BattleLore (Days of Wonder, 2006 - Richard Borg) is the fourth installment in his Command Colors system, following BattleCry (the Civil War), Memoir '44 (World War II), and Commands and Colors: Ancients (Punic Wars). BattleLore takes the tried and true light war game and adds a fantasy setting, complete with magic and monsters. But it's clear from only a quick overview of the game that BattleLore is not "Memoir in a fantasy setting." Be assured, the games use the same basic system, but BattleLore is a more advanced game (although it can be played very simply). I would compare BattleLore in complexity to GMT's game Commands and Colors: Ancients. I love Memoir '44, but even I have to admit that the game system is even better when simulating ancient battles.
BattleLore seemed like a shoo-in for me, since both of the previous games are in my top ten; and fantasy is a favorite theme of mine. But BattleLore goes beyond the previous games for several reasons - becoming an instant favorite of mine. The reasons are thus:
- The complexity of the game, while still very simple, has now been expanded to the point where strategy is much more prevalent.
- The expandability of the game is fantastic, allowing new races, combinations of units, and even monsters!
- The customizable war council is terrific and really makes the game for me, allowing a decent amount of strategy in game setup.
Let's get into the game in more detail:
1.) Components: The game comes in a box that is about 50% larger than a normal Days of Wonder game; and the reasons are evident upon opening it, as it is chock full of plasticky goodness. Fifteen different sculptures are included in the game, with hundreds of models included. The models are all in gray plastic, which sounds worse than it is, because each unit is designated by a colorful banner or flag. The dwarf models and orc models have a different colored base for easy differentiation. And for those whose fingers are still sore from Battle Cry and Serenessima - all the flags and banners are assembled already! Every figure has a small hole in their base where these flags and banners can be placed, and they stay in firmly - one can even pick up the model using the banner or flag only! There are plastic inserts that hold most of the pieces in almost a display format; and while this will most likely be great for most people, I still bagged all of my units. The board is beautiful, with one side being used for the game, and the other side only half a board, which can be combined with another board for a mega game. The terrain tiles are beautiful, the dice are fantastic, and the cards are top notch.
2.) Rules: I was rather wary when I first heard that the rulebook had eighty pages - and that didn't even include the twenty-three page scenario book! But really, the rulebook may be the best I've ever seen. Each page is in full color, with vast amounts of examples and illustrations. Many pages are simply full color illustrations, and it really is a nice book to leaf through. The book explains things in segments; so a player can simply play with the basic rules, which are very similar to those in Memoir '44, adding a bit of complexity at a time. I found these rules very easy to teach new players with, but I also was able to teach an apt new player the entire system from scratch. With people already familiar with the Memoir system, this is a piece of cake, and they can probably add in all the rules immediately. There's certainly a good amount of complexity here when compared to earlier incarnations of the series, but nothing that cannot be easily absorbed, and really nothing compared to most miniature and war games. Dozens of reference cards are included with the game; and while I don't need most of them after playing a few scenarios, they are certainly nice to have.
3.) Combat: I won't go into a detailed description of combat, because it's covered elsewhere on the 'net, but I will reiterate my opinion that it is the best combat system ever created for a war game, and it works terrific in this version as well. One big change from the Memoir system is the morale rules. All troops are by default "normal" morale, which means they will retreat one space for each flag rolled against them. Units that are "bold", however, can ignore the first flag rolled against them. The importance of this is that any unit that is adjacent to two other units is considered bold, making it critical for a player to keep their line together. The combat in this game allows for a greater variety of units, while still keeping it simple. Each unit has a flag color and weapon symbol. The color notes how many dice the unit may roll and also determines their movement abilities. The weapon refers to any special attacks the unit may make and any other capabilities of the weapon - such as ranged. Each die has a shield symbol, which counts as a hit when certain weapons are used.
