Friday, 3 April 2015

An introduction to "To the Strongest!" - Part 2

Following on from the previous battle, next up was 1st-century Gauls versus Roamn, with me taking the Romans this time.  If I remember correctly, I had a single standard-size (i.e. two hit) raw legionary unit, six average legionary units, and four veteran units that were only half-sized - i.e. single-hit units.  There were a couple of allied cavalry units, some camp-guards (armed servants), and a single unit of archers.  The Gauls had three units of cavalry, and 8 blocks of infantry warriors, who counted as "deep" and thus had 3 hits each; there was probably a unit of youths hanging at the rear who played no effective pat in the clash.

The set-up is as on the right, with "my" lads on the left; Aaron supplied all the figures for this game, however.  Single trees are just for show, but squares with two trees counted as woods and therefore rough going, as did the stream on my right. I figured my right was the strongest of my three commands, although when it came to the crunch it didn't quite perform as well as expected...  Aaron had his two right horse units in a single small command, with the rest of the army evenly split between two large commands. All my generals were "detached" (like Lost Battles "commanders") while his were "attached" (like Lost Battles "leaders").

"To the Strongest!", in addition to generals, also has "heroes".  I was very sceptical about these when I first looked at the rules, but they are actually a really good feature. A "hero" costs one point, and allows a single missed attack roll to be rerolled. That's it. A really good way of distinguishing two units from one-another, without the big difference implied by making one of them raw or vetreran, is to give the better unit a hero, as it should given them a slight edge in the attack.  One of the biggest problems with Lost Battles is the massive difference in effectiveness between the three grades of troops, as opposed to the entirely accurate difference in effectiveness between the grades of troops: in Lost Battles you have three and only three levels, so the "army lists" are chock-full of dodges like grading two historically identical "units" differently in an attempt to "average out" their effectiveness away from what a single grading would amount too, which really undermines the whole "model". 

The fight was pretty much a straight-up affair, with the main lines marching forward, and getting on with it. Romans get a definite advantage over other foot with their "heavy throwing weapons" but it's not like as if they are carrying grenades like the equivalent feature in Basic Impetus (written by an Italian, note!), so it's a decent bit of chrome without being overbearing.  It didn't help them much against the Macedonians in the previous game, note!  Also not helping the Gallic cause in this game was Aaron's complete inability to ally any hits.  I probably rallied half a dozen hits over the course of the two games, maybe more, and I don't recall Aaron managing to rally a single hit.  Sometimes Fortune just isn't with you...  Rallying itself is one of those inetresting "decision points" that makes a good game - do you try and rally a hit, or do you try and hit the enemy with your unit's first - and quite possibly only - activation?  Sometimes it's an easy choice, but certainly not at other times.

In this game, I deployed a front line of two-hit legionary units, with the one-hit veterans in reserve. When the front unit took a hit and became disordered, I had a choice between trying an rallying it, or executing a line replacement, and bringing up my fresh veterans, and this worked quite well; it was certainly a flexibility the Gauls didn't have. To the right you can see how a veteran unit has passed through the larger average unit, with general, to take up the lead position - presumably because it still had its pila in hand (which you get to use a single time).  Talking of one-shot weapons, the only real book-keeping involves ammo.  Missile troops do have an amunition supply, so they need to carry around some small chits representing this.  On the other hand, it's handled quite well, so it didn't worry me too much.

The game was quite bloody, and although the Romans definitely had the upper hand, Aaron was in with a chance even at the end.  To the right is the remnants of Aaron's right wing, or the infantry component lestways; the horse having galloped off into the distance trying to take out my own cavalry, who put up some fantastically stubborn resistence.  As you can see, this Gallic unit has not only a legionary unit to their front, urged on by a general, but the unit next in line had broken, and they are about to be rolled up by the victorious unit there taking them in the flank.  As it happened, the Gallic force broke before this combat could be resolved.

