The Successors Project: Part Two

Right, so we’ve agreed we’re doing Successors as the next big project; you know, the next big project we were never going to do 🙂 and we’ve selected our major source for figures and got a rough idea of how many we’re going to need – lots! But, we can’t have a wargame without a set of rules can we? No problem thought I, there are dozens of them around, this will be easy!
Before rushing out and buying several commercial sets of rules at twenty quid a pop, Dave and I had a couple of garden meetings during the summer of 2020 and talked through what we were after in terms of how the game would play and what it would look like and came up with some guiding parameters.

Our primary need was for the figures to be multi based on stands and for X number of those stands to represent a unit; preferably the unit frontages would be common throughout. We didn’t want element bases in the DBA style – if we’d wanted to play chess that would be our hobby! and what we most definitely did not want was singly based figures moving around on sabot bases masquerading as units.
On the record keeping aspect, which a certain faction of gamers seem to have a real problem with these days, we’ve done it in most of our rules so a little bit of book keeping or utilising casualty counters wasn’t a worry.
Factors. Gamers seem to have divided into love them or hate them these days, most of the rule sets we play have factors in one form or another so again, not too worried, but we did agree NO to shopping lists.
Randomness. If there were no dice it wouldn’t be a war game but we like our random aspect to be contained within a narrow band so NO to buckets of dice, NO to random movement – no evidence whatsoever and NO to silly random event/command cards – “Lucretius Cretinus has a cold, no orders given for the next two turns”, it’s not bloody kindergarten!
Commercial rules if possible. Now one of our occasional opponents, outside of the Group, thought this to be highly hilarious, “You, play to a set of commercial rules? Never going to happen!” Yes I have written most of the rule sets we use and some have been published but with so many sets available – I listed around twenty when we got started, I genuinely thought it would be a doddle to find a set that answered most of our needs even if we had to locally tweak; you can see where this is going, can’t you?
Ideally a period specific set would be perfect but I kind of knew going in this was likely to be an impossible dream.

Having done a bit of preliminary reading I sorted through my existing rule sets and quickly realised that when I played WRG 5th & 6th and Shock of Impact, my young brain was far more agile and so they and Tactica and the Newbury set went quietly back into the box. Still not wanting to splash the cash just yet I sent out the call to nearby occasional opponents to see what they might have and in a few weeks I had, To The Strongest, Warhammer Ancient Battles, Field Of Glory, Vis Bellica, and Hail Caesar, to which I later added Civitates Bellantes and Swordpoint. Now I had something to be getting on with which was just as well because restrictions were tightening so solo gaming different rule sets would be my gaming for the next few months – I now realise why I game with others, solo gaming is crap.

First up was, To The Strongest. I’d heard good things about these and the guy who lent them to me certainly thought they were worth the money, but there again he plays DBA so what does he know 🙂 Now straight off the bat they didn’t meet the basing criteria, having one base size for all units with different numbers of figures on the base (well 3 base sizes actually as this varies with table size) to represent a unit type, so one base = one unit, but I thought ‘hey, embrace the difference, the ancients gaming world has moved on and you might have missed something’. So I dutifully cut out lots of 180mm x 40mm strips of card and played through a game (actually it was more like two games because for each set I would start, realise what I was doing wrong and then replay earlier moves – hey it was lockdown, what else was I going to do?).
Before I go any further though I think I need to come clean here, I really didn’t like these rules, complete respect to Simon Miller for all the work he put in to make them different and the army lists he did are exhaustive but it was a bad start to the quest. I think I should have stopped when I realised the basic concepts of the game; ok, so one base = one unit, then the playing area is divided into a grid or box of squares of a certain size in which one unit can exist, the units are then activated (its an I go, you go system) by the active player (I couldn’t work out how this was decided) drawing cards from a standard deck and they move a certain number of boxes, there are no rulers or dice. Now call me old fashioned but haven’t we just chucked away what makes a wargame a wargame?
Undeterred I ploughed on; so to move unit X I would declare that intent and draw a card from my deck needing 2+, I draw a 4 so happy days but I can activate that unit again if I want to but now I need more than the 4 on the next card and so it goes on until you fail and hand over to your opponent, so the ‘skill’ is to calculate your odds on getting a higher card or not (like a glorified pub game) and move on to your next unit before you fail. This can make for a very randomised and fractured game which looks awful and I would propose has nothing to do with history – some dark age battles maybe (maybe) but neither the sources or modern interpretations give any indication of this kind of fracture, if anything ancient Hellenistic battles can be a bit on the boring side, the trick being to use your cavalry effectively.
The shooting and melee obviously also use the cards; to hit, the player draws a card needing 4+ (I think), if successful the opponent draws a card needing to beat an arbitrary saving factor, if he is successful then happy days he gets to fight back, if not, then generally the unit goes disordered and if hit again then it is lost – a posh way of saying destroyed. For me there were two problems with this; first, I had gone from playing a board game to now playing cards in the pub and secondly the ease with which units could be destroyed meant that the nicely painted 16 pike figures (I think it was16) you had on your one base were now in the metaphorical bin. The reward for tabling nicely painted figures was zero, there was no sense of a unit being worn down yet fighting on valiantly as you removed bases, one minute it’s there the next minute it’s gone.
There are also rules for 5 levels of command (on different big bases) which I’ll admit I never really got to grips with as I was too busy playing cards, which rather neatly brings us to the visuals of the game which at times were quite awful, multiple cards behind different units and then alternate cards for the combat, it looked shite and at times so confusing you lost track of what you were doing. I explained all this to Dave and the one big base idea he liked (“save us moving all those pike bases around”) but then I explained the grid and the cards, “sounds like a board game to me and I don’t play board games”. Case closed.

