Michael Akinde
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The obligatory disclaimer: I own both Strategos edition I and II, as well as the book Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World. I seriously considered not getting this iteration, but ended up buying it on preorder anyway. In other words; I'm hopelessly biased.

But what is it about this game that has kept me picking up every new iteration of it. Let me try to explain...

Gameplay

The Lost Battles system is actually fairly simple from a game mechanics point of view. The battlefield is a 5x4 grid, with each square being able to hold a certain amount of units. Units are distinguished appropriately - most of the unit types one would expect: Light and Heavy variants of Infantry and Cavalry, Cataphracts, Hoplites, Legions, and so on are included in the game.

Each turn, you will receive a number of command points (dependent on your army quality + a random factor), that you can use to activate your units. Units can be activated individually (expensive) or in groups and most activations provide the player with the option to either move or attack. Cavalry have a base move of 2, while all other units generally have 1 move.

So far, so good. Combat itself is fairly simple - units can be either fresh or spent, and an attack rolls 2D6 against a hit number dependent on the unit types involved. A roll above the hit number results in 1 or 2 hits, while a roll exactly on the hit number allows the attacker (provided it is fresh) to inflict a hit at the cost of becoming spent. This mechanic is fairly important as it is the key mechanic that allows the player to exploit numerical superiority and reserves as each square has an attack limit (i.e., maximum number of units that can attack from the square).

Another important mechanic is the idea of a lead unit - each square always has a designated lead unit (when attacking, the unit that attacks first always becomes lead), and this unit is always the target of enemy attacks. A simple mechanism, but it permits the player's to effectively use light infantry screens and unit rotation in a very simple way.

The number of modifiers involved may seem daunting at first, but in practice many battles only involve a handful of the total modifiers. If one were teaching the system, it might actually make sense to create a limited player aid for the scenario one is playing to reduce confusion.

A spent unit that is hit is shattered, resulting in an immediate morale test. Morale tests are harsh - one throws a single dice, adds global modifiers, and then checks the morale of each unit on the battlefield. Veteran and heavy infantry units are usually steady, while outflanked, levy and spent units will usually waver in this situation. Spent light infantry will usually be the first to go, and it is not unusual for low quality armies to evaporate from the field of battle once the casualties start mounting. There is no artificial break point imposed (a common mechanism in board and miniature games), just a gradual reduction of the odds that your army will stay in the fight. As with combat, the modifiers may seem daunting at first, but one very quickly learns how to calculate the morale of any given unit.

The morale check is really the focal point of the game - essentially, one's purpose is to force the other player to make as many morale checks as possible (i.e., shatter his units), until the other side gives up.

Historical commanders are represented in the game with various ratings from uninspired (and timid) to brilliant and make a huge difference. The best commanders can change the pace of a battle by taking a double turn, in addition to which they provide additional command points that will usually allow their side to carry out maneuvers that an uninspired commander can only dream of. Commanders can also be used to negate enemy hits (representing the leader trying to rally units), though at the risk of the commander being killed in the process. It is a very dangerous process. Interestingly, the game's designer has a reputation for repeatedly having gotten Alexander the Great killed in the early turns of Gaugemela.

But how does it work as a game?

In my opinion, very well. One must realize that Lost Battles is a Grand Tactical game - you are directing the grand sweep of maneuvers and the armies involved here, not the individual units as such (unlike pretty much every other ancient board/miniatures game). Despite this, however, there is a surprising amount of subtlety and tactical thought built into the game - and pretty much every decision one makes is important. It is not chess, however - luck plays an important part in the game (as it did in the historical battles), but I think players will be surprised at the amount of finesse that is possible within the limits of the 5x4 squares.

It is also a fast game. Most battles can be played out in a couple of hours, and some can be over even faster. Personally, I find this a good thing, although the temptation is always there to turn the board around and replay the battle.

Historical Quality

Without intending to knock any other board or miniature games, there is simply no other system that comes close to the kind of historical quality that Lost Battles achieves. This is not surprising, inasmuch as so much of Sabin's research is about analytical modelling and ancient warfare; the surprising thing is that he has managed to make a simulation that is also at the same time an entertaining game.

One of the great strengths of LB, in my opinion, is that it really permits you to play out the battles in a way that approximates the historical accounts. You will -entirely naturally - find yourself carrying out a tactical withdrawal in the center of a historically deployed Cannae in response to the pressure of the deep Roman formation. Redeploying the battle line is an enormous undertaking only achievable by the most disciplined or well-led forces (one of the reasons why playing the battles from deployment is best once you've gotten the hang of the system).

Best of all, the book contains detailed comments on each of the forty battles, rationale for why the scenario is setup as is, and in many cases suggestions on how to vary the parameters to take into account alternative theories for the battle.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Lost Battles is that it - with what is at heart a relatively simple system - manages to successfully simulate such a variety of battles.

