So it came to pass that on a sopping wet Saturday afternoon, in a small town at the top end of the West Country, two armies were dragged from their cases and shoved around a large table in pursuit of that holy grail – the kind of fun we used to have in the Nineties.
Ben and I put together a bunch of lists, including some no-holds-barred ones with some heavily revised or banned items (Ben had the Executioner’s Axe, I had the Forbidden Rod…) but in the end we decided to test the format we had in mind for the Wales and South West Middlehammer Meetup or whatever it ends up being called.
We’d be playing more or less by-the-book Tournament Battles (no allies, named characters, unridden monsters, war machines without an attendant regiment, magic items costing more than 50 points or level 4 wizards, games end after four rounds or two hours, whichever comes first), with only three changes.
Firstly: 1500 point lists, rather than 2000, to keep a tin lid on some of the most extreme Middlehammer shenanigans and ensure rusty players could check rules and still finish on time.
Secondly: we’d be working through the Winds of Magic deck with a discard pile rather than reshuffling our hands back in every turn, because we didn’t want to see three Total Powers or Drain Magics on the trot.
Thirdly: technically you’re supposed to have one hill and one wood or two buildings each for the Tournament Battle, but we play not Borehammer in these parts.
The thing about playing a game you’ve not really thought about since before the millennium turned is… you get things wrong. I count at least four things we stuffed up on the day and another three or four which I didn’t spot until I assessed the evidence this morning. These will be pointed out in lengthy italicised parentheses throughout the report, as cautions to fellow travellers.
Alarming Lists To Starboard
Ben was courteous enough to furnish me with a) a copy of his army list and b) some semi-authentic Middlehammer Roster Sheets. If the wonders of technology are as wondrous as they’re cracked up to be, those should be lurking right about… here.
The list walkthrough revealed a few things. One: Ben had made the dubious-in-my-opinion choice to not put his general in the White Lions unit, mostly because he was after that sweet 1+ save and getting his best statline into combat where it belonged. Two: I was vindicated in my decision to fit a Master Necromancer into the army somewhere; “no level four wizards” just means everyone’ll take a level three. Three: those Dragon Princes would chew through anything in my army if I got near them, so the order of business would be delaying, diverting and derailing that pain train so I could go after the units I could actually fight.
My signature weapons here would be the Banshee, who doesn’t use spells to trash things, and the Bat Swarm, who are of course Not Dead. They would go after the horrible, horrible Dragon Princes and try to get them facing the wrong way. If we were only playing a four turn game, I should be able to keep them under control for three, maybe all four if the terrain was favourable. I was confident that the rest of my army could take the rest of his.
For his part, Ben expressed mild concern about two Vampire Counts, mild indifference for smallish Skeleton units, and genuine surprise that I didn’t have any sort of Dispel Scroll. The thing with me and Scrolls is… I either forget them, and don’t use them, or I remember them and spend the whole game fretting over when to use them. I’d rather spend points on aggressive casting kit that supplements my ability to Get Shit Done than on defensive items that only stress me out anyway. We’ll see all these observations made manifest as we proceed.
First up: drawing spells! From card decks! The good old days are here again! Ben’s Master Mage drew Fiery Convocation (blech), Drain Magic (uh-oh) and Apotheosis (phew! no Banishment!).
I picked my Necromancy spells, because I could. Summon Undead Horde on Margharita, Drain Life on the Master, and Summon Skeletons, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre and Gaze of Nagash on Walravius.
Ben had set the terrain up, I picked a board edge, and we set to with the orders of march. My mountains of chaff had an upside in the Tournament Battle scenario (you can set up at least 6″ from the centre line, but at least 18″ away from enemy troops and 12″ from the side, so grabbing the centre with the chaff gave me a chance to burrow in behind those walls and embed properly). They also had a distinct downside; Ben was guaranteed to finish deploying first and thus grab himself the first turn.
High Elves Turn One
An elegant saunter forwards for the citizens of Ulthuan, with the Princes and Lions moving up to survey the centre while the Archers stood and waited. The Wights laughed off one Repeater Bolt Thrower thanks to being in hard cover; the other pinged a wound off a Bat Swarm. The Winds of Magic didn’t so much blow as splutter – three cards each, and look what we drew!
I don’t know what I’m doing with my face. Possibly expressing my befuddlement.
Vampire Counts Turn One
Emannuelle and the Bat Swarm advanced at full tilt, with the Bats taking up position behind the wall, but everyone else sort of… waited. This might seem like an unusual choice, but I’ve learned from many years of fighting Dwarfs, Empire and Wood Elves that there’s no point trudging into superior firepower unless you have to. I wasn’t about to close the distance and make Ben’s tactical choices easier, not when I could hold off, soften him up with some authentic grade one Doom Spells (TM), and not get shot at so hard.
Emmanuelle’s wailing failed to impress the White Lions, and while the Winds of Magic decided to grace us with a puff of Power this turn, all it did was get my Summon Skeletons Dispelled and then Destroyed by that Destroy Spell card Ben had been hanging onto.
