Dead Man’s Hand is a set of wild west skirmish rules published by Great Escape Games in 2013. I’ve had an unread copy on my shelves for some time so when a friend mentioned it was a set he was looking at, I thought it was about time to dust it off and give it a go. I still had some wild west buildings in my collection but I’d previously sold my wild west figures so needed to order some more ahead of our game.
I knew Paul had some outlaws so I choose to order a Lawmen gang from Tabletop Empires and they arrived the day before we were due to play so we both made do with unpainted miniatures on this occasion. Over the course of an afternoon we played out one of the mini-campaigns from the rules (called a series) – “The Good, The Lead & The Ugly” which comprised of three escalating linked scenarios (called scenes).
The first scene, “The Stranger” saw a lone Marshal facing off against three drunk outlaw dudes in a limited time introductory game and although he quickly dispatched one, the other’s soon sobered up and he ran out of activation cards before he could finish them off, so lost the game.
Continuing the series, the next scene was “This Town Ain’t Big Enough…” and fighting in the unnamed town has escalated. The sheriff and one of his deputies began the game enjoying breakfast in the Sheriff’s office while the other deputies were spread around the streets individually and in pairs. Meanwhile the outlaw boss was drinking in the saloon while the rest of his gang were spread around the town in three groups, including a rifleman on lookout in the balcony of a two storey building. It was a close fought game with the lawman taking out the required number of outlaws just in the nick of time before too many of their own gang were eliminated.
The final scene was entitled “We’ll be Waiting” and involved both full gangs. The majority of the outlaws started the game in the main street facing down the two most senior lawmen (the Sheriff and Marshal), while a lone deputy was hidden somewhere off table. The remainder of the outlaws were down a side street and another four deputies were off the table. In the first turn the senior lawmen had the drop on the outlaws, taking a total of four shots at the outlaw boss which all missed and then ducking into nearby buildings for cover. In the outlaw’s first turn, a shotgun carrying dude ran down the street and shot the marshal dead through the window of the building he was hiding in with a single shot! Things went from bad to worse when at the start of the next turn the Sheriff ran out of his building to take out the isolated shotgun dude but tripped over his bootlaces and was promptly killed by the shotgun at point blank range. With both their leaders dead, the deputies began to arrive on the table but were caught in the firing line of a dude with a repeating rifle in an elevated position and despite some valiant efforts, the surviving lawmen were surrounded, outgunned and killed to a man.
My figures were the official Dead Man’s Hand Lawmen gang, Paul’s were various Dixon Miniatures, the gaming mat was from Ceri Designs and the foamcore buildings from the sadly defunct P.O.P Enterprises from the UK. Single piece model buildings are not really ideal for this game so I’m likely to be taking a look at the excellent (if pricey) 4Ground range of pre-painted MDF kits.
All the scenarios in the book are designed around the official gang boxed sets of seven figures (a boss, a second and five regulars) and the gangs in the main rules are Lawmen, Outlaws, Cowboys & Desperados. Due to the deck mechanics, games are really geared towards two players with one taking a ‘good’ gang (lawmen or cowboys) and the other taking a ‘bad’ gang (outlaws or desperados). If you want to play other combinations, you’re really going to need a deck of cards each and they are only available with a copy of the rules. Each of the official gang boxes includes a card showing the gang’s special abilities but since these are included in the book, it’s not really necessary so it’s perfectly possible to use alternative miniatures from the many other sources out there. I think the game would bog down considerably if you were using more than about ten figures per side.
Descriptions of the core mechanics are available on the publisher’s website so I won’t repeat them here.
The mechanics are simple but provide a lot of tactical depth and give you very cinematic outcomes with gunfighters stumbling, weapons jamming, distractions, duck-backs, quick drawing and everything else you would expect to find in a wild west movie. The action declarations, hand of cards and interruption options all keep both player’s engaged throughout the game making it both fast-paced and dynamic. Although the model stats are generally similar for each gang, the gang specific rules and cards give just enough flavour for each gang to have a distinctive feel.
My only criticism of the game is the amount of table clutter as for most of the game each miniature will be followed around by an activation card and up to three counters, all of which do detract from the look of the game and are easily mixed up when groups of models are close together.
The basic game is extended through a Legends Supplement which provides campaign rules, four new gangs (Banditos, Renegade Indians, 7th Cavalry and Pinkertons) and a further eleven scenes to play through. There is also an Australian supplement, Dead Man’s Hand Down Under with twelve more scenes and three new gangs (State Police, Bushrangers and the Kelly gang) More recently there’s been a major extension of the rules with The Curse of Dead Man’s Hand which takes a departure from history into a weird west populated by supernatural gangs and creatures.
Overall, these are certainly the best set of wild west rules I’ve played and I’m keen to play them a lot more regularly.