Sunday, 2 December 2012

Review - KINGS OF WAR - Epic Fantasy Armies Clash on the Fields of Battle


KINGS OF WAR

By Alessio Cavatore


It's not often that a tabletop wargame gets my attention - let's face it, the last time it happened was in the late 1980s when I bought the first edition of Warhammer 40K - but recently I've been introduced to a new game called Kings of War from Mantic Games.

I'm not a great wargamer. Truth be told, I pretty much suck at it. I think I won one game of Warhammer 40K, and that was only because I was playing at a Games Workshop store and the manager of the shop I was playing against had the good grace to throw the battle so that a potential purchaser wasn't put off buying the book. I still didn't buy it, to be fair, but it is a good game. The great expensive breezeblock that is the WH40K rulebook is really impressive with great production values and the game is fun, with plenty of support. It's an expensive hobby, mind, which is one of the things that has always put me off.

Being a roleplayer I automatically wonder at the roleplaying possibilities of wargames, anyway. I used the WH40K system a few times to run WH40K roleplaying games back in the 1990s and just added a few of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay stats to flesh it out. The games worked okay, we just used the WH40K rules and played characters. In my experience, a wargame must be good if the rules and setting gives me those kinds of ideas.

So now we come to the Mantic Games offering, Kings of War.

So, and you'll have to excuse the bluntness of this statement, is this just a rip-off of products that Games Workshop have already produced? I wouldn't say rip-off, to be fair, just another version of fantasy and science fiction wargaming that Games Workshop has a huge chunk of the market of. The rules for these new Mantic Games products were designed by Alessio Cavatore, the guy who bought us such games as Mordheim: City of the Damned and the Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game, both released by Games Workshop. So, the designer of the game already has some major experience for the premier producer of these games – that’s a good sign.

THE BOOK

The hardback tome itself weighs in at 144 pages with full colour interior and covers everything from the setting of the game (although you can use pretty much any kind of fantasy world you know), the rules and all kinds of extra material. It’s an impressive book but, as with all books I purchase, there’s not a lot of expansive artwork. There’s are some paintings and plenty of sketches, probably the designs for the models, and photographs of miniatures and scenery – it is a wargame, after all – but something I’m a massive fan of is mood-setting and inspiring artwork. It’s not a demand of mine; I won’t automatically dismiss a game because of the uninspiring artwork, or lack of it. I just like to have an idea of the atmosphere that the designers are trying to invoke.

In general the book serves its purpose but doesn’t beat you around the head with amazing production values.

You can also get the rules via the Mantic Games website. For free. That’s right. For free. Because Mantic Games are primarily a miniatures producer, creating quality and affordable models for any wargame be it their own or someone else’s, they really want people to use their rules and buy their miniatures. To this end, they’ve printed a version of the rules for free on their website so you don’t even have to buy the rulebook to get started.

THE SETTING

The world of Kings of War, Mantica, is a large place covering all your usual fantasy icons – elves, dwarves, orcs etc. There’s a long history that explains why the races are fractured and the world is at war. There’s a nice backstory here but it doesn’t have any real bearing on the game itself and acts as flavour to enrich the gameworld.

To be honest there’s not a lot here that either highly inspires me or desperately bores me. Yes, there are some things you’ll not be that bothered by and the setting is somewhat vanilla, but it makes a fine background for the game. There are certain things I do like, such as the Imperial Dwarves and the Free Dwarves, but with everything else there is a sense of ‘I’ve seen it before’.

Don’t get me wrong - the setting does do enough to give you a place to game in and a newcomer to this kind of thing will no doubt find it a great read, but gamers like me who are old enough in the tooth to have experienced a few fantasy settings will have seen this before.

In short, it’s a good enough background for the game but there’s nothing incredibly new here.

THE RULES

But the real meat of the book is the rules.

As with most other wargames each player has an army that equals a points value, so you can create a balanced force consisting of your normal units, war machines, cavalry, heroes… that’s pretty standard stuff in a lot of games.

Each unit has a set of stats: Speed is how far they can travel in a turn, adjusted for terrain and haste. Melee is the hand-to-hand target number the player has to score on a number of six-sided dice. Range is the missile target number for the same D6 roll. Defence is the target number the player has to roll with every successful Melee or Ranged roll, and Attacks is how many D6 they roll at a time. Nerve decides what the unit does once they are hit, and finally Points is the value of a unit, how much it will cost you to have it in your army.

The basic rules work like this; Speed decides how far a unit can move in inches per turn, adjusted for difficult terrain or how fast the unit is moving. Then, if the units are able, they can make a Ranged attack, followed by a separate Melee attack.

