Review: Arquebus

By Colonel (Retired) Bill Gray 10 Jan 2018 0

As I noted last week, I’ve seen a distinct uptick for producing game series in the board wargaming world. Having a core set of rules, not to mention transportable graphics, makes such games easier and cheaper to produce, and also gives the customer a break because once he learns how to play one game in the series, he knows how to play the rest to a great degree. The concept is not new if you remember the SPI/S&T Great Battles of the American Civil War series or Kevin Zucker’s operational and grand tactical Napoleonic series, a la Napoleon’s Last Battles.


However, no firm has taken this proverbial football and run with it like Hanford, CA’s GMT Games. The firm offers multiple series, and de facto series within series, the latter dominated by the tactical battle games designed by the irascible but brilliant Richard Berg. Think back to a “galaxy far, far away” and Mark Herman’s Great Battles of Alexander with simple one color counters in a shallow orange box. In one way or another, his games seem to trace their way back to that point, and his newest offering in the Men of Iron series is no exception. Titled Arquebus, the Battles for Italy 1495-1544, the game covers eight battles for Northern Italy during 50 years.

Game Contents.

The game comes in a nice, attractive box full of wargaming goodness. This includes two 22 by 34 inch maps, backprinted so that all eight scenarios fit in. There are three backprinted, cardboard counter sheets, each with 280 counters representing units, commanders, artillery and the ubiquitous information counters every game needs. There is a 20 page rulebook, supplemented by 40 page scenario book. There are also a single player aid card with General and Flight Point Tracks, as well as two other cards (one per side) covering everything else. These last two are especially unique because they are trifold cardboard, the equivalent of six pages. The outside shows your normal movement, and combat tables (plus a Weapons System Matrix), but inside the three are separate terrain tables, one per each of the battles represented. Rounding out all this are a roll of plastic zip lock bags for counter storage and two royal blue 10-sided die.

Arquebus 03

The design of these components is drop dead, Miss Universe quality, gorgeous. Here we are talking brilliant, full color glossy everything. The counters include small miniature soldier icons vice NATO symbology, with leaders portrayed by the primary coat of arms of the powers in charge. The maps are hex based and use different shades of brown to indicate elevation while other natural and manmade features take a top down, tree top and roof perspective. It is quite similar to what I use on my own maps via the ProFantasy software package Campaign Cartographer III with City Designer. Its top notch in every respect with my only recommendation is to perhaps invest in shadows for trees and buildings. Books and charts are no different with examples of play and setup maps in blazing color, adorned with period paintings by Henri Philippoteaux et al. Rules prose is in the same witty style that has endeared Berg to many, with the Seizure Rule (swiping unit activation from your opponent) the origin for more than a chuckle or two.

It’s a marvelous and professional looking package in every respect, which oddly enough, may be a problem. 

Game Play.

The game covers the battles of Fornovo, Cerignola, Agnadello, Ravenna, Marignano, Bicocca, Pavia (the biggie and my favorite) and Ceresole. Battles range from huge to small, with some played on no more than an 8 ½ by 11 inch page, perfect for solitaire. Each hex is 125 yards across, with each counter representing 500-1000 pike, 300-400 shot or light cavalry, 150 – 200 men-at-arms or 4 – 6 artillery pieces, the latter including a myriad of types from falconets to organ guns. There is no time scale, because in a standard sense, there are no turns.

Arquebus 01

The game is won by killing enemy units and commanders, each of which are worth a certain number of Flight Points. For example, killing the army commander causes five Flight Points (10 if the lad is the king), while clocking an Arquebus unit causes three. Periodically you roll a die, add it to the number of Flight Points suffered and if it exceeds your army’s maximum pain line, your forces collapse and you lose.

