Domains at War: Battles Review

Here is the second half of my Domains at War (D@W) review (the first part can be found here).   The second book that makes up Autarch’s mass combat supplement is Battles.  Where Campaigns looks at the sweeping scope of war, Battles focuses on the individual engagements.

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Domains at War: Battles Review

Domains at War: Battles is a 132-page PDF.  You can get it either by itself or as part of the Domains at War: Complete Set at drivethrurpg.com.  Like all Autarch products, D@W is a sharp-looking book with great art.  What differentiates Battles from Campaigns is that Battles is designed as tabletop wargame where you will play through the individual mêlées of your war campaign.  It is fully compatible with Campaigns as well as the Adventurer, Conqueror, King System.

Introduction

Battles starts off with a two-page introduction which includes a brief retrospective look at the origins of the RPG hobby.  From tabletop wargaming we have come, and to tabletop wargaming we return.  The introduction covers an outline of important terms and how to use Battles, either as a standalone game or in conjunction with Campaigns.

Chapter 1 – Basic Rules

This is the backbone of the Battles system.  With this and the first scenario in Chapter 9, you will be ready to play your first game.  The game is played on a hex map with markers that (at the basic scale) represent units of 120 infantry or 60 cavalry.  Units are broken up into divisions, which places a number of units under the command of a division commander.

Units are divided by type (foot, mounted, or flyer) and sub-divided based on formation.  Each entry on formation gives great historical and fantastical examples of that type of troop, except for flyers:  “Historical examples are sadly absent.”  In the basic rules, commanders help determine initiative order, morale bonuses for units, and have a pool of activation points used to control their division over the course of their turn.

Each round of Battles has the same sequence: Initiative Phase, Command Phases, and Morale Phase.  In the Initiative phase (which is happens each round), each division commander makes an initiative roll, establishing the order of the Command Phases.  In the Command Phase, commanders spend their activation points to move and attack with their units.  And in the Morale Phase, the overall army’s morale is diagnosed, and players’ check to see if their army breaks.

The resolution system will be very familiar to ACKS players; units have AC, Attack Throws, and Hit Points.  Attacks are resolved by rolling a number of d20 equal to the unit’s attack profile, adding the opponent’s AC to the unit’s Attack Throw value to determine what you need to roll.  Each hit nets 1 damage on the unit. Morale checks are resolved with 2d6 rolls along with a table of modifiers.

Autarch does a great job of making the integration of D@W with ACKS smooth and simple.  If you have played ACKS, especially to the point where your characters are eligible to participate as commanders in D@W, you will come to the table with a good grasp of the resolution mechanics.

Chapter 2 – Terrain

This chapter covers the placement and use of terrain for your Battles game.  With just the basic rules, it is assumed that the armies found an open level ground to battle each other on.  This chapter, plus the hex-token sheets provided with the Token Set, enables you to create a variety of diverse battlefields.

Terrain types are given special rules and characteristics, which affect movement and line of sight.  Look at the summary of the terrain types on page 33; it provides a nice overview of what you will need to keep in mind when using the different types of terrain.

Chapter 3 – Strategic Situations

When you are using Battles with Campaigns, not every battle will be fought in the same way.  Based on your choices during the campaign turn, your army might encounter another in ways besides a pitched battle. This short chapter gives you the setup and special rules for each of the battle types found in Campaigns.  The scenarios change the basic deployment rules as well as impose a variety of conditions upon one side or another.  FYI, ambushes are brutal in Battles, so set those up as often as you can.

Chapter 4 – Heroes

This chapter covers the full rules for heroes, including how to convert them from the base ACKS game and how to use heroes independently of units.  The rules here also cover the scenarios that would arise from taking a fantasy hero from an RPG and throwing them onto a battlefield. Heroes may use their spells, special abilities, and magic items at their disposal while on the battlefield.   The rules give you plenty of options for what heroes can do within a unit or out on their own.  This will provide your players opportunities to shine even in the midst of a mass combat.

Chapter 5 – Assaults

Sieges get their own chapter here, and I feel like this chapter is tied directly to its sister chapter in CampaignsCampaigns covers the initial siege, which will eventually flow into the assault of the stronghold, which you can play through with Battles.  This chapters covers the specific special rules needed for using fortifications, as well as siege engines.

