Monday, November 11, 2019

Men of Bronze: Thessaly Army List

As I was working on Men of Bronze, I was researching like crazy on Ancient Greek warfare.  I was looking at Herodotus, Xenophone, Thucydides and many, many more.  In addition, there were a ton of secondary sources such as Warry, Hanson, Gaebel and many more.  Through all of this research I ended up focusing on the classic City-States of Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, and Argo.  I also tried to capture their main enemies the Persians.  However, there was a much larger Greek world to consider. 

Nic at the Irregular Wars blog rightly called me out.  My book was missing details for such places as Pre-Reform Macedonia, Thrace, Magna Graecia, Syracuse, and more.  One of the big call-outs was not including an army list for Thessaly, the home of the best horseman in Greece. 

Since then, I have done research into two areas to create lists for Men of Bronze.  Since then, I have taken a much closer look at Sicily and the war between the Carthaginians and the Greeks there.  It was a fascinating learning curve and I have since been shopping the army lists and Historical scenarios for that period around to various wargames magazines.  The second area I looked at was related to Thessaly, the land of horses. 

Thessaly was an area to the north of what many people refer to as Ancient Greece.  It is often considered to be an outsider of the Greek world.  However, it rose to prominence later in the classical period and became especially important during the early years of the rise of Philip of Macedon and the Sacred Wars.  After Philip's death, they were also key allies of his son Alexander.  However, they were still well known horseman and cavalry troopers before these times.  The earliest reference I could find of Thessaly was in Herodotus before even the Greco-Persian wars.

A Brief History
Herodotus tells us a bit about Thessaly through the voice of Xerxes.  It is a broad plain surrounded by mountains in east-central Greece north of the major city-states of classical times.  It is bordered by a broad river called the Pineios River.  Indeed, Xerxes observes that if the river was damned, it would flood all of Thessaly.  This natural basin is a broad and fertile plain and one of the few good places in Greece for raising cows and horses. 

It was the natural landscape for powerful land owning aristocrats to develop.  These land-owners would come to control the regional politics.  This even included the small cities that began to develop in the late 5th century BCE.  In this regions, the horse became a status symbol for the aristocracy.  Under these conditions, horsemanship thrived.  Most athletes in the Olympic games from Thessaly were involved with horse races. 

The famous Thessalian Headwear
The region was divided into 4 Tetrarchies, which were nominally part of the Thessalian League.  These were loosely aligned politically, but in wartime would come together under the military leadership of a single archon or tagos.  Not much is recorded about Thessalian military history until 375 and the rise of Jason of Pharea.  However, we do have some snippets from Herodotus, Xenophon, and Thucydides. 

For example, Herodotus records two engagements between the Thessalians and Spartans.  The first was a Sparta landing force on the beaches near Phalerum.  In this encounter, the Thessalian cavalry managed to route the Spartans before they could form a proper line of battle.  The second engagement between the mercenary Thessalians and the Spartans was a land engagement where the Spartans managed to see the horseman off with little effort.        

Xenophon also offers insight into non-horseman units in the Thessalian armed forces.  During the Persian Expedition under Cyrus, mercenaries are recruited from Thessaly.  Meno commands 1,500 hoplites and 500 peltasts during the campaign.  In addition, Xenophon later tells us in a different text that Thessaly had hoplites, peltasts, and other light troops in addition to the cavalry units. 

Some sources also reference an unknown and ill-described light infantry trooper that was supposed to accompany the cavalry into combat.  It is unclear exactly what this force was, and seem reminiscent of chariot-runners from earlier bronze age battles.  It does not specify what the role of these troops were or their status within Thessaly.  They can be assumed to be a very light and mobile support force, similar to Psiloi.     

Diodorus Siculus and Xenophon also discussed the make-up of the Thessalian military under Jason of Pherae.  It consisted of the noble Thessalian cavalry and mercenary forces for the ground troops.  Again, Xenophon believes that the Thessalians could field up to 20,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry.  6,000 of these were mercenary troops of the highest quality.

Jason of Pherae? 

Most of our information about Thessaly comes from the later period as Macedonian influence became more relevant to Thessalian politics.  Phillip was elected Archon of the Thessalian league and was reorganized to support the growing military needs of the Macedonian army.  At this point, the Thessalian cavalry became a regular formation in their order of battle and became more of a heavy cavalry formation. 

