Sunday 3 May 2020

Delta Vector 2020: Rebooting Space Gaming

About 8 years ago, I accidentally shifted the focus of this blog with this post about the inadequacies of space games.

Originally Delta Vector was a handy place to write reviews of rules so I didn't have to re-type responses every time I was asked. I did do over 100+ reviews, which only ended when the arrival of children imposed fiscal responsibility.

Playing Dreadnaught has reignited my love of massive starships with big pew pews

Now, after ranting about how laborious and boring space wargames were usually copies of Full Thrust, usually with onerous recording and basically using WW2 naval battle mechanics, I made a manifesto.

Here is the manifesto (they are in more detail in the first link).

1. Minimal recording, neither unsightly piles of tokens (I later struggled with the latter)
2. Vacuum, inertia, vector movement (key to differentiating space from WW2 naval)
3. Ships don't teleport past each other but can react (using mechanics from modern skirmish games)
4. No IGOUGO. Initiative should be key to victory; forcing opponent moves and keeping momentum.
5. Maneuver should matter. No pushing models into the middle of the table and chugging dice.
6. Streamlined rules offering many decisions while remaining simple. (All rules should be judged by what they add in depth vs the complexity they add.)
7. Ship design rules to make your own. Rules should be resistant to cheesiness.
8. Maximum choices, minimum recording (kinda repeating 1 & 6); no need to consult esoteric rules.
9. Rules can copy TV series - while it may be "hard" sci fi it is not pompous striving for total realism.
10. Crew skill matters, in things like reactions, initiative and orders.
11. A simple campaign system for telling stories (not making uber unstoppable fleets)
12. Each player to manage up to 12 units; games to finish from 45min to 2 hours.

I think I was influenced by playing EvE Online, reading Lost Fleet, and simultaneously impressed by a Infinity and Ambush Alley while showing the scars of Starfleet Battles and burnt out by indie Full Thrust clones.

The two past sources of inspiration for my space gaming...

Looking back I can see many of these manifesto points are still reflected in my beliefs of what makes an enjoyable game. I casually swapped mechanics (from a d10, to a d20, to Savage Worlds d6-d20); I started with a clear game design, I emphasized the importance of initiative, and identified the balance of decision points vs complexity.

I then got to it and made my first foray into game design, quickly putting out over 30 posts assembling rules which I playtested and changed. Looking back I can see how I let the rules bloat out of control and lost focus, as I experimented with heat management, detection, directional shields, and increasingly complex damage systems.  The elegant vector system relied on markers which tended to clutter the table restricting forces to only a fewside but I refused to part with a rule even if it violated the "big picture."

As I "thought out loud" and discussed my rules, I came across interesting discussions in the comments. These then morphed into generic "Game Design" posts (currently around 80) which reiterated some of the points raised in the manifesto - the struggle between simplicity and game depth, initiative and reactions, line of sight, measuring,and move:shoot ratios.

Why this trip along memory lane? Well, two things. One, During my COVID cleanout - encompassing not only my shed, but 80gig off a HDD -  I rediscovered hundreds of rules and pdfs from 2012-2016.  It was really interesting to see how my tastes have changed. (Usually towards simplicity and familiar mechanics rather than the "hipster" ones I would have once espoused. As I get older I have less time and brainpower to spare on hobbies!). 

Delta Vector fleet battle rules ceased playtesting around 2017 as I moved on to a focus on smaller, gunship type combat in and around asteroid belts (i.e. more Milennium Falcon than Star Destroyer scale) which changed the rules focus radically.  I quit EvE as it became more like a job than a game.

I found some Cold Navy when tidying my shed...

However, inspired by Dreadnaught (and on a painting haitus due to paint shortage), I have dusted off my old rules and dragged out the old GZG minis. Both rules and minis will get a touch up. I've found a bunch of old rulebooks to consult:  Dropfleet Commander, Voidstriker, Lightning Strike, Starmada Fleet Ops, Battlefleet Gothic. Just to see where I was at, and so I don't get stuck in a space rut, I'm tossing in Infinity and Ambush Alley, on my reading list along with Kill Team.  Finally, I found some Cold Navy sculpts which I haven't finished painting.

But I've been out of touch - any good spaceship games come out in the last few years?  Looking at the wargames vault page, not a lot has changed in 5 years..... Maybe my old complaints are still relevant...

Thursday 30 April 2020

2020 Painting Projects

Well, I shared my lead-pile of shame - stuff I have no intention of painting anytime soon - so what projects are "live" for 2020?

Confrontation - I have about ~20 each of Daikinee elves, Wolven and Sessairs. I've worked my way through 3 similar warbands previously, so I should get to them sometime this year.  Not high priority as I don't have a goal for them and I've got bucketloads of other C3 and Warmachine models for heroic fantasy.

Kill Team - I've got GW's latest (highly convoluted) rules, and I figure I can make kill teams for Necron, Tyrannid, Eldar, IG, Tau and Space Marine factions using my abandoned 5th ed minis.  Given Kill Teams will be 10-15 models each, they are small tasks which are likely to get finished.

Lord of the Rings. In my latest posts, I've taken a 120 mini chunk out of my 600+ LoTR collection. However a personal shortage of black, metallics and green paint (curse this Covid - I swear hobby shops are essential) means I've stalled on my tree huggers and viking horsie guys.

Secrets of the Third Reich. (~30) I've already painted quite a few - the only thing stopping me is I don't currently really need more for gaming (I tend to play squad games rather than platoon size games that I bought it for).

French & Indian War. I have a force of ~30 each of British and French to paint and I'd like to do a "horror - Cthulhu in the dark woods of Maine" game and get some of those splendid zombie Indians from Warlord.

~10 Tumbling Dice Age of Sail. They are sturdy playing pieces that seem surprisingly fiddly to paint. I really wish I knew some naval sail games that didn't involve recording 100,000 hitpoints.

~16 Cruel Seas PT Boats. I've wanted PT boats for ages as I love the period and the feel of the combat - stealthy stalks, high speed dashes with tracer flying - I actually designed my supercav subs and space dogfight game to reflect this. Ironically, now I have some nice PT models I am playing my homebrew PT imitation games instead.

