Bayonets & Tomahawks is an enthralling wargame. It’s a beautiful two player strategic simulation covering the entirety of the French & Indian War. It has novel mechanisms, astute detail, and a very slim and focused core. All of this surprisingly coming from first time designer Marc Rodrigue and published by GMT Games.
The achievement of this work is in attaching very precise simulative sub-systems to a streamlined core. It is a card driven game of a type we haven’t seen before. Typically a player has a hand of options and must carefully select their action weighing a multitude of factors. Not here. Instead players draw a single card and then select between that new offering and the option they held back in the previous turn. The choice is often relatively straight forward and direct.
Nuance does percolate occasionally as you may forego a stronger unit activation to achieve a higher initiative or trigger an event. The event system is particularly interesting because the effect triggers in addition to unit activations on the card, flying in the face of everything we know about the CDG genre. These events include things like inflicting disease upon your opponent or increasing your mobility this turn. They’re sparse in the deck but can certainly shake things up and re-arrange the table.
Initiative is paramount. Going first allows you to perform all of your actions save one, which you rollover until after your opponent activates. It allows you to move and strike quickly while still retaining the final action in the round. This feels very impactful as if you’re setting your foe up, delivering a feint and waiting for a flinch before putting your fist through their jaw.
At times I worry if this sandwich initiative system is too strong, but it’s difficult to cut through that fog and I’m resigned to simply appreciating the texture this provides.
The decks these activation cards are drawn from are asymmetrical. The French selection seems to favor irregulars and often boasts higher initiative values. The British cards are biased towards royal brigades and heavier impact. These are communicated via symbols that match the shape of their respective infantry. You will pick this up quickly. Certainly quicker than General Braddock.
I like to think of this central system as the hub of a wheel. The rim consists of those detailed processes operating in tandem. They’re more coarse and provide the narrative and historical characteristics that elevate the design. That one card CDG thing? It’s neat, cool even. But all of this other stuff is what sets my loins afire.
The first thing this does exceptionally well is structure. Play is broken down by year, with each possessing several phases. Within this system is a novel recruitment mechanism that has both sides slowly building up and gaining momentum. Troops arrive at specific intervals from both Europe and the colonies. Then the final phases occur and actions are more plentiful, violence more present.
This dictates the wonderful tempo. It’s a rolling wave of buildup to crescendo and then lull before repeating. That pattern really enforces the scope and length of the war, particularly if you engage in one of the longer multi-year scenarios. It provides a framework for the attritional aspects and really presents a sense of seasonality to the conflict.
The struggle with this organization is that it’s extraordinarily demanding. A year of play is going to take most duos 90 minutes, perhaps even longer. I can envision brisk play getting it down to 60, but that will be rare and require a dedicated opponent. This means the most desired game length will be out of reach. Playing the full war is but a dream and will only happen in a life I’ve yet to live. The sweet spot for most will forcibly land at a two-year cycle. This gives you the taste of a multi-year campaign while only commanding three hours, although this will be optimistic for some as it may stretch to four.
Yes, the game is too long. It’s the single largest issue and I think it’s going to be a wall for many prospective hobbyists.
So with such a simple core structure, why is it so damn long?
Well, let’s talk about the next detailed system along the rim that really whistles: combat.
Bayonets & Tomahawks doesn’t use a CRT, instead it uses dice. This is a strong mechanism that is dramatic and quirky. You roll for each of your units in a specific order, generating results that push your total strength up as well as awarding hits. Damage is surprisingly uncommon, with most battles resulting in one side retreating. This presents a feel of attrition with a small amount of casualties being inflicted on each side. It also leads to a less dynamic front as it can take multiple rounds of battering to see any real turnover.
The most interesting aspect of this system is also its most puzzling. Light units, the irregular militia and scouting parties, can only damage other light units. Likewise, the heavier brigades only damage other brigades. This results in an interesting decision space about army composition, how best to defend certain fronts, and how to organize multi-wave assaults. But it also can be quite aggravating.
Despite the playbook defending this kink, it feels at odds with reality. When you bear down on a settlement with multiple brigades confronting several irregulars it’s as if both sides are incredibly inept. It’s a major idiosyncrasy which can gnaw at you if you don’t keep your chin up. Fortunately most forces are a blend of unit types and this system is leveraged as an intellectual apparatus to wobble as opposed to a hurdle to trip upon.
