Sunday 26 May 2019

Returning to Antioch with Song of Shadows and Dust

This week, Andrew, Lee and I met up to conduct some dirty deeds around the seedy streets of first century BC Antioch. Remarkably, the last time Andrew and I faced off playing Song of Shadows and Dust was five years ago! Back then, we played a great little three game campaign which saw his Palmyrene merchant faction drive my fishmongers (read 'pirates') guild out of one of the suburbs of Antiochia Mikros. 

This was Lee's first foray with the rules. He ran the fishmongers guild (Kybiosaktoi) and Andrew led his Palmyrene merchants again. I went with a new faction, the Skenitai or 'tent dwellers' using a few pre-generated rosters from the book along with a pragmatic application of the custom faction builder software.
Although there are some 57 different profiles listed in the rule book - ranging from drunks and cut-purses, to civic priests and disgruntled aristocrats - there is also an online faction builder (it can be downloaded too) to allow players to completely customise their factions. It can be found on the old Ganesha Games website:

Kybiosaktoi (fishmongers)Strato Monophthalmos (Faction Leader) 60 points
Q3; C3; Leader

Erato (Witch) 40 points
Q3; C1; Dynast ,Poison, Short Move, Threatening

Philokrater (Thracian Bodyguard) 42 points
Q4; C4; Armed, Barbarous, Heavy Drinker, Protect

Antiochis (Henchman with spear) 36 points
Q4; C3; Armed, Bellicose

Apollonios (Retired Veteran) 52 points
Q3; C3; Armed, Danger Sense, Hard

Europa (Apprentice with sling) 36 points
Q4; C2; Agile, Grey, Quick, Sling

Zeuxis (Henchman with oar) 32 points
Q4; C3; Bludgeon, Grey

Palmyrene Merchants (thieves really, the pack of 'em)Sneaky Merchant (Faction leader) 62 points
Q3; C2; Leader, Lucky, Opportunistic

Famous Courtesan (Alluring lady of the night) 38 points
Q2; C0; Distracting

Femme Fatale (Assassin) 65 points
Q2; C3; Poison, Quick, Stealth

Foreign Bodyguard 42 points
Q4; C4; Armed, Barbarous, Heavy Drinker, Protect

Apprentice with Cudgel 36 points
Q4; C2; Bludgeon, Grey, Quick

Snatch Purse 35 points
Q2; C1; Free disengage, Grey, Quick

Urchin 22 points
Q3; C1; Agile, Danger Sense, Nimble, Stubborn

Skenitai (semi-nomadic tent-dwellers)Bargartes Hierax (Faction Warlord) 84 points
Q3; C3; Armed, Bellicose, Group Fighter, Leader

Abd’Hadad (Blind Prophet) 8 points
Q2; C0; Clumsy, Distracting, Short Move, Slow

Iamblichos (Assassin) 90 points
Q2 C4; Armed, Poison, Quick, Stealth

Abd'Azizos (Henchman with bow) 54 points
Q3; C3; Agile, Bow,

Barnebos (Henchman with cudgel) 32 points
Q4; C3; Bludgeon, Grey

Zabdiel (Henchman with fists) 27 points
Q4; C3; Grey

As a three player game, we placed three numbered tokens in a bowl to determine turn order. Whenever a turnover was rolled, we drew the next token from the bowl to determine who went next, placing all three tokens back into the bowl after each faction had had a turn.

Andrew set up the terrain and the 'Time of Day' roll indicated that it was morning time. The city had a quite bustle about it and sixteen civilians were placed on the table. Rolling for objectives, Andrew's Palmyrenes were tasked with keeping the kings peace - they earned victory points for taking out rival faction members, but lost them anytime a civilian was killed. Lee's fishmongers were being sent in to seize control of the area away from my tent-dwellers (who were just out looking to cause trouble). The three key buildings were the temple, the small tavern/bawdy house with a tiled roof adjacent to the temple wall, and the small house with courtyard in the very centre of the table. Any turn that ended with a Fishmonger faction member on or touching the objectives, Lee scored a victory point. Any turn one of my faction members were on or touching an objective lost Lee a victory point. 

My Skenitai deployed in the lower left corner of the suburb with my archer, Abd'Azizos, on the roof of the fountain house, Abd'Hadad, the blind prophet, and Iamblichos the assassin in the alley in front of the fountain house, and the rest of the gang behind the fountain house.

Andrew's Palmyrenes were deployed on the roof of a house on the far side of the temple (top left of the suburb), with a couple of lower-paid henchmen skulking in the shadowy alleys below.

