Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ancient/Mediaeval war Games: Playtesting Paul Little's rule set.

Byzantine vs Bulgars.  Bulgars (on the right) seize the initiative
and advance rapidly into action.
Lately I have been trying out Paul Liddle's simple rules for Ancient/Mediaeval battles.  Not having seen action for a long, long time, my Byzantines and Bulgars were keen to 'have at it'.  I thought I'd make it a fairly sizeable action.  In the photos to come you will observe that some of my Bulgars are lacking in 'finish'.  My apologies for that.
Scene from behind the Byzantines, facing southwest.
The armies were;

Early Bulgar (c.1000AD):

Commanders Tsar Attila, Boili Atalik and Boili Attaboi:

3 units heavy horse archers
4 units light horse archers
4 units spear heavy infantry
2 units archer medium infantry
1 unit javelin light infantry

14 units total; Byzantine objective: destroy at least 7.

Bulgar horse on their right flank.

Byzantine (c.1000AD)

Commanders: Emperor Dementius, George Maniakes, Dimetrios Psychopathes.

1 unit lance/bow kataphraktoi (elite Cataphracts)
2 units lance/bow Tagmatic kavallarioi (Heavy Cavalry)
2 units lance/bow Thematic kavallarioi (Medium Cavalry)
1 unit lance/bow prokoursatores (Light Cavalry)
1 unit Varangians (elite spear Heavy Infantry)
3 units skutatoi (spear/bow Heavy Infantry)
1 unit peltastoi (spear Medium Infantry)
1 unit sphendonistai (slinger Light Infantry)

12 units total; Bulgar objective: destroy at least 6.

Byzantine centre and left.  The Varangians and peltastoi
have been kept in reserve.

The observant reader will see that most of the units on both sides are armed with bows.  The only other missiles are the slings and javelins of the respective light infantry.  The Byzantines had two and the Bulgars four units not so armed, all of them foot.

Looking down the Byzantine
line from left to right(south to north)


Without going into a lengthy narrative, the action went like this. The Bulgars seized the early initiative (i.e. won the die roll to see who moved first), and scored some damaging hits on the Byzantine horse on the left flank, including on the cataphracts.  

The exchange of horse archery has disordered both sides...

As the picture below indicates, the Bulgar advance was somewhat impetuous, but I was figuring to get in a few blows with the faster moving archers, so that the spears could eventually close against some damaged opposition.
Bulgars hurrying into action hoping to get in the first strikes.
The village of Marsople anchored the Byzantine right flank.  The slingers advanced through it, whilst a medium cavalry unit passed by on the north side (i.e. to the left of it from the Bulgar (camera) point of view).
Slingers have seized the village, which will serve
to anchor the Byzantine right flank.
The pictures below show that as the horse closed on the southern flank, the Byzantines had already taken some damage.  The Emperor probably should have stayed with the cataphracts, for they succumbed fairly soon.  Neither side seems able to rally their wavering units (I think the Bulgars had one and the Byzantines no successful rallying rolls all day).  Worse for the Byzantines was that their flanking Prokoursatores were being enveloped by the enemy light horse.
The Byzantine cavalry are getting the worse of their
scrap with their Bulgar counterparts. The nearest Bulgar
unit seems to have recovered its morale, before
Attaboi moved to help against the cataphracts.
On the other hand, in the centre, although the plan was for the Bulgar bowmen to inflict some damage before the 'push of pike', they were getting decidedly the worst of it.
General view.  The Byzantine foot have outshot the
Bulgar archers, and the Tagmatic horse damaged
one of the spear units as well.  Not looking
 so good for the Bulgars in the centre, then.
As the battle seemed to be shaping, so it continued.  Once the cataphracts disappeared, the Byzantine left flank horse gradually crumbled away, and only the intervention of the Varangian spearmen from the reserve line kept up a semblance of a line in that sector.  In the centre, though, it was the Byzantines who gained the upper hand, and in favour of whom the balance tilted more and more until the Bulgarian foot collapsed 
So close was the fighting overall, that the issue remained in doubt until the very end, when the destruction of two units in one turn decided the battle in Byzantine favour: 8 Bulgar units destroyed for 5 Byzantine.  
Now you see 'em...

