First Impressions of Pike and Shot
By Boggit, 1 November 2014
Developed by Byzantine Games and published by Matrix/Slitherine
O Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not forget me.” It was immediately followed with the order -“March on, boys!”(The Royalist General, Lord Jacob Astley’s battlefield prayer, Edgehill 1642)
Pike and Shot is a battalion/regimental level wargame set during the Renaissance era. It features three conflicts: the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, and the Italian Wars. It also offers a tutorial campaign, a quick-play skirmish mode, multi-player, and a game editor to allow users to design their own scenarios.
It is described by Slitherine as being heavily influenced by the Field of Glory series, and as a very keen digital Field of Glory player I was enthusiastic about checking it out by way of comparison. It is, however, quite a different game in many subtle respects, and to draw too much comparison with digital Field of Glory can lead to some disappointment if you are expecting a Renaissance clone of that game – since it has a different feel to its play, as I am told by Richard Bodley Scott (the lead designer) that it is based upon the table top game, which for a Grog is a massive bonus for this type of game. If you can dissociate the two games, and play Pike and Shot on its own merits, it is an interesting and absorbing game. The maps and unit blocks all look very clear and nice, giving a good 17th Century impression with the visuals. I’d have liked to have been able to zoom closer to see more of my unit detail than is currently allowed with the system, but that is a minor gripe, with what are essentially nice game graphics. One thing immediately apparent is that generally there are fewer elements in play compared to your average digital Field of Glory game, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your point of view.
Pike and Shot use a modified Battle Academy game engine, as opposed to the digital Field of Glory hex based map. Using squares instead of hexes might give the impression that the game is more restricted in terms of movement and facing, but that is not the case. Units can now face eight as opposed to six points. With the Battle Academy engine there are some drawbacks that don’t manifest in the digital Field of Glory system, which I find to be a pain both in the World War 2 iterations of Battle Academy as well as in the Pike and Shot version. For example, there is no passing through units as light troops could do in digital Field of Glory – you have to go around a unit. Turning can be a pain, and Battle Academy handles this less well than digital Field of Glory. If you are too quick you can sometimes move by accident rather than change facing, which tends to be more a problem when units are in close terrain and unit facing less obvious.
Artillery seems in many cases to be removed from what one might expect to be a line of sight restriction in that they can fire over blocking friendly troops at the same elevation, which wouldn’t be the case in digital Field of Glory, or historically – as aside from siege mortars, the field artillery of the day had a pretty flat trajectory. That was my impression, although Richard Bodley Scott says that artillery cannot shoot over friends on the flat. He did add that the game assumes substantial gaps between units in chequerboard formations, so that lines of sight can go diagonally between units. Maybe that confused the line of sight issue for me – certainly it did not seem obvious to me after playing six or seven full battles.
One big convenience issue between digital Field of Glory and Pike and Shot is that it is now less obvious how fragile a unit has become with regard to autobreaks. Whilst both games share a common disrupted/fragmented status for units, gone are the visual indicators for physical losses – “the skulls”, and it becomes much more of an exercise in micromanagement checking over the status of your units. In fairness to the developer, there is a visual indicator for losses – the flag icons above the units become progressively tattered as units suffer losses, but in my opinion although it looks nice, it has less clarity, or ‘at a glance’ functionality compared to the “skulls” for quickly identifying critical losses in a unit. I still think the issue of clear, ‘at a glance’ functionality is something worth the developer revisiting to improve the presentation of key player information.
One feature in Battle Academy that would have been a useful feature to retain is the “Hold Fire” option, which would be good for ambushers. Other less important aspects such as the casualty screen could have been better thought out. In digital Field of Glory you can see at a glance how many effective troops you have and how many are dead/incapacitated at any point in the game. In Pike and Shot you are told the starting number of troops, but then losses are broken down into killed, wounded, and deserted/surrendered. This is all fine, but unlike the case with digital Field of Glory the designers omitted to show overall losses, so each time you check that screen you need to do a mental calculation to assess the overall damage wreaked upon either army, which is an unnecessary chore.
