Thursday 3 May 2018

Battle Masters 1: Battle of the Borderlands

Playing the first scenario in the Battlemasters campaign...

To set the atmosphere, we decided against the cheesy Mars from Holst the Planets suite used in the Battle Masters advert, and instead put on Yes keyboardist Rick Wakemans 2001 prog-synth opus 'Songs of Middle Earth' which effortlessly blends new-age pseudo-medieval electronica with rambling ambient cinematic up-beat pop-funk that occasionally verges on a kind of folksy dungeonsynth. Well it makes a change...

Scenario 1: Battle of the Borderlands

The scenario is straight-forward, the Empire player must defend the Ancient Tower, while the Chaos player must take the Ancient Tower. Having printed and cut out the Battle Masters: Pocket Edition Prototype and persuaded Mrs Zhu to sit down and throw some dice, everything was set up and ready to commence the epic battle of good and evil...

The Gods of Chaos smiled down upon the arrayed army of evil. Goblins, Orcs, Beastmen, Knights of Chaos and Mohawked Archers.  The Ruinous Powers deigned to lend strength and speed to the Wolves, who rushed forward and devoured the great iron ball vomiting war-machine of mortal Men, before falling to the arrows and spears of their foes, their bellies full of iron and sulpherous black powders.

The Battle Rages On
Enraged at the loss of their mechanical contrivance, their faith in alchemy and delusions of mechanical superiority broken before the onslaught of pure ravenous animal hatred, the Knights of the Empire and their Lord sallied forth with grim determinance, cleaving swathes through ranks of goblins and orcs, the great hero of the Empire single-handedly destroying many of the foul beastmen, but alas for the fates of Man, ultimately trampled into the blood-soaked soil by the tramp of cloven hoof.

The Tower Falls to Chaos
The Knights too succumbed to the cruel blades and fangs of the Orcs, leaving only the stalwart men-at-arms and archers to face the hordes of chaos. Too few were they, too far spread out, too ill equipped. for the indomitable Gorefist marched towards the besieged Tower to claim her destiny.

As the laughter of mad gods echoed through the valley, storm clouds gather across the eastern marches of the Empire...


The game took around 45 minutes to play, and overall an enjoyable time was had.

We were plagued with unlucky dice-rolls when saving, only 1 hit was saved during the entire game, which is highly unlikely, but there it is. The game is very luck based - with both completely random movement and combat dice rolls meaning that the amount of tactical play is minimal. If we consider Battle Masters as a wargame - in some way as a way of thinking about battle, and not simply an abstract game of dice rolling like Snakes & Ladders, the command and control capabilities of both armies are nearly zero.

While the player might plan an overall strategy, once in the field the random unit activation makes this almost impossible to implement, putting the player in a very reactive role, not only against the other player but against the uncertainty of the action of his own forces.  Perhaps  Battle Masters: Pocket Advanced might see the player draw a hand of 5 or so cards and decide which one to play, giving greater control, but still having a level of uncertainty to represent the miscommunication, morale and fog of war.

I was a little overconfident and decided we should abandon the rulebook and play from memory, subsequently we played the Ogre wrong - you have to draw his attack/move cards randomly, and we stopped if he couldn't make his attack rather than continue to draw all the cards, which made him sightly less fearsome than he might have otherwise been.

Tracking wounds was a bit fiddly with the little bits of red card.  It's interesting that in the original game, each unit has several miniatures, these are not removed from the stand to reflect falling unit strength. It's almost as if the principle was considered, but then abandoned, logically it would have required more Cavalry models per stand (assuming cavalry should be harder to kill than infantry) and so been more expensive to produce.

Do not remove these miniatures via
A similar reductive mechanism could be to stack 3 unit markers per type and remove them until gone, which would be a more satisfying way to keep track of damage, although this would undermines the principal of having minimal physical requirements to play the game and a longer set-up time required,  so perhaps just less fiddly wound markers. An alternative could be unit identifiers and a separate tally sheet, but I think this would obscure the information and detract from the board-map as focal point although it adds a fog of war element in not knowing the enemies strength at a glance.

It's notable how directly the simplified iconography alters the emergent narrative in play. The Goblin Wolf Riders just became "Wolves", and the Empire Lords and Chaos Champions just became the single characters - icons representing Gorefist and Ferdinand rather than a unit.

Bluetacking terrain to the board is a must, else it gets knocked around when moving units.

Empire player decided  strategy was wrong and should have played much more defensively, using the Knights to block movement at the fords as quickly as possible and then wear down the enemy using archers, rather than riding out to meet them. Chaos player disappointed with not being able to get her Archers into the fray, but was pleased enough with claiming the first victory.

Continue the Saga of the Battle Masters: Chapter 2: The Battle of the River Tengin


  1. Nice report! I loved the dramatic writing.

    I was thinking of using those tiny red dice that are used to keep track of wounds in Warhammer Quest for the wounds in this game. A bit easier to handle than hole-punched paper?

    Does the rulebook actually call it the "Ancient Tower"? I have realised the Hasbro PDF must be from the American version of the game. The UK version always refers to the tower as the "Mighty Fortress" which seems way more appropriate given the Fantasy-16th-Century-Germany setting (I refer to German Reformer Martin Luther's famous hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God", 1528)

    What do you think about scrapping the movement cards all together and implementing phased turns, Warhammer-style?

    1. Another difference is that the UK version calls the Chaos Warlord "Gorefist the Destroyer" whereas the US version calls him "Gorefist the Chaos Destroyer".

      Surely Arch- I mean Grand Duke Ferdinand is the "Chaos Destroyer"?

    2. Warhammer style phased turns?

      I think that would go too far in the other direction and give too much control to the player. Warhammer counterbalances player-omnipotence with psychology rules and leadership tests for manoeuvres which model the morale factor of troops. Without adding those kinds of elements in as well, the game would lose an important quality of being a wargame. The card-activation mechanism abstracts the morale aspects in a way that works very simply, but I think as it stands just goes too far in removing decision making from the player. Dice roll activation might work as an alternative and reduce the number of physical components required, just need to set an xD6 value close to the probability determined by the cards...

      I don't have the UK rulebook, so interesting to note "Mighty Fortress", although I expect in this instance it is more a product placement from GW than anything else.

      The Ancient Tower isn't in the rulebook, just part of the games narrative evolving, similar to the wolves eating the cannon and Gorefist being a woman. We're playing it in our collective imaginations as shared storytelling, not as a strict exercise in recreating GWs IP, it's only one influence.

      Ah, well I didn't use hole-punched card in the end, I used tiny bits of cut card, which were fiddly and annoying, so maybe the initial plan would have been better.

    3. Ah, thanks for the clarifications on those issues. I take your point about the phased turns.

      Do you know, I think I had a memory spasm. It is actually NOT called the Mighty Fortress in any version of the game. It is always the Tower. I was confusing the Tower with the Empire cannon, which is referred to in the rulebook as the "Mighty Cannon"! I think I had merged together in my mind the actual GW Mighty Fortress product that you mentioned and the cannon from Battle Masters. Sorry about that!

      I like the idea of Gorefist being a woman!

    4. No, no, thank you for your comments! Really helped clarify my thinking.