It’s been a while, Internet. For those of you unaware, I’ve recently taken a regular writing job that has taken up the lion’s share of my free time, which naturally gets in the way of what are now side activities, such as posting here or writing stories. On the plus side, the Feast or Famine lifestyle of freelancing is no longer a problem. On the down side, I wasn’t able to go to Fall In this weekend.
That said, I did have some time to play a few rounds of a new set of rules—and I mean new ones. I bought them Thursday night, about ten minutes after they went up for sale on Wargame Vault. The game, Triumph (available at the previous hyperlink) is the first set of rules produced by the newly-formed Washington Grand Company. If you click on their website link, you might be confused about why there are two links there—I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s get a few things out of the way.
I’ve known these guys since I was fourteen—exactly half a lifetime ago for me. I met them at the conventions, because we all played DBA together. They were responsible for putting on some of the best events I’ve ever played—themed campaigns, preset tournaments, fixed-deployment giant battles, and a whole lot of other things I’m leaving out for the sake of brevity. Some of the best games of my life were played alongside (often against) them—I still remember a certain game in which I assaulted elephants with bow in close combat in a national tournament.
These are the kind of guys who really get into the hobby, from all sides. I’m more of a casual player, because I only care about the game. These are the guys who spend hours painting figures, designing terrain pieces, planning events… and dissecting rule sets.
When DBA 3.0 came out, there was a lot of backlash within the community. My review was pretty neutral—there were some good changes and some bad ones. In my opinion, it doesn’t feel like the DBA I’ve been playing for half my life. Maybe that’s good for other people, but it’s not for me. I haven’t played a single game of 3.0 since I posted that review, and I don’t miss it.
The folks at the Washington Grand Company felt similarly, and decided to make a set of rules that hit the same spot DBA used to. They succeeded.
Triumph! (which is misspelled without the exclamation point) is a set of fast-play, relatively simple Ancients and Medieval period historical wargaming rules. And… it’s fun.
Here is my review of my experience and first impressions of Triumph!. Before I get too far into it, I want to add a couple of caveats:
- These rules are still in early access. That means that they are playable and complete, but they are also subject to changes until the final version is released. Some of my criticism is going to be directly related to this, but please note that most of this is going to be addressed down the line.
- A lot of this review is going to be tinted through the lens of my experience with DBA. DBA’s influence is present throughout the rules, so I think the comparison is valid.
- My old man and I played a few games with three armies total; Ancient British against Ancient British, and Samanid against Ghaznavid. (For the record, my dad crushed me in every game, and I’m perfectly comfortable blaming the dice.) We haven’t touched Dark Ages, Medieval Europe, or a wide, vast range of other periods and regions yet.
- Army Compositions
Armies are not the same size. They never have been. Feudal England’s armies were typically a few hundred people, which is radically different from Persia’s forces, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands (or millions, depending on who you ask). Roman forces were usually outnumbered by considerable margins, two or three (or, if you ask Caesar, ten) to one. They won because they were better disciplined, better armed, and better armored.
DBA, and a lot of games like it, ignore this in favor of game mechanics. Regular DBA armies consist of twelve stands, with no variation. Spartans and Persians have the same number of figures, even though the scale is totally and completely off.
It also messes with the scale of the battlefield; those Persians occupy the same or nearly the same amount of space as the Spartans.
This isn’t a problem so much with the game as it is with the historical aspect of it. A game is a better game when there are the same number of stands; uniformity, in that regard, has a lot of advantages. My problem is that it’s a pretty crappy representation of reality. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, mostly because, again, I mostly care about the game, but it’s something that always bugged me about DBA.
These are both important to a lot of players; a uniform (or close to it) number of elements, but an appropriately balanced scale. There’s just no easy way to have both within the same rules; Commands and Colors, for example, just has fixed numbers for each scenario. DBM and DBMM went to a straight points system, with different grades of troops (and grades generals, and grades of freaking everything) making differences in numbers and quality.
Triumph! did something a bit different, and I like it a lot. Armies are made up of 48 points worth of troops. All troops range from 2 to 4 points in value. This puts the total number of elements in an army somewhere between 12 and 24 ostensibly, though the only troops worth two points can’t be generals, so the ceiling is actually lower.
