My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Remote Game of Age of Penda

Revisiting My Age of Penda Review

I used to review rules with giving a playtest, simply analyzing the rules on paper. That was a big mistake when I rated the rules The World Turned Upside Down. The analysis was so off, that I am not even going to link to the old blog post. The ideas on paper looked so compelling, but the game was unplayable, in my opinion, unless you had the author (or maybe a veteran player from the author's group) present and guiding you through the murky bits.

I knew I wanted to review Age of Penda (AoP) because the rules were exactly what I was looking for: grid-based; Dark Ages; any basing scheme; simple to learn; and a game that required some planning, even if it was short-term. But, given the TWTUD disaster I knew I had to play it first, to make sure that what I thought about it on a read-through matched how it felt in a game. But, I played it solo.

Why is solo gaming an issue? Normally it isn't, but sometimes, when a ruleset is written simply and plainly, you have an interpretation of the rules that might not be shared. I have one rating category that is affected by this idea of shared understanding, i.e. is a rule written so clearly that two different people generally interpret it the same, and that is the Tournament Tight™️ rating. I gave AoP a rating of 4 and, after playing a game of it remotely with remote gaming buddy Shaun Travers, I think I have to lower it to a 3.

So, what are the issues?

Suggestions, Not Directives

There are a number of minor quibbles about how to do some things, like building an army, setting up a board, who goes first, and so on. The rules are written with several alternatives to handling the topics with one particular method that seems to be what the author prefers. But it is not always crystal clear.


What terrain types there are and how it affect movement and combat is all pretty clear. What terrain is to be used follows along the lines of "place the terrain as indicated in the scenario, but if you don't have a scenario, use this random generation method instead." Again, it is not hard to figure out what to do, it just seems like and afterthought rather than the method to use unless you have set up a scenario. (Have you tried searching for a map of the battlefield, or an order of battle, for a battle in 7th Century Britain?) Minor quibble, I know.


This one is a little more unusual. When I think of deployment, especially the typical game mechanic of alternating deployment, I envision "I place one unit, you place one unit" and so on until all units are deployed (or designated as an off-board reinforcement. But the phrasing in the rules are "… take it in turns to deploy your units into one area at a time". To me, this sounds like you designate an area on your baseline and then place all of the units that will deploy there. Once you have deployed to an area, no subsequent units can be added to it.

Now some might read it as "one unit at a time", but to me the subject is the "area". But then again, I know I have issues with Phil Barker's wording in De Bellis Antiquitatus and he is very precise with his wording, so my my English comprehensive is simply not good enough. Then again, when I pointed this out Shaun agreed that it does seem to be saying one area at a time, so I felt better about what I see as a non-standard game mechanic.

In a way, I like it because it makes you think in terms of groupings of units, and you have to do that before the first unit, I mean area, is deployed. Who is under which leader's command?


In AoP all battling is done by area. When you shoot you add up the Battle Ratings (BR, not Battle Strength or BS, like I indicated in the original post) of everyone shooting into the designated area, with close combat you add up the BR of all units on your side in the area, and when you take damage it is inflicted on the enemy in that area; the owning player allocates the damage to the units.

If you rally the rules say to "select one area with units in it that belong to you and where at least one of these units has lost Battle Rating at any previous time during the game". It then instructs you to "roll a dice for each such [wounded] unit". Based upon the die roll you will regain 0-2 BR. The issue is that it says "regain n Battle Rating", not "regain n Battle Rating on that unit". So, does the player apply the BR to the unit or to the area, the latter allowing the player to choose how to apply the BR? If this is not clear, here is an example.

King Penda decides to rally. He has three units (with remaining BR): Armored Warriors with Leader (5); Armored Warriors (3), and Skirmishers (1). All three have lost BR. The player rolls 3D6 and scores for each, respectively, 0 regained, 1 regained, and 2 regained. (Note that the Skirmishers started with 2, had lost only 1, but rolled to regain 2.) If you apply the rolls to the unit then the Armored Warriors with Leader regain 0, the Armored Warriors regain 1, and Skirmishers regain 1 (as the BR can never go above the original value), for a total of 2 regained. If you apply the rolls to the area (like you do with damage), then you regain 3, and you can allocate it any way you choose as long as no unit ends with more BR than they started with initially. These are two significantly different results.

Shaun and I chose to apply it to the unit, i.e. point to a unit in the area, roll the die, and then apply the result to that unit. I am beginning to suspect that it should be the area. Yes, you have to manage the number of BR each unit has, but the rules intent is to abstract away as many specifics about a unit as possible, like facing, formation, position in the battle line, etc. Applying it to the area is more in the spirit of the rules and doesn't have this 'gambling' aspect to it, i.e. losing good rolls to lightly damaged units or not getting the unit you want rallied. If you can protect a unit from damage, why can't you favor a unit for rally?

Moving From an Enemy-Occupied Area

This rule was not ambiguously written, the rules were very clear: you must keep track of each unit's area that they moved from, when moving into a new area. Why?

Because the rule for moving out of an area containing enemies require your unit to move back into the area from which it entered, it’s a good idea to place units angled to represent their entry point, or remaining alongside the edge through which they entered the area.

This rule creates so many issues and does not logically follow the design the author put forth in the first place. Here are some examples.

A unit’s precise location within an area is unimportant for all other aspects of the rules.

Why are there no outflanking rules?

Outflanking is factored in when you roll dice for all of your units in an area. My vision, streamlined here like so many aspects of these rules, is that enemy units will not allow themselves to be outflanked unless they are outnumbered and therefore cannot face all of their enemies at once. Rolling dice for all of your units doesn’t just represent them fighting, but also the effect of pinning their enemy’s front while other units approach the weaker sides. Strength in numbers and all that!”

“Unit facing does not affect shooting.

Note that units do not need to be in base-to-base contact to fight one another, just in the same area. It is assumed that your on-the-spot commander will place their unit in the correct position; as you are your army’s warlord, you don’t need to worry about this. That said, feel free to move units within the area to suit your taste – putting opposing units in contact makes no difference in play but we all know it looks correct and your dice roll better if you do so.

So facing, positioning, and flanks don’t matter because it is all abstracted away, but the army general is supposed to track which area each unit comes from in order to specify a retreat path?!? And note that it does require it even if the area was not occupied by the enemy when you entered the area; if they are there now, your previous line of march is what matters. In a ruleset that doesn't pin units exact position and formation.

Shaun initially viewed this movement restriction as something akin to DBA's rule on blocking retreats. That never occurred to me, especially as there was no language in the rules about blocking movement (other than area capacity for three units from each side). There are certainly no 'automatic destruction' rules like DBA has for blocking retreats. But it was an interesting idea.

Well, Shaun and I thought it fiddly when we tried our test games, but we decided to play it straight for our remote game and we have now decided to discard the rule and replace it with this one:

If beginning a Move action in an area with enemy units present, you may only move to an adjacent area that does not contain enemy units, i.e. you can't move directly from an enemy-occupied area to an adjacent enemy-occupied area.

This takes away the hassle of tracking this information for each unit while keeping to the spirit of allowing flexible movement. We considered a rule that says you must move towards your baseline, but then would have had to add another rule that indicates what you do if the area is enemy-occupied. This is simpler. Needs to be tested though.

Who Holds Initiative

Who holds the initiative is a very important aspect of these rules. The player with initiative makes the first pick on the tactic chart in the Tactics Phase and makes the first action in the Action Phase. Given that close combat allows you to strike first, with your opponent striking back with whomever survived, being first is a strong advantage.

Now the rules are clear on who holds initiative at the start of the game. (The player with the most mounted and skirmishers has initiative for the first turn. If tied, roll a die.) It is also clear that you seize (or retain) the initiative if you choose the tactic Seize the Initiative. What is not clear is who holds the initiative if no one chooses to use one of their four precious tactics tokens to play Seize the Initiative.

