Rebellion: Britannia #4: Problematic Historicity in the Game, by Maurice Suckling

This is part 4 of a series.

HISTORICITY PROBLEMS IN REBELLION: BRITANNIA

  • Inaccuracies, omissions, abstractions: The game is open to criticism that all manner of design elements are inaccurate, omitted or the abstractions are opaque. The number of Roman legions, the absence of Roman auxiliary and cavalry units, the number or size of British warbands, the considerable similarity of British faction draw decks, presence of British war chariots in large scale battles, the capabilities of the pieces, the array of abilities represented on the cards and their various ratios – all of these can be queried. But most details are just not clear in the historical record, which mitigates much of this kind of criticism. Some aspects are present, but in abstracted form. Roman cavalry is present not as pieces, but as cards. Auxiliaries are represented less overtly in cards (Suppression) and in forts. Chariots are considered to be represented within the warband pieces, such is the broadly large, if non-definitively defined scale of the design. The elephants Cassius Dio tells us Claudius brought with him are not directly represented in the game, but the need to mollify the emperor is represented by the Emperor Demands News Event card. The distinction between marching camps used by Agricola in Scotland and forts used farther south is deemed too fine a point for the game system to represent. Tension, Legion cohesion points, Victory Points, and the timescale are all immensely abstract and not overtly defined. But there are responses to each of these issues. Tension is a concept that is hard to quantify, Legion cohesion may be thought of as a composite of troop numbers, morale, fatigue, combat experience, quality of equipment. Timescale has been discussed above. Victory points are indeed abstractions, as a means to convey Roman projections of power and control in Britain, as a measure of Roman success. They also convey the power exerted by different British factions, and the extent of the resistance they are capable of mustering.
  • Roman landing site: The game assumes a Richborough landing site. But Sussex may have been the landing site.1 Or the Solent in Hampshire. Or, perhaps there were a combination of sites.2 Detached from the latest developments on this debate the designers select Richborough because there seems no clear consensus, Richborough is perhaps more established in the popular imagination, and somewhere must be chosen. That said, if a player has a particular gripe on this issue, the designers encourage players to freely choose their own landing site, or site that sit with their own research and logic.
A drawn reconstruction of Camulodunum by Peter Froste. Image found here.
  • Camulodunum: Camulodunum (the site of modern day Colchester) is listed as a Roman settlement site in the game inside the Trinovantes region. Yet the town was likely also a Roman fortress prior to that, and there is reference to it existing as the capital city of the Catuvellauni prior to that. This needs some explanation. First, the game simplifies the nature of Roman construction into forts and settlements, but thereby does misrepresent matters. Instead of two distinct construction types, most often a fort was built first, which then later became a civilian settlement. This is in an effort to streamline design elements whilst covering a period of 40 years, where we cannot, in any case, be certain of precise transformational timings between the nature and function of constructions. Further, if Camulodunum is the capital of the Catuvellauni, why does the game depict it inside the Trinovantes region? Numerous sources suggest the Trinovantes occupied territory in modern day Suffolk, Essex, and Hertfordshire. The designers have supposed the Catuvellauni have occupied the Trinovantes region at the time of the invasion (as they also have occupied the Atrebates region), and there is some evidence to suggest this is a reasonable guess.3
  • Missing Personalities: The game makes no mention of Sentius Saturninus, a possible major commander during the invasion, mentioned by Eutropius.4 The name has not resonated within the popular imagination, but might still have been included within the design if it had been considered worthwhile. Saturninus could have been included as a card in the Roman deck, but as a starting card it would have had an impact on game balance – Rome already begins that scenario with two starting cards, next to the one all other factions have. The card could have been included in the regular deck, but then removed for other scenarios, in a similar way to how the fleet cards are removed for the southern campaigns. But each card that must be removed for specific scenarios adds to the tasks of setting up the game and it was felt better to streamline this aspect as much as possible when the absence of Saturninus would be unlikely to be a concern to most of the likely players of the game. The same kind of thinking lies behind the absence of other personalities.
  • Determinism: In determining that Roman legions are so effective against British warbands – destroying up to 4 of them in one ‘battle’, whereas the warbands can, at most, if there are 4 of them, only inflict 1 Cohesion loss to any present legions, equivalent to one third of their operational strength, is problematic. This suggests Roman losses can only amount to no more than a third of the forces present. Yet we know that the IX legion was almost destroyed in 61. In game system terms this might be considered an under strength legion, at a Cohesion level of 2, rather than 3, with a prepared Ambush card played reducing it to a Cohesion of 1, but not destroying it. Or perhaps we consider the legion so badly mauled that at the scale of the game (with 1 Cohesion point representing 2,000 legionaries, even though Cohesion is expressly a measure of more than just manpower), the legion is more accurately considered destroyed. In this case we can see how a prepared Ambush card, followed by a Battle card in the play step would destroy a legion starting its turn with 2 Cohesion points. Alternatively, a prepared Momentum card, followed by 3 Battle cards would destroy even a full strength legion starting its turn with 3 Cohesion points. Destroying full strength legions might be rare, but it is possible with planning. Broadly speaking, this seems to reflect the historical record.
In the Beginning ...
A reconstruction of a Roman beacon tower, although their usage is debated. Image found here.
  • Beacons: There is some possible evidence that Roman road and fort networks facilitated some form of warning signal messaging.5 Yet this is far from clear, and it seems this may be an example of verifiable facts being trumped by popular imagination. Beacons are represented in the game as a means of allowing the Rome faction to see the top 2 cards of the Event deck and to alter their sequence, suggestive of the importance of intelligence. Without the pull of popular imagination, the beacons could as easily be called scouts to deliver the same gameplay effects.

HISTORIOGRAPHIC EXPRESSIONS

Historiographically, what Rebellion: Britannia appears to be telling us is essentially:

  • Roman dominance of Britain is not assured.
  • Cooperation amongst British tribes is possible, and likely to yield dividends in repulsing Rome, but is far more likely not to occur.
  • Rome wins set battles.
  • Britons have greater success when ambushing and refusing battle.
  • Even when defeated in battle and their territories occupied British tribes are not entirely suppressed and can still find ways to harry and unsettle Roman control. Conquering Britain is not over after having won victories in battle – this may rather be the mere beginning of conquest.
  • The more Rome builds the more likely it is that the invasion will be successful, and the faster legions move.
  • Yet the more Rome builds the more aggravated it makes the Britons, the more anti-Roman support accumulates, and the more targets the Britons have for pillage, so the easier it is for them to make their discontent and resistance clear.

So this is the project thus far. Plenty of hours of research, and writing, game designing, designing the board, the cards, implementing into Tabletop Simulator (TTS), scripting for faster set up times on TTS, playtesting, redesigning… and many more hours of playtesting and development to come.

If the game sounds like something you might be interested in playtesting please contact me: maurice.suckling@gmail.com.


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] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/overview_roman_01.shtml

[2] Manley, p.7.

[3] Hoffmann, p.53.

[4] Black, E.W. ‘Sentius Saturninus and the Roman Invasion of Britain’, Britannia Vol. 31 (2000), pp. 1-10.

[5] Southern, P. ‘Signals versus Illumination on Roman Frontiers’, Britannia, 1990, Vol. 21 (1990), p.241.

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