Saturday 3 December 2011

Greek Report

The world, at least at the time of writing, seems to be fascinated as never before by what is going on in Greece. I doubt if there have been so many foreign correspondents in Athens since St. Paul spoke in the Aeropagia. It is quite possible, I suppose, that this post will attract huge numbers of hits, simply because Greece is mentioned in the title.

Then again, perhaps not.

This blog, for those of you who remember so far back, is supposed to be about me writing some rules in the Polemos range in the period which can generally be classified as ‘Classical Greece’ and ‘The age of Alexander’.

Up until a couple of months ago, all I was really doing was reading. I’ve got through Herodotus, Thucydides, and, more recently, two volumes of Xenophon. So far as I’m aware, these are the major literary sources for Greek warfare before Alexander; if you know different please do let me know.

After all that reading, it was time for some writing. I intend that these rules will cover from Marathon to the era of the early successors, but the wars of classical Greece clearly have a flavour of their own, and I think it is best to try to capture that without distorting it by input from later times.

The definition of troop types is fairly simply. Most wargamers know, for example, what a hoplite is, and what peltasts do. It is important, however, in my view that we do try to define the troops and capabilities carefully.

Again, in terms of formation, we need to decide exactly what we mean by the terms used. In my case, at the moment, I’ve gone with the Polemos: SPQR definition of troops are ‘formed’ (lined up in ranks) and unformed. So far as I can tell, no other option was available to ancient commanders.

Having defined the main troop types, at least (I keep having to add another one to cover types met in the narratives) we can start to think about command. I’ve mentioned before my relatively low opinion of the early Greek commanders, and the Persians do not seem to be a huge amount better. However, commanders the armies did have, and so they must have some influence on the game.

It does seem to me that the main role of army commanders was to get the troops to the battlefield, preferably fed and in some sort of order, and then deploy them in a reasonable manner. Once that is done, and the ‘attack’ is declared, early commanders seem to have had fairly little influence. Note that here I’m talking about larger battles. Xenophon’s narrative of the 10,000 suggests that commanders were more important in running skirmishes than in big confrontations.

The key to winning a wargame, therefore, should be in the commander’s deployment of his resources. Actual ability to influence things after starting the battle should be reasonably limited. Occasionally, Greek commanders did change things during the battle, such as at Plataea, but there were comparatively rare events.

Even commanders of the imputed brilliance of Alexander III of Macedon had to set up a good deployment of his troops before getting on with the battle. This, I suspect, is really what marks out the good commanders from the ones who could get their troops to the battlefield. The eye for the ground and the idea of how the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides can be used is key to victory in most battles.

Early Greek battles were fairly straightforward, line them up and charge type engagements, for example at Marathon the commanders had little to do once the initial charge was made. We could argue that the wings turning in and attacking the hitherto successful Persian centre was a command decision, but we do not actually know. An equally convincing explanation could be that the Greeks on the wings were pleased to see their own opponents flee, and turned spontaneously to help their colleagues and fellow citizens in the centre. While we may hope or suspect that there were command decisions about, we cannot show it to be the case; we do not have the evidence to tell.

The problem now is, as I’ve mentioned before, the players need something to do as commanders after deployment. I suppose if I was writing an umpire led game, I could separate the generals off and let them fight their own battles with whichever forces they had placed themselves with, and then inform them of the overall result. That would be a lot of work for the umpire, however, although it may well be realistic.

The flip side of this is that the rules have to keep the wargamers as commanders from changing their plans too easily. All armies, I suspect, take a little time to react to things going on in the battle. Most rules do not address this very easily. For example, DMR allows units to react instantly, if the wargamer has the PiPs to allow it. Whatever the unit was doing before do not affect their ability to turn and face, say, a flank march.

In Polemos: SPQR the idea was to make things a bit slower to react to untoward events, and I think the same is necessary (perhaps even more so) with the Greeks. Whether I’ve succeeded in this with SPQR I’m not sure, and it may not be for me to say, but there have been one or two comments that the system of orders adopted may even persuade wargamers to keep a reserve under the general’s immediate and direct command. If that is so, I claim a result!

Be that as it may, the Greeks were not as good as commanders as the Romans may have been, so I do think that the command and order systems will have to be different. The problem is how to make it hard to command armies without boring the players during the game.

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