On the table is the battle of White Mountain, one of those included in the Saints in Armor, game number six in GMT‘s Musket & Pike series. It covers six battles from the early part of the Thirty Years War featuring Johann Tserclaes, Graf von Tilly (the Monk in Armor), the most famous military commander of the Imperial/Bavarian side in that struggle. Ben Hull designed the original game system, but this package was put together by Brian Berg Asklev Hansen and David Ekberg.
Given the scales (20-30 minute turns, 100 yard hexes, and each strength point being 80-100 men) the focus is tactical, with all the paraphernalia you would expect: facing, formations, disorder, reaction, fire combat, melee combat, morale, rally, and leaders. Fire combat, for example, includes different types of infantry fire, cavalry use of pistols, and artillery. Leaders normally include Wing and Army Commanders. The former have their soldiers to look after. The latter often spend their time rushing about the battlefield, using their ability to reform and rally units. There is a high level of detail which, thankfully, the 32 page series rulebook does a good job of explaining.
The maps and counters are things of beauty. Unpacking the components releases plaintive cries of “Play me! Play me!”
There are two aspects of the design worth highlighting. First, the system includes a layer of orders issued to each army wing, restricting what actions the units can take. For example, units with a Charge order have to end the activation closer to the nearest enemy unit. This system is clever, with some subtle limitations that challenge you as the commander of the forces, and prevent you using the perfect knowledge you have, but the protagonists did not. And this is underlined by the need to roll to change orders. (It can be frustrating, but realistic) to see your soldiers charge into danger when you would really rather they stopped. Second, the player sequence is interactive with each wing activating on its own, and potentially – subject to a die roll – getting another two activations. Essentially the side with the most Charge orders goes first, but the opposing side can try and interrupt proceedings – again subject to a die roll – at the risk of forfeiting its extra activations. The effect is a good mix of chaos, with the better led forces generally being able to achieve more when they want to. Note “generally” – nothing is guaranteed.
This version includes six battles (each on half sized maps) with extensive historical notes about the battles, the leaders, the units and other background information. There are a set of special rules applying to the set as a whole. For example, Heavy Infantry cannot use Salvo Fire. And each battle has its own special rules to further fine tune the history. The 56 page Playbook is, on the whole, well done though there are a couple of minor typos.
So far I have only played White Mountain and my impressions are in line with those formed after playing all of the five preceding games in the series. The game gives you a challenge, because it’s not easy to get your troops to do exactly what you want, when you want. And once enemy action interferes, it’s even worse. Therefore, in a competitive situation, the player who best manages to deal with the chaos will win. As a welcome bonus, the game plays well solitaire. It’s meaty, involving, and has a good historical feel about it.
The one downside of the detail is that, apart from the relatively slow speed of play which often happens – especially as the action heats up – the gorgeous map and counters are soon spotted with markers. For example, because the game system separately tracks formation status and morale status, it’s possible for a unit to have markers for each. And if it is a cavalry unit that has fired its pistols, that’s another marker. And, if it has suffered step losses, guess what? Yes, another marker. The counters do include some markers that combine effects, but the overall impression is still one of many markers. If I am in the mood to play the game, the markers do not bother me. But I confess that this game has been in the ‘to be played’ queue for a while, and on a few previous occasions when I thought about playing it, the marker situation put me off, and I chose another game. I eventually got to Saints in Armor, and am glad I did so. But once it leaves the table, it may face the same challenge to overcome before it gets back on, It’s a gamer’s mood swing thing…
In summary: glad I got it, glad I played it, and I will probably want to play any more using the same system.