Monday, September 20, 2021

Review: Gamma Wolves- Osprey Games


My order of Ash Barker's Gamma Wolves got caught up in the Brexit Blockade, which delayed its delivery to my mailbox.  It is here, and I have taken some time to read it, designed some frames, and run a few simulations to get a feel for how it all works together.  This game is foremost about big robots and their pilots, and the setting is intentionally designed to strip out any other support units.  It is all about building Mecha suits and using them to bash each other.    

Ash did a great job on Designer Notes in his previous game; Last Days.  I recommend fellow designers check it out just for that.  Therefore, I was a bit sad that this game only had a paragraph or two buried in the Acknowledgements section that I almost missed.  However, the few paragraphs and the introduction section sets-out pretty clearly what type of game this is.  The setting is there to explain why other forces are not involved more than anything else and give you some context for your big robot brawls.

In 2291, the Earth is a blasted wasteland split between Arcologies and Free Stations.  Humans can no longer live on the surface of this polluted and irradiated world.  All that is left is to strip the carcass of the previous civilizations.  The Gamma Wolves are operators of mechs who go into this wasteland to gather loot and scrap, and return to civilization to trade it in and power their own crumbling Arcologies.  Pretty dystopian and Mad Maxx, but with stompy robots instead of cars.  

So, let's head into the wastelands and see what we can uncover! 

This looks like a scrap Mecha to me! 

Things I Liked

The game is scale and model agnostic with some tweaks.  Sizes of mecha are based on some rudimentary base sizes, which were bigger than I expected.  However, easy tweaks could make smaller scales work, and even let you play on smaller boards!  Plus, if you build it, you can bring it! I like that idea.  

The game uses a dice pool looking for target numbers and number of successes as the primary mechanic.  So, for an attack you roll 3d6 base + the benefits of the weapon.  Opposed tests between pilots is also a key mechanic where the player with the most successes wins.  I am a huge fan of this mechanic as it is simple and elegant.  It is my preferred dice mechanic for most of my own games as well.  It also uses fluctuating Target Numbers for the dice pool, which allows even greater variety of results.    

After the introduction, the first chapter lays out the basic "key ideas" of the game right away.  It does not go into the specifics, but gives you definitions so you can tackle the rules and know what the rules short hand is telling you.  More games should start with the "Key concepts" up front.  

Building your crew of Gamma Wolves and their frames is one of the key elements of Gamma Wolves and is a classic example of Strategic Decision Making in a game.  All of these key choices occur before a game even begins, and can be talked about endlessly before or after any particular game.  This helps allow for a lot of replayability and out-of-game discussion about the game itself.  This includes things like propulsion systems, load-outs, and pilots.  

Initiative is determined by the number of Frames out of Line-of-Sight.  The force with the fewest models in Line-of-Sight gains initiative and therefore can "surprise" the enemy by acting first.  It is a bit wordy to explain, but intuitively it also makes sense.  The player that is doing a better job "hiding" his units has the advantage of action.  However, beyond activating and using 1 Frame first, the game uses Alternate Activation. 

Shooting is an opposed test between your Weapon Systems firepower + Pilot ability vs your opponents ability to evade.  If the Evading unit gets more successes, they avoid the firepower.  If failed, additional success past the first to hit can be used to add damage or adjust where the shot is hitting.  I am always a fan of opposed test, as no one likes to get shot at and do nothing.    

Each side has a "War Clock" that is the amount of resources they have to keep their frames fighting away from their carriers.  This represents power, fuel, ammo, and even oxygen.  As you remove Reactor stress from your units at the end of a turn, it also reduces your War Clock.  When your War Clock hits 0, your forces immediately disengage and the game is over.  Your Gamma Wolves are headed for home base with whatever they can carry.  This was a clever way to create an "end" scenario instead of just killing all your foes!  Some missions even give different sides different War Clocks, so the game potential ends at different points for the forces involved.      

Terrain is simplified into easy categories to make it easy to assign and know what it does.  I am a big fan of simplified terrain rules. 

Things I Did Not Like

The firefights are intended to be up close and personal, but the range to maneuver distances seem to be a bit off.  The game feels like it emphasizes firepower, and it is easy to get the mix of terrain to board size wrong.  This makes the "blind" deployment seem sort of pointless and some of the decision making feels a lot easier at these knife fight ranges.     

I like the blind deployment system IN THEORY, but what I have seen of it in practice makes it look like a non-value added component of the game.  Granted, this can be influenced a great deal by terrain selection, scale, and models being used.  In theory, it adds some uncertainty to deployment and initial tactical thinking and decision making.  However as I have seen it in use it does not appear to add too much to the game beyond complication.  Your mileage may vary on this one. 

One of the core tenants of the game is adding Stress to both Pilots and Reactors.  This puts a cap and limits on what a Frame can do in a turn.  It can lead to overloading your Frame, or injuring your Pilot.  I like these ideas BUT I am not sure they are punishing enough!  I had a similar problem when I played BattletechSure, Heat and Stress are things you need to track and COULD cause an issue.  However, in actual practice they were never seemed punishing enough to actually effect my decision making in a significant way.  I am probably in the minority, but the Stress factors do not seem to come into play enough to really be a "Friction" that I need to overcome or to change my decision making.  Therefore, it can become needless tracking instead.  Again, your mileage may vary on this one depending on how your games go with the mechanics.  I love the idea IN THEORY but I am not convinced it is punishing enough in practice.       

Meh and Other Uncertainties

The game allows you to have 8 different pilots and 6 different frames.  Therefore, you can have cards of pilots and frames that you swap around prior to battle.  This acts as your "roster" for any given mission.  This allows you to make some strategic choices prior to any given battle in a campaign and allows you to take some pilot casualties and do some RPG-lite with your crews.  Pilot Level is used as a balancing metric in the game as well.  

