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Subject: Battlelore: my view rss

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Rob Mortimer
United Kingdom
West Yorkshire
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Battlelore: my view


As I’ve said in other reviews, I’m a sucker for games with cool components. However, nowadays I’m very cautious about making a purchase before reading lots of reviews and giving due consideration. I also like to think that I’m wise to the pitfalls of hype, and will give a new game time to find its real level in the BGG ratings. Before Battlelore came on the seen, I borrowed a copy of Memoir ’44, but I didn’t like it at all.

Despite all this, I took the unprecedented step with Battlelore of preordering a copy straight from Days of Wonder (complete with Earth Elemental and Hill Giant). Whilst rash, this decision was based on a long-standing love of miniature battle games and the need to find the ‘ideal’ game in the genre. When I was younger, I played both Warhammer and Bloodbowl from their first editions onwards. I gave up due to a combination of excessive cost (or rather ‘weak will when it comes to buying figures’) and pathetic figure painting skills. A few years ago, I discovered Warmaster and I quickly accumulated three large armies. I like this game a lot because the scale allows the collection of large armies (that I find easier to paint) and the rules feel like ‘Warhammer for grown ups’. However, although I get better results painting at this scale, I simply can’t find the time to finish a whole army, and consequently I haven’t even begun the next stage of creating a battlefield. Even if I had painted armies and built a battlefield, I doubt that I would be able to persuade a friend to spend a few hours playing a battle. So, what I really needed was a fantasy miniatures battle game that didn’t need figures painting or battlefields creating, that played in a hour or so, and had simple enough rules that friends wouldn’t find it daunting. So, when Battlelore came along, my first ever game pre-order was an obvious step. I decided that I would play at least a dozen games before I wrote a review. I’ve now played more than a dozen games, against three different opponents, and it is time to share my thoughts…..

The components of Battlelore are stunning. The box is like a standard sized Days of Wonder box, but much deeper. It is absolutely crammed to the rafters with stuff! The board is simple but beautifully done. It is double sided for use in regular or epic play, and it fits really nicely into the box, keeping the smaller components in place. There are a variety of terrain hexes and bridge/ford tiles, all beautifully illustrated. There are various cardboard tokens to represent lore, special abilities etc. There are also larger and beautifully illustrated cardboard tokens to represent characters on the war council. There are three sets of cards (command deck, lore deck and summary cards) that look great and are easy to decipher. There are 12 white dice with various coloured symbols. There are two war council cards, one rulebook and one scenario book, all of which are very clear and nicely illustrated. Finally there are two trays that contain the figures, card holders and lore token containers. The figures come in a variety of types (heavy and regular cavalry; heavy, regular and irregular infantry; archers; hobgoblin archers, swordsman and cavalry; goblin skirmishers and swordsman; dwarf crossbowman, swordsman and heavy swordsman; giant spider). All of the figures are detailed and come ready installed on bases. Human bases are grey, dwarves brown and goblinoids green. Each base has a small hole in which banners can be inserted. The banners themselves are nicely made, and it is easy to distinguish one side from another (pennants versus standard banners). However, when playing under artificial light, it can be very difficult to distinguish green and blue banners. Furthermore, given that the most common form of colour blindness is red-green, those banners might be difficult to distinguish for some people. I wonder if it would have been better to have used red, blue and yellow for heavy, regular and irregular units, rather than this red, blue and green combination? All of the figures work really well and look great on the battlefield. However, because they are crammed in to their storage trays, some are badly bent when you first unpack them. It is easy to sort this out by dunking them in hot water, remoulding and then holding in cold water, so I didn’t really mind this (it took me about 5 minutes to sort out all figures that were bent). The card holders are excellent and the lore token holders look nice, but are not really useful or necessary during play. Overall though, the components are first class. It can be rather time consuming to pack the game away, and although the figure trays are pretty good, as soon as players gain extra figures, they will probably want to get some kind of separate tool or tackle –box in which to keep them.

Before describing the gameplay, I want to applaud Days of Wonder for the way in which the Scenarios take players up the complexity ladder. Early scenarios introduce just the basic game, and then they systematically add new concepts. Although I am an experienced gamer and have played Memoir ’44, I really liked this approach, and it was much appreciated by my less experienced opponents. In particular, I like the rules summary cards that mean you can lay out just the information that you need for a particular scenario. They give players clear and concise reminders of the main rules, but also allow unusual or new concepts to be introduced (and remembered!).

Set up is moderately time consuming, although it gets quicker once you play your second game of the evening since most of the terrain and figures will already be out of the box. Once a scenario is chosen, the board is set up by placing the terrain and figures as required. Rules summary cards appropriate to the scenario are given to each player to lay on the table. The card holders are assembled and cards then dealt as appropriate. More complex scenarios require the addition of lore tokens, war council cards and character tokens, plus construction and initial dealing of the lore deck.

Battlelore is essentially two games in one. The basic game is a medieval battle game, and the more complex game adds the fantasy and magic elements. Players take turns, beginning with the starting player designated in the scenario. A turn consists of five phases:

• Command phase: play a command card
• Order phase: announce the units that will be ordered, based on the command card played
• Movement phase: move all ordered units, one at a time, remembering terrain effects.
• Combat phase: ordered units battle one at a time.
• Draw phase: draw a new command card.

