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Hail Caesar review

Review
by Bob Barnetson

Hail Caesar Hail Caesar is Warlord Games’ new ancient rule set. This 192-page rule book retails for £30.00 (GBP) and is written by former Games Workshop designer Rick Priestley. Warlord Games is a UK-based manufacturer of plastic and metal 28mm historical miniatures, with WW2, Ancients and Pike & Shotte ranges.

Hail Caesar allows two or more players to fight battles from antiquity through the early medieval period. Two-player games take roughly 90 minutes to complete, allow the use of lots of figures, and are easily teachable to new players. The rules use mechanics similar to earlier Priestley rule sets (e.g., Warlord’s Black Powder and GW’s Warmaster series). This includes rolling to activate units and buckets-of-dice combat resolution.

Overview

The hard-back rulebook has high production values. Pages are clearly laid out, the paper is glossy stock, and there are full colour photographs, diagrams or illustrations on each two-page spread (see below for sample spreads). The first 110 pages comprise the rules. A basic description of armies and the rules takes the first 25 pages. The command mechanic and movement takes 10 pages to explain. Ranged and melee combat rules run 33 pages and morale and other rules take 13 pages.

The book has forgone detailed army lists. Instead, it provides a list of generic troops types and a series of special rules that allow players to customize units to reflect historical abilities in 26 pages. There is no point system provided in the rules.

The remaining pages include a series of seven period-specific introductions with scenarios and battle reports comprising 54 pages as well as 15 pages of appendices, including a very helpful summary of the rules. The scenarios give you a sense of what armies for each period might look like and there is a sample set of army lists (Imperial Roman and Ancient Briton). Free play sheets are also available from Warlord games. You’ll want to print these play sheets to save wear and tear on the binding of your book.

Armies

Each army comprises a number of (typically) multi-base units. Units represent an unspecified number of troops (e.g., a Roman cohort). Units are grouped into divisions, to which a commander is assigned. An army comprises several divisions and has a general in charge.

There are recommended basing convention for both figures (e.g., infantry on 20x20 mm) and units (e.g., infantry unit with a 160-200 mm frontage). The basing conventions are loose (which might be daunting to new gamers) and allow any two armies with similar unit frontages to fight one another.
In our five playtests, we used both 15mm and 28mm figures (with unit frontages for 80 mm and 120 mm respective). All distances are normally measured in inches, but it is possible to substitute centimeters to scale distances downward if you are using units with narrower frontages—this is what we mostly did. There were no negative effects of pressing the troops we had into play and this flexibility was appreciated.

Multi-base units allow formation to be visually depicted on the board. Basic formations include battle line, column, open order, phalanx, warband and square. Some units can use more elaborate formations (e.g., wedge, pig’s head, testudo). If basing precludes visually representing formation, markers can be used.

Command Mechanic

Roman Vs. British

Hail Caesar gives each division commander and general a leadership rating of between 5 (poor) and 10 (great). To give orders to (i.e., activate) a unit or group of units, players indicate what the unit(s) will do if activated, roll 2d6 and add the results together. If the roll is less than or equal to the commander’s leadership rating the order is successful and the unit does as instructed. If the roll is higher the order is unsuccessful and that commander can issue no more orders for the turn (although generals get a free re-roll each turn).

The orders mechanic allows units to receive 1, 2 or 3 orders in a turn, depending on how far under the commander’s leadership rating the player rolls. This is an engaging mechanic. Players must think several moves ahead and must also grapple with uncertainty as to how far each of their units might get—will your warband stop just shy of contact on your charge? Units within 12 inches of the enemy can opt to make a single move in lieu of receiving orders during a turn, reflecting local commanders using their own initiative. Some units can also receive free moves regardless of the outcome of orders roll.

Movement

For each move order given most units move 6 inches. Most cavalry and chariots can move 9 inches. Light cavalry in open order and horse archers can move 12 inches. Movement is fairly free form except when units are within 12 inches of an enemy unit. At this point, a unit is obliged to face a foe and then move only towards or away from the enemy. The finer points of this proximity rule were a bit tricky to sort out when reading the rules. But, on the table, they proved easy to apply and seem quite intuitive. The centre-front position in each unit (where a unit commander would be located) is an important convention, governing what can be seen, formation changes, as well as ranged combat.

Combat and Morale

Ranged combat is straight-forward. Range is measured from the front centre position. Short-ranged attacks are limited to 6 inches from this point. Longer-ranged attacks (from troops with true missile weapons) are up to 18 inches, although artillery can fire farther.

A shooting unit picks up a number of dice equal to its combat value, rolls them and a 4, 5 or 6 is usually a hit. There are a small number of factors that can change this number. Hits can be saved via a die roll. Truly lucky hits can cause the target to take a break test, but most missile fire simply adds hits to a unit (which moves the unit closer to being shaken). That said, massed fire against a single unit (where circumstances allow) can be very destructive. Sending a single unit of knights swanning off after a division of archers is not recommended.

