Wednesday, 27 February 2013

(Good) Fantasy Skirmish Wargames

I was staring at my unpainted lead mountain today, considering fantasy games.  Unlike space games, there seems to be a broad spectrum of approaches to this genre. Rather like I did for space games, I'd like to look at elements that I think would make a good fantasy game.

The First Rule:  Many Difficult Choices, Few Easy Rules
Games rules should be simple and easy to remember, whilst presenting the maximum number of difficult choices at every opportunity.  A shining example is Mayhem, which at every opportunity you have to make a dice roll, you can either automatically claim half the dice (say 3 on a d6, 4 on a d8) or roll the dice and take a risk. Not a hard rule to remember - but it constantly requires a player decision.

Statlines vs Special Rules
At lot of current games have minimized stats.  For example, Song of Blades has "Combat" and "Troop Quality" as its only "stats." It then differentiates between units by adding a zillion traits or special abilities - exceptions to the rule. It's false economy - more rules are needed because of the smaller stat line.  Oversimplifying has actually added complexity. 

Whilst a game of modern combat (where all soldiers are human and most carry 5.56mm automatic weapons) allows generalisations, fantasy - which can encompass lizardmen, ogres, hobbits, dragons, goblins and gargoyles - tends to have very different troop types.  Having a sensible stat line keeps the "extra rules" managable.

I find LOTR: SBG surprisingly underrated - perhaps too subtle boring for the average GW powergamer
Initative - the Ignored Factor
IGOUGO doesn't cut it anymore.  Games should involve players. Troops should not just wait like dummies to be scythed down.  A lot of games ignore the initiative sequence and miss out on an opportunity to present players with tactical choices. An interesting option - the card activation of TFL games - where activation is random, but better leaders have more/better opportunities to act; and troops without inspiring leaders tend to act last. Or Song of Blades and Heroes "risk vs reward" activation where a player can roll dice to take more actions but risks failing and losing the initiative.
Again, I mention LOTR: it has a modified IGOUGO sequence that heroes can "interrupt" to seize the initiative. This not only makes the move sequence more tactical, but makes heroes into actual leaders, not simply walking tanks.

The "all units move the same distance" lead by 40K just doesn't cut it. A dwarf does not move as fast as a werewolf.  Yes, you can say it represents them "advancing cautiously at combat speed, weapons ready" but this is another unneeded simplification (most players can remember how far a unit moves) which removes flavour.

Choices in Combat
Combat in 90% of skirmish games is just move up, roll dice. There isn't much decision making in it. Something that has interested me a lot lately is the concept of "Dice Pools". Bushido has a dice pool, (free rules here) where players can allocate melee dice to attack or defence, as does Havoc.  CROM takes the dice-as-a-resource concept further allowing you to "burn dice" - losing dice (ability) permanently for short-term gain.  Alkemy uses cards for attack types - certain attacks counter others more effectively, others do more damage, etc. Even LOTR allows a choice of one handed attacks, two handed attacks, and defensive posture.

Song of Blades did a lot of things right in making fantasy skirmish fun - but the biggest strength is its unit builder allowing the use of random cool models to create a custom warband...

Results of Combat
 I liked Song of Blades - losers were either knocked down (tip model over); pushed back, or dead (removed).  Plenty of cinematic moments, but no record keeping, or even counters to clutter the table, or (God forbid) hitpoints to tick off a unit card a la Warmachine or Malifaux.

Sensible, Interesting Magic
Magic should steer between the two spells of Song and Blades (freeze, and missile attack) and the fireballs of doom-that-decimate-a-regiment of some Warhammer fantasy editions. There should be a sensible range of spells to allow most generic magic attacks as found in movies, TV shows and books, but it also should be limited in power so the game does not simply become a wizard duel.  Making magic a finite resource might add a layer of tactics as well. I quite like how the warcasters in Warmachine are used although they are a poor example as far as the "don't min-max or overpower stuff" are concerned.