~24 Black Scorpion Pirates - I painted undead pirates ages ago, rediscovered them in my recent "Covid Quarantine Cleanout" of my shed. I'd like to get more as the sculpts are great but the dastardly swine have changed to resin. .

Perry 100 Years War plastics - about 2 dozen - I love assembling and painting them. So many options - and they fit so well!  They have turned into the stars of my Middlehiem psychic-knights+dinos world. I need a Vampire/monstrous army, so enjoyable kitbashing awaits with bits from zombie sprues and Tyrannid boxes.

Warmachine Jacks - I found a pair of heavy Cygnar jack kits and plan to try my hand at magentizing weapons.

Empire of the Dead ~10 Gentlemans Club who will serve as wizards for my Weird West universe.

~60 Empress Modern 28mm - with some Viking head swaps, and Perry swords etc added to make them more pulp-y as alien and vampire hunters. (I can't see myself wanting to play modern Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon)

~12 Assorted prepainted AT-43 mecha - washed, based, converted to either SoTR or even 15mm or 6mm sci fi scale.

Collection of ~20 various assorted Horror and Heroclix, with some random Helldorado and Anima Tactics - to be filed into fantasy, pulp or weird west categories. Enjoyable kitbashing as I am bold and creative when I'm messing about with 50c clix.

I'll continue to dig through the shed, but combined with my "don't want to touch this" pile this makes up the bulk of my unpainted toys.  My aim is to paint half by the end of the year - and do about 24+ a week.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Eternal Projects - Homebrew Rules

I recently dusted off a hard drive from 2015 and had fun digging through my old wargames folders. I had many hundreds of rule sets (I think there is 150 or so reviewed on this blog alone in that period) and I found it interesting to compare my dozens of ongoing projects compared to my relatively small array of projects nowdays (post-children).

However it was interesting to see how my rules had progressed. Some had gone through many iterations and changed radically. Others share the same core. Others have interesting ideas I abandoned but might be quite interesting to use in another context.  I can even tell the games I was playing at the time I was working on them - an Aeronef game had "command points" suspiciously like Robotech tactics mixed with orders borrowed from Battlefleet Gothic mixed with SoBH.

Many projects continue to be worked on. Others I really need to revive as they have interesting ideas.

Here are the homebrew rules I continue to play with and tinker with. Generally I have a few out on my bench at any given time.

I like Brigade's Aeronef but no rules have ever captured the feel I am looking for... the flavour of 1990s GW with more clean rules....

Supercavitating fighter submarines. A mix of sneaking on electric engines mixed with high speed dogfights using solid fuel rockets, it is a mix of helicopter gunships, sub warfare, and 1950s Sabres vs MiGs style dogfights at 400kph under the sea.  I every few months I come back to work with it because it interests me and is a relatively unique setting.

Intercept Vector
A spin-off of my first game, Delta Vector, it continues with the "vector movement" trope with PT-boats-in-space. Think the Rocinante from The Expanse TV show meets Descent and the dropship from Aliens. The focus is close-combat around atmosphere and asteroids and I have expanded to include ground support with simple tank and infantry rules.

 Middlehiem was designed for my collection of Confrontation minis, but my Perry 100YW models have somehow taken over, evolving their own gritty setting (low, psychic-powered magic and mercenaries).

This is due to my dissatisfaction with modern skirmish games to replace Mordhiem.  It's been radically stripped back and simplified, with characters able to take very limited actions and minimal tokens and recording. I use it to fight with 100-Years-War psychic knights mounted on dinosaurs but I aim to make it open to any melee-focussed setting.

Supercavitating sub fighters patrol the mineral refineries of Europa moon.

Jet Vector (currently working on)
This is again due to not enjoying any current air combat rules (they are all painfully gluggy). Currently I have abstracted it to "high energy" "normal" and "low energy" with special maneuvers forcing pilot checks and changes of energy state.

I use Iron Winds Battletech power armour as my mechs (as they stand about as tall as a 15mm mini and compare well to 6mm sci fi tanks).
Mecha (currently working on)
I want my mecha to feel like mecha (aka sense of scale, jump jets, heat management and limbs being blown off) rather than just infantry game with different models. I also do not enjoy record keeping or table clutter.  I tend to get bogged designing weapons that work simply without too many modifiers, ranges or special rules, yet feel different i.e. railgun vs laser vs low velocity howitzer.

Tankettes scout ahead of their mothership/carrier.

Aeronef (currently working on)
I want to evoke the old feel of GW games like Man O War, BFG, Titanicus with a more streamlined modern game with little to no recording of damage or height or speed (at most, a token under the model's base).  I've tried a few rules but none (even my own!) have ever captured the feel I am aiming for.

I enjoy Tumbling Dice's cheap 1:600 jets - they are fun to paint and are great playing pieces. Pity all air wargames suck so much...

Modern Pulp
Basically, a simplified Infinity with d10s meets the activation of SoBH. Aimed for a minimum of special rules, and restricting models from acting too many times, this is focussed on shooting-centric games (like a modern X-COM style aliens vs soldiers game).

 Middlehiem troops clash in a playtest which removed reactions in an attempt to simplify the game.

Landships & Tanks
This was originally a game for 15mm FoW style Tigers and Shermans but has evolved into a 1:300 warband campaign game with those quirky 1930s tanks, where you have a giant landship mobile base and field a team of ~12 tanks.

These are the games I have on my current hard drive, but there are a few I'd like to revive. Both have strong resource management aspects.

I've always wanted to use my 15mm for something that isn't ripped from  Vietnam-in-Space or Star Wars.

Alpha Projects
These are very early alpha sets of rules that never make it to the proper playtesting stage.

In one, the player is a "demon" who can possess (and buff and boost) models by placing possession tokens on them. However, when a possessed (buffed) model is killed the points are lost. So a player only "dies" when he loses his possession points.  I.e. a real risk vs reward - do you buff a fighter to be mega powerful, but lose too many possession points when he dies?

