Friday, 3 April 2015

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!


  1. Good write up Luke. Have added a link. Cheers for coming down!

    1. As always, the pleasure was mine! Right, time for some lunch :-)

  2. Thanks Luke, what a thoughtful review!

    The single hits Polybian issue is an interesting one. I wanted to have the triplex axies, but found that stacking up four full-strength Roman units opposite each phalanx gave for a short battle. Also it meant that the Romans had around twice the points on the same frontage as the Macedonians, leaving them vulnerable elsewhere on the battlefield.

    The downside to the small units is that they can't rally (as a single hit kills them). However there are some upsides that are less obvious:
    • Two small units have more pila than one regular-sized unit.
    • A small unit to the rear can battle back when a unit in front is destroyed.

    Usually the Polybians will give a phalanx quite a bit of grief, although in this battle I gather that all the javelins and pila missed so they were on the back-foot from the start. The other thing that causes a phalanx real difficulty is placing broken ground during terrain deployment - as Polybius observes, they really struggle with that!

    An alternative approach to the Polybians would be to merge the hastati and principes into a single unit (a la FoG), keeping the Triarii as a small unit. I suspect that they would fight less effectively, though, but will test it at some point.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the game, and look forward to reading the other account! BTW huge fan of your Notitia site, which has been invaluable in building my Late Roman army.

    Best, Simon

    1. Regarding your two upsides, the first is certainly true, although given the vagaries of chance it may or not make a difference, which is fine. However, the second is frequently likely to be not in play (if we understood the system properly), because of the way any withdrawing velites tended to get in the way by being inserted into the middle of the acies rather than withdrawing all the way through... Maybe we were doing something wrong there.

      Your "alternative" approach is esentially what I did with the next battle, so it defeinitely can work. But then it won't let you do something Scipionic though in terms of extending your line. Tricky...

      Regarding broken ground, I have yet to see a rule systems that doesn't make rough going so bad for a phalanx that it is simply better to have a gap there with no phalangites deployed at all! No tabletop general will ever deploy a phalanx in bad going when rules cripple it so badly. Which also brings me to another thing you might want to "fix" - you give a phalanx no incentive to head for bad going when fighting cavalry, but in real life, when Macedonain phalangites were faced with being surrounded by horse like Thessalians in the Lamian war, the first thing they did was precisely to head for the rough... this is something all rules sets get wrong, it seems. In short, rulewise, phalanxes tend to be overrated in the good, and underrated in the rough.

      I've got more and more comfortable with grids over the years; but I think you have convinced me to import them in my own rules :-)

  3. Given you criticise the author for sloppy writing you should invest in a spell checker yourself. ... the typos made it very annoying.

    People in glass houses and all that.....

    1. I would love a spell-checker (or at least, a spelling highlighter) function for this blog, since I am a one-finger typist - amnd it shows! Unfortunately, I don't know if one exists. Do you?