2009-12-30

Preview: Jumonville Glen, part 2 (rules)

As I said in my earlier post, I decided to base the rules for the Jumonville scenario on the Blood and Swash ruleset. However, there were some potential problems I wanted to address, and playtesting revealed some real problems to go along with the theoretical ones. The changes are significant enough that I think it's safer to call the rules "inspired by" Blood and Swash and not based on them.

Blood and Swash uses a card-based activation system. Each turn, the game master draws one card from a standard deck of cards. If a black card is drawn, each player on one team activates a figure; if it's red, the other team activates. Actions are moving, fighting, shooting, and "anything else you can think of," in the basic game. Each character has attributes for its ability to shoot, fight, and so on. To see if your action succeeds, roll a 20 sided die: if it's less than or equal to your applicable skill, you succeed.

The rules were written for pirate battles in a small, confied space. They emphasize doing creative things with the props available in the room, like rolling barrels of beer at the opponent or pulling the rug out from under their feet. The tight space compared to the number of figures makes the game fast paced and chaotic.

In order to emphasize this interesting chaos, guns are powerful but very slow. Reloading your gun might take 5 or more cards, and you can't do anything else in the mean time. This might be okay in a bar fight, but in a shooting war it's incredibly boring. The first change I knew I needed to make was to reduce the reload time; in fact, I got rid of reloading completely in the end.

Another aspect of Blood and Swash is that each player rolls dice to determine his figures' skills at the start of the game. Players might end up crippled by one bad die roll at the start of the game. In a bar fight, this matters less: you can always punch someone if you're no good at shooting. But the number of useful skills in a shooting skirmish is lower. I also wanted to reduce the game startup time, so I am predetermining each figure's skills based on how the people acted in this specific skirmish historically.

Blood and Swash figures have a variable number of hit points, weapons have variable damage, and the skill checks use a "roll to succeed, the opponent rolls to prevent it" mechanic. Since the assortment of weapons is very limited compared to a pirate battle, I simplified this: all figures get 3 hit points, and each hit (shooting or hand-to-hand combat) does one point of damage. I adjusted the skill numbers to take into account the chance of an opponent preventing the action, to reduce the amount of die rolling.

In playtesting, I found what I feared: everyone walks within shooting range, starts shooting, and then there's no incentive to ever move around. Without a rule to allow moving and shooting in the same action, static defenders get a huge bonus: they can often shoot first and can concentrate their fire on fewer figures within range.

To compensate, I added a new skill: Bravery. Whenever someone shoots at you, charges into combat, or charges into combat at you, you need to make a bravery check. If you fail, you run away (a full move away from the enemy, or at least moving out of line of sight). I also added a "move and shoot" action with a penalty to hit.

This made a huge difference: the game was no longer a static shooting match; instead, people were moving around a lot, like in the Pirate games.

To be fair: this rule system is not based on reality whatsoever. It's intended to provide a fast, easy, fun, and hectic shooting skirmish.

The Rules: Skirmish at Jumonville Glen



By Alan Ferrency, 2009.

Figures and Skills



This is a skirmish scale miniatures wargame intended for 2 or more players controlling no more than 4 individually based figures each. It is not based on reality whatsoever, it's just a game.

Players are divided into two teams: Red and Black.

Figures have several skills:
  • Shooting determines how likely the figure is to hit another figure when shooting
  • Fighting is how likely the figure is to hit another figure in hand-to-hand combat
  • Bravery determines how likely the figure is to get scared and run away
  • Save is the figure's ability to take advantage of cover to avoid being shot
Each figure's skills have a value from 1 to 20. To make a skill test for a specific skill, roll d20; the test succeeds if the result is less than or equal to the skill being tested.

Terrain and figures are deployed appropriately for the scenario being played. Enemies must start the game outside shooting range (12") from each other. The game ends when one side has obviously lost (or no one is having fun anymore).

Turn Sequence



Each turn, one card is drawn from the top of a standard deck of playing cards. If it is Red, then all players on the Red team activate one of their figures. If it is Black, then all players on the Black team activate one figure. If a face card is drawn, each player on the appropriate team activates two different figures instead of one. (Note that each team might get multiple turns in a row, there is no problem with this.)

When a figure is activated, it can perform one of these actions:
  • Move up to 6"
  • Shoot at a figure within 12" range
  • Move and then shoot
  • Charge at another figure up to 6" away
  • Fight a figure currently in base-to-base contact

Actions



Movement can be in any direction or around corners. Figure facing does not matter.

To Shoot at an enemy, the closest parts of each figure's base must be no more than 12" apart, and the figures must be able to see each other. The active figure makes a shooting test: roll d20; if it is less than the figure's Shooting skill, they hit the enemy. If the enemy is hit, and they are in cover (hiding in the edge of trees or behind an obstacle), they make a Save test. A successful save means the shot hit the cover and not the figure.

Keep track of which figures are hit: when a figure is hit three times, it is removed from play.

After a figure is shot at, whether the shot hits or misses, they must make a Bravery test. If the test succeeds, nothing happens. On failure, the figure must immediately move away from the enemy that shot them, either 6" or until the figure is out of line of site of the shooter.

If a figure Moves and Shoots, they must move first and then shoot. The figure's shooting skill is -2 for the shooting test when it moves before shooting.

In order to contact an enemy figure to fight them, a figure must Charge. Before charging, the active figure must pass a bravery test. If the test fails, the figure can't move or shoot but still counts as activated this turn. The figure being charged must also make a bravery test. If this test fails, the charging figure moves 6" towards the charged figure, and the charged figure runs 6" away as well.

A figure that successfully charges also Fights on the same turn they charge, and receives a +4 to their fighting skill. To fight, the figure makes a fighting test, and success means the other figure receives one hit. There is no save test when fighting, and fighting figures don't make bravery tests. Figures that are in base to base contact cannot be shot at by either side.

That's all there is!

Here is my current version of the figure stats for the Skirmish at Jumonville Glen.
  • Virginians: shooting 8, fighting 8, bravery 12, save 10
  • Indians: shooting 7, fighting 10, bravery 14, save 12
  • French: shooting 8, fighting 8, bravery 10, save 10
I have half-page quick play sheets which we'll use when actually playing the game. The rules are very simple in actual practice, but like all rules, understanding suffers when you read them without playing.

I've playtested this a few times by myself and once with Martine. It will work a lot better with only 2 figures per player, but even with me controlling all of the figures, I reached a decisive outcome within about an hour.

2009-12-28

Review: De Bellis Multitudinus (DBM)

Today, I played DBM (De Bellis Multitudinus) for the first time. DBM can be described as a scaled up version of DBA, a game that I am very fond of, but this description would be unfair to both DBA and DBM. I had a good time, and I'd definitely play DBM again, but I wouldn't consider it an upgrade of or replacement for DBA and/or Big Battle DBA (BBDBA).

The rules

In many ways, comparing DBM to DBA is a bit like comparing long bike rides with shorter trips. You can have just as much fun, but it takes longer and requires a longer term mind frame. If you want to avoid suffering the whole time, it also may require a bit more training. And on a bad day, you'll wish you opted for the shorter trip.

The beauty of DBA is its small scale and simplicity, matched with deep tactical complexity. Armies always consist of 12 elements, so they're fast and easy to paint, and the limited army lists provide a good sense of closure when you're finished. Games require only an hour to play, so even if you lose you won't suffer for very long.

DBM is larger than DBA in several dimensions, with positive and negative consequences.

DBM adds support for larger armies and uneven forces on each side, using points-based army lists. This allows for playing larger battles and designing historic scenarios within the scope of the rules. However, it also increases the importance of the army selection meta-game, requires a lot more painted miniatures, and loses the "I'm finished!" satisfaction smaller DBA armies provide. Points based systems are always susceptible to minmaxing and twinking, even when the theoretical basis for the system is to match historical reality.

DBM also provides a greater level of detail with additional rules for things like weather, troop quality, and commander quality. The most visible aspect to me was the troop quality modifiers. These provide a finer grained difference between historical troop types that are considered identical in DBA (but weren't in real life). I'm not experienced enough to decide whether this is a case of confusing "detail" with "realism" or not. However, for the DBA player interested in DBM, the main result is that there are many more close combat modifiers, and generally a lot more things to consider when resolving combat (or deciding whether to enter combat in the first place).

Due to the increased number of elements in each army the ground scale is different, but the movement rates have also changed to compensate. The command and control system is still PIP based, but also more complicated due to the larger armies.

