Crossposted from the Design and Effect blog on GameSquad.

I haven’t read nearly as much on medieval warfare as I might like, but what I do know is that for all the protestations of martial valor, and the romanticism of defeating your foe in combat, major battles were viewed as entirely too chancy things to trust the fate of your army and kingdom to.

With the considerable problems with communication, supply and training, this is an entirely understandable position. Instead, medieval warfare was largely a positional one, with control of key points being the objective.

With all this in mind, it makes sense that the combat system in Onward, Christian Soldiers is designed to be chaotic and unpredictable, with the idea of encouraging play that rewards sieges and other positional play. Even though it is acknowledged that players will remain more aggressive than their historical counterparts.

What gains my respect, is that even though they are chaotic, they are not random. Several factors go into the resolution. This means the system is a little cumbersome, but with practice it flows well, and it ensures the tension runs high whenever a battle is joined. Heck, the tension runs high whenever you think about a battle.

There’s good mechanics dealing with getting to a battle too, but we’re concentrating on the breakdown of what happens once battle is joined:

Step 1: What are the Odds?
Naturally, a larger army holds a distinct advantage over a smaller force, but instead of a conventional CRT system (a subject I should go into in another post), where the relative strength alone is the prime determiner of the possible results, this just generates a modifier for the final result.

An important note for those used to CRT wargames is that the odds calculation is rounded off instead of down. So, while normally 14 to 5 would be 2:1, in this game it is 3:1. While this is more appropriate as you’re just trying to gauge that the army is ‘about’ three times as large, and it keeps an odd hole from showing up in the modifiers, it does slow the process down because any edge case isn’t easy to resolve mentally. Aid cards are provided with a table for all the likely force strengths.

The odds themselves translate directly into the modifier—so 3:1 is a +3 modifier, 2:1 against is a –2, and so on—except that 1:1 is +0 (naturally), and 1.5:1 is +1.

Step 2: Formations
This is the real meat of what makes the system different, and why going into a good-odds battle can still put your heart in your throat—and why it can be good to seek a battle as the weaker army.

Reflecting the clash of different styles of combat that marked the Crusades, and the fact that even the best leaders did things in battle, that to our eyes, make little sense, Onward uses the idea of each side adopting a ‘formation’ for the battle (which has been seen before), but takes control out of the player’s hands by turning it into a die roll. The results of this roll depend on the leader rating, and side (Crusader or Muslim).

Also, the passage of time, and the fact that the Muslims adjusted to Crusader tactics is accounted for, as the Muslims get a different table in each Crusade, with better results each time.

The possible Crusader formations are Impetuous Charge, the vainglorious attack, possibly in the face of all military common sense, that was seen all too often from commanders just arrived in the Middle East; Defend in place (obvious), Flank attack (also obvious); and Frontal Charge, which is the well-timed charge most classically seen from Richard at Arsuf. A 1-rating leader has a 5/6 chance of IC (a ‘6’ being D), with the odds of an IC going down with each rating, and the normal competent 4-rating with one chance in 6 of IC, 2/6 of D, 1/6 of F and 2/6 FC. Richard the Lionheart (the only 5-rating leader in the game) replaces the chance of an IC with FC.

The Muslim formations are Defensive, Cautious (line up for battle and and look for an opportunity), Flank attack, and feign retreat and Encicle. In the First Crusade, a 1-rating leader has a 5/6 chance to go D and 1/6 C; by the Third Crusade it is even odds of either. A 4-rating leader has equal chances of C, F, and E in the First Crusade, and this only shifts slightly to a 1/6 of C, 2/6 of F, and 3/6 of E.

So… what does all this mean? What do the formations do against each other? As you might guess, FC and E are the formations that the Crusaders and Muslims respectively want to see come up. The Crusaders have a definite military edge in the fact that the Frontal Charge trumps everything else, and will always generate a positive modifier for the Crusaders, a mere +2 against E, and a +8 against a Muslim who is being Defensive. The Impetuous Charge is iffy, it can generate a positive modifier against D, but is a -5 against F and -8 against E (which sounds exactly like several of the worse defeats we read about in the Crusades).

Note that the worst Crusader formation (IC) does well against the worst Muslim formation (D), meaning that in the First Crusade a 1-rating Crusader leader can ride roughshod over 1-rating Muslim leader, as there are only three chances in 36 of not seeing IC vs D.

Step 3: Other Modifiers
There are a few minor modifiers that can show up, like defending in a town, some random cards that can be played, etc.

And then there’s armored knights. Due to the nature of the difficulties in employing knights in battle in the Crusades, and the devastating effect they could have when they did get to hit the enemy, knights are a separate factor of the army while everything else is just generic strength points. There’s a lot of restrictions on them: only certain formation results get to use them, they can’t be used in/against a town… etc. However, when the Crusader does get to use them, they generate a +1 shift per point. (This would generate a +8 in the First Crusade if the leaders of all four Crusader factions happened to be fighting together at this point—more likely it’ll generate a +2 or so.)

Step 4: Results
So, there’s all these numbers that add and subtract from the final result, inducing a fair amount of chaos into the system as it is hard to determine the end result without actually starting the combat. Now what?

The last bit is to roll 2d6, add the final modifier and consult a CRT table. As ever, dice don’t reduce the tension level. Combat results range from -10 to +24, with the results being #/# where the two numbers represent what the attacker and defender respectively take in casualties as a percentage of their army strength. The two extreme “blow out” results are 70/0 and 0/70, the two middle results (+7 and +8) are 15/15 and 20/20, and most of the time you can assume casualties will be between 5 and 25 percent of the army.

A nice brake on the system to keep a large army from taking excessive casualties against a small force is that if the odds are 3:1 or greater (or 1:2 or less), then the larger army figures its casualties as a percentage of the size of the smaller army.

And then there’s one last source of chaos. There are four results that say “X (#)”. These are Unpredictable Results, and you roll again (1d6 this time) add the modifier in the parentheses (from -2 to +2), and look for the entry marked with that number in its own column. As the six # entries are equivalent to -3, 0, +6, +9, +14 and +20, it can really shift where the results land. While the modifiers tend to constrain the results to what would be expected, so far in practice it has turned certain victories into costly ones and close battles into costly defeats.

After all that, if one side took twice as many casualties as the other, it must retreat. Otherwise, either (or both) sides may choose to retreat, or both may stay of the field, and probably will go at it again soon (possibly after reinforcements arrive).

I’ve found Onward, Christian Soldiers to have one of the best battle resolution systems I’ve seen. It is a little clunkier and unwieldy than I would strictly like to see, but I think it is well worth the time put into it. The results seem to mesh well with what I know of combat in the Crusades, and the formations give you a feel for the flow of the battle, creating more of a narrative, or feeling of ‘being there’. And finally, it achieves the design goal of being a horribly unpredictable thing, despite being influenced by several factors that the players do have complete control over. Battles will always be more common with wargamers than with leaders who had their own lives and fortunes at stake, but you understand why they were to be avoided.