Sarge's Advice: Book of War Q&A

Officer overlooking training field

Some months ago, Jarrett Perdue wrote to me with a number of good questions that arose from playing the Book of War fantasy miniatures supplement (see sidebar) with his daughter. This seemed like a good opportunity to start a FAQ-like response list, so here it is. Hopefully it's useful/helpful. Here's our exchange:

First off, thank you for your willingness to field a few questions on Book of War.  I really appreciate how you've brought OD&D and wargaming back together in this product (Battlesystem was cool, but never felt like D&D to me).  My daughter and I have enjoyed the three games we've played since my copy of the book arrived.  The following are all situations that arose in those couple matches:

1. Who chooses which models to lay down (and later remove) as casualties, the attacker or defender?

The current book says all losses come from the back rank ("Formation", para. 2, p. 8), so there's usually little choice. In case of dispute I let the defender flip them over.

2. Are casualties ALWAYS removed from the back ranks of a unit or from the ranks farthest from the unit inflicting the casualties? (e.g. a unit being assaulted from behind)

I do actually go with the back rank all the time. I think this simulates men crowding forward, and getting wiped out more completely when attacked in the rear.

3. What happens when a unit takes enough casualties to cause it to no longer have contact with an enemy unit?

This happened twice in our recent game.  In one case a unit with many files (one rank) entered combat with a very small unit (4 files, two ranks) and suffered enough casualties that every model touching the enemy was lost. In the same match a unit flanked front and rear lost its entire rear rank due to casualties, leaving a "gap" between it and the rear attacker.

Does combat end (the units touching corner-to corner) or is the attacker simply moved forward to re-engage as a sort of bonus move?

The attacker certainly gets the benefit of all their allowed attacks in the current turn (i.e., however many hits accrued from the figures touching when combat was resolved). As the turn then goes to the next player, this may make some slight extra room for them to escape, if desired. In most cases the attacker will be able to close the distance on their next turn and continuing attacking, if they wish (which bears on the next question).

4. When a unit fails a morale check does it get a "free" about face or does it have to await its own turn and pay the regular cost for this maneuver (1/2 move) before moving away from the enemy that routed it?

If the latter is the case, doesn't that mean that routing units can almost always be overtaken by pursuers? (not that this is a bad thing of course)

There's no free movement. The routing unit does indeed have to wait until their normal move turn before about-facing and moving away. Yes, in the majority of cases the attacker can then run them over the backside on their next turn. Generally only light cavalry have the capacity to make the about-face and get far enough away to avoid follow-up attacks.

(I should point out that in current play here, we've actually removed the recovery-from-rout rule to the optional rules section; in default play there's no recovery, and so attackers generally just let them rout of the table and turn their attention elsewhere. See also question #14 below.)

5. When squaring up during an attack, does the attacker shift to match the defender's position or vice versa?

On contact the attacker (that is, the player moving at the time) should rotate forward in the normal fashion to meet the defender along a common line segment. That's not to say that the unit sideways-scrapes to get more contact surface. The basic idea is that units don't contact at just a point/vertex.

6. How do you resolve this when the squaring up adjustment carries the unit into contact with additional enemy units?

I've got to say, I don't recall this happening in a game. Since everyone only move forwards, I think the only way this could occur is for A to meet B at a corner, and somehow have C in the tiny "wedge" space in between. If that ever happened I'd engage "a long unit can be bent along its major axis" and wrap around both B and C as flush as possible.

7. Casualties from missile fire are also removed from the back of the unit first, true (even if the farthest archer couldn't actually reach the rear rank of the enemy unit)?

Yes. The idiom is that men are falling at the front, and other men are stepping forward to fill the ranks automatically. (See #10 below for a related point.)

8. What do you perceive to be the relative costs in points/gold for various attributes?  For example, skeletons would not break morale, regardless of losses.  We discovered that to be very impactful on the battlefield of course.  How should I weight the point value appropriately if I wanted to play a balanced match?

You're right that morale is probably the key mechanism by which games are won, lost, and become dramatic. Undead being morale-free is an advantage; but at least in OD&D they're also very slow (6") which offsets this. E.g., I've found normal skeletons to be balanced at 4 gold, the same as regular light infantry. That said, in playtests, undead force a very long/slow-paced game (has a "chalky" taste to me), where you just have to slowly smash them all down without respite from morale. I kind of recommend not having big undead battles of you can avoid it. See blog links:

9. How about the point values of movement, hit dice, and AH?

I definitely recommend against trying to price out individual attributes. As game design, that always breaks down, and you've got to consider each unit holistically. You might search for the phrase "acid test" on the blog here. (See more about this topic in a future post.)

