Skirmishing and Evasion in C&C: Ancients by BrentS
It never ceases to amaze me how a few tweaks in the basic C&C engine can create genuine variation in play experience between different games, presenting new strategic challenges and modelling different tactical imperatives across widely divergent historical periods and genres.
Some of these differences are minor and modular, such as national unit characteristics in Napoleonics or elephant units in Ancients, but each game has one or two major elements that define the game and are the fundamental features that differentiate it from its C&C cousins. For base game Napoleonics reduction in firepower with block loss, for Samurai Battles the Honour and Fortune economy and the Dragon deck, for Medieval the Inspired Action tokens, and so on.
I enjoy many of the C&C games but Ancients is still my favourite. In part this is my personal historical interest, part is what I perceive to be the lean, clean interplay between units and the perfectly balanced deck, giving me a feeling of battlefield control that I never quite get with the other C&C games. Most important, though, is what I consider to be Ancients’ two defining features, the critical importance of leader positioning, and evasion. The latter will be one of the subjects of this article.
Evasion is an often underestimated and poorly understood feature of Ancients. I have seen it glossed over or completely ignored in first impression reviews of the game. I have even heard it equated with Retire & Reform for cavalry in Napoleonics but this misses the mark. They do share a superficially common mechanism but their function in their respective games is chalk and cheese. R&R is an important but situational rule for one unit type in Napoleonics, while evasion underpins all aspects of every Ancients battle and is fundamental to the game’s structure. Unlike R&R, it has implications not only for the evading unit, but for the entire army.
I would go further to say that I believe it is the most important piece in the finely tuned balance of the Ancients game engine……and it is elegant in its design and effect. This one deceptively simple rule is what makes skirmishing possible. It offers a wealth of tactical options, many of which are subtle and not initially apparent. It also does so in a way that simulates its historical subject perfectly. In fact, in this case design and simulation are so well integrated that it’s impossible to discuss one without demonstrating the other…..which makes my job for this article very easy.
My main purpose in this article is to discuss the role and use of light skirmishers in Ancients but of course there are other units that can evade. We’ll look at them briefly. All cavalry and chariots can evade enemy foot units and heavier, slower mounted units and this is certainly similar in form and function to R&R in Napoleonics. This simulates the superior mobility of cavalry and allows them to approach and threaten the enemy lines, knowing they will probably escape serious harm if the enemy engages. This is pretty straight forward in execution but is an important tool in the bluff and feint that are part of advanced Ancients play.
The other rarely seen unit capable of evasion is the War Machine. Its evasion mechanism is different, as it is not intended to save the unit from destruction but to deny the enemy an easy banner. It’s almost always a no brainer to evade with a War Machine. This seems a shame, but I’m usually sanguine about it. Once the enemy has engaged in melee its usefulness has passed anyway, and it has performed a final noble sacrifice to divert an attack away from one of your more important units.
Where evasion really comes into its own, however, is in the use of skirmishers. By definition I consider skirmishers to be light units capable of evasion. While Auxilia and Barbarian Chariots are technically light units, they are unable to evade or make ranged attacks respectively, and I would not consider them to be skirmishers. Any reference to lights as skirmishers in this article will mean Light Infantry, Bowmen, Slingers, Light Cavalry and Light Bow Cavalry.
While humble and usually unlauded, skirmishers had an indispensable role in various forms, in all ancient armies over many centuries. Consider the legendary Numidian light cavalry, armed with nothing but loincloth and a couple of javelins, frighteningly effective, the final nail in the coffin of Cannae among many other battles…..or the fate of the elite Spartiates at Sphacteria without their own light infantry support, and the withering superiority of the Athenian skirmishers who defeated them…..or the Roman Republican velites, the Parthian horse archers, Iphicrates’ peltasts, and many more examples.
To reflect this, while skirmishers are rarely considered the most important units in a C&C: Ancients army, their effective use is absolutely critical to success. One hidden feature of the game that reveals the importance and utility of light units is the number of non-section cards specifically able to order them as a group ……7 cards including Order Lights, Move-Fire-Move and Darken the Sky, as opposed to 3 Order Mediums and 2 Order Heavies. This deck weighting toward lights at once simulates their importance in ancient battle and enables them to do their job in game.
