Oh England, model to thy inward greatness, like little body with a mighty heart. - HV.II.Cho
Warriors of God (WofG) is the latest in the IGS (or International Gamers Series) being developed for USA production by Multiman Publishing. Adam Starkweather, designer of BGG's current #1 wargame, The Devil's Cauldron, is developing a series of Japanese wargames to english for MMP under the title of IGS. This series of games has produced a lot of hits so far, especially with light wargamers and the euro/AT/wargamer crossover crowd. Some examples are A Victory Lost, Fire in the Sky, and Red Star Rising.
So, when I heard that Adam was working on a Japanese wargame covering the Hundred Years War, I got pretty excited. The designer, Makoto Nakajima, has had several big hit games. Plus, the art was going to be Mark Mahaffey and Niko Eskubi, who have both done some really awesome work. When early playtester comments compared the game to Hammer of the Scots, both in complexity and fun factor, I jumped on the pre-order bandwagon like a fly on a hot turd in summer.
WofG is based on the extremely popular "Taiheiki" system of Japanese wargames. According to Starkweather, Taiheiki and its spawn are sort of the CDGs of the Japanese wargame scene. Every time someone comes out with another Taiheiki based game, people groan about "another Taiheiki game" then everyone promptly buys it and loves it.
Word on the street is that if WofG becomes popular, we might see more games from this popular system in MMP's preorder lineup! Vote with your bucks here - a purchase of WofG is your way of telling MMP to print the original Taiheiki in english.
WofG covers not only the hundred years war, but also the plantagenet wars fought earlier, including Robin Hood, Richard the Lion Hearted, and various other luminaries of the times.
Guard: Robin of Locksley, where is your king?
Robin Hood: King? King? And which King might that be? King Richard? King Louis? King Kong? Larry King?
- Robin Hood, Men in Tights
The rules for the game are deceptively simple. Extremely short, easy to read, and easy to reference, other wargame designers should take note. The mechanics and what you do in the game are all very easy. This is one of the simplest wargames in my collection. I would place the complexity of the game between Memoir 44 and Command and Colors Ancients, and that is NOT hyperbole. This really is a very simple and easy wargame. I was blown away by how much depth and how many interesting choices the designer managed to cram into such a small rulebook. Similar to the best eurogames, the interactions of simple rules create subtle submechanics you won't notice until you are through a game or two. It really is a simple game, but don't let the simplicity of the game fool you, as I discuss in more detail in the gameplay section, this is a very deep game with some odd mechanism interactions that will take a while to get used to.
The strategy here is deep and requires you to think outside your typical geek box. The rulebook is very well written and has no gameplay-related typos to my knowledge. I only had to read it once to be able to play the game, and I am typically a rulebook student. Its layed out well, has tons of graphics and examples, and is careful to point out odd interactions.
For example, upon reading the section on leader death, new leader placement and reassigning troops, I promptly said to myself, "so a french leader can take over the english troops, is that right?" Well, the next sentence in the rulebook stated that was how it worked. The rules are full of interesting interactions and the writers were careful to point them out, which really helps the overall clarity of the rulebook. The player aids are nice for learning the game and for referencing the few things that are tough to remember, like the VP chart and the requirements for recruiting knights, archers, siege gunners, and mercenaries.
The game plays in about 2.5 hours, but if you are new, your first game might last more like 4. Some games end earlier due to sudden death or conceding when the outcome is obvious.
Robin Hood: Oh, my darling, I'm ready for that kiss now.
Maid Marian: But first, I must warn you. It could only be a kiss. For I am a virgin and could never... go all the way.
Robin Hood: But...
Maid Marian: Unless I were married. Or if a man pledged his endless love to me.
Robin Hood: Yes...
Maid Marian: Or if I knew that he desperately cared for me. Or if he were really cute!
- Robin Hood, Men in Tights
This game has beautiful components for a wargame. If you are looking for plastic miniatures or wooden cubes you may not like them. The map is paper, but the chits are generously large (1 inch I believe) and are of good quality. The player aids are on light cardstock and the art on them is beautiful. They are both easy to read and attractive to look at - not a common combination in boardgame player aids.
