… Or, A Solo Wargamer Immerses Himself in Impetvs
By Chris Hahn
What happens when 1,050 points of Germans and 800 points of Early Imperial Romans are deployed on a six-by-four-foot table? Drawing on some years of experience, I imagine that the resulting collision (more like series of collisions) would be fairly intense, as well as rather spectacular, though I cannot be absolutely certain. However the planned project turns out, I do hope that the answer produces more than just a short narrative paragraph and provides ample opportunity for the use of adjectives like “educational,” “engaging,” “enjoyable,” and “exciting.”
Three tribes, or commands, were drafted from the First Germans list on page 10 of the Extra Impetvs 2 supplement. For ease of identification and representation on the accompanying maps, these formations are identified as the Blue Tribe, the Red Tribe, and the White Tribe. The Blue Tribe was the largest contingent of the muster and benefitted (or perhaps was hamstrung) from having a single, charismatic leader. There were 11 large units of warriors (classed as light infantry) gathered under the standards of this tribe. One of these units was rated elite; its front line warriors carried long spears and the formation served as a kind of bodyguard for the elected ruler of the tribe. Along with this mass of fierce fighters, there were 4 units of medium cavalry (2 having attached skirmishers or “Hundreds”) and 6 units of skirmishers armed with javelins. The total demoralization value of this command was 63 points. The Blue Tribe would run away, more likely than not to fight another day, when it had lost 32 points worth of broken or destroyed units.
(More, plus maps and photos, below)
The Red Tribe mustered 6 large units of warriors (also classed as light infantry) along with 6 other units of warriors. These were classed as heavy infantry and included a formation of veterans. Like the Blue Tribe, the Red Tribe had 6 units of skirmishers armed with javelins. Regarding the mounted arm, the Red Tribe, led by an expert chieftain it should be noted, brought just 2 units of medium cavalry to the battlefield. The total demoralization value of this smaller command was 49 points. It would break when 25 points worth of units had been destroyed or routed.
The White Tribe composed the smallest contingent of the gathered Germanic warriors. Their chieftain was only fair in terms of ability. There were 2 units of cavalry (1 of these assisted by “Hundreds”) along with a screen of 6 units of skirmishers with javelins. The main body of the White Tribe consisted of 9 units of warriors. (These were not large units and again, all were classed as light infantry.) The total demoralization value of this comparatively tiny command was 30 points. The White Tribe would run away when it had lost units adding up to 16 points.
Three commands of Early Imperial Romans were enlisted from page 9 of the same supplement. The overall commander of this large army was rated as an expert general. His contingent consisted of 10 units of legionaries, a single unit of Equites Alares (medium horse) and a single unit of skirmishers armed with short bows. As this unnamed commander was an apparent favorite of the Goddess Fortuna, his formation was granted a Roll of Destiny. (This is essentially a morale check do-over.) His two subordinates were classed as fair commanders. Between them, they brought 10 more units of legionaries to the battlefield. There were 3 units of auxiliaries in attendance as well. There was another unit of medium cavalry, a unit of trained archers, and a “battery” of ballistae. Evidently, the liver of the sacrificed animal was without blemish as another Roman command was granted a Roll of Destiny.
For ease of identification and map reference, the three Roman armies are labeled the Gray Force, the Orange Force, and the Purple Force. The Gray Force would quit the field when 17 of its 34 points had been defeated. The Orange Force would make a hurried exit when 12 of its 24 points had been routed. The Purple Force, the smallest contingent in the Roman army, would run for its life when 9 of its 18 points had been cut down in combat.
The Field of Battle
Map A shows how my six-by-four-foot tabletop was landscaped for this completely fictional battle. It will be immediately apparent to those experienced with Signor Sartori’s spiral-bound set that I have opted to ignore the rules pertaining to permitted number of terrain features, placement of those features, use of exploration points, and the location of baggage or army encampments.
