Monday, 26 November 2018

Society of Ancients Conference 2018

Although I'm a stalwart of the WD annual weekend conference I've never attended the SoA equivalent, - not back in the 1980s, when it saw the launch of DBA, nor more recently when it was revived by Richard Lockwood. As Richard is a wargaming chum, and has been encouraging me to attend and run a session for at least two years, I finally caved in and said I'd go.

So it was, on a dark and slightly damp late November morning, I loaded up the car, and headed off to the Chesford Grange Hotel near Kenilworth for a weekend with the Ancients.

Unlike CoW the SoA conference has a structure where part of the day is started with a plenary lecture (this used to happen in the early days of CoW), which is then followed by breakout sessions where several games are on offer, that may or may not be linked to the talk.

We started with Mark Fry talking about Bronze Age chariots. He was very good, - focusing on how fast and light they were and how they are not battering rams. And how our previous MNG member, Ian, had beaten him to the punch in a recent article. Having wargamed with Ian for many years, and been on the receiving end of a lot of talk about Egyptian and Hittite chariots there wasn't anything particularly new to me in the talk, but it was a good summary of where we currently are in terms of thinking, and the rest of the audience seem to be interested and convinced. We then had a slightly awkward discussion about how you really need period specific rules, when the room had Phil & Sue Barker in it, the apostles of big period covering rules.

After the talk Mark ran a session called "Wheels of War", where he showed the progress he was making in adapting Wings of War/Glory to chariot warfare.

I'll say right here I think this is a good idea, but that I'd expect that some changes would be needed to enable people to handle a lots more vehicles.

Mark was using quite a few components straight out of the box, unmodified (eg the movement cards), which had some curious effects, as some chariots could perform a "rotary turn", and others couldn't. Not everyone had played WoW before, and Mark took us through it step by step. Duncan Head wasn't nearly as confused as he looks in this picture.

We were soon off in fine style, whirling around each other. I committed a faux pas by pulling out to my left, and then discovered my chariot has a very wide turning circle to get round to the right.

This is a view of the modified control board. The yellow markers are javelins, which are limited in supply, but deadly at close range. The other green markers are for horse and crew. I think this is probably overly fussy, and needs to be slimmed down a bit to enable multiple chariots to be handled easily.

It proved an entertaining game for those of us who took part

The green counters represent a wrecked chariot. There's soon going to be another one, as I rammed into the rear of an opponent, who lost speed due to damage.

I think Mark has got the right idea here, but needs to do some more development work. He needs bespoke cards, as using those for the planes has odd results. The manoeuvres could also be simplified in terms of the numbers of cards. We also had a bit too much dicing to determine who or what was hit. A deck of hit cards would solve that easily enough.

Not a bad start to the day.

Elsewhere people were playing Dux Bellorum, and Mortem et Glorium.

Richard was running the Dawn Raid game he'd playtested on us recently. You will note that the lesson he learned from that test was to get rid of any terrain. People seem to be enjoying it, but I heard some rumblings about how the scenario still resulted in a line up and hit them style battle. Well, it is a Shieldwall game I suppose.

I still don't get MeG, but again the players seemed to be fully engaged, apart from distractions outside the window.

We then had a break for lunch, which was a buffet in the hotel main dining room. I would say it was slightly below par in terms of variety available, and I would say that the catering was the most criticised part of the weekend. I was surprised, as I've been to many conference centres and hotels, and this was not at the better end for the reasons stated. As all I wanted was a light lunch, I was okay with a baked potato and some salad.

After lunch we got Matt Bennett and Roy Boss talking about Normans and Byantines, before heading off for more games. Matt and Roy ran several games based on the lecture theme using Armati, which I know has been their go-to set of rules over many years.

I opted for Simon MacDowell's rampaging Goth game "Somewhere in Gaul", which used his Comitatus rules.

This was a multi-player game that, alas, didn't get all of the roles filled which is never helpful. I got to play two hot-headed young Goths, being helped out by an older, wiser head. The aim of the scenario designer was to sew doubt and confusion amongst us, and have people passing messages and plotting. all of which duly happened.

Here's our Gothic raiding party heading up the road, looking for one last big score. We really needed to cross the river, but our scouting die rolls indicated that it was mostly impassable, except at the ford. I don't know if this was truly down to the die rolling, or if the aim was to funnel us to a big confrontation at the river crossing point.

Finally one party of hot-headed Goths tried to charge into the peasant village, but this ended in abject failure. and we started to skulk off as the game closed down.

It was an interesting attempt at a multi-facted multi-player game. I think that the table size was too big, as it took forever for messengers to get anywhere, and even moving as fast as we could we were unable to get our army close enough to fight the people we were supposed to fight (as opposed to our potential allies) in the time we had. Which was a shame, as I'd have liked to have seen Comitatus being used in anger in a bigger game.

We then had to take down the games, as we used one of the game rooms for the evening dinner. That meant shifting all the kit I'd brought in around, before rushing off to check in as we hadn't been able to check in on arrival, but had to wait until after 3pm.

We then all gathered in the bar, which was absolutely rammed with people on early Works Christmas Dinners, so I hastily put away any ideas of getting in some early evening pre-dinner games.

The company at dinner was convivial, and the service and food just about adequate. A consequence of the hotel being completely booked out most likely.

Once the cloth was drawn there was time to get in a few games. I ran "1460" and Call it Qids" and Phil ran "Gladiolus" using Andy Giting's original set. I think I got to bed about 12:30am.

