Blood and Valor Review11 Mar 2020 4
Blood and Valor Review
Released 31 Jan 2020
Firelock Games is a Miami based firm, well respected for its uber popular Blood & Plunder Age of Piracy rules and miniatures, with the more fleet oriented Oak & Iron Age of Sail line on the way. However, that doesn’t mean that land lubbers have been forgotten. Just released is Blood and Valor (BAV), a set of 28 mm rules for skirmish combat during the First World War.
The folks at Firelock have graciously comped me a PDF copy, so this weekend I was able to use my own 15 mm Great War figures to put the game through its paces. Bottom Line – despite a quibble or two, the game shows its' Blood & Plunder roots as regards innovative game play and historical accuracy.
In the Trenches
BAV is a full color glossy, hardback book, some 120 pages long selling for $34.99 US, a very reasonable price for the quality, though I do hope a PDF version might crop up for commercial sale. Don’t be intimidated by the length, however, as this is very much a one-stop-shopping product with only pages 13 – 33 actually devoted to the core rules. Given there are lots of full color pictures of Tommies, Poilu’s und Soldaten skewering each other, the rules are actually a bit shorter than the 20 pages noted. Add to that a special 14-page rules section on tanks – which includes data cards – and you pretty much have it. Instead the bulk of the book is concerned with army lists, five tournament scenarios and five narrative scenarios plus (Saints be praised!) an exceptionally detailed index.
The writing is straightforward and says exactly what it means, but in some respects might have been a little clearer. As we shall see, BAV uses a very innovative, chaos driven gameplay system and unfamiliarity might breed a bit of confusion with players used to more standardized sequences of play and combat resolution processes. There is no movement allowance data per type of unit, but instead only limitations on how far a unit may advance depending upon the type of action it activates. Likewise, rifles and machine guns generally have unlimited range, but nowhere in the rules does it actually say that, instead a small dash ( - ) on a weapons data table is the only indication. I also might have included an example for Round Bidding, but mostly it's players expecting to find this or that chart or rule found in other games and coming up short.
Excellent top down illustrations everywhere pretty much mitigate this, however, and most players will be lobbing grenades and digging trenches in no time. Absorbing how the game works may take an extra 10 – 15 minutes, but trust me, it will be well worth it.
As I hinted at above, BAV uses a point system for army selection and here the game excels for a couple of reasons. First, points are not only needed to purchase leaders and combat units, but also off-board artillery and gas fire missions. Second, armies are defined not only by nationality but also by theater of conflict. Thus, you not only see the carnage of the Western Front portrayed, but there are separate lists for the Commonwealth forces at Gallipoli, as well as unique British and German forces for the East African campaign where General Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askari’s drove No 10. Downing bat shit crazy for the length of the war plus two days. Finally, these lists not only provide commanders you can buy based on rank, but also special historical leaders as well. For the Americans we have Sergeant Alvin York and Major Charles Whittlesey of Lost Battalion fame. The Germans weigh in with Hauptmann Erwin Rommel while the British invoke some minor, amateur author named J. R. R. Tolkien.
Which brings me to my first legitimate complaint. Where the Hell is Blackadder? I mean seriously, if you are going to include famous leaders from these four years of death, how could one possibly leave out the wily yet courageous Captain Edmund Blackadder, a man known for military tenacity and positive perspective in the face of disaster Empire wide? And given each leader figure has two riflemen in support, of course we would need models for both Private S. Baldrick and Leftenant George Colthurst St. Barleigh. I mean you do have your own supporting line of miniatures being produced by The Phalanx Consortium after all, so the timing couldn’t be more perfect. C’mon Firelock! (I think you'll find it's called 'licensing', Bill-ED)
OK, kidding. Maybe. This game is designed for players to control squads or platoons where each figure stand on the table has a single model and represents a single soldier or heavy weapons crew, or a single tank. Rather than getting slaughtered by machine gun fire in No Man’s Land, the emphasis is on missions like trench raids or rescuing a downed pilot. Thus, in the game the term 'model' refers to a single soldier, the term unit to a collection of models (as in 10 models equal an historical squad, etc) and the term force to a player’s entire contingent. Little more than a three by three-foot tabletop, 25 – 45 models and six 10-sided die are needed for play, and most games are but six turns long. There is no specific ground or time scale given.
