Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Saturday, 20 February 2016

How's it going Hun?

At the recent NWS Games Day, I was fortunate to be invited to join in the re-fight of the Battle of Châlons. The actual battle, also known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, was fought in 451 CE. It is generally considered as a bloody draw, or minor Roman-Allied victory to Aetius, the 'last true Roman', that blunted the Huns rampaging conquest of the western Roman empire and Attila's aura of invincibility.

As a practice (written with tongue firmly placed in cheek), I had played the version of the battle in Rome Total War: The Barbarian Invasions. In that version you only have the option of playing the Huns and, with the AI set at 'average', I'd managed an 'heroic victory'.  We'd not decided who was on which side, so on the morning of the game Andrew generously (?) asked me if I'd like to act as Attila. No pressure.

Table laid out. Roman-allied at left and Hunnic-allied at right. Figures 15 mm from collections of Andrew, David B (who unfortunately had another engagement) and Geoff.

There was a lot of symmetry in the two armies, but also important differences affording strength and vulnerabilities to each side.
In the computer game the Huns had four units of those 'nasty' horse archers. For the real thing they had ten of light cavalry, plus two Hunnic 'knights' (medium cavalry) who also had bows. The Romans also had horse archers amongst their Alan allies, though only six 'units'. 
The biggest advantage to the Romans was, naturally, their heavy infantry 'legions'—comitatenses—three units with associated bowmen. 
The Hunnic-allied had a slight superiority in heavy cavalry with the five units of the Ostrogoths, plus two with the Gepids against the Romans with one as Aetius' unit and three with the Visigoths (split 2:1 over separate commands). These were largely balanced by the Roman-allies medium cavalry. 
Both sides had a smattering of archers as light infantry units and skirmishers.

Good start for the Gepids. Jerry's double-six meant that Ardaric's quality had improved to 'good'.

As Hunnic-allied, we had decided to be true to type, aggressive and take the high ground. Our forces at the bottom of the photo.

First 'in' were Oliver's Ostrogoths.

They easily pushed aside the Visigoth archers, but then faced their cavalry, a mix of heavy and medium. The markers are a mix of disorder and permanent losses (apart from the red and pink coloured ones that indicate whether a command has been activated or not).

So far so good. The central hill in Hun & allied hands.

Whambo! The Visigoth counter-attack goes in. Ostrogoths bloodied, but unbeaten.

Over on the Hunnic left, the Gepid cavalry attacked the Roman Foederati.

Devastation! Heavy cavalry beaten, Ardaric dead. Fortunately his command did not care, or was unaware, that they were now leaderless.

Time for Attila to send in the Huns. They got the better of Andrew's Alan horse archers, but do you think they could score a permanent hit on those Comitatenses? Geoff was rolling ones with impunity!

The cavalry battle continued in the centre around the hill. Biko had 'unit of the day' with the Visigoth medium cavalry shown in the centre of this photo, who successfully blunted successive attacks by three units of Huns, preventing any attacks on their fellow units or those of the Alans.

Finally, some hits on the Roman legions. One archer sub-unit from one unit. We'll take what we can get!

Looking down the line. The open table on the right is where the Hunnic-allied army began the battle.

A nice photo of the same, lower down.

We began the fourth turn with the game very much in the balance, but it was to prove decisive. Firstly thanks to a series of successful attacks by the Huns, which were followed by several winning combats to the Gepids (particularly) and the Ostrogoths.

The main thing to notice in this poorly focussed photo is the six on the die. That was Geoff's roll for his cohesion test for Aetius' heavy cavalry unit. It was eliminated and the Roman leader dead. As with the loss of Ardaric, his command was not affected, but the loss of a charismatic leader meant that every unit in the army need to take a discipline test, which many failed. 

The thing about Impetus is that the combination of rolling a fairly large number of dice (without being excessive so as to seem like a game of dice) and, more importantly, that the desirability of ones or sixes changes with circumstances means that one is rarely 'lucky' or 'unlucky' for an entire game!

The Alans had been thinned out dramatically and had reached their breakpoint, as had the Visigoths. They tried in turn to break the Ostrogoths and then to defeat Attila's unit of Hunnic 'knights', but were unsuccessful on both counts.

The loss of those allied commands meant that the Roman-allied army was broken, so it was a Hunnic-allied victory.

It was a fabulous game, that was enjoyed by all and played in the spirit of good wargamesmanship that one wants and expects. Thanks very much to Andrew for organising it and to the NWS for the Games Day.

There was, of course, for me/us the added bonus of being on the winning side. This is to be relished when it happens, 'cause we all know, as the Great Man said, that glory is but fleeting*.

* ...but obscurity is forever Napoleon

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Battle of Pharsalus, 48 BCE

The closer one looks at Caesar's great victory over Pompey and the Optimates ('Best Men'), the more the combination of skill, daring, troop superiority and, of course, 'the imponderable' comes to light. It's certainly a huge challenge for the Caesareans to repeat history on the wargaming table.

