Tactical Warfare In The Fantasy Genre: An Exploration Of Battlesystem [Part Four]

August 8, 2017 by crew

Well, Beasts of War, here we are at last. We’ve marshalled the armies, set up the tables, committed our armies to battle, and analysed the outcome. My friend Craig (BoW: @cpauls1) has taken me into the fire and fury of fantasy combat, and we’ve both tried to chronicle that journey here in this article series, which concludes here today.

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For those of you just joining us, we introduced the system we used (TSR’s Battlesystem) in Part One, laid out the table and started a battle between the Sun Empire and Legion in Part Two, and looked at the rest of the battle’s course and outcome in Part Three.

Now it’s time to discuss what we’ve learned (well, what I’ve learned), and perhaps pose a few more questions. How does TSR’s Battlesystem (1st and 2nd Editions) stack up against more recent fantasy systems like Warhammer and Kings of War? And how does fantasy as a genre compare to other areas of wargaming?

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Before we sink into that, however, I’d like to yield the stage for a moment while Craig talks about the miniatures presented in this series. Without these amazing miniatures there could have been no game, let alone no photos and without the photos, there’s certainly no article series.

Reviewing The Troops

Craig Showcases The Miniatures

My miniatures collection spans four decades, and while some of my older models got a face lift prior to the game (flock and such), many still sport the heinous colour schemes and harsh transitions I slopped onto miniatures back in the day.

In addition, some of the models are the end product of fiscal restraint while others, technically, aren’t even miniatures. With that in mind, I’m hoping the lack of eye candy in some cases will become lost in the size of the mash-up.

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The barbarian horde is a case in point. The models came from Wargames Factory, two boxes of Vikings and a box of mounted Celts. They were $20 USD a throw at the time. Yield: sixty-four infantry and twenty-four mounted figures. They’re not exceptional (the running pose is somewhat limp-wristed), and I know the horns on the helmets aren’t historically accurate, but they are ‘fantasy’ models after all, so I left them on.

I grafted the leftover Viking heads on to the chainmail Celt bodies then turned the unarmoured ‘alternate’ figures into horse archers. All twenty-four horses are from the dollar store, as the twelve that came with the Celts were tiny, even by Dark Age standards. I’ve buried them in my bits box, to be exhumed one day for some twisted halfling cavalry project…or I may strap four of them to the front of a Hussite style dwarven war wagon.

Some of my oldest figures are actually my faves. In the early 80’s Grenadier made the best mini’s around, and while many have fallen by the wayside due to incompatibility with current heroic 28’s, others like the mercenary spearmen, are still useable. The raptor/orc cavalry figure is gorgeous and actually fits in stylistically with my legion orc horde.

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The mercenary pikemen are War of the Roses fossils made by Wargames Foundry. They were considered large in the 80’s, when 25mm was king, and are still serviceable today. The heavy cavalry are newer, a combination of Games Workshop Empire knights and scraps from their Battle Master game. Both army command groups are also made up of GW figures: the excellent pewter Teutogen Guard set for the Sun Empire, and Chaos warriors for the legion side.

Most of the orc models are from Mantic’s Kings of War range, while the larger figures are almost exclusively Reaper Bones models. Many cast a disparaging eye upon them for their lack of detail, but I’m guessing those are people who have never bought them, or can’t due to restrictions at their local gaming store.

I use them almost exclusively for heavy infantry units like the marsh trolls ($48 USD for all twelve), and for PC’s on occasion when players are too chintzy to buy their own pewter characters (such is the lot of the DM). The barbarian, the ranger, and the druid are all Bones figures, and are quite detailed.

Pre-painted, re-painted plastic D&D models can also be found on the table (the ice devil for instance). They, along with the Bones models, will often need their floppy weapons swapped out, but the material is so easy to work with it’s not a hardship, and if you have bought any GW kits in the past, you likely have a 28mm plastic arsenal shoehorned into a cabinet somewhere.

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In the end, I like the look of the table, if not all the miniatures on it. Stalin once said that quantity has a quality all its own — that I have definitely achieved!

Thoughts On Fantasy

Oriskany Emerges From The Genre

As a relative outsider coming into the fantasy genre of wargaming, it’s easy to characterize fantasy wargaming as “medieval wargaming with better special effects.” But when you really boil down the games (and the wars they’re meant to recreate), I’m always struck by how fantasy wargaming starts to resemble much more modern periods.

As Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In fantasy wargaming, the reverse becomes true. The basic objectives and obstacles of war are always the same, and armies use the most advanced tools at their disposal (tech or magic, it makes little difference) to achieve battlefield aims.

