The Great Battles of Alexander

 

Playings; 3 (10 hours)

 

Ever up to date, this is the original version in the slim orange box not the re-release with the fat box and unbelievable price ticket. GMT were selling off the original version pretty cheap or giving it away if you bought enough goods by direct mail from them. I was not tempted but judging by the number of copies on offer at the 1996 auction plenty of people were.

 

Not surprisingly as the 1st in the series this is the simplest of the Great Battles of History games. GMT have revised the rules with each new volume, although Lion of the North is somewhat different to the other 3, leading to each rule book becoming lengthier with further exceptions and clarifications. The temptation of this version of Alexander is being able to play with the raw system albeit with a reduction in perceived history, that is history as perceived by Messieurs Berg and Herman.

 

The momentum system actually makes sense thanks to the lack of leader rankings and line commands. Being the chief support of the game system it deserves some explanation. Leaders are rated for activation, the higher the better, most Persians are 3, Macedonians 5, Alexander is 7. The sides take turns activating 1 leader at a time of each activation level starting with the lowest ranker. The Persians have lower rated leaders so will be using more than 1 before the 1st Macedonian activation, allowing Macedonians to re-act to Persian moves. A leader is able to issue a number of orders equal to his leader rating. 1 order will move 1 unit, reduce a unit's cohesion hits by 2 or attempt to rally 1 unit. The target of the order must be within the leader's range but these ranges are suitably generous to pose few problems, the leader can always issue an order to himself to move. The 1st Persian leaders are going to be restricted to moving 3 units if they perform no other actions, this is not a lot. The Macedonians are not only able to move more units but have fewer units to move (smaller armies) giving increased mobility.

 

The whole system is confused by trumping. After a leader has issued his quota of orders he may attempt to go again (trump) by rolling under his leadership value. If unsuccessful he may not issue further orders but is not otherwise penalised. If successful the opposing player can nominate one of his leaders that has not been used that turn, if the nominated leader rolls under his rating he gets to issue orders and the original leader is finished. If the leader that attempts to interrupt fails to roll under his initiative the original leader gets to use his 2nd orders phase and the interrupting leader is finished and will not be issuing any orders that turn. There is a slight possibility of this "trumping" ending the turn or allowing a leader that has issued orders (finished) to be activated again although these events are not going to crop up every game. The trumping system also allows a leader to be activated out of sequence, a higher number to be used instead of a friendly lower numbered leader because of the risk of failure this is not going to happen often.

 

The result of all this die rolling is that the Persians will always activate leaders1st and will not be issuing many orders. If the Persian tries for momentum with his lower ranked leaders and (surprisingly) succeeds then he is likely to be trumpted by a Macedonian leader. The Persian then loses the limited advantage of moving early in the turn and plugging any holes before the Macedonian can exploit. The highest ranking (last activated) Persian leader may as well try for momentum as the Macedonian will be going next whether he is trumpted or not. Leaders can try for momentum twice and the later activating Macedonians will try for this because the already activated Persians will not be able to interrupt them. Darius is going to end up issuing 3 orders to Alexander's 21, a trend that allows the Macedonians to do a lot more than the Persians.

 

Units can move in any orders phase but build up cohesion hits for moving in more than 1 phase per turn and in moving through difficult terrain. The Macedonian can use his surplus of orders to move a unit and then pay to reduce the cohesion hits from movement. The Persian will have to move and put up with accumulated hits or suffer a further reduction in units moved each turn. Units that are routed plough towards their base edge where they are treated as dead unless they are rallied. The units are rallied by a leader issuing 1 order and rolling under the leader's rating quality plus 1. If successful then it is rallied and ceases to rout but cannot receive any further orders that game turn. If the roll fails the unit is removed as dead. Having a higher order issuing capacity the Macedonian is better able to rally units, much of the paltry Persian order capacity will be spent stopping their troops sloping off to the rear. The front line Persian troops have pretty good morale (troop quality), comparable to Macedonians but many combats will see both sides heading for the rear with the Macedonian being better able to stop his troops.

