How to Wargame, A New Video Series

Now up on the channel are two new videos in a new series called How to Wargame, with a focus on bringing newcomers to wargaming with explanatory walkthroughs and topical treatments. It will be an ongoing series even after I’m finished explaining the first title, Paths of Glory from GMT Games and designer and general WWI master Ted Racier.

In the first video I introduce the game and explain the various components.

In episode 2 we delve into the sequence of play, discuss the victory conditions and explain two of the game’s phases: Mandated Offensives and War Status.

Enjoy! The response so far has been incredibly encouraging. Feel free to share these around.

Stellaris First Impressions

I’ve long wished for a space 4X game done is the Paradox style. For a long time, the Distant Worlds series was the only game in town, high-priced and primitively adapted to the modern GUI as it was. Now we have the long-awaited Stellaris, from Paradox itself, and it is at once very much in the style of their grand strategy games, and at the same time differs from their earlier games in a number of intriguing respects.

As the developers have explained it, Stellaris plays out in a three-act framework. In the first act you play a 4X game, in the second you play a more typical Paradox grand strategy game, and in the third you face some kind of final confrontation generated by the game based on the actions of the players. There’s really a fourth part, a prologue of sorts in which you create your species and would-be interstellar empire, that has huge ramifications on how you will play the rest of the game.

I’m closing in on the end of the first act in my own game, and the demarcation line isn’t a clean one. Perhaps I have just drawn a short straw; perched on the galactic rim, I have a vast expanse of uncolonizable space immediately to antispinward. On the one hand, this has seriously crimped the eXpand element of the 4X formula; but on the other, it’s kept alien enemies largely off my ass, including one “fallen” empire, advanced and powerful but stagnant and decrepit.

From the pre-launch video playthroughs I’ve seen (press copies issued to various YouTube bigshots had their blackouts lifted late last week,) this experience seems like a bit of an outlier… but nobody seems to be having quite the same early-game experience even with relatively similar races and empires. Which suggests a lot of variability to gameplay even in the early stages. This is a good thing.

Just because my colonization has been a bit crimped and I haven’t had that much contact with other empires, though, doesn’t mean the time has been spent sending ships out into empty space; there’s a lot to do even in unoccupied parts of the galaxy. There’s quite a bit of space-based life, some of it placid and some of it hostile. There’s also pirates, typically by dissidents from your own empire and using its cast-off hardware. There are also systems to survey and anomalies to investigate, and deep-space stations and mining and science outposts to build. I felt like my empire was straining against its borders, but maybe the solution is to find natural borders and let the game progress from there, developing your empire internally.

How well Stellaris segues into the second phase of gameplay is something I’ll be finding out in the next few hours of play. Meanwhile, though, my early impressions are very positive. The early exploration and colonization driven gameplay is a lot of fun, the randomized tech progression mixes things up nicely, and the choices you make designing your empire have a huge impact on your experience. So far it’s pretty much what I wanted from a Paradox Space Strategy game.

Not that there’s no room for expansions to richen the experience. Diplomacy in particular has lots of room for elaboration. But following the typical Paradoix model we can expect that Stellaris will get robust DLC support over the next several years, turning it into as deep and engaging — and opaque — a space game as we’ve seen anywhere. It’s good to get in on the ground floor of that.

On the flip side, by its very nature Stellaris is Paradox’s most approachable title, because everyone starts with just one planet and can grow and develop, with the player learning the game as she goes, before rubbing shoulders with other empires. In Europa Universalis IV, for example, you really shouldn’t start playing with a small country with hardly anything to manage; you’ll have few options and powerful neighbors that will obliterate you after a single mistake. Stellaris completely avoids that issue.

I’m going to keep playing and I am likely to have more thoughts down the line as my game matures. My first impression is very positive — if you don’t opt to pick it up now at full price, keep an eye on it when it goes on sale. If you enjoy space 4X at all, even if you think it stalls in the mid-game, Stellaris is still going to provide some quality hours.

Good News & Bad News

It was an eventful week for MMORPG fans. In bad news, EverQuest Next was scuttled by Daybreak and 40% of Wildstar’s staff was given the golden toe by NCSoft in preparation for that game’s looming closure. In better news, Black Desert Online launched with a decent bit of buzz and the live stream of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen surprised a lot of people.

