Wot I Think: Pike And Shot

The Sixteenth Century equivalent of a Tiger tank was called a tercio. With a crew of between 1000 and 2000 souls, it moved extremely slowly, relying on its porcupine bristle of polearms for defence and its buttresses of constantly circulating arquebusiers and musketeers for attack. To have faced one of these ball-spewing, smoke-wreathed behemoths in battle would have been truly terrifying. To have had one (or three – they usually operated in trios) at your disposal as a general, would have been incredibly empowering. Why aren’t tercios as famous and fondly regarded in PC wargaming circles as the iconic Panzerkampfwagen VI? Search me. Pike and Shot proves that they can be every bit as satisfying to steward as their Sherman-savaging descendants.

Pike and Shot really shouldn’t work half as well as it does. Built using an engine designed for WW2 warfare, and lacking a campaign layer, it looks from a distance like an opportunistic lash-up. It’s only when you draw close – sample a few of the 30 bundled battles – that you realise that this hex-spurning 16th/17th Century tactical TBS is far more than just Battle Academy 2 in a breastplate and morion.

The pace and approachability of Slitherine’s WW2 charmer is there, but there’s an energy and unpredictability to P&S scraps that is entirely new. Engagements that start out lumpen or linear – unpromising army collisions on flatish plains – frequently fragment into scattered skirmishes that swirl, surge and merge in a wonderfully unscripted fashion.

The generous pinch of black powder in the game’s flash pan is an automatic pursuit/evasion behaviour that regularly wrests unit control away from the player. Mid-way through a scenario it’s not uncommon to find that half of your units are deaf to orders. Some will be unbiddable because they are locked in close combat (once triggered, melee can’t be manually escaped), some because they’re panic-stricken and fleeing. Enthused by local victories, a few will be far too busy chasing routing foes to heed instructions.

The latter mechanism provides many of P&S’s most memorable moments. When a formation breaks, the unit that dealt the shattering blow often sets off in pursuit. If during the chase (which can last several turns) the pursuers spot a tempting foe in their path, they may switch their attention to this target of opportunity. What starts as a nick in a frontline can, thanks to an auto-pursuit cascade, quickly develop into a gaping rift.

Counterweighted by lots of player-marshalled pike jostling and musket ball exchanging (all regulated by authoritative combat maths reflecting everything from troop quality and morale, to weapon mixes, terrain, and unit facing) the freelancing rarely frustrates or dominates. What it does do is remind you that generals of the period, of any period, were cat herders not chess players.

If Byzantine Games had endowed their cats with different personalities, Pike & Shot’s tidal slaughters may have been even more engaging. Currently, commanders are not represented in any way. One unit is as likely to go glory hunting as another. There’s no possibility of settling nerves by rushing a Cromwell or a Rupert to a faltering portion of the front.

A compendious selection of period units partially compensates for the lack of battlefield bigwigs. Designer Richard Bodley Scott has ruthlessly plundered his Field of Glory: Renaissance army lists for unit types and force mixes. As a result you get to see the composition of European armies slowly changing over two centuries, and often find yourself facing forces that employ weapons and organise warriors in a very different manner to your own nation. An early-era French army of lancers, mercenary pikemen, and arquebus skirmishers, plays quite differently from a late-era English force of composite pike-and-shot units and dragoons.

Put together with the same scholarly eye as the army lists, the 30 historical battles are plucked from the Thirty Years War, English Civil War, and Italian Wars. In addition to fighting straightforward pitched battles, you’ll end up defending cities, skirmishing at river crossings, covering retreats, tangling with relief forces, pouncing on unsuspecting columns, and operating while under naval bombardment. Scenarios can only be played from one side which is a tad disappointing, but a light pre-battle unit purchasing phase and a strong, reactive enemy AI means there’s reasons to return.

Ready for the moment when you do eventually weary of the handmade scenarios is PBEM multiplayer (with file exchanges and matchmaking handled by Slitherine’s labour-saving PBEM server), a battle editor, and a skirmish generator. The latter produces some very pleasing battlefields and nail-nibblingly close-run engagements, and, thanks to those army lists, can be used to evoke remarkably specific eras.

Less positively, in Pike & Shot puritanism can be found in places other than the English Civil War Parliamentarian OOB. Sound effects are sparse and repetitive. Units icons are in short supply. There’s no replay facility. Battle visuals don’t include corpses or lowered pikes.

Oh, and the camera is annoyingly inflexible. A simple config file edit extends the default zoom range, but there seems to be no way to vary pitch in-game at the moment (If you want the low-angle vistas visible in some of the shots in this WIT you’ll have to play battles entirely from the new perspective).

Bodley Scott’s rules system can feel a little priggish at times too. I’m thinking mainly of the (not uncommon) situation captured in the above image. The highlighted Roundhead pike-and-shot unit in the centre is unable to intervene in the ongoing melee between the units to its front and right, because A) Muskets can’t be fired at units involved in close combat, and B) The Royalist unit involved in the close combat is mounted and can’t be charged by most foot units. Apparently there are few if any accounts of foot soldiers attacking horsemen during the period but common sense suggests that the idle pike-and-shot unit would have found some way of assisting their ‘disrupted’ comrades.

Overlook the strict melee rules and the odd occasions when cannons pull off remarkable line-of-fire feats, and Pike & Shot battles are convincing affairs. More importantly perhaps, they never feel like foregone conclusions. However large and numerous the pike-quill porcupines advancing towards you, there’s always a glimmer of hope, a faint memory of that time when you dismantled a similar force with a combination of pluck, luck, and inspired manoeuvres.

