Sunday, 12 July 2020

Wars of Roses with Sword & Spear

Sword & Spear, written by Mark Lewis of Polkofnik Productions and published by Great Escape Games, is an interesting rule set that covers ancients through to late medieval, so it just reaches to the Wars of the Roses era, which currently interests me. 
Perry 28mm Plastics, painted by Phil Robinson

My attention was primarily grabbed by this set because it aims at giving a game with around 8 - 15 units per side and so seemed ideal for the Pocket Armies project.

So I put a ‘ward’ per side on the table and ran through a couple of playings, firstly to get a feel for the system and secondly to see whether it was a good fit for my future Wars of the Roses games. 

This is just a short post to cover some initial observations.

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

The mechanics to the game are interesting and unusual. Without going into too much detail, here are the headline points;

If you are the red army and have ten units, then you put ten dice (D6) into a draw bag at the start of the turn. The blue army might have eleven units, so they put eleven blue dice into the draw bag. A shake or two later! ..... one player draws 7 dice from the bag.

Drawing an odd number means that one side will have more of their coloured dice drawn than the other, so they get the initiative. Those dice are all then rolled and each player allocates the dice to their units depending on the results of each die roll and what is needed to be done.

Those units allocated a die will be active for this phase, once they have acted another seven dice are drawn and so on until the end of the turn, though note, the last draw will likely be less than seven dice.

Every unit has a ‘discipline’ value. Typically ‘4’ for the average type of unit, so say we have a longbow unit. If you have rolled the dice and one of them is ‘4’ plus, you can match it with that longbow unit and it will be able to do something. If the roll is exactly ‘4’, it can do one of four things, but if the value of the dice is higher, say five, then there is a secondary list of actions that it can also consider.

This is the engine of the game and there are many subtleties in terms of decision making that run off it.

The second important design consideration is that you can use a unit size of your own choosing, as long as all units have the same frontage, because distance is worked out as Distance Units (DU) and one DU is equal to half the width of a unit.

Our longbow can move 3 DU, so if you are using units with an 80mm frontage, the 3 DU is 120mm (they can shoot up to 5 DU).

Thirdly, all combat is done by opposed dice rolls. Both sides roll a number of dice equal to their strength. You then match each side against the other, with the dice values set out in descending value.

A win causes a discipline check to see if a hit results, but scoring at least double against the enemy guarantees a hit. Once a unit accumulates enough hits to equal its strength, it is removed from play .... and so the army slowly deteriorates!

Anyway, I set up a typical wing (vanward) using just 6 units per side. The front three units were archers and immediately behind them were billmen.

The two games that I played opened with long distance archery and within a few turns one side clearly gained an advantage as the other sides archers took losses. This then meant that the melee troops on the exposed side were compelled to get going and make contact with the enemy - sounds about right so far.
The bow cannot infiltrate back through the bill!

Everything broadly worked fine for me, except, using this set-up, as the attacking billmen approached the archers, I was unable to get the archers out of the way in readiness for the melee clash.

This is because the system only allows light troops to interpenetrate other units and the archers are classed as medium, so with their own billmen blocking their 'escape', under the rules, the archers are stuck there and it will be the archers that meet the attacking melee troops!

Obviously that is not going to best represent how the armies fought, so what to do? As an aside, there is also the issue of deciding how I want to show units within formations being quite integrated regardless of type (Hail Caesar uses the 'mixed' formation rule to do this and it works well) .

As a quick fix during play, I decided that when the archers activated with a die roll at least one higher than their discipline value, they could retire through a unit directly to their rear.

This became quite interesting, because the archers need to do this in a timely fashion and not get caught out.  The two ways of getting caught out are to lose your own head and keep shooting with them, when it would be safer and better to retire ...... but more critically, you need to be able to roll high enough results with the activation dice to make that happen .... not guaranteed! and this really opens the game up, giving some tactical nuance that matters.

Some other good points about the rules are that they are self contained, no need to buy additional supplements and a goodly range of army lists are up on the web site. The rules are fairly short and the melee and shooting phases share the same mechanics which makes things easier.

I am still trying to hold in my head some of the various things that units can or cannot do, such as when do they get the Impetus dice bonus, but overall, this is a straight forward set and I am sure these things will drop into place relatively quickly.

I do like the idea that an army can be built up around 12 units and this allows for the DBA style of army building.

I have ordered the new edition of Bloody Barons from Peter Pig, so that will give me another system to look at and I think those rules (also self contained) have scenarios for all of the WoR battles, so that should be interesting. 

Resource Section.

My sister webspace COMMANDERS is a bit more snippet based than here. Link.


  1. An interesting rule option and notmone I have heard of, mind you not currently gaming WoR and suspect when /if I do it will be large skirmish ?

    1. Matt, gamers such as yourself, who like the dice draw activation mechanics of Bolt Action type games, will like this system.

  2. I don't have the rules in front of me but I just read the fantasy version. In this version you can have mixed heavy and medium foot with the (R) classification. I don't recall if this is in the standard rules because I've never needed it (I play classical ancients).

    1. Hi Ian, interesting, in the ancients set (R) is a restriction on the number of units of that type that an army can have (2 for core troops and one for support troops), but I cannot find a reference to mixing. I will check again, but in some case, a rule like that does seem essential.

