The Fall Of The Roman Empire

Peter Heather

If you’re looking for a substantial bit of lockdown listening and/or reading, I can heartily recommend Peter Heather’s 2007 study of the collapse of the Roman Empire. I first downloaded it on Audible, but after listening to the whole book I realised that I also wanted a print copy for my collection – and in order to re-read some of the most important sections more carefully, particularly the final chapter in which Heather summarises his thesis about what lay behind Rome’s demise.

I should say at this point that I’m not a historian, so I can’t judge what the current consensus is, if any, on the main reasons for Rome’s collapse. Certainly when Heather first published this book his was – as he clearly states – a dissenting voice. Rather than accepting the thesis that the Empire collapsed as a result of internal weaknesses and divisions (a line that stems ultimately from Gibbon), Heather stresses the role of the barbarian invasions, with the Huns as a motor of those invasions both directly and indirectly. He makes a pretty strong case for this, and in a very accessible way.

The one aspect of the fall of the Western Empire which I think Heather does rather skirt over, is the impact of the Eastern Empire’s long-standing military contest with the Sassanians on their capacity to intervene in the West. This epic conflict, which ended with the Sassanians and the Romans fighting each other to a standstill, had a catastrophic long-term effect on both the combatants. Persia became easy prey for the armies of the Prophet, while Byzantium was both unable to continue its support for the Western Roman regime and ultimately unable to defend its own eastern possessions. While Heather’s thesis does take the Sassanian wars into account, I’m not sure that it gives them quite enough weight.

That’s a minor quibble however about what is overall a very solid account and a persuasive argument.

I have no idea whether Heather’s is still a left-field analysis, or whether it has since become the new orthodoxy. Either way his book is a very fine listen/read, with plenty of contemporary source material added into the mix. For anyone interested in this period of history, it’s well worth acquiring a copy.

Listening to Heather’s book inspired me to finally purchase the board game ‘Pandemic Fall of Rome’. Playing the original ‘Pandemic’ would just feel wrong in the present situation – too twisted even for someone with my sense of humour – but the ‘Fall of Rome’ variant is different enough to be acceptable. So far Keith and I have played a couple of games, both great fun. We won the first game easily – it’s a cooperative game, so you either win or lose together – but got a complete kicking in the second game! If you’d like to see a helpful overview of the game, check out Marco’s excellent video here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2rOEVkJPp0.

Till next time – happy gaming folks, and keep safe and well.

Pandemic Fall of Rome

The Wargaming Compendium

The Wargaming Compendium

Some wargames books are simply a pleasure to read.

Henry Hyde’s Wargaming Compendium falls into that category. I recently invested in a hardback copy of the book, after making do with the Kindle version for a year or so. Eventually the lure of the eye candy was just too much to resist!

Henry’s book is very much in the tradition of old school wargames writing – think of it as a modern take on Don Featherstone’s seminal volumes. It’s a debt that Henry pays in full, not least in the fascinating section on the growth of wargames literature in the chapter which details the hobby’s history.

This chapter – ‘A History Of Wargaming’ – is actually one of my favourite parts of the book. The author covers the ‘birth of the toy warrior’, the adoption of wargames by the military, the early years of amateur gaming, the post-war expansion, the emergence of affordable miniatures, and the golden years of wargames literature. The chapter continues by covering modern developments and one or two controversies, for example the role of Games Workshop and the ‘Black Powder controversy’. It’s a delightful and very thorough overview of the subject, and puts the current situation of the hobby into a clear context.

The chapter on ‘Basic Concepts Of Wargaming’ is helfpul for newcomers, and also acts as a useful reminder of  some of our basic assumptions as gamers regarding scales of figure, landscape, time and how the vagaries of chance can be translated onto the tabletop. The chapter on ‘Choosing A Period’ is brief but thorough.

Henry really drills down into the fine detail of the hobby in the chapters covering the production of terrain and the painting of miniatures. These contain everything the newcomer needs to get started, but also contains tips and ideas that this seasoned veteran for one certainly found useful – I’m currently consulting the excellent section on painting horses (always a bugbear for me!).

