The Ballbusch Review: Broken Legions

Today we’re looking at Broken Legions by Mark Latham, late of Games Workshop.  Mr. Latham is known for his efforts on behalf of GW’s Warhammer Historical imprint (RIP) and apparently did time as the editor of White Dwarf, but this is long after my subscription lapsed.

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Author:               Mark Latham
Pages:                 64 (paperback)
Publisher:          Osprey (2016)
Price (2016):     $12.59 (Amazon)

Broken Legions (hereafter: BL) is something of an odd duck being a fantasy skirmish game set in the Roman Empire.  Depending on how you chose to define “The Roman Empire” this covers a potential time span of around 1,600 years.  No dates are provided in the rules; however, the book presumes that Judea is a Roman province and that Dacia remains independent.  This puts the game neatly in the Flavian Dynasty (AD 69 -AD 96).

Despite the semi-historical setting, BL is very much a fantasy game.  Low fantasy, but fantasy none-the-less.  Spell casters are readily available, though their powers are not earth shattering and genuine monsters appear, but are rather rare.  While the supernatural exists, it is most active ‘over there’ in dark corners and beyond the edge of civilization.  Which, probably, is not too far off from how many Romans would have view it within their own time.  Wonder-workers appear from time to time, sorcerers and other mystics find steady employment, but no one expected to see a chimera stroll up the Appian Way.

A skirmish game, battles in BL are contests between ‘warbands’ (which appears to now be the standard term for forces in these types of games.  I would have used vexillationes myself) of 10-15ish figures.  With 1:1 figure-to-man ratio.  The rules include several lists building warbands from the obvious (Roman Legionaries) to unexpected (Cult of Set).  No explanation of the logic behind assigned point values is provided and there is no provision for players creating their own lists.

thoth_amon_6

The only justification for the Cult of Set: Thoth Amon is damn cool.  Good enough for me!

Bucking the current trend, BL features actual stat lines.  Each figure is defined by a number of statistics Melee skill, Accuracy, Agility, etc.  The success of actions is determined by a simple test mechanic: roll 1d10 add the figure’s relevant stat.  Anything 10 or over succeeds.  Contests between models follows a similar procedure, each player rolls a die and adds their figure’s state to the roll.  High score wins.

The game play follows that now standard activation approach.  Each player takes turns activating a figure who then moves, shoots, etc.  Close combat takes place during a separate melee phase.  All models in base to base contact swing at each other in agility order.  In true GW style, figures that charged into combat that turn always strike first.

As a fantasy game, BL also has rules for various monsters, sorcery, and heroes.  A hero can perform feats to grant is side some temporary advantage.  Additionally, heroes can expend Fate Points to avoid death.  Most heroic abilities and magic fit the low fantasy milieu.  Clearly supernatural, but nothing as overt as a fireball.

The rules include a simple campaign systems, points lists, and scenarios.

Opinionated Commentary!

BL is a distinctly Workshopian (that’s our new word for the week, try to use it as much as you can) feel.  You have such staples as True Line of Sight, The Most Important Rule, and charging as the only way to get into melee.  The stat lines is also rather Warhammer-esque (there goes my readability score).  None of this is bad per se.  However after a few years without playing any GW rules I noticed the style immediately.

From a historical standpoint there are a fair number of oddities.  Some factions get chariots, an anachronism in the 1st Century.  The Dacians associate with vampires and ghouls.  I recognize the Wallachian connection to the old Dacian homeland.  However, from a historical standpoint connecting them to werewolves makes more sense.  Yet, in BL lycanthropy is the domain of the Germanic tribes.  The Attacotti with the reputation for cannibalism make better friends of the living dead.  Of course, ghouls are creatures of the desert and if they must appear the Pathian lists is the best place for them.

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As long as I’m on the subject, the evidence for Romans wearing red is scant…

Of course, the above is knit picking.  I would like to see more explanation of the fantastic elements.  But the rules lose little for not including them.  Also, in Mr. Latham’s defense, he might have stacks of background material that did not fit in the book.  So, I cannot fairly criticize his research.  However, I also got into an hour long theological debate centered around the Book of Enoch with the Seventh Day Adventists who came to my door.  Make of that what you will.

In play BL feels like a mix of Mordheim and GW’s Lord of the Rings.  Most of the game play follows an improved Warhammer model.  The rules for heroes come to us more or less complete from LotR.  Fate, obviously, is an old Warhammer Role Play Mechanic.

