Monday, 26 June 2017

Cuba Libre: one of our racing drivers is missing

Continuing on with my solo play of GMT's Cuba Libre. If you want to follow the progress of this campaign from the beginning, I suggest you start here. I should also point out that if you are playing this game solo, your objective is to stop the other factions from winning by the time the final propaganda card appears. You can't win any other way.

General Cantillo and los amigos.
Turn 11. Eulogio Cantillo. He was a general in the Cuban army during the period of the revolutionary war in Cuba and played an active role in counter-insurgency operations. He remained as head of the Cuban military after Batista fled Cuba in January 1959. He was later tried and imprisoned by the Castro regime before later retiring to Miami, where he died in 1978. It is the 26 July to move first, and they take the event, letting them free march their cells from Pinar to Habana, and flip them to underground status. This reflects Cantillo's willingness to negotiate with Castro. The Directorio follows - they spend 2 resources to build new cells in Havana and Las Villas. They are now out of cash, but control Las Villas.

Turn 12. Echeverria - near miss on dictator's life. Jose Antonio Echeverria was a student leader in Cuba and a founder of the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil. He famously hijacked the National Radio Station in 1957 during peak time to broadcast a three minute speech against the Batista regime. He escaped the radio station unscathed, but was killed shortly afterwards when he attacked a police patrol. This is one of these cards that have two options: as it is my turn, I use the option that lets me remove two Directorio units from Havana. This is too good an event card not to use, as it cuts down the level of revolutionary activity in my core power base. The Syndicate follows - they activate a mob in Habana to add a terror counter there. They then use Bribe as their follow up action, removing another Directorio piece in Havana, and taking the cash horde it was guarding back into mob control.

Turn 13. Santo Trafficante Jr. He was a major mob boss and a dominant figure in organised crime in Florida and Cuba in the 1950s. He was kicked out of Cuba by Castro, and subsequently accused of being involved in CIA plots to assassinate Castro and President Kennedy. The Directorio takes the event, which cuts the Syndicate's resources to 1. They join the Directorio in the near-penniless state. 26 July then initiates a kidnap operation on the Syndicate's casino in Habana with one of its cells. The Syndicate is now broke, and 26 July has an active cell in Habana.
Enough's enough, says Signor Trafficante.

Turn 14. Batista flees. Back to me - I don't really want that event, as it is going to do bad things to the Cuban army. I instead launch assaults in Sierra Maestre and Pinar. This time I take out a Syndicate unit in Pinar and take its cash. This is a cynical money grab. I also shut down a communist base in Sierra Maestre, which completes military operations there. As a follow up, I carry out reprisals in Sierra Maestre which gives the region a terror marker and shifts opposition from active to passive. However, I can't stop Syndicate from taking the event - Batista flees and my remaining resources drops to zero. Two brigades disappear from Pinar, so I lose control there. However, the US alliance moves back to Firm, which is good, and US aid goes up to 17. I then have to pull troops back to the cities, which I duly do. However, I also realise I can swap in police units from the cities into the provinces the army is leaving, so drop two police into Sierra Maestre and two into Pinar. That lets me keep control in both.

Turn 15. Fangio. In 1958 communist rebels kidnapped Argentine motor racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio just before the Cuban Grand Prix. The move was more a publicity stunt than anything else, designed to demonstrate how Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was losing his grip. Fangio was only held for a few hours. The race was won by the UK's Stirling Moss in a Ferrari 335 S, in case you wondered! July 26 takes this event, and moves Havana from neutral to passive opposition. The Directorio follows, but has no resources, so passes. This is actually quite crucial, as by passing they pick up +1 resource, but also they are eligible for turn 16, thus potentially changing the order of play.

Propaganda. The second propaganda phase of the game. With no support in Havana, my total support drops to 5/19. I need 19 to win. The Directorio is on 3/10, the Syndicate is 2/7 with no money, so well off a win. However, 26 July is 14/16. They are close despite only having a small number of units on the board. Directorio has been doing a lot of the hard work for them.

Sadly I had to clear up the game at this stage, but it helped me to learn the rules and get a grip on the COIN system. I still believe Cuba Libre is an excellent entry point into the COIN system. Readers will also be interested to know that you can pre-order Invierno Cubano, which expands Cuba Libre to the counter-revolution of 1959-1965. I myself have learned an enormous amount about the Cuban revolution from playing the game, and many of the systems are shared with the Afghanistan version, A Distant Plain. Look out for a potential game of that on this blog over the summer.

A few tactical observations: as the government player, control of Havana is critical. It counts for 6 population resources, while no other city or province offers more than 2. If you let the enemy start to get a grip there, things can go badly wrong for you, very quickly. Protect Havana at all costs, and prioritise operations there. Secondly, don't let the fact that you're kicking communist butt lull you into a false sense of security: even if July 26 have relatively few counters on the board, they score simply by having provinces in opposition. This is not the same as Directorio, which needs to control provinces and build bases. Having Havana in passive opposition following the Fangio kidnap gave them 6 points - they need 16 to win. If Havana ever goes to active opposition, the likelihood is a July 26 win.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Play test review of Frostgrave

Exit goblin, pursued by angry dwarf
This week I finally found an opportunity to play some Frostgrave, the fantasy skirmish miniatures game from Osprey. This has been out for a couple of years now, and is being hailed in some quarters as a successor to Games Workshop's Mordheim. I had been wanting to play Mordheim for some time, but with Frostgrave I was intrigued: unlike Mordheim, the focus is on a wizard and his apprentice rather some heroic types, although the concept is similar. The wizards are the only characters you can really advance in terms of experience - the rest of the unit, the soldiers, are along for the ride.

Each wizard comes from a different school of magic, ranging from Elementalist to Soothsayer to Chronomancer. This dictates which spells he can use, and the relative difficulty of casting spells from other schools. Apprentices function as back up wizards - they find it tougher to cast spells, but have access to the same magic as the wizard.

