A couple of weeks back, me, Ulf and Andy met up for a game of To the Strongest! This was the first game of a new campaign of ours (however, all credit goes to Ulf for designing the campaign mechanics), inspired by the Byzantine-Bulgarian wars and played out on our brand spanking new TtS! gaming mat, which we have purchased from the ever so friendly and helpful Mr. Simon Miller.
The wars in question were a series of conflicts between the Byzantine Empire and the Bulgarians, who represented the major Balkan power at the time. Conflicts between the two nations date back as far as the 5th century AD, but we will be focusing on the period 1002-1018, when the Byzantine Emperor Basil II‘s attempts to quell the recently-conquered Bulgarians’ revolts escalated into another full-scale war.
The result was the drawn-out second conquest of Bulgaria, where the Bulgarians, led by Tsar Samuel, constantly evaded and harassed the more powerful Byzantine army. Eventually this tactic failed and Samuel suffered a crushing defeat, but it took well over a decade – and then his nephew Ivan Vladislav continued the resistance for several years until he, too, was killed.
In short, it is a conflict that makes for a great wargame campaign, and we were all eager to see how things would turn out on the tabletop.
The whole affair naturally starts off with a Byzantine advance; Basil, who is present on the day, orders his heavy cavalry forward, and the Cataphracts takes the lead. .
The Emperor makes the brave decision to lead from the front and, escorted by his own retinue of lancers and two units of veteran Skoutatoi infantry, follows the Cataphracts.
Meanwhile, archers and light cavalry take up position on a nearby hill on the right flank.
On the left flank, horse archers and two more units of lancers move slowly forward, trying to assess the enemy’s strength and overall strategy before making any decisive moves.
The Bulgarians have erected field fortifications and positioned several infantry units behind them, so as to avoid a full-on clash with the Byzantine cavalry on the open field. Their light forces are deployed on the flanks, and some of these are now advancing through the woods.
Basil, eager to teach the rebels a stark lesson and also impatient to get up close and personal with the local leadership, gallops forth until he and his retinue reaches the impassable rocky hills in the center of the field. The Skoutatoi heads off towards the right flank in order to block the enemy’s advance between the hills.
And they’ll probably need to hurry, as the Bulgars are attempting a similar strategy, albeit from the opposite perspective. The Byzantine light horse gallops forth, attempting to reach the hill first.
On the left flank, Bulgar bowmen appear at the edge of the woods, firing at the Byzantine light horse. The favor is returned, and the bowmen are dispersed of.
As the Bulgar generals see Basil’s advance they try to be clever and position their men for an ambush – they obviously believe that the Emperor will eventually expose himself for a flank attack.
But you don’t become Emperor of the Byzantine Empire by being totally daft. Basil spots the obvious trap and orders his center forces to advance. First in line are a light unit of javelin-armed Psiloi…
…but they are promptly followed by the main host: two units of lancers and a unit of Varangian guards. Suddenly that whole “ambush” idea doesn’t seem as appealing…
While the Bulgars try to figure out what to do next, Basil acts. The Cataphracts move up and now pose an acute threat to that lone ambushing infantry unit.
On the left flank the arrows keep flying, as Bulgarian horse archers have appeared to avenge their fallen archer comrades…
…but the heavy Bulgar cavalry is still holding back, hiding behind the woods.
On the right flank, the Skoutatoi have reached the pass and now effectively block it, while the light horse have decided to remain below the hill and out of sight of the enemy’s arrows.
And now the Bulgarians are faced with a formidable obstacle. They hold back, muttering among themselves.
Then things start happening in the center. The Byzantine lancers clash into the Bulgarian infantry and the latter hold their ground, but their compatriots on the right are unable to withstand the sledgehammer-like charge of the Cataphracts.
They break and rout, leaving a gaping hole in the Bulgarian line. The Cataphracts then thunder forward yet again, but now the enemy light archers manage to evade, pulling back towards their camp.
Eager for loot and glory, the Cataphracts spur their mounts onward. The archers are swiftly trampled into the dust and the camp is now only protected by a single cavalry unit. This does look like the end of the Bulgar resistance!
But then things start going a bit pear shaped for the Byzantines. First their lancers are unexpectedly disordered by the steadfast Bulgar spearmen…
…and then, just as Basil himself joins the Cataphracts in their glorious advance against the enemy camp, a bunch of Bulgar horse archers comes galloping out of nowhere. Not only that: they also have the audacity to attack His Imperial Majesty in the flank!