The other is a sci fi game (for my dusty-from-disuse 15mm sci fi) where there is a strong scissors-paper-rock between humans (squishy but reliably immune to hacking/EW/EMP) and robots (tougher but vulnerable to cyber attack), chipped or cybernetically augmented troops (a bit of both). AI processing relays provide AoE boosts to cybernetic troops in range, and nanite swarms add a "magic" element.  Basically, hard sci fi which strays so far from "Vietnam in space" to stray towards the feel of space fantasy.

Friday 24 April 2020

Middle Earth SBG: Uruk Hai Siege Troops (Part B)

Well I ended up doing more of these than planned (my goal is 24 plastics + ~6 heroes/metals per week).  I haven't highlighted them or anything - they are simply at "acceptable for tabletop" standard.

The simple sculpts help - old school LOTR is far less "busy" than newer sculpts and there is far less fiddly detail. I like it - it actually looks better from tabletop range.

I only did 24 minis, but since I did 36 or so last time, my ~30 mini/week average is maintained. 

Uruk Hai beserkers - I now have about 8 or so painted and I think another 6 remain in my spares box. I'm quite happy with the flame effects as I did them in 5 minutes with only 3 colours of paint.

All my elites got some white handpainting to make them "pop" from the drab rank-and-file.  Some feral Uruks (I think these were invented by GW late on). I am pleased with how my handpainted flag turned out.

The siege troops (with the torch-bearing beserkers again making an appearance). The amount of armour meant they were easy to paint, but I may need to come and adds highlights etc due to their blandness.

I have another half-a-dozen crossbowmen which I was given for free, sans bows. However my much-plundered Perry plastic medieval sprues (they have been fantastic for kitbashing) may provide enough crossbows to reactivate them.

As usual I will record the "present day" cost (I eBayed these in job lots during the "lull" between RoTK and the Hobbit when no one was playing - so I doubt I paid even a quarter of the current costs.)

Siege troops $45
Beserkers(6) $35
Ferals (2) $26
Crossbows (6) $50
Command (2) $33
Total $189AUD

Well, I'm motoring along nicely - I'd say I've painted ~120 models in the last 2 weeks which is double my output goal. At this rate my dwindling paint supplies may provide the biggest impediment!

Though I just looked over and realised I have only painted 3 boxes.... and there are 11 more equally sized boxes to go.... Eeek!

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Middle Earth SBG: Uruk-Hai (Part A)

My favourite factions in LOTR is Isengard. I can sympathize with Saruman, who was good for millennia, but was corrupted by a greater power through very human weakness like pride.  Creating your own army like he did also seems eminently sensible.

I meant to do my "faction box of 24 + 5-6 heroes/specials" task I have set myself but I have ended up doing far more stock troops.  This is Part A - Part B includes crossbows, siege teams, more beserkers, and feral uruks.

Ugluk, Saruman and Lurtz are the lead heroes.I have a few more metal heroes in my unpainted box.

Some Uruk beserkers. I have only put the white handpainting on key characters, to make them stand out from the drab rank-and-file.

These are the fighting Uruk-Hai from Helms Deep.

Uruk Hai scouts from Amon Hen.

These were really fast to paint - I speed-painted them with about 5 colours. I'll add some detail, but this can come later. The simple, clean sculpts are so pleasant and rather easy to paint.

OK, what would this cost in today's money?

Saruman = $15
Lurtz, Ugluk = $40
Box 24 Scouts = $70
Box 20 Uruk hai = $70

$195AUD is quite a chunk of change. Again, this was a very easy army to paint, so I am optimistic about finishing off the equal number of siege troops beserkers, crossbowmen and feral uruks.

Game Design #79: Modular Game Design - Being Open to Change

When making or reviewing games, I divide rules into two main areas:

1. Activation & Initiative - who moves or acts, in what order. This is the area I tend to spend the most time agonizing over. This also includes command and control, etc.

2. Game Mechanics - how we resolve the action.  It includes sub categories like:
Morale is also technically a sub category but it can fit elsewhere.

My thesis here is that you should view each category or subcategory as easily replaceable and not be too strongly attached to them.  Anything can be sacrificed swapped out for the Greater Good of the rules overall.

Mechanics are interchangeable
For example, Middlehiem (my homebrew fantasy skirmish) has evolved from a modification of my simple-Infinity-ripoff modern pulp rules. At first (as there was reactions and contested rolls) I resolved interactions with d10 + stat (a bit like Warmachine's 2d6+stat but with less weird 2d6 math).  I felt it was awkward, and reverted it into a Infinity-style "highest roll which is also under a stat wins" only with d10s.  Finally, I ditched reactions (as they are better suited to more modern shooting-focussed games rather than medieval fantasy) and accordingly simplified it to a 40K-style "roll under a stat" again using d10s.

Besides illustrating why I like d10s (it's simple 10% increments making balance calculations easy + you can effortlessly switch between systems - just make sure the chance to succeed - conveniently in 10% hops - is the same) it shows I am not wedded to a particular mechanic.  In fact, I sometimes write next to a special rule or spell something like  "60% chance to work, 10% miscast chance" without specifying the mechanics or the exact methods so I can more easily port it across if I change systems.

Basically, I feel the mechanics are important merely so much as they are quick, simple and do the job with minimum brainpower or consulting of the rules. Also, they should be consistent across all the sub-categories where possible - i.e. the same dice roll method is used for morale as it is for shooting.  This need for uniformity actually tends to disqualify most whacky dice resolution methods.

While I obviously find d10s convenient math-wise, I am not dogmatic about them - sometimes buckets of d6 might work better, or maybe a d100.  Or maybe a range of dice from d4s to d20s.  Whatever is simplest yet suits the game style of play you are aiming for. A single d20 might be too "swingy" and a bucket of d6s gives a more predictable result.

"Middleheim" - my homebrew successor to Mordheim, only with psychic powers and dinosuars - has undergone several iterations and quite a bit of playtesting.

