Saturday 6 April 2024

Running Another Marathon

It is always nice to re-enter known territory, and for me the most known territory wargame-wise is Marathon. This is not particularly because I have re-fought it a lot, records suggest that this is the fifth time, but, as I am sure I have mentioned before, it was the first account of a wargame I read, many years ago, in the now apparently defunct Military Modelling. This was by Charles Grant and I recall reading the first article, which was about the historical background and battle. I remember, all these years later, the anticipation of the account of the wargame in the next month’s issue.

Even then, as I carefully traced the (colour) illustrations of the hoplite, Persian infantry and cavalry and dreamed, I hoped that one day I would have Greek and Persian armies to call my own. It took decades, but eventually I managed it and the Persian Wars were ‘on’.

As it happens I have done a bit of campaigning with the Greeks and Persians. The best campaign I had was set in the fourth century BC and involved the Greek cities you would expect. Before much action took place on the mainland a Persian expeditionary invaded an island lair of pirates, who happened to be Athenian allies. The complication was that Athens did not want a full scale war with Persia, so the Athenian forces could not directly engage Persians. This led to some unusual, shall we say, manoeuvres.

Still, I decided it was time for an ancients battle and, after a few minutes consideration, opted for Marathon. Ibt is an easy battle to put on the table, after all, and time was a little limited. The basic tactical issue is whether the Athenians can get in contact with the Persian line before the arrows cause too much disruption. While Persian cavalry was present it seems to have had little influence on the action.

The picture shows the situation as the Greeks (on the left, obviously) have just about come into range. A little damage has been inflicted by the Persians, but a lot depended on who got the tempo for the next move, that is, whether the Athenians would have to stand another round of shooting before contact. In the original battle, according to Herodotus, the Greeks doubled through this zone to minimise Persian archery. The model here is that it depends on who wins the tempo.

The Persians actually won the tempo, and, say you can see, inflicted a fair bit of disruption on the Athenian right and centre. On the Persian right, the Greeks have got in, and the wing is under pressure with one equal fight, one losing and one which looks seriously dodgy. Still, there is a lot to play for.

A turn or two later and the Persian right has collapsed, more or less totally. The remaining bases will rout in the next combat turn. However, all is not lost as the Persian centre and left is still stalling the Greeks very nicely. A tempo win would be nice to launch some local counter-attacks here, and maybe get the cavalry moving towards the vaporized right wing.

Alas, it was not to be. The Athenians won the tempo and turned the bases under their general (the only ones which could receive orders, incidentally) onto the flank of the Persian centre. A decent combat roll meant that they routed, and, more to the point, routed away from the direction of the oncoming enemy, which meant that they swept away the rest of the Persian centre, including the general.

In the final analysis, the Persian morale was so negative that no dice roll would have retrieved it. That seems fair enough, given the absence of the centre and right wings, plus to loss of the general. The Athenians had done it again. Actually, I don’t think I have ever run Marathon with anything but a huge Greek win.

That raises interesting questions, of course. Was the original battle so unmatched that really the Athenians did not need to hesitate for a week before committing? On the other hand, it was one of those situations where the Athenians could have lost the war in an afternoon. If the army had been defeated, Athens would be defenceless. A bit of caution might have been wise.

On the other hand, whether it was so one-sided is a bit moot. Now, granted, the rules might not be very good (I wrote them, after all) and perhaps the hoplites get too much of a bonus. But, on the face of it, while the Persian infantry are outmatched in close combat they do have their chances, as shown by the Greek right, in particular.

The other option, pointed out by Phil Sabin in Lost Battles, is that the Persian infantry can be strengthened to balance the game up. From my account above, a second line of Persians would have made it much more difficult to destroy the Persian centre, and so that seems like it might be a productive rote to take for re-fighting the action. A reserve line would mean that the Athenians could not as readily turn on the flank of the Persian centre, and that would give the archery a better chance in those places where the Greek advance had stalled.

It has to be admitted, in the above, that some of the Persian rolls for both tempo and in combat were rather poor, and things could have shifted in their favour a bit more. On the other hand, they won the crucial tempo roll and got the Athenians subjected to two rounds of archery and on the second round they did inflict some damage. Keeping their general out of trouble would also have been an idea, as would have been the ability to launch local counterattacks, as I said. The thing is, with the archery, the Persians have to sit back and wait for the Athenians to get into range and then into contact, which automatically gives the hoplites and advantage in combat.

So, lots to ponder, but given that I have some more bases of Persian foot painted, I might well investigate further and will report back, unless you beg me not to...


  1. You touch on a very interesting point about scenario balance. With the small number of times we play a typical scenario, it is very difficult to know whether we have pitched it right; especially if our design goal or instinct is that for a battle like Marathon, the Greeks should may be win 75% of the time. Even when we suspect that something is amiss, it is sometimes difficult to put our finger on where the problem is...
    Waterloo is a bit of a go-to example for me here. If you play the scenario with the French player knowing where everything is and who and what is going to arrive when and where, then the problem becomes an awful lot simpler. Part of that is helicopter-generalship, part of that is hindsight. But if you try and solve these kinds of problems with tactical factors, then you might find it is impossible for the French to win at all.

    1. Hm. Yes, it is the sort of re-enactment against game problem, I think. We can either recreate Marathon or Waterloo, with the same dispositions, decisions and events as the prototype, or we can start writing our own script from somewhere within the historical narrative. Both are possible and even enjoyable, but it is a question of where one shades into another, perhaps particularly with ancient battles where we know so little anyway. Mind you, there seems to be a fair bit we don't know about Waterloo...

    2. Quite so, although I was also thinking of the probability distributions - what degree of (un)certainty should we tolerate around the individual tactical outcomes, given the limited number of data points we have for these kind of battles; then one can make the problem even worse, by trying to then modify those tactical factors in order to account for hindsight issues on top.

    3. Most certainly. A battle is a one off event. If the general had been standing over there rather than here, then he wouldn't have been wounded and the command confusion which lost the battle wouldn't have happened.
      History (unless you are a Marxist) is highly contingent (not wholly) and battles more so. We do run the danger of making things too complicated with our models, and not as realistic as a simple one.
      As someone once said, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics....

  2. Years ago I dismissed Marathon as just some hoplites Vs some archers. Until I played it. I really like it and last year must have played it 20 times with my very fast play rules (8x8 grid, about 6 units, lasts about 6 turns and about 10 minutes!). No game was the same and the dice results really changed what I did. I used to use only The Battle of heraclea to test out my fast play rules but now use Marathon just as much. And I haven't added any Persian cavalry yet but really want to test out the battle with a unit of them. I don't really require balance for this game as for solo play it is an interesting tactical exercise if playing it a few (or numerous!) times.

    1. Agreed. Marathon is interesting because, despite appearances, the Persians are not just archers and they do have options. It seems to me to be the Greeks who are a bit stuck. Mind you, Grant did add some skirmishers to the Greeks and some Ionian hoplites to the Persians as well, neither of which are beyond the realms of possibility, so there are many variations which can be created. All this from a couple of paragraphs in Herodotus as well!