The Fantasy Trip Melee Review by David Lent
Over the years, I have been a fanatical collector of microgames from the Golden Era. Microgames are far less expensive to design and produce than full-size games. This allows manufacturers to take risks with microgames that they could not afford to with full-size games. Many microgames cover seldom-gamed topics or use revolutionary mechanics. Metagaming released the microgame Melee in the late 1970’s and it brought individual gladiatorial style combat to gamer’s tables at an ultra low price. You created your own character and not only could you fight against humans, but there were giants, animals and other fantasy creatures you could fight. In addition, your character gained experience from fights he survived and could level up just like in a role-playing game. Steve Jackson actually used a mutation of Melee’s basic rules in his highly successful GURPS role-playing game after he left Metagaming and started his own company.
Last year, I was roaming around the Internet reading about old wargames and came across an announcement from Steve Jackson Games that The Fantasy Trip Melee, Wizard, In The Labyrinth and the Death Test series would be republished by Steve Jackson Games. I almost fell out of my chair. Used copies of these games were going for insanely high prices on eBay and soon anybody would be able to get copies of these for microgame prices.
The new Melee comes in a slightly larger box than the original and has a great picture of a Roman Legionnaire on the cover. The counters are larger than in the original version and are now die cut, so you don’t have to cut them out. Melee’s map is essentially the same as before, but with much larger hexes. There are three D6 dice included in the game and they are high quality. Most of the other changes in the new Melee are in the rulebook.
Melee’s new rulebook is a little bit longer than the original, but some of the rules have been clarified or changed. The game is basically the same as before, but the rulebook is easier to understand and some of the gray areas in the original game have been clarified. Some of the changes I’ve noticed is there is now a shield rush option, which allows you to knock an enemy to the ground. Disengaging has also changed. Previously, if you disengaged from an enemy who had a lower modified dexterity he could attack you while you disengaged with the difference between the two characters modified dexterity subtracted from his modified dexterity. In the new rulebook, only an enemy with a higher modified dexterity than you can attack you on the turn you disengage. The pole weapon rules have changed a little bit also. If my memory is correct, pole weapons did double damage when charging in the old rules. In the new rules, they do one extra D6 of damage. There may be other changes and clarifications in the new rulebook, but I was not able to do a side-by-side comparison, as I no longer have the original version of Melee.
In Melee, your character has three basic stats: strength, dexterity and movement allowance. When you build a human character, you have 24 points to put into strength and dexterity, but neither may have less than 8. The type of armor you are wearing dictates your movement allowance. In addition, the better your armor is the more it reduces your dexterity. Shields also reduce your dexterity. Shields and armor are very important in this game, because they soak up a certain number of hits per attack. Strength determines how many hits you can take and what types of weapons you may use.
Characters may carry one dagger and up to two other weapons. A shield takes up one weapon slot though. Weapons are either ready or put away. A shield hung over your back, so you can use a two-handed weapon will still protect you if you are attacked from behind though. Pole weapons have special rules as mentioned before and can attack from a distance. Regular melee weapons have different damage amounts, but most require a minimum strength to use them. A dagger can be used as a melee or a hand-to-hand combat weapon. In addition, if you put it in your left hand you can use it to block attacks. There are also ranged weapons such as slings, bows or crossbows. Some can be fired twice a turn if you have a high enough modified dexterity. What’s really cool, is your character can always pick up a rock and throw it. Sure, it only does a small amount of damage but it ensures any character has a ranged attack weapon. Ranged weapons are affected by range. The range is determined by the number of mega-hexes to the target. Prone crossbowman get a +1 modifier, which makes sense. However, they can reload while prone, which is really difficult to do in real life.
The sequence of play is:
- Roll for initiative
- Player with highest initiative chooses options and moves
- Next player chooses options and moves
- Force retreats. If you damaged the enemy, but took no damage yourself you may retreat the enemy one hex and follow or stay put and become disengaged.
- Counters for prone or dropped weapons are placed in appropriate hexes
The options available for characters depend on whether or not the character is engaged.
- Move up to your MA
- Charge Attack. Move half your MA and attack.
- Dodge. Move up to half your MA while dodging.
- Drop. Move up to half your MA and go prone.
- Ready a new weapon
- Attack with a missile weapon. Move up to one hex and shoot.
- Stand up at the end of the combat phase or crawl 2 hexes during movement.
- Shift one hex and attack
- Shift one hex and defend
- Shoot off one last shot before being engaged
- Change weapons
- Attempt hand-to-hand combat
- Stand up
- Retrieve dropped weapon
Hand-to-hand combat exists in this game, but the character initiating it must meet the prerequisites. The enemy must have his back to a wall, not be standing, have a lower MA or you attack from the rear or the enemy agrees to hand-to-hand combat. The defender then rolls to see what happens. He may drop all weapons, ready a dagger, no HTH may occur or the defender automatically gets a hit on the attacker with his weapon and retreats him one hex. If HTH begins, either a dagger or just hands are used. I personally, try to avoid hand-to-hand combat in this game, because I’ve found that regular weapons do far more damage. HTH combat seems more thematic than practical in this game, but if you’re trying to simulate a bar fight in a homemade scenario you will need HTH combat.
When you first start playing this game, you will probably choose to have a lot of arena/gladiatorial type encounters. It’s fun to build your character and watch how a high strength, heavily armored character with melee weapons performs against a high dexterity, fast moving archer. The archer will obviously try to shoot you to death from a distance, but you can use dodge to reduce the amount of hits you take until you can charge your lightly armored foe and do lots of damage with your powerful melee weapons. After you get used to gladiatorial combat against humans, you can start fighting animals, giants and other fantasy creatures. Some of these creatures and animals are really tough and it will take several humans to take them down.
Characters can also choose to be fantasy fighters instead of humans. Each has a different total number of points to use in stats and different minimums for each.
Regardless of whether you choose to play a human or fantasy character, you can still level them up once you get enough experience points. The amount of experience points you earn depend on whether the enemy you defeated had better attributes than you and what kind of combat it was. Combat to the death gives 50 or 100 points to survivors depending on the stats of the enemy. Arena combat awards 30 to the winner, 20 to defeated survivors and -10 to characters that ran away. Practice combat does half damage and a player drops out when he has 3 or less hit points left. The winner gets 10 XP. Once you have 100 XP, you can add one point to strength or dexterity.
Melee is an easy to learn pre-gunpowder combat system that is super fun to play and allows you to use all the weapons and armor types you could ever want. In addition, it has all the movement and attack options you need for a man-to-man combat system. It has stood the test of time and can hold its own against any combat system used in any role-playing game today. If you want spell casting rules, you can pick up its sister game Wizard, which is 100% compatible with Melee. The ultra-low retail price tag of $14.95 makes this game extremely affordable and I highly recommend it.
Buy your own copy here.
View the components in the unboxing video below: