Review: En Garde!

Being in the Main a Game of the Life and Times of a Gentleman Adventurer and his Several Companions.

Roleplaying for me is largely a winter hobby; over the summer, my players and I are randomly unavailable due to holidays. Summer is a time for rummaging under the bed in the Box of Lost Games, and deciding what to do in the coming year. Today, what should emerge, as I blow the dust off it, but En Garde!

Now, there are at least three tabletop games called En Garde, but I am referring to the one published initially by Game Designers’ Workshop in 1975-77, still available in a slightly revised form from Margam Evans Ltd. The current version is a 95 page A4 document with a colour cover and internal illustrations; while the content is (so far as I can tell from memory) the same, my heart belongs to the digest-sized little brown book which went the way of all flesh some years ago, to be replaced in due course by this new edition. In the late 1970s, I wandered around my college campus with a Traveller box containing the Little Black Books, campaign notes and player characters on index cards, and En Garde! We played that when – for whatever reason – OD&D or CT games were out of reach, and I carried on playing it by post for years afterwards.

Indeed, the thing that has really kept this game alive for over 40 years is its suitability for Play By Mail – or these days, play by email.

Perhaps I should talk about the game itself. Set in an unspecified and imaginary 17th century nation a lot like the France depicted in the Three Musketeers, it has two distinct mini-games; duelling, and social climbing. Both involve simultaneous movement to strict written orders, which was a thing in the 1970s; it’s this that makes it so suitable for PBM.

The designers originally intended this as a duelling game, but added in social elements to generate reasons for the duels – and quickly realised that courting mistresses, gambling in bawdyhouses, and getting your rivals arrested on trumped-up treason charges were more fun than the actual duels, giving rise to the current form of the game, in which the objective is to increase one’s Social Level.

Characters have a randomly-determined family background which determines their initial Social Level (ranging from 2-11), funds (ranging from 0 to 750 Crowns), monthly allowance (0-750 Crowns) and inheritance if the dice decree, at first or later, that one’s father has died (0-5000 Crowns). They also have four characteristics (Strength, Constitution, Endurance and Military Ability) and different levels of expertise in the various weapons available – rapier, two-handed sword, cutlass and so on.

If you’re starting to see similarities with Classic Traveller, the authors worked on that game a few years later.

In each game month, every player secretly writes orders for what his character will do each week; practice with a specific weapon, visit a club or bawdyhouse, drink or gamble, join a military unit or carry out his duties in one, court a mistress, and so on. These activities cost money, and may result in gaining Status Points and influence – more on that below. A character who fails to spend enough money or gain enough Status Points sees his Social Level decrease; if he manages to overachieve on the Status Point front, his Social Level increases, unlocking access to better-paid jobs with more influence (and classier mistresses), but increasing his expenditure and need for Status Points.

During the course of these activities he will bump into other players, and if they are (for example) from a rival regiment or courting the same mistress, cause for a duel may result. At this point we switch to the duelling mini-game; each player writes a sequence of lunges, slashes, recoveries and so on in secret, and these are revealed and compared one by one on a chart; this results in either a miss, or damage inflicted on the opponent, after which he may surrender. In postal play, it’s customary to submit routines for potential duels in advance to maintain the pace of the game.

The duellist with the lower expertise is disadvantaged, and must insert extra rests (pauses) into his orders between attacks. This simulates both the advantage of having choice of weapon, and the faster, more flexible style that comes with greater skill.

The winner of a duel improves his expertise with that weapon, and may gain or lose Status Points depending on his opponent and the outcome.

Joining a regiment offers the chance to win loot (or die) while on campaign, and provides Status Points. There are also government positions one can apply for, which in addition to money and status confer influence. Influence gained from one’s mistress or position may be used to fudge or overrule the GM’s dice rolls, for example to ensure a friend gets that plum job or military promotion, or to send a rival off on campaign while you court his mistress.

I found the duelling boring, but the shenanigans around social climbing hugely entertaining. The game is at its best when played by post with several dozen players and a referee. With some effort, it can be given female PCs or transplanted to other genres; I’ve seen it used for science fiction, fantasy, and one game where the players were all U-Boat captains in 1940s France. I’ve tried running it myself both as written and as a science fiction game, but I find it works best in its original setting.

Every so often I get the urge to play it again, or add it to my current RPG setting to generate scenarios, and maybe I will someday. However, it’s more likely any such endeavour would be a solitaire game, and En Garde! is not really suitable for that; so I’d probably be better off using By Savvy and Steel, which sounds like a GA Henty novel but is in fact a set of Two Hour Wargames rules, now published by Rebel Minis.

Ah, well. Someday. Maybe. For now, it goes back in the box.

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Rune Priest
You know, I could have sworn that I had that very edition but can't actually find it (this is not entirely surprising). It might be up in the attic still - we've got stuff to put back up there tomorrow so will check then.

At some point I really must give it a try - one of my exes used to play it back in the 80s (the old version). How does it compare with Lace & Steel? I own that as well (unplayed too...)