Sunday, 28 February 2016

Sticks & Stones Review (Savage Worlds Prehistoric)

I'll add this one to the Savage Worlds review series These are quick to do as I don't need to playtest them (balance isn't so vital in a RPG and we know the base Savage Worlds mechanics work).
Bear in mind I review this as a wargamer not a RPGer. For a RPG nerd's version, there's usually reviews about on RPGNow etc. 

The Shiny
Well this is a PDF after all; however full colour art is decent if cartoon-y.  Similar two column layout to most other SW rulebooks.  Solid but not particularly impressive.
The game uses hand, knuckle and finger as measurements which probably adds atmosphere as a RPGer but I merely found annoying to convert.

If you love puns and the idea of Cave NERDS makes you hysterical with laughter, you will enjoy the Flintstone-esque humour in this supplement.  I personally found it varied between grating and cringeworthy.

Character Creation, Gear etc
Always a big deal in RPGs. As a wargamer, not so interesting.  It's evident S&S is lighthearted  - i.e. Cave GEEKS is a class.  It also has Dino Sapiens which will give a use for Lizardmen when GW inevitably Squats them.  They narrow down the base SW skills to ~30 and add in caveman-y ones such as finger counting, fire starting, pictograms etc.  There is a new Magic mishap table which includes coconuts falling on your head, your nose growing, bad flatulence etc.  Magic spells are divided up by Shaman class i.e. Earth, Moon, Fire, Beast, Water etc.  There are gear tables which include coconut helmets and dino-plate armour as well as the usual bows, clubs, spears and slings etc - unsurprisingly they're pretty limited in the gear department.    They aim for comedy with Flintstone-esque vehicles and pun-named gear. Ugh.  Thee is the usual SW list of relics and legendary "named" gear "Gem of Powuh" and "Hungo's Hullking Helmet" etc. 

Setting & Encounter Generator & Scenarios
More humorously named villages and caves are described but I could have had a nerdy 12 year old from my school do it just as well.  The encounter generators for different biomes (forest, mountain, water etc) are the first useful thing I've found in these rules, bar the helpful arranging of spells into shaman classes.  The scenarios were quite extensive, and possibly useful for RPGers, but by now completely disinterested in the lame writing and forced humour I admit I skipped most of this section.

There is about 45 new beasts good for prehistoric gaming, like T-Rexes, Pteranodons, Mammoths, Dilophosaurus, raptors etc.  This is probably the most useful part of the book, but nothing you couldn't do yourself with a modicum of common sense.

A Flintstone-esque style which aims for humour (and misses).  Honestly, it adds little you cannot do with the base Savage Worlds rulebook.  The bestiary and scenario generators are the only useful new content, but you could rig them up yourself with little effort. 

Recommended?: Nah.  Maybe OK at the $2 I paid for it, but the $15RRP is a waste of hobby dollars.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Wargaming - Man vs Dinosaur

 In WW2, dinosaurs were prized for their ability to effortlessly wield heavy weaponry.  Their vital contribution to the war effort is often glossed over by modern historians.

Inspired by my daughters toy dinos shower adventures (that sounded odd) and partly by PC games (Dino D-Day, ARK, and the ORION series - especially the latter - I mean, who hasn't dreamt of fighting a T-Rex equipped with a crossbow, jetpack and lightsabre?)   ...I've been wondering why there aren't more dinosaur wargames?

 Iron Sky has been vital for exposing the Nazi menace from their moon colonies.  A new documentary reveals their Hollow Earth bases.

Like pirates and ninjas, they are the most under-represented faction of "cool" on the tabletop.  We have plenty of robots and mecha, and every idiot and their dog is making a zombie game.  Cowboys? Tick.  But is there any dedicated dino games and miniatures lines?  No, the only way you'd get them is through some tiny boutique manufacturer, sold in a paper bag like a X-rated VCR.  They might be mentioned in passing in pulp rules, or in a supplement no one much plays.  (Though the lovable pulp-obsessed oddballs at Lead Adventure probably have a forum on it)

I can't think of any wargame franchise where dinos have their rightful starring role.  I mean, we know they fought with the Nazis in pivotal moments of WW2 (thanks to classic historical works such as Iron Sky, Danger 5 and Dino D-Day).
(No, Lizardmen don't count. They're Aztec alien lizards from space, not dinosaurs.  They're as much dinosaurs as Michael Bay's Age of Extinction transformers)

Here's my second thought - how would humans in various eras match up against dinos? 
Sure, if you're jetpacking past wielding a lightsabre you might have a fighting chance - but surely a T-Rex would mong down on a medieval knight?

