Barbarians (3W)

Playings, 4 (12 hours)

The 3W brand name does not inspire confidence although Barbarians is tagged as a KP game (Keith Poulter) either to hide the fact that 3W were involved or because they wouldn't touch it (but bowed to pressure from their generalissimo). A brief scan of the designer's notes reveals that this is Caesar's Legions with extra counters and maps thrown in to chase off Avalon Hill's copyright lawyers. Although a little dated Caesar's Legions is a worthwhile game which if you have not already got you might as well buy. I sold my original copy because it is nearly impossible to play solitaire so can only roughly compare the 2 games. Very roughly they are pretty much the same, unfortunately including the combat cards (which have become chits) that are used to modify the combat die roll. After some initial worries and later changes to the chit system, Barbarians reveals a certain charm which inspired me to read Tacitus which although full of buckets of blood and heroic deeds is hard to follow on military details.

Barbarians has expanded the Caesar's Legions map to stretch from the Channel coast to the mouth of the Danube, the maps also stretch further South than in the original, a further 7 maps are promised in an expansion but with 3W's schedule this is unlikely. The Avalon Hill map would fit onto the top part of the 2 Easterly 3W maps. Extra maps mean extra counters to cover more tribes although most are similar in combat values except for the Sarmatians who are a mix of Cavalry and Light Infantry. The box plugs just how much game you get for your $, Virgin don't take $s and put it out at 30, Andy Ashton stuck another 5 on top. Honest Andy Daglish and other shady characters can probably get it for less. This "never mind the quality, look at the width" sales pitch was the cornerstone of FGA, XTR are now using the same hype in the Bunker Hill Command, say no more. I doubt that having the price printed on the box would do much to prevent traders ramping up the price.

Barbarians is a monster game in the tradition of Objective Moscow rather than Next War. That is to say it is big but also simple, better still the counter density is low (unlike Objective Moscow in Western Europe). The backbone of the Roman army are its Legions which can be denoted as a single strength 45 counter, or 2x20s, combat can break this down to multiples of 5s but the optimum layout is 2 counters per Legion. Most scenarios have less than 10 legions in play together with Auxilia who are handy to sit in the same stacks as Legions and take casualties (good traditional stuff). The Roman can stack up to 2 full Legions plus 3 units (Cohorts) of Auxilia in the open and 1 Legion plus 3 Auxilia in certain restricted terrain. How Varus managed to lose 3 Legions in woods hex is not explained. Generally barbarians cannot match a full strength Roman stack in the open, their only hope would be to sit tight, wait to be attacked and hope the Roman rolls a chain of rubbish dice. In restricted terrain such as woods the barbarians can just about manage 1:1 with a full stack of their best troops. Luckily the vast size of the frontier (4 maps show that rather well) encourages both sides to have smaller stacks simply to cover the available area, giving the barbarians some chance of winning battles.

Barbarians is a game of scenarios most of which use 2 or 3 maps. 1 4-map scenario allows the Roman to try and conquer all its enemies at the same time roughly around 100AD, the other 4-mappers involve hordes of barbarians coming from all directions. The other scenarios divide into conquest or raids, both sides getting opportunities to try either. Some are strongly based on Caesar's Legions including the famous hidden movement Varus job and the attempt to recover the Eagles. In both these scenarios the number of revolting German tribes is not known just as in the original. The revolt of the Batavi is also still here with the Roman garrison revolting on the same die rolls as previously. The Eastern maps allow the Pannonians to be invaded and to revolt plus there is plenty of action against the Dacians and Sarmatians. With multiple scenarios some must give better games than others and few players are going to try then all to find out. I was tempted by the Dacians and was pleased by the options available. The Romans get to conquer the Dacians but have to garrison the Dacian villages (I do not know why they don't just trash them and sell the inhabitants unless to preserve some natives to rule). Naturally any garrisons will have to be strong enough to hold off the natives so the further you go the weaker you get. If any villages are lost not only do you have even less troops but you will just have to go back and re-take them. A later scenario sees Dacia conquered with a wimpy Roman garrison, naturally the Dacians revolt. This is a 2 part game, to win part 1 the Dacians must conquer all the Roman forts in Dacia plus either move a large number of units off-map into Greece or capture a Roman town. If the Dacians do not win then a 2nd phase begins with oodles of Romans coming on (reduced by any Dacians who have marched off the map) and must occupy every Dacian village for a Roman win. These victory conditions are well clever, 1 of the forts in Dacia is close enough to the Danube for the Romans to try and re-take it, it may even hold out from the initial assault. If the Romans can hold this 1 fort then the Dacians cannot win phase 1 and Roman re-inforcements are sure to come. However the Roman could waste a lot of time and men and not hold this fort at the end of phase 1 in which case he has wasted his time. While keeping hold of the forts the Dacian has to choose between slipping off-map and capturing a town, his Sarmatian allies are handy for taking towns because they are not available in the 2nd phase and hence ideally expendable. Roman forces within the Empire will be split between rounding up errant Dacians and maintaining adequate hold on the towns. 1 1/2 strength Legion will hold a town against almost all comers but this sort of dispersal does not leave much to block the South map edge and threaten the Dacian forts at the same time.

