Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Great Upheaval

Strange as it may seem to many readers, this blog was originally designed to be a vehicle for recording my progress towards writing yet another set of rules, this time for Classical Greece and the Hellenistic wars of Alexander and the Successors.

Those of you who have been patiently awaiting these rules have, of course, thus far been disappointed. And I am not about to announce that the rules are to be released upon an unsuspecting wargame world. Far from the truth, that would be, but I have been thinking.

Mainly I have been thinking about my previous effort in Ancient Wargame Rules, called Polemos: SPQR which were rules for the late Republic and Early Empire. Someone recently blogged that they found them original (which was nice), baffling (so my prose is not as lipid as I would like) and that they had a large following (of which I was not aware). Someone else has expressed appreciation for my ‘trenchant’ views on Roman troops, which I take to mean my claim that auxilia and legionaries, being armed in much the same way, fought and functioned in much the same way.

However, I have to confess that as wargame rules they are, in fact, fairly conventional. I have lists of troop types with descriptions, a ground scale, a command structure, and rules for movement, fighting, running away and terrain. This is more or less what would be expected in any set of rules. The precise content may vary, but all the rule sets I own are of this nature.

Perhaps I am far too hide-bound by my own worldview, but it does seem to me that it is a bit unlikely that a rule set could be written which would not contain some or all of the above items. I know that assorted rule sets have claimed to do away with some bits. For example, some sets dispose of a fixed turn sequence, but they do substitute it for something else. So I am not sure that this is quite as innovative as might be claimed. Other might dispose of measuring ranges; on the other hand, for modern weapons, this is fair enough, so seems to represent the basis of recent warfare rather than being a, if you’ll pardon the expression, game changer.

It is also possibly true that wargamers are fairly conventional folk. Those rule sets which do not conform to the expectation are, as far as I can tell, a bit like yeast extract spreads: you either love them or hate them. Even while writing and testing SPQR I was somewhat conscious of having to attend to the conventions of the hobby; kicking over all the traces did not seem like a viable option.

Now, coming to the wars of the Greeks and Persians (and, let’s face it, this is what everything down to the Successors was) I am starting to wonder if another completely conventional rule set, even if one with some innovation in it, is really what is needed. The wars are so clouded in obscurity and myth that it is, I think, really hard to convince a player that what they are playing is something historical, rather than something which matches a construct which claims to be historical.

I shall probably elaborate on that statement in a different post, but just for the fun of it, let me see what could happen if I just try some thinking about ancient battles.

We have cavalry and infantry as our basic two types of troops. Within each we conventionally define ‘heavy’ and ‘light’, but actually these are metaphors relating to armour and are not validated by even a cursory glance at the historical record. So let us have close combat and distance combat troops. So we have four basic troop types: infantry close combat (ICC), infantry distance combat (IDC) and their cavalry colleagues (CCC and CDC).

Now, so far as the distance types go, this is probably far enough. However, our close troops need a bit of nuancing. Persian infantry of the Marathon era relied on firepower, so we need a category for them: ICCF, and their mounted colleagues did the same, so CCCF. Greek hoplites and pikemen can come under the ICC category. Greek cavalry would be CCCF and Macedonian Companions would be CCC.

So, for example, the army of Alexander would consist of CCC, CDC, ICC and possibly a few IDC.

Now, immediately I can hear protests that a Macedonian phalanx was not the same thing as a hoplite phalanx. The pike, it is often claimed, gave the former a decisive advantage over the latter, as demonstrated at Chaeronea 338 BC. This, of course, is technological teleology – the weapons system in question gave a decisive advantage.

Well, did it? I’m not in a position to argue terribly well either way; I do not think the evidence exists. But suppose the pike does not give a decisive advantage. Suppose that the Macedonians are experienced and highly confident troops and the hoplite are much less confident and, to some extent, the last dregs that their city can muster. Add to that the fact that the Macedonians could execute combined arms tactics coordinating their cavalry and foot.

So what I am starting to aim towards is a system with just six or so troop types, and little differentiation between them. I am also considering ignoring tactical factors, partly because people complain about them as being too complex, but also because, for example, standing on a river bank at The Granicus does not seem to do you much good. So for tactical factors we give all troop types a 3 against others of the same sort, and a 2 or a 4 against heterogeneous forces. What we can also do is give veterans a +2, and elite another +2, and poor troops a -2. I suppose we had also add 1 per extra depth as well, as depth did seem to matter.

And there you have it, a simple, swift and accurate set of ancient wargame rules. Six troop types, three different factors, and 4 tactical factors to consider.

The question is, of course, would you buy them? They seem to me to lack a bit of colour; would simply changing the names to familiar ones (like hoplite, peltast) suffice?


  1. I don't buy rules these days so I'll skip that part.

    In 1962 Joe Morschauser published his book on miniature wargaming. In the chapter on gaming the "shock" era he had 5 troop types
    Heavy infantry for the armored, hand to hand hoplite sort
    Missile infantry for those relying chiefly on concentrated bowfire
    Light infantry for all the skirmisher and peltast types, the lightly armoured cappadocian spearmen etc etc. Faster but not as powerful in melee.
    Heavy cavalty for the shock cavalry
    Light cavalry for the rest.