The Thessaly Army List
As stated, the army of Thessaly was focused around cavalry forces.  Early Thessaly was focused on light cavalry, however later iterations transitioned into a Heavy Cavalry role.  However, as Xenophon tells us other forces were also present in their army.

One of the defining features of the later Thessalian cavalry was a special formation known as the Rhomboid formation.  Essentially, the cavalry formation was a diamond with a  point at each direction.  A leader was place at each point, this formation allowed the cavalry to move quickly in different directions.  In addition, this formation was tasked with protecting the left wing of Alexander's army during his Persian campaign.  There, they held the line in a variety of defensive battles using the Rhomboid formation. 

The Thessalian Cavalry can use the Rhomboid formation as a Special Rule.  The Rhomboid Formation uses the following rules:

Rhombus Formation

The Rhombus was a special cavalry formation used by Hellenistic cavalry forces to help increase their maneuverability on the battlefield.  The unit could quickly change direction and move based on switching the leader of the formation at the tip of any edge.
     Units in the Rhombus formation have the following rules apply: Unit may start the game in Rhombus
     A Rhombus can move straight forward, straight left, straight right, or straight back up to its full move
     If a Rhombus touches difficult terrain it will revert to Open Order
     To change from Open Order to Rhombus requires a Commander’s Gaze token and can only be done in a Unit’s Activation.
     A Rhombus can change to Open Order at any point during an Activation
     A Rhombus formation provides +1 Armor and +1 Attack Dice
Units in Rhombus can be aligned this way.  The center line is 4 models.  On both sides of the center, there is a row of two.  Finally, the tip of both ends is a single model.  The Leader model should be at the forward tip of the Rhombus. 

Thessaly Line of Battle
Use the following lists to build your historical forces for Thessaly. The Lines of Battle help to choose the appropriate units for your historical forces. These are sample lists and there to provide a flavor of potential forces. Players can always modify these lists as they see fit
Each Line of Battle will have an entry with a number. The number indicates the limit of that Unit you can take in the army. If an entry says 1+ your army must have at least one of these units in it. If it is 0+ any number of that unit may be taken. If a Unit is not on the list, it can not be chosen.

Early Thessaly List
1+ Cavalry
0-3 Militia Hoplites
0-2 Peltasts
0+ Psiloi

Jason of Pharea List
0-2 Heavy Cavalry*
1+ Cavalry*
0-1 Elite Hoplites
0-4 Light Hoplites
0-2 Peltasts
0+ Psiloi
  This unit maybe given the Rhombus Special Rule for +2 Points

Late Thessaly List
0-2 Heavy Cavalry*
1+ Cavalry*
0-4 Light Hoplites
0-2 Peltasts
0+ Psiloi
  This unit maybe given the Rhombus Special Rule for +2 Points

Warlord Games Thessalian Light Cavalry- From
Sample Armies
Below you can see Sample Armies built from the Lines of Battle provided. They give you an idea of what your force could look like. They are all built to a 38 point force. They range from 5 to 10 Units each.

Early Thessaly
2 Cavalry
2 Peltasts
1 Militia Hoplite
1 Psiloi

Jason of Pharea/Late Thessaly
1 Cavalry with Rhomboid
1 Heavy Cavalry with Rhomboid
1 Light Hoplite
2 Psiloi
Thessalian Heavy Cavalry from

Battle of Phalerum
Herodotus tells us a story prior to the Persian-Greek War about a mercenary Thessalian cavalry force meeting a Spartan army on the plains of Phalerum.  During the reign of Cleomenes the “Mad” Spartan king, he and the Tyrant of Athens had a falling out.  The Athenian Tyrant was named Hippias, and in addition to the military forces of Athens, had hired a group of Thessalian mercenaries to help maintain his rule. 

Cleomenes wished to over throw Hippias.  Therefore, he had a force of Spartan soldiers land on the beach near Phalerum.  The plan was to march to Athens and overthrow Hippias.  The Tyrant must have gotten wind of this plan and sent his mercenary horseman to intercept them.  Apparently, the plain of Phalerum had to be specially prepared for cavalry operations so the Thessalians must have know the Spartans were coming.  Herodotus’ account lacks almost any detail, except for one crucial element, the Spartan opponents were attacked and over run before they could form into a proper battle line.   

Despite the set back, the Spartans tried again the following year.  This time, they took an overland route.  They again faced the Thessalian horsemen, but this time the mercenaries were swept aside by a larger and well prepared Spartan force.  The Spartans were well prepared, and probably more numerous than their first encounter with the Thassalian cavalry. 

