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 SONG FOR WAR FROM INVICTA REX Song for War came to my attention some time back when seeing it mentioned in ZillaBlitz's list of top te...







Song for War came to my attention some time back when seeing it mentioned in ZillaBlitz's list of top ten games, even though it hadn't even been launched on Kickstarter.  After his later videos unboxing and playing through some turns I was sold on this game enough to contact Chris Helm at Invicta Rex.  This led initially to a transatlantic phone call and then a session discussing and playing Song for War with Chris and his fellow designer, Seth Stigliano, on Tabletopia!
There is a lot to unpack both literally and figuratively.  The setting is the whole Mediterranean theatre of WWII presented in an area map painted in some of the richest and most dynamic colours, whether land or sea.  It is eye-poppingly stunning and clear, but clear! The land masses stand out dramatically against the sea areas which are themselves striking, both in changes of colour and in the scattering of depth numbers.  Though the latter play no functional part in game play, they add to the feel of you as supreme commander, pouring over just this sort of operational/strategic map in your nation's war room.

The whole shebang- map, units, markers etc...

Next up are the units - which explains the game's serious heft factor. That's because the proto-type units are wooden with images of the units pasted on.  The final components will remain solid wood pieces, but with even more sumptuous silk-screen printing.  There is a magnificent range, covering various types of ships, aircraft and land units.  Here too the colours are strikingly bold: Germans in red, Italians in yellow, British in blue and US in green.  Not exactly conventional, but you certainly won't confuse them and the whole effect of map and counters is amazing.  You just can't wait to be manoeuvring your units around on this stunning vista.

A closer look at just a small number of units
As you can guess from the four nations, this can accommodate from two to four players.  Perhaps too, because of the desire to accommodate four players, one of whom will be the US, the time span of the main Scenario [6 Turns] is from just before the landings for Operation Torch in November 1942, while a second shorter scenario [4 Turns] starts in April 1943.  Personally, there's more than enough action here to satisfy me with either time span, but the lack of an earlier starting date has been a disappointment for some. My initial thought was that with the physical components at your disposal, I imagined enterprising aficianadoes would be hot on the trail of self-designed preludes.  However, having met the designers, albeit via online video, I'm not surprised that they're already responding by working on just such earlier scenarios.  

More of the stunning counters and map design
To return to those four players, you'll be playing as two teams of two cooperative players.  That in itself appeals to me, because like many other aspects of this game it adds to the sandbox element of the game's concept and intention.  Player personality may definitely exert an influence here.  Will your co-nation player be an accommodating partner or will the sort of historical rivalries that bedevilled Allied relationships raise their head, as each of you thinks they know best how to pursue this war. 
It's worth emphasising the sand box nature of this game that I've just mentioned.  This game will only go down an historical road if all the players choose to follow it.  This is NOT a game scripted by its rules to pursue a largely defined historical path.  In fact, some of its most innovative elements will, I think, lead you in the opposite direction. 
British ships in deadly danger from Italian forces

Song for War's conception certainly visually has roots back in the designers' younger days playing Axis and Allies and conversation with them confirmed that, but in all respects they have equally achieved their goal to produce something richer and deeper and truly innovative. They've also succeeded in producing a system that is both highly interactive, while retaining a high fun-level factor - an element that has been singled out by all the enthusiastic video reviewers. 
Before moving on to explore the overall system in more detail, I'd like to take you through some of the details regarding the final finished product.  What you already see in the prototype is stunning in its own right, what you will get in the released game will be even more so.

The map from the Axis perspective
First of all that gorgeous map will be mounted in two sections, each of six panels combining to form a 54"x 31" playing area.  The majority of the many [475 to be precise] units will be  silk-screened on painted wooden pieces, while the 24 unique pieces will be in 3D plastic.  The hidden fleet dials will be cardboard fastened by a plastic rivet and each of the four nations will have a very solid Play Aid detailing all the relevant information for each unit.  Victory objective markers will also be wooden and each nation has a small deck of National Support cards.  Finally the Rule Booklet is a substantial full colour print measuring 330mm x 330mm.
All this, even in its prototype form, was enough to do more than get my attention.  Added to this were the extensive playthroughs on YouTube presented by reviewers and the designers themselves.  However, the absolute certainty that I wanted this game was cemented by having the opportunity to explore directly the system via Tabletopia with the two designers, Chris and Seth, and discuss with them their intentions and the background to the game and its design.
The British Play Aid

At first sight, each game Turn [called Stages] appears fairly conventional and consists of four Phases.  
Phase One : Tactical
Phase Two : Victory 
Phase Three : National Support
Phase Four : Resupply
Phases 2 - 4 are very swift to execute.  
Victory Phase 
This is the simple observation of the VPs  racked up this turn by each of the two sides, Axis and Allied.  These are scored for a variety of Objectives and the total will be visually recorded by wooden tiles which are placed against  a printed scale on the edge of the map.  No need to do even the simplest of addition.  The linear placement of these tiles will always record exactly what the score is at any point in the game. Both sides have totals which, if achieved, immediately win the game.
National Support Phase  
At the beginning of this Phase, each nation will draw 2 cards from their individual deck of National Support cards and will also be given a very small number of National Support tokens which they can spend to buy these cards.  Tokens may be saved from Stage to Stage and the cards cover four categories -  Strategy, Unit Upgrades, Unique Units and Events.  All of these will impact play either temporarily or in the long term.  It's for you to decide which cards to buy  and when you play them.  Plenty of decision making and flavour here.
The distinctive backs of each Nation's National Support Cards

