This week some of us in our local gaming group decided we’d try out a 4 player Sword and Spear game. Rather than try to use our various 15mm forces which don’t match up well I volunteered the use my 6mm Western European ‘Dark Age’ figures which I have been itching to get on the table after I finished painting them earlier this year. So here is a write up of the 5th Century battle. This is a long post with quite a few pictures but why not try to do a full write up.
As these were all my figures I created the lists and tried to make each of the forces varied and based on a rough theme. Each player had 450 pts, so it was 900 pts a side. The Romano-British were small elite forces. Each command was identical – yes I likely should have varied them but blame laziness for that. I used one (I claimed Mordred as the name of my commander) and Dan too the other, Arthur Pendraken of course! The other forces were a Pictish force – with lots of average but medium foot troops, played by Ernie and an Early Frankish force used by Nick. The Frankish force had a lot of good (but not great) cavalry backed up by a small solid heavy infantry force. The lists are below so you can see the makeup of them.
There has been some debate afterwards as to whether the 2 sides were really even in forces but I think they are fairly close, but likely not perfectly balanced. But the tactics for the different forces needed to be different in play. The Romano-Brits definitely are more powerful to their opponents toe to toe in battle but a few bad rolls and their lack of units could be a real problem as they were outnumbered. See more about this at the end of the battle report.
So the Picts and Franks won the scouting phase and terrain was set up. A few hills were on one side edge of the table and woods with a gentle hill on the other side. Other than that the battlefield was clear. I set up opposite Nick’s Franks and Dan’s Romano-British faced the Picts. Bellow you can see our battle line and also Dan’s great measuring sticks he made special for the game! Our heavy foot was in the centre with the cavalry and companions on either side. My half of the force are closer to the camera, with an open flank at the closest point. I knew this was a big danger to my cavalry force and one Nick would exploit. Opposing us were set up as shown below. The Picts massed troops facing the Romano-British in two lines. Two large impact units were in the center and then the Frankish foot, with their skirmishers at the closest point to the camera. The Frankish cavalry was at an angle to my Cavalry and off to the flank as well.Here are a few close up shots of the figs set up and ready to go for the battle. I thought I’d put a few pre-actions shots here. I have to say I really like how a 6mm game looks – it really looks like a battle!
So in the first moves Nick moved all his cavalry up in a nice ordered line, while I really did nothing but waited. Moving forward would likely just compound my open flank issue. But in a fateful move I decided to move my light horse up to skirmish the incoming cavalry wave. You can see the units below in what I thought was a good position. But I missed that Frank cavalry in the back with a 6 which was still to move! I thought it was out of range but forgot to check – my mistake…Of course the javelins had no effect in my move and those Frankish cavalry charged the light horse. With the light Cav already moved evades were not possible and this did not look good. This turned out to be the first of many ‘better than average’ combat rolls for me in this game, as even though I was rolling 3 die vs. the Franks 6 I ‘won’ this combat after the discipline tests were all done, with 1 hit ending on the Franks and none on my Light Horse!
On the the other flank of the battle the big Pict units were moving steadily towards the Romano-British line with the British skirmishers trying hard to put a hit on all impact troops to make them much less of a threat. Of course this grand plan had little real effect or success. The other Pict units moved up to support these large units.In the end of the first turns Dan’s light horse moved up and charged the Picts as he had hoped to just throw javelins but got stuck in the Picts restricted movement zone. So he charged the infantry. With light horse vs. medium foot, the horse came off worse for it. This meant that after the first turns we had ended up with both Romano-British Light horse in melee combat. Maybe not the best moves. To add to this Nick moved his C&C to the cavalry fighting my light horse and rallied off the hit on them as well.As the next phase started I evaded my light horse away. I thought this was a mistake and did make the mistake of not turning them to face the cavalry at the end of the evade (I forgot that was allowed), but later the Frankish cavalry with a 6 extended their own charge and this time destroyed my light horse. So first blood to the Franks. The only advantage to this, if there was any, was that the pursuit move the Frankish cavalry did, with the Frankish commander moved them out of command range of all his other troops. It would take multiple turns for the commander and that unit to get back into the battle. Of course other thing had already happened that turn and the other Frankish cavalry were still moving around and attacking my end cavalry unit. I won the initial combat but not by enough to destroy the Franks here. Things did not look good at this point…On the other flank the Pict’s continued their steady advance and Dan continued to prepare for them. He too lost his Light horse in the combat, so we were each a unit down at this point. The Romano-British skirmishers tried to cause a hit on the advancing large impact units to no effect, as they continued to retreat in front of those advancing Pict units The next turn the first of those large units got into combat with the end unit of Dan’s Romano-Brits. With some good rolling of command die and selection (or rather poor Pict rolls) the Romano-Brits managed to charged the impact troops and while they had no die on command them, so robing them of their impact skill. They caused multiple hits as well so even with a commander rallying them at the end of the