Combined with those point values, every army has a set minimum and maximum number of their available troop types. For example, the Ancient British army (the army of Boudicca, the true Gentleman’s Choice of general) requires that every army have at least four warband, and two “bad horse” elements. That’s a total of 22 points right off the bat, nearly half the army. The rest of the troops can be made up of battle taxis (a type of chariot, for the uninitiated), skirmishers, rabble, more warband, and more bad horse. In other words, there are about 80 points of elements to choose from, and 22 are selected for you. There are similar breakdowns for the other armies I’ve seen, too.
Basically, every army has a core of required troops, but the rest is up to you. There are limits—you can’t fill up the rest of your Ancient British army with battle taxis (you can have up to four)—but the freedom is… freeing.
It’s a good hybrid approach, and I can see this being adapted for a lot of scenarios and themed campaigns. For example, a Caesar’s Gallic Campaign…campaign… might limit Roman armies to 36 points, or 40, or might expand Gallic armies to 60 points. It’s pretty easy to expand or contract the limits, and you don’t even have to mess with the minimum or maximum numbers of specific elements to achieve a more realistic numbers disparity. Persian armies should be filled out with levies, horde, and rabble, so just increasing the points available to them can achieve that.
Now, this kind of thing is perfectly achievable with DBA, but requires a more heavy-handed approach, and can’t really be done without dictating the exact composition of each army. It’s more work for event coordinators and tournament organizers, and anything that makes their lives easier is something I favor.
In practice, I think that most armies are going to be somewhere between 12 and 16 elements total. My Ancient British army was 14 elements, and my Samanid army was 12. Victory conditions don’t change; you still need to kill 16 points worth of your opponent’s elements to win.
- Game Board
DBA is played on a square mat, either 24” or 30” (pretty much depending upon whether you play in Europe or America). A lot of other games play on square boards, too.
Triumph! decided that square boards are lame, and wanted to make them wider than they are deep. The recommended board size is 48 MU by 32 MU (I’ll explain MU later), which is roughly 37 inches across and 25 inches deep at the 15mm figure scale.
That provides a lot of room for horizontal maneuvering without deploying the armies too far apart. That means that you actually have space for sweeping cavalry maneuvers, and flank marches are riskier than on square boards. That said, you’re still fairly close to your opponent’s army, and they can threaten to close while you’re busy dancing in the backfield.
In short, the battle has room to develop, but you’re not so far away from your enemy that he can sit in the corner and wait.
The terrain rules are… interesting.
My biggest issue with DBA, bar none, has always been the fact that you can clutter the board with so much difficult terrain that the game will take forever. I’ve always insisted that ancient and medieval battles were mostly fought on, you know, battlefields, which were generally open and relatively easy to traverse. There were strategic things, like a copse of woods or a hill to take, but the battlefields were rarely swamps.
Those are what we call “skirmishes,” mostly, with small numbers of troops engaging in brief exchanges, rather than big, sweeping battles overseen by a general, which is what these games are supposed to represent. A few elements engaging in a patch of woods is cool, and historically accurate, but the entire battle taking place in the woods is not.
What frustrated me is that there was always that one guy who would place the maximum number of terrain pieces every single time, without fail. He’d cover the board in woods, steep hills, and marshes, and I’d know that there would be very little chance of completing the game under the time constraints of a tournament. It was often enough to make me wish I could just look at him and say, “How about we just call this a draw now instead of wasting an hour on nothing?”
Triumph! does something I like with terrain (and some things I don’t like, which I’ll get into later). They randomize the amount of terrain pieces you can use. You roll a die, modify it by the type of environment the battle is supposed to represent, and that determines how many pieces you can put down.
Now, this means that most battles, on average, should wind up with three or four pieces of terrain. With the previously mentioned game boards, this leaves a lot of room to play freely in. It’s also possible for there to be very little or a whole lot of bad going on the board—but nobody has control over it. That’s the kind of thing I like; it takes the decision to clutter the board out of the hands of the jerk who doesn’t know any better.
Skip down a bit to see what I don’t like about the terrain rules, or be patient and keep reading about good things.
