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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

After action report: 5150 Star Army

A large group turned out last week to try out 5150: Star Army, the latest revamped release from Two Hour Wargames. Our club had tried out 5150 (previous edition) earlier this year with mixed results, mostly owing to the fact that we weren't sure if we were playing the game correctly.

This go-round was much, much cleaner. We organized two side-by-side games on Karl's excellent desert wastelands table. I refereed (and played in) a 2-vs-1 game pitting two Free Company mercenary commanders against a single Star Army commander.

As is the spirit of 5150, we eyeballed the opposing forces and tried to come up with balanced armies. The two Free Company players each brought 15-20 figures to the table, organized in two squads each with one or two support weapons per squad. The Star Army player brought three squads with support. As this was a demo game meant to show off the rules engine, we didn't bother with a scenario. All future games will use scenarios, though, because it's more fun that way!

Anyway, the game played smoothly. As the referee, I had no problem at all leading the players through the various reaction tests as they maneuvered their guys around the table. The open-ended nature of the reactions meant that some turns were quite brisk while others turned into epic back-and-forth firefights. This was exciting for me, but the other Free Company player didn't seem to enjoy it as much.

Here's a photo of how our game shaped up. The Free Company squads are on the left side of the photo, approaching under the cover of some boulders and trees. The Star Army, on the right, is scaling the rocky hill in the center of the table.

They seized the high ground early on, which allowed the Star Army support weapons (rocket launcher and grenade launcher, mostly) to rain death down on our approaching troops. We got to learn A LOT about the outgunned rule while fleeing from these weapons. At one point two opposing squads were perched on opposite sides of the hilltop lobbing grenades at each other!

The game itself was a glorious meatgrinder, which was of course the whole idea in the first place. Nothing helps you learn a game like dishing out (and absorbing) heavy casualties.

In this pic, the Star Army player presses the attack with his badly mauled squads.

By the end of the game we had a good grasp of the rules. What's more, I had learned quite a bit about the differences between the various army reaction tables. Star Army is much more apt to shoot accurately under pressure, while Free Company is liable to panic and snap-fire an entire magazine.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fully painted: Pachydon sci-fi elephant troopers

Back at Little Wars I picked up a pack of Pachydons, which are these bipedal elephant-men with laser rifles, part of the Blasted Planets sci-fi line. Yes, they are awesome, and completely zany as well. The rest of the line includes gator-men, moose-men and various other genetically modified critters, all armed with the latest 22nd century battle equipment.

These dudes are also a bit small — they are true 25mm figures, so they're a bit runty next to my heroic 28mm stuff. Luckily, all it takes is some imagination to figure out a reason why they're short... obviously, they're from a high-gravity world!

I imagine these guys will hit the field as a mercenary company hired to fight on myriad wartorn world...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Wastelands Meltdown: Post-apocalyptic miniatures gaming goodness

Though this blog went totally silent through much of the summer, plenty of gaming was going on. Actually, I rediscovered Magic and have been enjoying the heck of out that game lately. I also took a break from miniatures for a few months ... until GenCon, that is. That got me revved up again, as it always does.

Anyway, on to the substance of this blog post. Last weekend I went to Karl's house to play Wastelands Meltdown, the latest iteration of quick-play post-apocalyptic skirmish rules. We've enjoyed Wastelands v1.2, but this edition promised some upgrades and clarifications.

Of course, the rules took a backseat to the spectacle of gaming on Karl's excellent desert table. We set up a quick scenario — a supply stop for one of my wastelands traders, who was escorted by several heavily armed mercenaries. Karl's raiders (each outfitted with a souped-up mutant vehicle) were split into two groups, which both entered opposite table corners to ambush my merchant and his retinue.

Here's my setup in the center of the battlefield. Karl's terrain looked just smashing when we got it all out on the table.

Karl's objective was to disable 2 of the 3 vehicles that I had clustered around my trading post in the center of the table. My goal was to break Karl's warband by inflicting enough casualties. Here's the table before the game started; Karl's forces will arrive on the top left and top right of the board.

The game was a bit of a bloodbath for Karl. In a foolhardy attempt to try out the vehicle rules (including accelerating and colliding) we both drove our two heavily armed trucks directly at each other, building up quite a head of steam before slamming into each other on one flank of the table. My truck was beefier so I survived; Karl's truck exploded and incinerated most of his survivors, though one chaingunner piled out unscathed.

After that it was just wetwork by my power armored infantry. I had two on the table, and they were the toughest single figures in the game. Of course, they cost about double the points of a typical wasteland raider.

A few highlights from the end of the game follow, with photos.

Karl's truck rammed (and killed) my mercenary commander.

As part of the escape, this gnarly cargo hauler motored up and over a small ridge before running down some hapless wastelands raiders.

Bill the Tracker, armed with his hunting rifle, seized the high ground and spent the entire game taking potshots on any raider brave enough to venture close enough to his position.

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.