Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Dark Age Rules Mechanics

The latest instalment of our Dark Age campaign set around fifth century St Albans turned out to be a crushing victory for the Saxon warlord, Cyddic. I thought I’d use this Blog Post to mention a bit more about the rule mechanics which we have been play-testing rather than inflict yet more dodgy poetry on you.

The game was a fairly straightforward scenario. Cyddic, a Saxon warlord recently migrated to Britain, has seen an opportunity for plunder and pillage in a small village to the north of St Albans. A recently constructed church has attracted his eye and he has determined that terrorising the faithful and impugning their God is a good way of attracting more mercenaries and warriors to his particular brand of colonisation. So yes, Cyddic is an evil man, but you should read what the monastic chroniclers are saying about him ...

Anyway - on to the game ...

The Saxons were tasked with raiding the newly constructed church, finding any buried treasure, and then escaping with their loot to their feasting hall. They entered on the south of the table, and had to exit from the south of the table. The entry of the Romano-British warband, keen on defending the church, was determined randomly. As the game was a raid, we rationalised that many of the formalities, or rituals, or battle – such as inspiring speeches, consultation of pagan omens, blessings from wandering saints – would be absent. We had a hasty assemblage of forces on the table pressing forward into a fight, as opposed to formal lines of spears an shields goading each other before combat starts.

Although there are missile troops on both sides, these do not tend to play a decisive role in battle – their goal is to irritate, to channel enemy forces and to inflict wounds on the enemy. They engage in a ranged combat when their card is drawn, but melt like frost on a spring morning when contacted by their foes.

That leaves the bulk of the action to be fought in close quarters by warriors. These are led by Big Men, being local lords, nobles, or officers (for the Romano British). The movement of a Big Man is determined by card-draw from a card deck, with each Big Man moving when his personal card is drawn. There is no card signalling the ending of a turn – the “Tea Break” or “Time for a Snifter” card in other TooFatLardies rules. This reflects the general absence of a distinction between close and ranged combat, as well as being more appropriate for a smaller game.

The clever thing I like about Richard’s approach to the rules is that he has married the card-draw mechanic with a second card deck, the gloomily but colourfully named “Fate Deck”. The idea behind the Fate Deck is a way of influencing combat and movement outside of the main card-deck. Cards in the Fate Deck can convey a number of advantages – they can interrupt play (a Big Man stepping forward to take his turn immediately), can help a unit move further, can give a bonus in combat, allow a rally, or permit an evade move. Such features could have been built into the main card-deck, but giving players Fate Deck cards in their hands so that they can choose to interrupt or influence play makes things very flexible.

Accordingly, as a player, you need to have eyes on the table at all times – this is because some of the Fate Deck cards are best deployed as a “trump” to other cards. Woe betides anyone nipping to the kitchen for a glass of mead when combat starts.

So far so good. We then tried to add on some additional features in the Fate Deck without adding more cards. Inspired by the card mechanics in boardgames like “Paths of Glory”, “Labyrinth” and “Wilderness War”, we tried to add in optional features which augment the deployment of a card from the Fate Deck. So, some cards can be played in suits (of ravens or dragons). Some cards have a dual use at the end of the game to assist pursuit or facilitate escape; holding such cards forces a player to make a choice as to whether to play the card or hold it for later. The only requirement in designing the additional features was to try and focus attention of the players at all times on the tabletop – we consciously tried to avoid the Fate Deck being focused towards the campaign game or towards events off-table (so no “strategic deployment” features, Paths of Glory fans).

I’ve always loved games-within-games, where players can play the main wargame but also have something interacting with the game and drawing their attention at a different level. Hopefully the Fate Deck mechanisms reflect that.

That’s really about it. The combat flows pretty smoothly once the interaction between the card deck and the Fate Deck is familiar. The battles are not large – 70 figures a side is more than enough. Games play in under two-hours. Combat is bloody and decisive, but not (to my mind) overly so.

Above all, the games are entertaining and fun. I know Richard’s done a lot of reading on the subject, so I’m making an educated guess that they’re as near to being historical as it is possible to get to. Perhaps more importantly, at least to me, they seem to have the “feel”, sound, rasp and smell of the Dark Ages. And, at the end of an evening’s gaming, that’s really what I was looking for after all.

