Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Dirty auld town...

Well here it is, our first mock-up layout of the city terrain for Sunday's game.

Most of the Sarissa buildings are missing their roofs, which were drying after being freshly painted, and the pavements haven't been cut to size.  The open space on the top left of the second picture will be filled with a factory from PMC resin buildings, but since that board was precariously propped up for this test I didn't want to risk the weight on it.  There'll also be a walled compound there containing one of the two game objectives - a ready-to-roll King Henry-class landship.

(..and yes, that's mi hermano del Ivanov, Jonesy sporting a "What Would Hartek Do" t-shirt!)

Still to do on this picture: the factory walls, the town square in front of the red roofed building (now done) and a statue for the town square, which is...

..also done.  The column is made up of a top and bottom piece from Langley Models.  Allegedly scaled to fit 1" dowels, the reality was more like 3/4".  I found that the only dowels I could source were either slightly too small or slightly too big to fit snugly.  In the end I found a smaller offcut in my bitz box and combined it with a piece of plastic tubing that fit over it like a sleeve, butting up against the cast pieces instead of fitting inside them.  The result looks better, in my opinion, and is quite sturdy.  The figure is an allegedly 40mm miniature of unknown origin, possibly a magazine collectible, that I bought on eBay for the princely sum of one English pound.  Being taller and more slender than the 28mm wargames figures makes it an ideal candidate for a statue.  I'm not quite sure why there's be a statue of a Spanish-looking Elizabethan soldier in an English town, but he's cheap and fits the column.

The Victorians did so love their statuary.  I've picked up the Perrys' mounted Napoleonic British generals pack with a view to recreating Aldershot's famous statue of Wellington (which just happens to be in a similar pose to the miniature.)  Uxbridge, from the same pack, will probably make another fine statue, while the top-hatted Picton will almost certainly wind up being painted up as a mounted Victorian gentleman.

And that's the up-to-date terrain news.  Coming next a look at the dozen or so vehicles I've got in progress in the Landship queue, including a couple of new deliveries from Ironclad and Ramshackle.

And was Jerusalem builded here...

Photos of the city terrain coming soon, I promise.  To be honest I've been spending more time working on the terrain than blogging about it, but I'll get some pictures online soon.

As I might have mentioned previously, unlike a lot of other VSF gamers who base their games in colonial settings (like Africa, Arabia or Mars) all my current VSF games are based on a hypothetical Invasion of England 188x.  The premise is that a Russo-German alliance launched a two-pronged invasion, Russia in the north, Germany in the south.  There are of course dozens of reasons why this would never have happened in real life, but we can twist and turn a bit and make something at least remotely plausible.

In real life, despite his reputation Bismarck advocated against further wars of expansion against Germany's European neighbours.  Once they'd spanked the French in the war of 1870-71, Kaiser Wilhelm I was more than content to focus on matters at home.  The short-lived Kaiser Frederick III professed a hatred of warfare, and so would be unlikely to launch an invasion.  It falls to Kaiser Bill II as our likeliest candidate.  Despite being a grandson of Queen Victoria, I've read somewhere that there was no love lost there, as he blamed English doctors for both the death of his father and his own crippled arm (caused by his traumatic birth).  Early in his reign, he dismissed Bismarck and set German on a more militaristic, expansionist path that would eventually lead to World War One.  It doesn't take too great a leap to imagine conflict breaking out earlier in his reign.

Russia presents us with a bit of a problem though.  The Tsar at this time, Alexander III, was nicknamed "Alexander The Peacemaker".  Not only that, but he frequently expressed anti-German leanings, favouring the French during the Franco-Prussian war.  It's altogether highly unlikely that he would have allied with Germany in a military adventure against his English cousins.  However, this is the era of the "Great Game", the cold war between Russia and Britain over India and the North West Frontier and in 1885 there was the Pandjeh Incident which came perilously close to triggering outright armed conflict between the two Great Powers.  If the incident hadn't been defused diplomatically, it doesn't take much to imagine things escalating into an all-out Russo-British war.  In such an instance, it's not inconceivable that Tsar Alexander might consider Germany in a kinder light as "the enemy of my enemy".  An alliance, albeit a strained one, becomes a possibility, especially if Germany offers some significant advantage against the British, such as a way to neutralize the might of the Royal Navy and make invasion a possiblity.

This last point is possibly the strongest argument against the possibility of an invasion of England in the late 19th century.  Britain still clung to the policy of fielding a navy strong enough to defeat the next two most powerful navies together.  Any invasion of England would have to contend with the Royal Navy's complete mastery of the seas - while a surprise attack might be able to land troops, they would soon find their supply lines cut off once the navy responded.

The solution of course is the same thing that historically ended the era of the battleship - air power.  Graf von Zeppelin had been working on his concept of military airships since his experience with observation balloons in the American Civil War, and while historically his LZ-1 didn't fly until 1900, again it's not too much of a stretch in our steampunk universe to bring that forward in time to the point where a German aerofleet could neutralise the Royal Navy, or at least keep it at bay enough to maintain supply lines for an invasion.  Until Professor Cavor can iron out the problems with the new Cavorite-lifted aerial gunboats, at least.

So there, we've twisted and turned like a twisty-turny thing, but we've arrived at our joint Russo-German invasion of England.  Added to the mix we have a more than historically successful Fenian uprising which results in a Free Irish State powerful enough to send an expeditionary force to take advantage of the turmoil in England.  Plausible?  Don't know.  Don't care.  at the end of the day all this mental gymnastics is just an excuse to get toy soldiers and steam tanks on the table in uniforms that I like.

Now with all that settled, we can continue with the "campaign".  Rather than a traditional campaign game,with strategic units moving on a map, I'm running this narratively.  Battles are setup to be fun tactical games first and foremost.  The overall result of the game (victory or defeat) determines the overall strategic course of the campaign, and may suggest the following battle scenario.  Although strictly speaking no map is needed for this sort of campaign game, I thought it would be fun to sketch one up in order to visualise the overall lay of the land.  I found a map online showing 19th century counties which I traced and simplified somewhat, so that each county is a zone of control (except for Yorkshire, which due to its size is divided into the three historical Ridings)

(Apologies to those of the hibernian persuasion, the map didn't extend north of the border, so I've lazily assumed all of Scotland to be under Russian control, although possibly with fierce guerilla resistance in the Highlands)

The markers on the map just show overall control rather than specific units.  We can see with London so close to the front lines, The Queen Empress (gawd bless 'er) has retired to the relative safety of Sandringham (much to the chagrin of the Prince of Wales, no doubt).  Although the upcoming game is nominally set in Aldershot in Hampshire, it's actually going to represent a push north into Berkshire.  If the Germans win, Berkshire will get a German control marker and the British "front line" will fall back to Oxfordshire.

I find this map is useful in suggesting scenarios for the next battle.  Somerset is clearly up for grabs.  The Germans might choose to push to capture London already, while a British counter-offensive might try to claw out some breathing room in Surrey or Kent.  Or they could try to split the german forces in two with a counter-push to the Hampshire coast.

In the northwest I assumed the Fenians would most likely land at Liverpool, securing it with the aid of the local ex-patriate Irish community.  Since a single point of invasion is too vulnerable (and remember, the whole point of this exercise is to be an excuse to play tabletop games) I assumed a second landing point securing Anglesey and Canarvonshire.   Linking up the two invasion points would be a priority, so once the Fenians are finally painted, the first couple of scenarios are likely to be pushes along the North Wales coast (which I know fairly well, having holidayed there a lot as a child). Comings soon - the battle of Llandudno. (?!)

There are several advantages to setting up a campaign this way.  For a start, it avoids a lot of front-loaded work and lets you get to the important business which, I'll say again because it bears repeating, is about getting toy soldiers onto the tabletop.  Think about it, if you were going to do a traditional style wargames campaign of this war, you'd probably start by doing a lot of research, starting with a historically accurate map.  Then you might look at potential objectives for the campaign, research troop movement speeds of the period, orders of battle.  Then you might find you don't have enough figures to properly represent the historical troops and have to buy and paint them and then....

