Last updated 27 March 2000: added links
One area that has always fascinated me is ancient history, from the primitive beginnings of mankind to the Byzantine Empire and the late medievals. Many of the battles recorded by ancient historians (Plutarch, Thucydides, Arrian, Tacitus, et al) make fascinating reading, and also fascinating gaming. While the availability of games rules and figures for miniatures wargaming abound, most of them suffer from a good deal of complexity, a lack of precision or examples of play, and the need for a large tabletop to place the figures and terrain on. There always seems to have been a dearth of boardgames that deal with what is after all the largest slice of military history (from 3,000 BC to about 1500 AD).
Ancients was one of a rash of boardgames put out by WorldWideWargames, normally known as 3W (now defunct, I believe). There were actually two games, Ancients I and II, which were both self-contained (I bought the second one first). What you got for your money was a slim rulebook, six or seven A4-sized maps with the normal hexagonal grid, and about 200 or so counters to represent the two armies. Each module also came with 32 scenarios, from the Egyptians through to the Swiss pikemen.
If it sounds too good to be true, I should add that it was a fairly simple game. Mounted troops came in three flavours: Light Cavalry, Heavy Cavalry and Knights, plus Elephants which were very effective but did not count as cavalry. Foot troops showed a bit more variety: Light Infantry, Heavy Infantry and Phalanx, plus Light Archers and Heavy Archers, and MissileMen (we're talking javelins and slingers here, not Patriots). There were also Leader counters (highly important in the game system) and one Camp per side, which allowed for looting (and hence a victory point). Ancients II also provided a large number of ships and marines, but the ship counters themselves were one variety only so you were restricted to one type of ship per side. There were no fortifications, no wagons or artillery, and the terrain was fairly basic - woods, hills (somewhat ambiguous), streams, bridges, fords and the occasional village.
Having said that, Ancients is a very playable game. The game system itself is simple and easily learned, but does provide for tactics and shows the strengths and weaknesses of different types of armies according to their composition. Combat results are based on a simple ratio system (1-2, 1-1, 2-1 and 3-1) and give a result of Melee, Disruption or Elimination. Leadership is key, as the only way to repair (or "rally") a disrupted unit is to place a leader counter on top of it. Movement is straightforward and the role of terrain is nicely portrayed by doubling or halving certain units' strength. The scenarios themselves do not have too many counters per side and are only 6 turns long, but they do seem balanced and keep the player's interest as long as the final outcome is still in doubt.
Designer Bill Banks himself said that the game was meant to be playable and enjoyable rather than a closely accurate simulation. He also made provision in the rules for players adding on extra rules, modifications or troop types, and some people have done that (see Links below). Having said that, I still feel we're missing something in ancient boardgaming. What would be really desirable is a system that matches the playability of Ancients with the interesting troop types and terrain of rule sets like DBA or DBM, plus the expandable geomorphic mapboards of a game like ASL. Watch this space.....
The best (in fact so far only, but it's still good) site I have found for Ancients is Michael Nagel's Ancients pages. These are pretty comprehensive and offer a history and overview of the game, plus variants, Q&A from the designer Bill Banks and other interesting material. Recommended.
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