Played a game of Song of Blades and Heroes today because the D&D Encounters game I was expecting to play wasn’t starting till next week. It was the first war game I’ve played since high school. (And high school was a very long time ago now.) Skirmish games are fun. Tempted to get some miniatures. - Me, 25th October 2012, on G+ (RIP)
Many years ago I would attend D&D Encounters on the same night the Toronto Historical Wargaming Club would host their meet-ups. I would hang out and chat with the club members before and after my D&D games. On one such occasion I ended up playing A Song of Blades and Heroes, which was such a charming game I went out and grabbed the PDF. I never played again, but liked it so much I also bought the book in print a few years later. Fast forward a million years and I am stuck at home with a pretty healthy collection of painted minis. So, I decided to make war bands out of my Warhammer Underworld miniatures and play games: Ram vs. Ram.
A Song of Blades and Heroes by Andrea Sfiligoi is a dead simple skirmish game. You play battles between war bands comprised of about 5-15 miniatures. The game can be played quickly, something I never managed to accomplish playing Kill Team with Evan.
Units have two attributes: Quality and Combat. They may optionally have a few special traits that impact the rules, like “flying” or “savage”. Everything about a character is abstracted into these two attributes and these traits. Even different weapons are undifferentiated. People who like a lot of customization may find it a bit disappointing. I find it refreshing. Making your own units is easy. There is a simple point calculator online so you can make your own units that are balanced against everything in the book and everything else you might make. It’s remarkably easy to make units that feel the way you want them to feel.
The game has an unusual turn structure. On your turn you need to ‘activate’ a model to use it by rolling up to 3 dice. Each roll equal to or greater than the unit’s quality is a success, otherwise it’s a failure. Each success lets you perform an action with the unit: move, fight, etc. If you roll 2 failures you don’t get to activate any additional models and play flips to your opponent. You can obviously play it safe and only roll 1 dice, but you won’t accomplish much. It’s satisfying rolling 3 dice and getting those 3 successes; surprising when you roll snake eyes with your high quality unit.
This is (basically) all there is to the game: that simplicity!
Andrea has built many games on top of this chasis. There is a slightly more advanced version of a Song of Blades and Heroes, with a name you can likely guess, and then a million variations with names you likely can’t. His catalogue of games is all over the place. He’s an impressive and prolific game designer.
I love this game and I can’t recommend it enough, but I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a small amount of time moaning about the books frumpy layout and information design: it’s frumpy. I feel like a good editor and graphic design person could turn this book into something superlative. As it stands, it gets the job done.
Anyway, I am reviewing the game not the book. The game is fucking great. If you are interested in miniature war games this is the one to grab.
In 2019 a lot of people were expecting (hoping?) Games Workshop would release a skirmish game in the vein of Mordheim, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Instead, Games Workshop announced Warcry, and I don’t think people were too upset because it was looking pretty hot. Warcry feels like a throw back to the old Realms of Chaos books: it’s a game about Chaos cultists killing each other. Warcry will look familiar to people who have been paying attention to what Games Workshop has been doing recently, but I think this might be their best game yet. (Maybe that’s a low bar, because a lot of their games aren’t actually very good? Ha!)
Warcry feels like it strips away everything I find aggravating about traditional Warhammer games. So, if you also dislike the things I find annoying about Warhammer 40K or Kill Team this might be the game for you! Let’s dig in.
Warcry is a skirmish game. This means its model count is low. Fantastic. The number of units each faction can field is also quite small. Each unit is described by a card, and that is the end of that story. There are no data sheets with a bunch of options and upgrades and all that nonsense. A unit has some stats and one or two weapons. This makes list building pretty simple. You might have 6-10 different units available, and you would mix and match to units to end up with 3-15 models, with one leader, all costing under 1000 points.
