Since I’ve spent all week working on a single miniature and don’t have it done yet, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the Vanguard rulebook now that I’ve had a chance to read through it. I wanted to review the rulebook because there are few reviews out there on Vanguard and I want people to understand what this book and game is like and so they can see if it might be of interest to them.
To share a little bit about myself for those who aren’t regular readers, I play wargames solo mostly and so the review will be done through that lens. I really prefer narrative games as I enjoy the story that wargames can tell and don’t really care about the competitive side of things. I get a lot of enjoyment from painting so I value a game system that will let me paint models that I like but also not require that I paint tons of minis quickly or to a lower standard to get the game on the table. I have played a couple of wargames including Hobbit SBG/MESBG and Fallout Wasteland Warfare so I have just enough experience to be able to look at a ruleset critically and hopefully share some useful thoughts along the way. At the same time, I don’t claim to be a wargaming veteran or someone that’s played tens or even hundreds of different game systems. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the Vanguard rulebook!
What is Vanguard? – While it shares the Kings of War models and universe, Vanguard is a skirmish game of 10-20 models that is supposed to depict elite squads completing missions before and after big battles in Kings of War. The factions or armies in Kings of War are mostly generic fantasy tropes (many of which seem to be almost directly pulled from Warhammer Fantasy). Vanguard is narrative focused and truthfully, I don’t think it would make a great tournament/competitive game.
Book Size – The first place to start is the surprising and somewhat odd (to me anyway) size of the book. In the picture above, I placed an MESBG book underneath the Vanguard rulebook to hopefully illustrate what I mean. The book is fairly tall but the pages are narrow for the size. The real effect of this is that the rulebook almost reminds me of when I get a cheap paperback back and the book doesn’t want to stay open, no matter where you are in the book. The Vanguard Rulebook isn’t quite that bad but it doesn’t want to stay open and flat which isn’t great in terms of it being a reference and it did make taking pictures harder for this review so please pardon the glare in some pictures. For a price of around $40 (US), I think it could be a bit bigger and solve this problem but it is not a huge deal overall. The rulebook is 160 pages so it does represent some good value there.
Production Quality – Fortunately, you do get some great photos and pretty decent artwork for your money. You can’t really fault photos like the one above and the artwork littered throughout the book is also nice. You’ll see what I mean on that as you continue reading. I also wanted to point out that I saw almost no typos while reading through this too which was really nice. You can tell Mantic put thought and time into the rulebook and it is hard not to appreciate that.
Rules – Obviously, I can’t describe all the rules and it probably isn’t worth the time to do so since I haven’t had a chance to play a game yet. What I will do instead is compare these rules to another game I’m pretty familiar with. Vanguard’s rules actually remind me quite a bit of Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game which is a good thing, in my opinion. The game requires a 3×3 surface which is a nice size and you will need about 10-15 models a side. The rules are fairly clean, easy to understand, but plenty of complexity there too. Here are some of the highlights, lowlights, and things I’m not sure how I feel about in the rules.
– What drew me to Vanguard initially is that it looked to have the right amount of strategy and complexity. Not too much and certainly not too little. The main rules for the game take up about 30 pages and there are a couple pages taken up by artwork so it is probably closer to 25 pages of rules. Overall, I felt like the rules were easy to understand and not overly complicated. There aren’t tons of modifiers, rules for different weapon types, or complex terrain rules to deal with so it should be pretty easy to learn and not overwhelming for a solo player like myself.
– The Power Dice look like a fun mechanic. Basically every hero in your warband generates a certain amount of Power Dice per turn when they’re alive. So at the beginning of a turn, you roll your Power Dice and these dictate how many special actions you can take. The special actions vary from things that are basically heroic actions like a group shoot or move to casting magic spells and using faction or even model specific abilities. This is very reminiscent of MESBG but it seems like it provides a unique twist in that you don’t know how much power you’ll get each turn and losing heroes will cause the number of Power Dice to go down which is obviously not good.
– The Exploding Dice look potentially fun as well. For many rolls in Vanguard, if you roll an 8 on your D8, you roll a critical and you get to re-roll the 8’s again and count that result too. While this could certainly lead to some swings and crazy luck, I think it could be fun in a narrative sense to see characters go on a hot streak of 8’s and do some crazy things. It certainly will make combat less predictable and perhaps more swingy.
