My next stop on the tour de Matrix Games took me to Michael Cooney and Tim Coakley, who showed me their Horse and Musket games. Technically powered by the Horse and Musket 2 engine, the games themselves are Horse and Musket: Prussia's War Machine and Horse and Musket: Prussia's Glory. You might expect that these games are based on horses and/or muskets (and potentially Prussians), but you'd be only partially correct. There are, indeed, both horses and muskets in play, but the name is intended to evoke a period of time when said pieces were two-thirds of the battlefield - with artillery serving as the final atom in the molecule.
The engine is designed to serve for (predictably) the Prussian conflicts through the Napoleonic period and through the early Civil War. If you like this era in warfare's history, you may want to check out these titles. But, you ask, what is the game's hook? Why is this game one we'd want to play regardless of the particular time period? The real meat of the game is its battle-line mechanics and leader-activation system. However, I'd be absolutely NEGLIGENT if I failed to mention some of the very neat customization and personalization options that are included. So, let's get to it!
Starting off, I'll tackle the leader system and its effect on gameplay. The first thing to contemplate is the pyramid scheme of leadership. If you consider your field general, he has the ability to command just about any unit in his effective radius. He's in charge, so if he's close enough for a unit to "hear" him, that's that! Below him, however, is a structure of leaders that command varying levels of responsibility and capability, meaning that they'll affect more or less troops according to their individual attributes when they have an opportunity to do so. This opportunity is created based on their proximity to attached units and their chance to "activate" - or take a turn ordering those troops around. Horse and Musket requires troops to have an active leader in order for them to do ANYTHING, so you hope that they get these opportunities often. Moving, firing, changing formations, rallying after a defeat, whistling at hot chicks, grilling burgers ... all things that require leaders! Using this system, battle effectively funnels through a select group of units and allows their opportunities to be the vehicle by which players fight. Allow me to explain.
If my side has Gen. A and Majs. B and C, we might have a chance for all three to give orders. One or more of them, however, could fail to "activate," and he'd miss his chance to utilize our troops.
As Tim described it, "His strategic orders didn't arrive in time, or he didn't understand the messages that he received and was afraid to act without clarification ... some battlefield mishap like that."
The more talented your leader, though, the less likely this is to happen, so good leaders make a huge difference ... as they did historically. A caveat to this activation mechanic, however, is the "always activate" condition. If the majority of a leader's commandable forces (I recall the number being something like 70 percent.) are in active combat, the leader will have a real sense of urgency and thus will always activate when he has a chance to give orders. He's not going to sit around while his forces get shot!
Getting back to the effects of the activation system, I note that my leaders won't necessarily go in order - A, B, C. "Initiative" (as a lot of traditional games would call it) is determined by the engine and based on random chance combined with (once again) leader attributes, so good leaders will activate early and often. This system also considers enemy leaders, meaning that battle order isn't as simplistic as "you move all your guys, I move all my guys," or "we alternate moving units around," but rather becomes an organic flow based on the relative skills of the two forces involved. Excellent! So what if your leader activates, but you don't want him to do anything yet? At that point, you can defer your move, and your leader will get another chance to activate - but note that I said another CHANCE! The reward here is that your leader will get to see how things play out before he moves, but the risk is that he might not actually activate when his turn comes around again.
So, how do these leader mechanics really influence the battle? What gross tactical effect comes out of a system that requires troops to be near their leader units, randomizes (within reason) the order in which leaders move their troops and ensures that fighting at the front continues without break? It results in forces that have to observe battle lines, which is again true to history and the battle plans of the period in question. This isn't JUST a result of the mechanics - and I'll speak a bit about the other effects in play - but it is largely due to this collection of factors.
First, it's tough to enact a Panzer punch through the enemy line when it's unclear exactly which unit is going to get to move at what time. Additionally, doing so requires exposing your precious leader to enemy fire - and if he goes down, his troops will be in sorry shape indeed. Speaking of troops in a sorry state, morale also reinforces the line combat model - because the same leaders that issue orders also reinforce the spirits of troops under fire and rally those that may break and flee. Doing so follows the same scope of action as issuing orders, so a leader needs to stay close to his men and have the freedom of movement necessary to react to a shifting situation. This freedom evaporates when surrounded by bad guys.
Since I've mentioned fleeing troops, I want to interject a small point of interest - which is the flight mechanics in Horse and Musket. Broken units don't flee a bit and suddenly recover; they don't back off a few hexes as an orderly unit and hang out, waiting for someone to stroll by and motivate them to get back into the battle. Instead, they SCATTER and continue to flee until someone stops them - which would seem to be a far more realistic approach than the usual mechanics one finds in war games and again reinforces the line concept. If fleeing troops take off away from the enemy and you have a leader with an action, he can stop and rally them. If the leader was up in the fray, punching into enemy territory, he'd probably not have such an opportunity.
Returning to the line itself, for one final mechanic that hits home, attacks that you make in the front lines affect all adjacent enemy units. This reminds us that while we carve battles into hexes and squares, having units designated on certain spaces, actual line combat was very continuous ... that's why it was line combat instead of dash combat! This game effect ensures that any units getting too close too soon, without the support of their peers, get a disproportionate amount of damage and are likely to be demolished - which makes sense, because they broke their battle line. In short, stick together, move together, hold your line and profit!
Lastly, I wanted to bring up some of the personalization that's been put into the Horse and Musket engine. They've elected to leave the artwork moddable, meaning that you can create custom graphics for your own group of troops. This is accomplished at the individual level, and these individuals are assembled into the units that would live on a hex and would constitute an entity in game terms. In essence, you could create a dozen individual pieces of art and use those to assemble tons of units with slightly differing looks - but all still clearly part of "your" army. Individuals can also have animations that accompany them, and I watched several bannermen snap open and wave their flags, along with the occasional rearing horse or flashing saber. This means that your own, customized army could have animations to go with it - and eventually your online opponents could learn to fear your pink and lime-green Prussians of doom, with their taunting "chicken dance" animation firing off on occasion.
While I'm focusing on battlefield atmosphere, I also wanted to note that Horse and Musket has a nice system for battlefield "fallout." When a unit takes enough damage to kill a certain amount of its forces, an individual will fall over and "die," remaining on the battlefield to represent a bit of the carnage that one would expect to see as a mortal struggle is taking place. Other examples of litter can also accumulate, so the evolving battlefield can (to a certain extent) tell the story of the battle if you know what remnants represent what happenings. It's a nice touch that reminds us again of the accuracy that many modern war games are capable of producing, and Horse and Musket doesn't fall short.
All in all, there are a few things that will draw gamers to Horse and Musket products. The leader system and the odd turn order that it provides will attract folks that like to develop a fluid battle plan capable of reacting to mishaps in development. The line combat will attract folks that never really appreciated the "commando" tactics that certain war games allow and prefer to fight their encounters side on side instead of unit on unit. I expect that the option to customize artwork and develop a personality for your force may well attract some of the classic miniature gaming crowd, as modeling up some guys for your force has to be similar to the painstaking paintjobs that many of them apply to their armies.
Lastly, it'll probably attract me - because watching a few display turns at the Matrix Games booth made me think (as I wandered around the show floor) about the various strategies that a player would have to employ to succeed in the Horse and Musket games, and that's a good sign of an engaging product: to think on it when you're not actually playing it. So if it suits you, grab a Horse and Musket title and seek out my orange and purple wonder army for a bit of classic carnage!