I was really impressed by the rules - with the caveat that they are very much a work-in-practice.  Simon Miller is by all accounts a "standard gamer" who, like many of us, are questing for their Holy Grail of games, and, again, like many of us, has decided to write his own set because nothing he finds is good enough. But unlike many of us, he has actually succeeded in putting them into a shape suitable for wider desemination.  But boy, does he need an editor!

Some things are simply sloppy English.  Here's typical example in an passage suppsoed to illustrate play: "the Roman player decides that he must attempt to rally".  This is oxymoronic - either "must" or "decides" needs to be replaced with something else; in this case, presumably, "must" should be something like "would be wise to".  But in other places, there are plain-and-simple rules contradictions, like how under the "Senior generals" section it says, quite explicitly,  that a Senior general must have a "command" (and thus they are no different from other generals in this regard), but under the section "The order of battle", it equally explicitly says a Senior general need not have a command of their own!

Once the worst of these bugs are ironed out, I think "To the Strongest!" could become a very well-rounded system indeed.

An introduction to "To the Strongest!" - Part 1

Aaron had a day's break from the family last week, so I was able to head down to his place for a couple of games, since I was also owed a couple of off work en lieu.  I usually let him decide what we are going to play, and rather fittingly given the title of my blog, he chose Simon Miller's "To the Strongest!".  This an ancients set that neither of us have played before, and is currently available as a pdf downlaod for ten quid; I understand it will be made available as a printed item when it is more fully developed.

Aaron's tried to get me interested in several "new" ancients rules over the past  or so years, but none have really taken my fancy, so I was very pleasently surprised by "To the Strongest!" - there are a lot good things to be said about this rule set.

We played a couple of games, and since Aaron has already blogged about them individually, you should probably read his accounts too; I'll provide links as we go.  First up was a Macedonian-Polybian Roman stoush. We used my Macedonian pike blcoks, but all the other troops we Aaron's; the reasons for which will become clear soon.  The rules have army lists, and given there is a points system that, unlike Lost Battles for example, is not tied into the game mechanics, I assume the eventual goal is to have the rules in a suitable shape for competition play.  We each had 133 points to play with, which didn't allow for a lot of choice, since the army list minmums were very close to that - this is no bad thing, IMO, especially for an introductory battle.

My army turned out to have 5 pike blocks, of which one was veteran, so I was looking at a scale of something like 4000 men for a "deep" unit; the game has no fixed scale in terms of numbers of men represented per figure and/or base, so is similar to Lost Battles in this respect.

I also had two units of normal "javelin"-armed cavalry (I'm a bit dubious about how efficacious these guys should be at shooting... but that's an army list issue as opposed to a rules issue), and one of light Tarantines; a single unit of Thracian infantry, two units of light javelinmen, and one of Cretan archers, who counted as veterans. There were also three camp bases, the maximum allowed.  I set up as shown right, with me on the left. Nothing fancy: the usual pike centre, with lights on the flanks, except that my javelinmen were consigned to baggage guard duty rather than as skirmishers - wisely as it turned out...

The system is grid-based, again, like Lost Battles, but finer grained - we had a 12 by 8 grid.  I think this is a very decent level of granularity for the forces we had.  You can deploy in the rear two rows of squares ("boxes"), but not in the most extreme flank column of squares, giving a 10 by 2 deplyment area.  Each square, or box, can be occupied by only two unts, only one of which may be "deep" (e.g. pike blocks).  One unit must be forward, and one back. Ostensibly, the rules don't care how your units are based, but in fact there is one important issue here. Because the squares are well, square, they are in fact implicitly designed for units that are based wider than they are deep, and ideally at least as twice as wide as they are deep.  My pike blocks, like all my Hellenistic units, are on square bases, so you can only get one of them in a box (unless using truly giant boxes, 18 cm acoss, in which case two could be put together side-by-side as a single unit; Aaron's boxes were 12 cm across, I thnk, or posibly 10; my units are on 8 cm square bases).

Aaron's Romans were a typical "Consular" army with four legions deployed in the usual velites, hastati, principes, triarii formation.  As was completely normal for a 2nd century Macedonian-Roman encounter, the Romans had the slight edge in cavalry numbers (there was no difference on quality).  Deployment is by commands, with each side deploying one command, and then the other side, and back to teh first side, and repeat.  The side with the lowest "scouting" strength has to deploy their first command first. All this was reasonably standard, and completely fine with me. 

