BattleLore – Boardgame Review
BattleLore. Boardgame review. Published Initially by Days of Wonder, more recently by Fantasy Flight Games. Designer: Richard Borg. $79.95.
Passed Muster: The game system can be used to stage any Dark Age or medieval battle; beautiful components, flexible game design.
Failed Basic: High price ($100 suggested retail for base set), random Command Card draws can lead to useless hands
Solitaire Rating: 3 out of 5 (because of the Command Cards, each side is limited in its possible moves, so solo play runs quite smoothly).
And so it was on the field of Agincourt that the French knighthood, bogged down in mud, would have been helpless before the lighter infantry of King Henry V but for the charge of the dauphin’s wolf-riding goblin mercenaries …
Welcome to the mythic Europe of BattleLore. Part of designer Richard Borg’s Commands And Colors game series first seen in Avalon Hill’s 1999 big box re-issue of the Civil War game Battle Cry, BattleLore is a heavier rules variation of the system with extra emphasis on fantasy elements such as sorcery and some nice twists on combat.
The basic rules of BattleLore (shared by all Commands And Colors games) are so simple as to be ingenious. The 19.5 x 28 inch mapboard is made up of oversized clear terrain hexes (2 inches in diameter). Full color double-sided thick cardboard hexes of the same diameter are placed all along the board to create the battlefield; the base set has 52 of these terrain tiles, mainly wood/forest and rough hexes but also including town, river, and more specialized terrain (a rogue’s inn, wizard’s circle, etc.). In addition to the 80-page rules book, you also get a 24-page scenario book with 10 battlefields—and with a little research and/or imagination in no time you’ll be making your own scenarios.
After setting the table, it’s time to play with toy soldiers. BattleLore comes with 216 unpainted plastic miniatures (25mm scale) in 13 poses/styles: light infantry, medium infantry, heavy infantry, medium cavalry, heavy cavalry, archers, goblin infantry, hobgoblin (heavy) infantry, goblin cavalry (wolf riders), dwarf infantry, dwarf heavy infantry, dwarf crossbowmen, and a giant spider. One unit is placed per hex; four figures make up an infantry unit, three figures make up a cavalry unit. The giant spider, being a creature, is always alone in a hex. (And who wants to be in the same hex as a giant spider?)
The scenario book provides the starting locations for each unit. Banners are placed with each unit; the game has two banner types, long pennant banners and squared-off battle standards, one set of each to differentiate the armies (72 banners total). A banner slides into a small peghole in the base of one of the figures of a unit to identify which army the unit belongs to, a necessity since battles tend to devolve into scrums with similar soldiers bashing away at each other.
The scenario determines how many Command Cards each side begins with from the 60-card deck, and here is the game system’s genius (and also its greatest problem). The battlefield is divided by red, dashed lines into a Left Flank, Center, and Right Flank; both players sit facing each other, so as with true battlefields one player’s Right Flank faces his opponent’s Left Flank. Command Cards tell you how many units you can move and attack with and which part of the battlefield they must begin on; so a "Probe" card for the center allows you to move and/or attack with any two units in the center of the field. After playing a command card, draw another one from the deck; your opponent now chooses and plays one of the Command Cards from his hand.
Movement is easy. infantry can move 1-3 hexes, cavalry 3-4 hexes. Infantry can only move one or two hexes and still attack; moving farther means they cannot attack this turn. Terrain effects on movement are very basic; rivers must usually be crossed at fords, units moving into forests must stop moving for the turn, and so on.
After movement comes combat. BattleLore uses a dozen special six-sided dice. Each die has one Lore symbol (a miss), one each of a green, blue, and red helmet (for light, medium, and heavy units), one sword-on-shield symbol (a bonus hit), and one flag (retreat) symbol. The type of unit—light, medium, heavy—and whether it’s infantry or cavalry determine how many dice it rolls when attacking. Archer units (always light) roll two dice—one die if they moved before firing—while heavy cavalry is the most powerful unit with four dice in the attack.
