Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Got game!

Battlelore bonanza! #2: DHL delivers days later

Still flushed from the excitement of DiceCon the day before, I checked my inbox last Monday to find an email from DoW informing me that my preordered copy of Battlelore- complete with my 2 free promotional miniatures- had been shipped 2 days previously. Making haste to the tracking site via the enclosed link I found that the package was sitting in a depot somewhere in Germany. You can be sure that I checked that URL several times daily thereafter, labouring perhaps under the obscure superstition that I might thereby somehow speed the precious cargo on its way!

The game finally arrived on Friday morning; very timely because Bill was due to visit on Saturday. A serious gloat later I set to work. Taking a hint from Tom Vasel in his review over at the The Dice Tower I bagged-up the miniatures: they are presented in lidded plastic storage trays which are at least as fiddly as they are nifty. And I followed the advice posted by DoW on how to fix the miniatures bent by the sheer weight of the contents stuffed into the box (a good reason for dispensing with the trays in favour of alternative storage). This very necessary task (some of my heavy cavalry miniatures were so bent as to be lying flat) proved even easier than the DoW webpage makes it appear.

Bill and I got 4 games in on Saturday. Our games at DiceCon having convinced us that it is the Lore scenarios that make the game, we decided to find out how the goblins and the dwarves played. So we began with scenario 6: A Complex Web.

To save me repetitive reminders you can find an explanation of the various symbols on the DoW site: the Battlelore Primer- handy downloadable introdction, and the Battlelore Chronicles- the dedicated blog which has tantalised so many of us in recent weeks. Beyond that I just need to add that the round badges denote the dwarfs (white saltire on blue background) and the goblins (the yellow thingummy on a dark red background), and that the singular green banner surrounded by the dwarves denotes the giant spider. Dwarves and a giant spider on the same side? Well that's mercenaries for you I guess.

Two easy victories for Owain the Red Hand later we'd concluded that the key to this scenario was saving the goblin wing of Edward of Woodstock's army from a fearful rout. Rising to the challenge, I resorted to driving Woodstock's human troops towards the right of the Red Hand's line.

I took a leaf out of Bill's book by using Greater Portal to bring one of Bill's heavy cavalry units right in among my goblins so that my hobgoblin lizard riders could surround it and ride it down, while my other cavalry got stuck in on my left. A brutal exchange of cavalry charges ensued with the result that I had cleared the Red Hand's right flank. The giant spider scuttled out to try to retrieve the situation for Bill, to no avail. My troops, battered after their hard-won local victory, withdrew so that Bill couldn't easily just send out a unit in a sneak attack hoping for an easy victory banner or two.

I wasn't having everything my own way though, and we were pretty much neck and neck as we entered the end game, which was fought around the centre/left of the map as Bill's dwarves marched forwards in search of victory. Luck was with me in the end and Woodstock's army proved triumphant, although it was a very close run thing.

For our final game we wanted to see what happened with a fuller range of Lore cards available, which took us to scenario 7: Crisis in Avignon.

Playing the English I began by positioning my archers to fire at Sire Arnoul d'Audrehem's medium infantry by the river bend. I was hoping for a quick kill to weaken d'Audrehem's left wing so opening up the possibilty of seizing the bridge which offered me a victory banner.

The best-laid plans doing what they always do, the battle soon took a different course, devolving into a bitter nip-and-tuck melee in the area bounded by the 3 hills straddling the section divider away from the river. The raging battle again saw careful manoeuvring as Bill and I sought to maintain our own formations while looking for weaknesses to exploit in the opposing lines. A heroic stand by one of Bill's medium infantry units reduced to a single model almost saved the day for d'Audrehem, but I won in the end in yet another near thing.

And that was it. Eight games played, and I'm feeling that I've got to grips with how the new elements in Battlelore affect the gameplay. As with the move from M44 to C&C:A the changes are subtle but decisive, giving Battlelore its own dynamic and set of challenges. I'll give a rundown of those changes and how they work just as soon as I can. ;)

Monday, December 04, 2006

DiceConEast 2006

Battlelore bonanza! #1: DiceCon dishes it up first
As I noted last week, I was expecting a bumper day of games at DiceCon over in Edinburgh, and boy, did I get what I was asking for! Registering upon arrival I couldn't help but ask Ellis Simpson- con co-organiser- if he'd managed yet to get hold of a copy of Battlelore, Days of Wonder's hotly anticipated new iteration of Richard Borg's acclaimed Commands and Colours system.

I'd asked more in hope than in expectation, hoping that Ellis might've been on some inside track to pick up a prerelease copy and, well, because (as regular readers will need no reminding) I have a reputation to maintain as an enthusiast for the most exciting boardgaming system I've seen in years. Imagine my surprise then when Ellis replied that Gordon Lamont- the 'co' in co-organiser and one half of the dynamic duo which is Fragor Games- had actually managed to bring a copy back from Essen. Imagine too the idiot grin plastered across my face as I scurried (yes, scurried!) to lay claim to this unforeseen box of wonders before it could escape my clutches. And cast your mind back, dear reader, to a moment of this ilk of your own to taste the delight that was mine to savour as I passed the day at DiceConEast 2006 immersed in this great game.

Here's a slightly blurry phone-camera picture of yours truly enjoying setting the game up (thanks Bill).

Fragor Games, the SBGA and DiceCon are clearly keeping Gordon a busy man: he'd only had time to open the box for a look inside, leaving the contents still sealed in their cellophane. Pausing only to double-check it was OK to crack everything open (a bit of a no-brainer to be sure, but I'm one of those gamers who's a bit weird about cracking his own games open first...), Bill and I set to the first scenario with a will.

Having given France back to the French at Agincourt, I then faced off against Barry- one of several gamers attracted to the spectacle of Borg's latest in action- in scenario 5: Wizards and Lore, which introduces the Lore (ie. magic) rules.

I lost this game thanks to a premature attack up the centre which was easily repulsed, and to Barry's rock solid play- especially his excellent use of his Lore; both of which left me flailing in a game of catch-up through most of the game. This was made all the harder by Barry's strategy of standing-off and raining magical death down on my units from afar, which made it impossible for me to close for melee without running the very real risk of simply being crushed by Barry's counter-attack. I was finished off thanks to a stroke of bad luck when I rashly left a single model open to death-by-plinking from Barry's archers the very turn before I was ready to unleash my own potentially game-saving Lore attack. Talk about a learning curve!

These 2 defeats under my belt I managed to squeak a win against Bob in the same scenario. Undaunted by this turn in my fortunes I went down to ignominious defeat against Bill in a 3rd play of the same scenario, thanks to a sound plan well executed on Bill's part, and to some frankly appalling Lore management on my own. A veritable hail of death from his archers (green pennants with bows on the left and right sections at the top of the map) aside, Bill's game was noteworthy for his very clever use of a Lore card- Greater Portal. This enables you swap the position of 2 units anywhere on the board. Bill used this to swap one of his medium cavalry units (blue standard with horseman) with one of my units. Arriving behind my lines, Bill's cavalry unit ran riot at great cost to my forces. I was impressed, and mortified.

I swear that I didn't hog the game all day on purpose: I did offer to let others play, honest! Maybe I looked like a good mark or something. Whatever. You can be sure though that I had a great time discovering that Battlelore easily lives up to the hype, delivering a whole new game that is neither just M44 with the serial numbers filed off, nor merely C&C:A with bells and whistles. Bill, Barry and Bob were very impressed too.

It was also great meeting Barry and Bob. It turns out that they're just 2 of a group of gaming buddies who play Commands and Colours regularly. As fun as it was to chew the fat with other afficionadoes, I was also encouraged by the prospect of C&C events at future DiceCons. Not content with this, it turned out that Bob and I had actually gamed together before, some 20-odd years ago. He used to work in the old Games Gallery in Edinburgh- my first FLGS- and we'd got together to play John Hill's classic WW2 tactical boardgame Squad Leader. Neat, eh?

On top of all this fun, I also managed to maintain my tradition of not winning a thing in the regular DiceCon entry-ticket raffle. This was all the more spectacular this time because everyone else with whom I was there- Bill, Antony and Donald- walked away with a prize. Antony in particular lucked-in, going home with a copy of Avalon Hill's Axis & Allies: D-Day. With prizes numerous, and as grand as this maybe I should be saying that 'my day will come', but who's to argue with tradition?

The pleasures of the day were rounded off by the presence of a French market just round the corner from Overseas House. I couldn't resist the lure of the fromagier, where I picked up a wedge of a perfectly ripe Brie at a very reasonable price. Eaten on oatcakes and washed down with a cheap red plonk, this later proved to be a delicious end to a fine day out.

So thanks to the lads for getting me up, out and off to Edinburgh, and to Ellis and Gordon for all their hard work in running DiceCon. And of course, a special thanks to Gordon for bringing Battlelore because he knew that there'd be someone there to appreciate it. See you all again next year I trust. ;)

Sunday, November 26, 2006


A healthy diet of roleplaying
My little Old World
Restarted last month, the WFRP saw my PC's accept the challenge to venture further down the Paths of the Damned, driven if nothing else by Berthold's unexplained insistences on tracking down the mysterious Dagger of Yul K'Chaum, which apparently contains yet another daemon of the sort that perished in the cleansing fires of the Sacred Flame of Ulric. Hopes of advancing her wizard's apprenticeship frustrated by the Middenheim Guild of Wizards and Alchemists, Alane too was keen to visit Altdorf to meet her mentor Van Nilstrom. Grundi, Seigfried and Mordrin had nothing better to do, and wintering in wartorn Middenheim was not the most appealing prospect in any event. So off they all went.

