Well, I promised to talk about the game mechanics, so I better deliver.
Small Battles is a pretty stylized game, mechanically. It has to be – with each side typically fielding 15 to 20 units. In most ancient battles, that will probably see the standard infantry unit averaging 2000 or 4000 troops. The battlefield will typically be a 5 x 6 grid, meaning that movement is strictly limited. Battles will tend to be over in somewhere between 10 to 15 turns.
The game system itself is a simultaneous turn-based system. Each turn, the player receives a number of command points. The number received is random and varies from turn to turn, but depends on the quality of the army and the ability of the commander. These command points can then be used to issue orders to individual or groups of units. The game provides essentially five ways to spend your commands: to attack, to maneuver, to inspire, to rally, and to issue special orders.
The attack order is pretty straightforward; it essentially orders your forces to attack their highest priority opponent. If a unit doesn’t receive an attack command, it won’t inflict any damage on the enemy even if attacked (they are assumed to be fighting defensively or so ineffectively as to have negligible effect on their opponents). Running out of commands enough to order all your units to attack is probably a bad idea.
The maneuver order is used to order your units to move. Although there will be major variations dependent on unit type, scale, and so on, in general, it is always easy to move units straight ahead, less easy to retreat, and very difficult to move laterally. There is also the option of “force-marching”, trading resilience and commands for speed. Useful, if you just have to seize that hill first. In general, troop redeployment is hard (i.e., expensive) as was the case for much of this period. Pulling off a Cannae or Ilippa is the kind of thing that will only be doable by the great commanders.
The inspire order is essentially a command that allows a player to bestow a combat bonus on an attacking unit. It costs – of course – additional commands – which you may not have that many of to begin with. The effectiveness is also not guaranteed – it depends heavily on the attributes of the leader, as well as the distance the unit is from him (the greater the distance, the less likely the unit is to gain any benefits). Where you place your general matters a great deal in this game.
The rally order is the mechanism that can be used to allow your units to recover some of their resilience and perhaps even attempt to rally routed units. Useful if you have enough units and commands to pull exhausted units out of the battle line, but difficult to use effectively.
The special orders are things like changing formations (e.g., from and to skirmish order), unique unit abilities and similar things that one would tend to use very rarely.
And that’s basically it.
The combat system is pretty straightforward in theory. Each unit gets a number of “dice” to hit its opponents. Differences between unit types, terrain and situation (outflanking, charging, etc) affect the to-hit number, and the number of hits are subtracted from the enemy’s resilience. When a unit’s resilience hits 0, it disintegrates, causing all nearby units to test their morale. The more damaged your army is, the more likely your army is to simply turn and run. Fans of Lost Battles will recognize the basic ideas, although the implementation is different (the older Conquerors and Kings actually has pretty similar mechanics, which arguably are closer to what I’m doing).
The trick with the game mechanics will be to hit that sweet spot where you have six things you absolutely must do, and (often) only three things you can do. Difficult; but that is what tweaking and testing is for. And – of course – adding just enough chrome to the units/game mechanics to make people feel that the system captures the essentials of period warfare.
In the next post, I’ll go over how I distinguish between the different types of units in the game.