As regular readers might be aware, I have had a couple of wargames recently, trying to test out the rules I am supposed to be writing (more like mouldering in a computer file, in so far as computer files can moulder). I was not terribly impressed after the first one; Alexander seemed to win really easily and the rules simply ‘felt’ wrong.
Upon reflection, I decided that there were some issues. Firstly, in the first battle, I had simply whacked onto the table every Macedonian and Persian base that was painted with little regard for historical accuracy and balance. As a consequence, I hypothesised; Alexander had far more Companion style cavalry than he should have had and had thus won far too easily.
Secondly, there were command problems. Neither side had enough tempo points (roughly translated for you non-Polemos players out there as ‘command points’) to get most of their troops into action, or even to get them moving. Now, while the accounts of the battles of Alexander may well be biased, they do not claim, in general, that only the forces under Alexander’s direct command were in action at all. So, something was not working quite right.
Finally, at least as far as my ponderings went, the rules just did not behave as I wanted them to. Now, those of you who have read Poiemos: SPQR (don’t worry, this is not a commercial break) will know that I classified troops there as ‘formed’ and ‘unformed’. This was an attempt to capture and model the fact that the ‘barbarian’ tribes, the enemies of Rome, did not line up in neat ranks and march in step. The Romans and some of the other Eastern Mediterranean cultures did that, granted, but the Celtic and German tribes did not (mostly; there are some hints in Tactius that the Germans might have started to do so).
Applying that directly to Alexander’s battles, however, just did not seem to work. Unformed troops are harder to get moving in SPQR than formed ones, but are more devastating on first impact than the latter. This, so far as I am any judge, seemed to work for modelling tribal foot against legions, but simply seemed to fail with phalanxes and Persian foot and hoplites; Alexander’s early battles could be described as “hoplites on both sides”).
I did, so far as I am able, sit and consider this problem for some time between the first and second battle, and eventually I came to the conclusion that, at least, the name was wrong. There was much less distinction between the formations in Alexander’s day than there was (even with wargame rules and their pardonable exaggeration) between the legions, auxilia and tribes a couple of centuries later or so.
I also considered that what seems to have been important at the time was not the actual deliverable fighting prowess of the troops, but their reputation. Somewhere in, I think, Thucydides, a bunch of hoplites pick up some Spartan shields and march on. No-body bothers to stop and fight them, assuming that they will lose anyway. Similarly, I think there is a story of Spartans using non-Spartan shields and their opponents running away when the truth was revealed. If anyone can quote me chapter and verse on these I would be grateful, but I think I remember correctly.
Anyway, the idea of training also seems to have been something of an anathema to the Greeks. While individuals did train a fair bit as individuals and individuals weapon skills, there does not seem to have been much in terms of unit training. Thus, I hypothesise, these units might be competent in action, but slow to respond to unit orders, simply because it might take longer for commands to filter down and be acted upon.
So, whereas Polemos: SPQR has morale and formation as its unit specifiers, at present Polemos: Polemos has reputation and training. The second wargame proved to be a more comfortable affair for me as the wargamer. Most of the troops got into action; defined mainly as of average reputation and as trained, the command points cost of even moving the phalanx was not excessive, and it rolled nicely over the Persian foot while Alexander’s cavalry was crushed by the opposition. However, Alexander himself, unscathed, managed to form a flank guard to check the triumphant Persian cavalry with a bunch of hoplite mercenaries while the phalanx finished off the Persian centre. At the point I ran out of time the action, while not finished, was going the Macedonian way.
So, was this a simple name change of a particular facet of the game which made it feel better, or more comfortable? Was it a deep change in the structure of the rules which improved the outcome? Indeed, was the outcome improved when Alexander’s Companions went down under the weight of Persian horse?
I am not sure I can answer any of those questions, of course. It was a simple name change, but that name change actually changed the behaviour of a lot of the troops on the table. However, referring to the troops as of average reputation and so-so training meant that the rationale for getting them moving in the first place sounded better. It also meant that the peltasts, unformed but trained mercenary, could behave like peltasts and not like some really hard to get going untrained peasantry.
Finally, of course, there is the question of luck. In the first game Alexander was lucky, in the second his luck only came to the fore when the Companions went down with him attached and he managed to ride away unscathed. Perhaps, on that basis, there is not much more to be said. After all, Napoleon is reputed to have asked of his opponents ‘are they lucky?’. Furthermore, I suppose that my tactics as Alexander were fairly well ‘hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle’ for the cavalry. While that might work for the phalanx, it does not seem to be how the man handled his heavy cavalry.
Nevertheless, the wargame felt better, whatever that means. The language was more appropriate, the command rules meant that the generals could do stuff, albeit within limits. So somehow an improvement was achieved.