There are really four possibilities: 1) whomever currently holds the initiative retains the initiative (I've got it so I keep it); 2) initiative passes to the other player (I did not maintain the momentum); 3) initiative is determined by the rule that determined initiative for turn 1 (count remaining mounted and skirmishers, highest gets it); and 4) randomly determine who gets it. Honestly, I have seen all four mechanics in various rules.

There is nothing in the rules that would suggest #4 was correct, however. The rule for first turn initiative states "for the first turn", so unless there was a rule that states "use the rule for determining initiative on turn one", that seems a less likely choice. So the only logical choice are retain and pass. Therein lies the issue. The rule for the Seize the Initiative action states:

"If you have selected this tactic, follow these rules when you activate it:

  • Taking this action allows you to take (or retain) the Initiative from the start of the next turn. You may wish to use a marker to keep track of who holds the Initiative.
  • In some scenarios, this tactic can also be used to trigger a "special event" such as dicing for reinforcements, inspiration from praying by monks, and so on. (Chapter 4 suggests some ideas.)"

The confusing part is the phrase "… allows you to take (or retain) …". It implies that if you don't take the action you are not guaranteed to retain the initiative. But if you do not automatically retain it, then how do you determine who has it? There is another irritatingly worded rule in the Phases of Play:

"3. End Phase. Check victory conditions and end the game now if these have been fulfilled. Otherwise, check which player holds the initiative for the next turn and begin it."

If initiative is automatically retained, if no one chooses the Seize the Initiative action, why would it tell you to "check". Again, how do you check? (It has a rule for turn 1, hence why I felt it was option 3.)

The phrase "… if you have selected this tactic …" is also key here in that the only mention in a rule of taking the initiative is in this rule. So taking the initiative, other than the initial determination for turn 1, requires you selecting that tactic.

In the end Shaun convinced me to go with initiative is retained if it is not explicitly seized by your opponent.


While I now think the rules are a little less clear than before (when no one was disagreeing with me), I also realize that there is more uncertainty built into the system.

As a solo player it is hard to surprise yourself. (I even wrote about the subject on my Solo Battles blog, which Shaun and I batted back and forth in the comments.) But this game (below) opened my eyes about the uncertainty that I forget about because I am playing both sides and it is hard to divorce your mind from considering the impact to one side while making a decision for the other side.

One element of uncertainty that has a large impact on the game is random terrain generation and placement by the players. I had two woods in my test game (plus a hill) and I let the dice essentially place the woods out of play. Players won't do that.

Another element is deployment. (Both Shaun and I admitted that when we played our solo test games we simply laid out one side completely, then laid out the other. We didn't follow the process.)

Finally, the process of selecting tactics actually produces less uncertainty than I thought initially, but it does produce some, surrounding who will spend their precious tactics point to seize (or retain) the initiative. But for the most part, tactics selection is pretty formulaic.

For these reasons I am changing the Uncertainty rating of Age of Penda from 3 to 4.


So, what does all this mean? I think I have to change my Tournament Tight™️ rating for AoP from a rating of 4 to a 3 and the Uncertainty rating from 3 to a 4. With a few changes to the wording – which may or may not reflect the intent of the author – I think you can get the former to a 5.

The rules are still very much recommended.

Remote Gaming

In a comment on the last blog post Martin Rapier mentioned remote gaming which, given that Shaun is in Australia and I am in the USA, is what we had to do. Our setup was to use a private Discord server for voice, chat, and image sharing (from our cameras) and an online die roller for rolling dice and logging actions sequentially. The die roller is nice because AoP uses a 'bucket of dice against a target number' combat mechanic so you can type something like #14D6E4, for example, and it will roll 14 D6 and count the number of dice that were 4+. There are all kinds of dice codes to simplify die rolling.

We continued to use Rolz because it is the tool we used when we played One-Hour Wargames by email. We could roll the dice when it was our turn, tell the other person it was their turn, then they could confirm the transcribe the results on the copy of the map they were keeping. Plus it keep a log of the action, so you can write comments like "Attacking with the Knights from A4 to B3" and then follow it immediately with a die roll.

I considered using my iPhone for video – gaming buddy Justo and I did that once – but it was a pain to get pointed in the correct direction so it covered the map yet wasn't in the way of me gaming. So instead I just took picture of my copy of the board after each action and uploaded it to the Discord channel.

As you can see in the image above, I decided to use painted Jenga wooden blocks to represent the unit. I did this not because I don't have any well-painted or appropriate figures. I do. But I think it is very hard to figure out what is going on when you are trying to first figure out what exactly you are looking at.

In the picture above it is clear that once side is blue and the other side is red and white. The white blocks are red's mounted troops, the medium red are their unarmored warriors, and the dark red their armored warriors. Blue's mounted troops are brown and blue (dark brown being the leader), light blue are skirmishers, and medium blue are unarmored warriors. This makes it easy to discern who is what.

Not to knock Shaun's setup, but to illustrate the point, this is his version of the same starting deployment.

I think the unarmored warriors at the top are three figures to a base versus four being armored warriors. If only one of us were keeping track of the movements and the other player was playing remotely, with no setup on their side, I know which version I would rather use. Are my blocks as aesthetically pleasing as miniatures? No. My they are more easily identifiable through a remote camera. Nonetheless, I would like to hear from you that do remote gaming, how do you do it (exactly) and what challenges have you faced (besides people actually following through and doing it)? Put them in the comments or hit me up on Twitter/X where I am @DalesWargames.

The Game

I decided to try a little experiment. My first game was a pretty standard Normans versus Anglo-Saxons, except that I was at a 60 point game (rather than the standard 80). The second game was a little different. I tried a Viking raiding force against Anglo-Saxons, but the Vikings chose a superior Warlord for 20 points, leaving them with 60 points of troops. The Anglo-Saxons had the standard Warlord and applied the full 80 points to troops.

The basic formula for AoP is that every two points grants you one Battle Rating (BR). So a standard army is always 41 BR (the extra 1 point is your free Warlord). If you take a superior Warlord you are essentially giving up 10 BR, or ¼ of your combat power in exchange for one tactics token each turn. Is it worth it? Well, the Vikings lost, but AoP is a very dice-heavy game so it could have been bad luck. On the other hand  dice are generated by BR so the more BR the army has, the more dice it gets to throw and more hits it gets to absorb.

That said, I decided to give a superior Warlord a try again. Also, I wanted to try and maximize the advantage of mounted warriors and skirmishers as both of those troop types share two special tactics: Rush, or the ability to move two squares; and Skirmish, or the ability to shoot then retreat one square. So my army was as follows:

  • King of Strathclyde (brilliant leader) at the head of a Mounted Warrior unit
  • Three additional Mounted Warrior units
  • Two Skirmisher units
  • Two Unarmored Warrior units

As a note, I misread the unit selection rules. I did not read that Skirmishers can only make up ⅓ of your army, at most. My original plan was four Mounted Warriors and five Skirmishers. But when Shaun pointed out the rule (in a QRS he wrote up) I quickly changed three Skirmishers for two Unarmored Warriors about 5 minutes before the game.

Shaun went with a Frankish force (I believe he said), with the following:

  • Dux Travers leading an Armored Warrior unit
  • One additional Armored Warrior unit
  • Three Mounted Warrior units
  • Five Unarmored Warrior units

Here was the board, terrain placement, and troop deployment.

The dark green blobs are woods. There is no other terrain on the board.

The blue forces are the Strathclyde troops and the Franks are in red. Blocks with thick, brown outlines indicating the Mounted Warrior units, those with a yellow outline indicate the unit with the commanders. The medium color blocks are Unarmored Warrior units, the dark color blocks are Armored Warriors, and the light colored blocks are Skirmishers.

