Thursday, January 19, 2017

Love Letters and Senseless Violence

Jamie's Christmas present to me, the card game Love Letter finally got played this evening.

A group of us went out for a swift pint after work (well most of them for a pint and a meal but I had to get back for Millie's excellent sweet and sour chicken) and Gareth, Karen and I played a game in about twenty minutes in the Banker's Draft.

It's a fun game in which the aim is to be the last player still in the round and thereby get your love letter to the sequestered princess in the hope of winning her affections.  It looks like it'll handle two to four players. For the record, Karen won; it was all luck I tell you!

In other news our game was somewhat disturbed by a sudden outbreak of violence on a nearby table in which one of the punters got glassed! Staff were summoned and an ambulance and subsequently the local constabulary attended. But I suppose that's what you should expect when frequenting a city centre Weatherspoons.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Of Bathtubs and Sandboxes

I’ve been trying (with limited success) to start some discussion on the structure of Crisis Point this year.  We’ve got as far as deciding that we will play a bath-tubbed version of the nationwide battle for control of Andreivia in 1918. 

Bath-tubbing, for the uninitiated, is the idea of representing a larger military formation (e.g. a battalion) with a smaller one (say a platoon).  So you might fight a company-sized attack on platoon strength German defensive position and have it represent the whole breakout from Omaha beach in your campaign structure.

In our case I’m envisaging four or five tables representing the whole of Andreivia from the Turkish border in the south to the Georgian in the north. Platoon-sized units on the table (we’re using the Arc of Fire skirmish rules) will represent larger units in “real” life.  They might perhaps be battalions or even brigades but the deliberate vagueness of Andreivia’s geography means we don’t have to think too clearly about that.  In fact I’m even prepared for the scale to be flexible – sometimes a platoon will be just a platoon and sometimes it’ll be standing in for a brigade and I don’t intend to get at all stressed about the difference.

The question then arises, do we have a fixed scenario (or scenarios) to be played over those tables or do we do something else? 

My mate Graham, a whizz at dice-and-paper RPGs, has been known to use the term “sandbox”.  A bit of Googling led me to this fine exposition of the idea by someone called Mxyzplk :

As with anything, usage varies, but usually when people say "sandbox" today they mean a campaign that does not have a specific prescribed storyline, but one where the GM sets up a world (or at least a small section of one) and the PCs are free to wander where they will and find adventure where they will. It's about freedom of player choice.

Pure sandbox play is purely simulation driven. A super hardcore sandboxer places a dungeon (or whatever) in the game world and that's where it is, for the PCs to come across or not (and for NPCs to come across before them or not). If a thief is sneaking into a mansion, in a sandbox game he is able to avoid guards and traps, and not have predetermined plot points presented to him regardless of his actions.

And further…

Sandbox is a different approach from story-driven - a "story of what happened" may emerge from a sandbox session but a preconception of story, or what "the GM wants to happen," is never applied to the game. Adventure paths, being a series of adventures, can try to be sandboxy but generally try to provide enough story to get PCs from one chapter to another, but event timelines and things like that can serve that purpose without being railroads (though people often complain and call things like that railroading, just because they feel pressured to do something).

Railroading, the antonym of sandbox, is simply extreme constraint of choice. Some perceived constraint of choice is always there in any simulated world in that there are always choices that are impossible to physically perform or clearly undesirable, but where you cross the line to railroad is when these things are obviously being imposed by the GM/metagame (usually in the name of "The Story" or "The Plot").

You can be apparently providing a sandbox but using the game world to provide so many restrictions that you are effectively railroaded into a single course of action. A dungeon full of one-way doors that inhibits all teleportation and divination, for example.

Most games are somewhere on the continuum between pure sandbox and railroad, or even move between the two based on need and GM inclination. Many campaigns switch back and forth between railroad and sandbox. Railroading to move the story on when the players lose momentum and sandbox otherwise it a frequent GM tactic that lets the players be free when they want to be but gives them structure when they're feeling lost.

