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Battle Brothers, from Overhype Studios, is a game which, upon playing for the first time, my immediate reaction was to wonder how in the...

Early Access Preview: Battle Brothers Early Access Preview: Battle Brothers

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Games Reviews

Battle Brothers, from Overhype Studios, is a game which, upon playing for the first time, my immediate reaction was to wonder how in the world no one had made a game quite like this before.  It can somewhat be described as a mash-up of concepts from games like Mount and Blade, Darkest Dungeon, X-COM,  and Final Fantasy Tactics. If that gets your attention, by all means go buy the game right now, because you will love it. Come back and read this while it downloads.

The game puts you in command of what's left of a company of mercenaries, immediately following the death of your captain and most of your fellow mercenaries in an ambush. You start off with three decently equipped soldiers and a limited supply of funds. You then set out to make your way in a randomly generated world full of opportunities. Movement on the campaign map is very much like that of Mount and Blade, with your company represented by an icon traveling the world and encountering other groups of people, be they trade caravans, peasants, or bandits. Combat takes place in turn-based battles on a hex-based grid. I'll save a more detailed description of the gameplay for my review when the game is closer to release (there is one last big patch coming before then). Today I simply wish the regale you with the tale of my first campaign. 

Battle Brothers uses the "Busts of soldiers bumping into each other" art style. Which works nicely here.

Following the previously mentioned ambush and near annihilation of the Battle Brothers mercenary company, the survivors resolved to rebuild and hunt down the murderous bandits. Unfortunately, the only volunteers willing to join our force were a couple of bored villagers, the town drunk, and a vagrant or two. Fortunately, these men came cheap, leaving me with enough money to buy them some gear. Even a stone-cold mercenary captain can't send men into battle wearing tattered rags and wielding wooden sticks. He can't have his investments *ahem* loyal soldiers cut down in a single blow.

We had to travel to a larger village down the road to find better weapons for the men. This gave me time to get to know them better. Each man had a story to tell. Some were simply bored with the life of a peasant, feeling they were destined to travel the world and do something greater. Others were down on their luck after repeated misfortunes, and saw joining a company of mercenaries as a chance to climb out of the gutter. I sympathized with their tales, but, honestly, I needed warm bodies to fill the ranks and they were the best I could afford.

What happens when you bump into an orc raiding party before you are ready.

After assembling all the men and equipment I could afford with my starting funds, I returned to our previous employer who sent the company after those bandits in the first place. He would pay good money to have the bandit leader killed once and for all, and knew where the scumbag was hiding.

My rag-tag band tracked the bandits to their camp and moved in for battle. The ensuing chaos was almost too much for my untrained soldiers, but with superior numbers we were able to overwhelm the bandits and take out the leader. Sadly, he was able to cut down one of the original members of the company in the melee. Another man, the beggar from the village, was wounded so badly that he would never be the same with a sword or spear, but I still needed him in my fighting line until I could hire a replacement. Regardless, victory was ours, as well as the loot and payment that came with it. With these new funds I was able to hire and equip a couple of new men. I also treated the company to a round of drinks at the tavern to lift their spirits.

We were still a pitiful looking rabble, but we were able to find work escorting a convoy on a journey that would take a few days. I negotiated with the caravan master for some funds up front, and used that restock our food and medicine supplies. Along the way we were attacked by some roaming highway men, but came out victorious once again, though battered and bloodied by the fighting. After reaching our destination and getting paid, I decided to let the men rest for a couple of days. I also picked up a few more pieces of gear, including some real armor. Well, leather armor. Chainmail and plate was far beyond our current budget. 

The world map of Battle Brothers will be familiar to anyone who has played Mount and Blade.

Once everyone was healed up, we took another contract escorting a caravan back towards where we started out. This time there were no bandits. We were still paid in full, despite only marching for a few days. Now that's my kind of work. This pattern continued for a couple of weeks. Escorting caravans and tracking down thieves. Despite humble beginnings, my company was starting to come together. Most of the soldiers now had real weapons and armor, and some were becoming much more proficient at combat. I had also lost a couple of soldiers here and there, but each town along the road had its share of desperate men looking to join for one reason or another. Overall, things were looking good. My over-confidence would be my downfall.

Having gained a small reputation, we were offered a lucrative contract by a local lord. He wished us to go on a lengthy patrol of the roads to several nearby towns. We would be paid a moderate amount for this, but, more importantly, would also be paid a bonus for each bandit head taken along the way. The men buzzed at the thought of slaying every bandit we could find along the roads. 

The first leg of the patrol was uneventful. Not a bandit in sight. Myself and the men were disappointed. Our payday would hardly cover our travel expenses if the rest of the patrol went like this. Little did we know we were about to walk into the hornet's nest.

Our maps showed most of the surrounding area, but one uncharted region lay between us and our next destination. No matter, we were a company of killers at this point, and no bandit mob would be able to take us. Venturing into the unknown, we finally stumbled across some bandits. It was a small group, no match for the dozen men now under my command. We struck them down and moved on, looking for more victims. Another group appeared, slightly larger than the last. We fought a good fight and wiped them out, suffering only a few injuries. The men were giddy at the thought of the ever growing payment we would receive in a few days.

Yet another group of bandits appeared, just a handful, and we swooped in. To our shock, these bandits were not the usual mangy lot, they were real fighters and carried real weapons. This proved a tough fight, despite our 2:1 advantage in numbers. A couple of my men fell in the fighting, and more were wounded. We survived though, and could carry on. A little further and we would be out of this wild area. Then we saw it. An abandoned fortress turned into a bandit stronghold. That must have been where all the bandits were coming from. The lord who hired us would want to know about this.

