The Barons' War is a 28mm medieval skirmish ruleset for a tabletop wargame by Andy Hobday and is published by Footsore Games. With a few games under my belt I felt ready for a review.
|Rulebook and counters|
The game was either followed up by several medieval figures Kickstarters by Footsore Miniatures or caused by them. I missed the exact order of events but in any case this means that the game is accompanied by the Footsore range of very good miniatures for 13th century England. But these miniatures are not my objective; the ruleset is. What about it?
The book is an small (A5) full colour booklet of some 135 pages. It is beautifully illustrated and filled with excellently explanatory diagrams and pictures, a lot of which feature Footsore's beautiful 28mm figures for the game. Due to its small size the font is a bit small as well and the pages are so densely filled with text that my usual ploy to cut off the back and give the book a spiral binding was unfortunately not an option. This leaves me with a small rulebook that will snap shut as soon as you let go of it and needs good light to be legible. Of course that might be my age :)
The layout shows a comprehensive and logical sequence of chapters in which the game is introduced, shows what is needed and roughly follows the sequence a game turn would take. There are chapters on army structure (your "Retinue"), the Game Round, Movement, Combat, Morale, building your Retinue and so on.
This logical sequencing is not always mirrored in the contents of the chapters however. For example the rules for Morale are spread out over the chapters Game Round, Combat and Morale, which does not seem a logical choice given the fact there is a Morale chapter where all of them should have been found.
The book contains extensive lists of troop types and characters, scenarios and tips for scenarios and two lists with all kinds of Abilities with lots of choice to give your units that final touch of individuality. There are two lists because the Abilities come in two flavors: Inherent (fixed to specific troop types) and optional (which can be bought for points). This is not immediately clear so it took me a while to track down some Abilities during play.
The book also includes a QRS and a scannable/printable page for the counters used in the game. The counters can also be bought separately by the way, printed on mdf.
The rules offer a mechanism with alternate unit Activation, which offers the unit the choice to perform an Action or use an Action for a reaction. Most Units have only one Action but some elite or commanding units have more. Commanding units may give additional actions to other units. When a unit Activates twice in a turn it becomes Weary and suffers from die roll penalties.
Actions include Moving, Combat, Defending, Commanding or using an Ability.
Units come in types (Knights, Spearmen, Archers for example) and classes (Veteran, Regular, Irregular and Green). Type determines their standard and optional equipment and class determines their stats and possible Abilities.
Of course combat is the gist of any wargame. So how does that pan out?
The Combat mechanism is pretty complicated and is explained on the QRS by a 11-step flow chart. In itself this is not unexpected in a skirmish system with a high degree of figure individuality.
In short, after the conditions for entering combat are met the attacker rolls for Charging distance (which may win or lose him an Attack die), makes contact and rolls Attack dice. The Defender has decided to use an Action in Defence or not, rolls Defence dice, adds possible Action modifiers, rolls Shield rolls (a kind of extra Save) for failed Defence rolls and when applicable executes his Defence Action. Both groups then move away from each other while the loser may be Forced back further and may have to make Morale checks. You get the idea why a flow-chart would come in handy...
But there are some surprising contrasts in combat. While the combat mechanism in itself is complex, the rest of combat is extremely simplified.
For example; when a figure loses its last Health Point it is dead. But losing 1 of several does not cause any effects. The wound is simply lost. There is no "Wounded" condition.
While Line-of-Sight is a condition for a Charge, units have a field of sight of 360 degrees. So attacking someone from behind or in a flank has no influence whatsoever.
It was not what I expected from a skirmish game of some granularity, especially since figures and characters can be highly individualized. Such granularity is present in some places but completely absent in others.
Some aspects of the game seem overly complex. The game uses 8 different counters to indicate that a unit has done or experienced something. But as far as I can see, Broken, Shocked, Weary and Defend are the only ones with any specific effect. The other four could have been simply "Activated" counters. This results in a LOT of counters on the table (although you could play them on the unit card) and a lot of rummaging around for the right counter.
The how's, why's and consequences of Morale checks (made to benefit from a Command or as a Reaction to something scary) are complex as well. Being spread out over three chapters doesn't make it any easier to grasp but there are also two different Morale consequences, Broken and Shocked, that are caused by different things and have completely different effects. At the same time, Shocked units might become Broken but not the other way around.
So what is good?
The game is obviously very carefully and lovingly made and the book and the rules show this. Production value of the book is excellent.
Although several expansions have already been published the game is very complete in its own right. This is a well laid-out ruleset which includes historical background, complete army lists, scenarios, terrain tips and lots of possibility to flesh out your army with all kinds of individual traits and Abilities. There is even an army list for Robin Hood and his Merry Men as well as stats for several historical figures to feature in your games.
The rules offer you a relatively quick-playing and classic war game which can yield clear and bloody results but may also give you tense to-and-fro battles. The fact that Commanders actually have a Commanding function in the game definitely is a good thing.
And if you don't already own a medieval 28mm collection the game is supported by the Footsore range of figures, sculpted by the magnificent Paul Hicks.
What could be better?
As rules mechanisms go, this one is a bit of mixed bag. Maneuvering and getting into combat or range is a simple affair, but the actual combat is a very complicated procedure which ultimately produces very simple results: some figures die, a mutual move backwards and a possible Morale result. Which makes it hard to determine what is gained by the complexity when it IS there.
Some choices are puzzling. For example: why is a Shield roll a separate Save while Armour is included in the figure's stats? Why, in what is after all a relatively complex skirmish game, are there no field-of-vision of rear- or flank attack options so maneuvering would be much more interesting? I would gladly exchange the complicated combat sequence for more challenging maneuvering options. And why not have both? This is a skirmish game afer all.
Keeping track of all the different actions and their consequences with the numerous counters can be a laborious and cluttery affair.
Rules, especially the Morale rules, are not confined to the Morale chapter but are rather randomly spread out over several chapters, making them not only hard to find but also making it difficult to grasp how they work together.
|Perry trumpeter and Fireforge knight|
The Barons' War offers a good and classic medieval skirmish game. It is not innovative or as challenging as it might have been but it is well made and very well supported. There are others like it (like Ospreys Outremer: Faith and Blood) but the Barons' War does its job well.