Over the Easter weekend I was able to play two socially distanced wargames with my son Nick, using the To the Strongest rules (TtS) by Simon Miller.
We play TtS with 25mm figures on a 6” grid. The figures are a mix of ages and manufacturers, some of them dating back to 1981 when, aged 21, I started collecting Classical Greeks by Minifigs and by the long-defunct Rospaks. I have added to the collection over the years, with both modern sculpts by First Corps and Newline Designs and older models picked up through eBay or gifted by a friend who has downsized to 15s. I now have Greeks, Macedonians, Gauls, Iberians, Carthaginians and Republican Romans. The Romans are an entire army of very early Minifigs from the collection of a gamer who had passed away. I felt honoured to re-home them. Their spears are like telegraph poles and sculpting definition can be fuzzy but they have great character. And unlike so many ‘heroic’ scale figures, their proportions are realistic. To my eye, too many 28s today look like Space Marines in togas. But I digress!
The death of Leonidas
Our first game was a battle between my Athenians and Nick’s Spartans. His hoplites had the qualitative edge while I had more lights. While the two flanks bickered, our centres got stuck in, with Nick’s lads doing marginally better. We both had success with our left flank forces, so as the fight developed, each of our right flanks had to deal with the danger of being rolled up. I was losing victory medals faster than Nick but then had the good fortune to kill his heroic general, which brought our losses into balance. The cards went my way next turn, destroying one more Spartan hoplite unit and the battle was mine. The whole thing was very close however and at game’s end I had only one victory medal surviving. Still, a win is a win!
The game felt very satisfying as a clash between two hoplite armies, with no fancy manoeuvres and no detached generals. Our lights kept busy fighting each other but the game’s outcome was decided by the hoplites.
Hannibal ad portas
Game two was between Nick’s Carthaginians and my Romans. I was seriously outnumbered and Nick set out to envelop my army. On the other hand my infantry were rock hard and their pila gave them an edge on the first turn of combat. I set out to demolish Nick’s centre while I refused both of my flanks and kept my triarii back to act as a fire brigade. Nick placed all his cavalry on his right flank and two units of elephants on his left, along with some high quality Iberian Scutarii.
My centre started well, doing serious damage to some Gauls and wiping out a unit of citizen spearmen. However, the general in command of my centre then missed a turn at a key moment when he drew two aces in succession on his first activation. This allowed Nick time to patch up his centre while his left wing trundled down as far as my baseline and turned to face inwards. I squandered my next turn in a bout of tunnel vision, trying multiple activations on one unit so it could destroy a double-disordered unit of Gauls. Of course I failed the third activation on my unit and so ended the turn without activating a single other unit in the Command. I know, I know! Basic mistake and I should never be so dumb, except I was so fixated on the opportunity to destroy the single enemy unit I was attacking that I completely forgot my own advice.
Meanwhile Nick’s left wing started grinding down the troops defending my right rear, as well as threatening my front line from the side. At this point our lines were in an ‘L’ shape, with particular pressure on my units in the angle. Then in one turn, a flurry of high card hits by Nick, met with low card failed saves by me, took him comfortably over the victory line. To his only slight disappointment, he had won without his elephants actually fighting anybody. But we agreed that they had done great work forcing me to conform to their advance.
How (not) to play Republican Romans
That didn’t go well for me, but as we played we agreed some resolutions for the next time the Romans fight. Ideally, we would seek to use terrain to negate the enemy’s numerical advantage. In this game, it was Nick who exploited rough ground to shelter his advance down his left flank. Next, the Roman shouldn’t wait around to be outflanked by a bigger force: the heavy infantry should get stuck in quickly and try to eat up the enemy centre before the flanks and rear are threatened. Once engaged, the first priority each turn must be to use the Romans’ special line exchange rule for every unit that is disordered (representing the fresh principes replacing the tired hastati in the front line). This is a really powerful advantage but I lacked the discipline to sort out the line before other activations. At least twice, my command’s turn ended before I had attempted a line exchange. Finally, we decided that if possible, every command should have just one main function. My centre command Included both front line units and my reserve. Besides making it a very big command, I was trying to deploy the triarii to face Nick’s flank attack and to fight his centre to the front. Too often, the command’s turn ended before one group or the other had completed its tasks.
It is of course one thing to draw conclusions after a game but entirely another to remember them next time I play. And in case I haven’t made it clear: I didn’t ‘throw’ the game. Nick conclusively won it, making great use of his army’s strengths and obliging me to respond to his movements. A classy win for Carthage.