Comment: you don't:  the cataphracts overwhelmed...
One of the things I had to get used to was the 'conkers' IGoUGo system.  I have run across it before in some of the Games Workshop's games (specifically, Space Crusade) .  Such a system takes a little getting used to, especially in the type of open ended war games such as this.  

The system favours aggression, that's for sure: get stuck in, and get in your first licks.  That's the caper.
...followed by a Bulgar heavy and a light horse unit, the latter
despite the flank attack striking into the prokoursatores' flank.
Let me illustrate by oversimplifying a bit.  Forget about the 'wavering' rule for a minute, and imagine that a hit immediately eliminated the enemy.  Imagine, too, two equally matched units, RED and BLUE, facing off.  

Byzantines close in for melee action.  There was probably no real
to do this, as distant shooting seems equally effective.
For no better reason than I mentioned it first, RED moves into close combat and strikes the first blow.
It has to roll 9 with 2D6 - a 28% chance of immediate victory.  But if it misses, then BLUE will get to strike in his turn, with the same probability.  So it will continue until one or the other is eliminated, or something terminates the action.
General view.  Byzantine left flank crumbling -
not looking too good!

Now, let us go back to the beginning: who has the advantage?  Obviously it is RED, who gets the first strike, and if necessary, the third, fifth and so on.  Blue gets the right of reply only if he survives each time.   

Given a fight to the finish, the probability that RED will win works out at a whisker over 58% (odds of 29:21 in RED's favour).  That is a significant margin.  This imbalance does not necessarily invalidate the combat system.  Rather it encourages aggression for one thing, places a premium on missilery for another, and, I suspect, might also place a premium on tactical manoeuvre. That last will have to be tried.

Prokoursatores struck, front and flank.

A couple of points might be worth looking into.

1. Breaking off.

There are no rules that might allow a faster moving opponent to break off a close action. Whether this is desirable I'm not sure, but during the course if this, and a subsequent, battle, it occurred to me that lighter troops that get themselves into trouble might want to try a break clear.  The jury is still out on this one.

General melee in the Bulgar right-centre.  Whilst engaged to
its front with heavy Byzantine horse, Tsar Atila's horse has been
hit in the flank by a unit of skutatoi led by George Maniakes.
To the rescue comes Attaboi's horse, striking the skutatoi in
the flank.

2. Retrograde moves.

This goes to evades and, if it is deemed a good idea, breaking off moves.  Now, units are permitted a 'free' turning/pivot/swivel move at the end of their standard move.  Evading units probably ought to be allowed this turn at the beginning of their move, ending their evasive move facing away from the danger being evaded.  In fact, light troops should probably be allowed to make this pivot at any time during their move.  The impact on the mobility of light troops would make them formidable opponents.

I am wondering what their facing should be at the end of the evade move: towards the enemy, or in the direction of movement.  I assumed the latter, which went rather badly for a couple of Bulgar light horse units in a second battle (of which, more in another posting).  One evaded at a crawl, and the Byzantines had enough movement remaining promptly to catch them, hack their rear, and ride them down.  The other ended up being chivvied and chased to the table edge, and was also eventually caught and eliminated. 

Having survived the flank attack, in its turn
 the skutatoi turn to face Ataboi's cavalry.

Peltastoi about to intervene in the indecisive action on
the Bulgar right.

3.  Missilery vs Melee.

During this action, I allowed bow armed units to close to hand to hand without really considering the desirability to do so. Byzantine skutatoi don't really need to close: their best tactic is to stand off and let the non-bow-armed enemy come to them.

Where it got tricky was with bow armed horse on both sides.  I could equally well have had one or both sides stand off and shoot it out. The question is whether there ought to be some differential in the effect of shooting and melee. One possibility that crosses my mind is that instead of destroying a 'wavering' mounted unit, a second 'waver' result from shooting causes it to flee, if it can.  This 'fleeing move' might be adjudicated in the same way as an evade move.

Kavallarioi charge Bulgar light horse, whilst the light infantry stand off.
I forgot the Bulgar 'psiloi were javelin armed, to that
the slingers should not be carrying a 'waver' marker.

4. Ordinary movement.

One thing I didn't really pick up on was just how flexible, or proscribed, the system of movement is supposed to be. I tended to allow wheels and whatnot, simply measuring the outside of the wheel.  It did occur to me that the author intended that all movement be in the direction faced, with a pivot at the end, if desired. Your comments, Paul?
Bulgar centre begins to crumble...

