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Posted on May 28, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

A Beautifully Designed and Implemented War Game! Arquebus Board Game Review

A Beautifully Designed and Implemented War Game! Arquebus Board Game Review

By Rick Martin

Richard Berg’s Arquebus Men of Iron Volume IV Board Game Review. Publisher GMT Designer Richard H. Berg Price $65.00

Rick Martin

Passed Inspection: solid game play, easy to learn, very detailed, great solo play, highly educational

Failed Basic: the counters are a little too small for “mature” gamers

Arquebus is the fourth in the series of Richard H. Berg’s Men of Iron games. The Men of Iron games look at the evolution of warfare from the Middle Ages to the Crusades to the War of the Roses. Now, with the release of Arqebus, Men of Iron turns its attention to the battles in Northern Italy from 1495 to 1544. During this time period, warfare began to change with the introduction of the primitive firearm known as the arbuebus.


From GMT’s wonderful description of the game on their website:

“Northern Italy – and especially Milan – at the end of the 15th century was the brutal focal point for power and control between France and the Imperialist empires of Venice and Spain. And the battles fought for this prize are a record of the changing face of how war was fought.

At the start of the ‘war’, the main forces were mounted men-at-arms and a tightly packed and closed formation of pike, especially as represented by the Swiss. But as battle churned into battle, that slowly changed. Firepower, in the form of the arquebus (an early musket) became increasingly prevalent and dominant, forcing the closed pike formations to open up, as the Spanish did (with sword and buckler), and the reliance on heavily mounted cavalry to decrease.

ARQUEBUS shows all of this in true die-rolling glory, featuring 8 major battles: Fornovo, Cerignola, Agnadello, Ravenna, Marignano, Bicocca, Pavia, and Ceresole. These are all really great game-players, with all but two of them half-mappers playable in 3 hours or less. The other two are the ‘tiny’ page-sized (8″ x 11″) Cerignola and the big one-mapper, the major, final battle of Pavia. Pavia was a crushing defeat wherein France lost over 50% of its army and almost all of its nobility of command, including her king, Francis I, who was captured. But for gamers, Pavia is wonderful gameplay, with units all over the greatly detailed map, much maneuver and many tough decisions to make.

ARQUEBUS uses the popular “Men of Iron” mechanics with much concentration on detail of weaponry, from the differences between closed formation and open, to the decline of the Swiss (pas d’argent? pas de Suisse), and the rise of the German Landsknecht, the major force in warfare of the era and, ironically, the best-dressed men in Europe. Yes, Landsknecht uniforms literally set the fashion trend at the time for the entire western world.”

The scale of the game is 125 yards per hex with a unit scale of 500-1000 Pikemen, 300-400 Missile troops and Light Cavalry, 150-200 Men-at-Arms, and 4-6 Cannons per counter.

The game comes with three sheets of full color double sided counters, two map sheets subdivided into different battle maps, play aids, a rule book and a scenario book. Two dice and plastic zip lock bags are also thoughtfully included. All the books are nicely illustrated and packed with plenty of examples of play.

The rule book, itself, is only 20 pages long and is well laid out and logically presented. An index helps keep page flipping to a minimum.

Each unit counter is color coated for the faction and commander making unit set up a breeze. Each combat unit is rated for unit ID, Shock Defense Die Roll Modifier, Unit Type ( arquebus troops, crossbow, mounted men at arms, infantry, etc.) and Movement Allowance. The flip side of the unit is its “Disordered” state – that is to say the state of the unit after it has taken damage. Combat effectiveness of the weapons used by each unit are represented on an easy to understand chart which matches the unit type attacking with the target of the attack and gives the modifiers to he die roll. Roll above a 10 sided die and modify the roll with the modifiers and the results can be from no affect to attacker disordered to defender retreats, disordered or destroyed. Leaders are rated for charisma, command range, activation ratings and movement allowances and these leaders can help influence the fight. Conversely, leaders can be killed and captured and these losses can have a horrible effect on their troops.

The game is not played with traditional turns. As with the other Men at Arms games, Arquebus features a loose turn sequence in which die rolls are attempted to keep the initiative with one side or another based upon the leadership ratings of the commanders. The opposing player can attempt to seize the initiative by rolling against his commander’s leadership rating. In addition, seizure counters are provided and can be randomly drawn to modify the initiative of your troops. This makes for a dynamic game where both players are constantly watching and plotting.

The sequence of actions which occur during the turn includes the activation phase in which the player chooses a force of units to activate, the move/fire phase in which units can move or fire their ranged weapons, the shock phase in which the units engage in melee or charging combat, the rally phase in which units try and recover from morale issues and the continuation phase in which players try and either maintain the initiative or steal it.

Casualties subtract from an armies’ morale and are tracked on a Flight Point Tracking Chart. When an army’s morale/flight points drop to zero, the army is broken and leaves the battlefield or surrenders.

The ranged weapons can be decisively used to turn the tide of battle. The arrival of the arquebus provides a whole new tactical advantage for units to exploit in this game.

For each battle, Berg has thoughtfully included full historical details and plenty of examples of set up and play. In addition, a full overview of these wars is included to helps set all this in perspective.

In response to some criticisms of previous games in the series regarding scenario balance, Arquebus includes optional variants for each scenario which alter the forces in favor of one side or the other.

My only complaint with this game was that the printing on the counters was a little too small for my “mature” (cough, cough) eyes.

Arquebus is a stunningly visualized and produced war game. The system lends itself very easily to both solo and multi-player games. It is quite simply magnificent and a must buy for aficionados of games covering this time period.

Armchair General Rating: 97 %

Solitaire Rating: 4

About the Author

A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer who can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!