Monday, March 14, 2011

Experimenting with terrain

I have always had mixed feelings with felt as wargame terrain. Yes, it is cheap, and I cannot quite put my finger on it, but I always perceived it as being... cheap, in fact? Compared with the precious miniatures we deploye, and the often beautiful buildings and structures on our tables, felt never looked quite right to me.
Or maybe it was just a matter of execution. Some friends seem to be very easygoing and not too concerned about the silliness of some of their felt patches on the tabletop. But, after all, it is not the material, but what you make with it, right? So, I decided to experiment a little bit with felt myself, and I am glad to report that I am very pleased by the result.
I started with patches of brownish ochra felt, in order to recreate the effect of a summer field. Here's how it looks like.

Happy with what I see, I push the idea further, working with patches of dark green felt in order to recreate the effect of woods. I need more trees, and some bushes to do justice to the concept, but I was also pleased by the first stab in this direction. I am not a fan yet of the thin stripes of dark green used to underscore bushes along a road, or maybe a little countryside creek running across the ope fields, but overall, I am confident I can improve on that front, too.

Since I was on a roll, I embarked in the most ambitious project: to use thin stripes of green felt, of the very same type as my background terrain, to model the banks of a small river. Here the goal is to show some roughness and three-dimensional effect around the edges of the flowing water, something that I have never been able to accomplish in the past. I need to do better work with some glue here, but I was again very pleased by my first attempt.

This is a very rough first stroke at the whole idea, but I am won over. I think felt will become a recurrent trick out of my terrain bag. I just LOVE the effect on the river banks. I thought the corn fields were nice, and they did not feel cheap at all. And I see some potential is the dark green patches for thick woods and forests.
Overall, a productive evening.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Die Fighting, part II: a preliminary review

As anticipated in my previous post, Die Fighting is the latest set of rules by Bob Jones for the Horse and Musket period 1700-1900. These are tactical rules, in the sense that the basic unit is the battalion, unlike Bob's previous set "Repique: Zouave" which was more of a grand-tactical game based on brigades and divisions. In this respect, Die Fighting takes a more traditional approach to wargaming scale. The game has been out for about ten days, and there is already an excellent online review by Scott Mingus at the Charge! blog.

Scott does indeed an excellent job at reviewing the book and the basic mechanisms of the game. I hope my comments here will not result in much redundancy, but I still want to share a few of my reactions at a first reading. I have not had an opportunity to play the game yet, but several business trips over the last ten days (and the resulting idle time sitting at airports) gave me the chance to read the text a couple of times, and start some work on an order of battle for my future first playtest. So, here's my take on Die Fighting.
  • Quality of product: very good. It is a nice softcover booklet of 54 pages, including two sets of cards and one Quick Reference Card. The quality of the printing is very good, the text is well organized and easy to read. I would have liked a few more examples, but examples are indeed included and are helpful to get a better understanding of some subtler points in the rules. Overall, the feel is that of a "simple" game, almost with an "Old School" flair-- but definitely not simplistic!

  • Core concept. Units in each opposing army have a basic "type" (guard, elite, regular, irregular, etc.) Based on this "type", each unit contribute a certain number of "resource dice" (six-sided dice) to the army common pool. Actions like movement or combat cost resource dice. When you run out of dice, you've lost. Simple, isn't it? In reality, this whole "game engine" appears to create rather sophisticated trade-offs for the player. You need to spend resource dice to execute your plan, but you must be cognizant that the leadership resources that dice represent are not unlimited. Excess spending of dice and lack of discipline in staying focus on the task at hand may result in costly waste; sudden opportunities can be exploited, but you must keep in mind that resource dice are not infinite, and an action now might come at the cost of an action later.

  • Other dice. The rules add two additional sources of dice: leadership dice, depending on the quality of commanders and sub-commanders, and "free" dice, that depend on specific game circumstances as dictated by a Free Dice Table (which has mostly to do with terrain and combat factors.)

