Sunday, 2 August 2015

Clash on the Fringe - Sci Fi Skirmish (Review)

No, this is not the name of a boy band, a race horse, or a trendy hairdresser.  This set of rules is clearly a love-letter to the Rogue Trader era of 40K - aimed at 2-3 squads per player, a few heroes and the odd vehicle thrown in.  It aims away from the "hard sci fi" which has flooded the rules market of late, and aims to swash a few buckles, in more a space fantasy vein.

The Shiny
It's pretty plain, with the odd photo of minis thrown in. (I must say, 6mm scale is not the best to illustrate a book with - they don't get you very excited, and at first I presumed they were chunky/dodgy 15mm) I'd call it "serviceable". It has a table of contents, and I didn't find it hard to locate rules, though the location of some sections was a bit clunky.  At $15, it's at the mid-high end for pdf rules, but there is plenty of content (157 pages - of which about 30 are the rules themselves). To sum it up: Substance over style.

Do you get nostalgic about old-school 40K?  Back when the whacky inventiveness and weird alien worlds hadn't become a narrow grimdark place, constrained by official canon?

There's enough to be descriptive. 
Survival (armour, toughness, fieldcraft)
Training (shooting, melee, initiative)
Morale (bravery, enthusiasm, ability to take losses)
Discipline (endurance, willingness to endure/react to fire)
You test against them by rolling d10 = or less than a TN. I.e if you have 6 morale, you need to roll 6 or less to pass.   Gives a familiar "old school" feel.

I didn't find it terribly clear. It says "both sides roll d10+Training of any unactivated unit" then the winner can choose to move any unactivated unit (not necessarily the one whose Training was used?).  I presumed this continues through the turn (i.e. rolling after each time someone activates a unit) in a kind of random-alternate-movement-influenced-by-training, rather than one-side-does-all-its-actions-while-the-other-side-reacts.  A player with unactivated units left over rolls d10, and a 1-2 means the unit can't activate.  This is an interesting way to (mildly) disadvantage warbands with superior numbers, especially if they are saving their "best til last." (It also discourages you making a bazillion small units in order to "game" the turn sequence).

Units, once activated, can choose from a series of actions. 
Engage (normal), Storm (assault), Evade (avoid reaction fire, move fast), Prowl (avoid reaction fire, can fire short range), Alert (overwatch), Regroup (recover suppression). Which coincide with the number on a d6, so you could use a microdice to mark the order if necessary.  Within these parameters units do the usual fire+move or move+fire.

Rather than halving movement, it deducts various -1" and -2" penalties. Individual minis get a +1" to speed.  There are no forced coherency, but you can't benefit from leadership bonuses if you ain't within 8".  There is a rough game scale of 1" = ~3 metres.

I like the lack of forced coherency.  Minis aren't tied to each other by invisible 2" bungee cords and can scatter about and take cover as they want.  Leaders (more on them later) do encourage a modicum of natural coherency though.

A little weirdly, the rules fully explaining obstacles, terrain and cover (as well as climbing, entering buildings, etc) are found a good 40 pages later, after generic sample races. I found this a bit illogical and annoying, layout-wise. 

Minis within a squad can use different weapons (i.e. one guy shoot bazooka, one throws a frag, the other fires a SMG).  Weapon ranges are either close (+2), standard or long(-2).  They also have a penetration value. Interestingly, many automatic weapons may choose to use AoE templates. See this post for why this is good.

The firer must roll under their Training score to hit.  Natural 10s never hit, but do suppress.  Unaimed fire only hits on 1s (hits) and 10s (heads down/suppress).  A mini that is hit must roll a saving throw of d10 (+ weapon pen) vs its survival. If the roll is higher, it dies.  If it is equal or lower, it is suppressed.  Minis in the blast template of an explosive weapon (grenade launcher etc) are suppressed automatically.  I must say I like grenades you can actually throw and place a template for, instead of the +1 to assault dice nonsense every ruleset uses nowadays.

