Thursday 25 December 2014

7th Voyage - 7TV Crooked Dice Game Review

I've been seeking a skirmish game to go with my newly-arrived Warlord Greeks.  I was thinking skirmish games, with a warband that could explore and do battle with various mythological monsters as well as human warbands, so Crooked Dice's 7th Voyage looked very interesting.  With my PayPal account bulging with birthday loot, I unhesitatingly pulled the trigger on the $60 (gulp) rulebook.  A good decision?

The Shiny
It's a well-presented 90-page hardback.  It's easy to read, with cartoon silhouette art and the odd miniature picture thrown in.  Kinda slender for the cost, but solid production values. A quick reference sheet, photocopyable templates and unit sheets and a range of creature/unit types in the appendix.  The game is meant to mimic TV shows, so the terminology uses "cast" for warband, and "stars and co-stars" instead of heroes. 

The artwork is similar inside. 
It uses the same action:engine mechanics used in other Crooked Diced games like their 7TV spy series.  Stats are extensive:

Hit points

Game Engine
The players roll a dice to see who starts first in the turn.  The difference in the dice becomes the audience appreciation score which is shared 50/50 between the players.

The audience appreciation is a resource which can be spent to add +1 to a dice roll, or extra activations. A simple form of resource management that adds interest to the game.

Units get activation tokens equal to half the models they have, rounding up.  So basically half your models can activate.  Once activated, a model can take two actions (like move, shoot, aim or melee). Some actions (like going prone) are free and do not count.

Players can also have a hand of three event cards which they can play at times to influence the action - usually to give extra cinematic events and drama to the battle.  

Except for activation, the rules are pretty simple and generic.

Nothing new here. Units move their "Move" stat - or 1d6" if in tough terrain/jumping.   Charging models get a melee bonus.  There are rules for climbing (and naturally, falling), swimming, and dragging other models.

Minis roll to hit, i.e. 5+ on d6, or whatever their skill dictates. Identical to games like LoTR - simple and familiar. Melee works the same - roll a d6 and score say a 4+ to hit. Units can roll an extra dice but their enemy gains a free counter attack.  Super simple and both sets of rules are a paragraph each.  Quite a few modifiers though. I will probably sound a bit snobbish when I say these are similar to a rule-set I wrote when I was 12 years old.  Oh, you can choose to push models back or knock them down, but I can't imagine that many circumstances where I would prefer to do so. 

To check if a model is wounded, you roll on a table which indexes the attackers' strength and the defender's defence.  I'm not sure if this chart is identical to the ones used for 40K/WFB/LoTR, but I wouldn't bet against it.  Unarmed attacks usually stun rather than wound the enemy, and you can capture foes instead of killing them.

There is a roll you can make to perform special actions (like pull a lever) and morale rules which are similar to the usual i.e. test if you have isolated minis, have lost half your models, or you face an enemy that causes fear.  There is a victory point table for defining the margin of victory.

Models get a magic pool of d6 which they can spend in their turn.  You can choose a number of d6s from the pool, and add this to your Intelligence stat.  If it equals or beats the difficulty of the spell you succeed.   Summoned creatures must be purchased at the start of the game, but require a successful spell to bring onto the table (and can be banished off it as well.)  If models have "Luck" they can spend it to re-roll dice.

There is a solid list of 28 melee and missile weapons that cover everything you need - spears, clubs, swords, daggers, bows, slings etc. Even tails and tentacles.  These have a "strength", range, cost and special effects, like parry and thrust.

Special Effects
These are the usual special rules, traits and abilities.  There are 44 (69 if you count the monsterous and otherworldly traits). Some cover areas like combat, knowledge, physical traits - and may include disadvantages like slow or weak willed. Plenty of descriptive traits, and explained clearly enough.

I'm a sucker for pictures of miniatures in game
Unit Creation
There are a bunch of archetypes.  Each group has a star or co-star. You can amend their stats and abilities to an extent, as well as weapons. spells and equipment.  Not a true "create your own character" from scratch like Song of Blades and Heroes, but quite customizable. 
Dashing rogues, favoured champions, wise elders and enchanting beauties, deadly assassins, vile tyrants and brutish bodyguards - there's quite a bit to choose from, though I'd have preferred a bit more freedom.  

The rules for "Extras"i.e. the non-hero grunts and minions, include a range of civilians, soldiers, sailors and monsters - covers most of the "generic" characters but may not cover all your needs.  Not a big deal, given I can't see 7th Voyage being played competitively - you can simply mod other similar characters or creatures.

Scenarios & Missions
Jason & the Golden Fleece, Gorgon, Sinbad's voyages, the Thief of Baghdad are missions with pre-made "casts."  The sides of good and evil can have a straight up fight, but there are scenarios you can dice for (battle, escape, race, skirmish, steal, assassinate) and there are also random terrain generators (though you'd have to own a wide range of terrain for these sorts of things to be useful.)
There is a list of magical items/costs and spells /difficulty, as well as a list of event cards. 

I think it suffers for its $60 price tag.  I look at it, look at the Song of Blades pdf for $8, and think "I could have had a spare $52 to buy miniatures."  It has no better rules or content than $18 Osprey books like In Her Majesty's Name, for more than triple the price. 

+ Simple, easy to pick up and play
+ Interesting activation - audience appreciation points is a good addition
+ Generally solid rules

- Very expensive for the content
- You feel like you could have written the combat rules yourself
- No "advancement"or "campaign" rules
- Unit builder is not as comprehensive as similar games

In fact, I've ordered the mythology-specific SoBH spin off by Osprey - Of Gods & Mortals ($18) - which will make for an interesting comparison when it arrives.  As it is, I regret the money I spent on 7th Voyage - it would have been O.K. for $20.  (The pdf is ~$22 but even that is a premium where most pdfs are ~$10; I'd expect a printed rulebook for that) EDIT: Review Of Gods & Mortals is here.

Recommended: Not really. Whilst there is nothing wrong with these rules, unless you really love the "we're pretending this is a TV show" vibe, or you like paying a premium for a hard-backed rule book, there's plenty of other games that do the exact same thing or better for much, much cheaper.    

Saturday 20 December 2014

Lords & Servants Medieval Skirmish - Rules Review - Dadi&Piombo

I'd currently earmarked LoTR:SBG + Age of the Trebuchet + Battle Companies for medieval/dark ages skirmish + campaigning but I pricked up my ears when I came across this.  A skirmish ruleset from the folks behind Impetus? Sounds interesting.

The Shiny
A $9, 39-page pdf with pictures of Perry and Fireforge minis scattered throughout.  I found the rules easy to read and understand - so much so I was worried I would explain too much of the rules in my review.  A 2 page quick-reference sheet included covers all the key info.   

Lords & Servants is a breath of fresh air in the medieval skirmish genre where Pig Wars (1989) and Chainmail (sometime B.C.) are still spoken of fondly.
Played on a 3x3 or 4x4' table, the minis have few stats:

AV = Activation value (cost to activate a mini)
C = Combat skill + morale combined
Weapon = as it sounds
Special Characteristics = any special rules/abilities

Each player rolls 3d6. The total is their Action Points pool, and the winner goes first.  You can also keep up to 6AP aside for use in your opponents' turn. Most miniatures or groups can take only 3 actions, which include the usual - move, shoot, aim, reload etc.  This use of a  "order pool" adds interesting resource management.   Groups can move at the cost of a single figure + the leader i.e. a group of 5 AV2 troops + a AV2 leader would cost 4AP to move - 2 for the group and 2 for the leader.  Moved individually, they would cost 12AP - using leaders is thus optional but very attractive.

