Deus Vult is Fireforge Games’ rules set primarily aimed at the Crusades. When I first looked for information on them, I noticed that there seemed to be more ‘first impressions’ reviews than reviews of actual games. I can understand this as the rules are perhaps not the easiest to just pick up and play. However, there are good reasons for persevering in my opinion.
The book is well set out, with the usual colour photos of 28mm figures. Each page has a sidebar which provides some extra detail. In addition to the rules and lists there is a section giving a brief history of the Crusades, a description of an actual game and some other thoughts on battle size, other basing systems and even organising tournaments. Basing, incidentally, is 60mm squares for infantry (6 figures per base) and 50mm squares for cavalry (2 figures per base). Hits are marked as individual figures. I don’t think this really matters much however. It just may mean having bases that take 2 or 6 ‘hits’ regardless of number of figures.
Deployment is a mini-game in itself. Each player gets a number of scouts that they allocate alternately to the six 2′ square table zones (assuming a 6′ x 4′ table). Scouts can also be allocated to subterfuge. After all have been placed, the scouts in each zone ‘fight’ and the winner gets to place a piece of terrain in that zone. Each scout allocated to subterfuge allows you to draw a card from a deck of stratagems (some of which are blank, meaning a wasted scout). These stratagems can be ambushes, spying or a surprise attack before the enemy vanguard is properly deployed. When you combine the scouting, subterfuge and the number of scenarios provided, there’s obviously a lot of variety in the setting of the game.
Armies will usually be divided into a vanguard, a main body and a rearguard, with one or more divisions in each. The vanguard unsurprisingly deploys ahead of the main force. Elements in the rearguard can be used to attempt a flank march, or just march on after the rest. Each division is led by a battle commander, who can have personality traits as well as raw stats that affect his actions. This lets you customise commanders based on historical figures.
Activation is done by each player choosing the order in which his commanders will act. Then each player reveals their first commander and the player with initiative chooses which of the two will act first. A commander activates all of the units he is able to, doing any moving shooting and fighting during his activation. There are no separate phases for combat, movement etc. After all the commanders have acted, any units that have not been commanded are activated.
Units deteriorate through taking casualties, or through disorder. Units test in various situations using their courage or discipline stat with a failure causing disorder. If they fail while already disordered, casualties will result from ‘breaking ranks.’ Being disordered makes a unit very vulnerable in melee. The basic premise of die rolling is 6 = great success, 4-5 = success, 2,3 = failure, 1= catastrophic failure. So, as an example, rolling a ‘1’ while disordered usually means a rout. For reactions, a die is rolled for each point of the relevant stat and the player chooses the best one. A key feature of the rules is that leaders can substitute their own courage or discipline for the unit if they are within range. So a capable commander will be able to better keep his men in good order and under control than a poor one.
Shooting and fighting follows this model. Each base gets 1 or 2 dice per base. A 4,5,6 is a hit, with each 6 possibly causing a casualty. If the shooting is at short range, or the fighting is against a disordered enemy then a 4 or 5 also causes a potential casualty.
The basic mechanics are very simple. However, in addition to its basic stats, each unit and each leader also has traits which modify their behaviour in certain situations. Units can have a lot of traits, for example crusader knights have seven and that’s by no means unusual. So it can be a bit daunting getting your head around what they all do in your first few games.
For shooting, formed infantry get 2 dice per base, all others get 1 die. Each unit has a maximum of 4 action points (AP) per turn, and this is where the diversity of shooting comes in. Skirmishers pay 1 AP per shot, but their shots only cause half the casualties (that is, they have a morale effect but aren’t as lethal). Formed archers pay 2 AP per shot so can shoot twice. Crossbows pay 4 AP per shot, but the morale effect of any killing shots are doubled. In addition, some archer units get a ‘darken the sky’ option where they can have 3 shots at long range, with reduced ability to cause casualties representing an ‘arrow storm’ primarily aimed at reducing enemy morale. So the basic system is the same, but each troop type uses that system differently. It’s worth pointing out that shooting range is huge, 30″ for most bows. The killing’ range is more like 6″ (or 15″ for crossbows), however. But a Turkish army is going to be doing a lot of shooting from the first turn.
When it comes to melee, one feature that has been remarked upon is that only the active unit fights. The recipient must wait until its own activation to fight, and indeed it’s possible for a unit to charge at the end of one turn and then fight again at the start of the other before the opponent responds. I don’t think this matters in the grand scheme of the game, but it may be one of those things that people don’t like.
Two army lists are provided, one for early crusader states and one for Arab dynasties. Also, stats are provided for other troops such as Holy Orders etc. It’s here that the game comes into its own. The Crusaders have a rule that gives them much more freedom when it comes to interpenetration. Their knights can charge through their spears for example. This lets you simulate the crusader tactic of forming the knights behind a solid wall of infantry spears. Spearmen can react to being shot at by ‘shielding,’ increasing their defence at the cost of not moving on their next turn, making them well protected against archery. Knights are also impetuous, so Saracen cavalry can try and lure out the knight by pressuring the spearmen at close range. A capable crusader commander will have more chance of keeping control than a poor one, until they decide that the time is right to launch their charge.
There is also an option to take a division of Western crusaders, and this does a nice job of representing the dilemma of the crusader states, in that they wanted the manpower from the West but not the heavy-handed interference. So a Western crusader division will all have the ‘devout’ trait which makes them much more motivated and effective when fighting the infidel. However, their commander may not follow the army commander, and might decide to take his own place in the battle line, asserting his own will and forcing the army commander to deploy at the fringes.
For their part, the Arab list gets a mechanic to represent ‘al-karr wa-l-farr’ tactics (hit and run). This allows Arab cavalry units to charge into combat and then quickly withdraw, attempting to wear the enemy down, represented in the game by inflicting disorder, so a devastating charge can be subsequently executed.
So the end result is that you get a game that really feels like a crusader battle. As the crusader you feel constantly under pressure from the steady erosion by archery and manoeuvre. As the Saracen, you’re aware that a well placed charge by knights can be devastating.
The learning curve for Deus Vult can be steep, but there are lots of well-thought out mechanics and the overall period feel is extremely well done. I’d offer the caveat that, after only one game, I’ve no idea how balanced the game is overall, but I would suggest that, if you are into the crusades, the rules are well worth persevering with. They would possibly do a good job of some other medieval periods too. The archery rules may well work for Hundred Years’ War for example.