Review: Rome at War

Rome at War is a series of tactical wargames produced by Avalanche Press.  They’re set in the Ancient period, and provide scenarios for many battles betwen Rome and her enemies. I picked up Rome at War: Queen of the Celts on discount online a few months back, and finally had a chance to try it with Frank on Saturday.

Queen of the Celts provides materials and scenarios for Rome’s battles against the Britons.  The game is available with two different versions of box art. The version sold in stores uses a family friendly image of a sword and shield.  If you order online you could also choose the “pinup edition,” depicting a topless Boudica rolling into battle on her chariot.  I expect the reason mine was on discount is that they didn’t sell too many copies of this box.

The Avalanche Press website has a useful document on learning to play Rome at War in 5 minutes.  It takes more than 5 minutes to read, but both this guide and the rulebook are fairly clear, and the rules aren’t complicated.  The game should play in the advertised 60-90 minutes once you’re familiar with the rules.

Most of the mechanics are not out of the ordinary.  It uses an area map with cardboard chits representing troops and leaders.  In combat, each side rolls a number of dice equal to their (modified) strength, and 6’s are counted as hits (step losses) on the enemy.

I enjoyed the command system. It provides some random ability to control your troops, but it’s not as limiting as the systems used in Command and Colors, DBA, or Warmaster. The C-in-C has a control radius to control other leaders, and those leaders have a control radius to control troops in their formation.  Out of command leaders have to roll when activated to see if they control their troops, and out of control troops have limited movement capabilities.

Formation activation is also variable: each player can activate a random number of formations per turn until all formations have been activated, or until each side fails to activate any formations.  Usually all your formations will have an action each round, but you have to decide which ones are most important, and which ones are most important to happen first.

However, some aspects of the game are a bit weird, or don’t work as well as I would have liked.

The map boards in this game have mostly square areas on them.  I say “mostly” square because they’re divided by randomly wavy lines that divide the board into roughly, but not exactly, square areas.  And, the game uses “long units” to represent larger units such as Roman legions and auxilia, and large groups of “barbarians” (the winners write history again, of course).  These are rectangular chits that aren’t allowed to stack with anyone except a leader.

The odd rules come out of the combination of the rectangular chits and oddly shaped board areas.  Long units have a front facing, which determines which areas are to their front, flank, and rear, and you have to place the chit on the board so it’s facing in the right direction.  However, the chit must also actually physically fit in the area where you’re placing it, without overlapping the sides.

The net effect is that some of the areas in this seemingly empty field can’t actually fit a long unit in one direction or the other (or sometimes both).  I’ve seen some boards from other Rome at War games that have more terrain, and I can see how the rules can be used to good effect: linear hills, cliffs, and other obstacles can striate the areas and provide clearly defensible positions that make sense as long unit placements.  But on this game’s wide open plains, the rules just feel like arbitrary punishment for standing in the wrong spot.

Another minor gripe I had was about combat.  On your turn, each of your units can assault one adjacent enemy (but it’s not required).  When one unit is fighting against three, the fight is one-on-one in one player’s turn, but three-on-one in the other player’s turn.  The effect of this rule is to encourage the player to try to use historically impossible maneuvering techniques to slide around the end of an enemy’s line in order to temporarily outnumber them for one turn.

The movement rules prevent blatant abuse such as a legion flanking another legion in front contact, while allowing more historical tactics such as flanking by light infantry or allowing cavalry and chariots all the way around to the rear of an end unit.  But in some cases it felt like the best tactic would have been to shuffle the line sideways each turn to gain an overlap on one end while not suffering on the other (until next turn, at least).

The other aspect that didn’t feel right were the victory points.  These vary by scenario, so it’s possible other scenarios would work better, but we had to track victory points for every step loss taken by every unit on the board, as well as remembering to reduce VP if a unit recovered steps.  It felt like a lot of bookkeeping, maybe there’s an easier way?

