Review: Pike and Shot09 Feb 2015 0
The Early Modern Period is easy to overlook for the wargamer or amateur military historian. The ancient and medieval worlds have bows and swords and charging horses, Napoleon’s men shoot their muskets in rows before fixing bayonets, and 20th century warfare has sexy, sexy tanks and planes and rifles. The 16th century, though, resists characterisation. The medieval pikeman and lancer give way to the musket and pistol in fits and starts. Even the wars are messy, conflicts like the Thirty Years War fought between a dozen sides all fighting for different reasons and leaving a shattered land in their wake. Pike and Shot, extracted from the rich wargame mines of Slitherine by veteran tabletop designer Richard Bodley Scott, explores this under-utilised period. Covering the Thirty Years' War, the Italian Wars and the English Civil War, does it run the risk that its broad and chaotic subject matter will overwhelm its attempts to offer a comprehensible strategic experience?
Battles in Pike and Shot are structurally straightforward I-go-you-go affairs, with each player taking turns to move and attack with all their units – though ‘move’ is at times a generous term. A single unit here represents not a small company or a tank, but heaving crowds of hundreds or thousands of men and horses. For everyone but most agile cavalry, movement is something done a few squares at a time and pivoting more than ninety degrees eats an entire turn. Pike and Shot restricts your actions in other ways too: lines of sight may be blocked, your units will only charge foes directly in front of them, and for obvious reasons of relative speed -- most infantry won’t willingly charge down cavalry. These rules can be fussy and counter-intuitive and can make getting units into position a frustrating process. However, these limitations do an excellent job of rewarding you for keeping your forces organised and thinking several turns ahead, particularly since the morale system can make a single unit being in the right spot crucial. As with many Slitherine products, there's a learning curve here, but it rewards those who put in the time to conquer it.
Soldiers in Pike and Shot aren’t robots to fight and die to the last. Any worrying circumstances, be that taking rapid losses, suffering a flank attack, watching nearby comrades flee, standing under cannon fire, and so on, may cause a unit to panic and become disrupted. This hugely impacts fighting ability, so a disrupted unit quickly becomes a routing one. A melee between closely matched units is a grinding accumulation of corpses, but the first side to suffer that hairline fracture in morale is caught in a bloody death spiral.
Morale systems are far from unique of course, but they’re made particularly central here by how robust heavy cavalry and infantry, particularly pike-wielding infantry, are when holding steady. Once they engage hand to hand, soldiers are committed until one side breaks off. Get your units tied up in even melees and they can remain stuck there while the battle goes to hell around them. Wearying opposing forces with musket and cannon fire before engaging is often the smarter choice. Even then you’re at the mercy of chaos, as the winning unit is consumed by bloodthirst and gives chase, which can read them right off the battlefield or - please, oh please - right into the vulnerable flank of an engaged enemy.
It is Pike and Shot's foregrounding of the human and the fallible that breathes life into the combat maths. Like most great strategy games, each broader narrative of triumph or defeat is sprinkled with smaller stories: the small force of gunners holding their fortified position in the face of thousands; the valiant pikemen who drove into the French horse and put them to flight all around; the skirmishers who bent and wavered but never broke; that one cavalry charge that turned a grinding defeat to sweet victory. Every battle is it's own drama, having to stand alone as a story.
There is no strategic map or branching path here, only a large collection of individual scenarios. The game very much derives from the older wargaming tradition where each battle is an individually interesting problem requiring an answer: the path to victory is rarely found though altering unit composition before the battle, but through effective use of terrain and anticipating enemy movements. Each of the three wars is depicted through a chronological sequence of ten famous battles, each of them a considerable challenge. And even if none of those tickle your fancy, the game gives you freedom to build your own skirmish or dive into online multiplayer.
It's the skirmish mode that I spent the most time in, and which reveals what Pike and Shot really is at heart: a joyous and robust Renaissance toy soldier set, to be tinkered with as you please. Do you want to fight an open field battle, an assault on a defensive position, a rearguard action holding out for reinforcements, or something else? Into that scenario you can throw in any two armies from the same era, with the orders of battle auto-selected or customised to your pleasure, and have them go at it.
The replayability of the skirmish battles is massive. Beyond even that, the game also features a very solid asynchronous play system allowing you to explore the same range of battles getting curb-stomped by Slitherine veterans. The lengthy turns are well suited to async play, and I can happily report that during none of my beatings did the system experience any technical problems. Oh, and did I mention the user made content? There's that as well. This is one of those games where, if you appreciate and enjoy the core mechanics you can pretty much play forever. Although it does have some odd artefacts from the pc version, the UI here is mostly slick, inviting fewer mis-taps than Panzer Corps, and it is also pleasingly transparent with the mechanical details of combat.
Although Pike and Shot is a game that approaches magnificence at its best, it is not for everyone. Like it's namesake infantry formations, it’s a slow and ponderous thing. A single turn involves a lot of actions resolving, and some battles open with many turns of bloodless manoeuvring. A single battle takes roughly an hour to fight, with some of the larger historical scenarios taking longer -- patience is a must. The lack of a campaign with unit continuity will be a deal-breaker to some, the dated graphics a bug-bear to others. Despite this, for those with an interest in the period or the temperament to appreciate its pitched battles, Pike and Shot’s mix of the cerebral and the visceral make it a compelling and unique game, and its range and longevity of content make it an essential purchase.
Reviewed on an iPad 4.