Reaction Fire
This has been deliberately toned down compared to the usual hard sci fi/Vietnam-in-space rules that dominate 15mm sci fi.   Basically, units have a "zone of control" equal to their Discipline x 2.  I.e. a Discipline 6 unit would have a 12" ZoC.  The reaction fire is unaimed and only hits on a 1.
Given there are lots of actions/moves which don't draw reactions, and the relatively short reaction range, and a 90d arc, I feel this perhaps could be "tuned up" a bit (perhaps to half Training i.e. a trooper who normally hits on a 6 or less needs a 3 or less when reacting) without messing with the game balance too much. In the least, I'd up the potency when troops are on overwatch.  But you can definitely see the aim to move away from "hard" sci fi to space fantasy, which is a welcome change of pace.  A chainsword-wielding charge is actually practicable.

Reminiscent of early 40K, it's D10+stat (Training).  Losers roll a survival save (or both, if they draw) and get pushed back 3" and are suppressed.  Once in melee, someone's going to get hurt.

Suppression (aka "Heads Down"*)
(*I'm going to do a post soon on why it annoys me when people rename common wargaming terms to their own nomenclature. It's like going to a pie shop where each shop has their own unique systems for the symbol on the crust of its pie, making you inevitably have to ask what pies they have in stock...)
The mini, if it suffers a suppression marker (it can have up to a maximum of 3) is pinned (no reaction fire) and must roll a d10 under their Discipline to remove the markers. All markers can be rolled for in the same phase - you could potentially remove all 3 at once if you had good Discipline/luck.

Each casualty caused adds a Stress counter to the unit.  I think we're getting a bit counter-heavy at this point, but I guess it's no worse than Tomorrow's War.  Each stress counter gives a -1 penalty to Discipline, Training and Morale.  If these stats get reduced to 0, various bad thing happen. 0 Morale, for example, means the unit is disbanded and removed from play.

There is the odd nice pic of minis in action, but the layout is generally pretty simple and sparse.

These rank from 1 (basic) to 3 (natural leader) - the number shows the amount of command they can give.  This includes ordering another mini to move or shoot (potentially, I presume, allowing them to move/shoot twice?), and removing stress/suppression effects.  Leaders give these orders when they are activated, but before they move/shoot.  I really like the concept of this. It reminds me of the "heroic actions" from LOTR:SBG.  It also gives you a reason to clump up (to receive orders) at risk of the AoE weapons which proliferate. Risk vs Reward.

Heroes & Monsters
These get extra dice rolls and stat boosts. They don't "die" but instead roll on a table which is likelier to result in them getting stressed or wounded than killed outright.  This makes them more "characterful" and tougher than your average bear.  Monsters have similar rules and tend to be easier to target but difficult to suppress. 

Yay, psykers! Whilst not being a deep system, it's got a bit more texture than the "just another shooting attack" abilities from Gruntz & TW.   They come in 3 levels of power, and can push, shield, boost speed, shooting and melee, as well as buff/debuff morale.  Some psykers can wield more than one power at a time, and have traits that extend their range or allow extra effects. 

These, thankfully, use the same mechanics as infantry so my mecha will actually see service on the tabletop for once. They share similar stats - Speed, Survival - as well as a few new ones: Targeting (to hit rolls), Sensors (reactions) and Safety (how likely the crew are to survive the vehicle being "brewed up.")  They come in the usual walker-tracked-floater-grav-wheeled varieties.  Due to their rather obvious nature, troops can react to them when they are farther away than usual and tend to have the upper hand in reactions.  Suppressive fire will slow vehicles and degrade the accuracy of their fire, and vehicles tend to ignore low-penetration weapons.  Like heroes, vehicles roll on a special table when they fail their Survival rolls. Vehicles may try to "overrun" foot troops - a term I haven't heard in a while!  As usual, plenty of sample vehicle types are provided.  There are mech suits (heavy power armour) which use a mix of vehicle and infantry rules.

There are rules for off table fire support and alternate (airborne/flank/infiltration) deployment as well as reinforcements.   There are also simple "task resolution" rules - for the RPG-ey aspects of games where you might need to overload a power core, sabotage a vehicle or hack a terminal.

