Old School #1: Caesar at Alesia
Armchair General introduces a new series of short articles describing some of the “Old School” wargames we used to play way back in time. We will revisit them, see how well they have aged, and play them once more to share the experience. It is intended to be a fun look back, as well as a short history lesson on the subject matter of the games themselves.
A little background: What it means to be “Old School”
I probably got my first Avalon Hill bookcase game around 1984. Having grown up with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons , I was not intimidated by rule books of any size. I quickly became addicted and piled game upon game into my library, as quick as my budgeted allowance and birthday money would permit. For a period of about 6 years, wargaming ranked as one of my favorite hobbies, and I could never get enough of them. Looking back, this was certainly was my personal “Golden Age” of board gaming.
This Golden Age neared its end as I ran out of a critical resource to play the monsters – space! If you were lucky enough to have a true “monster” game (my friend had War in the Desert), you know what I am talking about. Like a small nation hungry for resources and the proverbial “breathing room,” board games required more space than most of us had available. This was the start of my downfall from the paper hobby and the start of another leg of my wargaming journey.
Even with the dawn of the personal computer, I didn’t see many games on those early gaming systems (Atari’s, Intellivision, etc.) that captured my imagination like board games had done. I couldn’t look at the ugly, blocky, pixilated “simulations” that were common in the mid-80′s without turning up my nose (something I still do at the sight of poor wargame graphics). It wasn’t until the early 90′s I started to come around to computer gaming. When I got my first “real” computer, one of the first “war” games I can remember playing was Warlords by SSG (control territory, capture castles, play against seven other humans or computer opponents). While in college I would go up to the computer lab early in the morning, sit in the back row and fire up Warlords and sit there until the lab closed late that night! One wonders when I ever studied?
Obviously this game captured my imagination, much as board games had done. But it required no floor space (try playing a wargame in a dorm room!), looked pretty good, and could be played solo against many computer opponents. Despite half-hearted efforts to continue playing on a board, the lure and benefits of the computer were irrefutable. The board games went into the closet?and computer games sucked up my meager college discretionary income. This continued for many years of school, many years of living in small apartments, and many years of life in general.
Fast-forward fifteen years.
Several times over those years I would crack open the storage bins containing my games just to get them out, look over the board and counters to reminisce. They reminded me of a time of kinder, simpler gaming (and dare I say, life in general). Board games are nostalgic for me. Taking peaks into them kept the fire of my hobby burning, even if the flame was very subdued. Yet, it burned nonetheless.
While playing my first new wargame in about 15 years (Mark H. Walker’s Lock N’ Load ), I realized how much I missed the tangible feel of cardboard counters, a playing board where I can see all the units without scrolling my mouse, and a player manual with black and white rules that aren’t affected by bugs in the software code. Just pure and simple gaming. It made me once again crack open that storage bin to see what was in there. The result is this semi-regular column where I will peak inside, find a game, and air it out by playing it and sharing my experience. Maybe it will conjure some of your own memories, like it has done for me and coax you into revisiting one of these old gems.
Pulling these games out was always therapeutic in a strange way, and perhaps it is not uncommon for computer gamers (such as myself) to revisit our wargaming roots? If you share this retrospective mindset, I hope you will enjoy taking a look at these Old Schoolers with me. Let’s get right to it!
Old School Game #1: Caesar at Alesia: The Epic Battle of the Ancient World
The first game to fall out the bin was Alesia: The Epic Battle of the Ancient World by Avalon Hill (designed by Dr. Robert L. Bradley). [ the following two paragraphs are based in part on information from the player notes ] This game simulates the siege of Alesia (in Gaul) by Julius Caesar in 52 B.C. Historically speaking, Caesar was forced into this campaign by Vercingetorix, who united several tribes in Gaul (modern France) in an uprising against Roman rule. Knowing he was unable to defeat the Romans in the field, Vercingetorix retreated into Alesia with nearly 100,000 men. Caesar surrounded the town, but not before the Gauls sent out their cavalry to seek a relief force from surrounding tribes. The Romans began building a defensive ring around the city, which faced both inward and outward. It was a staggering fourteen miles on the outside loop and eleven miles on the inner loop. They were preparing to fight a two-front battle.
