We tried a three-player game yesterday. I'd said that we'd need to do without reactions, but my son was insistent that we would not. So, when one of my childhood-gaming friends came round, we decided just to keep reactions in and see how they worked. I thought about having the "non-active" players alternating for reactions, but decided that it would be too fiddly. Instead, we allowed both non-active players to react to each failure.
Here's the surprising thing: it worked just fine. Our three-player "treasure hunt" scenario took just over an hour and a half to play out, and that was with occasional rule checks on the computer for the FiFu novelties. We also had some "NPCs" in the form of skeleton guardians in a ruined temple. All three potential treasure sites were in the ruins, and the skeletons would attack anyone who entered. We played a "fourth turn" for the skeletons; each activated on three dice as an individual (so no turnovers and, we decided, no reactions) and moved towards the closest intruder in the ruins; those outside the ruins were ignored. This was my son's idea in our previous two-player game, and we really liked how it worked, so decided to keep it for the three-player version. Even with these added complications, the game was quick - indeed, tremendously fast and furious.
Our three sides were lizardmen (four warriors, a lesser lizardman archer, a snakeman archer and a formidable dinosaur-rider with Dashing and Trample), goblins (a gang of warriors, a gang of archers, a leader, a hero archer and a bugbear guard) and ratmen (a leader armed with a jezail, which we treated as a crossbow, a wizard with the Fireball and Fear spells, four scouts, three warriors and two rat ogres; these were only 35 points each as I forgot about Long Move). Some of the profiles were tweaked a little; the bugbear was Q4, C4, Big, Bludgeon, for example, so moved normally; the goblin hero was only C2 but had Good Shot and Short Bow; the goblin leader had Heavy Weapon (a stolen dwarven axe) and the ratman leader was Q3, C3, Crossbow, Good Shot, Leader.
We essentially used the card system for turn order, though we did it with dice in the absence of cards. So, the highest roll went first, then the other two players diced for second turn. When the turn was over, the first and second players diced for the first action of the new turn, and so on. This meant that no player had two consecutive turns.
Reactions were again unlimited by range or LOS; I think any restrictions would have made the game significantly slower. Both non-acting players were hovering over the active player's rolls, so reactions were taken very quickly (we each had our own set of three dice, though, so didn't physically reroll the failing dice). In practice, most of the reactions were taken simultaneously with the actions, as they didn't interfere with each other. So, when my son's lizardman warrior succeeded with two out of three actions, all three of us ended up moving figures at the same time. This was great - it really broke down the artificial restrictions of the turn sequence and gave a convincing sense of simultaneous action.
Only when reactions involved ranged or melee combat did we have to pause to resolve reactions before actions. This was very quickly done, though. We didn't have a single clash of reactions, such as two figures opting to shoot at the same target or attack each other. Had these arisen, though, we would probably just have decided initiative with a dice roll, or let the higher-point model act first, or even arbitrarily allow the one closest to the failing figure priority. I think we'd have allowed figures shooting at each other with a reaction to fire simultaneously and ruled that figures charging each other would meet halfway. Anyway, no such problems arose.
As in our previous playtest games, we ruled out reactions when a figure rolled a complete failure (i.e. two dice out of two or three out of three) and instead just made the turnover. That worked fine here.
The game itself was tremendously exciting. The dinosaur-rider was first into the temple, but was slowed down by the skeleton guards and the various plinths and pillars in the complex. This allowed the goblin leader to get to the treasure first; he passed it to the hero, who made off with it, but was ambushed by a lizardman and pursued by the dinosaur-rider. The goblin scaled a wall to get height advantage, but a lizardman climbed up behind him while the dinosaur-rider approached. My jezail-wielding leader managed to knock down the dinosaur-rider with a well-placed shot, and his followers were poised to finish the job, but he was then attacked by the goblin leader, whose followers then swamped and killed him. That was a tactical mistake by the goblins, we decided later, as the lizardman killed the goblin hero and the dinosaur-rider recovered to pick up the treasure and ride off. The ratmen, who had previously slaughtered the goblin spearmen, were scattered by the loss of their leader, while the goblin archers and bugbear had been slowed by the snakeman, the lesser lizardman and a lizard warrior. The goblin archers made forlorn pursuit of the dinosaur rider, but couldn't get close enough for a telling shot. Meanwhile, the rat ogres had been delayed by skeletons and routed at the death of their leader. The ratman wizard pursued the dinosaur-rider through the ruins, but couldn't get close enough to get a spell off. And so the lizardmen escaped with the loot.
A few other observations:
Short Bow and Crossbow. These are great rules. The potential for more powerful missile attacks really adds an extra dimension to the game. My ratman leader came very close to killing the dinosaur rider with his "crossbow" and Good Shot, as he was attacking at C5 vs C3 when he used an Aimed Shot (compared with C3 vs C5 in melee, given the rider's C4 and Mounted bonus). The ability to take down melee monsters (Q4, C4, Long Move, Mounted, Dashing, Trample) with a single shot gives both players a lot to think about: terrain, screening with lesser troops and so on.
The Short Bow dynamic is great, too; there's a fine risk/reward balance in getting close enough to get the bonus for Short range.
One thing I would change, though, is the reloading rule for Short Bow. We forgot about this, and I think it would have been hard to keep track of had we remembered. Also, what happens to a character with Legendary Shot and Short Bow? If he can't move and fire off a couple of shots, it seems a bit limiting (and significantly less legendary!). I think the Short range bonus for Short Bow is balanced by the risk of getting so close to the enemy - especially with reactions, so I would say that Short Bow shooters should be able to reload automatically, as in SOBH.
In contrast, I think the reloading rule for Crossbow works fine. It's more intuitive, and there's less to keep track of (it's always an action). And it provides a nice balance for the potency of the shot. Turning round the figure to indicate that he's unloaded is a great idea. I also think that there's no comparison between the time taken to nock an arrow and draw a bow, and that taken to reload a heavy crossbow.
Gang. This worked very well. The Q4, C2 goblin warriors were surprisingly potent in combat. In our two games using Gangs, they've taken down a dinosaur rider and a couple of lizardmen. But the vulnerability to gruesome kills adds balance; my ratmen were able to obliterate one Gang with a well-placed gruesome kill. And the low C of the members makes them "eggshells armed with sledgehammers": yes, they'll get outnumbering bonuses, but hit them hard with something big and they won't last long. The rule also makes for a quicker, more dynamic game. And those little knots of goblins looked good on the tabletop.
Bludgeon and Heavy Weapon. These add simple but subtle nuances to combat. The goblin leader's big axe made him a more potent threat - and he got a natural six during the game to achieve an important kill. Both rules are easy to remember, which is crucial.
Reactions. Lots of reactions seem to speed up the game rather than slow it down. This was significantly quicker than our last three-player game of SOBH, and that had 300 fewer points on the table and no NPCs. The reason for this,I think, is that figures move faster (in this case, up to five moves in a single three-player turn) and shoot and fight more. Also, the possibility of reacting keeps the players glued to the table. As I noted earlier, when actions and reactions were simply moves that didn't affect other figures, much of the action was literally simultaneous. As the three warbands converged on the ruins, there was no sense that one side was moving while the others stood still. And that made for a brilliant game for young and ageing alike.