Twilight of the Soldier Kings Review11 Jun 2020 0
Twilight of the Soldier Kings Review
Released 01 Apr 2020
Back in 2016 I did a review for a radical new set of pike and shot rules based on a free, three-page set published in 1995 by author Steven Thomas. Called Twilight of the Sun King (or TWIGLET for short), the refurbished repub by Nick Dorrell and the UK’s Pike & Shot Society started a gaming mini-revolution of sorts, one that has yet to abate.
Fast forward to January 2020 and the Twilight series continues with Monsieur Dorrell at the helm, this time into the age of Frederick the Great. Called Twilight of the Soldier Kings (or TWIGLESK, and yes, I made that up), the 52 page book covers the period 1730 – 1780 and sells for £21.00 plus postage.
A simultaneously published scenario book goes for £17.00 and both are available direct from Dorrell’s own Wyre Historical Books official website.
So, does the tradition continue? Let’s find out.
Perhaps because thinking is scary and to paraphrase von Clausewitz, “Everything in TWIGLESK is simple, but the simplest things are very hard.” This sorta describes people’s first experience with the core rules of this product line – extremely simple and blitzschnell quick, but so out of the box from other games that many find the learning curve steep. For a detailed examination of the particulars, please reference my 2016 review of TWIGLET, but here is a concise look.
The game’s philosophy is that morale wins or loses battles, not casualties from fire or melee. So, in this game there is no combat phase of any sort, no fire phase, no melee phase. Instead, the two important phases in the sequence of play are Movement and Morale, the latter being the phase that raises an eyebrow or two. In the Morale Phase friendly units that are in base to base contact with the enemy (bayonets, sabres, that sort of thing) or in the field of fire of artillery or musketry, must take a Morale Test. Nobody actually gets shot, nobody gets skewered, but the fact that the friendly unit is in such a position initiates a bevy of Die Roll Modifiers (DRMs) for this Morale Test. This means DRMs for unit size, unit quality, range of enemy guns if under fire, formation and so on. On a 2D6 a roll of 8 passes the test, 4 – 7 is a morale failure and 3 or less the unit routs.
A unit can fail morale several times before it is removed from the table, infantry 3 times, cavalry and artillery 2 times and artillery in contact but once. This means that 'losing' doesn’t automatically cause a retreat as in other systems, just a morale loss. The player decides whether to backpedal or continue to slug it out, and many really choke on this concept. Having several infantry units get their 4th morale loss in a single turn really sucks, and I’ve seen it happen more than a few times in the games I’ve played.
But movement, as the author notes, is best described as “arthritic.” This means that marching about is pretty much automatic – if you want to go straight ahead or charge a flank. Otherwise, you need to perform an Action Test by scoring above a certain number using a DRM infused 1D6 depending upon whether the maneuver is Easy, Standard, Difficult or Extreme. Action Tests are needed for things like wheeling, changing formation, bonus moves or limbering/unlimbering guns.
Another issue with movement that tends to initially throw people is nothing more than good ole fashion British tradition. Movement is calculated in Base Widths (BW), and the width of a base of lead soldiers in this game is about 60 mm. Tactical movement for an infantry unit in column over clear terrain is 2 BW, or 120 mm. We simple minded Colonials, however, have universally defined a BW as about 2 ½ inches, and our units stands and their movement proceeds along those lines. It works well and that’s a good thing because many will not have figures already based for TWIGLESK or any other game in the series.
"In an army, every individual part of it should aim at perfection, to make it appear to be the work of only one man."
-Frederick the Great
Unlike the other games in the series, TWIGLESK has only one scale. Infantry and cavalry units each have two bases with the former representing an average of 2500 foot or 1250 horse. Artillery units are single based and represent 12 – 20 guns. DRMs reflect if the unit is otherwise Large, Small or Tiny. Ground scale is that each BW equals 300 meters, or for us common folk 125 meters per inch, but I could not discern a time scale (more British tradition). Of the 52 pages in the book, and outside the rules themselves, 8 pages are devoted to historical scenarios (Mollwitz, Kolin and Krefeld), 1 page to “Maneuver Battles” (Hochkirch and Zorndorf) and 7 to army lists. The sequence of play is pretty much the same as before:
a. Friendly generals move.
b. Friendly units perform Action Tests and move.
c. Friendly artillery and small arms target enemy units
d. Enemy units roll Morale Tests as a result, Friendly units test for Pursuit.
e. Enemy rolls for Wing, then Army Morale if required.
