Apologies for the lateness of this report, but I promised I wouldn't post it until after the various pieces had appeared within Slingshot, the magazine of the Society of Ancients!On Saturday 16th April 2005, that excellent organisation, The Society of Ancients, held their second Battle Day in Milton Keynes.  Last year, the featured battle was Gaugamela, where Alexander trashed the Persians, this year it was to be the Sambre:  Julius Caesar verses what seemed like every Gaul in the world!

The report, below, is presented as it was in Slingshot:

Umpire's Introduction (Robert Avery)

We decided to fight the battle in 15mm at a figure scale double that of a normal game i.e. an open order base would represent approx. 1,300 figures rather than the usual 650, and each pair of Roman legions would be five bases rather than ten. This still meant that we needed 20 bases of Romans (240 figures) and 73 bases of Belgae (657 figures). That's a lot of Romans and an awful lot of Gauls!

No matter, rosters were drawn up as soon as the battle pack was available, and a series of marathon painting sessions begun. JohnHills, James Forrest and Robert Avery provided the Belgae (John and James providing around 25 baess/225 figures each, with Robert providing the rest courtesy of Andy Bryant's excellent AB Painting service), with the Romans provided by John, James and Mike Tittensor.

That many figures requires a big table and a lot of players. On the day, we fought over a massive 12 ft by 6ft terrain, with John, James, Mike and VB newbie Derek Boyle as the Gauls; and Chris Lowe and Steve Austin as the Romans. Finally, there was a highly anachronistic siege train wending its way along one edge of the table (in theory straight back from the Roman edge) consisting of some wagons, a group of time-traveling Christian monks, and two huge Assyrian siege towers: those Gallic hill forts are tough to take!

As with the Gauagamela game last year, I didn't need to make any adjustments to the rules specifically for the Sambre battle.

Units in Vis Bellica can only move in accordance with their orders, which can only be changed by an officer with appropriate command points. Simulating the Roman start position was therefore easy: the individual bases of each pair of legions were scattered around their sector of the battlefield, on hold orders, with the foraging bases being in disorder as well.

That meant that before each pair of legions became an effective fighting force, their officers had to gather them together, remove their disorder, and change their orders as appropriate.  That’s a lot of command points needed, especially in the face of the advance of the Belgic hordes!

However, these were Romans, so I was able to give them plenty of officers. That meant that they should be able to react as they did historically (i.e. have time to get into position to fight the Gauls) but that there was a chance that they wouldn’t. Likewise, I gave the Gauls the minimum number of officers possible, which meant that their command would be badly coordinated and always trying to play catch-up to the hopefully rapid and decisive actions of their enemy.

Player's Introduction (James Forrest)

On first hearing about this event I knew I had to go for it even though it meant committing myself to buying and painting a whole new army within 4 months.

I, still a newbie gamer who had only two wargames under my belt:  well, three if I counted that AWI participation game at Partizan 2004 where I looked after the British artillery for 20 minutes while the player wandered off to get a burger.

But I couldn’t resist the concept of a gaming day where proponents of different rule sets fought separately the same battle according to their own cherished systems all in the same room then got to compare notes afterwards. What an opportunity to see and learn!

Once I had impulsively committed myself to the others on the VB Yahoo group I should really have sat back and thought about what I had let myself in for. For one thing, I had never painted a single 15mm figure before let alone 350 of them. What if I couldn’t do it? But that’s one of the great things about being new at anything: ignorance is bliss. Like a raw recruit to the trenches, I was full of enthusiasm.


Buying the figures was easy, I have never had any trouble spending money.  My kids looked on with interest as Dad’s evenings began to be spent ruining his eyesight and cutting his fingertips cleaning out flash from miniature armpits and groins. That was the tedious part, but I got through it as quickly as possible by taking quantities to work with me to clean up during lunch breaks. I was relieved to find that painting wasn’t too difficult, but slow, I was too slow! It took me a whole week to do my first base of twelve Romans. The feeling of triumph was tempered by the knowledge that I would never be ready in time at this rate! Luckily an appeal to the Yahoo group gave me loads of tips so I soon streamlined everything into a conveyer belt system that saw units finished at four times my original speed.

My wife looked on in growing horror as my stuff began to pile up all around the house. “It’s much quicker if I don’t have to keep getting it out of the shed every time, love” I placated her. “It’s only till April, anyway, then I’ll do the tiling in the bathroom I promise!”

One thing I would recommend to any newbie is to be part of a group or club, even if like me you are only connected by internet most of the time and don’t meet face to face often.  Talking to others about the project kept my enthusiasm high throughout.

The Day

The day finally dawned, with everything painted and based on time including a few trees. My travel arrangements were sorted weeks before and thanks, Nik, for the lift!

