Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Rus in Dragon and Dungeon

My first published works appeared in Dragon #290 and Dungeon #89. Dragon contained the historical campaign setting "Red Sails," which focused on the history, mythology, and monsters of Eastern Europe of the Dark Ages (ca 600-1100 AD), but focused on Viking Age Russia. I submitted the first draft opus (hard copy by mail!) in September 1999, right before we went to see The 13th Warrior at the theater - seemed very appropriate. I did get a bit of a bad feeling when I saw the advertisements for 3rd Edition D&D in the August issue of Dragon magazine though. A revision and a few editors later, the setting hit the shelves in October 2001. 

Chris Perkins encouraged me to write a supporting adventure for the setting, and I submitted "Rivers of Blood," which I originally titled "Blood on the Steppes." I suppose Perkins made the call on the better name.  The adventure takes place in 9th/10th Century Russia, with the player characters taking sides of a vendetta between competing chieftains - complete with a slave raid, a dangerous river journey, sacred pools, a kidnapping hag, and a fortified market town.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Age of Arthur: Dragon #257 and #263

While taking a few months off from work while taking care of our newborn in the summer of 1999, I queried Dragon Magazine about doing a campaign setting for Arthurian Britain. Editor Dave Gross advised me that it was a great idea - and that they had published Ian Malcolmson's "The Dark Ages" a few months earlier in Dragon #257(pictured right - cover art by Roger Raupp, who did another Arthurian theme cover for Dragon a decade earlier). This is the kind of thing that happens when you don't have a subscription... I did intrigue Dave Gross with another historical campaign idea - but more on that in another post. In the meantime I searched out what I believe must have been the last issue in Atlanta. 

The article offered great advice for modifying the D&D classes through the use of the 2nd Edition-style "kits" so players could assume the role of Saxon thegns, Romano-British horsemen, and clergy. Also, if the players wanted a little more fantasy in their game, the article listed appropriate monsters and the like. 

Malcolmson also wrote a follow-up piece regarding Saxon mythology which appeared in Dragon #263 that fall. It was pretty cool too; readers got to see older and somewhat creepier versions of the gods that appear in the Icelandic sagas.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Coming Up: Dark Ages in Dungeons & Dragons

This week on the blog I'm going to take a look at some of my favorite articles from Dragon magazine which either helped players get closer to a historical setting or bring historical warriors and weapons to their games. My first articles to see publication fall in this category and I'll give some anecdotes on them as well. In the meantime, enjoy the cover from TSR's Greyhawk Wars game, which used Roger Raupp's cover art from Dragon #125. It features Raupp's vision of the showdown between Arthur and Merdraut at Camlann.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Inspiring Vikings: Clare Downham's Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland

It was my privilege to take the lead on the Viking theme for Wargames Illustrated #270. I got to push ideas for the article contents and write a few of them as well. When asked if I would like to write something for the Viking Age, I immediately agreed and decided to offer something that I have not really seen in a wargames magazine before - a frank review of the Norse activity in Ireland taken from political and martial perspectives and put into context of their relationship with Viking, Scottish, English, etc. kingdoms in Britain. 

The introductory article I wrote would not have been the same without Clare Downham's Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland.  She does a lot to untangle the dynastic threads that the Dublin Norse wove throughout Ireland and northern Britain. Her book even has an ultra-cool appendix which lists personalities and their relevant notations in the various annals of the period.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Game Review: Thunderstone

Time for a little game blogging this week - and the promised review of AEG's Thunderstone.

Before I go into the review, let me preface it by saying that I have been advised that Thunderstone's core mechanics are very similar to Rio Grande Games' Dominion. I have seen Dominion played in passing, but I didn't watch long enough to learn much about it. I did hear this statement from more than one person - even a guy who just chanced upon us playing at the local game shop - so I feel I'm offering more than hearsay.

The game takes the fantasy dungeon quest and turns it into an interesting game of resource management and acquisition. Players build a card pool of heroes, weapons, spells, and items and use them to defeat the game's monsters. Every turn one must choose whether to go the village to purchase more heroes/powers/whatever or go the the dungeon and engage the monsters. Defeating the villains gives players experience points and victory points; experience points may be spent to increase a hero's abilities, and victory points win the game. Another way of looking at the game is the recurring question: Should you grow your forces this turn or make a grab for more victory points? For the most part, the players don't directly conflict with one another; when they are able, it tends to be in the form of temporary losses of cards.