The symbols that come up on your dice determine how many hits you score. You want to match a helmet color to the type of unit you’re attacking, so two green helmets score two hits against a light unit while against a medium unit they do nothing. The flag symbol causes any unit to retreat one hex, while the bonus hit symbol might score a hit on any unit depending on the weapon of the attacker; common bows do not score bonus hits (treat it as a miss), long swords always score bonus hits, short swords do not score bonus hits on cavalry, etc. Lots of flexibility here for different weapons to be "rated", although only four are included in the base set (common bow, crossbow, long sword, and short sword). Each hit removes one figure from the target unit; when the last figure is removed (always the one with the banner) it counts as one Victory Point (VP). The game ends when one side reaches a certain number of VPs, usually five or six; VPs can also be scored for holding terrain or accomplishing other objectives spelled out in the scenario.
These are the rules common to most of the Commands And Colors series games, but BattleLore is just getting started. In addition to the rules on weapons and creatures (harder to kill than normal units, and with special powers you can use during the game; for example, the giant spider can spit webs and has a poison bite), there are also rules on morale (a unit will ignore one retreat if it has two friendly units in adjacent hexes), counterattacks, and cavalry pursuit. After playing a few basic battles, you can start adding in the magic and sorcery that is a common element of fantasy. BattleLore achieves this through two extra rules elements, Lore Cards and War Councils.
Lore Cards are the magic spells and special events of the BattleLore universe. You begin the game with a certain number of Lore cards and Lore tokens (36 are included in the game). For every Lore token you roll when attacking, you gain another point of Lore and hence another token. Lore cards cost a certain number of tokens to be brought into effect, and the cost depends on the power of the card. So the nice Blur (defending unit ignores one hit) costs one point of Lore, the useful Spy (look at your opponent’s cards and discard one) costs five Lore, while the powerful Cry Havoc! card (attacking units gain +1d or more when attacking and hit on Lore symbols as well as helmets) costs you nine Lore tokens.
The Lore Cards you have available depend on the composition of your War Council. There are five different characters available to you; Cleric, Commander, Rogue, Warrior, and Wizard. Each has their own set of 15 Lore cards except the Commander; the Commander affects the number of Command Cards you begin the game with and can hold in your hand each turn. Characters have up to three Levels, with higher Levels allowing the owning player more Lore cards to be held and more Lore tokens to start with. A War Council is rated by Levels, so a Level 6 War Council would allow you to have a Level 2 Commander (begin the game with five Command Cards) and a Level 1 of each other character, or you could have a Level 3 Wizard and Level 3 Rogue, etc. Lore Cards, like Command Cards, are held in a common deck from which both players draw, but you can only draw cards based on what characters sit in your War Council. So if you choose not to have a Warrior while your opponent does, only your opponent may benefit from the warrior’s amazing battlefield feats and tactical acumen. The Lore cards are pretty good at portraying the "characters;" Rogue cards tend to be sneaky and often target your opponent (Spy, False Orders, etc.), while Warrior cards are usually bonuses to attack or defense, and Wizard cards are powerful spells such as Portal (teleport an entire unit up to 3 hexes).
BattleLore consciously models itself on the Hundred Years’ War. Most of the scenarios (even the more fantasy-oriented ones) are based on this war, and the banners carry through with this theme; the square Standards have the fleur-de-lis while the flag-like Pennants bear a stylized lion’s head. However, with a little research you can easily re-create any medieval battle from history or legend. King Arthur’s heavy cavalry against the Saxon shield wall at Mount Badon. Robert The Bruce smashing the English at Bannockburn. Danes rampaging through Ireland. Add in your own 25mm scale toy soldiers and you can re-fight the battles of Greece, Rome, even the Muslim conquest of Arabia or some Samurai sword fights without changing the rules.
