SPQR from Warlord Games has been out about a month now. It's described as a "Warband" level game, set in the Ancients period, which my guide to modern gaming idiom Ste "Arkwright" Johnson helpfully translated to me as big skirmish. He will get another mention later.
The tagline is that it is all about the Heroes forging their legends and carving their names in history at the head of a small band of (unnamed) disposable followers (minions in the rules). The rules are credited to Matt Sprague - of Mongoose fame (infamy?)
The game is available in two formats - rules only for £20 (£10 digital) or starter set for £40. The starter is particularly good value as it contains 50 plastic Celts and 20 plastic Republican Roman figures from Warlord's existing ranges. They are also adding resin figures which are very nice too.
The rule book is very pretty, well laid out and excellently illustrated. Surprisingly the rules are quite short - amounting to about 20 illustrated pages, followed by the bulk of the book being army lists and scenarios. There is a lot to like here. The Heroes develop between games. Each battle gains you experience, which can then be used to buy "Talents" - basically skill trees where you progress upwards gaining new related skills, or you can start a new tree. Heroes, in true Hollywood fashion are rarely actually killed - when they are struck down they mostly survive to return in a later game or suffer a minor injury, although serious injuries and death are possible. Another interesting mechanic is the "parry" - where in certain circumstances you can force an opponent to reroll an attack using your shield or sword to parry his blow. All attacks are simultaneous so to me this sits really well with the vibe of heroes slugging it out, and for me feels much more cinematic than the one sided roll to hit roll to wound that predominates many games today. The army lists and historical backgrounds that go with them also seem well thought through and read well, and where some may wander a bit into fantasy for some, like Druids curses, all in all that seems pretty good.
The problems come however when you start to read the rules and play the game. There are some pretty big "huh?" moments. The rules don't really explain how hits are allocated in combat - or rather they do - wounds from missile attacks are inflicted on the closest figures in the firing unit, melee wounds are taken from the rear. This is all well and good until you introduce a Hero into the mix, who will probably have different stats to the unit he is leading. If he's at the front does he soak up all the arrows? The rules say you can't single a Hero out in a unit, but what if he's just stood the closest to an archer unit? Do they shoot the unit and miraculously hit everyone but him? Or does he take a proportion of the hits, and if so how is this decided? There are also some decidedly iffy melee mechanics. When a unit fights everyone in both units roll their attack dice. Fair enough. When a third unit charges into the rear of an engaged unit however, the unit being charged suffers no penalties for being charged in the rear at all - in fact it simply about turns and fights a fresh round of melee to its rear with the new charger while the unit to its front does nothing - presumably breaks out the sandwiches and takes a breather? Actually it is worse than that, because the guys charged in the rear gets to fight TWICE unhindered. If a 10 man unit is fighting another unit it gets (for instance) 10 attacks in the melee, but if a second unit joins in all 10 guys fight again - so if attacked by two units of 10 it fights 20 times, but if attacked by a single unit of 20 it only fights 10 times - WTF???? Pretty soon you realise the only actual tactic is to ensure your move to contact is at least 3" so you can claim the charge bonus in melee, and to do it with the largest unit you can (30 figures in case you are wondering). Manoeuvre or tactical finesse in SPQR has zero value, to several decimal places.
There are quite a few issues like this. Arkwright suggested I was expecting too much for what is a "Beer and Pretzels" \ Bar Brawl game. He may have a point, but I think my pretzels should be properly baked, and in the admittedly small number of bar brawls I have been involved in, hitting the guy from behind has proven 100% advantageous.
There are also some other issues, mainly centred around contradictory rules and points values. I'm less worried about this sort of stuff as I'm happy that a Gaul pays less \ more than a Roman for a javelin (or whatever), but there was quite a lot of criticism from players when it people got to have something more than a cursory glance.
It feels like this has not been playtested sufficiently thoroughly. In fact this seems like a rerun of what happened with Cruel Seas, where Warlord issued a 12 page FAQ explaining \ correcting the rules about a week after release
There has now been 2 SPQR FAQs issued within a month of publication. These do deal with the Hero issue quite well, but only by retconed the whole process and rewriting how Heroes and units operate, including a total rewrite of how many figures in a unit now fight. The results have (I think) fixed many of the issues, but the wider question remains - "why did it go to publication in such a state?"
Warlord are developing a reputation for this sort of thing. Clearly it is not reasonable to expect a 100% fault free product, though some achieve it, but both Cruel Seas and SPQR appeared to be released in an unfinished or untested state, and the players are left to make the fixes as Warlord rush off and claim everything is ok.
I like Warlord. Almost to a man they're friendly and helpful - the "almost" being reserved for the "gent" who has been banning people (and me!) from the official SPQR Facebook group for having the temerity to be critical. It is also true that even with the initial launch problems Cruel Seas is undoubtedly a fun game, and I suspect SPQR could be, with a few more nudges. It is also true that the starter sets for both are very good value even if you just want the figures \ models. I just think they are showing a distinct lack of care with the finished product which is stopping an ok product to be a great one.
So would I recommend them - yes, I would, but with another Latin phrase in mind "Caveat Emptor".