Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts on Malifaux

The game book.
My gaming group played a small game of Malifaux this week. 

Malifaux is a 28mm skirmish fantasy game with a Wild West theme.  Each side has around 6-8 models, on average.

Malifaux features some interesting game mechanics.

First of all, Malifaux does not use any dice.

Instead, it uses cards.  Whenever a player needs to generate a random number, they draw a card from their deck, which has Ace to 13 in each of four suites, and two Jokers.  The Black Joker is bad, and counts as a super-failure.  The Red Joker is good, and counts as a super-success.  Each numbered card is also marked "Weak," " Moderate" or " Severe" (based on its numerical value) for determining damage.   Players may have positive or negative modifiers to their draw; for example, having to draw two or more cards and take the lowest or highest card. Players also have a hand of cards, and can play cards from this hand to replace or augment their normal draw.  Hands are replenished and decks reshuffled every turn.

The models are attractive and come in several ranges.  I was playing flaming undead cowboy gunslingers.  My opponent had generically-Asian martial artists.

Fate Cards
Each model comes with a small card describing its stats and abilities, rather like Warmachine.  These are a handy reference, but have no game mechanical effect.  You neither shuffle nor play them.

Game turns are based on alternating activation.  Each movement and every attack, melee or ranged, is an actions.  Each player chooses a model, performs all its actions, and then the next player chooses a model and does the same.

Whenever a model attacks another, the attacker and defender each draw a card.  The model's statistic is added to the card's value to determine whether the attack exceeds the defense.   If the attack succeeds, then the attacker draws for damage Depending on the amount by which the attacker succeeds, they may draw two cards taking the lowest, one card, or two cards taking the highest.  They then do Weak, Moderate, or Severe damage based on the card.

There are several twists, however.  Players can " cheat"  by playing a card out of their hand, replacing the value.  So if you have a good hand, you can save its cards for your key maneuver.  Players can also (a few times a game based on tokens) play a card in addition to their draw, getting an extra boost.  The suites of cards also can have effects.  For example, for my models, a Ram suite card did extra damage.

Game play proved highly enjoyable, simple on the surface but with considerable depth.  I think a good game is one where the player is presented with interesting, meaningful choices each turn.  Malifaux certainly fulfills this expectation.  Optimal play requires tactical movement and several kinds of resource management.  As a player I had to consider whether to keep or play cards in my hand, and whether to flush or keep my hand, each turn.  The alternating movement required me to anticipate and prioritize each model's actions.  (At one point I rashly charged with a model, and watched it get hit by several other models in return, based on the action sequence and movement.)  Every model had several different capabilities, each good in different situations: I had to decide which one to use, and when.

Normally, I don't like games on the skirmish scale.  (" More death!  Give me more soldiers and more death!")  But I quite liked Malifaux, and look forward to the next game.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Monday, July 7, 2014

Stepped On By An Elephant: Experiences with Hail Caesar!

http://store.warlordgames.com/collections/hail-caesarA friend of mine hosted a game of Hail Caesar! the other night.  He's really into Greek and Persian ancient history, and we recreated the Battle of Cunaxa.  The war ended when my general, representing Cyrus the Younger was crushed by an elephant, bringing the rebellion to an end. 

I've been wanting to play Hail Caesar! for several years, but never really got around to it.  Hail Caesar! and its sister games, Pike and Shotte and Black Powdershare most of their core mechanics, and have several interesting features.

All three games are descended from the old Warmaster system, which was a 10mm fantasy system for the Warhammer world.  It was never really all that popular with GW players, and languished in Specialist Games purgatory before dying the final death.  There was also a Historical offshoot.  Rick Priestly seems to have kept on adapting it for personal games, in 28mm, and he and his cadre eventually released the results as this current range of games.  Or that's as best as I can gather.

Some thoughts:

