Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Ninja - Legend of the Scorpion Clan

A patrol goes hunting for ninja.
So last weekend we played Ninja - Legend of the Scorpion Clan. This is a board game published by AEG and ostensibly set in their Legend of the Five Rings oriental fantasy milieu, but in reality this could just as easily be feudal Japan, as none of the L5R fantasy tropes are present (e.g. shugenja). In my household there is currently a strong interest in stealth-oriented games and in medieval Japan - this baby scores on both counts!

Ninja is a game of hidden movement and stealth. There are no dice involved. It can be played with up to four people, although seems to work with two. On one side we have the ninja and a traitor within the daimyo's castle (a disaffected samurai). On the other we have the sentries and patrols responsible for the security of the castle. Each turn, the two bad guys search the castle for their objectives (which are randomly determined at the beginning of the game) while the guards seek to find them and kill them. There are 20 turns before sunrise: if the ninja player(s) fails to complete his mission(s) before then, he loses.

The infiltrators keep track of their movement on a map, in a similar fashion to the way Dracula scoots around Europe in Fury of Dracula, and only place their pieces on the board when they are discovered. The board itself is quite awesome, representing a Japanese castle/palace complex. The speed at which the infiltrators move around the castle dictates how easy it is for the samurai guards to hear them (creep, walk and run).

A typical mission reaches its successful conclusion!
The guards themselves are split up into two types - static sentries and patrols. The patrols consist of two samurai who march around the castle, although sentries can be attached to patrols as well. Patrols follow a specific route through the castle unless alerted via a Patrol Search card (of which more below). There are also sleeping samurai who are hidden in barracks on the map without the knowledge of the infiltrators, hidden samurai who are lurking in the castle, and traps. In short, the ninja and traitor do not know the positions of all the guards and can inadvertently stumble upon them).

Guards can be pulled away from their assignments with Listen and Search cards. This is the best way for them to find the ninja and/or the traitor. Guard players get these cards at the beginning of their turn and also have a phase later in the round when they can play more. The number of cards they draw is based on the alert level - like the console game Tenchu - Stealth Assassins; this can be elevated to high alert quite quickly if a ninja is spotted, and then declines only gradually as the guards calm down.

L to R: sentry, drunk guard, patrol, traitor and ninja
Combat is distilled into the playing of kenjutsu cards which can inflict wounds on your opponent: a ninja can take three wounds, the traitor can take two and guards can only take one. There are various other cards in the game which can be employed as stratagems, including a secret passage into the castle, a rope for climbing walls, shuriken, etc.

Ninja is a very entertaining game, and relatively rules lite. At this stage I have only one real reservation with the rules. If either the traitor or ninja are found and killed before turn 10, they get to respawn and have another go with a randomly assigned mission. They are penalised by an allocation of more action cards and sleeping guards to the opposition. In our game, we found and killed the traitor by turn #4. He then re-spawned and was assigned a random mission at a location the infiltrator player had already scouted, and was therefore able to get there quickly and complete his mission without having to do much further searching. As a consequence, the infiltrator player was able to complete both missions by turn #6. While there is a theoretical 20 turn limit, I'd be surprised if a game ever last that long!

Just part of the gorgeous map board.
I think it is impossible for the guard player to win under these terms, although we will swap sides and give it another go just to see if this really is the case. I would instead suggest that each infiltrator really only has one 'life'. This would make for a shorter game, perhaps, but this is no bad thing. It makes Ninja the sort of game you can bring out on a Friday evening and play to a conclusion inside an hour. It isn't going to take up an entire evening, and sometimes there is a need for this kind of game.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Review - The Mist (dir Frank Darabont) 2007

I finally got around to watching The Mist this month, after a number of people had referred to it in positive terms. It is apparently based on a novella by Stephen King, and is directed by Frank Darabont, who also directed the movie versions of King's The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999). The Mist is way different from Shawshank, mind you...

