Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Notions of (Phil Sabin's) Empire

Faced tonight with a sudden hankering to play a game, I trotted downstairs, surveyed the shelves, and settled upon Phil Sabin's Empire. As something that takes an epic subject, could be set up without too much rules review and can be got through in an hour, it was the obvious choice.

Covering the period 350-150 BC, the game takes in the Mediterranean world (stretching as far east as India) and its Persian, Macedonian, Carthaginian and Roman inhabitants. Each of the twenty game turns starts with a rebellion roll which turns one occupied territory neutral, and then the four powers get to take a turn attempting to expand. Usually a power gets one attack per turn, but in a great captain turn they will get five (so they best make the most of it).

There is not a lot to the game tactically: you are pretty much at the mercy of the dice. To successfully conquer a territory on Empire's point-to-point game map a power needs to roll 4 or better on a d6. There are modifiers at play, and with certain territories worth more for victory point purposes, it is usually clear what the best attack is, and then you have to hope the die (or dice when attacking across a sea route) will cooperate.

It's all very straightforward - even bearing in mind a couple of special rules - and with two victory turns (VPs are counted on turns ten and twenty), everyone knows what they are aiming at.

Opening situation: Carthage blue (3 territories), Rome red (1 territory), Macedon yellow (1 territory) Persia green (8 territories).

In our game Macedonia started gloriously, winning Graecia on turn one and then watching Alexander wreak absolute havoc on turns two and three, wiping out the Persians and being on the doorsteps of both India and Aegyptus.

Alexander's conquests.

Neither Carthage nor Rome could make much headway in the first century of play, but Persia / Parthia reclaimed its homeland just before the first victory turn was up, and with both Carthage and Persia receiving handicap assistance, the scores at 250 BC were recorded as Rome 5, Macedon 13, Persia 14 and Carthage 16.

Carthage and Rome squabbled over Gallia until Hannibal's entrance saw Rome's influence temporarily squashed. Two turns of great captains for Rome began promisingly, but perverse sea assault rolls and some untimely revolts meant Roman expansion was stopped at Sicily, Iberia and Macedonia. 

All game Alexander's successors held on grimly to his conquests in Asia, but the Parthians (the Persian replacements) began to reclaim some of the eastern territories. 

Parthians reconquer some of the ancestral homelands.

Carthage and Rome continued to squabble ineffectually over Iberia, and at game end, the points were tallied thus: Rome 12, Persia / Parthia 20, and Carthage and Macedon tied for first place on 21. 

Board at game end, 150BC.

It was a nice little historical interlude, and left me with one or two ideas for future play.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

The changing face of wargaming

One of the things that has impressed me most in the time I've been wargaming is the way that game design has progressed.  

When I started it was with Diplomacy and Warhammer Fantasy Battle, both of which required a certain time investment to play. Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd Edition was massively fun at the time, but it took an evening to cost out your army, took all day to fight, and the amount of dice rolling was phenomenal. Diplomacy required eight people (seven if you could get by without an umpire), and by the end of the game your relationship with at least one of those players would be damaged almost irreparably. 

That said, each game was a genuine event, and would be remembered for years.

When I got into wargaming again in the post-university years, it was with process-heavy historical miniatures games - seemingly cut from similar cloth to WFB - and sprawling hex-and-counter games such as those from The Gamers. 

Enter card-driven games -  Hannibal: Rome versus Carthage and For the People, for example - which used point-to-point movement instead of hexes, based victory around control of blocs of territory, and made card play the central decision mechanism. Able to be used in a variety of ways, each card gave players the choice to trigger an event, use the card to perform an action, or try to bury it so that it could not be leveraged to advantage by one's opponent. 

Then there were Commands and Colors: Ancients and Lost Battles: both hybrid developments of earlier miniatures and board game types. Commands and Colors used cards for unit activation, employed custom dice, and provided generic units with customisable battlefields. Lost Battles used a square grid with a lead (as in front, not metal!) unit model to allow tactical match ups, a handicap system to afford outmatched armies a chance at a game win, and followed a uniquely academic approach.

In the meantime both eurogame and wargame designers had been coming up with interesting new takes on old game mechanisms, such as tile drawing, deck building, trick taking, dice hoarding, chit pulling, and bluffing. Friedrich, Maria, the Simmons titles and Sekigahara all helped bring some of these interesting intersections into the world of wargames. 

Then along came W1815, the strikingly innovative map game on Waterloo, which featured static forces, and an action card for each commander, not only designating possible actions as in other card-driven games, but also - brilliantly - functioning as individualised combat results tables. This game on its own has led to an entirely new 'static battle' genre that is being explored by designers to take on previously hard-to-game situations, and its influence is felt almost everywhere. 

Ian Brody's groundbreaking Quartermaster General series has been another landmark modern design. In terms of how cards can be used to introduce player options, create gruelling battles of hand and mind, while also reducing large conflicts to key elements playable in ninety minutes, it is hard to overstate its importance. Who would have thought in 1980 that you could take World War II and play it out as a six-player game in recognisable and satisfying fashion in less time that it takes to complete a game of Risk, and without a die in sight? Certainly not Milton Bradley!

The Quartermaster series has broadened the definition of wargame.

And the dance continues. The Undaunted series has added new layers of depth to map, card and dice combinations in wargames. Solitaire games, using bots, are plentiful - and designers are retro-fitting older games for solitaire play using these new concepts. We are seeing an explosion of impressive fast-playing, decision-centric, bot-soloable, war-themed crossover games that bring in ideas put together in fresh ways by young(ish), crafty designers who are not afraid to defy wargame convention, who have wide gaming experience in different genres, and will borrow and refine from anywhere in the service of the game.  

