Saturday, September 16, 2017

Battles with Byzantines and Bulgars.

Byzantines and Bulgars in action om the Memoir '44 game board.

Over the last couple of days, I've been trying out the Portable Wargame 'Ancients' rules for my Byzantine and Bulgar armies.  As suggested by a reader, I used the Memoir '44 game board, with a few added features by way of a battlefield.  This board comprises a hex-array of 13x9 grid areas - 117 in all. The Portable Wargame suggests an appropriate army size for a given game board is a number of units not more than as many plus half the number of grid areas along the base line. That suggests 19 or 20 units maximum. I have been working on armies of 50SP (Strength Points) which easily fits within this maximum.  

Bulgar Army of 46 SP:  Commander, 4 heavy cavalry,
4 light horse, 4 spear units, 2 archer units.
In my previous posting, I suggested the troop types that might make up an army, but made no concrete recommendation on numbers. What follows is my suggestion as to selection. In the following I have NOT taken into account the suggestion in Developing the Portable Wargame of adding and subtracting 1SP to or from  the standard SP for ELITE or POOR quality units. That is an option I prefer to leave open.  As they are easiest, I'll lead off with the Bulgars:

Bulgar Army.

1x Commander as Heavy Cavalryman @6SP
1-6 Bulgar Nobles Heavy Cavalry, javelins, bow, sword, shield @ 3SP

  • 0-4 Bulgar Nobles may be classed as ELITE, the rest AVERAGE
3-6 Bulgar Horse Archer Light Cavalry, javelins, bow, sword, shield @ 2SP
3-8 Slav Close order infantry, spear, sword, shield
  • All Spearmen @ 4SP OR
  • All Barbarian Tribesmen @ 3SP 
  • Probably these are the likeliest troops to be classed as POOR. 
1-4 Slav Light Infantry, bow @ 2SP

Adding up the minima of each type gives 8 units at 29SP (includes the Commander); The maxima to 24 units and 76SP.  I had 1 more unit for each of the minima, but as that came to 40SP, it seemed to me unreasonable to be so prescriptive if one were choosing a 40SP army.

Otherwise, I am basing these lists roughly on the Army lists for WRG's DBM rule set.  If the Bulgar army is fairly simple to draw up, the Byzantine is a deal more complicated.  Some compromises have to be called for.

46SP Byzantine Army: Commander, 1 kataphraktoi, 4 heavy
cavalry, 2 light cavalry, 1 Varangian Guard, 3 skoutatoi
1 javelin light infatntry, 1 bow sling light infantry.

Byzantine Army.

Commander as Kavallarioi Heavy Cavalryman @ 6SP
0-2 Kataphraktoi fully armoured Extra-heavy Cavalry with mace/lance/bow, sword, shield:
  • @4SP if using 1 unit only OR
  • @3SP if using 2 units
  • Kataphraktoi are classed as ELITE
2-4 Kavallarioi Tagmatic or Thematic Heavy Cavalry, lance/bow, sword. shield @3SP
  • Up to 2 units may be classed as ELITE 
  • Up to 2 units may be classed as POOR.
1-2 Light Cavalry lance, javelins, shield (trapezitai) or lance, bow, shield (procouratores) @2SP
3-6 Skoutatoi Close Order Infantry spear/pike/bow, sword, shield @ 4SP
  • A peltastoi unit (see below) may substitute for a skoutatoi unit (bringing the minimum down to 2)
  • Up to 1 skoutatoi unit may be class as ELITE quality
0-1 Rus mercenaries or Varangian Guard Heavy Infantry spear, sword shield @ 4SP
  • Class as ELITE
  • Alternatively may be classed as axemen @ 5SP, but do not receive a combat bonus for being charged frontally by cavalry  (My view on this is that would be appropriate for the 'axe-bearing guard' comprising Anglo-Saxon refugees from the Norman Conquest, post 1066)
1-2 Javelin Light Infantry @ 2SP
1-2 Sling or Bow Light Infantry @ 2SP
0-1 Skirmishing Heavy Spearmen (menavlatoi) @ 4SP
0-1 Peltastoi Close Order Infantry spear. javelins, sword, shield @3 or 4SP
  • May substitute for a skoutatoi unit
  • May be rated as 3SP or 4SP 
  • May be classed as AVERAGE or POOR irrespective of the SP rating.