The Romans were experts at this type of warfare, however, and did not despair from the odds or the situation. The defensive works were an impressive mix of twenty five miles of ramparts, fifty miles of trenches, forts, towers, and so on, all around the city. The Gauls had to cross 100 yards of a no-man’s land in front of each rampart, which consisted of fields of iron spurs, pits with spikes at the bottom, trenches filled with water, and rows of brambles. To cross this ancient “minefield” was murder for the Gauls. Conversely, it gave the Romans additional time to see where the assault was hitting the walls and bring reserves up to that spot before it could be stormed.
Strategy and Setup:
So, in folding out my map boards and carefully assembling the pieces, I felt the pressure was really on the Gauls to overcome this terrible defensive position in the smartest way possible. My memory was very hazy when looking back on how I originally played this game those many years ago?so very few lessons were carried over from those battles. Instead, I had to rely on my years of PC wargaming in general to help formulate a winning strategy.
There are surprisingly few rules to this game, with only six PAGES of reading needed to get fully immersed into this battle (there are an additional two pages of optional rules, and several pages of designer notes to round out the manual). Yet, make no mistake, there are plenty of strategic problems for each side that must be overcome using that small rule set. And that, my friend, is part of the beauty of this old game. I didn’t have to go back to school to re-learn this one.
As many players know, part of the fun of board gaming is the careful placement of the maps in your workspace, sorting masses of counters into nice orderly stacks, and envisioning both the defensive and offensive positions of both sides (one of the problems with playing solitaire is that you have to do both). The map board is stout and clear, although it could really use a freshening-up, with an improved and more colorful layout, along with some new counters for good measure. Despite these gripes, I was still anxious to get started.
In setting up for the Romans, it was necessary to consider ideas such as defense-in-depth, mobile reserves, chokepoints, strongholds, and battle groups. To be successful, the Roman player must establish an initially strong outer perimeter on the board edges where he will have little time to react to the arrival of the Gallic hordes (those near the map edge). The corners can be left lightly defended, as there is plenty of time to bring in troops if the main attack appears to be aiming that way. The inner ring can also start out lightly defended, since the coordination between the inner force and the relieving force is not very good (historically it was terrible). The inner force must wait between 1-3 turns after the outer force has hit the wall. They are the lesser threat.
Planning for the Gauls, all I needed to know was where to point them. You need not spend too much time worrying about much more than how fast you can put maximum troops on the wall, in an attempt to wash over the Romans before they can bring in reserves. Part of the Gallic plan was to hit the Roman line near a board edge with the bulk of their army, then send smaller groups to the corners to try to delay the Roman reinforcements as they tried reach the stressed areas. In due time, the inner Alesia force would be released to punch out from the inside and meet the swarming Gauls on the outer ring. What it lacked in finesse it would make up in brute force. This was pretty much how the real life battle was fought as well?
Playing the Game:
Having a game sit on the shelf for fifteen years can and did make me a bit sloppy in my initial deployments of the Romans. Some little tricks such as using forts to double as bridges over rivers was something I desperately wish I had done. Also, despite what I wrote previously, my initial setup was too weak on the points near the map edge, and too strong on the corners and inside. This lesson was learned very quickly once play began.
The early part of the game is spent with the Gauls using an off-board movement system to circle around the outside of the besieged city, probing for weakness in the Roman lines. The Roman player knows only what part of the map the Gauls are located, but knows nothing of their strength or intentions (this makes it hard for the Romans to be able to anticipate where the attacking force will emerge). This is a great system for throwing dust in the eyes of the Roman player ? and then striking when he blinks. The forces in Alesia are equally confused, as they have no idea where the hammer will fall ? making them wait along with the Romans before they can leave their camp (after all, they can’t strike out South, only to find the relief force is coming from the north!)
The Gauls centered their attack on the north wall and specifically on the ramparts closest to the map edge. This meant they could gain maximum surprise by arriving on the map AND attacking in the same turn. There are some areas on the map (the aforementioned map corners) where the Gauls would have to wait an extra turn before reaching the wall prior to any direct attacks. This would have given the Romans time to reinforce. Time the Gauls could never afford.
