One of the better, but often undersung, experiences in the story of 2-player minis combat.
Some of the interesting mechanics that set wargames apart as a genre are those tied to the difficulties of command. In modern parlance, C3 or command, control, and communication is an essential part of any kind of military planning, whether in the long-term or on the day of whatever action is taking place. Having good communication between the leader of your army and the various units that make it up is often a key to success, even above technological differences, one side outnumbering the other, and so on. The army that can coordinate well and move at the right time is the one that will most often succeed. Games try to emphasize that need for communication- and the difficulty of knowing what the enemy will do or is doing in response -by using any number of approaches, from the "fog of war" (Did those German knights leave Acre or not?) to rules that simply deny the ability of units to move because they don't know where they're going if they're too far from central command (Columbia's Shenandoah is a good example of this.) But those detailed modifications to play are often the province of "grognard" games that either use a hex-and-counter system or blocks and are almost always historical sims, trying to hew to the conditions that actually affected battles from what we know about them. Most minis games, in contrast, are more interested in the "crunchier" aspect of gaming, like what different abilities various units have and just how they can blow stuff up, rather than whether they know what the general wants them to do. Most of Games Workshop's legion of titles are usually a good example of this. But one of my all-time favorite minis games that does a brilliant job of both emphasizing C3 and making difficult choices on the board that often have little to do with slaughtering the opponent is Battlelore, Second Edition.
In B2E's Command card system, it both modulates the IGOUGO drawback of many GW titles (wherein one side moves and attacks with all their units before their opponent can lift a finger) and simulates the limitations of communication in a medieval/fantasy scenario; such that hard choices occur in every turn of play, for both players, depending on what their available hand of four cards allows and what their overall scenario goals for the game are. This is the brilliance of this sadly long out-of-print FFG production and why I think it deserves a longer look at what it presented, both for the hardcore wargamer and the more casual fantasy adventurer. This will be a four-parter, with this first part looking at the essential tenets of the game (and the small neutral unit expansions) and the next three making a deeper exploration of the three available factions: The Daqan Lords, The Uthuk Y'llan, and the hordes of Waiqar the Undying. (For those interested in trying out the fourth faction from the Runewars game upon which B2E is based, The Latari Elves, BGG user Budgernaut took a couple years to develop them and posted them on the game's page. I have not had the opportunity to try them, to date.)
First off, let's be aware: B2E is just this side of a "lifestyle" game, in that it's possible to spend a considerable amount of time outside the game drawing up army lists in the fashion of your average Warhammer 40K player. The selection of available units and options isn't nearly as dense and varied, but when you sit down to a game, unless you take one of the available pre-made army lists that came with both base game and expansions, you might have to spend a few minutes adding up points. And then there's the Lore deck, which you'll often want to make changes to that reflect said army list (e.g. there's little sense in having Take to the Skies in your Daqan Lore deck if you're not even playing a Roc Warrior.) And then there's picking a scenario, which means both players setting up terrain on their half of the board and doing hidden deployment. So, yeah... There's potentially quite a bit involved before you play a single Command card and roll some dice. But all of that also questions just how competitive you want to be. As noted, you can grab one of those preset army lists, pick a random scenario, and spend all your time looking at your edge of the board to get your units in the right spot and not worry about your opponent taking advantage of that intelligence and be ready to go in a couple minutes. This, again, is an example of how appealing the game can be to both regular players who know their army inside out and those who just want to pick up and play, which is another very positive aspect to it, IMO. Jervis Johnson, take note.
The game is set in FFG's Mennara/Terrinoth world, in the same circumstances that they introduced with Runewars, where the humans of Daqan are competing with their demon-infested brethren, the Uthuk, and whom are both trying to keep the undead legions of the necromancer, Waiqar the Undying, in check. In the same way that 40K can be seen as the "drilled down" squad-level combat of its sister title, Epic Armageddon, B2E can fit the same role with Runewars; a tactical setting, rather than a strategic one, as it were. The board is split into three sections to mirror the depiction of the Command cards which then dictate which units will activate in that turn and which will not. And, similarly to Epic, Command cards remove some of the "helpless" feeling that players often have with an IGOUGO approach because, with any given card, only a certain number of units will be available to move and/or attack. If your unit of Blood Harvesters is adjacent to some Riverwatch Riders in the middle section, but you only have an Attack Left, Patrol Right, Cavalry Charge, and Darken the Skies in hand, then you're out of luck. Those Harvesters just didn't get the order (literally) from you, the general, to make their move. On the other hand, if you have an Echelon Left in hand, you can order them and two other units that are in the left section. But what if your scenario goal is oriented around preserving a location in the right section that your enemy is now bearing down on? Would it be better to preserve that goal and/or prevent your opponent from achieving theirs or instead take advantage of the easy target in the middle? These are the key decisions that will come up in every turn of B2E.
