Saturday, February 10, 2007

Simple Battles for a Simple Mind

Like many wargamers, I've owned a copy of SPQR for years. In my case, over ten. I bought it back when I was in grad school and seriously considering a career in academia, that's how long ago it was. So long ago that I laminated the maps thinking I'd actually play the damned thing.

Now it's 2007, I have ten games in the series, plus every GMT expansion and C3i scenario, and I still haven't even set one of the games up. Even after getting both Simple GBoH scenario books, I simply had never given the games a try. As part of my New Year's "Resolutions" (as though that meant I'd actually *do* what I said I would), I decided I really wanted to put at least one game on the table. Rather than deal with a complex ruleset that changed by varying degrees from game to game, I chose to try out the Simple rules as they are shorter, have less Berg-ese in them, and allow you to play something like 100 different scenarios without anything other than a few small scenario-specific special rules. Today, after digging out SPQR and sorting through the 30 baggies of counters that I'd amassed over the years (and what a mess *that* was), I fought the Battle of the Bagradas Plains to completion. And you know what? I'm really glad I did.

Simple takes a lot of the clutter out of SPQR, both in the rules and on the board. Leader activations become very easy to do - when it's your turn, you pick a formation and activate it. You can continue to activate the same formation turn after turn if you wish to, and in some cases that seems to be a pretty good idea, although it does wear your units down pretty quick. Instead of trumping, each side has a certain number of "seizures" they can attempt, sort of like throwing out the red flag in American football - if you fail the attempt, you've lost it for good. Even all of the numbers on the leader counters are largely ignored - for most leaders it's just a question of command range, plus the initiative for your overall commander when you try for a seizure.

Also simple are the missile rules, which get rid of things like elephant missile screens. Inactive units can react in specific ways to active units movement, but it's pretty low key. Unit types are differentiated in how they "shock" combat (melee) with other units, and any special capabilities or limitations are nicely summed up in a small chart. Although shock combat can be a bit more involved because of all of the DRMs (troop quality, size, movement, terrain, etc), it's generally a pretty quick affair to figure things out.

What didn't seem so simple was the amount of markers in the game. I know that the original was called "marker-heavy" and I can't imagine how cluttered the board must get. In Simple, every unit takes cohesion hits during combat, and even during some movement (through woods, for example), so most units have a numeric marker on them once things get going. When you activate a leader, you have to figure out which units in that formation are now in command (can move/turn if in a ZOC, can enter a ZOC), and that takes more markers, although only for as long as it takes to move the units. For Shock combat, you have to put more markers on to show what units are attacking, and which ones moved into place for the drm bonus (again, these get removed as you go). If you have missile units reacting to the other player's movement, that's more markers to be sure they don't fire twice. That's a lot of placing and removing markers, but the worst is that you can't see your units with the numeric markers on them! As such, I spent quite a bit of time each turn figuring out which units were even in my formations (made more difficult for the Romans, who have cohort legions in the wing formations that are only differentiated by a teeny little letter on the counter). If there was ever a game screaming for a VASSAL module that would arrange this information in a convenient and readable form, this game is it. I cannot imagine what the original game was like.

But that's a fairly minor nit in the overall picture. What is really important is how well the game works. I am the first to say that I have very little experience with tactical practice with Republic-era manipular legions, although I know the basics:

1) Watch your flanks. Really. The drms change dramatically for attacking a unit from it's front vs the flank or rear. You see quite clearly quite quickly how important it is to have cavalry guarding the flanks of your army. In fact, Bagradas Plains is an object lesson in how only a single cavalry unit on each flank will result in a routed army in no time at all (the reason I used the option rule to increase the Roman cavalry to four on each flank). Phalanxes are incredibly powerful and difficult to wear down, but only if you go at them from the front. If they stay in line they are truly formidable.

2) Use your units correctly. Duh. Light infantry and skirmishers should avoid shock combat with anything bigger than they are, and instead hold off and force the enemy to come to them (and get reactive fire). Key note: Elephants really don't like pointy things like javelins. However, in Simple javelins only have a range of one hex, which puts you in shock combat (which eats up these units very quickly). Better to move two hexes away, wait for the heffalumps to move to you, throw missiles as they come, then avoid combat and head for the rear. Other units have similar strengths and best practices, and this game does a decent job (if not as strong as the original rules).

3) Leaders are huge, but so is cohesion. There are no rally rules in Simple - if you rout, that's it (unless you are an elephant, then you take a lot of units in your general location with you). Since you can't be in command unless you have a cohesive line, that means that you need to keep that line intact until you meet the enemy. Even then, if you're out of command, you can't even rotate in your hex so long as you're in an enemy ZOC. The other nice thing about a cohesive line - it's hard for anyone to get on your flanks. Did I mention the flank thing?

4) You may have a big army, but if you have a low rout withdrawal amount it won't matter. Funny story - I'd mistakenly thought that units were worth one point each for rout points, elephants worth two. So I sent all of my Roman Velite light infantry right up against the elephants, thinking that if they each took out one for each loss, I'd be doing well. Whoops, the Velites are worth their troop quality in rout points - 5 each. Not such a good deal. In fact, that's exactly what the *elephants* were for!

From setting up to getting through the entire scenario (including numerous rules look-ups, which were easy to do - the rules are very well organized), including looking at the SPQR Player's Guide to see which leaders and light infantry units I should be using, and leaving the game for 15-30 minute breaks at times, I figure it took me about three hours to get through. I also felt that I'd gotten most of the rules down, which was nice, and I'm looking forward to giving it another go with better LI usage in the next few days.

What was apparent was what a big difference troop quality makes, how important keeping a cohesive line is, and why you should get to know the Weapons Matrix well - medium infantry, for example, has no drm attacking legions, but legions have a +2 when attacking medium infantry, so the legions need to be making the first strike against this unit type if they can.

In the end, the Carthaginians won during a last ditch attack by the Romans to try to take out their overall commander's phalanx (they came within two cohesion hits), but ended up going over their 120 rout points in the process. I underused the cavalry, misused the velites, didn't keep a cohesive enough line with the Carthaginian phalanxes, and could probably have gotten a better result with the elephants had I been able to get them into second and third lines of the legions where rampages would cause a lot more damage. I think I'd also try to keep my Hastati and Principe legion units in formation right up to the point where they came into contact with the enemy, although there is something to be said for watching one's flanks. Heh.

Aside from the aesthetic and somewhat functional problem of having all of my units covered by numeric markers (I suppose I could put them *under* the units, it's not like many units in this game stack), I really enjoyed the game. While many if not most of the scenarios tend to be blowouts (mostly because the historical situations they are modelling were the same way), that's OK for a game I'll mostly play solitaire, and those that are well-balanced are the ones I'll play face-to-face. Who knows, maybe I'll even give the original rules a go, although this is a rules complexity level that I'm very comfortable with. Hopefully it won't take me another 12 years before I actually play a human being in this game...

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