Monday 14 February 2022

LOTR: SBG - Haradrim

I've finally hit my last factions - the Haradrim/Easterlings - but my painting pace has slowed as work has been hectic and my enthusiasm for anything is low.  However I'd like to record my weekly 24+ goal - my aim is 24 speedpainted minis plus a few extras (cool side projects, heroes) each week.

As usual, this isn't to show off my admittedly mediocore painting skills but to encourage other 'average dads' to make inroads into their unpainted pile of shame. In my case, 500+ LOTR minis which have sat boxed up for 8 years+.

My only goal is to make the minis acceptable on the table-top. 

One day, when I have copious spare time (presumably my children have grown up and left home!) I'll probably revisit these minis and do a better job - but who am I kidding? I know I'll be chasing some new shiny thing!  

My next task is some low-hanging fruit - either Army of the Dead or Ringwraiths with their limited palette, or some nice uniform Easterlings.  As for those blasted mounted Rohirrim... I'll get some more done eventually...

Because I bought the minis off eBay in job lots, I have random assorted heroes and metal minis. Luckily I have a Haradrim captain which is handy to lead my force.  
My daughter (we're well into RoTK together) is deeply interested in LoTR, and unbeknownst to my kids I have actually been teaching them the core mechanics, under the guise of a sandpit game with plastic army men. Dad usually plays the opposing force and the two kids band to beat him. I usually play like a RPG GM - with cinematic tactics - aka just enough to be threatening and tense but not actually win....

The Watchers of Karna guard the haunted cities of the Haradrim. I gave them a dull camo tone to match their role. 

These minis chalk up the first 28 minis of the new month, and give a running total of  258 models in 2022. Besides the above-mentioned LoTR - there's still about 50 or so I've planned to paint this month - I'm gearing up for the arrival of my Dropfleet Commander UCM & PHR fleets, probably by repainting my sadly chipped Full Thrust metals.
I've got so far through my LoTR models I'm considering buying some more (small 3-packs of heroes and interesting elite forces) to round out my collection which now covers all the armies of the original trilogy - something I'd have laughed at if you suggested it a year ago.

Gaming-wise, I've reprinted the 2022 incarnation of my Delta Vector space rules (you know, the ones that got me started into game design back in 2013ish) which I've stripped back to their roots. I'm also eyeing off Aeronautica Imperialis (always liked the minis, regard the rules as very average) as my recent investigation of X-Wing for my son makes GW look affordable and reasonable in comparison. If only GW provided free rule pdfs - the lack of transparency with which codexes, campaign books and expansions are needed is the only thing holding me back....

Thursday 10 February 2022

Game Design #89: Too Many Decisions!

Given my whole game design series began praising 'decision points' - aka opportunity for player agency (decisions/tactics/choices) to influence the game - it seems unusual that I would decry having too many decisions. 

But ever played a boardgame where you just know you'll be stressed and exhausted afterwards?

1.Games can have too many decisions (volume). Humans have a finite amount of concentration/willpower. We can focus well for about 20-25 minutes at a stretch. We have about 3hrs total of executive thinking/complex decision making time per day, which is very glucose-centric. (^Also food for thought about how long your wargame should last)

I'm not a fan of wargames where you can walk away for 20mins and come back and your opponent is still making his move - there's not enough engagement and the 'pacing' is out. But if both players are mentally exhausted by a constant stream of minute-by-minute critical decisions - well, that also might not be ideal. 

If the stream of decisions is relentless - you can't look away for a minute, or have a casual chat with a mate while the game is progressing - then the game is only going to appeal to a particular audience.

2.Decisions can be serious/difficult or easy/inconsequential (impact). Not all decisions are equal in their stress level or consequences. Too many difficult decisions can be draining over sustained gameplay.