The abortion of EQNext is symptomatic of two things, I think. One is the obvious haplessness of Daybreak, a company displaying no clear signs of knowing what it is doing at any level. The other is the relative decline in what I’m forced to call “Immersive World RPGs.” The perception is that there’s no longer a market for triple-A games of this kind. This may or may not actually be true, but with the cancellation of EQNext I can’t think of any that are in development in the west. Even the extant games are slowly shuttering or evolving away from the immersive world.

Of course, there are a host of such games brewing at the indie level. Two that I have my eye on are Richard Garriot’s Shroud of the Avatar and Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, both of which are slowly progressing under small development teams. In both cases some, shall we say, less than triple-A quality stuff has been shown; the early Pantheon footage was scarily primitive-looking.

But both games are coming along. On Friday, Visionary Realms streamed the first-ever gameplay from Pantheon, live and unscripted. It was “pre-Alpha,” whatever that even means anymore, and while we only saw a small part of the world, the game has obviously come a very long way indeed.

For one thing, it looks terrific. The Unity 5 engine has really come through here, and this looks as good as anything I have seen using that platform. The character and spell animations are obviously still placeholders (which the devs mention) and there was some graphical glitching but overall it looks tremendous.

More impressive, though, was the actual gameplay. Six devs just playing, with no cheats, and hashing out strategies on the fly, first for clearing out an Orc camp and then penetrating a cult’s mysterious sanctum. The novel Pantheon mechanics of colored mana and atmospheres were on display, but the coolest thing was that stuff happened that the devs didn’t expect. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this point; true emergent gameplay isn’t even seen as desirable in MMOs anymore. The Pantheon team appears to get why it’s awesome and why it belongs in an Immersive World RPG.

Welcome to the Silverlands

I am currently designing a fantasy RPG called Silverlands. In brief, the game is built on the d20 chassis but hacked to use a 2d10 resolution mechanic and with many major subsystems completely redesigned.

While it’s not my design goal, it may be helpful to think of Silverlands as an “answer” to the OSR that’s seen through the lens of Rolemaster, Chivalry & Sorcery, Traveller, RuneQuest and other RPGs of the late 70s and early 80s, and even later RPGs designed in a similar or referential style. D&D itself is, to be sure, a strong influence as well, and the uttermost foundations still, I think, carry a strong familial resemblance.

While also not my intent, you may also see Silverlands as a “fantasy heartbreaker,” and I’m completely comfortable with that label. It is a personal “desert island game,” that I have wanted to design, and in some sense have been designing, for many years. It is an very personal project, made for me, and if other folks get something from it, so much the better. Questions about potential future publication plans are not pertinent at this time, although it’s my intention to eventually distribute it in some manner.

About the Game

Characteristics are rolled randomly, but in due time I intend to add some kind of deterministic system for setting the scores. The game has classes (Vocations) and character levels, but also has a loose but expansive skill system. Character generation is a “light lifepath” affair, where a big chunk of your starting abilities come from your background and the basic training of your chosen vocation. (You can think of these as level -1 and 0, if you like, although they aren’t framed that way.) You also fully develop your character for level 1 before starting play. The level range is purposefully tight: 1-9 is the general range, and anything beyond it is in Demigod territory.

Complexity

I am very cognizant of the issues surrounding undue rules complexity. At the same time, though, I personally prefer juicier games when it comes to fantasy RPG. These rules will try to strike a balance between the two extremes, and, once stable, they will not suffer further bloat. In most cases I think that you’ll find a complexity level somewhere between that of D&D 5th Edition and D&D 3.0 — and concerning the latter, I mean only the core rules included in the PHB, not the whole array of rules and supplements. I regard this as an absolute cap on rules density.

When all is said and done, this means that Silverlands should end up being noticably less complicated than the systems in the D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder core books. But it will not be a “light” game.

Progress so Far

The game still has a long way to go; currently I am drafting the mechanics. This is not a book draft, but an outline of how everything works mechanically. I’m calling it the “skeleton.” At the moment the basic core mechanic is hammered out to this level, along with combat and part (but a usable part) of the magic system. Character creation is drafted as well, but again with only a fraction of the planned options.

With that out of the way, let’s start taking a look at specific mechanics, starting with the basics of the game system.

