Saturday, 28 February 2015

Game Design #30: Coherency & Leadership Ranges

Soldiers in a squad must stay within 2"of each other* 

I could copy and paste this into almost ANY platoon-level game and this statement would be correct - that's how universally this rule is used.

But why?
Well, it's a simple, handy way to ensure individually-based models stick together and act as a unit.
It's an abstraction.

What if we break coherency?
If one of our mini soldiers moves beyond that magic 2" (which is about 4 metres, to scale) what happens?

Usually one (or more) of these:
*The soldier must spend their next move to get back into coherency
*The unit's next move must restore coherency 
---or more drastically--

*The soldier must make a morale test; if it fails it flees the board
*The soldier cannot attack or take any action until it rejoins the unit

There's a lot of "must" there.  It assumes a trained professional soldier will somehow break down if he is more than a few yards from his companions, and not attached via an invisible umbilical cord.

Yes, a soldier will be more effective working in close proximity with team mates - it's easier to communicate and co ordinate attacks. Yes, he will be more confident with his buddies beside him.

But is there a need for "musts?" - perhaps giving a -1 modifier to attack and defence (simulating better target awareness/mutual defence) would encourage players to keep units together.

Why 2" range? (I'm tempted to say Warhammer did it once then everyone else copied.)  Is it the range someone could shout to each other in a firefight?   Why 2"and why not 12"?  Why not simply "line of sight?"  What is the "footprint" of  a fire team - how much area does a "fire team" spread out to cover?  40-50 yards?   Isn't there a "minimum distance between troops?"  I'm presuming about 10 yards.  You'd assume a single grenade would take out most of a Bolt Action squad*, for example.

(*Naturally, the historical game Bolt Action uses a gap of under 1" so the models are practically holding hands. It then does away with template weapons. Perfectly logical. )

Leadership Range
Another common rule is leaders having a radius (usually between 6 to 12") where they can influence troops; i.e. remove suppression, rally fleeing troops, or perhaps issue orders if it is that style of game.
 Again, I'd ask - why x distance?   And why is this radius larger than 2" if that is the maximum distance squads can shout at...  do lieutenants have louder voices?  unless we are using *drumroll* radios....  Which leads me to question:

Why do we even need coherency?
Most of the games that use the 2" coherency mechanic tend to be "modern" or sci fi.  You know, around the time this device called the radio came into fashion? 

Obviously we want squads and fire teams to act in a co-ordinated manner, and not have individual troops scattered all over the board, but I don't think a hard limit is needed. Keeping friendlies in sight is important, and coherency should be desirable, but I question that it needs to be forced artificially.

Coherency in Company Level Games
I don't play these very extensively, but the few I own tend to have squads in coherency with their platoon HQ, and platoon HQs within coherency range of their company HQ, and so on up.

Ranges & Scale
Yes, I know the 1" gap between models could actually stand for 25 yards.  But it's the ratio that interests me. If we use 1"= 25 yards coherency range, it needs to be checked against other ranges - a rifle which shoots 300 yards might have only a 12"range (!) and grenades might only be able to hit one model at a time.  Abstracting the scale too radically impacts things like model basing and the size of buildings as well.   

The purpose of this article isn't that the standard 2"coherency rules are bad; but to question what seems to be (like true-line-of-sight) an almost set-in-stone wargaming convention.

I'd like to know designers are basing their decisions against gameplay choices, or actual ranges, or something - not just copying something cos it is just the "done thing." 

*Is 2"the best distance? What do we base this on? What is its ratio vs other distances in the game?
*Should a "leader's" range differ from this? How long should that range be?
*Should units be forced to move into cohesion?
*What is a suitable "penalty" for troops who move out of cohesion?
*Is cohesion needed at all, and if so, for what genres?

Game Design #29: Vietnam in Space (Hard Sci-fi Overdose)

To be frank, I'm becoming sick of hard sci-fi.  It seems every game designer has realised that hard sci fi is just modern combat with a few cool new toys, and thus a single set of rules can serve for WW2, modern and hard sci fi.  Maybe post-apoc if you're feeling adventurous.  For me, Vietnam/Afghanistan in space is rapidly becoming as tired and repetitive as most spaceship games (which are 90% WW2 wet-navy-in-space).

It's a sad day when I find myself pining for a certain grim dark future, where chainsaw swords and electrified claws are viable weapons, and psychic powers can trump rocket launchers.

I feel most of these rules lack an "x factor" that make me want to play them. I'm finding it hard to be enthusiastic about new rules - some have better or cleverer mechanics than others, but basically they all do the same job. 

Not convinced? Do a quick google for sci fi war-game rules. 

Platoon level? Check.
Hacking/"Net"? Check.
Renamed modern weapons? Check.
Power armour?  Check.
Drones? Maybe.
Mecha? Check.
AI Robots which are barely different than normal troops? Check.

Most of the rules are designed for humanoid forces and have very little differentiation (i.e. little to no stats - maybe Troop Quality and Morale) with a bunch of tacked-on special rules which makes the slime monsters from Uranus and Arachnidians act very similar to human troops, with maybe a special ability for flavour.

Admittedly it's probably the mini manufacturers to blame; e.g. 90% of the sci fi stuff being churned out in 15mm is just humans with helmets, body armour, and exotic assault rifles.  The aliens tend to be simply humans with different shaped helmets and weapons.  Heck, I lost enthusiasm for painting my extensive 15mm collection when I realised all my armies were essentially duplicates of each other. The availability of minis doubtless influences indie designers without a dedicated miniature line.

So what areas are under-represented?

Weird Modern
We have an overdose of Weird War III/pulp (and wargaming seems to attract Cthulhu devotees for some reason) but why not more weird modern rules?

Here's some examples that are reasonably popular in other mediums (books, videogames, movies) that seem rare on the war-game table.

*X-COM/Aliens. MIB-style alien hunting would make a fun war band skirmish game.  You could have competing aliens (greys, reptilians, etc) and governments/agencies (CIA, MJ12, MI6, Chinese) as well as private multinationals all wanting to get their hands on alien tech.  You'd have to mix-and-match minis from a variety of ranges though. 

