By Michael Stultz
Publisher: Draco Ideas
Designers: Luis Alvaro Hernandez, Alvar Sanz
By the time the Romans established control of the entirety of peninsular Italy, the legions had faced and defeated the queen of the battlefield, the Macedonian phalanx, showing that they were equal to anything the ancient world could muster against them. The gaze of the Romans now cast south across the straights of Messina to Sicily. This would bring them inevitably into conflict with Carthage, the greatest naval power of the day, and the masters of everything from the African coast as far as the straights of Gibraltar, southeast Spain and Sardinia and western Sicily.
Just how did what became a protracted series of three wars lasting from 264 BC to 146 BC and that would leave Rome the undisputed master of the much of the Mediterranean get started over the island of Sicily. The eastern end was occupied both by a group of former mercenaries, known to history as the Mamertines, and by Syracusans. Carthage controlled the western end of the island. Having just been defeated and not wishing to be controlled by either Carthage or Syracuse, and in order to extricate themselves from being bullied by two strongmen, the former mercenaries, the Mamertines made a fateful decision to submit and seek the assistance of the Romans. And why not? It seemed that being a member of the Roman alliance would provide a measure of freedom and benefit that otherwise would get trampled under both foot and sword. Enter the Romans. It is difficult to imagine that a small island would lead to a conflict that would last 120 years, cost the lives of 250,000 men, and would end in the complete and utter annihilation of Carthage and her population. The conflict would leave Rome as the supreme power in the region, paving the way for her expansion and transformation from republic to empire. Once Rome accepted the offer of the Mamertines, the fight was on.
This is the historical canvas upon which the game Onus is presented, designed by Ãlvar Sanz y Luis and Ãlvaro HernÃ¡ndez and published by Draco Ideas. I feel compelled to observe humorously at this point that the sales pitch to this design is an unequivocal appeal to the would-be conqueror that boils in the hearts and souls of every armchair general. Indeed, the introduction to the rulebook says this: Have you ever dreamt of commanding powerful armies? Have you ever imagined crossing the Alps with thousands of soldiers and elephants to try to conquer Rome? Do stories of the Roman Republic and the Punic Wars capture your imagination? Makes me think of James Thurber’s, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hmmmm! Speaking purely in defense of my own self-interests, I sure hope my good wife does not see me as such a dreamy, hapless man. I am guessing that the designers had much more innocent notions in mind when they wrote the introduction than to cast the entire lot of war-gamers into literary sarcasm and comedy.
With all of that said, let’s have a look, shall we? To start, the game is not about one battle, or a series of battles, rather, this is a game where players may fight any particular battle of the Punic Wars they desire, or they can slog their way through entire campaigns. An expansion of the game introduces the Greeks and Persians, allowing participants to march with Leonidas into glory at Thermopylae or to campaign with Alexander as he marched east to humble the mighty Persian Empire. With the complete set of cards, and the assistance of the campaign book and its army building tables, just about any army of the period can live again. Also available is a terrain and forts addition that allows for the presence of any historically key geographical features and fortifications. By its own admission, this game is a miniatures game played with cards rather than with miniatures. It is a historical battle simulation game of the same ilk as the old Avalon Hill game, Jutland, or Wooden Ships and Iron Men, or the more recent Avalanche Press naval games, or GMTs reincarnation of Yaquinto’s, Panzer. If one chose, miniatures could be substituted for the cards, or placed on top of the cards to add an additional aesthetic dimension to the look and feel of the game. I have emphasized the historical here because most of us who play historical games like to re-enact history. This is not to say, though, that players are confined to the factual record. Certainly â€œwhat ifâ€ scenarios could be constructed. And because ancient sources are notoriously unreliable as to numbers of combatants, army composition is sometimes a guess anyway, giving players complete freedom to alter the makeup and size of any force to suit a player’s desire.
One enduring impression of the game that I have is that Onus nicely introduces players to tactical-level miniatures gaming while removing the somewhat daunting prospect of building and painting your own miniatures army, paying to acquire one, or finding someone who can provide one. It does this in a beautifully packaged, well organized, eminently affordable, clean and uncluttered game system, and when the dust has settled, fits easily into any container designed to hold game cards. I have the entire Onus set of armies in two clear plastic boxes of six-compartments each, designed to hold cards for the game Magic, but which substitute perfectly for my Romans, Carthaginians, Greeks, Persians and their elephants and allies.