Beyond this, like in Mordheim, players recruit a war band using a budget of gold pieces. I hired a couple of trackers, a dwarf man at arms [see picture above] and four dogs/wolves. You don't have to buy the Frostgrave official miniatures from North Star; you can quickly get going with the miniatures you have. I found I was easily able to build a war band with the painted figures I had already. I would, however, recommend looking at the North Star ones, as they are very nice.

Also, the soldiers in Frostgrave are not differentiated by race - my opponent fielded a war band composed entirely of orcs and goblins, because the profile for an orc barbarian is the same as that for a human one. I actually quite like this - it means one's choice of figures gets even wider. My wizard, apprentice and dwarf all came from Reaper, my trackers are rangers from Games Workshop's Lord of the Rings range, while my dogs are wolves from the old Vendel fantasy range.

Frostgrave takes place in the ruined and haunted city of the same name. Like Mordheim, it has been destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. The wizards that once ruled there, however, were among the most powerful in the world, and other magic users have now been attracted to the city in search of their secrets. Instead of warpstone, they are looking for magical loot in the form of treasure chests.

Orc archers, a wizard, and a squigg (dog stats)


The mechanics


I'm not going to go into great detail on the mechanics of Frostgrave. However, combat is very easy: shooting and melee are both determined using an opposed roll on a d20, adjusted for the Fighting bonus of the figures involved. Hence, a zombie has a bonus of +0, while a man at arms has +3. There are no poxy combat modifiers, other than for some weapons, like two-handed weapons or very light weapons. Damage is calculated by comparing your final fight score - if you were the winner - against the armour of the target. If your final score is higher than the armour of your opponent, you inflict damage. There are no separate rolls for damage.

As with generating new characters for an RPG, you are somewhat blundering around in the dark when building your first Frostgrave war band. I had no idea how mine would fare. It took us a while to get the table set up, for which I blame my busy schedule this week, and we completed our first game in about 3.5 hours. This was partly because we were learning the rules, so I would expect to be able to reduce this to three hours which fits the game neatly into an evening. I don't think it is something you could play in a lunch hour. It also looks to me like the game gets longer the more war bands are involved. A four war band game would probably take up most of a day, particularly if players were not familiar with the rules.

Orc barbarian - in red - is tackled by a mummy.


Game highlights


Tactically, it is a very interesting game. Having the wizards hurling magic around certainly adds something to it. I particularly enjoyed:

  • A goblin thug scuttling away with a treasure chest, while being pursued by an angry, heavily armoured dwarf [see picture above];
  • A frozen pond terrain feature, which had characters gingerly picking their way across it to reach a chest;
  • The opportunity for wandering monsters to appear - my Dungeons and Dragons iron cobra figure had the chance to come onto the field as a small construct encounter [see below];
  • My opponent's use of a mud spell to bog my characters down all over the board, creating all sorts of nuisance for them. It backfired in the end, however, when his goblin apprentice got too close to an angry dwarf, who unexpectedly charged him and cut the goblin in two with his axe;
  • The raise zombie spell, which I simply did not make enough use of - my wizard conjured one zombie before the game, who did sterling service all over the place, making mincemeat of several mummies (see below);
  • An orc barbarian being taken down by a dog - I was expecting my dogs to be rubbish, but with three of them on the table, they actually created all sorts of havoc.
We played the Mausoleum scenario, which has four treasure chests in close proximity to a mausoleum in the centre of the battlefield. It spawns undead every turn. Due to a shortage of skeletons, we used mummies but with the profiles of unarmoured skeletons. The war bands are trying to get off the field with as many treasure chests as possible. These are then translated into gold and magic items in the campaign phase.

Take aways


Iron cobra mixes it up with the goblins.
Tactically, I was defeated. I'm trying to analyse how this happened, what worked, and what didn't. My opponent Kelvin made very good use of three spells - poison dart, grenade and mud/bog, all of which created all sorts of problems for my team. My dwarf and the dogs created issues in turn for his orcs, and I did manage to take advantage of his goblin apprentice's overconfidence to eliminate him. But Kelvin got away with most of the treasure and his wizard was simply more effective than mine.

We WILL need some mud templates, since the battlefield got quite muddy and it was hard to keep track of where all the mud was.

My wall spell was only used once, but it DID work well, so I'll be sure to use that one again, although it is difficult to cast. It conjures up a 6" wall, which then stays in the game, with a 20% chance each turn of disappearing. In my case it was particularly useful as a shield for stopping enemy archers.

I didn't do enough to protect my wizard. My apprentice was removed early on by a poison dart, leaving me with one spell caster functional. Once he had picked up a chest and was trying to escape, he spent too much time focusing on moving (and wading through mud) and became a target for the opposition archers and wizard. This was not good. I'm now more familiar with Kelvin's war band and how it functions, so can adapt accordingly.

Campaign-wise, I think I got away with about 130 gold and a couple of magic potions, IIRC. This was not a particularly impressive haul compared with Kelvin's. However, in the post-battle casualty assessment, I had one dog dead and the dwarf out of action for one game with wounds, while K's goblin apprentice was killed outright. It will cost at least 200 gold for the apprentice to be replaced. A dog, by contrast, costs 10 gold.

Final analysis? I loved it. We probably took a little longer because we spent quite some time analysing our positions and setting up. In some respects, this is the sign of a good game, because it throws up so many potential choices. It was also very tense. I can see why it has achieved popularity. It is not difficult to get your head around, but there are plenty of sweaty palm moments, particularly once your men are fleeing with treasure chests for the edge of the field!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cuba Libre: you're in the army now

Cuba Libre - situation in the west, turn 6
Let's start with the scores on the doors going into turn 6. There's no imminent prospect at this stage of another propaganda card, but it is useful to see who is now winning. The Directorio, despite a good previous turn, only has one population under its control and no bases, so has 1 point. Not good. They need 10. US Aid stands at 7. Total government support has slipped to 9, I need to get it back up to 19 to win. It has slipped considerably already in the last phase. 26 July has two bases plus 12 opposition, meaning they are only two off their victory target already. The Syndicate needs to have 7 casinos open plus over 30 resources, they have three operating and 15 resources.

