Thursday, January 12, 2017

Star Wars Armada - First Game

The battle begins

I finally got to play a game of Star Wars Armada over the weekend. Short Version: It's good!

The history: The game's been out for almost 2 years. When they first announced it I was very interested - could this be the "Epic" to X-Wing's "40K"? Then I saw the price - $99.95! For a game with 3 ships! That's ... out of line. Points of comparison:

  • 40K 5th edition: 10 tac marines, 5 terminators, a marine captain, and a dreadnought on one side, 10 boyz, 5 nobz, a boss, and 3 deffkoptas on the other side. That's potentially 8 separate units. Admittedly, none of this is painted, but it was also 70 bucks a few years ago. The 6th/7th edition is similar, though the price has crept up towards the $100 mark
  • Dropzone Commander: 3 tanks, 3 APCs, 3 AA vehicles, 6 stands of infantry, 3 dropships each for two different sides, plus a playing mat/poster, 10 cardboard buildings, a full rulebook, and a tape measure. Also not painted but those are quite a few separate units and a nice looking set of terrain to play them on. It lists for 60 pounds and so runs 70-80$ U.S.
  • X-Wing: 3 ships, templates dice etc, lists for $39.99 - the same number of ships, the same basic equipment, less than half the price. Smaller ships, but still a similar item.
The other downside is that, much like X-Wing, if you read some reviews one starter set is barely enough to play a game. The popular verdict seems to be that you need two sets to have a solid base for extended play. That's at least manageable for X-Wing as that puts it into comparable territory with 40K, DZC, and Warmachine when it comes to starter sets. It really hurts Armada. I can't see kids getting into this on their own (unlike X-Wing) so I think that limits its growth to a degree. Hopefully it does well enough to continue being supported for a long time.

Now if the worst thing I can say about a game is that it costs a lot- note that I do not say "too much" - then that's actually a pretty good thing. It looks great on the table and the way it plays it does feel much more like a "big ship" game as opposed to zippy little fighters whooshing around and exploding in one salvo. There are firing arcs beyond "front" and "360", everyone has shields, and facing matters. You have limited control over speed and maneuverability compared to X-Wing, meaning that it takes some effort to do much besides go straight and that will limit your ability to do other things well. This comes about in two ways:

First, the maneuver tool simplifies decades of plotted movement vs. free movement arguments in everything from Full Thrust to Star Fleet Battles. Each ship has a diagram that indicates how many "clicks" it can turn during each move at each speed (bottom left corner up there). Allowed speeds are from 0-4 so it's a limited set of possibilities. This means turns are limited by speed like the turn gauges of old space and naval wargames but everything is built into the ship card and the tool - no protractors! No paper gauges for different turn modes and speeds! It's all of the "realism" we've wanted but in the most playable form I've ever seen for a 2-D space combat game. Yeah, the tool is a little flimsy but buying two starters means we have two of them for now. 

The second part of this is the command dial. Now with X-Wing you pick your move each turn and put it down each turn and that's where you're going. Armada does not do that. Your ship has a basic movement capability based on speed and the maneuver tool and it can probably fire in all directions to at least some degree so I don't see the potential for those uh-oh moments like in the smaller scale game. The command dial instead is "what do you want to be good at next turn" - repairs? shooting? fighter control? or movement? The bigger the ship the more dials you have to lay down at the start of the game, so while the blockade runner is deciding what it's going to be good at this turn the Victory SD is deciding what it will do 3 turns from now. That makes a big difference and you get situations like I chose "repair" a turn ago but no one shot at me this turn and I could have boosted my firing if I had known. 

Also, if you can't or don't want to use the bonus effect right now you can take a "token" instead and save it for later. It's at a lesser effect, but it mitigates the wasted opportunity without allowing for a total change. The "Intensify Firepower" command dial lets you add an extra die once during your shooting. If you save it and use it later it's only a re-roll, not an additional die. It's still good, just not as good. 

The genius here is that unlike a pure plotted movement game this is plotting a bonus effect - if you choose poorly your ship will still be able to move and shoot. It won't cost you your turn, it will just cost you in terms of what you could have done better. Pre-plotted movement games sometimes mean that if you guess wrong as to where the battle is going to happen you get a ship or three off on the other side of the board doing nothing for a few turns until they can get back into the fight. That's not going to happen here, but I was still annoyed when I ended up with repair orders when a boost to my fighters could have turned the game. Rewarding good thinking/strategy with a bonus instead of punishing bad thinking with a penalty or failure is my favorite trend in game design, from boardgames, to miniatures, to RPG's. In this case it's a very actual-play friendly version of plotting ahead and I think it's going to be very enjoyable.   

