Hey there, Gamer!

     Today I’ll be reviewing The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms, a tabletop wargame released in March of 2020 by Modiphius. For those familiar with The Elder Scrolls video games, this board game takes place all across the world of Tamriel, and some familiar faces and monsters make their appearance in either the core rules or in expansions. While not as streamlined as I would have liked, The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms has a lot to offer for both competitive and cooperative play.

The core rules and quest book included in the Core Set, as well as the card decks and tutorial booklet.


Gaming Mechanics

    I have actually never played a wargame. Although I love collecting and painting miniatures, I’m ashamed to admit that many of them go unused. Those that are used tend to be for tabletop RPGs, rather than for wargames. That said, my familiarity with RPGs made the transition to playing a wargame easier than it could have otherwise been. And while there were issues understanding many of the rules (more on that later!), I’m happy overall with how my first wargaming experience went.


    Call to Arms has a very short and simple tutorial to help learn some of the very basic game mechanics, such as using weapons and moving. The entire tutorial, called Escape from Helgen, takes about thirty minutes to complete, including set up and reading through the booklet. Once you finish the tutorial, you’re supposed to be ready to begin playing with the full ruleset, but as a first-time wargamer, I found that highly debatable. I gave it a shot anyway.

The last part of the tutorial has you fighting a draugr and a skeleton archer. With this dice roll, I successfully killed the draugr blocking my movement with my Ancient Nord War Axe.

    In Call to Arms, the first job of the players is to decide if they want to play competitively or cooperatively. I’m a huge fan of cooperative play, so for our first playthrough, we chose to play in Delve Mode. And as I already had the Bleak Falls Barrow Delve set, choosing to play that particular delve scenario seemed like an excellent idea. In Battle Mode, two opposing Player Parties play competitively in skirmishes, while simultaneously fighting off an Adversary Party.


    From there, we built our player party and our adversary party and set up our game area to the specifications listed for our party point limit. Each party was built to a 99 Gold Septim limit, meaning the total cost of all models and the equipment added to our heroes was no more than 99 Gold Septims. Heroes and followers for the player party can come from a variety of Factions, including the Imperial or Stormcloak Factions, Adventurers, and Neutral Factions, and creating the Player Party with a Hero from a certain Faction chosen as the Party Leader can affect the entire Party in a few different ways.


    I’ll admit that we made some mistakes here. Our adversary party should have been built with an extra 25 point buffer, giving them an upper limit of 124 Gold Septims, but I missed that in the rules until we were already well into our first scenario. Our player party also included two hero models, the Dragonborn and Hadvar, and I am still not entirely sure if that’s permitted.


But this was my first time playing a wargame. Mistakes are only part of the learning process, right?


    Much of the gameplay will be familiar to anyone that has played a TTRPG before. Each character, followers and adversaries included, has a set of attributes with predetermined skill values. All skill checks, such as strength checks for melee attacks, are resolved using a d20 roll. Green modifier dice may also be included to increase the chance for a successful skill check. Additional dice determine the possible damage inflicted and any potential perks or status ailments to include on attacks. An example of this can be seen in the image above. The Dragonborn performs a Melee Attack with an Ancient Nord War Axe, rolling a white d20 and a green modifier die. A roll of 4 on the d20, plus the -3 modifier from the green die, is lower than the Dragonborn’s strength skill of 4. The attack is a success! The two yellow dice roll a total of three damage pips, some of which may be absorbed by the enemies armor rating.

Scenario setup is complete, and the Dragonborn and Hadvar are ready to lead two Imperial soldiers against half a dozen draugr and skeleton archers.

    There are a lot of finer points that I won’t get into here, but the overall goal of the delve we started with was to survive for a full eight rounds of play, or until one of the two parties had been wiped out. We also needed to collect VP, or Victory Points, which are awarded for completing certain tasks or killing enemies. You can also spend VP to level up a Hero character (such as the Dragonborn or Hadvar) once per scenario. Although I knew it was possible to level a character, I had no idea how to do it until after our first scenario was completed.


    But we persevered. After our party survived the full eight rounds (with only one member of the adversary party remaining), we tallied up our total VP and determined that we had earned enough points to claim an easy victory!

Success! While we lost both of our Imperial soldiers, the Dragonborn and Hadvar survived the full eight rounds of play.


So how does The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms compare to other tabletop games?