Sandbox gaming can be desirable because it produces a sense of game world reality that enables the player to focus less on the metagame and immerse in their character and the game world. It can be problematic because players can feel like they are spinning their wheels and wasting limited leisure time without more guidance, and because sometimes a preplanned story cam have more "big, interesting" things happen in it plot-wise than a sandbox.

I tend towards sandboxy play, but in my most recent campaign I had players get frustrated and ask for more direct guidance from me on "what they should do" - I am normally reluctant to do that but did so to make them happier. Often players want the illusion of sandbox and unlimited choice, but with the GM pulling strings behind the scenes to keep them headed towards interesting things.

picture: Pinterest
I like this. Much of my personal transition from role-player to wargamer was because I increasingly enjoyed the way narrative, Mxyzplk’s “story of what happened”, emerges from the competitive interaction between the players in a wargame rather than being more-or-less determined by a GM in an rpg.

So what does the idea of a sandbox approach mean for Crisis Point 2017? Perhaps the Crisis Point players could just be given their forces and left to get on with it?  Or does that way chaos lie?

Obviously at Crisis Point we’re wargamers not RPGers and we’re used to coming at military situations with perhaps a set of orders (or victory conditions standing in for them) but otherwise free to fight the battle as we wish.  And I think it’s fair to assume that even the most hardcore of sandbox rpg campaigns would begin with the group of players having some overall motivation and reason for remaining together. 

Should I give each player/force a set of objectives to provide story seeds?  Or is that just me not fully embracing the sandbox approach?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

My Gaming Review of 2016

I thought I’d have a go at answering the same questions as the Meeples and Miniatures Podcast guys in their end of year review.   So first up, in traditional ascending order, my top five games of the year…

In fifth place I’ve gone with the ever-present Arc of Fire.  It’s still my go to set of rules for most twentieth century skirmishes and continues to do good service at Crisis Point.  The fact that it’s lost its crown as my favourite system for WW2 skirmishes sees it relegated to fifth place this year.

My fourth place game is To The Strongest! This innovative set of fast-play-big-battle rules has got me seriously playing ancients far more than I’ve ever done before.

In third place it’s Lion Rampant. A Christmas 2015 arrival, these rules have seen heavy usage on the kitchen table at Stately Counterpane Manor. After an early solo outing with Junior General paper cut-outs, these rules have inspired me to complete not one but four new forces during 2016.  Quick and easy to set up and giving a fun game in a couple of hours, they have been the go-to choice for the occasional weekday evening game with Andy or Jamie.

Second place game this year is the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game.  A recent arrival in the Land of Counterpane, it’s rapidly becoming an addiction of wallet-worrying intensity.  OK so I do a bit of X-Wing; I can give it up anytime.

And top of the pile for me this year?  Yes, just like several of the Meeples guys, it’s Chain of Command. These rules give the best representation of small unit combat in WW2 that I’ve yet encountered.  By focussing very clearly on the command of a single infantry platoon these rules do a splendid job of capturing the doctrinal differences between the main participants in the war.  They’re also great fun to play.

Honourable mentions go to Pulp Alley and Sharp Practice 2; both great games but neither getting played enough to make it into my top 5 this year.

Next up on the Meeples schedule was worst game of the year.  No doubt for me on this one.  The first day of CP6 at Broughton; wrong force, wrong scenario, worst dice rolling.  Nothing more to see here.  Move on.

Best wargaming purchase of the year?  We have to go back to Vapnartak in February.  Having decided that I wanted to do Arthurian era Gaul, finding a bunch of reasonably priced and passably painted Arthurian types made all the difference to getting the Bacaudae project to a gamable state during 2016.

So what are my wargaming resolutions for 2017?  I want to continue reducing the size of the lead-pile in all categories.  The arrival of twelve Pulp Miniatures at Christmas has put me behind the curve on 28mm figures but otherwise I’m OK at present. 