Walking into the hall, “the Boss”, Robert Avery , and John are already setting up the table. I look carefully at all the other wargamers as they arrive. Short ones, tall ones, young and old, bald or hairy, one or two unhealthy looking specimens to be sure, but mostly just normal looking blokes. With one exception to prove the rule, we are all male.  To outsiders we are all anoraks, but who cares? Today Caesar’s legions march again.

There is a good feeling in the air, a sense of coming together for something a bit special. I try to get around and talk to a few people from other games in between helping set up and greeting my VB friends, who I have only met once previously, but as always time gallops by when you’re having fun.

The differences in terrain set-ups from the same basic battle map were interesting. Ranging from a no expense spared 12ft X 6ft layout carried in 3 pieces and worthy of a Hollywood film set (the WAB group) to painted carpet tiles (cheap but very heavy I was told by the Strategos team) to ABSOLUTELY no expense spared at all (that was us!): green cloth and separate trees and hedges.

I scrutinized closely all the figures I could to see what the general standard was. Mine were within the limits of acceptability I was relieved to see. I had maybe overdone the groundwork a bit; mine looked like they were wading through a paddy field. I was surprised though that apart from the plastic 20mm figures from the Matrix game, mine were the only gloss varnished figures.  Seems most gamers prefer matt and some don’t varnish at all!  Nobody seemed to be “precious” with their figures.

We piled into the bar for Phil Sabin`s introductory talk. For me, who knows almost nothing about anything, this was a most valuable briefing which helped set the scene of the battle. His talk was concise and to the point, as a good briefing should be. His emphasis on the importance of the march times as a factor in the actual battle was to be proved correct in our re-fight.

Although it didn’t happen until one o’clock, I am going to mention Adrian Goldsworthy`s talk now so I can give an uninterrupted battle report. Adrian ’s offering was an interesting contrast to Phil’s and complemented it perfectly. 

He mentioned several times that there is an awful lot we don’t know about the Roman army of this period, and much that we take for granted is supposition sometimes based on supposition. But for all that, there is much to be said for hearing an expert historian’s more informed opinions and suppositions and being able to ask direct questions rather than just reading info from an Osprey book. The questions asked were intelligent, and Adrian clearly enjoyed answering them.

Eventually however the questions turned to those of a more general nature such as comparisons with other periods, which I consider to be rather profitless. As this coincided with a need to empty my bladder I left at this point, as did a few others, and soon it was back to gaming.

On Scale and Table Size

Some general points that are probably obvious to experienced gamers but which surprised me:

1) All wargames are usually played on more or less the same size tables: the limiting factor being how far people can lean over.  That means that units in 28mm games are much closer together and must take more liberties with ground scale and figure ratio than 15mm. There is nothing right or wrong in this, of course, it’s just that until now I had not realised it.

2) Following on from this, 28mm units spend less time marching about the table before bumping into enemy figures, so 28mm games don’t take as long to play. At the Battle day all the 28mm games were finished by lunchtime while the 15mm games were still going.    

The Game Itself (James Forrest)

Initial Deployment

The Nervii deployed on the left flank: seven groups each of five open order bases, commanded by Mike Tittensor and myself. The Veromandui attacked the centre: two groups each of four bases under Derek Boyle. The Atrebates were on the right flank: two groups each of five bases under John Hills .

The Romans had eight legions at their disposal. This translated into twenty close order bases:  fifteen of which were dispersed around the camp site; the rest (the raw legions) some miles away en route to the battlefield with the baggage train. All were under the combined command of Steve Austin and Chris “6mm” Lowe.

Robert Avery was umpire and also in charge of moving the very cosmopolitan baggage train including a truly magnificent Roman siege tower. 

The Kick Off

The battle started well for the Belgae with excellent dice rolls giving enough command points to activate all bases. The whole Gallic army poured out of the treeline down the slope of the valley. The Veromandui in the centre especially looked set for an early combat as they descended on the Roman ally troops out in front of the hill on the valley floor.

First blood did indeed go to Derek’s Veromandui. They inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman lights, but the smallness of the Gaul force meant they did not have the strength to roll over them as hoped, and the situation developed into a fierce fight on the banks of the river Sambre.

Things still looked good at this point, though, as the Nervii streamed down the slope on the left. With the centre to keep the Romans busy, we hoped to wheel behind the grape-eaters opposing us on this flank.

Over on Gaul far right John’s Atrebates were advancing steadily in a solid two forward, one back formation, but had the farthest distance to cover. Chris’s Xth legion had been the first to activate on the Roman side and these were now begin to advance purposefully towards the Atrebates, but were still several turns away.