BL gives a fairly quick and interesting game.  There are enough actions and options to keep players entertained, but not enough to bog down the game.  The rules are open enough that players will have no trouble thinking of new scenarios.  Salty snacks and an adult beverage will also improve play.

The rules are a little thin to commit to a full scale campaign.  However, most gamers have enough Romans and monsters lying around to put a warband on the table.  As such, it seems and ideal game for a pick up session, or when the planned RPG fell through.  BL’s mechanics are easy to understand and fast to learn.  Plus, it gives those few benighted soul who don’t Roman armies an excuse to pick up a few figures.  Overall, BL is more than worth its space on any wargamer’s shelf.

 

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  • Thuloid

    You had me at Enoch.

    Chariots in that period? So, what, some odd corner of the British Isles? Hmm. I’d be sorely tempted to really fill out the game with various weird forms of ancient priesthood and magical rites.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Actually, the Chariots appear in the Egyptian (Cult of Set) list. Plainly an attempt to add a New Kingdom style faction, but such armies wouldn’t how taken to the field for a thousand years by the Roman period. I don’t recall seeing chariots in the generic barbarian list, which really only covers the ‘Germans’ (I have always found the notion of a consistent ‘German’ identity and culture stretching from the Cimbri to the Goths suspect, but that is a whole other issue separate from this game).

      There are some hints of Lovecraftian beings in the text. Certainly a lot of room to craft a Conan-esque pulp inspired game with this setting. It left me wanting a sourcebook, which is high praise, honestly.

      • Thuloid

        Yes, sounds eminently adaptable to something Conan-ey.

        You know, it’s sort of interesting that most pulp fantasy has such a Western European feel, since Howard seems absolutely smitten with the Near East and Central Asia.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          I blame Tolkien for that. Many early fantasy writers had more Eastern settings. But after LotR there was no coming back.

        • Howard and guys like Edgar Rice Burroughs were big into Africa too. The “exotic jungle full of cannibals and lost temples” idea of Africa, which was expressed later in pulp like the Phantom or even Indiana Jones.

          Perhaps it’s not so surprising that given time the weight tipped towards western Europe though, given that we’re talking about fantasy written in English.

          • Thuloid

            End of colonialism, I think. Once it’s no longer fashionable to write about white guys tromping through Africa, the fantasy equivalent also dries up.

            There was a time when it seemed perfectly natural to have an Englishman as the hero literally anywhere.

          • Probably right. I wish I could read Russian though (or anything else really), to see what their fantasy is like. I’m pretty sure I remember some years ago reading that a Russian writer wrote the first fantasy where the orcs were the p.o.v. characters. Back when western fantasy was still stuck in Tolkienian good and evil races.

            That colonial point you made is why Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai was such an anachronism, in terms of the sort of narrative it was. The battles were cool, but everyone just didn’t know how to feel about the heroic white guy muscling in on the rebellion, taking heaps of glory and sleeping with the Japanese guy’s widow. It would have been natural, like you said, sixty to a hundred years ago. At the turn of the millennium: not so much.

            By the way I’m reading Ivanhoe for the first time, it’s pretty great.

          • Thuloid

            Love Ivanhoe. Mark Twain blamed Scott for building up the romantic, faux-chivalry ideal that informed the Confederacy, but that’s a hell of a thing to lay on a guy in another country who was just trying to tell a good story.

            Last Samurai is more or less Avatar. Or the other way around. That made a ton of money, so I guess people weren’t too uncomfortable. But maybe few got the metaphor.

          • Yeah that’s a bit rough. Maybe Twain had a touch of professional jealousy? The intro to the edition I’m reading basically says that Scott’s Scotland-themed novels were being aped by a load of copycats, and people were getting sick of them, so he decided to give England the same romantic treatment to stay ahead of the curve. Sounds like a pretty plausible claim to me.

            I think people are generally fine with colonialism if it’s of the human-on-alien variety. It’s ERB’s John Carter all over again. Almost shamelessly so, now that I think about it. And it may have made a ton of money, but I don’t think it’s on anyone’s list of classic films. James Cameron is getting on a bit – I think his world-view is a little old-fashioned, even if his production values aren’t.

