Monday, 15 June 2015

Sword & Spear - Rome v Pyrrhus

King Pyrrhus of Epirus fights the Romans at the Battle of Asculum 279BC - Giuseppe Rava
Yesterday was my first opportunity to try out Sword & Spear, the relatively new set of rules from Mark Lewis. I was aware of this set when they first came out and given that I have an ancient collection of my own developing in the background to my Napoleonics that are at the forefront of my current work, I am engaged in the search for a set of ancient rules that work for me.

So, aware that in these more modern times, no set of ancient rules appears to have gained any ascendancy ala the days of WRG, I too am engaged in an assessment process. Rather than become an "early adopter" as the marketing chaps would say, I thought I would wait to see what the response was to this set of rules and it was only following listening to Neil Shuck speaking to Mark about his rules on Meeples & Miniatures podcast that I thought I would get the PDF to try them out.

So what follows is a brief description of our game and Steve's and my first and I stress first impressions. We were using Steve's lovely collection of 15mm ancients and he has far more experience playing shields and spear chuckers than me. Steve's comments are interspersed with mine in italics.

As you will see Steve's verdict is tougher than mine, which just goes to prove, wargame rules are like shoe sizes no one size will fit all people!

So for our little play test Steve prepared two well matched foes from the past, Romans v Pyrrhics using the free army lists provided by Mark on his web page dedicated to this and his other rules

My part of the test was supplying the rules, terrain, two sets of twenty red and blue activation dice. some very small casualty marker dice and a couple of pre made range sticks marked out in DU's (distance units) equal to half the frontal width of our units. There also lies a requirement to playing these rules, in that you need to ensure all units comply to the same frontage, with multiple ranks, such as the phalangites simply indicating a "large" unit. I noticed that Steve had blue tacked his two elephant stands onto a nicely textured combi stand arranged to this requirement.

As the other participant in the rules try out at Devon Wargames on Saturday I will restrict my comments to a general overview and my impressions on playing with Sword and Spear and leave any AAR to JJ to describe. (Not that there was much  to describe)

Army Creation: 
There is an ever growing collection of free army lists on the main website and in my opinion of the few I looked at they appear in line with most other sets opinions on what was around at the time for the relevant armies. Creating an army is easy for those who like army lists and covers all you need to play the game. Well done. 

All Troops must be on the same singles sized frontage base of your choice irrespective of type (liberal application therefore of Blu-tac was required on my part to make up temporary bases). 

All measurements are then by the half base in various multiples according to type or weapon.

The Pyrrhic host with cavalry and elephants on the flanks and their mighty phalanx and supporting hopolites in the centre 
I should say this was very much a learn as you play game and after a very superficial read through we placed our armies on the table following the game set up instructions and in formations that seemed reasonable based on other games, ie cavalry on the flanks, heavy infantry in the centre and skirmishers to the fore.

With the size of the army and the cavalry advantage possessed by the Pyrrhic host, Steve, commanding the Romans, adopted a defensive stance and thus it was down to Jack and myself to steer our army into the attack. As part of our test we manoeuvred our troops through terrain we might normally have avoided, just to get familiar with the effects of doing so. Nothing radical here with movement penalties that you would expect for doing so.

Army set up:

Scouting is in the rules for those who want to do it or you can just throw a dice like we did, and then you both take turns placing out your units onto the table by three appropriate groupings, heavy infantry first, skirmishers last. 

There is no fixed IGoUGo in Sword and Spear, instead each unit in your army gets one coloured dice and both sides place all of their dice into a master bag; you then randomly draw out seven each go, split up the dice (I was Red and JJ was Blue) and the winner then rolls their coloured dice and places dice against units. The opposition then do the same. 

You've got to love a phalanx, just bristling with mean intent
The first aspect that as has been commentated on before and that strikes you with these rules is the very simple but clever activation process, that we all thoroughly enjoyed. At the start of the game we placed nineteen and seventeen blue and red dice in a bag for our Pyrrhic and Roman armies respectively. The numbers mirroring the numbers of units in each army.

Each turn consisted of several activation phases as seven dice were drawn unseen from a bag and placed on the table. the majority colour indicating which side has the initiative to move first. These dice are then rolled and the subsequent scores on each indicates what you can do with them.