This is a technically well-plotted horror film. The mist of the title sweeps across a small town in the mid-West (King loves his American small town settings), and catches a father and son in a supermarket picking up supplies. Most of the action takes place in and around the supermarket over a period of less than 24 hours, and deals with the disparate, random group of civilians (and three soldiers) caught by the mist, and the creatures that live within it.

There is a whiff of the post-apocalyptic in this story: the townsfolk are very much kept in the dark about the mist, its origins, and what else could be lurking in it. But they also begin to speculate about the extent of the mist, and why rescue has not come. It is this fear that the mist spells the end of the world and of humanity that influences the actions of some of the characters - for instance the beginning of a cult within the group of survivors, as they splinter into factions and argue over the best means of survival (many conflicts degenerate into whether to escape from the supermarket or stay and try to defend it).

The Mist is less about the horrors without and more about the horrors within: how do ordinary people behave when the veneer of civilization is suddenly stripped away and they are faced with the very real possibility of death? How fast is it for superstition and religion to take hold of the seemingly rational 21st century mind? And rather than look at the behaviour of one group with strong ties - like a platoon of soldiers or a family - the film manages to engineer a situation where a random cross section of normal folk are caught in one place, namely a supermarket, somewhere where people habitually go and where at any moment in time a single snapshot of local humanity can be caught - in this context, literally.

This lurking menace of the unknown and largely unseen was also riffed on by John Carpenter in his The Fog - another classic where a bank of fog hides horrors that return to prey on the people of a small town. With The Fog, however, the theme is one of vengeance for ancient wrongs. Here it is just a sudden and unknowable threat that appears on their doorstep. Imagine playing Call of Cthulhu, where the investigators fail to stop the cult from summoning the Big Bad. What happens to the local townsfolk who knew nothing about the cult, the investigators or the ritual? Now you can find out.

Finally, the ending of the Mist really takes your breath away. I'm not sure I could sit through this film again - it is pretty hard hitting, but not in a blood and gore way. Apparently the ending was changed from the original Stephen King book by the director (but with King's approval), but boy is it a blinder! Go see it. 8/10.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Wargaming plans in 2013

As we sit here trying to slim down from the Christmas excesses, and now that the beer and pizza fest of StuCon II has passed, it is time to turn our eyes again to what is in the pipeline for war gaming this year. I've decided that any miniatures gaming will need to be defined as specific projects, and will need to take into consideration constraints of time and opportunity more than anything else.

Fellowship of the Ring

I hope to complete a few more games of Lord of the Rings, using the scenarios from the Fellowship of the Ring campaign book. We've already seen how the Nazgul have entered the Shire. Now it is time for Frodo and his friends to leave Hobbiton and head for Bucklebury, but will they make it? Still a bit of painting to be done here - e.g. Bucklebury ferry and the Barrow Wights - before the hobbits reach Bree and the safety of the Prancing Pony inn. Ideally, I'd like to play three or four games of this during 2012, taking the hobbits at least as far as Bree, if not to Rivendell itself...

Bloodbath At Orc's Drift - Warhammer Fantasy Battle

There only remains one more battle in the Orc's Drift campaign. This is the final assault by the combined forces of orc king F'yar against the brave defenders of Orc's Drift. The last scenario is written as a multi-player event, with three orc tribes versus a disparate crew of defenders. I'm mulling over the possibility of playing this with Warhammer 3rd ed rather than Lord of the Rings, which is what we've used up until now. In addition, I might flesh out the orcs using Mantic plastics. To do it justice, the scenario will require six players and an umpire.

Battle of Isandlwana - The Sword And The Flame

I'm not that far away from being able to put on a refight of the famous Zulu victory at Isandlwana, on 22nd January 1879. This game would be an all-day affair, involving five players (three Zulu, two British) plus an umpire. It would make use of The Sword And The Flame, which we've used before. The standard unit size would be eight figures, with a typical Zulu ibutho operating at 25 figures (including command). I'm just in the process of doing a quick inventory of figures to see how many more I still need to paint. Hopefully not too many!

