The Ballbusch Review: Land of the Free

Let’s  have a look at Land of the Free, Osprey’s new wargame rules for the various conflicts in North America from the mid 18th century to the first years of the 19th.  In other words: the beginning of the French and Indian War to the end of the Anglo-American War of 1812-1815.
 I shouldn’t say this, but that flag is historically inaccurate
Author:                Joe Krone
Pages:                  148 (Hardcover)
Publisher:            Osprey (2014)
Price (2015):       $25.34 (Amazon)
 Physically, Land of the Free is a handsome, lavishly illustrated book.  The production value shows the resources that publishers have been pouring into historical rules over the last five years.  A decade ago a game book of this quality would only have come from GW or WotC.  However, these days it is par for the course with the larger companies. 
 The rules have been written with scalability in mind.  A base in Land of the Free (hereafter LotF) can represent anything from a few men to a company.  One or more bases forms a unit (termed an element in the rules; however, for ease I’m going to stick to the generic phrase ‘unit’), which could again be anything from a file (18thCentury platoon) to a regiment.  The rules rate units by their relative size.  So, what is a huge unit in one game could be tiny in another.      
As a consequence there is no figure or ground scale.  A single casting could stand for one man or fifty.  Likewise movement rates and shooting distances are fixed by the rules an assumed represent greater or less, though still abstract, distances as the scale of the game changes.    
Rather than moving or shooting in defined phases, each unit can receive a set number of maneuver and combat orders in a given turn.  The exact number is set by the unit’s relative competence, and perhaps enthusiasm, but around three each is average.  One point of note is that units must expend a maneuver order to reload after shooting.  So, a certain amount of planning is necessary to avoid leaving your men flat footed in the face of the enemy.
I recently discovered that Madam Ballbusch’s numerous greats grand-father and my own fought on opposite sides of several battles of the American War of Independence.  Relations between the families haven’t improved much since.  
           Leaders can issue a certain number of additional orders each turn, again based on their singular charisma and marital prowess.  These can be either additional maneuver or combat orders, or special commands increasing the effectiveness of shooting, melee, etc.  However, pressing men to heroics carries risks, and there is a chance that orders beyond the unit’s normal maximum will cause disorder.
               Inactive units have only a limited ability to react to the actions of their enemies.  A player an issue a single combat or maneuver order to one of his units if an enemy receives orders nearby.  This does not trigger an enemy reaction, and is effectively restricted to defensive volleys.
               There is no mechanism to track causalities or for figure removal.  The total negative effects of combat are recorded by down grading a unit’s moral until it simply disintegrates.  This means that enemy action will not reduce a unit’s footprint over the course of the game.  An import tactical point in a period when the surest rout to victory was to turn an opponent’s flank.  However, direct combat losses during this period were fairly low, particularly in North America, so in the face of anything but the heaviest losses a unit would be able to more or less maintain its frontage.
               First let me say that LotF makes for very easy reading.  Concepts are repeated frequently and there is almost no abbreviations or other jargon to slow you down.  I got through the book in one sitting and felt perfectly able to play the game, though reference to the book would still be required.  
               As with all of Osprey offerings there are no pull out charts or quick reference sheets so players’ will need to create their own (something to do with not wanting/being able to shrink wrap books)Which actually makes for a good way to learn the rules anyway.  Not something that bothers me, but others might be annoyed.  
A unit getting six actions in one turn?  Chance for cheese: high
               The order system is interesting.  At first blush I thought it was needlessly cumbersome.  Ordering a unit to move 3 inches three times is much slower than simply moving it 9 inches and being done with it.  However, upon reflection I see that the system grants flexibility without letting the player do exactly as he pleases.  
               Since you can give any order in any order, a unit can fire, move, reload, fire again, and move away.  While unrealistic on an open European battlefield this does allow frontiersmen and Indians to use characteristic hit-and-run tactics.  Although this would still expose them to potentially punishing defensive fire, it is preferable to leaving vulnerable light troops in the open if following the traditional turn structure of move, melee, shoot, turn over.
               Also, tactical units of the period were still fairly clumsy.  Maneuver and combat were based on complex evolutions that required clockwork precision.  The need to issue multiple orders captures both the complexity of operations and general lack on initiative ingrained in junior officers and NCOs.       
Sort of 18th Century…I guess.  See?  I can always find and excuse for anime babes.
               Of course, by the end of the period a generation of global war would result in a far less ritualized conduct of warfare.  However, these rules make no attempt to cover the general European wars of the period; and both the American Army and the British Army in North America were generally old fashioned in their tactics.
               Hand-in-hand with the order system LotF puts great store in the ability of officers to directly affect the conduction of battle beyond merely directing the action.  I’m left with the impression that Mr. Krone see the relationship between the 18th Century army and its commanders and analogous to that of an orchestra and its conductor.  A mass of individuals that have united to become another man’s tool and act as an extension of his will.   
               I don’t disagree with this interpretation, particularly in the low level of warfare depicted by LotF.  It does ignore that role of junior officers; however, since encounters with more than a few thousand men on each side were all but unheard of in the Americas at the time, commanders were able to micromanage a way their counterparts in continental Europe could not.
Won’t work, don’t try
               LotF makes no pretense of being scalable to any of the great European wars of the period, and I agree that the rules are unsuitable for much other than what they are designed for.  This really isn’t a negative, there are other generic rule sets out there, and for my money I prefer rules spot on for the period over those that do everything halfway. 
               One last thing to comment on is the basing system; or rather the lack thereof.  LotF lets you do whatever you want with your figures.  To paraphrase one poster, a base is a thing with some number of figures on it and an element is some number of bases.  Some people may find the lack of guidance distressing, but I found it simple to follow and very easy to apply in practice.
               All in all I like LotF, and it is certainly worth the price of admission.  The ardent simulationist will probably grumble at the lack of detail, and a good deal of minutiae is simple hand waved away.  However, anyone looking for an accessible set of rules for the period that provide favor without being burdened by charts and record keeping won’t go wrong with LotF.
               While certainly not without its fair share of issues—and I’m sure the point system is very, very breakable—I recommend the rules for anyone looking for an easy entry point to gaming the American War of Independence or the larger battles of the French and Indian War.           

