Thursday, April 28, 2011

Auditioning for a sci-fi skirmish rule set

There's a reason my local miniatures club is called Chicago Skirmish Wargames — it's because we like collecting small, unique groups of cool miniatures rather than vast, homogeneous armies that take eons to deploy onto the table.

As a result, we've been drawn to small, skirmish-scale rulesets for various genres. We've got fantasy covered with Song of Blades & Heroes, but sci-fi has been a bit more troublesome. The club has spent the last half a year trying out many different sci-fi rulesets, with varying degrees of success and failure. What follows here are my own thoughts (not the club's! I don't speak for everyone) about the rulesets we've sampled, what works and what doesn't.

The ground rules: we were only interested in games that encouraged us to use generic, non-brand-specific miniatures. So, Necromunda (despite being an alright game) was out.

Flying Lead — Published by Ganesha Games (the folks behind Song of Blades & Heroes) this game adds another level of complexity onto its super-simple game engine. Unfortunately, this added complexity proved to be a turnoff to me. The beauty of SBH was that it required virtually no rulebook-flipping once you understood how your warband worked. Flying Lead required considerably more cross referencing, plus we needed to use little counters or tokens to mark the condition of a particular figure (prone, fallen down, etc). I don't like tokens — they clutter up the battlefield and must be removed prior to taking glorious game photos. It's also worth noting that Flying Lead isn't really a sci-fi game — it's more of a modern combat game, with assault rifles and grenades and whatnot. Trying to graft it onto a sci-fi setting might have been our first mistake.

Wastelands — This free PDF is sort of a stripped-down RPG where you assemble a squad of dudes, trick them out with all sorts of equipment and weaponry and send them into battle against each other. The game system itself is functional and decently generic, but not particularly innovative. The best part of this game is that although it's nominally a game about post-apocalyptic battles, you can easily adapt it to a variety of sci-fi settings and genres. We've played this game quite a bit over the last year or so.

5150 — Two Hour Wargames' sci-fi title is pretty well-known, and we were excited to give it a try. As expected, the game played out differently than any other system we'd yet encountered. Basically, your little guys don't always do what you want them to do, and sometimes they flat-out disobey you. It was refreshing, in a way, and of course this sort of ruleset lends itself well to solo play. My only gripe is that 5150's point system is a bit wonky — veteran players will just tell you to play scenarios, which is all well and good, but I need a starting point of some sort.

WarEngine — This is the rules engine that powered the now-defunct game ShockForce, which was first published back in the 1990s. It's a strong, generic system that's been lovingly husbanded by its original creator, Aaron Overton, over the years. It lives on now as a thriving wiki (!) and is 100% free. Of all the games we've auditioned, this one felt the most like what I was after: a true wargame experience that took me back to the halcyon days of playing 40k in high school, but presented in a fully updated, fully supported website that's easy to navigate and totally free of charge. The game itself lets you build units from the ground up using generic statistics and game effects, which really juices my imagination. Once you've got your units built, the engine also has ways to create balanced army composition lists so you can pit your forces against your opponent.

If I had a gripe, it would be that this game seems designed for slightly larger battles than we've played lately. WarEngine games don't feel like much unless you have at least 3-4 maneuver elements (squads, characters, etc) and squads should really be 5+ models to get the full command & control stuff going. So you're looking at 20-40 models — that's almost a 40k army! Right now my club prefers games with 6-12 models per side, but I'm sure we can scale up as needed. Part of that is because we want to keep the buy-in threshold low for new players who might wander over when we're playing at our local store. "Sure, you can play, and if you want your own guys you only need to buy one box of miniatures." That sort of thing.

But still — after many months of discussing, planning and playing, I'm very excited to have found WarEngine. It's the game that I'm most excited about playing right now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

April pledge: painted Predators

"If it bleeds, we can kill it." — Dutch

Looking back on this month's painting pledge, a theme emerged: I painted sci-fi miniatures inspired by action movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Last week I posted pics of four Terminator-style robots from EM-4 miniatures. Today I've got photos of four newly painted "Hunter Aliens" from Copplestone Castings — of course, we all know them better as Predators.