 

Battles are won by killing leaders (unlikely) and destroying units, the number required is based on the combined troop quality levels of destroyed units. Units are destroyed by failing to recover from rout, they rout by taking a number of hits equal to their troop quality. These hits are caused by melee, firing and terrain, a routing unit that takes another hit is destroyed allowing the otherwise hopeless Persian light troops to fire a few arrows at a fleeing phalanx and take it out. Having played Issus and The Granicus the Persians were well advised to dig in behind river lines and dare the Macedonians to come for them. The Macedonians lose a lot of cohesion hits crossing the river, if they win they have to follow up taking more cohesion hits and often causing them to rout as well as the already routing Persians. Macedonian cavalry is unable to cross the Persian left at Issus because of the steep river sides (wait a glance at the errata sheet reveals a ford), even infantry crossing at that flank or the centre will take so many hits that only the bravest will fail to rout. Although Macedonian units take a lot of punishment crossing bad terrain and many will flee back across a river they will cause some Persian units to rout forcing the Persian to spend orders to stop them or letting them run and using the orders to plug the line. The lesson is that man for man the front rank troops of both armies are equal if the Persians use terrain to make up for weapons deficiencies. Given equal losses the Macedonians are better able to recover and exploit. The Persians do not help themselves by having rear lines of hopeless levies who are likely to join in the flight if routed through and are hard to rally when they do go.

 

Leaders and momentum are clearly the core area of the game, movement is much as in any other game although you have to watch for cohesion hits mounting up. Units can find themselves in positions from which they cannot move without routing, often stood in a river and unable to get out. If orders are available it is worthwhile paying to of them to have the units rout out of the river so that they can be rallied. Several Persian infantry units begin Issus jammed up against a steep river bank which they cannot cross without routing. To shift these, the Persian must move them, allow then to rout and rally them, then march them back into line. This wastes orders and runs the risk of the units not recovering from rout. Combat is based on unit types with a bonus for hitting in the flank or rear (double losses) or certain types causing double or triple losses against others (heavy against light infantry) if no flanks or rears are involved. The process is overly lengthy, with position and troop types involved yielding a table column which may be modified by unit size or terrain. The table is then rolled on to give losses. This works but given average troops losses will be about equal unless 1 weapon system is notably superior or flanks are involved. The results of small numbers of cohesion hits to both sides causes combats to drag on over several orders phases. It is some consolation that the process is smooth enough to involve little thought but rather too much cross referencing of tables.

 

It is hard to visualise what part of this game caused all the fuss and spawned so many add on games and massively overpriced expansions. Momentum does work but by allowing units to perform more than 1 action in a turn games become pretty long. Cohesion hits go up and down (except for levies who peg it) resulting in nearly as many markers as units on the map and again slowing the pace of the battle. It seems to take a long time to get anything done compared to the traditional IGO HUGO system. I may have been spoilt by DBM but Barker's system cracks along pretty quickly (even with players who must work out very possibility before moving a piece) and dispenses with charts and tables (the few numbers that are required are quickly learnt by heart).

 

SPQR

 

Playings, 3 (Bagradas and Zama), 8 hours.

 

Still remaining topical this is the now defunct 1st edition of SPQR. According to GMT the all-singing all-dancing 2nd edition is also out of print. Judging by GMT's efforts to sell or even give away copies of the 1st edition of Alexander (according to GMT a long out of stock item) when the de-luxe box hit the shelves, I am not convinced. Anyhow I do have Caesar which is a progression of the 2nd edition and can report that whatever edition of SPQR is currently out, it is not much different from the original.

 

Down to business, there is not much point cycling through all the mechanisms that are much the same in Alexander and SPQR. The 2 sets of rules cover the same ground, SPQR has more bits bolted on which naturally means more fiddly bits to learn. Having slogged through the rules and played the games it seems that many of these rules are not going to be used too often. SPQR has a big section on stacking which apart from certain Roman units that basically combine into a single bigger unit when stacked is basically a big warning against stacking. It is generally not worth the candle to go through your own units and given space routing units will go round the side of those behind. If units are forced to go through other units we are talking cohesion hits and troop quality checks which are both bad news.

