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Subject: Elephants are not Panzers: The Varus Review of Chandragupta rss

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Andy Linman
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I have been, over the past couple of years, getting my lovely wife, Viji, into the joys of playing wargames. Viji was born in India, and my in-laws live in Chennai (the city formerly known as Madras.) These two facts made the probability that I would NOT get Chandragupta: Great Battles of the Mauryan Empire, vanishingly small. Along with Chandragupta I also purchased Great Battles of Alexander Deluxe and the Tyrant module, on the theory that I should start GBoH from the beginning. However, we began with Chandragupta’s first and least difficult scenario, the Battle of Pataliputra.

To begin with, the box has a lot of stuff in it. There are eight scenarios (and the designer has said he’s planning to do some expansions if this title does well.) The scenarios contain a great deal of diversity, as there is one urban map (the city of Takshashila,) a map of an Indian fortified camp (so well fortified that it needs a map of its own,) and a couple of setups that show some of the unusual formations used by Indian armies of the period. The focus is on the Mauryan dynasty, from its founder, Chandragupta and his battles with his Nanda predecessors, through his grandson, Ashoka, who is regarded by many as the greatest of Indian kings of the period. (It is notable, however, that Ashoka is normally regarded as great for what he accomplished after he gave up warfare following the Battle of Kalinga. Kalinga is the final scenario.) There are also a rule book, a scenario book, three counter sheets, and a number of charts. The counters, I must say, are beautiful. They are pretty busy: There are numbers for movement, size, and troop quality (TQ,) and also designations for missile weapons (if any,) troop type (such as light infantry,) identifiers for grade (such as tribal) and a kingdom/guild/tribe note. Nevertheless, the art remains excellent and preserves the Indian feel. The counters themselves are of GMT’s normally high quality as far as the cardboard goes. There are three mapsheets, two of which are double-sided, yielding a total of five maps (some scenarios share a map, and at least one combines two maps for a larger battlefield.) There is also a 10-sided die, which is standard for GBoH. (Note: the die is read from 0-9, rather than from 1-10, which was a bit of an adjustment for an old D&D player!) I should note that the scenario book contains all the adjustments necessary, both in general and per scenario, for those who prefer to use Simple GBoH rules. There is also a separate card with the Simple GBoH tables, so, although I don’t use Simple GBoH myself, it appears the game is completely supportive of it.

The rule book is thick. I read the rules for GBA immediately afterward, and found that there are no extreme differences between them, although there are a number of minor ones. In particular, there are more detailed rules involving elephants, combat inside the fortified camps and cities, and Chandra doesn’t even have personal combat between leaders, which GBA does. (This makes sense, though, as even GBA doesn’t involve Indian leaders in personal combat.) Chandra also adds some additional complications to which units the various leaders can command, as part of its effort to reflect the "four fold" military hierarchy which existed in India at the time. This division refers to the division of armies into cavalry, chariots, elephants, and infantry (mostly light.) There is another division also, between unit grades. Essentially, this means there are two types of "national" units: the Maula and the Bhrta. The Maula are the hereditary nobility, and the Bhrta are well-paid mercenaries. In effect there are no significant differences between the two, although the Maula generally are the best units. There are also Sreni ("Guild") units, which are commanded by their own leaders. These units represent warriors of the middle classes, who participated a great deal in warfare at the time. Finally there are Tribal units, which also have their own leaders. When Sreni or Tribal forces take sufficient rout points (see below) they have to roll to see whether they abandon the field completely, so it doesn’t pay to depend on them too much. While Indian overall commanders (OC’s) can command these units, Sreni and Tribal leaders can only command units from their specific guilds or tribes; if you have more than one you have to keep track of which one can command which units, although if you keep them together it isn’t much of a problem. There are also lower-level "Nayaka" commanders who can only command their specific unit types, and for whom there are some additional activation rules, though truthfully you can play without using those rules and just treating the nayakas as leaders with limited capabilities. All these references to Sreni and Nayakas brings to mind two other points: One is that some players may be a bit put off by the unusual Indian names and terms. I wouldn’t think it would be a problem (and most units are referred to by prosaic English terms such as "elephant" and "archer,") but commanders named Chandragupta, Chanakya, and Bhadrasala might cause some a little confusion. The second is a point made by Stephen Welch, the designer, which was that the most important primary source for this game was the Arthashastra, which was an ancient Indian guide to commanding armies. Much of the actual disposition of troops, etc., has been interpolated as the Mauryas were not great writers of history. In fact, some subordinate commander names come from such sources as the designer’s in-laws. (Apparently he and I have one thing in common anyway!) As a consequence, where, for example, GBA has five different possible starting deployments for the Battle of the Granicus, depending on which historian you prefer, all of Chandra’s scenarios only have one.