Heroic Moves, Cut Scenes
Rather than tank-like demigods with 3 wounds, 10 Defence and 7 Strength 9 attacks, I like games where heroes can influence events around him (again, allowing player choice) rather than decimate a entire regiment solo by virtue of superior stats. In Havoc, when initiative rolls were tied, "named" heroes could act while the rest of the fight was paused around them - just like a Hollywood cut scene.
 GW's much maligned LOTR was also good this way - heroes could spend  a finite amount of "Heroic Actions" to move friendly units out of sequence, get in the first blow etc.  This was also a "Resource" to manage as they could also use these heroic actions to re-roll their personal combat results. Basically, heroes should be heroes because they have special heroic abilities. Not simply because they are unkillable walking tanks with impossibly high stats, who can absorb two fatal wounds and fight on...

Resource Management
The command point system of diminishing returns in Mayhem (which reminds me of clicking in a RTS); the order pool in Infinity, your hand of cards in Malifaux.... all these add a layer of strategy and tactics.  If done in a way that does not add excessive complication or record-keeping, this can add a final layer of depth to the game.

There are a lot of people waiting for "the next Mordhiem" (or still playing the old one, 20 years on) - showing the value people attach to campaign-based play

Unit Builder
Obviously to be avoided if you are trying to tie the rules to a specific product line, this does make a ruleset more versatile and instantly shoots it to the top of my "buy and try" list.  Song of Blades is a great example - it has simple, fun gameplay, but it can be a little shallow - it's real depth is the ability to "stat up" random models and create your own custom warbands using a free Excel spreadsheet.  Providing a good reason to paint up old models or cruise the net looking for cool random minis, the unit builder is definitely "value added" to any rules set.

Campaign Mode
Death match "to the last man standing" rules get old after a while.  Scenario books and supplements can address this partially, but there is a big crowd of people who think nostalgically of Mordhiem. Hands up if you wish there was a modern replacement for it. Yup, thought so. Exasperatingly unbalanced  at times, the campaigns with random battles kept things from getting "stale" and developed a sense of narrative to games.  Having heroes "level up" and gain new abilities (or be crippled by wounds) creates a genuine attachment to your force.  You know, that badly painted dwarf model you hate the look of, that just would never die, and has killed two enemy champions?  Now you're scared to repaint it in case you break it's lucky run.... Campaign rules add a completely new layer of depth to any skirmish game, and allow it to attract a wider range of gamers. 

Random Thought: The Lonely d10
I notice games are increasingly using numbers of d6 to "flatten" the probability curve, often with attack dice cancelling out defence dice or similar. The other day I saw a video of an ex-GW games designer spruiking a new Kickstarter game (it's here somewhere) and he was waxing eloquent about how the game will be awesome "cos it used a ten sided dice."  I laughed at that - no wonder GW is remaking the same game, 25 years on... they only just discovered d10?  The 80s just called - they want their leg warmers back...  Why do game designers stick with d6s?  I've always thought a d10 had many inherent advantages... it's not like they are the sole preserve of D&D basement-dwellers - I bought my last set at the local ToysRUs.

In Closing
I don't think my "ideal" fantasy game exists yet, though many have strong traits that recommend them. Song of Blades has good initiative, combat results and a stellar unit builder; but it's two-stat/million special rules makes it shallower than it needs.  Havoc scores high in gameplay but its limited troop types, lack of unit builder and campaign holds it back.  LOTR scores surprisingly well as an all-rounder, but has trouble shaking a feel of all-round "blandness." Mordhiem has a strong (albeit unbalanced) campaign element, but has dated IGOUGO gameplay.

Come across any games that meet (most) of the criteria? I'd love to hear about them.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Mayhem Mass Battle Fantasy Rules Reviewed

As a person somewhat jaded by wargames rules (I own, play and review dozens each year) I look forward to any offerings from Bombshell Games. The reason? Their rules do not repeat the same tired mechanics ad nauseam, and usually have a strong design focus.  The layout of the rulesets have  improved markedly since the first book, Havoc, culminating in Battlefield: Miniature Modern Warfare which is very pleasantly laid out with good art and photography.