10. No firing into woods, true?  What if a unit is only partially in the woods (left flank exposed)?

Right, no firing into woods. As written, if even part of one figure of a unit is sticking out, then that unit can be targeted normally. (At times I've considered an optional rule wherein a unit can be flush inside the edge of a wood, fire out normally, and get a +1 armor bonus on incoming fire; feel free to play with that if it sounds like a good idea.)

11. When turning (wheeling) are terrain costs counted as well as the cost of 1" per file for turns between 45 and 90 degrees?  For example, a cavalry unit wheeling in the woods pays double terrain plus the number of inches that it has files ... or the number of files it has times terrain cost x2 (since it is cav)?  Sort of an order of operations question :)

Right, wheeling has normal terrain cost applied to it; so e.g. cavalry wheeling through woods is number of files ×2. The foundational idea here is that the "wheeling" cost is just a shortcut for the normal distance moved on the table; if you get out a bendable ruler or string and measure the outside movement, then you'll find that it approximately matches up. (E.g., 3 figures each 3/4" wide through a quarter-circle has arclength 3 × 3/4" × τ/4 = 3.5").

12. Are terrain costs paid from the front of the unit?  For example, a unit five ranks deep is in the woods, 1" from the edge.  It advances an inch (at a cost of 2") then a second inch (at a cost of 1") before halting.  The rear two ranks are still in the woods, but when the unit moves next turn it doesn't pay any additional terrain costs, true?

Yes, move costs are only from the front of the unit. Once the lead rank gets out of the woods, everyone behind them catches up "for free". That's obviously a rough simplification for gameplay purposes. (Maybe that's a weak point that needs fixing? But I don't recall it being a major issue in the past. Arguably if the front line does anything "interesting" like engage in combat, then the back ranks would have time to catch up and join them.)

13.Can you launch arrows OUT of the woods?

No arrows shot out of woods. See #10 above for an optional rule that I sometimes imagine.

14. Pg 9, para 6 says, "At the end of a turn in which it [a routed unit] avoids any loss, a unit may attempt another Morale check to recover from the routed status..."  Since a unit can only take losses on its opponent's turn, is that what is being referred to here (the normal morale check phase rolled at the end of the enemy's turn, or is this referring to something else? A separate morale check made at the end of a unit's own movement for instance?)

Right, this recovery-morale check happens at the end of the enemy's turn, at the same time the same player in question is making morale checks for all their units who did take losses. (There are times when I consider making "morale checks" the start of the turn sequence, so that everything in the turn is being decided/rolled by one player in question. However, I like getting that over and sweeping dead figures off the board before the end of the turn. See also #4 above that in our current play we've actually removed the recovery rule from the basic play.)

15. A unit of skeletons was attacked both from the front and upon the right flank by two separate enemy units. The skeleton model on the front, right corner found itself in contact with two separate enemy models. The player would have to choose, as an entire unit, which enemy unit to attack on the skeleton turn, true?

If a unit is in contact with multiple enemy units, I do let the individual attacking figures make attacks against whichever unit they're contacting. For example: unit A in contact with enemies B and C; some figures of A will be attacking B, and others C, determined by direct base contact. If a single figure in A contacts both B and C (your corner case), then the attacking player gets to decide that particular figure's target.

16. In the same battle the skeletons, who were about four ranks deep, were simultaneously attacked from both front and rear. In this case could the skeletons, on their own attack phase, attack the enemy units both to their front AND their rear (at a -1) or would they have to choose between the two? If the answer is the former, what does that imply for the hedgehog formation? Does it merely prevent the -1 penalty?

To return attacks, figures do have to face their enemy; I always allow this changing-face for a unit on their turn who's already in combat. So when a unit gets hit from both front & rear, on their next turn they usually about-face outward ("hedgehog", effectively), and then get normal attacks with the units in contact on each side. (I don't think there's ever a ─1 for attacks; the idea being you're either facing/attacking someone, or not-facing/not-attacking at all. Of course, there is the +1 to hit if you're attacking a unit in the backside.)


