Monday 31 December 2012

Infinity the Game: Modern Warfare Version

I think Infinity is one of the best skirmish games out there, but it has disappointed me somewhat:

#1. Tendency to add ever-increasing numbers of weapons and gadgets
Infinity's strength is in its basic mechanisms and unique "ARO" reaction system, but now it is in danger of getting smothered by trying to react to "special rules" (110+ at last count).

#2. The Paradiso supplement lacked a meaningful advancement system
I was hoping for a Mordhiem-style warband system but in Paradiso only one soldier (the Spec Ops) could actually be upgraded in a campaign.  So out of your 10 or so guys, only one guy learns from his experiences? Meh.
So I am going to create a modern campaign, to "fix" these gripes by stripping out the more esoteric rules, and also paint up some of my awesome Empress moderns (which will also serve in Battlefield: MMW, an innovative miniatures game which mimics the PC franchises CoD, Battlefield 3 and Ghost Recon and has game modes ideal for multiple player fun. 

The Empress modern range rivals the detail of Infinity miniatures themselves, at a quarter of the cost ($2.50 vs $10 a miniature)

Removing the weirder sci fi stuff (also the most complex "special rules") should be simple. I'm going to keep weapons as similar to Infinity ones as possible for the purposes of balance.  For "damage" I'm going to align it to 9mm (11), 5.56mm (13) and 7.62mm (15).  

Special Skills
The skills are restricted  and usually represent the lower end of the spectrum of Infinity skills. I'm going to keep the following skills:  Airborne Deployment L3, Mimetist/Limited Camouflage, Climbing Plus, Doctor, Engineer, Forward Observer, Infiltration L2, Inspiring Leadership, Martial Arts, Mechanised Deployment, Religious Troop, Terrain, Valour L2. 
The only equipment retained from Infinity is the Medkit.  Armour will be 1 (helmet) for basic troops, and 4 if soldiers have both helmet and bulletproof vest. 

The bare metal photos do not do the models justice.  They are have an elegant simplicity and good proportions. I give them a 8/10 - they now edge out the Perry line as the best historicals I own.

Squad Weapons
5.56mm Assault Rifle
This is your standard 30-round mag rifle such as M16, AK74 etc.  Treat as Combi Rifle.  

5.56mm SAW/PKM
Portable sustained fire weapon.  Treat as a Heavy Machine Gun with a Damage of only 13. 

Underslung Grenade Launcher (M203, GP 30)As per Light Grenade Launchers. 

9mm  Pistol (Makarov, M9 Beretta)
As per Pistol.

Shotgun (Benelli, Mossberg)
As per Boarding Shotgun.

Light Anti Tank Weapon (RPG, LAW, AT-4)
Any disposable shoulder-fired bazooka/rocket launcher.  As per D.E.P.   

Squad Marksman Rifle (L86 LSW, HK417, G3, SVD, M14, SR-25)

Treat as having X-Visor (medium range 0, -3 max range) If 7.62mm, Damage is 15 and only 2 shots (Semi auto). 

This is from the Red Star Miniatures website.  Empress is a distributor for their wonderful Chechyan/Russian range and I suspect both companies use the same sculptor.  Check out their gallery dioramas - they look like news photos....

Platoon/Support Weapons
Support machine-gun (FN MAG, M60, RPK)
Typically 7.62mm with two man crew, used at platoon level.  Treat as Heavy Machine Gun. 
An extra crew member adds +1 to the weapon's burst.

Sniper Rifle (M24, L96)
Typically a 7.62mm bolt or semi automatic weapon. Treat as Sniper Rifle.

As per Anti-personnel mines.

40mm Automatic GL
As per Kaytatusha. 

Anti Material Rifle (Barrett .50)
Treat as a Sniper rifle, which rolls twice to wound and ignores armour.   

 I also have some Eureka miniatures. They are a little chunkier then Empress but very solid sculpts and paint up well (this is a photo from their website).   Both Empress and Eureka have excellent service and communication and I was impressed with both. I recommend you check them out. 

I may fiddle with the stats mildly but as it stands it seems a solid selection, a bit easier to remember than the 61 weapon types available in Infinity itself.   Part II will be working out campaign and sensible "advancement" perimeters.  Part III will be scenarios, missions and (hopefully) an AAR. 

The core rules I am using are free from the official Infinity website.

Friday 21 December 2012

Campaign Paradiso: Infinity Campaign Book Review

The postie bought me some long awaited Ariadna reinforcements, as well as the Campaign Paradiso rulebook which finally introduces scenarios and a narrative campaign to the previously deathmatch-centric Infinity sci fi skirmish rules.

The folks at Corvus Belli know how to make a quality product

It's so Shiny
The glossy 200+ page hardback rulebook, as always, has superb production values, great artwork and inspiring pictures of miniatures by the impossibly talented Angel Giraldez.  This book is a pleasure to flick through for the art alone. My main complaint: the quality of the paintjobs on display make me frustrated my miniatures will never look even remotely as good. As usual, it is packed with interesting fluff, which, as usual, tends to obscure the rules themselves a bit.  I can't say the rulebooks are laid out in a particularly user-friendly manner, but all key rules and weapons stats (everything you need to play Infinity to the latest version) are available for free on their website.  In fact this is the first time Corvus Belli have not uploaded the complete rules content on the net (like they did for the first two books) - to play the Paradiso scenarios (and get the copious fluff), you will need to buy the book.

Support troops such as engineers are needed for some scenarios

Campaign Fluff & Scenarios
There are 20 pages of history giving information about the alien attacks on Paradiso. I skimmed this - I will come back and enjoy it later.  

The scenarios were sandwiched after the fluff, but awkwardly separated from the actual campaign rules at the very back of the book.  The 14 scenarios provided, if linked in order, actually tell the official "storyline" and you could play them as a narrative.  The "official" force lists are at 300 points, using a 48x48" table.  I wouldn't launch a new player straight into these - 150 point straight deathmatch games would be a better starting place. Infinity's mechanisms themselves are not that complicated but it DOES have a steep learning curve, and a 300-point game including more "specialist" models with unique abilities exacerbates this.

The scenarios necessitate having hackers, engineers and doctors and include data recovery, triangulation, building/objective seizure, ambush, infiltration, exfiltration, hijacking, evacuation, and rescue missions.  All scenarios are well written and detailed but rather too specific - in many cases with a rather precise table layout and even including where elevators are located. 

TL:DR A great variety of well-written scenarios, but some scenarios are quite "rigid" in layout. 

Except for the Corax, I found all the Spec Ops troops rather boring sculpts. Ironic, as they are the only upgradable "hero" unit.

Faction Fluff
Like all Infinity rulebooks, each unit has a paragraph or so describing their history and role. There are also historical "facts" which help flesh out the feel of each faction. They contain news snippets, random anecdotes, comics and art as well.  They are kinda quirky and not at all like GW codexes. I enjoy them, but to be honest I think this should be placed at the back of the book, with the unit stats, instead of in the middle where it separates the campaign rules from the scenarios (which means a lot of flipping back and forth through the rules.)  This is a hefty chunk of the rules - 110 pages in fact.