Thus, it looks like the communists are already in sniffing distance of a win when the next propaganda card comes up.

In the picture you can see the Syndicate (green) and 26 July are contesting power in Pinar del Rio, although the province is still fiercely pro-government.  The circle with all the pieces in is Havana: the yellow marker with a star is an active Directorio unit in Havana, the other is underground. The blue cube in a little circle is a police unit guarding the tobacco centre. In Habana the green unit with a small green disk under it is a Syndicate gang guarding cash. The other disk in Habana is an open casino, the one that has already suffered a kidnap action.

Turn 6. Escapade. The Government goes first, and as I see no benefit in Escapade, I opt for a sweep operation into the Sierra Madre. The communists look too threatening, and it is time to step on them. I move three brigades of troops out of Santiago de Cuba into the Sierra Madre, as it is an adjacent area. This is enough to activate the guerillas there, meaning I can attack them at my next opportunity, if I get one. This costs me 3 resources however. For my follow up action I use transport which allows me to ship troops wherever I want. I take 3 brigades out of Havana and move them to Pinar del Rio, again because there is a communist base area there, set up by Operation Fisherman. This depletes my troops in both cities, but I feel I have left enough personnel in both to deal with any urban guerrillas. Next up is the Syndicate, and they ignore Escapade as well: instead, they recruit another gang in Havana to replace the one broken up by the Directorio. They then follow up by producing more cash in Havana and Pinar del Rio.

Turn 7. Alberto Bayo. Bayo was a Cuban revolutionary who fought in the Spanish Civil War. He later moved to Mexico where he managed a furniture factory and taught at the military academy. Among his pupils were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He ended his career as a general in Cuba. It is the 26 July player who is first up. He takes the event, as it gives him two FREE cells, as he has bases in Pinar and Sierra Madre. Nice work if you can get it. Directorio follows, and he pays a resource to put another terror marker into Havana, where his urban guerillas are causing havoc. He manages to shut down a casino and makes me look bad too. Havana is my power base and this is costing me big time.

Turn 8. Resistencia Civica. The guerrillas fall out. The Syndicate is first mover, and takes the event. The 26 July cell in Santiago de Cuba changes sides, and joins the Directorio. It is the first of a series of defeats for the communists. It is now my turn. With the army now sweeping in the Sierra Madre, they have made contact with the communists and I can eliminate another red cell. I then transport two more brigades from Camaguey city into the Sierra Madre. There are now a LOT of troops hunting the communists in the mountains there, but it is costing me.

Turn 9. Pact of Caracas. The insurgents kiss and make up with the Pact of Caracas. 26 July gets first move and he takes the event. This is another permanent situation, like El Che. It means the two rebel factions can't steal each other's units until the next propaganda card comes up. So the defection in Santiago de Cuba from the previous turn would not now work if it had occurred later. Sadly for 26 July, it happened last turn! The Directorio adds another terror marker to Camaguey province.

Turn 10. Radio Rebelda. This is an interesting event - one of those that can be good or bad for the rebels, depending on whose turn it is. Unfortunately for them, they just had their Pact of Caracas. The Syndicate goes first, and he's out for blood. He uses the Radio Rebelda event to pinpoint and shut down a rebel radio station in Pinar del Rio. This means 26 July loses a BASE in Pinar, which is very bad news for the communistas. Then it is my turn: I spend resources on another - expensive - sweep in the Sierra Madre, down the other end of the island. This activates a red cell, which means I can follow up with an air strike. This is my first air strike of the game, but it takes out that cell. 26 July is looking much more exposed.

So the scores on the doors at the end of that phase: Sierra Madre now falls under government control and looks set for some reprisals in the near future. The reds seem to be on the run there, but they should be with five army brigades on their heels. The Directorio is on 1 and a long way from anywhere, my total support has dropped to 5, leaving me further from victory than ever. The Directorio has really been hitting me hard in Havana and I need to do something about their cell there, and soon. 26 July is now on 9 and has some work to do to get closer to victory but has had some very good events. The Syndicate has not managed to open any new casinos, and indeed the Directorio has closed one of his in Havana, which hurts.

Everyone seems to be hacking into everyone else, and doing lots of damage. Victory has slipped from my grasp, but my focus on taking the fight to Castro's boys has put him on the back foot too. This Directorio situation in Havana needs to be addressed as a priority over the next few turns. One major issue for me is going to be resources; US aid is down, and as my approval ratings in Washington have slipped, my counter-insurgency activities in the Sierra Madre have cost me precious resources. However, I can see Directorio is almost out of cash, which will cramp his style in the next few turns. He's been a busy little bee, but will now need to look at his resources. Robbing the Syndicate in Havana may have helped him, however.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Gloranthan Cypher: The Fortress of Doors

So last week I ran a game of Monte Cook's Cypher. While I've actually played in a game of Numenera, this was my first time actually running the Cypher system. The objective of the exercise was to test drive the rules in a live scenario with my group and see if it stood up to their ever-vigilant scrutiny. I created some pre-gens from scratch using Cypher, which was extremely easy, and I mean extremely easy compared with so many RPGs. All you really need to do is match one of the adjectives that describes your character to his class (one of four in this version of the game) and an explanation of what he/she does, like Speaks For The Land for example.

This way, players end up with some well-rounded characters, with unique abilities and some background flavour, not to mention relationships with other characters. Somehow it all seems a lot more colourful, with more depth to the adventuring party, than a standard Dungeons and Dragons group of adventurers, all designated by class and class functions.

This version of Cypher is intended to be fairly generic. I tested its genericity by adapting an adventure from Glorantha, namely the Fortress of Doors from New Beginnings published by D101 Games. I wanted to see how it coped with churning out PCs which matched the Gloranthan flavour of the setting, which it did well. Adapting the adventure was also relatively easy.

