Barracks Emperor AAR

October 30, 2021

The Barracks Emperor megagame was run on Saturday 16 October 2021, with 32 players in the Newlands Community Hall, and another nine online players. Most of the briefing materials for the game are available on my website. In this post I will give a brief overview of events from the game, and then go through a lot of the player feedback. I have another post planned that will go into the weeds on the design of specific mechanics and how well they worked.

Orient Map with web camera mounted on a tripod.

The game started in 249 CE, with Rome celebrating its 1,000th anniversary. Then in quick succession the empire is struck by plague, and invasions by Franks, Goths, and Sassanids. With each game round representing three years, we played through to approximately 265 CE, by which time the Roman Empire was doing a bit worse than in history, as the Goths had managed to take Rome, bribe the Senate into ratifying a Gothic Emperor, and then handing out enough imperial real estate to make the other Gothic players Senators. All things considered, ceding Dacia to the Goths in the first game round may have been a mistake.

Goths with their loot from Rome, northern Italy is a bit pillaged.

Meanwhile in the Orient, the Palmyreans (Yellow) had successfully played off all of the other factions, looted the Sassanid home regions, and managed to move into the vital province of Egypt. While the Emperor (Blue) had led a large army to the East, they might have been better off defending Rome, but not even the leadership of Empress Decia Britannicus Maximus was enough to turn the tide. The Sassanids had managed to take Armenia and the other northern buffer states.

A large cube represents a legion or equivalent force. Smaller cubes represent light infantry or auxiliary forces. A disc is a cavalry force. The white wooden walls represent extensive border defences, while the castles represent city walls.

Other minor catastrophes included a rebellion by poor farmers in Sicily, and nomad raids into the African provinces, the Picts crossing into Britannia, and the Franks settling in Belgica. There were about five Emperors during the course of the game, although Emperor Philip the Arab lasted into the third game round, doing much better than their historical counterpart.

Apart from losing half of Britain and Gaul, and letting the Franks pillage Italy, at least Hispania has been defended.

Player Feedback on the Game

The players generally enjoyed the game, with a median score of 4.44 out of a possible 5. All of the online players who submitted feedback rated the game a 5 for enjoyment. The briefing information had a score of 4 out of 5. The Difficulty rating was 3.04, very close to the Goldilocks rating of 3. Rate of Play was 3.69, so the game was on the slow side. The Control team were rated 4.35 for their job. Player involvement was rated at 4.23. Value for money was rated at 4.65.

My thanks go to David, Dutton, Kerry, John, Scott, and Jeb for volunteering to play control, and to Alasdair Muir, Ben, Bernard Ganley, Clarence Beaks, Io Brindle, John Morton, Thomas Cole, Madeline Collins, Max, and Scott Daly for help with playtesting. I also thank Dr Hamish Cameron for loaning me two books on Queen Zenobia and the Sassanid Empire. As always, any mistakes in the game are on me and not these fine people.

A Weekend of Megagames

Rather than ask the usual question of what price people thought was fair for a day long megagame, we asked what a fair price was for a weekend of megagames. The median value was $NZ75.64 (approximately 40 GBP or 54 USD). The price selected by about one third of the responses was $NZ60. Overall though, the number of people willing to commit to a full weekend was too low for it to feel like a viable event – only the Saturday game was of real interest.

Printing and other costs have been going up, and inflation looks like it will be 5% this year. So I have signaled that the cost for megagames I run next year will be NZ$25. The major costs for this event were hall hire (a bit under $200), printing (about $500), MDF tokens (about $150), and pizza for the control team (about $150). My thanks to Alasdair Muir, Aaron Lavack, and Paul Compton for being generous patrons.

After chatting with a few people, we think the best course of action for 2022 is to hope for vaccine rates to improve and aim for four games a year, with one roughly every three months. I will be posting a call for people interested in designing megagames for a pitch session before Christmas – if I try designing four megagames in one year, my wife will not be happy with me!

Keep, Stop, Start

On our feedback forms people can write free text to tell us things from the megagame to keep, things to stop doing, and things to start in future games.

Keep Feedback

There were several favourable comments on the combat cards and battle system.

