Tuesday, July 11, 2017

54mm Star Wars Skirmish Models - WIP

From a project I have been working on from time to time...

Monday, July 10, 2017

Solo Wargaming 101 at the University of Unreasonable Expectations

I have been fascinated with miniatures of all kinds since I was a young kid. It did not take long for me to start working out very simplistic rules for allowing my wee chaps to battle it out. Usually it was nothing as sophisticated as rolling dice - more often than not, it was flipping a coin to work out how things went. When I found that my friends had no interest in fighting with miniatures in ways that did not involve cherry bombs, bb guns, and matches, I found I had to make my own fun, and I have been doing it ever since.

When IGOUGO attacks...
For a long time, I tried the almost universally suggested method of playing both sides to the best of your ability. This was mildly interesting, but frankly, I found it boring. Mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring. It wasn't for me, and so I stopped messing around with solo gaming all together. This was frustrating, as my miniatures collection kept on growing. I just did not have a venue for gaming with them.

Enter Craig Cartmell and his Forge of War and FUBAR rulesets. This fine fellow you might know for his successful, utterly charming ruleset known as In Her Majesty's Name. For being home brews, the two earlier rulesets drew my attention for their devastating simplicity of design combined with some very intelligent mechanics that allowed for a lot of emergent complexity. Namely, each system had an activation system that required rolling for a successful activation before the unit could act. The better the quality of the unit, the more likely they were to activate and carry out the player's orders.  Failure to activate could result in a range of outcomes for the unit, from simply staying put to falling back or worse (depending on which variant of the rules you were using). And failed activation usually meant passing initiative over to the opponent, so no dismal IGO-UGO or even the arbitrary (in my book) alternating activation model.

"Yeah, like hell I am going  out there. Fuck that!"
The activation system really fired up my imagination regarding solo play, as it took a big chunk of the game flow out of the players' hands and put it, rightly, into the chaotic nature of battle. I found quickly that many players I knew could not stand the lack of control an activation system afforded them. I recall one acquaintance telling me  he did not like any mechanic that took away his godlike control of his forces.

That really hit me, but not the way my acquaintance intended. Namely, I realized that one of the best bits about gaming - to me - is the uncertainty over what might happen next, the potential for surprises, and the sense of the player that he (or she) is leading troops who might have their own agendas (namely survival) that don't really encourage mindless slaughter. It seemed to me that if the fog of war could be modeled sufficiently well (many would say too much so) in a game, it could help create the feel for the player of realistically managing chaos rather than leading perfectly disciplined armies of automatons.

I know that many rulesets model the fog of war and related battlefield chaos well. But most of those rulesets are very rule-heavy, requiring the player to consult endless charts and tables to work out the specifics of what happens and when. Force on Force, Tomorrow's War, and Two Hour Wargames, I am looking at you! To me, this approach is stifling and does not feel immersive at all. These are excellent rulesets, but just not for me.

So, no matter what other commerical rulesets caught my eye, I often found myself gravitating back to Forge of War and FUBAR.  These rulesets could be played straight-up by a solo player playing both sides and still create some surprising, chaotic results. Good, but there were still some elements missing for me. I have always wanted to play a solo tabletop wargame in which I could fully identify with one side and not have the mechanics for handling the enemy snap me out of my suspension of disbelief, either through predictable outcomes or through the backbreaking work of checking countless tables and charts.

"We have no faith in your generalship, so can you at least give us an INTERESTING death??"

