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, 21 December 2017

Polemos SPQR: Battle of Bibracte I

For the next Polemos SPQR battles I again used a scenario from Phil Sabin's book Lost Battles

I must confess, I don't think I knew anything about the Battle of Bibracte before playing it.  It features Caesar's Romans taking on the Helvetii.  The scenario doesn't reflect the full action, but cuts to the bit when the Helvetii attacked in earnest.

In some ways the ground is quite similar to that of the Sambre, except without the woods at the rear of the Gauls' position.  This time the Romans are in position, so it is more of a set-piece action.

The Forces:

The Romans:
Commander: Julius Caesar (Average)*
12 bases of Legionaries (Veteran, Armoured, Formed)
2 bases of Legionaries (Average, Armoured, Formed)
1 base Skirmishers (Average, Slings, Unformed)
2 bases Cavalry (Average, Unformed)**
2 bases Cavalry (Raw, Unformed)**

* - Sabin's book rates generals by the battle rather than as an overall consideration of their careers.
** - Gallic allied cavalry, hence unformed.

The Helvetii
Commander: Divico (Poor)
16 bases of Tribal Foot (Average, Unformed)
1 base of Cavalry (Veteran, Unformed)
2 bases of Cavalry (Average, Unformed)

n.b. These forces are heavily bath-tubbed; Caesar had 6 Legions at Bibracte altogether.  If one had time, space and figures for it, one could triple the numbers involved, and give the Romans individual commanders for each legion, with maybe 3 subordinate commanders for the Helvetii.

The Battle:

View from behind the Roman position

And closer in.  Caesar surveys his veterans.

The Helvetii poised to begin their advance

And along the lines of battle

And Caesar's legionaries from the other side

And it begins!  The veteran Helvetii horsemen advance

The central contingent of Helvetii is set in motion forwards too

The Helvetii horseman are across the watercourse; the foot warriors begin to cross the stream.  Caesar pushes his legionaries forward so they are within 100 - 150m of the water

No messing, the Helvetii horsemen charge straight in, confident that their superior fighting experience can overcome the 2:1 odds against them.  So far, they look the better bet...

After a short, sharp fight, both units of Roman cavalry on this flank are fleeing the battle; Roman infantry is diverted to save this flank from being turned

On the opposite flank, the raw Romans (okay, Gauls in Roman pay) have achieved some initial success against the other Helvetii horsemen

A shot of the Roman cavalry fleeing to the rear; the Legionaries seem to be getting the upper hand over the victorious Helvetii - they contacted them just as they became disordered as they begun their pursuit

A closer look - can the Helvetii veterans keep it together and overcome being caught at a vulnerable moment?

The Helvetii struggle to get across the stream - obviously a lot more deep than it looks!

Huzzah! For the Helvetii horsemen - they do pull off an unlikely win and force the legionaries back!

Caesar aggressively orders one legion to cross the stream to attack a group of Helvetii warriors who have hung back so far. "Bold move, tribune" mutters one of the junior officers sotto voce...

A further push on the extreme right sees the Roman cavalry chase off the last remaining Helvetii cavalry on this flank

The sight of the Romans crossing the stream inspires the Helvetii warriors to get moving at last, and they catch the Romans whilst still disordered from the crossing!

The legionaries facing the cavalry compose themselves and this time make no mistake: the last base of Helvetii cavalry is routed.  However, the Roman legion that crossed the river has been routed in its turn! (top-right)

And a closer view - Roman legionaries run for their lives!

Elsewhere however the Romans have had some success in the centre, pushing back and disordering the Helvetii warriors.  Caesar himself leads a charge against some disordered tribal foot (bottom left)

The Romans press home their advantage in the centre

The position at the end of the battle, as the remaining Helvetti became demoralized at this point.
Game Notes:
The Romans were quite lucky to win this one.  The Helvetii were hampered early on in the game by some poor die rolling to get across the stream (it took the group on their left-wing ages to get across from an unlikely number of 6s being rolled!) and then later on in the game by some poor army morale rolls when they had taken a few losses.
As I mentioned at the start, the game really did quite resemble the Sambre battle I had been playing around with previously - the stream was almost everything.  The only thing which didn't depend on the stream was the victory of the veteran Helvetii cavalry over their Roman counterparts, and then their subsequent defeat by the Legionaries who caught them whilst disorganized.  The synergy of charging and shaken is simply too strong a guarantor of victory in these rules for much else to be possible, without a really significant quality and troop type advantage.

In the comments' sections of recent posts, I have been having a discussion about how much command rules add to a game.  I certainly don't doubt that they do add realism and interest at the cost of some complexity, but the question is always, are the more complicated mechanics worth the effort to achieve small advances in realism of outcome?  Of course the short and easy answer is always "it depends" but since that answer works for lots of questions, I may have to try and do a little better. 

For tribal armies in particular, command seems to have been something of a problem so it feels that commanding a tribal army should feel different than commanding a Roman legion.  So one thing I have noticed over recent games is something that might be called "the logic of troop types"; Neil Thomas ends up using this technique a lot, whereby the abilities of the troop type in question, or the modifiers in the combat results table, end up nudging the player to do what the command rules would have them do anyway.  For instance, Polemos SPQR has a "skirmish" order, in which light troops basically try and stay away from the formed troops but keep close enough to do some damage.  But Neil Thomas achieves the same effect by making their combat abilities such so they would do that anyway.  There were very few light troops in this battle (although they ended up entirely doing skirmishing, as predicted) but what is noticeable is that the combat factors, with their bonuses for depth, end up forcing the tribal player to adopt the narrow, deep formations which the command rules strongly encourage too.  Hopefully this shows what I mean - a lot of the result of the command rules, which bring their extra mechanical routines in the gameplay, simply result in an extra layer of compulsion to do what the player was going to do anyway.  So I think that the best command rules will concentrate on those areas where this isn't the case in the rules.  The thought is still forming, but that is the basis of it.


  1. "Since this singular game was a close match, the Helvetii ought to be rewarded with the best two out-of-three.

    As for command rules, I agree that it "depends" on the situation, rules, and number of players involved. In multiplayer games, I find the players, themselves, add enough friction to often times warrant discarding any formal command rules. I will be interested to reading your thoughts on command rules as you work through this process. "

  2. Sorry Jonathan, I accidentally deleted your comment, I have put your comment in as an anonymous post above.

    I agree with your comments about multi-player games, you have to work out whether you need them or not. My feeling is that little/no thought command rules like DBx or Warmaster should be okay, but anything more complicated is just going to slow down the game too much.

  3. I agree that command and control can be differentiated in different ways but had not really thought about it being inherent in the troop types, although that is how some games work, such as you Neil Thomas example. One reason that Armati remains a favourite of mine is that it has a fairly restrictive command and control that differentiates the armies, does it simply and it permeates the rules - it is not just an add-on.

  4. I think I really need to give Armati a go!