Next up was Vis Bellica. Again recommended by a fellow gamer and one who used to be a very serious ancients player so hopes were high. At it’s core Vis Bellica has the same DNA as To The Strongest (although written some time before) in that a unit is one base with the variance being the number of figures on the base – some of which are quite strange arrangements, however we do get to use rulers and dice! Before I got started there was an awful lot of exposition concerning, experience (levy, elite, etc), order (close order, open order, skirmish order, rinse & repeat for cavalry), weight (armour but expressed as a version of order like light cavalry, heavy cavalry, etc), armament (distance & melee) and then all the abbreviations for what has gone before and then the number of figures on a base for the different versions of order; all this and we’re only using one 6″ x 3″ base! And it kept on going! I finally got to the playing the game bit at page 28 of 45 pages and I think my irritation may have affected my enjoyment level. The game turn is split into 3 phases (simple), a compulsory phase (routs, ongoing melees & flank moves), a command phase (leader bases move, spotting & orders) and an action phase – the nitty gritty of charges, shooting, movement and casualties (which is actually officers only because the figures are purely symbolic). I’m pretty sure this is a simultaneous movement game but I could be wrong because it didn’t seem to say one way or the other, never the less I did play two games.

Going through the sequence; having the routs as the first thing was quite handy in clearing the table and given the speed of movement (see later) the table can get cleared quite quickly, melees are worked out by modifying the unit’s arbitrary base strength (a number derived from the experience, order and whether infantry or cavalry) from a fairly lengthy factors table plus a 2 x D6 roll then divide by 5 (rounding down) and the result is knocked off the opponent’s base strength. Loser takes a morale test using the now modified base strength plus factors from another table and is either ok, shaken or routs. This was very tedious to play (not helped by the melee and morale stuff being in different parts of the book) and given that you are using 2 D6 very random.

The command phase has the movement of leader bases which are 9″ x 18″. What the ****! It took me a while to realise what was going on with this but of course 6″ x 3″ bases are multiples that fit into the larger thus defining the command but there really was no need for this. Further complication was provided by there being 4 levels of command – CinC, General, sub general and leader with the leader having a number of bases under his command and when on the table those leaders can do spotting to find out whether they can see the enemy but that is dependent on rolling for command points which are also used for changing orders, rallying and removing disorder. Why? Just why? This was way over the top and just needless aggro when all you want to do is get on and fight; the section talks about junior officers and brigades and includes a table showing the number of points required to take an action dependent on rank and distance away, Jesus! This isn’t the C18th; in your average ancient battle there is a king and two or maybe three sub commanders who have been told what to do, the enemy is visible across the other side of a generally featureless battlefield, most troops behave in a standard manner, off we go!

