Me and Ulf met up at club the other day for a game of To the Strongest! It was my second go at this system, and this time I came prepared; not only had I made a more visually pleasing square grid than last time, but I had also been sent some samples of Simon Miller‘s excellent range of chits, something which made for a considerably better-looking game.
Since my initial concerns with TtS! were mainly of an aesthetic nature, these preparations really helped me focus on the actual mechanics of the game, and not let the sight of playing cards on a sloppily gridded table blur my vision of what is actually an excellent set of rules.
The grid was made using pins, which I had painted in suitable colors. They fitted nicely into my old polystyrene gaming board, without damaging it. The result was virtually invisible unless you know what to look for, but clear and consistent from a gameplay perspective.
The chits are made of MDF and come in different flavors, the most numerous ones being the activation chits and the ammunition chits. Now MDF is perhaps not the most beautiful material in the world, but it does the job and also keeps the price tag down. Besides, these things are not meant to stand out anyway so a discreet look is actually preferable.
For victory medals we used good old Swedish Kronor – as we all know, troop morale is always higher when the King is watching.
Ulf had prepared a couple of lists based on his vast 15mm Byzantine and Muslim Arab collection. Personally I was really looking forward to playing TtS! in this period – both because I like Byzantines a lot and because the setup differed in many ways from the 6mm Peloponnesian War setting that I’ve been using for all my ancients games lately – variation is always good.
The actual battle represents one of the many confrontations between the Byzantine Empire and the Fatimid Caliphate that took place in the Middle East during the early medieval period.
So the scene of battle is a field in Syria, some time around 1000 AD. Crumbling Greek temples and Imperial forts dot the landscape – stark testaments to the passing of time and the inevitable decline of all earthly powers.
But such abstract philosophical musings means nothing to the Byzantine army, whose only concern on this beautiful day is to crush the enemies of the Empire and make sure that the Muslim heretics do not manage to expand their sphere of influence any further.
Funnily enough the Fatimids hold a similar view, but from the opposite end of the spectrum. Who is right and who is wrong here? Well, words will clearly not be enough to decide the matter, so why not just resort to the age-old method of killing each other instead?
Said and done. Knowing that heathens are usually pretty good at bashing other heathens, the Byzantines send their Varangian Guard forward. These smelly, bearded northmen sure know how to swing an axe – in fact they’re so good at it that their whole command move with them, eager to come into contact with the enemy.
And then the Byzantine activation keeps going from strength to strength. Their whole army gets to advance before the Fatimids have a chance to react. Visible in the foreground is the only unit left behind as a guard for the Byzantine camp.
When the Fatimids finally get to move they send their light cavalry far up on the western flank, only to end up rather thinly spread out, as the last two units fail their activations and thus remain behind the others.
On the eastern flank however, the heavy cavalry and supporting javelinmen manage to move up into a nice and compact formation, cutting of the rapid Byzantine advance…
…while the center, where the infantry command is positioned, tremble as the Byzantine Cataphracts thunder forward in the deadly wedge formation. Getting in way of this early medieval equivalent to a Tiger Tank is perhaps not something that the average soldier would want to do, but the Abid Spearmen boldly stand their ground, shields at the ready.
However, the resulting charge ends up being a pretty anticlimactic affair as the super-heavy cavalry fail to even scrape the color off the Abids’ shields. The latter then make an ordered retreat, attempting to lure the Cataphracts on into an exposed position.
About this time we had realized that we had deployed some units incorrectly – we had placed some of them side by side in a box, but two units can only share a box if one is positioned in front of the other. This was now rectified without having affected the game in any way, which was of course good (we did some additional movement mistakes as well, but more about that later).
Right now the center is still in focus, as the Varangian guard clashes with another unit of Abids. But even their patent Scandinavian Berserk rage fails to make an impact. Perhaps their Byzantine masters forgot to give them their daily mead-and-toadstool cocktail?
