To the Strongest! is a system that has been on my radar for some time. It is one of several relatively new sets of ancients/medieval rules that are aiming for a fast-play way of doing things, with innovative activation mechanics and a focus on fluid and dynamic gameplay. In several posts I have been taking a look at another game from this generation, Sword & Spear, and while I’ve been enjoying that game a lot, there is always room for more ancient goodness.
In light of this, I was very glad when Simon Miller, a.k.a. BigRedBat, kindly offered to send me a copy of To the Strongest! Now there’s really no excuse for me not to jump right and try it out for myself – and of course, I’ll be documenting everything here on Hook Island!
Since I’ll be playing TtS! in parallel with Sword & Spear I will inevitably compare the two systems to a certain extent, but my aim is to try and judge each game by its own merits. Naturally, this First Impressions piece will only be an overview – a proper review will be posted as soon as I’ve become more acquainted with the game.
So what is To the Strongest? The author describes it as “a set of ancient and medieval tabletop wargaming rules that has been designed to give novices an entertaining introduction to the periods whilst also providing seasoned gamers with a challenging evening’s play” and this does indeed seem to be the overall design philosophy behind the game; a very simple core system that still offers plenty of tactical depth.
The rulebook itself is available both in physical form and as a PDF, and it is the latter version that I’ll be looking at here. It is a 79 page document with a nice, clear layout and an abundance of eye candy; almost every single page features pictures of stunningly painted miniatures on equally impressive tabletops. This makes it an inspiring read right from the start and really gets you in the mood for both painting models and playing games.
There are plenty of examples of play and useful diagrams, making for a quick grasp of the mechanics, plus an alphabetical index and quick reference sheets. Also, the PDF is full of hyperlinks which makes it ideal for tablet use.
The rules are written in stylish yet plain English, and from what I’ve gathered so far there are no glaring typos or such to be found anywhere. So in general, this is a very nice publication from an aesthetic point of view.
OK, but what about the actual game then? Well, here things start to get really interesting. Like Sword & Spear, To the Strongest!’s strong point (yes, pun intended) is its activation system. Compared to most other miniature rulesets, the game is innovative in two major ways: it is played on a square grid, and it uses no dice whatsoever, instead relying on ordinary playing cards.
While grids are obviously par for the course when it comes to boardgames, I’m not aware of any other system designed for miniature wargaming that uses one. When I first heard of this feature I was actually a bit skeptical. Grids are generally not very pleasing to look at and at least for me, the whole “moving diorama” aspect is what sets miniatures games apart from boardgames. Sure, there are hybrid variants like Commands & Colors, but they are undeniably boardgames at heart, albeit sometimes played with miniatures.
However, just a few pages in, the TtS! rules adress these concerns by explaining how you can easily grid your gaming area without resorting to drawing thick black lines or any such abominations. Apparently, the game is playable on a normal tabletop using an almost invisible grid that is marked only by the tiniest dots, or even by pieces of terrain. Interesting indeed!
And come to think of it, a grid does eliminate a lot of the time-consuming hassle usually involved with playing miniature games; there is no measuring and therefore no arguments over distances, no complex wheeling maneuvers, no geometrical ploys involving fractions of an inch, or any other such stunts. According to the author, the absence of measuring eliminates at least half an hour of tedious activity from each game – which can only be a good thing of course. It remains to see if I’m capable of producing an “invisible” grid myself, but overall I’m very positive about this mechanic.
The other innovative design choice – the card-driven activation system – is potentially a bit more problematic and I shall have to reserve judgment of it until I’ve actually played the game. For now I’ll just say that just like with S&S‘s dice-placing mechanics, I really like this system in theory and think it’s brilliant game design, but still suspect that I’ll have some issues with its practical execution. I’ll explain why in a bit, but let’s go through the actual mechanics first.
The idea is that both players each have a deck of cards, which are used to activate units. The active player states what he wants a given unit to do, and then draws cards from his deck to perform the action in question. Depending on the unit type and the action it tries to perform, a certain pip number is required. Most initial actions will require only a 2+ pip card (basically, anything but an Ace), but as the turn progresses, things eventually become more complicated.
Since TtS! allows multiple actions for each unit during a turn, the player might want an already activated unit to keep activating. And then he will need a higher pip number than the one(s) already allocated to the unit in question. As you can immediately see, this opens up for a lot of interesting tactical opportunities, and also for some serious resource management considerations.
The combat system uses a similar mechanic. Basically the attacking player draws a card to try to score hits on the opponents. Normally a 6-pip card is required, and if a hit is scored the defending player attempts to save by drawing a card that has to be equal to or higher than its saving factor (several modifying factors apply). If it survives the attack it may then battle back, and the combat proceeds. If it fails it will either become disordered or lost, depending on unit type and its overall situation (basically, whether it is already disordered or not). So there are no wounds per se in this game, although markers will be needed to indicate disorder.
This is in line with the game’s focus on fast play; there will not be any drawn-out, grinding combats, both because of the core activation mechanic where a finite number of usable cards are available, and because of the rather deadly combat system. There is also a neat way of limiting the power of ranged troops: ammunition chits. Each ranged unit has a number of these – usually between two and six, depending on weapon type – and when they are spent the unit can not fire until it has resupplied. This generally means drawing supplies from the army’s camp (yes, there are camps in this game).
All in all, this is a very interesting take on both activation and combat that looks to be both fluid and dynamic, while still offering lots of tactical choice and complexity.
So why would I have any issues with this system? Mainly for the above-mentioned aesthetic reasons: to me it’s important that miniatures games look a bit like dioramas of battles, both on the actual table and on pictures, and placing large amounts of either dice or playing cards on the scene kind of detracts from the overall impression of an actual battle taking place. It’s just a bit too “boardgamey” for my (highly subjective) tastes.
There’s also the potential issue of getting stuff mixed up. Playing S&S you have to make sure that the correct amount of dice are in the correct places, that the dice show the correct number, that action dice and combat dice are separated, and so on. This is a bit of a hassle and sometimes makes you lose focus on the actual game.
Since I haven’t tried TtS! yet I can’t really say whether the same issue will arise here, but my spontaneous thought is that it might be easier to keep track of cards since they don’t roll over or potentially show the wrong number. But as I said, the jury is still out on this one.
However, I do think To the Strongest! is a really promising set of rules and look forward to trying them out in earnest. And as I mentioned above, I will of course be documenting everything here on Hook Island, so stay tuned for both AARs and more in-depth thoughts about this game!