Friday, 22 June 2012

Factions for Empire of the Dead

I've now taken delivery of my shiny new copy of West Wind's Empires of the Dead, and as expected, I've probably got enough miniatures to muster three factions for the game, holding out the possibility of a very interesting three player game. But two will be enough for a modest campaign using these rules. I'm hoping they can replace Rippers as my system for larger Victorian steampunk/horror skirmish games.

I'm starting off here with the Lycaon faction, effectively the werewolf tribe. The faction has a budget of 150 shillings, working in a very similar fashion to Mordheim. The number of leaders/heroes cannot exceed 33% of the total force. Hence, a leader and a hero will require you to buy four other figures to go with them. Two heroes - e.g. two nosferatu consorts - and you will need another six figures. Some of the grunts can be expensive - e.g. nosferatu guardians at 20s each before weapons.


x1 Beast Lord (leader)  @ 35s

x1 Pack Master @ 30s

x3 Wolves @ 20s each (60s)

x1 Wolfskin (human ally) @10 (with sword and bow and smoke bomb = 23s)

Cash = 2s


x1 Graf (leader) @ 30s with Possessed Sword (+20s) = 53s

x1 Consort @ 26s

x3 Guardians @ 20s each (60s) - one with a knife (1), one with axe (3), and one with pole arm (4) = 68s.

Cash = 3s

Gentleman's Club (unaffiliated)

x1 President (leader) @ 20s (+ heavy pistol @) = 25s

x1 Vice President (hero) @20s (+ heat ray @15s) = 35s

x 4 Members @10s each (x1 with sword (3), x1 with volley pistol (6), x1 with shotgun (8), x1

Some early observations here: the exotic weapons, including most of the steam punk technology, is fairly expensive for starting factions (if you're restricting yourself to 150 shillings). The possessed sword for the Graf, for example, is 20s. Also, you have to keep an eye on the 1:3 hero to follower ratio. I'd have liked to go with a second Consort for the Nosferatu, but didn't have enough the take on the requisite six Guardians they'd need. The wolves seem quite expensive for what they are - we'll see how they turn out in combat.

I'm also looking at a fourth faction from the Holy Orders list, but that's on the drawing board at the moment. I may kick off the campaign with the above three factions and add another if needed, possibly with some additional cash.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Welcome to Dunchester

Dunchester is a small hamlet overlooking Romney Marsh, on the border between Sussex and Kent. With a population of less than 7,000 people in the town itself, it is a relatively intimate community. In 1892 it is considered a retreat for poets, writers, philosophers, and others hungry for peace and isolation. Its population has been shrinking since its heyday as a port in the Middle Ages, and much of the surrounding coastline has become silted up, turning into fog-shrouded salt marshes over the decades.

The History of Dunchester

Like many villages of its ilk, Dunchester is first mentioned in the Doomsday Book. By this stage it was already a fishing village, perched on a hill overlooking the storm-tossed Channel. It enjoyed a modest degree of prosperity thanks to sporadic trade with France, even after Normandy was turned over to the French crown by John.

A medieval charter makes mention of a raid by French troops against the town during the Hundred Years War, and tells how many soldiers were visited by a strange curse that decimated their ranks as they sought to take Dunchester by siege. This has been interpreted as plague by local historian Jeremiah Wislet. Suffice to say, it brought an end to the French attack.

Dunchester earned notoriety again shortly before the English Civil War, when a number of witches were captured in the village, accused of consorting with devils in the marshes that now surrounded the village. Travelers spoke of strange lights and drumming heard across the foggy swamps, and some of those foolhardy souls who sought to travel at night had been known to disappear without trace. Finally, Judge Ezekiah Grimfell launched an investigation that led to a special court of assizes in Lewes in 1638 at which six witches were tried and hanged. A seventh coven member, Labeliah Hellinges, went missing, evading capture. Sightings of her in the Kent/Sussex borders continued for several years thereafter, but the authorities lost interest in her after the war broke out.

Throughout the 18th century Dunchester was linked to a smuggling ring, called the Band of the Deeps. It was a successful syndicate of local and foreign smugglers who shipped in contraband by the boat load, using the shallow and treacherous local waters, as well as hidden tracks across the marsh, to make a considerable profit. Several efforts to crack down on the Brotherhood failed miserably. A surviving diary of one revenue man, from 1762, notes that the smugglers always seemed "most keenly informed of our movements, as if forewarned by the minute of our plans to bring them to justice."