If skirmishers were so important, what vital functions did they perform? I like to think of the six D’s of skirmishing (it would be neater if I could make it the six S’s but I couldn’t quite manage that). These are depleting, demoralising, disrupting, diverting, defensively screening, and delaying. I’ll address each of these in turn, with discussion of their historical relevance. There is some crossover between these categories but I think this breakdown provides a useful framework for discussing the various strategic opportunities presented by skirmishers in Ancients, and their historical simulation value.
Lights can perform all of these functions in Ancients, roles on which their armies depend for success, because they are highly mobile and are able to camp in front of much stronger enemy units and do their thing, knowing that they can evade with minimal risk of harm. This deceptively simple capability is what makes the Ancients engine hum. How many times in Samurai Battles have my poor ashigaru archers been bullied on open ground by samurai cavalry, desperately wanting to evade but succumbing instead? Different genre, different game and different tactical considerations, but it highlights what makes evasion so important in Ancients.
Light Foot Evading Cavalry
Before proceeding with discussion of the 6 D’s, I would like to briefly digress to address the issue of light foot being able to evade cavalry. This is an understandable point of logical inconsistency for some players. We all know that one of the roles of ancient cavalry was to pursue and ride down unformed or fleeing enemy infantry. How does it make sense that any infantry could evade horsemen?
First and foremost this has a necessary mechanical function in game. If light infantry could not advance ahead of their lines to do their six D’s without threat of destruction by cavalry, then they could not function effectively. This is important but admittedly sounds like a rules rationalisation that doesn’t map to reality.
However, I would propose that there is a logic behind light infantry being able to evade cavalry, and it is a matter of unit disposition. Foot skirmishers are in open order formation. As such they can be driven off but are difficult to pin down and almost impossible to destroy. Some individuals obviously cannot escape faster cavalry and this is simulated by the possibility of losing blocks on matching color symbols but overall unit integrity is maintained because it was loose and flexible to start with. Therefore the foot skirmishers disperse in response to engagement by enemy cavalry, lose some of their number, and reform.
The Six D’s
Please note that images used to illustrate some of these examples are captured from the C&C:Ancients module. For those unfamiliar with the module, unit status icons are yellow for attacker, red for target, green for evading and blue for completed or not battling.
Lights all have 2 hex ranged attack capability, or 3 hexes for bow and sling. Camp these in front of the enemy line, ideally at least one of them on a section border hex for increased ordering potential, and they can whittle away the opposing main line units. This is unlikely to eliminate full strength units but can soften them up for the later clash of spear and shield. Sometimes just one barely noticed early hit on an enemy heavy can be the game decider later when battle joins for real…..the difference between breaking the enemy line or failure and suffering crippling battle back. Special mention should also be made of the impact that one hit has on full strength Warrior units, which should always be high priority targets of skirmishers. This low level attrition against static enemy lines was a clearly documented function of light troops in ancient battles.
This is modelled explicitly in game by the ability of skirmishers to roll flags in ranged combat, potentially forcing enemy units to retreat. For this to be most effective, the ideal targets are leaderless, unsupported units. This can push key enemy units further away from your own lines. Even better, a retreating unit can be damaged or even eliminated if it is near its baseline or its retreat path is otherwise obstructed. Exposed enemy cavalry are particularly vulnerable. One can imagine the impact that unanswered ranged fire would have on the morale of a relatively immobile phalanx, presenting for battle and sometimes waiting hours to engage, all the time subject to desultory arrow, sling and javelin fire, inflicting random injury and death.
This is a mechanical consideration. A less obvious but perhaps more interesting aspect of this is the metagame demoralisation of your opponent. Progressive attrition from ranged fire and blocking of approach paths can frustrate him and his plans and force him to play his hand at an inopportune time. If he prematurely plays that Cavalry Charge simply to drive off your skirmishers instead of saving it for a deadly assault, you have successfully blunted his offensive capability.
This is a natural consequence of depletion and demoralisation. Weakening enemy units or forcing them to retreat causes disruption. This is not simply from unit attrition but it makes the enemy commander respond, either by withdrawing vulnerable units or advancing to drive off your skirmishers. In both cases, the enemy general must spend time and cards reacting to your skirmishers instead of formulating his own offense. He must also reorganise, and hopefully disorganise, his formations. Disrupting enemy formations can also create openings for your close combat units to exploit.