It seems, at the moment, that possibilities are legion.

What a great time to be a wargamer! 

Friday, August 5, 2022

Painting, Gettysburg revisited, and a musical diversion

For the first time since perhaps March 2019 I have picked up a paintbrush. The objects of my attentions were not the Greeks for Mantinea signalled earlier this year, but Carthaginian elephants and crew so that I can play Bagradas without co-opting Macedonian jumbos, and as a way to ease back in with reasonably rapid additions for the table.

Unfortunately, it was quickly apparent that in the three years since I last painted my eyesight has deteriorated significantly. In short, I couldn't see what I was doing. 

I tried again the next day in natural light and I could see details better, but it's still a long way from what I am accustomed to and it has come as a bit of a shock.

I knew that moving from teaching into constant computer work had taken a toll on my eyes, but I put a lot of it down to general tiredness. I didn't realise it had become quite this bad.   

The situation I am now in is that unless I get some glasses sorted, painting will only be possible on sunny days. As I used to do most of my painting at night in my old hobby room, it will take a serious readjustment to make much progress in terms of reducing the 15mm lead mountain. It is clearly time for some re-evaluation.

In happier news, I got Eric Lee Smith's Battle Hymn on the table again. Goodness me, it is a beautiful game.

Heth's boys on the march.

And I also bought myself a new guitar, a Telecaster copy. After the kind of work week when I thought of starting to apply for other jobs, I was told to have a drink and chill out. I did, and did. I'm looking forward to it arriving and cranking up the volume in the den!

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Entertainment in a time of COVID

The bell finally tolled for me on Sunday. I'd had a minor sniffle come on Friday night and thought nothing of it. It then progressed to sneezes on Saturday, so on Sunday I decided to get a test before heading out anywhere other people might be. I was sure it was just a bit of a cold, but the RAT test immediately clanged out 'COVID!'  

With the wife and kids away in Japan visiting family, I did not have to worry about passing it on to them, so I just got in touch with work, ordered some food to be delivered from the supermarket, and settled down to wait it out for a week.

In my favour was the fact that there was a cricket test on. Sadly, we were getting royally thumped, so it was a slightly blue Prufrock looking out the window on Monday who saw a package had been delivered. 

Wouldn't you know it, it was Mike Lambo's Battles of Medieval Britain, for which I'd put in an order about six weeks previously and almost despaired of ever seeing. As it turned out, its arrival couldn't have been better timed. 

The book includes ten pages of rules and solitaire game representations of twelve British battles. These being:

  • Brunanburh, 937
  • Fulford Gate, 1066
  • Stamford Bridge, 1066
  • Hastings, 1066
  • The Standard, 1138
  • Lewes, 1264
  • Evesham, 1265
  • Orewin Bridge, 1282
  • Stirling Bridge, 1297
  • Falkirk, 1298
  • Bannockburn, 1314
  • Shrewsbury, 1403

Each battle comes with a one page full colour hex map and an accompanying description of the information necessary to play out the battle. The rules are clear and simple, need only d6s, and contain nothing that could cause (or exacerbate!) any headaches.

Set up is not fixed: the defending units are positioned by dice roll, as are any reinforcements when they arrive. With only five types of units, you can retain all the unit characteristics in your head and just focus on beating the game. The order generation mechanism is quite neat, and combat is of the 'score x on 2d6, with various +/- modifiers' type.

Turns work as follows:

- mark off turn on turn track

- roll for and place any applicable defender reinforcements 

- activate each player unit one by one by rolling a number of dice to generate orders. Use (or don't) orders as desired

- when all player units have been activated, defending units attack all player units in range

And that's it. Defending units don't move (although defending reinforcements will appear during the battle), so it is up to you as the attacker to calculate the best way to defeat the enemy in the number of turns available. 

Fulford Gate using Commands & Colors terrain and 15mm figures.

The battles are essentially military-themed interactive puzzles, somewhat akin to chess problems, but with variable set up and random elements to consider. To make it easier you can give yourself an extra turn to achieve the objectives. To make it harder, give yourself one fewer.

I've played through the first two scenarios already, and they are a cool way to pass a bit of time. Simulations they are not, but if you want to spend a half hour exercising the brain and rolling a few dice, you could do a lot worse. 

And as for providing entertainment while isolating with COVID, it does the job!

Saturday, June 25, 2022

2nd Day of Gettysburg, with Table Battles

With some Civil War reading on the go at the moment I had a hankering to play an appropriate game. As most titles of that ilk on my shelf are of the 'need to stay set up for a week or so' variety, I betook myself to Table Battles from Hollandspiele for a bite-sized chunk of action, namely the 2nd day at Gettysburg. Whether that was the right call or not will be elaborated on at the end of the post. 

Table Battles owes a heavy debt to the excellent W1815 by U&P Games, and while the former has the advantage of coming with lots of scenarios, it does not have the lovely map that accompanies the latter. In fact, Table Battles does not come with any maps at all: battles are represented by unit cards placed side by side and sticks as strength markers. 

The lack of geographical setting takes away much of that 'we're playing a battle here' feeling I value in my wargames, so I decided to set out the unit cards and associated strength markers in the rough shape of the battlefield in an attempt to give more of a connection to the historical event.

I'm sure most if not all readers will know the general picture of the dispositions of the Union and Confederate armies on July 2nd 1863, but as a reminder here is a map from wikimediacommons, and the Military History Fandom site.

