Magnesia – Field of Glory II as History

The computer game Field of Glory II (FOG2) has been out for a while now, and not only have accolades been as thick as thieves, but several online or email based tournaments have surfaced as well, all quite popular. This makes sense as FOG2, as well as the miniature rules which gave it life, are primarily tournament platforms. Nevertheless, FOG2 for PC also has a very strong historical component allowing for both campaign and historical battle play. This is where my interests lie, so I thought I would take the game for an historical spin, to see how well it really simulates an actual engagement from the past. My choice was the battle of Magnesia, fought in Asia Minor around 190 BC.

The Historical Battle

The clash occurred on the Plain of Lydia, a flat piece of real estate totally devoid of pretty much anything save an impassable stream running along the edge of one flank. It was here that Seleucid King Antiochus III the Great placed his phalanx based army of 50,000 men. Deployment was typical, which in general terms means light troops forward, phalanx in the center and cavalry – to include a lot of “tank on the hoof” heavy Kataphraktoi – on both wings. Various and sundry other allied troop types were also present, as were war chariots and large Asian elephants. Contrary to popular myth, Hannibal of Carthage was not in attendance

Facing him was a Roman army of also 50,000 commanded by Consul Lucius Cornelius Scipio, supported by Rome’s ally King Eumenes II of Pergamum. The deployment was a classic Manipular scheme. Roman Velites were forward acting as skirmishers while the Hastati, the Principes and finally the Triarii formed the next three ranks of checkerboard infantry. These lads were all heavy armored infantry, the former two carrying the Roman Pilum heavy javelin, the Triarii modeled as a Greek Phalanx. The three categories also indicated experience with the Triarii known as the veteran elite of the Legion as well as its last ditch reserve. Thus the phrase res ad triarios venit (it’s all up to the Triarii now) was born. On the flanks stood Scipio’s auxiliary cavalry, to include all of Eumenes’ forces on the right, as well as 16 smaller African elements in reserve.

The battle itself was short and bloody. Antiochus charged both cavalry wings at his opponent, supported by his detachment of chariots. The attack on the Roman left was wildly successful, routing the enemy but all of Antiochus’ horsemen left the field as they attempted to run the losers down and attack the Roman camp. The attack on the Roman left, not so much. The chariots failed miserably and actually disordered Antiochus’ own troops, so he launched his central Phalanx directly at the Romans, throwing the Hastati and Principes back in disarray. However, Eumenes took the right wing cavalry, exploited the gap made by the defeated chariots and charged the Phalanx’s flank guards, forcing the pikemen to form square and retreat. The Roman infantry charged but found the long Sarissas of the Phalanx effectively deflected their Pila. Eumanes then grabbed every bowman he could find and pelted Antiochus’ elephants until they broke and trampled his own army. The Pergamese broke and many surrendered. Modern sources estimate around 5000 Roman casualties and double that for Antiochus.

The Game, Turns 1 – 3

In this game I decided to play Antiochus, use the default troop selection and pumped the difficulty level up to Legate level. I also decided to use the same tactical maneuvers as did the Seleucid army, with one exception. Scholars believe that the Seleucids lost many engagements to the Romans by ignoring the tactics of Alexander the Great, not by following them. Alexander’s model saw the Phalanx as the pinning force with the cavalry as the decisive hammer to crush flanks and exploit gaps. In the Successor states, the Phalanx became the hammer instead. I was determined to play my army the way Alexander envisioned.

And for the first three turns it seemed to work. I advanced my light troops to directly engage the Roman Velites, but moving obliquely so as to open a path for my cavalry while pinning enemy horse. My Phalanx and its supports moved forward as a continuous line, but did not engage. My cavalry attacked both flanks with some considerable success. On the enemy left my cavalry was actually able to maneuver around and behind the Roman army, then set up to charge. On the enemy right, I was able to disperse most of the Roman auxiliary cavalry, but alas, my Kataphraktoi decided to chase them off the board so I never saw them again. The Romans responded by wheeling several Hastati and Principes Maniples left and right, then moving them forward to face the threats to their flanks.

The Game, Turns 4 – 6

During these game turns my supported Phalanx remained stationary as my Peltasts continued to pommel the Roman Velites and other troops with missile fire. On the enemy right my cavalry continued to set up for the coup de grace while on the enemy left my cavalry became embroiled with arriving Roman heavy infantry who charged my horse. This forced me to move my Argyraspids (silver shields, an elite, guard quality Phalanx) forward to support my heavy horse. The Romans then began to move individual Principes Maniples forward to fill in the gaps of the front line of Hastati. Their Velites and other light infantry began to move to the rear. Finally, in a rather unique stratagem, the Roman’s sent their 16 elephant strong pachyderm detachment chasing after my Kataphaktoi which was chasing after the Roman cavalry I had spanked. At this time the game noted I was inflicting about eight percentage points more casualties on my Roman opponent than he was on me. Life was good.

