Words by Dave Tuck Photos by Malc Johnston
Sometimes in the life of a wargamer, the stars align in perfect harmony. This happened for me in 2020.
I had collected numerous boxes of Gripping Beast, Wargames Factory and Victrix Saxons and Vikings, but never assembled them. We decided earlier in the year, that this needed to be corrected, but we had no rules or long-term goals. We also thought a campaign would be good, and it was something we, as a group had never done, again we had no clue how we would do this. Then along came the pandemic!
I was furloughed and immediately set about assembling around 300, 28mm models. The prolific painter, that is Malc, rapidly worked through these, and I based them all. Malc had also pointed me in the direction of the death metal band called Amon Amarth (how very ‘Mount Doom’ of them! Ed.), whose output is based on Viking legend and history, so I even had the appropriate music to work by.
The next event was the release of the Oathmark, fantasy big battle rules, by Joseph A McCullough, I watched the YouTube videos on this set, and – even though I have never played a fantasy game, in over 50 years of gaming – I was fascinated by the mechanisms used in this set. They had promise, so an order for the PDF set was sent, and the rules were in my possession the same day. We then remembered that Adrians Walls, had a couple of flag-sheets available, designed by Malc, and made some very nice Viking Long-ships, and some buildings. They too appeared, thanks to a personal delivery by Adrian.
I did not think the signs could get any better, but I was wrong. I searched the Internet for other rulesets, for more inspiration, and came across the Osprey set, Dux Bellorum, (I already had them on my shelf!) and the TooFat Lardies, Dux Brittaniarum, campaign system. This was purchased as a PDF along with the raiders supplement, and then again in print form, along with the cards.
ADAPT & THRIVE
Could we use any of these as written? Sadly not. So not for the first time, we set out on the journey that is developing a rule set we could live with. The Oathmark set, had some good stuff in it but was a fantasy set, so did not cover all the areas we wanted to cover. The Dux Bellorum set again had some great ideas, but it was not designed for around 600-700 figures on the table, and Dux Brittaniarum, based on forces of around 30 to 40 figures a side was definitely not. Not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we started by taking some of the mechanisms from the Oathmark set. For anyone not familiar with this set they work on a D10 system. Both sides dice off for activation, then each side moves a unit, and carry on in that vein, until all units are activated, or not as the case may be. The usual firing, melee and morale tests are carried out as soon as the activation is carried out, so a unit will move, fire, melee and take its morale as appropriate, before any other action is resolved.
We liked this because the level of involvement for all players was high throughout. We also saw how easy it would be to play it as a multiplayer game. Pre-Covid, we usually had two or three players a side, in our regular Thursday evening forays. The result is that we have now play-tested these rules dozens of times so let me present Viking Steel!
BASING & SCALE
Our infantry units are made up of twenty to twenty-four, 28mm models, divided between four 60mm square bases. Each base counts as having six models, no matter how many models are on them. This is because models wielding double-handed axes, look silly if crammed together.
Cavalry are also on 60mm squares, two to a base and counting as four models for casualty purposes.
15mm and smaller, would work equally as well, on smaller bases.
Roll each turn for initiative, winner chooses whether to move, first or second, and players proceed alternately to move or manoeuvre a unit, and carry out any firing, melee or morale tests, until all units have attempted to activate. We award a small disc to each unit, and once activated place it against the unit, to show it has had its turn.
TROOP TYPES & SPECIALISTS
Set out below are the statistics for rating, firing, melee and armour. We also added some new specialist units to give a flavour of the period, both historical and fictional. These are based on the TV series, Uhtred’s Kingdom and The Vikings plus the books of Bernard Cornwall!
Infantry are divided into classes, Household, usually one per force, Elite, usually no more than 10-15% of a force, Warriors and Levy. Warriors make up the vast majority, of Viking armies and up to half of Saxon armies.
Cavalry, as opposed to mounted infantry, are few in number, no more than one or two units a side.
Specialists and leaders are based on circular bases. Lords of war and kings have three figures, sub generals two, Warrior priests and Champions one or two, Seers one or two, and war dogs and cattle as many as look intimidating!
To achieve an order a unit rolls two D10’s. If it equals or beats the rating score on both dice it gets two moves, and on one die it gets one move. A move is four inches plus a D6 roll inches, for infantry and eight inches plus a D6 for cavalry and mounted infantry. Units can fire, or change formation, or wheel or move backwards at half speed, instead. If a unit fails both orders it still gets a move of D6 inches. It cannot charge without a successful order, nor can the unit fire. It takes one order to mount or dismount and form up.
When the unit is at half strength it only rolls one order dice.
Troops can only fire once in a turn. The only exception is with the use of a card. (see later)
Troops can never manoeuvre into contact with an enemy. They must always finish the manoeuvre short of contact with the enemy, and charge, or be charged later in the turn.