Inevitably with such a long distance for the Gauls to cover across the valley the Romans by now were fully awake. The Roman centre marched out of the camp and formed up in a menacing battle line before advancing on the Veromandui still engaged at the river bank.  The Xth legion were still on a collision course with John’s fifteen Atrebates bases.

The Romans opposing the Nervii on our left came out of the trees and formed up on the top of the slope, making no attempt to come to meet us: just waiting. Across the river, but still with two movement turns to go before impact, the leading units of the Nervii slowed to half speed to let the following units catch up and form a solid continuous battle line. In retrospect, I believe this was a mistake…but more of that later.

Calamity now struck.  The Veromandui, exhausted and already with heavy casualties, met their end at the eager swords of the two fresh legions arriving at the river.  The Sambre was stained red with the blood of the dying. It was over so quickly I was stunned. Of eight bases, only one remained to be routed.

Romans couldn’t be that good could they?

I began to feel a little nervous of what awaited the Nervii.  But surely this huge screaming mass could not be stopped? We were a solid mass, ten bases wide and in places four deep. Opposing us were only four Roman bases (representing approximately one and a half legions) in a shallow arc with one end anchored into the forest and the other by a high impenetrable hedge.

We charged, crashing into the Romans, trying to punch through. But to our despair the attack failed to push back the resolute legionaries. The attack lost its momentum as the following units could not advance through the melee.  It became a desperate bloody struggle for Gaul and Roman alike.

Miles away across the valley floor on the other side of the river, Caesar’s own reinforced Xth legion and the Atrebates charged one another, at a point almost exactly where another of the high impenetrable hedges cut across the terrain. A short, extremely violent but one-sided battle ensued. The Atrebates reeled back in tatters, finished as a fighting force.

Meanwhile, turn by turn, Robert had been advancing the baggage train and the two raw legions up the road, the rules allowing the marching Romans to overtake one cart every turn.

In the centre the hardly excercised legionaries pursued the single base of routing Veromandui into the forest for one turn before receiving orders to return back across the valley.

The Nervii by sheer force of numbers were wearing the Romans down, but only by dying in droves themselves: three Gauls for every Roman. Entire Gallic bases were removed to be replaced by fresh units behind.  The outermost legionary base against the treeline fought and died to the last man without giving a single inch of ground; Nervii began to filter into the trees. The two centre Roman bases, weakened to a fraction of their strength eventually broke and ran back into the dark forest, pursued by naked blood-soaked warriors. The innermost Roman base, encircled and with it’s back to the hedge , broke in the opposite direction and fled out onto the valley floor. They would survive the battle, but only in shame; no doubt they would be decimated later.

It must be said that Julius Caesar did not seem to be influencing events much; he had spent most of the battle gadding about on his horse in the centre and at the moment his last cohorts broke he was hiding on the other side of the hedge.

Deep in the forest, the two Roman bases rallied and made a last stand before being overwhelmed.  

A strange calm now came over the battlefield. Nothing stood between the remaining Nervii and the empty Roman camp.  All remaining veteran Roman units were heading back up the valley towards the camp. The nearest were the centre legions, who met first their routing troops then began to push up the hill towards the rear of the Nervii, a proportion of whom turned reluctantly, wearily, to attempt to block them.

The Xth legion was still miles away but marching steadily.

Out on the road, although they did not know it, the two raw legions were exactly the same distance away from the camp as the Nervii now rushing through the forest. They would both hit the camp at the same time. The baggage train was left far behind. One can only imagine the emotions of these men as they marched. It is late afternoon; the forest looms dark and menacing either side. From the right side had been the noises and screams of battle and dying men, growing gradually louder; but now it had ceased. None would admit to fear, but every mouth was dry.  Many had cramps in their bowels; but even had they been allowed to stop none would have wished to enter that forest to relieve himself.

So they marched.

The Nervii rearguard met the 2 Roman legions coming up the hill with a suicidal charge. They knew they were about to die; there would be no glory for them this day. Already down to half strength, these units went under quickly, most dying on the spot but one base routing parallel to the river.

One cheeky move deserves a mention. Remember the single base of Veromandui pursued into the forest? With nothing much else to do, when the coast was clear Derek had sped this unit across the valley to take possession of the empty Roman camp unopposed. Down to half strength, this base represented about 300 Gauls.

Next turn however the Xth legion arrived and hacked them to pieces just as both the Roman reinforcements and the Nervii arrived.

The final climactic battle now took place on the very perimeter of the camp. The Romans  formed a front line 2 bases wide, while the Nervii were 3 wide and up to 4 deep. However, the leading units were the ones who had borne the brunt of earlier fighting in the forest and were all but spent. They went under without a single casualty to the Romans. The following bases, some of whom had not yet tasted battle, did so now but any hope that these raw legions would be any easier to defeat were sadly dispelled by a run of bad dice throws on our part. We finished the game there, with Robert declaring it a draw, but a strategic victory for Caesar.

