There are never enough game days.
After a gaming drought in the summer and early fall, I've striven to make up for the lost months, most recently by staging a scrum across my dining room table this past Saturday evening. My longtime friends Matt, Jared, and Francesco joined me on the field of battle as we tried out a "new" set of skirmish rules entitled Ares. Alas, they are only new to me, as I believe the first edition of these rules was published around 1999, and the most recent and only update came out a short time later in 2002. I discovered them when I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a late night unscheduled zombie game in progress at Fall In last month (see pictures of that game in my Fall In recap post). Those gamers informed me that they had used the Ares core skirmish rules to develop their home-brewed zombie variant. My curiosity piqued, I purchased my own PDF copy of Ares.
Ares is designed for historical and fantasy skirmish-level engagements (a demo-version download is available on the publisher's site). The rules have a lot more "crunch" to them than streamlined games like Advanced Song of Blades and Heroes, which is the system I have the most experience with in my short time exploring this hobby. First of all, characters in Ares have a much fuller "stat line" covering familiar concepts like hit points, armor class, individual weapon damages, melee and ranged attacks, magic proficiency/resistance, etc., or in other words, a panoply of variables that a game like Song of Blades and Heroes collapses into just two stats for every unit (quality and combat). While this makes a game like Songs fast and easy to pick up (it's accessible enough that lots of players teach it to their young children), I've sometimes missed the extra modicum of complexity more typical of my teenage Dungeons & Dragons gaming.
Furthermore, Songs' simple two-variable system felt even more restrictive when I was working on my miniatures-based dungeon delving rules earlier this year (the addition of variables for hit points and armor class alone opens up so many more options for the handling of things like traps, magic items, etc.). To be sure, part of Song of Blades and Heroes' charm is that very simplicity, exemplified by its use of only a single die type for every roll, the ubiquitous six-sider. Ares, however, fits in nearly all of the traditional polyhedrons, again, creating some fun dynamics that get stripped out of simpler approaches to wargaming mechanics. I also appreciated the initiative system in Ares, which ensures that every unit gets to make some sort of move in a turn without resorting to a stultifying IGOUGO structure and the inevitable long downtimes.
I was excited to put the Ares rules through their paces, so I concocted the below scenario for our four-player game.
The Lost City of Azermathy
|A few blocks of the abandoned city. Each player's warband started in a corner, and after finding its objective had to try to exit from the opposite corner. The river was only passable across the bridges or by the boat.|
- When a warband finds its sought-after item amongst the ruins, it must then attempt to exit the battlefield on the corner opposite from which it entered. (Note: A unit that is routed must drop any item it carries; it does not want to give an enemy a reason to keep pursuing it off of the board!)
- The Vermin can claim any other player’s sought-after items or any other magical item resulting from a successful search action, but they must make it off the battlefield with two such items instead of just one. Units can only carry a single item found in the scenario, which by default necessitates two separate vermin units must carry items off the map to meet their victory condition.
- 10 points for leaving with your warband’s sought-after object
- 1 point for every regular enemy unit killed
- 3 for every special enemy killed (heroes and spellcasters)
- Units must be within the structure (e.g., buildings) or in base contact with the terrain (e.g., fountain) to conduct the search.
- Multiple units can work together to conduct a joint search.
- Searches take two actions by every unit engaged in the search (no borrowed actions allowed for searches).
- Every unit beyond the first one engaged in a joint search adds +1 to the search result die roll (e.g., a four-unit joint search adds +3 to the result die roll).
- If multiple units are engaged in a joint search, the player discards the appropriate number of initiative cards equal to the number of units searching. Those discards need to be the highest ones currently in the player’s hand.
- A player can only search the same location three times or until an item is found.
The Usual Caveats
Below are many pictures from a portion of our game. The following, however, is not a traditional battle report, but rather an unchronological series of photographic impressions of the game. Except for four or five shot by Jared and myself, all of the photos are by my wife Ellen. She enjoys popping into our games for about a half hour at some point in the game and snapping some pics of the miniatures, terrain, and us having a good time. Hopefully you enjoy this glimpse the photos provide into our evening!
Click on any photo to enlarge.
