Monday, 18 June 2012

Strange Aeons - Horror Skirmish Rulebook Review

Strange Aeons is a niche game in a niche genre, with a distinct 1920s Cthulhu vibe. Using only a 2' x 3' playing area and a maximum of about 10 models a side it certainly is not going to break the bank or gobble up too much storage space, and I reckon my Terraclips will provide decent boards.

The rulebook's notebook-binding is very practical

The Shiny
The rulebook is unusual in that it is spiral bound, notebook style. This is invaluable when gaming as it totally avoids damage to the book spine (like the sort that wrecked my AE:WWII book). The front even has a hinged plastic cover which would deflect Coke spills.  An easy to read rulebook, designed for gamers, by a gamer. Definitely a labour of love. In fact my only criticism is that the full-color rulebook is reasonable at $30 but the $18 postage pushed it into the boutique range, where the 80 page notebook would compare unfavourably to glossy productions like Anima Tactics or Infinity.  In fact I put off buying the rules for 6 months for that due to the cost. A cheap pdf option would be good. (I notice some of the OOP expansions now have this pdf option.)

The Game
After a somewhat self-indulgent introduction,  the game quickly gets into the nitty gritty.

Stats are pretty standard and include:
Dexterity (used for climbing and ranged combat)
Constitution (toughness, resistance to damage)
Attacks (# of dice rolled in melee)
Wounds (hits before incapacitation)
Resolve (willpower, courage, ability to stay sane)

Models are lumped into categories such as undead, demon, human, beast etc. Most characters have 2-3 skills.  There are about 40 skills to choose from and I found them quite manageable, unlike games like Malifaux and Warmachine where "skill creep" means he who remembers the most special rules wins. 

Players take turns alternately moving a single figure. Each figure gets 2 actions per activation.
Actions can include the usual moving, charging, shooting etc as well as "changing state".

Changing state is recovering from shock effects caused by injury or terror.  Models are placed "face down" - unconscious or catatonic; or "face up" - stunned or stupefied with -1 modifiers. It costs 1 action to recover 1 level.  Finally a ruleset which simply tips models over to denote their status rather than using a plethora of special markers or cards!  How... ...simple and sensible.  It'll never catch on.

Models in close combat roll their number of attack dice and add modifiers for their weapon type.  The highest d6 rolled (including any bonuses)  is the winner. Movement is likewise simple and straightforward. Shooting means weapon dice are compared to the firer's dexterity - if the rolls are equal or above the dexterity stat the shots hit. W40k "cover saves" (4+, 5+ and 6+ rolls on a d6) are used to negate hits on targets in cover.

Damage is assessed by rolling a d6 each hit and adding the highest to the weapon strength. If the total exceeds the target constitution a wound is inflicted. 

Players take morale tests if friendlies within 5" die; if confronted with a terrifying foe, or it needs to cast a spell. A failure can result in catatonia, stupefaction, revulsion or frenzy.

Wounds can stun a model, render them unconscious or inflict minor or severe injury.  There is a Mordhiem-esque after-game roll to check injuries which can result in a drop in player attributes such as -1 movement for a leg wound.

As usual, I tend to like a "reactive fire" mechanic but Strange Aeons does not miss it as much as many games.

The basic rules include 21 pages and are, indeed, pretty basic.  Whilst far from "cutting edge" they are simple and straightforward, with no niggling flaws.  The "advanced rules" - jumping, destroying objects, critical hits - are so simple as to be regarded as standard rules in most rulesets.  Definitely a ruleset that "makes sense."

 There are some great pulp minis out there. This one is from Artizan Designs.

The Crunchie Stuff
The remaining 60 or so pages are devoted to Threshold (good guy) and Lurker (bad guy) lists.
There are baseline character and normal Threshold agents, and 8 special characters such as kung fu experts, medics, snipers, demolitionists etc.  Your list of agents can be recorded simply and easily in a log which you can photocopy.