At the top of turn two, therefore, things looked a bit like this…
High Elves Turn Two
Realising that I was never going to come out and fight like a man, Ben took the initiative and charged his Dragon Princes into the Bat Swarms, while the White Lions wheeled and advanced into the Undead infantry and the Archers marched down off their hill.
The Repeater Bolt Throwers did their thing to the Skeletons, who amazingly managed to save both the inflicted wounds, and to the Wight Cavalry, who – whether by virtue of their cover or their 1+ armour save – laughed it off.
(Trained observers will of course know that fifth edition Repeater Bolt Thrower volleys do not, in point of fact, allow armour saves – in this edition they drop a point of strength and their multiple wounds but still go through armour like vindaloo through my grandma. We spotted this at the start of the second game, but this one was played out under the impression that they were S4 with a standard -1 saving throw modifier.)
On to kumquat! Glorious kumquat! Fighting over a wall gave the Dragon Princes pause for thought, as they couldn’t actually hit the Bats, while the Bats couldn’t actually hurt the heavily armoured Elven cavalry, so it was a big old whiff all round. Just as planned!
Finally, despite a lacklustre five cards from the Winds, Ben had enough Power to cast Fiery Convocation and my unsupplemented Rebound glanced off High Magic Superiority (non-High-Mages need a basic 5+ to dispel High Magic, because it’s so privileged). That’s three wounds off the Bat Swarm then. I could have played Drain Magic and arguably should, but I was holding onto Escape and really wanted to pull a triple-dip with my Vampire Count at some stage.
Vampire Counts Turn Two
Well, the High Elves weren’t hanging about and I wanted to get out of those Dragon Princes’ way, so the First and Second of Foot did a slight shuffle about, the one aligning itself towards the White Lions and making space for the other to wheel, move and wheel out of place.
Emmanuelle had now warmed up her vocal cords a bit and managed to scream two White Lions into the next world, while the combat between Princes and Bats was another inconclusive dust-up.
Less so the Magic phase. I wasn’t about to use Drain Magic when I had just been dealt Total Power and four Power cards, so I let Fiery Convocation sizzle the Bat Swarms away. Predictably, they were toasted, but they’d done their job; it would be turn four before the Dragon Princes got to charge anything again.
My Gaze of Nagash attempt was subject to a steward’s inquiry – do I have to declare where the line is going before a Dispel is attempted or afterwards? This was important for Ben since his Dragon Princes have a 4+ Dispel attempt on any hostile enchantments bunged toward them and I wasn’t about to give him two goes. In the end we agreed that yes, I did have to declare a target and yes, it was going into the White Lions. Ben triple-reinforced his Dispel attempt and managed to drop a one, so off it went and six White Lions were annihilated.
(They really should have taken a panic test, but I was thinking of later editions in which the Panic tests are taken at the end of the phase. Fifth, of course, has you take the test when the triggering event occurs, and if you pass you’re fine for the rest of the phase. We didn’t realise until two other spells had been cast and we had cause to look at the psychology rules, by which time it was too late and we agreed the White Lions had retroactively decided to stick around.)
My next effort was a Total Powered Summon Undead Horde, which I’d been waiting to do for years. It raised a grand total of six Zombies and they formed an oblique line in front of the Dragon Princes, angled to take them further out of the fight if charged.
My first attempt at Vanhel’s Danse Macabre was dispelled, with that thing High Elves do where they use Power cards as Dispels, but the second one went off (thank goodness for Necromantic recasting, that’s what I say) and the Wight Cavalry got stuck into those White Lions.
(Now, the combat round we fought was a draw, which is fine and led to the proper outcome of the two units just standing there, but in the cold light of dawn I know realise it shouldn’t actually have been fought at all. Vanhel’s Danse Macabre can either propel a unit into combat or make it fight another round once it’s in there, but not both, and of course each unit can only be compelled to tango like it’s 1111 IC once per turn.
While I’m on the subject, it only allows characters to move with their units, not do anything else with them, and it can only be cast on units of Skeletons, Zombies, Wights and Wraiths – not on Banshees, nor independent Vampires! There is a whole column-and-a-bit of text in the Vampire Counts army book devoted to clarifying how this overcrowded spell works, and I really should have boned up on its fiddly ins and outs instead of assuming it was as sleek and streamlined as the sixth edition incarnation.)
Finally, I used the Staff of Damnation to make the Banshee scream for White Lion meat again, but a) Ben dispelled it and b) it ran out and c) it can’t actually do that in the first place. Good work all round.
Here’s a bottom-of-the-round reliable image.
High Elves Turn Three
The Dragon Princes, predictably, charged over the wall, and I don’t mind telling you that all those Zombies were dead before the Banner of Undead Incineration was even a factor. The Repeater Bolt Throwers pointed themselves at Skeletons and this time killed three from the big unit and two from the little one, while the Wight Cavalry and attendant Vampire chopped up all but one White Lion for two losses in return. Outnumbered by a fear-causing enemy, he legged it, outrunning the plated-up undead horsemen.
