Never Mind the Billhooks Deluxe | Fortified Niche playtest!

Never Mind The Billhooks Deluxe: Yorkist Perry boxes of English infantry battle Lancastrian boxes of man-at-arms

After strong recommendations and a bit of wait, the pod finally got its grubby mitts on Never Mind the Billhooks Deluxe. Seeing how I have long wished to see reasonable amounts of plate-armored men-at-arms on a table, a late medieval ruleset for small battles and large skirmishes was just the thing.

Listen to the Fortified Niche episode.

A green TTS table and a green grass-texture board. It has some clumps of trees and shrubs. There's a yard surrounded by hedgerows to the right. An army is arrayed at the bottom of the picture, blocks of men mounted on squares. The yard hosts a cavalry unit and a cannon. 

On the opposite edge of the table, blocks of infantry and two cannons.
The base game was made for War of the Roses, but Never Mind the Billhooks Deluxe expands it to a few more historical settings like the Hussite Wars, the Hundred-Year War, and Portugal. But the basics remain the same: agree on the point limit, build armies according to limitations (sometimes you’re forced to take more infantry, sometimes cavalry, etc.) and split them into wards under different commanders. These commanders will then have their cards mixed into the deck and activate once their cards are drawn.
A TTS table with a Burgundian army arrayed here. You can see a group of knights, a combined block of pikemen and bows, some light cavalry, and a cannon. There are two commanders to the back. Most of the models have been ripped from Medieval 2: Total War.
Your commander is the only leader you get for free, the rest cost some points. However, you can’t really cheap out on them as a regular two-star leader will only be able to give two orders per turn, activating himself and/or subordinate units. So if you don’t want to be out-activated and outmaneuvered, you’ll need more leaders. We recommend using the optional rules and rolling for their level. The rare three-star leader will be fit for your commander (as he can also command troops from other wards) while one-star idiots are best suited for commanding a single unit of cavalry. As horse is much faster than a man and cavalrymen love nothing more than to chase routing infantry despite your general’s wishes, there won’t be any issue if a one-star leader goes off on an adventure half a table away – he wouldn’t be able to command any more units even if he wanted to.
A TTS screenshot. German cavalry, cannon and skirmishers are standing around in a field of wheat. They're being threatened by more light cavalry. Off in the distance, blocks of pikes are maneuvering for contact.
Leader cards aren’t the only inhabitants of the Never Mind the Billhooks Deluxe activation deck. Skirmishers and cannons have their own card, meaning that you don’t need a leader to use them (but you still can). There are also cards for special events as well as bonus card – both of these prompt you to draw from their respective decks. Bonus cards are to be used during the turn or lost. They’re a bit contentious as you dice off for who gets it. Plus, drawing one at the end of the round pointless – especially if it’s a dummy card for psyching out the opponent! On the other hand, each historical period has a few special event cards that are flavored specifically for it, bringing treachery and lazy mercenaries to the table.
a TTS screenshot of a grassy map with scattered buildings and trees featuring two armies advancing on each other.
Never Mind the Billhooks Deluxe has a few more tricks like that in the rules. For example, it’s in love with the idea of mixed infantry type blocks. Billmen + Archers is a breat-and-butter combo, and why wouldn’t it be? Archers let the unit inflict damage as it marches. It also soaks up the casualties from incoming fire. Meanwhile, the Swiss are liable to run around in blocks that feature two pike companies sandwiching a company of halberds. These kinds of weird combos all depend on the time and the place.
A TTS screenshot showing a much-depleted and shattered light cavalry unit running away from blocks of infantry
But that’s the issue, isn’t? The core rules are a presented as full ruleset, but when it comes to switching the time and the place, you only get the outline of the changes. So if you’re playing Helvetia, you’re constantly flipping between the main rules and the new set of exceptions and changes. It would be better if each period had its own set of instact rules with any War of the Roses specifics purged. I understand that it would be impractical for a physical book. Can I then ask for at least a bookmarked PDF version?
a TTS screenshot of a battlefield. Infantry is clashing on the left, cavalry charges pikes on the right. There are some random knickknacks on the table outside the board.
In the end, it’s editing is the greatest weakness of Never Mind the Billhooks Deluxe. The rules themselves are mostly fine. But navigating them can be trick. There’s also some cruft like useless per-miniature point costs in a game where you only ever buy full units. It likely comes from the author Andy Callan having been a wargame designer for longer than I have been alive. It’s a bit of a shame since the book is otherwise beautiful. Special mention goes to the hobby section with painting, basing and modeling advice. It will make you go feral and you’ll awaken from your daze with twenty tabs of Perry Miniatures open on your browser.
TTS screenshot: two cavarly units are bearing down to charge Swiss pikes head-on. This is usually considered a bad move.
Never Mind the Billhooks Deluxe is a cute enthusiastic ruleset mostly let down by editing and layout. I swear, this must be the main curse of the industry, even worse than the insistence that non-competitive games don’t have to balanced as it strikes both the good game and the bad. One can only hope that once the time comes for Never Mind the Billhooks Redux, the importance of a strict editor will be understood!

6 thoughts on “Never Mind the Billhooks Deluxe | Fortified Niche playtest!

  1. A fair and thorough review – thanks! You make some good points – as you say it would have been totally impractical to produce 8 full text rule sets. – one for each “ theatre”. The idea was that people would play the core WOTR rules first and only then move on to the other periods, so they would already know how the common mechanisms work. However if we ever do a reprint I will include page references in the Section headings in the extra chapters so people can easily navigate back to the core rules. And I will include “points per unit” as well as “points per figure” on the QRS

    1. Honored to get a reply from the man himself – we enjoyed the game! Could you tell what the real importance of having points per figure is? I may vaguely recall there being something about comparing unit worths, maybe…

      1. Glad you enjoyed playing the game. I must have been following the layout in other rules sets where you can have different sized units. – not true in Billhooks. Next time I do a QRS I will list them as “Points per figure/points per unit” eg Men-at/Arms 2(24). You are probably thinking of the rule where a unit must test Morale if it sees friends of higher original points value routing.

  2. Hey just ran across your podcast have you guys seen Force of Virtue? It’s a small scale skirmish for this period with some really cool card and campaign mechanics and some similar stuff to the Rogue Planet energy mechanics

  3. Good review. I enjoy the rules and they certainly help to create interesting games and stories. However, I do agree that navigating them can be ‘tricky’ for several reasons. I’d add that some of the rules themselves are tricky as there are quite a lot of little things to remember that are not intuitive and unnecessarily fiddly. Some rules appear on the surface at least to clash with other rules, which adds to the confusion. I’d like to see a redux of these rules that has better editing, more examples and cleaner mechanics. As much as I like the rules they induce far more head scratching and page flipping than supposedly more complex sets, at least for me. I’m not sure why some of the above is not even hinted at in many reviews.

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