Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Coolest Fantasy Skirmish Game That You Never Heard Of Before

I used to consider Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game as the best skirmish fantasy game I had ever played.  But over the years every game has become 600+ points with as many models crammed into your list as you can possibly get.  My Corsair army has more models than my 40K Space Marines and just about as many as my planned Tau army.  Players in both casual and tournament games are generally trying to get as close to the maximum model count of 75 as possible.  In short, it's still the best game I ever played.  But it's not skirmish and hasn't been for a long time.  At least not in my opinion (which I'm sure the world disagrees with, by the way).

So I went searching for a fantasy skirmish game to scratch that itch.  It didn't take long to find Song of Blades and Heroes (SBH) by Ganesha Games.  I could really end this post now with me just telling you to go spend the $8 for the PDF and get this game.  You won't regret it.  The game is awesome, and once you play it through a few times you realize what looked like a light and breezy game has a lot of meat to it.

But I'm in the mood to write, lucky for you.  Let me introduce the game in more depth, and see if I can't convince you to check it out.  Incoming wall of text!

First, it's a skirmish game.  Hooray for not needing to buy 50+ models before you can "really play" the game.  You use whatever models you have on hand.  That was a huge selling point for me.  I have a lot of WHFB models gathering dust.  Also, I can now buy all those delicious Reaper models that I've wanted, not to mention get some use out of my Warmachine/Hordes stuff.  My only complaint is the mish-mash of square and round bases.  Can't have it all, I guess.
The overall game structure feels a little like Mordheim mixed with a little Lord of the Rings, plus some standard miniature games rules thrown in.  The system is very simple and easy to learn.  Best of all, there are no charts to consult or stupid markers to put next to models.  (I hate that marker shit... put a marker to show retreating, put a marker to show a charge, put a marker to show that there's a marker next to the model.....)

You build your warband to a 300 pt level, which will get you about 8 - 12 models.  You can do more if you want to.  But wasn't I just complaining about model bloat in LotR?  I've gone up to 400 pts with still less than 20 models.  You allocate 1/3 of your points to "personalities" that are models with certain rules.  The remainder go to your regular guys.  You don't need a leader per se, which is nice.

If you're into models with heavy stat lines, look somewhere else.  All models have only two stats, Quality and Combat.  That's all you need.  The models are then modified by special rules, of which they are many. Those two stats with the special rules make SBH easy to learn and play.  Believe it or not, the two stats still embody the stereotypes you expect for certain fantasy races.  For example, Dwarfs are rock hard and brave while Orcs are still numerous and run off when things go bad.  That all works with two numbers.

The game itself moves quickly and is based on activations.  You roll from 1-3 dice per model.  Compare the result to your quality score and anything matching or exceeding the number is a success.  You can take one action per success.  At first I thought I'd hate this aspect, but have found that it's really the heart of the game and ups the strategy factor by quite a bit.  In fact, I wish other games had this.  The twist is, any time you fail two activation rolls, you will pass your turn back to your opponent.  If you rolled three dice, got two failures and one success, you still take your one action.  But then the turn goes back to your opponent even if that was your first model activation.  So the decisions you make are meaningful and will alter the game.  If you have a a 5+ quality model (you must roll 5 or better on a d6 to pass) then you better think twice before rolling for two activations.  But what if you want to move and attack a juicy target that you know you could crush?  When do you activate that model and will you roll two or more dice?  (HINT: Always roll 3 dice on the last model you activate, since two failures don't mean anything at that point.)

As I mentioned there are a slew of special rules.  Despite the number of rules, they are easy to understand and memorize.  Many are old gaming stand-bys like Hatred, Terror, Fearless, etc.  Some were harder to understand, like Drain and Poison.  But after a second reading they were easy to get.  Special rules can make each model unique, or can define the character of a type of troop.  The rules aren't always beneficial (like Coward or Greedy), and negative special rules lower the points cost of the model to compensate.