The Command deck is comprised of: Attack Center x3, Attack Left x3, Attack Right x3, Battle March x2, Battlelore x2, Cavalry Charge x2, Clash of Steel x2, Counterattack x2, Darken the Skies x2, Desperate Ploy x2, Echelon Left x2, Echelon Right x2, Line Advance x3, Onslaught x2, Patrol Center x2, Patrol Left x2, Patrol Right x2, Surround, and Wedge. That's a pretty even mix in a 40-card deck, with 7 cards activating each side sector specifically, with the Echelons including the center, 5 more activating that center section, and 3 Line Advances and a Wedge activating all of them. Then toss in another 14 situation or unit type-oriented cards and there will almost always be a healthy number of options for you to choose from. Yes, there will be those moments when you have a Clash of Steel in hand and none of your units are adjacent to the enemy, but holding on to that one for the moment when you can activate three units, anywhere on the board as long as they are breathing down the enemy's necks, will almost always be worthwhile. At least one of them, the namesake Battlelore, also involves the dice in determining which units will venture forth into the maelstrom.
B2E is, of course, a dice-driven game. Like the aforementioned 40K, you will be reliant on the chaos cubes to resolve your attacks and, in some cases, determine the success or failure of same. Just like 40K, part of the key to "gitting gud" at B2E is in learning how to hedge your bets with that fistful of dice. You don't want to be relying on a Weakened Viper Legion unit to hold a key piece of terrain late in the game, since you're relying on a 1 in 6 result (only one Pierce face on each die) to do any damage to approaching enemies at all and have only one model left. And, just as with d6 systems, some faces of the dice are simply going to equate to "misses", since melee units can't use Pierce, some units simply don't have abilities activated by Heroic results, Weak units can't use Cleaves, Lore results only get you Lore tokens, and so forth. That's the nature of dice-driven games but, while I've had many instances where the dice didn't go my way, I've never felt that I was utterly let down by that approach, largely because I've learned to shape my expectations of what my units can or can't do in the chaos that is combat.
Another aspect to consider (and take advantage of) is Lore. One of the best things that separates 2nd Edition from 1st, in addition to allowing the dice to focus on a single unit's results, rather than hoping for colors to be rolled to see if each unit did anything at all, is that each faction has its own unique Lore deck, instead of relying on a central one that your opponent also has access to. Not only does having your own deck give you a greater feeling of control over what comes out of it, since your opponent can't interfere with you drawing the "good" cards, but it also helps shape the identity of each faction. Playing the Daqan means that only you will be drawing Valor and Vengeance or Stalwart Defenders, while only Waiqar will be wielding Spirit Possession or Mists of Dread. Just as with the Command cards, the Lore decks also present tactical choices on a regular basis. Do you spend your Lore on Wall of Steel or Overrun or save it up for a massive Assault play in a later turn? In every Upkeep phase, you're going to make the decision about whether to take 2 Lore, 2 cards, or 1 of each. Your hand of cards, the game state, and the scenario at hand can turn that seemingly minor choice into one of serious importance and those Lore cards are an essential element to the game (They're in the title, after all.) There have been some complaints about how "game-changing" they can be, when a Morbid Grasp paralyzes two of your units after you reveal your Command Card or a Bone Spurs destroys your key unit at the same time it protects one of your opponent's. But if you see your opponent building up a pile of Lore, that's something that you just have to begin to expect. Plus, something like that will definitely create one of those "Remember when-?" moments that is part of what games like B2E are all about in the first place: creating stories.
Speaking of stories, it's often all about the scenarios involved, as well. Another distinct advantage over 1st Edition is that each player has their own set of scenarios, instead of both playing to one generic setup. Including the expansions, there are 12 unique scenarios for each faction, which means that in any regular game, there are 144 different combinations between any two factions, which is a huge amount of variety that doesn't even yet consider varying army combinations, the use of Command Tents, or refined Lore decks. The scenarios also present victory conditions that frequently involve circumstances much different than "destroy the other guy" which is a common criticism of typical minis wargames. Yes, it is possible to win by wiping out your opponent, but since you're usually only playing to 16 victory points, it's much more likely that you'll achieve victory by holding key pieces of terrain or accomplishing an objective that's based on the nature or reason for the battle, which more closely mirrors combat in the "real world." Few battles were won throughout history because one side wiped out the other to the last man. That's not usually how it works in B2E, either. If the Uthuk are playing The Crimson Roots, they're only earning VPs if they occupy the key hill in the left section but also if they keep the enemy out of the Blood Fields in the middle and right sections. Occupying those also gives them more Lore, which can, in turn, be used to give them more mobility. Meanwhile, if the Daqan are playing Korrina's Tears, they're also intent on keeping the opponent out of the VP towns which, of course, gives them VPs, but they can also move through water hexes to present a surprise advance into the opponent's side of the board, as well. The combinations are nearly limitless and I have yet to play the same game after dozens of sessions. Another key detail is that the combination of scenarios also lets you know who is the first player, which is often built into the conditions of the scenario and the deployment zones that you can occupy. That's a story.