Maneuvering and moving about is a bit finnicky in this game as it is based on weight, propulsion, arcs moved through etc.  This is mostly due to the wording.  Typically, once you have calculated the speed of a Frame and written it down it won't be a factor.  However, picking up salvage COULD cause your weight to increase and your Frame to move at a different speed during game.

The main game revolves/defaults to a "Loot" style scenario.  However, it is just as effective to kill all the bad guys before they kill you to get all the loot.  There are 5 other scenarios that put a twist on the basic Loot framework.  This style of game has some of the same critiques I had of Frostgrave and I personally think it hurts the games replayability.     

The images and photos of the Frames in game are good.  However, I am less excited about the Frame artwork as they are static images on a white back drop.  These did almost nothing to excite me into playing the game.  Petty I know, but I was disappointed as I really liked the artwork and styles in Last Days and the mecha art in Horizon Wars.  

The game contains several pages for a campaign in the Sea of Destruction.  It includes things like pilot injury, experience advances, finding lost tech, and returning back to the arcology/Free Station.  As frames get damaged, they do not always get repaired and will degrade over the course of the campaign.  The campaign uses the tried and true Games Workshop Specialist Games model, and I tend to like this style of campaign.  The Campaign has a recommended end point as well.  

There are a couple pages of optimal rules that detail how to play a multi-player game.  However, there do not appear to be any solo or co-op rules in the book.  I have not seen any rules/writing on the Net on this subject either.   

Final Thoughts

This book had a lot of ideas that I liked.  I get the feeling they had a number of cool models, and then they sat down to build a game to use those models in.  That is an approach I have used myself, and an approach I recommend.  I also get the feeling that the author was not a stranger to stompy robot style games.

That said, I am not 100% convinced on the execution of the game itself.  Some parts seemed more fiddly than they needed such as Contact markers, some of the wording in the maneuver phase, and Movement rates.  Meanwhile, other parts felt like they did not quite reflect the level of decision points the designer intended such as the reactor and pilot stress.  However, it was still a book full of good ideas such as Mech construction, dice pools, opposed tests, and the War Clock.  

I think the people who like this game the most will be those who are looking for a reason to kit-bash some big stompy robots of their own design, or use some of those cool mecha kits out there from non-game lines.  I do not think it is crunchy enough to really attract the Heavy Gear or Battletech fans, and it might be too crunchy to attract the streamlined, indie, skirmish player to regularly.  However, I think a game group interested in building some Mecha of their own will find this game really useful and it will provide a fun campaign experience most other games can not provide.      

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Monday, September 13, 2021

Wargame Design: Designing Against Type


Long time readers of the blog know that I have a few "maxims" that I espouse as a game designer.  Basic ideas like: 

  1. Choice is good
  2. Firepower vs. maneuver
  3. Innovation is over-rate
  4. Choose the best tool for the job
  5. Game designers must create games 

There are others, but those are the ones that come to mind off the top of my head.  

Now that I have a few games under my belt, I am starting to run across a bit of a unique issue.  How do you design against your own "Type" of game?  What do I mean?  

Joseph A. McCullough had a great deal of success with FrostgraveThis was a well-received game that has received a lot of attention.  It has a few core design elements that make the game, the game that it is.  However, it was so successful that it spawned a variety of alternate games using the same basic ideas and structures to it.  In a sense, Mr. McCullough now had a game "Type" 

Everyone knows I am a huge fan of Daniel Mersey's games such as Lion Rampant.  It also received a lot of player attention.  Some of the core ideas would continue to be mined in games like Dragon Rampant, Pikeman's Lament, Rebels and Patriots, and The Men Who Would Be King.  Each had some unique elements, but the core game play mechanics were often the same.  Daniel Mersey now has a "Type".  

I am sure we can all think of other designers and games that have a certain 'Type" to their games.  A Type is certain core game play elements that they focus on or re-use.  In a way, you can think about it as a "brand" or audience expectation that is designer X is involved then the buyer's have a certain expectation of what is "in" the game.  

Therefore, I suppose we can refer to a Designer's Type as the following: 
  • Core game mechanics that are applied across various game genres by a single designer
I myself have a "type" of game as well.  I have found I can make a variety of "Ancient" games using the bones of the Men of Bronze system.  I can make fun, flavorful, and interesting games using the core rules with some flavor tweaks around the edges.  The logic of using a Type is inescapable.  

The Type offers the following: 
  1. Pre-packaged solutions to common wargame issues
  2. Core mechanics you know work
  3. Tools you all ready felt were the "best tool" for a job
  4. Easier playtesting
  5. Removes the "grunt work" of churning out basic rules
  6. People have all ready responded positively to what you have built
Those are some pretty compelling reasons to keep building on your Type as a designer.  Removing the "Grunt Work" of churning out basic rules is a HUGE bonus!  I do not want to have to re-write the rules for LOS fresh every time UNLESS I am bringing something very new to the table.

However, always writing and designing to your Type is a trap!  Using your Type too much and it becomes a crutch.  Soon, you have a hard time designing beyond your crutch.  That leads to stagnation and soon you have no more fresh or interesting ideas to bring to the table.  You are trapped in your own Type.  

So, the question becomes; how do you design outside of your own Type?    

Here are some tricks that help me:    
  1. Exposure to new Rule Sets
  2. Talk about Wargames with other people
  3. Mine your concept folder
  4. Write, write, and write some more
Exposure to New Rule Sets

What a surprise.  I am always talking about making sure that you are reading and playing a lot of different rule sets.  This always gets the juices flowing as you decide how or if you would utilize the various mechanics ideas and mechanisms you find for yourself.  