*Modern Psychic/Horror.  A set of rules to do STALKER (mutants/psychics + exploring a 'forbidden zone') or F.E.A.R. (commando team fighting paranormal entities). Basically modern combat + horror + psychics + mutants.This could be done as a skirmish or platoon/fire-team level game. Think modern-day "pulp" with a bit of a darker vibe.   Using "recognised" psychic powers would give a believable, structured "magic" system. (I notice Lead Adventure forum sells some very cool "not-STALKER" minis).

*Modern Fantasy. In the vein of Shadowrun, but set in the modern day.  Competing mystical races/factions  (the inevitable Underworld-style werewolf -vs- vampire) or elves or whatever.  Sadly, vampires/elves etc in suits etc are a bit rare.  The fiction shelves are full of this stuff - I'm sure it could be made into a popular war-game. Or it could borrow from Day Watch (light and dark sorcerers duelling).  There's plenty of inspiration here, but admittedly miniatures are a bit thin on the ground.

*Modern Troops vs Alien/Monster Invasion.  There's always heaps of movies about this. This genre lends itself well to bigger scales, Independence Day-style stuff.  There can be asymmetrical games with powerful monsters capable of single-handedly taking out vehicles. This could borrow elements from Alien vs Predator, Starship Troopers, District 9 and similar movies/sources.  There's plenty of fantasy monsters/aliens and the many excellent modern troops available in 15mm and 28mm.  Mixing 28mm aliens/monsters and 15mm humans could create bigger monsters as well.

EDIT: A spin-off of this is Stargate - i.e. regular soldiers go through portal to fight aliens.  Of all the ideas suggested, this topic (and the one below) has the most widely available minis. 

*The Matrix/Tron.  A war-game that takes place in side a virtual/dream world. This could be an excuse for cool paint schemes (a la Tron) and allow ridiculous mis-mash of cool vehicles and units (Sucker Punch).  You could use Matrix "magic" to give depth and interest to the game.  This would be easy to do as it allows almost any miniatures to be used, and great flexibility in gameplay.

Space Fantasy
OK, Mantic ARE kinda doing something here but we all know they are simply ripping off GW. Space Skaven anyone?    This genre seems to  cower in the shadow of 40K.  Blasters & Bulkheads are the only indie rules I can think of offhand with a definite fantasy slant.    The free ruleset In the Emperor's Name provides a fun outlet for repurposing old 40K minis.

I'd like to see a game that revives the fun of early 40K (Rogue Trader era) where creativity, build-your-own-units, and a certain tongue-in-cheek fun were combined with familiar, recognisable mechanics (updated to take into account modern war-game trends - i.e. reactions, and activation that is not IGOUGO).  

Whilst I enjoy realistic games, sometimes I don't want my sci-fi to be simply a modern game where guns, suppression and good use of cover reign supreme.  Lightsabres, space magic, lots of melee, weird and wonderful monsters and creatures that defy physics.  Where have they gone?

I'm not going to give examples here as space fantasy can encompass a pretty wide scope. As an aside, there are plenty of universes that could be "borrowed" from - after all GW pretty much stole all their ideas TerminatorsNecrons  Alien Tyrannids OrksOrcs  ElvesEldar  space marineSpace Marines (tm).  Hey, where's my not-Dune rules?

What we don't need in sci fi:

More zombies.  It seems 90% of all miniature/boardgame Kickstarters are focussed on undead.   Please, exercise your imaginations, people!  The folk in the 50s and 60s at least got some variety.  What happened to giant insects and body-snatching plants?

More "cookie cutter" Mad Max-ripoff Post-Apocalyptic stuff.  Why does every post apocalyptic movie or game involve (a) extensive body piercing/tattooing (b) extensive grime (c) crossbows & machetes > assault rifles (d) cannibals/mental illness (e) more spiky bits and leather than 40K has skulls.  The TV show Revolution (with its near-future world without electricity) whilst terribly acted, at least showed some imagination in its post apocalyptic approach. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

Game Design Series (Round Up)

What started out as half a dozen posts dissecting common rules issues has grown into a surprisingly large, comprehensive series, often driven by reader responses.  Here's the break-down of the articles so far:

#1. "Decision Points" 
This is about "decision points"(tm) - the amount of times during a game or turn that the player can make a choice to influence the outcome of a game. "Resolution"" is how long it takes to resolve these decisions.  Lots of decisions + simple/fast resolution = good game.

#2.  The Fifth Element
Most wargames have the four Ms - Morale, Melee, Missile & Movement. But games need something more.  What is the X factor that sets a game apart from its peers?

#3. Special Rules, Stat Lines, and False Economy
In which I posit the modern trend to move away from stat lines is actually complicating matters as well as losing differentiation.

#4. Keep it Consistent
Keeping mechanics consistent vs using 20 different dice rolling methods.

#5. What happened to Time Scale and Ground Scale in Wargames?
They still exist, even if we ignore them.  It's the game designer sacrificing realism for the ability to play 100 genres with the same rule set.

#6.  "Realism"in Wargames
In which the realism-v-fun myth is debunked; it's actually realism vs unrealistic, and simple vs complicated.  Realism is possible, and it's a good thing.

#7.  Design Philosophy
The importance of designers "nailing their colours to the mast" and setting a clear success criteria.

#8. Scenarios for Wargames
The old chestnut. Points systems vs scenarios. Can they co-exist?

#9. Fluff n'Stuff.
A few ground rules for good fluff.

#10.  Pre-measuring vs Guessing
Always a contentious topic.  Do we favour estimation skills or geometry? Or neither?

#11. The Balanced Points System
In which I contend a balanced point system is impossible on many levels - but still worth including.

#12. Commercialism - Supplements, Rules and Miniature Sales
The rise of the "cookie-cutter" one-size-its-all rulebook, and how miniature sales (not fun, playability or realism are driving game design.  The codex arms race. 

#13.  Is Originality Possible?
There are only a finite amount of ways to represent wargame mechanics - and do we really need more anyway?