  • Sequence of play. True to his philosophy of game design, Bob did not write a I-go-You-go game; yet, unlike Piquet, the cycling of activities through the turn can be more or less structured. The game revolves around six very straightforward phases: specialized actions, officer actions, infantry actions, cavalry actions, artillery actions, rally restore and reload actions. The actual order in which they are executed depends by the period that is being played, and/or the players' personal preferences. Players can choose between three basic phase orderings: "Fixed Synchronous, " "Fixed Asynchronous," and "Variable Asynchronous," which, approximately refer to a same fixed sequence for both player, a individually-set fixed sequence (that may differ between players), or a more chaotic variable sequence. Additional options add some randomness that would be particularly suitable to solo playing.

  • Movement. It depends on a roll of up two resource dice, plus or minus other dice depending on leadership and terrain factors. If you are familiar of The Sword And The Flame, the mechanism in Die Fighting reminded me of those movement rules, with a few original twists added.

  • Combat. In firing and melee, attacker and defender roll their dice, and a variety of consequences (from "no effect' to "retreat," "disorder," "rout," and losses in resource dice) will depend upon the difference between the total score of the dice rolled by the attacker and the dice rolled by the defender. The game does NOT require stand removal as losses accumulate. Disordered or routing units can be rallied during the "Rally, Restore and Reload" Phase.

  • Basing. Some recommendations are included in the rules, but as long as the two opposing armies are based in a consistent manner, the rules will work for any basing scheme.

  • Period flavor. The rules include specific provisions for the "Linear Warfare" period, with two subsets of tables for the earlier War of Spanish Succession and the later War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War; the "Revolutionary Warfare" for the American and French Revolutions; the "Napoleonic Wars"; and the "Wars of Transition" (ACW and FPW). More templates will be freely available online at a later time (see below about "game support.") A Colonial expansion is already in preparation.

  • Game support. Die Fighting is fully supported by the Repique website and Bob Jones' Zouave blog; furthermore, Bob is very active in addressing general and specific questions on the game at the Repique Yahoo forum, which, in the files section, includes FAQ and the inevitable Errata.

Of course, despite our bad habits as wargamers, rules are not made to be read, but to be played, and every preliminary review can only offer a limited taste of the game until units are deployed on the battletop, and a battle takes place. That's exactly what I am planning to do, and in the meanwhile I will make note about the actually preparation of the game (preparations of OOB, rating of units, organization of sub-commanders' battle groups, etc. etc.) in order to share in additional posts on Die Fighting. For the time being, let's just hope that "real life" will cooperate letting me having the time to follow-up on my plans, without throwing surprises or unplanned business trips on my schedule.

Die Fighting, part I: Bob Jones' implicit theology

I received in the mail the latest work of Bob Jones, of Piquet fame. It's Die Fighting, a ruleset for the Horse and Musket period 1700-1900. Before I write a review, which will probably take a separate post, and after, as a full disclaimer, I mention that Bob is a good friend, companion in several good meals and sparking chats, I have to say a few words about Bob Jones' implicit "theology." By that I mean the views about wargaming, rules writing, and combat that lie at the heart of a rules writer's work. In the "Die Fighting" Foreword, Pat McGuire offers many interesting remarks about Bob's style, and in the very same spirit I want to add one though or two to the excellent points made by Pat.

There are at least three core ideas that shape Bob Jones rules:
  • he writes games where players face several crucial decision-node points. In this respect, Piquet was widely and wildly misunderstood. In Bob's games, you have a chance to act on your own turn, phase or card, but you also need to consider opportunities to act at any other moment, oftentimes directly challenging the actions undertaken by your opponent.

  • he writes game that reflect the chaotic nature of the battlefield, where you seldom have a clear picture of the whole situation, where circumstances change suddenly and radically, and where your seldom have control of the events when the battle unfold.

  • he writes games where leadership is fundamental, but it is also a scarce resource. Either in the composition of a sequence deck, a' la Piquet, or in the tally of Resource Dice, as in Die Fighting, Bob's rules provide you some latitude for action, but a latitude which is not unlimited. Doing something now usually means that you will not be able to do something later. Maddening, for those of us used to linear, I-go-You-go sequences of play: but a mechanism which is a wonderful engine of excitement and uncertainty in the game!
On this backdrop of gaming "philosophy", on to Die Fighting: any fully successful creation that delivers exactly what it promise to accomplish! In the next post, a preliminary review, following a reading of the rules before my first playtest.