Monday 2 July 2012

Alien War Beta Rules Review July 2012 (Defiance Games)

I'm always on the lookout for "sensible" sci fi minis (i.e. ones without skullz, scrollz and spiky bitz dripping off them like gangsta bling) and I came across these "not Colonial Marines"

 If I read it right, $30 for 24 marines is very affordable and makes a mockery of GW pricing. The line will expand through 2012

What interested me more was the free rules that came with it which are squad to platoon+ size. (I.e. 6-40+ minis like Warhammer $40,000).   I'd say using 40-100 minis like they say is a bit optimistic; unlike 40K it does seem to "scale down" meaning a force of say three 4-man fire teams, a marksman and a weapons team would provide a decent game; and the strength of Alien Wars is in smaller infantry actions. 

The Shiny
It's beta - and it's a free pdf, so I am not too critical. Actually it's quite easy to read and 30 pages is, for me, the sweet spot of rules complexity (i.e. not oversimple or too involved).  There is artwork scattered throughout reinforcing the Aliens/Starship Troopers theme. The idea of offering "beta" rules as a free pdf to maximise player exposure is a good one, and also allows a bigger pool of "beta testers" to break test the game.

 Starship Troopers is full of pulpy B-grade goodness. I suspect many haters fail to "get" its tongue-in-cheek nature

Stats & Stuff
Troops are ranked Green (CV 2) to Veteran (CV 4). Leaders rank from 1 (NCO/fire team leader) to 6 (battalion commander+).   Armour ranks from 1 (none) to 2 (flak vest) to 7 (heavy power armour with heavy weapons).

Troops must roll equal or under the Combat Value (CV) to succeed at tasks or pass tests.

Weapons are very generic "Aliens/Starship Troopers" and include assault rifles, SAWs, heavy support weapons such as support MGs, grenade launchers and flame throwers. Nothing exotic. (I can see how a handheld tactical nuke might upset game balance). I suspect the weapons choices will be expanded in the future to include railguns and perhaps energy weapons.

There are sample forces included to give you an idea of typical units and points costs.

 Adding in  a few generic "Traits" or "Special Abilities" would help characterize individual Marines in small squad bug-hunt games

You roll a dice and compare it on a chart with the communication rating of your unit; units can perform 1 or 2 actions depending on the rank of their leader - cross referenced with the dice roll.
 A "6" on this roll means random events also occur - similar to "Fog of War" cards in Ambush Alley, for example - that can lead to events of good or bad fortune for yourself or opponent.

Units can move (creeping, walking, running); shoot, melee, take up overwatch, or counter-attack (basically an overwatch against melee attack) positions. Actions like treating casualties, exiting vehicles and setting up support weapons also take an action.

The ability to interrupt an opponents' turn increases player interest and involvement - shown by the success of Infinity and Ambush Alley.  Soldiers don't stand like shop mannequins waiting to be mowed down - they react to their foes.  Alien War has a solid simple system; allowing you to react to foes within 24". If you are pinned you cannot react; and if you are on overwatch/counterattack status you can automatically shoot or charge foes to your front. Otherwise a unit must test against the CV of its leader; if it passes it may counter-attack, shoot or retreat.  If the element fails the test, no further friendlies can test to react this turn.

I like the reaction system - they have refined the simple reactions of the OOP Starship Troopers game without going to the complexity of Infinity.  In fact the system is pretty much identical to one I devised to make my 40K games more interesting and it could be bolted directly on to 40K (subsitute the Leader stat for CV and I made my reaction range 12" not 24" due to the short range of 40k weapons)

Movement is 40K-esque - a base 4" move for most with a d6 added on when running.  Troops in a fire team have 3" coherency (also 40k).

Targets are rated as easy, basic, concealed, in cover, and fortified.  This reminds me of the Two Fat Lardies in that commonsense is used to decide modifiers. This is then cross referenced with firer skill (veteran- green) to see the "to hit" number.

 I like the rules for heavy weapons jamming - any rolls featuring more '6's than rolls under the firer's CV jams if there is no assistant gunner. I've seen this used well in air combat games for tracking ammunition.  Marksmen can target specific enemy figures.

Leaders must pass their CV to lead their troops into melee; a unit may actually advance while shooting before engaging in melee (a refreshing change - most games tend to assume they tuck their rifles away, draw their knives and attack, a la Waterloo bayonet charge). Defenders must test to keep their nerve and may also fire before being engaged. Units with close combat weapons roll two dice (a la Starship Troopers the game) and heavy weapons only roll one. 