The cumulative effect of all these differences is that you feel like you're playing DBA on steroids, but some of the differences bite you when you least expect them, or force you to change your tactics to avoid being bitten. I could see myself losing brain cells if I were forced to constantly switch between these "similar but different" rulesets.

The game

This particular engagement was a 500 point game between "our" Pyrrhic army with Seleucid ally, who chased down "their" fleeing Carthaginians. There were about 75-80 elements on each side, split into 4 commands with 3 players on each side. Our individual commands had 4, 19, 19, and 36 elements in them (I think). Each command still only rolls d6 for PIPs, so PIPs for movement are more scarce than in DBA. The movement rules are more flexible for group moves in some ways, since there's an expectation that you'll be moving larger blocks of elements around.

This game was part of a large campaign played by a bunch of the guys in this gaming group. Our goal was to kill as many of Larry's Carthaginians as possible before he got back. The other side's goal was pretty much the same, since Larry wasn't around.

I held our extreme left flank with a huge block of pike and spear (twice as large as a DBA army by itself), supported by bad-going support troops (another DBA army worth of Auxilia and Psiloi). (Huh... I just realized I had the Big command... I thought I chose the "easy, uncomplicated" command, not the huge one.) My goal was for the guys with the long pointy sticks to walk forward and crush anything in their path, while the guys with the short pointy sticks stood on the hill and prevented the enemy's cavalry from turning our flank.

In the end, it worked! Not only did I fail to screw up tactically and lose, I actually rolled well enough in combat to kill superior troops with my light troops, including the enemy's Commander in Chief, which ended the battle.

Having the Big command helped a lot, because Jim almost always assigned me the high PIP die, so I rarely lacked the PIPs to do what I required.

I think I was also aided by suboptimal enemy deployment, but part of this was likely due to a lack of choice by the time they deployed that flank. They had poor matchups against my pike and spear, but I think a bigger mistake was splitting their command in half. They sent most of their bad going troops halfway downfield to play in the mud (steep hills, really). This provided them with a PIP suck in the middle of the board, far away from their general, and reduced their options on my flank.

The game theoretically started at 1:30pm, but much time was spent finding boxes of figures, talking, and so on. We had everything packed up again by 7pm: not a short game.

Overall Impressions

Playing as a small part of a larger battle, and seeing the battle unfold on the field gave me a much better feel for the "grand tactical" situation than I often get from DBA. Now that I've seen this in a larger scale, maybe I'll be able to translate that vision to smaller DBA battles.

As for my part in the battle itself, it felt fairly similar to playing an isolated and slow game of DBA on my flank. The amount of tactical decision making I had was not equivalent to what I'd see in 5 sequential games of DBA, by any means.

I'd definitely play DBM again... but at someone else's house. I don't even have a room large enough for the 8'x5' table required, and don't have nearly enough miniatures to field even one side of a 500 point battle. As with many of the larger games I play at conventions, I don't like it enough to want to do it myself, but I do like it enough to "push lead" once in a while in someone else's game.

Instead, to satisfy my personal "bigger game" fix, I'll attempt to scale up some of my DBA armies into Impetus armies and/or BBDBA armies.

2009-12-19

Preview: Jumonville Glen, part 1 (modelling)

In January, Martine's school is having a Family Game Night. Being the miniatures gaming nerd that I am, as soon as I heard this was going on I decided to prepare a kid-friendly miniature wargame for that night.

I decided the rules in Big Battles, Little Hands would be a good place to start. This is a great sourcebook for introducing kids and their parents to the concept of miniature wargaming, and provides two simple sets of rules appropriate for ages 6 and up: Milk and Cookies, and Blood and Swash.

Milk and Cookies is named as a parody of "beer and pretzels," a term used to describe light and easy games as opposed to picky detail-oriented ones. These rules are designed for fighting battles between fairly large armies. They're primarily aimed at the Horse and Musket period (in the 1700's-1800's), but with some modifications they'll handle anything from Ancient times up to modern times.

Blood and Swash was developed for pirates fighting swashbuckling barfights, so it's best for a lot of players, a small number of figures per player, and a tight space. I thought a pirate fight might go over well, so I'd probably go with Blood and Swash and maybe build a few pirate ship decks to play on.

But then, I visited Fort Ligonier and learned a bit about the area's local history. I had no idea I was living a mile or two from a French-Indian War battlefield. After a bit of reading, I decided it would be nice to work towards fighting the first few battles in the French-Indian War: Jumonville Glen, the Battle of Fort Necessity, and Battle of the Monongahela.

Jumonville Glen was the skirmish that pushed the French and British to war in America, and eventually across Europe as well, where the larger conflict is called the Seven Years war. A very young George Washington led a group of around 75 Virginians and Indians in an ambush against a party of 30-40 French at Jumonville Glen, and crushed them before they even had a chance to deliver France's ulitmatum.

The scale of this fight lends itself to Blood and Swash. It's a simpler ruleset than Milk and Cookies, and requires fewer figures: a bonus, since this is the first I've done with the French-Indian War.

I picked up a few packs of Old Glory 25mm French & Indian War figures: British (also suitable for colonial regiments), French, and Indians. I started with 8 Virginians, 4 Indians, and 12 French: enough for up to 12 players with 2 figures each... what a mess that would be if they're all 6 years old! It also works out to 3 units for each side, in Milk and Cookies... not a lot, but a start.

The Indians were quite fun to paint! I'm happy with how well they turned out. The rest of the guys weren't as much fun and didn't turn out as well. The French white coats were the worst, but at least it's giving me practice shading white.

Jumonville Glen has a cliff, where the French sought shelter during several days of rain before Washington ambushed them. I obviously needed to construct this distinctive terrain feature since it's the centerpiece of the skirmish. I built it as a step hill with a cliff face, out of white styrofoam. This leans towards the "useful" side of the scale, in the "useful" vs. "pretty" compromise that all terrain features have; but it still looks good.

I already had all the trees necessary to make it look like Pennsylvania woods. The only construction left is painting and cutting a piece of canvas to use as a play mat under the terrain.

Obligatory complaints and self-deprecation:

I've been using a few Osprey books as references for painting these guys. I'm not sure the pictures in Monongahela are very accurate however, since they don't match the text.

The Old Glory British Firing Line figures are not perfect for either the British or the Virginians, according to Osprey's images; but they're close enough to pass for either of them. The French are missing their characteristic cartridge case, and instead have the same bag the British are carrying. I have no clue if the Indians are right or not, but they look cool, and that's important.

The worst flaw here is my selection for the colonial troops. The Virginians didn't get uniforms at least until several months after Jumonville Glen, so they were dressed in their own civilian militia clothing. However, since I want to use these figures later in the war as well, I'm willing to compromise. I'd be surprised if anyone (other than Daniel) points this out at game night anyway.

To help increase the number of troops for later battles, I got some Dixon French-Indian war figures on clearance. They're labelled as "coureurs de bois," illegal trappers, but they'll pass as Canadian-born French for use at Fort Necessity and later. I have 8 of those and 4 more Inidians ready to paint now.

In my next update I'll go over the rules changes I've made to Blood and Swash in order to make this a playable and interesting game.

2009-12-15

Seas, Still Uncharted

I've finished painting a bunch more figures that I need to add pictures for. Most recently, I completed these additional ships for Uncharted Seas.

In the rear is another Battleship. In the middle is a squadron of 3 cruisers, and in the front is a Dragon Carrier.

Most of the ships are following my previous paint scheme very closely. I altered the specific colors used to dry brush the sails slightly, and darkened the ballistae somewhat, but it's otherwise the same.

I wasn't sure how I wanted to paint the topside of the Carrier. I'm not sure what the surface detail represented. I settled on a green that could be interpreted as dark weathered copper. I'm a bit surprised the colors go well together, because now I have a yellow-green, blue-green, blue, and yellow-orange on the same piece.

Frank and I haven't had a chance to play Uncharted Seas again yet, but we have an ocean to play on now: I painted the other side of my outer space terrain board blue.

I've received the Firestorm Armada ruleset, also from Spartan Games, but I haven't started reading it yet. I'm underwhelmed by the models. They're probably much more impressive in person, since they're upwards of 6" long and very hefty. But they don't make me want to paint them. If we play the game at all, we will most likely use our Battlefleet Gothic ships, or I might find some Battlestar Galactica ships to fight with.