Operation Shoemaker 1970 - Ambush Valley

I've acquired the Ambush Valley supplement for Force on Force, which I aim to use for the time being for Vietnam gaming. This project will need a fair bit of painting and some additional vehicles and terrain. I'm going to be starting off with a small campaign called Operation Shoemaker, which was part of an attempt in 1970 to try to take out the PAVN command structure in Cambodia. Following on from this will be the hill battles around Khe Sanh in 1967. Much will depend on progress with painting the required figures. Perhaps something for the second half of the year?

Dystopian Wars

Dystopian Wars is something the Hove Area Wargames Society has been raving about for some time. It is a combined arms game in an alternative steampunk universe, focused largely on the ships and aerial platforms created by the rival empires, which are inspired by the 19th century great powers (with the possible exception of the Covenant of Antartica, of course). However, it also seems to include land-based and amphibious vessels. I've bought a Russian starter force, which I need to paint up before pitching them against the other fleets lurking out there in Hove.

WW2 Convoys - The Gibraltar Run

Following the above naval them, I'm also seriously looking at a WW2 convoy-based campaign game over the course of the year, using Convoy from Clash of Arms. I've recently bought a sizeable collection of merchant ships and a few British warships from Duncan and will be examining ways of playing convoy actions with these. At this stage I'm not entirely sure whether I've got all the bases covered re: the required ships and planes, but I've got enough U-boats for a decent wolf pack. I'm lacking a decent sea surface at the moment for both WW2 and steampunk games, as I'd like something that will cover the entirety of my 8' x 6' surface. I've been looking at Terrain Mat, but that's over £150, even though the texture looks awesome.

Troops, Weapons And Tactics

Finally, for WW2, I'm going to play-test Troops, Weapons and Tactics from Too Fat Lardies. I've been intrigued by the 'Lardiemania' which has been sweeping European war gaming recently, and am curious to try out these rules. Once again, we will be returning to the Eastern Front, as I've still not got my US Army platoon project off the ground, and am unlikely to do so in 2013 either! It will be more likely that I will either draw on the Berlin '45 campaign, as outlined in the excellent supplement from Iron Ivan Games, or generate a German platoon using Platoon Forwards. Stay turned!

That's really it in a nutshell. We are already into the second week of January, so time is flying past. This weekend I hope to get some time to reconfigure my study so that I can set up properly for terrain making and model building. I will also be setting up the next Lord of the Rings scenario in my gaming hut, with a view to getting those damned hobbits on the road to Bree!

Monday, 7 January 2013

StuCon II is over!

With the Xmas/New Year period nearly at an end, we convened for StuCon II or WinterCon for our gaming group (as we very occasionally get a SummerCon in too). The first weekend in January actually suits quite well as it falls between the frenetic social whirl of Christmas/New Year and the beginning of the long slog through the dark nights and drear days of January and February (at least if you're in northern Europe is does).

This weekend we had seven of us free for gaming, for nearly all the weekend, which was fabulous, and with no interruptions. We decided to focus on a series of one-shot RPG sessions which each ran to about 4-4.5 hours.

Hot War

First up was Malcolm Craig's Hot War. Readers of this blog will know we've played Cold City before, by the same designer, and the group has received it fairly well. I loved the Cold City setting, but the game system does take a bit of a mental leap on the part of both players and GM to limit the number of contests in the game, and it is not a game for those who like maps and moving miniatures around. Tactical combat can be summarised in one roll of the dice pool - the emphasis is on concentrating on your character's relationships and traits, and on how they develop over time.

I used a convention scenario called God Light, which came with some very nice pre-gens, so we didn't need to waste time setting up new characters (although this does not take long with this system). The characters had lots of good back story to draw upon. The game featured an expedition out of post-Apocalyptic London for a small team from the Special Situations Group. You can read more about the SSG and the general setting of Hot War here.

