Sunday, 25 July 2021

Random Mechs (Diary of an Average Painter)

With kids, now I fit my painting to the time I have spare. So with an hour or two before a family visit, I decided to dig out all my unpainted 15mm, 6mm or clix mechs and see what I could get ready for the tabletop. 

My son wanted to help but I easily decoyed him with some OOP DUST/AT43 mechs (which are skyscraper size compared to our ~15mm tall mechs we painted last week; so he was super impressed). Leaving him happily pew-pewing on "his" man-cave table (he uses it for LEGO plus any minis he politely borrows off my table) I was free to dig through my mini boxes in search of all things mech-y.

The 3 huge AT43 mechs in the background weren't part of the project; they merely served to distract my son from his efforts to assist me....
 

I'm going to paint a series of mech "units" in generic military colours (grey, olive, khaki, silver) to allow them to be swapped back and forth between random armies - no "Space Marine" all-red, all-blue, all-yellow paint schemes. I'll use easily-overpainted shoulder tags to delineate forces - which means if I change my mind I can easily swap mechs between armies, changing their allegiance with a dab of paint.

The copper GZG not-VOTOM my daughter painted is a "battlesuit" in our game; so it gives you a sense of scale. An AT-43 28mm is more of a regular mech, and the Battletech clix with claws is a heavy unit. 

The strider is from a small 15m manufacturer which I cannot recall (I think it was one of those "guy-selling-from-his-blog" stores limited range of minis - from 10 years ago.)

The Battletech mini is a rebased clix. I have quite a few unique random clix, who are going to serve as the "centrepiece" model of a range of small mech forces.

My aim is to make a similar size unit of 5-10 mechs next weekend. I'm using clix, 6mm, 10mm, and 15mm mechs - as well as some 28mm mechs to be "titan class." Inspired by Gamma Wolves, I've decided to get as many of my random mechs table ready as I can.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Cruel Seas (Rules Review)

I've had these for a while, bought during a major Warlord (Chrismas?) sale. I love reading about WW2 MTB combat; indeed my space and sub rules always have a MTB "flavour" - slow-and-sneaky which can change to loud-fast-pew pew. I'm not super motivated to finish painting my minis or play more - the rules are straightforward but merely "meh."  But their worst crime (beside some weird omissions) is that they don't actually emulate MTB combat very well.

The Shiny

It's a 107-page softcover of which the basic rules only take up 12 pages, with about 50 extra advanced rules. There are plenty of diagrams and models of ships - it's a nice book, and actually a pretty easy read, laid out logically with key info at the front and background fluff at the back, along with quick reference rules (why don't rules designers do this any more?). It's well laid out.

Overhead (what you need to play)

A starter set (with 10 lovely 1:300 boats, card terrain etc) is about $100AUD. For activation you need a d6 every unit. D10 are also used for firing. There are wake markers and ship data sheets that come with official Warlord models, but the rules have ship stats so you could make your own, which is nice. A ruler with turn markers was included. I supplemented my starter box with some extra boxes at $40AUD each. If two players split this, it would be quite affordable. A blue sheet makes a good ocean and islands (painted rubber islands cut from black flooring) were easy. It's actually pretty easy to set up. There's quite a lot of hitpoints to track and weapons to fire for each boat - it's a bit clunky but not complicated at all. This is a pretty accessible rules set and I felt it was reasonable affordable for what you got.

Activation

It uses the self-proclaimed "innovative and award winning" activation from Bolt Action. Which is just pulling dice out of a bag. When it's your colour dice, you activate a boat and do all your moving and shooting.  Basically bigger fleets have more opportunities to co-ordinate regardless of crew skill (i.e. kinda the opposite you would expect). See my post on unfair activation for more on this. It's not bad, but it's certainly not innovative nor particularly good.

Movement

Boats move at a cm per knot, and can choose fractions (i.e. slow, full, combat) of the top speed. They can change speed by one level each time they activate. Wake markers are placed behind ships and denote speed in a simple way. The ability to pivot turn stationary is a bit weird especially as it seems to apply to bigger ships; also from my reading it seems a slow 15kt freighter at full speed would turn sharper than a 30kt MTB at half speed.

Firing

I was startled there was no proper stealth/detection mechanics. As MTB combat revolved around this, it's a pretty startling omission.  Accounts of MTB battles revolved around stealth, detection, and surprise. While there are rules for spotlights and starshells, they are more a "to hit" bonus that detection.

This is a huge issue if you are seeking a realistic feel - things like weapon ranges are almost irrelevant at most WW2 night combat ranges, where sneaking in slowly on silenced engines was the main attack method. Often MTBs did diversions - with one boat firing and throwing up a visible wake with roaring engines while the others quietly moved to attack. Fights were chaotic and often in small-arms (and grenade!) range; with accidental ramming common. Enemies could be decoyed with smoke floats (flares) and friendly fire was common.

I'd suggest something like Dropfleet Commander; each ship has a "detection radius" beyond which it cannot be fired upon. I.e. a MTB might only be able to be fired on from 20cm away when running silent. This then expands by +15cm if the MTB goes over 15kts, and another +15cm if it fires its guns. No dice rolls needed. So the more noisy a ship is, the further away it can be spotted and engaged.

Anyway, in Cruel Seas, ships can fire at any 1/3rd of their turn, and many have quite a few weapons each with their own dice and arcs of fire.  Weapons fire 40-70cm set against the average 30-40cm move, and a 5 or less is needed on d10 (modified for crew, speed, target size etc).  Personally, I'd have amalgamated all rapid fire weapons (HMG, cannon) into a "firepower" stat and done a single roll; as most MTBs have 4 or so weapon mounts. Torpedoes are physical markers that travel 40cm/turn in a line across the board (like Battlefleet Gothic) and roll to hit (based on size) if they intercept any part of any vessel.   I couldn't find rules for reloading torpedoes despite the fact S-boots could.