2009-12-08

Hot Dogs vs. Monsters

Last Sunday, Martine and I playtested the French and Indian War scenario I intend to play with kids at Martine's school's game night. She got bored in about an hour, which is probably good: I expect the game to take about that long, but her behaviour would be a lot better if she were around someone other than her parents. I hope it will play a bit faster with 4-8 players controlling 2 figures each, instead of 2 controlling 8 each.

After that, she wanted to do a craft, and wanted me to give her ideas. So, I drew a goblin and made a little stand-up guy. She took that idea and ran with it: she made a hot dog, whose combat prowess allowed it to deflect any weapon my Goblin was holding, and also to penetrate my shield.

Pretty soon she had an army of 7 hot dogs (with buns, of course) and one boss: a floating green tentacle beast. I had 2 goblins, a troll, 3 skeletons, a wolf, and my boss was a beholder (a giant floating eye with tentacles, I think it inspired her boss).

Then Martine asked me to make 2 trees and some rocks. She made a map to set up the board, a movement ruler and a rock-throwing ruler, and found a cardboard box to use as a playing field.

Then, she taught me how to play:

Hot Dogs vs. Monsters, version 1.0

  1. Players alternate turns.
  2. On your turn, do 2 actions.
  3. One of the two actions must be a move.
  4. You must move the full distance unless blocked by a rock or an enemy warrior.
  5. If you're blocked by a rock, you can use an action to throw it out of the way to the side.
  6. Use an action to fight an enemy warrior touching you by rolling d10 and allocating that many damage points to the enemy.
  7. An enemy warrior with 8 or more damage dies and is removed from play.
  8. You can't fight warriors who are even partially in the trees.
  9. You can only fight with the front of your warrior, but enemies can attack your side and rear.
  10. Bosses can't fight each other.
  11. The game ends when one army is completely destroyed.
It's a remarkably playable game, considering she's 6 years old and made it up as she went along. There are even discernable tactics possible: hide in the trees one turn, and next turn jump out and attack before they can attack back. The rocks didn't seem to affect play much, I'll lobby to remove them next time.

As far as the rules: I think they were inspired by Hibernia as well as the French and Indian War game. In Hibernia, you take 2 actions per turn, and they're both movement (and possibly fighting) actions. The miniatures game gave her the movement ruler, die rolling, and damage mechanics.

We haven't finished a game, and might never finish it with these rules, though she did teach her friend how to play today. She had a wonderful time creating it, and I think that's the most important part.

Ringmaster

Ringmaster is an Italian circus game. Actually, it isn't: it's a freely available, print-and-play, vaguely Lord of the Rings themed strategic wargame. It is Italian, though; or more accurately, originally written in Italian and then translated into English.

I was in the mood for a multiplayer wargame this past weekend, but don't have any suitable titles on hand, so I looked for a Print and Play option. I found Ringmaster on the Print and Play blog, and printed it up.

I printed the board on photo paper (4 sheets; Marla bought a ream at Costco so I don't mind using a few sheets) and mounted it on foam core. It isn't perfect, but it came out really nice. The art and finish quality are a lot better than many low-budget store bought games. The cards are worse: they're printed on plain cardstock and stuck into card sleeves so they can be shuffled more easily. Coincidentally (probably not) the 6 army colors used in the game match the 6 armiy colors in my old thrift store era Risk game, so that worked out well for the army pieces.

The game is completely card based, and uses no dice. During play, it looks a lot like Risk, but it's more fun and not nearly as painful.

On each turn, first you can cast magical spells or use artifacts (cards). Then move armies from one or two adjacent territories to as many other territories you want. Any territory with more than one player's armies has a fight. Finally, you get troop reinforcements and new cards based on the number of territories you hold, and it's someone else's turn. The first player to get 10 victory points (gained by taking other players' territories, but not from holding your own) wins.

Combat is card based. The non-magic cards all either add combat value to the number of troops you brought to the fight, or modify combat values in some less direct way (removing defensive bonuses or nullifying the enemy's cards). Whoever has the biggest number wins, and the loser loses troops equal to the difference.

The rules are easy and straightforward, but they do have a few questionable points. Unfortunately the author only speaks/writes in Italian, there are a few problems in the translation, and no FAQ is available. (We were entertained by "Take a card from an opponent casually," where "casually" was clearly meant to be "randomly.")

Theoretically the game should take about 2 hours to play, but it was our first time so it took us 3 hours. Somehow we often take a long time with wargames. We must think too hard or talk too much.

Ringmaster is quite a good light strategic level wargame. It has only a low to moderate feeling of randomness, due to the card-based combat. You have your cards before you decide to attack, which helps immensely, as I predicted in a previous blog post about randomness. There felt like a bit of a "runaway leader" effect, but it was mostly manageable by ganging up on the leader (although Frank won in the end anyway: no dice!) The end game is very much unlike Risk, luckily. Since you only need 10VP to win and not "everything on the board," the game ends before it gets boring.

We played the "basic" version of the rules instead of the "advanced" version, and the Middle Earth theme is very light. You're playing on a strategic map of Middle Earth, but there is almost no other thematic flavor to the cards or rules. Apparently the Advanced rules help that somewhat, by at least allying the forces of Good and Evil on separate teams, among other things.

This game totally hit the spot on Saturday, and I look forward to playing it again. It was a great deal more fun than dying at the hands of the orcs and dragon on the first turn of Wizard's Quest.

Don't Squeeze the Paint Bottle!

I told you, but would you listen? No, of course not.

This bottle of paint had lumps. It wouldn't come out the nozzle so I squeezed harder even though I knew it was a bad idea. Too hard, it turns out.

I wasn't aimed at my face, this is just the paint that bounced up off my palette. It didn't actually get in my eye as far as I know.

My miniatures were mostly spared. I got a few spots on my boats (not painted yet anyway, mostly) and a few on Andy's battle nuns, luckily in places easy to touch up.

2009-12-07

Basic Impetus

At Legions today, we played Basic Impetus. This is a freely downloadable introductory version of the Impetus ancients miniatures wargaming rules. Rick and Jim played Polybian Romans, and Larry and I played Carthaginians. No one had really played the rules before, but at least Larry read them before we started.

The model basing uses the equivalent of 4 DBx sized bases for each unit. This is similar to Ancient and Medieval Warfare (AMW, which I also haven't played), except you never need to remove bases so they could be permanently based on larger bases.

I couldn't really field any proper armies without painting a bunch more stands, but I could fake it so we can play enough to decide whether to paint enough bases for two full armies. The common basing with AMW, also based on multiple DBx bases, would make this a useful way to encourage painting more elements. Incidentally, Command and Colors: Ancients also uses 4 blocks per unit, so with enough elements painted up I could play C&C:A with miniatures as well.

The Impetus rules are partway between highly detailed reductionist rules like Warhammer Ancients, and the extremely abstract DBA. Activation is IGO-UGO and every unit can be activated on every turn. Units have a few stats: Type, Move, VBU (both hit points and combat effectiveness), Impetus (combat bonus in the first round of combat), and VD (victory points for killing the unit, basically).

If the unit has a ranged weapon, it's listed; otherwise all other weapons and armor are abstracted into the VBU number. Unlike DBA, javelins and slings are considered ranged weapons and not "close combat." Some unit types such as skirmishers and light cavalry have special rules to fit their historical use, but for the most part everything acts fairly uniformly based on its stat line.

Movement is "normal" with one exception: when you meet enemies you must not line up exactly with the enemy units. Instead, you always overlap the lines partially on each side. This seems odd, but it ends up working well in practice: most combats end up with single overlaps, but no fights give you double overlaps.

When shooting or fighting, you roll a number of d6 equal to your VBU plus appropriate modifiers; each 6 or two 5's are a hit. Those hits aren't immediately applied to the enemy unit, but if a unit receives any hits, it must make a cohesion roll modified by the hits received. Failing the cohesion roll causes "real" damage by reducing your VBU for the rest of the game (or until you run out and rout).

The two-step combat system is probably the most fiddly part of the rules, but in practice it works well enough and isn't too complicated. I think the whole "effectiveness equals hit points left" thing is based on the fact that historically, casualty rates in melee combat were very low, and almost all casualties were caused when one side was running away. The most important thing is to not run away in the first place.