The following is to help recreate the initial battle of Phalerum vs. the Spartans.  Modern scholars know nothing about the battle and some great liberties must be taken with the force compositions, lay-out, etc. in order to make this into a viable scenario.      

Herodotus only tells us that the Thessalians were a cavalry force, while the Spartans were foot soldiers. 

Elite Hoplites- Spartiates
2 Militia Phalanx- Allies
2 Psiloi- Helots

32 Points

4 Cavalry
2 Psiloi

36 Points      

Records of the Thessalian forces indicate a number of ill-defined and light troops that were sent to fight amongst and with the cavalry forces.  It is not clear how these troops were armed or equipped.  However, they sound similar to Psiloi.  They had no recorded arms or armor and were recorded as more of an afterthought.  Therefore, I have included Psiloi in the Thessalian mercenary list for the Battle of Phalerum to add some flavor and variety. 

This scenario is played on a 72 base widths long by 48 base widths across board.  The Spartan side is one of the long board edges and is considered impassable terrain.  It is the sea where the Spartans are deploying from their ships.  The other side is open into the plains of Phalerum.  Instead of the normal 6 hexes for terrain placement, this battle only uses 3, all on the Thessalian side of the table.  However, place terrain randomly in these three with the Thessalian deploying first.  This represents the preparation that supposedly occurred before the battle. 

The Thessalians can be placed on the board edge with all the terrain elements anywhere within 12 base widths of their long board edge.

The Spartans are not placed on the table.  They begin the game in reserve.  They deploy as if subject to the Delayed Units complication found in the Men of Bronze rules.  In addition, when deployed on the board, a Spartan unit may not be within 12 base widths of another Spartan Unit.  If a Unit can not deploy anywhere outside of 12 base widths of a Spartan Unit, then it is placed in reserve again.  It may try to enter on a different turn. 

When entering the board from reserve the unit must be placed touching the deployment board edge.  This counts as their action for the turn.

Special Rules
See the section on deployment to see the special rules for this scenario. Other than what is listed in the Deployment section, no other special rules exist. 

The Spartan mission is to move 1+ unit off the Thessalian board edge.  Alternatively, they can completely rout or destroy the Thessalian forces opposing them.  The Thessalians win if they rout the Spartan forces from the board.  All other outcomes are a draw. 

The game will last 8 turns or until one side is destroyed/collapses. 

Greek Light Cavalry from
Now, we can add one of the Northern territories of Greece to your games of Men of Bronze.  I think the Victrix, Wargames Foundry, Warlord, or any Greek Light Cavalry models will be great for such a force.  They will look very impressive in squads of ten 28 mm models on the table.  Their foot print on the table alone will be a sight to behold!

Keep your eyes on the Blog as I intend to add some more army lists for Men of Bronze such as Pre-Reform Macedon, Syracuse and the Sicilian Greeks, and early Sicilian Wars Carthaginians.  I am having a blast researching these forces. 

Thanks to Ingtaer, Grey Templar, and Duracellrabbit from the Dakka Dakka forums for help with the research.  Also, thanks to Nic at the Irregular Wars for his help with the topic.  These fine folks pointed me to some good resources online and in the primary sources.  Thank you!                           

Monday, November 4, 2019

Review: Ulterior Motives- Frostgrave

One of my goals for the year was to get more Frostgrave going in my local area. As part of this, I wanted to make sure I had all the latest Frostgrave supplements. I was confident that the all-female warbands coming out for Frostgrave would be a big draw for my family. However, that goal has gone nowhere this year. Related to that I picked up the Maze ofMalcor and Ulterior Motives. So far, this plan has not worked out at all and I have had not progressed in getting the game going. Instead, my family wants to play Burrows and Badgers so that will come next.

However, that doesn't mean I can't give you all a review. Unlike other Frostgrave supplements, this one is not a soft cover book. Instead it is a deck of 40 cards that are standard playing card size. Two of the cards cover some rules updates and how to use the cards. The rest are alternative side missions to add to the scenarios you are playing in the game.

Things I Liked
As I said in my initial Frostgrave review, much of the game will depend on the scenario and missions. The standard treasure hunting allows for a good basic game. However, the cards have some alternate rules even for Treasure placement.

Each card has a new alternate objective for the Wizards. These are in addition to the main scenario objective.

