Games

Mad Max and Warhammer 40,000: A transition from Orks to Chaos Marines

Over the course of watching the various Mad Max films, I've noticed a peculiar shift.

The aesthetic in the 1980s was one of biker junkyard tribal punks - spiked mohawks, salvaged hotrods and a callous, barfight-level ethos.  The villains in both The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome are brutal, but not particularly sinister.  They laugh when the other side is hurt, but they laugh when their own lads get smashed.  All in good fun, mate.

They consciously copy J.R.R. Tolkien's visions of orcs as callous, bullying Cockney louts.  There is a scene in Lord of the Rings where one orc leader tells his counterpart about a time they thought one of their soldiers had been killed by Shelob, only to find him quite alive, but hanging in a web.  Oh how they laughed, and of course they left him there because they are callous, cruel and also cowardly. 

This vision clearly informed Games Workshop's background for Warhammer 40,000.  The space orks (note the spelling) are entirely based on the biker types from the Mad Max films.  In fact, GW goes even farther, with wildly improbable machines, all described in Cockney terms.

With Mad Max Fury Road, the aesthetic changed sharply.  The vehicles are still modified, but they are built with a far more sinister purpose, and instead of tribal warriors with strong individual identities, one sees homogenous shaven-headed dark-eyed fanatics serving a skull-mask wearing leader. 

Or, as anyone familiar with 40k would say: a Chaos Lord.

Indeed, there is a vehicle in Fury Road that could have been cribbled from one of the Chaos rulebooks - I'm speaking of the vehicle with a helmeted guitar player surrounded by a wall of speakers wielding a flame-throwing instrument.  If this guy isn't a Champion of Slaanesh, I don't know what is.

Is George Miller a 40k fan, or is it mere coincidence?  I have no idea, but I find the similarities to be striking.


Space Marine inflation

I started playing Warhammer 40,000 back in the 1990s.  In those distant halcyon days, one could buy the Warhammer 40,000 starter boxed set and the included figures were a good start on a combat-ready army.

In fact, if you and a friend both went in on boxes, you could trade the figures and each would have a pretty decent force.  Buy a few extras, maybe a tank, and you were ready to go!

Plastic Space Marines ran about a dollar a figure back then, and I remember my disgust when Games Workshop raised the prices until they reached $2 each.  When the price hit $3, I was done with the game, which was not only expensive but devolving into a never-ending upgrade cycle.

I see now that the marines are $5.50 each, and while one is tempted to blame overall inflation, this is pure greed on the part of GW.

A clear indicator of this is that as the rules continue to churn every 3 years, new units are created and old units are rendered obsolete.  It's like buying vaporware that never finishes getting upgraded.

A major reason I stick with 2nd Edition is that I no longer care about the current rules cycle.  I own the rules outright.  Similarly, I developed Conqueror: Fields of Victory as a way to getting off the upgrade treadmill.

I mention this because I've decided to part with some of my 40k figures which have seen zero use over many years and are better off in someone else's home.

I'm still building armies, but I prefer out of print figures on the secondary market and I'm happy to use ones that don't originate from Games Workshop.

Anyone interested in picking them up?  Keep your eyes peeled on ebay for some Blood Angels in varying stages of completion.


The ideal family-friendly strategy game

From time to time, I come up with various game designs.  Conqueror: Fields of Victory remains my only published work, but I lots of other projects in various stages of completion.

It seems to me that the ideal game should have some potential for direct conflict between players, use a little bit of resource allocation, including enough randomness to keep things interesting, and be finished in an hour or less.

That last part is key.  If a game is interesting but ends quickly, you can also give it another try.

Euchre - the semi-official card game of Michigan - is like that.  It's possible to do a couple of hands of Euchre in a few minutes.  In high school, people would do a hand or two between classes or a full-on game over lunch.

Perhaps I'm showing my age, but standard kit by my senior year was a Euchre deck in your backpack.  Find three other people, and it's game on.

That portability and ease of play was a major factor in the rise of games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon.  No need to set up a game board, place pieces and so on, just give me some table space and a pack of cards and we can sort things out.

One of George Lucas' many crimes against humanity was his decision to end the licensing agreement for the Star Wars Collectible Card Game.  This was a fun and very successful system, but Lucas had by this time bought out Hasbro (which had acquired his original merchandiser, Kenner) and he wanted to consolidate toy and game sales.  Hasbro by this point owned Wizards of the Coast, so they were directed at coming up with a suitable replacement that is entirely forgotten today.

