After both getting sucked into painting up ‘just a few’ of the marvellous 18mm Wiglaf Miniatures, Nick and I got our act in gear and tried a couple of games using Dan Mersey’s Age of Penda rules. Intended for the 7th century early medieval period – my favourite era of the so-called Dark Ages that saw the reigns and campaigns of Cadwallon of Gywnedd, Penda of Mercia and Aethelfrith of Northumbria – these rules are very abstract and simple. Dan refers to them as a ‘light’ set of wargames rules, which is an apt description – they are fun and quick to play, not requiring too much space or too many minis.
The game is played on an offset grid (or hexes can also be used), five rows wide and five deep. In about an hour, I knocked up a quick cloth to try out the rules. I cut a 90 x 90cm piece of green polar fleece fabric, dusted it with a few shades of green and brown from my spray paint collection, then added a grid with brown paint and a few tufts from Gamers’ Grass. It’s not award-winning stuff but I just wanted something to get started. The grid, by the way, is 18cm squares – in Age of Penda, you need to have room for 6 units (3 friendly and 3 enemy) in each space, so with my 80 x 40mm unit bases, this was about right.
The cloth was, fortuitiously, a perfect fit for my kitchen table, which was to be the field of battle for the evening.
Army generation is very simple as there are only four troop types (armoured and unarmoured warriors, mounted warriors and skirmishers) so I was able to quickly knock up a couple of forces using the combined figures from Nick’s, Matt M’s and my collection of Wiglaf 18mm and Forged in battle 15mm figures:
SAXONS (66 points)
4 x armoured warriors (including Leader) @10 pts
3 x unarmoured warriors @ 6 pts
2 x skirmishers @ 4 pts
IRISH/ WELSH (68 points)
2 x armoured warriors (including Leader) @10 pts
6 x unarmoured warriors @ 6 pts
3 x skirmishers @ 4 pts
With that sorted, it was quickly down to business. Like Saga and boardgames such as Colt Express, the game turn has two phases: Tactics and Actions. In the Tactics Phase, players place their Tactics tokens on the chart, a sort of shared battleboard. This is great fun as each tactic can be chosen only once, therefore you have various options to stymie your opponent’s plans.
In our two games, the two Special Tactic spaces seemed to be at a premium, as they give a range of useful options, including the much-desired Charge tactic that allows a player to move and fight in the same activation. Seize The Initiative also saw a lot of use as the player with initiative gets the first placement of a Tactics token each turn. (The rather lovely coin we used for initiative is an inspiration token from the Beowulf RPG.)
And so, to battle. Game 1 was over in about thirty minutes. I tried to make use of my superior number of skirmishers to pepper the Saxons with arrows, but quickly learned that unsupported skirmishers die quickly! There is a Skirmish option that you can choose if you pick Special Tactic, but I hadn’t worked out how to use it at this point and got royally stuffed by heavily-armoured vengeful Saxons.
The vengeful Saxons then charged my Welsh King and his bodyguard – which didn’t go well for me! By placing three of his armoured units into one space, Nick had the maximum amount of fighting dice (each unit has a Battle Rating of 5, meaning they were rolling 15 dice, plus an extra 1 for his leader). Hits were inflicted on a 4+ which pretty much destroyed my opposing forces (1 armoured warrior unit with leader, 1 unarmoured warrior unit and 1 skirmishers). The charger has a distinct advantage in that their hits reduce the Battle Rating of the enemy units who only fight back (‘Battle Back’) with what they have left…in my case. nothing!
This concentration of force felt quite appropriate for early medieval combat, if a bit bruising for my first big combat! The loss of my leader reduced my Tactics tokens from 4 to 3, meaning that I had less options next turn, by which time I was reduced to 3 warrior units – army broken and game over.
Well, after getting the initial scrap out of the way, we re-set for game 2.
Game 2 was a more cagey affair to start with. Having learned my lesson about getting too close to charging Saxon nobles, I held back the Welsh and Irish line and instead sent forward all my skirmishers. They used the Rush special tactic to get close to the Saxon vanguard and then unleashed a hail of javelins, causing a few casualties. Units can activate more than once, so I then used a Move tactic to get them out of the way.
There then followed some back-and-forth shooting as both sides took hits and then used Rally actions to try to recover. One thing we were beginning to understand at this point was that keeping 3 units in a square was critical for success (as you can share out hits on your own units, which have the opportunity to rally), but isolated units were more likely to die quickly.
Seeing an opportunity on the left flank, I sent forward three Irish warrior units to take on two Saxon skirmishers and a unit of warriors. Predictably, this went in my favour, destroying the two skirmishers and damaging the warriors. Unfortunately, killing the skirmishers freed up space for two enemy units in my square, which promptly saw me getting charged from behind by Eyrefrith and two fresh Saxon noble warrior units! There’s no actual rear or flank charge rules in Age of Penda but the damage was real enough as my brave Irish were battered. I managed to hang on by spending multiple Tactics tokens on Rally actions (there’s also a Special Tactic that allows an extra Rally action), but of course this took up most of my turn and held up the rest of the army coming to help.
Eventually, the Saxons crushed the Irish who had been cut off from the rest of the force and took out another Welsh warrior unit, which pushed my army past breaking point. I thought I had been doing quite well but my impetuous flank attack cost me the game, and rightly so.
Nick and I thoroughly enjoyed our two games. As DBA players in days past, we both felt like it had that ‘fast play’ feel, especially working in a compact space and being able to get more than one game in of an evening. The Tactics Board was a fun concept which forced much decision-making, but unlike Saga, we didn’t spend half the game looking at the battleboard – it felt very much like a miniatures game driven by the board.
In terms of period feel, the simplicity of troop types, emphasis on attacking in force and vulnerability of lone units all worked well. The grid allows very quick, no fuss movement and shooting (I was always surprised when playing To The Strongest! how much time you save by not measuring at all, and it’s the same here.) By the same token, you don’t get the fine detail of shield wall tactics as units can be arranged however you like within the grid squares, but Age of Penda is very much a ‘top-down’ game and so this isn’t really within its remit. Likewise, individual leaders do not feature, apart from the option to buy more or less Tactics tokens to represent better or worse leadership. That said, it’s a highly refreshing and enjoyable game that Nick and I are both keen to play again soon.