**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of Wargames Illustrated. Produced here by kind permission.
Broken Legions came about as one of those fairly rare gigs in the life of a games designer. A company (in this case, Osprey) already had an idea for a game they wanted to print, and approached me to see if I was interested. The pitch was evocative enough to grab me, but broad enough to give me the freedom that I need to get the creative juices flowing. In a nutshell, it was: “We want a game about fantasy Romans, set in a quasi-historical alt-history setting, with monsters and mythology. Oh, and we’d quite like some campaign rules please.”
With a brief like that, how could I refuse?
Step One – the Concept
Whenever I design games, even historical ones, I tend not to start with history books. (“We can tell, you hack”. Oi, no heckling from the back row please…). Broken Legions was no exception. History is important when you come to write the detail of the thing, but what you need for the initial plan is some kind of hook. And not just a hook that appeals to a niche market (in this case, people who like skirmish games and who also like Roman miniatures), but to the widest audience possible. I look to movies, comic books, novels – pop culture. For Broken Legions, which from the start was meant to have a hefty twist of myth and magic, I looked to those awesome matinee movies with Ray Harryhausen special effects, swords-and-sandals epics, TV shows about Grecian warrior princesses, and children’s books about mythology and ancient monsters. This approach led me to come up with the core concept: Broken Legions is a game primarily about legendary heroes leading small bands of followers to glory in battle. Their quest is to search the dark places of the world, beyond the fringes of the Roman Empire, and locate artefacts of great magical power. By collecting – or destroying – these artefacts, they can secure power and position for their nations (or even families) for centuries to come.
From that concept, I had a good think about the type of rules I wanted. How many miniatures should there be per side? How granular should the rules mechanics be? Should monsters be part of a warband, or an AI-controlled force of nature? Should there be Argonauts? Okay, that last one was a no-brainer. Of course there should be Argonauts. However, they’re not quite as you know them, instead being a cult descended from the original crew, who are opposed to the Romans several hundred years later.
Granularity vs Simplicity
The core concept of a game informs every decision I make for the rest of the process. I write the top bullet points up on a whiteboard, in fact, next to my desk, so I don’t get tempted to stray too far from the design aesthetic. Here’s the 5-point list I came up with for Broken Legions:
1. It’s all about Heroes!
2. Warbands are small, so mechanics are detailed.
3. Gods are fickle, powerful, and omnipresent.
4. Monsters cannot be controlled, and will ruin your day.
5. Warbands should offer a variety of archetypes.
Those top two points are at the top for a reason – when I wrote the core mechanics, they were the bits that dictated the level of granularity in the rules. I started testing out a game in which an elite force might only contain five or six models, and a similarly pointed ‘horde’ force might be only twelve strong. With so few models, you can afford to delve into detail a bit more, because you’re less likely to forget who’s who in a warband made up of characterful individuals. Broken Legions isn’t a game where you roll a bucketload of dice and take models off by the handful; it’s a game where every individual counts. The order in which you move your models can be vital to your strategy. Combat is an involved process, with your stats, spells, and weapons racking up a variety of modifiers, positive and negative. It can actually be tricky for basic warriors to land a decisive blow, and so you have to carefully outmanoeuvre your opponents to get a decisive charge or outnumbering bonus, otherwise you risk getting bogged down in protracted single combats. This can be a bad thing indeed, because you need those warriors free to claim objectives and search ancient treasure hoards. Essentially, there’s a whiff of an RPG about the mechanics, which really appealed to me, as RPGs are all about heroism and larger-than-life figures.
To increase the granularity of the rules, and produce a wider spread of results, I opted for a D10 system rather than my usual favoured D6s, so that even a lowly Barbarian Warrior can land a blow on a Demigod (however unlikely it might be). The basic mechanic involves either a Rest or a Contest. A Test means you roll a D10, add the relevant characteristic (such as Accuracy for shooting, or Agility for jumping over things), and aim for a 10 or more to succeed. You can stack modifiers in your favour to make these rolls easier. A Contest, on the other hand, is when models each roll a D10 and add or subtract and relevant modifiers, aiming simply to beat their foe’s score – this is particularly common in melee, or when engaging in a battle of wills against an enemy priest.
The heroes themselves come in three flavours: Mighty warriors, spellcasters, and sneaky spies. Each of these guys have their place—strong warriors are needed to lead their men fearlessly into battle; Druids and priests can have a major effect on the game with well-timed miracles; spies can steal back the initiative from your opponent (a pretty vital mechanic), or stop enemy heroes from performing pesky Heroic Actions (anything from singling out an enemy model for a hail of arrows, or beseeching the gods for aid).
