Monday, 31 August 2015

Game Design #52: Casual vs Competitive Game Design

When I review rules, I usually subconsiously lump games into two categories - competitive or "casual."

The first category, synonymous in many minds with the cheesy 40K powergamer, includes games like Flames of War, 40K, and Infinity.

The second category includes most indie games, including PDFs available from places like Wargames Vault.   I'd also class Osprey titles like Ronin, Frostgrave and Fighting Sail in this category.

I'd also like to draw a distinction between competitive and unsportmanlike. It's a thin line that sometimes can be deliberately obscured, but a player can be relentlessly, ruthlessly competitive and utterly fair and scrupulous.  There's a difference between enjoying testing yourself against others, and a desire to win and do your best - and the willingness to do any action, no matter how dubious, to gain advantage.


Question 1: What makes a game competitive or casual?

Is it the rules themselves?
What are the hallmarks of a competitive game?

Is it the player it attracts?
Do games with a focus on "list building" and points systems - attract a particular type of player?

One thing all competitive games share is a points system.

This creates an illusion of balanced and "fair" game which can be competitive, whilst simultaneously providing another metagame or area for competitive players to compete in; i.e. the manipulating of the natural flaws and loopholes in a points system to maximise your chance of winning.  So points systems would, I think, be attractive to a competitive player.

I know if I make a random scenario in Tomorrow's War, then offer my opponent his choice of forces - the mood of the game is fundamentally different from a 35pt game of Warmachine.

Question 2: 
Are bad competitive experiences a result of poor game design?

The codex creep of 40K is the poster child for this; with factions being made irrelevant by changes to new codexes.  In AoS, GW seems to have recognized this by following the PP example of "everyone gets new models/rules" in a global expansion (though I think there are other, financial reasons that drive this).  

So if games are poorly balanced - some factions simply are unviable or completely outgun others - or there are loopholes in the balancing/competition mechanics, isn't that the fault of the designer?

Flipping this question - is a "casual" game = lazy game design?
I.e. I see a game is perhaps poorly balanced with haphazard rules, so I instantly classify it as a 'casual' game.  I know I tend to quickly make this assumption when I see special rules (especially excessive special rules) with potential to be abused.

So is what we call a "casual" ruleset simply one where the designer couldn't be bothered to rigorous playtest all the cool factions, special rules and toys he gleefully shoehorned into his game?

Is Competitive/Casual based on how Shiny the Game is?
People seem to assume if a product has great production values, it must be good.  Conversely, a PDF which looks like it was made in MS Word is assumed to be casual, or half-assed. 

I wonder if there is an assumption that if a game is well produced, it must be well balanced and play tested.  From occasional snippets I get the vibe that GW only does a small sample of play testing within a small select group.

I always get the feeling GW doesn't regard balance as important as it players themselves do (I mean, for them, having a good balanced game is secondary to making and selling minis, after all).  I wonder if they do genuinely think people should just chuck models on the table and have fun - AoS certainly seems to have this vibe.  If that is the case, they are massively out of touch with their player base.  We often accuse them of instigating a codex arms race - but perhaps it is simply shortsightedness, laziness and being out of touch.  That said, I recall seeing a survey once where only ~5% of players were heavily competitive, 15% played in some competitions, 30% played casually and often, 40% played casually and infrequently, and about 10% collected and didn't play at all. (Yes I know my math doesn't add up)  So perhaps GW correctly knows its target audience. Though if 50% of your audience base is regular players, not collectors, then your rules should be good.  There's no reason not to properly balance a game.

Even if some people don't care, a well-balanced game makes everyone happy.   And it seems silly to alienate potential customers - i.e. the exodus of 40K players to Warmachine who invariably cite the tighter rules as a reason for the swap.

So is a shiny rulebook a guarantee of a balanced competitive game?  I'd say we can easily say no to this one. It's not even a guarantee of adequate playtesting, let alone "competition level" playtesting - whatever that is. E.g. just because a lot of people take 40K seriously does not mean it is designed as a serious competition wargame.

Obviously, it all comes down to the player.  A douchebag will be a douchebag, no matter what game he or she is playing.  However a ruleset does bear some responsibility in how much "wriggle room" he gets.  And it's the game design aspect I'm interested in (the title is the clue).

Is competitive vs casual simply how popular it is?
When I played Malifaux v1 years ago, no one regarded it as "competitive" - it was more a fun game you could hook non-gamers with, with its cheesy steampunk-zombie-horror-Western style and card mechanics.    Now (locally at least) you could easily run a competitive league.   Did it suddenly get "competitive?" (actually, I think the rules have been tightened up, but I think it's more it's simply popular and flavour-of-the-month).

Is Open Beta Testing the Way?
Warmachine Mk2 showed the way in this, and although I am leery about games who invite you to be "part of the design process" and "make the game you want to play"  (translation: we'd like to sell you a mini line now with half-finished rules /or/ we'd like your money now but you'll get a full game later) I think an open beta gives a chance for better game design input both in the quantity and variety of play testers, as opposed to the three friends in that ivory tower.

I'm not keen to get back into Malifaux, but I'd trust their beta-tested 2.0 rules as a much tighter "competition" ruleset than say 40K due to their openness and Wyrd's great interaction with their community.

I think this applies equally to indie devs who are just selling rules.  I often see early alpha/beta rules and I'd happily pay for the completed product with all the shiny stuff put in (caveat: not over $15 if it's a PDF, as Osprey has shown you can put out a nice full-colour rulebook for that price).  This assumes there IS some shiny stuff.  I know artwork is a hassle, but PDF rulesets need to lift their game - B&W MS Word docs don't cut it anymore.  As I mentioned here, intellectual theft isn't really an issue, and many would benefit from wider play testing and exposure to a wider audience (others call it 'marketing').  

To recap:
What designates a game as competitive or casual? What are the clues or defining aspects?  A points system? A shiny rulebook? Or simply popular enough to make a league?

Is bad competitive experiences a result of bad game design?  How much responsibility belongs to the game designer and the playtesting/lack thereof?  Is open beta the solution to all balancing woes? 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Recommended Reading: Ancillary Justice - (Anne Leckie) - Sci Fi

Usually I don't do a stand-alone review of a book, unless it really catches my attention, like Traitor's Blade or Retribution Falls.  

This is one of those books.

Lately the Hugo sci fi awards have been tainted with controversy, with a voting block forming, accusing others of bias towards literary works, as opposed to entertainment. (I.e. the one high brow artsy types like as opposed to the popular sort people actually read), and "affirmative action" voting - i.e. voting to make an intellectual/ideological statement. I'm shocked! <sarcasm off>

Well, Ancillary Justice was written by a woman, and a noticeable amount of military characters are female of a gay persuasion.  However that has no bearing on the story (and is not shoved in your faces like most TV shows).

Ancillary Justice simply won all those awards (Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C Clarke, Locus etc) because it is a great book.  In fact, it's the best sci fi book I can recall reading since...  old school stuff stuff like Ender's Game and Dune.

Ancillary Justice is one of the best sci fi books I've read. Period.

Why you'd read it:  A soldier is on a quest for vengeance.  She was once the AI of a massive military starship - the Justice of Torren - and an act of treachery has reduced her to inhabiting a single human body.  But that may be enough to bring down an empire. 

The AI-in-a-human-body concept is very both well-handled, believable, and oozes cool.  The "ancillaries" (mindwiped humans controlled by AI aka "corpse soldiers") are a concept that would translate well to the gaming table.  There's lots of gaming inspiration of a hard-ish sci fi bent.

Leckie does a great job of world-building a culture which is built on expansion, where class systems define careers,  and where AIs are prevalent - a single mind can occupy multiple bodies.   What appears to be a simple, cliched revenge tale is far deeper than it appears, and the dual plotlines (the present and 19 years in the past) converge and combine to peel away the layers of the story.

Whilst you can see it is leading on to a trilogy, it can be read as standalone.  In an age where editors let their charges ramble for 800-900 pages without getting to the point, Ancillary Justice tells a great story in 380 (which I read in one sitting!), without ever feeling like it is dragging or dawdling.  I'm getting the follow-up book Ancillary Sword next time I'm in town.  

Why you'd leave it:  I can't think of one.