Just before we cleared the uncharted area and made it to safety, another bandit party found us. This one was almost as large as our force, and was as well equipped as the last group we fought. We had to run, contract or not. Unfortunately, we could not run fast enough. The group caught us and surrounded my company in a forest. Attacked from all sides and hemmed in by trees, the men were unable to support one another. They fought valiantly, but were cut down one by one. In the end, every man on each side was dead or dying, save two. The last surviving member of my original company was still standing, a crossbowman who had saved the day more than once. With his last crossbow bolt he had cut down an axe-wielding bandit, but his luck ran out as another bandit rushed forward through the mangled corpses. My soldier pulled out his knife, all he had left to fight with, and stabbed uselessly at his well armored foe. Seconds later he was slain. My mercenary company was completely wiped out, just like that.

Battle Brothers promises to be one of the best strategy games coming out this year. It's got a bit of RPG, a bit of team management, and lot of tactical combat. The full game promises to have world shaping events and quests for your mercenary company to participate in, but the game is already a massive success in my eyes simply based on the core mechanics. It very much captures that feeling of freedom and choice that you get in Mount and Blade. Traveling around from village to village, recruiting men, buying equipment and supplies, ultimately creating a deadly fighting force. Except here it's done even better. Every soldier has a back story and individual stats, as well as special traits. Almost everything in the game uses procedural generation, but it doesn't feel like it.

I did not know very much about this game going in, having simply not seen it mentioned anywhere. However, I was completely blown away by my initial experiences. The game is still in early access, but is completely playable and feels very polished. Once it comes out the price will go up, so if you think you would like it at all I seriously recommend picking it up now.

Look for my full review in the next few weeks!

- Joe Beard

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BATTLE FOR STALINGRAD From the moment that I received Battle for Stalingrad [BfS], it's been an up and down experience. At...


For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Games Reviews


From the moment that I received Battle for Stalingrad [BfS], it's been an up and down experience.

At first sight it looks like a classic DVG game - the usual lovely glossy box in a dark and sombre black and steely blue with evocative illustration on the front.  But, wait a minute - Russian soldiers advancing down what looks like a vast, open road in the face of tanks in Stalingrad?  Close quarter combat, rubble, dodging in an out of buildings - well perhaps somewhere, at some point this empty boulevard might have been seen.  After all it's only atmosphere [isn't it?] - but, hang on, those Russian soldiers look nothing like any picture of  a Russian WWII soldier I've ever seen!  Tight-fitting, modern clothing and even more obviously modern helmets.  OK, suspend judgement for the moment.

What period did these soldiers come from?

Next the physical box itself.  Heft the box, much lighter and slightly shallower than usual.  Go on, open it.  Open it!  DVG boxes are noted for their quality and snug fit, so much so that they can be a bit tight to open, but this was a wrestling match.  I was seriously concerned that I'd damage the box and even now after repeated extractions, it's no easy matter to separate the two halves.  At last inside was ... a significant amount of empty space filled by a cardboard insert that nearly reaches the box lid, with a shallow, narrow trough down the centre containing three packs of cards, on top is one sheet of counters and a rule book.  A typical DVG rule book in quality of paper and lay out, but 8 pages of rules and 2 and a half pages of a sample game is amazingly brief.  A very slim rule book indeed.  No mounted board, no card displays.

This really is a departure from the expectations associated with most DVG games.  First of all it is 2 -player only, unlike the predominantly solitaire games that DVG are noted for.  Its components consist of a set of ten cards that give you famed locations from the Battle for Stalingrad, a small deck of Force cards for each player and a much larger deck of Action cards for each player too.  The single sheet of counters are Rubble and Ration markers and what look like a small number of control markers, but are in fact Heroic Medals, earned by destroying all the enemy forces in a battle and controlling the location; such a medal is awarded to one of your own unit cards to strengthen its abilities.

So far, so uncertain.  Next for the cards - DVG are good at getting cards right and these are as right as right can be.  Every single one of the 168 contains a reproduction of an historical photo.  Even considering that, where there is more than one of the same card [e.g. the five Russian reinforcement cards], the same photo is duplicated, the game is almost worth having just for the cards to look at!  Also, that road those reinforcements are motoring down is sooo wide I've got too revise my view on some of the box art too!

The broad boulevards of Stalingrad?

The ten terrain cards that you will be randomly choosing from to form your five target locations cover all the most famous sites: the Grain Elevator, Pavlov's House, the all-important high ground of Mamayev Kurgan, the Red Barricades Factory and so on.  In how many tactical games have I fought over Pavlov's House, but to actually have a photograph to aim for is something else. 

Every card tells a story - it's that house!

I particularly like the inclusion of the two airfields, Pitomnik and Gumrak, that were so important for German supply, especially the inclusion of Gumrak airfield [which now lies under part of Volgagrad International Airport] and was the last of the seven airfields to be retaken by the Russians.  Finally each of the 27 Force cards also has its own individual picture.

Another of my favoured locations.

One of my major concerns was the lack of any mounted board.  Instead, the layout of the cards forms the playing area in a five card by five card grid.  The top row is the Russian Perimeter Area and the next row is the Russian Control Area, the centre row is where you place five of the ten building cards randomly selected, the 4th and 5th rows mirror the Russian layout but this time for the German player.  If this sounds familiar, it will be if -like me -you possess the game, Hell of Stalingrad, published by Clash of Arms in 2009.

Obviously, this feature of the cards creating both the playing area and the forces involved has been used in many other games, especially the fantasy genre of games.  Here the format is at its simplest and slickest and the fact that it is so simple is not a criticism.  It means that the few pages of rules are quickly and easily assimilated and all the focus is on playing the game and not thumbing through endless pages to check.  Consequently, this is a game that can be put on the table after a considerable period of time and you'll still be ready for play almost immediately.

