A Guide to Wargaming in the Society of Ancients

Introduction

"… Caesar ordered the warships - which were swifter and easier to handle than the transports, and likely to impress the natives more by their unfamiliar appearance - to be removed a short distance from the others and then to be rowed hard and run ashore on the enemy's right flank, from which position slings, bows and artillery could be used by men on deck to drive them back.  This manoeuvre was highly successful.  Scared by the strange shape of the warships, the motion of the oars, and the unfamiliar machines, the natives halted and then retreated a little.  But as the Romans still hesitated, chiefly on account of the depth of the water, the man who carried the eagle of the 10th legion, after praying to the gods that his action might bring good luck to the legion, cried in a loud voice: 'Jump down, comrades, unless you want to surrender our eagle to the enemy; I, at any rate, mean to do my duty to my country and my general.  With these words he leapt out of the ship and advanced towards the enemy with the eagle in his hands.  At this the soldiers, exhorting each other not to submit to such a disgrace, jumped with one accord from the ship, and the men from the next ships, when they saw them, followed them and advanced against the enemy." [Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, Book IV.25]

These words were written by Julius Caesar about the first Roman invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. and the first written account of the British Isles.  It is the history of warfare from its earliest beginnings which is one of the reasons to become interested in ancient wargaming.  There are other aspects to ancient wargaming that make it a fascinating hobby.  Like Chess, there is also the intellectual challenge of conceiving a plan and executing it.  There is also the aspect of modelling, the pride in seeing a well painted line of Roman legionaries or a fearsome line of Ancient Britons.

This guide explores these, and other, aspects of ancient wargaming to provide an introduction to the hobby.

The Story of The Society of Ancients

The earliest days of wargaming began in the Victorian era and are described by H.G. Wells in his book "Little Wars".  It was however in the 1960's that wargaming as a hobby began to grow.  The hobby was encouraged by the books of Don Featherstone and the many rules and techniques he devised.

The very first issue of Slingshot neatly typed on 16 pages of foolscap paper went out in September 1965 to twenty-two members of Tony Bath's new Society of Ancients.  Since then, the Society has produced an unbroken run of 222 journals (to March 2002).  The first issue is still available on a CD collection of Slingshot from 1965 - 2000.

The first membership list makes impressive reading.  It included Phil Barker, the most prolific contributor to Slingshot and Ancient Wargaming in general; Alan Nickels, outspoken doyen of the Medieval period, Neville Dickinson, later Secretary and figure manufacturer, Harold Gerry, for years the journal's columnist; and the actor Deryck Guyler, who shortly to become the Society's first President and honorary Life Vice-President until his death in 2000.

Almost immediately a plea was made by Alan Nickels to extend the Society's brief through to the Medieval period.  Nobody objected and the Society has ever since taken a very liberal view of the term "Ancients".  It later rejected by a narrow margin the subject of fantasy wargaming.

By 1975 the Society had over 1000 members and continued to grow into the 1980s. During the 1980's different forms of ancient wargaming were explored.  The Society reached its thirtieth anniversary in 1995 and has continued to flourish.  The quality of historical research in Slingshot as well as many practical wargaming articles continue to encourage the development and promotion of the hobby worldwide. Tony Bath, who died in 2000, has left a fine legacy to the Ancient wargaming community.

Table-top Wargaming

For the majority of players, this is the way they conduct their wargaming. The easiest way to acquire an army is to buy a pre-painted army, either from a supplier, at a wargame show or on an internet auction site such as e-Bay.  Most wargamers prefer to buy their own figures and paint them themselves but this can be both highly enjoyable and time consuming.

Figures

Figures can be either plastic or metal and come in a range of scales.  Plastic figures are cheap but paint tends to flake off them and the range is somewhat limited.  They are usually in 20mm scale.  Metal figures, made out of lead or pewter are more expensive but are favoured by the majority of wargamers.  Figures come in 25mm, 20mm, 15mm, 6mm or 2mm.  The scale refers to the height of an infantry soldier.

I shall quickly run through some of the pros and cons of each scale:

  • 2mm - Tiny, but needing minimal preparation and painting, look great en masse but not close up.  Very cheap and because there is no detail they can be used flexibly, a spearmen with a round shield can be anything from a Greek Hoplite to a Visigoth tribesman.
  • 6mm (1/300) - They share the cheapness of 2mm but can have a surprising amount of detail.  They are good for representing massed actions but are not as generic as 2mm figures.
  • 15mm -  At present the most popular scale, combining detail, paintability and relative cheapness, widely used for competitions and with a vast choice of figures.
  • 20mm (1/72) - The scale of most plastic figures and a small number of metal ranges.  They are not as common as 15mm or 25mm figures.
  • 25mm - The Rolls Royce of figures.  At one time this was the most popular scale, and they are making a comeback with some exquisite ranges.

