Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Test of Arms

My very first wargames were not set in the ancient period, it wasn't until a visit home for Christmas 1972 that I first pitted a new box of Airfix Romans against an equally new box of Ancient Britons. Ever since then ancient/medieval wargaming has been one of my primary wargaming interests though somewhat receding of late. So when Bob Cordery mentioned that he was developing an Ancient Portable Wargame, I volunteered to read over and play test the current draft. Since they are still in development I won't be sharing a lot about the proto-rules or the feedback that I will be sending Bob, just a few general impressions and a quick look at my first test game.
Duke Imonsay deploys his army with his Valdurian allies atop a hill on his right flank.
The rules are essentially a variant of the original Portable Wargame sharing as many rules and mechanisms as possible which makes it easier to move back and forth between period for those like me that dabble in several. The biggest difference comes from the characteristics of the available unit types backed by additional special unit characteristics for a handful of historical troop types.  This approach allows Bob to cover the basics of over a thousand years of warfare in a simple but effective manner but leaves the rules feeling fairly generic. Luckily it is easy to use the unit special rule idea to add appropriate flavour for specific campaigns.

The basic troop types are light infantry and light cavalry, fast with the ability to shoot 2 squares with bow or javelin, heavy infantry and heavy cavalry slower but with a melee bonus, and various traditional specialist units such as elephants, chariots and artillery.  One of the specialist troop types that I was tempted to try was Gallic or German tribesmen who are fast but weak though they can sometimes claim a charge bonus. However, not only would I have needed to stop and base up a few more units but my Viking barbarians are more shield wall types so generic heavy infantry it was.

An overview of the opposing battlelines at the start.
Since I have divested myself of all my 25mm and 54mm ancient armies, apart from some Sassinid Persians and some medieval Scots, I turned to my 40mm Elastolin collection of Huns, Vikings and Romans for what could be seen as a comic book Rome vs Barbarians battle or as part of my fictional, not to say Fantasy campaign world. Any resemblance to a real battle, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

On one side was the Northern Confederation (aka the Barbarians) under King Preisages who commanded 4 heavy cavalry, 5 light cavalry, 3 light infantry and  7 heavy infantry totalling 59 strength points. (I didn't count either general for any purpose for this game.)

Facing them, in defence, were the Border Guards under Count Imonsay with 4 light cavalry, 1 light infantry and 9 heavy infantry assisted by an allied Valdurian contingent of 3 heavy cavalry and 1 light infantry totalling 59 strength points.

An army losing 1/3 of its strength points becomes exhausted and is unable to act aggressively. After several attempts, I'm still pretty vague about how aggressive one can be, shooting seems pretty aggressive to me but is apparently ok as is attacking an enemy who is already adjacent to you when you are activated.   To make it easier to track, I counted out 20 casualty rings for each side (white for the Romans who were assumed to have medical teams to bandage the wounded, red for the bloody Barbarians.) and when they were all issued, that side was exhausted.

Midway through the battle the opposing infantry is engaged in an indecisive scrum with the lines heaving back and forth with the Confederation light cavalry puts pressure on the Count's left wing.
The game began with the  "Barbarian" (the original Valdurian chronicler's prejudice, not mine) horse archers rushing forward to attempt to turn and then crush the Count's left while their shield wall advanced steadily. On the far side of the battle a few barbarian skirmishers came forward to attempt to drive in the Valdurian archers and try to draw their heavy cavalry off the hill.

The game went on with the battle lines pushing and shoving each other forward and back without a breakthrough on either side. The light cavalry held out better than I expected, inflicting few hits but being recoiled more often than losing strength points. (Dice!!) The Count finally decided to throw the Valdurian heavy cavalry forward to disperse the enemy skirmishers and turn the enemy flank.

Alas, the Valdurian Companions, the elite shock troops of the army, were barely able to nudge one small company of enemy skirmishers back off the hill and the attack stalled. On the left, numbers eventually told and the Count's light cavalry started to get cornered and pressed up against the reserves and the recoiling main line and as the second light cavalry unit was eliminated the army became exhausted.

At this point the Barbarians were also only a few points away from being exhausted even though they had not lost a single unit. Rather than risk going over the threshold the King pulled back all of his troops out of contact and outside bow range of the one remaining Valdurian archer and then his horse archers began shooting apart the Count's left flank. As unit after unit was removed the Count had no choice but to signal a general retreat.

The Valdurians still hold their hill but their cavalry has been unable to ride over the skirmishers in front of them, The main battle lines hold but the Count's left flank has collapsed and it is now a matter of retreating before the wild barbarian riders completely swamp the centre and slaughter them to a man. 

On the whole the rules did what they were designed to do. They achieved a believable over all result which could easily have been reversed and by and large the troop types worked. The failure of the heavy cavalry to sweep away the handful of untrained peasant skirmishers in open ground was troublesome despite moderately unlucky dice. The heavy cavalry had a small melee advantage over the skirmishers but it was so small that a minor wobble in probabilities was all it took for the skirmishers to more than hold their own even when flanked.  Possibly a Poor rating for the skirmishers to distinguish them from well armed, well trained professionals would have helped.

The push and shove of the infantry scrum felt right for these armies and the light infantry was about right against other infantry. The light cavalry worked better than I expected given that they have to move into heavy infantry charge reach to shoot. I'm still not convinced that Crassus could be destroyed by Parthians under these rules but possibly if the Parthians were counted as Elite, Horse Archers as well as Cataphracts and the Romans downgraded to ordinary heavy infantry. In any event I must fudge something to try that match up.

Although the rules worked fairly well and the game was enjoyable it lacked a certain amount of tension for me since everything is very incremental. A slow grinding fight sounds right for opposing infantry lines but less so for light troops and cavalry and there is no chance of anything else. It also still feels odd to me that my army could be exhausted without losing a single unit but that it will never collapse in rout like so many ancient armies but that may be largely an expectation formed by habit.

I also noticed something else rather interesting. Old habits die hard and in this game like the previous Zulu ones, I kept forgetting that units adjacent to an enemy do not have to initiate melee on their own turn, especially when they have already taken hits and are fighting against an enemy to their flank! Must make myself a reminder on a QRS.

Another old habit was formed by decades of having separate movement and melee phases in a score of different rules sets. I often forgot to resolve combats until all were done or did some and forgot others. Again a note and a closer attention to process would soon cure these old habits.

Anyway, I will be sending off more detailed technical comments to Bob and start planning another test battle. I would like to see an elephant in action and try the artillery rules as well.  

1 comment:

  1. Ross Mac,

    It sounds like it was an interesting play-test, and I look forward to reading you detailed feedback in due course.

    I am pleased that the rules worked fairly well. They are still very much a work in progress, and I do expect them to be re-drafted in the light of the play-testing you and others are undertaking.

    All the best,