Monday, 23 April 2012

Alternative models: Zvezda "The Beast"

Now here's something really different. It got posted on Dakkadakka in a discussion about Russian plastics and immediately drew my eye. Apparently it used to be sold as part of Zvezda's now defunct sci-fi game line (whose name Google translates to "Starship Troopers", amusingly enough.)

 It took hours of searching and Google translating but I finally managed to obtain one from an online shop in Ukraine (yes, it looks like I snagged the last one in stock... sorry).

This was my first Zvezda kit, but they have a reputation for high quality historical models, so I wasn't worried in that regard. I knew the reputation was justified the moment I opened the box, as even the packaging is top-notch. The sprues come bagged and bubble wrapped inside the box, and even the instruction sheet comes in its own little A5 binder sleeve.

The crab comes in two large sprues and one small sprue for the legs. It also comes with 5 small, red pegs that I assume are wound markers. The size of the beast is very impressive in 15mm scale, rivaling Old Crow's heaviest tanks.

The sprues also contain an optional manned turret. I would guess that the gunner is roughly 35-40mm scale, considerably bigger than GW's "heroic" 28mm infantry. Luckily a bit is provided to plug the turret mount, and the crab itself has absolutely no scale-dependent detail. Of course, it is also large enough to carry any 15mm scale turret you might have lying around...

And here it is in all its unpainted glory. This is a superbly detailed model that will rival any metal or resin cast from the usual 15mm peddlers. If you want to run any sort of sci-fi biotech faction, the Beast is a must-have. Just hurry up, as unfortunately Zvezda has abandoned this product line (which contained many other gems) so once they're gone, they're gone.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Silent Treatment

Hi, it's been a while. Waiting for my latest Old Crow order really drained my enthusiasm - it took no less than 5 weeks this time. But now it's finally here and I can pore over some more cool models!

Starting with the sculpts we've already seen, here is my second Sabre. A great cast with no bubbles this time.

Two more Gladius tanks, this time with "tank hunter" turrets. I wasn't too impressed with the design of these turrets from the pictures on the website, but they are really nice in person.

Gecko scouts, pick-up version. One of them has two bubbles on the underside, the other one is perfect. The rear compartment fits a (unbased) GZG guy perfectly.

Halberd assault guns. Neat design with two barrel options (the same as on the Sabre, I think) and a metal top hatch. This could probably be replaced with one of the tiny turrets that come with Old Crow's APCs. The hull consists of two parts, with the bottom being the same as on the Glaive and Gladius.

I also wanted to try some if the fancier turrets that don't come with any tanks and have to be purchased separately, so I got two "Tac Missile" turrets. These come as a resin sensor array with 4 impressively large missiles cast in metal (with barely a mold line to be seen!) Mounting these on a Gladius chassis makes for a pretty interesting support platform.

Since I now had two extra turrets, I also got two immobile turret bases. They look nice and chunky and will make a nice addition to my forces when they have to defend a static position.

There we go. Another batch of great casts (I'd say maybe 8 bubbles in this whole lot combined, and nothing in critical places) from Old Crow. I own almost their entire 15mm catalogue now, so I guess I'm done until they make some new stuff!

That's it for now. Thanks for reading and happy gaming.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Game Theory, part 7: Setting

Continuing with the less "crunchy" topics, this week I want to take a look at how game systems can incorporate setting (background, lore or "fluff" as it is commonly called). To start with, I think I can categorize settings depending on how in-depth they are presented.

Historical: Games set in the real world can provide as much or as little detail as the authors like; players can always get more information from other sources and obsessive gamers (of which there is no lack in historical games) can find a practically unlimited amount of data. Armies in historical games are typically expected to adhere to historical fact, sometimes down to such pedantic detail as the exact colour of a general's shoelaces.

Unique: By this I mean games set in their own fully developed universe. There is no shortage of such games in 28mm scale. Warhammer 40k and Battletech are, of course, the undisputed leaders in regards to the amount of published setting material, each beating all the other games combined by orders of magnitude. But many other games, such as Warmachine and Infinity, also boast detailed worlds with their own detailed histories, established factions with their own agendas, memorable characters, and so on. Players often immerse themselves in all this background information just as much as the historical crowd, and it can play a big part in choosing a faction to play.