I won't be able to resist buying them, but the Tohaa "not-Eldar" do seem like lazy design

The big news is the introduction of a new race, the Tohaa, who seem designed around 3-man fire teams (I suspect they are trying to get away from the current all-or-nothing 5-man fire teams - due to the way bonuses stack people usually field a 5-man squad or none at all). They have symbiotic armour and viral weaponry; and are a manipulative mentor race (*cough* Eldar *cough*) who "uplift" other races ...  ....some say to make them their servants...

TL:DR  Quirky and cool content, but best relegated to the back of the book with the actual unit profiles. The Tohaa "space elves" don't exactly break new ground.

The Spec Ops troops were surprisingly bland. The poses are very static and uninspiring compared to the usual fluid action poses
Campaign System
This is the bit I was most interested in.  The scenario victory conditions provides XP (experience points) but the only up-gradable solider is the "Spec Ops" class - a line trooper who can gain up to 3 special skills, 3 weapons and 3 pieces of equipment, based on its faction profile.  He can also gain stat increases - extra strength, wounds, shooting accuracy etc. 

Most of the time, XP will be spent on force-wide special abilities - the ability to have an extra "army points" when building a force - bonuses to initiative, increased availability of specialist troops, the ability to know an opponent's army list, higher retreat thresholds, etc. 

I was disappointed with this section - only one trooper being able to gain experience (under very strict guidelines) was a bit rigid (though I understand it would be done thus for balance reasons). The scenarios were linked in specific order - i.e. everyone plays x scenario, then the winners play y and the losers play z complete with a flowchart and diagram.

TL:DR  A fairly "tight" campaign without much flexibility.  The scenarios are a welcome addition to Infinity but Paradiso seems to focus on competitive club play. 

For example, base Wildcat line troopers look more "Special" to be honest...

New Rules
These are all available free from the website (Corvus Belli always provides everything you need - including templates and markers) to play the complete game - kinda like providing free rules and codexes for each faction, so you are constantly updated to the latest edition. (There was Infinity, Human Sphere and now Campaign Paradiso so - there has been no core rule changes, simply new weapons and abilities added.)

Although Paradiso introduces far less new content than Human Sphere did, I feel Infinity is headed down a slippery slope. A game with unique mechanisms and gripping gameplay, where it is "always your turn" - the reaction (overwatch on steroids) system and order pool make for a cinematic, ruthless game where careful positioning and resource management are supreme.

However the base Infinity started out with 54 special skills and Human Sphere added another 22.  Paradiso adds 7 more, for a total of 83 unique skill rules.  In addition there are now 61 unique weapons which fire over a dozen ammunition types (each with their own unique effects) and 31 pieces of equipment.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks 200+ rules in addition to the basic mechanics is excessive.

Infinity players have a saying - "It's not your list, it's you" - inferring that unlike say 40K and Warmahordes, your skill in creating a uber army list has little bearing on victory. However I feel this is no longer true - "It's not your list - it's your memory" - is perhaps a better motto.

I'd prefer to be "ambushed" by clever tactics, not an unexpected rule.

TL: DR  New content keeps the game "fresh" but too many special rules will make it like Warmachine (a game so unbalanced by excessive rules that it's actually naturally balanced) - the winner is the player with the best memory for the zillion unique rules, not the best tactician

 Infinity is in danger of choking great mechanics with too many "special rules"

Paradiso was a bit of a mixed bag, for me.  A beautiful rules book, you are nonetheless effectively paying $50 for 14 scenarios, 30 pages of rather rigid campaign rules and 120 pages of fluff.

The fluff, art and production values were exceptional as ever. I felt satisfied with my purchase based on the "shiny factor" and I will get enjoyment out of simply reading through it.

As a gaming resource, the scenarios were detailed but somewhat prescriptive (i.e. place elevators at exactly x and y location on the game map) and there are already some well-made and widely used houserules out there such as YAMS(which contains many similar scenarios).  That said, getting away from deathmatches is a welcome change and many people are most comfortable with "official" rules.  
The ability to only "upgrade" one line trooper with your XP and only army-wide generalised "buffs" will be disappointing to those who have played Necromunda, Mordhiem and similar "true" campaign games. Paradiso reminds me more of those one-off campaigns that GW runs for 40K.

TL:DR  Basically, this game seems well-balanced for the competitive club crowd at the expense of long-term playability and all-round usefulness.

Verdict: Will fire up Infinity players at your local club, and give a much-needed variety to vanilla deathmatch play for those who insist on "official" scenarios.  It seems to be carefully balanced to avoid uber-characters/armies-of-doom but it's prescriptive structure means it won't rise to be the Necromunda replacement-but-with-awesome game mechanics that it could have been.

Recommended? Definitely for a club campaign or if you love the artwork and fluff.  Otherwise, you can save your $50 and use YAMs for scenarios as the "campaign mode" and experience system doesn't add that much flavour to your army besides a few tweaks.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Goalsystem Delves Rules Review - Generic Fantasy Skirmish/RPG

Song of Blades and Heroes was a revelation in rules sets - a simple, generic toolbox that allowed you to play with ANY miniatures, not just those licensed to a particular product line. Capable of quick, 30 minute games full of action and colourful escapades, with a series of linked games (be it a campaign or dungeon crawl) playable in an evening. However the single stat line (the "Combat" stat amalgamates defense, offense and missile skill) is a little too grainy, limiting replayability. (Ironically, the use of a single one-size-fits all stat necessitates so many special rules (scattered across several rulebooks and supplements) that it actually complicates  more than it simplifies.)

So while I loved SoBH, I am ready to move on.

Does what it says on the tin.  Blends RPG and skirmish for a relatively quick-playing dungeon-exploring toolkit.

 Goalsystem Delves was a Kickstarter advertised as "adventure skirmish roleplay" for classic dungeon crawls: a skirmish game with RPG elements that could be played co-operatively or competitively, with or without a GM.

The Shiny
(Note: this is the $15 pdf edition not the hardback rules) Whilst it is easy to read and has generous fonts, the 255 pages (I was really surprised by this) means printing off the pdf will require felling a small tree and/or investing in a toner factory.  I question why anyone would want anything other than the "printer friendly version" as the artwork in the "electronic colour" is rather ordinary.  Probably a better layout than SoBH, but on the other hand it is 200 pages longer. I do like the "in a nutshell" rules summary at the back of the text.

The "Goalsystem" is basically this: most actions require a "goal roll".  The player rolls a pool of dice, counting each 4+ as a success. I.e. Gaylord Pointyears the elf wants to fire his bow at a goblin; he rolls 5 dice with 2, 3, 4, 4, and 5 for a total of three "Goals".
Any roll of "5" counts as 2 goals - so if the above roll was 2, 3, 4, 4, 6 it would count as four "Goals."

This works as a simple RPG system - when unopposed, goals required vary according to the difficulty of the task:
Easy = 1 goal
Routine =2 goals
Challenging = 3 goals
Heroic = 4 goals ...and so on.

In opposed actions, both sides roll and compare goals. The amount of goals you succeed by can also influence the effects of the action: i.e. Gaylord fires his bow (2, 3, 4, 4, 6) = 4 goals; at the goblin who dodges with 1, 5, 3 = 1 goal.  Gaylord wins, and adds +3 dice to his damage pool.