The action phase was the main event. The movement is massive! Light cavalry bound along at 20″ and if they are skirmish order they add another 4″ – this kind of shows the pointlessness of the earlier lengthy division of troop types. Heavy & medium infantry go at 10″, pretty nifty but then look at missile distances; a javelin man at long range shoots at 8″, a slinger at long range is 12″, short is 10″ so in one move a pike phalanx is all over those pesky skirmishers making them completely redundant, so why did the ancients have them in their thousands? What also becomes clear is the need for a big table, your average 6′ x 4′ is not going to be any use, in 2 turns the enemy skirmish cavalry are at your deployment zone, yes your pikes will be in contact pretty quickly but we know from the ancient sources that the armies deployed some way off to allow the skirmishers to have a go and for the cavalry to try and flank, not so here. The shooting is like the melee. base strength, lengthy factor table, 2 x D6, casualties of 25% (which aren’t casualties obviously just a reduction in the base strength) means morale test. It is also at this point that officers and standard bearers (the army standard idea from WRG is used here which was a crap idea back in the days of 7th edition) can be killed which can then trigger a morale test. This works fine but it is a bit long winded.

Looking back at my notes after the play throughs I see comments like “too mathsy” with reference to the casualty calculations, “none of this is any good” regarding the command rules, “good ideas but too complex” for the shooting & melee, “too fast” for the movement, but what really killed it was the feel, that completely intangible thing that either is or isn’t, the one base = one unit just doesn’t do it for me and again my overall feeling was that I’d played a board game in which my nicely painted figures were utterly redundant.

Next on our lockdown journey was Simon MacDowall’s Civitates Bellantes, a lesser know work compared to some but one aimed solely at the classical period and by an author who I rate as an innovator having played his Legio rules and Comitatus.

The rules started on familiar ground with the WRG/DBA basing standard of a 60mm x 40mm base and between 2 and 6 of these ‘stands’ makes up a unit. The number of figures on the base define the troop type (Light Infantry, Light Cavalry, etc) but again the number of figures doesn’t actually matter. Other preparatory stuff gives arbitrary characteristics for different troop types, being an Attack value, a Defence value and a long & short range shooting ability; a training grade ranging from A to C and morale classes (4) ranging from exceptional to poor, armour is a comparative thing relating to others. For me this was all a bit overdone but simple enough. Dice are D6 and D average (very WRG!) but no rulers, instead we have measuring sticks marked with half and full stand frontages and a full stand frontage is called a ‘javelin throw’ (JT) which is the basis for movement and ranges. Now I’m going to say this now, what an utterly pointless concept; movement is in half JT’s (it even sounds ridiculous) but shooting in full JT’s with short range being 1JT and long being 5JT, so what’s wrong with just saying 60mm (way too small anyway) and 300mm. I tried it but soon gave it up, there was no point, it was confusing and served no profitable purpose.

The sequence was alternate with players dicing for initiative (who goes first) but here the going first is for each phase in the turn (command, movement & shooting, combat, morale) not playing through the whole turn and then handing over to the other guy. I liked this, I thought it gave some interesting tactical choices and meant that one player wasn’t hanging around too long.

The command phase is linked to the chain of command set out which gives a General and Sub Generals plus a Contingent Commander for allies. The nub of the phase is leaders moving to steady or inspire troops by attaching themselves to them or positioning themselves within 1JT (remember how small that is) of his units and exerting de facto control, those out of the distance are not under control and take a test which results in them doing as they are told, whooping it up and sailing off toward the enemy or halting. My experience of this was it just being a pain in the arse; because the control distance was so small you always ended up testing something but with largely little effect and so the game slowed down, as I played I was thinking ‘if these are any good I’m going to dump this bit’.

