Breaking The Line, Holding The Line


In the last instalment we looked at the first two phases for an attacker attempting to break the enemy line, preparation and choosing when to attack.

3. The Potential Engagement Frontage

We’re now ready for the third phase of the attack, the movement to engage the enemy line. A key concept in discussion of the clash of lines is the engagement frontage. This is the number of adjacent enemy units which may be targeted by the attacker when the lines meet in close combat. More important, however, I would like to differentiate this from the potential engagement frontage, which I define as the choices attacking units have for movement paths from their starting positions and the potential target units across the enemy line.

While there are various permutations, the simplest attacking formation is three units, a leader led unit flanked by two others, and we will use this for the sake of the following examples.

For the attacker it is vital for assaulting units to remain adjacent to a leader so that they are applying helmet hits on all rolls. This usually means keeping attacking infantry grouped and not dispersing them.

The most basic situation is attacking from a distance of one hex, the standard movement allowance of main line infantry units. This is a risky approach as it allows the opponent to actually be the one to initiate engagement and become the attacker, but moving into this whites-of-their-eyes range may be the right decision given cards held and the stage of the battle. It can be seen from the following illustration that our 3 attacking units have two possible angles of approach, with a potential engagement frontage of 5 enemy target units. This is not many options.

Let’s now consider the potential engagement frontage if initiating an attack from 2 hex distance. There are three possible ways this could happen……with a Double Time or a Warrior unit charge or, very rarely, Caesar attached to a single Julian Heavy or Medium Infantry (yes, one unit is a line in Ancients……don’t argue with Caesar).

This is a very important card to consider when attacking an enemy line. Not only does it bring a surprise factor, engaging when the enemy might not have expected it and may not be fully prepared, but it increases the potential engagement frontage, which in the example above has increased to 6 enemy units.

This is not to suggest that a player should wait to draw Double Time to initiate an attack. That’s a losing strategy. There are only two copies in the deck and waiting for a card draw that may never happen cedes initiative to the enemy. Winning Ancients play means building strategy on what you have in hand. If you do draw Double Time, however, it is a key card around which to construct an attack plan.

For an extreme example we have Double Timing Warriors with 3 hex movement, offering a potential engagement frontage of 7 enemy units. This is extremely difficult for the enemy to anticipate and defend against, which is why barbarian armies can be such frightening adversaries.

This potential engagement frontage terminology sounds theoretical and contrived. However, I do think it provides a useful context for discussing the approach to assaulting an enemy line. The larger the potential engagement frontage, the more available enemy targets and the more options the attacking general has for applying strength to the enemy’s weak points.

This is best illustrated by examples. We’ll look at a number of situations in which a Roman attacker is contemplating an assault against a Carthaginian line (and also take the opportunity to refresh our schoolboy Latin). These are isolated situations and of course game states are much more varied and unpredictable, with other surrounding units, block loss, victory banner counts and cards all influencing decision making, but they are stripped down here for the purpose of demonstrating simple principles.

In each case, consider the potential engagement frontage and where you think the best opportunity presents itself for applying strength to weakness. After each a suggested route of attack is offered.

Starting easy.

Unus I

There’s a very obvious and vulnerable target, a depleted Medium Infantry, possibly the victim of earlier Roman skirmishing. The easiest kill and most likely point for the line to crumble.

Duo II

Here the Carthaginian line has a section not protected by a leader (Hannibal is having an off day…..everyone’s allowed one). Rolled helmets matter. If the Roman leader strikes where the enemy has none, he has every chance of breaking the line and doing so with minimal harm to self. If there’s one example and one message to take home this is the most important. Attack with your leaders where the enemy has none.

Tres III

Another weak link in the Carthaginian line. The Auxilia will be just as hard to kill as his comrades but will inflict less pain on battle back, giving Rome as the attacker a much better chance of surviving the melee.

Quattuor IV

For some reason the Carthaginians have a cavalry unit sitting in their line. Maybe they were setting up for a Cavalry Charge, maybe it was forced there by evasion or retreat. Prime target. Rome is unlikely to eliminate it, and would not be trying to, but when it evades (and it will against a 4 dice assault from a leader-adjacent Medium Infantry) the line is broken and the units on either side will now be unsupported. Mayhem time.