Another difference lies in the addition of the fortified camp and city maps. Indian fortified camps of the period were complex affairs, reminding me of Roman camps later. There is a "retire to camp" rule for battles that feature them, allowing the defender to withdraw behind the walls. When the defender does so, the attacker’s victory conditions become more difficult. This rule can also apply to cities. Scenarios with camps or cities available can usually be played either with or without the retire to camp rule, resulting in a faster battle if you play without it, and the removal of some complexity. There are also rules for actually fighting inside cities and camps, rules which affect movement, line-of-sight, and the ability of elephants to breach gates.

The elephant was naturally the queen of battles in this milieu. Using your elephants correctly, and not squandering them foolishly, is critical. The rules for elephants are more extensive than those in GBA (which only has them in two scenarios) and the elephants seem to provide a lot of the thrust of the game. The final battle, Kalinga, even features the ELCH unit: an elephant-chariot. The designer, Stephen Welch, comments that he doesn’t know with certainty that these were used in battle, but they have been used in India from the time of the Mauryas up until today for other purposes (today largely ceremonial.) An interesting fact I learned from my own recent trip to India, and verified in some of the game commentary I’ve seen on CSW, is that elephants are not truly domesticated even now. It’s just too expensive to raise a baby elephant to adulthood to get some work out of him/her. Instead, the elephants are captured wild as adults and trained by expert elephant trainers. Apparently this has always been the case, even for war elephants.

The nuts-and-bolts of GBoH is centered around the concept of "cohesion." In ancient times it was critical for units to maintain their discipline, and when casualties were taken, to close ranks and continue. Each unit is rated for "troop quality" (TQ) and when it takes cohesion hits equal to or greater than TQ it routs -- unless it’s an elephant. Elephants don’t rout, they go slightly berserk and stampede; you roll on the elephant stampede table until the result finally causes the mahout to kill the last of the elephants in the unit. Your own elephants can therefore wreak havoc on your forces, which is disconcerting to say the least. (It's happened to me more than once.)Cohesion hits are inflicted by missile units that hit successfully, by shock combat, and sometimes merely by moving into unfavorable terrain. Leaders have the capability to remove cohesion hits ("dressing the lines" so to speak,) and also to rally units that rout. While the basic idea is fairly straightforward, the rules surrounding it, particularly shock combat, are a fairly complex series of steps. It also results in the use of a large number of markers: There are markers for cohesion hits taken, for missile units running low or out of missiles, for units that rout and are rallied, so despite the fact that stacking is generally limited to one unit per hex (with a few exceptions) that unit might have as many as three markers with it. This can result in a fair amount of stack checking when you want to see whether your unit has enough cohesion hits left to advance.

Another cause of "fiddliness" is the way it handles unit facing. Units face a hex corner most of the time, although units in column formation, and stampeding elephants, face a hexside. Somehow, it seems as though the counters want to face a hexside, and I find myself constantly adjusting them; it can become almost a dexterity game when you have a lot of units close together and are adjusting the cohesion and "missile low" markers, while trying to preserve the correct facing. Having facing is critical for verisimilitude, however, as it was absolutely crucial in battles of this nature; being able to take elephants from the rear is the best way to deal with them.

Game play consists of the players alternating activating their leaders. Each leader is rated on, among other things, initiative, and the lowest-initiative leader goes first. (In case of a tie the players roll the die to decide which one goes first.) The leader can issue "individual orders" to a number of units equal to his initiative; these orders can consist of movement, missile fire, shock, reduce cohesion hits, or rally. Many leaders also have "line command" capability. This allows them to issue orders to a "line" of similar units. The line command function is another one that is giving us trouble so far; the different lines -- infantry, elephant, cavalry, etc. -- are defined differently, and there are other limitations on the abilities of units to issue line commands. (Note: This is the main complication of the Nayaka rules I mentioned above.) It’s not a bad thing, but it takes some time and probably multiple plays to get your head around. Once a leader has issued all his orders he has the option of "rolling for momentum," in which if he can roll his initiative or lower he can issue a whole new set of orders (unless he used proximity to the OC to issue a line command...I told you that was complicated!) However, if he rolls a 9, it’s the dreaded "die roll of doom," and a number of possible consequences follow, all of them bad in some way. Once a leader has chosen not to attempt momentum, or had two momentum phases, he is finished and the counter is inverted. There is also a mechanism by which a leader can "trump" a leader, either friendly or enemy, with a lower initiative, so the leader activation sequence can become a game in itself. The leaders, like in most wargames that feature them, are critical to success. In Pataliputra we have found that, although the Nandas are favored, the Mauryas have significantly better leadership, and that seems to make up for it; as their units rout they can be rallied, their cohesion restored, and the leaders still have enough initiative to send more arrows your way.