We played the intro scenario, which gave a fairly quick and balanced game. Then we played a scenario with randomized resources and it proved much more challenging. We did not have an easy time with making hero/weapon/magic purchases and the monsters were already pretty tough. The lesson here is that the mix of player resources can have a big impact on how fast the game plays and how much determination and strategy one needs to succeed. I recommend the game, and I can definitely see how the same game might not ever be played again.

The last thing I'll mention is that the game looks great - very nice production values and quality artwork. I really like the thick cards too.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Coming Soon: Thunderstone

Time is tight this week on the Pencil & Dice blog, but I thought I'd throw out a sneak peak for AEG's Thunderstone. This is a cool fantasy card game that I got to play a few times over the weekend. I'll give it a review later this week.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Battle of Marston Moor, July 1644

Another favorite recurring Wargames Illustrated contributor, Jim Graham, authored the "The Battle of Marston Moor" in the magazine's big ECW issue.

We get a detailed look at this major engagement, with a special focus on the cavalry flank action between Prince Rupert and Cromwell. Even though cavalry steal the show, there's still plenty of pics of beautiful regiments of infantry with muskets, pikes, and flags. We also get a nice Osprey campaign map. The game scenario only covers the cavalry action noted above, which is good for a couple of reasons: you don't need a ton of figures to get to play and yet it still brings the character of the battle and the period to the fore.

Sidebars: Oliver Cromwell short bio and ECW Uniforms, which goes a ways towards dispelling myths about the "standard" appearance of Royalist and Parliamentary cavalrymen.

The picture to the right is some box cover art from Warlord Games' ECW cavalry and dragoons range. The article featured a number of lavish photographs of their figures on the tabletop along with others from Trent, Renegade, and Foundry

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Battle of Birmingham, April 1643

Games designer Chris Peers authored the "The Battle of Birmingham" as part of the Prince Rupert & English Civil War theme in Wargames Illustrated #269. He went the distance with this piece and brought a lot of interesting insights to the table.

Again, we get to take a look at small engagement whose offbeat nature and importance belied its size (see The Battle of Powick Bridge for another). I'll not throw too many spoilers out there, but the battle was rather lopsided and included a good measure of artillery; the ugly aftermath definitely put Prince Rupert in a nasty light - even in the eyes of King Charles. The article looks pretty awesome (and don't get me wrong, all the ECW articles look great), and it's probably my favorite from a miniature vignette perspective - we get close-ups and big views of well-made tabletop Birmingham environs, including St. Martin's Church. Renegade Miniatures and Grand Manner played center stage to the fab pics.

The article includes a scenario, with orders of battle based on Rick Priestley's 1644 rules. Beyond that we get plenty of sidebars: The Pamphlet War, which describes the propaganda aspects of the conflict; Searching for the Battle; and ECW Artillery, another gem in the collection of nuts-and-bolts tactics/troops/weapons sidebars found throughout the series. 

The last installment on this week's series on Wargames Illustrated's ECW issue will feature Jim Graham's "The Battle of Marston Moor."

Coming Soon: The Vikings in Ireland!

I love the Vikings and getting to write about them was a privilege and a thrill. Next month's Wargames Illustrated #270 takes them head on in a refreshing way - this isn't just the same old loot and plunder narratives and scenarios (though there's plenty to go around in the issue's pages). When offered a chance to drive the Viking theme, I took the opportunity to really bring the Norse Kingdom of Dublin alive for the tabletop. Check out the preview here. And did I mention games guru Howard Whitehouse did a piece for the theme as well? 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

ECW Guest Blog: Neil Smith

Neil Smith authored two pieces (that eventually turned into three) for Wargames Illustrated's big English Civil War issue (pictured at right). He agreed to submit a little background regarding his love affair with military history and the ECW in particular...

