Tuesday, 18 September 2012

LOTR: Battle Companies AAR - $12 of fun

I am intending to playtest a series of small games with the LOTR:SBG and the skirmish campaign spin-off  "Battle Companies". This game is remarkable in needing only a few plastic miniatures. Both warbands in the game cost under $6 each (including a metal "major hero" for each) - this is off ebay of course - where LOTR minis are currently both plentiful and cheap.

The original rules are here as found in White Dwarf 297.  They were tweaked in White Dwarf  311 and it is this latter version I am using as it allows three heroes to start, not just one; it has more skill "upgrade" choices, and it a little better balanced.  

There are 5 Good warband choices: Dol Amroth, Dwarf, Gondor, Rivendell, Rohan
and 7 Evil warband choices: Easterlings, Haradrim, Isengard, Khand, Mordor, Moria, Wargs

Selecting Forces:
I chose an Isengard warband: 3 scouts with hand weapons, and 3 scout archers. 
The wife goes with Gondor: 3 "standard" troops with hand weapons, 2 archers and 2 spearmen.

I assign my major hero and one of my minor heroes as standard scouts. The other minor hero is an archer.  My wife chooses a major hero to be a swordsman, with spearman and archer as her minor heroes.

Selecting Missions:
I am actually using a deck of cards and the Malifaux: Rising Powers rulebook* (p.42-43) as they offer a myriad of mission choices including "hidden" missions which your opponent does not know about.

In an amazing fluke, we both got the same mission: "Slaughter." So much for special missions. Another straight up fight then. 

This whole pregame process took 10 minutes.
(*Before you rush out and buy it, can I say the mission tables are only good use for this rulebook besides as a door-stop)

The wife won deployment. She had secretly chosen a scheme "have more figures in enemy deployment at end of game" from the Malifaux scenarios (which I was unaware of) so she quickly advanced down the side of the board to accomplish this.

The men of Gondor charge down the side of the board to achieve their secret "breakthrough" scheme to control my deployment. I angle my archers towards the wall for a free potshot.

I attempt to control the top of the steps whilst peppering the enemy with fire but the men of Gondor duck out of sight on their way to my deployment zone.

As they run around through the building they are fired upon by one of my archers. Archer #1 claims his first victim of the game - an enemy bowman. They get into cover but their reprieve is short lived.  

As they charge up the steps they are met with a volley of exceptionally aimed arrows.  I concentrate my fire on the spearmen to avoid their "supporting bonus."  Archer #1 causes a wound on a heroic Gondor spearmen. He uses his "Fate" to cheat death.  Archer #2 kills another spearmen with a "6" to the head.

Archer #1 kills the last bowmen (his third wound of the game - remarkable with the weak orc bows) as the forces come together at the top of the steps. Battle is joined in a fierce melee.  Our captains meet in battle and with both rolling "2"s my superior fight value wins the day. However the Gondor captain cheats "Fate" and is merely pushed back down the steps.  In a last desparate fight, the two orcs take on a Gondor swordsman supported by the heroic spearmen. They kill him, at which point (with a 0-4 kill/death ratio) and unable to complete her objective, my wife withdraws. Playing time: 30 minutes.

Experience Gained & Wounds:
Orc archer #1 5XP (level up -> crossbow) - 3 wounds
Orc archer #2 3XP - 1 wound
Orc archer minor hero 2XP

Orc scout + shield major hero = 3XP - 1 wound
Orc scout + shield minor hero = 3XP - 1 wound
Orc scout + shield - 2XP

Bowmen minor hero  1 XP - (INJ) miss a game, wounded
Bowmen 1XP - (INJ) miss a game, wounded

Spearmen minor hero - (INJ) dead
Spearmen - 1XP

Gondor std #1 - 1XP  (INJ) wounded but complete recovery
Gondor std #2 -1XP
Gondor major hero - 1XP

Isengard got 2+2 for win (4 influence). As it has 3 points it can roll on the Influence table. The roll of "4" gains an extra scout uruk-hai with a hand weapon (and no shield). It has 1 influence left over.

Gondor got 2 for participating (2 influence). it can only by wargear as there is not enough (3pts) needed for an Influence roll. While it could buy equipment or weapons upgrades, Gondor decides to save all its influence for next round to replace the dead spearman.

