Combat in Barracks Emperor

So I wrote a draft post about a dice pool based combat system I designed, and had playtested a few times. Then I reflected on my design goals, and discarded the draft post (and the dice pool combat system). I will explain why, then cover some historical sources that have influenced this game design, and then outline how the next iteration of the combat system will work.

All game design is an act of balancing the focus you put towards different, sometimes contradictory, design goals. No game can be all things to all people. A brief overview of my design goals for this megagame. First, this megagame needs to provide a model of ancient warfare, politics, and economy – and a model is an abstraction, not a simulation. Second, it needs to have space for player agency – the players need to be able to make meaningful decisions. Third, it needs to be capable of fast resolution – players need to be able to resolve battles, taxation, mutinies and other key game mechanics in one minute of time or less. Finally, the combat mechanic needs to provide feedback to the wider game system through things such as casualties, territory capture, or soft factors like faction prestige or leader reputation.

My main reason for abandoning the dice pool system was on speed of resolution grounds. With one die per legion, plus dice for auxiliary units, leaders, and discipline, each regional map had the potential to generate battles that might have involved as many as 12-20 dice being rolled for each side in a battle. Figuring out how many dice, and what size of die to use, was just taking a little too long. Its also the kind of iterative mental activity that burns a lot of energy over the 6+ hours a megagame runs, especially when players turn to Control to verify and validate their numbers, multiplying the number of brains being used in the task. Dice pool systems work best when the number of dice is around 3-8, easily fitting in one hand, and also being easy to sort or count. I was planning on a “Roll and Keep Best Two Dice” system, but even with that I was feeling it would just take a little too long.

A second reason was thinking about the level and focus of the game. Barracks Emperor is set more at a strategic political-military level, with three year game turns, rather than at the operational or tactical levels for which month or week long turns would be more appropriate (along with much more detailed maps). So rather than a detailed battle system that tries to reflect scouting, flanks, reserves, etc, the game just needs something that quickly lets the players get back to politics and diplomacy. So this meant thinking about using a mix of techniques for speeding up mechanical resolution:

  • Using deterministic mechanics rather than stochastic (random) mechanics
  • Simultaneous resolution
  • Able to be resolved with absent players
  • Removing extraneous steps in the process
  • Burying as much detail as possible about the game engine “under the hood” of the player facing game components.

Sources

A few more books and articles to add to those mentioned in my last post.

  • Dan Taylor, Roman Empire a War: A Compendium of Battles from 31 BC to AD 565, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2016
  • David J. Breeze, The Frontiers of the Roman Empire, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2011
  • Mark Hebblewhite, The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire, AD 235-395
  • Frontinius, Stratagems, translated by Charles E Bennet, Loeb Classical Library, 1997
  • Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, translated by N P Milner, second revised edition, Liverpool University Press, 2001
  • Phillip Sabin, The Face of Roman Battle, ..Journal of Roman Studies, 11/2000 volume 90, 1-17.
  • Lukas de Blois, The Crisis of the Third Century A.D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?
  • Peter Temin, The Roman Market Economy, Princeton University Press, 2013

Sitting at the back of my mind is also Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which I read in the 1990s but which I have not reread more recently. I understand serious classicists have issues with the text, but for me the key lesson was that border defences change over time.

A Time of Change

Because most of the visual media that we see about the Roman Empire is based on the late Republic and early Empire period we instinctively think of Roman soldiers with segmented armour, and large rectangular shields. The third century is a period of transition in Roman arms and armour, and renewed experimentation in tactics and force structure.

Legio III Cyrenaica of New England (United States) in a 1st century A.D. portrayal of a legion. From Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

So what kind of changes are we looking at in the third century?

