In previous posts, I commented my growing interest in board wargaming. In fact, this is a return to my origins, as I seriously started playing wargames with Panzerblitz, a Christmas present from my father to both, my broher and me in 1980.
The shift to tabletop games with minis came later around 1983-84, when we founded Club Dragon in Madrid and got in contact with that world. Fast forward to early 2019: I approached a group of boardgamers in the club playing Simonitch's Holland 44: being a Market Garden related game, I couldn't resist giving it a try. The lockdown in 2020 and VASSAL (an Internet based application to play boardgames live) explains the rest.
What is SPQR
SPQR is one of the titles in which I'm investing more playing time (and money) since early last year. The game is part of a series called The Great Battles of History (GBoH) produced by GMT Games, focused in the Ancient period (from Late Bronze to the early Dark Age). The series was designed by two heavyweights of the industry: Mark Hermann and the late Richard Berg. I currently own four titles of this series (SPQR, Caesar Deluxe, Cataphract and Chariots of Fire) but there's a fifth title looming in the horizon for me in 2023 (Great Battles of Alexander Deluxe currently in P500 "made to cut" phase)
SPQR is the module focused in the emergence of the Roman Republic. The game covers the Punic Wars and the wars with other Macedonian-style armies, until Mario's reforms. SPQR enable players to fight two classical tactical visions: the Roman flexible manipular armies vs. the combined-arms phalanx-based used by Carthage and Greek peoples in the Mediterranean.
SPQR was initially launched in 1992. The SPQR Deluxe is the latest release (2018), including a an in-depth revision of the original rules (4th edition updtaed in october 2022) and a large number of the scenarios published since 1990 in different publications (mostly in C3i magazine issues)
SPQR cames in a HUGE heavy box, that contains 3 scenario booklets, 6 two-sided large unmounted maps, two sets of 3 player-aid cards, five and a half counter sheets with units and different playing-aid counters, and two 10-sided dice (note: there are several "unboxing" videos in YouTube, should you be interested in taking a closer look to the materials).
The Playing System Described
Armies have two type of counters: commanders and fighting unit (see illustration below). Commanders are critical to the game as they enable activation of units, either in groups ("line commands") or in a case-by-case basis ("individual orders").
Armies have army commanders ("overall commanders"), the most experienced and with better attributes; and "subordinated commanders", leading groups of units on differents parts of the battlefield line. Within a range, the commanders have the ability to active units. The number of possible sequential activations with the same commander is variable, depending on his level of seniority, and the ability to react of the enemy commanders, that can potentially interfere in thise subsequent activations, stealing the initiative to the enemy.
Units are of many different types: slingers, light/medium/heavy infantry and cavalry, elephants and phalanxes, with also different abilities and attributes aligned with their hisorical roles in the battlefield.
The sequence of play of a typical game is organized in turns that are subdivided in phases.
In each phase, a commander is activated (based on their rating, first the lowest rated and then sequentially from low to the highest rated leader) enabling them to order troops to move, fire and finally undertake the close combat fighting.
As a result of fire or melee, units accumulate "cohesion points" equivalent to shocks; when these cohesion points equal or exceed the unit's cohesion level (= moral), that unit breaks. When all the melees are over, broken units retreat 2 hexes and the winners move forward to ocuppy the position.
In their activation phase, commanders can also attempt to rally broken units or to reduce the cohesion or shock points accumulated of good-order units but in risk of breaking in subsequent turns.
Once all commanders have been activated, the turn moves in another phase where non-rallied routed units must expend their full movement allowance towards their tactical edge. If leaving the board, then they are considered destroyed.
This is followed by an administrative phase in which units low on missiles (archers, slingers or javeliniers) can resupply; commander counters are returned to their active side and some markerts ("moved" for example) are also removed. Victory points are accounted, and if both sides remain undefeated, a new turn is played.
This is a basic explanation of how the game develops. There is a lot of additional aspects to consider in each phase of a turn that exceeds the scope of this post: for example missile units can use harrassment and dispersal tactics instead of clashing in close combat; routing elephants can create havoc both among friends and foes; light units can refuse combat and retreat when heavier units approach; cavalry winning melees can go out of control, etc
Games are won by forcing the enemy to withdraw from the battlefield. This is achieved by causing the enemy enough "cohesion points" to erode the overall army's morale. It is possible that both sides reach their own break point levels simultaneously, in which case the game is a draw.
What I Like the Most of SPQR
First and more important, it's an Ancients era game which is a period I love. Each unit has its own features and arguably you can (and actually must!) use historical tactics in order to have a chance to win.