Chapter 6 – Scale

Battles defaults to a company scale, meaning your armies will have between 600 and 3,000 bodies on the field.  This chapter covers how to adapt the unit stats to account for a larger or smaller encounters, as well as how this will affect heroes on the battlefield.  Spells, items, and Assaults can also be scaled.  This chapter highlights the level of detail and thought Autarch puts into their products.  The scaling changes are simple but effective, and the fact that they are included is a huge boon to the usability of this product.

Chapter 7 – Rosters

Much as you would expect, the unit stats are found here.  If it is mentioned in ACKS, or D@W: Campaigns, its statistics are found here.  Interestingly enough, unlike games like Warhammer, there is no way to ‘purchase’ units to build an army.  All of the mustering rules are found in Campaigns and are not based on a balancing of armies but what a player can realistically draw (or dares to draw) from their domain.

Chapter 8 – Conversion

This chapter contains the rules for building units for use within the Battles system.  Much like chapter 3 of Campaigns, this chapter will allow you to pull in creatures and races from other OSR and d20 based games.  If something has AC, Hit dice, HP, and To-Hit modifiers, you can convert it for use on the battlefield.  Examples are plentiful in this chapter, which is a huge help.  And at the end of the chapter, the rules for calculating Battle Rating and Wages (both very important stats in Campaigns) are listed here for a complete conversion rule set.

Chapter 9 – Scenarios

Two scenarios are given in the main book.  The first, Peril at the Fangs,is intended as an introductory scenario for use with only the basic rules.  Battle of Zidiumuses the full rules of Battles and moves the scale of the battle from the company to the brigade.  Both scenarios are grounded in the history of the Auran Empire (the ACKS’ default setting).  Peril at the Fangs pits beastmen against an understrength Auran legion, while Battle of Zidium is an epic conclusion to a massive war.  If you are familiar with the history of Rome, this battle is based on Zama, where Scipio Africanus fought Hannibal!

Chapter 10 – Armies

The final chapter is a list of special armies and units co-created with backers of the D@W Kickstarter.  These two armies are full of exotic units and special rules that were created specifically for these armies.

Glossary

Like Campaigns, any bolded word throughout Battles is found here with a definition. Also, like Campaigns¸ I suggest printing this out if you buy the PDF copy and annotating it with page reference numbers.

Conclusion

Autarch has created a lens with D@W.  This finely crafted piece allows you to view mass combat within your game.  It is up to you to focus the lens, choosing when to pull back and see the whole of a war campaign and when to zoom into a single battle.  The rules of D@W work seamlessly, allowing a group to flow back and forth between both rule sets as the story of the game and their interest demands.

While you can buy the D@W books separately, if you have even the slightest interest in Battles, I would highly recommend buying the Complete Set.  This set comes with Campaigns, Battles, the battlemap PDF (which I printed out and looks gorgeous), and a token set.

As a Warhammer player, I was not really interested in another fantasy miniatures game when D@W was announced, but I wanted to give this book a comprehensive review.  So my buddy, Chris, came over, and we worked our way through the first scenario.  Despite being trounced soundly by the beastmen who rallied to Chris’ banner, I had a blast.  (Chris really seemed to enjoy the trouncing as well.)  The basic game was simple to pick up, and within a couple of turns, we were hardly referencing the rules.  I am sure there were things we did wrong, but we had a blast and are going to get together and play the advanced scenario soon.

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Domains at War: Campaigns

Disclaimer: This pdf was provided as a backer reward for supporting the Domains at War kickstarter.  All opinions within the review are my own.

Autarch was the third company to get money out of me on Kickstarter.  By that time, I had already found Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKS) and was feverishly working my way through it.  As I stated here, ACKS’ rules reminded me a lot of what I loved about Birthright.  I found myself wanting rules for mass combat so that PC kingdoms could go to war.  Then Domains at War popped up on Kickstarter, and much money and many months later, I have the PDF copies of the Campaigns and Battles books.  (My hardcopy is in the mail!)