I blame Mr. Kelly. I was a nine-year-old kid just moved to the big town from a wee village and I found myself in Mr. Kelly’s class. The soft spoken, bearded Irishman with a talent for story-telling and playing the penny-whistle during lessons also had a passion for history. It was he who gave me my first ever history assignment, and I chose the English Civil War for reasons now lost along with thousands of brain cells during my Newcastle Brown Ale years.

I remember it as if it was yesterday, a huge poster sized sheet of paper with a Cavalier lovingly portrayed down one side and a Roundhead on the other. In the middle was my hand-drawn map of Edgehill and vignettes on all the different aspects of the war cut out from my school notepad and glued on. To my nine-year-old eyes this was art of the highest order, and my love affair with military history was well underway.

Thirty-harrumph-harrumph years later, and all grown up (mostly), my love of military history was intact, although I’d moved on to study another Civil War this time in America. I had also been lured into the cult of wargaming by a couple of shady characters at Edinburgh University – you know who you are – and in the ensuing years amassed a decent sized collection of soldiers from various wars, but not the English Civil War. I’m not sure why, but like my Led Zeppelin collection that never quite happened, I meant to get round to it at some point.

I was also writing a few articles for Wargames Illustrated on a whole range of topics all of which I found interesting and challenging, and I promised myself I would use the money to buy more soldiers and I would start my ECW collection. So, as coincidence had it, I’d just bought my 15mm ECW army when Dan at WI e-mailed asking if I’d like to take on an ECW project. My response, as you might have guessed, was quite predictable, and the result was a couple of articles in WI269. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did doing the research and writing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Battle of Edgehill, October 1642

Neil Smith wrote a fantastic article about the Battle of Edgehill for the English Civil War theme in Wargames Illustrated #269. As far as I'm concerned, it's the most iconic encounter of the conflict because it's the first major engagement that comes to my mind when I think of the Civil War. For all the pike- and musket-armed infantry mustered for the showdown, the cavalry of both sides really stole the show. Of course, this is even more so with the Royalist hero Prince Rupert, whose cavalry delivered the first stunning blow to the Parliamentarians. Ultimately,the battle did not result in a decisive victory for either army.

The wargame scenario challenges players to achieve a conclusive victory, but cautions them to keep their forces alive and in good order if they cannot. The command decision for each player forces them to play aggressively or play it safe; either way is a gamble.

The article used several photographs of Baccus 6mm English Civil War figures in action on the tabletop. I must say, these miniatures have tempted me for a long time. They have character and really make a formation look big. The article also mentioned a new edition of their Polemos ECW rules will be released in the near future.

Pictured at top right are models of Prince Rupert, King Charles, and the Early of Lindsay in the figure set Eve of Edgehill. It is a Wargames Illustrated exclusive, from their Moments in History range.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Skirmish at Powick Bridge

We continue this week's coverage of Wargames Illustrated #269's English Civil War theme content with Neil Smith's "The Skirmish at Powick Bridge."

The article offers opposing Royalist and Parliamentarian perspectives of this initial cavalry clash between their forces in 1642 - and there was no shortage of propaganda and spin doctoring regarding this brief engagement not far from Worcester. In the grand scheme of things, this battle was pretty small, but it highlighted the differences in each army's command and elan. In short, it defined their core characteristics and helps us to understand how and why the armies and their leaders conducted themselves as they did as the war continued.

Powick Bridge has good wargaming potential and Neil Smith wrote a good scenario based on the engagement. As the game requires relatively few miniatures, it is perfect for getting painted minis on the table as soon as possible. The scenario orders of battle use Rick Priestley's 1644 ruleset (see cover image at right), and each army totals about 10-12 small units (about 60-70 figures).

Furthermore, the article includes an interesting sidebar on ECW dragoons (mounted infantrymen equipped with firearms). These units were not quite up to the professional ability or uniformity of England's dragoon regiments of the 18th Century, yet they still played critical roles on the field of battle despite the kinds of problems that undermined their potential (recruitment, funding, etc.). 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Prince Rupert & The English Civil War in Wargames Illustrated

Wargames Illustrated #261 (March 2010) takes a look at Royalist hero Prince Rupert and some of his engagements during the English Civil War. The articles offer a great introduction to the chaotic period, and I think even veteran students of the ECW will find the Prince Rupert focus a refreshing perspective. As folks ought to expect, the material also looks great - plenty of miniatures in action in various scales, nice Osprey battle maps, and little extras such as using worn paper backgrounds for tables and sidebars.  