I've personally never "bought" the theory a giant asteroid mashed the dinosaurs or whatever it did to bring about their extinction.  I mean, Occam's Razor suggests the most common cause of animal extinction would be behind it - i.e. mankind.   A generation raised on Jurassic Park might think "T-Rex - RUN!" but our hardier ancestors may well have throught "Yippee - food for the whole village - in one easy package!"

Since 100% of our dinosaur knowledge is educated guesswork (and in many cases, wild conjecture presented as fact) I think the man vs dinosaur matchup can be pretty much how we wish it to be - but would be slanted in favour of humans rather more than contemporary movies suggest.   Heck, computer simulations suggest a human can keep pace with a T-rex, as opposed to the "chase-down-a-jeep" speeds shown in movies.  Humans are, after all, an exceptionally cunning and vicious species.  I'm sure they would have adapted specialist tactics to bring down whatever dino they hunted. (Also, with those tiny forearms - am I the only one who thinks a T-Rex might not be so scary if it was tripped over?) Heck, they might have only had to knock out the dinos traditional food source, rather than directly hunting carnivores, but I wouldn't bet against it.  That said, for wargaming, I'm thinking traditional tactics:

Shieldwall (Romans, Greek, viking) vs Dinosaurs
Horse archers vs Dinosaurs
Knights vs Dinosaurs
English longbowmen/Crossbowmen vs Dinosaurs
Muskets vs Dinosaurs....

..I mean, just grab your favourite historical period and add dinos in.
Finally, a way to make Napoleonics fun?

As firearms become more capable it becomes hopelessly one-sided, but remember, we're flexible - if scientists have latitude to make up stuff about dinosaurs, so can we.  You didn't know that Velociraptors had infared vision and could spit acid, did you?   ...and they haaate Tiger tanks.  It's something about the smell of diesel that makes them go into an attack frenzy. 

Many species of dinosaur make excellent steeds and are both stronger and more vicious than a trained warhorse - something many medieval knights took advantage of.

Liberated from the guesses of others, we can attribute intelligence and traits as we please to - for example, perhaps dinosaurs were much smarter than their cranial capacity suggests.  Maybe they were all more like Jurassic World raptors or elephants rather than crocodiles or goannas.   Think along the lines of a Mumakil-esque gondola on a brachiosaurous or armoured ankylosuarous deflecting arrows then smashing through a battle line...   ...dinos could act as mounts or beasts of burden, even towing siege equipment or breaking enemy lines like war dogs.   

Dinos, dinos everywhere...  a visit to any department store or $2 shop will usually turn up dinos sold either individually or by the bag.  They're super cheap, and often quite decently modelled. Generally the main concern is a hideous paint job, which is easily enough fixed.  Note: the softer plastic ones don't accept spraypaint to well (so round #2 will have me holding the can back so the solvent doesn't hit it (styfoam-ball style) or see a brushed undercoat first.  I'll upload pics when I steal more dinos out of my daughters' sandpit collection.

Anyway, I meant to explore what existing wargame rules would work well with dinos, and how to fit them in to games, but I realised I must get to bed before my wife checks how late it is and my fossilized carcass is discovered thousands of years later....

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Coastal Forces of WW2

This has to be one of my favourite periods/genres of warfare.  The German surface fleet didn't do much of note, with a few fairly futile sorties in all the war years, compared to their E-boats which patrolled the channel and clashed with their British opposites almost nightly.

They packed so much firepower into a flimsy hull - powerboats festooned with torpedoes, machine guns, automatic cannon from 20 to 40mm and (later) 6pdr cannons. And they're so fast!  Some of them were capable of 40kts+ and they operated at night, where ranges could quickly close to a matter of a few hundred yards. (And in many cases, small arms range - many crew fitted extra Lewis guns on homemade mounts and wheelhouse crew often carried Tommy guns and even grenades.)

The rather bipolar mix of cautious stalking at low speeds for torpedo ambush and blazing gunfights at 40kts zig-zagging  through escorts spraying cannon fire makes for some interesting battles.

With most fights including only a handful to a dozen ships/MTBs per side, fights are a good size for wargaming.  And with the sheer amount of actions to choose from, you need never repeat yourself - don't need to repeatedly replay lame and unoriginal Bismark or Graf Spee fights.  In addition, the Mediterranean was another fascinating theatre with a whole new range of auxiliary vessels and tactics - to say nothing of the Pacific.

 Peter Scott's Narrow Seas book is probably my favourite on the topic...

