Saturday, February 20, 2010

Old school wargaming: Smackdown in Seleucia II

We played our second game of WRG 4th edition ancients today. The rules are long in the tooth, first appearing in 1973, but the cast of gamers was even longer in the tooth. Bill Stewart brought his beautifully-painted Seleucid army to face my third-century Romans (augmented by some of Bill's Camillan Romans as ersatz legionaries). On bill's side was Rich Knapton, who was seeking to redeem himself after his phalanxes routed the first time we played. The other Roman players were Bob Mackler and Dick Larson.

We set up terrain about as haphazardly as we could, diced to see who would choose their side to deploy, and then set up our forces. On the Roman side, Dick commanded the cavalry, included my just-completed dromedarii unit. Bob commanded the center legionary units, the bolt-shooters, and a unit of lanciarii. I commanded another two smaller legionary units plus the auxiliary troops.

Roman mounted wing: dromedarii in front with catafractarii and equites behind

The Seleucids were divided with Rich having the two "common" phalanxes, a unit of cataphracts, some psiloi, the light cavalry, and an elephant. Bill commanded the argyraspides (a.k.a. "silver shields"), a unit of cataphracts and another partially-cataphract cavalry unit, the peltasts, and more psiloi.

Rich came up with an idea to use command markers that we would use each turn to mark what we would do. It worked OK, but WRG ancients really don't allow for changing your orders each turn and we had a lot of paper cubes on the table, as the pictures show.

Turn one saw Dick leading with his camels against Rich's cataphracts. It was a bold move—but doomed to fail. Even disordered against smelly camels, Rich's cataphracts could hurt the unarmored dromedarii enough to send them running, especially when they were supported by an elephant.

The dromedarii labor in vain against bigger, heavier opponents

In the center, Rich slowly advanced with his two phalanxes screened by his light psiloi, while Bob did the same with his legions.

The armies advance

On my side, Bill moved aggressively forward with his peltasts and cataphracts. He also ran his light javelinmen towards Bob's bolt-shooters. The bolt-shooters' fire was about as desultory it gets and Bill's light infantry just ran them over, leaving a nice hole in the Roman line.

The Roman line breached by Seleucid light troops

Meanwhile, my auxilia was mixing it up with Bill's peltasts. The first round was in my favor and I pushed the Greeks back. However, subsequent rounds did not go my way and the peltasts eventually wore me down until I routed away.

Roman auxilia push back the Seleucid peltasts for one glorious round before getting their butts kicked

In addition, Bill sent his cataphracts against my strongest legionary unit. In the initial round of kontos versus pilum, the kontos won, pushing me back in disorder. In subsequent rounds, I got pushed back three more times, which finally broke me–at which point we realized that the final three push-backs shouldn't have occurred because the cataphracts, having to resort to hand weapons after the initial charge, weren't inflicting enough casualties to cause a push back ("more that inflicted and at least one per figure"). Without being pushed back, the legionaries would have recovered their order and started pushing back the cataphracts, who would likely have rallied back to charge again later. C'est la guerre, c'est la stupidité. We weren't going to turn back the game three turns to rectify things, so we just wrote the two units off.

Cataphracts versus legionaries

On Dick's flank, the Roman catafractarii got to grips with Rich's cataphracts. This contest continued through the game. Neither side did enough casualties to push back the other, so they just sat in a disordered scrum while events moved around them. The Roman equites fought against Rich's elephants and light horse with the result of getting routed off the board.

Events in the center started looking grim. Bill's argyraspides smacked into Bob's rear legionary unit while it was changing formation. In disorder, the legonaries were helpless and routed immediately. Bob's elite lanciarii got bested by Rich's vile psiloi scum and his remaining legionary unit was suddenly facing two phalanxes.

Things are looking bad for Rome

But then THE MIRACLE happened. Beset two to one, Bob rolled high for his random factor and Rich rolled low for both his phalanxes. In the ensuing mêlée, Bob routed both phalanxes in the first round and fortune smiled on Rome for the first time in the game.

Triumphant legionaries see the backs of their beaten foe

While Bob was restoring our center, I charged my second legionary unit into Bill's cheeky psiloi, who had broken the hole in our line by wiping out the bolt-shooters. Caught in a quandry about whether to run or stand, he stood rather than evade through his argyraspides and disorder them. The legionaries broke the psiloi in the first round and they scurried off through the phalanx, which remained stationary to avoid disorder.

Next, my pursuing legionaries charged into the flank of Bill's argyraspides while his previously unengaged cavalry charged me in the flank. I looked like curtains for my legionaries, but the hung in for the first round.

Legionaries in an ugly scrum

Meanwhile, Dick had reformed the dromedarii and run them around to harass Rich's fleeing phalanxes, which by now had no hope of recovering and returning to the fight. At this point we called the game. Bob's other legionary unit had recovered and was ready to throw its weight into the battle on my flank. It was a qualified Roman win.

Post mortem

It was great playing WRG ancients again. I have always been a huge fan and this project has been a lot of fun.

We definitely need to play more to get more experience. I used to play WRG 5th edition ancients rules, Bill, Bob, and Dick used to play 6th edition, and Rich's story keeps changing (I think he started with 3rd edition). The upshot is that none of us played 4th edition and even the versions we played were played back in antiquity. (I think my last game of WRG 5th edition was played sometime in 1979 when I still had pimples.)

