DOIN’ THE MESS AROUND: Oathmark Historical: Part 1


26 January 2021
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Tinkering with rules

ABOVEA Crusader battle. The Editor notes the Salute 2003 figure of Richard the Lionheart (sculpted by Mark Copplestone) in the foreground and is very pleased...

Words and Photos by Noel Williams

This may surprise you to know: but some wargamers like to tinker with rules! Really?
Yes, really.

My first thought when I opened Joe McCullough’s Oathmark fantasy rules were “I wonder how well they’ll do for the Italian Wars?” Well, they won’t, of course. The game is not intended as any kind of historical simulation, but rather as a fun game whose period is squarely “fantasy”. It sits snugly in the very popular niche that Joe has carved for himself with Frostgrave, Ghost Archipelago and Rangers of Shadow Deep, presenting a battle system which will readily be understood by players familiar with those skirmish/RPG fantasy games as many ways of doing things are quite similar.

I’m a big fan of those games. I particularly like Joe’s approach in encouraging players to adapt his game systems to fit their own preferences and contexts. It’s a refreshing, open approach which many gamers seem to respond to, recognising that we’re not all the same, we have different interests, habits, pleasures and resources, and that gamers want to treat a system like a toolbox through house rules and so on. Similarly the ‘fluff’ accompanying Joe’s games is generally indicative rather than definitive, enabling players to create their own variant worlds to greater or lesser extent. 

Rangers of Shadow Deep, for example, has spawned individual fan versions (called “reskins”: an appropriately dark description) for universes such as Star Wars, post-apocalypse, WW2, Inquisitor, Dragon Age, 40K, Victorian Sci-fi, Judge Dredd and Call of Cthulu.

 

WHY OH WHY...?

This article is written in that same spirit: it outlines some exploratory ideas for using Oathmark to play historical games. Of course, many players have been using their existing historical collections to flesh out their fantasy armies in any case, but what I’m interested in here is how useful the system might be for purely ‘historical’ rather than ‘fantasy’ gaming.

Why, you may ask, mess about with a perfectly good fantasy rule system for historical games when there’s already more historical rulesets around than could conveniently be counted? My reasons are these:

  • I really like Oathmark
  • I like fantasy games
  • I like historical games
  • I like combining those fantasy and historical games in various kinds of “ImagiNations” approaches
  • I hate learning dozens of different rule systems. It’d be great to have “One System to Rule them all”.
  • Why not?

Even if you’re a dedicated historical simulator my hope is these pieces will intrigue you enough to give Oathmark a go.

ABOVE: A Wars of the Roses game using Oathmark rules.

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TOP RANKING

Oathmark has some similarities with departed versions of Warhammer. It’s a “rank and flank” game which uses figure removal from units which get rank bonuses and have stats lines that remind of many fantasy games, including not only Warhammer, but games like Dragon Rampant. In other words, the basic approach is quite traditional, easily understood by both novice and expert.

How is Oathmark different, then? It’s novel in several key ways which make it potentially attractive. The first is its take on the fantasy concept. Unlike more “corporate” approaches to game systems, it’s not tied to any particular figures or manufacturer. Northstar have taken care to produce an excellent range of supporting figures, which potentially cover all players’ needs and the signs are that these will keep on coming, but for players like me who have heritage collections of fantasy figures from their D&D or Warhammer days, not a single new figure is needed.

The game is built on five “races”: human, elf, dwarf, goblin and orc, so it’s unlikely that any player with an existing fantasy collection will be stuck for troops. And, it turns out, a wide range of historical troops can readily appear in this fantasy setting: basically, you could use any infantry with sword or spear, most light cavalry, and many historical heavy cavalries, because Oathmark’s description of troop types is pretty open. (Even so, if you’re looking for a good excuse to buy more fantasy figures, Oathmark is more than happy to give it!)

The downside with using existing collections is that Oathmark is, unusually, built around individual figures on 25mm square bases (larger for cavalry, artillery and monsters, of course). Whilst the system allows me to use any figures I like, almost all of my existing collection doesn’t conform to the basing standard. In fact, this doesn’t matter too much. Whilst the normal frontage of nearly all units is 125mm (5 bases of 25mm), as long as all units have a front rank of 5 figures, and roughly similar frontage, the game plays fine. As with all mass single figure games, movement trays or sabots are a good idea, and they can ensure that they all units have the same frontage, irrespective of the bases of individual figures. This means that almost all my historical figures, generally on bases smaller than 25mm, can be accommodated within Oatmark’s conventions. 

ABOVE: Infamy! Roman discussions on leadership...