We based our scenario for the battle largely on Caesar's account complimented by interpretations from a few modern military histories of Rome, such as Goldsworthy's In the Name of Rome and two published by Osprey (written by Jane Penrose and Kate Gulliver & colleagues)—see list at the end of this post. Added to these were the ready-made wargames scenarios from Simon McDowall's and Paul 'Caliban' 's website/blog. Being guided chiefly by Caesar, we did not include all of the 'auxiliary' troops that these gents include in their scenarios.

The result of all of this was orders of battle that gave odds of around 1.5:1 in favour of the Optimates. The difference in numbers is clearly evident in this photo of the battlefield at game's start.
Populares (Caesareans) on the left, Optimates (Pompeians) on the right, River Enipeus in the distance. Note Man's Best Friend, Miff, advising the 'Best Men'–an omen?!

Looking along the lines of the Optimates, from their right to left:

In terms of Impetus points the Populares had 863 points against 582 for Caesar's army. Caesar's boys were generally better; half of his legions VBU 6 c.f. all Pompey's 5. The Xth, represented by three bases, were rated as élite with A class discipline. The Caesareans also had a better command structure. One over-sight was that we should have made Caesar the commander of the right of the army so that his better command rating (Expert c.f. Fair for Pompey) came into play. 

As this was set-up as an historic re-fight, we did not do any balancing or introduce victory points/conditions that could make a 'loss' a 'win'. It was simply a case of breaking the other side to win.

Unexpectedly prior to the game, it ended up also being a play-test (for us) of Advanced Impetus version 1.7 September 2015. We did not realise that Dadi and Piombo had produced this update until Mark H. made us aware of it. This is an updated compilation of amendments and clarifications that appear in various places (such as the army lists and website), but also contains some 'new' rules, a development that raised our eyebrows. More on that later...

Ah! Our Sage had read the entrails of that goat correctly; Mark H Sulla Jr. rolls an 11 for the first initiative.

This early conclusion was reinforced when the first unit of Labienius' (Julian's) Gallic cavalry managed only  a 1 for it's combat die followed by a big, fat 6 for the cohesion test!
Putting the early results of the cavalry mêlée in favour of Caesar's men.

Marcus Antonius Pescatore (yours truly) foolishly sent his slingers too close to the Optimates' lines and suffered accordingly–a revision of our interpretation as to when the disordered loss occurs resulted in "they had gone, no they hadn't, yes they had, no they had not!).

View of the left from the Caesarean's point of view (the on again/off again slingers are missing from the photo, but they did come back again, albeit briefly##).

In the centre, the lines were approaching one another, slowly and steadily,

... while the cavalry mêlée developed on the Caesareans' left.

'Labienius' was cock-a-hoop with four sixes amongst his hit dice, which 'Sulla Jr.' calmly parried with a one!

They did not survive the second round of mêlée, however!

##The on again/off again slingers did not last long. Three sixes for hits were parried by a one, but the disorder loss got 'em! 

Views down the length of the battlefield, looking towards the River Enipeus (i.e. from the Caesarean right).

Followed by three views from the Optimates' side, from their left to right.

Finally two shots from end river side of the battlefield.

The reading of the entrails was holding up: Afranius (Biko) rolls a double one, reducing him from 'average' to 'poor'.

No matter, compounding his poor handling of the slingers, Marcus Antonius Pescatore advanced his legion only far enough to displace Afranius' skirmishers and exposing them to a charge from Afranius' legionaries.

The Populares' main line edged forward, slowly...

while the cavalry combat broke into individual mêlées.

A cricket-style view: "down the wicket from the River End"

The numbers were beginning to tell in the cavalry mêlée; not to mention the rolling of a six for cohesion tests. Mark Sulla Jr. seemed to become a bit fix'ed on this tactic as the game wore on!

Finally, the legions clashed!

In the centre...

and on the (Caesarean) left.

In these first encounters, it was fairly even in the centre, but the Optimates' got the better of the left.

The mêlées continued in the centre, the Xth being pushed back!

Over on the river side (Caesarean's far left) Marcus Antonius' final unit hung on tenaciously.

To their right David Calvinus' troops were in a struggle against the combined forces of Biko Afranius and Wilko Scipio.

Quality began to show as the Xth broke through Marc W Ahenobarbus' first line.

They were now well and truly worn though, as evidenced by all those markers.

Time for some serious aggression. David Calvinus' legions made some good headway on the Caesarean centre-left.

Taking stock of the overall situation: llooking from the Pompeian side of the battlefield, from their left to right, then the view from the River End.

The Caesarean cavalry now a spent force, it was up to the reserve legions (the attack by whom was decisive in the actual battle) to face-off Julius Labienius' horsemen. Which they did pretty well.

A counter-attack by Marc W Ahenobarbus' second line put paid to the weakened Xth legion and with it the Caesarean centre-right!