#14. The "Forgotten" - Terrain, Victory Conditions, & Balance
The often-neglected impact of terrain and alternate victory conditions on game balance. 

#15. Philosophy in Wargames
Game designers need to decide how they want their game to play; then reward/punish using modifiers and game mechanics to "encourage" players to play that way.  For example, 40K rewards good list building and deployment; Infinity emphasizes the good use of cover and positioning of fire lanes. 

#16. Record Keeping, Counters & Bookkeeping
Considering the tradeoffs of "enhancing gameplay" vs ""time/fiddliness." Is it worth it?

#17. Playtesting - is it a fair test?
Using the scientific method of a "fair test" I point out how it's almost impossible to playtest a game properly.

#18. The decline of MMOs, and how it applies to wargames
Drawing parallels between the stagnation of MMO design and trends in wargame design.

#19. "Early Access" ""Pay to Win" and "Wargaming DLC" 
Some less-than-desirable trends from the PC industry that seem to be transferring to wargame companies.

#20. Realism Revisited
I revisit the "realism vs fun" myth and attempt to define it more accurately, in terms such as "process vs results" and "detailed vs abstract."

#21. RPG Resources 
Musing about magic systems, and concepts wargames could borrow from RPGs.

#22. Best Selling Wargames
Analyzing the bestselling games, and trying to quantify what makes a rule set commercially successful.

#23. Enjoyable or Innovative Mechanics 1 - Setup/Activation
Sharing fun and interesting game mechanics.

#24. Favourite Mechanics 2  - Movement
Sharing more favourite game mechanics. 

#25. Mordhiem, Competitive Campaigns, & Balance
No game has filled the Necromunda/Mordhiem niche.  A look at balancing campaigns for the competitive sphere.

#26.  The out-of-game experience
Most successful games seem to have lots to do when you aren't actually playing. 

#27. True Line of Sight
It's increasingly popular, and almost the de-facto for vision rules. But is true-line-of-site really the best choice?

#28.  Morale Rules & Combat Stress
Musing on morale systems.  Is there a "best"method, or can we ignore morale altogether?

#29. Vietnam in Space
Hard sci-fi is everywhere - it's the new "platoon-level WW2" - where has the imagination gone?

#30.  Coherency & Leadership Range
I start to explore command and control, by looking at the ubiquitous 2" coherency rule.

#31. Readable Rulebooks
Writing rulebooks that are user-friendly.

#32. Making Wargames - Ivan Sorenson
Ivan Sorenson (author of FAD, NSiS, 5Core) talks about game design and PDF publishing.

#33. Influences on Wargames
Wargames designers can fall into different categories - from unreformed RPG players, to "British" style rules, to the rivet counters.  

#34. Making Wargames - Brent Spivey
Brent Spivey (author of Havoc, Mayhem, Rogue Planet) talks about game design.

#35.  Game Design & Playtesting - Brent Spivey
Brent Spivey takes a very thorough look at the steps of designing and playtesting games.

#36.  Accessibility, or Why Bad Games get Played More
Popular games aren't always the best. The key? Accessibility.

#37.  The Better the Hit, the Better the Damage: Managed Probability & Modifiers
Randomness is good - or we end up with chess.  However probabilities must be predictable and manageable to promote tactics.

#38. Reactions in Medieval & Fantasy
Can we use the now-trendy reaction in fantasy? What might it look like?

#39. Reaction Moves, Reaction Fire
Defining types/genres of reactions in wargames.

#40. Avoiding the Scrum in the Middle - Manuever & Spacing Units
How do we avoid our games degenerating into a mess of pushing everything into the middle and chugging dice?

#41.  Reactions Again - Types of Reaction
We further explore the reaction move, and classify reactions as they impact gameplay.

#42.  Fluff & Stuff II
We revist the topic of in-game "fluff", with some commonsense ideas regulating its use.

#43. Skirmish Wargaming Means so Many Things
Skirmish wargaming is a bit of a catch all term.  What is a true "skirmish" game?

#44. Random Roundup
A few musings on simplicity, dice and absolute values.

#45. "Original" Sci Fi Wargames
Why are all sci fi games re-badged fantasy or WW2?  They need to focus on a particular new technology and build the game around it.

#46.  Skirmish - Basing, Group & Individual Moves
Many skirmish games tend to be binary - either everyone moves in units or everyone moves and acts individually.  But is there a middle ground?

#47. In Praise of Area of Effect Weapons
"Blast Template" or "AoE" weapons are not as popular as they should be.

#48. Wargames & "Setup":A Neglected Topic?
The setup phase of a game is a opportunity for depth and tactics: Chain of Command shows us how

#49. Musings About Activation Pools & Resource Management
A quick look at how activation and resource management can be merged to add gameplay depth

#50. Focussed Fluff vs Generic Fluff - and the Shiny Factor
 Detailed, rich fluff beats generic bog-standard fluff, but should not be "prescriptive." Production values matter.

#51. Intellectual Theft
Designers miss out on valuable playtesting, feedback and publicity through paranoia someone will steal their idea.  News flash: Get real.

#52. Casual vs Competitive Game Design
What makes a game "competitive" or "casual?"  Is bad competitive experiences the result of bad game design?

#53. The Future of Wargaming
Extrapolating a few trends to guess where the hobby could go in the future....

#54. Special Rules Best Practice: Infinity vs Savage Worlds
A current trend is to avoid a "stat line" in favour of a zillion special rules. Special rules have their place - but what is the best way to implement them?

#55.Solitaire Wargaming. Designing NPC "AI"
Exploring solo wargaming mechanisms, and "AI" flowcharts to direct opposing troops.

#56. Solitaire Wargaming. Part 2
Defines the difference between tactical (easy to implement) and stategic (not so easy) AI.

#57. Asymetry
Wargames are always trying to be "balanced."  But is balance always desirable?

#58. Reaction Mechanics - a Waste of Time?
Reaction mechanics are trendy for adding decisions and player involvement - but are not without their issues. 

#59. Unit Count - is there a Perfect Number
In which I attempt to prove there is an "ideal" number of units in a tabletop game.

