I’ve always been a rules junkie. Some 35 years ago, I used to buy those giant Games Workshop boxed sets like Space Marine, Blood Bowl or Space Hulk together with two buddies. Usually the box contained two basic teams/squads/armies/whatever, maybe some scenery, and the rulebook. My friends invariably wanted to get the minis, and I always obliged – because to their astonishment, I wanted to keep the rule booklet. I still have several of those. Decades later, I still enjoy studying a new set of rules nearly as much as bringing an old favourite to the table. I seem to go in phases: I obsess over a specific era/scale for a few months, then shift my attention to something else. Free or commercial, professional or indie, digital or paper – it makes no difference. I just like absorbing the mechanisms and fantasizing about which specific historical engagement would be best served by which ruleset.
Right now, I’m reading (and re-reading) lots of ancient battles rules. Dozens of them. And I’m being painfully reminded of one fact: ancient rulesets are the absolute worst of them all to read. There’s always something painfully convolute in either the prose, the presentation, or both. My hypothesis is that decades of exposition to the famously dense DBX jargon subliminally created in ancient players’/designers’ minds an expectation that brevity and clarity are pollice verso.
But there’s a specific trend in ancient rulesets that is so pervasive and blatant, it makes me cringe every time. I call it the Wagenburg Syndrome. Look, ancient battles were not that complex if compared to, say, WW2 engagements at any scale. On the other hand, if one considers the entirety of pre-gunpowder warfare (and 99% of the rulesets aim to simulate all of it, of course – how many times did you read ‘3000BC-1500AD’ somewhere in the subtitle?) you can quickly come up with a lot of pretty weird ways in which our ancestors tried to kill each other.
Ballistae. Elephants from different continents. Chariots (many, many types of chariots). Flaming pigs. Rolling logs. Plaustrellae and Carrocci. Rockets. Experimental phalanxes, pavisiers, sparabara. Manipular legions. Camels. Cantabrian circles. Skirmishers. Feigned charges. And of course, the worst of them all – the titular War Wagons. All of these share a common characteristic – they are probably quite different from almost any other unit in the game (unless you’re a weirdo and play an Hussite army). They need rules to move differently, to fight differently, to shoot differently, perhaps they even have different bases/unit sizes with respect to every other unit in the game. Rules, rules, rules. As I said, I like rules – but when, like, 50% of the word count is devoted to something I’ll use perhaps 5% of the times something starts to feel strange. But it’s worse than that – almost all ancient rulesets just put the rules for those exceptional units right into the basic stuff, the first time they expose it.
Just imagine a WW2 game trying to do the same. “OK, an infantry squad moves so and so, but tanks move in this other way, and towed guns like this, unless in a minefield, oh and then there’s air support, and wheeled vehicles off-road unless if there’s mud and…” Now, most WW2 game designers are sensible and just split the rules into individual sections. Why on earth cannot ancient rulesets do the same? The same approach usually extends to play aids/reference tables. Modifiers you’ll need once in a blue moon like cavalry against camels, Indian vs African elephants, light cavalry against war wagons, hoplites at first contact with hoplites unless during a month sacred to Athena, etc etc are often maliciously mixed with modifiers you’ll apply in each and every game like, I dunno, ‘contacted in the flank’. Why? Why? [Phil Sabin’s otherwise spectacular ‘Lost Battles’ is a particularly nasty offender in this respect].
Now, there are praiseworthy exceptions to this trend. I must cite Fame and Glory's Games "A Game of Knights and Knaves" as a spectacular example – a game that explains DBX-like basics covering 90% of the situations in two digest sized pages, then introduces extra rules as self-contained ‘plugins’. Washington Grand Company’s “Triumph!” takes a similar route with its ‘battle cards’. Even though not entirely free of the Wagenburg Syndrome, Battle Array deserves a special mention in that it introduces rules in discrete chunks interspersed with no less than 14 learning scenarios. Bravo!