Field of Glory II AAR – The Battle of Volturnus 554 AD

I love it when I get to review games like Matrix’ Field of Glory II for the PC. Not only does it satisfy my miniatures craving without extra time and money (neither of which I have in abundance), but I have always been impressed by the way the designers meshed playability with historical accuracy. I determine the latter by a very simple technique: I play a couple or three of the included historical scenarios, using the same deployment and tactics with whatever side I command. So, it was with the Age of Belisarius (or AOB) DLC, featuring one of my favorite armies, the Byzantine Romans, on the fertile fields near the River Volturnus in October 554 AD.

What Really Happened

With Byzantine General and Eunuch Narses rampaging in central and southern Italy, the Gothic King Teia called for aid from Frankish King Theudebald who promptly refused. He did, however, allow two chieftains named Leutharis and Butilinus at the head of 70,000 men to respond. The former chap basically pillaged everything he could lay his hands on until chased over the Alps by plague and the Byzantine General Artebanis. Conversely, Butilinus continued south to confront Narses, but a severe outbreak of dysentery reduced his force from 30,000 to 20,000 effectives. And those effectives counted about 95 % undrilled barbarian warriors with the remainder light archers, but not one mounted soldier among them.

Narses marched out to meet the Franks with 18,000 men with a typical core of well trained, multi-armed Roman heavy foot and horse, backed by mercenaries and irregular Allied Foederati such as the Heruli. These jovial chaps almost skipped the festivities when Narses executed one of their captains for murdering a servant, but their commander Sindual assured his boss he could persuade them to return. Thus, Narses deployed his heavy cavalry on the wings, and his heavy infantry in the center. The idea was to sucker the Franks into driving into his infantry while his heavy horse enveloped both flanks. A gap was left in the center of the infantry (obviously Narses was the trusting type) to allow the Heruli to fill in when they arrived.

Meanwhile, Butilinus received two Heruli deserters who told them their comrades’ irritation over Narses lopping the head of one of their officers and advised him to attack now before the Heruli changed their minds. Given the Byzantine commander Charananges had already raided and burned his wagon trains to the ground, Butilinus agreed, gave his army a rousing speech and marched towards Narses in a huge triangular wedge, with what few archers he had out front. He smashed into the Byzantine center and pushed it back, but true to their word, the Heruli returned to fill in the gap and stabilize the infantry fight. Then the Byzantine cavalry arrived on both flanks plus the rear of the Frankish army and defeat became a massacre.

Roman spin doctor Agathias said only 80 Byzantines were lost while only five soldiers of the enemy made it out alive. Likely just a modicum of exaggeration here, but it was not a good day for Butilinus and his mob. By 562 AD the Byzantines had reconquered Italy for the Emperor.

Game Setup

Volturnus is one of the Epic Battles included with the AOB DLC and the deployment of both armies is pretty much historical, as is their composition. As the Byzantine commander, I was given the option of purchasing some additional units to bring my force to its full strength of 18,000 (11,901 original strength), and I was going to need it. In a likely nod to the miniature wargaming ancestry of the game, I faced 35,437 Frankish warriors and not the 20,000 that historically fought, something the AOB historical commentary confirmed. Its likely this was done to make the battle a fair fight. In the miniature gaming world with point systems, Frankish armies are REALLY big, Byzantines not so much. But Byzantines are a ‘Cadillac Army’ in that although their numbers are smaller, high quality means they are a lot meaner.

Frankish tactics for the game were also historical. Butilinus, stout of heart (if thick of head), put his forces into the same giant wedge as did the real commander and decided on “hey diddle, diddle, straight up the middle” as his battle plan. Units were light archers and individual Warbands representing 750 men, the elites in chainmail, the rest heavy foot with sword, shield, javelin, axe or whatever was laying around the hut when called to service. As undrilled foot, the entire army did not get the ¼ turn freebie that most Roman regulars had.

For my part, I decided to move my foot archers to the wings of the infantry to pummel the advancing Franks. I also withdrew the entire infantry line one square backwards each turn, hoping my doing so would encourage the enemy to chase me. The infantry was mostly regular Roman Scutatoi heavy foot with spear and darts. On the wings my cavalry (heavy armored lancers, heavy armored archers, triple armed Kataphraktoi and a few Huns) would attempt what Narses did by moving through the woods that anchored my flanks, then behind some low-lying hills to mask the enemy from seeing them. It was also a good way to see if the AI was cheating or not.

