I think I remember Martin Wallace once criticizing war games, in particular battle based ones, for giving the players, commanders, too much control over the chaos that ensues. It was probably on a podcast, I forget which.
Whilst I can definitely see where Wallace is coming from, having played two of Richard Berg’s battle field war games I can say that not all war games fit this mold.
Blood and Roses covers seven battles in the English Wars of the Roses, a medieval dynastic study between two noble families. SPQR Deluxe has a ton of scenarios most involving the early Roman republic and its conflicts with it's ancient world rivals.
Foolish Lancastrian mounted knights charge the Yorkist lines only to find out what longbows can do.
I’m posting about both together because the two games have a lot of mechanical similarities. In each you will pull out a map sheet, arrange maybe 20-100 counters per side with some deployment decisions, then start activating and swinging your masses of spears and shields to try and out flank, shock,awe, or grind out your opponents army into dust. Its riveting and made of the stuff of Homeiad epics and medieval sagas. When an enemy line breaks to then recover, or an elephant runs amok at a critical time it brings out some of the most colourful narratives in gaming.
Both games include a significant unknown, other than the dice combat, that answers Wallaces criticism to an extent. Armies are split into sections, called either lines or battles each with their own leaders. Activating your main leader and his troops is fine, but getting the other groups and their leaders to actually fight on cue requires some special dice rolls. If you roll badly, either the don't move at all and the game flips back to your opponent's turn, or you only get to move and fight with a few limited units. This creates a punishing unknown in the game. How far can you push your luck be reactivating troops at longer odds, and when planning when do you expect your opponents longbow men to fire next? Most of the time you simply don’t know. It can be very punishing, In my defeat as Henry at Bosworth the Yorkists activated troops nearly twice as often as I did, but its worth the price for the suspense it brings.
I am Pyrus, He who shall not be named is Rome. His Velites are slaughtered as they cross the stream
In games with a lot of chaos like these, there is a question as to how much of the game is a competitive challenge and how much is it roleplaying with counters? Its definitely a mix. From the two games apiece I have played in both smart decisions have swung the battle one way or tother, but you do need lady luck to really execute on your plans. If I win a game of either I don't really consider myself to have out thinked my opponent, as often a few crucial roles and it would have gone the other way.
Other than setting there are some other differences between the two games. SPQR is quite a bit more complex and time consuming than Blood and Roses. SPQR is part of the Great Battles of History series and B&R is a Men of Iron game. The former is a more hardcore simulation and has a rulebook probably twice as long. There are a lot more exceptions and the tables have even more numbers on them. Berg loves tables in his games. Combat in both games requires you to lookup and often roll on at least two if not three or four tables to get a complete result. You get used to it and it does bring a vivid chaos to the battlefield.
My phalanxes from Macedonia try to hold off the unstoppable Roman tide.
The only other major difference is the overall tone of the two games. The Wars of the Roses were notoriously bloody for the period and both sides were focused on killing opposing leaders. This is reflected in the game. in B&R lots of little counters will die, in SPQR most will get knackered and flee the field.
I probably have a slight preference for SPQR as I like the bigger variety of units and tactical peculiarities that come with them but I'm glad my friend groked the rules and payout the cash for it. B&R is a both cheaper and easier option, although I wouldn't describe it as a simple war game. I'd recommend either, both paint a reasonable interpretation of the history and definitely fulfill their role as educational games on their respective periods. Berg writes great battle books, he gives it some personality by expressing his opinions but also gives it some academic weight telling you the rational for some of his choices.