So, how does a typical game play out.  First randomly select your five objective location cards - obviously, if you wish to, there's nothing stopping you choosing your favourite locations. [Can't help wanting to sneak in Pavlov's House.]  The Russian player then selects 11 pts worth of Force Cards [costs range from 1 to 4] and places them in any of the Perimeter or Control zones.  As a player wins by controlling all five locations at the end of their turn and the German player will take their turn first, I would say that it's important that the Russian player mainly occupies Control zones.  The Russian player also draws 10 Action Cards.

One of the strongest of the German Force cards

Then the German player selects 9 pts of Force Cards and draws 5 Action Cards.  He/she then deploys their Forces in any of their Perimeter zones.  Each Zone can hold up to three Force Cards [except for Pavlov's House, where each side can field only one Force.]  It's especially important to remember that, when a Force Card is first placed, it has a specific number of Rations marked on the card that are placed with it.  These Rations fuel so much of what happens in the game and represent far more than the basic meaning of "ration". 

A typical starting lay-out

First of all, to move a Force from one location to another costs a Ration.  Each Force that wishes to attack must also spend one Ration.  As you can imagine your supply of rations will soon be depleted and a single fresh Ration token can be gained at the beginning of your turn by each of your Forces, only if it is in a Perimeter zone or controls a Location card.

There are a limited few other ways of gaining rations, such as playing a Raid Action card to steal 2 rations from the enemy to give to your own troops.  Played at the right time this can be a life saver or the means to put just that extra bit of pressure on the enemy.

A feature of the game that I find very appealing is the fluidity of your turn.  Movement, Combat, buying Force cards, playing Action cards can all be combined and repeated in any sequence you wish, Forces can be moved and fight and move and fight again.  All this is purely dependent on how far you wish to deplete your rations and Action cards. 

Equally important, and again I would consider it a strength of the game, is the variety of uses for the Action cards.  They can be played for their text or used to buy new Force cards; they are played in Battle to add to your Fire power or subtract from the enemy's Fire power.  It is the age old dilemma: you will want them for everything, but can only choose one use! 

One of the many Action Cards

A knowledge of the cards is important, but a couple of games should have you well aware of the range and potential.  On the Russian side, the six Action cards that relate to Operation Uranus will often play a significant role.  They all come with a play cost for the Russians, but with a far more powerful harmful effect on the German player which is permanent, unless the German player pays an even more painful higher cost to remove them from play.

One of six important Operation Uranus cards

Play at the right time can be crucial to Russian victory

Play balance has had some criticism, but the number of those who believe the Germans have a lock on winning seems about the same as those who think the Russians have a similar lock on winning.  So that's one sort of balance, in a way.  For myself, I'm perfectly happy, having had victories and defeats playing both sides.

Initially, I found the game rather repetitive and drawn out, but I would strongly recommend persevering, as I've found the game really has grown on me.  One of the reasons for this is the Combat system, one of the game's strongest elements.  It is highly interactive with both players able to continue to add in cards to increase their own fire or decrease their opponents.  When both players have ceased this exchange of fire, a final unknown Action card is turned up from each player's deck and its modifier applied.  This last minute uncertainty is an effective touch. 

It is rare for both sides not to take some losses.  The number of hits inflicted can be reduced by one for each ration that you are willing to spend and every unit that retreats from the battle to its rear Perimeter zone cancels another two hits.  Despite this, when faced with possibly about 15 hits, wiping out three enemy forces is certainly achievable.  Occasionally, both players may find their forces wiped out. 

While on the topic of combat, I would strongly recommend either downloading Nagato Fuyibashi's excellent little chart for tracking hits for both sides from the Battle for Stalingrad site on BGG or creating a simple one of your own.  It really does make remembering the numbers easy and the battles swift to play out.

For those who believe purely card based games are just about hand management, that may be how you will perceive this game too.  But give it a try.  As you desperately try to cling on to a position or throw the last few points on your Action cards into overwhelming the defence or when you cannot decide whether you can afford to abandon 6 rations in order to cancel a particular Operation Uranus card,  I hope you'll get the same sense of tension and narrative feel as I do from playing Battle for Stalingrad.


ONUS ! by DRACO IDEAS Like many others, I was struck and puzzled by the game's title, Onus .  I knew it as meaning a burden o...

Onus by Draco Ideas: Review Onus by Draco Ideas: Review

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Games Reviews


Like many others, I was struck and puzzled by the game's title, Onus.  I knew it as meaning a burden or duty or obligation.  Not perhaps the most exciting title, though I had my image, whether of noble Roman or valiant Carthaginian, marching forth to do my duty or carry out the obligation that the burden of fate had laid on my shoulders.  Word from the designer has provided an even humbler perspective.  Onus in Latin conveys the idea of the weighty physical load carried by the ordinary marching legionary -  a heavy burden indeed.  So, here I am, metaphorical pack on back, ready to slog it down the road to death or glory at Cannae or Zama. 

[OK, secretly, I'm still the great Hannibal, braving blizzards and perilous Alpine passes with my elephants, on route for glorious victory at Lake Trasimene and Cannae]

The first thing to lift my weary soldier/reviewer's spirits is sight of the small, colourful box that the game comes in - that's not going to add much to the weight of the digging tool, spare kit, cooking utensils etc...  But, as they say, good things come in small packets. What a compact little war chest is to be found when you get inside the box! 

The war chest, opened, punched, bagged and repacked

[apologies for the quality of my camera work]

Hold on there, I'm getting a bit carried away.  Before I delve further into the components, just a few facts about what the game is about and why I'm so delighted to be reviewing it.