The map is just insane. It is not mounted, but anything this beautiful should only be played under plexiglass anyway. It is also very big for a one sheet wargame map. Only when an egregious tactical error was made did we ever have problems fitting all the necessary units into a space on the map. (gameplay hint: if there are 6 english leaders with maxed out stacks crowding into paris with your only 3 remaining french leaders, you probably should have conceded last turn instead of wondering where they were all going to fit).
The counters are huge 1 inchers and the art is pretty and functional too - the counters that did not have any functional stuff on the back have interesting quotes from the time period. This was a cool touch and added some levity to an otherwise serious subject matter.
In addition to looking dead sexy, the map contains basically all of the information you need to play the game. After about half an hour, you will not need the player aid. Most of your eyeball time will be spent looking at the leaders on the board, the forces they command, what you are going to be able to accomplish on a given turn, and figuring out who is going to die of old age or the plague or whatever that turn.
Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent! - Robin Hood, Men in Tights
This is a wargame about the hundred years war and surrounding time periods. Thats the theme. You get Joan of Arc (complete with special rules) English longbow supremacy, Guesclin (who is a total badass, as he was historically, I might add) various scots that will turn on the british in a second (or begin french-aligned) burgundian cavalry, and all of the other various historical bits that really give a great "hundred years war" feel to the game. If you google for any of the leaders, you can read about the actual historical battles they fought. Although the vagaries of player choice mean that you sometimes take leaders a non-historical direction, often they end up fighting their natural rivals who they fought in history. Those little touches show you what a great design it is. Flexibility AND historicity - thats what its all about in a wargame.
Also included is a scenario called "the lion in winter" based on a similarly long time period and the wars between various noble families at that time. Those of you who remember 7th grade history probably know the name "Plantaganet." The lion in winter also features such luminaries as Robin Hood (who is a leader that can ally with either the french or the brits) and Richard the Lion Hearted. The starting setup for this one is very different from the Hundred Years War and the game plays very differently because of the nature of the conflict. The battle between noble houses means that the french and the english aren't tied to their traditional bases of power. In fact, such a large concentration of english forces start in normandy, it would be rare in this scenario for the english NOT to take ille de france (paris) on the first turn. (Or at least thats what I keep telling myself.) The french, likewise, can gain control of england pretty easily since they are the normans. The french and english colors in this scenario actually represent the plantaganets (a french noble house in control of the english throne at the time) and the various smaller french noble houses which were anti-plantaganet. The most prominent of these are the house of blois, the dukes of normandy, and the house of capet.
The theme is very cleverly followed by the gameplay, and like many wargames, the theme is beautifully integrated into the rules. There is even unit differentiation, with archers, knights, mercenaries, and siege specialists in addition to basic infantry.
When I heard Victory Points were going to be used, I was immediately disappointed. I am not a big fan of VPs as a wargame mechanism. However, after playing the game, the VPs seem to model one of the missing elements of the game: Morale, or political will. The VPs are done twilight struggle style, meaning that only one player ever has VPs. If you kill an opposing king, you gain a VP. If your territory is taken, your opponent gains a VP. Etc. So, while VPs are a bit of an abstraction, if you view them as the morale of your populace and your political will to continue a very long and drawn out war, I think they work pretty well.
The middle pieces are WofG. The top are meeples and the bottom are from some GMT game.
Prince John: Tell everyone that when the day is out we shall have a wedding. Or a hanging. Either way, we're gonna have a lot of fun, huh? - Robin Hood, Men in Tights
I'm going to try to go through all of the phases of a turn to basically teach you how to play the game. WofG is very simple, and it is the way the simple rules interact with one another that create a lot of the really great mechanisms in the game. AFTER I go through the gameplay phases, I'm going to talk about what makes the game so damn good. This part of the review will attempt to remain somewhat objective.
The game sets up quickly, although it does play faster if you presort the leaders by what year they come into the game. Even that doesn't take long. The setups for the two scenarios are set, except for which nation controls which neutral leader. That is solved by a simple roll off. The scenarios remain balanced no matter who takes which leader. There has been some debate on consimworld as to which leader choices are better for which side, which tells you they are balanced since folks are arguing about which is better.
Each turn represents around 10 years.