Quinque V

This is not an attractive enemy position to assault. On your Roman attackers’ left flank the Carthaginian enemy has defense in depth. We’ll discuss this in more detail when we examine the defender’s strategy in the clash of lines. A very tough nut to crack. The single enemy line on your attackers’ right is not weak per se but is more brittle and would be the preferred target of assault, if it must be made.

Sex VI (settle down)

A criticism of Ancients that first time players often have is “There’s no flanking bonus or penalty! How can this be a proper simulation?” It is there, of course, but in typical Ancients fashion it’s not gauchely flouted in the rules, it emerges subtly from game play. Here’s your flanking bonus. Rome strikes at the unsupported unit, to force retreat and start rolling up the line.

Septem VII

This is a screen capture in media res from a recent Vassal tournament match, Phillipi I. Here the Republicans are defending their right flank behind ramparts. From battle reports it seems most of the action occurred on this flank because of a Triumvirate advance force behind marshes and hills and the lure of victory banners for taking the Republican camps. However, even before they can get Cassius up to support, this is a position of nearly unassailable strength for the Republicans defending a frontal assault. Cancelled swords and banners across the rampart hex sides means death in the trenches for Antony. The exposed Republican underbelly is across the non-rampart hex sides and this is where they should be attacked.

An Attacking Reserve Line

You’ll see in the last example that the attacker chose not to create an engagement frontage with all 3 attacking units because while targeting the weak point in the enemy line they limited themselves to one enemy target. In this case I feel the advantage of pushing the third unit further forward but without a hard target is outweighed by having it tucked in behind your attacking units, providing mutual support among all 3 units and a fallback for your evading leader if things go wrong.

This is also a consideration when Double Timing with that card’s 4 unit allowance. If your assaulting force has only one leader, and you create an engagement frontage with all 4 units, then at least one will not have leader adjacency. I would often consider positioning one of the 4 behind the assaulting line for the same reasons. We have also highlighted the attacker’s disadvantage in not having adjacent fresh, full strength reserves and this unit can be that reserve, sheltered from battle back and ready to carry on the assault when his front line comrades are depleted or destroyed.

Of course, if you have the luxury of 2 leaders in your Double Time assault force, then you can comfortably set up an engagement frontage with all 4 units. This is a very strong attack, all units having leader adjacency and support against retreat.

4. The Face of the Enemy

So, on to the fourth phase of the assault. We’ve moved our ordered attacking units from a potential into a committed engagement frontage and now have to decide which enemy units to attack and in which order. This is an agonising conundrum almost more indecision-inducing for some players than an army-wide Line Command. If I attack first with this unit that can’t bonus close combat, will a flag retreat the enemy out of range and leave my leader no target to attack? On the other hand if I attack with my leader, what if his unit is killed on battle back? What if the enemy has a First Strike? What if the sky falls? You often have time to go make a cup of tea while your opponent is reading the virtual chicken entrails. Disclaimer here….I’m not being critical as I’m guilty of this myself.

There is no correct answer and the dice can make your best guess turn out to be wrong. But again, we are playing not for certainty but for best probability. My approach is not the only one but these are the principles I try to follow.

First, even if the two lines are evenly matched unit for unit, leader for leader, the attacker’s advantage is that he gets to choose the attacks. Even with mirror image opposing lines, the attacker can apply strength to weakness, outnumbering the enemy because across its frontage he can consecutively attack one enemy unit with two of his own.

Second, in most cases, reserving the leader’s unit attack until last is preferable. When one of his wingmen has weakened the enemy’s unit, he can finish it off, leaving him free to momentum advance and bonus close combat. It also means that his unit, your most valuable, is the least likely to be damaged by battle back.

We have already looked at examples of attacking where the enemy is weakest and in principle that should always be the goal. What if you don’t have that option? What if you have been forced to attack into a supported line with a well placed leader? Which target do you double up on?

Let’s visit the Metaurus River valley, 207 BCE. Hasdrubal has brought his reinforcing army across the Alps. Consul Gaius Claudius Nero has intercepted him in Northern Italy after a spectacular forced march and now faces him in battle. In the following example, attacking the units adjacent to Hasdrubal is as dangerous as attacking the man himself, so if I were Nero I would just gang up on him. 9 dice, each hitting with 50% chance (helmet, red or sword) should do it.

