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Beyond Normandy




Tactics in Fading Legions
By Doug McNair
April 2009

I once wrote an article dealing with tactics in Napoleon in the Desert, our “Rectangles of War” game of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. So when Mike asked me to write an article about Fading Legions, our just-reissued game of tactical combat in the late Roman Empire, I decided it would be fun to follow the rectangles back to the same part of the world, and see how time traveling backward 1,500 years would change things.

Fading Legions did not disappoint me. Like “The Pyramids,” Scenario #3: Ctesiphon (don’t ask me how to pronounce that . . . [stess-uh-fon —Ed.]) is a battle to eject Western invaders from a cradle of Middle Eastern civilization. And as with the Egyptian Mameluke commander Murad Bey, the Surenas (the Persian viceroy) has gathered forces from all over his empire to oppose a foreign Emperor. Like Bey, his own army is largely light-and-fast cavalry, capable of harassing and enveloping the enemy’s flanks. And like Napoleon, the Roman army of the Emperor Julian (“The Apostate”) consists almost entirely of highly trained heavy infantry.

But there is a big difference (literally) between the forces Bey and the Surenas had at their command. Elephants and heavy cavalry are the key factors that make Ctesiphon a nail-biting battle scenario for both the Roman and Persian players. Their ability to exploit holes in the Roman defenses and inflict massive damage gives the Persian player a fighting chance against the otherwise unstoppable Roman Legions.

Julian the Apostate, unlucky warrior.

Factors Driving Play

After setting out their counters based on the two armies’ historical deployments, both players might well wonder what the hell the Surenas was thinking. Knowing that Julian’s army had crossed the Tigris river the night before, the Surenas deployed his army in three lines in front of his capital city. That’s OK, but the specific deployment he used seems bizarre on the surface.

Legions vs. Skirmishers

The Romans have eight powerful legions in a tight line, with cavalry guarding their flanks. The Persians, on the other hand, have a thin screen of missile-armed light infantry two spaces in front of their phalanxes. If the Persians get the initiative on the first turn, these skirmishers can approach the Roman line and do some unanswered damage with light missile fire. But if the Romans get initiative, the unsupported position of the skirmishers leaves them able to do nothing but hurl insults before dying. So, their initial positioning seems like nothing but a waste of good light infantry (which can be very useful in slowing the movement of heavy infantry).


Two spaces behind the skirmishers, the Persian phalanxes are numerous, but weak. Their official designation is “Peasant Phalanx,” and it shows. Each Persian phalanx’s at-start combat strength is 4, its morale is only 3 (half that of most legions), and it takes only two hits to destroy a phalanx completely. Basically, the phalanxes can do nothing against the Romans but hold a defensive line behind which the Persian cavalry and elephants can maneuver for position.

Persian Cavalry

Luckily for the phalanxes, their flanks are guarded by light and heavy cavalry, and these form a much greater threat to the Romans than either of the aforementioned lines. All Persian light cavalry is missile-armed, meaning it can gallop up to a legion and fire at it at half strength while keeping back so the legion can’t counterattack.

The Persians also have five heavy cavalry units while the Romans have only one. Heavy cavalry in Rome at War can charge enemy units at double combat strength, so they can be devastatingly effective, especially when hitting heavy infantry in the flank.

Roman Anomalies

This last point is important in Ctesiphon, because the Romans also have a couple of issues with their deployment. Their left-wing cavalry is commanded by Prince Ormisdas, whose leadership numbers are relatively low for a Roman. And Ormisdas’ cavalry are mainly light, with only one heavy cavalry unit. Then, another issue for Persian consideration is the fact that the last legion on the Roman left is the Mattiaci legion, which has the distinction of being missile-capable, but which is also lightly-armed and lower-strength than most legions, with lower morale as well. Finally, the next unit in the line to the right of the Mattiaci is the Lanciatti Legion, a Roman phalanx (with all the disadvantages that that being a phalanx entails).

If the Persians can drive back Prince Ormisdas’ cavalry and then attack the Lanciatti Legion with heavy cavalry, they may have a chance to break it and gain the flank of the Lanciatti phalanx (which, as with any phalanx, would spell a quick end to them). At that point, a foray of elephants behind the Persian heavy cavalry could wreak havoc on the remaining Roman cavalry (horses consider elephants their worst nightmare), giving the Persian cavalry and elephants free rein to hit the Legions’ flanks and rear.

Julian’s fate if the Persians get on his flank.