5. Turning to face.

In a few instances, melees developed into a kind of 'staircase' arrangement when successive flank attacks and counter-attacks failed to achieve a decisive result.  I assumed that in such circumstances, a unit, in its own turn, could - possibly should - abandon its flank attack, and face the enemy to its own flank.  If so, ought this move be optional or mandatory?
... whilst the Bulgar light horse begin to envelop the Byzantine left.
I could have handled this a lot better, with the horse
archers fetching a much deeper sweep into the Byzantine rear.
I also assumed that in the even of a frontal attack combined with a flank attack, both attacks were adjudicated separately, which seemed to me reasonable. Two bites of the cherry.  The chances of scoring at least one 'waver' result in such circumstances is about 70%, and there is about a 16% chance of wiping out the target unit in one go.  Oddly enough, both sides proved on the day to be a lot more resilient than these probabilities would indicate.
Bulgar reserve spearmen enter the fray.

Bulgar javelinmen in trouble - left in the lurch be evading
horse archers...

Bulgar centre showing signs of cracking.

Byzantine left has practically vanished, with the Varangians
holding the place formerly held by four horsed units.

Varangians see off Bulgar heavy horse, just as they
are hit in flank by the lights.  One Bulgar
unit stands ready for a rear attack.

Thinks looking bleak for the Bulgar spearmen.

Peltastoi victorious!

Spear unit destroyed before the flank attack can come in...

Bulgar javelinmen shrug off attack from front and flank...

End of the action.  Bulgar centre collapses altogether, before
the same could happen to the Byzantine left.  Close call
 for the Byzantines, who win, 8-5.
That was my first play test, and it has to be said, the thing went with a swing.


  1. Replies
    1. It certainly had its moments! I think what gives pre-gunpowder battles their character is that it's pre-gunpowder: that is to say, more close quarter stuff. That puts plenty of figures in the frame.

  2. Interesting comments on the rules, especially concerning break offs and evading. I've been trying to think of various rule sets that handle this well, but my brain still isn't functioning well. Another thought related to this is breaking off combat due to fatigue. I guess that would add another component to the mix that may not be welcome,

  3. The War Games Research Group (Phil Barker) 7th Edition rule set introduced fatigue and exhaustion into the equation, but they were a pretty complex set of rules that had a tendency, on account of a policy of succinctness to the point of opacity, to be liable to individual 9and idiosyncratic) interpretation, not to mention constant emendment.

    Paul's 'keep it simple' approach probably won't allow for fatigue to be brought in, especially given the very broad brush treatment of combat and movement otherwise.

    Given the 'conkers' system, evasive manoeuvres are probably the sole action taken 'out of turn', but the need for it is obvious. Breaking off should not be so treated. My own view is to bring in a 'break-off' move, to be played in one's own bound. I would suggest it would be the unit's standard move, +/- 1-inch (foot) or 2-inch (horse) depending on a die roll (and possibly facing). I'd leave it as a blanket rule, but it will become clear that it is a viable option only for faster moving troops. Even then there should be a reasonable chance they will be caught by their less agile opponents and hence undergo a rear attack.

    A mechanism for this might be: Roll 1D6, on a roll of 1 or 2, subtract from the standard move; on a roll of 5 or 6, add to the standard move. The enemy will follow up, if he chooses, in a subsequent move.

  4. Blummin' heck, that is a post and a half, a right ding dong battle for sure. To answer some of the points you raised...

    1. Breaking off:- I have pondered this myself and decided not to bother, but maybe it could be handled like an evade with a random 1d6 or 2d6 pursuit.

    2. Retrograde moves:- I simply allow evading troops to move straight back facing the enemy assuming that they would have turned around to run away and turned back to face the enemy, even if caught. They end up automatically wavering which IMO is enough of a penalty for them.

    3. Missilery vs Melee:- I like your idea about allowing light horse to flee rather than being destroyed by shooting. I will try this out.

    4. Ordinary movement:- I have always tended to be rather free and easy with manoeuvre, to the frustration of opponents and I'm even worse for this now that I play almost exclusively solo. I nicked the pivot- move- pivot rules from Kings of War and One Hour Wargames, your unit may pivot up to 360, move straight ahead and pivot again if required. Very flexible!.