Damage is done by d6s - a 20mm might have 3D6 and a 6-pdr 5D6. The total score is the hitpoints done, which is recorded on a slider on the target's data chart. I'm not a fan of hitpoints, but they are pretty standard in naval games so I was expecting them. They are pretty excessive though - 45(!) for a normal S-Boot.  I still reckon they could even have streamlined it into "status" levels like "temporarily shocked/light damage/heavy damage/crippled/sunk." Critical damage (to engines, bridge, rudder, guns etc) can occur when '6's are thrown.  But it seems like a destroyer could have its guns knocked out by MGs.

Scenarios and Other Stuff

There are 12 scenarios in the base and advanced rules. The "advanced rules" for experienced crew, multibarrel weapons, crits and repairs  should probably be the base rules. I'm not sure how much effect shell splashes had in real life - I can't recall it being mentioned much in books I've read - the boats would probably outpace them and they would probably obscure a target, not make it easier to hit.

Separating extra rules for crossing wakes, collision and ramming, radar, depth charges, mines and smokescreens is fair as they would not happen often or for specific scenarios. There are also rules for weather, terrain like shoals, sandbanks etc. Exotic weapons like Linse boats, mortars, rockets and zigzag torpedoes are also included. 

Aircraft played a large role in WW2 coastal warfare (restricting small craft to mostly night ops) and while fast and powerful, are restricted to a single attack run unless veteran pilots. There is even chance they will misidentify and attack their own ships! (I couldn't find strafing rules? only bombs and torpedoes - which is weird if it is an omission)

Some minimalist submarines are also included (including minisubs) but are mostly used for specific missions or scenarios. 

Historical Stuff

There's a short history of MTBs (in each of the theatres of war) and a section on the ships and models of each of the key navies. The authors enthusiasm for their topic shines through but by putting this towards the back of the book (unlike many authors who lead with "background" in their rules) it does not get in the way of easily looking up rules - something all rules writers should take note of. I'd suggest there are too many big ships (destroyers, frigates etc) listed at the expense of lacking enough actual MTBs/MGBs; nor was there enough weapon loadouts which varied widely from boat to boat, and year to year.

Ship Rosters & Campaigns

If you don't use the Warlord minis (and their ship cards) you can make your own using the ship rosters at the back of the book, which is nice. You can also add special abilities in a campaign but this is extremely cursory (just a single ability chart and a weather chart) which I found very disappointing.

 

TL:DR

A pretty easy system to get into and a nicely laid out set of rules with cool fluff, it has pretty simple (but not innovative!) activation and movement, using familiar d6/d10 mechanics.  Although it is easy to read (and would probably be a OK intro if you are new to the era/genre), there are a lot of vague grey areas or omissions. For a professional set of rules, it seemed like it needed more testing/checking. The style is there but substance is lacking.

I feel the combat resolution (while simple) is the weakest area; it is a bit clunky where you might be firing several weapon mounts, and the excessive hitpoints could be streamlined. The historical fluff is done well and it's nice to see a quick reference chart included for once. The campaign system is almost nonexistent and a missed opportunity.

However, despite the authors obvious love of the topic, I don't think the rules are very "historical" (well, at least from my readings of books like The Narrow Seas). There are some odd choices/flaws and omissions even on casual perusal and the lack of proper detection rules is a huge mis-step in a genre that should focus on it.

Recommended? Meh. I won't be playing them - while I like the models, I'll use either "Schnell Rules for Schnellboote" or my own house rules. It's OK as a game I guess - Cruel Seas is fine for pushing model boats around and pew pewing, but fails to give me the feel of WW2 coastal combat I seek.

NOTE: Holidays are over, so blogging will probably be sporadic henceforth (though hopefully without year-long gaps!)

Monday, 19 July 2021

Gamma Wolves (Rules Review)

This was another nice hardback which was discovered hurled into a corner of my yard by my postie. Like Reality's Edge, it survived two days in the rain with only cardboard protecting it, so I can recommend the books' production standards. Gamma Wolves seems almost exactly like what I am looking for - teams of 3-5 mechs ("frames") based out of a mothership (crawler), who gain experience and level up in a campaign. Heck, I've already been experimenting with pretty much an identical concept myself in 6mm for a few years now.

The focus is on the pilots and the mechs (there are no other vehicles besides the crawlers) and the aim of the author was to get some use out of his mech collection. It's a futuristic, irradiated post-apocalypse - STALKER with mechs. Arcologies (hive cities) and neutral free stations (like pirate havens) are where the survivors eke out an existence. The mecha "warbands" based out of a large crawler (landship?) explore and scavenge for salvage on months-long missions. Apparently mecha are preferred due to their 1-man crew, agility to enter inaccesible locations and also rapidly swap loadouts in the field (i.e the designer really wanted just to play with only his cool mecha toys!)

The Shiny

It's a sturdy hardback, well-adorned with nice mech photos. A nitpick - the post-apoc mecha sound worn and patched together and the photos show clean, high-tech gundams. They don't match the gritty fallen world the text describes (I envision more DUST style mechs).  While I enjoyed the atmosphere it was a bit of a slog to find stuff - I think the book needs to be rearranged. Although 106 pages is pretty standard, it felt dense to read even though the rules themselves were not overly complex.  I didn't find it user friendly and found myself constantly flipping back and forwards looking for rules. Quality good - layout poor.

Overhead

Many of us have mecha from other wargames aka "frames" lying around (well, I do!) and Gamma Wolves allows you to use anything you have - going off base size - small, medium and large. I'm classing my 25mm based mecha as small, my 40mms as medium and my 50mms as large.  You need a 4x4 table, a dozen d6 and Frame Cards and Pilot Cards for each model (as well as a "Contact blip" the size of the model's base).  You also need tokens for Pilot Stress and Reactor stress for each model. Given you'll only field 5-6 mecha max, this seems fair. Although I still strongly think hitpoints are unecessary. I suspect lots of terrain is needed (frames have unlimited weapon range) - but you could use anything from 6mm, 10mm, 15mm to 28mm terrain depending on your mechs.

