Thursday, February 14, 2008

Featured game: Sticks and Stones, 30th anniversary

There are dozens or scores of wargames on some topics: Battle of the Bulge, Gettysburg, The Eastern Front. But despite the passage of 30 years since Sticks & Stones, Microgame No. 11, was published, it's apparently the only wargame to explicitly depict warfare in Neolithic times.
While the popular imagination sometimes imagines that humans once lived in more peaceful times before civilization, archeological evidence suggests that humans have died violently at the hands of their own species for a very long time. A graveyard in Egypt dating back some 12,000 years contains the remains of dozens who died from multiple wounds by stone-tipped weapons.
Whether humans are naturally violent may be unanswerable, but once humans developed weapons -- such as bows -- that enabled them to kill other men with relative safety, they got to it. There's ample evidence for fortified settlements dating back thousands of years and by the time the first battles were recorded in history after the development of writing it was clear that the military arts were already far advanced.
Sticks & Stones depicts the very early age of organized fighting using the typical techniques of a 1970s-era wargame. Units, which appear to represent small groups of warriors (a dozen or so) maneuver on a hex-gridded battlefield. Their military abilities are quantified with attack, defense and movement factors and battles are resolved via a D6 roll on an odds-based Combat Results Table. Units move and then fight in alternating player-turns. Aside from the uncommon, but not unique, rule allowing in-hex melee combat, it's a fairly standard wargame.
Various special rules give the game period flavor. There are dependents (women), goats and goods to be fought over. Newly domesticated dogs to help the warriors. And a straightforward scenario-development system that allows playrs to customize their tribal armies with reasonable historical accuracy.
Warriors come in two basic defense-styles, armored with a defense value of 3 and unarmored with a value of 2. Armor, at this early date, should be understood to be merely thicker clothes, extra animal skins or perhaps leather.
Weapons come in four varieties. There are "hands" with an attack value of 2. As it's against human nature to engage in deadly combat with just bare hands, I'd interpret "hands" to mean being armed with sticks, primitive clubs and rocks, not just fists. Men armed with stone axes have an attack value of 3. Spearmen have an attack value of 4, plus the abaility to attack from a distance of one hex away up to three times per game. The deadliest weapon is the bow, which can attack up to 3 hexes away with a value of 6 up to six times per game. The rules inform us that "bows" can also represent blowguns or throwing spears as well as bows and arrows.
Warriors can come in any mix of weapon and armor style, within the countermix and available "weapons points" running from 0 for an unarmored and weaponless man to 7 for an armored archer.
The game includes five scenarios which do a good job of covering the gamut of likely stone age fighting. There's a small raid on an unprotected village, a territorial ritual battle (which ends when someone is actually killed), a mastadon hunt (solitaire), a bigger raid on a protected village and a full-scale war between two neighboring villages.
In the last scenario there is a slight problem because the countermix doesn't include the two fortified villages required. One could either make another fortified village or alternately let one side use a protected village and give them 6 extra weapon points to make up the difference.
There are some optional rules including setting fires, running warriors, extended range for missile weapons and poisone weapons.
Considering the game has just a couple dozen small pages the game manages to cover a lot of ground and present what seems like a good simulation of prehistoric fighting within the limits of our knowledge.
The presentation is good considering the limits of the microgame format and 1970s printing. The map is functional, if undecorative. The counters have to be cut out and feature a rather idealized and buff view of cave men, but they work. The only color in the rules is the cover, but the body of the rules are clearly written and very well-illustrated for the era and format.
All-in-all it's a good and still unique wargame and well-worth picking up out of historical interest as well as an interesting game challenge.

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