The (Roman) Empire Strikes Back

A ‘Massed’ 28mm Skirmish Game Report, by Peter Merritt


Somewhere in Germany, © 1st century AD, after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest….

The original idea behind the game was how to stage an increasingly large-scale ‘skirmish’ using quite a few very nice early imperial 28mm figures which I had acquired via eBay. Although it started off as 1:1 scale, the idea (and collection) soon grew so that we could actually stage larger conflicts but still retain some of the unique tactical flavour associated with each very different side. To achieve this in a fast, playable form, I turned once again to a fabulous old hybrid board/figure game, “Star Wars Epic Duels” by Hasbro (see links at the end).


The key features of this design are that each player controls a small team, with one main character (say, Darth Vader), plus one or two little helpers (Stormtroopers in Vader’s case). Normal movement is fairly standard, although some variability is introduced by means of a die roll. However, the design really scores because teams also get a dedicated pack of cards which are used for both combat and any unique ‘special abilities’ – such an elegant, simple way to reflect widely varying attributes, and without resorting to thick books of charts and +/- tables!

Although the original Star Wars game was very 1:1 oriented scale-wise (and thus fitted extremely well with early LOTR games featuring the Fellowship), I have also adapted the concept in the past to much larger affairs, with masses of Orcs, Wargs etc vs varying amounts of opposition from the Riders of Rohan. Whilst having so many figures would render a normal ‘skirmish’ unmanageable, by nominating so-many groups per player turn this can both speed-up the playing cycle and reflect the rather hap-hazard nature of combat before the advent of truly drilled and ordered units in the later gunpowder era. But to retain an element of massed if not co-ordinated movement, a simple movement rule addition allows an ‘active’ unit to also drag along a number of those adjacent groups, sometimes more so if enhanced by a special card.

I really cannot stress how much the use of such dedicated card packs adds so much to the ‘period flavour’ of the game, hopefully reflecting the different combat options and other unique actions of the various Roman forces – legionaries, auxiliaries and stirrup-less cavalry – vs the massed ranks of fearsome tribesmen.

Roman Cavalry

For example, the Barbarians can gain advantage by deliberately sacrificing figures in massed attacks or an ‘active’ leader dragging one or more adjacent ones with him (at some personal risk).

Barbarian Druid and Warriors

On the other side, the Legion ability to reorganise and their close-in pilum-throwing are deadly. Whilst your immediate choice of tactics may always be affected by the cards in your hand, like any ‘real’ historical combat, victory will go to the side which can maximise their peculiar advantages whilst exploiting the weaknesses of the enemy.

Legions advance with skirmisher support

Each turn consists of two phases per player, movement then two actions (Romans can do in any order, Barbies guys must move then do one action). Normal movement uses a grid or in this case 4” hex cloth and a die roll to generate movement points; however, some ‘special moves’ via certain cards are also possible, such as reorganising all adjacent bases adjacent to a standard-bearer, or signalling an ambush! Play alternates in a random manner between one Roman then one Barbie group (hex), so it can be that not everyone is quite in the right place at the right time. This has had interesting effects in multi-player games, as the ‘current’ player can choose which groups to ‘activate’ – including any previously organised by a colleague! Finally, once a group has been activated and finished it can only thereafter defend itself until either (a) all players have moved, or (b) the current player uses their turn to ‘rally’ their forces rather than move/fight, removing 1d3 active markers from units/groups. This was especially useful in the game as it allowed for maintaining a degree of offensive.

Combat was computed by hex vs hex, with a small list of +/- factors. Factors were either ‘straight’ card numbers or ‘specials’ which could seriously affect your day. Things like ‘arrow shower’ or ‘pilum charge’ will be long-remembered… Hits were then converted to actual kills (removing a base), or ‘disorder’. The latter sounds easy but units with too much disorder were then increasingly rendered ineffective and vulnerable to a follow-up assault – thus the advantage of having a 2nd wave or reserve handy to blow-away that otherwise formidable unit.