I should start by saying that the last minute change to my army list wrecked my initial plan and rattled me. I deployed poorly (as you will understand in a moment).

My plan was to move my Skirmishers into the woods using a Rush. As it happens, this also allows Mounted Warriors to move at the same time. So with four Mounted Warriors and five Skirmishers I would have captured the woods in C3 and had all of my Mounted Warriors anchoring their flanks on both sides of the woods in row C. Instead, because I deployed my Unarmored Warriors with my Mounted Warriors, one unit per area, I ended up leaving the two Unarmored Warriors on the baseline, in two areas no less, requiring two Move actions later to try and recover from the situation. Instead, I should deployed with each area having only two units, keeping the two Unarmored Warriors together. Details, details…

The other lesson for why I should play a game with another player before doing a formal review is because sometimes I don't take certain actions because they don't make sense to me, even if they are allowed in the rules. For example, the idea of a line of Warriors on foot charging into a woods is just something I would not have done, leaving the woods as an anchor or moving troops in slowly. I definitely would not have thought about using Charge or Rush to allow Mounted Warriors to do so. But both of those actions are allowed. When Shaun did it I was surprised. I didn't say anything because I knew it was allowed and that I had simply put blinders on because of rules I have played in the past. It is things like that, your own personal biases due to rules you have played previously, that can distort your thinking about a new set of rules. My problem is that I just get so excited about a ruleset that I want to share it.

Continuing on – you've probably guessed at what happened – because the Skirmisher firepower had been lowered from 10 dice (five units firing from two areas) to 4 dice, my shooting was much more ineffective. Further, when he charged his Armored Warriors into my woods, the odds were fairly good that he was going to wipe out the Skirmishers and they would not even get a return attack. Even if they did, it would be very weak unless Shaun got very unlucky.

With the Skirmishers gone and my forces scattered across the board (six units in four separate areas), it felt like what happens to me in DBA. My lack of discipline at keeping my groups together means it takes more actions (PIPs in DBA) to control the force. At least I had the extra tactics token.

What was interesting was that – save for the first turn – our pattern of tactics selection was nearly always the same.

  • Dale: Special Tactics
  • Shaun: Special Tactics
  • Dale: Rally
  • Shaun: Battle
  • Dale: Battle
  • Shaun: Move
  • Dale: Move
  • Shaun: Move
  • Dale: Move

Here is a reminder of what the Tactics Chart looks like. Recall that each player alternates placing tokens and only one player may place one token in any given box, i.e. the action in that box can only be used once, by one player.

Why this pattern? Once I selected Special Tactics if Shaun chose anything other than Special Tactics then he would have been denied a Charge that turn. That is why he did not get to Rally until he Seized the Initiative. The third play is always Rally, if only to deny the enemy a chance to rally or as a safety move if a battle goes poorly.

Same with Battle. Once someone chooses Battle the next player's play must be to grab the second Battle otherwise they could be hit up to three times where their opponent strikes first.

Every so often I would hear Shaun pause on his fourth selection, and I would always say "thinking about whether you should take Seize the Initiative?" He was. It comes at a painful price, especially when it effectively lowered him to three actions while I would have played five. With two Move Actions I could have moved two areas away, denying him the ability to Charge me as the first action next turn.

At least in theory. Because of the broken rule where you have to move out of an enemy-occupied area to the area you came from previously it made for some strange moves.

Long story short, my Mounted Warriors wiped out his Mounted Warriors, but were blown from the combat. His Armored Warriors followed up behind his mounted and wiped out half of my mounted in turn. That left me with an even combat, which I did not want to risk. So I went after his troops that were isolated while he went after mine. Eventually he ended up with two foot blobs hiding in the woods and my mounted circling, looking for an opening to charge him out in the open. Eventually it came and I rolled poorly on my dice, and ended up so wounded I could not sufficiently rally, even with having that action all but one turn.

I was down to where I had three BR left, one for each of the remaining units, so my King decided to retreat with the mounted troops, leaving the Fyrd behind to cover the retreat. They were quickly eliminated and my army routed from the board. It had been a very bloody battle.

Honestly, it felt right. Cavalry pretty much being blown after a single charge in which they don't overrun the enemy. The woods dominating the battlefield.

What didn't feel right were the movement rules previously discussed. That is why Shaun and I have decided to change them for the next game. What also did not feel right to me was mounted being able to charge or rush through woods, and non-skirmisher foot being able to charge into woods. Maybe that is just the influence from other rules, but I still see these as formations, even if the details of handling those formations is abstracted away. Even though it adds complexity, I would like to see those additions.

Finally, AoP has a very restricted troop selection process. Skirmishers must always be 2 BR/four points and Mounted Warriors must always be 5B/10 points. Given that every troop type is two points per BR, why not allow a range of values of each troop type? Mounted Warriors at 5 BR means they are always heavy cavalry. For Age of Penda, that just isn't right. There were plenty of cultures that had lighter cavalry.

Had I been allowed my army selection would have been: two Armored Mounted Warriors (5 BR each); six Unarmored Mounted Warriors (3 BR each); and four Skirmishers (3 BR each). This would have given me my 31 BR (counting the 1 for the Leader) and my ratio of 1 Skirmisher for every 2 Warriors. I think that would have better represented my concept of Strathclyde (which is heavily based on what the Saga rules say they should be).

Game Summary

Gaming with Shaun opened my eyes to some of the rules and concepts that I took for granted, some of which were incorrectly interpreted. The longest discussion Shaun and I had regarding the game was whether taking the extra tactics token for 20 points was worth it. Well, because we were using the online die roller that logged all of the rolls we can look at some statistics.

To HitHitsDice% HitHitsDice% Hit

The first thing of note is that the deficit of having 10 BR fewer troops than Shaun meant I rolled far less dice; 77 versus 108. That basically tracks in that I had an army 75% the size that he had. But that also shows the damage. I took 46 hits on an army with 31 hit points (overkills were still counted) while he took 34 hits on an army with 41 hit points (again, counting overkill hits). Any claim I might have on 'bad luck' is simply not born out. The telling effect was that the weight of numbers seem to far outweigh any value of having an extra tactical token. That token does not allow you to generate any more hits.

Funny, Shaun and I were discussing whether the extra token was worth 20 points or less. It has to be worth something, but it definitely doesn't seem worth 20 points to me. Then again, my deployment and play was flawed, so another test is in order.

I definitely see a lot of possibilities with these rules, including carrying it out to the Horse & Musket era and a WWII infantry game where players command about a company, plus additional assets (a tank, ATG, or off-board artillery).

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Dan Mersey's 'You Command' Series

The 'You Command' Series of Rules

Dan Mersey, who wrote the titles Song of Arthur and MerlinLion Rampant, Dux Bellorum, and The Wargamer's Guide to the Desert War 1940-1943, along with many others, has a series of wargame rules called You Command. They are billed as "a series of light miniature wargames. When you play a 'You Command' game your goal is to defeat your opponent by out-thinking them tactically using the innovative Tactics Chart and then by out-fighting their model army on the tabletop battlefield."

Each of the titles have progressed to a "big battle" gridded wargame where the player represents the top of the command chain, the overall Commander. As such your role is to choose where and how to focus your troops and control the battle's momentum, ignoring the minutiae of unit-level tactics or the exact armament of your troops. (Put another way, a lot of tactical detail is abstracted out of the rules.) The battle is fought out on the tabletop as well as the Tactics Chart. Your focus is on winning at the highest tactical level rather than getting lost in the details of weapon types and armor saves.

Troop types are very broad and dependent upon the period you are playing. (So far they are the Dark Ages Britain, Medieval Britain, and WW II, although the WW II version and the earliest Medieval version is not played on a grid.) For Dark Ages there are four unit types: Mounted, Armored Foot, Unarmored Foot, and Skirmisher. For Medieval he expands it to Knights, Sergeants, Foot Knights, Spears, Long Spears, Warriors, Missiles, and Levy. The troop type essentially indicates two things: its starting Battle Strength; and the special rules that apply to it.