For example, I was reading the Dracula's America rules, and the simple and tiny mechanic of being able to push some one back in close combat instead of trying to damage them triggered me to write Homer's Heroes: Bronze Age Bad Boys over the space of a week.  The game is very different from my usual solution to "gang-based" games.  Homer's Heroes is nothing like The Games: Blood and Spectacles or Men of Bronze even though in theory they could be almost identical to either of those.  

Therefore, you need to constantly be exposing yourself to new rules to trigger your own creativity.  Even deciding if you like a rules mechanic forces you to think about why a designer would use the tool they chose.  Then, you gain insight into its strengths and weaknesses.  From there, you can decide it it is something you yourself want to try.  That gives you a way to break Type. 

Talk About Wargames with Other People

My poor suffering wife gets to hear me talk about wargame design.  She dabbles, but is by no means a "wargamer".  However, she can tell me if that is something she would "like" or "not like".  This is an invaluable resource!  I do the same with my poor gaming group.  This gives me insight into the topic and helps me understand how it will be perceived by someone other than me.

Social Media is also a good place to engage with others about Wargames.  I have no idea what other people like to play, but hearing them explain WHY they like or do not like certain things gives me insight.  It makes me think.... uh?  Can I make use of this or something like it myself?  What if I put this spin on it?  

Frequently, other people will give you a seed of an idea.  It is up to you to plant that seed and grow it.  In an online discussion I had about pre-measuring; the idea of using Line-of-Sight as a resource came up.  Certain activities would give or reduce your line-of-sight.  This triggered the idea of using Line-of-Sight like a modifier that applied to your ability to engage a target rather than using a dice rolling modifier.  Hence, it is a new form of "friction" to add to a game.  This became the basis for my work on a modern "horror" themed game. 

Speaking of which..... 

Mine Your Concept Folder   

Pull out the old concept folder and start poking at it.  There are nuggets of ideas in there, see if you can start stringing them together into something.  It is like playing with blocks.  You start stacking some blocks together, until you see a shape that you are interested in.  Then, you start adding and taking away until it all falls over!  The intention isn't to come out the other side with a game, the intention is to get your brain in the right place, to start putting things together that didn't fit before, and see things that are outside of your normal Type.  

Your Concept Folder is full of ideas that you either haven't finished, never really started, or struck you at one point; but the inspiration left.  These could be a great premise, some bit of rules mechanics, or snippet of back story that is a hook for a future project.  By tacking them up together you begin to look for and see ideas and patterns that weren't obvious before because you were seeing them in isolation, instead of in a big Concept Jumble.  

This often gives you a starting point, a starting point to just write.....

Write, Write, Write, Write..... and then Write

How many times have you pulled out a sheet of blank paper and just stared at it?  Opened a new File on your computer and just looked at it with your hands on the keyboard?  Nothing comes out, because you are out of ideas, not in the right head space, or have a block.  What is the best way to get over this?

Write anyway!  Just start writing.  It doesn't need to be good!  Just start putting ideas to paper.  At worst, you can throw it in your Concept Folder for later.  At best, you are starting to create a game.  If your lucky, you won't stop until you have the rough draft of a game done.  If you are unlucky, you have more fodder for the Concept Folder that you can tinker on later.  

Despite my busy corporate job, side hustle, family, and LIFE I make sure to set aside at least two hours a week to write!  Most of it is hot, steaming garbage..... but some of it?  Some of it is birthed into a game against Type.  

Final Thoughts
Wargamer Designers can fall into repeating habits of thoughts and mechanics that they try to apply across games and genres.  There are benefits to such a process, but it is also a trap!  It can lead to stagnation and the misapplication of ideas.  Worse, it can lead to games you never finish or want to play!  

Breaking out of your Type is important to refresh your creative energy.  To do this, you need to expose yourself to new ideas constantly, and then you have to give yourself the space to think and apply them for yourself.  Through this method, you will uncover new ideas and concepts to keep you fresh as a designer AND help you break Type when you want to.  

Become a Patron and get access to all the cool stuff, a peak behind the curtain of Blood and Spectacles, and early-access to playtest games!  

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Check out the latest publications and contact me at our Blood and Spectacles website

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Monday, September 6, 2021

Battle Report: Homer's Heroes- Clash at the Spring


Achilleion: The Triumph of Achilles by Frantz von Matsch

Eugene Romanenko -

Today is a test run of my Work-in-Progress game; Homer's Heroes: Bronze Age Bad Boys. The game is a model vs model skirmish game to represent heroic retinue's fighting against each other in Homeric -inspired combat.  As such, the heroes are the main focus with a retinue of soldiers attracted by their fame.    

The hero Adonis and his faithful friend Butes and their retinue have been traveling, looking for adventure near the Bospherus.  After a long days march, they grew weary.  With the aid of a young woman they met travelling, they were directed to a nearby spring to refresh themselves.  Little did they know that this young woman was, in fact, the nymph who inhabited the spring who had been smitten by Adonis' good looks.  

As Adonis and his men bathed and refreshed themselves they were approached by another band of  warriors.  They were led by Diomedes and his fellow Euryalus and his band.  They had followed the flight path of an owl and arrived at the same spring.  They too were thirsty and tired from a long journey cross-country.   

Diomedes as the favored of Athena demanded access to the spring.  Adonis had heard of this fellow Diomedes, and knew he was no friend of his patron, Aphrodite.  At first, he seemed to acquiesce to Diomedes demand.  However, it was only a ruse to give him and his men enough space to arm themselves.  

