On Saturday, Chum Simon EP came over to take on another playtest of my current game under development, Dux Bellorum. I have various people getting stuck into the game, with varying levels of input from me, but keep up my own playing of the game to make sure firstly that I still enjoy it (don’t want to put out a game that bores me - if I can’t enjoy it, what will other people think of it?!), and to check up on wording/situations covered by the written rules. We also used this as a chance to play with bigger unit sizes - each unit consisted of 4 x 40mm wide bases, rather than the standard game unit of 1 x 40mm wide bases (measurements are in base widths, so we used a bigger table to play on).
This game was a Late era battle between a Saxon Shieldwall army and a Sea Raider army of Vikings. The Saxons opted for a lot of troops of average ability, the Sea Raiders are forced to take a small army of good quality troops. Simon took the Sea Raiders, I took the Saxons (last time we played, he took a bigger, average army and my small elite group of British horsemen became mincemeat after being surrounded).
The Saxons ranked up as a long group in the centre consisting of three Ordinary Shieldwall and the Companions, with two individual units of Ordinary Shieldwall to their right. Flanks were guarded on the left by a unit of allied Irish Ordinary Warriors, and on the hilly right flank by another unit of Irish Ordinary Warriors and a unit of Foot Skirmishers with bows. Another bow-armed Foot Skirmisher stood in front of the main shieldwall.
The Vikings had only seven units: the Companions and four Noble Warrior units across the centre, and two units of Foot Skirmishers with javelins in the hills. Their wooded flank was unguarded, as they didn’t have enough units to deploy across a wide front. The Companions and Warriors had javelins, but in the excitement of the game, these didn’t get used.
Despite the Saxons using Swift Deployment, the Vikings were the game’s Attacker, so somewhat held the game’s initiative. The battle started with some weak firing from the bowmen, and the Vikings and Irish Warriors started to close on the opposition. The Saxon Shieldwalls remained stationary, happy for the Vikings to come to them - I was hoping to turn the flanks with my larger army and surround his Noble Warriors. Of course, things seldom happen as planned by me!
In the hills, the Irish Warriors got close enough to make an Uncontrolled Charge at the Viking skirmishers; taking a couple of hits from javelins and having to fight up hill, they made hard work of routing the skirmishers but achieved it a few turns into the game. After routing both skirmishers, the Irish Warriors failed a lot of Bravery tests and sat on the hill watching the battle; their chums on the wooded flank spectacularly failed most Bravery tests, and only really started moving into a dangerous position when the battle was nearly over. Says something about allies, eh?
So, with the flanks bubbling away nicely, the Saxons shieldwalls bore the brunt of Viking attacks. The Saxons moved a couple of units forward, resulting in some of the Vikings making Uncontrolled Charges, attacking piecemeal and putting Simon into the position of needing to commit the rest of his units to support these attacks. The Saxons Foot Skirmishers got caught up in the middle of things and inevitably routed very quickly, having caused few hits with their arrows. The Saxons had the numbers advantage and better Protection scores; the Vikings had fewer units, but far superior Aggression scores. Simon - and I’m sure he won’t mind me writing this - rolled some appalling sequences of dice and never managed nearly as many sixes as you’d statistically expect (he should practice rolling those dice, or use his Rackham dice that almost guarantee a six!), which meant that the Vikings were repeatedly pushed back with minor losses and the Saxons held firm. Each time they were pushed back, the Vikings charged straight back into combat, as they did not want to spend Leadership Points trying to prevent Uncontrolled Charges. Over time, numbers told, and the Saxons started to lap around the edges of the Viking line and gradually whittled them down - even though the Vikings were better, more aggressive fighters, being outnumbered and flanked by weaker troops gradually whittled them down. One of the key features of DB is that as you start losing units, you also lose Leadership points, reducing the number of bonuses you can use each turn; as your army takes hits, their enthusiasm gradually slips away and this allowed the Saxon Leadership points to be used unopposed.
Towards the end of the battle, the surviving Saxon Foot Skirmishers were freely firing on the flank of one of the Viking units, and eventually it crumbled under attacks from the front and arrows from the side. Others quickly followed, either by having their Cohesion reduced to 0 or by failing morale tests late in the game. The game ended with the Viking Companions facing off against the whole Saxon army, thinking better of it, and running for their lives (failed morale test). The game lasted around 10 turns, and even though the Vikings were eventually trounced, the game felt pretty balanced right the way through - three of the Saxon Shieldwalls had been reduced to 1 point of Cohesion (they’d rout if this dropped to 0), and Simon played the role of the Vikings in the spirit of the game, choosing to use Leadership Points to boost their attacks rather than defend themselves; if the Vikings had used their javelins before charging, those Saxons would probably have broken. All in all, the game probably took about an hour of playing time.
Early Viking Age battles are the latest era covered by the rules; once DB is fully sorted and if it becomes established as a good set of rules for early Dark Ages combat, I hope to look at extending the rules to cover the later Dark Ages and maybe pre-plate armour medieval games too. Let’s see if the mechanics can be stretched that far.
The best news of all is that after more playtest games and rules tweaks than I care to recollect, I’m still enjoying Dux Bellorum, and that’s what my playtesters are saying too. I hope they’re not just being nice to me.