My growing 28mm Wars of the Roses forces have been marching across the table to the command of Sword & Spear rules (Great Escape Games) and Never Mind the Billhooks (by Andy Callum). These have worked well at scenario and narrative driven games.
This week, due to several good reports by other gamers, I bought a copy of L’ Art de la Guerre (4th Edition) to see whether they fit within my gaming wants.
Adding these to my collection of rule sets, I thought it about time I created a generic scenario that different rule sets could be bench marked against, to test different areas of the rules and try to pick a 'go-to' set.
As it happens, I have not read enough of L’ Art de la Guerre, to put it on the table today, so I have used my more familiar Sword and Spear rules instead, which since they are my currently used rules, will give a good bench mark game (for me at least) to test other rules against.
The rest of this post will look at the test scenario and flow of play using Sword & Spear, with pertinent moments and game mechanics highlighted.
Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.
The scenario has been designed to show armies being used in three bodies (vanward, mainward and rearward) or commands, with three terrain types playing their part. A ditch that deals with linear obstacles that disrupts movement (difficult going), but does not give cover or block line-of-sight and a small hamlet that does give cover and finally the common open space that gives unrestricted terrain.
Above - our battlefield today. The rules deal with the ditch by calling it difficult going. The hamlet is a single built up area with a centre that can hold 2 units. A force will either be in the centre of the hamlet, occupying it and defending the whole hamlet or outside the hamlet, fighting against those inside.
The army commanders are Richard III (Yorkist) and Henry Tudor (Lancastrian) and they have taken command of their central groups (mainwards).
The bases are all 80mm wide and each base is treated as an individual unit. The figures are 28mm. The table is 6’ long and 44” wide. It is both longer and wider than it needed for this game (5' x 3' would be fine).
The sides set up at extreme artillery range from each other, this is 10 DU, compared to longbow range which is 5 DU. A DU should be equal to a half base width, which would be 40mm for my 80mm bases, but I am using 1 DU = 50mm (2") and that works fine.
Richard III (army Commander) commanding the mainward
1 x MAA
1 x Bill retinue
1 x Bill levy
1 x Archer retinue
1 x Archer levy
1 x Light cavalry
1 x Artillery
Salisbury commanding the vanward
1 x Longbow retinue
1 x Bill retinue
1 x Handgun
Norfolk commanding the rearward
1 x Bill retinue
1 x Archer retinue
1 x X-bow
Henry Tudor (army commander) commanding mainward
1 x Mercenary French long spear (pike)
1 x MAA
1 x Archer retinue
1 x Archer levy
1 x Bill levy
1 x Heavy cavalry
1 x Artillery
Above - a view of Henry's 'mainward'. Henry is with the pike, flanked by heavy cavalry and men-at-arms on foot.
Percy commanding rearward
1 x Bill retinue
1 x Archer retinue
1 x Handgun
Oxford commanding vanward
1 x Bill retinue
1 x Bow retinue
This is the first time that the collection has been out in the sort of numbers that are starting to look like the strength I am wanting for my ‘Pocket Armies’. We have 13 units for the House of York and 12 units for the House of Lancaster, costing (by chance) 44 points apiece according to the army lists.
So the point value scores for each side are equal and therefore the first test caused by high casualties (33% losses) will be the same for both sides, that is, after units worth a total of 15 Army Points have been lost to either army, all units of that side will take a discipline test and then when 22 Army points (50% losses) have been lost, that side automatically routs and loses the game.
The star mechanism of this game is that each player puts a dice into a draw bag for every unit that they have on the table. In this battle there will be 13 white dice for York and 12 red dice for Lancaster. In each round (there can be several such rounds per turn), 7 dice are drawn from the bag. The odd number ensures that one player will have more of their dice drawn than the other and so will gain initiative for that round. In the final round, there will likely be less than 7 dice in the bag, but they are drawn in the same way.
Each round, the players then roll their own drawn dice and allocate them to friendly units. The higher the score, the more you can do, most often 1’s and 2’s will be fails and discarded. This basic engine brings a lot of friction and decision points to the game and of course, not everything will get a chance to do something that turn.
Both sides want to reach the ditch first, forcing the other side to have to assault across it. Medium foot (missile troops) move faster (3 DU) than heavy foot (2 DU), so the Yorkist use their advantage in missile units to get those units moving forwards first to get within bow range.
The ditch is a linear obstacle and counts as ‘difficult terrain’. Although this is a problem for movement, that does not really matter, it is in combat that things will be telling. The side that has to attack across the feature will lose any Impetus Bonus on the first round and their Discipline Rating will drop by one, making them harder to activate and reduce their options, giving the defender an advantage.
The end result on this flank was that the Yorkists once within missile range, got an excellent round of shooting off, gaining an advantage that they held by having two missile units versus the Lancastrian one unit.
The Lancastrians lost their archers to the arrow storm and then the remaining billmen, taking losses to arrows, had to fall back as they would have eventually been overwhelmed by the Yorkist crossbow and longbow shooting.