Each card has the following information:

The card name
A description
The rules
Red herrings

Red Herrings are generally other items that are placed on the board thanks to the card. There are a wide variety of options and most of them are not related to out right killing something. Therefore, the Ulterior Motives are trying to steer players away from just killing each others warband.

Since they are in card form, you can pull the cards out and put them on your side of the table to remind you what Ulterior Motive you have.

Things I Do Not Like
I like the new Treasure placement rules just fine. They are designed to force more movement on the board and warbands to interact a bit more. However, I do not like the fact that the rules are basically re-printed in the Frostgrave Folio.

Once the cards are drawn, you will get a pretty good idea of the Ulterior Motive of your opponent based on what new features or Red Herrings they place on the board. However, this whole mechanic is designed to off set the main weakness of Frostgrave. In addition, the players will have a lot of things to keep track of and focus on. This was intended to force warbands to interact but may do the opposite in actual practice.

The writing on the cards is pretty small and hard to read and small, especially for an old guy.

Meh and Other Uncertainties
I do not plan on reviewing and talking about all the cards in the deck.  After all, there are 40 of them!  Some are better and more fun than others.  Some you reveal so your opponent knows about them and others you keep secret.  A few you need special models or terrain bits for. 

So, this is a nice addition to Frostgrave. It allows the game to remain fresh longer. Plus, it will force players to work differently and think differently about what they are trying to accomplish. This will probably change up game play enough to keep a campaign going or to keep experienced players from drifting off to other games.

As a game designer, the deck of cards will give you additional ideas to make scenarios and secondary objectives for your own games. These complications or secondary objectives are a good way to try and avoid kill them all scenarios.

Overall, this is a good buy even if they are a bit expensive for what they are.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Wargaming on a Budget- Big Box Store Painting Supplies

Paints from a Big Box Retailer

For a long time, I was a poor gamer just trying to get by with whatever I could find to play a few games.  This period of time has definitely influenced my gaming preferences and still sticks with me.  Sure my finances are better, but some of the DIY and “Good-Enough” philosophy has stuck with me.  This time of financial tightness was a bit of a blessing as it forced me to decided exactly how “into” wargaming I really was.  I guess the answer was that I was pretty “into” it.  Far out!

This is not a new topic on the blog, but it is one I like to come back to from time-to-time.  It is best to remember your roots and understand some of the ethos that drives you.  I have talked about it in regards to using Paper Templates, Making Your Own Models, and Using Toys for gaming.  I also plan to someday visit everyone’s favorite topic of doing gaming mats and terrain….. but it is not this day!  I guess you could call that a tease. 

I have always lived in a bit more rural areas, and to source Hobby supplies and specialty items was mostly out of the question.  The closest gaming store was frequently an hour away.  I remember the old GW Mail Order Trolls fondly as that is how I sourced my early models.  Thankfully, the Internet has brought all these wonderful items so much closer and only a few keystrokes away.  However, that hasn’t shaken my desire or interest in re-purposing easily found items for Hobby related items. 

With the relatively recent explosion in “Crafting” hobbies, even big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target are starting to carry a larger selection of craft items.  This includes cheap brushes and acrylic paints.  I have been extensively experimenting with all of these in an attempt to get easier access to supplies at discount prices.  

I am particularly enamored with the paints.  A decent sized bottle of acrylic craft paint runs between .50 cents and a dollar US.  The size also allows you to paint a variety of models with one bottle.  I have painted over 100 this year!  Plus, there is a wide variety of colors to choose from.  Thanks to the low price, easy accessibility, and large bottles I have no qualms mixing and blending it together compared to normal miniature specific paints. 

These cheap paints do have limitations.  These paints are not suited for all models.  There are some they just work better on than others.  Here are some recommendations I consider before using them to paint a model vs. traditional miniature paints…..

1.       Does the model have strong, well-defined detail work?
2.       Is the model supposed to be a bit gribbly or well-used feeling?
3.       Doe sit have a light or dark finish?  
4.       Is it a historical or fantasy model?
5.       Is it a hero/leader or rank and file?

Typically, these paints work better on models with cleaner definition, have a dirtier final look, are fantasy models, want a darker look, and are rank-and-file.  If the model does not fit that definition than I tend to stick with the real mini-paint.