There are quite a few acceptable rules - I prefer the simpler free Schnell Rules for Schnellboote over the commercial products - if interested, you can find thumbnail reviews of the main rules sets are available here.

Recommended Reading
I'm recently re-reading Peter Dickens' Night Action.  My favourite is The Battle for the Narrow Seas  though Flag 4 by Dudley Pope has a fascinating account of the vigorous coastal forces skirmishing in the Med.  Now I'm re-reading through the topic, I'll try to snag a copy of Hitchens' They Fought Them with Gunboats.

Osprey as usual has a few useful titles - looking across I see I have British MTBs 1939-45, E-Boat ns MTB, Kriegsmarine Coastal Forces and British MGBs 1939-45 among others. 

Modern Coastal Forces
Even modern coastal forces are interesting - when reviewing the rather good Bulldogs Away rules I discovered pretty much every naval action - and there's quite a few - since WW2 involved small strike craft like Osas (with guns usually still very relevant despite the plethora of anti-ship missiles)

So if the topic is so awesome, why isn't my blog full of Coastal forces references?

Lack of Miniatures, Lack of Value
You've got pretty much two choices - resin 1:700/1:600 from PT Dockyard or Skytrex - or the wonderfully detailed metal 1/1250 Figurehead - which is more affordable but honestly, too tiny to be appealing.   Both are pricey - with the AUD plummeting from once-parity to the USD E-boats at $4.25 are $6 ea.   An armed trawler could be around $12AUD.  Given I'd have to buy both forces, that's 100s of dollars from my gaming budget in resin (a modelling medium I dislike). I already have a few 1:1250 which are detailed but simply too tiny to be appealing, and though more affordable (~$12 for 4) I don't feel like I am getting much "bang" for my buck.  They're just too tiny to be fun, and it feels a bit lame when $150 of ships fit in a soap holder. 

As usual, anime like Blue Submarine No.6 has too much weirdness and navel-gazing philosophy, but the hardware is cool...
Sci Fi Alternatives?
As usual, this inevitably drives me to tinker with my Supercav homebrew undersea submarine-fighter rules - which pretty much deliberately approximates MTB warfare: small 5-man fighter subs 50tons who stalk at 20-30kts before accelerating to engage at 120kts+ using solid-fuel rocket engines and supercavitation tech including underwater cannon.   It's not WW2, but it does add in a 3D element and can be played for a fraction of the cost - EM4 starfighters stand in as subs and are both larger and more detailed than 1:600 craft: at 50c each they are a fraction of the cost.    Also, it gives me an excuse to mix in weapons from my other favourite era - 1950s jet combat - which has plenty of miniature options but is shamefully under-represented in the rules stakes (yes, I know about CY6: Jet Age but I don't like the order-writing mechanics nor the fact I'm limited to 2-3 fighters per side, and C:21 criminally neglects ANY altitude rules).  I mean, who doesn't find the idea of firing unguided nuclear rockets fun?
(Note to self: I should repost the revised rules on the DV google group)

Interestingly enough, it was pointed out to me that the RPG Blue Planet has similar high-speed fighter subs and I recently saw a clip from Blue Submarine No.6 - but my original inspiration was a subfighter from 2300AD fan site and an article on the Shkval torpedo.

Monday, 22 February 2016

World of Warships - to Tier 5 and (slightly) beyond

My aim is to consolidate my stats at tier 5-6, as that is the area you start to meet experienced players regularly.  I've tried most of the ships, so I'll start with a quick round-up:

Tier 4 Destroyers
Isokazes are a tad slow, but stealthy with the usual great IJN torpedoes.  Identical to play to all other Japanese destroyers - sit outside your 6.1km detection range and fire torpedoes invisibly.  You're a ninja! 

The USN Clemson was my favourite; upgraded to  8 x 4" guns, allowing it to dogfight with even Tier 5-6 destroyers and burn down ships with gunfire. The first true gunboat, and has solid 5.5km torpedoes to give flexibility.

The VMF Izyaslav has flatter more accurate guns than the Clemson with similar dps, but the turret arrangement, traverse and its 5km torpedoes are slightly inferior to it's USN rival. I am starting to prefer its excellent high velocity guns over the Clemson.

Tier 4 Cruisers.
I did OK in the Karlsruhe, but regard it as a steaming bag of poop, strictly inferior to pretty much everything else in Tier 4. The rapid fire destroyer-size guns on the Tier 2 Dresden are not so charming at Tier 4.

The IJN Kuma continues the "heavy destroyer" theme started in the Tenryu, swift with good torpedoes and rapid fire guns.