TL:DR - utilises a simple system that suits itself well to RPG aspects

Models have four traits -  Class, Defence, Strength and Toughness. In Classes the generic thief, mage, ranger, warrior, priest, druid don't deviate from the norm too much but have several "sub-classes" each.   Strength is used for smashing stuff and damage - a strength 4 character would get 4 dice when attempting to damage an opponent.  Defence is used to avoid incoming damage and Toughness is the ability to absorb damage. Characters also have a base Move - usually around 6", Hit Points (usually about 6) and Fate which is a finite resource allowing a player to "bend the rules" with re-rolls etc.  A player's Initiative is his combined Defence and Class trait level.

Characters can only go to Level 10 in Delves so she would be impressed...
At the start of the game, each player adds 2D6 to his Initiative which determines the order of turns for the rest of the game. Players with high initiative can reserve their move for later in the move order.

Each player can perform one move, and one combat or special action. Also a number of free actions are available depending on the Class trait of the character. The rules for charging, rough terrain, knockdown, crawling, falling, hiding and jumping are very generic and offer no innovations gameplay-wise over 20 year old games like Mordhiem.   However, there are rules for aimed shots, bypassing shields, disarming and driving back foes, grabbing, fighting defensively, surprise attacks, trips and trick shots - which add cinematic flavour. When characters lose all their HP, they receive a wound and are required to make a saving roll to avoid death.

TL:DR. No points for originality, but far deeper than SoBH while remaining simple. It plays a heck of a lot faster than d20 RPGs but using only 4-6 man "warbands" and tracking hitpoints leans it more into RPG territory

Delves gives an unabashed nod to old-school D&D

The other 200 pages are RPG stuff....
 Character Creation
The blurb says Delves is a skirmish wargame with RPG elements. I'd argue it is more of a fast-playing, combat orientated RPG like Savage Worlds (which isn't a bad thing.)

All the classic races are represented, e.g.
Move 5"
Notes: +1D Toughness, -1D Strength, Small, +1D to Arcane Tasks
Languages: Gnomish, Common

Classes are also pretty recognisable
Cleric [+24 pts.]
Powers: Divine Power, Healer, Price of Power, Turn or Rebuke Undead
Equipment: Start with a 1H weapon and a small shield; also start with
the holy symbol of an appropriate god.

Both races and classes follow fantasy archetypes, but you can build your own races and classes with the guidelines provided.  A XP-system for leveling up from Levels 1 to 10 is provided.

Equipment lists are reasonably thorough with common armours and fantasy weapons listed. You could use a simple encumberance system if you wish.

 Oh I forgot to mention you choose your alignment....

Spells & Powers, Foes and Monsters
There are about 30 pages of spells (a far cry from the two spells available in SoBH!) and show the range, level of character that can use it, the action (is it a free action, a "reaction", or a specific attack), the effects and amount of times it can be used. 

There are a good selection of powers and abilities (ironically, less than SoBH which uses a plethora of "special powers" to try to cover defects in its "One Stat to Rule them All" approach)

The monster creation rules add good depth and allow you to balance the threats your heroes will face with a points system.  The value of the monster also determines its "Reward Level" which contributes to XP. You can also use "hordes" of 5-20 monsters which can be moved as a single entity to speed up play.  There is a random sampling of 40+ monsters provided which provide a good benchmark for making your own nasties.

There are also guidelines for creating campaigns as well as two sample adventures.  Successful players can roll to gain XP based on completion of objectives and slaying of monsters.  There is a balancing system to allow warband PvP (Mordhiem/Necromunda style) as well as more traditional RPG adventures.  There is a phase to recover from wounds, replace dead comrades, fence loot, and get new toys (including magic weapons and gear), as well as perform "tasks" which can provide benefits and bonuses in the next game. There is also an option to role-play "set piece" scenes.

Ah, the word "Games Master" conjures up so many images...

Game Mastering
A few suggestions for balancing encounters, making traps, hazards, and exotic environments. Rewards and loot limits, artifacts, and a simple sketch of a possible game world and its deities. This section is very basic and is not as fleshed out like a proper RPG book would be.

Delves does not have the deep background and GM info of a true RPG

TL:DR - With 200 pages devoted to character creation, equipment, spells and a bestiary, Delves is obviously striving to be a simpler, combat-orientated alternative to traditional dungeon-crawl RPGs and is not exactly a "true" skirmish wargame in the Mordhiem mould. Delves is RPG first, wargame second.

Although if you want fast-playing dungeon crawling, FFG's  Descent has all the bits ready to go....

Overall Summary
Delves is more RPG than skirmish game. It is aimed at 4-man "warbands" and has more in common with Savage Worlds than Song of Blades and Heroes.

It has a simple combat system with an interesting range of special moves, and the "Goalsystem" game engine works well with simple RPG tasks. Delves has a more sensible range of stats than SoBH and actually has a proper magic system (compared to the two generic spells in the latter game).  While being easy to learn and relatively fast-playing, it involves record keeping (tracking hitpoints etc) and has a few extra "layers" which means it cannot be played at SoBH's lightning pace.

Recommended?  As a wargamer, it was a bit more RPGish than I anticipated, and seems squarely aimed at the "mage-thief-warrior-cleric exploring dungeon" rather than "two warbands clash" focus of games like Mordhiem and SoBH, although it can be played as such. Like the two latter games, it has a solid campaign and advancement system.  Without being particularly innovative, Delves does well to simplify d20 RPG concepts and mesh them with a simpler wargame system.  I suspect old-school RPGers would enjoy its "back to basics" streamlined approach to dungeon crawling but those wargamers seeking a bring-your-own-models competitive Mordhiem replacement will probably keep looking.

If you like "Savage Worlds" fast-playing quick-combat style RPG then you will appreciate Delves.

EDIT: The author Scott Pyle is also the author of the sci fi skirmish ruleset "Blasters & Bulkheads" reviewed here in the excellent blog Dropship Horizon. Seems to have "build it yourself" rules which are always welcome. And did I mention the ability to field "not Jedi?"  As you see in the comments below, a new improved v2 is coming out soon.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Heavy Gear - Mech Combat in 6mm - Cheap Fun

I've always liked the Heavy Gear game and universe - combined arms mecha combat where mechs are a believable size (not a target the size of a 5-storey building) and don't tend to fly through the air Silver Surfer style on jet hoverboards.  Tanks and infantry also play a significant role.

  The mammoth Soviet tanks from Brigade are quite nice and have a "Red Alert" vibe to them.

The game is fairly gritty, with weapons long ranged and quite powerful.  Two game mechanisms appeal to me - the "degree of success" where a good hit does more damage than a glancing one - and the "to hit" and "to damage" roll is merged elegantly together.  The second mechanism is the way mechs take damage - there are four states - light damage, heavy damage, crippled and destroyed. 
This does away with the ridiculous armour of Battletech (where you have to scour away dozens of "hit points" of armour before you can do actual damage) and retains a good balance of simplicity and detail.  Record keeping is practically non-existent but tokens do clutter the board up a bit.

I have a Heavy Gear starter set - $60 for a few size-8-font tiny B&W rules booklets, half a dozen "customizable"* 28mm mechs (*i.e. in a million pieces, frustrating to put together) and a tape measure. The tape measure admittedly is mildly cool but I don't think $60 was worth it....

