Thursday, 24 April 2014

Losing My Balance

This Wednesday's Game was the latest playtest of the Sumerian Rules "To Ur is Human". It didn't go quite as well as planned.

The problem started in the morning, during my drive to work. Two lorries and a car had a disagreement on the M6 through Birmingham, so I sat in a traffic jam for about 50 minutes listening to some post rock ramblings on the iPod. My mind wandered, and it came to me how I could re-write the combat section of the rules. There had been some rumblings about figure removal (generally we're opposed to it) so I wanted to deal with that and I would also, ideally, like to come up with something a little less Neil Thomas-y for the final version of the game.

What I designed in my head was a process where hits would be allocated evenly across the bases in a unit, with the second hit becoming a "black ring" representing permanent damage. Units get benefits on the fear test if their opponents have more black rings, and damaged bases hit on a 6 instead of a 4,5,6. A unit with a mix of damaged and undamaged bases would roll black and white dice so you could tell what numbers you were looking for. The added effect of this is that for the fear test (which uses the number of dice you will roll in combat as an important factor) a damaged unit could still scare its opponents but be poor in any combat that followed. It all sounded pretty good in my head.

I got home in time to make some hand written notes on the rules and playsheets and watch that episode of "Third Rock from the Sun" with John Cleese in it. Things were looking up.

I also had my deployment cards ready as well. Richard and one of our Chris' arrived close together and we were away. The cards provided some amusement as players forgot what they'd already put down, and there were a few comments like "Oh! I've got some of those!" and "Ah! they're different to them!" Anyway, we eventually had armies facing up like this:

Only one unit is allowed in a square, but players have a commander who can double up, and some blanks to aid general bluffing. As Chris finished first I let him swap four cards over once Richard was done.

The armies were then revealed, with both players massing their battle carts on one flank (the opposite one), putting heavy infantry in the middle and covering the wings with lights.

Richard opened up boldly on his left,  rushing his battle carts across the table. He also under took a general advance with his main line. Richard is a very thoughtful player and pays close attention. He is acutely aware of the issues the Carts have with wheeling and he calculated furiously to try to avoid any sweeping attack from Chris.

Chris however succeeded in pinning Richard's front line, and got on the end of it with his Battle Carts. (BTW I have no picture of it, but Richard's carts on his left flanked Chris' line and also blew away his end units, routing them in the fear test. Some extreme die rolling was involved, but also the first indications that my tweaks to the rules, including the fear test, might have unbalanced the game slightly). 

Flanked by the carts and engaged head on by  infantry lead by Chris's General, Richard's middle started to crumble a bit.

By the time Phil arrived we were looking at a revolving door, with units apparently fleeing at the drop of a hat. You can see middle right that Richard's carts have broken right through and are pursuing routers...

...only a combination of a poorly thought out rule and some extreme die rolling meant they "bounced" and took fright.

Elsewhere was chaos as the middle of Richard's army mostly retreated under a brave push lead by Phil/Chris' General. Learning from this Richard's General attached himself to some foot and shored the position up.

The problem with doing Sumerians v Sumerians is both sides look the same. I really do not have any idea of who is beating who in the picture above.

The game ended being called as a straggly draw. Not entirely satisfactory all round, really. I had made two major sets of changes so it isn't clear which one took the balance out of the game. Probably the new combat system, but the fear rules also need taming. The Battle Carts rode their luck and turned out being devastating, - much too devastating, a criticism I had of an earlier draft.

So I made some notes and I need to look at the numbers again on the die rolling and odds. I'm not a fan of 6 always wins, 1 always fails, as it sort of implies that you've got your modifiers wrong and outcomes are pushed to extremes. However I made need to consider some type of rule like that for the fear tests to give Levy Units a chance and to restrain the Elites..

Much food for thought.

