Friday, October 7, 2011

After-action report: Tomorrow's War

After a supply ship was brought down by Neo-Soviet recon elements on the desert world Fornacis V, the decision was made to send in a retrieval squad from Markham's Skybolts, a well-known mercenary company operating dirtside on the planet. The pilot bailed out and made landfall, offering vague details about the Neo-Soviet platoon that was mustering in the dry woodlands around his position. He sought refuge in a nearby colony hab-unit and waited for rescue.

My local club gathered this week to try out Tomorrow's War, the highly anticipated "hard" sci-fi ruleset from Ambush Alley Games and Osprey Publishing. We had been hearing about this game for the better part of a year, as it debuted a while back as an add-on to an existing Ambush Alley title. Now it's being released as a standalone hardcover book — a gorgeous tome, I should add, replete with tons of color photos and example illustrations.

The folks at Osprey were kind enough to send me an advance copy to read and review. What follows here is a battle report of the Skybolts' attempt to extract their pilot from a Neo-Soviet ambush. I'll offer a more substantive review of Tomorrow's War in a future post.

For this game, I ran a scenario straight out of the book. Four players showed up, so I opted not to run a squad and instead perched on a stool spewing rules minutiae for the entire two-hour game.

The photo at the top of this post shows the battlefield at the outset of the game. The three 4-man Skybolt fireteams entered at the bottom of the picture and had to reach the building, grab the pilot and exit the map by Turn 8. Four Neo-Soviet squads were waiting in ambush in the scrub woods surrounding the building.

The first two turns saw the Skybolts players rush their mercenary squads forward, using the rapid move ability to grab some cover on the flanks.

The Neo-Soviet players responded by moving a few squads out of ambush and advancing forward, prompting a couple firefights. In Tomorrow's War, a unit that is being fired on can choose to react by either returning fire or moving away. Moreover, a troop quality check made at the outset of that exchange means that sometimes the targeted squad is able to shoot first, inflicting casualties on the enemy squad before it has a chance to shoot.

Lots of these little firefights — called 'rounds of fire' in the rulebook — erupted as the various fireteams jockeyed for position on the tabletop. The Neo-Soviet troops were low quality but numerically superior. The Skybolt mercenary soldiers were high quality, but few in number. Both sides inflicted a few casualties before the Skybolts managed to charge into the building in the center of the table, quickly locating the missing pilot. From there, they used the comparative safety of the building to pour fire into a Neo-Soviet squad, all but wiping them out.

By this point we were on turn 5, and the mercenary players knew they didn't have much time to dither. They hustled the pilot back toward their edge of the table as fast as possible — which wasn't very fast, considering that squads escorting dependents (the pilot in this case) can't use the rapid move ability! Seeing this, the Neo-Soviet players charged their squads out of cover and began a full-on pursuit across the windswept battlefield. Here they go!

The Skybolt squad in the lower right corner has been 'wiped out' in game terms. The soldiers aren't dead, but there isn't a healthy trooper available to make a first aid check, so the unit stays tipped over until its casualties are assessed. As it happened, this squad wasn't reached by a healthy trooper before the end of the game, so the tipped-over models counted as captured soldiers for the scenario. This particular victory condition put the Neo-Soviet players over the top when we tallied up points at the end.

Anyway, the Skybolts slogged through a fearsome hail of gunfire as the Neo-Soviets enveloped them with superior numbers. Luckily Skybolt one squad that had spent pretty much the entire game on overwatch proved very useful at disrupting the Neo-Soviets advance. With just 3 combat effective soldiers, this little fireteam held up at least twice their number of lower quality Neo-Soviet troopers. This sacrifice allowed the main squad to escape with the pilot at the end of Turn 8. Here's the squad (with pilot) as they make their exit off the battlefield. The rearguard fireteam is just visible in the distance; those soldiers were honored posthumously for their dedication to the mission.

So, the Skybolts won, right? They accomplished their mission? Well, they did, but the Neo-Soviet players also had their own mission objectives. Chief among those were "inflict casualties" and "capture wounded," both of which they did in spades. The Neo-Soviets were able to squeak out a victory based on the specific parameters of this scenario. A marginal victory at best, as one of the Skybolt players pointed out.

Here's a picture of the final positions of the units on Turn 8. The Neo-Soviet players' squads are badly mauled but still active; the Skybolts also suffered proportionate casualties.

Overall I was very pleased with how this scenario turned out. Tomorrow's War doesn't have a point system, which makes it extremely important to craft well-balanced scenarios. This game was an example of that. The forces were evenly matched even though the Neo-Soviet player put about twice as many miniatures on the table as the Skybolts player. The mechanics supported this as well, with the Skybolts using their improved troop quality and weaponry to counter the numerical superiority of the Neo-Soviets.

The victory conditions meant that although the Neo-Soviet players were rather demoralized to watch their troopers die en masse for most of the game, they were still able to accomplish their objectives and win the day. This was a nice departure from so many games, where if you lose a big pile of figures you're pretty much guaranteed to lose the game as a result.

We made a few rules blunders here and there, of course, but overall the game played out quite well. I've played in horribly one-sided scenario games that were just no fun to play. This game moved along briskly and victory wasn't assured until the very last turn of the game! It was "a real nail-biter" as one player pointed out at the start of Turn 8. This game will likely become the go-to squad sci-fi game for our club.