So why don't I play this paragon of a game?  Price.  Dream Pod 9 rivals GW in its price structure and an "army" would set you back over $250. Given Heavy Gear is unheard of around here, plunking down half a grand for two armies to simply try a game is a bit to rich for my blood.

So I decided to see if I could play it for under $50....

Whilst Dream Pod 9 makes "fleet scale" mechs they are $2 for a 15mm figure - double that of other companies such as GZG. 

Whilst the GZG 6mm Dirtside walkers are among the nicest (and have a strong VOTOMS vibe) I wanted plenty of variety. So I went to Iron Wind Metals who make Battletech minis - their smaller battlesuits work well as mechs in 6mm.  Brigade were fractionally cheaper than GZG so I plumped for some of their British and Soviet tanks and support vehicles.

About $30 scored me two decent sized forces. I deeply regret painting the hovertank force blue. It's kinda a yick Ultramarine-y shade.

20/20 Hindsight
In my race to try to finish both armies in under 3 hours from start to finish, I sprayed black overcoat over the based minis.  The paint mixed with the still-wet PVA in the sand base to form a kind of tarry sludge. 

A bench grinder was an inspired idea for grinding the bases of 6mm infantry flat so they sat neatly on the bases. It made the job really fast and easy. I decided to got for 5c coins instead of washers which was easier to base as I didn't have to worry about the hole in the middle.

I also could have painted larger quantities just as easily - I had to wait for paint to dry before I could move on.  Next time I would paint double the amount of miniatures. 

I do a lot of 1:300/1:600 aircraft but this is only my second attempt at ground forces.  Basing is far more important than in 15 or 28mm.  You can see how my hasty gluing and spraying means the base of the mechs bulge up rather obviously.

The neo-Soviets came out OK.  The little power armours (2 to a base) on the right look quite cool - they have a MaK vibe to them. 

The Iron Wind battle armours scale well with 6mm and provide a huge range of mech types.  You could probably re-base plastic Mechwarrior clix but clix seem to be selling at a premium - it was cheaper to buy some packets of metal minis. 

The Project So Far
Total time 3 hours (base and paint); $18 of Brigade British, $18 Brigade Soviet, $12 assorted Iron Wind battle armours; 60c of 5c pieces for bases - total cost $48.60

Saturday 10 November 2012

Naked Miniatures - Should they be Allowed out in Public?

I admit I only sporadically play at my local gaming club, due to their overwhelming interest in Warmachine, but something I have noticed is the increasing preponderance of bare metal or undercoated miniatures.

 In wargaming, paint is needed to show details
 on models
Public vs Private
Now, if you choose to have unpainted miniatures in the privacy of your own home, that is fine.  But should unpainted minis be allowed out in public?

Unlike boardgames, miniatures and terrain are by default an integral part of our hobby.  There are many excellent boardgames or PC games for those disinterested in what is a defining aspect of the hobby. Many people are initially attracted to tabletop wargaming by interesting, well-presented armies and terrain. I notice bare metal minis seems to go hand in hand with toilet rolls, tissue box buildings, and books-under-tablecloth terrain; which does not get anyone excited about the game. 
   The Society of Undercoat and Bare Metal says:
"I only want to game, and I don't have the time. Why punish me for not having endless hours to paint miniatures!
Did they find time to glue and assemble the figures? Did they manage to assemble an army list, read the rules, and come up with a new strategy for that new (unpainted) unit? They even found time on game day to play for six hours... they had time to do everything except paint the miniatures.

This argument makes the false assumption that players with painted miniatures have more leisure time than others.It kinda infers the non-painters are special in some way - they are the only ones with jobs, families, limited time etc. In fact, I notice those with busy lives and families seem to be the most consistent painters, ahead of part-time students etc. If you think about it, most people have a surprising amount of time to watch TV each night. If painting is that terrible a chore, there are also prepainted figures available, and professional painters. Modern dips and washes are fast and effective.  In fact it is quite puzzling as to why non-painters would reject the main aesthetic reason to prefer wargames over the many excellent boardgames or PC games that are usually vastly cheaper  alternatives.

 Counters such as these by Niko Eskubi are far nicer than unpainted metal

"I'm just trying out an army"
 If you aren't painting the minis, why stop there?  Why not simply substitute the miniatures for coins or scraps of paper?  I don't see how counters differ from unpainted lead. It would, logically, be a much cheaper way to "try out" an army. In fact good counters are more attractive than unpainted minis. Players are effectively paying hundreds of dollars for glorified counters...

"Who cares/it's just a game/it's for fun"
Just because something is for fun, does not mean there should not be certain standards, at least in public (club games, etc).  Well, I might find wearing pants in public hot and uncomfortable.  However I do wear them when out in public. In the privacy of my own house, I can wear whatever I want...  I have every Infinity faction in my shed - but only the two painted ones  go to the club....

"I just want to roll dice and play!"
That is an excellent argument for playing a boardgame instead.

"Expecting everyone to have painted is elitist! Snob!"
If you don't want to paint, why wargame with miniatures?  Being elitist would be expecting everyone to paint well. Painting flesh with a few other colours (undercoat, basecoat, wash) looks "painted." Details and drybrushing can come later - and are nice but not necessary.  Having minimum standards is not elitist or condescending.  I don't like people wearing pajamas and slippers into a restaurant (even MacDonalds) but I doubt anyone would call me out for that.

"People who insist on painted miniatures are killing the hobby"
I'd argue people who field unpainted minis are doing more to damage the hobby.  Players who paint are also giving up a chunk of their disposable income. They are actively working to make games interesting and attractive to newcomers and players alike.

"Fad" Games - Encouraging the Unpainted Masses?
Yes, I'm talking Privateer Press and Games Workshop "Hobby" here - games that promote the "latest and best" through an arms race of new codexes and expansions; designed to sell miniatures.

I often hear players of these games grouped around a rulebook saying "I'm going to get xy unit cos it has this awesome ability of z, and it will work really well with yz ability of xb warcaster."
The friend says "Man, that sounds cool - it should really pwn!"

They seem interested in the unit only for its gaming value (there are quite a few sculpts that most people agree are sub par, but feature in every army due to their gaming effectiveness). They have no real interest in the sculpt - it is simply a gaming piece. In fact the "unit card" that comes with it is probably more valuable to them. Perhaps they cannot be bothered to paint the miniature as it is soon to be overtaken as the "new best."

Since "units" tend to be 6-12 miniatures, time considerations for painting shouldn't be an issue.  These games also have points systems, so they can play a smaller, 500 point game while they are working on their other 1500pts of unpainted stuff. Despite this, these are the games you are MOST likely to see unpainted miniatures.

Bigs or Littles?
I often hear people dismiss smaller scale miniatures (6mm, 15mm etc) as being "too small" and "not having enough detail to paint." Since I have never seen an unpainted 6mm or 15mm miniature in a game I find this rather ironic. If the detail on 28mm mattered so much, why wasn't it painted?

There is no local FoW scene where I live, and I would be interested to see how this point applies to FoW, as it seems to be somewhat of a "fad" game as well.

Not a Blanket Rule
I know people new to the hobby have an initial period where they are playtesting things, learning to paint, etc but this initial stage is measured in months, not years. I know a 9 year old who painted half their Warmachines army to a very solid tabletop standard, and had the rest in various stages of completion, within weeks of starting.