Over the Top
I’ll dispense with the more mundane and common aspects of the game, but you can obviously expect to roll dice for things like fire and melee, rough terrain impeding movement and so on. The thing to remember is that even though the model stands represent one individual soldier, the unit of four to 12 stands, moves and fights together as a single formation, with troops not allowed within 1 inch or outside 6 inches of their comrades. Thus, when a target is selected, all the stands within a unit must fire at it only, although a die is rolled for each soldier model within the fire team or squad to determine the number of hits.
But that aspect is minor to what I consider the BIG selling point of this game which is more than worth the price of admission. This is something called Round Bidding. Its clever, accurately displays the chaotic nature of war, this one in particular, and certainly proves Napoleon’s adage of, “Give me a general who is lucky.”
While each unit in a player’s force is allocated a specific number of points by which units might be purchased a la Ancients Tournaments, each unit is also allocated a separate number of what I’ll call Initiative Points or IPs. Each commander unit has two IPs, each core combat unit such as riflemen has three IPs (or two if inexperienced) and each support unit (such as a flamethrower) has one. If you take the French army list and maxed out all core units and all optional units you would have a command unit (2 IPs), six rifle units (18), a sniper unit (1), two heavy machine gun units (2), an infantry support machine gun unit (1) and two close combat assault units (2). That’s a total of 26 IPs.
At the beginning of each turn the antagonists secretly play one Bidding Token which can represent 0 – 6 IPs. The player who bids the highest gets to activate one of his units first, then after he finishes using the formation, his opponent activates one of his units. Win or lose, the IPs bid are lost for the remainder of the turn. So, if the French Sous-Lieutenant referenced above bid 4 IPs, successful or not, he now has 22 IPs remaining. The opposing players bid again using the same procedure until the end of the turn, when all IPs are restored, and the bidding starts once more for the new turn. However, if a unit is destroyed, its IPs are gone forever.
So, what happens when a unit is activated? It gets to execute two combat actions, unless it was activated by a bid of zero when it may only execute a single action. Combat actions include advancing four inches, running eight inches, firing at the enemy, aim before firing (seriously, and this is dead realistic), charging the enemy, rally or taking cover. If within a leader’s command radius, a unit may also perform an extra action so long as said commander expends one of his assigned Command Points. Our Sous-Lieutenant has but one Command Point, but if he were a Capitaine he would have two, and so on.
Yes, there are other processes in BAV that add historical flavor, such as a test to see if a unit is hung up on barbed wire, or a sort of “saving throw” that impacts all models within a unit and can only be used three times a game. But the Round Bidding is really the meat of the game and once learned makes the game hum along like a Maserati after a factory overhaul. There are not that many units on the table and the Quick Reference Sheet is barely over a page and a half long.
Most importantly for me, however, is that the game really forces the player to embrace not only independent command, but also the massive uncertainty that undoubtedly flooded the mines of lower level tactical commanders during the war. Should I bid six IPs now, or hold them until later in the turn? How many will my opponent bid and on which unit where? If he wins, what actions will he take, and of course this entire desperate buffet is garnished with rules covering fatigue, cohesion and the like. I used random dice rolls to simulate bidding for my solitaire experience, and that was tough. Trying to out-think a real person in BAV is undoubtedly tougher. Needless to say, I’ve spent many a day in an M577 command track myself, and nothing is scarier than simply not knowing what’s going to happen next. This is reality and for a tabletop game, BAV really delivers on that reality.
If I could make one recommendation it would be to produce a supplement to these core rules. Yesterday. As good as BAV is, it sadly is still incomplete. Here I note the missing Serbs, Italians, Austrians and Russians. Sure, there aren’t a lot of figures out there to cover these neglected but important campaigns, but I and many others tire of the Western or British perspective in film and on paper. On the other hand the Russian film Battalion remains a favorite, while who hasn’t heard of Tannenberg? The Great War in the East was not nearly as trench heavy as was France, so the Round Bidding system of BAV seems almost tailor made.
Regardless, this was an excellent experience. The game is not only another exquisite example of chaos centered wargame design, but yet another success story of immersive history delivered by an elegantly simple design. Toss in multiple players per side, then – wow! Well done.