6mm · AAR · Ancients · Greeks · Reviews · To the Strongest!

Just played… To the Strongest!

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Jonas and I recently met up for a test game of To the Strongest! I had been aching to get this system on the table for some time; it looks to be an innovative take on ancients battles, but after my first read of the rules some question marks did arise.

Thus I had a rather open-minded approach to this very first game, which was also very much a trial-and-error affair with a lot of rookie mistakes. As a result, this post will not be a detailed AAR as much as some general thoughts about TtS!, with some illustrative pictures.

20160125_181407Since neither Jonas nor I were familiar with the system, and since it has a few unorthodox features, we wanted to keep things as simple as possible. The setup, loosely based on the battle of Olpae in 426 BC, was basically a pitched battle with some added flavor in the form of ambushing Athenian troops (top left corner in this picture).

I had attempted to make a square grid on one of our club tables, resulting in a 120x120cm playing area with 15cmx15cm squares. I’m not entirely happy with the look of it; I used furniture pads to which I applied some color, using my daughter’s crayons. It worked from a purely technical point of view, but for future games I’ll probably put some effort into creating a slightly more discrete grid.

20160125_181221I’m also considering using smaller squares for my 6mm armies – as you can see, the units ended up pretty far apart even though they were supposedly adjacent from a gameplay point of view. An alternative approach would of course be to use larger units.

20160125_182812So the whole things started out pretty smoothly – TtS!‘s card activation system is very intuitive and fluid, making for some interesting tactical depth while still maintaining a “keep it simple” game design philosophy.

Each player has a deck of 80 cards – consisting of two ordinary card decks minus the court cards and jokers – which are used for unit activation. The active player states what he wants a particular unit to do, and then draws a card at random to see whether the activation was successful or not.

20160125_182802_001Normally you’ll need a card with one more pip than any card already used for the unit. This means that a unit that has not yet activated in the turn will activate on anything but an ace, but if you want it to activate again things get successively harder (depending on how high a card you used for your last activation).

So for example, in the above picture, the unit of Spartan Psiloi just activated on a 4-pip card. To act again they’ll need a 5-pip card or higher…

20160125_194648…while this unit of Athenian Auxilia will need a 10-pip card. Needless to say, it’s not very good to end up with a high card for your first activation.

20160125_185554However, if you do manage to play a low card, you can potentially activate several times in the same turn – like this other unit of Auxilia, who did three successive activations and flank charged a unit of Spartan Hoplites.

Combat is very straightforward: each unit only has one actual stat – the Save value – which is used to negate hits. Normally any unit needs to play an 8+ card to score a hit (situational modifiers apply) and then the defender gets a chance to save. Should they survive they can strike back (but not if they’re engaged in the flanks and/or rear).

Here the Spartans failed the save and thus suffered a hit, which put them in a disordered state; another hit and that’s the end of this unit. However, rallying is possible through a normal activation.

20160125_184940Obviously, this unforgiving combat system means quick and bloody games. Several of my Spartan troops got mangled before they even managed to move (partly due to my horrid card drawing skills, but anyway…). Here another unit gets a rough treatment, this time from a unit of Athenian Psiloi.

Ranged combat introduces an interesting concept: ammunition chits. Every ranged unit has a number of these – how many depends on the troop type; longbowmen have six while javelinmen only have two, and so on – and can only fire as long as they have chits left.

By spending points on a camp you can add ammunition supplies to your army, but these are limited and will eventually run out too, so you’ll need to prioritize and focus your fire, otherwise you’ll end up with several totally useless ranged units standing around.

20160125_19155720160125_185644Here the ambushing Athenians try to move out of hiding and onto the battlefield. However, since they are moving in rough terrain this makes for difficult activations, meaning that they need one extra pip to activate. And since they are out of command range they’ll need yet another pip – penalties like these stack, making it potentially very hard to activate under certain conditions.

20160125_193130Speaking of command range: an army normally consists of several commands, each with their own general. To the Strongest! features several types of generals: they can be attached, detached, senior, heroic and brilliant, and they may also be joined by heroes – the author is clearly fascinated by the great personalities of antiquity, and the rules reflect a desire to capture some period flavor by giving several options for leadership style.

On a side note, this is also apparent when one browse through the unit type section – the rules for generals and different unit types take up a large chunk of the rules, with several special rules introduced for different units. While this certainly adds lots of period “feel”, it also makes the rules a bit clunky to use for beginners, especially since the actual core rules are located after this rather meaty and detailed section.

So how does the different types of generals work? Well, to be honest, we skipped most nuances during this first test session and mainly focused on getting the basics right, so I can’t really comment on this aspect in any detail. Suffice to say, generals are a very important part of how TtS! works and you’ll need to take several factors into account when choosing and using them.

Their most basic function is to provide re-rolls (or rather, re-draws), like in this sandwich-style combat situation where yet another Spartan unit bites the dust. There are obviously a lot more options and possibilities though, so I’ll be sure to focus more on the command and control aspect in future games.

20160125_192901All in all this test game was an interesting experience, albeit perhaps not representative of how the game actually plays once you’re familiar with it. Also, on a personal level it was a bit tough for me as I lost horribly, mainly due to constantly drawing extremely poor cards and not being able to do very much at all.

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To summarize my general thoughts about To the Strongest!: it’s a fast-moving and innovative game, but it will perhaps not be for everyone.