Next up, I’ve a sub-Roman villa almost finished which is based on the large villa complex found at Yewden in Buckinghamshire. It’s about two-thirds done, but more about that next time. Until then, here’s a sneak peek, although as yet without the central roof and without the pantile roofs I've ordered !

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Song of Oswic: 454 A.D.

Cold now the fate of Angle kings
in days past, the countless battle storms
weathered by those heroes of these cold shores.

Many autumns of our lives
lie silent behind us while we sing
in the mead-hall ...

Of sword-strokes and battle blades swung under a mail-grey sky
as we stood on the iron hard ground before the fight ...

Of the cowardice of Britons and the conceit of their kings,
worthless their false-gold givers, and empty their halls ...

Of our sword-triumphs across the Grey Sea
Angle warriors sluggish with treasure from the Britons’ hearths barren ...

Of the Enemy, wailing from their wood-prison
fearful to meet us in the battle-hall of men ...

Of the Raven God, cruel and sharp
fickle his wings of fate watching the slaughter ...

Of the savage fight, well-wrought weapons glinting
in the flint-dawn, the fume of our breath frozen in the wind ...

Of the linden shields of their braced shield-lines worthless
in the smoke of their homes burning and gutted black-raw ...

Of the war cries and laughter, our hearth-heroes
goading them to their fate ...

Of the warriors fallen, spread-eagled by sharp spears
as the battle-walls screeched and moaned ...

Of the thicket of sword-blade and spear point
relished by carrion, and sharp jawed ravens garbed in black ...

For our war-songs are yet young ...


And that’s the fourth battle report from our Dark Age campaign, told from the (completely biased) view of the hearth-skald of Oswic the Angle. For a game in which the Saxons and their Angle mercenaries looked to raid and loot a small British settlement, things quickly turned into an unexpected battle of shieldwalls as the British warband of Maxim Boicicus arrived.

The Angles, true to form perhaps, simply looted the helpless village for the entirety of the game. The Saxons and British carved chunks out of each other, alternatively goading and charging in a vicious spiral as the “shock” and wounds mounted on both sides relentlessly.

The game didn’t take long. We were done in perhaps a couple of hours, but most of the action took place in a frenetic 30 minutes as each side threw units into the fray accompanied by battle cards such as “Hero of the Age”, “Smite Hard”, “Braced Shield-wall”, “Goad” and “Aggressive Charge”. The play of the battle cards, particularly according to their suits (ravens and dragons) is proving to be a really fantastic enhancement of the tabletop struggle. A game-within-a-game which has its own rhythm and tension.

For a slightly more sober and insightful look at the rules and mechanics of the game we played on Tuesday night, Richard Clarke has posted this (far less biased!) report.

More next week from fifth century A.D. Britain, with some Saxon standards and shield designs to finish this weekend.

Until then, battle-brothers ...

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Angles ... or Anglii ... or Angels

Then they sent to Angeln, bidding them send more help, and had them informed of the cowardice of the Britons and the excellence of the land. They then immediately sent hither a great force to the help of the others. These men came from three tribes of Germany: from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, from the Jutes”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 449 A.D.

After reading the entry for 449 A.D. in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, I wanted to try and create a unit in our Dark Age games of Angles which could serve as allies or mercenaries of the early Saxon sea raiders. These would be men who had been informed of “the excellence of the land”, who had left the remote region of Angeln on the Jutland Peninsula overlooking what is today the Bay of Kiel for the softer gentler landscape of the English downlands.

The Venerable Bede in the eighth century A.D. briefly described the Angles’ homeland of Angeln “which lies between the province of the Jutes and Saxons, and remains unpopulated to this day”, perhaps a reference to the aftermath of the Angle migration. Tantalisingly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also refers, in the context of Angeln to land “which ever after remained waste, between the Jutes and the Saxons”.

I wanted to create a slightly different, identifiable unit of the Angles, or Anglii in latin (or angels, if you like the Pope Gregory the Great story). I started by creating a standard to which the small Angle force could rally, making the flag out of some thick artists paper which was glued with Araldite epoxy resin and folded to resemble it blowing in the wind. I’ve always found epoxy resin makes a great modelling glue for fabric and paper when you want the shape of the standard to stay curled or to resemble a flag blowing in the wind. Foil and thin metal works well also, but does not always have the resilience and endurance of good quality paper when painted.

