When I read first announcement about Too Fat Lardies' Dux Britanniarum' ruleset, my wargaming heart skipped a beat. A ruleset about Saxon invasion of British Isles? For once I had all the figures I would need before getting the rules! With that thought in mind, I've got a bundle consisting of hardcopy and a card deck as soon as it became available. A PDF version was sent to me as an extra only hours after I sent Mr. Clarke the payment; that's what I call customer care!
Dux Britanniarum is a low level skirmish ruleset with deceptively simple game mechanics. A "standard size" game can be played with about 50 figures per side. Units consist (at least initially) of six figures each and come in three classes- levies, common warriors and the elite hearthguard warriors. Additionally the players will need at least four figures for their leaders and a champion warrior. Throw in a handful of skirmishers with bows or slings rounds into the mix and you have all the figures necessary for most games and indeed also for the launch of a full-fledged campaign.
The game itself is controlled in usual TFL-manner, with help of cards activating individual leaders. Once a leader is activated, he can use his activation points to manage units within his command range. This basically means that he can order them to move, form up in formations consisting of two or more six-man groups, fight or to rally those units that about to crack.
Movement is handled with another TFL-patented mechanism - up to 3D6 are rolled to decide the distance units will move in a specific turn; movement can be reduced by individual pips or whole dices depending on terrain, formation and morale state of the unit.
Formations are handled in rudimentary fashion - individual units can be brought together into larger bands which require single activation point to act and thus become more manageable. There are two types of formations - massed formation and a shieldwall. Both have different advantages, but they also have adverse effect on movement speeds and maneuverability of units in formation.
Combat is handled with 'buckets of dices' vaguely reminding of the Warhammer Ancients mechanism. Combatants roll a bunch of D6 decided by number of figures participating in combat, attached leaders, differences in troop quality and terrain. High results are considered to be a hit that can be 'deflected' by a subsequent defense roll. Hits that "get through" come in two varieties - direct kills and Shock points. The effect of the first is self-explanatory, accumulation of the later mean all sorts of bad things for effectiveness of afflicted unit.
There is of course a bunch of 'chrome rules' that add complexity and period flavor, but it is clear even after the first read-through of the ruleset that the designer of Dux Britanniarum wanted the combat mechanics to be simple and utilitarian. If they were all that there was to Dux Britanniarum, one could easily draw the conclusion that it was a ruleset of vanilla variety.
There are however two mechanisms in this ruleset that make it into anything but vanilla. Fate Cards are the first of them. Before the battle begins each player gets a hand with five of those cards and they can be used during the game to affect the gameplay in a variety of ways. While there is nothing unique with this 'event deck', it works especially well in this setting. The cards also add a factor of chance and uncertainty that goes a long way to alleviate the simplicity of the core rules and potentially make even a smallest skirmish into a nail biting affair. (Just to clarify, players' hand is continuously replenished, so the players usually have about five cards in their hand throughout the game.)
The second element that turns 'Dux Britanniarum' into something different and unique is its campaign meta-game. I must say that even before I played my first game, I've got the impression that the campaign is the main component of this ruleset and that the individual battles serve primarily to drive it forward. When 'Dux Britanniarum' is played as a campaign (and I think already that it's the only way in which this ruleset should be used), a completely new dimension is added into the mix. Not only does this aspect of the game bind otherwise slightly meaningless 'one-off' battles into a coherent and exciting story, but it also puts the players into a position of fledgling chieftains trying to make a name for themselves with help of theirs sword and wits. Let's be honest, who among us can resist such challenge?
Our first game
For our first attempt H. and I decided to keep things rather relaxed and give ourselves a chance to familiarize ourselves with different aspects of the portion of the game that deals with battles. Thus, we used the scenario generator to setup a generic battle with a simple goal of slaying as many of opponent's warriors as possible before we run out of time.