In the early 1800s, a small group of painters called the Dunchester Circle won popularity for their moody landscapes. Inspired by the likes of John Stannard and the Norwich school of Regency painters, they were led by the irascible and moody Irish painter Michael Clerac, whose works, like Boys Fishing Near Romney (1829) won critical acclaim. Some of his later painting, which dwelt on more occult themes, was not as well received by the increasingly puritan British public (one exhibition in London in 1836 being cancelled the day before its opening), although Clerac continued to sell paintings to a small group of continental collectors until his suicide in Dunchester in 1840. After Clerac's death, the Dunchester Circle split up, with many of the painters travelling elsewhere for their inspiration, particularly to France and the eastern USA. Only one of their number, Rufus Tannisart, now in his eighties, still lives in the village in 1892.

Dunchester in 1892

With the introduction of railways, Dunchester has become slightly more easy to access for the occasional Victorian holiday maker, in search of sea views and fresh air. A number of invalids have sought its shelter to recuperate, but few seem to make much of a recovery, preferring instead the slightly more homely comforts of Hastings or Folkestone - some even complain of strange dreams and a deteriorating sense of well being.

Dunchester provides overnight accommodation to travelers at the Grimfell Inn, or one of a small number of houses offering lodgings (a valuable source of income to villagers who find it increasingly hard to make a living).

Dunchester is best approached by carriage from Hastings, but it is a journey of 17 miles, much of it across lonely marshes often swept by the sea wind. In winter the route is oftentimes flooded, forcing would be visitors to instead take to the sea, and make the approach by boat. However even this can be fraught with difficulty when the weather is harsh.

Fishing and shooting are local attractions for the Victorian gentleman. The marshes around Dunchester are known for the richness of their wild life. There are smaller settlements located out in the marshes where expert guides can be found, but most of the marsh folk are unfriendly and uncooperative when approached by strangers, preferring to be left to their own devices. Still, the Queen's shillings are not unrecognised here, and a boat and hamper for a fishing trip on the marshes can be readily procured for the right price.

Dunchester Asylum lies out in the marshes, converted from an old abbey, and dimly seen from the village's highest point on a fine day. It houses over 100 patients and is privately funded. Its staff have little or no dealings with the inhabitants of Dunchester itself, aside from procuring supplies on a weekly basis. Privately funded, it is managed by a Belgian psychologist, Professor Didiers Laterne. He rarely ventures beyond the walls of his institution, although he will occasionally travel to Folkestone to catch the ferry to France.

More on Dunchester to follow....

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Sword and the Flame battle report

It being half term, and me being in urgent need of somehow entertaining kids, I decided to put on a game of The Sword and The Flame. This is a set of colonial era miniatures wargames rules, roughly covering the period 1879 to 1884, or thereabouts, a fun-packed period for the British Army - not! It was a chance also to get my expanding collection of Zulu War figures on the table. Not everything was thrown down - some guys are still on the painting table, and I held my cavalry back. A good move, as it turned out. Kelvin was on hand to play the British with the help of Maya, who took on command of one British section, while Sebastian commanded the Zulu impi.

The scenario was one I found on Boardgamegeek, and can be downloaded from there. It features a small unit of British engineers engaged in putting a bridge across a river in South Africa when they are surprised and attacked by marauding Zulus. In this post I'll simply detail the action, with the aid of some of Kelvin's excellent photos. In a subsequent post, I'll detail my thoughts on the system.

The scenario as it stood sees three sections of British infantry surprised at their riverside encampment by large numbers of Zulus. I beefed the British up by adding a small unit of Natal Natives (NNC) with rifles, and led by a colonial NCO, and a larger unit of Boer volunteers (contemptuously referred to as 'the farmers' by Maya). The whole was commanded by Major Carruthers, who spent most of the battle prancing around on his horse and taking pot shots hither and yon. He was largely useless, but what do you expect from someone who purchased his commission?

The Zulu force was based on a head count of the colonial army, multiplied by three. We had 80 Zulus on the table as part of the first wave, with a further 70 which Sebastian as the induna commanding could recycle on as the arriving head and loins of the impi. I gave him seven counters, which could be swapped for 10 Zulus apiece in his movement phase, if the models were there.

Kelvin deployed on both sides of the ford, with one platoon of British on the south side with the NNC, and two platoons with the Boers and Major Carruthers on the north side. The Zulus were equally split into two horns of the classic buffalo attacking formation. The left horn included a small unit of muskets, plus the elite White Shields regiment making its debut on my wargames table.

Initial deployment: NNC and one section of infantry on the right, two sections plus Boers on the left, one section strategically concealed behind the customs house.
The British threw out the NNC as a skirmishing screen on their right flank, and it exchanged rifle fire with the Zulu muskets which were advancing through the scrub to their front. Eventually, the Zulu White Shields rushed them and totally overwhelmed them in a short fight, wiping them out to a man in a very unequal contest. What followed was an elaborate dance between the White Shields and the other British section as it fell back, firing on the advancing Zulus. This opened up the British centre, allowing some Zulus and musketeers to slip across the ford.

