First things first: I'm not a grognard. While I love my tabletop gaming, I find it in the world of German-style board games and the occasional Planescape campaign rather than in the world of wargaming. There's something about the overwhelming complexity of wargames that's always turned me off, not to mention the book full of exceptions to rules to make the game play more like history.
So it's fair to say that I took on Waterloo with a certain degree of apprehension. While it was supposedly toned down for the non-wargamer, any game that says that it at least attempts to reenact the entire battle of something as large-scale as Waterloo gives me the shakes. I can set my grouped units and tag between them easily enough in StarCraft, but managing historical companies and batallions?
Imagine my pleasure when I dove into the tutorial missions, which quite nicely broke me into the whole concept of wargaming on the computer. Careful consideration of your regiments is necessary, as are morale and energy considerations. And the difference between high and low ground is oftentimes death.
Imagine my discomfiture when one of the armies in the training missions wiped me clean off the face of the earth.
Thankfully, I realized that the difficulty setting had defaulted to something frighteningly high. Turning it back down to something a newbie could handle, the game became enjoyable again.
The core conceit of the game is a number of scenarios dealing with the historical Battle of Waterloo. There are a large number of speculative ('what if') scenarios, that I'd imagine would have had a much larger impact on me if I knew the full history of the battle. Of course, that was quickly remedied by an extensive online history that you can read. Along with the speculative scenarios are a number of historical ones, from skirmishes that took place throughout the battle to a simulation of the entire battle at once. Sound frightening? Well, it is.
Once you get the hang of how to control the game, however, you can actually start to think about heavy strategy. Moving units is a simple click-and-drag, and giving orders is done by clicking on various buttons in the HUD. Some take a little getting used to, but soon you'll be changing formations and tooling your units around with ease. You can use generals and the like to command large numbers of units at once, which definitely cuts down on the micromanagement.
There are three basic types of attack units in the game -- infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Each has their purpose. Infantry can decimate just about anything else, as long as the proper formations are used. Cavalry can chew through a group of infantry, however, if they're not smart enough to get into a square formation to deflect the attack. And artillery can shell buildings and far-away units, helping thin the ranks before the real messes start.
Because of the level of detail involved in the game, constant pausing is a must. This takes some getting used to -- giving orders in pause mode, to keep your footmen from getting completely destroyed by that bunch of charging cavary, is a completely necessary skill, but it's not something that's commonly done in RTS games. A little practice goes a long way, however.
The battlefield is usually scattered with a number of control points. These points are worth varying amounts of Victory Points at the end of the battle. The side with the most Victory Points wins -- and if they win by a large enough margin, it's considered a decisive victory. There are many other factors that come into play with respect to victory points -- routing your enemy gets you quite a few, for example, and unfreezing certain units will cost you a number of VP -- and some experimentation is necessary to learn the particulars of the game.
If you wear out the single-player game [not likely] you can always play with your friends on the Internet or on a LAN. I can imagine that it'd be enthralling, but unfortunately no one ever wanted to play on Gamespy Arcade with me. Ah, well.