  • the primary sword changes from the short gladius to the longer spatha
  • the shield changes from the rectangular scutum to an oval design similar to what the auxiliary forces had long used
  • a shift from the lorica segmentata (see picture above) to maille armour (see picture below)
  • increasing numbers of heavily armed cavalry, such as the cataphracti, especially as a large reserve force under the direct control of the Emperor or a trusted subordinate
  • the arms and armour of the Germanic tribes approaches equivalence with the Romans, as does tactical knowledge through barbarians serving in the Roman army
  • the full strength of the ten cohort legions (up to 6,500 troops) proving too slow in the face of raids by small warbands, leading to the creation of smaller fast moving vexillations (detachments) with only one or two cohorts plus supporting cavalry
  • at times, a deterioration in the legendary discipline of the roman forces, as exemplified by the large number of military revolts in this period
  • a decline in Italian volunteers serving in the legions, making the legions more provincial in focus (possibly abetted by the Severan dynasty allowing soldiers to marry, increasing ties to the community they were based in). My assessment is that while the number of barbarians in Roman service increased through this period, it was not a significant change at this time, unlike how events played out in the 5th century.
  • quality and quantity of recruiting also affected by wider economic problems and the deaths from plague and other calamities
  • an increase in the use of artillery engines (possibly a reaction to manpower shortages)
  • Roman cities were largely unwalled at the start of the 3rd century, and mostly walled by the end, as the emphasis for defensive strategy shifted from strong forward defence along the limes (borders) to more of a defence in depth strategy (supported by the decentralised government of the Tetrarchy, with four regional military commanders)
  • a shift away from amateur aristocratic command by senators, and command being placed in the hands of long service military professionals in the equestrian class.

Most of these factors do not need to be simulated in the game at the level of individual battles. Instead they will be policy decisions that the Romans can implement to try and increase their overall effective strength.

From Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.

The Face of Roman Battle

Most media portrayals of Roman warfare vary in quality from bad (flaming projectiles and cavalry charges through bad terrain) to worse (soldiers discarding their shields and battle formations collapsing into individual duels).

The classic Roman battle is a heavy infantry fight, with support from other arms such as cavalry, skirmishers, and artillery. Among its salient characteristics are:

  • Formations generally remained intact in close order until morale failed – none of those swirling Hollywood melees where one person fights another single person at a time.
  • Fighting with steel weapons in close proximity to the enemy (as opposed to longer distance archery) is a psychologically stressful state, and breaks and lulls in the fighting would be common (which reflects my own experience with re-enactment battles).
  • Roman generals largely did not do front line heroics (rare exceptions, such as Emperor Julian the Apostate, tend to demonstrate why this was the case) – this not a game of Warhammer with Champions that can overpower formations. Lower level leaders, such as the Centurions, did lead from the front, and often suffered high losses as a result.
  • Battles often took hours to resolve, before one side broke and ran.
  • The victor tended to lose around five percent of their force, while the loser would normally suffer 10-15 percent losses and could suffer heavy losses of 50-100 percent if encircled or pursued by cavalry. This is different from gunpowder battles, where both sides could take heavy casualties before one side retreated or collapsed.
  • A disciplined, high morale army with good leaders, could fight and defeat forces that outnumbered them by 4:1 or more (the 3:1 ratio you see in old wargames is not really a good rule of thumb for combat mechanics).

The Romans always considered the Persians, who had a lot of cavalry in their armies (including some elephants), to be their greatest enemy, but in the third century the assured dominance that Rome had usually enjoyed over the Germanic barbarians was fading. Between around 235 and 285, about one battle in ten was a catastrophic defeat, in which the bulk of the Roman army present at the battle, and most of the Roman leaders, were killed or captured. The key thing for the game is that almost every faction in the game is capable of beating every other faction on a good day. I have not found any good details on the strength of the Sassanid armies, so they will get a number of tokens that is close to Roman strength (and will get better if they repeat the historic feat of taking control of Armenia).

Map

The map will mainly feature Roman provinces as the main unit of geography, with a few special locations on the borders.

Large forces will be kept in containers off one side of the map, and represented by miniatures for leaders or standards for other formations. I will be using 28mm models from Aventine Miniatures.

