Thursday, 27 October 2016

Chase me!



I’ve long wanted to try a set of gladiator rules. I’ve no idea why I haven’t after years of tabletop gaming. It’s probably down to the usual prospect of finding regular opponents which, for me, is a key factor when deciding to invest in a particular system. Mostly. I still have my fair share of rules purchased with the usual gusto along with their unpainted miniatures that’ve been languishing in dusty half-forgotten storage trays after an all too brief encounter on the Battleshed table.

So, when Sam Pate suggested we try out another set of rules from 2Hour Wargames -  this time simulating the gladiatorial period from around 264BC to its abolishment in 681AD - when desperate combatants valiantly fought for the chance of freedom for the callous amusement of the mob, I was keen to give them a try. Come on! Gladiators! I have Hans Zimmer's theme tune playing as I write this! The format ticks a lot of boxes for my particular gaming proclivities; strongly narrative and campaign focused, relatively quick to play, requires few (and optional) miniatures and minimal terrain. And caters for solo play. Tick, tick, tick!
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Red Sand Blue Sky, Heroes of the Arena, was published back in 2011 by 2HW and written by Patrick H. Lewis and Ed Teixeira with artwork by Paul Kime. The 2nd edition is currently available in either PDF format ($10) or paperback ($13). Full details on the THW website.

So, what’s included? The PDF copy is a hefty 80 pages. My admittedly basic home-office ink printer is still cooling off! Four of the pages are full colour – the cover and introduction page, a set of cut-out coloured gladiator counters and a basic arena. The rest being black print on white. There are three pages of well laid out contents. And an index at the back. A good proportion of the rules are given over to pre-generated gladiator profiles with rules to create your own. There are a quite a few tables too; more of which later.

The introduction section clearly steps the player through various choices required, should you opt to ‘build’ your own gladiator’ – from choosing whether they are Stars or Grunts and all their various attributes, equipment, weapons and fighting styles. Included are rules for Non-Player Gladiators (NPG) which can fight at your character’s side or against them! There are even rules for the use of beasts - bears, lions, tigers, war-dogs etc.

A comprehensive and detailed campaign section, starting in September 106AD around the time of Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacians, covers just about all you need to either follow the career of a single gladiator, operate a familia gladiatorial or play a gladiator and run a gladiatorial troupe as they embark on their careers in one of the four areas on the periphery of the Empire called locales. As they fight and gain experience and fame they work their way up from the fringes to eventually, with a bit of luck, compete in the heart of Rome in the Colosseum. There’s all sorts here, from Wagering, Gladiator schools, Special Events, Injury, Recovery and possibly eventual Freedom.

What do you need to play? Other than the rules, a bag of D6 dice. We typically used 10-15 dice each. And a pen or pencil. That’s it. As mentioned, the rules come with coloured cut-out markers so you don’t actually have to have miniatures available to start playing. And a gridded coloured arena is also included.

Given the sheer amount of options covered in RSBS you’d be forgiven thinking the actual core rules are likely to be complex and requiring much scholarship and humming and hawing before your chosen miniature gladiator has blooded its pointy weapon of choice. You’d be wrong. They cover around 10 pages, and are presented in a clear ‘stepped’ format that I’ve found a familiar 2HW style. Sam and I had our basic gladiator profiles ‘built’ and snarling at each other across the paper arena within 15-20 minutes – which isn’t bad considering this was the first time we had picked up these rules, including the inevitable table checking and cross-referencing. In fact, once we got going, the system was pleasantly intuitive.

How does it play? As it was our first go, we opted to simply pit two of the pre-formatted gladiators from the six ‘classes’ supplied. I had Murmillo (actually the name of the fighting style) armed with a large shield and a sword. Sam had Thraex, with a small shield and sword. Sam has been busy building up his gladiator collection so had a nice line-up of variously equipped and well painted 28mm miniatures to choose from. I’m quite jealous. But of course, that means I’m going to have to get some of my own. And paint them! We chose two miniatures that matched the chosen profiles.
All we had to do was allocate 10 starting points across their three primary attributes – Savvy, Strength and Speed - with a limit of 7 points per attribute. Profile sheets are provided, which include a helpful outline of the gladiator showing, amongst other things, the type of armour and damage allocation for various body parts – lower right/left leg, belly, chest, head arms etc. The combined total can never exceed 20. 

