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Sunday, 22 January 2017

5e Dungeons & Dragons - The Chronicles of the Backbiters

Listeners to our podcast - The Hub Systems - will know that Oscar and I have embraced 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons since last Autumn. I think it's one of the best editions since my imagination was first captured by AD&D v1 back in the 1980s - it captures the feel of the original game whilst dealing with some of the more anomalous and detracting points of the game (like Magic Users only having d4 hit dice!).


Anyway, I used to DM a lot, and when a group of like-minded people got together through Meetup (having never met each other before!), I volunteered to DM again and we set off on a small starter adventure so everyone could get the feel of the new edition. This was "The Master's Vault", a RollD20 scenario which is a really nice way of getting into a new edition with players who don't know each other - lots of introductory stuff, it's not highly paced but has combat, traps and puzzles to solve. The party are a bunch of students of an old mage who now trains all types of adventurers. A couple of people couldn't make the first sessions, so I also had a couple of NPCs in there (handy as well for being the fall guy if the new edition proved unfortunately lethal at some point). 

Now this presented me with a couple of small issues - although I played AD&D as a teenager, and have been gaming for a long time, I don't actually own many fantasy figures - those I did have got lost or sold at some point. In addition, I didn't have any particularly good method of mapping that kept the required FOW/mystery element without requiring a lot of messing about in-game. Now for the former issue there are a few speciality manufacturers, but buying all the monsters, NPC etc was going to be expensive. I knew some of the players would have their own minis, but many wouldn't as they were first-time players or new to 5e after a long break.

In the first instance I tackled the mapping issue by printing out some sheets of A4 with 1" squares and then laminating them. This would give me a reusable grid that I could pre-prepare rooms etc on. It wasn't perfect, but it was fine as a starting point considering I didn't know how long this group would stick to things. I also thought about 3D printing as a solution, so started with a bunch of barrels and bookcases for the first adventure - they went down very well with the group. 



Figures require more finesse, however, and my M3D was very limited in terms of speed/throughput, so I looked to GW for some figures, buying twenty-odd unpainted Skinks from ebay for very little, modifying and painting them to be kobolds. They went down well too, and it was nice to paint something different.



Here was the party as it started;

Lander Hornraven - Male Human War Cleric
Thor (the mighty) - Male Human Druid
Uro Quo - Male Half-Elf Warlock (Great Old One)
Darrien Fellweather - Male Halfling Bard
Alonna Torlinn - Female Dwarven Rogue
Ranger Jon - Male Gnome Ranger
Mifregg (NPC) - Male Tiefling Fighter
Myrddin (NPC) - Female Tiefling Sorcerer (These two Tieflings were siblings - I had a plan!) 
Sirethnis Duenlyn - (Couldn't make first sessions) - Female Elven Fighter

This finished, we were then going to start Hoard of the Dragon Queen - mainly because I'd heard good things about it, and Lange from Jaded Gamercast has run it a few times...in my mind if its good for him then it's good for me. I had Sirethnis be one of the students from the first adventure, but recalled to her home in the Greenfields after getting word from them that trouble was afoot. At the end of the RollD20 adventure they then received a request from this character for help, with word to meet at Greenest.

The issue of figures now raised its head again - HotDQ has a lot of stuff right from the outset - dozens of enemies. Lots of raiders, guards, veterans & berserkers - humans, basically. I checked out my newly found FLGS (Triple Helix Games - here's a call out for them) which has a whole bunch of Perry Miniatures figures - The English Army and Foot Knights are ideal for D&D, and incredibly good value. They also sell GW stuff at good prices, so I picked up some Lizardmen (no, I'm not going to use the silly new tentacle-porn name) including some cavalry to use as Ambush and Guard Drakes.



At this point a tragedy struck - my M3D printer broke...after contacting support, they basically said "Tough crap buddy, you don't live in the US so it'll cost you £400 to send you a new one". My reaction was to broadcast this as widely as I could so people don't buy from that PoS company, and to buy a new printer from a UK distributor - a Wanhao Duplicator i3 v2.1. For those that know, this is a cheap Prusa clone, as I wanted something between a fully "out of the box" product (expensive) and "here's a bunch of components in a box". As it was it took me 40 minutes from receiving my shiny new printer to producing a perfect first print, so I was VERY happy. It is also at least 100% faster than the old M3D, has a massive print area and a heated bed, meaning ability to print in different materials (all for much less than the "replacement/repair" service from M3D).

With the newfound speed and versatility of the new printer, I looked to Thingiverse to broaden the immersive style for the game, and found a whole bunch of different tile sets.


I printed out a load for the next session, which would form the basis of some of the pivotal encounters within the first episode. I also magnetised them with a thin magnetic sheet on the bottom so I could put them into place on steel sheets without them shifting about...



I also embarked upon my most ambitious print to that point, a dragon for the attack on Greenest...



In the interim, one of the original guys who couldn't make it dropped out, and we had another two join (one a Half-Orc Barbarian named Othrod Tranganth, the other a female Dwarven Wizard named Kylantha Marbleshield). I ran a small preamble for these three, where Sirethnis rescued Othrod from an execution by his former clan mates following the death of his father (as there was no-one left to protect this half-blood runt).

