Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Korean War by Victory Games is Awesome

I've played two slightly truncated games of the Korean War recently and it has quickly become my favourite hex and counter game.

This is a mid 1980s design out of Victory Games an off shoot of the dying (or dead I forget which by this date) SPI games but based in New York under the Umbrella of Avalon Hill. It'd designed by Joe Balkoski and covers the first 12 months of the war, which is where all the action was in history, at the divisional and regimental scale. Each turn lasts a month and you have 12 turns taking around an hour each. It has two medium sized paper hex maps that put together will fill a typical dining room table. As it is a divisional scale game (to non war gamers that means most units represent a full division of an army which is a lot of dudes), you don't have that many counters, which means no big counter stats and not too much time sorting them out at the start of play. This scores big points in my book.

Yesterday I played the Communists and my friend, Dave P McArthur played the UN. He decided to leave the strategic opening decisions of the UN entirely up to Washington and so rolled a die to determine each of them.

On turn 2, after the North Koreans have swept over the border and hammered the south, the UN intervenes. At this point the UN player has to make some strategic decisions. He or she has to choose the UN intervention level, mobilization level and rules of engagement. These three decision essentially determine how many troops the UN get, when they arrive, how quickly than can transfer between ports and carry out amphibious assaults, where they can bomb, and whether they can drop atomics. 

Dave decided to let the die decide rather than choose, because he wanted to see what might happen if some distant politicians made decisions for him. He ended up with a a very low initial intervention, so few troops early on, but high mobilization and liberal rules of engagement so he could bomb anywhere. The downside is this ramped up the global tension level quite a bit. This tension level, if it reaches 7, the Communists win. Further, and this was Dave's downfall and lead to his resignation on turn 4, the UN subtracts 5 times this tension level from their vps scored each turn. 

There was no Pusan perimeter in this game. I got stuck around Seoul. I did take Seoul but crossing the river and securing Inchon before American started landing proved to be harder than I expected. I also got road blocked down the east coast by a US force. IN the end I did manage to encircle Inchon but by now it was turn 3 going on 4. Whilst this was slow, from another perspective I had forced the UN to waste time and play hard slowing their victory gains to the point where they could only realistically win by a military victory conquering the whole of North Korea, something they were unlikely to achieve, hence Daves resignation. 

Why do I like it so much?

Theres a number of things this game does very well.

Firstly I like war games that give you different objectives or victory conditions that you can work toward. There was a point in this recent game where I chose to go from an all out assault victory to an attritional strategy. Even in attack, do I strike at my opponents supply sources, the key cities for vps, or the  instant win condition of Pusan? Balancing the priorities and working out what is really strategically essential and what is no longer realistic or important is satisfying armchair general material.  

Secondly I like manoeuvre. Games with lines pushing each other back and forth can be fun, but can be a bit boring. I like encirclements, break outs etc. 

Thirdly both sides get to attack, both sides get dramatic phases in the game. The North Koreans swing first, the UN second, the Chinese third. It gives the game narrative acts and switches the footing of both players.

Fourth, the game has plenty of clever tactical systems. The way depots are deployed and supply calculated is simple and interesting, the UN air chart, deciding how to use action points for each unit. It all adds up to a detailed but still manageable tactical puzzle each turn. 

And fifth, the external events. The game has plenty of historical what ifs? chromed into its rules. What if Nationalist China, or the Soviets joined in? What if Atomics were dropped? Whilst I have a read a history of the Korean War, I haven't studied it in detail enough to comment on the accuracy of the game as a simulation, but it does produce a believable account. 

Friday, 27 June 2014

Learning to map part 2

My world building with Gimp continues. I've had a couple of cracks at putting together a city map and now having something that will probably get into my campaign. It is still a work in progress but it at least looks interesting. The concept is to have a city built on the back of a giant crab. This has some novelty to it, evokes the weird fantasy vibe im shooting for and allows for lots of interesting rationals in the world detail. For instance the city has a massive rain collection system to generate the needed water.

To put this together I got a photo of some spiny species of crab, used the magic wand to select everything non crab in the image and remove it. I then dragged the contrast way up and darkened the crab to get a silhouette of the crab. I then used the path tool to design in the roads and then the buildings. I added in some of the spines in grey as these will be hollowed out to form some of the bigger buildings in the city.

The background is a bit nuts, and whilst I do like the aesthetic, I think it might be a bit too far out. The crab is supposed to reside in a cave and I may redesign the background to reflect this. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

There will be Blood! Blood and Roses and SPQR in Review

I think I remember Martin Wallace once criticizing war games, in particular battle based ones, for giving the players, commanders, too much control over the chaos that ensues. It was probably on a podcast, I forget which.