For example, in Infinity weapons fire is lethal and cover is very strong. Any opponent in LoS can react and fire on your active unit. You can continue to activate the same model, allowing you to chain together actions and perform deep flanking maneuvers. Each force might only have 5-10 models. Thus: a wrong move in LoS and you can lose a significant chunk of your force - or you could chain a series of inspired moves that allow you to outflank and rambo most of your opponents' force. Most Infinity decisions have serious consequences. 

In contrast, in LoTR:SBG goblin bow fire might only hit on a 5+ and kill on a 6+ - only about 6% chance of death per bowmen shooting at you - and I might have 50 troops in my army. Moving troops in LoS might not be such a weighty, serious decision, both for me or my opponent. Similar is a complex/difficult decision - it's one where you may have complex if/then implications to juggle. Like Chess, where you are trying to look several moves ahead. 

Whether it is the consequences or complexity - in the end it's about the 'brain drain'. Sometimes players need a 'breather' - or down time within the game.

3.Games can emphasize decisions in the wrong places.  This is a bit different to the first two examples. Playtesting my "Forgotten" sci fi horror rules, I kept playing around with rules with initiative and reactions. Rather than using the usual alternate activation (each player taking turns moving a single mini) I slowly evolved it so players rolled an opposed dice every time they did something in LoS of an enemy. This roll did several things - 

(a) determined the sequence of reactions/actions (and if reactions occurred at all, and ammo status) 

(b) if the active player rolled below a target number, the initiative switched to the reacting player

It was actually a pretty good rule. A single roll that accomplished a few things at once, and lots of tension every time you activated a mini. Lots of potential decisions - not only what you now, but if you lose the initiative - then what?

This initiative phase was so gripping I was spending all my time checking angles and thinking about future implications/facing. Unfortunately I was so intent on this I kept forgetting a whole layer of the game - the demonic entities that could possess troops (a bit like Warmachine) and the horror/morale effects.

This mechanic would be great for a modern spec ops/SWAT game where the gunplay/angles/positioning was the point of the whole game. But for my horror game with psychic and sci fi tech elements they were the wrong choice - a set of serious decisions that drew attention away from what made it a unique horror game. I had a decent mechanic but it focuses decisions in the wrong place.

                                           Are all the decisions in all the right places? 

While points #1 and #2 were more focussed on the mental effort required by the player, this last point links more with the feel of the game. A contrasting example:

Warmachine is interested in the use of focus, synergies between units. It has IGOUGO which usually gives too much mental down time (aka disengagement) to the inactive player. I generally dislike IGOUGO but it is a good choice for Warmachine as otherwise it would be difficult to co-ordinate units. In contrast to my example above, it has a (usually) poor mechanic which suits the feel of the game. 

(Edit) #4: Pacing. This may be the word I am looking for. Ever had a movie or book start well, but you lose interest halfway through? Other times (as per #1) a movie *cough Michael Bay cough* has so many relentless action scenes and explosions you actually become numb to them. Yes, I've fallen asleep during Transformers. This is probably kinda an overlap between #1 and #3 - sometimes in a game, if you are bombarded with too many decisions it's hard to see the actual critical ones. You can't appreciate or identify a critical decision or moment in the game. Can you identify the epic or 'oh s--t' moments afterwards? "I knew I lost when my wizard used his ultimate feat but failed due to..."  or "cavalry charge broke orc skirmish line." 

These critical decisions should also align with the key focus or feel of the game (#3). A game about sci fi horror should pivot on moments like "held ground and unjammed gun when faced with space ghouls due to team-mate morale boost" or "moved out of wifi range of corrupted cyber entity" not just be "established overlapping fire lanes/angles" every time.

I guess pacing is - are there critical moments in the game (like a book or movie), which align with the core focus 'feel' of the game - or is there such a relentless torrent of decisions you have no idea what went wrong and cannot point to the key passages of play. If every decision is equally epic, then they are all actually 'average'.