This brings me to an observation that I admit reflects my personal bias. One early impression I had of the game was the colorful graphics. Lots of eye candy here with plenty of attention paid to aesthetics. The cards contain visually appealing graphics of the various types of troops that fought in the battles depicted. Each card shows from a bird’s-eye-view a contingent of troops, or an individual piece of equipment, or an elephant. What annoys me, though, is the slightly Hanna-Barbarish quality of the art work. Clearly much attention and care was given to visual presentation. What I am reminded of are the illustrations found in today’s graphic novels, or of the animation style presented in the animated Star Wars Clone Wars. But, I admit this is probably a minor quibble and certainly does not detract from the overall presentation of the game. I guess I would have preferred a look more like that you would see in the Osprey books, or like those historical prints from Andre Jouineau.
Before I proceed, I do have a confession to make here, one that makes me sound somewhat inconsistent but that I can make publicly, my vicar will be pleased to know. Having played several times now, and being a military figure painter, I am sorely tempted to purchase a small number of figures to place on the cards for the sole purpose of adding an aesthetic third-dimension to the game. It would look really cool to have a row of four or even two rows of eight figures sitting on top of the cards. How fun it would be to have one of Hannibal’s elephants in the form of a painted miniature in 25mm or 28mm sitting on top of the card just for added visual effect. Honey, I think I know what I would like Santa to bring me for Christmas, and my birthday, and probably the next several!. Oh, and there is Father’s Day as well. Let’s not forget that gift-giving opportunity.
As I indicated, this is a miniatures game played with two types of cards, unit cards that represent the combat units and action cards that are used to activate units and to modify and influence combat. The action cards also include generals of the era. You will find all the likely suspects here, Hannibal, Hamilcar, Scipio and several others. With the expansion, the likes of Xerxes, Darius, Alexander, Spartacus, Asander, and many others, make their appearance.
While I am on the subject of leaders, let me mention what role they play. If you are familiar with Squad Leader and the role of leaders, then you have a good idea of how leaders function here. In Squad Leader, leaders are generally necessary to rally men and they enhance the performance of those under their command. By comparison, in a game like Waterloo 200, leaders dramatically influence play and are essential to mobilizing and carrying the fight to the enemy. Once leaders are depleted, it becomes much more difficult to overcome inertia and to gain ground or to conduct a robust and responsive defense. Leaders in Onus play similarly to both these games. They are important, but the game will be played and units will be fought mostly without leaders. What leaders provide is command structure. But they also lend personality to an army. As your Macedonians march into battle under the leadership of Phillip II or your Spartans under the command of Lysander, you experience a certain joie de vivre. Leadership cards represent specific individuals, and the unique attributes that man could call upon to inspire or to assist his men. They also represent headquarters and personal escort and as such, are attached at the beginning of any game with a specific unit. There they remain unless an Event card is played that permits the leader to transfer to another friendly unit. This means that a leader is not ubiquitous on the field and cannot easily traverse the battlefield to inspire his men. I appreciate this design and find it faithful to the era. A general, with his ability to control his army during the midst of engagement restricted, will be without the ability to influence events except of those under his immediate and direct control.
Relevant information concerning leadership traits is contained in a banner at the bottom of a card. For leaders this is an attack and defense and morale value that improves the ability of the unit to which the leader is attached. There is also an influence range and a leadership value. The leadership rating is the most important value because this number determines the number of Event/Orders cards a player draws initially and is the maximum number a player may hold. In short, the better the leader, the higher is his rating, and the more cards a player holds. And of course, the stronger leaders have higher ratings generally, but as already indicated, these values will not affect the army as a whole, only the unit with whom the unit is attached or within his influence range.
Like leaders, unit cards also have a banner across the bottom of the card that contains essential information about that unit and its basic abilities and its special capabilities, if any. There are values assigned for attack, ranged weapons, defense, morale, life and movement. There is also a numerical value assigned that is used to evaluate a unit’ss worth when building an army. Units are worth from as low as twenty points to as high as two hundred and fifty, and they reflect everything from elephants and Libyan spearmen to Alarii Equites and Triarii to armed civilians and bare-chested Celtic warriors. There are a host of military units available, allowing a player to re-fight any of the engagements that occurred in the Carthaginian wars, no matter how minor the skirmish or how critical the major battle. The basic rulebook gives several historical battles. These include the Battles of Ticinus, Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae, and Zama.
