Monday, 29 October 2018

Battle Ravens from PSC Games

The folks at PSC Games were kind enough to send over a pre-production copy of their new game, Battle Ravens. This is a two-player board game focusing on shieldwall combat in the Viking age; it's designed by Daniel Mersey, the creator of Dragon Rampant, Lion Rampant, and The Pikeman's Lament. A colleague recommended me as someone who knows a good deal about the early medieval period and also likes to play games, so I wound up with a copy. Let's take a look!

The box has an atmospheric illustration by Peter Dennis. 

The rulebook is brief and includes a few pieces of historical detail to put some of the rules in context.

The board; this is a mounted version of the board, which will be a Kickstarter stretch goal.
I don't know what the unmounted version looks like.

You get two sheets of card unit counters, again with illustrations by Peter Dennis.
Each sheet also includes 20 raven counters, which are really the core game mechanic.

Like the mounted board, these tactics cards are a proposed Kickstarter stretch goal.
There are also some dice, which I did not take a picture of because you know what dice look like. 

The game itself is simple: each player controls one side of the board and populates it with troops. Soldiers are either bondi (regular troops) or hirdmenn (more heavily armoured). There's also a pool of thrall, light skirmishers who function as a pool of rerolls for dice. 

A few troop counters.
At the beginning of each turn, players allocate raven counters to each sector of the battlefield. Ravens are the game's currency: you spend them to attack, defend or move. Allocating ravens to the correct areas of the battlefield is the key to victory here: you want to have enough to power your main attack against the enemy's weak sectors while not weakening your own defenses, and there's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game as players try to work out each others' intentions. The goal is to kill all the defenders in an enemy-held square; if the area is empty at the end of the turn, your troops in the opposite square move in and capture it. Capture three squares and you've won. 

It's very simple at heart, but when Allison and I sat down to play it there proved to be enough little wrinkles to make it quite interesting. 

The two armies face off!

Ravens allocated.

A new threat appears!
The question of how to allocate troops is an interesting one, and -- and here's what I'm really interested in -- it seems to produce some of the concerns that we can see from what little we actually know about shieldwall strategy. For all that's been written about warfare in the early middle ages, we don't necessarily have a very clear sense of what battle was like. The sources do suggest some concerns, though, and they turn up in Battle Ravens. For instance, when you clear a square, at the end of the turn all of your troops in the opposite square will rush into it, and they'll never come back. This is something that we know happened; faced with a breaking enemy, troops in a shield wall would sometimes just rush off in pursuit, abandoning their position within the wall.

Now -- and this is the really weird, counterintuitive aspect of the rules -- attack effectiveness is independent of how many troops you have in a square. Troops are just hit points; you use ravens to attack, and ravens are all that matters. You could have one guy in a square, and if you give him enough ravens he'll run in there and beat some heads. So in theory you could avoid the problem of losing all your troops to a follow-up by, paradoxically, evacuating the square you're going to launch your attack from. It feels a little weird, sometimes. 

Fortunately, the game doesn't really work out that way in play. While it's theoretically possible to send in your one-stand wonder team to clear out an opposing square, you have to worry about the possibility of a preemptive strike or counter-attack. If you fail to kill all the enemy stands and they hit back, your one-stand army is going to get murdered, the victorious enemy are going to flood into your square, and you're going to feel pretty foolish. So in fact, a balance of ravens for offense and troops to absorb damage is the right choice in most cases. 

Allison, who is generally not a wargames person, and I played and enjoyed this game. It took about an hour -- maybe a little longer with setup time, since it was our first time playing, and we had good fun. I won in the end, but I think we both learned a good amount about improving our raven and troop placement that could make for an interesting rematch. 

In my next post (well, no promises. A future post!), I'm going to talk about the thoughts Battle Ravens provokes in terms of historical conflict and games, because I think they're quite interesting.

Here's the rundown on the game: Battle Ravens is going on Kickstarter on 20 November 2018; the Kickstarter will go until 6 December. Expected release date is April 2019. Retail price will probably be £35, but Kickstarter backers will be able to get the game for £30 plus a free Scottish army pack. The core game will include Anglo-Saxon and Norse armies, but they plan on making Norman, Scottish and Welsh ones for separate purchase; each will include counters and tactics cards. 


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