Generic: Some games, especially at scales smaller than 28mm, only provide a rudimentary framework of a setting, perhaps with a simple timeline and some sample factions, intended to provide only a basic sense of genre but leaving it up to the players to define the details. This is a common approach for stand-alone rulesets that are not associated with any specific model line. In the more extreme cases, there is no explicit setting information at all, although some aspects of it can be implied by artwork or game rules (if the system includes rules for laser weapons, for example, then such technology should exist in the setting).

Franchise: These are games set in a previously established universe. Sometimes they are licensed (like Mongoose Publishing's Starship Troopers or GW's Lord of the Rings) and these games provide fans of the franchise a glimpse into their beloved setting from a different angle, or allow new people to discover the property through the game. Licensed games benefit from being able to draw on a large amount of preexisting setting information, but timid game developers can also treat it as a straightjacket, unwilling to make alterations that could improve gameplay.

There are no licensed 15mm games or models that I've seen (excepting the upcoming Halo line from McFarlane) but as I've noticed since I started following the 15mm scene, a lot of gamers are determined to play in established settings (in these 8 weeks or so I have seen threads about Aliens, Firefly, Star Trek, Tremors, The Thing, Batman, RIFTS and 40k in 15mm... and that's just off the top of my head) and desperately seek appropriate miniatures. Some 15mm figure manufacturers seem to cater to this crowd, producing many obvious, unlicensed rip-offs. I know this might incense some readers, but let's call a spade a spade.

I'm not sure why so many people cling to certain franchises so fiercely that they are willing to field either unlicensed ripoffs or loose approximations. Perhaps the 15mm scene is just so starved for the sort of rich and engaging settings prevalent in 28mm but completely absent in 15mm. Or maybe it's due to the scale's strong overlap with historical gaming - re-enacting battles from an established franchise is, in a way, a "historical" approach, just not set in the real world. I don't doubt the players doing it are having fun (and I certainly won't tell anyone they shouldn't have fun), I just don't understand why.

Well, I finally got that off my chest, moving on.

Assuming a game does incorporate some setting information, at least implied, how does it affect the rules?

The most obvious factor is the setting's tech level, which can (and should) determine some aspects of gameplay, such as a force's command structure (a topic that might merit an article of its own). Then there is the inclusion of specific technologies, such as grav drives, energy weapons, force fields... and depending on the pervasiveness of these technologies, they can either be integral to the functioning of all models, or special upgrades found only on the most advanced units.

A well-developed setting can also offer different factions to play, each with its own character, goals and technological prowess, all of which can be reflected in the rules. The inclusion of alien factions typically depends on whether faster than light travel is possible in the setting.

Of course, unless we're talking about an established franchise, a setting is likely to be developed alongside the rules and designed to accommodate whatever the authors wish to include in the rules at least as much as the rules are designed to accommodate what they wish to include in the setting.

As always, feel free to tell me about your gaming preferences, your favourite settings and why I'm wrong about the ripoffs. Ta ta!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Alternative models: Mode Lock mecha

Looks like it's time to review some more goodies from Japan. Here we have two ridiculously cheap plastic mecha kits, a Gernsback and Falke from the anime Full Metal Panic. At this price, I wasn't expecting much, so I was pleasantly surprised.

Box contents are minimalistic. Each kit consists of two monochrome sprues and a tiny (but sufficient) one-sided instruction sheet. No stickers or decals, no stand.

Ball joints, ball joints everywhere! There are about 4 pieces that attach with a hole-and-peg system, everything else goes together with ball joints, even pieces that are not supposed to move (like the barrel of the giant rifle). There are even ball joints on the sprue (see the centre of the sprue on the right) - at first I thought they put them there as a joke, but actually you are supposed to cut up the sprue itself to create a stand for the model. The great part about all these ball joints is that the model goes together without any glue at all and is fully poseable.

 The last time I ordered a kit from Japan I was astounded to see multicoloured sprues. The Japanese are apparently determined to challenge all the common misconceptions we have about plastic injection molding, so this kit has undercuts. Loads of undercuts. They're slight and can't really be made out on the picture, but take my word for it (or just think about how a ball joint works for a moment).

