RockyMountainNavy, 28 February 2021
If you listen to Mentioned in Dispatches Season 5 Episode 13 here at the Armchair Dragoons you will hear Regimental Commander Brant, Moe from Moe’s Game Table, and myself discuss, “What is a ‘wargame’?” Hopefully you will be able to tell that, at least for me, there is no firm rule of thumb as to the definition of a wargame. Which made it very interesting when I picked up the boardgame Robin Hood from Worthington Publishing (2019). After playing through the game, I strongly believe Robin Hood is actually a wargame.
“Nah,” you say. “It’s clearly a strategy boardgame because it’s got cards and blocks and no hexes. Why, there’s no Combat Results Table!” Well, hear me out and then tell me what YOU think.
I Know A Wargame When I See it
Let’s look at the defintion of a wargame I offered in the podcast:
An inclusive and concise defintion may be proposed as: an imaginary military operation, conducted upon a map or board, and usually employing various moveable devices which are said to represent the opposing forces, and which are moved about according to rules representing conditions of actual warfare. Brief History of War Gaming: Reprinted from Unpublished Notes of the Author, Dated 23 October 1956 (AD 235 893, Armed Forces Technical Information Agency, 15 Oct 1960)
No definition is perfect, but I believe this one is a good place to start a discussion. Now let me walk you through how I came to view Robin Hood, the boardgame, as Robin Hood, the wargame.
What ‘art thou Robin Hood?
Worthington Publishing advertises Robin Hood as this (all bold is as Worthington highlights it):
Robin Hood is our two-player game that brings all the action of Medieval England into play. It uniquely blends traditional Medieval soldiers like Knights, Pikemen, Archers, etc. in movement and battle with role playing characters from the Robin Hood saga. Designed by Damian Mastrangelo with stunning art by Chris Rawlins.
One side marshals the forces of the Sheriff of Nottingham led by the Black Knight. He leads Knights, Normans, Pikemen and Archers in Pursuit of Robin Hood and into Battle. The other side is Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men who raid the Sheriff’s castles and Rob his gold wagons. Each side has strengths and weakness. These forces contest each other in a power struggle to gain the most gold to support their causes.
And GOLD can be gained or lost in many ways.
The game includes a unique blend of Medieval soldiers with Knights, Pikemen, Archers and Merry Men engaged in movement and Combat, while it has a role playing element depicted by the characters such as Robin Hood, the Sheriff, Marian, etc.
The Characters can do medieval movement and combat like the soldiers and much more. They can Duel each other when they meet in battle. They can be Captured. They can be Rescued. And they can be Executed.
All that sounds like a good medieval fantasy strategy game. It even sounds a bit like a role-playing game with dueling and daring rescues and executions in dark dungeons. At least that’s what I expected.
Robin Hood – An Insurgency
With Robin Hood, what I discovered in the box is the story of an insurgency. Department of Defense Joint Publication 3-24 Counterinsurgency defines insurgency as, “The organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region. Insurgency can also refer to the group itself.” In Robin Hood the
boardgame wargame the Sheriff player represents the party currently in political control of Sherwood Forest that uses taxation and repression to further their personal treasury. The Robin Hood player represents a group that is challenging that political control (in this case through violence) and hopes to nullify the Sheriff’s control when King Richard, upon his return and sees their cause as just.
In Robin Hood game terms, Gold simultaneously represents wealth (for the Sheriff) and popular support (for Robin Hood). No matter why they fight, the measure of victory in Robin Hood is Gold and all the actions in the game ultimately only matter in how much Gold is gained or lost for each side. The Sheriff player wants to take as much Gold as possible and the Robin Hood player wants to take the Gold away from the Sheriff. The Robin Hood player wins if they have 25 or more Gold at the end of a turn. Conversely, the Robin Hood player loses if they ever have 0 Gold at the end of a turn.
The board in Robin Hood represent the battleground of Sherwood Forest. Strategic terrain is depicted; Castles, Towns, Roads, and Camps. Further, only the militarily significant combat forces are depicted; characters (i.e. leaders) and military units of insurgents (Merry Men) and counterinsurgents (Soldiers) along with static defensive units (Garrisons or Camp Guards). Carriages (convoys?) represent another way to accumulate (or lose) victory points (Gold) as the Robin Hood player attempts to capture carriages and the Sheriff tries to get them off the board to score VP (er, Gold).
For all the characters in the game only one really matters – Robin Hood. If Robin Hood is executed the game ends with an immediate Automatic Victory for the Sheriff in the only exception to the Gold-standard victory conditions .
Robin Hood – On War
The game mechanics of Robin Hood laser-focus on the military actions of the counterinsurgency fight in Sherwood Forest. The Plot Twist cards not only enable movement of forces, but they often have a combat effect. The action phases of the game, Move, Battle, and Raid all focus on how the battles of the insurgency play out.
