Category Archives: Wargames

There’s a rule for that: the customer is always right (when it comes to things crashing and exploding)

It’s always fun to try and identify game rules that came into existence not because they were part of the designers’ vision, but because players insisted on them.

When you’re a game designer faced with player demands for a rule you don’t particularly want to include in the game, you have a few choices. You can simply ignore the requests. Alternately, you could include a passive-aggressive note in the rulebook:

No need to get snippy about it!

That’s from the Star Fleet Battles Master Rulebook, and it makes me smile every time I read it. In defense of the players crying out to the heavens for such a rule, ships ramming into each other does sometimes happen in Star Trek, most memorably in Star Trek: Nemesis; and besides, who wouldn’t want a chance to melodramatically shout “RAMMING SPEED!!!” during the ever-suspenseful SPEED DETERMINATION PHASE of a Star Fleet Battles match?

Nevertheless I can sympathize with the designers’ annoyance here: if it were possible to ram other ships in Star Fleet Battles, every single battle would end with the losing player attempting to ram the other player out of spite, and players would start fielding ships not for their tactical value, but to use as kamikazes. That might be fun for a match or two, but would quickly get old, and doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing the Federation would do.

But there’s another way designers can react to unreasonable player requests: just roll with it. From Tactical Operations, a book of optional advanced rules for Battletech:

Bless you, Battletech rule designers.

In a regular Battletech game, landing hits on a ‘Mech’s nuclear-powered engine can quickly disable the ‘Mech, but won’t result in the Hollywood-style atomic explosion that players have long pined for. But this is the best way to do it: make it an optional rule.

(In this case, the Battletech designers must accept some blame for this rule, because ‘Mech fusion engines exploding is a thing that has happened from time to time in Battletech novels. And the intro videos to the third and fifth installments of the Mechwarrior videogames feature ‘Mechs detonating in big nuclear fireballs when their engines take critical damage. There’s just something about ‘Mech reactors going critical that we can’t get enough of!)

I am sure that most complex games that aim for quasi-realism run into this sort of thing a lot: the tension between sticking to the purity of your vision for the game, and giving players what they want. Know of any other good examples?

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Why is this ‘Mech so terrible?

Die result (1d6) It’s terrible because of… Example
1 Ideology The ‘Mech’s poor design is intentional, designed to encourage or discourage certain types of behavior on the battlefield. “It’s shameful the way our Mechwarriors keep their distance from the enemy, sniping at long range, when everyone knows the true spirit of bushido is manifested in face-to-face battle. Well, without any ranged weapons, this ‘Mech will force its pilots to fight with honor.”
2 This is What Was Available The ‘Mech was cobbled together using the only resources and equipment available to its designers. Nobody’s under the illusion that it’s a good design, but it’s better than nothing. “We’ve got a warehouse full of heavy ‘Mech chasses, and a big pile of small lasers. Might as well put ’em to use… better than letting them sit around gathering dust.”
3 Lobbying A weapons manufacturer bribed its way into a sweet contract with the government, despite the uselessness of the product. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger—it says here we’re required by our contract to equip every ‘Mech we make with no less than five TrueAim Plus(tm) brand small lasers….”
4 Untouchable Designer However ridiculous the end result, the ‘Mech was designed by somebody that nobody dared criticize or contradict. “Why, this ‘Mech was designed by the Crown Prince himself. Surely you’re not implying that His Imperial Majesty knows nothing of battlefield strategy and technology, are you?”
5 Production Line Screw-up An error on the manufacturing floor resulted in a badly mis-configured ‘Mech, but by the time anybody noticed, the cost of fixing the mistake had become prohibitive. “Oh dear, we’ve just equipped 500 assault ‘Mechs with armaments meant for light ‘Mechs. But they’ve already started shipping to the frontlines….”
6 It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Way The ‘Mech was an experimental test platform (or maybe a practical joke by an over-tired engineer) that was never intended for mass production. But key emails were skimmed instead of carefully read, and you can guess what happened next. “Don’t worry, nobody would possibly be stupid enough to mistake this for a serious production design… right?”

FileTR3025_Front_CoverOne of the most-read books in my game library when I was in junior high and high school was Technical Readout 3025, a collection of ‘Mechs that you could use in your Battletech games. They were designed using the construction rules in the rulebook, but were also the “official” ‘Mechs used by the different factions within the Battletech setting.

What surprised me at the time was that the Technical Readout contained a number of ‘Mechs that were terribly designed.

