Samurai slaughtered Shermans at last night's FP game awards. Slitherine's Sengoku Jidai won Best Wargame of 2016, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun won Best Strategy Game, and Warbands: Bushido bagged Most Promising Early Access Game. Though it's short of maps and exclusively multiplayer at the moment (a sizeable solo campaign is imminent) Red Unit's katana-crammed tactical TBS is already dangerously distracting. This week's column is an attempt to explain the allure of WB's bijou battle ballets. Beyond the break is an account of a typical scrap - ten minutes of brisk skirmish converted into two thousand words for your entertainment and edification.
My adversary this time out is a player by the name of Spider47. His bespoke warband, like mine, consists of four units each of which possesses stats representing health/combat ability ('Toughness'. The yellow pips on bases), agility (Determines movement range and activation order), and armour (The white pips on bases), together with a card-activated party-piece. His missile units - an arrow-slinging Yumi Ji-Samurai and a matchlock-toting Teppo Deserter - outnumber mine (One Yumi Guard archer) so it looks like my favourite tactic - patient defence intermingled with bursts of sudden concerted attack - may not be practical in this bout.
Before the combat commences, each player draws a hand of cards from a hand-crafted deck. I reject one of mine – Meditation - in the hope of obtaining something a little more exciting and offensively oriented. The gamble pays off. The replacement is 'Viper in the Grass', a card I've recently acquired via a booster pack purchased with win-generated currency. The trick will be perfect for persuading enemy missile units to quit cover.
With a long-range fire advantage, I'm half-expecting my opponent to sit back and wait for me to come to him. In fact Spider, whose forces start at the bottom of the screen, begins by sending a Young Samurai darting forward on the right side of the courtyard. Intrigued, I counter by moving my Ashigaru (a similar sword wielder) into an interception position. If the Young Samurai accepts the challenge next round, my linchpin, an experienced Katana Ji-Samurai, is in an excellent position to join the fray.
Spider's archer activates next and wastes no time in demonstrating his prowess. An arrow travels the length of the map then buries itself in my weakest unit, a Rookie. Reduced to one toughness point (he started with two) the hapless spearman is now highly vulnerable. I do the sensible thing and hurry him into the lee of my bulky barricade-shielded archer. The round ends with some ineffectual long-range fire trading and another indication of Spider's direct play style. His Katana Bandit advances in the centre.
Round 2. The Young Samurai on the right wasn't feinting! He powers into my Ashigaru using a 'Young Fury' card to boost his blade flurry, but is unable to turn a one dice combat advantage into damage. I consider an immediate counterattack but possessing no advantage (it would be a 3D6 vs 3D6 clash) decide against it. Better to dab 'pass', bring forward my poised Katana Samurai, and let him try his luck with the help of a 1D6 edge and a retaliation-free 'Iaijutsu Thrust' card.
Three morale points well spent! (Cards cost MPs to play. MPs are generated by the 'flags' that adorn one face of each game dice). A rising red skull icon indicates that the bold Young Samurai is now one toughness point poorer. My satisfaction is short-lived however. Within seconds Spider's bowman has sidestepped to gain a clearer Line-of-Fire and sent a perfect cross-courtyard shot whistling into my now somewhat exposed Katana Samurai. Unlike the arrow that struck the Rookie, this one only removes an armour point, but it's still a worrying development.
Two can play at Robin Hood impersonation! My archer chips an armour point from the bandit advancing in the centre. Will that persuade him to retreat? No, he's still coming. Spider is no mug. He realises that as my swordsmen are busy on the right, this is an excellent opportunity to entangle my bowman in a messy melee. My only hope is to use my Rookie spearman as a block and bodyguard. The wounded warrior may be able to hold off the bandit for a round or two.
Assuming, that is, he doesn't get sniped by that fiendish sharpshooter with the bow currently loitering in the bottom-left corner of the map. Keen to improve the Rookie's slim chances of survival I play my Tsukuyomi's Whisper card against Spider's bowman. Panicked, the target retreats three hexes. From this new position close to the fence he can't easily influence the scrap on the right, and he'll need to manoeuvre or fire over the bandit to engage the spearman. Perfect!
Round 3 begins with impasse on the right. The three swordsman behind the barrels exchange blows without causing damage.
My disappointment (the Katana Samurai had a 2D6 edge so was unlucky to come away with nothing) blossoms into dismay when Spider's most effective unit, the archer, recovering his composure, retraces his steps, notches an arrow, and, with yet another flawless shot, dispatches the Rookie. It's now four vs. three and there's nothing between my bowman and a ferocious bandit except three empty hexes.
Make that no empty hexes. Reduced to two toughness points by a close-range arrow hit, the bandit scampers around the spiky barricade and slashes at his tormentor for one armour point loss. The bowman's remaining armour point is plucked away moments later by a long-range shot from Spider's gunman who, stationary since the start of the scrap, finally seems to have got his eye in.
Round 4 begins as ominously as round 3 ended. Despite being outnumbered, the Young Samurai on the right makes progress with an attack enhanced with a Young Fury card. My Ashigaru loses an armour pip and is knocked back a hex by the ferocity of the assault. I send him back into the fray and, thank goodness, he responds magnificently. The three skulls showing on his combat dice once they've ceased tumbling (each WB dice boasts three crosses, two skulls, and one flag) are terrible news for the doughty Young Samurai whose own bones show two measly crosses. For reasons known only to Red Unit, Spider's right-hand swordsman announces his extinction by exploding in a shower of rock fragments.
