How to become an Infidel and enjoy every minute of it
A review of GMT's
Infidel – The Supremacy of Cavalry in the Crusader Era
And the wise man, Bohemund, spoke to the others: “Seignors, most invincible knights, array you selves for battle ..." (Gesta Francorum)
Theme and components
Cavalry reigns supreme in this 2-player-wargame by Richard Berg about battles from the Crusades. It is the second game of the Men of Iron series, although that is suspiciously not noted on the box. No need to be ashamed of your older brother, Infidel! The scale is 250 yards to a hex, with each counter representing 150 cavalry or 300 to 600 infantry.
The game comes with two large, backprinted hexmaps, mostly showing the dusty plains of the Holy Land, which naturally look a bit bland. There is beautiful painted terrain on some maps, though, like the Fatimid tent camp ouside the walls of Ascalon. 560 countes are included, easy to read and with clearly distinguishable illustrations of the different troop types that range from mounted archers to pike infantry. Some more exotic units such as templar knights and Sudanese archers (with flails) are added to the mix.
The rules run in at 16 pages, plus a scenario book with historical notes and a set-up map for each of the six battles. And, this is a Berg game after all, you get four pages of charts (two of them used frequently during gameplay). Now bear with me, Franks and Saracens: These charts are not only easy to use, organized smartly and printed in colour, GMT has also included a copy for each of the two players.
And Allah helped the Muslims to be victorious, they surrounded the Franks on all sides and destroyed them, killing and capturing them. (Sihab al-Din)
A tour on the Battlefield
The six scenarios depict five historical Crusader victories, and one Muslim victory (Harran, 1104). When playing a scenario, though, one quickly figures out that the historical outcome is all but given. I have seen both sides win Ascalon, and was soundly beaten as the Crusaders at the gates of Antioch. The scenarios also depict a nice variety of tactical situations.
Dorylaeum (1097): Seljuk cavalry ambush the Crusader army on the march, with most of the Christian units still off the map.
Antioch (1098): The besieged Crusaders make a stand outside of Antioch. Both players start with most of their units off-map. The Crusaders are also low on horses, so many knights fight dismounted.
Ascalon (1099) is a set-piece battle with a twist: Parts of the Fatimid army are caught napping camp. Both armies have strong contingents of infantry that may decide the battle.
Harran (1104) features another Seljuk cavalry army versus the Crusaders, this time in a set-piece battle.
Montgisard (1177) seems to come straight out of Hollywood: 400 knights and 2000 infantry defeat the mighty Saladin and his army of 26.000. It get's better: The Crusaders are led by King Baldwin IV., aptly described by the scenario book as “a teenager with leprosy, but a most able commander”.
Arsuf (1191) is a very tense marching battle. The Crusaders, led by Richard the Lionheart, start at the Northern map edge with lock, stock and baggage train. They win by exiting from the Southern edge, all the while under attack from Saladin's numerically superior army.
Let two thousand bold knights, the choice of the entire army, and a thousand foot archers, be made ready within two days. (...) and on the third day, at the sound of the horn, let them follow me. (Richard of Devizes)
I go, you go, you go again
Gameplay in the Men of Iron series is fast and furious, with minimal downtime for the non-active player. This is largely due to the clever activation system that dispenses with the standard 'I go, you go' sequence. Armies are divided into commands, each one distinguishable by a coloured stripe on the counters. A command is activated by die roll, a successful roll allows all units of the command to move and fight. After an activation, the player may either pass (grant initiative to his opponent) or try to activate another command. If the activation roll fails, the other player can now activate a command (for free, without a die roll), and then roll for continuation.
This dynamic system creates a wonderful back and forth between the players, with wild swings of fortune and agonizing decisions. Should I response to your attack on my left flank or advance my troops on the right? What about my reinforcements? How many activations do I need to get them to the front? There never seems to be enough time to get all the things done that need to be done, and the incertitude of how many activations you get before play passes to your opponent is a great simulation of the friction on Medieval battlefields.
Come then, Soldiers of Christ, fight, I beseech you ... If, however, you whish to flee, remember that France is indeed a long distance away. (Fulcher of Chartres)
A battle is won by driving the opposing army beyond its Flight Point limit. Such points are accumulated for each unit that gets eliminated or retired (placed next to a standard). Retired units can be rallied (and will reduce your Flight Points), however this uses up one entire activation.
Now, the tricky part is: You never exactly know when four army will turn to flight, as the Flight Point check involves rolling a die. Once an army is near its limit, things get very tense.
The Muslim pretended to retreat, and were followed for about two farsakh by the Franks. Then they turned on their pursuers and massacred them. (Ibn al-Athir)
The beauty of assymetry
The Crusades were a clash between two fundamentally different styles of warfare, and the game nicely portrays this asymmetry. Both sides require unique tactics: Crusader armies rely on the near unstoppable charges of their knights, Muslim forces with their masses of light and medium cavalry tend towards hit and run tactics. The Fatimids and Ayyubids under Saladin also field decent numbers of heavy cavalry. While not as strong as knights, they are still capable of charges and give these armies some heavy punch capacity.
Infantry generally plays a lesser role then in Men of Iron I, where it was both stronger and protected by terrain. In Infidel, the maps cover lots of open ground, thus battles play very fluid with dashing cavalry charges and feints retreats.
For a Frank on horseback is invincible, and would even make holes in the walls of Babylon ... (Anna Comnena: The Alexiad)
Panzers of the Middle Ages
Knights are the most powerful units in this game, and I've seen them annihilating whole sections of the enemy battle line with their deadly charges and a few 'Continue Attack' results. They are tough to overcome in shock combat, even if attacked by multiple opponents, and almost immune to missile fire by mounted archers. (The Medieval sources describe men peppered with arrows still fighting and call them “porcupines”.) To face a charge by these iron men as the Muslim player is hell, to wreak havoc with them as the Crusader is a wargamer's paradise.
Other than Anna Comnena suggested, though, knights are not invincible. When fired at, they must counter-charge. Only if within range of a leader, and only if he succeeds in a die roll, the hot-blooded warriors can be restrained. The Muslim player can thus attempt to lure knight units away from the battle line, encircling and isolating them. There are other methods to kill a knight, but they all need careful planning and some prayers to whichever god(s) you are inclined.
Undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven! (Pope Urban II.)
I've played a couple of Berg's games, and they always fascinate me for the historical insight they offer. They sometimes are a tad more complex and time-consuming than I like my wargames. The Men of Iron series, long may it prosper, hits my sweet spot. In many regards, it plays like a streamlined version of Great Battles of History, Berg's groundbreaking series on Roman warfare. There is no stacking of units, and only a few markers are used. I can play a scenario to completion in three to five hours, and that includes setup, table talk and victory dances after killing one of those pesky knights.
At the same time, there is a surprising amount of depth. The interplay of charge, shock combat and the possibility for the non-active player to react to enemy attacks (counter-charge or reaction fire) open up great tactical opportunities. The scenarios in Infidel are very replayable, as there are various approaches to victory and both armies use different tactics. (A welcome change from Men of Iron I, where one army usually holds a strong defensive position protected by terrain, and play is a bit more static.)
Add to this a fast and furious gameplay, agonizing decisions and lots of insight into Medieval warfare, and you get a wargame that, for this humble chronicler at least, is the True Lance.