A battle in my new game The Grass Crown unfolds in two distinct stages – one focused on maneuver, and one focused on combat. Each has its own challenges and tensions. I'll talk about the combat next week; this week, we're on the move, baby.
As you might expect, the maneuver stage begins with the two armies some distance apart from one another, and is about what happens when you close that distance. Ideally, by the time the two armies come into contact – ushering in the combat stage of the battle – your line will be largely intact, and the enemy badly battered. These early losses are inflicted by performing Skirmish Phases, and can be recovered from by performing Rally Phases. Because Skirmish and Rally are on opposite sides of the same Command Marker, you can't do both in a single turn – you'll have to choose one or the other.
But you do get to use two Command Markers on your turn. Besides Skirmish/Rally, there's also Move/Combat – only the first of which will feature in this early stage – and the Aquila, which makes the other Command Marker more powerful. This essentially gives you five options: Skirmish and Move, Skirmish and Aquila, Rally and Move, Rally and Aquila, or Move and Aquila. Let's look at the last one first.
Move and Aquila lets you perform two Move Phases in a row. As a general rule, a Move Phase lets an activated Unit move four squares in a turn. If it's the second Move Phase of the turn, however, you move only two. This is further restricted by terrain – it counts as two squares of movement - and by the presence of enemy Skirmish Zones. Essentially, the enemy projects a zone three squares ahead of them. When you enter that Zone, your Move Phase ends, no matter how many squares of movement you're normally entitled to. When you begin the Move Phase in that Zone, you're limited to moving a single square.
So while, for example, there are usually eight spaces between the two armies at set-up, the quickest route will take four Move Phases, performed over at least two turns. And you might think, well, I'll just do that, won't bother with the other stuff – just blitz across the field as fast as I can. But while you're doing this, your enemy has the opportunity to hit you with Skirmish rolls, which have at least a 50% success rate.
In fact, they're probably using Skirmish and Aquila. This lets them perform two Skirmish Phases in a row – lets them roll twice. If they score a hit against a targeted Wing, you need to choose one of the Units in your line to satisfy the loss, flipping them over to their Exhausted side. There's a chance that the Unit is Brittle, which will cause it to be Eliminated instead of merely Exhausted. But even if all your Units are made of stronger stuff, Exhausted Units are still going to slow you down. That's because they can't move! Either you're going to leave them behind as you press forward, creating holes in your line and almost ensuring those Units will Rout at the first opportunity, or you're going to need to take the time to Rally them.
We'll get to that in a minute, but two more things you need to know about Skirmishing. First, the second the two armies come into contact, the Skirmish Zones disappear, and with it, the ability to Skirmish. Second, you're able to target the enemy from any distance, even if it's not in that movement-slowing Skirmish Zone. But if the enemy is in your Skirmish Zone, a single roll inflicts two Exhaustion results. So that Skirmish and Aquila combo, which lets you roll twice, is going to potentially inflict four losses. If you're moving as fast as you can – Move-Aquila twice in a row – and your opponent is using Skirmish-Aquila and hitting with every roll, there are six Units that aren't making it to the frontline. As a Foot Wing generally has between eight and twelve Units, your line's not gonna last very long once the fighting starts.
So, you'll want to stop what you're doing and use Rally and Aquila. How Rally works is you look at the Exhausted Unit you want to Rally, count up the number of Fresh Units that are adjacent to it, and add that to a die roll: get an "8" or more on a D8 and they recover. Roll a natural "1" and they're Eliminated. Anything in-between that, nothing happens. Pairing the Rally with the Aquila gives you another plus-one on each attempt.
But of course if you're stopping your move to do that, that's giving your opponent another opportunity to pepper you with Skirmish Rolls. So, you might want to rely on Rally and Move instead. The Rally Phase is performed first, followed by the Move Phase that keeps you inching forward. But I do mean inching. Remember, like we mentioned above, if a Move Phase is the second phase of a turn, you move at most two squares. Now it's going to take three turns to close the gap. Or four. And if you don't succeed in your attempts, you'll need to leave those Exhausted Units behind anyway – maybe with some Fresh Units to help them get their act together. Suddenly your line isn't looking so hot.
But what about the other player's line? Maybe you'll be giving them a taste of their own medicine, either with Skirmish and Aquila or Skirmish and Move, the latter of which keeps you moving closer while making a single roll against the enemy Wing. Of course, if you're doing that, again you're not moving nearly as quickly.
So what's the right answer? Well, there isn't one, though there are a number of wrong ones. Which is to say, which option to use really depends on the specific situation, and even the "best" option has drawbacks.
And it should be noted that it's likely that only one of the two sides will be using the Move Command at all, while the other is content to let you come to them, spamming Skirmish and Aquila or Rally and Aquila as necessary. And you might wonder, well, who's who? And what's to stop both sides from doing this, neither budging a single square?
The problem is that both sides aren't equal. One side might be better at Skirmishing, or might be better with using Mounted Units. And even when that's not the case, in every battle, one side's line is thinner – a single rank of counters deep compared to two, or two compared to three. Now, in the early battles especially, the Roman player has three lines to work with – the hastati, the principes, and the triarii – but only one of those lines is in play at any given time, and it is the weakest of these that's being clobbered. Thinner lines are harder to Rally, and the holes harder to recover from. So the onus is generally on the player with the thinner line to figure out how they're going to close the gap – where to Move and when, when to Skirmish and to Rally – while trying to inflict enough damage on the enemy line that their opponent feels compelled to also move, so as to close the gap quicker and end their suffering.
And all of this is assuming a straight-ahead move. But as you lose Units to Exhaustion and Elimination, you'll need to spend time shifting troops up and down the line, so that you have something that's slightly more resilient by the time the melee starts. If the enemy's frontage shrinks due to good Skirmish rolls, you might want to extend your own so that you can threaten their flanks.
The maneuver stage is, like I said, distinct from the combat – it has different choices, and a different feel – but it's what determines the initial circumstances and nature of that combat. Poor play in the maneuver stage can absolutely doom you; I've seen games where the pathetic remains of the hastati finally crawl their way into contact with an enemy Phalanx, only to be predictably wiped out in the first Combat Phase.But we'll talk about that next week.