In the late morning of the first day of my game, the Gauls slammed into the North wall with almost their entire force of 250,000 men. The Romans, who were a bit light on this critical wall, were overwhelmed almost everywhere?and pushed back in the initial turns of the assault. Losses for the Gauls weren’t bad this game, but even so were about 10 times the amount the Romans lost. It didn’t matter though, as once the walls were breached, it became almost impossible to stem the tide.
For the Romans, it was obvious that wherever the hammer fell, they would have to rush reinforcements there in the shortest time possible. However, a couple critical flaws in the defense were quickly revealed to Caesar’s great dismay! First, due to some gaps in the wall that were neglected (it is not a 100% sealed wall), a few Gallic cavalry snuck behind Roman defenses and took up positions in vital spots to slow reinforcements from arriving in a timely fashion. Second, the Romans were further delayed by river crossings as they foolishly neglected to put forts on the rivers to act as bridges (all units must immediately stop when they reach a river, simulating the time it would take to cross the river and reorganize the unit). Time lost.
The game unfolded in textbook fashion for the Gauls. They stormed the wall and began punching their holes. At the same time their cavalry interfered with the movement of Roman reserves, and their probes on each corner kept the reinforcements from turning the corner to reach the main attack. Caesar and Libenius were delayed by these tertiary attacks. Both leaders had large mobile reserves under their command neither of which reached the main Gallic thrust. They were essentially removed from the battle.
In time, with the main Roman line buckling, and the scope of the attack made clear ? the inner forces in Alesia were released (lead by Vercingetorix) and made for the now weakened inner wall on the north side. This finally cracked the Roman line and the Gauls of the relieving force met up with the inner force and together they formed a corridor for Vercingetorix to escape his captivity. The siege was broken!
I thought I noticed the Roman forces making obscene gestures at me just as I put them back in the Alesia box! I couldn’t blame them, as I certainly wasn’t the same commander that often led them to victory fifteen years ago. I had a lot of new lessons to take away from this session of Old School.
[ from the player notes ] In reality, the Gauls tried three separate attacks on the Roman fortifications. The first was an ill-coordinated effort with the Alesia force being beaten back before the outer attack could really get started. The second was a night attack which was utter chaos for both sides – but moreso for the Gauls. The third attack very nearly succeeded, and the Gauls overran parts of the defensive works including a critical defensive position of the Romans. However, Caesar and Labienus scraped together their mobile reserves and maintained the integrity of the circle – while at the same time they sent their mercenary German cavalry around the outside of the ring to surprise the surging Gauls. This had the effect of panicking the assailants – and they broke and ran – essentially giving the field to the Romans.
Seeing he was beat, Vercingetorix surrendered himself to end the siege.
I personally found this game to be an enjoyable find from my collection and its simple rule set means it is suitable for just about any skill level. The fact that it also plays extremely well, and seems to have a decent balance level, makes this one worth the time I spent. If I had done a few things differently as the Romans I think it would have been a much closer match. Luckily, the learning curve is not that steep, so the next time I have a few hours to spare I can break this out of the deep freeze to give it another go!
I’ve seen this game from time to time on EBay, so it is not impossible to find. If you have some spare cash and a desire for a unique tactical situation, Alesia is probably a good purchase. Looking back, I’m not sure why I ever bought this game originally. It broke the cardinal rule of advertising on a board game because the box is blank on the backside and gives no illustration of the map at all, with only a few small pictures of the unit counters found on the side of the box. Normally I’d pass that box over, thinking the designers were too embarrassed to show what their game really looks like. Lucky for me, I must have been sleeping on the job when I purchased this particular board game.
It is hard for me to believe it has been nearly twenty years since this game made its way into my collection. The nostalgia for these types of games is overwhelming – and actually playing one again has really illustrated this for me. Computers have made certain aspects of wargaming easier, and I still enjoy playing on the computer almost daily, but I am now looking forward to snooping around in my gaming collection and seeing what falls out next.
I can’t say what it will be, but you can be sure to find it in the next installment of Old School!
The Siege of Alesia – An excellent summary and graphics of the battle and fort system.
Vercingetorix – A bit about Caesar’s foe.
Above the Fields – A PBEM version of the Alesia game, with nice diagram of the “minefields.”
Caesar at Alesia Game – The BoardGameGeek’s page for this game.