Last Modified 01/20/07

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War Machines in WAB
By Jeff Jonas 3-02-01

Vince Salvato's really cool Old Glory Onager is quite the 'bomb':


A lot of folks have asked the question of how much artillery is too much in WAB, (my answer usually is that ANY amount is probably too much if you want a really historical 'feeling' battle in WAB). But that's not any fun, so the rest of this is about how artillery found its way onto ancient battlefields.  How can reasonable players restrict the impact of artillery in their games without eliminating, or banning artillery entirely.

First and foremost artillery on ancient battlefields was a rare occurrance, not as commonplace as your typical WAB tournament of Hollywood movie. Artillery was mostly used for sieges, and for protection of camps. In the field when deployed in support of an army, artillery is usually restricted to river crossings and covering fire for bridgeheads, this is how Alexander and Caesar used their light ballistas and scorpions.

But using  ballistas, scorpions, catapults and heavier gear on battlefields is fun,  the same kind of fun as pitting the Trajanic Romans vs. can these be reconciled?

The notion of an artillery battery up on a hill firing over the heads of supporting infantry is a "histerical" notion in an ancient battle, but very much part of our 21st century mindset. (it fits in well with ducking, and not being seen, other notions not observed too much in antiquity!)("Those are ballista bolts not turds!" barks the Centurion!)

However, artillery on battlefields is not totally unheard of, but I reckon that the percentage is rather below statistical measurement.  Suffice to say the "artillery battle" in ancient times is the rarest battle possible.

Here's some famous examples of artillery in battles which are so obscure so as to make your nose bleed with all the silly names about to hurled at you. But at least there are a number of examples...(and many that I am no doubt leaving off!)

Onomarchus a Phocian, unmasked rock throwers on steep hills and defeated Philip II of Macedon twice in pitched battles. Philip responded that he retreated and would be back "like a Ram to butt harder", he recruited more cavalry and finally the Phocians were routed. Alexander used bolt throwers in two river crossings, once retreating once attacking.

The most WAB-like artillery action in antiquity ever, is so obscure that if anybody even knows about they should give themselves a good pat on the back! The battle of Mantinea in 207 B.C. pitted Sparta vs. the Achaeans under Philipoeman. The Spartans!!! deployed bolt throwers on their side of a ditch that separated the armies, with the full intent of shooting up the Achaean phalanx (see Montagu page 124 for a full description, or Plutarch), this is a rare battle indeed where artillery actually dictated the Achaean tactics. It is surely one of the first attempts to soften up the enemy infantry before an assault... sadly the Spartan General was separated from his phalanx and they charge too soon, and were repulsed at the ditch! (Note the ditch however, and notice the theme so far, rivers, ditches, hills, obstacles...hmmm there always seem to be a mitigating terrain feature... hmmm.)

Julius Caesar being well read, also made use of his ballistas for river crossings and beachheads... but mostly the ballistas were for guarding the camp which was somewhat in arrears of the battlefield and would have little impact in a normal pitched battle, and of course the millions of sieges. But note the good vibes it gives you knowing that just a kilometer back is a fort bristling with war machines to pepper any enemy that try's to get around the rear and capture your little clay statues of your wife and kids!

A Caesarian Legion numbering 3000 Legionaires would have up 30 of these light ballistas, so roughly there is 1 ballista/scorpion for each 100 men in the Legion. Most of these would be lining the camp walls, a 10,000 man camp was 800 meters square- that's 3200 meters of wall space to cover.  That's one good reason in itself why they aren't pulled off the walls very often to join in the mobile battle.

I suggest reading about Caesar's campaign against Pompey at Dyrrachium, it is the biggest baddest  battle/campaign in history, and a game in which ballistas really matter! It was actually a siege, and a battle all in one!

The Roman Civil war battle of Cremona saw the use of stone throwers by the Vitellian faction in a very confused street to street battle! (see the cover of AoA) (At one point during the battle a son on one faction actually killed his father!) The Vitellian faction was routed by Vespasian's Danubian Legions.

Not a happy sight for my Companions! These Ballistae are part of Rich Nortons excellent Roman Miniature Collection at:

Vince Salvato's lovely Foundry Ballista is ready for action!! You can see more of these fantastic Romans at:

Later the number of ballistae/scropions increase to 60 per legion under Trajan, but the Legion also increased to 6000 men, so the ratio is the same. Trajan made quite a bit of use of his artillery in his Danubian campaigns..yes you guessed it mostly covering river crossings! However his carroballistae being much more mobile were  useful on battlefields, but in restricted numbers.