Next week, Phil is putting on a pirate game I think, -something called "FoG - Arrrr"!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Just getting started

One of the things I liked about RFCM games from the very beginning was the pre-game. Embedded in the game system was a simple scenario generator that meant games weren't simple points v points match ups. The best of these in the early days (and still now, in my opinion) was the original "AK47 Republic", with its slightly mad political tracks. They gave you a variable start up, they gave you a narrative and they didn't take very long about it.

For preference, if I'm running a game, I like a scenario with objectives. In a perfect world I'll have worked it out myself, and given briefings. Deployments will be predetermined or there'll be something in the set up that makes it clear who puts stuff out first, and what restrictions there are.

Getting toys on the table fairly is an old problem. Back if the old days deployment maps were often suggested, or the curtain down the middle of the table. I certainly use the former from time to time (I have deployment boards marked up in element widths), and Shedquarters is set up to allow for the latter (not often used, as it doesn't appeal to everyone).

If both players are putting out at the same time you have the classic problem of players keeping an eye on what the opponent is doing, to make sure your green infantry aren't lined up against his elite heavy cavalry. DBA has an interesting approach, with clearly defined attacker and defender, with the defender having the "unit switch" option.

In recent months I've experimented with players alternating deploying single units, which has provided some entertainment. Often I put the defenders down, and tell the attacker to get on with it.

Another old idea is deployment cards with dummies. This can work really well on a gridded board, as there's no issue with the foot print of the unit (I remember many, many, years ago doing this with cards and finding the units wouldn't fit in the space once revealed).

For this Wednesday's game I'm going to give deployment cards a go. We're revisiting the Sumerian rules, and I've put together some simple cards for the units using blanks and printer labels.

I don't think we'll go as far as them being face down until they can be sighted for the whole game. I think it'll be enough just to use them to layout where the units are.

If this turns out to be satisfactory I will revisit this for my other armies. I've got a couple of decks of spare blank cards in the desk, and in any event you can buy packs of cards for less than £1 these days.

Now outside into the sunshine, I think.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

An Open Letter to Microsoft

I'm a PC user. The siren voice of the Mac calls in the distance and has most of my working life, but I am a PC user.

My working life has spanned the rise of the PC. When I started we had dumb terminals accessing mainframes. I worked at my desk off green and white stripy printouts. I wrote stuff by hand and had a typist.

Then the PC arrived, complete with MS-DOS, running Lotus 1-2-3. What a revelation. I was never a real computer geek but I could write basic scripts in MS-DOS (until we were stopped from doing it). Then we were given Windows and Excel (running on an MS-DOS environment of course, but still point and click). Amazing.

Okay, so PC's froze and crashed. You saved your work every 5 minutes, but it was still a marked improvement on where we had been. The screen looked like hat you were going to print (as long as you could write the MS DOS printer driver line correctly to print landscape).

Then I got my first home PC, nearly 20 years ago, running Windows 95. Amazing. It still crashed, of course, but home computing had begun properly (I'd been using an Amstrad for w/p before that. Never crashed, but never really did anything else either). I had that PC quite a few years (it was a Gateway 2000, I think). Put in an extra hard drive, and upgraded the BIOS myself. Installed an internal modem as well, and got on the internet. Oh my. Virus city, with virus checkers delivered via a works programme on diskette, and the start of interminable downloads to fix bugs taking ages, messing up your settings, crashing the PC. Blocking the phone line.

Eventually I upgraded it to another machine, and ran Windows 98, I think. The children came along and got PCs for "school work", so we had three in the house, with various versions of operating systems, which I supported. They were mostly stable, but they still froze and crashed. But you put up with it, because that's what any Windows OS did. You learned to live with it, but each upgrade (which you  had to pay for or came with a new machine ) got a little better.

Then finally came Windows XP. It was stable. I can hardly recall it crashing. It was fast, it was easy to use. It did what I wanted. I could leave the children's PCs pretty much to themselves. After all the crap before it, I think I earned Windows XP.

And I use it still. Not on this machine (Windows 7, with the last machine upgrade), but on my Netbook. It's perfect for me. I can write my blogs, I can produce magazine articles, I can do spreadsheets. I can even browse the net with it.