The Table Battles scenario, moving from the Union left around the Union right, has two strength sticks on Little Round Top, opposed by Hood's division with four strength points. Sykes has four strength points to use to replace (absorb, in game palance) any Union losses suffered on Little Round Top. 

Moving back to the main battle line, Sickles, with six strength points, is faced by McLaws, with five. Hancock, at strength eight, is the heart of the Union line, and he is matched against Anderson at strength five. Howard with six strength holds against Early with five, and at the extreme end of the line Slocum, at a strength of just two, faces Johnson with four. 

Meade is present as well, with the ability to allow Union units from the main line (i.e., excluding Little Round Top) to absorb losses for any other unit on the main line. Two damage scored on Howard, for example, could be transferred to Hancock, who may be better able to take the losses at that particular juncture. 

This is what my set up looks like (forgive the poor approximation of the battle map!):

Confederate wings are red and pink; Union ones light and dark blue.

In Table Battles each side has a pool of six dice, which are rolled and assigned to unit cards to allow those cards to activate on a subsequent turn. Limitations are that dice can only be placed on one card of any particular colour per turn, and in the case of the Confederates units must wait for dice to be loaded onto first Hood then McLaws before they can be added anywhere else.

The Confederates have their best attacking opportunities with Anderson, then McLaws, then Hood. Every attack will also reduce their own strength, but the more dice per card the more damage can be inflicted on the Union troops. The Union, for their part, have the ability to counter-attack, which will increase the damage on any Confederate assault, and reduce the damage they take themselves. The trick for the Union is to load dice on the correct cards at the correct time to use the counter-attack ability, and use Meade's absorb feature to spread losses across the line so that no one unit becomes vulnerable to defeat. Union attacks, particularly against Johnson and McLaws, can help to break up the Confederate charge. 

Without further jawing, let us move to the battle itself. 

After dice build up on both sides, the action commences with McLaws attacking Sickles. McLaws does two damage and takes one himself, reducing strength to four and four.

Howard then attacks Early, for one hit to himself, two to the enemy, leaving five and three blocks respectively. Unfortunately, I can see that I made a mistake here and did the hits the wrong way round - one off the Confederates and two off the Union! 

Another attack from McLaws sees Sickles in strife and down to one block. The counter-attack ability has however taken two blocks off McLaws. Any further attacks by McLaws on Sickles can be transferred to another unit by using Meade's absorb ability.

Already it is clear that the Confederates have few good attacking options: they can wear the Union down, but to do this causes so much damage to themselves that breaking the line will become almost impossible. Nevertheless, they persevere.

Anderson now attacks Hancock, but the counter-attack means both sides lose two strength.

 Johnson batters himself against Slocum.

Early attacks Howard, but Hancock takes the damage.

These no-advantage attacks by the Confederate are required to force the Union into counter-attacks. If the Union gets a free turn (i.e., they are not forced to counter-attack), they will be able to attack McLaws with Sickles, exhaust both units, and prevent any further dice being added to Anderson by virtue of the special rule that dice can only be placed on Anderson if there are dice on McLaws. For this reason the Confederates must keep attacking and hope against hope to get good enough rolls on their allocation phase to load up on Anderson and deliver a killer blow. The Union however need only sit tight, absorb losses, and wait for the opportunity to hit McLaws.

Johnson self-immolates for the cause.

Then Early attacks.

No counter-attack is forced, and the Union is now free to use Sickles to attack McLaws.

And that is effectively the battle decided. It is now over the Union to clean up as they will. The troops on Little Round Top attack Hood twice in succession.

The Confederates are no longer able to place dice anywhere but on Hood, and it is just a matter of time before the Union administers the coup-de-grace.

It comes against Early and the Union has held the high ground. 

The casualties favour the Union by one. The Confederates have expended themselves to no good end. 

And so the battle is over. 

As I am increasingly finding with Table Battles, the effort expended to play the game (much less write a report) is out of all proportion to the reward. The game only approximates the battle it purports to represent, and is more like a hand of cards than a wargame. 

The central difficulty with Table Battles is that, unlike with W1815, the dice rolls come before the decision. In W1815 you make your decision and take your chance; in Table Battles you take your chance and make your decision. Once dice are allocated to a unit they cannot be removed until an action or reaction is taken, so there is no flexibility in changing the point of attack. When an opposition card has a counter-attack die on it, you can see the situation is hopeless ahead of time but must do an attack anyway to free up dice to roll for more activations on the off chance that you might roll, say, two fives to put on a powerful unit, and then hope that the enemy will roll something less useful. 

Some scenarios such as this one are heavily skewed towards one side or another, and there is no way to assess one result against another over a series of games to find a winner. It is zero-sum win or lose. You cannot, as you can in, say, Commands and Colors, keep track of victory points scored by each side and compare after a game apiece to find a winner. You could assess casualties, but casualties themselves are not the focus of play - the focus of play is scoring casualties in the right place, so that you can break the enemy formations needed to get victory squares - so to look at inflicting casualties in total is to deviate from the path to victory. 

Playing Gettysburg with Table Battles was one way to get a Civil War game in, but it is not one that I can take any satisfaction from. The more I play this game the less I like it. I liked it more when I was playing the rules incorrectly.

Anyway, I will stop my rant there, but suffice to say I'm annoyed with myself for having bought four expansions!

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

More Undaunted Normandy - it's a winner, folks.

Well, to follow on from my previous posts on this game, I have to say that both myself and SP are sold on it. We've had, I think, three sessions playing it now, and have progressed through to scenario seven of twelve. All the bells and whistles are now in play - riflemen, scouts, snipers, machine gunners, mortars - and the mix of card play, board movement and dice rolling keeps you engaged throughout. I have not had this much fun with a boardgame since the early days of Commands & Colors: Ancients

Plenty of meat in scenario seven.