Units have a move distance for the first move (say 12cm) then one for subsequent moves (8cm) which is a bit unusual and reminds me of Infinity.  Groups in close order (touching bases) move slower.  Moving for all three activations is considered running and needs to be noted with a counter. There are AP costs for jumping obstacles, moving inside buildings, etc.  Units can fight in close order or open order - open order skirmishers can react by retreating away from charges in their opponents' turn but sometimes a bad roll will mean they get run down.

Forces have ambush markers depending on size which can be single figures or groups.  These markers are moved around the table, and revealed when the player decides or if spotted by an opponent. 

Minis shoot into their front 180d. 2d6 is used - hitting on a 7 (effective range) but including ranges from close (5+) to extreme (13!+).  If a figure is running, in cover, or in plate armour, he gets to roll a 5+ "cover save" on a d6. You can aim your fire and reload for an AP cost.  For group fire, you roll 2d6 for the first figure, then add 1d6 each extra ones. I.e. 5 archers roll 6d6.  Let's say a 4,3,6,2,6,4 are rolled = 25.  A 7 is needed to hit at effective range.  The total (25) / to hit (7) = 3 hits.  A bit maths-y for some perhaps?

Units who are hit roll "saving throws" to avoid death - they survive on a 6+ (half naked peasant) down to 3+ (plate). Horses and riders can be hit separately.  Heroes and personalities can roll d6 and on a 4+ it can "sacrifice" a nearby figure within 5cm and have it hit instead.  Figures who survive a hit are Shaken. Shaken figures cannot act until they spend 2AP to recover (1AP if in range of a leader/standard.)

Reactive Fire
Units can perform opportunity fire as a reaction if they pass an AV Test (roll above the AV cost of their actions) i.e. an AV2 unit must roll 3 or more.  Units being charged can hold their fire until the last minute to make it more lethal but this is harder to do.  Only one action can be spent firing in reaction.

Minis roll 3d6 (+extra dice for modifiers).  They score hits according to the CV of their opponent. I.e. if you are fighting a CV5 foe you hit on each roll of 5+.  A weaker CV3 foe would be hit on 3+.  The most hits wins: 2 more hits = kills, 1 more hit the loser is pushed back 5cm and shaken.  You can have group fights of up to 4:1 with extra minis adding extra dice.

Players with shields, plate armour or weapons with better initiative can make players re-roll a dice. There are special rules like foot dodging cavalry charges and unseating riders with polearms, as well as group v group combat.  

Units have a MV - a points total made up of all its minis - ranked from 1 to a common soldier to 5 for the supreme leader.  Once 1/3 of the total MV is lost, roll a d6 against the unit's most common "C"value.  If the unit passes it can remain until it takes 50% losses.  A failure (or going past 50%) means the unit is removed. Basically, if a noble or leader gets cut down it impacts morale much more than a common soldier, and units do not fight to the last man.

Special Rules
It explains the leadership levels and bonuses of sergeants, men at arms, nobles etc.  There are a range of historically-grounded special abilities such as lethal, feared, fanatic, scout, skirmisher. Heroes have a discount AV cost of 1/1/1 and C6 allowing them to take lots of actions cheaply and be deadly to boot. 

Quite a detailed list - differentiating between heavy and light crossbows, javelins, long and short spears as well as pikes.  Weapons have different "initiatives" allowing them to force opponents' re-rolls - it kinda shows the speed/reach/parrying of the weapon.  Weapons might also have special rules like pikes nullifying charging horse and allowing support from the 2nd and 3rd ranks; or the lethality of a warhammer, or how hand axes can be thrown.

Perry's plastic range is some of the best I've owned.  A range of poses with plenty of bits, easy to put together and sound value at $35AUD for 38 minis. In Australia, a similar quantity of LoTR/Hobbit minis (with less poses) from the same sculptor cost $139.... gotta love Games Workshop... no wonder GW refugees are flocking to historicals like FoW and Bolt Action...
Army Building/Deployment
You can play at several levels - 1 unit, 1 unit+support, and multiple unit games.  There were no example scenarios which I found a bit surprising, and a bit of a glaring omission. I was pleased to see a "points system" included (something many historical sets snootily decline to do) as well as army-building guidelines for making balanced "pick up"games.  Units tend to be around 5-12 minis each and have recommended quantities i.e.  1 leader, 0-1 banner, 4-12 spears.  Weapons and abilities have a points cost.  It all looks good so far but I'm kinda bracing myself for the inevitable fantasy mod (and the zillion special rules that will follow).   There are "army lists" for feudal, Mongol and WoTR armies and I'm sure there'll be a heap more on their forums etc shortly.

Activation dice and resource management, hidden movement, reactive fire, an army and unit builder allowing you to stat up models....  Three thumbs up! (OK, it's definitely time I played historical instead of sci fi).

Only thing I'd complain about is use of 2d6 and 3d6 rolls, and the add-buckets-of-d6-then-divide used when shooting. Swapping to a d10 might have simplified things.  Also, tracking which players have run, are shaken or have fired their weapons requires markers.  The record-keeping is thus a bit heavier than LoTR and the use of reactions, combined with the dice mechanics, makes the game slower. LoTR bogs at 50+ miniatures so the claims L&S can handle 60-80 seems a bit dubious. Also the lack of scenarios is surprising for a game of this genre.

I note there is a black-powder version called "Smooth and Rifled" which uses similar mechanics.  I might check it out when I finally paint up my French-Indian War models, as overall, this is quite an interesting rules set.

Recommended: Absolutely. Easy to understand, it modernizes medieval skirmish with resource management and reaction mechanics. If you like medieval warfare, go buy these rules.  As a result, I'm now putting my Perry WoTR minis to the top of my painting queue (it was a bit lame proxying with orcs). Stay posted for a proper AAR-with-pics.   However I'm not completely abandoning LoTR yet (it plays faster and simpler, and has easily-adapted campaign advancement options). Other newer rules options are Bashing the Bishop which I haven't tried but obviously continue TFL's rather juvenile naming conventions.

Friday 19 December 2014

Battletech: Alpha Strike Rules Review

"Alpha Strike" stems from the realisation that the way to make money is to sell lots of miniatures.  When a complete traditional Battletech "force" can be made up  a lance of four $10 minis, I can't see truckloads of minis being sold. 

Alpha Strike simplifies Battletech in order to cram more models on the tabletop. It even has its own new scale (cue groaning from Battletech fans who have already undergone several scale changes) which is half the size of the traditional mechs.  Since it is half the price ($5ea vs $10ea) but only uses 1/8th the volume of the metal, that's good business sense right there.  The same pewter is worth 400% more. 

However - and this is a big plus - mecha are roughly 1:285 scale which mean they should fit perfectly with any 6mm sci fi you might already have - like those from GZG/Brigade etc.  This is a major, major selling point for me as infantry and auxiliary vehicles are not available yet anyway.  It deviates from the usual Battletech hex grid and jumps firmly aboard the tabletop gaming wagon.

EDIT: Comparison pics suggest they look more like 1:700. They are half the height of regular minis, so maybe the regular size is 1:285? (I got rid of my BT minis but they were older ones so my scales might be out of whack?) 

