Friday, 9 August 2013


AMAKAZU RAIDERS APPROACH, SENSEI!


Since my childhood I have been fascinated by Japanese culture and history, so it was natural once I got into miniature wargaming that I would build forces and acquire rules to play out various eras from that country’s history. After trying out a number of different rule-sets I (and the club) have settled on Peter Pig’s Battles in the Age of War rules for our big feudal-era Japan battles, but we had yet to find a set of rules we liked for smaller skirmish encounters. And let me say, we tried a lot (and I read through a lot that I didn’t even deem worth trying on the table). It got to the point where I started drafting my own set. I wanted my rules to reflect the strategy of individual sword combat, so assigned each combatant a number of dice to roll based on skill level and allowed their controlling players to divide them between offensive dice and defensive dice. The early bones of the system worked well but I just didn’t have time to polish all the other stuff to go with it.

So last month, there I was at Historicon and, lo and behold, the Osprey folks had a short stack of the yet-to-be released (at the time) Ronin rules for sale. I thumbed through a copy and what did I find? A combat system where each player had a combat pool of chits or counters they could assign defensively or offensively in each combat, and how many chits they received depended on skill ranking. Needless to say, I bought a copy and couldn’t wait to try them out. On a recent club night some of the guys and I put Ronin through its paces, so after I tell you about the rules themselves, I’ll tell you about how they actually worked. Finally, I’ll give you my thoughts.

(Note: This is an unsolicited review and I received nothing in return for posting it from anyone)


The Rules:

While the look and gloss of a rulebook have never been things I’ve cared too much about, the Ronin rulebook is an attractive little volume. Coming in at a slim 64 pages, the softcover volume doesn’t have much room for fluff. The text is crisp and readable, and there are plenty of nice color images (both Opsrey plates and photos of finished miniatures.) The table of contents is very thorough and allows for quickly finding the rule you need when learning.

The first seven pages are taken up by introductory stuff – a little on the era it covers and the weapons and armor used, as well as getting some basic terminology out of the way. The rules proper follow over the next 16 pages. The roughly 20 pages after that cover the various faction lists included in the book, and then the next dozen provide some scenarios, campaign and tournament rules. The last few pages then lay out some advanced rules, adjustments if you want to play in some other periods of Japanese history (the Kamakura and late-Edo periods), a suggested reading list, and some counter and reference sheets. The reference sheets are very good, but not 100% complete with everything you need to remember during play. A good read through of the main rules is needed to make sure you understand everything, and you’ll still need a copy of the book handy your first few times through.

While I won’t get into the details below, there are rules included for mounted models, banner bearers, fatigue, combat versus multiple opponents and a limited number of special attributes that can be purchased for high ranking models to make them more formidable.

Gameplay:

Gameplay is pretty straightforward. First each side will assemble a buntai (or fighting force) from the available factions using the point system provided (or not, if you prefer). The recommended buntai size is 4-20 models, and I do think 20 models per side is about as high as you’d want to go for a good 2-3 hour game.

Once play starts, each turn you determine which side has priority for the turn (and thus will do everything first) and check morale for your forces. Morale checks are only forced by certain events like losing your commander and taking a lot of losses, and one check is made for the whole buntai. There are three morale levels: steady (everything works as normal), wavering and routing. If a model’s buntai isn’t steady it will have to roll when it is selected to move to see if it does what is asked of it, or is limited in its options (for routing troops a failure means running for the edge of the table).

Players then move on to the move phase where, starting with the priority player, each side selects a model and moves it, then the sides alternate. Movement for foot models is a base 6”, or, as long as the model does not come within 1” of another model, it can run 9”. Models armed with ranged weapons can also shoot in the move phase, but it is considered a hurried shot, and thus it’s harder to hit. Shooting is simply rolling 2d6, adding the shooter’s “shooting” stat, applying a number of other modifiers, and trying to beat a '6' plus any armor or cover modifiers the target has. Beat the number by at least one and you’ve scored a wound result, beat it by a lot and you’ve landed a serious, potentially incapacitating wound.

After all moving and shooting is done, we go to combat between touching models. At first, combat seems complicated, but it really isn’t. Each model involved in a combat has a skill rank and “combat pool” attached to it – the higher the better. As combat begins, each player assembles a pool of combat chits or counters in secret that matches the total of their combat pool for all of their models involved in the combat being resolved. Each chit can be either offensive or defensive (you’ll need two different colors of chits). When both players are ready, they reveal what they have chosen and get to fighting.