So I started modifying FUBAR in various ways to see if I could get a more satisfying game. The results at first were pretty mixed, with many ideas that sounded good on paper turning into absolute crap when played out on the game table. After more experimentation, I decided to come up with a want list for my solo gaming, so I that I could have a clearer idea of what I was trying to accomplish.
The list came out looking something like this:

  • Game mechanic handles enemy force deployment, disposition, and behavior with minimal input from the player.
  • Both player and enemy forces seem to react with self-awareness to conditions on the battlefield.
  • A unit or model's training and ability have a direct influence on troops' fighting skill as well as their capacity for dealing with the strain of combat and ability to carry out orders.
  • Events on the battlefield should be chaotic and surprising, but they should still allow the player to carry out a coherent strategy and not simply react to crazy things happening all around.
  • The enemy force composition should be fluid, with enemy units that were not expected popping up on the battlefield while those that were expected may sometimes disappear.  This can allow the player to be surprised by encountering that which he did not except and for which he is not prepared (i.e. bringing only sniper rifles  for support and running into an unexpected hovertank guarding the bunker).
  • The mechanics should reward stealth and maneuver, with combat not just being decided by who has the bigger guns and the hottest special ability or attack.
  • The morale system should not by default allow units to fight to the last man. It may happen, but it should be an uncommon occurrence.
  • Similarly, "casualties" should not mean KIA. In most battles, rendering an enemy unit ineffective is the important goal. Soldiers experience wounding, concussion, confusion, terror, demoralization, weapon malfunctions, depletion of ammo. Any of these outcomes can render a soldier - or unit- out of action (OOA) without necessarily killing anyone. And it follows that these casualties can often rejoin the fight when they have sufficiently recovered. So in my games, OOA  troops have multiple opportunities to re come back to the fray, both during and after the battle.
  • The player-as commander-should have the capacity to push his men a little harder when the stakes are especially high. Similarly, pushing too hard or at the wrong time should have negative consequences for the player.
  • The ruleset should not be ponderous. Rules should take no more than a few pages, including most tables that are required for play.

This is a pretty daunting list, and I always realized that it may not be possible to model all these factors with simple mechanics. But I am pretty stubborn, and I have been trying at this for years now. Over time, I have come up with mechanism that mesh well with FUBAR but could be included in many games to create the sort of experience described above. Whether they are truly successful mechanics is open to debate, but I am pretty happy with them. In my next post, I will outline how I tackled some of these challenges.

Solo Skirmish AAR #2: Storming the Outpost, Part 1

 In the previous installment, a lone Commonwealth officer stumbles upon trouble in the backwaters of a sleepy colonial planet. He encounters a surprising concentration of pirates occupying a valley that is home to a small colonist village and old military outpost for reasons unknown. He discovers that they are searching (at least in part) for a science team that was active in the area recently. In attempting to escape and call for assistance, brave Captain Kiran raised a handful of sympathetic local militia and drove the pirates away from the village - at least for the moment. He then made his way north to call for help in the mountains.

For those of you who are interested in the mechanics, I am playing this game solo as the colonial side using a heavily modified version of Craig Cartmell's FUBAR skirmish rules. They have been heavily tweaked to automate the opposing force.

The respite would not last for long. Soon, the pirates move back into valley.

They set up defenses in the abandoned military outpost.

And they are not alone. Fearsome shock troops from the famed Janissary Mercenary Corps are active in the area. This means that the pirates were probably contracted by the Janissaries. But for whom are the Janissaries working?

The Janissaries keep watch from the outpost ramparts.

The commander of the combined force of occupiers coordinates a search of the area from the outpost.

Meanwhile, the locals have grown bolder, steeled by how Captain Kiran managed to mount a successful defense against pirate patrols. A shadowy figure in a gas mask and bowler hat begins to quietly raise militia force from among colonials in the local villages. 

The militia force begins to grow in size on the outskirst of the valley

Due to some lucky deployment rolls, most of the militia force deploys within the first two turns, all safely beyond the line of sight from the outpost.

But not everything is going the militia's way. There is movement from within the village...

Which appears to be a team of veteran pirate Raiders. Better trained and equipped than the pirates previously defeated by the colonists, these fellows are dangerous. The pirate patrol is right in the heart of the colonial militia deployment, so at any moment they might move and stumble right upon the militia's flank!

The patrol makes an unexpected move right into the flank of the colonial HQ team (visible down the road). Fortunately for the colonists, a militia fire team on overwatch catches the pirates unaware...