I know, I started out down this route before I saw sense.  All this work has to happen before you actually get to play any games.  No wonder so many wargames campaigns wind up never getting off the drawing board!  What's worse is that then, if the participants play the strategic side of the campaign with any sense, you'll wind up with incredibly one-sided battles that aren't much fun to play.  The traditional wargames campaign, turns out to be a pretty rotten way of generating entertaining tabletop battles.

With a semi-abstracted, narrative campaign on the other hand, you can put together a fun tabletop game drawing on several sources of inspiration.  You can look at the rough area you want to play in and look for interesting   geographical locations or political or economic targets.  You can look at results of a previous game, making  the next scenario a natural progression from there.  Or you can look at what figures you have available, possibly focussing on new forces you're itching to get onto the tabletop and craft a scenario around them.

Let's take the "Battle of Llandudno" as an example.  That's going to be a scenario based on my wanting to get my long-delayed Fenian army into a game.  I picked Llandudno because I have happy childhood memories holidaying there, rather than any real strategic importance.  A quick Google shows that it was indeed a resort town back in Victorian times (and in fact still holds an annual Victorian Extravaganza) which makes for an interesting battle along a seafront.  Just to the north of the town nestled in the middle of  the Great Orme peninsula is "Happy Valley", a former quarry that was landscaped as gardens and miniature golf courses as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887.  That makes for an interesting patch of greenery along one table edge.

And so on and so forth.  Then once the battle is fought, it's unlikely that a particularly bad result for one side will end the campaign, as it might in a traditional game if the losing side suffers too many casualties or loses a particularly key part of the campaign map.

Narrative campaigns.  Definitely the way ahead.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Marconi plays the mamba

Today mi hermano del constructor de la ciudad Jonesy came by to help put the finishing(?!) touches to the Victorian City terrain.  By finishing(?!) touches I mean of course for now.  I expect to be constantly tweaking and adding to this setup for some time to come, but for today we basically got things ready for this Sunday's coming March Madness Melee game (which is all systems go)

We somehow managed to balance the 6'x4' baseboards onto my 4'x4' table, and did a test layout of the buildings into something resembling city streets.  We are just using the buildings from Sarissa, Warbases, Ziterdes and PMC for this layout, which is more than enough to cover the table space we have.  Later on we'll be able to add the scratchbuilt terrace slums and the second Warbases tenement building (I gave up on all those bloody windows!)  to portray a more low-rent side of town, or by adding the Amera Plastic Mouldings church & ministry building, portray the better side of town.

At this point I have a couple of minor jobs to do for next week.  I bought a 40mm Elizabethan-looking miniature on eBay, plus a cast column base and top from Langley Models.  A piece of dowel of the correct diameter will turn it into a Nelson's Column-style monument for the centre of town.  A few more pavement pieces need to be prepared along with some brick walls (brick paper over foamcore) and we will be ready.

Pictures to follow...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur of what is known as...


Look at any aerial image of a city, and the first things your eye will be drawn to will be any patches of colour amongst the greys and earth tones.  So for aesthetic reasons, I really wanted to include an area of decorative park or gardens to break up all the grey and brickwork.

So today I threw one together fairly hastily.

The pillars and railings were bought on eBay from one of the many Chinese traders on there - I think it was about £11 for a metre, and this project has used about half that.  Same goes for the streetlamp.  The ornamental pond is cunningly crafted from the lid of jar of picallilli (After living forty-one years on this earth knowing with absolute certainty that I did not like picallilli, I recently tried it and discovered I actually liked it.  Go figure!)  All on an offcut base of 3mm MDF.

It's not entirely finished - the painting on the stonework could do with a bit more care and attention, and once the paint's dry I'm going to give the water a few layers of glossy polyurethane varnish to give it some depth.  But there's something immensely satisfying about starting the day with a bunch of separate components and finishing the day with a more-or-less complete terrain piece.

Friday, 24 February 2012

I have often walked down this street before

Our original plan for pavements for Victorian city terrain was to use a paving pattern printed on card.  However as an experiment I've printed some onto ordinary paper and stuck it to the back of a cheap-as-chips vinyl floor tile.  What do you think?

(Special Aether Service trooper by Black Pyramid.  Victorian pillar box in historically accurate
green livery by Langley Models.)
I think it just needs something around the outer edge to represent kerbstones and we may have a winner.

This week I've been bringing up the Warbases laser-cut MDF buildings to at least a basic table-ready state of completion, that is to say assembled and mostly painted so that they don't  look out of place on the tabletop,  but leaving the option open to come back later and add further detailing.  The two terraced houses and corner tenement are ready, while I have the roof tiles to add and many, many windows to paint on the second tenement building.

Monday, 20 February 2012

He'd make a plan and he'd follow through, cos that's what Brian Boitano'd do.

I don't normally mention the other side to the gaming hobby, as I want this blog to stay focussed on the wargaming side of things.  But this is too cool to not mention.

Alongside wagaming, I've also played in and run a lot of roleplaying games, which for many years were my only gaming outlet.  One of the things that's always frustrated me is the way most RPGs focus on rag tag outcast sort of characters.  Even with games that support (and some say were designed for) player-characters rising in rank and becoming leaders and significant powers in the campaign world, the games-masters and referees I've played with have always shied away from that, often abandoning the game before the player characters get "too powerful".

In science-fiction RPGs, I call this the "Bantha Dung" effect.  So many games put the characters in a tramp freighter scratching out a living haulting unexciting trade goods (like Bantha dung) from one planet to another and taking odd jobs of dubious legality to make a little extra money.  It's the classic Traveller campaign setup and formed the basis of the fantastic but too short lived TV show Firefly. But after a while it gets a bit tiresome.

The game I've always wanted to play or run would see the characters as significant movers and shakers, commanding armies and fleets and conducting shadowy diplomacy that determines the fate of worlds.  I call it the "Princes of the Universe" campaign.  But the last time I tried pitching that game idea to prospective players, some of them vetoed it arguing that they couldn't see how anything could be a challenge to characters with a small army at their beck and call. (sigh)

Anyway, back in 2010 I was invited to play in a game which had the promise of that sort of action.  Rogue Trader is a sci-fi RPG set in the universe of Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 wargame.  Players take on the roles of a Rogue Trader and their retinue.  In the setting, Rogue Traders are the holders of Imperial Warrants to explore and trade on the edges of known space.  They often build up considerable empires of their own, with relations between trader dynasties ranging from scheming and intriguing to full-blown war.  Like everything in the 40K setting, Rogue Trader things BIG, with kilometer long ships with crews in the tens of thousands.  Raising and equipping a unit of 100 men can be a cheaper purchase than, say, a really fine high-quality laser pistol.

Now the truth is I don't really care that much for the Warhammer 40,000 setting, or the rules system used in its RPGs.  But I'd read accounts from people who held similar views but had really enjoyed the game and knew the GM had just finished an epic Dark Heresy (another 40K RPG) campaign which his players had loved, and I'd played in one of his previous games, Tour Of Darkness (Vietnam war, but with supernatural horror) which I'd greatly enjoyed.

So I signed up for the game.  My character was called Kilgim Hartek, a Squat Arch-Militant (for the uninitiated, Squats were a race of "space dwarves" that were officially written out of the 40K universe some years ago, and an Arch-Militant is basically a combat specialist) and to try to steer the game towards the sort of action I was after, he was made the "warmaster" of House Dureen's military forces.

A few months into the game, the player running the Rogue Trader character dropped out, as did his girlfriend playing the ship's navigator (more or less - she managed about one game in ten for the rest of the campaign and never really got involved).  So we were left with myself and the player of the ship's enginseer (40K's setting treats technology as a religion/magic, so think technician/priest) We tried bluffing through it for a while, with the Rogue Trader staying "in his cabin", but at the end of the day you can't play a game of Rogue Trader without an actual Rogue Trader character.  The game had become untenable and all the GM's preparation and planning looked like it was going to waste.

Until the Enginseer's player reveals his plan.  He had "discovered" documentary evidence in the archives that, deep in the past, a member of the noble House Dureen had contributed genetic material to the creation of the Squat race.  And that by scrying certain arcane "genetic markers" he could prove that Kilgrim Hartek was in fact a legitimate heir to the house of Dureen and thus its Imperial Warrant.  It was, of course, a blatant fiction, completely unbelievable and liable to collapse if investigated with any rigour.  But it was enough to get the game back on track and continue the campaign.  House Dureen had a new leader, with a beard and a bad attitude.

