Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Battle of Thapsus 46BC - To The Strongest Rules

10mm Numidian elephants escorted by Numidian light infantry javelinmen

Still obsessed with my current reading and painting period of the Roman Civil Wars, this month's game was the Battle of Thapsus.  If I was more organised I would have done these battles in chronological order but I have only just painted the elephants and I still don't have enough troops for Pharsalus yet!

To summarise the history of this battle just very briefly: After defeating Pompey at Pharsalus and defeating the Senatorial Optimates further in the Eastern Provinces, Caesar pursued into North Africa.  Stalemate battles ensued.  Caesar settled down to await reinforcements from Sicily and besieged Thapsus.  The Optimates were forced to accept battle and ventured out to attack Caesar from behind.  Caesar left the siegeworks and formed his army for battle:

According to Wiki (yes I know it's not the best but it was one of the most convenient sources in this case):


Commanders:  Scipio, Petreius, King Juba I
Legions: 12+ (72,000 men)
Cavalry: 14,500
Allies: King Juba's (numbers not known) including 60 elephants


Commanders:  Caesar and one other
Legions:8+ (50,000)
Cavalry: 5000

 Optimates on the left and Populares on the right

Historical Outcome:  Caesar's men impatient and keen for another victory surged forward.  The elephants (presumably on the right) were defeated and trampled their own men, whilst the left wing elephants made their attack on the Populares centre.  This attack was held and then pushed back.  Caesar's own cavalry then outflanked the Optimates and took their camp. Juba's men deserted and the victory was complete.  A massacre then followed and prisoners were not spared (due to Caesar having had an epileptic fit apparently and thus unable to intervene).

Wargaming the battle:  Well on first glance it looks like Caesar is really up against it!  He is seriously outnumbered and his generalship is going to be stretched with 2 known generals (the name of his other commander does not seem to be recorded) compared with 3 generals on the optimates side.

In my playtest to remind myself of the rules, just prior to the game - I played one wing vs one wing.  In this the elephants on their first ever outing smashed straight through all who stood before them...so it seemed far worse for Caesar than I could balance up.  So what could I do?

I decided not to do too much other than improve morale and command quality for Caesar.  This seemed to be historically the right thing to do.  His men had known victory after victory.  Two legions had just deserted from the Optimates. Surely total victory was in the grasp of the Populares.  Caesar had proved himself to be both lucky and brilliant and so I made the following adaptations for the battle:

Caesar:  Classed as 'Brilliant' - all other generals as normal

Optimate Legions: downgraded by one morale save to 7+ instead of 6+ (but all allies remain as their standard settings).

One Populares Legion: Upgrade to Veteran 5+ morale but this is stuck on a label beneath the base and not revealed until combat is joined for this unit (to prevent it being unrealistically avoided on purpose).

No other changes to basic rules (other than using TTS 'Even Stronger' Version 5 amendments).

 Numidian's on the Optimates right flank - King Juba I commanding

Terrain was classed as flat with one area of marshland and beyond both flanks were major impassable water features

Caesar's camp was placed on the table though historically was much further back.

 View from behind the Optimates' centre

Ian took command of the Optimates (I thought it would be more fun for him to use the elephants and greater numbers of troops).  He got the highest chit (we use the chits instead of cards so as not to obscure the table), and ordered his army to do a general advance.  They obeyed (except for his left flank which was sluggish in obeying orders).

It did feel a bit odd in the pre-game brief to describe your own general as being brilliant i.e. 'I am Caesar therefore I am brilliant!'.  Sounds a bit egotistic but we know what we mean when we take these parts when playing at commanders!

I (as Caesar) could not allow my men to hold back so I ordered them into a general attack too.

These photos show these opening stages well.

..and then the lines collided!  Disorder struck some units very early on (much earlier than the last game we had - which seemed to have a lot of freak high saves constantly).  This time Ian (as Scipio) suffered some of the worst luck with saving throws (or chit pulling) that either of us have ever seen.

You can see the puffs of cotton wool (not smoke markers but obviously dust clouds!) representing disordered units.  Scipio has a whole flank of elephant units and his centre and his left becoming disordered and with just one on the Populare's side (I can't recall it but they must have been hit by archery), or it was misplaced cotton wool.

My reserve units are preparing to meet the elephants and Numidian Light Cavalry should they break through.

Disorder started to affect most units in the Optmates forces and then units started to break.  I forgot to apply the Even Stronger Version 5 rout tests in the first instance, but from then on I remembered.

Unfortunately I got this bit slightly wrong which probably wound the game up a little bit quicker than it otherwise would have done (sorry Ian).  There are two attempts to pass a rout test. If a unit fails then they become disordered - they do not immediately rout! (yes I read 'rout test' and clearly didn't take in the paragraph in full) - UNLESS they are already disordered when they do indeed rout.  So as one unit broke and their neighbouring unit took a rout test - they should have just been disordered when they failed and not routed. Of course as another unit ran I applied the test to the next unit and so on.  We saw a proper 'England cricket style' batting collapse - as unit after unit broke.

Don't get me wrong - I think the TTS 'Even Stronger' V5 changes are much better and I really like them - far better than the old demoralised command rules and I think it is quite right that neighbouring units are affected by what happens nearby (the lack of such effects to friendly units was what I found to be the worst thing in the ACW 'Fire and Fury' rules).  It is just my own misreading which caused the Optimates army collapse to appear much worse than it actually was.  In all respects the game was absolutely brilliant and very enjoyable indeed.  TTS is an outstanding set of rules and I very highly recommend them.

Now for the actual real-life battle this collapse was probably pretty realistic, and it would have been difficult in the game for the Optimates to have held on much longer as my troops were disordering units all over the place (causing some quite legitimate routs when they were 'Rout Tested') - however the medal tally would have been different had I not misinterpreted the rules.  I would have lost some units to the elephants on my right I am sure, as the game went on for probably a couple more turns.  So the medal tally of 13-0 should not be taken as being the proper result.  Scipio would have lost for sure but Caesar should perhaps have worn his reading glasses and read the important paragraph properly.  I will next time!

PS - If you don't have much time to complete a game then I recommend misreading the rout test rule as I did - a broken army will collapse very quickly!


  1. A great looking game Jason, impressive mass effect and splendid elephants!

  2. A fine re-fight of Thapsus Jason. You did well to emulate Caesar, not an easy thing as he is always 'up against the odds'.
    Couldn't agree more, it is a fascinating part of ancient/Roman history.

  3. Nice report on an interesting battle!

  4. Your game looks fantastic (especially the 10mm Elephants).
    I of course concur about TTS; I usually forget about the Rout Test in "Even Stronger"... at least until my opponent reminds me, that is! I'll be doing a Punic Wars game with TTS myself at Historicon a week from today!

  5. Great looking figures and game. You make a wonderful argument for 10mm. Love the basing of the elies and escorts.