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Great Heathen Army Review

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.

Summary
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.
Good
  • Easy to learn & play
  • Fun choices and bonus chit adds complexity
  • Great scenario variety and selection
Bad
  • Game can feel "on rails" once armies collide
  • A little more chrome might have gone a long way
  • Difficult to time and exploit breaks in enemy lines
8.5
Great
Gameplay - 9
Graphic Design - 7
Rulebook - 9
Fun Factor - 9

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