Heretical Gaming is my blog about my gaming life, featuring small skirmishes and big battles from many historical periods (and some in the mythic past or the far future too). The focus is on battle reports using a wide variety of rules, with the occasional rules review, book review and odd musing about the gaming and history. Most of the battles use 6mm-sized figures and vehicles, but occasionally 15mm and 28mm figures appear too.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Polemos SPQR Review

Polemos SPQR Review

Polemos SPQR is a set of rules which covers the battles of the Late Roman Republic and the Early Imperial Roman periods. There is much in common with other sets in the Polemos series, as well as some differences.

The first part of the rules deals with unit types and basing. The rules use the Polemos standard base of 60mm x 30mm, but the rules do explain that pretty much anything will work as long as the two-sides are based the same. A base of infantry represents about 400-500men, so a Roman Legion will be represented by 10 bases or so.

The command and control mechanic of the game is based around tempo points. In essence, these are similar to PIPs in the DB-x sets of rules, except that they are also used to bid for 'the tempo'. The player with the tempo will move first in a turn, and will be able to achieve more with each tempo point than the player who lost the tempo.

All groups of units have general orders – Advance, Hold or Skirmish – and tempo points are used to move from one order to another. This removes one of the objections that have been made towards other PIP-based games, that units have to be made to move every turn. The costs to change these orders have been calibrated so that regular troops are more controllable than irregular ones, and that narrow formations are easier to control than wider ones. Irregular troops in long lines are almost uncontrollable in this game.  Manoeuvre is pretty difficult, complex manoeuvres are near impossible.

The mechanics for movement are fairly straightforward but pretty tough. Bases can about face, but all wheeling has to be done on a static pivot. This makes flank attacks very difficult to avoid or meet, troops literally have to fight their way out of it. Interpenetration is quite restricted too, so it pays for everything to be in 'relatively' ordered blocks to allow for passage of lines.

As in the ECW rules by the same author, charging is considered a type of ranged combat with effects separate from any actual melee. To me, it reminds me of an old WRG style reaction test, but using the same mechanics as ranged combat (if that makes sense!). If you move into charge range, you have to charge, which is an unusual touch.

All combat is worked out as an opposed die-roll. Each side gets a numerical factor reflecting the troop type and basic situation (e.g. Chariots attacking mounted get a '4', Pike attacking foot get a '2', and so on), add 1D6 and then add or subtract appropriate modifiers. There are quite a few, but only a few will ever apply to any particular combat and you memorize them pretty quickly, however although I don't mind using a list of factors, I know that some find such lists off-putting. All the factors and modifiers seem reasonable to my inexpert eye. There is lots of slogging, but I have been subject to a couple of truly shattering charges when caught in the wrong formation, as routing units will 'burst through' units they cannot inter-penetrate, causing them to rout in their turn too. I have lost half a legion in a few moments this way...

As in other Polemos rulesets, casualties are not tracked per se, degradation of troop effectiveness is described in terms of 'shaken points', reflecting increased disorder. This can be rallied back so units can regain their effectiveness. Broken units however cannot be rallied.

Morale other than that incorporated into combat results is taken at the Army level. As more and more bases are lost, morale will drop from Confident through Optimistic, Hopeful, Pessimistic, Hopeless to a general Rout. Each stage has certain negative effects and/or restrictions. Interestingly, as there is a random element in each test, army morale can actually fluctuate upwards as well as down. There is no intermediate morale stage between that of the base and that of the entire Army – a Legion, or 'host' or whatever.

I felt that overall this set is better than the WSS and Napoleonic rules in terms of explaining how the mechanics work and there are good diagrams and examples to back up the rules. The author has been very helpful in explaining any points on the Yahoo! Group or on his blog .

In addition to the main rules, there are sections dealing with terrain, including a terrain generation system,and some notes on hill forts and marching forts. As ever, there is no points system in this set of Polemos rules, the author instead preferring to use an army generator. Usefully, there is a set stereotyped army of about 20-bases strength for each of the factions covered, including Romans, Germans, Gauls, Parthians, British, Numidians, Sarmatians, Dacians, Spanish and a Pontic Army. The author includes a description of each army as well, to justify his choices for the army generator.

There are two scenarios included in the book: the Battle of Charonea and the Battle of Mons Graupius. Each scenario has three different variants – Small, Medium and Large. The small games are designed for armies of approximately 20 bases each played on a board of 54cmx 36cm (if using the standard basing) so they are very suitable for a newcomer. I've played Mons Graupius and achieved a more-or-less historical result in about ninety minutes of play.

I find all the Polemos rules very amenable to solo play, as the tempo bidding  mechanic provides the inbuilt variability and chaos I find make a good solitaire game.  There have been discussions on the Yahoo! group as to the various methods of using tempo points as the basis for good solo games.

As a fan of other rules using the Polemos system, I expected to like these rules and I haven't been disappointed. The touches that differentiate it from the other rulesets all seem well-judged to create a very different game despite the overall structure being similar. The history seems to me accurate to the low-level of my knowledge, and the author does provide citations for his conclusions. I've played a few games face-to-face and solo now, and they have all worked well, giving me at least some of that elusive period feel and all the games have had plausible, historical outcomes.


  1. Thanks for this, I got them when they first came out and have been very tempted to play them. This bumps them up the list of rules to play. It is also nice to know they go well solo, as that is how I will likely get to play them.

  2. No worries at all. At some point I'll try and get a battle report written for them too.

  3. This was an excellent overview, thanks, which I am coming to late after your recent game.
    Regards, James