The tactics seem, at least to me, to be more involved than the simple "come together and see who does better in shock combat" that GBoH has been criticized for in the past. The main thing I have discovered so far is the principle that I express as "Elephants are not panzers." I sent a line of cataphracted elephants against her infantry and chariots expecting to shock them into rout. Unfortunately, those that did rout were rallied, the archers put large numbers of cohesion hits on my elephants, her infantry would advance, put hits on the elephants and then rout, but when the elephants’ cohesion dropped, which it inevitably did, they stampeded. I lost the entire first line of elephants that way, which caused her to get to a "moral victory" in Pataliputra, by forcing the Nandas to commit the reserves. It’s going to take some doing to figure out how to use the elephants most effectively, but clearly they need infantry support. (Actually, this is true of panzers as well, so maybe the principle should be "elephants ARE panzers.") Elephants can also provide a minor benefit to leaders that are mounted on them, giving them a favorable DRM on rally attempts; this reflects the morale effect of a ruler mounted on an elephant. Another major factor is that, unlike Romans or Macedonians, who emphasize shock combat, Indian armies emphasize missiles. As a result, most of their infantry is light, and most of that is armed with various missile weapons, with an emphasis on archers. In particular, they have a large number of longbow units (marked with A*) which have a fairly long range. Those who have played the Hydaspes scenario in GBA have encountered them before.

The scenarios provide an interesting mix, showing Indian vs. Indian (Maurya vs. Nanda and Maurya vs. Tribal -- which is different) and also Indian vs. Greek (Maurya vs. Seleucids) so there are several scenarios in which significantly diverse armies take one another on. I have already commented on the camp and urban maps and scenarios; in addition there is a night scenario and a pursuit of tribal forces into some serious hills. (Interesting if not completely relevant point: The manager of a tea estate I visited in India told me that if wild elephants are chasing you, you should always run DOWNHILL. Otherwise there’s no way they won’t catch you and do whatever they want, which in the rules is stated "tragically impaled on the elephant's tusks,tossed high into the air, and then crushed to death under its feet. All that without a die roll!") There are also some unusual formations, which were pulled from the pages of the Arthashastra.

The main criticism I have of this game, and of GBoH in general, is the steep learning curve. Having grown up on a number of the Avalon Hill games (Squad Leader in particular, with its "programmed instruction,") I am more comfortable with the idea of a game with a basic level to learn the system, with more chrome added at "intermediate" and "advanced" levels. In Chandragupta the main way to simplify it is to try to find the easiest battle first (Pataliputra is recommended in the rule book, and it does have the advantages that it doesn’t involve terrain or double-sized Greek units.) Viji and I might have done better to have started with GBA and its Samarkand scenario, which is very small in terms of numbers of units, but we both wanted to jump straight into India. As it is we’ve been probably doing several things wrong, and we’ve been more or less deliberately ignoring some possibilities; for example, we haven’t attempted any leader trumping yet. In effect, I have been attempting to create a more "basic" rule set to learn from by deliberately ignoring some of the rules; I believe the system would be well served to have a basic rule set explicitly defined. It is possible that Simple GBoH accomplishes this, but from what I have read about it that isn’t the case; rather, Simple GBoH applies a uniform rule set to all the games.

Bottom Line on the Varus Scale:

Components: 7.5/10 (Solid GMT work, with really excellent art, especially the counters.)

Rules: 6.5/10 (They’re good and well-written, but I would have liked some introductory vs. advanced material.)

Gameplay: 7/10 (Once you know the sequence it plays fairly smoothly, but all the decision points for each unit, the many steps of shock combat, and the number of markers involved slow it down somewhat.)

Replayability: 7/10 (Having a large number of scenarios is always helpful, and especially in the urban scenarios I can see things going many different directions.)

Historiocity: 8/10 (It does behave like I had imagined a Mauryan army would, and the art is not only attractive, but it "feels" Indian.)

