Introduction to the WDS Napoleonic Battles Series - Fifth Installment

Welcome to the fifth and final installment in our series focused on the Napoleonic Battles series of games. We will follow the same presentation format set forth in the first four installments. If you haven't read those you can do so hereherehere and here.

We have setup a thread on the forum where this article can be discussed if you are so inclined. The comments section at the bottom doesn't allow interaction and easy response... you can visit that thread here. You do not have to be registered to read - only to post.

Note: All images can be clicked for a full sized view.

So let's get going with this installment!

The mental aspects of playing PBEM mode are worth a separate chapter. Similar to operational and tactical aspects of WDS simulations, mental challenges can be easily related to the struggles commanders faced back in the day. The in-game decision process in the face of uncertainty gives us a small appreciation of how challenging it must have been to make real time decisions on the ground.

When we jump into a PBEM scenario, we never know what kind of surprises are waiting. This is especially true when we're playing in Campaign mode with FOW. When things go smoothly, or even better than we planned, we get this burst of creativity and fun. It pumps us up to keep playing and dig deeper into the scenario.

But let's be real, when our plans go wrong and everything turns into a mess, it feels like a punch to the gut. It can even ruin our interest in that battle or the whole series. You probably know that feeling when your opponent's email turnaround suddenly slows down after a few successful assaults of yours.

That's exactly what warfare is all about. Breaking the enemy's will to fight. In real life, there's no quitting mid-battle and picking up a different scenario. If the enemy's morale crumbled, this was followed by massive routing (Jena) or a complete surrender without a fight (Ulm). 

Looking at the PBEM results from the Napoleonic Wargame Club (NWC) PBEM records, it's clear that most of the outcomes lean heavily towards major victories or defeats. There are just a few minor victories and draws. It's like we're programmed to give up if things aren't going our way, even though we could still salvage a minor defeat or perhaps even a draw. If we do some cool-headed calculations of VPs, consistently stick to the best tactical practices, along with a few enemy mistakes and some luck we might turn the tables in our favor.

We also tend to underestimate the challenges our opponents face and the desperation and fears they're dealing with. It's hard to appreciate all that when the fog of war clouds our judgment. Your opponent might be losing their nerve too!

Even a small tactical setback, like losing a heavy battery due to enemy action, can crush our spirits. It feels like a big deal, even if strategically it's not that dramatic, and statistically the odds will even out later in the battle. But emotions take over, and some are quick to give up and move on.

There is also an unrealistic expectation from many players to achieve a immediate outcome from every assault or defensive action. If an assault fails, players often become disheartened and might begin shifting blame onto factors like "incorrect" optional rule settings, unbalanced scenarios, or perceived engine limitations.

In reality, historical success rarely emerged from initial attempts. Typically, actions spanned for hours, and the history of many battles is full of descriptions where numerous attempts were needed to capture enemy positions. Given the historically low casualty ratios, many of these attempts were broken before even making contact. Assaults frequently faced setbacks from artillery fire (routing in game terms), disorder, or flawed maneuver, prompting generals to retreat, regroup, and try again. However, 21st century wargamers often lack the patience for such persistence. If things deviate from initial expectations and outcomes aren't immediate, morale crumbles, leading to a loss of interest.

In my experience some of the most rewarding moments come when we face those tough situations but manage to pull the best out of it. That is keeping a cool head, planning, not rushing the turn, or even taking a day break to cool our emotions down, analyzing the situation, assessing wider context, and executing our moves with precision, even when we're suffering heavy losses and our plans fail. There's something deeply satisfying about overcoming difficult challenges with calculated decision-making.

I often find myself on this emotional rollercoaster when my opponent manages to outmaneuver me, sending my original battle plan to the rubbish bin. This is where I lose the motivation to do my turn. Until… I sit down, look at the map and come up with a new battle plan! This is where I get the injection of the needed excitement: a new battle plan justifying certain actions and maneuverers. If you lost interest in the battle, its most likely because you found yourself in a difficult situation. Take your time to rethink and adjust.