Recommended: 5/5.  Absolutely.  Best sci fi book in years.  Go read it now. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Magic the Gathering - Market Economy in CCGs

An interest in CCGs was sparked by a visit to a local game store.  I raised an eyebrow when gamers bought half a dozen $20 packs at a time.  (I live a sheltered life, OK!)

The fact they were trading Australian dollars for pieces of  paper/cardboard - which themselves were assigned a "value" by the company (and the players themselves)...

I was thinking  "Wow.  WoTC have a "currency" all of their own!

A quick google later and I was listening to The Curse of the Black Lotus.
It's a 15min audio. Go ahead and listen to it.

For the lazy bastards amongst you (i.e. the ones who ask me to review free rules - seriously, guys, it's free - download it and read it yourselves!) here's a quick summary. 

 Apparently one sold recently for $27,000....
The "Bubble"
There are "fads" like beanie babies.  These fads or or "bubbles" have stages.
The first stage is "this is cool."
The second stage, people realize there is money to be made reselling the "fad" item.  They are "speculators."
The third stage is there is an oversupply and the market crashes, and everyone moves to the next fad.

Magic the Gathering
Designed by math graduates, the cards were sold in packs ($3 back then) and occasionally there was a rare card. Kinda like buying a lottery ticket. 

What they didn't expect was the re-selling of rare cards.  These cards from a $3 pack became $10, then $500, and $1000 cards - within the first year. (Stage 2)

WotC was selling pieces of paper that people decided were worth a fortune. Speculators would buy decks by the truckload looking for rare cards.  Some at WotC wanted to ride this craze and focus on rare cards. 

However Magic is also a game. A cheap fun game to play with friends.  However, these rare powerful cards were messing with the game itself.  I mean, it's like being able to buy extra Aces in a poker game.  Was it worth cashing in short term?

The math guys at WotC graphed the life cycle of a fad to see how long they had before the inevitable  "crash."  About a two year time span. The math guys suggested they make Magic sustainable, instead of cashing in short term for millions.  Make less money now, but make it last 5 years, or 10 years.  To deflate the bubble in favour of a longer-lasting game.

Deflating the Bubble
So in 1994-95 they pumped out a slew of new card sets.  Lots and lots of them.  As they flooded the market, speculators would now no longer touch the new sets.  The WotC guys actually went out to shops. If the cards were selling for above RRP, they'd simply print out more and more. Until even the most stubborn speculators realized they had been devalued.

Now the old rare cards were still so powerful they unbalanced the game. And printing out new overpowered cards wasn't the answer either (and risked enraging the player base further).

Banning them didn't work. So they invented a professional Magic league.  (Ok, I was also amazed people would actually watch this... nerds!) where they could set the rules for allowed cards/decks. 

Players could still use their old cards. But to play like a pro, you had to use the new cards. And it worked.
 
Long Term Sustainability > Short Term Cash Grab
WotC learned their lesson.   They knew not to print out more powerful or even simply flashy cards. 
Swords, angels, wings, dragons, battles - are all popular.  So you'll never see a bat winged angel wielding a sword of doom while riding on a dragon! 


22 years on, Magic is still going strong, balancing gameplay and collectability. In fact least year was their best most profitable year ever.  Thumbs up to long term economic planning. 

I wish our politicians were as good at managing economies. 

This is probably nothing new to the geekier lurkers on this blog, but I thought it might be interesting for the rest of us, who only dabble on the edges of the CCG ocean...

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Game Design #51: Intellectual Theft i.e. "Someone Will Steal My Idea"

I see my fair share of playtest and "alpha" rules and one thing that makes me smile is the paranoia some people display about their ideas. They make a few assumptions such as:

-Other people actually care about their cool idea
-Their idea is actually original
-Their idea matters even if it's not actually part of a functional, successful game
-Game mechanics are somehow "patentable"
-Their idea or half finished game is worth stealing

Guess what? Originality is no guarantor of success.  In fact, as I've commented repeatedly elsewhere, most successful rules seem to be regurgitated or copy+pasted from somewhere else.   Flames of War, Bolt Action, Warhammer 40K, and Warhammer Fantasy share similar mechanics.  Armada is just a more complicated version of X-Wing, which shares a lot with Wings of War.  Lord of the Rings: SBG has a host of imitators.  Stargrunt/Dirtside have spawned a host of indie hard sci fi rulesets.   In fact, originality is overrated when it comes to making $$$ out of a game.  Your original idea is unlikely to make you rich.  And if game mechanics were patentable there would be a LOT of lawsuits put out by GW, which is a notoriously litigious company.   (Not that they didn't already steal every mechanic and piece of background fluff from other people, anyway.)

You're not original, anyway. Odds are, your idea has already been used before.  "There is nothing new under the sun" declared King Solomon. I never knew the guy played wargames until I read this.  You idea or mechanic is not a game.  Until it's a fully working game, with people actively playing it, it's still an idea or concept.  And good ideas are a dime a dozen. Heck, we ALL have had a Great Wargame Idea. A good idea is not necessarily a good gameI see lots of games with one or two awesome features/ideas/mechanics, but the game itself is lame.  A good game is a fun game - one people want to play.   And a finished game that is fun = a lot of hard work.

Pretty much no idea is totally original, but builds a little on what comes before.  That's how technology progresses.  Others having the same ideas as you is not surprising.  If a majority of fantasy/sci fi gamers came into the hobby playing 40K/WFB, I'd expect to see 40K-esque influences in their games.   I can see "Stargrunt" in the ancestry of about half the indie hard sci-fi rulesets made for 15mm.  Just because many of the games are similar doesn't mean they are actively stealing ideas from each other or even are aware of each others' work. 


Odds are you are not an unidentified game design genius.  And if you only share your ideas with trusted friends/family (you know, the sort of folk who are really analytically critical about your work and will go all out to try to "break" your game mechanics <sarcasm disabled>) you probably aren't getting the depth of feedback you needThere's a LOT of work involved in making and publishing a working, properly playtested game. (Which is why I test and critique games rather than designing them myself!)

The wider range of people that playtest a game, the better.  For example, I get the feeling that GW secretively playtests with small group of testers (hermetically sealed within an ivory tower?), compared to Privateer Press who did an open "beta" for their Mk.II rules.  "We did a very extensive test of the Witch Hunter Codex - 8 people, 30 games - it's the most exhaustive yet."  

To be blunt, your idea seldom sounds as awesome to others as it does to you.  I mean, your close family/friends/gaming buddies probably say its awesome, but are they really the best barometer?
 I bet I could easily make a game that is popular with the regular posters who frequent this blog. Doesn't mean it would be a best seller though. 

Risk vs Reward

You know, I can't really think of any examples of copywright/IP theft in tabletop games? Or even boardgames/cardgames?  I think there was one involving Magic - but that is a complete, finished, fully functional, wildly successful, published game.   You know, something proven to be worth stealing. Not a "cool idea."  Not a prototype. Not even an alpha/beta playtest copy.  

You know, it's actually quite hard to spread word about something.   You know another term for spreading the word?  It's called marketing, and people actually *gasp* pay others to explain the benefits of their ideas.  However many designers miss out on this free marketing in order to "protect" their ideas.  

Ironically, a few RPG companies deliberately torrent their fully finished rules on pirate sites in order to raise interest and attract legitimate sales. 

Also, tabletop gaming isn't exactly a big money business.  The real money is made by big hitters like GW or PP, who make their money through miniature sales. Which is not exactly plagued by piracy either.  Despite our passion for tabletop gaming, it's not exactly a prime target for hardcore IP thieves.  They're targeting better places - industries that actually have the potential to make real money.

I think game designers are missing out on valuable chances to thoroughly playtest/improve their game, and indeed market their game, in fear of having their "original" ideas stolen.   

Monday, 24 August 2015

Game Musings - Boutique Wargames, Privateer Press, Model Pricing and Pay to Win

Boutique Wargames
I've noticed, outside the indie Wargame Vault scene, this is a majority of Kickstarters etc.
So what's a boutique war-game?

I define these as having
(a) primarily "named" heroes or characters
(b) lots of special rules
(c) stat cards that come in the model box
(d) expensive models (i.e. $8+ per 28mm model)
(e) a very shiny rulebook, comprehensive fluff

Examples - Malifaux, Bushido.

