Sunday, 24 January 2016

En Garde Swashbuckling Skirmish Rules
A Review

Despite not having a great deal of opportunities to actually play games any more, I am always looking for new rules sets for some future time when this might be possible. While I was initially skeptical of the utility of Osprey's foray into the territory of producing rule sets, Lion Rampant changed my opinion entirely. When "En Garde!" appeared and was billed as a low-level Skirmish game (i.e. working with individual figures rather than units), I saw a gap in my arrayed line of preferred rule sets that needed filling. 

Those of you who bought and played the previous title 'Ronin' will already have the best possible insight into these rules, as most of the game is by admission based on those rules. However the author does state that there are sufficient changes in the 'style' of the game, if not the actual mechanisms, to set the two apart in terms of the games genre at least. New money for old rope possibly, but as I don't own Ronin in any case,  this was entirely new to me.

The game is apparently designed for up to twenty figures per side, although with the generation of 'warbands' via a points system, I would imagine this number is highly variable. In terms of comparison the game is sort of in the same territory as Frostgrave, Mordheim and my old-time favourite Retinue. In range of the period covered, I see no reason why the game could not cover anything from Medieval to Napoleonic in its swathe and indeed the range of items covered within the basic rules means that no adaptation is required across this period. 

Osprey books are invariably thin volumes and with scenarios, force generation mechanics, a short set of 'army lists' and a couple of pages devoted to magic and the 'otherworldly', there is not that much space available for the actual rules themselves. This for me is the actual strength (or weakness) of the 'Osprey Model'; the rules have to be fairly straightforward and concise (or incredibly superficial and lacking in depth). When you consider chess has perhaps a single page of rules, 'Age of Sigmar' has four and Retinue had something like thirty, the length of the rules is not necessarily a benchmark for the complexity of them, nor the enjoyment to be had playing them.

En Garde! has roughly 24 pages of rules (if you subtract the photos and illustrations), which include special rules, weapon tables, descriptions of attributes and similar padding. The rules themselves contain a lot of explanations and examples, so in terms of the actual rules themselves, you are perhaps in the region of twelve pages at the most of things to learn. With a couple of games under your belt, I suspect players will be working off the four-page quick reference rules (which are hardly compacted and very easy on the eye) and only delving into the rules for the occasional unusual event.

This will be the deal-breaker for those of you who like every eventuality covered by a rule. Malifaux for example has twenty or so pages of basic core rules (not including magic etc), Mordheim has fifteen, so based on wordage alone, we are looking at a game pitched below the level of either. As I said before however, this does not necessarily make En Garde! the inferior of either. You might wonder why I have used 'Fantasy' rules as a comparison here, but I was hard-pressed to find a comparable 'historical' rule set to compare these with. 

Your 'warband' in En Garde! contains a mix of figures of varying levels, ranging from 1 (worst), to 5 (best). Typically you will only have one '5', your warband's leader, with the remainder falling in a rough pyramid of numbers downward (the standard warband has half it's models as levels 1 and 2). The idea of levels encapsulates the collective skills and enthusiasm of the warband's members, rather than there being a stat line of variable skills.

The addition of variable attributes to warband members, does however vary some figures from that typical of their level. If you wanted to however, giving a variable level for specific factors (i.e. a shooting level, a hand to hand level and a morale level), would not break the game either, if that is your preference.

The turn sequence relies on a variation of I-Go-You-Go, where the player with the highest initiative moves one figure first, followed by his opponent moving one and so forth. The shooting and melee phases also proceed in a similar fashion. Effects are immediate, so a if a figure yet to be activated is wounded, when he does activate the effects of the wound are considered when he does. Personally I like this mechanic as it forces the player to make choices as to whether their better men act first, or bide their time and risk being rendered less effective (or indeed ineffective) while doing so.

Missile weapon shooting can be effective and the rules for it are quite adequate, but offer few surprises, but being Swashbuckling rules, the accent is on the sword (or axe, chair,  or broken bottle) fight. This is 'the thing' of this rule set (what makes them stand out) and works very well indeed. Whether fighting one on one, or one against several opponents, the mechanic is essentially the same and relies on the selection of attack or defence chits commensurate with the respective levels and any applicable attributes in play.

Taking an extreme example, a Level 5 hero faces off against a Level 2 and three Level 1 figures. Each side has five chits, a mix of attack or defence. In order of priority, each figure expends chits as they fight until they are expended. Wound effects are cumulative and immediate, so potentially it is possible to wear down an opponent during the combat. The interplay of when to use 'defence' and 'attack' chits is somewhat part of the games 'art' and which takes it away from the normal 'Figure X' and 'Figure Y', compare stats and roll the dice.

Opposing rolls to hit-defend are used, but are modified by weapon and armour after a hit has been registered. For less crucial combats, or when you are playing an over-large game, there is a streamlined alternate combat system provided, which I thought was a nice touch.

Like the shooting rules, the morale rules are pretty much standard fare in a general sense. The difference here though, is that there is an individual effect on figures, rather than a whole force effect. In other words reduced morale results in the steady fragmentation of your warband, usually but not always, beginning with your lower level models. The morale standard of 'wavering' does indeed produce wavering and procrastination amongst some of your force and 'routing' sees individuals leaving the scene if the dice are against you, or a mad rush for the exit if you have really bad luck.