(Edit) #5. Long term strategic decisions vs short term reactions. In Chess you can sometimes see key moments building to a climax many moves ahead of time. In contrast, many reaction-based wargames (or ones with random activation) deliberately take agency from the player with almost no ability to plan ahead. I'm not advocating one over the other - it depends on your game design aim. Some players like strategically thinking far ahead to play plans - others like the feeling of just barely controlling chaos.

But a game that allows capacity for both short term tit-for-tat reactive play AND retains some long term planning might be a richer experience. A bit like TV series - some have great one-off episodes but no overall season arc. Others have mediocre acting and episodes but you keep watching because of the longer story season arc. Some TV shows have both great individual episodes and a good arc.

A high volume of decisions or many difficult decisions (aka complex decisions or those with serious consequences) can place a high mental load on players.  Other times, the wrong decisions can be emphasized - i.e. the players effort and attention is focussed on something that should not be central to the game, giving a completely different feel to the game than was intended.

Note: I may come back to this topic as I'm tired and feel I've only scratched the surface - so don't be startled if there's an edit adding in more points later, when I can articulate my thoughts better.

Sunday 6 February 2022

Dropfleet Commander Rules Review

No, it's not the 'next level' space game I'm always looking for. It's basically an upgraded, tweaked Battlefleet Gothic, which focuses on objectives while orbiting a planet. But I'm going to play it anyway.

The Shiny

The rulebook is pretty. It's good quality. Nice art.  Glossy. Not a huge fan of the landscape layout - I find it harder to use.  It has an index. There are profiles for all the ships at release, so no 'codexes' needed - which is good. About 30 pages of fluff and background that you might enjoy but I was totally uninterested in. Given you can get the rules for free, with plenty of quick reference pdfs, token printouts and record sheets you can't really complain. It seems like GW is the only one not giving out free rules nowadays (stares meaningfully at $98AUD LOTR rules - without codexes).

Dropfleet Commander shares a lot of similarities with its ancestor.


The rules are ~50 pages and the basic mechanics are pretty straightforward. Ship stats are very similar in layout to BFG. Ships have Hull (hitpoints), Armour (saving roll), Signature, Scan (both to do with detection range), Thrust (speed), PD (AA against missiles and fighters), and special rules like launch and atmospheric. Also size/tonnage (L, M, H etc) matters to initiative and tactics, and group size (i.e. how many in a typical squadron). Weapons have a lock (to hit) roll, and usually are usually grouped in batteries. Most weapons do a single hit damage, but there are quite a few variations and simple but flavorful special rules.

Annoyingly, DFC uses special decks - a command card deck and special bases, as well as a battlegroup deck (although for the latter I am making my own with normal playing cards). The ships come on special bases but you could get by without them. The craze for tokens, templates and stuff is pretty restrained compared to X-Wing or Armada*. (*My son loves Star Wars, and although I like the idea of X-Wing - and enjoyed its ancestor, Wings of War - I can't justify paying $30 for a single plastic spaceship, knowing I'm really mostly paying for the cards, not the mini which you can get 5 for $20 in a Micromachines box...).

Activation & Initiative

You put your ships together in battlegroups, writing them down on a battlegroup card. The total tonnage on the card determines activation order - i.e. a battlegroup with a cruiser (5) and 2 escorts (2) = 7 would be more agile than one with a single heavy cruiser (10). Basically you arrange your "hand" of battlegroup cards however you want, and then you and your opponent reveal and compare the top card of your decks, the player with the lowest rating (most nimble) battlegroup choosing whose battlegroup acts first.  It's an interesting idea and allows for a little 'management' minigame of sequencing your 'hand' of battlegroups to best effect. Ships tend to move in coherency aka grouped together. 


If it's BFG roots weren't already obvious from the stats and layout (Andy Chalmers is a designer) this cinched it. The orders are pretty similar in effect - weapons free (fire all weapons); station keeping (move slowly/pivot); course change (extra turn), max thrust (double speed) as well as silent running and active scans - something that ties in with the new detection rules.


This is a very cool idea in theory. Basically, Ship A has a Scan (autodetect) range of say 8"; and a Ship B has a 6" Signature radius (say 6" but will vary on ship size). So Ship A will detect Ship B at 8+6 = 14" away. In addition, firing lots of weapons or boosting thrusters makes the ship light up like a Christmas tree (+6" Minor Spike, +12" Major Spike) - and ships can reduce this by Running Silent.

The bigger you are, and the more stuff you do - the farther away people can shoot you from. So a small sneaky ship might only be able to be engaged by enemies 6" away while a battleship can be fired on by everyone within 24"+. Finally a way to give small ships a chance?

Sounds cool, and I've been using a similar-ish idea in my own rules, but I suspect people will sneak for the first turn or two, then everyone goes nuts shooting and zooming; and thus render it all moot.


It's the typical 'travel half your move then turn' to give the feel of momentum; but turns are 45d and many special orders you can't turn at all. It's pretty ponderous, and even small stuff isn't that agile. Maybe I remember it wrong - but even BFG ships weren't this clumsy?

I'm anxiously awaiting my official Hawk minis. Until then I will proxy with Cold Navy.


Typical 'roll a handful of d6s' scoring to hit, then rolling saving throws in an attempt to cancel them out. Similar to BFG but slicker as you don't need a stupid chart. Scores of 2 more than the target number do a critical i.e. if it's 4+ to hit, a 6 is a crit. Basically Full Thrust. Critical hits can't be 'saved.' Once a ship loses 50% hitpoints it rolls on Critical Hit sub-tables. This defeats the purpose of the special dial for hitpoints on the base of the ship - you're going to be recording critical effects over time anyway. A ship losing all HP dies with various spectacular effects. 

Launch assets (aka fighters, bombers, dropships, torpedoes etc) use abstract BFG-esque rules and are placed alongside their target or the ship they are defending - they don't swan around independently.  They can be engaged by PD as expected and ships can even do sharp turns to evade their attack runs.


Another 'cool new thing' - DFC presumes no one fights in deep space (after all, what are they fighting over) - but rather over planets at 3 orbital altitudes - high, low, and atmosphere. Ships can change up and down one level per move (-4" move to climb up) and crippled ships may 'fall' through layers. Shooting between layers is a -1 penalty to hit. Only small craft and drop ships tend to be designed to work in the atmosphere layer. There are debris fields, space stations and small moons in orbit. 

Ground Combat

Now this is pretty much how you win the game - capturing ground objectives. There are clusters made up of several sectors (the actual sites you capture or bombard). The sectors have their own HP and troops occuping them must make saves when they are getting bombarded. There is a whole ground mini-game aka paper-scissors-rock-with-dice-chugging which I frankly thought was pretty crappy.

The whole atmosphere and ground combat will be a deal breaker for some. The game is kinda focussed on it. Just eyeballing the rules, I'm pretty confident I could cheese wins in this area. While I appreciate the attempt to move away from the typical 'move the ships into the middle and chug dice' to focus on objectives, it won't be everyone's cup of tea.

Extra Rules

There's about 30-40 special rules from cloaking devices, special sensors, regenerative hulls to burnthrough lasers that use the dubious exploding dice technique. 

There's pretty BFG-esque fleet organisation charts explaining what ships can go with what, and how many. I.e. both allowances and layout of specific battlegroups and the amount of specific battlegroups within fleets. 

There are 8 scenarios but I suspect the website has more (I haven't downloaded and looked through everything yet). There are simple campaigns and ideas for integrating with DFC's sister game, not-Epic Dropzone Commander, but no rules for upgrading ships and crew etc like BFG. 

The UCM can certainly can evoke the 'cathederals in space' and I also am buying the porpoises-with-lasers PHR ships.


It's evolutionary not revolutionary - an updated BFG with lovely models. The focus on orbital combat and objectives rather than a typical deep space kill-them-all may put some off, but it's far more of a traditional wargame than FFG's CCG-with-minis-SW:Armada and far more interesting than the blandness of Firestorm Armada.

It's not quick - I reckon 2hrs+ for a basic battle and while an attempt was made to reduce recording it wasn't that successful. I'm also not a fan of 'special' card desks although you could probably play without them (and I probably will - I don't enjoy the 'gotcha' factor).

The game has been out for a while (I've had the rulebook since 2016) so there are probably more exhaustive reviews and plenty of AARs - and the rules are free! This is just for the blog regulars for whom this game may have flown under the radar.

Recommended: Yes. Battlefleet Gothic was a surprisingly good, fun game and Dropfleet Commander builds on that legacy with more improvements than mis-steps.

Saturday 5 February 2022

Game Design #88: The Melee Dilemma

Melee is usually done poorly in wargames, even in games where it is the primary mode of combat, like vikings or fantasy:

Push models together, roll dice, remove the loser. 

Once we push the models together, our decision making is done. We just 'roll off.' In a modern combat game in an era of automatic weapons and suppressive fire, keeping it basic makes sense. But shouldn't we expect more in a medieval or gladiatorial game?

Melee has a dilemma. You have to balance speed of play, -vs- interesting decisions and mechanics. It's not sensible to have a complex melee mini-game for a game with 50+ models. If the melee resolution is too complex and time consuming, you may as well remove the models and maneuver factor all together and turn it into a boardgame or cardgame.  Balance is important.

I'm going to make up some hypothetical examples, but don't focus on the precise details, but rather bear in mind the big picture - the need for speed/ease of play/quick resolution vs posing interesting risk vs reward decisions.

Example #1 = "Videogame" Complexity

Nearly all PC RPGs share a similar choice of moves. You could tie this to a resource management mechanic, but it could simply be based on modifiers. I.e. a slow power attack is -1 to hit but +1 to damage, a quick attack is +1 to hit but -1 to damage.

Quick Attack = less damage, higher chance to strike first/better 'to hit' %

Normal Attack = default

Power Attack = higher damage, slower so strikes later/lower 'to hit' %

Dodge/Roll = move to back/side short distance + % chance to dodge enemy strike (agility based)

Parry = stand ground, deflect enemy strike, maybe allow a follow-up counter attack

Kick/Bash = knock back/knock down enemy (strength based)

AoE Stomp/Spin = attack multiple foes, knock back in 180/360 arc

Finisher/Backstab = instant-kill disadvantaged enemy who has back turned/stunned/prone

These are some common examples. As a bonus, they are familiar to most gamers. There's choice but it's not excessive -  you would probably memorize the attacks after a few games. LOTR:SBG (which handles skirmish of 30-50 per side) kinda falls into the simple end of this territory - there is a similar choice of special attacks, tied to the type of weapon (swords can parry, flails & whips can whirl, two handed weapons can power attack). So not every rank-and-file can access every single melee choice which both speeds things up and gives troop types 'flavour'.

This is my personal favourite level of complexity as it adds some choices and cinematic action while still being quick to resolve. 

However, it's still pretty basic. We can delve into resource management and allow far more 'choice' and complexity:

Example #2:  The Melee Management Mini Game

This is some sort of resource management mini-game, using ordinary dice or playing cards*. *Because while bespoke dice/rulers/special bases can be useful, it's usually a dick move based on selling extra stuff to gamers. 

These are ideas I just randomly made up - they are not 'solutions', just examples to help frame the discussion.

2A ="Card Hand" - maybe each player draws cards, perhaps based on their melee skill. I.e. a Rookie gets 2 cards, Experienced gets 3, and a Veteran/Elite gets 4. Players then choose from their cards and place them down simultaneously. Maybe black cards are defensive and red cards are offensive, or some require stamina to play, or maybe you need to have a card below your relevant stat to play it.

You can see that the very nature of the 52-cards deck means this mini-game could spiral into a game of staggering complexity if you don't stay focussed. Kinda like every time two wizards have a spellcasting duel you play a complete game of Magic: The Gathering before returning to your wargame. So you'd need to exercise extreme caution to prevent a card-based mini-game from becoming excessively complex.

Merely for the sake of avoiding the rabbit hole, I probably favour:

2B = "Dice Pool" - maybe each player similarly has a pool of dice aligning with their melee ability - perhaps tossed and hidden under a cup. There's less potential for complexity to get out of hand if you just use a few d6s each. Maybe you 'bid' to perform certain moves, like in Liars Dice (the dice game they played in Pirates of the Carribean). Maybe you use combinations of dice for special attacks or play particular dice to strike first.

Note: I'd only consider the mini-game method if we had less than, say, 10 models per side - think of the potential time sink when resolving each and every melee using even the simplest card draw mechanics. A 4v4 gladiator game, yep! A mass battle game - nope!

Warning: There's a zillion variations of dice and card games, so there's a lot of rich ground to be explored - but while they can add a lot of complex decisions, maneuvers and cinematic action there is a potential time sink in complexity, where the melee mini game becomes the entire game, almost rendering terrain, models and maneuvering irrelevant.


Melee is usually done poorly even in wargame genres that focus on it. Too often, the only melee 'tactics'/decision is who fights who.  Then the dice (RNG) takes over. There's room for simple tweaks - like the 'videogame method' to spice things up without going overboard. However, the dilemma is that all card or dice melee mechanics must be balanced against the speed of resolution. There's lots of amazing potential for card-hand and dice pools to create tactical, cinematic melee duels, at the risk of bloating the game or becoming the sole focus of the game.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

LOTR: SBG - Speedpainted Corsairs of Umbar and Rohirrim

I finally embarked on the Rohirrim - I've been put off by the size of the job - 20 or so cavalry and 80+ infantry. Veteran Napoleonics or Warhammer Fantasy players may scoff at me, but as a longtime skirmish player I tend to be paralyzed by significant quantities of minis. I mean, my LOTR minis have languished for 10 years, as I stupidly bought big used boxes off ebay and got all the factions. Meanwhile, I casually collected Warmachine in small quanities on an ad hoc basis, and they are always painted up to date. Note to self: always buy minis in small quantities. Yeah, right.

Sadly my suspicions I would not paint the white shields well were correct. They are acceptable at tabletop range I suppose. Another box set of 24 rank-and-file ticked off.

A more fun job was 24 Corsairs of Umbar.  I went with the GW-style blue-and-purple scheme rather than the movie browns-and-blacks - I've painted enough LOTR minis in drab realistic hues, thank you very much.

Annoyingly they ended up more blue than purple - I kinda wanted more of a dark purple vibe. While they are aggressively highlighted and won't win any awards, they 'pop' pretty well on the tabletop. 

I'd like to improve on the very basic basing for both, but am awaiting better flocking etc for the Rohirrim. I think I was in a rush to complete them by the end of January so I could surpass '200+ in a month' barrier - the 48 minis brings my monthly painted total to a whopping 230.

As usual my 8-y/o daughter arrived and took an interest. She asked me to include her photos - here are her poses of choice:

Evil or not, she prefers the prettier corsairs. We're finishing Two Towers together and she likes investigating the minis to try to tease spoilers out of me.

I continue to rather listlessly (but productively) paint. I've been thinking about a few other game design topics - (a) how can we make deployment (setting out minis) less of a chore and more an integral part of the game tactics - inspired by ideas from PC's Steel Division 2 (b) how could we introduce respawning into a game (I think Privateer Press' new sci-fi game does this) and (c) could we have terrain that is able to be manipulated once the game is under way in a simple way (obviously from a cyberpunk/sci fi/fantasy angle).

The unpainted LOTR pile of shame is shrinking rapidly. I'm going to make a start on the Easterlings and Haradrim so I can say I have models from every faction done, then I'll circle back to those bloody Rohirrim horses.