And now you've said you won't support it any more. Hackers will be all over it you say. Upgrade now. XP is the past. It won't support touch screen technology.

Well, I have to say the best way of getting text into a screen is still a keyboard, not touch screen, so I say "So What?". I don't want to touch the screen when I'm typing, thank you.

It's not an original comment, but when you released the software you should have tested it properly. Any vulnerabilities being found now were in it when you first produced it. Any one else who produced any other product that now became a risk, regardless of how long ago it was developed, would take responsibility for it. You don't. You just tell us to upgrade to an operating system that won't really run on hardware that is actually perfectly adequate for its purpose. Windows 8 will cost me more than my Netbook is worth, and it'll probably run like a dog, and I'll have to upgrade it myself.

And I do all of this to stay where I am. I get no benefit from this apart from security from bugs you'll now publicise with your new software but won't fix.

It's immoral. You know it is. And you can afford to support XP. How much per annum to run the XP team? $1 million or more? Unlikely. You can afford it. It isn't obsolete. It's the perfect operating system to run on simple PCs.

Thank you for not listening.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Do As I Say....

...and not as I do.

I wrote a piece a while back about doing wargames projects. You can access my thoughts here, and I think they are still valid.

My central point was that you shouldn't buy new stuff until you have finished the stuff you're working on. That way you are incentivised to finish your current army. I also made the point about avoiding behaviours that lead you to buy stuff that is never going to get painted.

One of the push backs I had was that it was essential to buy all the nice stuff you see before they stop making it anymore.

I've never really had this problem with the sort of figures I buy and also how I plan my purchases. Currently I'm buying and painting 20mm plastics, mostly from Hat, and they produce piles of the stuff.

The broad aims of my current project are wider than just producing an Assyrian Army. What I'm looking at doing is producing a collection of figures in 20mm plastic painted and based consistently that bridge as far as is possible from the Sumerians to Hannibal. Units can increasingly be utilised in different armies as the periods overlap and the armies grow. This means I've got some gaps in my current armies as allied contingents (eg Thracians) need to be expanded to make viable armies. Same for non-Roman Italian Republican period forces.

But it looks like I may have already missed the some areas. I need arabs, - they bang up against pretty much everyone in the Middle East after all. So far in the 20mm plastic box market place there's one packet, - Caesar's Biblical Era Camel Riders and Bedouin. And they seem to be pretty much unobtainable.

So this leads me to my next project. It's a major army with lots of useful troop types in it and is supported by a few nice boxes. However these are a few years old and it looks like they've gone out of production.

Some boxes are still available from suppliers, but there aren't many. So I'm left with a dilemma. Do I dive in now and buy a load up, breaking my cardinal rule of army painting? Or trust that they, or something similar, will be avaialble in a year or so's time. What's more, I haven't done the proper research yet, so I'll have to hoover up enough boxes to ensure I have enough for all the various permutations.

Which is the bigger crime here, hypocrisy or missing out on a slightly vague goal?

On the other hand, my contract is due up shortly and I may be out of work for a while so I'll have some time on my hands.

Or I could start work on something completely different.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

From Ass to Bab

First run in with the new army. Good turn out from the Monday Night boys, with Phil, Chris W & Richard all in attendance.

I split my collection into two, and arbitrarily declared half to be Assyrians and half to be Babylonians. Because under AMW Assyrians are seriously hard (all Elite & inspire terror) and Babylonians aren't (all a bit rubbish and don't inspire terror) I tried to even things up by giving the Babylonians more missile weapons. Again under AMW there's a provision for all Heavy Infantry units to be half archers. This rule isn't entirely thought out, however, as may become clearer later on.

Chris took the lead as the Assyrian commander, with Phil as his number two. Richard got the Babylonians with my support. I then let the two generals shift units around to vary my delivered set up.

