Rebellion: Britannia #3: Coherent Historicity in the Game, by Maurice Suckling

This is part 3 of a series.

HISTORICITY IN REBELLION: BRITANNIA

There are several areas where we might cite coherent and supportable historicity within this design:

  • Scenarios: The game has four key scenarios: the invasion, the Silures’ rebellion, Boudica’s rebellion, and the campaigns of Agricola. These align with the history we have as the major incidents of the first century. The suppression of the Brigantes is another major event, dated roughly at 71-73.1 This is represented in the game in the Agricola Campaigns scenario when playing with a Brigantes player, even though it preceded Agricola’s arrival as governor it seems connected to the invasion of Scotland so helps to form a coherent narrative of a more northerly push by Rome.
  • Factions: In-line with those four scenarios the playable factions correspond as we might expect: Rome, Catuvellauni, Silures, Iceni, Ordovices, Brigantes. The Vacogmagi could just as easily be any other far northern tribe, so little do we know for certain, but were chosen over nearby tribes for gameplay reasons. The Brigantes might have been a more prominent faction in more scenarios, their power being significant through much of the first century, but, given their client kingdom status for much of this time, through Cartimandua, they are more often represented through non-player led game systems (principally the Event deck in the Southern Campaigns scenario, and then in related subsystems.)
  • Competition: The various British tribes did engage in alliances – the Trinovantes rose up with the Iceni in 61, and Caratacus of the Catuvellauni fought with, and led the Silures in rebellion. But far more often the tribes jostled with each other. They did not coordinate anti-Roman efforts. They made peace separately. The game system retains this overt competition in the victory conditions.
The game board
  • The Board: The map on the board depicts the mainland of Britain broken into the regions of approximate tribal control prior to the invasion. The region allocation in the game is a composite of numerous historical sources.2 The rough terrain on the map corresponds with the geography of Britain – the more hilly and mountainous land in Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.
  • Client Kingdoms: Numerous British tribes engaged in client kingdom relationships with Rome – the Iceni until Boudica’s rebellion, the Brigantes until it was invaded, and likely far many more for much of the first century. This was a familiar method of Roman control.3 The game represents this through its client kingdom subsystem.
  • Four Legions: There is a broad consensus that Rome conducted the invasion with four legions, and that throughout the rest of the century there were likely four legions in Britain, with the XIV leaving briefly around 65 returning around four years later.4
Stater coin depicting Caracatus (43 CE). Image found here.
  • Known commanders: Most, if not all of the known named commanders, kings, and queens are represented in the game. Caratacus is Caradoc, but in a Welsh form, rather than the Roman formulation, Caratacus. Yet an additional card is provided if the Silures/Ordovices has a player at the same time as the Catuvellauni. This is because no other name can be found for a Silures/Ordovices leader who is not Caratacus, and Caradoc carries a mythical quality in Welsh historiography, even if it is most often connected with medieval history.5 If we could find a better name for a Silures/Ordovices leader who was not Caratacus/Caradoc we would use it instead. Calgacus is ascribed a Vacomagi leader. We do not know this is true, but we do know he was the leader of the opposition the far northern tribes mounted against Rome.
  • Card decks: These decks and the abilities listed on the cards represent each faction’s capacity to effect its will on the political-military situation within each scenario. As a card-driven game (CDG) the design is subject to criticism that the availability of cards dictates player options rather than strategy shaped by less luck-based options. Yet such an argument cuts deep into the nature of CDG design. The argument maintained here is that CDGs represent the problems and limitations with command and control that litter military history. Further, a draw deck that doesn’t cycle after being expended represents finite resources. The game permits emergency plays of non-existent cards, but with a penalty of cards to be discarded. This is intended to represent the ability to do something in desperation – and to offset the sense in which luck of a card draw is dictating strategy – but at a cost. In extremis supplies and equipment get left behind, troops are not as well prepared, are tired, and command infrastructures are tested. Such measures are not indefinitely sustainable. 
  • Strategy & Action play: Clearly the distinction between Strategy & Action cards conforms to game design elements rather than specific details in the history concerned. But the design feature, permitting a second card to be played in a turn if a Strategy card has been prepared, is an attempt to represent the potential for increased effectiveness if plans are made ahead of time. There is risk/reward here, because plans might not survive contact with the enemy, and a precious card might be wasted with an evolving strategic situation. We know little of the details of planning of any faction, yet there surely was some. Plautius seems to have planned a domination of the Catuvellauni before founding Londinium and expanding dominance north and west from there. It seems as if Caratacus, during the Silures’ rebellion, and Calgacus prior to Mons Graupius were successful in evading battle for much of their respective campaigns.
  • Gameflow: The Tension/Warband design element tells us that even if opposition to Rome, and other British factions, is formulating, it does not equate to the same thing as an army in the field. It is hard to squash an enemy unless they have taken up arms and present for battle. This element will be familiar to players of Volko Ruhnke’s COIN series, published by GMT, where guerrilla, or unconventional forces are represented by cylinders embossed side down, to show they are hidden, or embossed side up, to show that they are exposed. It seems fair to say that we know that British forces did understand the advantages of refusing battle, and that Rome was frustrated by such a strategy.6 The broad gameflow, with Rome hard to beat in battle, and the Britons able to cause persistent annoyance by refusing battle, and being able to recover even after battles seems borne out in history. As Hoffmann says:

Ending a war with a decisive event makes good narrative sense; but…the Iron Age peoples in the south of Britain may have defined their objectives differently. Their defeat in a large battle appears not to have been a reason to offer universal surrender, but seems to have been a moment of reconsidering tactics. Neither Caratacus nor Boudicca appear to have considered surrendering after their lost battles (at least if you follow Dio’s account, rather than Tacitus…).7