4.) Battle Back: One more thing that I'd like to point out about battles is how they really favor hand to hand combat. Yes, archers are useful and can cause disruption and even destruction of units, but it's in the hand to hand combat that battles are won or lost. If a bold unit is not destroyed or forced to retreat, it may make a full combat attack against its attacker after it is attacked. This makes one a bit more wary about sending their light infantry up against the powerful infantry, and further underscores the necessity to keep your units bold.
5.) Cavalry: My friend Sam swears that cavalry are the most important part of the game, and that the player who utilizes them better is the ultimate winner. I'm not so sure I feel that strongly, but cavalry certainly are rather powerful. One of the main reasons is their ability to pursue and make a bonus melee attack. I've seen cavalry rip up an enemy line, and their speed helps make them the powerhouses that they were in ancient combat.
6.) Mercenaries: Two races are included with the game to be used as mercenaries with the human armies - dwarves and goblinoids. Both of them are very similar to human units with a few differences (besides the obvious model changes). Dwarves are always bold, which gives them a great ability to stand and simply absorb and respond to attacks. They don't have to worry about line formation, allowing them to take and hold important terrain. Goblinoids are excellent chargers, as they can move two hexes before attacking in close combat; but they are also frightened, which means they retreat two hexes per flag and can lose units while retreating. Neither race is so powerful that they outshine the humans (the dwarfs are rather slow), but they do add a nice element to the game.
7.) Luck and the Command Cards: A staple of the series, I have to say that the combination of command cards in BattleLore is by far the best I've ever seen. There are only a few special cards - the majority of the cards simply allow an amount of units to be ordered. Now, this being a game that involves cards and dice, there is bound to be luck involved. But I have never seen luck play a huge amount in any of these games, and the same occurs in BattleLore. Sure, there is the occasional surprise when a weak unit manages to take out a stronger unit, but the luck evens out over the course of a game. Good tactics and correct play of the command cards are what win the day.
8.) Lore: The biggest difference between BattleLore and its predecessors is the Lore system. A pile of Lore tokens is included in the game, and each player has a goblet that they store the tokens in. Each player has different Lore Masters that allow them to use different types of Lore Cards. These Lore cards allow players to spend their Lore tokens to make magical attacks, sneak through terrain, move twice, etc. Players can get either two Lore tokens at the end of their turn, or one token and one Lore Card, or two Lore Cards (keeping one and discarding the other). These cards really change the game, adding some unpredictability, and paving the way for some really cool attacks. One of the best features the game adds is the Lore symbols on the dice. When a player rolls these in combat, they miss; but they add one Lore symbol to their goblet for each symbol showing. This means that a player that does poorly in combat has the ability to play better special cards, giving them a better advantage in the game.
9.) War Council: The Lore tokens and cards are really fascinating, but what makes them is the War Council. Before many scenarios, players take either a preset War Council, or better yet - create their own. Players get six "levels" to build their council with and can take that many levels of the Commander, the Wizard, the Rogue, the Cleric, and the Warrior. For example, I might take a level two Commander, a level three Rogue, and a level one Cleric - my six levels. No character can have more than three levels, and their levels certainly affect gameplay. The Commander is the only one who has nothing to do with Lore; instead, he directly determines how many Command cards a player may have. Normally a player may only have three command cards, plus one per level of the Commander. So a player who takes a level three Commander will have fewer options with Lore but a great deal more maneuvering on the battlefield. The other four members are considered Lore Masters, and the level of the highest one determines how many Lore tokens and cards a player starts with, as well as the maximum number of cards they can have. There is a deck of Lore cards for each of the four members, and they are shuffled into one large Lore deck to start the game. Warrior cards usually directly effect battle results and rolls; Cleric cards heal and can do some massive damage, Rogue cards allow treachery and deceit, and Wizard cards are often powerful attacks. Depending on how you want to run your army, it's very important how a player sets up their initial council. Lore cards cost three extra Lore if you do not have a matching Lore Master in your Council, and several of them do more damage/etc. if the Master is a higher level. This really makes the initial setup important, and it's often an agonizing decision for me as to whom I'll take. This is by far my favorite addition to the game, to the point where I won't play a scenario without a Lore Master.