#60. Movement:Shooting Rations and Scale
How does shooting range relate to movement and game balance?  ...and how it links to ground scale.

#61. Lethality & Modifiers
How likely are units to be destroyed each turn? How this links with modifiers, and how it effects gameplay.

#63. Detection, Blinds and Vision Range - an Unwanted Mechanic?
Despite being vital to warfare, detection and vision rules are out of favour.

Game Design #28: Morale Rules & Combat Stress

This is a bit of an unglamorous rules area I think.   I admit I used to pay them little attention.  Even now I tend not to focus in on morale like I do other areas of the rules.

A friend once said "I'm interested in rules for how to fight my minis, not how they run away" - and I kinda adopted his approach - that morale rules should be as simple and non-intrusive as possible.

I liked rules like this: once you lose half your army, make a morale roll each turn you take further casualties.  Short, simple, sweet - and stops armies fighting to the last man.

However ignoring or oversimplifying morale is ignoring a major aspect of combat.  Modern combat, for example, tends to have very low casualty rates, and troops "suppress" or force enemies to withdraw; often with very few dead on either side. In medieval and ancients, a lot of the time the aim was to "break" the enemy line - and most of the slaughter occurred after a force routed; i.e. sometimes battles were apparently very one-sided i.e. 20 deaths to 500 - but most deaths were after the force broke. The morale failure caused the slaughter, and not vice versa. 

Perhaps due to my own lack of focus, I am hard-pressed to think of unusual and interesting morale mechanics - most seem to follow similar trends.  In fact, this article was due to several rules I've reviewed lately having no morale rules at all.  Obviously some game devs think they aren't even relevant, full stop.

Removal of global morale rules in favour of individual unit morale
Quite a lot of rules recently seem to be removing the global (army-wide) morale rules in favour of squad/unit-centric rules. I.e. all units test individually based on their circumstances, kind of ignoring losses to the army as a whole. 

Whilst this makes morale more dynamic, with individual squads being pushed back, pinned or routing,  this isn't a perfect system.  It does often seem to ignore the potential for chain-reactions - i.e. units rout past friendlies, causing them to rout - and it can allow armies to sustain unrealistically high casualties - to fight if not to the last man, then to the last unit. 

However using only a global morale "break point" (especially a hard cut-off) is also unrealistic: in many historical battles a part of the army (wings, or units) fought on long after the rest were routed.

Leaders & Morale
Leaders often allow an improved morale roll for units in range/attache, may test to rally routing troops, or can improve the morale effect (i.e. turn a pinned unit to being merely suppressed, or restore a suppressed unit to normal status). 

Status of Units
Modern, firearm-focussed games tend to have morale increasing in 3 or so levels of severity:  suppressed-pinned-routing,  and older eras tend to have "pushed back/recoil"or "fleeing/routing."

Stress or Suppression Counters
Another approach is for a unit (or individual) to accumulate tokens denoting combat stress - triggering certain events once the stress tokens exceed a particular level. 

Too Many Morale Checks
Too many can bog a game down. Want to charge? Morale check.  Take enemy missile fire? Morale check.  Fight in a melee? Morale check.   This may add depth, but is it sacrificing speed and playability? How much is too much?

No Morale at all
In a few games I've reviewed lately I've got halfway through the rules before realizing there were no morale rules at all. Is the gain in speed/simplicity worth it - or does it take away a vital aspect of the game?

Combining Morale with Combat Effectiveness
In some games, the morale of the troops is tied to their offensive/defensive effectiveness. i.e. d6  rookie troops attack and defend with d6, while d8 experienced troops attack and defend with d8.  This tends to be primarily modern/WW2/near future games. Could it/should it be used elsewhere, or should morale be kept distinctly separate?

Morale for Different Scales/Eras
Is there a "best"system for a particular genre/scale?  For example, I've heard some argue a company+ size game (like Dropzone Commander) does not need morale; but individual-based skirmish level games do. 

Morale that gives choice
I recall the Heavy Gear rules did not actually force you to withdraw, or "freeze"when pinned, but simply accumulated negative modifiers to dice rolls until you decided to get them into cover and rally them. what's this article going on about?
Well, this article didn't have the usual focus or a message/preachiness most of the "game design #" series does, but I think that reflects my general ambivalence in this area (I DO think morale has a place, but I'm not sure there is a 'best' way to be implemented - or which current rules are doing it drastically wrong). For example, no morale system (no matter how poor) stirs in me the same dislike as vanilla IGOUGO activation mechanics.    This post is more a "think aloud" and I'm sure I'll revisit this topic later, now I'm looking at morale rules with a more critical eye.

Anyway, over to the readers.  Here's some focus questions, that I'm rolling around in my head at the moment:

Is there a great morale system you enjoy? 
Is it ever OK to eschew morale rules completely? 
If so, for what scales?  Should you use different morale systems for different scales? 
When/where do morale rules bog a game down to an unacceptable extent?  S
hould morale be included with combat effectiveness or should it remain a standalone trait/as a standalone mechanic?
How many levels of morale should there be, and how should you record it?
What is the ''best"way to handle morale? What is the most realistic?

Book Roundup #4: Modern Fantasy

The term modern fantasy (or 'urban fantasy') tends to make me shudder when I see it in a bookstore.  90% of the books are romances of a lower calibre than Mills & Boon, simply with vampires/werewolves/angels/elves/insert-your-fantasy-trope-here to allow kinky sex scenes.

However it's not all bad.  Although some are a stretch to fit in the modern fantasy genre, here are a sample of decent books I can recommend:

Night Watch by Sergei Lubaynenko 3.5 Stars
Light and dark sorcerers maintain a Cold War-style truce, maintaining a balance between good, and chaos.  Each side has a group of sorcerers (“Others”) who oversee the others – the Night Watch are Light magicians responsible for policing dark others like vampires, werewolves etc.  It is a massively popular Russian series which, pleasantly, avoids the usual clichés.  This series is an enjoyable change of pace from the usual urban fantasy.  There is actually a very good movie that goes with it – but I recommend you read the book first or you may not grasp what is going on.

