The Marcher Lords Review
Review by David Lent
The Marcher Lords (TML) is an old desktop published game from 2003. It is a very simple game about the Norman conquest of Wales. The Normans have to conquer Welsh territory and build castles to help hold out against counterattacks by the Welsh. I picked up this game for dirt cheap online recently and decided to give it a go.
Since this is a desktop published game, all the components (including the counters) were printed with an 11″x17″ printer. Included in TML are counters, map and a rulebook.
The counters look nice, but had to be glued to cardboard and cut out. I always complain when I have to do this, but my friend brought up an interesting point. He said, “You don’t complain about spending hours upon hours painting miniatures, so don’t whine about having to spend a half hour gluing and cutting out counters!” I guess he’s right. The counters represent Vikings, Irish, Welsh, Normans, Kings, Earls and lots of castles. The units have the combat strength and movement printed on them. Kings and Earls list their combat modifier and movement value. Castles just have +1 written on them to remind you that they give your force a +1 combat modifier.
The map is 11″x17″ and in color. It looks reasonably good and works well, especially considering it was printed with a laser printer. It has the kingdoms of Wales, the borderlands, Norman Earldoms and a turn track. The map is divided into kingdoms/Earldoms and each of those is subdivided into zones.
TML’s rulebook is only 8 pages long. In addition to the rules, it has 2 random events tables, unit legend, sequence of play table, Norman supply table and a siege chart. Unlike most wargames, the rules are very simple and can even be learned by a total beginner. This is good, because the world currently has a severe shortage of wargame titles that are suitable for beginners.
The sequence of play is very simple and straight-forward. It is:
1) Levy Phase
2) Random Events Phase
3) Movement Phase
4) Combat Phase
4a) Conduct Sieges
4b) Combat Resolution: Missile fire, melee and retreat
5) Activation Phase
6) Strategic Movement Phase
Player 2: steps 1 to 6
The levy phase is skipped during the first turn of both scenarios. Levying is done by drawing a unit from a cup and placing it on a mobilized zone. If it’s the first levy the Normans do on a conquered territory, they get a castle instead. Norman controlled zones are always mobilized, so they always can levy. Welsh zones are only mobilized if their kingdom is bordered by a zone with a Norman unit. Herein lies the broken part of the first scenario… the Normans must conquer Welsh territory and whenever they do, they cause not just Welsh zones bordering their new territory to mobilize, but the entire Welsh Kingdom those zone belongs to. Conquering territory causes the Normans to become completely outnumbered and lose. The Normans can’t win without conquering and whenever they do, it causes them to lose. It’s a catch 22 and should have been discovered and fixed in playtesting.
Random events are done by the phasing player rolling 2 D10 and looking up the number on their events table. Sometimes, the events are bad and sometimes they are good. Other times, they affect both players. The events could cause Irish or Vikings to arrive, they can change the weather, cause assassinations, cause castles to be abandoned or give +1 modifiers to melee or missile fire. These events add some nice randomness to the game.
During movement, only activated units may move. Recently levied units are not activated yet. Welsh can move anywhere they have enough movement points to reach without doing a supply check. Normans must make a supply check whenever going into neutral or enemy territory. If they fail, they cannot move that turn. Normans make a supply check by rolling a 2+ with the following modifiers: -1 for each counter over 3, -1 for each zone distance, +1 for clear weather, -1 for foul weather, +1 if Earl present. If this doesn’t seem fair to you, then we are in agreement. This game seems like it was written in such a way as to make it very difficult for the Normans to win.
Combat in this game is simultaneous, very simple and does not require a combat results table. If the defender has a castle, you first attempt a siege. This is done by subtracting the number of defenders from the number of attackers and using that number as a die roll modifier. If you get a 5+ the castle does not provide +1 to the defender’s die rolls. It’s way too easy to neutralize a castle in this game. After about 5 turns, the Welsh are attacking with overwhelming odds and it’s very rare for them not to roll high enough with the die role modifier to neutralize the castle. Please note that if you outnumber the defender by 5 or more, your castle sieges are automatically successful. Normans are the only ones who can build castles (though Welsh can capture them) and I’ve found them to be mostly useless after turn 5. My opponent thought that castles should take more than one turn to build since they took a long time to build in real life.
Missile fire is the second step in combat. Leaders and your own castles give a die roll modifier of +1. If your die roll with modifiers is higher than you combat strength, you get a hit. Any melee units killed in the missile phase do not get to fight in the melee phase.
Combat in the melee phase is done exactly the same way as in the missile phase. The Norman Knights and Welsh Teulus are the most powerful melee units. A lot of times, they die from missile fire before they get to fight though. It’s desirable to have a mixed force with both missile and melee troops. Levying is random though, so you don’t always get what you need the most.
In the activation phase, you finally get flip over your levied units. They are now eligible for movement when you get to strategic or regular movement.
Strategic movement allows one zone to make a normal move during this phase. It cannot move to an unfriendly or neutral zone though.
This game includes two scenarios: The Norman Conquerors and The Rebirth of the Welsh. I tried both of them and while I found the ruleset to be ok, the scenarios were completely biased towards the Welsh.
In the Norman Conquerors, the Normans must invade Wales and build as many castles as they can and kill as many Teulu as possible. As soon as the Normans invade, they quickly conquer a few zones and build some castles. This gives the Normans a few more levies, but entire Welsh Kingdoms are now activated and the Normans get more and more outnumbered every turn. Within a few turns, the Welsh have taken back all their territory and captured some castles. By the end of the game, the Normans were almost entirely eliminated. The Normans had 2 victory points for killing two Teulus, but a minimum of 10 points was needed for a minor Norman victory. I nicknamed this scenario, “The Normans Can’t Win.”
The Rebirth of the Welsh was different than the first scenario. In this scenario, the Welsh go first and only levy on even numbered turns. All of the Welsh Kingdoms are mobilized except one. The Welsh start with 23 zones and the Normans start with 14. In addition, there are no Norman Earls, but there are Welsh Kings, Teulus and Bowmen. Like the last scenario, there is no levying on the first turn. This scenario has the Welsh Kings move forward with their bowmen, Teulus and any infantry they can pick up on the way. By turn 3 they are taking Norman territory and gaining lots of momentum. Each turn that goes by, they gain more territory and every other turn they have a massive levy. The Normans were wiped out to the last man by turn 8. My opponent nicknamed this scenario, “The Welsh Can’t Lost.”
Overall, the rules for this game are decent and fun to play, but the game is not balanced at all. Everything seems to be designed so the Welsh will win. This game is useful for exposing a new gamer to wargaming, but they will quickly want something more balanced. In addition, there is only two scenarios so there is very limited re-playability.
Attempt to find this rare game on eBay.