Combat in Barracks Emperor

July 28, 2021

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?


Barracks Emperor

July 8, 2021

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.