Sunday, May 01, 2016

Tribal - skirmish combat game

I may not always judge a set of wargame rules by its cover, but sometimes a good cover makes me want to have a closer look.

After seeing the cover of Tribal on TMP, I followed the link to Wargames Vault, where you can watch a video of how the combat system works. The system looked good, and I thought it would work for a Homeric warfare skirmish game (something which I have been trying to find a set of rules for).

The rules have lists for Maori (well, duh!), Aztec, Viking, and Gladiatorial combat in detail, and also Iroquois, Japanese Heian, and cavemen warfare in less detail. I posted a question on the TMP thread asking if the rules would work for Homeric warfare, and the author replied that it would, so I bought a copy. True story.

So what do you get for your US$10?

The pdf file is 32 pages long, and fully coloured throughout, which may tax your printer. There are photos of figures in action and "black-and-white" line drawings and pictures of tribal "totems" for atmosphere throughout the pages. The cover, period fluff, acknowledgements and contents take up six pages, and then we are into the rules themselves, which are only nine pages. Scenarios take up four pages, optional rules two, and then the army lists are covered in nine pages. A page for photos helps to round the document to an even number, and the Quick-Reference Sheet makes up the last page.

Now off the bat I like the rules because it seems to fit exactly what I have been looking for: heroic warfare with different tiers of combatants, where heroes are moved as individuals and rank-and-file warriors in units, an interesting and tactical combat system, and the tracking of honour or fame for the heroes. The size is also what I thought was optimal for such a game: up to three heroes and four warbands (of five figures each). So if those are also things you are looking for, read on...

Tribal is a skirmish game, which means one figure = one person. The playing area is 3' x 3', with 1" on the tabletop representing 2 yards or so. Time scale is not mentioned, but a game lasts typically 6 to 8 turns.

Now if you have seen the video I mentioned above, then you will know that the game is played with (at least) two standard decks of playing cards instead of dice. The cards determine initiative, resolve combat, and are even used for measuring movement (like in the game Pirates of the Spanish Main).

Combat is clever and presents a game-within-a-game in itself. When a hero or unit enters combat, it draws a 'combat hand' of several cards depending on his/its status, number of wounds taken/number of warriors in the unit, as well as any modifiers. The heroes/units then fight up to five rounds of combat by playing a card each round from the combat hand to determine the winner, with the player having the advantage playing his card after the opponent has revealed his card for the round. The higher card wins, but winning doesn't always cause a wound as red cards are Feint cards which do not do damage but allows the player to change the suit of a card played in the next turn; black cards deal damage, and depending on the type of weapon a hero/unit is armed with the suit also confer a bonus. Winning by a large margin can cause more than one wound. At the end of the combat rounds the number of rounds won by each side is tallied and the side with more wins wins the whole combat and forces the enemy to retreat, and gains Honour. One rule I really like is the Panic! rule, which makes a hero/unit with fewer cards than his/its opponent draw cards sight unseen to play against the opponent, representing a frantic attempt to fend off attacks - a panicked unit cannot cause damage.

As you can see, the choice of which card to play is key. Higher cards are of course more powerful, but they can be neutralised by the opponent's use of a red card, so you may want to play them only when you have the advantage, or if you are pretty sure that the opponent is out of high cards which may beat your high cards...

The other distinctive feature of Tribal is Honour, which is the currency for the game. Each player starts out with a set number of Honour points based on the scenario, and may/must spend a fraction of these on buying his warband. Honour is also used to purchase skills and upgrades for the heroes/units. The remainder is then used as currency during the game and in determining the winner. You may use Honour to perform dirty tricks to help you win a combat, but doing so of course brings dishonour and lowers your Honour total. Other than winning combats and achieving scenario objectives, some armies can also gain Honour by performing deeds like making the first kill of the battle or capturing enemy warriors. Maori warbands can also spend Honour to do the Haka, which grants them extra cards. The game ends after a number of turns specified by the scenario rule, when the player with more Honour is the winner, or if one side runs out of honour before that happens.

So overall the game looks like three games in one: you need to manoeuvre your forces as in a wargame, you need to fight the combats in mini-hands of a card game, and you need to play a resource management game by making sure that you spend your Honour wisely, from creating your warband to gambling with them during the actual battle itself. Now usually I do not like games with such "meta" aspects, but for Tribal they all seem to fit the theme, so I am keen to give it a try.

The army lists are fun to read, and cover a brief introduction to the army and the types of warriors/priests found in each army, a list of references, links to companies that make the figures for that army, and special rules for it. The gladiators game represent a rather different game from the standard game, as it has only heroes and no units, and there are additional rules for armour.

Having read through the rules, I am impressed enough by them to "unshelve" my Trojan War figures on my painting list. The rules unfortunately do not cover chariots and stripping of a fallen enemy's armour, but those are not deal-breakers for me.

Hopefully I can get the figures painted soon and play a test game.


Natholeon said...

Great review, thanks Captain!

Rodger said...


fatgoblin said...

looks fun. lets give it a go!

john csonka said...

Good review...went and bought a copy... let you know how it plays. Thanks for the review. Hunlion