These guys were a lot of fun to paint up. After much thought, I painted their skin the same spotted yellow color (inspired by a pic I saw on the interweb) and made their armor look slightly different. These miniatures look a bit shinier in these photos than in real life, but that's OK. They'll hit the table soon, ready to deal death and destruction to future governors, action movie stars and hapless space marines around the galaxy.

And now, a bonus: this was the sci-fi lizard dude I picked up at the paint-and-take table at Little Wars last weekend. I can't remember the minis line he comes from, but he's really cool — he's got a laser rifle slung over his back and a vibro-sword in his hand, ready to plunge through the jungle after his prey. What's that in his left hand? Whatever it is, I painted it red, so it's probably a bit of flesh or something. Again, he's much less shiny in real life.

Painting up this lizard guy has inspired me to do a mercenary squad of oddball sci-ci miniatures to use in multiple game systems.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Song of Blades & Heroes play report from Little Wars 2011

At the height of the fun at Little Wars last weekend, our game table was full of players rolling dice, moving miniatures and generally having a great time. Our local club hosted an introductory scenario for Song of Blades & Heroes, and we had a packed house — all spots were taken, and we briefly had a waiting list of players who wanted to jump in.

As we had hoped, the simplicity of Song of Blades & Heroes meant we spent about 10 minutes explaining the basic rules before turning the players loose to battle each other. The factions were the Forces of Good (Knights, Gladiators and Celts) versus the Forces of Evil (Orcs, Undead and Mycenoid Mushroom-Men).

As you can see from the photos, we had some young players at our table. This was by design — we intentionally listed our event in the "Parent and Child" section of the Little Wars convention program, in an attempt to attract some younger players. And they showed up! Maverick, age 5, got some help from his father Matthew, but guys like Aaron (pictured above) mastered the rules with virtually no assistance!

The game was a wonderful success. Big thanks to David, Aaron, Adam, Maverick, Matthew, Robert, Claire and Liam for coming out to play!

Tim's ruined church proved to be a wonderful centerpiece for our table.

Here's the group shot: 6 players plus onlookers, all battling it out on our fantasy tabletop.

Ryan (red shirt, but not a redshirt) officiates a game taking place in a small medieval town.

We're already brainstorming ideas of games to run at other conventions. Personally I'd like to do some sci-fi skirmish, as I think that particular sub-genre doesn't get a lot of representation at conventions. Generally, it's either 40k-style big games, or nothing at all. So a game of 5150 might work, or Wastelands, or WarEngine, or some other fun ruleset we've yet to try out.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

April pledge: painted Terminator robots

In a novel attempt to motivate each other to finish various miniatures, my local club has decided to try out a monthly painting pledge, whereby members can voluntarily declare that they will complete X project during the calendar month. By adding a modicum of accountability we hope to transform our large collective pile of unpainted lead and plastic into a nice bunch of new miniatures to put onto the battlefield.

I played it safe and picked two small projects to work on: my EM-4 Terminator robots and some Copplestone Predator warriors. The Terminators are done (and it's barely April?!); you can see them in the top row of the photo. The bottom row includes similarly painted robots from Legions of Steel, which I picked up at an auction (all 4 of 'em, unpainted) for the bargain price of 25 cents. Together, they'll be my cyborg warband for whatever sci-fi or post-apoc skirmish game we play next.

By the way, I obeyed the cardinal rule of painting Terminators by including a human skull on the base of one cyborg. Respect.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Running my first convention game

My local miniatures club is going to run a miniatures game at Little Wars, a wargames convention that takes place April 8-10 outside Chicago. This is our first time doing anything like this, so we played it safe and decided to host a game designed to introduce players to Song of Blades & Heroes, our current favorite for fantasy skirmish battles.

Since SBH is quite easy to learn and encourages RPG-style warbands, we chose to list our game in the "family friendly" convention category, which means we'll likely have some parent/child teams at our table. This is 100% great — the hobby needs ways to fire the imagination of younger players, and SBH is definitely an excellent introductory game.

I found out last week that our event filled up during the pre-registration period. Again, this is a good thing — we can count on a full table. We're already brainstorming ways to accommodate walk-ups...maybe we'll grab some space on an adjacent table and squeeze in another couple players? SBH requires a comparatively tiny play can play on a 2 by 2-foot square if necessary, though the author suggests 3 by 3 for 28mm gaming.

Anyway, wish me luck as I attempt to give back to the hobby that I enjoy so much!