Othrod then accompanied Sirethnis, who returned home to find his father missing after going with other village men to find the source of recent raids. Tracking down her lost father, Sirethnis witnessed both her mother and father murdered by a mysterious Dragon Cult. Before he died, Sirethnis' father told her that he'd found out the next target was Greenest, and she should get help and warn Governor Nighthill before the attack came. Of course they arrived too late, though they managed to rescue him  with Kylantha, and make it back to the keep - where I had them meet the rest of the party in the next session. The player with Ranger Jon couldn't make it, but as is back story was that he was a bit of a wanderer, didn't like crowds and was actually really good at getting lost, I had him say he would meet them at Greenest as he would make his own way....getting lost and arriving late (for the session after).

Episode 1, the attack on Greenest, took a few good sessions to get through, but all in all it went pretty well - I'd managed to tie in the new characters, have them all on comparable experience and give them a compelling reason both to go to Greenest whilst under dragon attack and a desire to investigate the Cult of the Dragon (though Sirethnis took this as pure revenge...). Now we had a lot of players, so I got Mifregg electro-cremated by Lennithon in the party's encounter with the adult blue dragon, which also made Myrddin go mad and vanish (she was a wild magic sorcerer, and had done this kind of thing before!). I had plans for Myrddin to return at later points to plague the party after blaming them for the death of her brother - there's nothing quite like like setting up a long-term adversary who used to be one of the party, is there? 

At the moment the party are just completing Episode 6, but I'll cover some of how they got there in another post. Until then, happy gaming!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 5: The Best of the Rest

Well a long week in Germany delayed my final instalment to this series, which covers the other game companies that are relevant and prevalent out there. There are a lot of them! I don't approach these in any particular order, and my predictions are limited due to my lack of familiarity with many of them, so take it all with the proverbial grain of salt - I'd also be interested for others feedback here too :-)

Fantasy Flight Games

FFG have had a great time since the rise of X-Wing, and have plenty of other irons in the fire as well. They know how to do marketing, they support tournaments and they have had fantastic exposure of the public to the Star Wars universe with a whole new generation from the great new Star Wars films. It's hard to see how they can get things too wrong in 2017, and I don't expect them to. Predictions for FFG don't really go beyond this, since their release announcements are so far in the future you know what they're doing way ahead of time (which is a great thing).

Wyrd

Malifaux has something of a cult following, as it appeals to a particular subset of gamers from what I see. Their no-dice card mechanics are interesting, but the universe holds little appeal from me and I also don't know a local playgroup, so I've never taken the plunge. However they're a slick company and from what I see are very involved and supportive, and fans love their stuff. They're kickstarting another game - "The Other Side" right now, and some of the factions look pretty cool, but with the fall in value of the pound, it's an expensive exercise to just get some cool minis...I can wait and buy what I want when they come out, since its already well over funded ($265k from $75k requested as of today). I expect it to be successful as a game in the same way Malifaux is, and you never know, I may pick it up in the future at a show.

Warlord Games

Warlord have kind of sat under my radar for a long time, principally because I've not played WWII games in a long while (Oscar has no interest here). They are the owners (of course) of Bolt Action, and in 2016 they introduced Konflict '47, which I think is a very smart move on their behalf, since it opens an established game to a new set of players as well as expanding it for existing ones. I expect Bolt Action to continue in its popularity, and Konflict '47 to do really well too. I love WWII wargaming (it's how I started), and I might try to get Oscar involved with the zombie/werewolf appeal of this alternative history game.

Now their Sci-Fi skirmish game (Beyond the Gates of Antares) I've not seen a lot of - Oscar and I did see the game a long time ago, and the minis looked uninspiring and flat, but since that time I think Warlord have put a lot into the game. It's difficult to say without being part of the community that plays it just how it might be going, but Warlord seem determined to make it stick. I'm still not really convinced, but we'll see in time.

They also have a ton of other games, all 28mm and going from lots of historicals (from Romans to Napoleonics) to more the outlandish like Project Z and including some licensed products such as the not-very-well received Terminator Genisys and the forthcoming Doctor Who: Into the Time Vortex games. I'd say they probably have enough on their plate for 2017!

Others and Kickstarters

So there are plenty of games companies I've not mentioned here, plus there's a shedload more stuff coming in 2017 by way of Kickstarters that are to fulfil (Cthulhu Wars Onslaught 2 from Peterson Games, the Dark Souls game from Steamforged Games, Shattered Void by White Dragon Miniatures)...the list goes on, and that's just what is available now. Who knows what Kickstarter will bring in 2017?

So as I've said many times before, it is indeed a golden age for gamers, which for me means that games companies need to be at the peak of their abilities to be able to keep up. With Brexit on the horizon, a new and supremely unpredictable weirdo inhabiting the White House, is it any wonder people are focussing more on their gaming than their real lives?

Friday, 6 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 4: Mantic Games

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Mantic Games

Mantic have been doing pretty well of late, and despite what you think of their Kickstarter pre-ordering system for their games, they seem to be getting more right than wrong. I wouldn't say they're a runaway success, but they're not screwing up at every turn either. 2016 saw them add a major franchise to their line-up with The Walking Dead license, which was another big success with 3,700 backers raising almost $700k. It'll be interesting to see exactly how Mantic handle this, although they are probably one of the most experienced companies in running and delivering Kickstarters in the current market.

One thing they definitely are getting right, is communication - at least on the broad meta-scale. Those of you who are signed up for their mailing list will have had several new-year(ish) posts from them stating exactly where they are with each of their games systems and what's going to happen in 2017 for them. This is golden, as it sets expectations right from the off and doesn't preclude them doing a few surprises along the way either. I don't really play Mantic's games (We have Deadzone, which I enjoyed, but it's one of my 3rd tier games I'd say. I also bought Dungeon Saga but have yet to play), but even so I was quite excited by these emails! They're also on the Mantic blog.

