In this rules review I will take a look at Advanced Song of Blades and Heroes, a fast, elegant and adaptable fantasy skirmish wargame.
Among many other recent releases Ganesha Games gave their flagship rule set Song of Blades and Heroes (SoBH) an overhaul or rather added a bit on top.
The original rules were quite a hit and much praised for their simplicity and for staying out of the way of the game so players could concentrate on the tactics and scenarios of their games.
A number of rules sets by Ganesha Games are based on the SoBH mechanics, including Flying Lead which I reviewed earlier this year (so don’t be surprised if some sections of this article look familiar).
There are versions for Post-Apocalyptic settings, Napoleonics (skirmishes and battles), naval warfare, horror settings and many more. If you played any of these other games you will feel right at home with SoBH or ASoBH.
AsoBH is available as PDF for USD 10.00 or as a full colour soft cover book for USD 20.00. I got a printed copy.
The 88 pages book is A5 sized, soft cover, full colour. Glossy, high quality paper was used and overall it’s a very pleasant read. Right at the start there is one of the new additions in AsoBH over SoBH – there is a setting called Norindaal now. In the book the background covers only two pages plus a map of the world.
For further reading there is a website dedicated to the world of song of blades and heroes you can visit.
Of course the setting is completely optional, so depending on the miniatures you use or on your personal preferences feel free to use any fantasy setting you like.
There is plenty of artwork in this book. Some of it you will recognize if you read other recent Fantasy rule sets by Ganesha Games. All in all it represents the best in artwork these guys produced in any rule book to date (as far as I know). It is a bit rough around the edges here and there and sometimes varies in style.
To me this is the best way of illustrating a fantasy rules set though, because fantasy gaming is different to every single person and for a mostly generic set of rules. I think this kind of art works better than trying to impose a coherent style just to make the brand recognizable. It’s not the kind of artwork you look at for a long time, but it helps getting an atmosphere across and the feeling of reading a fantasy set of rules. Along with the rules it gets the creative juices going.
The book is well structured. Apart from all the necessary rules it also has 13 pages of profiles for various fantasy peoples and monsters, some rules to spice up your scenarios, campaign rules and a quick reference sheet as well as other useful things like a summary of common special rules and ranged combat tables in the back of the book.
What do I need to play?
The game is based entirely on d6 mechanics, so all you need is a few six-sided dice (d6). Activation requires three dice, combat one per player. I also suggest having two or three dice at hand to use as markers. So a total of five, six dice will suffice for a game.
Now for one of the cool things about this game – you can use any miniatures you like. Be it all those random minis from your D&D collection, your warhammer minis which sat in their box since the advent of Age of Sigmar, your AoS/Frostgrave/LotR /Saga/Ronin warband, 15mm fantasy minis, stuffed animals, what ever.
One of the advantages of using rules sets which don’t come with their own line of miniatures.
Interestingly for a fantasy skirmish game there is a ground scale given in the rules as 10mm = 1 yard (probably just to mess with metric/imperial minds by making them convert back and forth? ). Suggested Table size for 28mm figures is 3’x3′. No worries if the table is a bit smaller; the game will still work perfectly well. Bigger’s always cooler though.
Quick rules summary
AsoBH is played with three to 15 miniatures a side. There are rules for ‘bigging it up’ for larger games, but most games will stay firmly on the warband skirmish level.
This is an example profile of a Dwarven Trained Crossbow Wielder from the rule book:
Each model comes with just two stats: Quality and Combat.
Game Turn and Activation
Technically it’s an I-go-you-go game, but with several twists. Each time you activate a model in your turn you can choose to roll one, two or three dice. Each die which equals or beats the model’s Quality score results in an action the model may carry out. These actions may be “move”, “fight”, “fire a ranged weapon” or do more complex actions, some of which may require multiple actions.
Each die you fail the activation roll on your opponent may use the number of dice you failed to activate models of his during your turn (and before your model may carry out their actions). It’s a great way to flee a charge or leap out of line of sight of an opponent though.
If you fail two or more dice your turn is over and it’s your opponent’s turn. So if you want to carry out several actions with your miniatures you run the risk of losing your turn. Even worse: You run the risk of passing it on to your opponent!
This turn-over mechanic is at the core of SoBH and the games based on it (like Flying Lead) as well. The addition of the reaction system as explained above takes away a bit of the lightness and swiftness of the game, but adds a very welcome tactical layer. It hits that sweet spot of reactions happening and being useful without the miniature reacting being able to do too much else but a quick shot or leap out of danger. I can see this being incorporated into all games based on SoBH. It’s a very fast, very cleverly done reaction system which doesn’t bog down the game and instead eliminates down times even more.
Combat is as simple as ever – roll a d6, add the model’s combat score.
Both sides roll. The higher result either knocks the opponent prone or makes them recoil a base width. If one side doubles the opponent’s result said opponent is out of the game, if it’s tripled the model scores a Gruesome Kill and friends near the gruesomely killed have to check for morale.