At any rate, my mind is turning towards a new game design, and with the holidays coming up, the potential for playtesting is pretty good.

 


The joy of miniatures

A few weeks ago I noted that I was rediscovering my interest in Warhammer 40,000.   The necessary first step was revisiting the baseline post for the game on this site, which includes a series of rules changes/clarifications that improve what I consider to be the definitive edition, the 2nd.

I should clarify that I'm not one of those people that enjoy painting miniatures for their own sake.  I paint to play, period.  Absent a gaming environment, I wouldn't own any models at all.  The only model kits I retain from my childhood are the ones I adapted to use in wargaming.

That being said, if I know a game is coming up, I will throw myself into the act of creation and few things bring me more joy that watching a unit go through the process of acquisition, assembly, priming, painting and final finishing.  My painting table had languished for months, collecting various sundry items I was too lazy to put elsewhere, but now the main space is cleared and groups of models are staged around it, waiting their turn.

Amidst the current turmoil, it's a welcome escape to put on some music and focus my thoughts entirely on what shade of blue will suit the unit of Swooping Hawks I am working on.  Yes, the Eldar army is my current focus.  While I remain a 2nd ed. loyalist, I have no particularly affinity for Games Workshop's overpriced kits.  Many of my armies are built around equivalent figures from other manufacturers.

For example, my Imperial Guard is largely WW II historical models, and I've used some creative color choices on weapons finish and the rim of the base to indicate weapon types in the 40k environment.  The armored vehicles are modified Tamiya kits and these have been more extensively altered to feature weapon sponsons, crash bars and other features necessary for combat ops in the Grim Dark Future.

The determinative factors for me are cost and aesthetic.  For example, my Tyranid army is only a few years old, the last one I collected.  It is exclusively made of GW figures because these fit the bill and older kits are now selling for very reasonable prices.  My Eldar, on the other hand, is almost entirely Void models. 

Void was a short-lived competitor to Warhammer 40,000 that collapsed after a very ambitious launch sometime in the Aughts.  The parent company's demise (i-kore) coincided with worsening economic conditions in Michigan, and the result was many of the independent hobby stores went out of business.  As a result, I was able to buy a huge collection of figures for pennies on the dollar.  The Void aesthetic was more streamlined and less steampunk than GW's, so these models worked well as the advanced but declining Eldar. 

In fact, I only recently bought some actual Eldar models (jet bikes).  Again, prices for older edition kits are now quite reasonable, even as the current game's prices soar.

It's axiomatic that miniatures collections are never "finished."  People might sell them off, or they might stop using them, but no one ever proclaims the thing complete.   There's always room for one more model - and in fact, there's probably more than one model that still needs to be assembled or painted at any given time.

This means that if you take a month or a year off, when you come back, there's something ready and waiting for you to work on, which is nice.


More on Warhammer 40,000

One of the fun things about revisiting a favorite old game is that you get to revisit all the cobwebby nonsense you previously wrote about it.

As an author, I can say with some authority that revisions drive me nuts.  Nothing is worse than finding that you're circulation and obsolete version of a document you've long since improved.

With that in mind, I'm happy to direct people to the new, revised, clarified and in every way better post on my fixes to Warhammer 40,000, which of course center on the 2nd edition of the game.


Getting back into Warhammer 40,000

Other than a few posts about my still-incomplete Conqueror: Siege Assault supplement, I've been pretty light on the topic of gaming lately.  I intend to change that.

In the past couple of weeks I've rediscovered my fondness for Warhammer 40,000, though I must clarify that this is focused exclusively on the 2nd edition of the game, which went out of print in late 1998.

I'm sure cynics will suggest that I retain a fondness for that particular version out of pure nostalgia, but my affection for it is based on the objective superiority of its design over any of its successors (GW is apparently on the 9th edition now) and part of that excellence stemmed from it much more limited scope.

I don't think even seasoned players can reliably count up all the current army lists, variants, sub-variants and specialty lists GW is currently pushing.  I find that a huge deterrent to "getting current" and playing the in-print version.  I believe the 2nd edition, which had fewer, more distinct factions gave the armies much more divergent tactics, which made the game more interesting.

In any event, I reckon I will revisit some of these topics in greater detail in the next few days, and likely update my materials pertaining to the One True Edition of Warhammer 40,000.