Out of lockdown with To the Strongest
The second game was much more fluid than the hoplite encounter had been and it felt a bigger challenge for both of us. The card activation system in To the Strongest is inspired. A sensible player can minimise the risk of their turn ending prematurely but very occasionally, as when I drew two aces in succession at the start of one turn, bad luck just happens. Fair enough. On the other hand, it is all too easy for an idiot like me to get drawn into the drama of a single combat and completely forget that I should be taking care of other activations before trying again with the critical combat. I reckon a game that draws me in so completely is doing something right.
I remember that when I first read the TtS rules, I wondered if units had enough hits/lives to sustain a good game. I also worried that a squared grid might be too restrictive on movement. Neither concern survived contact with actual play. I very soon concluded that these rules are perfectly gauged to give an exciting and rewarding game, with the strong sense of what I would expect from an ancient battle. They are also so easy to learn and (crucial at my age!) to remember during play.
After months and months without a face to face game, it was wonderful to be playing again. Fingers crossed, if the road map out of lockdown stays on track, we can soon play a great many more.
The other day, Dan and I played our first game of To the Strongest, the card-driven Ancients game by Simon Miller. I had picked up the rules at Salute the year they were published and liked the look of them but hadn’t got around to playing them. In recent years our group started using L’Art de la Guerre for Ancients games and it seemed better not to confuse things with a different set. However when I later bought, played and greatly enjoyed Simon’s and Anthony Brentnall’s ECW set For King and Parliament, I was keen to give TtS a go. As Dan is a committed classicist but new to Ancient wargaming, he was the ideal partner for the first game.
TtS already has a loyal following but deserves to be better known. The designer’s notes explain that it was designed to be learnt easily and to play smoothly and quickly. With these aims in mind it uses a square grid and normal playing cards, which are used to regulate all actions and outcomes. It achieves its objectives beautifully. That said, I have read that both the grid and playing cards have put some people off trying it. If so, that is a shame: to my mind, the square grid helps constrain the players to a more plausible range of tactical choices than the fast and loose manoeuvres one sometimes sees with other rules sets. As for the cards, if they are a problem, they can be replaced by ten-sided dice without changing the mechanics at all. Using playing cards does however allow spectators to see what is going on and I am quite happy to stick with them.
We kept things simple with a 100 point battle pitching Peloponnesian War Athenians against Spartans. I hoped the limited range of troop types involved would ease us into the game, without too many special rules to remember. Of course, we did need to assimilate the key Hoplite rule (no diagonal left movement; diagonal right counts as a simple move). I also lacked the quantities of javelin-armed light infantry required for two Hoplite armies, so over the two days preceding our game I frantically completed three new 8-figure units. Not the prettiest paint jobs but serviceable. One of these units, 8 plastic peltasts by Rospaks, had been waiting unpainted in my projects box since (can it be true?) 1982. Proof that the incentive of a looming game can unblock the tightest of painting jams.
Dan took Athens while I led Sparta. In general, I had a better quality phalanx while Dan’s light troops were mostly superior to mine. We each placed our single cavalry unit on our right, with light infantry shared between the flanks. In the opening phases, the lights sparred on the wings while our hoplite lines approached each other. Dan’s cavalry overran the light javelins on my left and went deep, capturing my camp, destroying its ammunition reserves and losing me 3 victory medals. At about the same time the centres clashed. Obviously the memo about Spartan quality hadn’t reached the card deck as for a good two turns, I drew high when I wanted low and low when I needed high. Fortunately hoplites need three disorders to die and I did start landing blows before disappearing, although a disordered unit has a much reduced chance of hitting in melee (8+ instead of 6+).
Dan chose to take his cavalry out of my camp to attack my centre from behind and I was able to retake it. I took back the 3 victory medals but not the ammunition supply, as it seemed likely that this would have been lost in the plundering. I did get a breathing space from my recovered medals and then, when I was fortunate enough to kill one of his generals, it seemed for a moment like I might retake the lead. But then I lost an allied hoplite unit in my centre, which allowed Dan to break into my line and take all my victory medals. It was a deserved win.
We enjoyed the game thoroughly and agreed that the rules are very quickly absorbed. The battle also felt right for a clash of two hoplite armies. Our light troops were all a bit crap, as they should have been, apart from Dan’s Cretan archers. The Hoplites had the resilience one would expect to see, combined with a satisfying lack of manoeuvrability. Fond as I am of L’Art de la Guerre, I do not think ADLG gives either the look or the feel of a hoplite encounter: too many gaps appear in the line and too many mini-units zip around into enemy flanks and manage other moves that are way too complex for this period. TtS felt more convincing, but still gave the choices and challenges that make a wargame enjoyable.
The figures used are a mixture of old plastic Rospaks and Minifigs. The oldest were painted in 1982, when I was more frivolous about accuracy (if you look carefully you will spot both Snoopy and Charlie Brown on the Athenian shields). I am so happy that during the many years I spent away from Ancients, I didn’t find these armies a new home.