The grid system is a neat way of minimizing the hassle of measuring and moving troops, but there are at least two drawbacks to it as far as I’m concerned. First off, it makes the game pretty feel a bit “blocky” movement-wise; you’re either in a given square or you’re not. While this certainly speeds up the whole movement process and reduces the amount of potential distance arguments, it also removes an aspect of wargaming that many people actually enjoy – free, seamless movement – and makes the whole thing more similar to a boardgame.

Secondly, the grid requires some work if you don’t want your table to look horribly non-immersive. If you’re not exclusively playing TtS! you’ll probably need to set up the grid for every game, or make (or buy) a dedicated table. Any way, it’s a potential issue for someone just trying the system.

The card activation system is brilliant game design from a technical point of view, but again I can’t shake the non-immersive feeling I get from seeing huge amounts of playing cards on the table. One solution might be to use numbered chits instead, but then those would have to be made or bought, which is not really a plausible option unless you want to go all-in right from the start.

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Despite this, the game does have a lot going for it. It’s certainly a contender as far as I’m concerned; the fast-play, no-nonsense approach to ancient battles is refreshing and opens up a lot of possibilities, while still retaining loads of period flavor. The prospect of putting thousands of models on the table and still being able to finish a game in two hours is appealing as well.

I will need a few more games under my belt until I can provide an honest opinion of To the Strongest! I’m looking forward to trying out more aspects of the system, as well as getting more familiar with the core concepts. And everything will of course be documented here on Hook Island, so stay tuned!

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11 thoughts on “Just played… To the Strongest!

  1. Hi Gunnar,

    I’m pleased you had a good crack at it- from what I can see you picked the rules up really well. Usually Hoplite units are “deep” with three hits, that was the only thing that wasn’t quite right, this makes it more challenging for them to turn. I have an OOB that makes for great Spartan vs. Athenian battles, I’ll mail you a copy shortly.

    In terms of grids- the upsides are the very rapid speed of play one can achieve without measurement (and wheeling; I particularly hate wheeling! 😉 ). They also limit the scope for dispute; the game system was inspired by a very punishing argument with a good mate about whether or not I’d moved a unit too far. I have burned my tape measures.

    As fr as alternatives to cards go, several people use D10’s and leave them behind units in the same way as you used cards. I also sell (pretty cheaply) a set of 80 numbered MDF discs that are very popular for the smaller scales and grids.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it; I hope to see you having another crack!

    Best, Simon

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    1. My pleasure, Simon!

      And thanks for the heads-up regarding hoplites, that’s probably just one of several rookie mistakes we made… 😛

      I can certainly see the upsides of using a grid and I’m sure it works perfectly fine once you’re used to it. But coming from a wargaming background it took us a while to get our heads around the whole logic behind it. In future games I’m sure it will feel more natural – but I’m not burning any tape measures just yet! 🙂

      Cheers,
      Gunnar

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  2. Enjoyable AAR – 6mm armies really give an impression of mass although, as you say, boxes that are too large may dilute that impression.

    I thought the rules worked really really well when we played. I was a little wary of the boxes but having played hexed games it was fine quite quickly. We moved to mini cards as these were less obtrusive than normal sized playing cards.

    Mechanically i thought the rules were excellent – they move quickly and allow large battles to be fought in good time while retaining the flavour and feel of ancient warfare. The boxes really help make movement easy to undertake and visualise without making it feel like an ancient themed chess set. Yes, the need for a grid can make preparation a little longer but apart from that I cant think of any drawbacks.

    I have enjoyed Impetus, Warmaster, Hail Caesar and – recently – Sword & Spear – but TTS is currently top of the pile due to its ease of play. I am very happy with them.

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    1. Thanks Mike!

      I hope I didn’t come off as too negative here, as I really like these rules, too. However, I do want to be balanced when it comes to reviews and highlight potential issues as well as the good stuff.

      Overall TtS! is indeed a great system for fast-play ancient battles – the drawbacks are mainly of aesthetic nature and has more to do with personal visual preferences than anything else. Some people hate putting even markers on the table, so grids and playing cards could potentially be a turn-off.

      But as you say, mechanically the game is indeed excellent and very well designed!

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  3. Agree with your well made points. I much preferred the mini-cards as they looked better than normal sized ones (finally a use for Xmas cracker novelties!!). I have the chits but not used yet.

    I do like the fact that large battles will move quickly and melees are over in the draw of a few cards. I had a couple of top notch units wiped out by cheap light cavalry shooting and some people might wince if this happens too often but overall the luck is pretty constant. Yes, a run of cards can really hurt but fate played a part in war so why not this, i suppose.

    I have a bunch of unpainted 6mm stuff – your blog is tempting me to dig it out again 🙂

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  4. I just finished my first game of TtS yesterday so it’s interesting to read another new player’s take on it. We’ll certainly be playing more: for us, the ease of movement trumped the ‘wierdness’ of the grid.

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  5. Thanks for hosting this game Gunnar! And thanks for another well written AAR. I think you’ve summed up my feelings too, so I’ll just say I’m looking forward to another tryout. Now that we have a firmer grasp on the rules it should be a much smoother ride.

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    1. Thank you Jonas, it’s always a pleasure. 🙂

      Another game is scheduled for next week actually (Ulf is dusting off his 15mm byzantines), and you’re of course more than welcome to join in! Check the forum for details.

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