Rules

Ancient Wargaming is blessed with a wide variety of rules to play with.  The most popular are:

  • De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) - This is a simple set of rules that is ideal for the beginner.  It contains its own set of army lists and a set of campaign rules, all for about £ 5.00.  An army is composed of about 40 figures (at 15 or 25mm scale) and battles are played on a 2 feet by 2 feet (for 15mm) or 4 feet by 4 feet  (for 25mm) table.
  • De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM) - This set is the "big brother" of DBA.  It uses many of the mechanisms of DBA.  It is widely used in competition wargaming.  The army lists are produced separately in four additional books.
  • Warhammer Ancient Battles (WAB) - This is another fairly simple set of rules, based on the fantasy "Warhammer" rules.  It incorporates many of the features of early wargames rulesets and is the set if you like throwing lots of dice!  The rulebook also includes guides to painting and includes some superb colour pictures of figures. It is also used for competition wargaming, although competitions are fewer than with DBM.  Army list booklets are published separately.
  • Armati - Produced by American rule writer Arty Conliffe, these rules have a smaller following but are used in competitions in both the U.S.A. and Great Britain.  They have features which are unique, good if you wish to try something different.
  • Warrior - This ruleset is based on the WRG 7th Edition set of rules that was popular in the late 80's and early 90's.  Recently updated, they are used for competitions in the U.S.A.
  • Naumachiae - If naval warfare is your interest, this is the leading set of Ancient naval warfare rules.

Other rulesets which are still regularly used include Ancient Warfare, Medieval Warfare, Newbury Fast-Play rules, Classical Hack, Day of Battle, Conquerors & Kings and Glutter of Ravens.

Table and Terrain

The table top is typically 6 feet by 4 feet for 15mm figures and 8 feet by 5 feet for 25mm figures.  The simplest method is to cover a table with a green or sand coloured felt cloth.  All rulesets include provisions for adding terrain.  Terrain can be bought, but many wargamers find it satisfying to produce their own.  The range of terrain includes:

  • Hills - usually made of polystyrene covered in flock;
  • Rivers - can be made from card painted to blue, green or brown;
  • Built-up areas - buildings can be scratch built from card or cork tile;
  • Woods - trees of all sorts can be made from plastic aquarium plants available from your pet store.

For the more ambitious wargamer, terrain tiles either 1foot square or 2 feet square can be obtained.  Made of polystyrene, these can include rivers and gullys sculpted into the tile.  Most wargaming shows will now include at least one or two suppliers who specialise in manufacturing terrain.

Armies

The range of armies to choose from in the Ancient period can be quite overwhelming.  The DBM army lists include over 300 armies to choose from! While some rulesets may favour some armies over others it is probably best to start with an army that you are interested in and learn to use it well.  Here is a selection of armies and reasons why you might choose them:

Many armies have a certain "theme".   New Kingdom Egyptians have a combination of light chariots and regular spearmen and archers.  The Roman legions with their heavy infantry armed with pilum, the heavy javelin.  The Huns and Mongols with their hordes of light cavalry.

Generally the more troop types in an army, the more complex it is to use.  In most rules, certain troop types are more successful against some troops than others.  Armies with a single main troop type, such as the Anglo-Saxon army with its shieldwall may struggle against some types of opponents.  An all infantry army against an all cavalry army may produce an exciting battle but will tend to produce a tense fight with the mounted troops trying to get around the flanks of the infantry.

Some armies used professional soldiers others tribal levies.  Generally professional troops were more manoeuvrable and this is usually reflected in the rules.  To compensate, armies with poorer quality troops tend to get more troops to fight with.

Some armies have a particularly unusual troop type.  A Hussite army was renowned for using War Wagons manned by a crew of up to 12 crossbowmen, handgunners and halbadiers.  The Khmer army mounted bolt shooters on elephants providing a very unusual artillery platform!

Some armies are offensive, others more defensive in nature.  The Medieval French with an army of Knights tends to be an offensive army, their opponents the English with fewer knights and many longbowmen tends to be a defensive army.

Most wargamers look for the "killer" army.  They are all still looking!  Find an army that you are interested in, learn how to use it and then you may find success on the wargames table.  Even better, research your own army!

Painting

Painting wargaming figures to a high standard looks difficult but it is easy and can be immensely satisfying.  With perseverance and care excellent results will soon be achieved.

Before buying any figures, there is various equipment you will need:

  • A heavy duty craft knife - such as a Stanley knife;
  • A scalpel-style hobby knife;
  • A set of mini-files - these can be obtained cheaply from a good ironmongers;
  • A steel ruler;
  • Glue - such as UHU;
  • A strong workmat - a heavy piece of close grained wood is ideal.