1. I have not included artillery or fire syphoners in this list.
2.Mounted on heavy wagons, artillery should be able to move, though probably not move and shoot in a single move.  They would have an SP = 2. Up to 1 such unit may be included in a Byzantine army.
3. Fire syphoners were light infantry with flame throwers.  If you must have any, then there should be not more than one such unit.  Such a unit would have SP=2, and have a range of 2, requiring 5 or 6 to hit.  Enemy units in an adjacent grid area take -1 from their D6 die roll for all combat.  For reasons that might not at first seem apparent, I would rate such a unit POOR - more a reflection of the risks involved, than any reflection on the courage or quality of the personnel.
4.  There has been some suggestion that Byzantine peltastoi of the late 10th and 11th centuries were not only less heavily armoured than skoutatoi, but that their role might have been more in the way of light-medium liaison between heavy and light foot, and able to operate in difficult country.  I have my doubts, but if you accept this, then you could allow a 3SP unit to move 3 grid spaces instead of the heavy infantry standard of 2.  It's shooting range (javelins) would be two grid spaces.

Adding up the minima gives 8 units and, including the Commander, 30SP - 29 if you take a 3SP peltastos unit in lieu of one of the skoutatoi.

Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of my play tests so far I'll just post pictures with light commentary. Both games were fun, but were not really suitable for such after action reports, being very much trial runs. 

The first action was a straight out solo game, all units activated in any given turn. Nothing sophisticated: just line 'em up and get tore in. A few interesting points emerged. Moving first put the Bulgars at something of a disadvantage, as it was the Byzantines who were able to get in the first kicks. Not that they did much damage - appalling shooting; appalling close combat skills.
All the same, as the action went on, the Byzantine advantage of lance-armed cavalry did become noticeable over time. My suggestion in a previous posting of giving the Bulgar horse a shooting advantage I have not adopted. The sole motivation for it at all was to balance the two armies, and it seems to me artificial and unconvincing.
As the battle wore on, losses were spread right across the board, and mostly on the Bulgar side. I was taken by surprise when a count revealed that the Bulgar Army had reached its exhaustion point at least two turns before. When just the second unit was destroyed - both lost being light - I checked the SP lost and reached 18!  Sixteen should have been the exhaustion point.

Played in this way, the action did look like a battle, with actual battle lines. There was plenty of to and fro action as well.
In some respects the Bulgars had the worse of the luck, more of the hits resulting in Strength Point damage than the Byzantines received. Having units that are just as happy shooting as getting up close and personal gives them good incentive to retreat rather than take a loss. In this first action, I seem to recall the kataphraktoi making at least three charges. They didn't lose a single SP all day, though were driven back more than once. 
It may have something to do with a quality of Ancient's armies, especially if they involve cavalry, is that when one of them reaches its exhaustion point, what then happens? They are unable to counter-attack, as aggressive moves are no longer permitted.  And yet, one feels there ought to be a place for a reserve body of cavalry capable of mounting a charge to discourage pursuit whilst the exhausted main body flees in headlong rout draws off . This might be limited to fresh (undamaged) mounted units, or maybe one unit accompanied by the Army Commander. At any rate, I called the battle when the Bulgars had reached their exhaustion point. The Byzantine loss had been comparatively trifling (8 or 9 SP as I recall). 

That was just to try out the combat systems. For the second game, with the same 46SP armies, I brought in the playing card activation system recommended in Portable Wargames. The number of units, counting the Commander as a separate unit, are totted up and halved, with halves rounded up. The 15 Bulgar units gave them a median of 8, so the RED 7s, 8s and 9s were their portion of the activation card deck. The Byzantines had 14 units, so in went the BLACK 6s, 7s and 8s.  Finally a couple of jokers went in to signal time to reshuffle.

