Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming: a Review

One silver-lining advantage of sick-day lollygagging in bed is catching up on the small mountain of reading material teetering precariously on my nightstand. I finally got a chance to read through the new omnibus edition of Tony Bath's work put out by the admirable History of Wargaming Project  (in collaboration with the Society of Ancients).

Since I mercilessly beat the best and meatiest section of this book, Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, dead, dead, dead in a past series of posts I feel relieved of the burden of doing an even-more exhaustive review than appears here.

Like Gaul, the book is divided into three parts: Bath's Peltast and Pila miniatures rules, the above-mentioned campaign book, and a collection of his reports on the Hyborian campaign.

The book starts off with a nice, lengthy homage by Phil Barker that gives a few more insights into the character and work of Tony Bath. Almost every account of the man seems to confirm the impression created by the distinct authorial voice in his writings; that of a quirky, thoughtful, gifted-amateur brimming with an experimental, open-ended approach to his play. For all his top-of-the-heap status in ancient-era wargaming in that period, none of his projects were commercial, thus apparently freeing him up for more ambitious, creative leaps.

Peltast and Pila

The rules of part one are likely of limited, direct utility to many modern readers, though as a historical product they are interesting.

Like many of the systems of that era, the rules have many layers of fiddly detail and highly-complicated resolution mechanics. The guidelines, for instance, handling elephants alone number 20 points spread over two pages of text. (It's a testimony to the quirkiness of the man that John Curry, the book's editor, felt it necessary to add the following footnote to the section: “Donald Featherstone and Phil Barker commented that Tony Bath was very keen on elephants in his armies”.)

But for all the difficulty in actual use to those more wed to the simpler, more abstract of new school mini rules, there are all kinds of insights into how battle worked in that period—and fun, workable sub-systems for modeling them. While my own quirky head appreciates the elegant, abstractions of say DBA or HoTT that model tactical doctrines more than the nitty, gritty; my quirkier heart loves having such fine distinctions as rolling three different colored dice to find out if the driver, passenger, or horse is killed in a hit on a chariot.

Tony Bath's long, chatty asides about design questions like simultaneous movement vs. alternating IGO/UGO movement only further his cause in my book.

Before moving on, one thing of interest to the historically-minded role-player, is that Peltast and Pila contain one of the first (perhaps the first?) appearances of the saving throw as a concept. For each hit made on a particular figure, a player can make a d6 saving throw based on “armor class” (indexed against weapon type). Besides the obvious conceptual import into D&D this specific mechanism has survived many decades now perhaps most famously in the various Warhammer iterations (you can also find it in my own rules, Swords & Shields).

The Legend of Hyboria

The last section,“The Legend of Hyboria”, was the most anticipated by this humble author. I have to admit that I was a little let down by this section (so sad). The bulk of the section is made up of the annual reportbacks Bath made in Slingshot, the newsletter of the Society of Ancients. Unfortunately these dispatches contain much of weaknesses that many readers of this blog have complained about in rpg session reports: too much in-character narrative with too little commentary on the game back-end.

Which is doubly unfortunate for in few cases when he does focus on that you get wonderful glimpses again of Bath's genius in this particular game. One section deals with rules for determining varying abilities and loyalty levels of sub-ordinate NPCs--and the many devious ways that treachery of the less-loyal can play out.

Even better is the account of the Aquilonian siege of Nippur, Turanian town occupied by the Hyrkanians. What really shines in this account is how free-form and experimental Bath was in his approach to unique situations in his game.
Instead of merely using a rolls on a set of siege resolutions charts, he decides to make a mini-boardgame affair out of it with role-playing inputs from Richard Nelson who played the Aquilonian general Valannus. You can hear the series of matrix-game argument-making in the back and forth between Nelson and Bath in preparing for the battle. Very satisfying to me as I hear the same echoes in our modest Domain Game.

Back in the frustrating category of things, Curry alludes to the ultra-rare two-volume The History in Hyboria and the Wargame's Guide to Hyboria (both penned by Bath), but selections from neither work appear. Apparently the 50-page guide contained the full biographies, lineages, and personalities of the main characters; a terrible tease for Hyboria aficionados . (Still not convinced that this was a role-playing game?)

Since we are on frustrating bits I should mention the biggest annoyance I had with this edition: the sub-par formatting and layout of the book. The cramped trade-paperback format of the book coupled with clumsy Word-looking layout is distracting at many points--especially when it comes to the many charts and graphs of the first two sections.

The absence of the many maps from the larger-format second edition of the campaign book (presumably due to the smaller, cramped format) only compounded my dislike of this edition's presentation.

Still at the end of the day, the HC review punchline remains: buy this book. 


  1. I think having more to read than we can possibly read is becoming the new standard way of life for most RPG gamers these days.

  2. Hannibal invaded Italy with 13 elephants
    only 8 survived the journey over the Alps,
    and one survived the entire campaign.

    The Romans discovered early on that an
    elephant's sensibilities would NOT allow it to charge accross blood
    (recall elephants cant jump).

    Therefore, by merely slaying livestock
    and drenching the ground,
    the devastating charge of an elephant was effectively neutralized by merely
    'drawing a line in the sand'