Saturday, 29 January 2011

Disposable Heroes

Well, one of my New Year's resolutions was to get some more wargaming in. I wittered on about this on this blog back in November. I'm determined that yes, this year I will spend more time pushing little lead and plastic men around.

Sebastian and I have been playing some Disposable Heroes, which is a WW2 skirmish level rules set from Iron Ivan Games, and it isn't half bad. It is aimed largely at platoon level actions: you can get a decent game with a platoon on each side, with maybe some company or regimental assets attached, like heavy machine guns, tanks, and so forth.

The aim of the rules is to provide the feel of WW2 infantry combat, without slowing the game down too much. It is a tricky balance to strike: some skirmish rules cater well to squad level combat, where you have 10 guys under your command, but really slow down once you add more squads to the game. Others are really geared for bigger battles, at company level, and really not suitable for skirmish gaming.

I've always been interested in platoon level games, since I was, heck, 12? The Russian Front and the Pacific campaigns (including Burma) are of most interest. We've now got enough troops to have a fairly decent game, and we got one done recently in a couple of afternoons.

I've played Disposable Heroes before, and it plays well, handling a multiude of troops - in our case a full platoon of Red Army with a tank, a sniper team and a Maxim HMG in support, versus two squads of Germans with a heavy tank in support. The Germans ended up getting whupped, despite holding a fairly decent defensive position in a built up area, and I suspect if you totted up the points, the Russians probably came out on top. Still, it was an opportunity for us to get our heads around the rules.

As ever with our miniature gaming, we tend to plan the game at fairly short notice. The opportunity emerges to play, and we quickly cook up a scenario and go at it with the troops available. No time is spent working out points values, or detailing a very complex scenario. In this case, we just put all the lead we had on the table, moved the scenery around, and off we went.

This was the first time I used my urban terrain in anything other than a D&D game last October, and it did well. I've been working up to some kind of Eastern Front WW2 game for a while, and it was good to be able to put it to some use. We ended up with each side being given three objectives to achieve: the Russians, played by Sebastian, had to storm the German position on the opposite side of the square from them (Karl Marx Plaza), take out the German HQ, and eliminate 50% of the German strength. The Germans needed to stop the Russians from taking their position, keep their Panther tank intact, and eliminate the Soviet HQ. Simples!

The good thing about Disposable Heroes is that it enforces WW2 tactical doctrine: you do not send squads out into the street, as I did with a rifle section, without adequate covering fire. They get killed. If you do want to cross a street, as Sebastian did later in the game, you make sure your LMGs have pinned down the pesky German MG team on the other side of the square before you send your assault team in. Tanks find it hard to acquire infantry targets in built-up areas. If you stop your tank in the street for too long, some enterprising grunt WILL toss a molotov cocktail on it.

And so on. But it is a set of rules that keeps the essential FEEL of WW2 combat. You get punished quickly if you think your troops can perform the heroics of the silver screen. They prefer keeping their heads down, squirrelled away in bunkers, and don't like moving.

Where the rules have crunch, it is in the pages of unit types - whole supplements support the British, US, Soviet, and German armies, plus there is another for the Pacific War, and one for the armies of the early part of the conflict, like the Polish and the French. There is also plenty of detail on tanks and aircraft should your games expand that far. An annexe to the DH rules, Coffin For Seven Brothers, takes the mechanics to larger scale armoured battles, where infantry plays more of a supporting role.

DH abstracts units slightly: you fire at the unit, not at the individual (only snipers can fire at individual soldiers). Apart from two man sniper teams, the section is the smallest unit, usually of about four or five men. Two sections make up a squad, and the traditional WW2 squad will break down into a rifle section and an LMG section.

Soldiers in a squad are defined by their ACC (Accuracy) score which determines their shooting ability, their Guts, which governs morale and their ability to function under fire, and their Close Combat score, which deals with close in fighting (we never used CC in our game, so I'm guessing it doesn't happen that often). Weapons have a Rate of Fire (ROF) which determines how many d10s you roll when shooting: a bolt action rifle like the German KaR98k will have 2d10, while the Soviet Maxim HMG will have 4d10, as will the German MG34 LMG. An AP dice score determines ability to wound if any hits are scored, but with the weapons being used in the Russian theatre, if you get hit, most likely you're not getting up.

Tank combat is a tad more complex, with the gunner having to acquire the target first, then fire. If it is at another tank, you then have to roll to see the hit location, then whether the shell has penetrated the tank's armour. We were using a Panther tank for the Germans, one of the best AFVs in WW2, and it proved very hard for the Russians to damage, even with their Churchill tank. Indeed, it was the molotov cocktails that looked like the more dangerous weapon.

