Monday, July 11, 2011

Noble Armada: A Call to Arms

Some long-time RPGers may remember the Fading Suns RPG from Holistic Designs. A side project by some of the people writing for the popular Vampire RPGs, while the rules were a bit clunky, the setting was fantastic, very evocative and as dark as you want it to be. There weren't too many supporting games for the RPG, but one of the ones that came out was Noble Armada, a ship based game that could either be integrated into the RPG, or played as a stand alone.

Unfortunately Fading Suns never got the recognition I think it deserved, and has been floating in "edition limbo" for the past few years (work is being done on the 3rd edition, to be published through Print on Demand). That's why when Mongoose announced it was going to team up its A Call to Arms starship combat engine with the Noble Armada concept, it was quite a surprise.

The rules, published in a practical (and inexpensive - $30 at the time of this writing) hardback format,  comprise a mere 28 pages. This includes standard, advanced, terrain, and special rules, making for a very economical usage of space. Following that is background material ("fluff") which comprises a whopping 28 pages as well. For most gamers, the Fading Suns universe is probably fairly obscure, so all this fluff is probably necessary in order to give enough background to care about the factions.The next 17 pages are scenarios (quite a few!), followed by 12 pages of campaign rules, a page on unusual situations, and a page on minor houses (more fluff, a bit strange including it here).

Much of the rest of the book is in color, and is taken up by some starter fleet lists, some terrain building tips, and the requisite (for a minis game) pages showing off the minis themselves (which I like to call "figure porn..."). The latter portion of the book is a bit of a letdown. While the ships themselves are well painted and shown off to good regard in the fleet lists, the "in-action" photos leave a bit to be desired. Say what you will about GW games, but their figure porn pages are always excellent, with a high level of modeling not just in the figures, but the terrain itself. As the point to these games is to collect and game with the figures, I think a little more attention could be spent here.

I have yet to play the game, but there are already plans for it to go off later this week. I hope to post some reflections on the game at that time.

A note about pricing. If you're looking at a new minis game to get into, Noble Armada is fairly cheap as they come. The rulebook itself is only $30, and you can get fleet boxes (usually with a light carrier, 2 destroyers, 4 frigates, 2 galliots, 2 scout ships, and 8 fighters of 2 different types) for around the same price. Usually these boxed sets come in at around 1370-90 points, enough for a small to mid-sized game. A beginner could easily drop around $100 to $150 and never have to purchase anything else; that includes the rules, 2 fleet boxes, and around $60 of blisters to round out the fleet, making this a pretty inexpensive game to get a good variety of forces and minis for (you could just get the rules and a fleet box for $60, though, and have a decently rounded force for smaller games). Of course there is plenty of incentive to go beyond this (new ships, and any serious minis gamer will want to tweak his list from time to time -- or even overhaul it completely), but with the most vocal concerns about minis gaming being the entry costs, this isn't too bad at all...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Plastic Soldier Company Panzer IV

In the last year or so there has been a very real explosion of plastic kits available on the market, creating a boon for wargamers.

One of the first to the market (besides some plastic upgrade parts offered in Battlefront kits) is from Plastic Soldier Company. While these kits are simplified, they are nonetheless designed for wargamers, simple to construct, but still offering sufficient details for a good appearance.

The kit offers a whopping 4 different versions to construct: F1, F2, G, and H. While this is of obvious benefit to the modeler, unfortunately out of the box only one variant can be made accurately: the short-barreled F. To make any of the other variants, you will need to modify the kit parts in several ways. Most are easy to accomplish.

Panzer IVF2: This variant is a bit more challenging to build compared to the others, and requires additional materials to do it well. The primary problem is that the muzzle brake depicted in the kit is the incorrect type, being a double baffle type, when it should be a single baffle type. To make more accurate, remove the muzze brake and use a plastic bead as a replacement. When glued on, drill a single hole through the bead fro the side to produce the muzzle brake. You can also model a late version by removing the circular flare hatches from the driver's comparment hatches, and the vision hatches on the turret front-sides.

Panzer IVG: This is the second easiest build in the kit. Simply remove the left-hand vision hatch next to the main armament, the 2 vision hatches on the turret front-sides, and the flare hatches from the driver hatches. You can also model this tank with skirt armor, as some Gs (especially late) receive this upgrade.

