Saturday, October 22, 2016

Chainmail - review

This is another review in the Once and Future Rules series, of wargame rules that are out of print, but that got a lot of play at one time (at least, in the clubs and groups I played in since the early 1980s).

Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding.
Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.
Bless with a hard heart those who surround me.
Bless the women and children who firm our hands.

                  - Jethro Tull, "Broadsword"

So, following on Broadsword as the first dedicated Medieval rules reviewed as part of this series, I would like to return to a ruleset that was hugely influential in my wargaming history, at least once I started playing at wargaming shops and clubs.  That ruleset is Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures, by Gary Gygax & Jeff Perren.

The set I have, and the one I played way back in the early 80s, was the third edition (mine is a printing from the late 70s).  Earlier editions were from Guidon Games, before TSR acquired the title.  These are (like Cavaliers and Roundheads) based on the wargaming philosophy of Jeff Perren, and have some Gygax additions/edits in them.  The book itself actually contains several rulesets, but the main body (and the main version I played) is the big battle set for Medieval set piece battles, between opposing armies.

A word about the quote I have above, from Jethro Tull.  It might seem as if that quote would go better with the review I wrote for Broadsword, rather than the one I did there from the Byzantine princess (one of my favorite scholarly heroines from history).  But, it is included here because at the time I was being introduced to Chainmail, and playing it a lot, I was also deepening my interest in (and fomenting a lifelong admiration for) art rock, including (among the rest) Jethro Tull.  And Broadsword and the Beast, was one of my favorite albums of 1982.  Besides, I don't know of a song called Chainmail.

Chainmail, as I was introduced to it, and would come to play it, was played by guys who had large armies (or parts of armies, several players combining their forces) of 25mm figures, numbering sometimes in the many hundreds.  These were largely Minifigs, Hinchliffe, Heritage, Garrison, Grenadier, Essex and others (older manufacturers, although some of them - notably Minifigs and Essex- are still around), in what today would be called true, or old school, 25mm.  Of course in 1983, they weren't old school at all.  The painting styles were very different then, almost all figures were painted in a block style, with little or no shading or washing.  Often figures were gloss coated, or even painted by model enamels (Testers, Humbrol, etc.).  Armies were frequently mounted on stands of balsa wood that would be painted green (no flocking).  A great example of the painting style of the day can be seen where the author of the Broadswords and Beasts blog (a coincidence?) has recreated the style for some Infantry, and for some Knights.

The crew I played Chainmail with did not play any of the WRG rule sets, although in the early 80s, the idea of a standard element width was far away, and even the WRG rule sets would only have a frontage-per-figure measurement.  I'll have to go back to check my 6th edition book of WRG ancients rules to see if there was a standard element width recommended, but 5th edition does not have an element width.  One of the complaints about Chainmail, as leveled against Cavaliers and Roundheads also, was the lack of a standard basing width for the troops.  I think that Perren & Gygax were used to playing in wargames clubs that had an understood standard.  As such, the armies I was playing with and against would have roughly 3/4 of an inch per infantry man (today, 15-20mm would be usual, so you get 3 or 4 figures on a 60mm wide stand).  About an inch per cavalry was also the norm.  Of course, once we migrated (some of us) to the Warhammer rules (which we used for historical troops), or other sets, they had base sizes, so re-basing happened.

The Rules
First of all, Chainmail is (as mentioned above), really four sets of rules.  There are the main body of the rules, which cover mass combat between armies.  These also include some information about sieges, weather, and some basic national characteristics (short of actual army lists).  They cover the basics of the tabletop wargame, movement, shooting, melee, and morale, as well as giving a turn sequence (actually, two, as described below).  But, there are three other rulesets.

First, there is a set of rules for playing Man-to-Man games, such as breeches into castles, raids, or simply small skirmish games.  Here the action is on the individual man, morale is only checked for the whole army once it reaches 33% casualties, and the action is conducive to the wide variety of scenarios and free action that many skirmish games promote.

Second, there is a set of rules for holding medieval tournaments, complete with jousting rules.  These are a game unto themselves, and I have played in a Joust at a wargames convention, using these rules.  Fun, if that is your thing.

Third, there is a set of Fantasy rules, that can be used to extend the basic battlefield rules in the direction that was happening in the 1970s, of doing medieval wargaming with a fantasy element (think of the battles of the Lord of the Rings).  To me the Fantasy Supplement makes Chainmail a different game, albeit one that would be clearly recognizable as the predecessor of Dungeons and Dragons. Rules are included for a variety of different fantasy troop types, monsters, spells, and some magic equipment like enchanted swords.

