Imperium Romanum II

IRIIWhile still around ancient era boardgames, I’d have to bring forth the classic that got me interested in the ancient board gaming in a first place. Of course it was Imperium Romanum II from long defunct West End Games, designed by Al Nofi. The reason for this nostalgic trip to obscurity is that apparently Decision Games has some plan to publish renewed edition of the game and would like nothing more than have IRII brought to modern standards, and if at all possible, improve the game play (a lot). Subject is fantastic, very few have even contemplated with the thought to cover the whole Roman history in a single game. Of course peaceful centuries are excluded – but luckily they were few and far between.

Old IRII was not terrific game. It was not terrible, certainly it was playable still ten years ago when I last had a four player game of it, but even then it was very badly outdated, and I will remember forever the supply rules and huge skyscraper stacks of slippery – and weird thin counters that would slide all across the board from slightest kick of a table.

Certainly, it had it’s flaws: supply rules, replenishment rules and battle system were not really something that one would find nice to handle. They were not impossible, but one could not stop wondering if there really was not better way. IRII was also notoriously long, and in multiplayer games, it had a tendency to turn rather quickly rather ugly. IRII was not balanced in a way that three, four or six player should be. It was all too easy to kick out one player, because the empire or faction had no real staying power. This is something I like in Pax Romana. Seemingly indestructible, but fragile empires, that rely on each others for their continued existence and fine balance of power they exert.

On the positive side, there were some really nice things, such as cities that existed in certain periods, and road networks. Cities had arrows that pointed out during which era they were present, and when not. It was very easy. Road system was not printed on the map, but they existed in certain provinces at certain times. Another nice feature that made it possible for same map to span over so much time.

What to say? After all those years, every now and then there is desire to have the game on the table, but then I remember that while scenarios are well written, interesting and enticing, the poorly executed things in the game core engine return me back to the reality. There is really no group to play IRII at it’s original iteration, but hopefully Decision Games will make it anew.

So, good luck and hopefully we see a game that can finally cash the promises of IRII.

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French meet Austria – part II

Of course, situation being as interesting as it turned out to be – superior Austrians being defeated by French, I had to give it a go as French as well. This time however, my strategy differed from that of my opponent. First, I wanted to concentrate my forces to as narrow front as possible – some sort of early version of a spearhead, punch a hole on the enemy line, and then exploit the local success. with fresh reserve troops.

So, I formed up in dense columns, cavalry at the wings to keep the enemy on their toes. Center, supported by arillery would first advance to the ridge, and then charge down to the unformed lines below. Should all go well, French would beat life out of the Austrian formation before they could retreat and recover from the shock.

It is remarkable that it was pretty much what happened – and not least because of the poor Austrian commanders. Austrian player being (like myself earlier) was way too eager to attempt two or more activations in turn – which quite often turned out to be double failures that finish the brigade activations for the turn. Issues of command were of course multiplied by very poor commanders, that could not lead from anywhere except from the rear and therefore every battalion were on their own quite soon.

Game ended with disaster to Austria, albeit some battalions in the centre made heroic effort. All too little, too late.

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Pax Romana – initial impressions

Pax RomanaLong, long ago I got copy of Imperium Romanum II. It was a fantastic idea to incorporate more or less whole Roman history in a single box, but unfortunately so flimsy that gameplay resembled more of extensive bookkeeping exercise than fun – or so I recall. Nevertheless, IRII left permanent desire to have a game that would encompass whole mediterranean and powers that contested the region over centuries.

I set my eyes to Pax Romana already about ten years ago – about the same timeframe I played last game of IRII (Great Mithridatic War). I missed the opportunity to get the game at that time and then I got somewhat worried about the comments that expressed faults in the game system. So I forgot Pax Romana for a long time…

Then, I could not help to notice that GMT had revised the system and planning to give go to second edition. Like with Wilderness War (which I also missed first two editions and have sorely regretted ever since but remedied the error finally with third reprint), I thought that I will regret if I skip it.

Pax Romana is a war and empire building game, with strong diplomatic twist. Not historical game as such but rather open ended. It is also design by R.H.Berg (which probably turn about half of potential players out – considering how much he divides opinions). Scale of Pax Romana is immense, each turn representing 25 years or so, and each activation of power roughly 7 years (or rather, actions that may have occurred during period of 7 years). It is a long time to perform actions, send envoys and commit atrocities – or rise new generation of troops, retire old and infirm. It is also a long time to found cities and expand territory. While rules and playbook constantly reminds about the vast scale, it is easy to forget that player is not micromanaging armies and battles, or administrative tasks – instead, there is an empire to run. When army goes on campaign, it can accomplish quite a lot – or, alternatively almost nothing. Much of the intrigues are abstracted, necessarily so.