The game played through satisfactorily - it has been a while since I have been behind a GM's screen, but I found it fun, and was able to manage a team of five players quite well, even when one of them (a Romanian scientist) was detached from the main group towards the end of the scenario (indeed, at once stage there were three groups of PCs operating independently in a nuclear bunker under Salisbury Plain). The game system did not bog down in technicalities, making it well-suited for convention play. I guess one of the issues with this scenario was how it was going to be resolved - although each PC had his/her own hidden agendas to complete, it was not clear how this was going to happen, making it difficult for me to gauge where we were with the plot line. There is no "the characters need to do this to win" section in God Light, making it that bit harder to work out how things are going to pan out - the PCs are more in the driving seat here.

As it turned out, I though God Light ended quite well, with two PCs slain (one completing both his objectives in the process), one mad, one unconscious with serious head injuries, and the other two intact and on their way back to London in an armoured vehicle. Unfortunately Ben was away from the table picking up Ric for 30 minutes, which meant he was unable to look after his PC's objectives or take part in any planning sessions that occurred during this time. It made it less likely for him to be in a position to complete his own objectives in the closing stages, but there was not much that could be done about it. I found that managing several NPCs also in the same location, each with their own parameters, to be one of the hardest parts of the scenario, and was grateful to be able to pass one off to Ric when he arrived.


Next up was Deadlands Reloaded, which Ben ran. Our posse was tracking a bandit leader, whom we ambushed in a bordello out in the middle of nowhere. We now had six players, which was great fun. We had to skirt around what a bordello actually was for our youngest player, but I suspect he read between the lines anyway. Two of our party started the encounter a little far away from the bordello, leaving us to gallop in from about 200 yards away, and thus play little role in the fight. I've had this before in RPGs, where you underestimate how fast a combat will play out, and by the time you arrive, it is all over bar the scalping!

DR uses the Savage Worlds engine, so it is able to manage bigger fights more easily. The big set piece for this session was an attack on the town where we were holding the bandit ahead of his trial. Some 30 bandits plus their leader's brother attacked the town and were ambushed by six PCs plus support from assorted townsfolk. Savage Worlds is an inherently tactical game, but it managed to run through this fairly complex encounter in short order, which is a tribute to the way the system is streamlined (and why it is still one of my faves).

I was playing a Novice huckster from New Orleans, mainly because I've never played one in Deadlands before. I found him somewhat limited in terms of what he could actually do. With three Powers available and 10 Power Points, his primary value was inflicting hexes on the bandit's leader in the big battle, slowing him down and forcing him to burn his bennies, although it was our mad scientist who finally fried him. I think hucksters are somewhat underpowered at Novice level when compared to some other arcane background PCs, but it didn't undermine my enjoyment of the game.

The GM had used the real villain in this game previously in a WFRP game, which I had not taken part in, but some other players had. They jumped on the first clue to its presence as soon as it presented itself and managed to ambush it and dispose of it in very short order, once located! All in all, great fun, and I thought Greg in particular enjoyed lobbing dynamite sticks around and generally creating chaos during the big shoot-out.

We stopped for some pizza and a chin wag before playing some Red November, which is one of the few board games I own that can manage more than six players (I think Touch of Evil can do this too). Red November plays more slowly with seven players, even when compensating for this with the time track, but is still good fun. I foolishly forgot the rule about moving the oxygen track whenever a fire event is drawn, but otherwise I thought it went well. The sub still sank when our reactor over-heated! Nobody made much use of the grog, which was interesting. I suspect this too was an effect of having more players available to tackle the various problems on the sub.

Call of Cthulhu

Last up, on Sunday morning, Kelvin ran Call of Cthulhu, using a one-short that bore more than a passing resemblance to Reservoir Dogs. CoC is always good for cons, as players can go mad and die with impunity. I'm not really going to go into a great deal of detail on this scenario, as it would spoil the surprise for you if you ever have the good fortune to play it, as it is commercially available.

