Saturday 12 November 2011

History Repeating Itself?

At the Battle of Chaeronea in 333 BC, the last major Hoplite army of the ancient world was defeated by the Macedonian army of Phillip II. At the core of Phillip's success was the tactical versatility and greater reach of the sarissa-armed Macedonian phalanx and the powerful effect of the hard-hitting Macedonian cavalry led by a certain Alexander. Their Athenian and Theban opponents were out-manoeuvred and had the strategic vulnerability of the traditional Hoplite phalanx horribly exposed and exploited by Alexander's cavalry.

Therefore, it was with a certain trepidation that I agreed to lead my Hoplite army out onto the field against Trev's Macedonians in a 2000 point game of WAB. I knew that his phalangites would be more than a match for my Hoplites and whilst I was locked in combat with him, his Companion cavalry (which massively outclasses my own paltry Greek Cavalry) would likely come screaming round one of my flanks and smash my line to smithereens. What's more, as I didn't have the Armies of Antiquity book to hand, I was fielding a Greek Mercenary army so that meant no elite Spartans, unbreakable Sacred Band or utterly filthy Spartan Sacred Band. The best unit I had available was Veteran Hoplites; these fellas have higher initiative (useless against pikes), higher leadership and are drilled.

All this meant that I would have to employ...TACTICS!!!

I deployed in traditional style with my Veterans taking the position of honour on the right and three other blocks of Hoplites arrayed to the left. I angled the line to anchor one flank against a steep hill to my right and the other flank against that common feature of the ancient battlefield: the table edge. Also securing my flanks were the slightly more tactically flexible Peltasts. My skirmish screen was two units of Psiloi and I placed a unit of Cretan Archers on my right ready to seize the hill and rain death on the enemy. Finally, I had a unit of Greek Horse led by a Taxiarch far out on the left; their job was to run interference on the inevitable Companion Cavalry.

Trev deployed in a similar fashion. From left to right he had Slingers, Thracian Peltasts, elite Hypaspists, Phalangites, elite Phalangites, light cavalry and his Companion Cavalry. He also had some archers and javelinmen arrayed in front of his lines. In short our deployment was eerily similar. I had more line troops, but he had better quality soldiers...and that cavalry-hammer.

One of the beauties of of ancient wargaming is that when writing battle reports there's often not much to 'report' as most units tend to wend their way steadily towards each other. And so it was for the first turn; Trev advanced and I matched him, our cavalry danced about at extreme charge range from each other. There was an exchange of desultory missile fire which I got the best of with my combined fire panicking the Thracian Peltasts.

On the second turn the Thracians rallied (on a 6, damn!) and the Macedonians continued to advance, and Trev made a push against my skirmish line. One of my units of Psiloi fled from the Hypaspists whilst the other stood against his Javelins. The Macedonian light cavalry moved out of the way to allow to the Companions to move into charge range of my cavalry. Again Trev's Archers and Slingers failed to make any impact and in the combat phase my Psiloi tussled with their similarly armed opponents, drawing the combat but winning momentum.

My turn came and my line again advanced. The fleeing Psiloi failed to rally and fled off the table, in the process they panicked the Cretan Archers (Leadership 7!). The Greek Cavalry edged backwards to irritate the Companions. In combat the Macedonian Javelins were beaten and force to flee by my Psiloi, although they escaped, the Psiloi stopped right in front of the elite Phalangites preventing them advancing with the rest of his line.

With his advance halted, Trev had no option to charge my Psiloi with his archers to clear the road as a charge with the Phalangites would have left them free to be counter charged by my phalanx. Trev still brought forward his other blocks and ran the remains of the Thracians up to join his line. Again the Companions moved to threaten the Greek Cavalry and again the slingers peppered my Peltasts on the hill. Being charged in the flank by greater numbers seemed to disagree with my Psiloi who fled and were run down, handily taking Trev's archers behind his lines.

If an ancient battle is staring contest, the third turn was where I blinked. My Cretans failed to rally and ran off the table and I think I had a crisis of confidence. Aware that I was too far to charge I stopped the advance. Had I thought about it, I'd have realised that I would be attacking last against the Phalangites whether I charged or not and delaying was only allowing more time for the Companions to come round my flank. On the subject of which, the Greek Cavalry again edged backwards.