Because this is a miniatures-type game, there is no map or board to play upon. Rather, the army as represented by the cards are laid out onto a play area. I like the concept of being free from the confines of a map, but I also like that using cards with printed attributes keeps play anchored in the realm of board games. This is one of the aspects of the game that really appeals to me. It is something of a hybrid, bringing two worlds together, not perfectly, but very nicely. I have always preferred board games to miniatures. In my judgement, board games offer a depth of play and complexity of design that is difficult to duplicate with miniatures. And for the most part, especially with more modern designs, the game is not a dice rolling contest. There are practical benefits to board games as well, namely, a flat playing surface makes it easy to simulate terrain and the movement of men over the ground, the game package is much smaller to pack and to store, is a lot less fragile, and it does not require an investment in an army of painted metal. In defense of miniatures gaming though, seeing a table with beautifully painted miniatures moving across a three-dimensional landscape is impressive to behold. It beckons the boy out of you and brings on a giddy excitement. It also brings a battleground to life. When I visited Waterloo for the 200th anniversary re-enactment, I recall how impressed I was at the large diorama with its hundreds of miniatures that was used to show the battle in miniature. It so easily conveyed the scope of the battle and the lay of the land.
In borrowing from both board games and miniatures games, Onus endeavors to be a little of each. Some players may prefer a more conventional hex and counter approach, like that found in GMT’s Great Battles of History series or SPQR, or the Commands and Colors games, all of which possess a strong appeal and offer certain advantages inherent to a more conventional design. What Onus gives is the ability to play out on a larger surface an engagement of antiquity using easy artistic and easy to handle playing cards but with all the relevant and important unit information printed on the cards themselves, or available by way of special markers that are placed on top of the cards as required. As a player, you feel like you have command of an army spread out before you. It feels more like a simulation and less like a game. This aspect has tremendous appeal for me and I would guess others as well.
Let’s discuss the rules a moment before diving into selected details. The rules book is fifty-three pages long in total, but that includes solo rules and battle scenarios and special rules. The basic game requires familiarity with thirty-five pages of mostly easy to comprehend and straight-forward information. There are a few places where the translation into English is somewhat confusing but on the whole, the rules are laid out well and contain useful illustrations. The designers are prompt in their responses with any questions should they arise, and Board Game Geek contains a plethora of information that will addresses most circumstances.
The game sequence is fairly simple: activate units, move and fight. For purposes of this writing, I am going to focus most of my attention on Event/Orders cards and combat because this is the heart of the game system.
In order to activate any unit to move or to receive special orders, a player must play from his hand an Order card. These cards will mobilize potentially every unit, a few units, or a single unit. Unless a unit is activated, it cannot move and fight, though if committed to a melee combat, it will continue to fight without the need for further activation. Once units are activated, they move in any direction desired, though depending on the movement undertaken, at reduced allowance. Order cards do more than just get the troops moving forward to engage, they represent the command structure of the army. With those cards, unit formations and functions are activated. Since we are dealing with antiquity, troops of the period possessed the ability to assume unique formations that increase potency and aid in the defense. The famous Macedonian Phalanx that was the scourge Alexander inflicted upon the Eastern world, or the Roman testudo, a splendid creation for protecting legionaries against arrows and stones, are two such examples. The ability to form into one of these formations or some other requires the use of an Order card.
The cards in Onus are dual-purposed. One edge lists an order, the opposite edge contains an Event and symbols that instruct the player on whether the Event advantages the defense or the attack. It has been said that military plans do not survive first contact with the enemy. I am not sure I concur with that sentiment entirely because many military operations throughout history did in fact unfold and succeed as planned. However, it is equally true that an inherent uncertainty exists with any military operation or engagement because not all contingencies, circumstances or outcomes, natural or induced can be anticipated, and whenever the human element is involved, there are unexpected actions and results. Event cards, then, represent both the doubts associated with military engagements and the unpredictability of life.
One point to note about cards is depletion. A player’s hand of cards may only be replenished at the rate of one card per turn, if they played at least one Order card. Only if a player did not use any Order cards are they able to draw more than one. This reflects, I think, practical limits on the ability of a general and his staff to command and control thoroughly his army, especially once fighting commences.