...and shreds them with volley.

 What is more, the gunfire goes unnoticed from the outpost. The militia advance proceeds.

Militia fire teams effectively use cover to maneuver closer to the outpost and get into position to attack. Strong leadership from the Man in the Bowler Hat (the militia commander) keeps the milita attack moving forward, in spite of the fact that the militia troops are only seasoned and they are facing veteran operators.

 But the survivors from the ambushed pirate patrol have other ideas. They recover from their shock and rather than stand and fight, they move into LOS of the Outpost and signal that an attack is underway (this was determined by a die roll).  This business is about to get REAL.

 The colonial fire teams open fire on the outpost from rocky cover. They did not get as close as they had hoped. 

The militia troops have virtually no body armor, so it is imperative that they stay in cover as much as possible. Those Jannisary gauss rifles posted on the outpost walls will make quick work of any colonials caught in the open.

The advancing militia troopers manage to take down one of the feared Janissaries on the walls - quite a feat, given that the reinforced outpost walls provide protection both in penalties to hit and to wound. 

 The colonials get bloodied by accurate, disciplined return fire from the outpost.

A militia trooper manages to fire off an RPG round that takes out another Janissary and surpresses two more. Progress!

Meanwhle, another two milita fire teams open up on the outpost from a copse of trees to the south (upper left hand corner of the picture).

 The advance continues...

While supporting militia units hang back and provide sustained cover fire.

 Meanwhile, the few remaining Janissaries who haven't been wounded or suppressed pour withering fire onto the militia troops in the treeline. The trees provide some obscuring cover but no defensive protection against those nasty gauss rounds. The militia troops there are cut to pieces.

 By turn six, the battle appears to have reached a stalemate. Meanwhile, a random event clears the field of wounded. No one had time to try to recover their wounded due to the intensity of the battle. Each side can still recover some of their casualties post-mission. Note to self: set up small triage units in the future that will focus on collecting and treating the wounded.

The militia attack from the south has all but been routed. The survivors hold on and ineffectively pepper sporadic fire on the south wall of the outpost.

From the east, the main militia attack has been blunted by heavy casualties but is still moving. By the end of turn five, all remaining Janissaries on the east wall of the outpost (as well as the enemy commander) have been suppressed. Until they recover, the battered main force of militia troopers has a narrow window of opportunity to charge the battlements!

There are further uncertain factors that could still swing the battle either way. Another veteran pirate fire team in the area has still not shown itself. It has the potential to turn up in a very uncomfortable place for the colonials!

Further, starting in round six, additional reinforcements may arrive to aid both the raiders and the colonials. The raiders have already demonstrated that even a small handful of disciplined troops can hold the outpost, so it is in the colonials' interest to fight their way into the outpost before it can be shored up with reinforcements.

At this point, I had to pause the game to tend to other matters such as sleep, work, and spouse care, and cat wrangling. I will post part 2 soon! 

At the bottom of the fifth (turn), the raiders have sustained 8 casualties but still have four Janissaries, five pirates, and the commander desperately holding onto the OP. The attacking colonials have also sustained eight casualties but still have 20 troopers plus their comander and two unit leaders on the board.

To be continued...

Musical accompaniment for this mission: The River Crossing theme from Zulu Dawn (for some reason, this matches weirdly well with the game in my equally weird mind :-)

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Solo Skirmish AAR: Escape from the Raiders

Solo Skirmish AAR - Escape

This is a little game I played a few nights ago as the first part of a solo campaign I am starting up. The game is played with a very heavily modified version of Craig Cartmell's FUBAR game system, optimized for solo play. In gme terms, the Captain, the player's character, has to escape from the board though a heavily defended checkpoint within 20 turns.

In the scenario, Captain Kiran, a Commonweath peacekeeper checking out a distress call near an old, abandoned military outpost comes under fire. His scout ship crashes, and alone he makes his way to a local village in hopes of getting assistance and learning about potential hostile forces in the area.

