Battle Masters

Milton Bradley, £35

Now this, in its way, is an outstanding game. Possibly by pointing to his impressive Heroquest and Space Crusade laurels, Steve Baker has convinced MB that they should put out a major release that amounts to an introductory miniatures/boardgame system for the teen market and, I suppose, even younger gamers. Fortunately, Battle Masters stands up outside of Kiddie's Korner because it also offers enough initial interest for all but the most critical adult, especially those with a miniatures bent. But whether you buy it for the kids or try it yourself, as far as I can tell the idea and execution are spot on. Coupled with the now traditional Citadel figures and Workshop artwork, the net result got a grown man very excited indeed.

The excitement starts when you open the box. A lot has been said about nice bits making a game, admittedly mainly in this magazine, but Battle Masters tops the lot. There are piles of plastic figures, terrain and bases, playing cards, glorious stickers for flags and shields and a tablecloth sized mapboard in full colour. Add a crystal clear rule book, glossy markers and a set of special dice and you have it. Everything is designed by the Workshop so you know how good that is going to be. If I were twelve and had got this lot for Christmas, I would have fainted.

There are a lot of nice touches in the design of the pieces. Each of the finely moulded figures has a tongue and groove system of basing that allows for tailored formations and, more importantly, easy dismantling so that it all fits back into the box. Owners of Broadsides & Boarding Parties will be grateful for this development. You get a number of cavalry units which hold together well and there is even a dinky little cannon with gunners. All these units have a base with the unit name and combat strength that faces the owning player, along with a tall flagpole with the aforementioned heraldic pennants. The overall impact, when laid out on the map, is stunning. I can't realistically see myself painting any of the figures, though many undoubtedly will, but that would lift the visual spectacle another notch or two.

The game itself clearly owes a lot to miniatures gaming but thankfully the old 'Infantry move 6 inches' defaults have been politely ignored. Movement and combat are regulated by a hex grid superimposed on the map, so there is none of this inaccurate measuring fuss. The grid follows natural obstacles and roads and the game even includes hex overlays to amend terrain and a large tower to stick in the middle to fight over. Using a grid system means that everything is clear as to unit positions and movement, and while facing doesn't seem to be considered in the rules, combat can occur with anything adjacent or by using ranged fire as appropriate. This is therefore a much simplified form of figure gaming, with no concerns over flanks, wheeling, morale, lines of communication and so on, but for the target audience this seems about right.

This freewheeling form of battle is slightly restricted by the various scenarios on offer which show the start points and composition for the two armies, one Chaos (lots of orky types) and one Imperial (rather more normal pseudo-Mediaeval). The idea of balancing the fantasy army with the entirely conventional forces of the Empire is a clever device that might tempt potential or existing gamers into historical periods. Okay, so the units don't have historical designations but the uniforms and weapons are clearly inspired by history that we know all these GW and MB types are really into, even if they do keep it in the closet.

But scenarios or not, At at the end of the day it is usually a free-for-all demolition derby with the scenario requirements giving way to wholesale slaughter - there is no morale remember, so 90% losses are common! Of course, as we did, you can simply plonk down all the available units (which gives a slight numerical and qualitative advantage to the baddies) and have at it. Whichever way you do it, despite the map being about five feet square (which means many will be crawling around on the floor), the possibilities for manoeuvre and subtlety can sometimes be fairly limited and in play most of the scenarios boil down to blasting the other guy off the park, usually with the heavy cavalry leading the way. But this in itself is no bad thing.

The basic system works in a rather refreshing fashion. Essentially, there is no formal alternate move as in most games of this type but instead units move when dictated by the turn of the top card from the army pack. This may allow, for instance, all the Chaos missile troops to move, or perhaps the Imperial Cavalry, or even the entire army of either side but this latter is rare. However, these cards come out in no particular order meaning that one side may move three or four times before the other can respond, or that your master plan to storm the tower with your Grunberg Halbardiers fails because the enemy Gobbos got there first. The effect on your tactics can be quite drastic and you really do find yourself with your own units in the way or light troops who have pushed out too far being ridden down by cavalry. All suitably chaotic I feel, yet still simple enough to just turn a card and move your crossbowmen. This mechanic therefore works for both the novice who has just one simple short term action to perform and for the experienced gamer who can imagine the commanders pulling out their hair.

