Mons Graupius As Wargame Test Drive Scenario

Part VIII, Amsterdam Acid Test for Wargames, In Search of the Holy Grail: Playtest 5 Leading Fastplay Ancients Big Battle Rules

I was looking for a scenario for a playtest Ancients battle: Romans vs Barbarians. Mons Graupius looks good.

I have a long term plan to systematically review and compare big battle systems, my Acid Test plan. Systematically means: play the same big battle scenario several times with several systems and write a thorough review. I funneled the multitude of options.

Shaun’s Wargaming blog played the same Callinicum battle with ten different rulesets: Armati, Warrior Kings, Justified Ancients, Fantasy Rules!TCE, Irregular Miniatures Ancients Rules, Mighty Armies: Ancients, Basic Impetus, DBA, DBM100 and Bill Bank’s Ancients. His goal differs from mine: “my goal was to look at rulesets that gave a good ancients game in under an hour on a 2’x2′ table.” His Callinicum battle is a Late Roman battle. I have a large Early Imperial Roman army and a large Celtic/barbarian army: I can’t replay Callinicum.

JW’s Heretical Wargaming blog replayed Mons Graupius, 83 AD, with 3 different rulesets: DBA, Polemos and the Neil Thomas Ancient Rules. Again, quick solo or 1vs1 battles. I’m looking for fastplay multiplayer games for casual club battles. Mons Graupius is perfect, because:

  • it’s a battle on the plains
  • with favourable terrain for the barbarians
  • more or less similar to the Sabis battle and several other ancient battles that gave the Romans a hard time
  • with storming chariots (I love chariots)
  • and lots of wargaming source material on the web.

5 Rulesets to Compare: DBA, AdlG, M&G, HC! and AoH

Again, I funneled the options. I consulted the web. What are the leading 2022 Ancient wargames – that I like? Armati? Praised game, but a ghost of the past. DBMM? More complex than DBA, other advanced, more modern and better written variants are available. Polemos, Basic Impetus? I don’t know anybody who plays it. Etc, etc. Here’s my list of leading rules.

De Bellis Antiquitatis

DBA is a classic. Some call it outdated, some former players are just bored with it (“wargame chess”), I meet players who have never heard of it, however Heretical Gaming writes:

DBA 3.0 was the quickest game and the tightest written.  It is the hardest to read initially because the information is given precisely and in the tersest way possible. It gives a brief but intense gaming experience.  It can feel a bit blander historically than the other two because the command representation is more basic than [Polemos] SPQR and it doesn’t have the narrative flow of [Neil Thomas] A&MW because it is over with far less movement.

Shaun’s Wargaming was also positive:

“The number one ruleset I would recommend for anyone to try is DBA.  Yes, I know I wrote I am not fond of DBA.  They fit the bill perfectly, which makes sense as they were designed to play a game in less than one hour on a 2’x’2′ board.  The game has a large following, the rules (despite the issues some people have with Barkerese) are comprehensive and give a good and challenging game. So, if you are looking for a quick small game ruleset, try DBA first.”

I will play Mons Graupius as Big Battle DBA.

Art de la Guerre

AdlG is heavily promoted by prominent wargamer and blogger Madaxeman, who I hold in high esteem. AdlG is DBA-ish, with copied elements from Fields of Glory. Active community. Madaxeman: “The rules play like a combination of an updated, cleaned up DBM with an infusion of some of the elements of unit-based games. Each army is – in the standard game size – about 20-25 maneuver elements,. This means you only need maybe close on 40 bases of standard DBx-based troops (…) This is for the 200 point version of the game with 3 commands, which plays out in under 2 hours – you can also play a slightly larger 300 point version which will see you going to 4 commands and maybe 30-40 maneuver elements.” I quickly playtested the game a few years ago.

Mortem & Gloriam

a game that also seems rooted in DBA but with dice replacing combat results tables. The M&G website writes: “The game has received high praise for being the most representative set of rules where historical refights work extremely well and armies feel right. This combined with an innovative game system that gives near-simultaneous movement and fast a fun interactive game, have made it increasingly popular.” A friend in Brussels plays the game. I tried it once, read my short impression.

Hail Caesar and Age of Hannibal as runners-up

I like the Warlord Hail Caesar game, which is very beer & pretzels and multiplayer. Glossy book from the market leader Warlord Games. I will include it in my list because it’s NOT DBA-ish. It’s Warmaster Ancients, in a way. A Hail Caesar game is a social event with simplified, quite generic rules, a quickref sheet, a lot of dice rolling and massive armies on the table. Good side: it’s a fun game. Bad side: it’s a fun game. Some reviewers love it, some hate it. I played it just once. Fourth on my list. HC is a toolbox, and players can finetune unit stats and add house rules.