Why you’d read it:  An excellent urban fantasy with an interesting take on a rather tired genre.  The books (at least the first) work as standalone.  However the “Twilight” (a series of dimensions where Others can walk/draw their power) had a very cool “reveal” about it in a later book.

Why you’d leave it:  It has a very European style of writing and may be a bit different in its style and ‘voice’ to mainstream novels.  The books are a hefty ~500 pages.  Whilst I really enjoyed the first few books, I became a bit jaded by the series end (book 5).

Blood Oath: The President’s Vampire by Chris Farnsworth 3.5 Stars
This reminds me a of a Hellboy ripoff – a young White House staffer becomes the handler of a 100-year old vampire who serves the United States.  It even comes with a secret-base-under-the-Smithsonian.   That said, this is a surprisingly good series, and the author gets better with every book.  I like how he weaves myths and conspiracy theories through the series. 

Why you’d read it:  Because you’d like to know what REALLY happened at Innsmouth (spoiler: involves vampire and secret service with flamethrowers); how Osama Bin Laden actually died, and where Dr Frankenstein is living today.
Also, you liked Hellboy.

Why you’d leave it: You’re as sick of vampires as you are of zombies, even if the vampire is more a blood-spattered superhuman secret assassin. The author is no Hemingway, though he is quite good and improves with each book.

The Devil You Know by Mike Carey 3.5 Stars
This is the most ‘conventional’ of my round-up; a detective who can whistle up ghosts.  It’s perhaps typical of its kind, but the author is a Hellblazer(Constantine) comic writer who has proved very adept at novels, and in fact has some outstanding books in different genres.  It’s more “British”  than the usual urban fantasy fare, and there is a distinct lack of succubi, vampires and werewolves. 

Why you’d get it: A “British” Harry Dresden. If you prefer British movies and comedy over the US equivalent, this is for you.

Why you’d leave it:  You find the whole “supernatural sleuth” cliché tired, no matter who is writing it. 

The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey 4 Stars
This is a weird but excellent book. I’m not sure what genre it fits in.  It’s like 28 Days Later (but with fungal zombies) meets Roahl Dahl’s Matilda.  For once I agree with the hyperbole on the dust jacket – “warm, surprising, chilling, enigmatic, unexpectedly poignant, gripping.”    In fact I’ll quote from it:
“Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When the come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her.  She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.”

Why you’d read it:  This borrows from a range of books, games and movies yet makes something unique, compelling and original.  For once, the critics are right. 

Why you’d leave it: Because you are sick of zombies, no matter how uniquely they are packaged.   And you like by-the-numbers, predictably familiar books by Dan Brown or Mills & Boon.

Bitter Seeds (The Milkweed Trypych) by Ian Tregillis  3.5 Stars
Weird War II.  Nazi psychics with superhuman powers battle British warlocks using blood sacrifice to summon “Eidolons” - demons from another dimension. 
Interested?  The series expands into the Cold War before concluding in a bittersweet third book.  This is definitely a spy book with a twist.  Sometimes, the  sacrifice necessary to defeat evil can be as terrible as losing to it. 

Why you’d read it: A well-written Weird War II book?  That’s as unusual as good Twilight fanfiction.  Grab it while you can.  It’s quite gritty and “realistic” – so far as the subject matter allows.  The characters are flawed and believable. 

Why you’d leave it:  It’s quite dark and unrelentingly grim.  I felt like I needed to get out into the wholesome sunshine after reading it. 

Pashazade (Arabesk Trilogy) By John Courtney Grimwood 3.5 Stars
This is a kind of alternate history, where WW1 never happened and the Ottoman Empire exists in the 21st century.  A detective story set in Alexandria (which is a kind of spy Casablanca), with an enigmatic main character (genetically/drug enhanced, and accompanied by a hallucinatory fox) who must clear his name of murder.  The story is intercut with flashbacks.  A fascinating, unusual book set in a rich world. 

Why you’d read it: If you like your detective books with a dash of the unusual (cyberpunk Arabia + alternate history.)  The author is probably the most talented of the books recommended on this page

Why you’d leave it:  Rather inaccessible – can be confusing at times.  The author does not coddle the reader, and has an unusual style.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Cheap Sunken Terrain Board - Dock/Canal/Lava Pit (10mm/15mm/28mm)

Here's my latest quick terrain project.  Again, the aim is:

-Cheap, quick and easy to make
-Convenient to set up and to store

This is not an elaborate modelling project - there are plenty of blogs that do amazing scenic diorama-like boards.  This is for those of us who want to make the whole table in an afternoon, not spend the entire weekend adding rust effects to a doorknob.

Inspired by some of the interesting and varied Dropzone Commander scenarios, I wanted a board with sunken features  that could do service in a range of roles/genres (canal, river, chasm, lava pit, trench).  I plan to use it for 10mm, 15mm and 28mm.

I started with my usual 120x90cm (4x3ft) 5mm MDF. It's glorified cardboard - but cheap, light and surprisingly durable (I've got 4+ year old MDF tables).  I always use glue to seal the sides in case I want to use it for a sand table.

I've got some cheap and nasty 3mm MDF which I've cut 120x40cm. I nail some pine strips to the underside to support it and serve as the canal "wall".  You can see the board on the right (which I've flipped upside down).  

There is now a 10cm wide canal down the middle of the table.  It's about 5cm deep.

I had plenty left over so I made some 55cm x 40cm sections for a T-junction.

Then a few jetties to make it useful as a dockyard.

Here it is, combined with the block terrain I made last weekend.  I'll make better bridges when I get around to making interior stuff like doors, tables and beds. I'll simply swap the green cloth for a red one (lava) or black (chasm) or blue (ocean) as needed.  

1 x Grey primer spray paint $3
2 x 2.7m pine strips (42x11mm) $10
1 x 5mm MDF 90x120cm $10
2 x 3mm MDF 90x120cm $10
Total Cost $33

Total Time 90 minutes (including breaks to safely redirect an interested toddler)

So why bother do a "how to" of such simple terrain?
I find the super-realistic terrain diorama blogs a tad intimidating - I look at them and go "I don't have 500 hours and $300 to make that - even if I had the skill"   It's a bit like looking at Angel Giraldez studio-painted Infinity models - though lovely it actually discourages me from getting my own paints out as it sets a 'benchmark' which I know I can never achieve. I admire, but it doesn't actually inspire.

