Friday, September 16, 2016

I Want War Elephants

You know what doesn't seem to exist in my neck of the woods? Historical wargaming, of the "paint some minis and push them around the table" model.  There are groups who meet to play board games recreating historical conflicts, sure, but I like the pageantry of a table with terrain and collections of painted figures.  28mm fantasy and science fiction skirmish gaming seems to rule the wargaming roost around here, and while I'm certainly not against that (seeing as how I have four Frostgrave warbands), there's an itch that can only be scratched with units, ranked deep, that have a story behind them, a layer of reality behind the painted metal and plastic.

So I got to thinking, and I came up with a plan.  I have no idea yet how well it will go, or if it will prove to be a colossal sink of time and money with no return.  Time will tell.  I want to put on a big demonstration game at a convention, with two big painted armies, recreating a famous historical battle.  I want there to be an element of spectacle, something that draws in passerby - and then I hook them, offering them command of a regiment or two for however many turns they feel like playing, giving them a taste of historical wargaming, that playing with toy soldiers can be fun without pretending to cast spells or fielding mythological monsters.

First step then, is to pick a battle.  I decided to focus on two key elements in selecting a battle to refight: Spectacle and Familiarity.  Spectacle, something about the battle should be eye-catching and lure people in as they walk by.  Familiarity, something about the battle should ring a bell, even to non-historians.  Some ideas I tossed around:

  • Kadesh 1274 BCE: The massed chariots of Ramses II and the Hittite King Muwatallish would be very eye-catching, and Ancient Egypt is a perennially popular subject.
  • "The Trojan War": Mycenean Greeks versus Trojans, perhaps with a big wall ("Troy") along one table edge.  Wooden horse is optional; sieges, I think, are boring to play.  
  • Thermopylae, 480 BCE: Has some cultural cachet still lingering from the Frank Miller graphic novel and its associated film, but I don't know if "OK, you're the Spartans, let's see how many turns you survive" would be fun for anybody.  
  • Plataea, 479 BCE: Almost all the perks of Thermopylae, without the guarantee of "Spartans, you're going to lose, it's just a matter of how long you last."
  • Gaugamela, 331 BCE: Alexander the Great has name recognition value for sure, and I think most people who would be at a gaming convention would be at least vaguely aware of "the Persian Empire," even if they don't know why there aren't war-rhinos and guys throwing bombs on the table.  Refighting the battle that was, historically, the death-knell of an empire and having the opportunity to change history might be a good hook.  
  • Hydaspes, 326 BCE: Alexander the Great again, this time trying to invade India and running into a crapload of brightly-caparisoned war elephants under the command of King Porus, giving a great balance of name recognition and spectacle.  
I think I'm leaning most strongly towards the Battle of Hydaspes; Alexander the Great is well-known enough to be a hook, a line of elephants advancing across the table is a visual hook, plus this was the last big battle of Alexander's career; not long thereafter his men forced him to turn back rather than continue on into India, and the battle was, from what I've read, a very close one.

As apprehensive as I feel about painting the brightly-dressed Achaemenid Persians, if Hydaspes goes well I may refight Gaugamela at a subsequent convention.  Darius fielded not just war elephants, but scythed chariots at that battle, which would be a draw I think.  

Next step is deciding on a ruleset.  I knew I wanted something that's easy to learn and to teach, with minimal granularity and plenty of dice rolling.  This was actually the easy part - Neil Thomas' Ancient & Medieval Wargaming is simple and straight-forward, without too many frills or complexities to remember, while allowing for tactics and maneuvering.  Plus, rolling handfuls of six-sided dice!

Because I'm likely insane to be taking on this project in the first place, why not go all in and have custom six-siders printed for the demonstration game? Do a big bag of "Alexander" dice with a Vergina Sun in place of the 6, and then a bag of "Porus" dice with...well, not a swastika, since that's taken on some unsavory connotations in the last century, but maybe a silhouette of an elephant? Big bag of each and then participants can keep one when they leave, because gamers love getting souvenirs from games they play in at conventions.  

Step three is going to be selecting figures, and I think I'm already there.  There's no way I can do this in 28mm and not empty my bank account in the process, plus the difficulties of storing large figures like that.  And 15mm-scale, I'm concerned, will be too small on the tabletop to be properly eye-catching.  Enter the 20mm, or 1/72 scale, plastics.  I've been combing through the Plastic Soldier Review site, and think I'm pretty well settled on HaT Industries' figures - you get 48+ figures per infantry box, the sculpts are good if not wildly exciting, and they have extensive lines of both Macedonians and Indians.  I'll likely be supplementing the Macedonians with figures from Zvezda's line of 1/72 scale figures.  

I've been discussing this with a few people over on the AMW Yahoo! Group, most notably Trebian from Wargaming for Grown-ups, who has done very similar things with the Ancient & Medieval Wargaming rules and 20mm plastic figures.  Because HaT does not supply spears for many of their figures (as it would be difficult to mold things like the 20-foot long Macedonian sarissa and have them come out well), I had been dreading slightly the prospect of carefully trimming florist wire or plastic broom bristles to length, but Trebian has suggested using pins with the heads trimmed off, and as best I can reckon it, a 3" pin would be just about the right length in scale for a sarissa.  

I'm looking at doing the purchasing and painting of figures in two stages; first, getting enough of each to field legal 8-unit armies, the standard for AMW, and use these to strengthen my familiarity with the rules.  Once I'm confident with that, then I can begin expanding; I think I want to run the demonstration game as a double-strength game, with 16 or more units on each side, and a few tweaks to the Indian list - Neil Thomas only allows for bow-armed infantry, while the HaT Indian Infantry box also comes with javelinists, hill tribesmen and a female bodyguard, so I'll be figuring out stats for each of them.

So where am I planning to put this game on? Initially I was thinking next year's Queen City Conquest, but have been worrying about this ending poorly for me - I can imagine putting in the time and effort and ending up sitting alone in a room with the figures I put in ages of work on.  So we shall see.  


  1. Hi Bill, I heartily approve of any wargames army which includes elephants!

    So you can imagine how much I like the Battle of Raphia, 217BC, where BOTH sides fielded these ponderous pachyderms - Antigonos III vs Ptolemy IV. Ellies, pike phalanx, cavalry, every toy in the box!

    You know you want to...!

    1. And paint twice as many phalangites? Maybe at some point, but I think I will need a different army to break up the monotony.

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