GrogHeads Reviews ONUS!

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Ancients battling across your tabletop, with minimal prep! ~

Jim Owczarski, 12 March 2016

There are two types of miniatures wargamers. The first is into the assembling, painting, and basing of miniatures for the mad fun of it all.  Actually subjecting their lead, or more recently, plastic, hordes to mere rules in a game can seem secondary; just about everyone who has ever “played” Warhammer 40k leaps to mind.

The other is the sort that loves the aesthetic of so many little men, but, even if he finds the process enjoyable enough, knows that he’ll likely never have the time, space, and resources to play in one of those really big games that show up in rulebooks and convention floors.

Enter Onus! (I will hereafter forgo the exclamation point) by Spanish publisher Draco Ideas.  Originally published in 2014 in a Spanish-language edition, Onus recently emerged from a successful Kickstarter that will, among other things, produce an English-language edition.  What follows is a review of the original version.

The concept behind Onus is simple enough. Most wargames involving miniatures require players to stick their figures onto squares or rectangles to facilitate movement.  Onus skips the bit about miniatures and gives us the bases, made of playing card stock decorated with pictures of the soldiers and bids us have at.  This allows the game to come in a very small package.

Mighty armies, itty-bitty living space

Mighty armies, itty-bitty living space

Inside, there are card armies representing the forces of the Second Punic War: Republican Romans, Carthaginians, and the various flavors of mercenaries that served both sides.  There is also a card deck that drives much of the action, an assortment of informational markers, a pair of themed rulers, and a nice set of four wooden dice.

There are actually more counters than shown.

There are actually more counters than shown.

Ergonomically, while the rulers are fine, players will still need a longer ruler to measure missile fire and other, longer distances.  This is made more difficult by the odd decision, the reason for which I cannot discern, to measure distances in units equivalent to 5 cm.  Note well that I’m not here criticizing a Spanish company’s use of the metric system.  Rather, I’m wondering why the designers didn’t just choose to use centimeters as their base unit of measurement.

And, while we’re on the topic of ergonomics, the cards in the action deck are too small.  These cards play a very large part in the game and they’re fussy to shuffle, hard to read, and would have been far more pleasant to deal with on cards of standard poker size.  I find this particularly puzzling as the cards that make up the meat of the game are fashioned at that size.

No, I do not read Spanish.  I was sent a nice translation guide.

No, I do not read Spanish.  I was sent a nice translation guide.

The units themselves are well-presented in a top-down view.

I hear the tramp of feet.

I hear the tramp of feet.

There’s an excellent selection of units from the period and a healthy bit of historical granularity to them, i.e., there’s far more here than “Roman guys” and “those guys that are not Roman”.  Infantry comes in many flavors and draws an interesting distinction between skirmishers armed with javelins, heavier troops armed with javelins, and organized archers.  There’s also cavalry of various sorts and, yes, elephants, though only for Hannibal’s boys.

I went to high school with Punica Falange.

I went to high school with Punica Falange.

These, however, are quibbles.  The game is said to be set at roughly the level of the maniple, but I’m not convinced that the whole business would hold together logically if that were so; and it’s very unlikely one would be able to play Zama or Cannae.  I I think it better to suppose that the designers sacrificed the minutiae of the received wisdom of ancient warfare and took an approach much like the venerable De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) or, if one prefers, its more elaborated successor De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM).  In both, troop types matter a great deal, but, whatever a particular element is said to be is less important than the way it interacts with enemy units.

The broad outlines of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played DBM or Richard Borg’s Command and Colors: Ancients.  Armies are bought to a point total, interestingly enough with no restrictions, and then deployed face down near the base edge of a battlefield that defaults to about three feet by four feet in size.  Armies are revealed simultaneously and each general then draws a hand of cards equal to his leadership, typically six.

I always find myself imagining how many figures I'd have to paint to make this happen.

I always find myself imagining how many figures I’d have to paint to make this happen.

Each turn, a general can play as many cards as he likes, ordering units or causing events to occur.  A measure of caution is required as, at the end of a turn, only a single card is replaced from the draw deck.  In any case, each unit may only be ordered once.  Missile-equipped units can both move and shoot, but only if they reserve half of their movement.  Skirmishers have the unique ability to move, shoot, and then move again.

Movement is as geometric as those familiar with ancient wargames will have come to expect.  Full movement is only possible straight ahead, with turns, typically accomplished through pivots, diminishing the amount of available movement.  Credit should here be given to the pivot system which allows units to swing on any of their four corners or on their centers.  The results of this are surprisingly elegant and solve some of the long-standing problems I have had with the DBx series.  Interpenetration is also well handled with units being able to move freely through friendly units provided they have enough movement to make it all the way through them.  Failure to complete this movement causes a costly disorder.

