Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Melee: Killing JON of the ISLES

It didn’t add up.

I mean I knew that an ST 12/DX 12 character would have an significant advantage in Steve Jackson’s classic Melee microgame. This is just one of those iconic artifacts of gaming legend– right up there with stats for the original G.E.V. counters having to be revised due to actual players doing stuff with them that the playtesters never imagined.

But it was too much. “JON of the ISLES” was way too awesome. He cut down hulking crossbowmen and nimble swashbucklers with ease. Soon the body count was up to seven; his ST pumped up to 13 and his DX at 14 via the oft-lamented experience system… the guy pretty much couldn’t miss. It was awful.

But more was at stake here than everyone else’s chances at nabbing a prized continuing character and bragging rights over the week’s lunchtime game sessions. The natives were restless, frustrated. Rather than seeing a challenge worth rising to, they saw a pointlessly insurmountable obstacle. “Your game’s broken,” they told me. Sour grapes to be sure! But also fighting words. They’re talking about one of the greatest designers in history. Nobody’s going to besmirch the legacy of Steve on my watch. Not going to happen!

So I made my challenge and spent ten minutes carefully perusing the rule book. There had to be a way! And there was.

JON of the ISLES was played by someone that had neglected to mine the equipment list for every conceivable advantage. This wasn’t much, but it was enough to counterbalance those additional ST and DX points that looked so unbeatable. The biggest problem that I could see was the guy didn’t have a backup weapon. Maybe there would be a way to punish him for that?

Ah, yes there was…! The hand-to-hand rules say that if I can move onto his hex, he has a very good chance of dropping his weapon. I started to work up a dagger-wielding figure just for this purpose, but then I looked again. Yeah, if I move into JON’s front hex I would have to stop. And then once engaged, I could take the “Attempt HTH Attack” option. But… it’s not that easy. There are only a few very narrow circumstances where this is allowed, having a higher Movement Allowance being chief among them. And the stats just weren’t there for that.

But there was a way that it could be pulled off. Not a surefire method… but a solid chance. Spears do less damage than broadswords. But… being much longer, they have the capacity to short-circuit JON’s dexterity advantage. I’ll have a chance to seize the initiative with that! But there was more…. A character that takes 8 or more hits in a turn immediately falls down. And prone figures can always be engaged in hand-to-hand. A spear’s 1d+1 damage was never going to pull that off, but if I could lure JON into charging me or else allowing me to charge him, I’d have a better than even chance to knock him down!

The day of the battle arrived. I was allowed to my one charge in. (An unforced error!) I then got just enough damage to knock him down. I won the initiative for the movement phase and moved into HTH range. We both dropped our weapons in the hex. I got lucky with a HTH attack and did another 2 hits of damage with a punch, putting him beyond the -3 to all attacks threshold. He was stronger than me and could conceivably hurt me in a HTH scenario… but not after the deathspiral was in motion!

At this point JON’s player did not feel he could retreat. He didn’t have a backup weapon and didn’t want me to pick up the spear and use it to finish him off. So he stayed to trade punches and was finished off with a flurry of 1-point hits.

(For what it’s worth, I will say that my chest-beating at this point wasn’t too obnoxious.)

Now… does this mean that the game is broken in just a slightly different way than we first imagined? No it doesn’t!

The spear charge / hand-to-hand combo can be countered in two ways. First… you can merely close to a distance of two hexes and accept a spear jab there the turn before you engage. Maybe not ideal, but hey… you gotta give spear carriers their due!

And though this auto-knockdown seems out of control (especially combined with 2-in-3 chance of a defender dropping their weapon in HTH combat), also note that armor makes it MUCH less likely that you’re going to get knocked down. It takes 8 hits of injury to trigger the auto-fall, and plate armor pretty well ensures that that’s never going to happen, even if you charge a spear carrier!

So there you go. There’s definitely more to this game than closing to melee range and taking turns wailing on each other until somebody goes down. Dagger-toting goblins with MA 12 are going to be a real problem under these rules. And if you’re used to fighting naked like the Irish did back in the day, you’ve got good reason to rethink that here. The penalty to adjDEX is harsh, but getting knocked down is even harsher!

(And do note if you’re irked by the dweebie wizards hauling around new school staffs to power their spells… lobby your opponent to let you combine Wizard with Melee, cast Summon Wolf and get up in his grill. You’ve got a better than even chance of making him drop the darned thing!)

Anyway, the integrity of my game is preserved. The greatness of 70’s Steve is demonstrated yet again. Granted, you can develop the nuggets of these rules into something with more nuance and granularity. (See GURPS.) But you cannot beat Melee for either elegance or excitement.

It’s a thing of beauty!

I am saddled with being accused of staying up all night analyzing a pitifully small 24 page rules pamphlet, sure… but I can live with that!

Long live Melee™!

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5 responses to “Melee: Killing JON of the ISLES

  1. Chris Rice June 9, 2019 at 5:32 am

    Nice writup. However, Jon is a paper tiger; with only 1 armour point he’s extremely vulnerable to injury. I’d rather have a 10 Dex and 3 points of armour any day of the week.

    • jeffro June 9, 2019 at 1:52 pm

      Casual players are just not liable to invest that much effort in outdoing the sample character builds on the cards. But they sure will play.

  2. gmccammon5 June 10, 2019 at 9:51 am

    Another idea against the spear is, of course, missile and Thrown weapons. Close to 3 hexes to stay out of the spear range and minimize the DX penalty, and heave an axe at the spear holder. A small axe will average 5-6 damage!

  3. Pingback: Melee for Real | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  4. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: S-F Weapons, Thomas Ligotti, Savage Minicrate, Michael Whelan, Starman Jones – Herman Watts

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