Without pre-empting a possible write-up, sufficeth to say that the journey has been very eventful so far, with beastmen attacks, some unexpected company, and an object lesson in how the stuff of Chaos impregnates the very warp and weft of the fabric of reality.

Bill, who ran the Midnight session last June (written up here, and here) has managed to fulfil his promise to start his own regular midweek game. He chose to run WotC's Eberron- which he's run before- to make life simple for himself.

The game began as a True20 adaption with just myself and Tony (a.k.a. Alane elsewhere). So we had 2 PC's each to begin with. I went with a rogue- who was my first choice for the archetype I wanted to play; and a warforged fighter- who was to be my backup 'schmuck'. With Brian and Andy (Seigfreid and Berthold to regular readers) soon joining in, I had to choose which of my 2 PC's to keep playing. Confounding my initial expectations, I had no difficulty whatsoever in deciding to run with my warforged fighter. Why? Easy: I couldn't resist the sheer vicarious thrill of being near invulnerable in combat (having an Adamantine Body does that for you) while dishing out the smites great cleaving with my mighty warhammer. Thus began the saga of K'Dun the Hammer.

The game itself soon changed too, as Bill decided to run it as a True20 D&D hack instead of the original True20 adaption. This is working very well. Meanwhile I'm having fun nurturing my inner munchkin as I contemplate the new feats I'll be buying with my new levels even as I wade into combat full of the joys of the various buffs the party spellcasters use to make my smites ever smitier. Heh.

Meanwhile, Brian has started his own blog: Dangerous Brian: A Wargaming Blog; check out his first Eberron post for a quick introduction to the PC's.

Finally for now... DiceConEast 2006
The Scottish Boardgames Association's biannual boardgames event DiceCon takes place in Edinburgh today. A bunch of us are going through for the day. I'm taking a big bag of games. You can be sure that M44 and C&C:A is among them. There'll be a few old favourites in there too no doubt. I'm looking forward to some good gaming. More anon I trust. ;)

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Got game!

Heavy Metal Mania!

So Badger dropped in last night for another session of the wonderful Commands and Colours system. Neither in the mood nor enjoying the time for a lengthy session over the cooker, I laid on one of my favourite quick lash-up meals: pasta carbonara. This time I tried adding a finely chopped fresh chilli (red, to contrast nicely with the green chopped parsley) to the cream sauce at the last moment. Although perhaps a whole chilli was a wee bit too much, it gave the dish an aromatic flavour of mellow fire without any burning aftertaste. Result!

Grub done we turned to the games. Badger wanted to begin with M44 after our recent games of C&C:A, and announced his desire to play the Americans. Having recently posted my thoughts about the Armour Assault tactics card on a thread over at the DoW M44 forums I had only one answer to this: the Germans, and tanks! Thus...

25s Ardennes - Bastogne Corridor, West - Dec 30th, 1944
Full details can be found here.

I was delighted with Badger's choice of scenario: 6 special forces infantry units; 6 tank units- 4 special forces; and 1 artillery unit against 8 infantry, 7 tanks, and 2 artillery. With terrain open enough for massed armour exploitation, and with artillery ranging-in on units as soon as they crossed their start-line, I could see that this was going to give me exactly the game I was looking for. It did, and how!

We played 3 times in all.

In the first game I was dealt the Dig In card, which determined my opening moves: I spent a couple of turns advancing infantry to forward fire positions so that I could dig them in and get some use out of that pesky card when I ditched it from my hand. I then plumped for a drive up my left flank and moved my centre armour into position. This done I quickly found myself with a reasonable hand for my planned attack while not having any worthwhile options for shuffling around elsewhere. So I faced a choice: I could waste time which Badger might enjoy using to keep me under artillery fire while preparing his own attack; or I could advance. I chose the latter.

The risky part of this plan was that I would be engaging the Americans without immediately being able to exploit my position with my main attack (yep, I was holding an Armour Assault up my sleeve!). I was going to have to pause to develop the attack before I pushed it home. I did have good cards to respond to any counter-attack by Badger, but I'd have to survive first. Survive I did, and my armour did their job. There was certainly some action elsewhere in this game, but the battle was largely decided by my attacks around Moircy and Remagne.

Badger naturally just had to try again. This game was notable for 2 things: it was a much, much more closely fought battle than the first; and more Armour Assaults than you could shake a stick at! Badger did a better job of dictating the flow of play this time, and the battle resolved itself into a mighty armoured clash around the centre with us both level-pegging on victory medals as we approached the endgame.

I played an Armour Assault which generated the full 32 dice of attacks (the most dice you're likely to generate in a single turn in M44: do the arithmetic to see how many units would otherwise be needed to generate 30+ dice in a one turn; then ask yourself how likely you are to be able to order all the required units with a single card). Victory was in sight! Badger Counter-Attacked. The game was balanced on a knife-edge! I Counter-Attacked in my turn, giving me the game. Three Armour Assaults in a row: the cauldron of battle and no mistake!

I took the Americans in our 3rd and final play of this scenario. The lesson I took from the previous games was that the Americans would do better to draw the Germans in then riposte than to initiate the battle themselves. To this end I began with some familiar tentative manoeuvring: throwing forward some infantry as pickets, then concentrating my centre/right armour to threaten the Remagne/Lavaselle areas. As this developed, I fixed on the plan of leaving my right flank temptingly open, inviting Badger to throw his left flank forward towards Sibret. Badger duly complied and his left was crushed by my carefully prepared counter-attack.

I had been hoping to exploit this local victory to make a run for Chenogne and a victory medal that might force Badger to split his forces, but was pre-empted in this when Badger launched his main assault through the centre. With little in hand to respond directly, I was forced to launch my long husbanded Assault up my left, unfortunately with little in hand to ensure any momentum. The battle swung backwards and forwards in a bloody fashion as armour raced here and there in search of that decisive attack. When the dust settled, I had won, but again only just.

Grins. :)

Baecula - 208BC
Three games of M44 down, it was a cinch that Badger and I were going to head back to ancient times to this battle in which the young Publius Cornelius Scipio had proved that the Roman legions could adapt their tactics to defeat the Carthaginians. We'd played it before see, getting in 3 games during our last session, back in October. These had all gone in favour of the Romans, with Badger coming out 2-1 up, leaving me to take consolation from having put up a better show with the Carthaginians than had Badger.

Full details can be found here.

Random selection left me playing the Carthaginians first, which was just what I wanted: I was keen to put the lessons of our previous games into practice. These lessons were:
  • the Carthaginians shouldn't try and hold the hills- Badger had done this in our 1st play last October, and had been utterly stuffed as a result
  • the Carthaginians should however make the Romans pay for gaining the hills- I had withdrawn from the hills in good order thanks to evasion, only to realise that I needed at least 1 or 2 victory banners from that phase of the battle
  • the Carthaginians need to get their heavy infantry into action as quickly as possible- I had held them back defending the forts until the endgame because I'd wanted to wait to see which on flank the Roman mediums were most committed
  • the Carthaginians shouldn't waste their light cavalry.
Having pondered these lessons I quickly ended up with plan of standing to fight on the hills with the light infantry on my left, while evading elsewhere. The stand on the hills was intended to buy time for my heavy infantry to mass on my right to get stuck in to the advancing cohorts of Roman legionaries. I was nervous about this plan because it involved a lot of preparatory movement- including redeploying Hasdrubal himself, and I'd seen before just how startlingly quickly the Roman medium infantry could advance; because it offered the Romans a fair stab at overrunning the camps on my left- those 'free' victory banners might prove decisive; and because I was nervous about the stand on the hills. But I had no choice but to try, since simply to repeat the tactics of my previous games would prove futile I was sure.

Pulling off a plan like this one with a mere single leader and a puny 4-card hand proved every bit as difficult as I'd imagined. The 4-card hand coupled with Badger's capacity relentlessly to drive the Romans forward meant that my manoeuvres were typically hasty and/or shallow: long sequences of good cards were hard to build, let alone hold on to. The result was a lot of reactive cardplay in which I was forced to make my key moves as soon as I could without waiting for a good sequence. On top of this the nature of the terrain and my position near my own board edge combined with my sole leader to make coherent battlelines a luxury I could rarely afford to consider.

These difficulties notwithstanding, I did manage to move into and hold together the formation my plan required. Battle raged on around the hills for what seemed like an age as the Roman legionary cohorts ground forward and closed-in on my increasingly cramped lines. Even so the situation looked very hairy indeed as we approached the end-game: I had taken a heavy toll on the Romans, but had only actually managed to kill a single unit. So I wasn't feeling very sanguine about my chances as my heavies and Badger's mediums finally got wired into each other on my left. In fact at one moment I almost despaired of victory.

