Review: Plume & Blade

Finally, a Good Cinematic Sword-Fighting Game

    (In the interests of transparency, I was an early playtester of this system, back when it was still named "Swordplay," and have been an ardent supporter since it has been released. I also acted as editor of the text, although it did not require a lot of editing. I am an administrator and frequent poster to the Facebook group. So yes - I am a biased critic, but I think you can learn from someone who likes a game why they like it, and how it works. Asking someone who enjoys a game may be the best way to learn about it, come to think of it.)

The Basics

Plume & Blade is a recent release from Bloody Scotsmen Games, designed by Kurt Braunsroth. It can be purchased as a boxed set, including everything needed to play except some six-sided dice, miniatures, and terrain, and retails for $49.99. (You can also get the boxed set and 11 miniatures for the Three Musketeers and Cardinal's Guard for $90.00). The game is professionally done, and the rules are comprehensive and supported with lots of examples. The rules booklet is in small format to fit in the box, with 46 pages.

The game features the Three Musketeers and their opponents, but in fact can be used for any cinematic game focused on sword-play in any period. It combines an innovative combat mechanism with exceptional moves realized through the playing of "panache" cards. The extent to which cinematic elements are introduced into scenarios is up to the scenario designer, but the rules provide a framework for the use of "props" and the performance of actions of several levels of difficulty.

The game is accompanied by several downloadable scenarios and resources, and there are Three Musketeers miniatures available for sale from the producer (these are re-packaged figures from the Blue Moon 28mm line). The game designer has released some useful videos on his Wargames Tonight YouTube channel. Fewer than a dozen individually based miniatures are needed to play the game, and the footprint on the tabletop can be very small: most games seem to run on an area of 2 foot square or less (they can even be confined to the deck of a model ship in the same scale as the miniatures). Although designed for 28mm, the game can be played with figures of smaller or larger scales with minimal adjustments. (Movement is done using sticks of 2 inches and 5 inches in length, and these may need to be adjusted if the base size of figures is altered.) There is an active Facebook group where new scenarios are posted, and a website where a stand-alone rule book can be ordered (they have downloadable cards and counters you can print yourself).

    What's in the box: (left to right - examples shown): a deck of 18 "panache cards" for special moves; two sets of cards for making attacks and parries; movement sticks; character cards for the Three Musketeers (5, since they include Planchet) and Rochefort and the Cardinal's Guards (5 in total); counters for hits, "en garde" status, dropped weapons, and initiative for the Three Musketeers, Cardinal's Guard, and custom characters; a 46-page perfect-bound rule book.

Getting Personal

Like many miniatures wargamers of a certain vintage, I was absolutely enamoured of Frank Chadwick's original En Garde released in the 1970s by GDW. What I loved about it was the mapless campaign system - what I hated, even then, was that the combat system was very complex and was based on a pre-determined sequence of moves which didn't feel realistic to me (and this back in the days when I was taking fencing classes). Fencing to me was about psychology and being quick with hand, foot, and eye - it was not a series of mental calculations. Still, I loved that game, and for its time it was downright brilliant. I own a copy of the recent 4th edition out of pure nostalgia.

Today, we see games like the En Garde from Osprey, written by Peter Dennis. That set is fairly typical of what's out there these days. In this new En Garde, the basic mechanics were taken from Ronin which involves the placing of activation chits and making modified die rolls. This can be fun, but it doesn't really feel like sword-play in any meaningful sense. I think of this as an implementation of a generic skirmish system, more than anything. I'm not knocking the new En Garde (I bought Ronin based on early reviews, and it's a great example of that type of game, so it made sense to try the Three Musketeers version) but it didn't really have the period feel I was looking for.

Over the years, I have collected Three Musketeers minatures in several different scales: from Black Hat in 25mm, from Eureka in 40mm, from Tradition, Mignot, and others in 54mm, from Blue Moon, Northstar, and Brigade Games in 28mm, and from Redoubt in whatever scale that is (32mm?). I love the idea of swashbucking games of this type, and I know I'm not alone. I like the figures and the whole atmosphere of the thing. (I read the novels and own all the movies, too - I even have that series from BBC on DVD, although it doesn't have much to do with the books.)

Despite this, I had never found rules which I liked. I never used the figures to game very much - I mostly just painted them and put them on the shelf. Until now...

