Today I will have a closer look at the Ronin rules written by Craig Woodfield, published by Osprey Wargames in August 2013. Even before the release of the game the book was highly anticipated. We will see if it was worth the enthusiastic wait.
Ronin – Skirmish Wargames in the Age of the Samurai, as the full title of the rulebook goes, depicts smallest level engagements between small warbands (Buntai) of warriors in feudal Japan, focusing on the Sengoku period in the late 16th century. The total number of models you will need to play is between eight and twenty, so you see why I mentioned the warbands being small above. This is the level of gaming I have a hard time calling “skirmish” because it’s more of a brawl or gang fight really. In later periods if could be called squad-level engagement.
In terms of table size anything between 2′ by 2′ and 4′ by 4′ works, but should be scaled along with the number of models you have on the table. Due to the nature of the game and the period played though a small gaming surface will suffice.
Looking at the book itself, I have to admit that I don’t like the cover art much. Osprey have access to their huge archive of excellent, colourful illustrations of feudal japanese warriors. Instead they went with a very dark and drab scene. I can see the intention behind this, going a bit more for the bandit/ronin side of the games but in my experience people usually go for playing ‘proper samurai’. In this regard I would have preferred a more colourful and maybe more traditional bit of samurai artwork but of course this is a matter of tastes.
The layout of the book is well done. It starts with a background section. As usual with Osprey’s wargaming rules this section is kept to the very minimum because we are expected to draw background information from their extensive library of publications on military history through the ages.
The book is 64 pages in total, soft-cover, full colour and text is very esily readable and understandable. The colour pictures in the rules are all either artwork from Osprey’s archives or photos of miniatures in mid-game. Sadly they only show pictures of Northstar’s specifically released Ronin range of models which doesn’t cover all the Buntais introduced in the book, just Sohei, Koryu, Bandits and Bushi. More recently they added Ming Chinese and Koreans for the full range.
The rules themselves are explained over a total of 17 pages (including special rules such as banners, mounted combat and extra abilities).
After that the rest of the book covers eight different factions to play plus hired swords, scenarios and bits and pieces like a basic campaign system, suggestions for tournament play and a few advanced rules.
A game turn is divided into several phases:
…in which you determine who goes first this turn and do your force morale checks. Each Buntai has a morale value and under certain conditions (leader killed, high number of casualties during a single turn, generally high casualties). There are three states of morale: Steady, Wavering and Routing. The basic difference is that in a steady warband any of your miniatures will activate and act as you want, wavering models will have to pass a check or do nothing for that turn and if the warband is routing any model you activate will have to pass a check to do what you want. If they fail they will move off the table instead. At the beginning of each turn you can roll for morale, so the morale of the warband may better itself again over time.
…in which players take turns in activating a single figure to move, run, OR shoot a missile weapon. To engage a model in combat, a model only has to move into base contact. There are no charge reactions as such, but models may move away on their activation if they choose to do so (see below).
…in which miniatures engage in hand to hand combat. This is where Ronin has one of its core mechanics: The combat pool. Each model has a combat pool of between 1 (regular warriors will have at least 2 though) and 5. When two models fight, both players secretly choose how to allocate their combat pool. For each point in their combat pool they may choose to either use it for attack or defense counters (two differently coloured meeples/coins/markers/what ever). Both players reveal their combat pools simultaneously, then initiative is rolled for and the first model gets to attack. If the player chooses to attack, he or she removes one attack marker from his or her model’s combat pool. By spending additional markers players may Enhance their model’s attack or defense which results in bonus dice to roll). If the defender survives the attack he gets his turn to attack. This is repeated until one side is killed or neither side has any attack counters left in their combat pool.
Attacks are done using opposed dice rolls between attacker and defender. If the attacker achieves a higher total value than the defender the defender is wounded. The severity of the wound is based on the difference between the attacker’s and defender’s total value rolled, ranging from Stunned over Light Wound and Grievous Wound to Critical Wound (= the model is killed). Wounds give penalties to any subsequent attacks the model wants to make.