turn that damage removed a key aspect of their combat power.On my side the Companion cavalry finally were unleashed and went at it with a vengeance. They charged one unit of Frankish cavalry and with impact and all the bonus die routed that straight away and without taking any damage. They pursued into another unit and even without the bonuses the die were in my favor, so the impact power of that unit meant that they routed 2 Frank cavalry units in one move! With the Franks out of command (due to the commander being a long way away) the discipline tests were harder and that likely made a difference here, but some good rolls on my part helped. In the center of the battle I did the same ‘trick’ as Dan on the other large unit of Picts – and it worked again. It’s interesting to see how the initiative dynamic works in the game and going second at times can allow this counter charge to happen. Again this worked out great and after causing damage to the Picts and not taking any my foot were busy fighting the large unit but without fear of the impact ability, but still having their shiedlwall.Meanwhile, as expected my cavalry unit was by now flanked and fighting 2 units. Again good die rolls added to their armor provided meant that this unit did not die and was holding it’s own in combat – for this turn at least. One bad combat turn though and that would not last and the odds were distinctly against me in this combat. But some good rolls can keep a combat going for a long time.Over on Dan’s side of the battle he had unleashed his cavalry. It was not having the level of success mine had though. Even with impact and the impetus bonuses he did not have a great amount of success against the Pict spears, even though they did not use their spear ability as he again charged against a units without impetus.Back on my flank I brought a second cavalry unit to help my flanked cavalry unit but eventually after several combats the flanked unit died. Some very good rolls from me plus successful rally rolls kept them in play, but they eventually died. This was just as the their ‘supporting troops’ were coming in to help. Timing is everything it seems.This compounded the issue of my weak flank as in a couple of turns I again would have another cavalry flanked! As you can see from below at the end of the turn. The leader with the unit also died in the combat, going down with his men. So much for my great plan of saving the flanked unit and it was not the greatest plan really. On the positive note though my companion cavalry had turned themselves around and were now targeting the Frankish skirmishers who had been holding back on the flank of the infantry battle. They had not had much focus up to now to give the cavalry command dice etc but now they became another important area of the battle, for me at least.In the center of the table the infantry fight was now firmly ongoing between the Picts and the Romano-Brits. One of the large Pictish units had been destroyed after a few turns of combat and the first line of Picts were fully engaged. The heavy foot of the Romano-British were slowly gaining here but it was not going all their own way and even the cavalry battles had bogged down to a hard fight. The Pict second line was a reasonable way back though and that likely would be an issues with them supporting the troops in combat.Dan had seen the issues I was having after being flanked and so he sent a unit of cavalry on the gentle hill to break up the skirmishers Ernie was moving there. The Picts light horse had tried to move through the woods but that’s actually quite slow so it had taken much longer than Erine had hoped to get them to a threatening position. The Romano-British cavalry got in trouble though as it was outnumbered three to one. They did charge the light horse in-front of them and destroyed them but ended up pursuing into the woods. That’s not a great place for surrounded cavalry, as they were to find out later. This did keep the flanking force busy for now though.Switching back to my sandwiched cavalry, they kept up the tradition of super troops my Cav were building though in this game. Even with two units fighting one my die were hot and many of the combats ended in draws or at most one failed disapline tests. Having a commander with a unit with three discipline makes that actually a pretty hard unit to beat unless you double them. So as long as I avoided rolling 1’s and 2’s I was fairly safe…In the center my Romano-British infantry defeated the second large unit. Just in time as a Frank impact foot unit was bearing down on them. But with shieldwall and some luck they may survive the combat and win this one as well – well I could hope.The continuing the good news for my side was that my Companion cavalry ran down both the Frank skirmisher units and so was behind the main infantry line. That was another two units routed by them! They were trying to win the game for me all on their own. But the Frankish foot line started to turn to their rear and prepare for their charge. This was while the Companions had to maneuver for another charge. Note another great shot of the measuring stick made by Dan in this picture.In the center the Romano-British foot had cleared much of the first line of Pict infantry and were trying to move to do something else. One Pict unit had won it’s combat and broke through the Romano-British line so that was also turning around so that it could engage another opponent. yes I don’t have any 6mm camps done for these forces so we did not have any for this game. Something to add to my painting list I think.As hinted at above, Dan’s cavalry in the woods was attacked by the light horse which destroyed them. This left his flank open, but the Pict command had other issues. At this point both the Pict and Frank forces were at their shaken levels and at the end of the turn all their units tested for that. No units were lost due to the tests end of the turn, but a couple took hits . This did highlight that the game was moving to an end point though. At this point Dan was one unit away from shaken and I was two away – the heroic fights of the cavalry units had kept me in the game so far, more by luck more than good judgement.
