Thursday, 3 September 2020

Giving the WotR Billhooks rules a first outing.

Lovely brushwork by Phil Robinson

Never Mind the Billhooks is a free set of wargame rules by Andy Callum and presented in the latest issue of Wargames Illustrated magazine.

Having tested some of the system mechanisms using just a couple of bill / archer units on the table, I decided to upscale to a trial action, using the suggested 100 point game. This was played out on a 4’ x 3½’ table with 28’s, but I am testing an idea to singly base units on 80mm frontages, whereas, I am guessing that the game uses 120mm sabots since they have unit frontages of 6 figures, ranked in two to give 12 figures per unit.

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

The upside for an 80mm single base is that the game can fit into a smaller space, the downside is that casualties are being ‘noted’ alongside the unit (rather than removing figures) and you have to remember that some of the game maths revolves around the front rank being 6 figures, but this is pretty easy to do, though not as intuitive as using single based figures and 'seeing it', though I quite like that with single basing, the unit still has a ‘full presence’ on the table as it takes increasing casualties. 

The test battlefield is totally clear, without terrain, so we will not really be capturing the ‘Disarray’ element of the system caused by moving over obstructions, though the pike block did become disarrayed when they tried some fancy footwork. To get the game going I used mostly unpainted troops blue-tac’d to the 80mm bases ...... so no real action photos here today for fear of offending anyone :-) but there are some staged shots here to help pretty things up!

I threw down a couple of forces, each divided into 3 wards. The flanks were just 2 units each, the centre had more, including the skirmishers. The Lancastrians commanded by Somerset, had a pike block to the centre (I will be doing a Bosworth inspired game in the future, so I want a unit of French long spear), with their front covered by crossbow skirmishers. They also had an artillery piece in the line.

The Yorkists, commanded by Gloucester, had foot Men-at-Arms in the centre and a unit of knights out on the left ward. On adding the points up, this gave the Yorkists 105 and the Lancastrians 114, so not a bad for a 'guessed' plonk down force, getting fairly close to the suggested 100 points for a game.

First off we have the Initial Manoeuvre Phase. Here each side takes it in turn to move a unit, this goes back and forth, with even the same units moving repeatedly if that what the player wants, until the first attack is made, at which point the initial manoeuvre stops and the turn sequence proper starts.

The game sequence is based on a small set of cards, each representing a leader, draw a card and that leader activates - repeat. There are some bonus cards in there and the last card is never drawn, this is a very nice touch. 

It becomes obvious that the Yorkists will press on the left with their knights and that the Lancastrians will press in the centre with their pike. This initial interactive phase was ended by the Lancastrian artillery firing.

A Front Rank model

This happily meant that an archer unit did not have to shoot and become depleted. I had thought that a strange rule to deplete an archer unit of arrows if it stops the initial manoeuvre segment, as it makes a precious archer unit pretty useless for the rest of the game, but in practice, it actually forces the players to consider getting their skirmishers (who don’t go depleted) into positions that will stop the initial manoeuvring - a clever mechanism, with minimal rules overhead. It just so happens that I used the artillery to do the same thing.

EDIT - thanks to OB in the comments below, archers that interrupt the Initial Manoeuvre Phase only deplete their arrow supply by 1, it is not a full depletion.

On the Yorkist left, the knights took serious losses (8 men down to 2) from arrows as they closed. This unit then failed its morale and was removed from play, surrendering two precious Army Morale Tokens to the Lancastrian side. The Yorkist left now only had 1 unit of archers and so for them, the rest of the game would be about managing a combination of shooting (until their arrows ran out) and pulling back.

I immediately learned the lesson that the system drives 4 distinct phases, Opening manoeuvres, then a close down of manoeuvre by skirmishers, then missile engagements to weaken the enemy ..... then finally move in for the melee actions. Again a good process for minimal rules overhead to get the right feel. This phasing is also helped by the archers having a limited arrow supply (6), so we get to the clash of bill and swords, without prolonged missile exchanges and the champions of the field, the archers, suddenly look a bit vulnerable.