Mantic are an interesting company for me - given that they were formed by an ex-GW employee, they clearly went after what they saw as GWs weaknesses with very similar products but a different philosophy. I have to say were I a disenfranchised GW manager I'd probably have gone a similar way. Mantic operates with free rules, open - almost FFG style - communication and a nice, easily-navigable website. They feature products from other manufacturers that go with their games, and overall they generally look like they've got their shit together.

Despite this, I feel Mantic are still fighting off something of a "me too" image. This is probably unfair, and maybe their recent Kickstarter products will start to get away from this more as people come to Mantic for reasons other than "GW f*cked up Warhammer". That said, GW have probably been one of Mantic's best sales tools, because killing the Warhammer world in the way they did must have driven people to Mantic - not everyone, for sure, but a whole slew of people - after all, Mantic welcome anyone and even say your existing figures are compatible...as close as saying "Yeah, GW did a number on you, but screw them, we love you - bring your toys over and play with us. BTW, here's a ton of cool stuff you can also buy, which is cheaper than you're used to...".

One thing is certain, - for the time being, Mantic Games are here to stay, and seem to be getting stronger as they go. I'd be interested in feedback from more invested players in their games to see what it's like to be a dedicated customer, but one thing I don't hear is the wholesale grumbles that come whenever someone mentions the GW monolith, so they can't be THAT bad! I'm not going to do massive predictions for Mantic, because they've stated quite clearly what they're going to so hardly much of a crystal-ball moment. However, I like the way they're thinking and the way they're progressing. Releasing a (let's face it) direct competitor to 40k which uses their already-developed Deadzone universe is a good idea - you get two games for the (much lower than GW) price of one - nice move.

A couple of things I feel they could improve is their plastic - the Deadzone models I have are that god-awful restic stuff that offers plastic minis with the assembly disadvantages of resin...I can't comment on more recent kits, but proper styrene-based plastic kits would put it in a much better place vs others on the market - especially if they're capturing ex-GW addicts. Reading some of the reviews on their website this is carried out in some of their other sets too, where assembly or quality issues
 come into play. Other ranges, however, get really good reviews, so it may just be that the newer sets are better and they're learning all the time (which would make sense)

The second is in some of their designs just feel...well...a bit off, if that makes sense? Not bad sculpts per-se, but just a bit odd. Not all the time, either, just like the sculptor has an off-day or a tight deadline and you end up with something that isn't quite right. This is different from the epic GW fails we've seen (like the appallingly bad AoS dwarves) where the design is just stupid, but more a question of execution. Take this as an example;


Look at the guy second from the left in the front row - yes, the guy with the weird frog-face. He's also in the rear left corner. That's what I'm talking about - these odd sculpts that just feel "off". Compare that with this guy;


This guy is great, and he's £7 and metal...rather than £14 and plastic if he were from GW. I think it may just be that they're growing, becuase I LOVE these fish dudes that are coming for Kings of War;


Oh wait, they do crab-things too....


...but I digress (and no, must resist urge to buy into another games system!)

So overall I think we can expect some good stuff from Mantic in 2017, let's hope their execution and materials live up to some of the sculpts, and lets hope the percentage of "slightly off" sculpts are reduced. If they continue this with everything else they're doing, then they look to be solidifying their position in the market, and rightly so. If you've any other information out there, please let me know! Finally, if you want to read about Mantic's plans from them...here's their own blog link on the subject;

https://manticblog.com/2016/12/26/new-year-new-game-ronnies-plans-year-ahead/

Thursday, 5 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 3: Games Workshop

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Games Workshop

Now let me make it clear (in case you've gained a different impression from The Hub Systems), I like GW, ok? They've done some really stupid crap over the years, but these guys basically created the global tabletop gaming industry back in the 1990s. I just think they lost the plot when they started to think that in doing so, it meant they ruled the world and could do wtf they wanted. This, coupled with an explosion of people who were sick of that and wanted to do things a different way, and the dawn of some new technologies that made it easier and easier to create high-quality minis, really changed that marketplace in a way they couldn't influence directly. Instead of responding to this by changing their ways, they became increasingly aloof and arrogant, allowing independents to flourish.

Let's face it, if GW had their shit together around 2005-2010, companies like Spartan and Mantic would be restricted to very fringe followings, or may not even have come into being at all. Instead the company was run by business people who fundamentally did not understand gamers, and pursued a profitable but "scorched earth" policy of going after hyper-dedicated uber-geeks with too much kit to check-out and 12 year olds with middle-class parents who would pay anything to keep little Johnny quiet in their rooms without becoming addicted to porn or religious zealotry.

Now GW got a new CEO in 2016, and it does seem to have made a difference. The company seems to be making better choices - I say better rather than good, because they still have Age of Sigmar and some cynical pricing structures, but hey - I'll take "better" over "relentlessly crap" any day. I have actually spent more on GW products this year than Spartan, and I only bought the SG stuff because it was more than 50% off in their Black Friday sale - and I then had to wait almost a month before it arrived! I picked up the GW stuff from my FLGS (yes, I have one now!), and it was remarkably reasonable - ok, I bought it for D&D, not for a GW game, but that's besides the point!

So what does this mean for the coming year? Well, as Bloodbowl was released in 2016 - to many fans pleasure (not my cup of tea, but each to their own) - we may well see BFG follow on its heels - maybe towards the end of the year? I know GW recruited one of Spartan's designers for this team, so it will be interesting to see what happens here, especially in the space (pun sort of intended) left by Andy Chambers and his work on DFC for Hawk. I get the feeling that SGs FA might struggle to survive in a marketplace where a fully supported BFG and DZC exist side-by-side.