  • Hail Caesar! is largely a game of general management.  Your force has one or more general models, each of whom command a division of your army.  They have a leadership rating of 5 to 10.  To issue a movement order to any of your units, the you must roll against the relevant general's leadership. If you succeed, they can move once, twice, or even three times, depending on how well you roll.  If you fail, then the unit just sits there.  Units can only take very simple and obvious moves without a general ordering them.  So much of the strategy of the game lies in deciding what are your top priorities each turn, and in what sequence to issue your orders.  In play I found this actually pretty interesting.
  • The combat mechanics are relatively simple.  In shooting or melee, you roll a bunch of dice determined by the relevant characteristics: clash melee, extended melee, long range shooting, and short range shooting.  Clash melee is for the turn you charge or are charged.  Extended melee is for any subsequent turns.  So some troops are better when they charge, and others are better in drawn-out conflicts.  Long range shooting is pretty self-exploratory.  The short ranged value is also used when a unit supports its friends to either side or in front of it in a battle line.  All units have a morale save, and a kind of hit points, of which bigger, tougher units have more.  Between the basic mechanics and a few special rules, there seems to be a reasonable amount of depth to the combat system.  (One problem with Warmaster was that all fights quickly started to seem the same...)
  • As units take wounds, they can suffer from three different kinds of woe.  They can be shaken, having so much attrition that they fight ineffectively.  With enough hits, they can be destroyed outright.  And sometimes, they can be disordered, a temporary condition from which they recover on the next turn. There is also a chart, on which a losing unit must roll.  This provides extra effects such as being forced to withdraw.  I don't normally like charts, but this one seems a necessary part of the overall game flavor, forcing units to react in different ways to damage.
  • Hail Caesar! is a game of units, not models.  Each unit has statistics. When it takes damage, you do not need to remove dead models.  Just mark it with tokens or a die.  Bigger units have better statistics, more attacks, and more hit points.  The depth of a unit does not much matter, only its frontage.  I love, love, love this aspect of Hail Caesar!  (In other games, like WFB, I hate having to count out the right number of models, fit them onto a tray, take them off again, and so forth.)

So anyway, it was good to finally play the game.  I'll be interested to see how much depth it has on repeated games, but I think it looks fun. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tanks and Infantry

A plumed enemy solider darted across Freidrich's field of vision, hazy through the thick glass of the vision block.  He reversed desperately, feeling the treats slip and spin in mud or blood or water.  A clattering roar filled the compartment as Willie, sweating, worked the loader's hull machinegun from side to side. Above him, half-seen, Jans fired the turret self-defense gun in short, measured bursts.  Muffled screaming sounded from outside, and an alarming banging resounded against the side of the tank.  Did the enemy have bombs?  Friedrich wondered desperately?  The tank's rotation brought the enemy solider into view again.  The strange Roman-looking soldier knelt, and in both hands he hefted a heavy triangular weapon Friedrich had come to fear and loathe.

" Grenade!"  he screamed, and then the compartment exploded with smoke and fire and shrapnel.

A Light Tank and its escorting infantry.
The mathematical relationship between Tanks and Infantry constitutes one of the most important balances in Sabre and Raygun.  Infantry should be rightly terrified of tanks, with their armored hides, bristling weapons, and terrifying crushing weight.  But tanks should also fear infantry, who can make great use of terrain and assault the nearly-blind flanks and tops of a vehicle if they get too close.  Mathematically, tanks should have a fearsome damage output, but suffer a significant chance of being destroyed in Assault Fire and Melee with infantry.

In Sabre and Raygun, the players have choices with their vehicles and must decide how aggressively they wish to field them.  First, they must decide whether to Button or Unbutton their tanks -- that is, whether to run them with hatches open and the crew scouting for threats, or closed, protecting the crew but reducing visibility.  Unbuttoned tanks shoot more effectively, but are vulnerable to small-arms fire.  Second, the player must decide how close to the enemy they wish to drive.  The machine guns and cannon of a Tank are most effective in Assault Fire distance, where all models suffer from reduced Cover Saves.  However, at such a close range, Tanks are more vulnerable to enemy weapons, and are in Melee distance.  Tanks do not like Melee at all, where they are liable to be rudely destroyed by enemy grenades, firebombs, or other improvised attacks. 

Let us examine the threats and advantages Tanks face at difference distances.

Shooting Distance

If the Tank is over 6" from the enemy, it will fire at the enemy with normal Shooting Phase rules. 
 At this distance, all enemy models receive their normal Base Cover Save of 3+ (or 5+ for vehicles).  This may be modified for Soft or Heavy Cover.  The Tank will tank a long time to kill enemy infantry at this distance, but it will do so pretty reliably with its main gun firing high explosive.  Doctrines may help it to target and destroy threatening enemy models, such as guns or grenade launchers.

At this distance, the Tank will be very hard to kill.  All shots will likely hit its formidable Front Armor.  If it is Buttoned, it will be invulnerable to small arms.  Even Unbuttoned, it will probably out-range most normal infantry weapons, leaving it vulnerable only to long-ranged heavy machine-guns or other weapons. If a weapon rolls a 6 to-Wound, followed by another 6, it will Stun the tank regardless of AT value.

Assault Fire Distance

A Medium tank in the Assault Fire phase.
If the Tank is within 6" of the enemy, both sides will fire simultaneously.  Both sides will suffer reduced Base Cover Saves of 5+ for infantry, and no save at all for Vehicles.  A Tank at this distance can easily slaughter enemy infantry with its machine-guns and cannon.  (For you FoW players, consider this equivalent to a FoW assault phase.)