Lee's Fishmongers deployed together in a bunch in the centre of the far right hand side of the suburb. From there they had a straight run up the alley which would take them to each objective. Well, if my Skenitai didn't get in the way anyway.

In the opening rounds, I managed to get my assassin into the temple grounds and against the temple itself, starting the game well by giving Lee a -1 victory point deficit. Meanwhile, the rest of my faction were pretty rubbish at activating. While Abd'Hadad, my distractingly ranty blind prophet, made his way slowly up the alley to get in the way of the Fishmongers, Andrew's famous Palmyrene courtesan slipped down behind the temple and into the alley behind him. 

We were now faced with a bloody annoying situation where Abd'Hadad was distracted by the courtesan (he may be blind, but there are somethings he can still see), while she was distracted by his philosophical musings. For the remainder of the game, the two of them would get in each others' way and generally be a nuisance. Mostly to me.

Zeuxis, Lee's oar-armed fishmonger, legged it up the alley to make contact with objective number two, the bawdy house. Unfortunately for him, Bargates, my tent dwelling faction leader managed to issue a group order to his two henchmen who rounded the corner together and attacked Zeuxis. Shamefully, even though they outnumbered him, Zeuxis reeked so badly of fish guts that the Skenitai failed to land any blows.

The blind prophet, hearing the commotion, managed to drag his attention away from the Palmyrene courtesan and move towards the fighting. I hoped I'd be able to get him forward enough to interrupt any more Fishmongers coming down the way. Iamblichos, my lethal assassin left the shelter of the temple and climbed onto the roof of the bawdy house hoping to drop down onto the heads of approaching foes - any of them at all, he's not all that discerning.

Instead of coming to the aid of Zeuxis, however, most of the other Fishmongers moved up the lane between the bawdy house and their third objective, the courtyard house. In the open square on the far side, the Palmyrenes had assembled and seeing the Fishmongers, the Palmyrene urchin and femme fatale dashed in against the foremost Fishmonger, hoping for a quick kill.

They didn't recon on Antiochis the Fishmonger-widow being armed with a spear though - you'd have through they would have seen it!? The Palmyrene femme fatale was knocked to the ground while her compatriots looked on in shock.

In her own activation, Antiochis plunged her spear into the fallen femme fatale, taking her out. Proving that my wee boy was present for most of the game, a small dinosaur then appeared briefly in the open square...

Apollonios, the retired veteran - now a nominally working as a fishmonger - used his own spear to smite the poor Palmyrene urchin. Above their heads, the Skenitai assassin lept from bawdy rooftop to the central house. His planned ambush falling foul of the fowl who made such a racket that everyone was alerted to his presence. Amid the chaos, the Palmyrene barbarian bodyguard threw himself into the fray, hoping to kill the widow Antiochis and avenge his fallen comrades.

The barbarian knocked Antiochis to her knees, enabling the Palmyrene merchant-apprentice to duck in and finish her off with a savage cudgel blow to the back of her head.

Back in the alley between the fountain house and the bawdy house, Zeuxis (the fishmonger henchman with oar) made a fighting retreat out of his scuffle with the Skenitai henchmen. However, he then lost his train of thought in the presence of a ranting prophet and a beautiful courtesan.

All of the Skenitai henchmen, including Abd'Azizos the archer, were completely distracted by the Palmyrene beauty. Their leader, Bargates managed to focus his mind enough to climb a building a leap away from her influence. Below him, Strato the one-eyed leader of the Fishmongers joined the fray, knocking the unarmed Skenitai henchman to the ground.

Meanwhile Iamblichos, the assassin dropped down from his rooftop perch to attack Europa, the fishmonger's apprentice who was hiding in the alley on the far side of the building. 

Not enjoying being assaulted on all sides, Strato issued a regroup order to his fishmongers and pulled most of them together into a cluster in the main alleyway. Abd'Aziziz, the Skenitai archer finally managed to loose a shot at Strato which went as disastrously wide as it could go. The only result of the shot was to cause a concerned nearby citizen to become active, joining the side of the Fishmongers who were clearly the innocent party in all this. Apparently.

The Skenitai leader, Bargates, stood on the roof of his building, swinging his curved blade menacingly. Europa, the young fishmonger apprentice didn't much like the look of him and used her sling to try to take him down. Her shot missed, but the whizzing sound of the sling bullet passing his head was enough to cause Bargates to lose his footing and he slipped anyway. He survived the short fall into the alley, but still ended up on his back, surrounded by irate Fishmongers (plus one concerned citizen).