My pick for most effective is the Phoenix - pretty much a Tier 5 Omaha at Tier 4.  Quick, tough, and lots of dakka, with decent range guns.  Another very good ship.

Tier 4 Battleships
Myogi. Initially I hated the randomness and ineffectiveness of the half-dozen big 14" guns (majority of which face the rear) but I quickly grew to enjoy the speed - charging behind friendly destroyers on the flag and monstering enemy cruisers, before fleeing the scene, having stirred up sh1t and attracted half the enemy team.  My favourite in game moment - dodging the torpedoes then running down a Minekaze (which was chasing our carriers) and blowing it away with a point-blank salvo. 

Wyoming.  Basically, double the guns, more armour, but only 20kts of speed.  Much easier to play than the Myogi but far less interesting and challenging - once you commit, there's no backing out as you don't have the speed to flex. I won't be going further up the USN line as they don't get faster until Tier 8 or something. Quite easy to get 50K+ damage; just get in as close as you can without being torpedoed, and angle your hull, tanking damaged with the "T" consumable.

Admittedly the game doesn't look this good...  ...but it does run on pretty much any computer...

Tier 5 Destroyer
Nicholas. Statistically the worst destroyer in T5, but I found it my most successful due to its multi-role nature - a rapid-fire, agile, dogfighting gunboat capable of torpedo attacks.  There are two viable loadouts - the B hull has better maneuver, AA and dps but has low velocity guns which "float" shells at long range, whereas the A hull has slower firing, yet more accurate guns.

Gnevny. I enjoy it but struggle to do well in it - as it plays nothing like a destroyer and more like a cruiser.  Great guns have terrible traverse, meaning you have to plan moves in advance like larger ships, and it's 4km torpedoes means attacking with them tends to be suicidal unless well planned.  Staying end-on to enemies at ~10km and using steady curving zig-zags avoids 90% of shots while keeping your guns on target.  Resist the urge for suicide torpedo attacks.

Minekaze.  An excellent destroyer and better than many T6 ships. Fast, agile, stealthy with good torpedoes. It refines the IJN destroyer concept of fast, stealthy torpedo-ninja to a new pinnacle.

Tier 5 Cruiser
Konigsberg. A classic glass cannon with great accurate guns that outrange most ships at it's tier, but it falls apart if you give it a harsh look.  Deadly, but needs careful ship-handling.  Decent torpedoes. A massive upgrade from the Karlsruhe.

Omaha.  The classic spammy light cruiser - good speed, good guns. Easy to use and do well in.  Has two viable loadouts - one with better gun range, the other with more torpedoes. A very good ship, but is overshaodowed by its premium counterpart, the Murmansk. (Same ship, in Russian service, is twice as agile and has better torpedoes. It's like the game's developers were Russian or something...)

Furutaka.  The first 8" gun cruiser, it has terrible dps/RoF and low gun range (why would a 6" outrange a 8") but precise fire with good penetration.  Reviled by most of the player base, difficult to use, but has it's moments and gives a different flavour to the  other T5 offerings.  10km torpedoes are a novelty.  I found I had a lot of success after I got the 'feel' for it (after about 20+ games, admittedly).

 Most players are interested in their stats, as the games are fast, you can play lots of games, making the sample size large, and thus reliable.  Sites like warships today track those stats, making it easy to improve your play.

Tier 5 is where it's at....
Pretty much every ship at Tier 5 is decent, but by now I've decided I do not enjoy lumbering battleships and have no interest in carriers.   At tier 5-7, gameplay improves and team mates are (slightly) less like braindead potatoes, whilst there isn't so many "leet" players you can't have good games.  Tier 4 also had many excellent ships, but tends to end up in Tier 5 games quite often.  Whereas Tier 6 seems worse off in a different way; their ships are similar to Tier 5 but face higher quality opposition.

 I've learnt a lot since my Tier 2-3 days, and I've found a lot of "hidden" controls and tactics since then - which I'll have to share in another post, as baby is asleep and I can sneak off to bed....