For my surrounded cavalry, in the next turn I finally managed to bring a foot unit into the rear of the Frankish cavalry. I thought this may save my unit but it was not to be. All that happened is that another unit got locked into this quagmire of a combat. Although to be honest I had kept avoiding rolling less than 3 in the combats which really was the reason the fight was continuing so long. The odds of keeping this were getting long and each Frank unit had at least 2 extra die if not more on the surrounded cavalry in combat. My companion cavalry cavalry charged the spears and for the first time in the game they came up short. What’s worse they took a hit meaning they lost their impact ability which posed trouble for them unless they killed one of the units next turn. I had a foot units racing to the rear of this combat – but as that was heavy foot they were was likely not going to get there in time.Finally my luck for the surrounded cavalry failed and I rolled a couple of 1’s in combat – which killed them. Now the spears were all alone against multiple opponents. Yet again I got close but could not kill a cavalry unit on this side to save the surrounded one. Now the spears looked to be in trouble, likely being surrounded soon and fighting 3 units! They would not last long in that scenario.However, in the rest of the battle Dan had continuing to engage and destroy Pict units and thus the Picts had now passed their break point. So with Nicks Franks very close to breaking as well we decided to call the game at the end of that turn. Below you can see the final positions of the game for the central units. Overall the game was finished in just under 3.5 hours including set up and clean down, which is not bad at all. Everyone had fun playing and there were very few ‘down times’ for any player in the game. So from that view point all was good.
I really like Sword and Spear for ancient games and it’s a very different feel than games such as FoG or Impetus. Those remind me of a chess style game of thought and contemplation. The certainty in the control of troop command moves and complex rules to work out are negatives for me. Balanced ‘best choice’ decisions and risks are the order of the day for those games. Sword and Spear plays with much more of a being in the heat of things – riding a wave or even a DBA/DBM game on steroids. The uncertainties of command and control are very apparent in the game and you have to constantly make decisions on imperfect information- what will happen in the future. Many newer systems have a similar system, but this is the first big battle ancients game which I enjoy with this mechanic.
However, we did have some points of interest and discussion which came out of this game and the talks afterwards. In summary these are:
- We have had some discussion about how balanced the forces were. Overall, a small elite force does well in S&S as in most rules. Toe to toe and one to one the standard Pict or Frank units were worse than Romano-British. So they would likely over time loose a head to head combats. The extra number of units is a compensation for that but there is more of a twist in that with S&S due to the more random nature of the command system. The Picts nearly always got more command dice than anyone, but also lost most due to their high average disapline of their troops (all their troops were Dis 4) . For all the extra units they had, as they are lower disapline it means often a large portion of a force sits there and does nothing. Allowing more commanders for some armies may help but that would have it’s own balance issue. It seems the tactics for large forces really has to take this into account with S&S otherwise they will be in trouble.
- Any in force having some ‘elite fighting’ troops supported by a lot of poorer troops may be an ‘optimum’ list for the game. That would give a set of units which could always move and be supported by a ‘wall of crap’ to generate command die and move to support if possible. This is to be known and either accepted or avoided by lists as it seems to be a potential pitfall of the command die system. This is ok as long as no one ‘games the system’ but the current system may be option to abuse by some.
- Good tactics can be spoilt or helped by a few above/below average die rolls at the key times in S&S – very much like DBA. In this game my companion cavalry destroyed 4 units with the impact ability and some good rolls. Equally, not rolling 1’s and 2’s saved my flanked cavalry units for many turns. These ‘right rolls at the right time’ really effected the game. All die rolls are important but a few really good ones can have an obvious impact in S&S.
- There is a huge difference between Discipline 3 and Discipline 4 units in play. That 1 extra pip seems to give a much more flexible (and resilient) unit in combat.
- A Discipline 3 unit with a strength of 3 or more and an attached commander is hard thing to beat in combat. The 2+ saves for none doubled hits makes getting hits on these units hard. As long as you roll above average for the units combat, doubles are unlikely and it’s then a 1 in 6 chance for a hit to be made, while a rally at the end of the turn is still quite likely. This definitely helped my flanked and surrounded cavalry units.
- The game is fun but whether the points are ‘balanced’ is more questionable. Now, really no battle is true balanced or fair (and definitely no historical encounter) but in our games we want things to be fairly even. The above points and the way command die work mean that a very lucky or unlucky player may not gain the advantage of extra units in game. I suspect this fits into the camp to live with it or play a different system. In DBA for example there are obviously weaker and stronger armies/list builds and I suspect this may be the case with S&S as well.
Overall, for my point I don’t think we can claim great tactics for a win here. I think Nick with the Franks had a better battle plan and it nearly worked. One bad roll from me at various times and the Franks would have won on my side of the battle. But some luck on my part and a straight bash everything tactic with my best unit worked. So a win even if the tactics were very questionable. As Napoleon said “I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?”… normally I’m not but on this this night things worked out.
Well there we are. A long report but I hope you enjoyed the read. We enjoyed the game.