In the game itself, I controlled the right flank with 2 units of Light Cavalry, 1 unit of Cavalry, 1 unit of Warband (strong light foot) and 1 unit of skirmishers. At first I did well: I was rolling lots of 5's and 6's, and pushed back the Roman flank. But later, the Romans started hitting me back. I kept on rolling 5's and 6's for cohesion tests, but I'm supposed to roll low on those, so I took heavy casualties. Eventually all five of my units were killed, and when one of Larry's spearmen joined me, the game was over.

Overall, I enjoyed the rules and I expect Frank and Andy might like them a better than DBA. They aren't as "weird" as DBA: you get to move all your units, you throw big fists full of dice, and you don't need to remember a pantsload of seemingly random combat result tables. I'm hoping Daniel would still enjoy the more chess-like DBA, but I'm also hoping he ever has a chance to play it again...

The general character of the game itself was what I'd expect while learning a new rule set. There was a lot of "lively discussion," rulebook consultation, and getting things wrong. The battlefield looks more impressive than a DBA game because the units are larger, even though there are fewer of them.

I'd like to give these rules a try, but first I'll need to work up some armies and build some sabots (large bases to hold the individual stands) to make things easier to move around.

2009-11-29

Attack on Ste. Marie

Date: 6 June 1944, 1300 hours
Location: Ste. Marie du Mont, Normandy, FR
US Orders: Capture the church in Ste. Marie.
German Orders: Prevent US victory conditions

Since Mike was in town for the weekend, I planned a "big" miniatures wargame scenario. World War II is still Mike's favorite period as far as I know, and I have plenty of troops and terrain in 15mm to put on a good show. However, we haven't played any WWII rules in several years, and I was planning on 5 players: 2 more than we ever had when playing WWII games previously.

I decided to use the Disposable Heroes rule set. Although we had never played these rules outside a convention, I remembered them being easy to learn and not too fiddly. We preferred Arc of Fire when we most recently played WWII skirmish games, but those rules take a bit more learning than I wanted to put in for one night of gaming.

Since I haven't studied any World War II history in a long time, I decided to use one of the canned scenarios from the SkirmishCampaigns books I had on hand. I needed a big enough order of battle for 5 players without many vehicles. I chose Attack on Ste. Marie because it used a fairly large board and had enough squads to split 5 ways. It's one of the scenarios from the "Normandy '44- First Hours" scenario book. We played it once before, years ago, so I knew I had the terrain. I also wanted to build a game around my fancy French church, so I could use it for more than one game over its entire lifetime. After I set up the board, it really didn't look very familiar, so I wonder what we did the first time?

In this operation, US paratroopers who were airdropped into the area only 12 hours earlier were tasked with capturing the church in the center of town. The German defenders were also heavily armed, highly trained paratroopers. To answer Mike's question from turn 1 in the game: the Germans didn't get artillery support because their observer in the church steeple was destroyed by US paratroopers using a captured German gun. I was worried about Disposable Heroes' lack of hidden unit rules, so I didn't give the Americans any artillery support either.

The Germans were defending with two Fallschirmjaeger squads, one platoon HQ, one artillery radio team, and one Panzerschreck team. The Americans attacked with two Paratrooper Infantry squads, two Infantry Squads, 4 Sherman tanks, and a jeep with MMG.

I broke all squads into two teams each, for unit activation purposes. The vehicles were one unit of tanks and one jeep unit, until we enough vehicles blew up, at which point we switched to one vehicle per unit/activation.

Mike played the German defenders, and Andy joined him when he arrived. Frank and I attacked with the Americans. When Dan arrived, he took over the vehicles, and finally I switched sides when Mike got bored (sick: he failed his guts check) enough that he had to leave (and there weren't many tanks left). I'm sorry you weren't feeling better, Mike! So I thought I'd write this up so you can see what you missed...

The Americans had 10 turns to capture the church, and the Germans only had to mount a static defense and prevent the capture. The dilemma for the Americans was: if you run into the open, you get shot (a lot); but if you don't, you can't capture the church.

In the first few turns, the American infantry found heavy cover within firing range of the enemy, and holed up. With both sides under heavy cover, no one was hitting the enemy very much; and paratrooper Guts scores prevented everyone from failing any morale checks. It turned into a trench-like war of attrition. Unfortunately Frank was playing the Americans, so my Germans (after Mike left) were pretty much impervious to his attacks.

The tanks were a different story: the first several turns each saw one or more vehicles destroyed. Finally Dan drove a tank out of range of the rockets, while keeping the enemy within MG range. At that point the rules demonstrated the pointlessness of bringing a gun to a knife fight: Dan spent so many turns trying to acquire his target that his infantry had killed it before he could shoot anything other than his pintle HMG at it. One more infantry squad would've helped a lot more in this rule set, than the 4 tanks.

In the end, the infantry ruled, which is to be expected in an infantry game. Dan's Americans advanced from the West and were decimated in the open (as they should be). Frank tried to advance through the orchard in the north, but met with strong resistance from the occupied townhouses.

Finally, it was turn 8, but the Americans hadn't made a lot of progress. They calculated that the only way to even reach the church was to send one or more units sprinting towards it while the rest provided cover. On the last turn, I pinned the sprinters just before they ran out of cover towards the church. The Americans cleared the final German out of the church tower that turn, but it was too late.

In the end, the Germans had 6 infantry left (out of 33). The Americans had 11 infantry (out of 48), 1 functional tank, and one rolling coffin (out of 5 vehicles). The losses were huge. By percentage they were slightly worse for the Germans, but unfortunately the Americans weren't able to capitalize on their advantage.

Catalog of (scenario/rule) Errors:
  • The German paratroopers had an accuracy of 6 (not 5), but we never took advantage of this.
  • The Germans had two areas of Anti-Personnel mines. I have no clue where they were, since Mike left before anyone walked near them. Would they have made any difference?
  • If we had not made the two errors above, I expect the Americans would've needed more help: leaving off the Artillery support was probably also an error, under the circumstances.
Catalog of Complaints:
  • I don't think the SkirmishCampaigns/Disposable Heroes rules translation worked well for this scenario. The Guts scores were 10 or 11 for most troops on the board, and the cover was heavy for almost all troops most of the time. This translated to "roll 1 to hit" (see also: we missed the German paratrooper ACC6) and "roll 10 to fail a guts check" almost always. There weren't nearly enough morale effects in the game, but truthfully I would've expected fewer casualties than we saw, given the low hit rate we should've seen.
  • Less of a complaint than an observation: we use a few metrics to judge WWII skirmish rules. Grenades either suck or they don't (we think they sucked in this game, but never actually used them to find out). Close combat is usually extremely painful, but sometimes it's a huge waste of time (you're better off shooting instead): in this case, we never found out. Vehicles are usually nearly pointless against infantry, but also hard to kill; in this game, they proved relatively easy to kill, but not very powerful against infantry. Lastly: M1 Garand rifles are usually not represented well. Either they're too powerful compared to a manual rifle, or they're equivalent to the weaker weapon. DH models them as equivalent during a "stand and shoot" standoff, but better when used to actively assault the enemy, and this felt pretty good in the few games I've seen.
  • We played in 15mm scale, with a very terrain-heavy board. I think the rules would've worked a lot better in 25mm scale with fewer layers of terrain than we played with.
  • I think we were playing with an old version of the rulebook, but a new version of the quick reference sheet for the rules. The old rulebook caused confusion in some areas, especially the pin/fall back/rout section. I'm really not happy with the writing used in this version of the rulebook, it needs much clarification.
Highlights:
  • I have plemty of ammo, so what if I need to roll a 1 to snap-shoot that tank with my panzerschreck. Hit! Penetration! Damage? no result... it bounced off a tread.
  • We learned a lot about the "Man Alone" rule: if only one guy in a unit is left, he can't move towards the enemy, but he can join another squad. Frank had a donut convention with all of his squad leaders; they had as many SMGs as a Russian rifle squad.
  • Dan played the lawyer: since "half your figures shoot" rounds up, he left his individuals to fire separately instead of combining them, and got more dice. Besides, how dangerous can one guy be, really?
  • Oops, tanks don't block line of sight, when you can shoot from the second floor of the building.
If I were planning on playing any more WWII skirmish games, I'd do one of two things: either look into a more recent version of DH available for sale, or just give up and spend my effort on Arc of Fire instead (more likely).

Overall the game was fun, and it allowed people who don't know or care much about WWII or miniatures games to roll dice and kill the bad guys. But it did feel a bit like a luck-filled dice fest, and lacked some of the subtleties I remember from Arc of Fire.

