Sunday, 10 June 2012

One man caught on a barbed wire fence

After I spent Saturday basing and priming the modern US infantry that had finally arrived from The Assault Group, I still wasn't quite ready for Mi Hermano Probador Jonesy who came round to test out a couple of small unit/warband skirmish rulesets.  So I dug out my old Alternative Armies Shia-Khan figures (one of few sets of non VSF figures I've actually got satisfactorily painted already) to face off against his Tau.  There won't be full battle reports of these because, well they were kinda just mini-games  with whatever terrain was closest to hand and weren't too pretty to look at, plus neither battle was that exciting, tactically speaking.

The first game was In The Emperor's Name, the skirmish set from Forge of War, the same people who produced FUBAR.  My Shia-Khan posed as a Rogue Trader's retinue, trying to get to a McGuffin before the TAU.  For the first half of the game, it felt like banging your head against thin air, as the sneaky Tau were almost impossible to hit under the ITEN rules.  Even by combining the fire of two or three soldiers for a bonus, I was needing 6s to hit.  Towards the endgame, Jonesy graciously left his three combat drones in the line of fire of my troops and with a lucky run of dice (like 6,5 and 6) I was able to take them out.  But it only served as a distraction while his sneaky Tau snatch team left the other side of target building with the MacGuffin.

It was at this point that I had a profound realisation regarding the Tau as presented by Games Workshop.  For those not familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe, it's actually more of a space fantasy setting than a science-fiction setting per se.  Close assault melee combat is a much more common option than in any sensible reality, and is even often the best way of taking out vehicles.  Most factions will have troop types designed to be "fighty" rather than "shooty".

The Tau were a late addition to the setting and were designed to operate much more like a "real-world" modern/hard-sci-fi army.  They favour ranged combat almost exclusively, use remote drones for recon, fire support as well as mobile defence (mounting forcefield generators that protect accompanying troops).  But they completely lack the close-combat capabilities of the other factions in the game.  Which is where the problem comes in.

Tau are designed so that somebody at the table won't have fun.

You see, if they're played correctly by the Tau player, sniping at range, doing hit and run tactics and never solidly engaging with the enemy, a traditional WH40K army can't do anything to them, and it becomes incredibly frustrating to the other player.  I don't get to Waaaaaaaugh! my Choppa Boyz or use any of my Assault Space Marines' cool abilities, because I never get anywhere near the smoke-and-mirrors Tau.  Effectively, I'm no longer able to play the game, except to move around the table ineffectually while removing the casualties from the Tau sniping.  Conversely, if the situation arises that the Tau aren't able to remain disengaged, if they have to take an objective or some other requirement that isn't compatible with their preferred tactic, they're screwed.  

Take the FUBAR game we played a few weeks ago?  Our Marines were completely unable to touch the dug-in and shielded Tau and had to endure the sniping as we trudged forwards.  But as soon as our survivors got to positions where they were able to engage the Tau directly, they melted and pulled back out of sight.  That was how, despite not causing a single Tau casualty all game (apart, I think from a couple of Shield Drones) and losing a good third of our forces, the final result saw us in control of all three objectives.

Although everyone was polite and friendly about it, I got the distinct impression that the Tau players, Jonesy and Marvin the ARVN, felt slightly aggrieved and that there was nothing they could have done to stop us.  I can't speak for Jonesy's daughter Ethel (who was my co-commander on the Imperial side) but I certainly felt that the victory was hollow - we hadn't won on account of anything we'd actively done, apart from having some survivors left after moving forward under fire for six turns.

I got exactly the same feeling during the ITEN game today.  ITEN uses a D6+ combat modifiers vs target defence number mechanism.  With the standard Tau defence value seemingly around 8-9 and my troops having a shooting value of 1, +1 for their lasguns, I could barely hit a Tau if he was doing the macarena in the middle of an open field, never mind if he was lurking behind cover.  And they lurk behind cover.  A lot.

I have to admit I've never played with Tau using the modern iteration of WH40K, and the effect may or may not be so pronounced, but having played two different rulesets that seek to emulate the universe, I wouldn't hold my breath.  Ridiculous though the basic WH40K paradigm may be, the Tau break it by being "sensible", but sadly to the point where they can't meaningfully take part in a game with tradtional 40K factions on equal terms.

(In fact Jonesy tells me that in the latest iteration of the rules, Tau are completely nerfed and unable to do the untouchable pop-out attacks that were their specialty in earlier editions, but with nothing to replace it have become completely ineffectual compared to the other factions.)

Anyway we discussed the game just played and agreed.  In The Emperor's Name is OK.  But no more.  Don't get me wrong, it's a lovely piece of work, very polished and well presented.  If I'd been a long term 40K player who'd been looking for a good ruleset to play 40K small-unit/skirmishes for years (and I know a lot of 40K players who did) then it would be fantastic.  But looking at it in terms of the rules alone, as a generic ruleset it was.... OK.  But nothing special.  It just didn't light any fires.  It didn't capture any particular feel of modern fire combat, in the way that Chain Reaction does for example.

So, underwhelmed, we jiggled the scenery about and gave Flying Lead by Ganesha Games a try.  Jonesy's Tau proxied WWII US troops, while my Shia-Khan pretended to be Panzergrenadiers.  This time Jonesy setup in position defending a churchyard, which I had to assault and capture.

Almost right from the word go, things went right for me and oh-so-wrong for Jonesy.  I pushed my MG42 to a flanking position while I moved the Grenadiers up to the edge of cover to assault a particular section of wall.  As soon as I got my MG42 setup I sprayed that section of wall and a lucky shot hit and killed the American's leader.  The resulting morale test broke up his defenses enough that he'd effectively lost the initiative (in general terms, not game mechanic) for the rest of the battle, and some ill advised (or desperate) gambles failed to pay off for him.  In FL each figure or group can roll to attempt to get one, two or three actions for their turn.  The downside is that if you roll two failures, your turn ends and play passes immediately to the other player.  I generally played it fairly safe going for two actions in most cases, whereas Jonesy often felt forced to push for three which more often than not resulted in failures.

The only lucky break that Jonesy caught was that after my third or fourth effective burst from the MG42, the dice came up indicating a jam or break.  I had the opportunity to try to fix it, but the dice betrayed me and the gun was broken for the rest of the game.  Since the MG42 & crew had taken up about a third of my force's points, that was a heavy blow.

But in the end it wasn't enough.  The final straw was when I killed the American NCO, which triggered a second Leader Lost morale test.  I'd made it to the wall surrounding the churchyard, and with the US defence well and truly disrupted for the following turn, there was absolutely nothing to stop my dastardly Ratzis, who had suffered no casualties apart from the broken LMG, from trotting up to the doors and windows and thoroughly clearing the church with grenades.

In the post-game palaver, we agreed that it had been a much more enjoyable game.  Even though he'd been thoroughly pinned down in the church and hadn't been able to do much in the way of manoeuvring,  it had still been an interesting game for Jonesy, with the tactical choices being a question of who to activate first, how many actions to attempt etc in order to rally the disrupted defences.  I would warn you though that if you don't like games with activation mechanics that can disrupt your carefully laid plans by limiting what troops you can control, then Flying Lead is not for you.  If you can embrace that as part and parcel of the friction of war, then have at it!

So we've decided to have another try at Flying Lead next week, and possibly another game to compare it to.  I'm going to try to get my Assault Group figures painted sometime this week so as to give us another option to play.

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