The Game, Turns 7 – 9

The operative term is the word “was.” From turn seven onward I noticed my casualty advantage percentage slowly creeping downward until the Romans gained the advantage and their inflicted casualty number began to slowly move up. On both flanks the Romans had moved enough heavy infantry to counter my heavy horse, while the Hastati and Principes in the center charged my supported Phalanx. This move actually pinned my army in place, and as soon as the auxiliary infantry supporting my pikes were driven off, Phalanx losses began to increase, even after forming square. Some of the Latin lads also exploited a gap in my lines after the chariots on my left wing – does this sound familiar to anyone? – broke. I did move several units of Warband type infantry to counter, but they proved worthless. I also tried to use missile fire from Peltasts who had fallen back, but their fire was ineffective.

The Game, Turns 10 – 12

Or to put it another way, we are talking about Turn 10 until collapse. At this point both armies seemed to lose all sense of formation or organization as the battle actually became a series of small independent engagements between one or two opposing units. I came out worse here as the Romans were able to successfully hold off my heavy cavalry long enough to really hammer my central Phalanx. Interestingly enough, most scholars characterize ancient battles as a pretty evenly matched slugfest until one side or the other reaches a break point, at which time casualties for the loser skyrocket and his army collapses. That is pretty much what happened here in my replay of Magnesia. In two turns I went from having a casualty inflicted disadvantage of four percentage points to a disadvantage of 23 percentage points. In other words, the game said the Romans lost a total of 10,988 men while my loses were 21,953, plus 108 elephants whose warranty had just become invalid.

My only consolation involved obvious cheating by the AI and the fact that I was deliberately taking it easy on the Romans just to see what happened, research for this article and so on. That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

Lessons learned

I was impressed. The many instances of cavalry chasing a defeated opponent off the field and the immediate collapse of my army over the course of just a couple of turns all have deep historical roots. I was also impressed at how the back ranks of the Roman Manipular system immediately moved forward to fill in gaps and form a continuous battle line. Other items noticed included:

  • Super Heavy Cavalry. This means Kataphraktoi and while these guys will trample anything that gets in their way, they are so slow and cumbersome that flanking moves against even a cavalry deficient army will be difficult. And given their propensity to chase down the moon after winning, they are really a one shot deal.
  • Missile Fire. This term includes light javelins, darts and bows, and while they are quite effective at inflicting losses on the enemy, they are not powerful enough to do so and also cause a negative unit-wide impact such as dispersion or rout. Elephants seem the same, so after you’ve pelted the enemy enough, shock combat should follow.
  • Shock Impact. Many units, such as Kataphraktoi, the Phalanx and elephants are most effective, and damn near unstoppable, when they charge and grab the impact as well as the melee charge results. A Phalanx defending only is durable, but not particularly effective at killing stuff.
  • Roman Discipline. The famous and fanatical Roman level of drill and discipline must have been modeled into this game, because throughout the battle I found Roman heavy infantry very hard to disperse or rout. Kill a lot of Legionaries? Can do easy. But break a Maniple of Principes? Time and time again those little red numbers would pop up not only indicating that I had really clobbered these Pilum packing soldiers, but something really nasty was about to happen besides, only to see that the unit held its ground anyway. I swear there was one unit that kept three of my Kataphraktoi engaged for six turns and simply would not die. The Romans didn’t wash their dishes with water (they used sand), but if there had been a Latin kitchen sink, I would have thrown it at these guys.
  • When in Rome. About the only historical shortcoming I saw in the game is something I find in nearly all PC wargames. No matter how hard you code, getting an AI to think like a Roman living in 190 BC is nigh near impossible. Thus many of the AI’s moves proved to be excellent tactically, but likely not what Marius Gloriosus would have done had he been on the scene. Think formation and cohesion here, but quite frankly, I don’t think I want an AI that I, Robot capable anyway.


All in all a very rewarding and fun experience, and I’ll be playing again soon. Indeed I just noticed there are already three new player generated scenarios on historical battles for download. One is Alesia and if you really, REALLY think you’ve got what it takes to be Julius Caesar, this is the battle to play.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to besiege a fort and fight some Gauls.

This article covers a game developed and published by members of the Slitherine Group with which we share an affiliation. For more information, please see the About Us page.


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