A Zoom Napoleonic Wargame

A Lockdown Wars special - how to run a wargame in a time of social distancing

The Zoom conferencing screen with participants on view

This game was played over two evenings during the week of 18th May, the ninth week of the lockdown. The idea of using Zoom as a method of conducting a “socially distanced” wargame originally came from Gordon, who generously agreed to organise, host and supervise the event. He chose to run a 15mm Napoleonic game using Black Powder rules (second edition) and the table was set up in his own wargames cabin. Pete was sole commander of the French forces while Graham and Clive shared responsibility for the Dutch, Belgian and British army (unfortunately, Clive was unable to make it for the second evening). Neil W joined in as a spectator, note-taker and grabber of a few choice screenshots.

Allied Infantry lined up behind the stream, militia in the farm

The experiment did not get off to an auspicious start as on the Sunday scheduled for the game, Zoom had some serious service issues and we were unable to get all the participants online. However, for the two following sessions everything worked perfectly and from then on it was plain sailing. Gordon used the camera on his iPad to give the generals various views of the battlefield, confidential briefings could be given by banishing the opposing commander to the waiting room and cooperating players could exchange private texts during the battle. During each turn the active commander issued orders to Gordon who then moved the figures on the table. The results of firing, close combat and morale test were then calculated. Gordon allowed each general to throw his own dice and declare the outcome, confident in their unimpeachable integrity.

The French assault the farm and the right of the Allied line across the stream

The game itself was loosely based on Quatre Bras. The Allied forces were mostly deployed on high ground behind a stream that ran right across the table, save for some Dutch militia who occupied a substantial farm in the right centre of the position. The objective of the French C-in-C was to get at least one of his units, in good order, to the enemy’s table edge. The Allies started the battle with only a part of their force on the table, the arrival of reinforcements to be decided by die roll. The French began their assault with a general advance, a cavalry brigade moving forward and bypassing the farm with infantry support to the right. Additional infantry battalions moved up the road to the left of the farm. The first exchanges of fire saw the militia in the building under pressure but holding their own while Allied troops on the right that had ventured over the stream were forced back in disorder. At this point Graham received some welcome reinforcements in the shape of a substantial force of British infantry and artillery which began advancing from the rear of the Allied position.

The Allies prepare to meet the French mounted threat on the left

As the French cavalry on the right continued to manoeuvre in an attempt to turn the Allied flank, Pete ordered an assault on the farm. The militia fought bravely, enduring for some time and managing to rout one French battalion but were defeated at last and the whole brigade was broken. Leading French foot soldiers to the left of the farm now crossed the stream with other battalions rushing up in support but were forced back by Nassau infantry. Realising the growing threat from the French cavalry on the Allied left, Graham began moving his own mounted troops to meet them, at the same time deploying infantry and reinforcements on the hills behind the farm. At this point the French Lancers made their move by charging across the stream but were taken in the flank by British Hussars. Several phases of combat then took place, with the result that the Lancers were swept aside. The Hussars then crashed into the supporting Chasseurs and routed them. This meant that the French cavalry brigade could take no further effective part in the battle.

French infantry pour over the stream while cavalry combat take place near the farm

While all this was going on, a fierce infantry melee was developing on the Allied right at the stream crossing. Intense pressure from the French pushed back light troops and regular infantry retreated in disorder. Pete now had two battalions over the stream and on the French right a swift advance by an infantry brigade saw more troops cross the water. Graham’s cavalry was once more to the fore, charging an infantry battalion that managed to form square just in time. The troopers were forced back albeit with great loss to the French.

The French infantry advance as Allied reinforcements make their presence felt

At this point we brought the game to a close. Everybody involved agreed it was an enjoyable experience, the mechanics of the game worked well and it was fought with great spirit and good humour. For a first time try out it was a success. On the downside, it took a long time – over six hours gaming with no result in sight. Also, the format does impose considerable burdens on the host. There was some discussion about the type of game that would be most suited to video conferencing and also on the use of restricted camera views to add to the fog of war and give a more realistic experience to the participants. Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile experiment and one definitely worth repeating in future.