Too many heroes
I find the proliferation of named characters jarring.  First of all, I feel railroaded to use their fluff.
The heroic characters tend to have their own unique profiles and special abilities.
Secondly, whilst it is possible but unlikely to have intra-faction "civil war", it feels odd to have two "Lady Justices" facing each other across the tabletop.  Thirdly, it is a little odd to fight the same model you killed off last week. "Oh, Lady Justice again? Didn't she die last week to the Ortegas? And the week before that to the Neverborn?"    Even worse, many times even the minions/grunts are unique and have unique names and stats.

Having a space marine captain generic profile allows me to build the character, and create my own hero, with his own backstory.  Having "Brother Captain Zerxes" with his own page of fluff and special rules... ..forces me to play him as written.

Stat cards
The models are invariably tied to stat cards i.e. you must buy their models with stat card in box to play the game. Whilst this is a sound business move, in many cases I would have bought the models anyway.  I.e Bushido have great models which can stand alone, and I'd happily add them to my samurai collection, but I dislike paying a $5+ premium because a card is included in the pack.  If your models are good enough, I'll buy them - not only for your game but for other systems.  If they're priced reasonably, and look great, I won't proxy them. Models should stand on their own merits - you shouldn't need to blackmail people into buying them.

In addition, when Bushido was first released the selection of models was very limited, exacerbating the "immortal clone heroes" issue from the first paragraph.  If I could have "bulked" out war bands with Perry samurai, I would have bought into their system, but as it was I avoided the game altogether.

Special Rules
These have their place to add flavour, but most boutique games have them in huge quantities.  When even minions have 3-4 special abilities "aka rules exceptions" it means most of the time you are acting outside the normal rules in any given moment of a turn.  This means memorising special abilities can be a more important skill than good generalship.  

Privateer Press vs Games Workshop
I know it's cool to hate on Games Workshop (and it's not like they don't richly merit most of the abuse) but I wonder why PP gets a free pass all the time?

Their rules are "tighter" it's true, though I suspect the vaunted balance between factions is more due to everyone having such OP special feats and powers - i.e. it's so unbalanced it creates a kind of balance. When you have a 10 kiloton nuke and I have a 15 kiloton nuke - the effect on the city is the similar, even though our bombs technically aren't 'balanced.'

WM/Hordes is widely regarded as "cheaper" to get into than 40K/WFB, but that's simply because of the lower model count.   Whilst this is true, and a valid point in the favour of WM, this is simply a factor of game design, rather than benevolent business practice by PP.  Their price per model is every bit as high (in many cases higher).  Lowering the bar to entry is simply a sound business practice (and one GW is mimicking with Age of Sigmar). The price per model is every bit as high (in many cases higher) - and this is in spite the insane markup GW does in Australia (often between a 50%-100% price hike compared to UK/USA, above and beyond currency differences).

The shift from metal to plastic by PP certainly hasn't seen prices go down.  Most of the new infantry units are $55-$75 - which is ~$8 for a single "grunt" model.  The plastic warjacks which replaced the hefty 2-pound metal ones retail for the same price.

I've also noticed their war casters  - which used to be, at $10, a cheap way to completely change your armies tactics and strategy - have increased in price to $15-$30. Sometimes they are bigger than the old ones, but not always.   I think this is copying GW's approach that...

When a unit's in-game value dictates $$$ Value
Now, I appreciate limited production minis may cost more (i.e. you may sell lots of generic space marines from a mold, but not as many terminator chaplains.)  However this does not warrant a 3x price rise - especially given the relative size of the company.  It's not like they're only going to sell 100 war caster units - casters are a mandatory unit for each army of that faction, so you're guaranteed selling "x" amount.

More to the point, PP quite happily sells old war casters for $10 (and I'm sure they're making a profit) alongside identically sized newer ones for $15-18.   Other companies (like Infinity) sell single minis for $11-$12 and I'm sure they have specific minis that sell a lot less than mandatory Warmachine war casters. Heck, the beautiful Empress moderns retail for about $3.50 each.  I bet they operate on an even smaller scale/return. So I don't think the "limited production costs" argument holds water.

Basically, this seems to copy the GW approach that the more powerful the unit, the more it costs in in real life $$$ - regardless of actual size/materials used/production cost.  Like the unit of 5 elite ninja assassin cyborgs selling for $70, compared to 10 line grunts selling for $30... despite the latter requiring more materials etc.

Pay to Win
I'm thinking more PC games, but this kinda flows from the topic above - i.e small elite/specialist units which are disproportionately priced. 

Let's call it "Pay to gain Advantage" instead because deliberately? obtuse people often say "I use overpowered units and I lose all the time"  I'm not joking, by the way - this is very common in online game forums: see: logical fallacy, anecdotal


So how can we pay to gain advantage?  Basically, anytime something that impacts gameplay is behind a "pay wall" - where you have to pay extra money to access it - it is pay to win.

For example, in Mechwarrior Online, new mechs are released for $$$ for up to six months before people can "unlock" them ingame.  Proponents of this call it "pay to not wait."  No, they are paying for an advantage. (In this specific example, often mechs are released quite powerful, then are nerfed around the time the general populace gets them, but it's not always this blatant.)

The "pay to gain advantage"  item does not even need to be more powerful.   For example, the Locust mech in MW:O is one of the weakest mechs in the game.  A "coffin on legs" is a common descriptor. However, it is one of my top-scoring mechs as it gels with my playstyle.  Locking it behind a paywall would disadvantage me, and simultaneously advantage people who, like me, also "gel" with the mech but paid for "early access."  Or paid for an advantage.  Furthermore, they then have 6 months to practice with the mech (and unlock any special bonuses/abilities)

However, in a wargame, you are often paying for the abilities that unit has.  I.e. the 5 ninja cyborg unit for $70.  Now if that has a "points cost"  you may claim this balances out in gameplay against the 10 grunts which cost only $30.  However, as I pointed out in the "points systems are impossible to balance" article, sneaky ninjas might suit your playstyle and give you an advantage out of proportion to their cost. 

The flexibility is also an advantage.  Having a bigger toolbox of tools to choose from is an advantage when working on a car.  I mean, would you rather work on an engine in a fully equipped mechanics garage or with an emergency glove compartment toolkit.  It's the same if you have a wider selection of troops.  You have specific 'tools' for the job.

Premium Time. I'm talking videogame/PC games only as there isn't any (yet) parallel in tabletop.  Basically, in most videogames you earn XP by winning/killing enemies. You then use this XP to unlock equipment, special abilities etc.  Just like Bloodbowl, or Mordheim.   However, some games sell you "premium time" for a monthly fee (~$10+) which increases your XP earnings by 50% or more.   People claim it's not pay-to-win, as their argument is that (usually) all unlocks/equipment are available to everyone. Non-premium players just need to play longer to earn them. However this thought is built on the false presumption the "non-premium" players somehow have extra gaming time to "catch up" premium players.  Imagine a Mordhiem or Bloodbowl campaign where someone could play the store owner $5 and get double XP and gold for a result.  In some games, the extra XP/bonuses allows players to freely buy one-shot consumables like airstrikes and drones, (which are uneconomical for the non-premium player) and thus make premium players directly more effective in game. Other times they equip higher level gear sooner, or have longer to practice at a higher tier of gameplay before the others 'catch up.'  Either way, it gives a game play advantage.  So premium time is indeed pay to win.    

Anyway, this was a rather long-winded way of saying, more costly small specialist or "elite" units advantage players with deeper pockets, even if the total "point value" of the unit is the same.

I was going to explore the economy of CCGs but I think this wall of text is high enough....

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Regular Gaming - Picking the Poison

I need to get out more, as since my kids were born I find I'm spending more time playtesting new games than actually playing "normally" (aka losing touch with reality.) As a result, I've made a list of games readily available locally, and have made a resolution to get in at least one game a fortnight.  Sadly, the list isn't compelling reading, and reminds me why I drifted away from club play.  I've ranked them #1-10, in order of appeal. 

 Almost Definitely
1. Infinity
My favourite to play, but I shiver to think of all the new rules I need to memorize to be competent in a competitive environment.  I have plenty of minis though (I could almost field a force for every faction) though I must admit only half is painted....  That said, it's a great game, and the models are so, so shiny. I'm pencilling in this as a definite. 