The system is a points activation system, which is used both for movement and combat; melee as opposed to missile attacks are resolved ssentially as if attempts to move into an enemy-held box, so if you win, and the result is no enemy in the attacked box, you must perforce advance into it. (I wonder if there is an axception if you are defending a terrain feature, or fortifications?  Will have to look that up, sinvce ot didn't come up in our battles.)  Unlike DBM, where the number of activation attempts is variable, but the chnace of sucess is not, in To the Strongest! there is an element of chance to the activation process in the sense of you are not sure whether an acitvation will suceed or not, closer to the WAB system I undertsand, but nowhere near as random, as there is only a base one in 10 chance of fluffing each units's initial activation, and even that can be re-rolled if you have a general with the unit.

The really interesting wrinkle is that units can be activated multiple times, but each activation score must be higher than the previous one for the unit that turn, and that a single failed attempt will mean no more actvation attempts are possible for any other units in the command that turn (units are organised into commands under generals, pretty well just like in DBM). This system works extremely well given how simple it is.  One downside is you need to keep track of the command "rolls" (or card pulls if you are using cards, or chits pulls if you are using a container full of chits numberd 1 through 10, like we were), but this only needs to be done for a single comamnd at a time, so isn't that bad at all.  The system introduces a very decent fog-of-war aspect, while simultaneously opening a lot of player-input decision points (and therefor chances for skill) that don't acyually need agonizing over too much, sok eeping things moving.  While the game certainly doesn't play as fast as DBA, it is definitely much faster than DBM, and that's just on an inital game; I can imagine it going very quickly indeed with a bit more practice.

The grid system obviously constrains movement, put perhaps not as much as might be anticipated; since diagonal moves are rather easy to pull off. Indeed, they might be too common, although I'd have to play more before judging this. For example we had the following situation in our first game as shown to the left.  My veteran pike (on the right of my line) had been hanging back in case of enemy horse started engaging in some smart-arse stuff on my right.  They duly moved wide, leavng nothing in front of them. So I moved up to get them into action with the enemy foot rather than have my best troops stare at empty ground all day. They then, with another activation attacked the left Roman legion, rolled over its hastatii, and then, with another activation,  drove off the velites who had just retired behind them.  This meant I had to enter the now-vacant square - moving diagonally to do so, putting them immediatly ahead of pikeblockk thay had just come up to support, as shown above right.  I'm unsure if this is something that is "clearly wrong" or in fact something "perfectly acceptable", because we just don't really know enough about the dynamics of pike combat to judge. On the one hand we get commnets about unweildy pike formations, but on the other hand we get also comments about how e.g. Eumenes' Argyraspides somehow rolled up pretty well much an entire phalanx by themselves.

The system's handling of Polybian Romans - line relief and all that - was clearly central to how ths game panned out, and we were both not quite convinced here, especially in comparison to how our second game ("Marian" Romans versus Gauls) played.  The problem was that in this game all the Roman infanty units were "single hit" units - a single successful enemy attack, and they were gone, so there was no time (or need) to swap lines at any point: the Roman hastatii and principes either were at full strength or dead, with no halfway house (DBM has the same problem, of course).  In comparison, the Macedonian pike blocks took three hits each to break. So you could disorder them with one hit, which made them less able to inflict damage, but if you didn't inflict further hits, they would eventually "rally" their hits, and you would be back to square one.  Only you would have probaby lost some Roman units completely in the process, so it was sort of the opposite of what we wanted to see, which was Romans more slowly soaking up hits.  My own AoT rules are rather similar, except because the number of hits a unit can take is at least twice as many as in "To the Strongest",  as a Roman you actually get a chance to survive any initial damage...

During the game the Roman left flank did good work, but couldn't capitalise on their success, while  the pikes pretty-well much steam-rolled the legions in front of them.  But it was a cracking game, so I very much looked forward to the second round!