Panzer IVH: This version is a bit more challenging than the G, but can be done in much the same way. Do all the modifications for the G, with the addition of a single-piece circular hatch hinged to the side (opens to the left, if you view the tank from the front). Although some of the early production Hs were bare, many received Zimmerit, and this is a real challenge to add to this kit. The manufacturer can't be faulted, as this would have made a kit with excessive parts, and thus made it much more expensive as well as challenging to build.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mantic's Warpath

I have to admit I don't have a whole lot of respect for Mantic. They seem to be a company that base their business model on cheap plastic minis (which is good) designed to pluck away at Games Workshop's market share by duplicating everything the big company does, and give disaffected GW gamers something GW decided wasn't profitable enough anyway (chaos dwarfs -- though back thanks to Forgeworld, and not-Squats).

When Mantic announced their new SF game, I had my predictions, but nonetheless let out a small groan when it was announced the first two races would be Space Dwarfs and Space Orks, just re-treading old ground. Still, the Warpath rules might be adaptable to use 40K figures and play a different game. I downloaded the game rules (only 16 pages!) and the two army lists for Space Orks (Marauders) and Space Dwarfs (Forgefathers) with the idea of giving it a fair shake...

Now I should state this is not a playtest review, but rather my reaction to reading the rules. Reading what I have to say should be done with that bias in mind.

In the end, it's a little bit good, a little bit bad, and a little bit why???

For all intents and purposes this is Mantic's Kings of War ported into an SF setting.

If you're familiar with GW's core games (and apparently Warmaster, as I am told this was an inspiration), the statblock format of the army lists will be familiar; Type (unit type), Speed (movement), To Hit (dice roll needed to score a "hit"), Firepower (how effective ranged combat is), Attacks (number of melee attacks), Defence (how hard it is to score a "hit"), Nerve (catch all for morale and unit size). Each has a value, and like GW games might have a special rule or two.

One of the good aspects to the rules is how heavy weapons are handled.  Comparisons with 40K is natural (since Mantic seems bent on being a GW clone), but one aspect I dislike about 40K (as of this writing 7-7-11) is the fact heavy weapons cannot fire at a different target, unless there are special rules specifically allowing it. Mantic defines all heavy weapons (Called BFGs in the game: Ballistic Fire Guarantors, not Big F%$*ing Guns, a bit silly here) as being able to split fire with another target. In 40K you could destroy a transport with a lascannon for example, causing the occupants to forcibly dismount. Yet you cannot then fire at this unit with small arms -- the troops are required to fire at the transport instead. In Warpath this is not a problem, and makes for a more realistic aspect.

Another is how difficult terrain is handled. Again, comparisons to 40K are natural. In that game, difficult terrain is handled by a die roll for how far you can move -- maybe you get lucky and can move 6", or unlucky and move only 1". In Warpath you simply count movement as double in difficult terrain; a much more elegant and simple solution.

Another is a nice set of simple modifiers to shooting, especially for long range targets. Whereas in 40K there are no such modifiers (cover is handled by a "cover save" which may or may not take precedence over your normal armor save), in Warpath there are around 6. Especially useful and interesting is a penalty for firing at more than half range.

Yet another is aircraft rules core. This allows aircraft to be integrated from the start of the game, whereas in 40K aircraft rules are presented in Apocalypse (for very large games, probably where these rules belong anyway).

Finally another is that allies rules are core. On the surface this may seem to be a great feature (again in 40K there are no allies rules; allies can only be taken in the Apocalypse expansion), but as presented they are horribly generic. Simply stated, you can take any race as an ally, as long as you adhere to the army list restrictions (basically for every core troop you have you can add a special troop; so long as in your allied force you have a core, you can add then an allied special troop). There is a note that "some alliances are unrealistic, so don't do it!" For some this wide ranging freedom allows for a lot of list tailoring, but I would have liked some concrete rules on allies, such as is done for Warhammer Fantasy (basically if you take a cross-type allied force, they might turn out to be unreliable for you!).

But there are some bad aspects to be sure.