 

Line commands raise their ugly head in SPQR and although a sensible idea they bring up the problem of what exactly is a line? This has to be defined for each scenario plus there are limitations of what various Roman commanders can issue orders to. The Roman low level commanders are divided into cavalry boys who only order cavalry (fair enough), Legion commanders and Ally Legion commanders. Legion leaders push around Legions and Allies stick to their own. Unfortunately there are exceptions in that both types can order Velites and either can issue a line command to a line of Allies and Romans. Remember that orders are used for rallying and recovery of cohesion as well as movement so there is a lot of shuffling about as Leaders move to be near the right units. Overall commanders can order everything as do Proconsuls who are only present at Cannae. Non-Roman Leaders are not so restricted although there are going to be fewer of them than in opposing Roman armies.

 

A system that I remember from Lion of the North is cavalry pursuit. This is almost there in terms of the right degree of recreation but does not quite work. When cavalry rout an enemy they roll for pursuit and will generally destroy that unit and charge off the battlefield after it. These units are placed in the pursuit box and require a Leader to get them back. It appears that the Leader who commanded them (the 1 currently activated) when they pursued is needed although each side has only 1 pursuit box. Having a pursuit pile for each leader who put units into pursuit makes more sense. Anyhow having got into pursuit a leader has to go off-map and get them back. He can do this by issuing an order or by automatically going into pursuit at the same time as one of his units, this being the best bet as it saves wasting an order. Having gone off-map the leader can regroup his units and hopefully get them back next turn, this depends on his charisma. The result of a successful cavalry action is to see chunks of the wining cavalry force off-map together with their Leader. There are likely to be further cavalry units who did not fight of failed to pursue these will have to hang about until another Leader is sent over or the original Leader comes back. This is all a lot better than the old infantry system where the loser routs 2 hexes and the winner must advance 1 hex. Routing units are rallied by commanders, those with high initiative having the best chance. In a departure from Alexander not only does the Leader have to roll his initiative plus 1 but another roll must be made that is equal to or less than the unit's trop quality. This makes low quality units hard to rally and often not worth spending an order to have the chance to roll low enough to stop them. A good idea but another die roll too far in a game with plenty of die rolling.

 

A couple of bashes at the short Bagradas scenario plodded along although the games seemed a lot longer than they actually took. Another worry was that the rules stated that Bagradas is a walkover for the Carthaginians although I had a hard job winning with them.

Perhaps I have missed some serious rule or am just not bold enough with the trumping. Higher rated commanders have a good chance to roll under their initiative and buck the general order of activations. Yet even if they succeed all lower rated Leaders on that side lose the chance to try for momentum, reducing their maximum number of goes from 3 to 1. On paper it is safer to start with the lowest rated Leaders and work up through both sides. If this were the case there would be no need for the trumping rules, someone must find them useful indicating a level of play which the casual gamer is unlikely to reach.

 

With some trepidation I gave Zama a bash and was pleasantly amused. In all the games both sides deployed in a number of lines which appeared to act in the correct fashion. At Zama the Roman Velites leapt forward (thanks to Scipio's winning the die roll for elite commander activation) and took on the Punic elephant line. Most of the Velites came running back but winning units have to pursue 1 hex which messed up the elephant line. Elephants do not rout like regular units but rampage in a random direction and cause hits on any units they meet before eventually falling down. By advancing towards an elephant line it is more likely to trample it's own side than if the elephants are allowed to march forwards. With most of the Roman leaders being low initiative they got to go 1st and moved up the 1st Legion line to take on the elephants. This pretty much shot the hephalumps but the Roman infantry were in a bad shape. So up moves the 2nd Roman line which is opposed by the Punic infantry (their elephants having been minced). The Carthaginians had a poor showing here and headed for the showers however the Carthaginian rear line moves up and trounces the Roman 2nd line. The Punic flanks are a bit of mess by this time so they try for a quick win by heading for the 2 remaining Roman lines. After some modest success against the fleeing Romans that they pass on the way the Carthaginians are held and pushed back by the 3rd Roman Legion line. Right at the back the Triarii lean on their spears and watch the show.

 

Certainly the historical deployment of parallel lines works in SPQR although it takes a long time to see the result. It is tempting to try the smaller scenarios but Bagradas lacks atmosphere, Zama was worth the extra time due to the perceived feeling of wrestling with history. This could be part of the appeal of the expansions although for the price of 2 expansions another real game can be bought.