By that, I mean that there were numerous ‘Mech designs in the book that were obviously inefficient or just generally ineffective. At the time, I was spending my evenings and weekends poring over the ‘Mech construction rules figuring out how to most efficiently balance weapons, armor, and speed in ‘Mech designs. When “official” ‘Mechs appeared that were subpar, I was surprised and almost offended.

Nowadays, I realize that poorly-designed ‘Mechs are a feature of the setting, not a bug. They add verisimilitude to the Battletech universe. Just as in our modern militaries there are plenty of examples of poorly conceived, ineffective boondoggles, so the militaries of the Battletech world would have been plagued by such things. But at the time, I was mostly just annoyed that I had paid money for a book that contained ‘Mech designs no competent player would ever want to be stuck with.

It looks cool, but trust me... you don't want to be stuck piloting one. And you know, it doesn't even look that cool.

It looks cool, but trust me… you don’t want to be stuck piloting one. And you know, it doesn't even look that cool.

The worst offender, by far, was the CGR-1A1 Charger, an assault-class ‘Mech (at 80 tons, one of the heaviest ‘Mechs in the setting) that had almost no effective weaponry and mediocre armor. With an armament of just five small lasers—the wimpiest, shortest-ranged weapons in the game—it was completely outclassed by ‘Mechs half its weight. It was slightly faster than other heavy ‘Mechs, but not faster than the light and medium ‘Mechs that outgunned it. Its only conceivable battlefield advantage was its weight; if it could close to melee range, it could (in theory) deliver a pretty hefty punch or kick. But trust me: while your 80-ton clunker is making its own personal Charge of the Light Brigade at an enemy unit, you can bet that it’s getting showered with missiles, lasers, and autocannon fire every step of the way. Because your enemy is not stupid enough to be piloting a Charger.

At the time, the presence of the Charger was an inexplicable annoyance. These days, it’s a charming part of the setting. And it makes for a fun excercise to imagine how such a poorly-conceived ‘Mech would make it from the planning stages to the actual battlefield. Above is a quick chart I put together to answer the question. When you’re handed a terrible ‘Mech to play with, just roll a six-sided die on the chart above to see how it came to be.

Obviously, this’d work with any military or sci-fi game, with slight tweaking. What other reasons should be added to this table?

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First impressions: Federation and Empire

Last week I had the chance to play Federation and Empire, a wargame set in ADB’s Star Fleet Universe. Whereas Star Fleet Battles depicts battles between individual starships, F&E depicts strategic-scale conflict between warring star empires. Each player controls one or more empires (the Federation, the Romulans, the Klingons, etc.); during your own turn, you allocate your empire’s economic resources to build up (or repair) fleets of starships, and then you send those fleets out to capture your opponent’s star systems, destroy his fleets, and (hopefully) drive his economy into the ground.

I won’t attempt a thorough review of the game here; I only played through a single turn, and am still fuzzy on a lot of the rules. But in short, it’s a very fun, and very demanding, game. It’s demanding both in that it has a lot of rules which must be learned, and also in that it would take a very long time to play through most of the game’s scenarios. (A skilled group of players might be able to get through one of the shorter scenarios in a day or two, but playing through the biggest scenario could easily take months.)

For my first game, I played the Kzinti empire and my opponent played the Lyrans. In the Star Fleet Universe official history, the Lyrans attack the Kzinti, which sparks a World War I-style cascade of alliances and treaties, with the end result of dragging the entire galaxy into war. That sounds fun, but we decided to start small, playing out just the initial Lyran attack and the Kzinti response.

When your turn begins, you fill out an “economic worksheet” for your empire, much like the Energy Allocation stage in Star Fleet Battles. (There’s a joke about tax forms in there somewhere, but I’ll leave it to you to find it.) This is where you spend money to construct military units, and depending on how much tinkering you want to do with your construction schedule, this can take a few minutes or much, much longer. In addition to building new ships, you can repair old ones, or–interestingly–you can “convert” existing ships into other types of ship. (For instance, you might convert an existing cruiser into a carrier.) All of this costs money, of course; at the beginning of the game, I had more money than I could use, but apparently as the game progresses (and your enemies steal territory from you) your empire becomes increasingly low on cash. (After a certain number of turns, for example, your empire’s economy becomes “exhausted” by wartime demand–a clever rule, I thought.)

After completing the economic worksheet, you proceed to the heart of the game: moving vast fleets of starships across a giant map of the galaxy. And by “giant map,” I really mean it–my opponent owned a glorious 30×70″ full-color map that was so cool, I can’t imagine playing F&E without it. (The map that comes in the basic game box is puny in comparison.) You move your fleets into position; your opponent then moves (with some restrictions) his fleets in response, and then battle is joined.