    5. Turning to face:- At present I only allow units to turn to face a flanking enemy when the enemy to their front is destroyed. I will try your suggestion.

    You were right about the front and flank attacks being separate, two bites of the cherry is the way to win.

    Rallying a wavering unit is hard as the rules stand, I tend to give Romans a +1 and especially able generals a +2 to help a bit.

    Your game looked great Ion, and I'm really chuffed you had some fun with it.


    1. Paul, I applaud your attitude to movement. I developed some finicky habits early on and have had to work over the years to "loosen up" and focus on the important stuff.

      Ion, my impression from the pictures is of an interesting battle in progress. Its only on close inspection thst one notices the occasional...simple, monochrome painting, the eye just fills in. Interesting.

      Overall, an attractive, practical wargame that sounded like fun.

    2. Paul-
      Thanks for your comments.

      1. I think 'break-off' moves, if used, should simply be a move directly away from enemy in contact, in the player's own turn. My first thought was regulate the move otherwise as you suggested - like an 'evade' move. But, unless the standard move rates were somewhat reduced, that won't work.That's why I suggested a standard move, but with a dice roll modifier.

      2. Break off moves. I missed the automatic waver rule. That pretty much answers that question. Does that mean two waver moves (by the one unit) result in automatic destruction/dispersal?

      3. I'll give the 'flee' option a try, too.

      4. I was a bit concerned that I was interpreting your movement a little too freely. You have set my mind at rest on that score.

      5.Turning to face. That was an assumption on my part. I supposed that a unit's flank attack would in effect be neutralized by being itself attacked in the flank. By leaving the arrangement 'as is' certainly will lead my quickly to decisive results.

      I inferred that only generals could rally units. I'll look at that again.

      By and large, I think the battles I had were well along the lines you had in mind. Although my figures are based up differently from yours, they adapted very easily. The games were maybe 2/3 to 3/4 the size of a 400 Army Point DBM game, but went a whole deal faster.


    3. Thanks for your comment Ross. That 'simple monochrome painting' you observed was in fact effectively unpainted troops. Some had a white undercoat with a wash preparatory to 'finishing' that I never got around to completing. I's become so disenchanted with Ancients, that I simply set all that stuff aside.

      There's a whole deal of painting, flocking and repair work really to get these guys up to scratch.


  5. cool post, play testing is good for better understanding of rules

    1. I like to play test with a full scale action. It is likelier then to discover any issues that need to be addressed. So far the game system suits me very well...

  6. Hello Ion!
    I quite enjoyed this post, even though I am utterly ignorant about Ancients war gaming and am not really qualified to offer thoughts. My own instinct would be that evading and breaking off is something that only certain skirmish units should be able to do, such as nomadic horse or specialized light foot. My own hazy idea of this period is that most formed units get stuck in until they win or break. I am not sure how formed infantry in a battle line, dinging away, would have the command and control to break off once in melee.
    The game looks jolly good and nothing wrong with the figures!

    1. Thanks Michael -
      It so happens I have a considerable interest in the history of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, including the Byzantine Empire. When building an Ancient Army, I originally intended something of the era of Justinian the Great, but discovering a kind of golden age from about 900AD through to about 1070, lit on the armies of the era of Nikephoros Phocas, John Tzimiskes and Basil II Porphyrogenitus... oh, yes and George Maniaces (how can anyone resist a name like that?). Naturally I had to find an historical opponent, and the Bulgars were the unlucky ones...

      I agree that breaking off from close combat can be available only to light and flexible troops; and they would have to be faster moving than their opponents. But I did make my suggestions in that respect with considerable diffidence. It could as well be argued that if they don't get out from under betimes (i.e. evade whilst the evading is good) then they deserve to find out, up close and personal, the fate intended for the Amalekites. I'm starting to lean away from that notion as not needed.

  7. I forgot to say that I love the generals' names! Same with your recent ACW posts here!

    1. I like making up names. Often it simply seizes on a theme and plays around with it. In this case, George Maniaces is an historical figure, to my mind, rather a tragic one. He might have made a fine subject for a Shakespearian tragedy - his fatal weakness being his ungovernable temper.