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.
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 Battletech. Sure, 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.
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.