In this article I review Patrol Angis, the rules set for wargaming in The Ion Age. If you've not yet seen The Ion Age (or its sister site Alternative Armies) then check them out; they're both great sources of 15mm miniatures and more. Patrol Angis covers infantry and battlesuit combat only; the expansion book Callsign: Taranis covers vehicles, which I won't talk about in this article. The vehicles in The Ion Age are very cool though, so check them out too!
I'm not generally given to writing reviews, but when I was considering purchasing this book for myself I tried and failed to get my hands on content about the game, so figured I'd write some. I'm going to go quite in-depth I this review, so if you're looking for a short summary review this isn't it and you'll probably want to skip to the conclusion at the end.
I'd like to prefix this review with the fact that I'm currently playing this game on my own (the game has a basic solo system, which I'm not going to talk about today) and as such it is entirely possible that some of my rules or assumptions are wrong. If so, please do let me know and I'll correct them!
The Ion Age in all its glory!
Unusually for a 15mm game, which tend to be quite generic, The Ion Age has its own space opera storyline and background. It's an unusual setting, with Queens, Barons, Peasants and Knights transplanted into a far future, a galactic civil war / power struggle, and a lurking alien enemy threatening to end all life. The miniatures evoke the setting really well; the Prydians and Marcher Barons all share the same model range of futuristic knights and high-tech peasant levies, and the aliens are humanoid but distinctly alien. There is a lot here to work with to inspire your own narratives for campaigns or simply feel like your miniature dudes have a reason to fight - almost half of the book is fluff. Even though I didn't initially think that the setting would be my thing (I expected it to be a little bit, I don't know, too pulpy) I really enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to reading more as the universe continues to expand.
Game System Overview
Alright, fluff over, this is why you're probably here. Patrol Angis (PA from now on) is a skirmish level 15mm game designed to be played initially with one platoon composed of about 2-4 few squads of infantry ("troop elements"). I'm not sure why the author designates it's a skirmish game as the system works equally fine with multiple platoons. It could be to do with the fact that the book is part of a series called "One Hour Wargames" and multiple platoons are less conducive to living up to that title, but it'd still be a quick game to play even with more stuff on the board.
And this game does indeed play quickly. Weapons hit on a 2+ on a D8, and are a lot better at killing things than armour is at preventing death. This isn't a game where your units will hang around under sustained fire; things die quickly, and aggression is rewarded more so than in most games.
Movement works as you'd expect. Measuring is in centimetres, with most units being able to move 8-12cm in a normal move action. Standard rifle range is 70cm. Tables are built out of 30cm (12") blocks, so usually a standard 3x3 or 4x4 board.
A unit of Retained Knights and a mystical Banneret (left)
There are not a whole lot of rules, which I like a lot; the majority of the rules space is taken up with the options that your troops have available to them when you activate them, called "courses of action". You can do things such as the standard move-and-fire, move-and-melee, or run; there are also more "skirmishy" type actions such as self protect (dig in, hit the deck), overwatch, reform (letting you combine/split units mid game), and precise fire (no move, more accurate shooting).
The writing style of the rules is unusual to me, as a gamer used to mainstream games that have gotten better over he last 10-15 years at templating their language and being clear in their intentions (though that is far from always the case). Patrol Angis reads at times like you're sitting with the author in front of a roaring fireplace whilst he recounts a tale of his adventures. It's a fun read as there is a lot of the author's personality in the book, but it's not how I would prefer rules to be written. This isn't helped by the examples, which in some cases muddy or even contradict the rules. The author is super responsive and friendly on Facebook so you can get over these bumps easily, but I'd still prefer the rules to be tighter.
PA uses an alternating activation system. Each player rolls a D6 for each platoon he has, the highest single dice wins initiative AND every platoon gets that number of activation tokens - the player who wins initiative gets 1 extra on every platoon. Players then take turns assigning tokens to squads within a platoon. I like this system, as both players get the same number of actions but the total is variable; a 6-action turn could be bloody but a 2-action turn would be slow. This will be especially interesting in scenarios as you cannot guarantee the number of actions you will have in a turn, and it's a mechanic I've not seen before, which is cool. The only thing I don't like is the +1 for the initative-winning player; as you'll see below, an extra activation token is potentially huge and especially so across multiple platoons. I don't like that level of variance based on a single dice roll so I think I'll probably play without this bonus.
Every token is an action that your squad can take by spending the token. At it's basic level, this means that for every token the squad gets to move and fire - meaning that one squad can potentially activate many times in a single turn. Tokens can also be used to mitigate incoming damage or "re-motivate" which is essentially a stun/pinning mechanic that forces you to spend a token after failing a morale check before you can activate again. Whenever a unit is shot at it also gets a free action to fire back after the damage is done.