The chapter on different sizes of wargame – ‘From Small To Large’ – starts with gladiatorial combat, then moves through the skirmish (using a detailed Wild West shoot-out scenario as illustration) right the way through to pitched battles on the grand scale. As with every other section of the book, Henry combines a plethora of tools and tips with wonderful illustrations, and comprehensive resources that bring the ideas to life – for example a printable Roman arena, and highly detailed Wild West skirmish rules. Nor does the author neglect the campaigning aspect of the game; there are 24 pages on the subject including a ruleset!

Talking of rules, the book includes Henry’s own rules for the Horse & Musket era – ‘Shot, Steel & Stone’. This is not really my wargames period, so I’ve only skimmed the rules, but they are as comprehensive as one might expect from what has gone before. He follows up this chapter with another that provides a detailed walkthrough of an encounter using the rules, which should help a newcomer put them into context.

Also included is a chapter on ‘Advice For The Digital Age’ – which includes some very sound tips on getting the most out of your digital camera when photographing miniatures – and a comprehensive section on resources.

Another of my favourite chapters is the one on ‘Other Aspects Of Wargaming’. This crams in short sections on naval, air and pirate wargames; role playing and pulp gaming; multiplayer gaming; and – last but certainly not least! – a few pages on solo wargaming that even includes a mention of this blog!

All in all it’s a great read, a beautifully produced book that’s copiously illustrated and well thought out. It’s destined for classic status in my humble opinion, and should take its place on every wargamer’s bookshelf next to volumes by Don Featherstone, Stuart Asquith, Charles Grant and Terence Wise.

Hex Enduction Hour…

My Hexon Terrain

 

Meanwhile, back on the table top, I took delivery last week of a box of Hexon modular terrain from Kallistra.

The setup pictured above uses about two thirds of the tilesets from their basic starter box set. Currently we’re limited to using a medium size dining table for games. Plans are afoot for building an extension, which will allow us to install a nice big wargames table when it’s complete. Until then, small is beautiful…

The plan is to use this for working on my “beginner” level hex-based wargames rules, which I’ve been mulling over for a while now. I’ve opted for a hex tabletop because my gut feeling is that it’s easier for people new to wargaming to grasp rules wherein movement, firing, combat, facing etc. are addressed without the need for complicated measurements, wheeling and turning, and so on.

I’ve always been impressed by the rules used in Bill Banks’ 3W Ancients hex-and-counter game. I found it fiddly to use in practice – small hex sheets and even smaller punched counters – but the rules themselves were fun and seemed to give realistic results. My own rules will likely take a lot from the Bill Banks rule set.

Setting up the Hexon layout wasn’t too much of a chore, and I’ve already ordered a few additional pieces.

As you can see from the photo, I haven’t flocked the hexes yet, and the scenery is bog standard rather than specific to a hex tabletop. I’ll probably have a go at adapting and/or making suitable scenery, but if that proves to be less than successful I’ll no doubt end up buying even more bespoke stuff from Kallistra. Their products are not the cheapest, but I feel they’re worth the price.

When I’ve finally arrived at a workable rule set I’ll upload it to the blog to see what people think.

Incidentally – in case you didn’t know – Hex Enduction Hour was the fourth album released by The Fall back in 1982…

 

Hex

One Hour Wargames – Part Deux

frontier-wagon-circle

My earlier review of Neil Thomas’s book One Hour Wargames – which praised his scenarios while heavily criticising his stripped-down rules – prompted a spirited defence of those rules by several readers. It’s nice to have generated some discussion, so rather than circle the wagons I thought I’d just flag up these alternative views, as follows…

Paul writes:

The Neil Thomas books are basically what they say they are, namely introductions into the hobby with very simple rules that are easy to learn and will play to a definite conclusion in an evening.

That said, they also provide a good starting point for anyone considering writing their own rules, because in my experience it’s much easier to add your own ideas to a basic set of rules, than start with a complex (and generally expensive) set of rules and strip out what doesn’t suit your ideas for the period.

Steve writes:

Paul has it in one.. for me their main benefit is that they provide a framework for you to hang as many of your own ideas on as you want.. out of the box I would say that they will not satisfy any war-game grognard, but tinkered with and added to (which is part of the fun), they are a delight.

Andy writes:

Thanks for posting this. OHW is the book which has motivated me to play more games in the past two years than in the previous five combined. I agree that scenarios are the strongest part of the book and very good value in themselves : I have adapted some to play on much more complex rulesets.