By the end of turn 2, the handgunners (York) and the crossbowmen (Lancastrian), both skirmishing units, had been lost, though they don’t generate Army Morale Points for the enemy (games are won by collecting the enemy Army Morale Points), but again the process forces a historical feel, with the skirmishes melting away to allow the ‘battle proper’ to unfold ... the units are small, so it only takes relatively few losses before they will fail their punitive morale test, driving them off the field .... they have done their job and battle moves to the next stage.

At the start of turn three, all 6 wards were still physically disengaged and the archers were still in the front with around half their arrow supply remaining (enough to shoot 3 times or so). The Lancastrian artillery had been quite successful against Yorkist archers in the centre. Some of this will be lucky dice, but I am yet to explore how the artillery fits into the rock, scissor, paper type relations between units. Perhaps both sides need artillery and certainly terrain of the battlefield with visual obstructions would make a difference, either way, the Yorkists will want to neutralise the artillery .... or get a move on :-)

The moment of decision looked to be fermenting in the centre. The Yorkist archers had taken some punishment to enemy arrows, they stood aside (and became disarrayed for doing so), letting the Men-at-Arms pass and plough on ahead, straight into the Lancastrian archers. On the face of it, it was an unequal struggle, but the Lancastrian archers stood their ground, loosed a defensive volley and then, despite taking heavy casualties, managed to hold on throughout the melee, ensuring a second round of melee in the next turn.

The Lancastrian Pike, also in the centre, had managed to get themselves a little removed from the action, but they had recovered from being disarrayed and were within striking distance of the Yorkist Men-at-Arms .... the order that the cards would be drawn in turn 4 would now really matter!

Turn 4 - The first card drawn was the bonus card (which the Yorkists won) and which also causes any current melee to fight another round, this was a perfect card draw for Gloucester and his M-A-A, pushed deeper into the melee fight with the archers. 

Let's follow this part of the field a little closer, the M-A-A unsurprisingly executed this second round of combat very effectively against the archers, almost removing them from play ..... but these archers were particularly stubborn and in return they inflicted a further 2 losses on the M-A-A.

Both units were then at the end of their second round of melee, so they both took a Disarray marker (think disorder). But since the archers lost the melee in terms of casualties, they also had to take a Crisis Morale Test, which they failed and took a Daunted marker (think shaken) and then retreated 9”. They also abandoned their weapons as they ran, so their arrow depletion dice were removed from their base, meaning they cannot shoot again and they were now pretty much out of the fight, a somewhat academic statement as they had only 1 figure in the unit remaining!

The M-A-A had a leader with them, so they could choose whether to follow up or not (no leader - no such choice), but if they followed, they would have had enemy pikemen on their left flank, so they stayed put and ‘held ground’.

The Yorkist centre (1 x MAA and 1 x Longbow and the Army Commander Gloucester), although having seen off the enemy archers, were in fact in a perilous position. The archers were down to just 5 figures and the M-A-A down to 8 and both were Disarrayed, so only their front rank (a count of 6 figures at best and of course only 5 for the archers as they were now taking losses from the front rank as their rear rank was empty) could fight.

In close proximity to them were a Lancastrian block of 2 x pike units (looking splendid!), plus the enemy artillery, which opened fire on the M-A-A, inflicting a further loss!

As things came to a head, the Lancastrian Pike did a 45º turn (they can do this without penalty for the cost of one of their two Actions) and then moved forward, ploughing into the M-A-A.

Both of these units just so happened to have their respective army commanders with them, Gloucester and Somerset, which compels them to have a duel, which is effectively a 50/50 dice off, best of three for a sudden death outcome! - Oh Dear!

Gloucester fell. When the army commander dies, the other side win an instant and automatic victory and so at this moment, the Lancastrians won. However just to see the pike in action, I also ran the first round of that melee - I mean, who could resist!

The disarrayed M-A-A could only use their front rank (6 men) valued at 1.5 multipliers each, so they will roll 9 dice. The fresh pike have two units of 12 in the block. Their dice multiplier is just 1, but Pike in block attacking can count all 4 ranks, so that is 24 figures, giving 24 x D6, Wow!