– There is a pretty robust magic system in Vanguard too. One thing that fascinated me with Warhammer Fantasy (Age of Sigmar’s precursor) was the idea of having wizards slinging spells at each other and various troops in a battle. I always wanted to try that out for myself and sadly never did but I think that will be part of this game that I really enjoy as the spells look powerful and useful but also thematic.
– Down but not Out is a rule where if a unit gets down to 0 (or less!) wounds even after armor saves, they can still fight on in the battle, albeit in a weakened state. While basic warriors cannot use this rule, it seems like an armor save would be enough to represent how tough something is. While Exploding Dice sounds fun, thinking you’ve done enough to kill someone and they keep coming back doesn’t sound as fun. I’ll be curious to see how this plays out when I get around to playing Vanguard.
– Square bases are required in this game. Despite the fact that it is a skirmish game, you do need to put your minis on square bases and you have to align models when charging as well. It seems like an extra step to take/deal with and a bit unwieldy but it means the models can be used in Kings of War. Unfortunately, it also means that the minis you use in Vanguard are only usable in Kings of War and Vanguard because almost no games use square bases. Its also difficult to get custom resin bases in the square shape since very few games use them anymore.
– Line of Sight and Flanking – Surprisingly, line of sight matters in Vanguard and a unit cannot see behind them. Indeed, you can be flanked and suffer a penalty for that too in this game. I’m not familiar with a skirmish game that does this and I’m not sure if it is worth having special rules around this or not. When you have 10-15 models, its hard to imagine many times where you’d get to flank your opponent so maybe this won’t even show up in many games. Regardless, its an interesting rule that I don’t know what to make of.
Overall, I like the rules quite a bit and I think they form a solid core for a fantasy skirmish game that is likely familiar and easy to pick up for many people but it isn’t so simple or streamlined that someone won’t find this game engaging. There are undoubtedly easier miniatures games for a total beginner to wargaming to pick up but if this game particularly piques your interest, I don’t think you’ll be intimidated by the rules in Vanguard.
Creating a Warband – One of the ways that Vanguard is designed to be balanced is how warbands are made. To take command, spellcasters, and support, which are the most powerful (and fun) models to take in a warband, you have to take grunts and/or warriors. Three for each of the more powerful models just like in the picture above. Grunts are the least sturdy of the options but they’re usually the cheapest. Meanwhile, warriors are stronger but cost more and so the more you take, the less likely you can cram in an extra spellcaster, command, or support mini. I like the way this system works and Mantic does a good job of giving you a variety of units to choose from for most factions. While the scale and scope is small compared to an army game like Kings of War, you still have to do some list building and think about how to balance your faction’s strengths and weaknesses.
Faction Lists – Speaking of factions, nearly 50 pages is allotted towards warband lists. In addition to some great photos and artwork, its fun perusing all of the different choices you have in this game. There are fourteen factions to choose from which is seriously impressive and kind of overwhelming. The problem is that I write this at the beginning of 2021 and many of the lists in the book are out of date since the rulebook came out in 2018. Fortunately, if you buy a Warband set for the faction you’re interested in, you’ll get cards with updated information on that faction so I recommend that for anyone who didn’t buy a Vanguard Starter Set and is getting into the game.
Lore section – This is one area of the book I would call disappointing. It is relatively short at 10 pages and it covers the two factions in the starter set. Basilea and Nightstalkers are both described but neither are really interesting or set the world of Kings of War apart from other generic fantasy settings used in wargames and board games. I would think that the Kings of War rulebook offers more lore for any lore hounds out there but I felt like these ten pages were uninspiring and not written in a way that was terribly engaging. I think more could have been done with the 10 pages and the book could have used more lore to bring the world to life a bit more too, especially for any players like myself who have never played Kings of War before.