Giving its full title Onus! : Rome Vs Carthage helps.  What another game/simulation of the Punic war?  I still have the original Avalon Hill edition of Hannibal : Rome v Carthage and Punic Island Vol III in the Campaign Commander series, as well as several scenarios in my Command & Colours : Ancients, as well as Battleground : Second Punic War and am currently awaiting delivery in the next couple of weeks of my Kickstarter copy of Hands In The Sea.  So, why was I so pleased to receive such a small footprint game on this historical period and theme?

Well, the obvious answer is that I love all that comes under the umbrella title of Ancients and the Punic Wars, especially Hannibal, elephants and Alps! [Sorry, no Alps in a tactical game - compromises do have to be made.]  But, more than that, I had tried and failed [computer glitches!] to pledge to Onus! on Kickstarter and here I was being offered the chance of a copy to review the very game I had so wanted. 

The next reason was because the game offers the opportunity to fight a miniatures style game without all the problems of buying figures, painting them and storing them along with all the necessary terrain.  [Admittedly, terrain for Ancients battles does tend to be more minimal than for other historical periods.]  Even more important was the impression I had got from the Kickstarter advertising that here was a simulation using miniatures based rules that was accessible and easy to understand and was physically appealing too.

My final reason was that Onus was the first game produced by Draco Ideas and I had already greatly enjoyed playing and reviewing for A Wargamer's Needful Things a composite copy [original Spanish edition with basic English translation of the rules] of their yet to be published English edition of 2GM Tactics.  So, my expectations were high and especially my expectations of the rule book.  As this was going to be the key element for me, I'm going to break my usual pattern of starting with what I think of as a written unboxing  and instead head straight to the rule book.

I had read substantially about the original Spanish edition's rule book and, I confess, the impression given was not a flattering one. 

If you've read my review of 2GM Tactics, you'll know that Draco Ideas went for a cartoonish style of art work and, as you can see from the front of this game box, which is identical to the cover of the rule book, the same influence was there from the beginning.

However, just like 2GM Tactics, Onus's rule book is anything but cartoonish.  Small in size, but with a wealth of depth, it is a wholly serious product.  Print remains on the very small size with every page providing fairly dense text layout, but the main question would be how clear and comprehendible  they are.  The original Spanish rules had come in for some heavy flack regarding tone, which was seen as too chatty, with poor organisation and lack of clarity.  With no ability to read Spanish, I cannot comment on the validity of these complaints. 

What I can happily say is that these English rules bear no similarity whatsoever to that less than adequate picture.  Either those original comments were inaccurate or an excellent job has been done on improving them for the English edition.  First of all, the organisation of the rules is wholly logical, taking us through Set-Up and how to read the information on the unit cards, General cards and Order/Event cards.  A brief Game Sequence is followed by detailed sections on Movement, Charges, Ranged Attacks, Melee, Morale, Flight, the End of Turn and Victory Conditions. 

All is rounded out with brief sections on 3/4 player sessions, Solo play, five Scenarios and a simple Campaign linking the five together.  A very useful page of Golden Rules and a Modifiers Summary on the back cover are a great help, though I must admit that I did need to copy the Modifiers Summary page and enlarge it for easy reading!  There is even a two page Simplified Rules section that strips play down to very, very bare essentials, which could be highly useful for drawing younger gamers into the hobby.

Still, providing an organised rule book shouldn't be too hard a task.
Slightly more difficult can be making sure that they can be understood and then executed with relative ease.  I have to say that my past experience of miniatures rules, whether in the form of purely a rulebook intended for use with figures or in a professional games format like this one, has not been a happy one.  Even the simplest end such as the Strategos set by Philip Sabin or his ravishing Lost Battles boxed game ultimately left me too often confused and uncertain.  Certainly, I never achieved a level were I could largely just get on with the enjoying the game and not have multiple interruptions to check things, a situation that left me dispirited.

Thankfully, I can say that the rules for Onus! are clear, easy to understand and eminently workable.  In particular, Movement and Charges [consistently the most difficult aspect of figure games rules] are well explained with good, picture-illustrated examples.  Because you are moving over a table-top, not a nicely regulated, printed hex grid, and using the traditional measuring stick beloved of figure gamers, there will always be potential  for some uncertainty and argument, but that lies more with the gamer than the rules!  

However, this is the first time I've been able to  easily understand and achieve such things as how to extend either or both wings of a unit or envelop the flank or rear of a unit.  Charge rules in many, many games are the most complex and often awkward to explain and satisfactorily carry out.  Chalk up another successful detail in this game. 

Having once sat watching two miniatures gamers with a sheaf of rules spend a whole 10 minutes resolving one single melee with percentages calculated  endless modifiers added and subtracted and a final result of no losses to either side, I was glad to find melee too works smoothly with both Attacker and Defender throwing the same number of dice  according to the number of sections in contact. 

That's not to say that Onus! lacks the necessary refinements to cover details such as the benefits of the aforementioned movement against the flank or rear, as well as Attacker formation, cavalry v infantry, the presence of a general, broken status, previous wounds inflicted and more.  When you add the ability to throw in the effects of an Event too,  I was more than satisfied with this feature of the game.

I was very well pleased too with the moderate, but appropriate range of modifiers associated with the Melee section and the overall ease of application so that they were soon second nature and rarely needed any reference to the quick summary sheet that forms the back cover. 

I realise that the Battleground system has trodden a very similar path already, but having tried very hard to master Battleground : Second Punic War, here are the main reasons that Onus! has succeeded for me, where the other failed.