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  • Thuloid

    Interesting. I nearly tried out these rules at Adepticon, but Krone got sick and didn’t show up to run his own demo. Glad to get a look at the game. Amused by the lack of scale, model removal, basing conventions, etc. Feels strange, but there really are good reasons for it, I suppose.

  • Jonah

    Enjoying this rules review series – invested in Dux Bellorum off the back of it, and happy with my choice.

    I’d like to recommend The Shattered Crown Kickstarter back at ya. Having played the beta – It’s a great system, with bluff and counter-bluff unit activation and a host of other great features. More GoT than WFB.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Thank you. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

  • Porky_Poster

    For a moment I thought it was me. You’ve done this one:

    I’m hoping that means you’re playing through a good large stack of systems, just so large it’s easy to lose track.

    For the first-time reader: there’s some useful discussion at that previous post as well.

    • Thuloid

      I had that deja vu sense as well. Decided that I must have snuck a peek at a WIP post sometime back, but apparently not.

      • I did exactly the same thing 😀

        • i have no idea why it was in drafts, then. *confused*

  • Cedric my man you’re really nailing these reviews. And damn- your rulebook library must really be expanding.
    I’m liking these Osprey books. Pirates, Indians, Samurai…all the cool bits of historical stuffs, without Nazis and/or Zombies, which are sorta done to death in games now.
    This ruleset seems very skirmishy (iz totally a werd), and sorta reminds me of Infinity with the activations. Cool stuffs.

    And grrrr…at the question mark problem.
    Seriously grrrr.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Well, thanks.

      I’m going to go back through and try to fix the question mark thing,

      For reasons that we won’t explore here whenever Osprey publishes a book a copy is deposited in my hands. Storage is an issue…

      They’ve not a Fantasy skirmish magic game thing set coming out this month. We’ll see how that goes.

      • Thuloid

        Nice. Keep these coming.