I would never recommend buying an entire army in one go.  It will still be unpainted 6 months later.  Start by buying one or two units and mixing them with second-hand or borrowed figures.

The first step is to clean up the figures.  Standards are high and most figures come with remarkably few lines or little flash to remove.  Poor figures should be returned to the manufacturer.  Check each figure carefully.  Remember safety first, knives can cut hands!  Wash the figures in light detergent to remove any grease.  Then base them on a strip of card or wood.  This makes handling much easier.

I recommend acrylic paints.  They are easily obtained and being water based are safe and easy to use.  Use good quality brushes and take care of them, always clean them carefully after use.  They come in different sizes, a size 0 or 00 can be used for very fine work, a size 1 or 2 for normal work and a size 3 or 4 to cover larger areas.

Consider the effect you are trying to achieve.  Are you painting an individual figure or trying to achieve a mass effect.  This will depend to some extent on the scale of the figure you are painting.

The next step is to prime the figure.  Some painters use black paint to prime, some white, others brown paint.  Darker colours probably create more shading and delineation, light colours reflect colour better.  Find a style you like.

Next paint in the colours.  Avoid a solid tone, it makes a figure look dull and lifeless.  Highlight with a lighter tone.  Using washes of thinned paint will add shading to the folds.  Paint in an order from bottom to top such as:

  1. flesh;
  2. armour;
  3. clothing;
  4. weapons, belts, shoes;
  5. hair, headdress, plumes.

The final painting step is to varnish the figure.  Ensure the figure has completely dried.  I have found spray varnishes easier to use.  I prefer a matt varnish, although others use a semi-gloss finish to good effect.  The varnish creates a hard wearing surface that helps protect your painting.

Having painted your figure you will need to base it.  For precision, suppliers now provide pre-cut bases, usually from plastic or 2mm MDF.  There are as many basing techniques as painting techniques.  For my 15 mm Saxons I use a green grass base with a mix of flock applied using a watered down PVC adhesive.  For my 25mm Egyptians I use a sand and plaster mix painted with a sand colour and darker brown wash, with tufts of static grass.  Textured paints are available for a good basing finish.  Finally I add a strip of rubberised magnetic sheet to the base.  This ensures the figure does not move around the metal trays in which I store my figures.

Historical Research

Historical research forms an important part of the content of Slingshot.  While the academic has a lot more time for research and has access to good libraries, there is no reason why the amateur should not aspire to the same standards.  The best place to start is almost certainly your public library.  As you become more familiar with a topic, you will start to identify more specialist books.  The library can help you obtain copies of these to borrow via the inter-library loan service, they are normally extremely supportive.  The Internet is a good source of contacts and advice.  The Society of Ancients runs a discussion group.  Experienced members are always happy to offer pointers and information to get you started.

Sources of material include literary works, archaeological artifacts, manuscript illuminations, paintings, carvings and statuary.

Literary sources may be primary (written at the time of, or soon after, the events recounted) or secondary (written later).  It is a general rule that primary sources are preferable to secondary ones (which themselves are usually based on primary sources), but beware! - ancient sources are rarely objective or unbiased (e.g. Caesar who was writing as a form of political propaganda).  A second point to be wary of is that unless you can read the original language you will be relying on a translation where important nuances of detail can be lost.

Secondary sources vary enormously, from ancient accounts to modern academic works and popular books.  Remember that debate can rage in academic circles over different interpretations of evidence, and theories can change over time.  Where sources are quoted it is often worth going back to the original, some authors have been known not to check what their sources actually say!

Photographs and drawings in books are useful, but have their limitations and study of the real thing may give extra information.  Books often list where objects are held, and a letter to a museum holding an object may yield more knowledge.  It is worth writing to the museum even if you plan to go and look at an item, it may not be on general display, or there may be more information available.  First hand study of artifacts is often worthwhile as detail may be lost in a photograph or a diagram.  When writing to a museum include a stamped addressed envelope and add a few notes on what you are trying to research. If you show some knowledge they will be more happy to help you./p>

The pages of Slingshot show that you do not have to be an academic to write good historical articles. The secret of achieving good results is to look at the evidence available, read avidly, check your sources and don't believe everything you read!