Adonis and his retinue soon returned.  Diomedes and Euryalus had not yet stripped themselves of their war gear.  Instead, they turned to face off against the interlopers who dared challenge them.  


In Homer's Heroes both sides always have 1 Hero, 1 Second, and then 8 soldiers of varying gear.  Some can be traded in for a chariot as well.  Then, each Hero also has a Patron Greek god or goddess that offers them special bonuses.  

Adonis and his retinue have the following composition: 

  • Adonis- Hero
    • Aphrodite
    • Sneaky- The Hero can re-roll a single dice in an Opposed "Hide" test
    • Armor, Shield, Hand Weapon
  • Butes- Second
    • Two-Handed Weapon, Armor
  • 4 Soldiers
    • Spear and Shield
  • 2 Soldiers
    • Javelin, dagger, shield
  • 2 Soldiers
    • Bow, dagger
Diomedes of Thrace and his retinue looks like this: 
  • Diomedes- Hero
    • Athena
    • Glare- The hero can use a "glare" action to freeze an enemy in place with an opposed roll.  The model loses any unused activations.  
    • Spear, Shield, Armor
  • Euryales- Second
    • Spear, armor, shield
  • Chariot
    • Driver- Dagger
    • Soldier- Spear, Shield
  • 4 Soldiers
    • Spear and Shield

The game lasts until 1 retinue Runs Away, turn 8 ends, or 1 hour of play has elapsed.  The retinue with the most models within 6 MU of the Spring at the end of the Disengagement turn is the winner.  

1 MU = 1 inch in today' game


Today's game will be played on a 36 x 36MU board.  

The spring is set up in the center of the board.  We divide the board into 4 sections and determine the following: 
  1. Grove- Difficult, Hard
  2. Field- Soft
  3. Ruined building - Obstacles, Hard
  4. Open    
Diomedes retinue is set up anywhere within 6 MU of the spring.  Adonis is placed on any two adjoining board edges, he chose the south and west. 

Turn 1: 
Adonis and his warband have the most models, so they choose to activate a model first.  One of his bow armed soldiers fires a shot at the Chariot.  The driver of the chariot ducks aside as the arrow flies past.  

Euryales goes next and moves from the ruined building to in between two of his closests soldiers.  He does not want to be caught out by Adonis.  

The second of Adonis' bow armed soldiers fires at the chariot but his arrow falls short.  

The rest trade off moving towards the fight as Diomedes goes to his friend Eurylas' side.  Adonis slips into the ruined building and hides.  

The Chariots races forward and the soldier riding in it attacks one of Adonis' Javelin armed soldiers.  His spear thrust catches the man in the leg, and he begins to fall back. 

Turn 2: 
Adonis still has more soldiers, so gets to go first.  

Butes takes a mighty swing at the soldier he is facing with his two-handed weapon.  The soldiers is downed by Butes, the favor of Aphrodite must be with him! 

Diomedes charges into the nearby line of Adonis' spearmen and attacks ferociously, injuring the man's leg exposed below his shield.  However, the soldier passes the Fear check and stays in the fight.  Diomedes chooses to use Glare to avoid a counter-attack.  He glowers at the lesser man.  The man is frozen in fear! A fellow soldiers jumps into help the stricken man.  

More soldiers jump into the combat swirling around Diomedes, both to help and attack.  

Seeing his chance, Adonis leaps from cover and attacks Euryales.  His sword is true, and Euryales is hit in the arm, but does not flee. 

Adonis' bow and javelin armed soldiers move towards the spring.  Meanwhile, a loan Diomedian soldier falls back to the spring to defend it.  

Turn 3: 
Adonis' retinue gets to activate first.   

One of the soldiers fighting Diomedes activates and attacks with a soldier assisting him.  Diomedes also has an assist.  Diomedes manages to just fend off the thrusts with his shield.  He decides to fight back.  He pushes one of the soldiers back out of combat with his first attack.  He then attacks the frozen one again.  This time, his spear is true and he downs his foe!  He uses his last activation to attack the last soldier he is facing.  However, the soldier blocks with his spear. 

Butes sprints for the spring, and uses his last activation to help Adonis in his fight with Euryales.  

Two soldiers slug at each other with no effect.  The chariot swings around and moves in on the fight between the two soldiers.  The soldier in the chariot lashes out.  Thankfully, the soldiers spear gives him a 360 combat arc and he is able to block the thrust.  

The last Diomedian soldier falls back to the Spring as Adonis' Bow and Javelin armed troops spring towards it.  

Adonis continues his attack on Euryales with Butes support.  Despite the injury to his arm, Euryales puts up a stunning defense using his shield, armor, and spear in a masterclass of defense work.  He bats away or deflects all of Adonis' attacks.  

Turn 4: 
Both sides have lost a model, but Adonis still has more.  His retinue goes first.  

The pushed back soldier rushes back into help his friend deal with Diomedes.  Diomedes activates next to try and clear them all out.  He injures the soldier's leg, but he does not run away.  Diomedes injures the second soldiers leg as well.  He also stands his ground.  This time, he downs the initial soldier with a spear butt to the helmet!  Clunk!  Adonis' soldier and Diomedes soldier fail to do much other then make a lot of noise in the fight.  

Adonis activates next against Euryales.  This time, Adonis downs noble Euryales with a swing of his sword!  He uses his next action to engage the soldier helping Diomedes.  However, he fails as the soldier's spear whirls around him to protect himself.  

Diomedes chariot rushes up, and the soldier attacks Adonis from the rear.  The spear tip glances off the hero, and he makes a successful Fear test to avoid running away.  

Butes rushes forward and attacks the soldier in the chariot, but the man is ready and blocks the attack with his shield.  

A Diomedian soldier climbs to the spring to defend it.  The bow armed soldiers of Adonis fire on this lone defender, but he knocks the arrows aside with his shield.  

Turn 5: 
Both sides have two men down.  Adonis gets to go first.  

Butes attacks the Chariot once more.  Butes manages to hit the soldier hard enough with his two-handed weapon, that he is knocked from the chariot!  However, he quickly springs to his feet and is ready to fight again.  The chariot itself rumbles away.  

The soldier helping Diomedes attacks the last of Adonis' soldier in their melee.  To no effect.  Adonis' soldier attacks back.  The Adonis' soldier pushes Diomedes' fellow soldier back and out of the combat!  

The soldier from the chariot charges forward and locks Adonis up into combat separate from Diomedes.  Adonis attacks him for his impudence.  It takes a flurry of sword thrusts and shield bashes, but eventually the soldier is taken down by Adonis. 

Diomedes is also left alone with a single enemy soldier, and attacks with everything he has.  However, Adonis' soldier manages to fend off the hero with his shield.  

The Diomedian soldier on the spring sees the approaching Chariot and mounts up.  The rest of Adonis' retinue sprint towards the spring.    

Turn 6: 
Adonis still has the initiative.  

Butes charges into a Diomedian soldier, his two-handed weapon swinging. The soldier's shield catches the blow easily.  

Diomedes tries to finish off the soldier he is fighting.  However, he again fails to finish the man.  Perhaps he should Glare at him next time?  

This time, Adonis leaps into the fight with Diomedes.  However, the Theban hero is ready and blocks the attacks.  

The injured Javelin armed soldier clambers up onto the spring.  The Chariot rumbles away.  The archers fire arrows at it, but they stick useless into the car wall.  

Turn 7: 
Adonis still has more soldiers.  

Adonis himself starts the turn battling with Diomedes.  This time, Adonis slashes Diomedes spear arm.  Then, a clever feint allows him to slash the Heroes leg as well.  

The soldier fighting Butes attacks him.  To no avail.  

The Javelin armed soldier on the spring throws one at the Chariot, but also only sticks it into the side of the car.  

Diomedes attacks the soldier fighting with Adonis first.  The soldier deftly blocks again and whirls away from the heroes spear.... again! 

Butes manages to injure the leg of the soldier he is fighting.  However, he stays in the fight and passes his fear test. 

Archers again miss the chariot.  It rumbles up and the soldier inside spear outward with his weapon.  The archer nimbly steps aside.  The last Javelin armed soldier throws and misses.  

Turn 8- Disengagement Turn
Both sides are growing very tired.  Adonis' troops go first.  

Butes attacks the soldier he is facing, but the man stumbles out of reach.

Diomedes attacks the soldier in his battle again.  Again, with help from Adonis, he avoids any serious issues.  However, his counter-attacks are also insufficient.  Adonis continues the assault.  Another arm injury reduces Diomedes further.  He also gets another slash to the legs, but he is still standing.  

The Chariot soldier strikes out at the archer, but misses.  The chariot turns to try and pick-up their boss.

Meanwhile, Adonis' ranged soldiers rush to the springs and take up position on it.  

Adonis and his retinue win as they have four soldiers standing on the Spring to Diomedes 0.

An omen from Olympus stops the fighting.  An owl is startled from the trees near the spring and flies away.  Diomedes and Adonis see this and immediately recognize it as a sign!  Athena has signaled that Diomedes has lost the skirmish, and her favor has left the spring.  

Adonis calls a halt to the fighting, as Diomedes does the same.  The soldiers take a step back, and eye each other with hostility.  

Diomedes grounds his spear haft into the ground.  He leans on the weapon heavily, his wounds bleeding openly.  "Your skill with your sword is a match for your handsome locks Adonis," Diomedes pants.

Adonis shakes the blood from his blade before sheathing it, "And you are a fearsome opponent.  Come, take a moment to rest at the spring, drink up, and tend to your men's wounds.  You and your men can leave before nightfall, and leave the Spring to us for the evening."  

"You are indeed a hero worthy of Aphrodite." 

Adonis narrowed his eyes at the wounded Theban, and decided to take his words with sincerity, "You are too kind.  Come let us help our comrades!"  

I finally got Homer's Heroes on the table, after having the draft rules done for about a year now.  That gives you an idea of the game design process and what the pipeline looks like.  When I finished writing the game, I even had minis painted I could use with it!  I have been too busy getting the finishing touches on Wars of the Republic and Castles in the Sky for Osprey to do much else.       

When I wrote Homer's Heroes I had a few goals in mind: 
  • Differentiate between Heroes, Seconds, and Soldiers

  • Weapons and Armor matters

  • Model vs Model skirmish

  • Scale and Model Agnostic

  • Homeric Greek Veneer

  • Simple and Quick Gameplay 

Well, did I do it?  Maybe?  

Heroes and Seconds get to use more dice then Soldiers, therefore increasing their chances to "do" something.  In addition, they get a matching number of activations.  In theory, a Hero should make short work of a Soldier.  In this game, we saw Diomedes take on a group of soldiers and survive; but he could not finish off the last one!  Why?  Because a group of soldiers adds dice to their own pool allowing them to be the equal of a hero if they are supported! In addition, Seconds and Heroes were the ones most reliable in taking out opponents. Heroes and Seconds are also able to land more than 1 potential hit that can escalate damage to Downed or Unconscious and Possibly Dead much faster.    