In this scenario, I played the Orcs, Matt played the Vermin (with a Hill Giant hero!), Jared played the Elves, and Francesco played the Dwarves.
|Precious few who stepped on that bridge walked off of it.|
|On turn two, my shaman and orc hero searched what had been a roadside checkpoint for the city guard. They managed to find a healing potion without setting off any traps.|
|Clockwise from top left: Matt (Vermin), Joe (Orcs), Francesco (Dwarves), and Jared (Elves).|
|Jared's elven archers scamper up to the second story of some ruins early on and then harried the vermin and orcs for much of the game.|
|High elf warriors escorting their sorcerer while searching through the rubble.|
|This is the quietest this bridge would be for the rest of the game. My archers (right) peel off to an abandoned nearby building to search there for their chieftain's war shield.|
|Staying spread out while we search the bridge so that we don't all get caught up in a sprung trap.|
|I see you...|
|A frog sits on a lily pad just beyond the boat, oblivious to the doings of man and demihuman....|
|The biggest guy on the battlefield, the hill giant was enlisted by the ratfolk's Seer for extra protection while they scrounged for treasure.|
|The search continues...|
|Is this the lonely walk of the damned?|
|An early search by the dwarves yields exactly the results they hoped for. But now how to get across the battlefield with their recovered Horn of Calling?|
|So many arrows flew from this perch...|
|The dwarven runemaster hides, biding his time...|
|A wary watch on the bridge.|
|Matt mansplaining something...to my orcs' ears it sounds like "Gwonk ronk honk, bonk, sponk."|
|Consulting my scenario notes...let me see, how many elves do get blown up by that trap?|
|Ares and its pleasing plethora of polyhedrons!|
|Searching a well by oneself can leave you flat on your ass if you trigger a trap.|
|Holding the rickety ladder while the dwarven crossbowers ascend to their vantage point.|
|A ratman amongst the ruins! Kill it!|
|Some dice and initiative cards...instruments of war!|
|I wonder who emerged alive from this tussle in the sky?|
|The carnage perpetrated behind this column is too gruesome to reveal...|
|Even the elves eventually found a Cloak of Flying and took to the skies (although it required surviving multiple exploding traps before turning up the fabled garment).|
|The hill giant could no longer suffer the slings and arrows (okay, just the arrows) of his enemies, as a final shaft sailed from an eleven bow across the battlefield, ending the giant's rampage before he could finish off the dwarves.|
|This extremely long bridge became a choke point littered with bodies, with the orc chieftain's ceremonial shield getting ripped away from one slain orc or rat after another, all while suffering the elven archers' cowardly shots from afar.|
|Elven archers fire volley after volley at the battle raging along the bridge.|
|An overhead shot around two-thirds of the way through the game...|
|An empty battlefield before the raging clash...|
|These elven honor guard spent turn after turn being laid low by a series of exploding traps triggered within this abandoned structure.|
|Initiative cards...a mechanic that I really like in Ares.|
|Failed morale rolls left these vermin shaken as they attempted to scurry away with the orc's prized shield.|
|An uneasy alliance between ratfolk and the Seer has benefited them both up to this point.|
|You were mighty, oh giant...until you weren't.|
|The well had been searched once...two more attempts to go.|
|If we must die on this bridge, then we will die like orcs!|
|Yes, your orcs and rats do indeed seem to be in range of my elven archers. Yet again.|
|The elves practicing their victory dance...that never happened.|
|Where did everybody go?|
|The initiative discard pile.|
|Heavy armor and stubby legs meant the dwarves only moved 3" per action.|
|Nobody took the boat out for a ride.|
In closing...Everybody agreed that the Ares rules provided a fun evening of friendly fighting that we look forward to repeating. When I read the rule book a couple of weeks ago, Ares' mechanics seemed quite intuitive, even elegant in the way they modeled things like combat, and I was anxious to see if that translated to actual fun game play at the table. I was relieved to find that it did.
We got a couple of rules wrong. For instance, we didn't realize until late in the game that you can only borrow actions from your next turn for a small subset of proscribed activities. And I deliberately dispensed with unit cohesion restrictions and unit morale rolls, treating each figure as if it had the Individual special ability for morale checks. To build our warbands, I tried to pick units from the provided army list rosters, but I'm not sure I achieved perfect balance across the teams. I will definitely fiddle with warband composition a bit more going forward. I confess I'm a little suspicious of the balance of the unit point values in those included army lists, but it's hard to tell if they truly work after but a single game. That said, nothing in our particular skirmish was so out of whack that any one warband or individual unit seemed overpowering (I would probably make the elves a bit more vulnerable in the future given how powerful their ranged attacks were). And I do feel compelled to tweak some special abilities after playing with similar ones in Song of Blades and Heroes (e.g., I would make the Hide trait that the rats had in this game require base contact with a piece of terrain, as in Songs).
None of the fine tuning I want to do, however, is motivated by a need to fix the game so much as to make it align more closely with my own preferences and instincts, which is one of great pleasures of these sorts of games. When they're built on a solid foundation, as this game truly is, it becomes a pleasure to finesse and tinker with them around the edges to get a bit more juice out of them. I'm looking forward to doing just that with Ares, a system that I am dumbfounded as to why it doesn't have a stronger reputation and a legion of loyal players.
Post-ScriptWhile it passed without proper note at the time, this gathering marked the very first gathering of the Second Saturday Scrum Club, with charter members Francesco Nesci and Jared Smith joining me at the clubhouse (i.e., my dining room) with our special guest Matt Sahr.
Viva la Scrum Club!