Fleet battles were the most fun part of the game I played. A fleet might have a few or several dozen ships in it, and part of the strategy of doing battle in F&E involves assembling the most effective “battle line.” You can place a certain number of ships from your fleet into the front battle line; there’s also a “second line” where you can place support ships, or ships that for whatever reason you don’t want exposed out on the frontline. Your other ships are kept in reserve, and can be brought up to the battle line later to replace losses.

One interesting aspect of F&E combat is that before battle begins, you and your opponent each choose the “intensity” level with which you want to fight. This basically represents the degree of caution (or recklessness) you want your ships to use in combat. Choosing a low intensity level lowers the amount of damage you can do to the enemy, but also lowers the damage you’ll receive. A high intensity level increases the amount of damage you can inflict, but also increases the risk of suffering massive casualties yourself. If you are greatly outnumbered by your enemy and just want to survive long enough to retreat, you’d probably choose a low intensity; whereas if the situation were reversed and you were trying to wipe out a smaller enemy force, you’d go for a higher intensity.

After that comes the dice-rolling, damage-allocating part of combat. You tally up your total firepower, roll some dice (simultaneously with your opponent), and inflict a certain amount of damage on your enemy. You can choose to target specific ships with your attack (maybe you really, really want to take down a pesky enemy dreadnought), or you can just let your opponent distribute the damage however he likes. (There are advantages and drawbacks to each.) After you’ve taken damage, you can try to withdraw, or proceed to the next round, where you bring up replacements from your reserves and repeat the process.

After combat, some housekeeping and final movement is done, and you wrap up your turn.

That’s F&E from the perspective of a total newbie who played for a grand total of one turn. I found it to be very fun, but also very overwhelming; as with SFB and many other wargames, the basic concepts are not terribly complicated, but there are vast layers of nuance and additional rules you need to master in order to play effectively. And then there’s the time commitment thing. It took most of an afternoon to play through one round of the game, using only two empires. I cannot imagine the amount of time you’d need to play through a full-blown galactic war scenario with all of the major empires in play.

Still, it’s a fun one, and I think I’d like to add it to my game library at some point. I would like to be competent enough with it to play in a game of F&E at Origins later this year. Maybe by the time Origins rolls around, we’ll be up to turn #3…

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Mad dreams of Origins

Well, I’ve gone and done it: I signed up to attend the Origins convention this year. I had a lot of fun last year, even if I did lose almost every single Advanced Squad Leader game that I played.

Monster wargameI haven’t decided exactly how my time at Origins will be divided up this year, but I do have one specific goal: I want to play a Monster Wargame of some sort. By “Monster Wargame,” I’m referring to a wargame of that a) has a mapboard so big that it must be spread across several game tables; b) makes use of more tiny cardboard counters than there are stars in the sky; and c) normally requires several years of regular play to complete.

This is an experience I’ve not yet been able to enjoy–I live in an apartment that lacks the prerequisite Gaming Basement, and if I left a complex wargame set up overnight our cats would almost certainly scatter it to the four winds.

So what are my options? Here’s what springs to mind:

  • World in Flames, a World War 2 grand strategy wargame that meets most of the requirements above. The maps look particularly glorious when they’re sprawled across my apartment floor. (That’s as close as I’ve gotten to playing full-blown WiF; I always have to hastily roll up the maps and let the cats back out of the locked bedroom before my wife gets home.) A wargaming friend of mine who will be attending Origins owns a copy of Pacific War, which would certainly also qualify for the Monster WW2 Wargame category.
  • I know some Federation & Empire players who will be attending Origins, and who might let me join their game (perhaps as one of the minor races, so that I couldn’t do too much damage to the cause–Seltorians, your time has come!).
  • There are certain Star Fleet Battles scenarios so massive in scale that I simply refuse to believe that anybody has actually played through them–one of those might be a good choice. Given that I’ve played 4-ship SFB games that lasted for eight hours, I cannot imagine how long it would take to work through a 30-ship showdown, especially when my mind tries to imagine how many drones and fighters would probably be out on the map at any given time. Likewise, I believe that with the Red Barricades ASL expansion, which I own, one could conceivably recreate the entire battle for Stalingrad on a squad-level scale. The mind trembles at the thought.

In short, there’s lots of options. Whatever I play, as long as it features a gi-normous mapboard, I’ll have fun. And as long as there’s a steady supply of Mt. Dew within easy reach.