          • Thuloid

            Twain grew up in an American South that saw itself as Scotland to the North’s England–he identified Scott’s books as part of that cultural impulse. Not entirely wrong, I think, just unfair to Scott personally. The affinity for those books was escapist, but maybe in the worst possible way–it allowed a culture to overlook its own brutality and see only nobility.

            From what I understand, Cameron still has a couple more Avatar movies in the works. He’d better have a huge technical gimmick up his sleeve, because I thought the first one was near-unwatchable as far as story goes.

          • Von

            Russia gave us ‘The Last Ringbearer’, and for that I will treasure it forever.

      • Sarah Jones

        The Successor States post-Alexander dabbled in heavy chariots, including Ptolmaic Egypt, as did their imitators such as Pontus.

  • The Warlock

    Sono Pazzi Questi Romani.

    I read a lot of Asterix as a kid, so anything Roman gets a big ol’ 😀

    Other than that, Broken Legions sounds like a fun way to transition to historical games or at least get away from full-on fantasy genres. Since success of actions is >10 on a D10+stat, are the values of the average legionary in the 3-5 range? Initiative for charging sounds fair to me, being on the receiving end of a bunch of crazy Romans/indomitable Gauls can be quite unnerving.

    I am very genuinely curious as to the lack of evidence into Romans wearing red- in every representation I’ve seen over the almost 2.5 decades of life have shown them sporting from deep burgundy to bright vermilion cloth.

    Where do the monsters fit in, are they hired into a list or due to being rare they’re more of a campaign style foe? Apologies for piling question on top of question, the train of thought does love to stop at all stations.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Legionaries have fours more or less across the board. Heroes are mostly 5’s. Less competent grunts have 3’s.

      The Roman red issue is actually the source of much scholarly debate. Ancient writers imply that legionary costume was uniform and supplied by the state. But, much beyond that is vague. Surviving scraps are generally undyed wool, drab, or madder red. A few (sadly lost) paintings depicting Roman soldiers were recorded as showing blue and/or black tunics.

      Given the limitations of supply I hazard to guess that legionaries in the field wore whatever they wanted while settled troops got whatever was official, if indeed there was a uniform of any sort (the Han had them, so it isn’t out of the question). However, I’m not an expert of the subject.

      Parthians can take a lamassu, Dacians vampires and ghouls, Germans werewolves, Egyptians mummies (of course). Most of the really scary monsters (hydra, etc) pop up an ‘random’ encounters in scenarios (which would be controlled by die roll or neutral third party)

      • The Warlock

        A quick google search into this showed how much I understand of dyeing processes due to histological stains being based off the same principle (albeit with tissues rather than textiles). Very curious as to Roman history and might hit the local library in the next few days to borrow out some history books.

        Found the book online for $16 AUD + free postage, so going to give it a read even if I don’t end up playing a game (though that’s not out of the question). Thanks for the article, it’s spurred much ‘research lite’ as dedicated delving into history will be done once exams are over!

      • I wonder if they were more likely to dress in local fabrics, and thus colours, or if they had state supplied tunics that were mandatory? It’s so hard to know, as they definitely had formal discipline and esprit de corps, but just how similar was it to a modern army?

        It seems odd that there are no boring logistics records about uniform supply though, so maybe it was a case of the legion gives you your arms and armour, and you supply your own tunic. If that was the case, then they’d probably just be wearing simple natural colours or un-dyed cloth.

        I too find historical clothing strangely fascinating. I keep imagining local women being corralled into providing tunics and cloaks for occupying legions.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          Personally, I find supplied tunics unlikely. By the ‘Imperial era’ many legions would not have been raised in Rome nor even set foot in Italy. The expense and logistical requirements to ship thousands of articles of clothing potentially hundreds of miles in Iron Age conditions is daunting.

          Legionaries had to pay a clothing allowance, but I imagine the quartermaster would have taken the money and found a local contractor to supply clothes. Also, central supply makes little sense when you have men serving in Scotland and Egypt.

          Even the most basic color requirements would have been hard to maintain under those conditions. We have a letter writing by a legionary to his mother asking her to make and send him some pants. So, whatever was state supplied might have been heavily modified or expanded on.

          Look at photos of soldiers up and through the standing armies of 1914, and you see a lot of variation in shades and even the cut of uniforms. ‘Uniform’ means something very different when everything is handmade.