Unpainted minis, unpainted terrain....  ...unpainted dice? The humanity!

Any Paintjob is a Good One
This is not to say it is ever OK to criticize someone else's paintjob. As a somewhat indifferent painter myself, I am painfully aware how much better other people are than me. However it is important to make an effort - I'd argue hauling out unpainted minis shows a lack of respect for the (equally busy, hardworking with three kids) guy who painted his. You should assume the other guy did his best. A poorly painted blob always trumps bare metal.

I think it is important to praise and reward those who do paint. Extra re-rolls for painted armies? Competition points for those who care about them? There is never a reason to be rude. 

Sharing a game is a social interaction. Forcing someone to share an unpainted army is like forcing them to share body odour on a bus trip. Friends will ignore it, but it doesn't mean they necessarily enjoy it. I doubt newcomers will be attracted to it. If you want to play without creating or painting, then boardgames and PC games are great options. If you are too busy to invest your time, you may need another hobby.   If a player turns up at a game with no dice, measuring tape, or understanding of the rules, odds are the opponent won't enjoy himself as much - same with unpainted minis.

I'd argue wargaming is more than simply ripping open some packets, pouring on superglue, and throwing them on the table for a few hours so they can can race home to watch Big Brother. If that is a person's style of play - fair enough. It doesn't mean it benefits everyone.

I put down my vast collection of unpainted minis as poor impulse control and obsessive aquisitiveness - but naked models in public? - that's going too far.

Friday 9 November 2012

A Fistful of TOWS 3 Review (1915-2015 Micro Armour)

As I continue to "down scale" I am venturing into 6mm.  I remembered trying A Fistful of Tows maybe 10 years ago - a demo ruleset with a strong design philosophy with a commitment to balancing playability with realism, and allowing fast turns with lots of units. Troop quality was important. Apparently there was a new version, so out came the credit card....

FFT3 is a mammoth tome. Choosing the spiral-bound version was a good choice.

The Shiny
The format is B&W with a colour cover. I picked a spiral-bound layout ($67 delivered from Lulu) due to the hefty size (also - spiral bound is great for laying rulebooks open or photocopying stuff).  At a jaw dropping 454 pages the size and cost are the two things that instantly stand out. However it is not a complicated game at all.  The actual core rules are 112 pages (or 25% of the book) with an additional 44 pages which are optional (combat engineering, choppers, airstrikes, airborne, amphibious, chemical and nuclear attacks).  The bulk of the book is from the 263 pages of "army lists" - orders of battle for pretty much every country's forces at brigade/regiment scale from 1915 to the present along with vehicles, infantry and weapon details for those forces, as well as detailed rules for designing your own.  This hefty tome is probably the most comprehensive resource of its kind I have come across and would be very useful for other WW2-modern games besides FFT3. There is a detailed appendix and a handy quick-reference sheet that helps keeps things manageable.

Britain always has quirky and cool armour
An impressive resource
It has stats on every significant weapon; from a Pak88 to a Hellfire missile; from a Messerschmidt Bf109 to a F-22 Raptor.  Tiger tanks are included as well as T80Us.  Soviet Tank Regiments from 1943 are detailed along with modern Stryker brigades; with troop types and quality. There are also rules to design your own, if somehow you find something not included. When you realise you are getting a set of rules as well as a 260-page reference book, in one, the $67 seems more reasonable. There is a cheaper $40 (!) pdf option (maybe for an iPad? - I can't imagine printing it out yourself...)

Core Mechanics
Do not confuse the size of the rules with complexity.  Whilst the most detailed FFT set yet, the game is eminently playable. Indeed, the core rules could be condensed from 118 to 30-40 pages easily as the authors tend to spell things out rather "wordily".  In fact, the earlier free "demo" version of FFT2 (an earlier edition) is 43 pages. The game plays fast and each side's movement can be completed in under 5 minutes.  Note: Each vehicle stands for a group of 3-6, and individual infantry elements are platoons; although the game can be played at 1:1 i.e. each element is a squad/vehicle, simply by adjusting cohesion distances and ranges. Activation is "attacker" then "defender" as per the scenario (or basically IGOUGO, which I am not a fan of) but the "overwatch/shoot-and-scoot" abilities allow some interaction in the opponents' turn. Wargames Vault has free demo rules of FFTW3, including enough to play WW2 or late 1980s NATO-Warsaw Pact.   In summary - it's actually pretty fast and simple to play.

The StuG wanted his cover save...
Movement & Terrain
 Troop quality is all-important. There are 7 levels:  Poor-Marginal-Fair-Average-Good-Excellent-Superb - which is surprisingly precise for a game using d6.  The game uses a Warhammer 40K "cohesion" range which varies from 2" (poor) to 8" (superb).  Terrain rules are quite comprehensive, but like FoW, vehicles must make a terrain-saving throw (say 4+ for average troops) if in difficult terrain or they can only pivot in place.

Detection references a simple chart that considers if the target is in cover or stationary, and if the target is a vehicle or infantry unit.

Infantry tend to dominate in built up areas and can be deadly in close quarters against unsupported vehicles
Units without stabilised guns or early 1st gen missiles may not move and fire; units that do not fire in their turn may go on "overwatch" and interrupt and fire in an opponents' move, or "shoot-and-scoot" - i.e. interrupt, fire, then retreat half a move.

Most weapons need a 3+ at close range, 4+ at effective range, and 5+ at long range, modified by the firing unit's troop quality. Rate of fire is likewise affected - poor troops fire more slowly, superb troops can pour in extra rounds.   Units in cover get a "cover save" against any hits - say 4+ if in a town.

Vehicles have two arcs - front and flank - and different armour values against kinetic or HEAT rounds.  For each shot that hits, roll 1d6 equal to the weapon penetration - target armour. Close or long range modifies penetration by +2 or -2.  I.e. a KV-1 (Pen 5) vs a Pz.III (Armour 4) at close range gets 3 dice.  If any 4 or 5 is rolled on the d6, a quality check is made (only 1 maximum, no matter how many 4 or 5s are rolled).  A '6' on any die destroys the target.
 Say for the 3 dice rolled, the KV-1 gets a 2, 4 and 5. It forces the Pz.III to make a single Crew Quality check. Units who fail a CQ check are destroyed.  Superb troops need only a 2+ to pass; average troops need a 5+. Better troops are much, much tougher and more resilient to incoming fire.

Most units have both anti-vehicle and anti-infantry firepower.  Anti-infantry firepower works the same way as vehicle combat, but each extra hit modifies any quality check by -1.  Even an infantry unit passes the quality check, it is suppressed which means it will have a negative modifier when it fires next.

Infantry units can get into close combat - withe the non-moving player firing first; sides alternate firing until one side is destroyed. Infantry tend to maul unsupported vehicles in close combat as they always count as having a flank shot.

Artillery rules are quite slick and fast - barrage markers are placed in 2" cohesion. Scout units can place 2 markers, and normal units one.  A dice is rolled for accuracy (modified by observer skill) - if it passes, the barrage has full effectiveness. If not, it has reduced effectiveness.  An "area fire problems" roll is made which could result in the barrage marker "scattering", a fire mission being cancelled or counter-battery fire hitting the artillery unit. Rolls are then made for units under artillery markers, modified by the number and size of guns involved in the barrage.
Summary: Pretty simple, consistent mechanisms. Troop quality matters. A lot. 