The postgame check took 10 minutes - so 50 minutes to play the game from start to finish although I could trim this to 30-40 minutes with practice.

Only one guy (my orc archer who scored an improbable 3 wounds with a series of sixes) got to "level up"; which was a bit disappointing. However the 30-minute game time would allow 3-4 games to be played in an evening allowing a satisfying "narrative" to be developed.  Having to ebay a metal $3 crossbowmen mini brought my total to $9 for Isengard whilst Gondor stayed at $6.  Definitely an affordable way to play! The softcover "Mine of Moria" A5 rules can be picked up on ebay for $10-15 if you don't have the rules (and, like me, don't fancy shelling out $50+ for a fancy hardbacked tome.)

The small model count made every shot or melee a matter of vital interest - the sharpshooter orc scout practically won the game causing 3 wounds.   On the downside, having less units and limited unit types to work with made the game a little bit more bland and less tactical than the other bigger LOTR games I've played - I felt I won largely due to my (unusually) excellent archery die rolling. Also, the relatively low-power Battle Companies heroes lead to less opportunities for "resource management" with Might Will and Fate, which is where LOTR gets a lot of its flavour. This may improve as the heroes "level up" though. 

I'll be interested to see how warbands develop - compared to Mordhiem which could become "broken" with certain combinations of units and equipment. The Battle Companies options are a lot simpler though so should be less "bugged." I have my suspicions about high-defence dwarves and sharpshooter elves being possibly OP over a long campaign.

Blander gameplay than larger LOTR:SBG games, but quick (30 minutes); simple, cheap, and most of all, fun. It would be very easy to develop a "narrative" with a sequence of battles.  The tiny amount of minis and low, low cost  ($6 per warband) makes this easy to recommend - I'd be surprised if most gamers couldn't lay their hands on 10-15 LOTR plastics which they or a gaming partner already has.  The typical GW rules style makes them easy to learn and the campaign system, where individual minis gain new equipment, skills and traits over games (or even acquire injuries or die) is always  fun.

Recommended: Certainly. Vanishingly cheap, simple - a very accessible entry to the addictive world of campaign gaming.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

LOTR Batrep + Terraclips Preprinted Card Terrain

Finally I remembered my camera. 

This was a 200pt game - armoured high elves, lead by Haldir, against a troll, goblin captain, and a swarm of perfidious goblin underlings.  As I was too sick to go to my regular game, the wife filled in, and did well in her first outing.

Terraclips Terrain
I have reviewed them here but it is worth re-emphasizing two things (a) how easy it is to store them flat and (b) the ridiculous amount of time needed to assemble it.  Kinda counter-intuitive.  Technically, it is very transportable - but in practice I would never use it at my local club as it takes an hour to assemble a decent board.  That said, my opponents always enjoy playing on its detailed, multi-leveled surface, and the cardboard is surprisingly tough and forgiving. A quality product, but one that lacks a clear role.  In the game pictured I used about one and a half packs of the Streets of Malifaux set.

Disclaimer: all my minis are basecoated only - as I refuse to play with unpainted minis but didn't have time to detail and base both sides. 

As usual I split my force in three - the cave troll seemed to attract a lot of attention, so I used only a few goblins to support it in the centre, sending the bulk with my goblin captain on the right flank, and a band of 4 archers around the left.  As usual my opponent responded to my three-pronged attack by splitting the force into two - the bulk of the archers facing my small goblin force, and the rest with Haldir up the centre.

Early Game
I moved my troll up the middle to get attention and snuck my main horde around to the right (they are out of sight at the top of the board) - I planned to use their climbing to assail my foes from the flank and rear like last game. The wife started to move her forces together which was what I did NOT want.

All eyes on the troll - while the sucker punch comes around from the right....
There are also a handful of goblin archers hiding behind the doorway at the bottom of the map.

I had to try to get some separation between her forces so I did my now-standard "feigned retreat" - as anticipated she chased the troll up the middle; firing at its leathery hide with no effect.

I retreat to buy the flanking force time to get in position....
Middle Game
I spring my trap. There is the usual "wtf" moment as the goblins scurry over the walls.  I spend a might point to seize the initiative. After being peppered with elf arrows, the goblin archers on the left also climb over from the other side and join in.