In the end though luck was with me: I was able to pick off several of the Roman units I had previously whittled down, and my heavies' 5 dice did the business in close combat- I won 6-5. Whew!

As tradition demands, we swapped sides for our final game of the evening. What can I say about the crushing victory that ensued? Erm, it was in the cards. Opening with a Move, Fire, Move, I was able to bring the Carthaginian holding force under fire then engage it in a single turn. Some quick redeployment of Auxilia later and a Line Advance took my entire left and centre cohorts forward in one go. Two turns later, a 2nd Line Advance took my entire army forward in one go. There was very little that Badger could do after this. I won 6-1.

Grins :)

A satisfying margin, with the added delight of opening and closing the session with crushing victories by the heavy metal masters of their respective periods. But before I get too smug, I really do have to point out that the final outcome does flatter me a bit: 3 of those games were so closely fought that the whims of chance need only have been tweaked slightly in Badger's favour for the result to have been very different. Still... Heh! ;)

Monday, September 25, 2006


As ever, no prizes to regular readers who know where I've been the past couple of weeks. Bitter and twisted as I am upon emerging from yet another slough of despond- and this one without any gaming at all to raise my spirits- I feel the need to vent my spleen in a pointless rant or two at some hapless non-moving targets. So I'll start with...

The turning of the season...
Autumn's definitely upon us here in Glasgow: the nights are drawing in (as we say), with darkness now descending by 7pm. The clocks will go back to gorram GMT before we know it and we'll have to endure those long months of mid-afternoon dusks. Gah, but I hate those long dark nights! Seasonal Affective tendencies aside, it's a bit of an age thing I think: when I was a youngster I used to find delights in autumn and winter; then, about 10 years ago, I realised I just hated the long months with too little daylight. I realised I was getting old.

Spires of Altdorf? Gah!
Since the diversion that was The Madness of Father Ranulf, and after the Serenity interlude, I've been thinking about how to get my PC's back onto the Paths of the Damned. Spires of Altdorf looks like a worthy sequel to Ashes of Middenheim, and I'm looking forward to getting it rolling.

But SoA is a very different adventure from AoM. In particular, it features a large cast of NPC's with whom the PC's must interact. These are fully detailed as you'd expect from BI's WFRP scenarios, with the key NPC's including lots of information that should prove very useful to the would-be GM. All well and good then. So what's my beef?

It's simply that those key NPC's are so well detailed that the information as presented in the book strikes me as being too cumbersome for easy use during play. What a GM (this one at least!) really needs with NPC's like these is to have each one available on handy reference sheets; large postcards would be ideal, but A5 at a pinch. Unfortunately, not content with the NPC's as laid out in the book requiring irritating page-flipping to get at; with the information often split across different pages, the layout is also such that you couldn't even photocopy the relevant pages to construct your NPC reference sheets.

In this ICT day-and-age, it would've been the easiest thing in the world for BI to have produced PDF's alongside their print books. With a bit of copying and pasting to a handy WP package it would then've been the easiest thing in the world to compile the much-needed references. But BI, in their infinite wisdom, have so far declined to join the rest of the rpg industry in producing PDF's of their line.

So there's nothing for it to resort to a serious session at the scanner before I can get to work on compiling those references without which I won't feel comfortable trying to deal with the complexities of SoA's interesting looking plot. Gah! And again- gah!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

General gamism

Roleplaying as art? Not for me

John Kim recently posted a reply to an old post in which I wrote about my first encounters with the idea that roleplaying is art. Answering John's comments I said he'd spurred me to return to the subject. Before pursuing that though, I'll comment in more detail on some of John's remarks.

Replying to my thoughts, John asked me if I could "suggest... any other case of an imaginative, creative endeavor which is categorically never art?" Yes: science. Although a lot of scientific spadework is technical and repetitive, developing new scientific theories is pretty much as creative and imaginative an activity as writing a novel or painting a picture. This is pretty much a truism of scientific literature these days AFAIK.

That question aside, John also noted that "by saying that RPGs can never be art, you are judging them by inappropriate standards. Playing RPGs... is an imaginative, creative endeavor, and I think it should be looked at the same way that other imaginative, creative endeavors are." To which my reply is: my point exactly!

The concept of 'art'
My fundamental objection to the idea that roleplaying is art is that I believe roleplaying games to be part of a cultural development that has undermined the very concept of 'art'.

What I mean here is this: it is pretty difficult to avoid the conclusion that the concept of 'art' has always existed in contrast to its other- ie. 'high' culture versus 'low' culture, and that this contrast has always served a priori to elevate the so-called 'art' above whatever it was being contrasted against. That is to say: the very idea of 'art' is that there is a realm of creative expression which- by its very nature- is more sublime and somehow more insightful than anything from outside that realm. The inherent elitism of this is something that I feel I need not belabour here.

A historical example of this is the difference between what we now call 'classical music' and 'folk music'. The cultural wall between these 2 kinds of music was so strong that, unless my memory utterly fails me, a composer like Smetana created controversy by including native folk tunes in his orchestral compositions. Readers with greater knowledge of cultural history could enumerate further examples I am sure.

Now my aim here is not to write up a capsule social history of culture. Rather it is to highlight how the very term 'art' contradicts the nature of roleplaying so that the term is worse than meaningless when applied to rpg's. To this end I want to bring the issue of 'art' bang up to date, to modern art. I have to confess that I'm one of those people who really doesn't 'get' most of modern art. All the same, I would like to suggest that, if there is one thing that has been proved by the trajectory of modern art, then it is that the concept of 'art' to which I have pointed is completely and utterly bankrupt, because the world has quite simply passed it by.

I mean to say: whatever you might think about Damien Hirst's pickled animal carcasses (or a personal favourite of mine from the early 70's: a 1 mile-long brass rod buried in a hole in an American desert somewhere... really!), the very terms in which works of this kind are explained strip the term 'art' of any real meaning. What else can we say when artists eschew content, preferring instead to let the viewer project their own meanings onto whatever passes before their eyes?

My point here is more than just a rant against flatulent subjectivism. What I believe this development represents is the exhaustion of the classic- high bourgeois- concept of 'art' in the face of a culture predicated on industrial mass production whose immeasurable richness simply cannot be embraced via the cultural concepts of an fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins. This point about the richness of contemporary culture cannot be over-emphasised IMO, because it is the basis of what I believe to be one thing that the postmodernists got right and that everyone else barely noticed- namely that 'art' is dead because it's all largely a matter of personal taste now.

Stripping away the old conceptions of high culture enjoying a special pre-eminence over low culture we find ourselves in the situation of living in a mass culture consisting of a range of more-or-less widespread particular popular cultures. Roleplaying, it seems to me, expresses the dynamics of this rather nicely, with its distillation of themes enjoying a mass audience (eg. movies) into what is, let's face it, a minority interest- a particularly particular culture, if you will.

Wordplay aside, what I'm getting at then is the idea that roleplaying is a quintessential product of the developments of late 20th century consumerist capitalism which have rendered the concept of 'art' obsolete. Hence my opinion that the artistic conception of roleplaying is an attempt to judge rpg's by inappropriate standards.

What is it about roleplaying that is really novel?
Discussions about the nature of roleplaying abound, and theories about how they work are ten-a-penny. Speaking for myself, one thing which is pretty damn inescapably important is the shift from audience to participant as you enter into a world of adventure or drama. Regardless of which faction(s) of roleplaying you might situate yourself in, no matter which kind of game you are playing, it seems to me that at the end of the day you are motivated by the desire to stop 'watching' the action that thrills you, and to get stuck in.

The flip side of this- and something which I believe to be profoundly tied-in to the games in roleplaying games- is that roleplaying is about mutual entertainment pure and simple. This is not just the obvious point that rpg's typically don't have winners and losers as do competitive games. More than just that, I would say that at its best roleplaying is not just about having fun for yourself, it is also about being fun for your fellow players.

This is no longer a particularly novel point I'll happily admit, even in terms of the way that the shift from audience to participant parallels, highlights and carries forward the democratisation of culture implicit in my perspective on the decline of the concept of 'art'. Perhaps just a bit more novel is the idea that the advance that this movement represents is simultaneously a return, albeit one which recreates its point of departure in a more complex and sophisticated form.

What I'm talking about here is the feeling that roleplaying often gives me of having 'returned' to the venerable tradition of fireside storytelling. Or, in even more grandiose terms, I sometimes find myself wondering if those legendary PC's whose adventures live on in the 'fish-stories' you and your gaming buddies share down the years don't represent the revival- in an appropriate modern form- of the epic narratives of the ancient cultures of man.

Over the top completely? I'd like to think not. But if there is even a nugget of rationality in these speculations, then they pose another serious problem for the idea that roleplaying is art. Why? Because unless my basic understanding of history is profoundly mistaken, the narrative traditions to which I refer predate the very existence of 'art' as a distinct feature of culture which existed in reference to some external, inferior mere culture. Whatever the precise details of this history, people would have been sitting around fires telling each other stories for a very long time before storytelling could have become a speciality which could take on airs and graces.

