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.

Thursday 14 April 2016

The Three Battles of Mons Graupius: A Rules Comparison

Over the last couple of days I have had a go at re-fighting the Battle of Mons Graupius three times using separate rulesets, almost like a mini Society of Ancients game day.

The battle reports featured games using:
Polemos SPQR (AAR here)
Neil Thomas' Ancient & Medieval Wargaming (AAR here)
DBA v3.0 (AAR here)

Rather than re-hash the actual reports, I want in this post to capture what I think are the comparative virtues and vices of each set of rules:


The command system conveys the advantages in commanding regular troops over irregular troops and it limits the options to each in convincing ways
The command system creates lots of friction
The combat system is subtle and easily resolved and the troop types are modelled convincingly
Although it doesn't model attrition per se, the combat results include an element of long-standing disruption
There is an army-level morale system with more alternatives than okay-defeated
The writing style is easier to understand than DBA

The extra subtleties in terms of command come at a cost in playing speed and ease of play
The subtleties in the combat system come at a similar cost, having a two-stage combat system and more than twice the number of factors of the other rules sets
There are discrepancies between the QRS and the main body of the rules
Outcome moves and the interaction of bases remain the weak spot in this family of rules IMHO
Beginners would probably struggle with these rules
When I don't know how to resolve a given situation, it normally takes a little searching before I am reasonably sure whether I have missed something or need to hand-wave a rule and move on (this came up with pursuits, for instance).  I still couldn't be sure I have "done it right".


The rules really are simple to understand, novices could play these rules without too much difficulty
There are no rules of marginal importance in these rules, everything is big and bold (contrast the rules on interpenetration of troop types between the various rules)
The author is a master at using an unhistorical mechanism to prevent messing around but still achieve the historical result (no complicated wheeling rules)
The author takes care to reduce the number of rules by including things once only: troop quality is only a factor in morale, for example, not in combat
The rules are written in a very easy to comprehend manner
The rules are so short that you can be very confident you haven't missed something important

The author clearly believes in a very attritional model of combat; personally I think that this underplays the importance of tactical factors and shock in combat
There are no command rules at all
Combat is a buckets'o'dice system: roll lots of dice to hit (16 is not uncommon for one round of combat), lots of dice to save, and perhaps a dice at the end for a morale check
There is no army morale until the army reaches its break point and loses the game

DBA 3.0:

The rules are pretty easy to understand once you get the hang of them
Phil Barker is really good at anticipating difficulties or tricky situations and providing an explanation and/or diagram to show how the situation should be resolved: it is a "tight" ruleset.  These are also easy to find, so no long searching for answers
There is a lot of subtlety in the rules created by the interplay of troop combat ratings and characteristics
The army lists are very comprehensive!
The D6 PIP roll does create simple but effective command dilemmas.
The combat system is easy but effective and concentrates on key tactical factors, with appropriate weighting.
The game is very smooth and quick (easily the quickest of all these quick games, because combat is decisive and based on shock rather than attrition; and because the army break point is set much higher than in the other two games)

The D6 PIP command mechanic lacks subtelty: commanding Imperial Romans feels the same as commanding Caledonian tribal warriors.
The rules probably do allow too much "country dancing" in comparison to real-life
Light troops and missile troops are harder to use than in either A&MW or SPQR
The combat system is more variable than in the other two games: it is much easier to create almost certain wins in SQPR and A&MW than in DBA (I leave this to taste as to whether this is a virtue or a vice!)
There is no army morale until the army reaches its break point and loses the game

This was a fun couple of days of gaming, with victories for both sides and a chance to compare slightly different visions of how ancient-period wargames might be played.  As a brief summary of each:
POLEMOS SPQR took the longest and required the most brainpower to administer.  It made the most determined attempt to re-create the problems of Ancient generals and re-create the factors in ancient combat at the cost of some simplicity.  The rules are the hardest to make work on the tabletop and the least streamlined.
ANCIENT & MEDIEVAL WARGAMING was the easiest on the brain, the most intuitive (it is easily the most traditional of the three rules) and most suitable for beginners.  It didn't make any real attempt to model command difficulties, although the logic of troop abilities actually provided some useful restrictions on activity anyway.   I liked the way it dealt with how harrying light troops work.
DBA 3.0 was the quickest game and the tightest written.  It is the hardest to read initially because the information is given precisely and in the tersest way possible. It gives a brief but intense gaming experience.  It can feel a bit blander historically than the other two because the command representation is more basic than SPQR and it doesn't have the narrative flow of A&MW because it is over with far less movement.

One day, I would like to extend the test to Phil Sabin's Lost Battles; and to Arty Conliffe's Armati if I get around to acquiring a copy.



  1. There are about a million Anceint's rules out there that I'd like to see you test and review. A free one would be Basic Impetus (BI) - I've heard lots of good things about it but would like to see your take. Here's a link:

    1. Yes, I'd forgotten about that one. I'll have a look!

  2. Do you mean Impetus as opposed to Basic Impetus? Which do you think is most appropriate for a small-board fast-play game?

  3. Our club did this as a demo game at Joy of Six and one of our local shows. We used FoG Ancients and a purpose built terrain. In the rehearsals, there was a pretty even set of results. As there is no great detail avaiable for deployment, we left it to the two players to decide on deployments and that seemed to be pretty crucial in deciding the outcome. Fascinating battle, would be nice to get some really definitive information on its location.

  4. I remember your Mons Graupius, I was at Joy of Six that year - it looked amazing! Here it is (for anyone who hasn't yet seen it:
    And maybe one day a metal-detector guy will get lucky and stumble upon the battlefield? It has happened before I suppose.

  5. Great set of posts - thanks for putting all that together ...... A ton of work.

  6. Thanks very much. But it was fun, not work! A few good games and then the post-game cogitation, which is like the post-game post-mortem in face-to-face games for the soloist...

  7. Thanks for posting this and the three battle reports - I am a sucker for rules comparisons with the same battle :-) I nodded along with your with your assessments so total agreement with at least one other person.

    I think you may really like Armati, still my favourite ruleset. Tightly written rules, not as complicated as FoG or DBM but just as much depth in decision-making. i have but not yet played L'Art De La Guerre but I think these will be as good a Armati for me.

    Good luck on further rule comparisons!

  8. Thanks very much! I hope that I have been fair to all of the rulesets involved (and I do like them all, in different ways) and I will try to do some more in future. I will only do them where I have had enough experience of a ruleset to do them justice (so 3-4 full games as an absolute minimum). I am looking forward to trying out Armati one day too.

  9. Thank you! It was interesting to read both AARs and final comparison.