- Troop Types
I like it when a game makes distinctions between types of troops. One of my larger criticisms of DBA was that Roman Legionnaires fought as well as medieval swordsmen, despite the significant difference in technology (well, metallurgy, really), style, formation, and historical successes. The same was true for Hittite Empire spearmen, who used relatively crude weaponry, and Greek spear phalanxes, which fought in much tighter formation. Greek spearmen were better than Hittite spearmen, they fought significantly differently, and yet both are treated identically.
Triumph! has a lot of different troop types. Like… a lot of different troop types. Way more than DBA—twice as many, at least. That may seem like a negative aspect, because DBA’s biggest draw is its simplicity, and to some extent, that’s true. There are three types of regular cavalry, for example: Horse Bow, Javelin Cavalry, and Elite Cavalry, each slightly different in terms of capability.
DBA had one. It was called “cavalry.” That was easier to remember, true, but wasn’t all that accurate in terms of history. Cavalry armed with bow did fight differently than that armed with javelin, and to different effect against different opponents.
The added complexity is a calculated tradeoff; yeah, it’s more stuff to remember, but it’s also cooler in terms of flavor. It also makes room for greater variation of armies.
- Terrain Cards
As I read through the rules to deploy terrain, I came across a spot that started talking about terrain cards. These are basically preset configurations for terrain that you print out and select from at random when you’re setting up the board.
Basically, here’s how the terrain rules work:
- The person who won the terrain roll rolls a die to see how many pieces of terrain he’s supposed to put out. He picks out his terrain, and numbers each piece 1-6.
- He draws a terrain card.
- He then sets up the terrain so that it roughly matches the configuration on the card.
These cards split the board into six imaginary pieces. Each piece of terrain must follow the rules laid out on the drawn card; if it depicts piece number one touching the board edge, for example, then it needs to touch that board edge, and be within the section indicated (though there’s some wiggle room).
I get the objective; take some of the decision-making out of the hands of the person deploying the terrain and prevent them from screwing their opponent completely before the game even starts. The player still gets to make some decisions, and can move each piece he’s allotted around so long as they all fulfil the requirements (like touching the edges of two of the sectors).
That said, this is pretty needlessly complicated.
I don’t think that predetermined general terrain deployment is the way to achieve what (I assume) their goal is. I think that writing clear rules that prevent cluttering while keeping everything interesting is the way to approach this.
That said, there is one really big advantage to Triumph!—you don’t have to do it this way. My dad and I took one look at the terrain card rules and immediately said, “Nope.” So we didn’t bother with them, and instead put out terrain however we felt like it, though we did use the rest of the rules (like dicing for the number of pieces, sticking to the types of terrain, and so on).
I feel like this is one of those things that solves an ant infestation by burning down the house. Some people might like it this way—I know Flames of War, for example, has predetermined terrain setups—but that’s not how I roll.
“What is this nonsense word, Alex?”
Why, it is the name they have given to the database of army lists, dear reader. You can see it for yourself here—you don’t need the rules to look at it.
One of the biggest pains with DBA was searching through the lists at the end of the book for the army you wanted to build (or reassemble, like right before a tournament). The lists were in generally chronological order, split across a few periods, and had tons of text.
I spent a little bit of time gushing over the lists in the release of DBA 3.0, because they were excellently detailed, each providing a blurb about the army, the kinds of figures that should be used, and providing (often completely and totally inadequate) sources for determining the makeup of each.
But it was still annoying to look through them for that one thing you needed to check.
With Meshwesh, they made their lists not just freely available (which is a nice change) but searchable—by full or partial strings, too. You can type in “Anc” and immediately see “Ancient British,” right under “Ancient Lybian” (because they’re organized by year, not alphabetically, ya dummy). Even better, the in-period, historical enemies are listed right there, and you can click on them to be taken to that army’s page. This makes finding and screwing around with armies way easier.
That said, it is not friendly for newcomers. Not because it’s hard to use—that’s pretty easy, actually, and if you can’t figure it out, well, maybe you’ve got some other issues you should deal with. No, it’s a pain because you can’t have both the list and the rules open on your tablet or phone at the same time.
Right now, these rules are digital only. There’s no physical copy of these to be had, unless you decide to print the rules like a filthy savage. I didn’t foresee this issue, so I just had my tablet to set up the games.
As I was putting together the armies, I had to keep checking point values and advantages of particular elements. This meant that, each time I wanted to check, I had to minimize the army list, go to the terrible file manager on my tablet, find the rules, open them up, and scroll to the point value page (and the combat factor tables).