Finally, there is a set of rules (mostly a chart with some information) for extending the Man-to-Man rules in the same direction of fantasy, as the Fantasy Supplement does for the tabletop battle.

Now as mentioned, I am reviewing the 3rd edition, which came out in 1975, after Dungeons and Dragons had been produced, but it is widely reported that the origins of D&D were based on the idea of a chainmail campaign where one player had done a raid, using the man-to-man rules, into an enemy castle (actually the dungeon) to rescue some prisoners.  So, I am not sure how much of the man-to-man Fantasy portions existed in the earlier (Guidon Game) version, or if it was added later.

As mentioned above, there are two turn sequences given for the game.  One is for alternating moves (which requires no order writing), and one for simultaneous moves (which requires order writing, and would definitely benefit from having a referee).

Movement and missile ranges are given in inches, which can be extrapolated to real life, with the scale of 1" to 10 yards, given in the rules' introduction.  Movement is pretty straight forward, with reductions for terrain (based on troop type).  Half value for 20mm (or, presumably, 15mm) troops.

Some basic rules are suggested for setting up the terrain for the battle.  Changing formation and facing is described as taking up a portion of a whole turn's movement (or two turns, in the case of infantry forming a square from a line formation - in medieval terms, this would be a schiltron or hedgehog).

Simple rules are given for Fatigue, although admittedly, our group rarely used them.  They describe how much action a unit can perform before getting fatigued, which generally lowers the unit's effectiveness.  As can be seen from the description, the author carves out an exception for Swiss and Landsknechts.  This is done in multiple places throughout the rules, and while admittedly the Swiss (and the Landsknechts, also) were superior troops to many of their contemporaries, a more modern ruleset would adopt this by creating a classification system, rather than calling out exceptions by name.

The rules for shooting are simple.  They are based on the armor of the enemy target - either no armor, half armored, or fully armored.  Selecting from the appropriate table representing the target armor, a die is rolled, and the number of dead enemy figures results.  This is as a function of how many figures are firing, and the tables for Unarmored and Half Armored targets cover up to 10 shooters at a time (more shooters are to be divided up into equal numbers, so 36 archers would be 3 rolls as 10 shooters, and 1 roll as 6 shooters), and the table for Fully Armored targets covers up to 20 shooters at a time.  Troops can fire from two ranks deep, so two ranks of archers, or one rank if the front is spearmen or swordsmen, and the second is archers.  And so on, with the difference that being on the front slope of a hill allows other ranks to fire overhead the friendly troops in front of them.

This is very much a die per group of figures system similar to the WRG 1685-1845 rules.  They also have some similarity to Larry Brom's first edition of The Sword and the Flame.  The difference being, that in Chainmail, for a set group of figures, the dice determines how many casualties that figure does, in The Sword and the Flame 1st edition, the dice determines a divisor to determine how many casualties result from a set number of firing figures.

More elaborate rules are given for gunpowder weapons, including the Arquibusiers (as spelled in the book), Cannon, and special consideration for Bombards.

Melee combat rules cover how many dice are rolled, per figure, based on the enemy figure type.  Then a simple table gives what the kill range for each dice rolled, is.  So, by the following the table, a group of 9x norman knights (heavy horse) attacking 12x saxons (heavy infantry), would roll 27 dice (3 dice per man), and would score a kill on 4,5,6.  The heavy infantry, attacking back (simultaneously) would roll only 3 dice (1 die per four men), and would score a hit on a 6 only.  The numbers in this example are extreme (27 dice vs. 3 dice), but the rules are exhibiting the realities, and perceptions, of medieval warfare.  In most cases, when fighting man to man, it might be 1 dice per 2 or 3 figures.  All troops can only fight in 1 rank deep, unlike shooting.

There are special considerations for flank attacks and other situations, as well as a way to calculate post-morale melee.  This involves a calculation based on the point value of the troops involved.  Multiple the troops you have surviving, by their point value (ranging from 3 for peasants, to 9 for heavy horse and Swiss pikemen).  This number is modified in two cases, to it, the side inflicting more casualties, adds to their total the difference in number of casualties (times a dice toss).  The side that survives with a larger number of troops adds to their total the difference in number of troops (times a dice toss).  Then the overall totals of each side are compared.  The results usually are one side or the other as the "loser" and must move back a certain amount, rout, or surrender (with optional rules for prisoners).  The calculation sounds complicated, but after doing a few times, it becomes second nature.  And it really rewards the strength of different unit types (knights are hard hitting, but usually small units, and foot formations are usually large units, so both get benefits).