In all scenarios the poor chance of any barbarian winning a combat against a full strength Roman stack encourages the use of hit and run tactics or raids against weak parts of the frontier. This sort of warfare did happen and could go on for years, consider the Roman conquest of Wales which took around 25 years to complete, the Romans suffering several documented defeats (I picked up Sir Charles Oman's History of England before the Norman conquest, it is strong on the Roman invasion). Also possible were lined up set piece battles in Germany and Britain, the climax of the Idavisto campaign being a German assault on the Romans with predictable results. German versus German set piece battles were reported by Tacitus although in Barbarians the natives will either be hostile or neutral. Any friendly natives are represented by Auxilia counters which are supremely loyal except in the Batavian revolt. Barbarian gamers will not be spending so much time attacking strong enemy stacks, Combat losses are either single step losses or 1/3 or more of the opposition's strength. Romans can break down to satisfy losses but Barbarians require the presence of a leader forcing the natives to take higher combat losses than Romans on the same combat result. Combat is fought in rounds which allows a side with a slight odds advantage and reasonable dice luck to build on ever increasing odds to trash the opposition. The chit system is a random modifier to the die roll (unless you can read minds) choosing a withdraw option will end combat with a die penalty to the withdrawer otherwise rounds continue until 1 side is eliminated.

Roman campaigns against barbarians either were settled by heavy loss of life in battle or ethnic cleansing (Caesar reduced the total number of Gallic tribes by 2) or continued for long times as Romans and natives chased each other around the countryside. It is hard to see why some campaigns were over swiftly while others dragged on for years. Looking from a histrorical perspective the best bet is to take on the Romans in guerrilla warfare rather than in the open field. Some tribes never became part of the Empire but others finally succumbed. The Southern Scottish tribes fought against Agricola and Septimus Severus and maintained their independence, despite long guerrilla wars the tribes of Wales were finally subdued. The bottom line appears to be that Rome could subdue a tribe providing that there was some economic or geographical reason in so doing. If subduing 1 tribe just led to a new frontier against yet another tribe there was little incentive in pushing on yet further. The Romans could have pushed to the Elbe (or the Vistula) but may have been stopped by apparent diminishing returns from the new areas. Hostile areas could turn a few pennies as a source of slaves, one of Britain's chief exports (although of low grade, the wise money was in - illegal - eunuchs who had to be bought in from Armenia or Persia.). Dacia provided some fine gold mines so Trajan may not have been so dumb in attacking there. In a game that only represents a year or 2 in each scenario you are not going to get these sort of decisions. Generally remnants of tribes move back into the area of the next tribe along as the Romans advance, although this is not always possible when considering different nationalities such as Dacians and Germans. In conquest scenarios the Romans get weaker as they advance while barbarians take to the woods and head out of the way. How close each scenario is to the feel of history is governed by the victory conditions. These are better in some scenarios than others, that of the 2nd Dacian War mentioned above is pretty good. The victory conditions for Idavisto are taken straight from Avalon Hill's game and are based on the re-capture of Eagles. Reading Tacitus it appears that the main aim was to trash the Germans and although 1 Eagle at least was recovered by force most of the booty was recovered after the Germans had been defeated. Incidentally it was the Germans who decided to attack in the final battle. Arminius could have kept up a guerrilla war but was looking at big time politics and saw another major Roman defeat as a route to further influence in Germany.

Time is hard to quantify in Barbarians. Most scenarios are 15 turns long, a few are shorter some have two 15 turn phases. No-where is it stated just how long 1 turn is but by looking at the historical length of the campaigns it can be seen that 1 turn cannot always represent the same length of time. At a broad guess 1 turn is 1 to 2 weeks and a scenario represents 1 campaign year. This does not work for the 1st and 2nd Marcomannic Wars which represent 4 and 3 years in a two15 turn games. The best assumption is that to win the Romans must quickly neutralise the natives and that the 15 turns represent 1 campaign year out of the several that the wars dragged on for. Except in the few 2-part scenarios Barbarians lacks a solid system for building Winter quarters, attrition and re-supply. It must be pointed out that these changes would make some scenarios very long.

