Friday, July 4, 2014

The Battle of Cunaxa: Persians vs Persians!

401 BC. While the legitimate shah, Artaxerxes, has gone east to quell a revolt, his brother, Cyrus the younger sees an opportunity to fill the vacuum. He declares himself king, wins the loyalty of Asia Minor and the Levant. Getting word of Cyrus' mischief, Artaxerxes heads west with the royal guard (including the famed Immortals and some newly-painted heavy cavalry. Cyrus hires 10,000 Greek hoplites (whose story is chronicled in Xenophon's Anabasis) to match his brother's forces and heads west. They meet on the bank of the Euphrates, 40 miles from Babylon, near a little town called Cunaxa. That much is history. 

Last night I hosted and reffed this game for two history professors, Professor T and Professor D. The first to arrive at my house, prof T, took on the role of the firstborn son , Artaxerxes and prof D, when he got there, played the second born, Cyrus. 

Here's our play area, not a bad bit of terrain if I say so myself. The sand is just a variegated, sort of tie-dyed looking brown/tan felt I bought at a fabric store. The river is tie dyed craft paper. There was no difficult terrain here, but I ruled that the Euphrates was deep and swift along this bank, and that any unit forced to give ground or withdraw into the river would be lost.

Cyrus (professor D) has a fantastic first shooting round, his bows and slings rolling sixes and triggering some pretty unlucky rolls from Professor T. Half of Artaxerxes' skirmishers are cut down before they finish lacing their sandals.

So Artaxerxes scrambles to make contact with the usurper's troops, light cavalry on his flank.

Nearer to the river, the (lesser, non-royal) commanders are having less luck with their orders -- the two sides, including Cyrus' hoplites and Artaxerxes' guard cavalry, just glare at each other.

Artaxerxes gains ground with a solid line: Indian subject levy, sparabara, and Immortals backed by elephants.

And Cyrus' takabara levies fall back.

But the would-be emperor strikes back with these scythed chariots. These one-shot weapons are going to annihilate a unit of sparabara and cripple the Immortals. "Immortal THIS, bitches!" squealed a man with a PhD.

With the sparabara down, the elephants more or less become Artaxerxes' front line.

A bit late to the (toga) party, the hoplites advance. Prof D was worried about them being so far from their barbarian allies. Turns out he needn't have been -- heavy infantry with long spears and phalanx formation is a tough package in Hail Caesar. They chopped through a unit of sparabara with really lovely salmon and turquoise outfits, I mean really lovely, just look at them. Anyway, they died. Even the heavy cavalry wasn't making a dent in Cyrus' phalanx.

On the far end of the fight, the brothers actually meet, Cyrus leading a unit of takabara and Artaxerxes among some subject infantry (both of these guys reduced to consorting with levy troops! They must have been desperate).

As Atraxerxes' levies retreat, both sides have seen a lot of casualties, but only Cyrus still has anything resembling a battle line.

And then Cyrus led a unit of takabara against an elephant. And some dice got rolled. And Cyrus got his fool head stepped on. In Hail Caesar, of course, every time your leader contributes dice to a battle, there is a small chance that he will die. And so he did; and with the death of Cyrus the question to succession was settled. (In real history, Cyrus's death in this battle abruptly ended the civil war. The Greek mercenaries offered their services to another Persian; they said that they could make him king, but he declined, because his blood was not noble enough). Professor D was kind of surprised by this quick end, leading me to wonder if I had made the victory conditions for this scenario entirely clear at the beginning.

This was a great scenario; everybody had a blast, and I would not mind running it again, perhaps at a convention. I have to make sure that the generals are highly motivated to stay in battle because I WANT this battle to get resolved by the death of either Artaxerxes or Cyrus, and in Hail Caesar you have the option of keeping your generals VERY safe as long as they aren't contributing dice to a battle. What fun is that? A little house ruling is needed.

These hoplites were still standing tall at the battle's end, and we thought about running a sub-game wherein the hoplites, with no allies, had to fight their way off the table, which was the plot of Xenophon's book.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Scratch built oasis (with instructions) and the Achaemenid Persian warriors who will fight for it

First off, I'd like to share my process for scratch building an oasis terrain piece. With slight modification, I am sure this would work for any sort of pond or pool. 

