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.