The other thing that needs progressing is the Pavis project.  One of my large storage boaxes has been gradually accumulating the materials I need to build a 3’x3’ ruined city gaming area for Song of Blades and Heroes.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Trying Perfidious Albion

Having mostly finished painting the 1/3000th scale ships Jamie bought me for my birthday at the Vapnartak before last (and with this year's Vapnartak less than a month away) I decided to remind myself of the Perfidious Albion rules.

I've got the fleets required to refight the battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands from 1914 but I thought I'd better start with something smaller (I'd only previously tried the rules very briefly using paper cut-out ships).

Choosing about 30,000 points a side gave me two flotillas - the Germans have the armoured cruiser Gneisenau and the light cruisers Nuernberg and Leizig whilst the British have two armoured cruisers; Cornwall and Monmouth.

The date is 1910 and I'm assuming that a secret German plan to invade England has come to light.  The Admiralty has ordered any British ships at see to engage and sink any German vessels they encounter.

As you can see I'm playing on a suitably blue carpet rather than occupying the kitchen table.

The weather is heavy and visibility is limited to 2000 yards; 12 inches game scale. The two flotillas have passed each other on opposite courses and the Germans are now turning about to pursue the British.  The latter are sailing away as Cornwall is currently unable to turn due to steering gear damage.

Leipzig's crew, meanwhile, are busy fighting a fire that has broken out belowdecks.

I've cut out the ship charts from the rules or from the Fighting Fleets supplement, attached them to 105x148mm inkjet cards, and sealed them with my laminator before cutting them to size.  As I play I'm also finding additional bits of information that could usefully be put on the cards - tonnage and turning circle come immediately to mind. I need to find a better erasable pen to make off hits.

I've made an error and made this first scenario harder to play than I should have. I diced for the weather conditions and decided to go ahead despite the sea state being "heavy".  This adds complexity to the combat resolution.

In the case of Leipzig with the damage she's taken above, firing broadside at point-blank range in heavy seas, the sum is as follows.  Four F-type guns at 60% chance to hit gives 240%.  But because lower-mounted guns are harder to fire when the ship is pitching and rolling with waves breaking over the superstructure, we deduct 10% for each of the guns at level 2 and 20% for each of the guns at level 3. This gives a modified total score of 180%.  That means one automatic straddle and an 80% chance of a second.  For each straddle you then roll a d6 and a d10 to determine the hit location.  After that you need to compare the shell's penetration with the armour, if any, on the hit location. If the armour is penetrated the location is destroyed.  

My first impression is that I wouldn't want to give novice players more than a ship or two to handle.  Overall, though, I like the game at first sight.  I suspect there are more realistic pre-Dreadnought era rules out there but not being an expert on the period I'll probably stick to these for now.

Having done more reading on Coronel and the Falklands, though, I might stick to fictional scenarios as both are one-sided affairs. Also I rather fancy going earlier; perhaps the 1880s when there are some really weird ships around.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

What Santa Brought

I received some nice gifts this Christmas and a few of them were game-related.  

First up: Love Letter.  This is a card game in which players compete to smuggle letters of devotion to a cloistered princess in an attempt to win her hand in marriage.  It comes in a rather nice red velvet bag.  I haven't had a chance to play it yet but will report back here when I do.

In passing, I ought to mention that daughter Millie received another card game; Exploding Kittens.  We did play that.  It's very silly.  I won! Yay!

I also received a couple of packs of the excellent Bob Murch's Pulp Miniatures.  Unfortunately I've put them away somewhere safe and now can't find them to photograph.

And then yesterday I was passing the WarGameStore at Brimstage (Wirral) with some Christmas money waiting to be spent. It would have been rude not to stop by. I decided to blow some of the cash I received on some more ships for my developing (I won't yet say burgeoning but give it time) X-Wing Miniatures Game collection.

As you can see I got the Most Wanted pack.  This is a starter pack for the "Scum and Villainy" faction - smugglers, pirates and the like.  It also features third-faction adaptations for some models I don't currently possess but am now very tempted to buy.  Clever marketing that by Fantasy Flight Games.