Battle Strength (BS) is the heart of the combat system. A top-tier unit starts with a BS of 5 (+1 if your Commander is attached to that unit), second-tier has a value of 3, and the lowest tier has a value of 2. The BS represents not only the number of hits a unit can take, but its offensive power. In combat the unit will roll a number of dice equal to their current BS. Thus, as units take hits their BS is reduced and they roll fewer dice when they attack. Combat is a simple roll of your attack dice, requiring a 4+ to hit (5+ if they are in cover or a Shieldwall). Note that combat is by area (square) so you add up all of your units' BS values and roll that many dice, counting hits. Your opponent then removes that many BS from their units in the area, i.e. they choose how to distribute the damage. Once a unit's BS is reduced to 0, the unit is removed from the board. (In this regard, it has a very similar mechanic to One-Hour Wargames (OHW). Unlike OHW, however, your offensive power goes down as your hits go up.)

As indicated earlier, the table is gridded with squares, but they are offset. (The author admits that you can use hexes if you want.) As you will see in my test game I used a regular square grid. Although I don't think it matters greatly, it could if there are large numbers of ranged troops involved.

The field of battle is rather small, being 5 rows by 4-5 columns. However, each square must be large enough to contain up to three of your units and three enemy units. So when I played using my homemade 12mm troops, I was using 6" squares as my troops are on 3" x 1 ½" bases. Still, this allows me to use a gameboard as small as 30" square, which is very convenient as my local gaming store's tables are 30" deep.

Terrain in an area affects the entire area, not matter how much of the area it covers. Here is how the terrain breaks down.

Woods and Villages: the defender in ranged and close combat are hit on a 5+, while the attacker is hit on a 4+.

Hills: the defender in close combat are hit on a 5+, while the attacker is hit on a 4+.

Note that the "attacker" is the side that is shooting into the area (even if they are already in that area). In close combat it is the one that initiated the close combat (and thus strikes first). These designations can change from combat to combat, depending upon who initiated the combat.

Also note that a Shieldwall (see later) overrides this attacker/defender difference. When a Shieldwall is employed, both sides hit on a 5+.

Streams, Fords, and Marshland: these areas impede movement. To move out of one of these areas each individual unit must roll a 4+ on 1D6 in order to succeed (failure means the unit stays in the area).

Deep Streams and Deep Marshes: these areas impede movement as indicated for Streams, Fords, and Marshlands above, and affect combat as per Hills.

Rivers: these areas are impassable to all units.

Bridges: count as open terrain across Streams, Deep Streams, and Rivers.

So I have covered all of the basic parts, now let's get to the most important part, command and control, or his Tactics Chart.

First off, the Tactics Chart is period specific. This one is for Age of Penda (Dark Ages Britain), but most are very similar. The 'secret sauce' tends to be in the Special Tactic boxes.

The game has a pretty simple turn sequence. One player has the initiative and is designated as the first player. The first phase is the Tactics Phase. Each player is given two to five tokens based on their Commander's competence. Starting with the first player each place one of their tokens on one of the squares above. You may not choose a square already containing a token, thus there are a limited number of actions you might be allowed. Once both players have placed all of their tokens, the game moves to the Actions Phase.

During the Actions Phase, starting with the first player, they pick up one of their tokens from the Tactics Chart and take the action indicated on that square. Players continue to alternate until all tokens are removed. A player cannot pass by not taking a token, but they can choose not to perform the designated action.

The last phase is the End Phase. This is where you determine if the scenario's victory conditions have been met, and if not, if the initiative changed hands.

The Tactics Phase

Here are the basics for each Tactic.

Seize the Initiative: Because the player with initiative selects tactics first, and plays their action first, having the initiative can be very important when the action gets hot. Is it worth spending one of your tactics token to ensure you get the initiative next turn?

Shoot: this allows you to target one area with ranged combat. Shooting distance is up to one square so every firing unit adjacent to the selected area can fire on it. If the target area contains friendly units, however, only the missile units in that area may fire.

Rally: all friendly units in the designated area may recover Battle Strength. Roll a D6 for each unit and reference a table to see whether you recover 0-2 BS.

Battle: all friendly units in the designated area may attack the enemy in the same area. Once they roll and damage is assessed, the enemy units get to battle back if they were not eliminated.

Move: all friendly units in the designated area may move one area. Units do not all have to move to the same area.

Special Tactic: this is a catch-all for allowing the game designer to add period flavor and specific tactics where he wants to limit the usage. A good example is "Shieldwall", which means that all combat in the designated area requires a 5+ to hit. Another is a "Charge", which is a combination of a Move and Battle in one action. (Moving into an area with the enemy does not automatically trigger close combat. You must play a Battle tactic to initiate close combat.)

Because you are limited to only placing one token in any given square, claiming a tactic also denies it from your opponent. Sometimes you will find yourself claiming a tactic that you cannot use at the moment, but might use in reaction to your opponent's actions, or simply you don't want them to take that action. Good examples are "Rally" and "Seize the Initiative", which only have one box each.

The Actions Phase

As with the Tactics Phase the Action Phase starts with the first player using one of the tactics tokens. Once that action is fully resolved the second player uses one of the tactics tokens. This continues until all tactics tokens have been used.

These rules do not use the usual rules for activation. A unit can take as many actions as the player has tokens, if he chooses. The player could, for example, select the "Move" tactic four times and then during this phase use that action on the area containing the unit, effectively allowing it to move four squares that turn.

Most actions complete immediately, i.e. you fully resolve it before moving on to the next action. However some actions last through to the end of the turn, like "Shieldwall". There are very few of the latter, however.


Comparing these rules to something like OHW you can see a lot of differences, despite both combat systems being relatively simple. OHW versus You Command.

  • Activate all units versus only a limited number of units.
  • One action per unit (move or shoot) versus potentially multiple actions per unit to no actions.
  • Close combat occurs automatically when a unit moves or is already in contact with an enemy unit versus being a separate action which can occur more than once per turn.
  • Unit loses no offensive combat power as it takes hits versus direct correlation between damage and offensive power of a unit.
  • I would say one uses freeform movement and the other a grid, but I have long converted OHW (and some players) to a grid!
  • Fixed sized army versus points-based army.
  • Fixed player order versus shifting player order.
  • 1D6 with modifiers for combat versus buckets of dice.
  • Straight IGO-UGO versus alternating unit/area activation.
I am sure there are more, but that is a good start.

Test Game – Age of Penda

Age of Penda (AoP) is the Dark Ages Britain version of Dan Mersey's You Command series. It was published in 2021 and follows Scottorum Malleus and Scottorum Malleus IV, both Medieval Britain versions in the You Command series. (The other two in the series are Armour Storm (WW II) and Arrowstorm (Scottorum Malleus updated).)

First let me state that I did not play it straight. (Bad Dale!) I did not make a gridded offset square gameboard, but simply used my 6" square grid gaming cloth. I don't believe it made a difference, but I will discuss why later.

Secondly, I did not have enough troops for a 'standard' sized game – 80 points – suggested by the author. Mine was smaller at 60 points. (There was a 20 point option I could have selected for both sides to fudge it, but that just seemed silly.) I honestly don't think this made any difference. The author indicates a game is typically 6-12 units, and both sides had the minimum count.

Thirdly, I had no missile troops. In AoP the only troops that can normally fire are Skirmishers, and I did not have any made yet. I do have 15mm DBA Dark Ages armies that I could have used, but they do not mesh well with my 12mm wooden troops, so I went without shooting. Because of this lack of shooting I don't think using a normal square grid affected play. Only shooting combat take place from area to area, so an offset grid means a unit can be attacked from six adjacent areas. Given that the enemy is likely to be coming from your front that is more realistically only from two adjacent areas. But a normal square grid means attacks can come from eight areas, or three from the front. So I can see where this difference could be significant. All future games will be on an offset grid, as the author intended.