To activate a unit requires a dice placed next to it being equal to or greater than the discipline number of that unit. most of the Pyrrhics were discipline 4 whilst the Romans were 3 and thus for the Romans ones and twos could normally be discarded. Thus some units were bound not to be activated in a turn and decisions are forced on players as to who to activate and when, as each unit could only activate once in a turn which might leave it vulnerable to enemy activations later in the same turn.

Now let me explain a bit deeper. In the army lists each unit is rated for discipline and strength, so my Republican Hastati has 3 discipline and 4 strength. To get this unit to do something I need to place, next to it, a dice with a score of 3+ (discipline), so any dice I might then roll which shows either a 1 or a 2 are wasted for that turn (3 for Veterans, 4 for regular types and 5 for militia/levies) however if I roll a 6 or a double then there are bonuses for doing so. The player with the most dice that round then carries out all actions for their units which have dice allocated, the opponent does their move and then you pull another seven dice out of the bag. Once all the dice are out then that turn is over. It is very likely that not all your units will have taken an action so you need to plan accordingly for both failure and success in your potential dice rolls. 

On the whole moving and manoeuvring (if you beat your discipline level then you could make a move in any direction rather than just straight forward) is well done and simple. 

There’s a bit more involved but for now that’s good enough. 

Overall I found this part of the rules very interesting and is worth consideration for use in other games. 

The cool imperturbable Romans, very well drilled and about their business. Note each unit has the same width
In addition to simply activating units, the use of multiple dice with the same score placed with a unit together with sixes scored would enable enhancements in movement and or combat to be gained by the unit using them, all adding to the decision process.

As you look at the pictures of our game you can see the red and blue activation dice in play next to their corresponding unit and once a unit's activation was completed we left the die next to the units with a one showing to indicate that they had already activated. Very simple and very effective.

Last few words of encouragement from the Roman commander to his men
The other fun aspect of the play was revealed in the combat process which is resolved by each side rolling a base number of dice according to the units strength when firing and meleeing. The only difference between the two processes is that in melee both sides may end up testing for hits and discipline failures where as shooting only requires the target unit to test.

The strength of units varies from 2 for most of our skirmish units to 3 and 4 for the cavalry and heavy infantry.

Then to the base dice are added extra dice according to circumstances and capabilities such as gaining impetus dice, being uphill or striking the rear or flank. When the number of dice are calculated for both sides they are rolled and only four of the best dice scores are selected to be matched up highest vs highest, the next highest vs next highest and so on until four dice comparisons are established. In circumstances where a side has less than four dice to roll it is assumed that his absent dice scored a 2 for the purposes of comparison.

Combat and Shooting:

These are carried out in the same manner, using your strength you roll that number of dice adding in some bonus dice for friends or charging etc, so does your opponent and then you match off against each other highest to lowest however you only keep the highest four dice and discard the rest. If you managed to double your opponents dice then that is an automatic hit, any other “victory” on either side is a roll against your discipline to score a hit.  Accumulating hits that equal your strength routs you off the board.
If you do not have four dice to roll then any “missing” dice are counted as a 2

That’s about it for game play, so I will move onto my opinion.

King Pyrrhus advances and the skirmish battle begins
The name of the game is to beat the other guys die scores with a higher result forcing a discipline test and a result double its opposite resulting in a hit. These comparisons may be moderated by one side having an armour protection advantage resulting in allowing the benefactor to reduce an enemy die result by one.

Discipline tests require the owner to roll a die against the discipline of the affected unit looking to score equal to or more than that number or take a hit with attached generals helping the cause by one
Once the number of hits are equal to or more than the strength of a unit, it is routed and removed from the table, possibly causing neighbouring units to take discipline tests in response.

Again a very simple but very effective mechanism that we all had our heads around fairly quickly and had us weighing up our options in the game in practically no time.

Of course routing units leaving the army takes its toll on army morale as well as removing an activation die from the bag, so both sides are seeking to up the pain for each other whilst avoiding any attempted payback.
All good stuff.

Skirmishers are irrelevant; with an average strength of 2, rolling against combat units with strengths of 4 then you are very unlikely to inflict any hits especially as armoured troops can also deduct 1 off an attacking dice. This means that you cannot disrupt the enemy’s battle line as they come in. Plus light troops cannot automatically evade when charged, if they have no dice allocated you take out a dice from the bag and roll your discipline to escape or if you have already moved/shot that phase its tough luck so they are easy meat. All units routed contribute towards army morale.  

Light Foot are the only troops that can interpenetrate others so no moving through your skirmish screen.