Weapons and Armor matter.... did they?  Yes for the most part weapons and armor played a big part in the battle.  Diomedes and most of his crew were using Spears.  This gave them a 360 degree combat arc which they used to good effect when they got bushwacked by multiple soldiers or Adonis himself in the side/rear outside of their normal combat arc.  However, their shields were not useful outside of the combat arc.  Therefore, melee placement mattered and a model could maximize/minimize attack and defense benefits from good placement.  We also saw that the extra dice from Butes two-handed weapon was useful to finish off foes with more potential hits giving him the chance to down foes rather than injure them.  
As for a Homeric veneer, I can add more of that when I bolt on the campaign system.  However, for initial flavor we do have Heroes doing most of the work of killing.  However, it was the soldiers who actually won the game for Adonis.  Close combat is more important than missile weapons which is also a Homeric idea.  Finally, duels between Heroes and Seconds carried the majority of the action today.  Plus, there was that fun chariot racing around and that was pretty Homeric.  Perhaps it is too early to tell, but it seems like the Homeric veneer is there and ready to be reinforced via campaign elements.  We did use the Favor of the Gods for both Heroes, even though I think Diomedes should have tried his a few more times.    

Simple and Quick Gameplay?  Well, I did uncover a few places where the rules needed some tweaking.  It is unclear that this is an alternate activation game.  There are also some ambiguities around when a rival retinue should try to run away or withdraw.  The winner of the Melee gets a lot of choices to push people back, pin them, rotate facing, break-off, etc.  However, you have to win the Melee before you can do those things and most of the time it was just better to try and deal damage.  The same can be said with shooting. Once you get into hand-to-hand, it can become a bit of a game of Yahtze, but I am unsure how to approach this yet as there are a lot of simple nuances that add tactical depths to Melee such as support attacks, combat arcs, pushing foes around the board, etc. but in the heat of the moment it just seems to come down to a dice roll-off.  However, game play was quick with a surprising amount of nuance for such a simple and easy to play game.  

Scale and Model agnostic is a yes.  I use my standard bag of tricks that I have been applying to all my games lately for that.   

Overall, not bad for a WIP set of rules.  There are some pieces to be clarified and re-written, and I still have not cracked the code completely on Melee yet.  I think adding campaign elements and some scenarios will really cement the Homeric veneer too.  More work to be done on this one before it is ready for publishing though.  

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Monday, August 30, 2021

Wargame Design: Creating Character in Wargames


In addition to wargaming, I also play Role-Playing Games (RPGs) and board games.  One of the most interesting aspects of RPGs is how individual characters can interact with the game world to achieve their objectives.  This at a high-level is not much different from war games, and in fact RPGs are a "modern" off shoot of wargaming.  The roots of RPG is in wargaming. 

Of course, in an RPG two mechanically identical characters can end up being completely different characters.  This differentiation is done via the "role" part of Role-Playing Games.  There are a variety of tricks and characterizations decent role-players can bring to a character to make each one feel incredibly different.  However, most RPGs also use mechanics to help shape different roles or archetypes that players can fulfill, such as the bard, barbarian, thief, and wizard archetypes.  

In wargaming, there is very limited "Role-Playing" elements.  However, as designers, you still want to capture the idea that individual models or units are "unique".  Typically, gamers do not want to play a number of faceless, joyless, boring, goons all the time.  No instead they want to play the 14th Uhlans, the Iron Brigade, Astro-dog, the Joy Hill Gang, etc.  Thankfully, as designers there are a few ways to add this level of "character" to your games.  

Here are a few things you need to consider when adding in "character" elements to a wargame:

  1. Genre
  2. Scope
  3. Focus


Some style of games demand more character elements than others.  In certain historical time periods, such as Horse and Musket; the nature or personality of commanders often comes into play mechanically.  I feel this mainly derives from how so many books focusing on the period are using the "Great Man of History" lens to tell the story (which is a side tangent).  Therefore, a dithering commander may slow a pursuit, or a dashing one may allow more aggressive movement.  Typically, it is the character of the commanding officer that matters most to gameplay.  These character traits are often built into the Command and Control mechanics.  You tend to see this less in Ancients, Medieval, and Modern games for a variety of reasons. Certain genres have certain tropes that players like to have followed, and as a designer it never hurts to embrace some of the tropes.  They are tropes for a reason. 


The Scope of the game is a bigger impact.  A smaller, model vs model skirmish can put a lot more emphasis on individuals and how they are different than others around them.  The two main methods to do this are Stat line changes that lend themselves to various ways to play, or special rules.  There are whole games that only use named characters such as Arena Rex, Bot Wars, Mercs, and others.  Personally, I am not a fan as I prefer to make my own characters thanks.  

As the scope increases, these individual emphasis turns into unit vs unit features.  For example, a Scot's Greys Heavy cavalry unit may fight differently than a Old Guard Cuirassier unit.  However, this is typically done via the same method as stat line adjustments or special rules.  However, the "character" is not the individual soldiers but the doctrine and reputation of the unit itself.  Unit vs unit games it would make no sense to make individual model differentiation. 


The last element to consider is the Focus of your game.  What is your game trying to accomplish and highlight?  Your Design Goals will be the key component to review and think about when determining this level of the game.  Some games will have a higher level of "RPG" type character interaction built into the mechanics to achieve their Design Goals.  Any game that includes an "Action" outside of shooting/fighting allows for more character to be used by the player to resolve a situation.  For example, instead of shooting the player may opt to "talk it out", hide from danger, set a trap, etc.  

Not all games need this level of detail depending on what the game wants to focus on.  For example, the infamous Battle of North Africa board game dealt exclusively with logistics, and included the evaporation rate of fuel in different types of containers.  The focus has little to do with units or models and instead is focusing on Logistics.  In this situation, character does not matter as the Focus is not right.  

