Over the festive period I managed to play a few solo games of Legends of the High Seas (LoHS), plus a couple of opposed games. So, what are my thoughts about this set of rules?
It is immediately obvious that these rules are from the Games Workshop (GW) stable; the production values are high, the rules are clearly written and well laid out, there are plenty of beautiful photos of nicely painted figures and game set-ups. The only disappointment in regard to the production quality of these rules is the artist drawings which I think are very poor. This is surprising because usually GW rules, particularly the fantasy one I have looked at, are skilfully illustrated.
The rules themselves are reasonably simple and use mechanisms that will be familiar to anyone who has played other GW products. All figures have the usual statistics you expect for GW rule sets, together with special rules for the ‘Heroes’ of which ever faction you are playing. All my games pitted at Pirate faction against a Privateer faction. I limited each faction to 2 Hero characters; a Captain and a Mate. The remaining dozen figures aside were ‘Henchmen’, split 50:50 between the two types allowed for each faction. The figures were randomly assigned from those in my collection and were armed in a variety of ways as modelled. Hero characters have 2 additional statistics, Fame and Fortune. Fame can be used to modify dice rolls, whilst Fortune can be used to recover wounds.
The first phase in each game turn was a dice off for initiative (a simple opposed D6 roll). Movement is very simple, a standard 6”, but a key rule is the zone of control (ZOC) which prevents enemy figures from bursting through your defence line. There are also rules for jumping, climbing and swinging which saw considerable usage in my first solo game; a boarding action. A couple of pirate figures did end up in the drink after failing to cross the gap between the ships (one drowned, whilst the other spent the rest of game swimming around the ship to climb back on board). The next phase is firing. This is a very simple process, rolling equal or more than the figures firing statistic to hit. If the target is behind cover then a saving roll is made. Then the weapons strength is compared to the targets defence stat to determine whether a wound is caused. This did seem strange: Why would a pirate cut-throat be more immune to a musket ball than other henchmen? Also I could not see why the Wound Chart was so large with Weapon and Defence values of 10+, when no basic weapon had a value greater than 3 (swivel guns and grenade are 5), and no characters had a higher defence than 5. Reloading black powder weapons required a whole turn. There were rules for miss-fires but these occur on a score of 1 (which is a miss anyway), and require a turn to clear (same as reloading), so rather pointless. Figures that are potentially hit, but fail to get a wound, test their Courage: if they fail then they move away from the enemy or take cover. Courage tests also apply when the faction reaches 50% casualties, or if you wish to engage a ‘Fearsome’ character. The combat phase is again simple: opposed D6 dice rolls made for figures involved. The higher score wins, pushes back opponent 1”, and then dices on the Wound table to inflict damage (compare Strength versus Defence statistics). All very simple and luck driven, the main tactical advantages can be obtained by attempting to get numerical advantages in individual combats, and/or backing opponents into a corner.
So, as a set of combat skirmish rules then I think these work OK but they are very heavily dominated by luck rather than tactical forethought. The rules play rapidly and are enjoyable, but the luck element starts to grate, even after only 4 games. To be fair I don’t think I am using the rules for the task they were designed for. These rules are clearly meant to be used in more of a role playing setting with different crews playing linked scenarios and within a developing storyline. The campaign part of the rules is extensive, well written and full of good ideas. Developing your lead character, gaining skills and equipment, replenishing your crew, recruiting specialist hired hands and undertaking different missions are the core of this rule set. There are profiles for some of the more infamous historic pirates (e.g. Blackbeard etc.) for you to include in games. There is also all the chrome needed to generate piratical atmosphere; if you want a talking parrot, or a pet monkey, then the cost and rules are included. The rules also include a ship-to-ship section, which I have not looked at in any detail.
To conclude, I think LoHS is perfect for a role playing campaign involving a group of players willing to maintain the storyline for a substantial period of time. The tabletop action is almost secondary to the campaign, and requires a quick, clear result to allow the narrative to progress. The initial crews need to be fairly small and loaded with characters because henchmen are cheap cannon-fodder that can be replenished. LoHS are a must buy if you are considering a pirate campaign, even if you chose not to use the combat rules themselves! They are packed with ideas and background, and the photos of games are inspirational. In contrast, if you are looking for rules to cover stand alone, one off games involving 20-30 figures a side then I’m not sure if these are the rules to go for. They certainly work and give a fast paced game, but I feel they revolve too much around luck, particularly in close combat situations. In none of the games that I have played have I felt I was placed in a dilemma concerning decision making. I generally just got stuck in and trusted to the dice gods! May be this is a good reflection of piratical action but I’m not sure that it provides a great gaming experience, and would become tedious if repeated often. LoHS will not be relegated to the attic but will remain on my bookshelf as a source of ideas, even if they are not played as a set of active rules.