Thus the legend began.

You see Kilgrim had been designed as a pretty gruff, brought up on the wrong side of the tracks, ruthless sociopath.  I mean he was by nature a thug, albeit one who had learned to command an armoured division.  When he uncovered a lead on a potentially profitable trading opportunity while carousing in a bar, he didn't think twice about quietly shanking his informant in a back alley to prevent him from passing it on to anyone else.  He was prone to high profanity, favoured the direct approach in all things and drank like, well like every fantasy dwarf stereotype you can imagine.  All of a sudden he was expected to rub shoulders with the 41st millennium equivalent of the Borgias and compete with them in trade.  While the GM allowed me to re-build Hartek as a Rogue Trader so that he could pick up some of the skills vital to the role, what was more fun was playing the way his attitude changed from that of a ruthless thug to become the leader of a noble house. (though to be honest, he never quite lost his thug core)  Think equal parts Bob Hoskins' Harold Shand from The Long Good Friday, Sergeant Williams from Zulu Dawn, Mark Addy's King Robert Baratheon from Game of Thrones and Brian Blessed's Voltan from Flash Gordon and..,. well pretty much anything else Brian Blessed has done.

Anyway, all though this, the Enginseer's player was keeping a written record of the game which was posted to the Fantasy Flight Games forums,where it became something of a minor hit. The game continued on.  We fought epic battles featuring thousands of troops, joined a crusade to purge a world of a Chaos infection and led a coalition of forces defending another world against an Orkish Waaaaagh! We picked up a couple of new players, extended our fleet and built up a federation of a half dozen worlds  Kilgrim held it all together with his... distinctive leadership style... which occasionally involved summary executions of underlings who disappointed him (though inevitably the reputation soon outgrew the facts)

Finally, the GM was due to move house to the other end of the country and so brought the campaign to a close with an epic struggle defending a populated system against a Tyranid hive fleet.  The system was, eventually, saved, though it required the sacrifice of the House's two most powerful ships, one commanded by the House's senior captain, the other by the Rogue Trader himself.  That was the tail end of last year, after nearly 50 game sessions spread just over a year.

So anyway, after the final chapters were posted to the Fantasy Flight forums, one of the other forum members commented something along the lines of "Every time I play Rogue Trader now, I find myself thinking "What would Hartek do in this situation?"

Someone else replied "Every Rogue Trader game should have a 'What Would Hartek Do' card?"

One of our players, Kat, got that mad gleam in her eye.  Instead of a card, she got some T-shirts made.


How. Cool. Is. That?

Coming next, back to terrain work for the Victorian Cityscape.

Where the streets have no name

This weekend, mi hermano del constructor Jonesy brought his daughter around and the three of us worked on the Victorian city terrain.

Jonesy and I focussed on the baseboards and drybrushing the Sarissa Precision City Block buildings, while Lex applied roofing tiles to the two Warbases terraced houses.

I'm quite happy with the way these are shaping up.  Instead of the Sarissa pavements we're going to be using  a paving pattern printed onto card, at least for our first game, which may eventually be replaced by something a little more substantial.  I've looked at several Victorian streets, original and re-created.  Many of them, though not all, have a pavement that is virtually flush with the road surface, with little or no raised kerb as we have with modern roads, so a thin card pavement is more appropriate than you'd first think.

One thing I am a little worried about is the cobblestone surface.  This is basically a wallpaper glued onto sheets of 3mm MDF and coated in black textured masonry paint.  It's more vulnerable to damage than I expected. Just stacking the sheets together, or putting buildings on the road surface, it seems too easy to scuff the paint off the raised areas of the cobblestones.  I'm wondering if the other people who've used this material have done anything extra to protect the surface, or if I'll just have to live with repainting the surface every so often.

Friday, 17 February 2012

When Two Tribes go to war...

In response to Bluebear Jeff's (waves) challenge to create a mini-campaign by linking together scenarios from CS Grant's book, here's my entry.  Seeing how other contributors have already diverged from the original brief of just using the book Scenarios For Wargames, using Table Top Teasers and Scenarios For All Ages, I've opted to craft my campaign entirely using scenarios from Programmed Scenarios For Wargamers.  It's designed to be as universally applicable as possible, with two relatively equivalent forces on either side.  It does presume the necessity of troops advancing overland, so if playing in the late 20th century or later periods assume that air-mobile troops are unavailable for some reason.

Continuing Diplomacy - a mini campaign

Relations between Country A and Country B have always been tense, but in recent months diplomacy between the two has become increasingly strained and both mobilise forces to the border region.  With two large armies operating in such close proximity, it's inevitable that at some point the two will come to blows.  The army commander on the spot has two choices: return to the capital and face censure and possible punishment for plunging the nation into an unwanted war, or take advantage of the outcome of the initial skirmishes and conduct a lightning campaign to secure a strategic advantage that will surely mollify the political leaders back home.

This campaign links scenarios from the book Programmed Scenarios for Wargamers by C S Grant.  The results of each scenario will affect the setup of the following battle.  The whole campaign will last five battles.  It is assumed that the forces in each scenario represent only a portion of the overall army, though I've included an optional rule if you wish to track casualties in units from battle to battle.

1 - Initial Scenario PSW#11 Crossroads (p79)

Two advance guards meet at a strategically important road junction.  The winner of this becomes the aggressor (Red) for the campaign, while the loser becomes the defender (Blue).  In the event of a draw, refight using a different army list, as different parts of the two armies move up to continue contesting the position.  Alternatively players may choose to break the tie with a set-piece battle on randomly generated terrain, the roll of a dice or with three rounds of Rock-Paper-Scissors (or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, if that's your fancy)

2 - PSW#18 A Hasty Blocking Position (p110)

With the advance guard having secured the route of advance for Red, Blue forces quickly move to try to cut them off from exploiting the breakthrough.
If Red wins this battle, go to 3
If Blue wins or draws this battle, go to 4

3 - PSW#5 The Weak Flank (p44)

With Red holding the strategic initiative, Blue is forced into a less than ideal defensive position, which Red has the opportunity to exploit with an attack on the weak flank.
If Red wins this battle, go to 5
If Blue wins this battle, go to 6

4 - PSW#1 Hill Line Defence (p18)

Having delayed Red's advancing forces, Blue is able to deploy in good defensive terrain, against which Red must make a potentially costly assault.
If Red wins this battle, go to 5
If Blue wins this battle, go to 6
In the event of a draw, roll a six sided dice (1-3 = go to 5, 4-6 = go to 6)

5 - PSW#7 Two sides of a River (p57)

With Red having broken through, Blue must deploy to defend against an advance that may come on either side of the River X.
If Red wins or draws this battle, go to 7
If Blue wins this battle, go to 8

6 - PSW#6 Crossing Point (p50)

Having been held off in the hills, Red diverts his advance through the lowlands and must force a crossing of the River X, which forms a natural defensive position for Blue.
If Red wins this battle, go to 7
If Blue wins this battle, go to 8

7 - PSW#8 Fighting Through (p62)

Red strikes deep into the Blue hinterland, aiming a thrust directly at Y-Town.
If Red wins this battle, it is a Major Red Campaign Victory
If Blue wins this battle, it is a Minor Blue Campaign Victory

8 - PSW#9 Island Stand (p67)

With the attempted strategic advance across the River X checked, Red must make a costly assault across it in order to seize Z-Town.  If Blue can repel them here, the aggressors will be unable to continue hostilities.
If Red wins this battle, it is a Minor Red Campaign Victory 
If Blue wins this battle, it is a Major Blue Campaign Victory 

Optional Rules

Casualty tracking
If you wish to employ the same units in subsequent battles you will need to keep track of casualties taken in each battle.  Assume that of all casualties taken, half will be recovered for future battles.  In order to keep the scenarios as balanced as possible, give each player the choice of using a fresh unit for each battle or bringing back one that has already fought.
If your wargame rules recognise troop quality, for the final battle roll a die for each unit that has fought in multiple battles.  If the roll is less than the number of battles they have fought, the surviving troops have become hardened and improve a level in quality for the final battle.  However, if the roll is a six, the unit has fought too much and is spent, lowering a level in quality. (The exact mechanics and values will vary with different rulesets.  Agree on how this will be implemented before starting the campaign)

Victory Points
As an alternative/supplement to the final battle determining the campaign result, players may like to track Victory points throughout the campaign.
For each victorious battle - 20 points
For each draw - 10 points to each side
For each unit in a battle that's carrying forward casualties from a previous battle - 1 point.
(note that a unit that fought previously but suffered no casualties does not get this, as obviously they weren't involved enough to count)


That's it.  Despite the branching structure, it's actually fairly linear, always ending up at one of two scenarios. I've tried to make sure that the terrain and situation in each game is a logical outcome of the previous battle.  The first battle and the last two are the most important.  The first determines which side becomes the strategic attacker (important because there's a very slight bias in favour of Red in the final scenarios) while the last two determine the overall campaign result, with the exact result in doubt until the very last battle.

