Monday, 5 January 2015

Playing 'Onus!'. Rome vs. Carthage

I played this game some days ago, but hadn't have the chance to talk about it until now. So, what's this about?

Pretty self-explanatory, I guess
This is a Spanish board game recently released thanks to a crowdfunding campaign. Onus (Latin for burden) represents the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. Though the game can be set in any of the three Punic Wars, the fact of having Scipio Africanus and Hannibal makes it specially suitable for the Second War ;). Here you can have a look at their web (sorry, Spanish only for the moment). I'll make a very quick brief of the game:

You will be using cards, each one depicting a different tipe of unit. You may set a top of points to play (each unit has a different cost) or you can try any actual battle of the Punic Wars (formations and deployments provided in the rulebook).
We tried a 1000 points per side battle with four players. You choose your units; the side with more number of units begin to deploy their cards alternatively with the other side:

Deployment done in secret!
Then you flip them and the side that ended last sets thir general(s) first:

We got one generic general per side and, of course, Scipio and Hannibal
Each side has a number of 'orders' cards. Those will be used to activate units. Some cards allow several units to be activated (kinda Memoir '44, if you remember ):

'Total mobilization', all the units can be activated.
Well, that was an impressive beginning, the whole Roman Army advancing towards the enemy! I'm calling this a board game, but as I write I realize how inaccurate my description is. This is in fact a true wargame, but using cards instead of minis. The movement is done using rulers, each unit advancing a number of 'measuring units' (5 cm in fact).

Each unit has a different profile:

Lot of stuff to learn, but quite easy to get
From left to right: You can see the red band with the 'SPQR', which identifies this unit as Roman, and the cost of the unit. The sword depicts the strength of the attacks (two values are used, the first one to determine the impacts -by rolling dice- and the second one to effectively cause wounds -dice too-, so it's quite a wargaming dynamic). The bow is roughly the same for those units which can make distance attacks (the numbers determining the strength and range). The shield is... well, the defense values (I'll get into how to fight in a minute). The flag is the morale of the unit. The heart, the life points (i.e., how many wounds they have). The feet, how far a unit can move (in 'measuring units'). Over the feet you can see a couple of signs. Some units have distinctive skills with various effects. In this case, these skills are Spearhead and Ramming, special Cavalry abilities specially useful against Infantry.
You can also see the card is divided into sections, both on the long and short sides of it. I'll get into it when speaking of combat, for the moment just keep it in mind, it will be useful.

The Roman Sagitarii Bowmen shoot on the Carthaginians causing no harm
The turn is divided into different phases: activation of units, movement, shooting, second round of movement for Skirmisher units (if they can), close combat and regrouping/morale.

How does combat work? You get two enemies in contact (I guess everyone could have guessed that). Now you see the sections of the card. If the four front sections are engaged, we will roll four dice (If only three sections are in contact, three dice, and so on).

The Equites Cohortales with a General clash on Libian Spearmen
Each time a combat takes place, you draw a card from the deck and use the 'Event' on it (if applicable). Both sides can also use their 'event' cards in hand.

'Spears against mounts' and 'Traps on the land' events. The Libian Spearmen hold outstandingly well the charge and totally counteract the effects of the cavalry
 Anyway, you check the attack value of your unit (the first number next to the sword) and compare it to the shield value. That determines what you will need to roll. Those attacks which have effectively impacted on the enemy will need to re-roll in order to see how many wounds they cause, comparing the two values left (the second number next to the sword and the second value next to the shield of the defender).

You got the basics of the game. Now just fight!
The Velites skirmishers receive wounds from arrows and spears
The most complicated part of the game comes when different units are engaged in the same combat. With units being able to change formation or support each other, combat gets hard and bloody in a heartbeat.

The Sacred Batallion charges on the Equites Cohortales flank. That can be truly deadly
The Punic Cavalry take the Sagittarii on, but then the Triarii come to help
When two units clash, the effects go beyond the mere effective wounds and losses. If the two units receive the same number of wounds, they both must take a morale test. If a unit has received more wounds, only that unit will have to roll. Receiving wounds will affect your morale on the long term (by modifying your Morale value); being decimated does not help to the nerve of the soldiers and they may eventually flee!

The Velites units are broken and repelled by the enemy
The Carthaginians begin to impose themselves
Roman Generals pushing on the Carthaginian rearguard have some effect
But the Hastati are having a hard time
'Hold!!' If the unit falls back, they can choose to hold the position, but suffering an additional wound
This is a damn massacre! And we're running low of beer! Oh holy Mars and Tanit!
The Sacred Batallion take the Equites Cohortales and the General down
Reenforcements have arrived (I mean the beers)
I can't even recall what was happening at this bloody melee
Finally, seeing how things were, we could tell for sure that the Romans had nothing to do and the Carthaginians had taken over the battlefield. Victory for Carthage!

Romanes eunt domus Romani ite domum
We made of course the mandatory thousand mistakes of the first time battle, but we managed anyway to have fun and suffer on both sides. When we take a deeper look at the rules and have played a couple of games we'll play quicker.
As a lover of the period, I enjoyed this pretty much, you can see the creators have taken their time to look deep into the warfare at the time and they have done a real good job. The guys at the company are currently thinking of expanding the units and creating new cards (they have a poll on their site, they are even open to a Fantasy variant of the game if people ask for it); no idea if they are planning any translation into English or other languages, but if they ever do, I totally recommend the game. When the moment comes, say you saw it here first! :D


  1. I really like the idea of using playing card sized units for a wargame. That's really clever. Thanks for the review, and I'll keep an eye out for it in English.

    1. The game is quite well designed. I enjoyed it despite the mistakes and the learning on the go, I guess the experience will be better once we are able to play swifter...

  2. Certainly a very clever way of representing armies ala 2D. Now if they would make 3D pop-out cards ... or even better, a 3D holographic card projector. Sigh, pardon my geekness. Sometimes I can't help myself. :)

    1. Haw haw haw! I just got an image of that in my mind! :D