What about their core games? Well I feel Age of Sigmar was a train wreck of epic proportions for a company like GW, and I hope they understand that fully. They can't undo that now, but they could try to make it much more similar to Warhammer, and effectively make Warhammer v10 (or whatever number you feel like inserting here). I'm not sure they'll do that, but I do see them expanding the races and armies to fill the spaces and reinvigorate the ranges in some way. Cleverly handled, I think they could re-start the fire of Warhammer.

And 40k? Well here I'd say they need to change things around a bit. The game has become a bit of a caricature of itself IMO, with victory almost reduced to "who brings the most largest models" in their army building and who rolls initiative. It needs to modernise and get away from that feeling, get back to being the ultimate skirmish game that it always was at its heart. They still need a space to play with the uber-toys, but make it a different space. Look at the popularity of the 30k universe, which I see expanding further primarily because of that.

I'd love to see GW become more of the company they used to be - a GAMING company, with awesome tutorials on making cool scenery from bitz box stuff and so on, because people miss that - it tied them to the company and loyalty is the number 1 thing in this industry, because we all love the new shiny. You need people to buy into the whole universe and it be immersive so you feel like your gaming is a joint venture - that's why D&D 5e has done so well I think, it's recaptured the spirit of D&D, and I really hope GW can recapture that in themselves. I don't know, but 2017 could be a pivotal year for them where they start to reconquer some of their lost ground.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 2: Hawk Wargames

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Hawk Wargames

Hawk had a tremendously successful Kickstarter with Dropfleet Commander. It had a lower target than SGs recent DW campaign (£40k vs £50k), yet found almost 4,000 backers to fund it by a massive 1570%. Hawk struggled to fulfil in time, and is still sending pledges out now. It has also come under criticism for supplying retail outlets before fulfilling Kickstarter backers, though personally I completely understand why it did this - because it will have commercial agreements which are largely independent of any KS-funded project, and these relationships are more important collectively than any individual backer - no matter how unpalatable that might seem, it's a cold hard business fact. The alternative would have been to delay commercial release and piss off its distribution channels....

Anyway, Dropfleet happened and DZC continues, born along by Hawk's team and understanding of how to grow and support its community. That reputation will have taken a blow through the Kickstarter experience of many, but I don't think this will affect Hawk in the long run. Why? Especially as I've been so harsh on Spartan for similar delays in supply over the past year. 

Well, admittedly I don't have the "behind the scenes" view on Hawk that I did on SG, but just look at how Dave created Hawk and DZC in the first instance. The game was planned meticulously, beautifully produced and developed with the community and tournaments in mind. They stick to production schedules and give customers advance release notices - in short they set expectations within their grasp and fulfil them. They have released 2 games in their existence, both of which were produced in the same sort of polished manner. I get the delays piss people off, but let's be realistic, how many Kickstarters that have funded over 1000% delivered on time? Anyone ever been involved in a project which had 15 times the demand originally expected? Given that' they've performed ok I think.

Hawk are involved with and communicate to their supporters about 1500% more than SG do too, at least. They're still a small company too, but I think Dave fundamentally grasps what makes gamers tick and tries to scratch that itch - it's more about nice models and mechanics that were innovative in 2009. Look at their background development - there's more fluff in DFC from the start than exists in FA in 7 years of development!

So what do I think Hawk will do in 2017? They'll sort out their fulfilment issues and fill out their factions for DFC - battlecruisers and corvettes, shiny space stations and more. they'll work on shows and developing their community, and also making conjoined campaigns - I think that DZC will also benefit from the adoption of DFC. I'm seriously considering going back and looking at it since buying DFC, despite my lacklustre feeling about the 2-player set for DZC that Hawk brought out a few years back. I also think that they'll toy with developing a deep-space combat version of DFC, though I don't think that will happen this year - they might wait until BFG and FA show their hands first, and decide if they should or shouldn't thereafter. You get the feeling that decisions like this are thought about long and hard at Hawk, and then planned properly before implementation.

So I think Hawk will do well because they are growing from an established core base in a methodical and pre-planned way. Yes, DFC was more popular than they expected, but what a problem to have! Given that there have been a ton of people jump on board AFTER the KS, like Oscar and me, by going directly to retail I think they have a very rosy future ahead, and I think they'll do that with a steady and throughly planned release schedule in 2017. I must say I'm looking forward to it...

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 1: Spartan Games

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Spartan Games

Let's start off with my once favourite games company. Unfortunately, after seeing behind the curtain for several years, I don't see great things ahead for SG. Why? Well, let me give you something of a parallel story from history.

I'm old enough to have been a kid during the personal gaming computer invention and rise. Back when the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was created in the '80s, I was at school and rode that crest of early computing brought to the masses. The market exploded from nothing to millions almost overnight, as everyone wanted this new stuff. There were many possibilities for a kid to convince their parents to buy, but the old Spectrum was the market leader, instantly recognisable with its rubber keyboard and coloured flash. Following it were the Commodore 64 for those with a bit more cash, and the high-end BBC Model B, which you could even get a floppy drive for.

The good old "Speccy" with its weird rubber keys

My parents were not high earners - not in itself a bad thing - but when coupled with their shocking lack of knowledge and gullibility, they became prime targets for the high street salesguy in the electronics store wanting to shift non-moving stock. Enter the Oric-1. 