 Combat Engineering rules are an interesting inclusion.
[Picture: Sgt Rupert Frere RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010]
Other Stuff
FFT3 is very comprehensive. Besides the "basics" there are rules for helicopters, airstrikes and AA.  Combat engineering (mine clearing, bridgelaying, demolition) is also covered, as well as amphibious and airborne assaults, chemical warfare, and the limited use of small tactical nukes. 

There are scenario generation and campaign design ideas and tips, as well as a "battle generator" that allows you to roll random battles on a chart that considers the last battle you fought. For example if your last battle was an "encounter" you are more likely to fight a "hasty battle" next; if the last fight was an "encirclement" you are more likely to roll a "breakout" scenario next time.  I think this is a great feature - I wish more games had it. Missions are random, but are likely to progress logically from the previous mission.

There is a comprehensive section for designing and point costing vehicles. I am toying with making some "mechs" and using FFT3 for near-future sci fi (although I believe the authors are working on an official sci fi variant and have indeed previously made the free game Railgun 2100 based on the older FFT2.

I also like how the game isn't too heavy on chits or markers; - "suppressed"  "overwatch" "quality check" and barrage markers could be easily made; I intend to use the cheap coloured tiddlywinks supplied by EM4.
Summary: Great campaign and scenario ideas - a broad toolbox all aspects of modern warfare from chemical weapons and engineering to gunships

At $1.50 for 50, I don't know why you'd bother to make your own counters, ever.

Army & Equipment Lists
As I said before, this is huge, and very detailed. I like how all stats for a weapon or vehicle fit on a single line of text.  I can't vouch for the accuracy of them - but vehicle stats can easily be altered to reflect your opinion using their build-it-yourself rules.  I'm considering using it for near-future sci fi and making up hover vehicles and walkers.

In the army lists, I like how at the bottom of the regiment details, it shows how many "stands" or individual troops you need; allowing you to easily know how many minis you need to buy for that particular combat formation, making it easy to plan your purchases, i.e.
British Armoured Infantry Battalion 1980s+:  2 Scorpion, 2 FV432 Mortars, 2 Spartan w Milan OR 2 FV432 + Milan teams, 9 IFV, 9 infantry stands

A huge (450+ pages), expensive ($67) rulebook; but its exhaustive orders of battle covering pretty much every army, weapon, troop and system information WW2-2015 would be of value to most modern gamers regardless of the rules themselves. The rules are simple and play quickly despite their wide scope.  I think the main issue with FFT3 is that the rulebook is a significant investment, not really a casual purchase, and $40 seems frankly ridiculous for a pdf. However the plethora of demo rules available means you can decide if the gameplay is for you before investing.

+ Fast turns, playable - get lots of models on the table, finish in a reasonable amount of time
+FoW-ish level of complexity, whilst delivering a deeper, more tactical game
+Points system allows some balancing to be done for "pickup" games
+Sensible cohesion/command rules
+Emphasis on troop quality
+ Immense 260+ page resource for orders of battle and weapon and vehicle stats, WW2-present
+ Design and modify equipment and vehicles
+Comprehensive "toolbox" for WW2-modern wargaming
+Campaigns, scenarios well catered for. I like the "battle generator" for campaigns
+Try before you buy - WW2 and Modern demos

Recommended? Quite impressed - admittedly I only have the rather bland Cold War Commander (a ripoff of GW's Warmaster/Epic rules) and the turgid 1980s-billions-of-charts WRG rules to compare with (I haven't tried Spearhead). Don't be put off by the size of the book - it is 75% army and equipment lists - FFT3 has quick, intuitive gameplay, allowing heaps of models to be handled relatively easily; and has a focus on troop quality. Recommended.

Saturday 3 November 2012

SAGA 28mm Dark Ages Rulebook Review

I've had my eye on this for a while but had been put off by the "buy in".  I know the Gripping Beast minis cost pale in comparison to GW fare, but two small starter warbands combined with the "specialty" dice ($84 x 2) and the rulebook ($35) are a significant investment when no one locally plays it.

My starter minis have been caught up in the Maelstrom Games mysterious "stock reduction/move" (which is looking more and more like a Ponzi scheme) so my playtesting has been limited to proxying some LOTR minis.

 A slim but well-produced and very practical rules set, with lots of examples and summaries

The Shiny
I was a little surprised how thin the rulebook was - when I initially ripped open the packet I thought it was only the battleboards (of which 4 were included). Softcover, it actually weighs in at 75 pages - full colour throughout.

This is evidently a set of rules that has been carefully playtested, and created by gamers, for gamers.  It is easy to read, and includes not only a quick reference page, and photocopyable measuring sticks and tokens, but lists a section on "often overlooked rules", has a solid index, and plentiful examples of gameplay.  In fact rules are summarised at the end of each chapter making this rulebook very easy to read and use. One of the best laid out, user-friendly rulebooks I have come across in a long time.

Army Building
This is dead simple - for 1pt you get 4 Hearthguard (elites); 8 Warriors; or 12 rather rubbish Levies (the horde option). Most armies are 4-6pts and range from 20-70 miniatures. This applies to each faction. Factional differences are shown due to different options in battleboards.

Whilst the battleboard mechanic is a great idea, I disliked the $18 custom dice, especially since a normal d6 would have done the job just as well...

The Battleboard (Orders Phase)
SAGA is a game, not a simulation.  Whilst without the ridiculous rules cheese of say Malifaux or Warmachine, the game hinges on good management of the "battleboard" to enable heroic actions from myth and legend. Each unit generates a "SAGA dice". These are rolled at the start of your turn. Various dice combinations can be used to activate SAGA abilities.  SAGA abilities differ between factions - some can be activated more than once - and SAGA powers can be combined to create powerful effects.

Managing SAGA dice and your battle-board is a mini-game in itself. The rulebook provides good examples of how this works.

Activation Phase
Units can be activated by spending SAGA dice.  Elite troops are easier to activate, ill-disciplined levies are the hardest.   An activated unit may move, shoot or rest. Resting gets rid of a fatigue token.
Units can be activated repeatedly in a turn, as long as there are SAGA dice available to do so.

This is very standard. Troops move a standard range and stay within cohesion range rather like 40K.  Uneven and impassable ground have typical events. Units that move or activate more than once accumulate Fatigue.  

 This Breton starter warband is $118 including SAGA dice - expensive for a "historical" game - the buy-in is disturbingly similar to GW products
Shooting & Melee
Ranged units can engage others within range and LoS.   Levies & Warriors get 1 dice per 2 models; Hearthguard get 1 dice per model.  Attackers and Defenders can use battleboard abilities. Attackers check their rolls - each roll that scores above the enemy "Armour" level scores a hit.  Defenders then can roll a dice each hit. A 4+ cancels the hit.  Cover cancels hits on 3+.  Melee works in a similar manner - however elite troops and warriors have even stronger advantages over levies and combat is more lethal. Units who take the most casualties in melee will retreat. Each unit in melee gains Fatigue.  As units are lost, so too are their accompanying SAGA dice, reducing the capabilities of your warband.