The trap is sprung! Goblins climb over the wall to the top of the map and engage the elf rearguard

 With superior numbers, they quickly force the pointy-ears back

End Game
I force the elves back, but my feigned retreat with the troll meant it took too long to get my heavy hitter into combat. Meanwhile, my puny gobbos proved a bit too easily carved up by those shiny elf blades.  After Evil initially holding the advantage, both of us reached the "Break Test" on the same turn. That said, the"troll decoy" did keep the enemy broken up into two bite-sized forces so perhaps it was a fair trade.

Both sides lost heavily - here the troll finally gets into combat and breaks through

There was a last fight, with the goblin captain breaking and fleeing but the troll and a few others proving surprisingly resilient despite their courage of 2.  Haldir used his might to inflict two wounds on the troll, which passed several break tests along with a companion goblin who was eventually hacked down.  Running out of might, Haldir finally fell to the troll, in a literal fight to "the last man standing."

The fight lasted surprisingly long - after a few goblins bolted off, both sides passing their break tests with amazing valour

A good game - my wife easily grasped the basics after a few turns; arguably she missed victory due to my superior die rolling in the endgame - those goblins just refused to flee! (Which, gracious loser as she is, she reckoned was due to loaded dice or some sort of craps-style "blanket roll" trickery on my behalf).

There was less maneuver in this game as my wife nervously kept her forces close together and wouldn't be lured too far apart.  Again LOTR is so simple - and the activation mechanic, use of Might, Fate and Will for resource management (to win fights, and alter the activation sequence) makes this far superior to the cheesy codex list-mongering of 40K. 

The goblins are quite powerful - they have access to hordes of cheap troops for outnumbering purposes, and a few troll heavy hitters. Both times I have used the goblin agility to climb vertical terrain and swing the tide of battle - so despite their rather bland "special power" it has been used effectively.   The built-up terrain hindered the elf archers. I'd be interested to see how dwarves would go, but sadly I can't get them on ebay for love or money (and strangely, buying them new at $70 for 2 sets of 12 plastics doesn't appeal).

I'll do almost anything to get some cheap dwarves - including waxing my legs, as you can see

Monday, 3 September 2012

Infinity: Skirmish Wargame Paradise?

The skirmish campaign was popularized by Mordhiem and Necromunda.  The ability to gain experience and upgrade your heroes lead to an attachment to your warband and a "storytelling" feel you just can't get in a one-off scenario or fight to the death. 

Even now, unbalanced as they are, Mordhiem and Necromunda tend to elicit positive nostalgia.  There have been several attempts to capitalise on this, most recently through Empire of the Dead (itself a thinly disguised imitation of the Legends of the Old West rules which in turn were based on Mordhiem et al); I have personally revived Battle Companies for my LOTR forces.

But the best skirmish game of recent times is, arguably, Infinity.  If the "Big Three" are Warhammer, Warmachine and Flames of War, then Infinity is part of the "next three" alongside games like Malifaux and those by Spartan Games. 
Ariadna: low-tech Russian-Scottish faction; they have werewolves and heavy weaponry

Excellent Sculpts
Beautiful detailed models, with fluid, dynamic poses and crisp casting, Corvus Belli have set the benchmark for all other sci fi models. That said - not every sculpt will be loved by everyone - their newer models are noticeably better than their old ones - which are still not bad - but the difference is appreciable. Putting them together can be fiddly. Some factions have an anime aesthetic which does not appeal to everyone, but a sci fi game devoid of both skullz, scrollz and spiky bitz AND grimy post-apocalyptic wastelands gets the thumbs up from me.  A starter box (with 6-7 models) is $40 and since teams seldom exceed 10 minis per side, you can expect to pay under $70 for a well-equipped "army." Seriously. Have a look at their website. If you don't find something you like, I'll refund the time you spent reading this paragraph.

 PanO: a Appleseed anime-style mashup with armoured space knights - a hi tech shooty faction. This is a new release for this month

Very Shiny Rules
As the rules are free, there is no need to buy the rulebook.  But most do anyway - as this is one of the most beautiful hardbacked rulebooks I have come across. Fantastic original art, beautiful photos - it's a coffee table book as much as it is a rules reference.  Yes, it can be a bit hard to read at times, needs a better index system, has fluff mixed in with the rules, and sometimes stuff has been "lost in translation" (you're better off using the pdf simplified Starter Rules, mixed with the online wiki to begin with) but if you're not enjoying the fluff and shiny stuff, you're doing it wrong.  The Human Sphere add-on is also well worth it. You don't need the rulebook - but you should get it anyway...  