Sometimes the FOW might surprise you in a positive way or later you may be surprised to find out from your opponent how close you've come to breaking his line only giving up an attack a turn too soon.

There is also a trick in mixing up your opponents. There's no point in constantly subjecting yourself to the pain of playing against superior players. Sure, it's great to learn from them and improve your skills, but you also need victories to boost your confidence. Seek out less experienced players occasionally to practice the acquired skills.

However, do share the knowledge when playing a weaker player and be the kind of player you would wish to be playing should the situation be reversed. That is, make sure you share your tactical techniques with your opponent at the end of a battle and try to play the disadvantaged army in the given scenario. Do post mortem analysis together giving and receiving feedback.

Once you gain confidence and score some wins then find someone on your level for a real challenge. You can consider seeking opponents via the WDS forums or joining one of several clubs around the web:

(RH) For example, some of the clubs operate with historical divisions, with Armies of the various time periods represented - they tend to focus on a specific series of games. Joining a certain army doesn't mean you can never play the opposing forces, it just adds some historical "flavor" to the experience. Over time you build your gaming history, gain Rank and win awards. A further benefit of these style of clubs is they often include a "Training Department" where new members are assigned a veteran player to walk them through the process of playing the games - ensuring basic concepts are understood - before you start engaging in more competitive matches.

Other clubs are set up to support a wide variety of games, and recording battles is done in more of a "ladder" format.

On a personal note, I was heavily involved with various clubs from 1997 to 2010. In that time I met some great people and could have a new match to play any time I wished. We even met in person at some club gatherings, battlefield tours and the three Tiller Cons. It was a great period in my gaming life that I still have good memories of... only my commitments to other things drew me out of that active involvement. Those possibilities still exist for those who wish to engage.


Beyond the role playing and the wargaming itself, it's the sense of community and, it’s a shared passions with a distinct group based on your similar niche interest. It makes it a much more valuable experience when you come across a person with a similar but rare interest.

In the end, what matters most is the experience itself. Whether you're easily crushing the French as the Allied player at Waterloo or fighting “all lost” Leipzig battle against the Allied in 1813, it's all about immersing yourself in the historical setting and enjoying the thrill of the game.

Some battles are hard to win by default and there is no shame in giving up if you are not enjoying it. However, one thing to consider instead of thinking of winning or losing, judge your performance simply by how well you carried out you orders given the circumstances. Put yourself in the shoes of the historical commander and analyze the situation with a cool head, learn, share the knowledge with others and pull the best you can given the circumstances. If you make less mistakes than your opponent perhaps you can pull a draw, the sweet taste of which will be all more satisfying.

(RH) It is always good form to communicate with your opponent if you feel the need to resign. Don't simply fade away and stop answering emails.

Below is a shot from a recent PBEM match where so many of the factors discussed in this segment came into play.

(RH) And so this brings us to the conclusion of the original article Alex put together. We think he did an excellent job and we hope y'all have enjoyed it.

In publishing this I felt that this last segment would be fitting to tie into other pieces of information relating to playing the games. There is really so much more depth to the games beyond pushing a few counters around a board - as hopefully this series of articles has shown.

Back in June of '23 we published a post "How to Play" which covers the different methods you can play the games, gives some insight into design methods and presents some avenues in which to engage other players.

A couple of aspects mentioned towards the bottom of that blog post are going to be our focus for the balance of this installment. They are:

Cooperative Play

Envoy - Command and Control with Order Delay

These details will add even more options and depth to your gaming experience. So, lets move forward...

Cooperative Play

What is meant by this topic is essentially team play, where two or more people are assigned to each side of a battle - so control of the forces is split between the players. This can happen through Network play, and there's functionality built in to the engine to facilitate command responsibilities, but it can also be played out via email. Many of the factors covered in this section can also apply to one-on-one play... or for that matter even solo play - all depends on how much depth you want to provide to your particular situation.