Crucially, this combined points (10 in our case) also determined the amount of dice you have in your Stamina pool, which can be used to boost your rolls when manoeuvring or attacking.  They are one-use only, though. So when your stamina pool is depleted your gladiator is Spent. Hopefully not permanently! There are chances to gain lost stamina dice, by gladiators withdrawing to catch their breath for example or during the manoeuvre step - assuming the panting gladiator actually gets an opportunity to do so! Two other key values, Manoeuvre and Attack are also generated at this stage.

Gladiator profile sheet
The actual turn sequence is straightforward; the player with the initiative working through each step consecutively, the defending player following through. At first I thought it was pretty much IGoYouGo, however this is not always the case as both the Manoeuvre and Attack phases can lead to the advantage flipping to the defender! The sequence is Initiative, Movement, Ranged Attacks (nets, spears etc.), Manoeuvre (when gladiators occupy the same movement zone), Attack, Hit Location and Damage Allocation. Each step has its accompanying table of modifiers.

For example, when Manoeuvring the gladiator’s Savvy is used; Murrillo started with 4 Savvy so gets 4 dice. Then he may gain or lose dice depending on circumstance (he’s bleeding, on the ground, fighting ‘offhand’ etc.). This all builds his Manoeuvre dice pool. The defending player does the same. Both players can boost this by dipping into their Stamina pool if they wish. Then both players roll their dice simultaneously– counting any 1,2 or 3 results as successes. Yes, low dice rolls are successes! Perfect for me! I’ve found a system that rewards my uncanny ability to roll multiple 1s! The player with the most successes consults the Manoeuvre table to see what happens. He may get to make a standard or ‘Bash attack, attack the defender's unshielded side, drop back and catch his breath etc.

Come on! Chase me!
Similarly, the players then generate their Attack pools, determined by circumstance and the results of the manoeuvring, optionally boosting from their possibly dwindling Stamina pool. Again, players dice off and consult the Attack Result table. All sorts of things can happen here. It may even go horribly wrong for the attacking gladiator!

Should he/she be successful, it’s then a roll on the Hit Location Table to randomly see where the blow has actually hit – it may have hit a shield and caused no damage! If it does hit a body part – front chest for example – then the Damage Table is referenced which determines, with modifiers, how much damage is done. 

Finally, the Damage Result table determines the impact on the specific body part, which has its own damage box (think Warmachine!) which is marked off.

It all sounds complicated, but we found the turn sequence very easy to work through and we were soon speeding through the simulated fights. There are some excellent free Quick Reference sheets and coloured profile cards available via BoardGameGeek, which I used on this occasion. What soon became apparent is how thematic the actual combat became. We had our two gladiator’s circling around the arena (chase me!), probing for an opening, attempting dirty tactics like Kicking Sand in an opponent’s face or taking advantage of a fallen foe and generally getting embroiled in some vicious combat.

Murmillo having a bad day in the arena
The use of a finite Stamina pool is a very neat mechanic and adds to the tension of the contest. The various result tables provide many levers that ensure each combat is varied and entertaining, at least, to the jeering spectators! I thoroughly enjoyed my first run through Red Sand Blue Sky.

For a modest investment, I received a comprehensive set of Ancient Gladiatorial rules that covered pretty much all the aspects of gladiatorial combat that I could think of, and a lot more that I hadn’t! A set of rules that can cover a number of play styles, from the solo player to the seasoned campaigner, but also providing satisfying and entertaining casual play is something to be admired.

For those looking for some Fantasy Gladiatorial combat instead, look no further than Red Sand Black Moon. Again, there is currently a PDF download ($10) or a print version ($13) available from 2HW.

I’m obviously late coming to this style of gameplay, or indeed these particular rules, but I’m glad I have! Which just means I'll soon be topping up the miniature mountain...