I really enjoyed being able to set aside the time for a "big" miniatures game outside a convention, which is rare these days since I have kids who aren't opponent aged yet. I wish Mike was able to enjoy it a bit more, though. I'd love to get another game set up for Christmas, but I'll concentrate on something a bit less serious. Maybe we can play my French and Indian War scenario in Blood and Swash?

Thanks for a great game, guys! Until next time...

Update: Additional rules complaints:
  • It was not obvious when pin/fall back/rout units were supposed to make their mandatory move. We played that they wait until their next activation, but this ended up sticking them out in the open for too long. As Dan said, "Oh noes, I'm being shot at! I think I'll stop here in the open!" I think we did it wrong.
  • Target acquisition for the tanks was confusing. We failed so hard for so long that I think we must've been doing it wrong.

2009-11-22

Update: Epic Gruit

I hadn't had any of my gruit in a long time, several months at least. I suppose with a limited quantity I wanted to savor it?

Well, today Marla was chopping a huge cabbage, and wondering what the heck to do with it, so I looked up making Sauerkraut. I was uninspired, bu I also remembered my gruit and decided to taste another bottle.

It tastes quite good. It's sort of like a Belgian double style, with a bit of the sourness you'd expect in an Oud Bruin. There is a hint of the same herbal funkiness it has always had, but it's toned down compared to what I remember from last time (Marla agrees).

So, I'm glad I still have some left; it would suck if it went bad and I wasted it. We'll have to drink some over the holidays.

As I started to write this up, I went back and read my original post about the Epic Gruit. Coincidentally, I bottled a year ago today (November 22nd). The Epic continues, as all good epics do.

2009-11-21

The Future is Here

Most people think "the future" involves jet packs and flying cars, but I disagree (even if you manage to make a jetpack that doesn't ingest fossil fuels). The future, if there is one to be had, must lie along a different path.

In fact, the toys of the future cannot exist at all, in the traditional sense, because in the long run there simply isn't enough "stuff" to go around. Inasmuch as the toys of the future will ever exist, they already do; but as William Gibson has said, "the future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed."

I recently saw the latest sign of this future in the state of my Netflix queue. For the first time, the number of entries in our "Instant" queue has outnumbered the number of entries in our "DVD" queue. This bolsters my hope that someday soon, I'll be able to watch whatever I want whenever and wherever I want (for a modest fee, of course) without having to buy something or plan ahead.

Those of you who have been watching pay per view and Tivo for the last 5 years may think I'm arriving late to the party, but the Netflix streaming-on-demand service is different enough that I disagree.

Beautiful Fall Commutes

Fall is a wonderful time for commuting by bicycle. This fall has been particularly mild and enjoyable.

After the clocks fall back, it's dark by the time I leave work. If I don't have to get home quickly, I ride through Schenley and Frick parks. Almost the whole trip home is on trails, and avoids cars. Since it's dark and a bit chilly, there are almost no dogs and walkers.

Once I'm on the Junction Hollow trail, it's basically silent until I get to Squirrel Hill. My generator headlight is bright enough to keep the ride safe. Riding home alone, a silent bubble of light floating in a sea of darkness, gives me time to think and provides a good transition between "communicating with computers" at work and "communicating with people" at home.

It helps a lot that I commute often, and the route is familiar to me. I don't spend any thought on operating my bicycle and I'm completely comfortable with the way it handles. Being familiar with the route allows me to anticipate the tricky parts, but cruise smoothly between them.

Most people who drive often occasionally experience the "autopilot" effect: "How did I get here?" Part of you drives the car to your destination without the rest of you even being aware of it or needing to pay full attention to it. I have the same experience on my bicycle, especially on the way home as my mind is processing the day's effort at work. "I'm at the top of the hill already?" is a particularly nice revelation to have.

Unfortunately, fall doesn't always last very long. But as long as there isn't too much snow, nighttime park rides home can be very enjoyable in the winter as well.

2009-11-11

What drives you crazy?

NPR recently requested listeners to submit a short story (250 words or less) story about "What drives you crazy?" when driving, riding, or walking on our roads. I don't go crazy in writing very well, but here's what I told them drives me crazy while I'm riding my bike:
As a vehicular cyclist, I am required to follow the rules that govern all vehicular road traffic. My gripe is about drivers who treat me as a pedestrian instead of a vehicle. In Pittsburgh, drivers often relinquish their right-of-way and encourage cyclists to cross traffic when it would otherwise be unlawful or unsafe to do so. This unpredictable driving makes intersections less safe for everyone involved, and perpetuates a downward spiral of poor behavior by cyclists who fail to follow the rules of the road and drivers who encourage them to do so. Be mindful of cyclists who may ride where they shouldn't, but for the safety of everyone involved, please don't enourage this behavior.

Alan Ferrency
Pittsburgh, PA

2009-11-06

DBA Army II/2: Mountain Indians

Here's my latest DBA Army: Mountain Indians, II/2. According to the DBA army book, these guys were an enemy and an ally of the Alexandrian Imperial army (II/15), and an enemy of the Skythians (I/43a). They're also an enemy of the early Seleucids (II/19a), which I can morph my Alexandrian army into.

The figures are 15mm Museum Miniatures, and are available in a DBA army pack. I painted everything except for the 2LH General element. The figures are slimmer and shorter than my Essex guys. The horses are downright pinheaded. I haven't stood them up next to each other yet but I think these guys will look tiny. The quality of the sculpting is good overall, but their faces look somewhat uninspired, with mere suggestions of eyes. I quite like the bows.

My only complaint with the army pack itself is that there was no clear way to distinguish either the Elephant or the Light Horse as a general element. The Elephant came with a parasol, but nothing obvious to mount it on and no general-like riders. The light horse figures were all identical.

According to the DBM army list book, the Mountain Indians armies represented by this army list are various tribes living in the mountains in the corner of what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. I've been unable to find much information about these people, so I'm not sure whether the sculpts are accurate.

This was a fun army to paint, for several reasons. As I've said before, I'm getting a bit sick of painting clown suits, so this was a welcome change of pace. These simple solid color outfits are a lot easier to shade with dry brushing and layering instead of ink.

This is the first time I've painted dark-skinned humans, and I think it turned out pretty well. I've seen Mountain Indians painted anything from "got a bit of a tan last weekend" to "how much more black can it get?" and even a few "wow, that's way too pink to be human."

I've also been unable to find much information on what color their clothes should be painted. General recommendations seem to be to use readily available dye colors of the time, with their trousers in "your favorite color of off-white." The freedom of not worrying so much about whether I'm getting it right makes it a bit more fun.

Their shields were apparently faced with cow hide, and so most painters use a holstein-like spotted color scheme. I'm not sure that makes any sense: were holsteins available in ancient India? I'd expect something boring and brownish, but the spots look a lot better.

This army was also very fast to paint, but it exercised some techniques I hadn't used much lately. Unfortunately the photographs didn't turn out well, they aren't focused properly.

With 4 Auxilia and 4 Psiloi, I'm not entirely sure how this army is supposed to stay alive. I guess we'll just have to try it out and see. I expect I'll take a little break from painting DBA armies, but hopefully I'll get some time to play them instead.

2009-11-05

Even More Mordheim

Apparently, at some point I became a much faster painter than I used to be, without getting any worse at it (in fact I might even be better). I'm not sure when that happened, but the "how" probably has something to do with doing a lot of painting, instead of finishing fewer figures more meticulously. Practicing the same techniques many more times makes me both faster, and I'd say slightly better, than I was before.

In any case, here are some more figures I've painted since I finished the Later Achaemenid Persian army.

First is a group of Middenheimer bowmen, for Mordheim. I already have crossbowmen, but crossbows are really expensive in Mordheim, and of course the only figures I've ever had die after a match are the crossbowmen. Now that I have bowmen instead, the crossbowmen are guaranteed not to die for fear of being replaced with cheaper minions!

These figures are Games Workshop Empire Bowmen. I would have gotten a box of the men-at-arms, but they didn't have any, and these are close enough. They'll add a bit of variety to the warband. I painted the blue and green a bit lighter, with lighter highlights instead of darker shadows.

Next up is a Sister of Sigmar. This is another Mordheim figure, a metal casting. I got about 5 of these in a big box of bits from a Games Worksop bits sale. Andy is painting a Sisters of Sigmar warband, so I decided to paint a duplicate of one of the figures to demonstrate the techniques on the same figure he'd be working on.