Skirmish Cavalry can never instigate a charge, but they can fight if contacted.
Troops crossing difficult terrain, going uphill, through broken ground or crossing linear obstacles do so at ½ speed.
Really bad terrain is as above – a D6. Fast troops ignore the deduction for difficult terrain and move normally through Really bad terrain
The only long-range missile fire is archery, which has a range of twenty inches. The only other missiles are javelins, spears throwing axes etc which all have a range of eight inches.
Firing takes place as follows:
The attack value – usually 2 – is deducted from the targets defence, and the resulting score is amended by these plusses and minuses:
-1 for each base deep the target is after the first, -1 if the target is disordered.
+1 If the firers or target have moved this turn, +1 if the firers are disordered.
The resulting score must be beaten to inflict a casualty. A D10 is rolled for each full or part stand of six, and an additional D10 is rolled for the officer, who may become a casualty.
No matter how many or few dice are rolled, one is designated as a special dice, (pick a different coloured one? Ed.) and if this registers a hit the officer may become a casualty. The officer is saved on a 5-6 on a D6 and the casualty is converted to a unit casualty instead. If the unit officer is killed, and a specialist or Lord of War is attached, special casualties are transferred to the specialist, with the usual saving throw of 5-6. Saving throws are as follows:
Targets in fortifications 4-6, solid cover 5-6, Light cover 6.
Any casualties from missile fire force a unit to take an immediate morale test.
Morale tests are carried out as follows:
To pass a morale test a unit must equal – not beat – its adjusted rating, adjusted as follows. Take the unit rating and...
Add 1 for each casualty suffered that action
Add 1 for each disorder level
Add 1 if the officer is lost, and add1 for each wound to an attached specialist model.
Add 1 for each excess level of fatigue.
Deduct 1 for each surviving base or part base.
Deduct 1 for each officer or specialist still attached.
Deduct 2 if the force leader is attached.
Roll two D10 and equal or exceed the above score on one of them to pass.
If the unit is at 50% strength only 1 D10 is rolled
Zero is always a pass and one is always a fail.
A fail result means a unit is disordered (activation score increased by 1) and remains disordered until it passes an activation. While it is disordered it can only do a basic move. A disordered unit that fails a further morale test retreats a full move and gains another level of disorder, and if it fails again it leaves the battlefield. A level of disorder can only be removed by a unit that is not engaged in combat, or suffers a shooting casualty and only takes a basic, no orders move. i.e a D6 move.
We use dice holders that hold two small dice, and we use one to mark casualties. We use the second one to mark fatigue, and it was the introduction of these fatigue rules that convert dark age battles from being a slugging match, to something far more tactical. They have changed the way we play these games, and we intend to add fatigue rules to many other periods we play. This is how they work.
Different categories of troop have different levels of fatigue. Household start with a dice marked 1, Elite 2, Warrior 3 and Levy 4. Each time a unit fights a round of melee the fatigue score is increased by 1. Once the score exceeds 6 a marker is placed on the fatigue dice, we use a brass curtain ring, and an additional ring is added in each subsequent round. The effects of these excess markers are twofold. First, the number of melee and shooting dice rolled is reduced by one for each excess marker, and secondly, it affects the unit morale, by adding one for each excess level to any rolls required.
Remember one is added to the fatigue for each combat. This means if a unit is fighting an enemy to front, and one to its flank, it will suffer an addition of 2 to its fatigue total in each complete turn. The only way to reduce these fatigue levels is to spend a turn, neither firing nor fighting, and not moving more than a basic move (i.e a D6 roll movement). To keep track of the class of unit, we use yellow dice for levy, red for warriors, green for elite, and purple for household. This is important because units can only remove fatigue points, back to a unit starting level, so a yellow, Levy dice cannot show lower than a 4 and green Elite unit dice cannot show lower than a 2.
Any time a unit is activated it can try and withdraw from an ongoing melee. It must pass its order roll, and can then move backwards at ½ speed, for one or two turns, depending on the order success level achieved. If it fails, a round of melee is fought, and its opponents deduct one from its score, as they are deemed to have gained the initiative. (see Melee on following page). These fatigue rules have transformed this period for us: even if you do not play Dark Ages, why not try them for other periods, where physical exertion is required in melees?
Melees are of three types, unit versus unit, (with or without leaders, champions or specialist troops), specialist versus unit, and specialist versus specialist. The former also triggers the fatigue rules. These rules are not triggered in the case of specialist versus a unit or specialist versus specialist. In fact, specialists do not get fatigued (they usually die long before that!). In Unit versus Unit combat action is as follows:
The attacking unit, having passed its order test, calculates its movement and if it reaches, moves its troops into contact. The defender if it has a leadership point (see later) may use it to fire defensive fire (one stand deep plus a dice for the officer if still alive). If hits are scored, the attacker takes a further morale test, and if it fails it stops 1” short of contact. If it passes a melee is fought.