In all the game is quite easy to learn as far as the rules go, but appear far harder to master in terms of playing against an opponent. For me this is how it should be, knowing every single rule and their loopholes, is not what I want to be doing, nor totally relying on the dice to produce victory. Instead I want to be thinking tactically, using my experience of the game to outfox my opponent and possibly seeing fortune or fate modifying the outcome; En Garde! provides this.

The rule book is rounded off with a guide to creating warbands, points values for the component elements, sample historical warbands, a simple campaign system and a guide to introducing 'fantasy elements' into your games. In all a nicely produced and rounded product.

In terms of playing the game, for me it fits the niche below Lion Rampant (and presumably the forthcoming Pikeman's Lament), concentrating as it does on individuals rather than units. For me this means that I have two game systems at which to pitch my respective interests, relying on one rule set for one level and the other for another. So it's not an either-or choice between rule sets, but it in fact widens the scope of the setting itself.

In overall terms, it was money well spent and something I heartily recommend.     


  1. Very good and interesting review. I´m really interested in this ruleset so it has been very useful!

    1. Thanks and you're welcome Juan. I believe you will like it.

  2. Songs of Blades and Heroes also fills the niche below LR would you see these rules as a direct replacement for SoBH?

    1. You know I had forgotten completely about them... they made that much of an impression on me that I never played them.

      It is true what you say though and I should really look at them again in all fairness. As it stands though, EG made an impression on me that they didn't.

    2. I've tried them a couple of times, and Dan Mersey wrote the Songs of Arthur and Merlin, which has a choice of fantasy or history, for them.
      I'm not keen on the fiddly setting of stats - something simpler would be better - but I may be misunderstanding that part of it.

    3. I went and fished SoBH out after your comment. The stats aren't so much of a deal-breaker, they are hardly the five or six columns of some rules, the activation system with its dice rolls for each figure seems a bit much.

      In all you have to dice to activate a model, then decide on the number of dice as a gamble on how many actions you want, with the possibility of having the figure ending up doing nothing, despite the original activation roll.

      I do sort of like the idea of losing 'the turn' on a bad roll (it's a feature of Lion Rampant), but having to make multiple dice rolls to get there not so much.

      The other rules seem fairly standard, with opposed rolls etc. With half a dozen figures I expect they would work okay, but ten or twenty I suspect not so much.

      EG's melee system is somewhat more elegant and 'Swashbuckly' in my opinion and you have to come up with a strategy for an outnumbered figure, rather than just applying a -1 modifier per enemy.

      In a very short summary SoBH has 'granularity' where it doesn't need it and doesn't have it where it should. My vote goes to EG.

    4. ... and because I have great faith in your opinion on matter wargamey I have ordered them :0)

      Thank you.

    5. Wow... no pressure then. I hope you like them.

      I imagine that anything to do with 'Ronin' will give alternate views and opinions on them, as I understand the core mechanics are identical.

    6. You didn't think that you sat there writing your blog and there was nobody acting on it, did you?
      I have read your every word on WotR and LR campaign and then used then as a basis for my own slowly developing LR dark Ages campaign. :0)
      I have the Ronin rules from a couple of years back when I had just started wargaming. I wasn't sure what period I was interested in and bought all sorts of rules but hadn't realised that war-game rules can be quite flexible.
      Thank you for your help, and one of my favourite blogs.

    7. Well to be honest I do see myself as someone who likes the sound of his own keyboard. ;-)

      No seriously, I'm quite appreciative of what you said. I assume we all take it for granted that people look at blogs, but not so much that people take what you do on-board and sometimes run with it.

      The internet wasn't around when I started and when I look at the people who I've been in contact with, who share similar specific interests the world over and then realise that thirty plus years ago you were forced to compromise your interests with who was around you and what they liked, it's a lot to take in.

      I have high standards with my research, but I'm inclined to think I'll be verging on paranoia over detail now. :-D

    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    9. At slight risk of massaging your ego, I decided some while ago that you make enough effort with your research that I wouldn't worry about detail.
      Just carry on as you are please :0)

  3. I'm very pleased with the rules based on reading them. I am concerned that the combat might get boged down if you have two large warbands. That said I think most people will have smaller warbands as they stock up on better soldiers.

    1. I agree entirely, I can't see many people laying out a warband of bare-bones types. That being said, resorting to the simplified combat system for all but your 'heroes' might speed things up.

  4. Hmmm, was going to pass on these as the period doesn't tickle my fancy. (For gaming that is. Who doesn't love Richard Lester's movies?)

    I'm intrigued by the warband/retinue build, with an ueber alpha at 5 at the top of the pyramid and a bunch of henchment/flunkies/hangers-on at the bottom.

    Sounds like 17th cent. gang warfare.

    1. Essentially it is 17th Century gang warfare, if you're flexible with what you term a gang... but if it's a period where hand to hand fighting is the core activity, then these will work for it. With no appreciable effort you can use them for Medieval, or even Dark Ages... or practically anything to be honest; Achilles and his Myrmidons at the gates of Troy anyone?