Army Building
There is a point system which is good as many indie games leave them out for philosophical reasons. As CoTF points out, we're big boys and can decide whether we want to use points-based or scenarios. The army building restrictions are basically no more heroes/individual  than you have squads (I suspect the author lived through the "Herohammer" years)

There are sample troop ratings (discipline, morale, training) from gangers to corporate assassins, and speed/survival tends to be more a function of armour or biology. Plenty of examples are given for both.  There are ~20 generic traits which is about the sweet spot, without going overboard.   There's a thorough range (~50!) of all the usual scifi weapon tropes and you could certainly use them in a grimdark milennium or a galaxy far far away.  Crew weapons and grenades (antivehicle and otherwise) represent well also. You can even build custom weapons using 15 weapon traits.
There's about 10 bits of gear ranging from sniper scopes, jump packs, stim packs to teleporters.

There's a big section (32 pages!) of sample races for the genric sci-fi background.  I admit I didn't spend much time on this as I tend to ignore fluff unless it is tied to a miniatures line or has a particularly unique concept. I think they were positioned in an awkward spot - they would be better off as an appendix at the end of the book, rather than dividing up the middle of the rules.  In short - rather useful as a guide, but poorly placed smack-bang in the middle of the rules.

Build Your Own
After the usual "points systems can never be perfectly balanced but here you go anyway" disclaimer, you get a pretty thorough points system.  Basically you need one squad for every special unit (vehicle, hero, psyker, leader) and two per vehicle e.g. 2 squads would allow you 2 psykers, 2 heroes, 2 leaders and a single vehicle. As usual, there are a zillion generic examples of troops and weapons, as well as an explanation of the formula used.  If you can't stat out all your minis with all the help given, it's you, not your tools.  This very thorough section has now nudged it ahead of Gruntz in my "recommended sci fi games" list.
The random generation charts give Clash a RPG vibe.

Terrain, World-Building
There's expanded terrain rules (buildings, climbing, gravity, visibility, ice, hostile flora) - many of which I felt belonged in a relevant section in the core rules themselves.

There's rules for wandering NPC critters (of varying size and ferocity) that activate randomly and can attack any troops within their Speed range.  There's nothing like keeping a game from getting to serious than having a wandering cyborg cat squid cruise past and eat your most powerful psyker.
Scenarios, Plots, Campaigns & Solo Play
There are lots of random generators from what table edge you have, to exactly how to deploy, to random objectives (i.e. capture a objective, posses an object, assassinate a valuable enemy unit, etc) as well as a hard turn limit to keep the game mission-focussed.

There's a very RPG-y d100 "plot generator" for even randomising combatants, another d100 for objectives, and another d100 for the locale, as well as a plot "twist."  Basically, the author is an ex-RPGer and it shows!

There's a solo play section but as troops are not "reaction driven" like 2HW, it's more a guideline than a set of NPC-controlling mechanics, and again has a very "RPG" vibe to it.  A useful inclusion, but I wouldn't base my purchase on the solo-play attributes of the game.

I like the inclusion of a campaign section.  It's no Necromunda, but you can increase traits and attributes, and upgrade troops to psykers, heroes or leaders.  Weapons can be upgraded as well.  You can reward Buzz the Orc who slew six alien cultists single handed with a stat/trait boost, and get a narrative feel to a series of games.

Phew. That was a huge review, but there's a lot in these rules.  Although the 30 pages of core rules are simple-to-middling difficulty and use mostly familiar mechanics, there is a truckload (120+ pages) of supplementary material.  Clash on the Fringe is quite comprehensive.

It can actually play fantasy sci fi (unlike 99% of the indie rulebooks which are repurposed modern rules)
It definitely pays homage to the Rogue Trader-40K 2nd ed era
It has a (very) thorough points system to allow you to stat out your own models. (+examples)
It has a campaign system.
It uses familiar mechanics, only modernized with d10s, reactions and suppression/stress
It has AoE automatic weapons (a new pet favourite of mine) and grenades that aren't just a +1 modifier

The rules were a bit awkwardly laid out - a huge section on sample races divided up the book in an unintuitive way.  Whilst I didn't have trouble finding things, it had a bit of a awkward-jumbled-RPG-supplement feel at times.  It was (perhaps to be expected) a bit bare bones with regard to layout and shiny pictures, and 6/15mm doesn't have much wow factor. At $15 it may be out of the "impulse buy" range of some folk, though you do get a lot of game for that.  Also, there's quite a few tokens littering the table (suppression, stress etc) during play.