The British right flank, with White Shields advancing on the right, and a small unit of Zulus with muskets advanced into the brush directly in front of the British position.
On the left flank, Maya brought her infantry from a starting point hiding behind the customs house, across the front of the British line, thereby blocking their line of fire from the advancing Zulus. She finally took up a position on the right of the Boers, which she held for most of the rest of the game against successive Zulu assaults.

British left, with the "Mayans" moving across the British field of fire. The Zulus dithered, however, and hugged cover while they got into position, so this error went unpunished.
As the Zulu right horn eventually broke cover and swept in, the British deployed into a shallower line, with Maya holding the centre, the Boers in open order to her left, in a V-shape to maximise their superior range (they shoot better than British regulars), and another British section out on the far left. It was this section which was eventually overrun by the Zulus and carved up in short order. Most of them were left wounded on the field and relatively helpless.

The Boers take up their V-shaped defence, with Major Carruthers egging them on. The Mayans can be seen in the distance seeing off a Zulu iviyo.
It was at about this time that the Zulu reserves began to be committed, a sign in part that the initial attack had been blunted. As they swarmed in, the Mayans found they had been outflanked, with Zulus who had crossed the river attacking them in the rear. They hastily formed square, having noted the impact a Zulu charge can have on open order infantry in this game. They were thus able to repel the first serious attack against them, but a second assault left nearly all of the unit dead or wounded, forcing them to hobble back towards the Boers, who were laying down covering fire. Some Zulus had managed to creep in on the Boers' left to try to starting dispatching the British wounded there, but insanely accurate Afrikaaner shooting dealt with them.

At about this time I got the opportunity to use my new Events deck for this game, as I rolled my first one on the events roll. In this case, the pressure got to the commander of the Boers, who lost it. Luckily for Kelvin, despite this, he didn't do anything too drastic and indeed held position with his unit - exactly what Kelvin wanted him to do. The bawling of Major Carruthers behind him was obviously enough!

In the picture on the left, you can see the Mayans have formed a square, with some troops already wounded. Zulu muskets are trying to snipe at them from behind the mud huts, while another iviyo prepares to charge. The square turned out to be a lifesaver for them, allowing them to repel a charge which otherwise would have swamped them.

By this stage, the Zulus were running out of men, but so were the British. Another charge nearly succeeded in overwhelming the Boers, leaving all but five of them dead of wounded. On the right, the lone infantry section fell back until it was literally against the river. By this stage the White Shields had been decimated, their morale had broken, and their sole survivor on the field was hiding out in some elephant grass. However, the British were suffering too, as another event card determined the effects of bad water were taking hold.

At this stage we called the game, as we'd run out of time. I had been hoping for a decisive result, but it was still too close to call. The British had about 10 men left ready to fight, the Zulus had a couple of units plus a handful of muskets still fresh enough to fight (but getting close to a morale check). Could they have done it? Sebastian was doubtful, although Kelvin felt he could not have survived another attack. To be honest, we couldn't call it anything but a draw. Both commanders spent a lot of the gamer complaining that they were bound to lose, but I think both underestimated the British firepower and the effect of a square in defence.

An excellent day's gaming on the veldt! Full kudos to both commanders for duelling it out so heroically, from 10.30 in the morning to 5.30 in the afternoon. In my next post I'll ponder the rules used, where I went wrong with them, and some possible improvements. Thanks to Kelvin also for the photos, which are far superior than what can be achieved with my Blackberry!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Wasted Land review

Being the proud owner of an iPad I couldn't resist downloading The Wasted Land, the new Call of Cthulhu-inspired adventure game, that raised its ugly head on the app store recently. A trip to Ireland also bought me some valuable time to play-test it.

The Wasted Land takes place in 1915, and at least starts in the trenches on the Western Front. We've been here before, of course, with Chaosium's No Man's Land one shot adventure for the RPG. Anyone who has seen the film The Trench will recognise the potential that the horrors of the Western Front hold for horror gaming.

Wasted Land is very reminiscent of, amongst others, Space Hulk, the old Spectrum wargame Laser Squad, and more recently Tactical Soldier - Undead Rising, also on the iPad. You control a small cadre of characters, all of whom have a limited number of action points to spend each turn. You have to complete a series of missions in order to progress with the campaign.

