Mary Russell

Early on during the design of With It Or On It, the first game in our Shields & Swords Ancients line, I decided that this series, unlike its medieval predecessor, would not have a single be-all end-all rulebook. This makes sense of course because the new series would be covering a much longer period of time, and feature more diverse fighting styles and technologies. I wish I could say that in my infinite wargame designer wisdom that I looked at the scope of the thing and that this approach was immediately self-evident.

But, no, I only really decided on this course of action because I couldn't figure out what to do with the elephants and the chariots. Now, neither of these things would actually feature in With It Or On It, but I knew I would need them for future titles, and therefore if the system was to be powered by a single core rulebook, said single core rulebook would need to include them. But I was utterly stuck on how they would function in the game, and I had the feeling that I'd be stuck on that problem for a while - it might be years before I figured everything out.

It didn't make sense to delay the debut game of the series so that I could figure out elements that had nothing to do with that game and would only factor into sequels that might not ever actually get designed if the first game flopped. And so, With It Or On It had its own set of rules tailored for the peculiarities of hoplite battles. And when it proved successful, I started making plans for The Grass Crown, whose rules would chart the evolution of Roman armament and force structure throughout the history of the Republic.

This work progressed fairly smoothly, until I ran into a familiar obstacle: elephants. Pyrrhus had elephants. Hannibal had elephants. Heck, in a couple of the battles I was looking at, even the Romans had elephants. Elephants up the wazoo, which sounds painful: I don't know how big a wazoo is, but I'm gonna assume even a single elephant is bigger than a wazoo, and we're talking about elephants, with an "S" on the end, plural.

Now, in the two years since I last banged my poor lil' head against that particular wall, I had developed some vague ideas of what I wanted out of my pachyderms. I wanted a sense of headlong momentum without altering the basic movement rules that limited a unit to four squares per phase. They needed to be able to trample their way through the enemy line, wreaking havoc. But not too much havoc: elephants by this point were often more impressive than decisive. There also needed to exist the possibility of an elephant going on a mad rampage.

Some of these elements were easy. For example, the core movement rules allowed cavalry to move in all eight directions but restricted other units to moving orthogonally. If I applied that restriction to my elephantry, with the further restriction that they could only move in a single direction per phase, it would give them the kind of lumbering quality I wanted, and would encourage forward momentum, rushing into the enemy line! 

What the elephants did once they got there, though, that was another question. I was well and truly stumped on how to handle trampling. I didn't want it to be resolved like a regular combat; I wanted it to have its own unique feel. (Now, perhaps the corpses who got that way as a result of trampling didn't feel substantially different at the end of the day than those who got that way as a result of springing a leak, or because they were on the wrong end of a cavalry charge. Or who knows, perhaps they did; as they say across the pond, horses for corpses.)

Now, the obvious solution would be to whip up a Trampling Table that the elephant could roll on. Tables are the gaffer's tape of wargame design: they can fix almost anything. Was a general rip-roaringly drunk on the day of the battle? Throw a table at it. A nest of snipers? Get them a table. Samurai in single combat, cavalry counter-charge, the results of a parliamentary election shifting military strategy? Table, table, table.

I've heard other wargame designers delineate the main difference (as they saw it) between euro-style games and wargames as follows: euro-style games are about elegant smooth systems and mechanisms, while wargames are about bolting-on various sub-systems - never mind about elegance - so as to effectively deliver on the story or thesis.

Certainly, that's one way to make a wargame, but it tends to be one that I avoid whenever possible. This is especially true of a series like Shields & Swords, which in both the medieval and the ancient iterations strip out a lot of detail. A good example of this is how the ancients games abstract away skirmishers and light infantry. Instead of representing them with units, and requiring a bunch of charts for different missile types, all these preliminaries are represented by "skirmish zones" projected forward by more traditional shock combat infantry. Skirmish attacks that chip away at a wing's cohesion work on a simple "roll the die, add modifiers, hit on an eight-plus" system. The game's rally system (which recovers some of that cohesion) works on a similar principle, with the added wrinkle that a natural one will eliminate the unit attempting to rally.

It occurred to me that I could model the trampling mechanism along the same lines: when an elephantry unit attempts to move into a foot unit's square, said foot unit would roll a die, add their side's Rally Limit, and hope for an eight. Success would mean that the elephantry passed harmlessly through, failure would mean squashed soldiers. If the elephant had more movement remaining, it would continue going, perhaps attempting to trample multiple units in a single go.

Units in more rigid hoplite-like formations would fail the roll automatically, as they're less flexible and maneuverable than, say, the manipular legion. The problem however is that this created the possibility of an elephant just rolling up the flank with impunity. And, sure, a phalanx should absolutely be crazy-vulnerable at the flanks, and much like the wazoo, you definitely don't want elephants up in there, but these are living creatures, not tanks, and a wargame, not chess - I didn't want it to feel quite that deterministic and orderly. They're war elephants: they should feel chaotic. There should always be a chance of something going wrong.

And, hey, I needed a way to reflect mad elephants going on a rampage, and it seemed like both problems had the same solution. Inverting "roll and hope for an eight", a pre-trampling "roll and hope for anything but a one". Roll a one? Elephant goes on a rampage.

Said rampage involves a series of paired die rolls, the first determining how many squares the elephant will move, and the second determining the direction. Now, for this second roll I did have to resort to using my gaffer's tape, creating a direction table. After resolving the elephant's movement, and any resultant trampling(s), there would be another pair of die rolls, continuing until the elephant moved off the map or the second roll produced an eight, resulting (Mary don't read this next part, skip to the next paragraph) in the elephant being euthanized by its rider hammering a stake into its skull.

All of this - the trampling and the rampage - happens during the elephant's movement phase, as a function of that movement. In fact, they would only act in the movement phase. Since they would never be an attacker in an actual honest-to-gosh roll-on-the-CRT combat, only a defender, they didn't need to have an actual honest-to-gosh Combat Class. This gives the elephantry an appropriately distinctive, even alien, feel.

It also created a new problem, one that forced me to radically rethinking how cavalry would function in The Grass Crown. But we'll talk about the horsies next time.

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