My original plan called for a couple of volunteer generals who would provide plans for deployment as well as plans for the impending battle. Requests were posted to a number of Internet forums and though the response was small (it struck me as a bit ironic that there were no takers on the Impetvs site), opposing commanders-in-chief were eventually selected and assigned. Then, unfortunately, Murphy’s Law made an appearance, and the initial plan crumbled into tiny pieces. (Perhaps this attempted wrinkle offended the gods of solo wargaming?)
Instead of working out some kind of table-based or dice-based plan of deployment for each army, I simply went with my gut. Given that they were outnumbered, it seemed reasonable to put the Romans on a defensive footing. As there is abundant historical evidence for their practice of fortifying their position (typically at the end of a day’s march), it also seemed reasonable to allow the Roman high command a certain amount of field works. (The basic idea was borrowed from “The Battle of Seminole Ridge” chapter of Charles Grant’s “Wargame Tactics.”)
By late afternoon of June 30, my primitive preparations were complete. Map B shows how each army was deployed before the first roll for initiative or activation was made. The Roman left was secured by a long, slightly taller than waist-high wall of earth. This improvised barricade ran from the broken ground near the river all the way across the face of the gentle hill. Behind this berm were placed 4 units of legionary infantry and a “battery” of ballistae. Two more units of legionary infantry (one of these including the general for this wing) were stationed in reserve. A unit of auxiliary infantry was in the broken ground and a single unit of medium horse constituted the mounted reserve. The strength of the Roman army was deployed in the center. Seven units of heavy infantry were formed into one large group. They were reinforced by a reserve of 3 more units of legionaries. The overall commander of the Roman army took up his station in this second line. Another unit of cavalry was posted to the right rear and a single unit of skirmishers (armed with short bows) was placed in front of the right end of the legionary line. The Roman right was guarded by the smallest contingent. A unit of regular archers served as a kind of hinge between the center and the right. Two units of heavy infantry stood to arms behind another earthen wall on this flank. They were supported by 2 more units of heavy infantry. To the right of this protected position, there were 2 units of auxiliary infantry.
The massive Blue Tribe deployed on the Germanic right. Six large warbands, each fronted by a unit of skirmishers with javelins, formed the first line. The second wave consisted of 5 more large warbands. The cavalry of this tribe was split into two “formations.” One formed the third line or reserve, while the other group was stationed in front of the wooded hill. These noble cavalry were joined by units of horse from the Red Tribe, which formed the first line of this section of the line. The warriors of the Red Tribe were spread out to the left. The front line was composed of large warbands screened by skirmishers. The second line contained the more experienced units of “heavy” infantry warriors. The White Tribe was located off to the left in the woods and broken ground. Again, warbands were screened by skirmishers and what cavalry there was followed the fierce-looking groups of foot soldiers.
Subtle would be a poor adjective to describe the ensuing action. In the role of Germanic chieftain or “king,” I simply unleashed my warriors on the Roman line. In the opposing role of Roman general, I muttered a few prayers and hoped that my thin gray line would hold against the impending attack.
Medium cavalry of the Red Tribe were the first barbarian units to strike the Roman line. Contact was made on the far left side of the main defensive position. An ineffective volley of pila was followed up by much better work with the gladius and shield. Unable to make any headway, the Germanic cavalry bounced off the Roman wall and retreated to rally and reorganize. Shortly after this initial action, warbands of the White Tribe met some auxiliary infantry in the broken ground over on the Roman right flank. It was a split decision here, with 1 unit of auxiliaries being given a bloody nose while the other (with the interior position) was able to push back and eventually rout its opponent.
Over on the Roman left, the “battery” of ballistae was proving amazingly ineffective; its large missiles seemed incapable of hitting anything in a target-rich field of fire. The skirmishers screening the mass of large warbands also seemed incapable of inflicting any damage as their hurled javelins landed short, stuck into the earthen rampart, or glanced off the tightly held shields of the waiting Roman legionaries.