Another example is an Age of Sail game.  You could add Character two ways.  The ship itself could have defined characteristics unique to each named ship AND you could have named captains with unique traits as captain.  In this example, the focus is right for Character in a wargame. 

How to Create "Character" in a Wargame

Now that we have talked about when it is appropriate to have "Characters" in your wargame, let's talk about how you can go about adding them.  First, let's define what I mean by "character".  In this case, a character is a model/unit who's role or abilities are influenced by a defining characteristic.  

For example, if the soldier is supposed to be "bookish and shy" how does this defining characteristic impact the battlefield?  How do you translate the defining characteristic into abilities or role?  

I have identified a few methods to add "character" to wargames:

  1. Stats
  2. Special Rules/Chrome 
  3. Special Access
  4. RPG Lite
  5. Campaigns

As the name implies, the model or units stats are some how impacted by the defining characteristic of a unit.  For example, the Iron Brigade was a highly motivated unit with a strong battlefield record.  Therefore, on the table top the unit may have improved Morale or Leadership stats to reflect their heightened reputation.  

Special Rules/Chrome

In this case, the Character's defining characteristic is represented by a special rule that other model's do not have access too.  For example, in old Necromunda the leader of a gang could rally nearby units to  re-roll pin tests.  

Special Access

In this case, choosing the unit allows access to different units or structures in your force construction or mission objectives.  Essentially, the character allows you to have special access to something that is normally not allowed or available in the rules. 

RPG Lite

The rules allow access to various actions or activities beyond shooting/fighting.  This allows a player to show a models character on the field by doing something other that just shooting and fighting.  Perhaps talk to a foe, read a book to gain access to knowledge, create something, etc.  For example, in Frostgrave a Wizard can cast a spell instead of shooting/fighting. 


By playing a linked series of games, a model/unit can gain "character" by gaining buffs/de-buffs via action or results of action.  This makes the units have an individual character based on their history with the game/player.  For example, a Survivor in Last Days can earn a skill that improves their ability to perform a certain action, or take an injury that makes them less likely to perform actions.  They have earned a defining characteristic via game play. 


Role-Playing games allow a lot of scope and depth for character as they are the main focus of those types of games.  They often have various mechanical hooks to differentiate between archetypes, but two models with the exact same stats can play totally differently based on the 'Role" aspect of Role-Playing games.  RPGs are an off-shoot of wargames therefore wargames also have a capacity for players to build characters into their games too. However, they will function and integrate into the game differently than in an RPG based game. 

There are some types and styles of games where the integration of "character" is better suited.  At the minimum all wargames can add a story telling component to them, with little of no impact on game play.  However, some genres, scope and focus are better suited for adding "characters" whose abilities and role are influenced by a defining character trait.  A wargame does not need "characters" to be a good wargame.  

Like all game design, characters are a tool that can be used to help build out and meet the design goals of the designer.  It is up to the designer to choose the best tools for the job, and Characters are just another tool.  Use them wisely! 

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Monday, August 23, 2021

Review: Absolute Emperor- Osprey Games

I will start this review with my usual caveat.  I really do not know that much about the Napoleonic Wars.  I have been interested in them, but have kept my distance.  The pageantry, uniforms, combined arms, and of course the big hats have always been of interest but...... the many rulesets, depth of knowledge of the players, and so many models and painting have kept me away.  

To date, I have really only played Blucher with any regularity.  The joy there being I have been playing it with the cards.  I have La SalleChosen Men, Black Powder and a few others but have never quite pulled the trigger on Nappies.  To be honest, making the large units and all the nomenclature has scared me off for the most part.  

It was these factors that made me interested in Absolute Emperor.  I read through the introduction and recognized a kindred design spirit.  He was advocating for "Big Battles with Small Armies" which is an approach I have found near and dear to my heart.  In fact it was one of my main design goals with Men of Bronze, Heirs of Empire and Wars of the Republic In addition, abstraction and units acting as a foot print for larger elements was another theme that matched my style.  Finally, he was a strong advocate for not having to re-base anything!  Basing is the bane of wargaming.  I felt I had found a kindred design spirit!  

This intrigued me enough that I wondered if I had finally found the Napoleonic wargame that would get me to pull the trigger on Nappies and buy some models.  With all that pre-amble out of the way.  Let's get into Absolute Emperor and see what is under the Shako.....

The French army at the bottom is for the Waterloo scenario, that gives you an idea of size of a big game. 

Things I Liked

Well, I always like when a game starts or has some design notes.  This game starts off in the Introduction laying out what to expect in the rules and what NOT to expect as well.  This will make it much easier to judge if the game accomplished what it set out to do.  Plus, I really value this glimpse behind the curtain and into the mind of the designer.  

As I have eluded to, the game is scale and model agnostic.  The rules were written for 28mm, but there is discussion of how to use 2mm to 54mm scales in the rules.  In addition, the game strongly encourages you to avoid re-basing!  Those are strong elements that I like in my wargames.  To be base agnostic, the rules use a standard "frontage" size that allows you to use various basing to meet the needs.  Infantry is 6 inches, and Cavalry is 8 inches, with different scales modifying the frontage up and down.  Therefore, I can probably still make use of my Blucher cards to get a game in.  

The footprint of each unit is supposed to be a Division of troops.  Now, naming conventions in Napoleonic warfare for units is pretty all-over the place, so this is the naming convention this game uses.  These footprints are the main bodies of troops.  The game abstracts skirmishers and battalion batteries into the shooting mechanics.  It assumes the 4 inch space between units in a firefight is full of people fighting and dying in these units.  The exact deployment of brigades and battalions is not relevant to the rules.  This aspect reminds me of Blucher since the focus of the two games is at the same level.    