The jump to 1:285 allows compatibility with the generic 6mm ranges which gives you great flexibility in making combined-arms forces. Minis are online only at Iron Wind Metals.

The super detailed mecha profiles from traditional Battletech (I think the latest iteration is called "Total War") are replaced by a fairly simple unit card.

Move (in inches)
Skill (this is pilot skill and shows the "to hit number")
Damage (the damage in each range bracket - short, medium and long - depends on the weapons fit)
Overheat (this is how much extra damage a mech can do, in exchange for heat)
Armour (armour hitpoints total - there are no individual hit locations)
Structure (internal hitpoints - again, there are no individual hit locations)
Heat Scale (this only has 4 levels - 1,2,3, and Shutdown)
Special Abilities

Gameplay & Rules
Activation is done alternately, like traditional BT.  Mecha can move or jump.  Movement has typical modifiers for smooth or difficult terrain. Attacks and movement can be made underwater, in snow and ice, hazardous acid pools and industrial zones, jungle, magma, and mud.  There are advanced rules to leap, sprint, climb and evade attacks.   There are advanced environmental rules for wind (even tornadoes), earthquakes, gravity, darkness, and atmospheres ranked from very thick to vacuum. 

They can fire at any enemies within their arc.  They check range and roll to hit.  Ranges are short (0-6") medium (6-24") and long (24-42").  The "to hit" number is the pilots' skill - so if the firer's Skill level is 4 he needs a 4 or better on 2d6.  However there is likely to be modifiers for target speed, cover etc.  Purists will be pleased you can still perform charge and death-from-above (jumping) attacks. 

If damage from an attack goes into structure, a critical hit is rolled for.  Criticals are much simpler than original BT as they are for the entire mech rather than individual components such as arms, legs or torso. Hits to the rear add +1 damage.

Players can choose to "overheat" their mech before they attack, exchanging extra damage for heat.  Each extra damage adds one heat.  Heat levels remain the same - heat can only be reduced by not firing or standing in water. Units which use so much heat they "shutdown" cannot do anything for a full turn, after which their heat resets to 0.

Units can have "special abilities" such as CASE (can ignore ammo critical hits) or melee weapons (adds +1 damage to melee attacks), anti-missile systems (-1 to damage from attacks including missiles), HEAT (weapon applies heat to target as well as damage).

Aerospace rules are abstracted and movement occurs in four "zones" in a separate aerospace map. Aerospace craft can interact with ground targets, strafing and bombing them with a range of attack types. However there are also "concrete" rules to allow aerospace units to land and liftoff on the tabletop during missions. Troops can also be dropped from high or low altitudes.

There are rules for on and off-board artillery, as well as a range of artillery, bombs and autocannon rounds such as flak and tracer shells, NARC and TAG pods. There are also capital-class weapons that can be used at airborne and orbital targets.  ECM can be used to create a "bubble" to defeat enemy probes and command networks. Mines can be used to ambush enemy troops.

Battlefield intelligence allows hidden deployment, intitative bonuses and pre-plotted artillery.  There are building rules allowing them to be sued as cover - or reduced to rubble.  I particularly like the use of "blip" counters - units can be represented by blips until they are in line-of-sight and visual range.  There are extra rules for fire and smoke - weapon attacks can start fires which damage and heat up mechs, and smoke interferes with weapon fire. You can even field mega-size units like dropships on the battlefield.

As you can see, the rules are very comprehensive - they cover around ~100 pages.

Battletech mech design has always been very "hit-and-miss." For every good mech, there are some who look just plain uninspired.  Meet "Slenderman."
Campaign System
Players are either attacker or defender and their is a flowchart campaign, with who wins determining the next mission.  Each mission (there are 6) shows the % of your total force you can use and amount relative to opponent.  Players have a "Warchest"which acts like XP or influence in other games - you use it to measure victories and buy new toys.  Re-arm, repair and (yay) salvage are all included.

Fluff & Unit Cards
A considerable amount of page space is devoted to fluff (as expected with Battletech); with plenty of unit profiles and quick reference pages and charts making up the remainder of the rules.

An attempt to speed up and simplify BT to allow large forces on the table, for me, the best thing that came out of this was the 1:285 scale change which means it is compatible with many other sci fi lines.  On the other hand, the mech range is rather limited (about ~30 compared to the 100s from the usual catalogue) and to be honest, most mech designs from BT are rather crap, to be frank.

The rules themselves get rid off much of the book keeping that bogs down Battletech, but also remove all of its charm.  I want to blow off arms or legs in a mech game, dammit!  Weapons types are so abstract as to be meaningless. Battletech Alpha does achieve its goal - to allow us to use more models on the table - but could have been so much more.  It's still got too much record keeping to be a good mass battle game, and it has lost the classic Battletech gameplay depth.  If only they had more adventurous designers - who were willing to tear up the old mechanics.   At the very least, it would have been much more sensible to convert from a existing mass battle ruleset rather than trying to turn skirmish rules (meant for 4 mechs a side) into a strategic-level wargame.   However Battletech is a game all about tradition, with a very loyal, established fanbase, so I can see why they went the route they did.

Recommended:  Not really.  It is very comprehensive, and I admit it does its job - allows you to push more mechs around the table.  It speeds  things up, but loses its soul. More boldness in games design could have made this idea work, with more gameplay depth and a true "Battletech" feel.  As it is, it removes much record keeping, but also all the worthwhile features that would make me want to play it.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Game Design #17: Playtesting Wargames - A "Fair Test"

For someone who spends so much time testing and reviewing rules, and chatting with rules designers, I do very little official playtesting.  Simple reason: good playtesting is too much like hard work.

It's also something almost no one does properly - in fact it's almost an impossible task.

According to the old science curriculum, there are a few elements that make a "fair test"of something.  Amongst them are some pretty tough hurdles for a game designer to overcome:

*All variables should be considered and controlled
*The experiment must deal with the question being studied
*Only one variable should be altered at a time
*The experimenters should not be biased
*Conclusions drawn must be better than those from chance
*Experiments must be able to be replicated

So to fairly or properly playtest something in a scientific manner, there are a few things to consider:

Playtesting is difficult, when the subject involves chance, and the testors themselves are both a "variable"and likely biased.

*All variables should be considered and controlled

This is almost impossible in a wargame where testers will themselves are directly involved and not independent observers - they vary in playing skill, experience and their comprehension of the rules - the testers themselves are an uncontrolled variable! 

*The experiment (game) must deal with the question being studied
Well obviously, the playtest deals with the game.  But what is the "question"the game dev is asking of his testers?  Is he wanting to know if the game is fun? realistic?  too slow?  to confusing? feedback on a particular mechanic? - to get specific feedback the designer needs to pose specific questions for the playtesters.

*Only one variable should be altered at a time
This article was inspired by the v3 Infinity rules. There was changes in "to hit" modifiers of weapons at different range bands.  As shooting is very important in Infinity, the designers took a very careful approach.  They would change the ranges on a single weapon (keeping all the other weapon ranges and rules the same) play a bunch of games, then change and test another weapon. In a game with dozens of weapons, this means a LOT of playtest games.  In addition, they broke it down further - they experimented with the modifiers within each range band, for each weapon.  That is hundreds of playtest games - something Infinity, with its established and large loyal fanbase can do; but a bit harder for the average self-published game designer.  Most games go through various "alpha" and "beta" incarnations but I doubt many companies would have so many playtest games simply to fine-tune a single weapon. 