The game needs concentration and ready access to the data cards covering weapons, unit stats, and vehicles. I can see how a larger game could slow down quickly. We probably played seven turns, which saw us play the game to conclusion, in about four hours. The Germans were easily bested by the Russians, who had more firepower with four LMGs and one HMG against a single German LMG, and in WW2 terms, this is the big factor. Yes, the Panther could have caused the Russians more trouble, but in a built up area, its power was neutralised. I'm going to need to paint up a few more Germans, and give my Wehrmacht some more LMGs if they are going to be able to hold their own against the fearsome Red Army.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Britannia: first impressions are favourable

Well, last weekend we got the chance to crack open the copy of Britannia I picked up at the closing down sale at Wargames World here in Brighton, and a very nice looking game it is. My appointed component popper dutifully popped and sorted all the many components for me - lovely card tiles in the main, with excellent artwork, as only Fantasy Flight seems to be able to do it these days.

Most of the pieces represent different tribes that competed for control of the island of Britain between 43 AD, when the Romans invaded, and 1066, when the Normans did the same. Back in the 1990s, one of the games I used to play a lot of was History of the World, which was bought by a friend of mine, but which got a lot of air time amongst the guys I used to game with in the John Major era. Britannia reminds me of that, but it is slightly more sophisticated, and while HotW randomly allocated civilisations, in Britannia you play a designated sequence of tribes: e.g. if you are green, you get the Welsh and Caledonians to begin with, and then the Jutes after that.

Each play gets four tribes, and the game is balanced so that no one gets to play more than one 'uber tribe'. The Roman player begins the game, invading Britain, and has by far the best troops in the game, plus the ability to put down forts wherever he conquers, but once the Romans pull out of Britain, his subsequent tribes are nowhere near as good. First off, he has to play the Romano-British, and face off against the invading Saxons of the red player. We did not get beyond turn 4 in our game (around 350 AD), so the Roman player was still very much in control of England and Wales at that stage, but it was obvious he was thinly stretched, with the Irish plundering Dyfedd and the Saxons on the loose in Wessex.

Dark Ages history, like the 17th century, is a bit of a gap for me in terms of my historical knowledge. In many respects, this is quite an educational game, as it clearly teaches just who was active in Britain at this time, and you begin to get an idea of the difference between your Scots and your Picts, your Angles and your Jutes.

Winning is based on scoring points, and each nation has its own points scoring priorities. Some people have complained that this is hard to keep track of, but I did not have a problem here. Most points get allocated on certain turns, based on occupation of regions, but you can also score between scoring turns by achieving certain objectives. In the early part of the game, i.e. pre-400AD, there were points on offer for knocking out Roman forts and destroying legions, no easy task. The other tribes still need to think about snaffling territory off each other as well, because the first big scoring round comes in turn five, and you need to be ready for the withdrawal of the legions and the free-for-all that follows in the 5th century.

Major historical personalities also feature: they can help with the movement of armies and make troops in their region fight harder. You only really have them for one turn, so it is best to use them or lose them. The only personality to feature in our game was Boudicca, who led my Belgae on a successful revolt against Roman rule in Essex, and then went on a rampage into Kent while most of the Roman army was in the north getting ready for a crack at the Picts.

All in all, this is a beautiful looking game. Did I say that before? I had been discouraged from buying largely because a friend of mine had said "it was a bit complex" with too many exceptions, but having sat down and actually played the beast for four turns, I beg to differ. You really only have to focus on one nation at a time: yes, the green player has to worry about the Welsh and Caledonians at the same time in the early stages, but I get the feeling the Welsh are there to be conserved for greater things later in the game, and the best thing to do is submit to Rome and wait for the legions to leave. The Caledonians, on the other hand, can be entertaining for bashing the Picts during this period, and wrestling sheep and heather off them for turn five.

All in all, a really good game. I think it has benefitted from the fact that there have been two previous editions and several variants exploring other parts of the world. This has allowed the designers to address many of the flaws it seems may have rested in earlier versions.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

PS2 Game of the Year awards

Given that 2010 has just finished, I thought it would be appropriate to dish out some awards to Playstation 2 games for the year gone. These are based on playtime, and playtime only, the argument being that hours spent on game = a good game that has caught and continues to hold your attention.

Sure, I've spent many frustrating hours playing Tomb Raider, and it drove me nuts on occasion, but you could still argue that because it had me coming back for more, it was still good enough to hold my attention. Did it live up to the hype at the time? Not really.