However, the Tank is potentially more vulnerable, too. All shots will hit its weaker Other Armor.  Weaker AT guns become much more dangerous at this range, and, since both sides fire simultaneously, the Tank cannot count on destroying them before they can act.  Moreover, all small arms have a minimal chance of hurting the tank.  If a weapon rolls a 6 to-Wound, followed by another 6, it will Stun the tank regardless of AT value. 

A Tank close enough for Assault Fire is also close enough for Melee.  It had better hope that it Suppresses or destroys any enemy before they can Charge.


Squish! Bang!
Tanks do not like Melee.  Infantry may fear being crushed beneath its mighty treads, but from a tank's perspective, if it is close enough to squash someone under its treads, it is in a deadly precarious position.  Tanks in Melee can be hurt by any weapon.  Unbuttoned Tanks, or Stunned Tanks, hit in Melee are automatically destroyed.  (It is assumed that the enemy kills or captures the crew.)  Buttoned Tanks suffer from double-sixes.  If a weapon rolls a 6 to-Wound, followed by another 6, it will Destroy the tank regardless of AT value.

Tanks in Melee are reduced to trying to crush opponents -- which they may do at a low rate of Attacks.  Should they survive, they are well-advised to back away from combat, which they may do freely.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Customizing the Free Cities: Spells and Doctrines

Sabre and Raygun allows you to customize your army with special abilities.  Even forces with the same skill and equipment may play very differently, based on their Doctrines.  The Free Cities book adds an additional layer -- spells, a special kind of optional Doctrine that can buff an enhance your force in multiple, exciting ways.


The Free Cities employ many elite, specialized units.  Their Doctrines reflect the differing military traditions of the cities, and, in particular, their approaches to combined arms. 

  • The Deadly Doctrine enhances the damage output of your Force in shooting and melee.
  • The Flexible Doctrine enhances squads of mixed troop types, emphasizing combined arms at the lowest tactical level.  It lets you, as the commander, take best advantage of your ability to mix basic troops into new formations.
  • The Specialist Doctrine enhances homogenous squads, rendering each troop type more effective at their best ability.  This is combined arms, too, but with an emphasis on the platoon, rather than the squad, level.  
  • The Proud Doctrine enhances squad morale, making them less likely to break or suffer suppression.
  • The Winged Doctrine enhances the Vehicles, Cavalry and Monsters in the Free Cities' force, perfect for players who like their armies fast.


Hare for hiding,
Falcon for seizing
Jackal for its mate,

Dragon for might,
Beast for endurance,
Serpent for mysteries.

Worm hates them all.

-- Martian Proverb

The Free Cities introduces a new type of Character, the Priest.  Priests can cast spells, which work just like Doctrines to buff units in powerful ways.  Each Priest chooses a Great Power to worship, each of which confers a different list of spells.  In addition, Priests can try to counter enemy spells when they are cast. 

  • Hare, the trickster, interferes with enemy Morale.
  • Falcon, the swift hunter, enhances a squad's to-Hit.
  • Jackal, the scavenger, grants a squad concealment.
  • Dragon, the fanged, enhances a squad's to-Wound.
  • Beast, the enduring, enhances a squad's Toughness.
  • Serpent, the immortal, foils an enemy's attempt to-Wound.
  • Worm, the devourer, weakens an enemy's Saves.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Free Cities in Brief

The Free Cities are independent outposts of Martian humans, who survive in the shadow of the Ancients through stealth, tenacity, and misdirection.  Like the Greek city-states of ancient Earth, they are small societies, with a keen sense of martial pride.

In designing the Free Cities, I emphasized the following core traits:


The Free Cities look archaic, with the swords, shields, ships and spears of ancient Greece or Rome, but they actually have higher-tech than the Colonists.  The shields contain force-field generators, the ships fly on anti-gravity, and the pikes fire blast rays.  The humans of the Free Cities do not understand the science of the technology they have stolen from the Ancients, but they know how to use it.


The armies of the Free Cities are combined-arms forces.  Each Triad consists of a mixture of troop types, specialized to a particular role:

  • The Lanceatores are long-ranged specialists.  Their raygun pike has a high Rate of Fire 3 when stationary, but only Rate of Fire 1 when moving and a lowly Rate of Attacks 1 in melee.
  • The Scutari are close-combat specialists.  The lack any ranged armament, but have heavy armor, and  a high Rate of Attacks 3 in melee.
  • The Venatores are maneuver specialists.  They have short-ranged gun with a Rate of Fire 2 either moving or stationary, but with a shorter 18" range.  They don't fear melee either, with a respectable Rate of Attacks 2.  There's no reason not to move these guys, and keep them moving.
In addition, they have a selection of elite, specialized support units, such as cavalry, light vehicles and monsters.