Infinity even has fluff videos! Production values, even in videos, are high

If the anime aesthetic isn't your thing, that's fine - only applies to 3 or 4 of the 7 factions

Excellent Rules
 But the most revolutionary thing about the game is the rules. Whereas most sci fi game mechanics don't deviate far from 40K, Infinity tips them on their head.  The first major change is the "order pool".  In most games, each model gets one activation or "order." This is true of Infinity - but you can spend them however you like - activating the same model repeatedly if you wish.  For example, seven models generates seven orders.  However instead of activating each model once each, instead you could activate the same model seven times in a row. Or activate one model four times, and another model three times - you get the idea. Once your orders are all used up, it is your opponent's turn.

 Yu Jing: Asian hi-tech conglomerate with lots of power-armour and, of course, ninjas, good in melee

The second major change is use of reactions or AROs.  Every time a model activates every opponent in line of sight can react to him (usually by firing at him or dodging behind cover). This ensures the gameplay is non-stop. Both players roll a d20 in a "face to face" roll and the winner (who also must roll under his relevant stat - be it physical or shooting) gets to act first.

It's a little hard to get your head around the mechanics but Corvus Belli have made a series of great Utube videos which should help any newbie. The rules are actually quite simple - its more that they are so very different to the "norm."

There is a great series of tutorial videos explaining how the unusual mechanics work

Combat is very lethal; weapons fire 3-4 shot bursts and even a single shot is likely to kill. Heavy weapons can fire across the board. Good use of cover is critical to survive. Close combat is possible but unlikely - in sharp contrast to 40K where  using the bolter rifle as a club is usually more effective than actually firing it.

There is a good choice of weapons but they share similar stats (i.e. a AP rifle, Multi-rifle, Viral rifle, and Combi-rifle all use the "rifle" range bands and rate of fire but simply differ in the type of ammo used) There are drones and robots, which act as both "pets" or can be autonomous; hackers who can seize control of power armour or mechs and turn their weapons on their allies - even redirecting guided missiles in flight: grenade launchers with superadhesive to stop foes "in their tracks"; tissue-shredding monofilament mines, chain rifles, cut-down MGs "spitfires", shotguns and flamethrowers as well as a range of exotic weaponry such as EMP devices, flash and electrical weapons.

 Nomads: rebels of space, with lots of hackers, mutants and gun-toting space nuns.

Now with a Campaign System (Campaign Paradiso)
There are lots of fan-made scenarios but Infinity has been until now been more officially geared around the kill-em-all tournament mentality (in which it is surprisingly balanced).  There has always been a clamour for a Mordhiem-esque system to gain experience and new equipment and skills.  This is arriving in November, along with a complete new alien faction (the mysterious Tohaa) and 16 scenarios.

The new campaign book teaser....

...but not perfect
Infinity is not perfect. I feel that "rules creep" has been slowly bogging the game. More and more special rules, special equipment and "exceptions" proliferate with every new model.  Infinity's boast is "it's not your list - it's you" - inferring that YOUR tactics and in-game choices rather than your army lists determines the victor.  I think it is in danger of becoming "It's not your list - it's your memory" - i.e. inferring that your ability to memorize special rules and their interactions is the key to victory.  The initial learning curve in Infinity is steep - but the proliferation of new rules are making it increasingly vertical. That said, things like camouflage and paratroops allow you to break through enemy defences and add a whole different dimension to the game. Not even your deployment zone is safe!

However if you have an iPad or similar device, the Infinity wiki has all rules cross-referenced in a very user-friendly way.

Haqqislam: Moorish/benevolent Muslim faction with regenerating heavy infantry and assassins

There are no vehicles in the game (although there seem to be placeholders in the rules for them); personally I think this is fine, as having tanks etc seems outside the scope of a game with usually less than 10 men per team.  Instead there are TAGs and REMOTEs - small mechs and robots that wield heavy firepower such as missile launchers, flamethrowers and automatic cannon. 