All combat is based around opposed dice rolls. Both sides roll as many D6 as the circumstances and their strength allow and then the best 4 scores for each side are faced off against each other. The dice of each side can then be modified depending upon the armour worn by their opponent. The final result of each pairing will either produce a hit, a discipline test (fail gets a hit) or no effect.
To do their ‘fall back’ move the billmen were looking at rolling 5 or 6 on their activation dice, so that they could claim a ‘manoeuvre’ (allowing a move in any direction) move.
The first ‘6’ that the Lancastrian side rolled was allocated to this unit so they could do that, plus the ‘6’ gave them a bonus of an extra 1 DU move. This bit of luck allowed them an early escape from the attention of the archers, but the Yorkists had effectively cleared and taken that flank position and their own force remained largely intact.
Over on the other flank we have the hamlet. The way this works is that the hamlet is effectively a single built up area that at any one time can only be occupied by one side. I had allowed the hamlet to hold two bases.
The Lancastrian handgunners and longbow got into the hamlet first. They gained protection from the buildings (giving them an extra dice in combat), which helped the handgunners who normally would only have two shooting dice (for being strength 2), but the extra dice brought them up to the same shooting value as the enemy longbow that they faced. They managed to hold off the Yorkists, who’s own shooting was poor.
Above - the blue / white figures in the middle distance are Lancastrian handgunners holding the hamlet. Yorkist billmen get ready to assault.
It was only in the last moments of the game that the Yorkists gave up on archery and re-organised themselves to use their billmen to try and storm the hamlet and the game ended while the multiple turns of melee needed to do that were still in progress.
The open centre
It was on the open ground in the centre, between the main forces that the real drama unfolded.
The armies had deployed at extreme cannon range and therefore out of bow range and would need to advance on each other. The opening artillery fire for both sides was very ineffective. At strength 2, they only get 2 shooting dice and that is opposed to three dice for archers and four dice for the heavy foot, so in the ‘odds game’ the artillery is always up against it and they need a bit of luck, their long range being their only advantage.
The Lancastrians looked like they were going to get the upper hand as their mercenary French long spears (treated as pike) strode out at a good pace to drive into the enemy centre. For support, they were flanked by Men-at-Arms on foot to their right and heavy cavalry to their left. This had the potential for delivering quite a punch.
This part of the battlefield broke down into two parts. Firstly, the Yorkist light cavalry (currours) managed to get into position between the hamlet and the Lancastrian centre (mainward).
They used a ‘manoeuvre’ action to orientate themselves into a charging position. Manoeuvre allows a unit to move in any direction and it needs a higher dice value than the unit’s discipline rating to employ, though you cannot use a manoeuvre as part of a charge - that is a separate action and likewise it needs a dice allocation that is higher than the unit’s discipline rating, so to manoeuvre and then charge takes a couple of turns and needs good value dice to be allocated to that part of the battlefield - usually at the expense of other parts.
So for a few turns, the Yorkist invested their best dice rolls on these currours. However it was worth it as when their charge came, it was devastating! It hit enemy archers in the flank and removed them, they drove on in a pursuit move and hit the foot Men-at-Arms in the flank and after a couple of turns, they routed them as well. This allowed them to drive on and hit the Lancastrian heavy cavalry in the flank (below photo).
This turned into a protracted action, but it was of no surprise that ultimately the currours themselves were routed from the field in this contest, but in the meantime, the delay of the prolonged cavalry melee had allowed Yorkist levy billmen to contact the heavy cavalry in their flank, forcing them into another melee situation.
All of this had effectively denied the pike the support of the Men-at-Arms and the heavy cavalry that they had been relying upon, so they advanced (with Henry attached) towards Richard's line ….. alone.
During this time, the Lancastrians hit 33% losses (in terms of unit value), which requires an army to test. All of their units took a discipline test. Everything remained on the field, but three units suffered an additional hit through failed tests.
The pike had good fortune in not getting mauled by defending archers and when they hit the archers (above photo) they were able to do so at full strength, counting as fresh and the archers were routed from the field as the pike punched right through the centre. In the system, pike are strong, often negating the impetus of other units. They also count as a large unit, so can absorb an extra 2 hits, so will stay in the game until receiving 6 hits.
However, now unsupported and deep in the enemy line, they were vulnerable. This is where the dice allocation and discipline levels can matter. The Yorkists were able to get their own Men-at-Arms (with Richard) to advance, turn and manoeuvre behind the pike block. The Men-at-Arms have a great discipline level of 3, so are easy to activate, even better, being with a commander allows them to increase their discipline level, so that they can activate on a 2. This makes those usually wasted dice now usable and useful.
Anyway, they managed to get themselves behind the pike, but while they manoeuvred the pike were still advancing, moving away from them.
There was a lone levy bill unit that could block their way, but they were harder to activate, being levy, so again, the Yorkists invested their best dice roll in this part of the battlefield, getting the levy to block the pike and in the end, the pike found themselves fighting to both front and rear (below photo).
