I’m working my way chronologically through my board wargames. I’ve reached the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC). Ten days ago I had the chance, at the Amsterdam Sixshooters wargames club, to play a figures game of the biggest land battle of that war. (In this context, “figure” is the opposite of “board”.)
Athens and Sparta made a sort of peace in 421, but didn’t mean it. Athens stirred up Argos (previously neutral) and cities such as Mantinea (previously part of Sparta’s Peloponnesian league) to fight Sparta. The whole Spartan army, with Mantinea’s local rival Tegea, went out under King Agis to bring these cities into line. At Mantinea they defeated the allies and reestablished control over the Peloponnese.
Wargamers mostly depict ancient and medieval battles in one of two ways:
(a) A ‘historical’ set-up, in which each unit starts, on the battlefield, where we think it might have started in reality; or
(b) A ‘free’ set-up, in which the battle lines are drawn but the player, as commander, can decide where in the line each unit should be positioned.
I came across, though, a third idea, in which you start your depiction hours or days earlier, with the armies’ approach to the battlefield. This worked well last year in a refight that I organised of the battle of Pinkie (1547).* At Mantinea, according to the historian Donald Kagan, neither side’s set-up was optimal. Instead of facing each other properly, each side’s right wing extended far beyond the enemy’s left. This affected how the battle came out. This made me think it would be interesting to try an ‘approach’ battle here too, starting not in the middle of the day but with the armies further back, at the start of the morning. Obviously, you then need a bigger table; but a normal DBA table is small, even in BBDBA (big battle DBA) so this is feasible.
There’s only one source (Thucydides). Historians and wargame designers have derived from his text different army compositions and sizes. There’s a consensus, though, that the Spartan army was about 10%/1000 men bigger than that of the allies. It’s a requirement in DBA that armies have the same number of elements. I dealt with the disparity by giving the Spartans a bigger proportion of the hoplite spearmen that were the main fighters in classical Greece. Our armies, expressed in elements, had these divisions:
- Van (Spartans and freed helots) – 1 cavalry, 2 skiritae (solid auxiliaries), 3 hoplites
- Centre (King Agis and Spartans)– 1 skirmisher (psiloi), 17 hoplites
- Rear (Tegeans)– 1 cavalry, 1 skirmisher, 10 hoplites
- Right (Mantineans) – 2 skirmishers, 2 peltasts (fast auxiliaries), 11 hoplites
- Centre (Argives) – 1 skirmisher, 14 hoplites
- Left (Laches and the Athenians) – 1 cavalry, 1 light horse, 1 skirmisher, 3 hoplites
I made up the battlefield from a 7½ x 4½ km rectangle drawn on Kagan’s map, assuming that the river was dry:
Our battlefield was 2 metres 50 x 1 metre 50.
I set up the Spartans in a single column coming along the eastern (right hand) road, and the Allies in three columns: the right in Mantinea heading to come out along the road, the left in the mountains and the centre in between.
Each side could have found some good defensive terrain, hung back and let the other side come on to them. I ruled that they couldn’t. King Agis had to attack because he’d called off attacks too often – most recently, at Mount Alesion, at the top right, the day before – and his credibility as a leader was almost gone. The Argives had to attack because their leaders, from Argos’ democratic faction, had taken them into this war and so far had nothing to show for it, either to their citizens or to their aristocratic rivals (many of whom were present in the army).
B, another player at the club, commanded the Spartans: I commanded the allies. We diced for who moved first.
In DBA the amount of moving that an army can do each turn is determined by a dice throw. In BBDBA three dice are thrown, with one allocated to each division. The player decides at the start of the game which division will (every turn) get the highest, middle and lowest dice. I allocated them from right to left, B from rear to van.**
To get to the battlefield the Spartan army had to follow a road through the Pelagos wood. Historically it seems that the allies deployed in an east-west line somewhere between Mantinea and the wood. Kagan writes, “As [Agis’] army emerged in column from the forest, he was shocked to find the enemy army close by, well away from the hills, and in close battle order… The Argive generals apparently chose not to strike the enemy as it emerged from the forest or to charge before the Spartans could form into line. Either tactic might have forced a Spartan retreat and led to another avoidance of battle, but, pressed by their soldiers’ disgruntlement, the generals seems to have been determined to fight that day.”