Besides the battleboards, I found this mechanic the most interesting.  Units may accumulate fatigue - levies and warriors may accumulate 3 whilst elite hearthguard can accumulate 4.  Once a unit reaches its limit it may not be activated except to "Rest" and fights with only half the usual dice in melee.

But this isn't that bit that interested me - it was the ability to "spend" an opponent's fatigue points!
If fighting a fatigued opponent, you can "spend" one of their fatigue tokens in order to increase your armour; or you could use an opponent's fatigue to reduce their movement distance. The fatigue system provides a simple but interesting risk-v-reward resource that adds depth to SAGA. Fatigue tokens are the only tokens used in the game (a nice change - most new games have a million tokens and unit cards cluttering up the table).

Other Stuff
The core rules encompass 35 pages - the remaining 40 include miscellaneous rules such as your Warlord (a heroic character who generates extra SAGA dice and is very powerful in combat); faction rules for Vikings, Normans, Danes and Welsh; stats for "named" heroes like Harald Hardrada or William Duke of Normandy; a list of all SAGA abilities, six standard scenarios as well as a scenario for a 3 or 4 player battles. 

Armies with more elite troops are cheaper - this Anglo-Danish force costs $50 - without the $18 SAGA dice

SAGA is simple game, with two clever mechanisms tacked on - the use of the "battleboard" and "fatigue" introduces another level of tactics and resource management, whilst not complicating matters - always a good design point.  A game for heroic actions rather than a strict historical simulation, SAGA lacks a morale system and as the game is scenario-based, there is no reason not to suicidally sacrifice your units to accomplish objectives.  The faction-specific battleboards provide the ability for some fun meta-gaming and heroic actions without the over-the-top cheesiness or "he who knows the most rules wins" of Warmachine or Malifaux.   The rulebook is nicely presented and very gamer-friendly - one of the best I have come across lately.  I'm not a fan of having "special dice" (especially at $18 a set) and although you can convert your own it seems more trouble than it is worth. I also found the cost a little daunting - one 28-man starter army was $100 which is much steeper than the usual cost to try a skirmish wargame*

The game seems to cry out for a campaign system where warbands can battle for land and renown, and perhaps gain "experience" and abilities - I notice there are quite a few home-grown campaign systems springing up on the net.  An "official" campaign is possible, as  Gripping Beast have already published two supplements, each introducing 4 new warbands, so the game seems solidly supported.  Dark Age raids are ideally suited to skirmish gaming but it is rumoured that Arthurian and Crusades versions in pipeline.  SAGA seems a solid club game and a good introduction to historical gaming, and I can see it attracting new players to historical gaming a la Flames of War.

Recommended?: Certainly.  The battleboard and fatigue mechanics are great, and I think both historical and non-historical gamers will enjoy this one. I'd like to see a campaign system supplement; but all in all, a good intro to Ancients/Dark Ages gaming.

*Bulk plastics: If you used Wargames Factory plastics and did a bit of creative kit-bashing you could make warbands for much cheaper.  At 32 minis for $20, if you shared buying 3 boxes of say Fyrd, Thegns, Bondi or Huscarls with a mate, and mix and match body parts a bit, you could both end up with 48 minis for $30 - a much cheaper proposition.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice & Fire Review: Not the Best Anymore?

Since the well-made HBO show a lot of people are "discovering" the books* and how awesome they are.

However I'd suggest these are NOT in fact the best fantasy books currently around. 

(Interesting fact: before the movie "Troy" the archeological dig received only a trickle of visitors a year - after the movie, millions - such is the power of the big screen)

Game of Thrones
Without a doubt, George R R Martin is a talented author.  Both smug critics and the general public agree. Whilst he is a pioneer, to say he "invented" gritty dark fantasy might also be a exaggeration. The "Black Company" series by Glen Cook certainly predates it and J V Jones "Baker's Boy" (1995) and Robin Hobb (Assassin's Apprentice) 1995 have grim themes and far from infallible heroes. There are arguments for Michael Moorcock's work.

However GRRM is painfully slow, producing books with all the speed and enthusiasm of a dog pooping razor blades.  He went years over deadline. He also seems more interested in editing anthologies such as the little-known Wild Cards series than finishing Game of Thrones books. Though I suspect the shed-loads of money he will now be making may smartly re-focus his priorities.

Five novels since 1996 is hardly prolific and you can't say it's due to the editing process - his prose, whilst good, can be rather long winded. A six year wait between books 4 and 5 (which shared a concurrent time-line!) has me doubting he'll ever finish with this cash cow in his lifetime (*cough* Robert Jordan *cough*)  Despite the long incubation the latest book "A Dance with Dragons" is certainly the worst in the series and for the first time ever (I started the series back in 1996) I found myself skipping pages, bored - a criminal offence from any author. Whilst not as misogynistic as feminists will make out, he does seem a bit preoccupied with teen sex and rape.

Tell me that the idea of this guy writing about forced teen sex doesn't make you feel a tad uneasy...

Don't get me wrong. These are good books. Game of Thrones was a breath of fresh air, and we have GRRM's success to thank for the burgeoning "gritty fantasy" movement, which exchanged nauseatingly heroic characters and sickly sweet coming-of-age stories for believable, fallible multi-faceted characters with realistic motivations.

...but.... despite the hype, I'd steer a friend elsewhere.  My advice: Enjoy the TV series (which is remarkably faithful to the books) and move on. (I have similar thoughts on Lord of the Rings which is an over-indulgent exercise in world building with mediocore characters and plot development - but that may be dangerously close to heresy...)

So...  who would I recommend?

Joe Abercrombie
I think this guy has inherited GRRM's mantle as the "cutting edge" of gritty fantasy. He took the format laid out in GRRM's work and refined it.  Like tuning up an old V8; stripping it of excess weight, and adding new brakes and a supercharger.  His books stand out from the new wave of "gritty fantasy" practitioners even as Game of Thrones first stood out amongst other fantasy books.

Why do I make this bold claim?

The Heroes: Axe-wielding norsemen fight to themes of Band of Brothers and Killer Angels

His novels keep getting better. His latest work, The Heroes is brilliant and the writing style has dramatically improved from his debut in The Last Argument of Kings.

Less main character points of view than the dizzying array in Game of Thrones means a story that is easier to follow.

His writing style is leaner and less indulgent, yet no less intelligent. His dialogue is snappy and and a twisted sense of humour pervades throughout.  To call him the Tarantino of fantasy would be lazy and inaccurate - Abercrombie is much superior.

 What does a war movie, a Western and a Shakespearan revenge drama have in common? They all provide themes to Abercrombie's stand alone books...

The book favours entertainment over complexity - whilst cleverly written, plots are simple, but showcase a wide repertoire. The Heroes is a war story which shares themes with books like Band of Brothers and Killer Angels. Red Country (yet to be released) apparently has echoes of the western True Grit. Best Served Cold is a Shakespearan revenge play.

If you like your fantasy gritty, Abercrombie sets the bar.  Game of Thrones is a struggle for a kingdom - the First Law trilogy is a squabble between sorcerers that has become a continent-spanning Cold War that has lasted centuries. Abercrombie sets fantasy conventions on their heads with a infectious enjoyment. GRRM changes perceptions of characters of the course of the series - Abercrombie can do it within the span of a book. 