Andy chose the color scheme. I wouldn't have used this blue, but it turned out a lot better than I expected. In these pictures it seems to almost glow, it's a lot brighter than in real life. I need to work on my inking technique on these larger figures, I often end up with a mucky, messy look instead of good shading (see around her leg). After really messing up the blue with ink, I redid it. Now it's shaded by hand with multiple layers of similar colors to build up the gradient.

I have no idea what I'm going to do with this figure. Truthfully, there are some much nicer Sisters of Sigmar figures, I wish I had five copies of those instead of this one.

At this point, Andy has tracked down at least one of every Sister of Sigmar ever made, as far as we can tell. He'll have plenty of options for building a warband; not that Sisters give you many options anyway: "Would you like one hammer, or two hammers?" Painting up the warband should give him plenty of time to decide whether he actually wants to continue painting or not.

2009-11-04

More DBA Elements

In between painting up DBA armies and Uncharted Seas ships, I sneak in a few random DBA elements to round out my other armies. These are all Essex figures this time around.

In the lower right is an element of Greek peltasts (4Ax, auxilia) for my Spartan army that I forgot to show last time around. Not very exciting, so I figured I'd get it out of the way first.

The two Macedonian elephants are intended for use to morph my Alexandrian Macedonian army into an Alexandrian Imperial army and/or any of the earlier armies of Alexander's successors that happen to require elephants.

Unfortunately I mounted the drivers back too far, they should really be on the elephant's neck. I mounted the pikemen facing rearward, based on convincing arguments I read in a recent issue of Slingshot: Elephants can take care of themselves up front, they don't need pikes up there. And those model pikes are about half as long as they should be in real life, they don't even reach the ground. Unless you're facing rearward it would be nearly impossible to swing a 20' long stick from one side of the elephant to the other, to protect the beast's vulnerable underbelly and hind quarters from someone else's pointy sticks.

In the front is a ballista, the artillery element for the Alexandrian Macedonian army. It's not as impressive as a Trebuchet, but it was all there was those hundreds of years earlier. The only case I know of where Alexander used artillery was in the siege of Tyre, which is completely inappropriate for playing in DBA anyway, so I didn't paint this element initially. But it's easier to build some of the successor armies with it, and it was easy, so I painted it.

Coming soon: DBA II/2, Mountain Indians, by Museum Miniatures. These guys are indestructable! Ha!

2009-11-03

Game report: Uncharted Seas

Games Workshop's Man O' War has been out of print for a long time. After failing to find any reasonably inexpensive copies, I started looking for alternatives, and came across The Uncharted Seas.

Uncharted Seas is a fantasy naval miniatures wargame released a year or so ago by Spartan Games in the UK. The ships are nominally 1/600 scale, but since they're fantasy themed and there are no humans to compare them to, it's hard to tell. The largest ship in the image above, the Dragon Lords Battleship, is over 6" long, and the smallest ships, frigates, are just under 1.5" long. The sails are metal and the hulls are separately cast resin.

Frank and I liked the look of this game, so we bought a starter set each and the rules. Frank chose Iron Dwarves, and I chose Dragon Lords. The dwarven boats are almost identical copies of some of the better looking Civil War ironclads. The dragon lords ships have sails patterned after dragon wings.

Each starter set comes with one battleship, a squadron of three cruisers, and two squadrons of three Frigates. The game is new and Spartan Games is fairly small, so they have a few additional ships available for each fleet, but certainly not an overwhelming volume of "stuff you need to buy."

The models are quite pretty, and are high quality castings. The resin parts are cast very cleanly and needed minimal cleanup, but the bottoms needed a pass over sandpaper to flatten them out. The only flaw I had with the resin was evidence of its brittleness: the railing was cracked off in a few places, and I had to repair this with putty. The metal sails needed a bit more cleanup on their edges, and didn't fit perfectly to the shape of the hulls. I chose to solve the problem with epoxy, but drilling the hulls and sails and using pins might have produced better results.

My initial color choice, shown in the oddball Frigate squadron above, was disappointing. The switch to a brown hull and dark yellow spines on the sails improved things immensely. Painting the ships was quite fast using standard inking and drybrushing techniques, but not as fun as I had hoped. The textured surface of the Dragon Lord takes drybrushing very well, and the boards in the hull show ink perfectly. The only real fiddly bits on the Dragon Lords ships are all of the tiny ballistae on the decks of the ship, which are smaller than crossbows for 15mm figures. Everyone else gets cannons, which would be much more fun to paint.

The rulebook has quite high production quality. It's printed in full color and is very glossy. There are many inspiring photographs of painted fleets, as well as digital images showing other paint scheme ideas.

Unfortunately the text itself isn't very good: this is YAUBR (Yet Another Unintelligible British Ruleset). Some rulebooks put 10 pages of rules in a 100 page book and fill the rest with fluff and exposition, making the rules hard to find when you need them. Others put 10 pages of rules on 1 page using tiny font sizes, arcanely terse writing styles, and a heavy dose of omission; an index is impossible without the use of line numbers instead of page numbers.

The Uncharted Seas rules don't fall completely into either of these categories, but have some problems nonetheless. The rulebook constantly comments on the rules, explaining how simple they are and that they were chosen to make the game fast and exciting. Much of this would be better if it were left out, or put into a "designer's notes" section. Unfortunately we came across questions which seemed to be unanswered in the rules, so we basically just made stuff up or decided how to handle things on the fly until we could consult a FAQ... except, there isn't a rule FAQ, only a forum.

Another downside to the rulebook is, the rules have changed since the first printing. Updates are freely available on the Spartan Games website, but this is inconvenient. The new rules make sense where the old ones didn't, at least. I'm not sure how much has been fixed in the second revision of the rulebook, but I'm going to wait for the next revision before I buy another copy.

The rule book comes with templates and counters you can copy and cut out, and third parties have already produced laser cut plywood/acrylic alternatives. At first I thought it might have been nice to have some thicker cardboard templates in the rules, but at this point I think I prefer the thin cardstock: the templates often get in the way of other ships, and you can slip the cardstock under another ship or bend it out of the way fairly easily.

Although the rulebook is not perfect, the rules themselves are quite good, and not difficult to learn or play. The basic feel of the game is very similar to Battlefleet Gothic (BFG), but it's simpler and faster to play. Luckily, not much is lost in the process.

There are a few basic tactical problems you face in "broadsides" naval games like this:
  • Maneuvering a ship while taking into account the effects of wind
  • Lining yourself up for good shots, even though you move forward and shoot primarily to the side
We didn't encounter the first problem, because both Dragon Lords and Iron Dragons are immune to the wind (human, elf, and orc ships are not). The "broadsides" problem was present in Battlefleet Gothic and showed itself here as well. The ships themselves felt faster than I remember ships being in BFG; the 4'x4' board felt crowded with 5 islands and the two starter fleets, and the edge of the board came a lot more quickly than I expected.

The basic combat mechanic is well known to anyone who has played a Games Workshop game: roll more d6's than you can hold in 2 hands, and hope you get a lot of 6's. However, as anyone familiar with statistics knows: despite superstition, rolling more dice produces a much more even distribution of results than rolling only a few. Rolling lots of dice doesn't necessarily make the game feel more random, and this combat system works quite well for its suited purpose.

In terms of ship effectiveness, it's clear that the battleships kick butt and frigates are mostly useless. You can effectively take on a ship one class larger with several of your boats, but it would be very difficult to put much of a dent in a battleship with your frigates.

Overall, we both liked the game enough to be interested in buying more ships. I'll likely get a Dragon Carrier, which launches dragons instead of airplanes, and a squadron of Heavy Cruisers. They also have a Flagship for each fleet, a slightly larger battleship, but the rules for those aren't finished yet and the rough draft looked unimpressive. I may just get another battleship for variety though.

2009-10-28

It's never too late to ride your bike

I saw this wonderful news item, about an 84 year old woman who has been riding a 150 mile charity ride for Multiple Sclerosis, every year for the last 26 years.

She rides in a dress and high heels, on a single speed bike with upright bars and a basket. She's slow, but she finishes.

My favorite quote from the piece:

"I have the most pressure out of anyone on the tour," Sim adds jokingly. "I know I can't quit, because my grandmother's behind me somewhere!"