Retained Knights face off with a Havelock Battlesuit
What this leads onto is that larger units are pretty much always better in PA, and small units are inefficient by comparison. The game is supposed to be played with a single platoon, and the basic platoon is 22 men who must be composed into a minimum of three elements (with some further restrictions on the exact unit sizes). Therefore a 10/10/2 split is optimal; your 2-man unit is essentially pointless and you've now only got two units on the board, but it's still better than splitting 10/8/4, the next best combination. There really isn't much tactics to your manoeuvring when you're only controlling two units. This is the first big issue I have with PA; it forces me to game the system at army list creation rather than make a more realistic army that will give more flexibility and fun during games. Sure I could choose to not do this, but if my opponent brings 10/10/2 I'm going to lose to efficiency quite often. There is some arguable mitigation to this in terms of tactical flexibility and less vulnerability to morale if you have more, smaller units, but ultimately any advantage gained there would be drowned by the efficiency of larger units.
I'm not a fan of house rules; my traditional reaction to a game that needs houserules to work is simply to stop playing and find a new game. 15mm games feel to me like something that you should houserule if you don't like the way things play. Fortunately I think this issue can be fixed by small tweaks - some more rigid limits on how elements can be composed combined with possibly a cap on the number of tokens than can be assigned to a single unit should make for a more tactical, less kingmaker-y use of activations.
A 4-man troop element on a group base
Each platoon can also have a command unit. Your command units are designated platoon members that are in charge; command units can take an action to pass one of their unit's tokens to another unit, which adds great flexibility to how you spend your tokens but slows you down in terms of activations needed to get to use the token. When you pass a token, you roll a dice; on an 8 you lose the token. I really don't like mechanics like this; command is already self balancing in that you trade speed for flexibility, so this extra downside doesn't need to be there. I'm sure it's fluffily meant to represent the fog of war but I think it detracts from an otherwise cool mechanic, so I'm going to play without it.
Shooting in PA is simple; everything hits on a 2+ on a D8, every item of cover in your line of fire will add a -1/2/3 modifier depending on its thickness in cm (to a maximum of -4) and then there are a few other modifiers (but not too many, which I like); fast units, point blank shooting, large target, etc.
After you hit, the target tries to roll a 4+ on a D8 to save, modified positively by armour rating and negatively by weapon strength. If their weapon strength is 4 higher than the armour value, you get no save. Some weapons roll multiple dice and some weapons score multiple hits per hit; some do both (e.g. a railgun rolls one dice at strength 10 and deals 2 hits if successful; a chain gun has 3 dice at strength 4 and deals 4 hits per hit). Your average Knight has armour 3, the basic Knight gun has Strength 4. Armour saves are rarely better than 50% unless you are being shot by lower tech weaponry. Most infantry can take a single hit before they die; heavier infantry can take 2 or 3 and battlesuits 5.
An awesome Duxis Battlesuit, the heaviest unit in the basic Patrol Angis game
Melee uses the same mechanics, except that you auto hit. Every model hits once, or more times if they have a melee weapon, and your armour level is your weapon strength - an interesting but reasonable simplification, though I think I'd prefer if troops could carry some tank-busting melee weapons. As with shooting, surviving defenders get to hit you back.
Onto my bugbear with the combat system - hit allocation. The player with initiative decides how to allocate hits. What this means is that if you win initiative, all of your multi-wound units are going to have hits evenly distributed so they don't die, and all of your heavy weapons in units are safe from fire until their friends are dead; meanwhile you are taking out enemy battesuits by stacking up hits on the same model, and sniping the expensive weaponry out of enemy units. In my opinion, hit allocation shenanigans are not good for anyone and have no place in a modern wargame - it's gamey, and detracts from the enjoyment of the game by introducing a metagame mechanic. Fortunately there is an easy fix, and that is having either the attacker or defender always assigning the hits to models. Better again is to force assignation of hits to the same model until it dies (avoiding multi-wound-model hit distribution silliness and meaning less wounds to track with markers). My preference would be to have the defender always assign the hits and state that hits must always be allocated to already-damaged models first. Game simplified, unnecessary gameyness gone.
Between the ease of hitting things if they aren't in cover and the superiority of offence over defense, the poor denizens of the Ion Age do not last long on the battlefield, which is the primary reason the game is pretty quick to play.
Any time your unit suffers casualties, you check morale. It's a simple test with a few modifiers (more modifiers than I would like, but not as many as some games) and if you fail it you get a "re-motivate" token, subsequent failed checks can stack up extra tokens. As mentioned earlier this is basically a pinning mechanic (though your units do count as "broken" whilst they have a token and you lose the game if all of your units still on the board have re-motivate tokens!); every re-motivate token requires you to spend an action token to get rid of it, and until you do so you can't take other actions. I absolutely love this representation of morale/pinning and think it's even better than my previous favourite system for morale and pinning, used by Gates of Antares.
