After a pursuit that stretched for nearly a week, a veteran expeditionary force from the Empire, led by the magic-user known as Razmina the Yellow, had nearly caught up with Snik Soot-Fang and his cadre of skittering Skaven fighters. Determined to bring the ratmen to battle in proper fashion, Razmina took a small band of outriders, backed up by Blue Wing, a noble dragon, and placed them athwart the burnt-out ruins of Felstaff Manor — itself a victim to the Skaven’s plunderings earlier in the year.
As the apples on the few remaining trees in Felstaff’s orchard ripened in the autumn sun, the Snik Soot-Fang and his warriors emerged from a copse of trees and prepared to face the Razmina’s warband, including the King’s Own Crossbowmen and the fearsome Knights of Tralain.
But their pending clash was cut short by the arrival of a new and ghastly enemy. Surging over the hills to the east came an ethereal spirit host. With a chorus of flapping robes and jangling chains, the Nighthaunts swept onto the battlefield to slaughter man and Skaven alike.
Thus, the stage was set for a three-player game of Dragon Rampant earlier this month between me, Vincent, and Oliver. For me, this was an opportunity to get my new, as-yet-unblooded Skaven army on the battlefield. Likewise, Oliver was fielding his newly painted Nighthaunt army.
Dragon Rampant is a medium-sized skirmish game with fairly flexible unit composition rules. As written, a typical army would consist of 30 to 40 figures per side. But DR has a nicely developed set of rules for larger monsters and war machines, so players can certainly field armies consisting of almost any combination of models from their fantasy collection.
We opted for the Bloodbath scenario — the simplest option that would let us come to blows quickly. I deployed my Skaven in a small wood (surmising, I suppose, that they were lying in wait to ambush the Razmina’s warband). Oliver deployed his Nighthaunts on a low moor, from whence they would swoop down onto the unsuspecting combatants. And Vince mustered his knights and retainers and their fearsome dragon ally in a clearing to the north of the manor.
Our first turns were focused on establishing command and control — by that, I mean re-learning the Dragon Rampant rules! We’d all played before, but years ago, and we were a bit rusty.
I tried my darnedest to mobilize my Plague Monks, though I’m sorry to say they mostly stayed put for the entirety of the game, preferring to stay lurk near the trees until the final turn.
In the photo above, you can see the snazzy custom vinyl banner that I commissioned from a guy on Facebook for my Plague Monk unit. It’s really sharp looking!
Elsewhere, I managed to get my Doomwheel and two Rat Ogres moving. The Rat Ogres lumbered toward the incoming Nighthaunt host, and the Doomwheel pivoted and began maneuvering around the copse of trees, angling toward Vince’s warband.
Activating units in DR is risky, and not a sure thing. The game has a “turnover” mechanic similar to Song of Blades & Heroes, where there’s always a risk that your turn will end prematurely if you flub an activation roll. I appreciate mechanics like that because they do a nice job of modeling all of the various unknowns that can befall an army in the field (bad communication, troops balking at orders, infighting, exhaustion, bad weather, etc), without having to resort to a super granular rule system where you’re rolling a million dice to see which direction the wind is coming from, or to see if some dude’s sword broke during his attack.
Speaking of swords … over on the northern flank, Vincent managed to activate one of the most notoriously fickle units in the entire game — his elite knights! These guys hit hard, but they’re difficult to activate and they’ll occasionally charge without warning at the closest enemy model.
Still, seeing those thundering hooves is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine…unless you’re Oliver’s undead army! Ha!
We chuckled throughout the game about how Oliver’s Nighthaunts “feel nothing,” which means they’re immune to fear and can’t receive battered results after losing combat. They also crumple like paper if they take casualties, though, so it’s a trade-off.
It’s fair to say that Oliver had his choice of targets as he mobilized his army and swooped down off the hill. On his right, the Knights of Tralain were thundering toward his undead legions. On his left, he saw lumbering Rat Ogres followed by the ratmen beyond measure.