I had hoped that the Bulgars' slight edge in activation would balance Byzantine advantage in lance-armed horse. It didn't happen that way. The early draws were fairly even, the Bulgars drawing slightly higher numbers. But then the Byzantines drew a long series of Black cards, which continued after a joker was reached and I had to reshuffle the deck.

It was getting embarrassing. The Bulgars were getting no opportunity to shoot, and only indifferent Byzantine practice was keeping their units alive. I think there might be a case, here, for the DBA/DBM convention of both sides shooting, rather that the moving player's army only. Targets may not be in a grid area adjacent to a unit of one's own army.

During such a string, so long had it been since I saw a red card, I felt forced to cheat in behalf of the Bulgars to discard a black card - only to draw another. That one I played, and then drew another black card!
Here's a thing. The presence of the jokers means that there is no guarantee than a long string of black cards is going to be balanced by a long string of reds.  That's what happened here. In fact the string itself was interrupted by a joker, the deck reshuffled, and the black string continued. It could only happen to the Bulgars.  I have never had any other army so unlucky. Poor wights. They fight well enough. Most of the time. But always something goes disastrously wrong, and they get on the wrong end of another heavy defeat.
The odd thing is, that I use the same figures as Georgians.  As Georgians - or Abasgians - they have a fine record in DBM, winning far more than they have lost.  So the Bulgars were being edged back as they tried to mitigate their losses, but they could not have kept that up forever.

I think I might try the same card system, but keep the Black and Red decks separate, including a single joker in each. The cards are then to be drawn alternately from each deck. To determine the first turn, both sides draw, with the higher card taking the first turn. The lower card is returned to the bottom if its deck. When a joker is reached, the decks are reshuffled. After reshuffling, both sides could draw again for the next turn, with the high card taking the move. If one of the cards is a joker, it is ignored and placed at the bottom of its pile, and the other side takes the turn. If both jokers are drawn, they are removed to the bottom of their piles, and the cards redrawn.  

Such a system still offers a reasonable chance that it some time, one side will get two turns in succession (or even three, but I imagine such occasions would be extremely rare). More often than not both sides would be in a position to undertake something active, every other move.
Meanwhile, the final three pictures show the situation as it developed late in the action. A rare red card gave the Bulgars the opportunity to throw the Byzantines back in places, but the right wing, where fought Khavkhan Apotaglu remained under heavy pressure .
At last the Bulgar line were being driven from the field. The khavkhan's bodyguard (counted as Elite) finally broke, and Apotaglu himself slain (rolled 1xD6 for fate of the leader: a six!). The situation in the final picture shows the dire fate of the remnants of the Bulgar army.

Friday, September 8, 2017

An Enemy of Byzantium - The Bulgar Empire.

A Bulgar army of heavy and light horse, spearmen and

It has generally been my habit to build TWO armies in any given period:  an army I like, and an enemy I like. The rivalry between the Bulgar and Byzantine empires had been raging off and on for centuries already by the 950-1050 period of these armies, during which time, Constantinople itself had come under siege. But here, the days of Khans Krum and Tervel were long past, and  Tsar Simeon the Great had passed on a generation or so earlier. Although the Bulgarian Empire was conquered and subjugated by 1018, the campaign was a long one, fueled by the determination of Emperor Basil II. Nor did the Byzantines have everything all their own way. 

Bulgar Nobles (Essex)

Bulgar Nobles 
The Bulgar Tsar leading his nobles into battle
  • Heavy cavalry armed with javelins and bows.   They don't seem to have favoured the lance, but all were double-armed, rather than the 'mixed arms' Byzantine units.
  • Bulgar Noble cavalry have a shooting range of 3 grid areas.
  • Optional rule (suggestion only): Bulgar noble cavalry add 1 to their d6 die rolls when shooting at enemy light and heavy cavalry.

A prototype Bulgar Army.  This one would comprise just
46SP.  Two more archer units would bring it up to 50SP.
 Bulgar Horse Archers

  • Light cavalry 'double-armed' with javelins and bows.
  • Optional rule (suggestion only):  Bulgar Light Horse add 1 to their D6 die rolls when shooting at enemy light and heavy cavalry.
  • Number of light horse units should be not less than the number of heavy horse (excluding the commander).