A quick rant about cards....
I'd like to deviate slightly to briefly discuss cards. Increasing number of games are including a card deck the player manages. Sure, it might add some resource management as he may discard, and save/spend cards to perform actions on the tabletop.  However most of these card decks are "bolted on" - i.e. not integral to the game.  Sometimes they seem to be a cynical way to sell "content" i.e. extra card packs which are just random mechanics offering gotcha moments to surprise your opponent.  It may add a layer of strategy and depth, but it may equally add unnecessary complexity and randomness. Next time you see a wargame with a card deck accompanying it, ask yourself "If I removed the card deck completely from the game, would it make the game less interesting/fun? Would it remove tactics and strategy, or merely randomness?"
If the card deck is included under "advanced rules" it suggests even the developer did not view them as vital to the game.

..and now back to discuss Initiative and Activation
Once thought of as an afterthought - in many cases along with morale rules, the other stepchild - I'd view the activation as the cornerstone of the rules and even influencing the choice of mechanics. If combat resolution mechanics are what you do, activation is the when and how. I'd regard it of equal value to the combined total of all the other mechanics.

Activation is harder to change, as a shift from traditional IGOUGO (side A acts with all units, then side B acts with all units) to alternate activation (side A acts with one unit, side B acts with one unit, etc like Chess) can have a massive impact on gameplay.  Furthermore, changing activation is not just a shuffling of dice mechanics which can share the same percentages  but usually involves a major revamp.

Again to use Middlehiem as an example - the original game had (similar to Infinity) an activation pool (with one token per model). Models could take up to 2 tokens (actions) as long as they were non-sequential.  Opponents could react to any action in line of sight.  The change to opponents alternating models, each having a single action, had far reaching consequences and required nearly every rule to be re-written.

This post is probably a corollary to "dice mechanics aren't important" and "your best idea is not necessarily best for this game" but I think the topic focus is more "be prepared, and open to swapping mechanics in and out" - and as you can see from my Middlehiem example, you can even set yourself up to more easily swap them out.  When you note in your draft rules that "spell has ~60% chance to cast" rather than the very specific "roll d10 + average stat of 4, to beat a target number of 10" it signals you are open (and able) to change.

Why medieval knights on dinosaurs? It's a sadly under-represented genre, I'd argue, giving it innate awesomeness. Also, psychic powers seldom appear outside of modern pulp/sci fi but provide a coherent "magic" system for fantasy.

The final evolution of your rules may look nothing like your original idea. You may completely swap out any or all of your mechanics and activation. You can make yourself more flexible as a designer by going in prepared to make changes (for example, giving special rules a percentage chance, rather than tying them to a particular dice roll, until your final rules draft). If you go in prepared to change, you are less likely to cling to a rule which seems cool but is perhaps not appropriate for this game.

Activation and initiative systems have a huge impact on the game and bear the most careful thought when changing things. Unlike combat mechanics like shooting where you can swap out dice types and roll methods and get the same end result, activation changes are often far reaching and comprehensive. Imagine swapping a traditional IGOUGO game to something like Infinity. The consequences (and necessary adjustments to the rules) would be far reaching.

Saturday 18 April 2020

Middle Earth: SBG - Dwarves

I call them the dwarves of Krasha-Duum. Because I've dropped their box three times now and broken quite a few weapons.  This is one of my smallest collections - I'd like another 12 dwarf warriors but they can't be had for love or (reasonable) money.  They work fine for a Battle Company though.

One of my smallest warbands, though I can supplement them with 24 dwarf rangers (i.e. not proper dwarves, but the suspiciously elf-like sort who gad about in forests).

Gimli, Balin, and a random king, plus what I assume is a dwarf captain or minor hero of some sort.

I really wish LOTR movie hadn't made Gimli into a cross-eyed comic relief. He just seems so lame compared to the Hobbit movie dwarves.

Talking about comic relief, while painting Balin I realised....

...bit slow on the uptake, I am.

Iron Guard, and Vault wardens.

I have a lot of Khazad Guard. Two more are on the hospital bench awaiting repairs.

Finally, my half-box of Dwarf warriors. I'd like 12 more, but *shrugs* I now have kids.

Reminding me of money, I'll do an estimate of what this would cost in today's GW (AUD):

12 Dwarf warriors = $35
9 Khazad Guard (metal) = $66
Dwarf commander (metal) = $18
Balin (metal) = $20
Iron Guard (metal) = $35
Vault warden team =  $26

Well, 26 models for only a trifling $200.   This reminds me of why I can't afford wargaming toys any more.  I'm saving the dwarf rangers to do together with elf and human rangers (so I have also finished a Battle Company at the same time).

Thursday 16 April 2020

Middle Earth SBG - Moria

Well, I'm not up with the terminology (or the new army lists) but I'm digging into my LOTR boxes.  I've often shied away fromgetting stuck in as the task is so immense - I'd easily have 600 plastic models and about 100 metals.

My aim is to quickly paint a box worth of 24 models, and ~6 heroes, each week.  We'll see how this lasts.

Here's my "24 box + extras" for this week's painting task. If I can get some momentum, I may finally make inroads on my huge LoTR collection.

I can field pretty good forces for Moria, Rohan, Gondor, Isengard - the only niggle to complete other factions is I lack a box of Dwarf warriors and some Easterlings. LOTR was always the cheapest of the GW games, but $70 for 24 is literally double what I recall them being back in the day. Pity my wage hasn't matched the inflation. I told my wife I need to invest in more minis as it seems more reliable than the stock market

I admit the commanders and the goblin king are not my finest work, but I figure I can touch them up later. At least they are table-ready!

Anyway, first up is Moria - was hastily painted goblins and a goblin king. I should say rather re-painted and rebased - I merely touched up and gave a wash to my older paint jobs. I'd regard myself as a competent painter (a solid C) but man my old stuff was... bad.

After this easy start, I tackled a fun project.  Some cave trolls. The unwanted vikings from my last post donated some dismembered body parts to the bases to make them look more fearsome.

The cave trolls were fun to paint. My daughter approved of the severed appendages but was critical of my implementation: "the sword should have dropped out of his hand if it was ripped off."

I'm going to list the cost of the models in AUD if I was to buy them today, just to make myself feel smug. Note - $10 AUD is about 6 USD/Euros or 5 pounds.