Hand-to-hand combat occurs when units come into contact. Charged units generally receive the charge, but some units can countercharge, shoot at the charger, evade or turn to face a flank charge. In this, we see a greater degree of detail in Hail Caesar than in many element-based games (where the target just sits there and takes the charge). This adds texture with a slight increase in the number of decisions players must make and rules they must remember. Some units also have special rules to reflect historical advantages.

Melee is resolved by having each player rolls a number of d6s equal to the appropriate combat value. Units to the side or behind can typically add support. Any die scoring 4, 5 or 6 is typically a hit, although there are a small number of modifiers that can change the to hit number. Hits can be saved. Unsaved hits are added to the unit. The side that took the most hits that turn must roll on the break table to see the effect of the outcome. This can include no effect, fall back (in good or bad order), or break (unit removed).

When a unit’s accumulated hits equal its stamina the unit becomes shaken. Shaken units can be subjected to break tests when they take further casualties and are less effective in combat. Hits taken in excess of a unit’s stamina value are then either discarded or distributed among supporting units.

Game Play

Saxons Vs. Normans

I played or umpired five test games of increasing size and complexity with the fellows from the Edmonton Wargame Group. The games included Republican Romans versus Carthaginians, Imperial Romans versus British tribes, Normans versus Saxons, and an unspecified game set in the early medieval period. Games had between 12 and 18 units per side, typically in two or three divisions. This number of units appeared to be about the right number of units for a single player to command without turns bogging down. One game included multiple players (albeit with small commands) and we found the rules adequately handled this. Games (including teaching the rules) typically resolved in 90 minutes or less.

All of the mechanics worked well, both individually and together. The rules addressed all of the situations that we encountered. One instance of multi-unit combat strained the combat and morale mechanics somewhat: a single unit was charged by two units (one flanking) and these chargers were subsequently hit from behind by two more units. Typically multi-unit combat is resolved by breaking the melee into two or more engagements and resolving them separately. It was very difficult to break the engagements out neatly due to the alignment of the figures so we ended up winging it with mixed results.

The rules summary at the back of the book answered most common questions, although an index would have been a useful addition to the book overall. Further, the mechanics were simple enough that we found both unit statistics and modifiers could be committed to memory by the end of the game.

The command mechanic is elegant. It requires players to think three moves ahead, thereby rewarding moderately planned-out play but without cumbersome mechanics such as written instructions or order chits. The uncertainty of how many orders will be followed creates difficult tactical choices for players to make.

Chariots

Movement is relatively straight-forward, with unit choices becoming constrained by proximity to enemy units. The various optional formations did not play much of a role in our games—most troops stayed in line of battle throughout the games. The terrain rules are very simple to remember and nicely integrated into the overall mechanics. For example, cover (such as woods) reduces a unit’s combat effectiveness combat (by forcing it into open order) but gives a morale bonus for the unit (reflecting the effect of “cover” on the opponent’s ability to score hits). There is little to remember and both the advantages and disadvantages of terrain are represented.

The movement rules require either very large (by North American standards) gaming tables or the substitution of centimetres for inches, with a corresponding reduction in unit frontages. We played most games on 4x4’ or 4x6’ tables. Using centimeters, this was lots of room. Scaled up to the inches, this was the equivalent of gaming on (roughly) 10x10’ or 10x15’ tables. We did not find any gameplay problems associated with scaling distances down, and we think this is a strength of the system. A game played on a 4x12’ table using inches saw basically no room for maneuver (units were in proximity on the first turn) and suggests that when using inches, a minimum table depths of 6 feet is desirable if you want an opportunity to maneuver.

The combat and morale mechanics worked fine, adopting the threefold “hit-save-effect” approach common to GW systems. We appreciated some of the nuances that were built into the combat mechanics. For example, many units were able to support their friends (representing short-range missile fire and skirmishing on the flanks) while some units were not, representing historical weapon selections. This ability is set out in the presence or absence of a short-range missile fire value for the supporting unit, thus there is no special rules to remember about who can and cannot support.

The combat outcomes met our expectations based upon our reading. For example, Normans knights charging a Saxon shield wall were typically repulsed and then ground down. Light troops or heavier troops caught out in the open, however, were quickly destroyed by these same knights. Similarly, Celtic warbands were quite successful in their first round of combat (using the “wild fighter” optional rule) but eventually succumbed to the endurance of Roman legionnaires (unless a flank could be turned).

The morale rules worked fine. The instances where a test is required differ between shooting and melee. And the outcomes of a roll differ for foot, mounted and skirmishers. The 54 different results effectively preclude memorization and was the only mechanic that players thought might be tweaked (see below).

