Dennis, being the copyright of Osprey Publishing Ltd.

I suppose to best describe the ethos behind the rules, it helps to take three quotes from the author’s introduction;

“The best part of an old fashioned Napoleonic wargame is the masses of units on a massive table. The downside is spending three hours to set up, eighteen hours of playing without conclusion and three hours to clear everything away. It makes the game more work than play and that is the overkill.”

“Absolute Emperor is designed for the busy, multi - time - period enthusiast who wants a good Austerlitz in the morning, a cup of tea in the afternoon, then perhaps some football on the TV that evening. A perfect Saturday.

"The rule set is designed to encourage Napoleonic Wargaming with minimum rules anxiety and maximum period feel"

He goes on to say that 50 - 100 figures should provide for a playable army! For some, that is an attractive headline, though an underestimation of where I would want to be and the Eylau scenario in the book is perhaps a more representative sized 'army' game - more of which anon.

So the first thing to discuss is the army. ‘DON’T REBASE YOUR TROOPS’, well the author saw fit to put that in bold, so why shouldn’t I! Figure count and the number of bases don’t matter, what he wants is that unit frontages are standard across both armies and to this end he suggests 6” for infantry in line and 8” for cavalry in line if 28mm are being used.

For his own infantry, the author has based with four figures on 40mm x 40mm bases in a 2x2 ranking, so he will use 4 such bases (16 figures) for a unit and in this game a unit is a division (you can down size …. again more anon on such bath-tubbing goings on!).

Units operate with a 4” space to their front and 1” to their flanks and rear. This abstracts the space that small guns, skirmishers and detached battalions would operate in. So during movement, a unit would stop 4” away from an enemy unit - but, there is a separate charge phase later in the turn, in which units can charge 4”, so infantry intending to charge could move in the move phase and in effect add 4” onto that movement in the charge phase to make contact.

Ordinary movement (for 28’s) is 4” for line infantry and 6” for attack column. There are measurement conversions for smaller and larger scales.

The Peter Dennis artwork brings an
inspirational element to the book.

The sequence of play is joint and semi - simultaneous. The player with the lowest ‘Elan’ will go first in each sub-phase, so they will move first, which allows the player with higher Elan, to then respond to that movement. The same for the fire phase, but the actual casualties / effects caused are not implemented until both sides have fired.

The Sequence of play is Command, Movement, Shooting, Charges, Combat and the rules are set out in that order, which is helpful.

Fighting is D6 based (no saves :-)) and a D8 can be used to register casualties. At 5 casualties the unit is exhausted and drops a status level (i.e. from Seasoned to Conscript - this just means it is harder to do things) and at 8 casualties the unit is removed from play.

I casually threw in the ‘Elan’ word above, but it is an important concept of play. Each leader has an elan rating and this rating is an ‘allowance’ which can be spent throughout play to re-roll an activation score, recover a unit (i.e. go from disordered to halted), change orders or re-roll an attack dice.

Elan can be gained or lost by circumstance in battle, such as capturing an enemy eagle, but if a commander’s elan ever drops to zero, then it is deemed that he has lost control and his divisions are automatically given retreat orders.

There I go again, incidentally slipping the ‘orders’ word in - yes that is important. Every corps has an order based around attack / hold / defend / flank march (and the one you don’t want …. Retreat!) and the divisions must comply with this. Commanders will have to spend their Elan allowance to change these orders, which is all part of the Command and Control aspect of the game.

Pages 8 to 33 hold the basic rules, 34 to 42 the advanced rules, 42 to 44 discusses army building and tournaments, 45 to 55 scenarios and 56 to 61 an after action report.

I would be happy for scenes like this 
to occupy my table

The scenarios are interesting. The first three are linked starter scenarios and are rather like the scenarios that Don Featherstone has in his ‘Battles with Model Soldiers’ book, in which the first scenario has a couple of infantry units, then the second adds cavalry to the same setting and the third just has a bigger order of battle, all on the same landscape.

These are the attractive graphics used for
the scenario maps.

Then the biggies!  Eylau, Wagram and Waterloo. Taking Wagram as an example, this interests me because I have unpainted Austrian and French forces that need some motivation to get built up. The French need 20 infantry divisions, 5 cavalry divisions, 5 artillery pieces. The Austrians need 16 infantry divisions, 3 cavalry divisions and 6 artillery units.