The Good:

    Call to Arms has a lot of great stuff going on. If you read my last Painting Guide, you’ll hopefully recall that the models I used were from the Bleak Falls Barrow Delve set, which is an expansion of the Core Rules Set. And Modiphius is continuing to release expansions every month. For now, those expansions will all be from the Skyrim video game, such as the Imperial and Stormcloak faction expansions. One of their newest expansions includes the dragon Mirmulnir. You can also get scenery and set pieces. That’s quite a lot of miniature construction and painting, and it makes my little heart nearly burst with joy. If you happen to have a 3D printer, you can also buy STL files from Modiphius and print scenery pieces yourself, rather than waiting for them to be restocked on digital shelves.


    This was also our first chance to use our gaming mat, which has sat in a corner basically ever since we bought it. Call to Arms can end up being a pretty massive game, and even with our delve map being the smallest size it could be, it still took up a significant chunk of our kitchen table. And it was honestly very exciting to have that much space to work inside. It added a slight tactical layer that usually gets ignored in smaller games, especially when considering that scenic pieces are required in each Call to Arms scenario.


    The party system ensures that each scenario can be played through multiple times without losing uniqueness. Simply change the Gold Septim limit and the composition of both the player and Adversary parties, and it’s an entirely different game. This gives added repeatability to gameplay that a lot of tabletop games lack. And since adversaries have an interesting reaction table to help determine actions based on their nature, swapping even a single monster for one with a different nature can make noticeable changes to the tactics the player party must use to win the scenario.


The Bad


    As much as I enjoyed playing The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms, learning how to play it was an entirely different matter. I was very hopeful when I realized that there was a short tutorial, but even after finishing Escape from Helgen, I felt totally unprepared. The tutorial is nearly useless for anyone but the absolute tabletop beginner. I’ve never played a wargame before, but I’m familiar enough with TTRPGs such as Pathfinder and DnD to know how to move and attack with both ranged and melee weapons. And that’s all you learn to do in the tutorial.


    The core rulebook itself is dense, and although it seems well organized at first, it only takes a few moments to realize that not everything is as nicely done as it could be. It’s difficult to cross-reference, and although there is an index in the back, each entry typically only has one spot where any substantial (and thorough) explanation is given. This is fairly normal, and many games help with some of the more regularly occurring questions and concerns by providing a quick reference sheet or card. A reference card might have the round phases and order of play on one side, and perhaps a list of common effects and physical ailments on the back. Don’t quite remember how much of a bonus you get when attacking a staggered opponent? That’s alright, it’s on the reference card.


    Except Call to Arms has no reference card or sheet. So every small thing that I encountered while playing that I didn’t understand had to be looked up in the rulebook. Which is difficult to navigate and does not cross-reference well. This was without a doubt the largest issue with this game. It was very literally headache-inducing, and when my scenario was complete I immediately took some Excedrin and went to bed. Evidently, I was not the only one to find fault with the lack of quick references, either. After finishing my first scenario of Call to Arms, I discovered that Modiphius had released a free PDF download that included reference sheets and some errata for the core rules.


    I’ve yet to play with the reference sheets, but I have read some of the errata. I think it makes some of the rules much easier to understand, and I’m glad Modiphius was able to provide something to help ease the learning curve.


The Final Verdict


    I really enjoy playing the Skyrim video game, and having so many familiar characters and items in the board game really made the entire experience nostalgic (though I still play Skyrim most weekends, so nostalgia isn’t quite the correct term). Though there were some issues along the way during our first game, I was still satisfied with the gaming experience. Once the particulars and peculiarities associated with the game were dealt with, it honestly felt like a great approximation of what a real dungeon delve from the video game might look like and play like if translated onto the table.


    I would definitely recommend The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms to anyone interested in giving it a try. This is especially true if you have a soft spot in your gamer’s heart for the Skyrim video game, or if you’re already familiar with wargames or TTRPGs. The single caveat to this is that I would make sure you are very familiar with the core rulebook (front to back!), and that you have downloaded the errata and reference sheets released by Modiphius. The reference cards are a must, and the errata goes a long way to clear up some of the rules and will hopefully make gameplay more streamlined and enjoyable. Both are free to download from Modiphius’s website, and you can find them HERE.


I hope you give The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms a try, and that you enjoy exploring Tamriel as much as I did.


Good luck and Game On!