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.
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.
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).
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.
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).