However, my overall impression was very positive. It's familiar, and improves on many old-school 40K tropes while leaving them still recognizable. It's bumped "Gruntz" out of my top spot for "build your own" sci fi rules as it does that and it allows you to play sci fi the old school fantasy way. You can suppress your foes - but you can also blast them with "Sif Lightning" and bisect them with chainswords - or force them back into reach of a carnivorous plant.

Recommended? Yes.  A very versatile, thorough set of rules (a "gaming toolkit" actually) that harks back to the old Rogue Trader era of science fantasy.  I'm actually interested in playing my 15mm sci fi again after overdosing on hard sci fi, and looking forward to "statting up" some new armies.

Disclaimer #1: these rules were only playtested at the "mechanics" level with a few simple games, as the 160-page rulebook took me half the day to read and absorb, and teething toddlers left me with minimal playing time. But a few people have asked about this so I thought I'd release it before next weekend...

Disclaimer #2: I often forget to note if something is a review copy. This one was. 


  1. "...nudged it ahead of Gruntz in my "recommended sci fi games" list."

    High praise indeed.

    Its odd that with the number of solo and campaign rules that other indie rules have offered, Gruntz (and TW) have not developed optional expansions for them. (and yes add piscine to that list too!)

    1. Gruntz main claim to fame is a solid but unimaginative engine (direct copy of Warmachine mechanics) and a good army builder (has some nifty programs for making handy unit cards). It's also quite polished and well presented, and has the "Spec Ops" module to scale down to skirmishes.

      "Sci fi Wamachine with a good army builder" if I was asked to give a one-line quote.

      CoTF is a homage to Rogue Trader with improved and updated mechanics, and a good army builder. It lacks the polished finish of Gruntz, but has some more interesting features (leaders, AoE, campaign) that push it in front, for me. A mix of innovation and nostalgia.

      "Improved Rogue Trader with good army builder and campaign" is its quote.

      CoTF does not directly compete with Tomorrow's War - the latter is more ultra-real, hard sci fi - more AD 2040 than AD40,000. Ivan's No Stars in Sight is his Tomorrow's War counterpart (I haven't played it but glancing through it shared a lot of similarities, probably due to both having Stargrunt as a common ancestor.)

    2. I must admit to being a bit of a fan of GZG's game series - I've played many a game of SG, DS2 and FT in its different iterations. All good for different reasons, but I found the die type change mechanic quite intuitive once you got used to it.

      Anyway, the quest to fine THE system is right up there with the Holy Grail! I think the trick is to find the core system you like/prefer best and then fill in the missing blanks. The mystifying part for me is how a campaign system and leadership development could be left out of any system these days. Adding them as optional seems to be a real no brainer to me.

      What I should do is sit down and write up what I WANT vs what I NEED and PREFER... That might help break the analysis paralysis!

  2. Wow, appreciate the nice words :)

    You're right about the layout. Sometimes, what makes sense in my head turns out to not be the best place to put something and sometimes, it pretty much just have to go /somewhere/

    If you get ambitious, you can play "recognize the scifi setting" with each alien race. Got everything from Traveller to Mass Effect to Quake in there ;)

    Quite a few people have tweaked the reaction fire to make it a bigger deal. I wanted it to be very incidental, but it could be toned up without too much worry.

    1. I think the setting/layout shows a background in RPGs. It reminded me of Savage Worlds which I've been reading a lot of lately - things are laid out in a way that makes sense in a RPG, but not for a wargame. It's almost like you have a player section and a GM section....

      It was obvious, I think, that reaction fire had been deliberately marginalised to prevent it being another "modern shooter." Which was a good idea. I do think, given all the non-reaction options, and the shortish ZoC, that it can be bumped up for the "overwatch" state at least, without messing up that intent.

    2. My 10c on how my ideal "CoTF" would look:

      A bit more art and stuff. (a la Gruntz, Battlefield:MMW)

      Some vital terrain rules (buildings, climbing, obtacles) be moved up earlier in the book. Tidy up/rejig what I'd call the "GM section" from p30-on.

      The "sample races" be cut to 32 pages from 5-6, and moved to the back, AFTER all the race creation/points rules.

