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Subject: An underappreciated gem - Fornovo 1495 and the Order of Arms system rss

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Miguel Escandón
Spain
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The reception for this game has been somewhat muted. However, because I’ve enjoyed it so much, I’d like to share my positive experience and encourage people to try it out.

The first thing that jumps out at me is the aesthetics of the map, the counters, and even the rulebooks. The graphic design is exceptionally good.

Every unit counter is animated by a delicate miniature, and conveys a lot of information without being overcrowded:

From gallery of MikeEsc72


And I love the map:

From gallery of MikeEsc72


The army of the League of Venice lies in wait.

From gallery of MikeEsc72


The French army, as yet unaware of the looming danger.

Secondly, the game brings a very specific and original treatment to the question of space. It is not a hex and counter game where space and mass are standardised. Instead, the map is divided into irregularly shaped “areas” whose boundaries reflect the designer’s perception of how the terrain affects movement, line of sight and so forth. Moreover, the design takes a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) approach to the way in which counters represent troops massed on the field of battle. The results are very interesting.

A third key element is that the scenario rules provide cogs and levers for distinct storylines to unfold. The main one is weather: the Taro river, which slices across the map, is set to flood and become an impassable barrier. But you don’t know how quickly this will happen. As the Italian player on the south bank, you have to gamble on how fast to move your people over the fords, versus using the forces that are already across to fight, manoeuvre and push towards victory.

Fourthly, and most importantly, the rules system identifies and incorporates a large population of factors that influence the battle. The factors in turn are grouped into activity categories—charge, bombardment, ranged fire, close combat, recovery—but the underlying concept for all of them is similar: assigning dice rolls and modifiers.

This may be an aspect that has put off some people. There are a lot of dice rolls and modifiers, and a lot of checks and procedural steps. During my first couple of plays I was constantly flipping back and forth through the rulebook and scenario book to try and figure out how many dice to roll, what modifiers to apply, and what eventualities to roll for (“broken lances”, leader casualties, cannons blowing up, special tactical abilities, and so many more).

However, the system grew on me, and as I got further into each play it all started to click.

For one thing, I think the spatial element is very well done. A flanking move, for instance, isn’t the somewhat abstract question of curling around the enemy unit’s zone of control, and this game doesn’t use the concept of ZOCs. Instead, you can see directly which flanks are exposed, which are safe.

From gallery of MikeEsc72


Montone’s right flank is exposed to a charge by the Maréchal de Gie, and that charge in turn is open to interception by Ridolfo Gonzaga, who is on the riverbed, unseen behind the high brambles, but poised to burst out of the ford at a gallop.

Another feature of the the way space works in this game is the importance of the “occupancy” and stacking limits. On a first reading of the rules, I didn’t realize how crucial these constraints actually are; but once you get into the game it dawns on you that it’s as much about traffic-policing and marshalling your forces as about finding a tactical edge. I found this gives a nice intuitive sense of believability.

Finally, although it is true that the system relies on a very large number of die rolls and modifiers, and at first you will constantly be looking them up in the rulebook, I felt the cognitive load was well worth it in the end. For one thing, it creates some great drama and immersive narrative:

From gallery of MikeEsc72


Swiss mercenaries in the French service, led by de Bessey and formed in phalanx, take advantage of Ridolfo’s desperate lunge against de Gie to mount a rear attack. The dice rolls are devastating on both sides. Ridolfo takes a loss, while the Swiss retreat to avoid losing a step. What’s more, both de Bessey and Ridolfo are killed in battle! However, Ridolfo, as a “leader of exceptional ability”, under the rule decipio mortis est (pedantic note: should really be something like mortem decepta est) makes a saving throw, and survives after all. [In the picture, the Swiss have already withdrawn and de Bessey’s counter is shown just as a sort of trophy.]

Secondly, I would defend the system on the basis that, despite the multiplicity of special rules, modifiers, etc, you build up a sense of what matters and where you need to look for the applicable rule. Eventually it becomes a lot easier and runs more smoothly than you’d expect.

Criticisms

I’m not so sure about the activation system, i.e., the rules that determine who moves when. The opposing players dice off to see who moves first, and then roll again for number of activations. If both players in a row fail their activation roll, or there are no unactivated units left, the turn is over. This means you might have a very long turn in which activations string together, or a mini-turn with just one or two units activating (and anything in between).

I realise that there is excitement in the uncertainty about whether your unit will move before or after a given enemy unit that’s in a threatening position, or about when the turn will end so scenario conditions will change, either in your favour or against. However, from the standpoint of psychological believability and narrative, I wasn’t won over by this part of the system. In one of my first games all the action seemed to be concentrated in a few key units while everyone else was mostly standing still.

My other criticism is just a comment on the balance between the warring sides depicted in the game. I personally enjoy the fact that the Italian side is at a heavy disadvantage whereas the French just need to “hold the fort”. And there are conditions that effectively amount to sudden death triggers: in the main historical scenario, if Ridolfo is killed or the Taro river floods early, the Italians are pretty much toast and might as well give up. I find that exciting but I realise it might be a problem for some people. (I should mention, however, that there’s a “free setup” scenario, which I haven’t tried yet, where this imbalance may not be as strongly present.)

Conclusion

Fornovo 1495
is a complex and ambitious simulation of medieval warfare. While the design has a few rough edges and draws heavily on wargaming staples like dice modifiers and multiple tables, overall it proposes an original, well thought-out system that works surprisingly well from an intuitive point of view, offering interesting puzzles and excellent narrative. If you can handle a demanding learning curve and you enjoy the medieval period, you should certainly try this game. A solid 9 for me, and I look forward to exploring it further.








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Martin McCleary
United States
Huachuca City
Arizona
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Microbadge: Plymouth fanMicrobadge: Battlestar Galactica fanMicrobadge: SPI fanMicrobadge: Black Sails fanMicrobadge: Arizona
It looked really great but I downloaded the rule book and ultimately decided I didn't want to put the time in it would have required.
 
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