The starter set comes with 4 decks of cards that are meant to help you kick off a game. For those of you who have used the Open War cards for Warhammer 40K, it’s very much in the same vein. A terrain card tells you how to set up the board, a deployment card tells you how to deploy troops, a victory card tells you how you will win the game, and a twist card adds a special rule to the battle. Deployment in Warcry is a bit unusual. Each deployment card has 3 symbols: a Dagger, Shield, and Hammer. You must split your models up into three groups that correspond to these symbols. You might have games where you and your opponent’s Dagger units start the game right next to each other. In other games you might be on the opposite sides of the board. Some deployment cards will indicate you deploy your troops in subsequent rounds. Your Hammer may show up in the 3rd round, turning the tide of the battle. This makes for interesting and unique games.1
The game play itself is also simpler. You move your movement score in inches, any which way you like. If you want to climb a wall go nuts. If you want to jump a gap, just jump. The game feels very dynamic. Attacking is also much more straightforward. You roll a number of d6s depending on your weapon, try to beat a target score based on your weapon’s strength and the target’s toughness (which should be familiar to any warhammer player), and finally if you score hits you do a fixed amount of damage. (If you scored a 6 that’s roll is a critical hit and do more damage.) That’s the end of that story. There is no rolling to wound, no rolling for armour saves, etc, etc. They’ve basically moved all of that dice rolling into the damage and hit point scores of the various units.
Perhaps the last notable thing about Warcry is its abilities system. You start a round by rolling 6 dice for initiative. You set aside doubles, tripples and quads. The number of singles you have is your initiative, the higher number goes first. The other dice you’ve set aside can be used during the round to use special abilities each faction posesses. These are listed on a small card. There aren’t pages and pages of strategems to worry about. Some abilities can only be used by particular units. Maybe that’s the most complicated thing about them. Abilities help differentiate the various armies, and introduce some more twists into the game, without adding a lot of complexity.
I haven’t gotten to play Warcry much: just one game with Patrick while I was in the UK. One day, when this pandemic is over, I hope to play it again. Maybe run its weird-ass campaign strucuture—a topic for another blog post.
For those of you who care about ‘balance’, there are a subset of the cards that are meant to create more symmetrical situations. ↩
One Page Rules makes a set of games seemingly designed to give you a (far) simpler alternative ruleset to play wargames using your fancy Warhammer miniatures.1 They have two main games, Age of Fantasy, which could be used as an alternative to Age of Sigmar, and Grimdark Future, an alternative to Warhammer 40,000. There are two matching skirmish games, and for those of you who miss Warhammer Fantasy Battle they also have one page rules for that style of game. Impressive!
Compared to the other games Games Workshop puts out Warcry is a pretty simple game, but Age of Fantasy Skirmish manages to be even simpler. Units are defined by: two stats (quality and defence), the weapons they may have, and in some cases a few special abilities. Weapon profiles themselves are also quite simple: a weapon tells you how many dice to roll when attacking, and if the has any special attributes—there aren’t that many to worry about. Here’s an example of the leader of one of my warbands:
This character needs to roll 3 or higher to both attack and defend. His Great Weapon rolls 3 dice to attack (A3). You score a hit by beating your quality score on a d6. This is a quality test. You defend hits by rolling a d6 for each hit and trying to beat your defense score. In this case defenders will have a penalty of 2 when rolling for defense because of the weapon’s Armour Peircing score of 2 (AP2). This unit is a hero, so regular units within 12” of this model can use its quality score when rolling for morale. Tough(3) means he can take 3 wounds before he needs to start rolling to see if he’s taken out of action.
The game uses alternating activation: each player alternates activating a single unit. Units can move, shoot, or charge into melee on their turn. When your army is at half size you roll for morale. There honestly isn’t much more to the game than this. The extra abilities help differentiate units and keep things interesting.
The various One Page Rules games all play fairly similarly, so if you learn one you’ll probably have learned them all. The rules fit on a sheet of paper, you can just read them and see if they sound interesting.
The following day I set up the game again and played two games against my daughter. I was helping her with the rules, but for the most part she picked things up quickly and by the end understood the important bits and bobs of the game. I think something like Warcry or honest-to-god Age of Sigmar would be a bridge too far for her.
I plan to give Grimdark Future a go next. Will report back with how that goes.
Or, paper miniatures, stuff you bought in one of those Reaper Bones Kickstarters, stuff from a CMOM boardgame, whatever! ↩