I’ve played a couple of test games now of Sam Mustafa’s new game Aurelian, so thought I’d do a quick review. It’s both similar to and a departure from Sam’s other games; players who have played other games by Sam will pick up on similar mechanisms, particular the movement rules which are very similar to those found in Bluecher. In other respects, it’s very different. For one, the time frame is outside of Sam’s usual area (18th C in Might and Reason and Maurice, Napoleonic in Grand Armee, Lasalle and Bluecher, and ACW in Longstreet), seeing as it focuses on the ancient world, and even more so, unlike other ancients rules, one that focuses on the 3rd century crisis of the Roman Empire.
There are other major differences between this and Sam’s other games too, including the fact that it is only available as a pdf (interested parties should go to the Honour fora where Sam has explained why) and even more notably, that it is a diceless game. There are cards required to play the game which can either be bought from Drivethru Cards or downloaded for free from Sam’s website. The game can be played either with miniatures (my preference) or with unit cards (again which are available for free from Sam’s website, see above link).
The focus on the 3rd C limits the forces available. In fact, there are only four factions that can be chosen from when creating your force, these being Romans, Sassanian Persians, Germans and Sarmatians. The first two are “civilised” armies, the second two “barbarian” armies. Each nation has a separate card deck with their own particular emphases. The Romans for instance for have cards allowing them to co-ordinate infantry and cavalry as a combined force for a turn, form a testudo to protect their cohorts from missile attacks, and through use of discipline and their gladii, can attain better combat results. The Sarmatians, on the other hand, have cards allowing them to move through difficult terrain without penalty, allow them to make a Parthian Shot, and allow them to move further than normal. Each of the national decks has their own particular flavour that matches well with the particular army.
The 100 page pdf rulebook is broken into two major sections, the basic game and the advanced game, which includes advanced rules, club games and the crisis campaign. The basic rules begin with an introduction which gives the usual information about the background for the game, required components such as the action card deck, a ruler measured by base widths (which allows any size basing if both sides are based the same, and which is something common to most of Sam’s games), and markers you will need (something to mark disruption to units, objectives, baggage) and the Aureus, which is basically a coin to flip in various cases such as to find out who goes first and the like.
The next section describes the I-go-you-go sequence (playing of event cards, rallying, shooting, movement, combat, and status checks), and important notes on things like unit traits. Units have several factors, most notably elan (which is mostly used in hand to hand combat), armour (which protects them from shooting), movement (as with Bluecher, this has two numbers, depending on where / how the unit is moving), and the unit’s Loss Number. This latter is used when the unit is routed (units can take 4 or 5 disruption before they leave the table), and denotes the number of cards permanently removed from your action card deck.
The action cards are the most important part of the game. You have a certain number (for a standard 200 point game, you have 32 cards) which you can recycle as you use them in most cases, but some cards are removed permanently as you use them, as you fight and lose units, and over time to reflect fatigue. Action cards can be used in a variety of ways, some of which lead to you removing that card form the game, so a lot of thought has to go in to how you use them.
Firstly, cards can be used to rally – if you permanently remove a card, you can use its rally value to rally one of your units and remove disruptions from it. Secondly, they can be used to denote how many units you can move this turn (which doesn’t permanently remove them). Thirdly, they are used in combat or shooting in place of dice (you play cards and add their value to the unit’s elan and other factors), in which case the highest value card you use is removed permanently. Fourthly, you can use them as event cards, reading the text on each card and using that to your advantage. Fifthly, you can use some of them as Interrupt cards, allowing you to foil your opponent’s plans. And, of course, when one of your units is destroyed, you have to remove a number of your cards from the game, so they act as an ongoing morale mechanism – once you run out of cards, the game ends. To make matters worse, in the status phase of each turn, you have to remove a card to reflect ongoing fatigue too.
Action cards, then, are important for every aspect of the game, and this is why you really have to consider what you’re going to do each turn. Is it worth spending that great card in your hand on a rally to save your veteran cohort, or should you wait and use it in combat when you really need it to destroy your opponent’s elephants? Or should you save it to use the event you can play with it? In each of these cases, it’s likely to be removed from play after you play it, which gives you options but limits what you can do with it.