Fortress of Doors is intended to be a scenario for newcomers to Glorantha and to the HeroQuest roleplaying system. The characters are members of the Hidden Gale, an Orlanthi barbarian resistance group fighting a guerrilla war against occupying forces from the Lunar Empire. They have been ambushed by Silver Shield troops from the Empire and are looking for somewhere to hide out, but stop by their home tula (village/clan territory) to see if they can kind find any survivors from the battle.

The adventure begins with a clan moot, where the members of the clan Ring debate what the clan should do about the Hidden Gale, and what its posture to the Lunars should be. This is really written as an opportunity to do some interaction with NPCs in a more peaceful setting, and maybe for the PCs to introduce themselves and try out some of their non-warlike skills. I re-designed this section to give the PCs an opportunity to sway some of the Ring members to their side. This part of the plot probably did not go as well for the party as they might have hoped, with their most charismatic member actually fluffing his attempt to charm a Ring member to the extent that he insulted him - and his family. This led to further complications later when one of the members of the Hidden Gale turned out to be his nephew!

The big question here is whether Cypher can manage complex personal interactions of the nature of this debate. I think it can. You don't need combat to produce an entertaining scene. Characters also turned out to have skills and abilities relevant to social situations, which I like. This was one of my gripes about 4e D&D and its insane focus on combat.

GM intrusions


Let's talk about complications / GM intrusions. These are a big part of the Cypher system, as they represent how characters earn XP. The GM can introduce complications which the players which they have the option of either accepting or rejecting. I'll give you an example - the party were given fetishes made of mouse droppings to help them to shrink down sufficiently to gain access to the Fortress of Doors via a mouse hole. One of the NPC warriors accompanying them - the nephew of the sheep herder insulted in the earlier debate - refused to take his and when ordered to, ended up choking on it. This is an intrusion - can the PCs save him, or will he choke to death, resulting in further problems with his family? As the PC he was speaking to accepted the intrusion, he received 2 XP, of which 1 XP is kept and another given to another player.

Running Cypher for the first time, I must say I was probably not introducing enough intrusions. I highly, HIGHLY recommend you get your hands on the decks of GM intrusions that Monte Cook games produces. I found these of enormous value in providing additional complications/GM intrusions. But intrusions can be used in a variety of ways - for example, one of the PCs enthralled my main villain in the scenario, the Lord of Sparrows, stopping him from summoning further support and doing other evil things to them. I eventually offered his possible escape, to regenerate as it turned out, as a complication to the player enthralling him. This was accepted. There was no need for the NPC villain to break out of his situation, it happened: call it a lapse of concentration from the player character. The player was rewarded with XP for waving this through. I like this.

Combat


Combat took longer than expected. I think I over-egged the main combat encounter a bit for first tier characters. In the interests of simplicity, I did not introduce the additional optional combat rules that Cypher has. I think if these are added, you will end up with a more well-rounded combat system. As a group we also like using miniatures. You can use miniatures with Cypher, although I'm not sure Monte himself is a fan. But for us it would probably have helped. My advice to GMs is also not to underestimate the power of even Level 1 or Level 2 critters in a fight. The undead Sparrow People I created for this encounter were more than tough enough, without their Lord summoning any more. Luckily he was not given that opportunity as the party nixed him with their Enthrall ability almost immediately.

Cyphers


Finally, the Cypher system is also all about cyphers. They are in the name of the game, after all. In Numenera they represent the lost technology of past civilizations. Unlike artefacts, they are limited or one use items. The fetishes the characters were given by a Mouse shaman prior to entering the Fortress of Doors were typical examples. Tier 1 characters will tend to be restricted to about two or three of these. GMs will need to work a bit to allow them to fit properly in the environment, and are also encouraged to be fairly generous with dishing them out. For example, looting the bodies of some dead Lunar priests in the Fortress provided the opportunity to pick up some more cyphers, like an ointment of fire resistance.

A campaign setting should provide scope for the players to find and use cyphers, regularly. A setting that does not include this opportunity, cannot rationalise their presence and their temporary nature, may prove harder to convert. For Glorantha, this was not a problem. Plus, I could see how cult membership and worship of Gloranthan deities can also provide a flow of both cyphers and XP to players. In the character backgrounds, I quickly saw there was an opportunity for them to have scope to earn XP in a session from emulating some aspect of their gods. This is very Gloranthan. I may well return to Glorantha with the Cypher system in the future, although it looks like we may be using it for an imminent Eberron campaign!

Monday, 19 June 2017

Cuba Libre: a rough night in Havana for the Syndicate

El Che
I'm playing Cuba Libre (by GMT Games) in an effort to teach myself the game, including the unique capabilities of each of the four factions, the Government, the Directorio, the Syndicate, and the 26 July Movement, which I'll hereafter refer to simply as 26 July. I'll try to update this blog as I progress with observations and historical notes. The game includes a detailed flow chart and AI notes to allow you to play on your own, with the other factions being managed through the flow charts. You'll see what I mean as we go along. I apologise in advance for any mistakes I make, but this is the point of the exercise.

I have chosen to take the role of the Government faction. I've gone with the standard set up, which has the Government in control of all the major cities, plus the province of Las Villas. Control is achieved through having more units in a province / city than other players combined. For example, in Las Villas, at the start of the game, the Government has three army units and there is no organised opposition at all.

Turn 1. The first event up is Fat Butcher. This relates to Nicholas diConstanzo, a notorious mafia kingpin who controlled a lot of the casinos in Havana in the 1950s. His activities draw US heat on the Government. First up is the Directorio, and they choose to go with the event, which costs the Government (me) 8 in US aid.