First I got a round wooden disk six or eight inches in diameter.  This was maybe $1.20 at the craft store but I'll bet you could improvise a simple, stiff circle from any number of household objects. Onto it, I glued the water. I am aware that there are special paints and gels to create a rippling, translucent water effect, but I came up with something simple, economical, and convincing: I got some shiny blue tissue paper (the sort you'd stuff in a gift bag or use as wrapping paper -- super cheap at the craft store) and crumpled it up. This crinkled effect catches the ambient light in a way that is reminiscent of water rippling under a breeze. Next you'll want to glue on some trees; I had some palms that were undoubtedly intended to go into a fish tank. I converted some Christmas pine tree and holly berry clusters (part of a dollar store holiday corsage) to pomegranate trees just by painting the cones green. I didn't glue trees in an even circle around the spring because nature is often asymmetrical, and because I thought there might come a day when figures would want to stand on the piece. Next you glue sand around the tissue paper. Use the glue and sand to cover the ragged edges of your tissue paper -- it does not cut cleanly -- and to hold and hide the point where your trees meet the wood. When it's dry, paint the sand with a wet brown. When that is dry, drybrush the topmost surface of the sand with a yellowish tan. Trust me -- you want to paint your sand this way. Sand painted to look like sand looks much better than sand. I know how ridiculous that sounds. Glue a little greenery around the water and there you have it. Here's the oasis under a couple of lighting conditions.

I did not actually look up any pictures of oases while creating this, preferring to build an oasis of the mind, lit by the lamp of the mind. 

When will this oasis see action? There has been some loose talk of a Defend the Oasis scenario (based on a scenario from the Hail Caesar book) pitting my Persians against GG's Romans (ahistorical: Persians did fight Romans, but my Persians come from the time of the Greco-Persian wars). GG's Romans put a stout whooping on us last time, so I have hurled myself into painting some Persian forces.

These guys aren't really Persians, they're Indian levies. These are Eureka miniatures and I'm fond of the sculpts. In the rules these guys are not very tough, but that's no reason they shouldn't look good. I really like the palette of warm earth tones on these guys. And yes, that is purple on the shadowy parts of the levies' skin. It isn't realistic but it's very pleasing to my eye. The only thing I'm not sure I like here is the lack of eyeballs. I've been leaning against painting eyeballs on soldiers recently but maybe these guys need them. Do you put eyeballs on your minis?

 Persian heavy cavalry. These guys actually have a strategic use: they'll be the one unit in my army that can dish out more head-to-head clash damage than a Roman legion. I would devastate a legion if I hit it in the flank, and, if Ahura Mazda is on my side, I could even punch a hole through his center, if I am properly supported. Positive points: I love painting scale mail. Negatives: these guys just aren't that terrifying. They're Old Glory miniatures. The picture on their website was hazy enough that I couldn't see that they were all holding bunches of javelins. None of them are even holding them in an active "I'm going to javelin your ass" pose. I would have preferred swords, spears, and axes (heavy cavalry are most useful as shock troops) held in attacking postures.  

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A plethora of Persians

My Achaemenid Persian army is pretty big. That's kind of the shtick of the Achaemenids, isn't it? They don't necessarily have the best trained, best armed, or best motivated soldiers, but they have plenty of them. Greek historians number the Persian armed forces in the millions... but that may well have been propaganda to make the defeat of their armies all the more glorious for the Greeks. Anyway, it's always time to paint more Persian troops. My army is not actually growing all that fast, since many of these soldiers are coming in to displace some models that are part of my Achaemenid horde, but aren't really period-appropriate, like my attractive Sherden Guard (not pictured) and a handful of assorted Midle Easterners who would really work better in my Saracen army. So without further ado, more Persians.
Seen here, a unit of takabara. These guys are not the best troops, although they are possessed of that beautiful and endemic Persian trait, the ability to switch seamlessly from archery to hand-to-hand combat. Once I lamented that cheap troops take just as long to paint as elite troops (and even longer when they're wearing patterned pajamas like many of my Persians), but now I've realized that everybody deserves a pretty paint job, even if they're going to die or flee when they first make contact with the enemy. They're armed with a sweet light battle axe called a sagaris, a forward sweeping short sword the Greeks called kopis, I'm not sure of the Persian word for it, and that timeless classic, the spear.

Some light cavalry. The griffin was a traditional Persian motif; the star and the eagle's head were my own ideas. Hoplites should not be the only troops to get individualized shield designs.

Two of these riders have thick black and white stripes on their PJs. I don't think the effect worked out all that well. Shields: another griffin, a two-faced head based loosely on some old Persian designs I googled, and a man's head that I took from an Achaemenid coin, but ended up looking pretty Greek. Still looks good IMO.
Behold a Pesian commander! I'd like to call him the god-king of the Empire based on his hat and elaborate beard, but that noble personage would really be riding a chariot. Still he weilds a staff of authority topped with something resembling the Zoroastrian Faravahar. It was tempting to put designs on his clothes in addition to their decorative fringe, but I didn't want to risk messing up a good looking figure, so he's a little less gaudy than some Persians.

Persian cavalry commander. Look, I realize that a bronze scale armored camel (camelphract?) is about as historically accurate as Disney's Prince of Persia, but you know how I love camels. I had to find a place for this guy. If you read this blog and are aware of any time in history that any nation has actually fielded barded camel cavalry, please leave a comment.