John Kim's remarks quoted above were in response to my own comment that "[f]ar from highlighting roleplaying's distinct virtues, the artistic conception submerges those virtues by choosing to evaluate rpg's according to standards that are quite simply inappropriate to what rpg's are."

In taking up John's challenge I put forward a sketch of a concept of art arguing that the term is intrinsically elitist and a historical relic of no real value in understanding the modern culture without which rpg's simply wouldn't even exist. I continued by putting forward some thoughts about the nature of roleplaying suggesting that it enjoys novel features profoundly at odds with structure and history of 'art' as an aspect of human society.

I expect that many readers cleaving to the artistic concept of roleplaying won't be convinced by the barely fleshed-out bones of the case I have put forward. In particular, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some were to protest that they have no truck with artistic elitism, that they were instead concerned more deeply to understand how their experience of roleplaying meshes with their enjoyment of reading, movies, and so on- with "other imaginative, creative endeavors" in other words. Some might even agree with my opinion of what 'art' has meant in the past, but argue that the very development to which I refer means that the term has a new, more inclusive meaning.

Presumptious enough to answer imagined counter-arguments in advance, to the former I would say: fair enough, but the viewpoint I have put forward suggests that it is quixotic at best to attempt to achieve these perfectly reasonable goals by accomodating to aesthetic conceptions which bear no proven relationship to the specific features of rpg's. I mean to say: what are you trying to achieve by asserting the artistic conception of roleplaying? Are you trying to improve your gaming experience? To achieve for your gaming some dignity you feel it lacks? Or to explore purposes other than simple entertainment that rpg's might be adapted to? What exactly? And how exactly does the artistic conception of roleplaying assist you?

And to the latter I would suggest that such a line of argument would inevitably end up as mere semantic wranglings. If my basic historical case for the elitism of 'art' as a concept holds water, then attempting to argue that 'everything is art now' is hardly a step forward. Instead of grasping the novel features of the present situation in their own terms it is an effort which can only spread intellectual confusion by maintaining the old cultural jargon in a persistent vegetative state.

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory
- #1: General gamism
- #2: A funny thing happened on my way to this article
- It's art Jim, but not as we know it!

Monday, September 11, 2006


Battlelore buzz!
Days of Wonder games recently confirmed rumours that Battlelore would be their next release of a game using Richard Borg's renowned Command and Colours game system.

The images on the blog linked above show the quality of the contents of the new game as well as the mechanics' kinship with those of C&C:A. The details noted in the very informative interview with DoW's Eric Hautemont and Mark Kaufmann posted at Boardgame News give a good idea of just how much of those components there will be in the new big box; eg. Battlelore will have 210 miniatures and a total of 168 cards, compared to 148 and 69 respectively in M44.

Box-stuffing goodies aside, what intrigues me most so far are the hints at how the game will handle 2 of the most important features of the fantasy setting, namely heroes and magic: "Lore Masters, such as Wizards, Clerics, Warriors and Rogues gathered in customizable War Councils". Hmm. So it seems that heroes will be handled by a special unit type which will have special abilities dependent on how many of the classic archetypes the unit contains? Sounds interesting.

Anyhoo the game is due for release in November, and DoW will be maintaining a flow of teasers to maximise the buzz, so no doubt there'll be more anticipatory slavering here at RD/KA! before I finally prise open the box and go ballistic!

Commands and Colours: Ancients- GMT update online material
As noted in my last post, GMT Games were planning on making available living rules and new scenarios as downloads for fans of C&C:A. This material is now available here.

The 2nd edition rules were announced in advance as due to contain only minor clarifications. It turns out that there are actually some rules changes which are significant even if their effect on games won't actually be overpowering. These changes effect close combat and missile fire of units occupying terrain- which is significant; but which only apply to 4 of the 10 scenarios in the 1st edition of the game- which is hardly a sweeping change to gameplay as players will already know it.

The extra scenarios give C&C:A players 10 new battles in which to test their skills and nerve. More important though are 9 more chances to get out those elephants and hope for some serious rampaging!

TheRPGsite's looking lively
The late unlamented Nutkinland messageboard's new incarnation looks to have generated sufficient momentum to get off the ground and have a viable future, with a healthy posting rate on topics that have provided some interesting reading.

Winner in the realm of sheer simple curiosity for this reader was the thread about Things game companies do that piss you off?. Apart from bringing up the first serious test of the pundit's moderation-lite, I was intrigued when another thread-drift- on the topic of Freemasonry- brought out the source of the term 'Landmarks' the pundit uses to denote his list of fundamentals of anti-Swine roleplaying theory: according to the Wikipedia entry (an infallible source, I know!) the Landmarks are "the ancient and unchangeable precepts of Masonry". Not trying to make any particular point here; it's just that the idea of the Freemason's theory of roleplaying tickled my funny bone somewhat! ;)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

While I was away...

Commands and Colours goodies

A couple of interesting bits of news have recently come my way regarding this, my current fave rave boardgame.

From one thread on the DoW message boards I was led to another, from where I ended up at Boardgame News and their Essen 2006 preview. A bit of scrolling and one more click, and there it was: DoW are to release a new game for or at Essen this year, and the story is that it is going to be Battlelore- the fantasy version of Commands and Colours.

What fantastic news!

A fantasy version of Richard Borg's modern classic is an obvious winner, all the more so to my mind after my recent games of C&C:A, which I expect the new game to resemble more than it does M44. M44 and C&C:A have been great successes for Richard Borg. I have a sneaking feeling that the fantasy version could move the Commands and Colours system beyond success in the Eurogames/wargames markets into the realms of an all-out smash hit. I certainly hope so. All the best to DoW and Richard Borg with this new release.

Meanwhile, Kevin Duke over at the BGG C&C:A forum has told us that the 5 new C&C:A scenarios GMT have been handing out at cons in recent weeks will soon be available as a free PDF. This comes on top of the recent confirmation that GMT are also soon to make generally available the 3 special scenarios originally handed out to subscribers to GMT's P500 list for C&C:A.

With the M44 carrying case and the first C&C:A expansion scheduled for release before the year is out it is certainly an exciting time for fans of Mr. Borg's masterpiece!

RPGpundit takes over Nutkinland

The RPGpundit's hopes that the Nutkinland might be "The Last Best Hope of the RPG Community Online" proved to be unfounded when the place died on its arse. Undaunted the pundit acceded to suggestions from more than one of his Proxy Army and stepped-up to take the place over.

Renamed TheRPGsite and running with the pundit as chief-of-staff for just about a week now, it has to be said that TheRPGsite already looks more interesting than Nutkinland. The post volume is up and the topics of discussion are certainly more interesting than those which were typical in the days of the Nutkins.

The pundit undoubtedly has a clearer vision of what he wants the site to be than did the staff of Nutkinland, and he isn't shy of telling us all about what that vision is- as regular readers of his blog can easily imagine! Already the site has pundit's managerial mission statement, pundit's theoretical mission statement, and a constitution.

It is hard to deny that the roleplaying ecommunity would benefit from a well-run site devoted to the hobby in general, as opposed to company or game-specific sites. And it would be churlish to wish TheRPGsite anything but success. But, well... what are we to make of this forum then?

I mean to say, the pundit is fond of hurling the epithet 'fascist' at the RPGnet mods. And I'm sure he is sincere in his statements that he won't follow their path. But when I see a self-appointed 'glorious leader' take over a message board and there set up a forum devoted entirely to himself; well, permit me to say that my knowledge of the role of the cult of personality in both Stalinist and fascist ideologies leaves me no choice but to maintain a measure of healthy scepticism.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Keep on truckin'!

Regular readers will know the cause of another such long hiatus in my posting to RDKA!. A lag in keeping up with my meds helped precipitate this last downturn; which fact has made me chuckle recently when I've come across media comment from voices in the 'mental illnesses don't really exist and medication has no proven benefit' line of critique of this branch of healthcare services. This opinion is- I can assure you- simple nonsense!

And meanwhile, my carpal tunnels were playing up something rotten.

Gaming got while not posting included 2 further sessions of the adventures of Klaus Nguyen and his crew aboard the Firefly class ship Paretsky. Forced into the captaincy by the potentially fatal treachery of his co-owner- and now ex-partner, Klaus and his skeleton crew find that things have got hot after their recent escapades.

Those 2 roleplaying sessions aside, board-gaming thrills have not been thin on the ground. Recent highlights have included the latest serious session with the ever-inimitable Badger; a landmark victory against 'Uncle' Martin (heh!); and a most entertaining session of Magic: The Gathering in the company of my old pal Bill and his family.

Badger has already commented on our most recent games on his own myspace blog. It was interesting to read an opponent's comments on our games before putting up my own remarks.

So, what would I add to Badger's comments about our games?

Well our first 2 games were 'Ticinus River- 218BC' as already covered in my last post. My playings of this scenario have convinced me that it hinges on 2 tactics
  • for the Carthaginians: getting the heavy cavalry moving early
  • for the Romans: anchoring their line against Ticinus River.
The basic merits of getting the Carthaginian heavy cavalry moving early have already been covered in my comments about the games Gav and I played. Subsequent experience has taught me that it matters not where your heavies are going to attack (ie. I haven't been able to repeat my first, brilliant, flank manoeuvre!), what is most important is getting them moving so that their assault on the Roman lines can properly be coordinated with those of the Carthaginian Numidian lights. I was able to pull this off with no problems in the first game Badger and I played.