The command cards are either section cards that allow a player to order a certain number of units in a certain section or sections of the battlefield, or tactic cards that allow certain types of units to be used (often with an additional advantage). Ordered units move according to their type, and must take into account terrain effects. Combat can be ranged if the unit is equipped with bows and has line of sight, or adjacent units can fight in melee. Combat is simple, with the unit rolling between 2 and 4 combat dice and needing to roll helmet symbols the same colour as the target unit to do hits, and black flags to cause retreats. Orange shield symbols may cause additional hits, depending on the weapon of the attacking unit and the type of target unit. Foot units that displace another unit may move forward to ‘gain ground’. Mounted units that displace another unit may move forward in ‘pursuit’ and may make a ‘bonus melee attack’. Morale is important because units adjacent to two others are said to be ‘supported’ and hence ‘bold’, which means they can ignore one retreat flag, and may ‘battle back’. The whole system works really smoothly, and different units and rules are easily incorporated e.g. dwarves have ‘iron will’, which makes them all bold. When a unit takes a hit, one of the figures is removed. Cavalry units have three figures to start with, and infantry units have four. The last hit on a unit removes the banner bearer, and the player defeating it places this banner on their victory point track. Scenarios designate a certain number of banners for victory.

The more complex game adds in different races (dwarves with ‘iron will’ and goblinoids with ‘rush’ and ‘run’), plus creatures, lore, war councils and magic. Creatures are only killed on a critical hit (initial hit re-rolled and must get correct banner colour to kill), and they have special abilities that can be triggered by rolling the ‘lore’ symbol on the dice (in the basic game, this counts as a miss). Lore councils add 1 or more characters per side that represent the commanders. These allow a deck of lore cards to be built. Players will have 1 or more lore cards in hand that can be played during one of the main phases of the game. Then in the draw phase, after drawing a command card, a player also chooses whether to draw 2 lore cards and keep one, or to take 1 card and 1 lore token, or to take 2 lore tokens. When playing with war councils, each lore symbol rolled during combat gives the player one lore token. Players play lore cards by paying the appropriate cost in tokens. War councils can comprise a variety of different characters, each of which adds certain card sets into the lore deck, and potentially special landmark tiles to the battlefield.

So what do I think?
Put simply, I will shortly be putting all of my Warhammer figures and most, if not all, of my Warmaster figures on ebay! For me, Battlelore is a wonderful game that neatly fills a niche. It is a miniatures fantasy battle game that looks great, plays great, and lasts less than an hour. You can easily play three games in an evening, yet there is a richness and depth to it. Both the basic Medieval scenarios and the more complex battles involving other races/creatures/lore/war councils are excellent. Battlelore therefore really feels like two games in one: sometimes I enjoy playing with a war council and lore, sometimes I just want to play a Medieval battle. I think the reason that I didn’t like Memoir ’44 but I do like Battlelore is that the command and colours system is better suited to styles of warfare that revolve around battle lines. Manoeuvering the left flank of a WWII army just doesn’t feel right to me. However, I suspect it works really well for Ancients, so Command and Colours: Ancients is now on my ‘wish list’.

Returning to Battlelore…..once you get the hang of the strengths and weaknesses of different units, you can try different strategies and tactics. Cavalry charges can be really devastating, but if they are rebuffed, mounted units can be vulnerable to counter-attack. Heavy infantry are very slow but very solid. Irregulars are fast and manoeuvrable as you would expect, but also capable of punching right through battle lines if you get your orders just right (as I recently found out to my cost!!). Goblinoids are fragile and require careful handling because once they start retreating and panicking, they can rapidly disappear and lose you the game. Archers tend to be nuisance value rather than dishing out volley after volley of death and destruction. Lore cards are very nicely balanced with the rest of the game. Seldom do they have such a devastating impact that they win the battle, and they have a good mix of offensive and defensive uses. We have found that some of the cheaper cards can more easily be used to good effect than some of the more expensive ones. Creatures are similarly well balanced. Very occasionally you get a rack of command cards that is so biased as to scupper all your plans, but this is forgiveable in a game that plays out in under an hour.

I am eagerly awaiting the release of the Battlelore expansions. I’m not desperate for Epic play because I’m very happy with the game length and set up time (I suspect Epic will add a reasonable amount of setting up time, plus a little extra game time). I’m looking forward to customisable armies in the Call to Arms expansion. But most of all I am looking forward to additional units with subtly different characteristics that will add yet more depth to this already great game. Online support from Days of Wonder and various fan forums is already first class, and lots of official and unofficial scenarios are appearing already. For me, Battlelore is a clear 10 out of 10: simple, elegant and great fun. The system is so easily customisable and expandable that I can imagine a myriad of different possibilities, and consequently envisage playing for many years to come.

Update: April 2008:
After numerous plays, with all the various expansions, I've downgraded my rating for this to a 9. Still an excellent game, but the shine has worn off slightly, whereas other games have moved in the opposite direction.
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Barry Kendall
United States
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If you enjoy Battlelore even with just the medieval field battle scenarios, you will definitely enjoy C&C:Ancients. The Ancients game comes with more troop types and interesting Leader rules and has a great epic ancient "feel" to it.

Over time with the addition of expansion elements to Battlelore, many of the unit abilities of C&C:A will probably appear, but there are also creative new elements in B'Lore that will keep it distinct.

It's worth owning both for sure.
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