2. Dreadball
I simply don't know enough about it but I like the price point ($100) and potential to add new teams cheaply ($25ea).  I did love Bloodbowl though, so this goes high on the list of possibilities.  Off to the internet to research it more. 
Maaaaaybe...
3. Age of Sigmar
I can hear the jaws dropping.  But the new warscroll "bring whatever you want" system appeals, as does the free rules, and familiar, easily accessible system. Also, I had a paw through an AoS box set and as usual GW delivers good quality minis.  There's also the potential to pick up cheap minis on eBay from WFB players who quit in disgust.  In addition, minis can be used for Mordhiem.
The main argument against is the high cost of minis, something shared by....

4. Dropship Commander.
I like the combined arms gameplay, thought-out scenarios, and nice minis.  Quite a few folk have armies.  However it's relatively expensive, and at 10mm I don't really need another scale, especially as I already have bucketloads of much cheaper 15mm sci fi.  I'll probably hang out for Dropfleet Commander.

5. Flames of War
Basically all the list-building, power-gaming crap we love from 40K, in a WW2 package.  Fantasy WW2 at it's best.    But I do like 15mm WW2 tanks, and the starter set is reasonably priced.  Basically, I'm in it for the minis, but I guess I could force myself to play a game or two.  There's awareness, however it hasn't really taken off yet locally.

6.  Warmachine
I'll let you into a secret. I actually have a lot of Warmachine models, despite their increasingly GW-esque pricing.  They're fun to paint and have a lot of the over-the-top character of old-school GW (you know, when they didn't take themselves so seriously).  I mean, the undead pirates have possessed steam powered robots, lead by a dragon....  Whilst I'd love the excuse to drag out/paint more models, I don't particularly like the rules (unless I pretend I am playing a CCG and the alternative is joining the MtG crowd) nor the slog to memorize every combo/special rule.  I suspect, for me, Warmachine models will continue to serve their original purpose - as generic fantasy models with superior resale value.

7. Mordhiem
Yes, the system still has legs.  Why not Frostgrave? It's a good game, but to be honest I don't see any particular advantages over the 'original' to be worth selling it to others.  Cheap to get into, and lots of folks have spare warbands.  However, does tend to infer a weekly commitment to play I cannot always guarantee, which prevents it placing higher on this list.

8. Dark Age
Not wildly popular, but there's a few people with warbands kicking around. Since they've resculpted the dodgier minis, there's a few decent choices.  As a small skirmish game, it's cheap to get into. Also, I fancy the unique Dragyari faction to use for generic fantasy games. 

9.  Deadzone
I like the idea of more space fantasy models and space Skaven are cool.  I'm just not totally sold on the game mechanics, which just seem.... meh.  

10. Malifaux
There's a lot of momentum in the Malifaux world at the moment, and I do like the zany horror-steampunk-wild west vibe.  They've tidied up the rules.  Both the card mechanics and scenarios are good - but prolific special rules and combos and focus on named characters are the reason I drifted away from it years ago.  Also, the inevitable switch from metal to plastic does nothing for my enthusiasm.

No. Just....  ...no

Warhammer 40K
Nah.   Whilst I probably have enough old minis for a (small) Space Marine army, I just can't muster the enthusiasm to pretend to like it. That said, I suppose I could stretch to a game of Kill Team (#11) if it was on offer, though I haven't touched 40K since 5th ed.

Star Wars X-Wing/Armada
I took one look at the prices ($50-80 for a single plastic clix in some cases) and responded "are you serious?"  Not unless I suddenly win Lotto, and probably not even then.  There's overpriced, there's GW priced, and there's taking the p*ss.  And beyond it, is X-Wing/Armada.

As an aside, what is it with CCGs? They're insanely popular (outnumber local tabletop gamers 5:1), and also incredibly expensive.  I.e. it's not uncommon to see someone walk in and buy half dozen $20 "booster" packs, and I think I saw three MtG starters sold in an hour.  I'm going to investigate CCGs a little more as the "economy" of it interests me (and links to some other thoughts on "pay to win" I have had re: PC gaming).  I mean - $120 for a few bits of painted cardboard....  wow.  It's like the CCG companies create their own economy/monetary system where they can assign real $ values to pieces of paper... 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

15mm Sci Fi - Task Force Weasel

I actually painted my first 15mm sci fi in years (I overdosed on playing/testing 15mm hard sci fi platoon games - of which there are 10 zillion rulesets) so I thought I'd share.

I named the platoon in honour of Nordic Weasel Games, whose sci fi game Clash on the Fringe inspired me to rummage through my 15mm collection...

15mm is Love, 15mm is Life
It only took two hours to paint everything (probably less if my toddler didn't insist on "helping" me) and reminded me of why I like 15mm so much;

(a) infantry are still just big enough to matter
(b) vehicles look great and are very affordable
(c) super easy, fast to paint
(d) easy to store; terrain is easy to store; small space requirements (4x4' table max)

Whilst 28mm still is nicer overall, 15mm strikes a great balance between affordability, storage, and shiny.  If you have vehicles in any number, 15mm is definitely the way to go.  For example, Bolt Action would be very cheap in 15mm.  And if you are moving soldiers by squad (i.e. in groups, regardless of basing) then there is little point in spending all that extra effort painting every belt buckle on a 28mm model - they're just glorified hit markers, after all. 

28mm looks better. No dispute  But unless you have acres of gaming room, a generous budget and copious spare painting time - 15mm is just more practical on every level, especially if vehicles are involved. 
The troop colour scheme was a test run for doing 15mm US Moderns - i.e. do I need to bother with fiddly camo patterns or not.  For 15mm, at tabletop ranges, it's evident you don't need to bother.

The beauty of 15mm is that you can use minis from all ranges without anyone caring.  The infantry are GZG, the APCs are Antenociti and the mecha are Rebel Minis. 

When painting vehicles, I tend to basecoat, wash, then paint any flat upper surfaces with the base again.  This is not the same as highlighting edges like you might do with infantry minis.  It looks a little dodgy up close (click on the photo to see what I'm talking about), but works well at tabletop ranges.  And it's really fast and easy.

While I cannot abide unpainted minis, I'm a member of the "tabletop standard is good enough" school of painting.  That said, I can make a few 15mm recommendations, thanks to stuff-ups I've made in the past....
#1 - Use light colours (much lighter than 28mm equivalents);
#2 - don't use too many colours/paint every detail (it makes the model look too "busy" and you can't make out fine detail anyway unless you are holding it six inches from your face);
#3  - make any detail colours very bold/contrasting so you can see them.

15mm is very affordable - a complete mechanized platoon costs around $50-60.  Only two hours to paint an army? Yes please.

Due to family being sick, my Infinity project is on hold. I think next up is some of the awesome Perry plastics for my homebrew "Middleheim" rules....

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Luminiferous Aether - VSF Magic?

I've noticed that VSF tends to embrace "weird science" and the odd occult dabblings rather than straight out magic powers. Maybe the odd psychic pterosaur in a Lost Word.

I'm wondering why more isn't done with aether.  I mean, it's universally used to propel flying battleships and occasionally power various handwavium devices and weapons. E.g.

Practical aether travel as we know it today all began with Professor Etienne Moreau, who in 1860 hypothesised that the aether, like the matter and energy throughout the universe, was not evenly distributed. If it was instead affected by its interaction with matter, it might be distributed in vortices, thin patches, and even compacted clumps. He also theorised that interaction of matter, energy and aether indicated that it was possible for each to be used to manipulate the other. Just as matter could be burned to release energy, and energy expended to move matter, so could matter be used to grip or grasp the aether, and energy used to manipulate it. Thomas Edison, an American inventor, fell into discussions with Moreau about his theories, and through these discussions it was Edison who devised a practical use for the luminiferous aether. Its nature suggested to Edison a device which could sail at speeds heretofore undreamed of. 

