Hollandspiele was named as the Publisher of the Year for 2018. As a result, I wanted to get a review out for one of their 2018 releases. Today, we’re looking doing a Great Heathen Army review. This is the fourth game in the Shields and Swords II series and covers 9th, 10th, and 11th century warfare in Britain.

What happened to Shields and Swords I?

Great question! I had the very same question when I first saw the series name. Tom created a few games for One Small Step under the series name Shields & Swords. Tom opted to revise the series and publish this evolution of the original rules under the Hollandspiele banner head.

It is important to note, for those hipsters who were into this series before it was cool, that Shields & Swords II is NOT compatible with its predecessor.

Since releasing Shields & Swords II, the following games have been published by Hollandspiele:

  • The Grunwald Swords
  • House of Normandy
  • Battles on the Ice

Getting Medieval

The Shields & Swords II (SnS2 hereafter) features what I would deem a light wing and command mechanic. Medieval armies are portrayed with two critical characteristics: Quality & Unit Type.

Overhead shot of Great Heathen Army
Overhead shot of the game in action

Units are then arranged by wing which varies by scenario and those wings are issued commands in the form of tokens.

Wings perform commands, which can be modified with the use of a special token and the sides take turns issuing and resolving wing commands. In fact, the series could have been called Medieval Wing Commander, but the Kilrathi were far less effective before the 28th Century.

At Your Command

There are 7 main commands in the game, each of which can be modified to achieve different outcomes. They include move, attack, shield wall, fire (ranged attack), horse, and special.

Closeup of Great Heathen Army
Shield Wall Command in action

Each scenario, and likely game, could be endlessly customized around this mechanic with special rules modifying the way the commands work. This provides maximum flexibility for Russell as he develops the game to fit the battles covered in each title.

The tactical game is centered around picking the right moment for the correct wing in order to exploit a weakness that the enemy has presented. Knowing when and how to do that requires a brief discussion of combat.

Once More Into the Breach!

Combat is equally broad strokes, but to great effect. Units compare unit types to determine die roll modifiers, then look at scenario and command adjustments to their quality. Finally, a single 10-sided die is rolled to achieve an outcome.

Crossing the ford - Great Heathen Army
Can the Mercians hold the ford or will the Viking Eovil break through and escape?

Generally, speaking rolling lower as a higher quality unit in a favorable matchup is rewarded.

Combat outcomes include retreats, step losses, unit elimination and the exchange of casualties. Again, this is pretty standard fare when it comes to wargames.

So…what sets this game apart?

A matter of timing

The tension in the game comes from the scarcity of commands. Each scenario provides you with a combination of the various commands, but never more than two of the same command and that is quite rare. Instead, you will need to balance when you move and attack. Not just when you attack, but also with which wing and against what units.

The result is an undulating wave of wings that crash together, withdraw through retreat or command, and then prepare to crash together again. In the midst of this motion, units break off from each other and savvy players will capitalize on these rare openings.

Timing is everything. Wait too long to put up that shield wall, or time a withdrawal incorrectly and your units will be punished.

A Fine But Fickle Force

Each side is usually presented with a small cadre of veteran units. These make up the nobility and leadership. As a result, they are the leaders to whom the Levy units are bound.

Without leadership, the Levies will break (cue Led Zeppelin?). This is evaluated by wing. Keeping units in proximity to thee veteran units seems much easier than it is in practice. After all, your veteran units are the lords of the battlefield in every possible way. Even light cavalry will suffer a penalty facing off against a veteran unit!

So, savvy players will use their setup to prepare for the eventual tearing apart of their wings by constant melee attacks, retreats, and eliminations.

Bonus Time!

The chit that mixes this up is the Bonus command. Paired with any command, it offers a special ability that can be a difference maker. Combined with the attack chit, it allows the wing to fight a “Pitched Battle” adding to each unit’s quality. Use the bonus with a shield wall, and the wing can draw away from an enemy line while retaining the defensive advantage of the shield wall.

The bonus chit helps the viking force race to the ford with double movement!

In short, it’s a difference maker. Timed well, it’s a game changer. This is especially true when considering the movement bonus which allows for a second round of movement. As your wing seizes the advantage by splitting the enemy’s wing into isolated groups you will cackle with glee.

