Mary Russell

Recently someone asked me if I was going to be doing a blog-thing about the design process for the Pharsalus and Inkerman scenarios in Table Battles Second Edition. I said maybe, though I didn't have any immediate plans to do that.

Well, it's Thursday afternoon, I need a blog-thing for Friday and haven't written one yet, I'm drawing a blank on what to write about, and so here we are.

Let's start with the overall purpose of these two scenarios. From a business perspective, they were added to provide an additional incentive for early adopters to purchase the Second Edition or the Upgrade Deck. From an artistic perspective, these were designed to be better and more interesting scenarios than those in the base set.

Now, don't get me wrong! I'm proud of the original eight battles. But if I was going to do them over again, I would have approached them in some radically different ways. The twenty-nine scenarios that I designed over the course of four expansions and a magazine insert were stronger, sharper pieces of design. I wasn't going to redesign those original eight - that's not a useful application of my time, and it causes confusion among players - but it made sense to include two scenarios that would be more representative of the series as a whole than those first eight.

For reasons of cost, the two new scenarios would be limited to nine formation cards. This actually made it a little tricky, because over time I've found that, all other things being equal, at least six cards to a side makes for a more interesting scenario. Nine cards would give me a four-five split (a three-six or worse would be out of the question for what these scenarios are trying to do) which is workable but more constricting than I would like.

Still, I worked under a similar constriction when I did the Gaines's Mill/Bouvines expansion for C3i magazine, so it's not like it was without precedent. With that expansion, I had the benefit of cannibalizing myself somewhat, as I had done hex-and-counter games on both of those battles very early in my career. I did the same for the Inkerman scenario here, having already covered the battle in Blood in the Fog.

"Inkerman", Robert Alexander Hillingford, oil on canvas.

My approach with that boxed game was to give the Russians clear advantages in the early game, and to give the opposing British and French overwhelming advantages in the late game. The fog not only hid the Russian advance, but negated their enemy's greatest advantage - the range of the new Minie rifle. In fact, the moist and rainy conditions had dampened the powder, ensuring that some of those rifles couldn't fire at all. Once the fog lifted, however, and fresh reinforcements were able to pile in, the tide turned decisively in the Anglo-French favor.

The trick of course was how and when that balance shifted, and what each side had accomplished when they were dominant. That essential structure was grafted onto the Table Battles scenario, though the probabilistic feedback loop model of the lifting fog, powered by escalating chit-pulls, was replaced with a sort of racing game between the two sides. The Russians are struggling to bring on reinforcements, while the Anglo-French have a card that "commands" the fog to gradually lift in three successive activations. The first time negates a Russian attack advantage, the second brings on additional British troops that will help absorb losses, and the third the elite French formation.

And yet it's not simply a race, because there's an essential tension within each player's position. If you're progressing in that "race", you're not attacking, and if you're attacking, you're not progressing in that race. If I'm the Russian Player, I want to get my licks in early and often while I have that attack advantage, but if I concentrate on that and don't bring on reinforcements, my position is going to be very brittle. Similarly, if I'm the Allied Player, the dice I'm piling on the fog card are dice I'm not using to attack or react. I don't want to say that players need to "strike a balance", because that implies parity: to do well, players do need to lean hard in one direction or the other, but at the right times, and there's the rub - whichever way you lean opens up vulnerabilities that can be exploited.

The Pharsalus scenario was a little less "experimental" as it were, and was designed to very much follow the style of the scenarios in the Age of Alexander expansion (one of my favorites). Those battles had very lopsided results (our boy Alex mopped the floor with 'em), and inversely lopsided morale splits: Alexander often has only a single morale cube, and most of his formations count double for morale loss, whereas the historical losers usually have three or more cubes. In that way, the pressure is on the Alexander player to win decisively, without losing a single formation.

So, I wanted something in that vein, and it seemed like a famous, decisive ancients battle won by another famous military genius would work a charm. Since I've been researching for the second Shields & Swords Ancients game - covering the evolution of warfare throughout the Roman Republic - it made sense to look there. Initially I started poking around Cannae, but I didn't think it'd be interesting enough for both players for what I wanted to do. And Zama seemed like the kind of thing I'd really need more than nine cards to pull off. Pharsalus had the flavor I was looking for and could fit the nine-card format nicely.

Battle of Pharsalus diagram

On paper, the thing should have been a slam dunk for Pompey, as Caesar was understrength. But the surprise deployment of a hidden reserve ruptured Pompey's left flank. I love modeling battles that have these kind of "hinge" moments - one-off strategic timing decisions that can change the character of the battle. It's a big part of the success of some of my hex-and-counter games, like The Grunwald Swords and the Peipus scenario in Battles on the Ice.

Crucial to designing these sorts of moments is ensuring that doing it too early or too late exposes different kinds of vulnerabilities; these are needed to balance the rewards of getting the timing just right. The reserve was hidden by Caesar's outnumbered cavalry; when that cavalry retires, that's when the hidden reserve comes in. Said reserve can't be attacked - turning a flank is pretty devastating, especially in such an aggressively linear battle! - and confers an attack advantage to the formation adjacent to it.

Those are some pretty big advantages, but in retiring the cavalry, you're also giving up the ability to screen attacks made on Caesar's right flank. Do it too soon and the attacks made by Pompey's left can't be blocked. Wait too long, however, and Pompey's center and right might make short work of their counterparts. Remember, a single rout will lose the game for Caesar! Whereas that player will need to take out at least two of Pompey's formations - historically, his cavalry and his left infantry flank - in order to secure a victory. The secret reserve gives Caesar advantages against that wing, but again, removing his own cavalry to reveal them opens up a vulnerability that Pompey can exploit.

The sorts of tensions in these two scenarios are central to the series but have become sharper and better delineated in later scenarios, as I've gotten more experience and found new ways to express them. These two are easily my favorite battles of the ten in the base set, and I hope you give them a try soon. And as always, enjoy.


  • Hi, thanks for Table Battles! Interesting you mention “style of the scenarios in the Age of Alexander”… AoA is on high rotation for me as after-work soloing, so … When? When will you expand Pharsalus into an Early Roman TB expansion!? When?!?!


  • Excellent post. Cant wait to see pharsalus. I love the Alexander expansion. Keep up the great work.


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