The simplest point was the much greater detail and clarity of the rules.  Battleground is sketchy, brief and too often hard to understand.  Next was the fact that the Battleground unit cards have to be marked with a dry-wipe marker pen to change stats as the game progresses.  Personally, I dislike having to write on any game components [even if designed for that purpose] and it is all too easy, when doing so, to get the ink on other elements.  Above all, lifting the cards out of melee contact and returning them successfully in position is a nightmare.

In Onus! these problems are avoided by the simple use of marker chits and I was amazed by the quantity and quality that could be packed into such a small box.

Just a small sample of the range included

And more

And more

As you can see an impressive array and those are only a proportion of the total provided.  I'm still not sure how they've managed to include so much physical material and how it still fits in the box even when I've bagged it up.

On top of that you've got all the unit cards: 30 Roman, 30 Carthaginian and 30 mercenaries.

A typical Punic [Carthaginian] Phalanx

Here's an idea of the range of Punic [Carthaginian] units: Libyan Spearmen, Punic Archers and Cavalry, Lusitanian Infantry, Armed Civilians, Punic Infantry and, what else but ... Elephants!   These are opposed by all the familiar Roman troops: Hastati, Princeps,Velites, Triarii and two different types of Equites while the Mercenaries bring more exotic elements like Celtiberian Infantry, Balearic Slingers and Numidean cavalry, along with a range of missile throwing machines.

Though there are generals, they are sadly few, but famous.

Whereas the number of dual Order/Event cards is  a very satisfying 72 and apart from the variety this provides, their dual use adds in that dilemma of choice that you may becoming familiar with recognising as a game mechanic popular with me.

The typical instructions on the Order half [yellow heading] of the cards are strongly reminiscent of the Command and Tactic cards in the Command & Colours system.  As the battlefield is not divided into sectors, there are no worries about only possessing cards that relate to sectors where you have no units, though I have found occasionally that I have a hand of cards where most of my Orders aren't useful to activate units to move or fire!  As the rules suggest, it's well worth marking those units that you intend to activate and, for once, that is not a type of marker the game contains.  Personally, I tend to use a small die, simple, clear and easy to remove once the unit has been activated and most gamers have more than enough extra dice to hand!

The Events on the other half of the cards [blue heading] are nearly all applicable to Combat in some shape or form and I appreciate  what they often add to the narrative of the game.  Suddenly discovering that your vulnerable enemy suffering a ranged attack has benefited from a Take Shelter card and has become much harder to hit or that an attack against you is strengthened by an additional and unexpected ranged attack give a great deal of flavour to my gaming experience. 

Inevitably Onus! does not have the extreme rapidity of play found in a treatment such as the Command & Colours expansions that make up the Ancients line and, if you've read my review of The Great War, you'll know how much I do enjoy those games.  But I have been well rewarded with a more detailed system that gives the right feel and visual effect of fighting a miniatures battle at a fraction of the cost in money, time and effort that buying  and painting figures and then finding a rules set that didn't drive me to distraction would have been.

I now have to worry about my flanks, about manoeuvring and not being able to move through friendly units without the cost of breaking my own units.  I can take into account formation changes and the particular benefits of certain types of unit and all without disappearing under a mountain of rules.

I was even more fortunate that Draco Ideas generously included in their package to me the Desert Battle mat which greatly enhances play.  Here the Carthaginians advance beyond the village/city [depending on whichever battle you imagine you're playing].

This gives a close-up impression of said village/city. 

Apologies that my camera work doesn't do full justice to this.

I hope in the not to distant future to be able to report back on the first two Expansions:  Onus! Greeks Vs Persians and Onus! Scenery & Fortresses.

[Meantime, a trip to the Iberian peninsular with old long nose himself, Sir Arthur Wellesley, in Espana 20 : Bussaco & Talevera looks on the cards.]

ONUS! Rome Vs Carthage

Normal price £27 approx.

U-BOAT LEADER from DAN VERSSEN GAMES As hoped for, having soared to great heights gaining my pilot's wings over Vietnam in Phan...

U Boat Leader by DVG Games Review U Boat Leader by DVG Games Review

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Games Reviews


As hoped for, having soared to great heights gaining my pilot's wings over Vietnam in Phantom Leader, I have been allowed to sound the chilling depths of the North Sea and Mid-Atlantic with U-Boat Leader.  Having surprised myself with the amount of enjoyment I gained from an air war simulation, I had little doubt that a topic I have always liked, namely submarine warfare, would immediately appeal.  Being part of a series, I was not surprised to find that there are many similar features to both games.  But would that make for disappointment or would two totally different environments be capable of being successfully simulated by similar mechanics?  Before solving that key question, let's take the traditional peak inside the box at the physical components.

Once again quality stands high on the agenda ranging from the same deep strong box with its beautiful artwork, counters of even greater richness and thickness and visually first-class cards.  For me, the sombre brown, shading to sepia of the illustrations of ships seen through the periscope lens and the faded writing are perfect for conjuring up the period and ambiance of the game, but they may evoke different responses, especially if striking colour is more to your taste. 

What has definitely caused a degree of concern and complaint has been a number of significant production errors.  None of them prevent you from playing the game, but they do raise questions.  Above all, virtually all the cards depicting the surface ships [Merchants, Escorts and Naval] have been printed on the front as Merchants.  DVG has an excellent record on customer care  and they have been swift to reassure buyers that complete new decks will be supplied, but this will take at least a couple of months.

In the meantime, in practical terms of playing the game, this can swiftly be sorted out by comparing the ship counters with the cards and the correct three decks created.  But to save you time, the Escort cards are those numbered from 86 -100 and the Naval cards are those numbered 101-112.  The simple process of using sleeves with different coloured backs is a further quick way to make sure that you don't have to go through the process of sorting at the beginning of each game.  Having been a gamer since 1976, it's no big deal for me, but I can quite understand and sympathise with those for whom this is a very off-putting factor.