Between the bawdy house and central house, Barnebos (Skenitai henchman with club) was surrounded by Palmyrenes and things were starting to look a bit grim.

Just then, Iamblichos the assassin came back round into the main alley in pursuit of Europa. His swing failed to kill the apprentice, but the poison on his blade did enter her body, reducing her quality.

Seeing the Skenitai assassin attacking a wee girl, another concerned citizen decided that enough was enough and took up arms to aid the Fishmongers. The Fishmonger leader, Strato, strode up to the fallen Bargates and tried to stomp on the fallen Skenitai's head. Somehow he missed, and Bargates managed to rise to his feet. In one well aimed blow, he deprived Strato of his head. The Fishmongers panicked, almost to a man they started to withdraw, but were not yet finished. That was until the Skenitai archer took his only effective shot of the game, pinning a citizen right between the shoulder blades as he ran off down the alley.

At that point, the body count reached seven and triggered the end of the game. The local militia were summoned to restore order to the streets, and all faction members made themselves scarce. At the end of the game, my Skenitai had managed a measly two victory points for casualties inflicted on my opponents; Andrew's Palmyrenes had also scored poorly with two points, minus one for the civilian I killed at the end. Lee's Fishmongers only managed three points in total which, poor though it was, was enough to grant him a nominal victory.

Saturday 11 May 2019

Second game of Men of Bronze

After a wee cup o' tea and a chat, we sat down for our second game of Men of Bronze. Amending our units of measurements from the previous game, we agreed that 1BW = 1cm (effectively halving the distances from last time).  

We were playing with the same sized forces as last time. Lee (top of the photo above) commanded the same two drilled hoplite phalanxes, two units of peltasts, and a unit of slingers, all nominally hailing from - or employed by - Corinth. My force (bottom of the photo above) was sort of similar with two units of drilled hoplites, two units of slingers and a unit of archers, all mercenaries in the pay of the  king of Lowland Macedonia.
Again, the first few turns were all about moving in the general direction of the enemy. While I tried to make use of the rough terrain on my left...

... Leeandros pulled his peltasts back out of range, seeking shelter behind the phalanxes. In general, I think we both agreed that the shorter movement rates (1cm BWs) meant that the units stuck closer together and looked more like an ancient army rather than a selection of units thrown together (as we found last game).

At this point I was beginning to feel that Leeandros was concentrating his strength at one end of m line. My slingers were snarling from the rough hill slopes, but weren't sure they wanted to come down off the hill into the open plain.

The most beautiful game mechanic moment of the battle then unfurled before us as Leeandros ordered his left-most hoplite phalanx to charge my archers. As there is no pre-measurement allowed in the game, he sent them forward only to discover that they didn't have the movement. The hoplites stumbled to a confused halt just short of the archers, breaking into open order and becoming disordered. My archers unleashed a volley at point-blank range, causing the hoplites to lose a point of courage.

At that moment, I broke my right-most hoplites into open order swung to the right, ordered them back into phalanx formation and charged the wavering Corinthians. My other hoplite unit also charged forward, straight into the other unit of Corinthain hoplites. Lee chose to bring in two neighbouring units (peltasts and slingers) as supports. Initially we sort of smudged them both in behind the Corinthian hoplites, only later forming them 'properly' into an outlandish looking column (below).  

I brought one unit of slingers up behind my archers ready to provide some support as I expected to be charged by the last unit of Corinthian peltasts. Then, unsurprisingly, my archers were charged by some Corinthian peltasts. In the melees of that turn, the archers took a beating, the wavering Corinthian hoplites continued to suffer from the Macedonians attacking their flank, while my other hoplites lost some more courage from the onslaught of the Corinthian column.

In the next round of combats, my archers and slingers lost all their courage and fled. The Macedonian hoplites being attached by the Corinthian column also scattered and ran. Immediately afterwards, the wavering Corinthian hoplites broke and fled. That was enough to cause a collapse test on both armies. While the remaining Macedonian hoplites and slingers stood their ground bravely, the Corinthian army was not so confident.

The only Corinthian unit which remained in the field was the drilled hoplites. They broke into open order, turned, and charged (in open order) at the Macedonian slingers...