Morale is straight forward, and is based on checking once a unit reaches a casualty threshold.  The unit tests morale at that point (say, 33.3% for heavy foot), by rolling 2d6 against a target number.  If it fails, it is removed from battle.  If it passes, it is good, until it reaches that threshold again (so for our Heavy Foot, it tests initially after losing a third of the unit, and again considers morale a second third of the unit).  The second time it reaches the threshold, it automatically fails morale (no dice toss) and is removed.  Note, that some units have a threshold of 50%, so only test once, and if they pass, they are good until they are destroyed completely (such as knights, and Swiss pikemen).

That is it for the rules.  There are optional rules, and rules for weather and national characteristics.  There are rules for sieges, but that completes the rules for the big battles.

I love these rules.  A lot. They are fast, friendly, and deadly.  Meaning, easy to play, and lots of figures die.  I have a lot of fond memories of games, mostly of the Western Army vs Western Army, but we also had players with Mongol armies, and other weirdness.  Like the unlikely game between Western Knights and the Samurai army.  The fun ensued when one player, playing the Japanese, had "ninjas" in his army - the referee ruled them as light infantry on defense, but heavy infantry on offense, but they could start the game hidden in any terrain feature that the player wanted, as long as the referee was told.  They started hidden in a small forest in the middle of the board, and at one time a unit of knights passed too close to the forest, and the ninjas emerged and attacked the knights in the rear.  Mayhem was had, lots of howling, and laughing for years.

Chainmail has a lot in common with Cavaliers and Roundheads, but have some important distinctions.  The other rulesets in the book are impressive, as well, but I only ever played the Man-to-Man rules (which I also like), but only rarely did we use the Fantasy Supplement (and then, usually for fantasy troop types and monsters, rarely did we ever use Magic, except during one large refight for the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which had both Gandalf and the Lord of the Nazgul as able to sling spells).

The man-to-man rules are worthy, and would be a good game to play these days.  I won't review them here, but when I write a review of Knights and Magick, I will do some comparison.

So, Chainmail. Writing this review has re-ignited a flame in me to set out armies of knights and archers, men-at-arms and pikemen, and start rolling dice.  It sure would be good to have some armies of 800-1000 figures, of medieval troops.  Maybe that is a good project to start.  In the meantime, I might give it a try in 15mm.  Not sure it would be the same, though.


Ed M said...

Great review. I had forgotten that Chain Mail had a jousting supplement! I've got a copy; I'll have to look it over again. There is also an excellent stand alone jousting system in FGU's Chivalry and Sorcery (then again, what isn't in that codex?). We used to have paper and pencil jousts during lunchtime at high school.

Once again, your comment about figures reminds me of the good old/bad old days, when every rules set was based on a 1:20 (sometimes 1:10) figure:man ratio and all the mechanics were centered on the number of figures on the stand and in the unit. The rules may have been "friendly" but the number of figures you needed to put on a viable game was not.

That was a contributor to Empire's success, I think: the figure ratio was 1:72, meaning that you only needed 12 figures or so to represent a battalion, and it coincided with the explosion of 15mm as a viable scale. These were game changers for our group. We could Napoleonics under those circumstances.

derv said...

You gave a nice review.

Just quickly. Perren and Gygax wrote Chainmail with pre-painted Elastolin figures in mind. So, as I understand, 3/4 base width. But I doubt that they actually based them at the time.

Charles Turnitsa said...

Going back to Featherstone and Grant, the earlier rules were frequently with individually mounted figures. It is still fun to play that way, but the time it takes to move an army limits the size you can practically deal with, when you have individually mounted figures (if you want to finish the game in an few hours).

derv said...

A little off topic, any chance you will be attending HMGS Fall In! at the Lancaster Host in PA? It's Nov 4-6.

It's a nice Con that my son and I always enjoy.

Charles Turnitsa said...

I will be there! I wasn't sure until lately that I could go, so I did not register a game to put on, but I'll be there. What do you and your son play, typically?

By the way, I forgot to say thanks for the comments about Perren and Gygax. I have read about the Elastolin figures, and seen pictures, but never had any or played with any in real life.