The problem seems to stem from the printers, but even more disconcerting is that the main play aid [labelled Help Sheet], which contains important rule sequences, wrongly contains the old Combat routine instead of the new 2nd edition ones.  Again the mistake can be easily overcome by referring to the rule book, but as one of the main criticisms of the 1st edition was the simplistic and unsatisfying Combat rules, there must have been considerable focus on this element.  So, this mistake really should not have been allowed to get through.  I'm hoping that like the cards this will be corrected for those who have already received the game, though so far I am unaware of any pronouncement from the company on this.

[This is the mounted board Help Sheet.  The incorrect Combat Sequence is in the bottom left corner and as you can see the central pile contains all the Escort cards wrongly printed as Merchant cards and to their right are the Naval cards, again, apart from the two I've put on top of the pile, wrongly printed as Merchant cards.]

These drawbacks will sadly deter some from ever buying the game and will cause many to justifiably wait until they are sure all has been put right.  However, my personal major disappointment is the Tactical Display Board on which all the direct action between submarines and the vessels that they encounter is performed.  As it stands, it looks the part, but small is definitely not to be considered good here.  This central focus of the game takes the form of a sonar display and the quadrants are barely large enough to hold more than two ship/submarine counters, as the picture below shows. 

the Tactical Display Board contained in the 2nd edition

Considering that in Phantom Leader [PH from now on] the equivalent board is twice the size and excellent in every respect, I was puzzled about this reduction.  Fortunately, I received, along with my review copy of the game, the U-Boat Leader and Gato Leader Ship Miniatures and Battle Board package.  As the Tactical Display Board in this expansion is exactly the size of the board referred to above in PH, I strongly feel that this should have been a basic part of the 2nd edition production.  It certainly transforms the whole experience - as the identical set up on the larger board [shown below] reveals.

the Tactical Display Board contained in 
the U-Boat Leader and Gato Leader
Ship Miniatures and Battle Board package

All that now follows establishes that both PH and U-Boat Leader follow similar effective paths in all other respects.  4 Campaign cards take us from the early years in The Battle Begins [Sept 1939 - May 1940] on into the Axis domination of The Happy Times [June 1940 - May 1941] and up to the period of parity and then the gradual British upturn in The Hunted [June 1942 - June 1943]. The fourth Campaign is, for me, something of an unknown sideshow taking us to the Caribbean and the American coast in Operation Drumbeat [Feb 1942 - June 1942].  I'm not sure whether this was an eye to the American market, though Gato Leader which takes us to the Pacific war with American submarines will certainly satisfy that desire.

My first four submarines set up ready to start
 a Short version of The Happy Times Campaign

Each Campaign contains the ability to play at Short, Medium and Long length.  The length of campaign determines the number of SOs [Special Operation] points that you receive and the number of patrols each submarine must make.  SOs are mainly used to buy your submarines.  In PH your aircraft was designated by its call sign [e.g. Digger]: in U-Boat Leader, each submarine has an historical U-boat commander's name on the card.  I liked the call signs and feel that being able to sally out with such characters as Gunther Prien makes play even more immersive.  You can buy each submarine card at one of four levels, Green to Ace, as against the six levels of pilot in PH.

Above are the cards for those first four submarines.

If you have your own copy of PH or have read my review of that game, you will quickly see that U-Boat Leader is marginally simpler and easier to play at each stage that I'm now going to take you through.

The Strategic Segment especially is much quicker than the equivalent procedures in PH.  Choose your submarines and spend the few SOs you may have kept back after putting your submarine group together on such things as Special Missions such as Raider or Air Searches and Supply ships.  That's more or less it.  There is none of the lengthy deliberation on what types of ammunition and missiles you need, as each sub card tells you how many torpedoes you have in store and ready loaded and whether it has a gun capacity for surface firing.  Torpedo capacity may vary, but all subs with guns get 6 potential shots!  Place your subs in whatever ports are available and you're ready to sail on to the Operational Segment.

Close up of the submarines in port ready to sail
in the Operational Segment on the Campaign map.

To my surprise I rather missed the more complex decision making of PH.  On the other hand, I did like being able to get down to the action quicker and here there is a major difference, as your U-boats have an Operations Segment where each moves individually on the Campaign map from sea area to sea area drawing and resolving Event cards as they do so.  Though a simple process, I like the extra dimension of deciding how far you're going to move and finding out what happens as you keep pressing on.

When you have moved all your subs, you then change to the Tactical Segment and once more sub by sub roll to see if you make contact with the enemy.  The possibility is from zero to three contacts, with each contact giving you the opportunity to draw a Convoy card.   When you have drawn a Convoy card reduce the Contact marker by one.  The size and composition of the convoy may vary and, if you don't like what you see you can always decide to abort that encounter.

A close up of the Tactical Display with two Merchants identified.

One has taken damage, the other so far is unscathed.

If you do decide to tackle the convoy, then in some cases you may be able to form a wolfpack, if you have chosen to move more than one sub to the same sea area and the pickings look particularly rich.
With the Convoy card accepted, you set out the enemy ship markers according to their positions on the Convoy card.   Often there will be a number of merchant ships with one or two escorts, on the Tactical Display.  As yet your targets are unidentified and so their markers are those with question marks on.  Then you  place your sub/s on the outer most ring of the display.

You move your subs one space if submerged and two on the surface, while very simple and easy mechanics govern the movement of enemy ships.  As these come within range, you'll draw an appropriate card which will identify the ship and you will place its named marker on the display.  This whole part of the game is engrossing with all relevant features taken into account through very accessible rules.