I'm wondering - are there any rules/universes that go further, and use it as a kind of "scientific" magic?
Example:
In 1895, Wilhelm Roetgen discovered the X-Ray.  However, his experiments since 1888 had revealed anamolies in the electromagentic wavelength.  It was postulated that this could be caused by luminiferous aether.  There was tremendous excitement as nations quickly grasped the potential for improving aethership navigation and speed.  In 1897, Nikola Tesla invented a primitive device (electromagnetic spectrum analyser) that could isolate and measure aether waves.  Better able to navigate the aether currents, navigation time from Earth to Mars was halved.  With the spectrum analyser, it was observed that human beings could subtely effect the aetheric waves with their own innate electromagnetic fields - directly effecting localised changes in light, heat and electromagnetic polarity.  Germany was quick to see the military potential, and established their elektromagnetische StoƟtrupp in 1905, with England quick to follow through with their MI-13 department.  A further breakthrough occured in 1908 when Thomas Edison succeeded in miniaturizing the ESA device to the size of a pair of goggles.  Now "aether adepts" as they were so called, were able to more effectively control aether in the field. (<--explanation fluff)

Practical effects:
Aether adepts influence and direct light, heat, gravitation and magnetism.  This gives them a range of abilities:

Heating/freezing (heat/ice beam or spray, or AoE attack)

Magnetism (jam weapons, redirect bullets, deflect metal/bullets, levitate/leap off metal)

Gravity (crush, freeze in place, levitate)

Light (invisibility, dazzling light)

If they can use aether to move things, then potentially there's room for telekinetic style stuff aka push, pull, force fields.  Possibly they could "stun" and disorientate humans by scrambling the electromagnetic fields in their bodies.

In addition to or instead of aether goggles (goggles are common on steampunk/VSF minis) perhaps they could use silver "conducting wands" which you can say are strapped to their arms inside their sleeves or something.  
---end example--

That gives you an idea of the kind of thing I'm looking for.

I'm not interested in simply rebranding and rebadging fantasy magic to port over all the D&D spells etc, but rather a limited collection that reflects the properties of aether as commonly shown in VSF literature.     I like the idea of "scientific" magic for Weird War I-era conflicts, as opposed to the generic occult-Nazi-werewolf-zombie stuff of the Weird War II era.  

Question
 So - does this sort of VSF "scientific aether magic" exist already? I'd rather save myself reinventing the wheel if there's an existing game or RPG I can "borrow" ideas from.

This is not
-aether to power handwavium weapons/steampunk mech suits etc
-spiritualist or occult magic
-vampires, werewolves, zombies (which I'm soooo sick of)
-chemically assisted mutants (aka Jekyll/Hyde)
-the usual fantasy magic

...but actual mages, using a "scientific" form of magic. Be it aether or whatever - basically "magic" is manipulating a pseudo-scientific phenomena.

For example, Warmachine uses magic in a steampunk setting, but that's fantasy magic - i.e. undead pirates, dragons and trolls kinda rule out using it for an alternate-WW1 setting. 

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Game Design #50: Focussed Fluff, Generic Fluff & the Shiny Factor

This is going to be a look at the merits of  "Focussed Fluff"(tm) vs the Generic Fluff common in most indie rulebooks - and the impact of "shiny" on the chances of your fluff succeeding.

Generic fluff is your typical inclusion.  They are pretty  much the same for fantasy and sci fi, and reappear in various forms.  Here's a few of the top of my head.  Maybe this could be a drinking game - take a shot each time you recognize one of these factions in a wargame.

Militant church faction. Crusaders, Inquisitors, hot-nuns-with-swords, etc.

Brutal, unsubtle, Orc-Barbarian-Norse bikie-gang faction.  War cos... war is cool?
Usually fur, leather, and big axes/choppers. 

Evil-for-its-own-sake.  Chaos, whatever. Basically, we're evil cos... evil is cool?
I always wondered why "dark gifts" come with boils, horns, pus and mutations.  I mean, not the most attractive recruiting method?   I'd rather I became devastatingly attractive and muscular, whilst having the power to give all the boils and pus to my enemies. 

Undead. Also see: exterminate-all-life robots.  Because every bloody game must have zombies.  
I never got why necromancers etc are so 'bad.' Because using rotting corpses to fight is more inhumane than conscripting teens/sending peoples loved ones to die?

Arrogant, advanced culture. Usually shooty.  Usually those damn elves. 

Evil megacorporation.  The most plausible faction.

Empire.  Usually modelled on the Roman Empire. Sometimes Russian/Soviet flavour.

Space 'Murica.  Freedom! Bestest faction! Usually comes in red, white or blue livery. 

Devour-all-things.  Lots of fangs and claws. Hivemind/Queen likely.

...anyway, you get the point.  There's very little new under the sun, and most are variations on a similar theme.  So this begs the question - if a games fluff and setting is identical to half a dozen others, why would I want to play it?

Unless, of course, all you are trying to do it show you can use anothers' setting using your game engine.  In which case you should make the parallels as un-subtle as possible as you try to piggyback on the success of others. Which sounds a bit lacking in nobility, but is certainly a sensible option.


The Magic of Shiny Things
Do you really think a written page or two of "setting" will make someone fall in love with said setting?  Most top sci fi and fantasy authors get 500+ pages and can't do it.

I've been reading a lot of RPG settings, and to be frank, the standard of writing is pretty awful.  People inventive enough to make great games do not always have writing talent (and vice versa).

But most successful settings (almost irrespective of literacy merit) invariably have art with high production values or an attached miniature lineShiny stuff, in other words.  I really can't think of any settings which can successfully engage people with a MS Word document with a few typed pages and some generic clip art.    Certainly not one that uses the same generic tropes that half a dozen other settings do.

It's naive to assume anyone will give you fluff more than a passing glance unless it has the "shiny" factor.  Just describing your fantasy race, without even pictures...  ...no, it's not going to make your setting the Next Big Thing.  In all likelihood, they never even glanced at the page.

Focussed Settings
This is a setting focussed on a small area or portion of the game world.

This does not mean making the game universe a small one, or making the game universe "rigid" - I call that a  constricted setting - like 40K has become. 

Originally, 40K was an infinite universe, full of any number of weird alien races - of which the official races - space marines, space dwarves, space elves, space imperials and space orcs - were only a small part.  Now it restricted to pretty much the Gothic Sector, with only the official races who are locked in eternal war with each other, kinda limiting your options into a kind of deathmatch situation in a limited arena. Storytelling options are "x fights y in z" or "a fights b in z."  Not only that, but the timeline is tightly filled in. All the important events are documented - you kinda have to play their events, rather than being free to invent your own.

A focussed setting is different.  It focusses on one aspect or area of the game world, but allows flexibility, creativity and latitude outside of that.  Infinity does that - whilst it "zooms in" to local conflicts, whilst allowing that it's a big universe out there - they already have two alien factions, and have the option of adding more at any time. It's focussed on human space - and only a few specific planets at that - but allows itself a wide open galaxy with the potential for future expansion.

A focussed setting allows a smaller game/developer to do a good job, by narrowing the game designers/writers efforts.  It allows for detail without bloated, unwieldy exposition.  Frostgrave was a great example of this - and in fact what inspired this post.  Its "explore a frozen city, unearth magical treasures" theme was both a clever appeal to both piggyback nostalgia for another, previously popular game "explore a ruined city, unearth magical warpstone" and also to focus the writers' efforts and creativity.  It doesn't restrict me - I can use the games and rules to play the game outside of the frozen city of Frostgrave - heck I can use it for my own fantasy settings if I want. But by focussing on a single aspect of the setting, and providing plenty of shiny (both nice artwork and a small miniatures line) I'm inspired to play in the setting - even though the actual "factions" are rather bland, generic human mages with generic human fantasy mercenary troops. However the focus on mages as the main character is (apart from Warmachine) relatively unique.

Remember - a focussed setting merely means the rules writer concentrates on describing a small area of the game universe, whilst leaving plenty of "wriggle room" outside of that.  It does not mean a constricted universe, with "set" factions, limited army building options, and a rigid, overly-detailed timeline.  It just allows the writer to focus their efforts to give a better "feel" - and minimise bloated fluff.   

Hollow Earth Settings - Victim to Stereotype?

When I think "Hollow Earth" I think Jules Verne-style pulp/VSF adventurers encountering lost tribes, dinosaurs, giant apes and bizarre life forms in a pulpy, Boys-Own adventure.

I know that there are lots of "underworld" myths.  Thanks to wikipedia (ironically, the most reliable entry on this topic I could google): (I'm not too worried about scholarly research, given the topic!)

We have plenty of mythic references (Sheol, Hell, Svartalfaheimr,the Greek Underworld, the Irish Cruachan, cavnerns leading to Purgatory or Tuatha de Daan).  There are German caves that lead to an "inner earth."  As far apart as the Pacific Islands, Brazil, America, the Caribbean and India there are legends of the first peoples emerging from a subterranean land.   So there's quite a bit of background and mythic "support" for it as a place.

