Saturday, July 11, 2009

Lost Battles by Phillip Sabin – a review by Jim Gandy

I took this book as my in-plane reading en route a la Belle Francais & had time to write most of this review in the process. Is reviewing a book on ancient warfare on a laptop computer in a machine bigger than a trireme travelling at 900km/hour 10km directly above some of the actual battlefields an anachronism, or just weird ?

The author is Professor of Strategic Studies at Kings College London and a prominent member of the wargames orientated Society of Ancients. He combines scholarly research with wargaming. In the book he develops a model (set of wargames rules) on the basis of what is known in general about ancient warfare and applies this to individual battles to attempt to fill in the gaps or resolve inconsistencies in the historical record. The book is available in both paperback & hardback (I got mine from The emphasis is on simulation rather than competitive gaming. Sabin even recommends solo games as a research tool so competitiveness doesn’t get in the way.

The book starts with a description of the historical sources we have to work with, pointing out how scarce they really are. (Though as he points out, many scholars somehow manage to write whole volumes about battles for which there may be only a few lines of actual primary source). He then works through the separate aspects of ancient warfare – armies, movement, fighting & command - discussing each and developing his model. He uses Cannae as an example, works through his methodology of setting up a scenario based on the primary historical data, and then describes it as a wargame, pointing out insights gained in the process.

The next section of the book covers about 35 battles from Marathon 490BC to Pharsalus 48BC which he considers have sufficient historical data to allow a meaningful investigation. For each battle he describes the original sources, explains his interpretation of them, and sets up orders of battle, a map and specific scenario rules. I have only skimmed through these – there are 3 or 4 pages per scenario & I think they will be best studied in detail while setting up for each battle rather read en masse.

His wargames rules are included in full as an appendix. There are also references to websites where further information & some computer programs can be found. His system allows the battles to be fought with pencil, paper & rubber, on computer, or on the wargames table.
The wargames rules take a very broad brush approach concentrating at grand tactical level. The system typically has a small number of actions and tests, though each of these might be quite complex.

Terrain is simple - the battlefield is divided into 20 squares – 5 wide by 4 deep. He points out that with the source material being so fragmentary we are kidding ourselves if we go to any greater detail. Likewise, there is limited variety of troop types - but the emphasis is on relativity in the individual battle under consideration, so this is not as limiting as it first looks. Ground scale, time scale and unit scale are interrelated and chosen on a case by case basis to suit the size of the action being simulated.

Movement is alternate & area to area (not diagonally). There are command rules that restrict what you can do. Each side a number of command points to spend each turn. The number has to be calculated each turn & includes a dice component & a commander quality component. Command points are expended in moving units. Some moves (eg double moves or turning 90°) use up more command points than others so you have to prioritise. Some moves are only allowed under certain circumstances & these are not necessarily obvious or well set out.

The combat resolution system has no separate missile fire calculation. There are no casualties as such – just different states for units – fresh, spent & shattered. You throw 2 dice, add & subtract factors then cross reference the total to a table of troop type v. troop type to see who wins & if units become spent or shattered. It looks simple, but you have to go down the long list of factors carefully to make sure you don’t miss any & some of the factors have several conditions with rather convoluted wording. This system requires the rule maker to make many fairly arbitrary judgements about relative capabilities – making the validity of the simulation very dependent on Prof Sabin’s judgement. The approach contrasts with the one more usually taken by rules writers these days (myself included), that is to have a series of simple calculations for each aspect and allowing the sum of these add up to a resolution.

Sabin believes that to a significant degree the course of a battle was pre-ordained by the time the troops had deployed, so he does consider initial deployment in some detail. The troops start the game off table & are moved onto the table as normal moves with some restrictions & often with special rules for the particular scenario. It’s a different mechanism to either map deployment or the put-down-alternate-unit system.

An army morale test has to be taken whenever a unit is shattered. It looks a bit complex (I really don’t understand it yet), but maybe you get used to it.

For me the best part of the book is the 35 scenarios. Sabin’s summary of the primary sources look to be exactly what I want when I set out to make up an historical scenario. You can take his interpretation as it is or make your own without so much risk of being mislead by someone else’s opinion masquerading as fact. Whether we adopt his rules or not, I think this section alone is worth the price of the book.

Only playing will show if the rules system is any good or not (I’ve learned not to make snap judgments). It’s certainly different, though through parallel evolution there are a number of similarities to Camp Cromwell Rules (such as the variable scale system). But there are some alarm bells ringing re the rules on first reading – in particular, the language in the rules is convoluted (Sabin is a comrade of Barker, maybe it’s a Society of Ancients thing). For example, here is one of the 19 combat modifier clauses: “+1 for a non-lead unit of fresh average hoplites or phalangites attacking heavy infantry, if the attacking unit is accompanied by another fresh average unit of the same sub-type that neither attacks nor supports another attack that turn.” Maybe it becomes clear with practice, but that sort of sentence makes my mind freeze up & sorting through a list of such for each combat resolution doesn’t make for an easy game (though they aren’t all as bad as that example).

It may be that the system is very good at what it sets out to do, but I doubt that it will entirely take over. I think we actually like a degree of small detail & I’m not too keen on the need to pick out relevant modifiers from lists with convoluted qualifications. But certainly there is a lot of food for thought & some interesting concepts to consider taking on. I’m looking forward to playing some of the scenarios solo on paper or computer to try out the system. It gives me a chance to get a wargames fix while I’m away.

1 comment:

Paul Attwood said...

That's how I see this book, a good solid basis for planning a re-fight but I couldn't fathom the rules.


Paul Attwood