Encapsulated Elephants

This last bit sounds great for the Persians, but once again the Surenas seems to have gone out of his way to make it as hard as possible to pull off. His third line is entirely composed of elephants, and since the second line stretches almost completely across the board, the elephants are effectively hemmed in by their own troops. They have to wait for the cavalry and/or phalanxes to move forward or aside before they can thunder through and set about the business of terrorizing the Romans. Their ability to do this early and effectively is key to the Persian prospects of winning.

Victory in Defeat

Luckily for the Persians, they can lose this battle and still win the war. Like Napoleon, Julian is far from home in a hostile land, and all the Surenas needs to do is to weaken Julian’s army enough so that hunger, thirst, exhaustion and Persian ambushes can pick his army to pieces later. Even if the Surenas suffers a complete rout here at Ctesiphon, Persia can still win if he inflicts enough step losses on the Legions. Scenario victory conditions state that Julian must have 10 more victory points than the Surenas at the end of play to win (with most step losses inflicted on the enemy counting as 1 VP, and heavy cavalry, legion and leader losses counting as 2 VP). As long as the Surenas can give as good as he gets, he will win if the Romans don’t beat him by 10 VP.

Game Summary

Turn 1

The players roll for initiative (with Julian having a base initiative of 5 to the Surenas’ 4). Julian wins and gets to activate three formations before the Persians can act. Prince Ormisdas on the left wing sends his one heavy and one light cavalry unit on his extreme left to charge the light cavalry on the Persian extreme right. The Persians fail their morale check to withstand the charge, and lose a step due to fleeing troops. However, those that stay inflict one step loss on the charging Roman light cavalry unit, and the heavy cavalry does only one step loss to the Persians on 10 dice rolled. The Persians repel the Roman charge, and the charging units must retreat.

This gives Ormisdas pause — it’s risky for him to ride up now and attack the Persian heavy cavalry with missile fire. This is because the Persian light infantry screen could move in behind him and cut him off from the command radius of Julian. This, because his Initiative is only 3, means he’d have a 50% chance of being Out of Command just when he’s trapped between enemy light infantry and heavy cavalry. Not a great position to be in. But no guts, no glory. He knows that if he stays put he’ll be in danger of receiving a heavy cavalry charge, something he can’t withstand. And he is confident that Julian’s legions will march forward and steamroller the Persian skirmishers, eliminating the risk of being cut off. So he rides up and attacks, inflicting two step losses on the Persian cavalry (including one on a heavy cavalry). This, plus the fact that he’s in their face now, means they don’t have the distance on him for a charge. He even takes no hits from them in return!

Julian then activates his legions of the left half of the Roman line. He advances straight into the Persian skirmishers — and obliterates them. They do inflict two step losses on the Legions before they die, however, so the Persians don’t get left too far behind in VPs. Then, Victor’s four legions advance to join Julian’s, and they obliterate the other half of the skirmish line, taking no step losses at all in return. What fools these Persian generals be. . . .

The Surenas then rolls and fails to activate any formations. Julian then rolls again and can activate his one remaining formation, Arintheus’ light cavalry of the right wing. He executes the same maneuver as the left wing just performed, having his extreme right wing units charge the extreme Persian left. The Persians start by failing a morale check (losing a step as a result), then they take two hits while the Romans take none. So, they’ve lost more than half their strength to the charge and must retreat. The Roman player rolls a die and his cavalry pursues the fleeing Persians, but they fail to inflict another step loss and are repelled.

Arintheus then rides up with his own units and attacks the Persian left-wing heavy cavalry with missile fire, while having some of his other units screen Victor’s legions from a possible heavy cavalry charge from the Persians. The Persians take two hits from Arintheus fire, while the Romans take one hit.

The Surenas then rolls and gets to activate one of his formations. He must strike a major blow, to wipe the vision of the Roman slaughter of skirmishers from his army’s mind. So, since he himself is on the left wing of the Persian army commanding their heavy cavalry, he orders a charge straight at the lighter-armed Mattiaci Legion at the left of the Roman line. The legion can’t fail its morale check since it has the leader Dagalif leading it, but it scores no hits on the charging cavalry. The cavalry attack at double strength, plus the bonus for The Surenas’ tactical rating. They roll 17 dice, and score five hits on the Legion. It “shrinks” to step F and has to retreat, but the heavy cavalry pursue and destroy it. Dagali survives and takes refuge with the Lanciarii (phalanx) legion directly to the right.

The rest of the Surenas cavalry follow him in and envelop Prince Ormisdas’ cavalry. They inflict one hit but take two hits in return.