    A note here.  If adopting the +1 shooting rule for double-armed mounted troops, one ought to award the same option to the Byzantine Trapezitai, double-armed with lance and javelin.  That would make them a formidable adversary indeed!

Slav Spearmen... I'd call this WIP, had any progress been
made on them in recent years.

Slav Spearmen
  • Count as 'Barbarian tribesmen (SP3) or 'Poor' Heavy Infantry (SP4) at player's option.  See table.
Slav Archers
  • Light infantry armed with bows.


Unit Name
Unit Type
(grid areas)
Weapon Range
(grid areas
Bulgar Nobles
Heavy cavalry
Horse Archers
Light Cavalry
Slav Spearmen
Slav Archers
Light Infantry


Bulgar Army.

A 50 Strength Point Army:

I will offer the two Armies here, but will repeat them with pictures in a subsequent posting.


  • 2 Bulgar Noble Heavy Cavalry @ 3SP = 6SP - ELITE
  • 2 Bulgar Noble Heavy Cavalry @3SP = 6SP - AVERAGE
  • 6 Horse Archer Light Cavalry @2SP = 12SP - AVERAGE
  • 4 Slav Spearmen Units: Barbarian Tribesmen @3SP = 12SP - AVERAGE
  • 4 Slav Archer Light Infantry @2SP = 8SP - AVERAGE
  • Bulgar Commander @6SP = 6SP

    Total:  18 units plus commander: 50SP
Note 1: If the Slav Spearmen were rated 'POOR' Heavy Infantry, @ 4SP each, then the 2SP units (archers or light horse) could be reduced by 2.

Note 2:  I really don't like the word 'poor' in this context.  It sounds unfairly disparaging to troops who, lacking in experience, training and/or motivation, fall short of the average military standard. I just wish I could think of a better term!  Perhaps if 'poor' were to be taken to mean 'unfortunate'...?


  • 1 Kataphraktoi unit @4SP = 4SP - ELITE
  • 4 Kavallarioi units @3SP = 12SP - AVERAGE
  • 2 Light Cavalry units @2SP = 4SP - AVERAGE
  • 1 Varangian Guard unit @ 4SP = 4SP - ELITE
  • 4 Skutatoi units @4SP = 16SP - AVERAGE
  • 1 Javelin light Infantry @2SP - AVERAGE
  • 1 Slinger Light Infantry @ 2SP - AVERAGE
  • Byzantine Strategos @6SP
Total: 14 units plus commander: 50SP.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Soldiers of Byzantium - A Proposed Portable Wargames Army List

The Emperor, accompanied by the Army's icon leads
his kavallarioi to battle. (The Memoir '44 board
makes a fine photography studio!)
As promised a while back, I have attempted an Army List of Byzantine Empire troop type classifications and characteristics for the Portable Wargame.  The 'Enemies of Byzantium' will be for a later posting. This list is derived from the period c.950-c1050AD, but, with some exceptions can be adapted for the earlier Byzantine Empire from the development of the Thematic system. You will find in the following quite a few types that don't 'fit' the classifications given in the book.

First off, quite a few of the units are 'mixed arms'. In the case of the Byzantines, units, both horse and foot, usually comprised some lance or spear/pike armed ranks, and some bow. Occasionally there would be THREE different arms in the unit, notably the kataphraktoi and, on occasions, the heavy infantry that, for the purposes of this article, I'll call skoutatoi.  For the purposes of this article I shall ignore the secondary or tertiary weapons such as swords or maces (except where the latter are carried by kataphraktoi).


Akontistai - javelin light infantry.  All figures are 'Tin Soldier'
from Australia, bought over 30 years ago
 1. Akontistai - javelin armed light infantry.

Sphendonistai - slinger light infantry
 2. Sphendonistai - light infantry slingers.