Whilst I can definitely see where Wallace is coming from, having played two of Richard Berg’s battle field war games I can say that not all war games fit this mold.

Blood and Roses covers seven battles in the English Wars of the Roses, a medieval dynastic study between two noble families. SPQR Deluxe has a ton of scenarios most involving the early Roman republic and its conflicts with it's ancient world rivals.

Foolish Lancastrian mounted knights charge the Yorkist lines only to find out what longbows can do.

I’m posting about both together because the two games have a lot of mechanical similarities. In each you will pull out a map sheet, arrange maybe 20-100 counters per side with some deployment decisions, then start activating and swinging your masses of spears and shields to try and out flank, shock,awe, or grind out your opponents army into dust. Its riveting and made of the stuff of Homeiad epics and medieval sagas. When an enemy line breaks to then recover, or an elephant runs amok at a critical time it brings out some of the most colourful narratives in gaming.

Both games include a significant unknown, other than the dice combat, that answers Wallaces criticism to an extent. Armies are split into sections, called either lines or battles each with their own leaders. Activating your main leader and his troops is fine, but getting the other groups and their leaders to actually fight on cue requires some special dice rolls. If you roll badly, either the don't move at all and the game flips back to your opponent's turn, or you only get to move and fight with a few limited units. This creates a punishing unknown in the game. How far can you push your luck be reactivating troops at longer odds, and when planning when do you expect your opponents longbow men to fire next? Most of the time you simply don’t know. It can be very punishing, In my defeat as Henry at Bosworth the Yorkists activated troops nearly twice as often as I did, but its worth the price for the suspense it brings.
I am Pyrus, He who shall not be named is Rome. His Velites are slaughtered as they cross the stream

In games with a lot of chaos like these, there is a question as to how much of the game is a competitive challenge and how much is it roleplaying with counters? Its definitely a mix. From the two games apiece I have played in both smart decisions have swung the battle one way or tother, but you do need lady luck to really execute on your plans. If I win a game of either I don't really consider myself to have out thinked my opponent, as often a few crucial roles and it would have gone the other way.

Other than setting there are some other differences between the two games. SPQR is quite a bit more complex and time consuming than Blood and Roses. SPQR is part of the Great Battles of History series and B&R is a Men of Iron game. The former is a more hardcore simulation and has a rulebook probably twice as long. There are a lot more exceptions and the tables have even more numbers on them. Berg loves tables in his games. Combat in both games requires you to lookup and often roll on at least two if not three or four tables to get a complete result. You get used to it and it does bring a vivid chaos to the battlefield.

My phalanxes from Macedonia try to hold off the unstoppable Roman tide.

The only other major difference is the overall tone of the two games. The Wars of the Roses were notoriously bloody for the period and both sides were focused on killing opposing leaders. This is reflected in the game. in B&R lots of little counters will die, in SPQR most will get knackered and flee the field.

I probably have a slight preference for SPQR as I like the bigger variety of units and tactical peculiarities that come with them but I'm glad my friend groked the rules and payout the cash for it. B&R is a both cheaper and easier option, although I wouldn't describe it as a simple war game.  I'd recommend either, both paint a reasonable interpretation of the history and definitely fulfill their role as educational games on their respective periods. Berg writes great battle books, he gives it some personality by expressing his opinions but also gives it some academic weight telling you the rational for some of his choices.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Learning to Map

Making good maps is an easy way for someone with little to know art talent like me to make ones adventures look good, and perhaps even publishable (Will send some to fanzines at some point). 

I've been steadily learning the ropes with GIMP.

This is a bath house I'm constructing for my current Astonishing Swords and Sorcerers of Hyperborea game. I need to create a good pattern fill for the pools, and probably design some more objects to give the map a more populated feel but the structure is there. I very loosely model it on some historical floor plans;

Monday, 9 June 2014

Cyberpunk 2020 Retrospective / Review

One of the committee at my gaming group is clearing out some old games from the cupboard, he gave me one of the copies of Cyberpunk 2020, so I decided to throw together a one shot and run it.

Here's the ground floor map of a down market retail hall I created. There were two other floors. I've been having a lot of fun with gimp lately.

Cyberpunk 2020 definitely brings the 'Punk' aspect out better than any other games, or even films in the genre I've encountered (Gurps Cyberpunk, Deus Ex, etc). If you read the books (which in my experience of RPG players very few read anything other than Game of Thrones), you'll find the protagonists are often petty criminals, down and outs and those on the slide. CP 2020 really nails this, its about survival on the ruthless streets more than high tech espionage. Neuromancer and When Gravity Fails both have heavily flawed low life leads (both great books). Stylistically it bleeds its age. Tech has wires and grunge, and characters can be Rockerboys, or Medias for classes. In many respects I find antiquated views of the future to be more interesting than the modern Ipod inspired white of The Island, or the I Robot Movies.