So, onto last year. Games under consideration simply had to be in my collection in 2010. I've found you can now buy many used games for a fraction of the mint price, and there are a couple of shops I frequent in Brighton that have a pretty decent selection of PS2 second hand games, namely the Gamestar shops on London Road and Boundary Road, which I always pop into when I'm nearby.

In third place we have Star Wars Battlefront 2, a most excellent shoot 'em up in the Star Wars universe. Sebastian has probably played more of this than any other game in 2010. It is really rather good, and includes multi-player options letting you function either as a two man team or work against each other on opposite sides.

The game spans the Clone Wars and the Rebellion period, and lets you play a broad range of the troop types seen in the films, including clone troopers, stormtroopers, battle droids, wookies, and even some of the famous personalities like Darth Vader and Count Dooku. You can also battle across a long list of maps using movie locations like Mos Eisley space port, the Death Star, Naboo, the Jedi temple on Coruscant, and many others.

However, on top of this there is also a space-based game, letting you fly star fighters in hectic orbital battles. You can even get into and out of your fighter if you fly onto bigger ships, board enemy vessels and take them on in close combat. It really is an amazingly versatile game, and seems to be the default option for Sebastian and his friends, alongside the Star Wars Lego series, which probably got more air time in 2009.

In second place we have the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance series, a pair of PS2 games using the Forgotten Realms background from D&D. We have played both games to their conclusion, and they really are excellent 'old school' animated dungeon bashes. We've also played Champions of Norrath, which uses the same game engine, but in a different fantasy setting.

I'm lumping all these games together, but I like them because they easily cater to two players on the same screen, they feature impressively large worlds with big levels, they capture the feel of 'old school' dungeon bashes from the 1980s quite nicely, and they let you save frequently, which is always a bonus for me. We have chalked up a LOT of hours on these games in 2010.

The original Dark Alliance game did have one irritating level which featured a jumping challenge, where your character died automatically if you missed one out of a series of perfectly timed jumps. I hate this kind of thing in games, and this really did slow us down, causing us to take a break from the game. Two bosses also proved almost impossible to defeat - a drow priestess in one game, and an orc warlord in another. We bested them both eventually, but only once Sebastian had worked his way round to them in the single player mode and figured out how to slay them that way.

So, on to the game which I enjoyed the most in 2010, which we completed, and which gets my award for best game I played last year on the basis of hours played + ability to complete + multi-player usage + general fun factor, and that is Judge Dredd.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the comics and have been since way back when. I really had to give the game a go. I enjoyed playing Gears of War and in many respects, Judge Dredd feels like a precursor to that. You play judges, working to complete a series of missions, beginning with mundane ones like a bank heist and breaking up a demonstration, to more serious problems like a gang war and rampaging vampires. Eventually, some lunatic scientist manages to release the Dark Judges from their prison, and you end up having to track them down and capture them, no easy task.

This game works well as a two player game, which is largely why it got so much play time from us. Also, the levels are groovy. It does not have the more linear feel you get from Gears of War or Call of Duty, where you have specific objectives which you move towards. There is an excellent mall level, where a horde of zombies has been released, and the judges need to extract survivors to a waiting H-wagon. You don't know where the survivors are, so you have to search the entire mall, shop by shop, making sure you don't shoot a survivor by mistake.

The Lawgiver pistols, which, like the comics have a range of ammo settings, are faithfully reproduced, including anti-personnel, explosive, heatseeker and ricochet rounds. Nice.

Another great touch is the judge's ability to make an unrelated arrest if he sees a citizen doing something wrong while on a mission. You can end up cuffing a scrawl artist while in pursuit of a vampire. Little touches like these are the icing on the cake.

Strangely, this game did not receive rave reviews from the games press, but it seems to have hit the spot with us.

Monday, 10 January 2011

RuneQuest Samurai

Well, Christmas and New Year are over, and it's time to get started with some serious work in January. The festive period was so busy for me that, while I got some board gaming done, of which more later, I really did not get a chance to post anything to the blog, which is a shame. Still, there is a substantial backlog of gaming related activity on which to comment.

First off, and while it is still fresh in my memory, we finally convened BenCon last weekend. This is our informal Brighton-based RPG convention, small, but perfectly formed. Who knows, maybe it will develop into something larger in the future? At the moment it is an excuse to play one-shot RPGs over the weekend, and a break from our weekly campaign sessions of Pathfinder.

So, Winter BenCon as it has been termed, was originally meant to be a one day, three game affair, but Irish Dave, who was going to be running Trail of Cthulhu, announced he was moving to Canada and consequently unable to prep his adventure. This left myself and Kelvin to run our games, which in the event turned out quite well. Kelvin's Savage Eberron game is detailed on the Brighton Roleplayers blog, while my own game was a RuneQuest game using the Land of Samurai setting from Mongoose Publishing.