For example, here are some examples and you can see these questions in action:

Boats, terrain, and mat painted with Big Box Acrylics and House paint
Big Box Acrylics mixed with Reaper paints and Big Box Brushes
These guys were Big Box Acrylics.... but they turned out a bit rough. 
More Big Box Acrylics and Brushes
Big Box Acrylics and Brushes again

These were Army Painter Paints.... but Big Box Brushes
These cheap acrylics paints have other limitations too.  They are a bit thicker than Miniature paints and sometimes a 3-to-1 or 2-to-1 mix with clean water helps to thin them out.  Lighter colors tend to need less water to thin them.  This allows a smoother application and thinner layers of paint.  I have even gone up to a 10-to-1 ratio for an ink like effect.  Again, this stuff is dead cheap so it is much “safer” to experiment with. 

Of course, besides miniatures, it is much cheaper and easier to paint bulk terrain pieces and other items with these acrylic paints.  You can still achieve solid painting effects without spending a ton of cash on high quality paints. 

In addition to the cheap acrylic paints, the big box retailers also have a wide variety of brushes now.  Granted, none of them are that great in quality but as the old saying goes, “Quantity has a Quality all its own.” You can get packets of brushes of various sizes from 000 to tank-brush sized for about a US dollar a brush.  That is a pretty good deal.  I find that I can take 2-3 brushes and paint about 15-45 guys with them before they are “dead” or hardly usable.  They then rotate into the Dry Brush or terrain painting brush category.  Of course, then I just open a new pack of brushes that cost me a $5 US and I am ready to start again on the next project. 

Finally, I have had success using plastic spray primer straight from the store.  It is a tad grainier then official “miniature spray”.  However, it covers just as well, can paint as many minis, and is just fine for a solid finished product.  It can take a bit of time to find a “good” plastic primer as any old auto primer often won’t do the job.  Auto primer’s are often too grainy. 

For terrain, there is often a spray finish that will give you the effect a terrain piece needs such as stone, adobe, texture wall, etc.  These can make finishing tedious terrain pieces a snap!  You give it a spray or two and are on your way.  Easy to paint, quick, and cheaper than using even acrylic paints!    

Everything I listed here is easily found at your local Big Box retailer in most communities.  Not only do you save money, but you gain convenience, and ease.  Feel free to go out and give them a shot.  I don’t think you will regret it IF you use them for the appropriate style of project!  

I also like to keep in mind the Arm's Length rule when painting.  If it looks good at arm's length, it is probably ready for the tabletop!  In that case, the supplies form a Big Box store do the job nicely!   

Monday, October 21, 2019

On the Painting Desk- Greeks and Macedonians

If you are a consistent reader of mine, you will recall my goal to finish building a Spartan, Corinthian, and Macedonian army for Men for Bronze in 2019

One advantage of Menof Bronze in my mind is that it uses relatively “small” model numbers to represent mass battles.  Therefore, you can re-fight some famous historical battles but only use 3-8 units.  That is about 30 to 80 models at 28mm scale.  I am a slow painter, but even I think I manage and army or two at that size.  Your average army typically has about 50 models or so of 28mm.  Of course, the game is model and scale agnostic, so you can make it bigger or smaller if you want.  Part of me wants to make a 6mm army where each unit is on 40 x 40 mm bases and each unit is 10 bases.  That would give the “proper” mass battle feel to the rules! 

However, for now I will settle for 28 MM models from Victrix to bulk out my forces.  I have been working on the Macedonians, while my colleague Mr. Nick Heckel; has been working on the Spartan army.  Mr. Heckel painted all the models in the book while I feebly tried to photograph them.  If you have the book, you can see is a much better painter than I am.    

Anyway, if you look at the sample Spartan Army in the book, you will find that it is composed of 2 Elite Hoplite units, a Drilled hoplite unit, and 2 Psiloi to represent helots and javelin men.  That is an army of 50 models.  Mr. Heckel all ready painted 1 Elite Hoplite unit in the past.  He has been working on the Psiloi to go with them. 

Psiloi are lightly armed and armored, but they do have the ability to throw javelins.  They are cheap and are a great way to spend a couple points and bulk out the flanks of your units.  They are great at harassing attacks, moving quickly through terrain, and launching flank or rear attacks on engaged targets.  They can also bulk out a battle line and provide a few additional Arete Points for critical moments.

For my part, I have been working on the Macedonian forces.  The sample army list in the book has two units of Pikeman, a unit of light hoplites, and a Heavy Cavalry unit.  That is about 50 models as well.  I like to make my Macedonian Pike blocks 15 models to give them some extra weight and represent their staying power a bit better.  Mr. Heckel also painted a pike block for the book.