It seems simple, but as you work through the scenarios and more elements are added you start to see how well designed it is and how smoothly all the parts combine to create an immersive, easy to learn / hard to master game system. 

I have tried platoon and company level WWII wargames before and really wanted to like them, but as with most of my games, they have ended up on the shelf gathering dust. They take too long for dimishing returns, the enthusiasm wanes, the decisions pall. This one however just begs to be played. 

The mix of luck and planning is complex. The initiative comes and goes, fortunes ebb and flow, and you finish a scenario thinking about all the things you could have done differently, wondering whether they could have changed the result. There is a lovely tension between active and passive play, and because the scenarios are so tightly contested there is room for that wonderful thing 'player morale' to do its part. You can bluff your opponent and be bluffed; out-think and be out-thought; take the risk or defer it; make the play or resist it; drive for the win or deter it. 

In a part of the world where I routinely have to pay well over a hundred dollars for a boardgame, the games in this series cost about seventy. It is astoundingly good value. Not only on price but, crucially, on gameplay and enjoyment. I have gone ahead and bought both Undaunted expansions (Undaunted North Africa and Undaunted Reinforcements) and will no doubt get the upcoming Stalingrad set as well. 

Mortars are introduced in scenario five.

As I say, for me it is the best game since Commands & Colors: Ancients. As with C&C:A you can find your own style. By the time you get to the meatier scenarios you find you can switch the point of focus, find different ways to upset your opponent's play, try different ways to win. Skill is important, but it goes not guarantee victory. Undaunted sets up fast and moves fast, but packs a lot of decisionmaking into that time. It does not grind on or overstay its welcome. You do not come away thinking 'well, that was a bit pointless' or - worse - pack it up unfinished because you can't be bothered continuing. It is a light player, but a very good one, and that suits me down to the ground at the moment.  

It looks good on the table, the cards feel fine in the hand, and as you come to be able to read the board and the situation, the options become almost delicious. 

I recommend it without hesitation. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Legion: Chaeronea with Phil Sabin

A couple of months ago I was fortunate enough to have Phil Sabin offer me another game using his Legion II rules. The battle was Chaeronea, and the victory was Phil's - playing the Greek coalition! 

Yes, I managed to charge Alexander into danger, get him killed almost immediately, and then attack in uncoordinated fashion with my phalanx until, being put to the sword, I was forced to retreat what I could of the army. Phil won the battle convincingly, and a rather rueful Prufrock was left to absorb the lessons of the day!

It was a great experience, and an excellent opportunity to try out Legion using the VASSAL module that has been put together to allow online and distance play.

For those interested, the module is downloadable here from the site. You need the Legion rules to play, and they are available from the Society of Ancients. 

Here are some screenshots from the game.

My Macedonians, with Alex on the left, full of confidence.

Phil's Greeks, waiting for us.

My initial attack didn't look too bad to my untutored eye...

But the Greek response showed me what a mess I'd made!

The place where Alexander was killed.

And here we are, getting in our own way, while the Greeks create superior attacks.

And our battle line only degenerated from there as Phil pressed on. 

As I hope readers can see, the VASSAL module makes Legion easily playable, even for people on opposite sides of the globe.

Highly recommended. 


Sunday, June 5, 2022

Short reviews: Undaunted Normandy

I had the chance to play through the first two scenarios of Undaunted Normandy with an opponent last night and (as promised) thought I would share some observations. See here for initial thoughts. Note that we have not used all troop options yet - only scouts, riflemen, machine gunners. There are still mortars and snipers to come.

1) Deck building. When opportunites arise you can add cards to the deck. It seems like quite a good way of stacking future options in your favour. In your turn you draw a random limited number of cards out of the deck you've built and play with what you draw. Once you know what's in your drawn hand you (obviously!) can plan and play accordingly. 

2) Card activation. Both games were won against the board position by runs of cards which gave the opposition no ability to interfere with the winning outcome. With no real time 'opportunity fire' deterrent, it gives certainty to actions which perhaps real life wouldn't.

3) Card removal. An interesting way to simulate casualties by removing activation cards.

4) Bidding for initiative. As per 1, 2 and 3, you can calculate odds, decide whether it's an action or holding turn, and bid based on that.

5) Line of sight. There is always line of sight, no matter the terrain. Rolling a ten is always a hit on the enemy, no matter how skewed the shooting odds. Intervening terrain matters only for range, and cover is only for the terrain the target is in: i.e., it is not cumulative.

6) Victory points. VPs are gained by controlling certain areas on the board. Scenarios and sides have differing objectives, but winning on VPs only takes into account the territorial objectives, not casualties sustained in achieving them.

So far it is proving to be an interesting light war-game. We are both keen to play more, but the game has its problems as does every other tactical game of its type. So far the fact that both games were won against the run of play by good immediate card hands which the opposition was powerless to interfere with once initiative was determined is a potential negative (but may turn out to be a strength). 

It certainly has something. Again, I came away with an urge to pick up the expansions but am still resisting until I see whether I really like it or not. At this stage I would rate it a 7 out of 10. More to follow once we get further through the scenarios.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Pharsalus - the return match

To continue the game series started last week SP and I got together Saturday for round two of Pharsalus. You can read about the first battle on the link above, but to recap, while Caesar won the battlefield victory after surrounding and routing the Pompeians, SP did enough damage to Caesar's veterans to win the game 106 to 101.