One aspect of Napoleonic warfare I had not appreciated before was how up close and personal so much of the fighting was.  My games of Blucher and reading these rules have made this much clearer to me.  Musket range is generally equivalent to charge range, which is equivalent to movement ranges.  Sometimes, movement range is further!  Therefore, there could theoretically be a lot of "free" maneuver where enemy firepower does not come into play.  What constricts movement and maneuver appears to be the density of the formations due to command rather than firepower.  Now, with this ruleset and the few others I have dabbled in this "truth" of the period fighting is obvious to me.  

The game abstracts and simplifies limbering and unlimbering a great deal.  It also allows Interspersion freely as long as the unit can completely clear the other. Both steps helps the game avoid so much of the "If This/Than That" of this periods wargames. 

Each Corp Commander has Elan points.  These can be used to give Corp Commands and impact upon gameplay, establish initiative, but more importantly they are also the Victory Points used to decide the winner of a game.  You can lose Elan by using it as a resource, losing Division, etc.  If you defeat an enemy Division, there is also a chance you can overrun them and gain Elan.  If a Corp Commander is ever reduced to 0 Elan, his entire corp retreats.  As Corps are removed from the game and forced to retreat, it can cause an army to collapse very quickly as nearby Corps must make a test to not switch to defensive or retreat orders.      

The first 8 pages are introduction.  Pages 8-33 are the basic game rules.  The last 34-42 is advanced rules.  43- 54 is setting up the game and scenarios.  56-61 is a walk through of a game using Scenario 1.  The last few pages are author's notes and appendix stuff.  I like the format of the book as it allows me, the Nappie Newbie to get my head around the core gameplay rules, then layer in some of the eccentricities of the period, and the walk through at the end helped me put it all together.    

Things I Did Not Like

One interesting choice I noted was that units can change formation in this game.  Considering the "scale" of the game as being divisional, this seemed like an odd. tactical element in a high-level army game.  Different formation also impacted firepower, movement rates, etc.  I am considering this a convention of the genre so that is why the author felt compelled to add it.  Honestly, such details at the army scale should not matter much as the unit officers should handle that level of detail.  The unit is just a footprint.  

The game makes use of single based Corp Commander and Army commander models.  This is to facilitate the Command Radius mechanic so common in Horse and Musket style games.  I prefer a more abstracted commander level and am not a fan of radius.  However, this also seems to be a staple of the genre.  One interesting aspect was that you also placed your order token under the base of the Corp Commander to be revealed in the right phase of the game.   

Meh and Other Uncertainties

These rules include "Conforming".  This means that when a unit charges, they are aligned "face to face" in the battle.  Flank attacks are lined up on the side, and rear attacks on the rear.  In addition, shooting is always straight forward from the edges of the unit.  No firing at an angle.  This may not be to some people's taste, but to me they seem like a good way to "simplify" the battlespace and keep the game orderly.  I point out the conforming aspect of the rules as this approach was surprisingly controversial in Men of Bronze.  For an abstracted game like this, I prefer it; but other opinions vary a lot.   

Combat in this game is attritional in nature.  This fits the period very well.  Each unit can take 8 hits, and at 5 hits it moves down in skill level which impacts its target numbers.  Various hits during combat or shooting may also cause other effects.  Artillery uses a d4, but can be destroyed from a single combat hit.  You may need more d8s and d4s than most gamers have in their collection.  In addition, most modifiers are simple dice add or subtract but a Quick reference Sheet will be useful to recall which apply when.  I did not see one in the book, but have not checked online yet.  

The game has several pages of advanced rules to allow more experience Napoleonic gamers to add things they particularly like such as Horse Artillery, Guards units, and Lancers.  There is also some National traits and historical Commander Elan to quibble over.  There are rules for scaling it down as well so instead of playing at Army level you are playing at Corp or lower levels.  There are rules for smoke, ammo, secret deployment, terrain generation, and other period flavor elements as well.  Finally, there are some rules for list building that I am sure will be controversial.    

There are 6 scenarios.  Three are relatively large, famous battles; Eylau, Wagram, and Waterloo.  Three are smaller engagements designed to help new players escalate their games as they build forces and learn the rules, they are the battle of Bumville 1-3.  There is also a walk through of what playing the game with Scenario 1 might look like. 

The allied army for the Waterloo Scenario.

Final Thoughts 

This is the type of wargame I would design.  It uses a high degree of abstraction to get the right feel of the battles, but with smaller numbers of troops needed.  You are maneuvering footprints and rolling dice pools to get results.  Modifiers are about adding or subtracting dice looking for a target number based on skill level of the unit.  The game adheres to a couple of genre conventions that I would probably have done away with such as formations and Command Radius, but they work within the context of the game and help Nappie Newbies get a feel for the period and battles.  

Since this game follows a design ethos similar to my own, I am pretty excited about it!  Will old grognards of the genre like these rules?  I have no idea!  However, as a Nappie Newbie they really seem to hit the spot.  They are easily digested, seem to give a flavor of the period, and are an easy gateway into the period.  Even the biggest battles look like doable painting projects with each division being about sixteen 28mm models that will help Newbies get into the game, and still be able to have forces for Chosen Men, Rebels and Patriots, La Salle and  Sharpe's Practice and other games as well. 

Of course, I will want to be odd and use 6mm or 10mm to give me that "army" feel and then use them for Blucher or Est Sans Resultant as well.  If I am not too busy with Ancients, I might have a 2022 personal project!