Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Paper Romans in Germania, Part I

Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”


In my last post I mentioned my recent interest in wargaming ancient Roman conflicts, specifically those on the Germanic frontier, to find some temporary respite from the pandemic and my own internal issues. The journey grew into one of the more satisfying diversion strategies to keep my mind off various anxieties and help me relax. Like abandoning one’s self in a good movie for two hours or getting absorbed in a good book, immersing ourselves in an entertaining activity can help us escape so we can face life’s woes with renewed energy and a fresh perspective. Goodness knows I have plenty of diversions at hand – roleplaying games, board games, miniature and chit-and-hex wargames, plus books both fiction and non-fiction to read and re-read – but I have many interests to tempt me into new endeavors, even among these existing forms. So I embarked on a journey back to ancient Rome, on the frontier with Germania Magna along the river Rhenus (Rhine), perhaps at the fortress town of Moguntiacum (Mainz, which I’d visited long ago on a family vacation), preparing my Roman soldiers to sortie into the dark Teutonic forests.

I started by ordering Daniel Mersey’s A Wargamer's Guide to the Early Roman Empire on a lark; his approach of covering numerous gamer-oriented aspects of the period fired up my latent curiosity in ancient Roman history. He starts with an overview of the Roman Empire from 27 BCE to 284 CE, followed by a description of armies, organization, and equipment. The “Wargaming the Battles of Rome” chapter summarizes 10 battles against various enemies (including other Romans during times of political upheaval) and offers notes on bringing these to the tabletop. Several chapters outline published rules to use and the modeling portion of the hobby. The “Scenarios” chapter provides detailed notes on running four scenarios and a mini-campaign idea beyond simply lining up two opposing armies and going at it across the battlefield. These mirror some of the historical engagements and integrate some challenging elements and varying victory conditions. I was particularly attracted to “The Supply Wagon Massacre” since it used some non-military objectives and, with some further research reading Osprey books (see below), related to the fighting withdrawal of Varus’ legions at Teutoberg Forest. Mersey has published several other guides to wargaming different conflicts (including the Norman conquest, Anglo-Zulu war, and World War II desert battles); if I weren’t already somewhat familiar with most of those wars I’d orient myself with his books.

Revolutionary War soldiers under
construction on the craft table.
My next step was finding some soldiers for my Roman battles. I’ve painted my share of metal and plastic miniatures in a number of scales, from micro 6mm tanks to 54mm British colonial officers; assembling a good-looking army this way take lots of money, time, and patience. I’ve seen Peter Dennis’ paper soldiers before and really like their combination of fantastic artwork and sheer simplicity. I already have his books for the American War of Independence and American Civil War (having made some AWI forces to fight the Battle of Ridgefield a few years ago). They’re a great way to quickly assemble an army for tabletop battles, even if they’re just amazingly rendered two-dimensional units; they still look good on the battlefield, probably better than I could ever paint a three-dimensional version. Photocopy a page, cut, score, and glue the ranks, then trim the outlines and mount them on a base to produce pieces with two or three ranks of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder.

I ordered Wargame: The Roman Invasion, AD 43-84 so I’d have plenty of Imperial Roman forces to assemble; but the book focused on Roman battles in Britain, not Germania. (My red-headed wife was impressed it included Iceni queen Boudicca and her crimson tresses both in a command stand and riding in a chariot.) While I was waiting for the book to arrive I discovered Peter Dennis’ Peter’s Paperboys website which featured PDF paper soldiers not published elsewhere one could purchase (in sets or single sheets) to print as needed. Among the numerous, varied categories was “Rome’s Enemies” (excepting the British from the aforementioned book), including Dacians, Parthians, and a thorough variety of Germanic tribesmen. So I signed up, ordered, and downloaded two sheets of tribesmen, some cavalry, and light infantry with spears and bows (and a few casualty figures filling the open spaces). Dennis even had a sheet of carts and pack animals in the “Terrain Items” category; since one of Mersey’s scenarios included a supply cart, I got that, too. I started gluing and cutting Germanic forces, so by the time the book arrived I had a small barbarian army ready to march onto the field. I then started work on the Roman army, preparing a few stands of legionaries and auxiliaries in the hopes I could start playing soon.