To attack an enemy unit, you roll the same number of six-sided dice as your Attacks score. For every die that rolls equal to or higher than your unit’s Ranged or Melee score you get one hit, and you keep the number of dice that attained this score. You roll these dice again, and for every dice that rolls equal to or above your enemy’s Defence value you have scored one point of Damage. Once this happens you make a test against the enemy’s Nerve by rolling 2D6 and adding the number of Damage points you have scored (this is cumulative). This then decides whether the enemy unit is Steady (still fighting), Wavering (disordered and disrupted) or Rout! (annihilated, captured or chased off the field). These simple results means that you don’t have to worry about having the wrong number of models in your unit as the result affects the complete unit and not individual models. This means you could use one model to represent ten warriors.

Units also have Special Rules that give them bonuses to dice rolls or special attacks, and there are magical artefacts that can help, too. There’s a small use of magic but this is covered by the Special Rules, so although you can have mages blasting the enemy in the game there’s no special multi-page section with dozens of spells available.

The rules are incredibly simple to learn and you can have a basic full-scale battle kicking off in about an hour once you’ve cracked open the book, if that. There’s no tables to continually refer to or templates to use, just a quick, intuitive game with easy rules that allow for a plethora of tactical choices. My first game took ten minutes to set up and two hours to play through, with two five hundred-point armies. Considering the complexity of many games out there, that’s great and perfect for me as I don’t like to spend hours poring over rules and tables so that we get a few turn’s worth of gaming in over several hours. They’re exceptionally clear and well written, and great fun to use.

And then there’s the options, and this is where Kings of War begins to shine. Along with the basic rules you get rules and guidelines for:

Timed Games – so you can use a chess clock to move the game along and stop your opponent from spending an hour or two making up their minds on what to do next. This is something I used in my second game and it was both brilliant and nerve-wracking.

Expanded Terrain Rules – to simulate dangerous locations such as tar pits, swamps and living forests.

Multi-Player Games – so that you can have more than two armies at the table. I haven’t tried this, yet, but it looks like it could be an amazing experience.

Siege Warfare – complete rules for laying siege to and defending strongholds. I can’t wait to try this out.

Campaign Rules – for ongoing wars and taking objectives such as towns and cities. It’s a great way to give the battles a long-term story and means a lot of commitment. I can see the multi-player games benefiting from this as players dominate and defend their territory.

The book then moves on to Force Lists, armies and their histories, backgrounds and statistics, with any applicable special rules and details. The armies you can choose from are Dwarves, Elves, Men, Abyssal Dwarves (evil dwarves), Goblins, Orcs, Twilight Kin (evil elves) and Undead. There’s plenty of units, war machines, heroes and monsters to choose from so pick your force wisely. I have an 800 point Elven army which is doing okay, and right now I’m working on a 500 point Free Dwarf force. There’s more than enough here to choose from to keep you in games for months.

Finally, the book rounds off with Tournament rules so that gamers from all over can wage war with each other in fair, balanced and official ways.

All in all it’s a fantastic game, and what you get in the rulebook pretty much covers everything you’d do in a fantasy warfare scenario. There are no long-winded or complicated rules, and there’s no beating around the bush - the rules and options are laid out simply, cleanly and with minimum fuss. The production values of the book don’t really matter when you’re given such a solid, playable and fun game with lots of options you really want to try out.

THE COST

Mantic Games are not only releasing a game that's been designed by fans, it's making them affordable. The Kings of War rulebook is a hardback 144 page tome that will set you back 24 British pounds. You can buy a two-player battleset with a mini rulebook and 95 plastic miniatures for 50 pounds. Yes, you read that right. 50 pounds. That's about 53 pence per miniature, and they're good quality minis, as well. You can get some battle sets of up to 50 miniatures for 30 pounds; that's 60 pence per miniature. Model and paint sets from 15 pounds. 2-figure packs from 2 pounds. The prices are absolutely outstanding, and that's where it counts, at the end of the day. The game has plenty of support and the prices are an absolute delight.

CONCLUSIONS

Wargaming can be a complicated and expensive hobby and not only have Mantic Games made the rules easy to learn and fun to play they've made the miniatures good quality and easy to afford. Not only that, the figures are the same scale as pretty much every other hobby miniature so if you have an existing army you can use that, or you can use the Mantic miniatures using other game systems.

Of course, I'm not only interested in the wargame itself but how I can use it as a roleplaying game, and more importantly if they intend to release a roleplaying version of it because, and I'll tell you this now, at these prices and quality I'd start using miniatures in my RPG games again.

The book might not be brimming with intricate artwork and production values, and some people might find the setting somewhat uninspiring, but the game itself is excellent and fun to play, and that’s what counts. I can see myself playing this quite a lot over the next few months and it’s certainly helped expand my gaming social circle now that I’m meeting plenty of people who also play. The game already has a great community and the excellent fanzine ‘Ironwatch’, so there’s plenty of support both official and non-official.

Highly recommended.