Army Lists and Points Values
Contained in the book are a plethora of tables as well as some loose platoon construction rules. We're told how the in-game factions are organised but that other armies use different organisational structures, so these rules come across as more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule.
Desteria super-heavy power armour
We're given a big table of armour and weapon stats. We're told what weapons certain units generally take in the in-game fluff, what weapons they must take, what armour they must take (there are only a handful of armour types and they are essentially part of the model's core stats). We get points values for everything.
We also get a small selection of special skills with which to personalise units. Veterans who remove their first re-motivate token every turn for free, Brawlers who get an extra dice in melee, that sort of thing. I would have definitely liked to have seen more of these and hope that we will get more in a future expansion - they really add interesting flavour to your squads and variation to your available tactics.
There is also a list of squad types, and the "demis" (think Space Marine combat squads) or "posts" (2 man teams) that can be chosen to make up those squads. These are essentially pre-equipped, small blocks of troops that follow the lore and that you can use as building blocks to flesh out a squad, but they don't have to be used - they're more of a guide to army organisation in the Ion Age, or a shortcut to building an army if you'd prefer not to arm each guy individually.
The system is clearly written for what I think is the most common 15mm audience. It's rigid enough that you can see how the author intended for the game to be played whilst being loose enough to feel like you can personalise your army. You can stick to the fluff organisational structure or go full on custom, or some hybrid of the two. The only people this won't satisfy are the people who prefer a single way of doing things - this does include me, and I think the list building would be stronger if it fully retained the customisation options whilst wrapping them in appropriate rigid rules (such as the number of troops in an element to combat the activation issues mentioned earlier). It would avoid players having to agree on an organisational ruleset to use and simplify things by having a single way of doing things. That said, it is still a great system, less open to abuse than free-form unit builders whilst still letting you do an awful lot.
The only other thing that I can see potentially being off are the points values themselves. It's clear just looking at stats that some weapons are pretty useless and you'd only take them for fluff reasons; a good example of this are Plasma Rifles, which exchange range and strength compared to a normal rifle for doing two extra hits when fired. But, this comes at the cost of being a support weapon, meaning you can't move and fire nor return fire when shot at; simply not worth it. Another example is the Shia Khan "Nox" unit, almost identical to a Retained Knight but gets 3 hitpoints instead of 1 for just a couple of extra points - I can't see how that could ever be balanced.
Shia Khan Nox, the alien equivalent of Retained Knights
Nonetheless, the points system is functional and very playable, and I don't think I would like PA nearly as much if it didn't have it. For most people I think any points imbalance won't be an issue, but if there are imbalances, I'd love to see a tweaked and heavily tested points system that would lead to even more balanced and tactical games.
It's difficult to compare 15mm rulesets because they're often so different, so rather than try I'll simply say this; Patrol Angis stands on its own laurels as an exemplar of modern wargaming. It is quick to play, it has elegant systems, and it is not overburdened by rules. It has a working points system. It benefits greatly from the awesome fluff of the Ion Age and the miniatures that go with it but could easily be used for any 15mm games you want to play. Despite its billing as a one-platoon skirmish game I can't see any reason why it wouldn't hold up well with 10+ units on the board.
It's certainly my favourite set of 15mm rules so far, and ticks more of the boxes than most 15mm rulesets do for a modern mainstream wargamer. In fact, it ticks more boxes than a lot of mainstream wargames do, too. I do think it needs a couple of houserules to be at it's best but I that could be said for any game. I'm genuinely looking forward to continuing my Ion Age journey and hopefully I can pick up some more players along the way.
I think this game also has potential to be a good tournament game, and that is something that most games can't claim. It plays fast enough to work well for events, and the ruleset is almost tight enough as I've discussed. With even a basic set of scenarios and a standard scoring system it could work great - I'd certainly be up for trying to host an event at my store if we could get the player numbers for it.
If you're on the fence about picking up the book, my advice would definitely be to do so. It's available as a good quality paperback book and also a PDF (I bought both). And if you're considering taking the plunge into 15mm, remember that you only need about 20 models - that's £10 in English monies - to field a platoon. There's also an awesome starter deal that comes with the rules and two small forces (which are all from the same faction, so you can combine them all into one force when you're finished practising) for just £40.
I'd love to hear any feedback on this article from Ion Age players, or potential Ion Age players who are swayed one way or another by this review. And as soon as I'm done painting and modelling I'll be posting some Ion Age battle reports here so stay tuned!
Cheers and thanks for reading!