Domains at War (D@W) is actually two books (one that focuses on abstract campaigns, and the other is a table top wargames) so I will be giving each book their own in-depth review.

Domains at War: Campaigns Review

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Domains at War: Campaigns is a 105 page PDF.  You can get it either by itself or as part of the Domains at War: Complete Set at drivethrurpg.com.  Like all Autarch products, D@W is a sharp looking book with great art.  Alexander Marcis, the author of the book, does a great job distilling the abstract and concrete elements of rule set into a readable format and provides great examples every step of the way.

Introduction

This one page introduction gives us a brief overview of the book’s inspiration, what to expect as a reader, and important terms.  Take time to read the fourth paragraph on this page, and look at the references that were listed.  This is a book that is grounded in a classical understanding of war.  ACKS cleaves to a simulationist style of game design (especially in world design), and D@W is no different.  However, what makes ACKS so attractive to me is the verisimilitude that this historical grounding gives the game.

Chapter 1 – Armies

This chapter covers how to create and manage armies within your D@W (and ACKS) campaign.  Hiring mercenaries, conscripting peasants, levying militias, deploying followers, buying slaves, and calling up vassal troops each receive detailed rules for every aspect of using them in a campaign.  Costs are given for acquiring, equipping, and maintaining these units.  Want to figure out what the standing army of a kingdom is?  There is a table for Vassal Troops.  Want to know how much an Ogre trained as a heavy infantry will cost you at market?  D@W covers that (it is 2,625 gp in case you were curious).

The chapter then goes into how to structure your armies, what command requirements your PCs must meet, and what military specialists are good for and why you need them in your army.  Chapter 1 finishes up with the Unit Characteristics tables for a huge variety of troop types.

Since D@W focuses on mass combat in a fantastical world, it doesn’t just give information for the troops of men, but for Dwarves, Elves, Beastmen, and other exotic creatures.  The information for fielding a unit of werebears, 12 headed hydras, or Ancient Dragons are all here practically begging to be used.

Chapter 2 – Equipment

Chapter 2 covers all the gear you and your army will need on the campaign trail and in the field.  Like the ACKS equipment section, do not just read the little table at the front and move on.  There are subtle rules for a number of pieces.  If you don’t read the whole description you will miss things like the rules for helmets or the mirrored shield.  Following the PC-focused gear, we get to costs and statistics for siege weapons.  What mass combat book would be complete without catapults, trebuchets, and ballista?

One small paragraph explains how armies become their own market based on their size.  It got me thinking how you could run an entire campaign on the campaign trail, with the camp counting as a mobile home base.

The rules and costs for building strongholds to assault or defend are also found here.  This section, which will be very helpful when using D@W in your ACKS game, refers the reader back to chapters 3 and 7 of the ACKS main book.  This section will play out in your conquests as you assault, defend, and conquer strongholds with your army.  The Sieges chapter will refer to a number of statistics that can be found in these tables.  While D@W does give options for abstracting strongholds, I feel you would be missing out on a significant chunk of the game’s enjoyment if you didn’t flesh out your castles with these rules.

Chapter 3 – Campaigns

Before you can get your armies from Chapter 1 to Chapter 5, you have to move them around the map.  Each campaign turn is broken down in to a simple four step process.  And I do mean simple; only 13 pages of rules are given to this section.  And it covers moving armies, supplying armies, reconnaissance, and what do with domains once you conquer them.

Each turn, which lasts about a week of game time (plenty of time to players to get their characters into all sorts of adventures between turns), breaks down into four phases: Initiative, Movement and Battle, Supply, and Occupation and Conquest.  Each phase is well laid out, easy to understand, and presents a number of clear and influential choices for players who are in command of the armies.  One thing that stands out is the use of magic in D@W.  The book provides guidelines for how scrying will influence an army’s ability to hide itself or track the enemy. It is easy to read this book and become entranced with the idea of seeing ancient world or medieval battles played out.  The author does a great job of remembering these rules are intended for use with a fantasy game, even if the reader might sometimes forget.

While some of this chapter is clearly designed to dovetail into the ACKS domain rules, a large majority of it can be picked up and dropped into almost any OSR or modern d20 based game.

