HORSIES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Last year I wrote at some length about the elephants in The Grass Crown, and teased a future blog-thing about how this led me to rethink how the game modeled horsies. This is that blog-thing.

I will freely admit that I didn’t quite know what to do with the horses in With It Or On It. They were just kind of awkwardly there, mobile but not in a way that really posed any kind of threat to a line of hoplites with their big ol’ shields and pointy, pointy spears. Now, this was arguably accurate, in that cavalry – particularly the light skirmishing cavalry of the period - historically didn’t pose much of a threat to hoplite formations. I was tempted in fact to abstract them away like I had with the light infantry, but I think that would have made it too abstract, and besides, I had already drawn this awesome horse:

But in the battles covered by The Grass Crown, cavalry was a much more important element, particularly the heavy charging cavalry employed by Hannibal. The horsies in this game couldn’t feel as vestigial as they did in With It Or On It.

Or, in fact, as vestigial as they sometimes felt in the medieval Shields & Swords II games. The crux of all these games is the issuing of commands (usually two) to color-coded Wings (usually one). This causes temporal distortion, in that a player might activate their left wing for several turns before shifting to their right. This doesn’t mean that the right wing is literally standing there picking their nose. The right wing’s activation is, in terms of what’s being modeled, happening simultaneously with the left’s, it’s just a matter of where we’re choosing to put our focus at the present moment – like a movie cross-cutting between parallel lines of action. Control of the tempo – forcing your opponent to activate this wing in reaction to yours, rather than activating the one they actually would like to activate – is vital.

This approach works really well for major lines of action – the left or right wing of an army, or perhaps a relieving or flanking force making its way onto the field – but doesn’t work as well for more minor ones. If you’ve got a couple wings of infantry with say fifteen counters apiece, and you’ve got four horsies protecting the flanks at either extreme, how often are you going to activate those four units instead of fifteen? Especially if activating those four leaves those fifteen in a vulnerable position?

As a result, battles in the core S&S series with few horses didn’t see much hoof action in actual play. Now, when I needed horses to play a more prominent role, I could patch it with a special rule – “treat the left flank horses as part of the left wing when you issue commands” – but that felt less organic. It was a dissatisfaction with the original system that was on my mind when I started working on the ancients line. (There are a few such dissatisfactions, and that’s a function of the fact that the very first S&S game was designed over a decade ago.)

Given their limited role in With It Or On It, I had the luxury of kinda-sorta ignoring the problem, but that was a luxury I didn’t have for The Grass Crown. It wasn’t just that I wanted the model to give a more significant role to cavalry; it’s that weird stuff happened in my early “guess we’ll figure out the horsies later, let’s just see if the rest of it works” tests. As one army’s infantry attempted to close distance with the other, the second army’s cavalry would rush in, attacking the flanks or even just standing between the two armies. In order to actually test the new rout check mechanisms, I needed to just pretend that the horses weren’t there at all.

Now, in a game where you move all of your pieces and then I move all of my pieces, this wouldn’t be a problem, because I would be moving my horses along with my infantry, so as to protect my flanks. And in some scenarios, where a side has the Combined Arms Special Rule that allows them to activate both foot and mounted units in one go, that’s precisely what could happen. But not every scenario or side has that, and I still wanted that essential trade-off, that choice of which wing to activate.

And even in those scenarios where both sides had the Combined Arms rule, I still would end up with horsies rushing for the center of the battlefield, slowing up the ability of the two armies to close. And this just isn’t historical; it’s ludicrous.

So I asked myself, why didn’t this happen? Well, for one thing, it didn’t happen because the infantry with its wider frontage could surround the horses. And certainly that’s what happened in testing, and those horse units were often eliminated after a brief struggle. During this time however the infantry hadn’t closed with the enemy, which meant the abstracted light infantry/skirmishers were still active, still wheedling them down. By the time they got through the horses, the army on the march wasn’t in great shape, while the enemy troops were still fresh.

Which very well might have happened if enemy cavalry was dumb enough to sacrifice itself. Certainly delaying and screening the enemy advance was a primary function of light cavalry especially. That’s why the other side brought its own cavalry along, after all: to prevent the enemy cavalry from harassing or out-flanking the infantry. But given the time distortion of my model, that wasn’t happening. I needed some way for the non-active cavalry to deter the moving cavalry from just making a mad ahistorical dash at the infantry.

This isn’t a new problem in wargame design, and indeed the solution isn’t novel. Many tactical games allow a moving unit’s go to be interrupted by “opportunity fire”; operational games sometimes allow a non-phasing army to intercept a nearby enemy on the march. Doing the same thing here – say, if an enemy horse moves within four squares of your horse, your horse can intercept, ending the enemy movement – would go a long way toward solving my problem, and would make the horses feel, well, like horses: dynamic, responsive, highly mobile, protecting the infantry, chasing the enemy horse, eating apples, etc.

I layered an additional rule on top of this: if moving horse is ever within four squares of enemy equines, it cannot move adjacent to foot units. The presence of the enemy horse “pins” them at the flanks, and you’ll need to drive your counterparts off the field if you want to try your hoof at terrorizing the infantry.

As this was coming together, I was also working on the elephants as previously discussed. Once I decided to make elephant trampling a function of its movement, thereby restricting that unit type’s activation to a single phase, I decided for the sake of symmetry to do the same for my horsies: they would only be activated for a Move, but during that Move they might attack. Elephants didn’t use the CRT, so cavalry wouldn’t either. Instead, it would be a single die roll, and like most non-CRT die rolls in the ancients line, you wanted to roll a modified “8” to get a hit. Simple, clean.

Maybe too simple, too clean. Light cavalry didn’t charge home like heavy cavalry, and Roman “heavy” cavalry didn’t really have the stomach or training for shock tactics. I wanted to capture these distinctions without having to come up with an excessive number of modifiers, a bunch of tables, and more importantly without having to do three different unit illustrations. I mean, you folks saw the horse I did for With It Or On It, right?

I flirted with simply using Combat Classes to distinguish them. “C” cavalry would be light skirmishers, and would only be able to attack other horse; “B” cavalry were “heavy-ish” cavalry that could charge either cavalry or infantry; “A” cavalry were heavy horse, and would roll twice against a single target. But that seemed cumbersome to remember, and besides, the elephants didn’t have a Combat Class. So I stripped that out and implemented diamond (d8) die symbols. Two symbols meant two dice, one meant one die, and no symbols meant one die but they can’t attack infantry.

This made the exact capabilities of your cavalry force something that could vary from game to game. The white wing, typically utilized by the Roman player, slanted more heavily toward the light and single die cavalry, while the tan wing, used by Rome’s enemies, was weighted toward heavy horse. When elite heavy horse units are needed, some of the light horse units are removed from the mix before the randomization.

Probably the two major challenges with this design were figuring out my elephants and my horsies. In both cases, I feel like I’ve managed to capture a lot of the essential flavor and feel of the thing with minimal rules overhead.

I can’t wait for the next one, where I’ll probably need to figure out what the heck to do with chariots.

1 comment

  • Really looking forward to this one, Tom!

    John Hardin

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