If It Ain't Broke...

A game organiser's report from the Society of Ancients Battle Day 3rd April 2004

VB is a relatively new set of rules for the Ancient and Medieval period.  Now just over a year old, the SoA Battle Day seemed a perfect opportunity to take them for a serious spin! 

A big-game re-fight based on an historical encounter would test both VB’s accuracy of simulation and how well the game actually plays.  As the author of the system, I was hoping that the test wouldn’t be to destruction!

That Figures

The first test was to see if we could produce game OB’s from the historical OB’s given in the Battle Pack.

VB uses nice chunky bases carrying between 7-12 infantry or 4-6 cavalry, with, for example, a close order infantry base representing 720-1020 actual men and a horse-archer base representing 240-320 men.  Working the rosters out from this gave a battle just too big to cope with, so I decided to halve the scale to one where, for example, a close order infantry base would represent 1400-2000 men, and a horse-archer base, 480-640 men.

This produced a game of about 300 figures a side:  something that we could not only supply figures for but also fit onto a 12’x6’ table!

Although the number of figures was the same for each side, the Makedonians ended up with about 250 infantry figures and 50 cavalry figures, and the Persians, interestingly, almost exactly the opposite.  The Persians also out-pointed the Makedonians, and had many more bases at their disposal.  The notes below give a more detailed breakdown:

Persians:  1700 points          Makedonians:  1300 points

 83 bases                                             46 bases

 256 cavalry                                        60 cavalry

42 foot                                                 272 foot

The size of the game can be seen from the fact that a typical evening’s game would have about 4-600 points a side!

Troop definitions were no problem, VB allows for all troop types fielded, and the only special rules I used were also from the rule book:  the defeat conditions “All Gone” and “Big Man Down” meaning that the Persians of any one wing would retreat if it lost 60% of its bases, or if Darius was killed or fled.

A Cast of Thousands

The game was to be played in 15mm, with three people providing the figures.  My Assyrians (Essex); Greeks and Makedonians (Tin Soldier) and Sassanids (also Essex) would be joined by the Greeks and Persians (a mix of Xyston and Essex) of Andy Bryant of AB Painting; and the Persians (Essex) of John Hills.

This left us short about 50 horse archers, which I painted up in the three weeks remaining before the battle.  I think it safe to say that I never want to paint another horse archer again.

Disaster almost struck when Andy discovered that the event clashed with a family wedding that he was under orders to attend, but such was his dedication to the cause that he posted his figures to me, at ludicrous cost I might add, well in time for the game.

We also managed to miscount the number of General’s chariots needed, so Darius took to field mounted on his trusty war-mammoth (from Black Raven Foundry’s pseudo-Assyrian Ishtar range), which he refused to abandon on the day despite the kind offers of spare chariots from the other game organisers present!

Initial Deployment

Not having had all the figures in one place before the day itself, I was a bit nervous about whether we would be able to set the bases up as required by the scenario.

In the event, however, there were no problems at all.  Not only did the Persian line neatly fit into the 12’ width with enough manoeuvre room on either side to allow their intended envelopment, but we were able to line up the Macedonians exactly as shown on the Battle pack’s deployment map i.e. opposite specific Persian units.

For me this was a vindication of my decision to use the basing system that VB does.  Two armies fielded to correct historical numbers scale were able to be set up to correct historical ground scale.

The Game’s Afoot

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of each game.  I’m leaving that up to some of the players, who have promised to get scribbling as soon as possible. 

Suffice to say that in the first game the Makedonian players surrendered the initiative to the Persians and paid the ultimate penalty:  being enveloped and overwhelmed as the Companions sat in the middle of the field polishing their helmets!  In the second game, however, the Makedonians attacked boldly, and were well on their way to defeating the Persian hoardes at close of play.

As for analysing how well the rules coped, the first thing to say was that I was amazed at how easily the rules played given the size of the forces involved.  The morning game, with two players each side (three experienced, one new to the game) reached a resolution in only 3½ hours.  The afternoon game (same as above, but with a different “new” player) was two thirds through after two hours. 

What really made the difference was the surprising way players coped with one of the key elements of VB:  command and control. 

In a standard game, players usually control a Sub-General who controls 3-5 Leaders each controlling a brigade of 4-5 bases.  Orders are issued down the chain of command, with players able to issue orders right down to each individual base. 

In the Gaugamela game, each player was controlling two or three Sub-Generals, with large numbers of Leaders and a myriad of bases, particularly on the Persian side.  I was therefore expecting the “Issue Orders” phase of the game to perhaps be a fairly tortuous affair. 

I was wrong. 

The players, without any encouragement from me or collusion between themselves, each took their own command focus up one level:  instead of issuing orders to individual bases, they issued orders to individual brigades.  This, if you like, was the equivalent of a divisional commander being promoted to a corps commander and recognising that it was no longer his job to issue exact tactical orders for each unit, but more to give overall direction to the battle. 

On reflection, this is something that I am very pleased with:  it really shows how VB is all about command and control and not about who can measure nanometres and acute angles the most accurately.  That’s not a dig at DBx, I hasten to add, just an emphasis that VB is about playing the battle, not the rules.

Otherwise, game mechanics held up well, although I must admit that a referee (me) considerably helped the speed of play.


One of the questions I’m expected to answer in this piece is whether VB needed any rule changes to give a better historical feel to the game.

Although none were made specifically for the day, I do feel it fair to point out that the game we played was VB with the official amendments that have been added over the last twelve months.

These include increasing the lethality of pikes verses cavalry, and increasing the move-and-fire skills of horse archers.  The game would not have played as well without these amendments, so I’m pleased that I adopted them when they were suggested by the VB Yahoo Group (!) and they’ll appear as standard in any future editions.

We also dispensed with long drawn out disappearances of routing bases.  Once a base was well routed, we removed it from the table immediately rather than seeing it gradually disappearing off into the horizon.  The experienced players knew when a base was not likely to rally, and were happy just to do away with them directly.


Overall the Battle Day was a great success for Vis Bellica.  The rules gave two great games that seemed to simulate history as much as a game ever can.

My thanks to Nik and Richard for organising the day, to Phil and Duncan for the talks they gave, and to the painters and players who made it possible:  my brother, Richard; Michael Tittensor (aka Thurlac); John Hills; Andy Bryant; Steve; and Phil (Steele).

Just make sure the next SoA Battle Day’s battle doesn’t have any horse archers in it!

Robert Avery