Heretical Gaming is my blog about my gaming life; currently concentrating on a re-fight of the entire Peninsular War, but with the odd foray into ancient, medieval and WW2 battles.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Polemos: English Civil War Rules Review

Polemos English Civil War (2nd Edition)

PolemosECW is published by Baccus 6mm and is co-authored by its owner, Peter Berry. It is aimed at re-creating the larger battles of the English Civil War / Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The basic element of the game is the base, where one base represents a battalia of foot (c.500 men), a squadron of horse (c.125 men), a detachment of dragoons (c.250 men) or two cannon. Any number of figures can be on a base. Due to the number of cavalry in ECW armies, this system can require a very large number of cavalry bases to recreate the larger battles (50+ per side) whereas it is unusual to need more than 20 bases of infantry, and quite often only half of that. All movement distances are expressed in Base Widths (i.e. The width of a single infantry or cavalry unit). A base width represents 80 paces and the suggested size is 60mm - but any size of base should work.  There is no time scale, the authors preferring to think of a turn as a "focus of action", but infantry march movement is approximately consistent with a 5-minute turn.

Troops are rated as veteran, trained or raw and may also additionally be "elite" (so raw/elite is possible). Generals are rated as good, average or poor. Artillery is rated per weight/size of gun. Additionally, horse is described as Dutch Trained (i.e. Trained using the Dutch system) or Swedish Trained; meanwhile, foot is described as shot, shot-heavy, mixed, pike-heavy or pike, dependent on the ratio of musketeers to pikemen within the unit.

Polemos ECW's command and control mechanic is the one common to the Polemos family of rules, the use of tempo points. Tempo points are a derivation of the PIPs used in Phil Barker's Dbx series of games but are also used to model initiative and decision cycles too. Each force has a certain number of tempo points, generated by the size of the army and the quality of its generals. The player then bids a certain number of those points to try and "gain the tempo" (i.e. have the initiative for the turn). The remainder of those points are used to issue orders to and thus move the player's forces. However, the player who has gained the tempo is able to move his or her troops at reduced cost. A player who loses the tempo in one turn then gains it in the next will be able to move and/or fire twice without reply, so sometimes it can be useful to lose the tempo.

After this tempo bidding phase has been completed, both sides complete the movement for units retreating or routing or pursuing. This section is much better than others I have read in the Polemos series. After this, the tempo player moves their forces. The movement rates appear quite slow but they should be doubled if the unit is farther than 4BW from any known enemy unit. Units can also use march column which doubles the movement rate again. So an infantry unit near the enemy will only move 1BW, an infantry unit moving in march column away from the enemy will move at 4BW. Formation changes and such-like is slow and difficult and it is not easy to correct mistakes in the initial deployment. I can't find out in the rules whether interpenetration of formed troops is permitted or not. Using march column effectively requires a bit of practice (everything is done from the right and to the right).  There is a minor mistake on the quick reference sheet: the movement rates for mounted dragoons should be the same as for horse but the rates on the sheet are those for foot.

There are two types of combat: ranged and close. And within ranged, their are two sub-types, one being the firing of muskets and artillery and the other being "charging", which represents the intimidation of charging, not the close combat aspect.  Only Swedish trained horse and (optionally) Highlanders and Irish can "charge". Other troops advance into combat in a more stately fashion. Combat is resolved by an opposed dice roll (i.e. each side rolls a D6) and adds or subtracts various modifiers. The results are then read off a table. Incidentally, there is a value given for Dutch-trained horse for ranged combat on the QRS, but I am unsure when this would be permitted (there is no value in the rulebook itself).
As in other rules in the Polemos series, attrition is not recorded. Instead units become progressively disordered from suffering casualties, being defeated, moving through rough terrain and so on. This disorder, described as levels of "shaken", can be rallied by generals or the use of tempo points.

Overall army morale is tracked rather than by wing or by brigade. This is done by comparing a D20 roll to the army's base morale, which is reduced by losses. If the die roll exceeds this base morale, there will be progressively harsher effects on the army, limiting the activities of its troops (Some troops may refuse to advance, for instance).

There is also coverage of terrain effects and a good terrain generation system. There are some optional rules for unusual units (Highlanders / Cuirassiers / Irish / Scottish Horse / Frame Guns). There are some quite detailed army generators for various armies within the whole "War of the Three Kingdoms", so there are army generators and sample armies for the Covenanters, the Confederates, the Ulster Protestants, the New Model Army and so on. The rules come with two scenarios, a small battle (the Battle of Shieldfield) and a larger battle (Naseby). There are some reasonably extenisve notes on the troop types, uniforms, design decisions and so on.

Overall, the rules work well. Once you get used to how the tempo process works it is very easy and quick to administer: I find my games rattling on quite quickly. I haven't played a truly big battle with these rules yet (a Marston Moor or a Worcester or similar) but I would guess they would work alright given the speed of the key mechanics. They would need a lot of space to fit in all of those cavalry bases though! There appear to be numerous combat modifiers but I found myself learning them very quickly. Fire combat is rarely decisive quickly – which is as it should be in this era – but it can halt attacks and then slowly demoralize the enemy. Ranges are realistically short! Artillery is difficult to use effectively and requires immense effort to re-deploy once unlimbered and ready. Using single infantry bases and eliminating the use of separate pike and shot within each unit is a key positive for me, as it removes both the possibility of and incentive for excessive player micro-management of individual combats.

The potential shortcomings for a gamer are similar to others in the Polemos series: Tempo points (i.e. PIPs) are annoying if you don't like them, especially if you dislike having to give tempo points to keep movements going; there are a decent number of factors to remember/finger through; bases can interact with each other and the terrain in confusing ways (although I have so far found this less prevalent than in other rules in the series); and the army-level morale rules can be quirky. I also think there is an opportunity cost in that the rules-writers aren't always quite as brutally simple as they could be: I tend to think that rules such as "movement is doubled further than 4BW from a the nearest enemy; bases which suffer a recoil result in two consecutive phases automatically rout; units travelling through x terrain-type add a level of shaken and will retain one in the move following their exit (but cannot be routed solely through such a terrain effect)" and suchlike are the hardest to remember in the course of a game and could easily be eliminated or simplified.

Links to a few battle reports to see the rules in action:

There is a Yahoo! Group but it seems a little quiet as of late:


  1. Thanks for the review. Having several sets of Polemos rules, I find that they could be tightened up in various places, and the intent may have been evident to the writers, but unclear to the reader. Glad to hear these are an improvement. Now where was I in painting those Covenanters?

    1. Well, I think that these rules are a bit tighter than the Polemos Napoleonics rules, for two reasons. The first is nothing to do with the writing, more the shorter move distances: these help to limit the ways that bases interact with each other and terrain in the same turn. The second is that the rules for converting tempo points into activity seems a bit simpler in these rules. But I absolutely don't want to overstate this: I still think all the rules in the series could do with some tightening up (some more than others).

  2. Thanks very much; a very useful review and summary.


    1. No worries, you are very welcome