The story begins in a trench - natch - with three British soldiers being briefed by a Miskatonic University professor who strangely looks like a Sikh, despite sporting an Anglo Saxon name. The British have an officer and two tommies armed with rifles. The first mission sees a posse of German soldiers enter the trench network. As with Space Hulk, you can creep along the trenches, seeking to shoot down your foes. Unlike Space Hulk, your soldiers can climb out of the trenches, but then lose their cover advantage.

The professor and the British officer come armed with pistols, allowing them around three shots per round if they don't move, while the grunts can only get in one shot per round. However, you are often forced to move and shoot, and this is when you need to consider carefully whether your characters can cover each other. I found they could, but there were times when wounded soldiers were banking on their mates to take down the enemy in order to continue. Tense stuff.

Having cleared the trench of Germans, I was then promptly attacked in a wave assault that consisted of German regulars first, followed by elite stormtroopers (historically a couple of years early, but hey ho), and then cultists - namely German soldiers in natty black uniforms carrying sabres. Despite their lack of firearms, their souped up hit points made them tough to take down. They looked more like the members of some esoteric Prussian sabre fraternity - obviously ideal breeding grounds for followers of the Great Old Ones!

Finally, the enemy having been driven off, my trench gets overrun by more hard-as-nails cultists. The British are forced to abandon the trench and make off over no man's land. I've tried to move from crater to crater to take advantage of cover and stop the enemy snipers from taking my men down, but that has failed me twice. I'm now mulling an outright dash across no man's land to escape. The problem is, if you lose either the army officer or the professor, the game fails you. It is imperative that they be kept alive.

Healing is available in the form of medical packs, but these have to be applied by your comrades - costing valuable action points. You can't heal yourself, unfortunately. Again, like covering fire, this forces you to think tactically about your AP expenditure.

Thus far, it's been quite entertaining, and I shall be returning to it. This really is Space Hulk on the iPad, with Cthulhu painted on top of it. More on The Wasted Land when I get a chance to play a bit further in the campaign.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Bridge (Broen)

I've been laid up with a bit of a virus over the last few days, unable really to read or indeed work on anything creative. My almost completed Shamutanti Hills project lies gathering dust, I have not even the strength to pick up a paint brush, and at times I've been too ill even to be able to read. Luckily, I discovered The Bridge on BBC iPlayer, a Nordic closed ended crime series in 10 parts.

The demand for Nordic serials in the UK has been picking up on the strength of the success of Stieg Larsson's Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. I've already seen the excellent Danish political thriller, Borgen, which dealt with the then-fictional prospect of a woman reaching the prime minister's job (something achieved in real life by Helle Thorning-Schmidt in September 2011 - after Borgen was broadcast).

Approaching The Bridge, I did experience a little trepidation, as I wondered whether it would reach Borgen's dizzy heights. It's fair to say that it exceeded them.

Here are the opening credit, along with the haunting theme from Hollow Talk -

If you liked Se7en, you'll like The Bridge. It's like Se7en, but at almost 600 minutes, a lot longer, and slightly less graphic in its brutality (although not by much). It focuses on a joint Danish/Swedish investigation into the murder of a Swedish politician, who is found lying precisely on the borderline between the two countries, on the Oresund Bridge (hence the series' title) across the straits.

The murder forces the two police forces to begin working together, and creates the unlikely duo of Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) for the Danes and the sociopathic Saga Norin (played by the outstanding Sofia Helin) for the Swedes. I have to confess, non-Nordics probably miss out on a lot of the gentle ribbing that goes on between the two nationalities and some of the national stereotypes - if there are any there, they went right over my head! A good example is when Rohde has to brief a room full of Swedish cops, but speaks too quickly, and ends up with them all looking at him blankly, as while similar, Danish is still a different language.

Saga Norin, though, is a great character as an investigator. She is highly efficient, very courageous, but ultimately completely lacking in interpersonal skills. While the character makes some great leaps of logic as to the killer's identity over the course of the series, she has a hard time maintaining her relationships with others on an even keel. This is mainly because she has no capacity for small talk, and always speaks her mind. She has no capacity to lie. Ever. Consequently she is always creating embarrassing situations for herself, often without realising it. This is a constant them through the series, and I liked it a lot.

The director also manages to invoke a bleak urban landscapes of both Copenhagen and Malmo, especially the harsh, wintry quality of the light. It adds to the gritty, often uncompromising feel of the whole series. With a series like this, it is hard to really go into more detail without giving everything away.

Really worth a look if you get the chance. Unfortunately this is no longer available on BBC iPlayer, and I had to watch the whole thing in the space of three days in order to catch it all. In a way, this was a good thing, as each episode ends on a cliff hanger. I'd have had a hard time waiting a week for the next one to be released!