The problem with changing many variables is you do not know which change had the most impact on gameplay.  Even companies with the capability to do this often miss this piece of common sense; i.e. in video game companies when they can easily "patch" a particular weapon by simply typing a few lines of code, when they "balance" things they often mess with several variables. For example: I played a PC game where armed dune buggies ran rampant.  They were so fast they could engage and flee at will, they could be repaired while moving, and they were tough. In addition, they wielded a powerful bazooka.  These buggies were death machines, able to take out MBTs and infantry, their self-repairing and agility making them nigh-immortal to all foes - even gunships and aircraft.  The company responded. But they changed multiple variables. They reduced the weapon power, made the buggy very fragile, reduced the ability to repair while moving, and lowered the speed.  The buggy then became useless.  And the company could not point to the exact reason, due to the mass of changes they made.  The company should have reduced ONE variable (such as speed), tested it, then reduced another variable (say weapon damage) until the buggy reached a state of "useful but not overpowered."

*The experimenters should not be biased
Most playtesters are drawn from local clubs and friends (even ones you only deal with via email may form an emotional attachment and investment to you and your project; the loyalty that makes them a "good" playtester may also bias their opinions).   

*Conclusions drawn must be better than those from chance
The very nature of our card-based and  dice based wargames means chance plays a large part in any game and lucky rolling can change gameplay outcomes a lot.  Whilst we can usually recognize unusually lucky/unlucky dice rolling, the strong element of chance in wargames makes feedback less reliable - which brings even more emphasis to the following:

*Experiments must be able to be replicated
I'd reword this simply as "experiments must BE replicated."  Wargame playtesting has problems -  the element of chance, and our playtesters are who likely biased; and themselves a "variable" differing in ability and understanding.    This is where repeating the "test" leads to more reliable results.  If you slip a coin once, and it lands on heads, you might conclude the coin will land on heads every time, or the majority of the time.  However flip the coin 100 times, and you will probably realize it is likely to be around 50/50.  Flip it 1000 times, and you will increase the accuracy of your experiment.  Obviously game designers are limited in the number of tests they can make - but the point is, the more tests (games), the more accurate the data.

As you can see, it is well-nigh impossible to test a wargame "scientifically."  Many elements of a proper test are outside the game designer's control.  However we can learn from the principles of a "fair test"- I'd like to draw attention to those aspects which ARE controllable: 

*Have a focus for feedback. The game dev should seek specific feedback, perhaps by posing focus questions that playtesters can respond to.
*Only change one thing at a time. Change one or two small things, then test.  Overhauling masses of features and mechanics can make it unclear what is causing changes/aspects of gameplay.
*Test repeatedly.  The more test games, the better the results.

Sadly, these often involve more effort than people are willing (or even able) to spend; it's a little wonder we have so many wargames which are confusing, frustrating or exploitable.  In fact it's remarkable we have so many good games, when you consider the difficulties.  Hats off to the valiant game devs and playtesters!

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Game Design #16: Record keeping, Counters and Bookkeeping

This article has perhaps been coloured by my introduction to wargaming; four vastly different games in the bookkeeping spectrum - Starfleet Battles (need a degree in accounting), General Quarters, Rapid Fire and DBA (record keeping, what record keeping?). 
1. Record keeping needs to have an enhancing effect on gameplay
2. Game designers need to judge the tradeoff between the benefits of record keeping and time

I'm approaching this article with a few thoughts:
What is an acceptable amount of book keeping?  When is it uneccessary?
When does record keeping add value/interest to a game?
What about the infamous "Hit Points"?

 If you wondered why I am passionate about record keeping... this was my introduction to wargaming...

Decisions vs Resolution
Decision making - where you are deciding the actions of your forces
Decision resolution - measuring, moving models, chugging dice, record keeping

A good game maximizes decision making, and minimizes time spent "resolving."
However having good resolution mechanics can enhance the game and decision making.
Sometimes the record keeping enhances the game, and is worth the time taken to do it.

Example: You have thought up this really cool magic mechanic that allows you to create your own spells on the fly.  It makes your skirmish game unique.  However it requires you to track each model's magic points with counters and adds 50% more time to a game turn; the average game has gone from 2 hours to 3 hours.  Is it worth including?

Recording in Skirmish Games
Most platoon-level+  infantry games have a binary dead/alive mechanic; a figure is either alive and fully functional or dead and removed from the table.  However skirmish games often use ""hitpoints" like their RPG cousins. Is this needed?

Let's look at some "categories of injuries" - if we ignore insignificant cuts, bruises etc which have little effect on fighting ability, and we also ignore death/critical injuries that means they can play no further part in the fight we are left with:
Minor - deeper cuts, cracked ribs and similar which impede fighting ability somewhat
Major - broken limbs, severe concussion - injuries which severely handicap fighting ability

Ongoing - injuries which worsen over time; i.e. bleedout, poison or being on fire

You can correctly point out these conditions are hitpoints under another name; but the point is there's no reason for more than 2-3 hitpoints; and it is the condition the character (effects of injury/status) that should be the focus.  A game where a character can have 1 out of 10 hitpoints left and function perfectly fine, is wasted book-keeping.  Why am I ticking boxes if nothing happens in game?

Good Example: I liked the cinematic effects of melee in Song of Blades - minis could be pushed back (creating new tactical possibilities), knocked down (where they were easy to finish off), killed or even spectacularly killed (with morale effects on those standing nearby.)   There was no record keeping and the four different effects were all done in a single die roll (which was the to hit AND damage die roll).  That's an example of it done right - minimal record keeping and die rolling, but lots of interesting gameplay effects. 

Recording methods:  Counters vs Cards
Whilst scribbling down notes on a piece of paper has thankfully become something of an anomaly, we have two main forms of record keeping which are trendy at the moment. 

Games like Warmachine (and its sci fi spin-off Gruntz) have popularized the use of small unit cards. They even have handy computer programs allowing you to produce and print your own.  In neat card sleeves, these can look quite attractive beside the table and are a handy reference. 

Another option is the use of counters. A lot of people dislike these, saying they clutter the tabletop, but I notice the people who are artistic enough to care are also usually good at thinking up cool markers that "fit"with the theme - i.e. blood spatters on a clear counter for a damage marker, or a specially decorated base/diorama.  Basically, if they can make a lovely terrain board, they can also make cool counters that fit. If they don't, they shouldn't be complaining, as they probably have bigger immersion-breaking aesthetic issues than a few counters.

Written orders are another form of book-keeping. Designers seem to be increasingly getting round this, and I would say this is something that needs to be very carefully considered before we include this in our game.  Do we want our players to be writing stuff down, or pushing miniatures around the table?  It also has obvious time considerations.  Personally I find written orders in aircraft games (Check Your Six is a popular example) as a major immersion breaker - in a fast paced form of combat, it seems weird to pause from the game and write "left turn, up one level, +1 speed" - then reveal moves like the end of a poker game.  However, written orders in plane games are "traditional" so I'll probably get shouted down on this.  (I'll have to do an article on "traditions in wargame genres"- it's amazing how rules within a genre tend to follow certain conventions). 

