Terry Gore, Editor, interviews Robert Avery for Saga magazine
Robert Avery’s Vis Bellica rules were published in November 2002.
With its good-looking chunky elements, and emphasis on command and control rather than rolling dice or exact angles and measurements, Vis Bellica has gained quite a following.
Terry Gore talks to the Author…
Let’s start with an easy question. How did you come to write Vis Bellica?
Well, about four years ago I’d been playing 19th Century for ages and needed a change. Looking for inspiration, I read Steven Pressfield’s excellent book Gates of Fire, a fictionalised account of the Spartan defence of Thermopylae, and was inspiredto return to Ancients.
Trouble was, I couldn’t then find a set of rules that I liked.
I’d last played Ancients using WRG 6th, but this no longer suited the way I wanted to play. I had a brief look at DBM, DBx, and WHAB, played a game or two, but nothing really turned me on. It's not that they are bad systems (far from it) it's just that they didn't quite do it for me.
So I wrote my own.
This time, however, not wanting to repeat the gross plagiarism I'd done for the 19thC games (I’d been using a self-adapted version of the Johnny Reb system) I decided to start again right from the beginning with nothing but a series of ideas and a blank piece of paper. Two years and a lot of play-testing later…Vis Bellica.
You say that systems such as DBx and WHAB don’t suit the way you want to play. What do you mean?
Well, I want rules that are simple to pick up, but allow for an infinite complexity of play. I’m not talking Snakes & Ladders, you understand, or even Chess, but certainly something simpler than most available systems.
I also didn’t want to play glorified skirmish games where game scale bears no resemblance to figure or ground scale. I wanted big games with a hundred or so figures a side: games which I could actually relate to reality rather than tabletop encounters where the only thing that counts is having the latest super-figure on show or knowing what it says in line seven of paragraph three of sub-section two of section eight etc.
Let’s talk basing: one of the main gripes about VB is that it doesn’t use standard basing. Do you ever wish you had done so?
I must confess that it really gets my goat when people talk about “standard basing” for the Ancients period. What they actually mean, of course, is “standard basing for the DBx system”.
When I sat down and wrote Vis Bellica, I started with the list of aims and objectives listed in the Introduction to the rulebook. I had no preconceptions as to base sizes, just an idea that I'd like chunky elements, and certainly wasn't aware that there was this "standard base size" idea in the Ancients period. That came as quite a surprise to me: think Sylvester Stallone coping with not being allowed to swear in Demolition Man!
The Vis Bellica base sizes come direct from ground-scale calculated from trying to represent an Augustan Roman legion. They represent correct ground and figure scale for the number of men that they represent. The legion, for example, is five close order infantry bases: the first base represents the double strength first cohort, and the other four bases represent cohorts II - IX in pairs. Cohort X provides the explorates, camp guards, artillery crews, and replacements for casualties in the other cohorts.
Yes, understood, but do you ever wish you had stuck with the standard DBx basing system?
Well, perhaps part of me does: but only from a commercial point ofview (in that the base sizing may be a barrier to people trying/buying the rules) but, as I've said in the past, VB will work with almost any base sizes as long as both armies follow the same convention and, with a little bit of care, even if they don't.
VB doesn't really rely on exact angle and distance measurements that much, so small differences in base sizes don't really matter. The rulebook and web-site also has several different ways of adapting figures based for other systems.
Command and control is a big part of your system. How does it work?
Bases are grouped together as ‘brigades’ that report to officers that report to more senior officers.
Each officer has a die-roll worth of command points. These are used to change a base or more junior officer’s orders, or are passed on to junior officers for their own use. Orders can be given outside the chain of command, but at double the normal cost.
Every officer and base must always have one of four orders - Attack, Forward, Hold or Retreat – and keeps following their orders until they’re changed. If you’ve committed troops to the attack, for example, it takes command points to stop them.
Sounds easy, but you also need command points to re-order your troops after they’ve fought hand-to-hand, moved over difficult terrain or outside normal limits, and to rally them from shaken or routed.
This means that each turn involves a challenging allocation of command points. Do you order forward your reserves or rally your weakening centre? Do you urge forward your flank attack, or help the pikemen across the river? This is the main challenge of the game: even for those generals fielding so-called ‘regular’ armies
How would you describe the “feel” of the game as a player?
Well, I think players should feel like generals rather than game players.
Most of your time is spent not in measuring distances or consulting tables or rolling dice, but actually in working out what orders to issue.
You actually get games where what happens on the tabletop is very like what actually happens in historical battles. In playtesting, for example, using a variety of different armies, we accidentally re-created what happened at Cannae, Grannicus, Cynoscephalae and Agincourt. It’s just a pity that I always seem to be on the receiving end!
Is it difficult to publish a set of rules?
In theory, it isn’t, but, in practice, as you well know, it is!
If you can write rules, then any modern PC is powerful enough to set them in a professional manner, but you’ll find your main difficulty is in finding images to go with the text. If you can’t draw, then you’re talking photography. If you go for photography, you need a digital camera and enough well-painted figures from a large enough range of armies to look good. Setting them into your text can be a pain too.
Play-testing can also be a really painful process. Watching people pull apart your carefully constructed mechanics or paragraphs is soul-destroying, and the domino effect of changing a rule connected to others can go on for ever. I severely underestimated the amount of playtesting needed for Vis Bellica: my desire to write a simple-yet-subtle system left a number of things that needed tightening up in a big way.
The next thing is to find a printer. That’s easy - it’s just like finding a plumber or painter – but it’s when you actually have the boxes of rules delivered to your house that the fun really starts.
First you have to get publicity for the rules, which is very labour intensive. Thenyou have to work out a way of selling them. Then, and here we come to the really tough bit, you have to let people play them!
What do you mean?
Well, some wargamers are often very devoted to the rules that they play, and very, shall we say, protective of them. This can take the form of really quite vitriolic attacks on other systems…especially presumptuous newcomers! Fortunately, most wargamers aren’t like that, but the few who are tend to shout louder than anyone else!
Reviewers can be very harsh as well. I’ve been lucky with Vis Bellica, but I have read reviews of other systems that made me wince. Funnily enough, just to illustrate my point, the worst review that I’ve had was from someone who confessed that they’d never actually played the game, just read through the rules and fiddled with a few figures on their own. You’ve got to have a thick skin to publish rules.
What about the financial side of thing? Has Vis Bellica made you any money?
You have got to be kidding!
If I wanted to be a rich man, publishing a set of wargaming rules is not the way to do it! Vis Bellica, at the moment at any rate, is definitely a labour of love.
The wife is also threatening to divorce me if I have one more set of twenty or so boxes delivered for storage at the house!
Firstly to finish and publish the third book of army lists. Then there’s Vis Magica, the fantasy equivalent, which is written and play-tested, but not formatted and designed.
After that…well, I think a 19th Century version might be forthcoming!
To finish, give me one phrase that sums up your rules?
In summary, players should find Vis Bellica simple to pick up but full of subtle depths that give great game play.
Can I also say that the official website, www.visbellica.com, is growing almost daily, and is a great source of news, scenarios, battle reports, and so on. There’s also a great Yahoo Discussion Group: even if they do keep asking me difficult questions about why I did this with that rule or army list!
Thanks for the opportunity of saying the above.