When I wasn’t assembling my ancient armies I was delving into related history. I’d ordered some wonderfully illustrated Osprey books on this period (with original paintings by Peter Dennis), Teutoburg Forest AD 9 and Roman Soldier vs Germanic Warrior: 1st Century AD. These provided historical context for my tabletop battles: organization and capabilities of both forces; tactics favored by each; specific circumstances of actual battles (extrapolated from historical accounts and archaeological artifacts); and visual representations of soldiers, terrain, and battle strategies. Osprey also published books for other ancient Roman wars, including those against the Britons and Gauls, in case I feel the need to explore those conflicts later.

My reading didn’t just focus on history; I needed to familiarize myself with some of the rules on running Roman battles in two of my go-to wargaming rulebooks. I first glanced over the ancient’s chapter in Neil Thomas’ One-hour Wargames (which I featured before in “Adaptable One-Hour Wargames”). Although its very basic rules take into account some of the nuances of ancient warfare, it could use some customizing with details from my historical reading as well as a system for morale and leaders, which I considered earlier. The game also calls for specific sizes for units...essentially two or three stands of the paper soldiers I was assembling. I figured this might work, with each stand representing five points of the 15 hits units can take before they’re eliminated. But I wanted to start playing quickly, so I turned to another favorite rules set that doesn’t necessarily need so many units...Bob Cordery’s The Portable Wargame. I first tried these rules a few years ago to fight an American Civil War cavalry action (as detailed in “The Portable Kriegspiel”). More recently I used his rules with Peter Dennis’ American War of Independence figures to refight the Battle of Ridgefield (where I grew up). I turned to the ancients rules in Developing The Portable Wargame for my Roman battles. Though a little more involved than One-hour Wargames the rules aren’t overly complex. They also accommodate some of the subtleties of ancient Roman battles in Germania: the greater staying power of legionary units, the Germanic tribesmen’s powerful charges, and the ranged capabilities of infantry units, whether bows or the infamous Roman pila (specially designed javelins). Since each unit occupies a single grid space, I didn’t need as many to start playing, though I soon discovered the Romans needed to field more varied troop types than infantry legions and auxiliaries....

My newly constructed Romans pose
for a group shot with my new dice.
After all this reading, gluing and cutting, and dice-ordering I was finally ready to start playing. I smoothed out my 9x9 gridded green felt mat (three feet on a side), opened up Cordery’s Developing The Portable Wargame to the ancients rules, set up some stylized hills, swamp terrain, and some stands of trees, and prepared to set my forces loose in the forests of Germania...the subject of the upcoming “Paper Romans in Germania, Part II.”I was getting closer to fighting my Roman battles on the basement wargaming table when I thought of one more addition to get me in the mood. Long ago I’d acquired some dice with Roman numerals on each face rather than pips; they were simply printed on the dice and easily faded, scratched, and in some cases worn clean off. So I turned to a few online venues where I normally order game materials during the pandemic (in the “Before Times” I would have checked out a few local hobby stores and made a special order). I’d never ordered from Noble Knight Games in Wisconsin – an old friend recommended the company – and, having found some engraved Roman numeral dice made by Koplow, ordered two packs (10 dice each). Neither of my rules ever really require rolling more than one die at a time, but I’ve found dice can help keep track of unit strength, especially in The Portable Wargame where units have Strength Points varying from one to six (or with my new dice, from “I” to “VI”); even in One-hour Wargames the units can take 15 points of damage before elimination, so using dice can track damage, with every five points resulting in the loss of one of the three stands in a unit.

After all this reading, gluing and cutting, and dice-ordering I was finally ready to start playing. I smoothed out my 9x9 gridded green felt mat (three feet on a side), opened up Cordery’s Developing The Portable Wargame to the ancients rules, set up some stylized hills, swamp terrain, and some stands of trees, and prepared to set my forces loose in the forests of Germania...the subject of “Paper Romans in Germania, Part II.”

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