The Lurkers include cultists, priests and cleaver-wielding maniacs in addition to ghouls. Cthulhu fishmen, demon hounds, nightgaunts, werewolves and undead such as zombies and mummies, demons. There are 21 different monsters and evil humans to fight.

The list is reasonable but not terribly comprehensive and does not have the ability to "create your own" monsters.  This tends to restrict Strange Aeons a bit. For example, though there are plenty of Cthulhu beasts, there is no provision for vampires - a horror staple.It is definitely more Mythos than straight horror.

There is 12 weapons including various handguns, shotguns, rifles and Tommy guns, as well as pitchfolks and bowie knives.  Gear includes dynamite, whips, armour, holy books, and armour.

There are 10 normal and 6 evil spells.  Spells are one-use only.  A failed spell usually results in a test on the insanity table.  There are also 6 magical artifacts which have various effects.

Overall, the lists and bestiary is a bit more limiting than I would like. 

The post-game sequence includes rolling for injuries, and winning Threshold agents can gain a skill at the cost of 1 Base Point.  Each surviving model may also roll a d6 - a '6' means they have found a Map Piece. Lost agents can be replaced with new ones.  However agents can never be retired - players are stuck with them until they die.

Map Pieces can be spent to activate special quest scenarios or hire special agents.

There are 6 scenarios which can be rolled randomly, and 6 quest scenarios that ca be activated by spending map pieces.  There are good gameplay examples following this, which reinforces my belief the rules author is a gamer himself.   Lurkers can spend BP on "plot points" which change the scenario and give them advantages (like re-rolls, and various bonuses to demons, undead and cultists).

Finally there are photocopyable sheets for player "warband" logs and a quick reference sheet.

Overall, the campaign is sensible and easy to manage. 

Indirectly Competitive
Well not exactly co-operative, but player warbands do not play directly against each other.  Instead each player takes turns to operate the enemy "Lurkers".  Not only does this eliminate any bad feeling about "powergaming" (in games like Mordhiem, some skilled-up characters with certain gear were well-nigh unbeatable making some campaign battles mercilessly one sided); but since the points value of the Threshold warband is always matched by the Lurker player, games are always reasonably balanced. I go into more detail here.

  If you can pronounce it, then you probably should be buying Strange Aeons, which has a strong Cthulhu vibe

The rulebook is well designed but pricey for what you get; the basic mechanics are pretty simple and old school but don't have any major flaws.   The game has a reasonable but not super-comprehensive monster list; something addressed by numerous expansions.  Personally, I'd rather have a points-builder to stat out my own monsters.  As it stands the game is a little more narrowly focussed than some other competitors such as the Savage Worlds series.  Playing only 1920s Cthulhu-flavoured Threshold vs Lurkers will may get old for some after repeated playing.  The idea of "indirect competition" where player warbands never fight directly keeps this game friendly and eliminates "balance" concerns prevalent in competitive campaign games like Mordhiem. There are enough scenarios and gear to keep you going for a while and there are expansion books being steadily churned out. The rules are simple but good and would be very amenable to house rules.

Recommended?  If you like Cthulhu horror you probably have this game already; if you do, and don't have Strange Aeons, then you should race out and buy it. However if you're a fence-sitter then I'd recommend a cheap $10 Savage Worlds RPG book (hard copy or pdf) which is great value and allows a range of pulp skirmish options to be played. (If Strange Aeons was a cheap $10 pdf like Chaos in Carpathia/Cairo I would wholeheartedly recommend it, but $48 is a bit much to test-try a 80 page spiral bound rulebook which is rather specifically focussed)  If you "get into" it then you can expand into the more specific Strange Aeons series down the track, and meanwhile you can spend the $38 you saved to buy some minis from Artizan, Pulp Figures, Copplestone, or similar and get playing.

Note: Anatoli's Game Room has a lot of Strange Aeons AARs - well worth checking out.