The articles feature a number of Warlord Games' Pike & Shotte figures, including the nefarious/celebrated Prince Rupert. The picture to the right is the personality in miniature from their Pike & Shotte Leaders Gallery. Note the inclusion of his dog, Boy. 

In fact, Rupert receives an article all of his own, written by Neil Smith, who also contributed two other pieces for the ECW theme this month. Dave Woodward wrote an interesting sidebar on Boy, who attained devilish stature and magical powers right along with his master. Finally, the magazine devotes two pages of painting tips for turning out a right smart-looking Rupert miniature yourself (written by Matt Sterbenz). 

Look for more posts on Wargames Illustrated's English Civil War theme this week.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Plastic Minis

Wizard of the Coast released several sets of plastic miniatures for their skirmish game (the collectible card game idea translated into miniatures) and continue to do so in support of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. We played the skirmish game a little bit, but mostly we used the miniatures to liven up our roleplaying games without the fuss of painting a ton of figures or relying on substitutes. I found most of my collection rather cheap on ebay because the grunts and minion monsters typically were not in demand by the collectible miniature buyers.

I think Wizards hit their heyday in plastic minis with the Underdark set (released in late 2005). Not only did the theme have a lot of cool figures, but the production values were fairly high and consistent. After Underdark, the overall quality of the castings and paint jobs declined; they were not as poor as the original sets, but they were bad, if in different ways. Pictured at the right is Underdark's Half-Fiend Ogre. I like this guy because he could simply pass for any kind of fiend and he looks great. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gamemaster Screen

Once I picked up TSR's Dungeon Master Screen back in 1983 (see top right), I knew I had made a great purchase. Not only could I keep notes, maps, and even dice rolls secret, but I had a very useful set of combat tables and the like at hand. I had already worn out the pages in the Dungeon Master's Guide that held those sometimes mind-boggling attack/defense matrices. I loved the artwork side that faced the players too. To me, that evoked a lot of the 70s pulp/epic imagery that graced the era's fantasy/sci fi paperbacks and magazines. I used the screen long afterward for those aesthetic and sentimental reasons. I skipped the screens of 2nd and 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, even though I imagine they would have been somewhat more useful. Beside favoring the old art, the game's combat calculations evolved enough that we didn't necessarily need matrices to get us through combat. 

I recently purchased Paizo's Pathfinder GM screen (see above), and I am itching to try it out. It has a lot of tables on skill checks, which are more integral to the game now, and it also has some combat-related tables as well. It features the iconic characters from the Pathfinder game, which are nice looking works by Wayne Reynolds.This screen is really something - it is made out of hardback book cover material. It looks like it might be sturdy enough to resist thrown dice.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Next Week: English Civil War in Wargames Illustrated

Tomorrow I will get back to the theme of tabletop aids for roleplaying games. Today I wanted to give a sneak preview to next week's planned theme: Wargames Illustrated #269 (March 2010), which features Prince Rupert and the English Civil War. The Prince Rupert hook really gives the collection of articles an edge over a collection that only reviews the highlights of the war.

I think if you are interested in learning about the period and investigating its gaming potential, this issue is a must.

Monday, March 8, 2010


I like to use miniatures with my roleplaying games, and sometimes I find it nice to put them on something more than just a plain table. A nice gaming map and/or terrain pieces can do wonders. Sometimes I do this for tactical reasons, but more often I bring all these things into play for aesthetic reasons. Miniatures and lushly illustrated maps ought to  compliment a roleplaying experience and evoke one's imagination, not offer a substitute for it. 

I am a big fan of Paizo's Gamemastery Flip-Mats. These fantastic-looking double-sided maps of iconic locales measure 24" x 30". Who couldn't use a good tavern, cavern, or forest path in their game over and over again? I couldn't resist the Woodlands release (see right) when it came out a couple years ago. A path, a stream, and a stone altar/monoliths decorate one side, and a plain old wide path running through the midst of thick woods decorates the other. It just makes me want to start rolling on the wandering monster table whenever the PC miniatures set foot on it. 