I’m not saying that Pike and Shot is badly designed. It isn’t, and has a lot going for it, but with a little further polish to it will make all the difference to it in terms of presentation and ease of use. A key difference in the turns between digital Field of Glory and Pike and Shot is the phased turn reflecting its classic table top roots. In digital Field of Glory a player has far more control over their units, and the sequence in which they carry out their actions, and this is much less so in Pike and Shot. At first I didn’t like this, as I was thinking this should be playing like digital Field of Glory, but it works, and probably reflects command control in pre-radio history far better. I do like the residual fire phase at the end that picks up any units able to fire, and targets them at the nearest opportunity target. All in all the phased turn works nicely for the game.
Fire in Pike and Shot is generally well executed with factors such as opportunity fire, firing arcs all taken into account, which is an improvement over digital Field of Glory. What isn’t so good is the map not jumping to the hot spot of fire when shooting is out of your turn, so you don’t always see the results if you’re not looking at the relevant section of the map. The map scale is unstated – but if each square is say 100 yards (which is broadly consistent with the frontages of the unit sizes in the game) then I question the effective ranges utilised in the game for musketry and the like. If anything, short range should be one square, and long range maybe 2. The designers could have added “extreme” range of 3 squares away, with suitable penalties to better reflect the fact that whilst musketry was deadly at close range, it wasn’t terribly good much over 100yds, and at 300yds, well….. I could say much the same for the relatively extensive (theoretical even?) battlefield ranges for round shot field artillery, which again in my opinion does not reflect battlefield realities. That’s my view, but Richard kindly gave me his take on why the ranges are as they are – “We are aware that the shooting ranges in the game are somewhat overgenerous. However, experience has shown that most gamers do not like very short move distances, nor very short shooting ranges. In order to give the opportunity for several rounds of shooting against advancing enemy, the long musket shooting range needs to be equal to the mounted movement speed and double the normal infantry movement speed. To achieve this without reducing the infantry move to 1 square and cavalry to 2 squares, we have had to be generous with shooting ranges. Note, however, that shooting at long range is at half effect, so units will generally want to get closer to shoot effectively.”
Melee in Pike and Shot is interesting. Once engaged a unit will fight it out over several turns until it falls back or breaks. This can take quite a few turns, which gives a realistic feel to a push of pike. Falling back is a different feature to digital Field of Glory, although you can set retreat stances for non-lancer cavalry, which is a feature I’d like to have seen in Pike and Shot – especially for shooting Reiter-like cavalry such as Arkebusiers, who avoided melee if they could. In Pike and Shot impact combat is well represented with points of advantage being given to salvo, and pistol (impact, and melee) shooters. What is a bit annoying – and the same goes for digital Field of Glory, is that subsequent impacts on a unit engaged in melee from an impact in an earlier turn have no penalty for a defender. This doesn’t make much sense if they are already engaged in melee, since it is less easy to produce an efficient defence to a charge from a different direction. To some extent this issue is avoided for good reasons such as the Tercio/Keil formations providing better flank defences, but in general handling subsequent impacts on an already engaged unit is a flaw in the melee system. Another oddity is the inability for many infantry types to enter a standing melee if cavalry are involved. Although I get the reason for not allowing foot to initiate impact melee with cavalry, there is no historical reason why infantry could not enter a standing melee with cavalry. A new addition introduced to melee is the actual differential in height of terrain for melee, as well as fortifications (which also give cover for fire combat), both of which are nice features.
Other features not found in digital Field of Glory, but which feature in Pike and Shot include a variety of actions in skirmish mode where one side can be attacker/defender, meeting engagements, off map flanking marches, pursuit off map and return, which not only are nice features but also replicate the impetuous nature of cavalry that could chase routers off the battlefield to the detriment of the army still fighting a battle – a good period touch.
I think this game has huge potential and will appeal to both Grogs and newcomers alike, as it is simple and elegant to play – although playing well is perhaps another matter. I sincerely hope for some subtle improvements post release, since I think that will both make the gameplay better and far more streamlined in presentation. Although I have my gripes with some aspects of the game system, on balance the game is pretty reflective of battles of the time, which is a major plus. As it stands, the basic game is all there and it certainly it has the potential to be a real gem. Because of a number of small but irritating issues, I do feel Pike and Shot comes over as a release that was a bit rushed in development. Pike and Shot is undoubtedly a very good game, but it needs a little more polish, albeit on minor issues, if the developers want it to truly shine.