Over this well tested foundation, the author has simply added new rules, dispensed with others and changed DRMs to reflect the era of Frederick the Great and Marshal Saxe. These modifications have been evolutionary since the first book and build on what has gone before. Two have already been mentioned, those being adding an artillery unit in contact for Morale Tests and changing Action Steps to reflect the difficulty of the maneuver taken.
In summary, others include Improved Mobility (Prussian infantry can oblique automatically for example), Prussian musketry, the categorization of artillery into Regular, Obsolete and Improved field guns, the introduction of Light Infantry, and Shock Tactics for certain aggressive foot. Artillery now has another option in addition to Direct Fire and Bombardment, that being Supporting Fire, adding a DRM to a friendly unit requiring a Morale Test. Group maneuvers (as in, say, all infantry units in one wing of the army) have seen expansion with its own set of DRMs, while mounted units are classified as Average, Inferior or Superior Charge to reflect tactical expertise and currency. Finally, movement is now classified as either Tactical or Strategic, the latter occurring outside 6 BW at double speed plus. Thus, for infantry Tactical Movement is but a single BW per turn, but Strategic is 2 BW or 3 BW if you are Prussian.
All of this works because the core rules work and given the higher command level, is extremely adaptable to modification. But don’t think the author hasn’t done his own out of the box ruminating, oh no indeed, because TWIGLESK drops a bit of a surprise called Maneuver Battle.
TWIGLESK devotes a good five pages to the concept of the Maneuver Battle, a plethora of rules that I simply don’t have the space to discuss here. Suffice it to say if you know pewter pushers and their games, lining up troops from board edge to board edge then smashing forward head on is not a rarity. The Maneuver Battle assumes a table so large that there is a lot of excess space, not only on the flanks, but in the rear of each army as well. This will allow one or both opposing generals to make sweeping moves to the right, flank marches to the left or deploy concentrated reserves at just the most propitious time. If you are thinking Frederick the Great at Leuthen, then reward yourself with a frosty German brew, because after all, Old Fritz did say, “Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer.”
In fact, TWIGLESK describes two types of Maneuver Battle, one being Converging Attacks and the other – wait for it – Oblique Order. I was not able to use the concept in my test games over the weekend, but the fact that this issue has been considered at all, much less presented with detailed rules for play, is most certainly a very fancy feather in Monsieur Dorrell’s frilly tricorne. Well done.
“It is the fashion these days to make war, and presumably it will last a while yet.”
-Frederick the Great
I had hoped my own group of BOFF Irregulars would be able to game a large battle with these rules before this review, but alas the pandemic determined otherwise. Yet I was able to get in a couple of battles of Mollwitz anyway, a battle small enough to easily be played solo, a solid consideration when you’re hunkered down waiting out COVID19. This, after all, is a British design and like most European populations, the chaps across the pond don’t have big tables or play areas at home because most residences themselves are small. It's why clubs, and tournament sized games, are popular, making them unintentionally great for solitaire. So, with troops from my Sun King collection (I had no Seven Years War soldiers painted) I was on my way. I used six stands for a cavalry unit, eight for infantry and singles for artillery, just as I had done for TWIGLET games, with everything working just fine.
What can I say? Two Prussian victories later I was hooked, and I got my own published set of rules for this era. TWIGLESK worked as advertised and the modifications were just enough to give the game a Frederick the Great feel, but not near enough to become overbearing. Again, I think that the unfamiliar core system will be tougher to learn than any added changes, and again, this is because of the unique focus on morale and not because the rules are hard, complex or numerous. I should be tooling up for a bigger battle, so I can let you know.
As for the future, here I have a little bit of concern. I think one reason why the system works is due to the small armies and relative sparsity of artillery (battalion guns are built into the infantry). The French army at Fontenoy in 1745 had 50,000 troops and 101 field guns, but when Napoleon took the field at Borodino, he commanded at least 128,000 men with 587 guns. Given the particulars of the DRMs in Morale Tests, I have some doubts.
But you can bet I look forward to finding out.
NB. SYW images by Jim Purky (der Alte Fritz) of the Seven Years War Association from his blogspot.