Components

Lost Battles is a deluxe board game. The presence of the near 300 page book in the package contributes greatly to the heft of this volume, but the components themselves are generally high quality. The game includes a lot of tiles and a lot of unit counters, such that one can - if one wishes to - generate many more battles than the ones given in the book. Have a favorite ancient era battle that is not in the game? You can almost certainly recreate it using the components.

The only issue I have with the components are that the green color on some of the river tiles is a darker green than the rest of the tiles. It's not a big issue (I didn't notice it while playing), but it does take a little away from what is otherwise a great product component-wise.

Accessibility

There is certainly a learning curve involved in Lost Battles, but it is not at heart a very complex game, and simply picking an appropriately simple battle makes learning the game a bit easier. That being said, I tend to feel that picking a battle that interests the players is the better way to jump into the game - there is nothing like leading Hannibal at Cannae or riding with Alexander to make a new player enthusiastic for the game.

That being said, one will tend to gain an additional appreciation for what the game tries to achieve by reading the accompanying book.

Conclusions

As I started out by mentioning, I'm a fan of Sabin's game system and have followed its development from its early inception, so it should come as no surprise that I recommend it warmly. I've played most miniature and boardgames that model Ancient battles out there, from Wargames Research Groups early miniature rules, over Shock of Impact, Tactica, DBA and DBM... to the quad games, GBOH, and all the rest. Some of these are really great games but the historical accuracy is not always there. By pulling the player out to the grand tactical level, Sabin succeeds in removing most of the elements that allow players to behave in an a-historical manner, while still maintaining the interesting decisions.

For me, this definitely hits the sweet spot between providing an accurate historical narrative and an entertaining game. I still enjoy more detailed miniature games, but when I want to play something that is simple, quick and historical - Lost Battles is the remedy. And with the board game I no longer need to carry around a bunch of miniatures when I want to get in a game of ancient battles (pretty much my main reason for getting it, since I already own the book).

Executive Summary: Even if the game doesn't quite hit your sweet spot, anyone who is interested in Ancient warfare really needs to have tried this game or read the book. Only rarely do the fields of scholarship and gaming meet, and this is one of those times.
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David
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THanks for the thoughtful review.
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Edward Wehrenberg
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What a great review - thanks for posting it. I think you just sold another copy of the game for them!
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J J
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Thanks. One question - it looked to me, from the pics, to be a fairly standard ancients wargame (well, except for the individual take on battle, which I think I will welcome), but done in a new way - neither chits nor miniature elements, but rather delightfully chunky, glossy cardboard elements, so that it would appeal to both wargamers and boardgamers - am I right about that?
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Bob Roberts

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How are the rules compared to the rules in the book in your opinion?
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David Murray
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Thanks Michael, as a new player to the game you have highlighted all the aspects that I am enjoying most about the game, namely the morale system, speed of play, versatility of the system.

The point you make that at the end of a battle you just want to play it again also rings true - I am finding my mind constantly returning to LB and thinking about strategy and how to improve my chances in a battle. I have now played LB eight times and only covered three battles!
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Michael Akinde
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oneilljgf wrote:
these rules could be transferred to the tabletop with minimal alteration.
The rules started out as a miniature rule set, so that is definitely the case. If you Google Lost Battles+Salute+Sabin, you will find several pictures from demo games there.
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Michael Akinde
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badinfo wrote:
How are the rules compared to the rules in the book in your opinion?
I have not done a careful check of this, but my impression is that the differences are minimal (if they exist). You will probably make more mistakes in your first couple of plays than there are differences between the two books.

I certainly wouldn't consider the game a must-have for someone who already owns the book, although the bits and pieces proved too much of a temptation for me.
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Jon Karlsson
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Strategy wrote:
Another important mechanic is the idea of a lead unit - each square always has a designated lead unit (when attacking, the unit that attacks first always becomes lead), and this unit is always the target of enemy attacks.
How does one change the lead unit if not attacking?
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A.T. Selvaggio
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Michael:

Great review. Can you suggest a good battle to begin with for a Newbie? I guess I am asking for one that might involve less complexity to begin to get comfortable with mechanics and flow?
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Michael Akinde
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atsgamer wrote:
Great review. Can you suggest a good battle to begin with for a Newbie? I guess I am asking for one that might involve less complexity to begin to get comfortable with mechanics and flow?
That's a tough question, as most battles have something unique to them. IIRC, Granicus and Gaugemela have often been used for demo games, but I would not really consider them "easy" to get into.

