Tactical Concepts To Include in Ancients Wargaming

The Amsterdam Acid Test for Wargames, part IX: Realism vs Gaming.

What makes an ancients wargame a good Ancients wargame?

I’m going to review and compare at least 5 Ancients wargames, I think I have a good topic list, but the question is, how can I as a 21st century wargamer judge the ‘historical realism’ of an Ancients ruleset?

I read Sabin (‘Lost Battles’) but was enlightened by the July/August 2021 issue of Slingshot, with an interview with Simon Hall and and essay about ‘Game Mechanics and Realism’ by Anthony Clipsom.

Clipsom: historical plausibility is the key

Clipsom, to start with, brings up interesting points. Wargamers have dusty discussions. Some say a game must be ‘realistic’ and ‘realistic’ means ‘quantification’. The more tables and modifiers, the better. A unit or a tactic must be represented by exact numerical values. Others think of wargames as ‘games’, and emphasise elegant, clear mechanics. Simulation is impossible, so why bother?. A third axis, Clipsom writes, is playability, are the rules clear and easy to understand? Historical and ‘gamey’ rules can be badly written or hopelessly impractical, or slow.

Instead of ‘realism’ he proposed the broader category of ‘plausibility’ which is almost a personal assesment of unit and army quality, a “subjective thing”, based on “the information one has and the experience one has, so may well change through time”. I like that. For example: I read Tacitus about the Mons Graupius battle. According to Tacitus, 15.000 Romans battled with 30.000 Caledonians, the Romans lost only 360 legionaries and the Caledonians lost 10.000! Which weapons did the Romans use? Arrows with nuclear warheads? Tacitus’ story is totally improbable.

(My personal assessment is that Romans vs Barbarian-battles were comparable with modern riot police vs hooligans-battles. A disciplined force with a shieldwall against a storming horde. If the ruleset recreates such a battle, in an enjoyable and believable way, and doesn’t make one of the sides invincible, the game is ‘plausible’. )

A game should be moderately gamey, fairly plausible, very playable and simple to modify, Clipsom concludes.

Hall: plausible maneuvering is the key

In the same issue Slingshot interviewed Simon Hall, He experienced [the old] conflict between ‘realism’, aka units with factors and values, and ‘gameyness’, the more abstract, general game mechanics: drop factors and you lose troop character, he said. His solution is his own ruleset (of course), Mortem & Gloriam, with the Colour Command & Control system that I will review in the future.

In other words: the better trained troops are, the easier they can maneuver, so the bigger their chance for success is. Hall is an avid reader of military history books, and tries to capture the typical characteristics of a military period. Examples he gives:

Ancients is a lot about making moves of multiple units together in long battle lines and using generals personally in command of troops. The two additions of block moves [everybody in the same group perform the same order] and colour upgrades for generals who are with a move creates “ancient feel”.

[As opposed to WW2 gaming, that is characterized, in his opinion, by repeat activations by units and keeping initiative to do repeat moves and co- ordinate troops. Thus, better commanded armies are more able to coordinate combined arms, which gives a WW2-feel]

The MacDowell concepts

I would combine the generic concepts long battle lines/leadership with the list Simon MacDowell made up for his (free) Legio wargames rules. He gives tips that seems appropriate for the period. He wrote:

  • Deploy in depth. Several successive charges by new units will always be more effective than massing lots of troops to hit at once. Therefore, deploy troops in two or three lines and use fresh units to relieve tired or shaken units.
  • Rest before engaging. An accumulation of Damage Points for whatever reason will rapidly reduce a unit’s capacity to fight effectively. Units with more than 1 DP should almost always rest a turn to remove DPs before charging or moving too close to dangerous enemy. Be wary of the fact that it is compulsory to roll dice for a charge move with the potential for adding another DP, a pilum volley on top of that could reduce a unit with 3 DPs to shaken before combat is worked out.
  • Skirmish Effectively. Use missile fire to support heavy troops particularly as they go into combat. Light troops can also useful screen heavy troops absorbing the DPs that would otherwise disrupt their combat effectiveness. However, shooting will not win the battle, the worst that can happen to a unit is to become shaken. It still requires hand to hand combat to secure victory.
  • Use Cavalry on the Flanks. Cavalry rarely win frontally against good order heavy infantry. Even if they win, they will be forced to retire and take DPs while the infantry, standing firm, will be unscathed. Cavalry are more effective chasing off enemy cavalry and skirmishers and then moving in on the flanks or rear of enemy heavy infantry. Another tactic would be to wear down heavy infantry with missile fire than charge them when they are shaken.
  • Reserve Heavy Infantry Missiles. Heavy Infantry may only shoot once in the game. It is better usually to reserve this until the combat phase where it has a better chance of making an impact.
  • Support Special troops. Elephants and Scythed Chariots are unpredictable and can often do as much damage to friends as enemy. If successful they can severely disrupt an enemy formation but it is unlikely they will break it.
  • It is worthwhile having some good heavy troops nearby in a position to exploit the damage caused. However,the drawback is that they could rampage and disrupt the supporting troops rather then the enemy.