During combat you generally attack with one unit at a time (assuming you haven’t rolled any doubles), I therefore placed all my infantry together so that I would gain support dice and then gave the obvious target a dice which allows counter actions or weapon skills. It therefore pays to sit and wait.

Pilum only cause the enemy to take a discipline test which generally is a 50/50 on causing one casualty (true this would lose them their “fresh” status and so in some circumstances also some dice or possibly armour ability). As I am generally 99% of the time under a constant Pilum barrage in my ancient games then I have some experience of various rules, in my opinion this is not quite the right effect. On the whole these rules don’t go in for much in the way of “special” weapons so I suppose that’s in line with the concept of the rules as a whole.

Oh, and if you have no un-used action dice allocated to them prior to defensive combat then no throwing at all, sorry. If attacking then you must choose between throwing your pilum and forfeiting a combat dice or not throwing.


Any unit that has suffered casualties but has not routed can be brought back to life, first a general can try each end of turn to roll a dice and beat the discipline level taking into account all accumulated hits (e.g. Discipline 4 , 2 hits , so must beat discipline by 2, therefore a 6). Also you can use one of your normal activation dice each turn to do the same job as long as it is high enough of course. (Maximum of 1 removal per turn per instance). Adding a general to the unit improves discipline by 1.

There’s something not quite right about this, it’s almost a good process but,,, there’s,
You know ,,  something .  I just cannot quite put my finger on it . (I have incidentally being asked in future to stop putting my finger on it so I couldn't have anyway).

Roman velites threaten the flanks
Once we had got our collective heads around the mechanisms, some aspects of these started to become clear. Firstly our set ups had seen both sides with skirmish units out front looking to beat their opposite numbers to allow them to start inflicting hurt on the larger units behind as the two lines drew nearer.

However with a strength of just 2 most of our skirmish units were extremely brittle when trying to resist casualties, be that from shooting or worst still melee. Within a few moves both sides had taken out a couple of these units leaving the centre ground devoid of skirmish cover and due to the army morale loss forcing both sides to pull in their skirmishers and let the larger units take the lead.

Before writing this post I thought I would check out the forum to see if others had already commentated on this aspect and it would seem it is part of the design, speeding up the contact and demise of these units that other games take more turns to resolve or forcing players to use these units as ambush forces, attacking flanks or rears or using them as bait to try and draw units away from support by evading attacks and leaving the enemy unit activated and exposed to subsequent attack by other units.

I am not sure that this is a good simulation of the role of these troops in the battle line where we would have expected them to have been inflicting annoying if not devastating damage to the opposing line prior to contact, whilst also trying to stop their opposite numbers doing the same thing.

The centre ground so recently occupied by a skirmish line was suddenly empty
We were also a little surprised at how unwieldy these skirmish units are when it comes to interpenetration. They can pass through formed troops but in turn cannot be passed through. Thus after finding out that our skirmishers were not really going to be able to function in the way we had envisaged we then discovered the need to manoeuvre them out of the way to allow the advance to continue.

Range sticks indicating DU's (Distance Units) based on the frontal width of the units were prepared prior to our game
As our game was very much a learning simulation we were more focused on working out how the game played than completing our game and thus a brief summary of our battle must suffice.

To move our Pyrrhic army along we opted for joining up several units in base to base contact to form groups, but on further reading I think we may have done this wrong as we should have attached our generals to the central units to do this. Be that as it may our phalangites coalesced into two principle groups and trundled up to the Roman line, whilst the cavalry and elephants attempted to occupy and threaten the Roman flanks and rear. The elephants struck first by taking advantage of a double six allowing them to leap ahead and smash into a Roman cohort.

The subsequent melee saw the Romans take advantage of some rotten Pyrrhic die rolling and soon had the advantage of casualty count which with a 3 strength elephant on 2 hits required it to break back from the combat to try and rally off the hits, only to find that we could only rally off one hit each turn. Needless to say the elephants got parked and we moved on with other units.

The elephants start to take casualties from a hail of pila. The little red dice indicate casualties and the elephants are one away from destruction
On the Roman left the Pyrrhic cavalry managed to catch some Roman allied infantry falling back from some woods into open ground, hitting the unit in the flank and destroying it, only to succumb to a follow up attack by some nearby Roman infantry.

This flank ended up facing off as attacks developed elsewhere.