I really enjoyed the combat system, the picking a unit type made upsets possible even against superior forces. As you never really got an army massacred (or at least we didn’t maybe it happened to Rome as we crushed them) it made loss in battle not feel as bad if you got unlucky.  

The policy system also received positive comments. I was pretty happy with this as its about where 30% of my design time went (with the combat system and game maps being the other two big time sinks).

I really liked the policy card deckbuilder mechanic, was itching for more new cards etc to show up. Could be a really good unified mechanic where for example trade and inflation affect it rather than being separate tracks. Deciding what cards to pay for could be more agonising tho, we were often able to just play everything relevant.

Everyone really enjoyed the policy phase as it was exciting to see what would come out and the teams got to get together and make some meaningful decisions that really impacted the game state. I think in a future game giving the teams less RP’s would be good as over on the orient map we often had more than enough to do everything we wanted each turn. Would have been a little more interesting if a team really had to scramble to get the RP’s they needed, having to chip in their own wealth or constantly petition the Senate for more RPs.

Most of the new cards were in the Roman Imperial Reforms deck, which only a few of the players would have spent much time with.

The Imperial Unity Track. The Bronze SPQR Eagle was made by an artist in Russia. The Black spots at the 50 point thresholds were trigger points for mutinies. Note the frustrating printing error on the 30 point line. Final Unity was below 50, as the sack of Rome dropped Unity score by half.

Stop Feedback

The less fun part of the feedback to read, but often the most important for better games in the future. Players are always right about problems. The normal text in the bullet point list below is the verbatim feedback, anything following in italics is a comment from me:

