I have reached that point in life when suggesting suitable Christmas presents from members of my family becomes difficult. There is very little I actually want! Of course wargame related items are the exception to this general statement. So, I suggested that my wife might buy me a copy of Donnybrook (Clarence Harrison & Barry Hilton; Wordtwister Publishing 2013), a set of rules that I have been aware of but had not yet taken the plunge to purchase. The reason for my hesitation was probably the price (£27) which is a lot for a product I have no experience of, and which may only cover a niche area of my gaming interests (possible use with pirates, and some Jacobite Highlanders that have been lying idle on my shelves for years!). A few comments on TMP and a discussion on the Meeples & Miniatures podcast did spark my interest though. So what do you get for your money? The rule book is a beautifully presented set of rules, lists, scenarios, game play and thumbnail descriptions of conflicts covered during the 1660-1760 timeframe. The photos of figures are excellent quality, and many show games in progress (with a ‘comic-strip’ style of commentary, which may not be to everyone’s taste). The authors forward explains that these rules have been extensively played and derive from rules comprising 2 sides of A4 paper, so how come they are now part of a 112 page rule book?
The basic rules only occupy 12 pages and are fairly simple. The central mechanic revolves around a card activation system where each unit/character has an individual card in the deck, plus there are ‘reload’ and ‘turn end’ cards. Unlike other similar rule sets (e.g. Muskets & Tomahawks) no cards are supplied with the rules; you have to produce your own. I have initially opted to use standard playing cards but I can foresee future projects designing and producing my own conflict specific cards. I must admit to liking the card activation mechanic in games, particularly solo games but it can work well in opposed games with opponents who have a ‘relaxed’ attitude to winning/losing.
The second, key mechanic is the ‘Ability’ dice used by units; Recruits use D6, Regulars D8 and Elites D10 (note to self – must buy some more D8’s!). For shooting, close combat and rallying the unit rolls using their Ability dice type, generally requiring 6+ for success. The quality difference between troops is clear in the probabilities of success due to the dice scores achievable. There are few modifiers and saving throws are made for cover etc.
Whilst these two mechanics drive the game, the other rules are very basic and easily understood. For example, there are rules differentiating close order troops in comparison to loose order troops (they move slower, have improved ‘volley’ fire and have restricted attack zones etc.). There are rules related to specific weapons (pikes, halberds, bayonets etc.) and effects of armour etc. There are also optional rules for additional extraordinary events which can add extra chrome and uncertainty. So, if the basic rules are simple and short, what else do you get for your buck?
The next section covers 8 different factions. I can see myself using 4 of these factions: Army, Civilian Mob, Highlanders, and Outlaws (i.e. Pirates). There other factions that are less appealing to me: Covenanters, Rapparees, Tribal, and the bizarre Cultists. Each faction is structured differently, mainly in relation to the special characters or effects that can be included. I think a bit more imagination could have been used in this section of the rules (e.g. the authors like using hunting dogs, repeating this character in multiple factions), but I feel it becomes clear that these basic factions can be used as a foundation for players own designs. Donnybrook can easily be adapted and used as a ‘toolbox’ for players wishing to recreate any conflict of the period (or even slightly outside the period).
The first half of the rule book covers rules and faction lists, and does the job very well, so what is covered by the last half of the book? Scenarios, this seems to an obligatory section for any published rulebook. The scenarios included are fairly standard (Convoy, Raid etc.) and do not excite me because there is nothing original here. I don’t know why authors include this section unless they have something new to say. Next, the rules show a game ‘in play’ in a comic book style. This is very pretty but does not really demonstrate rule mechanisms. I really cannot see what this AAR adds to the publication. Finally there are historical thumbnail sketches of conflicts that could be played using Donnybrook. Again this section is fairly basic and seems to me to be more unnecessary ‘padding’.
I have played three solo games using Donnybrook, and the next club game arranged will be an opposed game using my Jacobite highlanders (an AAR report will be published at a later date). The first solo game was ECW (slightly out of period, but Donnybrook worked well) using two Army factions. The game was fast and fun. Most action was seen by the musketeers, but the decisive combat was surprisingly a push by the Parlimentary pikes, greatly aided by the attachment of a very energetic drummer and ensign. The Royalist cavalry activation card rarely came up, so they stood about and were shot to pieces (I therefore have not tested how well cavalry work). I expected Sergeant characters to be more influential aiding musketeers to reload, but again activation card order did not work in their favour.
My next game was the 1745 Jacobite rebellion pitting Highlanders against the Government Army.
This game ended in a bloody draw. A unit of government militia was deployed forward (aided by a scout character) and successfully shot one highlander unit to pieces (but the militia lost 3 figures to misfires!). A second highlander unit (aided by a bard character) then charged the government militia and routed them. This highlander unit proceeded to charge the government horse, who were standing around (their activation card never appeared in time) and slaughtered them. So, yet again, I was not able to test the effectiveness of cavalry in the game. Meanwhile the government regulars were using volleys to inflict significant casualties on the remaining advancing highlanders.
Both sides had lost 50% casualties and were not in a position to force the issue, so I decided the game to be a draw. In this game, sergeants did help the government troops to reload and close order volley fire was effective. The highlanders were particularly aided by having the bard and piper characters.
My final game was using two Pirate factions (I forgot to take photos of the game). This game had more close combat than firing, because the unit composition was more varied i.e. each unit had a random mix of muskets, pistols and swords; rather than dedicated units of muskets etc. The firing of pistols prior to charging was highly effective. I think that the defenders should equally get to fire their pistols prior to close combat (I may make this a house rule). Due to the ‘mixed’ nature of the units, I introduced a random selection of which figures were casualties, which slowed the game down a bit. I also found it more difficult to keep track of the composition of units. There were no mounted troops involved, so I still don’t have a clue about how effective they may be. The pirate game worked fine, but lacked a distinct piratical feel that I was hoping for. I think I need to design additional elements to address this and the beauty of Donnybrook is that this is easily achieved.
So finally, what do I think of Donnybrook? Overall the rules are beautifully produced, fast, fun and easy to play. They are particularly suitable for solo games. They should be treated as a toolbox and players can (and should) modify them to suit their needs. I do feel there is too much padding in the rules, which adds little to the package and has, presumably, added significantly to the £27 price tag. I do feel the price is too high for a set of rules that are essentially so very basic. I would not mind if the padding encouraged me to undertake new projects, but on the whole it left me feeling rather flat. I can see myself using these rules for Jacobite rebellion, and possibly ECW. Regarding pirates, I will need to think a bit more on how much additional chrome needs adding to get the flavour I require. I think the authors should develop an online resource for period specific cards, and a downloadable QRS would be most useful.