For round two we swapped sides - this time SP would take Caesar. Pompey's cavalry wing again commenced the fight with a successful charge, and again Pompey refused his right. Caesar advanced judiciously, took the flip flop on turn three, but failed to make much headway in the initial exchanges. 

The initial clash of cavalry (Caesar's to the left; Pompey's to the right). The prize, the Washbourn Trophy, sits in all its glory in the background. 

This changed on turn four, where a succession of successful attacks against Pompey's wing and centre caused nervous flutters on the other side of the table. Pompey's men replied in kind and by the end of the turn both sides had lost a unit in the cavalry fight. 

The lines meet.

From turn five onwards Caesar's veterans began to exert their dominance. Pompey's troops suffered mounting attrition, but were able to manage to inflict some damage of their own. 

Pompey's wing gave way on turn 6, allowing Caesar to get in behind the Pompeian line and lower the morale rating of Pompey's own zone, which routed soon after. Elsewhere, Antony struggled to make much of an impact against the determined resistance and ferocious attacks of the Pompeian right. 

Pompey's zone about to rout in the foreground.

With time almost up, the Pompeian centre routed, leaving just the right on the field. But they were still largely untouched, and fighting a wholly spent Antony. 

The end is near for the Pompeian centre.

Antony lost a unit shattered and was only saved for further embarrassment by a determined attack on the part of the veteran cavalry into the flank of the Pompeian legionaries on the final turn of the game.

The fighting by the river is vicious.

At this the remaining Pompeians routed and it was time to check the scores.

Caesar had done 96 points of damage to 72 by Pompey. When the handicap was added on, it was found that Pompey had won the game by 102 points to 96. 

When the scores of the two games were summed, it turned out that SP had managed 202 across the two battles to yours truly's 203, meaning that the Washbourn Trophy came back to its rightful home by the closest of margins. 

I was a little surprised to win a game victory here. We only shattered two units, but the difference was that we routed after eight units were shattered, whereas in the first game Caesar had shattered ten units in his win. This seemingly minor difference was reflected in the points scored, and shows how tight the margins can be under the Lost Battles handicap system.

So, a fine pair of games, and a good way to introduce SP to brilliant generals. 

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Pharsalus with SP

The figure gaming drought was broken last weekend with a refight of Pharsalus using - you guessed it - Lost Battles. The family has gone back to Japan for a visit now that the borders have reopened somewhat so with the house to myself it has been a bit easier to use the hobby space (i.e., I can set up the computer on the dining room table rather than on one of the hobby ones!).

SP is still learning the rules, so I thought it was time to bring in a brilliant general so that he can see the affect of a 'flip-flop' on the tactics of the game. In a flip-flop, the brilliant general once per game can reverse the turn order, effectively allowing him to position himself for a more lethal attack, reinforce a zone, or else to exploit a breakthrough.

Pharsalus, when using the historical deployments, is a fairly straightforward affair in Lost Battles. The main choice is about when and how Caesar is to reinforce his right wing cavalry, and then it's about rolling dice and intervening with attack bonuses at appropriate times. Crucially, there is also the matter of when to employ 'favour of the gods' (essentially a re-roll for either an attack you've flunked or one that the enemy has prosecuted a little too vigorously for one's liking). With favour of the gods, once one side has used it, they cannot use it again until their opponent has. As you can imagine, it leads to some difficult decisions in-game and, during the post-mortems, moments for reflection when you consider the coulda, woulda, shouldas. 

SP wanted to take up the cudgel for Pompey, so we started the action on turn two (turn one being taken up by the historical deployments).

As I'm sure most readers are aware, Pompey and the Optimates have numerical superiority in both horse and foot, and have concentrated the cavalry on the left under Caesar's old Gallic War lieutenant Labienus. To counter this cavalry supremacy, Caesar used a 'fourth line' - veteran legionaries supposedly re-armed with long spears and tasked with reinforcing the wing once the cavalry battle had commenced. To reflect Caesar's qualitative superiority, all his troop units are rated veteran, which gives them high morale, better manoeuvrability, and cheaper access to attack bonuses (i.e., +1s to attacks which are paid for with excess command points). 

Pompey's army has a fighting value of 77, and Caesar's 92. 

The battlefield at start.

Pompey began with a powerful cavalry attack. He scored three hits across two attacks, spending one unit of Caesar's cavalry and shattering the other. Caesar elected not to use FotG to call for a re-roll. Elsewhere, Pompey advanced in his own zone and the centre, leaving his right refused.

Caesar employed the flip-flop immediately to reinforce the cavalry with the fourth line, and advanced Antony into contact on his left.

The serious fighting now commenced. 

Mid battle, with the cavalry fight still undecided.

Both sides experienced rising attrition in in the infantry fight. As units became spent they were recycled from the front line to avoid being shattered. Caesar eventually won the cavalry battle (but not without another fright or two) and got in behind the Pompeian line to reduce the enemy's morale. With both sides almost entirely spent and a corresponding reduced ability to recycle, units began to shatter. 

It was at this time that Caesar's veterans came into their own. Utilising their superior manoeuvrability, Caesar was able to shuffle fresh units from one zone to another to increase the overall resilience of the line. Pompey, having no such capacity, began to lose units sooner.

It was his right that came under pressure first, as Antony pressed the attack remorselessly. Before long Pompey's own zone began to falter as well.

Final moments.

At last the Pompeians, with eight units shattered and two zones surrounded, collapsed, but not before having inflicted significant damage on Caesar's own zone. 

