Barracks Emperor

My next Megagame on 16 October 2021 is a historical scenario based on the Crisis of the Third Century (tickets on sale at Lil Regie). This is a period lying between the end of the Severan dynasty around 235 CE, and the start of Diocletian’s reign and the creation of the Tetrarchy around 285 CE. In the 50 years in between there were around 26 Emperors, major barbarian raids into Gaul, Italy, and the Balkan provinces, splinter empires in Gaul and the Orient, plague, droughts, floods, inflation, a decline in free trade, a banking collapse, and several major battles with the Sasannid Empire. The survival of the Roman Empire was not a sure thing, and the actions of a few key Emperors, such as Aurelian, were essential to restoring the situation of the Roman Empire. In this post I will write a bit about the sources I have used, and the key issues that I am trying to include in the game design.

Sources

The primary sources for this period are bad, and I am not the level of classical scholar to try and parse out the gaps and details myself. Key events often cannot be reliable located in time or space. Some short-lived usurpers are only attested to in a single literary source, and by one or two coins. In the eastern provinces, only by studying Sasannid sources can you start putting together an account of both Roman victories and defeats in battles. In the Christian sources, Emperors who persecuted Christians are generally portrayed as very bad people, while Emperors who stopped persecutions get a better presentation. The paucity of reliable historical narratives helps explain why a lot of modern Roman Empire media focuses on the late Republic and Early Empire, for which there are more reliable source materials, or just go straight to fiction with a sprinkling of historic names (e.g. the movie Gladiator).

My main secondary sources for the period have been:

  • The History of Rome podcast
  • The Cambridge Ancient History Volume XII, The Crisis of Empire A.D. 193 – 337, Second Edition, 2005.
  • This online map of the Roman Empire in 211 CE
  • David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180-395, Second Edition, 2014.
  • John F White, The Roman Emperor Aurelian: Restorer of the World, New revised Edition, 2020.
  • Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire, 2017.
  • Nathanael J. Andrade, Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra, 2018.
  • Beate Dignis and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals, 2010.
  • Jonathon P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C – 235 A.D.), 1999.

My thanks to Dr Hamish Cameron for loaning me the books on Zenobia and Rome & Persia. I did look for modern boardgames on this period, but they were generally unsatisfactory. Most are either too simple (e.g. lots of Euro games), or too focused on individual tactical encounters. Two games that did merit considered study were:

  • Imperium Romanun II is an old style hex and counter game, and has the usual problems with strong mechanical incentives to create a single uberstack of units to resolve the situation in one decisive battle.
  • Barracks Emperor is a four player deck building game, which is just not a style of of game I like, and its premise that there were enduring factions trying to control the people who would become Emperor is just wrong.

More helpful was Philip Sabin’s Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World, 2013. While this is focused on earlier battles, many of Sabin’s thoughts on ancient battles echo my own ideas, and it is a good systematic attempt to provide a model for wargaming ancient battles.

Playtest map

Key Design Elements

The overall objective is to design a megagame playable as a one day event for 20-50 players. As a hobby game, it needs to provide entertainment to the players, as they play to find out if Rome survives the crisis period, and if it does survive, how do the institutions of Rome adapt and change?

First, I made the decision to skip the period from 235-248. While there are some major periods of upheaval, it was still relatively quiet compared to the early 250s, when the plague hit, major barbarian raids occurred in Gaul and the Balkans, and the Sasanids conquered Armenia and defeated the Roman armies in the East. I then chose the start of Diocletian’s reign in 284 as the end point. As a megagame can process a game turn in 20-30 minutes, getting in a dozen game turns in a day, this suggests a timescale of three years to the game turn. This makes each game turn a bit abstract – its the exciting bits of those years, not the dull bits. It also lines up with what seems to be the median reign duration for an Emperor.

Second, the order of battle. While we know roughly how many legions and fleets Rome had in the early 3rd century and their usual deployment locations, there is little detail on what happened to them in the crisis. Roman sources are silent on their defeats in the east, and vague about who fought on what side in the various civil wars. So my decision is to make the 35 odd Legions the main Roman combat units, with about the same number of counters to represent the Auxiliary units (of which there were 100s, too many to model in a megagame). Our knowledge of Sasanid and Palmyrean strength is even more debatable, but from a game design point I can go with “strong enough to beat the Romans on a good day.”

Third, player roles. These are split between the following groups:

  1. The Emperor and their household – the imperial household was a major landowner throughout the empire, a natural result of confiscating estates from executed traitors over the centuries. A key factor in the crisis, is that there is no fixed succession mechanism for appointing new Emperors, and since 69 CE, it was pretty clear that only people with armies got to vote on the matter.
  2. Senators – wealthy aristocrats with a small role in the government of the empire, and a tradition of commanding most of the legions. It is during this period, that the Senate loses the last of its influence, as the Emperor gains more power and the Equestrians gain a greater role in government. But history is a series of contingent events, and maybe in the game it will not work out that way. A Senator can expect to rotate between assignments in command of legions, and being in Rome. A trusted senator might be appointed as Dux – a regional commander for one of the game maps.
  3. Equestrians – the knights of Rome, not as rich as Senators (usually) but more likely to have achieved their positions by merit. Equestrians control several key positions, especially the Governor of Egypt, and the commander of the Praetorian Guard. During this period more long term career soldiers gained promotion into the Equestrian class, and into a career in government.
  4. Palmyra. This trading city is a Roman client state with a mixture of Arabic, Greek, and Roman culture. In this period it exploited Roman defeats in the Orient to form a splinter empire, which at its apex controlled the provinces from Egypt up into Anatolia. Queen Zenobia is also one of the few women to have played a significant role in the events of the period (there is frustratingly little about the various wives of the legion generals and the Emperors).
  5. Sasannids. A new dynasty in what is now Iran, replacing the Parthian dynasty, but keeping the terrifyingly dangerous armies of heavy cavalry. Rome’s only diplomatic equal in the world, they defeated several Roman armies and raided many of the provinces in the Orient.
  6. Other Barbarians. If player numbers permit, there will be roles as Gothic or Frankish tribal leaders, and possibly as the King of Armenia.
  7. Rhetoricians. if player numbers permit, there will be roles dedicated to making speeches that summarise the game action. Many of these roles will have a religious element (Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Pagan cults, etc).

Fourth, factions. While the Sassanids and Palmyreans are cohesive teams, the Roman Empire lacks big factions in this period. The Roman Emperor was simply too powerful for alternative centres of power to persist. Factions tended to emerge spontaneously between groups of Senators or generals who were in close proximity when a mutiny happened or an Emperor died. So faction formation is a task for players in the game, not the pre-game briefings.

Fifth, the maps. The map regions are fairly straight foward. One map for Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania. One map for Italia and Rome. One map for the Danube river and Balkan region. One map for the Orient, from Anatolia in the North, to Alexandria in the South, and east out to Ctesiphon, the Sasannid capital. Africa was a relative backwater in the time period of focus, and so only needs a map if we have a lot of players. The main unit of territory is the province – given the strength of Roman logistics and the three year time for a turn, you can move almost anywhere on the map if you need to. So no need to count movement points.

Sixth, the economy. One of the triggers of the crisis period was a perfect storm of financial problems for the Roman Empire. Climate change and plague reduced income, while the Several dynasty had increased the pay for the Army (which consumed about 75% of state income). The Emperors also had to cover most of the cost of the bread and circuses that kept Rome happy, and finding largess to reward friends, and cash donatives to keep the army on side with bonus payments. From my reading, I am not convinced that inflation was a major problem until about 270. While the currency was being debased, people retained confidence in it for a good long time. In the game, a major problem facing all Roman players is that income is less than expenditure, and if you do not pay the legions, they can mutiny and start a civil war. To keep the accounting simple, each regional team will make strategic choices based on a Resource Point (RP) economy, with about a dozen RP a turn to spend. Individual players will have Wealth Points (WP), which can be converted into RP (if you go heavily into debt you can maybe supply a legion for a game turn), but WP mainly exist as a player objective for scoring how well they are doing relative to other players.

Seventh, major policy and reform options. While the Romans fought hard, they found the traditional Roman heavy infantry legion inadequate to the task of defeating the Sasanids or the northern barbarians. During the crisis period and into Diocletian’s reign, a lot of things were tried or experimented with, such as increasing the strength of the cavalry. Some ideas worked, some ideas failed. As much as possible, it will be a player choice to make or not make these changes to the Empire. Change too much, too fast, and imperial unity will suffer. Change too little, and the barbarians might sack Rome. I assess the tetrarchy reforms as being the limit of what the Empire could bear at this time – no converting to Christianity just yet.

So what will the players do in the megagame?

I sometimes describe Barracks Emperor as a combination of a tower defence game, and Junta.

Each of the frontier map regions (Gaul, Balkans, Orient) is an operational wargame, while Italy and Rome are mainly political games (lots of players talking with each other). Rome is under stress from the pressure on its frontiers, but the major crises really occur when the border defences are stripped in order to fight civil wars over who should be Emperor and whether or not the legions get their backpay.

The key decisions that players make:

  • If my legion revolts, do I try and crush the mutiny (my troops might murder me) or become an usurper (the other players might murder me)?
  • If there is an Usurper in my region, do I support them and march on Rome, or do I try and crush their revolt? If we march on Rome, how many legions stay behind to defend against the barbarians?
  • As a Barbarian, when, where, and how hard do I attack the Romans? Do I accept Roman bribes to hold off an attacking, or to support a civil war faction? Can I get to Rome and sack it?
  • As Emperor, which Senator do I send out to take command of Legions or to act as a regional Dux? Can I trust my equestrians to remain loyal? Can I bribe people to stay loyal? Do I lead Roman armies in person or delegate the risk to another commander?
  • As a Senator, do I support the Emperor, or conspire to replace them with a better general/politician?
  • As Dux, I can’t afford to pay for everything, so who do I choose not to pay – the legions, the navy, or the civic government?
  • As Dux/Senate/Emperor, which policy option/reform do I choose this turn?
  • As a Legion commander, how do I defend most cost effectively against barbarians? All out defence will wear the legions down – do I try and get lucky with smaller units?
  • As a regional team – do we stay loyal to Rome, or do we declare independence and form a splinter empire?

That is all for now, I will try and do future blog posts covering some of the mechanics in finer detail.

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