The Free Cities' player will need to use the strengths of their troops in combination to achieve victory.


 Free City forces are highly-skilled.  The regular, standing Legio troops are Skill 3.  Even the militia, drawn from the citizen population, are Skill 2, equal to most colonists.  The elite Praetorians are Leadership 3+.


The Free Cities love a good swordsman.  They have a strong melee element, suitable for the clash of sabres on the deck of a flying ship, or a duel with enemy warlords or dastardly minion.

All Free Cities forces wear armor.  Most of them are rated Armor 2, meaning most weapons will need a 3+ to wound them.  The heavy Scutari and Cataphracti are Armor 3, meaning most weapons will need a 4+ to wound them.

You can find the Free Cities Force Book PDF here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When It's Such a Train-Wreck You Can't Look Away: 40k 7th Edition Thoughts

My Space Marine Collection

First Impressions

So the new, unexpected edition of Warhammer 40k is now out, and I've had a few days to process it.

Overall, I am somewhat disappointed.  One book in the set is just a bunch of pictures.  The background book has exactly the same background (and mostly the same text) as 6th edition, but with different pictures.  The rules are mostly the same as 6th edition, with the most notable changes being a new Psychic phase and an even more permissive army selection system.  Maddeningly, some of the most obvious problems with 6th edition remain unchanged: assault is too weak, massed fliers are too difficult to counter, weapons that ignore cover bypass core game mechanics, combinations of certain characters are ludicrously power, and psychic powers can buff a unit into near indestructibility.

What Was GW Thinking?

As a game designer (albeit an amateur one) I have to wonder, why does GW persist in leaving so many obvious problems in place, particularly when it would be quite easy to fix them?  It's tempting to dismiss GW as caring only about sales or just to write them off as completely incompetent, but I don't think either response really explains the new edition.  I notice that they did fix certain elements of the game, just not all of them.

For example:

  • Monstrous Creatures can no longer charge they turn they go from flying high to gliding.  It used to be that they could have all the advantages of a flier's protection, then slam straight into melee at the start of their next turn.  
  • Jetbikes and Skimmers now must choose between getting a Jink Save and being able to shoot effectively the following turn.  This could be abused in all sorts of ways, particularly when combined with abilities that enhanced Cover Saves.
  • Vector Strikes were toned down, so that fliers can no longer zoom around with impunity, decimating any units without leaving the safety of being a flier. 
  • Vehicles are now harder to kill with single-shot weapons, like meltaguns.  In 6th edition, most vehicles died to stacked hull-point loss, but if you got close with a meltagun, or lucky with other weapons, you could pop a vehicle easily.  
  • The Psychic phases has been modified so that, if you have fewer Psykers, it is harder to cast most spells.  In 6th, cheap Psykers almost never failed to cast, and could have major effects on game play. 

This suggests to me that GW is sensitive to certain balance issues, some of the time.  The issues they have chosen to fix, however, are those that you will might encounter in casual play.  If you have a small collection, or some restraint in building lists (say a list with only one Riptide or a combined-arms Marine or Eldar list) these are the sorts of problems you would notice and want fixed. 

On the other hand, GW seems stunningly indifferent to the sorts of problems that only occur for players with large collections or who are pushing the mathematical limits of the game. A Tau or Eldar army's capacity to stack lots of Ignores Cover only becomes evident if a player takes lots of the relevant units.  As Reecius points out in the link below, it is only when you have lots of Psykers that the new phase becomes absurd. Special characters' combinations only become evident if you play with them frequently and choose them for game-mechanical benefits rather than their background.

So I think what we're seeing is a game design that only cares about the center of the bell-curve of possible armies, and is indifferent to problems on the extremes.


Where to Go from Here?

People are already considering how to adapt to this edition.  Over at Frontline Gaming, Reecius has sketched out this article on the rudiments of tournament modifications for 40k:


His analysis is spot-on, and I do hope that the community develops a standard(ish) set of standards for open play in tournaments and leagues.  I suspect I will not be playing in any tournaments either way, however, as I am not especially interested in competitive list-design.

I prefer to win than to lose, of course, and I like to play with lists, but what I really want out of a game is for the victory to depend on decisions players make at the table: on maneuver and tactics and a little luck.  If the armies reflect the background, with a preponderance of troops and support, and not just a few tooled up super-units, I think that's desirable too.  On a scale of 1-10, between fluff (1) and unlimited competition (10), I'd put myself at a 6 or a 7.  

I am more interested in  how to create an environment for drop-in or league casual play: a system that encourages people to show up with a moderate list, but avoids puppy-stomping extremes.