The Assyrians started with a general advance all along the line, but wheeled slightly to shift the main axis of their attack onto our left wing, where Richard was in command.

Richard's natural inclination is to defend, so we hung back a bit, hoping they would walk into our massed archery. Such as it was. Our main offensive plan was to use our cavalry on the left to run down some light troops and then cause havoc in their rear. Genius.

On my flank I had one chariot facing off against a chariot and a cavalry unit. This held no fear for me as I was supported by some bow-wielding heavy infantry.

We edged closer to each other. I wanted to delay any charges as it would give my archery time to take effect. Fat chance. On the positive side the terror rule turned out generally to be a non-event.

Richard's cavalry headed towards the Assyrian slingers (NB these are not in the AMW army lists. Strange). He lost a base in the process to them and supporting light archers, but so what? He's still rolling 9 dice in combat against 4. What could possibly go wrong?

In the middle we lost some light archers to some Auxiliaries (you can see them not in the picture below as they've just died), but I caught them with my equivalents, and passed the terror test again.

Things then started to implode. In one round of combat the cavalry hit one slinger, took four casualties (ie 4 hits inflicted out of 4 dice rolls and no saves) and then failed the subsequent morale test. Three bases down to one in the blink of an eye.

It was going better for my chariots who seemed to be very good at saving rolls where Phil wasn't. I was soon a base up as we both wheeled our supporting units into contact.

Phil got there first and I lost a base.

In the left centre the Assyrians continued their steady advance. Richard decided to deal with this situation by entering into a controlled withdrawal (aka running away). In fairness, the cavalry unit didn't even survive the next turn, although they killed another slinger, and the unit was reduced to two by a morale check.

Everyone was now stuck in on my side, and the Assyrian chariots were rapidly being reduced to boxwood.

This picture just shows how scary the Assyrian Guard units are, and how nice their shields are.

No matter, we would shoot them to death with our superior missile power. Or not, if we roll like this.

On my flank both the chariot units finally expired, so my infantry turned towards the centre to help out, whilst the cavalry considered their options.

Here we are as the denouement was reached. Our line is breached, and those Guards are about to exit the board and sack our camp. Game over.

The game took us a couple of hours or so of not particularly intense playing, so there was enough time for post game beverages and biscuits and discussion. As always with AMW everyone enjoyed themselves whilst still being aware of issues with the rules. If a unit is half bows and half spears, what do you take off when you lose the first base? The armour level of heavy cavalry is the same as light infantry, and two levels down from heavy chariots, which are also better protected than those Guards with the big shields.

The terror test was a non-event, but that's just the dice. The game showed us that there are no racing certainties in any event, with the destruction of Richard's cavalry by skirmishers.

I was not intending to modify the rules for these figures but......some of the things the game needs to deal with are being dealt with by "To Ur..." so perhaps there's mileage in a later period update of those.

I love AMW. I really do. However I think the rules work best for the Classical period (which were the original rules in Neil Thomas' first book), and are also improved by increasing the number of units to even out the outrageous fortune that sometimes occurs.

Any how, it was good to get some new toys out and have a gathering of friends to chew the fat afterwards. That's why we're in the hobby, after all.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Wednesday Preview

Some pictures of the Assyrians before their first engagement, due Wednesday evening.

Playing AMW straight from the book means 8 units a side, each with four bases. Working my way steadily through my pile of boxes bought last year(see earlier post) means I have now finished the following:

2 chariot units (total 8 chariots)
2 cavalry units (total 24 horse men)
3 allied auxiliaries (total 36 figures)
1 unit of slingers (total 8 figures)
3 units of light archers (total 32 figures)
3 units regular heavy infantry with long shields (48 figures)
2 units Royal Guard infantry with round shields (32 figures)

Some of the heavy infantry are a mix of spearsmen and archers, with the rear rank armed with bows. No General figure yet, but AMW doesn't need it. Still a lot to paint, and unless I change the chariot rules will need to buy more of those as well.