If anyone ever plays this, do let me know how you get on.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Slow it down some and have some space...

I've decided four consecutive days of wargaming is getting perilously close to being too much of a good thing.  So since I already know how Soldier's Companion and TSAF play without VSF elements and have other things I need to do, I'm going to give them a bye into the "second round" of testing, which will involve vehicles and individual characters. Joining them will be "With Macduff to the Frontier". The other two rulesets have been banished from the island.

One of the other things I need to be doing is working on the base boards for the city terrain. I've started painting them, bit to my horror found that my best efforts to seal down the edges fell far short. The edges currently look like a ruffled collar. I'm resorting to clamping down the edges with strips of wood while the PVA glue dries. Painfully slow as I can only clamp 50cm or so at a time.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

On the Rocky Road to Dublin, one-two-three-four-five.

Well maybe not Dublin, but Castle Donington, to visit my old friends Rick and Ruth and help give their eldest son Saul a lesson in painting wargames miniatures, as well as show him how a wargame is played.

After a brief sojourn on the M6 car park, and only falling asleep once on the A50 (all hail the rumble strip!) I arrived mid morning and after a much needed cup of tea and being introduced to Saul's two younger brothers for the first time, we set to work in the garage painting Saul's five Space Ranger miniatures from EM-4

Now I have a soft spot for the Space Rangers, having picked up a box of them before EM-4 got hold of them.  They're very simple miniatures and a good alternative to the Games Workshop Space Marines.

Painting with the young padewan.
Saul had tried painting a couple of the figures already and had done well considering he'd had no instructions as to how best to paint miniatures.  I talked to him about caring for your brushes, how it's best to use different sized brushes depending on what you're painting and how it's best not to have too much paint on your brush and to paint it on thinly so as not to obscure the detail of the figure.  Saul picked things up really quickly, and his painting skills improved immensely.  I even showed him a little drybrushing and how it can add texture to a paint job.

He also had a very small selection of paints available, while I'd brought down my set of Inscribe Craft Acrylics, which I swear by these days as a much cheaper alternative to dedicated modelling paints (and to my mind, just as good)

After lunch we laid out a small skirmish terrain and I got out a few Victoriana/Steampunk figures and we had a game using Ganesha Games' Flying Lead.  I didn't bother with points or a proper warband, but just picked three figures each - two with guns, one with a melee weapon - and gave each side matching characteristics.  Unusually for Ganesha's games, the game dragged on and on and it seemed like no-one was able to get the upper hand.  Saul's figure shot my top-hatted adventurer, who Went To Ground, but both his other men failed to get a successful killing hit on him before he was able to recover.  My leader, a German swordsman called Colonel Gruber chased his figure all the way round the table, struggling to catch up with him and never quite landing a solid sword blow.  Saul's Gunfighter and my top-hatted adventurer traded pistol shots for a while at short range, missing every time, until I brought up my third short-sleeved villain to gang up on him.  Then on the turn we decided was to be the end of the game, Saul's Gunfighter scored a spectacular hit on Shirt Sleeves, nearly killing him outright and putting him Out Of The Fight.  Saul had won his first wargame!

Photo by Saul, as my top-hatted adventurer
has a nice lie down in the middle of the battle.
We talked for a bit about what other wargaming figures are available, and about Games Workshop.  Saul decided that he'd like to collect some Romans first, a good choice of a historical army.  I gave him a copy of Song Of Blades and Heroes as well as Flying Lead.

We then spent another hour or so finishing up the painting we'd been doing and I showed Saul how to texture a figure base with sand and flock, and how you can also use tea leaves. (Mummy and Daddy may now notice their stock of tea bags declining at an accelerated rate - such is the price of raising a wargamer!)  Another cheap-as-chips alternative to expensive modelling sand from GW is Wilco Bird Sand, which I use for most of my basing.

By the end of the day, Saul managed to get all five of his Space Ranger figures painted, with just a couple of bits and pieces here and there that needed finishing off.  One thing we didn't do was apply any Army Painter Quickshade.  That's because I didn't bring any with me, fearing the tin might burst open on the journey (having had that happen to me recently with another tin of stain/varnish.  I left it up to Saul and his dad whether they get the proper Army Painter Quickshade from my preferred supplier, or go for one of the almost as good but much cheaper alternatives.

It was dark by the time I left, and after falling asleep again on the A50, a service station coffee pepped me up enough to make it home safely.

All in all it was an enjoyable day and I hope it's set another potential wargamer on the road to the best hobby in the world.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

As I went home on Tuesday night...

I've had a better read of Edwardian Splendour.  It's nice but... to be honest it's got a rather fussy turn sequence (Move figures, fire from non-moving figures then after that fire from moving figures) that looks like it might be irritating to keep track of)  So I don't think I'll be trying that.

Instead I'm pondering trying Warhammer: The Great War, which I bought ages ago when it was on sale.

Incidentally after three days fighting over this same terrain, I've reached the conclusion that 10 man manoeuvre units are much better suited to this sort of cluttered layout.  The 20 man units look impressive but are just too ungainly in anything other than plain, abstracted terrain (the sort of  "one wood, two hills" terrain that competition gamers tend to use.)  I'm going to experiment later on with games using that sort of terrain and the figures using movement trays again, but for the bulk of my games I want to go back to individually based figures organised in 10 man platoons.

Onwards to today's test candidate and the Third Battle Of Little Grantling-on-the-Test.
Today only - two cavalry melees for the price of one!

Colonial Adventures is a Two Hour Wargames ruleset designed for the same sort of game as Soldiers Companion and The Sword And The Flame.  THW rules are all based around their celebrated "Reaction System", which often dictate how your troops on the tabletop will act.  This feature makes their rules highly entertaining for solitaire play, as the Reaction tables can drive non-player troops actions.  Their flagship is a set of modern skirmish rules called Chain Reaction, the latest definitive version of which is actually available as a free download.  Other skirmish rulesets, like "All things Zombie", "NUTS!" and "5150 Star Army" are based off this set to some degree or another.  The big-battle rules use different mechanisms for combat, but still tend to retain  the idea of reaction tests.

I've long been an advocate of 2HW rules, so I was looking forward to trying Colonial Adventures.

Overall I was a little disappointed.  I won't be doing a blow-by-blow account or too many pictures of this game, as a lot of it followed a similar course of events to the previous two.

The first thing you run into is the Activation system.  Troops in most 2HW rules are rated by "Reputation" or REP (the name I think is a hangover from their original Western gunfight game, 6 Gun Sound)  Regular troops are REP 4, elites might be REP 5.  On Reaction tests, your rep is the number you need to roll or lower one each of two or three dice, different numbers of successes yield different results.  In combat, your REP is the base number of dice you roll.  But for Activation, every turn both sides roll 1D6.  The highest roller wins initiative and gets to go first BUT can only activate units of REPs equal to or higher than their roll. So it's perfectly possible for you to "win" the initiative 6-1, but be unable to activate any troops because the best troops you have are only REP 5.  This happened many times during the playtest.

Like I said earlier about the FUBAR activation, it's easy to rationalise this and necessarily unrealistic. But it can be frustrating and not-fun.

The next thing that shook me up was the movement distances.  Infantry in line moves 4".  Column 8" Open Order 12".  Doesn''t sound too bad, does it?  Until you realise that troops more than 2ft away from the enemy can make "Fast Moves" that double this value.  In Turn 1 the Border Light Infantry were able to cross half my 4ft table and make it to the farmyard.  What makes it worse is that cavalry in Line can only move 8", which means your open order infantry can outrun horses...