          I hazard to guess that every man receiving clothes for the same issue would have gotten the same color. As for what color that was, I suspect whatever was around. White is easy to ‘clean-up’ by rubbing with chalk or pieclay, so the troops could make a smart turn out if they needed to. Brown or red-brown hides dirt, mud, and blood. If you wanted to impress the local girls blue, red, and black are all dashing.

          By the 4th century elite/favored troops were getting better clothing. This may or may not have been true before.

          I paint my Romans a mix of khaki and madder red. With flashier options for the elite. But there is no right answer.

  • The Warlock

    If one were to…investigate the game outside of reading the rules, what scales are appropriate for Broken Legions and which manufacturers offer better detail? Might try to pick up some Romans when I’m interstate in Jan next year (IHOP will be doing Cancon 2017).

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      *Note* I understand that the economics for miniature wargaming are different down under, so I don’t know how affordable or available any of the things I list might be.

      BL is clearly written with 28mm figures in mind, though noting would stop you from using 15mm if you wanted. Off the top of my head picks for 28mm Romans and such:

      NorthStar Miniatures has various classical monsters and their Crusader line has Romans.

      Wargames Foundry has Romans, Greeks, monsters, and just about everything else under the sun.

      Euerka miniatures has monsters, amazons, and their Shadow Forge line has cheesecake girl monsters, hoplites, etc.

      A&A miniatures do impressive Imperial Romans that are much closer to history than the ‘Hollywood’ Romans you normally see.

      • The Warlock

        Would Warlord Games Hail Caesar stuff fit? That seems to be the only historical stuff I can find in Oz for Romans

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          Forgot about Warlord. Yeah, their Romans should work just fine. Roman is a Roman really, particularly since the time-frame for BL is vague at best.

          • The Warlock

            Coolness. Ordered a box of 24 Caesarian Romans (Gladius +/- slings, +/- command) which are before the Imperial Romans chronologically? There were like, three whole sections- Caesarian, Imperial and Late R.E. Historical miniature timeframes be mad intimidating compared to sci-fi and fantasy.

            Anyhow, going to test this out with a brother as an opponent though may have to use adult beverages and junk food as an incentive for that. 12 Romans a side, could do a Eagle vs Mithris thing for a lark.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            Well, I wrote my thesis on Roman military evolution, so I could spill a lot of ink on the subject, but I’ll try to keep it simple wargamers break Roman armies up as follows

            Republican
            Actually Polybian. The models are ‘right’ from 220 BC to 80BC

            Caesarian
            Actually Marian. 80BC to maybe 20 BC

            Imperial
            Really Augustan or Julio-Claudian. 17BC to maybe AD 100. Honestly, these figures tend to be rather fanciful.

            Late
            AD 300-400ish or later. Really Romo-Byzantine if we’re getting technical.

            Caesarians would be a little early, but the book doesn’t have a clear time frame. Instead of Titus, just say that Augustus is on the throne of course he was technically Pontifex Maximus…

          • The Warlock

            That is actually really, really cool. Could I trouble you for a pdf or a link to the article? Spill as much ink as you want, it would be great to learn how the Roman military changed over the decades to centuries.

            Caesarian Romans being at 80-20 BC is a little disappointing but as you said, a Roman is a Roman is a roamin’. If I recall, the box comes with oval shields instead of the typical tower shield that Romans are depicted with. Would be interesting to see what spurred the change of design in arms and armour though given the ~1500 years of there being a Roman Empire.

          • I feel like each SF gamer is vulnerable to a specific historical area, and all it takes is a transitional skirmish game to tip them over.

            For me it was dark ages. For you it’s clearly Romans 😀

          • Thuloid

            Ditto on dark ages. James, have you seen much on the new Arthurian stuff for SAGA? I will not be able to resist it.

          • No, I haven’t, been a bit out of the loop painting 30k. I would jump at the chance to collect a Pictish warband though. I imagine many people would actually, given the popularity of the Scots in regular SAGA.

            Perthshire, the heartland of the old Pictish kingdom, is my ancestral home. My dad was born there and his family had lived there since forever.

          • Thuloid

            Six new factions and battle boards, scenarios, some campaign rules.

            Picts, Huns, Goths (divided into Ostro- and Visi-), Saxons, Romans, Britons. Also some new mercenaries, and some new ways to play existing SAGA factions (with slight alterations). I think this is going to be very popular.

          • Maybe I’ll be able to use my Irish too then, they’d be perfect as early Scots/Gaels warring against the Picts.