The second player is 26 July. With the event option gone, he opts for an operation. In this case he chooses Terror and pays 1 resource to activate a unit of guerrillas in the province of Habana. He places a Terror marker in Habana, and its passive support for the Government disappears. It is now neutral. Terror also allows 26 July to conduct a secondary activity, in this case a kidnap. There is an open casino in Habana and no police in the province, so a kidnap can go ahead. 26 July rolls 1d6 and comes up with a 4: the Syndicate transfers 4 resources to 26 July.

Turn 2. Pact of Miami is the event. This was an agreement between the various exiled revolutionary groups to try to cooperate in forming an eventual government in Cuba. This is not an event that favours me, the Government player. Remember, the Directorio and 26 July played last turn, so are both ineligible this turn. However, Syndicate goes first. We can also see that a propaganda card is up next. Theoretically the Government can actually win here, and win early if it is able to act. The propaganda phase is when the players evaluate whether any of them has achieved their victory conditions, and the Government begins the game closer than the others to winning. This would be an ideal opportunity for me to win if I could get my total popular support from 15 to 19 in one turn, but the Syndicate is first, and they choose to use Pact of Miami, which immediately makes the Government ineligible to play this turn or next turn. Nasty. The Government effectively loses his turn, but is treated as having acted. In addition, the Syndicate player uses the event to remove 26 July units from Habana (remember the casino incident?) and the Sierra Maestra. With no second player, we proceed to propaganda.

Propaganda. Nobody is in a position to win, so we proceed to resources. The Government gets +15, 26 July gets +1, the Directorio gets +2, and the Syndicate, with three casinos open, gets +6. However, US support is downgraded to Reluctant from Firm, as the total support for the Government is under 18. This means a cut in arms sales to Cuba and the cessation of training programs for the Cuban military. Scrutiny of the Batista government by the US Congress and media becomes more severe. You will note that I, as the Government player, have not had a chance yet to act. The propaganda card does allow me to use civic action programs and I spend 4 resources to bring the city of Camaguey to active support of the Government. The same goes for Santiago de Cuba, which moves from passive to active support. The Directorio raises a new unit in Las Villas. I am forced to move three army units out of Las Villas as I don't have a base there. I send 2 units to Camaguey and one to Santiago de Cuba. I also now have the opportunity to move police, so station one unit each to protect the tobacco and industrial economic centres, plus add two police in Las Villas to replace those troops. This also lets me maintain some semblance of control there.

Turn 3. Operation Fisherman. I'm not sure about the history surrounding this, but will try to find out. The card allows the 26 July player to get a base and one underground unit in Pinar del Rio, out on the western end of the island. 26 July is first up, and guess what, he takes that one. It also means the Syndicate loses control there. Up second is the Directorio again, and they decide to raise a new unit in Las Villas, costing me control there (two guerrillas now face two police units).

Turn 4. This turn is interesting as it is my first real turn in the game. I decide against the event, and go with the training action for the government. I recruit 4 police units in Camaguey city and 3 police plus 1 army in Santiago de Cuba. I also opt for civic actions as my secondary specialist action in Camaguey, raising the level of support there to passive. The Syndicate moves second, and also ignores the event, choosing instead to raise his own units in Havana, Habana province and in Pinar del Rio. These are his first units on the board as he doesn't start with any active and he probably needs them, what with all the kidnapping going on in Habana and those reds landing in Pinar. With his secondary action he generates some cash from his casino in Havana, which he places under his new mob unit there.

Turn 5. And so to turn 5. This will be 26 July and Directorio again. The event is El Che, which 26 July predictably takes, giving the communists a permanent insurgent ability. The first guerrilla unit they move can flip back to underground immediately, making it immune from attack. I THINK they get to keep that until the next propaganda phase. Directorio then plays a blinder: he activates his guerillas in Havana, Camaguey and Las Villas and puts down terror markers in all three, downgrading government support in the process. Las Villas goes to passive opposition, Camaguey province (not city) goes to active opposition while Havana drops to passive support. He also takes out a unit of Syndicate mobsters in Havana using his follow up assassination action, and nicks their cash!

That's where we'll leave it for today. Thanks for tuning in and more when I get the time!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Faith RPG: let's talk about caste, baby

Corvo
Yesterday was free RPG day across the length and breadth of our fair planet. Gamers congregated to play RPGs and hopefully pick up some free swag. Sadly, I didn't get into my local game store, The Dice Saloon, until after 2.30, by which time almost all of the free swag was gone. The leftovers are probably a good indicator of what is going to sell well, and sell badly in the coming year. The new Starfinder RPG from Paizo, I can safely predict, is not going to sell as well as they probably think it will.

Meantime, I booked myself into a session of Faith, an RPG I first took a look at closely at Dragonmeet in December, when I had a chance to talk to some of the designers. Faith is interesting because not only does it use cards as its core mechanic - it can be played using standard playing card decks if you so wish - but at first glance it looks like a board game.

Take a step back, however, and although Faith is presented as a board game, and packaged as such, it is really an RPG. You can play it with normal cards and some character sheets, and forego all the little counters, equipment cards, NPC cards and suchlike if you so wish. These latter enhance the feel and playability of the game, but are by no means necessary.

I may have been tired after an evening playing Cypher the day before, it was hot too, but I felt that the game was a little bit difficult to get to grips with. I think the core mechanic is relatively sound, and a novel change from just rolling dice. You won't be faced with the problems my Cypher party had, rolling very badly on Friday night (of which more in a future post).

My prime interest in playing Faith was because I sense there is an overlap somewhere between RPGs and board games. This has been partly prompted by playing games like Once Upon At Time. Faith promises some of this, but does not deliver entirely. It is really more of an RPG that is dressing itself up as a boardgame, quite cleverly it must be said, but as such, it should therefore be measured against other RPGs. There are some intriguing mechanics here, some of which I will use to experiment with in my Viscounts & Vagabonds project, but there is not enough in Faith that is new and exciting to warrant actually buying it and playing it, IMHO.