TAGs are powerful, agile mechs that support the special-forces teams

Finally, if you don't have lots of terrain, you might as well not bother. For me, this is the #1 issue with "getting into" Infinity. Generally, if you can see it, you can shoot it.  There should never be more than a 4 to 8" gap between pieces cover unless you want to see your models die very fast.  Tall buildings allow snipers and machinegunners to dominate. A player with a mentality of 3-6 terrain pieces per table (a la 40K) could see his force shot down from his opponent's deployment zone.
It's not insurmountable though - I made a cheap and cheerful terrain board in a weekend.

Combined Army: a mix of red faced angry warrior space monkeys and seed-spawned vicious shapeshifting alien killers
Brilliant cinematic activation system and ability to react to opponents means it's "always your turn" - your models don't stand around like dummies waiting to be shot.  Combat is lethal, and realistic use of cover is encouraged.  A wide range of weapons and equipment means a huge toolbox of tactical choices.  The game is relatively cheap ($40-70) to start and the rules and all lists are free. The game is well supported with a steady stream of new releases, Youtube guides, and friendly forums. The wiki is very useful if you have a mobile device. This is a game where player skill matters more than your "army list" and you are always involved in the gameplay.

However, remember for Infinity you need LOTS of cover.  In fact, lack of terrain was the reason my Infinity models have sat dormant for so long. Special rules and equipment can be a bit confusing and frustrating (you tend to lose when meeting a new superweapon for the first time). The learning curve is steep, and rules could be better laid out. 

Nonetheless: in-game skill > army list codex warriors; cheap intro cost; free rules and lists; cinematic gameplay; realistic cover and reactions; good support and community, wide range of exotic weapons and equipment, great sculpts, and not a gothic building, skull or scroll in sight.....

Recommended?: Definitely. With a new campaign system, the best skirmish game for sci fi just got soul. Get in now to avoid the rush.

Aleph: a "benevolent" AI that oversees humanity. Cyborgs, robots and sentient body-hopping AI ensure everyone "co operates"....     
...OK, I admit, ever since Number Six from BSG, I've liked my cyborgs female...

Warmachine: Not the Messiah, just a Messy Game

Looking at this post it started out as a LOTR batrep but became a Warmahordes rant. Oh well, I've been sick - allow me this indulgence.

LOTR: A game for the simple-minded amongst us

LOTR: Simple but Subtle
My second game of LOTR (300pts) on the weekend.  The rules for LOTR models are very straightforward and play like a streamlined, less-cheesy version of 40K, with more tactical unit activation, movement and firing choices as well as an element of resource management. 

Most models have no special rules at all to remember (Warmachine and Malifaux, I'm looking at you) and both myself and my opponent commented on how we were concentrating on actual tactics and maneuver rather than referencing special rules.  In fact this time though we only needed to consult the rulebook a few times (each time we used a new troop type) to check basic stats. 

In contrast, listening to the Warhordes games at the tables nearby:

"I pop my feat now"
"Okay - what does that do" (searching in rulebook)

"Okay then I counter with.. wait, does that model have reach?" (goes to nearby table to ask)
(Looks at his cards)
"You can't attach Sorcha as he has fire immunity"
"Oh. In that case I spent a focus to cast Lightning Blast which I channel through this node"

If you paid enough for your model, you don't even need to move minis - you can simply let it sit in your deployment zone and play "cards"

People were checking the rules or unit cards pretty much every time something activated.  Reminds me of a bad CCG or RPG session. In fact I have decided that with Warmachine you might as well do away with models altogether, as maneuver seems mostly concerned with what models you are willing to sacrifice to damage xy model/s of your opponent. E.g. As an extreme example, one game had a giant $100+ pewter warmachine (with 1-2 attendent mechanics clustered against it) fighting off a horde of foes. It was parked static on the table and I was told "he doesn't have to move; there's a lot of strategy in the order you use your abilities."  Mmmm.  So why did we bother with the models, again? 

The locals are saying how awesome Warmachine is compared to 40K/WFB but swapping a game that rewards powergaming, cheesy lists and has ridiculously expensive models for one which openly rewards powergaming, cheesy lists and has ridiculously expensive models AND overly complex rules (which supposedly add "tactics") does not seem like a trade up to me. Although PP hasn't discovered Finecast yet, it's only a matter of time.