A pilot has Endurance, Manuever, Gunnery and Technical stats as well as a Pilot Value. In addition, he may have special rules - quirks and traits.  A frame has Speed and Reactor stats as well as hardpoints, weight tolerance, and hitpoints in various areas (sensors, hardpoint, body, propulsion) which are a bit like a Warjack. The frame's size determines its agility (evasion) speed and loadout; obviously you have slow, powerful tank-like heavy mechs, medium mechs and lighter, faster ones which are almost power armour.  There's a fair bit of stuff to cover, but given you are only tracking 3-6 mechs, it's not too unreasonable.

Activation

It's alternate activation, but not unfair activation. The side with the least models (or the least visible models) gets the initiative, and gets "passes" to make up for the deficit in models.  In practice, the outnumbered side chooses when to pass and let the player with more units take successive turns. Models can snap fire (aka reaction fire) to active but accumulate Pilot Stress, which limits the reactions. In fact most actions (or reactions) accumulate either Pilot Stress or Reactor Stress on the mech itself (a bit like Battletech heat management). If machine or pilot reaches their limit, the frame shuts down.

Movement

Facing arcs is very important (good - it adds positioning decisions); while there are front/side/rear arcs, the front/rear 180 determines lock-on/vision.  If a frame is deployed out of LoS, you instead move a "contact" - a marker the size of its base. The miniature replaces the contact once it is revealed. Frames have a sense of momentum - while they can sidestep and reverse, they move much faster directly forwards, making 45d turns.

Combat

Weapons have effective/unlimited range. Frames roll 3D6 - adding or removing dice for modifiers (range, rear arc attacks etc) and weapons - i.e. an autocannon might add +3D6 but a laser only +1D6. Count the rolls that pass the pilot Gunnery stat (3+ veterans, 4+ regulars, etc) as successes.  If the target chooses to evade, target pilots may roll to "save" each success against their Maneuever stat to cancel the hits. 

Then, roll for the hit location. (Pilots may "correct" their aim to target specific body parts by sacrificing successes.)  Now, x the successes by the weapon Damage stat. I.e. the autocannon has .5 damage and the laser has 4 - you can see the autocannon is easier to spray hits onto the target, but does less damage when it hits. Sensors, hardpoints and propulsion can be damaged with the mech body containing the pilot (who can be injured) being the key component.

After evading (or suffering) hits, a frame can immediately move up to half speed. This is kind of a defensive reaction. This is also interesting. 

While I dislike hitpoints on anything smaller than a naval destroyer, Gamma Wolves is more restrained than Battletech; its akin to tracking 3-6 Warjacks from Warmachine

Cool Down & War Clock

Actions can accumulate Pilot Stress tokens and Reactor Stress (on the frame). In the cool down period, pilots roll (in a similar manner to shooting) to equal their skill - each success means a Reactor Stress is removed. However, the removed Stress is deducted from the whole team's War Clock.  After this, the pilot removes all Pilot Stress tokens.

Frames operating from the crawler have limited fuel, oxygen and ammo reserves. The War Clock represents the increased consumption/stress under combat conditions. Each time a Reactor Stress token is removed, it reduces the War Clock - which, when it reaches zero, means the frames all have to withdraw. This is also interesting as it adds an element of resource management - the more things you do, the faster you need to evac.  Collecting salvage, not kill-em-all, is the primary victory conditions so I'd be interested how this plays out. 

Missions & Campaigns

There are 6 missions, which is a little on the low side. Despite having open terrain missions, my experience suggests that with unlimited range weapons, more terrain is always better. There is a injury table for pilots, a table for experience gain, and a list of gunnery, manuever and technical talents o upgrade your pilots.  For each salvage token collected, you can roll on a table to see what it was - perhaps a cool piece of equipment or rare, lucrative Old-Tech.  There are rules for repairing/refitting frames and recruiting new pilots.  The campaign mechanics are competent (not as cursory as most campaign systems) but are not deeply fleshed out.

TL:DR

I loved the setting, even though the rulebook wasn't optimally laid out. While I'm never a fan of hitpoints, they're traditional in mech games I suppose. With unlimited weapon range, plenty of terrain is needed, if you want maneuver to matter. The activation is an interesting tweak to the now-uniform alternate move (with limited reactions), and the dice mechanics are consistent and clean. The Pilot Stress kinda act as action points (better pilots have better Endurance to stress) and limits reaction fire etc. The Frame Stress (and War Clock) are an interesting resource management mechanic - the more your frames do, the quicker you use up your on-table endurance before you need to withdraw.  The focus on collecting scrap > combat is interesting but I suspect it will devolve to "kill em all" in practice. There are plenty of decision points. It's a little heavier set of rules than I am personally looking for but this is personal preference, rather than flawed design.


Recommended: Yes. Even if it does not get much play, the core rules are solid and I found enough interesting ideas to make this rulebook worthwhile. It's a good way to get use out of those handful of mecha you have lying around (or wanted an excuse to buy!)

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Reality's Edge (Rules Review)

I'll be upfront - this is a pass for me and a game I probably won't play. Accordingly it isn't play-tested like usual. It has just clashed with my preferences and priorities. But others may find it worthwhile - so on to the review.  Realty's Edge is a cyberpunk skirmish game. You are a Shadowrunner Showrunner - a cybernetic gang leader with a remote backer/patron in your head.  I bought the rules hoping to use them as a tool-box for a range of hard sci fi and near-future campaigns - filling a Necromunda niche. But it missed the mark for me.