In my RPG rummaging I could only find one Hollow-earth centric game, which merely played on all the stereotypes (which you could do with any other pulp-centric ruleset a la Savage Worlds).

The "science" of hollow Earth dates to Edmund Halley (the comet guy) who used it to explain geomagnetic fluctuations; it continued in various forms and in fact Antarctic expeditions resulted from the agitations of hollow-Earth proponents.  Hollow Earth has some support from the UFO crowd.  You know, Atlanteans/Nazis/Greys/etc - who also favour the Poles for their bases.

In 1788 Casanova (yes, the Casanova) wrote of a hollow earth populated by hermaphrodite dwarves.  Probably the most popular versions were Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Edgar Rice Burroughs "Pellucidar" series (psychic flying pterosaurs and ape men ftw.)

Whilst pulp is good, I feel Hollow Earth has been pigeonholed in the pulp era.

The awesomely zany Aussie series "Danger 5"  - Basically, Weird War II as seen through the eyes of a cheesy 60s B-movie.  In the latest episode, the team fought Mengele's mind-controlled Nazi dinosaurs in Antarctica with the help of jazz-loving chimps...

There isn't much "serious" Hollow Earth stuff out there (okay, it sounds a little ironic when I whinge about it out loud). The reason I'm commenting on this is a book I found really interesting - The Descent by Jeff Long.  It describes the discovery of a massive cave network beneath the earth surface, The story starts brilliantly -  Nepalese trekkers discovering a cryptic, mummified corpse, being lured into a cave to be hunted and slaughtered.  Then a military team investigating mass graves in Bosnia encounters something disturbing the graves - a military chopper crashes. Only the pilot survives, raving about "demons."  The worlds militaries start to explore this underworld, which may be inhabited by early hominids.  Whilst it fades after an excellent start, the book keeps a pseudo-scientific feel and its hard, gritty tone is at odds with the usual slightly silly/pulpy feel of most Hollow Earth literature.

The Descent (no relation to the movie) is a gritty, darker take on the "underworld" genre

Other books - notably "Ice Station" by Matthew Reilly, explored the idea of mysterious things buried under the ice, but this was incidental to the main story.   There was a bit more pulpy subterranean hijinks in Beneath the Dark Ice by Greg Beck (notable for its ridiculously superpowered protagonist and laboured text) which had a tentacled blob creature (aka The Thing?) that can mimic humans and hunts in a sunken Atlantean city beneath Antarctica ice - with caves systems that presumably stretch across the globe including to the Lost Colony in Roanoke.  However this book is just a cheap Thing ripoff and the underground world was just a series of "dungeons" for the heroes to be chased through - not a hollow Earth per se.
The wargame Helldorado has conquistadors (along with Arabs, Chinese etc) exploring Hell. However its theological bent perhaps puts it beyond the "Hollow Earth" genre.

My argument:
The "underworld" or  "hollow earth" with subterranean civilization and races is under-used, and pigeonholed into cheesy VSF/pulp settings in the pre-War years.  It's a genre that could (and should!) be explored more thoroughly.


Friday, 7 August 2015

Judeo-Christian/Angelic RPGs

I commented here that I cannot see many wargames (apart from Helldorado - but they're French!) with an explicit focus on either Christian or Judaisitic myths.  I thought it was surprising due to the widespread awareness (or not?) and relatively rich background material. Some commentators suggested it was still a sensitive/controversial topic. However, a quick google showed RPGs have less "squeamishness" if that is indeed the case. Which kinda surprised me, as I recall the RPG community were involved in some controversy from various groups in the 1980s.

Anyway, I'm interested in this topic as a source of good background material for "modern pulp" that's a bit less cliche than anything involving vampires or werewolves.   Here's some I came across.  I'm giving my 10c with regards to potential for wargaming backgrounds/skirmish gaming inspiration, as I have 0 interest in pen-and-paper RPGs.

Armageddon occurred, Earth was destroyed, but God overlooked the space colonies.  Rapture's simple premise gives a lot of potential for hard sci-fi/horror gaming.

I now have...
Pandemonio
This is a "pay what you want" at Drive Thru RPG.  It's two books - Dread and Spite.  It's less angels and demons and more horror-splatterpunk-noir.  Kinda like those old hard boiled detective novels with disgusting stuff thrown in.  An unhealthy obsession with tentacles coming out of lady parts.  It tries to be "hardcore" but comes across as merely try-hard and tacky.

Rapture the End of Days
This is interesting, supernatural with a hard sci-fi seasoning.  Basically, the End Times have come and Earth has been destroyed.  However, overlooked humans remain on the space colonies and stations.  And the legions of hell are loose. There are nation blocks, corporations, and religious factions and cults.  Possession, spirits, hellspawn, undead mixed with hard sci fi.  It it was a movie, it'd be Alien meets the Fallen, Diablo with a touch of Cthulhu and the hard sci fi of say the 2300AD universe.

Seventh Seal
Ordinary humans "Sentinals" are imbued with angelic powers in the final battle between Heaven & Hell.  Sentinels belong to various angelic orders with different traits and powers.  With Graces, Divinities and Blessings it embraces a different "magic" system.  It has a clear Heaven v Hell orientation, despite humans being the primary players.  Quite a lot of skirmish wargaming potential and a solid "magic" system.

Seventh Seal has enhanced humans aligned to angelic factions battling the rising darkness.

I don't have, but I'd like to try...
In Nomine
This is the only "Angelic" game I was originally aware of before I began my hunt.  It's an old 90s-era Steve Jackson game, with a Heaven/Hell Cold War being waged between angels and demons.  Sounds interesting but at $24 for a pdf it can wait.

Demon: The Fallen
This White Wolf title sounds interesting.  Due to an upheaval in Hell, lesser demons are able to escape.  They must cohabit  suitable host body (which has effects of its own) but have found the heavenly host have vanished.  The competing factions of fallen have interesting wargaming potential.  Again, a pricey $25 rulebook keeps this on the wish-list only.

The End: Lost Souls Edition The good have gone to Heaven.  The unworthy were cast into damnation.  However some humans abstained from either choice - and they are the "meek" who inherit the Earth. Poor buggers.  It wasn't a promise. It was a warning.  At $18, I considered it - for a moment.  Nah, I'm waiting for a special.

 Pandemonio's gory approach tried a bit too hard, and was more "Raymond Chandler with tentacles" than theological...

Somewhat relevant - I could be talked into trying...
Nobilis
This dabbles in mythos beyond angels and demons, tends to focus on demigods, and from what I've read tends to have uber super-powered characters and philosophical navel-gazing.   Also it's $20 so that's a no from me.

Armageddon: the End Times
The final battle has begun.  Has angels, demons, but also old pagan gods - and the battle is against Cthulhu-like beings rather than the traditional Heaven vs Hell.  Again $20.

PDF Rant
What the heck is it with these overpriced PDFs?  $25 for an electronic file? There's no frickin production cost, as it must cost cents (or fractions of a cent) for the actual download.  The PDFs cost more than most hard copy books. And if you want to print them out, you can have a crappy B&W or pay through the nose for a proper print job.  It just does not make sense.  Do they want people to pirate them?

A PDF is the price of a new-release hardback novel at my local bookstore.  Why so much?  Osprey seems to turn out nice hard copy rulebooks for half that.  Not to mention the comparison to videogames - where $25 gets you a lavish blockbuster production with 100-man design teams taking tens of thousands of man-hours; you're expected to pay the same for a type pdf?

...To sum it up...

Whilst some appear to be rebadged vampire/hunter fiction (Demon: Fallen, Seventh Seal) of a Supernatural vein, others are more straight horror than Biblical/Thelogical horror (Pandemonio) or simply include the themes as part of the overarching backgound rather as the background itself (Nobilis, Armageddon).  That said, there was some interesting fluff, especially the sci fi Rapture, which has a lot of applications for wargaming.

There's plenty of background material to make very structured bestiaries, and "magic" systems which follow different paths than the normal fantasy tropes. There's potential for spirit/material world crossovers (it would be cool to have a "spirit world" gaming table). Some have "sanity/faith" counters a la Cthulhu while the focus on possession allows you to rebadge humanoid forces, 40K Chaos-cult style.   While the topic is perhaps not for everyone, as I suspected, there IS a lot of useful "material" for wargaming there and I plan to investigate it further...  ..if the damn pdfs go on special any time soon... 

