446 AD Suevi versus Vandal – A Red Spear, Black Crow Battle Report

The fourth game in our Fall of Hispania Campaign occurred in 446 AD, 29 peaceful game years after the last battle. Chris Harrod rolled Suevi and I got Vandal. The rules were the draft version of Red Spear, Black Crow from Morningstar Productions.

The summary is: Interesting rules, violent battle which could have gone either way, but eventual victory for the Vandals.

The Rules

Red Spear, Black Crow are a very draft set of Dark Age rules from Morningstar Productions. The introduction says “Red Spear, Black Crow is a set of rules for large, fast­playing Dark Ages wargames, set between 378 and 1071AD. ”

Because of my interest in Big Bases Matt Moran asked me if I was willing to play test it. Why not, I thought. Anything to help an ally in the push for Big Bases.

A quick glance at the rules revealed some interesting bits:

  • The pre-battle procedure includes Champions, Soothsayers and Speeches to fire up the men.
  • Fairly standard troop characteristics (Move, Cohesion, Defence, Charge) combined with a unique dice rolling / hit calculation method meant I had no idea how the game would play.
  • Then there were fate points and fate dice – opportunities for unusual and/or heroic performance from the troops.
  • An initiative system that gave opportunities for – but wouldn’t guarantee – actions by single units or groups (battles) or just in improvement in Fate. And by the way, “Fight” is an action like anything else!

So lots of new, unique and flavourful elements. The question was – would Red Spear, Black Crow give a good game?

The Armies

The draft version of Red Spear, Black Crow doesn’t have army lists yet, just a table showing the point cost of various standard troop types. So I combined that with my Revised DBA Army List for a Western German Horde to make up the Suevi (Chris) and Vandals (Steven).

Suevi (Chris)

  • 1 x King (Noble Status III) — attached to a Warband
  • 1 x Jarl (Noble Status II) — attached to a Noble Heavy Cavalry
  • 2 x Noble Heavy Cavalry
  • 9 x Veteran Warband
  • 1 x Horse Archers
  • 1 x Bowmen
  • 1 x Javelineers

Vandal (Steven)

  • 1 x King (Noble Status III) — attached to a Warband
  • 1 x Jarl (Noble Status II) — attached to a Noble Heavy Cavalry
  • 2 x Noble Heavy Cavalry
  • 8 x Veteran Warband
  • 1 x Horse Archers (Alans)
  • 1 x Bowmen

So fairly standard armies for the period. Nobles are the commanders (Kings, Jarl, Chieftain or sometimes a Legend). Unlike DBA you can have more than one but like DBA the commanders are attached to a unit – paid for separately – for the duration of the game. I’ve no idea how many Nobles are sensible for this size of army (12-14 units) so chose to take two on each side, a King (Status III) and Jarl (Status II).

Like Dux Bellorum the rules have two options for heavy infantry, in this case Warband and Shieldwall. I opted to take Warband in this game for a couple of reasons:

  • Apparently migration period Germanic armies fought in a looser style than later period armies. At least we assume so because they had more swords, smaller shields, and the shields had pointy bosses.
  • I have a philosophical problem with a troop type called “Shieldwall”. I agree with Macdowall (1996) that the shieldwall was a formation not a troop type; Germanic warriors formed in either shieldwall or boars head for a battle. I’m sure I can get over this psychological limitation – in fact you might have noticed in our last battle because I took Romans as shieldwall. So deep breath. Move on.

Under the rules the troop types “Bowmen” and “Javelineers” are infantry skirmishers – that means they can evade. I took the Alans as Light Cavalry with Bow, i.e. horse archers. Interestingly these are not skirmishers. There is a troop type called “Cavalry Skirmishers” – and these can evade like their infantry counter-parts – but “Light Cavalry” are more inclined to charge than their even lighter, skirmishing, peers. I’m not convinced about this distinction but the Alans do seem to fit the category of inclined-to-charge than the always-skirmish so I went for Light Cavalry. I think in other rules these might be called Medium Cavalry – a term I loath, but that is another story.

Okay we’ve got the armies. Now what.

Complicated start

Because this was a pick up game I needed rules for terrain set up etc and chose to use the optional rules for “Complicated Starts” that appear at the back of the booklet.