What a battle!

After The Battle (Robert Avery)

The game quickly divided itself into the three sectors defined by the hedges running down from the Roman position, with each pair of players (one Roman, one Gallic) starting the day fighting almost a separate battle. This wasn’t an issue, as that is what happened historically, but it did mean that I had to make a real intervention to make sure that turn sequences of the three sub-battles kept in time with each other.

With the different numbers of figures involved in each sector (the Nervii army was twice as big as that of either the Atrebates or Veromandui), and the different moments that melee was joined, this was actually quite difficult. All the players were experienced VB gamers, so could run through the game systems extremely rapidly, and this unfortunately meant that sometimes two of the three pairs were ready to move onto the next turn phase before the other was ready. This, however, is something I think is a function of the battle played rather than the rules used. At Gaugamela , where the two sides deployed facing each other with each element relatively equidistant from its immediate opposites, we didn’t have this problem at all.

Another thing that I noticed was the perceived slowness of the game. At Gaugamela , again, the two sides started off very close to each other, and the action was fast and immediate:  we were even able to play the game twice in one day. At the Sambre, the large distances involved meant that at any one time the action in one or two of the three sectors of the battlefield was all about movement rather than melee. This was particularly evident towards the end of the battle, when the victorious Roman centre and left flank legions were rushing back to their camp to save the rapidly crumbling right flank legions. Here you had one sector with a massive melee obviously taking more game time to resolve than the other two sectors, where moving figures was the only thing going on.

At the end of the day, however, it all worked out very well. The three sectors of the battle came together in a simultaneous climax that had the Nervii that had survived the right flank legions and the reserve legions crashing into the much-travelled Romans from the centre and left flank. All the players and the referee were finally involved in the same fight at the same time!

Lessons Learnt (James Forrest)

I believe we made a tactical mistake slowing the Nervii on the valley floor to form a battle line. We temporarily forgot the time pressure factor: the race against the Roman reinforcements arriving. Any delay was a mistake, and the bulk of our force was bunched up behind the lead units unable to move forward. We compounded this by wheeling in too early, we should have bypassed the outermost Roman unit and outflanked it. Had we done this, we would have had fresh Gallic units inside the camp two turns before the reinforcements arrived. But we still may not have won.

Other points: Being an umpire is not an easy job in a big battle like this. Most of the other games seemed to have a similar experience to our own in that the fight separated into three separate battles. Each tribe fought and died on its own. Robert had to sometimes tell us off for not keeping a strict turn discipline.

I should have marked which bases belong to which leader by colour coding. I will definitely do this in future.

Finally I learnt that shouting at your figures: “Fight you ungrateful little bastards, I went without sex to paint you!” has no effect on dice rolls.

The Result and Conclusions (Robert Avery)

The result of the day’s affair is still in some dispute. The Romans were severely battered, but held the field. The Belgae had lost the Atrebates, the Veromandui and over half of the Nervii, but still maintained a core of warriors that could perhaps have fought another day. I think the compromise worked out involved a tactical victory for the Romans and a strategic victory for the Gauls…but it might have been the other way round!

The rules worked as well as ever, giving a result that fairly closely tied in with history. I think that if we had reduced the size of the Belgic army to take into account any self-promoting exaggeration that Caesar might have made in his account of the battle, then history would have repeated itself almost exactly.

What was particularly interesting was the difference between this game, last year at Gaugamela , and a typical evening’s wargame. The tabletop encounters we generally fight represent, say, only a couple of hours of action, and our rules are designed to play games like that. That was also what Gaugamela was like:  immediate and fierce action. The Sambre, on the other hand, was a day-long, much-movement, hard-fought, grinding slog of a battle…so it’s unsurprising that the game we played was as well!

To run the Sambre as an evening club game, therefore, when time is at a premium, I would recommend fighting only the last phase of the battle i.e. start the Nervii within charge distance of the Roman right flank, with the other Romans half way home having already destroyed the other Belgae. I do, however, acknowledge that this wouldn’t properly represent what the Sambre was, and removes the reason why it was chosen as this year’s Battle Day battle!

The most important thing was that everyone involved in the VB game really enjoyed themselves:  both in terms of preparing for the day and the playing the battle itself.  We are all very much looking forward to next year’s event, with the Crusades being the favoured time period.  Another perfect excuse to get a new army!  

Finally, I’d like to thank Richard and Nik for organising the event, and the players and figure providers for the VB game for working so hard both before and on the day. The icing on the cake was winning best game of the day, so thanks for that too!

Robert Avery & James Forrest