Conqueror: Siege Assault - basic concepts

Over the next few days I will be posting some of the working rules I've developed for Conqueror: Siege Assault.  These are the trial versions and obvious need to be firmed up.

Feedback is much appreciated.

The Fortress

Fortifications over time have varied greatly, form simple earthen mounds to wooden stockades and finally stone castles.  It is impossible for one set of rules to cover all of these materials in detail (and foolish to try) so instead we will focus on the essential structures and provide rules to support attacking (or defending) them.

Curtain Walls

This is the building block of all fortresses, and their height and materials are entirely up to the players’ imagination.  For convenience, however, we shall assume that they are at least twice the height of models being used to attack them and created in sections six to twelve inches long.  They should have some form of parapet along the top where the defenders can stand and this should be wide enough to support two models.

The key features of curtain walls for our purposes are that they can be scaled using ladders and breached with greater ease than any other section of the fortress.  We will look into this in greater detail later.

Towers

Towers are self-contained defensive works that overshadow the curtain walls.  Towers are much smaller (no more than four inches on a side) and too high to be reached by ladders.  Breaching a tower is more difficult (due the deeper foundations necessary to support their immense weight) and also more dangerous to the defenders.

The Gate

The gate is the most vulnerable and therefore important point in the entire fortress.  The gate may be simply a gap in the wall or a complex building featuring a portcullis and multiple doors.  Either way, possession of the gate is usually tantamount to taking the fortress.

The Keep

Some castles may be built with a keep, which is rally just an enlarged tower.  The keep is too high for ladders, too difficult to batter down (since it is often inside the curtain walls) and it serves as the last refuge for the defenders.

Rally Points

In field battles, routed units have plenty of room to try to make good their escape, but within the confines of a castle, there are less options.

Troops outside the walls will fleet away from the enemy as normal, with defending troops attempting to reach the (relative) safety of their fortress. 

Within the walls, defending troops will attempted to reach a rally point, that is a spot within the castle selected before the game begins.  This will usually be a tower or the keep (if there is one).

Attacking troops will attempt to escape and will only rally outside the walls.

Special Morale Rules

Limited Outranking

Because the tight confines of a fortress do not lend themselves to fighting in close order, combats will generally not see the outranking bonus applied.  Thus units scaling walls, using siege towers, etc. will not receive this bonus.  However, where space permits (such as a breach), the extra weight of numbers will be felt.  The simple rule is: if both sides are fighting from a position where normal ranks can be utilized, this is included, if either side cannot benefit from it, no one does.

Desperate Defenders

Troops defending a fortress are under no illusion regarding their chances of escape, and typically will fight with greater determination than in the open field.  To reflect this “backs against the wall” mentality, defending troops gain a +1 bonus to all their morale rolls.  Note that this applies even to units outside the fortress (since the sortie may be their best hope to survive).

Special Shooting Rules

Full Cover

Units within a fortress generally benefit from a -2 to hit modifier for being in heavy cover.  However, if the walls are properly battlemented (which they should be), units may take Full Cover, that is stay below the parapet or step back from the arrow loop to avoid any risk of taking missile fire.

Units within a fortress may start the game in Full Cover (and it’s a good idea to assume that they do), and may only emerge from it during their own movement phase – they may not “pop up” during the opposing player’s turn to participate in their portion of the shooting phase.

Once out of Full Cover, they may not return to it until it is once again their Movement Phase.

Overhead Bombardment

Models on the top of walls or towers are assumed to be equipped with copious amounts of missiles (rocks, boiling liquids, darts, pianos, kitchen sinks) that can be dropped on the attackers below.

These weapons make missile attacks as normal during the Shooting Phase using their unmodified Shooting Skill.  Unlike normal missile attacks, the resulting hits are not halved (because the targets are so closely packed together) and have an armor save modifier of -2.

Models may only target models “beneath them” aligning as if they were to engage in Melee Combat.  Just as with Melee Combat, only a partial overlap is needed to conduct the attack.

Models may move into position (either up to the wall or along it to reach a troop concentration) and still attack without penalty.

 


Conqueror: Siege Assault continues to grind forward

I've been tinkering with siege rules for Conqueror: Fields of Victory on and off for years.  I'm currently in an "on" cycle.

Though I'm not sure what will come of it, it's fun to do some recreational game design, especially when it involves cool figures and a neat custom-built castle.

