Review: Sword and Spear

Rating: 5 stars

Sword and Spear are a new set of wargames rules for gaming in the Ancient period, from the time of the Ancient Egyptians right through to Medieval Europe. They have been written by Mark Lewis, and the Second Edition is published by Great Escape Games.

The rules are designed for armies made up of between eight and fifteen elements, each with equal sized frontage. The game is designed to be played with miniatures anywhere between 6mm – 28mm in scale.

Units have several key attributes: Type, Discipline, Strength, Armour and characteristics (special rules).
The unit type (Heavy Foot, Cavalry, Light Horse etc.) denotes the type of unit; including how fast the unit can move (movement is measured in units, each of which is equivalent to half an element base width). Discipline is a number, usually between three and five, which indicates how easy/hard it is to issue orders to that unit. Strength (a number usually between two and four) is how many six-sided dice are thrown when in combat, but also how many hits the unit can suffer before routing.

Units can be armoured, which can give advantages in combat. Finally, each unit can have one or more special rules applied to them.

_20151127_213423The main core of these rules, as you may expect, is the command and control mechanism. This uses a dice activation mechanic. Each player has a number of dice equal to the number of elements in his army (at this point, it makes sense to ensure that each player uses different colour dice). All these are added into a bag, or other opaque container. A game turn consists of a number of phases, in each phase; seven dice are drawn from the dice bag, and given to their controlling player. The player with the most dice each phase is the ‘active’ player. The active player rolls his dice, and allocates those dice as orders to units in his army. You have to roll equal or above your units discipline in to give it an order. Veteran troops will have a discipline of three, whilst levy may well have a discipline of five. A roll of six will usually give you a bonus. Troops either in contact with a commander, or out of command range, suffer a benefit or detriment to their discipline. Orders include move, shoot, fight, charge and rally. However, some orders, such as more complex movement, charging or rallying, demand that the activation dice used is higher than the unit’s base discipline (some things are more difficult to order a unit to do)
Once the active player has placed his orders, the other, or reactive, player does likewise. Play is then carried out with units performing their orders in dice number order, from low to high, which means that well-disciplined troops are more likely to activate first, unless they have been given a bonus (allocated a six). Each unit fully completes its activation (including fighting) before moving onto the next.

Movement is kept relatively simple, with the standard ‘advance’ move allowing a unit to move forward with some small degree of lateral movement. Any more complex movement is classed as a manoeuvre, and requires that an activation dice with a value higher than the units discipline rating is allocated. When performing a manoeuvre, a unit can end its move with any facing, as long as either of the unit’s front corners does not exceed its maximum movement distance. Movement (and shooting range) is based on a distance unit (DU), a DU being defined as half the base width of a unit. For example, Medium Foot can move 3DU, whilst Light Horse may move 5DU.

Combat, whether shooting or melee, follows the same procedure. Each player rolls as many D6 as your unit’s strength (with the possibility of extra dice, depending upon modifiers). You arrange the dice in descending order, and then compare against your opponents dice in opposed pairs, but only using the first four dice. For each pair of dice, a tie is discarded, whilst a dice being higher than the opponent causes a discipline check for the loser. Dice that double the opponents automatically cause a hit. The only difference between shooting and melee is that the attacker cannot suffer negative effects from a lost dice roll.

Discipline checks are made using a single dice – you have to roll equal or higher than your unit discipline rating or the unit takes a hit. A hit is a mixture of casualties, failing cohesion and dropping in moral.

_20151127_213342Once a unit has suffered a number of hits equal to its strength, it routs and is removed from play. However, hits cause no detrimental effects before this point. Hits can be removed by using the ’rally’ command.

Once all the units have been activated, each dice is turn to a ‘1’ to indicate the unit has been activated (a unit can only be activated once within a turn). A new phase then starts with the drawing of the next set of dice. The turn ends once all the dice have been drawn. A new turn then begins, with the dice being returned to the bag/container – however, any unit that has been routed has its dice permanently removed from play.

The game ends when one army is reduced to half of its starting strength. An initial discipline check is made when the army strength is reduced by a third; this may cause addition hits on units.

That is the basic flow of the game. The rules also encompass a terrain generator for battlefield set-up, rules for baggage trains, camps and large units, unit characteristics to cater for special rules such a pikes, shieldwall and impact (a rule which gives units, such as warband, a stronger first attack under certain circumstances), strategies such as flank marches or ambushes, rules for multi-player games and a section on scenarios, including advice on how best to represent historical battles with your forces.

Whilst the basic rules do not include any army lists, these are available for free download from the Polkovnik Productions website. There are currently a total of 64 available, split into several eras (Biblical, Greek and Macedonian Wars, Rome and her enemies, Dark Ages, Byzantium, The Middle East & Crusades and Medieval) These army lists do include a points system, although they are left somewhat vague when it comes to army composition, giving advice on some restrictions plus an enforcement on core and support troops, but little beyond that.

The strength of these rules lies within their decision making, simplicity and subtlety. The dice activation causes the players to constantly have to make decisions on not only what needs to be done, but what the priorities are each turn. The hand of the dice gods can also mean that players can be limited in what orders they can give, sometimes not being able to give any at all, especially of you roll poorly. Thus the friction of the battlefield is addressed in an interesting way, and it will be the fortunate player who can perform all that they want during any given turn. The random number of orders for each player in each phase also allows for a great deal of player interaction – you are not sat on your side of the table waiting for your opponent to move for long periods of time.

_20151127_213237I’ve found that many Ancients rulesets do have a tendency to get bogged down during unit movement – the movement mechanics in Sword & Spear are deliberately simplified, but they generally allow realistic movement without units being too flexible, and they do allow the game to flow. Combat again is simple, interactive and surprisingly brutal. Opposed dice rolls keep both players constantly involved. Some may not like the fact that hits on a unit cause no detrimental effect until the unit routs and is removed from play – this is perhaps the only aspect of the rules I would consider changing.

My regular gaming opponent and I have been searching for some time to find a set of Ancients rules that not only offer a relatively fast game, but also offer a depth of strategy, along with a pleasing set of mechanics. We have found that Sword & Spear are easy and intuitive enough so that the basic mechanics are learned within two or three plays, thus allowing the player to concentrate on the command of his army, rather than constantly having to refer back to rules and combat tables. Indeed, it’s not often that we can be immersed enough in a game to discover that we have been playing for more than three hours!

In short, I cannot recommend these rules highly enough

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