The Eylau scenario is less demanding, but you can see what I meant at the start of this post, that 50 - 100 figures might give a game, but it does not give what the author envisages for the ‘army game’, but interestingly it is a hint at the possibilities of dropping down a few levels to a tactical based game.

There is a section that allows the player to down scale the game. In effect a division become a battalion and a corps commander is a brigade commander. Essentially the game looks exactly the same, but there is a different emphasis. To help this along, skirmisher rules are introduced, cavalry can use their carbines and dismount and artillery gets a fire arc to show the tactical ability to track.

In some respects this does not seem a lot to convert army scale down to divisional action, but the system is already using the concept of squares and columns of attack. That can seem strange for a set of rules in which the author is essentially saying that the player is the army commander and ones influence in the game extends to corps commanders. So for the player to deliberately decide whether a unit (division) should be in line or attack column, seems to miss the point of command focus being with the army commander - however, it does place the rules in a middle ground that allows for an easy cross-over between big battle and small battle experiences, or bath-tubbing in old wargamer language.

There is a page that give some national characteristic pointers and these are mainly the obvious ones such as, British cavalry that win a combat cannot be recalled or Austrian troops 1797-1809 cannot use attack column.

There isn't anything there that stops the British using attack column, but if the British are in line, they get to re-roll one unsuccessful hit roll when shooting. That combined with more fire dice being used for anything in line, might be enough to persuade the British to prefer line.

There is of course plenty of content that I have not nailed down here, but it was only meant to be an overview based on an initial read, plus a bit more digging.


The proof of the pudding will be in the playing, so whatever I say here is missing that essential element of the conversation.

However, within those limits, I am glad I bought the rules. They are a well integrated and nicely presented and look like they will give the sort of game that suits me. I actually quite like the idea that they can flip-flop from grand tactical down to tactical if the player wants that and certainly those at the start of their collections can use that to their advantage.

I like the look of the modifiers that cover that relationship between the various arms and also that deal with situations and environments on the battlefield.

The AAR at the end of the book is a nice touch.

As with several of these Osprey books, they are just nice for their own sake, whether played or not (Rebels & Patriots I am looking at you!). Well done Mr. Bruce for bringing the big game to my small table, I like what you have done.

EDIT - I have come across a YouTube of an AAR that has the author present and advising on the rules - see Resource section below.

Complexity - Overall, I would rate this as sitting somewhere between a low to mid complexity game. The rules are well written and thorough, so I imagine it just needs to be played a bit to get the routines down and things to become second nature, only then will the true nuances reveal themselves.

There are a couple of one liners tucked away that can be missed or not remembered, such as a unit taking two casualties in the shooting phase become halted and 4 hits are disordered, so I will write myself a cheat sheet to catch these. An oversight in my view is the lack of a quick reference sheet, I shall make one, though it must be said that it is very easy to navigate the rules.

Despite the 'low complexity' sales pitch and the connection with some old style gaming, there are some modern elements here under the bonnet that I think will give some nuance and depth without the large rules overhead that can often go with such things.

Size - the rules start from the perspective of writing on behalf of 28mm figures on a 6x4 or larger table. Conversion to small scales essentially involve halving measurements (and doubling for 54mm fans). It is certainly a useful set for getting bigger figures into a smaller setting and 6" unit frontages will be a 'useful' feature for many in their home settings.

The rule booklet is small and self contained so no extra purchases are needed or shelf space taken.

Solitaire - I am hoping in play that this is a solitaire friendly set. I can't see anything immediately that jumps out as not being. Unit orders can be hidden in face to face games, so I suppose solo loses that, but solo players are used to such things. There is a rule that allows units that are out of sight of the enemy, such as behind a hill or BUA, to be marked with a blank, to maintain secrecy, but I can't see that being a biggie to a solo player.

Time - The author is saying 2 - 3 hours for a throw down game and an evening for any of the three major battle scenarios that he includes in the book. It is clear from his introduction that the author intentionally wants to remove barriers to players getting their figures to the table and to that end he embraces small collections as well as large and sees his rules being usable across the entire gamut of what resources players have to hand. In that respect, his cross-over between tactical and grand-tactical wins hands down.

Resource Section.

A YouTube ARR withthe author present and advising, it gives insight into the system. LINK


My sister webspace COMMANDERS is being re-configured to showcase various figure and boardgame systems that I am enjoying and give a flavour of where current ongoing projects are up to. Link.



