I’m a fan of indie self-published games because many of the games I enjoy these days I’ve downloaded from the web for free or for minimal cost. So when Andrea Sfiligoi and Ganesha Games recently released Song of Blades and Heroes, a set of fantasy skirmish rules available for a whole $4us I picked up a copy.
On opening the 34 page PDF I was presented with a sensibly arranged set of rules scattered with fantasy black and white line art of mixed but acceptable quality. Even scanning the first few pages I was confident my $4us had been well spent. The game rules appear simple but fun and overall it seems to border on the ‘beer and pretzels’ genre of gaming. Mind you there is some subtlety involved, particularly in the way the individual figures are activated in a turn.
SBH seems reasonably well supported too, with upcoming additions (Songs of Gold and Darkness, ie. dungeons) planned and a Yahoo Group forum frequented by the author and play-testers. There’s also a freely available preview PDF which takes you through a couple of rounds of combat.
SBH is D6 based and targeted at single-based 15mm Fantasy miniatures, but adaptable to any scale. It’s designed to be played in 30-45 minute games and supports multiple players each with a war band of between five excellent to ten mediocre warriors.
Each figure has two statistics and a short list of special abilities and that’s it. There’s no book keeping required and all measurement for movement, ranged fire and spell casting is done using three measuring sticks of short, medium or long length. Play is on a 60cm x 60cm (roughly 2′ x 2′) table for 15mm figures and a 90cm x 90cm (roughly 3′ x 3′) for 28mm scale figures.
The 15mm scale is an interesting choice for fantasy given the number of 28mm fantasy figures in the market, but I can see the merit of being able to carry your entire war band around in a small box. Plus of course there’s several manufacturers with 15mm fantasy ranges designed for use with the HOTT DBA derived rules. However as most of my gaming friends have a large collection of partially painted GW WHFB figures we’ll be using a 28mm scale if we try SBH out.
As SBH is a skirmish level game, the core of the system revolves around how individual figures are activated each turn. SBH uses a semi-random variation of the ‘I go, you go’ system. At the start of each turn each player rolls off for activation. The winning player then rolls 1-3 dice (at their discretion) to activate any warrior in their war band. The number of successful rolls depends on the quality of the warrior being activated, with each successful roll allowing that warrior to take an action in the turn (move, shoot, cast, fight). Two or more failures and your turn ends, moving to the next player.
It’s a simple yet effective system. Personally I favor a much more random activation scheme in a skirmish game – for example we play Mordheim with a shuffled deck of cards, one card for each warrior. However the advantage of SBH’s system it requires no book-keeping (except remembering the initial activation roll off if you have multiple players) plus the overwhelming temptation to roll two or three dice per warrior given the chance should ensure most players will end their turn without activating each of their warriors. There’s also a nice balance between playing a slower, more tactical game or trying your luck for the occasional heroic action to punish your opponent at a deciding moment.
The temptation to roll multiple dice per warrior is also heightened by the fact that each successful roll lets you move, so you could cover a lot of ground with some lucky rolling. Plus there’s other bonuses to having multiple successes per turn. For example a warrior can execute an ‘aimed blow’ for a bonus by expending one of their successful rolls. In fact some actions, like breaking from melee, or waking up from magical ‘transfix’ spells require multiple success rolls to complete in a turn.
Sticks, Stones and Spells
Both ranged and melee combat is performed with simple comparative roll offs, modified by a short table of bonuses and penalties that cover such predictable things as fighting from elevated ground, fighting while outnumbered, having a large size advantage over your opponent etc. However combat results in SBH are short and bloody! Beating your opponent (regardless of who initiated the round) on the dice roll means you’ve either knocked them to the ground or pushed them back a base length. Doubling or trebling your opponent’s score results in a kill or gruesome kill which can result in morale checks for any witnesses on the same side.
Ranged combat uses the same set of rules for knock down, kills and gruesome kills, although with a slightly more complex set of modifiers due to range, cover etc. and only warriors with the ‘Shooter’ special ability qualify for ranged combat.
Magic in the game works in with the normal activation system in the sense that warriors with the ‘Magic User’ ability can use any or all of their successful activation rolls to cast one or more magical spells. Although SBH at this point only has two magical spells. The first is when you use magic to perform a ranged attack (magic missile, fireball, lighting from your fingertips etc.) which isn’t terribly interesting. The second way to use magic is to ‘transfix’ your target, which could essentially render them harmless for quite some time as they need two success rolls to break the spell. Plus of course transfixed opponents are sitting ducks for any attacks.
While magic sounds like a bit of an afterthought (I suspect expansions will give SBH more ‘spells’), the ability to transfix enemy warriors sounds very handy, making any magic users in your war band high priority targets I suspect. Mind you at least it does give them quite a unique magical ability.
Following the rules proper is a four and a half page listing of the various Special Abilities used to give warriors and races different rules. I’ve mentioned a couple above (‘Shooter’ and ‘Magic User’) but there’s plenty of good stock Fantasy abilities in SBH like ‘Undead’, ‘Hero’, ‘Poison’, ‘Terror’ etc. This list is also ripe for future expansion.
Races, War bands and Campaigns
SBH closes with several pages of rules for creating and maintaining your war band using a points system. This section also includes a couple of interesting abilities leaders have: being able to order groups of base touching warriors around in a sort of squad formation and focusing the fire of a group of archers. This definitely makes it worth paying the price for the more expensive warriors with the ‘Leader’ skill.
There’s also six scenarios included in the rules, although each scenario is really a simple paragraph of text and all the standard options are covered with a stand up fight, a couple of ambush scenarios, a couple of ‘treasure hunts’ and a king of the hill type scenario. Handy I guess, but nothing any decent fantasy gamer couldn’t come up with themselves in an evening.
The scenarios are followed with a couple of very useful FAQ pages that includes some comments from the designer and the system used to price warrior types in the game so you can create your own. Mind you after the FAQ there’s twelve pages of statistics for pretty much any stock Fantasy race or creature you can think of, so chances are you probably won’t have to create your own!
I doubt SBH will keep the hardened gamer entertained in the long term due to the inherent simplicity of the system, but it is a great ‘pick up’ game for any fantasy fan. Something to play between longer, more complex games perhaps or to throw together a game in 10 minutes when some gaming buddies pop around. In that sense the design for simple, stream lined play with no book-keeping works both for and against SBH and I suspect in future we’ll see the complexity of the SBH system increase slightly.
It’s also a great bargain at $4us considering you’re getting an entire playable 34 page rule book that frankly sounds like fast and furious fun. I’d expect it to sell for up to two or three times that price for a PDF download and even if it was selling for $12us I’d still review it favorably.
It’ll be interesting to see where Andrea Sfiligoi and Ganesha Games take this system in the future.