In essence, the players are all gangsters en route from a heist, who have to rendezvous in a warehouse. Sound familiar? Each player had his own briefing to consider, and each had his own code name - e.g. Mr Silver, Mr Beige, Mr Red. It is a very evocative scenario, and of course there are Mythos elements there. It is an ideal setting for convention play, as players familiar with the film will be able to play up to the stereotypes of the criminals. Not only was Kelvin escorting players out of the room for secret one-on-one briefings, but even players were popping out to talk to each other without the GM!

The scenario, for anyone who is interested, is here. It is well worth running if you are a Cthulhu GM looking for a very good one-shot, ideally single session. I would recommend using floor plans and counters/miniatures for this game, because I found it immensely useful as a player to see where I was in relation to the other players, particularly when it came to skulduggery! Like Hot War above, there were plentiful helpings of paranoia and intrigue, which I personally love, but which don't work as well for longer running campaigns. The scenario is also interestingly penned by Paul Fricker, who I understand is working on the next edition of the CoC core rules.

So that was it for StuCon. It was great to see Greg and Ric, who both only very occasionally make it to the gaming table these days, as they dwell up in the Far North (well, north of Watford anyway). And it was also great to have so much pure, unadulterated gaming fun with good friends and not have to worry about any interruptions (other than to have to wander to the fridge for booze and pizza!) Cheers all!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The great games sell off of 2013

So, a New Year and a time for new direction, new opportunities, a fresh look on life and all that jazz. On the gaming front, this means taking a long, hard look at the time I reasonably have available to game, and indeed the time available to others too. The number of board games on my shelves still in their cellophane wrap is decidedly depressing, and the pile of unpainted lead and plastic miniatures that faces me going into 2013 is also something to be concerned about.

Hence, resolution #1 is to institute a weekly eBay sale. I will, once a week, select an item to post on eBay from my gaming collection, something that I really doubt I will ever have the time to play with. This can be a tough one to predict: every time I've offloaded my Shadowrun books on eBay, I've ended up playing Shadowrun again. I'm still clinging onto my collection of Vampire: the Dark Ages texts in the hopes of running that game at some point. The key is to sell off those items you will never realistically play with again.

But looking back at 2012, I did not get an awful lot of time to paint figures or to play war games. I played a very, very limited amount on my Playstations. I played RPGs regularly on Friday evenings, but most of this was as a player and was either Pathfinder or Call of Cthulhu. The time has come, I feel, to get very realistic about what I'm likely to play and what I'm not, what I'm likely to GM and what I'm not.

Thus, from today, I will begin the great purge of my games cupboard, a process that will hopefully help me to rationalise my existing collection and potentially generate cash for future purchases. Part of this discipline will be making sure that something goes on eBay every week and I will be using this blog to keep readers up to date as to what exactly that is. All items will be made available to UK and European buyers only, sadly not to the USA. All will go on a 10 day listing.

Thus we come to this week's item.

Crusade For Empire (1999) is a supplement for Easy Eight's Battleground WW2 miniatures rules. While the original BG WW2 was written for platoon level engagements, Crusade goes beyond that, with what I would describe as company level scenarios set in North Africa. Crusade is also the UK/Italian supplement for the game system. Although British airborne units were covered in Red Devils in the Night,  Crusade deals with British Empire conventional forces, including the all-important armour hit location charts.

This item is the print version, in a US style A4 binder. It includes background on the campaigns in North Africa, special personalities, British and Italian weapons, tactics and armour rules, terrain rules for the desert (including random desert terrain generation) and scenarios for the conflict, from 'Swanning About' (Nezuet Ghirba, June 1940) to 'Fortress Cairo' (a hypothetical scenario assuming a German victory at El Alamein). There are also charts and templates for playing BGWW2 in 6mm scale, should you wish to use micro armour. I should also say that while Crusade is intended for use with BGWW2, the scenarios could be easily ported over to other rules systems, like Flames of War for instance.