Friday, 14 October 2011

Polemos SPQR Again

The game we tried with Polemos SPQR last week was like many first games with new rules. Quite halting with flicking backwards and forwards to find out what should be going on. So entirely consistent with Black Powder and rules that I’ve written myself sometimes (it is so embarrassing when one of your players finds something you’ve written that contradicts what you’ve just said in a game).

We were sufficiently intrigued by Polemos SPQR to want a further look at it, hopefully with less flicking through the rule book, so I sat down with President Steele on Wednesday evening to give it another go. Between us (well mostly Phil) we’re familiar with a good number of ancient rules sets, - FoG, Armati, DBM, DBMM, DBA, AMW, Impetus, Conquerors & Kings and I think Piquet. That gives us a fairly wide frame of reference for thinking about how it works as a game, which allied to our deep knowledge of the period means we’re perfect to opine on the game system.

We used the Roman and German armies we tried last week (see “SPeaQeRs Corner”) with me taking the Romans and Phil the Germans. The armies have 20 bases a piece and are standard from the Polemos rule book except I don’t have any bolt throwers so I substituted some more archers.

I spiced up the battlefield by putting out a few small woods and consequently I deployed my auxilia as unformed rather than formed troops. This is a nice feature of the rules that enables you to use auxilia either as cheap legionaries or civilized irregulars.

I don’t know what came over me really, but I put auxilia in the woods on the two wings, deployed the archers on the left wing of my legions and held my cavalry back in reserve. Phil put his tribal groups in three central blocks, his skirmishers in the wood on his right and his cavalry on his left.

Being a Roman means that you get a number of advantages if you have the tempo against a tribal opponent. It makes it harder for him to move his units and you have the initiative in combat which often works in your favour. I like the real benefits in having the initiative and going first. This contrasts with my normal favoured set of rules, Armarti, where winning the initiative usually means making your opponent go first.

First move. We're using markers to indicate what units are doing
I got the “tempo” first and moved off mostly along the whole line. My use of too many points to buy the tempo meant I couldn’t move everything. Phil responded with a staggered advance as it’s a bit awkward to get everyone moving if you are an unformed army moving second as it costs you more tempo points. Phil also started his experimental idea of shifting his cavalry into the wooded area “to see what would happen”.

I won’t do a blow-by-blow account of the game, as in spite of my best efforts to take notes and photograph every turn I just got swept up in the game and forgot. Plus, as I’ve said before, I find that type of battle report quite irritating.

Polemos is an odd beast. It is definitely very big picture stuff all along the line, with simple, bold concepts. The move sequence and the tempo bidding rather means you are micro managing a macro picture which feels a bit odd. By this I mean you give a lot of thought to what you are going to do with your tempo points but all foot units moves at the same speed (same for cavalry), for example.

A few turns in. You get the picture.
In the game Phil managed to get to grips with the light troops holding up my left flank even though their shooting and skirmishing had been effective though brief. On my centre right I took the revolutionary step of charging tribal units* with my legions. As a tactic this paid dividends in the end, but it was a protracted slog that ebbed and flowed before the tribal group was finally broken.

The moment just before all my archers ran away
Having disposed of my archers it looked like the German heavy foot was through, so I threw in one of my cavalry units to hold them up, which had mixed effect. i.e. It did hold them up, but they did suffer quite badly. On my right the tangled engagement between auxilia and German cavalry was in the balance, as the auxilia on the left put in a flank charge on a tribal group and caused some serious damage. When we finished the game I was just trying to position my last reserve cavalry group to stage a desperate charge to stop my centre being flanked.

In the balance...who has the advantage?
The second game gives me an opportunity for further reflection. We may not be playing it right still, and I have a number of questions that require me to go back to the rule book when I have more time to think. The game does play differently to the mainstream games such as FoG, DBx and Armati. I had less of a problem with this than Phil who is more deeply steeped in the genre than I am. He remarked on a number of occasions that the rules don’t work in line with how things are usually done. He particularly didn’t like the way a flank attack caused a sideways recoil resulting in a unit being destroyed. The rules indicate that this is intentional and it made sense to me at the time, but I also understand Phil's point that it just isn't done.

So do I want to revise my previous view? Not really. If you want something different and you are interested in Romans & their enemies then give these a go. The turns pass quite quickly, but to my mind “fast play” really comes from familiarity with rules a lot of the time. The battles look like ancient battles, and the units lumber around how they probably would have done. There’s little opportunity for “cheesy” or “gamey” moves, whether intentionally allowed by the rules or by accident due to poorly thought out systems. The system is broad brush and it is best to go with it. As for whether they are a set of rules purpose designed for 6mm, well, they work fine with 15mm and I can’t see why they shouldn’t with my 20mm plastics as well.

I think I’d have to say that we are unlikely to play them a lot more as a group. As I indicated above we do play a few different sets of ancient rules already, so the appetite to learn another set is probably limited. I think that is a shame but we have other projects on the go (including finishing the SNTK/SCW re-write, producing the SCW operational system and whatever goes with the “mystery army”), so fitting them in the schedule will be a challenge.

Finally, however, I hope they find an audience as they are obviously a set of rules and a subject the writer (and Pete Berry) care about and new ideas need to be aired from time to time. A lot of the conventions in modern rule sets were revolutionary once. Go on, club together with your mates and buy a copy or two.

*NB Polemos doesn’t do “warband”


  1. Thanks for posting this and the previous review post. I got these rules when they first came out. My favourite two Ancient rules are Armati and Rally Round the King but am familar with loads. I have not had a chance to play Polemos Ancients but have read them and am intrigued enough to want to play. They do have enough different mechanisms to be interesting. Also good to see other people's views of rules. Your posts have made me want to try Polemos Ancients out even more!

  2. In which case I'd say don't put it off, sit down and play them. It's a bit difficult playing solo as they tempo bidding becomes a bit pointless (!) but you might want to just step through the mechanisms with figures on the table first.