Thursday, 9 October 2014

Review of Muskets and Tomahawks

 Last year, as a project to sort through armies that were not seeing much table action, I came across approximately 60 individual figures I had acquired during the late 1970’s. My first job after leaving school was located near Chelsea barracks and I used to meet a friend in Sloane Square/Kings Road for lunchtime pints. To my surprise a wargame shop was located on Lower Sloane Street, owned by Edward Suren and selling his Willie figures. These figures were totally different to the usual Minifigs I normally bought; they were 30mm, had a more correct physiology and were made from pewter rather than white metal. They were also very expensive, so I could only buy a few at a time! I used to spend many lunchtimes chatting to Edward and bought figures from his AWI range. I never had enough figures to use, so when I left London, they were put in a box and forgotten about.

In 2012 Studio Tomahawk released their skirmish rules set in 18th century North America written by Alex Buchel & Fred Machu (Studio Tomahawk, 2012). I immediately saw the possibility of using these rules with my unemployed Willie figures and bought a set. The rules cover both the FIW and AWI conflicts, but it was clear that I needed a few more figures to play. Luckily figure design has moved during the last 40 years and now 28mm rather than 25mm predominates. Modern 28mm match very closely the 30mm scale used for Willie figures. I therefore bought and painted a range of figures to allow me to deploy balanced armies for both conflicts. Finally, as an additional bonus, 4Ground produced a range of excellent MDF building ideal for both conflicts!

I have now played many games against different opponents to test the rules. I have played 200 and 400 point armies for both conflicts, and all scenario types have been played. When playing against an opponent new to the rules, I have tended not to use the hidden movement rules to speed up play. I should also state I have not used the waterway or artillery rules, and none of my forces have included any mounted figures.

The rules are A4 size, staple bound, with black and white illustrations and diagrams. They are clearly written, logically structured and organised. The authors use a fictional character (Ranger sergeant Benjamin Bacon) to illuminate how specific, key rules work. There is a 1-sided quick reference sheet (QRS) which I found adequate for play, and on the reverse I listed special unit characteristics as a quick reminder. Finally there are ‘army lists’ to allow players to create their forces. In addition to the rule book, a set of cards (glossy, business card sized) is included and required for play.

The key feature of the rules is the use of cards to determine unit activation. Activation (move, shoot or reload) is determined on the units nationality and type, not individual unit i.e. French Regulars, British Provincials, Indians etc. Different unit types have different number of cards in the deck, giving different number of activations e.g. Regulars have 2 cards each giving 2 activations, whereas Indians have 4 cards each 1 activation. There also a few additional cards such as Morale and Forward Boys to add to the deck. The mechanics of the rules are very simple. Movement is 4” to 6” (natives moving faster), reduced for moving through terrain. Firing is a simple D6 per figure with score required adjusted by a few modifiers (e.g. range, cover etc.). Hits are converted into kills by the firepower rating for the weapon. Kills cause morale tests for units, again a simple D6 mechanism and with the results adjusted for the unit type (e.g. regulars are more reliable than militia etc.). Failed morale tests can cause a unit to recoil, flee or rout.

Although the basic rule mechanics are very simple, the beauty of the rules lies in the ‘chrome’ which is integral to a game of Muskets and Tomahawks. Units can have individual rule characteristics which allow them to behave in different ways e.g. Regulars may form a ‘Firing Line’ which boosts their morale and allows them to deliver devastating volleys, but makes them vulnerable to long range sniping; Some units are ‘Natives’ allowing them to move rapidly through terrain and exploit cover; Other units are ‘Elite’ allowing them to act on Forward Boys cards and reroll D6 scores of 1 in morale tests etc. These characteristics immediately add a depth and colour to the rules. The next item of ‘chrome’ is the random talents for officer figures e.g. will your officer lead from the front, or will he have enhanced melee abilities? There are also 6 different missions for your force, again dependent on the predominant unit type. So if you have a mainly Indian force you may get a ‘Slaughter’ mission, whereas if your force is Regular the mission is going to be less bloodthirsty!

The best bit of ‘chrome’ is the addition of ‘Side Plots’. The senior officer for each side randomly dices for a ‘Side Plot’, and there are 36 different possibilities. This Side Plot is kept secret from the opponent. It is possible to win the game by achieving the conditions of your main mission, only to find the result downgraded because your opponent has achieved his Side Plot. Of course, if you succeed with the objectives of both main mission and Side Plot you may claim a decisive victory. The addition of these Side Plots turns the wargame from a simple game into more of a story-telling experience and, I feel, works very well. In the last game I played I had a main mission of ‘Raid’ with a Side Plot of ‘Spy’. My opponent could not understand why my officer hung back, skulking in some woods. Although I achieved my main mission objective, my opponent did (just) spot my ‘Spy’ officer, nullifying my Side Plot objective. Meanwhile he did achieve his Side Plot (killing my Indian officer in close combat), so the result was a draw, rather than a victory for me!

Overall the rules are fast, fun and easy to play. Each new opponent I have played has rapidly picked up the rules mechanisms with little confusion. The QRS is all that is required and we rarely needed to refer to the main rulebook. The card activation mechanism is not unique but does work well, and I like the differing number of activations available. There are not many significant decisions to be made in the game but in a ‘light’ skirmish game like Muskets and Tomahawks this is not a detrimental factor. The use of hidden markers for certain troop types does add a little more complexity and thought. The simple rule mechanics are fine when all the added ‘chrome’ is taken into account, and troops do therefore act according to type. The strongest selling point for these rules is the ‘story-telling’ dimension resulting from the various missions and side plots. I have found all players enjoy and fully embrace this aspect of the game. In addition, the story-telling reduces the competitive edge, with players enjoying the game itself irrespective of the final result.

To conclude, these rules are excellent, enjoyable and ideal for quick games (2-3 hours) with new opponents within a wargame club setting. I can see they will enjoy continued use and have brought a new gaming life to my old 30mm Willie figures.

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