Elephants deserve special mention. Their fragility as a 2 block unit makes them ideal targets for ranged attacks, hoping for a red symbol or two. What you really want to see, though, is flags, which the pachyderms can’t ignore, and there’s nothing like a bit of rampaging and trampling to really disrupt the enemy lines. They should almost always be the priority target for skirmishers and often in the face of enemy ranged units your opponent will be forced to retire and protect his elephants, which of course means more reacting and disorganisation of his lines.
In historical terms this seems to have been the lesson the Romans learned after the initial shock of encountering elephants in the Pyrrhic Wars. In addition to the strategy of opening lanes for them to harmlessly charge through, sting and enrage them with missile fire by the velites and let them destroy their own army’s formations. By the end of the Republic, they were a liability, as evidenced by Caesar’s use of his archers to drive the Pompeian elephants back onto their own troops at Thapsus.
This could also be labeled distraction. We have already discussed the effective use of skirmishers to make the enemy commander respond to them, diverting him from formulating his own attack plans. This can allow you to take the initiative while constructing your own plan of assault.
Diversion can also be a defensive ploy, switching action from a threatened flank where you’re on the ropes to a section where you can threaten the enemy yourself and force him to shift attention away from your endangered units. This may give you the opportunity to draw a much needed card, regroup or escape. Lights may not pose quite the same threatening diversion that advancing stronger units does, but if they are positioned to shoot at depleted units or cut off retreat paths, then you have every chance of distracting the enemy general.
A different slant on diversion by skirmishers is their ability to restrict paths of approach for dangerous enemy units, forcing them to divert or detour around them. If it looks like the enemy is lining up elephants and cavalry for a charge, or massing Heavy Infantry for a Double Time, a well placed skirmisher or two can obstruct the direct line of attack and force them to take the long route, making a concerted assault impossible.
Defensive Screening (yes, I cheated with this one)
This is a well understood purpose of ancient skirmishers, most obviously formalised in the use of velites in the Republican acies triplex, as described by Livy and Polybius. This function has tactical crossover with diversion and delaying. Camping skirmishers ahead of your main line can protect that line from enemy charges, as described in diversion. It also limits the ability of enemy skirmishers to get into range and line of sight and doing the depletion, demoralisation and disruption that you are trying to inflict on them. Often the army that can get its skirmishers into place first takes the initiative for the battle. Behind that screen you can rearrange your lines, advance important units and formulate your own plan of attack, all the while protected from rude interruption by the enemy.
I wish I could have come up with a better descriptive D for this one. What I mean here is the ability of lights in Ancients to evade and prevent momentum advance by an attacking unit. This is a situational and creative use of defensive screening. It is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood aspects of evasion in Ancients but also its most brilliant, so I’ll devote some time here to discussing it. I would note that this is another important difference between evasion in Ancients and R&R in Napoleonics, where attacking infantry can advance into the hex vacated by the retiring cavalry.
Why is this important? There are a number of uses in game play but the principle is to prevent dangerous enemy units advancing and hitting your own vulnerable units. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Attacking cavalry are particularly dangerous because of their bonus hex on the first momentum advance, allowing them to dive deep into the defender’s lines, potentially up to 6 hexes in total with two advances for a Medium or a Cavalry Charging Heavy…..two thirds of the depth of the board!
Here a Roman Light Infantry can evade the Carthaginian Medium Cavalry and prevent it from a 2 hex advance to possibly eliminate the friendly cavalry stranded near their baseline (a flag and a blue or sword would do it).
Here the true target of the attacking Roman Heavy Infantry is the one block Greek Heavy but the brave peltasts are in the way. By evading and preventing the advance they give their comrades in arms the opportunity to slip out of range of the predator.