Conducting movement of units in the game is a little like a ballet. Because there is no hexagonal grid to govern placement and movement, players must coordinate the flow of their army. A player measures out the distance they want a unit card to travel, within their maximum allowance, but as units move, they must maintain freedom of space to maneuver because they may not pass through or over another unit without disrupting the unit passed through. While units have the ability to move essentially in any direction they desire, and may turn and reverse direction as necessary, if sufficient room does not exist to avoid hitting nearby unit cards, a player may find his intentions frustrated and worse, his line disrupted and ensuing confusion, especially as battle commences. I find this captures well the importance of line cohesion and the fact that insightful ancient commanders devoted a great deal of attention to where specific units were placed. It is not always easy to extricate a unit from an undesirable or exposed position, or to bring up for support a unit waiting in reserve.
This segues into the discussion about combat. I have read over the years that Pliny and Livy are not to be relied upon in their reporting of the sizes of armies and battle casualties. I am sure there is veracity in these criticisms, still, taking into account aggrandizement, hyperbole or honest mistakes, it seems to be the case that when two armies clashed, especially if they were generally evenly matched, significant numbers of men lost their lives. Life was cheap in the ancient world. This much is clear about Roman military operations during the expansion of the Roman Republic, that if an army was decimated in the field, they would raise another. They were determined to prevail against any opponent that stood between them and ultimate victory. In terms of game play, faithful to the period, this game is bloody. Units will suffer casualties and in large numbers. There is no subtlety and none is intended. Combat is a set-piece battle with the full intention of head-on combat.
Combat in this game is a simple process not encumbered by complex and highly technical rules and although governed by dice, is nicely balanced by the use of the Event cards. One does not feel like his efforts will be lost by an unfortunate roll of the dice, though the dice always carry with them the unknown. In the combat phase, called Melee Combats, the trading of blows is simultaneous, unless some event or attribute allows for a ranged attack or a first strike. This is realistic and reflects the reality that rarely in ancient battles when formations clashed did one side land a blow without his opponent reciprocating. So it is the case here that when a unit charges another for the purpose of melee, both sides roll dice to determine the result. Combat is a two-staged affair with the first roll determining if the attack impacts the defender/the defender dodges the blow, and the second roll determining the extent of wounds inflicted/to what extent the defender is shielded.
I want to return to the role played by Event cards. During any melee combat, before the dice are rolled, an Event card is randomly drawn and the effect, if any, applied. These usually affect both players in some way. The events make for a good show covering a variety of interesting outcomes, like stubborn resistance, fallen officers, traps and ambushes, failed attacks, battle cry, wind changes, massacre, and my personal favorite, massive casualties, which doubles the damaged caused by the attacking unit. These are just a few of the variety of events. Somehow this mechanism for introducing the element of the unknown into battle feels right. What the cards add to the value of game play is the emphasis on technical details one expects from a tactical game, but it accomplishes this by the elimination of intricate charts, tables and measurements. These cards also serve to account for the vagaries of armed conflict. This use of cards to substitute for tables that account for deflection and angle and distance, or that unlikely improbable strike, or unexpected result that defies the odds, makes Onus accessible and playable. I suppose the rolling of the dice against a potential outcome contained on a chart accomplishes the same thing, but the random drawing of a card makes game play more efficient.
it opts for an abstract approach that uses randomly drawn event cards to incorporate the unexpected
In addition to the random Event cards, players may play from their hand a single Event card in an effort to influence the melee to their advantage. Once the cumulative effect of all Event cards is accounted, the dice are rolled and the results applied. Unless a player withdraws, the two sides will slug it out until one side is no longer able to stay in the fight or is eliminated. As casualties mount, a unit’s moral is adversely influenced and its combat effectiveness reduced.
Another aspect of combat that I find enjoyable in this game is the way it accounts for unit facing, flank and rear attacks. Each unit card on each of its four edges is divided into sections. These sections are used to determine how much of a unit makes direct contact with the enemy. The number of sections in contact with the enemy determines the number of dice that are rolled for melee resolution. When an attacking unit charges into a defender, the card is moved into physical contact with its intended target. It may be that both by design and by circumstance two units do not align perfectly, meaning, both the defender and the attacker have sections free from contact because the cards are off-set in their alignment. Those free sections if they are not otherwise in contact with a different unit, are used to encircle the enemy’s flanks and rear and make contact on those fronts. This is represented by a counter with a curved line with an arrowhead. The counter is placed against the enemy’s flank or rear that is vulnerable to the encirclement attack capable of execution by however many sections of the attacking unit are free. I find this to be an excellent method to account for the width of a line or an extended formation that is able to wrap around an enemy’s flanks and rear and can play out with some interesting and unexpected twists as an attacker may find himself equally flanked by the defender during the defender’s turn. Units can also find themselves encircled and pinned, unable to move, and only able to defend themselves.