Trev also halted on his next turn, however he was trying to be sneaky. He also edged his Hypaspists, who were in charge range, backwards to tempt my Veterans to come forward and expose their flank. He also had clearly tired of my cavalry leading the Companions a merry dance and advanced to a point where I couldn't avoid being charged the following turn. The Archers and Slingers now concentrated their fire on the Peltasts on the hill.

I didn't take the bait; the Veterans didn't charge. I did however realise my error from the previous turn and push the rest of the line closer to the Macedonian line, although I had the Veterans hang back an inch to protect their flank. Trev would have to charge or be charged, it was crunch time. D-Day had also arrived for the Greek Cavalry, with nowhere to run they girded their loins and charged the Macedonian General and his Companions. Unfortunately the Companions were able to counter-charge and so would gain all the benefits of their xystons and the wedge formation. To my amazement the Companions failed to do much damage and I sensed an opportunity for a heroic victory. Sadly, the dice let me down (I was asking a lot) and only a single Companion was killed and I lost the combat, but passed the break test and held the Companions in place for another turn.

Before we get to the main event, a word on the fate of the cavalry. My luck didn't hold and this time three of the Greeks fell from their saddles. With so few attacks back I had no hope of winning and and so poured my remaining attacks at the Macedonian General. He was wounded, but not killed and my brave cavalry were run down and killed.

There was an audible thunk as two lines of troops clashed. I realised that I'd made an error by holding the Veterans back as I'd squandered the chance to outnumber the enemy and the lines were now equal. This fight had the potential to end the game.

Right, on to the big fight. It was divided into two fights. One unit of Hoplites, led by a Taxiarch face the elite Phalangites, whilst two units of Hoplites led by my Polemarch faced off against another unit of Phalangites and the Hypaspists. The Macedonians would be attacking first were more disciplined; the Greeks were better armoured and were led by characters. This would be a dice rolling contest.

The first fight went well. The Macedonian attacks bounced off the Greeks' hoplon shields and judicious use of oracles saw the Macedonians beaten. However, being elite Phalangites, they were stubborn and so despite the failed leadership test, they held...bugger!

The mass combat was equally tight. Macedonian pikes and spears hit first, and the Greek armour was a little less effective. In return, not enough spears found their mark and the Macedonians won.

Here's where I get annoyed. Break test for the General's unit...failed. Reroll from an oracle point...failed. Break test for the other Hoplite unit...failed. Reroll from an oracle point...failed. Panic test for the Veterans...failed. Reroll from my last oracle point...failed. Panic test for the Peltasts...failed. Panic test for the last Hoplite unit...passed!

With most of my army running, we called the game there. Even if I had rallied every unit, the line was disorganised so I'd be taken out piecemeal.

Although I actually failed to destroy any of Trev's units, this game was extremely close. I think I'd pulled the Companions out of the game very well and they would only have got to charge on turn 6 if the game had gone that far. The big fight in the centre could have gone either way, if I'd won, the Hypsapists would have stood due to being stubborn, but the Phalangites could have spread a similar panic as had effected me. If the combat had lasted another round then the Veterans would have come in and tipped the odds in my favour.

In terms of errors, I think that I made three:
  1. I should have fled with the Psiloi when they were charged by the Archers. This could have left the elite Phalangites stranded for a turn and allowed me to launch three units against two in the rest of Trev's line.
  2. I should have been more aggressive on turn three. Admittedly it made little difference in the end, but I surrendered the initiative and game the Companions more time to get into the game.
  3. I should never have broken the line by holding the Veterans back. Those extra attacks could have made all the difference, or even intimidated Trev into not charging. I left him an opening to keep the odds even and he took it.
All in all an extremely enjoyable game which played out in what felt to me to be a suitably historical outcome. In my defence, the Macedonian army was designed with beating the Greeks in mind - in games terms it is the perfect can opener for the Greek Hoplite army - it does everything that they do...better. However, Trev is a wily old fox and I left him one too many gaps to exploit.

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