Initiative and the number of action phases are determined by die roll. Some of the scenarios grant a +1 bonus to this roll if your king is in his home province. The person who wins initiative gets a number of actions equal to two plus the low number rolled. The non-initiative player gets one less. So, if England rolls a 6 and France rolls a 2, England would get 4 phases and France 3. If England rolled a 6 and France rolled a 5, England would get 7 impulses and France 6.
The Initiative player also goes first. Astute readers may have realized that because of the extra action AND going first, the initiative player gets more actions AND goes both first and last in a round. That might seem like a huge advantage to be entirely reliant on a die roll, but it is needed to offset the advantages given to the non-initiative player in choosing neutral leaders and assigning troops later.
After initiative is rolled for, the action impulses begin. Each action impulse phase can be used for one of three actions. You can move, remove an enemy control marker, or pass. Passing is far more common than you would think, as explained later.
Moving is the heart of the game. As you can see from the map, this is an area movement game. Also, every unit and leader has a movement rating of one space, which simplifies things. Multiple units can move using one action, but are limited by terrain features. Terrain is designated on the board by the color of the borders. Normally, two leaders and their attached units can move through a border, obstructed terrain only allows one and moving by river allows three. Sea connections work similarly.
Since I am talking about the information on the map, each area is marked with its flag and a rating of 1-3 representing its political importance and resources. This area value is used to calculate reinforcements and victory points.
Movement has one special rule that is very simple but drives lots of strategy in the game. This rule is called the flypaper rule. Its a bit like a zone of control in a more traditional wargame. The rule says that you can only move out of an area containing enemy units if the number of friendly leaders left behind after you leave is equal to or greater than the number of enemy leaders. Control markers count as leaders for this purpose. Another simple rule that again creates numerous interesting tactical situations.
You can only remove an enemy control marker if you have more leaders in the area than the enemy. The control marker itself counts as a leader for this purpose. So, you would need two leaders to eliminate a lonely area control marker. You would need three leaders to eliminate an area control marker guarded by one enemy leader.
Once the action impulses are done, you resolve any battles. Before I discuss battles, I am going to talk about leaders and units.
The leaders have several important pieces of information on them in WofG. First, they have a bravery rating, which gives them a die roll bonus in battle and helps them siege fortresses. Second, they have a command rating, which is basically how many troops they can command effectively. This is also their maximum number of dice rolled in combat, up to the number of troops they have. Third, the leader has a political rating of 1-3 stars. One star leaders are guys like Robin Hood and three star leaders are eligible to be king of their country. Their political rating, multiplied by three, is the total number of troops they can carry around with them. Leaders also have a personal guard which counts as an infantry step or a step of archers. For example, robin hood's merry men are archers.
In addition to regular infantry, there are several other types of special units in WofG.
Mercenaries are easy to recruit but if any one mercenary unit dies, they all run away.
Archers allow their leader to throw a die for them a second time, as described below. They can only be recruited in certain provinces.
Knights can take two hits instead of just one before death, but can only be commanded by 3 star leaders.
Gunners reduce the siege value of a fortress, but don't count towards troop strength for any other purpose. They can take hits, and make wonderful meat shields once you've broken down the castle walls!
Up to the breach, you dogs, avaunt, you cullions! - HV.III.ii
Battles are resolved in any area containing leaders from both sides. There are two types of battles, sieges and regular battles. They are explained on the player aids, but you learn the little formulas fast. Its an easy system.
Sieges are an option for the area controlling player. You add 3 + area value + bravery rating of your leader - bravery rating of opposing leader - # of gunners. Opponent must roll over this to destroy you, equal to it to battle you, and if he rolls less he must retreat. Its one die roll, so either side could get lucky, but usually you set up the siege situation to where your opponent has to roll a 7 or where you are better off risking it than fighting a normal battle. The siege mechanics are simple and a lot of the action impulses are used setting up favorable sieges and trying to break sieges by removing control markers.
Regular battles are conducted round by round. If the attacker doesn't hit in the first 3 rounds, the defender can force him to run away. I find this to be a hilarious rule which should always be accompanied with much taunting. Defender can also retreat at any time, but the attacker gets a free attack at +1 to hit so it can hurt.