Vegetius who writes way out in the 4th century tells us that the old Legions (meaning those of the 3rd century, somewhat after Trajan's time) had the structure shown in WAB on pages 114-115, a century having one scorpion and a cohort having one stone throwing catapult/ballista. So at this period the ratio of bolt throwers to legionaire is at it's highest 1:80. This is also the first period of time when field artillery really is described as being a normal tactical part of the battle line. 

As one Contubernium (1/10th of a Century) operated and moved  think it was just those two guys? So it's silly that each scorpion should be represented by two crew, when it should be eight. Or are we to suppose that one figure equals four men! If that is the case then 6 scorpion models each with 2 crew models will still need 120 Legionaires to still be in scale with them. A 1:20 scorpion to legionaire figure ratio.

Obviously by this scale if you bring one bolt thrower for every 20 Legionairy models  you may have 0-4 of them in your typical 2000 point army, and stay within  the realms of historical accuracy and still have quite a formidible bolt section to threaten your foe.

Tony Edward's swell Old Glory figures are more likely the S4 variety Scorpion of the WAB rules.  The others above seem more like the more expensive S5 Bolt throwers. Note that there is no good cover provided by these machines!

A similar argument applies to elephants, if there were 200 elephants at the Hydaspes, and Porus' army included 30,000 men, then that's 1 elephant for every 150 men, so just about one elephant per game, that's no fun... so we can allow up to four in a 2000 pt. action to give us a better feel for the elephant action. (*I paraphrase Jervis here, for those who remember this post long ago, on the WABList).  

The difference is the fun factor, an  Indian army with at best one war elephant in a typical game would be a drag, so the elephants are over emphasized..  Up to four war machines in a typical 2000 pt. affair seems a nice amount.  If somebody had more of the things than that, I might wish to bend my brow and make them pay for their folly! (or give it my best try!) But, normally when I play- I  take just one, just for jollies. Again, actual scale and WAB causes problems, but there is never any harm in sticking to and following as close to a historical norm as possible.

Large vs. small targets:
There is some hot contention about whether a Scorpion or bolt thrower could qualify as a “large  target”. The definition that a target must be 10 feet tall or wide to determine this “large” status is derived from the firing chart on page 24 of the rules. One could easily argue that these spindly things are not “large” by any means. However, it is equally unreasonable to assert that the crew can gain as much protection from this ‘normal sized’ war machine as they could from a massive onager, which is obviously a large target!

Having  66% of the shots mostly wasted on the very tough machine instead of crew is somewhat unreasonable,  equally as unrealistic as labeling them large targets. I offer a suggestion to resolve this. 

Count the scorpion or ballista as “normal sized”, but randomize the hits in a more logical pattern.  Just randomize the hits as you would  battery with characters or mixed models (see page 64, Hits on crew/characters).  For example if a ballista with three crew suffers 4 hits, three would hit the crew and one would hit the machine, roll to wound and apply the saves. This way your ballistae are not being penalized for being large targets, but the three crew also aren’t able to duck behind and have the majority of shots bounce off the frame and face of it either! If odd hits are scored then dice off to see which type of model they hit.
Interestingly either way, whether you do nothing or, it hardly matters, the crew is still in trouble! If a scorpion unit is being shot at by 12 archers at short range, by counting the target as large, odds are that the machine and crew will suffer 8 hits, 5 on the machine and 3 on the crew.  We can assume that one wound might be inflicted on the machine and at least one maybe two to the crew.  The other method, straight randomization ends up with, 6 hits, 2 on the machine and 4 on the crew. In this case the machine is unlikely to take damage, but the crew should suffer two wounds, in each case two wounds are possible, but in the second case it is less likely that the hits will be wasted against the machine’s frame!

I find it somewhat difficult to contend that a scorpion could be both a normal target and still absorb such a high proportion of the hits on the current war machine hit randomization chart, rather too much having cake and eating it there!

My conclusion is that having bolt throwers and war machines on the battlefield in WAB does not conflict with history, even though an artillery battle is a rare event in antiquity.  Rather it's the amount of these weapons that people are allowed per game that creates an impact much greater than they might, which tempts players into adopting these "fire-base" style tactics. The unpleasant side-effect of players becoming  accustomed to  rely on such rarified tactics is that the games become predictable.

So, it's a matter of scale, if you wish your WAB games to be anachronistic representations of "Firebase Pegasus", then bring lots of artillery and put them on hills, and mow down your enemies with a-historical glee! Or take the 'middle road' and bring one or two war machines for color and army flavor. 
But, remember if you feel that the artillery barrage is your best tactic, your opponent will adjust, lick his wounds, and will find a way to turn the tables on your "Artillery Gambit"! There is no one all winning tactic in WAB!


RAFM Macedonian Ballista with Essex crew, authors collection.

            Created by Jeff Jonas 03/01