Review: Polemos S.P.Q.R.

Rating: 3 stars

2011 has definitely been the year of the Ancients rules, with several different sets being released. S.P.Q.R. follows these, it’s publication having suffered a couple of delays (not the least being a rather large roof leak that left the area of the Baccus studio where pictures are normally taken under several inches of water!)

The immediate apparent difference with the rules in comparison with the likes of Hail Caesar! and Clash of Empires is the period covered – S.P.Q.R. rather than addressing the entire scope of ancient warfare, concentrates on the time of the expansion of theRoman Empire– roughly from the time of Julius Caesar to that of Marcus Aurelius. Its reasons for doing this are discussed in the book, but I’m certain that this point alone will cause some debate amongst ancients players.

Whilst the Polemos system is unashamedly aimed at the 6mm gamer, players of other scales should not be immediately put off from these rules. Essentially, the game is designed around units that have a base width twice the size of its depth – so although they recommend the use of 60mm x 30mm bases, those armies on bases with 40mm frontage are just as easily used. A single base of figures will represent the equivalent of a Roman cohort, about 8 turmae of cavalry, 20 chariots or about 10 artillery pieces.

Units represented in the game are as you would expect: Auxilia, Archers, Artillery, Cataphracts, Cavalry, Chariots, Elephants, Legionaries, Light Horse, Pike, Scythed Chariots, Skirmishers, Slingers, Stratiotas, Tribal Infantry and Officers.

Units are also defined as being ‘Formed’ or ‘Unformed’. This affects how easy they are to control during the game.

The mechanics of the game are fairly straight forward. At the start of the turn players are allocated a number of ‘Tempo’ points. These are determined by the size of his army (number of bases, divided by 4) plus the roll of a D6.

Players then bid for initiative, using between 1 and 6 of these Tempo points to do so. The winner is known as the ‘Tempo player’ – he gets to move first, and his units ‘cost’ less to order.

There are three orders that a player my give to a unit of troops: Advance, halt or skirmish. These orders ‘cost’ tempo points, and the cost varies depending upon the size of the formation. Large groups of units, deployed in wide lines, are prohibitive expensive, in tempo cost’ to move. It is the author’s opinion that these formations, though popular with map drawers and wargamers alike, were hugely unlikely in actuality.

Part of the philosophy behind the use of tempo points is that formations of troops are difficult to control – especially once given an order. So, once a unit or formation is ordered to advance, it may take some considerable effort to change that order.

Units may use ‘tactical’ orders which do not cost Tempo points – this includes shooting, charging and halting (as a result of a combat outcome).

Movement is very simple. All measurement is done using the base width (BW) of a unit. So, movement distance and ranges are directly proportional to the size of your bases – but a BW is nominally 6cm.

Infantry move 1 BW, Cavalry & Chariots 2BW and Light Horse 3. Movement is usually in a straight line, changing facing is done by wheeling, which is the only movement allowed in the turn.

Combat may be ranged or melee. This would seem an obvious distinction, except for the fact that charging is include in ranged combat – the theory behind this is that units threatening to charge would have an effect on the target unit prior to any contact being made.

The combat mechanic works the same for both melee and ranged combat. You check on a table for the combat factor of the unit (different for offensive and defensive units in ranged, charge or melee). You then roll 1D6 each, apply any and all modifiers from the appropriate table (the Ranged table has a possible 7 modifiers, Charge table 9, and the Melee table a staggering 22)

The difference between the two numbers is worked out, and the result looked up on a combat result table.

This may result in units staying in contact, recoiling, possibly with morale implications, or routing completely.

There are several examples of combat in the rules, which cover most eventualities.

Morale is handled by ‘Shaken’ tokens. A unit with 1 shaken token is disordered, 2 tokens is wavering and 3 or more is routed. You may remove shaken tokens during the rally phase of the game, but once a unit is routed, it cannot be rallied.

As the game progresses, the morale of both armies degrades as each suffer losses. As morale lowers, troops become more difficult to order, are more likely to react poorly to combat losses, and eventually rout completely.

The winner of the game depends on what the players agree beforehand, but is most likely to be the army that is left holding the field.

The rulebook itself is divided into 5 parts. Part one explains game set-up whilst part two takes you through all the mechanics of the game.

Part three gives details of terrain and optional rules, including some detailed rules on random terrain generation, which are always very useful.

Part four has the army generators, which will probably be one of the most contentious parts of these rules. S.P.Q.R. does not use a points system. Instead, you can either use a ‘standard’ army, which has a set composition of units, or you can alternatively randomly determine your army composition using a table. Army generators are supplied for Late Republican Roman (Marian), Early Imperial Roman, Germans, Gallic, Parthians, British, Numidian, Sarmatian, Dacian, Pontic and Spanish. As well as the aforementioned tables, a brief outline of each army is also given.

Part five contains a couple of scenarios for Charonea and Mons Graupias and the designer’s notes. A Quick reference guide is also included at the end of the book.

Overall, Polemos S.P.Q.R. provides a good game where your initial decisions on what to do with your troops can be decisive, for better or worse. Combat tends to be relatively short, usually lasting a couple of turns before a unit routs. That said, the sheer number of potential combat modifiers that you have to check for during a turn of melee combat is somewhat off-putting, and can tend to slow the physical game down.

The production quality of the rules is very good, although the choice to produce the book primarily in black and white does have an effect. There are many pictures of 6mm armies scattered throughout the book, but since these are all in black and white, they do lose their impact somewhat. The quality of the line drawings in the book is I think more open to debate, and I suspect these are of the marmite variety.

In summary, S.P.Q.R. is a well presented and clearly laid out rulebook, although without much of the ‘fluff’ of other publications for this period.

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