Assembling the kits is a snap (ha ha!) They did end up being a bit bigger than I expected, so I'm not sure if I want to use them. They will certainly require some more sensible weaponry (the Falke actually comes with just a sword...) 

Also, some of the bigger pieces are hollow and open at the back, as can be seen here. If I wanted the models "done right" I would have to fill those in or cover them with additional armour plates.

The good part of these kits is certainly the poseability and the slightly more down-to-earth design than some of the other anime mecha. The Gernsback in particular doesn't look too bad alongside the Old Crow grav vehicles (and not just because they're both unpainted grey) but the size could be an issue. The mecha are probably about twice the volume of a battle tank. For the moment, my verdict for these kits is "undecided".

Friday, 30 March 2012

Game Theory, part 6: Cinematics

So far I have dealt mostly with different ways to handle specific rules issues. This week I want to discuss something more abstract and subjective.

To start with, I should mention that I grew up on 40k and other GW games. Now, these games are commonly thought of to have serious rules and balance issues, and I will not dispute that. But they are fun. There is always something crazy going on - units teleporting to unexpected locations, tanks blowing up, huge monsters cutting down entire squads of men, powerful heroes dueling with swords and psychic powers, alien hive mothers birthing fresh warriors right there on the battlefield... never a dull moment.The interwebs call this "cinematic" gameplay as it focuses more on telling an exciting story than it does on making sense.

In contrast, historical games are completely down to earth, with rulesets that (hopefully) encourage good real-world strategy and tactics and where the most outlandish event you can hope for is that a weak unit beats a stronger one with some lucky dice rolls.

I'm not saying that this sort of "realism" doesn't have its place, and I enjoy a straightforward contest of tactical ability just as much as the next guy, but I can already do that in board games and computer games. When it comes to miniature armies that took me weeks or months to assemble and paint, I'd rather see them do something interesting.

I haven't delved too deep into 15mm rulesets yet, but from what I've seen so far, they favour the "realistic" approach. In part, this probably comes down to the disconnect between miniature lines and rule systems. Skirmish games like Warmachine can add a lot of excitement through special rules catered to each model, but in 15mm this approach would be nearly impossible as  the rules have to be generic enough to handle all the various miniature lines available. Gruntz 15mm is a convenient example here as it is a straight copy/paste of the core Warmachine rules, but without any of the model-specific powers that make Warmachine a dynamic and unpredictable game. These are replaced with a unit builder and a list of generic abilities, of which only a handful can noticeably alter the flow of battle. This makes for a game with solid core rules but little in the way of exciting things to do with your units besides moving to a good position and selecting an optimal target to attack.

As I have already said in a previous article, the 15mm scale isn't particularly conductive to highly individualized models in the vein of Warmachine or Infinity. The figures are too small to tell apart easily and too numerous (at least at the level of engagement I want to play at) to keep track of unique abilities for all of them. But surely there must be some happy middle ground between the dry, "realistic" approach of historical games and the exciting, "cinematic" gameplay of 40k, Warmachine, Infinity, Necromunda...

As long as we are using the term "cinematic", let's consider war movies. I'm not really a fan, but the ones I've seen generally focus on one or a few individuals whose efforts have the potential to turn the tide of a larger battle. This could be a way to inject some excitement into the game - supplementing a typical army with a few potent models whose abilities can have a much greater impact on the game. I'm not talking simply about bigger guns here but special abilities to support allies, disrupt enemies, or otherwise affect the battlefield in unique ways, perhaps in the manner of psykers in 40k (or, even better, wizards in Warhammer Fantasy, but without the spells of mass destruction) and hackers in Infinity. Careful allocation (and elimination) of these assets while the main forces engage the enemy could become almost a sub-game within the main battle and would, hopefully, affect the balance of power without diminishing the importance of "normal" units and tactics that would still make up the majority of the game.

