Review – Mayhem mass battle fantasy wargaming rules

Introduction

I have to start this review of the Mayhem fantasy wargaming rules with a confession: i have never been into fantasy wargaming. Literally never. Apart from some role playing in the 90s i never made real contact with this shade of setting. I started out with scifi and then went straight over to historical wargaming. So until lately i did not own a single fantasy wargaming rules book.

Every now and then i had a look, but all the systems i ran into were either too cheesy, made for power gamers or too… well, old fashioned maybe. Apart form this, most came with an eat-or-die list of available (or even allowed) miniatures i was not interested in. So i never seriously touched this topic. This was until lately, when i stumbled upon Mayhem by Brent Spivey. This rules set baptized me and i’m a true believer now. After getting into the rules, i immediately got me Elven and Orc armies from Microworld Games, which fit the rules perfectly.

Let me tell you about the rules system leading me to a yet untouched cavern. Maybe it sparks a light that illuminates what was previously unseen.

The basics – scales, miniatures, bases and play items

Here comes the first good news: the Mayhem fantasy wargaming rules are completely scale, miniature and lore agnostic. This means you can use any miniatures, any scale, any manufacturer you like. As long as they are all based the same way, you are good to go. The rules give some recommendations for each scale and to base normal units square and special units (like your general, heroes, mages) on round bases. As these are recommendations, you can go with them or just use what you got.

Same goes for the lore, the background, of your armies. While there are semi-official lists available online, Mayhem does not come with any pre-made army lists or unit profiles except for war machines like catapults or monstrous units like dragons. Instead you are given an easy toolkit to assemble everything yourself. You are free to create along what miniatures you got and what you feel they should be represented like. I will elaborate on the unit and army creation further down.

Apart from miniatures and terrain, Mayhem will need a measuring tape, some dice and also some markers. For dice, the rules use the full set from d4 to d20. The “d” is short for dice, the number relates to the sides. So a d8 would be an eight sided dice for example. There are few markers needed for Mayhem. In total you will need four types to mark disordered, damaged, poisoned and veteran units. I simply use colored beads from the hobby store for this. It is also a good idea to have a set of tiny six-sided dice (d6) to keep track of magic points and, in bigger games, unit activations for overdrive.

Unit stats

Regarding units and armies, Mayhem provides us with full freedom and an easy to use toolkit. Each option from the toolkit comes with a point cost in form of “crowns”. You literally pay your army from your treasure chest. How cool is that?

Yet another welcome difference: units in Mayhem do not have fixed stats like in other systems. Instead, different dice types are assigned for the profiles. This means your units will for example not reliably move up to X inches, but up to what you roll on certain dice type. Slow units might be given a d4 for their move ability while cavalry or flying units could be given a d12. This adds nicely to the feel of commanding a big army. A general has no direct control over how fast units will actually advance, in the end he can just command to move. The ordered unit might be distracted or cautious but also psyched and act accordingly. Offense and defense stats work likewise. You assign a dice type and by that give better or worse chances to roll a good result.

Army creation process

As a first step you decide the leadership strength of your general, this becomes important for the command system.

Setting up a core profile

Next you can set up a core profile that would fit your factions average without considering any equipment or abilities. At this stage you buy dice types for movement, combat quality (melee attack and defense) and ranged defense that fit your average soldier.

Once you got that core profile set for your faction as a template, you can start to modify it for different unit types. First you assign designations to classify a unit as cavalry, flyer, hero or sorcerer for example. Fun part is that you can also combine designations. Nothing is stopping you from creating Pegasus riding knights by assigning both cavalry and flyer. These designations already give some properties and define how they play.

When done, you can refine and fine tune the unit. For Cavalry for example it makes sense to improve the die type for movement, so you would buy a better die. For big and slow units it makes sense to decrease the movement die type and, as a consequence, pay less crowns. The melee combat quality of archers will probably be below your factions average, so you’d decrease this die type too. From my unit creating experience so far, it is wise to not overpower units with the basic stats already. The counters we add next will elevate the stats quite well. If you combine high basics with counters, you will get very expensive super units.

Define your unit types

When you got your units types refined a bit, it is time to give some flavor. You can choose from different weapons, add shields or heavy armor. These will add so called soft- and hard-counters, which will improve the die type in certain situations only. Spears for example will give you a counter against cavalry or big units. Axes are good against units using shields. Each kind of equipment got its unique advantages. At this stage you can also decide to give your units standard bearers or musician. The former will help with your command points, the latter with rallying your disordered troops.