Friday, March 5, 2010

Up Front

Avalon Hill's Up Front is based (sorta) on their Squad Leader game. While no longer published by Avalon Hill, Multiman Publishing has plans to publish the 2nd Edition. At first glance this game breaks this week's theme - boardgames which rely heavily on cards - but since the playing table actually serves the role of battlefield positions, I will include it.

Up Front uses cards to play squad level WWII scenarios. Each player starts with a squad of troops (usually somewhere around eight to a dozen soldier cards).  Each nationality tends to have differing degrees of ability in regards to speed/maneuverability, morale, and hand-to-hand combat. Of course, weapon stats vary as well. The Germans have good morale and maneuverability; the Americans tend to be less steady, but pretty good on rallying; the Russians are tough, but inflexible. I believe the basic game covered mid/late war Europe, but it's possible it was limited to the Western Front. The friend who introduced me to the game had all sorts of expansions for nationalities and vehicles, including French, Italians, and Japanese.

Gameplay: Squads (often split into 2-3 teams) move and fire until they achieve victory through using playing cards, which handle pretty much any actions or counter-actions. Playing cards include firepower, terrain, smoke, snipers, and other hazards, but they often serve as check functions for the success/failure of attempted actions (typically attacks, defense, and morale). 

I learned this game from a well-versed pro. I would not have liked to learn this one from scratch on my own; glancing at the rules made my head spin. Thanks to D. Leavesly for keeping this game in play over the years.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage

This great bookcase game, originally published by Avalon Hill in the 1990s, remains at the top of my historical strategy games list. OK- I really don't have a list, but this is my all-time favorite game of its kind.

Hannibal is lavishly illustrated; the map of the western Mediterranean world of the Punic Wars is simply beautiful. The playing cards and chits (army and general counters) also meet above-average standards. And before I go any further, I'm talking about the original release by Avalon Hill (see top right). The recent release under Valley Games (see bottom right) looks even better. Great production values.

The game takes place during the Second Punic War, in the last decades of 3rd Century BC. The action takes the form of intertwined military and political actions, as the Roman and Carthaginian players attempt to control the most provinces between Italy, Spain, Africa, Sicily, Sardinia/Corsica, and the Balearic Islands (I may be missing a region or two). In the most general summary of what to expect, Rome typically has an easier time of recruiting large armies and can afford to lose them more readily than Carthage; Carthage typically has better generals and has a few more dirty tricks it can play.

Cards drive the game action, both on a strategic and tactical levels. Each turn, representing a year or number of years, provides each player with a set number of Strategy Cards, which allow them to move armies or take other actions. Players draw and play Battle Cards when armies actually clash, and a number of factors determine how many cards a player receives: army size, the general's ability, and the conflict's locale.

Players achieve victory simply by having the most provinces under their control by the last turn of the game. Killing/capturing Hannibal or his greatest foe, Scipio Africanus, results in immediate victory, no matter what turn.

Monday, March 1, 2010


Condottiere is one of my favorite card and board games. The action takes place in late medieval/early Renaissance Italy and the players assume the role of the great mercenary captains of the age. I can't honestly say that I know for certain this game captures the feel of the period, but it seems so to me. Armies of dubious loyalty dominate the scene, but the Church, courtly politics, and a few idealistic warriors/zealots play a big role as well.

The game board is a map of Italy, divided into numerous regions. Each player displays control over a region with old-style painted wooden cubes. The results of battles, won and lost through hands of cards, determines who wins a province and who determines where the next battle will occur. Despite the focus on battles, the heart of the game is bluffing and sneakiness. The strongest player - in terms of military power alone - may not necessarily  win a game. You got to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. Players achieve victory by controlling a set number of provinces according to the number of people playing; the required number of provinces are fewer if they share boundaries and form a contiguous whole.

Card play takes the form of hands which represents a battle (or campaign) over a region of Italy. Cards mostly take the form of mercenary units, but mighty heroines (a la Joan D'Arc), bishops, courtesans, drummers, and the weather appear as well. Generally a player wins a battle by having the strongest army in play when the last card is played.