If there is one thing that Days of Wonder annihilate their peers in, it’s marketing. They may only have a few releases a year but by God, if those releases don’t sound like the greatest gifts to gaming ever I don’t know what does. Battlelore currently stands as their greatest example of the hype machine – despite simply being the 4th ‘redevelopment’ of the very popular Command and Colors system, it promised to be everything from a mass combat war game system to a role playing game to a miniatures game to a naked lesbian orgy. It’s the current reigning champ of AT games based on Board Game Geek ratings, but does it hold up?
The game is pricey, but you do get a lot of stuff in the box. The first thing that hits you is what at first appears to be the amazing plastic inserts. Everything has its own special place for storage, and it makes for a lovely display piece, except that most of the minis get squashed into a little compartment which badly warps them. It’s fucking ridiculous – some guy obviously spent a lot of time and money designing this thing, did 90% of it and then just seemed to say “Ahh fuck it!” and crammed the remaining stuff in a little section, rendering the whole thing useless. Now normally I couldn’t give a shit about inserts – most are either very cheap looking or generic, and so I toss them out without a second thought. In this case however the insert seems to have had so much work put into it that it feels like part of the game’s cost went into it, so when I throw these useless things out it feels like I’m wasting money. Still, it does sound rather anal to be spending such a long paragraph ranting about an insert, but as you will see the design of things being 90% "there" and then not finished properly is a reoccurring motif for this game.
The minis are cute but nothing special. The humans look a little bit squat and ugly, but you’re not paying Games Workshop prices and you get a ton of them so you can’t complain. One of the most exciting things about the game for me initially was that the game came with flags which told you what side the miniature was on – this meant that the miniatures could be used for either side, so you could have one scenario where all the humans were on one side, and then swap the flags on some of them for the next scenario so that both teams could have humans. Sounded great in theory, but in practice I have yet to see it used – none of the provided scenarios ‘swap’ miniatures between sides, and you get so many of each type that it feels like both sides get more than enough anyway. I would have rather they dropped this aspect and provided the miniatures in 2 sets of colors (one for each side) to make the board more lively, currently everything is a drab grey. Apart from these complaints the miniatures are fine.
The cards are lovely with nice artwork, the dice are wonderfully wooden (I prefer wood dice to plastic) and the counters and overlays feel solid. Everything comes pre-punched to cater for the laziest of asses out there.
Finally we get to the “massive” 80 page rulebook, which the game seems to wear on it’s sleeve with great pride. It’s really a case of a sheep in wolfs clothing though – 80 pages makes the game seem deep complex and involved but it’s mostly padding, you could condense the rulebook into 8 pages easily. This approach is a double edged sword – on the one hand the rulebook looks great, and goes into such minute detail that even the biggest drongo who has not played anything more complex then hungry hungry hippos should be able to comprehend the game. On the other hand experienced game players (like moi) will find themselves having to inject caffeine straight into their veins to keep themselves awake while reading the tedious and terribly obvious descriptions and examples, especially in the first half of the book. The book also over explains some rules to the point where it gets confusing, (much like this review!) – “bold” is a good example, it’s a simple rule that gets explained in so many different ways that it ends up sounding a lot more complicated than it really is. Sometimes less is more.
The game has a medium setup time, mainly due to placing the miniatures out, 4 per unit. The fact all of the miniatures are grey doesn’t help matters at all. Normally this amount of setup time isn’t a problem, except that the game is fairly short (1 hour max) so you feel the setup time more than you normally would.
The game centres on the 100 year war, but gives it a fantasy twist, having different nationalities instead be different fantasy races, and introducing magic and giant creatures. Interestingly it’s not quite fantasy fair, but rather is presented in a more fairytale or “disneyish” way with very colorful cutesy-poo artwork. Unlike most typical fantasy games things like blood, darkness and death is unseen and indeed wouldn’t fit, the violence being very cartoony. It seems to be more heavily inspired by Shrek than Lord of the Rings, which gives the setting a very unique flavor and suits the game really well. Graphic design wise the game is spectacular and beautifully presented.