Saturday, 20 February 2016

The (s)Hit List - Episode #1

I've decided I will allow myself a regular rant post.  This, I believe, can be excused as:

(a) it helps others avoid repeating my mistakes
(b) allows me to let off steam in a semi-constructive manner

If this seems a bit self-indulgent, may I point out what I do not do....
No self-congratulatory ("I haz 50 readers") posts
No "retweet" posts simply copy+pasting others work (okay, sometimes, but very rarely)
No restrospective "look backs" or special New Years resolution posts
Nor do I fill my blog with personal/family information (martial status, back pains)

So as long as it is on topic (sci fi, wargaming, fantasy, rules, history) I'd argue it is fair game for "critical analysis". So here goes:

Legends of Tomorrow (TV Show)
This show was embarrassing.  It makes Dr Who look like a AAA blockbuster, and in fact the main character Rip reminds me of Dr Who mixed with Willy Wonka.  If DC has any aspersions to rival Marvel's expanding TV universe, then this has dealt it a severe blow.  The weak acting was not helped by the terrible script and dialogue.  I gave Arrow a 6/10 and to be honest this is DC's best TV effort I've seen so far, as Flash (4/10) and Legends (2/10) lower the bar. (Admittedly Marvel's Agents of Shield was pretty weak, but I charitably attributed it as being designed for a teenage target audience like Avengers) I have no desire to watch this show further. The pilot did not just shoot itself through the foot, but through the head.

Ravenstar Cold Navy Castings (miniatures)
I'm trying to force myself to paint these spaceships, but the motivation isn't there.  The sculpts and design are awesome (John Bear Ross, I think?), but the execution is horrid.  The resin is bubbly, with chunks missing, sharp edges are "melted" and I spent so much time filing and trimming I honestly could have made the spaceships myself faster if I simply carved them freehand out of a raw chunk of resin.

Robotech Miniatures (miniatures)
Yes, I've mentioned this before, but I recently re-tried to get them all  assembled and finished.  The day I spent trying to assemble these 1/144 minis made me so furious I avoided my hobby shed for a fortnight, messing up my holiday hobby plans.  Basically, these are 1/144 minis with 200 (maybe an exaggeration) parts each.  Imagine 40K Terminator-size models where each is a 1:72 Revell kit and you get the idea.   To rub salt into the wounds, Veritech fighters need 3 versions assembled for each "mode" - so you need to assemble 12 of these fiddly models for a mere 4-mech unit on the tabletop....

Flames of War (rules)
For what is pretty much a 40K ripoff, these rules are simplistic without actually being particularly simple to use.  Any "ease of use" is simply due to its familiarity to ex-GW players.  I was skimming them the other day, and was amazed at how "dense" they were.  There's a LOT of rules. Admittedly, I've got the small-print version, but there's 150 or so pages of raw rules.  They have so many exceptions and special situations.  I was looking through them for ideas how to simplify a mech game at platoon+ scale, but ended up tossing it aside as it was too complicated.  And no one (except maybe Battlefront's PR team) claims FoW is the most deep, tactical WW2 game out there.  It's like a MacDonalds Happy meal at gourmet restaurant pricing.

Scandanavian Crime Fiction (books)
Ever since the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo we have been assailed with "the next big thing" to come out of <insert Scandanavian country>    In general, they're all pretty rubbish.  Okay, here's the "New York Times bestselling author Jussi Adler-Olsen latest "The Hanging Girl."  Here's the first paragraphs: (my thoughts in small print)

"Hey Carl. Wake up. The telephone is ringing again."
Carl looked up sleepily at Assad, who was camouflaged like a yellow carnival (wtf is a yellow carnival?). When he'd started (what?) in the morning, the overalls had been white and his curly hair black, so if there was even a splash of paint on the walls, it would be a miracle." (I have no words...)

"You interrupted me right in the middle of a complicated train of thought," said Carl, reluctantly taking his legs of the table.  (Ooh, a complicated train of thought. The use of "reluctantly" reminds me of a teenager trying to shoehorn adverbs into a free writing task)

"Okay! Sorry!" the wrinkles of a smile appeared under the jungle of Assad's nine o'clock stubble (a jungle of stubble? really?)  What the heck was it his round, happy eyes expressed? A hint of irony, perhaps? (his eyes were round AND happy, ye gods!)

Yes, it's probably lost a lot in translation. But the writing is utter tripe. I know 12 year olds who can do better than this. I don't care if the plot is mindbendingly amazing, I can't force myself to read more than a chapter.  And this is pretty much par for the course. For some reason people will accept any crap if it's "made in Sweden" etc as it's trendy or something.  Protip: If it says "best-selling" and<insert Scandanvian country> author, put the book down, and walk out the door.  I just saved you wasting several hours of your life.

/RANT over.  There, that feels better.  It's a relief to not to try to word things carefully (like in rules reviews, where I try to be <relatively> fair).  Feel free to agree/disagree.

Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope (Book Review)

We have so many attempts to "modernise" the bard's work; so why not take a contemporary work and translate it into iambic pentameter? Genius!

Friends, rebels, starfighters - lend me thine ears...