I’m generally not as concerned about the quality of game components in wargames like these, as long as the game is worth playing and the components don’t get in the way.  Queen of the Celts comes with two counter sheets, but most of the counters are different strengths of only a few units.  Combined with limited ability to stack counters, this means the board is definitely not counter-heavy.  The counter art is very high quality, with printed images of actual units of guys on them.  I’m quite happy with the counters.

There are three maps, printed in full color on glossy but thin paper.  They’re big enough, and I don’t mind the thin paper so much, but the quality of the graphics on these is pretty horrible.  Terrain effects are pretty close to a “flood fill” effect in the areas that have terrain, and they don’t look realistic at all.  The marsh looks like someone pulled out all their eyelashes and stuck them on a scanner, and the hills look worse than the average DBA hill, which is saying something.  They’re obviously all done on the computer, by someone without any map making or drawing skills to speak of.  On the scale between “usable” versus “pretty,” these maps are so far to the “usable” side that the lack of prettiness makes you not want to use them.
Overall, I’d say that Rome at War is definitely worth playing again a few times, and compared to watching a movie I’ve already gotten my dollars per hour out of it.  However, I don’t expect I’ll be buying any more games in the series, and I don’t think I’ll be playing this in a year’s time.  I definitely prefer Command and Colors: Ancients, even though I can’t win that game to save my life.  Rome at War: Queen of the Celts gets a 6 out of 10 on my rating.

Game report: Skirmish at Jumonville Glen

Family Game Night at Martine’s school was postponed due to weather, so we didn’t play the Jumonville game until last night. It went as well as I expected: successful, but very hectic with a group of 1st-4th graders.

The format of game night was basically a free-for-all: anyone could bring games and play with opponents they found, or borrow games from the school. My game was an oddball. I set it up and waited for people to walk up and decide to play. Lots of kids and a few parents and teachers were interested in the game before it started, and a handful of kids stayed to play.

When I started handing out figures and explaining the rules, there were 6 kids from 1st through 4th grades, Daniel, and me. I decided on 8 players worth of soldiers with the idea that Daniel and I could step out if anyone else wanted to join in.

People came and left a lot between the instructions and the first few turns. We ended up with 4 kids and three adults who pretty much stayed for the whole game, and a few kids who came and left.

The game itself went relatively well. It took maybe an hour and fifteen minutes including instructions. The French started at the base of the cliff, and the Virginians and Indians were at least a foot away. Early on, the battle was relatively even. Then the French got a long run of turns in a row, and did some real damage. We played until the bitter end: the last Indian soldier, dubbed “sniper,” took out 2-3 French before finally being shot for his last hit point

I learned a lot about running games for kids. First of all, most kids of this age don’t want to listen to instructions at all. I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to remove Blood and Swash’s “roll for your soldier’s ability scores” process or not. On one hand, it was some setup time that was avoided. On the other hand, it would’ve gotten the kids to do something while learning about their soldiers’ abilities, instead of just listening to me talk.

I think it might work best to set things up ahead of time, and introduce the rules by playing the first turn. Describing the rules to players who are just going to leave is a waste, and you’ll have to re-explain for people who walk up anyway.

I got a hint of another problem when playtesting with Martine, but it was more obvious with a group of kids. Kids have short arms, and they’re short. It’s not easy for them to reach figures in the middle of the table, especially without dragging their arms over all the terrain. The Blood and Swash games they play with kids at conventions did a great job solving this problem I didn’t know I’d have: the games are in a very small (1-2′ square) model bar room, with outside walls. The outer walls require kids to lift their arms high enough not to hit any of the contents of the game board. A ship’s deck model with railings on the sides might also work well for this.

The useful attention span of these kids was also only about an hour. Things can’t go on longer than that without losing steam.

As for the rules themselves: we ended up making some mistakes, though the players were mostly insulated from this. In an earlier playtest, I could never remember to tell players to activate 2 soldiers on face cards, so I didn’t even try to implement this rule last night.