First initiative is determined with a roll-off of d6s BUT either side can choose to spend one of their attack chits to roll 2d6 and use the higher of the two. Once initiative is determined, the winner is the attacker and can use an attack chit to make a basic 2d6 attack roll or he can pass – if player A passes and then so does player B, the combat is over. If the initiative player attacks, the defender can choose to spend a defensive chit to enhance his normally 1d6 defense roll to a 2d6 defense roll. The attacker may then spend an additional attack chit to enhance his roll. This adds a third d6, but he can only use the highest two. Once that’s done, both sides roll, add their modifiers and compare results. If the attacker’s total is higher, he gets a result that, depending on how much he won by, can result in a stunned opponent up to an instant kill. Presuming the defender survives, the roles now reverse and the combat continues, going back and forth until both models have used all their chits. A combat between swordmasters could go back and forth a few times before the chits are gone, but for run-of-the-mill troops they would only usually have enough for each model to get a shot before they are done. If neither side is down after the chits are exhausted, the fight will continue next turn.

After combat is the action phase during which general non-combat actions are taken, as well as an additional round of shooting. This is the "normal" time for shooting, so it does not include the penalty assessed in the move phase. Bows can be used twice in a turn (during the move and action phases), though at a slight penalty. The turn then ends with the appropriately named end phase where victory conditions are checked and players attempt to remove stunned effects from models. Then it starts all over.

The factions:

The rules provide for a nice variety of factions in the periods covered, including the warrior class (bushi), Sohei monks, Ikko-Ikki, Koryu masters and students, bandits, peasants, and even Koreans, Mongols and Ming Chinese. The factions are distinguished by their available troop types, force make-up restrictions, as well as which of the units listed in a “Swords for Hire” section are available to them. Yes, there are ninja available for hire.   

Our first playthrough:

While the rules speak as if each side is controlled by a single person, I had five players interested in trying out the rules, so I put on the table two opposing forces of 21 models each and modified the rules so that each side could activate three models at a time in movement instead of one, and there were not many problems that resulted.

The scenario had a marauding group of Amakazu clan warriors setting upon a seemingly defenseless village only to find it defended by Sohei monks from a nearby monastery and the aging Koryu swordmaster and his brilliant student from the local sword-arts school. Club members Keith and Bill commanded the 21 Amakazu warriors, while Zach and Al took the 14 monks. I commanded the two Koryu swordsmen and five armed, but basically worthless, peasants.

The sleepy village in the Amakazu cross-hairs.

Friendly Sohei monks from a nearby monastery rush to the village's aid.

The Amakazu approach!

The Koryu master and student await the marauding troops in the village center.

Keith, leading the Amakazu from astride his horse, charged alone to the town to announce his intentions and tell the locals to brace themselves. In response, my Koryu master stepped forward to challenge Keith to single combat. (Note there are no rules for challenges in the game – though there is a scenario – rather this was just Keith and I playing the roles of our models). Keith’s bushi commander accepted the challenge and dismounted to duel. After a few rounds, he cut me down having suffered only a light wound. Here we learned that wearing heavy armor helps, and wearing no armor does not, even when the combatants are both at the highest skill-level.

Keith-sama rides forward to challenge the Koryu-master.

Outraged at the death of his sensei, my student model charged forward. I had actually spent the points to make him tougher than the sword master, so this ended up a more evenly matched fight. After fighting for a number of turns, I finally cut Keith’s commander down, BUT, he had purchased the tough attribute which, amongst other benefits, allowed him to use up his remaining chits for the round instead of dying instantly. With those chits he managed to land a killing blow on me, and our models collapsed together in a heap.

The Koryu-master's best student avenges his death, but falls to the dismounted Keith-sama's final, killing blow.

Meanwhile, as all of this is happening in the village, north of the village the rest of the Amakazu and the Sohei monks rush across an open area and lock in combat. Shooting leading up to the clash of figures was largely ineffective, but as range closed a couple of Amakazu warriors did suffer some serious wounds. Closing range turns out to be key for shooting in Ronin. Since the combats that ensued when the models came together were between much lower ranking models than those dueling in the village, they resolved more swiftly and the results were fairly even. Once Zach moved his Sohei grandmaster – Norimasa – into the fray, however, we really got a look at just how overwhelming a highly ranked model can be going up against individuals and even groups of run-of-the mill troops. The guy was a beast, cutting down foes left and right...until he found himself out in the open alone with a line of sight between he and one of Keith’s arquebusiers. The gunman pulled the trigger, Keith rolled really high, and down went the grandmaster.

The Sohai charge off of the hill, led by their terrifying grandmaster Norimasa! (leading the group on the left).

Battle is joined in the fields north of the village.

The fighting is fierce.



Largely thanks to the now-deceased Norimasa, and despite his loss, the monks now enjoyed a small numerical advantage. Right about the time Keith’s commander and my Koryu student died on each other’s blades, the tide of the battle turned decisively toward the town’s defenders. As the store the club calls home was about to close, we had to end the engagement slightly before the Amakazu scattered and the village was saved, but that outcome was pretty much inevitable. Total playing – about 2.5 -2.75 hours (with about 15 more needed to truly end it on the table, if it had been available).