When you do get to manoeuvre, units move just one hex except the wolf rider regiments who sometimes get a double move. This gives them something of a light cavalry feel, if not appearance. Units mustn't cross obstacles such as hedges, rivers, walls or regiments of Chaos Beastmen, so the effect is to channel units up roads or onto fields or hills and you have to decide the best attack routes. At the end of each turn, there is combat (for active units only) which uses the now accepted MB system of special dice. It is simple enough in that the attacking unit (using either ranged fire or melee) rolls dice equivalent to its combat factor aiming to score skulls for hits (50% chance per die) and the defender rolls to score shields to cancel hits (16.6% per die). The net result is a number of hits between zero and three, as three is enough to remove the entire unit from the table. There is no messing with figure removal, you just stick hit counters on the base.

Combat is volatile and bloody, especially when mismatched units meet, but that is a strength of the system; you get quick results and the game overall lasts much less than an hour. It will quickly be spotted that only by attacking can you score hits which certainly makes the game 'offense oriented'. The plans that develop therefore revolve around getting forward fastest and cleaving a few Reikguards before teatime. Not a lot of malingering in Battle Masters, oh no. There are a number of other neat touches, such as cavalry charge moves that give an extra die roll and in the campaign game you can acquire veteran units that fight better next time out.

Although all the abovementioned units are very similar in movement and combat, differing mainly in the number of dice they roll, the game offers two special units, both of which are great fun. The Chaotics get The Ogre which is about ten times bigger than anything else and accordingly gets a non-standard move. When triggered by his army card, the Ogre takes his special hand of six cards and flips them one by one. There is a mixture of three combat and three move cards and the Ogre performs these in strict order of appearance. So, not only does he get to move up to three hexes, he also gets to pummel anything in his way unless of course he isn't adjacent to the enemy and all his combat cards come out before he moves. I don't know why, but this seemed to sum up Ogrish behaviour very well. The thought of him swinging wildly away and forgetting to walk forward rather appealed.

Even better is the Imperial Grand Battery, or Mighty Cannon if you insist. This gets to either move or fire (as do all missile troops) and the firing system is unique. You take a stack of ten discs and indicate your target. You may fire over friendly forces or anything else for that matter - you'll see why in a moment. You then turn and place the discs one by one, tracing out the hexes to the target. A disc will have either a flying cannonball (no effect, shot continues), a bouncing ball (anything underneath takes a hit and the ball continues) or an explosion (unit destroyed, or the shot fails to reach the target). The shorter the range, the more likely you are to hit and nothing at all is safe en route. The first shot in our game left the barrel and promptly took out a unit of friendly cavalry in the next hex and then blew up the cannon as well! This is excellent stuff.

As you will have seen, there are a lot of ideas packed into this system, most of them smoothly integrated and thus not generating pages of rules, and the whole thing comes off rather well. In play, Battle Masters follows in the fine traditions of the Gamesmaster series, being simple yet great fun. Without exaggerating, I think Steve Baker has created a game that could easily enthuse and guide a new generation into figure and board gaming. It is pitched at exactly the right level of complexity and interest for the novice and, because the system is quick and offers a sound foundation, the way is open for considered expansion and additional rules. Although the system is basic at present, this is a bonus in terms of teaching the game to novices and keeping game length down to a minimum. Nevertheless, the system manages to incorporate a large number of modern design concepts such as gridded movement, staggered activation, unit differentiation and rapid combat systems. Suffice to say there is nothing here that could have been implemented better and Mr Baker should be proud of his work on this one.

My only concern is the high price that might put some younger buyers off, but looking at the comparably priced Dark World from Waddingtons (which has nothing like the components) and the cost of your average Lego set, perhaps I am way out of touch with the market or the depth of parents' wallets. It dawned on me only recently that with Citadel figures costing a pound or more each, these MB/GW joint ventures are actually great value for Citadel 'collectors', with the figures accounting for the price and the game thrown in for free. Economics aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Battle Masters both as game and introductory concept. While it doesn't offer the subject matter and depth to appeal long term to most adult gamers, it is going to be difficult to stop kids playing it. I for one will be waiting for the inevitable add-on packs with the advanced rules. I have nothing more to say except that Battle Masters is a groundbreaking game.

On to the review of Candidate and Road to the White House or back to the review of Ostindiska Kompaniet.

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