Saturday, September 16, 2017

Battles with Byzantines and Bulgars.

Byzantines and Bulgars in action om the Memoir '44 game board.

Over the last couple of days, I've been trying out the Portable Wargame 'Ancients' rules for my Byzantine and Bulgar armies.  As suggested by a reader, I used the Memoir '44 game board, with a few added features by way of a battlefield.  This board comprises a hex-array of 13x9 grid areas - 117 in all. The Portable Wargame suggests an appropriate army size for a given game board is a number of units not more than as many plus half the number of grid areas along the base line. That suggests 19 or 20 units maximum. I have been working on armies of 50SP (Strength Points) which easily fits within this maximum.  

Bulgar Army of 46 SP:  Commander, 4 heavy cavalry,
4 light horse, 4 spear units, 2 archer units.
In my previous posting, I suggested the troop types that might make up an army, but made no concrete recommendation on numbers. What follows is my suggestion as to selection. In the following I have NOT taken into account the suggestion in Developing the Portable Wargame of adding and subtracting 1SP to or from  the standard SP for ELITE or POOR quality units. That is an option I prefer to leave open.  As they are easiest, I'll lead off with the Bulgars:

Bulgar Army.

1x Commander as Heavy Cavalryman @6SP
1-6 Bulgar Nobles Heavy Cavalry, javelins, bow, sword, shield @ 3SP

  • 0-4 Bulgar Nobles may be classed as ELITE, the rest AVERAGE
3-6 Bulgar Horse Archer Light Cavalry, javelins, bow, sword, shield @ 2SP
3-8 Slav Close order infantry, spear, sword, shield
  • All Spearmen @ 4SP OR
  • All Barbarian Tribesmen @ 3SP 
  • Probably these are the likeliest troops to be classed as POOR. 
1-4 Slav Light Infantry, bow @ 2SP

Adding up the minima of each type gives 8 units at 29SP (includes the Commander); The maxima to 24 units and 76SP.  I had 1 more unit for each of the minima, but as that came to 40SP, it seemed to me unreasonable to be so prescriptive if one were choosing a 40SP army.

Otherwise, I am basing these lists roughly on the Army lists for WRG's DBM rule set.  If the Bulgar army is fairly simple to draw up, the Byzantine is a deal more complicated.  Some compromises have to be called for.

46SP Byzantine Army: Commander, 1 kataphraktoi, 4 heavy
cavalry, 2 light cavalry, 1 Varangian Guard, 3 skoutatoi
1 javelin light infatntry, 1 bow sling light infantry.

Byzantine Army.

Commander as Kavallarioi Heavy Cavalryman @ 6SP
0-2 Kataphraktoi fully armoured Extra-heavy Cavalry with mace/lance/bow, sword, shield:
  • @4SP if using 1 unit only OR
  • @3SP if using 2 units
  • Kataphraktoi are classed as ELITE
2-4 Kavallarioi Tagmatic or Thematic Heavy Cavalry, lance/bow, sword. shield @3SP
  • Up to 2 units may be classed as ELITE 
  • Up to 2 units may be classed as POOR.
1-2 Light Cavalry lance, javelins, shield (trapezitai) or lance, bow, shield (procoursatores) @2SP
3-6 Skoutatoi Close Order Infantry spear/pike/bow, sword, shield @ 4SP
  • A peltastoi unit (see below) may substitute for a skoutatoi unit (bringing the minimum down to 2)
  • Up to 1 skoutatoi unit may be class as ELITE quality
0-1 Rus mercenaries or Varangian Guard Heavy Infantry spear, sword shield @ 4SP
  • Class as ELITE
  • Alternatively may be classed as axemen @ 5SP, but do not receive a combat bonus for being charged frontally by cavalry  (My view on this is that would be appropriate for the 'axe-bearing guard' comprising Anglo-Saxon refugees from the Norman Conquest, post 1066)
1-2 Javelin Light Infantry @ 2SP
1-2 Sling or Bow Light Infantry @ 2SP
0-1 Skirmishing Heavy Spearmen (menavlatoi) @ 4SP
0-1 Peltastoi Close Order Infantry spear. javelins, sword, shield @3 or 4SP
  • May substitute for a skoutatoi unit
  • May be rated as 3SP or 4SP 
  • May be classed as AVERAGE or POOR irrespective of the SP rating.