Mayhem utilises many strips of quality fantasy artwork. I would also have liked some pics of minis in action.
The Shiny
Mayhem is a slim work. At only 21 pages it nonethelesss has a comprehensive table of contents and there is a "quick reference" page with all they key rules "at a glance" on a back-to-back A4, and set-up and turn sequences are clearly laid out in their own section. I don't think it is as nice as B:MMW (which is one of my favorite pdf rulesets) but it is quite tidily and clearly presented. It is well priced at $7.99 and compares very favourably with more expensive pdfs.

The Overdrive mechanic makes a re-appearance here - and I feel it fits better, thematically, than in B:MMW where it was first employed.  You have a pool of "command points" or "CP"  (which I'd suggest a pile of poker chips or counters to represent). Each action takes one command point.  Extra actions add an exponential cost - i.e. a 2nd action would cost 2CP, a 3rd action 3CP, etc.  So you can push or "overdrive" individual units, but with diminishing returns.  Your CP pool is dictated by leadership ability.  This adds a simple but naunced layer of resource management, and  offers a wealth of options when activating your units; you choose which one, what order, how often; you can even go back to a unit you activated previously as long as you can pay the CP.  

Risk vs Reward
Every time you roll a dice you are presented with a choice: you can choose to play it safe - in which case you count half the value of your dice - i.e. if the stat is d10, you can "take the default" and claim an automatic 5.   Or instead you can take the risky option - roll the die/dice and keep the best score.
I really, really like this - without complicating the game it forces a decision on the player every time he picks up a dice!

 Mayhem would work a treat with Demonworld minis - these Dark Elves look like 28mm, not 15mm...
The fact there is no individual casualty removal encourages HoTT-style "diorama" bases

Stats & Stuff
Mayhem follows the current trend of minimizing stats - simply Move and Combat Quality (which lumps together weapons, armour, toughness etc) and differentiates its models primarily by "Traits Ability & Gear". Whilst I am not a fan of this in skirmish games (simplifying the stats often makes things too grainy or is at the expense of having to learn a zillion "special rules" resulting in more to remember *cough* Song of Blades) this has good pedigree in big battle/historical games - the DBA spin-off Hordes of the Things has far less detail than Mayhem, and is probably only second to Warhammer in mass battle fantasy popularity. In any case, Mayhem restricts itself to 12 "special traits" - so it works for me.

Movement is straightforward; players pay various CP costs to move, advance, reform, engage/disengage etc.  Formations are "squared up" neatly to each other in melee, in a commonsense way. Remember: With all rolls players can "take the default" or roll a dice - a unit with d8 speed could either move 4" or take a chance and roll the d8...

In combat players make opposed rolls and attempt to roll lower than their opponents.  No matter how many dice are rolled only one is "counted."  A natural '1' is a critical and eliminates the opponent - ties have no effect (unless a unit has a special ability like "Shieldwall") - and losing causes a unit to become disordered.

A disordered unit pays 1CP to rally and remove each disorder marker, or it can fight on, paying extra CP for actions - but a disordered unit which takes any hit is wiped out....

Large critters and monsters are not disordered but instead are damaged, and a natural '1' does not auto-kill them. The difference between the scores is the damage inflicted.  Monsters get "damage" not "disordered" tokens. These have an additional effect to disorder; you throw 1d6 each token and if the total dice pass 13 ("Lucky 13") the unit is destroyed.

Combat rolls can be modified by extra dice (for flank attacks, or each disordered token on the enemy) or by improving the dice level by one level (d4 to d6) which is a Soft Counter; or by 2 levels (d8 to d12) which is a Hard Counter. Some units have the ability to drive back their opponents through melee combat or missile fire.
In ranged combat, once dice level is for accuracy and a second for damage.  To hit, roll the applicable die and equal or exceed the range to the target. Modifiers for cover simply add to the "range" target number.  Once a hit is scored, the second (damage) dice makes an opposed roll against the target as per melee.

