S & S ANCIENTS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Shields & Swords Ancients is something I've been planning to do for a very, very long time - since before we started Hollandspiele, really - but which I've only gotten around to in the last while. Part of this is that I've had a few games that were critical and commercial successes (Supply Lines, Table Battles, Agricola) and so I prioritized more games along those lines (The Southern Strategy, the TB expansions, and Charlemagne, respectively) as well as idiosyncratic stuff like This Guilty Land and Westphalia. The S&S II series is something I enjoy, but it's far from being my bestselling or most acclaimed series of designs.

A larger part of the delay however has been in wanting to find meaningful ways to differentiate the Ancients off-shoot from its medieval cousin. As I've talked about before, part of my process is that I don't start working on a game until I have a very clear idea of what I want it to be. Then and only then do I get started on it, and I stop when the thing resembles that mental image. So, it took a good long while for that image to form in this case. "I want it like baseline S&S, but different in period-appropriate ways" isn't really a lot to work with; I had to decide what, preicsely, I wanted to model and how.

There's also a challenge in that warfare in antiquity is quite a bit more varied then it is in the middle ages, and in many ways more sophisticated. Aside from a longbow here or a pike there, there are rough similarities to how medieval armies fight and function, particularly at the "broad strokes" level of detail that I employ for the S&S II games (compare this to the much more detailed Men of Iron series). Ancient armies, on the other hand, often fought very differently - Greece, Persia, and Rome all fielded wildly different armies with wildly different emphases. So I would need a system that captured some of those differences at a "broad strokes" level.

Battle of Lake Peipus one of the two battles in Battles on the Ice both of which feature the Livonian Order being nasty.

I also was concerned about the number of cardboard casualties. The core S&S II system is rather bloody. Some might argue it's ahistorically so, but that's where I step in and put on my "step losses do not necessarily equate with combat deaths, but also represent exhaustion and dudes running away and hiding" hat. That's also where I point out that most casualties in these battles occurred when one side had lost and was trying to run away (something that's also true of ancient warfare), and that the VP thresholds for each battle are generally much lower than what was reported in order to simulate this.

But I didn't want to do a straight port of this for the ancients game, because the rate of actual in-battle casualties is much less during the period (again, the real slaughter happened when the losing side turned its back and ran). I wanted something with a different feel, something that could emphasize the chipping away of morale until a unit finally broke. But I didn't want to turn the thing into a marker-fest ala Great Battles of History, with each unit's morale state being tracked separately with little Cohesion Hit counters.

I also wanted to give the player an incentive to maintain a strong linear formation. Too many hex-and-counter wargames become about four or five units encircling one enemy, creating holes in their own line that no historical commander would risk. The units become anachronistically mobile, swinging around here and there, creating pockets. The baseline S&S II game tries to remedy this, to a degree, with its Wing Integrity rule governing Levies and Infantry, but there are few scenarios where that factors heavily (it gets its most use in Battles on the Ice and The Great Heathen Army).

What made the whole thing click - what caused the mental picture to come into focus - was a variation of that Wing Integrity rule, coupled with an unusual approach to combat and the usage of a square, rather than hexagonal, grid. There are folks who have a seemingly preternatural aversion to square grids in wargames, either because of the time-space distortion when moving diagonally, or because it reminds them too much of chess, draughts, and other abstract games.

My instinct wasn't to try to avoid the chess-like nature of a square grid, but to lean hard into it. I avoided the movement speed problem inherent in diagonals by making all movement, and combat, orthogonal. Because of this, when the two sides meet, there's usually only one unit adjacent to each enemy unit (compare to a hex grid, where there's usually at least two).

That doesn't mean that each unit is attacking singly. As in the medieval series, you have primary units and participating units. Here, the adjacent unit is your primary. All friendly full-strength units that are adjacent to the primary can potentially serve as participating units - this includes a unit that's behind the attacker and not actually in the frontline. Units are stronger when there are units on either side of them, and when there is depth to the formation.

This doesn't just apply to the strength of the attack, however, and here's the bit that really made the thing come together. When your side suffers a step loss, you can allocate the loss to the unit involved, or to an adjacent unit in the line. Eligible full-strength units must be flipped before any unit can be eliminated. In this way, the line itself becomes a "unit", and each step-loss gradually chips away at its cohesion until the other side forces it to break by attacking a unit with no full-strength units adjacent.

The moment one of your units is Eliminated, you immediately check for Rout for all your other units. Any unit that's adjacent to two or more friendly units of the same type are fine (this also discourages ahistorical "mixing" of unit types), and units that are adjacent to units that satisfy the first condition also pass the test. Any other units are immediately Eliminated. It's like Wing Integrity dialed up to eleven. It gives those lines staying power, while simultaneously making them quite brittle.

Because the emphasis is more on morale than combat death, reduced-strength units can potentially be Rallied (flipped to their full-strength side), with the caveat that in most circumstances, only the player with Initiative can perform a Rally Phase. Making these losses potentially reversible is meant to slow them down. The real losses don't come from Eliminating the units one at a time, but by breaking the enemy line at the right points and at the right time, causing Routs. Conversely, you have to work to maintain your own line, and you have a real incentive to keep it strong and intact.

That's the idea, anyway. We've just started playtesting and while there are a couple of tweaks to be made, on the whole I'm very happy with it; the decision space is quite crunchy and there's a real emphasis on force preservation and cohesion. The allocation of losses throughout the line gives a weird sort of illusion of maneuver even in the most static and straightforward of linear battles.


  • Looks interesting. It reminds me of WRG Wargames Rules 3000 B.C~ (70s & 80s 15mm miniatures ), with large block units, where depth and extra width in general did not increase attack value but helped units absorb more damage before breaking. Extra width did help a little in that some extra figures that extended a line unopposed got to attack. It was especially useful when they extend onto an opponents unshielded flank.

    Grant Morgan

  • I love the direction you are going! As you’ve described it, the process sounds as if it will feel “right”. Put me down as the second buyer.

    Brent Oman

  • Shhhh..and TAKE MY MONEYYYY!!!! May I be the FIRST BUYER!

    Kevin Sharp

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