So, that means I had 1 more Pike unit, a light hoplite unit, and Heavy Cavalry unit to build and paint.  I used Victrix miniatures for all my Macedonians.  I decided to start with the Hypasists.  The first thing I did was build my Light Hoplites and Pikeman sans shields. 

From there, I did a test paint for the Corinthian army of the hoplite units using cheap craft paints from my local big box retailer.  I had used these paints successfully on several Blood Bowl teams.  I was hoping to get a successful finish on these Corinthians cheaply and easily…..

…. But I was not pleased with how they turned out.  I invested in a nice, big set of Army Painter paints since the cheap craft paints were not up to the task. 

Now, properly armed with actual miniature paints, I attacked the Hypaspists next….

As you can see, they progressed and eventually turned out just fine.  I still need to figure out the basing, but overall I am happy with them.  This was my first time using shield transfers from Little Big Man Studios.  I am happy with how they turned out and only really had 1 that was a complete mess up that I had to redo.  Therefore, I would say they are easy to use and provide some nice results. 

I also have started painting the 30 Phalangites for the pike blocks.  I have not gotten that far yet, but you can see WIP.  These two blocks of soldiers were a daunting task, but they have gone together and painted up fairly easily.  These Victrix models are painter friendly with clear break points and detail that are forgiving for a unskilled painter like myself.

The Heavy Cavalry are still waiting patiently in the bag.  However, I will hopefully have them all painted up and done before the New Year.  To be honest, painting 10 horses scares me!  I never did do much horse painting before!  

So, onward and upward!  

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: Burrows and Badgers- Osprey Games

I recently got a large order of Osprey Game rules in the mail.  They included titles from the main range of wargames as I am all up-to-date on the Osprey Wargaming Series.  I picked up a wide variety of titles and genres intent on letting my family decide what skirmish game they wanted to try next.  I let them look through the various titles, page through the books, I gave them a quick synopsis of the rules, etc.  At the end of the day, the decision for the next campaign was unanimous.  The winner was….

…. I guess the idea of playing Redwall-esque anthropomorphic animals in a fantasy setting was too much for them.   Therefore, I sat down and decided to give the game a good read through and I figured I might as well give the game the old Blood and Spectacles review in the process.  After all, if my family has their way we will be seeing plenty of this game soon. 

Now, into Northymbria we go…… 

Things I Liked
The characters in this game choose an action to complete.  However, the interesting thing to me is that none of these actions are move.  Instead, moving is built into each action as part of the action.  Therefore, a fight action includes moving, a sprint action includes moving more than a fight action.  Etc.  This is pretty clever, because 9 out of 10 times a player just chooses to move as fast so possible around the board so a Move action is almost never used and is a waste of space in the rules.  Very nifty idea. 

In addition, the game uses animals of various sizes, with base size to denote the size of the animals.  These different animal sizes are integrated petty well into the rules and make sense.  Therefore players can get a feel for the size of the creature with a glance.  Also, the players get a wide selection of animals from dormouse, to rats, to sparrow, to armadillo, up to badgers!  Your warband can have a wide variety of characters represented. 

The magic system is straight forward with various categories and certain warbands can only use some types of magic.  It looks pretty by the numbers, except that each spell has components that amplify the spell.  Component items can be purchased or found in the campaign to help boost your spellcasters’ ability.  This essentially adds a unique resource to manage and a slightly different set of magical effects because of the resources.  This was a clever touch and keeps it feeling appropriate to the setting/genre. 
Art from the book, what a character this is! 

Things I Did Not Like
This game makes use of Hit Points.  As a personal preference I dislike hit points as it makes me track things!  Plus, models do not really degrade as they get worse for wear.  I can see why the decision was made as it helps differentiate the larger creatures from smaller creatures and allows variation in damage from weapons.  However, I do not appreciate the tracking required. 

Like many small scale skirmish games, I feel like the game lacks a bit of punch in the tacticalgameplay.  It is all relatively basic 4Ms and target priority in the early going of the campaign or one-off games.  There is nothing that forces much decision making.  This is a common complaint I have been having with skirmish games lately, that the game itself is relatively tactics free with the campaign elements doing all the heavy lifting for the game.  This is not a complaint specific to this game, but one for many games. 

This chap from the Oathsworn site gets some time in the rulebook too!  