The other big rules mistake I made was allowing charging into close combat without any bravery tests. I forgot this the first time someone charged, and so I skipped it completely from then on. It didn’t really make the game worse, but it was simpler and different: we had a lot more close combat than in playtesting. One tactic the “free charge” ended up allowing was leaving close combat to charge a different soldier in order to get the charge bonus for fighting. I didn’t have a rule that said you can’t leave combat, because most of the time it would not be beneficial to do that anyway… as long as you have to make a bravery test to charge again.

I had enough d20’s for all the players to use, and I said players could keep them if they stayed for the whole game. Obviously for most of the players who left in the middle, this wasn’t enough motivation. But I think there was one player who was staying on in the end only to get the free stuff. It’s probably worth doing this again, but I won’t have any expectation that it’s going to keep everyone playing forever.

I didn’t have any figure casualties, not even a bent musket. 3 of my trees broke off, but I mostly expected that; I’m surprised they didn’t break off earlier when adults were playing.

Overall I’m quite happy with how it went, and I’m really glad Daniel was there to help me herd the cats. Thanks! In the end, it was probably just an excuse to paint figures and terrain that seemed interesting, but we had at least 2-3 games worth of “playtesting” as well as one “real” game so that’s worth it. I’m not likely to try anything with more complicated rules at an open game night, at least until some of the players really show they’re interested in learning more.

Preview: Jumonville Glen, part 2 (rules)

As I said in my earlier post, I decided to base the rules for the Jumonville scenario on the Blood and Swash ruleset. However, there were some potential problems I wanted to address, and playtesting revealed some real problems to go along with the theoretical ones. The changes are significant enough that I think it’s safer to call the rules “inspired by” Blood and Swash and not based on them.

Blood and Swash uses a card-based activation system. Each turn, the game master draws one card from a standard deck of cards. If a black card is drawn, each player on one team activates a figure; if it’s red, the other team activates. Actions are moving, fighting, shooting, and “anything else you can think of,” in the basic game. Each character has attributes for its ability to shoot, fight, and so on. To see if your action succeeds, roll a 20 sided die: if it’s less than or equal to your applicable skill, you succeed.

The rules were written for pirate battles in a small, confied space. They emphasize doing creative things with the props available in the room, like rolling barrels of beer at the opponent or pulling the rug out from under their feet. The tight space compared to the number of figures makes the game fast paced and chaotic.

In order to emphasize this interesting chaos, guns are powerful but very slow. Reloading your gun might take 5 or more cards, and you can’t do anything else in the mean time. This might be okay in a bar fight, but in a shooting war it’s incredibly boring. The first change I knew I needed to make was to reduce the reload time; in fact, I got rid of reloading completely in the end.

Another aspect of Blood and Swash is that each player rolls dice to determine his figures’ skills at the start of the game. Players might end up crippled by one bad die roll at the start of the game. In a bar fight, this matters less: you can always punch someone if you’re no good at shooting. But the number of useful skills in a shooting skirmish is lower. I also wanted to reduce the game startup time, so I am predetermining each figure’s skills based on how the people acted in this specific skirmish historically.

Blood and Swash figures have a variable number of hit points, weapons have variable damage, and the skill checks use a “roll to succeed, the opponent rolls to prevent it” mechanic. Since the assortment of weapons is very limited compared to a pirate battle, I simplified this: all figures get 3 hit points, and each hit (shooting or hand-to-hand combat) does one point of damage. I adjusted the skill numbers to take into account the chance of an opponent preventing the action, to reduce the amount of die rolling.

In playtesting, I found what I feared: everyone walks within shooting range, starts shooting, and then there’s no incentive to ever move around. Without a rule to allow moving and shooting in the same action, static defenders get a huge bonus: they can often shoot first and can concentrate their fire on fewer figures within range.

To compensate, I added a new skill: Bravery. Whenever someone shoots at you, charges into combat, or charges into combat at you, you need to make a bravery check. If you fail, you run away (a full move away from the enemy, or at least moving out of line of sight). I also added a “move and shoot” action with a penalty to hit.

