Saturday, March 16, 2013

Miniatures Playtest Review: Ancients Rules

My first wargame army was a set of 15mm Romans.  They were crudely painted and based on flimsy cardstock.  They only fought one or two battles, using an early edition of WRG rules or their 80’s imitator, The Shock of Impact.  While I had fun with those little guys, my imagination was fired more by the age of gunpowder, and my Romans fell forgotten to the back shelf for a long time.  I heard about DBA and bought a copy of the rules.  I liked the “Small armies” approach (as a college kid with limited funds, the thought of buying 500+ minis was discouraging) but DBA did not engage all parts of my brain.  It felt more like playing chess than commanding an army.  I wanted a set of rules that was playable and fun on one hand, and made me feel like I was making the kinds of decisions that a contemporary commander would have made.  In short, I was looking for the holy grail of rules sets.

As a historian of the early Middle Ages, I long resisted the Arthurian period as hitting a little too close to home.  I like to keep work and play at arms’ length if at all possible.  But curiosity finally got the best of me, and I was seduced by the gorgeous Splintered Light 15mm Saxons and Post-Roman Britons.  Now to find a set of rules.

I had three candidates: Basic Impetus, which I downloaded for free from Dadie e Piombo; Hail Caesar, which I might have overlooked as corporate eye candy but for my pleasant experiences with Black Powder; and Dux Bellorum, Osprey’s recent entry into the field which is the only set geared specifically towards the Arthurian period.  There were many similarities among the rule sets, and I decided that the only way to settle the issue was to run a simple identical scenario three times over, once with each set of rules.
On a plain field, with little terrain to speak of, a hastily-assembled Romano-British defense force attempts to break a horde of Saxon harriers who seek to plunder the remaining hill-forts of southwestern Britain.
On one side, the Romano-British deployed in a line, with cavalry units protecting the flanks, and two units of infantry and some archers holding the center.  On the other, three Saxon warbands line up ready to charge, with archers protecting one flank and a reserve of companions in reserve.
Romano-British to the Right, Saxons to the Left.  No terrain except for a colossal Spanish-style house looming over my 15mm miniatures.



Two battles went to the Saxon invaders, and one went to the Romano-British defenders.  All three were close run things, however, and could have gone either way with a few different dice results.  I did not feel that any set of rules was lopsided or unfair, a credit to all of the designers.  Each game had exciting bits, ones where I thought “If I can make this roll, and I pull this out for the losing side.”  In a solo game, that’s pretty good.

In the end, each game had strengths and weaknesses that were part of the philosophy of the designers.  In short, they all managed to create games around a series of principles that they felt were essential to warfare in the pre-gunpowder era.  That’s a Good Thing.  I don’t think that any of these sets were “bad rules.” However, they each pushed the player to a certain style of play and leadership.  Though different, all were fun, and I think I would take any of the three over the rules I played with in the 1980’s.

At times, I felt like I was making DBA-style decisions. On at least two occasions, I found myself thinking “If I activate this unit first, I will clear a path for this other unit that will enable it to get into position…”  To me, that challenges my suspension of disbelief.  I think medieval generals should have minimal control over their troops.  A lack of activation rolls further pushes Impetus from ‘simulation’ to ‘game.’  However, when the fighting started, I liked the Impetus system the best.  Units mixed it up, lost effectiveness quickly, and individual contests between two units were decided in no more than two turns.  Reserves were critical in relieving battered units.  I think this is the game I would use to introduce new players to the game.  Fast, but with a need for intelligent decisions that reward smart players.    It seems best when geared to two-player head to head battles, but plenty of rules exist online for expanding it.

This game was as crazy as any Black Powder game I have enjoyed.  Blunders, failed activation rolls, and sudden shifts of fortune because of hot dice.   This is not a game for the timid.  Units are tougher than in Black Powder, but the savagery of melee combat can mean that an entire wing of an army can disappear in a turn or two.  I suspect that more defeats in “Hail Caesar” are attributed to bad dice rolling than bad strategy.  But it’s fast, fun, and flexible.  The deliberately laid-back style of the rules means that more attention is paid to getting troops into the battle than in wheeling them at exactly the right angle to maneuver into position.  I like that the rules follow closely form Black Powder, giving an entry to people who might be new to the period.   I had worried that this might make the battle feel generic, but in some ways these rules had the most authentic feel for pre-modern generalship.  Who wants absolute control?  I think these rules would be the way to go for a big, multi-player game as well, as each command operates more or less independently.

The Leadership Point system might be abstract, but I think it did an excellent job of simulating the limited resources of command.  When cavalry assailed the Saxon chief from all sides, he piled on the LP to rest every attack.  Lo and behold, the stubborn warband was able to see it through to the end of the battle.  Leadership Points allowed the Roman commander to rally his line when they were on the verge of fleeing for the hills, even if it meant not pressing the attack on the Saxon commander as fiercely as he might have otherwise. The system had activation rolls (which I liked), but they were dependent on the unit, rather than the commander, as they were in hail Caesar.  Combats became slogging matches, and it was quite hard to chase a determined warband or shieldwall off the table.  You couldn’t write off a battered unit just because it was almost worn down to nothing, because it might still have a few good turns of fighting left in it.  Of the three systems, this one seemed like it required the most finesse, for good and bad.  I think it would be great for more experienced players.  I’m not sure it would play very quickly in a large multiplayer game, but I could be wrong about that.


yorkie said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. i also have all 3 rulesets, and have played Impetus the most. Basic impetus is a bit DBA ish, but with more meat on the bones I believe.

Ive only had the one game of Hail Caesar, and really enjoyed it too.

All 3 rulesets are very good in my opinion, so with that in mind ive based everything for Impetus, as it will work with all 3.


Shaun Travers said...

Thanks very much for taking the time to do this. I love reading ruleset comparisons!

I have all three you mention, but have only played Basic Impetus, and only for a few games (all solo). I found Basic Impetus quite good, but I needed to change a couple of the rules to suit me. I really really like the look of Hail Caesar and hope to get a few games in this year. Your review has solidified this even further.

I have found that all rules have something going for them and all work well in some way or another, some more than others!. The only problem is finding rules that work the way *you* want ancient battles to play out!