Both the Guardsmen (left) and the Light Inf (right)
after one turn of moving left to right from the
same starting position. 
The difference is so extreme, it's hard to rationalise why anybody would ever use anything except Open Order.  Now we can look back on our vantage point from a hundred years down the time stream and say "Of course open order is better, that's why troops fight dispersed nowadays."  But we're trying to recreate the style of fighting from the mid-to-late 19th century, when troops were still using close order drill (albeit in decline)

The only advantage offered to troops in Line is actually quite nifty.  Formed troops in Line that fire are considered to be using Volley Fire.  The number of casualties caused by that fire is then applied as a penalty to the REP of the targets when they take their "Suffered Casualties" Reaction test.  So a REP4 unit that takes 3 casualties needs to be rolling 1s to pass Reaction.  Doubly nasty, as a double failure on this test can cause 1/3 of your remaining unit to run away, or the whole unit to rout if down to 25% strength.  So if a 20 man unit takes a single casualty, but then fails both rolls on the Suffered Casualties reaction test, a further 6 men could rout!

Guardsmen and German infantry exchanging fire at the
top of Main Road
Ranged combat is yet another "handful of dice, hits on X" system., though the number of dice is based on the unit REP and weapon, with some modifiers for outnumbering your target by 2 or 3 to one.  This number of dice is then capped at half the number of firing figures, so if your unit is down to ten men, the most it can roll in ranged combat is 5 dice.

Artillery is a little more effective in this ruleset than the previous two, mainly down to the fact that for outnumbering purposes the number of gunners is multiplied by 5.  So my two gun battery with four gunners is equivalent to 40 men.  There's a stupid typo on the quick reference sheet that had me confused at first - the range bands were reversed so that it looked like field guns were getting 5 weapon dice at long range, when the weapons table in the body of the text makes it clear - +5 dice at up to 6" close range, +2 dice for up to 36".  As a result my first few artillery bombardments were particularly effective and made it look like a superweapon!

I have the nagging suspicion that the de-emphasis of the number of firers leads to some glitchy maths if you allow units to split their fire.  In the test game, the advancing Guardsmen found themselves separated by a terrain feature with each half-unit facing a different enemy unit, such that splitting their fire was the only logical  course of action.  The unit firing as a whole (20 men) got 5 dice (REP) plus 2 (for breachloading rifles) but did not outnumber their target unit enough to get a bonus, giving them a total of 7 dice which is less than half the 20 men in the unit, and so isn't capped.  Split into two half-units, each unit gets the same 5 dice (REP) plus 2 (weapon), which is then capped down to 5 as half the number of men firing.  So the two half units put out a total of 10 firing dice, compared to the unified unit only managing 7.

I'm not sure I like that, and while it's easy to rule "NO SPLIT FIRE", that then leads to the situation where half a unit can't fire because it's confronted by a different target unit to its other half.  This situation came up an awful lot in the test game, with the terrain leading to a lot of L-shaped deployments, half the unit across the width of the road and the other half at right angles to it.

Melee combat works via a similar mechanism to ranged fire.  It's easy for a melee to be inconclusive as both sides roll and take the difference between the number of successes as the casualties to be applied to the losing side.

Like Macduff, there's a mechanism for recovering a proportion of your casualties by Rallying, but this requires keeping track of which casualties are available for recovery and which are irretrievably lost.  Couter-intuitively, troops lost through "runaway" results on the Reaction table cannot be recovered in this way and are lost permanently.

Like most 2HW rulesets, Colonial Adventures comes with its own campaign system and a mechanism for randomly generating battlefield terrain.  These features weren't part of this test.

Overall I'm somewhat conflicted about Colonial Adventures.  There's plenty of interesting stuff here, but too much that just doesn't feel right.  Open Order movement needs to be dropped or seriously curtailed - I'd at least drop it down to equal Column speed.  The casualty threshold at which a unit might break and run is set way too high at 75%, which led to inconclusive combats.

I can't say for sure, but I get the distinct impression that Victorian or Colonial gaming is not one of the author's real interests, as he even gives a credit in the rules to someone "for showing me what Colonials should look like."  I think this set may have been written in response to requests from the 2HW fans rather than having any real feel for the genre/period.

So a very disappointed thumbs down for Colonial Adventures for me.  I still wholeheartedly recommend Chain Reaction and its derivatives as possibly the very best simulation of small-unit/individual fire combat around, but CA is not the game I'm looking for.

No test game tomorrow, as I'm travelling down to the East Midlands to visit an old friend and his son who received some miniatures for Christmas and is looking for help and advice on painting and gaming with them.    But I'll  be back on Thursday with either Soldier's Companion or The Sword And The Flame.

Monday, 13 February 2012

As I went home on Monday night...

Before I get on with the second day of testing, I want to mention another possible contender I might be adding to the test, along with addressing some of the suggestions.

I remember seeing Afriboria years ago, but sadly when I google for it now, the web page it comes up with is no longer active, so it looks like Rudi has taken the rules down.  Besides, wasn't Afriboria more of a small-scale, Darkest Africa game?

Regarding Sharp Practice - I've heard lots of good things about this and other rules from Two Fat Lardies, and would like to try some of them sometime.  But right now  I'm having to be a little careful with my gaming budget, and can't really afford to spend on rules that I may or may not  use.  Incidentally this is the same reason why I'm not considering Valor Steel and Flesh - with postage from the states the game comes to $40.  Now while that's pretty steep, in my opinion, if it winds up giving me many, many hours of fun I can live with it (I had the same reservations about GASLIGHT originally, being quite a lot of money for a fairly thin booklet, but amortising the cost over the years-of-fun made it one of the best value games I've ever bought) but if it's going to be bought, played once or twice then forgotten... well that's a couple of units of infantry that I won't be able to buy.  So I'm limiting this to free rules, rules I already own and rules that are cheaply available as PDFs.

I'd also looked at When The Navy Walked as a possible candidate, but like Battles By GASLIGHT. it's designed for a much bigger scale game using smaller scale figures (with multi-figure bases).  With a quick glance, the vehicles in there seemed rather generic types too - It's basically not designed to give the sort of game I'm looking for.

A new candidate that I might add to the testing list is a free set called Edwardian Splendour.  It's designed for honest-to-god Toy Soldiers in the Little Wars mold rather than the conventional wargames figures I'm using.  But it's free, and it might be worth a look.

Now onto the testing....

British Lancers discover you don't bring your horse to a gun fight in FUBAR.

Today I gave FUBAR and its VSF supplement a run out.  FUBAR was designed as a quick-play Sci-Fi modern game, largely aimed at giving the Warhammer 40K crowd an alternative set of rules.  Supplements have been written for various specific settings (40K, Star Wars) including Victorian Science Fiction.  Several  people on the Lead Adventure Forums seemed to be very keen on these rules, so I thought I'd give them a go.  The troops were all reset to their original starting points and the Second Battle of Little Grantling-on-the-Test.

The first thing that hits you playing FUBAR is how brutal the activation system is.  Basically you need to roll to activate each unit, which needs a roll of 4-6 on a six-sided dice.  If you fail, then initiative passes over to the other side.  On the plus side, this does mean that play flip-flops between players quite often, but it does mean that on average half of your troops will do nothing every turn.  Realistic for representing the chaos of the battlefield but... Doing Stuff in a game tends to be more fun than Not Doing Stuff. FUBAR involves a lot of Not Doing Stuff.  If you've ever torn your hair out because of a streak of failed Sustain rolls in GASLIGHT, FUBAR is not for you.

I did also have some trouble remember which units had activated already in the turn, with the constant flip-flopping from one side to the other.  In the end I brought out some Stealth Counters which, though too dark for the table top, were able to blend in nicely with any flocked terrain.  After I started using them, I had no problem keeping track of activations.

The next thing you notice is how bare-bones basic the rules are.  There are no terrain bonuses or penalties for movement and very few modifiers of any kind.  But turning over to the VSF supplement page, it has one glaring omission THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY NO RULES FOR CAVALRY OR OTHERWISE MOUNTED TROOPS!  None at all.  Zip.  Nada.  I'm sorry, but although cavalry was on the decline towards the end of the Victorian era, cavalry have been a  part of most VSF games I've played.