In the final accounting we found Caesar had inflicted 101 points of damage on the Pompeians and suffered 76 himself. When the handicap was added (double the difference in fighting value between the two armies), Pompey had scored a narrow game victory of 106 vs 101. 

Caesar was left to rue a couple of moments - not using FotG to deflect the first charge of Labienus and his cavalry, and not attempting to rally a unit that shattered in his own zone being particular examples - but the result was a fair reflection of the battle. After that initial attack on the cavalry I always felt I needed to be doing more damage than I was managing to.

It was a close-fought, nerve-wracking fight, just as Pharsalus should be. SP played with his usual cool head and aversion to excessive risk-taking, both attributes serving him well in pulling off the game victory.

Round two, to decide the holder of the Washbourn Trophy, will be fought today with sides reversed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Bruce Catton

I was browsing the other day looking to see if they had the new Gettysburg Solitaire book from Worthington Games. It turns out they didn't, but somehow or other (as one does) I ended up going down an internet rabbit hole. This time it led to Bruce Catton. I'd owned one of his books and loved it (I forget which one - A Stillness at Appomattox, perhaps?) but had lent it to someone and not got it back.

Since that first reading I've always checked secondhand book shops just in case they have any Catton on the shelves but I've not had any luck so far. I imagine it would be a bit different if you were shopping in the US, however!

Anyway, by roundabout means, I came across the website of a secondhand book store in Wellington called Haven Books which had a copy of the Army of the Potomac trilogy. I ordered it and it arrived today, well-thumbed, yellowed, and obviously much-read. Just how a book should be.

But my search also turned up another gem - a C-Span video of a lecture on Bruce Catton given at Gettysburg by David Blight.  I won't spoil it with an inadequate introduction, but if you have an hour and fifteen minutes to spare, you might find it worth your time.   

To close, the Gettysburg movie, Catton, Foote, and Burns have no doubt been the catalysts for many a Civil War obsession. Do readers have any other particular books, videos or lectures that got them interested in the ACW? 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Back on the horse(s)

Well, I stopped procrastinating, rearranged the garage, bought myself a lamp, and started prepping some Greeks for the Mantinea battle day project. I've jumped into cavalry and Theban hoplites first. The figures are a reminder of just how lovely the Xyston figures in this range are - beautifully sculpted, characterfully posed, and nicely proportioned; just slightly north of average for 15mm, they are not yet at the giant stage that the Hellenistics became - but also of how much of a pain it is to drill out hands for spears. 

The other problem of course it that they are intimidating. For a limited painter such as myself there is always the feeling that you won't be able to do them justice. 

Garage prep space.

But making a start is the thing. 

In other news I succumbed to an artfully placed ad while browsing TheBookDepository and ordered Undaunted Normandy. It arrived on Saturday (along with my Landmark Caesar, which is just as good as I'd hoped) and I opened it up for a wee test run on Sunday.

The first scenario in the game booklet

The first thing you notice is that the components look a lot nicer on the table than they do in photos. I was impressed enough to almost go and order the expansions on the strength of the look and feel alone. Better sense prevailed however, and I decided that I would force myself to discover whether I actually liked the game before ordering anything more (radical idea, I know!). 

How is the game? Well, I must preface my comments with the caveat that while I love the idea of squad level WWII games, in practice I mostly find them ho-hum. This one might turn out to be all right. It has a card management aspect to it that I think could be quite enjoyable with the right opponent. Solo it lacks a bit, but then that is true for most games. 

The essence of the game seems to be to build up the cards in your draw deck so as to allow you to string together move and fire sequences (or fire and move sequences, if you prefer) that will put your opponent under pressure. Interestingly, when you fire and hit an opponent's piece, you don't remove the piece, you remove one of the cards which could activate that piece. The piece is only removed when there are no accessible cards for it remaining.

So there is a natural attrition there, but it takes place in the card decks, not on the board itself. Your pieces become less able to act the more they are hit (i.e. there are fewer cards left in the deck left with which the piece can be activated), and the more pieces move, the more undesirable cards are introduced into the deck, thus making it less likely that you'll be able to pull the cards you want when you want them. This is presumably a mechanism to represent the difficulty of coordinating effectively over longer distances.

Pleasingly, Undaunted doesn't have those overpowered 'heroic leadership' pieces which seem to drive so many tactical WWII games. Leadership is abstracted into allowing you to choose cards to put in your deck, and is not the old '+2 to hit when Sergeant Skegg is stacked with your MG squad' type arrangement. 

Not an heroic NCO in sight!

I only played through about five or six turns, but will do a proper review when I've had the chance to mangle my way through a couple of games. 

A good weekend, then! I hope any readers who've got this far also had a productive Saturday and Sunday.


Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Working through prep for 2nd Mantinea

As mentioned in my last post, the Society of Ancients Battle Day for 2023 has been announced as 2nd Mantinea, 362BC. This is the first time in a couple of years that the battle is one I have armies for, so I'm determined to make the most of it. Pleasingly, although I don't have all of the troops I'll need painted yet, I do have a pretty decent start made on them. 

My rules of choice will likely be Lost Battles, so it's the Lost Battles scenario I'll look to to work out how many more troops I'll need to paint up. Bearing in mind that the troop scale is 2.5, it will be 1250 men per average infantry unit, half that for veterans, double for levies, and average cavalry will represent 625 actual horsemen per unit.