Hitpoints (Ok, this is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine, but I enjoy flogging it...)
Hitpoints can take many forms.  Removable miniatures on a base (i.e. 20 elves on a movement tray in Warhammer Fantasy) are effectively hitpoints of a single unit.  (It's a reason I hate WFB - the back rows of troops in a formation are, effectively, elaborately painted hit markers. And I dislike meaningless painting)  Actually the one that takes the cake was a Mantic game (KoW?) - you have a block of 20 troops, but instead of removing minis you add hit markers.... logically, either the 20 models or the counters are unnecessary)

Meaningless hitpoints
I dislike Aeronef's hitpoint system - a dreadnought might have 32 hitpoints, and nothing happens until you tick off 8, then you remove 25% of firepower/speed.  Then you tick off another 8, and remove 50%.  Basically I ticked 32 boxes and got three gameplay effects (four if you count removing the exploded 'nef at the end)  That's a lot of meaningless box ticking (and dice chugging to get those hits) - lots of "resolution time" without adding any "decisons."   I'm sure when a real ship gets shot, and its speed drops to half speed, the captain doesn't say "relax boys, it's another 8 hits before anything else bad happens!"

Hitpoints are particularly prevalent in naval/space games.  However I am dubious a real spaceship/ship captain would know (or even care) if he had 18% or 20% hull damage, or even be able to tell the difference (Ok, maybe on Star Trek...)  A task force or fleet commander (most wargames you have 4+ ships) would be even less precise.  I'd suggest they'd be more concerned about what was broke, and what wasn't.
"The point defence is out of action" 
"We can only make half thrust" 
"The fires are out of control on the hangar deck"
"All aft turrets knocked out"
Most games have "critical hit" systems tacked on, but I'd suggest it is the "criticals" a task force commander would be most interested in - not if a particular ship under his command had 67 of 80 hitpoints.   I'd suggest a fleet admiral would be even less concerned with particulars - probably more in terms of if a ship could keep formation, defend itself or launch attacks effectively. 

Hull integrity IS a factor - it's important to know when you have more holes than hull/when you're about to run out of duct tape - but it can be abstracted to its effects - which is all we care about. The author of Bulldogs Away concentrates on the effects:
Heavily Damaged
Again, I agree these are just renamed "hitpoints".  Basically, the three damage stages aligns with the meaningful 3 effects from Aeronef  (the 25%, 50% and 75% penalties)  - without all the box ticking in between. 

My point is, from the viewpoint of a task force/fleet commander (which we, as players, tend to be) dozens of hitpoints are needlessly excessive.  Game designers need to concentrate on the effects of hits. If the hits are meaningless (the shot knocked over the captain's coffee mug or shot the tail off the ship's cat) then why are we recording them?

When is record keeping a good thing?
When it enhances your game.  When it is the only way to do x in the game.  When it introduces gameplay decision-making tactical opportunities that outweigh the complication/time cost.

For example, Infinity has an "order pool" of counters or markers.  This is record keeping.  However it is GOOD record keeping, as:
(a) it allows a unique activation effect where one unit can act more than once
(b) it adds a layer of resource management
(c) it is simple and quick to resolve (just remove counter every time you activate a model)

The order pool is record keeping, but it enriches gameplay with an insignificant trade-off in time/complexity. This is a great example of good record keeping.

Another good example is the use of Might, Will and Fate points in the LoTR:SBG.  These are "resources"which need to be recorded (usually represented by counters but can be noted down).  However they can only be wielded by heroes (which are relatively few - say 2-3 in a game) so the overall time/complexity issue is minor.  In return, they add a layer of tactics and resource management. Players can spend them to influence die rolls OR the activation/move sequence. 

There are other times when record-keeping seems unavoidable. In age of sail games, the objective was often to capture rather than sink an enemy ship: by slugging away at it (often over hours), killing crew, knocking down rigging, and taking weapons (often 74+ cannons) out of action.  Whilst I would LOVE a book-keeping free age of sail game, I don't see how one could capture the flavour and combat of the period.

Record keeping should have a direct impact/effect on gameplay - there should be no meaningless box ticking. 

When a game designer introduces any form of record keeping, he should ask himself if it is worth the tradeoff.  Does it introduce decisions, tactics and gameplay depth that offsets the tradeoff in time/complexity? 

I knew someone who owned an incontinent Persian cat.  The owner thought it was amazing little precious fluffums. To everyone else it was a pest who constantly p***ed on the furniture.    The point I'm making is the game dev may think his rule is brilliant, but as it his special brainchild he may not be able to see it is a problem in the long run.  That's where playtesters come in - a component increasingly bypassed in an era where self-publishing is easy. 

Record keeping can add decisions, tactics and depth to a game. Sometimes record keeping might be unavoidable.  However, we need to always check - is the tradeoff worth it?

Monday 15 December 2014

Terrain WIP: Quick n Dirty Forest Basing

Anyone who follows this blog would know that I am not the keenest of painters.  Even lower on my list of loves is making terrain.   My three terrain criteria are:
#1. Must be unified (i.e. all looks like it belongs together, not 40K ruins + tissue boxes + painted LEGO)
#2. Must cost me almost nothing
#3. Must take me no more than a few hours to build a complete board

A railroad modeller I ain't. I also have never made a forest before (my google-fu failed to locate a good tutorial so this is going to be "seat of the pants.")  So, having put your expectations in perspective, here is my WIP forest.

Not very polished, but a decent amount of terrain for $18 and an hour or so's work.

Ingredients so far:  
3mm MDF (compressed particle board aka glorified cardboard) $4 sheet
Cheap Chinese HO/OO trees (30 for $10) i.e. 33c each (some madmen make their own, I'm told)
Sand (making my daughter a sandpit was the best thing I ever did)
Misson brown spraypaint  ($4)
PVA glue (I used a fair bit, even watered down)

Total cost $18

The trees are cheap, but a lot of the trees are really small and unusable for 28mm. Luckily I also game in 15mm and 6mm  - I knew I branched out into new scales for a reason!

Obviously I have more to go, i.e. drybrushing, adding in detail like twigs and boulders, and maybe some static grass tufts (I am hopeless at applying it and it never looks the way I want).  However it is functional at the moment (I already said I have low standards, didn't I?).

It was surprisingly quick to do.

1.  I cut the MDF out in artistic wavy blobs using a bench saw (It's Ok to do this at 11:00pm if your neighbours are ferals like mine). I sanded the edge with a detail sander.  5min/base
2.  I drilled holes in the the MDF, and pushed thumb tacks through from the bottom, and secured it with a hot glue gun.
3.  I then pushed the bases of the trees slowly onto the "spikes"created by the upwards-facing thumb tacks. I put a dab of hot glue on first, this warmed the tree trunks and made them easy to push them onto the tacks, as well as securing the tree.  3-4 minutes/base
4.  I then painted the bases using 50/50 PVA/water, and spread sand on top. (Also added walls etc) 3-4 minutes/base
5.  Spraypaint time! 30 sec (I love spraypaint)

Total time: About 15 minutes a base, or an hour and a half for the lot. Sweet!

The walls need drybrushing.  Next time, I'll spray them black and paint them separately from the base. You can see drill holes where I'm going to add some trees.
What worked:
I initially tried doing the trees last but hot glue went over everything...
Spraypainting last worked fine - obviously I did hit the tree trunks with overspray but they're brown too...