For the Romans anchoring their right flank on the Ticinus River all I can say is that is prevents you from facing the threat of light cavalry rampaging around 2 open flanks. Sure, this tactic does leave you facing all that Carthaginian cavalry attacking your centre or your left, but you're going to face an onslaught of this sort one way or another, so this tactic enables you to impose your own measure of control on where this attack will occur- ie. it gains you a measure of initiative. My 2/3 record defending in this scenario (I beat Martin as well as Badger) means that I as yet have no reason to question the validity of this essential tactic.

I introduced old 'Uncle' Martin and Tony to C&C:A as well as revisiting the game with Badger. The specific details of the games played are by now quite vague... well not quite: my Romans won 'Ticinus River' against Martin's Carthaginians with a magnificent counter-attack from my Medium Cavalry which managed to despatch 11(!?) of the Carthaginians' heavies' 12 blocks in a single round of close combat. His game-winning attack thus more than merely blunted, it was downhill all the way thereafter for 'Uncle' Martin's Carthaginians at the Ticinus River.

Anyway, that particular personal gloat aside (and no, it wasn't the "landmark victory" to which I earlier referred: what gamer would want to claim such a victory during an introductory session after all?), what was most striking about playing C&C:A against Martin and Tony was how they both took to the game. I mean, I really love M44- my initial encounter with the C&C system; but I cannot ignore the evidence of my experience- which is that C&C:A seems to have a greater immediate appeal than its superficially more accessible 'sister', M44.

Roborally, Settlers of Catan, Ivanhoe, and HeroClix are among the other games I've enjoyed in recent weeks. Most of these are staples I've enjoyed regularly for years. HeroClix, on the other hand, is a game I've not played in some time.

Now I really, really dislike the collectible format. My miniatures-gaming based army-building experience means that I deeply resent being unable to buy the force elements I wish, being forced instead to buy random packs in the hope of picking up those elements I most want (you'll note that I don't even consider as an option paying premium collectors' prices). More than merely disliking the basic marketing format, I deeply despise the artificial scarcity built-in to the collectible format.

These caveats about the collectible format as a marketing device aside, I have found that the games themselves can be really rather good. The fun I had playing M:tG only the other day is a case in point. But I have to say that Wizkids' HeroClix remains by far my favourite game to emerge from this hell-spawned maw. It was great finally to introduce Tony to this finely honed game of tactical comicbook combat. It was better even utterly to crush his puny X-Men with my Avengers. I hope to be reporting on more games of HeroClix soon!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Got game! A Gavbot tests its mettle

I'd noted in passing having played C&C:A already when I wrote up my thoughts on the production, analysis of the new rules, and my first impressions of play, which had been enriched by those recent games with Badger. Those first games had been against Gav, me old mucker from the committee and the early days in the gaming ecommunity (when he went by the Gavbot handle). Checking at the BoardGameGeek C&C:A forum last week I got a serious hankering to get some more games in. Gav filled the bill.

Command and Colours: Ancients

"Hannibal? Crossed the Alps?! Hannibal..."
We set to C&C:A with a will then. Akragas and Crimissos River under our belts from before we headed straight for 218 BC and Ticinus River. 218 BC? Ah, this time Hannibal himself versus the Roman legions proper! Erm, not quite...

Just look at all that cavalry! I vividly remember my immediate instinct the first time I had that much of an all-cavalry army in front of me- line them all up and charge! Gav got to ride out as the Carthaginians first this time though. I, as ever sought consolation- in the lessons I learned about how to handle all that heavy cavalry (HC).

Expecting light cavalry (LC) en masse to do more than just skirmish, I was still shocked by the impact of the 2 wings of Carthaginian light cavalry. Their hit and run attacks separated my units, they massed quickly for exploitation, and their pesky evasion gave them surprising staying power. They ran me ragged and eventually won Gav the game, though it was a close fight.

For my part I'd decided that I needed to open passage to my cavalry through the centre. Fearing all that light cavalry I saw the chance to secure my right against the Ticinus. I didn't get off scot-free pulling this off, but it did leave me where I wanted. Unfortunately I'd been holding a counter-attack handy on the left, which I rashly chose to launch when it'd've been wiser to regroup to the centre. I ended up strung out and Gav was able to mop up a few units to sneak his win.

Playing the Carthaginians in my turn, I knew that it was vital to get the heavy cavalry moving quickly. Otherwise they'd simply get left behind leaving the actual fighting to the lights, as had happened to Gav. So I set out with all due haste to swing them to the open flank, screened by the lights. Hasdrubal's heavy cavalry in place, reformed, and thundering up my right, I took Marhurbal's screening Numibian horse and whipped them out, line across the centre and charged with them. The Roman centre thus effectively pinned by this brilliant manoeuvre, Hasdrubal ran his heavies all the way up the right wing, and was working his way back down the centre when it was all over. A satisfyingly crushing victory!

Lake Trasimenus
The Carthaginian cavarly having proved their worth at the Ticinus River Gav and I were game for more, so off we headed to Lake Trasiemenus, the following year. Hannibal makes his appearance at last!

Gav lucked-in by drawing the Carthaginians, leaving me to play the Romans under the leadership of the "vain and incompetent patrician," Consul Gaius Flaminius. Outnumbered, my army's right wing split off by impassable hills, and Flaminius' own cohort caught with its back to the Lake Trasimenus, I certainly felt that Flaminius utterly deserved to be remembered in such unflattering terms!

I didn't have many options available to me, starting as I did with a 2-card hand that would build up to 4 in a couple of turns. Realising that I just had to get Flaminius' cohort's backs off the banks of Lake Trasimenus, I decided to aim to engage the Carthaginians in the defile, in the hope that I might be able to coordinate an attack between my centre and my right. This all started off rather nicely with a bit of 'Inspired Centre Leadership'- an apt riposte to Flaminius' unflattering reputation I felt.

It mattered not a jot. The Carthaginian cavalry swept in from my left. Flaminius' cohort died in droves as they were pushed back into Lake Trasimenus. Then they turned on my left wing, and it was soon all over. A victory every bit as crushing as my own splendid day at the Ticinus River only the year before.



Guadalcanal- the Slopes of Mount Austen
Enthused by our visit to ancient times, Gav and I opted to head for the Pacific Theatre so that Gav- who's already played some M44- could get a taste of the Japanese. Random scenario selection left us paying a visit to Guadalcanal in January 1943. The Americans were trying to secure the very same Henderson field my attempts which to capture had cost the Japanese so much blood when I'd led them against Badger's USMC only recently.

We played this scenario twice, swapping sides in the traditional manner. The Japanese lost each time. The Japanese faced several key problems in this scenario
  • they are on the defensive, which plays against their strengths
  • they are heavily outnumbered
  • the USMC have lots of artillery.
Playing the Japanese first Gav had a hard time as my experienced USMC units rained down fire in the inevitable artillery duel, and to whittle away at the Japanese units to deprive them of their crucial close combat ability. It wasn't long before the Japanese line was decimated. Gav gamely pulled back the remnants from 'Gifu' and 'Seahorse' and regrouped so as not to just give me the game. But there was little he could do and my USMC just closed in from all sides and seized victory.

The main difference in the 2nd game was that I could see the folly of just standing and fighting. So my plan was to abandon 'Gifu' and pull those troops back to hold the centre, while everything else would attack the American right. I made some progress in this- including, IIRC, successfully breaking through to destroy the US artillery unit on their right- but in the end the USMC's superior numbers and mobility won the day.

Wake Island
Plunging-in to Guadalcanal like this had been a harsh introduction to the Japanese for Gav, so we turned the pages of history back to December 23rd, 1941 and the Japanese invasion of Wake Island.

The purpose of this game being to give Gav a taste of why I had been so singing the praises of the Japanese in M44, he naturally enough came storming up those beaches. I made the best fist I could at figuring out the proper tactics for a US win, but to no avail. Still, the point had been made, and Gav could see why I had likened the Japanese in M44 to rampaging Ork mobs in 40K!

Breakout at Klin
Both still full of fight and with Gav eager to see more of the new M44 in action, there was nowhere else to go but the Russian Front. Gav again agreed to plunge in blindly, so another random selection took us to a German breakout operation, part of their regroupment after Operation Typhoon- their attack on Moscow in 1941- had stalled in the winter snows.

Drawing the Russians, Gav had to contend with both the Russian command rules and the Blitz rules. For my part I had a very strong force with a couple of combat engineer units. These were to prove decisive.

Faced with overwhelming force on his left, Gav did the sensible thing, pulling his covering units back towards Golyadi. Meanwhile I decided nothing ventured, and launched my combat engineers at the trenches. The fighting was bitter, but the engineers' special abilities made them deadly in close assault and they'd soon secured the central trenches. My victory wasn't long in coming, and it was pretty decisive.

More gurning! (But I found consolation in my handling of those Panzers at Klin, heh!)

