Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book of War Elimination Tournament

For more than a decade, I've been working on a set of mass-combat rules that are compatible with D&D. (That is: The combat probabilities should match what would happen if you rolled individual fights for hundreds of characters in D&D). I also want the ruleset to be simple, elegant, fast-moving, and fun to play. In some circles, merely observing the need for this will cause an eruption of fierce argument (see prior posts here & elsewhere). But at long last, I think I'm closing in on a release state; when published, it will be titled "Book of War".

So as part of a premiere/playtest, I ran a single-elimination tournament at HelgaCon this past Saturday morning. This went super-well; there was a lot of excitement at both the play of the game and the prospect of a high-fidelity D&D simulation. The whole thing completely exceeded my expectations. (My favorite comment was probably, "This inspired me to get back into WarHammer and start painting miniatures again.") It is indeed fast-paced, in that we were able to play 4 full games in a 4-hour slot, with players brand-new to the game. The tournament format concerned me in advance (most people would have to be sidelined most of the time), but this turned out to be a distinct advantage on Saturday morning (some people could sleep in late, run an errand, shower, snooze a bit between games, etc.) Below I'll run down the games one-by-one. Note figure scale is 1:10; when you see one miniature imagine 10 men in formation. Games were run solely with the "Basic Rules" (no fantasy, heroes, or magic); initial games had 100-point armies, final round 200-points.

Game 1: Preliminary, Max vs. Jon. (This was actually played in the 2nd hour, as these guys slept in late.) Very rugged terrain -- many hills, rough, and a section of woods. Terrible situation for Jon's heavy cavalry. Max takes a high point with his longbows. Jon maneuvers behind the woods, shielding him from the archers. (This is the game illustrated in the photo above.) He charges first with pikes, followed by the cavalry, routing Max's pikes, infantry, and horse archers. Then Jon lines up his remaining pikes & cavalry, charging up the steep hill under a withering barrage; pikemen sacrificed to shield the cavalry, the longbowmen are finally met and cut down. Jon is victorious with 2 heavy cavalry figures left atop the hill.

As a side note, we found ourselves spontaneously giving personalities to certain figures who achieved heroic accomplishments. Although it had no effect on the gameplay, we decided that the leader of Jon's heavy cavalry was named the "Iron Duke", and we started using a special figure for him.

Game 2: Semifinal, BJ vs. Allister. Field was mostly open, with two deep gulleys and some rough. BJ's roving horse archers charge forward, eliminating the enemy longbows early, allowing them to thereafter roam at will across the battlefield. Opposing cavalry clash on the far edge of the board, big die rolls making Allister look victorious at first, but quickly being routed after that. BJ's horse archers ride and shoot, easily wiping out the rest of Allister's forces.

Note: I've never seen horse archers used as successfully as BJ used them here. Usually maneuvering them doesn't work as you'd hope, but BJ made it look easy. This was the most lopsided game I'd seen to date. We started calling BJ's supposed leader the "Great Khan".

Game 3: Semifinal, Jon vs. John. (For clarity, I'll refer to the latter John as JS; we're friends from back when we worked at Papyrus Racing together, for those of you who know what that is.) This field had a narrow gap between several impassable ponds, woods, etc. Jon elects to use the same force configuration as before (i.e., the Iron Duke). JS has been studying the other games intensely, asking play questions, etc.; he elects to go with longbows, horse archers (a la BJ), and heavy armored infantry (taking a clue from Jon's heavy cavalry success). JS approaches carefully and deliberately; a slow, powerful line of heavy infantry shielding the longbows & horse archers behind, up into the gap. So, Jon's Iron Duke does the obvious thing: the heavy cavalry crashes headlong into this strong, armored line. He rolls 5d6, and 3 come up 6's, devastating the heavy infantry (instantly killing 3 of 5 figures, routing the rest). The rest is a nearly forgone conclusion; he runs over the fleeing longbows, and hunts down the horse archers. At the end, bad rolls create a long chase with the heavy infantry; JS can't regain morale and Jon can't hit to finish them off. JS finally does regain morale, infantry turn to fight, eliminate at least one cavalry figure, but the "Iron Duke" wins the final roll. Victory to Jon and the "Iron Duke" -- even more narrowly than last time -- with one single figure left on the table.

Game 4: Final, Jon vs. BJ. In the final game, we doubled the army point values (200 points instead of 100). Each player basically doubled their prior forces (focus on heavy cavalry vs. horse archers). Due to a 2d6 roll of "12" on the terrain set-up table, we also saw the first use of the river terrain in any of my game play tests -- which was used as a very nice protective barrier for BJ, accessible from his army setup area. To offset that, Jon placed a woods terrain at the inner edge of the river bulge, hoping to disrupt any archers positioned there. Also multiple hills and an impassable pond near Jon's side.