Despite having hard keys, it was still pretty horrible to type on

"WTF is an Oric-1?", I hear you say as you frantically google it in another tab....well, let me tell you, in principle it was a better machine that the Spectrum - it had a non-rubber keyboard, a better BASIC (Spectrum BASIC was non-standard), a great music chip and it was competitively priced. Unfortunately it had some QC issues, meaning the machine I got on Christmas day didn't work properly. It was returned and I got another, which also had issues. Eventually this all got resolved by me getting an Oric Atmos, an even better machine with a keyboard of actual proper keys.

Oooh - sexy...proper keys that were nice to type on!

Of course, the Oric's market lifespan was limited - the Oric-1's initial QC problems in a marketplace where Sinclair machines were churned out in their thousands and with increasing memory meant that developers largely left it alone, meaning the range of games you could get for the Oric machine was much smaller than the Spectrum, Commodore 64 or even the BBC. In short, it failed to keep up with market demands and expectations, and though it was a great machine, its users enthusiastic and passionate, it fell into the dustbin of history long before its rivals.

If that story felt familiar, then it should. I feel Spartan - once ahead of the curve in this space - have been equalled and now (arguably) overtaken by their competitors. I don't believe Kickstarter funded projects will save them. They will continue with a (slowly shrinking) core of supporters, until the point their various games go mail-order only and/or become unsupportable, and go the way of Uncharted Seas.

The reasons behind this are twofold - resource and leadership. Spartan are located in a beautiful, but relatively remote and rural part of the UK. This provides relatively cheap building rent costs, but restricts the appeal of the location for up-and-coming developers. As we've all seen, staffing at Spartan is limited, and restricts their ability to keep up with customer demands, both in terms of information and product. In terms of leadership, Spartan Neil has a distinctive dictatorial style which makes him difficult to work with, which enhances the resourcing issue further. It also leads to some bizarre decisions being made that are not good for his business, but as the owner, who would stand up to those decisions?
This is something I am very familiar with, and there is a concept known as "The Healthy Organisation" - the works of Patrick Lencioni are great in this regard. Basically it talks about not only making SMART-led, KPI-monitored decisions in an organisation, but also making sure you take care of people, have an environment where decisions can be challenged and communicated fully and transparently etc. Companies that do this tend to do very well, because people are engaged, driven to succeed and feel supported in their endeavours.  For me, SG doesn't look like a SMART nor a Healthy Organisation.

Now this is OK if you're not fighting against the tide or want only a small piece of the pie, but less so when your market is very competitive or is fast-moving. Ten years ago this was probably true, and as SG entered into a background of a GW-dominated industry as a disruptive influence, it did well and developed quickly as a minor league player. The problem is, other companies did too. Mantic, for instance, which led by an ex-GW director, was much more business minded than SG.

So, specific predictions? I guess SG will fail to hit their DW Kickstarter fulfilment dates - it finished at around 270% of their goal with 858 backers (around 30-40% of other roughly comparable niche KS projects in terms of backer numbers) - though interestingly they had just THREE retail backers, which shows that they've either used up the goodwill of retailers out there or that shops are just going to wait and see if this has an effect on demand before getting stock - I suspect a little of both. Out of the pledges, 20 of them were their highest level "design a model" pledge, providing almost 12% of the total funding....which is a lot of promised design time, given SG committed to a couple of days with the designer each - that's 40 days or 2 full work months. Either they were not 100% honest about this or that's a LOT of design time not being spent on FA, PF & Halo...or they will horribly over-run. Or both, possibly all three!

Will FA v2.5/v3 come out in 2017? That's a toughie....I know "Spartan Linde" is working on this (he was a member of the FFG), but given I know his input, style and local meta, plus the increased centralisation of design to SG, I kind of hope it doesn't, because either the changes will be minimal and somewhat arbitrarily pointless, or they're going to screw it up. It would be a dangerous time to screw up, because Hawk will have fulfilled all their KS pledges, smoothed over any burns and got other stuff out by then. Plus they'll have had 6-9 months of real world play and feedback to hone their game and grow their userbase. If you like FA more than DFC, but can only get a game of DFC, guess what's going to happen in time? So overall I'm going to say they will, and it will have little impact on saving the system, primarily because Neil fails to grasp what people really want/need from a games company beyond shiny resin models.

What I hope SG do is release PF v2, which is really needed, though once again I think they'll screw it up for exactly the same reasons as above. I really feel for dedicated Planetfall players because the models are great, just the rules and fluff don't do them or the universe justice, nor has Spartan shown players any respect with the shockingly poor lack of support they've had - essentially being abandoned for most of 2016, and "supported" in the most haphazard and poorly executed way I've ever seen from a supplier.

I also expect Dystopian Legions will go the way of Uncharted Seas, and disappear completely. I also expect they'll do some batshit-crazy stupid project like their 1/300th scale 1946 WWII game they showed at Salute 2016, though god only knows what shape that will actually take. After some small hiatus they'll then abandon it.

Halo is the other difficult one. HFB has been little supported of late, and though HGC had an introductory splash, I've been underwhelmed with their releases post launch and their fulfilment hasn't been great. I can't imagine 343 are wildly enthusiastic about revenue numbers, and I expect further pressure from them on SG, impacting other ranges releases, or that relationship to become rather soured. It could go wither way from where I'm sitting.

So what I expect from SG is a set of releases which are not wholly thought through nor tie in with prior canon or background, because they don't see that as especially important. I expect them to try to lean more heavily on non-compensated fan support and Kickstarters to sustain themselves, and the "fickle gamers" as some have called them (or those with common sense and self respect as I would refer to us) gradually adopt other things to do with our time. 

