Sword and Spear. And some bows.

A game of Sword and Spear.

Having been recommended the Sword and Spear ancient rules, I thought I’d take a punt on them (although £6 for the pdf isn’t much of a punt). Here’s a brief description of the rules.

At the start of each turn, each player puts a number of dice into a bag equal to the number of units he has (different coloured dice for each player). The turn then proceeds through a series of phases. Each phase 7 dice are drawn from the bag and the player who owns most of the drawn dice has the initiative. The dice drawn are rolled and dice are allocated to units to activate them. Units usually need a 3 or 4 or better to activate depending on their discipline rating. A die equal to their discipline lets them move straight forward or shoot. A die one higher than their discipline lets them charge, move and shoot, or undertake more complex manoeuvres. Furthermore, a ‘6’ will give the unit a move, combat or shooting bonus. The player with initiative places his dice first followed by the other player. Play then proceeds with the lowest die numbers activating first, then next highest etc through to the ‘6s’. A unit can only be activated once per turn (rather than phase).

Phases continue until all the dice are drawn from the bag, and then there is an end phase, where commanders can move and where they can attempt to rally hits from units. Then a new turn begins. The phases of dice allocation and unit activation are basically the whole game and there is a lot of ‘game’ there. There are a lot of decisions to make about which units to allocate dice to and when, whether to wait for a better number, whether to give a unit a low number so they can act first, which units need a bonus etc. As the reacting player, your decisions are dependent on what dice you’ve rolled and how your opponent has placed his dice. Usually, you’ll want your units that are threatened by enemy units to have dice allocated etc. It is a very elegant system which provides plenty of challenges.

Combat involves each player rolling a number of dice dependent on their unit strength with modifiers for charging, support etc. The highest 4 dice are then paired off and compared, becoming essentially 4 rounds of fighting which can be either a draw, a hit, or a morale test. Morale involves rolling unit discipline or better to avoid taking a hit. Units take 2 hits for skirmishers, 3 for ‘mediums’ and 4 for heavies. So combat can be quick, and prone to sudden reverses.

Anyway, on to the game. We decided to use Crusades armies, so it was Fatimid Egyptian against Seljuk Turks.

^ The Arabs (me)

^ The Turks

The battle began with the Arab right advancing with the left refused. The Turks moved to meet them and also advanced into the centre with light horse. Initially I tried to get my infantry to advance as far as possible to constrain the space for the Turks to operate. However things got ‘busy’ on my right, so I ended up short of dice to get them moving up as much as I would have liked.

^Armies advance

^ View of the Turks

Both armies’ heavy cavalry met with the advantage initially going to the Arabs. The Turkish general fought personally while his Arab counterpart was still struggling to exert his influence over the rest of the army.

^ On the right, heavy cavalry clash. In the centre, Arab cavalry try and chase down Turkish light horse.

Arab cavalry chased off the Turkish light horse in the centre, but failed to catch any of them and were then getting out of command range which would have made it too hard to activate them reliably. As a result, the advance wasn’t sustained and the cavalry got ‘stranded’ as returning Turks came back to pepper them with arrows.

^ Arab cavalry push through the centre, but fail to pursue the Turks closely enough.

Eventually I managed to get enough spare activations to move the left flank cavalry, which were able to catch and sweep away a unit of Turkish light horse, and rode over a general while they were at it.

^ Arab cavalry punch through the Turkish screen.

The Arabs had pursued into the gap, but were then charged by a fresh unit of Turkish cavalry. Badly disadvantaged they awaited their fate. The resulting combat dice however, refused to oblige the Turks:

^Probably the most feeble combat ever fought.

However, the Arab success on the left couldn’t be exploited by any other units, and in the meantime the right flank had suffered a catastrophic reverse, resulting in the destruction of the Arab heavy cavalry. The Arabs had lost the requisite number of units to suffer army collapse. A victory for the Turks!

^ The Turkish Ghilmen have swept away their Arab counterparts

This was a thoroughly enjoyable game, with a lot of thinking and decision-making. Sword and Spear is a very good set of rules, but it is rather abstract. That said, it should be judged against other ‘generic’ ancient rules covering 4,000 years of warfare across the entire globe. There will, like those other sets, be periods that it fails to capture adequately. Intuitively I doubt if it’s a good fit for hoplite battles or Roman civil war, but I could be wrong. It worked well for the more fluid cavalry battle we had here, and especially with the ‘cat-and-mouse’ of cornering horse archers. The other thing in the rules’ favour is that it can be played with variable unit sizes. As all distances are measured in terms of multiples of unit frontage, it can be played with single element units. This means that when you are part way through painting your 300-figure ancient army, you can at least start playing games.

The rules are very straightforward and easy to learn, but I cannot emphasise enough how much depth there is to the gameplay. In terms of game design it really is excellent. If you’re looking for a quick, enjoyable game then ‘Sword and Spear’ is well worth a look. It’s only £6 for the pdf, and apparently if you write a review, you might get a free hard copy 🙂

More info and rules available HERE

All figures from the excellent Legio Heroica Crusades range.

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