Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Salute 2011

I've been going to Salute for more years than I care to remember - certainly since the early 1990s, when it used to be held at Kensington Town Hall (now the home of the Dragonmeet RPG convention in the winter. Salute is arguably the UK's most successful and well-patronised wargames event, rivalled only by Games Workshop's Games Day event in Birmingham. Salute's new venue in London's Excel Centre is, to say the least, not as atmospheric as the old Kensington venue, and nowhere near as good as the fantastic Redoubt venue in Eastbourne. The best way to describe it is 'functional'.

Still, if you're a keen wargamer, and live in the southeast of England, is there any excuse not to go? I always manage to miss the SELWG show in Crystal Palace in October as it coincides with the weekend of my wife's birthday, but Salute is something I try to make, if I can. Part of this year's resolution has been to make it to more games cons, and while I missed the February Cavalier show in Tunbridge Wells, Salute is the first big gaming event on the calendar this year I've been able to attend.

Salute really is the nexus of all things wargaming in the UK, at least anything not under the GW umbrella! GW was not even there this year, and I only spotted one game of Warhammer 40,000 on the go (Necrons against Space Marines, since you asked). This leaves the stage clear for other companies, and there certainly seemed to be a lot of them this year. A number are following the trail blazed by the likes of GW and Privateer Press by developing proprietary ranges of miniatures to sit alongside their rules systems. Create a world; create its races and kingdoms; and create the armies that wage war across this world. Some are offering games that are very skirmish in nature - fewer figures than a 1000 point Warhammer game - but charging £8 and up for individual 28mm castings. This suits those who like to spend an entire weekend painting one figure, and certainly PP's War Machine game is built on this model.

Naval wargames were well-represented this year, including an American Civil War ironclads game, a Mediterranean WW2 convoy game, and some kind of fantasy/steampunk naval battle, I think from Spartan Games, which looked entertaining. There was also a Space 1889 naval battle, with flying steam-powered battleships. Is the naval battle game making a comback? If Salute is anything to go by, perhaps...

Salute is certainly losing its historical-only character, which far more science fiction and fantasy offerings this year. As more younger gamers move from playing Warhammer to trying out other games, the overall wargames business in the UK seems to be booming. More companies appear to be moving from 'hobby' concerns to 'five to nine' operations turning a profit, albiet a small one. Games Workshop has to take some credit for this, as its retail presence is the recruiting ground for much of the new blood coming into the hobby, and allowing it to continue to compete against video-based entertainment. This may also explain why the miniatures wargaming hobby is going great guns while the RPG hobby is becoming more niche and grey-haired in its character.

In terms of new games launches, I met Rick Priestley, who has now moved from Games Workshop to join Warlord Games, which is itself becoming a force to be reckoned with in historical wargaming circles. Warlord has just released Priestley's new ancient wargames rules, Hail Caesar, my copy of which arrived yesterday and awaits my perusal when I get a chance. Warhammer Historical, which has been quiet of late, has published its new WW2 rules set in a meaty great hardback, but it only really focuses on the Normandy campaign. Not all WW2 gamers want to play Normandy: I've certainly got no Normandy figures at the moment, being more of an Eastern Front afficionado. I'm guessing they did their market research and decided this is the most popular land campaign amongst wargamers, and will support the rules with the inevitable series of campaign supplements in future months.

The other big launch of Salute 2011 is Osprey's Force on Force, an upgraded successor to the original Ambush Alley modern wargames rules. AA was originally written to allow for the simulation of modern urban warfare, using the fighting in Iraq post-2003 as its default (although you could just as easily use it for Chechenya, 1980s Beirut, or even 19th century Afghanistan). AA tackled the theme of counter-insurgency - regular troops fighting against irregular forces of some description, be they Taleban, Sadaam's Fedayeen, or the Viet Cong. FoF has gone further, allowing for 'kinetic' actions between regular forces. Its first supplement, Road to Baghdad, looks at the initial invasion of Iraq by coalition forces in 2003, but scenarios in the core rules include the Arab-Israeli wars, the Falklands War, and the Vietnam War. You can still play counter-insurgency battles, but now you can have the Soviets against NATO in West Germany in the 1980s, if that floats your boat.

I did a bit of shopping at Salute, lacking the time to play in any participation games, and picked up a couple of nice kits from Perry Miniatures for 19th century American houses. They will come in useful for my projected Legends of the Old West games, as well as serving as Boer farmsteads in the Zulu Wars. I also bought a sprue of tents from Renedra for my Victorian British battalion, a hill, some Warhammer movement trays, another set of ancients rules called Clash of Empires, a Humvee for my modern American platoon (don't want them walking everywhere, do we?), some more river sections from the Last Valley, and a few rocks for Zulu snipers to hide behind.

