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. ↩
I have a few miniatures from Kingdom Death that might work in this sort of setting. I could likely make a neat Dark Souls inspired knightly retinue. The game has a really lovely implied setting—which I will now ignore for the rest of this post. I have a ton of Warhammer 40,000 miniatures, and I’d really like to use them with these rules.
Emmy provides a ton of advice in her game about how to make your characters. For each stat she outlines what reasonable numbers should be. She provides various examples for different types of characters so you can get a sense of what a scholar knight or a monk or an acrobat might be. Using a model’s stats from 40K as a guide it shouldn’t be too difficult to use the rules of The Dolorous Stroke to play games set in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future.
In 40K we have the following stats for a character: Movement, Weapon Skill, Ballistics Skill, Strength, Toughness, Attacks, Wounds, Saves, Leadership. We can use these as a guide to creating characters for The Dolorous Stroke, whose attributes are: Speed, Accuracy, Prowess, Strength, Toughness, Wits, and Education.
Movement maps to Speed and we can more or less use the value as written. 6” movement in 40K is quite common, but in Emmy’s game it seems like 5” is closer to the norm. You should probably subtract 1” from most 40K characters Movement attribute to get your new Speed score. (Note that this may make some characters—like Plague Marines—particularly slow.)
Ballistics Skill maps to Accuracy and Weapons Skill to Prowess. In Warhammer you roll over your skills on a d6. A Ballistics Skill of 3+ (like that of a Space Marine) would be equivalent, more or less, to an Accuracy of 6. Here we use Emmy’s advice that you are usually trying to roll low on a d8. The way you roll with your Prowess stat in combat differs from how your Weapons Skill is used in 40K, but I think it’s reasonable to map scores the same way.
Strength and Toughness serve the same purpose in both 40K and The Dolorous Stroke, though the way the numbers are used differ. Emmy suggests you use the value of 4 or 5 for a typical human. In 40K most human characters have a Strength and Toughness of 3. Space Marines have a toughness of 4. Plague Marines a toughness of 5. Numbers of 6 or higher are usually reserved for giant robots, tanks, dreadnoughts, etc. I think I would map things as follows:
Characters that have multiple attacks in 40k (an Attacks score greater than 1) should be given combat abilities in The Dolorous Stroke that highlight the fact they are proficient fighters. Characters with high Leadership scores may also deserve some skills to highlight that—like the aptly named Leadership skill for example.
A characters Saves attribute in 40K is usually an indication of how good their armour is, or some hint at their natural resilience. Space Marines generally have a score of 3+, with Terminator Armoured characters or heroes being given 2+ saves. The lighter armour of a Guardsmen is usually a 5+ save. These numbers can be used as a guide when deciding the bonuses of the armour in The Dolorous Stroke. I would treat a Guardsmen as having +1 armour (Light Armour) while a Space Marine would be +3 (Heavy Armour and a Helment).
The last two attributes in The Dolorous Stroke, Wit and Education, don’t map to anything in 40K. You should likely use your judgement here, based on how you imagine your particular character.
All characters in The Dolorous Stroke can take at most 7 hits before they die (as you lose 2 Blood cards per hit). You will likely die sooner because of injuries or other circumstances. To represent characters who have more wounds in 40K, you may want to give them skills that limit the ways they lose blood or take injuries.
I would treat Psyker’s in 40K as Magic-Users in The Dolorous Stroke. You can re-skin existing spells or make up new ones as required. In 40K a Psyker risks danger when they manifest powers from the Warp. I would tweak spell casting in Dolorous Strike so that drawing an Ace or a King results in possible peril from the warp. The most straight forward thing to do is have the Psyker lose some number of Blood cards. If the Psyker dies you should have the units around them affected by the turmoil of the Warp. Maybe they explode. Maybe a demon erupts from their body.
I would simply re-skin existing weapons in The Dolorous Stroke for your 40K characters, using their existing Weapon Profiles from 40K as a guide. You can represent weapons that do more damage in 40K by having them result in the loss of more Blood cards. The Dolorous Stroke is straightforward enough that coming up with bespoke weapons should be easy enough.
I haven’t actually tried using any of these suggestions in a game. I haven’t even played The Dolorous Stroke yet! At first glance it looks to be a very cool game, and I suspect a lot of people will be talking about it sooner rather than later. I’ll report back if these ideas work out or not. (Or, maybe you can tell me if they worked for you.)