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...)

Friday, 9 March 2012

Game Theory, part 3: Stats

Well, looks like Friday has officially turned into Game Theory day on 1%FUTURE.

This week I want to discuss stats and associated design parameters. By stats I of course mean the different attributes that games use to track the capabilities of individual models, such as Strength, Defense, Morale and so on. I find that this, too, is a very important aspect of game design and I have personally been turned off to many game systems because of an unappealing statline.

One of the core aspects that can determine the feel and style of a ruleset is simply the number of different stats possessed by each model, and there is a decent amount of variation between systems in this regard. Rulesets with lots of stats are said to be more detailed (obviously) and often thought of as being more realistic (although I personally find this assumed correlation between detail and realism tenuous at best) and tend to be marketed more towards "hardcore" gamers while systems with few stats are assumed to be simplistic and aimed more at "casual" gamers (whether this distinction actually exists is another question altogether).

Besides the actual number of different stats it is also important to note the range of possible values for each stat. These two factors together effectively determine the amount of real variation that is possible between different models in the game. The well-known game Warhammer 40k has no less than 9 base stats, but most of them actually have a range of only 2 or 3 possible values for regular soldiers, meaning that the differentiation between models is actually a lot less than it seems to be at first glance. However, with such a small range of values, any difference is actually meaningful. An extra point of Toughness has a huge impact on the game, while one point either way is barely noticeable in a percentile system (where values can often range between 1 and 100).

A crucial aspect of a game's appeal is the way the stats are presented. I have closed and deleted many pdfs ("indy" games often seem to have more trouble with good presentation) when a quick glance at the sample unit profiles revealed a large, plain chart filled with meaningless (for anyone who hasn't pored over the entire document in detail already) numbers and acronyms. It is clear that I am not alone in this, as almost all recent games have adopted the use of visually appealing statcards for individual units and/or full-page spreads for each unit where the statline is accompanied by illustrations and background information to break up the monotony of what is essentially a string of numbers.

The number (and value range) of stats in a game obviously depend chiefly on the designers' desired level of detail, but other considerations should also be made. Presentation, as mentioned above, is important. Long statlines can look intimidating and dissuade players from even attempting to learn the game. Designers should always examine every stat and determine whether it really contributes anything to playability or is just cluttering up the statline. As an example, the Wounds stat in Warhammer has a value of 1 on every model except for the greatest heroes and huge monsters. This creates the illusion of variety when in actuality the Wounds stat is completely superfluous on almost all models. It would be simple and effective to remove the stat altogether and replace it with a special rule that only appeared on those mighty hero and monster models. This would reduce the length of the statline for regular models, making it more readable, without taking anything away from the game.

From the players' perspective, there is probably no such thing as the perfect statline. Some might gravitate towards shorter or longer statlines, depending chiefly on how detailed they wish their battles to be. Some people might desire the inclusion of a specific stat so that they can properly represent a certain army they have in mind. A player who is dead-set on playing agile space elves, for example, will probably look for systems where their characteristics can be represented in some way - perhaps through Maneuverability, Evasion, Initiative or other similar stat. In this regard it's impossible to please everyone, and games that try usually fail the hardest.

Designers should have clear goals in mind when designing statlines. The role of each stat should be carefully considered and stats should not be added simply to cater to specific types of players or factions (that's what special rules are for) or to create a fictitious appearance of variety. Each stat should have a clear and important function in the game rules that could not be replicated with other kinds of abilities. As long as the stats are presented intelligently and mesh well with the rest of the rules, I think most players will be willing to give it a go, even if they would personally prefer a longer or shorter statline.

So, what are those measurable model attributes that usually take the form of stats in a game system? Off the top of my head, I can think of a fair few that seem to crop up in almost every system:

Movement: some games have standardized movement values, usually depending on unit type, while many games have individual movement stats for all models. Is there a right and wrong way to go here? There are many complaints about 40k's standardized 6" movement but I think it meshes well with weapon ranges (all multiples of 6) to create an interesting, fluid and intuitive system of ranged and melee threat ranges (which then breaks down because of special movement abilities that add a random value to a unit's speed).

Attack Skill: often split into melee and ranged ability, but rarely omitted (Flames of War being a noteworthy exception). Determines a model's chance to hit its target. Sometimes it depends entirely on the attacker's ability, sometimes it is opposed in some way by some sort of Defense Skill.

Attack Power: determines the chance of a successful strike damaging the target. In extremely streamlined systems Attack Power and Attack Skill can be combined into a single stat. In many systems, Attack Power is opposed by one or more abilities representing the target's Resilience, sometimes split between its natural toughness and artificial armour, sometimes combining the two. In more detailed systems, Attack Power is often assigned to individual weapons, not models as a whole (although models might also have an Attack Power of their own to represent unarmed attacks) and different parts of a model might have their own armour values.

Morale is also present in almost all games under one name or another, sometimes also incorporating other aspects of training and leadership, such as the maximum range at which a commander can order his troops.

Damage Capacity is expressed as a stat in some systems (as wounds or hit points, for example) but is handled by other mechanics just as often (damage tokens, damage boxes, disabled systems...)

Besides these common attributes there is a slew of others that are included in some systems but not others. Aspects such as perception, reaction speed, magical ability, energy shields, maneuverability, size, intelligence and many others are covered by one system or another depending on the desired complexity level and the specific needs of the genre and setting.

Well, that's all that comes to mind right now. I'd like to know if I forgot to cover any important attributes in my list above. Speaking specifically about 15mm sci-fi systems, are there any other stats you think are important? Do you know of any systems that are a radical departure from the above? Do let me know.

