Joined: 30 Nov 2009
|Posted: Fri Jul 05, 2013 6:03 pm Post subject: Longish Sort-of Review of Shieldwall
|Shieldwall from Zombiesmith is now available, and you might want a little more information before ordering the book. I had the chance to help playtest and have run the game at several conventions. Some would say that makes me biased, but I wouldn't have put all that time into the game if it wasn't interesting. Besides, with a niche product like this you're unlikely to get an overview from someone who's not a fan, so here it is.
Shieldwall is a miniatures war game set in a dying fantasy world, but that's a pretty misleading description. There are a lot of miniatures rules out there, and a lot of dying fantasy worlds. We don't need more of either unless they're going to be really different and really good. Luckily this is Zombiesmith. The rules fall decidedly between the usual categories, and the setting is not usual at all.
Agaptus is a world with problems. It is the home of several intelligent races who do not get along at all: no mixing of populations, no trade, little diplomacy. The reason for this desperation is one of the world's other problems: a massive volcanic eruption has blocked out the sun. The island home of one race is simply gone, forcing them onto the main continent, and expanding arctic regions are driving everyone into ever smaller territory. The gods of Agaptus have ever been capricious (or imprudent), so while every races relies on their gods, they do so with trepidation.
The races vary profoundly and we haven't seen their like before. We see the world primarily through the Elvorix, who are civilized though their culture has fallen from its past heights. They're the most recent lords of the continent of Sentia, fighting to preserve their homes. The Vidaar are their inbred cousins, former oppressors who were tricked into a round-the-world goose chase and have now returned to take over with a vengeance. The Kuld are brutal and almost cultureless, making your typical ork look effete. What there is of Kuld culture is digestion-based: they eat almost any thing and absolutely any being, and communicate and even attack with vomit. They're repulsive when you first learn about them, then fascinating and repulsive, and finally just scary. The Jaarl lived on the island with the volcano that caused all the trouble, so they're looking for a new home. Little is known about them, very little. They are powerful and disciplined fighters with the most sophisticated weapon and tactics of the races.
Each of the races has an over-sized beast that fights in their formations. For the Elvorix it is the sacred Ylark, a elephant-sized bull with ram's horns. Unridden but armored, these are formidable even without their nuclear option: since they are sacred to Agaptus who is God of, among other things, fire, Ylarks are often drenched in oil, devoted to Agaptus, and lit on fire to run through the enemy lines. This is a bit of a game changer on the table. The Vidaar and the Kuld have giant troll-like creatures that fight in their formations. If you're concerned that troll-like creatures don't have the intelligence to fight in a shield wall you should meet the Kuld and the Vidaar. The Jaarl have not a large beast but a swarm of flying crustaceans that will unnerve any battle line. As a finishing touch, the Kuld also mount warriors on giant snails; this sounds funny until you see the figures, and then seem them crash through your lines and scatter your fighters. Slow and steady wins the race, I supose.
The scale game rules fall in between "skirmish" and "small unit", and the result is genuinely new gameplay. There has been some disagreement on a couple of those terms, so let me describe what I mean: I'm using "skirmish" to mean games where each individual figure is free to move about as it pleases, and while there may be some bonus for adjacency or proximity to leaders this is basically a man-to-man game, like Song of Blades And Heroes, clicky-base games, etc. By "small unit" I mean games like The Sword And The Flame, Warhammer, etc where figures move around in groups and essentially act as hit points for the group; and individual figure may be a leader or carry a special weapon making the loss of that figure more costly, but basically it's groups fighting groups and the specific position of a figure is of secondary importance.
In Shieldwall figures move in groups, but their position is vital. When a player activates his figures to fight they choose just a few (depending on leadership, heroes, etc), which fight the figures opposite them in the front line. Each player then removes the casualties they have caused in their opponent's line, opening up gaps. Whoever caused the most casualties has the option of advancing his figures into those gaps to strike again. Skillfully done, this breaks up your enemy's shieldwall, causes all kinds of flanking and other disadvantageous positioning for your opponent, and crumbles his formation. Recklessly done, you push your fighters forward to be surrounded and die pointlessly.
The other innovation in Shieldwall that's going to surprise some people is Froth. This is an interesting solution to inevitable rules quibbles that turn up in tactical wargames. Froth is a concrete resource that lets you get your way. Each side generates Froth during the pre-battle cheering, dueling, and speech making, as well as when you inflict more casualties than you can remove. When you want to move a figure a little more than the rules typically allow, turn a figure in response to an enemy move when not normally permitted, etc, you ask your opponent if you can do this for a point of Froth. Your opponent is incentivized to say yes, since they're going to want to spend Froth later on. From my experience watching a lot of people play the result is that in situations where people might normally quibble or feel they've been taken advantage of, they're happy to let their enemy spend Froth. This works great. Small scale wargames can have silly issues where the specifics of the rules text inevitably prohibit some fighter from doing something that they would obviously do "in real life". This forces the players to decide between adherence to the rules and the narrative of the game, not to mention the advantage gained by one player. Here you just discuss whether it's worth one point of Froth or two, and on you go. Ask your opponent for too much and you can be certain he'll ask you for too much in a few minutes…
Speaking of the pre-battle speeches and duels, the overall structure of a Shieldwall game has some neat features. I like fantasy to be informed by history, and actually not all historical games are particularly informed by history. In real life people didn't just line up and fight. You adapted your formation to what you thought your enemy was doing, there are sacrifices to be made, speeches to be delivered, and frequently duels between champions of each side. This is cool stuff, and it's left out of 95% of wargames. A Shieldwall battle has three phases: the Roar Phase, the Carnage Phase, and the Lull Phase. In the Roar phase the cool pre-battle stuff happens. Winners of duels gain combat dice for the confidence and intimidation, players can try and reposition their units, priests invoke the gods, generals wax eloquent, and Froth is gathered for the upcoming clash. Toward the end players can spend their activations to jockey for the first turn. This part of the game builds a nice anticipation and provides some good mechanical support to the game. When you plop down figures and have them fight you can get the sterility of Chess, but here the figures are doing human things before they fight, adding tons of flavor.