      That the few examples included obviously use REALLY common TV tropes i.e. "essence wielder" "stormtroopers" "bots" and "Starmarine" "Imperial milita" "pointy-eared aliens" "relentless robots" "chestburster aliens" to blatantly appeal to the masses less well versed in sci fi lore.

      Actually, much as I rail about supplements, extra races prime "supplement" material. Not necessary for the main game, but some would like it. If you moved all RPG tables etc there, it'd drop your page count to 110ish pages, which is more normal for PDF rulebooks. The core game could be 10.99 or something (more in the impulse buy range). You could then go nuts with your RPG skills in the supplement. Even include sections based on particular games or even specific 15mm miniatures lines (Gruntz did the latter very well). I bet you could fill 40-50 pages of content for a "GM" section.

      If it was tidied up, I'd be interested in a hard copy (Lulu - print on demand?). This one seems to have made less of a splash than 5Core, but I think it has a much wider potential audience.

      Again, my well meaning but uninformed opinion. Which I'm sure you're sick of people giving you, when they don't actually make rules themselves. :-P

    3. Yeah, this was a case where I ran up against the "one man gang, zero investment" limit harder than normal.

      I've been kicking around various ideas for getting art work done without breaking the bank.

      POD seems to most obvious solution but who knows what might happen.

      Always appreciate your opinions, whether I use them or not :)

    4. Brent Spivey occasionally cruises past here, and he did a fantastic job with Battlefield: Miniature Modern Warfare. One of the nicest pdf layouts I've seen, and works well as a softcover too. Maybe ask him? Though I have a funny feeling he actually does something like it (photography/graphic design) for his "day job" which may explain it...

    5. This one is close enough to the mainstream to be popular, but different enough to be interesting. It's the sort of thing I think Osprey could run with (they seem to be on the conservative side with the rules they publish).

  3. Oh, on activations:
    It probably does need to be clarified a bit more, but the idea is that you can keep a high Training unit back, and use them for initiative rolls.

    Basically, they can help direct your other squads. The gamble is that they might get stuck with a failure to activate of course :)

    1. I played it correctly in the end, but that's because I predicted it based on your prior games/comments. Once you get a TFL/2HW style fan club, you can write whatever you like and people will know what to do anyway.... :-P

    2. "To shoot, roll several dice and add any modifiers you feel are appropriate. Most of the time"

  4. I have a few games of Clash on the Fringe under my belt now and agree with everything in this review. That includes it bumping Gruntz from my top spot.

    I think Gruntz has the upper hand if you want to get a lot of vehicles on the table alongside your troops. But Ivan has stated that vehicles are not the focus in CotF. However, Gruntz has several holes in its rules that should have been patched ages ago but haven't been addressed.

    IMO, Clash on the Fringe really is top of the pile. A hard copy with nicer layout would put this on a par with the best non-indie games. Imagine what Osprey etc. could do with it!

  5. "IMO, Clash on the Fringe really is top of the pile. A hard copy with nicer layout would put this on a par with the best non-indie games. Imagine what Osprey etc. could do with it!"

    I was thinking the exact same thing re: Osprey. E.g. there is so much excitement and fuss over Frostgrave when really it is VERY basic, and just happens to fill a niche, whilst being very "shiny". CoTF has twice the potential, and twice the content. If it had come in a glossy $25 hardback it could have made an even bigger splash than Frostgrave, as I think it too fills a particular niche players have been asking for. As it is, I don't see many CoTF reviews/AARs compared to how popular it "should" be.

    Another example is HAVOC. It's the best fantasy game you never heard of. Basically, a unappealing/dense rulebook and lack of unit builder prevented it from being a big thing. SoBH become the default "recommended" skirmish whilst HAVOC was twice as good (it could have been a Mordhiem/LOTR SBG hybrid) - but it was held back by those two points. Everyone I showed it too took one look at it, one at SoBH, and plumped for the latter - even though SoBH is a rather shallow game.

    1. "Gruntz has several holes in its rules that should have been patched ages ago but haven't been addressed."

      This in itself, as a constructive suggestion piece, would make a very interesting discussion

  6. Thanks for the review. I've been unsure whether or not to get these (do I need another skirmish scifi ruleset?) . Based on your review though, I think that I will

    Again thanks for writing and sharing the review!