Having placed 'default armies at start of the campaign' on the table, we proceeded with pre-battle phase, which was the only campaign mechanism we choose to use that evening. This part of the game is supposed to reflect what we assume took place before real encounters of this type. The basic idea is to perform one or more of several possible actions, such as a speech to the troops or offerings to the gods, with purpose of improving the morale of one's army. Even though those actions in most cases require a simple dice roll and a result check in a table, I'm quite convinced that this part of the game is guaranteed to generate many boasts if things work out and snarky remarks if player's efforts are less than favorable for his cause.
In our case, H. decided that it would be a good idea to start the event of the day with single combat of our champions. Since my champion won it handedly, H. switfly proceeded with drowning the disappointment of his warriors by the barrels of beer brought for after-the-battle feast. His gesture was received with remarkable enthusiasm. Toast of his followers were so loud that barely anyone noticed the fact that he also took the opportunity to make a little speech. I on my part decided to put the time to good use and attempted to cheer up my men by telling them that if they find themselves in grassy green fields, then they're already dead and are in Elysian Fields. You know, It worked for Crowe!
In my case, pointing out the chance of meeting grim end in next couple of minutes only resulted in everybody becoming a little gloomy. Or perhaps the reason for the sudden drop in morale of my troops was caused by the fact that we now saw the horde of Saxons running toward us. Apparently they run out of beer.
First couple of rounds took a bit of effort to complete, as is usually the case with new rulesets. However, once we got hang of the basics, the pace picked up considerably. H. split his force in two groups, apparently trying to fix me with one of them and flank me with the other. I followed his suit and divided my force into two equally sized formations. First contact took place when a group of Saxons led by one of H.-s sub-chiefs rushed forward way in front of their companions and clashed with my chieftain and his hearthguard.
It was a short encounter and disastrous for the Saxons, who were swiftly slaughtered without mercy almost to the last man. Their wounded leader was, in true Hollywood style, the sole survivor of this debacle. Somehow, he managed to scurry back to his chieftain to tell the tale and demand vengeance for the death of his men. My Britons, who suffered no casualties in this initial encounter, calmly set up a shieldwall and waited for next onslaught. Their confidence in their skill was greatly bolstered. Supporting shieldwall, consisting of warriors, was to their right rear, but based on demonstration of prowess just displayed by my hearthguard, I didn't think that it would be necessary to bring it up.
In next turn, H. showed me the foolishness of my assumption. Responding to the call of his sub-commander, he pushed his hearthguard warriors forward and smashed into shieldwall of my men. One of my men went down in the initial clash, then two more were struck down. All of the sudden, it was the Saxon elite warriors that displayed why their lord choose them as body guards. Next thing I knew, they decided that enough was enough, broke rank and started running away.
The collapse of my hearthguard put me in rather precarious situation with enemy warbands on both flanks of my warriors huddling behind their shieldwall. but luckily my remaining troops were saved by the bell - we run out of time and called it a day.
Musings after the game
For now, I'd like to refrain from drawing any deep conclusions about 'Dux Britanniarum'. All I can say is that combat mechanics are simple and most of the time are clearly explained in the ruleset. H. and I did become confused about a couple of things, but any questions we had were clarified by the author of the rules on TFL Yahoo forum on the very next day.
The impressions of our first game were something of a mixed bag. H. and I were especially amused by originality of the pre-game phase. It may strike one as a gimmick, but there is however some depth hidden in that feature - a player needs to carefully judge whether he wants to max out the staying power of his troops, as this will mean protracted battle and higher losses, which will then have to be replaced in campaign setting.
H. was less impressed by the rules governing the battle itself, mainly because he found the a bit unclear and perhaps a bit too 'quick'. It has however to be said that he is yet to read the rules and I think that once he does, he will agree with my opinion that when set into the context of the campaign, they are more than sufficient for what they're supposed to do. Also, I don't think we can fully appreciate the full potential of the Fate Deck yet and will be able to 'see the whole picture' much better once we get a couple of battles under our belts.
We're already making plans for our campaign, so stay tuned...