Furthermore, in the Battle Phase of Robin Hood the strategy needed to fight effectively is the proper application of firepower and concentration of forces at the right time and place. All combatants have a numerical Strength rating, an alphanumeric combination Combat Rating, and a numerical Movement rating. The Strength rating is the number of die thrown in combat and the Combat Rating is the number equal to or less that when thrown results in a hit. Hits reduce the strongest unit first. The Combat rating letter is used to determine when in the combat sequence the unit fights; A before B and then C followed by D with defender firing first within each tier.
Finally, in Robin Hood the interturn actions (called the Prince’s Holiday Turn) include attrition, resupply, and mustering of forces. As any logistician will tell you, an army needs supplies and fresh blood to keep fighting.
It’s a Wargame But…
Going back to our wargame definition, so far in Robin Hood we have an “imaginary military operation” (CHECK) “conducted upon a map or board” (CHECK) “employing moveable devices to represent the opposing forces” (CHECK) “representing conditions of actual warfare” (CHECK). By itself that makes Robin Hood a wargame to me. But what about other games elements like the characters and possible role playing elements of the game? Could that change my perspective? More importantly, as a game player, do they add anything to the gaming experience?
Who Is Robin Hood?
Unfortunately, in Robin Hood a major opportunity was missed with characters. Instead of having characters with real personality, we get a very staid view of an individual described solely in terms of combat impact. Characters are represented in the game using a combination of individual blocks and Character Cards. The Character Card includes the name, some flavor text, and a track for current Strength Rating. The block has two important elements of information on it; the Combat Rating and Movement Rating.
In what admittedly appears at first to be a break from a strict wargame depiction of an insurgency in Sherwood Forest characters on the Robin Hood side of the battle are not killed in combat but are captured instead. Captured characters are taken by the Sheriff to the nearest Castle and imprisoned. There they waste away (Combat Strength counts down) turn-by-turn until they are Rescued in a Raid by another character or, if time runs out, they are Executed. Thematically the capture, imprisonment, and rescue or execution of prisoners seems out of place in a wargame, but I see it as a valuable thematic element as it emphasizes the vital nature of leaders in armies of the Middle Ages.
With characters, Robin Hood misses an opportunity to throw in some flavorful asymmetric play. For instance the Character Card for Maudlin says, “A medieval pharmacist that uses devilish concoctions to heal the Sheriff and his men.” Yet, there is no ‘special power’ for Maudlin to heal forces. Maybe something like “Can replace 1 Strength point on any friendly block in same area once per Battle Phase.” One special power for each character based on the flavor text is not that difficult to imagine. Alas, there is none. An opportunity missed.
Now that I think of it, there is one ‘special ability’ in Robin Hood for characters; Rule 8.5 Character Dueling. Characters in combat get an extra round of battle against another character block. But like before an opportunity to add easy flavor is missed here too. For example, the flavor text on the Black Knight Character Card says, “Determined to capture or kill Robin Hood.” By the rules Robin Hood player characters cannot be killed in combat (they are captured instead) but maybe giving the Black Knight an extra die in Duel combat against the Robin Hood character (and only the Robin Hood character) would add some sweet flavor to the game. Alas (again), another opportunity missed.
A Classic Tale With No Comparison
At this point in the article the editor of Armchair Dragoons, Brant, tells me I need a comparison. I’ll admit I’m a bit stumped to find another game that makes for a good comparison to Robin Hood:
- Robin Hood, although a game of counterinsurgency, is mechanically NOT anything like a COIN-series game from GMT Games, even the two-player Twilight Struggle
- Although in some ways a Card Driven Game (CDG) about an insurgency with armies and leaders controlling areas (sorta), I would be very hard pressed to say Robin Hood has much else in common with Washington’s War, designer Mark Herman’s CDG on the American Insurgency Revolution
- Although in many ways Robin Hood looks like a Commands & Colors-series game, including Leaders, blocks, and cards, this is not a “battle” game strictly for banners like C&C.
If you really pushed me, I guess I could say that Robin Hood is something like Academy Games 878 Vikings: Invasions of England. Both use their theme to drive game design. Both games focus on combat. Both use area movement. Both use cards for movement or events. Both have leaders who have (or could have) asymmetric powers. Both have armies composed of different soldiers with different combat powers.
Another question is how close this 2019 published game of Robin Hood compares to the 1979 Avalon Hill game Legend of Robin Hood by Joe Bisio. I don’t own the 1979 game nor have I seen it in person. What I see just by looking at some of the unboxing or play videos online is that the 2019 Robin Hood appears “inspired” by the 1979 game; I loathe to say it reimplements it (even BoardGameGeek doesn’t call it that way) but there appears to be many parallels in the two designs.
How Merry Can A Wargame Be?
A major point I try to make in the podcast is that, at the end of the day, whether a game is a wargame or not is actually irrelevant; the most important measure of a game is whether a player enjoys it. Robin Hood is a thematic game of fairy tale-inspired good vs. evil in a Middle Ages Sherwood Forest viewed through the mechanics of a wargame. It does a pretty good job at making that lens work. Robin Hood is also a game of some missed opportunities; it would have been nice to add some character details that double-down on the theme and take this title from “just another wargame” to a truly great thematic experience.
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