Combine all of that with simple but elegant terrain rules and a unit stat system that's easy to interpret at first glance and you have a game that carries the hallmarks of many of my favorites: easy to learn, but with enormous depth to slowly master. The fact that it's based in the Terrinoth material, alongside games like Runewars, Rune Age, and Runebound, only makes it that much more of a draw for me. It's kinda cool to keep playing the Uthuk Y'llan through three different game systems; again, not dissimilar from what GW offers its dedicated fans. The setting means that you can add elements from the surrounding world into the game that will present even greater variety and still be part of that creative binding across those different games. For example, the three neutral unit expansions: The Great Dragon, The Mountain Giant, and Razorwings.
The Great Dragon- The most overtly impactful, play-wise and visually, the dragon also costs you for its presence, being tied for the highest point cost of any unit in the game at 10 (along with the Barrow Wyrm; another dragon.) However, as a Flying unit, it also gains the similar bonuses of the Roc Warrior and the Barrow Wyrm against melee attackers, has 4 dice in attack, can use a Strike result to do damage to units adjacent to its target, and can reroll Heroic results which it otherwise has no use for. That's, um, a lot and it will certainly make the Dragon a unit for your opponent to avoid or try to focus down with ranged fire or neuter with a Lore card. However, it's also 20% of your entire list for a typical game in one unit (This is where a Command Tent would probably be quite useful...), which means that if you don't draw a card that lets you order the Dragon, there's an awful lot of power sitting in one spot and doing nothing for a turn. Of course, you can say that about any Legendary unit in the game, so this isn't atypical. Its available Lore cards are also quite effective, with Nowhere to Run turning Morale results into damage for both the target and supporting unit; Nowhere to Hide (now I have Martha and the Vandellas in my head) letting you ignore terrain protections for that target; and Firestorm perfectly syncing with the game's central tenets of positioning and movement.
The Mountain Giant- The Giant is a slightly less-beefy Chaos Lord with better movement and a short ranged attack (so, non-Counterable, like all ranged attacks that aren't adjacent.) He's a bit less eye-opening than the Dragon, but his attacks can still be important, since Heavy Swing will not only get a similar result to the Chaos Lord's Terrify, but will also guarantee damage on that routed unit. That ranged attack, Throw Boulder, is also far more effective than your usual rain of arrows, since the Giant rolls as if it's a melee attack (e.g. 4 dice with Strikes and Cleaves, not just Pierces.) However, just like the big lizard, his Lore cards may be the most interesting part about him. Crushing Force lets you turn Building tiles into rubble, which can be (ahem) huge in certain scenarios. The seemingly out-of-theme Shortcut lets you use Forest tiles to your advantage, while Brute Strength can be a devastating play if your army is heavy on cavalry or other non-infantry units. The Giant is far more scenario-tied than the Dragon is, but if you can employ him in your scenario (Forests!) or against your opponent's (Buildings!), his presence can be quite memorable.
Razorwings- The most 'Terrinoth' of the three neutrals, as Razorwings aren't your typical dragon or giant, the unit is also more like your typical Elite unit, and for similar cost (6.) They're a solid unit, with 3s across the board, but they're also Flying, which puts them a step above, since they're the only non-Legendary unit that can claim that advantage. Their Claw Sweep is also probably the most devastating version of Advance in the game, since they not only wipe out one unit and move into its space, but they also stun another adjacent one. That's a two-fer that not many units in the game can claim without Lore assistance. Speaking of Lore, Night Hunter is a weird one, as it's extremely situational (can only be played against a target unit that was out of line of sight before movement) but it will guarantee a non-Countering victim of your attack. Falling Skies is a nice vengeance tool, as you'll potentially do a unit trade (loss for loss) on your opponent's turn and gain a movement advantage that they can't respond to. But Hidden Threat may be the real gem since, depending on the amount of terrain on your board, all your ordered units could deal out significant damage in a round of attacks.
But one of the key aspects of the neutrals' presence in the game is, again, that storytelling angle. They can, of course, be simply added to lists like mercenaries in games like Heroes of Land, Sea and Air, but they also all come with unique scenarios that are about circumstances in the game that aren't typical of the "grand battle" type, but instead are about a continuing campaign and this one chapter within it. The Mountain Giant's scenario, "The Sound of Thunder", tells a story of the Daqan having captured some Blood Harvesters and the Uthuk having recruited the Giant to assist in freeing them. The Daqan win by scoring VPs, like usual, while the Uthuk win by freeing all of the prisoners. It's a great side jaunt in what can be casually seen as a "typical wargame", where you put your troops on the table and then try to kill each other. But, as I hope I've demonstrated here, B2E is very far from a typical wargame. Next up, the Daqan Lords.