So as soon as my first cavalry unit was activated I had to sit down and come up with rules to handle them.  I wound up going with the traditional double-the-infantry moves for them, which meant they would normally move 12"

In the first turn, virtually no British units activated successfully.The one exception was the Lancers, who deciding that someone from the British side really ought to turn up to the battle, gave up their reserve position and rode forward to threaten the advancing German infantry.  Who promptly shot them to pieces.  After taking fire from the artillery as well, the cavalrymen retired with four of their number dead and nothing to show for it.

The firefight along main street. Neither side
would gain the upper hand until supported by other units.

 Firing in FUBAR is a variation on the tried and trusted "buckets of dice and roll a six" method.  The best thing about FUBAR is the casualty Supression option.  When your unit takes casualties, you have the option of taking some of them as Suppressions instead, the number of which depends on your troop quality.  These are like temporary casualties, recovered the next time you attempt Activate the unit.  But the number of suppressed figures also becomes a modifier to your Activation roll, so taking suppressions means your unit is going to last longer in combat, but be less able to actually do anything while suppressed.

It also adds an interesting tactical choice.. If I have a unit with suppressions on it, do I try to activate it early in the turn, knowing that there's a greater chance their Activation will fail, but recovering the suppressions sooner.  Or do I activate other, unsuppressed units first to get as many of my own sides' actions in before the initiative flip-flops.  Managing suppressions is the key to inflicting and avoiding casualties - two units can trade fire without much effect, but better to bring in a third supporting unit to tip the balance.

Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming
Can't you see their speapoints gleaming?
Neath the warrior pennants streaming
To this battlefield.
In this game, both sides cavalry managed to get a successful charge in.  As an ad-hoc rules patch I gave charging cavalry double close-combat dice to represent the shock of impact., which seemed to work well.  It meant that the initial turn's combat tended to go heavily in the cavalry's favour, but after that they were on even terms with Infantry.  Charged units also had the possibility of firing at their attackers before melee, but there's no mechanism for having this repel the charge.  Nor is there any mechanism for winning or losing the combat as a unit.  Once close combat is initiated it's generally man-to-man until one side is completely destroyed.

The Uhlans made it into contact this game, and fought several turns of back-and-forth combat with half a unit of British infantry before being wiped out.  The British Lancers repeated their charge up the main road to wipe out a German half unit that had been weakened by fire.  History repeated itself however, and the following turn the remaining Lancers were wiped out by fire from the Zeptruppen in the same position as yesterday.

Didn't I see you here last night?
Play generally followed similar lines to yesterdays game.  The grenadiers again failed to make it to the farm and wound up trading fire with the German unit who got there first.  But this time their ability to take more suppressions than the enemy, combined with their better marksmanship, their casualties weren't so extreme.  With support from the Light Infantry on the hill behind them, they were able to whittle down the Germans' numbers till their position was untenable.

There aren't many... or really any... morale rules in FUBAR.  The one thing hidden there that I didn't spot until late in the game was that units down to 50% strength that fail to successfully activate are forced to retire 6".  Until I found that I'd had fragments of units doggedly hanging on until the last man, but even with this rule intact expect your table to be a lot emptier towards the end of the game.

I came to the conclusion about halfway through the game that FUBAR is not the game I'm looking for.  I think it would work well in the style of game it was originally designed for.. sci-fi armed mobs clashing with no real sense of modern small-unit tactics.  I think it would also work rather well for A Very British Civil War, as having units constantly failing to activate  (presumably stopping for tea) seems to suit a war of untrained amateurs.

But even with the VSF supplement, there's absolutely nothing Victorian about it.  No formations, no Victorian era weaponry (I used the generic Infantry Rifle stats) and as mentioned earlier, no horses.  The VSF supplement focuses on individual characters (like GASLIGHT's Main Characters), steampunk equipment, a revised Vehicle section and a section on Automata, both the last mainly being concerned with a malfunction table for each.

There are a couple of nice tactical choices, one is suppression management as mentioned earlier.  You have a choice of actions you can take.  Do you move your unit to a better position and fire, or do you stand still and take a positive modifier on your firing dice?  Or do you hold fire and move faster and evasively, gaining the equivalent of a cover bonus (this is obviously more suited to small squad games)

That said, I did enjoy the game.  Play ripped along at a fair old pace, largely due to units failing to activate.  There were several significant beats or phases to the battle and I was entertained.  But towards the end I started to find things a little monotonous. 
"Boom, boom, boom, boom,boom,boom,boom."
from The German Guns by R Balderick.
If I wanted to dig out my bucket 'o Space Marines (which I bought cheaply second hand, and with entirely ironic intent) and wanted to have a lighthearted no-brainer game with several 5-10 man squads, FUBAR would be one of the better choices available.  If your idea of VSF is a bunch of armed mobs running around without any horses, then it might do for you too.

But it's not for me.

On to the next candidate.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

As I went home on Sunday night, as drunk as drunk could be...

Kicking off what's strictly speaking Five Wargamey Afternoons rather than Seven Drunken Nights, I give you The First Battle of Little Grantling-on-the-Test.

Positions by the end of turn 1
As I mentioned in the earlier post, the first rules up for testing "With Macduff to the Frontier."  Although not strictly compulsory, Macduff (for brevity) encourages players to brigade units together, under a brigade commander figure.  I decided to treat each 20 man unit as a brigade of 2 10 man units, giving each brigade a command figure (on foot, as I don't currently have any mounted officers.)  Frankly I think this was a mistake on my part, as it was too easy for each Brigadier to accompany his unit, granting the "Follow me" orders bonus automatically.  A better option would have been to brigade all three 20 man units together under a single brigadier, as that way there's more of a challenge in deciding where to apply the Brigadier.

I also added a 10 man light infantry unit to each side, and rated one unit per side as elite (the Guardsmen and the Zepptruppen)

The first thing I noticed, unconnected with the rules on test, was that the multi-figure movement trays didn't seem to save that much time, and were in fact a bloody nuisance on occasion with the cluttered terrain.  The trays were too wide to fit on my road sections, kept snagging on terrain items and sticking up and out in a most un-aesthetic manner.  Units changing formation from line to column or vice-versa took just as long to pivot each figure in the tray as it would to move all the figures individually, and as the game  progressed I gradually phased them out for most units.  These trays would be excellent for playing big open field battles, but for busy terrain layouts like this one I'm going to go back to individual figures.

The next thing I noticed is that Macduff is clearly written for the larger wargaming table.  Infantry in column along a road can get up to 18" a turn, cavalry easily 24".  That can really tear up a 4' table, and meant that manoeuvring was going to be severely limited.  However the number of figures I was trying to cram onto a small, tight terrain meant that I was almost forced to keep some troops in reserve

It's not easy, being green
Rather than blow-by-blow, I'll summarise what happened by wing.  On the German right flank, the Jaegers tried to hold the wooded area while the Uhlans waited for the British infantry on the other side of the cornfield to be weakened before charging.  Unfortunately both fell foul of Macduff's Reaction rules.  A non-initiative unit which hasn't already activated and is either fired on, charged or otherwise has something happen right in front of its noses, can choose to shoot or take a half-move (either retreating or counter-charging) simultaneously with the triggering action.  So when the ten men of the Jaegers fired at the British unit, the British unit reacted by firing back with all twenty men, killing half the Jaegers in a single turn.  Similarly when the Uhlans later tried to charge the same unit, which by now had been whittled down to about thirteen men, they were repulsed by the Brits' Reaction fire before they could make contact.

The Border Light Infantry discovering that the
Guardsmen's bearskins make excellent cover.
Meanwhile on the British right flank (German left) a unit of troops had gotten itself into a nice defensive position behind a wall and was facing off against the Grenadier Guards.  The way firing works in Macduff is that for each fire dice rolled, a 4,5 causes one casualty and a 6 causes two.  But that -1 cover modifier meant that the grenadiers could never score that two casualty result, which made a big difference in the effectiveness of the two units' fire.  By the end, the Grenadiers were down to just the two officers and the Brigadier before they retired back to the other side of a hill to rally.  The Guards did however manage to whittle down the Germans' numbers so that later in the game when the Border Light Infantry wheeled round and poured fire into them from the flank, it didn't take much to reduce them to Shaken and force them to retreat.