It would be tragically arrogant to think this approach hasn't been done yet, so if you know of any 15mm sci-fi rulesets that play like that, please let me know. Also, feel free to share your thoughts and preferences on the general topic of realism and cinematics (as pertaining to this article). Ta ta!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Protip: Custom foam trays

Yesterday I talked about how great magnetizing is for transporting infantry. Unfortunately, it is a lot trickier with vehicles. They're heavy and often have a small bottom surface area relative to their size and weight (especially wheeled vehicles) unless you base them, and I don't intend to. Using foam makes more sense in this case.

Now, there are several ways to go about it - from chucking your models in a box filled with foam offcuts, to lining a generic box with foam, to using one of the many carrying cases designed specifically for wargaming miniatures. In the past few years, several companies have started offering carrying cases with foam trays tailored specifically to your models, with each compartment designed to snugly fit a specific miniature. This has obvious advantages, but makes the trays even more expensive - and the cost of generic trays was already ridiculous to begin with, in my opinion.

Unwilling to pay more for a carry case than what I paid for the models inside, I decided to explore other options. As it turns out, foam isn't nearly as expensive as the price of ready-made trays might make you think. Even in my ass end of nowhere I was able to get really nice raw foam for a fraction of the cost of foam trays. I found it at a home improvement store in 2x1 metre sheets. I got a 30mm thick and a 10mm thick sheet (for the bottoms) and a can of foam glue spray. This will probably last me a lifetime and cost me 40 euro in total - less than two high-end foam trays.

Besides foam, I also needed a box or case, and I decided to go with these cardboard mailing boxes used by many UK online stores. They fit nicely in my backpack and I get free replacements almost every time I order miniatures online.

To start off, I cut several sections of foam, 30mm for the compartments and 10mm for the bottoms, sized to fit snugly into the box. I recommend using a fresh hobby blade for the foam to get smooth cuts.

The tricky part is coming up with a good layout that maximizes available space. I mucked about with the models until I found a good configuration, then drew the outlines with a marker.

I then cut the foam along the lines, cutting as deep as possible and making sure to keep the blade straight. I quickly realized that it's best to make all the cuts before removing any foam.

Once the cutting was done, I removed all the foam blocks, carefully tearing the last bits of foam where the cuts didn't reach all the way down.

This is the finished compartment layer with all the vehicles inside (it's a good idea to make a test fit when you can still make corrections, before gluing on the bottom layer).

By cutting a thin slice from some of the foam blocks that were removed, I made a few spacers that will allow me to stack smaller models and pieces (such as the turret) two high in one compartment to save space.

The last part is to glue on the 10mm bottom layer. It can get a bit messy, so I didn't feel like doing it while taking pictures for this blog post, but here's a tray I finished earlier. It holds all my wheeled Old Crow models. Don't be afraid to put your models in sideways if it saves you space, like I did with the Goanna scouts here.

That's it for today. Between these trays and the magnetic box from yesterday, I can carry all my models around safely and in a very small space.

I hope this helps any readers who are still struggling with miniature transportation. And if anyone can suggest a different approach, I'd be most interested. I'm always on the lookout for good transport solutions. Ta ta!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Protip: Magnetic basing

Transporting miniatures safely has always been one of the bigger issues of the hobby, regardless of the scale you game in. I use, or know people who use, shoe boxes and tool boxes and GW cases and Battlefoam and everything in between. While some tend to find one method that works for them and stick to it, I prefer to tailor my transporting solutions to each game system or even each army.

I don't use magnets a lot (I have a single 28mm army based this way) but it seems like a no-brainer for 15mm infantry, especially if it is individually based. If I wanted to transport the figures in classic foam trays I would need a load of tiny compartments, and all the dividing walls would make that a very poor use of space. On the other hand, the miniatures lend themselves really well to magnetizing thanks to their light weight and low centre of gravity (once you add a metal base). So how do I go about doing this?

I base my 15mm infantry on euro cent coins, and the fact that these are ferrous enough to stick securely to magnetic sheet was a large factor when I chose them for my bases. I would have preferred them a little bit smaller, and my initial thought was to cut the bases out of plasticard and add some metal sheet underneath, but that turned out to be a lot of fiddly work and in the end I decided to save that approach only for models that require larger bases, such as support weapons and field artillery. You'll have to take my word for it, but the white bit in the first picture here is self-adhesive metal sheet - very, very handy when playing with magnetic basing.