I assume most people by now have played the Command and Colours system (CCS) in one of its forms, it’s a rather simple and surprisingly popular system that even has old grumpy grognards fawning all over it in its CC:Ancients form. In case you are from mars and have never played a CCS game, the basics are you play cards to move your troops in different sections of the board then roll a number of dice depending on the color of the unit, trying to roll the color of the target to score hits. It’s very quick and clean and works well for boardgames – but the problem here is that battlelore is trying to push it into more of a open system, and I’m not convinced CCS is robust enough to handle it, as I’ll get to later.
The basic game doesn’t change much of the CCS formula, like CC:Ancients this version differs from Memoir ’44 in that it emphasizes movement and formations over terrain advantage, which makes the game feel more deep and tactical. However as terrain is less important, this also has the effect of making each scenario feel similar to the last one, so while the game feels more involved then memoir it doesn’t take long for each game to begin to feel samey. As in all other CCS games the luck factor is very heavy – while I’m not one to complain about luck, it does get tiring when every element of the game involves luck in some form. On the flip side this does make the game excellent to play with newbies, as they have a good chance of winning based on luck alone.
Victory is achieved by killing of a certain number of your opponents units depending on the scenario. Like Memoir, the scenario balance is up the shit, with one side often having an obvious advantage over the other. It is recommended that people play a game then swap sides and play again; tallying their total victory medals, but this has always come across as a cop out to me. There seems to me to be no reason why the designers don’t simply adjust the number of kills each side needs to win to reflect the scenarios imbalance apart from sheer laziness.
The other curiosity for me is why the designers dumbed down the dice system from Memoir ’44. Memoir ’44 dice system allowed different odds to hit different things – squads had a 50% chance of being hit, tanks were more difficult, and artillery were hardest of all to hit having only a 1 in 6 chance. It made each of these unit types feel quite different. Here however no matter what you attack – be it a heavily armored red unit or paper armored green until - you have the exact same chance to score a hit against it, and the designers basically spend three die faces to do what could have been easily achieved with one. Some may argue this is a big non issue, but to me those two wasted die faces could have been used to bring a bit more flexibility into the system, which is something Battlelore sorely needs as its going to be its biggest hurdle.
You see Battlelore in my opinion works as a very solid if unspectacular boardgame, but it is far to rigid to be this amazing system Days of Wonder are claiming it will become. It’s not the simplicity of the game that’s the problem, after all Heroscape is a very simple system that has an incredible variety of troops that feel and play different, it’s that too many of the systems variables are fixed – the color of a unit dictate the amount of dice it rolls, unit movement is fixed based on color and if it’s mounted or on foot, there is no characteristic to make a unit harder or easier to hit, and so on – basically it seems the designers have not left themselves enough room within the game mechanics to bring forth the amount of variety and big ideas the advertising and hype machine is claiming, but maybe I’m being too skeptical. Lets take a look at the ‘advanced’ features of Battlelore and see what they bring to the table.
The game comes with a sampling of two races: dwarves and goblins. Dwarves are always Bold (a state of morale) and goblins are always frightened (another state of morale) and get a rush attack which is useless to their green units. That’s it.
Upon reading this, one thing sprang immediately to mind: Big fucking deal!
Say what you want about Warhammer and it’s sludgy, over complex, archaic and way overpriced system, but at least in that when you play a dwarven army it feels like your playing a dwarven army, which in turn plays and feels very different to a goblin army. These dwarves are simply bold humans. Apart from being a really poor design choice, as keeping units in bold is one of the main challenges of the game, and dwarves negate that making them boringly straightforward, it really shows a lack of imagination and scope. These races don’t present a new way to play, they are just fiddling around the edges of the mechanics as an excuse to sell the game as more than it really is, and demonstrate firsthand why I am so skeptical of this system becoming as great as it claims it will be.
The irony is getting the different races to play differently would have been quite easy – just copy what Combat Commander and a host of other different wargames do and give each race it’s own specific command card deck. The dwarven deck could have had less movement on their cards (as dwarves are slow) but some defensive bonuses or other such cards. The goblin deck could have allowed goblins to move en mass, making up for their weakness in combat, thus making them a swarming army. There was a lot that could have been done, but instead the main movement mechanic remained unchanged (despite the fact that we have seen it 3 times before!) and the designers simply slapped some minor rules on.