However the rules should not be dismissed too easily. Yes they are very simple, but Neil does a good job of introducing the logic behind them: eg when explaining how he divides fro age infantry into two broad categories ( warriors and shields all infantry). That said I agree that the ancients section does feel overly ‘broad’. One of the virtues of the rules mechanics is that they do allow for tinkering by the players . I have enjoyed colonial era games (a period not specifically catered for in the rules as written) simply by having 19 C armies fight against dark age warriors (zulus!). All worked well. I recommend trying the solo random event section. They do offer a level of complexity and randomness which is useful even in 2 player OHW games.

Nobby writes:

It makes a little more sense if you read his article Keeping it Simple which was in a Battlegames magazine.
I’ve been using his Machine Age rules for the 1920’s NW Frontier and have been happy with them. I am now looking at 12th century England and think that there are too many knights and not enough levy and archers but he does invite you to make changes.

 

One Hour Wargames

One Hour Wargames

As part of my ongoing fascination with ‘stripped down’ wargame rulesets I recently bought a copy of Neil Thomas’s One Hour Wargames (published by Pen & Sword Military).

I already own a couple of the author’s books – Wargaming: An Introduction, and Ancient and Medieval Wargaming. I like the fact that he’s prepared to think outside the box, and his writing style is easy on the eye, so I was looking forward to reading more of his work.

One Hour Wargames – or OHW as I’ll call it from here on in – is an interesting book that has two quite distinct aspects to it.

Simple Rules

Firstly we have sets of very short rules for each of nine historical periods – Ancient, Dark Age, Medieval, Pike and Shot, Horse and Musket, Rifle and Sabre, American Civil War, Machine Age and Second World War.

Each of these periods is covered by a chapter setting out the rationale for Neil’s approach, and outlining the relevant troop types – plus a chapter elaborating the rules themselves.

The rules in each case are very brief – just two or three pages. And each period features just four defined types of unit. For example, troop types for the Medieval period  are  Knights, Archers, Men at Arms and Levies.

While this approach works tolerably well in theory, it is very limiting in practice. The Medieval period isn’t so bad, but important distinctions are lost when we consider Ancients, to take just one example. For this era the author defines the available troop types as Infantry, Archers, Skirmishers and Cavalry. Consequently key distinctions – for example between the Greek phalanx, the Roman legion and the Celtic warband – find no place in the rules. Chariots, elephants and camels are missing completely. And within the category of Cavalry there is no distinction between, for instance, Numidian light horse, Macedonian Companion Cavalry, and Late Roman cataphracts.

The author could object, with some justification, that he is simply applying a broad brush stroke to each period. More pertinently, he could point out that he explicitly recommends that readers add to these ‘base’ rules and/or write their own.

But that still leaves me feeling dissatisfied, a feeling that is deepened by Neil’s rationalisations for his troop types, which sometimes veer into what I fear are rather misleading statements. For example he suggests that cavalry in the Ancient era “relied upon skirmishing at point-blank range with javelins, and individual duels with swords […] This means that they are about as effective as Archers in hand-to-hand combat…” (page 9).

In a book that’s aimed at least in part at newcomers to the hobby, I can’t help feeling that this sort of mangling of history is unfortunate. It enables Neil to keep things simple, but at a cost.

This attempt to cut everything back to the bone also impacts the rules themselves to some degree. We’ve probably all had the experience of cobbling together a ‘basic’ ruleset, only to find that there is a definite relationship between the brevity of what we’ve written and the number of baffling situations that occur on the tabletop – situations that either aren’t covered at all in the rules, or which are open to wildly different interpretations. Such is the case here.

There are also puzzling elisions, for instance where Neil fails to state whether factors impacting combat results – terrain, flank and rear attacks – should be taken as cumulative or singular.

But perhaps I’m being too pernickety here. After all, OHW is designed as a starter guide to tabletop battles, rather than the finished article. But I must admit that this aspect of the book wasn’t really to my taste, and came as a disappoint given the excellence of Neil’s other books.

[And see Comments section for a more positive take on these ‘basic’ rules – one man’s meat, etc. etc.]

The Scenarios

Fortunately the rules are not the only thing you get in OHW. A big chunk of the book is taken up with thirty very fine scenarios. They’re designed to be used with army lists derived from the first half of the book, but with absolutely minimal tweaking they will serve equally well for use with other rulesets and amended forces. Additionally, they fit any historical period.

