Monday, 23 August 2021

Trebbia 218 BC

This is a scenario taken from GMT’s Deluxe SPQR package (Great Battles of History series), but with the alternative and official ‘simple GBoH’ rules being used for more streamlined play.

It has been too long (25+ years) since this series and this battle in particular graced my table and since buying this remake of the game 18 months ago, it has been the Trebbia battle that I have most wanted to play.

I’m not sure why the battle fascinates me, but in the late 80’s, I collected 2mm figures (Irregular Miniatures) specifically to run this battle on a dining table and as with all things nostalgic, I can only remember good things about that.

The following post discusses the situation as presented by the game and covers some AAR highlights.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.

Background - Hannibal had made his famous crossing of the Alps and marched into the Po Valley (northern Italy) in the late autumn. As winter set in, Sempronius moved his Roman army towards the Trebbia River to block / screen and watch Hannibal.

Hannibal found it rather easy to coax Sempronius into battle and on the day in question, Sempronius took his army into the field, without them taking breakfast and then rushed them forward through the freezing waters of the Trebbia to meet the Carthaginians.

A combination of casualties already lost in an earlier large skirmish battle, the lack of food that day and the freezing conditions of the water, bringing many of the Roman soldiers to being dangerously chilled, meant that Hannibal held several advantages from the outset.

Further, he had sent his younger brother Mago with 2000 men to hide out in an area that would, by way of a well executed ambush, give them the Roman left flank.

The Carthaginian centre was fairly thin and here the Romans broke into the line, but on both flanks, they were defeated by enemy cavalry and despite their gains to the centre, the demoralised Romans broke and suffered a total defeat and so it is, that in our game, play balance favours the Carthaginians. 

The Game - There are two main areas of influence to achieve the historical setting. Firstly every Roman unit starts play having already received 1 Hit marker. Secondly, although the four Roman Legion’s were in reality fairly good quality, to reflect the impact of the chilling water and lack of breakfast, the designer has dropped the legions to ‘recruit’ status.

As a game balancer, the player can swap out three of those legions for two standard and one veteran legion, but I like the historical implications, so will stick with recruits for this action.

Another, smaller, impact on the legions is that to represent an earlier pre-battle action with Numidian cavalry in which the velites (Roman skirmishes) threw all of their Pila, the designer does not allow velites to use their useful ‘hit and run’ tactics. 

The system allows some of the leaders a restricted ability to ‘seize’ the next go from the other person, essentially allowing them to activate two friendly formations (even the same ones) back-to-back. Here the Carthaginians have a much greater capability to do this and so opportunities to take control in moments of crisis will favour them.

Finally, the River Trebbia itself bring penalties, Roman units crossing it automatically suffer 1 Hit and attacks across it carry a -1 Shock Attack penalty

All-in-all, this looks to be a tough one for the Roman player.

The system - A couple of weeks ago, I ran through an introductory fictitious mini scenario. There is a link to that post in the Resource Section below. 

Romans are on the lower part of the map

The armies - The Roman army, with its four legions, set up the hastati and pricipes in a two rank chequer board fashion. The Triarii form a solid third line. This is a flexible army that can (and does) stack 2 units per hex (other things can’t stack) and when looking for linked chains of command, the Roman hastati and Principes can have a 1 hex gaps between units and it doesn’t break the command chain (while other unit types need a linked daisy chain type of affair to keep the command line going). The Triarii have doctrinal rules that will largely fix them in place, until threat releases them.

The Carthaginians have a mixed army and this brings them elephants and rather good (read devastatingly good!) Numidian cavalry, in fact they have plenty of cavalry on both flanks. They have a long line of Celt foot behind the river and these are backed up by good quality African foot troops.

The Battle! - The Roman velites were disadvantaged by not being able to ‘hit and run’ and so they closed with the Balearic slingers (defending skirmishers), while the hastati followed up. The velites suffered significantly as they closed to contact - but then, as they got amongst the slingers, they inflicted huge losses and 6 of the slinger units routed.

While the Carthaginian centre prepared to brace itself for assault, hoping that the banks of the Trebbia would afford some defensive value, on their right, the Numidian cavalry, launched a devastating attack against the Roman cavalry, virtually destroying the whole Roman cavalry wing.

The Roman's have 1 cavalry stack left
(under the white counter)

Even Mago’s ambush attack arrived too late (green units above), finding the job already done! Events had happened so quickly that Hannibal had not even had the chance to get support to the Numidians. Orders went out to mobilise the Carthaginian right, to press into the Roman exposed flank, while the Numidians and Mago’s ambush party tried to work around towards the Roman rear.

Carthaginian cavalry are all over the hastati flank

Sempronius was now stretched. He had to defeat Hannibal’s centre quickly, while shoring up the left flank, but the way the system works is that you can only activate one formation at a time and then play alternates back and forth with the other player, each activating one formation at a time (even the same formation) so if the left flank takes ALL of the player’s command focus, the Romans will not have the command ability to strike in the centre. 