The winner of the melee is decided by a rather annoying Warhammer Fantasy-style method of counting1 for each wounded, 2 for serious wounds, 3 for killed, and 4 for gory deaths; then comparing scores as a ratio. This is rather clunky

Having reactions and suppression is what elevates this game above 40K; troops inside the blast radius of explosives (or if hits exceed the unit's figures) must test against their leader's CV. If he fails they are pinned, and may run and dive 2+d6" toward cover. It cannot do anything in its next action and may not react.  A second "pin" marker means two actions are forfeited. 

Troops may voluntarily "hit the dirt" to avoid enemy fire - which is similar to pinning; and also needs a CV test to recover.

The Defiance bugs fill a void left by the demise of the Mongoose SST line. This line will also be expanded.

Damage & Injury
If the hits on a target unit exceed the figures in it,  the target must test to see if it was pinned.  When deciding who is hit, the most exposed mini is always the first choice; with the owning player deciding who takes the hits thereafter.  This offers interesting choices - as a veteran mini can survive hits more easily; but is more valuable if lost. 

Models then roll against their armour on the "Cheating Death" table, where they may retaliate by firing back, be wounded or knocked out of action.   Wounded or out of action figures may be stunned or hurt - the soldier's can be tested to mitigate this. Soldiers who suffer a "gory death" may pin nearby troops who are showered with body parts.

This is by far the most complex part of the rules so far. Hurt troops are at -1 to their CV which involves tracking, and Stunned troops also need markers showing their status.

This is the games "chokepoint" - it caps the size of the force to smaller actions.

 I like the quick way Alien Wars deals with it. Squads test and retreat individually, if these conditions are met: if the squad leader, all the fireteam leaders, or half the squad is out of action or the squad is pinned.

If two conditions are met, test the CV for the senior leader still uninjured - if he fails the squad retreats; if three conditions are met the squad automatically retreats.

Miniatures vs Rules
The Alien Wars rules are obviously meant to accompany the Defiance Games "not Starship troopers" line. There are German, Marine and Bug forces, of which only the latter two have releases - a single base box set each.  More releases are planned but I think Defiance has made a mistake in not releasing a more "complete" line - people like myself will wait for support weapons and vehicles - meanwhile unsold stock sits on the shelf and the game loses momentum.

In the interim, the rules could be developed standalone used to sell the Defiance miniatures and promote interest. Widening the scope of the game to include vehicles and exotic/space fantasy tech, plus a campaign system and unit builder, would fill a gap AE: Bounty failed to achieve; the rule book could include  lots of photos and army lists for the official Defiance line; thus promoting profitable mini sales; whilst also selling as a standalone 28mm/15mm ruleset able to support the tech on the more exotic 40K minis would widen the consumer base. I'd happily pay $30 for a full fleshed out set of these rules and pdf sales have low overheads and get the rules "out there."

Alien War borrows from Starship Troopers - a good, but now OOP game mishandled by Mongoose

Pretty darn good for a beta. Alien War has strong similarities to both 40K and the OOP Mongoose game Starship Troopers; the author has borrowed much of the best bits from both, whilst adding in his own ("random event cards"  "firing when charging"  "casualty rules") and enhancing them where possible.

The game is superior in having a more robust reaction system than Starship troopers. The rules for pinning and suppression are also good; the game has 100% more tactical choices than the "charge to hand to hand" of Warhammer $40,000; it also scales down better to using smaller groups of models.
The author has deliberately devoted considerable detail to dealing with casualties which has added more complexity than elsewhere in the game; which players may or may not appreciate (and slows the game down).  I also feel there may be a better way of determining the winner of a melee than the WFB style point-scoring system adopted.

Right now the game is focussed on the pseudo Starship Troopers/Aliens universe of the Defiance games minis. A limited weapon list and a lack of vehicle rules will no doubt be remedied in future updates; I'd like to see a "points builder" allowing you to create and stat up your own minis.

I can also see the game expanding to include "Traits" and "Special Abilities" - which would be useful to give individual character and flavour to a squad of bug hunting Marines. If they do I hope they keep it manageable (20 or so simple generic traits) rather than succumb "Ability Creep" like Infinity where each model has a unique ability ("he who knows the most rules wins").