            I might pick up the rules at Cancon if they’re out by then. West Wind make some Pictish models I think look really nice.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            I hadn’t see those before. Very nice. I do wonder about the Pictish crossbow. Attested to in art, but it seemingly appeared an vanished in isolation.

          • Thuloid

            Don’t know about the equipment options yet. Here’s the Pictish battle board, if your French is passable:
            https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-L75oeHVjoqQ/WBD3dy3vUKI/AAAAAAAAATI/Fj6-Pi_Gnl490mv2QqnW6D7q6l2H8Hw9wCLcB/s1600/A%2526A5.jpg

          • Merci, mon French ce n’est indeed pas mal!

            Hmmm, Sacred Tattoos, Furious Assault, Frenzy. Looks like they’re going with a more traditional interpretation of the Picts, which is good fun.

            Current scholarship leans toward the idea that they were far more famous as skilled artisans than as fighters in the dark ages, and that the complex knotwork art that is often associated with the Irish actually originated in Pictland. My Scottish great-grandad used to say that the reason everyone in our family line could draw was the Pictish blood.

            Still, sign me up. Won’t even need new faction dice!

          • Yeah, I’m not sure about the crossbow. Like you said, it’s in art, so it must have been there in some form right? As I was just saying to Thuloid, current consensus is that they were very famous artisans and artists in this period, so perhaps a genius Pict invented the crossbow, but it was a flawed early design and didn’t survive the Gaelic invasion?

            I’ve also seen it argued that the Scottish schiltron was learned by the Gaels from the Picts, who in turn copied it and preserved it from their wars with the Legions. Fascinating idea.

          • The Warlock

            Romans?! and also Huns!

          • Can you use the same Romans though? 😛

          • Thuloid

            You’d want some late Roman models for this, of course.

            I wonder which existing factions they’ve adjusted for the period. Franks already had the Merovingian option–that’s not too horribly late. They’ve probably got a modified version of that going here. Likely Irish still. I wonder what else?

            Obviously no Normans, Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Danes, Joms, Rus Princes or Pagan Rus, and clearly all the C&C factions are out.

          • The Warlock

            Wibbly Wobbly timey wimey, maybe? According to the series, Dr Who is responsible for the fires of Pompeii.

          • The Warlock

            I’ve always had a bit of a love affair with ancient history, though I’ve never had the time to properly get into reading+research. Last exam (for forever) is this Wed, so going to actually do some research into Roman history.

            Will be at Cancon 2017, so up for some historico-fantasy gaming if
            you’re there. Work won’t let me have a 4 day weekend but mid-Sat onwards
            I’ll be in the ACT. Going to start saving and planning tickets soon enough.

          • Sweet, I doubt l’ll be playing anything this year (though it’s possible). Even if I don’t play, I’ll make sure i’m there on saturday or sunday and we can meet up and grab a beer or a coffee. Whichever seems more appropriate at the time 😀

          • Hey Pete, do you know what you’re thinking of playing at Cancon? The reason I don’t play usually is that people always run two or three day events, and I can only normally do one day for family reasons. But I just found out they’re running the largest SAGA event in the southern hemisphere next year, and you can choose to play only on the Sunday. I think it’s an all in brawl. So I might do that.

          • The Warlock

            I will join you on that as that sounds frigging awesome. No idea on how saga works but winging it has given me a few 5s and 6s at uni. It’s dark ages right?

            I’m considering just going on the Sunday though really need to investigate flight times.

            Gotta agree on multi day events , by the end of a single day event I’m all gamed out.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            This was before people digitized documented as a matter of course. I honestly don’t know if any copies have survived. No great lost, it wasn’t particularly good in the first place.

            My theory was that Roman military development was less a reaction to prevailing conditions and more a result of the integration to new populations into the Empire. The occupation of Cisalpine Gaul and Iberia led to a shift from legionaries acting as Italian spearmen to Celtic-style swordsmen. Despite defeats at the hands of the Parthians, Rome did not shift to using cavalry as the main arm until the occupation of Dacia opened up the chance to recruit from the Irano-skythian and Hunnic peoples living around the Black Sea.

            So, rather than the imagine we get of neat, Hellenized forces, Roman armies in the field polyglot forces of ‘barbarians’ fighting in something close to native style stiffened by intense discipline. The revolt of the Batavi hints that some of not all auxilia were serving under native princes.

            All completely unprovable of course.