Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko (1878)

"Battle of Grunwald", Jan Matejko, 1878, 426×987cm

So, last time I touched on the history of the original Shields & Swords games, how they sold, why the folio series was cancelled, and why it made sense for Mary and I to resurrect it for Hollandspiele as Shields & Swords II. Today, I'm going to explain the mechanics of the system, how it was tweaked by each of the four S&S games, and how S&S II differs from that iteration.

The core of the system is that each player has one or more color-coded Wings, with each Wing made up of several Units. Each player also has a pool of Command Markers, and they use these to issue Commands to their Wings. The exact make-up of a player's Command pool, the number of Wings that can be activated in a given Player Turn, and the number of Commands each Wing can receive is going to vary depending upon the game or battle, and this, more-or-less, is how the system models differences in leadership and structure.

For example, in the game that started the series, Stamford Bridge, each player has one Wing. The Anglo-Saxon Player is able to issue two Commands to his Wing. The Viking Player is able to issue one Command during his first Turn (he's been caught by surprise), then two Commands on subsequent Turns to represent the leadership of Harald Hardrada. But once Hardrada is killed (which happens when 8 Viking Units have been Eliminated), Tostig Godwinson takes over, and the Viking Player is limited to one Command. Tostig bites the dust when 12 Viking Units are Eliminated, and is replaced by Orri. This brings the Viking Player back up to two Commands, and he gets to take three Turns in a row, but that's it; the game is going to end after that, so the Viking Player has three desperate Turns to try and seal the deal. By contrast, A Hill Near Hastings sees the Anglo-Saxons with one Wing and two Commands versus a three Wing Norman army. The Normans can issue three Commands to one Wing, and a fourth Command to a secondary Wing. We Happy Few didn't limit the number of Wings that could be activated at a time, just the number of Commands; Our Royal Bones lets you issue two Commands to one Wing each Turn, though there's a special rule for one particular Wing that allows it to be issued an additional Command when another particular Wing is activated.

For the twenty-plus battles in Flying Pig's forthcoming boxed Viking game, each player usually has two Wings (sometimes less, sometimes more), and usually all Wings can be activated, with the number of Commands being limited depending on that specific Wing. For example, the Red and Pink Wings might get two Commands each, while the Blue Wing might get only one.

Now, if you're familiar with medieval battle games, you're probably wondering about Leader Units and command spans, which I haven't mentioned at all. And the reason why I haven't mentioned them is, they don't exist. Nor is there any facing, another common feature of game systems set in this period. Both of these are missing for the same reason: I don't like them. They're boring and fiddly.

More than that, leadership spans, and the whole "these guys are in command, so they fight, but these guys aren't in command, so they stand there and pick their nose" thing I find to be a bit suspect, because it implies the leaders had some kind of command-control over their unruly mass of knights and peasants in the first place. Battles of the medieval era were way messier, and way more chaotic, than that. This isn't the time or the place for sweeping flanking maneuvers and combined arms attacks. It's brutal, messy collision.

That's not to say that leadership didn't count for something; it did! But I found I could represent those qualities better via a side's Command pool and Wing activation restrictions. The other major component of command-control, the ability of a leader to hold his guys together and to prevent his Wing from disintegrating, is represented by a mechanism called Wing Integrity, which was introduced in We Happy Few and Our Royal Bones. Basically, certain types of undisciplined units need to be near other units from the same Wing to stay in the game. If they drift too far away, they're Eliminated.

This also subsumes the function of the "run away" checks you see in some other medieval games; once a Wing has lost enough Units, the last few are liable to be automatically Eliminated as they can no longer satisfy Wing Integrity. When a particular Wing is particularly undisciplined, I can tweak this rule so that they disintegrate even faster; you'll see what I mean in a couple of battles for House of Normandy, the second game in the Shields & Swords II line, due out before the end of the year.

A unit's prowess in Combat is defined by two things: its Combat Class and its Unit Type. Combat Class is a rating ranging from "A" (good) to "D" (bad). This base Combat Class can be increased or decreased due to the particular circumstances. For example, if you're fighting against someone in Shield Wall, the Combat Class will decrease. If you're attacking someone who's been Suppressed by your archers, the Combat Class is going to increase.

