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"Sword and Spear - another review" Topic


Sword & Spear

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©1994-2019 Bill Armintrout
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advocate27 Aug 2014 7:18 a.m. PST

Sword & Spear is a new set of rules for the Ancient and Medieval period from Polkovnik Productions. The rules can be had hard-copy or on pdf, and army lists are available free on-line.

Basing is flexible, with all units having a common frontage. As movement and ranges are based on that frontage, you can easily adapt any existing element-based armies (or individually based figures on standard-sized movement trays) to these rules. A ‘normal' sized game might have around 15 units aside and I have been playing with armies I based for Armati, though you could play with DBA armies on a smaller table. Units are described by their Discipline (low is good), Strength (the basis of their combat effectiveness as well as the amount of damage that they can take before routing), Protection (helps reduce damage in combat) and perhaps by one or more of a relatively small number of Characteristics (e.g. many troops are ‘undrilled' which makes doing anything other than going straight forward quite difficult; Roman cohorts have ‘thrown weapons' which help in the first turn of combat). Given the relatively small number and range of variables, it is still possible to create a wide range of very distinctive units.

This all makes it sound like a pretty standard set of rules, but the key to the game is the Activation system, which is unique in my experience (though it combines elements of other systems); while the combat system is elegant and again, different.

Like Bolt Action, a dice is put into a bag for each unit both armies, with a different colour for each army. Each turn is divided into four or five phases; in a phase seven dice are selected from the bag and these are used to activate units from appropriate side. I'll not go into the detail of how it all works, but the result is a constant need for decision making, with a tension between taking the initiative and reacting to enemy moves; between maximising current combats and ensuring that you don't leave elements of your army isolated and unable to influence the battle – in a given turn, you won't be moving all your units, though you won't be sure exactly how many you can activate until the last phase. It is, needless to say, highly interactive and there is little ‘down-time' for either player.

Combat is relatively quick to resolve, and uses a ‘Risk' mechanism where both sides roll a number of dice (between 2 and 4 depending upon strength) which is then modified by situation; these dice are then compared, highest to lowest. If you outscore your opponent you might inflict a discipline test (failing which, you take a hit) or suffer an immediate hit. Depending upon your protection you may be able to mitigate this. The overall effect is quick, and the most common result is for one or both units involved to suffer a hit or two, or at least a discipline check. With a combination of armour and good discipline, units can hang on in combat for a long time – but with a bad roll, it is quite possible to lose a unit in a single turn, and no result is guaranteed (in my last battle a light infantry unit survived two turns against an enemy warband but only as a result of some extreme dice rolling on both sides).

Armies face an army morale test having lost a third of their strength (all units take a discipline test) and break after losing half their strength.

I've played four games so far, two each of Hittites v Assyrians and Rome v Germans. All were interesting, and after the first game the general mechanics came quite naturally. The Biblical period games seemed to give a decent balance between chariots and foot; the Rome v German games in particular gave both sides very interesting tactical dilemmas.

The rules are clearly written and whilst I took some time to pick up on some of the subtleties, when I had questions the answers could usually be found in the rules – and there is an index, which is always a good thing.

I do have a couple of minor concerns. Within each activation there are a lot of decisions to make; it is possible for things to slow down if a player can't decide where his last activation dice will do most good. And while there are limited group moves available, battle lines do not move forward together; as units activate independently this can lead to a rather incoherent battle. Of course, if you do put your units in piecemeal against an opponent who has kept his army together, you will suffer (as I have learnt!), so this may be a matter of learning not to go for short term-advantage.

Neither of these caveats is significant: all games can be subject to analysis-paralysis, and keeping your army together will be rewarded – it's just not easy to do. All in all I really like these rules. The mechanics are deceptively simple, but they require you to make constant decisions and trade-offs. No rules will suit everyone: if you like total control of your armies, Sword & Spear will not be for you. For everyone else, I strongly recommend giving these rules a try: I will certainly be playing many more games with these rules.

For more information (including army lists) and to buy the rules go to link
On-line support is available at link

CptKremmen27 Aug 2014 9:01 a.m. PST

Excellent game, and the fastest moving ancients game I have ever played, except perhaps DBA :)

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