With the hour well-advanced it was time for something quicker and dirtier even than M44 to round-off the session. So off to the medieval field of honour it was for another bash at this classic little game of tournament combat by Reiner Knizia.

The games went nip and tuck until it was 2 each. What I remember most about those games is the number of times I went in with a lance looking for final victory only to loose. So I was pretty pleased when I won the final game with an irresistible mounted charge. Gav asked afterwards why I hadn't just slapped all my purple cards down to claim an immediate victory. Experience has taught me that this can be a dangerous tactic, although there are surely times when it is absolutely the right thing to do. That last game was undoubtedly one of those times, but I guess I was playing my hand cautiously after having lost so often at this very same point in the previous games!

A satifying hard-fought draw. (But I was still master-at-arms and panzer-leader supreme! Mwah hah, etc!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


The Black Library
- long-awaited Gotrek and Felix omnibus recently in!
William King's "...flagship fantasy series is collected together in a stunning new omnibus edition. This compilation collects the first three Gotrek and Felix novels in one softback volume."
Classic Old World adventure has never been better value! Ideal for holidays and gifts... ;)

Black Industries
- BI announce 40KRP launch products
"Earlier this year, BlackIndustries announced the launch of the eagerly anticipated Dark Heresy: The Warhammer 40,000 RPG (40KRP)! Now, we’re very excited to reveal the details of the first releases in this trilogy of 40KRP games. The first, being a game of investigation, is the ideal introduction to the dark and gothic 41st Millennium."
A familiar initial release slate with the core rules, GM's screen, character pack and an adventure anthology. Enough to pique existing interest to the level of active anticipation!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Memoir'44: completing the set #2

Pacific Theatre

Just as with the EF expansion the Pacific Theatre (PF) expansion provides a whole new army for the game- the Japanese naturally enough, complete with the rules to add it to the game. The models for the new army are very pretty. The armour models in particular are really rather cute. A strange thing to say about tank models, but the Japanese tank models are quite diminutive compared to those of the other armies. The artillery models too look very nice, but their design suffers again from a flimsiness I'd've preferred not to see. There were other guns in the Japanese armoury which could've been represented without this problem. So why did DoW choose to go with a design that would inevitably recreate the single complaint aimed at the production of the basic game? I really can't say.

As with the EF expansion the PF set provides rules for the armies fighting in the theatre- the Japanese and the US marines in this case. There are also rules for night fighting as well as the expected new terrain, medals, obstacles, and unit badges.

New rules
I've already referred to the Japanese and US marines' new special rules in the write-up of my recent games with Badger. I have to say that I really like these new rules. The extra card for the US marines is a simple addition colourfully reflecting the marines as they'd like to see themselves for sure. As to how authentic it is I really can't say. The marines certainly didn't enjoy any similar advantages in Up Front, the only other game in which I've seen the USMC in action with any regularity. All the same, I believe that the true measure of the USMC 'Gung-ho!' rules in the M44 PT expansion is that without them the USMC would probably have little chance against the Japanese.

The Japanese special rules are great fun. Japanese infantry must always ignore the first flag rolled against them, can move 2 and battle if they are entering close assault, and roll an extra dice in close assault with any unit that is at full strength. These rules neatly and simply recreate the implacable human waves for which the Japanese were infamous. In general the Japanese can close faster and hit harder in close assault than any other force in the game. This is a splendid capability to have at your disposal!

In addition the Japanese special rules have a serious impact on overall tactics. Confronted by a line of Japanese units a USMC player faces a difficult choice: should he concentrate fire to kill off each unit as is normally the smart tactic; or should he instead spread fire to pick off that first model from as many units as possible, thus depriving the Japanese of those bonus close assault dice? This choice makes facing the Japanese doubly ennervating for the marine player.

Great stuff!

The night-fighting rules are admirably simple. Visibility under night-fighting conditions starts off at 1 hex. Thereafter, at the start of each of their turns, the US player rolls 4 dice, with each star increasing the visibility range by 1. It is the uncertainty that is the nice touch here: you might decide to risk a mad dash across the open field under cover of the darkness, only for 3 or 4 stars to be rolled so that your troops end up dangerously exposed. These rules are also suitable for tweaking, by varying the number of dice thrown, or by allowing the Axis player to roll the dice so that they enjoy the first chance to take advantage of the rising sun.

New terrain tiles
Repeating terrain types already seen in the TP and EF expansions, the PT expansion also adds: caves- on mountains and hills, paddy fields and fish ponds, field hosptials and HQ/supply tents, jungles, a pier, and beaches and a river mouth. Some of these are familiar terrain types but expand the options available to the scenario designer, eg. you can have broader beaches now. Others are types whose rules are familiar but which are themed for the Pacific theatre. Still others are quite new.

The most striking new terrain type are the caves. Providing the best cover in the game, caves are usable only by the Japanese, who will be incredibly difficult to shift from these prime defensive positions: attacks will be on 1 dice barring Tactics cards; infantry will have to be at 1 hex range to get their attacks in at all; and the Japanese will only be retreating if hit by the 'Air Power' or 'Bombard' cards. And to top it all, the Japanese can move freely from any cave hex to any other unoccupied cave hex, no matter where it is on the board. Fortunately the Allies can seal caves, but this is a pretty hit or miss affair that could easily leave a unit exposed to Japanese counter attacks.

All-in-all then I would expect that scenarios involving caves are going to prove a real grind for the USMC player.

Jungles are the other major new terrain type the PT expansion introduces. These are essentially the same as woods, with the minor but significant change that units entering a jungle from an adjacent hex may still battle that turn. This is another rule that I find a bit perplexing. The only rationale I can imagine for this rule is that jungles lack the same dense undergrowth that is assumed to be part of woods. This is counter-intuitive at first sight (and is certainly not how jungles work in Up Front), but I can think of 2 ways that this makes sense. First: palm trees and other similar jungle plant life have tall trunk without many side-branches lower down the trunk. Second: if jungles are defined by a dense canopy, then there would be less undergrowth because of insufficient light. With that in mind I guess the jungle rules might well make sense on reflection.

Field hosptials and HQ/supply tents are probably the most significant remaining new terrain types. One reason for this isn't great: the otherwise usually very thorough Mr. Borg has forgotten to define their cover effects. It doesn't take too much thought to decide that they'll count as Town/Village hexes, but it's an irritating point against someone whose rules-writing on M44 is normally so tight.

As for the rules themselves? Not unlike the oasis hex from the TP, field hospitals allow infantry units to regain lost figures. HQ/supply tents are a terrain feature which, if captured by your opponent, allows your opponent to draw a card at random from your hand, leaving you to play with a reduced hand until you recapture the HQ/supply tents. This is a nice wee rule, a neat interpretation- in game terms- of an obvious piece of cardplay. I would hope to see both of these rules being put to use in other ways by scenario designers.

New medals
A nice Japanese victory medal aside, there is nothing in the PT expansion that we haven't already seen elsewhere.

New obstacles
The new counter in this category that makes its appearance in the PT expansion is the warship. Warships in M44 can be either destroyers or aircraft carriers. Either way there are counters that lurk along the edge of the sea on the beach mapboard. Warships can move, but are effectively restricted to 1 hexrow on the basic beach mapboard. Offensively destroyers count as big guns, complete with extra range and the additional battle dice for zeroing-in. Aircraft carriers give access to air support, pieces and rules for which are to follow in an expansion M44 hope to release before the year is out.

Warships can be fired on too. They only suffer grenade hits, ignore the first flag, and require 3 hits to be removed for a victory medal. So while it would be possible to run your infantry down the beach to take pot shots at a warship, you'd have to be insane to try that particular tactic, and insanely lucky to succeed. It's more likely that artillery, air strikes and barrages would be used against warships. And, having experienced the power of big guns before, I would imagine them being used as often as possible against destroyers, which could prove a real pain!

New unit badges
Two new unit types make their appearance alongside the plethora of special forces badges: mobile artillery and flamethrowing tanks. Mobile artillery has all the firepower of artillery with the move and fire capability of infantry. This I must see! Flamethrowing tanks meanwhile never lose more than 1 dice due to terrain effects in close assault- another nice addition which I look forward to using in cityfight scenarios!


Overall the Eastern Front and the Pacific Theatre expansions are satisfying additions to the M44 game. It is often commented that M44- just like C&C:A- is more a game system than a mere game. This is very true, and, by the time you have the 3 expansion packs you will have almost everything you'd ever need to play battles from pretty much any theatre of land operations during WW2.

The range of available terrain types is very comprehensive, though perhaps not utterly exhaustive (it all depends on how you choose to define your terrain types I guess), something which can also be said for battlefield fortifications. Although complaints persist about the lack of differentiation of, say armour variants, M44's treatment of unit types is expanding nicely.

The additional rules for national variations in the EF and PT expansions are very nice too. As a long-time fan of Up Front I have to say that I feel that this is the area in which M44 remains at its weakest, resorting as it does simply to varying the size of the hand in any given scenario. The rules for the Japanese and the Russians have shown just how far it is possible to go in creating a distinctive feel for each nationality. I for one would love to see similar rules developed for the other nationalites too.