Once over half the units have been eliminated, a force either (a) instantly loses or (b) makes "break checks" each turn thereafter on a leadership dice.  Since it is a simple process, there is no reason not to use the second method as it adds uncertainty and makes smaller, elite forces more useful.

15mm offers so many awesome options, for far cheaper than 28mm. Here are 15mm Skraven Ratmen from Splintered Light Miniatures.
Heroes & Champions
At the start of the turn, a player can roll for Command Points (or take the default, of course).  Heroes allow command dice to be re-rolled. They are also your commanders - if units want to activate outside their "command radius" (usually 10-15") actions cost an extra CP.  They cannot attack or be attacked by enemy units (except enemy heroes) and can freely move through friendly units. A hero can join a friendly unit if he chooses, and  indeed if an enemy unit moves into contact with a hero he must flee and join the nearest friendly unit.

Army Builder
Once overall army leadership is defined, units CQ and movement is priced up.   Any additonal costs for the unit type is added (cavalry, flying, hero, etc) .  Banners and musicians can be included, and weapon types are defined.  Axes, spears, 2 handed weapons, lances, swords - I was relieved to find a solid variety of choices.   Missile weapons range from blow guns to crossbows, blunderbuss and slings.  Units can have shields or heavy armour.  Traits are then added (like "disciplined, beserker, shield wall") to complete the process.  There are also some examples of monsters - dragons, wyverns and giants.   Also useful is the General's Compendium a "living document" pdf - a mix of generic unit profiles and advice on army building, which is included in your download.

Magic Happens - Eventually
I got to the end and was thinking "where are the magic rules?"  "where are the undead?" but apparently that is coming in the expansion, Stronghold - which as the name suggests, includes rules for castles, garrisoning buildings, sieges, artillery, magic and the arcane - as well as extra traits and abilities.  Apparently magic rules may be coming sooner rather than later, perhaps as a pdf download.

More Splintered Light 15mm. They have bucketloads of character for such tiny figures.

As usual Mr Spivey produces an interesting and innovative set of rules.  I really like the the "automatically get half the dice value or take a risk and roll it" mechanic.  You are presented with a (sometimes difficult) choice every time you pick up a dice! Personally, I really like games where the mechanics are simple but the player's decisions are hard.  Mayhem certainly does this. The "overdrive" mechanic adds resource management and another layer of tactics as you decide what order, and how often to activate your troops.

The "hard and soft" counters add variety without a horde of modifiers and special rules.  Using a single stat "CQ", it remains to be seem if we are in for a deluge of said extra rules in the future (currently Mayhem is very restrained). As it stands the game has the simplicity of Hordes of the Things with much more flexibility, depth and decision making, with a dash of resource management on top. My main criticism is the lack of magic in the core rulebook. You can make skeletons and undead etc using combinations of existing edges in the core rules but if you want powerful casters and "fireballs from the sky" you will need to wait for an expansion.

If you like HotT but found the game too "limiting" and "chess-like" and find Warhammer Fnatasy too "gluggy" and more about dice rolling and list-building than tactics - then you may appreciate how Mayhem provides a pleasant blend of simplicity, tactics, playability and versatility.  

Recommend? Yep.  I am not a huge mass battle fan (I'm a lazy painter) but Mayhem has inspired me to dig out my old DBA minis.  Simple game design but lots of tactical decisions gets the thumbs up.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Aeronef - Austrian and British Fleets (Part I - Bare Metal))

Due to the imminent arrival of our first child, I am starting a bunch more new projects and collecting models in preparation for the lean times ahead. Make hay while the sun shines...

One of these projects was aeronef - I have lots of dirgibles from Brigade for my abortive attempt at a Crimson Skies game but no actual "flying battleships" per se.