Examples of misfortunes and great successes are abundant in the annals of history. Events can ravage land, governments can fall, territories cede and Legions disappear in vast Germanic forests or be lost at sea.

How to compress such variety in the world events into game system that spans over such time frames, and still keep it playable? There are events that appear very severe. Decisions may lead to severe results but it also appears that one of the four major powers is not to be wiped out just like that – they are able to renew, and stand a long time of turmoil.

Components are excellent. Rulebook is quite un-Berg and very readable and easy to grasp (unless exposure to his previous games has turned some bergese switch on…).

Because the game is quite extensive, I start from the minor scenarios. So far, played introduction where Pyrrhus invades Italy and Rome attempts to destroy Greek presence there (Tarentum). It is very tiny scenario, and offers good introduction to the movement, campaigns and sieges. However, what first appeared to be somewhat dull – Pyrrhus is going to march into Italy, cause havoc there and that’s it, turned out to be something completely different. In fact, very, very close game and swings of fortune.

At first, Pyrrhus did what he has to do, pack army into ships and ferry them over to Italy. I Reasoned that Rome should be dealt with in piecemeal, and not let to concentrate forces to a single massive army. To that end, North he went, and tried to catch Roman general there. He, however, had no will to fight, and thought withdrawal to be better part of valor. Pyrrhus, out of moves, stood then waiting what Romans would have in their sleeve.

Of course, Rome did what was expected, and nothing less. They build another two legions, concentrated forces to Rome, ready to hit Tarentum hard. Unfortunately for Romans, Fortuna decided that it was Pyrrhus to take next action, and he marched to Tarentum, to protect it. Garrison screen was established around the southern borders to slow down invaders.

Rome, after much sacrifices and foretelling went next, and decided to hit where it hurt. Massive 32 point army marched south, only to be intercepted in Venusia. A battle of great songs were to follow. Romans stepped into a trap, carefully established by Pyrrhus. Cavalry supremacy turned the tide into Greek favor, and Roman losses were 70% while Pyrrhus was unscratched. Roman legions, beaten, but not dead marched back to Rome, pondering their next move, and waiting inevitable Pyrrhic onslaught to their city.

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70% losses from Roman army… Yet, still dangerous.

Lady fortuna, however had other things in her mind, and next activation was granted to Rome – Pyrrhus camping in Venusia, and celebrating the victory over Tuscan wines would not anticipate Rome’s next move. Swiftly Roman armies embarked, and set sail towards Croton, disembarked and attacked Tarentum. Greeks, in all their joy did not remember to protect the sea lanes with Galleons and it was now Pyrrhus to attempt to intercept Romans. Too much overconfidence and Tuscan wine had it’s toll and interception failed. Rome was free to attack Tarentum.

Legions set to work and Tarentum was reduced after two attempts, but at cost of last movement point from Rome. Bad turned worse when Pyrrhus had his revenge in next activation.

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French meet Austria – part I

Somewhere in the plains of German states, French vanguard contacted strong Austrian force that had, fortunately for the French, limited cavalry support. French commander immediately sent the troops to engage the Austrians, who were not unprepared themselves. Austrian commanders were quite terrible, while their French counterparts were both able and enterprising.

Force compositions were following:

Austria: 7 Battalions of Infantry, 2 Hungarian grenadiers, Carabinier (Reserve) and two Medium Foot Artillery Batteries.

French: 6 Battalions of Infantry, 2 Hussar regiments, one Medium Foot Artillery Battery and Dragoon (reserve).

Both sides lined up, and both sides had forces set in columns to assure that they had the mobility that the terrain needed. Whomever controlled the crest in the middle, was likely to command the battlefield, albeit I must admit that I counted on the reverse slope. It did help, but not as much as I’d hope for.

First round went really poorly for the Austrians. Failing activations, they did absolutely nothing, and turn passed to the French. French were then completely different. They launched fast and furious – and very brave assault against the Austrian columns. Hussars punched through the line, and heavies occupied the ridge in the middle to make sure that certain Austrian battalions would remain in square.

Once Hussars were defeated by the Carabiniers, did the situation look less grim. However, enter Austrian command. I tried to move units to fill gaps, and to counterattack, but all in vein. It felt like the whole army was paralyzed. Once the Hungarian Grenadiers were defeated in detail, did the whole situation become desperate. The field was full of DIS 3 French battalions, that continued soldiering on.

At the end, Austrians lost 5 battalions, a lot of ground (there was a massive hole in the centre) and the French, one poor Hussar. So, victory was French, but only narrow one. I had to have match other way around…

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Signal Close Action – de Ternay vs. Graves

Another excellent game of SCA Fast Play. Scenario originates from excellent reference material for Close Action, a Rebel Seas that focus on American Independence. Graves left England about a week after troop convoy of de Ternay left France and it is assumed that faster sailing British fleet intercepted squadron of de Ternay near American coast. British squadron, numerically inferior had among them flagship London(98), three decker that was more than enough to offset the disparity of forces. Because of the convoy de Ternay needed to protect, British maneuvered for a wind cage, and fleets approacehed from opposing tacks.

