The Wargame Wednesday crew traditionally focuses on traditional hex-and-counter wargames, but this week the editors have been kind enough to allow a miniature war gamer some time in the fun-house with a review of the latest war game offering from Osprey Publishing. En Garde!, is a short set of rules designed to recreate the flashing blades and swashbuckling adventures in the style of Alexandre Dumas’ musketeers. If you’ve been out of the hobby for a while, you may be interested in a brief primer on the recent history of Osprey Publishing before we get to a review of the rules themselves.
Osprey Publishing Writes Games?
Osprey Publishing is a mainstay of the miniature war gaming culture due in large part to their wonderfully illustrated series of short works on select aspects of military history. Their on-going series Men-At-Arms feature titles built around the history, dress, and tactics of specific historic armies or even distinctive units. Their full color illustrations often serve as the primary point of reference for war gamers seeking to apply just the right shade of uniform colors and patterns to their tabletop miniatures.
Relatively recently, Osprey expanded out from the reference shelf, and started to publish rules of their own. The earliest title available on their website is Field of Glory (2008), a ruleset designed to recreate big battles set in the ancient to medieval eras. Their most popular ruleset, if the sheer number of titles spawned is anything to reckon by, is Force on Force, a modern day skirmish ruleset that spawned dozens of variants for playing games set anywhere from World War I to Near Future Conflict.
More recently, their series Osprey Wargames presents short and self-contained games with a specific focus. Dragon Rampant seems to be overtaking Games Workshop’s now unsupported Warhammer Fantasy Battles as the main player in mass fantasy battle games, and their Frostgrave has revived the fantasy warbands fighting over the loot of a ruined city game made popular by Games Workshop’s also out-of-print, Mordheim. Osprey’s latest, En Garde! is a reskinning of an older ruleset designed for the Far East, Ronin.
Given the fifteen titles currently in the Osprey Wargames lineup with more titles on the schedule for release in 2016, it’s a safe bet to assume that the addition of this series to their wares has been a good one for the publisher. But how good is their latest offering?
It may be too early to tell how successful the En Garde! is from a financial standpoint, but from a war gaming and fun standpoint, its success is unmitigated. It’s fast, fun, and provides the players with everything they could hope for in a miniature wargame – important decision points, tense moments, and a wide variety of army choices and settings.
Nominally written for the swashbuckling crowd, these rules are appropriate for any game set in that time when swords, bows, and muzzle-loading firearms all played an important role in combat. The rulebook includes stats and suggestions for the use of musketeers naturally, but also for pirates, janissaries, English Civil War skirmishes, Conquistadors and Aztecs, and even early American frontier wars between colonists and Native American warriors. Each setting includes the sort of brief but informative background history for which Osprey is famed.
When reviewing miniature wargames, the three most distinctive sub-sets that really give a great feel for how a game plays are those that deal with 1) how big of a battle the game represents, 2) how the initiative system works, and 3) how troop abilities are handled. Of course there are other sub-sets, Delta Vector has a highly recommended series of blog posts that delves into the minutiae of every aspect of war gaming, but these three subsets are central to every aspect of the games. As a result, they provide a solid sense of how a game actually plays on the table. So let’s look at them one at a time.
Most games will take place between troops of 5 to 20 men, depending on troop quality. You might field a few highly skilled swordsmen holding back a large crowd of poorly armed and highly motivated rioters, for instance. Given the number of models and their move rates, the rules recommend an appropriate sized battlefield of roughly two feet by three feet.
Interestingly, the game includes an Appendix providing suggestions on how to streamline combat to allow for significantly larger forces. Larger forces will naturally require more table space to allow sufficient room for maneuver. This ability to “zoom out” is something that few rules do, and even fewer do well. This reviewer will refrain from comment on this Appendix until he has had a chance to try them out on the table.
(Note that there is a comment box below. For those of you who have tried them out, let us know if they work as well as the main skirmish set.)