The movement phase suffers from 3 things; one, the stupid JT idea, two, the random dice modifications applied to the JT and three the concept of permanently unformed troops. Dealing with the last first, the idea is that certain troop types are always less well ordered than others, but not disordered because that means something else in the rules, and involves spacing stands apart (1JT distance) which looks rubbish and in the midst of the battle you can end up pushing bases back together again because you’ve forgotten they were unformed; it’s an unnecessary bit of frippery (like the JT) that is just distracting. The stupid JT idea; “1/2 JT for each pip rolled on 1 x AvD plus one optional extra AvD. Except for cataphracts, cavalry may elect to roll a third optional D6,” What and why? each category has similar wording resulting in an overly fussy movement system which stutters along; I can for example roll my AvD get 4, move 120mm, then think ‘oh that wasn’t very far’ and roll another AvD but get only 2 so move 60mm but no problem I can now roll my D6 and get 6 which gives me another 180mm. I know of no ancient battle where movement was anything like this, it’s a gimmick and not a very good one. On top of this is Disorder Points (DP’s) for fatigue, terrain and manoeuvre, some of which are generated randomly and others by fixed penalty and these are serious shit because they are effectively casualties and too many means goodbye unit. The idea is fine (apart from the random ones) if you’ve bought into the no casualties idea but there are 4 pages of conditions which at times can be a little bit like ‘except on a Sunday unless you are elite guards’. More of this in morale.

The shooting is completely ineffective but in fairness to Simon he does say this. Ranges are the 1JT & up to 5JT, so javelins and bows, no differentiation for slingers so I guess they are lumped in with bows. The process is 2 x D6 per stand modified by a couple of factors at most and a score of 6 is needed to inflict a DP (casualty). It is simple and it is completely ineffective.

The charge movement and combat suffers from a lack of clarity. At first I thought you could only charge from 1JT away (because it says so) but then as long as you are in bow range (because it also says so). I think the idea is that in movement you say if you are charging and roll the amount of dice you think you need and then stop at 1JT ready to close in this phase. The rules allow a counter charge and seem to imply that both sides declare charges which seems to negate the innovative initiative within phases of earlier. Units then compare their pre determined Attack or Defence values and modify with a D6 and factors from a list, the difference in the scores is then compared against another table for an outcome depending on whether you won or lost. So if my total score was say 9 and yours was 4 then I would look up the 5+ outcome and you would look up the -5 outcome, both would involve the allocation of DP’s and some kind of movement penalty; this wasn’t very intuitive and wasn’t helped by there being no explanation, just the two tables.

The morale is the DP’s. Essentially once you get to 4 DP you are Shaken and can’t do much until rallied, either being outside of 5JT of the enemy & halted or in the command phase and this can be a bit difficult as leaders only have 2 action points (which is what you need to rally) and may want to do something else. Being in melee with high DP’s is a big minus so you can end up breaking in the melee but there is no morale failure as such. I get what was trying to be achieved here; leadership is all and you have to work hard to utilise them effectively but the process is a fag and not a lot of fun.

I had high hopes for these but despite some good ideas buried away they didn’t hang together well and weren’t an enjoyable playing experience. At a very base level I was encouraged by having stands make up a unit and I could have lived with the figures on the stand being purely decorative but then you never lose stands so what was the point? you may as well use the one big stand = one unit idea of TTS and VB.

Next up was Field of Glory a thick hard back tome that could act as a bullet proof vest. Now I don’t know anyone who plays FoG but I do know it is very competition based, has a hard core fan base and I’ve watched some games at shows (when they existed!).The basing is straight DBA, hence the competition vibe, which for a game with a lot of figures is a bit of a drag.

The sequence is an Initiative based alternate move system (kind of). How the initial Initiative is decided I didn’t understand (I diced) but after that it swops back and forth. The turn starts with charges (Impact in the rules) and the immediate melee where the active player gets stuck in and the opponent either gets out of the way or stands his ground, then normal movement for the active player, then shooting for both players, then continuing melee for both players, then joint actions like rallying and moving leaders. I liked the impact and melee idea for the active player and him moving but the rest being simultaneous struck me as an opportunity lost.

Movement is SLOW, very slow, don’t bother fielding cataphracts they don’t go anywhere (4″) and heavy pikes just crawl along (3″). Movement is split into simple and complex and units test for complex moves which is 2 x D6 plus factors needing a 7 or 8 to pass depending on drill; perfectly fine as an idea but a little complex; even on a 6′ x 4′ table this was a slow game.