I don't expect SG to explode, implode or revive their business, but to gradually become less and less significant in the gaming world as other companies get it more consistently right, and have their fingers on the pulse of what gamers want. I'd love SG to prove me completely wrong, but they've never failed so far to fulfil my jaded expectations of them. As T.S.Elliot wrote;

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Dropfleet Commander & Firestorm Armada side-by-side - Part 2: Game Mechanics

In the second of my side-by-side looks at DFC vs FA, I'm going to look at how the actual games stack up against each other. This post is really a comparison of the mechanics nuts and bolts, and not how the games actually play, which I'll do for the next in this series. So let's plunge straight in....

Basic Stats

Firestorm Armada

Designation - What type of ship this is - e.g. Battleship or Frigate
Size Class - Small, medium or Large - also designates whether the ship is a Capital ship or not
Squadron Size - the number of ships present to make up a legal squadron (e.g. 2-4)
DR - damage Rating - the value that must be reached to damage the ship
CR - Critical rating - the value that must be reached to critically damage a ship
Mv - Movement - How far in inches the ship can move each activation
HP - Hull Points - the amount of damage the ship can take before it is destroyed
CP - Crew Points - the value of the non-combatant crew running the ship
AP - Assault Points - the value of the marine contingent aboard the ship for boarding
PD - Point Defence - the value of systems used to defend against torpedoes, SRS and boarding
MN - Mine value - the strength of mines laid by the ship
Points Cost - self explanatory
Shield rating - the value of any shield systems the ship has (including Cloaking fields)
Wings - the value of SRS (Short-range spacecraft) the ship can accommodate
Turn Limit - how far the ship must move before it turns 45degrees

Dropfleet Commander

Scan - the range of the ships active search systems in inches
Sig - Signature - how "visible" a ship is, in inches added to an enemy's scan range
Thrust - How far in inches the ship can move each activation
Hull - the amount of damage the ship can take before it is destroyed
A - Armour - effectively a "saving throw" per damage point, expressed as a dice value (eg 4+)
PD - Point Defence - the value of systems used to defend against Close Action and Launch Assets
G - Group - The normal operating range for the ship, similar to Squadron Size in FA
T - Tonnage - What size class the vessel is for fleet building
Special - Lists any special rules such as Launch and Atmospheric
Points - self explanatory

Force Size and Building

Firestorm Armada

Firestorm Armada has three main levels of play - Patrol Fleet (up to 800 points), Battle Fleet (801-1500) and Grand Fleet (>1501). It has to be said that the vast majority of games are played at the first two levels, since people find the Grand fleet level takes too long.

Within the various game sizes you have three Tiers of ships - Tier 3s, which are generally small Frigates and Corvettes, Tier 2s, which are Cruisers, Gunships and the like and Tier 1s, which are everything from a carrier up to dreadnoughts. Depending on what points level you play will determine the minimum and maximum number of the different squadrons you have in your various Tiers. There are various other restrictions and possibilities layered on this, plus it is possible to customise individual squadrons of ships, so you can build an extremely diverse set of fleets for any race at any points level.

Cost of ships range from 15points for an escort or corvette, around 20-30 points for frigates, 40-90 points for medium ships such as cruisers and the like, around 170-220 points for Battleships and around 280-350 for dreadnoughts (the largest ships currently in the game)

Dropfleet Commander

Dropfleet also has three levels of play - Skirmish (up to 1000 points), Clash (1000-1999) and Battle (2000-3000). As the game is new I can't really comment as to practicality at the higher levels compared to FA.

Fleet organisation is a bit different to FA, as you assemble your forces from "Battlegroups", each Battlegroup being made up of various ships (not restricted to the same type). There are four types of Battlegroup (Pathfinder, Line, Vanguard and Flag), and four categories of ship that can go into a battlegroup (Light, Medium, Heavy and Super-Heavy). Battleships are Super-Heavy, and only come into Clashes and Battles - this is an interesting setup, and as each Battlegroup has variable composition, you get a wide range of options...If I got it right at Skirmish level you can have 0-2 Heavy, 1-8 Mediums and 0-10 Light Ships present.

Cost of ships range from around 22-50 points for Light, 79-140 points for Medium , around 155-210 points for Heavy and around 220-285 points for Super-Heavy (the largest ships currently in the game)

Game Size, Scenarios & Setup

Firestorm Armada

Games tend to use a 4'x6' table regardless of game size due to the long weapon ranges and design heritage. There are 6 core scenarios in the core rulebook, which was expanded to 10 with the System Wars booklet (you don't necessarily need the supplement ships to play these, though its recommended). Setup of the game can be done in several ways, and recommendations for placement of terrain (asteroid fields, gas clouds, planetoids, debris fields, gravity wells and comets) together with their effects are all provided. Setup is a pretty painless procedure, though agreement on what an "average" table looks like varies depending on local meta.

Dropfleet Commander

The recommended table size is 4'x4' - an obvious and immediate difference to Firestorm. There are 8 scenarios in the core book, and it has to be said these are a lot more objective-driven than Firestorm's, partially because of the nature of the game (orbital deployment and defence rather than deep-space combat). The DFC rulebook also goes on to talk about Ways to Play, Tournaments and integrating DZC, as well as running Campaigns and days - this shows Hawk's approach to its games, which is very much about building the community and building its games towards this - something it definitely wins out on here in DFC and generally as a company.

