One of the basic texts assigned to a student of Ancient Greek is Xenophon’s Anabasis. Like Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, it is a third person account of military campaigning. Also like Caesar’s work, it is written in simple and clear language and so makes for a good exercise for the student.
Xenophon wrote Anabasis in around 370 BC, some thirty years after he helped lead an army out of the lands of the Persian Empire and back to Greece. Originally he did not claim authorship of the work, instead explaining that it was a book that he simply had in his collection. Plutarch would elaborate that Xenophon wanted to avoid the suggestion of bias that might be perceived as being implicit in an autobiographical work.
The first of the seven chapters in Anabasis details the fighting at Cunaxa. The remainder of the book talks about the journey of the Greek cohort, the Ten Thousand, through Turkey and back to Greece. This makes the gamer in me very happy. We have, more than 2,400 years after the fact, a detailed description of a historical battle that we can play with. While Field of Glory II isn’t the first game to feature Cunaxa as one of the scenarios, it is the first one that I, myself, have played.
My first thought upon loading the scenario was “there is the river.” The Greek commander at the battle, a Spartan named Clearchus, was asked by Cyrus if he would take the center, opposite Artaxerxes and the best imperial troops. Clearchus demurred, concerned that he would be unable to protect his right flank. Isn’t such a scenario as this useful for exploring just this kind of what-if? Particularly given the success of the Greeks contrasted with the utter failure of Cyrus, was Cyrus right? Or was Clearchus right that the Greeks would have been flanked and defeated making the loss even greater?
As the battle progresses, it follows more-or-less the historical arc. On my right, the Greeks have a clear advantage and are steadily pushing back the Persian forces. On my left, my cavalry is outnumbered and outclassed and the whole left flank threatens to crumble. The center doesn’t look great, but I’ve held back an infantry reserve plus an elite cavalry troop under my personal command. I hold the upper hand ever so slightly, but I feel like time is against me on this one. Unless the Persian left breaks and I can flank the center with my Greeks, the rest of my line is likely to collapse.
In the end, it didn’t exactly seem close. While at times my left seemed to be crumbling faster than my right was holding it together, I maintained a decent lead as my army slid into the victory. That might just mean I should be playing on a higher difficulty level, or it could have been dumb luck. Near the end I noticed what I thought was a weak move on the AI’s part, not something I usually say about this game system’s programed opponent. While my cavalry was in the process of utter collapse, the enemy used his mounted forces (outnumbering me something like eight-to-one)all to take down that last unit. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it happen as that was a whole pile of enemy cavalry that wasn’t about to end up hitting my left-most infantry in the rear. I don’t think a smarter opponent would have gone for the overkill like that.
More importantly than judging my own performance, I wanted to compare this battle with the historical record, such as it is. There is always a danger of relying the one and only source of information for an event such as this, especially when it was written by one of the participants. Nevertheless, we go with what we have. Unfortunately, given my win and my ability to engage the Greek right wing with the Persian center, I don’t have any insight into the wisdom, or lack thereof, of placing the Greeks along the river. Still, I have two major thoughts after playing.
The first takeaway is that the actual battle seemed to be indecisive but for the death of Cyrus in personal combat. In this imaginary battle, by contrast, when Cyrus’ retinue met Artaxerxes’, Cyrus not only didn’t die but he routed Artaxerxes from the field. Given the high impact of the death of a general, this one departure could easily have made the difference between success and failure by the Field of Glory numbers.
The second comparison, however, doesn’t jive. Anabasis puts the Greek losses at single soldier having been wounded. This may be an exaggeration of the Greek “victory” on their wing of the battlefield, but it is also a believable outcome. An infantry line that remained in good order might suffer remarkably little in terms of casualties. From the book, the Persian line facing the Greeks seems to have broken and run even before fully engaging the Greek heavy infantry. Whether this was actually an army in fear, being faced with a formidable foe, or part of a cleaver gambit to draw the Greek line into a pursuit of weaker forces (rather than leaving them free to face Artaxerxes’ center), I don’t know. But neither outcome seems to be possible using the game’s modeling of casualties, engagement, and pursuit.
This is not meant to be a criticism of Field of Glory II, which does no worse that any other game in this regard. What it does call into question is the premise of the auto-generation of tactical battles for feeding results into a campaign (see the to-be-released-momentarily Field of Glory: Empires as well as many of my recent posts.) A game capable of reproducing the Greek experience at Cunaxa would have to had that explicitly modeled for it to even be possible. Having it explicit would mean that it can’t arise “organically” from the engine and/or it would be easily identified and countered when it gets used.
Yet, whereas I say Field of Glory is no worse, it may in fact be better. Recall with me the surprise I felt when the programmed opponent at Cannae reacted historically to the “trap” that my (Hannibal’s) forces presented. I’ve begun to look a little deeper at the scenario configuration and the scripting within the game and, while I don’t understand how it was done, I can imagine how it might be done. Likewise, it would be possible to create a version of Cunaxa where the Greeks have a choice between routing an unimportant wing and loosing the battle or anticipating such and outcome and moving to engage Artaxerxes’ best forces.
It would be a lot of work and probably wouldn’t add much “fun” to this scenario.