You might think he's going to blast the Nebulon here. He didn't.
My response was "NO NOT THE PRINCESS!" Ah well. 
Combat is fairly simple - that ship card shows you what color of dice you roll in each firing arc and like in X-Wing there are misses, hits, criticals, and a special result. Hits knock down shields (tracked on dials on each side of the ship). Once the shields are down hits start to count and criticals do bad things to your ship and crew beyond just "damage".  

One fun element is that each ship has some defensive maneuvers it can take (the green things on the ship card up there) like bracing for impact, evading, and rerouting shield power. Different ships have different mixes and some of them have conditions on their usage like "only at long range" etc. You can do them once per incoming volley and if you want to use them again in the same turn you effectively burn them out, losing the ability to do that same defense for the rest of the game. They are tracked with counters so you always know what's available. On top of all that the special result on the combat dice allows the attacker to ignore (or turn off) one of the target's defenses. So there's a lot of back and forth consideration when you blast a ship. it doesn't take all that long to resolve but there's a nice set of choices to make between what your ship can do, what the dice are showing, and what your target can do. 

Fighters: Yes they are in the game and they can have an impact but at this scale they are not the main focus. They have a speed rating from 1 to 5 and can move up to that speed in any direction - so there's no need to advance plot them, as it should be. They have a damage rating vs. other fighters and a separate damage rating vs. ships. If you have enough of them they could hurt a ship but I think it would take a lot for that to happen. There's a "screening" rule that if opposing squadrons move into range 1 then they cannot move (it's assumed they're dogfighting) and they can only shoot at other fighters.  A concerted effort to take down the other guy's fighters might leave enough of your own alive to hurt a big ship but I don't know that it's that simple. They feel very ... expendable. The game comes with X-Wing's and basic TIEs and that's enough to get started. The other types for both sides are in expansion boxes as are things like the Falcon, Slave I, the other bounty hunter ships, the Ghost, etc. 

The end of our first game

There are clearly some other influences here in the mechanics. the one I felt the most was Battlefleet Gothic. Chucking a handful of dice for different results, giving special orders to gain bonuses during the turn, and different types of fighter squadrons moving around the board jumping on each other - all of that felt somewhat familiar. That's nice, and yet it plays smoother than BFG did in a lot of ways. There's no pencil and paper tracking either - it's all on the ships via dials or with counters by the ship card. Once it's put together it's pretty nice. 

We've only scratched the surface with our one game but Apprentice Blaster and I both really like it. I think this may have lit our fire more than X-Wing did and we both like X-Wing quite a bit. One of the big deals at cons in the 80's that I can remember was trying to recreate the space battle over Endor. usually with model ships of some kind and some home-brew rules adapted from something else. That old con favorite is now extremely playable - with some investment of course.

The other comment Blaster made during the game was "What of Armada was like this game?" Yeah, I felt it too. This system is such a fit for a Trek game.

Oh look, someone else is looking into this already.

And this:

Lots of inspiration out there. More to come I am sure.

So how did we end up with the game after griping about the price? Well if there's a thing you're interested in you need to check Amazon for it. Their prices change every day. For months they had Armada listed at $60. Leading up to Christmas 2016 it shot up to $80. Then the day after Christmas it dropped to $45. I have no idea why, but at that point I jumped on it and got two sets per the general recommendation. So that's what we're working with for now. I figure since we like it we will pick up a ship or so a month and see how it goes. The no-painting thing with these games means we can add it into the rotation of "stuff we play" without adding a big pile of ships to the painting backlog and that's a pretty big attraction around here. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Obligatory Rogue One Post

I'm a first generation Star Wars fan - I saw it when I was 8. Loved the original trilogy as a whole. Mostly OK with the prequels although they could have been so much more. Pretty good with Clone Wars, huge fan of Rebels. Read a lot of the books, some are good, many are not. Been playing the RPG since the late 80's (on and off) so fairly informed on the "extended semi-canon" parts as well. Had a lot of fun with the older computer games from X-Wing on up through Old Republic today. Getting into the miniatures games lately with (another) X-Wing and Armada.