Age of Hannibal is a reformatted version of a fantasy wargame ‘Chipco!’ and promoted by Little Wars TV. This again is a ‘fastplay’ and ‘fun’ set. Ten sided dice. Included because it’s not rooted in DBx, not a British ruleset and because I have a weak spot for LWTV.

By chance, Shaun’s Wargaming tried the Chipco Fantasy basic rules for his Callinicum playtest.

As I was looking for fast play ancient rules a few years ago, I found a discussion that mentioned using a ruleset called Fantasy Rules! for historical play (…) these rules are fun and fast.  They are simple but not simplistic – there is distinctive troop types and diverse tactical options.  (…) I would play this again.  The results ‘felt’ right. (…) In my opinion, unmodified (except for troop types), Fantasy Rules! is an excellent fast play historical rule set.

Dropped out: War & Conquest: revamped Warhammer Ancient Battles, not really my cup of tea: Kings of War Historical: too generic for the Roman Army, buckets of dice approach (90 not impossible):

The Mons Graupius Battle

(from ‘The Little Corporal’ website)

The Romans fought uphill. The battlefield should be a central large flat plain with a gentle slope behind Roman lines and a large hill, steeper hill behind the Caledonians, a stream runs across the Roman front which is easily crossed with minimal disruption to infantry, but a more onerous disruption for the chariots. Woods are dense where marked on the map.

Tacitus writes in Agricola (XXIX-XXXVIII) that more than thirty thousand Britons held the high ground, where the tribes had arrayed themselves in ranks on the slope of the mount and their chariots occupied the plain below. Roman auxiliary troops numbered eight thousand infantry and four or five thousand cavalry, all chosen from loyal tribes and led on foot by Agricola himself. Held in reserve at the ramparts of the camp were the Roman legions—victory, writes Tacitus, being more glorious if there was no cost in Roman blood.

After an exchange of missiles, the auxiliaries (Batavi and Tungri from the Continent) closed in hand-to-hand combat, their short thrusting swords proving more effective than the long unwieldy swords and small shields of the Britons. At the same time, the cavalry dispersed the British chariots and themselves engaged the enemy on the sloping ground, the fray made even more chaotic by terrified riderless horses and unmanned chariots. As the Britons moved down the hill, Agricola threw in the reserve cavalry, which broke through the line and attacked them from the rear. Routed, the natives fled into the nearby forest, the remainder saved by the coming nightfall. Ten thousand Britons died; on the Roman side, says Tacitus, three-hundred sixty fell (figures that may be rhetorical, invented, or estimated). By dawn, there was only the silence of desolation and the smoke of huts burning in the distance, set fire by the Britons themselves. As Calgacus had bitterly remarked of the Romans before the battle, “They make a desert and call it ‘peace'” (XXX)

Orders of Battle

I copied the order of battle from The Little Corporal.

Agricola – Commander in Chief – excellent tacticianCalgacus – Commander in Chief – fanatic warrior
Auxiliary Infantry (8000 men) – Open Order Heavy infantry, well trained, steady, veterans, spear, sword, large shieldChariots – (400 vehicles) – light 2-horse chariot, 1 unarmed driver & 1 warrior with javelins and shield, fast, impetuous, veterans
Equites Alares (2 x 1500 men) – Heavy cavalry, well trained, solid, veterans, javelins and shieldSkirmishers (2000 men) – light infantry, javelins, shield
Infantry in reserve: legionary Infantry (3000 men) – Close Order Heavy Infantry, well trained, solid, veterans, heavy throwing weapon, sword, large shieldCavalry – mixed with skirmishers (2000 men) – light cavalry, impetuous, javelins and shield
Cavalry in reserve: Equites Alares (2 x 500 men) figures – Heavy cavalry, well trained, solid, veterans, javelins and shieldWarriors (20,000 men) – Open Order Medium Infantry, javelins, long sword, shield
Cavalry – on flanks (2 x 1000 men) – light cavalry, impetuous, javelins and shield
Relative size (1base=500 men):
Aux Infantry/Heavy Cav/Reserve Infantry/Reserve Heavy Cavalry = AHI 16: HC 6: RHI 6: RHC 2
Relative size (1base=500 men)
Chariots/Skirmishers/Light Cavalry (center)/MI Warriors/Light Cavalry (flanks)= Ch 1: LI 4: LC 4: MI 40: LC 4

So, basically, this is a professionally trained Roman heavy infantry force, outnumbered 1:2 by medium infantry Caledonian tribal warriors, who have skirmishers and chariots. Cavalry is equal, but the Romans deploy their heavy cavalry against Caledonian light cavalry.

The numbers and composition are estimates from just one, prejudiced source: Agricola was Tacitus’ son in law. Maybe the battle was harder or the Caledonian force smaller, against better Romans. I don’t know. But I’m not replaying history, I’m gaming history, some numbers, a force composition and a scenario is all I need.

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