Gameplay - General

Firestorm Armada

FA is an alternate activation game, and was quite early on the scene in this regard. Players can use a tactical card (TAC) before rolling initiative each turn, bring in reserve forces (if applicable), then activate a squadron of their choice from those left to activate. In the Squadron's activation it can move, shoot and perform other actions like laying mines, launching fighters and bombers, and attempt boarding actions. Once an individual squadron has finished all of its actions, play passes over to the other player, who then chooses one of his squadrons to activate and so on.

Dropfleet Commander

DFC is also an alternate activation game, but this is done by Battlegroup rather than by ship squadron or group. The order of these groups activation is defined at the beginning of the turn by use of Battlegroup cards, the order of which is set by the player in the Planning Phase of the turn. This is the first major departure in gameplay which gives a slightly different feel to the game. During a Battlegroups activation, each group within the battlegroup can activate in any order the player wishes. this means you have a strategic choice to make at fleet building - more Battlegroups with lower numbers of Groups, or more Groups in less Battlegroups. There is also the option to use a Special Order before a ship activates, which is something similar to the TACs used in Firestorm, but applied at a more individual tactical level, since each ship in a Battlegroup can choose whether or not to use the Special Order. These "Ships Orders" are an important part of the flavour of the game, since they determine how the ship behaves and also affect its Signature value, making it more vulnerable to attack.

Gameplay - Movement

Firestorm Armada

Ships in FA move like wet navy ships, having a minimum move and a turn limit. Movement can be ponderous - 6" with 45 degree turns every 3" - or rapid - 14" with the ability to turn a 360 in 8" - depending on the individual ship (smalls generally being faster and easier to turn). 

Dropfleet Commander

Movement depends on the Orders given to a ship, rather than by the type of size of a vessel;

  • Standard Orders - Turn at the start of activation, and move from half to all of its Thrust value. 
  • Station Keeping - Uses 0-half of its thrust movement with a turn at the start or end of its move
  • Course Change - two turns at any point during its movement
  • Max Thrust - Turn at the start and use up to double movement
Any of these orders other than "standard", however, inflict a "Minor Spike, which adds 6" to its Signature value. there are some other Orders which affect movement too;
  • Weapons Free, Silent Running & Active Scan - All prevent ANY turning that activation

Gameplay - Weapons and Firing

Firestorm Armada

Ships in Firestorm have variable numbers of weapons systems, which are broken down into "Direct" and "Indirect" types - both of which have general rules around them, such as Indirect weapons not requiring LOS and not degrading from combat damage. The Direct weapons come in different flavours - Kinetic, Beam, Nuclear, Scatter and Primary - each of these having different properties associated with them. Indirect weapons also come in different types such as torpedoes, cyberwarfare and gravity. Weapon Systems all have 4 range "bands" (1-4), but the size of each of these depends on the weapon class - a Primary weapon has 8" bands, a kinetic weapon has 12" bands.

Arcs in FA are Fore, S/P (as in the example above), Aft and Fixed Fore - the latter being a channel the width of the ship's base. There are also turrets which have a full 360 range and gunracks which are P/S weapons that can only fire into one of the side arcs at a time.

Each weapon has a profile like this;


This shows the weapon type (in this case a Beam, which has 10" range bands), an Arc (in this case Port/Starboard broadsides) and a number of dice to be rolled depending on where the target is located. So up to 10" we would be rolling 12 dice, between 10 and 20 we'd roll 16 etc.

We then roll these dice, with a 4+ being a hit (unless other rules come into play, like difficult target etc), and using the exploding 6 mechanic that is present in most SG systems (every 6 counts as 2 successes and allows another dice to be rolled). 

Small and Medium ships have lower AD values, but can link their attacks as a squadron. in this way smaller ships can "gang up" to damage larger ships.

Overall the feeling in Firestorm is rolling big handfuls of dice to overwhelm the defences of your opponent - you can be rolling up to the low 20s in terms of number of dice. Having said that, you are still at the mercy of dice, though the number rolled have a statistical evening effect.

Dropfleet Commander

Firing in DFC is a bit different from FA. Firstly, weapons don't have ranges, ships do - the range is the Scan range of the ship you're firing with, plus the Signature of the Target....now all those "Spike" values start to make sense...you can turn hard, but you're increasing the range that the enemy can shoot you at!

Now weapons in DFC also have a stat line, and heres an example;


  • Type - Descriptive text of the weapon
  • Lock - what the weapon scores hits on
  • Attack - the number of dice you roll
  • Damage - the hull points removed for each successful hit
  • Arc - as for Firestorm, you have similar arcs, though named S (L) and S (R) for Port/Starboard. also unlike firestorm, a weapon might be F,S(L) for example, meaning it can fire in either front or side arcs. this will be familiar to DZC or Planetfall players
Overall DFC feels a lot more like a developed GW mechanic, which is unsurprising given Andy Chambers involvement in the project (though this may also be very familiar to DZC players too!). Numbers of attack dice are much smaller - topping out at 6AD for some battleship systems (around a quarter of what FA tops out at!).

Damage and Attrition

Firestorm Armada

If the total equals or exceeds the DR, a HP is lost - if it exceeds the CR rating, it receives 2 HP and the attacker can roll on the Critical Hit table, which has effects from losing crew to detonating the ships reactor. Attacks which reach the CR threshold a number of times inflict 2HP for every multiple, with a corresponding table roll if the ship is still alive.

Shields may be rolled to remove hits, and these use exploding dice as well, though typically these are only 1 or 2 dice )3 or 4 being the high upsides). PD is used against Torpedo attacks in addition, and PD values can range from 1-9 depending on ship class and size.