On with the caste bit

So what's all this about caste? The Faith universe has five major races, which conveniently is the default number of players in the Faith game plus one. These are the Corvo, the Iz'kal, the Raag, the Ravagers and the Humans. At Free RPG Day I was playing a Corvo called Ying, who are described as hyper-expansionist, technologically advanced and individualistic. I quite like the sound of them. I was the group's hacker. Hacking is always something of a difficult area for RPGs - it is hard to do well. We have come to accept the role of some kind of information net, be it local or universal, in advanced futuristic societies. Having someone who specialises in using this seems to have become a pressing need for multi-player RPGs since the launch of Shadowrun. Faith uses a similar information framework as Shadowrun's Matrix, but here there is a Bluetooth aspect to it all - you can hack someone else's weapon, particularly the more advanced ones with integrated targeting - actually during a firefight to reduce its effectiveness. No more plugging yourself into a data port.


All aliens must have two legs!

Ying was equipped with some form of helmet to facilitate his hacking activities and protect him from the attention of other hackers. He was not, however, given a weapon, leading him to have to make some evasive maneuvers in the course of each hostile encounter. However, he was aided by his natural affinity for zero-G (almost the entire adventure took place in a zero-G environment, which was novel) and his ability to blend his heat signature into that of the surrounding background. I think this was intended to make it difficult for him to be detected by infra-red scopes, but I pushed it a bit harder, making it an almost chameleon-like ability to go unnoticed during a firefight - useful if you don't have a weapon.

Humans in Faith are a fallen civilization that have been raised again by the Corvo, who use them as mercenaries and, dare I say it, cannon fodder. Humans leaving Earth are routinely sterilised. They are valued for their aggressive nature by the other alien races. We had a pet human as part of our team, who was equipped with a primitive firearm that actually fired metal projectiles, but at a crucial moment in the plot, this same weapon proved immune to ranged hacking from a boss encounter, so it had its uses.

The Corvo see humans as slightly better than slaves or livestock. During the adventure, while exploring a derelict Corvo freighter, we made contact with a human security guard called Ivan in the crew quarters via the ship's internal communications net. The Corvo crew had already abandoned ship when it became infested by hostile life forms. Ying was trying to interrogate Ivan about how many hostile intruders he had seen as he was our only eye-witness as to what befell the ship. The GM, being a GM, decided to be evasive about this, at which point Ying, being a Corvo, started talking to Ivan like he was six years old, and asked him whether he had seen more or less enemies than he had fingers. My fellow players were a bit taken aback by Corvo's attitude.

Later on, as we were thinking it was time to escape from the ship, we realised there were perhaps up to six additional human guards in hibernation in the ship's cryo-sleep facility. We had not investigated it yet. Our token leader, a female Ravager (?), felt we should go and retrieve them, at possible risk to our lives. Ying, on the other hand, felt differently, measuring the loss of three high caste aliens, and their ship, versus six humans, as an easy choice. Again, the other players were slightly shocked by Ying's behaviour. Needless to say, we proceeded to put our lives on the line to try to rescue the humans, encountered a very nasty life form that almost killed two of our team, and found it had already eaten/absorbed the frozen human stock anyway.

I'm only human after all...
Here we hit upon an interesting conundrum in RPGs. How do you play species that are not only physically very different from humans, but potentially should have radically different value systems that are an intrinsic part of their culture? I once played a Dragonborn/Dragonkin in 13th Age, who hailed from a primitive, swamp dwelling culture, that in the spirit of that game, I defined as routinely consuming the bodies of dead enemies and friends as a sign of respect. Not only was he forever lopping off parts from fallen enemies to eat later, but when the party's cleric was killed, he cut off and ate her hand. This was viewed with controversy.

Yet Ying and Sartheen the Dragonborn are part of the same issue - they are not evil beings, they are simply quite different from humans. As a society, we love to harp on about the importance of preserving indigenous cultures and praise the way of life of pre-cursors to our own civilization, while trying hard to ignore the less savoury elements. The North American Indians, or First Nations as we have to call them these days, are placed on a pedestal when we want to focus on the way they viewed the environment, because that is a convenient way for us to extol them, the noble savage who respected and worshipped the natural world around him. Less palatable aspects of that same culture - the routine approach to kidnapping and slavery, the internecine warfare, the infanticide - are usually swept under the carpet, creating a somewhat less objective picture.

Too often aliens in science fiction and RPGs are presented as humans in a different skin. Human values are considered superior to alien values by human writers/directors. Of course human values seem superior to a human audience, because we are humans ourselves, and our current 21st century value set is regarded as the highest level our ethics have achieved to date. Aliens, and especially the Corvo, would disagree I suspect.

Hence, when playing aliens and radically different non-humans in RPGs - and I'm not talking about dwarves, elves or hobbits here, as they are still very close to humans in many elements of their ethical and physiological make up - we should take the opportunity to take a step back and ask ourselves how to portray the truly non-human. A cold-blooded creature like the Dragonkin Sartheen, raised in a swamp-dwelling, tribal society which lays eggs and eats meat. Or Ying, who sees humans as little more than pet dogs, a utility to be called upon when violence is needed, but not worth much else?

Faith's setting includes this interesting aspect of different races interacting, but I suspect many players will let this pass them by, in the interests of playing the roles of creatures that, while they look different from humans on the surface, they would prefer look comfortably human on the inside.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Star Wars - adventures in the D6 system

Mandalorian battle armour
Last night I had the opportunity to drop in on a game of Star Wars using the d6 system from West End Games. I've been curious about these rules for some time, as back in the early 1990s they were widely played, and the Star Wars RPG at that stage was competing with Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons and Dragons in the popularity stakes. Sadly, WEG went the way of all flesh and the Star Wars license went to Wizards of the Coast, which launched a d20 version in the middle of all the OGL mania at the start of the century. Many veterans still prefer to game Star Wars using the D6 version, however.

The D6 system first appeared, I believe, as the engine behind the Ghostbusters RPG in the 1980s. I have been tempted to use it at some point for a home brew Dune setting, but being me, wanted to actually play the game to get a feel for how it worked first. This is frequently the best way for getting to grips with a new system, as you can only divine so much from the paper.

