It’s been many years since I’ve seriously played any type of wargame. For quite a while I played Warhammer 40k (Waaagh!) and enjoyed it, but as years have gone by my ability to commit the time necessary to keep up with those style of games has waned considerably. The last one I played was A Song of Fire and Ice, and only because a friend was able to provide everything I needed to play. And while I thoroughly enjoyed riding down The Wildings with my Lannister heavy cavalry, I just can’t imagine playing it enough to warrant getting a copy of my own. The level of investment needed for those games, in both time and money, has unfortunately driven me away from them. And yet I still find myself eyeing the newest wargame, hoping it’ll be the one to bring me back to the genre.
Which is why I was so excited to take a look at The Fall of the King, from Top Hat Games. They’ve developed a ruleset that Top Hat has dubbed the ‘Ventura Battle System.’ Its’ aim is straightforward; to provide a simplified ruleset that’s a bit more accessible than your regular wargame. If successful it’d make The Fall of the King the perfect game to introduce more mainstream board gamers to the wargaming genre. This system could potentially do for wargaming what Funkoverse or Unmatched have done for the skirmish gaming genre recently. I see such excitement for those games that can only help drive the market for skirmish games in the future. Here’s hoping that The Fall of the King can raise the same level of excitement.
Top Hate Games has essentially developed two separate entities. The first is the ‘Ventura Battle System,’ which is basically just a set of game rules with a round structure, list of actions, definitions of important terms, etc. And while this system is obviously built for late Middle Age and Renaissance battle reenactments it could potentially be adjusted beyond that. The second thing they’ve developed is ‘The Fall of the King,’ which is a 4 scenario historical recreation of the Battle of Fossalta and events surrounding it.
For the purposes of this review we’ll be presenting both projects as if they were one, but do keep in mind that the systems are separate. I have no doubt that the intention of Top Hat is to take this system they’ve developed and apply it to other important historical battles, with The Fall of the King merely being the opening act. Also we should mention that we’ve only been able to interact with the game digitally through Tabletop Simulator. Due to the current limitations and slowdowns of shipping and manufacturing it was much easier for Top Hat to throw their resources into a mod for TTS than to try and get physical copies of their games into the hands of reviewers. Because of that we can’t give any critique on the quality of the components the game will ship with.
The Fall of the King is an easy game to describe; it’s a 1 versus 1 wargame with only two phases (Intiative Phase and Action Phase). After a set number of rounds based on the selected scenario players score points by various means and the one who’s scored the most wins. As with most wargames, however, the meat of the game is both where the complexity and the strategy come into play. So let’s take a look at one of these scenarios.
Here you see the basic setup for the Battle of Fossalta. As you can see, the scenario determines the duration of the game as well as who starts with Initiative. In subsequent rounds players will secretly bid for Initiative with command points to determine who goes first. The map determines where the units for both sides will begin and also gives instructions on specific terrain, such as the Rough terrain marking on the Crops in the southern portion of the map. All of these keywords are fully described in the rules and have important implications on strategy.
Units may be deployed singly, in groups, or in formations (units can always be added/removed from these groups after deployment). Groups and Formations compromise piles, or stacks, of units. That simply means that when you activate a group or formation, all of the units involved in that assembly act at the same time and take the same action. It’s a way to save yourself command points, which you have to spend any time you activate at all. So activating a single unit may cost you 1 command point while activating a Group of 5 will cost the same 1 command point. Groups and Formations have their own rules, both in regards to how they’re formed and what benefits they impart. Groups simply require units to be in physical contact with each other while Formations require a commander to be present and that units be all on foot or all mounted, but they impart some fairly potent combat bonuses.
You can also see the various Tactical Objectives for the two factions. The Ghibellines want to cross the creek and reach the north of the battlefield and either inflict as much damage to the vehicle as possible or even destroy it. They are awarded a set number of points at the end of the 8 rounds if they accomplish those tasks. Meanwhile the Guelph faction is rewarded for reaching the North side of the battlefield with the vehicle intact. In addition to these objective points, players score for a multitude of other tasks which mostly has to do with eliminating enemy units. So let’s take a look at some of those units and discuss them.
Each unit has two components, a card (like you see above) and a cardboard token that is placed on the game board (larger tokens for mounted units). The cards give you details about the units’ offensive and defensive capabilities, any special abilities, and also how valuable they are to your opponent for point scoring. I won’t go through every aspect of the cards, but let’s talk about the most important ones.
On the right border you see both the units’ movement values and their combat skill. Movement is separated between March and Run values, which are different actions you can take when activating your units. A unit’s Combat Value is simply how many dice they contribute to that particular attack action, of which there are only two (Melee and Ranged). At the bottom of the cards, the yellow value is the points value of that unit. Your opponent will score points based on that value and whether that unit is captured, defeated, or has retreated by the end of the battle.