As we had long departed the original 1:1 skirmish idea, the figures were organised with four figures per base for the regular Legion or close-order Auxiliaries, and single-figure ‘clouds’ for skirmishers. Roman heavy units/groups were normally 4-6x bases, which fitted very nicely in a 4” hex! To me, this looked about right for a typical 80 to 90 man century. For the Barbarians, many of the figures I had were already on massed bases, so 2-3 of these constituted a ‘unit’ in one hex. Especially nice were the chariot units which their creator had turned into mini dioramas – the sort of thing which makes our toy soldier games a real pleasure, especially as you’re getting hammered into the ground.

Speaking of the games….


 In the end I had two players fool- I mean, kind and raring to give this experimental version of the system a go, so I thought that they would be best deployed together as the Roman forces with me running a large but disorganised Barbarian opposition (this also fits my style of generalship). I had long decided on an overall plan (“Ok, men – go get ‘em!”), which as sole umpire made it easy for me to both control events and make a hopefully convincing ‘fist’ of a tough time.

Opening shot of initial deployments, with beautiful chariots to the fore!

The scenario, such as it was, had a Roman punitive column probing the territory of the German tribes near the frontier of Gaul, trying to establish if another major incursion was being prepared. As such, Eric and Mark were suitably impressed by the initial set-up with the Romans marching on and suddenly facing an edge-to-edge arc of extremely unfriendly-looking tribesmen.

The hairy barbarian battle line

However, although it certainly had the appearance of a tidal wave of terror about to engulf them, they gradually began to discern one of the key differences between the armies – the Roman organisation meant that units acted (fairly) smoothly in concert, whereas the Barbarian units were much more, ah, ‘individualistic’ let’s say, requiring frantic interventions by leaders to get any sort of co-ordinated action!

Early-on the chariot units thundered in from each flank, creating some wobbly moments for the Roman generals as they overran some outlying auxiliary units and routed a cavalry force which had scouted slightly too far ahead.

Roman Cavalry on their way to a messy end

These chariot units – especially using their rapid speed and special attacks – surprised everyone (including me!), and ended their initial run threatening the flanks of two Legionary units in the centre.

Chariots and escort

With no support to hand, however, the chariot attacks tended to run out of steam as they approached the main line, and as primarily offensive units, Eric quickly marshalled enough counter-force to ensure that they soon took so much disorder that they effectively fell apart. This was repeated on the Roman right flank by Mark, although the chariots here came in in waves (mainly due to terrain, not my planning), and thus caused a few sweaty turns as Mark’s forces had to keep an eye on their own flanks. The downside for the Barbarian efforts was that the sweeping to and fro of chariots tended to block some warband units from advancing together (not that there was much risk of this as it turned out!).

Barbarian centre begins its ‘lunge to destiny’ (ignoring the left flank)

By now the Roman players were getting into both the system and the specific opportunities afforded by each card in the deck, so tactics and plans started to get more ‘subtle’ (as befits the early Empire?!). So it was that what should have been the main Barbie ‘follow-up’ punch by the full weight of centre warbands quickly disintegrated into a hap-hazard race towards the solidifying Roman line! True, several auxiliary units were overwhelmed or brushed aside, but the Legion, with a few awkward moments, held their ground and developed a really nasty-looking right-hook…

As the Roman centre and left hold, the Roman right advance begins to advance…

As the central slog developed and the Barbarian flanks signally failed to get their act together (the chieftain/leaders were a might busy at this point, making some awful activation rolls or, err, dying at really inconvenient moments), it was then that two key factors began to sway the tide of battle:

    • The Roman generals co-operated in using the ‘pause to rally/re-organise’ option for units which had already been active.
    • These ‘reorganised’ units were then quickly thrown-in with support from those ‘brushed-aside’ auxiliaries in two-front attacks, converting disordered units into panicking mobs heading for the forest!