The Unit Type of the Attacker and that of the Defender are cross-referenced to get a die roll modifier. Supporting Units might provide an additional modifier to the die roll. You find the attacker's modified Combat Class on the CRT, you roll the die, you apply the modifier, and bam!, you got your result. Very simple, very clean, very fast. And it also brings us to our first big difference between S&S and S&S II. The previous four games all used a six-sided die, and a CRT calibrated for a D6 roll. This worked fine, but there were some wonky situations where it felt like the range was too limited.

It also created some problems with missile fire. Basically, the way that worked was that you rolled a die and you had to hit a certain number, say a "6" or a "5+", to score a hit. One hit would Suppress the enemy Unit until the start of his turn, giving you a temporary boost to your Combat Class in melee. A second hit scored against a Suppressed Unit would cause a Step Loss. Okay, so far so good.

The problem is that these could be modified, sometimes all the way down to "3" or "4", which made them crazy-accurate. This especially posed a problem in A Hill Near Hastings. One player pointed out that the Normans just had to keep firing at the Anglo-Saxons and didn't need to ever attack them in melee. I didn't think that was really true then, and I don't now-- what the heck are the Anglo-Saxons doing through all this while the Normans are taking potshots and crossing fingers?-- but it seemed like some changes were in order. The D6 had too small a statistical range to make DRMs tenable for missile fire, and the arrows were far too deadly.

I want to say that I considered moving to a D10, but I've actually always found D10s to be a little too swingy. I have a fondness for D8s though, and I found that giving archers a To-Hit Number of "8" or "7" allowed me to model a subtler difference in quality while still allowing for the game's simple handful of missile modifiers. The melee likewise got redone to fit a D8, making for a more robust CRT.

But I wasn't done yet with my missile units. I wanted to avoid that gamey situation where a bunch of archers gang up on a single Unit to Suppress it, Reduce it, and then Eliminate it. So, I cut off the possibility of additional hits having any effect beyond Suppression. This meant that their purpose really was limited to softening the enemy up. This posed other problems, however. In most battles, archers serve as a distinct and separate Wing, which meant that by the time another Wing could get in there for melee, the Suppression effect had been ahistorically shrugged off. To solve this, immediately after nerfing my archers, I boosted them back up again. Instead of Suppression lasting until the start of the enemy's Turn, it would now last until the end of his Turn. While Suppressed, the Unit would be unable to move more than a single hex, and would be unable to attack.

(Now, there are some situations where, historically, a given Wing got chewed to pieces by arrows. But in those situations, a special rule can be used to make non-Suppression a condition of Wing Integrity.)

The new CRT and Suppression mechanism are among the biggest and most obvious changes to the ruleset, as they make the Shields & Swords II rules incompatible with the Shields & Swords I games, including that Viking boxed game, which was designed and tested specifically with the original ruleset in mind. That's okay; you can still play the old games with the old ruleset. After all, that's what those rules are for!

There were a few other changes that really put the II in Shields & Swords II. There are, for example, a greater variety of Unit Types, with archers no longer seen as a separate type but subsumed within other types to represent their relative level of armament and discipline. There is now a distinction between Heavy Horse and Light Horse units, each with a specific bonus to reflect charging and skirmishing tactics, respectively.

I also took a rule specific to Our Royal Bones and made it a Series Rule. Our Royal Bones used a "Crown" symbol on the backs of some counters. When that Unit was Eliminated, the Crown meant that some valuable noble was captured for eventual ransom, which in turn earned the capturing player additional VP. I liked the spice that this provided, and so now it's an official Series rule. This also let me simulate stuff like the capture of Stephen of Blois at the battle of Lincoln; once the Crown Unit belonging to his Wing is Eliminated, Stephen's been captured and the battle ends.

But that's in House of Normandy, game number two in our new series, and so I'm getting ahead of myself. Next time, I'm going to talk specifically about The Grunwald Swords, and why it's the first game in the new Shields & Swords II series.

See Part 1 of (Re)Making Shields & Swords

See Part 3 of (Re)Making Shields & Swords


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