Howard Posner
Australia
Brisbane
Queensland
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Hi all,
I know two battles is a bit early. I write this accepting that I don't know all the nuances of the game, and given its venerable history as a simulation tool there will others out there who can rightly scoff at this as a 'rush to print', especially for a game that has had a long history of play prior to this version.
Enough apologia. To the game.
1) Does it pass the weight test? Absolutely yes. You get a lot of stuff in the box, and some of it is unique. Like 5th Column's first offering WTID the production values are very high, with lots of well made counters, a modular board with lots of variety and options, and decent player aids. You also get a glossy 70 page rulebook, and game designer Professor Philip Sabin's 287 page book giving what is surely the most comprehensive set of reasons and justifications ever published for any board game.

2) The book and the model. The book is a joy for Grognards, especially the chapter notes and bibliography. It gives a detailed and comprehensive justification for every rule in the game, and is a window into high level military modelling and historical game design. The ancient authors source list also gives a little two or three line description of each author's writing style, which is in itself a great resource for interested non academics.
I loved the book, and don't presume to challenge Professor Sabin's expertise, but I do question why it is in the box (unless the books were already printed and didn't affect the price). What is being offered is a game, not a University course, and while I both read the book and played the game the two exercises were independent of each other, and I'm not sure that either gained that much from the other. If the game could have been published for $20 less sans book, perhaps it should have been.
I also have a minor quibble as the rules in the book are laid out differently and have some substantive changes from the later glossy game version.

3) The game components. High standard, elegant understated art, and enough board and unit pieces for lots of experimentation. A joy. The only complaint I have is the use of black lettering on red with a dark green background for some units. Even the minimally colour blind will come to grief with that combination.

4) The game. It's been a long haul to get to the game, but this package seems to lean that way. Professor Sabin is sufficiently eminent in military and academic circles to make critiquing his theoretical model a bit brave or foolhardy. Here are my observations on his game as a game:

It is very stylized. Every battle has round about 20 or so units per side, and lasts a potential 10 turns. Every battlefield is a 5 x 4 grid. The system works well, and the justification in the book is as elegant and erudite as one would expect, but in game terms, rather than academic model terms I feel some of the battlefields and armies could have been more asymmetric. easy enough to tweak I accept.

The command and movement system is very elegant. Generals matter, but not as all knowing godlike figures, and there aren't too many unit types. Each type there moves and responds differently and learning how to maneuver heavy infantry in particular is a challenge. The differences between hoplite , phalanx, legion and archer HI are able to be subtly represented.

The system is not intuitive. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make the game a slightly steeper learning curve than the amount of rules leads you to believe it will be. The stylized battlefield, orthogonal movement, and 'lead unit' in every tile that takes (and doles out) the first attack feels slightly odd, at least for those of us brought up on 15mm lead figures in serried ranks, wooden blocks and cardboard counters in hexes. It does work, and after a few battles you will realise that it is very clever as you start planning how to mass your HI and have at least a few fresh units in a tile to absorb hits without shattering.

The combat system is comparatively straight forward. A pretty standard 'roll a 9+ on 2 dice for success', regardless of the unit match up (I know that is not strictly true so please don't yell at me but that was how it felt). The system uses an interesting 'all out assault' concept that enables you to cause more hits at the cost of tiring your own units.

The real innovation in the game is the morale system. It creates a completely different feel to the game than any other ancients simulation I have played. Each time any of your units shatter and is removed, every other unit in the army has to test morale. There are a series of modifiers, based primarily on the number of units already dead and battlefield position that alter the morale numbers (the centre of the field and the 'key' tiles really matter).
This has the effect of suddenly wiping out great swathes of your troops just when you need them most, and enables the battles to actually finish with one side fleeing the field. From my reading, that was what usually happened in real life, and the game brilliantly models it, rather than the usual 'score an arbitrary X points and both sides shake hands and leave'. It does feel very intense as your veteran Hoplites flee from some crummy Persian archers while you look helplessly on.
But the morale system in particular is a little clunky, as each one takes a bit of time, and keeps interrupting the turn. Each unit can only be activated once per turn and each unit also has to morale test fairly regularly. the units are double sided but that is for their fresh and spent sides. It is hard to remember which units have activated or tested and which haven't, especially as the morale tests interrupt the turn in mid phase. No counters are provided to help with this bookkeeping or marking. We got lost a couple of times and weren't sure if a unit had activated or not that turn.

This one criticism apart the game works well. it has obviously been play tested to death, and the rules are clear and comprehensive. the battles are exciting, interactive and you are constantly presented with difficult choices. The deployment system for starting battles is almost a game in itself.

CONCLUSION.
Grognards should definitely buy this one. It is a really well thought out and innovative game. It perhaps needs a few more informational counters/cubes to mark what units have done what, but that is easily enough fixed. The morale system alone, with its capacity to make the armies on the board behave as we like to think they did in real life is worth the price of the whole package. The book still seems to me to be an indulgence in a game box, although it is fabulously referenced and a great read.
I'm not so sure it is right for more casual gamers. It is a clever take on some old wargame problems (The thermopylae opponent who never knows when he's beaten, the all knowing commander who sends orders by satellite across the battlefield, the barbarian warband doing guards maneuvers etc) but the solutions although elegant perhaps sacrifice a bit of game for simulation. I'm happy enough with that.
If you've got this far thanks for persevering. My final take is that it's a clever innovative game from a serious military historian, worth buying and playing.

Howard Posner








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David Murray
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Howard thanks for your thoughts.

I also admire the morale system and initially found it clunky as you test each unit (If you have not played the game yet - you do not roll dice for each but but apply individual modifiers to the army morale).

I have now eight games under my belt, hardly a veteran I know, but now when we play we can now calculate the morale so quickly, there are only a handful of modifiers, that it hardly slows the game down at all. I am sure after a few more plays the morale calculation will become second nature to you - in fact in our games an understanding of the current morale situation is beginning to effects what we will do next, for causing a swath of enemies to rout the field is very satisfying.

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Jim F
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The morale system reminds me a little of the one produced in a set of rules for the Society of Ancients where classes of troops (light/heavy/medium) desert the battlefield as each reaches a break point - with a culmulative effect built in. That was more a hex game but the effect of seeing your best troops bugger off en masse was demoralising (and not just for the little counters).
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Keith Hammons
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Great review! With other research I was starting to think that the book was the rule guide which was both daunting and discouraging! Glad to hear the book is independent (yet informative). Thanks!
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Frederic Sapp
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Ashiefan wrote:

The morale system reminds me a little of the one produced in a set of rules for the Society of Ancients where classes of troops (light/heavy/medium) desert the battlefield as each reaches a break point - with a culmulative effect built in. That was more a hex game but the effect of seeing your best troops bugger off en masse was demoralising (and not just for the little counters).
You talk about Legion, right ? A great game too !
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Jim F
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I think so. I played it a convention in its early development. It was fun.
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