I also made up some casualty bases for the Angles. The TooFatLardies rules almost all use “shock” (or “wound”) markers to denote casualties or deterioration in fighting capacity of a unit. We mark “shock” with small micro-dice, but in Dark Age fighting of lines of numerous units and shieldwalls, these can sometimes get knocked over or muddled between units. So I hit upon an idea (not my own, I should add!) of making a small dice holder on a casualty base. The casualty base comes on when some “shock” is inflicted, with the dice being turned as the shock rises or falls. They look a bit more cinematic than just having a dice on the table, and were pretty easy to make. A small offcut of Styrofoam, carved with a modelling knife, served very well as the holder for the dice on each base.

I primed the whole unit with Halfords grey car primer, which gives a lovely, even, matt grey prime ...

... and then painted the figures ready for the Army Painter dip. As with the second batch of Saxons, I “pre-shaded” the figures. By this, I mean that I shaded the deepest recesses of the figures chainmail, cloaks, eyes and neck, giving a very basic depth to the figure. This, in turn, helped to create more of a smoother depth to the colours once the Army Painter dip was added. In all this did add more time than for the first batch of Saxons, and a little more time again than the second Saxon batch as my pre-shading was more extensive.

I know from your comments that you’re interested in whether I actually save any time on this unit by using a dipping method – being honest, I have to say that I probably didn’t save very much at all. Dipping is certainly good fun, and I think I’m getting used to its idiosyncrasies. But I found that once I tried to reach for a good standard using the dipping method, I felt that the time saving was minimal. So, for me dipping will be a viable, alternative painting method – but I don’t see it displacing my previous painting style.

I painted the Angles bucklers light grey to create a uniformity of background. Lard-Thane Richard Clarke had suggested a white and back shield background for the Angles, and I thought this would work really well with the small buckler shields. I’ve always loved the Dark Age imagery of ravens stalking the fields of the slain after a battle, and the rapacious, land-invading migration of the Angles also struck me as being carrion-like. I therefore thought that painting a raven design on the Angles’ bucklers and standard would be quite suitable and also fun to try.

Now, at this point I shall confess freely that I have no evidence whatsoever of any obsession of the Angles with a dark, brooding, fate-laden raven God which inhabited the North German woods in the Dark Ages. And also no evidence of tribal groups painting their shields a uniform colour with a similar design image in fifth century A.D. England. None whatsoever. That being said, I had great fun painting the raven designs on the Angles’ shields working from images in various sources from a couple of Ospreys, a book on Anglo-Saxon Art from the British Museum, a couple of archaeological sites online and some field-work of looking at the crow rookeries in the nearby woods! So, in football score terms: History 0 Fun 4!

Some basing trays finished off the unit for the moment, although I’m going to add some Silfor tufts later this week.

Turning to using the Angles in our Dark Age games. I’m hoping we can focus on the role of the Angles as potentially unreliable allies, and perhaps even mercenaries, rather than merely subject troops of the Saxons. As close neighbours to the Saxons and Jutes, it is easily to imagine that the tribal groupings may not have seen eye to eye on all matters.

Mercenaries are always great fun to introduce into a tabletop wargame and a campaign, and I’m hoping that the Anglii, Angles (or Angels) are no exception.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Mapping the Past

Like most wargamers I’ve ever met, I love maps. There’s something about looking over a map, particularly one which is authentic and historical, and wondering what would you do if your battalions were marching on that small town, passing those woods – would they be trapped at the ford, would your enemy be waiting on the wooded hillsides in ambush? I’ll wager you’ve spent a lot of time looking at maps (or star-charts, or dungeon plans, or whatever) with the same thoughts in mind.

Another of the great pleasures of playing wargames is fighting tabletop battles over actual terrain. There’s something about fighting a game, or a campaign, over ground which you know, which you’ve visited and which you can take a photograph of before or after the game.

But what happens if the period you’re fighting in has no maps available? The simplest thing is to make your own. Perhaps even more than looking at maps, I’ve love making them for years, usually in the notebooks where I’ve recorded the battles, campaigns and ideas about gaming. It’s old fashioned, takes a while, but when you’ve made the map and also fought over it, it becomes a real part of the memory of your games, just as much as any photograph can do.