Both sides fight all troops two stands deep. In a complete unit this will generate 4 dice, plus an extra die if the officer is alive. A dice is lost for every level of excess fatigue.
Take the target units armour rating less the attackers melee factor and adjust as follows:
Roll the appropriate number of D10’s scores above the number calculated are hits. 0’s always count as a hit. Then roll any saving throws for cover, (see Shooting).
Compare the casualties: the loser is pushed back 1” for each excess casualty and takes a morale test. The winner may follow up, fall back D6 inches or halt. If the loser fails morale for the second, or third, time winner must pursue, unless they expend a leadership point. Finally, both sides add 1 to their fatigue levels.
If troops have the Shield-Wall quality, they can, before the melee dice are rolled, reduce each sides number of dice rolled by 1 (to a minimum of 1 dice). Shield-wall rates can be reduced further by spending leadership points. (one level of reduction for each point spent). If a unit has a Berserker or Warrior Priest attached, one dice can be substituted for a different colour one, and if it registers a hit, that can be allocated to the other sides officer, who is saved on a 5-6 on a D6. A result of 1-4 means that it remains as a normal hit. If the officer is already killed, such hits can be allocated to any sub general, or specialist with that unit, and 5-6 is required to save them. All specialists take 2 hits, a sub-general take 3 hits, a force leader or Lord of War takes 4. Hits can be negated on spending a leadership point. These hits are then allocated as normal hits on the unit.
Melees just involving Specialists, Berserkers, Warrior Monks, War Dogs or Stampeding Cattle, take place
Pass an order test and measure the appropriate move distance, if it contacts the target unit. Roll a D10: on a 1 the attacker stalls and fails to move; 2: it attacks a unit adjacent to the target unit, if any. (friendly or enemy: rolls a D6 1-3 left side 4-6 right side). If no other targets it hits the intended target.
3-9: attack as normal. Defender must pass morale test on a +1 adjustment, and if it passes, they may throw spears (costs 1 leadership point). A roll of 10: Specialist gains an extra dice in melee.
Normally the Specialist gets 2 D10’s and can be fought by an equal number of enemy dice. The number of enemy able to fight the specialist increases by 1, each round, until all unengaged troops fight. The special dice rule in the normal unit melee still applies.
All other melee rules, winners and losers still apply. If the Specialist loses the melee its rating starts at 5, increasing by 1 each turn it loses a melee round. Specialists take 2 hits, they save hits on a 5-6. Winner and loser are calculated before these saving throws.
Champions may fight another Champions D10 v D10, or another specialist 3 D10 versus 2 D10 and save on 5-6. Winners and losers are calculated before these saving throws. Champions continue to fight each other, until one side dies, or withdraws, and the units within 8”of the fight, stand and watch, unless already engaged in melee or firing.
Champions can fight in a normal melee, and 2 dice can be replaced to attempt to kill officers etc. However, as the champion is such a choice target the other side can also replace a dice, to try to wound the champion. Champions take 2 hits and save on 5-6.
In small battles, where each player controls five or fewer units, a leadership point is given for each unit. In larger games limit the number of points to about half the number of units fielded, once this number exceeds five. They can be spent any time in your own or the enemies turn.
They can be used to allow a unit to have defensive fire, (see earlier), to give additional levels of shield-wall, to re-roll any D10 or D6 (one re-roll only per situation) and to prevent a compulsory pursuit. We usually indicate these with small counters, disposing of them when spent. Leadership points can be incredibly useful without changing the whole game.
As I mentioned, we got some inspiration from the TooFat Lardies Dux Brittaniarum and raiders rule sets and I recommend a viewing of these to any Dark age player. You only need about 30-40 figures a side maximum for a game, so the rules were not for us. Their fate cards are available separately for £9.60 and are a very nicely printed set. Alternatively you can download and use our cards. The rules we have incorporated onto the cards are optional (and there’s spares for you to add your own), and – as a third alternative – it is possible to generate a card deck entirely from scratch if you do not want to spend your money on the printed set or use our free downloads. If you are using the TooFat Lardies set, only use the title on each card as the narrative on them, is obviously geared to their rules. If you can use our cards for our rules these – with the title of the card and its effect under Viking Steel! – are available as a download from the MW website.
Whatever card set you chose to use, we allocate a hand of five cards to each player and in bigger games a card is dealt for each leadership point allocated.
We hope you like these rules, we have certainly had a lot of fun developing them and using them. In a future article, I will explore the campaign aspects, including historical characters and refighting historical battles, using the rules. If anyone has any questions or comments, please contact the magazine ([email protected]) and the editor can supply my email.
This article originally appeared in issue 453 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.