  • Events: The Event decks in the game deliver a means whereby the strategic situation can alter without the agency of any participants. Weather is one such factor, another is the mounting tension across Britain as the Romans maintain their presence. The game only presents some factions as playable, so this Event system permits some sense of the dynamic presence of other factions, even if they are smaller and are never controlled by a player.
  • Card Details:
    • Roman military might: When Roman legions met British warbands in battle – Medway, Watling Street, Mons Graupius, they were always successful, even when considerably outnumbered. If we believe the 80,000 dead figure from Tacitus for Boudica’s forces when defeated at Watling Street it would seem that no number of troops assembled into warbands could hope to defeat a well-led legion in open battle. The British style of warfare, with long swords freely swung put Britons at a disadvantage when their numbers were high and when fighting against the tightly knit units of legionaries with large curved shields and short stabbing swords. Hence the game’s deterministic design to ensure a legion meeting any number of warbands will always destroy those warbands, and suffer no Cohesion detriment either. Likewise, the most damage any warbands can do to a legion is to cause 1 Cohesion point loss, or one third of its strength. British warbands simply are no match for legions in pitched battle. Likewise, it seems British hillforts offered no meaningful resistance to Roman forces, although perhaps they were never tested in this regard.
    • Irregular Warfare: British arms fare substantially better against Romans when ambushing, or catching Roman troops unprepared. The near destruction of the IX legion during Boudica’s rebellion seems to support this idea, certainly in relation to the named battles.
    • Roman construction: The archaeological record shows us what prodigious builders the Romans were: forts, settlements, and roads, as well as villas, and, in Britain, walls, such as the Antonine Wall, and Hadrian’s Wall. The game is set before the building of these two walls, but first century Britain saw the construction of seven major Roman roads: Ermine Street (London to the Humber), Watling Street (London to Wroexter), the Fosse Way (Topsham near Exeter to Lincoln and the Humber), Cirencester to Silchester, then London, Silchester to Chichester, London to Colchester, and London to Richborough.8 Numerous towns and cities were founded in Britain in the first century too: Londinium (London), Verulamium (St. Albans), Lindum (Lincoln), Eboracum (York) among many others. Towns ending in ‘chester’ (Dorchester), ‘caster’ (Doncaster), or ‘cester’ (Cirencester) also denote a Roman camp. The game allows for the Rome faction to build forts, settlements, and roads. 
    • Logistics: We know something of Roman logistics, or at least can speculate heavily on known and testable issues – march rates (often assumed at 20 miles a day for infantry and accompanying pack animals), munition consumption, mule usage, and the like.9 The game abstracts march rates and most supply concerns. Each scenario is 15 rounds long. (Each round is broken into turns taken by players in sequence, and consists of a series of steps.) But the scale of the game is different in each case. The Invasion scenario lasts from 43 to around 45-50, depending on the number of factions controlled by players. The more players the wider the scope of the political-military concerns and so the longer the time period covered. So 15 turns represents a different length of time in each case. If only Rome and Catuvellauni are active factions, either with player control or without, then the 15 turns represents roughly 1 year, so each turn represents roughly 2 weeks, with the Roman arrival being May or June, and the Catuvellauni occupied and seemingly suppressed before the winter of that year.10 In the Boudica scenario the 15 turns represents around the same length of time, although possibly double, depending on whether Prasutagus died in 60 or 61. The Silures rebellion scenario covers some part of the 28 years from 47-75 but isn’t specific about how many of these years are covered. The Agricola Campaigns scenario covers 77-81, representing around two and a half campaigning months per round. But in the scenario with the Brigantes player the start date moves to 71 or 72. Such an approach means the historical model the game presents makes no claim on scales or logistical details. Such claims may be conventional with wargame models. Yet this fluidity of scale and design approach permits multiple scenarios to work within the same game system and to encompass many different player count numbers. Further, it permits a player focus on a small number of key operational decisions each turn. The argument here is that logistics are not absent in the game – pieces still move, are still affected by the weather, legions are still affected by supply issues – but these are abstracted into the game systems so players are concerned with the essence of logistical concerns, but not overly encumbered by their details. We know that Agricola utilizes fleets to assist with supplying his army as it marched farther north, and this element too is represented in that scenario.

Maurice Suckling is an assistant professor in the Games Simulation Arts and Sciences program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York. He teaches and researches narrative in games, and historical simulations. He is a veteran of the video games industry, with credits on over 50 video games, including Civilization VI, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. He is also a board game designer and his credits include Freeman’s Farm: 1777, Chancellorsville: 1863, and Hidden Strike: American Revolution. He has designed numerous games with his friend Daniel Burt, but none of them have yet been published.


[1] Campbell, p.14.

[2] Peddie p.21. Jones, B.& Mattingly, D. An Atlas of Roman Britain (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1993), p.46, p.51, pp.52-56, pp.66-67.

[3] Hoffmann, p.71.

[4] Campbell, p.10, p.14.

[5] Aldhouse-Green, M. & al. ‘Gwent In Prehistory and Early History’, The Gwent County History, Vol.1. 2004.

[6] Cassius Dio, The Histories, 60.20.5. Hofmann, p.128. Webster, G. The Roman Invasion of Britain, (London: Routledge, 1993), p.100-101.

[7] Hoffmann, p.128.

[8] Hoffmann, pp.71-72.

[9] Peddie, pp.23-46.

[10] Hoffmann, p.51. Peddie, p.110.

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