Since our game I have been painting more Gauls, with a view to seeing how they play with TtS, against either a later Greek army or Republican Romans. Poor Dan is in for some more Ancients gaming very sooon.
I have had another go at the house rules for adapting FK&P to Eastern Europe. For now we are just looking at the troops needed to refight the battle of Berestechko in 1651, so involving the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, Zaporozhian Cossacks and Tatars. When we are happy with these I’ll have a look at Muscovy. The current house rules are here . This is a lot of fun to do. Poor Matt is going to find himself in the gaming equivalent of Groundhog Day before we are satisfied.
On 15 September, Keith, Matt and I spent more money than was good for us at Colours in Newbury. I like this venue, especially the light upstairs floors that are a much more pleasant environment than some Show venues. On the second floor, messrs Miller and Brentnall were demonstrating a beautiful 28mm game of For King and Parliament.
Having left the dog home alone, I prevailed upon Keith and Matt to leave Colours at lunchtime and come back to play a game. We agreed to try the new stats I have been brewing for using For King and Parliament in Eastern Europe.
I set out the table using the battlefield of Berestechko, but as it was our first play test the army sizes were considerablyreduced.
Matt, as King Jan Kazimierz, had two sub generals: Jeremi Wiśniowiecki, commander of the left; and Stanisław Lanckoroński, commander of the right. His army contained:
1 unit of Hussars
5 units of Pancerni
1 unit of Reiters
1 unit of Dragoons
1 unit of Hajduk infantry
2 units of German infantry
2 units of field artillery.
Keith, as Bohdan Khmelnytsky, also had two generals: Ivan Bohun, commander of the Cossack right and Islam Giray, Tatar commander on the left. His OOB was:
3 units of registered Cossacks
2 units of Zaporozhian Cossacks
1 unit of Cossack horse
A fortified camp, 3 squares wide and 2 deep, with its front on the 3rd row of squares
2 light Artillery pieces for attachment to Cossack units
1 unit of noble Tatar lancers
3 units of Tatar lancers
3 units of Tatar light cavalry bowmen
In line with historical deployment, Keith set up his cossack foot on his right, inside the Tabor, with their horse outside and immediately to its left. He set up his Tatars on the left, with the bowmen on the far flank and lancers closest to the centre.
Matt deployed a small command of two Pancerni and the Dragoons on his left; his infantry, artillery and Reiters in the centre and the rest of his Horse on the right.
As this was a play test, the point was not to try and win but to test different aspects of the rules. Both players took a few decisions to see what would happen, possibly against their better judgement. Keith in particular wanted to gauge the flexibility of his Tatar troops and they saw the most action of the game.
The battle began with Matt advancing his right and centre, while his left observed the Tabor from a safe distance. Keith kept his Cossacks tucked up in the Tabor and advanced his Tatars, with his bowmen looping around on the far left. The bowmen were charged by Pancerni but evaded, falling back on the woods to their rear. Keith then decided to see what happened when lancers charged the front of a Pike and shot batallia. Reassuringly, they slid off. Never one to learn from a mistake, he repeated the experiment with another lancer unit, with the same result. The second melee was closer run however, as the Foot had picked up a disorder in the first combat, but the odds were still in their favour.
In another combat, Matt’s Pancerni destroyed a Tatar lancer unit in one round. At this point I realised I hadn’t thought about the applicability of the FKaP pursuit rules to Eastern Europe. Uncontrolled pursuit by mounted units was not a significant feature of the dozen or so battles I have read about, although I’m sure it must have happened. We need to think about this but I am tempted to tone down the pursuit rules for games in the East in some way.
The battle ended with the collapse of Keith’s Tatar force and death of Islam Giray. As I say, however, this wasn’t really a competitive game but a first chance to try our adaptation. So everybody was a winner, or at least, everybody certainly enjoyed the game.
How did the rule adaptations work?
First, as we expected, the basic mechanisms of FKaP worked very well for activating and manoeuvring the armies. The Pancerni and Tatar lancers performed as we thought they ought. I was particularly pleased with the way the light cavalry bowmen worked: they were a flexible irritant that kept dancing out of danger but collapsed when cornered.
This game didn’t give us a chance to test the resilience of the Tabor as Matt didn’t assault it. In the real battle Wiśniowiecki charged it with his cavalry and was repulsed. We will have to set up a few assaults to see how it fares.
Of course we’ll need to play several more test games to get a reliable feel for the whole set of changes. But after one outing, I am very encouraged, especially by the way light cavalry work.
One more thing. For King and Parliament is a cracking set of rules: fast, tense and great fun. The next few months are going to be fun.