  1. Nice review. The game has its own Boadgame Geek entry at along with some more reviews and other thoughts.

    I'm not sure where you get the $48 price from. FRP Games sells it for $30 with $5 shipping. Direct from Canada is $30 also. Perhaps I missed something in the review?

    If this were a $10 PDF, I would consider it. But there are many other rules and games in the $30 range that deserve my money more than this one does.

    1. Direct from Canada is $30 + $18.50 overseas P&P = $48

      It was the only place that sold it when I got my copy but I believe Black Hat in the UK also sell it. I got the biggest supplement Morbid Tales from there a while back.

      A pdf release would certainly be a better way to get people to sample this good, but somewhat niche game.

  2. Thanks for the review! To be honest at first I was left a bit flat with these rules, and thought there was not enough 'shiny'. Then I had a revelation that less is more, and playing with some friends realised how much flexibility there is (eg the "Other" action) which makes playing fast and furious.

    I like the mechanism whereby the amount by which you exceed the target roll, helps with the damage roll.

    I agree that the was bits lacking in the initial rules, but the 3 supplements now have fleshed that out a lot and give a wide variety of possibilities - or make up your own (we did for Vampires)

    You might also want to check out "Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten" in Uncle Mike's resources section, which allow players to each run a Cult in a Necromunda-esque style warband. Only Beta rules at the moment, but lots of fun to be had!

    I agree - this game is clearly a labour of love and made for gamers by a gamer. Uncle Mike is very action on the Lead Adventure Forums and very open to suggestions and player input.

    BTW Postage rates from Northern America went up significantly in the last 6 months, so its out of the publisher's control I'm afraid. Just did a price check comparison (incl postage) for the new expansion Morbid Adventures: AUD$33.80 direct from Uncle Mike, AUD$35.30 via Black Hat in the UK. I have asked before but there is no local distributor here in Oz.

  3. I like the rules a lot actually. I just think they are a little narrowly focussed to justify the price. I spent $48 + $30ish on Strange Aeons + Morbid Adventures (which as you say does flesh out things a lot) - but if you need to spend $80 for "full rules" - IMO no rulebook is worth $80 despite what GW would have you believe....

    A Build Point system allowing you to construct your own monsters, plus Morbid Adventures (which is only 50ish pages) as a single 130-page rulebook, would be well worth the asking price.

    Other than that I simply reiterate the need for pdfs... I suspect a $15 rulebook and $10 expansion per pdf would probably make them the same profit...

  4. "I like the mechanism whereby the amount by which you exceed the target roll, helps with the damage roll."

    Considering this for Delta Vector actually as I really like the "degree of success" in DP9 games like Lightning Strike.

  5. Hi. Great review. Just wondering what you meant by self-indulgent introduction. Just curious as I'm looking to buy this game myself, and it seemed to be the only real negative thing in the review. Thanks

  6. Glenn

    Self Indulgent Introduction - kinda like a long foreword when the game designer rambles on, makes bad puns, tells his life story, or (in this case) pretends to be a mad cultist. To people who don't dig "in character" RPGs or LARPing, this is very annoying.

    Don't let it deter you from getting the rules though - the expense is my main concern, actually. (See conversations in this thread re: $48 for a book that has a narrow focus and only a small bestiary)

    If you are a Cthulhu-nut, then this is a must have, as it is very specific - 1920-30s Men In Black vs Cthulhu cultists and monsters, basically.

    If not, and you simply want pulp/horror in the 1880s-1940s, I can point you to cheaper options that have a wider scope.

  7. Thanks for the review. Like you I've been put off from this game for not selling it in pdf format, a pity.
    BTW one question, could I play this game solo?

    1. It's co op rather than solo; i.e. each person takes turns being the "bad guy" and you don't fight each other directly.

      There are no 2HW "PEF" style rules although you could easily "borrow" them and add them to the Strange Aeons rules.