Discussion

Cavalry

Hail Caesar provides an enjoyable game that is relatively easy to learn. Our playtesting identified no significant gaps or flaws in the rules. When we ran across situations where we couldn’t find the applicable rule in the middle of the game we used common sense. Our solutions were consistent with the rules when we found them later. We thought this indicated a solid set of rules. For example, a mounted unit was chasing a group of skirmishers when suddenly (or so it seemed to me), a formed infantry unit appeared on my horsemen’s flank. Does the general proximity rule require the horse continue to face the skirmishers or can the horse turn to address the greater threat of a formed foot unit that was about to charge? We thought the latter and allowed the mounted unit to turn, later finding the rule that open order troops (e.g., skirmishers) do not trigger the proximity rule.

Games developed in broadly predictable ways—there were swirling cavalry battles on the flanks while skirmishing and grinding melee tended to characterize the action in the centre. Yet interesting things also happened. For example, units broken through on the flanks, forced centre units to turn and face the threat, and thus definitively affected the combat in the centre. And we saw a sweeping chariot charge behind the enemy that looked quite realistic.

The players made a number of observations. The first was that the game requires a large number of figures. To play a basic game using scaled down unit frontages will require around 100 figures per side. Full-sized games might see 400 to 600 figures per side. Similarly, we note that the game is designed for relatively large playing surfaces. The rules suggest “a good sized table” and our sense is that this means about 6 feet wide and 10+ feet long. Both of these requirements pose a barrier to entry for new players, although we acknowledge it is possible to scale things down.

Similarly, new players may have some difficulty wading through the discussion of basing. In fact, the rule system is quite forgiving of basing. But the lack of army lists and seemingly vague basing conventions might be off-putting. An appendix or downloadable supplement detailing a matched pair of basic armies with sample unit numbers, figure counts and basing conventions would help new players move forward with confidence. But this is clearly a very minor criticism.

Games were decisive. The command mechanic tends to give units either one order or three, so well positioned units could often jump into contact with a good roll. While it was uncommon for medium and heavy units to break immediately, combat was generally resolved within three rounds of contact. This gave players limited time to feed in extra units and rewarded players who planned ahead.

The combat mechanics require a fair bit of dice rolling (roughly 12 dice per unit, per round of combat). This volume of rolling tends to reduce the impact of luck when compared to systems based on a single die roll or a competitive die roll. The outcome of combat also requires a few more steps to determine than some systems we use: roll for hits, roll for saves, figure out who took the most hits and the difference, roll on the break table, apply the results and distribute the hits, including extra hits to supporting units. Some playtesters (including myself) found this tedious as games wore on. There are much more elegant ways to get the same result. Others playtesters did not mind this mechanic.

The morale mechanic was the subject of much comment by the players. All thought this mechanic should have been streamlined. After five games, I acknowledge the mechanic creates uncertainty in combat outcomes and incorporates differences in the melee outcomes and troop types (which I believe were the design intentions). That said, a simpler morale system could be easily devised that would give a very similar result based on a d6 roll with some modifiers for troop type and accrued hits. Or the increase in hits could drive morale with no separate mechanic required.
The rules are designed for “gentlemanly” gamers. There are a number of instances where players are given some discretion in terms of a proper outcome of an event. The advantage of this approach is the games flows well. A trade off is that there is scope for abuse by players who “play the rules, rather than the game”. For this reason, tournament use of the rules would likely benefit from an umpire.

In terms of where Hail Caesar fits in the rules market, the rules sit in between the abstract De Bellis Antiquitas (DBA) and the more granular Warhammer Ancient Battles (WAB) systems. Hail Caesar’s level of decision making is similar to DBA’s, but games are 2-3 times as long, require 4-6 times the figure count, and roughly 12 times the dice rolling. The mechanics are less abstract and provide some of the detail and colour that gamers often say are missing from DBA. When compared to WAB, Hail Caesar games use roughly similar numbers of figures but are completed in half the time—reflecting the less detailed mechanics and more generic troops. This position is roughly the same place that Warmaster Ancients was aimed at and Hail Caesar is clearly a refinement of these rules.

Conclusion

Page spreads

Hail Caesar is a well presented rule set allowing players to refight battles from antiquity to the early medieval period. The rules are clearly set out, play well and generate decisive battles in less than two hours. The rules allow for multiple players per side and cope with large numbers of figures well. They can also be easily scaled down to match available figures and tabletops.

The few negative comments provided by the playtesters were largely issues of personal taste. Hail Caesar contains a reasonable amount of detail and has opted for bucket-of-dice mechanics, which some of us do not like. The number of figures and table size required pose a bit of a barrier to entry, although not an insurmountable one. That said, we could find no substantive problems in the rules and enjoyed playing them.

Pros:
  • Mechanics are clearly explained and easy to commit to memory.

  • Battles developed quickly and actions were decisive.

  • Morale table provides nuanced and variable combat outcomes.


Cons:
  • Figure and table size requirements may be off-putting to new players.

  • Buckets-of-dice mechanics not to everyone’s taste.

  • Few army lists included.