They made a good effort fighting to both their front and rear, but the odds were never in their favour and they eventually succumbed, taking the Lancastrian losses over the 50% line and causing their entire army to rout from the field. The Yorkist were victorious!
Well that was a really enjoyable game. It took just over 2 hours to play and mainly did everything that I would want from a Wars of the Roses game and of course makes me wonder why I bought yet another ancients / medieval set - L’ Art de la Guerre!
However, having played the scenario with Sword and Spear, a good bench test foundation has been put down for the future testing of several sets, namely, L’ Art de la Guerre, Hail Caesar, Impetvs basic V2, Kings of War Historical, Swordpoint, Milites Mundi and Neil Thomas’ Ancient & Medieval. Over the next 12 months, I want to relieve the shelves of the unloved stuff, perhaps keeping just a couple of the main contenders.
I have a preference to not having to buy additional support books for a system (i.e. books of army lists). In that regard Sword & Spear are good because all of the army lists are on line.
For Sword and Spear, I like the activation system with the dice being drawn from the draw bag and then rolling those dice to hopefully get usable allocations. This does shift favour back and fourth between players and nothing can be taken for granted.
One thing I did notice was that since the first three losses in the game came from the Lancastrians, which took three of their dice permanently out of the draw bag, in each subsequent round, there were typically more Yorkist dice getting drawn in that seven at a time draw, which generally shifted the initiative over to the Yorkists, which seemed a good bit of effect due to Lancastrian early losses.
Secondly, I really like the way that the system breaks up the action within each command group on the table. The Ancient / Medieval era has the potential to just have each side line up and advance on the other, with a resulting dice fest of combat as they meet, but here, each individual unit starts to get its own story, with strength, discipline and local situation playing into a believable narrative.
The point of todays scenario is to test the operating of a force separated into three separate bodies (commands) and how terrain features impact on play and to that end, the rules held up well.
The opposed die roll system works very well and is very clever, though it can also feel a bit mechanically contrived, compared to a 1D6 or 2D6 system, but I think that is a preferential thing rather than something that is detrimental to the game. The maths that falls out from it certainly keeps things very fluid and dynamic and added to the dice draw mechanic, the variables help solo play - nothing is certain.
I have had a look at L’ Art de la Guerre and it is notable for everything there being really fully explained and it looks quite ‘lawyer’ proof. In slight contrast, I find with Sword & Spear, you sometimes have to hunt a bit for intent and sometimes you get your answer by checking two different parts of the rule book, one part supporting the other, but again, familiarity does get around that.
Anyway, I did enjoy the game, everything felt like it mattered and as one turn ended, I was eager to start the new turn, just to see how ‘that fight over there’ would play out and whether the billmen would escape etc, so the system does keep you engaged.
Future armies that I would like to own would be 1066 types, Rome Vs Carthage and New Kingdom chariot armies and so the rule set I ultimately go for, will need to adequately service those periods. It will be particularly interesting to see how the system handles Roman armies.
As for the Pocket Armies project, the size of my forces are getting ever closer to reaching the goals of this project. The Wars of the Roses armies will need more bases (units) than I plan for other periods, but despite that the figure count remains quite low as each base only has 8 - 10 figures on it, with just 4 on skirmisher bases.
Taking today’s game, the Yorkist army was only deploying 90 infantry figures, 3 light cavalry and one cannon with crew, so being able to put on a fairly full game with that figure count was good to see and I'm sure adding just another 50 figures (about 6 bases or so) will significantly increase the army size and potential, while remaining a most do-able project, putting the game above skirmish level and into the realms of the small battle, which is where I want these games to sit.
Complexity - This is a well illustrated and quite short rule set, so is easy to read a couple of times to get the basics nailed down before the first game. It hugely helps that the shooting and melee systems share the same processes. Any complexity comes from the tucked away one sentence rules that matter and which can be overlooked in initial games, but I think that is true of most systems and it means that once those things come into play, the game is richer and more nuanced than say a generic fast play system might be. There are some good play examples in the book and some years ago the author did four useful YouTube videos to explain processes.
Size - This is a slim, stand alone rule book, easy to store and easy to use at the table. Everything plays from a double sided quick reference sheet, which should be downloaded from the internet, as the download version contains corrections. There is a chart in the book that describes what size table is needed, depending on how many units are being used. If we take a mid sized game as being 12 units per side, they suggest a 3' x 2' table for units with a 40mm frontage, a 5' x 3' for 80mm frontage and 6' x 4' for 120mm frontage (Impetvus style), so we are usefully in the range of the domestic dining area. They also give dimensions for armies with 8 and 15 bases, so there is something for everyone.
Solitaire - It is a two player game and eminently suitable for tournament play, but there isn’t anything here that gets in the way of solo play and my example game above was a solo game. Solo play is greatly helped by the randomness of the dice draw and then the need to roll to get good scores for giving units actions, all of this is very much out of the players control.
Time - A typical game time of around two and a half hours seems a fair observation. Games will certainly play through to a conclusion in a single session.
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.