24 Mora goblins = $70
Goblin King of Moria  (metal) = $21
3 Prowlers (metal) = $22
2 Goblin captains (metal) = $22
3 Cave trolls (2 metal, 1 plastic) = $150

Sheesh, $285 already.  Remind me how GW is now the good guy, again?  When I bought secondhand I had a rule of thumb of 50c max for a plastic and $5 max for a metal mini.  I think the metal trolls were an exception - the priciest at about $15 a piece.

Some goblin prowlers lead a cave troll. I'm not sure if they are OOP now - I probably should have checked they even appear in the new rulebook...
This is not my entire Moria force. I have at least another ~3 dozen gobbos and a slightly-damaged Balrog. But they can wait to another day, as I've done my weekly paint goal. One bite at a time....

I chose this first as I have fond memories of my Moria force. I found the trolls made a great distraction, and the ability of gobbos to scamper over obstacles to be quite powerful in my usual terrain-heavy tables. I'd use a troll or two as a distractingly huge decoy, and use the gobbos ability to rapidly switch sides as the actual main attack to rapidly overwhelm their foes.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Stars of the Games Shed: Best Value Terrain and Miniatures

After looking at my probably-will-never-complete projects, I was considering my most used, most bang-for-buck miniatures and terrain. What are the stars of my man cave - miniatures and terrain that were the best used and the best value. There are two clear winners, and you may be surprised at what they are.

My most-used terrain is a bunch of pine boards, cut in 5, 10, 20 and 30cm sections and sprayed grey.

I was inspired by how my daughter's toy blocks spread all over the floor yet packed into a little box. I use this wooden block setup almost every time I playtest.  Besides caves and dungeons, it has been a research facility, has been arranged into city blocks. It has been a drowned city, Mordhiem... It has served in 28mm, 15mm, and even 1:300 and smaller scales as spacecraft comb asteroid caves a la Descent.

 Here is is the bunkers under Gibralter, and Tommies are clearing out Nazi zombies in 1948...

Here it is underground caves as hunter-killer antigrav gunships battle for the Hollow Earth.

Here it serves as Area 51, as US soldiers fight an alien artifact.

Here it is merely serving as a testbed for my Middlehiem skirmish rules.

It cost $13 and two hours with a bench saw and a spray can.

It's so basic, yet so versatile. It is the most basic of terrain, barely a step above the "cover books with a sheet" - its low effort - and this is coming from someone who specializes in low-effort terrain. Yet I use it so much. Looking at it, I have been thinking of ways to modify it.  Instead of pine boards, what about foam strips? I could texture it and make it more cave-like and organic - but I'd lose some versatility.  Have not used it for multi-level games - how could I adapt the design?


There is another clear winner.  These EM4 plastic starfighters have served as super-cavitating sub fighters, as micro-drones flying amongst blades of grass, and currently do service as PT-boat sized gunships/assault landers.  They have starred in about ten sets of homebrew rules as well as their original game Silent Death, and have playtested games like Jovian Chronicles, Renegade Legion, 5150 Fighter Command among others.

They've gotten use at least 5-6 times a year for the last 10 years.

Here they are gunships escorting 1:600 tanks on the moon against alien life in my latest game Gunship Vector.

This time they serve as fighter submarines defending an undersea refinery.

Even today they are $6 (3 pounds) for a dozen, including bases - 50c each!   Easily the best bang for my buck miniatures, ever. 

So... the most used miniatures and terrain in my shed cost under $20 combined, and both sport a single grey basecoat. *Shrugs*

Do you have any minis or terrain that just get so much use you can claim them as your MVP?

Cleaning the Man Cave: The Lead Mountain

Well, due to COVID quarantine, I've been doing a lot of cleaning and tidying. My man cave got its 1500+ books tidied and I then embarked on a reordering of my gaming collection.

What I DO paint
I noticed a few things about my painting habits, on the proportion of painted/unpainted minis.
#1. Small miniatures get done. This is true in both meanings.  Small minis (1:300) are always painted.  I have very few unpainted models in micro scales.

#2. Small projects get done. I.e. any batch of 30 models or less tends to be swiftly painted. I.e. my Warmachine bands were bough in batches of 3-4 boxes and tended to be painted within a week of purchase.

#3. Easy or fun projects get done.  "Easy" means I can quickly motor through them - i.e. a tank with a base and a drybrush, or zombies with dodgy paintjobs that can be covered by blood spatters and wash.  "Fun" generally means bright colour schemes or creativity. I rather energetically kitbash broken models.

Note to self: buy minis in small batches, and stick to smaller scales or chunky/colourful 28mm sculpts

I loved 15mm sci fi so much, I bought more minis than I could force myself to paint...

What I DON'T paint - unfinished projects.
So time to take stock of minis which are unpainted - in fact, these could be labelled "unstarted" projects - often just based and put together, with an undercoat if I'm lucky. They are far from ready for the tabletop. Some are still on their sprues. These are projects which I have barely started, and neither do I have plans to start them in 2020. Nonetheless, I am hesitant to sell them, as (a) with kids I don't have much disposable income for new minis (b) I'll get to them someday and buying the same minis now would be even more expensive (c) I'm not au fait with online selling.

Robotech. I gave this up after I realised I had to assemble and paint 3 minis to get 1 gaming piece (i.e. you need to build and paint a Veritech in all 3 transmormed modes). Cool models, just not willing to do triple the work. Also, the models assemble like a 1:48  only downsized to in 1:300! Fiddly as heck.

28mm Perry Samurai. Great models, but I gave this up after I realised (a) painting tiny squares of armour was going to be a b*ch of a job, and (b) the repurposed wooden-puzzle scenery I was making for it accidentally broke and I didn't have the enthusiasm to fix it.

28mm Warlord Greek. I had given up after (a) I realised how much ***ing white and bare flesh I'd have to paint (also accidentally basecoated them black) and (b) they are very samey (i.e. Spartans, Athenians - same thing = boring) and sandals and skirts just aren't cool. 

28mm Warlords Vikings. I have a cool 1:48 longship as well. I think I bought these in a burst of enthusiasm after re-reading some Bernard Cornwall/Robert Low books. I even had a LOTR:SBG rules mod to play them.  Just kinda boring to paint, compared to my Confrontation fantasy models. Every time I get out my vikings I ended up painting fantasy minis instead.    