My only complaint - ramping up the violence and "gritty scale" may have lead to an "unrealistic" level of grittyness where pretty much everyone is a bastard.Game of Thrones has a more balanced character selection.

Finally - his stories actually END.  This is a vanishingly rare virtue nowdays. Remember when 300 pages was a big book? Remember when a trilogy was only three books (not a dozen)?
 I blame the editors.  Every fantasy author seems to think you need a dozen 700-page tomes to tell a story and no one seems to reign them in. It's like most 22-episode TV series. Half the episodes are "padding" and irrelevant to the plot arc. The same can be said of most chapters in your average fantasy book. Heck, God only needed 1200 pages or so for the Bible.

Abercrombie ramps it up a level to stand above his peers.  Faster, leaner, tighter, grittier.  Commit to a book, not a six year wait.   Snappy dialogue and a sense of humour prevail throughout.  Abercrombie pushes the envelope that George R R Martin defined. Recommended.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

LOTR: Battle Companies AAR - $12 of fun

I am intending to playtest a series of small games with the LOTR:SBG and the skirmish campaign spin-off  "Battle Companies". This game is remarkable in needing only a few plastic miniatures. Both warbands in the game cost under $6 each (including a metal "major hero" for each) - this is off ebay of course - where LOTR minis are currently both plentiful and cheap.

The original rules are here as found in White Dwarf 297.  They were tweaked in White Dwarf  311 and it is this latter version I am using as it allows three heroes to start, not just one; it has more skill "upgrade" choices, and it a little better balanced.  

There are 5 Good warband choices: Dol Amroth, Dwarf, Gondor, Rivendell, Rohan
and 7 Evil warband choices: Easterlings, Haradrim, Isengard, Khand, Mordor, Moria, Wargs

Selecting Forces:
I chose an Isengard warband: 3 scouts with hand weapons, and 3 scout archers. 
The wife goes with Gondor: 3 "standard" troops with hand weapons, 2 archers and 2 spearmen.

I assign my major hero and one of my minor heroes as standard scouts. The other minor hero is an archer.  My wife chooses a major hero to be a swordsman, with spearman and archer as her minor heroes.

Selecting Missions:
I am actually using a deck of cards and the Malifaux: Rising Powers rulebook* (p.42-43) as they offer a myriad of mission choices including "hidden" missions which your opponent does not know about.

In an amazing fluke, we both got the same mission: "Slaughter." So much for special missions. Another straight up fight then. 

This whole pregame process took 10 minutes.
(*Before you rush out and buy it, can I say the mission tables are only good use for this rulebook besides as a door-stop)

The wife won deployment. She had secretly chosen a scheme "have more figures in enemy deployment at end of game" from the Malifaux scenarios (which I was unaware of) so she quickly advanced down the side of the board to accomplish this.

The men of Gondor charge down the side of the board to achieve their secret "breakthrough" scheme to control my deployment. I angle my archers towards the wall for a free potshot.

I attempt to control the top of the steps whilst peppering the enemy with fire but the men of Gondor duck out of sight on their way to my deployment zone.

As they run around through the building they are fired upon by one of my archers. Archer #1 claims his first victim of the game - an enemy bowman. They get into cover but their reprieve is short lived.  

As they charge up the steps they are met with a volley of exceptionally aimed arrows.  I concentrate my fire on the spearmen to avoid their "supporting bonus."  Archer #1 causes a wound on a heroic Gondor spearmen. He uses his "Fate" to cheat death.  Archer #2 kills another spearmen with a "6" to the head.

Archer #1 kills the last bowmen (his third wound of the game - remarkable with the weak orc bows) as the forces come together at the top of the steps. Battle is joined in a fierce melee.  Our captains meet in battle and with both rolling "2"s my superior fight value wins the day. However the Gondor captain cheats "Fate" and is merely pushed back down the steps.  In a last desparate fight, the two orcs take on a Gondor swordsman supported by the heroic spearmen. They kill him, at which point (with a 0-4 kill/death ratio) and unable to complete her objective, my wife withdraws. Playing time: 30 minutes.

Experience Gained & Wounds:
Orc archer #1 5XP (level up -> crossbow) - 3 wounds
Orc archer #2 3XP - 1 wound
Orc archer minor hero 2XP

Orc scout + shield major hero = 3XP - 1 wound
Orc scout + shield minor hero = 3XP - 1 wound
Orc scout + shield - 2XP

Bowmen minor hero  1 XP - (INJ) miss a game, wounded
Bowmen 1XP - (INJ) miss a game, wounded

Spearmen minor hero - (INJ) dead
Spearmen - 1XP

Gondor std #1 - 1XP  (INJ) wounded but complete recovery
Gondor std #2 -1XP
Gondor major hero - 1XP

Isengard got 2+2 for win (4 influence). As it has 3 points it can roll on the Influence table. The roll of "4" gains an extra scout uruk-hai with a hand weapon (and no shield). It has 1 influence left over.

Gondor got 2 for participating (2 influence). it can only by wargear as there is not enough (3pts) needed for an Influence roll. While it could buy equipment or weapons upgrades, Gondor decides to save all its influence for next round to replace the dead spearman.

The postgame check took 10 minutes - so 50 minutes to play the game from start to finish although I could trim this to 30-40 minutes with practice.

Only one guy (my orc archer who scored an improbable 3 wounds with a series of sixes) got to "level up"; which was a bit disappointing. However the 30-minute game time would allow 3-4 games to be played in an evening allowing a satisfying "narrative" to be developed.  Having to ebay a metal $3 crossbowmen mini brought my total to $9 for Isengard whilst Gondor stayed at $6.  Definitely an affordable way to play! The softcover "Mine of Moria" A5 rules can be picked up on ebay for $10-15 if you don't have the rules (and, like me, don't fancy shelling out $50+ for a fancy hardbacked tome.)

The small model count made every shot or melee a matter of vital interest - the sharpshooter orc scout practically won the game causing 3 wounds.   On the downside, having less units and limited unit types to work with made the game a little bit more bland and less tactical than the other bigger LOTR games I've played - I felt I won largely due to my (unusually) excellent archery die rolling. Also, the relatively low-power Battle Companies heroes lead to less opportunities for "resource management" with Might Will and Fate, which is where LOTR gets a lot of its flavour. This may improve as the heroes "level up" though. 

I'll be interested to see how warbands develop - compared to Mordhiem which could become "broken" with certain combinations of units and equipment. The Battle Companies options are a lot simpler though so should be less "bugged." I have my suspicions about high-defence dwarves and sharpshooter elves being possibly OP over a long campaign.

Blander gameplay than larger LOTR:SBG games, but quick (30 minutes); simple, cheap, and most of all, fun. It would be very easy to develop a "narrative" with a sequence of battles.  The tiny amount of minis and low, low cost  ($6 per warband) makes this easy to recommend - I'd be surprised if most gamers couldn't lay their hands on 10-15 LOTR plastics which they or a gaming partner already has.  The typical GW rules style makes them easy to learn and the campaign system, where individual minis gain new equipment, skills and traits over games (or even acquire injuries or die) is always  fun.

Recommended: Certainly. Vanishingly cheap, simple - a very accessible entry to the addictive world of campaign gaming.