The Shiny

It's a big, glossy hardback that survived two days of rain despite being flung into a remote corner of my garden in only a cardboard shell. Curse you, Australia Post! The book weighs in at 318 pages and has a decent amount of illustrations and art. It's well spaced so the text is easy to read. 16 pages are what I'd call 'normal' rules (melee, movement, shooting etc) and 23 cover "cyberwar" and hacking. The remaining 279 pages are devoted to building crews, scenarios, campaign rules and includes 93+ pages of "special rules"(aka extra rules) for both equipment and characters. It "set the scene" well with the art and descriptions. 

It's a solid, well-produced rulebook that survived the best our posties could throw at it...

Overhead (aka player commitment required in time/effort/money)

While I was hoping for a complex campaign, I simply wasn't up for 90+ pages of special rules nor was I confident they had been balanced/playtested. (Skimming through, I reckon I could easily condense/amalgamate them to half the amount). There was too much to learn, and the gameplay is OK but unexceptional - it doesn't tempt me by being innovative and cool like Infinity. I wasn't up for recording hitpoints (both physical and 'virtual').  I have minis for it, and I am OK with terrain, though I am dubious about fielding the "crowds" of NPCs and "neutrals" they airily discuss. I mean, I signed up for a skirmish game with say 6-12 minis, not crowds of hard-to-source civilians.  You only need d10s and d6s and a 3x3 table, and some tokens to show status, which is fair. The "stats" were reasonable - move, melee, aim (shooting), strength, mettle (troop quality), defence, hitpoints, firewall (defence vs cyber attacks).  

Wait wait, back up. Hitpoints? *chk-chk - BOOM!* <- that's the sound of Reality's Edge being shot and rolled into a ditch. If I haven't done a game design post explaining why hitpoints are a stupid idea for humans (it's different if it is showing flotation/structural degradation on a huge battleship) then one will be pending soon. (EDIT: Yep, I already have - my opinion hasn't changed from 2014). This is not just an extra wound, 40K-style, but the example had 8HP. To rub salt in, there is also "digital hitpoints" to track vs cyber attacks. Two types of hitpoints and 79 pages of extra rules? My fur is well and truly rubbed the wrong way.

Activation

Models get 1 action but must roll vs their mettle to get another; if they pass they get 2 actions and can choose another model; but if they fail they only get the one and initiative passes to the other team. This is similar to what I've done in house rules, but I prefer the player to be able to choose not to roll and "play it safe" and retain the initiative - which gives a "decision point" in return for all the dice rolling. As it stands Reality's Edge is just alternative activation with the potential for random extra moves/chaining moves together, in return for a lot more dice rolls. Models can use 2 actions to go on overwatch to "save" a single action for later.

Movement

They move normally if they spend one action, but a second one adds 1d6 movement rather like 40K sprinting. Models can hide, spot, prone, jump and fall as you'd expect in an urban skirmish game. I was not impressed to see things like "for jumps wider than 1" both players must agree how far the mini can jump" -  this seems vague and lazy, given they have a specific class (tracer) who is basically a parkour/freerunner expert. 

Combat

Models see 360 (I think this also a bit of a no-no this gives up many tactical opportunities for positioning  and "decision points." I mean, a 5-man unit might see 360 as you could presume one guy might be looking back and warn his mates, but a limited vision arc makes sense on a tactical gaming and commonsense level).  Models roll d10 + modifiers to beat a target number of 10. Sensible and common - no complaints. However, models don't find out the result of their attacks until the opponent next gets the initiative. I like the intent - minis can't know the results so need to decide whether to move on to a new target or pump more shots into them to make them stay down. A cool and unique decision point, but I'm not completely convinced it adds enough to be worth the hassle.

Yay - hitpoints! So when an attack hits, there is an opposed test between weapon strength and target defence. If the attacker rolls higher, it does hitpoint damage = to the weapon strength/2. I also think this is a lost opportunity; if we have to use hitpoints, why not base the damage on the "difference" between the attack/defence totals? Just seems convoluted.

Grazed! If a model is hit but the target does not take damage (huh? if there's no damage, why are we bothering with this step?) the target must pass a Will test or go prone/seek cover. I presume this is supposed to be like suppression but there are better ways to do this. Firing models can even "choose" to suppress, getting a +3 to hit but only being able to 'graze' their opponents and not actually wound them. Again, it seems silly, unless they are magically switching to non-lethal 'extra-suppression' bullets.

Models with 0HP are out of action. With apparently no "wounded" stage/s in between i.e. a 8HP model on 1HP can function perfectly fine. All that HP recording for no actual effect. Sigh.

In melee, models make d10+stat opposed rolls (fine). If the defender wins he can push back the attacker. If the attacker wins he can damage the defender by the same convoluted method as shooting. 

Models test their mettle when wounded in melee, when warbands drop to 50%, leaders go down, etc - all the usual things.  Basically, combat is fine except when needlessly complicated by hitpoints and somewhat weird suppression rules.

Cyber Warfare

It's basically magic, with "apps" instead of "spells" which are resisted by firewalls (passive cyber defence stat). They also have digital hitpoints. Lots of things can be hacked - bots, drones, weapons, equipment - even cybernetic body parts! Not only are there combat hackers on table, but also virtual beings(avatars/sprites). 

Hackers roll an opposed d10+Cyber vs target's d10+Firewall (line of sight not required). They can access data, disable, debuff, control and even brick electronics. This can generate trace tokens that allow enemy hackers to get a bonus against them. Targets can take both digital and physical feedback damage. Cyber-implant mins can take "cyber shock" when their implants are jarred by 4HP+ hits. This section is quite interesting and provides some food for thought.

Necromunda/RPG-y Stuff (the other 279 pages)

There are rules for NPCs, bystanders, hostages and interactions with them. There are character creation rules that look quite solid and flavourful. There are RPG-style "backgrounds" with stat/skill tables. Hackers, cyborgs, drone jockeys, enforcers, infiltrators, docs, ronin, tracers  and humble gangers. 