Turns 1 – 4

In these turns both sides pretty much followed their standing orders as noted above. I did notice that there was a movement advantage in keeping your formations dressed properly and together vice sending units willy-nilly like Maserati’s. I also noticed that getting my cavalry ‘over the hills and through the woods’ was excruciatingly difficult and a lot slower than I originally thought. Nevertheless, the AI played it fair and square as no Frankish Warband moved a sandal until my cavalry came into line of sight.

Turns 5 – 10

These were the decisive turns of the game though I did not know it at the time. The Byzantines continued their plan as before, but a lot of Frankish warbands began pealing away to move to the rear – way to the rear – as well as to the farther end of my central infantry line. Thus, the center of the Roman infantry, which still had a gap for the Heruli to fill, was wide open. Yet the Frankish forces available to attack this section became less each turn. Why? Because punctuating the din of clashing metal and the moans of wounded men was the distinctive sound ‘TWANG!’ Twang! Twang, twang! And twang again.

I’ve already mentioned my heavy Roman foot archers, but each cavalry wing also had three of four squadrons of light cavalry archers, some Byzantine Flankers, some Huns. While my heavy horse was still maneuvering unseen, the light horse got behind the Franks and started shooting them every turn. The foot archers did the same thing against the forward flanks of the wedge. The AI immediately responded and sent a boatload of Warbands to run these lads down, often to no avail as my chaps simply evaded away before contact. Yet the Warbands continued to follow them, with some nearly hitting the far edge of the board by game’s end. Seriously, for all I know they may well be in Londinium by now.

Despite my jaw hitting the table, I recovered enough to realize what was happening. The brutish Franks chasing down my archers not only weakened the attack against my infantry (the Heruli arrived Turn 9 BTW) but opened huge gaps on both flanks and in the rear for my heavy horse to use like an Interstate. So, I did.

Turns 11 +

Not that this battle was easy, mind you. Even with decremented forces hitting my infantry, those Warbands are tough and I’d rate slightly superior to Roman Legio Comitatensis in the Impact phase of combat. Outside one cohort, my infantry, to include the pike packing Heruli, came out second best. Narses and his army were actually losing pointwise by a decent margin despite everything, but the infantry held just long enough. The heavy cavalry hitting the Franks from behind, coupled with the loss of Butilinus and his second in command in one turn (I love Cohesion Tests), turned the tide and the Byzantines triumphed on points, but not on the stated victory conditions.

Lessons Learned

Yes, the game is historically accurate, and I do get it as regards pumping up the numbers for Butilinus the Bubblehead to make the game equal. Had this been dead on history, 20 Frankish Warbands would have been absent from the screen, and game play would have been at Centurion vice Legate level. As I have seen on the tabletop and as it was at the real battle, meeting this era of Byzantines in battle with equal numbers will send you straight to whatever mental institute they had back then.

My big mistake was in sending my cavalry around both flanks in too wide a circle in order to disguise my movement. I suppose I was used to French Cuirassiers rumbling about, but horse and especially heavy horse, move very slowly. Also, the ability of certain terrain to degrade movement was a surprise, especially going up or down what I thought were gently rolling slopes. I likely would have been better off in shortening the route of my cavalry to get in position and risk them being seen sooner. As it was they did arrive where they were supposed to within acceptable time, but not by much.

The behaviour of the AI was the biggest surprise, I mean, like, wow! The AI does NOT like being shot at and will do anything to relieve this discomfort, following their tormentors to the end of the board, if not the earth, if need be. For example, the AI sent some 6000 heavy foot to run down 960 Huns they couldn’t catch. On the other flank, the count was 3750, but the Byzantine Flanker (I assume these were Trapezitoi) units were only half the size of their Hunnish compatriots. And from my perspective it didn’t seem as though the casualties inflicted every time a ‘twang’ was heard was that much, but the AI disagreed.

And finally, do not take that loss of the ¼ turn freebie for granted. It may not seem like much, but if you have an entire army of such soldiers, it becomes a real pain in the Heruli.

But overall, with the AIs behavior in particular, the game reminded me of the necessity to be flexible and ready to act on the unexpected. After 162 hours of play time, one does start to learn a thing or two.


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