Julian is done activating, so the Surenas rolls again and can activate two more formations. The Persian left-wing cavalry under Narses draw back in the hope they can charge Ormisdas next turn, sidestepping as well to let the elephants through from behind. By drawing back and to the left, Narses will be out of the Surenas’ command radius next turn, but the Persian player feels that getting the elephants into the battle ASAP on the Roman right flank is the best way to distract the other Legions long enough for the Surenas to wipe out another legion on the Roman left.

The elephants move forward and to the left and assault Arintheus and his cavalry. Arintheus withdraws because elephants get a +1 on every combat die roll when assaulting horses. Arintheus hopes to fall back, regroup, and come back with concentrated firepower to hit the elephants with missile fire later. The elephants don’t advance into the zones Arintheus withdrew from, because they want to keep their distance in readiness for making a charge.

The Surenas then makes his last activation for the turn, advancing his phalanxes one zone and having the phalanxes on the ends turn their flanks diagonally away from the Romans for protection. The phalanx on the far Persian left attacks Arintheus, and he does not withdraw, because doing so would open a corridor for elephants to charge Victor’s legion to the south. The phalanx and Arintheus each score a hit on the other.

At the end of Turn 1, the score stands at Romans 29, Persians 20. The Romans are ahead, but not by enough to win yet.

The Charge of the Surenas.

Turn 2

The Surenas’ charge into the Roman lines has cut off Prince Ormisdas from Emperor Julian’s command radius. At the same time, the Surenas’ advance has left Narses far behind and out of the Surenas’ command radius. Those cavalry leaders are flipped to their “Check Initiative” sides, and must roll against their own initiatives if they wish to put their own formations’ troops In Command.

The players roll and the Persians get the initiative. They can perform one activation before the Romans. The Surenas presses his advantage and gallops his heavy cavalry forward, gaining the left flank of the Lanciatti phalanx legion. The Surenas’ light cavalry follow him then break left, moving into Lanciatti’s front facing so it can’t shift facing left to protect its flank. The heavy cavalry takes one hit but the Lanciatti take three. Their leader Daglaif ducks and is not killed (the roll was a 10, and an 11 would have killed him).

Julian then rolls a 1 and can activate all his formations now. His entire line of legions retreats one zone backward to free Lanciatti’s flank from the Surenas’ cavalry attack. Prince Ormisdas then rolls against his initiative, but fails. He and his formation are therefore Out of Command, so his movement is reduced and he can’t move far enough to protect Lanciatti’s flank. He also can’t attack the Surenas, so he just retreats in the same direction the legions went. He still won’t be in Julian’s command radius next turn, but he can give himself a pep talk till then and hope he gets his troops into command next turn.

On the Roman right flank, Arintheus and his cavalry are in command, so they ride up to hit the oncoming elephants plus Narses’ heavy cavalry with missile fire, screening them in an adjacent zone so they can’t charge. Two elephant units take step losses.

The Persians then get one activation, and Narses rolls against his own initiative to see if he can put his troops In Command. He succeeds, and regroups his forces so two heavy cavalry units end up in a zone with him and attack a Roman light cavalry unit. They inflict one hit on the Roman, and their cavalry screen holds.

The Surenas then fails to activate any units, so since Julian has activated all his units, the turn is over. The score at the end of Turn 2 is Romans 33, Persians 27. The Persians are gaining, and the Romans still don’t have the necessary margin for victory.

Very heavy Sassanid Persian cavalry.

Turn 3

The Persians get the initiative again, and this time the Surenas can activate three formations! The Surenas advances with his heavy cavalry and hits the Lanciatti phalanx legion in the flank again with his light cavalry hitting their front. He wipes it out, and kills their leader Daglaif! That’s two Roman Legions destroyed, with the flank of the Bracchiati Legion exposed and in his sights.

Then, the Persian Phalanx leader Pisgranes has his entire phalanx line shuffle to their right one zone to open a door for the elephants to run through. They do, and attack Arintheus’ cavalry. Arintheus withdraws (it would be suicide to stay). The elephant leader Nohodares will be out of the Surenas’ command radius next turn (since the Surenas has continued moving south), and his initiative is only 2, so it’ll be interesting to see if the elephants can exploit the breach they just made.

The Romans then get three activations. Prince Ormisdas on the Roman Left finally gets his act together and rolls successfully against his Initiative to put himself in command. This is good, because he can try to save the day now against the Surenas’ legion-killing machine. He advances and has his light cavalry hit the Persian heavy cavalry with missile fire, which the heavy cavalry can’t respond to (they don’t have missiles). The Surenas and his cavalry also can’t retreat, because Prince Ormisdas’ unexpected resurgence has boxed them in from the south and west, there’s a Roman unit in the zone to the east, and the Surenas’ own light cavalry is being attacked in the zone to the north, so he can’t retreat there either. The Surenas’ cavalry takes one hit.