I've been interested in playing RQ ever since days of yore when it was regularly featured in White Dwarf. It seemed a grittier and more mature alternative to the slash fest that was AD&D. It was good to see its re-birth under Mongoose, and as someone already familiar with the Basic Roleplaying rules engine that RQ uses thanks to a decade's worth of running Call of Cthulhu games, I decided to give it a go. I chose the Land of Samurai setting because it was going cheap on the Mongoose website, and I've got a degree in Japanese history and culture, making it an easy one to ref.

I chose a scenario from White Dwarf, called the Beast of Kozamura, originally written by the legendary Graeme Davis for the old RQ Land of Ninja supplement, which Games Workshop published in the late 1980s. AS it had already been written for RQ, it was relatively easy to convert, although Land of Samurai does treat Shinto and Buddhist divine magic a bit differently from Land of Ninja.

I let the players generate their own characters where they wanted to, and rolled up others for those with no time or inclination. As it happened, Ric ended up taking the ninja character Manoj had ordered (Manoj sadly missed Winter BenCon due to illness), while Sebastian played the two sohei (warrior monk) characters and Dave an ashigaru bodyguard. Kelvin and Ben both rolled up noble characters, an investigating magistrate and a samurai, both from the Miyamoto family. We decided that they would be spearheading the investigation, with the aid of the ninja spy Arasaka Shubichi. Dave's ashigaru, Runabu, would serve as the bodyguard of Kelvin's nobleman. The two warrior monks would be scouting for a new temple location in the province on behalf of their order.

One problem with some games where social caste is important is that you end up running a bit of an 'upstairs, downstairs' game, and to a certain extent this is true of samurai Japan, with commoner characters not being able to participate in high level talks with noble NPCs, while at the same time an all-noble party would have found it hard to uncover many of the rumours amongst the peasant farmers in this scenario. The local jizamurai was largely oblivious to events in the village, and the real plot was uncovered thanks to some intensive roleplaying from David and Ric, sharing a flask of sake with the villagers. Having said that, Kelvin seemed to enjoy getting into the role of his magistrate, and Ben player his samurai to the hilt. At the end of the session I felt all the characters had contributed, and all the players had been actively involved.

Overall, I like feudal Japan as a setting. I felt the On (honour) mechanic worked well here. It was interesting that Mongoose has chosen the Heian period rather than the usual Sengoku period for LoS, but it worked well. Social attitudes had not yet ossified to the degree they did later, and the nobility still enjoyed a level of political power, something that would be taken from them by the Minamoto bakufu in the 12th century. Nominally, our game was taking place in the back end of the 10th century. Ultimately, the setting can give players a broad range or roles, and I felt our party was pretty diverse, with a good range of social skills, castes and combat capability on offer. They were probably a little light on magic, although both Sohei had access to divine magic, but did not make use of it.

RQ itself I felt was a bit clunky. We were using the first Mongoose edition, not the newer second edition, and I will be looking at this latter version to see if some of my reservations have been addressed. My big beef is with the combat system. I accept I was still a bit unfamiliar with it, and may run a dungeon bash using it at home to see how it plays out. We had one fight in this game, and there was scope for a second, but I decided that given the time constraints I'd only keep the critical, plot-resolving battle in the game. Part of my problem is with the hit locations, which I think would become quite tough to keep track of in a battle with 10-15 participants. Was it Goblin C or D which just took a three hit point wound to the right arm? I can see Excel coming into play here. Ouch!

Secondly, each combatant has a number of combat actions per round, which can be used to parry, attack, take other actions, or dodge. In effect, a character with three combat actions gets three dodges and three parries in a round, making him able to respond to up to six attacks on his person. While other systems tend to abstract this via Armour Class or Savage World's 'Parry' attribute, RQ lets individuals try to stop attacks against them using dice rolls. This makes for a slower battle by far, and would make me cautious as a GM of including big combats in a game.

Also, there are some strange situations which occur and would have to be addressed by house rules: for example, you can parry ranged attacks, but this allowed a fleeing monster in our game to have the option to parry an arrow shot at it by a pursuer - okay, in this case the shot missed, but would the monster have been able to even be aware of it as it fled for the treeline? I don't think so.

Overall, I enjoyed running the game. Given my huge work commitments this year, I'm unsure how many games I will realistically be able to referee in 2011. There just seems so much to do all of a sudden. I'll give RQ2 a look and see how that fares in a combat intensive environment like a dungeon (I might use another old White Dwarf adventure for this). Hopefully we can look forwards to BenCon II this summer, and a chance to air some more RQ then. Glorantha next time, perhaps?