Oh and I also bought a new detail brush and some GW Cadian Fleshtone paint.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Christmas Gaming Part 3

On the 29th of December the kitchen table at Stately Counterpane Manor was transformed from fifth century Gaul to twentieth century Latvia as we played out our second major game of Christmas week.

I'm a big fan of Chain of Command and wanted to try out a big game.  I'd originally planned for up to four players a side but in the end two a side proved a good quantity.

Our game was based on the battles in Latvia during the aftermath of Operation Bagration.  Although Bagration is often known as the "destruction of Army Group Centre", the main result of the Lithuanian and Latvian phase of the fighting was the splitting of the remains of that formation from Army Group North as Soviet troops reached the Gulf of Riga.  I'd created a fictional situation with Soviet troops aiming to take a strategic crossroads in typically wooded Latvian countryside.

Ron and Richard P played the Soviets and were given a base force of a rifle platoon each.  Jamie and Andy defended, Andy with a regular Heer platoon and Jamie with elite Fallschirmjaegers.  I wanted to try out elites and to use my old Raventhorpe jaegers for the first time in years, though I'm not sure they really should have been in the area at that time.

Cost-wise the two Soviet platoons were -3 each whilst the Germans were zero and +10.  This gave a +16 modifier to the Soviets.  I rolled nine on the two dice for reinforcements in the scenario.  In total
then the Germans had five points to spend on reinforcing their platoon and the Soviets 25!

The Germans took a length of barbed wire, an entrenchment for a single team, a medical orderly and, I think, an extra Senior Leader for the Heer platoon.

The Soviets had rather more choice and took an SU-76, a 57mm anti-tank gun, two Maxim MMGs, a 50mm mortar and an anti-tank rifle team who got a Jeep to ride in.

The Patrol Phase went well for the Germans.  The Russians got 1d6 extra moves with their patrol markers before the Germans could respond but they rolled a two and made little headway.  We ended up with the Jump Off Points (JoPs) positioned as follows:

The Soviets had a lot of open ground to cover.

I recommended they deploy two-man scout teams from their squads and Richard did indeed try that on the extreme left.  His two man team was quickly forced to withdraw when an entire Fallschirmjaeger squad emerged in the woods within close assault range of them.  However, they had forced Jamie to deploy a squad onto the table.

Razvedchiki probe the left flank woods
Jaegers in the woods

With two LMGs in the squad that's a lot of firepower!
Ron went for a more direct approach and moved to occupy a hedge-line facing the crossroads.

Andy placed one of his squads to cover the crossroads.  The barbed wire blocked one of the roads leading to the German baseline.

The additional infantry squad that the Soviets had included in their order of battle was made up of Sailors fro the Baltic Fleet.  Like the Fallschirmjaeger this was probably not historically justified but they are pretty figures so I went for it anyway.  They dashed to the hedge line by the crossroads at the double and picked up a Shock token as a result.  It was not to be the last!

The obligatory long-shot.  Left to right, Jamie, Andy, Ron and Richard P
 The hedge line by the crossroads was soon lined with Russian troops.

Those Naval Infantry now have five points of Shock

With the Germans deployed in platoon strength around the crossroads and occupying both of the adjacent woods it was going to be difficult for the Soviets to force their way through.

Richard made a manful attempt to force the issue by attacking on the left flank but a single squad wasn't going to be enough.  A close assault by Jamie's Fallschirmjaeger drove them back to their start line.

As casualties mounted in the Soviet centre...

Ron finally brought on the SU-76 in an effort to force the issue around the crossroads.

 A squad of Fallschirmjaeger launched a swift and violent counterattack at the crossroads...

...and were soon joined by their platoon's Panzerschreck team...

... who took aim down the road at the SU-76...

... fired and hit first time...

The loss of their armoured support was the final straw for Ron's platoon and their morale broke.  This in turn finished off Richard's platoon too and the battle was won by the Germans.

I enjoyed umpiring this game, though I made a couple of false steps in rule interpretations at the start.  The players seemed to enjoy it too and I'm sure we'll give Big Chain of Command another go some time soon.