Part II - The Roman response.

Sempronius started the slow process of moving the hastati to block and protect the left, while commanders rushed to the scene to take control. The Numidians started to get ensnared in the swirling battle and pulled back to reform.

Elephants (grey) advance, backed up by light infantry

To cause further Roman misery on that flank, Hanno attacked with his elephants, followed by the light infantry. These successive waves of attack kept the Romans off balance enough that all their effort went into managing this flank situation. Both sides started taking heavy losses as the first elephant unit went on the rampage!

An elephant unit (under the 5 marker) is about
to rampage and can potentially (but unlikely) harm all
friend and foe shown in the above shot

The Carthaginians were keen to keep the pressure up and Mago’s ambush group prepared to work their way around the Roman left flank. 

Sempronius, desperate for a diversion, launched the rest of the Hastati into the Carthaginian centre, which was thinly held by Celt medium infantry, though they were mostly lined behind the Trebbia.

Part III - Things start to unravel - but for whom?

The initial attack in the centre went well for the Romans, with the enemy defences ruptured, but losses were high and lack of enough on-hand support meant that they were not putting in enough attacks to carry the moment.

The Romans (yellow and brown) break through
Celt positions in the centre

Hannibal countered the move by sending his African heavy units (the blue units in the above photo) towards the centre to help hold the line and also launched a cavalry attack from his left wing.

The Romans now had both flanks assailed and their attack in the centre was failing. The Principes began to move up behind the hastati to try and maintain the momentum in the centre, but it was clear with increasing losses that the Romans were breaking themselves against that river line.

Part IV - The Carthaginians take the initiative.

The Roman casualty level had reached about half way to their withdrawal value, while the Carthaginians had reached only around a third of theirs. Hannibal took the view that this battle would be won on the flanks and so he now sent his elephants forward on his left to add to the pressure that his light cavalry were already causing.

The Romans countered on their right with their hastati and principes and while it appeared they were holding ground, it was at an unsustainable cost.

Part V - The Romans are pushed over the edge.

Seeing the inevitability of defeat unless something quickly changed, Sempronius ordered the centre to continue the attempt to break the Carthaginian line on the Trebbia. 

Tribune Antonius took personal charge, entering the breach and managing to widen it to 300 yards. He reached his beleaguered cohorts that had embedded themselves in the enemy ranks earlier. Further to the right, he had sent XIX Legion to make a second breach of the line, but whatever success he gained, it was made at high cost and he did not have the follow up support to take advantage of any ground taken.

Elements of XIX Legion attempt a second breach

Roman losses were now at 176 points, while the Carthaginians were at just 71 points. The Roman Army Withdrawal level is set at 205 points and so Sempronius, with several cohorts on the brink of routing, was very close to collapse.

In the centre, Hannibal countered Antonius by pushing his African heavy infantry into those weakened hastati cohorts that had made it over the river, causing them huge casualties and quickly taking the Romans past their Withdrawal Level. 

XIX Cohorts (grey) almost reach Hannibal (light blue)

On the very turn that this happened, elements of XIX Legion had fought their way right up to Hannibal’s position! not that it would particularly matter, but it would mean that locally, Hannibal would have to spend his next activation moving away, allowing the XIX the option to advance into the vacant hex and hit the African foot in the flank.


Well that was a very interesting game and it fully met my anticipation of a good game and getting this battle series back onto the table after so many years. I did make some mistakes that contributed to the Roman defeat. They will likely lose anyway, but two competent players would no doubt bring in a closer finish than I managed.

Firstly, some rules were not initially applied properly, so that early devastating attack on the Roman left by the Numidian cavalry, should have been slightly less devastating :-) 

Secondly, I think I over penalised the Romans at the Trebbia crossing by giving them an extra hit for crossing the Trebbia when advancing after combat and increased losses when attacking across it - although the rules do not mention the effects of advancing after combat, on reflection I feel that the penalty is a ‘voluntary’ movement penalty only (which advance after combat isn’t - it is mandatory) and that attacks already reflect that effect by applying a -1 Shock penalty, which can result in hits, so I may have been applying double jeopardy to them.

Finally my own tactics were the main reason for Roman failure. I should have pushed up the principes, keeping them close to the hastati, so that the hastati would have had the needed support and momentum when breaching the centre.

I found myself jumping between the ‘simple’ rules and the full rules, while trying to check out a few specific things. This is not strictly necessary, but it did give me some appreciation of the full rules, which helped me to see just how well the ‘simple’ rules were doing in their own right and I am happy to carry on using them. They are a rather clever translation or rather transformation and bring the game closer to the Men of Iron series, which I also enjoy. 

The game actually takes a while to set up, having plenty of counters and each having a specific set-up hex, so while I have the map out and the correct counters already sorted, I will get this back onto the table and enjoy another game, having already gone through the initial learning curve, the rules referencing will be much less. Perhaps I will lose less badly this time :-)

Resource Section.