2 x Veteran Hoplites (Spartan)

8 figures per unit - 16 figures total 

13 x Average Hoplites (5 x Athenian, 2 x Mantinean, 2 x Elean, 2 x Achaean, 1 Arcadian, 1 Allied

16 figures per unit - 208 figures total

1 x Average Light Infantry (Mercenary)

16 figures per unit

3 x Average Heavy Cavalry (1 Spartan, 1 Athenian, 1 Elean Achaean and Arcadian)

9 figures per unit - 27 figures total

Total figures needed: 224 hoplites, 16 light infantry, 27 heavy cavalry


Average Leader plus Veteran Hoplites (Epaminondas and the Sacred Band)

8 figures per unit, plus Epaminondas and companion - 10 figures total

8 x Average Hoplites (2 x Theban, 3 x Boeotian,  2 x Tegian, 1 Megapolitan, Asean and Pallantian)

16 figures per unit - 128 figures total

5 x Levy Hoplites (2 x Argive, 1 Euboean, 1 Thessalian, 1 Messenian and Sicyonian)

32 figures per unit - 160 figures total

3 x Average Light Infantry ( 1 x Locrian, Malian and Aenianian, 1 Thessalian, 1 Euboean and Mercenary)

16 figures per unit - 48 figures total

4 x Average Heavy Cavalry (2 x Thessalian, 1 Theban, 1 Boeotian)

9 figures per unit - 36 figures total

Total figures needed: 2 leaders, 296 hoplites, 48 light infantry, 36 heavy cavalry

Grand total: 2 leaders, 524 hoplites, 64 light infantry, 63 heavy cavalry

Next step will be to work out how many figures I have already painted, and how many are in the lead mountain. Hopefully I will not need to buy any more, but if I do, it won't be the biggest disaster in the world. There is a little flexibility, too: if I end up being short I could use 12 figure units for light infantry and 24 figure units for the levy hoplites without losing too much in the look of it all.


64 Thebans (Xyston), 64 Generic hoplites (Black Hat) / 8 unpainted (unknown make), 88 unpainted (Xyston) - 224. (300 if Italians are added) - enough for Thebans

64 Spartans, 96 Generic hoplites (Xyston) / 64 unpainted (Xyston) - enough for Allies.

48 Levy hoplites (Old Glory Italians, but they could pass at a pinch)

28 Hoplites (Chariot Italians which could pass at a pinch).

48 Light Infantry with javelin and small shield (old Glory) / 32 unpainted (Xyston)

48 light infantry with bow or sling.

Oodles of peltasts.

Unpainted (all Xyston):

8 Mounted Generals

8 Cavalry with petasos and pilos in chitons

12 Cavalry with Boiotian helmets

8 Cavalry armoured with Boiotian helmets

12 Thessalian Cavalry with cloaks and chitons

20 Cavalry with petasos and pilos in metal and linen armour

12 Spartan Cavalry

19 foot command

To paint: 

64 Spartan hoplites, 88 Theban hoplites, 19 foot command

80 cavalry, though I can get away with a few less.

To buy:

Ideally, I would purchase and paint up another 72 generic hoplites (and about 120 more so I don't have to use Spartans for Athenians etc.!) I will think about this...

Monday, March 21, 2022

Society of Ancients Battle Day

Yesterday the Society of Ancients held their battle day. This year it was Adrianople; last year it was Bosworth. 

I have nothing against those battles of course, but as I do not have figures for them those battle days have passed without much comment or fanfare from yours truly. 

Battle day for 2023 will soon be announced. Apparently, the person who will do the presentation for it next year is Duncan Head, of (amongst other things) Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars fame. 

There is a flutter in my Macedonian and Punic Wars breast....

I am hoping that it will be Magnesia. 

Elephants, scythed chariots, Antiochus the Great, phalangites, cataphracts; legions, a camp, Eumenes of Pergamum and - da-dum-dum-dum - Scipio's younger brother?

EDIT - as it turns out, the battle will be 2nd Mantinea, which is an excellent choice, especially as I have a swag of more Xyston Greeks to paint. This might be just what I need to get started on them!


Thursday, March 17, 2022

To everything there is a season

Goes the verse. 

I was lucky enough to get into wargaming seriously at a propitious time. I had long had an interest in it, had borrowed books from the library as a kid, had played rules-based games with a friend and his older brother, but had never really collected armies, boardgames or rules. When I did decide to get into wargaming in 2005, the variety had never been better, information had never been more freely available, and, because of the internet, wargaming was accessible to a degree it had not been before. I had disposable income (this is before children!), shipping was relatively cheap, and it was possible to collect figures rules and games from all around the world without the cost seeming burdensome. I could buy a 15mm army for the price of a night out. Being in Japan, I could get hobby paints for about US$1. What could be better?

I hoovered up painting guides from helpful people on I joined yahoo groups to learn about rules. I ordered my first figures through Magister Militum in the UK, then happened upon some old stock sales in the US and picked up masses of Xyston Greeks and Macedonians at $1.80 a pack and Old Glory 15s in the old 50 foot/16 mounted bags for $7 each. What a way that was to kick start a collection!

I discovered Commands and Colors: Ancients, joined the online VASSAL tournaments, and won a few of them. I met my Italian gaming buddies Roberto and Andrea. I wrote quite a lot on Boardgamegeek. 

In Japan where I lived at the time I found fellow gamers Luke and Pat. I was introduced to Phil Sabin's Strategos II (later to become Lost Battles) and joined the yahoo group. There was stimulating conversation, intense discussion (mainly courtesy of the late Patrick Waterson), and a set of rules you could get behind. I became a member of the Society of Ancients. 

It was a brilliant, exciting time. Armies got painted, games were played, articles were written, friends were made. Everything was new and fresh.

I started a blog to record what I was doing, and to write those sorts of battle reports I had loved in the books I borrowed from the library as a kid.