During its activation in the movement phase any model which is in base to base contact with an enemy model may retire from combat, but only up to 2″ and if it does so the enemy model can choose to strike a single attack against the retreating model and gets a little bonus. Alternatively the model in its own activation may just move into contact again. The third option for the model is to do nothing and bask in its glory while watching the cowardly dog run away and suffer to live the rest of his life in dishonour.
As special attacks, models may try to disarm or subdue an opponent which usually is only relevant if you want to humiliate your opponent or it’s the scenario’s objective to take hostages.
…in which models armed with a missile weapon may fire it again if they choose so or may perform special actions (like looting a slain enemy, collecting their head, and so on).
Missile weapons in Ronin usually are either bows (Yumi) or Arquebuses (Teppo). Bows may be fired twice each turn (once in the movement phase, once in the Action phase), but with negative modifiers to each shot if they choose to fire twice a turn. The Teppo has to be reloaded after each shot which can be done in the Action phase. So you get the choice of firing your teppo in the movement phase (at a penalty) and reload in the action phase or fire in the action phase without that penalty and reload on the next turn’s action phase. Other penalties to shooting include range (maximum ranges for Teppos or Yumis are 48″, but firing at anything at longer range than 12″ comes with increasing penalties to the roll.
In my experience missile weapons can have a great impact on the game or none at all, all depending on the rolls. It’s not easy to hit an enemy model, you usually don’t do great damage unless you’re unloading your teppo at a model at close range. However, sometimes missile weapons do work well, especially again teppos with their mostly armour negating characteristics. Overall missile weapons are a bit of a wild card and the relatively low chances of actually wounding are mitigated by the fact that you can fire bows twice a turn.
…in which you roll for removing Stunned (the lightest form of wound) counters and check if any victory conditions of the scenario are met.
After that the next turn starts again by rolling for Priority.
Those are the game’s rules. Rather straightforward, with some interesting twists and of course the little “poker” game with choosing how you spend your Combat Pool points. This especially allows for additional tactical choices during combat which you usually don’t get. The way missile weapons are handled is also interesting and, at least to me, new.
The next section covers the Factions or army lists if you will. Ronin comes with a built-in points system which you can use if you want. There are eight factions in the rulebook, each of them has special little rule tweaks for how to gain additional victory points or similar specialties like unique force composition rules.
Bushi – Your regular army guys, consistig of Ashigaru and Samurai. Basically a Daimyo’s armed forces. The composition allows for either a force with a majority of Ashigaru and one or more Samurai leaders or a warband which is composed of a few Samurai only. Special victory points gained or lost are based on collecting heads, having Samurai slain by enemy lower ranks and your leader committing seppuku after the end of the game.
Ikko-Ikki – One of the most powerful religious movements in feudal Japan. They were of Buddhist creed. Their forces will mostly consist of lower-ranking soldiers and fewer samurai, but they gain access to fighting monks and special warbanners.
Sohei – Buddhist fighting monks without access to heavy armour, but their models are all fearless and get lots of Naginatas.
Koryu – This list represents the disciples of a martial arts school. They wear no armour, but you get to choose one primary weapon the school specializes in and all models using this weapon get special abilities and extra victory points for using it in combat.
Bandits – This warband usually consists of mostly lowly scum and a leader. They gain additional Victory points by looting and morale may be restored by the leader by killing friendly models.
Koreans – Representing the Korean army of the late 16th century during one of the numerous Japanese attacks on Korea. Their warriors are of a lower quality than the average Bushi warriors and get less armour but are cheaper in points and get extra victory points by killing Japanese samurai, may carry a banner for free and have access to monks and flails.
Ming Chinese – Just like Korea, mainland Chaina suffered from Japanese invasions over the centuries. They also get a free banner if they want and have high morale. They get access to light and heavy cavalry and more armour than the Korean army.
Peasants – This one is more of an afterthought and for special scenarios or people who like very characterful warbands. Peasants’ morale is based on to what ratio they outnumber the enemy and they may hire a lot of hired swords. They get extra victory points by looting.
More faction army lists (of the supernatural sort) and a points calculator are available online from Osprey’s website and there are many home-brewn lists around on the internet.