The Byzantine failure to push through the Fatamids’ center ranks is made even more annoying by the fact that their own west flank now is getting disrupted by light cavalry advances. The light Hyperkarastai cavalry successfully evades, but this also means that the Arabs are pushing dangerously close to the center command’s flanks.
The battle is now raging in earnest all across the field, and things are extremely balanced for several turns as both sides inflict damage but also manage to rally their wounded troops. Several ranged units also waste their ammunition on failed attacks and then end up mostly getting in the way of their comrades.
Since both of us found that ranged attacks generally are pretty ineffective (you need an 8+ to score a hit), neither of us tended to use any precious activations to resupply our ranged units. Perhaps we just haven’t learned to use the mechanics properly yet, but our general impression was that that ranged units are vastly inferior to melee-focused ones; scoring hits are hard and ammunition is in short supply, which means that you’re better off just focusing on getting your heavy troops into contact with the enemy ASAP than trying to maneuver your archers and skirmishers into good firing positions.
Of course this reflects the fact that melee combat was the main focus in most of the battles during antiquity, but it’s always nice to field a variety of troops and not always that fun to have several useless units standing around.
Speaking of close combat, things are now getting nasty on the western flank as Byzantine Kavallarioi keep pushing into the Fatamid ranks, maintaining pressure on the Abid infantry. But the latter hold and strike back…
…and on the eastern flank a unit of Berber light cavalry has managed to sneak around the Byzantine ranks and now heads straight for the camp. Two straggler units of Skoutatoi finally find their purpose and rapidly attempts to turn around to face this unexpected threat.
They succeed just in time, flank charging the Berbers and effectively stopping their advance. Meanwhile, their comrades in the center keep pushing, but fail to accomplish much. The battle could still go either way!
The combatants are now mainly clustered in the center and on the eastern flank, as Fatamid advances from the west have pushed the Byzantines back…
…but despite this apparent Fatamid advantage, they are now losing momentum on the eastern flank. Overwhelmed by Byzantine cavalry charges, the Abids finally give way, meaning that victory medals are lost and the small command to which they belonged now is demoralized – no more charges are possible for the Fatamids on this part of the battlefield.
And while they are still holding the Byzantines off in the center, things start to fall apart really fast as even more units are lost. They eventually lose their last medal and the Byzantines have won. The Empire’s south-eastern borders are safe – for now…
A fun and intense game indeed! Initially we naturally spent more time flicking through the rulebook than actually playing, but after a few turns things started to flow much better – To the Strongest! is a very simple set of rules at its core and once you’ve gotten into the logic of how it works, everything feels very natural. Also, despite its simplicity the game does allow for vast tactical depth and plenty of variation when it comes to how you want to use your troops and your generals. Also, things happen fast, making for quick and easy games even with huge armies.
The new grid and the tokens alleviated our aesthetic concerns, even though we sometimes felt that there were an awful lot of markers on the board; in the heat of battle it was a bit hard to keep them from getting mixed up. For future games I’ll probably make some counters to keep track of ammunition, and also use dedicated areas for placing used combat tokens, as we sometimes ended up confusing these with the activation tokens.
We obviously committed some errors, especially when it came to positioning units. Afterwards we realized that some moves were clearly illegal – for example, units sharing a box must apparently either face in the same or opposite directions while we thought that they can face any side of the box. This mistake had a very small impact on the game this time, but we’ll be sure to avoid it in the future.
So, all in all great fun with a brilliant set of rules. We will certainly be playing it more – 15mm turned out to be an excellent scale for TtS! but I’m also looking forward to expanding my 6mm collection and have my Greeks meets some Persians.
Right now I’ll be slowing down my hobby pace a bit however, due to family matters – my second child was born this weekend and thus I’ll probably find it a bit hard to paint, game and blog too much during the upcoming weeks. Occasional updates from the painting table and the odd game will occur though, so feel free to stop by again soon!