Recommend? This game bridges the gap between the bland tactic-less vanilla of 40K and the complex reaction choices of Infinity and is an ideal introduction to using reaction systems within a familiar framework. Would work equally for Space Hulk corridor crawls or platoon sized infantry combat.  I think this one has a big future ahead of it, especially paired with the Defiance game bugs, which fill a gap left vacant by the demise of the old Mongoose game.


  1. Some of the Mongoose bugs are available from Rebel Minis, although they're labelled as being for 15mm. Mongoose kept some of the rights to stuff they'd created after losing the SST license, and sold them off.

  2. Replies
    1. Howard Whitehouse8 July 2012 at 11:16

      Thanks for the many kind words, and reasonable criticisms.

      'Alien War' is, as noted, set in the "It's the future but not really" sort of environment that, say, 'Aliens' is ("His collar and tie are different from current fashion" etc) and the rules stem from a WWII squad level game of mine. If any part resembles other rules, that's largely coincidental – I've never played 'Starship troopers' and, while I have played WH40K, I've not enjoyed it. Most of it stems from my own 'Astounding Tales!' cleaned up to be more overtly mainstream.

      The casualty rules are the most complex part of the game, since I wanted to design something where looking after wounded comrades is more important than, say, defining seven kinds of grenade. They work well in a squad level game, but will certainly become cumbrous with a platoon or more; I was in two minds whether to use the 'bigger battle' version of the wounding rules – basically, count as wounded as 'hurt' – for the Beta version, but went with the more detailed rules since I used a squad on squad game for the running examples.

      "What the ?!?" certainly means "heck" if you are playing with youngsters or very polite gamers. That's what I use :)

      I'd love to hear how people's test games go, as that's the best way of improving the rules. Vehicles, walkers, bugs, hardsuits and more to come -- see link

  3. A concern I would also have it lack of a "stat line". For human only forces this is fine; but stats help define models.

    Otherwise you have to use to many special rules to make aliens "different" unless you have Star trek humans-in-rubber-suits. Tomorrow's War (which simply has a "Troop Quality" "Armour" and "Morale" stats) falls into this trap; fine for near-future human only sci fi but a little grainy or over-reliant on "bolt on" rules to make truly "alien aliens" if you know what I mean.

    Having traits and special abilites to define "characters" like the squad from Aliens is fun. Having them mandated because having 3 special rules is the only way to make a face hugger different from a human is awkward.

    Less is not always more. Aliens might be better at dodging fire, be mindlessly brave or inhumanly strong or tough; be brilliant at ranged attacks but weak as a toddler in melee. You CAN make a special rule for each; or you could make a wider choice of stats that do the same thing. I think this only applies for sci fi or fantasy with its vast and varied range of VERY non-human forces.

    A simplified damage system would be good, and have the more complex one as optional for smaller squad-level bug hunts.

    Remember this is sci fi - where 7 kinds of grenade ARE worthwhile - human grenades ARE pretty much identical, but a Kwarkian Sticky Cluster Grenade IS different than a Insta-Freeze Burrowing Grenade.

    If you need to design rules for a specific setting, fine - but better would be to allow every setting from Aliens and Blade Runner to 40K and Star Wars.

    If I want to play gritty realistic standard human modern warfare with a few shiny bits tacked on I already have "Tomorrow's War."

    Alien War has the opportunity to find an ideal middle ground between the gritty realistic and tactical but difficult-to-grasp rules concepts of "Tomorrow' War" to the corny-but-easy-to-play Warhammer 40K; a gateway for 40K gamers to a more rewarding game mode.

    Remember: Take away the chainsaws and you take away a big portion of the audience. Isn't is possible to have both?

  4. Howard Whitehouse9 July 2012 at 08:18

    Great comments, EvilMonkeigh!

    The grandfather of Alien War is my Pulp game 'Astounding Tales!', which has a stat line of, erm, 7 or 8 different things. While some characters have quite varied stat lines - Hercule Poirot is SMARTS 6 but FISTS 2 - the military personnel who mostly run around as extras, tend to be all 3s or all 4s; that's where I decided to keep a single CV. You may be right in thinking that a stat line would help, especially for alien types. While some amount of 'bolt-on' rules will always be needed for special types, I'd prefer to have as much integral to the sytem as possible. I always feel the Warhammer systems are essentially rather clunky versions of 1960s wargames plastered over with special rules.

    I'd like the AW rules to be as open as possible in terms of 'make up your own', although I suspect that - at least 'officially' - the limits to this are defined by human combat behaviour as much as anything. So, that middle ground you speak of is a great place to aim for. Thanks again!