Note: The hexes have no purpose in the game.

Wind cage may give advantage to the side that possess it (in many games providing some absurd benefit for firing when in reality it helps maneuvering, and the advantage depends on the players ability to interpret the situation). In here, British squadron could decide the time and place of attack. Additionally, because of French close hauling course, British could attack only part of French van without rear being able to help. Countering such a move is difficult, because if French wear early to match the course, the rear becomes overwhelmed and entire fleet may become disordered. If maneuver is executed late, damage to the ships nearly guarantees failure and disorder.

However it was not what British had in mind. More conventional approach appeared to be the dish of the day, and it did cause havoc amongst some of the French leading ships. British were not, however eager to engage from close, but preferred to stay in medium range, until French decided to wear together matching that of the British. During the maneuver, Duc de Bourgogne – who’s gunners were ill performing throughout the game, shot full broadside to Provence(64) causing it so much damage that it could no longer stand in line. London(98) happened to be it’s opposite number in line so it was matter of time before Provence surrendered (not that any 64 would ever, in any circumstances stand long against such odds). Now, the rearmost ship of French line became first, and the line started to turn in succession ahead of British. As a result, the British van suffered heavily.

The whole maneuver was apparently so surprising to British that they attempted to tack together to alter the course oppose to French (apparently fearing that wearing would bring them too close to fresh French broadsides – worry that is entirely unfounded, especially considering the risk involved in tacking). Intetion was apparently to engage the vulnerable French rear, but only three centermost ships managed to perform ordered tack. Result threw the whole British squadron in disorder. When Resolution(74), Prudent(64) and Bedford(64) refused signal to tack together repeatedly regardless of urgency, plan was discarded (Ill reminder of what happened at Minorca with Admiral Byng). Two ships of the van, engaged heavily already could not perform tack, and therefore become separated from the main body of the British line. Meanwhile French could finish of the work at the van, causing Resolution(74) to surrender.

After the misdirected British maneuver, general melee ensued, where British van was surrounded by French – in grave state of disorder, and the rest of the British fleet ended up tangled together. Both sides now attempted franticly reform the lines – precarious moment for the French, given that long tradition spells doom to the side that is ill organized. Good news were that London was entangled so badly with the British rear that it failed to reappear into fight until it was too late.

After the second British ship Prudent(64) struck her colors and Resolution(74) was boarded, British commander gave in. Evening was approaching and both sides retreated to lick their wounds.

French boarded one vessel and forced another to strike. British forced one to strike, but failed in the critical task of destroying French squadron. It is true however, that many de Ternay’s ships suffered (Neptune(74), Jason(64) and Conquerant(74) all took a heavy toll while from remaining British ships only Bedford(64) was comparably damaged) and were not in any state to repeat the action following day. Hughes, with only four ships, of which Bedford(64) would need shore time, would not dare engage de Ternay either, but seek shelter instead.

Another example of my all time favorite game system – albeit simplified one.

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Naval affairs – Signal Close Action, Fast Play

SCA.FPI haven’t got opportunity to have closer look at the SCA: Fast Play before, mostly because I do like the detailed approach of the full game, and can appreciate the fine nuances it offers. However, I ended up in situation where I needed to see naval rules that were as little language dependent as possible, and remembered that I do have SCA: FP in the shelf. The rules, especially if read through the main product are very, very simple and very approachable. Simplicity is taken as fas as not to be concerned with multiple sail states and there are only three (Full Sails, Easy Sails and Furled) and various speeds in relation to the wind. So, in all simplicity, there are three speeds (0, 90mm and 180mm) and 11 eligible compass points one can move and 5 towards the wind that are used only when tacking.

I do admit that initially I was put away by this treatment of sailing model, but after being forced (if that is the right word) to use the model, I realized that in all it’s simplicity, it puts a lot of effort on what really matters – maneuvers, and positioning of fleets. SCA: FP is after all more of a fleet game than about individual ships.

So, as a test we played scenario adaptation from Close Action: Monsoon Seas, the “Happy Return”, which pits against each other French and British during seven years War. British (64, 60 and 64 gun ships of the line), better ordered and positioned on the windward side, have much stronger French (64, large 74 and 46 gun ships of the line) opposing them.

Initially, it was the French that took pounding, trying to get the ships in any sort of fighting order, or line while sailing by the wind. Initial maneuvering took down one RDC from the leading French vessel before French could fire a shot. Lost RDC significantly slowed the sailing. Further harm was caused British ability to concentrate fire from two to three ships against one.