Combat is fast, but not overly deadly in one-on-ones.  That's actually good, since with 10 models a side deadly combat would end the game really fast.  Basically, you roll off and add in combat scores plus other modifiers.  If I double your score, you are killed.  If I triple your score, you die a gruesome death and everyone around takes a morale check.  If I just win but don't kill, you either are knocked down or pushed back (recoiled, as they call it).  The key is to get models knocked down or "transfixed" with magic.  You can kill models in these conditions just by beating them in combat, no need to double a score.

It's time to bring this post home with an old fashioned Pros and Cons analysis.

  • Skirmish based, play with any fantasy models you have
  • Simple rules that encompass just about everything.  You only need three dice and a tape measure.
  • Price:  Pay $8 for the main rules and bring your own background fluff.  You've got a full blown game in hand for about the price of a fast food lunch.
  • Tactical and strategic depth of play
  • Lots of expansions available to add more to the game, also low priced or available as a bundle.
  • Strong narrative component:  This game just begs you to create your own narrative for your warband and it's battles.  The campaign expansion book takes that home nicely.
  • Design your own model stats and points with a free Excel worksheet.  Now that six armed demoness sitting on my table will have a gaming purpose.
  • Adaptable to historical games.
  • Highly solo friendly!
  • Additional rules, rosters, and FAQs are spread out over the expansions. Looking up stuff is sort of ridiculous like that.
  • You move in a straight line always.  So taking a corner will cost two activations.  I know the rules are trying to be simple, but come on!
  • Minor complaint: gear doesn't seem to matter too much.  It's supposedly figured into the models quality and combat scores.  But I'd like for a massive battle axe to count for something more!  (I was happy when one of the expansions introduced the Heavy Armor special rule.  I'd like more of that.)
  • Potential to "game the system" and create unbalanced lists.  You just have to agree with your opponent on what is fair, otherwise it could be a power gamer's paradise.
  • No one is going to play this game with you.  "Their game" is so much better and SBH is too blah, blah, blah  (I'm sure they'll find something less than perfect to bitch about.)
So in my opinion there are many pros and not so many cons.  Also, there are three expansions that you really should get to fully enjoy the game. Ganesha Games is coming out with a bajillion different games based on this system.  They're planning Historical Skirmish for ancients.  They already have Napoleonic skirmish rules that seem well received.  I'm waiting for their Flying Lead rules for modern skirmish to come out with the WWII supplement.  There's just a lot to this company and I'm pretty excited about it.

I'll put up a battle rep on one of my solo games.  That might help illustrate the rules better.  If you've read this far, let me know.  I often wonder if anyone plows through all of this verbiage.  Thanks for reading!


Tom O said...

Sounds interesting Jerry..."simple, yet elegant"?

I agree about LOTR becoming about army size and killer combinations; the best point value games I've liked with that game have been 350 points.


Jerry said...

That's a good synopsis, Tom. It's a simple but elegant set of skirmish rules.

I agree that 350pts of LotR is probably the best points level there is!

Drunken Samurai said...

I have heard good things about this game for a long time but I have nver tried it. Might be time.

On the LOTR front just play smaller games. I will play any size game you want to play. I have wanted to do the journey books for a long time.

Jerry said...

Rob, Glad to hear you might want to give this a go. It really appears to be a great system. Of course, it's not perfect. But it's a solid game.

And definitely, LotR is better at the lower points sizes. The 350 pts appears to be the sweet spot. I'd also like to do those journey books too.

Mike G. said...

The nice thing about the system is about how customizable it is. You can use any miniature you want and give them any statistics or abilities you want. It's a fairly loose system so you can make it very gamey as Jerry suggests in his review. However, in a gaming group, that should not be an issue. These are not tournament play rules and none of us play like that anyway. It is an interesting rule set and they do play well solo since the activations are based on dice.

350 point LOTR may even get me to play.

Scott said...

Sounds interesting Jerry. But only 2 stats for the figures seems very small. I'll watch out for your battle reps. Pity, I sold off all my wierd and wonderful figures years ago, as you say, gathering dust...