Good historical Ancients rules, in other words, are IMHO rules that promote the tactics above. I’m two thousand years too young to see Roman soldiers in action, but the concepts above seem very plausible to me. I will include it in my Ancients reviews.

15 thoughts on “Tactical Concepts To Include in Ancients Wargaming

  1. Sorry – two things here look entirely wrong to me. Light troops shouldn’t screen heavies. That’s a Napoleonic thing. Look at the 10,000 or Carrhae, or Punic Wars battles. Secondly, the whole debate about cavalry versus infantry is absolutely not decided. It tends to be a ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. These infantry were defeated frontally by cavalry, oh well, must have been rubbish then…

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    1. I agree Doug. I almost always put my lights on the flanks, sometimes entirely on one flank. As to heavy cavalry, I’ve no problem barrelling into heavy infantry unless they’re pike-armed – that normally turns out a bit snotty.

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  2. I doubt if there is a ‘right’, ‘correct’ or ‘true’ answer. I’ll give you my line of reasoning about skirmishers.
    The earliest recorded hoplite battles were – generally speaking – fought with few skirmishers and cavalry. But warfare evolved.
    One of my books ‘Alexander the Great, Killer of Men’, by Lonsdale, an analysis of the Macedonian art of warfare, describes how the Macedonians used heavy cavalry to exploit gaps and light infantry on the flanks. Gaugamela has a Macedonian first and a second line, skirmishers in front and cavalry on the flanks.
    The Romans had a first line of velites, and the quincunx formation/ 2nd and 3rd line, so the MacDowell observations seem correct for the Roman period.
    Sabin (one of my other sources) writes in Lost Battles about cavalry effective against skirmishers, but generally not vs Heavy Infantry.
    Maybe I should have been more clear. I will review 5 Ancients rulesets for my Early Imperial Roman army. The MacDowell tips look appropriate for first/2nd century AD.

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  3. Three tests for realism in any ancient rule set

    Julius Caesar test: do the rules duplicate the Gallic attacks described by Caeser of the Gauls charging across a long distance without stopping or do units advance in randomly.

    Alexander test: Can a numerically inferior (number of men/points) defeat a larger opponent. Better morale

    The Pyrrhus test: part one – does the victorious side suffer very few casualties compared the loser. Casualties (killed and wounded) about 1% or less of victorious army (see Alexander and Hannibal’s victories) or are they like Pyrrhus victories with 10% or more losses (units routed, killed, etc) which seldom happened. Part 2: Pike vs legion. Do the rules encourage the use of multiple lines for the Romans in order to replace exhausted/spent units when engaging the phalanx. If the phalanx maintains formation it should have an advantage vs the legion frontally as long as the phalanx is not disrupted. See Pydna and Cynoschephalae where the phalanx was pushing the legions back until disrupted by difficult terrain or being flanked.

    How these are written into the rules to affect playability is another subject.

    I agree with most of what Simon wrote.

    On the subject of light troops screening heavies. This was a standard tactic of the Manipular Legion. Also used by Hannibal. Less so in Greek/Hellenistic battles though the large number of light troops in the Seleucid army at Magnesia would have made the length of the Seleucid battle line excessive if placed on the flanks instead of in front of the army. Most likely an attempt to counter the Roman velites. Alexander had very few light infantry in his campaigns.

    Cavalry attacking formed heavy infantry frontally. See the dispositions of troops in the various Greek/Hellenistic battles, Hannibal’s battles, Parthian cataphract charge and the overall battle at Carrhae.

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    1. No, you seem to be confusing the light troops used to go in advance with the Napoleonic clouds of skirmishers in front of column. In the Punic engagements, typically the light troops are there to cover deployment, withdrawn when the battle commences. And you are referring to classical period cavalry only. Normans, Goths, Sarmatians, Sasanians, etc would be different. That’s before you even consider Chinese or Steppe cavalry.

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      1. No, I am not confusing Napoleonic skirmishers with the way Hannibal, the Manipular Legion, and the Seleucids at Magnesia used light troops and that is not how I stated they were used. At Raphia the Seleucid light troops formed part of the battle line. In other successor battles light troops were used as elephant escorts and not mentioned as screens for the main battle lines. Pyrrhus and Alexander had very few light infantry in their battles. The light infantry screens did skirmish with each other until the heavies were ready to engage in combat. In the refights our gaming group has done the Roman velites would get in one or two turns of missile fire before falling back. Battle accounts described by Polybius that note the initial deployment of opposing armies mention 1200 paces between opposing armies. One of the suggestions put forth by a Society of Ancients member was that after their initial skirmishing the velites would fall back and form up as rear ranks for the heavies. Magnesia was unusual for a Hellenistic army with the high numbers of light skirmishers. The main Seleucid battle line was already very long and putting the lights on the wings instead of in front as a counter to the velites would resulted in a battle line with an additional two miles of length and have left them completely out of the battle. As I also noted, light skirmishers are seldom mentioned in Greek and Hellenistic battles.

