Gentlemen, your wish is my command!
Firstly, the game cost £50. I know wargamers who have balked slightly at that price-tag, and I know boardgamers who have been surprised it isn't higher. To be honest, the news of this release excited me greatly, as I've been very interested in grid-based wargames recently, and I was very happy to pay £50. In advance of the release, I would probably have said I was prepared to pay as much as £65 (grudgingly) but no higher. After purchase and play, I still feel £50 was a fair price.
The box art and graphic design is of excellent quality, and the box is sturdy. It has a plastic handle, and a lid that is hinged at one edge, with little flaps that fold away and keep the box reasonably securely shut. It's of the same type as some laptops ship in, and does indeed look like something that could stand up to the rigours of travel a little better than the average game box. I was a little surprised that it wasn't poly-wrapped. Perhaps there wasn't time to do so before the game's release today. or perhaps that plastic handle makes it problematic.
A pleasant surprise- the box is fitted with a good quality, firm foam insert to minimise stuff moving about inside and being damaged. Brilliant. They're certainly serious about this being a portable game.
The two halves of the plastic game board are 10 inches square, and between them are stowed the rules and the sprues of soldiers, buildings, trees and bases. All the plastic is made by Renedra, and the sculpting, tooling and casting are as good as you'd expect. This is where the pricetag of the game must justify itself, and the quality here is hard to deny.
The scale is described as 8mm, and this fact in particular has surprised many, and actively displeased a few, falling as it does between the industry standards of 6 and 10mm. For myself, this news didn't particularly trouble me. I do not have a collection of Napoleonics (of any scale) that I would want this box to compliment or integrate with, and having played it, I think the game is so clearly designed to be self-contained that this shouldn't really be an issue for many. A few may wish to expand Travel Battle beyond the supplied armies, and there the scale could be an issue.
The rulebook (or rules pamphlet) doesn't quite scream 'quality' in the same way as the other components. It is A5 in size, and made from two sheets of folded A4, giving a total of 8 pages. One page is the cover, one and a half are given over to pictures identifying the models (and instructions on their assembly) and another page and a half to tips on painting the miniatures and the terrain. This leaves just four pages for the entire ruleset of a Napoleonic wargame. I admit to a little initial apprehension! The rules were the one thing that we had seen or heard nothing of before release.
I spent a happy 45 minutes snipping and glueing (which went as smoothly as one expects from a Perry/Renedra kit), and stopped to admire the result.
The game boards are fixed in terms of layout, clearly as a concession to portability, manufacture and ease of stowage, but they are cleverly designed so that any combination of orientations gives a continuous battlefields with roads that continue smoothly over the join. This means (if my arithmetic is correct) that the two boards offer 16 different possible configurations. Extra sets would happily compliment it for a larger game and would increase the possibilities exponentially.
The miniatures are cast in blue and red, and each army consists of 3 Brigadiers, 2 stands of Guard Infantry, 6 of Infantry, 2 of Heavy Cavalry, 2 of Light Cavalry and 2 cannon. Identifying each on the tabletop is a little tricky at this scale, especially unpainted. Most at fault is the Guard Infantry, which differs from other infantry only by the addition of a little furled standard which protudes from its front rank by perhaps two millimetres. I would recommend some sort of paintjob if only for the purposes of identification. It is also necessary to keep track of which Brigadier belongs to which units- again, a challenge without some sort of visual distinction.
So, the game...
My opponent was my wife- most emphatically NOT a wargamer (she still has stress memories of the time I made her play Kings of War, and will now reject any game outright if she thinks she may have to roll more than two dice). I managed to convince her that this was really a boardgame, not a wargame at all, and closer to chess than Warhammer, and happily she agreed to play with my new toy.