The pictures below are just some quick snaps to whet the appetite:

Army number 1. Includes the slingers and two auxiliary infantry

Army number 2. Includes the two Guards. Will be the army to beat.

Two units of Regular Infantry

Cavalry and chariots almost in the picture

Two units of Allied Auxiliaries

The Royal Guards
As I said, I've got quite a bit more to paint. There's probably another 2 cavalry regiments, and lots of heavy infantry. At least double what I have now I think. There's also some more light archers, and one more auxiliary unit, or two if I can find some spare figures elsewhere to fill the gap.

I'm pretty sure I need more figures I'll be using these for Babylonians as well, so it might be good if their heavy infantry was based at least in part on the allies box, so I can at least tell the difference.

My resolve on these is to play the rules straight, and not write my own.

Yeah. Right.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Didn't spot that

Did a play test of "To Ur is Human" last night. Richard and Phil turned up in good order so I was able to have two players run over my latest thinking.

I made quite a few changes from the last game. In particular I halved the size of the Battle Cart units and doubled the dice they rolled. This enabled me to use the number of dice rolled per base in a unit in combat as a proxy for how scary a unit is to its opponents when combined with the morale quality. Other factors are taken into account as well, such as whether you just got beaten in combat, but this is looking like a core mechanism.

The Fear Test had a slight overhaul following the last game, mainly to deal with rallying, but I'm afraid it let me down a bit in this game.

This game was played on a completely open table, and halving the Battle Cart unit size meant I could have more of that type of unit in the game. This opened the game up quite a bit, and I got a lot of good playtest events. Most unit types got involved with most other unit types to give me a good feel for how the unit interaction will work. It was all going swimmingly until one of Phil's trained heavy infantry units charged into Richard's elite Royal Guards. Despite getting a good margin in his favour on the fear test the status of the Guards would not drop to "fright". They resolutely held their ground in "fight" mode. As I looked at the table in the rules I could see where the problem was, but changing that meant that everything else in the table would have to be adjusted too. Next we had another test with an extreme die rolling event of 6 v 1, and the side with the higher score still lost. Not what was intended.

I'm sure this shouldn't happen, and I had spent sometime Monday evening running the various numbers and percentages through a spreadsheet. Obviously I had made a mistake or possibly I've saved the wrong version of the Fear Table. Either way, I have a real problem with what is the central part of the game mechanism/philosophy. The point of the game is to model the effects of fear on the various sides as they approach and enter into combat. If  that bit doesn't work then I might as well just go back to basic AMW.

Of course none of these issues is insurmountable, I think. I just sketched out on a desk pad over lunch how a revised table might look having concluded it isn't simply a matter of tweaking the numbers. Hopefully in the next few days I can work it up into a proper table and look at the effect of the die roll modifiers.

The game gave a lot of cause for optimism. The sequence of how it hangs together and the "Fear Test" concept seems to create an enjoyable game. Phil spent most of the evening with a big grin on his face, even when complaining about how bits of the game weren't working for him. Richard went through the different options available to him in forensic detail and it was clear the game gives a good level of decision making to the players.

Some of the processes worked well. Phil lost a Battle Cart unit as a direct result of it failing a Fear Test when it tried to charge.This temporary delay gave his opponent another round of archery which weakened him for the eventual charge.

Other elements of the game performed well, and we had an excellent incident where evading light troops were unable to retire quickly enough and got run down by Battle Carts.

In summary, I have some surgery to do on the rules as they did get a major work out in pretty much all areas. It's looking good for CoW I would say.

Post Script: Phil was just back from his success at the SoA Montaperti Battle Day, where he won the "Best Game" prize. A couple of the playtests have been covered in this blog, so congratulations to him. Next year is going to be Hydaspes. Now, who do I know with a massive collection of classical period Indians?

Oh, that would be me.

Final PS: No pictures this week. I got so involved in what was going on that my few pictures do not really tell the story of the game. You'll all just have to marvel at the beauty of my prose instead.