Ever since studying Latin for some 6 years (not that I recall any of it), and playing Republic of Rome, I’ve been a fan of Roman history. Other than Republic of Rome, though, there aren’t many good games from the period – discounting the Euro stuff like New Games in Old Rome, of course – although there are plenty of bad ones.
Tactical games fall into this pattern particularly, which is actually odd. The Roman Legions from the early republic were an intricate tactical machine. Different armies used different mixes of various weapon systems, all of which have very different capabilities, from Elephants to Archers to Phalanxes and Legions. Look at GMT’s SPQR, though. The game tends to boil down into 2 phases: firstly, the Skirmishers shoot each other. This has no appreciable affect on anything except the aggravation level of the players. Then the battle lines engage, and it’s a race between the Roman Legions obliterating the enemy center and the enemy cavalry attempting to turn the Roman flank and roll up the line. This is a race the Romans typically win, as should be expected given their centuries-long complete military dominance. Generally speaking, this may be fun to watch, but there is no actual game here.
One thing about Roman-period armies though, they sure do look good in miniature format, especially given the lots of different troop types the Romans fought with and against. So I played some Piquet, Carthaginians vs. Romans. I was on the side of the Carthaginians.
For those unfamiliar with Piquet, it is actually somewhat similar in feel to GMT’s Simple Great Battles of History, their dumbing-down of SPQR and its brethren. Unlike the strictly alternating impulses of SGBOH, though, players typically dice off with a d20 to determine who gets the impulse, with the difference being the number of “command points” the winner has to spend. You then can’t spend your CPs doing just anything, but are restricted by a deck of cards, each of which has one action type (Move, Melee, Rally, etc.). You can either activate formations using the current card, or spend a CP to get a new card. There are, I understand, lots of variations on this theme – initiatives and CPs could be determined by a deck of cards (this is what we did, actually), or by dominoes in one interesting suggestion.
Combat resolution is pretty simple – you just roll a die, high die roller wins, with being doubled and tripled increasingly bad. Better troops get larger die sizes (d10s and d12s) vs. skirmisher’s d4s, with modifiers moving your die size up or down or, in extreme cases, adding a modifier (d12 goes to d12+1, although d4 stays at d4).
As a game, Piquet proceeded much as I would expect a game of SPQR to go in Simple GBOH. The Skirmishers are mostly a time-wasting mechanism, although the more heavily-armed Roman Velites can cause problems (in our case, on an bad die roll split, a stand of Roman Velites turned back and routed a charging wedge of Celtic cavalry). The cavalry then failed to flank the Roman line, so the Romans simply slaughtered the Carthaginian center, who never had a chance.
The game as we played it was a little too chaotic for me. We had some bad luck, both with the dice and with the initiative, and ended up sitting around for long periods while the Romans took initiative after initiative and tore our troops apart. I think the differences in troop types here are somewhat too exaggerated – the Roman Legions are far more overwhelming than I would have expected (often rolling a d12+1 or d12+2 against the defending phalanx’s d6). Meanwhile, at the low end, Skirmishers seem a little more potent than expected because their die size – a d4 – can’t be reduced any lower than it already is, so even if routed, disordered, etc., it’s still rolling a d4 while the charging cavalry rolls a d6 or d8. While the cavalry should win, the odds of them being repulsed seem a bit high.
The good thing, though, is that Piquet can be heavily customized, both through building the action decks and through how you determine initiatives and CPs. I like the concept of drawing from a deck to determine initiative, but I think a fairly small deck might be best. Also, in the action decks, it seemed like the number of action cards in the deck that we never had any interest in using was a bit high (move cavalry in rough, heroic surge – which sounds cool but I don’t think anyone was ever able to use) – but you can likewise customize this deck to a great degree.
So anyway, I played Piquet. It was interesting, but at the end of the day it felt a lot like a traditional boardgame design. Normally I wouldn’t complain, but tactical ancients is a hard problem that boardgames have singularly failed to transfer into an interesting game. Taken in the historical context, I’m not quite sure where the game is here, but I suspect it is probably far more in army construction and leader selection than in actual combat resolution. I think it’s pretty debatable how much influence ancient commanders had on the battlefield anyway, at least on the day of the battle itself, so it’s not clear what we’re trying to simulate. As I say, a tough problem to tackle both the simulation and the game.