Of course, an ugly move like that wasn’t wholly unexpected; the Bulgarians are pinned down pretty bad by now, and it’s only natural that they will try anything that might sway the balance of the battle in their favor.
For example, they also move their archers on the right flank into a firing position on the hill, attempting to end the staring contest that has been going on in the pass for the last couple of turns.
And on the same note, their cavalry advances down the pass, getting ready to burst into those lines of Skoutatoi spears. Desperate times, indeed…
Not one to tarry when things are going the enemy’s way, Basil strikes free of the flanking horsemen and moves into the Bulgarian camp. This is of course a hard blow to the rebels’ morale, but they won’t give up just yet.
In fact, they attempt a daring move; while heavy cavalry and archers keep the Byzantines busy on the right flank, a single unit of horse archers move up behind enemy lines. What can they possibly be up to?
Well, it’s rather obvious, isn’t it? The Byzantine camp is unguarded, and presents a juicy opportunity to the Bulgarians. The only problem is that it’s some distance away…
Meanwhile in the center, the Varangians and Psiloi make a joint effort at storming the fortifications. But the defenders take full advantage of their position and stand their ground.
And to make matters worse, the flanking horse archers now fire away at Emperor Basil, wounding several of his closest companions and throwing his retinue into disarray. The nerve!
But the fun doesn’t stop there: now the Bulgar heavy horse have turned and make themselves ready for a flank charge into His Imperial Majesty’s ranks. This rebel scum really refuse to understand when they’ve lost!
The battle now rages in earnest at the fortifications, but the Varingians have yet to push through.
At the last minute, Basil and his Cataphracts manage to maneuver into a more favorable position, facing the Bulgar charge head-on.
But before any blows are struck, the Emperor’s unit suffers another cowardly round of arrow fire from behind, and are once again disordered.The horse archers, taking full advantage of the situation and not in the least reluctant to kick a man when he’s down, then charge and consequently routs Basil’s unit. Luckily, the Emperor himself escapes unscathed.
Furious at this humiliating turn of events, he joins the Cataphract ranks and slams into the Bulgar heavy horsemen, who are unable to withstand the blow.
Meanwhile, the lone unit of Bulgar horsemen are drawing ever closer to the Byzantine camp. This can still go either way…
And now the Varingians finally break through the fortifications, rushing to their Emperor’s aid. “Took your bloody time, didn’t you?” he shouts, white-faced with anger, as he orders his Catahpracts to turn around and take aim at the single surviving Bulgar infantry unit.
On the right flank spears meet shields as the Bulgarian cavalry bear down upon the Skoutatoi, who stand their ground.
But on the left flank the Byzantine lancers are having some trouble breaking through the rebel resistance. And they get constantly peppered with arrows, resulting in severe disorder time and again.
And speaking of disorder: now Basil finds himself in a disordered unit once again, as the Bulgar infantry turn around and charge the Cataphracts…
…and on the right flank a unit of Skoutatoi is also thrown into disarray by some lucky shots.
However, the Bulgarian “seize the camp” attempt is still struggling, mainly due to some horrific dice rolls by their commander.
And now both Basil and his trusty Northmen guard is getting ready to squeeze the living daylights out of those pesky rebels. “Ready! Chaaa…” the Emperor yells, but he’s cut short by shouts of shock and horror from his own ranks.
Yes, the enemy has finally made it into the Imperial camp and seized control of lock, stock and barrel. Unfortunately for Tsar Samuel though, it’s not enough to break the Byzantine army.
Spurred on by the acuteness of the situation, the Skoutatoi on the right flank get their ranks in order and makes a downhill thrust into the Bulgarian infantry. The result is a broken unit, which also is the straw that breaks the camel’s back – the whole Bulgar army falls apart and the Byzantines have won the day, which means that their invasion of Bulgarian territory has now begun.
An amazingly fun and intense game, perhaps the most fun I’ve had with To the Strongest! so far. While the Byzantines dominated the field overall and was well on their way to victory pretty early on, the whole thing shifted around several times and could easily have gone either way for a long time.
We just couldn’t stop laughing at Basil’s predicament behind the enemy lines; he was on the brink of death several times, despite having seized the Bulgar camp and still having his top-notch units close at hand. But that’s the magic of wargaming; these bizarre and hilarious situations that defy all probabilities and presents you with the unexpected time and again.
Needless to say, the campaign will carry on for some time, and it remains to be seen whether resistance is futile or if Tsar Samuel can rewrite history. And of course, it will all be documented here on Hook Island, so stay tuned!