But making decent maps always seems to me to take a fair amount of time, and of course sometimes the map you make just doesn’t work in a game. They can either be too detailed, or not show the right sort of detail or perhaps the geography is just wrong (why is that cliff there, and where does that river flow to?).

As readers of this Blog and Lard Island News will know, the current interest at Lard Island is the Dark Ages. I really thought that mapping out the Saxon Shore was going to force me to get my edding profi-pens and water colours again until a fantastic post appeared from Allen Curtis on the TooFatLardies Yahoo Group. Allen posted a link to the Ordnance Survey map of Roman Britain which is available online in segments here.

I can do no better than to repeat Allen’s description of the map: “As this edition was first printed in 1928, it shows place names that have been changed in subsequent editions to reflect academics' current views. But the map's sheer size, as well as the style of presentation, makes it a marvellous thing to behold.”

Here’s part of the map from Eastern England, which covers St Albans and much of modern day east Hertfordshire and Essex perfectly.

And here’s part of the most northern segment of the map, covering the Antonine Wall. To my mind, few maps, if any, convey such a sense of frontier and wildness as this one.

I’m hoping the Ordnance Survey maps of Roman Britain will be much in use in our games over the weeks to come. And, I hope also in your games. And even if I feel like making a smaller map, having the larger one available online and in very subtle muted tones will be a great reference point and inspiration.

Thanks again to Allen for this find. Now, off to finish my mercenary Anglii (or Angles, or Angels), which I’m hoping will be the subject of my next post. Have a great weekend until then!

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Fickle Hand of Fate: The Battle of Jupiter’s Shrine, 454 A.D.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how carefully you plan a battle, when you’re out of luck – well, you know the rest ...

Here’s the hand which the Fate Deck dealt the Saxon warband in Tuesday’s playtest game of Dux Britanniarum. Impressive eh?

Apparently, I’m told that Oh Bollux is the ancient German God of utter rubbish. Given that out of the five Oh Bollux cards in the 52 card fate deck, we (the Saxon players) had ended up with holding three (out of a hand of just five cards) it was impressive indeed.

The game, the Battle of Jupiter’s Shrine was set around sub-Roman Verulamium in the fifth century A.D., with a Saxon raiding party attacking the British forces defending a small farmstead.

A Roman road, no doubt close to the current A414, bisected the table. Unlike other playtest games, we were trying out a slightly different set of cards from other TooFatLardies games. The Fate Deck emphasizes hand management with cards being divided into suits and bringing various benefits to the holder. Well, except for the Oh Bollux cards, that is.

The idea isn’t really all that new. TooFatLardies have used cards in their games consistently, but what is different is trying to build in some of the features of card-driven boardgames where cards can be used to influence action on the board in a variety of different ways. Some may add a simple bonus, some may add more effective bonuses when played with other cards of the same suit, and some may be held back for use in the post-game period to pursue a defeated enemy or make good and escape. It’s a really interesting idea, and one which certainly led to a fast and furious game last Tuesday night.

The action in the game started fairly conventionally, with the two forces stalking each other through the woods and the farmstead.

Soon enough battle was joined, with a Saxon warband charging into a detachment of British hearth-guard. The ability of careful card management to focus, propel and drive the action forward was really apparent. Perhaps flushed with excitement of placing cards which allowed shieldwalls to be braced, charges to be furious and extra charges, both sides threw their cards down into the first combat without hesitation.

Other action followed, with the main Saxon warband comprised of veterans crunching against the British shieldwall. More effective, battle-hardening cards were deployed by the British ...

... with the Saxons able only to place their three Oh Bollux cards in reply. Not quite heroic, but very amusing all the same. Unsurprisingly, the Saxon war leader, Cyddic, suffered a heavy defeat as the British, bolstered by British cards and some fine dice rolls threw the Saxons raiders back.

Cyddic, seeing that the best option was discretion rather than valour, beat a hasty exit accompanied by his champion and what was left with his hearth-guard, leaving possession of the field to the British.

So, there we have it. The third playtest and the rules are proving to be fast, furious, fun and feature an interesting interaction between the tabletop and the cards drawn from the fate deck. Still a long way to go, but even without a blogpost full of dodgy poetry, I think we’re possibly getting there.
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