Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age (1975)

Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age: A Wargamer's Guide to the Age of Conan is an old-school wargame. It's probably the first commercial wargame based on Robert E. Howard's hero. (The first wargame based on the Conan saga was of course also the first ever fantasy wargame, Tony Bath's Hyboria campaign.) Written by Lin Carter, who at the time was one of the editor's of the expanded Conan stories, and Scott B. Bizar, game designer and founder of Fantasy Games Unlimited, it also features a few illustrations by Roy G. Krenkle. It's a 56 page, staple bound book in Letter sized (8.5" × 11") format detailing rules and army lists. It includes as inserts a card-stock QRS and a paper map of Hyboria.

There are two introductions, one by each author. Carter informs us that he is acting as the authority on the setting, basing it on REH's work but inventing details as they're needed, mainly for things like national emblems, etc. Bizar tells us the the inconsistencies in the original tales made them difficult to quantify, so some elements have been left out. The emphasis is on playability rather than simulation.

These rules were written before standard dice notation came into use so dice are referred to as "an average dice", i.e. 1d6, which is used for combat, and "decimal dice", or d100, which are used for morale and magic. The scale is 1:20, with one model, or "casting" as they call them, representing 20 individuals. Each turn represents roughly one hour, and they recommend that games be limited to twelve turns. To simulate the time it takes for armies to ready themselves for combat, they suggest rolling a six-sided die and subtracting the result from twelve to determine how many turns the game will last.

Units are defined in a general way, as Light Infantry, Medium Cavalry, Heavy Chariots, etc. They have five formations they can assume, Line, Column, Road Column, Charge, and Forced March. The formation a unit takes determines how far it can move. Movement is pre-plotted, and takes place in two phases.

Combat takes place simultaneously. It's modified by situation and involves rolling one six-sided die, which is then multiplied by the number of troops in the unit to determine the percentage of casualties inflicted. For example, a group of twelve Bossonian archers fire on a unit of Picts, rolling a "3". That means they inflict 36 casualties on the enemy. Since each model represents twenty people, the Pict player removes two "castings". Most ancient weapons are covered, but while they include rules for crossbows they strongly recommend against using them.

Units have to roll for morale when they come into contact with enemy units, when they lose a certain proportion of their number, or when magic is used on or near them. Having commanders, heroes or superheroes in a unit will increase its morale. If the unit fails a morale roll it will fall back or may route. Heroes and superheroes (Conan) may be included in a unit, and they count as more than one person for combat purposes. Heroes count as three fighters, superheroes count as five fighters.

Magic is handled well, and involves both spell points and the chance of a backfire, two game mechanics that became staples in later FRPGs. There are ten spells listed, with a couple of special spells available in the appendix. All wizards have The Shield of Air, and Flying Spell, which are they only two that won't backfire. Examples of the spells are The Wall of Fire, Raising the Army of Ghosts, which summons a unit of light troops, and Commanding the Earth Demon, which causes landslides. One interesting detail is that all missile attacks on wizards are -1 "...due to the haze around the wizard that all wizards create prior to any battle." The spells seem well balanced and wouldn't give the army fielding a magic user an overwhelming advantage.

The game includes a point system for building armies, and some guidelines for running a campaign. They suggest artificially limiting army size to 1500 points to keep things manageable. They also don't allow for sieges, arguing that armies wouldn't risk the casualties and that troops would take to the field when faced with a siege. Each move on the strategic map represents one week of game time with a campaign length of 35 turns, so each campaign lasts one year, at the end of which troops retire to their winter quarters. When counters on the map are adjacent players go to the gaming table to fight the battle. They give general suggests that each country should be divided into provinces, but no detailed rules covering that.

The rules end with a few appendices covering the army lists for specific nations. Each nation is described, along with its point value, historical analog, and its banner and color scheme. For example, Koth relies on archers, heavy chariots and Royal Mailed Cavalry, has as a banner a yellow field with a black triangle in the center, and the troops "all favor white and off white shades with yellow as the most common trim color." There's also a break down of each army, listing units, type, class, number of figures, and percentage of the total army.

There's an appendix dealing with magic users, which lists the different groups, like the Wizards of the Black Circle, the Preists of Mitra, et al., and gives some special spells for particular groups. There's also a description of Thoth-Amon who will fight for any nation opposing Aquilonia in return for the Heart of Ahriman. "Should Thoth-Amon succeed in gaining this magical talisman, his power would be virtually unlimited so that a campaign would come to an end if this were to occur..."

This is a well done game that covers all aspects of Hyborian warfare (except navies). The rules hold up well and I could easily imagine running this game today, especially with some of the smaller armies listed. As a sourcebook for the Hyborian Age it provides some useful details, assuming you don't mind the embellishments made by Carter, et al. This version of Hyboria is probably a little closer to Marvel Comics' Conan than it is to REH's, but it's fine for wargaming. I'm not sure how many Hyborian campaigns have been fought over the years using these rules, but I sure hope they kept Thoth-Amon away from that talisman!


Ross Mac said...

Nice to see this old rule set getting a nod. Mine hasn't gotten much use over the decades but it is still on the shelf.

I would like to comment on the dice. At the time, percentage dice were normally a pair of 20 sided dice marked 0 to 9, twice. A rare beast these days since the advent of 10 sided dice.

Average dice which were commonly used by Ancient Wargame players were 6 sided but marked 2,3,3,4,4,5
thus reducing the extreme range of results while increasing the odds of an "average" result. No idea if one can still buy them but its easy to treat a 1 as a 3 and a 6 as a 4.

Trivia no doubt but maybe of value to someone who wants to try the rules.


Jerry Cornelius said...

I was wondering about that. I know E. Gary called them "averaging" dice so when I read that I half wondered if that's what they meant. But since they didn't have an "ing" on there I wasn't sure.

And believe it or not, a few years ago when Chessex was discontinuing the 0-9's I horded some up. I have a couple dozen on hand. I guess I'm just as much of a dice fetishist as everyone else.