    Oddly enough when DBA came out in the 80s, its troop type list was only slightly larger.

    There does seem to have been a scissors, paper, stone quality to the different troop types where each had an important role that the other couldn't fill as well.

    Not sure all terrain has no effect although it is easy to over rate it and sometimes hard to see all of the reasons. For example, whether the various physical reasons given for prefering defending high ground to attacking the same were real or a cover for social norms over the centuries and across continents is probably a discussion of its own. However it does seem to be that armies did take done terrain into account, preferring for example to using lightly equipped infantry to heavily armed ones or cavalry on steep rocky slopes and in woods or avoiding such terrain altogether if their armybwad the wrong sort. It might be a difficulty of movement thing or the psychological effect of troops trained to fight in ranks being suddenly asked to fight as individuals. And so on.

    1. Do you think it is a possibility that wargames rules are cyclical - start simple, get more complex and then, in a single bound, free themselves to become simple again, before getting complex again, and so on?

      As for terrain, even the Greeks sought out flat places to have battles. The occasions when lighter troops worsted the hoplites were a cause of great shock and also quite rare.

      And I am starting to suspect that at the root of all this psychology, in various guises - morale, training, surprise and so on - is more important than we usually acknowledge.

    2. I think that the 'popular' rules that people play are cyclical. Popular is in the eye of the statistician but by popular I do not mean a few but more the TYPE of rules that seem to get played more at a certain time. Over the last 50 years or so, there have been very complex and very simple rules produced at the same time, but I think that the simple/complex rules played/discussed is cyclical. Generalising of course. There are always a large minority that are not playing the same complexity games everyone else is.

      Lost Battles is a good example where morale/training etc is extremely important, more so than in most other rules. Morale/training varies a lot between rules and is one of the first things I look at in a ruleset, after command and control.

    3. I think if you look at, say, the rules used for competition games (for me, perish the thought) but when I started it was WRG whatever edition and Tercio for the Renaissance. Now I guess is is FoG and DBR, both of which are simpler.

      Mind you, there are far more rule options about as publishing is cheaper.

      Lost Battles is very interesting, but I find the additional special rules for unit types a bit annoying. but it is probably just me.

    4. That cycle can be traced back at least as far as 19thC Kreigspiel, it probably goes back farther but I've not seen much evidence of what existed let alone bits of discussions about too complex/not detailed enough that one can find as new versions of Kreigspiel were rolled out.

      As for terrain, I'm afraid that is a very Greek perspective. I've seen no evidence that the Thracians or Aitolians sought to fight battles in the plain, rather they seem to have preferred it when the hoplite armies could be taken on ground not of their choosing. Zenephon's Anabasis is full of examples of Greeks having to deal with terrain they would have preferred to avoid and having to come up with innovative solutions to deal with it.

      I agree that psychology is at the root of most of it. One of the benefits of discipline is that while it holds, it can over ride instinct.

    5. I dare say that there was probably someone arguing that chess was dumbed down or too complex (or both) in the 10th century. Part of the human psyche seems to be to argue.

      I confess that i was thinking more of the bigger battles. Darius went out of his way to meet Alexander on flat ground, and Alexander did not object. The Anabasis is interesting, but possibly not representative of big battles, except Cunaxa. I suspect that something we do not model well is the break down of C&C in bad terrain.

      I think that psychology rules, yes. Well armed but low morale armies usually lose to high morale poorly armed ones.

  2. I think you touch on something there regarding the 'commerciality' of rules. How far can you go to write something that's a little bit different and still hope that people will buy it? Wargamers derive a huge degree of comfort if they can equate a new ruleset to their previous set, giving them something to compare, contrast and grumble about. Coming up with a fresh idea risks alienating your audience.

    Some new rules, of course, are based around fresh ideas, and sometimes they become popular and sometimes they don't. I think we can be constrained in our thinking at times so that we're not too different. It's less risky.

    We struggled, particularly with the earlier Polemos sets, with people who didn't find in the rules what they expected to see and assumed that this was a mistake, rather than intentional and part of the rules, but just different to what they were used to. I got heartily sick of posts to the forum which began "If this was DBM ...". And this was a set of rules which did include all the traditional aspects of a set of wargames rules.

    1. I think that we do tend to get stuck into ruts was wargamers for a particular period. A rule set becomes the paradigm against which all others are measured. I think I have mentioned before my suspicion that what we mean by 'realistic' is 'like the first wargame I had in the period'.

      The early Polemos sets did (and still do) cause some "eh, what?"- ing. I've never been sure whether this was because they were very different in their approach to some things, or whether it is because it is a PM tradition to get the examples wrong...

      Proof reading is a lot harder than most people think.

      To some extent there is a constraint as to how wargames can go - tables, model soldiers and dice. But we do seem to have more mental constraints than that in reading rules.

  3. I would buy them. But then I buy lots of rules. I really really like to read how different people approach implementing ancient battles as gaming.

