Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Kings of War Historical - A Review, A Game

Without that much fanfare, so far as I could see, Mantic recently launched their long requested historical version of the Kings of War wargames rules.  I managed to pick up a copy at a very reasonable price at Recon earlier this month, and was fortunate enough to have a game arranged shortly thereafter for which they could be put on the test bench.  Hence I'm in a position to give a review of the rules.

(Those who know the fantasy rules will gt a lot of the rule mechanics already; but I felt it worth reiterating.)

Firstly, you really can't fault Mantic for the production values:

The 128 page softback book, comes with lush presentation and more importantly clear and compact rules, which by the time they reach a historical audience have already been honed over several editions as a fantasy set.  Many of the niggles that beleaguer rules systems have already been ironed out, leaving Kow:H a lean tight system that benefits from it's predecessors.

Add to that the blend of generic troop types and 30 customised 'Army Lists' and the resultant package looks pretty good.  It even squeezes in enough of the fantasy rules to allow mythological elements to join forces with fact.

Of course all this may make the history buff, say, "ah, rules with fantasy elements?  These will never reflect real warfare then!"

And there are elements where that could be said to be true.  But they do not make for a 'bad' game.

What you have here rather is a simple core system, based on alternate moves where only one player moves or rolls dice, all of the action is in the hand of one player, from movement to shooting and combat, and any resultant morale tests (referred to as 'Nerve' in Kow:H).  Now that may sound one sided, but it in fact is so fast that play fair rattles along.  It is engineered to kill procrastination and stems from the original systems design ethos for fast play, a large tournament game was designed to take less than 2 hours to play.  Even played slowly the game is pacey, why?

The fast-play ethos, is in effect a command and control system, especially in large games.  The rules recommend using a timer for turns and there is a real point to this.  You move all your units freely (once per unit of course is a limit), shoot and fight with them, but you can only carry out as many of the actions as the time permits.  If your ten minutes for a turn runs out and you've not moved everything, tough!  It's now your opponents go.  So the rules seamlessly encourage you to play actively, and to prioritise key actions in a turn.

All this said, we seldom play timed games, but it's a neat idea.

This aside, you have very simple, easy to learn rule structures. Moving is by unit and is simply handled, all units are implicitly formed, and could be represented by single bases or multiple stands.  We elected to treat Skirmisher units - one of the few additions to the rules - as loosely ordered until contacted by an enemy, though the rules here do not specify any visible difference.

Units fire and fight with fixed numbers of D6 based on their profile, rolling against their proficiency to hit, and against the opponents defensive value to wound.  There are no Warhammer or Hail Caesar-esque saving rolls. Casualties are marked as hit points on the unit, no casualty removal, and any unit suffering casualties in a turn has to take a nerve test.  The attacker rolls 2D6 and adds the casualty number to the result, if it is equal to or above the minimum Nerve value of the enemy unit it becomes 'Wavering' for its' next turn and halts, unable to act aggressively on its' own next turn.  If the result equals or exceeds a second higher value the unit routs and is removed from play.  Fail to beat an opponent in combat and you recoil, not unlike DBA/DBMM, but remain locked in combat facing your foe, unless they retire.

One thing that KoW:H gets right, is the element that made the fantasy game work so well.  Flank and Rear attacks are deadly, and you will seek to avoid them at all costs whilst trying somehow to deliver your own.  How is this handled?  get on an opponents flank and your attacks are doubled; get in their rear and you can triple them.  Such simple elegance means that protecting your flanks becomes crucial to the game; and battle lines with reserves form far more naturally than in many 'gamey' systems.

Not that it is all perfect, and if one is being critical you can say that not everyone appreciates the IgoUgo template, and the near total control of your troops on a turn can seem too perfect, especially in untimed games.  Some may also dislike the exception rules and 'special abilities' provided for some units, though in reality these are generally appropriate and well balanced; not least as few of them in isolation are terribly powerful.

The biggest question, maybe a criticism in a few cases, is over the army lists themselves.  Generic units are the core of each list, augmented by a handful of special units unique to the individual army; usually including a commander.  These lists may raise some eybrows - for example the Egyptian list conflates the chariot armies of the Pharaohs with the cavalry led forces of the early Muslim armies, simple options like handgunners for the Japanese list are missed (though easily resolved).  Overall they feel like what they are, army lists with a sincere effort to reflect some history, but not created by experts in the field.  No doubt for friendly play they are easily adjusted, but they may well irk those who need every last detail pinned down.