In the centre, the Germans ran into something of a traffic jam in their deployment through the village.  But once they'd gotten into good positions they were able to put out a very effective curtain of fire against the attacking British.  They were also forced to split their artillery apart, one gun engaging the massed British artillery on the hill and quickly coming off the worst, the other facing up the main road and pouring fire into the flank of the British left-flank unit.

Shock and Awe, Victorian style!
Meanwhile the British had kept their Lancers in reserve in the centre.  The British infantry unit in the centre got shot to pieces by the well positioned Germans, however their fire, combined with fire from the Light Infantry and the artillery on the hill, managed to whittle their numbers down to the 50% shaken threshold.  It was then that the British reserve cavalry thundered up the road, passing through the shattered remnants of the infantry and smashing into the Germans along their flank.  It was a massacre, and thanks to the Pursuit rules the lancers were then able to continue their charge on to the adjacent artillery crew, who met a similar fate.  Flushed with success, the following turn the victorious Lancers came under fire from the Zeptruppen who had taken up position in the adjacent field.  The Lancers charged, but despite gaining double dice for being charging cavalry (roll twice, pick the best), the Zeptruppen's modifiers for being Elites(+1) defending an obstacle (+1) tipped the balance.  Two riders fled the scene of the massacre, while the Zeptruppen  didn't lose a man.
Bravely ran away, away...
By the end of the battle, both the German flanks had collapsed, with only the Zeptruppen holding strong in the centre and all their other units either wiped out or in tatters.  The British however had an intact artillery battery, an untouched light infantry unit and one unit of regulars in good order at 70% strength.
 The Grenadiers and the other unit of infantry were slowly rallying, and it was at this point that I called the game in favour of the British.
The penultimate turn - the Uhlans in the far distance were eventually
whittled down to one man and the German infantry in the foreground
 down to three before they both retired.
Overall my impression of the rules in play are very favourable.  It's inevitable that with any homegrown rules set you run into things where the rules author obviously knows what he means, as do his regular opponents who make up 99% of the rules userbase.  For example, it wasn't immediately clear to me whether a formation made up of multiple units (i.e. a brigade) rolls orders for each constituent unit separately, or just once for the whole formation - I interpreted it as the latter based on a later section about the "Follow Me" rule, but I could see it being read either way.  Also the Rally rule indicates a roll of one results in the loss of a straggler.  I wasn't sure whether that meant that one of the unit's casualty figures is lost permanently and can't be Rallied (based on some comments Ross had made recently in his blog) or if it meant the loss of another surviving figure.  I interpreted it as the latter, which made Rallying something of a dicey proposition, and more than one shattered unit found themselves nickel-and-dimed away by a series of unlucky Rally rolls.

But on the whole I found the rules clear and concise and with enough tactical options to make it interesting.  For example, there may be times when it might be best not to React to enemy fire - instead of the Grenadiers standing on the hilltop trading fire at a disadvantage with the better entrenched German infantry, they should have gritted their teeth and waited until their own activation, then either attempted a charge (where their Elite status would have evened the odds) or pulled back out of sight to Rally before attempting to advance again.  If on the other hand the Germans had been supported by a second unit, the Guards would then have to endure their fire as well, suffering even more casualties and making the immediate Reaction option more favourable.

The Reaction system also cancelled out the big weakness of Igo-Ugo initiative systems, whereby the side who gets to fire first in a turn gains a great advantage.  The Germans won every initiative roll in the game except the last one, but every British unit they targeted was able to fire back at full strength before taking casualties.

I believe these rules are aimed at a fairly open terrain layout, with most clutter and obstacles not portrayed on the tabletop but abstracted into the movement distances.  It didn't take long to adjust things to my more cluttered countryside terrain.

As the German Uhlans showed, with 10 man cavalry and 20 man infantry units, a frontal cavalry charge against an unshaken infantry unit is a recipe for disaster, especially if they're ready to give Reaction fire before you contact them.  But as the British Lancers showed,  at the right place and time a cavalry charge can be devastating.  And instead of barrelling straight into the Zeptruppen's position, they should have either withdrawn to cover, or continued up the road and around the Zeptruppen's flank, making their position unsustainable.

All God's chillun gots guns.
Artillery isn't a major decision arm in Macduff - a field gun with two fire dice is only equivalent in firepower to four infantrymen.  But it does have double the rifle's range.  Larger numbers of guns on the battlefield (mounted, let's say, on steam powered vehicles) aren't going to totally overwhelm the importance of infantry and cavalry.  One thing missing that I would have liked was some kind of boost to artillery firepower at very close range, representing canister or grapeshot, but I suspect that this is a finer detail than Ross is aiming for.

The pace of the game was pretty good - the first couple of turns took about 45 minutes to an hour each including a lot of reading and rereading the rules, but by the end of the game I was managing a turn in about a half hour (less as more units became ineffective or were destroyed).  I'm confident that these rules could still play well with many more troops on the table, especially if you're able to play for a longer time.

To adapt Macduff for VSF would need a little bit of work.  Tweaks to ranges and fire dice could give a bit more variety in weaponry, with vehicle movement distances set by vehicle type and size, comparable to infantry and cavalry.  A weapon vs vehicle damage system would have to be constructed from whole cloth, or transplanted from another game.

If I were to play this scenario again with MacDuff, I'd switch to three 10-man units per brigade, with fewer Brigadiers. Cavalry charges are more likely to make it home against 10 man units, plus you're more likely to see shaken units being rallied back up to 75% (actually 80%) strength, which means you're more likely to see units attacking, bouncing, pulling back to Rally then being thrown back into the fight.

To some up, "With MacDuff to the Frontier" gives a really enjoyable game of toy soldiers, with enough options and tactical choices to make it mentally challenging, and with an overall result that feels "realistic".  I definitely want to play it again, both solitaire and with a human opponent, even if I don't choose to adapt it for VSF gaming.

So you wanted, to take a break...

I suppose I ought to explain why I'm looking at alternate rules to get my Victoriana/VSF fix.  After all, I've long been a strong advocate of GASLIGHT, to the point of having written the roleplaying supplement to it.  But lately I've been growing a little dissatisfied with the game it gives.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great set of rules, and I still plan to use it for any multiplayer "events" like the Big Birthday Bash or the March Madness Melee. GASLIGHT handles that sort of game better than any other ruleset I know.  It's just that for a day-to-day working ruleset it doesn't quite give me the sort of game I'd like.  There's little or no real feel of Victorian warfare (which is the flipside of its strength - that it can be easily adapted for Weird War II, Zombies or even Buck Rogers) and no real tactical feel - most games I've played feel like slogging matches without much scope for clever manoeuvring.

My regular players also feel that GASLIGHT struggles with larger numbers of troops on the table, though I personally don't entirely agree with them, their opinion presents an obstacle to playing the scale of games that I'd like to be playing.

Finally, GASLIGHT's wonderful, elegant morale mechanism (essentially roll D20, halve it, score less than number of men remaining in unit to pass) does strongly encourage if not rigidly enforce the 10 man units for everything.  The Compendium includes the common-sense rules for different unit sizes (change the number you divide 20 by) but unless your unit size is a factor of 20 (2, 4, 5, 10 or 20) the arithmetic gets a little wonky.  This is particularly annoying when buying cavalry - many manufacturers sell in packs of 3 or 4 cavalry, which means equipping a 10 man unit always forces you to buy more figures than you need.  The morale rules also treat vehicles as a group of crewmen rather than as a single discrete entity, which means there's little chance of a morale failure unless the vehicle has actually taken crew casualties.

So GASLIGHT, I think it's time we took a break, saw other wargames rules.  It's not you, it's me.

'Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's Green and Pleasant Land
I've setup my 4'  table (the largest I have that can be left up) with terrain based on CS Grant's Table Top Teaser #3 Advance Guard Action, although I'm not planning on using the reinforcements that scenario suggests.  As you'll notice, I've cluttered up the terrain a little more than in the Teaser's map, to better reflect the sort of terrain I tend to play my Invasion England games on. Both sides will have 3 units of 20 infantry each, one unit of 10 cavalry and two field guns, quite a lot of troops for a small table.  I'm going to try to play this same scenario five times in the coming week, once with each of the rules I mentioned in yesterdays post.  No VSF elements just yet, I'm looking to see how well the game plays solitaire with so many figures on the table and how much of a game I can cram into a single afternoon's play.