GO YOUR OWN WAY

The simplified combat system of Oathmark, whereby fighting only ever takes place between one unit on each side at a time, may displease some historical gamers. The approach is IGO/UGO, according to an Initiative throw. Unsuccessful activation limits a unit to one action from a restricted list. Successful activation gives it a maximum of two actions, one of which may be to move into combat (this follows roughly the same protocol as for individual figures in the Frostgrave games). After combat, one or both of the engaged units will be pushed back or withdraw, i.e. no longer be engaged.

Because no two units can activate at the same time, there can never be a situation where two units on side A simultaneously fight a single unit on side B. Coordinated attacks are replaced by sequential attacks, which themselves are highly dependent on whether you get to activate the units you want, when you want. In this respect, it’s a little like a Chess game, although heavily dependent on whether units are able to activate when they wish to. A clever wrinkle on this is that characters who are able to Command can activate multiple units, but even here only one at a time may enter combat. The character could, however, coordinate several sequential attacks on the same enemy unit in this way.

Activation, then, is hugely important. And herein is one of the really interesting aspects of gameplay: different fantasy races have different activation stats. As you might predict, elves are more responsive than goblins, with humans between the two. Fighting a historical game, then, where both sides would (I guess!) be human, means that the activation stat is largely taken out of the game, especially if we ignore magic as well (some spells can affect activation) and so a big part of Oathmark’s dynamic would be lost.

PROXY

For this reason, I think the way to use Oathmark in historical games, is to use dwarf, goblin, orc and elf stats with different human proxies. For units or armies with high morale or good command and control, you might choose elven stats. For militia and unwilling rabble, you might choose goblin stats. For me, this makes an interesting sub-game: trying to figure out what fantasy stats might best represent my view of particular historical units, then testing them out on the table. 

I’m also not that interested in so-called “balanced” games. I find asymmetric and scenario-driven games much more rewarding and more realistic. Oathmark unit specs can be treated as “hypothetical” historical units, and pitted against each other on that basis, (e.g. a large army of units with poor activation faces a small army with good activation: Persians against Macedonians, say) whilst several of the scenarios also offer plausible historical possibilities. I think this is a great mechanism for historical gaming, and one well worth adopting/adapting and, moreover, fun to experiment with, though it’s probably unlikely to lead to real historical insight...

ABOVE: An Punic Wars ancients game using Oathmark

MELTING POT

One thing that makes Oathmark stand out from your traditional fantasy game – and a simple, but brilliant, idea – is being able to mix races in an army. In principle there’s nothing to stop you having an army which contains units from all five races. It’s a little difficult to arrange in practice, and conceptually it might take some imagining, but my own fantasy universe actually makes that perfectly plausible. 

From a historical perspective, therefore, we can simply ignore all the ethnic elements of the game. All five races merge into one, a melting pot of units we can build historical armies out of. In effect, the list of is a detailed (and highly systematic) points system for constructing historical (or “race-neutral”) armies. Altogether, there are 93 units specified, which gives quite an array of possibilities, although about a third of these are individual characters or creatures, many of which therefore won’t have a ready historical equivalent. However, over and above this, the mathematical potential of the Oathmark stats line offers a massive range of theoretical possibilities, too, which do not currently exist.

Although the game has not been designed as a toolbox of optional rules intended to be selected according to taste, I can see no reason not to approach it that way, given how it works. I suspect Mr McCullough won’t be too unhappy with people adapting his mass battle engine for other contexts. Oathmark is, however, a pretty tight system, so any tinkering with stats risks distorting some aspect of game play. Even so, if your intent is precisely that – to distort it in a particular direction (in this case, towards something more useful for a historical battle) – the obvious route is to raise or lower particular stats in a unit profile to create profiles you feel more appropriate historically. Doing this effectively means you’re no longer playing Oathmark as written, but a variant of your own devising, so I suggest you play a few games first, with any suitable figures, without changing any stats, just to see how units handle without such creative adjustments.

 

WHAT’S THE POINT?

The key problem with any such adjustment is that there’s no clear statement of how troop stats or characteristics equate to points, so players will need either to ignore the issue of exact equivalence between armies, or to playtest adjusted points for altered units until both sides are reasonably happy with the outcome. My way of doing this is to play a game using the standard stats as given for every unit except one, or at the most, two experimental units, so I can gather evidence on the impact of those adjustments in comparative terms. (This phrasing makes it sound a little like a controlled experiment. It’s not, of course, if only because dice are involved. But it does limit variability a bit, so you can at least get a playtester’s sense of whether your tweaks are radically unbalancing).

ABOVE: Another shot of the Wars of the Roses Oathmark game.