Tide started to turn around mid game when French large 74 came into firing position and restlessly bounded on while closing British. Difference in firepower between 64 ship of the line (broadside: 6) and 74 large (broadside: 9) is huge.

After hour and a half, one British ship surrendered, one french ship shot in pieces and other two on both sides suffering minor damage, fleets separated and captains went to have dinner. Pretty good considering that other player was a complete newbie.

I guess that the conclusion is that when there is about 6-12 ships a side, SCA: Fast Play makes a better fleet level game. Especially when qualities and signaling are included. Question is twofold: what is important in the naval game of the period? To model sailing in exquisite detail, or to make sure that things that matter are executed fluently and that even larger game can be played to conclusion within time that is available.

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About ancient combat and weapons

Armor and weapons - 6

Iron age helmet reconstruction – with fear inducing eyebrows😉

After many years of wargaming, some years of experimental history study, construction and combat practice with various close quarter weapons I have started to wonder why melee simulations have tendency to focus on the instrument.

It is easy to construct theories of how each individual weapon performs in one-to-one combat, but importance of men wielding the weapon is often forgotten.

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Two handed axe

During ancient era, it was common man levied into service during campaigning season. Paid, trained and disciplined professionals were rare commodity. Considering the everyday occupations of Hellens, there are craftsmen of sorts, farmers and such. They are perhaps somewhat seasoned in war, but still having gained their basic strength and skills in the fields and farms, wielding perhaps axes, scythes, spears, javelins and bow & arrow for hunting.

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Two small battle axes

It has always troubled me that some (if not most) game systems pay significant attention to detail of melee weapons. There is of course difference between long spear or sarissa that keeps the enemy in decent distance, or short knife but once treating the units as whole, the difference becomes a whole less important for the overall performance.

Sword for example is notoriously difficult weapon to wield for ill trained (I would almost at any time opt either spear, or small, sharp, well formed axe instead). When unit operates as group, it is important to wield weapon that one finds familiar and which allows unit to co-operate as unit. Morale of the levied troops, as often seen, depends on keeping the enemy some distance away.

So, what counts then in the reality? Experience, and exposure to combat counts probably more than anything else. Even the best of drills do not give sufficient exposure to the rigors of campaign. Consider that the part time trooper is really only a farmer, or a craftsman. He has no intention to become casualty during the campaign, yet it is likely that he understands that fleeing spells nearly certain doom to all.

Armor and weapons - 1

2/3 sleeved mail shirt

For the whole, if one can establish that the unit is disciplined, able to run through the drills with sufficient precision under pressure, then the actual weapon counts only little. Close combat is more akin to 18th and 19th century naval combat where the weight of the broadside counted, and not the specific weapon type used – balls or kitchen utensils, made no real difference at the end.

When two disciplined units meet in close quarters (Gallic war bands aside, where the point was impetuosity and individual prowess to kill as much enemies as possible in the progress of being killed), what decides the victory is really not decided upon weapon type, but the ability to intimidate and awe the opposition. Second, if and when it becomes melee, ability to sustain losses. More often than not, the victor is decided by the previous exposure to the rigors of war. Roman legions were not victorious because they used short cutting and stabbing sword. When they won, they did so, because the unit as a whole did not start to crumble, and the cohesion outlasted the enemy.

Armor and weapons - 3

Seaxe, good melee weapon of it’s own right

There are two distinct possible ways for unit cohesion to crumble. Uncontrolled pursuit of retreating troops – cavalry is notoriously difficult to control and many great victories are result of the cavalry wing running off the field in pursuit. When lines break, and breaches form, it it becomes easy to exploit and cause rout of the whole unit.

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Casualties – imaginary, or real may push the unit beyond, and cause mass panic. One of the reasons why controlled retreat was difficult to pull off was due to communication problem, but also because ordered retreat is easily interpreted by ordinary farmer in the line as imminent defeat. Many times orderly retreat has turned into uncontrolled rout.

I have heard several times an argument that supposedly gives sword like weapons superior status in melee. It has to do with very theoretical aspect of the wounds they produce. For example it is often quoted that Roman swords caused fearful injuries. Probably true to an extend, but anyone that has been in melee (simulated, or real) knows that there is really no time to observe the injuries of fallen comrades, fearful or not. Those, on the other hand, who possessed the field at the end had ample opportunities to see their hands work. In the same token, one could say that axe or spear wounds are not pleasant either. Many samples of all types of bone fractures, and wounds can be found in various museum exhibits.

That said, I understand the ranged weapon differences. Light arrow is certainly different than heavy javelin from the receivers perspective, not to mention range. But then, it may not have been trivial to make troops fire enemy troops. Consider the inexperienced soldiers in Seven Years War or Napoleonic wars. Troops were reported to have strong tendency to fire high, and officers had to repeatedly force the muzzles lower to hit the target. These were men, who had some hunting experience.




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