With the miniatures firmly mounted on ferrous material of one type or another, we also need something magnetic to stick them to. Rare earth magnets are great for larger models, but in this case they are excessively powerful. Self-adhesive magnetic sheet or tape will quite suffice for tiny 15mm infantry.

I actually considered making the bases themselves out of magnetic sheet - this would allow me to use my models as fridge magnets! - but as the sheet is kind of soft, the models would still need a coin or layer of plasticard as well, and that would make the bases unappealingly thick.

The last component required is an appropriately sized box. Most importantly, it must have a flat and firm bottom to glue the magnetic sheet to. Apart from that, everything is fine as long as it packs well. I found these clear plastic boxes at a craft shop. Apparently they are intended for paper envelopes, but they're a great size for my needs.

With a total height of about 3cm, they leave a comfortable amount of head room for the models, and they're large enough to hold a complete force while taking up very little space in my backpack - perhaps the volume of 2 or 3 DVD cases.

The models are perfectly secure even if the box is turned upside down and waved about. The only real worry is that a model could come loose off its base and bang around the box like a tiny bowling ball, which is why I secure all the figures with both superglue and modelling putty.

If you can avoid the bowling ball effect, magnets are the safest method of transportation in the long run, as even soft foam will rub paint (and varnish, too) off a model eventually. It's also a lot faster to pack and unpack as so many figures can be stored in a single tray, and you don't clutter up the game room with foam or other packaging material.

That's it for today. Next time I'll show you how to save a fortune by making custom cut foam trays for 15mm vehicles at home.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Game Theory, part 5: Game Size and Basing

This week was a bit hectic for me, so I have picked a lighter topic for today's discussion. My apologies if it feels a bit rushed - it is.

By game size I mostly mean the number of miniatures that players field in a typical game. I've seen players familiar with military terminology (I'm not) refer to games as being "squad level", "platoon level", "company level" or similar, depending on the size of the forces on the table. Google tells me that 40k and Flames of War are company level games (although honestly I've never seen that many models in a normal 40k game except maybe for infantry-heavy Imperial Guard) while Infinity and Necromunda are squad level games (in that a player fields about a squad's worth of models; they are not really organized like a squad, though).

There are a few factors that influence the size of game:

1) Scale. The larger the models, the fewer of them fit on a table, obviously. Even more important than the physical size of the models is the implied "ground scale" - how distances on the game table correspond to distances in real life. The ground scale is often out of whack with the scale of the miniatures, because even with very small models, a gaming table is still an impossibly tiny surface to fight a battle on.

Consider a 15mm figure. Assuming it represents a human of average height (175cm, let's say), this would mean that a standard 4' gaming table is only about 140 metres across - about a quarter of the effective range of a decent assault rifle. So if ground scale was identical to model scale, even the most basic weapons would be able to fire across the entire table. If you don't want that, then distances (including movement rates and weapon ranges) must be scaled down even more (a lot more, usually) than the miniatures. This only goes so far, but smaller miniatures allow for shorter ranges without feeling too weird.

2) Cost. Larger armies obviously cost more. Even players who prefer large games tend to balk at the cost of starting a 40k army compared to a skirmish game like Infinity or Warmachine. Of course, that's only if you consider the cost of a minimal playable force - if you collect a large force, you're probably going to pay as much as for a 40k army, and will have less models to show for it. This is actually something that few people take into consideration, but I strongly suspect that the real reason every 28mm scale game besides 40k is limited to small skirmishes is simply that nobody besides GW can offer large armies at an affordable price, especially large vehicles. Yes, I am completely serious.

Luckily this is far less of an issue in smaller scales. 15mm infantry is very affordable, vehicles unfortunately less so, but still not too horrible, and 6mm is cheap as chips. Still, even in 15mm there's a big difference in cost between squad level and, say, company level games.

3) Detail. As I've already mentioned last Friday, the number of models on the table is inversely proportional to the level of detail (rules-wise), or else the game slows to a crawl. A force of individualistic characters with unique equipment and skills just isn't playable above squad level in any reasonable amount of time. Now, smaller models also mean less detailed sculpting and consequently less characterful and individualistic models, which encourages more streamlined rules and in turn allows for more models on the table.