The Macedonian hoplites, not having learnt the lesson from watching the Corinthians last battle, charged into the Corinthian rear. However, due to the rule anomalies, the Macedonian hoplites were only supporting the slingers in their scuffle with the Corinthians. With the roll of the combat dice, the Macedonians managed to completely route the Corinthian hoplites. However, the Corinthians were fierce enough to have routed the slingers and - again, that support rule - the Macedonian hoplites turned and fled too. With no man left standing on the field of battle, it seems that the crows and next year's harvest are the true winners.

Two games down, the rules are enjoyable, but still a bit of a mixed bag for me. The basic tenants are great. The arete points system is an elegant way of adding friction, and the combat system really is very good. Shorter 'base widths' as a unit of measurement made for a better game than last time. However, the Warhammeresque double-movement-charge-range makes missile weapons pretty obsolete (maybe a regular movement distance charge move would solve that?). More of an issue is that the combat 'support' system just doesn't work for me. I'm not sure what the rational is behind it, but it doesn't feel like it reflects what we know of hoplite/ancient warfare...

First game of Men of Bronze

This week we were able to get a couple of games in of Eric Farrington's (EF) new Men of Bronze rules, published by Osprey. Both Lee an I have been building up 10mm forces with this game foremost in our minds, so it was great to be able to get our wee chaps on the table for a run through. The rules are written to be scale and basing agnostic - a big tick in my book - but it seems pretty clear that they don't seem to have been extensively tested with anything other than units composed of multiple singly based figures. 

The numbers just don't always stack up. Distances are measured in base widths (BW), which works fine if your phalanx is composed of ten hoplites on 1 inch bases. If the unit moved 6BW, obviously that is a move of 6 inches. However, that doesn't translate for multi-based units like ours (on 60x40mm bases). At this scale, you don't want a standard move by heavy infantry to cover 36cm (6BW of 60mm)! Now, EF does allow that BW don't need to be base widths, but can be any unit of distance agree by the players which makes sense, but then why call then base widths at all? Why not call then distance units? 

So, step one for us was agreeing on a unit of measurement. In this first game we opted for 2cm, meaning each of our units measured 3BW x 2BW. 

We agreed (or I just said and Lee didn't argue...) to play the generic battle scenario, 'Decisive Battle'. The battlefield was all open ground, with a rough hill in opposite corners. We both deployed in rough lines, keeping the minimum distance possible between units (friendly units cannot usually be within 1BW of each other).

Leeandros of Corinth commanded a force of two drilled hoplite phalanxes, two units of peltasts, and a gaggle of slingers. Nikelaos of Macedon led some heavy cavalry, a single militia phalanx, a single Illyrian warband (classed as drilled infantry in this game), and a unit of peltasts. Both forces consisted of 32 points of doughty lead warriors. The average game seems to be around 38 points a side, but Lee isn't quite there yet. Seeing the size of this game, I'd suggest games up to 50ish points would work fine (and look great).

Curiously, under the scenario rules for Decisive Battles, the armies "should be roughly equal points, with no greater difference than a single point." This is a fair statement, except that all units are costed 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, or 2 points. So what EF is saying I suppose, is that you need to have forces of the same point size for this type of game...

The first couple of turns were spent coming to grips with movement system, bidding for initiative, and what to do with your arete points. Arete points are one of the key fatures of the game and are a really lovely mechanic. The basic rule mechanics are pretty straight forward and we got the hang of them pretty quickly.

... and then arete points were used to charge, and phalanxes shot across the table like canon balls! Coming back to the BW issue, a phalanx 60mm wide charging 24cm in one move seemed ... Warhameresque. There was no sense of lines of armoured men working in concert - it sort of became every unit for himself.

My Illyrian infantry charged at the Corinthian slingers, but they evaded and proceeded, in the following turn, the sling stuff into the faces of the enraged Illyrians. 

One of Leeandros' drilled phalanxes charged at my militia hoplites, who counter-charged in turn. The other Corinthian drilled phalanx tumbled into my poor peltasts, and I had no arete points left to get them to try and evade! The decisions required and the command friction created by arete points is, as I mentioned, a great mechanic.

The Macedonian militia phalanx won their combat, pushing back their Corinthian foes and standing their ground. The Macedonian poor peltasts took a pounding, fell back and started to waver. However, the Macedonian heavy cavalry had been skirting round the right flank of the battlefield, and Leeandros' own peltasts were looking ill at ease.

And rightly so - the Macedonians charged in and routed one unit of Corinthian peltasts in a single round of combat. 

Over on the left, the Illyrians also finally came to grips with the slingers. Although they caused the slingers to lose courage and start to waver, the brave light infantry held on for another turn.