BJ starts by advancing a protective line of pikes to the inner river edge, followed by heavy crossbows & longbows. The Great Khan's horse archers drive deep (circling & firing at heavy infantry), medium cavalry advancing alongside infantry in the middle. So what does Jon's Iron Duke heavy cavalry do? What he always does -- charge across the middle of the battlefield and crash into the hardest possible defensive point of the enemy. (You'll see this situation below: Jon's forces mostly red, BJ's forces mostly blue/yellow.)



In order to succeed here, Jon's heavy cavalry has to withstand a barrage of heavy crossbow & longbow fire, reach the river's edge, take a rear attack from BJ's medium cavalry, take a full turn crossing the river, fight at half-strength out of the river through the light flanking infantry, cross the difficult woods, beat through the line of pikes outside the woods (and their free attack from reach), take another point-blank fusilade of crossbow fire, and then finally run down all the archers. With a series of good die rolls (and stupendously unlucky ones from BJ), the Iron Duke accomplishes all that, emerging from the melee his usual gory mess.

But meanwhile, the Great Khan's horse archers have cleared the rest of the field and begun shadowing the Iron Duke from the other side of the river, raining arrows down from his advantageous left side. (All other units have basically been eliminated or run off; it's Duke vs. Khan with about 3 figures -- 30 men -- each.) The Duke loses a figure and loses morale for the first time in the tournament (!), his men routing towards the edge of the table. Against the odds, one single inch from the edge, he manages to regain morale and rally his men. He charges back across the river, taking arrows the whole way.

Several turns go by, horses galloping in the dust of the open battlefield, each maneuvering for position on the other (BJ faster but needing short range for an effective shot; Jon slower but unable to make any attack without base-to-base contact.) Finally, as we now see was fated from the beginning, they face off, motionless for a turn. (To my surprise, both players actually took no action for a turn. I started scrambling mentally for what to do in case of a stalemate.) Suddenly, the Khan races in for a shot, the Duke survives and charges with his men, each side pulls out swords and fights to the last. Jon's blood-soaked Duke is victorious, with just 2 figures left on the table at the end. A champion is declared!


What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. The game was so compelling that we couldn't avoid personalizing and giving names to particular figures, even though there was no in-game benefit (in the Basic ruleset).
  2. There was significant interest in the Advanced rules yet to come (heroes, magic, etc.)
  3. In the distant past we'd used WarHammer to play out D&D mass-combat, and we had a discussion on how it really hadn't been satisfying; there was no clear scale with which to convert either men or heroes (and the PCs' side was point-handicapped after every 4th-level PC was bought as a hero figure). This game holds the clear prospect of answering those questions in a fair and simple fashion.
  4. On a similar point, later in my Sunday game I discovered that, when necessary, I could convert regular D&D monsters to "Book of War" stats instantly in my head when, say, 10-100 of some totally random monster show up in OD&D. That was a really nice emergency discovery (not totally surprising, but first time I used it under fire); more on that later.
  5. It helps to have a 3rd-party referee at the table (especially so when it's the game designer). I was taking verbal orders from the players and then measuring & moving the figures in question. I didn't plan this in advance, but started it as a demonstration for the new players, and then I just kept doing it most of the time thereafter. Maybe just twice I had to make up an adjudication on the fly (like fighting while in the river, which I hadn't considered before), and obviously knowing the spirit of the game helped at those times.
What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. I got one suggestion to cut the hill terrain tiles into unique shapes. I think I'll probably skip that, because the rectangular tiles make it easy to pack up in an envelope and carry during travel (like, say, busing from NYC to Boston and back).
  2. While the river terrain piece worked great (designed by my girlfriend Isabelle: index cards taped at the back to a long string), in the photos they kind of stick out unpleasantly. I need to get some more photo-realistic river shots to fit in with the rest of my terrain. Either that, or I need some artist to create unique terrain pieces for everything in the game.


Final note: BJ's also blogged about his experience playing in this tournament, and as usual, he has better pictures. Check it out here.

7 comments:

  1. Just reading that report put me in the mood for the Warhammer - or better yet, Book of War.

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  2. You could probably "fix" the river just by gluing pictures of water to the face of the cards instead of the hand-drawn squiggly lines. It wouldn't take a lot of time or skill.

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  3. Please keep us posted on further developments!

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  4. You could still make the hills/woods etc. non-rectangular shapes but not cut them out. The white border on the outside of the card would then simply not count as part of the terrain, but make the cards easier to transport.

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  5. This sounds great! It's just what I needed for my last session, now that they're starting to make alliances in Stonehell to take on the deeper reaches; and with the shenanigans they're planning, i'd love to get my mits on it! I don't suppose you're looking for an outside playtester, are you?

    As for the river: I'd say that if you just colored the tiles blue and green with colored pencils or markers, they'd look just fine. For my Chainmail battles, I've always used the Terrain Pack for Battleground Fantasy Warfare by Your Move Games. They have a good variety of terrain types and they support both wet- and dry-erase, and the price is decent too.

    My apologies if this double-posts, I'm having some internet weirdness at the moment.

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  6. OdRook, send me an email? Delta at superdan dot net.

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