Each scenario takes up two pages – one page of text and one page with accompanying diagram, showing the battlefield layout. The text portion includes Situation, Army Sizes, Deployment, Reinforcements, Special Rules, Game Length/Turn Order, Victory Conditions, Inspiration and Further Reading.

This second half of the book is absolutely splendid, and more than worth the cover price. Scenarios encompass every conceivable type of encounter, and are designed to be played out, as per the title of the book, in around an hour. The author’s generous and very full acknowledgement of sources, plus his helpful notes on further reading, mean that these wonderfully inventive short scenarios can be deepened and expanded with just a little extra effort. Neil also encourages the reader to produce his/her own scenarios, and with these cracking examples to hand most enthusiastic wargamers will be inspired to follow his lead.

And Finally…

OHW also includes a brief introduction for newbies, short sections on campaigning and solo wargaming, and a rather more extensive section on resources.

Although the brief period overviews and ultra-short rulesets really don’t float my boat, I have to say that Neil comes through in the second half of the book with a stack of excellent scenarios. These are terrific as they stand, but also serve as an inspiration to the reader.

For me, this book is ‘a game of two halves’ – but in a good way! I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you invest in a copy.

*****

For an alternative view of the first half of the book, check out my follow-up post here, and Marco’s video review here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GERS4vGWZZ0

Warfare in the Ancient World

Warfare in the Ancient World

I’ve just finished reading this concise volume and thought I’d note down a few observations about it.

It’s markedly different from other books I’ve read on ancient warfare in that it takes an instrumental, stripped-down view of the development of warfare in the ancient world. It looks at weapons systems as they were applied on the battlefield and in campaigns, with a focus on developments in combined arms, ‘articulation’ and logistics.

The concept of combined arms is one we’re probably all familiar with, and speaks for itself. Likewise logistics. Articulation though was a relatively new term to me, and denotes the capacity of battlefield units and formations to respond flexibly to different challenges. This is how the  glossary at the end of the book puts it:

“A military term defining the offensive capability of troops. Unarticulated troops usually lacked the drill and discipline to march and fight in close order, and usually fought in static, defensive formations. Well-articulated troops were capable of offensive action in close-order combat.”

The Roman legion, with its system of maniples, is portrayed as the supreme development of the articulated battle formation in the ancient world.

Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of the period, the book concentrates on key developments. One example of this is the metamorphosis of Greek and Macedonian warfare as a result of contact with the Persian Empire. The Greek phalanx was replaced by the combined arms approach of Philip of Macedon, who added cavalry and light troops to the traditional heavy infantry formations. Following the closely studied experiences of Xenophon, whose Anabasis was read extensively, the Macedonians recognised the importance of proper logistical support, which had previously been neglected in the Greek world.

The book covers an impressive sweep of history, from the Bronze and early Iron Age eras to the later Roman empire. Carey illustrates his points with detailed analyses of key battles, complete with maps. These include Megiddo, Kadesh, Marathon, Plataea, Sphacteria, Leuctra, Granicus River, Issus, Gaugamela, Hydaspes, Raphia, Cannae, Zama, Cynosephalae, Carrhae, Pharsalus and Teutoburg Forest.

The most useful and refreshing aspect of the book for me though isn’t the description of individual battles – many of which have been covered exhaustively elsewhere – but the author’s overview of the way in which each region or nation’s system of warfare developed over time.

For instance, Carey traces the transformation of the Roman military machine, describing its emergence from Etruscan methods of warfare and its subsequent development via the Camillan reforms into the early legion. He looks at the impact of the subsequent wars, and of the Marian and Augustan reforms, ending with an analysis of the decline of legionary warfare with the defeats of Carrhae and the Teutoburg.

It’s when he’s looking at the ‘big picture’ that this author is at his best.

The only criticism I would make of the book is that, for this ageing reader at least, the strategic and battlefield maps are rather on the small side. But this is a minor gripe about what is in general a well-written, rewarding and thought-provoking read. I’m not qualified to judge whether Carey’s conclusions are ones with which other military historians might take issue, but as presented here his arguments are both cogent and forceful.

In short, Warfare in the Ancient World is a worthy addition to the wargamer’s bookshelf.

Warfare in the Ancient World, Brian Todd Carey, publ. Pen & Sword 2005.