RED LEAD: Good men, each now shall speak and state his name

RED TEN: Red Ten doth here stand by


RED SIX: Disaster at me strikes!

BIGGS: Eject, forsooth!

RED SIX: I may yet set it right

BIGGS: Anon, pull up!

RED SIX: Nay, I'll warrant that all will be well - [Explosion: Red Six dies]

COMPUTER: In seven minutes shall the Death Star be
Within the range of our fair rebel base

I'll be checking out The Empire Striketh Back and the Jedi Doth Return...

VADER: I sense the Force in this one here, almost
As if I did my younger self espy


VADER: I feel thy lack of faith disturbing

TARKIN: Cease!  No more of this! Lord Vader, let him be.

VADER: As thy will. [Aside:] My point hath been well made
Upon his prideful, unbelieving throat


BEING ONE: Negola d'waghi wolldugger!

He liketh not thy look

LUKE:  Forgive me, Sir
[Aside:] Nor do I like his face, yet do I groan?


HAN: Tis but the ship that hath the Kessel run
Accomplish'd in twelve parsecs, nothing more


HAN: Nay, not that:
The day that Jabba taketh my dear ship
Shall be the day you find me a grave man

GREEDO: Nay oo'chlay nooma.  CHespeka nofa
Na cringko kaynko, a nachoskanya!

HAN: Aye, I'' warrant thou hast wish'd this day
[They shoot, Greedo dies]

[To innkeeper:] Pray, goodly Sir, forgive me for the mess

[Aside:] And whether I shot first, I'll ne'er confess!


OFFICER ONE: [through com link] But who art thou, and what's thy number code?
[Han Solo blasts comlink]

HAN: That conversation did my spirits bore!
Now Luke, prepare thyself for company!


Okay, okay, I'll curb the quotes...
This book has been my most fun read since Johannes Cabal: Necromancer.  It appeals to the inner geek on many levels - I mean, if the words "Shakespeare's Star Wars" does not make you prick up your ears, you're probably reading the wrong sort of blog.

You'd read it: It's Star Wars, Shakespeare style! 'Nuf said.

You'd leave it: You care for neither Star Wars nor the immortal bard. In which case, prithee fly from this blog, ne'er to return!

Zounds! This IS the book you're looking for...

Friday, 12 February 2016

The Expanse (Leviathan Wakes) TV Series/Books - Reviewed

I've previously briefly reviewed the books, and while I really enjoyed the detective noir-meets-space opera style, quality writing, well thought out setting and characters, I was a tad unimpressed by the rather slow-burning style (like many books by Daniel Abraham, it often takes 500+ page before things "hot up").    However I've been re-reading the novels and think I may have been a bit harsh - it probably sits behind Leckie's Ancillary series as the best sci fi of this decade.  (Admittedly the "awesome sci fi books" is not a crowded field - compared to fantasy which may currently be in its "golden age").

If you're not a dedicated reader, SyFy's TV Expanse series is a more accessible entry into the series, though I'd rate it alongside the excellent Night Watch, as show where movie viewers do benefit from reading the books first.  It is faithful to its source material, to boot. (RANT: Marvel (of late) and Game of Thrones have shown the way, after a century of scriptwriters botching the conversions, that following the source material IS the best way.  It's mere intellectual arrogance. The screenwriters/directors want to show they can do a beloved, bestselling book better than the actual author...  ...and wonder why audiences don't embrace it to the same extent....)

 The Expanse stands heir to series like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. 
I was very pleasantly surprised at the quality of the production.
TV Show - So how is it?
The Expanse, for me, is the best sci fi series since the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (with 100% less self-indulgent navel gazing), and channels the much-lamented Firefly in a more serious way within a more epic, connected, overarching plot.  It is well acted (yes, SyFy?! what the heck?), and sensibly paced.  It might be a little dense and confusing to those who have not read the books.  Like the books, it has deliberate pacing and takes a while to "ramp up."   I'd give it until episodes 4-5 before you make a final judgement.  

The world building is excellent, consistent and well-realised, the special effects solid without being flashy, and the space combat was very cool - vector movement was prominent with ships being spun to use their main drives, with gravity on the crew having an major impact, as well as the time to reverse course. The sci fi is relatively hard, but well done.  Railguns, missiles and massdrivers were impressive in an understated way, and has inspired me to get painting more space miniatures.  The limited stealth (absorbing heat and energy but having to vent it after a while) was very interesting as a gamer, giving a submarine-esque feel to the few stealthships encountered.  Have to update my own space house rules. The ragtag crew eventually get their own ship - the Rocinante - basically a badass small gunship/PT boat style ship festooned with gatling guns - which makes the Firefly look the like the old merchant scow it is.  However it is a movie more about epic plot arcs, characters and a rich setting rather than flashy space combat - so if you are only wanting pew-pew maybe check out Youtube clips instead.  