The Scenario

Come on. Kill the enemy, of course. Per the rules an army with 6-7 units routs when it is down to two Warrior units or less, while all larger armies route when down to three Warrior units or less. (Note that only Skirmisher units are not counted as Warrior units, and neither side had Skirmishers.) So the Normans lose when two units remain and the Anglo-Saxons at three units remaining.

The Map

As it so happens, all of my randomly rolled and placed terrain ended up on the edges. The hill did come into play, however.

Turn 1

The Normans started with initiative as they had more mounted and skirmisher units than the Anglo-Saxons did (3 to 1). I placed the tactics dice as indicated in the figure below. (Normans will use white dice and the Anglo-Saxons green dice. The number of pips indicate the first, second, third, and fourth placement if you are curious, but have no significance in the game.)

As it was the first turn I did not really care if the Normans retained the initiative. However, as I was pondering the Anglo-Saxon (hereafter referred to as 'AS') placement, I thought that them seizing might allow them to control the Tactics Chart (TC), as that is when combat will likely begin. Further, by grabbing the Battle tactics, if the Normans did engage on the first turn, the AS might be able to strike first. Finally, if there were casualties, the AS could recover with the Rally tactic. Then again, if no combat occurred it would not be much of a loss as the AS intended to keep their right flank anchored to the hill.

The Normans begin with a Special Tactic called "Rush", which allows mounted and skirmisher units in one area to move two squares rather than the normal one.

The AS spend their Seize the Initiative token and calmly wait. The Normans move their Foot forward.

The AS see that the Normans still have one Special Tactic available, so they could do another "Rush" with the mounted units. They decide to burn one of the Battle tactics as they continue to wait.

The Normans do indeed "Rush" with their mounted units, moving two squares to be in the same area as the AS cavalry. Note that close combat does not automatically occur just because the units are in the same area as the enemy.

That said, the AS play Battle so that they can attack first, before any Normans can battle back. The AS have a BS of 5 and thus roll 5 dice looking for a 4+. They score 3 hits. This lowers the Normans BS from 16 to 13, so they only roll 13 dice in return, also requiring a 4+. They score 3 hits also. (Ouch!)

Note that when the Normans took the three hits they could distribute the hits amongst the three units however they wished. As I learned later, you never want to reduce a unit to 0 unless absolutely necessary as the unit is removed and cannot be rallied.

The Normans used their last move to advance the foot troops. The AS tried to Rally the cavalry, but did not succeed. The AS cavalry is badly damaged having only 2 BS remaining.

Turn 2

With the AS having the initiative, here is the tactical play. The AS want to retain the initiative, so that is their first play. The AS were also able to lock up all the Special Tactics and one of the Battle, but at the cost of not getting a Rally. They could have gotten a Rally, but as the cavalry is so outnumbered it did not seem worth it. However, they could have taken it to deny the Norman cavalry a change to recover. I am already liking the impact that a player's decisions have on play. They are meaningful and impactful to the game's results.

The AS decide to use their Battle against the Norman cavalry. It may not be much, but at least they get to strike first. They inflict one hit before the 12 dice in return obliterates them.

The Normans move their foot troops forward, sending one unit up on the hill to check the two AS levy units there from making a flank attack against the advancing Normans at the base of the hill.

The AS foot, see the victorious Norman cavalry rout the cavalry covering their flank, use a Special Tactic to "Form Shieldwall!". Note there are special rules that dictate whether a unit can form shieldwall, such as there being no mounted or skirmisher units in the area when it is formed. From that point until the end of the turn, all combat in this area requires a 5+ to hit. (As an aside, I got this incorrect initially, thinking that only the units in shieldwall benefit from the 5+ cover, but that is not the intent. All combat slows down when the shieldwalls go up.)

The Norman cavalry uses a Move tactic to enter the area with the shieldwall. Combat does not occur yet.

The AS use the Special Tactic "Drive Them Back". This is essentially a Battle tactic but the attacking units get 1 extra die per unit. This allows the shieldwall to inflict 4 hits while only receiving 2 in return. (Although, I am pretty sure I played it wrong, with the Normans hitting on 5+ while the AS hit on 4+. Oh well.)

The Normans used Rally first, then used their only Battle tactic to hit the shieldwall again. With only 4 BS to the two AS units, the shieldwall quickly collapses and the units rout.

Things are really looking bad for the Anglo-Saxons. That said, the Norman cavalry is fairly blown. They have slowly been whittled down by four successive combats. The next units in the AS line are the Warlord and his Huscarls, and they are fresh (11 BS).

Turn 3

The AS still have initiative but this time they want to lock out the Normans, if at all possible. They start by locking down the Special Tactics blocks while the Normans Seize the Initiative and Rally blocks. Once the  AS had taken one of the Battle blocks the Norman had to ask himself, was it really worth grabbing the last Battle? Without moving first there was no one to fight.

The AS have an advantage on the hill, so I decide to try a "Charge" (Special Tactic), which requires that you first Move at least one square, then Battle, all in one action. Note that this is two units versus one or 6 BS versus 3. But, because it is a hill, the attackers hit on a 5+ and the defenders on a 4+. So the weight of numbers did not help much; both sides inflicted one hit.

This convinced the Normans to shift their foot troops from the base of the hill to the top, in order to stop the attack in its tracks.

That freed up the AS Warlord to charge with his retinue against the exhausted Norman cavalry, hitting them for 5 while only taking 3 in return.

The Normans have had enough, so they retreat (and eventually restore some hits with a Rally).

This leaves the Battle on the hill, with the Normans still not finding their stride, despite having the numerical superiority now. That said, the two AS levy units have 1 BS apiece remaining.

This is how the battle is shaping up at the end of turn 3. The Normans have lost no units while the AS have lost three. One more unit and the AS rout. With the levy being as weak as they are, next turn is probably the last.

Turn 4

The Normans desperately need to Rally their cavalry, so that is the first selection. The AS know that if they do not get the initiative back they cannot stay in the game unless they get a Rally, so they need to Seize the Initiative. If they can survive this turn, that is …

Amazingly, the Normans strike first on the hill and … whiff!

The AS levy quickly move off the hill, forcing the Normans to chase them.

The Normans decide to Rally the cavalry first, knowing that the AS are not going to go anywhere. The levy, however, decide to go into Shieldwall, so maybe they can continue to hold on until next turn.

The Norman foot advances down the hill, marching up to the shieldwall.

The final battle occurs and the Normans rout the remnants of the levy, taking only a single hit. With two Warrior units remaining, the Anglo-Saxons army is routed.

What I Messed Up

The two areas that I messed up were shieldwalls and hill combat, both involving modifying the to hit roll in combat.

With Shieldwall all combat in that area, until the end of the turn, requires a 5+ to hit. Both sides, regardless of who initiated the shieldwall, regardless of unit type. I think the justification is that the side with the shieldwall is turtling, so not only are they harder to hit, but they have a harder time hitting. I can get behind that idea.

With the hill (or woods or villages) the idea is that the "defender" is uphill of the attack. But because this area is abstract you need to think of it as rough ground where the one receiving the attack has a temporary advantage. So the attacker is 5+ to hit and the defender is 4+ to hit. But this lasts only through the current action. If they next action the other side does Battle, they are now the attacker and thus they are disadvantaged. It is nuanced. So the battle on the hill could have seen the levy stand their ground there and simply never perform another Battle action, i.e. attack. They would have had the benefit, but would only strike after the attacker. Again, I can get behind this abstraction.