Shooting offers an interesting part of the game, in that the unit being shot at has a fixed level of armour (usually 0 to 3) that has to be beaten by the shooting unit(s) in order to inflict a disruption. The shooting player uses cards to do so, which means if you have the cards, you can always choose to inflict a disruption on target units, but you will also lose a card permanently by doing so (the highest value card is removed from play). Hand to hand combat is resolved similarly, except now both players may play cards, and each unit’s elan is used as a modifier (alongside the usual sort of modifiers such as terrain, flank attacks and the like). Combats between uneven opponents (an experienced Roman cohort versus Persian Paighans, for example) is going to be very one-sided in almost all cases, and is probably going to see the much weaker unit destroyed immediately. Combats between evenly matched units, on the other hand, are usually going to see players using their best cards in order to get the upper hand, and unless there is a great disparity in what each player has in their hand, or where a massive tactical advantage lies with one player (flanking the enemy, for example), not likely to see the instant destruction of either unit.
There are a couple of special rules (the aforementioned Parthian Shot, panicking elephants and the like), but otherwise the basic rules are simple and intuitive, and easily picked up in the first few turns. The advanced rules introduce the Fates (5 dice are rolled at the start of the game, giving each player some bonus advantages for that game, such as bards (who provide you with extra glory if you win), artillery (which are attached to non-missile units in order to give them a rather outstanding missile attack), to ox carts (allowing your baggage marker to be moved more freely), local guides (which affect your terrain placement), and traitors (which allow you to remove an enemy unit from the table at start of play). Not all of these are available to each army – the traitor is only for barbarian armies, others such as logistics officers are only available to civilised armies, and each of the four factions has their own table to roll on to see what you get.
The last few chapters discuss basic club games (pick-up games), including several scenarios, the army lists (each army has at least 6 core units (all Massed Infantry of some sort) and a half dozen or so other types of units to choose from, including Massed Cavalry, Light Cavalry, Light Infantry and Elephants). The Germans have the fewest options available, requiring at least 6 Warband (Massed Infantry), with options of Optimates (noble warriors, with a bit more oomph than the warband), Archers and Slingers (LI), Light Cavalry and Noble Cavalry. The Romans have the most choices, with Raw, Experienced and Veteran Cohorts, Armoured Cavalry, Clibanarii and Light Cavalry, Auxiliary Archers and Light Archers and Slingers. There are minima for core units (at least 6) and maxima for all other units (the Sarmatians can only field one unit of Amazons, for example).
Possibly the most interesting part of the rules is the section on the crisis campaign, however. In some ways similar to the campaign set-up in Maurice, it allows a group of players to run a campaign (usually of about 6 rounds), with their armies changing to reflect the wins and losses and the glory they attain each battle. Each player thus has a changing army (though they have to remain with one faction). Certain elite units are much harder to replace, and so Roman players might find their lovely force of experienced and veteran cohorts slowly being replaced with raw cohorts and (perish the thought) even barbarian levies. Sam suggests that around half the forces in the campaign be Romans (this was a period of much Roman infighting, so there are no real ‘blue on blue” battles, just different factions with the empire battling with each other as well as against outsiders). Sam suggests scoring each battle, and at a preset campaign end time, the two players with the highest scores battling it out for dominance.
Finally, the pdf draws to a close with a section on historical notes for each of the four armies, which was a welcome addition with some interesting suggestions for historical army composition and strategy. The pdf ends with a FAQ section.
I played a couple of games to try out these rules (using the free cards and paper units for now) and enjoyed them immensely. The latest War and Empire kickstarter is going to have figures for the 3c Romans, Sassanid Persians and Germans, and the earlier one they did had Sarmatians (and which can be bought at a discount if you join this kickstarter), and that’s going to be supplying me with figures to play this game when they get delivered (probably around June or July next year), as the last ones are great figures. It’s going to take me a while to get them and then paint them up (I’m slowly working on Punic Romans at the moment), so I’ll be no doubt playing a few more games with paper units for now (it’s not the same though, and I’ll try to get actual bases with figures on them as soon as I can). I have 3 or 4 other friends interested in Aurelian, so we may even start up a campaign at some point too.
I found that the cards run out much more quickly than you hope they will, especially when you really get stuck in, and the decisions you make can be agonising – should you use that card to rally your veteran cohort to keep it in the game, which will leave you with a smaller card for the battle when they fight later on, which might leave them needing a further card to rally again next turn, for example? Trying to do everything at once is going to see you run out of cards quicker than otherwise, so you really have to consider your options, have a good battle plan, and be willing to change your plans as circumstances dictate. The game can be easily played within 3 hours (I can see most games being about 2 to 2 1/2 hours), and is highly enjoyable. Best of all, since base sizes aren’t an issue, the forces I create for this game are going to be on 80mm bases so that I can also use them as armies for Sword and Spear and Impetus. Score!