However, Lady Luck must have been feeling sorry for the Yorkists, because poor Lancastrian dice rolls and good Yorkist saves resulted in just 2 Yorkist casualties and they in turn inflicted 2 casualties on the pike, so a tie, ensuring that the melee would continue into the next turn ..... however with their strength down to 5 they were doubtful of surviving the ‘end of turn’ morale tests which must be taken for those units who have lost at least 50% strength (so let’s try that now .... done - they just about escape being broken and instead are marked Daunted and retreated 9”, but they are a spent force in the face of the solid body of pike).

Anyway, none of that matters as the Lancastrians had already won the game, we are just tinkering here. At the close of play, the situation across the field from the Yorkist perspective was that they were in retreat on the left, their centre had been crushed and there was something of a stalemate on the right.  


This was a good first play experience. I like the way that the system guides the player through the ‘correct’ order of a developing battle with manoeuvre, skirmish, missile and closing to contact. It is also the case that where each of the three wards on each side contact the enemy, each of those locations becomes a mini engagement, separate to the big picture, so in our game, the Yorkist left found themselves trying to manage a slow falling back, while the Lancastrians tried to outmanoeuvre and outfight that rear guard, making this wing feel like it had it’s own personality, compared to the ups and downs that were going on elsewhere.

I think throwing in a bit of terrain would add a further dynamic, driving some tactical decisions and helping to further make the three locations on the table more distinct, as well as providing more Disarray results.

As this game clearly demonstrated, leader loss is a nightmare and one has to give thought to where leaders are placed and since moving a leader requires the leader to spend a precious order on himself to do that, the temptation is just to leave the leader attached to their current unit, so that they can move for free with the unit while using their orders allowance to manage the ward - but sometimes you just have to be more thoughtful, even if a secondary leader is lost, though you would not get the ‘sudden death’ situation that the loss of the army commander gives, without them, their own ward would not be able to get orders, unless the order comes from the army commander, who will already be busy commanding their own wars, so good luck with that! 

What I did notice is that there is a lot of nuance held amongst the rules and so an initial quick read does not bring all of that out and in that regard, a better appreciation follows play, where I think the rules can be seen to be punching above their weight.

Overall, I like what this system is doing. I am not fully committed yet to having my own basing at 80mm (thank you Blu-Tac), but it works okay. Recording casualties is an extra admin chore and potentially ugly, depending on how it is done, but it is easy to remember that cavalry have a frontage of 8 figures and broadly everything else is 6, so regardless of what your basing holds, the maths are easy and it does stop the visual of having half filled sabots moving across the table (with the system using frontages of 6 figures,I am assuming they are mainly using a 120mm sabot system (obviously not for cavalry, who need more at 28mm).

I am thinking that an advantage of 80mm frontages is it being small enough for the wards to grow a little while still using a smaller table, certainly from the current 2 - 3 units to perhaps 3 - 4 units per ward and that will put an interesting pressure on the ‘orders’ system and decisions as whether to combine units at the start of the game, as leaders typically can only issue two orders (varies between 1 and 3 depending how good the leader is, but 2 is average).

Anyway, all good and worth the printing out of the cards and quick reference sheet from the Wargames Illustrated web site to try out. I will be doing more with these rules. Thanks to all involved.

Resource Section.

My sister web space COMMANDERS is a bit more snippet based here and gives more frequent updates on what is hitting the table or getting painted. LINK

A video from the Bosworth Heritage Centre showing the Battle of Bosworth through a figure display.


  1. An excellent AAR and overview of the rules Norm. Due to my current campaign I'm trying not to give these a run out, but they do look very good. Basing wise I've yet to make a decision, but will await until I've had some trial games.

    1. Thanks Steve, there is a lot to like here. I will YoYo on base size, make a decision and then part way through decide it is wrong and re-base ...... such is my basing history :-)

  2. Enjoyable read Norm thank you. I'm also greatly taken by this set of Rules.

    An archer unit that opens the battle only loses 1 additional 'volley' from it's allocation of 6 'volleys' rather than all of them.

    I'd never thought of doing the WOTR before and now I'm thinking I'll do Burgundians too.