At that point, things got a little weird. For starters, my wee lad interrupted the game and gave the Macedonian cavalry a peacock feather. The second unit of Corinthian peltasts charged all the way back across the table to join the melee between their slinger-pals and my Illyrians, and the unharmed Corinthian phalanx chose not to charge my peltasts again, but to add their support to the phalanx-on-phalanx action in the centre.

A word about supporting units in a melee:
On p.18 EF discusses a zone of control  around all sides of a unit 1BW wide (mentioned briefly above). No units, friend or foe, may be within this ZOC unless they are engaged in melee (and also units supporting a combat, although this is not mentioned until later). However, on p.21 it says that in order to be able to provide support to a friend in combat, units have to have a leader (front central figure) within 3BW of the fighting friend. Therefore, with our bases measuring 3x2BW, a unit needs to be practically touching their friend's ZOC in order to qualify.

Units that do qualify as a support, except when they are charging into the flank of an enemy already engaged in melee, get sucked up behind the friend they are supporting, effectively forming one deep unit with +2 combat dice. With our multi-based units, that means we end up with a hoplite column deeper than it is wide which just looks and feels wrong. In this game we only had this situation once (above). In the second game we had a hoplite phalanx supported by two units, so it ended up as a column 60mm wide, and 120mm deep...

Here is when the support rules also make me bite my lip in thought. In the combat above, the Illyrian drilled infantry are fighting the Corinthian slingers. The Corinthian peltasts, charging in from the flank, are not considered the be 'attacking', but instead add their dice in support of the slingers. Even though the peltasts are fresh, comparable in fighting ability to the drilled infantry, and attacking a flank, the slingers are still the primary opponent for my drilled infantry. If, as happened here, the Illyrian drilled infantry cause enough hits to make the slinger unit break and flee, all supporting units also break and flee. So the fresh peltasts run off the table leaving the bloodied-but-still-standing Illyrian infantry howling n double triumph. I suppose the lesson to be learnt here is not to support a friend who looks like they might break?

Back in the centre, the Macedonian heavy cavalry swept in the deliver a 'supporting' flank charge against the deep Corinthian phalanx block (already engaged against my militia spearmen. We then remembered to look at the 'Collapse Test' rules, which mean that units can flee from the table once the casualties start stacking up across the table. I'm not sure if we played it correctly (I think we did...), but the Corinthian hoplites in support broke and fled after failing their discipline rolls, leaving just one unit left.  

The Macedonian peltasts now swept around to the left of the combat and charged the Corinthians in their other flank. In the ensuing melee, these were the dice rolled. That is an unnatural number of 1s on my part, but enough hits were scored to cause the last Corinthians to flee the battlefield.

In reflection after our game, there were things that raised eyebrows, but the game was fun. It flowed really well and there were enough tough decisions to keep us both engaged. The combat mechanisms, for melee and for shooting, are clear, easy to pick up, but nuanced enough to not make every unit handle the same way. Hoplites in phalanx formation are tough nuts!

The rules really do feel like they were written for singly based models with the 'basing agnostic' line thrown in as a bit of an afterthought, but there is nothing in unsurpassable. EF enourages the use of house rules to fix things players don't agree with, but I don't really feel that a player should have to use house rules to fix what is written. 

After a quick tea break, Lee and I sat down for another bash. The report of our second game is to follow.

Saturday 4 May 2019

10mm steppe goblin assassin and giant

The 10mm steppe goblin horde gathering has been a bit slower recently due to work pressures, but I have managed an assassin - Snickers the Knife (from one of the Polar Fox Studios steppe goblin command strips) - and also a giant.

The giant is actually a tribal hunter from Blind Beggar Miniatures' recent Palaeo Diet Kickstarter. As the Blind Beggar hunters are twice as tall as my 20mm prehistoric collection, I looked around for another use for this chappie, and decided he made a pretty good 10mm giant.

Stanley knife modelling putty at the ready, I set about embiggening (may not be a real word, but used on the Simpsons a looong time ago) him. I added eye lids to reduce the comic book appearance of the eyes; cut some little shields from plasticard, added shield bosses with putty, and added them together with a 10mm skeleton head as belt trophies. Lastly, I cut up a spare halfling and used putty to add a tare to the sack for the halfling to be struggling out of.

He was a fun model to build and paint. Even though he has been matt varnished, he still looks pretty shiny in the pictures. I might have to take him out back and give him another spray.