1. I have not included artillery or fire syphoners in this list.
2.Mounted on heavy wagons, artillery should be able to move, though probably not move and shoot in a single move.  They would have an SP = 2. Up to 1 such unit may be included in a Byzantine army.
3. Fire syphoners were light infantry with flame throwers.  If you must have any, then there should be not more than one such unit.  Such a unit would have SP=2, and have a range of 2, requiring 5 or 6 to hit.  Enemy units in an adjacent grid area take -1 from their D6 die roll for all combat.  For reasons that might not at first seem apparent, I would rate such a unit POOR - more a reflection of the risks involved, than any reflection on the courage or quality of the personnel.
4.  There has been some suggestion that Byzantine peltastoi of the late 10th and 11th centuries were not only less heavily armoured than skoutatoi, but that their role might have been more in the way of light-medium liaison between heavy and light foot, and able to operate in difficult country.  I have my doubts, but if you accept this, then you could allow a 3SP unit to move 3 grid spaces instead of the heavy infantry standard of 2.  It's shooting range (javelins) would be two grid spaces.

Adding up the minima gives 8 units and, including the Commander, 30SP - 29 if you take a 3SP peltastos unit in lieu of one of the skoutatoi.

Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of my play tests so far I'll just post pictures with light commentary. Both games were fun, but were not really suitable for such after action reports, being very much trial runs. 

The first action was a straight out solo game, all units activated in any given turn. Nothing sophisticated: just line 'em up and get tore in. A few interesting points emerged. Moving first put the Bulgars at something of a disadvantage, as it was the Byzantines who were able to get in the first kicks. Not that they did much damage - appalling shooting; appalling close combat skills.
All the same, as the action went on, the Byzantine advantage of lance-armed cavalry did become noticeable over time. My suggestion in a previous posting of giving the Bulgar horse a shooting advantage I have not adopted. The sole motivation for it at all was to balance the two armies, and it seems to me artificial and unconvincing.
As the battle wore on, losses were spread right across the board, and mostly on the Bulgar side. I was taken by surprise when a count revealed that the Bulgar Army had reached its exhaustion point at least two turns before. When just the second unit was destroyed - both lost being light - I checked the SP lost and reached 18!  Sixteen should have been the exhaustion point.

Played in this way, the action did look like a battle, with actual battle lines. There was plenty of to and fro action as well.
In some respects the Bulgars had the worse of the luck, more of the hits resulting in Strength Point damage than the Byzantines received. Having units that are just as happy shooting as getting up close and personal gives them good incentive to retreat rather than take a loss. In this first action, I seem to recall the kataphraktoi making at least three charges. They didn't lose a single SP all day, though were driven back more than once. 
It may have something to do with a quality of Ancient's armies, especially if they involve cavalry, is that when one of them reaches its exhaustion point, what then happens? They are unable to counter-attack, as aggressive moves are no longer permitted.  And yet, one feels there ought to be a place for a reserve body of cavalry capable of mounting a charge to discourage pursuit whilst the exhausted main body flees in headlong rout draws off . This might be limited to fresh (undamaged) mounted units, or maybe one unit accompanied by the Army Commander. At any rate, I called the battle when the Bulgars had reached their exhaustion point. The Byzantine loss had been comparatively trifling (8 or 9 SP as I recall). 

That was just to try out the combat systems. For the second game, with the same 46SP armies, I brought in the playing card activation system recommended in Portable Wargames. The number of units, counting the Commander as a separate unit, are totted up and halved, with halves rounded up. The 15 Bulgar units gave them a median of 8, so the RED 7s, 8s and 9s were their portion of the activation card deck. The Byzantines had 14 units, so in went the BLACK 6s, 7s and 8s.  Finally a couple of jokers went in to signal time to reshuffle.

I had hoped that the Bulgars' slight edge in activation would balance Byzantine advantage in lance-armed horse. It didn't happen that way. The early draws were fairly even, the Bulgars drawing slightly higher numbers. But then the Byzantines drew a long series of Black cards, which continued after a joker was reached and I had to reshuffle the deck.

It was getting embarrassing. The Bulgars were getting no opportunity to shoot, and only indifferent Byzantine practice was keeping their units alive. I think there might be a case, here, for the DBA/DBM convention of both sides shooting, rather that the moving player's army only. Targets may not be in a grid area adjacent to a unit of one's own army.

During such a string, so long had it been since I saw a red card, I felt forced to cheat in behalf of the Bulgars to discard a black card - only to draw another. That one I played, and then drew another black card!
Here's a thing. The presence of the jokers means that there is no guarantee than a long string of black cards is going to be balanced by a long string of reds.  That's what happened here. In fact the string itself was interrupted by a joker, the deck reshuffled, and the black string continued. It could only happen to the Bulgars.  I have never had any other army so unlucky. Poor wights. They fight well enough. Most of the time. But always something goes disastrously wrong, and they get on the wrong end of another heavy defeat.
The odd thing is, that I use the same figures as Georgians.  As Georgians - or Abasgians - they have a fine record in DBM, winning far more than they have lost.  So the Bulgars were being edged back as they tried to mitigate their losses, but they could not have kept that up forever.

