After months of eager anticipation, I had a chance to try out the new Swordpoint rule set this weekend at Kublacon. I will now present a brief report of the two games I played accompanied by my evaluation of the rules system.
Swordpoint aims to recreate mass-battles with 28mm armies of some 150-250 miniatures, so requires a substantial investment from starting gamers. Models are multi-based (most infantry being 4 models to a 40x40mm base and cavalry being 2 models to a 50x50mm base), with usually around 6 bases forming a unit. The game is essentially a new version of Warhammer Ancient Battles, with some important alterations. Most importantly, the players´ turns are somewhat intermingled with both sides shooting simultaneously followed by movement, where the player with the initiative (diced off each turn) gets to do each sub-phase first. The players get momentum tokens based on how well their units perform, which can be used to increase chances of winning a combat or to gain the initiative. The third difference is that units adjacent to each other in a "line of battle" support each other, aiming to reflect the ebb and flow of linear hand-to-hand battles.
The first game
My first game was a straightforward pitched battle pitting my newly painted Anglo-Danes against a Byzantine host. We concluded that there had been a "labour dispute" between the Basileus and his Varangian guard.
As can be seen from the picture below, I deployed my all-infantry force in a solid line, anchored on a forest on my right (occupied by archers and Viking mercenaries in open order) and stretching almost to the table edge on the left. In front of my position was a large hill that I intended to occupy. The Byzantine host had a large infantry force facing off against this hill, with heavy cavalry on their right (my left), archers in the centre and light cavalry with bows on their far left (against the wood on my right).
|Deployment: Anglo-Danes on the left, Byzantines on the right|
|Anglo-Danish battle line in shieldwall formation|
|Byzantine light cavalry formed their left flank|
|The Byzantine centre was composed of heavy infantry intermingled with archers|
The battle begun with both sides advancing steadily forward. I was a bit too cautious and advanced very slowly, keeping my men in a shield wall formation (half movement, -1 for the enemy to hit me). I soon became worried about the heavy cavalry threatening my left flank, which was protected by skirmishers and my worst troops (two units of Fyrd). My skirmishers were rapidly routed and I aimed to delay the combat on the left and cover my centre, whilst my centre would have time to crush the Byzantine centre. My right wing fought off the Byzantine skirmishers whilst my centre charged the Byzantine infantry.
|Both sides advance, with Byzantine heavy cavalry attempting a breakthrough on the Anglo-Danish left|
|Furious combat erupts in the centre|
On my left the Byzantine heavy cavalry charged my Fyrd, who held. After several turns one of my two units broke, whilst the other managed to beat off the enemy cavalry with the help of a third Anglo-Danish unit that raced to the rescue. In the centre, the fight between the infantry hosts developed into a long grinding match, where I was steadily gaining an advantage. As we were running out of playing time we decided to call it quits at this point. Since my left flank held and I was slowly winning the fight in the middle, my opponent conceded the game to me (although victory was by no means certain at this point).
|Two units of Fyrd protect the left flank against Byzantine heavy cavalry|
The second gameMy second game was a historical match-up against Norman invaders. We fought on the same table, with my force occupying pretty much the same positions as in the first game. The Normans placed two units of knights and crossbowmen in the centre, but the bulk of their force (infantry, more knights, light cavalry and two units of archers) on their left (my right) across from the forest.
|Anglo-Danes on the left, Normans on the right|
I started the game in the same way as the first one, advancing my whole line forward - albeit more boldly than the last time round. The Normans hung back at maximum archery range, while their cavalry started outflanking me on both sides. The forest position was pretty secure and my only threat here were the javelin-armed light cavalry, but I was taken aback by the speed and manoeuvrability of the knights, who quickly redeployed to my extreme left to threaten that flank.
|Anglo-Danes advance along the whole line whilst Norman cavalry threaten both flanks|
|The left flank moments before knights overwhelm my slingers|
I scored a quick success by chasing off the dangerous Norman crossbowmen in the centre with my own javelin-armed skirmishers. Otherwise archery was ineffective on both sides and pretty quickly, the slingers I had placed on my left were run down by Norman knights. The knights were left exposed to a rear charge from my Fyrd, who came close to breaking the Normans before more cavalry came to the rescue and scattered the impudent peasants. It was a good try, which at least had bought me some time on the left flank.
