Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Battle Ravens Looks Ideal for Kids & Newcomers

I rarely feature games in active Kickstarter campaigns (though I’ve looked at a few after release); but when I happened upon Daniel Mersey’s Battle Ravens: The Shieldwall Board Game I couldn’t resist both backing it and offering my perspective. Battle Ravens pits two players’ Viking-age armies against each other across the field of battle. Each side gets to place tokens (representing ravens) behind different sections of their line, then spends them to maneuver and fight with their warriors, hoping to break through the opponent’s line and send them running from the field. The battle game format works well for simulating warfare of this age; the rules provides plenty of historical context. The designer has released several recent and popular miniatures rules that work well for beginners. The mechanics seem basic yet offer players some careful choices to make. These elements can satisfy wargamers looking for a quick yet fulfilling tabletop diversion and tempt kids and newcomers to give the wargaming hobby a try.

Battle Game: Most grognards consider “battle games” beneath their notice, but this format combines elements of historical wargames in a more accessible board game format. I just recently introduced my nine year-old son to Memoir ’44, a World War II battle game perfect to engage his current historical interests. The battle game format often features a colorful board, lots of pieces, and customizable terrain to help play out a host of historical scenarios. The mechanics can range from frightfully basic to the light complexity of actual wargames, though the presentation in rulebooks is often more graphically clear and informative than hardcore wargame rules. From what I’ve seen on the Kickstarter campaign Battle Ravens has most of the trappings of a good battle game: colorful board, color cardstock warrior pieces by artist Peter Dennis (whose paper soldiers books offer a quick alternative to buying and painting historically accurate miniatures), stands for the warriors, dice, tokens, and a full-color rulebook...everything needed to play right out of the box. (I’ll admit it contains no scenarios, though one can vary play with the addition of different armies, three of which come with the Kickstarter version of the game.) This level of wargame remains ideal for introducing kids and newcomers to the hobby, yet it also provides an interesting depth of play for those looking for challenging player choices.

Daniel Mersey: The designer behind Battle Ravens is a longtime wargamer with several solid rules sets and historical titles under his belt released by publishers such as Osprey and Pen and Sword Military publishing. These include Lion Rampant and Dragon Rampant for both historical and fantasy medieval battles as well as The Men Who Would Be Kings for Victorian-era skirmishes; I’m looking forward to his co-authored American Revolution skirmish rules, Rebels and Patriots, out in January. (Hobby Games Recce looked at one of these in “Adventures in Victorian Wargaming.”) He’s quite good at incorporating the tone of the historical period in his wargaming rules. He certainly infuses the Battle Ravens rules with a sense of the history behind the game with historically accurate names for the different Anglo-Saxon and Norse warrior groups, period literary quotations about shieldwall battles, and even a bibliography to encourage further reading...a particularly excellent resource for satisfying the interests of younger, more inquisitive players.

Basic Rules, Subtle Choices: From what I’ve seen on the Kickstarter website the game offers basic mechanics with interesting choices for players to make each turn. Given the nature of shieldwall combat – where two infantry forces face each other, shields at the ready, and launch assaults on sections to break through and send the opposing army into a rout – I don’t expect a lot of maneuvering across a wide battlefield strewn with terrain. But each turn players face some tactical choices. First they must plan in advance where to place raven tokens, which, as activation points, serve as potential for different groups to move along the line, attack the enemy, or block assaults. Of course the actual actions can vary in response to the opponent’s moves, but the potential remains. Then players must choose how to use that potential, spending raven tokens to move stands of warriors to adjacent spaces, sending a number of stands against the enemy line, or holding them in reserve to help withstand an attack. Each force has a number of Hirdmen and Bondi (armored professionals and unarmored part-time soldiers respectively) evenly distributed along the line at first; the Hirdmen take more hits to remove than Bondi. At the rear lurk the Thralls, ranged skirmishers who harass the enemy with thrown spears, slings, and arrows, represented by their ability to enable a re-roll on a single die during attacks (up to three times a turn, assuming one hasn’t lost any ground yet). What might at first seem like a dice-rolling contest offers many nuanced options for players to initiate combat along the six spaces that define each army’s line. A Kickstarter campaign stretch goal has unlocked tactics cards unique to each army that allows players to opportunistically adjust the rules in their favor.

Don’t just take my word for it; check out the Kickstarter page. It’s one of the more revealing campaigns I’ve seen with plenty of photos, a PDF of the draft rulebook, video tutorials and reviews, and other bits to further reveal the mechanics and quality of the game. The basic game costs around $38 (actual costs are given in British pounds) with shipping to the United States around $13 (by my rough estimates); this includes the rules, board, dice, stands, and cardstock punchboards with the Anglo-Saxon and Norse armies, plus a bonus Scottish army. One can also pay for add-on Norman and Welsh armies. The game has reached its basic funding goal. The first stretch goal unlocked a set of 20 tactics cards (10 per army) as well as sets for the additional armies, included in the base game and any additional army add-ons. The overall price seems comparable to many battle games currently on the market, which can sell for more than $50 depending on the kinds of components.

I’m looking forward to bringing Battle Ravens to my gaming table. My son, the Little Guy, might like it given his burgeoning interest in history and his constant exposure to games in our household. The rules – even if I add the tactics cards – are just the right level for him to not simply comprehend but to exploit. The strategic choice where to place raven tokens and concentrate one’s potential remains a key factor in gameplay, especially when reacting to the enemy’s placement of raven tokens. Even in battle one must choose whether to use the tokens to try resisting hits or save for a move or attack later that turn. These choices in Battle Ravens aren’t overwhelmingly complex, nor are they simplistically boring; they look like just the right balance for an entertaining battle game.