And what about those gods? Remember I said they were fickle? Well, your heroes can bend the knee and pray to the gods for help, but there’s a chance the capricious pantheon will smite him verily for being a big wimp and calling on them too often. Likewise, whenever a priest performs a miracle, he must roll an extra dice. If he’s successful, and scores a 10 on the bonus die, he becomes reinvigorated by the energy of his patron deity. If he fails to perform the miracle, however, and also rolls a 1 on the die… you guessed it, he gets smote! (Or should that be smitten? I can never remember).
In the end, I decided that monsters (most of them, at least) can’t be controlled by the players, but instead are “Wandering Monsters” with a simple three-step AI system. Generally, they’re encountered in specific scenarios (although in the demo game we played at Wargames Illustrated HQ, we had a Minotaur “spawning” from an objective. Hilarity ensued).
Monsters are really, really tough, and pretty quick to boot. There was always a risk that they could become a marginal part of the game – with players running around trying to claim objectives and kill each other, monsters needed to be able to catch up with the flow of play so as not to become sidelined. Thankfully, due to the modest proportions of the average gaming area, the speed of the monsters, and the fact that they activate before the players’ models, this is rarely the case. Players generally find that they have to deal with the monsters before they get eaten, which is easier said than done!
Something for Everyone
When I was designing the warbands, I wanted to make sure that there were plenty of options to suit not just a gamer’s preferred style of play, but also the hobbyist’s preferred type of model. The faction present in the game cater for a variety of aesthetics. There are three flavours of Roman (vanilla, gladiator surprise and, erm, priesty ripple), Barbarians (all of which draw from a single list, but that’s something I’d like to expand on later), Egyptians, Argonauts (obviously), Parthians, and Dacians. Each of these warbands has been given a fantasy twist based on the setting. For example, the Barbarians get Wulfkind (werewolves); the Egyptians get Eternal Warriors (mummies); Dacians get Ghouls and Strigoi, and so on. If you want to play the game as a straight historical skirmish, you don’t have to include these elements at all. If you want to play only mythological battles, you can go heavy on those elements. Likewise, depending on the warband you choose, you could go heavy on ranged weapons, or cavalry, or chariots. You could take lots of cheap troops, or a few elite troops. You can tool up your basic warriors with all the wargear under the sun. You can purchase extra miracles for your priests to dominate the foe through magical means. The lists are flexible enough to cater for pretty much any style of play.
The other way to add spice to the warbands is through the inclusion of “Auxilia”, or swords for hire. There’s a list of nine in the book (and I’d like to write more), from the mighty Cyclops to the fully customisable Demigod (you can choose his/her skills, blessings and weaponry based on the deity of your choice). You can have a Centaur riding alongside your Parthian Cataphracts, or a vampiric Daughter of Lamia skulking amidst your Celtic warrior warband. Whatever takes your fancy!
During campaign play, you need to pay Auxilia an upkeep in points after every game in order to retain their services. If you start to do badly and don’t earn enough points to pay them off, they up sticks and leave your warband. Such is the downside of dealing with mercenaries, especially ones that aren’t human.
Hitting the Campaign Trail
One of the things that the guys at Osprey specifically wanted from me was a campaign system, ‘a bit like Legends of the Old West’ (there’s a blast from the past, eh?). So, how to go about it?
In a campaign, you start off with a small warband, and earn a number of points at the end of each game based on your performance. The more points you earn, the more warriors, Auxilia and/or wargear you can buy for your force. You’ll need to pay your Auxilias’ retainers from this total, so gathering a mercenary-heavy force can prove very costly, if powerful.
Models also gain experience, allowing them to boost their characteristics (making those all-important Tests easier), gain special rules, or even seek out artefacts of power, like magical swords and blessed amulets. Lowly warriors can become fully fledged heroes, proving that the gods really can smile on the brave. Of course, on the flipside of that, models that are taken out of action during a game might suffer serious injury or a bad case of death, leaving you with a shortfall to fill before your next game.
If my previous efforts are anything to go by, players really get into the spirit of things during the campaign turn (aka the ‘post-game sequence’), goading their enemies as they make those injury rolls, and celebrating the discovery of arcane treasure as though they’d actually found the real-life Golden Fleece.
Broken Legions is out now, available from all good bookshops, or direct from Osprey Publishing here.
If you like the artwork previews in this blog, check out some other work by the wonderfully talented Alan Lathwell here (he was also the illustrator of my Sleepy Hollow book).