Mechanically CP 2020 is pretty standard fair. Its a late 80s game but its combat system and task resolution system are very similar to a simplified modern D20, or the D100 games like Dark Heresy. It has some interesting quirks, like all weapons having a concealability rating, which is quite important.

I only had two players, and improvised 90% of the adventure. I had one line descriptions for about 15 locations in the building and a general idea. On the top floor there was a wanted hacker called Cutter being hidden by a local crime boss. At 10pm the police are going to raid the joint and bag him. I had one PC, who was a cyber ninja attempting to bag this Cutter before the cops, and one Media, there to get a top story. It ran mostly as a sand box. I made it difficult to get to the top floor and into the apartment and gave the players lots of reasons to meet and talk to the various occupants of the shops, arcades, night clubs and fast food joints on the lower floors. It worked pretty well, and I managed to get a lot of Neuromancer flavour in there. Lots of drugged out techfiends, lots of shadey hackers, and a big gun battle between the cops and a gang.

Both my characters min maxed a little. it was a one shot, and I used the point buy rules (Cp2020 actually gives you point buy or rolled stats) so the Cyber Ninja had robotic arms and maxed out Aikido skills, meaning he could throw people through walls fairly easily. The Journalist had zero combat skills but could sweet talk anyone. It ended with the cops beating the Ninja to the prize, but the journo covering most of it and uncovering a few unsavory truths.

Advice for running Cyberpunk games;

Some GMs think that settings are designed by stuff. If I have wizards its fantasy, if I have implants its cyberpunk, if I have Wookies its Starwars. This is nonsense. You need to create the feel of that world, and the feel of the kind of stories that happen within it. With cyberpunk this is street attitude, and paranoia and a big dark city. Your vocab and NPC attitudes is more important than the stuff.

Thursday, 5 June 2014


With the rise of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) has come the rise of Fanzines and Magazines. I've had a read of Fight On!, Gygax Magazine, Footprints, & Magazine, Nod Magazine, Knockspell, Crawl!, AFS, and Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad. In this post I’m going to give a quick run down and critique of each of these.

Fight On!; I start with Fight On! because its my favourite and I think probably the best. Edited by IG with the help of Calithena and others, this fanzine gives you between typically 80 and 130 pages devoted to Old School roleplaying mostly focused on D&D Basic and OSR games that use a similar rule set.  About 70% of the content is material such as dungeons, cities, monsters or adventure hooks you can drop straight into your game.  Of particular note is the material from Gabor Lux who writes these vivid heavily appendix N adventures. There are on running features such as community mega dungeon that is added to with each issue. The other 30% or so is opinion articles and nostalgic history. I really like this content. Each Issue is dedicated to one of the genres forefathers, Gary Gygax is issue 1, Tom Moldvay is issue 10 etc. Somewhere in each issue is an article written about these individuals. One of the things that grips me about this zine over the others is this sense of will to survive and this notion that the forefathers are dying (quite literally) and what will happen next. Along with the range of authors, both well known such as Tim Kask, and lesser knowns and the art style which ranges from OSR staples like Peter Mullen to numerous amature but brilliant cartoonists the zine has a strong community vibe. Reading it makes me feel like part of this old school rather than just a spectator. The magazine had a hiatus for about 2 years but appears to be up and running again now with the release of the 12th issue.

Rating; The Return of the King

Gygax Magazine; This is a quarterly profession magazine with Luke Gygax at the helm. Unlike every other zine on this list it is professional and this shows in its layout, higher profile authors, and prolific advert content. There are a ton of adverts in this zine. Fight On! has some, as do the others but Gygax goes top. Of course they do have to actually pay their editorial staff. Of the first two issues (the only I've read) about 50% of the content is opinion and reminiscing pieces from back in the day, or speculation on where D&D goes from here. This is interesting, but a bit overwrought. I liked memories Fight On! shared with me, but in part because it was just a little with each issue, here there seems to be little else of substance at times. The first issue has no dungeons, and but one mapped adventure location, a village in a swamp by the notable Michael Curtis. There is an article on Banshees but most of the rest of the magazine is opinion or GM advice. Whilst there is nothing wrong with opinions, too often they seem to be set against my own. An article on D&D next and the evolution of D&D over time is at pains to explain that miniatures were a major part of D&D from the start and that Old school dungeons were deadly because they were designed to be competitive. Possibly true but it doesn’t really gel with me. Gygax isn't actually focused on D&D although this is clearly the core, the second issue opens with a strategy article for the board game Samurai Battles, a game I have reviewed here; There are also articles dealing with roleplaying generally and non D&D games. It gives the magazine an individual feel but also makes it seem scattered, consequently there are more likely to be articles you aren’t interested in. I’ve beat on this zine pretty hard I guess, but there are some real quality articles in here such as Jeff Talanian’s Weird Vibrations an article on weird fiction inspired Bard class.