There is a list of purchasable gear - both off-the-shelf and "high end" which are hard to come by. Here is where it bogs down. While there is a predictable assortment of current/near future weapons, guns have 28 special rules and melee weapons have 8 - and 19 upgrades. There are rules for internal and external armour, cybernetic body parts, and 20 other cyber enhancements - and 18 upgrades. There are 22 offensive and defensive apps (spells).  There is character skills and traits - 70 or so of them which equals many RPGs. It's thorough, but bloated. I'm confident I could halve the "extra rules" with a bit of effort, and equally confident that the sheer mass of special rules would not have been playtested thoroughly (and probably sometimes not at all).

There are 9 missions (jobops) which have variables (which make missions easier or harder) as well as a mission where opposing crews team up to fight corporate security. There are also 30 "hitches" or complications.  A solid amount of content and variety here.

Crews compete for REPutation (VP) as well as money. Crews are driven by the agenda of their shadowy backer (media, corporate, rogue AI etc) and you can hire freelancers (who later can become permanent) and there is the usual resolution of injuries, income, captures, experience and new hires. For once (among the Necromunda wannabes) this is actually done fairly well. 

However, I'd actually be fine with MORE detail in this campaign section, if we got rid of the majority of special rules. I don't mind a complex campaign, or a before/after game setup - it's what I signed up for! I do resent complexity during the game - when trying to play the game itself. 


TL:DR - It's a "nope" from me
If this was sold to me as a RPG I would have had less complaints. Hitpoints, strange design choices and a billion special rules are the norm in RPGs, after all.  The layout reminds me of a RPG - heck, at the end, there is a list of "neutral parties" from criminals, rabid dogs, couriers and junkies - in the same spot as in my roleplaying rulesets. 

It's a very dense book, but in the wrong places (for me). I feel like I sat through a 3hr movie, but an hour was ads, with another hour of geeky exposition on how the flux capacitor worked, and the remaining hour was a typical revenge plot, dotted by a few strange plot holes. The combat mechanics are pretty normal and unspectacular with a few weird choices (hitpoints, mystery hit resolution, suppression, activation) that slow things without offering much in exchange. Infinity-level commitment without the gameplay hook. While the cyber-war ideas are cool and interesting and the missions good; the equipment, skills, traits, weapons and upgrades were excessive; yet I feel the campaign could have been more detailed.

It's not an awful game by any means. If you are a fan of cyberpunk RPGs (I hesitate to say RPG-lite, as this ain't light) you may like this - though it lacks genuine RPG agency and interactions. I'm just not willing to commit the effort, for what it offers. Wish I'd spent the $50 on the PC game Ascent instead.

Remember kids - when you design games - don't use hitpoints.Unless it's for really bloody big spaceships. Then, it might be OK.

Game Design #81: "Overhead" or "The Cost of Entry" (Lessons from Videogames)

 This may go over some ground I have before with regards to accessibility of games; or excessive special rules, but this was inspired by attempting to play the PC game X4: Foundations.

Th X4 series has you flying a spacefighter around as pirate/bounty hunter/trader/miner/smuggler (nothing new here) but then expands to allow you to build your own ships, and space stations. And set up automated trading routes. And manipulate the galactic stock market. And create your own faction. And lead vast space fleets of battleships. And conquer the galaxy. Wow. The scope is incredible. But so is the "learning curve wall." 

I had to watch Youtube to finish the tutorial. I counted 120+ keybinds. I really want to play this game, but they make it so inaccessible...    I call this "overhead" or "cost of entry" and it applies several ways. As a game designer it is a pertinent question - what will stop people playing your game?

#1. Financial Cost ($$$)

We all know miniatures are like plastic crack. Since I have been using IsThereAnyDeal for finding PC game bargains (I can get a legitimate AAA title for $10 or less) miniatures seem insanely overpriced. I found some Dropzone mechs at 50% off and was excited until I realised I was still paying $8 for basically a 28mm mini...  

Overpriced PDFs - Why?

Now is a good time to insert a rant about the pricing of pdf rules on Wargamesvault and elsewhere. What the heck is it with $20+ pdfs? It's a f--ing copy of a pdf! It costs nothing to reproduce! It's not a physical book they need to publish. Are indie devs expecting to get rich and retire?  This is a niche hobby, people. It's even crazier when you see - "hardback copy $30, pdf $20"

It's worse when you consider 90% of pdf rules are: (a) un-playtested, poorly laid out house rules or (b) the same poorly-tested house rules, with repackaged with new special rules for a different setting (which the mechanics are probably wildly unsuited for). Bonus points if the game is a reskinned Stargrunt/Full Thrust/40K/Savage Worlds.

I bet if I got $1 for every time a Wargamesvault ruleset was actually edited and playtested, I still wouldn't even be able to afford a $5 ruleset. 

Brb, I'm off to upload Delta Vector, Vectorheim, Vectfinity, Jet Vector, and Vectormunda. 

Custom Dice & Decks

I'd also like to vent about custom dice. These custom shit cubes mean I need to pay an extra $20+ to play, and if I lose dice, that's another extra $20 and a 2-week wait rather than 50c from the corner store. Worse, if the game becomes OOP, the game becomes truly "dead" to me. If you can't do it with normal dice, then you're a poor designer. Whilst I am partial to d10s, requiring a huge range of polyhederals (d4, d8, d10, d12, d20) can also put some folk off - though this is not such a big deal, as may regular shops now sell D&D paraphernalia. While this is usually reserved for commercial companies; I'd also like to shout-out unit cards - you know, like those obsolete-every-year Warmachine ones that set you back $15 each time?