Scenarios – The section I was most interested in checking out was perhaps unsurprisingly, the scenarios. These are what hopefully inspire you to paint up minis, make terrain, and get a game on the table. Knowing that Vanguard has a narrative focus, I was curious to see what the scenarios would be like. There are twelve in total and they are all symmetrical scenarios (both sides have the same or similar point totals in other words). At the same time, they all have a little flavor or twist to them. In one, you try to cause wounds both to an unkillable giant who is stomping around and to your opponent so you can tame the giant and use him in a Kings of War battle. Another has you trying to control a portal against your opponent while not being zapped by it. A lot of scenarios boil down to controlling a series of objectives or like the one pictured above, killing the bard and then keeping the lute he drops away from your opponent. While I like the asymmetrical games that MESBG offers, I understand why Mantic did these this way. They generally look like generic fantasy fun and are hopefully decently balanced so you can have a fun game with any of the factions. I would say the scenarios look good but aren’t wildly inventive. They also don’t seem to string together into a campaign all that well. While there is an example using 3-4 scenarios in the book that works, you can’t go from capturing a giant to stealing dragon’s eggs to lighting a beacon narratively and that is one limitation of this part of the book.
On the flip side, they require almost no unique terrain so you can use whatever you have in your collection. Mantic also make a Battlefield Objectives set that will give you a lot of the terrain you will want or need for the various scenarios in the book so that is one less thing to have to worry about potentially as well.
Campaign Rules – I won’t delve into this too deeply because I’ve never played a campaign game and it is hard for me to assess exactly how good these rules might be. What I can say is that if you want a deep system where injuries matter and your characters can improve in both stats and items, then you’ll probably like what this offers. There seems to be a good system for combatting one player getting stronger than others in a campaign which I know can be a problem in other systems. While the idea of a campaign is really appealing and having injuries and character deaths adds an extra layer of realism to any wargame, I’m not sure if I could ever pull a campaign off as a solo gamer. I was a little overwhelmed reading about it and I think you need at least one other player who doesn’t mind some real book keeping. The image above is an example of what I mean. If you have a leader character of the Hunter class (and you can have up to seven minis in your warband of the different classes which all have unique things to track), you have to track if your side killed 3 or more enemies with ranged attacks. When you have multiple characters that add things like that to your game, I think it would be so easy to forget or make mistakes. Mantic does provide some charts you fill out to help track your warband’s growth but I would definitely say this is a robust campaign system that will appeal to dedicated players. This isn’t simple or stripped down. There is depth to it and things like characters dying will have a real impact on your warband in this system. Most importantly, it does look fair and worth trying if you’re so inclined.
Closing Thoughts – So what do I think overall? I think this is a pretty nice rulebook and it definitely got me interested enough to play a game. I became interested in Vanguard because I enjoy painting fantasy miniatures but have been moving away from MESBG due to storage issues and the large hobby demands of playing the game narratively. So when I saw that Vanguard not only had an appealing generic fantasy setting but would even allow me to potentially use factions like Undead or Ogres which I loved from Warhammer Fantasy in a skirmish game, I was sold! I jumped into the game quickly as I had some X-Mas money to spend and I was hungry to get some variety in my painting queue. This week as I read the rulebook, I’ve been scouring the internet to see what other opinions are on the game and truthfully, this game is really not very popular at all. I don’t mean to say that people hate or dislike it, I mean more that it feels like very few people actively play it or promote the game online. There are a good amount of battle reports on Youtube but I couldn’t find many blogs or forums that discuss it despite the fact that people do say positive things about it overall. This is a big drawback if you’re someone who wants to play against others as you might struggle to find anyone in your local area but since I’m a solo wargamer, I won’t have any issues there. While I am optimistic that I will like the game, I’m as excited about the hobbying opportunities it presents, and if Vanguard proves to be a fun “side-game” that I can jump into when I want a break from my main game, Fallout Wasteland Warfare, then it suits my needs very well. It definitely has some cons (though so do other games I’ve played and enjoyed) but it looks like it has plenty of potential as well so that is enough for me to give it a try. The fact that it is affordable to start and doesn’t require a ton of models to be painted to play makes me feel like it is relatively low risk as well. I hope if you’re interested in Vanguard and you read this review, you found it useful. I’d love to hear what others think of the game so please do leave a comment below if you’ve played this one and have some thoughts or opinions to share.