Julian then activates and wheels his two remaining Legions left, attacking the Surenas and the light cavalry north of him. The light cavalry fail their morale check and go down to one unit. The light cavalry could advance to save itself, but if it did Julian and his Legion would move into its zone and slam the trap shut on the Surenas, boxing him in completely. The cavalry decides to die for their Grand Vizier instead, hoping to kill Julian in the process. Julian, however, destroys the light cavalry with no damage to his own unit, and slams the trap shut on the Surenas. The Surenas does one step loss to a legion blocking his escape to the east, but he’s now boxed in from all four directions, and learning the hard way about charging too far in advance of your army, even if the targets are soft.

Julian’s own legion now has its front facing south toward the Surenas, and its rear facing north toward an open zone between him and the line of Phalanxes. So, Victor takes his four legions diagonally northwest and hits the line of phalanxes head on (with his auxiliary archer guarding his right flank and shooting at an elephant unit to its north). Only one phalanx fails its pre-combat morale check, but the legions eliminate two phalanxes and blow a hole in the middle of their line. The archer does one hit to the elephant unit as well.

The Surenas fails to activate, but then Arnitheus activates and pulls back to stop the elephants from exploiting the hole the phalanxes made shuffling west, and to get back into command radius with Julian. Arnitheus’ cavalry fires missiles and destroys the lead two elephant units that were coming through the gap. No elephant rampage.

Narses rolls against his initiative to put himself in command, but fails. He stays put, and the turn is over. The score after Turn 3: Romans 46, Persians 40. The Persians are holding their margin of victory. However. . . .

Turn 4

All Persian leaders are now out of the command radius of the Surenas, because he’s surrounded by Romans who block his radius. On the other hand, all Roman leaders are now within Julian’s command radius. The Romans get the initiative and can do one activation. Julian is oh-so-tempted to go in and kill the Surenas, but he knows that as long as he keeps him alive and boxed in, all other leaders will be out of his command radius and must roll against their own initiative to be able to attack. So instead, he orders Victor to destroy the rest of the phalanxes, some of which can still threaten Julian’s rear. One phalanx dissolves due to morale failure when assaulted, and two more are destroyed in combat, along with their leader Pigranes! They get only one hit on the legions in return.

The Persians then get one activation. Nohodares and his elephants are the only units currently in a position to attack the legions. But Nohodares’ Initiative is only 2, and he fails his command roll. He and his elephants pull back. Then Julian fails to activate, and the Persians get another activation, so Narses and his cavalry roll and succeed, putting themselves in command. With the elephants pulled back, he has a shot at the legions, and rides four zones west to attack the bow-shaped legion line guarding Julian’s rear now. Narses scores two hits on the legions but doesn’t break their line. He takes none in return.

Julian fails to activate again (he must be having too much fun observing The Surenas flapping and panicking), and the Surenas also fails to activate, so the turn is over. The score: Romans 54, Persians 50. Believe it or not, the Persians are gaining, because each Legion step they eliminate is worth 2 VP, while each non-heavy-cavalry step they lose to the Romans is worth only 1 VP. But unless they can break the Surenas out of the trap he charged into. . . .

Turn 5

The Romans get the initiative and four activations, meaning they can activate their whole army before the Persians. Arnitheus rides into the zone between Narses’ heavy cavalry and Nohodares’ elephants. He attacks both with missiles, eliminating two heavy cavalry units and one elephant step. Then Victor activates, and his archers and light infantry surround all of Narses light cavalry (with help from a Legion and one of Arnitheus’ cavalry). They wipe out the Persian light cavalry, taking one hit in return. The rest of Victor’s legions wipe out the last phalanx and Narses remaining heavy cavalry unit.

Julian then decides that the party’s over, and it’s time for the Surenas’ Last Stand. He closes the vise, rolling 14 dice to the Surenas’ five. Both of the Surenas’ cavalry are eliminated, but they inflict one step loss on Julian’s legion.

Score: Rome 70, Persia 56. The Persians are in trouble.

Turns 6 and 7

All that’s left are a few elephants under the new Persian commander, Narses. They attack the legions, hoping to get enough step losses to bring their point total up within 10 of the Romans at the end so they can win. But they do not succeed, and the final score is Romans: 78, Persians: 60.

The Romans win by eight!

This piece originally appeared in February 2006.

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