@WargameCulture on Twitter/X mentioned that he thought the use of a non-offset square grid would have an effect on the game. As I stated earlier, I think that would only come into play with ranged combat, but I am willing to move to an offset square grid. I have already started making a dedicated 30" high by 40" wide 'You Command' gameboard to get rid of that question altogether.


As I indicated in my last blog post, Age of Penda scratched the itch I was trying for with my Saga Lite. It solved the puzzle of tying damage to offensive power, while keeping a simple combat system (bucket of dice like Saga instead of 1D6 with modifiers like OHW). Most importantly, it brought the element of pre-planning a turn that Saga is so famous for. Not only will this series of games find its way onto my tabletop, but you can probably expect an American War of Independence variant called Give Me Liberty, the Hell With Death or some such. I would love to see how a Horse & Musket game, when ranged combat is brought to the fore, rather than being a peripheral element.

The Rating

I haven't done this in a while.

Dramado the rules create tension during play? 4 out of 5

For the most part, combat actions have a 50-50 success rate. But the asymmetry of close combat, where the attacker inflicts damage before the defender battles back leads to more tension than the standard melee where both sides strike simultaneously. One would think that this would also lead to the dreaded 'Alpha Strike' – where one side moves in from outside of combat range, then attacks before the other side can act – but the rules making movement and combat separate actions the norm tends to remove this problem. It can happen, but it is 'special'.

Drama also occurs during the planning stage, not just the action phase, as players try to outwit their opponent by developing a viable plan while in turn denying their opponent their best plan.

Uncertaintyare there enough elements that introduce uncertainty into the game?  3  4 out of 5

The primary mechanic that creates uncertainty, other than combat, is whether you will be able to carry out your plan with the units that you want to act with. When you find that your opponent has taken a tactical option you wanted, can you alter your plan, recover, or will this turn simply be a wasted turn?

The fact that the rules intentionally abstract away so many tactical elements – facing, outflanking, enfilade, etc. – it takes some of the uncertainty from combat. What uncertainty in combat that there is, is due to the randomness of the dice.

Engagingdo the rules allow the player to make meaningful decisions that lead to consequences? 5 out of 5

The meaningfulness of your actions start with the planning, where you decide do you want to achieve a plan of your own, or disrupt what you think is your opponent's plan. Do you spend one of your precious action seizing the initiative, which will not help you until next turn?

Then, having set out a selection of actions, the order that you play those actions, and in which areas, definitely can be meaningful. Should you delay your troops attack to rally first? If you do, they may form a shieldwall, blunting your chances of routing them in a single round of combat.

Unobtrusivenessdo the rules get in the way? 4 out of 5

No. The rules largely make sense. You likely will make a mistake or two in the beginning, but that is only because these rules are so different from what you probably play normally. We all 'read into' rules and how that is interpreted is largely a function of the rules we have played in the past. Once you understand what was abstracted away from the game, and justify why they rules are 'correct', it will be easier to play.

Heads Upare the rules playable without frequent reference to a quick reference sheet? 4 out of 5

Other than a few specific wordings that I re-read during the game, the only time I referenced the rules consistently was to read the options for the Special Tactic. Once you have played enough games, you will likely not even need that. However, the one area that you may find that you keep referencing is the unit roster. Every unit has 1 to 6 Battle Strength and these get ticked off during gameplay. If you have a system for reflecting a unit's current BS without distracting you then this probably won't be an issue for you. (I used a roster with a single die reflecting the current BS of the unit, placed on the roster, not the table. The dice on the table were to show losses, only for the battle report. I would not normally use them otherwise.)

Appropriately Flavoreddo the rules 'feel' like they represent the period or genre being played? 4 out of 5

Ultimately the period flavor comes from the unit types you can select and the options available behind the Special Tactic tactic. Age of Penda provides 8 different options, of which you are supposed to only choose four. Arrowstorm provides another 10 options, some of which overlap AoP. Armour Storm naturally uses a completely different Tactics Chart, given the emphasis on armored warfare.

Both AoP and AS provide army lists, with their corresponding Special Tactic choices. At this point it would take a lot more game play to be sure that the games would have appropriate period flavor, but it seems like it would. I know that I intend to push this back to Ancients and forward to Horse & Musket, so that should indicate a belief you can build that flavor into it, around the game's core mechanics.

One final note: the author indicates that some of the core rules might change slightly to reflect period differences. For example, in AoP a unit can move out of an area that contains enemy units, whereas in AS they cannot.

Scalablecan the rules be scaled up or down – in terms of figures or number of units played – from a 'normal' game? 3 out of 5

A standard game in AoP is 80 points, with players getting four tactics tokens. You can opt to have three tokens and spend an additional 20 points on troops, or have five tokens for a cost of 20 points. In general that means that means that you are acting with potentially one area per token (although in some turns, less than that). An area can contain three units and the board is five areas wide at its widest so having more than 15 units at the start means having units start the game off-board.

The limiting factor with a standard game is more about the tokens than how many areas the table consists of. Tokens equals action, so you can have more units and more area to operate in, but you are still only going to move a certain portion of your army each turn.

That doesn't mean you can't create additional rules in order to scale the game. The simplest is to use the old medieval 'battle' system whereby the army is divided into portions with each portion having a separate commander, which in turn could have its own tokens and a Tactics Chart to share with his opposing commander. Think of it as Left Wing, Center, and Right Wing, each having a Tactics Chart and the commanders there having their own forces and tokens. That also provides a solution for team play.

Scaling the board can also happen. In the end having more squares generally means the game will take longer as it will take more moves before the two sides contact.

There are other ideas to explore, like scaling the Tactics Chart, i.e. adding more boxes. Right now I think the chart is pretty well tuned to two players with 2-5 tokens each, so I probably would not change that.

Out of the box, though, these rules have a specific scale intended and the author provides no guidance on changing that.

Lacks Fiddly Geometrydo the rules require fiddly measurements or angles? 5 out of 5

It is a square grid. There are no angles or measurements.

Tournament Tight™ Rulesare the rules clear and comprehensive, or do the players need to 'fill in the blanks'?  4  3 out of 5

Let me start by saying that my preference is towards tighter rules, where everything is spelled out clearly by the author, not looser rules where the author leaves certain mechanics up to the individual players, gentlemen's agreements, and a roll of the die where agreements cannot be found. So a high value means 'tight' and a low value means 'loose'. If you like looser rules, subtract my rating from '6' and that would probably be your rating!

Tight rules are generally required because the rules are complex or not very straightforward. Although I initially misinterpreted some rules it was because I did not fully read the rule or assumed that it was similar to something I had already played, or fit some rationale in my mind. For example, my first read of Form Shieldwall! was that it was formed one side and that side was 5+ to hit and that there no benefit for the other side. Why would the other side get shieldwall benefits just because you formed a shieldwall? Once you realize that a shieldwall creates a benefit and a penalty, it makes more sense.

Fewer and simpler rules make for tighter rules and fewer arguments. Using a grid also makes for fewer special case rules, as does abstracting away thinks like facing, flanks, formations, and so on.

Solo Suitabilitydo the rules have elements conducive to solo play? 3 out of 5

There are no hidden elements to the game so that alone usually grants the rules high solitaire suitability. The three decisions that need to be made are: what choices will the non-player commander choose on the Tactics Chart; what order will actions be played; and which area will benefit from the action being played. The rules in the You Command series answer none of those questions so a solo player will be forced to develop his own mechanisms to answer these question. This is pretty standard with miniatures rules, thus garnering its average rating.

Component Qualityare the components provided made with quality? 3 out of 5

I am not aware of whether these products can be purchased as books, but I purchased mine as PDFs. There is no hyperlinking of the table of contents to pages. The graphics are functional but minimal (which for me is a good thing, making it printer friendly). The layout and text is easy to read. All very standard to me.


