Saturday, March 16, 2013

Miniatures Playtest Review: Dux Bellorum Case Study

These rules use special resources called Leadership Points to sway the tide of battle. Hard to allot in a single-player game, I did the best I could and was not displeased with the results.  I think the mechanic would work much better against a human opponent, though. 

After both sides drew closer together, the cavalry on the British flanks charged.  The general’s companions stalled, but the other unit chased the Saxon archers away.  The cavalry charge was followed by an advance of the Roman-British shieldwall.  The coordinated attack drove one Saxon warband away.  The early tactical advantage seems to favor the Romano-British, as their cavalry control the flanks, but the savage Germanic warbands wear the shieldwall down quickly, and the British center looks like it might fall apart.

Clinging to desperate hopes, the Roman line holds together as the commander does what he can to shore up morale.  The cavalry tries to take advantage of the time bought so dearly for them, and they slam into the Saxon household companions.  The shieldwall withstands the charge, however.  The battle rages back and forth until the other Roman cavalry unit crosses the battlefield and slams into the Saxon companions from the rear.  What should have been a bloody rout became a valiant stand, as the inspirational Saxon commander held his lines firm.  The Saxon warbands finally start to break the shaken Romano-British lines before them.  Eventually, the casualties start to tell, and one by one the defenders make their excuses and head for home.

Miniatures Playtest Review: Hail Caesar Case Study

I had some experience with Black Powder.  Otherwise, I might have been totally caught off guard by these quirky rules.  They produce a lot of “WTF!” results.  People either love them or hate them.  They played fast, really fast.  Of my three playtests, this one was over in about half the time of the other two games.

The Germanic left lunged forward on turn one, and their center charged forward into the middle ground because of a blundered order.  The Roman-British commander was quick to take advantage of the isolated unit, and it was bloodied in a sudden co-ordinated attack.  The Saxon commander was unable to spur any of his troops to support the beleaguered warband, allowing the  powerful line of veteran infantry to all but obliterate it.

Meanwhile, the Saxon archers moved to where they could harass the Roman cavalry.  The Romans don’t play that penny-ante stuff, though, and they continue to press on the right, driving a warband off the table.  While tired and battered, the Roman-British commander is starting to believe that he is fighting with God’s favor, as luck is very much with him.  They Saxons are not finished, though, and the band of nobles rushes to fill the gap in the line.  British cavalry saves the day, and the attack fails, although the momentum of the Romano-British attack appears to be broken.  The British commander pulls his large infantry unit back, throwing his cavalry to protect them.  The horsemen die a valiant death, but they buy needed time for their comrades. 

The action moved so fast that I forgot to snap photos until the very end!
For a moment, it looks like the Saxons could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  A surge in the center sends the large Roman infantry unit to the hills, but the exhausted warband then falls easy prey to the Roman archers.  The last good Saxon unit makes a valiant stand against yet another cavalry charge, but by this point, most of the Saxon army is routed.  The raiders return to their camps to discuss the rich lands of the Franks across the sea.

Miniatures Playtest Review: Basic Impetus Case Study

 The Basic Impetus rules were up first.  Of the rules, this one was the only set in which movement order varied from side to side each turn.  This made a difference on a few occasions, as a bad initiative roll prevented one side or another from launching a coordinated attack.  On the other hand, Basic Impetus was the only rule set where a commander could reliably activate every unit on his side in a given turn, giving a predictable degree of control over his army.  Readers of my blog know that I am a fan of activation rolls.  I used to be the type of player who would throw a tantrum if I blew five activation rolls in a row, leaving my troops in the starting gate.  Now, I see that same blunder as a source of fun and humor.

On the first two turns, the lines marched towards each other in order, with the Roman cavalry creeping out to in advance of their line.  On turn three, the cavalry on the Roman right sprang forward, only to be repulsed. The impetuous Saxon foot raced after the Romano-Brit horsemen, catching and annihilating them.  On the Roman left, the larger cavalry unit fared much better, sweeping away the Germanic archers.  Bracing for more Romano-British attacks, the remaining Saxon infantry formed a shield wall.
On the next turn, the Germanic infantry on the right turn to face the victorious horsemen, but on their left, the heroic warband pushes onward to the line of Roman infantry only to fall back against the disciplined spearmen.  The Roman cavalry charge home, supported by the nearby infantry.  The Saxon flank starts to give way, with the enemy cavalry not allowing any room to regroup.  The sudden lunging attacks caused units to advance past each other’s flanks.  I’m not a fan of the whole “two ships passing in the night” effect I’ve seen in many ancients games.  Maybe I missed some Zone of Control rule.

On turn five, a charge against the Roman archers fizzled.  A back and forth battle on the Roman left ends when the cavalry finally break through the Saxon line.  The Saxon reserve, the noble infantry, turns to face this dangerous threat.  The Roman infantry finally fell back and were unable to rattle the Saxons who had threatened them earlier.  By now the Saxon right has completely disintegrated, but the Roman-British forces need a moment to regroup.  On the Roman-British right, a charge against the shieldwall ended in a  bloody repulse, and the Saxon counter-attack further bloodied the British.  Against all odds, however, they remained on the field, at least until a Saxon unit swung around their right and enveloped them.  At last, the stubborn Brits fled.

The last few turns settled the fight.  The Saxon spears began to push the Roman defenders back, who stood on the verge of breaking.  The Britons tried a few counter-attacks, but by now nothing was able to get through the Saxon lines.  The cavalry had delayed for too long, and their opponents were able to form a shield wall to oppose them.  A desperate charge scored a minor victory, but it was not enough to turn the tide of battle.  With the Saxon center firmly in control of the battlefield, the Roman-British defenders slink off into the woods, hoping to fight another day.