I found the how-to articles of rough and ready terrain, and realistic paintjobs in the hobby magazine Battle Games of Middle Earth actually made me want to paint and make stuff.   That's kinda the niche I'm aiming for. By showing my speedy, el cheapo terrain I'm hoping I'll inspire someone to actually go out and do it better. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Fast, Cheap Wargames Terrain for 28mm/15mm - Dungeon/Bunker/Space Ship with Wooden Blocks

I've been puzzling lately about how to best store my terrain. With terrain, I tend to be prioritize:

*Easy to make
*Fast to make
*Easy to store
*Cheap (postage is a killer if you live in Australia, necessitating mostly DIY terrain)
*Looks unified (i.e. complete table 'goes' together, no 40K gothic ruins and WW2 buildings together)

I don't pretend to be a great modeller, so "looks good" and "lots of detail" doesn't really rate on the scale.  If you're a painstaking modeller who likes model-railroad level detail, there are plenty of great blogs out there, by very talented people.  This is about terrain for the rest of us - the low skilled, time poor dads. I don't want to make a single building in an afternoon, I want to make the whole table.

My daughter can cover an entire lounge room floor with her blocks (aka landmines for bare feet) - so surely mine could fill a 4x4' table?
I've tried a few things so far:
Card terrain ($50 for 4x4') usually can't be re-folded which means there is no space savings.
Terraclips ($70 for 4x4') do break down well, but then they take forever to assemble.
Foam terrain ($7 for 4x4') is very cheap, but bulky to store.  It's easy to fix/replace though. 
MDF terrain ($200+ for 4x4') looks good, but is difficult to store and is surprisingly pricey
Forests ($18 for 4x4') are bulky to store, unless you spend lots of time making special bases.
Foamboard buildings ($70 for 4x4') is easy to work with, but very bulky to store
Resin is not even remotely affordable in Australia (postage is ridiculous for anything beyond 6mm scale)

The entire box stores in an area about the size of a single terrain feature or building....

The idea
After tidying up my daughter's blocks, I was surprised how much a single box of blocks spread around.  Given the high cost of laser-cut MDF, I wondered what I could do with my humble bench saw.  My only criteria: I had to be able to fit it in a small A4-size box, and quickly set it up. 

As luck would have it, I had some leftover 42x11mm pine strips from lining my shed.  Two hours  later, I had 16 x 5cm, 16 x 10cm, 16 x 20cm, and 8 x 30cm walls, hastily sprayed a neutral grey (to serve as both spaceships and dungeons/castles/bunker complexes).

Equipment: 2 x 2.7m 42x11mm pine strips $10, 1 x grey primer spray can $3 = $13 total
Time: 2 hours

In hindsight, I'd have made less 20cm and 30cm lengths, and more 5cm and 10cm lengths. The shorter walls are far more versatile.

Obviously this could be dressed up a lot by interior detail. I've got a few ideas for doors I'd like to try.
There are some cool Hirst Arts molds with interesting interior bits and bobs. I've got some furniture from Antenociti's workshop which will also jazz it up.  

The free-standing walls are relatively stable, and resist the occasional jostle and bump, but might not be ideal in a high traffic situation. 

It's 1948 and the WW2 still rages.  British Tommies hunt ghouls under the bunkers in Gibralter.  

I also found I needed more smaller (5cm and 10cm) pieces and struggled to find a use for all the longer 30cm pieces. I'll probably make at least 8 more of each of the smaller ones.

Finally, whilst I used 42mm x 11mm pine (as that's what I had at hand), in hindsight I'd probably go 50mm+ for taller walls - simply to make sure larger models don't destroy immersion by peeking over the top.
 It's very plain, but the 3D nature still makes it better than say, D&D or Space Hulk tiles.  Some interior details (desks, beds, control panels, doors) should dress it up a bit. 
It's a fair result for the minimal time/cost involved.

It was so fast to make, I may start another project this weekend - which is to make a table that allows sunken features (trenches, rivers, ravines, canals, lava pits) whilst remaining cheap and easy to make. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Warmachine - Magic the Gathering meets 40K?

This is not really a review - I suspect few will need to be introduced to the phenomenon that is Warmahordes (Warmachine + Hordes, its compatible sister game).   The "regulars" of this blog will be aware I hold it up as something of a poster child for "victory through memorizing/exploiting millions of special rules" but the intent of this article isn't to have a go at Warmachine, but rather to look at what it does (and doesn't) do well, from a game design perspective.  My recent foray into Magic the Gathering has reinforced my opinion that Warmachine has many CCG elements, and prompted a re-assessment of my opinion of the game. (You can view it as an annoyingly gimmicky/cheesy wargame, or a very cool CCG with miniatures)

When working on my sheds, I 'discovered' two unpainted Warmachine armies.  On a whim, I've painted them over the last few nights.  They are pleasantly easy to paint to 'tabletop quality' - (compared to the many Infinity models I am avoiding) and I can knock over a dozen a night while watching TV.

What is Warmachine?
Warcasters (tough-as-nails battle wizards) control giant steampunk robots (warjacks). Besides toting stonking big swords and flinging fireballs and what not, casters can allocate magic (focus) that allows the robots to headbutt, stomp, and fling opponents, amongst other things.  They are supported by solos (powerful non-caster heroes) and units of 6-10 troops which include undead cyborg pirates led by a dragon, gun magicians (think the Matrix/Equilibrium); knights with flamethrowers, knights that shoot lighting from their swords, and elves with beards and anime-style mecha.  Plenty of cool man-toys, in other words.

