Mass Combat: By This Axe / By this Poleaxe

I thought that I had found a very fine mass combat system that introduced a satisfactory level of detail and flow into normal gameplay in a decent, natural manner, and was also fast and easy to handle. Not an artificial extra system bolted on like an alien artifact, but somewhat intuitive. That system was the Book of War by Delta…. but then in actual play it turned out that it only works for D&D derivates.

That is pretty good and covers a fantastic range of situations in everything that handles combat with Armor Class as defense, but not every game is a D&D derivate, and in some cases these rules are too rash.

Clash of combat system philosophies

Recently I played the German system Midgard, and that has, on a one-on-one-level, a skill-based attack roll, a reflex-based defense roll (German language games love defense rolls), a damage-reducing armor factor (D&D has armor reduce only the to-hit-probability, which evens out statistically over several combat rounds. Many other system families I know have damage reduction, others have contested rolls between attacker and defender).
Midgard also has a decent survivability beyond 0 HP, and the Book of War does not: It is very “out at zero” centric.

With combat in large numbers that can be handwaved as the domain of field doctors and healers, but at skirmish level, the players immediately tried to save men who had fallen in combat, and the Delta-system changed: instead of helping, it became a problem that had to be overcome by random GM-rulings for every victim.

So is there another system that comes closer?

I had heard of “By this Axe”, and its Skirmish-level variant, “By this Polaxe”, both by Chris Kutalik. So here is a test.

Test Run: By this Axe

Let’s keep it simple.
300 infantry and 160 archers on the left versus 260 medium foot, 240 light archers, and 60 knights on horseback on the right. Most units are “soldiers” with Level 2, the knights are “Elite” with level 4.

We have no special units or heroes in here, to be quick about it.

So we start with ranged combat. The left side archers concentrate their bowfire on the knights — to break the elite first. Armor saves versus longbows are at -2 too, so the chances are good. But… they all miss.

The right side archers focus on their counterparts on the left. They all aim for the southern left archers, and get 4 hits in. Time for armor saves … but with the negative 2 for longbow fire, there is no save. The southern archers go down.

During movement, the left infantry moves forward to hit the right infantry, and vice versa. The knights ride to flank our friends.

Since the southern archer unit has been wiped out, no moral roll.

Again with the archers, the left do the same as before, the right ones try to soften up the infantry.

This time the left ones all hit the knights. And the knights must save: Four saves that demand a roll of 1! One save, three fails! Shockingly, the archers wipe the knights off the map. No more elite!

The right side hits four times. Saves — but at target number zero, that means they are simply out. The left infantry takes losses. They must roll 1-4 to make their save, and they roll a 3. They stay in good order, and losses be damned.

Now movement and melee. Left finds that they cannot close and attack, they keep their distance. The right side moves closer and sets spears.

Next round, and missiles again. Both archer sides target the enemy foot.

Two lost on the right. Two lost on the left. Time to get dangerous. The right side wins init and lets the left move first. The left attack and run into the spears. One hit, save is a 3, that is a fail. 1 unit on the left lost. The left don’t manage any hits.

Now the archers can’t go any more, no shooting into melee. So they shoot each other.

Two on the right are taken out, six hits go down on the left — the left archers are done.

Bad news for the left. Melee time. Right side hits first. One hit. The armor save is a 2! That means the unit survived. No losses on the left. Left side hits twice. The right side fails their saves, two losses.

Now the foot troops are pretty evenly matched.

One more clash and the left side loses a couple of guys. Things look grim. It is time to face the inevitable, and surrender. Victory goes to the right hand side.

Hmmm…. that does not feel right.
It is more cumbersome than the Book of War, and does not really add anything.

Test Run: By this Poleaxe

By this poleaxe is designed for smaller encounters, skirmish level combat with squads of five. But I will scale it up, because that is what I will need the system for. We start with the exact same setup.

The Knights have a Defense Value of 4, the foot 3, the archers 2. The soldiers have a moral value of 6, the knights, of 8. Men at arms need 3 hits to kill. The knights need 4.

Movement is by “move spaces”, roughly 1 for slow, 2 for medium, 3 for fast, and 4 for riders. In squares, we call 1 “move space” 3 squares. The missile ranges are also in move spaces, and they are seriously shorter than in “Axe”. Missiles can no longer dominate the whole battlefield without moving. Movement is in two halves, with ranged fire in between. Combat is simultaneous and with a d10 for each squad.