The breakthrough couldn't have come at a better time. My Katana Samurai activates next and I spend his generous movement allowance moving him back to assist the archer. He'll have to wait until next round to attack the bandit, but the situation at the barricade suddenly seems much rosier. Spider's archer dents my optimism a little by skewering my Ashigaru's last AP, however the round ends on a high note when I successfully extricate my archer from the melee, parrying an automatic penalty attack in the process.
I'm rather proud of the opening phase of round 5. My armourless Ashigaru activates first, and, realising that he has no chance of reaching the sedentary gunman near the gate in a single turn (a two stage advance would leave my unit dangerously vulnerable to two enemy missile slingers), I decide to bring the closest foe a tad closer with a Provocation card. The sly ploy works perfectly. The Teppo Deserter with the matchlock suddenly finds himself without armour in a melee with a fired-up swordsman, while the Archer who could theoretically give him support, is partially blocked from doing so by obstacles and the relative position of the two combatants. Don't be deceived by the simplicity of WB battlefields. You ignore Line-of-Fire factors at your peril.
My second activation of the round is even more gratifying. Having relocated last round in order to assist the archer, my Katana Samurai translates a 2D6 combat advantage into an unexpected lethal blow. It's now two versus three. Apparently unperturbed, Spider responds with one of his canny archer shuffles. His imperious bowman shifts one hex to his left before loosing an arrow that reduces my tricksy Ashigaru to one toughness point.
Experienced WB players understand that sometimes it's better to do nothing with a severely wounded unit than throw them away in an attack that could well produce a fatal counterattack (All unmodified attacks leave an attacker vulnerable to damage). Keen to tie up the Teppo for as long as possible, I start round 6 by ignoring a combat opportunity. Suspecting that my Ashigaru will not see the end of round, I try to ensure he goes out in style. 'Viper in the Grass' is plucked from my fan of cards and placed on the Teppo. If the gunman hasn't moved by the end of the round he'll take an automatic one TP hit.
It seems my pessimism was well-founded. With chilling efficiency, Spider's archer does what he's been doing since round 1. An arrow streaks across the hexgrid ending my Ashigaru. Freed from his melee entanglement and with a viper at his feet, I wait for the Teppo to move. When Spider tells him to fire on my archer instead, thus taking the snakebite damage, my opponent makes his first clear-cut tactical error.
Any smugness on my part is rapidly dissipated by the sudden realisation that I've played straight into Spider's hands/mandibles at the start of round 7. Eager to close on the formidable enemy archer with my one remaining swordsman, I send my Katana Samurai around a barrel stack in the top-left corner of the arena and down the left map edge, hoping that a 'Sun in his Eyes' card will take the sting out of the inevitable missile attacks he'll face. What I fail to take account of is that the archer boasts a card-triggered double-shot capability when firing at a target two hexes away. Idiotically, I've managed to place my most valuable unit at exactly this range from Mr. I-Never-Miss!
Happily, on this occasion he does prove fallible. Only one of the two shots is on target.
The round ends with debt settlement. My archer helps out the samurai who earlier came to his aid, by sniping an armour point from Spider's superb arrow slinger.
Round 8. A crafty curving approach (I don't want my swordsman exposed to matchlock fire while he takes on Spider's bowman) culminates with an arcing katana and a red skull rising over the archer. He's lost a toughness point and immediately risks losing another by attempting to break away from the melee. The gamble pays off and once more my Samurai finds himself on the receiving end of a double shot special. I breathe again when only one arrow finds its mark. I'm let off the hook too when the Teppo potshots my archer rather than moving to support his own arrow dispenser.
The situation at the start of round 9. Only half the units that began the scrap are still standing. Spider's pair sport three toughness points between them (archer 2, gunman 1), mine four (archer 2, samurai 2). No-one has any armour protection left. A single clever manoeuvre or imaginative card play at this point could very well determine who leaves the field grinning and who leaves it glum. Of course with no morale points left in the kitty, I'll get no help from cards this turn. I must make do with the cold steel of katana blades and arrowheads.
Lunging for the archer my Katana Samurai fails to land a blow, but draws blood when the archer decides to break contact. A successful double-shot at this point could spell the end for my swordsman. I hold my breath as the bow strains for the first time...
And a second time...
Phew, a miss!
The two tusslers on the left map edge now only have one toughness point apiece. They're achingly vulnerable to the shots of the archer (mine) and matchlockist (Spider's) who are both still loitering near their respective start hexes. My archer is the first unit to try his luck. An arrow flies. Dice dance. Spider's sniper becomes a plume of stony shrapnel.
I've pulled off enough unlikely eleventh-hour wins in WB to know that climactic 2 vs. 1 fights don't always end predictably, but on this occasion my numerical advantage and Spider's strange unwillingness to relocate his Teppo Deserter do lead to a logical conclusion. My Katana Samurai is cautiously closing on the gunman when an arrow makes his caution unnecessary. Another engrossing scrap is over, and with around an hour to go before bedtime, I know I've every chance of enjoying another half-dozen before wishing the dangerously moreish Warbands: Bushido good night.
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