  • Very complex aspects of rules. We have a short time to read the rules, absorb the naunces, etc. Less is more. The player interactions more than make up for the simple rules mechanics.
  • Wearing masks, hot, hard to communicate, very long time in them. Bring on vaccs rates and lowered levels.
  • Resource and wealth transfer (we did not build the economy into a spreadsheet, so to transfer tokens between physical and online factions required instructions over discord, and then taking photos and uploading them to confirm transactions had gone through)
  • Demotion when killed, could be cool to potentially end up with a very different (perhaps stronger) character (this would have definitely helped the Romans, who started the game with worse generals than all the non-Roman factions)
  • Barbarian King having full control of other factions troops – possibly require consent to use them. In general, the Goth King removed other Goth players’ feelings of agency as factions would negotiate directly and they could move others troops. (Barbarian King having full control over troop movement is not what was intended in the rules, they should have only had full control over replacements.)
  • The money mechanic for barbarians did not add much. (It had three functions: determining who was King, as a scoring metric, and for conversion into RPs in the planned late game Barbarian RP shortage. It could also be used for bribes and some conspiracy actions. If we had players for the Franks as well, wealth would have been more of a horse race)
  • Having some people online and some in the room. Feels like it adds lots of hassle but not much benefit. (We needed a third Control on the Orient map for the Romans. Its noticeable in the feedback that the online players were happy with the hybrid format, but the in person players were less happy. The hardest role in the game was probably that of the Palmyrene team member who was their only person in the hall, with the rest of the team online. I also note that there was just one volunteer to play in person diplomats for the online teams.)
  • The massive randomness when it comes to battles. Some randomness is great but felt this was too much. I’m not sure the online players added much.
  • Inflation seemed a bit much. (Yes, inflation sucks. The debasement of the Roman currency and the subsequent inflation is a major economic event in the period. Inflation was very low in the game compared to playtests. In one playtest Inflation went from 10 to 13 in the first game round alone!)
  • Online players.
  • If people are online I think its best if they are not expecting to interact heavily with live players. Its quite hard to be online & IRL simulataneously. Perhaps they can make one offer via control but not direct negotiations. (Post game feedback, we think that online players are best suited for asymmetric roles, e.g. Gods on Mount Olympus, or Megacorporation AIs, with their own core subgame that interacts indirectly with most of the other subgames)
  • Parts of the game that don’t add majorly to the play / seem tangential / un-needed complications (but which parts?)
  • Lots of freeform actions every turn – the problem is that you never really get a feel for if they were useful / impactful, and particularly when you’re submitting things you don’t know how they go. Maybe reduce the number of them to allow them to be more impactful? I dunno. (Most factions had one special action per game round. As Plot Control, I tried to give feedback on outcomes for all special actions. The most common special action was probably assassination attempts, which were mostly unsuccessfulin the modern era only about 25% of assassination attempts succeed, and its harder in the ancient era as you do not have explosives or firearms.)
  • Realistic map spaces looked painful to fit pieces into. (The large leader tokens did not work – they needed specific names on them. If I run this game again I would look at a separate map for Italy, and an Orient map that focuses more on the central corridor between Antioch and Cetisphon.)
  • I think that there should be at least one option for the player who moves first to have some initiative in terms of battles. Our enemies could always pick and choose what battles to fight and where, making it very difficult for us to gain a true upper hand. I believe the Roman players did not have a great battle strategy in the orient, or we would have been wiped out (or as close as we could have been). They should have been able to mass armies that had huge advantages for nearly every battle, where it would then just come down to dice. I know the Romans should have a tactical advantage for being Rome but at least in the orient it felt bad to be the strongest faction with most prestige and still have very little control over the war other than just trying to bait them into battles in bad spots. (The initiative sequence was chosen as the best reflection of historical events. At least one faction used a special action to flip the initiative sequence for a game round. I’ll say a bit more on how we might change this below).
  • Obviously my playthrough of this was as an Online player. I would say not having individual goals for the online players. Something else for them to try and scheme about and go for. I would also say I struggled to know who the Roman blob was. They didn’t seem to have any individuality to them. (Although it did make it seem realistic as well.) (A problem for the non-Roman factions is the lack of information about the personalities and life events. I also decided not to over complicate the online game due to its experimental nature.)
  • Battles in both Barracks and [Romance of the] Seven Worlds were basically based on a lucky dip – if it was a light infantry battle, your opponent with 3 light infantry had a bonus over your 2 light infantry, even if you also bought 10 cav and 10 heavy inf. And then, after the battle, you destroyed one, maybe two of the enemy units, irrespective of whether it was a 20 v 20 battle or a 2 v 2 skirmish which is pretty anitclimatic. The space one had a similar issue, as anyone who participated in the attack on the capital planet knows – the great rebellion with a huge armada just ended up being an anti climactic 1 v 1 that was decided based on who got lucky with what card was drawn, and nobody actually ended up dying. That combo of reducing big apocalyptic battles to near irrelevance + randomly making most of your army redundant leads to some pretty counterintuitive and lackluster battles. (The design goal was to emphasize combined arms, and operationally the best approach was intended to be spreading you “bets” across multiple encounters. The number of large battles in the period 235-285 CE was small – about 26 battles with more than a few legions. The Romans had a strong military philosophy of avoiding risky battles, fighting with fire and famine rather than the sword, and their historical disasters reinforced this. If players want more emphasis on big battles, then the game system needs to such that it only generates a very small number of battles each game round.)
Faction RP income had a fixed component, and a variable component (die roll, potentially with advantage/disadvantage). Romans could also mint coins for bonus RPs, but this risked inflation.

Start Feedback

This feedback is usually a lot more fun to read.

