Saturday 9 September 2023

Now, there is a Surprise

One of the things about wargaming, much like real life I suppose (what do you mean, wargaming isn’t real??) is its ability to surprise us, the wargamers. There is usually something in a wargame which takes us unawares. It could be the unexpected resistance of a militia unit or the sudden crumbling of the guard battalion. Some things cause great amusement, such as the failure of the pontoon bridging unit to deploy their wares over a pathetic small stream.

Sometimes, the outcome of a war game can be the cause of surprise, and this post describes one of these incidents. We are back in the American Civil War campaign, as abstracted by me and fought out using my collection of ancient Greeks. One side, the north, is ‘Athenian’, and the others, the south, are ‘Spartans’. The scare quotes are reminders that this is not a real campaign. The Spartans are more infantry-heavy, but they do not get elite status, for example.

Still, there are three routes available for both sides. One is beyond the mountains, one up the middle and the one nearer the coast is between the two capitals. At the first battle, recounted last time, the two central armies clashed, leading to a slightly unexpected victory for the Athenians.

A few moves later and I have three battles on hand. The move system, rolling for a general’s initiative, is supposed to prevent that, but here it did not. The Spartan leftmost ultra-montane army moved in on the Athenian equivalent. In the centre, the Athenian army attempted to exploit its success against the Spartans, while on the capital route, the Athenians threw their entire army at the Spartan capital.

I decided to start with the ultra-montane clash, where 19 Spartan bases, including 12 hoplites, took on 10 Athenians with a paltry 4 hoplites. It should have been a walkover, although the Athenians did manage to roll a rather natty defensive position, with a built-up area and a ridge line to defend.

A few moves in and the Spartans are moving up to overwhelm the Athenian lines. In the foreground the Spartan lights have seized the nearest hill, forcing off the Athenians and advancing on the village. If the Athenian skirmishers are really lucky, they will survive. Next across the Spartan cavalry are moving into the gap between the village and the ridge line, while the Athenian cavalry have scampered up the hill out of their way. The Spartan hoplite juggernaut is approaching crunch harassed by some Athenian light troops, who did manage to delay the Spartan rightmost column.

By this time I was counting hexes on the map, wondering how long it would take for the Athenian army on the capital route to get back to the capital, compared with how long the Spartan ultra-montane army, having proved their foes to be a mere speed-bump, would take. It turns out that I need not have worried.

The first Spartan hiccough came when the Athenian cavalry charged against their Spartan foe. Despite being outnumbered (the hill compensated) they routed one of the Spartan bases and pursued, as seen above. The rightmost Spartan hoplite column is also being harassed and has, for the moment been halted. The other two should be enough to squash the Athenians, though.

The crunch came. The two leftmost Spartan hoplite columns crashed into the thin hoplite line on the hill and forced it back. The Athenians resisted for a turn, which was crucial, before losing two bases. However, the delay allowed the Athenian cavalry to rally from pursuit and move into position to the rear of the Spartans. A charge against the central column, and a bad Spartan dice roll, meant that three Spartan hoplite bases were routed, taking the victorious base with them. The Athenian hoplite base (light blue shields) also had a hand by taking the Spartan supports in flank and forcing them back, but the cavalry did the real damage.

The Athenians, having wavered after their hoplite line was routed, it was not the Spartan turn. The Athenian cavalry pursued back to their own lines, while, eventually the rightmost Spartan column came into contact. The Athenians were prepared to flank it again, but never had the tempo point. One base, uphill, admittedly, against four in a column. There was only one way that could go, surely.

There was quite a lot of pushing back and forwards, while the leftmost Spartan column deployed into line to push across the ridge, and the Athenian peltasts attempted to distract them. The Spartans also moved up their remaining cavalry and got their skirmishers going again. Their dice rolling had, however, thoroughly deserted them. The rightmost column was routed. I kid you not. The Athenians were on 3+1 for the hill. The Spartans are on 3 + 3 for the supporting bases. It might have been a struggle, but the odds were definitely with the Spartans. The Athenians did not even get their flanking forces into play.

At this point, of course, Spartan morale cracked (having lost 9 bases to the Athenian 2) and they withdrew. The slightly stunned Athenians, who had only set out to do as much damage as they could to the Spartans and then withdraw, hopefully intact, let them go.

I suspect that this Spartan debacle was my fault. I expected the battle to be a walk-over, with the very powerful Spartan hoplites crashing through and crushing the Athenian centre. The only concession to the position being on a hill was to try to use the cavalry to get on the flank.

With hindsight, I should have spread the Spartan hoplites out a bit more, to keep the Athenians off the flanks and to provide a reserve in case of breakthroughs. The Athenian cavalry was handled more aggressively than I expected, and more successfully – a wild charge downhill to catch the Spartan cavalry, and then crashing into the rear of the phalanx. Nevertheless, the result was a surprise.

The Athenian victory also significantly changes the strategic situation. The main Spartan army, and, indeed, their strategy, has been disrupted. While the Spartan ultra-montane army still outnumbers their opponents, it will be much harder to force their way through to the road to the Athenian capital. Meanwhile, the main Athenian army of 20 bases is at the Spartan capital which is defended by 4 hoplite bases. While the Athenians have beaten twice their own number, five times might be a bit much even for the Spartans.

So, wargaming, yes, even solo wargaming, can spring some surprises. This is not the expected outcome, and I do not think I was biased in favour of the Athenians. Maybe I was overconfident as the Spartans...


  1. The problem with solo gaming is there is no one to carry you home on your shield.

    1. At least there is still part of you which is victorious.

  2. But this is why we love it, surely? A battle we might never have fought as a head-to-head game throws up a genuine surprise, which alters the strategic picture in an entirely novel way.

    1. Absolutely, yes, but it is rare to be so totally wrong about the outcome, I find. Still, it has blown the strategic situation wide open, and not in a good way if you are a Spartan.