Morale checks are based on 3 dice rolls vs. Quality of each model individually. Each failure will make the model retreat further towards the nearest table edge.
Unless specified otherwise in the scenario you play until one side runs away. As soon as there are more models dead than alive you have to roll morale checks for the rest of the models, as soon as more than half of the remaining models are killed you have to check again and so on.
On top of a Quality and a Combat score models usually come with special traits. These represent special training (Stealth, Drilled, …), physical specialities (Flying, Tailslap, Undead, Tiny, …), equipment (Heavily Armoured, Block, Crossbow, Mounted, …) and so on. I counted 128 different traits in the rule book.
Our Dwarven Crossbow Wielder has the traits Crossbow (naturally) and, being a Dwarf, Short Move.
If this number is looking daunting to you – it’s no problem in practice. None of the traits interfere with the core mechanics or create an overly complicated ‘game within a game’. All of the traits work perfectly well along with the rules.
All these traits mean that from this system you can easily build anything from a gnome pixie dust collector with a sling to a gargantuan red dragon. And still it’s all based on just two scores. The traits make all the difference. This is a true fantasy skirmish game. You can play anything you like with it.
Another cool thing about Ganesha Games’ rules sets is that they come with pretty good online support. Along with the release of ASoBH a warband generator popped up on their website, along with points values for every single trait and scores, so you can easily put together rules to fit your miniatures collection along with corresponding points values.
Standard game size according to the rule book is 400 points, no more than half of that may be spent on personalities. These are leaders, heroes, powerful villains and the like. Some traits are ‘personalities-only’.
This allows you to use ANY figure you can think of. The combinations of Quality/Combat/Traits gives you tons of options to put any crazy character you can think of or have at hand on the table.
ASoBH got a more elaborate magic system than SoBH, with more than 30 different spells including very amusing rules for spells backfiring. Apart from the exploding wizard on a Fireball spell gone awry there is the slight possibility that instead of Protection from Arrows taking effect the caster actually becomes easier to hit with ranged attacks for the rest of the game or a miniature cloud engulfing his/her head for two turns after the otherwise table-wide Mist backfires.
The magic system probably is the most complex new addition. I would have to try it some more times, but from one test game and reading the rules I would say that it fits in well. Magic is potentially impactful, but not too much so.
On top of the spellcasting itself there is a section of close to 30 different kinds of generic magic items such as magic pelts, wands, amulets, fey dust and so on.
There are no specific scenarios in the book, but rules for several different environments to fight in and for various climates and weather and ‘winds of magic’ conditions.
The campaign rules are rather basic, featuring rules for surviving wounds, warband upgrades, replacing killed characters and a list of ‘thematic trait upgrades’ specific to a number of fantasy races.
I am not a huge fan of the term ‘tool box’ when describing wargames rules. It makes rules sound laborious to use, which these here certainly are not. Advanced Song of Blades and Heroes is a fun, elegant and tactical game with lots of player interaction and back and forth. It is a bit slower than the old Song of Blades and Heroes, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise with an ‘Advanced…’ game. On the other hand it adds very cool things, big and small, and I couldn’t quite imagine going back to playing just SoBH at this point.
Advanced Song of Blades and Heroes has a lot to offer to the Fantasy skirmish wargamer. You can grab a number of Fantasy figures you have at your disposal, some terrain (as always with skirmish gaming: the more the better!) and have at it using the points system.
The points system certainly is helping, but is not the guarantee for perfect ‘balance’, as points systems never are. In the words of the ASoBH rule book:
The [points] formula is no substitute for common sense and does not guarantee game balance.
This is not to say that the points system doesn’t work. It does. Advanced Song of Blades and Heroes just isn’t a tournament game in my mind. I’ll admit that people play tournaments with all kinds of rules, but of course that’s up to each person’s preferences and of course one tournaments vary in nature.
Having interesting scenarios worked out though is even more fun. These can be as simple or complex as you like and a quick google search will have you well supplied with scenarios for a while. Alternatively you can have a look at scenario books such as this one I reviewed a while ago or nick scenarios from Frostgrave and similar rules sets.
Apart from the existing SoBH supplements available and easily adaptable for the new system a first campaign supplement called Hammer and Forge is available (focusing on Dwarfs vs. Hobgoblins) as well as the stand-alone game Fightin’ Fungi which uses the same set of rules as ASoBH. I’m pretty sure that the ever industrious minds behind ASoBH are working on even more supplements as I type this.
From the games I’ve had so far over the past years I can safely say that this game has everything I look for in a Fantasy skirmish game. And all of that for 10 to 20 dollars. Speaking of which – consider the printed version. It really is very good.
Thanks for reading this review. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. If you have any questions, comments or painting commission inquiries, feel free to get in contact with me via the Battle Brush Studios facebook page, the Battle Brush Studios website, the Tabletop Stories facebook page or e-mail.