28mm Warlord 70 Years War/ECW.  Basically (a) I got a huge battalion box and the mammoth scale of the task made me give up. Also (b) I originally wanted them for Helldorado + conquistadors pulp world but they were a bit too modern/weren't armoured enough/didn't have crossbows etc.Probably should sell as I don't ever see a future where I am inspired to paint 150-200 ECW musketeers.

Robotech are a pain in the butt to assemble - then I realised I had to paint and assemble three models for every one unit I wanted to use on the tabletop...

15mm Sci fi (Khurasan/GZG/Rebel/Critical Mass). The models themselves are great. I just got carried away - I had successfully painted six(!) 15mm sci fi armies in a row, as they were so easy and fun to paint and they got regular use. So I ordered a bunch more. Then, by the time they arrived, I realized I was bored with 15mm sci fi (both the scale, the Vietnam-in-space rules which everyone uses and indeed the genre itself.) Someday....  ..they are pretty satisfying to paint.

15mm Moderns - (Peter Pig?) Similar to above. I realized I was tired of modern war fire+suppress rules, with models even more bland than sci fi. Also, the war in Iraq/Afghanistan did not end as quickly as I thought - I was jaded from seeing it on the news and so had little enthusiasm to game it.

28mm Infinity the Game. These must be worth a fortune, as I have 20 or so models from every faction. I quit after Human Sphere added 101 (literally) new special rules. I don't want to memorize 5 different stealth rules. It went from a deeply tactical game to "whoever memorizes the most rules for 'gotcha' moments."  Also, I feel so inadequate - painting their tiny details is an exercise in frustration. They are so detailed and fiddly, they drove me to paint 5 Warmachine armies instead. And I don't even play Warmachine!

15mm Blue Moon Mummy/Arab/Ottomans. I had an idea for a 1920s pulp game where factions include an Egyptian Mummy cult, Arab rebels, the French Foreign Legion and the Ottomans. It was to be more platoon-scale. Kinda a fun idea. But my sand table has been shelved due to kids spreading sand beyond its environs, and this project just never seems to make it up my priority list....

1:600 WW1/1930s Tumbling Dice aircraft. Just too damn tiny to be cool. Unlike the 1:600 jets which are big enough to be detailed, they just seem like little shapeless blobs to my middle-aged eyesight.

 Vikings are a project I keep starting, then I get distracted by cooler fantasy models. The era seems perfect for skirmish gaming, but there's only so much excitement choosing between paitning "peasant dude with a shield and spear" or "chainmail dude with shield and spear"

1:300 WW2 aircraft (Raiden?). Nice models. I need to buy more, to replace the above 1:600s, but I don't paint them as I don't have enough to make a game (they are random, from Wyverns to Focke Wulfes), but every time I go to get more, I end up buying more of the much, much cheaper Tumbling Dice 1:600 jets instead. Lack of good WW2 aerial rules kills my enthusiasm.

28mm Quar (Zombiesmith). These are awesome, characterful models, and the rulebooks they come with are works of art. They get taken out to be painted periodically, but somehow I never get around to them. Just so... niche. I always feel like there's something else more worthy of my limited painting time.

15mm WW2 tanks (Zvezda, Bolt Action). Perhaps they don't belong here, as these I've actually used a lot - but I just undercoated them and played with them.  I'll get around to them sometime, I'm just bored with WW2 and whilst 15mm looks better, I have a sneaking feeling 1:300 is a better scale for tank combat as 15mm felt like World of Tanks arcade videogame on the tabletop. Also, there's only so much field grey or olive green I'm willing to paint. Basically it's a project I developed rules for, but it has been shelved as I pursue my 1930s Landships universe.

Well, that's my "cupboard of shame" - models which I haven't painted and have no real plans to even start to paint in the near future.

Perhaps I'll do a post on "mostly complete" projects - the ones that will actually be the aim in 2020....

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Game Design #78: Complexity Creep, Reference vs Baseline Games

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius --- and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

This is probably a common sense thing all game designers are aware of, but it's something I've been musing over lately.  It's so easy to add rules, but hard to strip them away or simplify them. 

What prompted this was my shed clean out, and digging out my old Lord of the Rings:SBG by Games Workshop.  This is, in my opinion, the best rules set GW has ever put out.* (*Either a bold claim or a low bar to step over! Note: I did not say it was the best balanced) It kept the familiarity and feel of old GW 40K games while being its own thing. It was cleaner, innovative (for GW, at least!) and was a fresh start that games like 40K have never really received.

Now I like the way GW have been heading, so I picked up a copy of the new Kill Team. Note I'm not sure how KT compares to 8th ed, etc. I'm merely comparing it to my old Necromunda and Kill Teams of the past.  I like the changes away from the older Kill Teams, but the rules are still a mess. I wouldn't envy anyone the job of streamlining and simplifying 40K - you'd have to clear away clutter bolted on year after year, on what was basically a 1980s RPG/skirmish. Really,40K needed to be built afresh from the ground up years ago.

LoTR was a fresh start, back when 40K was evolving back around 3rd/4th ed. Using familiar mechanics, LoTR made initiative (move/shoot sequence) important, yet kept it simple; the side A move, side B move, side A shoot, side B shoot, both fight but side A chooses the melee order. Already, there was far more "chunks" of play than the old IGOUGO, but it got better. Heroes were not just killing machines with better stats, but could use their "might" (a resource tracked with a few tokens) to interrupt the sequence of play to fire, move or melee at critical times - acting like real leaders to the troops close to them.  Stats were simplified, special rules kept to a minimum and the clunky saving throws from Warhammer were removed.  Even tasks like climbing, jumping etc were straightforward, using the same mechanic, 1 = fail, 2-5 success, 6 = great success.  In short, it was a very clean set of rules with significant changes compared to WFB or 40K. (The less said about hero balance the better)

I'm getting to the point, I promise.