Movement

The number of players needing to act at each map table will vary based on the number of player signups. It could be as few as three, it could be as many as nine. The number of teams needing to act should not be more than four. Within the constraint of 20 minute game turns, this gives me enough of a time budget to allow each team to move sequentially, rather than simultaneously. The three year timescale means a double blind system (i.e. hidden movement) is inappropriate. The key movement mechanics I have in mind are:

  1. Teams move in prestige order, from lowest to highest prestige.
  2. Each team will have one minute at the map table to move its game tokens.
  3. Each team can initiate a maximum of five invasions of regions containing enemy pieces.
  4. Mountain and Desert regions cost “two invasions” to enter.
  5. To invade deeper into enemy territory, you need to mask the forces in the border province by leaving behind more tokens than than the defender has in their border province.

Combat

The tricky bit in the mechanics is not so much the process for determining victory, as in determining the consequences. One of my decisions has been to try and model the one in ten catastrophe. Because the battles are abstract, the players do not have a high degree of agency over the outcomes, and I do not want players feeling they have been reduced to impotence by one die roll. The key combat mechanics I have in mind are:

  1. Teams resolve battles in prestige order from highest to lowest (this is the reverse of the movement order)
  2. Each team has one minute to initiate and resolve battles.
  3. If no one finds time to resolve a battle, the forces involved do not fight that turn.
  4. Each side rolls three dice: a leader die, a discipline die, and a decisive unit die (the decisive unit is determined by a card draw, and a quick comparison). High score wins. High prestige wins ties.
  5. The winner converts one large combat token into a small combat token. The large token is placed in the Reserve Pool.
  6. The defeated side removed half of their small combat tokens, and converts all of their large tokens into small tokens. One of the large tokens is placed in the Dead Pool, the rest are placed in the Reserve Pool.
  7. If you retreat through provinces containing enemy tokens, you will lose additional tokens to the Dead Pool.

Having all your large tokens removed in one battle sounds pretty dramatic, but read on.

The Decisive card specifies a unit type, such as Infantry, Cavalry, Skirmishers, Fleets, or Forts. Depending on relative unit strength, each side will get to roll a d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12. The masking and retreat rules are there to ensure that any player trying to raid deep into enemy territory is carrying a logistic penalty and bearing an appropriate level of risk. The movement-combat initiative also makes your deep raids more risky when you move first.

Feedback into the Wider Game

Combat tokens placed in the Dead Pool are permanently removed from your force pool. Some policy options can bring them back, but are expensive.

Combat tokens placed in the Reserve Pool return to play. The rate at which they return to play depends on other factors (Imperial Unity for the Romans, Prestige for the Sassanids). For example, if Imperial Unity is between 201 and 250, 1 in 2 Roman tokens in the Reserve Pool return to play at the start of the game turn. If Imperial Unity is between 151 and 200, only 1 in 3 Roman tokens in the Reserve Pool return to play at the start of the game turn. There will be a policy option that can increase the rate of reserve token return, but once again it will be expensive.

So while you can knock a side down, and take their tokens off the map, you cannot keep a side down for ever. In 2-3 turns they will be back in force.

The winner of a battle gets a Fort token in the region, the loser of a battle will lose a Fort. This represents shifting control and influence among the local inhabitants, as well as the occupation of key fortresses. The winning side gets +1 prestige (the defeated side does not lose prestige, as all factions shift one step towards zero prestige at the start of each game turn).

Defeated leaders make a mortality check, if they fail they die and the player gets a new character. Victorious leaders roll to see if they are promoted or gain honours (improving the Military or Political die one step, e.g. from d6 to d8).

The winner can choose to loot, gaining wealth, and placing a plunder token in the region. Plundering reduces faction RP income.

Still Needs Playtesting

I will be doing a playtest of this system on 7 August, focused on the frontier regions between Rome and Persia. For the playtest I will represent a legion with three large 16mm wooden cubes, while smaller detachments will be 10mm wooden cubes. Cavalry forces will use discs. Things I will be looking at closely in the playtest:

  • How do the players respond to prestige based movement-combat initiative system
  • Do the rewards from battles (promotion/prestige) balance the risks (loss of military strength, territory control)
  • Can battles be resolved in under a minute?
  • Do players concentrate their forces (to win one big battle), or disperse them (to spread risk across several encounters)
  • Does the ebb and flow of relative advantage look anything like the historical back and forth?
  • How does the three way dynamic between Rome, Persia, and Palmyra work out?
  • Does the mutiny/usurper mechanic work?

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