If I think that the EF and the PT are expansions to M44 that are worthwhile investments for fans of the game, I do still have some complaints. First and most seriously, the rules aren't as tightly written as are those of the basic game. Some crucial information is simply left out, while elsewhere explanations are perhaps more ambiguous than they need be. I know how difficult it is to write rules that are clear and comprehensive, and the M44 rulebook rates higher than most for me. It's just a bit of shame that the game's expansions aren't to quite the same high standard.

In a similar vein, I'm not 100% happy with the winter theming of the EF set. I mean, I can see that a winter board would be an obvious flipside to a desert board. And I can see the attraction of such boards to a game for which visual appeal is so important (I did buy the thing after all!). But the point is that there are several terrain tiles that appear only as winter-themed, or only as otherwise. It's a bit irritating to invest in the extra board for the sake of the look only for their to be potential scenario layouts in which the themes will clash.

But it has to be said that these are pretty minor complaints. They are certainly not complaints about anything that makes the expansions less than fully useful. No doubt FAQ and errata will be available from DoW soon enough. And could they be planning to respond to any serious demand to fill out the range of available terrain tiles with another expansion pack? Surely not!

A final note
Also worth noting for buyers of the basic M44 is that the PT expansion is the first expansion to come with a webcode. Registering this webcode on the DoW website will give you access to the save function of the online M44 scenario designer (because you'll already have registered the webcode that came with M44 naturally enough). You also get full functionality on the DoW forums (eg. you get a sig, PM's and so on). This 'player' status is still time-limited, although it might offer lifetime access to the fully-featured M44 scenario creator as you get, IIRC, when you enter webcodes from 2 copies of the basic game. I'll know soon enough I guess. ;)

Monday, July 17, 2006


Black Industries
- new WFRP fan materials at BI...
"... courtesy of Colin Chapman. These are split into two documents, the first of which takes a look at some of the careers available to the men and women of Kislev, including the noble Druzhina, Bear Tamers, Rangers and Winged Lancers."
Kislevite careers PDF? Just what this GM needS in his little Old World right now.
- a definite download to HD!

Memoir'44: completing the set #1

A satisfying pile of components

As I've already noted, recent trips to Static have netted me the Eastern Front and Pacific Theatre expansions for M44 to add to the Terrain Pack to complete my set of this favourite game of mine.

And what a set it is when you've got it all:
  • Command cards, battle dice, card holders and reference cards
  • 5 rulebooks, including 36 scenarios
  • 2 mapboards- giving beach, countryside, desert and winter maps
  • 4 complete armies, comprising infantry, tanks and artillery- American, German, Soviet, and Japanese
  • 198 double-sided terrain tiles
  • 36 obstacle pieces
  • 141 assorted counters for obstacles, unit badges, victory medals and other things too numerous to detail
  • the Commissar chip
This pile is going to cost you something in the region of £90, but it is certainly good value for money if you compare what you get for that sort of money if spent on other typical forms of amusement, eg. around 40 pints of beer, 18 trips to the cinema, 3 or 4 video games, or even 2 or 3 other boardgames. However you choose to add it up, the replay value of a complete set of M44 is sufficiently high to make it a worthwhile investment.

Meanwhile, what do the Eastern Front and Pacific Theatre bring to the M44 game?

The Eastern Front expansion

The most obvious new addition to the game in the Eastern Front (EF) expansion is the Russian army. This is lovely, without doubt the nicest army in the M44 set. The tank models in particular are delightfully chunky, and are my favourite models in the entire range. The artillery models too are solid pieces that don't suffer from the frailty that was a common complaint aimed at the artillery models in the basic set.

Beyond adding a new army, the M44's EF expansion follows the Terrain Pack (TP) in providing rules for new terrain tiles, new medals, new obstacles, and for new unit badges.

New rules
The new rules in the EF expansion are twofold- special Russian command rules, and Blitz rules.

The Russian command rules make use of the Commissar chip- it seems that Richard Borg can no more resist the colourful lure of the Commissars of the Red Army than can anyone else! This rule aims to represent the way that the Russian command structure discouraged initiative on the part of junior commanders, and is very simple to use: the Russian player must select the Command card to be played 1 turn in advance. This is a nice simple rule whose effects I can see being quite acute in those situations in which you are trying to set up a good use of cards such as Close Assault or Armoured Assault.

The Blitz rules are a fix to represent the superiority of German armoured units in the early war years. Under the Blitz rules Allied armour units may only move 2 hexes. In addition German players can use 'Recon 1' cards to call in airstrikes.

New terrain tiles
The terrain tiles in the EF expansion are all themed to match the winter board. Some of them are simply winter-themed versions of tiles from the basic set or from the TP. Others are brand new terrain types. The latter category includes trenches, city ruins, ravine, hill with forest or village, frozen river, and factory complex.

Each of the new terrain types has simple variations on the rules with which regular players will already be familiar. For example city ruins are based on the rules for towns/villages, with the additions that they are only accessible to infantry, who may ignore the first flag in addition to the normal rules. Among all the new terrain types, a favourite has to be frozen rivers. A frozen river is passable, unlike a regular river, but at a risk: you have to roll 2 dice when a unit enters a frozen river hex. For each star that comes up, the unit loses a model!

New medals
Most of the new medals in the EF expansion are either completely obvious, or repeat material from the TP. The one completely new rule is the rule for camouflage, which is a nice addition to the range of options available to scenario designers.

New obstacles
The new obstacles added are field bunkers and dragon's teeth. The field bunkers are simply bunkers which can be used by either side. Dragon's teeth are the concrete anti-tank obstacles with which many readers will be familiar. These are both perfectly sensible additions to the range of obstacles available in the game. My only quibble is that I can't really understand why dragon's teeth don't offer flag protection to infantry units- hedgehogs do after all. Perhaps the designer was looking to differentiate the 2 obstacle types, although whether or not this makes sense I don't know.

New unit badges
Some of the more interesting additions the EF expansion provides to M44 are the unit badges. The new unit badges are: snipers, combat engineers, cavalry, and Finnish ski troops.

The sniper rules give a neat take on this unit type which was important on the battlefield, but which you might immediately think would be difficult nicely to represent at the scale of M44. Combining rules from a variety of sources, snipers are an infantry unit which can: move 1 or 2 and battle, including when they enter terrain that would otherwise prohibit fire by an infantry unit (special forces and French resistance, respectively); retreat up to 3 hexes per flag (French resistance again); have 1 battle dice- not against armour, and not reduced by terrain- with a range of 5 hitting on a symbol, grenade, or star (air strikes), with flags counting as normal. Snipers in turn can be hit only by grenades.

So that's 1 dice killing an infantry model 2/3 of the time and an artillery model 1/3 of the time. Add in that range of 5 and I can forsee cries of frustration as snipers zip around the board picking-off your artillery or finishing-off weakened units!

Combat engineers are another nice addition, representing units with flamethrowers and other special equipment. They don't suffer battle-dice reduction in close assault for the opponents' terrain, can battle and clear wire at the same time, and can clear minefields. All of which are capabilities I already wish I'd had at my disposal in previous scenarios!

Cavalry work as regular infantry units with the move and fire capabilities of armour- move up to 3 hexes and battle, but with reduced firepower- 2/1 dice at 1/2 hexes, as opposed to regular infantry's 3/2/1 at 1/2/3. In addition they can advance and battle again after a close assault just like armour. These rules nicely place cavalry between infantry and armour in terms of firepower and mobilty.

Finnish ski troops are even better than cavalry. They enjoy the same option to move 3 and battle, but with 3/2 dice at 1/2 hexes, and they can still battle after entering terrain that would normally prohibit infantry from battling. In addition ski troops can retreat 3 hexes/flag instead of the normal 1. The one serious weakness these highly mobile troops suffer from is that they only have 3 models, making them that bit more fragile in an extended firefight.

That's it for the new contents of the EF expansion. I'll be back soon to take a look at the PT box. ;)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Not news, but nice nonetheless

I don't play video games, no matter what kind or on which platform. I've nothing against them as such, it's just that they've almost completely passed me by for one reason or another. At the same time the WW2 tankie in me has long appreciated in a very practical way the truth of that old adage about the picture and the 1000 words. In my very earliest days as a Dungeon Master for example, I thought of collecting picture postcards of interesting terrain features to use as props in my adventures. And I can still remember how certain illustrations in the old AD&D books really fired my imagination about what I wanted from dungeon-bashing.

So I've long felt twinges of regret at how my utter ignorance of video games leaves me equally ignorant of some of the seminal imagery of our times from the very same genres in which I enjoy my pre-ICT adventures. Thank goodness then for the internet and screenshots.

All of which brings me to Mythic Entertainment's second attempt at a MMORG of GW's first trademark product- Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. Now I've got no interest whatsoever in this product. But I do like some of the screenshots.

I've downloaded nearly all of these. You can rest assured that my players will witness some of these sights in my games sooner or later.

Here's a great shot of an orc army camped outside a dwarfhold deep in the mountains. This picture really speaks for itself doesn't it? There's a whole adventure in that one picture, not to mention a really great prop- I'm sure players would find seeing that picture more impressive than almost any GM's description of that scene.