Our inexperience lead to some frustration, but we're all agreed to play again in the near future. I've got more painting to do...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My valentine

Lorrin doesn't do Valentine's Day. She's a contrarian in most ways, so this is no surprise. She brought me chocolates last night, contrary to expectations, I brought her nothing as instructed–but perhaps not expected? She thinks I'm too rational, I think she's too emotional. I'm evenly tempered and mostly imperturbable, she has ups and downs followed by downs and ups (in no particular order). She's vegan–apart from eating milk chocolate; I'm vegan–apart from eating meat (sometimes). I'm an American and proud of it; she's a scatterling (with Australian citizenship) and proud of it. She's a night-owl; I'm a basket case by 10:30, but we both love sleeping in. We love cats, which is how we met. We love each other's cats. We enjoy Scrabble, although she hates losing, but I love winning so it evens out.

Relationships involve challenges and compromises in every way, ours is no exception. But what I gain from having her in my life is immeasurably more than the trade-offs having her requires. I am still obdurate, as she will attest; she is still high maintenance, which I think she enjoys. All difficulties notwithstanding, I am a better man with her and, I hope, improving. Whatever life throws my way, I hope to meet it with Lorrin by my side.

So to you, my valentine, a bit of the bard:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Happy Valentine's Day, sweetie.

Book report: Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East

I have a strange relationship with historical fiction. Being a lover of history, I should naturally be drawn to it, but I often view the relationship between history and historical fiction as I do the relationship between history or literature and the movies that are based on them. There is so much distortion that I feel repelled by the fear that any book (or movie) based on history will take so many liberties as to render the experience of reading (or viewing) it painful, rather than the delight it should be. Still, historical fictions rank among my favorite books ever. Robert Graves' Count Belisaurius, I, Claudius, and Claudius the God are first rate. Gore Vidal's Julian, Burr, and Lincoln are also terrific. Rosemary Sutcliffe's "young adult" novels such as Eagle of the Ninth and The Lantern Bearers are particular favorites. I've also enjoyed some of Bernard Cornwell's series, which I see more as fictions set in historical times than historical fictions. (I may be the only one to see that distinction, but there it is.)

Nevertheless, I tend to read much more non-fiction than fiction and, as I've posted before, the cats, being antiliterary, allow me to read precious little in any case. When a fiction title comes across that interests me, I'm in a quandary about how to allocate my limited reading time.

I got Fire in the East on a friend's recommendation. The novel is set in the Roman empire during the latter half of the 3rd c. AD (257, to be precise). This alone was compelling because I have a particular interest in 3rd c. Rome, the "time of crisis." But at the back of my mind was the worry that I would only be disappointed. I started reading the book last Fall and got just more than a third of the way through before I set it aside. Not out of disgust, certainly, but because other things crowded it out until a week ago when I got re-inspired to read it. I started back at the beginning and couldn't put it down.

So, after all this long introduction, I have to say that the book is excellent.

The author, Dr. Harry Sidebottom, is a distinguished scholar of classical history. As such, he has a greater feel for accuracy than a non-specialist would master. This shows in much of the detail he presents. Descriptions of Roman arms and armor, for example, are correct for the period. (I read one novel set on the Rhine frontier in the 4th c. that unforgivably described arms and armor for the Romans that was anachronistic by almost 200 years!)

The book is a fictionalization of the fall of the Roman frontier fortress of Dura-Europos (Called Arete in the book), which sat on the Euphrates river at the extremity of Rome's eastern frontier. The city was taken in 257 by the Sassanid king Shapur I and completely destroyed, never being reoccupied. The remains of the city were only rediscovered in 1920 by a patrol of British soldiers. Sidebottom's narrative of the siege and various Sassanid assaults on the walls is gripping. The fictionalized events of the siege are still closely tied to the archeological evidence for the siege, such as the mines, counter-mines, ramp, and collapsed towers. His story of the final fall through treachery is plausible without disagreeing with any known facts or the archeological evidence. (There is no written account extant of the fall of Dura-Europos, which is why its rediscovery took 16 centuries, and why it's fertile ground for story-telling.)

The main character of the story, Marcus Clodius Ballista, is based on the very slightly known figure Balista (or Callistus) who was Dux Ripae, commander of the river defenses, on the desert frontier at this time. Ballista is portrayed as a Romanized Angle, regarded as no better than a barbarian by some of the men he commands, who has risen to high command and been entrusted by the emperors Valerian and Gallienus with holding back the Sassanids while they tend to other urgencies on the empire's vulnerable extended frontiers.

It's not giving anything away to say that the city falls in the end, but the story and characters are vibrant and compelling so that en route to the story's dénouement, you are entertained and engaged by the narrative and the complex relationships. The story ends with enough loose ends that you are left eager to hear the story continue and have the ends tied up in the following books.

Fire in the East is the first of a series of three novels following Marcus Clodius Ballista's adventures in Rome's time of crisis. The next book–on order from the UK–is King of Kings, which covers Ballista's involvement in the events following the fall of Arete (Dura-Europos) and leading to the emperor Valerian's failed campaign against the Sassanids. The third novel, Lion of the Sun (to be published July, 2010), continues the story in 260.