So, the good fortune of timing meant that I had an ancients game agreed to, which would present a test of the rules.  Digging into my 28mm Ancients collection I was able to assemble a couple of small armies of the Peloponessian War (sorta).  1400 points each of Spartans and Athenians.  In classic fashion we deployed some classically sparse terrain, the only inconvenient element of which was the farm in the middle of my deployment zone, which split my deployment line.

We rolled one of the standard scenarios from the rule book, identical to those in the fantasy version, and found ourselves playing the 'Pillage' rules; essentially take and hold.  A simple case of occupying ground, at the end of 6 or 7 turns.  The scenario rules allow for a variable length game to ensure uncertainty, but still cap it to a low maximum - for time considerations once again.  Incidentally the rules also feature two additional scenarios unique to the Historical variant.

Battle lines are drawn
Anyway, even with a new player to Kings of War on my side as co-commander, we found the explanation of the rules straightforward.  We deployed in a standard alternate unit fashion - one could equally have drawn maps and used these to deploy simultaneously.  Forming plausible lines of battle; lacking the depth for reserves on the Spartan side, whilst the Athenian reserves pushed into the line as soon as the Phalanxes pushed past the farm.

Athenian mixed forces - Thracians on the right
One thing you become very aware of with KoW:H, as in the original rules, is the inevitable frailty of units.  They will all crumble as a result of casualties, though there may be early incidents where only a double 6 on the Nerve test - which always results in 'Wavering', and likewise a double 1 always leaves a unit with firm resolve regardless of damage - will effect.

In the Athenian case, fortunately high nerve rolls on the part of our Spartan player meant that many of our skirmishers broke and ran with only a smattering of casualties.  This impact is not perhaps as severe as in some other games, but it nevertheless is there, and justifiably so; there must always be room for the unexpected in this sort of game.

The result was that the Athenians had to close fast, before their heavy infantry came under too much fire.  The Athenians had more heavy troops, though of lesser quality, and so hoped to turn the flanks of the Spartans.  As stated the key way to win; destroy an enemy unit and you have the option to advance, retire, hold or wheel as a follow-up action, and obviously the latter allows you to turn onto the enemy flanks, or cover your own, as appropriate.  In these elements the simple rules expand into a more intricate game, terrain and opposing units can of course influence every action.

At the end of our sixth turn (we failed to roll for a seventh), Sparta held the majority of the ground, though they were under pressure on the ground, having lost more of their infantry than the Athenians, and with troops rolling up their flanks.  Another turn may have seen the battle swing either way, of course, and the game was open despite a hard start for the Athenians.

The whole thing was played out in under two hours.  Which certainly achieved the key design principles of the rules.  These are great rules for club nights and those occasions when time is at a premium, as well as tournaments - if you must.

In conclusion, we all enjoyed the game; they are not the most historical, or the most detailed rules out there, and I do not know how well they may stand the Charles S Grant Scenario's test*.  But they work, are easy to learn and fun to play.

Overall they come highly recommended, at least for casual play.

*if the rules allow you to play a scenario out of the Charles S Grant classic 'Scenarios for Wargames' book successfully, without modification, as easily as a standard engagement; they are flexible enough for me!


  1. Thanks for the review. The info is much appreciated!


  2. I am in agreement with Aaron. Appreciate the review!

  3. Thank you. I am on the side lines with this one. Will probably get it if I see it as an impulse purchase. What size table is recommended?

    1. A 2,000 point game would work fine on a 6x4 foot table, we played this 1,400 pt per side game on a 5x4. I've played up to 3.5k on a 6x4 in the original fantasy version.

  4. Thanks for sharing I have played the unofficial version and now have a copy of these. Will be playing them soon....but not timed that is too much 😀

  5. They sound interesting, I like rules that force you to try and play "historically". That's a big bone of contention in some Reject games, playing ECW, Napoleonic style!!

  6. Great review, thanks for posting. I suspect that with the sizable popularity of KoWF, that KoWH will get at least a look in with some groups.