    You are right about conventional troop types. But you could convert yours to more "conventional names" as you suggest. A few rules that I have (and really like) that have moved away from convention are Rally Round the King (formerly Warrior Kings) and the Irregular Miniatures Ancient Rules. RRtK split bases into Melee, Missile or Skirmish types. And bases are either Mounted or Foot. So you have six broad types. It gets a little more complicated as each base has one of three armour values and one of four "morale" values. And number of figures. All play a part in combat, But the base idea of splitting troop types by their roles is good. The Irregular Miniature rules again has three broad types - Battle Line, Auxilia and Skirmish. And units are mounted or foot. There are armur rules etc and each unit has one of four morale levels. It has a clever use of four die types (d6, d8,d10 and d12) to represent morale. But I like the classification system. I have dreams of doing a ruleset based on the Irregular Miniatures rules but using a d6 only and the 6 main types.

    With my limited reading of ancient battles, I cannot see a different between hoplites and pike phalanxes. Armati is a ruleset that springs to mind that does not differentiate (ok, it has a only minor one in that pikes suffer a slightly worse penalty if they perform a complex move and become 'undressed'). I do not differentiate in the rules I am writing either. I may not be right, but there are other out there that agree so I do not feel lonely!

    1. So six basic troop types for ancient games are fairly conventional, but then often they add complexity through armour, morale training and so on?

      And I thought I was being radical!

      Mind you, I do think that adding all the extra stuff might be superfluous. Having armour might be important to the bloke in the front rank, but how determinative of the combat outcome is that to the unit?

      I'm really not sure.

    2. Armour is no so important in the Irregular Miniature rules and morale is THE most important thing. Armour in Rally Round the King is more an attribute of how much damage you can take, but then that is what armour is! My own rules do not have armour, but I did go with conventional troop type as it was easier for me to imagine them that way. So I have infantry, cavalry, chariots classes and each then has skirmish, light and heavy for 9 troop types and then Elephants and Scythed chariots, and a bonus heavy infantry archer class to make 12. Heavy and light in this case are not metaphors for armour. Some rulesets (as mine) associate light/heavy with loose/close order and role on the battlefield based on firepower. So you could move you F/C classifications to light/heavy and get more conventional!

      WRG Ancients and all the derivatives at the time have a lot to answer for when it comes to troop definitions! They percolated into the great wargaming unconscious collective and still reside in parts.

    3. I'm not sure that armour is determinative of how much damage a unit can take, although indicative of how much an individual can take (or feels he might be able to take).

      I do recall arguments about WRG Light Medium Infantry (? LMI) which even to a neophyte like me seemed to be taking classification to extremes. The real world is usually a lot more complex than our species allow.

      I confess I would need to add elephants and scythed chariots to the rules in the post above, but it was designed to provoke reaction.

  4. I know zilch about ancient gaming, but I would likely buy these rules if I were, in part because I am coming around to the simpler is better school of thought. As I get older I find I value playability more and baroque complexity less and less, even if that complexity is an attempt to model historical factors like formations, tactics and weapons, or national characteristics. I've followed your blog long enough to appreciate your sense of how little historical data there really is, and thus to doubt the importance of these historical factors. I also have enough experience of playing WRG rules in my medievals phase to doubt, as you say, the wisdom of troop categories like LHI and LMI which as you say are as much about armour types as anything else.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement!

      I think that that sort of complexity encourages us to think that we are being historical, while not being so. But non-complex rules are hard to write to obtain the historical outcomes.

      So we get a bit trapped between wanting to add fiddle factors and not having innovative ideas to simulate something about warfare that we know, or think we know.

      I too no longer have the patience to do all the plus and minus stuff. I try to write rules I'd like to play, but that too is a moving target. I know that Don Featherstone had one postcard rules for the latter part of his playing days; I'm not sure if that included troop definitions, though.

    2. I agree with the premise that more complexity does not equate to a better simulation. I also agree the difficulty of writing non-complex rules!

      The rules I like and keep coming back to, Armati, have very few modifiers to an opposed dice roll (I think there are about 4 in total - from memory general attached, defending terrain, wider unit, undressed - and usually none of them apply. Another favourite between my friends is Might Armies Ancients that only has 4 modifiers too. I do not like lots of dice modifiers either, although my current homegrown rules have 9 :-(

    3. Yes, one of the things I'd like to cut down on are the modifiers, but doing so is tricky. someone wil always complain, even when I'm playing solo....

  5. We recently as a group switched over to Hail Caesar for our ancients gaming, the reasons for this were simple, aside from the nuances of the rules themselves combats etc are very simple to calculate and minimal modifiers really make the difference as far as we are concerned, Often the highly accurate systems are so complex and a small computer is needed to work out the modified scores that you never manage to actually complete a game in a given evening. Though you are correct in the fact that you will never please everyone, it all comes down to individual taste at the end of the day but should you be trying to please everyone or should you concentrate on what you believe in and let the wider public decide?

    1. Yes, I think there is a complex manifold of complexity, personal tasdte and what the wargaming public will accept.

      I guess wargaming is, at the end of the day, a social activity, so we need some public rules and some agreement. On the other hand, I have seen wargamers tacitly ignore swathes of rules because they were too complex, slowed play down or they simply didn't believe the outcomes.