Most of the existing rules for the period focus on the moves they teach to fencers with the sword, even if only in the abstract. Plume & Blade is different - it focuses instead on the psychology of the thing. As I like to describe it, "footwork and guess-work." This sounds odd, but as a very bad amateur fencer, it felt right to me. I know from talking to the designer that he was also an amateur fencer (and is in fact married to a woman who was a good deal less amateur than he was). Another gaming buddy who has played the game with me is a re-enactor and historical fencer, and he had the same reaction I did.

This game feels like fencing, even while the mechanics are deceptively simple. The game moves quickly, like a sword-fight should, but you can virtually feel the blades clashing as you play. And yet it isn't simple-minded. You think a lot about how you are moving your own figure and driving your opponent. For whatever reason, it works. On top of that, you have some "panache" moves - based on actual historical fencing manuals - and an overlay of cinematic moves (swinging from chandeliers, etc.). It all makes for a really fun, not-too-serious game that can be played on a small table in an hour or so with a dozen figures.

I'll describe the mechanics below, to maybe explain why this is, but this is the first game I've played (and I have been playing it almost weekly for months now) which makes me glad I bought all those Three Musketeer figures. (I still haven't gamed with all of them, but I am trying!)

Game Mechanics

So that gives you a sense of my personal preferences, and you already know that I really like this game. But a bit of an explanation of the mechanics will give you a feel for whether you might enjoy it as much as I do.

Each side is made up of a small number of figures (usually 3-6) classed as "Star," "Sidekick," or "Extra." (The rules are written with a cinematic terminology, but the game doesn't have to be so cinematic if you want to leave it out - that's up to you.) Extras function in small groups of 2 to 4 figures, and they are significantly less capable than the other types, which are termed "characters." Stars take 3 hits, Sidekicks 2, and Extras only 1. Each figure has a card with an initiative rating on it. You can design your own characters (there is a downloadable Word template which lets you put in pictures of your own miniatures, even) but the idea is that Stars have better initative than Sidekicks, who are better than Extras. Non-combatants always go last in the turn.

Turns are played in rounds, where each player picks one of their characters (or a group of Extras) they want to act with next, and the side with the better initiative chooses first or second go for that round. Every figure acts and moves once per turn, but if they are attacked they spend their turn defending themselves, and can't do anything else. Manipulating the turn sequence is thus both significant for play and also interactive: your best figures can lose their move if they get attacked by less powerful ones.

Movement is simple - you place a stick (either 2-inch or 5-inch, as you prefer) on your figure's base and move along it. You are allowed to go from side to side, but you cannot really turn corners very well. If you move across an obstacle, you have to roll to see if you stumble or lose your readiness for the turn (your "en garde" status). The bodies of the fallen are a typical form of such obstacles, as is any form of rough terrain.

When you attack someone, you have to move within a base width of them (1 inch) and they will (if able) turn to face. You are then engaged with them, which means if you move they can follow, and vice versa - you are crossing blades. To attack, you choose a card with your line of attack on it (front, left, rear, or right), chosen from the three sides closest to the attacking figure. This card is hidden from the target, and placed face down on the table. Assuming the target has not yet lost their "en garde" status for the turn, they then make a guess as to which it is. The attacker says whether it is correct or not. If the first guess is correct, it automatically leads to a riposte. This is a counter-attack which assumes that you are already inside your opponent's guard.

If you fail the first "parry" guess, or are attacked with a riposte, you can retreat in order to gain a second guess (assuming there is a direction you can retreat in - your attacker can block one side adjacent to where they are engaging you from). The target figure chooses the direction of the retreat, but the attacker determines how far (up to 2 inches along a stick) the target figures moves. This represents the attacker driving the defender back. Once you retreat, you get another guess at the line of attack.

If the target guesses wrong, the attacker has scored a touch and then rolls for damage. A target pinned against terrain (a building, etc.) or another enemy figure gets rolled on twice. There are a few simple modifiers to the die, but the game has very few dice modifiers (you will memorize them in your first couple of games, easily). The base chance to hit is figure-dependent: the front is the best-defended line of attack, with the rear being the worst. Some figures are equally good on both left and right sides (using a main gauche, etc.) while others are more vulnerable on one or the other. This is all on the character cards for easy reference. If you score a touch but do no damage, you are awarded a "panache" card (see below), which represents being energized by your near-miss.

