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.
Since 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.
I’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.
So 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.
Normally 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…
…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.
However, 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.
Obviously, 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.
Here 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.
Speaking 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.
All 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.
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.
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!