In an attack, you compare bravery ratings. The difference is the die roll modifier. You roll dice equal to your number of troops or your command rating, whichever is lesser. Then you add dice equal to your number of longbow troops, which also cannot exceed your command rating. All sixes hit and require removal of one unit. Other numbers don't. Repeat until someone dies or runs away. Fast and simple. Lots of dice are rolled, so you can't be screwed by one lucky roll.
Retreats must be into a neutral or friendly area and must follow the terrain restrictions.
Any leaders offed in battle roll on a chart, which decides if they are captured, killed, or routed. These three things are discussed below. Killed leaders score VPs for the killer at the end of the turn. Captured leaders can be ransomed or left to rot, in which case they score VPs, and routed leaders come back on the board at the end of the turn.
After battles are completed, determining control of areas happens.
Control of Areas:
Enemy controlled areas with your leaders in them become uncontrolled. Leaders in their home area get a free control marker. Leaders not in their home areas must roll equal or less than their political ranking to gain control. Mercenaries reduce this roll by 1 per. Simple enough?
After control has been determined, you add units to the areas according to their value, 1-3. Certain areas can produce specialty units according to the flags on the unit. For instance, Wales can produce welsh longbowmen. Burgundy has burgundian cavalry. Slap them out there and put them under your leaders.
Dispose of Captured Leaders:
Remember that guy that got his ass whupped earlier and ended up in the "Tower of London" box? Baron french poofyhat the III? Yeah, we don't either. You can trade him even up for english leaders based on their political value. You can also give up control of areas whose area value equals his political value to ransom him back. If you do that, he goes in the routed leaders box to come into play at the end of the turn. If you let him rot in the Tower, you will lose VPs for him at the end of the turn.
Determine Leader Death:
Its a long war. The guys who are your generals in the first turn are not going to make it to turn 7 and will be long forgotten by the time the game ends in turn 12. This is represented through leader death. Take the turn the leader showed up, subtract it from the current turn, and roll better than that on a six sided die to keep your leader alive. Don't worry, if you don't like math there is a chart on the board.
Every turn, both sides get two leaders AND there are two non-aligned leaders. The non-initiative player gets first choice on these. This is a huge advantage for the non-initiative player and more than offsets the advantages gained by the initiative player. Leaders can be placed in any friendly or neutral territory. If they are placed in their home territory they get free units equal to their political rating. If they are placed in a territory containing units, they can take control of those units. Non-initiative player gets first dibs on this, which is also huge. This means that occasionally a leader can die and his troops can be grabbed up by a leader from the other side!
Routed leaders and ransomed leaders also return during this phase. Non-initiative player gets first choice of neutrals here too. This can mean that the non-initiative player gets to place more leaders than the initiative player.
Once all the leaders have been placed, you get rid of any unassigned troops on the board. All troops must be under a leader.
Adjust the Score:
You get VPs for areas controlled, controlling your enemy's home province, killing leaders, killing the enemy king, having enemy leaders in your captured enemy box.
There are 12 turns - rinse, wash, and repeat!
This game is a freaking masterpiece, thank you MMP!
I was blown away by the subtle interactions of the very simple rules. The flypaper rule, the siege rules, the requirement to outnumber your opponent to remove a control marker during the action impulses, you will not believe some of the interesting decisions and tactical situations this simple rules set can create.
The battle rules are very simple but create some interesting decisions as well. There are a lot of situations where you will need to pin a unit down (flypaper rule) so you end up in a battle you don't want to be in. Occasionally, some of these will turn out your way. Its just enough chaos to keep things interesting in the battle system. I love the different unit types, which add a lot of flavor to the game with very little rules overhead. The movement system is equally simple and engaging, and adds a lot to the tactical decisions.
The replayability is pretty incredible considering the small static map and the leaders coming in at fixed times. The different possibilities for the two sides and the leader death mechanic make every game totally different.
The game is very well balanced for the two sides. The English have an overall advantage in command capability (especially with the archers) but the french tend to have the advantage in bravery rating, so they often hit on 5s or even 4s. Either side can win in any scenario. It often comes down to one side making a tactical blunder or poor planning (like sending a 50 year old general as the leader of your invasion force, only to have him die of dysentary and get replaced by an idiot).