Finally, a new unit of sparabara. I already have a couple of these units, which I consider the go-to troops in the Achaemenid army, not quite as flimsy as takabara (but they're still going to get their asses kicked in hand-to-hand combat against a like formation of hoplites or (as I learned recently) legionaries. Like most Persians, they can shoot or fight hand to hand. Their distinctive spara shields are good against projectiles and light arms. I agonized about a color scheme for these soldiers, trying not to repeat any colors from my red and yellow sparabara or from my blue and purple sparabara, or my green and white immortals. Black robes and orange shields got shot down as the black robes would be too close to the Persians' black beards and hair and might give them a blobby look. So I settled on salmon and teal. Nobody said I had to stick to primary colors. These sparabara, along with most of the minis in this post, are from Sergeant Major Miniatures. their Persians are the best looking Persians I know of -- but make sure you have a good knife when you order, because I had to spend two or three days carving the flash out of these guys' hands so that they could grip their spears. Worth it.
Go forth, my minions, and slay -- for god-king and country!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Romans vs Persians -- My first Hail Caesar loss

Recently I clashed with GG of the Richmond Leisure Society. I have been expanding and prettying up my Persian army, and GG has been doing the same for his Romans, who saw some action against my Greeks in months past. So we get the (unhistorical, but who cares?) match up between Early Imperial Rome and Achaemenid Persia.

My Persians


GG's Romans


This overhead shot shows you a beautiful sight -- look how much bigger a 420ish point Persian army is compared to 420ish points of Romans. That's because my troops are cheaper, carrying flimsy wicker shields, wearing their pajamas for Pete's sake. But almost all of them have bows.

Neither GG nor I suffered from the phenomenonof bad command rolls. My line all moves in the first round. I don't want to close with the Romans, who are superior in hand-to-hand combat. But I don't want to hug the table edge either, lest they force me off.

Here, I get some early good news. GG's medium cavalry charged my medium cavalry before the real clash ever got started. But on their way in, I got off a closing shot (my cav have bows). The dice liked me and frowned on GG, so his cavalry was routed before it even got to melee. I was actually feeling sort of bad for that improbable roll and the significant early advantage it gave me.

Here you can even see my line starting to envelop the Romans.

This is me maintaining a nice 12" distance from most of GG's line. My plan was to do the standard Persian thing: shoot so many arrows that they blot out the sun. Here's the problem: Romans can take a testudo formation which makes them pretty much immune to casualties from missile weapons. A few lucky rolls with bows held GG at bay, forcing him to retreat six inches here or there. My arrows could have wiped out his archers and remaining cavalry if my rolls had been luckier.

The other cavalry engagement: On the north wing, GG's medium cavalry ignores the Nubian levies and faces off against my light cavalry and camels.

GG destroys my camels. Hail Caesar doesn't give camels any special rules (some games give them the ability to frighten horses), so this was just a small, light unit of cavalry (mine) versus a medium unit (his).

Here are some of my chariots not quite managing to flank GG's legionnaires.

And now for what I failed to photograph: Eventually I impatiently charged GG's line, without waiting for my cavalry to round the wings and get in the Romans' back field. I had designated my elephants and chariots as reserves and they never even touched the Romans. My infantry hit his with superior numbers and, in one case, a flanking bonus... and it was for naught. The unarmored Persians just got outfought by the better armed, better trained Romans. A unit of sparabara routed. The game was not unwinnable but it was past eleven on a school night and GG clearly had both the points and the momentum. So I flipped the table. Just kidding.

This loss was OK, useful even. It's my first Hail Caesar defeat, which is good, because if you win all the time, nobody wants to play with you. Useful tips for me next time I play Persians: Don't hold back with elephants and chariots. Crush his flanks before you engage the main body of infantry. And for the love of Ahura Mazda, paint up some more sparabara and light cavalry so that I don't have my (gorgeous but ahistorical) Sherden guard or Saracens mucking up my Achaemenid ranks. Always something to paint!

Friday, March 21, 2014

All Medieval White People Look Alike to Me

Northern European armies are not my favorite to paint. They all look the same: round shield, round helmet, mail shirt, beard. It's much easier to mistake a Welshman for a Saxon than it is to mistake a Roman for a Greek or a Persian for an Egyptian. But this ambiguity can also be a virtue, since I can field these guys as anything from north of the Rhine. Plus, if you're going to play Saga, you've got to have some heavily armed white people. So here they are.

I didn't specifically want to make that guy an Irishman; I just wanted to paint a harp.

Welsh dragon on this guy's shield makes more sense since I do play the Welsh in Saga.

Action pose! These guys are Wargames Factory Saxon Thanes, which are just about the cheapest plastics you can get. I have heard people hating on these little fellows, saying that they're ungainly, but I think you've just got to position those limbs in a convincing and exciting way.