The sequence of play is the latest evolution in command and control in Berg’s games since way back when. It is unpredictable and non-linear, or in other words, pretty much like the real world chaos of battle that makes many gamers cringe. The heart of this process is the Activation System and the Seizure of Activation. Each scenario names one side as the first player at the beginning of the game. He can choose to activate a single division (called a Battle in the game), the entire army under certain conditions, or the army’s Standard if he wishes to recover any battered units. He can also Pass and allow his opponent to play. Activated formations can move, shoot and fight. In general, a die is rolled and if the result is equal or less than the formation commander’s Activation Rating, activation is successful. If greater, it is not, and the Activation process passes to the enemy.

However, there is more and “more” is why I really like this concept and could really see it transported to pewter and lead land. If a player is successful in Activation, once he finishes trotting around, discharging ye firelocks and cleaving ye heads, he can try to continue play by rolling activation for second and subsequent division. If the activation of an army was successful, the player can try to activate the entire army again, essentially giving his side back-to-back turns. The opposing player, however, does not sit idly by while this happens. At the beginning of the game each side gets a set number of Seizure chits (cue humor from page 4 defining this as what happens to a player after rolling seven zeros in a row on Shock combat) by which a player can try to steal successful Activation from his opponent. The non-active side can play one of these chits prior to his opponent rolling to continue activating his forces. He specifies which of his formations is trying to heist the turn, then plays a chit, rolls a die and if the number falls within the range printed on the Seizure counter, he takes over with his designated formation ready to rock and roll. There are four of these types of chits, plus one Seizure chit that can negate the enemy’s Seizure attempt and three others that specify random events such as Unsteady Troops and so on. Play continues back and forth until one side breaks.

Arquebusier Header 01

Within activation, the sequence of play is pretty standard. In order there is a Movement/Fire Phase, a Shock Phase and a Rally Phase before Activation Continuation die start to fly. The rules thereof are pretty much what you would expect, such as command radius, zone of control, stacking, facing, melee, movement an ad nauseam. There are couple of spiffy rules included as garnish however, such as 16.2 which covers the ferocious Swiss pikemen and their fiscally ingrained “No money? No Swiss” mentality. Depending on a die roll, they may or may not attack, if not retreat.

Yet the heart and soul of this game is the Flight Points process and the Activation Continuation system, and they make this product a true winner. To put it in perspective, take the large battle of Pavia fought near Milan on 24 February 1525. The French have two Seizure chits, the Spanish (who initially go first) have three. The starting Flight Level break point is 75 for the French and 65 for the Spanish. Now recall what’s written above and let that sink in.

Arquebus 02

In conclusion.

Exceptional game IMHO, for all the reasons above to which I will add that overall rules and gameplay are far less complex than some of this series’ older ancestors such as SPQR and its siblings. You get fantastic artwork and presentation, easy and innovative rules that capture the confusion, ebb and flow of combat, playable in four hours, what more could one ask for?

Well, how about a price tag less than $ 65.00? This is not unreasonable considering low print runs and high production values, but this price coupled with board gamers getting older is a problem. Many folks like me remember when Avalon Hill released the game 1914 which included for the first time counters that were not Baby Blue and My Little Pony Pink. Yup, we’re that old and many of us unlike me are still uncomfortable with keyboard vice cardboard in wargaming. But when it comes to new folks, shelling out $ 65.00 when I could get a lot more on the same subject with the JTS Renaissance computer game for $ 25.00 less? Here you are talking the same type tactical game with 112 standalone scenarios plus five campaigns with 115 more, so that’s gonna be a tough sell IMHO. GMT has produced just under 1000 copies of this game, compared with 320,000 for Panzerblitz back in 2000, and I’m betting price and electrons are the primary reasons why. Hell, I’m not sure offshore printing would help.

Now I will admit boardgaming does have some advantages over the PC, as I have never gotten used to scrolling vs looking at the map in total on a table. That’s not much however, so when a real gem like Arquebusier comes a long, I grab it quick. It’s a great game, excellent historical resource and allows me to fight miniature battles without buying a lot more “my wife is gonna kill me” lead. So if you think like I do, please grab this excellent product when you see. Before it’s too late.



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