And so the heart of the game is under way.  Decisions, decisions!  The element I always appreciate in a game.  Attack on the surface, so that you can use your gunnery as well as torpedoes and become a more easily identified target by any Escorts.  How many torpedoes to launch at one target to improve your chance of hitting?  How do you react to being attacked?  Always loved Silent Running and Crash Dives in warfare?  They're both simple options that you can go for.

At this point the following familiar and in most cases identical elements from PH kick in.  Your subs indicated on their card as aggressive fire first, then the enemy and then cautious subs. OK and Shaken status play their part as does Stress.  The different hit numbers on the enemy ships determine the amount of damage your die roll inflicts on them, up to and including sinking them outright.

What has greatly improved the game is the introduction of damage chits to be drawn randomly for the enemy attacks on your subs.  Overall, this works very, very well, with only one slight concern on my part and that is the almost nil chance of Merchant ships inflicting damage and the seeming lethality of Escorts. 

It does mean, of course, that you try to keep the Merchant ships between you and the Escorts, but as the Escorts can both sail through and fire through the Merchant ships, this isn't too easy.  I must admit that here I feel that a house rule might come into being for me, limiting the ability of Escorts simply ploughing straight through the Merchant ships.  As things stand at the moment, once the Escorts start firing, it's time for my subs to cut and run to fight another day.

Once your subs are off the display, that particular encounter is finished and there is the opportunity to reload torpedoes and attend to other housekeeping elements.  However, it does not necessarily mean that your current sub is finished with.  If you still have a Contact level remaining you may draw another Convoy card and the Tactical cycle begins again or if you have an enemy ship on the verge of sinking you can spend a Contact point, fire off a torpedo or gun if on the surface to guarantee that it does settle beneath the waves and add to your VP and Experience point tally.  These ideas get another thumbs up from me. 

Just some of the high quality counters contained in the game.

This continues until all your subs have been activated or you do not want to activate any more.  However, all is still not quite done, as you still have to return to a port passing through the sea areas necessary to do so and drawing Event cards as you do so.  This constitutes one Patrol.  Finally, you reach the Refit Segment with such items as promotion of U-boats if gained, Stress recovery and torpedo reloads.   If playing a Short Campaign, you'll now determine the success level, as your subs only undertake one Patrol; if a Medium or Long Campaign, you will prepare for another Patrol and off you go again. 

All these elements are handled in the rule book with excellent clarity and in the appropriate logical progression familiar from DVG's solitaire games.   Components are clearly explained, as are all the different cards, followed by the Set Up instructions.  Next come the rules for the various Segments I've talked you through, a short historical section on different types of U-boats and a very helpful three page example of play.  This latter part is standard in all the DVG games I've played and is thankfully becoming a feature of other companies' rulebooks.

In terms of game play, I can thoroughly recommend the experience of playing U-Boat Leader and would suggest that it is an easier starting point than the many solitaire air warfare games produced by DVG.  For those of you who are hesitant because of the production problems needing to be rectified, you could always move straight to Gato Leader, which covers the Pacific war from the periscope lens of the American subs.  Hence the title. 

Obviously, the appeal is solidly aimed at the US market, but everything in the box is spot one with none of the slip-ups to be corrected in U-Boat Leader.

As the only difference in the rules are very, very minor, a separate review would be a pointless repetition and so, I hope, in a few weeks' time to take you instead through a detailed AAR of a Short length Campaign from play of Gato Leader.  Until then, beware the enemy above!


13 DAYS THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS FROM ULTRA PRO via JOLLY ROGER GAMES I would love to be able to write this review without...

Review: 13 Days The Cuban Missile Crisis Review: 13 Days The Cuban Missile Crisis

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I would love to be able to write this review without referring to Twilight Struggle, but as the designers themselves heralded it as Twilight Struggle [hereafter TS] in 45 minutes that's not going to be likely.

There are plenty of other reasons too.  Victory determined by who has gained most Prestige at game end, a Defcon track and the possibility of a player losing by triggering nuclear war; playing a hand of cards each turn and each card playable for either its events or placing influence; an abstract board to represent the areas to be influenced.  The Cuban Missile Crisis - one card in TS : a whole game in 13 Days. Nuff said - mini-TS or TS-lite?  Thankfully, it's better and worse than that.

To start with, it has a much smaller footprint.  The board is a mere 11 x 16 inches and though a map of the world hides mutedly in the background, the superimposed, large, rectangular boxes where the fight for influence takes place transforms the experience into a much more abstract form, especially  as three of the boxes aren't countries, but Television, United Nations and Alliances.  Calling these battlegrounds [however metaphorically true that might be] stretches my ability to sink myself into the atmosphere.

To be honest, atmosphere is what I think the board lacks and in that respect is much inferior to TS, but, like most CDGs, the cards are the main creators of the ambience.  In this case, a deck of 39 Strategy cards, 13 Agenda cards and one card titled Personal Letter [in effect the classic Advantage card which gives a bonus of one cube, when played alongside a Strategy card] which the US player possesses at the beginning of the game.  The Strategy cards are the key ones being illustrated with photos taken from the period, some of which I distinctly remember from T.V. news broadcasts and newspapers of the time, such as the meeting between JFK and Kruschev and most disturbing of all the shot of the ship carrying the said "Cuban Missiles".

By comparison the Agenda cards are disappointingly bland with either icons from the Defcon track or representations of faded map pictures.  Overall the quality of all the cards is adequate, but of a distinct thinness that does need sleeving, especially if, as a quick-playing game, it does get many plays.

The rest of the contents are a set of 17 small wooden cubes for each player in their respective colours of blue and red to mark influence in the battlegrounds, six wooden discs to chart Defcon status,  a yellow disc to mark the score on the  Prestige Track and a black disc to mark the turn and finally six small cardboard flag counters to be used each turn to indicate each player's Agendas drawn.

