There has been a lot of well-deserved hoopla lately over the latest Field of Glory II DLC, Legions Triumphant, so computer gamers are stoked. So are pewter pushers as they have their own version of FOG (3d Edition, originally by the same designer, Richard Bodley Scott), as well as other rules such as Warrior and Art de la Guerre, to satisfy their tactical ancients combat appetite. But what about cardboard counter boardgamers? The answer is yes and the name is the Great Battles of History (GBOH) series by GMT Games. Years after introduction, the series is still going strong and still being printed and reprinted.
This review looks at one of the latest additions, Cataphract the Reconquest of the Roman Empire, first published in 1999. So 1999 is a recent game, you might ask? Well it is now, having just made the company’s P500 cut for guaranteed reprinting. When a game can do that after nine years, you know it’s something special.
In the Box
The P500 process for GMT guarantees publication of a game if the firm gets 500 preorders. Cataphract is confirmed with a normal price tag of $70.00 US, or $49.00 preorder. The game comes in an attractive box and contains 700 ½ inch counters plus 40 double sized counters representing naval galleys. There is the ubiquitous roll of plastic bags with a 10 sided dice, plus a player aid card, a 21 page rulebook, a 12 page playbook (scenarios) and a final 16 page campaign rulebook. There are two 34 x 22 inch backprinted maps, to include the campaign map.
And the word “campaign” is the first thing that allows this game to stand out from the GBOH pack. Like FOG II digital, this game has its own campaign game covering Belisarius, Narses and their attempt to retake the Roman Empire back for Emperor Justinian, who gives his name to the campaign rules. This is not simply a box full of battle scenarios, but an operational campaign system as well, to give a bit more meaning to otherwise cleaving heads in a vacuum. In this way Cataphract performs similarly to FOG II digital.
The scale of the game is 20 minutes per turn, 70 yards per hex and 100 warriors per strength point. Battle scenarios included are Dara, Callinicum, Tricameron, Taginae, Casilinum, the naval battle of Sena Gallica (you will need the GMT GBOH game War Galley to play this) plus a bonus scenario called Berserker covering a Viking raid (sorry, no Toothless counter, but you will need Saxons from GBOH Conquest of Gaul). Most of the battles are smaller than in past times, so there are no rectangular counters representing lumbering and cumbersome Phalanxes advancing. This is a time when cavalry, particularly those fully armored tanks on the hoof Kataphraktoi or Klibanarius, came into their own. Thus infantry is scarce and battles more fluid and maneuver oriented than past games in the series.
Graphics are exceptional, particularly the Justinian map, and the prose keeps its traditional irreverent humor in just the right spots. The designers, of course, are the legendary tag team of Mark Herman and Richard Berg.
On the Table
Unit counters contain a host of numbers surrounding the warrior icon portrayed. These include Size, Movement Allowance, Missile Class if any and Troop Quality (TQ, and really the most important number). There is also a unit type designation, such as HC for Heavy Cavalry and so on. Leaders likewise have numbers for Personal Combat, Charisma, Command Range, Initiative, Strategy (overall commander only) and finally Line Commands (the most important number for leaders). As with most wargames, these numbers are used to modify the effects of movement, hacking and shooting. For example, combat whether by missile or lance, produces results taken in Cohesion Hits. When the number of Cohesion Hits equals or exceeds the unit’s TQ number, it breaks. Otherwise the game really plays like most other games when it comes to moving, shooting, stabbing, slashing, stacking and Zones of Control. The Sequence of Play and Command system is the real strength of the game.
This game and all GBOH games tend to have a LOT of Leader counters. Here we are talking Belisarius, Narses, Artabatas, Pitames and even Valerian (on loan from a Thousand Planets; Laureline had the day off). This is for good reason as commanders and leaders ARE the Sequence of Play. Very generally in this game the overall commander with the highest Initiative moves first, or by winning a die roll if a tie. At that point the player selects the subordinate commander with the LOWEST initiative to issue orders to either a single unit (including himself) or a group of units via the Line Command process. These unit(s) then execute in order, Movement, Missile Fire and Shock Combat. When finished, the owning player may make a Momentum Roll to allow the same leader to issue orders again, but if unsuccessful, play moves over to the enemy commander who selects his lowest rated commander to function likewise. Then it’s back to player one to use his next lowest rated leader, and then back to his opponent and so on. When the two sides have finished using all their leaders, play moves to a joint Rout, Rally, Reload and Army Withdrawal phase, after which the turn ends.
During the process either player may “Trump” (I swear I didn’t make this up; we’re non-political here) a leader. For example if a player wants a leader with a higher Initiative rating to function prior to other lower rated commanders, he may do so if he rolls less than or equal to the desired commander’s Initiative rating. Likewise, the opposing player may Trump the Trumping player (focus folks, focus) and steal the current turn away from his adversary.
Now combine all this with the concept known as a Line Command. This rule is used to order a group of similar units to function vice a single unit. This group must be within twice the leader’s command radius and if cavalry be with one intervening hex of each other, but orientation does not matter. For infantry, the units must be in a side by side or front to rear formation and adjacent to each other, all facing the same direction. Issuing a line command requires a die roll of “0” or less than or equal to the overall commander’s Strategy rating if the subordinate commander is within his boss’ Command Radius. Leaders may issue only one Line Command per turn except Belisarius who can issue two. Likewise given the Strategy rating of Belisarius is “7” and that of the Frankish leader Buccelin is “2,” you can see why the Byzantines were able to spank the Persians, Ostrogoths, Vandals and other ash and trash they faced during the period. If you want to control a big army, learn this rule.
When comparing this game to FOG II the most significant difference to me was that both platforms did the same things, but FOG II digital did all the mathematics for you in the background. Likewise, the computer graphics are spectacular, far better than even the state of the art counters included. I will admit, however, that I almost liked the maps, totally devoid of Hobbit Hovels found in the electron version.
Yet I think the Sequence of Play and Command system in Cataphract shows there is still a place for cardboard within the wargaming world, because computer games are still catching up just a tad in the realism department. Whether by software limitation or the recognition that computer gamers are in general just a bit more casual, I do think Cataphract is a bit more accurate. The Sequence of Play does a better job of portraying the ebb and flow, not to mention chaos of battle and ultimately, Murphy’s Law. Things like the Line Command give armies with more standardized and formal organizational structure the advantage they historically had. True, FOG II digital allows entire formations, vice units to be moved, but this is at the whim of the player. There is nothing within the AI that encourages (or forces) a gamer to organize and behave like an ancient commander as in Cataphract. Instead both player and AI can move units independently like Ferraris, despite how such shenanigans impact sister units or higher commands. And finally, there is a lot more detail that allows a player to understand why an AI does what it does. One scenario has a rule that degrades Byzantine quality because they have been fasting for Lent!
That said, the price and convenience of digital gaming is definitely a tough one to beat, and in my opinion computer games will only get better. In many respects Cataphract represents the pinnacle of design, but AIs will improve and match Line Commands and even more, likely doing so even more historically. God knows, Steam tells me I’ve played more hours of FOG/FOGII than any other computer game ever. Long term, my vote is for digital.
But for now I will enjoy all the unique pleasures that boardgames like the GBOH series has to offer. That’s why when I bought my copy years ago; I also picked up its expansion module Attila, Scourge of Rome. The digital barbarians have yet to sack the Eternal City, so until they do, Ave!