The blue and purple values are command points and determine how many of those points each side gains at the start of a round. Blue command points are simply given at the start of the round and taken away at the end of a round, so the player in control of this commander would simply be given 8 command points each round and regardless of how many they spent they would lose them when the round ends. Those command points are used to bid for Initiative and also to activate units. Purple command points work a bit differently; essentially you are given the value on the left each round but you don’t lose them at the end of the round like blue command points, and you can only hold as many as the value on the right. If a player had only these two commanders on the field, they would therefore be given 9 command points each round, but would only be able to have a max of 12 on any given round.
You also see defensive values in light blue. For the Condottiere on the left there are two values because that unit is mounted; when attacking a mounted unit you can choose to either target the rider or the mount, so they have separate defense values. 4×2 means that to hit that unit you must roll a 4 or higher on a d6 and it takes a total of 2 successes to do one damage to the unit. All units, aside from vehicles, can take 2 total points of damage before they are defeated. However, damage must be done evenly among groups and formations, which is another reason they are so useful. An attacker can decide where they want to allocate their hits during a combat action, but they cannot choose to do 2 damage to a single unit when they haven’t at least done 1 damage to every other unit in that group.
Lastly you see the green value, which is Presence. Only commanders and sergeants have presence, just as they are the only units to have Command values. Presence is how you organize formations; essentially a unit with presence can create a formation of any units in contact with each other around themselves up to that value in distance. Formations are very useful and provide bonuses to Combat encounters.
Now that we’ve discussed the units and setup, all that’s really left is to discuss Actions, the meat of the game. There are a number of actions you can take during an activation; these are split into Long and Short actions. Short actions allow you to do two different acts, while Long Actions only allow you to do one. Complex actions give you more flexibility but require additional command to be paid. See the chart below for a basic overview of the actions available.
Of course most of these actions are self-explanatory, but you may notice some things that are interesting. First is that there’s a reload action, which is exactly what it sounds like. Archers just can’t plink away all day long; basically a bow shot takes two actions to a melee attack’s one. Units can also mount and dismount as an action, which can be very important. Remember how I said Formations have to be comprised of only mounted or only foot units? Dismounting is how you can get those units involved in larger formations. Also there are rules about what happens when your horse is killed out from under you, and it’s not always pleasant for the rider.
Perhaps my personal favorite action is the Capture action. Of course you get points for defeating enemy units during a fight, but it’s just as important how you defeat them. Enemies that retreat from the battle (any attack requires a morale check that could potentially send your spearman running for the hills) are worth only half of their listed points; they live to fight another day. But Captured units are worth double points! Not only did you knock that arrogant noble from his horse but you get to ransom him off as well to pay for more mead!! What’s not to like?
At this point we’ve gone through the basics of the game, but there are some more intricate rules we have only mentioned in passing. Things like Morale Checks and what happens if your horse is killed from under you and how your units can become Shaken from seeing their comrades die on the field of battle. These are obviously important rules, but if this preview has piqued your interest in The Fall of the King at all I highly suggest you take a look at the rulebook on their Kickstarter page.
And of course we haven’t talked about components at all, but that’s mostly because we were limited to the digital game. However it appears that the battle maps will be foldout paper maps and both the rulers and status markers will be either paper or cardboard. Top Hat does offer upgrades for the status indicators so that they are wooden blocks but that does add cost to the game. Additionally the game does not come with dice naturally but are offered as an extra add-on.
What keeps me from playing more wargames are their cost and the amount of time you have to commit to them. In breaking down the game to a group of scenarios Top Hat has really addressed the time issue, but I also think that my preferred method of playing the game would require me to play all 4 scenarios against the same opponent. At a hour each minimum, that’s pushing the game into normal wargaming time requirements. However I have the advantage of a very defined place to stop the game for another day. In that regard Top Hat has at least drawn my interest.
For the cost issue, however, The Fall of the King really delivers. Yes there have been conscious efforts to reduce the cost of the game and that shows; the rulers and the status markers are not exactly what I would hope for but I also have tons of game components that could easily be used in their place. The print and play version is especially interesting because it’s only around $12 US. And where Top Hat has spent the money on this game, it shows.
The art is outstanding, especially on the unit tokens. Art is obviously a subjective thing but I personally love the artwork they’ve gone with and it’s vaguely aged fresco style. The graphics on the cards and tokens are also especially clean and easy to distinguish. This game definitely looks fantastic on the (virtual) table.
I really hesitate to make any sort of decision on a game that I have not had in my hands; digital board games just don’t work for me in the same way sitting down and playing face to face with friends do. But what I have seen from The Fall of the King I’ve enjoyed. I love the ruleset and think it’s both interesting, tactical and simple to teach. The art and graphics on the cards and unit tokens are just superb to me. If you are looking for a wargame that you can actually get to the table more than once a month, The Fall of the King is just what you’re looking for.
Written for BoardGameGumbo by Bradly Billingsley