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Calling the Exterminator

As you can see, I’m still learning the ropes. But here’s a front and back picture of Battletech miniature painting attempt #2, an Exterminator:

The lighting in the photos is not the greatest; in real life, there’s a slightly more prominent metallic sheen, and there’s some dark-brown undercarriage coloring visible. (You’ll just have to take my word for it.) I like this paint job a bit better than my previous effort, and I learned a few more things about miniature painting in the process.

As for the Exterminator itself, I’ve always thought its oddly bulky torso and shambling gait looked kinda cool. Reading around on the web revealed that it’s usually painted a shiny silver; the body here is silver in color, but I wanted its sparkly shine to be peeking out from beneath a heavy layer of battlefield smoke and grime.

Next up for painting is, I think, a Zeus, another iconic Battlemech. I think I’ll go with some brighter and cleaner colors this time; both the Dragon and the Exterminator are pretty grungy and washed-out looking, and I’m ready for a change of pace. Practice makes perfect, or so they say….

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Free strategy games from the dark depths of the 80s

Ever heard of Dwarfstar Games? I hadn’t either, but it turns out they released eight rather quirky little strategy games in the early 1980s, all most of which are now available for free download. Most of them look like fairly short and straightforward strategy games, with an obvious wargame influence–the hexgrid maps and cardboard chits are a dead giveaway.

Downloading digital scans of the game maps and playing pieces isn’t quite as cool as actually owning the physical thing, of course, but for $10 or so at your local copy shop, you could probably recreate a fashionably old-school physical copy of the games. Might be a fun change of pace from all those new-fangled, high-production-quality games you kids are playing these days.

(More info and reviews of each game are available here. Spotted at Game It Yourself, which lists many, many other freely downloadable games.)

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ASL + SFB = the apocalypse is imminent

Time to set the Doomsday Clock ahead another minute: the company behind Star Fleet Battles is hard at work on Star Fleet Assault, a ground combat game set in the Star Fleet universe. As I speak, the 400-page Star Fleet Battles rulebook and several Advanced Squad Leader tomes are weighing down a bookshelf in the living room, and I’ll admit I’ve fantasized once or twice about what sort of unholy hybrid abomination might result from combining the two into one Game to End All Games. When Star Fleet Assault comes out, I may finally have my answer.

In all seriousness: this sounds like a very cool game, at least from the preliminary description. The basic gameplay sounds less complex than that of ASL, although who knows what it’ll look like when all the optional rules have been added in. I’m particularly interested to see what sorts of ground combat vehicles exist in the Star Fleet Battles universe–that’s an aspect of Star Trek that’s hardly ever been touched upon.

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Remembering Gettysburg! (the game, that is)

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Jeff Shaara, author of several excellent Civil War (and other) novels. My interest in the American Civil War thus stirred up, I resolved to do something to capitalize on said interest. I’m not really into the Civil War re-enactment thing, and the movie Gettysburg, while an excellent film, seemed a bit too long and melodramatic at the time.

The solution? I dug through my computer desk drawer and found my old copy of Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, a fine strategy game if ever there was one. I was a bit startled to learn that it’s nearly a decade old; and I was even more pleasantly surprised to find that it’s just as fun to play now as it was ten years ago. Meier is best (and justly) known for the Civilization series; but I happen to think that his game-design genius is just as evident in some of his lesser-known titles–games like Covert Action (if you remember that one, I salute you) and Gettysburg.

If ever there were a game that desperately needed to be remade today (with updated graphics and an improved interface, perhaps), it’s Gettysburg. The Civil War is generally only touched on by games that are set firmly in the hardcore-wargame genre; but Meier’s Gettysburg (and its follow-up Antietam) are so fun and simple to learn that anyone can be replaying the battle within fifteen minutes of installing it, even if you’ve never touched a wargame in your life. You don’t need to worry about memorizing your units’ attack ratings, tracking their remaining movement points, or dragging game pieces with obscure military symbols around a hex grid; Meier’s game is all about fast manuvers and outflanking the enemy before he does the same to you.

The game engine was even used, I believe, by BreakAway Games to create one or two Napoleonic battle games. Back when I was addicted to Gettysburg, I would’ve killed for a “Great Battles of the Civil War” collection using the same game engine. But alas; the Civil War has once again largely disappeared from the gaming scene. Matrix Games has recently released Forge of Freedom, but I think that’s about it as far as notable Civil War games go. (If you know otherwise, please let me know.)

It’s not easy to find a fresh copy of Gettysburg these days–your best bet is to pick up a used copy of the Civil War Collection–but if you should come across a copy and have even the slightest interest in strategy gaming, I highly recommend it.