10.) Creatures: Further compounding this decision making is that a player can take a monstrous Creature as one of the six things in their War Council. The game comes with only one monster - although it's a doozy - a Giant Spider! Two other creatures are available through different means, the Earth Elemental and the Hill Giant. These creatures act as one entire unit and are often quite powerful on the battlefield. Not only are they normally Bold and have good offense, but they can only be killed on a "Critical" hit, which means that the player attacking them must first hit them, then roll those dice again for a color that matches the Creature's banner to kill them. This doesn't make creatures invulnerable, but it certainly increases their power and makes them useful on the battlefield. Adding to their effectiveness is the fact that they have special abilities (the Spider can Web or Poison opponents) that are activated by Lore Symbols when attacking. Now this initially might sound like creatures will dominate the battlefield, but that is far from the case. First of all, there are at maximum two of them on the board, and they are very killable. Secondly, they are worth a victory point when killed, so a player must take that into consideration when using them. Still, there is no denying that they add a certain presence to your army and can do some nasty damage on top of that. I like 'em!
11.) Terrain: There is the normal mix of terrain that is in war games - woods, hills, water, etc. But BattleLore adds some special terrain - the Lore Master's Landmarks. If a player takes a level three character in the War Council, they receive the matching landmark. These pieces not only make useful places to defend, but they have special abilities - like the Warrior's Training Camp allowing a player to change a unit's level to the next higher level; or the Rogue's Den to connect to a Secret Passage elsewhere on the map. This adds more angst when setting up your War Council, as these terrain pieces are really interesting and useful! Another great addition to the game.
12.) Scenarios: The Scenario book comes with ten very interesting scenarios - ranging from an actual historical battle - Agincourt, to a magical battle between Dwarves, Goblinoids, and a Giant Spider. Personally, while all the scenarios are interesting, I have to admit that I skipped to the back and wanted to use the War Council ones the most. And, if Memoir '44 is any indication, there will be hundreds of scenarios on the internet for people to download and play. My only concern was that there were not rules for the larger scenarios, though I am told that is on the way.
13.) Expandability: Some have had concerns that the game is a "collectible" one, and this is patently false. If you simply play with what comes in the base game, you'll have a blast and probably will never need anything else. At the same time, all throughout the rules you can see how there will be more and exciting things planned for the future. This is a base game that is just begging for expansions! These expansions will not be "collectible", but rather a player will know exactly what they are getting - similar to Heroscape. I need more races, and more Lore Cards, and more creatures, and: Okay, perhaps I should play the basic game more. But this expandability is very exciting and turns BattleLore into the game that I wish Warhammer and its ilk had become.
14.) Fun Factor: And the key to any good game, of course, is how much fun it is. Considering the clamor of those I played it with, the fun is high. Considering how I am typing this out, wishing I was playing the game instead - it must be good! All I can say is that BattleLore is the best in the series yet!
15.) Series: BattleLore will not replace Memoir, although it may exceed it in the long run. Since I've started playing Command and Colors: Ancients and Memoir, my playings of Battle Cry have drastically reduced, and I assume that this time will be similar. At the same time, Memoir and BattleLore have too completely different feels, not to mention themes. Memoir is more of a "shooty" game, and BattleLore has the feel of a line sweeping across the board. And other than component quality, I think that BattleLore is different enough from Commands and Colors: Ancients to warrant owning both of them!
As you can see, I'm rather enthused about BattleLore; I've been looking forward to it for a long time, and it certainly exceeded my expectations! The War Council changes the game from simply being a clone to a game that has a unique, magical feel. With room for expansions, but certainly not needing them, BattleLore is a terrific two-player game that allows one to quickly play a battle with a good amount of tactics and strategy. It certainly is the best fantasy war game I've played and is definitely worth the price (the box barely contains all the components!) If you like fantasy and are interested in a light war game, then stop reading now and buy this game.
"Real men play board games"
You can buy this game directly from Funagain games.
BoardGameGeek entry for BattleLore