Equipment and traits

After you equipped your units, you can continue and assign them gear, abilities and traits. Units for example could be drilled, so they stay facing the enemy even when driven back. If you have undead or demon units for example, you might give them the fear trait. This trait would force your opponent to pay extra command points to initiate melee. Mayhem has some very fun options to further refine your units.

War machines and monstrous creatures

As mentioned, some units in Mayhem indeed are pre-defined. This covers machines like siege towers, catapults, bolt throwers, mortars, cannons or battering rams. Also pre-defined are profiles for monstrous creatures like dragons, wyvern and giants. These pre-defined profiles come with some special or additional rules but these are concise and easy to grasp. There is no special-rules-madness here like in some other rules systems.

Assemble your fantasy army

Once finished, you total cost of all things you added to each unit and assemble your army. It is a lot of fun to play with unit and army creation as it gives you many options to discover. You could for example have a professional army which also utilizes servants for their first lines. Your professional spears would probably get the drilled and/or disciplined traits. Your servant spears on the other hand will probably be untrained but superior in numbers. These could be designed with a decreased basic die type but given the “ranked fighting” trait, which lets you roll additional dice.

Starting out with Mayhem, you will soon find yourself juggle around basics, traits and equipment in a creative way to shape your fantasy army the way you think it should feel. If you do not fancy this process, there are lots of list available on the web. I of course will add mine to the blog too while i finalize them.

Default or danger?

The fact that there are no fixed values for stats but only dice types also brings another very interesting mechanic: the choice between ‘default’ or ‘danger’.

Every time you would roll dice (called ‘danger’), you could also decide to play safe instead and take ‘default’. Default simply means not rolling but taking half the dice’ value. So taking ‘default’ on a d12 would give you an automatic 6, ‘default’ on a d8 would give you a 4, on a d20 a 10 and so on. This way you can decide to take a guaranteed result (‘default’) or play risky and roll (‘danger’) if in need. The result could be higher than default, but you could also end up below the ‘default’ value. In play this adds some nice extra thrill as there are always opposed rolls and the initiator decides first. Take default and hope your opponent rolls worse? Or risk rolling bad yourself so your opponent can get away with calling default?

The command system

Every action in Mayhem, be it moving, rallying, initiating combat or casting spells, has a base cost of command points. On top, some actions like moving a unit laterally (sideways) also got additional cost associated. This separation becomes important with the overdrive i explain below. Command points themselves are rolled for each turn. The die type is depending on your generals command strength you bought for your army. The amount of dice you roll on the other hand depends on how many units with standard bearers and hero units you got on field at the moment. In the end though you just keep the highest roll. So more dice give you better chances, not more command points in general. This will become more important once the game proceeds as you will lose units with standards and also heroes if things go bad.

Managing bigger fantasy armies in Mayhem

To manage bigger armies, the system also gives you a standing orders mechanic. These are given once and the unit will continue the order until you stop it or it runs on an obstacle. This way you can get your army going and concentrate your command points on certain areas of the battle. I think this is a clever mechanism, though i did not try how big an army can get until the maximum possible of 12 command points is just too low. A house rule might be necessary at some army size.

Turn sequence and overdrive

Another quite refreshing part of Mayhem is the complete lack of the ever repeating, boring process of “move phase, melee phase, ranged attacks phase and so on” most rules systems use. In Mayhem you just got the turn and your command points. Spending these freely, you can move, attack, retreat, cast spells or rally units in any order as you see fit.

This freedom goes even further with the overdrive mechanism coming into play. Remember the distinction between basic and additional action cost from above? If you feel one of your units should move twice, then attack and retreat right after, you can do so with overdrive in a single turn! With this mechanism, each additional action you take will come with ever increasing base cost. The additional cost stay the same though. This ensures overdrive is used very specific since it will eat up your command resources quite fast. Yet normal moves are not too cheap when combining base and additional cost.

Resolving combat

Inflicting harm in Mayhem always includes both players by asking for opposing dice rolls. In combination with the lack of phases during the turn, this ensures both players get involved the whole time. No more ‘taking a walk’ while your opponent does his turn. When rolling for effect, there are some modifiers for the dice rolls. These consider things like having high ground, being disordered, flank attacks or having several units in the fight. Also the aforementioned soft- and hard-counters come into play here and have a big impact on the outcome.

