Outsmarting Napoleon- page 1 | History | Smithsonian

Outsmarting Napoleon

War games enthusiasts use miniature soldiers and multiple-terrain boards to simulate real battles

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Sometimes it starts with chess, a most abstract form of warfare, with rigid rules and little identical armies. Sometimes a young player wants more "reality," more of a sense that this is indeed a battle, and discovers commercial board games simulating war. And then he wants his own army.

For Douglas Mudd, it was a miniature battlefield that he saw one day — Hannibal versus the Romans, on an 8-by-4-foot table fixed up with grass, trees and a gently hilly terrain. There were the Romans in their phalanxes, each tiny shield hand-painted, and there were Hannibal's famous elephants, the spearmen, the bowmen.

Mudd, who manages the National Numismatics Collection at the National Museum of American History, started buying unpainted miniature soldiers and soon was deep into military history, researching not only the battles themselves but the uniforms worn at the time. Military medals struck to commemorate famous battles, plus ancient coins showing soldiers with decorated shields, provided a great source of information about the look of things.

From painting miniature soldiers to fighting their battles was just a step. Soon Mudd was competing in war games based on historical battles. Game participants deploy miniature troops on a board that looks like a three-dimensional representation of the terrain covered in the actual battle. "I love the strategical challenges of putting myself in the shoes of a known general to see if I could do better than he did," says Mudd. "War-gaming began in the 1840s," he tells me. "The Prussians wanted to analyze what happened with Napoleon, how he could beat them even though they had a large, well-trained military. How could they anticipate what a genius could do? So they created the general staff, a pool of officers trained in all aspects of war, logistics, battle tactics. They tried to see if this group of officers could simulate what would happen if you had a genius like Napoleon against you."

They set up teams of officers in separate rooms, with maps, a chain of command, rules and referees. By the 1860s Kriegspiel was being used by major European countries for military training. Civilian war-gaming spread with the aid of Little Wars, a 1913 war-gaming book by H. G. Wells. But these civilian simulations were relatively crude compared with the sophisticated war games that developed later, in the wake of World War II and the Korean War.

Today, model soldiers appear in many sizes, from 2 to 25 millimeters. The 15-mm figure, a bit over half an inch high, is the most common and is relatively cheap.

"Most of my troops are that scale," says Mudd, "although I now prefer 25 mm: I can afford them now and they're a little more detailed. The problem is, if you re-create any large-scale battle, you need a big table — minimum size, 5 by 8 feet."

The rules are the heart of it all, and the rules are incredibly complex. I still wonder how any set of fixed regulations could come anywhere near simulating the madness of a real battle. Look at what happened on October 25, 1854, at the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War. A huge body of Russian caval- ry, 3,000 to 4,000 strong, threatened to overrun the base camp of the Allied army, consisting of British, French and Turks. Routing the Turk defenders, the Russians forged ahead.

All that stood between the Russians and the base was Sir Colin Campbell, 550 of his 93rd Highlanders and 100 invalids. Campbell had his men lie facedown in their red coats, in a threadbare line just two men deep, along a hillock. "Men, remember there is no retreat from here," Campbell famously told them. "You must die where you stand." Four cavalry squadrons bore down on them. Suddenly they leaped to their feet.

They fired a volley from their muskets, every bullet aimed. The Russians wavered, came on again. A second volley, another hesitation. Some Highlanders pushed forward for a hand-to-hand fight. "Ninety-third!" shouted Campbell sternly. "Damn all that eagerness!" A third volley, and the Russians wheeled about and withdrew toward the main body of the cavalry. Impossible, but it happened. That brilliant stand was immortalized as "the thin red line."

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