/rant

TL:DR - how much is the financial outlay for your game? If you need $150 of special minis and $50 of rules - that's a fair outlay. Or a table full of special 10mm scale terrain. And God forbid you need custom dice. Yes, Gaslands, I'm still resentful.

#2. Setup Cost (Time)

What is the time/effort cost to play your game? If a game is very demanding on terrain, or requires lots of miniatures, it might be asking for a weekend of painting and a weekend of terrain building minimum before a dice even gets rolled. For time-poor dads, that is a huge commitment. I can't remember the last time I got free consecutive weekends. By the time I can play the game, I've probably lost enthusiasm...

When games casually say "you need lots of line-of-sight blocking terrain" but the setting is for a sunny anime suburban utopia - the designer has just put a major barrier in the way of Joe Average with his 40K pieces, assorted WW2 terrain and HO railway forests.  Sure I could probably play with spraypainted tissue boxes, but the game had better be pretty amazing (and the author just wasted all his "fluff" because it doesn't match my reality.)

I remember spending ages as a kid photocopying Star Fleet Battles and Battletech pdfs (which has scarred me for life with regards to hitpoints and recording).

Wargames compare very badly to boardgames and videogames in terms of setup; I can set up Risk in 10min and load Dawn of War II in seconds. When free time is precious, it your setting and game so amazing players will spend days rather than minutes for a payoff? Personally, this is the biggest killer for me with regards to new wargames.

TL:DR - What is the time requirement - to paint minis, set up unique terrain, create unit cards etc? Are we talking minutes, hours or days?

#3. Mental Cost (Learning Curve)

PC games use very established, familiar controls (mechanics). WASD to move, mouse to look, mouse buttons to shoot/zoom, R to reload, Space to jump. That's a control scheme shared by 99% of shooters. I can pick up most games and play instantly. I don't have to learn - I just enjoy the new setting/tactics/gameplay.  Wargames designers seem to delight in their creativity in making players learn new ways to do the same thing (sounds like upper management in my job.) Don't be that person.

Simple Resolution Mechanics (Keep the Dice Simple, Stupid)

There's a reason most popular commercial wargames are 40K clones. Even most indie games are clones of other, popular indie games. Or copies of their own ruleset.  It's understandable. McDonald's isn't popular for it's amazing burgers - it's because it is predictable. Sequels are where the money is in movies. The audience knows what it likes, and it wants more of the same. Even if the audience are idiots (the complaint of critics everywhere.)

The mechanics of  wargame - shooting, hand-2-hand, movement, morale - should be simple, familiar, fast, and consistent. The calculations happen 'under the hood' in a PC game and a wargame should attempt to emulate this. When playing, I should be thinking about the mechanics as little as possible. If you have some 'cool, innovative' card resolution mechanic - does the whole game depend on it? Can it be done in a more simple, boring, familiar (easy) way?

Once you understand the dice are merely a random generator for the real big-picture concerns like overall "lethality", move-shoot ratios, you'll realize switching dice types, mechanics and methods should be no biggie. Dice mechanics need to be easy rather than innovative.

Minimum Special Rules "Extra rules"

Special rules are exceptions to rules. An exception is something new, you have to learn - that contradicts commonly-held knowledge. Special rules are actually extra rules that add to the learning curve.

I've explored this topic before - but here's an example - Infinity - with it's 3 special rules for stealth; 6 special rules for advanced deployment (deepstriking) has lots of rules that are variations of the same thing. It has hundreds of special rules, some of which interact with other special rules.  A lot you need to learn. Infinity is a good game, but lumps a huge rules burden on the player. The X4 of wargames, perhaps. In contrast, Savage Worlds uses a single special rule - say "blast attack" - and lumps several rules under the one heading. I.e. "ice blast"  "fire blast" and "energy blast" are actually just lumped together and share a similar rule as they have a similar effect. It attempts to lessen the player's burden by having them know less rules. Having few, shared special rules means no surprises or rules-lawyering - the player with the ice wizard knows and shares the common blast rule the fire wizard player uses.

Complexity isn't Depth

In a game, depth is the amount and layers and importance of player decisions/actions ("decision points"). Depth does not mean complex rules to memorize. Complex rules do increase the barrier to entry (and potential audience) but do not automatically assure deep meaningful gameplay

Chess has a lot of depth, but its rules are relatively simple (low skill floor) and there is a high skill ceiling. A good player has many opportunities to outplay weaker players within a simple set of game mechanics.  Rocket League (the PC game) is basically remote control cars playing 3v3 soccer. The controls are basic, but skill ceiling again, is phenomenal. 

That said, there are games like Warmachine that glory in their special rules and the memorization thereof - so I guess it depends on your focus.

TL:DR How many unique mechanisms or special rules do players need to learn? How complex is the mechanisms? Or is it simple and familiar?

#4. SUMMARY: "Overhead" is the financial, mental and time cost of entry to play

I intend to use this term "overhead" in my rules reviews as it is something other reviewers often gloss over. You have to kinda figure it out for yourself, but before I buy, I'd like to explicitly know:

- roughly how much will it cost (minis, rules, custom dice/decks, accessories)

- any special terrain/setup/dice/unit cards/printouts

- any unfamiliar or complex mechanics or rules that take time to learn/execute

Compared to boardgames or videogames, the overhead for wargaming is astonishingly high. What should game designers be doing to reduce this burdeon on players?

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Game Design #80: Heroic Heroes and Leaders who Lead (Lessons from Videogames)

While I still enjoy reading and experimenting with rules, due to kids my videogaming time vastly outweighs my tabletop gaming time.  However, game design principals apply to both, and I often find myself comparing or applying videogame lessons into wargames or admiring videogame design choices.

