Asculum, 279 BC, 1 April 2012

Preamble

No, not an April Fool’s joke, but a genuine play of Asculum using the Lost Battles historical setup.

We played twice properly, swapping sides, having played once on Saturday with so many rules mistakes that we discounted that game (we were both very tired having been playing various board games on Friday night with late night and early rising to follow). We’re both experienced wargamers and have crossed swords many times. I strongly suspect that Bart may be the better player, so I have to go with the virtue of experience over ability.

In game one I was the Greeks, Bart the Romans. We were playing with Favour of the Gods, in an attempt to iron out some of the more extravagant combat dice results. Asculum pits an early Roman legionary army against a later Greek one that includes phalanxes (but not hoplites), a smattering of elephants, together with significantly strong cavalry. A major difference is in the leadership with Pyrrus an inspiring leader for the Greeks versus a couple of uninspiring Roman commanders, Decius and Saverius.

Game on!

My plan was relatively cautious. Although I was stronger in cavalry, it seemed to me that the power of the Greek phalanxes and veteran cavalry with the inspiring Pyrrhus in the middle ought to be enough to overwhelm the legions, while the primary danger of defeat lay in the Romans winning with their cavalry on one or other of the flanks. So my plan was to neutralise both flanks and crush the legions in the centre.

As the elephants (the Greeks have 2 x Indian elephant units) are at an advantage against cavalry, I moved them out to each flank to support the existing cavalry and discourage Bart from advancing on either flank. I advanced my whole centre line joining up with the 3 units that start in a forward position. This helps a lot on the right centre, which thus has 4 phalanx units forming 2 powerful attack blocks against heavy infantry. The Roman legions moved up to meet me in the centre, facing about their cavalry on the flanks but not advancing it. Whichever one of us advanced their cavalry first would be subject to a move and attack, so it didn’t seem to be in either of our interests to take the risk at that point.

I launched attacks along the line to commence the destruction of the legions. I had some very good combat dice rolls, with a couple of double hits by committing to all-out attacks. Interestingly he hadn’t screened his legions with the Light Infantry (perhaps misunderstanding the rules) and I recall that he moved them to support the cavalry instead. That meant he took the two hits each time on the legions. Unfortunately for me, his counter-attacks were successful and I had a phalanx and a heavy infantry shattered.

Although the early exchanges were roughly even, it was clear that the Greeks had an easier time of it – Pyrrus giving 4 exemptions is key to the Greek advantage, on top of the phalanx bonuses, only partially off-set by the defensive bonus of fresh legions. With inactive flanks the Greeks could afford to spend command points like water to give attack bonuses (especially as I rolled well on the extra dice most times). The following couple of turns were very one sided with the legions taking a hammering (all but one were spent), whereas only 3 Greek units became spent. I was waiting for the moment to unleash the Guard cavalry to complete the victory.

The Romans knew the battle was lost, so Bart decided to minimise the defeat and withdraw before I could shatter his army. As I hadn’t advanced on the flank of any of his legions, he took advantage of the free 180 degree turn, which enabled him to disengage. He sensibly covered the withdrawal of his battle line with his cavalry, swinging both cavalry units from his right flank into the centre to prevent my veterans from thundering into the rear of the legions. I wasn’t able to shatter either of the shielding units, though both became spent. He then had enough command points to abandon the field without further loss, ending with only a couple of fresh units but none shattered.

First Decision Point

Totting up the points, we found that the Greeks had achieved a major game victory by 92 points to 58. Bart was rather unhappy that he was effectively forced to withdraw by some rather excellent Greek combat rolls, and there was some truth in that.

Middle-amble

Later in the day we reversed sides. We’d discussed the first game, and Bart thought that maybe leaving the Romans on their base line might be a good tactic – if they didn’t advance, then the Greeks wouldn’t get the first infantry attack, and if the Romans could inflict some early casualties, they might have a chance, whereas if it went pear-shaped they could get away more quickly. I thought this was a bit of a defeatist approach, as you would be conceding the morale effect of losing the centre spaces without a fight.

My plan in this second game was to try out a regular Roman attack suggested by the deployment, namely push forward in the middle, and use the cavalry on the flanks to force a way past one or other flank and turn on the relatively inflexible phalanxes from flank or rear.

Game Two!

In fact, this was what happened, except *to* the Romans rather than *by* the Romans. Bart-Pyrrus reinforced his right flank cavalry with a second veteran cavalry unit from the centre and pushed them forward. In the centre I covered the legions with the Light Infantry, which gave the latter a little bit of protection, while Bart led with the eflephants – requiring only 1 command for an attack bonus is a significant advantage, expecially as they can be withdrawn if spent. Unfortunately for me the Greeks again got the best dice rolls. I attempted to fight my way forward with my right flank cavalry, so that I would have a similar advantage to his likely win on my left. I also tried a manoeuvre by withdrawing my right centre, to lure him into a very shaky (for me) trap, hoping that my right flank cavalry would win and could attack him in the front and flank at the same time. Withdrawal also saved me a command point that I could use for boosting the cavalry attack. I also hoped to gain some points advantage as he was leading with the elephants (4 points, as opposed to 3 for his infantry).

It didn’t work. Not only did my cavalry fail to sweep away the enemy cavalry, my left flank cavalry were minced in very short order, and I soon found 3 units of fresh cavalry behind me. Saverius withdrew some legionaries in good order covered by the right flank cavalry, leaving Decius to his fate. 30 points were shattered (doubled to 60 of course in the final count).

Second Decision Point

The result was 116 to 74, so although the Romans had inflicted more damage than in the previous game, they taken proportionately more through not being able to withdraw as quickly, owing to the Greeks pushing through the left flank.

It’s all Greek

Overall we both enjoyed the games a lot, and we were finding in the second game that it was relatively easy to remember the combat modifiers. The influence of broad tactical decisions is striking – for example overlapping a flank with cavalry effectively prevents a large infantry group from withdrawing without taking inordinate losses, so the flank engagements are critical (and correctly so). Timing of advances and withdrawals, even in a battle as relatively simple as Asculum (no terrain and at least the Romans haven’t got complicated troop types), presents difficult decisions. Because the luck of combat can be a swing factor (in both games the Greeks got the better dice rolls), both players were trying to mitigate the risks by getting every ounce out of the available command points and combat modifiers. There were some really agonising decisions about whether to commit to an all out attack, especially for the weaker Romans, and about whether to give up the Favour of the Gods. Keeping the Favour was a good tactic, because it denied your opponent the use of it to re-roll poor dice.

As a result of the two games (admittedly not a large sample), we would suggest that the Romans may have had some additional advantage at Asculum from somewhere, either in terms of numbers, effectiveness or terrain, otherwise a long attritional battle seems unlikely. Both our games were over by Turn 6 I think. It might be interesting to give the Romans a smattering of veterans for example. Or alternatively the historical Greeks were just not as good on the day as our Greeks were. The phalanxes (in pairs) are good against the legions. Pyrrus’ exemptions mean that the Greeks are rarely stretched for command points, whereas the Romans often are. So leadership was a major factor here, with Pyrrus’ Guard cavalry a potential battle winner. I wonder if Pyrrus was perhaps reluctant to commit his high quality cavalry? If this might have been the case, then perhaps the Greeks could be deprived of some veteran cavalry to reflect this. However, our battles demonstrated that it does take quite a lot to beat down the legions, and in both games significant numbers were able to withdraw in good order when defeat looked inevitable.

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