REAL LIFE FANTASY

In addition to their stats line, units also may have Special Abilities applied to them. These do amount to a toolbox of sorts – several of which seem entirely desirable for historical games. Fire Over (shooting overhead) or Nimble (no movement penalty for Rough Ground) might be given to skirmishing troops, for example (skirmishers do not exist as a distinct troop type in Oathmark), Brace would help represent pikes (Oathmark only identifies spears, which automatically get Brace) and so on. 

A careful use of these Special Abilities can produce troop types which have at least some correspondence with historical units, always remembering, of course, that different gamers have different views on how some troops functioned in any case, yielding another dimension for possible experiment.

The pseudo-historical era at which Oathmark is pitched seems to be, loosely speaking, Dark Age, although the currency of that idea is probably more to do with the illustrations in the rulebook than the rules themselves, which do not specify what “heavy armour” or “hand weapons” mean, for example. Some gamers talk of it as “a return to authentic Tolkien fantasy”, i.e. a world largely of spears, swords and shields, where magic exists, but has only minor influence (I’d include myself in that category! Ed.). As such, I didn’t find it difficult to choose unit specs which suited relatively simple armies. Here, for example, is a basic Saracen Army, the kind of army the rules readily allow, where all the units are taken from the Human list:

  • 2 units of 10 Human Spearmen: 260 points
  • 1 unit of 10 Human Archers: 120 points
  • 3 units of 5 Human Mounted Rangers (Horse archers): 360 points
  • 3 units of 5 Human Heavy cavalry: 750 points

TOTAL: 1490 points

Stepping a little further back in period and a little outside the Human list, here’s a Carthaginian Army:

  • 1 unit of 20 Human Spearmen (Citizen spearmen): 260 points
  • 1 unit of 10 Human Linebreakers (Companions): 150 points
  • 1 unit of 5 Goblin Slave Slings (Libyan Skirmishers): 30 points
  • 1 unit of 10 Human Mounted Rangers (Numidian light cavalry): 240 points
  • 1 unit of 4 Heavy Cavalry (Noble or Spanish cavalry): 200 points
  • 2 units of 15 Orc Warriors (Cisalpine Gauls): 450 points
  • 1 unit of 10 Orc Linebreakers (Armoured Gauls): 180 points

TOTAL: 1510 points

Notes: Libyan skirmishers should really be javelins, but there are none in Oathmark. My list is probably Gaul-heavy but that’s merely a personal preference. And you might think four heavy cavalry too few but, in fact, 4 HC can be as effective as 5 in Oathmark, though obviously a little more vulnerable to casualties. 

And here’s a generic Wars of the Roses Army:

  • 2 units of 10 Human Archers: 240 points
  • 2 units of 10 Human Spearmen (Billmen): 260 points
  • 1 unit of 10 Human Linebreakers (Dismounted men-at-arms): 170 points
  • 1 unit of 10 Human Heavy Cavalry (Mounted men at arms): 500 points
  • 1 unit of 5 Human Cavalry (Currers/hobilars) : 225 points
  • 1 Elf Ballista (Cannon): 120 points

TOTAL: 1515 points

I’ve followed some of Rick Priestley’s ideas on this: so at least 50% of units should be Archers and Billmen (Human Spearmen in Oathmark); for each unit of archers, there must be a unit of bills/spears

no more than 25% of the army can be Cavalry of any type; no more than 50% of the cavalry can be Heavy Cavalry.

Notes: Because Oathmark limits all troop types to no more than 4 units of each, the largest WOTR army possible in Oathmark (using the above constraints) would be sixteen units: 4 Archers, 4 Human Spearmen and 8 other units, of which no more than 4 can be cavalry and no more than 2 can be heavy cavalry.

Above: A Saracen force for an Oathmark game.

In Conclusion

So these first stabs clearly show that Oathmark is perfectly serviceable for at least some historical armies. My personal feeling is that exploring possibilities like this is a fun element of our hobby, though others may feel that using unit descriptions which are “more or less” right is not really historical gaming at all. There’s a debate to be had here along the familiar “isn’t all wargaming fantasy?” line, but I’m not going in that direction in this brief article. 

Even so, other distinctive characteristics of Oathmark may seem problematic for historical armies. The game doesn’t offer all the weapon variety or troop characteristics we find across the Ancient and Medieval periods (there’s no pikes, javelins, rhompaia, chariots, Cantabrian circles, lances, elephants or cataphracts), which may mean rather more simplification than many players like to see in such games. Then, obviously, there are spellcasters, magic and monsters in Oathmark which have little direct relevance to history. And Oathmark offers a novel campaign system which, at best, limits troop types through a kind of “geometric geography”. Is this of any use to history buffs at all? I’ll deal with each of these in the next month’s article. 


This article originally appeared in issue 452 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.


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