The first clash came when Oliver’s undead infantry wheeled around the corner of the ruined manor and crashed headline into Vincent’s knights and dragon. Savage, no quarter close combat ensued for several turns, but ultimately the knights prevailed, hacking their way through the brittle husks of the Nighthaunts.
Oliver fared better against the Skaven when his wraiths charged into the Rat Ogres, carving up the loathsome mutants and scattering their remains across the grassy field. At this point, I was reminded of the game’s brutal morale mechanic. For most units, once you fail a courage test and become “battered,” it’s difficult to rally and become an effective fighting force, at least in a typical game. It’s more likely that your battered unit will continue to retreat and bleed casualties for the rest of the game. This does a decent job of pushing the game toward an inevitable conclusion — once a player has several battered units, it’s clear that the endgame is approaching, which is nice because nobody wants to play a 4-hour skirmish game!
In the case of the Rat Ogres, these guys were my first two casualties, and they died without doing much of anything!
My strategy at this point was to seize the manor and orchard in the center of the table and hopefully improve my defensive position. My Stormvermin (“heavy foot” in the parlance of Dragon Rampant) were fairly good on the defense, so I figured I’d have have a good chance of surviving if I could make my way to the manor. So that’s what I did.
It took my guys a fair few turns to vault the gate and occupy the manor, though, because Razmina the Yellow kept casting a spell on them that imposed a movement penalty. But we made it! Next stop – Schwarzholm. Or will we go to Rogenwald?!
It couldn’t have happened soon enough, because Oliver’s fearsome leader — Lady Olynder, the Mortarch of Grief — was bearing down on my flank. Remember those Plague Monks who refused to move? Yeah they got slaughtered to a rat when she crashed in.
They dealt a few points of paltry damage to Lady Olynder in response, barely enough to warrant a courage test, but then, to Oliver’s utter shock and horror, Lady Olynder FAILED HER COURAGE TEST with such a terrible result that she actually fled the battlefield. Wow! We immortalized the moment when the dice rolled snake eyes and we knew her fate was sealed.
With the departure of Lady Olynder and the losses against the knights, Oliver had been defeated, which left Vincent free to bring the full force of his knights and dragon and skirmishes to bear on the depleted Skaven forces.
But — remember my clever strategy of seizing the manor house? Well, it finally paid off! My Stormvermin were able to form up into a “wall of spears” formation (this is actually a thing in Dragon Rampant) and withstand a charge by the knights!
That left Vincent with Blue Wing the dragon, who at this point had been badly mauled by its prior engagements with Oliver’s wraiths. I peppered him with fire from my three Skaven weapon teams (defined as “heavy missiles” in Dragon Rampant) as he maneuvered for a final charge. Before Blue Wing could activate, though, I finally managed to mobilize my Doomwheel, sending the cranking, clattering contraption hurtling toward the dragon at full speed. In one cataclysmic round of combat, the game was over for Vince.
And so the rats emerged triumphant! But honor demands that I tell you that this game requires an asterisk (*) in my victory column. You see, I had a string of absolutely terrible activation rolls earlier in the game — literally two or three turns where I was able to activate zero or one units. Vince and Oliver both very graciously decreed that, because I had brought tasty marionberry cider for everyone to enjoy, that I could have two re-rolls to salvage my horrible activations. So I proceeded to use these, and I’m certain that my victory is due only to their generosity and sportsmanship. I doff my cap to their magnanimity.
All in all, we enjoyed the hell out of Dragon Rampant this time around. One thing that crystallized for me this time was how much I enjoy the fact that everyone plays from the same basic army list and has access to the same roster of units (with a few tweaks here and there). That removes a lot of the “gotcha” moments that tend to arise in games like Warhammer 40k, where there’s so much semi-hidden knowledge that you reveal at decisive moments (like a well-time power or strategem that your opponent didn’t know about).
In DR, everyone knows what everything can do, so the game is instead decided by battlefield tactics, tough decisions, maneuvering, and a bit of luck. That’s probably my platonic ideal for wargaming — a game that is tactically deep, but easy enough for both players to follow the action and understand the stakes as they unfold. We’ll be playing this one again soon!