UPDATE: I have changed the ratings for Uncertainty and Tournament Tight™ Rules. This is explained in my next blog post.

Monday, October 16, 2023

X-Factor and Fusing Game Designs Together

Recently I purchased the "universe" (expansion) book Saga: Age of Alexander as I like the new version of the Saga rules (version 2) – when converted to play on a square grid, of course – but also because I have a number of excess Greek and Thracian 15mm figures painted up. Also, I was curious how Ancients might play out using this game system. (I myself used it for Mesoamerican battles.)

As I started reviewing notes from my own blog on my Saga games I started to remember some of the aspects that I did not enjoy so much. Saga is pretty crunchy. I broke out the rules and reviewed the melee combat process and you can see how crunchy it is. The attacker's dice total is not fixed and can be modified up and down during a melee. The number needed to roll on those dice is also not fixed and can be modified up and down. Some melee's also include re-rolls. When the final roll is made and the hits are counted the opponent is then allowed to roll their defense dice, cancelling out hits. The number of dice rolled is also not fixed, nor is the number to be rolled. (I am unsure whether there are any factions that have a special rule to inflict automatic casualties as opposed to automatic hits, which are savable. If so, that is another area that is variable.) Bottom line, there are a number of calculations to make, albeit pretty quick ones once you get a hang of the rules.

Compare that to something like One-Hour Wargames (OHW), in which almost everything is fixed. The die you roll, plus modifier is fixed to the unit type. Damage is modified (doubled or halved) based upon circumstance, but that is it. That is the other end of crunchiness. (Mushiness?)

So, to reacquaint myself with the Saga rules I recently played a game with gaming buddy Don. He said we should try it again, seeing as I was talking about it. I thought that strange because I had always thought he wasn't very keen on it, despite having bought painted figures for it. (Don is more of a collector than anything, so buying figures for a game is not indicative of him liking the rules, but more about his true hobby.) We set up the scenario and I stumbled through the rules. Hilariously Don kept saying "are you sure this is what we played before?" as he said that all of the elements were not as he remembered. In the end he really did not like the game, so we are unlikely to play it, as is, again.

But that little side trip caused me to ponder about the rules. What exactly do I like about them versus, say, One-Hour Wargames or Tin Soldiers in Action? Ironically, Tabletop Minions had a video today on the subject, "Why you hate a particular game". His assessment is that there is an X-factor, an element that you value so strongly that when something, in this case a set of rules, doesn't contain it you tend to dislike it. So what was it for me?

So, let's take the idea of fusing Saga and One-Hour Wargames together. That is not such a stretch for me as I spent a good part of a week writing three versions of "Saga Lite" and then play testing it. I admit I abandoned it because of a fatal flaw in the game design. (We will get to that.)

First, what do I like about OHW? Simplicity. Ease of conversion to a grid. Quick playing. A long time ago I also said "decisiveness" because the player's decisions have an impact on the outcome. What I mean by that is when you have a game where, every turn, the player can move all units and fight with all units, the decision of whether to move or not has less impact because there is no (or little) impact to the decision of whether or not to fire; there is no tradeoff. Even more so with the decision to fire; there is no negative consequence to firing, so the decision to do so is not very impactful. With OHW it is move or fire. When you are in the threat zone moving comes at the consequence of receiving hits while not being able to inflict any of your own. Because OHW is an attritional combat system, falling behind in the 'race to 15' cannot be taken lightly.

So, what do I like about Saga? For me it is that you have to plan out your turn, and your reaction to your opponent's next turn, as you go along. That plan is heavily influenced by the dice roll, so there is no God-level control of your troops. Not all units will be able to act every turn. On some turns you might not really be able to do anything except recover. But your decisions will have a huge impact; what you do with the options you are given will very much decide whether you stand a chance of winning.

Breaking Down the Game Mechanics

A while back I bought a copy of the book Building Blocked of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Game Mechanisms by Geoffrey Englestein and Isaac Shalev. It was advertised to me on Facebook and I decided to buy it and give it a try. The book is what it says, an encyclopedia of tabletop game mechanics. Using their definitions it helps me understand how a game mechanic differs, how to identify it, and which I prefer.

The classic example is 'IGO-UGO', which they call Fixed Turn Order Activation. A game like Bolt Action – where each unit on a side is given a die that is placed in a bag, and when that side's die is drawn a unit that has not activated may then takes its activation – is called Random Turn Order Activation. But note that the player gets to pick the unit to activate, whereas Tin Soldiers in Action as uses a random order (cards), but the activation token specifies the unit, not the player.

Now, when I consider which X-factors I like I know that I am indifferent to Fixed Turn Order Activation verging towards suspicious of it as this mechanic most often leads to the dreaded 'Alpha Strike' that I dislike so much. OHW has Fixed Turn Order Activation but softens the Alpha Strike by disallowing a unit to move and shoot in a single turn. You can still move and perform close combat though, so it is still present as OHW has the strange mechanic of only the active playing fighting in close combat. If I do pick rules with Fixed Turn Order Activation I prefer that the activations alternate by unit rather than by player, i.e. I activate one unit, then you activate one, and so on until all units have had a chance to activate.

Saga also has Fixed Turn Order Activation. Worse, a player can move and shoot or move and close combat all in the same turn. Saga does blunt this tendency towards the 'Alpha Strike' by penalizing a unit that moves and takes another action (like shooting or close combat), plus it allows numerous options for the player to interrupt the active player's turn or degrade their attacks, so it is not so bad as something like Warhammer 40,000 (the epitome of rules that allow the Alpha Strike).

As I indicated earlier, I attempted to write a Saga Lite ruleset which fused Saga and OHW. The idea was to use a multiple figure, single base as your basic unit, use strength points to track how many 'hit points' a unit can sustain, but have the different unit qualities and equipment of Saga. Most importantly, use the Saga dice and battle boards to challenge the player to plan his turn based on the die roll. I spent a lot of time on the rules, nearly a week writing up three versions and several separate documents. When I tested the game it was naturally very clunky at first, but I got the hang of it. The basic premise was that the modifiers to combat that the battle board provided, plus the quality and equipment, would all translate to attack and defense bonuses. In close combat both sides would roll a D6 in hits against their opponent, modified by your attack bonus and your opponent's defense penalty.

But what hit me as I was playing the test game is that there was no reason not to choose a Hearthguard unit – the highest quality troop in Saga – over a lesser quality unit. In OHW, unit selection is by die roll, and not all units are created equally. (As evidenced by the groans one hears when someone rolls two Skirmishers for their Dark Ages army!) In Saga there is a delicate balancing act between quality and equipment in a unit. The basic rule is one point buys you 4 Hearthguard or 8 Warrior, or 12 Levy. However, the Hearthguard hits harder and stays in combat longer. But if you are so unlucky as to lose a figure, your offensive combat power goes down quickly. The Levy are the opposite. Their offensive combat power per figure is low, so casualties tend to lower it much more slowly. But they are easier to hit.

My Saga Lite had none of that. It had the characteristic of OHW in that combat power did not change as hits were taken, and damage against a Levy was not more or less devastating as the loss to the Hearthguard. So all of the good aspects of the Levy were removed and all of those of the Hearthguard were amplified. Hence there was no reason to take the Levy. Ever.

This got me to thinking: how can I modify the rules so that the hit taken by Hearthguard has wilder swings (higher highs and lower lows) than those taken by the Levy? Also, it wasn't as simple as saying it was +2 hits against Hearthguard and -2 against Levy as the former had heavier armor, so it was harder to hit. But if it was hit, it took a bigger chunk out of the unit.