Chapter 4 – Battles

And now the rules for fighting.  After you establish the type of battle (based on choices made during the Campaign turn), you are ready to engage in either bloody conquest or righteous war.  We zoom into a 10 minute turn, and each turn is again broken down into simple steps.  Army leaders select participating units, calculate their strength, PCs get to be awesome, each side rolls to hit and removes casualties, checks are made for morale, and then see if they want to (or can) fight another round.  The abstract combat is fast and deadly, giving the game a feel of the grinding wheel of war wearing down the masses.

Rules are given for calculating battle strengths, including formulas for calculating unlisted monsters and PCs.  This is where D@W shines as a product for systems other than just ACKS.  Want to figure out what the Companions of the Hall would be like as a unit in an army?  Do it.  Want a squad of floating spheres with one large eye and multiple other eyes on stalks?  If it has an armor class, hit dice, and a list of special abilities, you can abstract it with D@W.

But what stands out for me is the Heroic forays.  Once problem with mass combat in most RPGs is how they tend to handle what the characters are doing while the battle is happening.  Let’s be honest, RPGs focus on the character level, and mass combat…well has mass in the title.  The story lens can pull too far back for the players to feel like their characters have any say in the outcome.  D@W does a fantastic job of preventing this from happening.  First, and simplest, your PCs could just be one super awesome unit.  It is quick, and allows the overall combat to move faster, but still might cause the story to be too panoramic for most players (I know my players are like this).

So, players can make Heroic Forays.  These boil down to heroic gambles that the players make to cause the tide of battle to swing in their favor.  They wager their unit strength (the GM presents them with enemies equal to that strength), and you play out an encounter right there while the battle rages on around them.  If they win, those casualties are inflicted on the opposing army right then and there before the standard attacks are rolled.  Players can choose to foray multiple times over the course of a battle.  There are also some slick rules for Hero vs. Hero Forays, but who runs games with pvp?…. Oh wait.

How battles end, what the winners can do to the losers, how casualties are treated, and what makes up the spoils of war round out this chapter.  Just remember, if you are leading a horde of carnivorous warg riders to glory, captives are not just for interrogation or ransom.  Wargs gotta eat….just saying.

Chapter 5 – Sieges

This chapter covers everything you would want to know about Sieges.  It also provides rules for abstracting those sieges.  We find rules for blockading to starve out defenders, breaking their defenses, and how to assault their broken walls. It includes simplified rules for quickly establishing how long a siege would take if it happened in the background of a game.

Once again, we see how magic will affect combats in a fantasy world.  Rules for how spells can be used against strongholds are looked at here.  Your clerics and wizards will be able to raze to strongholds with spells, while the rest of the party climbs through the breach in the wall the fighter made with his horn of blasting.

The rules for this section, as I stated earlier, refer heavily back to the stronghold creation section of Chapter 2.  This is another part of D@W that can be ported directly to another system.  Ignore the building costs, create your castle, then throw a siege at it.

Chapter 6 – Vagaries

The last chapter is devoted to tables of how the twists of fate may affect a campaign.  There is a table for vagaries of recruitment, war, and battle.  These table interject those things that are uncontrollable but inevitable over the course of a campaign.  The quote by Julius Ceasar at the start of this chapter sums up what you will find.  ‘Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.’

Glossary

Finally, the glossary.  Any bolded word throughout D@W is covered here.  In fact, I printed out the glossary immediately before I read through the book for this review.  It is a great reference which I recommend handing out to your players so they have it as well.

Conclusion

As you can probably tell, there is a lot crammed into the 105 pages of this PDF.  D@W: Campaigns is a great supplement for people who want mass combat added into their game but still want it abstracted into in an evening of play.

ACKS books are well thought out, and there is a high level of interplay between all the moving pieces of the rules.  D@W is no different.  So much of the structure of D@W ties back into the ACKS rules about economics and domains.  So when you get this, I would advise reading through it at least twice.  Once to get a wide view of the Campaigns system and a second to dig deeply into each section.  D@W provides cross-references to the other ACKS books where they apply, which is very helpful.

If you are looking for a rule set for a d20 game that abstracts mass combat in a fun, simple way, while still providing players influential choices, check out D@W.