Impressionist Painting

As you have, no doubt, guessed. This game is about broad strokes as a low-complexity game. Don’t be fooled. While simplistic systems are individually easy to teach and play, they fit together in such a way that you are called back to the table for one more turn, or one more scenario.

Look to a series like Men of Iron from GMT Games if you want a more robust handling of medieval tactical combat. Men of Iron inherits much of the Great Battles of History mechanics.

Shields and Swords II, on the other hand, provides a complete feeling game on a rules and time budget. Great Heathen Army makes an outstanding introductory wargame if you can get friends hooked on Netflix’s The Last Kingdom. In fact, you can start them off fighting Ethealdon which is featured in season 1 of the show.

Historical Accuracy

Great Heathen Army has the trappings necessary to suspend disbelief. While the game won’t reveal the subtle realities of medieval combat, you will get a feel for often fickle and routing army elements. Holding a medieval army together was no small task.

I loved the scenario notes that accompanied the game. They provide a level of detail that’s appropriate for understanding each scenario. As a result, the historical flavor of special rules are not lost on players who may be unfamiliar with the combatants or battle.

The King’s Justice…

Great Heathen Army is worthy of a place in your wargaming kingdom. While I’ve not played the other Shields & Swords II series games, I am more likely to do so having played this title. Players will go from box to their first scenario setup in maybe 30 minutes. There’s little need for the rulebook after the first full battle.

Scenarios take anywhere from 35 minutes to a little over an hour to complete. This is a fantastic game to teach someone about wargaming. It’s also a game to bring along to a non-wargaming game night. You may be able to rope someone into playing it. The vibrant counters, pungent Blue Panther scent, and low complexity are a recipe for success.

I highly recommend giving this game a try if you need something on the lighter end in your collection or want a game that you can pull off the shelf and play quickly.

The Mythical Phoenix Rises!

On August 4, 1998 Monarch sold Avalon Hill to Hasbro and, though there were other wargaming companies publishing great games, it was nonetheless the end of an era for many wargamers who the grew up with the hobby.

It might have been tempting to brush this moment off as another evolution and transition of a hobby that saw many publishers rise and fall during even its height of popularity in the 1970’s. After all, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) closed its doors 11 years prior in 1987 after a similar set of crises of identity created by new owners and outright mismanagement.

So, what does 2018 have to do with 1998 or 1987? 

The hobby has continued healthy growth, under the steady management of a bevy of publishers. This has included publishers of every stripe from niche publishers like Kevin Zucker’s Operational Studies Group (OSG) to big tent companies like GMT Games. Even new publishers in the United States and elsewhere like Hexasim, Hollandspiele, Compass Games, Victory Point Games and Tiny Battle Publishing are finding a foothold, if not rabid following in the hobby.

Gamers have weathered significant price increases over the last decade and the hobby morphed to include a broader range of high-quality games covering conflicts in ways we’ve not experienced on this scale in the past. Series like COIN, Joel Toppen’s First Nations Solo Series, and the Great Leaders series all come to mind from GMT’s catalog alone. Wargamers are being challenged to re-evaluate what it means both to be a wargamer and what they should expect from wargames.

Classic series still abound as well. Advanced Squad Leader recently made the leap to Korea fulfilling a decades-old “promise.” Series like the Operational Combat Series (OCS) and Standard Combat Series (SCS) from The Gamers, though now published under the Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) roof are still going strong with regular releases and increasingly refined rule iterations.

These are all indicators of the hobby’s relative health and stable footing that has been hard-won after a comparative drought of releasing from the late 90’s through maybe 2004 or 2005.

I want to tackle the two biggest drivers of change happening right now…

Game Evolution & Game Reinvention

GMT Games is beginning to ship the leading edge of their self-termed COIN-fest. This includes a massive reprint order of popular COIN titles from throughout the “series” history. As a part of these reprints, though, designers have re-evaluated their titles with the hindsight of eight incredibly successful games from some of wargaming’s best-known and most-respected designers.

Gamers who are new to the series will get to enjoy a premier wargaming series at the peak of its execution with new versions that fix cards, further redefine the automated bot player logic with a more nuanced approach learned after years of competitive play and evolution of the bot development.