Purists may reject the simplified combat system. How is it an attack that would wipe out a heavy infantry unit completely misses a bunch of unarmored peasants? But the system’s simplicity of design is the design. Add in your own house rules, such as red helmet (heavy) hits do damage to any unit, and the game rolls on without any significant change or imbalance. The weapons rules also allow an incredible degree of flexibility in re-staging battles. Mounted archers for Carrhae are simply light cavalry troops with common bows (range of four, can attack at 2d without moving or move up to two hexes and attack at 1d), a lance is a weapon that adds 1d to an attack made by a mounted unit against another mounted unit, pikes are weapons allowing an infantry unit to counterattack enemy mounted units before the horsemen can attack, etc. The terrain mix provides an ability to re-fight pretty much any battle you can imagine, and both Days Of Wonder and Fantasy Flight Games have released supplements with even more terrain such as beaches, swamps, etc.
The game is packed with goodies. In addition to all the aforementioned items you also get; two War Council cards; two plastic card holders (though hands work just fine for this); two plastic cauldrons for holding your Lore tokens (very cool); 48 various tokens and markers (spider web markers, loremaster counters, etc.); and 44 helpful player aid cards explaining the different weapons, terrain, and basic rules. The miniatures are wonderfully sculpted, single-cast so there are no loose parts or bases, and they look fantastic when painted. The rules book is similarly "fat", building on the Commands And Colors system and providing great rules on Lore and War Council characters. There’s a lot of stuff here.
Of course, for $100 there better be a lot in the box. Sticker shock is understandable (and sadly unavoidable at the hobby shop these days). Worsening matters, the current publisher Fantasy Flight Games is having difficulties in re-producing the boxed set, so the base set has been officially out of print for nearly a year; FFG tried to address this by placing English language rules in French boxes (and apparently with French language cards). Yeah, nothing like foreign leftovers in exchange for a Ben Franklin bill. For all of its ingenuity, the game still revolves around random card draws of Command Cards, and although BattleLore tries to mitigate this with special cards (such as "Order All Blue Banner Troops" or "Choose Any Three Infantry") it is almost inevitable that at some point in the game you’re going to be stuck with a hand of cards that’s virtually useless, three Left Flank and one Right Flank while the battle rages in the Center of the field. Ask me about the time The Black Prince had five Left Flank cards and no troops on the Left Flank for three turns running.
There are two ways to mitigate this defect; tactically, don’t play a card unless you have at least one other card in hand that will allow you to move / attack in the same battlefield section; or use the house rule that I enjoy, discarding two cards allows you to order any one unit on the mapboard (and draw two replacement cards for next turn).
Those are the best ways I’ve been able to overcome the luck of the draw on these types of games. Like true battles, the first tactical option leads to spectacular victories and defeats: one major push in the center—but play both cards and you have nothing left in reserve. The second "two card mulligan" allows you to do SOMETHING on those turns you’ve got that one infantry perfectly poised on the left flank.
BattleLore is a great expansion on the Commands And Colors system, an excellent game in its own right. Flexible enough that you can re-fight any battle of medieval period, with a wonderful "any battlefield you want" mapboard and well-done miniatures providing for a beautiful (and beautiful looking) gaming experience. Although the more tactically-minded might find the combat system too simplistic, it provides for an enjoyable game playable in about an hour and can be modified (especially with the weapons rules) by gamers to suit their own tastes for realism. The rules on creatures, magic (lore), and War Council characters flavor the game without bogging it down in excessive extra rules. Despite their trouble regarding the core boxed set, Fantasy Flight Games continues to support this game with steady releases of new units, terrain hexes, and rules tweaks in boxed expansion sets. (I recommend one of the first expansions by Days Of Wonder, Call To Arms, as it has army-building rules to design your own force for battle based on feudal levies.)
On the downside, sticker shock sets in when you first consider the game, though with all of the contents it’s well worth it. It is currently out of print, but can be found. Search for it on eBay or Amazon, though, it can be a little hard to find. And despite the improvements, you’re still at the mercy of random draws for the Command Cards, which will sink you sometimes. Then again, "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy." BattleLore is a solid release, a worthy addition to (and expansion upon) Borg’s well-designed Commands And Colors series. And you get to play with toy soldiers!
About the Author:
Sean Stevenson started wargaming with SPI and has spent the past 35 years as a freelance game designer and playtester. When not playing any of the 1,500+ games in his personal collection, he can be found reading a book on Colonial America or running one of several Pittsburgh area bookstores.