As it became clear that the central assault had failed and the core Legionary units had only been ‘dented’, with no sign of a pincer move from the flanks I thought it time that the tribesmen would consider they’d done enough for today and head home for some serious bardic singing and drinking, thus ending the battle.


 I think I’m correct in saying that the players, once they had mastered the system and individual cards, certainly seemed to enjoy themselves – which is a great end point for any game! Both players – not normal ancients types – seemed to like the idea that the system and cards were so tailored to that specific period and the armies concerned, rather than a ‘generic’ set spanning many hundreds of years which required the player’s experience to supply the realism. As I understand it, dear old Bob O’Brian (one of the key developers of WRG rules) only used to play strictly historical games – no Yorkists vs Egyptians etc.

As the designer I was also pleased with how ‘balanced’ the overall game was, both in terms of forces deployed, and my extremely amateur development of the various cards. It also validated the concept that the core system was so amenable to other ‘asymmetric’ situations, now covering subjects from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Roman Empire and (soon) Seven Samurai. A truly classic system, in my view.

Finally, the fact that my lightweight design had at least as much to do with a reading of Tacitus and Agricola than it did to a rewatching of ‘Carry On Cleo’ was not lost on the players, with one card allowing a bonus action for anyone who could name the actors playing certain supporting roles in that fabulous film…

My tremendous thanks, as ever, to a fabulous bunch of guys at the Maidstone club.


Rules and Card Decks:

As with almost all my games the rules are home-grown stuff and, as such, possible to extend or amend as you wish (the mark of a good product/system in my view). Hopefully these will appear on the blog site ‘real soon now’. If not, come along to the club and try it some time!

Original game:

Details of the original HASBRO “Star Wars Epic Duels” by Craig Van Ness (with assistance from Rob Daviau) can be found here:


Thanks to the advent of so many superb plastic 28mm ranges, the web (eBay etc) is now awash with old and 2nd hand extremely units which can be had for quite reasonable amounts. And if, like me, you can barely paint the side of a house, many of said units come pre-painted. If you prefer the ‘look and feel’ of massed forces, however, the core system is quite happy as (like a boardgame) it is base-oriented, so you can put shed-loads of 15, 10, 6 or even 2mm strips on said bases.

Other previous outings:

    • ‘One Ring’ (Weathertop or Amon Sul): 4+ Ring Wraiths vs pre-Fellowship
    • ‘Fords of Isen’: ambush of Prince Theodred by massed Orcs & Wargs
    • ‘Pelennor Fields’: the charge of the Rohan cavalry vs besiegers, including 1/24th Mumakil!
    • ‘Mines of Moria’ down in the claustrophobic setting with 1:1 Fellowship trying to escape Bernard the Balrog!

(for more pics and other rules, see here: )

There is a great fan-following on the net as well (for this and the original Star Trek game), with lots of suggestions for other card deck, scenarios etc.

BTW, I am also in the process of using the wonderful character-specific card system for such diverse topics as:

    • ‘Seven Samurai’ (final battle in the village); objective for the bandits is to kill as many peasants as possible as these represent the resilience / surrender level, thus making it a challenge for the deadly, professional samurai to protect them!
    • ‘Ranks of Bronze’ is based on the fab David Drake book of the same name in which a captured Roman Legion is sold to aliens! These creatures then deploy the Legion on various worlds which they wish to exploit but are forbidden by the Galactic Council to use any technology higher than the locals! By creating card decks for the alien races, a very interesting mini-campaign can thus be created.
    • ‘The Four Musketeers’ will see a return to fully back to 1:1 ratio, as we can now have card decks specific to the main characters, as well as more generic decks for thugs, mercenaries or of course the Cardinal’s Guard (boo, hiss…..).
    • Really Super Heroes is another 1:1 scale effort, this time featuring the various comic-book heroes and villains such as Batman etc. We may not stretch to Superman, as any character who can alter time and spin the planet around is a bit out of the ‘biff!’, ‘pow!’ league…

 Stay tuned to this blog……