Why is it popular?
Quite a lot of 40K players (especially competitive ones) have  migrated to Warmachine. This is because the rules are a lot "tighter" than 40K, and relatively more balanced* (*more on this later.)  (I'm not familiar with 40K beyond 5th ed, but pretty much anyone with an internet connection and enough money could come up with a "killer army" as 80% of  'tactics' came in the list building and deployment phase and in-game decisions are rather limited).  In Warmachine, factions are more balanced, and victory comes more through remembering how the rules interact, managing your resources, and pulling off combos. As assassinating the enemy warcaster usually wins you the game, victory can be snatched from defeat with the right moves.  It's a lot cheaper to start (a $50 battle box is indeed enough to play), far less minis are required overall, and they come with unit cards (with stats etc) which mean you are not forced to buy 'codexes.'  Privateer Press tends to update all factions simultaneously anyway, which means you don't get the 40K-style codex "power creep" which invalidates certain factions.   

The undead Cryx are useful for other games too - these Mechanikthralls are going to serve as Nazi abominations in Secrets of the Third Reich.
A Brief Summary
The basic rules (~80 pages) are pretty clear and well laid out.  The mechanics are pretty universal - roll 2d6 + stat to beat a target number.  It gives a "bell curve" of results which are somewhat more predictable than a single d6.   The game is designed to heavily involve melee, and weapon ranges reflect this.  (I'm cool with a flintlock pistol shooting 10", but a heavy anti-mech sniper rifle shooting 14"?  Puh-lease.)

Activation is IGOUGO (ugh), and a key gameplay aspect is the allocation of a warcaster's focus (magic) points.  He can use them to buff units, boost nearby warjacks, or even cast fireballs and the like  directly.  Managing this resource is important to success.  In addition each warcaster has a very powerful 'feat' which it can use only once, but if used right can swing a game.

Hordes (which I haven't played/owned) has an even more interesting mechanic. It's more risk-management than resource management - instead of focus you have fury - basically wild beasts replace robots, and the beasts can build up too much "fury" doing boosted attacks etc - so and the warlock has to remove fury from his beasts (or lose control of them). The more crazy stuff you do, the more you risk failure - a bit like the turnover mechanic in Bloodbowl.  From what I can see, Hordes (developed later than Warmachine, with the benefit of hindsight) seems to have slightly better gameplay, but both games use the same core mechanics and are compatible with each other.

Page 5  "Play like you've got a pair"
The famous game design notes.  It basically says "play aggressively, not rules-lawyer-y, and don't whinge if you lose."  Sadly, the tongue-in-cheek way it is written  comes off like the smack talk of a 12-year old. 
I have quite a few Mercenary character models. I think I had intended to use them for generic skirmish like Song of Blades and Heroes.
So Many Special Rules
You saw this coming. While models have a reasonable-but-slightly-on-the-large-side 7 stats - Speed, Strength, Melee Attack, Ranged Attack, Defence (how hard to hit), and Armour (how tough once hit) and Command (willpower, leadership, training).   There are also 19 generic special rules, 4 immunities, and 14 weapon rules.  These rules are so commonly used they are replaced with a symbol on the unit cards, which presumably one memorizes.  That would be easy enough, if each model did not have extra special rules beyond this. I'm not about to go through every rulebook and expansion counting every special rule for every model in every faction, but it's safe to say there are hundreds.  A warcaster might also have 5-6 spells, a "feat"(a one-shot gamechanging ability) as well as a few unique special abilities and magic weapons.  I'd rate this as very much RPG/CCG territory.

Knowing your special rules, and your opponents' special rules, is vital to success in Warmachine and gives a distinct advantage to experienced players.

Terrain No More
Warmachine seems to struggle with terrain.  This is both physically (paper 2D terrain is common as many warjack models are bulky, metal and top heavy) and game/rule-wise, as it doesn't handle terrain particularly well for a skirmish/battle scale game.  Warmachine games seem to be designed to use even more sparse terrain than even 40K, and I suspect too much (or the wrong sort) of terrain can wildly unbalance certain units and factions.  Infinity it ain't.    Interestingly, the models themselves often act as the "terrain" - screening other units (especially your warcaster, which is like the 'king' in chess) is an important tactic.  Warmachine is a game of very narrow margins, and blocking that attack on your warcaster by moving that heavy warjack 1" to the left might be the difference between victory and defeat.
Due to the chunky models, I have been experimenting with some rather aggressive edging/highlighting.  Whilst they look a little weird up close, I'm trying to make the models "pop" from actual gaming distances....

*Balance through Unbalance
This sounds very zen, but basically every faction in Warmachine has such BS overpowered stuff it kinda balances out.  You won't lose because your opponent had a better army, but because you forgot to trigger your Magic Nuke of Doom or didn't trigger it before your enemy froze your guys with his Universal Stasis Field.  I call this balance through unbalance.  The alleged "weaker" factions aren't 'weaker' per se - it's just trickier to use/combine their powers effectively. So there's not really weak factions, so much as beginner-unfriendly ones.  When everything is 'broken' it's quite fair.

The CCG Connection
Warmachine's gameplay strongly reminds me of a CCG-feel, and indeed I think Privateer Press have indeed recently released their own CCG based on the franchise. The emphasis on resource management (focus = mana) is similar to a CCG. I think the victory conditions also increase the similarities. In Magic the Gathering, you use mana to power attacks by your creatures, who both shield your wizard and attack your opponents' wizard.  In Warmachine, you use focus to power attacks by your robots, who both shield your warcaster and attack your opponents' warcaster.  In Magic, when your wizard dies, you lose, regardless of your creatures/minions). In Warmachine, when your warcaster dies, you lose, regardless of your units/minions.

Even the way players usually lay out their armies is familiar.  Players often "layer" their forces (warcaster shielded by other units) which reminds me of the layout of a Magic table - you know, your 'hand'/focus generating area (caster) and a 'battle ground' in the middle of the table where creatures (warjacks, units) clash.  In both games, you attack and defend with units in the middle of the table, and only enemies who are not defended (or have some special ability) can get through to your wizard.

In a CCG, knowing when to play a card is important, and maneuver is non-existent. In Warmachine, even though you have maneuver, again knowing when to attack and activate special abilities with a unit is very important. Maneuver is important so far as it means positioning yourself to deliver your combo, but conventional sweeping flanking maneuvers etc seem relatively rare. 

