Thursday, May 6, 2010

Going Beyond Hadrian's Wall

Some months ago, I spent a few bucks to download a “print and play” game from Guild of Blades. Beyond Hadrian’s Wall takes place after 122 CE. Even though the rules are very simple and the Caledonian tribes are presented in a totally generic fashion, the game was intriguing enough that I created a Cyberboard gamebox for myself, both “colorizing” the black and white counters (deep red for the Roman units and three shades of green for the three different barbarian tribes) and numbering each of the territories represented in Scotland. The generic Caledonian tribes could represent the Cornovii (anywhere from 77, 78, 79, or 80 on the map I adapted for Cyberboard play by adding numbers to each unmarked territory), the Smertae (we suggest 67, 68, 75, 76, or 81), the Lugi (possibly 61, 62, 65, or 52), the Decantae (possibly 47-51), the Caereni (anywhere around 86), the Caernonacae (circa 56, 57), the Creones (54, 55, 59, 60),the Venicones (7, 8, 19, 20, 21), the Taexali (22, 23, and 24), the Caledonii (39, 40, 44, 45, 46), the Vacomagi (24, 25, 26), and the Epidii (10, 11, 14, 15, 16).

The game itself doesn’t name the Caledonian tribes or give definite starting positions, but my Random Caledonians assistant (a downloadable Excel spreadsheet I designed) chooses a random territory from those listed under the Vacomagi, the Caledonnii, and the Epidii in order to have what I consider the most viable starting positions. This forces the Romans to come to very defensible Caledonian positions and allows the tribes time enough to build villages so that they can start rebuilding right away. It also allows the Caledonnii to get into the game sooner, rather than later. One’s initial tendency would be to choose one of the northern tribes and make the Romans come all the way up, but the fact is that the Romans rebuild too fast to make that a good play. Even if they lose a bunch right off the bat, they can call on those emergency legions and keep on coming.

I created the spreadsheet so that the Caledonian tribes could have random set-ups where all three tribes would be involved early in the game. This proved disastrous for the Epidii because the starting territory was #11 and one of the Roman legions could get there quickly, before the Epidii could build a village in #14 (villages have to be built at least two territories away from a town). As can easily be seen in the screenshot, it was easy to get the legion with Leader #7 to the town belonging to the Epidii. With the leader being able to reduce die rolls up to seven (7) total points in order to get the maximum number of hits, it doesn’t take long to reduce the town.

I initially thought my strategy was totally flawed and kept pushing the Romans forward, but soon discovered that encountering the Vacomagi without bringing in one of the two fresh legions wasn’t a wise idea. The remains of the first legion evaporated against an advance force (the maximum three units allowed in a mountain region) when the legion could only bring three units at a time into the mountain territory. I opted not to continue the fight when I was down to my leader and one unit, but couldn’t retreat in time from a barbarian cavalry unit and archer moving in to finish them off. The archer actually didn’t finish them off. I only had one barbarian archer get a hit in the first six turns of play (either special long-range or standard short-range) and one Roman archer get a hit in the first six turns (of course, Roman archers get eliminated pretty fast when they’re ineffective).

Speaking of which, does it seem odd to you that archers could fire from one territory into another when the scale is obviously as large as it is on this map? I mentally abstracted this to mean that archers are skirmishing units who fire and retreat to the next territory. But I’m not sure but what Roman cavalry could have intercepted them and taken them down even in that circumstance.
By this time, the Epidii were history in the game in the same way they’re history today. But, as the screenshot on the left shows, the Vacomagi and Caledonii would have at least a few turns to build up before the emergency legion could arrive.

Unfortunately, the Vacomagi would have to apply all build points to merely beefing up the garrison in their initial town. Much more fortunate for the Caledonians was the early ability of the Caledonii in reaching the three town point. At this point, the Caledonians were producing two times the Roman build points per turn and the Romans only had one reserve legion to call on. Each turn the Caledonii could survive meant the Roman cause was getting further away from the potential win.

The sole opportunity for the Romans was to be able to reduce the Vacomagi in their initial town and bring the final reserve legion in to reinforce before the Caledonii could swarm onto them. The III Legion was more than decimated, breaking off combat with one cavalry and one leader left because the Vacomagi also had one cavalry and one leader left. With modifiers, that would mean almost sure annihilation. It was better to consolidate a few units together while the IV Legion was coming into play. Regardless, things didn’t look good for the Romans at the end of their Turn 10.

By the end of Turn 11, the Caledonii were on the flanks of the Romans, ready to pounce after the remainder of the III Legion and the mass of the IV Legion experienced attrition by attempting to dispose of the Vacomagi. Of course, it was always possible the Romans could turn on the Caledonii, but that would be, at best, a neutralizing move as the Caledonii now had three towns and a village for seven (7) build points per turn.

On Turn 12, the Romans decided to attack three (3) Caledonii cavalry and a leader (5) with three (3) Roman cavalry and a leader (8) in a mountain square, hoping to reduce the fast-growing Caledonii by attrition. The strategy backfired when both armies eliminated the other. [Actually, the rules were unclear as to whether the leaders could have retreated after battle when all of their combat units were destroyed or not. I decided to destroy the leaders as my house rule. They are cheap to replace but have to come back in the fortresses on the wall for the Romans and in a town or village for the Caledonii. It would have been to the Romans’ advantage to let the leaders retreat, but the rules were unclear and I’m not a big fan of “I only am escaped to tell thee” scenarios.]

By the end of Turn 14, the Roman threat was eliminated and only the Vacomagi and Caledonii remained. See the picture at the bottom of this posting. It was clear that the Vacomagi could not recover in time to win a war of attrition against the superior and fast-growing Caledonii, so the Vacomagi agreed to pay tribute and concede the victory to the Caledonii until circumstances would change. As one can see by the final positions before the Vacomagi capitulation, the Caledonii had options for spreading out all over the map and the Vacomagi were structured so that they couldn’t build enough villages and towns to beef up their military at all.

All in all, I felt that the set-up in my assistant assured some randomality and a viable starting position for all except the Epidii. Since then, I have adjusted the assistant so that it will take longer for the Romans to reach the Epidii. I’ll share the results of that later when we move to the next phase of the assistant, random village placement for the tribes. Coding an Excel spreadsheet to perform combat calculations is easy. Coding a spreadsheet to perform artificial intelligence calculations is a horse of a different color. Oh, well. At least there are plenty of cavalry in the game!

By the way, I'm willing to share both the cyberboard gamebox and the Excel assistant as works in progress (they work with limited aesthetic and functionality) to anyone who has purchased the Beyond Hadrian's Wall game. If you're looking for a nice "gateway" game to get someone involved with wargaming or a quick 60-90 minute game for up to four players, this one offers a lot of bang for the buck. It isn't a historically tuned game, but it offers plenty of interest for those who enjoy Ancients gaming and want interesting flavor without going the entire "Iron Chef" route.

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