Finally, the picture at the start of this article is a demo game of Triumph & Tragedy, which simulates small unit actions in the period 1900-39. It was a 1935 battle from the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Trafalgar: messing about with boats (and cannon)

I've dabbled quite a bit in naval wargaming over the last few years, including the Napoleonic era, where I've been part of a team that put on a Battle of the Nile re-fight at Salute back in 2005. We used 1/2400 scale ships for that battle, and a modified version of the Fire As She Bears rules, allowing us to run the battle twice with players taking the roles of three British commanders (including Nelson, of course) and the umpires running the French fleet, which was anchored and sat there obligingly getting the stuffing knocked out of it.

We're tried a number of rules over the years in the quest to find something that is 'just right' for our purposes. FASB is one of the better sets of rules we've used, despite its requirement for hexagonal shaped pieces of hardboard, as is Flying Colours from GMT. The latter is arguably the best fleet level set of rules we've played so far, and we were able to play a smoothly-running re-fight of Camperdown (British versus Dutch) a couple of years ago. FC is a board game, not a miniatures wargame, but I believe there is scope to migrate this onto the tabletop, and indeed I believe some naval wargamers have achieved this in the past.

On now to our latest venture, Trafalgar, published by Warhammer Historical. Thus far we have had just the one play-test, and it seemed to go okay, but I feel more play time will be needed before we get to the bottom of this one.

For Trafalgar we used the larger 1/1200 ships, with six ships allocated per side. Each player had five 3rd rate men of war, plus a 1st rate flagship (Victory for the British, and L'Orient for the French). It's been a while since we trotted out the wood and canvas, so it was good to be back at the mercy of the wind, without the worry of torpedoes and Stuka dive bombers!

Trafalgar is a Warhammer game. It is a bit fiddly in terms of movement, particularly when it comes to tacking. The emphasis on the command of individual ships (Command rolls supplant the Leadership checks of many other Warhammer-based systems) means this is less a fleet level game and more a squadron level game. The fleet lists at the back include plenty of detail on the smaller vessels of the period, which further leads me to speculate that Trafalgar was indeed written for smaller scale actions. It is not detailed enough for a ship to ship duel, but carries too much crunch for the Battle of the Nile. It feels more like something you would play a hypothetical battle with, using no more than 8-10 ships per side. This should get you a good afternoon's play. It is also possible that you could create some of the less 'classic' actions from the period, for example supporting a coastal raid and becalmed ships being attacked by oared vessels in the Mediterranean.

We were learning, so it took a while to get the first couple of turns away, but after that, as is always the case with these things, the game moved more quickly. Wind is still important, as is holding the weather gauge. The usual tactics from the period seemed to work, with raking producing the most devastating damage on ships. We have found in other games that the lead ship in an attacking line always seems to take the lion's share of the damage (including the dangerous first broadsides), but once it breaches an enemy line, the following vessels can dish out masses of damage in response. You have to get raked a bit by enemy fire in order to do you own raking.

Movement is a bit fiddly in Trafalgar, and you really need to concentrate to ensure that your ships don't ram each other, backing sail (cue a Command check) in order to ensure you don't ram the ship ahead. Tacking was also difficult to get our heads around, but that may be because I've been playing too much WW2 naval! The rules give the British the edge in this area: they have better leadership anyway, plus they get to re-roll one failed Command check per battle. But I didn't feel their historical edge in gunnery (the legacy of unceasing gunnery drills while on blockade duty) was fully reflected. Perhaps this makes for a more entertaining game, as playing the British in most Age of Sail games, you almost expect to win...unless it is a single ship action against an American privateer or somesuch.

Critical hits can quickly pile up on a ship, particularly if you are caught in a crossfire, between two lines of enemy ships, as happened to me. Crew losses from fire and gunfire can take their toll, and before you know it, a fine fighting ship is nothing but a floating morgue. It strikes me that in this period, vessels became combat ineffective before going down, whereas in WW2 games it seems that ships run into trouble and start sinking before crew losses reach a crippling point.

We mis-interpreted the boarding rules, so that in both case where I attempted a boarding action, the attacking vessel was lost - albeit one had taken such heavy losses it probably should not have been trying to board an enemy 74-gun ship! But, we had to give the boarding rules a try, got it completely wrong, and thus will give it another go next time.

We didn't get to finish this game, partly because we were learning, and partly because it was getting late. I think the game as it stands is well-suited to the medium scale action, as I've said above. We'll play it again and see how we go with it, but for 1/1200 ships it seems ideal. For Trafalgar, however, I fear it would simply take too long to play.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Pathfinder Kingmaker - an update and observations

The Kingmaker campaign rumbles on, and although I've not had much time available to update this blog since February due to having to work far too hard for my own good, I have been able to get the odd game of Pathfinder in. This seems to remain the system of choice for our RPG group at the moment, and although there is idle talk in some quarters about trying one of the so-called 'old school' D&D variants, nothing serious seems to be about to emerge from that direction.

So, Pathfinder Kingmaker has continued, and I've tried to attend our regular Friday night sessions when I can. In short, we've now put paid to the cyclops demi-lich that was responsible for the disappearence of the good burghers of Varnhold (see previous post), and despite much 'talking up' of his potential threat level by the DM, we seemed to defeat him relatively easily, although I noticed my barbarian was getting close to her daily limit in terms of total number of rounds raging. This is, in fact, the first time this has happened since the campaign began, and brings me onto the topic of power in Pathfinder.