  1. I had an advance copy of these, and my first impression was that having a unit of 16 figures and calling it a 'division' didn't really float my boat. But what first impressions I've seen on the internet seem to indicate these might be popular. Osprey know a winner when they see one and this could be a popular entry level set of rules that works for fighting genuinely big battles but can also transition to a more traditional playing level.

    I can only wish the author the very best of luck. I will be interested to se how they fare. And great value at £12.99. A pleasant change from those sets going out at nearly 30 quid!

    1. Hi Keith, thanks for visiting, there are a few bloggers who have a fairly wide practical knowledge of differing rule sets, it will be very interesting over the next few weeks to see where they place these rules and perhaps more so to see whether gamers play at the army or divisional level. At £12.99 they are simply a nice thing to own and yet another napoleonic option :-)

  2. Thanks for the review Norm. I'm not sure of the 16 figures makes a division, but then Bloody Big Battles does this in a sense and it works for me. I'll be interested to see how these fair as a set of rules for this period.

    As for the QRS, they are normally available via the Osprey website, so a Google search might turn up what you're after.

    1. Steve,they have a FaceBook page, which is closed to non FB users - so that's me out!

  3. Thanks Steve, I did look on the Osprey site, but couldn't find anything ..... which probably means there is one there! :-)

    6mm and 10mm gamers using a 6" frontage would get a different looking game, But I agree that in 28mm it is difficult to visually get past the 'battalion look' and with that, I instantly think of bath-tubbing, which I am comfortable with as a legitimate device from the Featherstone / Grant days.

  4. I'll probably buy them myself. They do sound interesting.

  5. Ray, the read alone is worth the purchase. I like the scenarios and the special rules that go with them, which are a good exercise in tweaking to bring character to a particular battle.

  6. Thanks for the review, Norm. I am hesitant to comment without having read the rules for myself but my impression from your review is that these rules lack focus and direction. What are the rules’ main purpose in a Napoleonic wargame? Requiring only 50-100 figures is not a very large Napoleonic game. In which role is the player thrust? Should an army commander concern himself with tactical formations? Should these formations even be modeled at a division level BMU? Should divisional sized BMUs even warrant a shooting phase? I think not. I look forward to your battle report to see how this works.

    Hmm. Notice, I failed in restraining my commentary.

    1. Thanks Jonathan, on the face of it and certainly from the initial read, command focus / intent will become an early question by the player, but I still think that in play, there will be enough going on to mitigate some of that and having the game in front of you will just draw you in as being a good game, rather than dwelling on the more theoretical question as to where is command focus.

      I note from the video link that I included in the resource section that the small sample game both looked and played like a brigade sized game, so it will be interesting to see if that feel changes when the vlogger puts up his Waterloo game.

      At the moment I am feeling that it will likely deliver a good napoleonic game that will absorb the attention of the players, but without actually having played yet, I couldn't say whether it imparts the sense of corp / army level play - like most of our wargames :-).

  7. Not for me Norm. 16 figures is barely a battalion, much less a division. In fact it's verging on the absurd in my book. If you want big battles in small places play a board game or a computer game would seem the way. Small units just don't transition to large for me. As to Osprey rules, universally awful is my experience.

    1. Hi David, as a boardgamer myself, I certainly see the advantage of the boardgame for the big battle / small space situation, for representing both terrain and units.

      Bath-tubbing is of course a good way to go for figures and in his recent rules, Keith Flint does exactly that in a rather interesting Borodino situation (originally proposed by the late Stuart Asquith).

      I quite like the opportunity that these rules bring to cover the bigger battles with smaller unit blocks - though I must say, by inclination, I would be disposed to setting it up as an army level situation and then playing it out as a tactical game, not right or wrong, but just a preference I would have.