|A daring rear-charge by the Fyrd is quickly chastised by more knights|
The bulk of my army continued advancing on the enemy infantry on the right, but with very mobile knights threatening my left, my formation became a very awkward wedge. In Swordpoint (as in WAB) it is very difficult to advance other than straight forward with formed infantry. Maintaining a shieldwall formation whilst moving sideways made these manoeuvres even more cumbersome. The game turned into a slowly unfolding game of cat and mouse, with my left wing trying to wheel backwards to buy time for my right wing to overwhelm the Norman infantry. Both detachments had to advance slowly in order for them to protect each other and not be outflanked. Pressed for time, the Normans decided to try to force the issue and attempt to win the game with a frontal assault against my left wing. The knights thundered forward against my shieldwall, only to be cut down by my elite Huscarls wielding two-handed axes. With the cavalry bloodied, my right wing about to charge the Norman infantry and time running out, we decided to call it a game with the Anglo-Danes victorious.
|Situation mid-game: the Anglo-Danish army start forming a "V" to protect its flank|
|Norman cavalry charge!|
|Game ends with Anglo-Danish infantry about to assault the Norman infantry|
Swordpoint - first impressionsOk, so I quite liked Swordpoint. It has taken the best parts of WAB and streamlined the rest, including the overlapping turns. The system for dicing off initiative is nice, as it provides a suitable level of uncertainty on some critical turns. It also provides the possibility that one side might move twice in a row, if they go second on one turn and first on the following one.
After playing games such as Saga, Hail Caesar, etc. in recent years, the movement of formed infantry in Swordpoint seems quite restrictive and ponderous. Because it is hard to backtrack or move sideways with infantry, you have to plan their movements several turns in advance. There is no room for fancy manoeuvres and an all-infantry army will be chastised by a faster opponent for a poor deployment or if gaps are allowed to form in the line. Cavalry on the other hand are very manoeuvrable and can change direction very easily. This is as it should be and reflects the period well.
One of my opponents considered heavy cavalry under-powered in the game, since it is at a great disadvantage fighting formed infantry frontally. However, my impression is that if you can use their mobility to the fullest, they can be very effective. Mobility doesn´t mean only outflanking an enemy, but also being able to pick which part of the battle line to strike. Cavalry can also disengage from a fight or pull back from a defeat, then quickly reform for a renewed assault, meaning they might not breach a line on the first go, but have the ability to make multiple charges and redeploy to where the enemy is weakest.
In other respects too, the game is built so that results happen slowly and it takes time to overwhelm most enemies in combat. The "line of battle" rules and the combat result chart mean that a battle line will start to buckle and deteriorate before it is breached. This is quite similar to the system used in DBM, which I like. This concept is reinforced with the momentum tokens, which build up with success and increase your odds of winning a combat as the enemy is increasingly more hard-pressed (although it is strange that you gain momentum from shooting an enemy on one side of the field, which can then be used to affect a combat on the other).
The down side of this "gradually unfolding resolution" is that it will require multiple hours of playing time to defeat the enemy. Both of these games took some 3-3,5 hours to play and we had to cut them short. We were still learning the somewhat complex rules and had to refer to the rulebook quite often, which slowed the game down. Another factor in slowing these two games up was the match-up, with both games pitting a cumbersome infantry army looking for a head on scrap against a nimbler army looking to shoot up and outflank the infantry. While I don´t mind playing slightly longer games of 4-5 hours, I am a bit wary of whether Swordpoint might be a bit too cumbersome for relaxed evening gaming with friends. That said, I really liked the rules and assuming that game play will become faster in the future, I look forward to playing Swordpoint on a regular basis.
|Another game: Alexander´s successors fighting it out amongst themselves|
|An elephant duel. How cool is that!|