Mixed feelings on Force Awakens: Liked it the first time, disliked it the second time, watched it again recently at home for the third time and I like it again.

Rogue One
I loved it. I actually walked out of a Star Wars movie for the first time since the original with no complaints. What higher praise can I give? Despite the lack of a crawl and the different music it felt very much like a Star Wars movie - a very good Star Wars movie. I don;t feel the need to go into too many details because I liked the whole damn thing from start to finish. It stayed true to itself with the way things end with the heroes, it gave us a bunch of new things and characters, it gave us some old familiar when it was called for (AT-AT's on the beach!), it gave us an awesome space battle, and it gave us the payoff on Vader that a lot of us have been looking for since the 80's - Why are people so afraid of this guy? It ain't just stories!

One standout: Pacing. This is a great example of how to build a story from slow, to medium, to slamming it home with action in multiple locations and environments. There was a lot at the end I was not really expecting to see, starting with the arrival of the rebel fleet and continuing from there. It was great.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Shadows of the Past: New RPG's Coming in 2017

EN World has a survey up about all of the RPG's that are supposed to be released this year. There are a lot of them, and I can say that most of them are not anything I am terribly interested in or excited about but it is fun to see 50 separate entries on the list. That said, the fact that at least 20 of them are new editions of a game or a "new" game for a setting that is not new to gaming (Conan, Star Trek) is a little disappointing. I may have missed some of the other titles as reboots, so we're talking at least 40% and probably closer to 50% of this year's new RPG's are a little less than "new".

Are we happy that close to half of what we get this year is recycled? Miniatures games have some of this disease, boardgames seem to have far less, and videogames may be worse given the numbers of 2's and 3's after the big videogame releases of 2016. At least videogames have the technology factor to consider. Miniatures and boardgames have some competitive elements to consider. But why do RPG's, where the rules matter the least of all of these - in theory - seem to be on an edition treadmill to this degree?

Settings I sort of get: license expires, new company acquires it, wants to do their own thing. They almost have to, because they probably do not have the rights to the old rules. I think it would be pretty cool though if upon acquiring the Trek license Modiphius had said "yeah we're going to use the old FASA mechanics, updated to include all eras of the show." It is extremely unlikely that something like that will happen without the purchase of some old rights or even companies, but it would be a lot more fun.

For game systems that are with the same company it's less understandable. I don't care about the money so much these days as the sheer hassle factor. Oh look "Hammer of Beethoven" is launching a 3rd edition next year. That means for the third time I'll get to buy "State of the Art:1800", "Composers and Combatants 1, 2, & 3", and "Complete Piano Catalog". I'll also get to learn a set of slightly changed mechanics and sound like I've gone senile when I can't remember how the mechanics of the "composing showdown challenge" work in this edition vs. the first or second. Instead of walking the same ground over again maybe we could do something similar but new. Maybe the world is ready for "Swords of Shakespeare", by the people who brought you  "Hammer of Beethoven". Focus on it for a while and cut the release schedule down for HoB while you crank out SoS.

This is one reason I think Starfinder is a good idea. We have a lot of Pathfinder. We don't need Pathfinder 2 or 4 or whatever you want to call it. Try something similar, or related, but different enough that it's not a reboot. "Complimentary to" is a concept I'm a lot more interested in getting behind than "Replacement for".

Grousing aside what am I most looking forward to this year? As far as complete games:

  • Mutant Crawl Classics - I did the kickstarter so I am already committed and this is just a matter of time now. 
  • Star Trek Adventures - I don't think I'll be doing much with it but I am interested in seeing how it turns out. One of these days maybe I'll get to run a Trek campaign. 
  • Villains and Vigilantes 3.0 - I did this Kickstarter too and I am interested in seeing where it goes too. 
  • Sentinels of the Multiverse - I know a little of the setting from the card game and not much more but I'm a sucker for a well-done superhero game.
  • Starfinder - No, I'm not really interested in more Pathfinder rulebooks, but this isn;t exactly a Pathfinder rulebook. 
Honorable Mention: The next edition of Runequest. Reading through the old RQ2 material from that Kickstarter has been a lot of fun and with a lot of the old Chaosium crew reuniting to do a new edition I think it could be a lot of fun. While it's technically the 7th edition of the game it's the 4th by Chaosium so they're calling it "RQ4" last I heard

As far as books for games I already have:
  • Freedom City 3E - I'm actually running a semi-regularly scheduled game set here - of course I'd like an updated, edition compatible version!
  • This is interesting. I thought 5E was the super-easy-to-convert edition? Now we're getting a grab-bag of updated classic dungeons? Interested but unsure of the real need for the book - for me anyway.
  • Whatever Pinnacle does next for Savage Worlds.
So I do have some interest in the new stuff. I hope it's a good year for all of us.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Something New for Monday: Savage Rifts - The Books!

