Monday, 19 January 2015

Ambush At Amon Hen scenario

I'm currently mulling over an idea for a four player game - with an umpire - of The Lord of the Rings (Strategy Battle Game). This features the climactic scene at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring - both the film and the book - in which the Fellowship is broken by a surprise attack by orcs, Boromir is slain, and Frodo and Sam begin their journey to Mordor. The game would use my larger 7.5ft by 5.5ft mat, which makes it a bit bigger than many games of Lord of the Rings.

The key here is to make it a multi-player game, but one that involves more than just two teams. While the players will be both Good and Evil, they will also have their own objectives to fulfil. Hence, there should be scope for an individual player to succeed as the overall winner.

The ambush at Amon Hen is actually quite an interesting example of a situation that occurs in the book where there are multiple agendas. For example, Boromir tries to steal the ring from Frodo, while Frodo himself is intent on sneaking away on his own to Mordor. In the book, although the details only really emerge in The Two Towers, the ambushing orcs are actually divided into two camps, those loyal to Saruman and those sent by Mordor. This is a joint operation that really only falls apart later, on the road back to Isengard.

Thus, we have an initial composition of four player factions:

  1. Boromir, Merry and Pippin
  2. Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli
  3. Isengard Uruks (led by Lurtz)
  4. Mordor Orcs
Each faction could be vested with its own objectives in this scenario. I group Boromir together with Merry and Pippin largely because this sets up his solo confrontation with the orcs. However, while mulling this over, I stumbled on the idea of another interesting mechanic that the Good players could use, namely that they decide in advance which of the four hobbit models is Frodo.

Recall, if you will that Frodo goes off to think alone, and is approached by Boromir, who then tries to steal the ring from him. Aragorn notices the Gondor man is missing, and the other members of the Fellowship collectively set out to look for them. Thus, they are all spread out across the hillside when the orcs arrive.

The members of the Fellowship start the game in randomly allocated positions, including Frodo. The Good players SECRETLY determine which hobbit is Frodo, thus the Evil players have no idea which hobbit is the Ringbearer. Each Good player takes control of two hobbits. I will probably have their stats on index cards so that they can be easily and secretly referred to in the course of the game.

While the orcs were under orders to take the ring to Isengard, it might make it more interesting if the Mordor orcs have other ideas - namely, to take the ring to Mordor, if they can find it first. On one level they are cooperating, but really, they want to steal off the table with as many hobbits as they can.

This should be a relatively short scenario, playable in a single evening.

The Boromir Conundrum

The wild card in the deck here is Boromir. While he does try to sieze the ring, the question is whether this treachery within the Fellowship should be incorporated into the game? Perhaps only if there is a fifth player, who can take on Boromir. His objective would be to steal the Ring. If he fails to do so before 'x' number of turns have expired - or the orcs are within line of sight - he comes to his senses, and his original objectives change to saving the Ringbearer. It might be a little boring to have control of only one figure, however...

That's really it in a nutshell. I will need to work out how many orcs the Evil players require, probably based on the points values of the remaining members of the Fellowship - without Gandalf, of course!

Friday, 16 January 2015

The quest for some colonial wargames rules

This year I'm keen to get some more colonial gaming in and expand my existing Zulu War armies, plus finally get a chance to field my Sikh Wars (1845-49) armies. As part of this, I'm pondering some options as to what rules to use. Historically, I've experimented with The Sword and The Flame and also a variant on Legends of the Old West, but in both cases, these are really intended as 1:1 skirmish rules. I've also found that the size of game we tend to play has meant that both games have begun to grind to a halt. Ultimately, we need something for bigger battles.

I have given Battles For Empire a brief test drive, but these are principally written for the post-1870 era, and I'm not entirely sure whether they will work for pre-1860 games, although I've seen them used for Roman cohorts against ancient desert tribes. I may return to these if I get nowhere with the other options outlined below, as they are not a bad set of rules.

I'm looking for something that has a little bit of flexibility in that it can cover the entire period from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through to the Boer War. A great deal changed in warfare and colonial warfare during this time period, in particular the introduction of rifled muskets, breech loading rifles, and the machine gun. The rules need to be able to do justice to colonial battles, AND be scalable, in that they can cover major engagements like Isandlwana as well as the smaller actions like Rourke's Drift, where the British had less than 140 effectives. 

As a bonus, the rules should also be able to handle the American Civil War, although this is very much a project for another time.

Ideally we want something that can manage the later colonial period, characterised by the arming of imperial troops with breech loading rifles in the 1870s, as well as the earlier smooth bore musket campaigns, particularly in India. A final note - the rules should be able to handle battles in which no Western armies took part, like Naushera (Sikhs versus Afghans) or Gallabat (Abyssinians versus the Mahdists).

Another criterion is that units should not be too big in terms of the figures required. A typical single formation should be no more than 8-12 figures maximum, whether it represents 100 men or 1000 men.

So what do we have? Two sets of rules appear immediately, and there is a possibility of a third.

Black Powder (Rick Priestley & Jervis Johnson, Warlord Games, 2009)

First off, we have Black Powder (Warlord Games, 2009). BP is an odd beast. Co-authored by Rick Priestley, one of the co-authors of the original Warhammer Fantasy Battle in 1983 and the creator of the original Rogue Trader rules, it is meant to be the next iteration of the Warmaster system of 10mm fantasy rules, adapted for use in the black powder era, namely 1700-1900.