The above generalizations aside, the various 15mm systems still allow for a wide range of game sizes, from squad level skirmishes to company scale and above with multiple figures per base. The Dropship Horizon blog has a great list of all the different offerings.

Speaking of bases, this is another matter that goes hand in hand with game size. Some systems opt to have multiple infantry models (typically 3 to 5) mounted on a single base while others have them individually based. The two approaches meet right at 15mm scale - larger models are invariably on individual bases, and smaller models are almost always on multiple figure bases, but in 15mm both approaches are common and some systems (like Gruntz 15mm) even have allowances for both.

Group basing speeds up the game considerably since a group of infantry move, attack and die as a single entity. It can also be visually appealing, as each multi-figure base can effectively be turned into a small diorama. On the flip side, such basing restricts movement and requires an even greater deal of abstraction regarding attacks and casualties. Opinions differ on whether the tradeoff is worth it.

I think group basing works well in Flames of War but it starts making less and less sense in later time periods. Once every soldier has his own radio, there's really no reason for them to be so bunched up that one grenade can take out a whole squad, so it's out of the question in most sci-fi settings. I personally prefer individual basing even in large games and I would rather make concessions in other areas (like simpler statlines) to keep gameplay at a reasonable speed.

So what is a nice game size for 15mm? When I decided to collect an army in this scale I imagined a typical force, given that the miniatures are half as large, would have about double the models of a typical 40k army. I know 40k armies are oversized for the scale, but I'm willing to take the same route in 15mm to make for some really impressive battles. I'm thinking about a dozen armoured vehicles per side, with a supporting gunship or two and several dozen infantrymen.

If anyone is running games of this size I'd love to hear about it. Which system are you using and how long do the games take? How do you prevent them turning into "line up and shoot"? Let me know.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Microupdate: Old Crow grav armour

Just a quickie today. While I'm waiting for my next Old Crow order (which I expect to arrive in about 10 more days) I managed to find the time to mount all my grav vehicles on old GW flight stands I still had lying around from Battlefleet Gothic days.

Old Crow vehicles come with their bottoms sanded flat, leaving basing completely up to the customer. I went for something simple and just drilled a hole for the flight peg, making sure to place it right under the centre of mass. Consequently these tanks sit on their stands far more securely than any of GW's spaceship models ever did, despite the tanks generally being a fair bit larger.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Yet more GZG shenanigans

As I've mentioned before, I was the first person to start a 15mm sci-fi army in my gaming circle. Well, it didn't take long to convince a good friend and long-time gaming buddy to pick up an army of his own. He jumped right in at the deep end and ordered over two kilos of GZG product.

When I started this blog I certainly didn't intend to go on any sort of "name and shame" campaign against anyone, but in the interests of other current and future gamers I feel I have to add a few more pictures from my friend's collection to my review of GZG.

My friend bought a dozen vehicles, all wheeled. Here are a couple of them, an 8-wheeled APC and a 4-wheeled "Bobcat".

They check out okay at first glance, but a closer inspection reveals some serious pitting and mold lines.

The most startling defect is this large hole in the side which opens up into a huge bubble. I'm honestly not sure how you can get such a large pocket of air inside a 3-4mm thick metal wall but here it is.

I suppose these large indentations are intentional and there to save material, as they appear on all vehicles, but they sure are ugly enough to make it unappealing to turn the model on its side or back to represent it being destroyed during a game.

The Bobcat also has heavy mold lines all around.

More problematic is this huge lump of misshapen metal, presumably where the injection port was hastily clipped or perhaps even just twisted away. There's a reason I don't buy GW's Finecast - I don't enjoy resculpting missing detail! This one was the worst of the bunch but all 4 Bobcats had that area misshapen to some degree.

Then there's the mini hover drones. About half of these have a large chunk of the turbine missing, and fixing these will require a little more talent than the usual filling of holes with putty.

Not that GZG isn't capable of casting the turbines just fine - on the bottom side of the very same drones.

To finish on a positive note here are some nice mini aero drones, no complaints here.