One of the great obstacles is integrating siege warfare into a system designed for open-field combat.  In the close confines of castle courtyards and along battlements, things like wheeling and formation changes just don't apply.

I also want to ensure that I'm using the right amount of detail.  That was the hallmark of the original system and I want to retain that.

At this point, I'm looking only at the culminating assault (hence the name) rather than the strategies of a siege (undermining, blockade, etc.) so that the game moves quickly.  I've been tinkering with a grid where each player picks an option and that sets up the type of battle, but it's getting somewhat complex.

In the mean time, the assault ladders are being placed and battle beckons.


Conquest of the Empire 30 years later

Over the past few weeks I've been doing some housecleaning and that's involved reviewing my game collection.

This in turn has caused me to pull out a few venerable designs and re-examine them.

Those of a certain age will recall that during the 1980s, Milton Bradley made a concerted push into the burgeoning wargaming market with their Game Master series, which combined high production values and plastic army men with a design philosophy that was closer to Risk or Stratego than Advanced Squad Leader.

The most prolific offspring of this project was Axis and Allies, which has spawned endless variants, both official and player-driven.   However, that was not the first offering, and earlier this week I dug into a battered copy of it's predecessor: Conquest of the Empire.

This was a multi-player strategy game of the Roman Empire at its height.  The players are rival claimants for the imperial purple, and they fight out their contest on an excellent map of the Empire.

I bought my copy from a classmate, and it was already well-used and missing all the money tokens.  That didn't bother me because I had no interest in the game as written, but instead used it as a test bed for various alternative mechanics.

Thus my first actual playing of the game was only a few days ago.  It kind of sucks.

I was warned about this from my classmate, and I now see that it was true.  I won't go into detail, but if you are expecting the classical design excellence of the peerless Shogun (since renamed Samurai Swords and maybe renamed again), you're in for a huge disappointment.  Combat consists of single die rolls to eliminate individual units, which is a grossly inefficient way of fighting battles.  Apparently this was before MB figured out that hurling fist-fulls of dice is not only faster, but much more satisfying.

There's also an inexplicable rule for inflation that I won't go into, but essentially it punishes players for capturing too much territory.

All that being said, the game still looks beautiful, and a single page of updates should suffice to make this the high-quality social experience it was meant to be.  I'll post it once I get a chance to try them out.


Another COVID project: a World War I card game

Around the time I was in college the great 90s card game fad started.  Perhaps the two biggest names to come out of it were Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering, but the fascination with custom/collectible card games quickly spilled over into wargaming circles.

The game that got my attention was Dixie by Columbia Games (which is still around).  Dixie was a fun little game of the American Civil War that allowed one to do run a small-scale in half an hour or so.  It was essentially the same combat system as the one used in their 'block games' for tactical combat.

It wasn't in the same class as other card games because while one could 'create' a deck, it had to conform to historical realities (one couldn't create a division made up of Iron Brigades, for example).

There were other card games, whose names I've long since forgotten, but Dixie inspired me to make my own game set in World War I.  I called it "Hymn of Hate" after a German war-song the British appropriated to describe the morning and evening barrages that fell daily.

The game went nowhere, though I did commission some artist friends of mine to make cards for it.  They went on to bigger and better things, and even used the card art, so at least it wasn't wasted.

All of this is the back story to a project that helped me keep Election Madness at bay, which was resurrecting that card game.

Between Hymn of Hate's original development and that last few weeks, I've played a lot more card games.  I got pretty addicted to Decipher's Star Wars card game (before George Lucas nuked it) and still have a good-sized collection of cards.  I've also used cards for some of my military operational wargames.

The result is that I've got a first-run version put together that pits two corps/army level commanders against each other for the mastery of the front lines.  I've been using normal playing cards to work with, but modifying deck composition to suit my order of battle needs.  At present, each side has a 60 card deck which includes the standard 52 cards plus the Jokers, two additional Aces, two additional Jacks and two more Jokers (total of 4 Jokers).

The number cards represent infantry battalions while the face cards represent barrages, trench artillery and recon elements.  I treat Aces as 'wild cards' that can do many different things to give the game more elements of strategy.

My goal is to get this to around 1/2 hour playing time, and it's getting close.  The trick is to balance victory requirements with decision making and also ensure that pure card draw doesn't determine the outcome.

I have a draft set of rules and when I get it cleaned up, I'll post it here.