  • More dice throwing, chance, rogue events and cliffhangers to generate even more tension. (My own preference is that unless the rogue events are common in the fiction or history, is for these to emerge from player actions or player initiated special actions, with event injects from Control only as a last resort for a stalled game)
  • Better play location flow/control so they are all at the right places as turns are processed. (While the movement combat system worked, it did not work well enough, and we only got through the first half of the game – so players did not get to see how terrifyingly strong the late game Roman army gets. For our next game we will be trying to secure amp/speaker/microphone and I am looking at buying a projector to better display game time to players)
  • Some way of forcing interactions with other players in diplomacy. Giving stronger directions to players who don’t roleplay so easily or don’t understand the rules. Maybe FACTION secret objectives.
  • Faster turns – strict timers. Goth players did not feel like they had much of a role until they sacked Rome. Their goals were achieved easily and became a bit repetitive. (If I ran the game again with the same number of players, I would be tempted to make all the player roles Roman and Palmyrene, with Control handing the non-Roman factions).
  • More tools to keep to time/add time pressure. (For my next design, I will look at resurrecting a classic mechanic. Teams take turns at the map table. At the start of your turn, your commander issues orders for a minute. Commanders then have two minutes to resolve moves and attacks – with no conferring with team members. At the end of your move you leave the table, but can leave one player behind to silently observe the actions of other teams. The main limit of this mechanic is you can only have about five teams per map table.)
  • Guidance for how to make federated generals? Although for the time period this was fine. (This was on the Roman Imperial Reform cards, I should have put the information into the Goth briefing more clearly.)
  • The issue was that the Goths basically achieved objectives in turn 2 (end of turn 1 really) but maintaining advantageous peace was boring at a meta level. Not sure how to solve this really or if it needed to be solved.
  • Better time management.
  • Another sink for money, e.g. dice increase. (Classic money sinks for the Roman era include building monuments, temples, and sponsoring games, but the Barracks Emperor period was such a disaster that these activities stopped happening. I could include it as an option in future games.)
  • More direction from Control.
  • Audio system to speak to hall.
  • “Start” earlier, as in ask people to be at the hall for an earlier start so can start on time. (we really needed to be in the hall for set up an hour earlier).
  • Have formalised teams at the start.
  • Additional goals for barbarians, create reason for infighting.
  • Stricter limits on the lengths of turns. There was lots of waiting for lots of people  while a few people did big turns. (The biggest delay tended to be the orient Map with its three factions. I did not spot this in playtesting, being more worried about Usurper and Mutiny disruption on game time).
  • Better time control, maybe a beep telling people time of a specific phase is ending and a big announcement of the start of the next phase.
  • More involved combat and politics. (More involved is usually more time consuming)
  • A big ending – full summary from all regions. (We needed the hall for at least another half or so, I just squeaked out the door after cleaning and packing up was finished).
  • Strict time limits or turns being more led e.g. movement phase starts on the hour and lasts til quarter past.
  • A total beginner’s guide (maybe co-written by a non-gamer). (A good idea – anyone want to volunteer to write it?)
  • More changes in position/appointments for Romans. More communication about significant events when they happen. More things to buy with wealth.
  • Game Feedback: Like the game where it is.  Lots of good interactions and mechanics.  Personally think the Emperors/Rebel Emperors needs a little more power and abilities to do stuff otherwise the Roman Empire is never going to last.  While it was great to win and bring about the downfall of the Empire, it was obvious halfway through the game the Empire was finished.  So what is the point of keeping the Empire propped up?  Why should the Roman players even bother.  Needs to be more incentives or rewards for keeping the Empire alive. (If we had played through rounds 6-10 as designed, you would have likely seen the Roman economy improve, and the Roman force pool would have expanded up to double its starting size, and also introduced many fortification and heavy cavalry units. In hindsight, I should have linked Roman military reforms to the number of military disasters, rather than a random card draw. This could have given regional teams more options and trade-offs to consider in their policy phases.)
  • The players need a list of ideas and possible uses for the Conspiracy Cards.  I didn’t realize you could peek at the combat deck or re-arrange it.  It was only at the end one player pointed out we could use a conspiracy card to move the Palmyran armies during the policy phase.  Just something to help so all players know all their options and can better play the game.  Not feel like they were at the mercy of chaos and with on control over anything. (The problem with me telling players what they can do, is it restricts their imagination to options that are min-max solutions. As Control I want to be surprised and delighted by what players create).
The quaint New Zealand custom of the lunch break is observed. Bottom left: Treasury Table, left side Roman regional faction tables, right side from top to bottom Orient, Danube/Italy, and Gaul maps. Senate and Imperial Household tables were on the stage.