Meh and Other Uncertainties      
This game hits all the basics in vogue for campaign games at the moment.  It has an injury table, resources, limited base-building and upgrades, experience, and skill building.  These are all excellent to have in a campaign heavy game like this.  However, it again felt pretty much by the numbers as it followed the well-worn Necromunda/Mordheim models.  There is a wide enough selection of skills and modifiers to make each critter unique, but most of the variation will be from which animals you initially put in your warband.    

The game has 4 different starting warbands, with a bit of flavor text to give you a feel for how they fit into the setting.  The author did a good job trying to make broad categories that could use a variety of animal types without shoe-horning a player.  They are almost more guidelines as the main differences are a warband special ability and a magic school limitation.  There are also rules for making a warband all of the same critter type.  The simple warband updates should make them feel different enough with minimal extra rules. 

I believe this lecturing lad is from
Starting scenarios are straight forward.  However, you could easily steal scenarios from any other campaign game such as Frostgrave, Broken Legions, Last Days, Outremer:Faith and Blood, etc. to be playable.  I am very glad it does not simply revolve around gaining treasure.  In addition, there are easy catch-up mechanics for new players in the campaign and additional warbands so ne wplayers and one-off groups can join in easily. 

The game does require some of the old polyhedron dice.  Typically I am not a fan of this as it is a barrier to entry.  However, I am starting to see these type of dice at large discount retailers now!  So, this is not as much of an issue.     

The book is dotted with artwork that looks a bit like drawn adaptions of medieval woodcuts of animal heroes.  However, I found the artwork hit and miss.  The paintings of the Oathsworn models however were very eye-catching and made me want to pick them up to play right away! 

My favorite piece of art from the book

Final Thoughts
Really, the game hangs its hat on the genre theme (or hook) of warbands made up of Redwall-esque anthropomorphic animals fighting in a Fantasy setting.  The game is relatively basic beyond and by the numbers beyond that.  However, it is perfectly serviceable at what it does, and the rules do a good job of reinforcing the theme of the game.  I have no doubt my family and I will have a great time deciding the fate of Northymbria and creating heroes of the land.  Those gamers who have had a lot of experience playing campaign and skirmish games maybe a bit let down as there is nothing particularly innovative.  However, there is plenty of scope to create a rollicking set of adventures. 

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Monday, October 7, 2019

Wargame Design: Creating Hooks for Your Game

In this series we have talked extensively about how to build a game from beginning to end. We have talked about coming up with a concept, building out the 4Ms, choosing your Activation method, building Profiles, adding chrome, and playtesting. That is a lot of ground to cover. However, there is one key element that we have touched on only briefly when discussing the concept and the chrome. Ultimately, a game is only as good as its hook.

A hook is exactly what it sounds like. If you think of players as fish, the hook is what element you are going to use to capture a player's attention and make them want to play your game? What is that unique element or “secret sauce” that will catch their eye and give it a try. The wargaming market is a small niche, the indie wargaming market is even smaller. Therefore, the hook for your game is even more important if you ever want anyone to play it.

Generally speaking, a good hook falls into one of the following categories:

  • Concept
  • Theme
  • Mechanics
  • Genre
  • Look

Concept Hook
Concept hooks are very simple, but it is not easy. It is perhaps the most difficult to pull off successfully. You are proposing playing a game like no one has every played before. It is unique in the market and not just a re-hash or variant of a game, genre, time period, etc. that has been played or featured hundreds of times before.

This is the hardest hook to pull off since there is nothing new under the sun, and innovation is over-rated anyway. Essentially, your concept for what the game is about is so compelling that players immediately see it and think, “Wow, I have never played anything like that before!”

An example of a game that uses the Concept Hook is All Quiet onthe Martian Front. It uses a couple ideas such as late steampunk, War of the Worlds, Weird World War, and Assymetrical combat and mixes it together in a unique concept that makes players take notice of it. It is like nothing they have really played before.

Theme Hook
A Theme hook is based on what the game play experience is supposed to be like. You are offering something that a player wants to experience in their gaming life. It is offering to meet a need for the consumer. This could be appealing to tournament play, narrative play, single player, co-op, etc. It is offering a unique hook for game play style itself.

I have two examples for this type of hook. The first is Rangers of Shadowdeep, from the creator of Frostgrave. This game offers a Role-play lite, co-op to single player experience that very few other games offer right now. It wasn't the first to do it, but it is appealing to that theme of a game. You can customize your Ranger, and then send him on a campaign all by yourself or with a small group of like minded players. The whole point is narrative and campaign play.