Missile fire follows movement and is managed on a differential system with the firing unit’s attack factor being compared to one of the opponent’s defense factors.  The differential is then modified to give a number over which the attacker must roll on a six-sided die to score hits.  Close range, up to half the maximum, allows the attacker to roll four dice.  Regular range allows the attacker to roll two dice.  Each die that hits is then collected and re-rolled to see if a wound is scored.  The process is similar to that already described except the attack factor is now compared to the opponent’s second defense factor.  This interplay of first and second defense factors allows the designers to explore their views of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different unit types.  It’s a fascinating exercise.

Firing along the flanks.

Firing along the flanks.

Missile fire is 180-degrees to the front of the firing unit and obstructing units do not block fire absolutely but provide a negative modifier; another interesting and counter-intuitive choice I rather like.

Melee combat is run in much the same way as described above with one notable exception.  Each unit is marked along its front and back into four segments and along its side into two.  The number of segments that end up in contact between belligerents determines the number of dice rolled by each side.  Getting segments to line up in the way a player desires is harder than it might first appear given the geometric nature of movement.  If two sides remain in contact for more than one round of melee, a fairly common occurrence, the attacker can slide his unit to bring more segments to bear.  Moreover, if all four segments are already in contact, and an opponent has unwisely left his flanks exposed, the attacker can choose to place a flanking counter on his opponent’s left and right sides.  Each counter lowers the attackers morale by one point, but it grants significant advantages in melee.

The beginning of the bad day.

The beginning of the bad day.

Unless an attacker has certain special abilities, melees are said to be simultaneous with both sides hitting and being hit before resolving any results.

Hits of all kinds that are brought home are marked as wounds.  Each unit has a number of health points and is removed from the table if it suffers an equivalent number of wounds.  Before that, however, each time a unit loses a combat, typically defined as suffering more losses than the opponent, it must make a morale check.  Morale is tested by rolling two dice against the unit’s modified morale level.  A first failure results in a disorder.  A second results in flight which, as is often the case in ancient wargames, can be devastating if one leaves units in the path of a fleeing gaggle of elephants.

One piece of the game about which I am ambivalent is the rule that a card is to be drawn before every battle and the card’s event applied if appropriate.  Not only does this mean there’s a whole lot of card drawing going on, but the events are often very powerful and bring an additional layer of chance to a game already largely governed by card draws.  There’s an optional rule to not draw this cards for every fight and I found that choice more satisfactory and, to the extent this is ever correctly said, more historical.

Games end in various ways including total destruction of the opponent, death of a general, and morale collapse, depending on the scenario.  There are quite a few suggested scenarios included, both historical and hypothetical, and even a pair of “quick start” armies for both sides provided on cards.

At the end, Onus is a winner.  What it lacks in little lead men, it makes up for with largely quality components, variety, and a well-fashioned set of rules.  I confess I’m sad I missed the Kickstarter, but I’ll definitely be in when the game enters broad release.

And who knows, maybe, come June, we’ll have to fire up a big Zama game at Grogheads Central Command at Origins 2016.  In the meanwhile, may the lebeccio wind always blow in your favor.


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3 Responses to GrogHeads Reviews ONUS!

  1. Joe Kundlak says:

    I do wonder whether the author is aware of the Battleground: Fantasy Warfare game system from Your Move Games from 2005 (and many later expansions, one of which is – surprise, surprise! – Second Punic War with Rome vs. Carthage from 2009). Onus is a direct copy of that with tweaks to the rules and different graphic style, but what irks me, is that the author of Onus does not acknowledge BFW as an inspiration, and merely states that “we are aware of BFW”. The cards in Onus even have the same statistics on them with some tweaked icons! They do not have the green/yellow/red track from BFW, but that is a detail.
    I am not saying Onus is a bad game, I just have issues with it not paying tribute to its predecessor.

  2. Jim Owczarski says:

    Author here.

    Very much aware. I think I have everything created in the B:FW series and the red-on-black dice that they gave away in some abundance when the game was released at GenCon remain some of my group’s favorites. It’s also as a result of the very nice folks that created B:FW that I have a stash of dry-erase markers. I thought about going into the comparisons and contrasts between the two at some length, but in the end decided to review Onus! on its own merits.

    I do not doubt that the Onus! folks owe a debt to B:FW and not just in concept. The combat is quite similar, for one thing. That said, there are some large differences, most notably in the card system that drives Onus! and the way Onus! handles melees that last more than one turn. I will also say that I think Onus! is a much better presented game and I never liked the wipe-off damage mechanic, but that’s certainly a small matter.

    Still, given your concern, is it just a matter for you of Onus! acknowledging its roots? If so, I can certainly agree, but I don’t know how it would have changed my review.

  3. Joe Kundlak says:

    Hi Jim,

    yes, my issue with Onus is the fact that the author tried (and still seems to try) to distance himself from BFW since I first heard of Onus on Boardgamegeek. I was not alone in asking about the BFW influence.

    I think that Onus has a better graphic style than BFW (3D renders tend to get quite old, unless done perfectly) and had a tweaked and refined BFW version start to come out, I would be the first to buy it.

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