Another area that is debatable is terrain, excepting rivers and the obvious bits cribbed from the Caesar's Legions map, Poulter has had a pretty free hand. Most of the area within the Empire is clear and that outside is either mountain or woods, sometimes both. Dacia seems a little short on woods compared to other barbarian lands, perhaps being civilised the Dacians have cut all the trees down. More likely even those areas marked as clear would count as thinly wooded with only tracts close to settlements being truly cleared of trees. Settlements are pretty sparse, the Romans have forts in all the right places but German tribes average 1 or 2 villages per tribe. Looking at the Ordinance Survey map of Roman Britain this is clearly wrong, certain areas show clusters of pre-Roman sites that would work out at some sort of structure every other hex. Others would be devoid of habitation due to terrain problems which were later overcome. The Wash being open sea was a bit of a drawback to settlement, some parts of central Britain were swamp. It would be fair to say that Poulter and Battleline before him made up most of the terrain features. There are far too few villages on both sides of the border, those that are shown could be thought of as important tribal centres which certainly did exist at the time. As to these centres being in the right place, it is unlikely certainly the Dacians should have a network of 20 fortified oppidda to fall back on (according to the Roman geographer Ptolemy who everyone quotes but I have never read) but are only provided with 1 town and 8 villages. Some of these oppidda could have been close together wher'as the villages of Dacia are widely scattered, some may be in the right place then again they might not. This sort of problem is due to lack of knowledge rather than research, certain sites could be identified but other major sites may never turn up because some fool has built a city on top of them. The role of village sites in Barbarians is to give the Romans something to aim for when attacking, capture or burning of villages is usually rewarded in the victory conditions. If there were more villages there would be more captures and burnings but the end result would be much the same. A single garrison in 1 village may really represent several smaller garrisons in several smaller villages or the same force patrolling an area of several hexes. There is considerable abstraction here but when playing to conquer an area exactly what small detachments are up to is not important. The Romans did have to leave forces behind to cover their rear when advancing, not always with success witness revolts amongst the Brigantes and Iceni in Britain.

Barbarians does not try to simulate every detail of frontier campaigning, indeed a lot of the minutiae are patently wrong. Nevertheless from a command viewpoint, all that generals would care about the broad situation is right, the frontier is big place full of bad guys. Roman forces are the expected Legions and Auxilia but barbarians have been set at levels to suitably match the Romans, if they had indeed been a lot stronger or weaker the frontier would have followed a different line.

An Alternative To Combat Chits in Barbarians

The combat chit system in Barbarians is derived form the combat cards used in Caesar's Legions. When fighting solitaire chits have to pulled at random or the chit system suspended with the loss of any modifiers from the tactical combat matrix. Any modifiers which could push the die roll above 6 or below 1 give a chance to pull off a little extra or escape from a tough corner in Barbarians. Terrain and leadership bonuses still apply but this little system rewards good leadership.

This alternate system replaces the combat chits with a matrix based on the quality of leadership in the 2 armies. It is based on a similar system in the SPI game "The Crusades".

I: Both players roll a die and compare the result with the relevant command matrix to give a battle formation. A force consisting of Roman rebel units and Barbarians uses the Barbarian table.

Barbarian Command Matrix

Leader's Combat factor No Leader 1 2or 3

Die 1 D D C

2 D D C

3 C C C

4 C C F

5 C F F

6 C F F

Roman (or Roman rebel) Command Matrix

Leader's Combat Factor No Leader 1 2 3

Die 1 D D D A

2 D D A A

3 D D A A

4 R R M M

5 R A M M

6 R A M M

Note, any Roman force including an Eagle counter is rated 1 for Command purposes.

Explanation of Battle Formations

R: Reckless advance.

A: Probe with Auxilia, if no Auxilia counter is present treat as D.

M: Flank march.

D: Defend, if only Barbarian cavalry are rolling treat as C.

C: Wild charge.

F: Feigned retreat.:

II. Compare the 2 Battle Formations for a modification in the combat die roll.

Barbarian Stance D C F

Roman Stance D W 1B/1R 1B

R 1R 2B 3B

A 2R 0 1R

M 3R 2B/2R 2R

Explanation of terms.

R., die roll modifier in favour of Romans.

B, die roll modifier in favour of Barbarians.

-/-, the Barbarian gains the stated modifier in the 1st round only, the Roman receives his modifier in all subsequent rounds

W, defender must withdraw in the 1st combat round. The attacker receives a +1 modifier if Barbarian or Roman fighting in Rough, Rough Wood or Mountain, a +2 modifier if Roman in all other terrain.


The die modifier remains constant regardless of changes in combat odds due to losses or if the original attacker elects to stop attacking and becomes the defender.

If the Roman gains an A result but loses all his Auxilia due to combat he still maintains the benefits of the A result for the duration of that combat. It is however advantageous to maintain Auxilia and Legion units in the same stack.

Should either player elect to withdraw 1 final round of combat is fought with the withdrawing player as the defender and using a W result from the matrix. The previous matrix result no longer applies.