The physical copies of the Savage Worlds Rifts books are finally here and I am completely happy with them at this point, that "point" being holding and reading them but not using them in the heat of play. In the kickstarter I went for the hardback versions of the main books because most of my recent Savage Worlds books have been hardcovers. Beyond this ...

  • The ref screen is the nice heavy hardcover material and it's in the lower, horizontal format I've come to prefer in my limited use of the things these days. 
  • The cards are well done as every single card has a different illustration. I already have a few different decks I'd say are appropriate for a Rifts game but these are the nicest looking of any of them.
  • The bennies are surprisingly heavy. It feels more like a stack of coins than a stack of chips. Maybe I just haven't spent enough time in casinos, but I was genuinely surprised at the weight of these things.

Part of the fun with Savage Worlds is the physical part of the game. Props and handouts are nothing new in RPGs but this game makes physical items, beyond just dice, a part of play and it's another opportunity for reinforcing the genre or setting. Poker chips for Deadlands, bullets for Weird Wars, coins for fantasy games, and specially chosen decks of cards can add just a little bit more immersion to the game. Hopefully these will add a little something when I get to run this one. 

Beyond the physical elements I thought I would share some thoughts on the content as well. Between the Player's guide, the GM's guide, and the Foes book the authors do a really good job of covering the setting and providing the tools you need to run and play the game. Experience shows, and presenting a game that is clearly made to be played is a big improvement over a lot of games that to me look more like they are meant to be read. Things like mentioning that class X has a power or piece of gear in the class description only to find no mention of it in the relevant section, talking about certain groups or monsters as common opposition within the setting only to leave them out of the monster section, and describing common but impactful elements of a setting then failing to describe any mechanics for them - these are all common but aggravating flaws in new RPG's in my experience and I am not seeing any of that here. It's written to be used by your players, and there's a lot of common sense. Mechanics for Ley Lines!  Tables for what happens when a rift opens up! "Monster" entries for all of the PC types like Borgs and Juicers and Glitter Boys! A discussion of how money works in Rifts! These are all things that help a GM describe and administer a world as the players start moving through it! Again I haven't run this version yet but I am seeing a lot of those things that came up in Rifts specifically years ago and that come up in games in general covered in the actual game text here. 

Size comparison

A few things I am not overly thrilled about:
  • The "Tomorrow Legion" - this is the "Rebellion", the "Round Table". the "Freedom League" of the setting. It's also very new. to the setting as in "created for this book". To me, as such, it sticks out like a sore thumb. One of the interesting wrinkles of the setting has been that there really isn't a pure good-guy faction in the world. The Coalition is xenophobic and does a lot of bad things but they also defend a lot of otherwise defenseless villages from a lot of terrible things. Various other magical groups are more tolerant but they also tolerate demonic summonings and other forms of bad/harmful magic. The cyber knights are a loose (very loose) group of ranger/paladin/lone ranger types but there aren't many of them and they occasionally go bad. This group changes that, especially since they are positioned as THE organization for players to join.

    New players will probably think this is grumpy old gamer syndrome  and from a practical point of view it is handy to have a group that the players can jump right into from the start. My counterpoint: we've played this game for 26 years without the "tomorrow legion" and we haven't noticed the lack.  The good thing is that while it's there - and even in the title of the Player's guide - it's certainly not necessary to the setting so I can ignore it and go on.
  • "Castle Refuge" - the name of the Tomorrow Legion's base. Really? Could it be any more generic or obvious? It just smacks of not trying very hard. Maybe name it after the founder or a legend or something a little less literal?
  • Different Dragon types - the original Rifts book used the dragon types from the Palladium RPG. It made sense as the two were connected. Other types have been added over the years and that's fine. The choices for dragon hatchlings in this book are ... one type. "Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling" is the only choice given. There were of course favorites among the choices in the old book but to only have one option here is a little disappointing. 
Honestly these are minor complaints. The whole game is a triumph in design, execution, and inter-company cooperation. It looks great and I can't wait to play it.