Once damaged, ships begin to degrade in effectiveness - every HP of damage reduces the AD of the ships DIRECT attacks by 1, and also the PD. This makes Indirect weapons like Torpedoes - which don't degrade in this manner - much more effective, so the balance of weapon's effectiveness changes across the course of the game.

Dropfleet Commander

Critical hits are handled differently in DFC too - if your dice hit with 2 or more than you needed (so a 5+ in the example with a 3+ Lock above), they score a critical hit, which means you don't get to use your Armour value to attempt to prevent the damage.

After rolling attack dice and determining hits and final hull points of damage, the receiving player can roll dice for their Armour for any non-critical hits to attempt to reduce damage. Critical hits may not be defeated by Armour, but may be reduced with Passive Countermeasures if the ship has them active. Some weapons have the Close Action Special rule, which means you get to use PD against them, which can take out critical hits at a 2:1 rate.

If a ship takes more than half its hull in damage, it must roll for "Crippling Damage". this is a one-off check, unlike the Critical table in FA which is rolled on every time a critical hit is scored. Essentially this helps to kill damaged ships, shortening the life of vessels and helping to prevent "Zombie Ship" syndrome, which can occur in FA. Also when a ship loses all its Hull, you roll for Catastrophic damage, which determines the ships fate and effects - which again helps kill stuff around it.

SRS & Launch Assets

These are the fighters, bombers, interceptors and other small craft that both games have.

Firestorm Armada

Firestorm refers to these craft as SRS (Short Range Spacecraft), and they come in several flavours - Fighters, Interceptors, Bombers, Assault Shuttles and Support Shuttles. They are handled in the movement phase of their parent carrier, and may be launched and perform an attack run on a target within range in the same turn, or they may stay within range of their carrier to perform an attack run in future. SRS may also combine their PD values to prevent torpedo attacks in the vicinity. 

Dropfleet Commander

Launch Assets (as DFC calls them) can be launched against a target within twice the thrust range of the type of LA, except Dropships and Bulk Landers, which can only launch against targets within Thrust range. These are all launched in the Roundup Phase, which occurs after the activation phase of a turn. Dropfleet also classes Torpedoes as Launch Assets, whereas FA has Torpedoes much more like missiles in DFC. Once again, PD systems may be used to help ward off the attacks on a ship from Launch Assets - except for torpedoes. A ship may attempt to outmanoeuvre Launch Assets as well (including torpedoes) by using Course Change or Max Thrust orders. 

Special Rules

Firestorm Armada

Firestorm handles special rules with MARs - Model Assigned Rules, of which there are over 60 of at the moment. These provide all kinds of effects, and individual ships can have anything from zero to half a dozen, often with the option of gaining more.

Dropfleet Commander

DFC has around half of the special rules FA does, and these are separated into Ship special rules and weapon system special rules, with a ratio of about 1:2. They have some important key concepts however, like the Burnthrough rule on some weapon systems, which uses a type of capped exploding system.

Unique Elements

Firestorm and Dropfleet are both games designed for slightly different purposes, so a very direct comparison is somewhat difficult. This section talks about some of the things that are largely unique about each system.

Firestorm Armada

Boarding

Ships in Firestorm may attempt to capture each other during play, and although quite a variable tactic in terms of success, used well it can be decisive. As far as I can see DFC has no similar mechanism within the game. Rules for boarding are pretty simple and it's possible to build a boarding-heavy fleet, though in general it's a risky strategy.

Mines

Mines are a minor mechanic in Firestorm, but one that can have pivotal effects in games. Again, from what I've see so far there are no similar mechanics within DFC. This is understandable, since mining your own planet's atmosphere is probably unwise!

Dropfleet Commander

Orbital Combat

The main thing that is obviously different about DFC is that it occurs around a planet, including it's outer atmosphere. This is represented in game and has various affects on gameplay. The rationale behind Dropfleet is often to deposit assets to capture ground targets, which requires ships to enter the atmosphere. You have mechanics to traverse the orbital layers, and also one for "Orbital decay" (yes, it sounds bad, and it is bad - well, if you like keeping your ships intact and not as a firework display for your ground troops, anyway!)

Ground Combat

Although a space game, as you are landing assets on a planet, the ground combat element of this is also rendered in game as part of each turns Roundup Phase. You also have the extreme option of "nuking a site from orbit" - I can't wait!!!

Roundup & Conclusions

Well, it's difficult to make any conclusions from a simple comparison of mechanics, especially as I've not yet properly played DFC yet. However, just on initial impressions there are clear differences in the approach and rendering of game elements. Ironically perhaps, I can see tweaking both games to fit with each other, representing deep space and orbital combat respectively, which would be pretty cool.

Interestingly, there are some elements of both games that seem somewhat old-fashioned when compared to each other. The main differences do go back, however, to what each game is trying to achieve, and the approach of the two companies - Firestorm is much more about a straight-up fight with no real eye to tournament play, whereas DFC is all about objectives and the planet, with a definite nod to narrative campaigns and tournaments.

In some ways I'm not sure a direct comparison is possible or desirable here, I can see playing both games without too much difficulty or overlap, to be honest - I think they're scratching different itches. I can see someone who enjoys DFC enjoying FA and vice-versa, and certainly the models are compatible in terms of size, scale and number.

So I'm afraid, perhaps somewhat unsatisfactorily, I'm going to defer any proper judgement on the games until I've played them side-by-side with Oscar, and get our distilled wisdom down on the virtual page. Until then, enjoy the space ships!