In the center, the rallied cavalry of the Red Tribe made another charge and for the second time, was repulsed with loss. These troopers were joined by screaming warriors as a number of large warband units hit the main Roman line. Volleys of pila were thrown and did only a little damage. In the subsequent melees, 3 large units were reduced to regular units by the terribly effective sword work of the Roman heavy infantry. In certain places the line of defending heavy infantry bent but it did not break. A wave of warriors from the Blue Tribe crashed into and over the barricade on the Roman left at about the same time. The ballistae were overrun and a portion of a large unit of Germans was able to gain a foothold on the works.
Elsewhere however, the Romans held in place, and forced the Germanic tribesmen to pull back and catch their beer-laden breath before making another attempt. The bodyguard of the barbarian “king” had been one of the units heavily involved in the fighting. They also pulled back to lick their wounds and rally survivors to the primitive standards.
Over on the Roman right flank, the auxiliary archers had been caught in an exposed forward position and were broken by a fierce charge. In other combats, however, the legionary infantry standing behind the barricade proved victorious, defeating any unit that attempted to make its way across the rampart and through the Roman line.
Back in the center of the field, the Red Tribe began to break apart the main Roman line. This local success (3 units of legionary infantry were overwhelmed) came at a very steep price, however. The Romans had a fresh reserve at hand to plug the gaps. The Germanic warriors were scattered and unable to exploit any success. The formed reserve of “heavier” warriors was too far away to have any immediate role and besides, their advance would have been snarled by the detritus produced in the first wave.
The climax of the battle took place on the Roman left when another assault was launched against the main line of improvised fortifications. A small reserve of legionary infantry had been moved up to plug the hole made when the “battery” was wiped out and they quickly threw their pila into the roiling mass of warriors on the opposite side of the rampart. Hundreds of light javelins did little to stop the forward motion of the Germanic warriors as a titanic struggle began between highly trained Roman and highly spirited Germanic warrior. The “king” of the tribal alliance found himself in the thick of the fighting. Unfortunately, his elite group of warriors was not able to make any kind of impact upon the solid Roman line. The barbarian bodyguards were cut down and the Germanic “king” was captured in the chaotic melee. The subsequent required morale test produced a significantly negative result: news of the capture of their beloved leader spread like wildfire and the remaining members of the Blue Tribe turned tail and ran away. This sudden development, along with the fairly substantial losses taken by the Red and White Tribes, caused the rest of the Germanic warriors to lose heart and quit the field. (Map C shows the situation at the battle’s end.)
Stipulating to the lack of visual spectacle (as will be plainly evident in the accompanying photographs), I would maintain that this fictional battle was still “educational,” “engaging,” “enjoyable,” and “exciting.” I would hope that readers (those that have made it this far anyway) found the preceding narrative and diagrams at least somewhat engaging and enjoyable. I would also remark that the described action was, at least to a certain degree, historical. On page 48 of his informative and heavily footnoted “The Roman Army at War 100 BC — AD 200,” Professor Goldsworthy states, “Infantry was the main strength of most German armies.” The alliance of Blue, Red, and White tribes contained 17 large and 15 “regular” units of warband infantry, in addition to 18 units of skirmishers. By my calculations, 84 percent of the Germanic host was on foot. On page 50 he explains, “The main tactic of German infantry was the charge in dense formation at great speed.” Although the numerous large units of warbands operated independently, the intervals between the various stands were minimal in order to create the overall impression of density. (Large units of warbands that are not disordered and have no damage, at least to the leading unit, can roll as many as 10 six-sided dice in the first round of a melee and so, have quite a punch under the Impetvs rules.) In conjunction with this straightforward approach, on page 51, Professor Goldsworthy offers, “German armies were clumsy forces, incapable of subtle manoeuvre.” In an attempt to reflect this on my tabletop, I deployed the Blue Tribe of the Germanic alliance as a single command valued at 450 points and under the leadership of a charismatic (meaning effective) leader. His ability was hampered, however, by a poor command structure.