Shooting ranges are really short, long range bow is 6″ and is determined by rolling a number of D6 per base depending on range. The nub of the system is what is called Points of Advantage which are plus or minuses dependent on the target and the shooter which gives a minimum score to get a hit. The number of hits taken per base determines whether the unit tests its cohesion using 2 x D6 and this raises or lowers its cohesion level which forces some kind of action although generally not much happens. There is also a Death Roll to see if a base is removed which was kind of fun but overall it felt like a lot of work for no real gain.

The melee process, whether impact or continuing, was the same as shooting, different numbers of D6 per base dependent upon whether impact or continuing and then different PoA’s – there was a lot of these, followed by cohesion test and death roll. Unfortunately it was all a bit random and I have to confess a little boring.

Morale is the cohesion test where you can drop down the cohesion level ladder or be rallied back up again.

Overall there were some good ideas; the impact & fight idea I liked and what I hadn’t mentioned, that leaders are on the same bases as the troops (so 60mm x 40mm) so can be slotted into a unit when fighting with them rather than circular leader bases that may or may not be touching a unit base. On the downside the DBA basing is a bit old hat now and the movement rates frustratingly slow plus there is just a little too much “if you do that then you must do this” which is kind of inevitable in a competition style rules set.

Next was Hail Caesar, another in the ‘big thick book’ category. Another alternate move system (whatever happened to good old simultaneous movement?) but a more pure one in that blue (for example), moves, shoots, fights and then red follows, simple enough. Armies are divided into divisions commanded by a leader, units are made up of stands, although again the number of figures doesn’t really matter and the number of stands varies according to the level of game being played – 3 I think. For the most part this is straight forward and although frontages & depths are given per figure it is easy enough to multiply up into conventional base frontages, where this comes unstuck is with the skirmishers who are based as single figures as if they had wandered onto the playing surface from a nearby skirmish game. it looks odd and plays badly.

For movement the active player declares his intent for a unit and then rolls 2 x D6, if the score is better than the general’s leadership skill (usually 8 or 9) then the unit has failed, if less then good to go, if significantly less he can move 2 or even 3 times – charges are part of the intent declaration. Very simple but man can you get some variance! Also, once you’ve failed a roll that’s it for that leader. Now I’ve played with guys for whom this is nirvana and they’ll wax lyrical about how much ‘fun’ it is. For me it was way too much, no army in ancient history behaves in such a random way when moving on the battle field. The actual movement distances are fine for a single move but with the distance multiplier light units can be across the average 6′ x 4′ in a turn so any hopes of nuanced play is killed which would seem to indicate a larger playing area (8′ x 6′) would need to be the norm.

The shooting is done by a number of D6 equal to the unit’s arbitrary ranged attack value which is modified up or down depending on the unit size. Add or take away a few modifiers and a score of 4/5/6 gives a hit. Simple. Ah, but then we have saving throws, 1 x D6 for each hit with some modifiers and the unit needs to equal or better it’s morale value. Then hits are noted against the unit stamina value, if equal it goes Shaken, if double it goes Shattered. Not so simple and bloody pointless, why do the job twice?

The close combat follows similar lines to the shooting only this time the number of D6 is equal to the unit’s arbitrary combat value, again modified by a few factors. The hit requirement is the same along with the saving and the stamina but an added dimension is that the unit which took the most hits rolls against a ‘break table’ the results of which can be anything from ok to break, in which case the unit is removed. A neat little trick with the stamina thing is that once a unit exceeds it’s level it can end up sharing them with other units.

Overall the rules are simple and effective if a trifle random and although I didn’t want to adopt them as our set I could see myself playing them if invited to do so. What’s my problem then? Well I think I’ve come to the view that the assignment of arbitrary values for everything a unit does no longer sits well with me and I say that as someone who has written 3 sets of rules that use exactly that idea! In terms of trying to create national or systemic differences to provide nuance on the battlefield it’s all well and good but it is a dictatorial approach which puts the player on the outside and when you actually look at all the numbers you’ve created there isn’t a lot of difference. I read through the army lists book that covers our time frame and the attack values and combat values etc were really not that different from one army to the next so why bother? The movement roll mechanism was really annoying after a while and cannot claim to be any kind of representation of ancient warfare, I know it’s a game mechanic I just didn’t like it. The ultimate tick in the no box however was the saving throw; I know it’s a motif of Rick Priestly and the whole Warhammer ideology but it’s time consuming, it’s dice rolling for the sake of it and frankly it’s lazy, just make your casualty mechanism robust enough for players to only have to do one thing.