He arrives (on board) in a copse of trees near both the village and the outpost. After prolonged obesrvation, Capt. Kiran spots several armed units patrolling near the village. In short order he IDs them as Hellion Raiders, a group of pirates active in nearby star systems.

There is no clear explanation why the Raiders are patrolling the wilderness near the OP, but it seems as if they are searching for something. He spots one Raider fire team, but he knows more must be nearby (In fact, there were six in the vicinity, but their locations at this point are unknown). The Captain decides to make a dash for the village.

Close call! The Captain is almost "made" by a patrol that popped up halfway through his dash to the village.

 But while the pirates are seasoned, their skill is not quite up to spotting the running captain. He makes it to the village.

Once in the relative safety of the village, the Captain makes contact with some locals. He learns that the Raiders have been active in the region for several days. They have treated the locals roughly, and have searched the village repeatedly, looking intently for a scientific research team that apparently was working out of the outpost. The locals have no idea where the team is, but it looks like they are in hot water!

Hiding from a passing Raider patrol (you can see off in the distance), the Captain learns from the locals that while the colonists in the village do have some weapons, they do not have any effective leadership and have been afraid to move against the Raiders. He hatches a plan...

After making a series of successful activation rolls over three turns, the Captain manages to recruit 11 colonials into an ad hoc militia with the intent of driving the pirates from the surrounding area and opening up the road to the north. Once the road is open, he can hike into the nearby mountains, where he hopes to contact Commonwealth Command and request reinforcements.

The Captain breaks his militia into 3 fire teams and intends to ambush several Raider patrols simultaneously once they are in position outside the village.

But plans rarely survive contact with the enemy. Before the militia fire teams can fully deploy, a Raider patrol bumbles into village, spotting the activity!

In short order, Raider fire teams descend on the village from three directions. They are surrounded!

The raiders put two militia troopers out of action quickly, forcing the remaining two team members to fall back in disarray. This is hardly what the Captian had in mind!

Firefights break out around the village, with both sides taking casualties.The Captain and his remaining milita troopers seem trapped in the village, while valuable game turns are passing.

But then several factors began to shift the course of the battle. First, the Captain is able to bring his leadership to bear, rallying his troops and helping them recover from the shock of combat. Simultaneously, the attacking Raiders begin failing activations as their casualties mount, their commander too far away to lend them support.

The next event that helped turn the tide was the unexpected arrival of a fresh militia fire team on the board. They showed up outside the village, spoiling for a fight!

The tables now seem to be turning, and once again the Captain and his ragtag milita seem to have a chance.

The militia fire teams begin moving out of the village, taking the fight to the Raiders who are still in reserve.

Meanwhile, Captain Kiran's fire team - fighting from cover on the north end of the village - inflict heavy casualties on Raider reinforcements moving toward the village.

The fresh militia fire team moves up on the flank of the Raider's command unit without being noticed.

In short order, they inflict heavy casualties. The Raider's commander falls back, leaving only one fire team blocking the road north.

The militia fire team takes on the last remaining Raiders near the exit, with both sides taking
heavy casualties.

It is too much for the Raiders. In short order, the Raider officer flees from the field, and the remaining Raiders cannot rally. In short order, they route off the board...in Turn 19! 

The battle is a clear victory for the Captain and colonists in the village. Of the 15 militia troopers,  7 were wounded  but 3 of those made recoveries in post-game casualty recovery. In contrast, the more heavily armed Raiders sustained heavy casualties, with 13 of 18 Raiders fielded becoming casualties and only a handful of those recovering.

This was a really fun game, with the game rules and solo mechanics giving a good, challenging game with lots of twists and nail-biting moments. While I had some basic narrative in place at the beginning, all the events described came out of the game itself, with hidden movement for the enemy and random events keeping me on my toes.

In the next installment, the Captain will attempt to locate the science team and discover the secret of what the Raiders are trying so desperately to find. To be continued...