Could a miraculous win be achieved from a seemingly inevitable loss for Caesar's men?

David Calvinus' legions did their best with bold counter-attacks.

Even Marcus Antonius Pescatore's last unit joined in!

These local successes, while increasing the Pompeian losses, were not sufficient to turn the tables.

This was yet another most enjoyable and interesting game. It was great to have seven players, all enjoying a fine wargame, the banter and trying to win for their side. Losses in victory points were about equal 36 vs 35, but our break point was 29 and theirs 51. clear victory to the 'Best Men'—we Caesareans had to be content with second place!

The imbalance in numbers was a major hurdle to overcome, but the Caesareans could have won. We needed to be more aggressive. Even though we said that we needed to do that we were too circumspect and concerned with advancing in a contiguous line. Silly. Gotta use that advantage in quality and discipline to do multiple moves and get stuck in! I think that perhaps we allowed those massed cavalry on the Optimates’ left to worry us too much too. We'll have to fight it again sometime to see...

Of course, luck is also needed. Caesar had/made plenty of that in the real thing. We could have included a few ‘rolls of destiny’ (re-rolls) to weight the odds a bit. We've not yet tried them in Impetus. I’m not overly keen on them in general, but the version in Impetus does seem pretty reasonable.

You'll find a 'players' view of the game at Mark's excellent one-eyed..., I mean one-sided miniatures discourse (!) blog:

Dadi & Piombo—Messing With Something Good?

We have enjoyed using the Impetus rules since Mark W. first introduced them to us back in mid-2013. To their credit, Dadi & Piombo ('Dice & Lead') have made the rules freely available courtesy of their 'Basic Impetus' rules and they also have army lists that are available to download as pdfs. We, and I'd expect many/most players have taken the 'plunge' and purchased the full set of rules and, between us, the five volumes of 'Extra Impetus' which contain more detailed army lists, scenarios and rule amendments and clarifications. These latter have been summarise in releases of 'Advanced Impetus', again freely available from their website.

As I mentioned above, this game was the first time that we had used the September 2015 version of the 'Advanced Impetus' amendments. In addition to compiling the amendments, this version introduces some new rules. We'll have to play them more than once, but, at first sight/playing, we are not overly keen on many/most of the changes.
1. The discipline test for skirmishers to evade. How often do recorded accounts indicate that as a 'unit' skirmishers were over-run? Yes, the odds are slim (die roll of 1 or 2 only, depending on discipline). If failure is uncommon, then it seems even more reason not to have it. Why add a test that is near-meaningless? 
2. Supported flanks. This seems okay at first, but not as a cumulative bonus in addition to a supporting unit. 
3. Better class. This does not occur too often, but smacks of the double-bonus (penalty) that we saw (and disliked intensely) in Le Feu Sacré. Given that better class troops generally have a higher VBU, why also give them another plus one die? It could perhaps, be better included in the discipline test—if it were to be included at all (but then I 'spose it already is, isn't it...?!) 
4. More weight given to additional factors than the quality of the troops. On a couple of occasions the net effect of flank support and better quality mentioned above meant that a unit received many more dice. For example, a unit that would have rolled one die got four! This seems to be a disproportionate weighting of 'other' factors over base fighting ability and so seems problematic.

As I said, we'll have to play using these changes a few more times before we pass final judgement. I'll be interested to get a copy of Impetus 2 when it comes out to see what is in and what is not. If, as we most fear, Dadi and Piombo have messed with something good, then we can see ourselves going for a 'house' version, beginning with the original and taking only those bits of the second version that we like.

We shall see.

Our next

Remaining with our present ancients and specifically Caesarean theme, for our next game we are planning a re-fight of the contested Roman landing in Britain that was Caesar's poorly-planned and troubled first invasion. Mark is putting together the scenario for that one.

Caesar, GJ (1928) Caesar: The Civil Wars. Translated by AG Peskett. First Published 1914. William Heinemann, London. Location: Fisher collection, York.

Caliban (2016) Scenarios: 250-0 BCE, Pharsalus, 48 BCE on Caliban-somewhen http://caliban-somewhen.blogspot.co.uk/p/scenarios-250-0-bce.html

Gilliver, K, Whitby, M and Goldsworthy, A (2005) Rome at War: Caesar and his legacy. Essential Histories Specials 6 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England. 288 pp. Location: Fisher collection, York.

Goldsworthy, A (2004) In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire. Phoenix Press, Location: Fisher collection, York.

MacDowall, S (2016) Pharsalus 48 BC on Legio Wargames. http://legio-wargames.com/pharsalus/4537662701

Penrose, J (2005) Rome and her Enemies: An Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England. 304 pp. Location: Fisher collection, York.

Reilly, C and Harris R (2015) Life Of Caesar #33 – The Battle Of Pharsalus. Life of Caesar Podcast http://lifeofcaesar.com/life-of-caesar-33-the-battle-of-pharsalus/