My arrangement of Germanic commands was questioned on the Impetvs rules forum. (At least it was done in a civil manner, as opposed to the vituperative posts, found with depressing frequency, on other forums.) Along the same line, my guess is that some readers will question my positioning of the main leader of the Germanic tribes in the thick of the fighting. Further down on page 51 of his excellent (in my opinion) book, Professor Goldsworthy discusses how a barbarian noble would lose status if he did not perform well in battle. Perhaps it is reaching to extend this idea to an overall commander, but it seems to fit. In the chapter “The General’s Battle,” pages 154 to 156 detail how Roman officers sometimes, not often, but sometimes, would lead from and fight in the front lines. The suggestion that Germanic chieftains would do the same, perhaps with greater frequency, does not seem to be establishing historical precedent.
Nor was precedent set when I decided to call the battle after the collapse of the Blue Tribe. From a points perspective, the Germans were still in the fight. Granted, the loss of a contingent valued at 63 points was arguably significant, but from strictly a points perspective, the White and Red Tribes were still viable formations. However, the “heart” had gone out of the German side. The Red Tribe had taken a large measure of punishment and the White Tribe was “on the sharp end” against the Roman right. Calling the wargame before it was “properly” finished did not seem completely without justification.
As it turns out, my initial estimation was fairly accurate. When 1,050 points of Germans and 800 points of Early Imperial Romans are deployed on a six-by-four-foot tabletop, a hard-fought and casualty-laden action is essentially guaranteed. While I was engaged by and enjoyed the exciting progress of the fictional battle, it appears quite evident that I still have quite a bit to learn. I can honestly say that I very much look forward to continuing my Impetvs education. Perhaps at some point in the future I will earn my master’s degree in these colorful and popular rules.
Picture 1: Taken from behind the Roman left flank, this photo shows the legionary line behind the fieldworks, and the “battery” of ballistae. All formations are waiting on the Germanic advance. On the flat ground behind the gentle hill, there are two reserve units of legionary heavy infantry. One of these is marked with a star and white six-sided die. This counter has the commander of the Roman left wing attached. He is rated as a “fair” general. If his capability changes (for better or worse), the white die will be replaced by a black die. At the top of the photo are five large units of light infantry warband. One of these contains the barbarian “king.” All of the large units are screened by skirmishers. In the upper right of the photo, the leading cavalry units of the Red Tribe can be seen.
Picture 2: This snapshot shows part of the Roman defensive line in the center of the field. The cavalry of the Red Tribe has attacked the Romans and fallen back as required by the rules when medium cavalry do not win a melee. As with the previous photo, the large units of warriors in the Red Tribe are screened by skirmishers. The red markers indicate casualties/damage; the yellow markers signify disorder. (Technically, there should be space between the Roman units on the left end of this pictured line as disordered units cannot be part of a group.
Picture 3: Taken above the Roman right flank, this photo shows the auxiliary infantry in the broken ground and the legionary infantry standing behind the barricade. The black die on one of the reserve Roman counters indicates the commander of this wing has been “promoted” to expert from his original rating of fair. The warbands of the White Tribe are not large units but they are screened by javelin-armed skirmishers. The small white card behind the Germanic formation indicates the tribe, the original rating and bonus of the commander, and the number of morale points required to break the command.
Picture 4: Another photo of the Roman left flank, taken after the first wave of Germanic warriors crashed into the Roman wall. The “battery” of ballistae has been eliminated by contact and part of a large German unit has made it over the barricade. (The unit is disordered, however.) One unit of legionary infantry has taken 3 casualties and is disordered. (Typically, line units of Roman legionaries can take 6 points of damage before disintegrating.) Again, the red markers represent damage done to a unit and the yellow markers indicate disorder. The black markers on the Roman units are reminders that these units have thrown their pila. (Per discussion on one of the Impetvs forums, I decided to allow Roman infantry just one volley of pila in the course of battle.) Viewers may note that the black die on the one large unit indicates that the charismatic German leader rolled a snake-eyes during an activation phase and had his command ability reduced by one level from charismatic to expert. The black die not only indicates the leadership bonus, it also reminds me that this commander’s ability cannot change again for the rest of the wargame.