This is quite a broad period to cover, and leaves the rules open to accusations of genericity, but they seem to have been well received in the five years since they were published, and are still being widely played. They include specific rules for some non-European formations, and the addition of a Zulu War supplement means that this particular campaign is well catered for with more rules adaptations and scenarios. Check out page 152 of BP, and you will see a scenario about a hypothetical action in the aftermath of the massacre of the 80th Foot at Intombi Drift. Most colonial gamers seem to be using BP these days, and Warlord have recently published a second colonial supplement, covering the Sudan campaigns (Blood on the Nile).

Field of Battle (Brent Oman, Piquet Inc, 2006)

Next, we have Field of Battle (2006), authored by Brent Oman. FoB has been very well-received since it first came out. It covers the same era as Black Powder, but uses a card-based activation system, rather than BP's dice-based system. FoB is a simplified version of Piquet, which is a more generic set of rules, supported by period specific supplements. FoB was a response to criticisms of the impetus system employed by Piquet, and is considered the more playable and accessible of the two. FoB should be able to manage most actions from the colonial period, although its Sikh Wars army list is fairly sparse, and there is nothing on the Indian Mutiny or the First Afghan War, despite there being three pages of Napoleonic army lists. These Indian lists will need to be created from scratch. Also, I'm in some doubt as to whether FoB can manage smaller actions, i.e. with multiple units forming one company. One intriguing aspect of FoB however is that the card activation deck can be tailored to reflect specific army states or unique factors that really only applied to one engagement.

Fields of Honor (Shane Lacey Hensley, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 1994)

Role players will recognise Shane Hensley as the creator of the Deadlands RPG and Savage Worlds, but before all that he wrote Fields of Honour (which I will now spell in the English rather than American manner). Now out of print, FoH sets out to cover the era from 1815 to about 1900. It does everything I want, including simulating both conventional warfare, like the American Civil War, and colonial campaigns. And yes, there are army lists for the First Afghan War, and Sikh Wars, and the Indian Mutiny. There is even a scenario for Isandlwana, although I don't think much of it. But this has it all, including the ability to scale up from about one squad to the base, to an entire regiment. This is excellent, because some of the battles of the Sikh Wars were pretty big as colonial wars went (an estimated 10,000 Sikh and allied troops fought at Mudki in 1845, and there were over 30,000 at Ferozeshah, including irregulars and feudal levies). FoH is probably not as specific to the period as, say, Chris Ferree and Patrick Wilson's John Company (Virtual Armchair General, 2005), but JC would be useless for the Zulu War.

We'll see how far we get with this project. Ultimately, we could be looking at up to six play tests here, and I'm doubtful whether I will get the time this year. Further progress will be duly reported in these august pages.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Jacob Marley

Jacob Marley is a board game  published by Cheapass Games in 2004. It no longer appears on the company's website, hence sadly is probably OOP. If the name sounds familiar to you, it is because Jacob Marley is a character from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, namely Ebenezer Scrooge's former business parter and one of the ghosts that appear to haunt him.

Jacob Marley is not a game about ghosts, however. It is a game about banking and money lending in Dickensian London - this is right up my street, finance with London history - what more can you ask for?

As a Cheapass Game it does require you to provide your own counters, money and dice. I ended up using old Risk and Diplomacy counters and some money from an old chocolate Monopoly set (all the chocolate having been consumed long, long ago).

My daughter is increasingly getting into board games and card games, particularly the likes of Cluedo and Monopoly and variants thereof. She does not like games about fighting and killing, which immediately excludes about 75% of my collection, and is not a fan of games where she can be pressured into a bad trade (Settlers of Catan). Jacob Marley fits the bill. Players travel the streets of London making loans to one of six different types of individual, ranging from criminals at one end to law firms at the other.

Clients are represented by cards, which include period illustrations, how big a loan is needed, and how much interest will be paid. It also includes some amusing flavour text (e.g. a shipping company that needs the money to finance a three year voyage to mature a cargo of rare cognac).

The game includes an interesting market matrix, which tracks the fluctuating fortunes of each segment of society, which impacts interest rates and the speed at which loans are paid off. The winner is the first player to score 30 points, but these can only be garnered when you hold loans in a sector that is doing economically well. This might cost you in terms of lower interest, and loans paid off early, but you do win those vital points.

The trick is to try to move the market up in areas where few or no other players hold loans. Hence, if you are the only player with an actuarial client, then you want to try to push actuaries into the comfortable zone on the market grid, as this will let you score points when no one else can. If everyone is lending to individuals, then there is less point boosting individuals, as everyone will score points. Indeed, if some players have more individual clients than you, they will score more points than you, even if it is not your turn.

Criminals and individuals are easier to lend to, as they typically require less money. However, they represent riskier loans, as they are more likely to default. In addition, these loans seem to pay off quicker, and it can be worth saving some cash during the game to be able to lend to the lawyers and actuaries sooner than your competition.

Jacob Marley is not a classic game, and has likely not sold as well as this company's other titles, like Kill Doctor Lucky, nor is it likely to be regarded as one of the better finance / business games. But it is a gentle game, not complex, and playable in under two hours, which makes it good for at least part of a relaxing evening.