Resupply Phase
Each nation gains supply points from the Objectives they control and can purchase new units with them.  The rules for this Phase are still simple, but a step up from most games, as each Objective is rated for Land, Sea and Air supply and obviously you can buy only the appropriate type of unit with its corresponding supply type.  Add to that the additional effect on your supply of controlling shipping lanes on the map and you can see just one significant way the designers have sought to create a much more detailed and realistic game, with simple, clear rules.
Tactical Phase
Though the first Phase in each Stage, I've kept it for last, as it is the heart of the game, will occupy most of your playing time and contains all of the most innovative elements of this game.  The designers' goals were to achieve a highly interactive system with little downtime that would appeal to a wide range of gamers.

The table showing all Movement steps and all Combat steps

Here is how they have achieved their goals. The first, and in my view, most significant decision was to divide the Tactical Phase into six separate Movement steps, with some lighter, faster units [e.g. fighters] having the ability to move [and potentially attack] in more than one of the Movement steps.  To explain further I shall outline play in Stage 1.
Being an odd numbered Stage, the two Allied Nations go first.  [On even numbered Stages, the Axis go first.] So they perform Movement Step 1- fighters and submarines move and as they move into an enemy occupied area they place a Combat marker and then resolve any legal attacks in the order shown on the Combat steps side of the table above.  Any defending enemy units that can legally fire do so.  This combat is simultaneous and as in many games, Combat is only mandatory when entering an area solely occupied by enemy units; on entering a contested area it's optional. 
Next the Axis nations repeat exactly what the Allies did - moving their fighters and submarines, marking where combat must occur and both sides performing eligible fire simultaneously. Each of the first five Movement steps follows this identical pattern creating an exceptionally highly interactive system of movement and combat.  
Movement step 6 is different, as all aircraft simply return to eligible bases or aircraft carriers.  Beware moving aircraft moving in earlier turns and being out of range of bases to return to.  Beware even more the enemy capturing your base/s!
This intertwining of Movement and Combat is, as far as I'm aware, the unique design concept and one that has been developed to make play engrossing and above all a fun experience. Inextricably part of this is the equally innovative handling of Combat.  Virtually all units are divided into one of three categories of Firepower shown by a colour code: blue, yellow or red. Similarly, each unit will also be designated as belonging to one of three defensive Armour colours; once again blue, yellow or red.  This hierarchy of colour from blue to red runs from weakest to strongest.  So a unit of blue Firepower can only hit a unit of blue Defence armour, whereas a unit of yellow Firepower can hit units that have either yellow or blue Defence armour.   To make this system even easier to operate, there are matching blue, yellow and red dice.  In among this are a very, very few special units that have the greatest strength and these are coded black!!  A further look at the British Player Aid below shows that for this nation blue and yellow predominate.

Every single piece of information needed is to be found on this one Player Aid for each nationality.  Movement, Armour type and Firepower type along with a variety of symbols that tell you what type of units you can attack, any special abilities that the units possesses and the cost to buy the unit in the Resupply Phase.  Consequently, each of your units simply displays a very familiar identifying image and an equally familiar lettered designation e.g. a tank symbol and the letter T.  The final item of information on the Player Aid is each unit's Firepower hit number.  No complicated combat charts, just a simple "to hit" number - roll equal or higher on a 12-sided dice and you've scored a hit.  Another factor I welcome wholeheartedly in the Combat system is that normally a unit can only fire on units that are of the same or lesser Defence colour as the Attacking unit's Firepower colour.  However, a neat addition allows two units of the same Firepower to defer their attack until the very last step of Combat in order to fire on a unit whose Defence Armour is one colour level higher 
Alongside these broad, overarching, distinctive elements of the system are some additional simple features either not generally found in most war games or here given greater definition without greater complexity of rules.  These include features such as: units when moving can attempt pass-through movement at the expense of suffering a simple defensive die-rolls; and more nuanced distinctions between eligible targets   

An area marked for Combat
[note the black marker indicates the Axis are the Attackers]

Only one area has raised a question and that is solo play and, in particular, the lack of a designed solo system.  As a gamer who began in the fairly early days of the hobby, when approx. 75% of gamers played entirely solo for lack of anyone else, the simple and only solution was play both [or even multiple sides] to the best of your ability.  All I would say for Song for War is that virtually everything that makes its system so innovative and special - namely its high degree of interaction, multiple simple steps, multiple avenues of movement and multiple paths to capturing the crucial Objective areas - make a solo system either impossible or would produce an A.I. that would remove the very fluidity, variety and flexibility that is the heart of this game.  I, for one, will happily want to explore this game solo playing all sides as best I can, while seeking every opportunity to play it with all number of potential players, whether two, three or four. 

A final look at the whole picture 
Behind the qualities of this game are the co-designers and producers of this game, Chris and Seth, who have been incredibly generous of their time in discussing and allowing me to share in game play with them and readily respond on the various internet platforms to all questions and suggestions.

So to sum up, here are the key factors that make me consider this game an absolute must-have.