Last night I got to read and test Strange Grogge by Mike Baumann, Matthew Hartley and Steve Blease of Wessex Games. It is a game about "age of sail" skirmishes in a fantasy land. So you can play orc pirates (or Pyrates in the book) invading a dark elf settlement, or maybe ratmen privateers boarding a dwarf ship. With little work it could be adapted to play battles inspired by old swashbuckler movies. From the copyright notice, the game's been around since 2004 but I only came to know it this year.
Characters in the basic game are described by race, unit type, equipment and a single attribute called Salt, which is a measure of their fighting state (morale, preparedness, health and so on.) Salt will go up and down during a battle based on success or failure of actions and damage in combat, requiring some bookkeeping. Going below Salt 2 makes a character rout; besides that, characters may be killed outright as a result of combat actions (although that is more likely for characters with low Salt.)
Player forces are built as one or more parties. A party is a group of figures of the same race and type (for instance, six fishman infantry) although the experience level for each figure is randomly determined. Play is divided in turns with players alternately activating their parties. Each character in a party may then perform a single action. Although the task resolution mechanic is always the same, there are several tables that detail the outcome of different tasks. The authors point out that most of those tables follow the same pattern; in my opinion, regardless of that they will have to be consulted at least during the first few games.
Presentation: Wessex Games sells a printed version of Strange Grogge on their web site but I got the PDF version. This, as explained on the product description, is a text-only version. What you get is single-column text set with a sans serif font. The several tables are clear and readable, and the table of contents is really all you need to find information on this book, given the number of pages. I tried printing a sample in four-pages-per-sheet format (i.e. A6 booklet) and it is still very readable. On the following image, you can see the font size from Song of Blades and Heroes printed in booklet (A5) format, on the left, and Strange Grogge printed in A6 (105mm x 148mm) format, on the right.
Solo-friendliness: The book does not include any thoughts on solo play, although the rules for party creation might help in defining the opposing forces. Other than that, you'll have to roll your own solo rules or play both sides.
Since I didn't have anything remotely resembling fantasy pirates, I decided to playtest the game using RPTools. In this scenario, a party of six orc pyrates (represented by the blue tokens) are boarding another ship, defended by eleven dark elf sailors (represented by the green tokens.) The board is around 60cm x 60cm and the tokens represent miniatures with 20mm round bases. It's possible to move at crawl speed over the ropes (white lines) and also to swing between decks using the "handy rope" optional rule. It's interesting to note that using the table for random generation of figure experience levels, both parties ended with most characters at Green level (novice troops with reduced Salt.)
The sailors won the initiative in the first turn and positioned themselves in a line to welcome the pyrates with hot lead. The orcs ran towards the ship's edge to start boarding. Surprisingly, the orc with the arquebus managed to stumble on his own big feet and fell, stabbing himself in the process.
The third turn was initiated by the sailors once again, with the first mate reloading his musket. A sailor that was close to the pyrate with the archebus fired at him but his belt pistol jammed. Another sailor attacked him with his cutlass but was pushed back and stabbed. The orc moved forward, viciously slashing the elf several times until he was dead on the floor. The orc who had been shot finally mustered the courage to try and swing across decks. However, he couldn't keep his grip and fell on the sea. Hurt from the bullet wound and the fall, he drowned. The two pyrates walking on the ropes arrived on the other ship's deck and the pyrate leader swung across on a rope, stomping his foot against a dark elf sailor and slashing him with his saber.
On the fifth turn, the sailors got the initiative and the sailor leader once again stabbed a surrounded enemy pyrate. The sailor first mate shot the pyrate leader but missed. One of the pyrates single-handedly defeated three weary and injured sailors, who surrendered. The pyrate leader dispatched another one and the sailor leader was hurt in the process.
The sailors won the initiative on the sixth turn and started to move away. However, the orcs chased them running, defeating another one and further hurting the leader. At this point, with the sailors weakened and outnumbered, I decided that the pyrates had succeeded in their boarding action and the remaining dark elves would be kept as prisoners.
Strange Grogge is an interesting game, with a set of rules that are easy to grasp. Since some rules will require agreeement between players or some interpretation, I would say that it is geared towards "friendly" games rather than competitive play (always a positive thing, for me.) It does require some bookkeeping for the Salt of each figure, as well as jammed and unloaded weapons. Rolling for each action seems a lot until you notice that most figures will do a single roll per activation -- compared to games with activation, attack and damage rolls for instance, it's a lot faster. Having a printed copy of the book to reference the tables is certainly helpful.
Battles are very chaotic, and I'd say that's the defining feature of this game. This is caused in part because of the risk of critical successes and failures on every action (I had a lot of fun interpreting the critical failures), and in part because as the game goes on, characters tend to lose Salt and become less and less reliable. This fosters aggressive tactics and even daring maneuvers as it fits the swashbuckler genre (and reinforces my impression that it's better suited to friendly games.)
In small games with a single party per player, such as in my playtest, the activation system degenerates into "IGO-UGO," which I'm not particularly fond of. Since each character can only perform one action per activation, this normally isn't devastating. Still, in the future, when playing this game with a single party per side, I'll try using alternate activation of two figures per player, as if the single party was split into smaller groups.