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Lion Rampant: Fast-Play Medieval Fun (Even for the Historically-Biased)

I should start this review with a caveat - I am in general biased against many of the popular fast-play systems which seem to abound these days. I am an historical gamer first and foremost, and few things annoy me more than simplistic fast-play games which masquerade as simulations (or even historically plausible games), and which all-too-often lack even a vestige of period flavor. I think I am not alone when I say that, if a game says it is historical, it should at least be a plausible depiction of history, even if an abstracted and simplified one.

I am happy to report that Daniel Mersey's Lion Rampant (Osprey Publishing, New York, 2014) passes the test. Is it a highly simplistic, very abstract fast-play game? Yes, it is. Does it purport to be a strict simulation of medieval warfare? No, it does not. I very much appreciate that, in the introduction, the author gives a list of his design goals in creating the system. (You cannot be criticized for designing the game you set out to design, after all.) One of the points in the list reads "Create a medieval miniature wargame that's an excuse to push some colourfully painted models around the table."

With that expectation, I approached the game.

Lion Rampant is not the type of game which I generally go out of may way to play. I had heard others who liked the system, and I had played and enjoyed Pikeman's Lament a couple of times, for a lark (this is the Renaissance system based on Lion Rampant). I decided to buy Lion Rampant, just to check it out, figuring that the game would remain safely on the bookshelf once it received a read-through. And indeed, that is exactly what happened. But recently, when faced by an afternoon with my teenage D&D- and Warhammer 40K-playing nephew, I decided on the spur of the moment to dust off some late-medieval figures and give the system a try (anything to get these kids to play historicals!).

The rules are an absolute breeze to learn - after a single game we basically had the system down. The book offers little by way of reference sheets*, which could be improved, as you do spend some time looking up the numbers for specific troop types, but otherwise they are well-organized and clearly presented.

* There is a blank sheet you can copy and fill out before play starts, but of course no one wants to have to do this. With so few troop types, I do not see why a pre-done summary sheet is not included with the game. The single-page summary of the rules that is included is quite useful during play, but it does not provide the troop data.

The game is very basic, with units of 6 or 12 figures taking various actions upon passing an activiation roll - moving, shooting, or attacking. There is a rally phase for units which have become "battered," and some units (i.e., mounted knights) must test to charge if a target presents itself. Units roll handfuls of 6-sided dice for combat, and there are very few modifiers. The system is extremely streamlined.

One of the best aspects of the game is that, if a unit fails an activation roll, then your turn ends and the other player gets to go. This way, there is no guarantee that every unit will get to act during a turn. Players must thus prioritize which actions they perform, with the knowledge that different types of units will be better at performing certain actions. It is a very elegant mechanism for creating the kind of chaos one expects on the medieval battlefield, and it adds a lot to the fun of the game.

I found that although the mechanics are simple, the system does have a plausible medieval feel. In our second game, my Swiss lured my nephew's mounted gensdarmes into some hilly, rocky terrain where they were promptly hacked to bits with halberds. Nice - exactly what I hoped for and expected. Dismounted knights can be a real problem for most opponents, which seemed right to me, and although the missile fire can be deadly, once you come to grips with longbows or crossbows they are generally easy to slaughter. Some Flemish pikes formed a "schiltron" in our third game and managed to do fatal damage to a unit of mounted knights, while being quite vulnerable to missile fire. Nothing happened which seemed wildly ahistorical, and many aspects of the rules seemed to feel right given what was happening on the tabletop. The pace is fast, which means that combat is fairly decisive - a game lasts an hour or two, no more.

Another one of my pet peeves when it comes to rules is the ascribing of special abilities to each of the different units. I have long suspected that this was a mechanism developed by the kinds of rules publishers who sell unit cards with the dedicated game figures - a business model for which I have no respect (and one which the author of Lion Rampant explcitly sets out to avoid). I feel like what are supposed to be historical games get overwhelmed by special powers which are not historically accurate - they are a familiar mechanism in RPGs, and no doubt help sell rules and figures, but they make me feel like I am gaming with superheroes, not historical soldiers. Other overly "gamey" mechanisms also annoy me.

I am happy to say that Lion Rampant is not overwhelmed by lots of unit-specific special abilities - they exist in some cases, but seem to be fairly common-sense and historically based. It is not without some gamey mechanisms, too, but they are blissfully easy to ignore. There is a table for leader special abilities, in which - if you roll snake eyes on two dice - your leader will be normal. Otherwise, they are granted some fairly extreme ability or possess some negative attribute, and these can be game-changing. My nephew and I immediately agreed to simply ignore this part of the rules. Similarly, there is a system by which one can make "boasts," and then gain additional victory points on top of those provided by the different scenarios which come with the rules. Your boast involves claiming that you will do something specific during the game, and you are rewarded if you make good on your claim. To me, this seems extremely artificial - we simply ignored it. I can see that it might be to some gamer's taste, but it wasn't to ours.

The scenarios which come with the rules are extremely generic, but provide a good set of basic games, and include some simple-but-useful mechanisms for things like escorting convoys. They can be combined into a simple campaign system which is essentially just tracking your army across a series of engagements, based on the scenarios provided.

The book itself is easy to read, well-organized, and contains some nice illustrations. There are a set of suggested army lists, but these are not in any sense required - they serve only as examples. A typical force will have five or six units, with 30 to 60 miniatures (mounted units, foot knights, and skirmishers only have 6 figures per unit, all others have 12). A system of point values is provided for identifying equal forces made up of different troop types. I was able to put together two armies from my existing collection of figures without a problem, and it is not particularly large. (The rules are written for - but do not strictly require - individually based figures, which mine are.)

To conclude, I was favorably impressed with Lion Rampant. It is not a detailed set of medieval rules, nor does it claim to be one. It is an elegant fast-play system which manages to capture a modicum of period feel without doing anything to offend my historical-puritain sensibilities, something which is certainly not true of many of today's popular fast-play rules systems. It is not likely to become the game I play by preference all the time, but it is certainly one which will help entertain myself and my nephew - and likely other gaming buddies - on many an occasion in future. It performs as advertised, and does so admirably. (I should mention, too, that there is a forum for this and related rules sets by Daniel Mersey called Dux Rampant, which contains some optional rules and various period modifications created by him and others).

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