I skipped the layout and deployment phases, and instead set out board and armies exactly as in the rulebook example. This was mostly for reasons of speed, but also because I was unconfident about how to build my army. I have practically no knowledge of Napoleonic army composition, and the rulebook's invitation to each player to 'divide their troops into 3 Brigades how they like' was diconcertingly vague, so I simply followed their example rather than look up how such armies ought to be organised. This was the first of many occasions where I felt an additional sentence or two of direction or clarification would have been welcome, without compromising the spirit of brevity.
The rules for board orientation are cleverly randomised by dice roll, and deployment is alternate, one brigade at a time; a brigade being a collection of elements in a continuous string of contact (orthogonal or diagonal) with a lone mounted brigadier. Each player has three brigades to control with three brigadiers. These 'strings' of contact must be maintained throughout the game, and 'orphaned' units separated from their command can do nothing but fight if attacked (or shoot in the case of artillery). This concept turned out to be key to the concept and appeal of the game, but I had to read the sentences which explained it many times, because they were not very clearly phrased, at least for my poor Salute-jangled brain!
the depleted Blue army is rounded on by the remaining Red battalions
In addition to problems of phrasing, there are a few common questions which the four pages of rules do not cover or adequately clarify. Can friendly units interpenetrate when moving? (We decided they could.) Do the ploughed fields count as 'open ground'? (We decided they did.) Do squares with walls but no building count as 'built up area'? (We decided they did.) When a unit is 'pushed back' by an enemy in diagonal contact, which way should it go? (We let the defending player decide, but always favouring an unoccupied square over having to push back another friendly unit.) When 1 unit beats 2 in a fight by a margin sufficent to kill, which of the defeated 2 should be removed? (We allowed the attacker to decide).
As you can see, we had no problem house-ruling where needed, and some of these errors, I'm sure, are probably down to our first-time misreading of the rules, but I do feel that the rulebook would benefit from just a little more text to expand and clarify here and there. An extra A4 sheet in the rulebook would mean 4 more pages of space for this and some historical context, which is also lacking.
However, these criticisms are small and they are the only ones I have. because I have to say, I LOVE this game! It's deceptively simple, and elegant in execution. It offers command decisions that reflect something of the period without any unnecessary complexity. You must preserve the cohesion of your battalions while keeping them mobile. Bunching them up keeps them easier to command, but less useful in battle. Massing two units into a single square will make them better in combat, but will also make them a juicier target for a well-placed cannon shot. Simple solutions are used to represent certain things efficiently. For instance, 'Forming square' is as simple as placing an element diagonally in its square- so doing, the unit foregoes movement and receives a bonus die to its defence against cavalry, but if attacked by infantry, it is they who will receive the bonus. A cannon can target any unit up to 6 squares away. To hit a unit at maximum distance it must roll a 6. At five squares, a 5+, at four squares distance, a 4+, etc. This is intuitive, efficient and easily memorised. Combat is resolved by simple opposed rolls with rerolls and bonus dice to reflect advantage to one side, and the margin of difference between the opposing rolls dictating severity of result.
I'll admit I'm no expert on Napoleonic warfare, but to me Travel Battle felt like a perfect compromise between a game and a simulation. The game was abstracted, but never in such a way that felt in direct contradiction to logic or expectation. The game was quick but not too quick, simple but not simplistic, fun but not lightweight. Even the non-wargamer enjoyed it! I'll be playing it again soon, and I consider my £50 very well spent.
Do I think the scale or the set nature of the terrain tiles is a problem? Not for me. This is a self-contained game. The pleasure of the play lies partly, like chess, in the fact that the playing field is equal- the armies are identical in size and makeup, and the topography won't drastically benefit or punish either player however they are arranged. It's not a system for refighting Waterloo, and doesn't aim or claim to be. Although it's difficult to know how I'll feel after a few more games, I don't think this is a game which will benefit from adding stuff to in the form of other miniatures or new rules. It makes a virtue of being stripped down to the bone and entirely self-contained, and there are other rules that will better handle that sort of expanded remit.
Not completely flawless in execution but very good quality, fundamentally sound and heartily recommended.