    1. It's a different flavour than the endless stream of hard sci fi Vietnam-in-space I'm always griping about :-) so it's a worthwhile addition

    2. I agree - Vietnam in space is not really what I'm after; I have enough rulesets to recreate that already! (and I don't actually want to!)

  7. Well, now I'm torn. My wife and I have been using 5Core for our "not-Firefly" gaming and it's gone pretty well. What she really wants is role-playing lite -- miniature games that tell a story. So I've been thinking about switching over to Savage Worlds (don't worry, Ivan :) I'll still use No Stars in Sight for other games). But now CotF sounds like it will fit the bill, too. Decisions, decisions.

    +1 for your remarks about Havoc. We're using it for our fantasy gaming and I do kind of wish it had a unit builder. But it definitely deserves more play.

    1. I would say CotF is aimed at slightly larger than skirmish games. 15 to 20 figures a side with a vehicle or two.

    2. ^ what he said.

      5Core is more just a handful of guys. I was a bit more guarded in my enthusiasm contrast to this review.

      CoTF is 2-4 of these "handfuls" plus a few individual heroic characters, leaders, monsters, vehicles and psykers thrown in. It's deliberately a little more traditional in style.

    3. Ah, that helps - thanks. So you are saying I need both. :-) While I love Vietnam-in-space (I once ran a Star Wars game using Charlie Company and it was great!) this does seem to scratch the Rogue Trader itch for me.

    4. Late to the party as always, but here we are. @nicholas Caldwell: I think that CotF works beautifully for the kind or small scale gaming like "not-firefly"! I've recently played a few campaign games of CotF with a single hero against groups of goons and haven't had any trouble, So I can recommend it!

    5. From what I could see it would be easy to simply make the game about individually based minis rather than units, perhaps making them all a bit tougher (+1 to survival, and/or -1 to gunfire/melee rolls) if you want them to last a bit longer and didn't want them all to be multi-wound heroes.

      If you did that across the board, I doubt it would mess up balance radically.

  8. I had been looking at Rogue Planet by Brent Spivey for a solo campaign but reading your review and Alexander Wasberg's exelent AAR's over at Lazers and Broadswords I'm thinking CotF may be the ticket. How would you say these two compare for some high fantasy scifi adventure?

    1. Very different flavours. Rogue Planet is far less traditional. It has a few things that stand out:

      No measuring
      An energy "pool" resource used to negate damage
      "Pawns" - minions that actually act more like attributes of the main character
      Very reaction-based

      I definitely recommend Rogue Planet, but it has a less familiar playstyle with lots of innovative features. In any case, RP is worth getting just to test drive.

      Which to pick? Depends on your taste. CoTF would appeal more to the traditionalist, RP is more "cutting edge" at the risk of being too edgy for some.

      My 10c - get both. Both offer something different. Both are good.

    2. Heh,heh... there's some advice I can live with :-))

  9. Thanks! I agree with much about what you said. Also the editing problem. It really made it difficult to go through all the (really nice) information. If this set could be printed by the likes of Osprey, it would definitely be a no-brainer to buy it!

    Also @Ivan: Congrats and keep up the good work!

    1. Appreciate the nice words :)
      As I said up-thread, with COTF, I did feel that I came up against the limits of the "one man band" from a production values perspective.

      Might be some solutions in the future, though.

  10. Your comment about pie shops amused me. I happen to own a pie shop (bakery). Here is what I have found. If I make a vanilla cupcake and call it a vanilla cupcake, no one is that interested. However, if I call it a Plain Jane, then people ask me about it and want to try it.

    Maybe it is the same for miniature rules?

    1. If it was the title of the game, maybe. But the way they do it is like labelling the ingredients "legumes" "and bovine protein" for a meat and pea pie.

      So tell me, is there a Pie Makers Guild and if so, why don't they legislate universal symbols for the tops of pies etc. Surely bakery staff get sick of being asked "what do you have?"

  11. No guild that I am aware of.

    Actually, we love it when people ask us about what we are selling, because then we have a chance to reel you in and close the sale. Part of the weird names and arcane symbols is to force a sales interaction. Perhaps I have said too much! I must not give away all of our secrets!