Basically, getting off your special move at the right moment is important. The ability to chain combinations of special attacks (and to recall both your own special moves, and anticipate your opponents) is also a key ability.  Experience and knowledge matters. 

In Magic, building a deck with synergy (cards that compliment each other) is very important.  Unit synergy is likewise important in Warmachine and certain casters and combinations of units increase each others' effectiveness.  Having the right models is important for setting up that wtfbbqpwn combo.  In Magic, when building a deck, you need to balance your mana production against your  potential mana use; in Warmachine, when building an army, you need to balance focus production against your potential  focus use.  

Magic has many tournament formats and it actively encourages tournaments, and so does Warmachine. Both games have 'cookie cutter' decks (army lists) and both have game modes to encourage creative list-building (for example, Warmachine allows bonus points for specialists if you use non-standard warcasters). Both also have 'beginner leagues'' where you can use the contents of a starter kit.
 I need to get around to basing them, but I'm busy powering through the painting.  Chunky, heroic details are sooo quick and easy paint compared to the realistic but tiny details on Infinity sculpts...

Not bad.... so much as different....
 Warmachine tactics aren't so much tabletop tactics rather than CCG tactics. There is still depth in gameplay, but it's different depth.  It's less about sweeping flanking maneuvers, and more tactics using tricky combo/special abilities.
"You thought you were about to kill me?  poof - I'm invincible for a turn." 
"I throw your minion out of the way, clearing a path for my Focus Fire feat, which I'm boosting with Lethal Damage for +2"
I think that sort of thing can be seen as a bit dubious by many traditional tabletop gamers, but it's part and parcel with CCGs.  What sometimes looks like a big ruck in the middle can sometimes be the execution of a cunning, complex plan.

If you judge Warmachine as a tabletop game, it may frustrate with its deliberate gimmicky, power-gaming focus.  However, if you view it as a CCG with miniatures, it's quite interesting.  Whilst less 'conventional' it's depth, balance and buy-in price compares very favourably with 40K, if you want a game with readily-available opponents.  It's a very different flavour of wargaming, for sure, requiring a different skill-set - and needs to be judged against a different standard.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Gruntz: Special Ops (Sci Fi Skirmish) - Rules Review

Gruntz are a solid set of platoon level rules with a good unit builder.  They mostly copy+paste Warmachine mechanics, combined with a random card activation.

Special Ops is their Necromunda-style campaign skirmish, using 3-10 specops troopers per side.  A $4 "supplement" to the original Gruntz rules, I was interested to see where they would go with it, especially since they had added "blips" (detection/stealth) and reactive fire (always good!).  The 2x2'map size is a bonus to the spatially-challenged. 

The Shiny
A 20-page PDF with decent production values.  Solid enough, but my first impression was "a bit light on"- I feel I need to be careful not to give away all the rules when reviewing it!

It always amazes me when I realise these models are 15mm not 28s...  Khurasan Miniatures has re-opened for business, so I hear - I'd rate them the #1 purveyors of 15mm goodness...  however their postage is rather steep unless you live in USA
I'm not going to repeat myself here, but think Warmachine's 2d6+stat approach, minus the magic and replacing warjacks with vehicles. IGOUGO is replaced (improved) with random card activation.  There isn't any mechanics here anyway - you need to already own the Gruntz rules use this supplement.

Stealth & Blips
Your models remain as 'blips' (and you get a dummy blip to better sow confusion) which move around, acting like models, until revealed by opponents passing a SKILL test.

Reactive Fire
Any enemy moving in LoS triggers a skill test (with better modifiers if you were on overwatch) of any models which are not suppressed.  Overwatch units can also react more than once.  I like how active models, when they trigger reactive fire, can opt to instantly duck back (and automatically avoid being shot) which stops the reactive fire from being Infinity-lethal but allows troops to cover/pin down areas. 

Most weapons are effectively unlimited-range and range bands (and their modifiers) are handled easily and sensibly.The weapons are a reasonably comprehensive generic selection.

Hackers can buff/debuff shooting, defence and movement and either reveal or conceal units.  This is done as an opposed roll with enemy units and adds a nice layer without being complicated. Hacking devices come in 3 levels of power and can be customised to work better at buffing, debuffing, anti-vehicle or counter-hacking.  Good. Solid depth without getting confusing.

Army Builder
This was the main reason I'd recommend Gruntz, and "Spec Ops" also has a unit builder.  There are 12 special rules (most of which are recycled from Gruntz) and the usual stats (Shoot, Guard, Skill, Assault, Soak, Mental). Most models have 4 wounds. (I'm not a fan of tracking wounds aka hitpoints, but I guess it's OK if you're only using a handful of models).  

There are 8 team archetypes who have 1-2 shared special rules which is quite restrained but adds flavour. I.e. the space ninjas might get "stealth" and a religious group "fanatics." There are also a range of weapons from SMG, to SAW to shotgun - each comes in improvised, projectile, laser and plasma versions.  Equipment is likewise kept minimalist (compared to say Infinity or Necromunda) with half a dozen basic things like suppressors and medkits.  It's more at the complexity level of LOTR's Battle Companies campaign rules.   I like how there is an example of how to build a team.

The army builder, if I am to be honest, while good and straightforward, was a little less comprehensive than I was hoping for.  

Missions & Advancement
You roll 2d6 against a list of  missions (recon, hack, assassinate, sabotage, hostage rescue). There's also a branching campaign if you want more of a narrative feel.

Units gain XP which they can use to improve equipment, heal injury effects, or roll on an advancement table (and potentially boost stats). Injured troops roll on the recovery table to see if they miss games, or perhaps take permanent damage.

A pretty light, generic system which isn't going to swamp you with lots of rules and upgrades. I'll repeat it reminds me of the complexity of LOTR's Battle Companies skirmish campaign rules - quite a ways simpler than Necromunda.  It allows you to build your own warbands, and I predict the 15mm sci fi crowd will 'dig' it.

Recommended: Sure. While it's not amazing, it's familiar, solid and capable and allows for a simple campaign with advancement, injuries etc. As a bonus, it scales with the platoon-level Gruntz