What was I playing back in 1995? I remember I felt lonely, lost, abandoned, heartbroken (my first girlfriend had left me and I couldn’t get over it) and to chase the lonely hours away I didn’t drink whiskey – I played a computer wargame, Command & Conquer. It was the same year Arty Conliffe designed Spearhead.
Spearhead is a WW2-miniature wargame for mega battles, It’s scale neutral though designed for smaller scales, 6-15mm. Arty Conliffe was an influential New York tabletop wargame designer in the nineties, who wrote Crossfire, Armati, Tactica, Shako and Spearhead.
I write was because he’s not very active as designer anymore, as far as I know. Yes, he recently updated his famous ‘Tactica’ ruleset, after 30 years. But on TMP a wargamer who knew him wrote: “Arty got really burned out. He got sick of dealing with a million requests for this and that scenario or variant, people arguing about paces and drill regulations, or demanding the umpteenth justification for why the Saxon Volunteer Fusilier Cuirassiers were a +1 modifier and not a +2…. I last spoke with him nearly a decade ago, and he told me, ‘I don’t want to devote my life to this.'”
Anyway, since a year or so I have been busy with 6mm WW2 wargaming and if you ask around on Facebook, Spearhead is frequently mentioned and recommended as a (still) original ruleset. This weekend with 2 friends I played a test game. I will shortly summarize the game and give my first impressions/comparisons, for other wargamers, who, like me, are looking for the ‘perfect’ (6mm) WW2-wargame rules. For a long description of the game mechanics, try Phil Broeders’ review.
- It is different. The majority of WW2-rules are tactical. A player commands a company or maybe a battalion. Spearhead lets you command a brigade or corps. Excellent for 6mm.
- Many games I know rely on a statline and special abilities, that modify unit characteristics. Not Spearhead. The statline is just a few numbers, which was very revolutionary in 1995!
- In all wargames I have played so far the battle plan was developed during the game. In Spearhead a commander must make his plan before the battle. In fact. what you have to do is study the map, study the terrain, devise a devious plan to capture the objectives on the map and write down ‘orders’ for your battalion. Like
- 1st battalion will move ahead for 4 turns and capture hill #302
- 2nd battalion will capture Beaulieu-Village and defend it. In the 7th turn it will move to the river bank
- 3rd battalion will flank the enemy and enter the map on the 7th turn from the west
- During the game, you don’t give orders, but you try to change orders
- It’s not IGUGO. Players dice for initiative and the winner can go first or last.
- You can’t pick your targets. In most of the wargames I know, your units attack ‘the greatest threat’ which is often defined as ‘the nearest unit in range’ with some limitations. In Spearhead units follow a strict target priority list. No matter how near a tank is, infantry shoots always at infantry first if an infantry unit is in range. And if a fixed machine gun is near an infantry unit, the infantry platoon must be picked first, even if the MG is closer.
- On the other hand, shooting is quite basic and simple. 4-5-6 are hits, 6 are kills, with a +/- modifier depending on the relative attack/defense value of the attacking and defending unit. A piece of cake for us experienced wargamers.
We had the usual first-game-what-do-the-rules-say?-problems. However I think I got an impression of the strengths and weaknesses of the game compared to Blitzkrieg Commander, the other game that I’m testing for this period.
- Spearhead is very scenario-driven. Which means that you have to find a scenario that suits you and your collection of miniatures. A brainless but funny pick up game is not really an option (you can find house rules for scenario generation here). The quick point-based scenario’s that I found in Blitzkrieg Commander II are easy and can be even boring. Spearhead promotes intelligent wargaming.
- The layout and presentation are outdated. The rules as such are clear. Kudos for that. Conliffe is a better writer than 2fatlardies. But I can’t buy the rules online as PDF, the unit data are not published online and to put my army together I can’t go to easyarmy.com or an excel tool but I have to consult a booklet and put a list together. That’s very 1995.
- I don’t know why some wargamers consider it “too gamey”. What happens on the table is that a battalion moves according to a plan and shoots autonomously, according to the target priority list. That reminds me of Command & Conquer and other modern RTS-computer wargames: you draw a circle around a group and give them a command. Spearhead is the slower tabletop version of that idea. I think it reflects accurately the constraints of a WW2-commander. They have orders, but what to do if your enemy shows up suddenly in your flank and threatens the village while your battalion is moving to the river bank and your 3rd battalion is not on time? Is your subcommander flexible or not?
- The scale it promotes is huge. I tried the ‘Beginners Luck’ scenario in the rulebook, and discovered that I needed about 20 American tanks and 60 infantry platoons. That’s the kind of scenario’s that Spearhead is meant for. My armies are a mixed bag, I don’t have the exact composition of specific tanks in the large numbers needed for this scenario. Maybe I should try out Rapid Fire scenario’s for Spearhead, like other gamers do. The scale appears to be perfect for 10-table mass multiplayer games. More than any other WW2-game I know.
- Blitzkrieg Commander can frustrate you because you want your battalion to move, but fail your command roll. That’s a common trait of all Warmaster/Black Powder games. In Spearhead you might want your battalion to change course or to start moving, but you fail your order change roll, nothing happens. In particular if you play Americans or Russians: the chance to fail is 50% to 85%. The (weaker) Germans have much more tactical flexibility, they can change orders 5 out of 6 rolls. That gives them a tactical superiority that might reflect the 1941-1943 Russian front, but not necessarily the 1944-1945 situation against more experience opponents. So you can feel the same frustration as a Spearhead player (‘my Russians don’t want to move again’) that you have as BKC player (‘my Russians don’t want to move again’) But in Spearhead you can blame yourself more or less, ‘my original plan was not good enough’) while in BKC the dice roll frustrates you (‘this is the 6th time that I roll badly!’)
- I liked how the rules promoted combined arms tactics. That’s injected in the priority list.
Do I like the rules? Not sure yet. It will, I think, depend on the scenario and the tactical challenge. If the scenario is too simple, the Germans might be too strong or the combat system too rigid. I need to play more games before I come to a final conclusion.