Age of Dante – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Great morale system, quick to learn and play
Failed Basic: Small maps with no terrain, missile units too powerful
New boys in town High Flying Dice Games have quickly established a reputation as a incarnation of Simulation Publications Incorporated. As with the legendary SPI, they produce lots of games set in a variety of historical periods and, like early SPI games, all HFD games are quick to learn and fast to play. And also like SPI, maybe the production schedule is a little too speedy, creating some problems that should have been resolved through more careful editing. Yet, I come not to bury High Flying Dice but to praise them.
One of their recent releases is Age Of Dante: Postcards From Tuscany Volume I. Designed by Roberto Chiavini, the game is two battles from the late–13th century, Montaperti and Campaldino, both featuring the city-state of Florence facing off against rivals. (The title comes from the fact that famous author Dante served as a soldier in the battle of Campaldino.) It is the first in their promised Battles Of The Middle Ages game series.
This is a zip-lock game—creating even more nostalgia for the early days of wargaming—with two 11 x 17 inch maps (one for each battle), a full-color title page, three pages of rules, and a sheet of 210 full-color counters. No die-cut counters here—go get some scissors to cut out the armies, though you can get mounted (thicker cardboard) counters for an extra five bucks. Yes, everything sings “shoestring production budget,” but like the late, lamented MetaGaming company, it’s what they do with the maps and counters that counts.
Age Of Dante is definitely an introductory-level wargame with some good gaming elements attached to it. Units are given a morale letter and movement rate, with colored bars at the top showing which commander they belong to. Leaders are given a command rating and movement rate; colored bars at the top of each leader counter correspond to those of the units he can order about. Set-up positions are given on the map; just match the color of the units with the colors on the hexes, which gives each player some latitude in placing his units at the start of the game. Hold the stronger units in reserve and throw the weaker cannon fodder forward, or make the first ranks the toughest units and hold position? This gives the game more replay value as you can try different strategies with each battle.
The game is a chit-draw turn system, a style I enjoy. Each leader in the game gets a number of chits equal to his command rating (one to three; most leaders have a command rating of two). The chits are placed into a cup or similar container and then drawn at random. When a leader’s chit is pulled, the player can choose to activate that leader, moving and attacking with his units. Or the player can pass; most leaders have more than one chit, so you can hold your action by passing on a chit draw. Maybe you want to see what your opponent is going to do, or you need to move your right flank into position first. Age Of Dante introduces a nice twist to this system by having players draw chits until only one is left in the cup. That chit is not drawn, which means if the leader hasn’t acted yet, he misses the turn. The best leaders (rating of three) will usually act at least once per turn.
When a leader is activated, all of the units he commands can move and fight. To call movement basic is an understatement. Foot units have four movement points, cavalry and leaders have eight movement points, and each hex of movement costs one point. No terrain, everything is clear, the rivers on the edges of each map cannot be crossed and so have no effect on movement. Optional rules allow for facing of units. Combat units exert zones of control into adjacent hexes, and a unit must stop upon moving into an enemy ZOC. Leaving a ZOC requires a successful morale check. Leaders can stack on top of combat units, but combat units cannot stack with each other.
Units with triangles at the top are missile units. They can attack enemy units up to two hexes away. Missile attacks are resolved by rolling a d10, with a roll of five or higher meaning the defender is Disordered, while rolls of eight through ten inflict a Rout result. Melee combat between adjacent units is handled by comparing their attack strengths, expressing it as an odds ratio, then rolling a d6. Apply a few modifiers (+1 if the attacker has a higher morale, +1 for charging cavalry, -1 when the defender has a leader, etc.) and cross-reference the die result on the proper odds column. Low rolls affect the attacker, high rolls affect the defender. Battle results are Disorder (unit is half strength for the rest of the turn and cannot move towards enemy units), Rout (unit retreats three hexes towards its friendly map edge), and Eliminated.
The game has a great system of unknown combat strengths. At the beginning of the game, none of the units has a combat strength. When first engaged in melee as either attacker or defender, randomly draw a strength chit for units (all missile troops count as one strength point in melee, however). There are four different types of chits, each giving unit strengths based on morale. Units with morale value of A are disciplined and well-equipped; B morale units are common foot soldiers or perhaps younger, untested knights. The guys with a morale of C really want to be somewhere other than a battlefield. The best morale units have strengths of seven through ten; B morale units have strengths of four through seven; morale C units have strengths from one through four. Some gamers might not like this randomness of combat ability, but it takes away the godlike omnipotence of players in games where combat strengths are known for all units at all times. And it’s another add to replay value, as well as making Age of Dante a fun solitaire game.
I really like the way morale is handled. When a routed unit makes a morale save (roll d10 against the morale, and a roll below morale is a success; morale level for A is seven, B is five, C is three) it doesn’t automatically rally as in other games, it becomes Disordered for one turn, half strength and unable / unwilling to move towards enemy units—an excellent simulation of panicky troops pulling themselves together and getting back into the fight.
So far, a nice little beer and pretzels type of game. But there are a few drawbacks. Missile units are just too powerful; they hit sixty percent of the time, and they have the same effect on A morale knights as on C morale peasants. Instead of automatically scoring a Disorder or Rout, a hit should force the target to make a morale check to avoid suffering Disorder or automatically Rout a unit already in Disorder. Leaders should be able to use their whole command rating to modify die rolls of units they are stacked with for combat and morale check purposes instead of giving every leader a universal +1 bonus. And leader casualties should be re-worked; as it stands, roll 2d6 when a leader is involved in combat and he dies (is removed from the game) on rolls of two or twelve. Shouldn’t a leader’s odds of dying increase if the unit he’s with suffers an adverse combat result?
This game needs larger maps. With the wide borders on each end, the actual playing area on each map is 10 x 14 inches. Some enemy units set up within four hexes of each other. The rules on Rout state that if a Routed unit is within 3 hexes of an enemy unit it automatically fails any rally attempt and will continue moving three hexes towards the map edge. With maps so small, it’s not uncommon to have units Rout on turn two and be off the map by turn four without having a chance to rally because enemy units remain within three hexes distance.
And with only three pages of rules, how can there be editing errors? A few small typos I can live with, but there was one big error: the rules state that Florence units all have white stripes at the bottom. Not so. In the battle of Montaperdi, the units with white bars on the bottom are the Sian forces, not Florence (Florence troops have white bars on the bottom of their units in Campaldino, black bars on the bottom in Montaperdi).
I really like the “less is more” approach of High Flying Dice. Age Of Dante introduces a good system, but it needs a little more chrome. Give us rules on ammunition depletion for the missile units; the maps definitely need terrain and requisite movement / combat modifiers for terrain; maybe provide Heavy Armor chits to put on some units (movement -1, discard the Heavy Armor chit to avoid one combat result). And they shouldn’t restrict themselves only to battles in Tuscany. I’d love to play this game with Charlemagne against the Lombards, the Moors in Spain, and the wars between the English and the French. But if HFD does Agincourt, they better change that rule about the English archers having only 1 strength point in melee!
Age Of Dante is a good start with some nice game design gems inside (the hidden strengths and a great morale system). If High Flying Dice Games can give it some more polish as they advance the series this can be a long-lived system.
Armchair General Rating: 84
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 4, due to the random command activations and unknown combat strengths
About the Author
Sean Michael Stevenson is a writer from Pittsburgh. Currently seeking many stands of arms and tripods and talents of gold, when not playing at wargames he can be found reading books of history or heroic fantasy and writing the same.