I regret:
Not handling the glue gun with more care (burns hurt)
Not painting the plaster Hirst Arts stuff BEFORE putting it on the base
Not being able to find any guides to do this properly on the interne
Having to use MDF which I know is going to warp at some stage.

I can't tell you much about the Hirst Arts buildings as my wife made them, not me. She says they were a pain in the butt as they had to have air bubbles removed from wet plaster, and the molds were so small you had to do a zillion "casts" to get enough for a building. Which is why I have ruins, not the replica of Minas Tirith I ordered ;-)

In the future:
I'll drybrush the bases with light brown, and the walls with a lighter grey
I'll glue in some fallen trees (twigs) and boulders (stones from the road) to add more detail
I'll learn to use static grass better so I'm brave enough to use it in larger clumps

I considered mounting the trees on 40mm bases and then cutting a 40mm circle in the MDF so I could remove them to better maneuver models...   ...but it would have taken longer, and have tripled my costs, given I don't own a suitable circular cutting tip for my drill.

I also am aware the thumbtacks are not perfectly flat so the bases will never sit "flat"as well as they ought - but I figure the MDF is going to warp anyway sometime in the future and I couldn't think of a better way to secure the trees. 

I admit everything is pretty basic, but this to encourage the reluctant modeller (the internet is awash with amazing modellers who can do photo realistic stuff, but in "real life" there seems to be a lot of cardboard terrain and 40K ruined corner pieces, or expensive pre-made hills - at least where I live)

Remember:  Any terrain is better than none at all!

"Gameplay" Philosophy in Wargames: Game Design #15

//Massive wall of text incoming// for genuine nerds wargame enthusiasts only. //

A lot of wargame designers spend a lot of time coming up with the lastest whiz-bang mechanics but there are only a certain amount of ways you can resolve combat.  But game mechanics are just means to an end. I've already talked about Design Philosophy " - having an overarching goal with a series of self-imposed success criteria; but this article is more "Gameplay" Philosophy.

Gameplay: the features of a game, such as its plot and the way it is played, as distinct from the graphics and sound effects.

Sid Meier calls gameplay "A series of interesting choices." 

The Argument
I think a very important (but often neglected) question is "how do you want the game to play"? 
-How does the game unfold in your mind? What would a game "look" like?
-What decisions do you want the players to be making? What tactics should they use to succeed?
In short - how do you want the players to play your game?  

A.  The game designer needs to decide what the gameplay should emphasize.
B.  Then the designer has to reward the behaviours it wants to see, and punish those that do not "fit."
C. The designer must realise some "game engines" are better suited to facilitate certain gameplay styles then others.  (This seems only logical, but a lot of wargame designers ignore this, or create "reasons" why their engine works for every period or scale)

In Warmachine, memorizing special rules and knowing the best combos and synergies between units is important. This gives a big advantage in breaking through to kill the enemy caster (and thus win the game), so players naturally gravitate towards working with cheesy combinations.  Knowing an enemies special attacks/combinations is likewise very important. Knowledge of these rules mechanics and interactions is thus more important than maneuver, flanking etc.

 In 40K, army building and deployment can virtually decide a game before it starts, and games seldom last more than a half-dozen turns. Some armies are helpless against certain other army "builds."  So army building becomes an important skill valued by the players.  A player who throws together a random army will be unable to compete with one who has "min-maxed" his forces.  It has army lists with strict structures. "Gaming" the army-building system becomes a mini-game in itself.

These are factors of the game's design.  The way the game was made encourages and rewards players to play that particular way.

Realism is relative. A space fantasy might have more gameplay in common with medieval fantasy than modern warfare.
Realism vs Complexity
I've discussed this at more length elsewhere, but gamers often confuse realism with complexity.  Complexity = complicated, slow game.  Realism = players act in a historically sensible way.  Whatis "realistic"varies for period or genre.  For a Star Wars game, "realism" could encompass force powers, and deflecting shots with a lightsabre.  In a Napoleonic game "realism"would include firing by ranks, with relatively short-ranged, slow-firing weapons.

People say "pah, realism - it's only a game with toy soldiers" - but imagine a Napoleonic game where muskets fire three times a turn, hitting on a 2+ roll out to 96"; and models moved only 3" a turn.  People say they don't want realism, but what they are really rejecting is complexity - not the same thing.

Your "gameplay philosophy" includes you defining "realism" within your game. How do you plan on  making your viking players want to fight in a shieldwall?  A modern game should make using cover important, along with suppression and move-and-fire "bounding" tactics. Can your favourite game engine actually do this, or are you just justifying to yourself a reason not to start afresh?

Not all Game Engines are Good for All Gameplay Types
A common trait nowdays it to create a wargame engine (say 2HW "reaction"system, or the SoBH mechanics) then apply it to every combat setting under the sun. 

PC games devs also re-use game engines - but they realise the game engine for a shooter like Call of Duty is not ideal for a strategy game like Civilization or a RTS like Starcraft. Or even if you can shoehorn it in, the game engine is not "optimised" to perform well in that role.

Some eras do interchange more easily i.e. modern & near future sci fi; or fantasy and medieval - but the scale of game needs also be considered.  A system designed for 1:1 squad skirmish does not necessarily excel at company-level actions. 

Rewarding Good Gameplay: Example
Now we've pictured what we want our game to play like - how do we make players play this way - in a way realistic to our genre?
Infinity is a 1:1 based squad-level skirmish game that rewards good positioning of models and use of cover, and punishes models crossing/left in the open.  Missile weapons are very dominant over melee.

When a player activates a model, every enemy model in LoS can fire on it.  This means you have to think very carefully about which model you choose to move, and where you want to leave your models positioned/facing at the end of your turn.

To make this even more important, consider: 1. guns can cover almost the entire table, 2. models die very easily to even a single bullet, and 3. cover offers major benefits both "to hit" and "defence" rolls - far in excess of any difference in the skills/defences of the respective units.

Put this together and you have a game where players move in quick bursts from cover to cover, and leave models positioned where they can cover open spaces, but have partial concealment themselves.  Using multiple turns to cross open ground toward a prepared foe will lead to almost certain death, even if you are using an uber-wtfbbqwn-mechsuit.

In the case of Infinity, the designers encourage the sensible use of cover and "covering" of fire lanes.
 How did they do it?  By allowing models to react to active models, firing in a very lethal manner, AND by giving generous cover modifiers that makes good use of cover almost mandatory to survival.
The importance of game modifiers > unit stats means "army building" is not so important as in-game decisions - in fact the Infinity players have a saying "It's not your army list - it's you" - i.e. you lose because of poor in-game tactics, not because of the models you bring.

What Engines for What Genre
You can see the Infinity (sci fi) engine could probably be easily adapted to a modern 1:1 skirmish game (perhaps even WW1/WW2) but is not necessarily suitable for a Napoleonic game, or a medieval/fantasy one.  And whilst it works for skirmish, it may not necessarily make a good game for platoon level or higher actions where complete squads of troops work in unison.

Some engines work better for melee (i.e. SoBH and Flying Lead use the same engine, but it is not optimal for the shooting-orientated Flying Lead); some better for shooting (Infinity) over melee.  Some handle certain quantities of bases (i.e. LoTR:SBG is best at 20-40 minis, but Infinity works better with less than 10).  