As the elephants battle away the Pyrrhic line attempts to close with the cavalry attempting to turn the Roman flanks
On the Roman right flank, Pyrrhic Companion cavalry charged in against a unit of Triarii who gained the advantage of a supporting neighbour destined to be charged by another neighbouring cavalry unit. This revealed another seemingly surprising aspect in that groups of units that have moved together cannot charge in together thus exposing their separate attacks to support of enemy units destined to be attacked from their front. We read several times to see if that was correct and kept coming back to the sentence on page 14 stating that a group move could not contact an enemy unit.

The subsequent combats between the two groups saw the Romans gain the upper hand in the combats with Jack's unerring ability to roll low at the worst possible time persisting to the end.

The look of a Sword & Spear battle in full sway, with blue and red action dice next to activated units. The other multicoloured dice are for combat and morale rolls
Finally the right most Pyrrhic phalanx got a double five dice combination to allow it to charge in against the Roman line giving it six dice vs four to the Romans removing their impetus on the ends of our pikes. The two following combats left the Romans reeling with three hits and more charges to come on its colleagues along the line.

There we ended our game in time to discuss our thoughts over a drink.

I thought I would sleep on the game and read the forum before capturing my thoughts and now, the next day, have had a little time to consider the play.

The first thing I always consider when weighing up new rule sets is to look at my fun/not fun, game/simulation assessment and based on just one play I see Sword & Spear as erring on the fun/game end of the spectrum.

The activation sequence is the core to these rules and made a very enjoyable game as we started to understand the nuances the different dice combinations offered each side. The combat mechanism was also readily understood and we became quicker at assessing the results as the game progressed and seem to give a representative model of the combats we were playing. Both these aspects really ticked the fun aspects for me and are in my mind the best aspects of the rules.

The skirmish rules have moved my assessment away from the simulation to the game rating for these rules, as I can see from the forum discussions that players are adopting strategies to make good use of their skirmish units taking into account their built in frailties. Whilst I can see that could add to the fun aspect of playing the rules in trying to master these strategies, I am not convinced that they model the role of these troop types sufficiently well to give a simulation. I am one of those players who wants more of the simulation in my play than not and on that basis would probably not play Sword & Spear regularly, but based on just one game would play them happily on the spur of the moment for a relaxed fun ancients game. They are a set of rules that lend themselves to straight forward house rule adaptations and I would incorporate those in my own games, and I think there is a market for this set of rules.

Overall, the key question is of course, would I play these rules again?

Hmmm….    No. 

Thanks to Jack and Steve for a fun play test of Sword & Spear


  1. Now that activation method has possibilities. I like the element of uncertainty and the many command and control choices the player is forced to make. It also allows you to set everything up perfectly and find that half your troops stand round doing bo-diddily. It happened, especially in the ancient period and is difficult to reflect with the birds eye view and perfect knowledge of your troops morale and stamina that a wargame gives you.

    The skirmishers rules just appear wrong to me. I prefer rules where skirmishers fight each other and the winners go on to knock the "fresh" status from some enemy close combat units. You know, that irritating "ping, ping", that does not kill units, but weakens the good stuff. As to not being able to interpenetrate skirmishers, I think it was very much a case of one unit wanting to get out of the way and the other one coming through anyway. Skirmishers generally wanted to "rally back" on their supports. Equally, when something heavy charged them, they tended to evade and being faster, usually got away.

    Watching the game, I thought the rules gave a historically correct looking game, with nice lines and action occuring in some places and not others. It is a pity they didn't appear to play so well.

    I have played ancients for 30 odd years and have continually been on the quest for "the right" set of rules. I've not found them yet and that isn't helped by the fact that no one alive has ever seen an ancient battle and the accounts we have usually don't give the detail wargamers would like or are decidedly dodgy and often second or third hand.

    Personally I think that the length of the "pointy stick" a man was carrying made much less difference than the training & experience of the chap wielding it. Add to this a command and control based set of rules and you probably aren't too far wrong. It might not be exactly how it happened, but we will never really know and at least you get a good game.


  2. From Steve's description of movement it wasn't clear whether you were doing this correctly or not, but hopefully you were. The player with initiative (more activation dice) rolls and places his dice first followed by his oppoenent doing so. The units are then moved in ascending die order (3s, then 4s, etc) by each player with the player with initiative moving his first before the opposing player if they have the same activation die value.