Brigade sculpts are solid and simple. This is a benefit - unlike fine fiddly sculpts like Infinity, they are both easy and rewarding to paint.  When VAT is removed for non-UK buyers, it pretty much covers postage, keeping prices reasonable. The sculpts had little flash or mold lines and required very little clean up. 

The Austrian Navy is my proxy "German" fleet. The actual German fleet being quite ugly with a square river barge/dredge look quite unlike the VSF aerial battleship I would expect. I feel there are some aeronef fleets which are quite staggeringly ugly - the "oval" Scandinavian Federation, the "saucer-ship" Russians, and the "square" Germans and Japanese.  I think Brigade is trying for a range of different "looks" but they need to make ships people want to actually buy, for goodness sake...

Brigade tries too hard to be different with some of its ships...

I think the British are along with the French and Italians, among the more "conventional" aeronefs (if there is such a thing). They have ship-like lines and bristle with guns, pre-dreadnought style

The British have a pre-dreadnought feel, and I will definitely be adding some lookout "masts" (though I am dubious how they actually help a flying battleship)

The Austrians have an interesting wedge-nose look which I think works really well on the smaller vessels but can be a bit "shovel-nosed" on the larger battleships

The Austrian escorts are excellent sculpts  but they are much larger than their British counterparts which is a bit jarring on the table.

Finally I bought some freighters to escort and raid.  There will provide the basis for scenarios. I particularly like the Austrian liner which shares features with its warship cousins giving it a distinctly national design feel. 

 A rogues gallery of merchant ships.... there may be a Q-ship amongst them...

I photographed the models on a HotzMat star mat (you remember - the one that didn't arrive for 6 months). If you compare it to the MKP mat it is visually superior as it has much fainter hex lines which are less jarring. Material is better quality, too, for the same price. The stars painted on are a bit underwhelming, and don't differ much from the MKP "paint spatters." Verdict:  Hotz Mat > MKP Mat - but omly if you are willing to risk waiting 6 months without replies to messages vs prompt customer service and communication.

I originally found the "not Imperial Star Destoyers" a bit too cute but they are growing on me

Anyway - on to the painting stage (after a few zillion radio masts attached and a lot of curse words later, I'm sure...)

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Retribution Falls - Review

Pulp Steampunk. Airships. Pirates. Dogfights. Swordfights, shotguns and six-guns. Demonologists. Hivemind zombies. Golems.  Do I have your attention?

 Steampunk Firefly? Yes please.

Retribution Falls is a book by Chris Wooding.  Mr Wooding is what I would rate as a solid B-List author - not in the league of GRR Martin, Abercrombie or Rothfuss, but any new releases are usually on my "to buy" list.

The book itself is an enjoyable escape.  Its mood reminds me of the Indiana Jones movies (the early ones, not the latest one, which proves that George Lucas has to take a dump somewhere) or the Mummy series. There is no moral, or deep meaning - it is simply there for you to enjoy.  This does not mean it is a Clive Cussler style crappy airport novel - it is crafted by an experienced author.

Retribution Falls throws together a mish-mash of cool stuff, but it has a "ragtag pirate crew lead by a captain with a heart of gold" underpinning that will appeal to fans of the western-in-space TV show Firefly (if you don't know what I'm talking about, stop reading this now, download/rent/buy the series and watch it. Now.)

Back now? Told you it was good.

Anyway, I was talking about Retribution Falls.  It is just chock full of awesome, pulp-y goodness. It has the dogfights and air pirates of Crimson Skies and the aerial battleships of The Last Exile. There is nothing particularly new in the concepts or ideas in the book - but the world has been put together in a very polished way - creating something fun and original out of what could have been a tired cliche.  This book has some of the most enjoyable world-building I have come across in a while.

