Mary Russell

The core idea of With It Or On It, the first game in our Shields & Swords Ancients line, was to create a simplified model that could capture the essential nature of hoplite warfare - the advantages, the disadvantages, and most importantly, the feel. Each individual counter is only as strong and as resilient as the counters adjacent to it, leading one gamer to dub the game's model "the hoplite buddy system". Winning a battle is a matter of putting pressure on the line, pushing at it, until you force it to weaken, to crack, and to collapse.

I knew two things when I started designing the second game in the series: one, that it would maintain this key emphasis on the importance of the line, and two, that it would be called The Grass Crown. That's a title I've had in my back pocket for many years. It refers to the highest accolade that a Roman commander could receive, given by the men of a legion to the man who had single handedly saved that legion, made from the grass at the site where it happened. That's a great flipping title, and I really couldn't sit on it any longer, so of course I was going to do the Roman Republic next.

It's been said more than once that the Romans never really invented anything, but just stole the ideas of the peoples they encountered and/or subjugated. This was certainly true militarily. They began with something very like hoplite tactics - inherited from the Etruscans. These tactics are great for vast empty plains, but proved disastrous in the hilly, broken terrain over which they fought the Samnites.

This led to the more flexible manipular legion - the famous "phalanx with hinges" - and the distinctive triplex acies formation. Essentially, the poorest, youngest, and least experienced troops, with the worst equipment, fought in the front line. When they withdrew, a second line - wealthier, older, more experienced, better equipped - took up the fight. If that second line started to fail, then as the last resort the third line - the wealthiest and most experienced citizens with the best equipment, fighting as a thin phalanx - would enter the fray. It was in a way a literal representation of the stratified class structure that would be at the heart of Rome's internal political struggles.

The maniple was a volunteer army. Every man provided his own equipment, and those who were truly impoverished - who couldn't pay for their own gear - didn't participate. As Rome's sphere of influence expanded, manpower shortages and the other disadvantages inherent in a militia-based system made the manipular legion ill-suited to the demands of the late second century BCE. This is when Marius called a mulligan on the whole thing, creating a professional army with standardized equipment and training. This made the military a viable career path for the underclass, rather than merely the domain of elites. This also made the military a political power in its own right, more loyal to their generals than to the state, setting the stage for the series of civil wars that ultimately brought an end to the republic.

And that's the hook this time around: The Grass Crown seeks to demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of the various ways the Romans and their enemies fought. Over the course of the game's scenarios - I'm looking at ten right now, but that might change in development - players should be able to see the evolution of doctrine and structure over the life of the republic. In a way, this is a miniaturized, localized version of what Sean Chick is doing with the six-plus volumes of Horse & Musket.

Taking a page from Sean's book, I've created a core set of basic rules, which are modified by side-specific special rules. I'm only using a handful of those - I've come up with four, but am fiddling with a fifth - but they result in major differences between the armies.

For example, in With It Or On It, elimination of a unit prompts a rout check for every unit belonging to that side. If a unit is adjacent to two other units (or adjacent to a unit that satisfies that condition), they pass; if not, they are immediately eliminated. Rout checks are still very much a part of The Grass Crown, but to reflect the looser formation of non-hoplite armies, the basic rule is that the unit must be within two squares of two other units, rather than adjacent. This makes it harder to break the line, reflecting the flexibility, maneuverability, and autonomy of the manipular and Marian legions.

Of course, if a side is subject to "the hoplite rule", then they must satisfy that more severe rout check condition from the first game. This disadvantage is offset by the ability of hoplites to "borrow" the Combat Class of a higher unit in the same Wing, also taken from the first game. On the other hand, a unit that is subject to "the veteran rule" - reflecting the professional discipline and training of a standing army - isn't immediately eliminated when it fails a rout check, but might save itself by rolling against a morale rating. These veterans are also more likely to rally.

Sides are generally limited to issuing two commands to a single wing. An exception are armies such as Hannibal's, which use "the combined arms rule", which allows an additional command to be issued to a mounted wing (cavalry and/or elephantry). The manipular legion however is restricted by "the triplex acies rule", forcing them to only issue orders to a single "active" wing until that wing is removed from play. So, the principes in the second line are prevented from activating until after the hastati withdraw, and similarly the entry of the triarii is prevented until the principes withdraw. Withdrawing a line removes them from the game, and yields up victory points (though fewer points than if they had all been eliminated). However, should the enemy break through to the unactivated lines and inflict casualties, those are worth double VP. You neither want to withdraw too soon or too late; there's an incentive to get the timing right, and to only use the triarii as a last resort.

Samnite soldiers from a tomb frieze in Nola, 4th century BC

I'm still hammering out the exact mix of battles, but ideally I want to start with a battle from the Samnite Wars, pitting the Roman version of a phalanx against something that was probably closer to the maniple. (Information there is scarce even by ancients standards, so I might not find enough to hang a proper scenario around.) Then we'll move to the Pyrrhic Wars - the manipular triplex acies versus the Greek phalanx of Pyrrhus. There's absolutely no way I'm going to do a game on ancient Roman battles and skip over Hannibal Barca and Scipio Africanus, so we'll see how that system fares against the combined arms approach. (I might even sneak in a special rule that accounts for such big personalities; we'll see if it's needed.) We'll then see how the Marian legions worked against the Gauls, and finally we'll turn around and pit them against each other, encompassing Caesar's civil war.

That's a pretty big scope - certainly the biggest and most varied game in either iteration of the Shields & Swords series. We'll have to see if I can pull it off when we release the game next year.


  • This theme will be an excellent application of the S&S system. Really excited about this!

    Will Evanson

  • 🤩🤩🤩

    Scott Muldoon

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