Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Dark Age Rules Mechanics

The latest instalment of our Dark Age campaign set around fifth century St Albans turned out to be a crushing victory for the Saxon warlord, Cyddic. I thought I’d use this Blog Post to mention a bit more about the rule mechanics which we have been play-testing rather than inflict yet more dodgy poetry on you.

The game was a fairly straightforward scenario. Cyddic, a Saxon warlord recently migrated to Britain, has seen an opportunity for plunder and pillage in a small village to the north of St Albans. A recently constructed church has attracted his eye and he has determined that terrorising the faithful and impugning their God is a good way of attracting more mercenaries and warriors to his particular brand of colonisation. So yes, Cyddic is an evil man, but you should read what the monastic chroniclers are saying about him ...

Anyway - on to the game ...

The Saxons were tasked with raiding the newly constructed church, finding any buried treasure, and then escaping with their loot to their feasting hall. They entered on the south of the table, and had to exit from the south of the table. The entry of the Romano-British warband, keen on defending the church, was determined randomly. As the game was a raid, we rationalised that many of the formalities, or rituals, or battle – such as inspiring speeches, consultation of pagan omens, blessings from wandering saints – would be absent. We had a hasty assemblage of forces on the table pressing forward into a fight, as opposed to formal lines of spears an shields goading each other before combat starts.

Although there are missile troops on both sides, these do not tend to play a decisive role in battle – their goal is to irritate, to channel enemy forces and to inflict wounds on the enemy. They engage in a ranged combat when their card is drawn, but melt like frost on a spring morning when contacted by their foes.

That leaves the bulk of the action to be fought in close quarters by warriors. These are led by Big Men, being local lords, nobles, or officers (for the Romano British). The movement of a Big Man is determined by card-draw from a card deck, with each Big Man moving when his personal card is drawn. There is no card signalling the ending of a turn – the “Tea Break” or “Time for a Snifter” card in other TooFatLardies rules. This reflects the general absence of a distinction between close and ranged combat, as well as being more appropriate for a smaller game.

The clever thing I like about Richard’s approach to the rules is that he has married the card-draw mechanic with a second card deck, the gloomily but colourfully named “Fate Deck”. The idea behind the Fate Deck is a way of influencing combat and movement outside of the main card-deck. Cards in the Fate Deck can convey a number of advantages – they can interrupt play (a Big Man stepping forward to take his turn immediately), can help a unit move further, can give a bonus in combat, allow a rally, or permit an evade move. Such features could have been built into the main card-deck, but giving players Fate Deck cards in their hands so that they can choose to interrupt or influence play makes things very flexible.

Accordingly, as a player, you need to have eyes on the table at all times – this is because some of the Fate Deck cards are best deployed as a “trump” to other cards. Woe betides anyone nipping to the kitchen for a glass of mead when combat starts.

So far so good. We then tried to add on some additional features in the Fate Deck without adding more cards. Inspired by the card mechanics in boardgames like “Paths of Glory”, “Labyrinth” and “Wilderness War”, we tried to add in optional features which augment the deployment of a card from the Fate Deck. So, some cards can be played in suits (of ravens or dragons). Some cards have a dual use at the end of the game to assist pursuit or facilitate escape; holding such cards forces a player to make a choice as to whether to play the card or hold it for later. The only requirement in designing the additional features was to try and focus attention of the players at all times on the tabletop – we consciously tried to avoid the Fate Deck being focused towards the campaign game or towards events off-table (so no “strategic deployment” features, Paths of Glory fans).

I’ve always loved games-within-games, where players can play the main wargame but also have something interacting with the game and drawing their attention at a different level. Hopefully the Fate Deck mechanisms reflect that.

That’s really about it. The combat flows pretty smoothly once the interaction between the card deck and the Fate Deck is familiar. The battles are not large – 70 figures a side is more than enough. Games play in under two-hours. Combat is bloody and decisive, but not (to my mind) overly so.

Above all, the games are entertaining and fun. I know Richard’s done a lot of reading on the subject, so I’m making an educated guess that they’re as near to being historical as it is possible to get to. Perhaps more importantly, at least to me, they seem to have the “feel”, sound, rasp and smell of the Dark Ages. And, at the end of an evening’s gaming, that’s really what I was looking for after all.

Next up, I’ve a sub-Roman villa almost finished which is based on the large villa complex found at Yewden in Buckinghamshire. It’s about two-thirds done, but more about that next time. Until then, here’s a sneak peek, although as yet without the central roof and without the pantile roofs I've ordered !


  1. Very nice photos and and interesting review of this game. I've not played any games before that mix card decks with wargames but it seems to be a growing popular option in wargames (I'm thinking of IABSM by Two Fat Lardies as an example).

  2. Well explained and made sense to me which is saying something and looks like the rules mechanics could be picked up by most players quite easily...

  3. Very interesting??? Are the rules from TFL, or is it a derivative of their core rules?

    1. It's a full TFL rules set but still in testing process

  4. Excellent post and overview of the rules. They sound great!

  5. Thanks for the post. I continue reading about Dark Ages, in the Isles and in Iberia, as I have limited time to paint now. Any idea about when the rules may be published? I know that's almost impossible to guess with Richard, but he seems very much focused and committed

  6. Thanks Guys. It's always very welcome to get comments.

    @Lee - yes, mixing cards with a wargame is getting increasingly popular. I think it's a good way of building into the game some unpredictability, without breaking the mechanics.

    @Angry - Thank you. Certainly hope you get to try a game of them sometime.

    @Ray - Hi there, Ray. As Benito mentioned, the rules are going to be from TooFatLardies, authored by Richard Clarke. It will be a full rule-set, with a campaign game. It's similar to the other TooFatLardies core-rulesets as regards basic mechanics, but Richard's added quite a number of novel and interesting features which I hope people will enjoy.

    @Arlequin - Thanks very much. I had your blog posts in mind when I was talking with Richard about the rules mechanics and development. They were very interesting indeed.

    @Phil - Thanks very much!

    @Benito - As for a publication date for the rules, I don't know. I think as regards the rule mechanics, they're almost there. However, the formatting usually takes a while. I'm guessing April (but please don't shoot me if I'm wrong!)

  7. Sidney, thanks, I'm quite flattered they were of use.

    Having read some more on the topic though, I'm embarrassed to say that in some respects my conclusions were both riddled with errors and a touch naive perhaps. Largely the information related to the last part of the 'Dark Ages' and seems to produce much larger forces than might have been common in the 5th, 6th and 7th Centuries.

    I'm currently working on a 6th/7th Century setting for my own games based for the rules you're play-testing, with revised notes on the forces involved. I'm hoping to get it on the blog before the end of this week.

    Essentially though, from what I can gather from your's and Rich's posts, the 'army' sizes you both seem to be working with are just what I'd expect low-ranking war leaders to have (perhaps even smaller for those starting out). The concept of expanding the numbers by success and reputation is spot on too imo.

  8. Thanks for the interesting preview Sidney. Look forward to these being released. and try them out. Should be good fun as all other TFL rules. If there is one thing I like about TFL rules is their card driven mechanics.

  9. I recently gave the playtest rules a spin (report on the TFL mailing list) and have to soundly "me too" just about everything Sid writes here. Well thought out, lots of fun, and oozes 'story'.

  10. Great looking figures and super report! I'm very happy to hear the figure count isn't through the roof!


  11. Very nice looking game !

    Interesting to read about play test of a new set od DA rules. Like IABSM so I probably like these to:)

    Best regards Dalauppror


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