Who’s that leaping out of the sky? It’s The Judge! And he’s been playing Battlelore 2nd Edition, the burly devil.
Battlelore, released by Days of Wonder in 2006 and later taken over and supported by Fantasy Flight, is a brilliant two player combat game using the core mechanisms of Richard Borg’s card driven light war-game system – Commands and Colours (C&C). Taking the simple and yet brilliant idea of “C&C with a fantasy theme,” Battlelore added some magical elements [that’ll be the ‘lore’ then – Michael] to the formula and added to traditional soldiers and cavalry options with really cool “goblins riding ostriches” and “dwarves riding bears”.
However, as great as the core ruleset and the idea of a fantasy themed version are, Battlelore fell short of the sort of market penetration and long-lasting success of its World War II cousin, Memoir 44. Now, partly this is down to increased production costs making the base set prohibitively expensive to re-print, the lack of support from DoW and disruption caused by the subsequent change of ownership to Fantasy Flight. The real killer for me, though, was the reluctance to fully embrace the fantasy theme, the fiddly nature of set up and the overcomplicated ‘lore’ system. As with Descent’s second edition, as if Fantasy Flight CEO and founder Christian Peterson has been hiding in my wardrobe listening to my secret thoughts as they’ve now addressed all of my niggles and produced a second edition which could and should be the massive hit that the system demands.
[Please note: I have never found evidence of Mr. P’s late night adventures in my bedroom.]
Battlelore second edition is a superb game. Using the tried and tested card driven Commands and Colours system, players will command units of troops and demons and beasts (oh my!) against each other to claim key areas of the map, earning victory points in a straight race to sixteen Victory Points.
For those of you who don’t know the C&C system, the map is split into thirds and your command cards (one of which is played each turn) allow you to instruct a number of units, often determined by the part of the map in which they are located, to move then attack the enemy. For instance, a card offering “Three on the left flank” will allow you to select three units from the left third of the board and command them. Exactly what you are doing to earn your points is determined by the set up and answers one of my minor concerns about the first edition – a super long and fiddly pre-game. Here the set-up becomes a fundamental and strategically important part of the game itself, and is great fun too. Players are dealt three set-up cards of their faction. These provide a layout for your half of the board (specifically where the trees, mountains, buildings and other terrain will be placed) along with any victory points spaces that can be fought over during of the game. There also may be a special rule, and a victory condition that only applies to that player’s faction. So you choose one that will suit your style of play, or perhaps will play counter to your opponent’s.
After both sides have chosen, revealed and built the terrain appropriately, players will muster their forces using small ‘hobbit size’ cards up to a points value – similar to a miniatures game – that specifically meets the demand of the selected scenario. This would be a force that would both help you to achieve your goals, and provide the flexibility to stop your opponents’. For those looking for a simpler game, there are pre-built armies that can be selected instead.
Making your force deck of up to eighteen cards with blank ‘decoys’, players lay them out into pre-selected deployment hexes determined by the set-up card, then reveal and add the awesome plastic models to the board. The option to present an evenly balanced force, or choose a flank to favour is a strategic choice that I enjoy. Battlelore‘s first edition did feature fantasy races – I especially miss the aforementioned Ostriches and Bears – but the majority were the mundane rank and file troops and cavalry (English vs the French – if I remember) who were recruiting fantasy races to aid the cause. Second edition, however, takes place within the Runebound universe (along with Descent and Rune Wars) and battles now sees Stone Gollums and Eagle Riders taking on Hell Hounds and Giant Demonic Chaos Lords! Throwing themselves into the fantasy theme, new Battlelore feels more epic – capturing the scale and feel of Lord of the Rings-esque battles better than any board game I can think of (sorry War of the Ring). It also has a huge amount of expansion options to add more troop types and monsters to the initial two factions with whole new races sure to come down the “Fantasy Flight Production Line of Money Making Awesomeness!”.
The lore, which was utilised in a fiddly and dense way in first edition, is back in a simplified but still satisfying system here. Each turn players may add a ‘lore’ resource to their supply and / or draw lore cards which can be played to do “stuff.” These have a multitude of potential effects that could add to your competence in combat, force the enemy to retreat or even teleport troops around the board. They’re all good, if very situational, and only add to the fun. The components in this game are up to the usual exceptional standard from Fantasy Flight. The models are very distinct and identifiable from across the battlefield and the awesome leader models that tower over the rank and file adds an enormity of scale to this “army on army” combat. Worth particular note are the rulebooks. Fantasy Flight have shipped a separate rules and reference guide which are well indexed and perfect for learning and playing the game respectively. This is a huge improvement for the company and Battlelore, like Eldrich Horror, gets it absolutely right and should now be the standard for all games companies in 2014.
Are there any negatives? Well, if you like your games to be deterministic and low on luck, you’re looking in the wrong place. Now, this isn’t Talisman – the tactical and strategic decisions that you make are important and your positioning on the board is vitally important, but if you roll only misses in combat, then you’re probably in trouble. That said, the victory point system and race to sixteen points is based around positioning your troops on the right spots around the board, rather than eliminating the opposition (unlike first edition which sometimes resembled a Benny Hill sketch as a single unit fled from a chasing horde to avoid defeat). I have seen and been party to some amazing comebacks from terrible positions, where despite only having a rabble of dispersed troops left, a well timed assault forced an opponent’s retreat from a key position and a glorious underdog victory, followed by the crowd in Stuart’s head cheering.
This is the first great game I’ve played in 2014. I would recommend this with two players as intended, but also with three (in a two on one mode) and four as teams. Some will turn their noses up, but from my experience there is enough going on here that two people teaming – banging their heads together to come up with a strategy, is always going to be a good time. This also makes it easier to get to the table in larger gaming groups – like my own.
So Fantasy Flight has done it again, and streamlined, nuanced and fixed a much loved game – releasing what, in my mind, is the definitive version of the C&C system. I just need me more troops. And another faction. Or two. Or Three… here take my money! I’ll leave it on the pillow for you, Christian!
Battlelore Second Edition was released in late 2013 by Fantasy Flight Games. Based on Richard Borg’s Commands & Colours system with extra stuff bolted on by Robert A. Kouba, the game plays with two to four, with games taking between 90-120 minutes. Copies should set you back around £55 from the folks at Gameslore. Follow The Judge on Twitter – @Judge1979