This made a huge difference: the game was no longer a static shooting match; instead, people were moving around a lot, like in the Pirate games.

To be fair: this rule system is not based on reality whatsoever. It’s intended to provide a fast, easy, fun, and hectic shooting skirmish.

The Rules: Skirmish at Jumonville Glen

By Alan Ferrency, 2009.

Figures and Skills

This is a skirmish scale miniatures wargame intended for 2 or more players controlling no more than 4 individually based figures each. It is not based on reality whatsoever, it’s just a game.

Players are divided into two teams: Red and Black.

Figures have several skills:

  • Shooting determines how likely the figure is to hit another figure when shooting
  • Fighting is how likely the figure is to hit another figure in hand-to-hand combat
  • Bravery determines how likely the figure is to get scared and run away
  • Save is the figure’s ability to take advantage of cover to avoid being shot

Each figure’s skills have a value from 1 to 20. To make a skill test for a specific skill, roll d20; the test succeeds if the result is less than or equal to the skill being tested.

Terrain and figures are deployed appropriately for the scenario being played. Enemies must start the game outside shooting range (12″) from each other. The game ends when one side has obviously lost (or no one is having fun anymore).

Turn Sequence

Each turn, one card is drawn from the top of a standard deck of playing cards. If it is Red, then all players on the Red team activate one of their figures. If it is Black, then all players on the Black team activate one figure. If a face card is drawn, each player on the appropriate team activates two different figures instead of one. (Note that each team might get multiple turns in a row, there is no problem with this.)

When a figure is activated, it can perform one of these actions:

  • Move up to 6″
  • Shoot at a figure within 12″ range
  • Move and then shoot
  • Charge at another figure up to 6″ away
  • Fight a figure currently in base-to-base contact


Movement can be in any direction or around corners. Figure facing does not matter.

To Shoot at an enemy, the closest parts of each figure’s base must be no more than 12″ apart, and the figures must be able to see each other. The active figure makes a shooting test: roll d20; if it is less than the figure’s Shooting skill, they hit the enemy. If the enemy is hit, and they are in cover (hiding in the edge of trees or behind an obstacle), they make a Save test. A successful save means the shot hit the cover and not the figure.

Keep track of which figures are hit: when a figure is hit three times, it is removed from play.

After a figure is shot at, whether the shot hits or misses, they must make a Bravery test. If the test succeeds, nothing happens. On failure, the figure must immediately move away from the enemy that shot them, either 6″ or until the figure is out of line of site of the shooter.

If a figure Moves and Shoots, they must move first and then shoot. The figure’s shooting skill is -2 for the shooting test when it moves before shooting.

In order to contact an enemy figure to fight them, a figure must Charge. Before charging, the active figure must pass a bravery test. If the test fails, the figure can’t move or shoot but still counts as activated this turn. The figure being charged must also make a bravery test. If this test fails, the charging figure moves 6″ towards the charged figure, and the charged figure runs 6″ away as well.

A figure that successfully charges also Fights on the same turn they charge, and receives a +4 to their fighting skill. To fight, the figure makes a fighting test, and success means the other figure receives one hit. There is no save test when fighting, and fighting figures don’t make bravery tests. Figures that are in base to base contact cannot be shot at by either side.

That’s all there is!

Here is my current version of the figure stats for the Skirmish at Jumonville Glen.

  • Virginians: shooting 8, fighting 8, bravery 12, save 10
  • Indians: shooting 7, fighting 10, bravery 14, save 12
  • French: shooting 8, fighting 8, bravery 10, save 10

I have half-page quick play sheets which we’ll use when actually playing the game. The rules are very simple in actual practice, but like all rules, understanding suffers when you read them without playing.

I’ve playtested this a few times by myself and once with Martine. It will work a lot better with only 2 figures per player, but even with me controlling all of the figures, I reached a decisive outcome within about an hour.