Like 40K , Warpath uses true line of sight. For those not familiar with this, especially for non-minis gamers, this basically means, what your model sees, he can shoot. In 40K this requires a lot of crouching down to "see" what your models can see at eye level. I personally prefer area terrain that blocks line of sight, as it is less fiddly, and prevents the feeling of fighting on a "compressed" battlefield (if anyone thinks that in 38,000 years small arms weapons fire can only go 112' when a Mauser G98 of First World War vintage can hit an area target out to 1400 yards...). Personally I could do without this in either ruleset.

 Furthermore, iindividual models are further de-emphasised. Gameplay assumes combat from the perspective of the unit. This is borne out in the stats (no need to roll individual weapons fire) and in unit choices (which, as the game is a marketing tool for the minis line, happen to exactly coincide with the box deals you get from the manufacturer). One complaint I've seen from Warhammer detractors is that often models are nothing more than casualty markers. While this is true (but unavoidable if you want company level games, such as 40K presents), Warpath takes it one step further an miniatures are mere decorations within the unit. This works (and is desirable) in smaller scale games, such at 15mm. But if I'm going to invest in a 28mm game, I would want a bit more detail in how my minis perform on the table. In the end, you might as well base squads together on a movement tray, rather than fiddle with individual movement.

Riding along with the point above, there is no casualty removal but you must track unit damage, creating paperwork that must be tracked. You can use a die to represent unit damage, or other methods familiar to long-time gamers (like casualty rings). In the end, it probably doesn't matter much and you can house-rule casualty removal as long as you remember the original starting unit size, since individual figures are mostly decorative.

Yet another detraction from the game are horribly generic vehicle rules. Essentially, vehicles "act" like a squad armed with a certain number of BFGs, and modified movement rules. They have the same exact stats as a squad, and act sort of like an independent character. Furthermore, shooting at vehicles is handled the same way, but only weapons with the piercing special rule can actually harm them. While there is something to be said in terms of economy of rules and elegance of a unified mechanic, you run into problems in that the rules are too generic. Since vehicles do not have varying protection depending on what side is being hit (this is modified by a bonus when firing into the side or rear arcs). This creates problems in terms of both verisimilitude and realism, assuming that all armored vehicles are better armored in front, and less armored on the sides and rear. Take for example early versions of the WWII German Panzer III, which had 30mm of armor all around (it was designed for offensive operations, so it was thought it would need good armor all around to resist surprise fire from concealed anti-tank guns). In Warpath such a tank could not exist, and similarly something like a 40K Land Raider would also not exist. Of course this can be modified by special rules, but a better way could have been devised making such a thing unnecessary.

Finally, I think the worst aspect of this game is how it handles charges and melee combat, in the form of a "melee bounce back." According to the rules, if you charge an enemy unit, after you resolve your close combat attacks, you are required to make an mandatory move: "If, on the other hand, your unit did not manage to destroy its enemies and is still in contact with them, you must pull back, executing a D6" move..." (p.8). The only question I have is why? As a rule this makes absolutely no sense: why would an assaulting force that has not destroyed its enemy pull back, and not engage in another round of melee if its morale is intact? Since the move is only  D6", this means that the defending unit can now execute a counter charge. While admittedly this makes combat a bit more bloody, it absolutely makes no sense. It would have been much better if either unit could make a Nerve test to disengage from combat and fall back (something 40K does not allow either, alas). But if we look at real-world assaults, the assaulting unit would not "bounce back" if it failed to take the enemy in the charge, but would find itself stuck in until either the enemy unit breaks, or the assaulting unit does, though occasionally a unit might be able to disengage if it has good leadership and discipline. In Warpath this happens every time. In my opinion this is a terrible aspect to the rules, and for me is a huge detraction.

In the end, the rules are free, and technically they are beta rules (so they may change). I wasn't impressed with Kings of War either (if I was going to play a "unit" or element based game, there are better ones out there), and I'm not particularly impressed with these. Warhammer 40K has its rusty bits, to be sure, and if you want to play a different Company level SF skirmish game, there are plenty of other good rulesets out there (like Stargrunt, or the free Fast and Dirty rules, or 5150). Personally I'm going to give these a pass...

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