Our party is now 10th level, and this represents the only campaign I've played in which has surpassed 7th level in terms of party strength (my previous best being the TSR Isle of Dread campaign back in 1986). Actually, a straw poll of the other players revealed this was the first time any of them had been near 10th level too.

And what a different beast a high level campaign is, too! Our party has now used the Leadership feat to acquire 8th level cohorts, including a witch (from the Advanced Players Guide), a cleric, and a dwarf barbarian/fighter (my son's PC who attends sporadically). But, we also have a small army of followers, animal companions (like a large elk and an attack dog), and a vast array of additional abilities (our druid seems to be able to turn into just about anything she likes - and turning into an earth elemental certainly seemed to help her in our encounter with the lich). Our elven wizard, Grameer, can teleport once per day, and manufacture a wide range of magic items. My barbarian has been outfitted with a +5 breastplate, and a +2 great sword, which has additional defensive, flame burst, and sonic capabilities.

We have evolved now into a team that seems eminently capable of taking down anything the campaign can throw at us. We have a small herd of pegasi, and a tame roc which can transport us around our kingdom. We can summon rhinos and eagles and fire elementals to distract our foes while the characters move in to finish them off. An invading army of barbarians was dispersed when the flying party effectively decapitated its command structure, dropping in on the generals in the middle of the night and wiping them out (or taking them prisoner in some cases).

The GM reckons he was too generous with us early in the campaign, allowing players to boost their attributes (my barbarian now has an admitted augmented strength of 25, and an armour class of 31 when not raging - power attack and raging will bring this down considerably of course). However, much of our recent spate of victories can be attributed to the prudent use of overlapping powers - for example, enlarging our tengu monk to turn him into an unstoppable tank, summoning eagles to flank monsters, using the witch's cackle power or the monk's stunning fist power to disable opponents, the list goes on...

Earlier in the campaign, I felt the barbarian was by far the most dangerous member of the party, able to dish out some extremely large damage levels (her critical hit on the giant boar Tuskgutter, using a lance from horseback, stands out as one of the highlights of the early part of the campaign). However, since then the rest of the party has closed on her in terms of their potential lethality, with first the monk Wu Ya, and now the spellcasters, stepping up and contributing some serious attack capability. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the barbarian is now one of the weaker members of the party. True, when raging she now has over 200 hit points, DR2, immunity to flanking and being caught flat-footed, and heck even a lesser spirit totem attack, but that is beginning to pale compared with the whup ass Grameer the wizard or Cassie the druid can bring to bear. Fireballs, lighting bolts, teleporting, flying, hasting, all these and more now play a critical role in the game.

I'll end with a recent episode in which we were first able to scry an opponent and then teleport into his boudoir and ambush him at the centre of his castle. We took over the castle from the inner sanctum outwards, not something either the scenario writer or the GM were expecting. Reinforcements were then summoned via roc and pegasus, and before long the castle was ours. We then moved into the surrounding town, slaughtering the remaining bad guys - mainly hill giants.

The GM freely admits he is boosting encounters - e.g. adding to the number of undead bodyguards protecting the lich - but this only contributes to the total XP haul at the end of the adventure. Initiative rolls are becoming critical - if the bad guys fail to get the jump on the party, they will generally fail to get many effective attacks in before various disabling effects come into play. Before two rounds are up they will have lost over 50% of their force. Things are usually over by round 4.

To be honest, everyone still seems to be enjoying Kingmaker. We have not done enough, perhaps, to pacify the eastern regions, particularly around Varnhold, and Grameer seems keen to revisit these and carry out our usual program of 'pacfication' of the natives. But threats to our realm from the west, particularly in the form of the recently defeated barbarian army (with 4th level rank and file too) mean our attentions remain focused on the more immediate security threat.

Where I think we have faced our greatest tests has been where we have had to fight in very confined spaces, and where enemies have been able to threaten our spell casters. Not counting the bad run of luck experienced by our rogue (run by Dave prior to his re-emigration to Canada and now no longer an active part of the team), we've rarely been in a position where things looked really desperate. The exception in my mind has to have been a battle with trolls where the barbarian, Artemisia, almost died (until it was pointed out that the troll landing the killing blow was already grappled by a 500 lb griffon), a long fight with a huge owl bear (Owlzilla), and the final struggle with the cyclops lich.

I'm still enjoying Pathfinder, although at times finding it hard to stay awake on Friday evenings after a busy week, but that has more to do with my work/life balance than the game. One play aid we've started using recently are the condition cards: handy references of the various types of condition the can affect Pathfinder characters - dazed, paralysed, prone, etc. These are great, as they save you having to look them up, PLUS you can slap them down under a miniature to remind you that Hill Giant #4 is indeed feeling slightly nauseous!