Few published Ancients scenarios feature victory objective hexes in the way Napeoleonics does. There are some, however, and lights make great defenders of these hexes. This example is from the Expansion 2 battle of Clusium. All three camp hexes are victory banner objective hexes for the Romans and look ripe for the taking. Some time ago I played a wily Gallic opponent in this scenario in a tournament match. He parked Light Infantry and cavalry on the camp hexes, evading and repeatedly reoccupying them, keeping my units out while he brought his scattered Warriors up to deal with the legions. I can’t recall the outcome of the battle but it was a great display of the ability of skirmishers utilising evasion to prevent enemy units from occupying important hexes (the mounted units also did service in this instance).
A Word of Caution
I’ve trumpeted the value and utility of skirmishers in Ancients but some words of caution.
The first is that it is vitally important to leave retreat paths open. The mobility of light units, particularly light cavalry, is also their curse, as they can be hurt or eliminated by a flag roll from enemy missile fire if forced back onto their own lines or their baseline. The answer is to leave retreat lanes open or at least have them far enough in advance of your own line that they won’t shatter against it. This is something I have often seen new players do, positioning their light infantry 2 hexes in front of their main line.
These are low hanging fruit as the chance of stripping a block when shooting at them is doubled (a green or a flag will do the job). Get those light foot units 3 hexes in front of your line!
The other danger with evading or retreating onto your own line is getting pinned and destroyed by enemy main line units. You may have time to rearrange your line to open new evasion and retreat paths but this can weaken your formation. Order Lights and particularly Move-Fire-Move are the perfect cards to hold in reserve for this eventuality, as you can teleport your skirmishers to safety without disrupting your wall of bronze.
Finally, be alert to the danger of your evasion paths being cut off by mobile enemy units. If evasion is your only escape plan, you may find yourself in trouble if the enemy denies you that evasion by forgoing his close combat attack. A canny opponent may do this if he senses from your card play that you might not have the orders in hand to get your skirmisher to safety. The following situation could prove fatal if the Roman player doesn’t have the ability to order his slingers and Hannibal, being the wily general he is, elects not to close combat with his advancing Medium Cavalry.
Know When to Hold ‘em
If evasion is the greatest thing since aqueducts, why is it optional? And why would a general ever opt not to evade, given the choice? The answer is rarely but there are certainly circumstances when standing a light and accepting close combat has tactical merit.
If being attacked by other lights, there’s very rarely any chance of serious damage and it may be worth standing toe to toe for a slap fight. You’re likely to cause them just as much damage and may force retreat.
I would almost always stand Light Infantry against an enemy elephant assault. The elephant will only attack with 2 dice so has low probability of causing major harm or retreat, and as lights don’t hit on swords anyway, the elephant’s resistance to swords is moot. A full strength Light Infantry outnumbers an elephant unit by block count and their odds of winning in a stand up fight are pretty good, particularly if they are supported or have leader adjacency.
Sometimes the risk to a light when standing is high but the reward for doing so and surviving might be higher. In this example Alexander and his Companion cavalry are attacking an unsupported Persian Light Infantry.
There is a reasonable chance that if the light stands, Alexander will roll a flag, force a retreat, then advance to cut off the retreat path of his fellow light and eliminate it. That would be bad.
However, what if you as the Persian player are holding a card that can order all three of these units? A chance to cut off Alexander’s retreat path, kill the Companions and force him into a leader escape……if the light stands and survives to hold his hex. High risk, high reward. If I were Darius I think I’d take that gamble and stand.
Sometimes it is not a matter of tactical advantage but choosing the least of evils. Consider the following example.
The Romans have forced some Gallic lights back to their baseline. Best not to question the interesting command choices that have led the Gallic general to this predicament but let’s deal with what we have. The Roman general chooses to close combat the light with his Medium Cavalry first. What do you do as the Gallic general? If the light evades he will wear a weakened attack by the cavalry but a full attack on his baseline by the Roman Heavy Infantry, with flags inflicting two block loss. If he stands the Medium Cavalry may roll a flag, force him to retreat, advance and bonus close combat either that light or the Auxilia….and in that case the heavy would still get a full attack on the light. There’s no good choice, no right choice. However, I think my best odds of survival would be to stand against the cavalry and hope that on 3 dice he didn’t roll a flag, then evade the more dangerous 5 dice attack by the Heavy Infantry.
That’s it. I hope this article will be of some use to players new to C&C Ancients and may give some food for thought for veterans.