En Garde!’s initiative system starts with the concept of Priority, decided by the scenario or a simple d6 roll. (Incidentally, but of critical import to some, the game only requires the use of d6s.) It is roughly analogous to most game’s concept of initiative in that it does determine who gets to move first, but the player with Priority is the tie-breaker for all questions of who goes first. The player with Priority will decide which of the simultaneous combats are resolved first, and perhaps more importantly, which morale checks are resolved first.
In each turn players alternate selecting a model to activate, with the player with Priority having first choice. That model conducts its full turn. Pretty standard fare here for the most part, moving, jumping, shooting, fighting, reloading, resting, with a catch-all Special Move that covers everything from torching a building to kissing Mademoiselle while purloining her jewels.
Interestingly, when you nominate a model the rules do not stipulate that it must be one of your models. This opens up all sorts of tactical possibilities, as it allows a player to tell his opponent, “I want to see what that model does first.” The tradeoff there is that your opponent is under no obligation to nominate one of your models next, so you sacrifice some initiative when doing so.
One other break from the standard alternating sequence is the ability for leaders to issue orders to nearby models. When doing so all of the ordered models, which can include the leader himself, take the same action at the same time. In this manner, you can effect massed charges against barricades or get better odds by swarming lone models. This can often result in multiple combats erupting at the same time, and it is in just this situation that Priority becomes important. If you don’t have priority, and your five Musketeers charge three of Richelieu’s guard, then Richelieu’s player gets to determine which combats are resolved first. If the dice don’t go your way, a guard that quickly dispatches his foe may be able to move to reinforce one of the other fights.
Every troop is represented by a stat line of seven important attributes, the most important of which is Rank. Rank, a number from 1 to 5, tells you how important a model is, how much they can do, and how good they are in combat. Cannon fodder will be Rank 1 and generals Rank 5. Remember the bit about issuing orders? If you have a Rank of 3 or greater, you can give orders to that many models. Rank also equates to a model’s combat prowess, the meat and guts of this game.
Where most skirmish games resolve melee with a simple attack roll versus a target number or a roll-off between combatants, melee in this game opens up a whole new menu of choices. Your model’s Rank tells you how many combat dice it rolls when fighting in melee. Each player secretly decides how many of those dice will be used for attack and how many for defense. Then, the models roll for initiative to see who gets first choice to attack. At its core, each melee does consist of a roll-off between players, but with an important layer of added complexity.
The attacker can choose from a short list of actions which include a basic attack (which costs one attack die) or a feint (which costs no dice, does not damage, but if successful returns an attack die to the attacker’s pool) or a disarm (which costs one attack die, is harder to hit with, but successful attacks result in the obvious effect). The defending model can choose to spend a Defense die to improve his defense, to counter-attack, or attempt to disengage from combat. The round continues until no one has any dice left in their pool. The result is a wonderful back and forth among players that helps capture the essence of the back and forth between models.
Once hit, models have four wound levels, which stack, allowing for hurt models to soldier on, and for the elimination and capture of enemy models. The wound system is the clunkiest aspect of the rules, requiring additional on-table counters or wound tracking on a separate force roster. That said, it does blend well with combat, the wounds being incorporated into the attack roll, and is a necessary component of a skirmish game. All in all, a minor point against the rules.
The Rest of the Game
These rules do include sections for missile fire, handling morale, encumbrance, point-buy systems for tournament or friendly play, and a short selection of scenarios. These rules are standard fare. Workmanlike, they get the job done, but they pale in import to the fun of the dueling blades.
The one extra system that deserves a brief mention is the inclusion of an appendix providing inspiration for incorporating elements of the fantastic. The suggestions for wizards, priests, and ferocious monsters work organically within the system and don’t feel like a bolted on extra. These would make an excellent basis for anyone interested in putting together a war game based on the film Brotherhood of the Wolf.
This is a tight little game that hits that sweet spot in rule sets that gives you everything you need to play the game, with very little fat. The special actions, disarm, and capture rules provide plenty of scope for expanding the rules to create missions and adventures of your own. As with all Osprey’s offerings, the formatting is professional, the book itself is top quality and should hold up to years of table use, and the full color art is top notch. In short, this rule set will make a fine addition to any war gaming library.