The rules are a small booklet of 9 pages for the rules themselves and 12 pages of a complete play through of a whole game.  That can be achieved as the game lasts a mere 3 Rounds with 4 card plays in each Round.  Yes, that's it; 12 Strategy cards are played by each side in the game.  In this respect, it is TS very, very, very lite!  But, more about those Strategy cards later.

Below is a picture of the board set up at the beginning of the game.

It shows the playing board with the 9 Battlegrounds: 3 Political [green], 3 Military [orange] and 3 World Opinion [purple] and the Defcon track [seen in greater detail below].

Unlike TS, the Defcon track has three columns to indicate how placing influence in the battlegrounds affects the respective Political, Military and World Opinion status.

The bottom of the Defcon track is printed with the starting positions of each players 3 coloured discs and if the resolution was good enough you'd see that they all start in the Defcon 3 zone.  Things have already hotted up before the 13 Days start.  If any single disc is still in the Defcon 1 zone in Phase 7 : Check Nuclear War that player loses, but what's worse a player can also lose, if all three of his/her discs are in the Defcon 2 zone in Phase 7 : Check Nuclear War.  This is a game that is very easy to lose, as each Round all discs move up one square on the table and every time you place cubes in one of the Battlegrounds on the map the relevant marker on the Defcon track moves up the number of cubes placed minus 1.  So, place three influence and you shoot up two squares on the appropriate track..

For me this is one of the best and well crafted mechanisms in the game.  It places you on the horns of a huge dilemma.  A major way to gain Prestige to win the game is from tallying the difference between the number of each player's cubes in a Battleground or the difference between the number of spaces of each player's discs on the Defcon track.  You have to place cubes in order to gain winning Prestige, but at the same time you are pushing yourself up the Defcon track towards potential defeat!  Lovely twist.

However, there is another twist that relates to the three Agenda cards [yellow-backed] each player draws at the beginning of each Turn.

just two of the Agenda cards

First the player uses his/her flags to mark on the board the  areas the three Agendas relate to, but only one of those three will be secretly chosen by each player and only the chosen ones will score Prestige points.  Again this feature of the game is a major one; it signals where a player's interests may be focused for this turn and allows for some degree of bluffing to try to misdirect your opponent from your target agenda.  Also, it is perfectly possible that your opponent ends the Round having been the more successful in fulfilling the conditions of the Agenda card and so gains the Prestige points instead of you.  Best of all you have to take that decision before you know what five Strategy cards you will be using to implement your choice.

This may not be to everyone's liking.  I can imagine some gamers, especially those who prefer absolute control to the vagaries of fate, would have preferred to make their choice of which Agenda card to be their chosen goal after seeing what cards they had to work with.  For myself, I love having to craft a plan out of what the draw has dealt me and in that respect 13 Days seems closest here to what I enjoy in TS.

three of the leading protagonists in the drama of history

First of all, in the deck of 39 strategy cards, each player has 13 in his colour and there are 13 United Nations cards.  With so few cards played, every single one is crucial and many of the dilemmas familiar in TS will be yours in 13 Days.  Each card has an Event and the number of cubes you can place or remove. These work in identical fashion to the War cards in TS.  If you play a card that is of your own colour, you have the choice of playing the Event or placing or removing from one Battleground on the map up to the number of influence cubes shown on the card.  If it is a United Nations card, you have exactly the same choice.  But if the card has your opponent's Event on it, your opponent has the choice of playing the Event [notice he/she can decline to play the Event] and then you place or remove up to the number of Influence cubes.

If you have been doing your maths, five Strategy cards drawn each turn and four played, what happens to the fifth card each turn?   This is the last of the important, innovative elements in the design.  That last card is placed face down in the Aftermath Location at the bottom of the board and provides the final whammy at game end.  The six cards are a final additional Prestige scoring - if the card is a Russian red one,  the number of cubes on it are added to the Russian player's score, if a blue  American card the number of cubes on it are added to the American player's Prestige, if a United Nations card nobody gets any Prestige points. 

You're probably thinking why on earth would a player not put a card of his colour in the Aftermath pile.  Well, it's a bit like the Space Race in TS, perhaps you had a card with an opponent's Event that at a critical point you just did not dare to play.  What can you do with it?   Bury it in the Aftermath pile and cross your fingers.

Obviously the decisions are more limited because, if you do not choose to play the card for its Event, there are only two things you can do either [1] add your cubes to a Battleground  or [2] remove them from a Battleground and there will be many occasions when you must simply take that negative choice of taking them away.  Why? Because it is the only way you can move one of your Defcon markers down the track and away from possible defeat!  However, you will find the action allowed by many of the Events to be especially useful, as they often modify basic rules in advantageous ways.

Before giving you my conclusions on this game, I need to mention the last item in the game box, namely the historical booklet which provides a concise  picture of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the significance of Berlin, Italy and Turkey which explains why all three are battlegrounds in the game, as well as a good explanation of the history behind all the Strategy cards.  For such a small game, this is an elegant addition and one I much appreciated.

So, fewer choices, fewer cards, fewer Rounds than TS, but always, always difficult, critical decisions and enjoyable absorbing play.  It may be a fairly quick game to play, but it is no filler, as I first thought it might be before I played the game.  Every game has been tense with all our attention focused unremittingly on the situation on the board.  Every card play is like a subtle fencing match with genuine opportunities for misdirecting your opponent

I have no hesitation in urging you get this in your collection.  It is an excellent design and exciting gaming experience that I know I shall play over and over again.

To find your nearest retailer in the UK or Europe who stocks 13 Days please click HERE

RRP £34.99