The army lists are not completely balanced against each other and the author makes no secret of that. If I had to very, very roughly seperate the lists by “tiers” I would say that Bushi will go well against other Bushi, Ikko-Ikki, Koreans and Ming Chinese. Ikko-Ikki versus Sohei will also work nicely while Bandits versus Koryu should make for great games. Peasants are a very mixed bag. Let me put it this way: I don’t think that anybody will choose Peasants for their main warband. As far as I have seen most people will play Bushi versus Bushi games and that’s perfectly fine. However, it of course will make for great games if you have Bandits attacking a sword school, Peasants revolting against a nasty group of Bandits who plague the land, Koryu being besieged by a Bushi warband for not obeying the Daimyo’s wishes for every man in the land to hand over their weapons and so on.
Hired Swords include colourful individuals such as the unreliable Ronin, Warrior Monks, Shugyosha, legendary warriors who wander the land to seek fame, perfection or enlightenment. Last but not least we also got Ninjas, to be deployed disguised as another model or undisguised.
There are some suggestions in the book for army list modifications for playing different periods like the mongol invasions of Japan (12th to early 14th century) or Late Edo Period with traditional Bushi and Tom Cruise fighting western-trained armies.
The scenarios section starts with random terrain placement tables as well as ramdomized weather and time of day. We get eight scenarios in total, including the generic pitched battle, capture, defend, a duel between two warriors which gets out of hand, tournament (a formalized battle between two Buntais in which warriors take turns fighting each other), Defend the Village and an assassination in which one of the players gets a set number of Ninjas attempting to assassinate the opponent’s leader. The standard scenarios aside, there are some colourful scenarios in there which should keep the game fresh for lots of gaming evenings, even if you play a lot.
This section also includes a simple experience and advancement system for playing campaigns and two paragraphs on tournament play. In the end we find a list of books and films for inspiration and reference, a quick reference sheet, a blank Buntai roster and a page of markers to copy and cut out.
Ronin – Skirmish Wargames in the Age of the Samurai certainly does what it says on the tin. One can hope that not too many people get confused by the “skirmish” label and think that this will let them play battles with 40 or more models a side. As a warband game in feudal Japan this works really well, especially due to the Combat Pool system which adds the required oomph to close combat to represent the level of martial artistry which I believe sets the period apart from most other pre-black-powder periods.
There are more than enough occasions for cinematic scenarios or situations during a game, the game comes with reference sheet templates and everything else one could ask for. Some notable exceptions not withstanding, Ronin reflects the trend of very, very simplified campaign rules even though the setting would be perfect for a much bolder approach to campaign gaming. Maybe it is because many gamers today seem to be strangely averse to even the slightest hint of campaign play and prefer one-off pick-up games without consequence.
I enjoy the Ronin rules quite a bit. I am aware of critizisms that the combat pool mechanic maybe or maybe not was lifted from Bushido, but I don’t really care as long as it works within the rest of the Ronin rules. They strike a sweet spot between quick and easy games with a layer of tactics beyond the regular “where to move to get in combat with the guys I want to be in combat with without me having to engage the guys I want to avoid”.
The rules are easily adapted for all kinds of other periods, fantasy gaming and so on. There hardly is any reason not to get your Saxons and Romano-British, Romans and Gauls, High- and Dark Elves and so on out and play their warband engagements using the Ronin rules.
I know it’s a clichée to close a review with this phrase but these rules are well worth their money. Especially seeing as how they are about GBP 11.00 for the printed version or GBP 9.00 for the ebook version. For that price you get everything you need to play a fun, interesting game, bar for the miniatures and table of course. These things we will look into in the next articles.
I hope that you enjoyed the review. If you have any questions or comments, drop them in the comments section, on the Tabletop Stories Facebook page or drop me a line via e-mail, Battle Brush Studios or the Battle Brush Studios facebook page!
Online resources (Buntai roster, QRS, mythological buntai, rule amendments, etc.): https://ospreypublishing.com/gaming-resources-OWG
There also is a very good Facebook group called Ronin – Samurai skirmish rules