 Powergaming, even when overtly encouraged, is still cheese

One guy asked me how I can remember the rules to "all those games"  (I have been seen playing Tomorrow's War, Infinity and LOTR on the same day (yikes!) whilst everyone else relentlessly garners competition points with their unpainted Warmachine metals).  The answer: Probably because the same brain cells that are use to remember a single Warcaster's feats, powers and stats can be used to memorize the base rules and stats for several LOTR factions

/rant off (wipes spittle from around mouth)... back ON Topic..   ...yes, LOTR that was it

..anyway I was saying how subtle LOTR rules are.  "Special rules" are so few, and seem to have so slight an impact, yet add lots of flavour.

Yes, the random LOTR photos means I forgot my camera again. A pity as I'd like to show off the Terraclips terrain in action.

List Building
I simply grabbed two trolls (as they looked cool); a captain to give some Might points, and filled out my goblins as spears, bows and shields in equal number.  My opponent, mindful of weakness of archery, traded in all his 8 or so Gondor archers for 3 Rangers and brought more spears, as well as 3 Fountain Court bodyguards for his leaders.  He had Faramir and a captain to both counter my trolls and have a healthy Might point advantage.

I deployed my forces (each to the sides of a bridge that ran across the table from one deployment zone to another) in three forces, each flank lead by a troll with my goblin captain in the centre ready to cross the bridge.

My opponent split up his forces, half spears on the bridge (lead by a captain) whilst his heavy hitters aimed for my weakest flank. He advanced.

Early game
As happened last game; I totally withdrew my weakest flank, leaving some archers to pepper his advancing troops.  I charged both trolls over the bridge, much to my opponents' consternation.  I also sent a mess of goblins round the far undefended flank.  It now looked like a race; who could to the other side's deployment zone first so they could charge up the bridge behind the enemy. My gobbo archers drew first blood by picking off 2 Rangers with the loss of one of their own.

Mid Game
Unfortunately, the "race" was stacked - my goblins simply climbed the side of the bridge. The spear wall, lead by the captain, was quickly pincered by the trolls and the sneaky goblins who took the vertical "shortcut".  Despite heroics by the captain, who hacked down several of the swarming goblins, the spearmen on the bridge were efficiently butchered. Rather improbably, 4 goblins had been lost for 2 rangers and 8 men of Gondor. 

End Game
The hammer (Faramir and his Fountain court) arrived after looping round the end of the bridge but by then my forces had turned to face the threat to their rear. Faramir fought a heroic battle with the horde, killing 6 goblins single-handed, but finally ran out of might and got ripped apart with 7 wounds in a single melee round.  The rest of the Gondor force broke and fled, save for the Fountain Court bodyguards who naturally stayed with Faramir until the bitter end.

Special Rules
The goblin's climbing ability proved decisive but was by no means "victory by rules" and I liked how my opponent recognized the threat himself "This looks like ring-a-rosey... uh oh hang on goblins can climb walls - crap!" (albeit too late) and the Fountain Court guards stayed to fight, cinematically, to the end due to the "bodyguard" rule.  At no stage did we have to paw through the rulebook to check or justify "special" rules.

My archers are about as deadly as this guy firing suction cup arrows...

When archery is mostly '6's to wound against armoured targets, quantity > quality.  I think I'm going to concentrate all my archers next time to give a massed volley.  Whilst the 3 Rangers were accurate shots, the simply could not match the rate of fire/wounding capacity of the 9 goblin bowmen.  That said, I can see why my opponent barely bothered - archery is very weak (8% lethality on average).

FACT: Three is better than Two; unless we're talking about haemerrhoids

Three Prong Attack
This worked last game too - I divided my force into three groups; my opponent responded by dividing his force in half (thereby technically out numbering any of my three groups by a 5:3 ratio)

Each time I responded by "withdrawing" one of my flanking groups to lure one of his halves away, then attacking his remaining half with my other two (creating a 7:5 ratio in my favour whilst also having greater maneuverability with 2 groups vs 1)

Again, I really enjoy LOTR as it has simple rules that encourage decisions about maneuver and resource management rather than winning by remembering more combos of rules.