Retribution Falls seems inspired by many sources, but comes across as fresh and fun

Airships are somewhat Last Exile-ish; a well-armoured store of gas is electrified and turned into "aetherium" which gives lift. Single-seat fighters (usually armed with machine-guns) have aetherium tanks too, and can hover as well as engage in traditional dogfights.  The protagonist's ship, the Ketty Jay is a small freighter/heavy fighter with a crew of about a dozen and a single autocannon turret, and is escorted by two fighters.  The story is set in the aftermath of the Atherium Wars, and the navy is tenuously attempting to keeping peace in the wilder frontier areas - many with ramshackle frontier towns which are virtually pirate bases only accessible by air. Shotguns and six-shooters abound. Very wild west.  Very Firefly.

There is a flavouring of magic, but it is not overpowering or all-prevalent enough to lose its "cool factor."  Magic is rare and treated with suspicion. The hero has a demon-possessed cutlass and compass. The crew's demonologist can hypnotise people with a magic tooth.  The Ketty Jay has a resident golem - a steel suit of armour possessed by the ghost of a young girl.  And in the icy far north there are the terrifying hivemind undead "Manes".

The golem/"possessed" suit is controlled by a homicidal girl with limited intelligence.
Everything in Retribution Falls is a twisted version of something I've seen elsewhere.

I also like the crew - Wooding has made them not simply lovable dicks (a la Firefly) but in most cases, simply dicks.   Captain Frey is not the fallen noble hero - he's a man-whore willing to have his crew shot to save his ship.  The crew all have their secrets - most are more using the Ketty Jay as a refuge than anything else  - the failed demonologist-with-his-niece-who's-a-ghost-cyborg, the undead navigator, the enigmatic ex-slave engineer, the alcoholic doctor, the hotshot fighter pilot with an IQ of 5,the other fighter pilot who is useless for anything except flying. A psychotic ship's cat. Each flawed, each fascinating.  Each with their own story.

TL:DR  Firefly meets Pirates of the Caribbean meets Stardust meets The Last Exile meets Crimson Skies. A solidly written fantasy in an engaging world.  Will not win a Pulitzer Prize but neither did Star Wars. Good old fashioned fun, which raises the bar in the pulp genre.

Recommended?: A swashbuckling romp full of pulpy goodness. No deep concepts - pure escapism. Full of cool stuff, with solid writing. Two thumbs up.

PS: Oh - and if you like it - there are two more books in the series - Black Lung Captain and The Iron Jackal - all of which are stand alone.  In an era where everything's a "sequel" and everything ends in a cliffhanger than forces you to buy the next book, it's very refreshing.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Battlestations! Battlestations! WW2 Naval Fleet Combat Rules Reviewed

Whilst looking for a good aeronef/flying battleship game I have been digging through naval rules to see what is worth converting.

An obvious contender is General Quarters, so long the benchmark in naval gaming. Whilst the original GQ were revolutionary in how they simplified and abstracted naval warfare, in a way both playable and realistic, I feel General Quarters 3 has swung the pendulum back too far in the direction of complexity and "rivet counting" with extra hitboxes and hit locations, and salvoes swapped for individual weapon mounts.

So are there any naval games out there that emphasize playability and the ability to handle decent numbers of ships?  Naval Thunder is a little simpler in its mechanics, but I feel less accurate and comes with plenty of book-keeping and hitboxes (I'm talking 100+ hull points for battleships).  No advantage there.

So I tried a lesser-known title. Battlestations! promises "streamlined intuitive game system with a focus on tactics rather than minutiae" and "handle 30 ships in under 3 hours" and "markers to eliminate the necessity of book-keeping."  Sold!

 I was seduced by promises of "less book-keeping"

The Shiny
Battlestations! is rather old school in its layout with rather small unfriendly font and only a smattering of photos and illustrations.  B&W with a colour softcover, it has the SFB-style layout, with dense wall of text and small, tight font.  However it does supply all the cardboard tokens and markers you need to play which is an old-school touch I do appreciate. There are not only quick-reference charts in the back of the book, but they are even duplicated in cardstock. No photocopying required. Of 81 pages, the rules take only 21.