First attack from the Roman Medium to weaken him……….

…………then with Nero’s Heavy to destroy Hasdrubal’s unit from under him. A 1 die leader check follows, another strong reason to attack his unit. Only 1 in 6 chance but if he dies, the enemy line will truly disintegrate and Nero will be able to give Hannibal the historical heads up that the Barcid family reunion is cancelled.

If Hasdrubal survives and evades one space he knows that you will probably advance to kill him, so he must evade further and lose leader adjacency, leaving Nero free to advance and hit an unsupported, leaderless Carthaginian Medium. Watch that Carthaginian line start to roll up.

Sounding the Retreat

The carynx calls troops to charge to glory or death and once you send them in you’re committed to the attack. It would be rare that you would choose to retreat if they are supported and the defender rolls a flag on battle back as you want them engaged to continue the melee in subsequent turns. There may be some situations, however, where voluntarily taking the retreat on a battle back flag would be beneficial. This may be a matter of favourable unit positioning or escaping unit destruction.

Darius displaying the better part of valour (aka doing a bunk) at Issus

These are busy, time compressed examples. Just follow the numeri for the battling sequence and the final roll in question is highlighted in red.

Here Nero has attacked with a slightly different formation. He does significant damage but doesn’t quite break the line. His left flanking Medium is destroyed by a freak 4 dice kill on battle back but the return damage on the right wasn’t too bad. On Hasdrubal’s final battle back Nero receives a flag which he could ignore. Doing so would be an aggressive play, making it easier to chase down Hasdrubal’s punished units if they try to move away in their turn. Alternatively, Nero can play cautiously, take the flag and drop back to provide mutual support and leader adjacency to his entire surviving attack force. This may be a valid choice if Nero has poor cards to follow through with the attack….in which case we can question why he initiated the attack in the first place…….but it does demonstrate that there may be circumstances where taking the flag and retreat as attacker can be an option for optimising position and the integrity of the attacking formation.

Warning that the following example may cause distress to some readers. In this horror show Nero’s attack has taken a completely lopsided and entirely improbable beating. He must have sacrificed the wrong colour goat. We’ve all been victims of these acts of the fickle gods. This disastrous assault is a game loser. Hasdrubal will mop up for 3 victory banners on his turn, possibly 4 if Nero fails the leader check…..which he inevitably will (when the tide of fate turns against you it’s invariably a tsunami). However, Hasdrubal has handed him a gift on his final battle back, a double flag, which Nero could ignore. Alternatively he can accept the flags to escape for now and deny the Carthaginians at least 2 of those victory banners.

For Warriors the loss of their innate flag resistance once depleted and unsupported, and their 2 hex retreat, makes them almost as vulnerable as cavalry to having their retreat paths cut off. Yet this can also be a blessing. Even if your Warrior is at full strength, it may be wise to forgo the innate flag resistance and flee out of range of the enemy’s follow up attack if he rolls a flag and multiple hits against you on battle back.

To advance or not to advance……

As previously stated, one of the purposes of breaking the line is to provide the opportunity to momentum advance and bonus close combat. The opportunity. Should you always take it? The answer is not necessarily. You want to set up the possibility but it is a tough call to be made on the spot. The problem is that when you have the battle rage on and advance into the enemy line you break your own formation, losing support and leader adjacency for most of your attacking units. See Nero’s momentum advance back at the Metaurus. You also lose effective access to cards that require chained unit formations across contiguous hexes, such as Line Command, Double Time and Leadership cards. It all depends on the situation, the stage of the battle, cards in hand, surrounding units and their relative positions. In our original example it wasn’t an unreasonable decision for Nero to advance after putting Hasdrubal to flight.

In the following very similar but subtly different situation, however, it would be extremely hazardous and inadvisable to advance into the pocket.

Nero may be tempted to advance and attack the unsupported Carthaginian Medium to his right but this is a trap. Double envelopment and a deadly leader escape roll are on the cards.

This time Hasdrubal was better prepared. He had set up defense in depth……which neatly segues to the next topic of discussion.

In the third and final instalment we will discuss the role of the defender in the clash of arms, in Holding the Line.