    2. As a gamer that paid £2 for Trevor Halsall’s 1st edition Rules for Napoleonic Warfare I liked the concepts such as:- impetus, interpenetration, disorganisation factors and others that added polish to rules that had gone before.
      At the moment I’m playing Age of Eagles by Bill Gray.
      Many gamers say they want Historical battles but after over 50 years of playing battles that are essentially set piece where I not only have to set up as history provides us with, but then deviate from the original moves as a but, what if battle.
      Whereas a points value battle or better, if I have sufficient figures play a campaign on a European map without motorway, railroads etc.
      There is no set of campaign rules that I can buy,that is going to enable a campaign game. Board games are perhaps part of the answer such as Kevin Zucker’s 1814 game played in 2 day turns. Perhaps a simple version of this using home made maps.
      BUT I still enjoy games with 6 to 8 battalions per side. Not real? No but neither is a game without skirmishers

    3. Hi, currently with an interest in 28mm figures on the dining room table, 6 - 8 battalions is a sweet spot for me, Sort of a step up from the modern take of a skirmish game and falling instead on the small battle side of things that I grew up with, with my Airfix, dining table and a Don Featherstone book tucked under my arm. (In any case, if those 6 - 8 battalions are called brigades, I can live with that :-) )

  8. Thanks Norm, interesting and useful comments, I will have a closer look at these.

  9. Another rabbit hole to dive into :-)

  10. Norm, many thanks much for this great review. I am on the fence re these rules. I do love the premise that the rules offer, however my group dislikes army level games that have unit formations, tending towards large scale Napoleonic games like Blucher, Grande Armee, Volley and Bayonet... you get the idea. Single brigade stands for big unit scales. That said, I'll probably buy them because im a sucker for new Napoleonic rules and new ideas :)

  11. Hi Steve, there are systems at the army level that assume local commanders are using the correct formations without visually having to do that on the table, which seems right and is generally how boardgames deal with such things. I suppose if these rules loosen that tradition, then they are at least offering something different, which might prove to be interesting at the table.

    1. This is pretty normal for games which represent larger formations than battalions (Volley and Bayonet springs to mind).
      When battalions form square, your battalion unit will change shape.
      Your brigade or division unit will not.

      One potential drawback to bigger scale games is units becoming rather bland.
      You won't have the Finland Jagers running about shooting all and sundry in their flanks, or the Jager zu Pferd cantering about and shooting.

      Ahh I see, it's the skirmishers that get "abstracted".
      Good thing too in my opinion, with their bottle green uniforms, distain for social rank, and free and easy way with the colonel's daughter. Pah!!

    2. Norm - agreed. I just purchased them! I have also been reading more of them on the facebook page and on reviews and they are too interesting for me to ignore!

  12. Thanks for a useful review Norm.
    I've held back on these, burned once too often by "Rules for the big battles" or "simple fast play" claims.

    This review provides precisely what I needed to know to quell those doubts.
    What's the manoeuvre unit?
    How many bases figures does it require?
    How far do units move and shoot?

    Those simple facts allow clever chaps like myself to decide whether my armies and table are compatible with the rules.
    I find it remarkable that publishers don't include this sort fo "product labelling" on a rulkbook cover (like supermarket food has ingredients and calories).

    So Norm, you've sold one copy, time to lobby Osprey for your sellers discount.

    And if you think 16 figures underpowered for a division (I'm inclined to agree), there's the option of a smaller scale.
    144 6mm figures, or 64 10mm figures might suite the eve better than a platoon's worth of heroic scale figures.

  13. Thanks Steve, with most games, I think once they start, you just get drawn in and the game is either good or it isn’t, so some of the concerns that are raised are more academic than of practical effect.

    I had started painting some 28mm Austrians, with 20 per unit. A unit has two bases, each with two ranks of 5. I figured that 2 bases would show line and attack column for most systems and I can get by with march column one way or another. My bases are 80mm, so two of them are close to the 6” (150mm) that the author suggests and so I will just use 2 bases to his 4 (40mm bases).

    I have some 15mm and they are on 40mm bases, double ranked and two of those bases would give me an 80mm unit frontage, though that might look a little skinny!

    I think for their money, they are worth exploring. I like the idea of elan and like the range of modifiers used in combat.

  14. Well described Norm, must say though that 28mm figures on a 6x4 despite what you want call the 16 figures does not scream divisions, to me it would still be a battalion a little like Rapid Fire on a 6x4 doesn't say this vehicle is 5 and this figure is 15 men doesn't even after all the years of play.

  15. Hi Phil, yes agree, RF, once set up just visually plays like a game at a lower tactical level and I suspect AE will do similar … both of course share the concept of playability in the home environment. Years ago I was trying to design a system using an already published game and mentally I just couldn’t separate the existing game (commands and colors) from the thing I was trying to do as the visual just made my brain think C&C, I suspect 16 x 28mm figures just by association and experience feels like a battalion sort of formation and likewise, a tank looks like ‘a’ tank.

