Hi everyone. My name is Tyler Jefferson, and I’ll be your guest author for the next three Sundays here on ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong?’.
Why, you ask?
Because your usual author, Scott ‘Floppy’ Bartel, got his skull stoved in playing field hockey. I’m reliably informed that he managed to sustain about as serious a hit to the face as it’s possible to get without permanent damage to his brain, teeth or vision. So, depending on your point of view, he was either very lucky, or very unlucky. And isn’t that the essence of wargaming, to debate over relative luck after someone takes a serious head wound?
All humour aside, Floppy is expected to recover fully over a few months. And he will be back to painting and playing wargames within a few weeks. So expect to hear from him again soon. But in the meantime, he’s asked me to write a few articles to fill the gap, which I’m very happy to be doing.
Like a true friend, I’m not letting Floppy’s painful, bedridden and highly-medicated condition stop me from making jokes at his expense. So for the next few weeks, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at a game that Floppy has been promising to paint an army for and play for years now…but which he’s consistently failed to follow up on. He’s too lazy to do it, so I present to you Muskets and Tomahawks. The easy to learn but surprisingly deep, narrative-driven wargame about small, sharp battles in 18th Century North America. That is, the French Indian War, the various conflicts between First People nations and European invaders, and the US War of Independence.
For the first of our three part series, I’ll give a quick overview of Muskets and Tomahawks (M&T from here on), and explain why I think it’s one of the greatest wargames ever written.
In next week’s article I’ll look at the various forces available and discuss the many ways that your unit choices change the game and capture the feel of the period. And in my final article I’ll show you it all in action with a battle report. Throughout I’ll have pictures of painted miniatures from my own collection and from other Melbourne wargamers. My painting isn’t up to Floppy’s standards, but it will have to do because Floppy is lazy and hasn’t painted his M&T army yet.
So, let’s get into it!
M&T occupies that nebulous ‘skirmish’ level of wargame. 30–50 figures per side, for a normal sized game. Larger than some skirmish games, smaller than others, but fewer figures than the set piece battle games.
The game is miniatures agnostic — the publishing company, Studio Tomahawk, has a loose partnership I believe with North Star Figures. North Star produce some decent quality 28mm miniatures packaged specifically for M&T. But you can and are encouraged to use miniatures from any manufacturer you like. The game was designed with 28mm miniatures in mind, but there’s a guide in the rulebook for converting ranges to suit smaller or larger figures. I personally think that this scale of game is perfectly suited to 28mm, so that’s how I play it. But that’s just my opinion.
And if you’re wondering why my mention of the publisher, Studio Tomahawk, rings a bell, it’s because they’re the French wargames publisher who brought us the brilliant and very successful Saga. M&T was actually their first project, Saga a later idea, but it was Saga that was translated to English first. M&T followed years later, and has begun to enjoy the same success.
There’s a hidden movement mechanic. Indian and Irregular troops can deploy as hidden movement markers. Those markers can move around the table, but not attack or complete objectives. When they get close enough to the enemy, or when their controlling players decide, they’re replaced with miniatures. There are also some dummy markers, so your opponent can’t be sure exactly where your strength is. But eventually you’ll have to come out of hiding, to accomplish anything. What it means is that the first turn or two the skirmishers are hidden, but they come out and get involved before the mid-game really gets started.
And finally, the most unique ‘basic detail’ to get out of the way about M&T is how the turn sequence works. Like some other modern wargames, M&T uses a semi-random simultaneous card activation system. And if that sounds like gibberish, just let me explain.
You see, when you’re playing M&T you don’t divide the game into your turn and your opponent’s turn. Instead, before the game you build a small deck of cards. Those cards are labelled with unit types. Militia, Regulars, Artillery, Indians, and so on. And each card has a nationality. So if my French force consists of Militia, Indians and Provincial troops, and my opponent’s force has British Regulars and Provincials, our deck for the game would include these cards:
Now, looking at the above picture, you can probably guess how things will develop. We’ll shuffle those cards all together, and then one by one flip them over and resolve their actions. And note that the different unit types get different mixes of cards. This makes the game unpredictable in a way that reflects the chaotic skirmishes that took place in 18th Century North America, where dense terrain often made large battles difficult and central command and communication in an army impossible. But the subtle brilliance is that, while it’s unpredictable, it’s still semi-predictable. And each unit type acts in a very different way.
Regulars only get to act a couple times a turn, but when they do act they can achieve a lot at once with their superior drill. So they’re very formidable, but inflexible and have a hard time reacting to a changing situation. Militia have the same problem, of inflexibility, but they lack the Regulars professional drill to compensate.
Indians and Irregular troops, meanwhile, have a high number of activations, but scattered throughout the turn. So they don’t have a huge impact all at once, but they can easily change direction mid-turn and act on a whole new plan. They’re unpredictable.
When you’re playing M&T you never quite know what’s going to happen next, but if you look at what troops you have on the table and what your opponent has, you can make an educated guess. And then your moves become informed gambles. Risk versus reward decisions. The very heart of good, interesting game design.
Another clever bit of design is the objective system. Before setting up for the game, both players roll to see what kind of mission they’re force is on. I’ll go into more detail in the next article on different force types; for now suffice to say that a force with lots of scouts is more likely to be on a recon mission or a raid, whereas a force with lots of regular troops is more likely to be defending a village or simply seeking to find and attack the enemy.
And then, in addition to your primary objectives, each side gets one ‘subplot’ attached to one of their officers. These subplots break tied games, and add a lot of narrative flavour, and there’s a massive table of them to roll for. It could be that your leader is desperate to prove himself in front of his men. Or he could be rescuing a damsel in distress. Or a coward, who wins his subplot by keeping his distance from the enemy. It’s a small detail, which often doesn’t have a huge effect on the game, but is surprisingly effective at sparking storytelling at the table.
So, those are the basics. And if that was all there was to Muskets & Tomahawks, it would be a very good, fun game with a nice amount of historical flavour.
But there are more layers to this onion. And, happily, I’m not talking about the kind of finicky mechanical detail that clogs some game systems so that they grind to an unplayable halt. No, I mean the sort of really cleverly designed rules that add flavour, balance, touches of unpredictability, and heaps of replay value, but without slowing down the game.
For example, I could explain how the cover system works to sometimes allow stealthy troops in woods to snipe at targets in the open who can’t even see them, which means they’re more likely to panic from casualties. Or how that is balanced by advantages to regular troops marching in line in open terrain.
There are many reasons why Muskets and Tomahawks is one of my favourite wargames. And, because Floppy forgot to duck, I’ll be writing more to you about the game for the next couple weeks.
Until next Sunday,