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Examples are boundless. Ice wall and entanglement spells dropped on Craig’s table resembled artillery-delivered “FASCAM” minefields one might see in Team Yankee. Obscuration spells behaved like smoke screens. Dragons reminded me of Cobra, Hind, or Apache helicopter gunships, as did the dedicated units tasked to knock then down.

Then there is the threat of spell-casters throwing “darkness” and “silence” spells onto enemy standards and buglers, and how mages and priests in these units specifically have “dispel magic” to prevent this. Why am I reminded of a modern army’s electronic warfare / signals intelligence unit, and ECM units in the opposing force?

You see what I mean. In both cases the aim is to place a barrier between enemy commanders and the units they’re trying to control, and to disrupt the flow of that command as much as possible. Other spells seek to hide friendly movement or channelize enemy approaches like smoke screens or minefields.

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In both fantasy and modern warfare, commanders must strike a balance when it comes to these “special resources,” because in both genres they’re usually very limited and vulnerable in some way. Enhanced mobility, protection of key assets, and raw attack—how such assets are plugged into the army’s overall plan can tip a battle’s balance.

Fantasy Game Systems

Battlesystem Compared To Other Games?

Even though my experience in fantasy wargaming is fairly limited, I have designed and published a wargame or two and there are certain comparisons I can draw between TSR’s classic Battlesystem (1st and 2nd Editions) and other additions to the genre like Mantic’s Kings of War and Warhammer Fantasy.

Let’s start with Kings of War (KoW). The echoes of Battlesystem’s design and execution (especially 2nd Edition) are unmistakable in KoW. Yet KoW seems to aim at an accessible, quick, “light” style of play. Which is great, since to be honest you can play a whole game of KoW in less time than one Battlesystem turn sometimes takes.

But Battlesystem brings so much more flexibility, tactical depth, options, and realism to the table. The way armies deploy (not 12” from the centre) and especially how they move is handled much more carefully in Battlesystem. Here units must wheel, face-change, or column march to change direction (i.e., no “pivots”).

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At least with 2nd Edition, Battlesystem is also far more flexible. While I’m sure there are more choices available in recent KoW Historical expansions, with the original game you’re limited to armies and factions described in the world of Mantica, or the four basic sizes of units prescribed: Troop, Regiment, Horde, and Legion.

With Battlesystem, you’re not even stuck within fantasy genre. Sure, convert your AD&D characters for a fantasy battle. But I’ve also built historical Romans, fantasy armies of Redwall mice and rats, and “armies” in World of Darkness “Werewolf: the Apocalypse.” Up to the late black powder era, Battlesystem can do just about anything.

Admittedly, all this detail and flexibility comes with a price. KoW beats Battlesystem hands-down when it comes to bringing aboard new players, setting up quick games, and finishing battles in a realistic amount of game time. They’re really just games from two different eras of gaming, and in the end comes down to personal taste.

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As much as I don’t know about Kings of War, I know even less about Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Still, there are enough opinion pieces, published rules sets, and hundreds of demo game videos out there, certainly more than enough to let a prospective fantasy player like me decide whether to not to take the plunge.

The biggest difference between Battlesystem and WHFB for me seems to be the overall philosophy. WHFB presents a rich world (complete with an apocalypse that destroys that world). On the other hand, Battlesystem presents a SYSTEM through which you can play any medieval, ancient, or fantasy setting … including WHFB if you want!

I’ll say this much for WHFB, the spell cards are a great idea. But from the videos I’ve seen, this seems to be a game that puts emphasis on heroes, magic characters, and commanders—as opposed to the actual armies who often seem to wind up “colliding” trays while the heroes make the flanking and magic attacks that decide the battle.

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Of course it’s fantasy, where the “hero” is supposed to save the day. Again, different design philosophies, is all.

Conclusions

So here we are, at the end of another article series. As always, I would like to thank @brennon and @lancorz for all the help with publication and presentation graphics (the front page title cards, the magazine layout upgrades, the editing). Additionally, oceans of gratitude to @warzan and the whole team for allowing us to publish on the site.

I’d especially like to thank Craig (@cpauls1) for putting on such a stupendous game. His wife Vi was also a great hostess, with many hours of support behind the scenes. Craig also wrote big segments of these articles (lending an expert perspective on the genre), and big thanks to his group for extending such a welcome to a guest player.

Most of all, however, I’d like to thank each of you who’ve taken the time yet again to read these articles, and especially those who drop a comment! For those who may not normally read my historical work, I appreciate the chance to “trespass” into your genre, and hope you found our efforts a worthy addition to fantasy wargaming.

By @oriskany@cpauls1

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact us at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"Before we sink into that, however, I’d like to yield the stage for a moment while Craig talks about the miniatures presented in this series..."

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"Craig also wrote big segments of these articles (lending an expert perspective on the genre), and big thanks to his group for extending such a welcome to a guest player..."