The easiest battle to start with is probably Marathon, as it has a very limited subset of units: Hoplites, Archers (and the special ability of archers does not come into play, so they are just standard HI in this scenario) and a single each of heavy and light cavalry.
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Ken Takacs
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One of the best reviews that I have read on this site--well written, informative, thoughtful. Should be a model for a great review. Very useful for those wanting to know more about the game.
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Michael Akinde
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Addendum to the Review:

There was a question in one of the other threads about the border between simulation and gaming which made me realize that I mentioned that this was a grand tactical game, but did not really say a lot about why the game mechanisms still make for an interesting game.

Essentially, winning battles in this game are all about forcing a morale failure in the enemy army. Morale checks occur when an opponent unit is shattered, which means that your aim is to shatter as many units as possible and build up a morale advantage - shattering enemy units, killing enemy generals, holding key positions, and surrounding enemy zones. Eventually, units will start failing morale tests and units will start routing from the field - usually starting with spent light infantry, but soon followed by entire sectors until finally resistance melts away.

The key mechanism that make the game are the command points that define what you can (and cannot) do on any given turn. Mechanically, this gives the classic gameplay of having lots of things to do, but limited resources with which to them with.

In addition:

1) You need to deploy your army correctly (if you do not use the historical deployments). Redeploying is hard, so you need to have a plan for winning as well as being sufficiently flexible to compensate when your plan meets the enemy.

2) You must know when to expend command points on the (expensive) combat bonuses as well as when to accept hits on your own units in all-out attacks.

3) Picking the right lead unit for each situation is a subtle, but crucial skill. Do you withdraw your light infantry even though they are still fresh. Put the levies in front as sacrificial lambs or veterans for maximum hitting power?

4) You must learn when to gamble on your defense holding, when to stage a tactical withdraw, and when to throw in the reserves.

5) You need to use your generals correctly: where to position them, when to risk them in rally attemps, and where to use their free commands.

6) Carry out your commands in the right order. Because you never know how many commands you have until the end of your turn, you want to perform the "sure things" first. There's no point in rolling 6 command points if you've already done all your commands and maneuvers. Equally, you can be sure of rolling a 1 anytime you have planned for some grand maneuver.

Personally, I find these elements make for a fun and tense game. There are certainly not as many micro decisions as you will have in some other board games (or playing with miniatures), but - in my opinion - more than enough for a game of this scope and length.
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Bob Roberts

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Strategy wrote:
badinfo wrote:
How are the rules compared to the rules in the book in your opinion?
I have not done a careful check of this, but my impression is that the differences are minimal (if they exist). You will probably make more mistakes in your first couple of plays than there are differences between the two books.

I certainly wouldn't consider the game a must-have for someone who already owns the book, although the bits and pieces proved too much of a temptation for me.
Thanks, I've had the book since it came out, and have played Strategos. Was wondering if the new rules were worth $130 The components look nice enough, but I've got stuff to play the game with already.
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Michael Akinde
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Repost of the detailed reply from the Book difference thread, courtesy of the LB mailing list. There are a few changes in terminology, but the actual changes in the boardgame edition from the book are:

3.2 Player Turns
Rolling for extra command points is delayed until the end of the turn (once the player has 1 or 0 CP left).

9.3 Scythed Chariots
Attacks against these are now rolled for to see if a double hit results. The scythed chariot still only takes 1 hit, but any of the other units in the zone will suffer the hit (defenders choice).

9.5 Fortunes of War (Optional Rule)
Either player may challenge any combat die roll (only combat dice). The player who challenges, gives the FOW chit to his opponent, and henceforth only the player holding the chit may challenge in this manner. Both die are rerolled, and the new result stands.

10.3 Handicaps
*Triple the Fighting Value difference (rather than the original double)
is now granted to the army with the lower Fighting Value when calculating victory.
*10 points rather than 20 if your army was Fatigued
*1 point per unit rather than a flat 30 points if your army was
Surprised
*A 1-point 'reimbursement' for average legionary units (clarification)

And - of course - the Empire campaign game is not included in the book.
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Bob Roberts

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Thanks Michael.
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Quote:
Without intending to knock any other board or miniature games, there is simply no other system that comes close to the kind of historical quality that Lost Battles achieves. This is not surprising, inasmuch as so much of Sabin's research is about analytical modelling and ancient warfare; the surprising thing is that he has managed to make a simulation that is also at the same time an entertaining game.
I always appreciate people who say that they are not going to knock something and then they go and promptly do it. Which you did.

Michael, your statement needs supporting evidence before I will come close to believing it. This is not to say that I won't be amazed by Lost Battles; when my copy arrives I likely will love it; that's why I bought it.

Other designers have delved deep into the history pool to come up with striking simulations. Take Richard H. Berg, for example. What sometimes happens then is that you find some folks complaining how the game was too much like its historical counterpart. But there's no pleasing some people.

goo

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bentlarsen wrote:

Other designers have delved deep into the history pool to come up with striking simulations. Take Richard H. Berg, for example. What sometimes happens then is that you find some folks complaining how the game was too much like its historical counterpart. But there's no pleasing some people.

