Tales from the Fireside – Under Siege

We all thought Campfire was in America, but no. He’s been holed up in a castle, a thousand years from here, attempting to stand firm against the forces of darkness.

——————–

The column you are about to read originally started in a very different way.

It began on windy castle battlements where two guardsmen – Norris and Pickle – talked about about how the kingdom’s heroes were on holiday, and had left the castle under the protection of second-string heroes such as Forgetful Ned, Barry the Barbarian and Schrodinger’s Pete. Their conversation was halted by the arrival of ‘a vicious horde of myriad orcs, goblins, trolls and dragons’, creatures ‘what tradition’ly cuts off people’s heads and scoops out their brains so they can use the empty skulls as lavvies’.

There are stories and then there are indulgences – this was definitely the latter. In spite of this, it served as rather a decent introduction to States of Siege: Legions of Darkness.

Some people will take Legions of Darkness terribly seriously. Its makers Victory Point Games are, after all, a wargamey sort of company. They specialise in strategic titles that emphasise gameplay over finely crafted components. There are no detailed miniatures here, no gloriously bevelled boards – everything you need to play Legions of Darkness comes packaged in an plastic envelope, looking very much like stationery. The board is a piece of paper. The tokens are poorly cut, so when pressing them out you’re left with little cardboard crescents like fingernails hanging from each and every one. Victory Point’s fans have to take them seriously because there are so many gamers out there who wouldn’t.

DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT TAKE THIS GAME SERIOUSLY.

It’s a great game. Perhaps even a wonderful game. I enjoyed playing it very much and I look forward to playing it again. It creeps into my thoughts at inopportune moments. I’ll find myself thinking about this card or that turn and wondering how a game that ended in failure could have ended better.

But if you don’t play Legions of Darkness in high spirits imagining your heroes as refugees from one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels then brother, you’re in trouble. because this is one of the tensest, most exhausting games I’ve ever played. You don’t play Legions of Darkness. You survive it.

Maybe. If you’re lucky.

The States of Siege games are solitaire titles that see the player fending off waves of incoming attacks while defending objective points. In Legions of Darkness, you’re defending a castle against the usual array of fantasy nasties: orcs, goblins, skeletons and so on. There are two scenarios included with the game and though there are subtle differences between them, they both play out in pretty much the same way.

The board depicts your castle and its environs. There are five tracks leading up to it, along each of which marches a different enemy army. Armies can never be destroyed, only pushed into retreat.

A day/night cycle track down the side of the board indicates the passage of the sun. You start each turn by drawing a card from either the day or the night deck, depending on whether it’s, well, you can probably figure that out for yourselves. Symbols at the top of the card indicate which of the armies marches forward on any given turn. For the most part only a couple armies will move per card, but some cards will move every army on the board and others, horribly, will move just the one army, twice.

At your command you have a force of Defenders comprising of men-at arms, priests, archers and mages. The first three of these have their own tracks on the board indicating the number of each group left to you. When men-at-arms and archers are killed in combat, it reduces the number of attacks you can use each turn. When priests are killed it reduced the likelihood that your chant actions will be successful. Chanting is used to generate the holy magic that powers the priest’s spells. Mages, on the other hand, use arcane magic which is accumulated gradually over the passage of time. Mages cannot be killed because they’re hiding somewhere deep in the castle dungeons like a bunch of wet nellies.

In addition to these Defenders you also have three or four heroes, depending on which scenario you’re playing. These hide cowardly in the off-board reserves until you spend hero action points to move them into the castle. Some of their actions – spells, usually – can be performed from the reserves, but for the most part you’ll want all of them on the board, where they can do the most good.

Each card has printed on it a set number of actions and hero actions you can perform that turn. Standard actions include attacking, building traps, chanting and memorising spells, while heroes can bolster attacks, perform special skills and rally troops. Rallying raises the morale of your Defenders, giving you +1 action per turn. Trust me, you’re going to need it.

Also printed on the cards are events and quests. Events indicate something unusual happening in the game world – sneak attacks, say, or a strangely full moon that boosts your arcane magic while driving your priests insane. Quests are opportunities for you to sacrifice actions in return for magical weapons that can help turn the tide of the battle; their outcomes are often determined on a dice roll, so deciding whether or not to give up your actions to go on them becomes a bit of a gamble.

Everything’s a gamble in Legions of Darkness. Combat is determined by a dice roll. How much magical energy you start the game with is determined by a dice roll. Certain card effects will kill your heroes instantly if you’re unlucky with your – say it with me – dice roll. Even the spells your priests and wizards memorise are chosen randomly from a pool of identical counters.

Time passes randomly in Legions of Darkness. The objective of the game is to survive the siege for three days. When the enemy armies reach the walls of the castle they break out the battering rams and smash holes in them. You can repair these by spending an action to build a barricade (on a successful dice roll, of course) but if an army gets past the barricade, Ned, Barry, Norris and Pickle are slaughtered and it’s game over for the lot of you.

At first, things aren’t so bad. I began the first day with a spring in my step. The enemy armies were so far away, like Aesop’s grasshopper I thought I could fiddle to my heart’s content. When night fell I was still arsing about wasting my hero actions trying to raise morale (which, without a paladin on my team, needed a roll of five or six to be a success).

Everything changed at night. The fifth track, ignored during daylight hours, came into play and a hard-as-nails troll army started marching up it. Magic became haphazard – an event card made me discard a spell I’d been saving up ‘just in case’. The enemy’s attacks were relentless; every turn I’d use my warrior to push back the two orc armies marching on the front gate, and with the next card they’d be back for more.

Some six turns later and the sun showed no sign of rising. The day/night counter only moves down the track if you draw a card with a sun/moon symbol at the bottom. Most cards have one or two of these symbols, but that first night I kept drawing cards without them. Most of these cards had ‘bloody battle’ symbols on them instead. Fighting an army with a bloody battle token on it instantly kills one of your defenders. My people kept dying, and the night kept going.

When dawn of the second day finally arrived, my forces were ragged. At dawn morale drops a notch, giving you fewer actions per turn. Having to deal with -1 action was pretty rough, but I couldn’t blame my army. After the night we’d had, my morale was pretty low, too.

The castle fell on the third day, three spaces from the end of the siege. The orcs kicked in the gates, rampaged through the courtyard and came away with enough new lavatories to impress even the chaps at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

States of Siege: Legions of Darkness is an incredibly tense game. While the randomised elements often make success seem unlikely, every action you take matters and it’s how you marshal your defenders that decides the outcome of battle. There’s no room for timidity – you can’t hope that next turn you’ll be lucky. Play defensively and plan for the worst and maybe – just maybe – you’ll make it through the siege.

——————–

Campfire Burning can often be found at night with a burning torch in hand, holding back the hordes of darkness. Make his life a little brighter – email him on campfire@littlemetaldog.com

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