Historically, therefore, each side deployed facing the other on an east-west line. Each won the battle on their right. The Mantineans, on the allied right, kept pursuing the beaten Spartan left. The Tegeans, on the Spartan right, turned into the centre and, combining with the Spartan centre, defeated the Argive centre and won the battle.
My refight told the set-up story differently from how Kagan tells it:
1) It is easier for armies to advance than to retreat. Once their column had begun to emerge from the woods, the Spartans could not have avoided a fight if that was what the allies wanted.
2) However, moving from columns of march into line takes time. In my refight it appeared that this meant there wasn’t time for the allies to make a well formed east-west line in good order close to the woods. The allies had to choose between making a line further back – giving the Spartans time to get out of the woods and make their own line – or “strike the enemy as it emerged from the forest” with their own troops also in a ragged formation.
3) Thus, as depicted by DBA, it wasn’t because the allies held back to ensure a full battle – but because they wanted to fight the battle with a well formed line – that the allies, historically, would have chosen to let the Spartans get out of the woods.
4) As allied commander I chose instead to try to strike the enemy as it emerged.
My right hand division, to which I had given the highest dice, raced out of Mantinea down the westerly road and deployed from there into a north-south line to catch the Spartans as they came out of the woods. They quickly routed the Spartans’ weak van. The Spartan van bought time, though, for their powerful centre division, under Agis, to get out of the woods and off the road and to start deploying on a north-south line in parallel.
The allied left and centre, with lower-scoring dice each turn and no road to speed along, took a long time to get even fractions of each division into the battle. This meant that the Spartan rear, the Tegeans, had time to get out of the woods and deploy in a solid east-west line to face them.
For a while it looked as though the Spartans would win. On my right, where I was strongest, the remnants of their defeated left wing held stubbornly on and stopped me getting at their centre. On their right the Tegeans and Spartans, outnumbering me, marched solidly forward. They broke my Athenian left, killing my commander in chief Laches. This meant that the half of my Argives that had succeeded in forming a line – the other half was straggling – would probably be outflanked and broken.
But Sparta’s army, having got out of the woods, was formed up not in a straight line but in a right angle, with my allied army “outside” it.
King Agis found himself defending the point where the line kinked. In DBA, such a point is a weakness. I battered it and battered it, flanking Agis and in the end killing him. His division, unled, lost its momentum; and I was able to win the battle for the allies.
The game took 3½ hours – half for the approach march and half for the battle.
- Playing the approach as well as the battle worked well. I’d like to try it again. DBA is quick, and the space it needs for the actual battlefield is small, so it is a good ruleset for approach battles.
- On the other hand, in hoplite battles there was chivalry (unlike in the later battles of the Macedonians). Perhaps the “approach battle” scenario, in which the allies may monster the Spartans while they are coming out of the wood, rather than leaving them time and space to line up, is ahistorical.
- In BBDBA your army is in three divisions. One division always has the highest dice for movement, one the lowest. This has an even bigger impact than usual – for the good, the historical, I think – in an approach battle. But B regretted giving the highest dice to his rearmost division – which, in the woods, was prevented for many turns from using its full movement by the divisions in front. An apparently small choice may have had a big effect on the Spartans’ chances.
- I’ve played loads of DBA and not much else in terms of ancients and medieval. It’s become second nature to me that a kink in your line is a weakness. Is that historical? Do other rules say the same? At my new club, I’m hoping to try other rules – starting with the French ruleset Art de la Guerre – to see how they deal with this.
- It felt like the battle was over too quickly. In BBDBA divisions break when they have lost 1/3 of their elements, and the army breaks when two of its three divisions have done so – perhaps only 2/9 of the total number of elements in the army. In planning the game I made sure that the number of elements in each division was a multiple of three. Another time, I would do the reverse. That would postpone their break points.
*Against history, in our game the Scots beat the English. My friend the Border Psychiatrist led her light horse down the length of a table tennis table to raid and destroy the English baggage train.
**We used a good modification, suggested by B. Two divisions can switch dice, but the higher score is then reduced by one.