Author Topic: How did the historical Skirmishers actually function?  (Read 3034 times)


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How did the historical Skirmishers actually function?
« on: February 28, 2012, 02:05:46 AM »
There's been some discussion about potential rules changes for Skirmishers.  Some people have mentioned how historical Skirmishers functioned, and I had some questions about that.

1. How much could Skirmishers slow down a dedicated charge?  For instance, if the Skirmishers were guarding the flanks and the enemy line was charging at them, how long would the Skirmishers be able to delay those enemies from hitting the flanks?

2. There seems to be accounts of Skirmishers running away from enemies and shooting them to death when they had favorable terrain, thus suffering very low casualties.  How did they fare when they tried to slow down an enemy advance on a less mobile friendly unit?


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Re: How did the historical Skirmishers actually function?
« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2012, 11:00:25 AM »
Okay, well, let me state up front that I'm not a professional historian and that all my opinions here are just that:  my opinions.  One thing that has been mentioned is that I present my opinions forcefully and so they come off as me stating them as fact, which isn't the case and isn't my intent.  Please accept that I'm an opinionated guy and present my positions ardently, but that's not to think I'm absolutely right all the time.

(Okay, there are certain instances where like every historian agrees on a certain opinion and anyone with half a brain looking at the data even halfway objectively comes to that opinion.  You'll know I think something is an unquestioned fact when I say something like "But...that's just not true."  Picture me sitting in my chair, eyes with that incredulous look on my face.  The academic equivalent of "Oh no he di'int!")

From another thread:

I'm not all hardcore and read the original Greek accounts, but in the translated English texts the peltasts let the Spartans get really close before evading.  This, in my mind, translates pretty well into the system in BGFW of the Spartans FRing the skirmishers who fell back.
Is this really how it works though?  I think the explanation where the Skirmisher unit lets the enemy unit approach close but not allow a Final Rush, then doing an About Face and running away, works just as well, right?

Well, to me, what you described is pretty close to what they did, which equates to the Spartans FRing and the skirmishers evading away in the BGFW system.  Remember, the whole thing of the enemy unit charging and then the skirmishers routing in the Pre-Combat was never meant to symbolize the enemy unit actually charging the skirmishers and fighting them in hand to hand.  It was a mechanic to abstract what happened on the battlefield.

I have the Punic Wars scenario booklet and Chad's design notes offers a great summary of this:   
The system we’ve chosen to handle skirmishers involves having them rout when they become engaged, usually taking 1-2 points of damage, and then rallying on the following turn. This is not meant as the purest simulation of what is happening but rather as a way to create the effect we want within the existing mechanics of Battleground.

Damage in Battleground does not always mean casualties. It can refer to individual soldiers who have fled or who are no longer combat effective. There is considerable evidence to suggest that most light infantry with javelins would be concerned primarily with their own protection rather than aiming effectively. After a near encounter with heavy infantry or cavalry, this effect could easily be more pronounced. Thus, even if what “really” happened is that the skirmishers evaded the advancing heavy infantry unit (after disrupting its advance with javelins), it is useful in game terms to allow them to become engaged and then to rout rather than to have them evade during the Movement & Command phase.

So the disrupting effect that skirmishers had is throwing javelins and then running away.  The battle of Lechaem is an extreme example of having terrain and enemy stupidity on their side, but it is useful because its the closest thing social scientists can get to isolating the variables:  the entire battle was an infantry phalanx versus peltasts, with no other units really affecting the tactical situation.

I think the key difference is whether the Skirmisher unit impeded the enemy units' advance.  Did they slow the Spartans down (more with their bodies than just a stick to the face)?  If so, then it'd be pretty solid evidence for your view.

Oh the skirmishers did not physically put their bodies in the way.  They used said stick in the face, but that was more than often enough.

See there's something going on that isn't captured in the design notes' explanation (which having written design notes, I can understand: you're pressed for space).  The effect skirmishers have on heavy infantry (HI) units, beyond the stick in the face, is two-fold.  First is that they don't just run away.  They run away from the main fight.  Most often this is because the main fight is happening on a (relatively) flat valley and the skirmishers want to literally head for the hills.  However, HI units want to fight on the flattest surface possible to keep formation.  So almost by definition anytime a HI pursues skirmishers, it will towards the rougher terrain and away from the main fight.  And if the HI unit leaves the main fight, then its functionally neutralized for the battle, which is a win for the skirmishers.

Mind you, this heading for the hills and drawing the enemy HI unit away is something that untrained skirmishers do.  Its self-preservation by what are amateur fighters creating a battlefield effect.  When you get actual good skirmishers such as the Agrianians (in the 300s BC) and the Catalan scouts (in the 1300s AD), who have a lot of combat experience, then they can actually intentionally lead the enemy into traps and/or the worst possible terrain.