The plot


One of the things that made the original Star Wars RPG such a success was the familiarity of the setting. It was obviously an easy sell to newcomers, as there was no need to go into any detailed explanation about the universe. Everyone knows what a Jedi Knight is - unless you are my wife, who had not watched Star Wars before she met me!

My character is Gendar, a cyborg pirate. I used one of the templates at the back of the rule book, which I customized using an additional 7D (seven dice) to come up with a more original character. The other characters in the game were generated from scratch, but it was not immediately obvious to me how you did this reading the rules. Mind you, it is very speedy to generate Star Wars PCs using D6, and the lack of a long equipment list also moves things along, as there was less mulling over kit. Give players too much equipment to buy and they can take hours paging through lists of items - Shadowrun was a big offender in this respect. I don't mind players having some choice in the equipment stakes, but it can be taken too far.

So Gendar is a human, but with his right arm replaced with a cybernetic one, apparently illegal in the Empire. We were playing in the period between Episode IV and Episode V, so the first Death Star has been destroyed, but the Empire has yet to locate the rebel base on Hoth. Gendar is a veteran of the Clone Wars, where he lost his arm, so is getting on a bit, being in his 50s. He was part of a pirate operation, which itself was the legacy of the collapse of a shipping company immediately after the rise of the Empire, when the Emperor started cracking down on independent shipping firms. He and some colleagues appropriated a freighter and turned pirate.

Having been relatively successful, the pirates eventually ran afoul of the law, and Gendar luckily escaped arrest, being passed out on the floor of a bar while the rest of his comrades were taken into custody. Scraping together some money, Gendar is fleeing to Tatooine on the Outer Rim when the small passenger ship he is traveling on is forced out of hyperspace unexpectedly and promptly crashes into an asteroid.

Gendar saw the passenger in the seat next to him was having trouble with her communicator, so decided to use Intimidate to ask her to hand it over to him. Having an obviously metal arm helps with these things. In D6 you roll a number of six-sided dice equivalent to your ability, but one die has to be a different colour. If this comes up 1, something bad happens. If it comes up 6, it explodes, and can be rolled again, with the result added to the total score. Gendar did well on the roll, with an 18, but the wild die came up 1, so in his enthusiasm to wrestle the communicator away from the passenger, he broke it.

The 40+ passengers were all panicking now, so Gendar decided to take charge of the situation. As an old salt and someone who can speak with authority (Command skill) he was able to calm them down while he went forward to talk to the captain. Again, Intimidate was used to get through into the cockpit and allow the crew to let him review the situation. It turned out that the ship's communications array was a write off, and not only that, trying to reverse off the man-made gurder the vessel had impaled itself on, would cause immediate decompression of the hull. Gendar also noticed that the stranded ship was in a small asteroid field, and some of those asteroids had big pieces of metal sticking out of them. Odd.

Gendar volunteered to don a vacc suit from his luggage and go out onto the hull to have a closer look at the damage. While unpacking, he quietly re-assembled his blaster and a pair of fragmentation grenades he brought with him for emergencies. It was at this point that he noticed two ships approaching the stricken transporter - one looked like a Mandalorian assault ship, and the other was painted like a...a taxi. Both vessels docked successfully, and Gendar readied his blaster as the port side airlock hissed open and a large, heavily armed figure in Mandalorian battle armour came through it.

Gendar lost the initiative roll, which meant that he had to declare what he was going to do first. He decided to simply point his blaster at the interloper, and hope this was sufficiently intimidating, but the Mandalorian (a player character) decided to try to entangle Gendar with some sort of net launcher (remember Boba Fett taking on Luke Skywalker?) This he failed to do, so round 2, Gendar won the initiative. The Mandalorian declared he was going for his blaster, so Gendar used his Strength to yank the man off his feet before he could do so, using the snare he had so thoughtfully used on Gendar. With the Mandalorian now prone at his feet, Gendar pointed his blaster at him, demanding to know what he was doing boarding the ship, then realised someone else had entered the ship from the starboard air lock - an Ithorian by the looks of it....

First impressions


The D6 system does seem to run very fluidly. It is easy to get your head round. It seems to manage the Star Wars setting very smoothly, without the technology getting in the way. Character generation was a breeze. I can't comment in massive detail on some other aspects of the setting, like the Force or droids, but we'll get to that in a later post. What I did like about it was its flexibility.

I think parties need to make sure they have all the skill groups covered. As you will see from my next Star Wars post, technical skills are important in a science fiction environment, and a party can quickly end up in a sticky situation if they don't have the knowledge to address problems that may occur.

Combat went well, but there were only two characters involved, at relatively close quarters, with no shooting. I don't think this has really had an opportunity to show what it can do yet.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Cuba Libre - a good starting point for GMT's COIN series

Cigar, anyone?
GMT's COIN series is a range of multi-player strategy games based off an original design by Volke Ruhnke, called Andean Abyss. Since that game emerged in 2012, there has been a steady stream of productions from GMT, looking at different timescales, but also introducing other mechanics and systems in an effort to simulate the prevailing conditions within each milieu.

Cuba Libre is the second in the series, and was designed by Jeff Grossman in conjunction with Ruhnke. It covers the Cuban revolution in the late 1950s. It shares some very similar characteristics to Andean Abyss, but there are differences as well, which could make it a very good starter point in the series.

The COIN games allow you to play with up to four factions. They can manage just one person playing solitaire, or up to four players around the table. Each player controls a different faction. In Cuba Libre these are the government, the 26 July communist guerrillas, the syndicate (organised crime) and the Directorio (Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil), which seems to have been a different guerrilla faction, possibly not as hard left as the communists.

Each faction is actually quite different, with different victory objectives from the others. For example, the government is the only one controlling troops and police and able to benefit directly from US aid. The syndicate is the only faction with access to casinos (and seems to have more cash than the others), while the 26July have guerrillas, that can be active, or can go to ground.