  1. Regarding #8, and I've skimmed the links to make sure I'm not restating something, but have you considered the "load bearing necromancer" rule as a balancing factor? If I recall correctly from Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules circa 2000 or so (and I know that WH and Chainmail/OD&D are different beasties), the general of an undead army is considered the lynch pin, having been the one whose dread power raised the corpse corps from their graves. Thus if the necromancer or vampire lord or whatever gets taken out, the army begins to collapse a certain number of units at a time. Might be an interesting optional variant, at least.

    1. That's neat; actually the best idea for fixing that issue that I've heard to date. I'd actually never come across that rule -- don't think it's in the 6E core rulebook I have, and never saw enough live WH in play to know about. I'm going to jot that down in my revision "todo" list. Thank you for bringing that up!

    2. I remember it from playing against Paul when all of us at GA got caught up in Warhammer fever and were having battles in the office. He fielded both flavors of GW undead, although I think that rule was particular to the Vampire Counts armies. I think the Tomb Kings had a bit more staying power. I just thumbed thru my 6E book too and didn't find the rule. It's probably in the Undead army book.

      I imagine it was GW's solution to the exact problem you outline, of how do you keep an army that ignores rout rules from being a slog to play.

      I think one thing that makes it interesting is that losing the general isn't an instant loss for the undead side, so much as it makes the rest of the battle a race against time. Can they accomplish their goal before their forces fall apart? Now both sides have something to play off of.

    3. I played Warhammer for a few years, both before and after they separated the Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings into separate armies. The execution differed, but in both cases it called for the undead to roll against their otherwise-unused Leadership stat - which for any of the weakest types, was a 5 or under on 2d6 to succeed. This check was repeated at the start of each of the undead player's turns for the rest of the game.

      In the older version, it was a binary check - on a failure, the entire unit collapsed. In the newer edition with separate vampire and mummy armies, they rolled out a more generous system where your units instead suffered automatic wounds equal to however much you failed your Leadership test by.

      Incidentally, this was similar to how they were balanced in melee combat. Specifically, if they were on the losing side (as determined by number of wounds caused by each side, supporting rank bonuses, flank/rear attack bonuses, etc.) then they suffered additional wounds equal to the difference in combat results. So if all others factors in the combat resolution were equal and a unit of orcs destroyed three skeletons whilst taking only a single loss in return, then an additional two skeletons would be lost at the end of the melee turn.

      As as a bit of trivia, ghouls in WH aren't technically undead, so they respond to the death of the general as normal for living creatures by testing for panic. They're also characterized as cowardly and unruly, so they automatically fail break tests if defeated in a round of melee, and aren't allowed to pursue enemies that retreat from melee as they stop to eat the bodies. In return for those disadvantages, though, you get quite the bargain on points-value for combat capability, paying 1.5 times the price of a normal man for a creature with that's tougher to wound, has two attacks, and causes fear.

    4. Those are great ideas. Thanks for that, guys.

  2. The thing I always liked about WH's undead leader rule was that it encouraged play-style that had a certain verisimilitude with the fiction of the army type. That is, for most armies, like say the Empire, your general was your toughest model on the field so he tended to lead from the front. He'd be on a horse leading the cavalry charge or up front and center with the strongest infantry unit you had.

    With Vampire Counts, your vampire was still really quite powerful, but you knew any time he got into melee you were sticking your neck out. So you tended instead to lead from behind, only put him into melee when it was a sure thing, or my favorite - put him on a highly mobile and powerful mount. That way he could bounce around the battlefield raising more troops where needed, but stray artillery or archery fire was more likely to hit his undead dragon or whatever.

    All of which means you've got your noble human knight leader scrummed in with his men leading the charge, and you've got your vile necromancer / vampire flitting about the field raising barriers of undead between himself and the enemy. Sounds right in fiction to me.

    1. I'm totally down with that, completely convincing. I'm scratching my head a bit at how I was unaware of that rule for so long.

    2. I remember a conversation you and I had at the time where you posited that necromancers were sort of the solitary mad bombers of the fantasy world.

      Whereas the other armies all had to be rallied from the populace and led to battle by kings or nobles or whatever, all it took for an undead army to arise was one malcontent with a grudge and access to the right vile tomes.

    3. Whoever said that, I love it! :-D

    4. Somehow I magically missed every important interaction about this.

    5. Justification is also baked right into the OD&D rules text for us: "Skeletons and Zombies act only under the instructions of their motivator, be it a Magic-User or Cleric (Chaos)" [Vol-2, p. 9]