The Carnage Phase is a set of turns where the players do the usual war game things, moving and fighting. This phase lasts for one set of Stones, each Stone being a player turn. On your Stone *I* will draw a Stone from the pile, which reveals how many Surges, or activations, you will get; I don't reveal this number to you. The Stones all give three, four, or five Surges, so you know you have three activations, but you won't now if you have a fourth until after you have completed three, and you won't know if you have a fifth until after you complete the fourth. This fits the rest of the rules very well, and brings in a nice uncertainty without arbitrary restrictions.
In the Lull Phase units can pull back, reform a little, loose figures can join nearby groups. This is not only historically accurate, it keeps the game from disintegrating into chaos. With care you can recover from some mistakes or bad luck with this little breather, but your opponent can also try to contest the lull, and keep the momentum going. All such things come with risks, though, in Shieldwall.
Combat moves pretty quickly. There are few tables lookups, and the tables are simple and easy to find. Dice are rolled in quantities large enough for the law of large numbers to make luck a minor factor. Instead you have lots of opportunities to maneuver your troops for an advantage, to prioritize one part of the battle over another, or to accumulate advantage before pressing the point. Lumbering beasts feel like lumbering beasts, and nimble skirmishers feel agile indeed. The Jaarl are powerful, few, formidable, and beatable. The Kuld stop to eat dead things. Best of all good game play doesn't seem to be obvious: many groups vs few, when to release the Ylark, where to put the general, how to use skirmishers, none of these have pat answers, and any good plan can win the game if carried out skillfully. You will certainly not find yourself crashing two masses of troops together to see what the dice decide.
The magic system is colorful without being tedious, and you're going to hate it in a good way. There are not elaborate spell lists or magic points, instead the priests can call on the gods to help a unit move or fight better, and you roll on a table. The gods worshipped by the races are each some combination of fickle, insane, or unaware of their own strength - communing with Agaptus himself, the god of the sky, can leave you without eyebrows. The die roll may yield a very nice bonus, nothing, a bonus for your enemy, or just confusion. Statistically the odds are in your favor, but calling on the gods too often increases the danger.
Physically, this may by Zombiesmith's best book yet, and that's saying a lot. It's 168 pages with color on every page and art on nearly every page. Sidebars give you slices of life for the various warriors. Like the Quar books the art doesn't consist of a string of combat scenes and warrior photo pops trying to sell you miniatures, instead you also get evocative non-combat scenes, pictures of the world everyone is fighting for, and pictures for which there will never be figures. There is as much background as rules. The rules are well organized, and there is a complete reference section at the back, along with six scenarios.
Notably missing are cavalry and missile weapons. Agaptus has both, but there was more than enough rules and background to fill this book, and it makes a good game as it stands. Missile weapons and mounted troops may appear in a future book, along with more background on Agaptus and, well, I shouldn't spread rumors, but they are not done with Agaptus. Some people have seen in the Zombiesmith booth at KublaCon a small humanoid dragon in stone age tribal war gear.
Most poignant of all, there is no solution for the problems on Agaptus. There is no enemy to be defeated to return the good times. Nothing suggests that there is any hope that the races can learn to live in peace. Each race is angry for what they have lost, but they each face extinction as well.
This is not brainless fantasy. Agaptus is a world where moral factors we can relate to are front and center: defending your home against invaders, struggling to figure out your relationship to the supernatural world, a collapsing environment, survival. But at no point do the authors try to tell you who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. All the races have admirable traits. We see the world primarily through the eyes of the Elvorix and they seem the most appealing, but they may well be responsible for the Jaarl and the Kuld losing their homelands, and they are certainly responsible for cheating the Vidaar out of their homeland, even if the Vidaar were their oppressors at the time. You don't walk away from Agaptus with a sense of resolution or hope for an easy answer, it is not cathartic. This is no escapist power fantasy, where super-powered heroes defeat evil, nor is it moralizing fantasy that attempts to justify and promote certain values. It is certainly not derivative fantasy. This is morally ambiguous fantasy, where the thematic issues are clearly defined, but there are no easy answers or even clearly preferable outcomes. It's whimsical but not dumb. It's compelling but not preachy.