Skoutatoi - lead rank spears, rear rank bow to represent the
close order formation of spear and bow-armed ranks.
3. Skoutatoi - close order heavy infantry in 7 (or 8) ranks.
  • Ranks 1,2, 6 and 7 comprise pike or spearmen (skoutatoi or kontaratoi); ranks 3,4, 5 comprising toxotai - archers.  An eighth, leading rank, might be formed by menavlatoi (see below)
  • In close combat, units of skoutatoi increase their D6 die roll by 1 if attacked in front by cavalry.
  • In close combat, units of skoutatoi reduce their D6 die roll by 1 if attacked in the flank.
  • In close combat, units of skoutatoi suffer no penalty if attacked  in rear.

Menavlatoi - Armed with heavy throwing weapons (actually
overlong as depicted here), in their skirmishing role.

4. Menavlatoi - skirmishers armed with heavy throwing weapon
  • These were 'dual purpose' troops, capable of forming a front rank of the skoutatoi.  In that case these troops are assumed to subsumed by the skoutatos unit.
  • They were also capable of skirmishing, supporting the light infantry.
  • For the purposes of this list, if fielded they are assumed to have taken the skirmish support role. (See table).
  • A unit of menavlatoi add 1 to D6 die roll in close combat with enemy light infantry to their front

General comment: 
The standard Byzantine infantry at around this time comprised formations of 1000 men, divided up into:

  • 100 light infantry slingers
  • 100 light infantry javelin men
  • 100 semi-light infantry with heavy throwing weapons
  • 400 heavy infantry spearmen (or pikemen - their spears seem to have been extraordinarily long)
  • 300 close order archers
These numbers can be represented by 4x8-figure skoutatos units, 2x2-figure javelin units and 2x2-figure slinger units. This assumes the heavy throwing weapon fellows have formed in close order the front rank of the heavy infantry. But if you want to field any, then 1x4-figure unit seems appropriate. 

There were a couple of other types of infantry that might be included:

Peltastoi - medium spearmen.  Somebody is missing
his shield...

5. Peltastoi - close order (medium) spearmen.  
  • Count as standard Portable Wargames 'heavy infantry'.

6. Rus, or Varangian Guard
Spear armed elite Varangian Guard.  The figures arrived with
axes, but I have modified them to carry spears.
  • Rus mercenaries fought in Byzantine service from early in the 10th Century. In 988, Basil II requested help from the Kievan Prince in defence of his throne against rebels. The Varangian Guard is held to have been established from 989.
  • These are variously known to have been close order spearmen or axe wielders. However, at this time, they appear to have been spearmen.
  • In close combat, Rus and Varangian Guard add 1 to their D6 die roll if attacked in front by cavalry.
  • In close combat, Rus and Varangian Guard reduce their D6 die score if attacked in flank or rear by an enemy unit
  • Rus and Varangian Guard are classed as ELITE


Kataphraktoi - trapezoid formation depicted as 2 mace armed
men in the front rank, lances on the flanks and archers in the
centre of the rear rank.

1.  Kataphraktoi - Mixed armed fully armoured cavalry.
Kataphraktoi - with some thematic kavallarioi
off to their right
  • Unit comprises THREE arms (apart from swords): maces, lances and bows. Unit forms a trapezoid with maces in the front few ranks, lances on the flanks and horse archers in the centre rear.  
  • Unit size was ideally about 504 - twelve ranks, with 20 in the first, increasing by 4 in each successive rank, though it could be as small as 380 (ten ranks only).
  • Usually just one such unit was fielded, though at Silistria in 972 there were two. I suggest fielding a unit such as that pictured, with 4 Strength Points, or two units with 3 SP each. (see table)
  • Kataphraktoi should be graded ELITE.
  • In normal close combat, kataphraktoi add 1 to their D6 die roll 
  • A unit of kataphraktoi adds 2 (instead of just 1) to its D6 die roll if it moves into an area adjacent to an enemy unit during the first only round of close combat.  During this round only, flank contacts may be ignored.
  • A kataphraktos unit reduces its D6 die score by 1 if attacked in flank or rear.

