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.