Silverlands Logo 4 SMALL

General Guidelines

The following are generally in effect:

  • When halving or otherwise dividing, always round down unless otherwise specified. (Aside: There will be no such speficication if I can help it.)
  • The game uses D10s in various ways, and d4s for stat generation. I am not opposed to using other kinds of dice, but currently we only use d4 and d10.

The Core Mechanism

Checks are called for when the success or failure of an action is in question. They are rolled on 2d10 and come in several types:

A basic check is made against a Difficulty set by the GM. If a check type is not otherwise specified it is considered a basic check. A table of Difficulty guidelines is provided below. If the check equals or exceeds the Difficulty with his or her final result, the action is a success.

Difficulty Description
12 Trivial
14 Easy
16 Moderate
18 Challenging
20 Difficult
22 Very Difficult
24 Extreme

A contested check or contest is performed against another character or entity’s skill. Both parties roll and add the appropriate modifiers; the roller of the higher total succeeds or is victorious, with the specifics determinedby the GM. If the final result is a tie, it is indeterminate, although one participant may prevail by default, where deemed appropriate by the GM.

An extended check is used for a lengthy action involving several skills. Each skill is rolled individually, and a mix of regular and contested checks may be called for. If any of the checks succeeds, the overall action is successful, but the GM will introduce complications for any checks that fail. These complications can include combat but normally shouldn’t.

The GM can break out of an extended check to perform a regular combat, or can resolve it with a single quick combat check and a quick narration. At the end of the combat the GM can deside whether it was a success or failure based on the results.

A quick battle check can be used when a whole battle needs to be resolved with a single roll. This is a contested check where the two sides add their Quick Battle Bonus (QBB) to the roll. The higher total wins, and each losing participant suffers conditions with levels equal to the difference, along with a consequence determined by the GM. (Aside: Yes, this needs further development; an iteration of it will eventually appear in a set of mass combat rules.)

Regardless of the type of check, a character will add a Skill Bonus (SB) to the roll. This bonus is equal to the number of ranks the character has in the skill plus the modifier of the relevant characteristic. If a skill has multiple characteristics, the lowest modifier is used.

PanzerGrenadier… Fail

My planned PanzerGrenadier game and accompanying video playthrough… did not go well. I was an hour into playing and filming and what I was doing was simply not fun. I talk about some of the reasons for that in the embedded video.

Fundamentally I think it comes down to a lack of depth, which appears to lie in the system but also in the maps and scenarios. One would expect this comparing it to ASL… but I think that even Combat Commander, a game I’m not exactly wild about, beats the pants off of PG in this regard. I would be curious to look at Lock n’ Load as another point of possible comparison.

I’m a little pissed at myself for having hung onto this for all these years before realizing that it’s simply not for me. For those who like it, enjoy. I have six of the early out of print products (the original PG itself, Heroes of the Soviet Union, Akrika Korps, Desert Rats, Airborne and Battle of the Bulge) now available for trade. Hit me up on BGG if you’re interested.

Roads to Moscow is now on the table.

Normandy Games

I’ve been looking lustily at Dan Holte’s The Battle for Normandy for some time. It is an impressive game: the whole of the Normandy campaign though early August at the Battalion level. Big maps, tons of counters and much detail.

At the same time I have now played a game of Mark Simonitch’s Normandy ’44, also from GMT and covering basically the same thing but on one map and at the Regimental level.

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Bear in mind that I have played the one but merely watched a bunch of video and looked at the rules for the other when I say that Normandy ’44 appears to me to be a much superior game. The Battle for Normandy looks decent, I will grab it if the opportunity arises, and would look with great interest upon an eventual second edition. But given that it is out of print and is unlikely to return to the P500 soon, thereby keeping prices inflated, I’ve moved it from the top of my (short and tight) wantlist to close to the bottom.

I remain interested in another, lower-scale game covering the Normandy campaign, however. The two I am looking are are both from MMP: the Tactical Combat Series entry The Greatest Day appears to be a bit too fine-grained, but despite its ugly (IMO) map their Day of Days is getting a look as well. I suppose I should also drop Atlantic Wall into the mix as well, since it also has the right scale and covers the campaign for the full timeframe that I’m interested in.

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