Saturday, 20 September 2014

Review: Song of Shadows & Dust

Song of Shadows and Dust is an urban conflict skirmish game - but a rather original one. It is based on the lawlessness and conflict in the cities of the Roman Empire during the late Consular period and the Early Principate, roughly the first century BC.

The author is Nicolas Wright and the game is based on the popular Song of Blades and Heroes skirmish engine devised by Adrea Sfiligoi.

Song of Blades and Heroes is a stunningly simple system. Models only have two characteristics, combat ability and morale. It achieves this by using a variety of unique special rules that are thrown onto the scenarios. This is very much a story-based game that is entirely unsuited to competition play or rules lawyers. Games last less than an hour so it is possible to get an entire campaign into an evening.

Heart of the game are the activation rules. To activate a model, a player throws one to three dice - his choice - and every successful throw as measured against the model's morale factor allows one action. Actions are basically move or fight. However, as soon as a player rolls two misses his turn ends immediately, without being able to activate his remaining models.

Very simple but intricate game play. In that property it reminds me of In Her Majesty's Name - although the mechanisms are different.

Song of Shadows and Dust rules are a complete game. You don't need the core rule set. Many preprogrammed 'characters' are listed. Characters include people like: Militia Officers, Magistrates, Faction Leaders, Street Leaders,  Patriarchs, Politicians, Gladiators, Prophets, Witches, Courtesans and others. There are also pregenerated plebs: Militia, Henchmen, Retired Soldiers, Apprentices, Assassins, Muggers, Thieves Urchins, Gladiator Bodyguards and so on.

There are some lovely touches. For example, your forces may get distracted by a model such as a famous beauty or a popular soothsayer, or kicked over by an ass.

That brings me to a key point. The city is full of neutral civilians that can get drawn into the fight. One of the characters is the Demagogue who can make a speech to start a riot. Off hand I can't remember another game that handles the civilian side of an urban conflict so elegantly.

Similarly the game ends when seven people drawn from any mix of factions or neutrals are 'killed' (injured badly enough to be out of the game). The logic is that the mayhem is reached such a serious scale that the authorities have summoned soldiers. Everyone clears the streets before the Urban Cohorts or equivalent arrive.

Models come in three types:
Unarmed: civilian improvised hand weapons from a knife to a club or something agricultural
Armed: military grade hand weapons weapons like swords, spears and shields (very illegal for civilians to carry these in Rome)
Projectiles: slings and bows

Civilians can come together to stone some unfortunate :)

This is a great game - simple, tactically challenging, atmospheric, well thought out, historically accurate.

You don't need many models but you will need civilians. Some great packs are available from Foundry.

With Song of Shadows and Dust you jump straight into the worlds of Falco, Marcus Corvinus, Gordianus the finder or Vespasian - by chance I have just read the Crossroads Brotherhood by Robert Fabbri which is about one of the crossroads collegia in Rome. Such collegia were a sort of cross between a religious group, trade union and organised crime network.

Next post I will take us through a game. Watch this space.


  1. This sounds VERY interesting John and I look forward to your run through of a game. Not a period I'm familiar with but that's never stopped me before!

    1. Excellent! I'm wondering whether these rules will be useful for later periods, such as early Medieval? I've plenty of ideas for them already, so will watch this space with interest.

    2. They are suitable for any pre-firearm period that has cities.

    3. Thanks John. Copy duly ordered:).

  2. Looking forward to your further adventures with these rules. I do like the SoBaH engine, and I have eyes these rules. But I don't have the figures forit. But that can change.

    1. Click on the Foundry link. Drooling stuff!

  3. Right, we need some Roman back/side streets now...

    1. I have some ideas for that - upcoming post. :)

  4. That's a great system that just keeps finding new areas to make a game of. Very cool.

  5. Thank you for your very kind words John. Of all my rule sets, this is still my favourite.