      At Hastings in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon line dispersed their Housecarls right along the front line, to give the whole army a toughened edge, but most rules don't allow this sort of thing because of the obsession with 'pure' units and so a typical 1066 game under most systems just gives you one or two housecarl pure units.

      More pondering I think :-)

  3. This looks really interesting, Norm. I bought a shed-load of 10mm WOTR troops and would like to use Sword and Spear for them so your post is timely.

    1. Hi Steve, they are in the same format as Iron Cross and 7 Days to the Rhine, also from Great Escape Games and so they carry the same ethos of interesting and effective rules.

  4. I have these rules and played a few games set in the dark ages. They’re pretty fun but I had enough quibbles that it’s not my go to rule set. Here are some the quibbles because I can’t help but express an unsolicited opinion:😀
    While there are group moves there is no group attack, so a unit in its battle line has to charge the enemy battle line all by itself. In my mind the whole line would attack.
    The list of who gets impetus and when and when they don’t is long and not intuitive for me.
    Bc leaders make it easier to activate troops, you end up putting them with the average troops to activate them more easily instead of them fighting with their best units which I think is against where the leader would actually be (a leader would be with his bodyguards not the local yocals).

    However there is a lot the rules get right and they are fun to play. Be sure to check out the authors YouTube vids. 😀

    1. Which WotR rules did you settle upon, Stew?

    2. Thanks Stew, I have seen the videos before, but will return to them. I recall he never got around to doing the fourth and final video!

      The group attack is an interesting thought and my first impression was surprise at the absence, but I can see why the designer went for sequential for attack and it is a better fit for a system where units are not allowed to line up for corner to corner type assaults.

      For Wars of the Roses, at Bosworth Richard did the 'last swan song' of the charge with his cavalry ( a small body of men) at the isolated Henry and his small body of men, it is difficult to see that naturally playing out under the rules as a leader base charging another leader base - but of course it would be represented by both leaders being attached to a formal cavalry unit.

      The intrigue and cleverness of the rules also brings about some of the awkwardness in remembering everything, but I think it just needs regular play so that the nuances are properly remembered and experienced,

    3. I do like the activation sequence and the combat mechanics. Regular play would probably be most beneficial. 😀

      @JF. Not WoTR but dark ages (vikings, saxons, and Normans). Unfortunately I don’t really have a go to rule set for the dark ages. I keep trying out different ones and haven’t really found THE one yet. Each has its good points and quibbles. I’ve tried so many and there’s still more to try, so it’s a nice problem to have. 😀

  5. Thanks for the overview, Norm. I ought to pull this off the shelf and give it another look.

    1. Your Hittite army gives you the ideal excuse :-) it seems ready made for this rule set and terms of numbers and fixed front basing.

  6. We played thes when they first came out and they gave some nice games. There were a few points that we couldn't figure out, despite several re-reads of the rules. Sadly as seems to be the norm these days, we moved on to other periods, rules etc and these haven't seen the light of day since.

    They are a good ruleset but nowadays Neil Thomas' rules scratch that Ancients & Medievals itch that occurs now and then. I think if I played more A&M I might look for something a bit more detailed.

  7. Hi Steve, similar to their Iron Cross rules, despite being a fairly simple set, even a careful reading can leave you still having to dip back in to the rules during play to make sure you have things right.

    I would like to get back to the idea of sticking with a single set, much like we all did in the days of WRG.

    I agree with your A&M sentiment, but I like the book as much as a resource and pleasant read as much as anything else.

  8. They do sound interesting. I like the idea of drawing dice out and allocating them to unit. Sure stoos the helicopter view if games. Might look these up.

    1. Ray they are different enough to deserve a punt, the same way as their Iron Cross rules are to other WWII rules.

  9. A set a I did contemplate getting, but decided to stick with Neil Thomas rules and the occaisional game with To the Strongest.

    1. Phil, I have hopes for this set as I dig further in to their nuances, but I also have the NT Ancient and Medieval set, so I will no doubt settle on one of these two.

  10. Hi Norm. Sounds an interesting set of rules with an activation system that would appeal to me as an ex Bolt Action player, I really like the fun element of drawing dice from a bag and allocating them to individual units. The concept of a standard DU is something I am playing with myself. I like your tweak to allow archers to retire through the bill units behind (subject to a dice roll) as it makes historical sense.

  11. Lee, the dice draw will appeal to many, but the extra level of how to apply the dice and to which units, brings another level of intrigue. I will be doing something more with these rules, so you may see something you can port over into your napoleonics ........ or you might start collecting a new period :-)

  12. Interesting overview of this ancients/medieval ruleset, I know what you mean about the WRG rule dominance being reassuring ( because everyone knew the same rules) but I'm happier with a wide range, even if I can't keep track of them! Phil's Perry bill and bow look ace,lucky you!
    Best Iain

  13. Thanks Iain, lucky me indeed! I just have to paint up the rest of my army now and make sure that it does not look like the poor relation :-)

    Interestingly, Sword & Spear give the freedom of base size and mounting, but examples in the book and in the video clearly have one foot in the WRG / DBA basing, No doubt because that basing standard is still so familiar to many.

  14. Sounds like a promising set of rules, particularly for WotR. For what it's worth, I found Lion Rampant worked well for WotR too.

  15. Hi Dean, I have had another go at Sword & Spear with larger forces and am increasingly liking it. I think I prefer big bases with groups on, which probably pushes me closer to S&S.



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