COIN Update Kit

GMT could EASILY have asked longtime series owners to shell out another $60 – $80 at P500 prices for these upgrades. Instead, upgrade kits have been offered to ease the transition so that new and existing fans alike will be able to enjoy the games as their designers have evolved the games.

It is incredibly important to note that designers should absolutely be given the leeway to have their games revisited at any time and, in conjunction with any other co-designers they see fit. After all, many of the games that get this evolutionary treatment are ones that have been revered and include a passionate following.

Evolution vs. Reinvention

Evolution is great, as long as upgrade paths allow existing owners, if possible to upgrade to the latest version. In some cases, this may not be possible. For example, when a game has been out of print and circulation for decades and the game is being provided with new artwork, counters, significant rules updates, and maybe even a new publisher. This is, however, more of a game reinvention than a game evolution.

Game evolution is incremental and is handled in timely updates. Game reinvention involves a fresh approach to the at a lower mechanical level. While many of the rules systems may remain unchanged, a reinvention will showcase an overhaul of one or more systems, components, or presentation elements to the point where the game is largely new for even veteran players.

Two examples of reinvention that come to mind are the released Silver Bayonet from GMT Games which included a solo game, a new approach to smaller scenarios, an incredible “new” map and revamped rules completed in conjunction with a new designer supporting the process.  The result was something truly different, though grounded, in the original release’s purpose. Based on anecdotal feedback from owners of the original who purchased the new copy, they were happy to do so!

France 1944 Preorder Cover

The other example is France 1944: The Allied Crusade in Europe which was originally released back in 1986 by Victory Games. This one is being redesigned by Judd Vance and Mark Herman (the original designer) for Compass Games as a part of their efforts to expose and, in some cases, significantly modernize classic games for a new generation of wargamers. Again, the early descriptions coming out from Twitter about this one sound exciting and the partnership between Vance and Herman is an exciting superfan-superdesigner mashup.

Why Reinvent Classics?

Classics are classics for a reason…right?

Sometimes, yes! Sometimes, it’s not about whether the old-guard deems a game a classic and leaves it as a “shelf queen” untouched. Instead, publishers like Compass Games are actively trying to bring these classic games back into production for a generation of gamers who were not around.

Even games from the late seventies and early eighties are now a generation and a half-old. That’s a lot of gaming eyes that have come and gone without access to what the hobby considers “classic” in any meaningful and actively published way. After all, games are costly to publish and expensive to buy, so there seem to be specific “windows” in hobbyist lives where purchasing these games seem to fall (disposable income in high school or more typically college, then again after gamers have an established job, and finally when they become empty nesters again). 

That’s not universally true, but it seems to ring true with many local gamers who report “just getting back into the hobby after dropping it in college” or “now that my kids are moved out I have time to play with regularity.” As a someone who just turned 40, I can see my gaming time shrinking as my child approaches tween-hood given all the activities in which he’s involved. Finding time in the evenings is even difficult with a job in PR and the schedule uncertainty that can bring with it at times. Many other people have different stories that involve increased business travel, promotions that devour additional hours at the office, divorce, or other significant life changes that push wargaming down the totem pole of priorities.

That only underscores the importance of both evolution and reinvention! 

This is a healthy and significant stage in the wargaming hobby that deserves to be applauded rather than scoffed at by hobbyists. YES, there is some additional cost, but these are optional expenses that are definitely not required to remain engaged. Instead, these are opportunities. 

Opportunities for new wargamers to get invested in classic titles that the old-guard hold near and dear.

Opportunities for old designers to mentor new designers through the process of reinventing classic releases for new audiences.

Opportunities for the hobby to showcase the games that spurred its growth for a whole new generation of gamers.

Opportunities for publishers to keep their catalogs fresh and their game sales high so they can take a risk on the next calculated risk. After all…who would have believed that a game about the longest modern civil war taking place in Columbia would start a gaming revolution that would span eight titles and centuries of insurgency-related conflicts from antiquity to modern day Afghanistan?

Opportunities for old wargamers to reintroduce a game to friends, or just to come to the table with new friends who might not otherwise have been interested in that musty smelling orange and pink colored wargame from 1980-something sitting on the shelf.

I applaud the designers, developers, and publishers taking this approach. It’s an important moment in the hobby to find ways to engage new gamers and this is an excellent strategy!