Sunday, January 29, 2012

Men of Iron

As we continue to journey through my game collection, we next come to Men of Iron, a hex-and-counter wargame from GMT Games, published in 2005.  It includes six battles from the "renaissance of infantry" period in the late middle-ages.  I have played two of these battles, Falkirk and Courtrai.  Falkirk is essentially a "training scenario," as the Scottish side basically sits in position until the English shoot them with arrows, while Courtrai has more for each player to do, but not much more.  The reason for that is the way that these battles were fought in real life: one side set up in defensive terrain, and then stayed there.  For example, at Courtrai, the Flemish set up with their pikemen behind these water-filled ditches, and wait for the French to come at them.  Due to the nature of the ditches (hard to charge your mounted knights through there), the standard advantage of mounted knights is negated, so if/when the knights to attack, they die like dogs.  This is what happened historically, and is pretty much what is going to happen in the game.  I can see how some people wouldn't find this to be much fun, though.  I haven't played all of the scenarios, but from reading the scenario setups they all look to be of the same nature, with a mobile force attacking a dug-in infantry force.  With pikes.  Probably in a shield wall formation.

I have two problems with normal hex-and-counter wargames.  First, they are often quite complex (Great Battles of History, I'm looking at you...), such that it is a major pain to learn and then remember all of the rules.  Second, many of these games feature status counters, placed on top of the military unit counter.  You can literally end up with half-a-dozen status counters on top of the main counter, and then you have hundreds of unit counters, so you've got hundreds of status counters, and then you accidentally bump the table and counters go everywhere.  It is no good.  Thankfully, this game mostly dodges both of these problems.  The rulebook is a total of 12 pages in length, including diagrams and play examples.  And while there are some status counters, they are not frequently used (unless you put all of your pike into the fore-mentioned shield wall status), so I can tolerate them.  Combat is pretty simple.  A unit is either in standard order, disordered (flip the counter to show disordered status), retired (retreats), or eliminated.  That's it.  You don't have to figure out how many hit points the unit has left, or anything like that.  While charging with mounted knights is a bit fiddly, the rules work smoothly and the game plays well.

One interesting feature of the game is the lack of turns.  Per the scenario rules, one side starts the game by activating one of their sides "commands."  A command means a leader and all of that leader's units, as denoted by the colored stripe on the counter.  That command can move, fire, and fight with all of its units (as long as they are within the leader's command range, in hexes).  Once that is done, the player designates another one of his leaders, and rolls a ten-sided die.  If you roll a number equal to or lower than that leader's command rating, his command activates.  This continues until a die roll goes over the designated leader's command rating, at which time command switches to the other player, who activates one of his leaders, and play continues in this way from there.  However, whenever a side attempts to continue with a new leader, the other player can try to interrupt with one of his leaders.  The upside is that if you win that die roll, you get to move instead of the other player.  The downside is that if you fail the die roll, the other player doesn't have to roll the die to see if he activates his new leader; it automatically works.  This introduces a nice dynamic of balancing whether you want to try to steal the initiative yourself, or wait for the other guy to botch his roll and take it that way.  Since it is all reliant on the roll of the dice, there is no obvious correct answer, and it all comes down to what the odds are of getting your way.

Overall this game is pretty good, but it is somewhat let down by the tactical nature of the battles included.  Battles where one side is in obviously-better position and just waits for the poor fools on the other side to run into their prepared defenses aren't necessarily fun for all players.  While each scenario has special rules in place to try to make the games more competitive, it takes some luck of the dice to really break through.  Still, this is a solid game and a worthy part of the collection.

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