As a sidebar I also gave Warhammer Ancient Battles a go just because one of my mates found a copy buried away but we’ll leave it at that; I played them and I really, really, didn’t like them.

Final playthrough in this marathon of lockdown was Swordpoint; I played the original version although I now believe there is a 2nd edition available.

Amazingly a simultaneous play set of rules divided into four phases; Initial (morale tests for previous bad stuff), Shooting, Movement (includes rallying) and Combat. Units are made up of stands, very similar in frontage to what you end up with in Hail Caesar, containing a fixed number of figures and the number of stands in a unit type has a minimum and a maximum – stands are actually removed! Groups of units are assigned a leader who has his own Attack and Cohesion value (see later) and the units have a Defence and Cohesion value; again arbitrarily assigned values but at least limited. The key aspect of the game is Momentum Points, a certain number are given at the beginning of the game and more are earned through successful play to be used to boost stats in things like melee.

The game really starts with shooting in the opening turns, ranges seemed pretty sensible and the initial process simple. A unit rolls 1 x D6 for each base it has, modified by a few factors and needing 4+ to hit. Needless complication is then added by the saving throw routine, this time 1 x D6 for each hit, modified by a couple of factors and needing to equal or beat the defence value of the unit shot at. Damm! The target unit can end up Discouraged if it took 10% of it’s base strength (number of figures per base x number of bases) which gives momentum tokens to the shooter and effects cohesion and combat, 25% casualties will lead to a cohesion test. Uniquely, casualties equal to base strength (number of figures on a base) means the base is removed, less means no base removal and there are no carry overs – simple from a record keeping point of view.

Movement is in four phases and the players dice for Initiative using a D6 plus momentum tokens (so that’s what they’re there for), the winner gets to choose whether to go first or second in the sub phases. So then we are off into declaring charges and responding – there is no test which I found odd, rallying which needs a leader in range and does involve a test, then the compulsory moves like evade or fleeing, actual charge moves take units to within 1″ and then normal moves – a neat little quirk here is allowing close order foot to go the same speed as other foot until within an arbitrary distance of the enemy, then they slow down. There are special rules for being drilled, impetuous or similar which work quite well but you did have to remember to flick to the page in the book.

The combat uses the tokens again to boost abilities and there are bonuses for being in line of battle. Fighting is done in weapon length order or whether you charged and is simultaneous. Basically it’s 1 x D6 for a cavalry base and 2 x D6 for a formed infantry base needing 4+ unless you are superior (3+) or inferior (5+) followed by the inevitable saving throws. Once that’s done the opponents compare losses, add some factors and compare the modified losses to a table which gives the result for the loser. Again bases are removed for whole bases lost and carry overs discarded. Serious losses force a Break Test which can result in the unit fleeing and all these outcomes give momentum tokens to the winner.

All these outcomes then roll into the start of the next turn and morale tests kick off that turn.

Again pretty simple and effective and like Hail Caesar I would play if invited into a game with no qualms but ultimately not quite there which just goes to prove my mates point and I think he’s right I obviously do have an in built resistance to commercial rule sets. That said this was the nearest set and if my own efforts don’t work out this would probably be the set with some local mods. My main objection to these was, not surprisingly, the saving throws, but also the innovative momentum tokens isn’t quite as ground breaking as I first thought because it does become slightly artificial and massively favours the attacker so Harold on his hill at Hastings hasn’t got much of a chance of getting tokens and keeping track of the damm things was a bit of a chore.

So that’s it, a good cross section of rules trialled and the promised land not quite reached , no surprises there! What I did find however was some quirky ideas I would like to see in my ideal set and several ideas and themes that I would never want to game with. All through the trials I was making notes on the main areas of each set of rules and then separately writing up short paragraphs on what I wanted from movement, melee, shooting, etc and at about the 2/3rds point I thought “I’m going to have a go at a set” which I was going to offer up here but this has waffled on for far to long so I’m going to sign off and then do another post describing my fledgling set and maybe offer people the chance to criticise me the way I have others here.

Until then, be safe.