Song of Blades and Heroes (SBH) is a generic set of fast-play fantasy skirmish rules, published by Ganesha Games. The system is currently in its fourth edition, which was authored by Andrea Sfiligoi in 2007. The rules, which are available in both print and electronic form, provide an inexpensive alternative for D&D players who are looking for a one-session change of pace, either to take a break from the rigors of D&D campaigning or to find a substitute game when one or more players is unable to attend.
Like other tabletop miniature skirmish games, SBH requires players to assemble warbands consisting of about five to 10 miniature figures, each of which is assigned a point value so that warbands of similar total value are evenly matched on the battlefield. SBH makes customary use of terrain features, which can be scratch-built, purchased outright or even improvised. The two (or more) forces then battle on the tabletop, seeking either direct victory in battle or some other objective, such as occupying a certain area or retrieving an artifact.
While being similar to other skirmish systems in those regards, SBH is different in a number of important ways. To this writer, it seems as if the team at Ganesha met, discussed everything players dislike about miniature skirmish games and then built a new system from the ground up, making every effort to avoid anything on the “don’t like” list. Ganesha Games succeeded in that task, which explains why SBH was nominated for an Origins Award in 2008.
Conventions and Warband Assembly
The game is designed to be played with whatever materials participants have on hand. Any seasoned wargamer or role-player has probably collected enough figures and terrain for a game of SBH already. Those who don’t have enough can easily improvise; a battle that represents troops with pieces made with Token Tool fighting next to a tower represented by an empty milk carton is no different mechanically than one where professionally painted miniatures fight it out on an award-winning diorama.
All distances in the game are measured with sticks, obtained and pre-cut by players to represent short, medium and long ranges. These distances apply to all command, movement, missile fire and spellcasting functions. The specific length of these sticks will vary depending on scale, since SBH can be played with 15 mm, 25 mm or 28 mm figures with equal ease.
The basic SBH rules provide rosters of “profiles” detailing more than 180 common Medieval fantasy troop types, leading to another of the system’s strengths: unprecedented versatility. The rosters are loosely organized by fantasy race, although the rules stipulate that warbands can include any combination of troops from any race, as long as both players agree. With roster entries as generic as “Skeleton, Human Archer,” “Lizardman Shaman” or “Elf Hero”,” it quickly becomes apparent that miniatures from any manufacturer will work just fine, a refreshing change of pace from rules systems that require the purchase of specific figures from a game publisher’s miniature line or buying a codex detailing how those figures should look and act on a battlefield.
A test combat recently played by this writer featured figures from the Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures line, a couple of tokens from the D&D Monster Vault, some massed troops from Games Workshop, and leader types from Reaper and Ral Partha. A few figures from RAFM and Grenadier, dating back to the 1970s, even saw some action. Instead of typical, three-dimensional wargaming terrain, the test game employed a few pre-printed battle maps printed as part of 4e Dungeons and Dragons modules.
Initiative and Combat Resolution
Interaction between figures is governed by rolling standard six-sided dice, modified by information contained in each troop’s profile. A profile contains a pleasantly small amount of information: unit name, point value, a quality rating, a combat rating and “special rules” that modify a unit’s die rolls or allow a rule to be bent due to a unit’s unique power(s). Example of special rules include classifications like undead or animal, combat abilities like assassin or lethal, or attack abilities like shooter or poison.
After choosing the models in their warbands and setting up battlefield terrain, players dice to see who takes the first turn. During a turn, a player tries to “activate” each of his or her models by rolling one to three dice and comparing the result to the quality score of the model in question. For each success, the figure may take one action, such as moving, attacking or using a special power. Multiple actions can be used to channel extra effort into an attack, either through concentrated aiming or focused strength.
During a turn, a player can activate each model of the warband once, unless two or more quality rolls fail during an activation attempt; in those situations, initiative passes to the opponent. It is of course possible to deliberately choose to roll only one quality die per activation to ensure that all of your troops get to act once before an opponent’s turn, but the appeal of playing so safely quickly fades when an opponent takes the calculated risk to roll multiple dice and ends up beating you like a rented mule.
Hand-to-hand combat resolution is simple. Each unit involved in combat rolls one die, adds its combat score and any modifiers from a short list provided n the rules. The higher roll wins the combat, and one of four things happen to the loser:
- If the winner rolled an odd number on the die, the loser suffers no injury, but is knocked back one base width from the attacker;
- If the winner rolled an even score on the die, the losing model “falls down” and is laid on its side. The “fall” isn’t necessarily a fall to the ground – the rules indicate that the fall is symbolic of any event that renders a combatant especially vulnerable, like getting tangled in a shield strap or having a weapon turn in a warrior’s hand. If a figure in the down position is subsequently attacked and beaten in combat, that figure is considered killed. If a figure is activated before it can be killed, it can spend two actions to stand back up;
- If the winner’s score is double that of the loser, the loser is automatically killed and removed from the field;
- If the winner’s score is triple that of the loser, the loser is gruesomely killed, resulting in not only in the immediate removal of the figure from the field, but also forcing all of the loser’s allies within long range to make a morale check (rolled against the quality score mentioned above).
The SBH rules also contain information on how to run campaigns, which are defined as three to five linked battles with the same warbands, playable in a single evening. Winning warbands earn victory points which can be redeemed for additional models or advances, such as being able to modify certain die rolls, increasing quality or combat scores or even learning to use missile weapons. In those cases, objective scenarios are randomly rolled and played, and the player earning the most victory points wins the campaign.
This game is an ideal way to introduce new players to the miniature wargaming hobby, or as an evening’s diversion when regular gaming isn’t an option. Most D&D players already have more than enough figures, terrain and/or battlemaps to play dozens of games, and die-hard wargamers would probably never be able to exhaust their stock of miniatures. And with the .pdf version of the SBH rules costing only $5 US – about the same as a single pewter miniature – it is well worth the investment.