I've followed discussions along these lines over on the AncMed mailing list. You are right that many designers have done research, but the overwhelming impression that I have always come away with is that most of the truly original work was done decades ago by WRG, and that most of what has been done since is largely based on WRG's work.

Now that's okay if you think that WRG did a good job. I don't; I've seen too many things change over the past decade, let alone the 4-odd since WRG's initial work. Many really-well established wargaming conventions have tumbled (in particular the whole barbarian/undisciplined mob of idiots thing), at least in terms of research into war, if not in gaming-world acceptance.

Now all of this make Sabin's game lean toward wargame more than boardgame, which I think that people need to know up front; but I'm guessing that the bundled book should give that away
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Michael Akinde
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bentlarsen wrote:
I always appreciate people who say that they are not going to knock something and then they go and promptly do it. Which you did.
If you say so. As far as I am concerned, stating that one specific game is superbly researched does not imply that all other games on the subject are poorly researched or bad history.

In addition to which, historical quality is not the be-all and end-all of a game. Although LB/Strategos has been my preferred game for Ancient battles for a number of years now (especially when I want a quick game without too much setup), I have enjoyed - and continue to enjoy - many other ancient battle systems.

Quote:
Michael, your statement needs supporting evidence before I will come close to believing it.
There are ~300 pages of supporting evidence included with the boardgame.
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António Vale
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Strategy wrote:

And - of course - the Empire campaign game is not included in the book.
I know most people are more interested in and focused on the battle game, but do you have an opinion on the Empire campaign? And thanks for the great review.
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bentlarsen wrote:
I always appreciate people who say that they are not going to knock something and then they go and promptly do it. Which you did.

I don't get it, where did he knock any other games?

All he did was mention some others he has played which sets a context to his gaming background. At the start of the post he has come right out and stated his 'bias' but also only mentions these other games in an attempt to show where LB is different.

I had already bought the game before I read this review so have no particular axe to grind but I can't agree with your assessment of the posters intentions.
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Alessio Lerro
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atsgamer wrote:
Michael:

Great review. Can you suggest a good battle to begin with for a Newbie? I guess I am asking for one that might involve less complexity to begin to get comfortable with mechanics and flow?

Mantinea is also a good start

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Conclusions

As I started out by mentioning, I'm a fan of Sabin's game system and have followed its development from its early inception, so it should come as no surprise that I recommend it warmly. I've played most miniature and boardgames that model Ancient battles out there, from Wargames Research Groups early miniature rules, over Shock of Impact, Tactica, DBA and DBM... to the quad games, GBOH, and all the rest. Some of these are really great games but the historical accuracy is not always there. By pulling the player out to the grand tactical level, Sabin succeeds in removing most of the elements that allow players to behave in an a-historical manner, while still maintaining the interesting decisions.

For me, this definitely hits the sweet spot between providing an accurate historical narrative and an entertaining game. I still enjoy more detailed miniature games, but when I want to play something that is simple, quick and historical - Lost Battles is the remedy. And with the board game I no longer need to carry around a bunch of miniatures when I want to get in a game of ancient battles (pretty much my main reason for getting it, since I already own the book).

Executive Summary: Even if the game doesn't quite hit your sweet spot, anyone who is interested in Ancient warfare really needs to have tried this game or read the book. Only rarely do the fields of scholarship and gaming meet, and this is one of those times.[/q]


Very excellent review and absolutely not biased It is very "objective" and describes the game for what it is. Then you may like it or not (I do, but not too much) but it is absolutely important to understand the depth and the "difference" of this game in the panorama of ancient warfare. THe fact that is different doesn't make it necessarily the best, but for sure it is an outstanding system, cross referenced with an excellent book on warfare simulation, which is worth a look and (in my opinion) the money.

You should have filmed this review !
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Michael Akinde
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avale wrote:
I know most people are more interested in and focused on the battle game, but do you have an opinion on the Empire campaign? And thanks for the great review.
Empires is a very, very simple game - you essentially designate attacks and roll a dice to resolve each attack for each of the 4 powers (adding and subtracting a few modifiers). Personally, I don't find it very interesting as a stand-alone.

As a campaign game, it is OK and adds value to an already interesting product. I wouldn't get the boardgame just for this, but it's a nice bonus.
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António Vale
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Strategy wrote:
As a campaign game, it is OK and adds value to an already interesting product. I wouldn't get the boardgame just for this, but it's a nice bonus.
Thanks. I'm at the stage of trying to rationalize the purchase of the game, so I'm trying to come up with all possible excuses
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