To ride a bike, even for long distances, you don't need the right bike, the right clothes and equipment, or ideal fitness. Mainly, you need to want to do it.

2009-10-22

Realism in wargames

The short version of my discussion about realism in wargames is: "There isn't any." That may not be entirely true, but it's a pretty good approximation. This doesn't stop people from trying to make wargames realistic, though.

When I use the word "realism" I include "verisimilitude," by which I mean the degree of similarity to fictitious works (even though I now see that may not be exactly what verisimilitude means). Wargames attempting to recreate the War of the Ring or the Battle of the Five Armies can get it just as right or wrong as recreations of the Battle of Thermopylae or the Battle of the Bulge. On the other hand, by "wargame" I'm only referring to board games and miniature games, not video games.

The idea of making a game realistic treats the game as a simulation. But a simulation of what? Different game designers emphasize correctness and realism in different areas, while accepting a greater degree of abstraction in other areas. This can result in very different gameplay for different games.

The most visible kind of realism is in the way the game pieces look. Eurogames and board game wargames typically use very abstract pieces: wooden cubes or square cardboard counters. Ameritrash games emphasize the look of the game and usually include molded plastic figures to represent troops. Using pieces which look realistic is the main reason to play a miniatures game instead of a board game.

The way game pieces look doesn't need to affect the way the game plays, even though sometimes it does. The visual differences define broad categories of games because they're the first thing you see. To me, the more interesting difference is the way gameplay changes depending on how a game attempts to achieve realism.

Some wargames are described as "reductionist." An army is reduced to a specific number of individual men and the machines and equipment they are using. Statistics are collected about the real life performance of these men and their equipment. The game defines strict time scales per turn and well-defined distances on the playing area. The hope is that if you introduce enough detail into the rules, accurate results of the battles they model will emerge (nevermind that whole die-rolling thing...).

I read a good statement of my main criticism of the reductionist school of game design: it confuses "detail" with "realism." Fine details seem to provide justification for the results the game produces, but they also obscure areas where abstractions have been made, and hide the ways in which the game is unrealistic.

Some common flaws with reductionist games are:
  • they require fiddly rules with special cases for all details the game attempts to model
  • games are slow or take too long
  • rule complexity and slow gameplay cause the game to lose the "feel" of the activity it's attempting to simulate
  • too much bookkeeping
  • complex rules can shifr game play emphasis from using period-appropriate tactics to taking advantage of "flaws" in the rules in order to win
As an example of reductionism and its limitations: it is possible to calculate all aspects of the velocity, orientation, and position of an airplane in flight, and to track changes in these over a series of steps in time (game turns) in reactions to the actions of players. However, doing this typically does not feel like flying an airplane: it feels like completing a physics problem set. That's not my idea of fun.

I know I said I wasn't talking about video games, but reductionism is something computers can do a lot better than humans. Bookkeeping is not a problem for computers, calculations can be done much more quickly, and no player needs to remember the rules.

Details are not bad by themselves. The important aspect is matching the level of detail with the scale of the game. In a World War II skirmish with 10 guys on each side, it's important exactly how many men there are, what kind of guns they're using, and how many bullets they have left. If you're wargaming the entire European Theater of Operations, these minutae are not only less important to the general commanding the entire army, they aren't available to him whether he's interested or not. Learn to delegate.

Other games push detail into a secondary role, and instead emphasize making the game "feel" right for the player, in the context of the role they are playing in the game. In a WWII air combat game, the emphasis might be on making it feel like fast-paced combat where you must react quickly to avoid being shot down. An infantry skirmish might put you in the role of a platoon leader, where you have a few dozen scared kids with guns who would rather hide behind a tree than advance on the enemy machine gun net. Playing General Montgomery attempting to push a long line of troops and tanks down the road in Operation Market Garden is going to be a lot more about logistics and attrition than individual firefights.

Some benefits and optimizations that can be more easily achieved when you emphasize a realistic "feel" while omitting detail are:
  • Fewer rules
  • Less bookkeeping to do during the game
  • Faster gameplay; this is often necessary for a game to feel right
  • It's easier to encourage use of appropriate tactics instead of "gaming" the rules
It has been observed that in the last decade or so wargames have been trending towards cleaner, simpler rulesets instead of the lumbering behemoths of yesteryear. The old guard laments the lack of attention span of "those kids today" and might blame video games for what they perceive as reduced quality in rulesets.

I also invoke video games as a possible reason for this change, but I credit them instead of blaming them. Computers are much more able to reach the logical extreme of reductionist rulesets than humans are. Anyone interested in pursuing extreme detail is generally better off teaching a computer how to follow the rules than a human, and so those game designers with this propensity are creating video games instead of board games. I have no problem with that.

As for how these theoretical preferences affect the games I play in reality...

I enjoy playing video games, becuase they often combine an extreme degree of detail with the "feel" I'm looking for in a game. But of course, I still enjoy a good face-to-face board game or miniature game. I have limited time, so I tend to choose relatively short games, but I don't often let rule complexity be a limiting factor. I've enjoyed playing all kinds of wargames: some more reductionist, and others which emphasize the gameplay instead of the detail. So maybe I'm just in another phase where I don't like the idea of reductionism?

I also like reading game rules, sometimes without ever playing the game or even owning enough parts to play it. I like to see how designers translate real-world situations into playable game mechanics. These rulesets are solutions to problems of modelling, and it is interesting to me to see the different ways they create abstractions of reality. (In contrast, pure abstract strategy games aren't interesting to me. One reason for this is becuase the rules exist in a vacuum: they are abstract, but they aren't an abstract representation of anything.)

Regarding the realism of the way a game looks on the table: I run the gamut in this area as well. I play euro style wargames, ameritrash, and hex and counter games, but right now I'm on a miniatures gaming kick. For me, miniatures games are as much about the modelling as the playing: the prospect of playing a game is an excuse to paint the figures.

Another unintended side effect of the visual detail in a miniatures game is that I am encouraged to learn about the period I'm gaming. Some of this is required to accurately paint figures or plan and set up for a specific battle in history; but some of it is accidental, when I get sucked into books I'm reading on related subjects.

So, don't fool yourself into thinking any of these games are realistic, but do have fun trying!

Midas Touch

6 months or so ago, Daniel sent me a link to an announcement that Dogfish Head brewery was going to be reproducing some ancient beer (or other fermented beverage) recipes, and I was very interested to try them when they were finally available. Then, a week or so ago Dad sent me a note about Midas Touch, an all-year-round brew that fits the category of "ancient beer."

I finally managed to remember to pick one up at D's, and tonight we tried it. I like it, it's my kind of beer.

The beer is a crystal clear rich gold color (hence the Midas Touch) with a light head that doesn't stick around. There was no yeast in my bottle. It has a bit of the malty bitterness of a barley wine or most American made Belgian style trippels. It's malty, slightly sweet, and bitter but with no hoppiness. I'm reminded of some kind of wine, but I don't pay enough attention to my wine to be able to place it. The flavor is very interesting, without slapping you in the face with "different." I'd definitely get this again.

I also picked up a bottle of Palo Santo Marron, which seems slightly interesting, and a big bottle of Chateau Jiahu that I am very interested in trying. Now that I'm looking at the Dogfish Head site more carefully, it looks like I'll have to try to find Theobroma and Sah'tea as well.

Unfortunately it looks like I'll have to go to Delaware or Maryland to taste any of their distilled spirits. Maybe they could teach me to enjoy rum.

2009-10-18

Game report: Double DBA

DBA, or De Bellis Antiquitatis, is a miniature wargame for recreating battles from the ancient through medieval periods (aorund 3000BC-1400AD). Each player chooses an army of 12 elements from the list of 300 or so armies in the book. It takes only about an hour to complete a game. The rules are easy (though the rule book is unintelligible), but the tactics can be subtle.

The Double DBA variation allows playing larger games: two 12-element armies are used per side, and it facilitates more than 2 players a lot better than normal DBA. The rules don't change, but the additional tactical complication can make the game take a lot longer.

Last night, 3 of us played a game of Double DBA for the first time. I played the Skythians (I/43a) and Later Achaemenid Persians (II/7) against Frank playing the Alexendrian Macedonians (II/12) and Andy playing Later Spartans (II/5a). These are all historically contemporary armies: Alexander was the enemy of all three of the others, and Persia and Scythia were allies at some times. I don't have Alexander's only ally army, so we faked it with the Spartans.