There is no paper record keeping (!) only markers - for speed (full, medium, slow, dead stop); damage (levels 1 through 4); and torpedoes expended. There is a clear scale (1" = 1000 yards, 1 turn = 30 minutes) and d20, surprisingly, are used.

Players dice for initiative (+/- fleet commander ratings) to determine move order which is IGOUGO.
Random weather is rolled for, and players can roll to detect opponents. Radar helps of course.

Ships can change speed modes by one level (i.e. slow to medium) per turn, and there are rules for reversing, collisions, ramming and running aground.  Turn templates are provided. Weather can impact movement - for example smaller ships labour in heavy seas. There are submarine rules (subs can travel underwater at 4 depth levels).

Movement is pretty standard, but firing and damage is quite different.  Weapon penetration and armour levels (both rated A-E) are compared; gun may only attack targets 1 level higher than themselves.

Overall "attack" and "defence" scores are compared, rather like General Quarters.  This is referenced on a chart and a d20 roll is made.  Torpedo rules are likewise pretty simple.

Shots can miss, do a single "damage level" (of which a ship has four) or do a critical which could do 2-4 levels or automatically sink the ship. 

Damage is abstracted in Battlestations! into four rather commonsense levels. 

Damage is four levels -
L1 - with little adverse effects on capabilities
L2 - armament reduced by 1/3rd and ship restricted to medium speed; sonar and radar knocked out.
L3 - armament reduced by 2/3rds, ships restricted to slow speed; carriers cannot launch or recover
L4 - everything knocked out, ship dead in the water

Damage can exceed level 4 - as Damage Repair is quite powerful.  A ship could recover multiple "levels" in a turn - but any damage remaining after the Damage Repair Phase is permanent. It's kinda a weird mechanic but it works.  I.e. a cruiser takes 5 hits, but then "repairs" two, thus having L3 permanent damage take effect. 

There are full air combat rules (for air to air, surface attack, and anti-air) including picket ship AA.  Submarine rules include squids/hedgehogs, X craft and mini subs.  There is provision for laying and sweeping  mine, and coastal shore batteries. Escorts can lay smoke within certain limits.

Unusually for a naval game, there is a morale system which takes into account national traits.  A fleet that takes too much damage will break off and retreat.  There are rule for formations such as divisions, squadrons and flotillas - ships are not forced to stay in formation - but ships in formation are rewarded by a combat modifier.

Like their historic counterparts, the morale break-off levels mean Italian forces are also risk-adverse in the game

Other Stuff
Like General Quarters, there is a huge bibliography that infers the author did his homework, and a set of design notes.  The design focus of the game is being able to handle more than 4+ ships per side (which is the point most other games bog down, and book-keeping overtakes tactics and maneuver as the prime focus); streamlining without losing period flavour. That players should be admirals, not mathematicians. It is also the aim of the rules that light ships will be more survivable (as they were historically) and fleets not "deathmatch" to "the last ship standing." 

There is also a commentary on national navies, and a list of 11 scenarios from 1939 River Plate to 1944 in Surigao Stait.  There are fleet lists - and I must say I like how all the ship data fits on a single line, i.e.

Class - Size - Defence - Main Attack Fire & Range; Secondary Fire Value & Range; AA and Speed

You can see your whole fleet at a glance, and any recording can be done by markers on the game board itself.

With the pricey GQ3's increased complexity departing from the cheap abstract simplicity of the old GQ1 and 2 booklets, there is definitely a place on the shelf for Battlestations!
The game sets out with a clear design aim, which it successfully accomplishes. Faster and slicker than the "old" GQ 1 & 2, it does away with book-keeping entirely in favour of tabletop markers.

A myriad of hitboxes and criticals are eschewed in favour of four generic damage levels. The ability to repair multiple levels within a turn was a bit jarring but it balances out with regards to gameplay.