Clubs and Conventions

For many wargamers, their hobby is centralised around the activities of their wargames club.  Clubs typically meet once a week and usually fight a range of periods, not only ancients!   A wargames club is a great way to get started and to meet other wargamers.  Good clubs will make you feel welcome, encourage you to join in a variety of games and take time to answer any questions you have about unfamiliar games or areas of history.  Subscriptions are not likely to be prohibitive, though you may be asked for a contribution every meeting to cover hire costs.  A list of wargames clubs is available on The Society of Ancients website, www.soa.org.uk

Many clubs hold a Convention once a year.  A list of events is advertised in the wargaming press and on The Society of Ancients website.  Most conventions hire a hall and work on some combination of demonstration and participation games and trade stands.  Many operate a bring and buy stall, you may find bookstalls, reenactment and other specialist societies.

Competition Wargaming

Wargamers take part in competitions for a variety of reasons. Contrary to popular belief, few believe that the winner of any competiton is a good general capable of emulating Alexander the Great or Hannibal. Like most wargamers, competitors generally accept that they are taking part in nothing more than a game bearing only a passing resemblance to the real thing. In reality the majority of players accept that they have little chance of winning. While some enter to win, others just want to do as well as possible, or set themselves a more modest goal such as to avoid fiinishing in the bottom half.

The variety of armies used in any competition is also an indication that many people are there for fun. Most battles are fought in a friendly spirit - many of the leading wargamers are happy to offer tips to newcomers (usually after they have beaten you!). 

A typical competition lasts two days and involves fighting four games.  In North America and Australia, competitions usually take place at the major conventions.  In the United Kingdom, they are generally held at weekends because the shorter distances make travelling to a weekend competition more feasible.  Most competitions use a 'Swiss Chess' format, with the first round draw being assigned on a random or historical basis, and the subsequent rounds based on the current position of the player in the competition.

In Britain, the British Historical Gaming Society is the main organisation for competition gaming.  In the Ancient period they organise the Society of Ancients National Rankings. The rankings are based on the final results in competitions, with major competitions counting for more than smaller competitions.  In the U.S.A., the North American Society of Ancient and Medieval Wargamers (NASAMW), organise many competitions.

The following is a list of do's and don’ts for taking part in competitions.

  1. Apply well in advance.  Most competitions have a limited number of places so book early.
  2. Work out your army list well in advance and make sure it is legal.  Many competitions employ list checkers to help sort out lists, but don't rely on the list checker to sort out problems with your list.
  3. Take along figures of a reasonable paint standard.  While a good paint job is not compulsory, most competitions specify that figures should at least be painted.
  4. Know the rule basics and play a few games before you enter a competition.
  5. Get to the venue on time.  Travel delays do happen so plan to arrive at least half an hour before the latest check-in time.  It is never pleasant to be rushed into your first game.
  6. Treat umpires politely and respect their decisions.
  7. Remember everything necessary  including:
    • Figures - double check you have all the figures you need;
    • Dice - it is worth taking a spare couple of dice;
    • Paperwork - rules, playsheets, army list books and army lists;
    • Measuring implements - some players have specialist measuring sticks;
    • Glue - to repair figures damaged in competition;
    • Terrain - for some rulesets this needs to be functional rather than pretty to allow fine measurements.
  8. Set yourself a realistic target.  As a newcomer don't expect to win your first competition.  A realistic target might be to win one game or kill an enemy general!
  9. Play in a good spirit and at a reasonable speed.  Deliberate slow play to avoid defeat is gamesmanship and is unwelcome in competitions

Campaigns

Campaigns add dimensions to wargaming that the table-top battle cannot provide.  It provides for a depth of reality by offering the opportunity for different encounters: raids, skirmishers, sieges, blockades, scouting, ambushes and much more.  The player's perspective is raised from table-top tactics to strategic planning over a wide area.  Campaigns can be based on historical situations, "what-ifs" (such as what-if Alexander the Great hadn't died in Persis and had led his army against Carthage?) or complete fictions.

It is best to start with a simple campaign.  The WRG DBA rules include a simple campaign mechanism.  This can be elaborated on by adding greater detail.  Campaign economics can be introduced, bearing in mind that the monetary economy often played a very small part in most ancient states.  Characterisation can greatly enhance a campaign.  In many periods political rivalry led to a huge amount of conflict.  While some table top rules include provision for weather, it is in a campaign where it can make a huge impact.  Any significant campaign should also include rules for supply and provisioning.  An army marches on its stomach and if the general is more worried about where his next meal is coming from than the enemy, you probably have the supply rules correct!

A good campaign will also consider the effects immediately before and after a battle.  The situation in which two armies meet should determine the terrain, the relative positions of the two armies and the type of encounter.  The situation and the result of the battle should determine the ultimate losses on the enemy.  An infantry army defeated in enemy territory by a cavalry opponent would suffer extremely heavy losses.  A nomadic army of horse archers might slip away to turn up somewhere else.

Contacts

If you are interested in finding out more about the Society of Ancients please contact the Membership Secretary