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Subject: Battle Lore - Review rss

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Greg Schloesser
United States
Jefferson City
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Note: This review first appeared in the pages of Counter magazine.

Design by: Richard Borg
Published by: Days of Wonder
2 players (or teams), 30 – 45 minutes
Review by: Greg J. Schloesser

It should come as no surprise that the game system pioneered by Richard Borg in Battle Cry, which was released by Hasbro / Avalon Hill back in 2000, has been adapted to cover a variety of other historical time periods. The first sequel was Memoir ’44, which dealt with the European theatre of WWII from the point of the Normandy invasion. Ancient battles were covered in Commands and Colors: Ancients. Many were expecting the next release to deal with another period of military conflict, such as battles that occurred during the Napoleonic wars.

Surprise! The next installment in the series has whisked us away to a fantasy land populated by knights, goblins, dwarves, wizards and fearsome creatures. Battle Lore, released by Days of Wonder, uses the same core concepts found in the three previous titles, but also adds a layer of magic, represented by “lore” and powerful war councils. Players can wage epic battles in a variety of settings and with a wide assortment of races and creatures, all in less than an hour. Further, Days of Wonder promises to keep the system fresh by the steady release of expansions and new scenarios.

Battle Lore is practically spilling forth its contents, as the four-inch thick box barely contains the over 200 detailed miniatures, game boards and other accessories. Secure one of the new creatures and you’ll be hard-pressed to cram everything back inside. This is one of those rare instances wherein a bigger box would have been a better choice. An imminent casualty of this tight situation will be the plastic inserts, whose days are clearly numbered.

Upon first opening the box, one is at once both excited and frightened. The wonderful miniatures and terrain simply beckon you into a world filled with fantastic creatures and torn by violent conflict. However, the 80-page rule book is quite daunting, even for experienced gamers. Fortunately, the rules are presented in a fairly clear and straight-forward manner, and the tome is liberally sprinkled with illustrations and examples. Those familiar with the game system will get through it in 30 minutes or so. Folks new to the system, however, will be forced to spend a bit more time acquainting themselves with the underlying mechanisms.

Ten scenarios are included in the base set, each designed to gradually introduce players to new concepts and rules. As in the game’s predecessors, players will each lead armies into battle across varied terrain, as dictated by the scenario being played. Objectives usually include the elimination of various groups of enemy forces, but other scenarios have alternative methods in which to achieve victory conditions. Even when lore is introduced in the later scenarios, each battle rarely takes longer than 30 – 45 minutes to play to completion.

I won’t go into great detail describing the basic mechanisms of the game, as I will assume a familiarity with the core system. Basically, units are grouped into squads of three or four, and each squad has certain movement and attack capabilities, depending upon their type (cavalry, infantry, heavy infantry, creature, etc.) Some units can move quickly, but aren’t as effective in combat, while others are slow moving but deadly. As in Commands and Colors, there are advantages to be gained from grouping your forces, as this helps control retreats on the battlefield.

In order to move and/or attack, units must be ordered to do so. Players alternate playing “Command” cards, which presents orders to various units on the battlefield. The board is divided into three sections – left, center and right – and the Command cards generally specify which section units must occupy in order to be activated. Skillful use of these cards is required to successfully lead your forces, and surprise the enemy.

Battles are resolved by rolling a number of dice, the number of which is dependent upon the type of unit involved and whether it has moved that turn. Handy player aid charts assist in the task of determining the correct number of dice to be rolled. Terrain may also affect movement and resulting combat. Generally, a player must roll symbols matching the defender’s type in order to score hits. The die rolls may also result in retreats and/or the acquisition of lore tokens. Casualties are removed from the enemy ranks, and if the last unit in a squad is eliminated, the victorious player retains it as a victory point. This often results in a player frantically attempting to maneuver his weakened squads to the rear of his lines in order to prevent their elimination.

Aside from humans, the only races included in the system thus far are goblins and dwarves. Each race has a few unique capabilities. For example, goblins are very quick, and can close into battle in a flash. However, they are skittish and prone to panicking, often losing additional units as they flee. Dwarves are far more steadfast and are formidable foes in battle, resisting retreats when involved in combat. However, they tend to move slowly, and it often takes a player several turns before they can engage the enemy.

The only creature included in the base set is the Giant Spider, which is a fearsome opponent, indeed. It is much more difficult to slay, requiring “critical hits” to rid the world of its vile presence. Further, it has the power to ensnare or even poison its victims, using this special power with the expenditure of lore tokens. Plans are to release new creatures into the system, with a Hill Giant and Earth Elemental currently being available at conventions and through special promotions.

Let’s chat a bit about lore. In addition to the fantasy races and creatures, the main addition to the system is lore. Lore is a type of magic or power that can be wielded by powerful forces or creatures. In game terms, it is represented by tokens and cards, which can have a dramatic effect on the proceedings. Players can each hold a certain number and type of cards, depending upon the composition of their “War Council”. War Councils can consist of wizards, warriors, rogues, clerics and commanders, each of which has certain powers (cards) they can wield. Advanced scenarios allow players to establish their War Council as they see fit, which is similar to deck-building in collectible card games. This will determine the number and type of cards that will be available to them during the course of the game. This gives players even more choice in tailoring their forces, adding an additional layer of strategic options that was not really available in the previous games.

Each turn, players may draw new lore cards into their hand, but a strict limit does prevent amassing huge amounts of cards. Cards usually require the expenditure of lore to play. Lore tokens are gained either by the throw of the dice, or by opting to take one or two at the end of a turn at the expense of taking more lore cards. Players can amass lore and spend them when the opportunity seems rife. This addition of lore is certainly more suited to a fantasy world, where magic and fantastic events fit right in. They certainly would not have been logical or appropriate in the more historically-based games in the series.

The wide assortment of races, military types, terrain and special characters translates into a LOT of rules and player aids. In an effort to keep the game flowing smoothly and prevent constant consultations with the rules, dozens of player aid cards are available to the players, each designed to provide useful information about these aspects of game play and make them available at the player’s fingertips. It is not uncommon, however, for each player to have ten or more of these cards laid-out in front of him, and it can be a bit cumbersome to constantly consult these cards. This, however, is a minor annoyance, and with more and more experience, the need to consult these charts will decrease dramatically.

In spite of the hefty rule book and myriad of player charts, once the core mechanisms are grasped, games play quickly and relatively smoothly. There isn’t a deep level of strategy here, but that isn’t the point. The idea is to create intriguing battle scenarios that allow players to maneuver their forces and hopefully crush the enemy in fast, bloody battles. Each roll of the dice will result in cheers of glee, or moans of despair. One can claim superior tactics when claiming a victory, or blame the dice when suffering a defeat. The emphasis here is placed squarely on fun, but there are enough decisions to make and tactics to pursue to give one a sense of control.

Battle Lore has combined the best aspects of the series into a fast, playable and imminently enjoyable game, one that can be expanded ad infinitum into the future. The fantasy setting may be off-putting to some, but it does provide a seemingly endless realm of possibilities, limited only by the creativity of the designer and the pocketbook of Days of Wonder. I’m not one to normally succumb to the lure of expansions, but I must admit that I’m anticipating the next batch of creatures that will soon be available to stalk the battlefields!
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