Written orders might be acceptable for a age-of-sail game but not for a fast-paced skirmish.  A system that emphasizes a leaders'' "command radius" might be less relevant in a game with modern long-range radios.

Reaction systems might be implemented differently in 1:1 skirmish compared to a platoon game where the reacting unit is not one man but a group of soldiers.

These are just random examples.  The important thing is that a game dev considers if his systems main "emphasis" fits with the main emphasis of the era or genre being gamed.

Rewarding/Punishing Player Choices
You can see from the Infinity example it is possible to use both game mechanics (in this case, reactive fire) and modifiers to guide players choices and "shape"the tactics players use.

Another option (used notably by Two Hour Wargames) is to take control off players by using dice rolls to determine unit reactions to situations.  This works to a degree, but I feel it is the lazy way - your game should not prescriptively force players to do x or y as it reduces gameplay choices, or, as I call them "decison points" that allow players to interact with the game.

Instead, the game design should influence players by making it common sense to take certain choices.  You COULD simply make it so infantry small arms cannot hurt tanks OR you can  design your game so yes, you can run 100m in the open to attack a Tiger tank by firing your Colt .45 into the viewports but the game mechanics should (if it is a standard WW2 game, not a pulp/superhero game) make this near suicidal.

In videogames they have "XP" (experience points) and stats to reward players - something that may also be available in wargame campaigns where minitaures can improve stats and gain traits and abilities.  I call this a "soft"reward - they are hidden but nonetheless influence behaviour. 
In a popular PC sci fi shooter I once played, power armour  suits were running rampant - often downing entire platoons of troops before dying.  Their weapons and armour were "nerfed" repeatedly with little effect, but then the company increased the XP for killing one from 200 to 500.  It solved the problem as every player within view range of the mech would instantly concentrate fire on it, quickly bringing it down. Mechsuits focussed on other mechsuits rather than squishier enemy forces.  The mechsuit plague was ended.  The company simply used a reward to change the players' behaviour.

Commercial Choices > Gameplay
This is a little off topic, but I notice in some cases gameplay is driven by commercial purposes; i.e. Games Workshop encourages players to experiment with their army lists as it results in more miniatures sales.  In fact one may cynically suggest their codexes - supplements that regularly update a particular army or faction - deliberately "improve" factions over others, creating a never-ending "arms race" to own miniatures of the best faction/s.

I feel the gameplay of Bolt Action and Flames of War has been diluted due to a desire to incorporate mechanics familiar to 40K and Warhammer Fantasy players. These mechanics are not necessarily the best choices to give realistic WW2 gameplay, but were chosen to facilitate players "converting" over from popular GW rulesets. (It worked well, I might add)

Gameplay Shapes Player Behaviour
I notice wargamers tend to split into several "camps" - the competitive crowd who play popular games like 40K or Warmachine in tournaments or points-based games; the historical crowd who play scenarios and like things to be accurate, and the indie crowd who play more casual games, with a focus on story and "background."

I've noticed the latter two player types tend to hate games with "points systems" - but I would suggest it is more the competitive players the points systems attract.  A competitive player simply views the points system as another part of the game in which to compete and excel in.  An "indie" player who is looking an outing for his cool, themed army (which had been designed for a its interesting background story, rather than its winning potential) can quickly get frustrated, and swap to games where they are less likely to encounter the player type (or his where his min-maxing is less "legitimized' by the system.) 

A player who is constantly exposed to a particular type of system tends to have their expectations shaped by it - hence the success of Flames of War and Bolt Action who have collected competitive players (who have never previously been historical players) into the historical camp, due to their game design.

Remember: if a game makes performing an action attractive, people will do it.   Gamers are not some uniquely altruistic species of human.  The game design needs to encourage desired behaviours which are "common sense" for the genre, and discourage others.  For example, in a PC game the mechanics allowed people to run around at top speed, firing a RPG into foes within touching distance.  Naturally this amusing and effective tactic caught on fast. Players were banned for doing this - but it was the games fault - it allowed point blank, hipfired RPG shots with 0 splash damage to the shooter or his comrades. 

Wargame devs often focus on a cool game mechanic, without consideration to overall gameplay. 

Gameplay is the choices you offer the player, and good game design can make players act a certain way or emphasize a certain aspect of the game, i.e. army building in 40K, or use of cover in Infinity.

PC devs know game engines are not universal; wargame designers also need to learn this lesson: i.e. using the same mechanics for multi-base battalion-level Napoleonics as for modern 1:1 skirmish and spaceship combat is not always optimal.  Rather than rationalize why you should re-use your game engine - consider, are there reasons you shouldn't?  When you originally made the game engine, was the type of warfare similar to what you are trying to simulate now?

You can reward and punish players in a variety of ways through your game system, so it becomes simply common sense to play a particular way.  "Realism" is not = complexity, and is relative to your genre.

Certain styles of gameplay attract a certain type of player; and regular playing of a particular gameplay style can alter a player's behaviour. Players are not altruistic, and they will often chose the winning move over the one you think/expect them too.

Final thought:  It's important when designing a game, designers not only to consider how to play the game, but how the game should actually be played. 

Saturday 13 December 2014

Pig Wars - Dark Ages Skirmish Rules Review

"When men were men, and pigs were... money."

This is an older (early 90s?) ruleset which is well recommended, but it used to be rather hard to order (one of those, join a yahoo group, learn a secret handshake, solve three riddles, each more fiendish than the last, and then ....) but anyway, it's now on Wargames Vault for download.   Which is good.

I'm aware there are still miniatures companies who exist without online ordering facilities (sometimes grudgingly responding to an email) - and they continue to exist without my money (or cheque, or envelope of coins, barter or however they get their hard earned).  I know, someone will say "that's how we did it in the old days" but wake up people, it's 2014, not 1964. Back in the old days I typed with a tough old typewriter that required 50-lb keystrokes, and also required me to use whiteout or rewrite the whole page if I misspelled a word. Should I be grateful if someone forced me to use it again instead of my PC?  //rant
Yes, there are tables in the game showing the best way to loot a pig...

..anyway, where was I? Yes, Pig Wars.  I was supposed to be reviewing it. 

It seems to be designed for convention-style games where you have half a dozen different players controlling warbands in a battle. A gamesmaster is recommended. Yes, that's old-school.

The Shiny
Single column pdf. The main rules are on the first ~20 pages - the remaining 50 or so are scenario examples (with quite a lot of nice colour pictures of games in action), rules variations, and a bit of historical background.  The Quick Reference Sheet has most of the relevant info and you could pretty much play off that.

Unit Classes
These are unarmoured, partially armoured (shield OR chainmail); or fully armoured (both).  When attacked from the rear or unshielded side minis count as the armour class below.  Morale goes from 0 (untrained) to 3 (elite/leader).

A turn consists of:
1. Rally/Move
2. Shoot
3. Melee (mutual)
4. Morale checks
Pretty much IGOUGO, in other words. 

Speed depends on armour.  Difficult going slows you down, roads speed you up.  The only thing out of the ordinary is that 3+ guys can form a "shield wall" which slows you up but is great for defence with significant bonuses.  Charging adds +1d6"movement in a straight line, 40K style.   Minis are based individually but stay within 12"of their standard.   Skirmishers can "react"to a charge by withdrawing beyond range.