Attacker / Defender

The rules uses the convention where the defender sets up the terrain and the attacker chooses where to attack. We assumed both armies were as aggressive as each other and a dice off revealed Chris was the attacker and I was the defender.

Scenario

A roll on the Scenario Table gave us “The Battle Must Be Now – the attacker starts with 2/3rds army, the rest come on as flanking manoeuvres.” Okay, so it would be race to see if I can overwhelm Chris’s on-table troops before his flank march arrived (I didn’t).

Terrain

Terrain is either Wilderness, Countryside, or Civilised. There is an argument that Spain could be any or all of those. Chris suggested Wilderness on the grounds that hairy barbarians lived in woods; this wasn’t a strong rationale but we went for Wilderness anyway. The rules assume a 6′ x 4′ table but given the size of the armies I’d elected to use a 4’x4′ table like Big Base DBA. So there were four 2’x2′ quarters, and for each I rolled to see what terrain there would be on the Wilderness table. Two “Stream or river” and one “Marsh”. Definitely a wet part of Spain.

Under the rules rivers and streams are distinguished by how fordable they are. The rules didn’t specify how we decided between a river or stream, so we diced for it. Turns out we had a stream. Admittedly quite a wide stream as I’d dredged out my 4″ wide river feature in anticipation of the game and wanted to use it regardless of the classification under the rules.

Deployment

Deployment

As attacker Chris choose his table edge. Or more specifically he chose to complicate my deployment by giving me the river side of the table and took the opposite side for himself.

General’s Purpose

I decided not to use the “General’s Purpose” optional rule.

Deployment

We then deployed. The rules didn’t specify the deployment zone so we assumed 1/4 of the table in from the respective base edge. Chris first deployed his warband, all nine units. This is more than the required half but given only 2/3 of his army was on table he figured “what the hell”. Chris deployed his heavy infantry in “boar’s head”, which under the rules is a triangular wedge formation. I disagree with this interpretation of boars head and agree with Macdowall (1996) that it was a deep rectangular column. None-the-less we decided to play the rules as written. I then deployed my army, with my warband also in boars head.

The terrain, particularly the stream, meant I had a choice in deployment. Spread right across the table, with troops on either side of the stream, on the assumption I could ford the river easily and/or turn to face the flank marchers if they arrived at an inconvenient time. Or deploy deep in the middle crammed into the bend in the stream. I went for the spread out option.

Deployment

Deployment

Appeal to the Fates

Red Spear, Black Crow starts with “Appeal to the Fates”. Both sides choose whether or not to employ soothsayers, make speeches and whether to have a contest of Champions. From what I can tell you’re better of deciding to do it than not as opting out just gives the other guy an advantage. For each of these it is a simple dice off, with higher roll getting Fate Points and doubles giving the other guy Fate Points.

In our game Chris came out the clear winner. I believe he started the game with 13 Fate points and I started with a mere seven.

The Battle

The game started with Chris advancing his warband. At this point we realised:

  1. We’d both made a good decision by having a Status III king with the warband
  2. But even a Status III King can’t move a big host.

A Status III Noble can move a group of 7 units; a Status II Nobel can move a group of 5. Chris’s block of Warband had nine units, so he had to leave two behind when the King shouted “We’re off boys!”.

Turn 1

Turn 1

More significantly Chris’s first turn saw the arrival of his flank march. It takes a simple exchange of six Fate Points to get a flank march to arrive. “Yes, well, right”, thought I, “perhaps having my troops so close to the table edge wasn’t a good idea.” Sure enough Chris brought his troops on then charged the Vandal skirmishers on my right flank. I thought that would be grim so used my own six Fate points to get the skirmishers to evade. Waste of time as the Suevi easily caught and eliminated them.

Suevi Flank March arrives

Suevi Flank March arrives

Nothing good was going to come from the Suevi crossing the stream so I thought I’d line up some boys to make it harder. .

Vandals line stream

Vandals line stream

Unfortunately, charging Noble Cavalry backed by Fate are unstoppable even when crossing water. I lost two warband in that lesson. The most one-sided encounter had a charging Noble Cavalry with 7 dice, reduced by 1 dice for being in water, and then doubled by the use of Fate points, making 12 dice (and a defence of 5) against a Warband with 3 dice (and a defence of 3). I seem to recall the cavalry took no hits and the infantry took 23 hits – when they only need three to kill them!