The second example of this type of hook is Warmachine. From day one, it was focused on having a tight, competitive ruleset. The entire focus was on playing to win by mastering the game mechanics and out playing your opponent via list building and combo-stacking. It never really tried to be anything else, and it was designed to attract a certain type of player.

Both offer very different themes, but ultimately the hook is to appeal to a certain type of player for their game.

Mechanics Hook
This hook is the most common type of hook most wargame designers try to focus on. Wargame designers are fixated on mechanics, so it makes sense that this type of hook is focused on by designers themselves. However, the truth is players are less interested in this type of hook. The entire focus of the hook is using an innovative game mechanic to try and entice players into trying the game.

Two games I can think of that tried this hook were Malifaux and Infinity. In both instances, the initial hook was that it did not use traditional Games Workshop style mechanics and therefore allowed for a different type of game. Malifaux famously used a card flip mechanic and special rule stacking, while Infinity used an “innovative” activation system and stacking special rules to create a different style of game then what the majority of games were offering at the time.

Genre Hook
A genre hook is offering a new take on an existing genre. This is often combined with a Concept hook, but can also be a stand alone. You are basically offering gamers a new way to play a new or existing genre.

The best example of this Hook in action is Flames of War. World War II gaming in 1/72 scale
or 20mm had been going on since World War II ended! However, Flames of War offered a new experience with a structured, methodical, approach to playing at the 15mm scale which allowed bigger forces and more tanks. The genre itself was an old, well-established genre, but the game was offering a new way to play it.

This also applies to offering new “Lore” or background from an existing genre such as Sci-Fi. For example, Battletech offered a new way to tackle Sci-Fi by not having it all shiny and futuristic, but by making it all grim, dirty, and fuedal with giant robots! Again, this was a very different approach to Sci-Fi and acted as a genre hook. A new way to play an old genre.

Look Hook
This is also hard for most game designers to pull off. However, it is about giving your game world and universe a distinctive look unlike anything else on the market. This is all about branding with artwork, fonts, colors, and models. They offer a unique experience from other games out there.

The grand daddy of this approach is Games Workshop with Warhammer40K. It is all about the look and feel of the models themselves. The Fantasy trope extrapolated into the far, far future provided a unique look like no one had seen before. Part of the appeal of wargaming is the spectacle, and Warhammer 40K delivered customize-able spectacle in spades! Of course, now it builds on much more, but the initial hook was the distinctive look and feel of the models and how they reflected the universe they were from.

Hooks in Action
There are literally hundreds of ancient wargames on the market. Therefore, if you are creating a new one you need to have something unique to bring to the table. Why would a player want to change from whatever Ancient game they are playing now and switch to yours? They wouldn't.

Therefore, when I designed Men of Bronze I had to think carefully about what made my game unique? There are actually a couple hooks I built into the rules intentionally to reduce effort to adopt the game AND appeal to existing ancients players.

Scale, model, and base agnostic
This is a Genre Hook. I knew my target audience would mostly have existing armies or be brand new to wargaming. Therefore, they had to be able to use existing models OR easily get models to play with. Hence, the mechanic was designed to allow them to play a genre in a new way.

Arete Points
This is a Mechanic Hook. The idea was to offer the players of the game a new way to simulate command and control on the battlefield. Typically, command and control was overlooked compared to maneuver and flanking. Therefore, I wanted to have a way to accentuate an overlooked aspect of Hoplite combat.

No Figure Removal
This was a Look Hook. I knew that players spent a lot of time painting and building up their collections. No one wants to spend all that time painting, assembling, buying, and setting up a game to simply remove the models within a few seconds of the game starting. Let the models show off for almost the whole game instead!

Hoplite Warfare
Of course, I was interested in Hoplite warfare, but this was also a Genre Hook. This game was not going to be for all periods of Ancients. Instead, it was going to offer a play experience unique to the Hoplite period and focus on those aspects of wargaming unique to that warfare such as Phalanxes, focus on shock melee, the grinding and pushing of hoplite combat, etc.

Those are some of the basic examples of Hooks I placed in the game to make potential players sit-up and take notice of this game and think..... “Wow, I want to try this game.”

Without a hook, why would anyone want to play your game? What will differentiate it from the raft of other wargames out on the market? If you do not have an answer, then your game is not ready. Go back and review the rules, concept, chrome, etc and think about where you have or can input hooks. If all you have is the 4Ms, then you are overlooking a key point of game design.

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