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Happy New Year; or, a watched Battletech miniature never dries

Happy New Year! Now that the holiday craziness is over, it’s back to Real Life (and, hopefully, regular posting).

So what did you do to celebrate New Year’s Eve? A night on the town, perhaps, waiting for the ball to drop at midnight? Or maybe you got together for an evening of bacchanalian festivities with friends and loved ones? This being a blog about games, you can probably guess that my New Year’s Eve was spent doing something game-related. Truly, what can match the excitement of a holiday evening spent painting Battletech miniatures? Yes, my friends, that is what I was doing while you were out drinking too much and kissing your significant other at the stroke of midnight. Here’s the result:

It’s the first Battletech mini I’ve painted in well over a decade, and I’m sure it shows. Nevertheless, I’m pleased with how it turned out. The mech is a Kurita Dragon, an unremarkable but solid workhorse, chosen for my first paint attempt because it was simple to assemble. The color scheme is for deployment in a forest-type environment. As you may note, I used a very diluted black wash to give it a battle-worn appearance–what’s supposed to look like carbon scoring, smokestains, and rust marks. That effect didn’t turn out quite as I had hoped (remember, it’s my first time!), but I learned a few lessons for use on the next mech (an Exterminator, already primed and ready to be painted).

I didn’t spend my mini-painting holiday evening alone, of course. While my wife happily played The Sims in the computer room, I was sharing my painting workbench (aka the dining room table) with my friend Chad, who painted several incredibly cool Star Fleet Battles miniatures in the time it took me to paint the engine housing on the Dragon. Chad’s masterpiece of the evening was a very nice-looking Gorn cruiser–it was really fun to watch it come to life as he painted. (Check out pictures of Chad’s work at the above links.)

All in all, a fitting way to greet the new year. I hope 2007 is already shaping up to be a good year for you, and I hope that your list of New Year’s resolutions includes at least one pledge to do more gaming this year!

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Weekend game report: the great Federation-Vudar beatdown

This weekend, I played my biggest game of Star Fleet Battles yet. My opponent and I each had 600 points with which to purchase a squadron of starships. We each showed up to the field of battle with four ships–my force consisted of a Federation command cruiser, two heavy cruisers, and a plasma cruiser. He was playing the Vudar (a former subject race that rebelled against their Klingon overlords) and fielded a Vudar battlecruiser and three war cruisers. What diplomatic debacle had pitted the peace-loving Federation and the Klingon-hating Vudar against each other that day, none can say.

It was an epic battle–at least in comparison to the one-on-one starship duels we usually play. The Federation and Vudar primary weapon systems are fairly similar–the Feds have their famous photon torpedoes while the Vudar equip their ships with ion cannons; both are heavy-hitting weapons that work best at short range. (The Vudar are weaker in the phaser and drone department, but compensate with a defensive system that can make their ships extremely difficult to hit.) That meant that my opponent and I both pursued the same basic tactic: close to within striking range, concentrate the squadron’s fire on one or two targets, then peel away and maintain a safe distance while frantically reloading our weapons.

And that’s how it played out. On the initial pass, I learned what happens when four Vudar ships all concentrate their firepower on a single Federation vessel: said ship goes BOOM. I lost my command cruiser, but my surviving ships quickly exacted revenge by damaging his battlecruiser and destroying a war cruiser while they tried to escape. We both backed off and stalked each other for the next few turns while we reloaded weapons, then I charged. In the ensuing chaos I lost a heavy cruiser and took down one more of his war cruisers, leaving us each with two fairly battered surviving ships. Reflecting that no sane starship captain would continue an engagement after suffering 50% casualties (and noting that it was creeping towards 11:00 pm), we called it a draw.

Going by the point value of ships destroyed, he did manage a technical victory–he scored an official Marginal Victory and I suffered a corresponding Marginal Defeat. But that’s about as close to victory as I’ve ever gotten against this particular opponent, so in my mind I had done the Federation at least somewhat proud.

I’ve got no brilliant observations about the game, except that it did show me that SFB does not necessarily become unmanageable when you play larger battles. Having multiple powerful ships adds a lot of tactical options–and the amount of concentrated firepower they can pour at a single unfortunate ship is a bit scary. And I also learned that splash damage from exploding ships is nothing to be laughed at–one of my heavy cruisers (rather unluckily) took serious internal damage when the plasma cruiser went down in flames.

All in all, a great match. I don’t know when the next match is, but now that I’ve witnessed the awesome firepower of a starship fleet, I’m going to have a hard time being satisfied with just one or two measly starships…

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