The knights start rolling, and we start as before:

Left missiles concentrate on the riders. Right missiles go for the left missiles. The left archers miss. The right archers hit twice, with two 1s out of 12. The archers get saves. Both saves fail, so two archers squads get a hit in. An inconvenience: We have to track hits for the squads. That will work well if the focus is on mass combat, but is troublesome if the mass combat is a sideshow within the bigger context of an RPG.

The knights close with the archers to join melee, but have no time for a strike.

Foot don’t join yet. Next round, southern left archers must melee, the rest of the archers can shoot. 3 hits for right. 1 save. 2 hits suffered among foot troops. Left shoot, 1 hit, but right saves.

Melee: The riders get a hit in, but the archers save with a 1. The archers get 2 hits in, but the riders save against 1 of them. Suffer 1 hit.

By this point the notes about wounds pile up. An excel-sheet would make things easier.

The foot soldiers clash with zero hits.

Next round, we repeat: Again, the riders suffer one un-saved hit. So one rider squad is at half strength. We will try a moral roll … and we fail! One squad of riders breaks off. The others therefore need another morale roll at a penalty. And they fail too!
The northern archers suffer 1 squad in losses, but their morale holds.

The elite of the right side army retreats. We get to the center with foot soldiers clashing. Left side hits thrice, but two get blocked. The right side gets two hits in.

Next round: The riders flee, the archers fight the archers, the foot the foot. Hardly any effect. The left side loses 1 squad.

In other words, this combat is going to go on for a while, with plenty of opportunities for tactical decisions. “By this Poleaxe” allows players to channel their inner company commander. It is the right game for groups that want to really do the work to capture Bunker Hill or Eagle Tower. It is, however, a bit too involved to have it run as an add-on to an RPG.
However, the factor that makes it so is the level of detail, the Hits to Kill number. What if we ignore that and basically create a bastard between axe and poleaxe… a longaxe?

Quick Test: By this Longaxe

Basically, By this Poleaxe, but without the HTK.

Start setup:

Again, the archers aim for the cavalry first, the right archers try to take out their counterparts. The right side archers hit four times. Three of those get blocked. 1 archer unit on the left goes down. The riders close with the southern archers.

The foot troops maneuver.

Next round, the riders take out 1 archer unit without losing anyone (an archer hit gets blocked). The other archers try to soften up foot units. 1 left foot unit gets it. The foot units clash. Each side loses a squad, as each side gets hits in, but also saves against all but one of them.

We already see that play is considerably faster, while retaining a level of defendability: It is not the meat-grinder that Book of War represents, it is closer to an actual roleplaying game with armor and defense.

Next round. The riders whittle down their archer foes, the other archers each lose 1 squad. Main battle: Left side hits nothing, right side hits twice, one gets saved, one squad is out.

Next round:

The riders attack the left foot from the back. The archers keep killing each other. The left archers are on their last limb, but hold out heroically thanks to managing their morale roll. The riders fail to make a dent, but the battle goes well for the right side anyway.

Time for a morale check for the left.

And the little group up north fails. The more cohesive group in the center keeps it together.

Still, their commander can see that the field is lost. 140 foot against 160 foot and 60 riders, and then playing pincushion for the archers? No. He lowers the flag in good order. The battle is over.

That went well! We can work with this bastardized version, the Axe/Poleaxe-mix.

Actual Play Test:

For actual play in Midgard, misses are much more numerous than hits, and that is even before we consider defense, where hits relatively often get blocked after the fact.

So I went with “By this Poleaxe”, where the d10 allows for fewer effective hits, and scaled up troop numbers to allow for a big army instead of a single platoon in a skirmish: In a combat 2000 versus 3000, I would ramp up unit size to 100 or even 200 fighters in a unit. When clashing with 12000 versus 16000, I scaled up to 250 fighters per unit.

To speed things up, Hits to kill can be cut down, low level groups taken out with 1 hit, higher ones with 2 hits.

And it worked!

The ebb and flow of battle ran fine, and even the speed of strategic shifts — the right flank overpowering their foes while the left flank still struggled — felt believable and worked within the flow of the game.

Thus, recommendation for “By this Poleaxe”.
[with slight caveat for cumbersome tracking of hits per squad – good with 5 guys in a squad, bad with 20 or 50 or 100. So: Scaling up the troops, scaling down the detail of the squad HP].

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