Sign of the Pagan
Victory Point Games
www.victorypointgames.com Designed by Richard Berg
- 1 counter=500 to 1000 men
- 1 hex=200 yards
- 1 turn=30 minutes +/-
Sign of the Pagan is not just an obscure and preachy Sword and Sandals movie from the 1950s, but also a hex and counter style wargame published by Victory Point Games as part of their Gold Banner Product line. Sign of the Pagan was published in late 2013, and I’ve only played it about three times since I received it, so I’ll admit my understanding of the game is not what it will be, though overall pretty positive.
Sign of the Pagan is a game that focuses on The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, which comes down to us as “The Battle of Chalons“, which featured two large forces, Hun and Roman (by contemporary standards) . The forces on either side were neither entirely Hunnic nor very Roman, but were instead coalition forces of polyglot troops loosely allied on either side. The Western Romans, by this point in history, really weren’t close to being recognizable as the force that had conquered Gaul under the early Caesars centuries before. What was left was disciplined (for its day), mounted, and well armored, but not present in enough numbers to counter the Hunnic invasion. The local commander, Flavius Aetius, led a coalition of very willful and militant local tribes consisting of Visigoths, Salian and Ripuarian Franks, Sarmatians, Armoricans, Liticians, Burgundians, Saxons, Librones and other Celtic or German tribes. The invading Hun army, led by Attila, consisted primarily of Hunnic Empire cavalry but also sizable contingents from the Ostrogoths, Rugians, Scirii, Thuringians, Bastarnae, Alamanni, Gepids and Heruli tribes. The outcome of the battle was decided rout of the Hun Coalition, as predicted by the Hunnic diviners the night before. I won’t wax historical in this post as there are some good historical sources to read up on Chalons here and there around the internet, not the least of which being Wikipedia.
We have a great setup here– two coalition forces with allies that have the potential to be treacherous (some of them, anyway). The battle and troop mix favor shock factors such as heavy infantry and medium cavalry, all of which are in the mix. So how well does Sign of the Pagan do as a game?
The rules are a potage of elements that the designer, Richard Berg, has served up before. Activation is accomplished by Contingent Activation markers (CAMs) which have been around in one fashion or another since A Famous Victory. All very understandable. Players select CAMs, then roll for initiative winner and the winner places his CAM on the map. The remaining CAMs are put back in an opaque cup. Contingents are activated by drawing from a cup in random fashion thereafter. Movement is pretty standard stuff, and facing counts.
Combat comes in two flavors, Missile and Shock. Missile is nothing we haven’t seen before– units have to be in range, units have to be seen, the firing unit must have a missile factor, and there other factors possibly in play, such as movement and whether the unit is engaged. Missile Combat is resolved on a Missile Fire CRT which is fairly bloodless- the worst result being a DISORDERED marker. Shock Combat is handled somewhat differently, and is heavily modified by troop type, Position advantage, Momentum, and current Morale. The goal is to get the enemy disordered twice; that eliminates them. I found that a preliminary arrow shower followed up by a rush of men with swords and axes is the best combination.
Also included in the game are eight OPPORTUNITY CARDS (above) for either side which are shuffled, and four are drawn for both sides. The Opportunity Card is like a “one time interrupt” event that modifies the outcome of the current battle. The rulebook states they can be played at any time– a general rule that is modified by the event description on the card. Note that there are really only FOUR cards– the other four of the eight are “no events” just to add a little variability and randomness. Even so, I suspect you could play a bluff with a No Event card if you have the right stuff theatrically.
In the three games I’ve played so far, the rulebook appears to lay things out in a fairly sensible manner and there was nothing about Sign of the Pagan‘s mechanics that was profoundly difficult to grasp, on the face of it. And yet… there were many occasions where I was confused or just plain interpreted the text incorrectly. Some of the steps and exceptions to combat are vaguely worded and I found myself re-reading parts of the book again and again in order to grasp the designer’s intent. If that fellow is engaged with that fellow and another fellow comes up and attacks from here, the rules state this exception…
Personally, I think the rulebook would have been greatly improved with an illustrated example of the first 3-4 turns of a game, just to see how movement, activation, command and combat actually work. There are a smorgasbord of mechanical elements to this game that appear familiar but ultimately made me feel like I was eating ala carte. This is not to say it isn’t an enjoyable game– once I got the hang of things, I really liked it. This is an interesting period, very rarely a subject of a wargame design. I liked the period, I liked the tactical situation very much. I liked the treacherous Alans tribe– shades of the Kobayakawa clan in Berg’s earlier Shogun Triumphant!
On the material side the components really won me over. The counters are published in that new big, chunky style favored by Victory Point games.. they are solid in the hand and don’t blow away when you sneeze. The graphics for the counters are decent but not eye-catching, the map is elegance personified. The printing is a little muddy in places (particularly the color charts) but very readable.
If Sign of the Pagan is illustrative of the VPG’s continuing efforts in promoting nice little one-shot battle games with great components, all at an affordable price, than I’m all for it. I was already a fan of VPG but games like Sign of the Pagan will induce me to stay that way.