Thoughts on the rules after one play-through:

After the game, the verdict was unanimous – Ronin was a keeper, and everyone really enjoyed the rules. All are eager to play again, and folks are already talking about buying and painting up their own buntai’s. In the end, Ronin was easy to learn, and once folks got used to the combat mechanic, things sped up significantly as we could run our combats separately and simultaneously.

The strengths of the rules come from the fact that they are not complex, yet include many varied opportunities for different decisions and tactics and the rules are flexible enough to allow people to build and play their forces in a style that appeals to them. Again, Keith and I didn’t use special rules to have our duels in the village square, we just played it like that. The rules certainly would have allowed me to rush in both the Koryu student and the master on Keith’s commander and overwhelm him right away, but is that the way honorable Koryu practitioners would act in such a situation? I didn’t think so. 

The combat system, while it takes some getting used to, provides just the kind of strategy and decision making during melee that I wanted to build into my rules so that it wasn't just an "add up the modifiers and roll" combat. Sure, eventually in Ronin you do add up the modifiers and roll, but only after you are forced to make decisions that will not only affect your current attack, but any defense or further attack that follows.

In short, the rules allow you to learn them quickly and then have a great time pushing lead around the table with plenty of tough decisions and dramatic moments, without too much need to thumb through the rules to come up with solutions to sticky situations. 

Despite the above, all is not perfect with the rule-set, though my criticisms are pretty nit-picky. First, until you get used to it, it can be easy to miss all the things you’re supposed to add or subtract to your combat rolls. That’s not because there are all that many – there aren’t – but rather they are just in various different places like combat charts and model record sheets, and they differ depending on whether you are attacking or defending. It’s easy at first to get turned around and miss things or include things you shouldn’t when calculating your final modifer. All of us made mistakes a few times until we got the hang of it.

Next, it is possible for the table to get cluttered with chits, counters and markers during battle, like marking who has activated, who has shot, etc. To be sure, if the buntai' are small most people could remember who has done what without markers, but in bigger battles that might prove difficult.

Third, while the attributes you can buy for your high-ranked models are interesting, there aren’t many to choose from. As such, the high-end models for every faction end up playing a lot alike. Also, these rules and the attributes really “play it straight” in that they don’t push the bounds of reality. While that is generally a good thing, having enjoyed some of the more outrageous Japanese chanbara-genre films that tell the tales of superhuman (and in one notable case, blind) swordsmen, it would have been nice to be able to recreate such things with some more over-the-top cinematic optional rules provided (though again, as Keith and I, as well as the sniper-shot death of grandmaster Norimasa demonstrated, you can still create plenty of dramatic moments.)

Finally, while the rules are quite tight, there are still a few gray areas that call for some interpretation. That makes me wonder whether a tournament would really work despite the inclusion of tournament rules. I won’t be playing in or running any tournaments, however, so that really doesn’t effect me.

There are some aspects of the rules that really didn’t come into play (i.e. mounted rules since Keith dismounted so early, and morale since the Amakazu passed their checks and the monks were immune to them by operation of an attribute), but I didn't see anything in my reading of the rules that makes me think they would dramatically change our views. Sooooooooo, in summary, I highly recommend Ronin as a ruleset, and am glad Osprey had copies available at Historicon. If you come to Fall-In in Lancaster, PA this November I expect I’ll be running a game using Ronin (and possibly even this scenario), so if you have not picked up a copy by then, you can give ‘em a test-drive for yourself.

8 comments:

  1. Good review and AAR, thanks.

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  2. Interesting stuff - you have a follower!

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  3. Thanks for that. I've got 'Ronin' on order, so will eventually be trying out the rules myself - though I do have to paint my miniatures and make my terrain first, so gaming won't be for a while.

    I hate markers on the table, so I'm hoping I can come up with unobtrusive ways to indicate everything you have to, eg using small stones which merge into the scenery.

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  4. Nice review, I am looking forward to receiving the rules.

    John

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  5. Great review. A few members of our group in Melbourne (Australia) are beginning factions for this. May I enquire where/how you obtained your buildings? If homemade and you intend to make more would you post a tutorial (I'll be reading your blog more in depth tomorrow, maybe you already have one up I haven't seen....)
    Top work though, definitely whets the palate to try out this ruleset!

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    1. I really enjoyed your description of the rules and have a copy of Ronin on order. I also have some minis on their way and look forward testing the rules out myself. Thanks for a great review.

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  6. Great review, and nice scenery!
    The lack of superhuman swordsman is actually what I like about Ronin. There's plenty of 28mm Samurai rulesets that do superhumans, so I'm happy there's finally a "play it straight" ruleset. Having said that, I was glad to read that masters are far superior to regular troops.

    Emil (of another Melbourne group about to get into Ronin!)

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