More Decisions, Simpler Mechanics

One I noticed recently was the PC RTS "Steel Division 2" - a semi-realistic strategy game. Company of Heroes 2 largely moved away from the base-building aspects of RTS (which you may or may not agree with); you pretty much just clicked "upgrade" on your main building to move to the next "tech level" to get more advanced sexy units like upgrading your Panzer IV to a Tiger or whatever - the focus was on positioning your troops tactically.  Steel Division 2 streamlined this - it did away with buildings and bases altogether; automatically increasing your "tech level" every 10min (so at 20min+ everyone was at the third and final tech level). It also added in pre-game "deck building" - you got to choose which units were available at each tech level, except high tech units had a much lower unit cap earlier on; i.e. you might be allowed 2 Tigers at the start of the game, but if you assigned the Tigers to the final 20min+ stage, you got 4. .

It added in more decision points (+ pregame deck building) while allowing you to "rush" fewer units at a higher tech level or zerg spam cheaper troops just like CoH - while simplifying the game (no bases to manage, just click on UI tab you desire, clearly labelled "infantry" or "tanks") while allowing "base capture" i.e. capturing reinforcement locations. It even added AI smart orders allowing you to macro or micro your units. I loved how SD2 simplified and streamlined the genre, but allowed both the same strategies AND more complex in-game (and pre-game!) decision points.

Thinking about this PC game made me think about how to streamline rules in a wargame - how could I reproduce a similar effect with less time/measuring/dice rolling? Oops, I got sidetracked - I was supposed to be talking about...

Leaders - aka Support Class

Anyway, another thing I noticed was in most videogame shooter/RPG games there was usually very clearly defined roles - usually falling into the clearly defined tropes of "dps" "support" and "tank" (and often some sort of pseudo-wizard/artillery class who was a AoE+support or dps).  

In wargames, too often leaders and heroes are synonymous. In 40K, a "leader" might merely be a walking tank, impossible to kill with normal bullets, with high dps. Basically, a single heroic model doing the work of a squad, but Captain Smurfmarine may not really be a leader at all. In others, a hero/leader may use a d10 for all actions, while grunts only use a d6. He's not a leader - just a guy with a better dice roll. Seldom is a wargame leader just an average joe. 

But isn't a leader really a "support" class who enhances others?

I think wargames need to be clear to divorce "leadership" from "kicking ass" because they are not always the same thing. In team sports, the leader is usually not the best player. They are the best at directing, encouraging, passing on instructions from above and reading play - i.e. a leader is the best at leading, not kicking goals. The best striker is not necessarily the best leader (and actually usually isn't - strikers are usually selfish turkeys!)

Leaders aren't always heroes and heroes aren't always leaders. Leaders should be rated on how they help those around them. They are a "support class." 

Heroes - Lucky or Superhuman? DPS/Tank.. or something else?

"Heroes" aren't always leaders. They are guys who pull off amazing feats. But is this because they are the toughest, strongest or best shots? Is the measure of a hero merely someone with the best stats: +1 in shooting, +1 movement, +1 melee, +1 toughness?  Using d10 when the rest are d6?

Heroes aren't automatically tanks or dps though. Heroes do tend to have high morale or willpower. They are often survivors. They often are cool under fire and can react before others. They are often unnaturally lucky. Rather than inhumanly good strength and speed stats; perhaps re-rolls and extra actions might be a better way to show a hero?

Example - LOTR

One of GW's best games, LOTR, made some steps towards this. "Heroic" characters had 3 resources - Might, Will and Fate (usually 1-3 tokens in each) which were expended when used.  Might allowed mighty heroic deeds - re-rolling combat actions. Will allowed acts of magic and resistance including buffing allies. Fate allowed re-rolls to prevent wounds.  Boromir may be a Mighty warrior, but he had poor Will and unfortunate Fate; whereas Frodo might have had little Might but high Will and Fate - resisting magic and surviving when he really shouldn't have; even if he had far less statistical toughness than Boromir. You could be a heroically lucky survivor while also being a bit of a weakling. 

Example - Random House rules

Here's a personal example. As I dislike units getting 2 actions by default, we will presume they get 1 action, but may roll against their "Training" to see if they get another. A rookie might get a 2nd action on a 5+ (33% - unlikely) on d6, a regular on a 4+ (50/50 - can't be relied on). However I've decided any combat-focused "hero" can re-roll any single dice-roll in his turn, and if he passes an activation he may roll again and get a 3rd action. So even a regular trained hero can reliably act under fire (and often do an extra action no one else can) and may re-roll misses or crippling injuries - even if stat-wise, he is no stronger, faster or tougher than average. It doesn't take a bazooka to take him down - even a combat hero is no walking tank - but he's more likely be "lucky" and have ducked at the right time.

Now in my hypothetical game I want to encourage team work. So I decide soldiers in the same fireteam may share their second action (if they get one) with one other team mate.  So a soldier shooting his M16 gives a single buddy (in the same fire team) a free action to shoot his M16 - perhaps calling "open fire" or maybe a free move "go - I'll cover you!" Basically, you get a free action for your team, as long as a team mate is in LoS or perhaps a set distance.

However, my leader is better at leading. So if he spends an action, everyone in that range or in an entire squad gets a free action. So you might be getting 3-4+ free actions for your team; ie. "Alpha Squad - open fire!" "Everyone move up - on the double!". Perhaps my leader gets to re-roll any failed activation scores - but only if he was using his extra action for leading. Perhaps nearby allies get to re-roll morale tests (or get a +1 "buff" to their stats). Again, my leader may have perfectly ordinary stats and be a completely average fighter, but he buffs those around him and allows his team to act more often/effectively.

TL:DR

Videogames' common tank-dps-support trinity got me thinking about how wargames often combine these capabilities into a single "leader" - who may not be leading at all; or a "hero" who may not be heroic, but merely inhumanly capable - with the stats of a MBT.