Overall, a well-plotted, thoughtful series which has an understated quality I don't really associate with SyFy. Rapidly climbing to be my current favourite TV series, period.

Books - worth the effort?
Yes, well worth the effort, but as they are hefty tomes, recommended only for dedicated readers.  The author "James Corey" is the pen name of Daniel Abraham, a very talented fantasy writer known for his excellent prose and rather slow-burning style, in collaboration with GRR Martin's assistant Ty Franck.  

A thumbnail sketch: A Firefly-esque bunch of ex-miners lead by an idealistic captain and smart-mouthed crew discover a derelict ship - and a deadly secret.  A world-weary detective is tracking a missing girl. Galactic conflict ensues, and a terrible threat to humanity is revealed.

The Expanse book series features excellent writing, and a well-thought-out plot, setting and characters. Space opera meets noir detective thriller.  Characters have tough choices - and sometimes make wrong ones. A word of warning - It's 600 pages long, and the pace only picks up in the last 50 or so of the first book, Leviathan Wakes. Though it was well-written, I wasn't as invested in first book as I thought I would have been.  I feel this series only really kicks off with the sequel Caliban's War - and that's a huge time investment.  

Probably the best sci fi book series in recent memory, behind Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice series (which edges it on strength of shorter, more accessible books and a more unique core concept rather than writing style).

Watch the TV show. It is excellent, but give it a few episodes to warm up.  The books are likewise excellent but a significant time investment given the slow and careful pacing, but a must-have if you are a sci fi afficiando.

Game Design #64: Influences on Game Design & "Educational" Rules

"There is nothing new under the sun" - King Solomon

There is only so many ways you can move, shoot and melee, and a designer's background is often revealed in their design choices when they make their own games. Some influential rulesets:

The elephant in the room says hello.  Not only are there a zillion homebrew spin-offs (the "I want to make a better 40K" is one of the most common game designer "subtypes" and often the first step in a budding designer's career) but the professional writers seem unable to distance themselves from it: bi name titles like Bolt Action, Flames of War, and Empire of the Dead share a very similar core.

Pretty much every15mm sci fi ruleset (and every man and his dog are pumping them out nowdays) owes Mr Tuffey a debt of gratitude.  You aren't a proper indie writer if you haven't made a 15mm hard sci fi ruleset. And it isn't a proper hard sci fi ruleset if it doesn't have at least a hint of Stargrunt in its DNA. Examples: Tomorrow's War/Ambush Alley, plus pretty much every sci fi wargame on sites like the Wargames Vault.

The Savage Worlds multiple dice sizes (d4/6/8/12) to beat 4+ mechanic is quite trendy at the moment (though I would not claim they invented it...'s more about who "popularized" it).  Warmachine surprisingly has fewer imitators than I'd expect given it's been a popular ruleset for a while, though a few share its mechanic not many follow it as closely as Gruntz. Blood Bowl has spawned more than a few imitators in the fantasy sports realmFull Thrust (and I'd argue, Starfleet Battles) have strongly influenced the wet-navy-in-space hitboxyness of spaceship combat.  DBA's minimalist approach has impacted on many.  I'm not a huge mass-battle fan, but I suspect games like DBM have had an influence on game design in the historical sphere.  Two Fat Lardies's card based activation is also beginning to exert its influence. Necromunda/Mordheim pretty much defined the "skirmish campaign" genre.

I'd also like to differentiate between "current influence" and "original root cause."  I'd argue though you can go waaay back and point to 70s games like Laserburn, Chain Mail etc as being "grandaddies" and the "origin point" of many rulesets - (thus establishing either hipster cred or extreme old age) - they are not as influential as current rulesets they in turn may have inspired. Hmm, I might need to explain that better.  Featherstone's or Wells' wargaming treatises might have been "ground zero" but I'd argue they are not as influential as say, 40K 2nd edition or Stargrunt on current designers, today.  A bit like fantasy literature at the moment. I'd argue GRRM's Game of Thrones has more influence on the current crop of fantasy authors, than original "grandaddies" like Robert Howard, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin etc. 

 A well rounded education....
Many writers can never "break free" of a particular mindset.  The 40K Hobby seeming to exert the strongest grip.   Stargrunt is often cited as a trigger for "breaking out" of that mindset. 
So what rulesets are good "textbooks" on rule design?  What rules will "expand your mind" so to speak?