    Scatter terrain like wagons and barrels can be an important part of the game, as obstructions to trip over, or as "props" to use against your enemies in cinematic fashion.

Scenarios can give a small number of panache cards to each player at the start (usually 2), and these can be used by characters to perform special "trick" fencing moves or (generically) to employ whatever props are provided by the scenario (typically swinging from chandeliers or ropes, rolling a barrel at your foes, throwing dirt or rotten fruit in their faces, etc.). Each panache card is played once and then discarded. The fencing moves are taken from Italian fencing manuals by way of The Princess Bride, although others not featured in that classic film are being considered as an extension release, and they are apparently coming from historical fencing manuals as well.

Panache moves can be real game changers, as they can unexpectedly reposition figures (for example, "Reversal" makes the enaged players literally switch positions before a retreat is made) or provide for better attack or defense. They can also be used to disarm an opponent.

There are optional rules for different weapon types, including gunpowder weapons. There is no provision for mounted figures.

The net effect of these rules is that the game is easy to learn, but allows for a lot of maneuvering with a small number of figures in a very small space. Terrain matters not because it hampers maneuver so much, but because you can pin your opponents against it and nail them. You can give ground to save your skin, but at some point you run out of it! Having a few weak Extras can be very useful in hemming your opponent in, and in robbing them of their initiative with attacks which are likely to fail.

Many of the parameters of play are left up to the scenario designer, but once you have read a few of the available scenarios you will see that the rules provide a framework which makes writing them quite easy. There is really no need for a written scenario at all once you are familiar with the rules, but they can add an extra dimension to play by framing the victory conditions and objectives, and introducing props and so on.


If you want to play sword-fighting games which feel like sword fighting, and which move quickly and are full of cinematic effect, this is the game for you. It is easy to learn (although not brain-dead simple) but still encompasses a lot of complexity and play. Games involve few figures, and although terrain is critically important, the tabletop is so small that you can buy or build it more easily than for many other games. The games play very quickly - a typical game lasts less than an hour.

Further, it is a great tool-box for building scenarios. I like to base mine on historical incidents (like the various plots and conspiracies against Richelieu or the various characters in the novels) or on scenes from movies, but you can really do anything with them. For conventions, I like to string scenarios together into mini-campaigns, so players carry a hit or two (if they are defeated) into the next scenario, and to allow for a story line to be played out. You can easily play two or three games in a typical convention slot. Scenarios can be as "cinematic" as you choose to make them, or can be strictly historical.

Another plus to this system is that it is not period-specific. I have played games set in the mid- and late 18th century and the system worked fine. I have played pirate games on board ships. One of my next projects is to do a Barsoom game with these rules! So long as the focus is sword-play (as distinct from hacking with broadswords) this system will work well. Many gamers will already own enough figures in an appropriate period to play, whether they are Three Musketeers fans like me, or just have some pirates lying around.

Because it only requires a small table and a small number of figures, it is a great entry level game for novices, and a suitable game for those who lack the storage space needed for large armies and lots of terrain. It is also good for gamers who like to spend the time doing really fine paint jobs and creating well-detailed terrain: fewer figures and a smaller board means you can spend the time to make them look fabulous without taking ages before you can play with them.

    Entire games can be played in a very small area - here, the interior of a tavern about 12 inches square. (Looks like it's getting a little rough in there...)

One of the down-sides to this system is that large mutli-player games would be really hard to run. It is best played between two people, although I have played and GMed games with three or four players and that works perfectly well. One problem is fitting more than four gamers around a table which is only 2 foot square! The other problem is that although it plays fast, the order of play is very important, and it is manipulated by players during the turn. There would be no way to have multiple players regularly acting at the same time, even with two GMs. Six- or 8-player games would probably bog down very quickly.

I recommend this game highly for anyone who wants an individual-level game focused on sword play which moves quickly (as opposed to more small-unit skirmish games). It is designed to be cinematic rather than historical, but - for any period in which typical Western sword-fighting styles prevail - it can be used for strictly historical games by limiting the more Hollywood aspects of the game when writing scenarios. It is very different from most of the skirmish games currently on the market, and the unusual mechanics are key to both the speed of play and to the richness of the strategy involved.

In short, I love this game. It does what it was designed to do, and it does it well. I have finally found a sword-fighting game worthy of the name!

A. Gregory, 14 November 2022