I truly cannot believe that someone created a digital adaptation of War & Peace.
For those who aren’t familiar with classic board games, War & Peace is a lot to learn. It’s a board game that recreates Napoleon’s various military campaigns across Europe. That doesn’t sound so bad in itself, I know. After all, Total War: Napoleon is still arguably the best game in that series. Napoleonic strategy is endlessly fascinating.
But what makes War & Peace really stand out is that it was made for the hardest of hardcore grognards, and it is an almost overwhelmingly complex simulation of the wars. This is a game with a 61-page manual and, while that’s not exactly the longest game manual of all time, each of those pages was split into three columns with so many numbers and details that it would hurt your head to try and read it, let alone memorise it. Don’t believe me? Here, have a gander.
That overwhelming complexity and depth could mean games last days and days. You’d painstakingly set up the board on a table at the start of the weekend, settle down to play for a few hours each day, and then leave it there until the next weekend. Then, when a cat came along and messed up the campaign mid-way through, it was so much more painful than when the cat did the same to a quick Monpoloy run. All that intimidating complexity and commitment to play had a big upshot, though. The simulation of real-world tactics was real, and War & Peace was an almost unique opportunity to get a sense of Napoleon Bonaparte’s tactical and strategic brilliance, and how he became such a successful general and leader.
Indeed, that upshot is so compelling that the game has been enormously successful despite what should have been commercial viability-killing complexity. It was first released in 1980 by Avalon Hill, and has never gone out of print since. Avalon Hill is no longer around, but independent board game publisher, One Small Step Games, picked up the baton, and the Kickstarter to finance a sixth edition of the game in 2022 raised roughly three times what it needed. In other words, War and Peace might be niche, but it is well-regarded and beloved within that niche.
I honestly didn’t expect it to make for a particularly viable digital adaptation despite that cult classic status. On the simplest level, while there’s an aesthetic appeal to the little cardboard squares that represent your forces on the board, that’s a level of abstraction well beyond what you can get away with in most video games, and most of the time developers work hard to make their digital board games gorgeous to look at… the problem is that the grognards actually like the aesthetic of those little squares, and so the developers couldn’t very well do away with them.
But more practically this must have been an absolute nightmare to convert into digital form. Just imagine, for a moment, how difficult it must be to develop compelling AI when the rulebook requires teaching it 60 pages of incredibly complex rules. For this reason, the developers have only included AI in the smaller scenarios so far. The “main” campaign, where you take Napoleon on his entire career (and try to make sure Waterloo never happens), is strictly PvP mode at the moment.
But then also consider how ponderous playing this thing in online multiplayer, when it uses a play-by-email system (the only way to handle complex war games where a single game will take days’ worth of turns, rather than a few hours, and people need to step away from their computer mid-game). There are actions and “turns” within this game that are tiny in scope and impact (but rely on the other player responding). Playing a single game of War and Peace through this system will take so much longer than sitting down to the physical board game with someone. It will take months to play through a single campaign.
In short, there are plenty (and plenty) of digital board games available via Steam, and they cover the full gamut (including war games), but War & Peace, for its complexity, is honestly one I never thought we’d see. So far the game has had 22 reviews, and they’re mixed in response. When you scroll through the negative reviews it’s easy to get a sense that those people simply fell outside the tiny minority band of players that would actually appreciate that… and the 15 or so positive reviews does sound about right for the potential audience for this particular product.
War and Peace has had its “full” release, though it is curious that the developers didn’t drop it as an Early Access title first. They’re quite open about still actively developing key elements (like AI for the “grand campaign”). There will also no doubt be things added like sound effects and possibly even some basic animation to spruce things up in the future. Right now it does feel like a stock standard Early Access experience. With that said, perhaps going through conventional development and promotion pipelines doesn’t really apply to a thing like this. It’s never going to do a Baldur’s Gate 3, and meanwhile, when a friend pointed out the fact that this had been released to me, I (a person who didn’t know it existed but does fall into the narrow audience band for it) immediately bought it. For the most niche of niche products, the “build it and they will come” attitude is probably the best go-to-market strategy, and “Early Access” puts some people off. They add the game to their wishlist and forget it. When your total potential audience is 15 people you don’t want to lose even one of them.
It is nice to have the digital edition, though. I love that it’s happened. It’s pleasant to be able to play without having to physically reference the manual constantly (though the game really could have done with some kind of tutorial to explain how to play, if not the rules, because right now that interface is unwieldy). It’s also truly lovely to be able to play without the extensive time needed to set up and put away, and be able to save a campaign without dedicating your dining room table to it for a few weeks of weekend gaming sessions.
There’s no point in writing a conventional review for this game. The potential audience for it is so tiny, and the qualities of the game so niche, that any attempt to give it a “score” would be misrepresenting its value and who it will appeal to in one way or another. However, if you have the ability to enjoy enormously complex games (and I really do mean enormously complex), and you’re interested in the real-world military circumstances, strategies and campaigns of the Napoleonic era, then War and Peace is enlightening, intellectually stimulating, and already, in the early state that it has been released in, a better digital port than anyone could have possibly hoped for.