Cuba Libre has a smaller map than many other COIN games. The next in the series, A Distant Plain, has a big map of Afghanistan, but is also more complex. This may make Cuba Libre a little more suited to newcomers. At least that's my theory.

The game is driven by a deck of cards which determine order of play but also introduce historical events in the game. Players can choose to pass on their turn, in which case they get to act in the next turn, or take their action, in which case they will be ineligible to do anything in the next turn.

Each faction has unique actions which only they can perform. Take the July26 movement: they can use kidnapping for ransom to take resources away from the government or syndicate player. The communists can only do this in areas where they have more guerrillas than police, and can only kidnap in cities, economic centres or, yes, casinos. The syndicate, on the other hand, has muscle actions, which lets them relocate the government's troops or police, usually to protect their casinos, whether the government player likes it or not! They also have a bribe action to neutralise other factions' units, or cause guerrillas to become exposed or hidden. However, it does require cash be paid to the units or guerrillas, so the other players do benefit.

Hidden in the events deck are propaganda cards. These seem to be a core part of the COIN series. Each time one comes up, the players move to a propaganda round. This is where you can check to see whether you have achieved your victory conditions. Unlike many Eurogames, you may have won on the victory track, but until that propaganda card comes up, you haven't, and you don't know exactly when it is coming. This is also the phase when you resolve resources issues. Again, each player deals with resources differently: I like, in particular, the Skim, which sees the syndicate player transfer two resources from any open casinos to the player who controls the region they are operating in. July26 guerrillas control Oriente, and you have a casino open there? You pay 'em.

On paper, Cuba Libre looks like an excellent little game. I have no idea how well it plays in practice, nor how long it takes. The rules are not long - the core rules stretch to 10 pages. There is also plenty of detail should you wish to play it solo. Each faction has its own programmed AI. You only really need to be familiar with the rules/actions that apply to the faction you are playing, plus some general ones like operations (e.g. moving troops).

I will give this a try solo just to get a better feel for the systems. It is also an interesting subject, about which I really know very little. Putting yourself in the shoes of the decision makers in 1958-59 would be an interesting experience. I can also see how this game could be a useful educational tool for anyone teaching the Cuban revolution. More on Cuba Libre once we have played it!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The rise of the foo fighter...

I'm currently working on a project with both my brothers to transcribe the correspondence of my grandfather's brother. Sadly he was not someone I ever had the chance to meet, as his plane was shot down during a mission over Germany in September 1944. It is, however, both interesting and emotional to be working on this project, particularly as it provides some perspective on a world that is quickly disappearing, and on the impact of numerous combat missions on one man's mental well being.

I've only just embarked on this project, but he has already provided us with a colourful letter covering his trip from the UK to Canada, where he was trained as an air navigator at Port Albert, a tiny little place on the shore of Lake Huron. I have been particularly amused at the reaction of a carriage full of British flyers to the sight of two American girls sunbathing on the side of a lake as the train passed through Maine!


"We saw none of the American 'surfer' girls at any of the stations, but running along a large inland lake we saw two girls sun bathing. One wore a red and white check play suit and had everything in the right places. Judging by the crush to our side of the train, curves are definitely in fashion."

Olaf, front row, second from left, at Lake Huron, 1942
 

Olaf's hand writing, like his brother's, was not the best, although of the two, he had the neater. Hence, we are engaged in an effort to decipher some of it. Later in the war, once he was on active service and already suffering from depression (I am reading between the lines here, but by the summer of 1944 he was not the same person who went to Canada in 1942), he regularly took trips down to London when he could, just to get away from it all.

He was, however, becoming quite distressed about the V1 flying bombs, which began landing on England in June 1944, not long after the Normandy landings. He describes how some of the men in his squadron had already lost family members. I did some homework of my own, and was shocked to see how many V1s were landing in the Sussex area in 1944, near to where I now live. They were not particularly accurate, but in one night alone, I read of "hundreds" landing in the countryside between Brighton and Lewes and indeed hitting Lewes itself. This is terrifying stuff.

Many British referred to the V1s as 'doodlebugs' yet in his letter Olaf refers to them as 'doodle foos' which initially struck us as odd. We wondered whether this was simply his rather illegible handwriting at work. But it certainly looked like 'foos' on the page. I did some further research, and came up with the phrase 'foo fighter' - not the rock band, but a term coined by Allied flyers in World War Two to describe unidentified flying objects or UFOs. Wikipedia claims the term was first used by a pilot of the US 415th fighter wing in November 1944. By December, it was being used fairly indiscriminately by the likes of the New York Times. The pilots in most cases seemed to be describing balls of fire which followed their planes at night, and could not be shaken off. Some scientists think this may have been the result of atmospheric effects or electrostatic phenomena, like St Elmo's Fire.

The V1 flying bomb, ancestor of the cruise missile


Yet here we have Olaf, in July 1944, using the term 'doodle foo'. I'm guessing here that there was a term already being bandied around by Allied air crew early in 1944 that turned into 'foo fighter' later in the year. But he does specifically refer to doodle foos, and expects his brother to understand what this is without further explanation. Thus, somehow the term 'foo' was already in the aviation lexicon to describe German experimental weapons. At this stage of the war, the Luftwaffe was tinkering with all sorts of advanced technology which had been on the drawing board, and was urgently being expedited as Hitler sought ways of staving off defeat. Aviators must have been told to keep an eye out for anything unusual in the skies over Europe. I wonder whether the term 'foo' was in fact an abreviation for something else...?

I will leave you with another interesting excerpt from Olaf, reflecting on his arrival in Boston after a week at sea:


"We finally docked at 1500, and disembarked at 2300. My main recollections of our landfall are the incredible greenness of the grass after five days of changing blues of the ocean, and the great number of high powered cars tearing along the concrete arterial roads. Later on, after dark, I looked in wonder at the blaze of lights from buildings, and the searchlights of the car headlamps..."