Hybrid Game Feedback

The following feedback is focused on the online part of the game:

  • I would love to see the asymmetry of online vs in person explored more – for example online could be playing with completely different mechanics to IRL people rather than trying to shuffle coins around between online teams and order map movements. Imagine an alien invader game where the alien factions are competing between themselves in a discord-focused game and sending invader units and stuff to Earth, but they don’t actually manage the attacks on earth (eg it just provides the pools for Control players to place on the map and IRL players to react to) (Agree)
  • The biggest thing that would have helped us was more communication with Rome. Not being in person it was extremely difficult to get anyone to talk to, let alone which faction when they split. It would be nice to know that we at least can communicate with Rome, even if it was just control saying hey we want to talk and they could just ignore it. Then we at least know it is on purpose and not because no one is watching the discord irl.
  • Need to clarify how command works and better communication with online control.  I am Roman Dux and the entire time I can’t issue orders to any units due to inability to reach control or I finally get told after several minutes I can’t issue orders to that unit.  Hell I can’t even issue orders to units to stand down and not fight us so what is the point of having this position? (Not knowing exactly what happened, I think I needed to brief Orient Control better on how to handle this situation – which occurred in history. Or have a much clearer mechanic for Roman units switching loyalty to Palmyra)
  • Communication with control was awful on my end.  Background noise and side converstions made it almost impossible at times to hear Orient or Plot Control or worse issue orders for anything.  I would type in orders and nothing would happen.  Then I am getting asked what are my orders later.  But when I try to make sure my other orders have been carried out, Orient Contro disappears and I have no way to reach them.  It literally got to the point where one player had to be the go between because he could communicate with control better and could relay questions and orders between us.  
  • Lots of confusion over who is rebelling and who isn’t.  The Palmyrans attacked two Roman Armies because we were told by Control they mutinied and then heard nothing after asking several times if they were still rebels and moving into other Roman provinces.  Need just a black flag or marker to designate if a group is in open rebellion or not for us online players. (I should have used different colours for Roman regional forces, but big tokens for “REBEL” or “USURPER” would have helped)
  • Updating the discord server for the next channel with more channels for better communication. (There is an upper limit to how many Channels Control can keep a close eye on based on limitations of screen size)
  • Have a dedicated control channel for the different factions. This control text channel should be where moves and official actions are posted and maybe have the different phases be announced and actions can only be done in the phases. This will keep the online players from spamming the chat with actions that can be done whenever.
  • Have a bot channel for each faction and a bot to handle resources. This would require a bit more effort for setting up the bots to move and manage resources. (Although having the confusion about whether or not funds had been sent was also somewhat helpful in the game?) The alternative would be having different roles in the factions that would be in charge of these things. E.g. The diplomat IRL would be the one that could move the money between banks in their faction only and then the players would have to talk to them about it. But still require approval somehow? (This idea likely wouldn’t work unless the faction was completely aligned)
  • Have more voice channels. – One for control to stay in. – One for team to talk together. – Enough extras that pairs of players can also chat together. – Multiple channels that would allow factions to talk to each other (Each faction had a dedicated channel for talking with every other faction, “more channels” is consistent with feedback with other online megagames)
  • Part of the last point is different but having 1 or 2 laptops setup on discord with a headset and mic with the camera on that players on site can use to go up and talk with players online. Just leave them in the channel and the camera on so online players can jump in and chat after coordinating with other players. (Our spare laptop was made available to the Roman Imperial Household. I do not know how keen people are on bringing their own laptops or tablets to megagames, as there is a small risk of damage, loss, or theft).
  • Another camera of the room as a whole would be great just so the online players could see the room (and hear if they want) so they can get more immersion. You could also have it so that announcements will hopefully work through there (good idea, we had another camera, but found we could only get one meeting going with the Zoom account we had)
  • Get players to use their phones and let them know to bring ear buds if you want more interaction between online and IRL players. 
  • The last few points made would require a bit more technological setup and use and obviously with that comes issues if any arise. And of course it would require more assets to be used. I’d be happy to try my hand at being in control and helping out with most of these ideas as they are my own and I do know if I want change then I should be willing to help make it happen. (We love people who volunteer to help Control)
  • Overall it was an amazing game, had tons of fun and I wish I could’ve played in person as well as online. Looking forward to the next game(s).
The elevator pitch for Barracks Emperor was “Its a mash up of Junta and a tower defence game”.

Overall, it was a good game, but needs some tweaks to make it a great game. A lot of lessons were learned about the hybrid format with online players. We definitely need to remedy the timekeeping problem, which will require a mix of equipment, game structures, and setting player expectations about how much time they get for decision-making at the map tables.


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.