Pike and Shot is available now.

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24 Comments

  1. Tim Stone says:

    Flare Path will be back next week. If you crave a foxer, last week’s remains unsolved!

    • deejayem says:

      How far did we get last week?

      – General “Buck” Turgidson from Dr Strangelove
      – Rhode Island red (Orpington?) chicken
      – De Havilland Firestreak, aka Blue Jay or Red Top
      – Tupolev Tu-95, aka Bear
      – Coventry armoured car
      – Toronto Blue Jays
      – Genghis Khan
      – unidentified mineshaft / fortification / sandcastle

      • deejayem says:

        My latest crackpot theory is that the theme is Westwood Studios:

        Buck Turgidson – C&C Generals
        Genghis – Emperor: Battle for Dune
        Bear – Red Alert
        Firestreak – Firestorm …?
        Toronto, Coventry and Rhode Island all have districts called Westwood (although frankly so do half the regions of the English-speaking world)

        This is sounding less and less plausible the more I type.

      • FurryLippedSquid says:

        I’ll put forward Australia’s Super Pit gold mine as the, er, mine.

  2. emperor_nero says:

    When are Slitherine going to update their policies and adopt a more consumer friendly approach? Being in their steam forums for five minutes would probably turn off your average consumer. Iain bans, locks, and merges without caution and when called out on the bullshit elitism he spurts in every post he shuts down and you’ll get banned.

  3. Gap Gen says:

    Would be interested to read your thoughts on UGG: Ultimate Boots: Gettysburg.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Those thoughts haven’t been thought yet, but should be thunked by next Friday.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Excellent! I also agree on the names, it makes a big difference to know the Iron Brigade is coming to the rescue, or you’re facing off against Early’s division. Also making sure to put the 20th Maine on Little Round Top so you can shout BAYONEEETS and scare your flatmates.

    • TC-27 says:

      Hey Gap do you have this yet?

      If so if you feel like it and I am on Steam feel free to ping me for a bit of multi – seems a bit easier to get into a quick MP session than Marching Simulator.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Oh yeah, good point, I didn’t try multiplayer. Sure, will let you know when I’m around.

        Yeah, I played it as the Union against a Balanced AI. I kinda like it, it’s a lot more lightweight than SoW and has some niggles, but it’s good for playing a battle in 20 minutes rather than reading War and Peace while your troops amble across the countryside.

        PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: The RPS peeps who played Scourge of War are members of Rock Paper Secession on Steam, so I guess this is as good a place as any to set up UGG games.

        • TC-27 says:

          Yes the main attraction seems to be that I can play a multi game of this and not get divorced!

          • Gap Gen says:

            I assume you’ve tried and failed to get your partner to play with us? Are they into beards?

  4. Wowbagger says:

    The game engine looks interesting – like walking sheds attacking each other – There certainly isn’t enough games based on this very formative period in British History, I’d prefer a mount and blade style affair personally.

  5. quijote3000 says:

    Interesting enough, the Tiger tanks were eventually crushed in just one war, the II World War. The tercios were continuously used and were considered basically invincible for more than 150 years.

    • SlimShanks says:

      Technology advanced a bit more rapidly in the 20th century, methinks.

  6. klops says:

    Interesting. If the price is low, I want to try this some day when I have time. By the earlier nibs of info and screenshots I’ve seen I always thought the game to be in real time. For some reason this bothers me surprisingly much: “Battle visuals don’t include — lowered pikes”

  7. Nouser says:

    The lack of lowered pikes is a serious issue for a strategy game settle in the 16th century.

    • gi_ty says:

      I sadly have to agree, IIRC I was playing Fields of Glory(?) in the mid nineties and was positively amazed at the tiny corpses spread around the battlefield. There were sword animations for the cavalry as well. It looks about the same visual style as this. This game would have much more appeal with a little more effort in the animation department.

  8. claud alexander says:

    As an young fan of Geoffrey Parker’s book on the Army of Flanders, I was generally puzzled about how a tercio actually worked, what with that mixture of infantry “types” alternating in combat. The below, from the Spanish “Alatriste” featuring Aragorn (my half-compatriot Viggo Mortensen),

    link to youtube.com

    is actually rather good at showing the interplay of such types, even if it has the usual movie tic of depicting artillery solid shot as HE.

    (PS. couldn’t find a clip with subtitles: sorry.)

    • MartinWisse says:

      Excellent clip and for once you want to read the comments too.

  9. tormos says:

    This game models one of my favorite Italian history facts rather well. As a result of the Condottieri wars, which were “fought” largely between mercenary bands and consisted mostly of maneuver and sudden desertions rather than actual pitched battles, Italian military technology had stagnated for for over a century compared to the rest of Europe. As a result during the first Italian Wars the Italians themselves were able to give almost no resistance to the various empires which ended up fighting over their turf.

  10. deimocrates says:

    Reminds me of this link to youtube.com

  11. Sigwolf says:

    I still play a lot of 10+ year old games (I’m also thinking about picking up the Cossacks bundle from bundlestars), so I am not a “must be stunning graphics” slave, but…

    I’m just not sure I can get over the very odd “troops carrying around plywood sheds” look of this game, especially when they don’t even lower the pikes for battle. I guess I have been spoiled by other offerings, but it is an interesting time period. I’m torn…