A recent post covering an introductory battle in this system. LINK

My sister webspace COMMANDERS is being re-configured to showcase various figure and boardgame systems that I am enjoying and give a flavour of where current ongoing projects are up to. Link.


  1. Great post which stirs memories of my own sessions playing this scenario. Originally, I played the game with the rules in the box. But, switching to Simple GBOH was faster, easier, and more fun. Your replay seems to have been just as entertaining.

    I know the system has its weaknesses and limitations, but until something better comes along, SGBOH will do just fine.

  2. Hi Ellis, yes, I enjoyed this very much and my rule tastes these days are settled towards the 'easier' if that option exists.

    The new 2018 Deluxe package has an amazing amount of stuff crammed into it, so there is much to explore.

  3. Certainly a tough ask for the Romans by the look of it, but a game which would certainly bring history to life. I can see this played with some 'what if's?', such as the Romans having their Weetabix for breakfast, or staying the right side of the river and having Hannibal attacking.

    1. Steve, it is interesting because for lessons learned, I though for a second game, the Romans could leave the Trebbia alone and attack those Carthaginians on ‘this side’ of the Trebbia, but there wouldn’t be enough points in that to win and would it ‘make’ the Carthaginians go over onto the attack - there is nothing in te scenario that compels one side or the other to attack! I.e. a default draw!

      I will explore this further in the next game, but suspect I will once more eventually get drawn into launching an attack across the Trebbia at the weak centre :-)

    2. Yep, certain battles or scenarios I've played over the years have no real incentive for either side to attack, which could make for a dull game to say the least!

  4. An enjoyable read. It is always fun to replay games and rectify past tactical decisions.

    1. Thanks Peter, it would be interesting to see your table putting on a Trebbia with your 20mm. I did it years ago with 2mm and I wish I still had notes or something that revealed the tempo of the game based around whatever I read at the time i.e. to break away from the scenario constraints that my SPQR version is offering.

  5. Nice to see Norm, I am looking more favourably on hex based systems, not to say I am completely converted of course, but we played Trebbia with Command and Colours when we were open holiday and thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite the Romans stealing an undeserved victory out of the jaws of defeat.

  6. Thanks Matt, I think one can compliment the other, so I am okay with smaller figure battles (small battle / big skirmish) on the figures table with smaller collections because I have the boardgames doing the bigger stuff. The downside is, with figures you can have a single set of fave rules and apply them to all battles in that period, with boardgames (except for the series games) you are often learning a new system for each game.

  7. Thanks Michal, I am looking forwards to dipping a toe into other battles in the package (Zama).

  8. Entertaining, if a tough ask for the Romans!
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain, it has left me wanting to ‘crack’ this, to get a better result.

  9. Great writeup. Hopefully you get the second game in so we can see the comparison with revised tactics and less penalties for the Romans.

  10. Thanks Shaun, the second game has been re-set and is ready to go, so it will definitely get played.

  11. Norm,
    Great report and I’m looking forward to receiving my copy. The second battle will be interesting. The Punic wars are fascinating and one of my favourite periods although for some reason I don’t have figures for it ( favouring Greeks and Macedonian) a colleague and I recently spent a weekend playing through all the Punic war scenarios for Command and Colours. There are a lot of additional scenarios on their site which I may try and transfer over when I receive my copy of this

  12. Hi Graham, I think if you liked Men of Iron, then this is going to happily go onto your table. It is an amazing package, chock full.

  13. Good to see a classic on the table, Norm!

    1. Quite right, Aaron. This is a classic, for sure. Unfortunately for me, it has not been out on my table in decades. Norm has me tempted to pull it out and give it a try. Seems that CCA gets the nod when ancients board gaming is called for. Still, a beautiful game and presentation. You know, I STILL need to try Lost Battles.

  14. Hi Aaron, it is doing a second round on the table and I am enjoying it even more than the first game, now that the rules are embedded.

  15. Great account of a classic game Norm! Looking forward to the refight.

  16. Thanks Mike - it looks like the Romans are ‘doomed’ to always have their flanks assailed, while they press into the Carthaginian centre …. Only this time, I have plenty of Hastati and Principes pushing across the Trebbia and into the enemy centre. So far, the casualties are NOT favouring the Romans, but there the battle is still developing!

  17. I recently bought Infidel which is the GMT Crusades game using this basic tactical system but so far I have yet to play a game with it. This gives me further inspiration.

  18. Hi Joseph, I have been playing Blood & Roses from the Infidel system and enjoyed it. There is a blogged article here LINK

  19. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing Norm! But a lot of fun too! This GMT series is awesome. Great AAR.

  20. Thanks John, I find that nostalgia sometimes brings its disappointments and some things are best remembered rather than re-visited. But you are right about this series, it has survived the test of time and become better and stronger for it.



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