Because of this, and the way the victory conditions work with each side needing the exact same number of kills to win, as it stands I can’t see there ever being a fair dwarves vs goblins army fight. The dwarves would simply steamroll the goblins even if the goblins were given twice the numbers – after all each army would still only be able to move the same number of units per turn, as dictated by their cards. I simply cannot believe how disappointing these races are, and I sure hope DoW have something big up their sleeve because this shit just don’t cut it.
Now this is more like it. Creatures are special figures that are each unique and have their own special powers. They remind me a lot of heroscape really, and the beauty of them is that they each play differently from the others and feel a lot more thematic and less mechanical than the races do, especially the earth elemental, which is quite a clever unit. This is more along the lines of how the races should have been treated and as they stand are the strongest aspect of the game. They aren’t perfect however, and I have two main criticisms:
Firstly, the rules have a number of holes when it comes to creatures, even forgetting to tell you how to recruit them at start up! Quite unforgivable considering the 80 page rulebook.
Secondly, killing creatures is too much of a crapshoot, involving 2 sets of rolls to kill them. This means that a lucky roll will knock off a creature on turn one, while other games will have the creature run rampant with the player unable to land a blow. Creatures really should have been given lifepoints, to allow the attacker to wear them down gradually and give the owner more control over their fate.
Apart from these issues creatures are a lot of fun, and I wish I could have more than one per side.
War Council and Lore
This is the big selling point of the game, and its bit of a mixed bag. At the start of the game each player gets to pick different characters (who can each be from 1 to 3 levels of strength) to make up his war council. One character slot can be a creature as explained above, and another can be a commander, who will increase your hand of command cards to allow you more flexibility in issuing orders to your troops. The other four characters give you access to spells / special abilities in the form of lore cards, which you can cast during the game. It’s a great idea, but it didn’t seem to get followed through properly so doesn’t work as well as it should (remember the 90% there analogy I brought up with the insert?)
For starters instead of each player getting their own deck, they share a common one built up of the character types chosen by each player. This means that even if you chose a wizard, you may not get any wizard spells in your hand all game! Worse, your opponent might get them, which he can freely cast himself (though at a small penalty if he doesn’t have the proper character.) This means that forward planning with the lore deck is almost impossible, as you cannot know what cards you will get during the game.
The other problem is that not all war council characters are created equal, with some being clearly better than others. It doesn’t make much sense to take a level 3 warrior for example, who only has 1 card that is effected by his level. On the other hand a level 3 priest is a natural choice if you want to win. As it stands the war council choices could have been balanced a bit better. The same applies to the Lore cards themselves - each card has a ‘lore’ cost, which is a currency used for casting spells, but again I’m not convinced the lore costs are all that well balanced. The popular example are the cleric cards “Hills Rumble” and “Forrest Frenzy”, which at 7 lore each are clearly better than say the theif’s “Sneak Attack” despite that costing 9.
Another disappointment is that the 4 different lore decks (wizard, priest, warrior and thief) play a little too similar to my liking. In fact lots of cards appear in multiple decks just under a different name. It kills the flavor for me and demonstrates yet again just how limited the system currently is.
Overall it is an interesting aspect of the game but the heavy level of randomness it employs and the overall lack of strategic planing they allow simply ends up making the whole game too luck based, and by this stage you feel as though the game is playing you rather then you controlling it.
Battlelore is the McDonalds of AT games; looks good in the adds, is convenient and does the job when you want something quick. But it doesn’t taste all that great, isn’t very fulfilling and as yet doesn’t live up to the promises it makes.
As it stands I’m disappointed - the game is too simple, too heavily influenced by luck and I feel the system is too inflexible to match its claims, but with the expansions on the near horizon we will soon be able to tell if my hunch is right. I have the first expansion "Call to Arms" on my desk and am about to bust the shrink as soon as I hit "send", wish me luck!
Recommended for those who:
Are new to AT games and don’t want to deal in anything heavier.
Only play games that go for no more than an hour.
Like to jump on bandwagons early (get in before there are too many expansions to catch up on!)
Not Recommended for those who:
Are looking for a bit of weight and depth.
Are looking for a good system with which to invest heavily in – this is no where near as robust as a miniatures game.
Are an experienced AT gamer with lots of games already (there probably isn’t enough here to keep you interested.)
Overall it’s not bad game and good for the ocasional play, but not all that great either. Doesn't deserve it's current hype or praise in my opinion, but I'll refrain from overall recommending it or dismissing it and simply sit on the fence.