Ta ta!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Microupdate: Old Crow Progress

One afternoon after reviewing my latest Old Crow order I'm about halfway done with cleanup and assembly.

The single-piece scout vehicles weren't much of a challenge, of course. It took me a few minutes to fix the uneven sanding on the grav scouts. I must say that Old Crow resin sands really nicely.

 I spent a while trying to bend the grav plates for the Glaive and Gladius with limited success. The resin does soften up a little bit when heated but remains largely elastic (meaning it snaps right back into its original shape). In the end I assembled the tanks by heating up the resin and gluing the parts together while they were a bit bendy. Considering how strongly superglue bonds resin, there is little fear that the bits could bend back and come apart.

 The Lancer actually took less work than expected. I did have to sand down the armour plates a bit, then I heated them up before gluing, just like I did with the Glaive/Gladius parts. There is just some gap filling left to do now. Once assembled, the heavy APC looks like a really mean piece of kit, larger even than the Sabre. When I first examined the parts I did not think that I would ever want to buy another one, but now that it's assembled I think it's worth the extra work.

Well, that's all for today. I'll post the other half when it's done. Ta ta!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Old Crow Reinforcements

Like I said at the end of my initial Old Crow review, I placed another order that same day (the 14th) and it arrived on the 5th, 20 days later - two days faster than my first order.

The packaging is again commendable, with each vehicle individually bagged and the entire batch encased in bubble wrap and packing peanuts.

Going roughly from smallest to largest, let's start with the Goanna Scouts. These come two per pack and are really nice sculpts, especially for single-piece models, but I would prefer separate wheels. I feel the block of resin that extends to the floor is a bit too much of a compromise, simplifying casting at the expense of aesthetics.

As with all Old Crow models, the underside is sanded flat, but unfortunately one of the Goannas does not lie level with the ground, looking perhaps is if the tires on one side were flat. Apart from that, the casting itself is every bit as flawless as I came to expect.

Second come the Outrider scouts. I opted for the grav version but Old Crow also offer them with hover-skirts or wheels. I was pleased to note that each vehicle comes with a choice of gun turret, missile turret or access hatch. This leaves me with some spares for the Goannas (which come unarmed).

Sadly the sanding is again uneven, as can be seen on the following image. Note the different thickness in the grav "flaps" on the two vehicles.

Next up are the Trojan APCs. These look very much like Slingshots but come with single-piece hulls and yet more spare turrets.

Unfortunately the casting on these is considerably worse than the other Old Crow models I've seen. The underside of one vehicle is absolutely pitted with bubbles and a fair few smaller ones extend to the sides of the hull, as well. Looking at this model reminds me strongly of GW's ironically named "Finecast" range.

Well, moving on to the Gladius grav tanks. Their hulls come in an upper and lower half, but unlike the Slingshot the pieces are not joined with the sanded sides, instead the sanded side of the upper hull goes on the smooth side of the bottom piece.

The bottom halves aren't cast perfectly flat, so there is a bit of a gap at the join. Since the piece is fairly thin, this can probably be easily fixed with a little heat-bending.

With the addition of a standard tank turret the Gladius makes for a really nice grav tank.

The Glaive APC is based on the same shape as the Gladius and uses identical lower hull pieces. Again, those are a bit warped. The Gladius comes with yet more spare turrets.

At this point I finally remembered to place an infantryman  in the shots to give a sense of scale. The Gladius is really chunky and looks like it could fit 10-12 soldiers in full gear quite comfortably.

The Sabre heavy tank comes in one piece plus turret. Its turret is much larger than the others and is the only one not compatible with the rest of the range.

The details are good and the sanding seems fairly level here. The hull is cast well but the turret has one huge bubble up front.

Once that is filled, the Sabre will make a really impressive main battle tank. I really will have to pick up a few more.

One thing to note about all these grav vehicles is that, with their bottoms being sanded flat, you are left completely to your own devices if you wish to mount the vehicles on any sort of stand or base.

After all these one- or two-part hulls I was quite surprised to find that the Lancer APC comes in 7 parts.

The top and bottom hull piece join with their sanded faces. The bottom piece is hollow, probably to save on resin, or perhaps so that an upside-down Lancer can double as a jacuzzi. The bottom hull is a little smaller than the top and I'm not sure whether this is due to uneven shrinkage or perhaps intentional.

The armoured panels attach to the sides, but came noticeably warped. The curvature is very obvious in this top-down picture. To compound the problem, the warping happened before the back was sanded flat, so if I bend the panels so that the detailed side becomes flat, the sanded side will curve. The Lancer is definitely  the "expert level" kit of this batch much like the Crow Lander was in my previous order.

(Update: assembling the Lancer was actually easier than expected)

I also got a "Comcen" turret for the Lancer. It has a simple but effective design, with a chunky support structure and a simple dish.

Lastly, Old Crow threw in a hand-signed note and two infantrymen as a freebie. These compare favourably to GZG's New Israeli (far left). The detail is considerably sharper and the metal looks to be of higher quality. Unfortunately the mold lines as every bit as heavy as GZG's.

And here is everything an hour later, after being scrubbed in detergent to remove any release agent. The parts did not feel at all greasy and it's possible that this step was unnecessary, but it's always better to err on the side of caution. You only need to see the paint peel off one model to never risk it again.

Based on this batch, I'm afraid I have to dock Old Crow a point in Casting (down to 9/10) as there were some quality control issues (uneven sanding, excessive bubbles on one vehicle) but so far these are still the exception and for the most part the casting remains well above average for resin models and I will happily place another order with Old Crow very soon.