Black Ops (Rules Review)

 To get back in the blogging rhythm I have decided to follow up a game design post with a rules review. I'm also trying to justify the Osprey books I already own (given I have just ordered... ...a few..  ...Gamma Wolves, Reality's Edge, Dracula's America, A Billion Suns, Zona Alfa. I hope my wife doesn't read this... I'm also eyeing Outremer but as I'm only interested in the campaign mechanics - I don't own any crusader models - I haven't justified it to myself. Yet.)

Anyway, on to the review. It's been a while since I playtested it so I'll be going from memory here. 



It's an Osprey Blue Book. Not a lot to add to that.

The Shiny

It's an Osprey Blue Book which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who owns one. 64 pages, mix of Osprey art and pictures of minis. I thought the art choices were rather good, and it was easy to read.  I also like the "foreword" - he set his design goal (fast play, covert ops with attacker/defender, use cards but not require special card or dice) and be able to play moves/games (Black Hawk Down /Zero Dark Thirty to Metal Gear Solid) - and acknowledged his influences (40K + cards of Too Fat Lardies/Studio Tomahawk) which certainly are obvious through the rules.

Stats & Overhead

Pretty straightforward stats - Accuracy (shoot), CQC (melee); Dedication (morale/will); Save (toughness/armour).

Models are classed as Aces (leaders); Kings (heavies); Queens (specialists); Jacks (grunts) and Deuces (Civilians) - the name corresponds to their activating card - more on this later. There are about 40 universal "special rules" but they are simple and self-explanatory (stealth, airstrike, silencer). It's a reasonable mix of stats and special rules and makes sense. No complaints.

Initiative & Actions

Players each need playing cards A,K,Q,J,2 - one player has 2 the red suit and 2 has the black suits. The cards are shuffled and pulled randomly. When a card is pulled, all models of the type corresponding to the card perform one action or go on overwatch where they can interrupt enemy actions. It's a bit weird models activate by 'type' rather than by 'fire team' - i.e. all heavy weapons troops act at the same time, regardless of the squad they are attached to. Activation is a bit random (too random?) but I supposed it is representing the chaos of a firefight. It just feels a bit "off" in how models act by type/loadout rather than in fireteams.

Lots of nice miniature photos throughout...

Movement

I quite like the hold/cautious move/advance/run "stances" which impact speed, stealth and weapon accuracy. Basically the slower you go, the more accurately you shoot and the more easily you hide. There are rules for climbing etc as you would expect from a skirmish game. Good.

Combat

Models have a restricted vision arc (front/flank/rear) which makes facing important and adds more tactics.  In stealth games, targets must be identified and hidden targets can only be suppressed. There are simple shooting modifiers (for range, movement, visibility etc) and single 'aimed' shots can be taken. Suppression is quite important - you can pin enemies and force them to retreat; and it's easier to pin than to shoot to kill and is useful for area denial. 

While shooting made sense, close combat (melee) was a little odd - it had an opposed roll but required a chart; and ties were determined by weapon length and location. While not complex, it was more involved than it needed to be.

Oh - while the combat mechanics are relatively simple, the 'roll lows are good, negative modifiers are good' is kinda the opposite of most wargames and feels a bit weird.

Each model rolled a typical "save" when hit, modified for armour, cover etc, with unsaved hits removing the model from the game. Morale (dedication) is better with friends or when in cover, and forces may waver or break when they have too many loses or Aces (leaders) are out of action.

Shooting is good, melee is clunky, rolling low feels strange.

Stealth & Other Stuff

There is a range of modern weapons and a few exotic/near future ones (crossbow, laser, railguns) but the primary focus is observation and stealth missions. There are "blinds" - tokens that represent unknown forces - used in conjunction with the playing card activation deck. Models can choose to be hidden, or roll to "spot" and reveal blinds (i.e. discover what the enemy really is and have them placed on the table.)  There is a big focus on stealth and stealth missions. There are rules for civilians and neutrals who can get caught in the fighting - perhaps helping the attackers or alerting guards.

There are vehicle rules (which I didn't test) which appear serviceable; but the focus is obviously not on vehicles and I doubt you'd use more than 1-2 in a mission.

There are "army lists" aka factions - some with sub-factions: for militia (conscripts, organised crime); professionals (regulars and police); special forces, mercenaries, ninja(!), fanatics, and intelligence services like secret police.

Feels like a mix of Kill Team with a dash of Too Fat Lardies blinds.

Scenarios - It's all About Stealth

Stealth missions are what Black Ops is all about. There's rules for guards and attackers. The stealth is both a strength and a weakness. The defender doesn't have a lot to do until the attacker triggers guard reactions by generating "Noise Counters" by doing suspicious stuff like shooting, running etc. This is stealth focus is bad if you are playing with a friend. The defender is going to be bored.  This is good if you are playing solo - the largely automated guard (and civilian) reactions. It reminds me strongly of old 40K Kill Team missions I played years ago. There are typical assassination, extraction, sabotage, raid, and surveillance missions which isn't a huge variety but admittedly covers 90% of real life spec ops missions.  Campaign mechanics are pretty much non-existent.

The stealth focus is double-edged.

Stealth is the focus; the clear attacker/defender makes it good for solo play but boring as a defender

Final Thoughts

It certainly reminds me of Kill Team mixed with TFL card activation. The card activation based on types seemed both odd (and perhaps too random; while I approve of the intent I'm not sure I liked it in practice). Also odd was the "low roll is good." 

The stealth focus is both good (if you are solo or co-op, as you can almost automate the defenders) and bad (if you want to play against a friend - being the defender will suck). I'm considering it for play with my kids (i.e. they could team up against a benevolent dad-who-casually-controls-the-guards) and the mechanics are certainly simple and fast play as advertised. There's no campaign element - which often helps sell a skirmish game to the crowd this game presumably targets.

Recommended?: I'm on the fence. I approve of the intent and I think the designer met his goals, but I feel I could pretty much stick old Kill Team stealth rules onto any rules I have and get a similar effect.