Complexity: High (Each little piece makes sense, but there are a LOT of little pieces.)

Overall: 7/10

If you are a fan of the GBoH series, or of ancient India, or even of elephants in battle, this is an excellent choice. You will be able to play with weapons systems that you haven’t seen elsewhere, and have the added bonus of being able to put them up against the good old phalanx. On the other hand, if you have issues with excessive fiddliness or detailed rules, you should probably give this one a miss.
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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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That is one of the best written and most informative reviews I've read on BGG. Well done!
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Sean Todd
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I've got the first battle set up in my living room and I'm planning on working my way through it. I tried once before and only got through a turn or so before setting it aside. I wasn't sure how to approach the two armies. What I remember is that the one side can move almost all of their units at once, allowing them to march forward in one orderly line. Chandragupta's side can only order a fraction of their troops at a time making orderly advancement difficult or impossible. Of course that's the point of the scenario, but I'm still not sure how aggressive to be with Chandragupta's side.

Well, I'll give it a few turns tonight and see what happens. It's been years since my Avalon Hill days and this game is a significant step up from Commands & Colors: Ancients so I'm just going to have to try to tackle the learning curve.

Thanks for the excellent review. There hasn't been a lot of quantity in attention for this game, but between this review and the session report here: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/425020, the quality has been top notch.
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Jon
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Sphere wrote:
That is one of the best written and most informative reviews I've read on BGG. Well done!


I will gladly second that thought. Well done and thank you.
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Colin Hunter
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Quote:
The elephant was naturally the queen of battles in this milieu. Using your elephants correctly, and not squandering them foolishly, is critical.
This is true of all the GBoH in my experience. The power of the Cataphract Elephants though is that they have a bit more flexibility and can frontally break some infantry. As you found out though, Elephants can be overwhelmed by missile fire and infantry, they are insanely good against cavalry, which tend to withdraw, but clever use of combined arms can pin cavalry down, allowing elphants to overwhelm them.

Quote:
Having grown up on a number of the Avalon Hill games (Squad Leader in particular, with its "programmed instruction,") I am more comfortable with the idea of a game with a basic level to learn the system, with more chrome added at "intermediate" and "advanced" levels.
I wonder how much this is a generational thing. I'm a more recent wargamer and I hate programmed instructions I want to read everything first, taste is taste I guess

Quote:
As it is we’ve been probably doing several things wrong, and we’ve been more or less deliberately ignoring some possibilities; for example, we haven’t attempted any leader trumping yet
I can appreciate this, I think your patience will pay off though. Trumps are well worth using once you get used to the rules. Often it is your goal to force your opponent to have to trump, thereby giving them a significant risk (if they fail they are finished).

One of the other subtleties about this game is that the Light infantry is worth half route points, I think making light infantry worth less is great, but I think this is slightly too powerful. As I pointed out in my session report, it means light infantry can frontally break phalanxes on even rout points. I like numbers mattering, but it can be a bit extreme.

Great Reveiw
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Andy Linman
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Thanks for all the kind words.

Obviously this wasn't a review from someone who thoroughly understands the system and all its subtleties yet; we're still working on getting the mechanics down. (Viji and I haven't played each other again, but I've done a couple of solo scenarios and have used the trump function there.)

Colin, that's an interesting observation about the generational effect. Actually, even with programmed instruction I would always read ahead (breaking the rule that said "STOP!") but found that there is a difference between reading the rules and applying them. I found it was easier for me to actually use the mechanics a few at a time. (I'm mostly thinking about Squad Leader here, since that's where the programmed instruction idea worked best. In some games the "Advanced Game" added so little extra that it didn't seem worth it to separate them.)
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Richard Berg
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Andy . . .

Thanx for the thoughtful comments on CHANDRA . . . I shall "alert the media" over on Consimworld.

The GBoH system is branching out into most fascinating areas . . . .the next game (January release) is CHARIOTS OF FIRE, warfare in The Bronze Age (and detailed chariot rules) . . .and we're starting work on ancient Chinese battles (probably starting with China thru about 200 AD).

And Andy, if you're interested in India, you will be most happy to see the upcoming game, WELLINGTON IN INDIA . . .

Glad you enjoyed the game . . .

RHB
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Rob Fletcher
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I have a copy of this for sale or trade, if anyone is interested?
 
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Gustavo Vazquez
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Amazing review!
 
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Tommy Nilsson
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A really good review. Having recently bought the game AND read the review I can't wait to get it setup. Well done Sir
 
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