One thing that concerns me.  I'm playing this at my father's house, and all my period-appropriate hats are at my flat.  In addition, even if they were here I'm not sure whether wearing pickelhaube or pith helmet would impact my solitaire impartiality.  So against both custom and better judgement, I shall be conducting these test games without the benefit of a Silly Hat.  How much this will impact the game's enjoyment factor remains to be seen.

I has my terrain.  I has my tape measure.  I has my dice.  Time to get the little lead heroes onto the table and into action.  First up will be Ross Mac's "With MacDuff To The Frontier".

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Some talk of Alexander, some talk of Hercules

Because You Asked for It (tm).  I don't claim to be any more than a competent painter, if that, and I paint to get figures onto the gaming table, no more than that.
The Ironclad British Guardsmen (Painted as Grenadier Guards*)

(According to Wikipedia, Regiments of Foot Guards can be identified by a combination of the spacing of their tunic buttons and the colour of their plumes.  Since the tunic buttons aren't really visible on any but the officers, I've settled for just using the plume, which is white in the case of these chaps)

The ten on the left were painted last summer for the Big Birthday Bash, the ten on the right I completed last week to make up the full company (20 man) strength.  I dunno, I just find something wonderfully archaic about bearskins on the battlefield.  It just seems to lend the affair a touch of class.

I've rather gone off the Ironclad troops.  They're nice enough and fit in well with all the other ranges, but as I've mentioned before they all had a problem with blocking between the body and weapon.  If I buy any more regulars in Home Service Helmet, they're almost certainly going to be from Redoubt, but for Guardsmen, Ironclad remain the only game in town.

As an aside, you may notice that these figures are mounted into movement trays.  These are from and they're designed to fit UK one penny pieces.  These ten-man trays cost a pound each and come as bare MDF, which I've simply flocked. (Other combinations are available, along with a similar range that fits 2p pieces).  I'm hoping that these movement trays are going to facilitate larger battles, and have sent Warbases a query about getting some custom trays made for my cavalry and artillery.

Now although I painted these next chaps months ago, it just occurred to me that I'd never posted pics of them, although I remember talking at length about how frustrating it was to assemble them.  Ladies and Gentlemen, the men of the 23rd Regiment, Special Aether Service....

 I'd wanted to do an explicitly steampunk or VSF unit, as opposed to most of the troops I've painted which wouldn't look out of place in an entirely historical game.  One of the most enduring images from my childhood was that of the SAS assault on the Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980.  I wanted to capture the flavour of the black-clad SAS troopers in NBC assault gear, but with a Victorian/Steampunk twist.

Now as it happens, Black Pyramid were running a promotion at the time for their new landship models, where for every landship you bought you could get a free pack of figures.  I hadn't realised this, so when they mailed me to ask what free packs I would like it was a pleasant surprise.  The default Tea Wars figures come with tropical style sun helmets, no good for those of us fighting on the home front, but they did do separate heads with a spiked helmets and gasmasks.  These were no good to me normally either, as I don't use poison gas weapons in my VSF (it being a little to grim & WWI)

But for special, shock troops they'd be perfect.  With the Air becoming Aether, they had even more justification for wearing breathing apparatus.  So I ordered a Command figure pack to make up the complete unit and enough spike helmet gasmask heads to convert them all.  Rather then red jackets, I wanted to capture the "SAS Assault" look, while at the same time sticking to something broadly historical.  in the end I went for a very dark, almost rifle green.  The facings and puggaree (cloth wrapped around the helmet) I painted Sand, to reference the real-life regiment's distinctive beret colour.  Finally, rather than arming them with regular rifles, or the Automatic Rifles that Black Pyramid also do, I went with their Aether Weapons pack.  In the setting, they are armed with Bolt Rifles, very large caliber weapons firing explosive shells.  (Yes, shades of Games Workshop Space Marines, I know. And that's not altogether a bad thing).  This makes them quite capable at taking out armoured vehicles if required.

I've already documented the frustrating process of assembling these chaps, but once done they're pleasantly beefy, just a little chunkier than the Ironclad figures.  For the unit's officer I decided to use the standard bearer figure, let's face it, all the Rupert has to do is stand there and look pretty while the rest of the lads get on and do the job.  The standard uses the fanciful "Black Ops" unit insignia that's floating around on the internet, with the motto reading "If I told you, I'd have to kill you." in Latin.  It's so dark as to normally be indistinguishable to the naked eye (the flash brings it out, along with the white edging on the flag which isn't so obvious normally - time to dig out the black marker pen and edge it properly)
Assembled and painted, these chaps look superbly menacing, and make me want to produce a couple of units of gasmasked redcoats as shock troops for when I'm in a more Dystopian mood, or as antagonists in an upcoming "Very Victorian Civil War"

So I've been looking at several sets of rules as possible options for a larger scale game than GASLIGHT is suited to.  The short list is as follows.

  • The Sword and The Flame
  • Space 1889 Soldier's Companion
  • FUBAR (with the VSF expansion)
  • Colonial Adventures, with elements of NUTS!, both from 2 hour Wargames
  • With MacDuff to the Frontier

Keen eyed readers will notice that not all of those rulesets are VSF games.

Larry Brom's "The Sword and the Flame" is one of the top historical Colonial games, but I certainly wouldn't be the first gamer to adapt it to VSF.  In fact Terry Sofian recently published a supplement "The Hive and the Flame" for fighting battles in his "For Hive Queen and Country." setting.

Soldier's Companion is at heart a solid set of 19th century/colonial wargame rules, with the fantastic conveyances of the Space 1889 universe bolted on. I've played quite a few straight historical battles with these rules, and quite a few of Sky Galleons of Mars (airships) and Ironclads and Etherflyers (the naval wargame) but never SC with any sort of VSF elements.  It does have a fairly strict but robust vehicle design system, which means that some more fanciful vehicles might not be possible to recreate (like the Springenpanzer, or the one-man tank mounting the 6" Naval gun) without some heavy handwaving.

FUBAR is a free one-page set of rules designed for fast-play science fiction battles, but it does have a VSF supplement which adds quite a bit of steampunk flavour.  Players must roll to activate units, succeed and they may then try to activate another unit, fail and initiative passes to the other player.  Initiative flip flops this way until all units have moved or attempted activation.

I've long been a massive fan of Ed Teixeira's Two Hour Wargames for his skirmish games, and am quite fond of Rally Round the King for large but fast-play fantasy/medieval battles.  Colonial Adventures is his entry into the colonial market and seems designed for similar games to TSATF and Soldier's Companion.  NUTS! is his WWII game, and has what looks like a solid vehicular combat system which ought to work as well for steam tanks as more modern vehicles.  It also has a Weird War II supplement, which might be useful for introducing VSF elements into the game. All 2Hr Wargames are built on broadly similar principles, so it should certainly be possible to graft elements of NUTS! onto Colonial Adventures to handle the VSF elements of the game.

Last but by no means least, for as long as I've been on the internet, MacDuff has been heading for that Frontier, inviting any who wish to tag along with him.  Canadian wargamer Ross Macfarlane, (who has been known to drop by the old Axis of Naughtiness occasionally) used to use an earlier version of the rules to fight spectactular battles with 54mm figures.  Nowadays his blog Battle Game of the Month is full of truly inspirational games often featuring mid-19th century 40mm toy soldiers.  When veteran gamers usually play their own, self-written rules that they're constantly tinkering with in the hope of getting it "right", it's usually a warning sign that the rules are going to be lengthy, baroque, painfully detailed and rather lacking in the fun department*.

So when I at last settled down to read MacDuff, I was pleasantly surprised to find what looks like a solid, simple, playable set of rules, with just enough detail to get by and a couple of innovative ideas clearly implemented.  There's just the barest hint of a reference to VSF elements, enough to get going with at least.  Of all the rulesets above this is one that I'm most keen to try out.

I'm thinking that rather than throwing myself back into the figure painting, next week I ought to lay out some terrain for one of Grant's scenarios/Table Top Teasers and refight it using each of the above rulesets to see how they feel.

(*I am obliged to point out that Brother Cordery's Portable Wargames et al are also pleasant exceptions to this rule.)