Suevi charge across stream

Suevi charge across stream

Of course it goes both ways and in the mean time I got my own cavalry into contact with the Suevi main body. First victim = the Suevi king.

Vandal cavalry get Suevi King

Vandal cavalry get Suevi King

Killing Chris’s king was nice but on the other flank he reciprocated. Warband just aren’t much chop against Noble cavalry so don’t make a great bodyguard for the king. Exit the Vandal.

Suevi get Vandal King

Suevi get Vandal King

Even with reduced command dice (2 down from 5) my cavalry continued to wreck havoc amongst the Suevi warband.

Vandal cavalry break Suevi line

Vandal cavalry break Suevi line

Even on my dodgy flank I had a minor success and killed one of the Suevi skirmishers. Admittedly small compensation for what Chris was doing to that flank.

Vandals kill a skirmisher

Vandals kill a skirmisher

The battle was definitely being fight out in two parts. My cavalry was pulling the Suevi warband apart, and Chris was doing the same to my Vandals.

Battle in two parts

Battle in two parts

The battle near the stream wrapped up when the Suevi cavalry rolled over my last warband facing them without even slowing down – a mere speed bump.

Vandal speed bump

Vandal speed bump

Chris then pushed them towards the centre where my own cavalry were rampaging.

Suevi cavalry head for the centre

Suevi cavalry head for the centre

When the two Jarls collided we discovered that Noble Cavalry versus Noble Cavalry is a different ball game. So these fights aren’t the instant kill we saw with cavalry versus warband. In this case the Suevi Jarl bounced off the Vandal Jarl.

Gritty battle between the Jarls

Gritty battle between the Jarls

Despite the distraction posed by the Suevi cavalry my Jarl kept chewing on Suevi warband. On at least one occasion it was the warband that did the charging – but to no avail. The factors are very one sided.

Vandal Jarl keeps chewing at the Suevi

Vandal Jarl keeps chewing at the Suevi

My other Noble Cavalry stand charged Chris’s Jarl, who counter-charged. In an impressive exchange of dice rolls they managed to destroy each other.

Mutual destruction

Mutual destruction

With both commanders out of action Chris had lost all his command dice, couldn’t order any actions, and lost the game.

End game

End game

Conclusions and observations

We enjoyed the game and the rules. We’d be happy to continue to play test them. Here are a few of the specific aspects that appealed:

  • the unusual terrain set up i.e. the stream
  • the focus on the commanders
  • the pre-battle appeal to the fates – it is pretty simple but adds flavour
  • the use of Fate points in general – in a sense they are a structured way to break the rules
  • the easy scenario generation so it wasn’t just a line ’em up game
  • the decisive result of each combat and of the game

We did feel the rules were slightly too complicated. This is a reflection of that fact there are lots of bits – some of them I listed in the “aspects that appealed” but they all come with different rule mechanisms.

One example of complication that didn’t seem to add value was the combat outcome results table. We found most fights resulted in a kill, usually a Noble Cavalry killing a Warband. Only twice did we have to refer to the chart used to give a non-kill result. Seems too much complication for something that hardly came up.

The big dislike is that the combat was very one-sided. Noble Cavalry hunting down and killing Warband. The Warband has zero chance of retaliation. We thought the cavalry factors should be reduced.

And, of course, there is the thing about boars head and shieldwall. Personally I’d like both changed. Boars head to a deep column and shieldwall to a formation.

4 comments to 446 AD Suevi versus Vandal – A Red Spear, Black Crow Battle Report

  • John McLennan

    Oh look – Impetus!

    Big bases are the standard for this game. Try a few rounds of basic – it is an easy game to learn but very difficult to control. Every unit gets to participate – no painting units to have them sit and watch like so many other rulesets.

    • Steven Thomas

      Impetus is indeed next on the list for this dark age campaign. I’ve been using the pause in the campaign to understand the rules – which is a bad sign. 😉

  • glenn

    Agree with John, Impetus or Basic Impetus would be interesting. Also have you seen Sword and Spear? Might be worth a try.

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