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Hands-on with March of the Eagles, Paradox’s Napoleonic wargame

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Of the three games I saw at Paradox’s San Francisco preview event last week, March of the Eagles is the biggest departure for the Swedish developer. Unlike almost every other game in the Paradox lineup, which are grand strategy titles with an eye toward long-term historical trends, March of the Eagles is a high-level wargame focused exclusively on Napoleon’s European wars from 1805 to 1815. It’s not a self-directed journey through history, it’s a pitched battle to become the master of Europe.

March of the Eagles opens in early 1805, during one of the many brief pauses for breath that occurred in the middle of Napoleon’s wars. He has just formed the Grande Armee along the northern coast of France, where he is assembling a great fleet to invade England. Assuming, of course, that he can do something about the Royal Navy fleets marauding the Channel and shielding Gibraltar. The rest of Europe is enjoying a fitful peace: Austria and Prussia are readying for another go-round with the Corsican corporal, and Russia is contemplating its opportunities take advantage of its distracted rivals.

The complicated politics of this era make for interesting calculations on the part of each great power. While the primary goal of each is to make sure they belong to the winning coalition when the wars end, they also want to make sure that they are the dominant member of that coalition. March of the Eagles is about fighting wars with one eye on the peace conference.

MotE handles this by giving each power its own war goals with regard to land and sea. So for the British, being dominant land power might require holding a series of crucial inland provinces, and being master of the sea requires holding a number of coastal provinces like Gibraltar and Porto. Here’s the wrinkle: even if a country has met the prerequisites to be dominant, it cannot become the dominant power until the previous dominant power has been knocked from its pedestal.

It has the potential to create a lot of exciting double-crosses. Paradox have never made games with predetermined objectives, which gives players a lot of freedom at the expense of an endgame. March of the Eagles sets-up a more nuanced situation where players want their side to win, but on their own terms, no one else’s.

That conflict between short-term and long-term goals extends to other aspects of the game. The Napoleonic Wars were a period of great dynamism in the military sciences, effectively warfare’s Enlightenment (remember that Clausewitz’s On War came out of what he observed during the period). One reason Napoleon enjoyed such success is that he was the first soldier-statesman to understand how vast armies could function together and how they should be commanded. His adversaries, on the other hand, were in many ways behind the times and hidebound, awash in noblemen with the pretense of military expertise. Until other nations could begin to get rid of their own dead wood and learn from Napoleon’s example, they fought at a disadvantage.

March of the Eagles models this through “idea points”. Each nation accrues idea points at a fixed rate, and can use them to unlock new bonuses. Discovering the idea of the “divisional structure” as a new army organizational unit, for instance, allows armies to increase their frontage. Frontage is how many soldiers can be effectively led at once. If you show up to a fight with 40,000 men, command limitations might only allow 30,000 of them to fight at a time while the remaining 10,000 twiddle their thumbs. It reduces the importance of numerical advantage. But by unlocking divisions, those extra 10,000 will find their way into the opening round of combat. The Royal Navy starts with Copper Bottoms researched for their hulls, increasing their movement speed and giving them an ability to outmaneuver their rivals.

In some ways it’s like leveling up RPG characters with one fascinating twist: you get more idea points from major battles, but you get the most idea points for losing major battles.

So while the Austrian army might get pounded into dust at Austerlitz, Austria’s military ends up making gains on the French because the experience provides so many lessons. The French, on the other hand, might be on a winning streak against everyone else in Europe, but they’re learning less.

You can’t game it, either. Idea points scale to the size of the engagement, so you can’t just send penny-packet armies to die and farm them for the experience. No, if you want to really teach your army a lesson, you’ve got to send 60,000 men up against Napoleon and let them get atomized by the Grande Armee. What doesn’t kill your nation will make it stronger.

It wouldn’t be a Napoleonic wargame without scores of great and terrible generals to lead your armies and admirals for your fleets. Unlike other Paradox games where a single commander leads a whole stack of troops, however, armies in March of the Eagles fight on three flanks, with a commander for each flank. There’s the left, center, and right flanks, and then there is the reserve under the direct command of the overall army commander. Depending on army the composition of each flank, commanders have different combat options. A commander with a large number of elite Guard infantry might be able to use the Up the Guard tactic, which gives him extra attack power at the cost of higher casualties, while a commander with lots of cavalry could try to outmaneuver his opponent. In battle, each flank fights its opposite number. If your left flank wins its battle, it might then contribute its strength to the fight happening in the center.

The flank system is interesting, but it seems held back by the fact that March of the Eagles is still built on the same system as Paradox’s other games. While I like being able to assign commanders and customize armies, I just didn’t feel like I had enough agency to make these decisions feel like they were having a significant effect on combat. Battles still feel a bit like watching two strangers arm wrestling. They strain and grunt, and then someone flops over and it’s over. My input felt a bit like I was standing off to the side and exhorting my champion, “Push that man’s arm down! Harder!”

March of the Eagles is the biggest departure for Paradox, it’s set in one of my favorite historical periods, and it easily had the most new ideas of any of the games they showed in San Francisco. As side-projects go (and that’s what it most assuredly is), it seems like a strong one. I just hope some of its cleverer notions, like the way new military ideas are disseminated, find their way to other games. I don’t think March of the Eagles can provide the same bottomless well of fun as Paradox’s more sandbox-style games, but it looks like it strikes a good balance between their openness and the demanding, objective-based mechanics of more traditional strategy games. I was genuinely sad when my time with the game reached its ending, just when my French fleets were starting to challenge the British and three corps of Frenchmen were descending on the uppity Portuguese. March of the Eagles sets an exciting stage. I look forward to playing it in the spring of next year.

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