    1. Thank you, i had taken the phrase ‘ it will deplete their arrow supply’ literally, so that is good news and makes much more sense, as there are not a lot of archer units in a typical game anyway.

      Burgundians would make a lovely colourful army.

  3. Nice review, sounds like a nice system, all my WOTR figures are singly based on sabot trays,I don't like figure removal all that much though, lovely figures, hopefully this will inspire Jonathan that this is his next period!
    Best Iain

  4. Thanks Iain, Jonathan is likely looking at the various 28mm catalogues as we speak :-)

    1. You guys are so funny...but you may be right!

    2. I think we've all been looking at our lead mountains; I know I have!

  5. Thanks for the comprehensive and very positive review. I am pleased I see that my “ simple mechanisms to produce subtle results” philosophy” has hit the spot. Check out the Never Mind The Billhooks Facebook page.
    Cheers Andy Callan

    1. Thanks Andy, simple but not at all simplistic, giving a good flavour of period action.

      I would like to follow the facebook conversations, but I am not a registered FB user and the FB page via WI will only allow signed in members access.

  6. Always a complete overview of a set of rules from you, Norm. Even though you used unpainted lead in your trial game (heresy, I know!) and were reluctant to show that naked action, I would have enjoyed seeing the figures on sabots anyway. Having the stands on table to visually show maneuver, positioning, combat,etc. on the playing area would have bee illustrative for me.

  7. Thanks Jonathan, I enjoyed these so much that I think the rules will drive some project posts on the blog.

  8. Nice AAR and closer look at the rules. Seems like a very fun set. Good luck on solving your basing conundrum. I personally don’t like the look of empty sabots trays but tracking casualties can also be a pain. I have no solution to offer, except to say that anything will work as long as you like it. 😀

    1. Follow up; I don’t mind seeing unpainted miniatures. It’s a blog, not a magazine article. 😀

    2. Thanks Stew, they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I have to agree with you. In the past, I have found that playing with unpainted stuff helps you decide on rule sets and basing systems and if you like what falls out from that, it helps motivate painting up the army on a unit by unit by unit basis, to rotate unpainted out for painted ...... starting with groups of just 6 skirmishers of course :-)

  9. Really great write up. That was extremely helpful as I consider these rules. I liked the narrative of the battle. Pics or no pics, I could easily see it in my mind. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Thanks A.P. for visiting and I'm glad that the rules overview hit the mark for you. I can see this set being a force that encourages gamers to take up a new period.

  11. Thanks Norm a helpful review, Smiths had sold out so I may need to order the magazine to get a copy.....I am certainly thinking about WotR at the moment ?

  12. Hi Matt, in some respects it is good to hear that Smiths have sold out. I have recently become aware that unsold copies of the magazine just go for pulp at no compensation for Wargames Illustrated, so unsold copies are a straight loss / write-off, how sad is that!

    It is definitely worth you securing a copy as I think your interest in ‘activation systems’ will be tickled by these rules.

  13. Very nice test drive, Norm. Individually-based figure systems, even for massed battles, seem all the rage these days.

    1. Thanks Steve, I think they are seen as the ultimate in flexibility, with skirmish crossing over into bigger battles. I don’t think we need to worry about basing as much as we used to because a lot of rules these days are not base specific, they just want both sides to be the same.

  14. Thank you for posting this, most useful and interesting. As I previously mentioned Dave passed his onto me to see if we could use them for our early Italian Wars games. I think it is doable, but I am not sure I could get the same nuance, probably best left to being period specific?

  15. Thanks Phil, there may be some scope to bring some Different elements into the game via the card system.

  16. Very interesting insight there into what seem to be an intriguing set of rules. Must check them out. Thanks for sharing Norm!

  17. Thanks Mike, I’m sure there is going to be quite a bit of chatter about these rules over the next few months. I don’t know what the penetration is of the magazine in terms of sales, but this rule set must be in a lot of hands by now.

  18. Great review and very much looking forward to trying these out for ourselves

  19. Thanks Eric, I read that the author is putting a Stoke Field scenario in the next wargames Illustrated mag, that might be an interesting one to look at for your table.


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