Another aspect of combat worth mentioning concerns ranged attack and skirmishers. The sequence of play provides for both a discreet ranged attack and a skirmishers phase. In the ranged attack phase, all activated units equipped with ranged weapons will carry out ranged attacks. This means, naturally, that archers and slingers can be dangerous. While not as devastating in effect as grape shot can be in a Napoleonic game, a sky dark with arrows and stones or bolts can certainly go a long way to ruining one’s day.
As for skirmishers, think of PT boats, and you get the idea. These guys won’t stand up long to a contest with heavies, but they are like mosquitoes and if deployed properly, are an annoyance because as skirmishers, they possess the ability to move, shoot, and move again. They may even withdraw from melee combat without receiving an attack.
As units suffer casualties, their morale degrades. This reflects the adverse effects on unit cohesion as casualties mount. Losses require moral checks. Failed checks result in broken units, meaning, they are disorganized. Fail a moral check a second time, what happens, you ask? Well, you guessed it, run for the hills! That unit commences Fleeing movement. And it will continue to flee away until it rallies or exits the battlefield. This is a truly miserable occasion if Carthaginian war elephants decide they don’t like those pointy Roman spears and determine to take an un-scheduled early lunch break and head home. Unlike units of men who, if they are fleeing will simply move through friendly units causing disorder, when an elephant flees, it simply mows down anything in its path. Not good for the boys from North Africa when this happens.
One other thought I would make about Onus is that it easily allows for a balanced sharing of command if team-play is desired, especially with the larger battles and where more than one leader is present for each side. This is especially true given the different commanding general personalities provided, allowing each player to roll-play somewhat. The rulebook makes provisions for team-play with recommendations about how best to accommodate multiple players. On the other end of the scale, there are also special rules for solo play should that be desired.
Let me say this in conclusion: This game is just plain fun. It plays smoothly, does not consume many hours of time, does not require regular consulting of charts and tables to resolve movement or combat, or rely upon a computer program for such calculations, instead, it opts for an abstract approach that uses randomly drawn event cards to incorporate the unexpected. The game provides players with all the relevant information they require on the unit and leader cards, comes with handy quick-reference cards with important reminders, does not use a map nor does it typically require a playing space larger than about 3 x3 feet is colorful and stylish in its use of graphics, and will never play the same way twice as players can adjust and vary the types and number of units for the contestants. What makes Onus appealing is that it preserves certain board-game mechanics while giving players the experience of a miniatures historical simulation game, but without the miniatures.
Livy wrote in the introduction of his work, The War with Hannibal, that he was telling the story of the most memorable war in history: that, namely, which was fought by Carthage under the leadership of Hannibal against Rome. For Livy, as a romantic historian, the war between Rome and Carthage was one chiefly about personalities. He tells of the war in a colorful, remarkable manner that allows one to relive the past. Onus borrows from this spirit, allowing players to experience the drama of the war fought so long ago. Enjoy.
About the Author
Michael has been playing military simulation games since the mid-1970s, starting with his first game (which he still has in his collection), ordered from the back page of a comic book. He then quickly graduated to Avalon Hill’s Battle of the Bulge, with the blue American and pink German armies. He spent many long hours sitting with his maternal grandfather listening to stories about military history, especially the War Between the States. Having grown up in Baltimore, frequent trips to Avalon Hill’s row-house headquarters was a necessity. After graduating from college, he attended graduate school then law school before heading out to sea with the U.S. Navy as a Judge Advocate. Twenty-five years and various deployments later, he is still serving in the Navy, but now as a reserve officer. Military history and service is a life-long passion. In his civilian life, he works for the State of Maine’s municipal league.
Michael enjoys grand tactical and operational level games especially, with a particular affinity for ancients, Napoleonic and Age of Reason themes. He also enjoys World War II simulations. His collection is varied and includes both old and new titles, from Avalon Hill, Battleline, and SPI to VentoNuovo, Draco Ideas and Legion War Games.
Michael lives with his lovely wife and two daughters with whom he shares his gaming passion, but in the family-friendly form of Euro games.