This is a battle report for a playtest of Song of Spear and Shield, an upcoming Ancients skirmish game from Ganesha Games, based on their popular Song of Blades and Heroes engine. The purpose of this playtest is specifically to see how effective light chariots perform against infantry.
This battle report may contain traces of historical inaccuracy, poetic license, Hollywood and pulp fiction. Read at your own risk.
It is the dawn of the second century. The former Roman prefect, Gnaeus Marcius Secundus, has been promoted to military tribune and is reaching the end of a long and arduous journey from sun-baked Syria to far-flung Valentia in northern Britannia. He is headed for the fort at Trimontium where he will complete his transfer to the Legio IX Hispana currently based there. He is travelling by chariot with an escort of nine hand-picked legionaries. Also riding beside him is a loyal Syrian auxiliary archer whose particular expertise with the bow prompted Gnaeus to employ him as a personal guard. The Syrian enjoys the better pay, but not so much the climate of this new province.
As the party travel ever onward through silent, mist-shrouded woodland, beneath the watch of rugged, ancient hills, there is a sudden flicker of light in the heavens, followed by the crack of thunder. A ferocious storm blows out of the darkening north and thick hailstones pummel the beleaguered party. Fearsome voices are heard and shadowy figures emerge from among the trees ahead. The Romans find their path blocked by a horde of savage Celts, led by none other than the infamous barbarian wardlord, Bran Mak Morn, Last of the Pictish Kings!
Amid the clamour of war-cries, the drumming of swords on shields, the rumbling thunder, the whinnying of the frightened horses, the barked commands of the tribune and the incessant hail battering on their armour, the ironclad legionaries prepare themselves for a grim fight ahead…
The battle takes place in a small forest glade. There are two oak trees, a beech tree and two rock formations.
The Celts are divided into three units of four men, attacking down the centre of the glade. In the middle are the nobles — the fighting elite — wearing chainmail, helmets and armed with shields and swords. Flanking the nobles on either side are the fanatics — painted, bare-chested warriors armed with spears, shields and swords.
Leading from the front is Bran Mak Morn himself, wearing heavy plated armour of an unknown construction and armed with sword, shield and two-handed axe.
On the other side of the glade, the Romans divide themselves into three units of three legionaries, each wearing lorica segmentata, equipped with gladius, scutum and heavy pilum. The units spread themselves out wider across the glade than the Celts, but favouring the right flank. Their heavy pila are useless in this weather, so they draw out their gladii instead.
Meanwhile, the tribune and his Syrian archer in the chariot take up position at the leftmost side of the glade.
Gnaeus, eager to prove his courage to the men, is the first to act. He draws his sword and drives his horses onward in a foolhardy charge toward the enemy. His plan is to slip past Bran Mak Morn in a sudden mad dash and scatter his warriors before they can properly mobilise. Perhaps such an act of bravery will serve him well in his military career?
Gnaeus skilfully swerves the chariot between a rock formation and an oak tree, heading straight for the left flank of painted fanatics. "For the Emperor and the Glory of Rome!" he shouts.
But all does not go according to plan. The chariot does not reach the fanatics in time before Bran Mak Morn, seeing what is happening, dashes into action. He quickly puts away his sword, slings his shield over his shoulder and draws out his mighty two-handed axe. He sprints over to the chariot and intercepts it as it trundles by, deftly avoiding the wheels. Seeing him approach, Gnaeus makes a thrust at the Pict with his gladius.
Bran Mak Morn dodges the thrust with ease and, with a mighty heave, swings his axe into Gnaeus’ face as the chariot passes. With a sickening crunch and fountain of blood, the tribune’s illustrious career comes to a sudden end.
The horses panic, feeling the sudden jerk on the reins as the tribune’s lifeless hand follows his body over the side of the chariot onto the sodden grass. The beasts bolt forward, madly, straight into the Celt fanatics, who attempt to leap out of their path.
But the fanatics aren’t quick enough. The horses crash into the leading warrior and trample him beneath their hooves. As his bones crunch beneath the chariot wheel, the others manage to bring the animals to a halt with their spears. The Syrian archer clings on for dear life as the chariot comes to a sudden stop and is quickly set upon by the remaining warriors. The Syrian’s bow is completely useless in this hailstorm, so he draws his gladius and prepares to fight for his life. The warriors jab at him with their spears but he swats them aside with his sword and they cannot pierce his mail.
NOTE: At this point, I forgot to take note of an important rule. The Roman leader is now dead so all Roman models are unable to function as cohesive units. Instead they have to operate as individual fighters, which gives them a serious disadvantage. I forgot this, however, so from this point on my legionaries are still moving in three-man units, though they should not be.
Meanwhile, the nearest Roman legionary unit caught up with Bran Mak Morn and surrounded him. Skilfully using their scuta to ward off the swings from his axe, they thrust at him with their gladii. But their blows prove ineffective against Bran’s tough armour.
The second legionary unit attempts to join the fight, but doesn’t arrive in time. The legionaries are demoralised by the loss of the tribune and their discipline begins to crumble. While not quitting the field as lesser men might have, they become hesitant and lose their iron nerve. As they falter at the edge of the battle, the Celtic nobles charge into the fray to protect their king.
Though superior fighters — the cream of a warrior culture — the nobles’ swords fail to penetrate Roman armour and the fight continues.
The battle heats up when the fanatics eventually overpower the poor Syrian archer. One of them manages to thrust his spear under his arm, causing a fatal wound; he collapses against the interior of the chariot. The two other fanatics run past and leap to the aid of the king, where the fighting is getting ever more intense.
With a mighty roar, Bran Mak Morn puts all his strength into a heavy downward chop with his axe upon the nearest legionary, who luckily catches the blow on his scutum.
Meanwhile, on the right-most Roman flank, away from the rest of the fighting, the second group of fanatics charges headlong into the third legionary unit with a fearsome battle-cry.
The first Celt’s spear lunges forth, hungry for blood, but is knocked aside by a scutum and the legionary responsible plunges his gladius into the chest of the painted warrior before he can draw up his shield. A second legionary is not so fortunate. A spear pierces through his neck and he topples backwards. The two remaining legionaries attempt to press back the fight but the bloody death of their comrade unnerves them and they make no progress, fighting desperately just to hold their ground.
Meanwhile, the battle by the chariot rages on.
Staggering from the heavy axe-blow, the legionary nearest Bran Mak Morn is thrust through on a fanatic’s spear and is out of the fight.
Bran Mak Morn, now with only two worn-out legionaries to deal with, seizes his chance. With a whirl of his axe he hacks off the leg of the first legionary sending him sprawling to the ground and without a moment’s hesitation cleaves the second legionary’s skull and helmet in twain from top to bottom. There’s a dull thud as his body slams down into the reddening mud.
At this, the five remaining legionaries’ morale finally breaks. They scatter, dropping their weapons and fleeing into the darkness, leaving their dead and dying comrades to whatever grisly fate awaits them.
None of the ill-fated expedition were ever seen again. The fort at Trimontium was abandoned shortly thereafter and the Legio IX Hispana also disappeared from the annals of history, swallowed up forever by the dark forests of mist-haunted Caledonia.