Based on these models I'd give GZG a score of 5/10 for casting - barely above an enthusiast's first attempts to cast at home and really suitable only for gamers with years of modelling experience. Blah.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Game Theory, part 4: Tracking Damage

This Friday I want to share my thoughts on the various ways to keep track of damage on your models. This is, I think, one of the chief aspects of game design where realism and playability often directly conflict with each other. Detailed damage tracking can be one of the most time-intensive aspects of a game system, which is why it is so commonly abstracted and simplified to a great degree, sometimes so far that it barely even functions as a representation of damage capacity and completely ignores the potential loss of performance due to damage suffered. I'll discuss a few damage tracking options below, starting with the simplest.

This is, of course, a basic hit point system. Models have a certain capacity for absorbing damage and get destroyed when the damage exceeds this capacity. Hit point systems do not have any sort of performance loss mechanic built in, and models often fight as their full potential until they lose their last hit point.

Some games tack on simple ways to track performance loss in a hit point system. Critical hits are a common mechanic, accomplished either through some factor in the attack dice roll (scoring the maximum result, rolling doubles or triples, beating the target's defense stat by a certain amount...) or when a certain amount of hit points are lost. Gruntz 15mm is a great example of the latter case: as a vehicle loses hit points, there are certain predetermined points where it has to roll to see if any of its systems are compromised.

Hit point systems can be expanded to cover damage in greater detail by arranging the hit points in a damage grid. A damage grid can reflect the shape and structure of the model it represents, allowing players to determine exactly where a hit lands and which part of the target is damaged. Performance is affected depending on the location of the damage. I'm not too familiar with the game, but I believe Battletech is a classic example. Unfortunately, detailed damage grids slow down the game considerably and require large amounts of bookkeeping and space for the grids, making them unpractical for games with more than a few models per side. Damage grids can also be simpler and correspond less to the physical shape of the model and focus more on abstracted critical systems, such as in Warmachine. Its grids are small enough to fit on standard-sized statcards, making damage tracking acceptably fast for a dozen or so models.

Another method of determining damage are damage tables. The best known game using a damage table is undoubtedly Warhammer 40.000. This system assumes that a successful hit always causes some noticeable loss of performance in a specific system, and that models cannot simply absorb damage with no consequence. After a successful attack, a roll is made on a special table to determine the effect of the hit, which can either destroy the vehicle or permanently or temporarily reduce its firepower and/or mobility. The issue some players have with such a system is that it is too "all or nothing" - depending on dice luck, a model could get taken out with the first blow, or survive many attacks with barely any effect. Others insist that this is still more realistic than hit point systems, and that vehicles cannot really be worn down by successive minor damage. A hit either penetrates and causes serious damage, or does nothing.

Damage tables are also often used to determine the effects of critical hits in hit point systems. This is the case in Spartan Games systems, such as Firestorm Armada, and in GW's Battlefleet Gothic.

Other methods of randomly determining damage effects include drawing damage cards or tokens from a pool, but the end effect is largely the same as with damage tables, with the notable difference that the odds of drawing a certain result change depending on which cards or tokens have already been drawn, which can annoy players concerned with realism. On the upside, drawing special damage cards allows a wider range of possible unique results compared to a reasonably sized damage table. GW's unjustly maligned game Dreadfleet, for example, includes a damage card representing the death of a captain's parrot. It's easy to get away with one such card in a deck of 55, but there's simply no room for that kind of thing on a D6 or 2D6 or probably even a D20 damage table.

Besides determining damage, the method in which we track it should also be considered. There are three chief ways that come to my mind at this moment:

Damage can be marked on statcards, which can provide a modest amount of room for bookkeeping in addition to being a very handy reference for a model's stats and abilities. If the cards are sleeved, you can write on them with non-permanent markers and wipe them after the game. Statcards are great for systems with hit points tracks or moderately sized damage grids, a low model count and many unique models, but they can take up too much space and become hard to manage in games with lots of identical models per side.

Army rosters can also provide room for bookkeeping. They look less nice than statcards but are often more condensed, allowing you to fit more information in the limited amount of space on your gaming table. Popular games are usually supported with army-building software which allows players to effortlessly construct and print rosters. For more obscure games, this has to be done by hand or with normal word processing or spreadsheet software.