2. Kavallarioi - Mixed armed heavy cavalry with lance and bow.

  • Imperial cavalry were the Tagmata; Provincial cavalry still formed part of the old Thematic system.
  • Tagmatic units comprised 5 ranks, with 1, 2 and 5 equipped with lance, 3 and 4 with bow. Thematic units gradually declined during this period with the declining rural population.  Horse archery died even faster, it seems.  
  • So some Tagmatic units may be classed as ELITE; the Thematic should be classed as AVERAGE or POOR.
  • A unit of kavallarioi adds 1 to its D6 die roll if it moves adjacent to enemy during the first only round of close combat.  During this round only, and contacts to a flank mat be ignored.
  • A unit of kavallarioi reduces its D6 die roll if attacked in flank or rear.
  • Optional rule:  A 'poor' unit of kavallarioi reduces its D6 die score by 1 when shooting.

Tagmatic and thematic kavallarioi.  Barding was becoming
uncommon during the course of this period.  I use it, and the
kite shield, to distinguish the Tagmatic troops.

3. Light Horse - often mixed with lance and bow or javelin.
Trapezitai and prokoursatores light horse.  The former are double-
armed; the latter have one lancer and one bowman to
depict the nixed armed unit.
  • Byzantine (as opposed to allied or auxiliaries) light horse went under a number of titles, depending on role: Prokoursatores, Hyperkerastai and the famous Trapezitai.
  • The trapezitai were armed with lance and javelins.
  • The prokoursatores and hyperkerastai, apparently drawn from the heavy cavalry units, appear to have been armed with some mix of bows and lances.
  • Any lance-armed Byzantine light horse unit adds 1 to its D6 die roll if it moves adjacent to enemy light horse during the first only round of the resulting close combat.  During this round only, flank contacts may be ignored.
  • Any Byzantine light horse unit reduces it die score by one if attacked in flank or rear.

Prokoursatores.  The latter have been depicted with bow only.

Table of Byzantine Units

Unit Name
Unit Type
S.P. Value
Weapon Range
(grid areas)
Light infantry javelin
Menavlatoi (1)
Light infantry (1)
Adjacent (2)
Light infantry sling
Toxotai (3)
Light Infantry bow
Skoutatoi (4,5)
Heavy Infantry: Mixed spear/pike and bow
3 (Bow)
Adj(acent) (spear)
Medium Infantry
Varangian Guard/ Rus
Heavy Infantry
Light Horse (6)
Mixed lance and bow or javelin (3)
2 or 3 (missile)
Adj (lance)
Kavallarioi (7)
Heavy Cavalry: Mixed lance and bow
3 (bow)
Adj (lance)
Kataphraktoi (8)
Heavy Cavalry: Mixed mace, lance and bow
3 (missile)
Adj (lance, mace)

Adds to
accompanied unit

The Emperor Basil II of Byzantium, or the the Emperor
Dementius of Ionia? take your pick!


  1.  If used, menavlatoi are assumed to be skirmishers.
  2.  Although equipped with a heavy throwing weapon, these were made the maximum thickness that a man could grasp and throw, and had a long iron head.  Even a range of 2 grid areas seems over generous, but may be adopted as an optional rule.
  3. Light infantry bows may replace or supplement slingers.
  4. A.k.a. kontaratoi.
  5. There was an elite infantry unit, the Numeri.  Of its composition, I don't know.  I suggest that one close order unit might be classed as ELITE, the rest AVERAGE or POOR.
  6. Light horse units depicted with bow only do not receive the plus 1 to the D6 die roll when moving into a grid area adjacent to one occupued by enemy light horse.
  7. Bows are optional for 'poor' kavallarioi units.
  8. If fielding 2 kataphraktos units, players may choose that each be SP3 only.

A final word on facing...
The thought occurs to me that Ancients war games in particular might 'work' better on a hex grid if, although movement was through hex-sides, unit facing should be through the corners. It seems to me that the arcs of fire would be more easily visualised, but also that the front, rank and rear of units more easily identified. Provided it is remembered that facing and movement are different, I see that this would add no complication and resolve some possible anomalies. If necessary I might enlarge upon this notion another time.

I have not play tested these types, and may revisit this particular posting with amendments should they suggest themselves.