Pig Wars uses playing cards, not dice.  Draw cards to hit.  For example, at close range all red suits hit, but at long range only diamonds hit.   Players can attempt to "save" hits - i.e. an unarmoured figure saves on a Ace-10, and a fully armoured figure on a Ace-6. 

Players add their morale (i.e. veteran = 2) plus weapon bonus (Charging, spear = 2) to a card (a "4"for example). If the player wins by a certain margin, he kills his enemy (i.e. 1 for unarmoured, up to 4 for fully armoured - and even more if in a shield wall.)  Spearmen can fights in rows, and add their weapon bonuses to the front rank.  Leaders get 3 wounds.

Units test when they take significant losses in a turn, or lose a leader/standard. If they fail to get a certain score they fall back from the nearest enemy or even rout entirely.

The Hold Card
Players can pick up one red face card/ace and keep it to play later for morale checks or leader melee, or for a leader to counter missile fire.  It gives either a free "hit"or ""kill" to the leader. Basically, it is a "resource" heroes can spend. A lot like Might from LOTR;SBG.  Jokers can be added in as extra hole cards with special effects like shooting bows twice. 

There are rules variations for Roman games. Also rules for Greeks/Persians. It makes sense as both used a verson of the "shieldwall"tactic. In the bibliogtaphy I learned about the 1960s movies Alfred the Great and The Warlord which I'll now be hunting down. 

There are also rules for 20 or so "Norn"cards that add heroic twists/traits such as a making a warrior "beloved of the gods" and allowing him to re-choose cards, being swift of foot, getting special armor etc.  I'd definitely add these into my game as they add fun flavour.

There is also a late Medieval variant for the 100 Years War/War of the Roses. This adds the armour categories "partial plate"and "full plate" and relevant movement distances.  There are no shieldwalls but troops can be "formed up" or in schiltron formations. Powerful longbows and crossbows are added, along with handguns that have a morale effect.  There are even cannons.

The rules have aged well, but I don't see the point in using cards. In fact, the rules seem remarkably similar in feel to GW's LoTR:SBG (that's not a put-down, as I think they are rather good). Pig Wars doesn't offer anything over SAGA though as there is no campaign-progression system - which is why personally I'll continue to use a mod of LoTR rather than either rulebook. A solid but unspectacular set of rules which offers nothing different from the "usual"in terms of gameplay.

Recommended: Yes.  Sound rules, even though I find the playing cards a bit unneccessary/gimmicky. However, I wouldn't bother if you already have a copy of LoTR:SBG as there are plenty of medieval/dark age house rules for it on the net for free, as well as campaign systems.

5 Parsecs from Home Review (Supplement to 5Core Skirmish Gaming System)

This can be seen as a continuation of my 5Core skirmish rules review.  My two main concerns about 5Core were the absence of troop quality and the somewhat bare bones nature of the rules. Weighing in at 91 pages this “supplement” is actually 4x bulkier than the parent system, so fleshing things out shouldn't be an issue.  

The setting has a bit of a “Firefly” vibe (a good thing, for me, anyway) with most campaigns occurring in outlaw "fringe" space away from the all-powerful Unity government.

5 Parasecs did make me contemplate painting some 15mm sci fi minis. Which is always a good sign for a rules set.

Crew/Unit Creation
You start with a few heroes and a handful of goons – about 5-6 minis and no more than 8 to start.  Character creation is very RPG-y.  There are d100 tables where you can randomly create the planet of origin, motivations, class and special skills of characters – most of which are “background” and have no impact on actual gameplay.  There are about 40+ “talents” or special skills, 20+ flaws, and 20+ of alien traits.  At the end of my 5Core review I somewhat wryly said there would doubtless be "80 special skills and abilities to make up for the lack of stats" - amusingly it looks like I hit the nail right on the head!

There is also a range of ~20 psychic powers.  Heck, you can even randomly generate the spaceship you fly around in, friendships and rivalries and how you met your creew  - if that isn't Firefly I don't know what is.   There is no "points system" and this campaign system is definitely not even remotely designed for the competitive club scene - its more for playing with casual mates/RPGers than the local 40K rules lawyers.

"You can't take the sky from me..."  ... bounty hunters doing dirty jobs, staying one step ahead of the law...   5 Parasecs borrows heavily from Firefly/Cowboy Bebop

You can see clearly how 5 Parsecs is aimed at the zone between skirmish wargames and RPGs (an area dominated by Two Hour Wargame titles in recent years).  It is not a good competitive system and could be easily abused.   The campaign, like the unit creation, is very much about making a story.  

You can roll on tables to find a patron and get a job.  Your crew can trade and acquire items and see the sights. You can track down enemies and random campaign events or random character events can complicate matters . Your characters can gain new skills and traits and you can recruit new crewmembers.    Finishing missions gets you rolls on the loot table.  There are tables for generating encounters, and opponents, and even their weapons.  If the mission involves destroying or capturing a target, you can even have a table for what sort of target it was.   

Basically, this is a RPG, with more tables (20 pages worth?) than you can shake a stick at - without getting a sore arm, anyway. It has more tables and stuff to do than Mordhiem, but it's not aimed at the same niche - 5 Parsecs is about generating a story. There are even tables to tell what tables to roll on (OK, I made that up).  Suffice to say, there is a lot you can do on a campaign, though none of it would be "balanced" for competitive gameplay in the slightest. There are even some Gamemaster tools for travel and player actions, and reactions by NPCs.  You'll like it if you like RPGs like Savage Worlds, THW: 5150 or Song of Blades campaigns (< though SoBH has a much sketchier campaign system) - but it is not the new Necromunda* (*On a side note, the person who does make the "new Necromunda" is going to make a mint.)

Scenario Rules
These are extra rules to add onto the base 5Core system for scenarios such as hacking, bluffing/persuading, doing field repairs, NPC reactions, climbing, falling and blasting open doors.  

Weapons & Gear
The weapons section gives more detail on a good range of weapons - blasters and slug throwers, electric guns, flamers - that covers most sci fi situations.  There's flak, combat and power armour, and a range of melee weapons. Sentry guns, portable shields and teleporters, jump belts.  In short, a goodly selection allowing you to cover most sci-fi situations.  Like the base  5Core system, it does a solid job of giving a range of weapons using rather limited rules and modifiers.

GZG's 15mm "Free Trader"pack reminds me of a certain crew....

Five Parsecs from Home is a RPG lite - a campaign allowing you to take a bunch of minis on adventures.  Firefly-style adventures at that.  It does not fill the Necromunda void of warband v warband combat, but is more like a friendly version of the old Rogue Trader where wargaming and RPGs get hazy.  Two Hour Wargames has already filled this niche with its 5150 sci fi series but Five Parsecs gives it some much-needed competition.  Like 5150, 5 Parsecs focusses more on what is happening before and after the game, rather than the game itself.  I'd say 5 Parasecs is superior as a campaign-story-generator, as it has more campaign options and "tools" and provides faster, more accessible gameplay once you get minis on the table.

Recommended? Yes.  If you're after a story-based skirmish campaign with a RPG feel but simple combat rules, 5 Parsecs delivers.  Whilst it does have the 80+ special rules I predicted, it fleshes out the 5Core system and gives you a good toolbox for making space adventures with whatever cool sci fi minis you've got laying around.  Personally,  I think it should have the 5Core rules included within the 5Parsecs supplement, but  there is a discounted "bundle" you can buy on the Wargames Vault.