Tokens or cards can be placed next to models to indicate damage, as well as a plethora of other effects. This method allows players to evaluate the status of all the models at a glance, without poring over their cards or rosters. It also makes it a lot easier to see the damage inflicted on the enemy. It can, however, clutter up the battlefield, and some attention is required to keep the tokens with the models they belong to. Using tokens or cards usually also means that all damage results are possible on all models, while writing damage down on statcards or rosters allows for custom damage results for specific models. Purchasing or making tokens is also an additional and often unwanted expense, but I've already covered this in a previous blog.

Like with statlines, there is no perfect system for tracking damage. The most important thing is that it meshes well with the rest of the system, the desired level of detail, and the number of models on the table.

Detailed damage tracking can greatly improve the feeling of realism and even "cinematics" - knowing which specific weapon gets blown off a mech, for example. But it can bog down a game with lots of models. It would be unfeasible to track the status of individual weapons in a 6mm scale game with battalions of tanks on each side, but completely expected (and often desired) of a game with only half a dozen models per side.

As one for the more prominent features of a gaming system, damage tracking is often used by prospective players as a gauge to assess the entire game, so it should be polished and presented well, regardless of its specifics. Even a simple hit point system can be made to look appealing with a nice graphical layout, perhaps with hit point boxes printed inside a silhouette of the model on its statcard.

As always, I'd like to hear others' thoughts on this, and any possible methods I might have missed. Ta ta!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Alternative models: Macross Valkyrie jets

Like a lot of 15mm players I try to keep an eye out for interesting toys and scale kits that could be used for gaming. Browsing stores like Hobby Link Japan can turn up some really interesting finds. If you're not averse to the sleek anime-look or most of their models, you can find a plethora of mecha in various scales, including our own 1/100, and sometimes other types of models.

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a selection of 1/100 scale jets. Apparently they come from a series called Macross and transform between jets, jets with legs and normal-looking mecha, but these particular kits are "stuck" in jet mode.

 Now, there are two obvious issues with aircraft in 15mm. Firstly, they're a fair bit bigger than tanks and can overshadow the rest of the models. Some games (like Flames of War) get around this problem by using undersized aircraft, but this just feels weird to me. Second, at 15mm scale the table still represents such a small area of ground that it would be unrealistic for a fixed-wing craft to stay on the table for any length of time. Knowing this, I still decided to buy a kit and see for myself. The one I opted for is cheap enough and looks good enough that I wouldn't be too sorry if it turned out to be useless for 15mm and had to be relegated to the display cabinet.

Using HLJ's cheapest "it ships when it ships" option I had to wait a little bit over a month to get my order.

The box contains 3 sprues, an instruction sheet in Japanese (but illustrated well enough that assembling the model was completely unproblematic) and a large sheet of stickers.

Bandai uses some serious wizardry to make multi-coloured sprues in a single mold. Combined with the sticker sheet, this means that the model can be displayed as an anime memorabilia piece without any painting. A serious modeler or gamer will still want to paint it properly, though. Similarly impressive is that the model snaps together without any glue and all the parts fit perfectly.

Despite being advertised as 1/100 scale, the pilot is a fair bit smaller than my 15mm GZG infantry, even accounting for the New Israeli's hardsuit. If I decide to use the jet for gaming, I'll have to paint over the cockpit to hide the little man.

And a size comparison with an Old Crow Sabre, which is one of their heavier tanks.The size difference is realistic enough, and I don't think that a single jet would look too off on the table, size-wise. As for the other issue... well, in a world where grav tech exists, it cannot imagine that it wouldn't be used on jets, at least as a secondary system to provide easy VTOL and a safety net in case the main engine dies. This would make every jet capable of hovering and providing fire support for ground troops in the same way helicopters can today.

Even if your setting does not allow you to hand-wave these issues away with grav tech, the model still makes a fine terrain piece or objective, or can be used as an "instant death" ending in scenarios (you have to complete your mission before the jet arrives and bombs your forces).

I would not recommend it to everyone, but if you like the design aesthetic you might want to give it a shot. It cost me a about $20 US with shipping from Japan, which is a competitive price even compared to lower-quality local offerings (Revell, Italeri...)