Anyway, if anyone has tried the latter five I don't own, I'd appreciate their feedback - how useful would they been for a wargaming background (i.e. factions, "magic"/faith system, backstory). Also, did I miss any RPGs of this ilk? Theological "fluff" seems to be a more popular RPG topic in comparison to its relative obscurity in wargaming circles.

Psychic Horror, anyone?
I'd like to do a similar exploration of RPGs including psychic powers - with horror themes similar to the STALKER/FEAR videogames, so if readers have any suggestions in this field, I'd appreciate it.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Rogue Planet - Sci Fi Skirmish Rules Review (Derelict Planet Edition)

Note: This is a review that has been sitting in my draft box for a while.  Usually, Bombshell Games have 3 review stages
(a) Sticker Shock - i.e. "wow, these mechanisms are unusual"
(b) Easy after All - i.e. "oh, this actually plays pretty quickly and easily"
(c) It's Deeper than It Looks - i.e. "Ahhh, I didn't realise that at first"  "x effects y, I see."

Foreword: Due to my limited playtesting time, I didn't really get a grip on (c).  However it's been out for awhile and there should be plenty of AARs and other reviews about, so I might as well publish it as quite a few people have been asking. If nothing else, you'll get an idea of how the game works on a basic level.


A free "Derelict Planet" update has made the rules much prettier and more user friendly - my review is aimed at the original but I have (hopefully) amended it where appropriate.

So far I've been quite impressed by the series of games put out by Mr Spivey.  I've played Havoc (fantasy skirmish), Battlefield:MMW (modern skimish), OPS4, and Mayhem (fantasy mass battle).

Each one was full of different ideas that were well outside the usual 40K-knockoff envelope (yes, Bolt Action/Flames of War/Empire of the Dead, I'm looking at you). So I was quite excited to find a review copy of Rogue Planet to arrive in my inbox. I was expecting interesting mechanisms and game design decisions. And I was right. In spades.

 The upgraded Derelict Edition has improved layout and graphics.

The Shiny: The original was comic-style B&W, but the free Derelict Edition update goes full colour throughout, with a real Frank Frazetta Flash Gordon/Conan-style 50s art feel to it, which goes a way to justify its usual $20AUD price tag (which puts it, for me anyway, outside "impulse buy" range).  The rather dense layout of the original has been spaced out for easier reading. There's a nifty index/quick reference at the back for finding things. There's a separate points-list pdf for quick reference when creating warbands. Even the quick-reference sheet has lots of text.  The original was short (24 pages) but overly dense.  The new edition doubles the page count and unpacks much more nicely. I believe you can get a softcover version and I'm quite tempted, given the nice layout.

The original was stylish but only serviceable, and rather a dense read; the update has made it rather nice. Has a good range of play aids included.

Actions & Reactions:
Players get Action Points (AP) - they can either play it safe and have an automatic 3AP, or roll a d6 and potentially get more or less.  Players use AP to do stuff.  The "reactive"player who hasn't had their turn yet can spend AP reacting to enemy actions in LoS. I really like games with reaction rules - it means you are always involved in the game, and don't have to sit around like a dummy as an enemy walks his entire army up to yours and fires without retaliation.  (*cough* 40K/WFB *cough*

Reactions include casting magic, counter-charging, dodging, and reactive missile fire.   Players use 2d6 to succeed at actions; a 10+ is a total success, a 7-9 is a partial success, and a 6 or less fails. With a partial success, there are complications - among them, a single enemy unit gets a free move.

TL:DR  The reaction system is very distinct in this game - I'm talking Crossfire/Infinity/Tomorrow's War-level influential, as opposed to say Clash on the Fringe where reactions present but toned down.  You've always got something to do.  The ability to counter-charge/intercept enemy moves at any distance stops it becoming bogged in a Vietnam-in-Space shootfest though.

The old cover.  The older book was shorter but was B&W and had very dense formatting. 
You automatically get both versions. Win-win.

Unit Stats: I'm not a fan of the super-minimalist false economy approach of say Song of Blades (which has 2 stats, but then a zillion special rules) - I''m pleased to see RP has enough stats to be descriptive, for the space fantasy genre.
CQ = close combat skill
RAT = ranged combat skill
DEF = avoid damage/dodge
ARM = how tough
There are also equipment and abilities which I'll cover later.

Movement:
There is no measuring.  OK, that got my attention.  Units can move in a straight line until it hits an obstacle or terrain. Similar rules include And One for All and Crossfire.  Actually, there is "some" measuring - generated on occasions when needed and using 3 fingers on the hand, scout salute style. 

"No measuring/unlimited move/shoot" presupposes a large amount of terrain, which breaks movement/firing into reasonable chunks.  Not everyone may possess this - a few 40K corner ruins isn't going to cut it.  To be honest though, the "no measuring" seems at times a bit gimmicky to me - kinda like making a challenge for yourself  "how can we make this game not use measuring" (actually how it first came about, with Crossfire) It's a pretty significant abstraction to make, and kinda divorces the game from a set range/time scale.  The author regards it as integral to his action/reaction mechanic though, and I guess I agree, in the way he has used it.

Terrain can impede missile fire like usual - but my favorite is how you can spend AP to attack enemy who are within actively treacherous terrain (quicksand, deadly plants, etc.). "I attack you with that carnivorous creeper you're standing next to."  That's fun - and encourages interesting terrain setups!

Combat
This is a contested roll between CQ (or DEF, if the defender chooses).  Like Mayhem, there are "soft counters"(+1) and "hard counters"(+2) to specific weapons and circumstances. Missile fire works in similar fashion.  A failure (6 or less) can result in extra damage being taken unless fighting defensively using DEF.

Damage
Doubles do critical damage. Damage effects depend on the type of units. Light, medium and heavy units take damage in different ways. Light units take damage equal to the difference in skills between combatants on a 7+, and are knocked out on criticals  Heavy units take only a single point of damage on a 7+, and the difference on criticals.

Units may spend "energy" to negate damage.  This is unusual, as energy is drawn from a common pool (the leader has his own); so you can choose to boost the survivability of a unit you are loathe to lose. It adds a layer of decision making (do I spend the energy keeping this guy alive, or save it for later?) and is definitely a mechanic I can't recall seeing before.

Physics
Units can charge, collide with, slam or throw objects and opponents, and destroy terrain. This immediately made me think of Warmachine (and the models that languish on my workbench as I mislike the cheesy official rules). Some rules require d4 and d8 which is a tad annoying but you can stick with d6 if you need.

Rogue Die & FX
FX is just like the 2d6 system used by 2HW games - roll 2d6, and each 4+ is a success. You can have 1,2 or no successes.  

Rogue Dice is an extra dice thrown along with the usual 2d6 during rolls. If it matches one of the other 2d6, a special event is triggered - like, say, extra damage caused by a power sword. A little bit like Wild Dice from Savage Worlds.

 The text in Derelict edition is spaced up and broken up well - a criticism I had of the original edition.

Make your Own Army
I'm pleased to see this included, as not having a points system handicapped the otherwise-excellent Havoc. You can price up stats and armour, then add gear.  You can have one-off units or "groups"of four who operate a bit differently.

Heroes can have free extra abilities like magical powers, signature weapons, and command bonuses. They can have followers called "Pawns"  which are kind abstract and do not take up gameplay space - they're actual miniatures, but act kinda like a token that follows the leader around.  Heroes can use their pawns to absorb damage, and pawns give abilities like extra fire rate, melee, command, and magic bonuses.

I like the concept of pawns - they both add customization to your hero, and allow you to damage the hero and remove various special abilities - kinda like "critical hits"on a spaceship game or a boss in a videogame - but without any record keeping.   However, I personally found  abstract way the pawns are presented in game a bit "jarring."  It's treating a miniature as a special ability or trait - not an actual mini per se. I can see the depth it adds to gameplay - it just seems a little too offbeat (I feel self-conscious saying this, as I am always griping about paint-by-the-numbers mainstream games).  

TL:DR - Pawns are a really cool idea.  They add special abilities to heroes which can be stripped off them, like a boss fight in a videogame. It allows critical hits without record keeping.  However, having a mini on the table represent an abstract concept is a bit jarring.

