At the Society of Ancients conference back in October, I wanted to re-do a game I first ran at one of the original 1980s events. Set in late Roman Gaul circa AD 430 it is a multi-player game which attempts to recreate the chaos and confused loyalties in the last years of the Roman Empire in the West. The scenario is published in my first book: Goths, Huns and Romans (Argus, 1991)
Mirroring actual events of the time the Visigoths were pushing north from their base in modern Bordeaux. The patrician Aetius was using Huns and Alans to keep order and campaign against the Burgundians on the Rhine. Franks and Saxons were moving down from the north while the Gallo-Roman natives hung on to a precarious existence. Some entered into voluntary serfdom exchanging their freedom for the protection of immensely rich and powerful landowners. Other took to the greenwood in a sort of Robin Hood way — becoming known as the Bacaudae. Particularly prevalent in Armorica (roughly modern Brittany) their ranks were swelled by refugees from Britain.
One player seems happy with his brief - the others deep in thought
I had room for 8 players: Analosus, a young Visigothic noble who had become frustrated with years of peace. Striking north without official authorisation he is busy accumulating wealth and prestige. He has with him Dietrich (a young firebrand) and Atulf (an older wiser head). Ragnar, a Frank, has been hired to protect the villa of the unpleasant local landowner — Castius, who happens to be a personal friend of Aetius.
One of Ragnar’s thugs raped a local woman and the villagers are up in arms. Ostirus, the Roman garrison commander is doing his best to keep order with locally recruited men who are more than a little upset with Castius and Ragnar. Tibatto, leader of the Armorican Bacaudae is showing up on the scene to avenge the villagers and gain new recruits. A Saxon — Gundar — is in the area with a band of freebooters looking for gainful employment. Meanwhile Aetius has sent Litorius with a Roman field army to crush the Bacaudae and make sure that everyone else behaves themselves. Litorius’ ‘Roman’ army is almost entirely composed of Huns and Alans. Analosus, Tibatto and Litorius are all historical characters — the others fictitious.
All the player-characters had different and conflicting objectives. None had sufficient forces to accomplish their objectives without help — they would have to make alliances. This was what made the game so much fun in the past and did again this time. My intent was to make it a combination of Diplomacy and a miniatures’ wargame.
We had about three hours and much of the first two were spent with each player making tentative moves, trying to figure out who was whom and testing out those who might be open to offers. I asked that none of the players were to reveal who they were so as to keep everyone guessing. When troops arrived on table, if someone asked me what troops the were, my unhelpful answer tended to be: “What they look like.” With Roman armies composed of Huns, and Goths wearing Roman kit, this did not give very many useful clues. The player-characters had to find out for themselves. Messengers were sent criss-crossing the table as plots were hatched and alliances sought, made, and broken.
A sketch map of the battlefield
Ragnar decided at the outset that he was better off without his employer so he did away with Castius, owner of the rich villa which was the target for many of the other players who were in search of loot. He kept this secret, intercepting all messages (also killing the odd messenger) and claiming to speak in his late master’s voice. Ostirus and Tibatto cut a deal early on, both professing to take the cause of the villagers and to avenge their wrongs. Gundar, the Saxon, first promised to support the Goths and then switched sides to join up with Ragnar. A cut of the villa’s wealth and the prospect of further employment swayed him. The Goths also promised Gundar a cut from the villa’s loot but as Ragnar held it and the Goths had to take it. Gundar reasoned that Ragnar’s offer was a firmer bet.
Ragnar's men prepare to defend the villa
The Goths had the most numerous troops — possibly enough to capture the villa on their own without help. As loot was one of their main objectives this is what they set out to do. They were hampered by a river which had some dodgy fords. A first attempt to cross failed and although they eventually found one, by the time they were in a position to make an assault, other players were moving against them.
Atulf, the older Gothic leader turned out to have an agressive streak and was more interested in reputation than wealth. While Analosus drew up his followers for an assault on the villa, Atulf attempted to draw out Ostirus under guise of a parley but with the intention of defeating him in combat. When Atulf led his Comitatus out to challenge Ostirus, the Roman withdrew back to his lines but eventually had to turn to fight. The Goths had the better of it, driving the Romans back, but Ostirus survived the combat.
Atulf's Goths (left) drive Ostirus back in front of the village
Leading a strong mounted force of Huns and Alans, Litorius took over a watch tower maned by Ragnar’s men and a catapult. He viewed Ostirus and Tibatto converging on the village on the other side of the river but could not be certain who they were. Not knowing that Castius had been killed, Litorius decided to support Ragnar in defending the villa from the Goths in exchange for a token contribution to the army’s upkeep.
Analosus attempted a mounted assault on the villa but his horsemen had no chance against the fortifications and took heavy casualties from the defenders’ archery.
The Goths assault the Villa
The Goths pulled back, rallied and made ready for a second attempt but by this time Gundar’s Saxons, together with Litorius’ Huns and Alans were blocking the way. In the combat which followed the Goths drove the Saxons back and had some success against the Litorius’ Alans but his Huns had the better of the Goths.
As dusk fell, Tibatto was in control of the village with a new, willing, source recruits. Ostirus had been driven back by the Goths and had lost men, although his standing with his troops and the villagers was reasonably high thanks to his bravery. The Goths had failed to secure any new loot and they had lost quite a few men. Gundar had a deal with Ragnar but his men were being pursued by the Goths and it was not clear how many would survive. Ragnar still controlled the villa and its treasure but he would have trouble holding on to it once Litorius and Aetius learned that he had killed the owner. Litorius had successfully helped to defend the villa but Tibatto’s Bacaudae had been strengthened not weekend. One can only imaging a rather awkward conversation between Aetius and Litorius several days later.
The Goths (left) chase off the Saxons but are held by the Huns
Adding up the victory points and looking at the situation I declared Tibatto as the winner. He had achieved his aim of securing further support and had not lost any men in the process.