Rating; Louis 14th, the Sun King.

Knockspell is nominally the magazine  for Swords and Wizardry, a D&D basic clone, but does cover 1st edition AD&D material too. Its edited by Matt Finch and in many respects is very similar to Fight On!, so much of my praise for the aforementioned can be reattributed here. It does run more articles focused on additional rules for Swords and Wizardry, extra classes etc and feels more focused than Fight On!. It has some great adventures by Gabox Lux, Talanian, Curtis and others. There is also a wealth of Items, spells, GM advice, tricks and world detail to forage from. What Knockspell doesn’t have though is many reminiscing on the past or questioning the future articles, this a purer game content zine. Also it only has 6 issues and might have run its course.

Rating;  Mangonel

Nod Magazine is written entirely by John M. Stater, and is published at around 80 pages on a bimonthly basis! This is a hex crawl magazine. Each issue is a map with several hundred hex locations on it. Most of the magazines content is descriptions of these hexes. The early editions use the Sword and Wizardry rules, the later focus on John’s own OSR rule set. I’ve read 3 issues, and its pretty impressive. Some of the locations are very imaginative and worth stealing if you don’t want to run John’s campaign settings wholesale. There are also monster manuals other other detail articles often included. I recommend having a look at the two free issues. Its a bit dependant on public domain art, but John is only one person with a limited budget.

Rating; National Geographic

Footprints; Footprints is free! and written by the dragonsfoot community for primarily 1st edition AD&D / OSRIC. This is campaign content, extra classes, items, house rules, the works for your 1st edition campaign. It really is focused on 1st edition, expect most articles to contain tables and specific rules with 1st ed in mind. However you can still easily adapt the content for other editions. The quality of the art is good, but its fairly sparse, again this is free so no complaints. I need to read more of Footprints (we are upto 21 issues, and I’ve read bits of 3) as I do like it. I would say it feels a bit too vanila D&D in terms of its imaginative content when compared with some of the other zines.

Rating; Lake Geneva

& Magazine: Is another free zine, also with a focus on 1st edition, but more system neutral in presentation than Footprints. Each issue has a theme like spells, or otherworldly plains. If Footprints is dominantly vanila material, this is less so. There is a rule set for converting AD&D rules to the Doom (the FPS by ID) setting and other nuts stuff. In a similar fashion to the other zines there is a lot of GM and player advice, extra rules, community interviews and a few small dungeons boot. I am probably more attracted to & Mag than Footprints, but again I need to read quite a bit more of it.

Rating;  ‘Can I play Daddy?’

Crawl!; We move from the world of D&D in general to a specific Zine. Crawl is a Dungeon Crawl Classics fanzine, and mostly deals in extra classes, patrons, rules and Judge advice. Its a solid product that retains the art style and ethos evoked so well by Goodman and Doug Kovacs in the game rule book but i’d say this is strictly for DCC fans.

Rating; Chuck Plympton

Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad; This is also a DCC exclusive. Its a smaller a5 desktop published booklet of a few more than a dozen pages. MGoU focuses entirely on the writers campaign setting, the city of Ur-Hadad. Whilst it has limited scope, this is a cool zine. Theres a sub title on the front cover that states “This zine is to be played at maximum volume” which sums up the products attitude well. The whole thing has a feel of a garage bands tape demo. The writing is actually rather good. There is a short piece on the history of the city, an article on assassins and another mercenaries all written in a colloquial manner. The signature piece is probably the street kids funnel adventure though. Its an interesting spin on the funnel system and has some great tables. The art is also great, very off the wall, very heavy metal.

Rating; Metallica; Ride the Lightning

AFS magazine; What on earth does AFS stand for? I have no idea. This is a print only weird tales focused fantasy rpg zine. It has the lowest production values of the printed media covered, but there is a case for it being the best mag. It's run by one guy on a tight budget so its a ring bound 30 page ? (there are no page numbers!?) a4 booklet and uses a lot of public domain art. Issue 3 contains one of the best dungeon adventures I’ve read, a foray into a laboratory near a beach in the Astonishing Sorcery and Swords of Hyperborea system (a good AD&D variant). It really is hitting for the weird tales angle, and actually includes some examples, issue 3 has a short story first published in 1910 or something about celtic gods. There’s also the usual spate of item lists, extra character classes etc, but mostly with an OD&D or an ASSH focus.  In many respects this is like a trimmed down version of Fight On! and consequently really hits the right points for me.

Rating; Clark Ashton Smith