Here is a shot of the Multi-Player Dialog for a game I setup on my home network. I have three computers connected and this is showing where I have designated control of the French I Corps to the "caller" player on the French side. They also have the 4e corps de cavalerie on that flank, but that is further down the dialog box. Everything else is assigned to player 1.

You can have numerous players per side... if I'm not mistaken the Naval club back in the day would have 6 or 7 players on each side for an on-line battle. The more people the better.

In a PBEM format you have assignments as well, but they are not (currently) controlled by the program. Each player has to be careful of the units they are moving. So the first player to go would move their forces then save the turn and send it to the next player and on until all players have done their turns. The commander for the side would be the last one to get the file. Possibly the CO would advance the turn and conduct all the melee's, or the file would cycle back through the team. Once completed the turn is advanced and sent to the other side.

Using this format it becomes imperative for two things to happen. You must be punctual with your game turns - so that files move along pretty quickly. It is also important to keep file revisions - what is meant by that is a separate folder to keep files that have been sent - so if a file gets lost or corrupted you can easily re-send the file - without having to redo a turn. Best practice would be to "CC" the sides commander so that progress of the turn can be tracked at any given point and so there aren't breaks in communications.

I have been involved with matches in this format conducted in a variety of ways. 1) The CO for the side sets the battle plan for the entire side and the various Corps commanders carry out the orders. 2) Discussions take place to formulate a battle plan with "equal" partners on each side. 3) Game is controlled by a "Game Master" handling issued orders to each player and the speed at which those orders get there. Orders could be like: March to Mont St. Jean by 1800 hours, secure the cross roads and await further orders.

Really, the sky is the limit on how you would wish to conduct matches such as this.

House Rules

As we progress through this I feel it is important to comment on John Tiller's design philosophy. John endeavored to have a balance between "game" and "simulation", with the weight slightly in favor of Game. With that in mind the engine is programmed to allow players to do certain things that their historical counterparts may not, or would not, have done - but with consequences. For example: Generally speaking players push their forces much harder than would be possible on a real battlefield. Real men can only take so much of a beating and keep pressing forward. So, we have both the Fatigue and Morale systems in the game. You can press your troops as hard as you wish, but they will gain fatigue with each combat interaction (and in the case of Cavalry, Charging and then all units can gain fatigue when moving at night with the appropriate optional rule selected.) Once Fatigue passes certain thresholds new parameters are put into place, which you can read about in detail in section 5.4.11 of the User Manual. So the harder a player pushes their force, the worse they will perform until they will end up running at the first sign of the enemy.

So, certain aspects of how the game functions are intentionally not in adherence to what happened historically. The goal is to make the games accessible to as many types of players as possible. As we continue to refine the engine over time we endeavor to retain this balance while also moving things a bit closer to historical accuracy.

With that said, some players want to impose restrictions to create the most period-accurate experience they can achieve. Hence, the use of House Rules. House Rules are additional parameters players agree to apply to their game prior to the beginning of a scenario.

Some examples of these are:

  • No forward movement of forces during night turns.
  • No fighting during Night Turns.
  • Further reductions on Stacking limits and force composition of stacks.
  • Loss restrictions, if a unit is severely depleted it can't initiate melee, etc.

A group of players who gather over at the Desktop Grenadiers Facebook group compiled a document detailing their house rules and structure of play for their multiplayer games. Several of these items are now obsolete due to engine changes that have been implemented, but we wanted to share the document with you in order that you can see what has been done - so you can implement it as well if you wish, or gain ideas for other things you want to do. You can download a copy from the link below.

Napoleonic Battles: House Rules and Courier System

As mentioned, some of this has been hard coded into the engine. Things such as using Leaders to scout are no longer really possible as their movement is restricted if moving towards opposing forces without accompanying combat units. Another change that has been implemented is the 3-hex "leash" on skirmishers from regular line units. These changes were implemented due to severe abuse by players which really detracted from the spirit of the games.

