Counterus Hex

Hex and Counter games reviewed and discussed by an old Grognard.

Battles on the Ice is the third installment of the Shields & Swords II game system designed by Tom Russell and produced by Hollandspiele.  Much like it’s predecessors in the series, Grunwald Swords and House of Normandy, Battles on the Ice throws players into the world of medieval combat using a slick and easy to learn set of rules. 

There are two scenarios/battles in the game and, as the title suggests, they are both fought on ice. First there is the battle of Lake Peipus 1242 which was made famous and known to the world by the inaccurate and quite fictional film Alexander Nevsky. Second, we have the lesser known battle of Karuse which was fought on the frozen sea near the village in 1270.

This isn’t GBOH or Men of Iron by any stretch of the imagination, and is most definitely an entry level game. However, one should not be put off by that distinction, for above all things these games are an absolute joy to play. Easy set up, quick playing times coupled with a bit of nasty hack and slash action, Battles on the Ice fills the bill when time is an issue but you still need to roll some dice.

Tom’s little add on rules for each battle (never more than 3-4) to supplement the basic system help to recreate the historical situation, but still leave the player quite a few options to manipulate that history. There is a subtle nuance within these add on regulations that tend to create a bit of tension during game play. This is one of the main reasons I find myself setting up and running through sessions of these games so often.

Right, now on to the game, what’s in the box, and how does it play?

The laser cut counters are nice and thick, and the images on the counters clear. No need for clipping on these. The map consists of two,10.25″ wide x 16.5″ long thick paper stock sheets with defined hex overlays, which will have to be placed under plastic to keep it flat during play. (I believe that Hollandspiele has transitioned to one piece maps with larger hexes for all of their titles since I purchased my copy.)

I find that the colors and art on the map itself are a joy to look at. The various shades of blue and white that represent a minimalist icy landscape (these are battles on ice after all) are masterfully blended and they catch the eye. Not to the point of distraction mind you but I do feel as if the artist, Ania B. Ziółkowska, has captured the essence of the situation.

“Cold and forbidding, I can almost see the breath of the soldiers plume before them whilst stomping their feet on the frozen ice and snow to keep the blood flowing. Waiting in terror for the clash of arms to bring either sweet victory or the deep sleep of death. Yeah my mind wanders like that.”

The game also comes with a single eight sided die, for combat resolution, the series rule book of course, and a second booklet of notes on the history of the battles with scenario specific rules. 
All of this fits inside a nice sturdy box printed with a retro design that I like quite a bit. 

Rules: The rules are extremely simple and I have provided a link at the bottom of the article where you can download the latest edition of said rules. Here I will just touch upon the sequence of play briefly.

 The battles are played in a series of alternating turns until the victory conditions are met. Each turn is broken up into three phases:

1. Command Phase, this is where a player issues two commands to one or two wings of their army. Wings are easily identified by the color of the counters. Each player has three to four double sided command chits to choose from, depending on the scenario. These commands will dictate what the units will do in the next phase. Learning the various combinations on the command chits and becoming creative with them in play is very rewarding.

2. Action Phase, Commands issued are executed in the following order.

·        Fire, ranged attack (archers loose their arrows)
·        Horse, (heavy and light horse move and attack)
·        Withdraw.
·        Shield Wall. (infantry only)
·        Move.
·        Second Move.(if Bonus command used)
·        Combat
·        Second/Pitched combat. (if Bonus command is used)

So as an example; if a player issues a Horse command and, a Combat command to a wing all heavy and light cavalry would move and attack, then once those attacks are resolved all units in the wing including the previously ordered cavalry can attack again.

3. Initiative Phase. If a player holds the initiative marker they may “Declare Initiative” at the end of his/her turn. In so doing that player will pass the marker to their opponent and then take another complete turn starting with the command phase. Initiative allows the player to follow up a breakthrough assault or to perform a second push, however, now the other player can call initiative next round as they are in control of the marker.

Once all phases are complete the play passes to your opponent and the cycle begins anew.

Game play for both battles is dynamic, intuitive, and very bloody, just the way I like my medievil combat. Scenario specific rules force players to think beyond the standard charge, smash, and grind tactics of the era.

For example; in the Battle of Lake Peipus 1242, the Novgorod player has a wing of elite body guards known as the Druzhina These are vital to help maintain “Wing integrity” (think Morale) for the masses of levy infantry units at his command. They also offer a +1 CC (Combat Class) modifier to all units within five hexes of them, which is a really good bonus. Obviously if these elite guards are destroyed then the rest of the line can crumble and fall rather quickly. However, that isn’t as easy as it sounds for the Novgorod player will be protecting those forces at all costs and playing for time, because he wants to wait as long as possible before bringing in his special Horse Archer wing which is the second special rule for the battle. Each turn that Novgorod player holds off and waits to declare initiative, thus activating these Horse units, gives him victory points towards his total. But just like in Grunwald Swords, the problem is how long to wait. Go too early and the points accrued are pretty useless, too late and his losses of infantry may be too great to recover from. Oh and yeah, if the Livonians manage to get any unit adjacent to one of the Novgorod Horse archers prior to the initiative declaration, then all the points accrued are immediately lost!

In the Karuse battle, the Livonian/Teutonic player has the ability to activate all of his cavalry units from all three of his wings as a single group, so long as he retains initiative. This is a pretty scary thing for the Lithuanian infantry. However, that large cavalry charge has to break through a line of defensive barricades (sleds) which the Lithuanians have set up. Not easy to do because cavalry can become “unhorsed” when they move adjacent to any of the barricade counters. A special roll is made and if the result is 6 or more the horse unit is replaced with an unhorsed veteran unit counter and these units are worth double victory points if killed. Of course the Lithuanians are going to go all out spearing any cavalry soldiers who fell to the ground at the first opportunity. As these barricades can only be destroyed by a Horse Charge attack there really is no way to avoid them and thus the Livonians will have to risk enough attacks to break a hole in the line of defense.

I personally enjoy the challenges inherent in both of these battles. The limited order chits one has to choose from each turn forces a player to be creative. You never seem to be able to do all you want on each turn and as the ebb and flow of combat changes the tactical landscape you find yourself improvising. The Livonians have to work hard to break through the masses of infantry arrayed before them. Their famous, or should I say infamous, heavy horse are their greatest asset and should be used to advantage. However, beware over extending, for losing even a few of these units can be devastating. And don’t forget the Infantry at your disposal, use them to close and tear at the enemy whilst charging to and fro with your knights.

The Novgorod/Lithuanian player needs to focus on holding the line, to avoid flank attacks, play for time, and focus on destroying enemy cavalry. Use the wing integrity rule to your advantage and grind down the Livonian Horse. Attack in groups to obtain the much coveted die roll modifier to offset class vs. class deficiencies when resolving combat. Remember, Barricades are your friend!

Conclusion: (I hear the sighs and mutterings of; “finally you egomaniacal git!”)

Battles on the Ice is a wonderful addition to the Shields & Swords II family. It’s easy to understand rules, coupled with fluid and intuitive game play make it a great title for introducing  new or young players to hex and counter war gaming. There are enough challenges provided by the battle specific rules to keep novices and old Grognards focused and on their toes through each session. And last but not least, it is just plain old, blood and guts war gaming fun.




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