Well, during my shed clean I discovered some... well shall we say.... ...600(!) LoTR models, most bought for cents on ebay before the Hobbit movie veered prices up into the ridiculous. After discovering the "new" Middle Earth rules would set me back $300AUD ($98 for rules, $98 for army book, $98 for battle companies) - thus reminding me the new cuddly GW isn't thaaat benevolent - I have acquired some pdfs and have been looking though the new rules.

The changes were mostly good. I don't have enough experience (both recent or competitive) to be sure, but I suspect the focus was mainly around balance i.e. ways to resist magic, magic adjusted, and there are some changes in army points and composition. So nothing radical, the core rules are still pretty similar in all key areas, with most gameplay changes being in the form of non-essential, extra, bolt-on rules - magic, special moves/strikes, etc that add flavour.

My biggest reaction was: how many more rules were added.  It was 69 pages of core rules in my old One Ring rulebook. 120 pages of core rules in the new one. As well as the old 3 universal heroic actions we have 4 extra 'special' heroic actions which can only be used by specific heroes. Magic originally had 17 spells, which had expanded to 37. Wargear lists had more than doubled. Monsters and weapons now have special strikes.This was all done to improve the game. But it also added complexity.

Now, LoTR hasn't gone through 8 or so iterations like 40K (and it was a far cleaner, more modern game to begin with). The core mechanics (baseline) remained the same. Even now, it isn't a complicated rule set (I'm considering it as a beginner set for teaching my 6 year old).  Nonetheless, my main take away was how even simple wargames rules can snowball. In an extreme case, special rules bloat killed my interest in Infinity which I played energetically with the first book, but quit as expansions added more and more "overhead" - i.e. work, time and energy to "learn" the game.

Wargames are the laws of the game. Like legislation, they tend toward complication. We plug loopholes, we balance, we add in cool stuff. But at what cost, and when do games become too complex? Complexity creep is the complication of games (with the best of intentions) - usually we are mentally trying to improve on an existing reference or benchmark game (more on that later).

Bear in mind, there's a limit to how simple rules can get.

Tesler's Law, also known as The Law of Conservation of Complexity, states that for any system there is a certain amount of complexity which cannot be reduced.

Most wargames have a mechanic for taking turns with minis (initiative) and a way to resolve shooting and melee, and morale, and (usually) a system for movement.  Even games with unlimited movement or shooting ranges are actually "limited" in some way or have rules governing the implementation.  So there's a lot of rules that need to be made to define these.

However, so much as possible, rules mechanics should be simple, easily remembered, and consistent.  Reduce the "overhead" or mental effort - any time mechanics are are inconsistent (i.e. using a dozen dice resolution methods), or include too many special (extra) rules (or rules exceptions) it increases the overhead. Keeping mechanics familiar also reduces the mental effort i.e. Bolt Action/FoW deliberately follow 40K to reduce the "buy in" and make it easy to swap between games.
I recall finding Silent Death annoying as each weapon had rules like "roll 2d6 to hit and choose the  highest score for damage" or "roll 1d8 and 1d6 and use the difference between the rolls for damage."
They were trying to be clever, by combining 'to hit' and 'to damage' rolls, but they increased the mental effort. This is a common trap for game designers. Indeed, your cool pet mechanic may not be suited for this particular game. Ask yourself: is the complexity worth the effort? WHY must I use this rule and not something simpler or more familiar? Do I need this rule at all?* Be ruthless.

(*My current pet peeve is "cards". Every new game has to have a hand of cards which you play to get certain game effects. Yes, it adds resource management. Yeah, I know that CCGs are where the money is. But pulling cards from a deck is not automatically peak game design - it's often random mechanics dressed up as content!)

A simple (lazy) design shortcut: Reference Game vs Baseline Game

Most people have core games that they unconsciously (or deliberately) base their games on. How many budding game designers started out adding rules to "make 40K better?" I call these "reference games" as they are benchmarks in the genre.

Warhammer is a sci fi/fantasy reference for many designers as so many of us grew up with it. Flames of War, and Bolt Action very deliberately reference it. But a quick dig through freewargames will reveal many with similar DNA.  Dirtside/Ambush Alley is a reference game for near-future sci fi/modern platoon. Full Thrust is a reference for spaceships. Blue Max is a common reference for planes.

It's easier to complicate than it is to simplify... therefore, where possible I start with a game with a LOWER complexity than the reference game in that genre. I call this simpler game the "baseline game."  The baseline game may have completely different mechanics to the reference game.  

#1. One key factor of a baseline game is it is much simpler (or faster) than the reference game. When we use the simpler baseline game's mechanics, we can now add complexity - which is easier (and more fun!) than simplifying. Complexity creep is now acceptable - we've already figured it in!

For example, I want to play with stompy robots like Battletech or Heavy Gear but I am NOT willing to do mountains of recording or use 1980s rules. I'm wanting to "build a better, cleaner Battletech." So, rather than start with Battletech (the reference) and try to simplify it, I pick a MUCH simpler game and make it more complex. I choose Fistful of Tows 3, a Cold War game designed to handle dozens of tanks - as my baseline. FFT3 is basically a more elegant Flames of War which also uses many 40Kish mechanics but focusses on fast play for handling battalions of troops etc. It will be much, much simpler and faster than BT and also use familiar mechanics, so it should make a good baseline.   

Going back to my original LoTR discussion that started this train of thought: 2018 Middle Earth SBG is so much simpler than 2018 Kill Team as it was built from a simpler, cleaner baseline game, and not a Frankenstein creation built atop the strata of 8+ layers of preceding rules and spin-offs.

#2. Your baseline game should probably fit your theme. Two main categories of wargame are shooting focussed games (where long ranged shooting, cover and firepower is dominant) and melee focussed games (which can also be a balance of the two, with weaker shooting allowing units regularly close to close combat). Modern games (Ambush Alley, Infinity, Bolt Action) are shooting focussed. Clues are references to cover, suppression, morale.  A game like 40K is more balanced/melee focussed. Close combat is viable.  Naturally, most medieval, ancients and fantasy games favour melee or balance. There are other underlying themes - you will notice many spaceship games and WW2 naval games share mechanics*. (*I'd argue this instance it is undesirable, but that's just my soapbox...)  Bolt Action attracts flak for its ridiculously short shooting ranges etc - that's because it's now a shooting game built off the baseline of a fantasy melee game.