It’s auspicious that the battle process is so interesting as it’s opposed by a bespoke raid system that is exceptional. When I think of Bayonets & Tomahawks my brain ignites around the handling of light and irregular units. This rich theater affords a strong strategic vector for players to explore as you can dedicate activations to raiding opponent’s settlements. After accruing enough successful raids to reach the end of a dedicated track you score a victory point. This is the alternative and supplemental path to traditional success via holding key cities and points of interest.
This is also how the Native American’s primarily impact the game.
The French force often includes several starting indigenous light units while the British possess far fewer. They function as raiding parties as well as general military support. Each round the French player receives a second Native American-specific activation card to supplement their main action round. The British are stuck utilizing the action points from their lone card spread across all of their unit types.
The Indian nations are also handled through the Iroquois and Cherokee sovereign territories found on the Southern edge of the board. These areas form a barrier of sorts that have a large affect on their portion of the board. If a player marches through this territory they cause their respective Indian confederacy to rise up in opposition and join the other player’s side. This can be disastrous but it can also be the correct strategic move if pushing through with a large contingent of brigades and striking deep into your foe’s flank.
By dedicating such a significant portion of system weight to the Native American forces and their impact, the game achieves a strong sense of identity and cultured historicity. This is woven tightly into the mechanisms for raiding parties which ripples into larger battles and the overall breadth of the conflict.
It’s also remarkable how well the raid system ties into the overall process of play. It’s a partner to the heavier conflict and they both form a cohesive existence in service to the greater whole. The interplay and dynamics are fantastic to explore and reveal depth over time.
I was initially concerned with this game completely ignoring the politics of the war but settled on this being a smart decision. The focus on two distinct unit types alongside the alternate battle systems is the heart and soul of the game. An additional layer at a higher level would have harmed this approach and resulted in a less focused and messy affair.
Many of the other details are secondary and non-essential. Ships are treated with their own set of rules, including the option for multi-stepped movement to an open seas box before re-entering spaces on the board. This is fine but functions mostly as background until the siege of Louisburg.
The board’s point-to-point movement results in some interesting maneuvering due to limited approaches to certain cities. Additionally, some pathways are only accessible by light units which adds even greater emphasis on force type. The one aggravation I have with this aspect of the game is that the names of settlements and their point value are often obscured by troops on the space. It’s an annoying quality that can slow play in an otherwise very functional and beautified presentation.
I’m particularly fond of the ability to construct roads and forts, offering an entirely different set of of activation options. However, these tools are rightly ignored unless you’re playing a longer game. This means I’ve barely scraped paint off their surface.
There are many other little details which threaten to undo the elegance of the hub. A sub-process of overwhelming your opponent with sheer numbers. Random chit draws with unreliable reinforcements. Special rules for built in defenses on “Home” spaces. Leader chits that add re-rolls. I could keep going.
Despite a mostly simple core process, all of these details can make for a game that’s difficult to teach. There’s quite a bit of “oh, I forgot to explain how that works.”
Many of these details do buy specificity that results in greater historical detail as well as a rich overall narrative. Wonderful stories come out of this game as you recall a heroic stand at Ticonderoga or that year where the colonials were ravaged by raiding parties. But these particulars also increase the difficulty of getting it played. This affixes to the hefty time requirement and really bludgeons enthusiasm, requiring a pair of devoted war-gamers to really commit.
There are moments when I really adore this game. The three main systems I highlighted – the yearly arc, the intriguing dice based combat, and the delicate focus on irregular conflict and Indian nations – they amalgamate to inflate my admiration and pull me through the adversity encountered.
Unfortunately it’s been years since I’ve played the oft-compared Wilderness War, so I’m unable to make any meaningful comparisons there. I do find this much more rewarding and sophisticated than my previous Seven Years War darling, Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow. Of course that’s a light deck-builder and much less focused on delivering narrative or enriched strategy.
Bayonets & Tomahawks is a quality experience with a certain set of challenges. Those who find themselves engrossed in this period and the intricacies of its frontier, you will likely find the pursuit rewarding. This is a unique game and a very comprehensive portrait of an arresting moment of history. I’m not sure how often it will make it to the table, but I expect to cherish each play appropriately.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.