One of my PC's in my current WFRP game might actually have been spending some downtime working in something like this in the Wynd- the dwarfen district of Middenheim. Who knows? But it's a nice looking picture of a dwarfen smithy all the same.

And just so my players don't get the idea that I'm dropping subtle hints with all those dwarf pictures, here's an atmospheric view of an orc settlement in the forest. Again, can't you just imagine the impact of the use of that picture to announce an encounter in a roleplaying session?

While on the subject of images that might be inspirational to GM's, here's a thread on the Black Industry forums devoted to just that subject. I've already found some of the pictures of narrow streets to be useful in giving me a more concrete image of what the streets of Middenheim look like. Whether or not my players noticed any difference is not for me to say. ;)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Commands and Colours: Ancients- the Richard Borg engine rumbles on! #3

I've already looked at the components and production of C&C:A, and at the key rules changes relative to Memoir'44. So how to I think the latest addition to the Commands and Colours stable measures up to M44?

Very well indeed. My survey of the rules changes has already examined how these reflect the specific features of the ancient period and enforce appropriate tactics. Here I will try to pull all of those points together to give a sense of C&C:A's period flavour and overall gameplay. But first...
The gripe
I do have one complaint though. This is the rulebook. I was very impressed by the M44 rulebook. Sure its glossy full-colour pages were pretty to look at. More importantly, it was very well written. Richard Borg explained the workings of the game in a way that was admirably comprehensive while at the same time being a smooth read.

The C&C:A rulebook by contrast is a noticably more torturous read. Borg attempts to apply one of the strengths of his M44 rules writing- namely consistent use of terminology to establish cases and precedents without heavy cross-referencing or extensive notation of exceptions. Unfortunately he just doesn't pull this off nearly so well, giving us a rulebook some of whose jargon and structure feels distinctly forced to this reader. I am left with the impression of a rulebook that makes the game harder to understand than it need be.

The contents of the FAQ already available confirms to my satisfaction that this is not just my personal experience. I have to say that I believe this is where GMT's economic model let them down on this project. The rulebook smacks of having been through too few iterations. I can only assume that GMT just couldn't afford more, one way or another. And so we get a rulebook which- as I am not alone in believing (scroll down and check out Kevin Duke's 2nd post)- smacks just a bit too much of the 'we all know what it means' syndrome that can arise when a ruleset doesn't get enough blind testing.

This might seem a bit of a peevish gripe, especially in these internet days when FAQ- and often the designers themselves- are so easily available that any mistakes or misunderstandings can quickly be clarified. All the same I can't help feel that a game as essentially simple as C&C:A is undermined by a rulebook that fails to make some of its key rules as crystal clear to read and grasp as they are undoubtedly easy to play.

The glories
One very striking rule change in C&C:A is to retreats, with units retreating their full movement allowance per flag- instead of 1 hex/flag as in M44. The way that this rule makes units that move faster flee faster is an immediate insight into a key feature of the ancient battlefield: it was much smaller than its WW2 counterpart. Even if the forces deployed in a C&C:A scenario were numerically equivalent to those in an M44 scenario, the nature of warfare in the 2 epochs was so different that the ancient army would still occupy a much smaller space, for reasons I need not rehearse here.

The support and the leader rules also give a sense of this much more confined battlefield. The scale of M44 is such that units in adjacent hexes aren't necessarily in sufficiently close proximity for any morale benefit to result. Adjacent units in C&C:A on the other hand are almost shoulder to shoulder, so the support rules make perfect sense. Likewise the ability of leaders to provide the leader hit bonus in close combat to adjacent units shows how much smaller the ancient battlefield is.

No expert on the period as I have already confessed, I'm still pretty sure that-sieges excepted- ancient battles as represented in C&C:A were always fought out in the course of a single day. By contrast it's not difficult to imagine some M44 scenarios representing several days of action. This compression in time in C&C:A is layered nicely on top of the confined space through the impact of the unit types and the adjustments to close combat, particularly with battling back.

In M44, tactics typically revolve around the use of terrain- to provide cover for your units laying down preparatory fire on the enemy, and to screen the advance of your assault force who will be closing-in to gain your objectives. The effect of terrain is therefore a tendency to extend the battle in space and time as players maneouvre to find a decisive local advantage before launching a major assault.

The absence of terrain on the typical C&C:A battlefield obviously precludes this style of play. Add in the effects of the support rule, and the various command cards whose effects are based on ordering units which are adjacent to each other- 13 of the 60 cards; and the preparatory phase of a game of C&C:A typically involves manoeuvres to pull your battleline into order before launching it at the chosen section of the enemy's line. This marshalling of your battleline will often be accompanied by cavalry skirmishing on your flanks, or by bringing up missile troops to lay down harassing fire.

Awkward enough already due to the practicalities of organising 2 different kinds of maneouvre- skirmishing and line formation/advance- under the vagaries of cardplay, this process is rendered even more fiddly by the slow movement rate of what will typically be your key assault troops- those heavy or medium infantry moving at that painfully slow slog of 1 hex/turn. And as if this wasn't taxing enough, you'll probably be under harassing fire from the enemy's skirmishers, or even from a more solid line of missile-armed troops.

Open terrain; unwieldy formations; slow troops: in combination the effect of these is that once you've commited to a line of advance, you're unlikely to be able to do much to change it before your units make contact with the enemy. And so C&C:A seems to me to place an even higher priority than does M44 on quickly grasping the potential of your hand, forming a plan, adjusting for that plan, and just getting stuck in. Otherwise your opponent will get to deliver a possibly decisive first charge.

If the C&C:A's depiction of the basic elements of its period seems to drive the action forward in a way that gives a nice feel for the dynamics of ancient warfare relative to those of M44, the revisions to the battle rules mean that the clash of arms towards which the action is so driven is similarly liable to be more decisive.

In the first instance there is simply the sheer number of battle dice you are liable to be throwing in close combat- which will usually be 3 or more for your key assault units (as opposed to a far more likely 2 dice in M44). Medium and heavy units in particular- with their 4 and 5 dice- have the chance of wiping out full-strength foot units in a single good attack, something which simply cannot be done in M44. Good use of skirmishers' missile attacks, proper concentration of force and skillful use of leaders, plus the prospects of battling again if you destroy or push back an enemy unit, only increase the chance that a timely first strike can utterly crush the enemy line before they can respond.

The battling back rules too ensure that close combat, once joined, will typically be more deadly than in M44. I have read complaints that this rule doesn't exist in M44. I believe this to be misguided. Close combat in C&C:A is precisely that: man-to-man combat with hand weapons. Close assault in M44 can be that, but is more likely to be a firefight at the short ranges at which rifles and SMG's can be brought to bear at full effect.

The battling back rules in C&C:A therefore nicely represent the compression in space and time inherent in game's period, making each and every close combat inevitably a risk that you will immediately suffer serious losses. And they will mean that more often than not, close combat, once joined, will be short and bloody.

Of course the evasion rules offer the prospect to pull back in the face of such potentially devestating attacks. This can lead to some of the 'cat-and-mouse' sort of play that is more common in M44. But even if you do successfully evade you face the prospect of exposing your flanks, or of opening holes in your lines thus depriving key units of their support. Either of these outcomes could easily prove more dangerous to your army as a whole than the fate the evading unit(s) sought to avoid.

Overall then C&C:A is a splendid addition to the available range of Commands and Colours games. Its rules are familiar to those who know M44, and are thus easy to grasp despite the extra layers of detail, and yet the game feels completely different in play. This is a very important point it seems to me. The worst thing that could've happened with this game is that it just turned out to be M44 with the serial numbers filed off. Instead we have a game which shows us just how elegant Richard Borg's core system really is.

I mean to say I have read several comments here and there on the net that C&C:A is more realistic than M44. This is usually put down to the greater range of unit types. I would have to agree with this to some extent. As much as I admire M44's depiction of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different arms of service on the WW2 battlefield, it can hardly be denied that the game would be improved, say, by simple rules differentiating between light, medium and heavy armour. Regular readers will already know my high opinion of the merits of M44 regardless of these issues. (See last year's 4-part 'A rash of enthusiasm...' for M44: #1, #2, #3, #4.) With C&C:A at our disposal it is easy to imagine these details being addressed in M44.

This is not a subject I want to get into any further here, because it seems to me to miss the crucial point of comparison in any case. Borg's Commands and Colours system isn't about the meticulous rendition of minutae beloved by generations of grognards. Rather it is about the authentic evocation of the atmosphere, general dynamic and specific tactical problems of a given period of warfare in a format enabling fast and fluid play and focussed on putting the players right in the generals' seats. In this respect C&C:A enjoys full marks exactly as does its sister game M44.

Final note
Just like M44, C&C:A has been so successful that it is quickly being expanded. Expansion Pack 1: The Greeks & Eastern Kingdoms apparently reached its preorder target under GMT's Project 500 scheme faster than any game ever. It is due out in the next month or two. And Expansion Pack 2: Imperial Rome and The Barbarians is ratcheting-up its pre-orders quickly enough that we can be sure it will be released with all the haste GMT can muster.

Fans of Borg's great design have a lot to look forward to in then. ;)