This is the best new-to-me wargame I have played since I tried Hannibal. WofG much smaller rules overhead than something like Hannibal or even C&C:A. WofG probably has around the same level of luck as those titles. I am a big fan of CDGs, and Hannibal scratches a similar itch for a strategic level simple 3 hour wargame with a lot of period flavor.
My single favorite thing about this game is the almost overwhelming number of possibilities it presents. Part of the game is reacting to your enemy, but much of it is trying to plan a long term strategy that does not get disrupted by leader death, enemy actions, or your own needs. This makes the game very satisfying when you manage to connect two disparate parts of your kingdom or take over a III rated area. The different paths to victory are almost endless. You can try a political strategy, taking as many areas as you can to earn victory points and try to fight a more defensive siege based game, or you can take the fight to your enemy and earn VPs by killing leaders and hopefully taking his areas from him. Even within these more broad strategies, there are numerous different ways you might go about achieving your goals.
I cannot recall a pre-order I have been as pleased with as WofG, and that includes the aforementioned Hannibal.
This game is going to receive some (in my opinion undeserved) criticism
Robin Hood: Blinkin, listen to me. They've taken the castle!
Blinkin: I thought it felt a bit drafty. Cor, this never would have happened if your father was alive.
Robin Hood: He's dead?
Robin Hood: And my mother?
Blinkin: She died of pneumonia while... oh, you were away...
Robin Hood: My brothers?
Blinkin: There were all killed by the plague.
Robin Hood: My dog, Pogo?
Blinkin: Run over by a carriage.
Robin Hood: My goldfish, Goldie?
Blinkin: Eaten by the cat.
Robin Hood: [on the verge of tears] My cat?
Blinkin: Choked on the goldfish.
Blinkin: Oh, it's good to be home, ain't it, Master Robin?
- Robin Hood, Men in Tights
Even taking into account all of my compliments and praise, I think that WofG will have a hard time achieving the mainstream popularity of a game like Hammer of the Scots or Twilight Struggle. This isn't because of rules, which is what prevents a lot of wargames from "going mainstream." The rules here are very simple. The rules won't bother people but rather the tactics and strategy used in WofG are so different from more traditional wargames and euros that people are going to have bad impressions. The level of death and chaos in the game is high, and it requires you to change your typical wargame playbook.
Specifically, I think the leader death mechanic is going to screw with people's heads ROYALLY. Much like the quote above, people die randomly at odd times. The first time I solo'd through three turns to get a grasp on the mechanics, I had a huge amount of english troops heading to invade flanders where the french had set up shop. I had left my flank open a little bit, but I had the initiative and I knew that the french would have to respond to my move on one of their best areas. Then my leader died slightly prematurely, and since I had the initiative and was in a neutral area, the french were able to swoop in and take control of some of my troops.
This is just an example of a frustrating situation. Many gamers who play WofG are going to do what they typically do to make a big attack in a wargame: stick a bunch of eggs in one basket and throw said basket towards their enemy. That strategy will nearly always backfire on you in WofG. In fact, relying on just one leader or his stats for anything will backfire on you because any of the leaders can die at any time! This will utterly frustrate some players who are unable or unwilling to change their playstyles to match the mechanics of this particular game.
I propose a house rule which will help "ease" players into the leader death mechanic. Instead of the typical 1d6 roll, roll 2d6 and divide by two, rounding up the first three turns a leader is alive and down after that. This makes leader death a lot more predictable because of the bell curve.
There are some other dice-driven mechanics in the game that might frustrate players. For example, a one star political leader must roll a one to gain control of an area. If the other player does this, you WILL get mad, especially since your 3 star leader can't seem to roll 3 or less to get control of any of the areas you want.
This chaos is part of the fun of the game and matches the theme of the period well. If your leader is 60 years old, its time for him to go! You need to adjust your strategy to this reality. I think many gamers will have problems doing that.
Warriors of God is an excellent game with beautiful components, a simple ruleset, a pretty rare theme for a wargame, nice chromy bits that aren't too much, and best of all the simple rules produce a lot of very tense decisions and battles. This is one of my favorite wargames and I look forward to MMP bringing us more games in the system.
The game will have some detractors who are either unwilling or unable to change their tactics/strategy and adequately manage the chaos inherent in medieval combat. For those of us that master this risk management riddle, Warriors of God is a fantastic wargame.