This sounds like a really petty thing to complain about, but I’m complaining nonetheless. It took me an extra ten minutes or so to put together each army, which is significant. My dad and I only had a few hours to play, and that’s time away from the game on nonsense issues.
It’s a pretty easy fix; update the tables on Meshwesh to also include the point values, at the very least. Give us a unified view so that we can at least assemble a legal army faster!
There’s also another potential hitch: Meshwesh is a browser-based application. That requires internet access. What if I’m playing in my friend’s basement? What if there’s a power outage? Wargaming is pretty much built to be played in low-tech environments; there’s a reason it’s been around for so long. I’m not averse to including technical solutions to problems like trawling through pages and pages of lists (and, to be fair, there are 650 army entries), but they’ve got to be as accessible as possible.
This kind of thing screams for a downloadable application with local storage. It’s built like an app already—standard search bar, hyperlinks, tables, the works. Let me download Meshwesh onto my phone so I can access it during the next snowstorm to knock out Long Island’s power grid (which is, apparently, made mostly out of dental floss and the wishes of children everywhere).
The army lists aren’t accessible anywhere else, either, so if the site goes down, nobody can play. I suppose they could always release this as a PDF, but then we’d lose all of the great functionality!
I like Meshwesh. I think it’s a big step in the right direction. But I need to be able to use it always, regardless of where I am.
And don’t make me close it to look up point values!
- What is a Battle Line?
The rules are, generally speaking, written pretty well. I was able to read them and understand just about everything—but that isn’t everything.
“Battle Line” is a concept that is unique to Triumph!. It is, I think, a pretty cool addition…if I understand it correctly.
Because I’m not sure I do.
If you look up an army on Meshwesh, you’ll see that there will be a big “X” marked under the “Battle Line?” column for certain troops. According to how I read the rules, this means that, in the event that someone is invaded, they deploy those troops first, before the invader deploys their army.
But… it’s not exactly explained well. From what I read, it basically means that these troops need to be deployed in the middle third of the board? But if you roll a one for the maneuver roll, you can also do a flank march, and flank march troops can be made up of eight points of battle line troops, and if your marked battle line is only made up of eight points of troops, I guess you can declare that they’re all going to flank march?
But can you actually do that?
Look, the rules are generally easy to understand, but there are some things that really could use expansion. There’s a section titled “Battle Line troops” that states that the battle line designation only affects deployment, but it doesn’t say how it affects deployment.
There are some armies on Meshwesh that don’t seem to have any battle line designated, either. Does that mean they don’t deploy at all, and that you just skip right to the invader’s deployment?
This is the kind of complaint that is probably due to this still being early access. I expect a lot of this to be addressed in updates in the future.
My gripes with Triumph! are all relatively minor. They’re either aesthetic or something that can be easily fixed. There’s nothing in here that’s outright bad.
Right now, I rate the game an 8/10. It’s very good, very well put together, easy to learn, and easy to play. There are a few things I’d like to see change, but nothing game-breaking.
Here are a few final stats for those of you who want to see what’s what:
- Expected Play Time: 10 minutes or so to set up, including building armies (once you’ve got the point values memorized, I’d imagine), about 30-50 minutes to play. Total play time somewhere between 40 minutes to an hour, give or take a few minutes.
- Money Investment: The rules themselves are $15 for the PDF version. You get the full rules, terrain cards, and a couple of quick-reference sheets (with combat factors, combat results, game setup steps, that kind of thing). For figures, expect each army to consist of somewhere around 12-16 stands, each with 3-4 figures. For 15mm, probably somewhere around $50-80 for the raw lead, depending on where you buy the figures. Assume the cost to be somewhere close to a DBA army with all of the options, which is a good guide.
- Accessibility: If you’ve played any wargame ever, you can probably pick this up pretty quickly. Guys move, you line up in corner-to-corner contact (so that the stands are flush), and then you roll dice. I’d rate this a 4/10 in terms of difficulty, on a scale I’ve just made up.
Anyway, this is a game from people who love fast-play ancient and medieval wargaming, who know what they’re doing, and who made a fun, simple game. Definitely check it out (and at least mess with those army lists).