Up early in the morning to get some breakfast and set up my game, the Matrix version of Hydaspes, as playtested a few weeks ago.

Breakfast was a hearty full English, with animated conversation, before heading off to hear Duncan Head talk about the Battle of Telemon as a primer for the 2019 battle day.

And then to the matrix game I'd set up. I needed 6 players, and just got them, although more people stopped by later to observe.

The game was a first exposure to the system for most of the participants. Matt Bennett said he'd played some with Paddy Griffith, which must have been an interesting experience, as I don't recall matrix games as being one of his strong suits.

Most people got it, and Phil S helping out with developing arguments contributed massively to it all going well. I could see at least one or two of the players and watchers having the revelatory moment, so I think I've made some new converts to the Church of Martixia.

The highlights include Mark Fry's Alexander falling to a glorious death, following being severely wounded. He never really got Alexander moving effectively, despite his best efforts, being too easily distracted on sideshows.

We ran out of time, but not, I'm pleased to say, before Porus mounted his elephant and turned the tide with his Maiden Guards. It was possibly a bit ambitious as a game for complete newbies, given the amount of time we had and the slight overrun on the plenary session.

Lunch was again not great, but no matter, off to play more games.

Only to discover that the game of "To The Strongest" I'd been hoping to get involved in after lunch had been run in the morning, and was being packed away so the person running it could make an early get away. Curses.

Still, no worries, a chance to try Richard L's Dux Bellorum version for the Macedonian and Persian wars based on squares.

This worked really well, despite my misgivings about overusing favoured rules systems for periods they're not written for. We were helped by better command and control through extra LPs which not everyone found to their liking.

And then it was time to go home after a full couple of days, heading off into a very dark November evening.

Final thoughts? It was excellent to meet up with some old friends and make some new ones, and days spent wargaming are seldom wasted as was the case here. I think if I had any criticisms I would have less if I had never been to CoW, which is the gold standard for a residential wargaming weekend

Sharing the venue with other users didn't add to the experience. The SoA has an issue here in that it needs to get attendees up to over 40 for the entire weekend, from a number here of 29, (not all of whom did both days). If they can do that then somewhere like Knuston can be completely booked out for the event, which gives much greater flexibility.  (44 people signed up for CoW this year which guaranteed full occupancy for the venue and total control)

The next issue is increasing the number of sessions and variety. CoW had nearly 40% of participants running a session. It's clearly an event put on by those who attend. The SoA version had a similar proportion, but with a lower number of people attending there's inevitably less variety and fewer games to fill the time. This puts a lot of strain on the organiser, with Richard L putting on things because he needed to fill the time. That's not saying quality suffered, because it didn't, but it did mean Richard hardly got a break. More than one person talked to me about their own club rules they use that fixed some of the problems we discussed. I hope those people will run a game next year. In addition pretty much everything on show with one or two exceptions were face to face traditional table top wargames.

I think we need more slots for little games. I've already mentioned the overcrowded bar, where I thought we might be able to find a corner and roll some dice, but simply not possible. I know Richard is going to look for another venue, so I wish him well with is search. The formal dinner is a nice idea, but much as I like a good sit down meal in the evening, regardless of quality I don't want to spend over 2 hours at dinner if I can get in a couple more games I haven't played before. Or maybe even some that I have.

And I would like to be able to start on the Friday evening, but not at the price that the hotel was charging.

That all sounds a bit negative, which is not how it is supposed to be. Richard has done a great job resurrecting the event, and getting it running for three years. I think it needs to kick on and I also think it can. I expect to be back next year, and if we start the Friday evening, I'll put on a couple of full daytime sessions, plus I'll do a plenary talk too (probably with Phil S), otherwise if it is just Saturday & Sunday I'll do a game and a plenary. I've got a decent back catalogue of ancient period game designs which might make people think. Enough to last me a few years easily.

In summary:

Would I go again? - Yes.
Would I recommend you to go if you are interested in ancient wargaming? - Most definitely yes. This year was really good, but it can be even better.


  1. I had hoped to go this year but ran out of holidays. It is a bit of a trip down from Falkirk. It would be easier to attend if it was away from the darker and wetter months - ideally April to September possibly March or October. I organise a multi game 1 day event myself (100 Years of War - 20th century wargaming) and know what a pain it can be to match people to games. It does involve a certain amount of placing people in games - if people can just wander up as they wish it just wouldn't work.

    1. I agree on the time of year. It was a very dark wet drive home, and I only had 45 minutes of it. I think September would be a better choice.

  2. Excellent recap of your weekend. Thanks!

    1. You're welcome. It was a good couple of days.

  3. The chariot lecture and WoW sounds interesting. Is current thinking still, that chariots turned away like skirmishing cavalry? I often wondered if they interpenetrated and turned after. Either, I think, would be difficult if mass chariots were operating. But it has to be one or the other.

    1. I can't speak for "current thinking" but Mark was of the view that they could turn quite quickly on the spot if needed. In the game we obviously had a lot of space between vehicles. I would think that they must have been in an open formation. Being closely packed is asking for trouble.

  4. Most enjoyable to read your report. At times like this I wish I lived a little closer to the UK!

    I like the idea of using matrix arguments in a battle game. Had been considering something along those lines for a holiday season game day over here.


    1. Do you have a copy of De Matrica Bellae? It was a Society resubscription game. It might still be available. I now use squares but otherwise the system is pretty much the same.

    2. No, I don't; I joined the year after, I think.

    3. Seems to be out of stock too on the Website. If the committee ask me nicely I'll do a second edition for them.