Fast forward to 2022, and the landscape is different. Theminiaturespage is a shadow of its former self. Yahoo groups, those rules petri dishes, have vanished. Figure suppliers have gone out of business, passed away, or sold their ranges to others. Prices for 15mm figures have doubled in the UK in some cases. International shipping has become almost unaffordable. Consolidation of manufacturers and pre-packaged plastics sets appear to be the way the market is moving.  

Blogging has lost a lot of its early zest and joyfulness. Bloggers have quietly stopped updating, have moved on in their lives, or had adverse events intervene. The ever-increasing reach of social media has shortened attention spans. Who wants to read a thousand-word blogpost any more? Who wants to write them? 

As people get older, focus changes. You get a little over-familiar with the actual playing of games and start to think about 'legacy' elements, such as bringing new gamers into the hobby, promoting games that you like, building a following, or changing attitudes. When 'legacy' becomes the focus, the hobby becomes less about sharing your own joy and more about getting responses. If you don't get the responses you feel your efforts deserve, dissatisfaction and frustration find a way in. Desire wanes. 

There comes a point when you have to re-evaluate what it is that you enjoy about the hobby and what is it that gives you satisfaction. Is it playing a game with friends? Is it writing up a report of a solo game? Is it researching and painting armies? Is it writing rules or scenarios? Is it bringing other people into the wargaming? Whatever the things that you enjoy are, you have to find them and respect them, because once aspects of how you practise the hobby start to seem like work, it is no longer fun.

I write this because one of my favourite bloggers, Norm Smith of Battlefields and Warriors, is downing tools for a spell. I'm sure we all feel a bit of sadness about that, but also understand it, because we go through those phases ourselves.

I guess the point of this post and my message to Norm (to all of us, really) is that how we interact with wargaming and what we get out of it changes over time. That's natural and to be expected. There is no shame in it. The important thing is to recognise that a hobby has to be about enjoyment. It can't be about meeting expectations - well, it can be for a while, but that is unsustainable. Enjoyment is what first attracts us, but it is also the easiest thing to lose when we start getting caught up in other, more peripheral, things. 

Wargaming will be here when we are ready to come back to it. And Norm, we look forward to seeing you back writing if and when that again becomes one of those things that gives you joy.

Until then, cheers, and thanks for all your efforts. Much appreciated.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Epic Commands and Colors: Ancients

It's been quite a few years since I bought the Commands & Colors epic expansion, and having been a bit of an afficionado of the standard game for a few years (though about a decade ago now, which is scary!) I decided it was probably time to actually try the epic version out.

Epic is basically two boards combined lengthways to create a board twice as wide and capable of employing up to four players per side. Obviously, as I'm playing this solo, the multiplayer aspect of it will be missing.

The scenario is Paraitacene. Who isn't a sucker for Successors?

In the picture below we have Antigonus coming from the left of the board and Eumenes from the right. The armies are reasonably well matched: Eumenes has the edge in elephants, but Antigonus has a stronger medium and heavy cavalry arm, and plenty of agile light cavalry on his left. The heavy infantry numbers favour Antigonus slightly, but Eumenes has the advantage in light infantry.

The lighting is terrible, but you can get a sense of the scale compared to normal C&C (as can be seen, I made an executive decision to use figures for this scenario. Not because I think they look better, but because I don't want to have to mix different coloured blocks to have enough units to play). 

Eumenes to our right; Antigonus on our left.

The winner will be first side to 15 banners, but you must be two banners clear to win, otherwise it's a draw (as it sort of was historically). It is an interesting match up. 

View from the Eumenid left.

View of the centres: Antigonid to the left.

View from the Antigonid left, showing his preponderance of light cavalry

The game began with some cagey manouvering on both flanks before two line commands played by Antigonus saw his centre advance to almost within striking distance. Eumenes suffered the first losses and was mostly playing reactively across the length of the battlefield. 

Skirmishing towards the Antigonid right...

... and towards the Antigonid left.

The armies battled tit-for-tat, with Antigonus keeping at least two banners clear of Eumenes the whole way. The infantry fight in the centre was vicious and unrelenting, but Antigonus' light cavalry also combined with his medium infantry to good effect to have Eumenes' right under pressure.  

Clashes in the centre: the Silver Shields advance.

Antigonus, leading 12 banners to 9, needed only 1 more kill to ensure at least a draw. Eumenes, knowing this was his last chance, decided to make a bid for victory. He would need to take 6 banners in one turn to do it.

The cards played, in order (Mounted Charge was for the right zone).

On the right, charges by the elephants and the heavy cavalry net two banners.

In the centre, two banners are taken, but two more are not.

On the left, a cavalry charge kills another unit. The final attack is elephants against light infantry. 

Two hits needed to kill the lights.

Two hits needed.... and two hits are rolled! Eumenes wins 15-12.


It is often the case in Commands and Colors: Ancients that there are moments of extreme tension, where everything comes down to a fatal dice roll. The epic game (in this instance at least!) maintains that tradition.

I enjoyed it. Playing a game designed for multiplayer meant that the confusion that would arise from different players making their own choices was lost, but realistically I'm not going to find seven other C&C:A players in the neighbourhood, so this was the best I could do. 

Will I play it again? Probably. It's a good option for when you don't have time or space to set up a full miniatures game but would like to get a battle in. It would be perfect for a rainy Sunday when all other plans are suddenly shelved and you have an afternoon to yourself.

For single player I give it 5/10.   

If you had the right people to join you, I would say it's likely to be an 8 or 9.

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