I have set out to adapt Andrew Brentnall and Simon Miller’s ECW rules, ‘For King and Parliament ‘, to cover Eastern Europe and specifically, the Battle of Berestechko, 30 June 1651. Although some east European troop types are not covered by these rules, most of them are either directly covered or can be represented by equivalent unit stats. The myth seems to linger (in Western Europe that is) that warfare in the East was more ‘primitive’ than in the West, with armies full of lassoo-wielding savages on steppe ponies. It’s true that some specific troop types existed and that in general, the cavalry arm was a bigger proportion of eastern armies than in the West. But most of the troop types present in the Commonwealth armies of the 1650s would be recognisable in a west European force (indeed, many of the troops were recruited from Western Europe) and in wargaming terms, the mechanics and many unit stats in For King and Parliament are applicable with little or no adjustment.
The following are my first thoughts about adapting the rules to the East. I will revisit them after a few games.
Hussars count as well-mounted, veteran Swedish-style Horse, armed with a lance (conferring a one-off extra to-hit card). This is fitting, given that Gustavus Adolphus had based his new cavalry tactics on those of his fast-charging Polish opponents.
Pancerni count as seasoned Swedish-style horse. Petyhorcy count the same, with an added lance.
Reiters could be Dutch, or increasingly Swedish as the century progressed. As accounts of Berestechko describe the Reiters as providing fire support in the Centre rather than in the cavalry wings, I am inclined to make them still Dutch in 1651.
‘German’ foot are standard pike and shot units at a 1:2 ratio.
Haiduk infantry have the same stats as commanded shot. These troops operated in smaller units than German foot so the original stats can stand. Most were seasoned troops.
Dragoons also read across directly, although the Commonwealth used them in great numbers and they were among the most hard-worked troops in the borderlands given their ability to keep up with the cavalry. Some dragoon units had pikemen as well as shot and they could hold their own in the main battle line. There may be an argument to treat some Dragoons as veterans and/or to give them pikes but I amleaving them as standard for now.
Artillery also reads across without change.
Pospolite Ruszenie are the Polish ‘noble’ levy, summoned by the King in hour of need. These troops were famously unmanageable and of mixed quality. The practice of calling the noble levy would die out over the rest of the century. I have shown them as Swedish style but raw, although they could also be untried. A small number of units, mainly from South and Eastern Poland, were battle experienced and fought well, so these will be seasoned.
‘Registered’ Cossack units represent experienced troops who left Commonwealth service to join the rebellion. They were regarded as some of the best infantry in Europe by contemporaries. I have made them the same size as German Foot but they lack pikes.
The Zaporozhian Cossacks are less experienced than Registered Cossacks and so raw, although they do have short pikes.
Cossack horse are equivalent to raw Swedish horse. The Zaporozhians were overwhelmingly an infantry army and their cavalry was indifferent.
The Tabor is making me think. Cossack armies used their wagons to form temporary fortresses and the Tabor was a key part of their position at Berestechko. We are not talking about a fortified camp behind the lines, but a serious and deep defensive line protecting the front of the army. There were some engagements where the Tabor was attacked on the move. In such a case I would place wagon units on the table with their own factors. I have looked at the rules in To the Strongest for War wagons and have created Cossack unit stats based on them. But the approach I plan for Berestechko is to use the fortifications rule from FKaP. I’ll still place wagon models on the table but this time they won’t have intrinsic fighting powers, as these will go to the infantry units behind them. I will also give Cossack units a cover advantage in all squares enclosed by the Tabor as they drew up further lines of wagons behind the first. I will also hinder movement within this area.
The Tatar Horde
The Tatars have three troop types: noble lancers; standard lancers and bowmen.
I have snaffled some rules from To the Strongest to cover Tatar troop types and tactics.
Light cavalry: All light cavalry activations are considered easy. Light bow armed cavalry may fire and retire one box facing the enemy (as well as the existing movement possibilities in FKaP). Infantry can charge light cavalry (this represents the light cavalry falling back before a steady advance of formed foot. Foot may not charge any other types of horse). Light cavalry receive a +1 save modifier against shooting, to reflect their dispersed formation.
Light cavalry and Tatar lancers have the evade ability.
Cavalry with the evade ability may evade charging infantry on a 3+ and cavalry on a 5+. If successful they retreat one box facing the charger. (The Tatars were highly versatile horsemen who used the feigned retreat to lure enemy troops out of formation. I decided to give lancers the evade ability despite them not being light cavalry).
These stats are set out in the table below. The points values may be a bit off here and there but I hope they broadly fit.
On 15 September, fresh from a trip to Colours at Newbury race course, where we had seen a great game of For King and Parliament in full swing, Keith, Matt and I had a first play test of FKaP in the East. Stay tuned for the after action report in the next blog post
I have played wargames for five decades. Recently retired, I have even more time to devote to it. More about me here.