Battlestations! is very simple, but still takes into consideration concepts covered in more complex games, simply in a more streamlined way, sans the math and book-keeping.  Using a d20 allows combat to be resolved with a single roll, streamlining the old GQ "fire-by-battery" process still further; light years from the dice chugging of Naval Thunder or GQ3, which fire individual mounts.

Traditional naval gaming "rivet counters" may find Battlestations! bland, but if you want to use more than a half dozen ships (and want to finish in a reasonable amount of time) then this may just be the ruleset you are looking for. The focus is on streamlined play, tactics and maneuver, not record keeping.  However, the "broad brush" approach to damage means you won't know if that 3" shell knocked over the captain's coffee pot, or if the left bridge wing Oerlikon is knocked out.

Due to GQ3 becoming more complex, Battlestations! fast play focus makes it more a complementary rather than a competing ruleset.

Recomended: Definitely. I can see it won't be to everyone's taste - but not only is it the only naval game I know that actually is aimed at allowing 20+ ships per side, but it would naturally handle a "typical" game of 8-12 ships per side a lot smoother and faster than its rivals. I can see myself adapting the d20 4-tier damage system for big VSF aeronef battles, to boot.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Cyprian Rifts - Just another spaceship game

 I thought I would review these rules, but then I thought - "why bother?" and simply posted the ship data card, which I think reveals all you need to know.

The ship data card speaks for itself.

I'm not attacking Cyprian Rifts in particular (I love the idea of indie game and miniatures designers - as an aside, the miniatures look pretty good); but rather the lack of innovation in space games in general.  Every space game is either trying to remake Starfleet Battles or Full Thrust.  I'm simply using Cyprian Rifts as an example - it shows even indie developers are "stuck in the rut."

Cyprian Rifts leans towards the SFB-style of complexity, as you can see from the data card. For example, it has crewmembers (of different skill levels) who can be killed as certain bits of the ship are destroyed.  In a nutshell - it is a fairly complex game, aimed at about 2-4 ships per side. It uses a 2d10 + stats (similar to the 2d6+ stats in Warmachine) and it has a deck/hand of "event/special action cards" (like Firestorm Armada); cinematic movement (like 90% of space games); damage types which take different sized chunks from hitboxes (like Renegade Legion) but brings nothing particularly new or compelling to the table, besides rather thorough terrain rules.

Whilst it is not a bad game, like very other space game to come out in the last few years, there is absolutely no reason to switch across to it from whatever other system you are using.

The Cyprian Rift cruisers look like....

GZG ESU ships

...and the point I'm making...
While ground combat games like Bushido, MAYHEM, Infinity, Malifaux, Ambush Alley experiment with resource management, card-based gameplay, risk vs reward mechanics, dice-pools, reaction systems; or even dispense with measuring altogether (Crossfire); space games are notable solely for their lack of originality.

Grab any space rulebook of the shelf.
Does it have rows of hitboxes?  Lots of "system hits" or "criticals" to record?
Does it use a cinematic or pseudo-vector movement? Does it rely on hexes?
Is activation IGOUGO? Does attacking involve buckets of dice? 

 However the smaller Rifts ships are more interesting... I'm rather tempted to grab a few...

 Personally, it bothers me to:
Spend more time recording and writing that actually moving ships and making decisions
Have ships "teleport" past each other without a chance to fight
Have small ships always take massive casualties (most die within the first 2-3 turns)
Have battles devolve into a dice-rolling contest in the middle of the table
Have ships without clearly defined roles or jobs (carriers excepted)

Am I the only one?  Is everyone perfectly content with playing Full Thrust, Starmada and Starfleet Battles? It says in Ecclesiastes "there is nothing new under the sun" but do space game designs have to remake the same game so diligently?

I'd argue that Battlefleet Gothic with it's "Orders" and "Blast Markers" has contained the only real "innovations" in the genre in 20 years. And that was very "WW1-in-space", firmly wedded to its 40K background and gigantic baroque ship models...