Saturday 18 October 2014

Thoughts Upon A Wargame

In an unusual move for me, I have actually just ‘had a battle’ (to use Mrs Polemos’ expression), or, to put it another way, I have just wargamed. Specifically, the battle was between my new and shiny later Persians, and my slightly less new (but still quite shiny) Macedonians.

The terrain was entirely flat, and the troops were entirely average, as I wanted to test my putative Polemos: Polemos rules, which are, as you probably already know, aimed at warfare in the Classical Greek and Age of alexander era, whatever we might decide to call it.

I meant to get pictures, but never the wargame and a charge camera battery shall meet in my case. I thought the armies looked rather splendid, however, and their deployment was reasonably conventions. Thus, on the Macedonian right, there were some light horse, then the Man himself with six bases of Companions (in two lines), followed by two of peltasts, six bases of pike in a line one deep in the centre, two more bases of peltasts, three bases of Thessalonian horse and then four bases of light horse. Six bases of skirmish infantry covered the front of the phalanx. Fairly conventional, as far as Alexander goes, anyway.

The Persians started on their left with two bases of light horse, then six cavalry, four up front and two in reserve, the Great King (just the one) followed by a front infantry line of eight bases of Persian infantry, with four of hoplites behind. The right was five bases of cavalry, three up front and two behind, then two bases of light horse on the extreme right. In front there were six bases of skirmish foot and two scythed chariots. Again, fairly normal, I suspect, for the Persians.

Now, what happened was that alexander won the tempo, advanced his skirmishers and cavalry. As the lights got to grips, the Companions got into Persian charge range. The Persian horse, sensibly (possibly) refused to charge, whereupon Alexander did so.  On the other flank the Persians charged the Thessalonians, routing two of the bases. The Companions smashed up the Persian horse and then disposed of the reserve, which the Great king had just joined. In my mind I had decided that if the Great King was killed or routed, the Persians automatically lose. So they did.

I sat for a while pondering this outcome. In a way, the result of the battle was entirely historical, at least in vague outline. The armies line up. Alexander charges a perceived weak point. The Great King flees and the Persians collapse. If you wanted a summary of the great Macedonian – Persian battles, that would, pretty well, be it.

The reason I sat and pondered, however, was the thought that although the outcome had been historical, I was not sure if it was a good wargame or not. The whole battle lasted four turns, or about forty minutes. Arguably, as I have said, it had a historic outcome. But the infantry on either side had not moved an inch (or base width, in this case).

However, I did feel that a bit more action, a bit more drama, even some ‘clashes along the hole line’ were called for before one side or the other streamed away in disorder. Now, of course, I could, as the Persian, have fought on but, to be honest, there did not seem to be much point. With six bases of heavy cavalry sitting on their flank, the Persian foot and hoplites were not going to put up a major fight, particularly if Alexander had got the phalanx moving forward. In fact, the Macedonian lights were slowing gaining an advantage over their enemies anyway, and the Persian morale, having taken losses and lost the general, was going to get flakier. So it was a correct call, in my view, to concede.

But I think the wargame does raise a question. Is a good wargame the same as a historical one? As I say, the outcome was arguably historical (even down to the Thessalonians having a hard time on the other flank to Alexander). But I am still not sure if it was as enjoyable as I would have liked it to be.

Pondering further, I could see the crucial point of the battle was at the point where the Persian horse refused to charge the Companions, while the Companions did charge the Persians in the next bound. On the other flank, the Persians got the drop on the Thessalonians and were winning. This of course raises further issues for the wargame rules: is it all a matter of luck on a few crucial dice throws?

Another consideration is that of bias. I do not think my rules are biased towards the Macedonians, nor do I think my set-up or orders favoured them. But as a solo gamer, am I biased either for one side or against the other? I tried hard, in fact, to be biased against the Macedonians. Being lazy I tend to stand on one side of my table or the other, and the near side tends to win. So I stood behind the Persians all game, and they lost.

Now, there are a number of possibilities left. Firstly, the Macedonians do (at least in what I have painted) have a lot of heavy cavalry, but under the rules as they stand at present they are no different from Persian cavalry. So it was not that. Secondly, as the Macedonian, I had a plan, which was pretty well Alexander’s plan, while as the Persian I am not sure I did, at least, not a specific or quick one. The Persians wanted to clear the way for their scythed chariots to hit the phalanx while delaying on the flanks. Like a football team playing for a draw, this was a dismal failure.

So, did warfare of the time favour the attacker? Do my rules? Does fortune simply favour the brave? Is any quick plan better than no plan? Have I painted all those Macedonian and Persian foot in vain?

I suppose that I shall have to have another go to find out.


  1. Maybe the result was down to a string of decisions that all went one way. In this short battle, how easily could each decision point have gone the other way: Alex winning tempo, the Persians not charging, the Companions winning the first combat, then the second?

    To extend the football analogy, if that first goal had been ruled out for offside, the other team might not have been chasing the game and be left exposed, got caught out, gave a way a penalty and find themselves 2-0 down and down to ten men.

    1. I guess it is hard to decide, on one outing, if the rules are bad, biased or whether a string of decisions simply went one way or the other.

      Maybe I should have given Alexander a yellow card to even things up a bit? I think my biggest problem was that no other troops got into action, which is definitely not historical, and also means that I wasted my time painting them....

  2. "Is a good wargame the same as a historical one? "
    Sometimes but not always.

    Both criteria are open to question with opinions varying as to what makes a game good and what makes it historical.

    I think the record is fairly balanced in terms of the agressor winning or losing where all else was even but historically many generals seem to have avoided attacking at even odds which probably shifts the odds in favour of the agressor. Losing the monarch (or would be monarch in the case of rebels like Cyrus the Younger)

    Personal preference plays a critical role in what makes a game good. Most of of my favorite games to remember tend to be games that lasted 3-4 hours with several turns of fortune. More like Gaugamela than Isus.

    1. Oops accidently deleted 1/2 of 1 point . Losing the Monarch seems to have been deadly.

    2. It does seem for the Persians that losing the monarch (or even the commander, as at Plataea) seems fatal to the army. But the gains to be had from having the commander in combat (or at least present) must have been significant.

      On the other hand, Alex was often wounded and it didn't seem to make the Macedonians rout. is this a cultural difference?

      Am I iterating towards saying that a good game conforms to my expectation of history, and therefore this wargame wasn't good? Possibly, at least in this case. but a game has to be interesting, a narrative with twists and turns, and so on as well. Lots to ponder and not many answers as yet.