Miniatures Playtest Review: Ancients Rules

My first wargame army was a set of 15mm Romans.  They were crudely painted and based on flimsy cardstock.  They only fought one or two battles, using an early edition of WRG rules or their 80’s imitator, The Shock of Impact.  While I had fun with those little guys, my imagination was fired more by the age of gunpowder, and my Romans fell forgotten to the back shelf for a long time.  I heard about DBA and bought a copy of the rules.  I liked the “Small armies” approach (as a college kid with limited funds, the thought of buying 500+ minis was discouraging) but DBA did not engage all parts of my brain.  It felt more like playing chess than commanding an army.  I wanted a set of rules that was playable and fun on one hand, and made me feel like I was making the kinds of decisions that a contemporary commander would have made.  In short, I was looking for the holy grail of rules sets.

As a historian of the early Middle Ages, I long resisted the Arthurian period as hitting a little too close to home.  I like to keep work and play at arms’ length if at all possible.  But curiosity finally got the best of me, and I was seduced by the gorgeous Splintered Light 15mm Saxons and Post-Roman Britons.  Now to find a set of rules.

I had three candidates: Basic Impetus, which I downloaded for free from Dadie e Piombo; Hail Caesar, which I might have overlooked as corporate eye candy but for my pleasant experiences with Black Powder; and Dux Bellorum, Osprey’s recent entry into the field which is the only set geared specifically towards the Arthurian period.  There were many similarities among the rule sets, and I decided that the only way to settle the issue was to run a simple identical scenario three times over, once with each set of rules.
On a plain field, with little terrain to speak of, a hastily-assembled Romano-British defense force attempts to break a horde of Saxon harriers who seek to plunder the remaining hill-forts of southwestern Britain.
On one side, the Romano-British deployed in a line, with cavalry units protecting the flanks, and two units of infantry and some archers holding the center.  On the other, three Saxon warbands line up ready to charge, with archers protecting one flank and a reserve of companions in reserve.
Romano-British to the Right, Saxons to the Left.  No terrain except for a colossal Spanish-style house looming over my 15mm miniatures.



Two battles went to the Saxon invaders, and one went to the Romano-British defenders.  All three were close run things, however, and could have gone either way with a few different dice results.  I did not feel that any set of rules was lopsided or unfair, a credit to all of the designers.  Each game had exciting bits, ones where I thought “If I can make this roll, and I pull this out for the losing side.”  In a solo game, that’s pretty good.

In the end, each game had strengths and weaknesses that were part of the philosophy of the designers.  In short, they all managed to create games around a series of principles that they felt were essential to warfare in the pre-gunpowder era.  That’s a Good Thing.  I don’t think that any of these sets were “bad rules.” However, they each pushed the player to a certain style of play and leadership.  Though different, all were fun, and I think I would take any of the three over the rules I played with in the 1980’s.

At times, I felt like I was making DBA-style decisions. On at least two occasions, I found myself thinking “If I activate this unit first, I will clear a path for this other unit that will enable it to get into position…”  To me, that challenges my suspension of disbelief.  I think medieval generals should have minimal control over their troops.  A lack of activation rolls further pushes Impetus from ‘simulation’ to ‘game.’  However, when the fighting started, I liked the Impetus system the best.  Units mixed it up, lost effectiveness quickly, and individual contests between two units were decided in no more than two turns.  Reserves were critical in relieving battered units.  I think this is the game I would use to introduce new players to the game.  Fast, but with a need for intelligent decisions that reward smart players.    It seems best when geared to two-player head to head battles, but plenty of rules exist online for expanding it.

This game was as crazy as any Black Powder game I have enjoyed.  Blunders, failed activation rolls, and sudden shifts of fortune because of hot dice.   This is not a game for the timid.  Units are tougher than in Black Powder, but the savagery of melee combat can mean that an entire wing of an army can disappear in a turn or two.  I suspect that more defeats in “Hail Caesar” are attributed to bad dice rolling than bad strategy.  But it’s fast, fun, and flexible.  The deliberately laid-back style of the rules means that more attention is paid to getting troops into the battle than in wheeling them at exactly the right angle to maneuver into position.  I like that the rules follow closely form Black Powder, giving an entry to people who might be new to the period.   I had worried that this might make the battle feel generic, but in some ways these rules had the most authentic feel for pre-modern generalship.  Who wants absolute control?  I think these rules would be the way to go for a big, multi-player game as well, as each command operates more or less independently.

The Leadership Point system might be abstract, but I think it did an excellent job of simulating the limited resources of command.  When cavalry assailed the Saxon chief from all sides, he piled on the LP to rest every attack.  Lo and behold, the stubborn warband was able to see it through to the end of the battle.  Leadership Points allowed the Roman commander to rally his line when they were on the verge of fleeing for the hills, even if it meant not pressing the attack on the Saxon commander as fiercely as he might have otherwise. The system had activation rolls (which I liked), but they were dependent on the unit, rather than the commander, as they were in hail Caesar.  Combats became slogging matches, and it was quite hard to chase a determined warband or shieldwall off the table.  You couldn’t write off a battered unit just because it was almost worn down to nothing, because it might still have a few good turns of fighting left in it.  Of the three systems, this one seemed like it required the most finesse, for good and bad.  I think it would be great for more experienced players.  I’m not sure it would play very quickly in a large multiplayer game, but I could be wrong about that.