Sunday, 18 February 2018

The search for a fantastic rule set

So, all these 10mm rats and halflings – not to mention the Legion of Super Evil (not yet previewed) – have caused me to start looking for a good fantasy mass battle game for the first time in many years. All of the below is my personal thoughts and I realise that many people may disagree with parts or all that I write.

In the foolishness of youth I played Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd Edition, but I fell out of love with Games Workshop a good twenty years ago. I have no intention of re-engaging in that department, but even if I did, they don’t even seem to do a mass battle game anymore for their fantasy setting. I might be out of the loop on this one… 😊

I then dabbled with Hordes of the Things, the WRG rules based on the DBX system. I rather enjoy the elegant abstraction of DBX and its successors in historical settings where the relatively restricted number of troop types battle it out against their contemporaries. However, I’m not convinced that there is enough nuance in the troop interactions to give a really flavourful fantasy game. Certainly, my gaming circle here in Ireland doesn’t seem to think so.

So this week we sat down to three games using different rules but the same small selection of figures in each – Halflings verse Dark Elves. I outline my thoughts on each below:

Game 1) Kings of War, 2nd Edition, by Mantic (Halfling victory)
I had played KoW once in the past, and watched a couple of other games. My opponent JB haD played it rather more and helped guide me through. On the plus side, it is fast. But – and it is a pretty large but(t) – I don’t find it a particularly fulfilling game. At all. It lacks any sense of command friction and that really takes away any sense of having to make hard decisions. You can just move whichever units you want at a time that suits you.

Coupled with this, the combat system is a bit silly (understatement). Only the active player rolls dice, and they roll an inconceivably large amount of them lot of them. This means that, especially with regular sized or large games, the opposing player just sits there and takes it in the face without so much as being able to hold up a hand to shield their eyes. Not only is this pretty unrealistic (fantasy setting of not), but it can get both dull and dispiriting to see the other guy dander about destroying your units and you don’t even get to roll a dice.

Speaking of dice… I am not a ‘bucket o’ dice’ kind of guy. I understand within the rules why so many dice are rolled to attack, but it’s just unnecessary. A small tweak to the way units break, and you could reduce the number of dice down to a mere handful. We ran out of dice and I have a bloody big bag of d6s!

Game 2) Mayhem, Expanded Edition, by Bombshell Games (Halfling victory)
This game has some really neat ideas, using different polydice to represent different fighting abilities and equipment, an allowing you to choose to roll dice or accept the average without rolling. Unfortunately, the game felt unfinished to us. Admittedly, this was only after one game, but we ended up with quite a number of questions left unanswered, that we just couldn’t could find answers to in the book.

There is some command friction in the game, which we liked, and the overdrive system of additional actions by units being possible at an exponential cost of command pips is nifty. The concept of a single unit activation four times in a row though, while every other unit on the table sat around and watched felt a bit too farfetched though. I had 10 units on my halfling army and had a command value of d12. Because of the nature of the rules, I was able to roll multiple d12s each turn (one for the general, one for the hero, one for the elite eunit etc etc) and managed to get 12 command pips each turn. This meant that rather than feeling like command friction, I actually had more freedom than in the previous KoW game! If we play again, we might have a gentlemens’ agreement to limit command qualities to d6s, or maybe somehow link the maximum command rating to the number of units in the army.

Neither of us were at all convinced by the rule that says that characters may only attack other characters (including casting aggressive magic), unless they are embedded in a unit. So, a wizard on a flying carpet can’t cast a fireball at a unit of goblins – but if he flies over a joins a friendly unit of swordsmen, he is suddenly somehow able to able cast his fireballs. It just isn’t intuitive. The rules let you embed some heroes in units from the start, but your general may not be created like that.

The game is splendid in allowing players to completely customise their own army lists, even if there are no example lists in the book at all. Once again, there is a counter to that though, in that the points system feels a bit skew-whiff. There are some traits and weapons that seem really imbalanced in the cost to buy, benefits on the battlefield ratio. Also, the characters – the ones that can’t attack units – cost the same to build as units.

Game 3) Kings of War – with a fudge, 2nd Edition, by Mantic (Bloody draw)
For the third game, we returned to KoW, but implemented one simple yet fundamental change. In a melee, both players attacked and could damage their opponent. This meant that there was no more charging in with impunity for those knights who were already badly mauled. If they do charge in, they may very well break, regardless of what damage they do to their opponents. The fudged KoW game still suffered from a lack of command friction and the buckets o’ dice thing, but it was a lot more fun, and even faster than usual.


Where to go now? Pending anybody else making any splendid suggestions, I might try Hail Caesar, using the historical rules to start with, but with customised armies of course. If it feels ok, then it’s just a matter of adding in magic. But only time will tell I suppose.

It seems that what I am after is a game that keeps both players engaged throughout. I don't want individual figure removal. It needs to have some sort of command friction that forces the player to make hard decisions, and have a well thought out and balanced points system, but not have army lists that are too prescriptive. If it fits within my fantasy world, why shouldn’t I have a halfling sorcerer riding a giant bunny?!


  1. Warmaster Fantasy is a GW set, but a really good one and designed for 10mm. Some of the rules mechanics inspired HC and BP. Meets most of your needs and a PDF is pretty easy to find online (GW made it free at one point so there are downloads kicking around).
    Dragon Rampant is really adaptable. I've used it for 10mm and it's a cheap ruleset from Osprey.

  2. I think I'm on the same journey as you, though I started with the fantasty rules appendix in WRG's Ancient Rules!
    I don't like Warmaster or Rally Round the King because you have to buy into their definition of orcs, etc.
    I liked the freedom of HotT but felt rather restrained by the limited variety. I like some of the ideas of Mayhem though, like you, feel a little frustrated by the apparent incompleteness. I think I'm going to persevere with it and will try to do some tweaking.

  3. I've been trying to play Mayhem, too. I like many of the ideas but it seems to be mostly untested, so lots of tweaking is necessary. The unit costs are virtually random, for example, and ranged fire is vastly underpowered. I'll be watching this blog to see what kind of replies you get. Incidentally, I don't like RRTK either because for a fantasy game it is so fantasy-free and colorless - and not very well explained either.

  4. Maybe when ADLG fantasy comes out, it might fit the bill for largish fantasy armies based on elements. At the moment I'm using Dragon Rampant, but with individually based 28mm.

  5. I've had one game of Lord and Lands, which I really enjoyed, and I have just bought the pdf for With Sword and Shield (had one game during the beta test which I liked). I'm looking to play in either 15mm or 10mm.

  6. I’m thinking of trying the new Battle Valor. Anybody with any experience with that system?

  7. My favourite is Warmaster. If using some Warmaster Ancients modifications, it is almost perfect (a house rule for using single bases, would make it PERFECT).

    Also, I have to recommend you ARMATI, though it is a historical ruleset

  8. Another shout for Dragon Rampany - through it's warband skirmish rather than big battle.

    Warmaster used to be great, I liked the friction through the combat was a bit clunky.
    It evolved into Hail Caesar, which cleans up the combat and streamlines the friction.
    I feel that Hail Caesar with fantasy bits is probably the solution for big fantasy battles.