I chose the most infantry possible with my armies: only 10 out of 24 elements. In contrast they had as much cavalry as possible, which is only 4 out of 24. So they were very different armies: theirs was a long, slow, strong infantry line, and mine was mostly highly maneuverable light horse lacking any real punch.

My other big choice in army composition was whether to use Auxilia or Spear for my Persian infantry block. The rest of my foot is Auxilia and Psiloi, which are both good in bad terrain. Spear wouldn't be good in bad terrain, and with such a short infantry line, they'd be easy to outflank and kill out the open. So, I chose the Auxilia, since I could probably hide them in some bad going to keep them safe.

I ended up rolling as the defender, and setting up terrain. I put bad going in the middle front of each deployment zone, and some on each flank. This allowed me to guarantee hiding my infantry, while putting a hole in the enemy line. The terrain on the flanks wasn't that big of a problem, but they did constrain deployment more than I thought. I shouldn't have put the bad going in the middle of the table on both sides: this caused their army to gap exactly where my infantry was placed, instead of encouraging them to confront me in the bad going.

The bigger mistake I made was in deployment. I put my light horse too close to the center, with no efficient way to move them out to the flank. That wasted a lot of PIPs and caused trouble.

The Spartans are almost entirely spear, and Alexander's primary infantry is Pikes. Those cannot kill my Light Horse or Cavalry at all, without flanking them. Their other option for killing my elements was to go into the terrain to push out my light infantry. They're easier to kill, but it would require a lot more commands to get into combat because of the bad going. On the other hand, I had to set up some really useful combats in order to get any chance of killing any of his elements with my weak Light Horse.

For a while, the lines approached each other uneventfully, and I tried to extract a few light horse from the center around to the flank. I lost many combats, as I expected, with my light horse fleeing. Eventually Andy and Frank exploited gaps in my line to flank my elements that hadn't fled yet, and I started losing some units. However, exploiting a hole with a pike block means breaking your line, and this helped me get into a much better position against them.

8 elements or both generals dead means you lose. I lost about 4 elements before I killed anything. It got pretty grim: I was behind by about 6-3 at the worst. But then things started turning around when they stopped getting any PIPs (commands) for a while, and I was able to more effectively fold Frank's flank. I eventually caught up, killing 8 (including a general) to their 6.

Overall, it was very enjoyable, but it took closer to 4 hours than 1. I admit, a lot of this was involved in not actually playing the game, and we could be a lot faster with more experience. I'd certainly play again if everyone was interested, but I'd be almost as happy playing a few ordinary DBA games, since they'll make everyone better at playing more quickly.

I liked the very different feel of the armies, but I think this particular matchup created a quite slow game, since most of the combats were numerically very unlikely for me to win, but also impossible for them to kill me. Clearly I need to paint a few more armies so we can have more double DBA options!

2009-10-17

DBA Army II/7: Later Achaemenid Persians

Here is the Later Achaemenid Persian army, finished. These are Essex 15mm figures from their DBA army pack. The only optional elements I didn't paint are the scythed chariot and the cavalry general.

The color schemes are all based on images in the Osprey book on the Achaemenid Persians, which are taken from the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Alexander Mosaic. "Yes, they really did wear that much purple and (saffron) yellow." But also notice that almost everyone is wearing expensively dyed fabric instead of armor.

Here is the general on his light chariot. Since this army will be playing primarily against Alexander the Great, I consider him to be Darius III, king of Persia. I almost displayed him facing backwards, since he always seems to be fleeing from Alexander in historical images.

Two Cavalry elements. I'm least happy with the shading on these guys' hoods. I should've used a lighter ink, but I didn't. It's not as obvious in pictures. I'm also not sure about the armor; it doesn't match anything I've seen in books.

These are the two elements of Light Horse.

Here are four elements of spearmen. I'm not very happy with the choice of figures here, because I'm intending to use this for a very late army. These "Dipylon" shields are a hundred or more years out of date by Alexander's time. The rear ranks are "immortals" from earlier Perisan armies, and it's kind of weird that they're carrying bows as well as spears and shields. They're shown wearing older long Persian robes instead of the shorter Median style tunics and pants they adopted later. The front ranks are painted like Darius' spear bearers (bodyguard).

They look nice, and work the same way on the table, but they aren't likely the spearmen faced by Alexander.


In the front are 4 elements of Auxilia, Takabara. These are fairly good figures, but I think the shields are too small. I made an attempt at adding a few shield designs, but it didn't work very well. In the rear are three elements of Psiloi: Persian slingers and javilenmen. I'd rather have bows tha javelins.

Overall, I'm happy with the way it turned out. I can't bring myself to spend a lot more time on 15mm figures, but with only rudimentary shading.

2009-10-15

Persians, almost done

Here's an in-progress picture of my latest painting projects. This is another DBA army, II/7: Later Achaemenid Persians. There are also three frigates from Uncharted Seas in there, they aren't Persian ships.

This shows how I hold the figures for painting. Similar figures are hot glued onto a stick, far enough apart that I can reach all parts of the figure. Horses are primed in brown or grey since that's the primary color they'll be when they're done. The rest are primed in white, grey, or black depending on which color I think is best that day (and somewhat depending on what color is going over the primer).

For cavalry, sometimes I glue the riders on before painting, but sometimes I stake the riders on pins and paint them separately before epoxying them onto the horses.

These figures have just come in from being sprayed with matte varnish. After that, they're removed from the sticks, and glued to bases. Then I paint and decorate the bases. These will fill 16 stands of figures (4 cavalry, 1 chariot, and 11 infantry elements).

I'll have pictures of the finished army soon. This looks like it'll be a fun army to play with, except for the fact that they'll always have to lose against Alexander the Great.

Fort Ligonier Day 2009

In August, we visited Pam and Bob in Ligonier for the weekend. While I was there, I learned there was a reconstructed French and Indian War fort there: Fort Ligonier. Who knew!

Every year, they have a weekend long celebration in Ligonier called Fort Ligonier Days. We went down last weekend, and went to Fort Ligonier Days on Sunday. There were a variety of arts and craft vendors around town, as well as special events at the fort itself.

Most of the craft vendors were't my thing. Some of the artists with shops in town have much better work than the people they invited for the weekend. They did have an interesting blacksmith doing demonstrations, though.

I was more interested in the events at the fort itself. Besides reconstructing the entire fort in its exact original location, the owners have also crafted reproduction cannons, wagons, and other buildings on site. They held an artillery demonstration twice each day during the weekend, when they fired the reproduction Big Guns. They fired a wall gun, a swivel gun, a 6 pounder cannon (shown in the picture above) and a 12 pounder. I wouldn't have wanted to be driving by during the demonstration: the guns are set up in "SUV hunter" positions on the highway side of the fort, and they're loud!

Later, they held a small reenactment of a French and Indian attack on the British-held fort. During the war, the fort was attacked twice but the British held it both times. In the fort there were British and provincial troops, and the attack was made by a group of French who were camped outside the fort (as shown in the image to the right).

The French grenadiers threw grenades over the wall to get the defenders away, scaled the wall with ladders, and then blew up the gate to open it for the rest of the troops to enter. They then demonstrated standard European style combat with two firing lines. They fired their muskets (with blanks) but didn't simulate casualties.

The fort is quite interesting. It's located literally across the street from Bob and Pam's house, right in the middle of town. It is completely unrelated to the government: privately owned, privately funded, and not a park of any sort. They allow tours through the reconstructed buildings on the premises (for an entrance fee), and have reenactments by volunteers several times per year.

Just before Fort Ligonier Days, I learned a bit more about the French and Indian War. Have you ever heard of "Braddock's Last Stand," aka the Battle of the Monongahela? Neither had I. But it happened only a few miles away from our house! Unfortunately the "battlefield" (it was woods, not a field, at the time) is now under a hundred years of city and steel mill, near the appropriately named Braddock, PA.

General Braddock was marching from Fort Necessity towards Fort Duquesne. Just after crossing the Monongahela, his slow-moving column was attacked by French and Indians. They were decimated because they maintained their European line formation and tactics during a wilderness skirmish. Braddock was wounded, and died shortly afterward outside Fort Necessity. A little-known officer named George Washington led the retreat, and learned from the mistakes made that day.

I'm not sure if I learned more about the American Revolution as I was growing up, or if I just remember more of it; in either case I'm sure it's because New England seems to have a much greater affinity for the Revolutionary war than the French and Indian war.