Different kind of harm

Depending on the unit type, the harm inflicted is different. Some units get disordered (infantry), some take damage (big creatures or machines) and others suffer from attrition (hordes and swarms). These all work similar but have different consequences. A disordered unit for example can be rallied, but damage can not be repaired. This concept is a bit strange at first, but becomes second hand quickly. Depending on the army structure, most units will usually use disorder with the other two being an exception. In addition, units can also be beaten or driven back as a result of combat. If the opposing rolls ends in a tie, some traits also provide a deadlock result that kicks in.

Effects of harm

Combat in Mayhem also is simultaneous, so in melee it is well possible for two units to wipe each other out. There is no removal of miniatures from the stand like in other systems by the way. Units are either destroyed right away or are disordered after a clash. A disordered marker then makes destruction way more likely. Remember that overdrive mechanism? If your first attack did not destroy the enemy, overdrive gives you an opportunity for a second try. Granted you are willed to pay the extra cost in command points. Decisions, decisions.

Arcane powers – Sorcery in Mayhem

Available spells

A fantasy battle without magic would not be a fantasy battle, right? To scratch this itch, Mayhem brings an easy to understand magic system without going too crazy on the mechanics. Like with equipment and traits, spells are available to every faction and work the same way for everyone.

There are two damage spells in Mayhem and both can be cast against any targets. They each also got a specialization: one works better against big enemies like giants and behemoth. The other is more effective against huge amounts of enemies like hordes and swarms. If you need to stop or slow down your enemy, there is the barrier spell. It casts a small piece of impassable terrain in a location of your liking. If your mage is in danger or you would need a certain friendly unit in a certain place, you can use a teleport spell. When you wish for more support, you can use the summon spell to call in a unit from off-table. And then there is time-stop, a more abstract spell that lets the caster perform additional actions without overdrive penalties.

The extended rules from the book also add more complex magic like binding summoned units to the caster (and use magic points instead of command points for actions) or upgrading your mage to a battle sorcerer.

The magic mechanics

For the mechanics themselves they are straight forward but still bring lots of tactical depth. When creating the unit profile, you buy a list of spells available to the mage for crowns. Casting in battle then works by spending command points and rolling dice for effect. Additionally, during play you can roll dice to accumulate a pool of magic points. The roll result then can be influenced by you and your opponent by spending magic points. Depending on the modified result, the spell either succeeds, succeeds but with complications or it straight out fails with bad things happening.

On complications, your enemy will get an instant free action for one of his units. On bad things happening… well… the behemoth you just tried to summon will become a minion of you opponent, if you were trying to affect the flow of time itself, your turn would end immediately. Bad things tend to have big impact, so magic can be dangerous. Using your magic points wisely really plays a great role here and generates some nice meta-game of magic users dueling each other while battle rages around them.

Stronghold Expansion

The rules also come with the Stronghold expansion for free. It provides rules for structures like castles, keeps or watch towers. As these structures literally ask for siege equipment, you will also find rules for siege towers, battering rams or simply setting things ablaze. Further refinements are made to the terrain rules, which enable garrisoning or destruction of terrain . Sorcery and unit designations get tuned too with Stronghold and add a lot of new tactical options. Finally you also get ideas for scenario types and how to set up campaigns. I think especially campaigns are something that let Mayhem shine. I already imagine a hex-gritted continent map dotted with border towers and keeps. Setting up several armies and moving them on a strategic level sound like a good way to generate battles.

How to get the Mayhem fantasy wargaming rules?

Mayhem is available in pdf format as well as printed softcover book. There is also a bundle of both if you prefer. I really recommend getting the bundle. Printed books in my opinion are easier to modify with notes, sticker labels and annotations and also more comfortable to read. Latter especially is true when using a phone. The pdf on the other hand is way more mobile when carrying it on your phone and got a very welcome search function.

You can easily get the Mayhem fantasy mass battle rules via Wargames Vault.
It is available as PDF, printed softcover-book or bundled version.

Conclusion

As teased in the introduction already, Mayhem really made a big change for me and i soon became a big fan. I was always looking for a fantasy wargaming rules system with lots of tactical freedom that leans more to the “realism” side as far as this can be true to a fantasy game. Mayhem opened that door for me. Lately i was also directed to some other systems that could be similar. Will definitely try them out but i think with Mayhem i already found the sweet spot of what i think a fantasy game should feel like.

I hope i could give you a good insight in how this game plays and you enjoyed reading. Always happy to hear your thoughts about this article in the comments and of course what you think about Mayhem itself if you bought it.

The featured image of this article is the cover art of the Mayhem rules book. Brent was so kind to give me permission to use it for my article, which is much appreciated.

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Mark

Thanks for this really useful review. Are you still playing in 2024?

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