The second thing to realize is that the HI guys know this, or at least the captains do.  They ain't dumb, or at the very least they've been around long enough to have been dumb & got led by the nose before so now they know better.  The men in the HI unit are told not to go chasing after those skirmishers because they'll never catch them.  It analogous to modern NCOs who tell there guys not to spray bullets blindly on full auto (which I've been told by an Iraq vet that this is still a problem).  But, just as with grunts with automatic weapons, its pretty easy for us now to say "don't chase the skrimishers."  But when you're standing their, cold sweat trickling down your back despite the morning sun, stomach quivering from the fact that you may die, and arms & legs shaking from the adrenaline, it's much harder to keep a tight leash on the fight instinct.  And to do it when the other guy is getting close enough you can see his face?  All the while under the semi-constant patter of javelins?  Yeah, that's not an easy thing and even veterans can break under the pressure.

So some guys break formation and charge.  His buddies next to him are shocked, they look at each other, then instinct takes over:  protect your brothers.  So some more guys follow.  Then some more.  Then the second rank.  Then the middle ranks who no idea what's happening, just follow because that's what they supposed to do.  The captains start yelling and busting heads for the men to hold up and get back in line.  Some do, some don't.

Now you don't have a unit anymore, you have a mob of men, half of which are chasing down an enemy who isn't wearing 80 lbs of kit and the other half standing their confused because their captain is yelling for them to get back in line but his buddies are already 20 yards downfield.  The captains are desperately trying to get the men back in formation because they know that disrupted like this the unit will be wiped out if someone charges them right now.

And the skirmishers get away.  The men who broke ranks stop running, winded, only to be yelled at to get their @$$#$ back in formation.  So they trot back over, taking a couple whacks across their shoulders by the captain.  Then the skirmishers stop running, come back, and we start the whole process over again.

That's the best case scenario.  The worst case is that the captains lose their nerve and order the unit to charge, meaning the whole unit becomes this mob of sprinters trying to bench press 80lbs of gear at the same time. 

More drilled troops try to keep this formation while advancing.  And if you think keeping your cool is hard when you're standing there, its really hard to keep your cool while marching in formation and being pelted by javelins.  Its pretty hard for the human mind to hold the thought "charge those guys there but not those guys" in the heat of battle.

This to me translates fairly well in to how BGFW does it.  When the HI unit final rushes and then stops when they hit "contact" with the skirmishers, I see them as having taken the bait.  The skirmishers run away from the fight, with individual guys in the HI in pursuit.  The actual position of the two units is more an abstraction, the unit's "footprint" of where it ends up.  In truth, the individual guys race far forward and the skirmishers get away.  Then the HI guys go back to 'home base' which is where the BGFW unit is and form back up.  The general effect is that the unit moves forward, but then falls back to regroup, 3 steps forward and 2 back.  This is how I can justify a HI unit being 2.5" from skirmishers, moving forward 2.5" and then stopping when they reach "contact."

(The skirmishers meanwhile run laterally, but when the chase is over loop back around to stand opposite the HI unit.  There they collect themselves and reform a bit too before moving back forward.  This is how the skirmishers despite running 'away' end up more or less pushed 'straight back.')

Now, as the HI unit gets closer and closer to the enemy, this is where BGFW breaks down a touch.  What would probably happen is the the HI unit knows there's the flank of the enemy unit nearby.  So they charge, fully intending to push the skirmishers out of the way and smash into the side of the enemy unit.  The question then becomes how many guys go sideways away from the main fight and how many go through the skirmishers and stay on task.  Usually that's something that infantry had a hard time doing, but cavalry had an easier time as the cavalry unit would literally cut right through the skirmisher unit.  This however is a fairly complex thing to capture and I've seen more games do it poorly than not.  So I'm okay with BGFW just not bothering with the idea.


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Re: How did the historical Skirmishers actually function?
« Reply #2 on: February 29, 2012, 09:21:35 PM »
Hannibal, thanks for the write up.  I'm having problems justifying why non-skirmisher units stop when making contact with skirmisher units but your explanation, at least for the infantry units, makes sense.
« Last Edit: February 29, 2012, 09:24:42 PM by rog5 »
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Re: How did the historical Skirmishers actually function?
« Reply #3 on: February 29, 2012, 10:15:33 PM »
This however is a fairly complex thing to capture and I've seen more games do it poorly than not.  So I'm okay with BGFW just not bothering with the idea.

IMO it would be 'fairly complex' to capture without undead, dragons, spell-casters, rampaging dinosaurs, and faction abilities that essentially cheat thrown in the mix. My vote in the current situation is for 'do you want white or wheat toast with those scrambled brains?' complex.
« Last Edit: February 29, 2012, 10:20:31 PM by BubblePig »


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Re: How did the historical Skirmishers actually function?
« Reply #4 on: February 29, 2012, 11:24:18 PM »
Scrambled brains are actually rather tasty!  They're a breakfast specialty in Oaxaca.   ;D