Well, I'll come back and add to this list, but here's some that pop into mind. I've focussed on free, current games, rather than tatty, tobacco-scented 70s rules you have to buy off eBay.  Bear in mind these are not necessarily my favourite rules, often they are actually rather poor games to play - but they are ones I believe can teach interesting lessons.


Stargrunt (free) is famous for liberating players from the 40K mindset, emphasizing suppression, morale, troop quality, long weapon ranges. Ambush Alley/Tomorrow's War updates the concepts.

Weirdly enough, I'm going to recommend Lord of the Rings:SBG (yes, a 40K spin-off!) as a good example of clean game design, resource management, and how to "evolve" a ruleset.  For those wanting a better 40K, well, Games Workshop already did it.  Starship Troopers/Battlefield Evolution is also a similar "40K evolution".  A Fistful of Tows has a similar 40K vibe but speeds up modern mass combat with some clever ideas.

Infinity the Game (free) is also a must-read. It's use of unlimited reactions, and resource management in activation is a real eye opener. It also creates lots of agonizing decisions.

Savage Worlds ($10) may technically be a RPG, but it shows how to make great special rules, and is a good example of how to make a "one size fits all" ruleset.

DBA (and it's spin-off Hordes of the Things) was revolutionary for its time, and is interesting today in the way it abstracts mass battle combat.

Too Fat Lardies have a very distinct style - their use of blinds, card activation and an insistence on "friction" is well worthwhile for any historical gamer.  Pick your preferred genre, though the latest - Chain of Command is the most polished to date and its pre-battle minigame is unique - worth the price of admission alone, and Bag the Hun is particularly different to most other aerial wargames.

Anything by Brent Spivey (Bombshell Games) as his rules always explore the edges of the box.  Pick a genre that interests you.  The HAVOC rulebook is a bit inaccessible and I'd perhaps recommend Rogue Planet as the most interesting and unusual.

Makatishi also makes interesting choices in what he abstracts (JuJu Man) as well as the dice pool of CROM.  Speaking of dice pools, I found Bushido (free) an interesting read.   Hind Commander has both an interesting, niche topic (gunship combat) and has some worthwhile mechanics that can be  easily adapted.

Shipwreck! shows not all naval games need to be about frightening amounts of book-keeping, and Battlefleet Gothic (free) (yes, GW again!) blast markers and order system shows space combat can do new things. DP9's unconventional Silhouette system is best showcased in Lightning Strike which is the most interesting space game I own and allows individual fighter aces to fly alongside capital ships.   Whilst very flawed, 2300AD Star Cruiser has a fascinating design concept revolving around detection.

Battlestations! (WW2 naval) is a great example of how to stick to a game design concept and is a rare thing - a genuine fleet-level game alongside Starmada: Fleet OpsGeneral Quarters (1 & 2, and to a lesser degree 3) also give great lessons in how to make a naval wargame.   It's a set of rules I often browse through even when making homebrew rules for (apparently) unrelated topics.  Highly recommend.  Coaling Stations order mechanic is one I've borrowed for my one games, and Triplanetary shows the original and best vector movement system, ever.  Voidstriker is also a very interesting and original space rules set. 

Song of Blades and Heroes is the flagship for the "simple stats and lots of special rules" trend and has sandbox-y fun in its unit design.  However they are a cautionary tale for re-using mechanics. Also guilty of copying themselves too often is the 2HW (Two Hour Wargame) stable, but their "AI" which allows solo play is well worth a look. (free, in Chain Reaction).  When it comes to resource management, Lords and Servants updates medieval skirmish and the "battle boards" of SAGA are a very interesting concept. 

Malifaux uses cards not dice in an interesting resource management mechanic, as well as possessing excellent scenario design ideas.  Dropzone Commander is pretty vanilla but is unique in how well it makes combined arms and scenario design work in concert.

I'll add to this post as I think of more, but it's late so I'm going to wrap up.   Remember, these are not always the "best" rules but they do have interesting design concepts or mechanics. 

Game designers can get "caught in a rut" or locked into a mindset of their own preconceptions and prior experiences.  It's important to look around, and smell the roses. More specifically, other people's roses, so you can experience new ways of looking at the age-old wargaming mechanics and tropes.

I've listed rules which can "expand your horizons" and the reasons they stand out.   All your games seem the same?  Re-writing a "better" 40K?   Why not look around and see how others have approached the problem.  Sometimes, evolution is good. Other times, revolution is preferable.
Looking from a new perspective is a great way to get "out of the box."