I'm not sure how the Soviet players could have done much better with the situation after the Patrol Phase.  More use of scout teams might have forced the Germans to bring troops on earlier and I think I'd have gone for a bit more armoured support given the number of points they had available.   I think I'd like to run some more CoC quite soon so we can see if with more experience the guys do things differently.

You can see Richard P's account of the action here.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas Gaming Part 2

Christmas gaming this year continued on Boxing Day when Jamie and I played a splendid game of X-Wing.  We returned to the scenario from the basic set that involves escorting the senator's shuttle to the opposite side of the board.

The game was wonderfully tense. The shuttle has six "hit points" and took a "console fire" critical hit early in the game.  This meant that I had to roll each turn to see if the fire spread doing more damage.  Normally this result can be undone by spending a Action to put out the fire but the senator's shuttle doesn't get to perform Actions.  In the end the shuttle was just a single point away from destruction when it exited the table giving the Rebels a narrow win. Sadly no photos though so we'll move on the our game on the 27th.

I'd planned a six-player recreation of the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (aka Chalons), 451CE.  This battle-of-all-the-nations saw a Roman-led alliance under Flavius Aetius take on Atilla's Hunnic-Gepid-Ostrogoth army.

I say "planned" because at the last minute I gained an extra player (having already decided to allocate one player role to Arthur and Leo working together).  We were thus eight:

  • Andy and Gus took on the roles of Aetius and Merovec, king of the Franks, commanding the Roman left
  • Benedict was Sangiban, king of the Alans in the Roman centre,
  • Lewis, new to our games, was Theodoric, king of the Visigoths and commander of the Roman right
  • Leo and Arthur commanded the Gepids on the Hunnic right
  • Jamie took on the Role of Atilla, and 
  • Kevin, as Valamir, king of the Ostrogoths, ran the Hunnic left.
The following photos begin after the battle was underway for a couple of turns.  In the foreground the Visigoths and Ostrogoths contest the long ridge that dominates that part of the field. On the right you can see the edge of the Huns' wagon-protected camp.  I added a couple of Roman buildings to help give period feel but otherwise the field is pretty empty. 

At the far end of the field the Roman left clashes with Gepids
whilst in the foreground Sangiban's Alans advance

Clashes all along the line as the Ostrogoths reach the crest of the ridge

Sangiban's horse (centre) charge the Huns (right) whilst backed
up by Roman auxilia (left)

Ostrogoths lap around the end of the ridge and threaten the Visigoths' right flank

Hun nobles charge Franks of Sangiban's command
(by this stage he's already lost the first unit of the game, a group of
Armorican spearmen)

Heavy fighting where the junction of the Alans and Romans coincides with
that between Gepids and Huns

Kings Theodoric and Sangiban (left) seem to take most seriously Atilla's description of their position 

The Ostrogoths continue to hold the ridge

And now their cavalry have crossed it leaving their bowmen to hold the crest

A unit of Gallic auxilia from Sangiban's command have crossed the far end of the ridge.
They look somewhat cut-off.

In the centre Sangiban makes good progress against the Huns but the Ostrogoths threaten to break the
right of the Roman line line

Confused fighting in he centre of the field

At the far end the Romans are finding it difficult to defeat the deep formations of Gepid warriors.
Roman casualties are mounting.

In the centre Sangiban has broken through to the Hunnic camp

The Visigoths (white unit tags) dispute control of the ridge but Ostrogoth cavalry (peach tags) are in their rear

Sangiban's red-uniformed Gallic auxilia have reached the Hunnic wagon laager and disordered
the defenders
At the far end of the table the Gepids (yellow tags)are almost at the Roman camp.
Either camp could fall any time now but the Romans are low on Victory Medals.

Gepid Cavalry vs Roman Lanciarii light infantry before the Roman camp!

The climax - somewhere on the Roman left a unit breaks and with the surrender of their last
Victory Medal the Roman army begins to disintegrate.  Atilla (Jamie) has reversed history!

The aftermath - Aetius (Gus) bemoans Leo and Arthur's ability to pull a 9 or 10
chit out of the cup whenever a save was needed.