  5. Don't get me started on 40k! It is a RPG-lite skirmish game that has been turned into a mass battle game, distorted well outside its parameters by a greed to sell more minis. A fair enough goal, but the rules need a radical overhaul and the mechanics are firmly mired in the past.

    NORMALLY I prefer a short stat line, for human games. But for sci fi or fantasy the "range" of physical traits is so vast, having a stat line actually creates more rules. If I have 20 different alien types, I'd rather learn 4-5 stats and 1 special rule than 1 stat and 5 special rules. Especially as stats are universal and quickly become instinctual, and special rules can be model-specific and require "looking up". Warmachine, for example, is a game usually won by the player who knows the most special rules as it is not uncommon for the game to hinge on a player performing a special attack his opponent was unaware of.

    It's easier to know an alien is Strength 5 Armour 1 Speed 7 Agility 4 Morale 2, and has a "Teeth and Claws attack" special rule - as the stats are pretty self explanatory to an opponent; than have a CV of "3" and special rules "Inhumanly Strong". "Almost as fast as a cheetah" "Pretty darn agile" and "Bit of a wimp" - and it allows for degrees of wimpiness or strength.

    Song of Blades is an excellent game (I review it somewhere on the blog or at least it's spin off Flashing Steel - but people always claim it is to "granular" and its #1 turn off - i.e. there are only 2 stats "Combat" (encompasses missile, melee and defence) and Quality (encompasses movement speed, morale, reactions, # of attacks). 7-8 stats is indeed overkill but 4-5 is quite good (and better than 40k with its useless "Initiative" and "Save" stats which (like it or not) most people in sci fi will be mentally using as the benchmark. Remember 90% of your audience will be ex 40k gamers who want weird worm beasts and shiny pluton cannons; not Napoleanics buffs who argue about command and control. Don't get me wrong - tactics is what sets Alien War ahead of 40k - but you need to cater to both parties. Make the rules accessible and it will attract more gamers, which in turn sells Defiance more official minis due to people copying the rulebook lists and photos(and if the minis aren't good enough, then at least you sell rulebooks).

    Another 10c - "reactions" allow an element of solo gaming to be grafted on - having an optional rule allowing a die roll dictate reactions would allow the aliens/bugs to be "dice controlled" and allow the humans to play co op on the same side.

  6. Howard Whitehouse10 July 2012 at 08:35

    Once again, a great set of thoughts. As I expand the rules, I don't want every alien to be a mass of exceptions to the rules - indeed, the Hudson's Bugs are obviously NOT like Panzergrenadiers, but are simple fast killing machiens with no individual identity, so that's still easy stuff.

    I know what you means about the Ganesha system, which I admire a lot. A few more characteristics are in order, or at least desirable.

    And you are right about where the players will come from. A kid said AW was "Like Warhammer but more fun", and he's the person I want to like this game - not his granddad who knew Charles Grant personally.

    A solo version is a good idea - as is an RPG format where all the players are on one human side faced by a GM and a hostile terrain fulll of bugs/giant sand critters/bandits/whatever.

    Thanks again!

  7. ....and 40k players like their stat lines...

    If you are familiar with Ganesha games then they are a useful example for rules design

    They do a lot of things right:
    (+) unit builder allows to stat up random models (#1 reason for popularity I reckon)
    (+) simple, fast to play (40min-1.5hr) - easy to learn, to introduce to others, can play campaign in evening
    (+) traits allow RPG-ish feel
    (+) resource allocation/risk management of 1-3 d6 vs actions
    (+) variety of cinematic push back-knock down-dead-gruesome death effects from a SINGLE roll that is part of the combat resolution (*cough* Alien War overcomplicates this *cough*)
    (+) simple campaign rules included

    (-) 2 stats, and too many traits/special abilities required (#1 complaint I hear about them)
    (-) important info scattered over 3-4 separate pdf rulebooks

    If Alienwar can absorb what made them successful and avoid the pitfalls it will be well on its way to success

    Traits and special abilities are great to add flavour IF:
    (a) there are 20-30 of them max; they are generic traits shared by all factions

    (b) you do not make up a new trait every time a new model is released (Malifaux and Warmachine do this, and the amount of

    "exceptions" are out of control - he who knows the most rules wins)
    (c) most critters or humans do not have more than 1 (maybe 2 for elite units or heroes)