As well as History of the World (History games 6), I have two other “Civilisation” board games: Through the Ages and 7 Ages. But Through the Ages, when I looked at it, is more of a parlour game than a history game. 7 Ages is a hard core history game, by the Australian Design Group; but I found that I’ve mislaid the pack of cards that animates it. I wouldn’t play the one; I couldn’t play the other; and skipping over them both, I have now entered the territory that “proper” wargames cover.
I’m not so sorry about this. If, though, emptying removal boxes, I find the cards for 7 Ages, I should still play it if it has a later scenario that would fall in chronological sequence.
The first truly historical game I have is Call it Qids – A wargame of the Battle of Qadesh (1274 BC) (by Ian Russell Lowell of the UK’s Society of Ancients; 2012).
This is a tactical game. Wargames are conventionally described as tactical, operational or strategic. Tactical games depict battles; turns are measured in minutes or hours. Operational games depict campaigns; turns are measured in days or weeks. Strategic games depict wars; turns are measured in months or years.
This is a blog about board games. But I rarely play tactical board games because in my opinion, “figures” games are better – tactical games that use model soldiers.
First, this is because while the maps that board games use are great for the operational and strategic level – you can imagine commanders looking at them, or at least having a mental picture of what they are doing that corresponds to one – figures give a more satisfying representation of an individual battle.
(Incidentally, for the ancient period, that remark about operational and strategic games may not really hold true. Mary Beard, in SPQR – A history of ancient Rome (2015), writes that [T]he Romans did not plan to conquer and control Italy. No Roman cabal in the fourth century BCE sat down with a map, plotting a land grab in the territorial way we associate with imperialist nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For a start, simple as it sounds, they had no maps. What this implies for how they, or any other ‘precartographic’ people, conceived the world around them, or just over their horizons, is one of history’s great mysteries. I have tended to write of the spread of Roman power through the peninsulaof Italy, but no one know how many – or realistically, how few – Romans at this date thought of their homeland as part of a peninsula in the way we picture it.)
Second, like chessboards, the maps used in board games are cut up into spaces that structure how units can move. Hexagons (“hexes”) are the commonest. I find this simplification of reality to be fine in strategic and operational games, but it jars in tactical ones, where subtleties of unit facing matter. In figures games, turns can be of any amount; in board games, they have to be in multiples of 60°.
I’ve decided, therefore, that the project this blog will describe is not “Playing all the history games I have in chronological order”. It is “Playing all the operational, strategic and civilisation games – plus tactical games that I fancy”.
I didn’t fancy Qids. This gave me a chance to play some games using my favourite set of figure rules: De Bellis Antiquitatis, known as DBA. I could do this without infringing chronological order because by a nice coincidence, the next figure wargames tournament I went to, organised by the Portsmouth and Allied Wargames Society in late May, had as its theme The Rivers and Gardens of Babylon: The Near East in the 8th Century BC. I don’t have any boardgames set between 1274 BC and 800 BC, so chronologically this was perfect.
The tournament used the third edition of the DBA rules, written by Phil and Sue Barker. Phil Barker was a founder member of the British “Wargames Research Group”, which published complicated rulesets that I grew up using. In the early 90s WRG came out with the first edition of DBA, a reversal of this style. No fine distinctions between types of weapons and armour, no morale tests, no keeping side notes of a unit’s losses, every army composed of just 12 “elements”. I used these rules when they first came out and came back to them with pleasure around 2010.
To Portsmouth I took an early Neo-Assyrian DBA army (on the left). My elements were two heavy chariots, two light chariots, two ‘fast blades’, four ‘fast auxiliaries’, skirmishers and a Horde. We fought five battles in an afternoon. (I won two, lost three and came down near the bottom of the table; last time I fought with the Assyrians I did just as badly; I enjoyed it nonetheless.)
There are two mechanics at the heart of DBA.
First, when it is your turn you throw a dice to determine the number of moves you can make. Each point on your dice allows you to move one of your 12 elements – or, if you have managed to keep them formed up together, a group. The stresses of combat, some units hesitating, others pressing forward, tend to break your nice groups up and reduce your ability to manage your army in a way that I find “realistic”.
Second, combat has a side of scissors, paper, stone. For example, cavalry will make short work of skirmishers; elephants will usually beat cavalry; but skirmishers can tie elephants down indefinitely, distracting them from the rest of the battle.
The game is quick – 5 minutes to set up and 45 minutes to fight a battle. (Of course, you first have to paint the model soldiers – but Mr eBay does this for me. This means that I am not quite seen as a proper wargamer, like the son of old friends who used to hang out with skateboarders and photograph them but did not skate.)
For me, DBA is a lovely game. People say that luck plays a big part. Maybe – but I never win the tournaments in which I take part (though I usually do better than at this one); and the people who do win are often the same.
In the weak sense of “looking” historical, people say DBA doesn’t look as good as games with more figures, and I agree.
This picture above shows a bigger game I took part in the following week at the Amsterdam SixShooters club, a refight of the Battle of the Hydaspes (326 BC, Alexander the Great vs. Classical Indians) – again we used the DBA rules, just with three times as many elements on each side. (As Alexander, I lost.)
In the strong sense of historicity, it is clear who you represent – the general commanding your army. Perhaps you have a little more control than your historical counterpart, but not much – the limitations on how many elements you can move each turn, and how you can move them, ensure this.
I have to give DBA 10 points. The best game I’ve played so far in this series, by far.As I go along I will be interested to see if other games equal it.
|De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) 3.0||Ancient and medieval battles with figures||Phil and Sue Barker||2014 (first edition 1990)||History games 7||10|
|History of the world||Civilisation||Ragnar Brothers||1993||History games 6||4|
|Origins||Evolution (human) and civilisation||Phil Eklund||2007||History games 5||6|
|American Megafauna||Evolution (animals)||Phil Eklund||1997||History games 4||4|
|Evolution||Evolution (animals)||Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitri Knorre, Sergei Machin||2014||History games 3||5|
|Эволюцияи||Evolution (animals)||Dmitri Knorre||2010||History games 2||1|
|Primordial Soup||Evolution (amoebas)||Doris and Frank||1997||History games 1||3|