Energy
Armies get "energy" depending on the units they contain i.e. 1 for a light armour unit, 3 for a heavy - this can be used to negate damage. The way I played it, the energy is held in a common "pool"to be spent on units as you wish, with the leader having his own pool.  It was a tad confusing as the energy rules were kinda scattered randomly though the rules.  I do like the idea of a layer of "resource management" but I found the concept of shared hitpoints a little weird. 

Again, like the pawns, I understand the gameplay idea behind it, that added depth and resource management (players must make the decision "is it worth spending energy to save this mini?") but I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with how it 's presented in the game - which is a bit unfair, as having a shared hit-point pool is probably no more abstract than a shared action pool, which is used in quite a few of my favourite games.  And it IS sci-fi, after all.

TL:DR - "Energy" is kinda the shared overall resilience of your warband. It is a resource to be managed that adds a layer of decision to each hit you take "is it worth spending energy to try to save this mini?" I.e. if an enemy has powerful vehicle on board and you just took a hit to your last bazooka guy.  It adds a layer of decisions and is a unique concept. It's also gave me an initial "wtf" reaction when I first encountered it. (Not many rules can claim that!)


There's a definite Frazetta/Conan/Flash Gordon vibe...

Equipment & Weapons
There is a good but manageable selection of weapons, including normal blades, great 2-handed weapons, lances, whips/flails etc - and powered variants thereof. You can create pretty much anything you want by mixing and matching attributes.  The list of missile weapons ~8 is more limited in comparison - and tiny compared to many other rules.  Though you have to attack the closest target anyways, maybe proper ranges does "hurt" the game a bit with regards to variety in missile weapons?

There is a small pool of spells - lift, anchor and throw, blink (short range teleport) and time stop (amused to see it here, as I remember once discussing with Brent that time manipulation, along with Portal-style guns, is something I don't often see in a wargame).  Again I feel a bit of a hypocrite saying this, given my dislike of extra special rules, but I'd have liked a few MORE spells.

There is a range of game "levels" which increase in complexity, so you can gradually absorb the mechanisms as you go.  Whilst there is some simple rules for advancement, I suspect Rogue Planet might be just too "out there" to attract the old Necromunda crowd anyways (who will probably gravitate towards the more familiar Clash on the Fringe) and is more likely to compared against the Song of Blades series with the audience I expect it to gather.

TL:DR  A minimalist selection of spells and weapons. However you can see this has been done to prevent player overload.  (Also, the way the game is introduced gradually in "levels" of increasing complexity).  The author did this previously in his Mayhem mass battle fantasy rules, where I criticized the lack of magic, I recall.  It's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. Given the author's tendency to upgrade his products, it wouldn't surprise me to see free expansions added in time. 

I appreciate it when indie authors put the effort in to "pretty up" their games...

TL:DR
A set of rules both simpler and more complex than they appear.  It may be only 24 pages, but they are very "dense" rules which I found a little hard to follow at times - mostly because of the unfamiliar ideas.  The rules writer is wonderfully inventive, but sometimes it seems like ideas are shoehorned into the game "just because it seemed cool."  It seems a reverse of say, TFL games - they seem to pick a period/genre and design a game around it.  Rogue Planet seems to be a bunch of original and interesting design ideas that has been turned into a game. It's certainly fun to try out, as there are quite a lot of "different" concepts crammed into Rogue Planet:

*no measurements (always a "!")
*energy pool (a general resource which negates damage when spent)
*roll the dice or accept half the dice value (I.e. roll d6 or accept a default 3) - risk vs reward
*pawns (kinda hero powers, represented by a miniature yet in practice a hero's abstract attribute)
*actions/reactions (not revolutionary, but goes far beyond simple overwatch into Infinity/Crossfire territory - unique in the way it is combined with no measuring/unlimited moves)

I found this ruleset quite thought provoking in how I instinctively was uncomfortable with some aspects of it, despite liking it "on principle." Ivan Sorensen said in response to another post "to be successful, games need to be only a bit clever"   I.e. introduce maybe one or two new/neat ideas but keep the rest conventional. Rogue Planet might be a good example for this argument. That said, it is very successful on Wargames Vault and I think it will very much appeal to a certain sort of gamer.

Perhaps I'm being nitpicky.  There's a lot to like about this game, which has a deceptive amount of depth. There are plenty of  'decision points' - even when activating a model you can choose to take the default 3 actions or take a risk and roll a d6 for it (potentially gaining more or less). I like the flexibility of the unit creator. Pawns and energy both add many layers of decisions/resource management.  A reaction system keeps everyone involved.  I have no "actual" complaints about the rules, bar the rather limited spell and weapons selections.

As a bonus, Rogue Planet isn't aimed to be hard sci fi.  A genre I used to love but now am completely jaded with.  It's like everyone and their dog has realised they can make a single ruleset for modern combat/WW2 and then re-use it for 'hard sci fi' (or vice versa) with a minimum of adjustment.   Platoon-level Vietnam/Afghanistan in space is getting old about as old as the WW2-wet-navy in space that is 90% of spaceship rules.  I'm actually starting to pine for a certain grim dark world where psychic powers, chainswords and energy blades are legitimate weapons. Rogue Planet certainly does space fantasy, and not only does that, but in a completely fresh way.

Recommended?  Yes It'll give an interesting game experience, and has many different design elements to differentiate it from the usual regurgitated 40k ripoff rules.  Outwardly simple,  there are many decision points and layers of tactics. Whilst it is not a Necromunda replacement, I like how you can make your own units and forces, and it has simple advancement rules.  I think this will be a cult hit with a certain type of gamer.  It's clever.  Perhaps too clever for me - I get the feeling I need to play it a lot more to plumb its depths.

TL:DR
More Flash Gordon than 40K.  The most interesting game you'll try this year.  A good excuse to dust off some random sci fi minis, and a completely different change of pace.

Afterword: Usually when I review rules I feel (in my mind) like have pretty accurately "nailed it" but Rogue Planet is not as conventional as, say, Clash on the Fringe. Don't necessarily regard this as the "definitive" review. Read a few AARs, etc. It may be a bit unconventional for some. But if you're a rulebook magpie like me, the mechanics and style makes this a "must have." 

Monday, 3 August 2015

"Types of Magic" - Advice Wanted

For a small blog, I reckon we have the most energetic "commentators" I've come across (the comments word count usually exceeds the post itself!) and I'm seeking the collective wisdom once again, on the vein of the psychic powers thread.  So what's this post about?

Frostgrave - the inspiration
When reading through Frostgrave, I kinda raised my eyebrows at some of the schools of magic chosen.  Some seemed like must-have inclusions, but others seemed a bit contrived.

Elementalist, Enchanter, Illusionist, Necromancer, Summoner, Priest(Thaumage) - these are all fantasy staples.  ...but is a Chronomancer even a thing?  A Sigilist - guy who writes scrolls. Hmmm - really? Soothsayer? Maaaybe.  A Witch is not really a class of magic per se, but describes the practitioner, doesn't it?

D&D - the benchmark?
So I googled what D&D - surely an influential fantasy benchmark - did.  They seem to divide it into "arcane" and "divine."

Arcane schools include - Abjuration (protective magic), Transmutation, Summoning, Divination (okay, same as Soothsayer?), Enchantment, Evocation (energy, incl ice, fire etc - similar to Elementalist?), Illusion, Necromancy, and "universal" spells. 

Divine magic is mostly cleric magic (nature magic is kinda included - would this include witches?).    Divine magic seems to have been divided into different categories according to the editions (alignment/deity), but I get the vibe it tends to be more focussed on buff/debuff (curse/bless) and stuff like healing, or smiting undead.

 Hmm. Fairly similar to Frostgrave I guess, sans the Sigilist and Chronomancer, with a couple added.

Questions
So is D&D the definitive list?

I don't want some random magic system you saw in a homebrew RPG once - I want to narrow down the core magic "styles" which are the most common tropes.  e.g the "Lore of Waaagh" is WFB-specific, so it's no good.  However it might fit under the umbrella of a generic class of magic - perhaps "battle magic."  Should "battle magic" be a class? 

Basically, I want a "generic" list of typical magic types - the most universally recognized ones.   The categories or "big ideas" - overarching forms of magic, not small sub-groups.  I.e. geomancy could be classed under elemental magic.  

If you had to divide magic into "types" - and include the most common, recognizable ones from mainstream media (movies, books, games) - how would you categorize it?