    Light troops are handled very differently in these rules than in other ancient/medieval rules. I'm not sure this makes it a poorer simulation. In these rules using skirmishers requires a lot more conscious effort since they don't automatically get to evade when something charges them. They can still be effective espeically on flanks and in terrainbut they require more thought to use well unlike hordes of skirmishers in DBM or FoG.


  3. I've played these rules at PAW and really like the unpredictability of them. They give a very good ebb and flow of battle which sounds about right if you read historical accounts.

  4. Hi Chris, Thanks for your comments, for a while we did forget that the non active player should allocate his dice as well before any action but half way through we remembered , otherwise we followed as per your comment but at times we were a bit liberal on the movement order by discipline level unless it was critical as we wanted to try out as much as possible in the time available. You will see above in my combat opinions that we were allocating activation dice to defensive targets prior to action (after we remembered).

    Hi Vince, our views are similar ( I am not sure who should be the most concerned ! ) I am happy to see some units not move or be sluggish and this is best handled by us wargamers through Command and Control ( which oddly would have been very lacking at the time) . I wont comment on your skirmisher piece as its identical to my opinion.As to your final bit then I have a slightly differing view, in my opinion you need to have the will to fight , now this is frequently gained through training and by building confidence in your equipment and comrades.Having better or more effective weapons does have an effect especially if you already have experience in their use and the correct training. Warrior cultures also had , for the want of better words this late at night , pride/honour/fear of disgrace and even tradition. You were expected to fight , only weaklings need to be taught how to ( apart from basic weapon handling of course). if you are still not convinced then ask why did the Romans steal the ideas of anyone who had better equipment than them( and then trained in their use ) . So a mix of all 3 , Training, Willpower and Weapons.Plus experience ( Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms )

  5. Great looking game, and nice to read an "in use" review of the rules.

  6. I think the rules do a good job of capturing what you call training and will power by the discipline rating plus some of the special attirbutes that make it easier for some troops to charge, etc. Making complicated plans much harder to carry out with out lots of luck really does make the battles feel much closer to the impression I get of actual ancient warfare.

    Weapons are still important but end up less so than in many other rules. The idea that foot needs to be careful in maneuvering in the face of mounted doesn't bother me since this does seem to have been a real effect. In addition, even if HF with pikes or spear do not have an activation die, their base strength of 4 still leaves them reasonably resistant to cavalry with a base strength of 3 as the combat continues if the cavalry charge them frontally.

    The discipline system which allows units with better (lower) discipline numbers also means that better troops are more likely to have the initiative as each player moves his units in ascending order of the activation die assigned to the unit. While having a 6 means the unit also moves after other units with lower activation dice assigned so may not even get to use that 6. The command decisions are very subtle with many considerations to take into account.


  7. Nice run down of the rules in play thanks. I haven't had a chance to play them yet but hope to do so soon. I have dabbled for a long time too and spent way to much on rules and armies that don't see the light of day. Noting that you were not keen to give them another run, what rules do you prefer for the simulation aspect? If I can be so bold as to ask ( especially for 15mm games)

  8. Hi Chris
    I think I wrote on TMP that if a game organizer put on a game with these rules then I would be happy to play them however I wouldn't choose them myself for a game I ran. I started back in the WRG 5th edition rules era and followed them all the way to DBM which put me off Ancients for 20 years and like you I have bought or tried all the sets that came out in the meantime. I have to admit that I even spent around £70 on Impetus and all its army lists only to not like them either. I switched to 28mm and happily played WAB which without Super heroes was quiet enjoyable however when that died we then saw the 3 new boys come out. I skipped Hail Caesar for some reason which I no longer remember and plumped for Clash of Empires as it was the closest to WAB and it was fine however I joined in a game of Hail Caesar at the club ( it was either that or something with guns and wheels) and found it very enjoyable. So I dug out all the old 15mm armies and this is now my rule set of choice and the 28mm have gone back under the bed in their place.
    Why do I like this set ? The random C&C, some limited purpose for having generals , the army lists , unit combat and removal rather than figures, simplified movement , little quirks in various troop types making them different rather than just a block of heavy infantry , skirmishers have an effect without being super weapons. For a rule set marketed at 28mm they work just as well for 15mm with appropriate distance deductions .
    Most of the ancients AAR's on this site use Hail Caesar.

  9. " Still we raised £97.18 in the whip round for JJ's widow "

    But I'm not dead...