I agree with much of what is included in the document, but not all. Like the requirement to keep an empty hex between infantry units moving down a road/pike/path. This makes force management over long distances much harder on a player and renders the Formation Movement feature inoperable (mentioned in section 5.2.12 of the User Manual). I would prefer to agree to use a slower movement rate along roads or some other modification. Especially when playing large scenarios reducing the amount of mouse clicks I need to make is highly desirable!

These are not one-size fits all and you can choose to use all, some or none of them in your games. Again though, these need to be discussed before the first turn is played in a match to ensure both (all) players are on the same page. This discussion also underscores John Tiller's original design to include flexibility through optional rules and not out-right prohibiting certain actions - to accommodate multiple options so as many people as possible could enjoy the games.

I skipped over a whole section of that manual - the Courier System - as it has essentially been replaced by the new utility provided by Nick Musurca... 


Envoy is a free utility for Wargame Design Studio’s (WDS) series of historical wargames that simulates command and control with order delay. Often, decisive battles turned not on weapons and men, but on time and information: who knew what, and when? Were the correct orders issued—and received in time to make a difference? Using Envoy, you can explore these questions by composing orders for subordinates, then passing them down the chain of command with realistic (and customizable) delay. You will be notified on the turn when the order is delivered.

As a solo or PBEM player, you can use this tool as a prompt for moving your units along constraints defined by the orders. You can also use it to umpire Kriegspiel-style wargames for multiple players, using the underlying WDS game to adjudicate combat.

While WDS games are remarkable in their unparalleled attention to historical detail, one of their current limitations is that they do not simulate the flow of information and authority on the battlefield. As soon as an enemy unit appears, it is immediately visible to every friendly unit, all of which may take immediate action to counter it without regard to orders or hierarchy—a utopian state of affairs for the wargamer, but in reality not yet attained in the 21st century, let alone the 18th. For those of us who use WDS games as a starting point for deeper historical understanding, some accounting for this “fog of war” is required.

While the most dedicated grognards already address this limitation by tracking the flow of orders and information with outside spreadsheets, Envoy—a free tool introduced earlier this year—is designed to eliminate nearly all manual accounting by integrating itself into the underlying WDS game, performing all calculations invisibly, and notifying the player directly when messages arrive. Note that some degree of discipline and ‘house rules’ are still required, as Envoy does not prevent you from moving any units; you (and your PBEM opponent, if applicable) must agree on some basic ground rules about how units will react to messages, and stick to them. 

Wallace Welder, a beta tester for Nicholas and a fellow wargmer, has written a detailed tutorial for the Envoy utility using Bonaparte’s Peninsular War as a testbed. The following link will allow you to download not only the tutorial, but also the latest version of Envoy and it's supporting files. The Tutorial will be in the \Manual folder once you extract the package.

Download the Envoy package from our forum, here.

And that my friends brings us to the conclusion of this installment, and this series of articles. We hope it has opened your eyes to new possibilities and ways of enjoying the games you have not thought of before.






  • Juan Modesto

    Very dear Alex and Rich:

    I have read thoroughly, studied carefully, these five installments. I have learnt so much and enjoyed even more that I am deeply grateful to you both.

    This work is impressive.

    I dream in similar series of instalments regarding the other two series I’m fortunate to have: Musket and pike and First World War campaigns.

    Eager to see these enhancements on staff work tools.

    Thank so much for the incredible élan you have pushed to John Tiller’s heritage.


  • Rick Ferster

    Great series, very informative. I’m finally going to retire in a few months so I will have the time to send my gallant armies into the breach … and hopefully a few will survive. Looking forward to more articles along these lines !

  • Timothy VanScoy

    Can we please have these articles in PDF form like the game notes??? It’s much easier to read that way

  • Stefan Buss

    Thank you for providing this set of introductions. I found them to be very very helpful – maybe it would be a good idea to include them as an annex into the user manual for later reference?

    Kind regards,

  • Clint Matthews

    In my long lol list of rule ideas, I always hoped and wished for an Army morale sliding scale that would require an Army to disengage once their morale reached a certain level. I have played many who just keep attacking and losing hundreds of men with no concern of casualties or the victory level chart. A sliding scale for Army morale might be the answer.

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