I think I might try the same card system, but keep the Black and Red decks separate, including a single joker in each. The cards are then to be drawn alternately from each deck. To determine the first turn, both sides draw, with the higher card taking the first turn. The lower card is returned to the bottom if its deck. When a joker is reached, the decks are reshuffled. After reshuffling, both sides could draw again for the next turn, with the high card taking the move. If one of the cards is a joker, it is ignored and placed at the bottom of its pile, and the other side takes the turn. If both jokers are drawn, they are removed to the bottom of their piles, and the cards redrawn.  

Such a system still offers a reasonable chance that it some time, one side will get two turns in succession (or even three, but I imagine such occasions would be extremely rare). More often than not both sides would be in a position to undertake something active, every other move.
Meanwhile, the final three pictures show the situation as it developed late in the action. A rare red card gave the Bulgars the opportunity to throw the Byzantines back in places, but the right wing, where fought Khavkhan Apotaglu remained under heavy pressure .
At last the Bulgar line were being driven from the field. The khavkhan's bodyguard (counted as Elite) finally broke, and Apotaglu himself slain (rolled 1xD6 for fate of the leader: a six!). The situation in the final picture shows the dire fate of the remnants of the Bulgar army.


  1. Your two armies look quite comfortable on the M44 game board. The Bulgars certainly were an unlucky lot in this game. Perhaps a mechanism can be introduced to allow the non phasing player a chance to interrupt his opponent during a long run?

    1. I think I'll give the 'draw red/draw black' a try and see how that goes. But I can see alternatives, such as limiting the number of consecutive draws of one colour to three or four, say, after which they are discarded until the alternate colour turns up.

      The M44 board looks very well with these armies. I still like to put down applique terrain pieces, but if they interfere with the placing of the units, the M44 tiles will do as an interim measure.

  2. By far and away the simplest way to avoid the activation string problem you mention is to ditch the jokers and reshuffling.

    My regular group would never forgive me if I inflicted an activation system like that on them (which is why they don't like Crossfire, BKC or Piquet!)

    1. Actually I think the jokers are to obviate calculation of what's to come as you get to the bottom of the deck. This can be a real problem in the case of a string. It is easier, I imagine, to exploit a string of cards in your favour when you know it is coming, than when you don't. Late in the action, one would benefit in two ways: more fatal damage being inflicted late in the game, having a reasonable certainty of the initiative.

      Of course, I am using this system only for solo play, to introduce uncertainties in how events unfold.

  3. First off, the game and figures look GREAT!

    Secondly, we had a similar issue in a recent RCW game which led to a quick but unsatisfying game. In our case evicting one of the jokers was enough to mostly right things but last winter when trying out the rules with Zulus and a scenario, I used separate decks and liked that best.

    It put me in mind an article by Frank Chadwick where he discussed randomness and proposed (theoretically) as an extreme, a system of giving people a bag of chits numbered 1 to 6 and letting them secretly pick which ever one they wanted for each 'roll' but then discarding it until all had been won. OK not what the cards are doing but there are not an infinite number of ones in the deck.

    1. Thanks for you kind comment, Ross. The elements fit the board as if they were made for it!

      I haven't been thinking of the card activation system except as Bob Cordery suggested, as introducing chance elements in solo play. On reflection, though, something of the sort seems appropriate for the 2-player game as well.

      I quite like the DBA/DBM 'PIP' (Player Initiative Points), but that is predicated upon the ability of moving multiple elements (groups) with one 'PIP'. For large battles, it also implies 1-3 commands in addition to the 'C-in-C's command. I haven't been able to figure out an adaptation to the game system we're looking at here.

      That your own experience found the separate black and red decks workable (if I understand you correctly), encourages me to give that method a decent go.

  4. Hi, thanks for this nice battle.
    Having bought recently the second book about Portable Wargame and being very interested on medieval and ancient period, I wonder if the pinning/unpinning rule could be adapted to this period, for example as a disordered unit.
    Another possible optional rule could be the possibility for light troops evading.
    What do you think?

    1. Hi Carles,
      Thanks for your feedback.

      I have only just found this message in the 'awaiting moderation' list. I hope you do get to see this reply. I haven't really considered the pinning/unpinning rule for Ancients/ Mediaevals At first sight it might be feasible as representing situations in which a unit dare not move for fear of drawing upon itself an immediate close assault. This seems different in nature from the pinning effects of firepower in, say, the 'rifle' periods. That's just my early thoughts on that topic.

      Light troops evading a direct charge would probably make them prohibitively effective in this type of rule set. I don't know how familiar you are with the DB* rul sets, but they also dispensed with the evading notion.

      But you might consider a 'flee' move as a result of combat. This would have the effect of an evasion, taking the light unit well out of combat range as an alternative to taking a hit. If it receives a 'hit' result from combat, that would imply that it failed to get out of the way betimes.

      They are my first thoughts about these ideas. Bear in mind, these are intended to be simple rules - anything that doesn't add to the play or to to verisimilitude is left out. You might try them out in your own battles and maybe let us know how effective they are.