        There was quite a discussion at the Society of Ancients on cavalry vs formed infantry a while back. I don’t recall what the consensus, if any was. As for the Sassanian cavalry they did not directly charge the Byzantine heavy infantry at Callinicum. Instead they stood off and used their bows. At Adrianople the Gothic cavalry attacked the flank of the Byzantine army and not the front. Accounts of other battles are less detailed. At Hastings the Normans repeatedly failed to break the Harold’s battle line. They then pretended to flee and turned on their pursuers while they were disrupted. I have not studied Chinese warfare so have no comment on that. The rules we use put most cavalry vs formed infantry at even or close to even unless the infantry is deployed in depth or armed with long pointy sticks, then the infantry is at an advantage.

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    2. Interested in your rationale for those three “tests”.
      – For the “long advance” test, I’m struggling to imagine any set of rules where one side can’t advance against a static, passive enemy. The more interesting question I’d have thought would be what (if any) mechanics the rules include to make “maintaining a coherent linear formation” more difficult for a very wide line of “untrained/barbarian” troops to do compared to “regulars/professionals”when advancing a long way.
      Most modern rules have a resource-allocation-based command and control system that creates these sorts of different challenges for the player, and achieving these differences is usually seen as the essence of creating different “feels” for different armies. Any set which did allow “Gauls” to make a lengthy advance and maintain perfect formation without a fair amount of effort and investment of C2 resources from it’s commander would probably fail most of todays players sniff-tests for getting a key element of each army’s “feel” right.
      – For the Alexander test, isn’t that a combination of “is there a balanced points sytem” plus “does morale affect troop performance”? The first is a test most “competition” sets will always try to pass, and those that are not (Hail Ceasar..) will leave down to the players to sort out in setting up the scenario and victory conditions. There are also very few if any rulesets I can think of where morale isn’t a big factor in troop performance.
      For Pyrrhus, the “minimal losses” isn’t really a thing I’d say can be applied to ancient mass battle games at all – once you get past the old style casualty charts of WRG 5th and 6th, almost all rules have included a statement that goes something along the lines of “units break when they cease to be combat-effective, this should not be taken as meaning the men in that unit are all dead” – this is a trope now adopted by pretty much all ancients rules, so I doubt there are any sets out there who’s authors would even suggest that the “unit losses” seen on the table are actually representiative of the number of dead soldiers (for the winners or losers). Ancients Games are all now designed to get to a point at which one side is no longer combat effective – actual losses isn’t something they are even trying, or claiming to simulate.
      Roman Line replacement is also a hoary old chestnut in Ancients rules, and has been for years – you’ve got the “literally no-one actually knows how it worked anyway, so how on earth can we simulate it on the tabletop?” argument, and also the “whatever it was, and however it worked, it happened well below the scale at which these rules represent blocks of men on little square bases” … both of which inevitably end with the author saying ..”so we’ve chosen simply to abstract it all into the relative combat factors of the units involved, such that we get the right feel and overall outcome”.
      This has been the default approach for most rules writers for years now, so finding a contemporary set that seeks to try and implement Roman line replacement in a literal sense is increasingly rare, and more often than not is not even something rules writers feel is possible, desirable or even appropriate given the scale they are looking to represent units at in their games.

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      1. Of course this Roman line replacement thing, of which much is made, is relevant for a very short period of history in a very limited geographical space. Yet we are meant to take it as read that it represents the pinnacle of heavy infantry tactical doctrine for all (ancient and mediaeval) time.

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  4. Great to see the discussion. Have always aimed to get rules as realistic I feel as possible. Mortem et Gloriam seems have come the closest for people who read history. While keeping playability and fun.

    I do a lot of refights. Very rarely got games that felt right with past rules. Everyone has felt right so far with Mortem et Gloriam. Check out the videos Calle 2 Simons Show on my CCC channel on your tube. Myself and history expert Dr Simon Elliot. talking about real battles and regifting them. He loves Mortem et Gloriam for a reason. It replicates Historical feel well.

    Hope to all join on the journey. Come and have fun. Great community growing nigger all the time.

    Ps always listening and looking for new ideas to make better still so a great read.

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  5. Seems I suffered ‘autocorrect nightmare’ in the above. Can’t seem to get in to edit it. 😢

    But clearly on the vital bits a) a bigger community growing all the time and b) my good man Dr Elliott is a history expert not a ‘shorty’ – he is actually pretty tall.

    If anyone can tell me on how to edit it great. Or if a moderator/owner could for me please do.

    Apologies all. Life is just a bit too frantic at present. Looking forward to it slowing down a bit in June when through all the big challenges of house sales, shipping and country moves. S

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  6. LOL

    I shouldn’t have tried posting while travelling. Duh! And waited for my big screen.

    Many thanks Jurjen and keep up the interesting blogs.

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  7. Great article and discussion! Critical thoughts seem to be rare thing regarding rulesets, at least there can be found few only (real) discussions online. Keep up good work with this blog.

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