Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Song of Blades and Heroes - fight on!
The talk recently about plastic miniatures does raise the question- say your child has these figures, what could a beginner do with them? Or say you've picked up some of those cool Papo or Schleich knights. Is there a set of rules for having small battles with them? Up until recently your choices might be limited. Games Workshop publishes the Warhammer system but it may not be well suited to beginners, being potentially expensive and somewhat complex. Other options have also struggled with issues of complexity, expense, or availability.
Ganesha Games out of Italy publishes the "Song of..." series of gaming rules. Their flagship product is Song of Blades and Heroes (SoBH). This is a slim paperback book with rules for conducting battles on the tabletop between small groups of fighters. The initial book deals with fantasy battles so the combatants may be barbarians, wizards, wolves, or dragons. SoBH is simple and elegant and may be the best introduction to tabletop battles for older kids.
Players in SoBH begin with game with several figures. Each figure represents a knight, warrior, or some creature. Each figure is also assigned a number which measures how effective they are at fighting and a number which describes how well trained and motivated they are. A giant worm could be very effective in combat simply because it's fifty feet long, but perhaps not so well trained or motivated. In contrast a brave hobbit might be very motivated but perhaps just not all that dangerous.
In the course of a game your figures are placed on a tabletop decorated with small plastic trees, castles, or whatever you have handy. Players alternate moving their figures around and take turns casting spells, swinging swords, or shooting bows at each other. You roll dice to see if your attacks are successful and can potentially cause your opponent's figure to fall down, run away, or disappear from the battle. Let's talk about three issues that come to mind:
Firstly, we know from history that most combatants leave battles by receiving an injury or running away. Thus it is not unrealistic to tell younger players that the losing figure has run away, limped off or been taken captive. Tactical games often simulate fighting and combat but you can be historically accurate without being gruesome.
Secondly, these games benefit from "terrain." This is any item that makes your tabletop look like a forest, desert, or spooky cave. Be creative, make it yourself, use Playmobil gear, use JR Miniatures products, the sky's the limit. In Texas we had two fellows of about 5 years old who made terrain from PlayDough for our World War 2 games. They felt so involved and were really proud of the bridges and trees they had built.
Finally, let's consider the rules themselves. The game revolves around the idea that your figures may or may not do exactly what you want them to do. You roll dice and based on how you roll they may be very active or just sit there. The game adds a twist- your figure can do one thing with each high die roll and you may choose to roll one, two, or three dice. Thus, if you are very lucky your figure might have three high die rolls and do three things. However, if you roll low on two or three of those dice then nothing happens and the other player gets to go.
Say you have four figures. You could play it safe and roll one die for each. Your figures will only get to do one thing at best but all of them have the chance to go. On the other hand you could roll three dice and maybe the first figure will get to do three things, or maybe you'll roll low twice and your turn will end.
This gambling concept has the potential to be quite exciting. In our test game the experienced gamers took to it and enjoyed the tension of deciding whether to play it safe or try and really motivate their troops. On the other hand the younger players may find this counter intuitive and frustrating. In fact, it might be accurate to say that SoBH is probably more of a game than a historical simulation and if your 8 year old complains you can congratulate her on her judgement.
That being said the SoBH line is well written, inexpensive, and generally well put together. We played with the basic book and the King Arthur supplement. The latter is a labor of love and a terrific product. There are two fantasy supplements that are fair and include rules for magical spells. In contrast the Napoleonic supplement is fairly weak and best passed on unless you collect Napoleonic rulesets like my friend Rich.
I would wholeheartedly recommend SoBH as a game for older kids and up. It is only a rulebook and you'll need to buy your own miniature figures and terrain. For many families who already own the figures this is a great way to put them to good use.
The SoBH line is available through the Ganesha Games website. I found the official site to be a little lacking in detail but interested parties can get a better set of product descriptions through Wargames Vault.
Pros: simple and fun, a good value for the price, an interesting game mechanic
Cons: younger children (pre-teen) may find the game mechanic frustrating
Beyond the Basics: huge replay value and many interesting supplements