  16. It sounds like a well thought out and interesting new set of rules Norm. I look forward to seeing how they work for you on the table, once you have painted twenty units of Austrians!

  17. Hi Keith :-) yes, I can see me ending up just doing one corner of Wagram.

  18. Nice overview Norm. Glad your impulse buy turned out to be fortunate. 😀

  19. Thanks Stew, The market is rules rich …… but just one more set has become my mantra this year!🤪

  20. Interesting set of rules that I will probably pick up at some point,unlike David I quite like the Osprey books, they're cheap enough not to worry about if they don't work out!
    Best Iain

  21. Hi Iain, I think the rules will be useful to anyone building up their collection as it allows for a game with just a handful of units or can be expanded up to something bigger. If nothing else, the Osprey rule books give a good read and the artwork is always lovely - if the system clicks, then all the better.

  22. I was on the fence about these. But reading your article pushed me over the edge. I love big battles and will likely use my 6mm figs. Thank for the info!

  23. Hi John, glad the article was helpful, the big battle vista will look nice in 6mm. There looks to be an active FaceBook group for these rules which might interest you, but annoyingly (to me, as I am not on FB, so I can't even see 'read only') it is closed group to registered FB members only.

  24. Thank you for your detailed overview. It largely convinced me that I need not bother with these. I then went from the video that you had provided the link for to the read through by Wargames Illustrated and I am convinced. They are so much like Napoleon's Battles it is not funny (even down to the bizarre, counter-intuitive concept of formation for a brigade/division). So definitely not something for me to consider in the suite of rules that I'm interested to use for games at different scales. This is a great result and a real 'service' as far as I am concerned. Thank you.
    The fact that it had exactly the opposite effect for others is all the better!
    Regards, James

  25. Hi James, as a hobby, we are increasingly rules rich and there is pretty much something for everyone, an amazing situation for such a niche hobby. We are lucky.

    1. I agree entirely Norm. Plenty of scope for scale, taste and ideas/philosophy.
      Regards, James

  26. I prefer the big battles and small armies approach to games. I also like the idea of not-rebasing. Basing is the bane of wargaming.

    I ordered these and should have them today or so.

  27. Hi, thanks for visiting. The rules are attractively presented and make for an interesting read and in this regard, just for their own sake are worth their price, but the author has also minimised the barriers to getting a game to the table and so for anyone liking what they find, the rules are a great win.

  28. Is there a reference sheet available ?

    1. The book does not have one, but I believe there are some files on their FaceBook Group, but as a non-FB user, I cannot be certain.

    2. Many thanks... I'm also no facebookuser so I must find one ;)

  29. The author is posting a QRS on the Osprey site.

  30. Thanks for that, I will pop along there.

  31. Neither can I. I have just tried to phone Osprey (twice! It is afternoon here, despite what the timing on this post says), but it looks like they are out! I did wonder whether you had to become an Osprey member to view files, as I can’t see any Q&A for any of their other rule sets.

  32. Got through to Osprey, looks like everyone is working from home. Anyway I asked where I could find the files and they didn’t know, but told me to e-mail Shire Publications, with whom, I understand, they share their building! As an aside, I have e-mailed Osprey and will wait on that reply.

  33. I am actually really excited about playing these rules in 54mm! I like simple and Osprey rules are all wonderful and fun. This looks to be a great game. Fun way to spend the day pushing the big guys around with my 7 year old.

  34. Hi Bradley, the 54’s will be quite a spectacle. I agree about Osprey, I like what they are about. They have done much to promote new rules authors and their product is specifically driven at allowing us to get a game to the table within the domestic environment and when we are not gaming, they are just a pleasure to browse through with their inspiring artwork.

  35. My review of these rules on BGG: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2702212/good-premise-bad-execution

  36. Thanks Lorenzo, I enjoyed the read and have pulled the book from the shelf again for another browse. The napoleonic audience is huge, with several sets a year being produced, I bought Shadows of the Eagle at the same time as these, there truly is something for everyone in this period. The rules are really helpful for gamers with small collections or small playing space, the formation v command level does appear at odds, but once on the table, I think you just start playing based on the visual, there are other games that do similar such as Rapid Fire and people just like playing them.

  37. QRS is under the gaming resources osprey page https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KogHhOJwsDqDC3teiUIoLJynQ3uqzN7L/view

  38. David, thanks very much for visiting and putting that up.


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