Now BT mechs are pretty much walking tanks, so picking FFTW3 - a modern tank game (which already includes rules for missiles, chainguns, MGs, rockets, and many other staples of the "serious" mech genre) as a baseline - seems a no-brainer. If I wanted a Gundam game where the "heroic" mechs fly around with swords and superpowers, I'd probably borrow from a fantasy or superhero melee-focussed game as my baseline game.

Note this baseline can entail a radical change of mechanics and rules compared to the reference. Instead of throwing 2D6, and tracking dozens of hits across different body locations, and managing many levels of heat, I've got 40K-esque d6 rolling game which gives me "suppressed/crew check" or "dead".  However the FFTW core mechanics are simple, familiar, and solid. They play fast and are designed for a similar genre. They are the bones to build off. It's always easy to add more complexity.

I can now add in what I want - maybe heat rules that increase a mechs signature or even shut it down? Do I want to keep the FFTW detection rules or modify them?  I can now have fun redesigning FFTW weapons to fit my vision of a mech game.  Do I need extra movement rules for bipedal mechs?
Because I am working from a simple, familiar "core" I can expend my effort in making the game play the way I want it to - and I can predict outcomes with less playtesting.

But this is not original! I want to design cool and hip games!  You're telling me to copy off other games? Well, I'm always up to see a new initiative or activation system. And morale/command and control has plenty of room for "unique-ness." Originality in game mechanics is certainly overrated.  I'd suggest most top selling games aren't original.  Bolt Action, Flames of War borrow form 40K- even X-Wing is just Wings of War rebadged. I'm not for change for the sake of change and indeed using familiar mechanics also reduces mental effort.

Corollary to #2: You may want to borrow from very different genres or themes, if you are wanting to make a unique sci fi or fantasy game. For example, a space game where ships move 8+" but fire 1" may base off a melee-centric game, due to the fact game turns take days of burn to get in range and have a limited window of fire due to closing speed/EW.

I originally got interested in game design due to being frustrated that space games were just WW2-in-space or Full Thrust clones. I also wondered why we didn't use reaction mechanics or innovative initiative systems that were coming into vogue with skirmish games. What about the difficulties about ships closing at a combined velocity at light speed or more? While some space games flirted with detection (2300AD) I don't recall seeing much serious command and control focus. Co-ordinating fleets light years away poses some interesting problems.Why aren't drones more common? What about slingshotting planets and atmosphere - why didn't we use more terrain in space games - I mean, why would fleets clash over empty space?  Finally, it's sci fi - why weren't space games more imaginative?

None of these necessarily require new mechanics. Command and control rules are popular in many big battle games - could we borrow them from there? I lifted the reaction mechanics straight from Infinity and scaled it to a d10. Vector rules were inspired by a combination of 1970s Triplanetary and a homebrew penguin ice skating game.

 “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.”

As an aside - I've always wondered why sci fantasy is just medievals-with-cool-armour, sci fi near modern is Vietnam in Space, and even why fantasy clings so closely to Tolkien tropes.  It's not like we have to adhere to any historical realism....

To sum it all up
Rules are laws of play. Like laws, it's easy to add new ones, but difficult to simplify old ones.  There is a minimum complexity for any wargame.   Excessive complexity or mental "buy in" to learn rules may drive people away. When we try to improve on a ruleset or a genre we are prone to complexity creep - adding features, closing loopholes, etc.

Most genres have a "reference wargame" that that players and designers consciously or unconsciously compare a game to. So we start simple(r) and let our tendancy to complexity work for us. I.e. pick a suitable wargame much simpler/faster playing than the reference as a "baseline" for the core mechanics and work from there. It doesn't even have to be the same genre and it may have quite different mechanics, but it probably should have a similar theme i.e. shooting focussed or melee focussed - I wouldn't use an ancients skirmish as the base of a modern game set in Afghanistan.  You can now "add" your tweaks and "cool ideas" to the simple baseline wargame - it will still compare favourably to the reference game. You can also borrow across genres i.e. modern skirmish reaction systems for a space fleet game. Sci fi and fantasy (where we don't need to simulate historical factors) are rich ground for this and you can make a game that seems original and fresh with old ideas. Finally, using a familar baseline reduces mental effort and allows you to predict outcomes with less playtesting - always handy for home designers.

Easily Stored Terrain - Cheap, Easy Tree Basing

As a dad with limited gaming space, I am always "scaling down" my terrain, or making the terrain more "storeable." For example, I replaced my expanding foam hills with flat rubber mat hills which stack flat and take up 1/3rd of the space.

Obviously trees with fixed bases take up too much space - it's easier to store the trees and bases separately. So - how to easily do detachable trees?

You can have removable trees, but usually the trees either come with integral bases, or you have to make the base, using say 40K bases or washers.

But I'm all for cheap and easy. And my (cheap) Chinese trees didn't come with special bases.  So I just got  some 5mm hose from the hardware shop.

The base itself will be MDF (a kinda plywood-thickness glorified pressed cardboard) which costs only dollars for big sheets.

I picked a big drill bit the same diameter as the hose, and drilled into my MDF base.

 Since it was a snug fit, I just jammed the hose into the hole. Didn't even bother to glue anything.

You can see the piping poking through. I could disguise them more, but I'm talking cheap easy terrain. I'm not a railroad modeller!

The "dirt" texture is just my usual PVA glue + sand on top + painted with cheap brown craft paint.

You can see the pipe sticking out if you look (like in the first photo) - at normal tabletop ranges like this shot, it isn't noticeable.   I made 6 more of these with my ingredients which fills out a table nicely.

Total cost for a table of terrain = $22: $5 for 120 x 90cm MDF sheet, sand = free, big pack of cheap Chinese trees $10, lifetime supply of 5mm pipe $5, brown craft paint $2.

Total time = An hour?  Cutting out MDF, PVA glue + sand sprinkling, painting, drilling holes + adding tubes - each step was about 15 mins.  Waiting for stuff to dry actually took more time.

"Storability"? Yes. The bases stack into a A4 size box, and the trees go in a separate bag.