Think in terms of figures. If the unit has 16 hits and Hearthguard have 4 figures, each Hearthguard figure has 4 hits. Levy have 12 figures for their 16 hits, so each figure has 1 1/3rd hits. A Hearthguard figure is harder to hit, but if it is, it loses 4 hits, etc.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was already a game out there, that I owned (and had for a year or so) but never played, that seemed to handle something like this. It is called Age of Penda for the Dark Ages version and Scottorum Malleus (now Arrowstorm) for the Medieval version. I will be reviewing those rules and presenting a test battle report next post.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Using Twitter/X as a Micro-Blogging Platform

 As I threatened last time I decided to try Twitter/X as a micro-blogging platform – sort of spitball the ideas I have in my head, maybe get some feedback – and then present them a but better formed here. My Twitter/X handle is @DalesWargames.

I understand that not everyone is going to join up there. Some people hate Twitter/X. Hell, some people hate Facebook and there are a huge number of gaming groups there. I'm not going to try and convince you to change your mind.

But, if you want to join in the conversation, more so than you can here, you have the address.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Skirmish Scenario Design (Part One)

The game of Song of Drums and Shakos that I played at the last convention not only convinced me to play more skirmish games (where I can), but to possibly try my hand at running a game at the next convention I have lined up, SouthwestCon 2023 in Tolleson, AZ. To that end I decided to start designing a scenario to play and then do a few dry runs to refine it.

The first decision to make is what rules to use. Because the Song of engine re-kindled my interest, I am going to go with that. It is a relatively simple game that you can add as little or as much 'crunch' as you like, by adding in the special abilities. Also, every turn the player has numerous little decisions to make such as how many activation dice to use, so player engagement is relatively high.

The next decision is what period to play. My initial inclination was to use my wooden 43mm Dark Ages figures, to get them out on the table again. (The more I think about it, the more I realize I probably use them the most, of all the 43mm wooden figures I have.) Another alternative is Napoleonics. If I want to drop down to 28mm (and blow off some serious dust) I could make it WW II, but I would have to seriously tweak the Flying Lead rules (which I ranted about more than 10 years ago).


Several Playtests

So far I have played two Dark Ages and one Napoleonics version of a 'King of the Hill' scenario (where possession of the hill determines the victor) and the results brought up some interesting points, all of which make the scenario rather stale.

The Only Objective is to Eliminate the Enemy

The official scenario objective was "at the end of the game to have more figures on the hill than the enemy". However, there was always one overriding victory: elimination of the enemy, typically accomplished by them hitting a breakpoint and failing morale. If you did that, then it was assumed that you would take the hill unopposed after the enemy's rout.

In one scenario I remember losing enough figures early that I determined the only way to win was to break the enemy and thus capturing the hill was totally irrelevant. I ended up pursuing his leader attempting to run him down. If I had been able to accomplish that, half of the enemy forces would likely have routed and those that had not would either have vacated the hill, or if they had stood, been isolated and picked off.

Combat Becomes Static

Although this might sound like an inevitability with Dark Ages troops, as everyone gets into melee and maneuver essentially ceases, but it happens in Napoleonics too as troops settle into cover and start sniping at one another. This is either because the primary objective (the hill) is a static location or because everyone is 'stuck in' and movement only occurs when some figure is eliminated.

The Rest of the Board is Fairly Useless

Unless you both decide to ignore the primary objective and simply go for breaking the enemy force everyone is likely to be heading for the hill. Potentially terrain close to the hill might be of value as you snipe away at people on the hill, but in the end you have to be on the hill to win. But any terrain out of line of sight of the hill is essentially just window dressing.

A recent scenario is a good example of this. In the scenario depicted below, when I first reported about it, I left out all terrain detail, other than the town (in the lower right-hand corner). That is because everything other than the town was irrelevant. As it happened there were forests on the left, a ridge line on the French right flank, and roads. In this battle the town was worth 5 VP, a road on the enemy's baseline was worth 1 VP, all other terrain worth nothing, and destroying enemy troops worth variable VPs. (By way of comparison, I was able to score 3 VP for troop elimination against the enemy while they were able to score 2 VP against me.) I did not bother to draw other details because the town was the sole piece of terrain that mattered.

The 'King of the Hill' scenario feels the same way. Any terrain off of the hill just seems like window dressing.

Skirmish Scenario Design Objectives

So, what are the objectives of a good scenario design, especially for skirmish games? Let's start by taking a look at some rules and scenario books to see how they present victory conditions and scenarios.

Star Wars Shatterpoint Scenarios

One of my recent regrettable purchases was the game Star Wars Shatterpoint (SWS).

The game design looks good, but is just way too crunchy for my old brain. Like Star Wars Legion, but at a skirmish scale. The figures and terrain are really nice looking though, although some figures are a nightmare to assemble. I could have learned all of this had I watched more videos as content creators put them out, but I am generally a latecomer to rules and I wanted to be an early adopter this time. That will teach me!

SWS does have any interesting objective-based victory condition system. You start by picking a mission card, which defines where the objective markers are placed. All objectives are initially inactive (circles marked in gray).

SWS currently only has one mission card – the one shown above – and it evenly spaces out nine objective markers range 4 from the board edges and range 5 between each. If a marker appears where multi-level terrain is, it is placed on the upper level.

SWS has three different phases of the game, called Struggles. At the beginning of each Struggle a card is drawn which identifies which objective markers are active. In the example below, on the left, there are five objectives active, with the remaining four inactive throughout Struggle I. After the victory conditions of Struggle I are met, Struggle II is revealed, showing which objective markers are inactive and active. In the example below, on the right, a die is rolled on each player's turn to see which single objective marker is made active.

The net effect of this system is that it generally keeps players moving as they try and capture active objectives, keeping the enemy away from them. Between each struggle a winning position – in terms of who is successfully holding active objective positions – may turn into a losing one as the objectives have moved and you hold few or none of them. Players camp on positions, but generally not for the entire game.

Although an interesting concept and one that gives these rules the reputation for cinematic movement and action, one wonders how long before the shine comes off because players don't actually do anything at these locations, they just simply control them by outnumbering the enemy within a certain distance from the marker. In the example above, on the left, the objectives are supposed to be representing "stealing the secret plans", but there is no guarantee that there will be a computer terminal or a safe at each of these points; just an orange marker. Players are not required to have a figure perform an action, only that they are standing within a certain distance from it. They might have been full engaged moving or fighting. Still, it gets players to move into locations that might be out in the open rather than in cover, or have them move rather than make another attach in order to get 1" closer to the marker to contest. Put another way, it gets players to make sub-optimal moves rather than having them sit in heavy cover safely sniping away. At that it succeeds.

SWS has one of the best cures for people settling into cover and turtling there: you lose the game because you don't receive victory points for that. You get points for moving to and capturing points on the tabletop.


You may not believe this, but it has taken me more than a week to write just this. My writing style is … chaotic. I sort of write in a stream of consciousness and edit it a bit afterwards. It is not so much that it is a lot of 'work', just that I want to get ideas out there and flowing and I sometimes wonder whether this is the best platform.

If I want to just send it out to you, with feedback limited to plain text comments, then I suppose this is the best method. But I am not sure that is what I want. I have been watching how Twitter/X has been changing as a platform and wonder whether that might be more suitable. I tried podcasting, but that is just as intensive as blogging – if not more so – and sort of limiting for the consumer. Twitter, on the other hand, is rather easy to consume. I can limit each thought to 280 characters (unless I get verified, then it is 4,000 characters I think). More importantly I have learned how to use the thread feature, so you can keep adding bits to a topic thread as ideas come to you.

I am thinking of trying that – maybe as a way of sorting out my thoughts and getting feedback – and then posting a completed thread here. There are lots of wargamers on there. If you are (or are not) interested, let me know. The account I use for this will not contain any personal posts, like vacation photos or political topics. Just straight up wargaming ideas. When I get the Twitter/X account sorted, I will post it here.

I'll pick up more on scenario design in the next post.

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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 58 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ working for a software company for the last three years. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").