For example: Cartaghinian tactics should rely on the mobility and quality of its cavalry to outflank the Romans and to disorganize their lines, while the phlanxes in the centre should be used to fix the Roman front. The cavalry and the light infantry are the hammer, the phalanxes are the anvil in the Carthaginian tactics book.
Romans on the other hand. must attempt to move fast into close combat along all the line to avoid the outflanking of the cavalry, to leverage on their superior close combat ability.
Second, the importance of command in this game. In this sense the game is not just line your troops, activate leaders and ordering charge forward, losing control of the battle, but significantly more subtle: through the command mechanics, players can shift reserves between flanks, take advantage of gaps in the enemy line to explot a penetration, control the cavalry, assess the best timing and place to hit the enemy, arrange a tactical retreat to reorganize your lines, etc
In this sense, it draws paralells with the approach to design of Too Fat Lardies rulesets, that stresses the importance of command in the battle and how to make the best use of the available assets, over the pure technical aspects of the hardware (weapons) or software (men) in combat.
Two important notes:
1. The players do not have infinite command resources. A general plan for the battle must be drawn before the game begins; but players will need to make decisions, assess alternatives and decide between different options at each turn, based on the prevailing conditions in the battlefield.
2. Friction is fully embedded in the game mechanics, of course through the combat and moral checking resolution die rolls; but also on the fact that leaders activations not always succed and enemy leaders have the option to "trump" (literal rules terminology) your own activation, but also with risks if failing to do so. The leader activation phases create a very dynamic game environment, distancing SPQR from the old traditional IGYG designs.
Again, this draws significant paralells with the design philosophy of Richard Clarke and Nick Skinner at Too Fat Lardies.
Finally, the importance of morale in the games. As explained above, units have morale levels (called "Troop Quality"), accumulate "Cohesion Hits" (equivalent to shock points) and when are equal or higher than its TQ, the units break and rout.
In each game, armies are assigned an overall force morale level or "army withdrawal" threshold. When the sum of accumulated cohesion hits (from individual units routed out of the map or destroyed in combat) reach this threshold, the army is considered demoralized and must abandon the battlefield.
This has important implications for players. Commanders have the ability to rally units, therefore stopping them from routing out of the table and enabling returning to fight, albeit with a lower combat efficiency. As the battle progresses, casualties mount and the number of broken units increases.
There's a point in which commanders must take decisions: should they keep control of the battle front to cause cohesion hits and break the enemy's army morale? Or alternatively, should they move to the rearguard, to regroup and rally fleeing units to avoid their own army collapsing?
Again, remember you have finite command resources, and decisions are not easy. The calculus should be based on the likelihood to cause more cohesion hits to the enemy relative to your own potential casualties; and if these will be enough to reach the army withdrawal threshold.
This is another paralell design development to that used by Too Fat Lardies with the concepts of "shock" and "Force Moral", introduced in many of their more recent rulesets, like Chain of Command, Sharp Practice, Infamy! Infamy! or O'Group (the latter authored by Dave Brown).
The goal to win a game is not the physical destruction of the enemy forces, but to cause enough erosion in their overall morale level, as to force abandoning the battlefield.
A well designed game recreating the environment of the Ancient 300-200 BC period battles in a very efficient way. The games are very dynamic, and as commented above, introduced a series of design elements (command control, morale, friction) particularly nice to my taste after many years playing with Too Fat Lardies rulesets.
It is not a very complex set of rules at all, but I won't use SPQR to introduce someone new to the hobby. The reason is the amount of small details (like special rules for specific units or exceptions) that you need to be aware of and need to learn to play the scenarios.
Another positive aspect is that, although the GBoH system covers a wide historical period, each volume of the series focuses on a subperiod. All games share the general mechanics but with significant changes and adaptations to the specific aspects of the covered subperiod.
Many may wonder if I did not find any negative aspects in the rules. I'd say that the main "con" is the structure and writing of the manual, not a best-practice at all. It's gone throiugh several updates (the 4th edition is the latest release) but the potential to improve is still substantial. In any case, Mark Hermann and particularly the late Richard Berg both had a reputation among aficionados, so no surprise here.
The official GMT SPQR page where you can download the lastes revised version of the rules, tables and errata documents. It is also a gateway to other interesting links (articles, videos, etc)
The C3i GOBH Center is a trove af articles on tactcis, scenarios and other related materials covering the whole GBOH series (not only SPQR)
The SPQR Boardgame Geek page is anogther must-have bookmark. Lots of videos, files to download, and critcial, a forum to clarify any type of questions curated by a lot of nice knowledgeable participants.
Finally, the site to download the VASSAL file if you fancy to play live online with international gamers.