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GMT Games: Chandragupta and War Indian-Style

posted Aug 16, 2012, 10:38 PM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: May 17, 2009

Yes, of course I mean the other Indian....

And that’s part of the appeal of Chandragupta, the most recent game in GMT’s venerable Great Battles of History series. Like Samurai and Ran, it takes GBoH to a corner of military history that hasn’t much been visited by wargames in the past — in this case, India of the 4th and 3rd Centuries B.C. and the wars of Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan Empire. Even though it was published last year, I didn’t pick up a copy until GMT Weekend West last month, and just this weekend I’ve looked through the rules and started fiddling with it solitaire.

There’s no denying that part of Chandragupta’s appeal is its exoticism, but in fact it’s not as radical a departure from the rest of GBoH as was Samurai. In a way, it’s the simply obverse of Great Battles of Alexander and SPQR. The standard Indian army of the era depicted here relied very heavily on unit types that seem dangerous and exotic from the Roman or Macedonian point of view: Elephants! With archers riding on them! And some of them are cataphracted! And chariots! And some of them are really big and have canopies! And some of them are drawn by elephants! Coo-o-ol.... Remember that, “Oh wow, this is different” feeling that you get when you go through the scenarios in GBoA Deluxe and you get you the Battle of the Hydaspes? Well, here the armies depicted are scarcely removed from the time of King Porus (one of Chandragupta’s opponents at the Battle of Takshashila had allied with Alexander against Porus), and it is the Macedonian armies of Alex’s successors (the Greeks also appear in the Gandhara scenario) that seem exotic and strange. Once you accustom yourself to the composition and mindset of Indian armies of the Mauryan period, phalanxes and hoplites look kind of weird.

The rule changes from standard Great Battles of History practice are, for the most part, are subtle and intriguing rather than disorienting, and Stephen Welch’s firm grasp on the history of the period helps them go down smoothly. His discussions of the standard composition

The Battle of Pataliputra, the first scenario in Chandragupta. Turn 2, first activation just completed. Knowing that the Mauryans (yellow) are outnumbered and historically, they took a drubbing here, I decided that they would let the Nanda (purple) come to them and then try to counterpunch. I’m also not sure yet how this whole Dharmayudda thing is going to work out.

The Nanda won the initiative in Turn 2, so I decided to use Chandramas and his limited ability as Wing Commander to activate a bunch of Nakaya subordinate generals and throw forward almost the entire Nanda army en masse. That should bring them to contact in formation, after which the Nakaya will be on their own anyway. The Nanda cataphracted elephants in the center have exchanged fire with the Mauryan longbowmen, with the Nanda getting somewhat the worse of it. If the Nanda decide to break Dharmayudda right away and initiate shock against the archers, that ought to change pretty quickly.

of armies of the Mauryan period are worth reading just for their own sake; it’s interesting stuff. His adjustment of the command rules to carve out a role for the Nakaya subordinate generals is a clever mechanic and so far, it seems to make command and control more supple than in most other GBoH games. The tribal and guild units, even if their military value is not that great, add a lot of flavor (the idea of guild militias feels like something I could appropriate for a fantasy roleplaying setting someday). And in a game full of superficially exotic weapon systems, the deadly Mauryan longbow may be the most interesting of them all.

The most startling departure from the GBoH mainstream is the optional rule for Dharmayudda, detailed in section 14.1 of the rule book. According to Welch, “Dharmayudda, or ‘just’ warfare, was a military code approaching laws of war. It essentially prohibited flanking attacks by units of one arm of the military against units of a ‘weaker’ or ‘lesser’... arm. Observing Dharmayudda — or violating it when one has pledged to abide by it — may raise or lower a player’s Withdrawal Level.”

To which my first reaction was: A GBoH game in which you’re not supposed to shock attack from the flank or rear? In GBoH, the whole combat system is geared to encourage you to find ways to attack the enemy in the sides and rear. And you’re not supposed to attack weaker troop types with stronger troop types? Then how can you win by pitting the strengths of your units against the weaknesses of your enemy’s? Man, that is... some messed-up shit.

But in reality, Dharmayudda as it manifests itself in the game is much more subtle than that, and makes for a unique tactical challenge. You must decide before the game starts whether you will actually abide by Dharmayudda. The attack restrictions last at least through Turn 1 (when shock combat is generally unlikely anyway), but as early as Turn 2 you can free yourself from them by revealing your decision. However, if you decided to abide by Dharmayudda and break its precepts after revealing your decision, you suffer the Withdrawal Level penalty. If you decided to abide by Dharmayudda and hold off on revealing your decision until after you have exceeded your Withdrawal Level, you can reveal your decision and increase your Withdrawal Level by 15% (surprise!). If you decided not to abide by Dharmayudda, you are still bound by the attack restrictions until you reveal your decision, but suffer no penalties for violating the precepts after you reveal your pledge.

In other words, the Dharmayudda optional rule not only adds historical flavor; it also allows you to mess with your opponent’s head by keeping him guessing about the range of tactical options that are truly available to you. The longer you can keep your decision secret, the longer you keep him guessing. If you have chosen to abide by Dharmayudda you are also faced with the possibility of trading the Withdrawal Level penalty for a decisive tactical advantage. If you choose to violate Dharmayudda, will it bring you closer to victory or defeat? 

In the example pictured above, for instance: According to the scenario rules, the Nanda at Pataliputra have pledged to abide by Dharmayudda. If they shock attack the “lesser” archers in the Mauryan center with their cataphracted elephants, they would probably roll right through them. But that would also violate Dharmayudda, because elephants are superior to light infantry in the Indian military hierarchy, and it’s considered unchivalrous. If the Nanda pull the trigger, they would find themselves closer to losing because of the Withdrawal Level penalty, but they would also find themselves closer to winning by racking up Mauryan Rout Points. Certainly, if they remain where they are, fighting an archery duel with the Mauryan longbowmen, they will lose sooner or later. In the end, Welch recognizes that rules of war are honored in theory more than they are in the breach, and he’s found a way to use that to make the battles in Chandragupta more interesting.

Well, that’s a lot to say about a game with which I’ve just started tinkering. But in Changragupta, Stephen Welch has introduced enough intriguing twists to a familiar rules system in service of illuminating an unfamiliar corner of military history that it has me saying, “Aha!” quite a lot without having to get very deep into it.