(I may have been a tiny bit smug about this – too smug. I occasionally forget that not everyone I play against is an old mate of years’ standing, inured to my self-important battle banter and in on the tone. I bring all this up to remind myself and you, dear reader: read the room. If your opponent is making the frowny face, you are probably being a helmet. Query it; own it; stop it.)
Anxious to prevent any further Fiery Convocation incidents, I dropped Drain Magic and ended the turn.
Vampire Counts Turn Three
My Wight cavalry charged the last White Lion, running him down and capturing the unit standard. This was fine, but it left them in a bit of a dubious position for next turn…
Meanwhile, the Banshee advanced toward the Dragon Princes, being the only thing in my army that had a real shot at hurting them (I had no faith in getting a Gaze of Nagash past that banner of theirs.) As a bonus, her wailing and howling killed one!
The Winds of Magic were not generous. I cast Vanhel’s Danse Macabre on the Knights with the only Power card I had, and Ben dispelled it. Bad Times could be on the horizon.
High Elves Turn Four
The Dragon Princes wheeled around to point themselves back at the fight, but too late, too late.
The first Bolt Thrower killed another couple of Skeletons from the ‘big’ spearmen unit, and then the Archers unloaded their first, last and only volley. It was all they needed; everyone but the Vampire and Champion was pincushioned, and the second Bolt Thrower finished off the unit and put a wound on Margharita herself.
Ben tried to cast Fiery Convocation on Margharita, but I was having none of it and Destroyed the spell with two power cards thrown in to reinforce. In retrospect, she could have taken it – Carstein Ring and all – and those Power cards could have been stashed for the final, crucial turn. You live and learn.
Vampire Counts Turn Four
First order of business; the Wight Cavalry, unexpectedly spared a good skewering, charged the Bolt Thrower, which fled off the table, and their failed charge left them cantering uselessly around the flank. The Skeleton swordsmen wheeled around to face the Dragon Princes – one shot at a Gaze on the last turn couldn’t hurt, right? – and my Vampire…
… well, I was going to have her cower in the graveyard, but then I realised I’d not gotten to use the Carstein Ring and Heart of Woe power combo, and it was the last turn, and there was nothing to lose by it, so she moved inside the Archers’ stand-and-shoot range.
Come the magic phase, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre went off, so Margharita charged the Archers, killed one, took a wound from another, died to combat resolution, and promptly exploded in a S9 death-bomb that killed thirteen of the meddling Elves and popped her back to life in the graveyard.
(Of course, this was a blatantly illegal move, since Vanhel’s Danse Macabre cannot be cast on Vampires. See above. It’s a good job those Archers weren’t worth any Victory Points, really.)
Final Score: Vampire Counts 6, High Elves 3
(We did go on to play a fifth, off-the-record, let’s-see-what-happens turn, in which the Dragon Princes predictably chewed up the Banshee, but the High Elf shooting was appallingly inaccurate, and Drain Magic was cast with Total Power. Honestly, if I’d been Ben I’d have been cranking that spell out every turn I could to gut the all-important Necromantic base, but maybe he only had two power cards most of the time. My bonus turn was uneventful as everyone either ran away or wheeled and Ben just did Drain Magic – the card, not the spell.)
Well – that went to plan, and even though I tried to do a few things that were blatantly illegal, they mostly failed to come off. I’m annoyed about the Bolt Thrower thing (which we spotted when setting up our second game, of which more later) and that last turn Vanhel’s charge. It shouldn’t have been allowed, the Vampire shouldn’t have fought a round of combat – but I only did it to be spicy and blow up the Heart of Woe, and that happened and it amused us both greatly, so I’m not super peeved.
Ben figured his greatest mistake was leaving the Archers on the hill, expecting me to advance. The thing is, a lot of Vampire Counts players, including my younger self, would have pushed on into the teeth of Ben’s firepower, rather than holding back and breaking up the oncoming assault, so nine times out of ten this wouldn’t have been a dealbreaker.
A far greater error, from my point of view, was failing to embed his General in the White Lions unit. I can see the logic in putting the General on the horse, but as it is, Ben’s army is all hammer and no anvil. The general, in that White Lion unit, would provide a four-square block of Immune to Psychology Victory Points denying full static combat resolution fun. Slap the Amulet of Fire on him and that’s two units with a built in 4+ Dispel, one of which is Immune to Psychology and both of which swing hard enough to give even my Vampires pause. As it was, I was able to break the White Lions with psychology and clean up Ben’s back field.
The game rattled along at a fair clip – we were done inside ninety minutes, and so we had time to squeeze another one in, after lunch. That said, this post has passed the 3000 word mark, so I’ll let you do as we did, have a breather and a brew and a bite to eat, and then get stuck in to the second. I’ll do a full teardown on my list after that game, in which – spoiler warning – things did not go so well.