Saturday, 25 October 2014

Iron Sky





This is the first ever guest blog.  My friend Al Treacher who has started his own blog here, and I wanted to introduce him to all my readers.  He's a fellow wargamer and board-game geek, so go check out his blog after reading this.

Some context in talking about Iron Sky: The Board Game is needed. For those who don’t know, Iron Sky was a 2012 comedy/sci-fi film by Finnish director Timo Vuorensola, about the return to Earth in 2018 of the remnants of the Nazi regime from their base on the dark side of the moon where they fled in 1945. Yes – it’s a film about Space Nazis from the Moon! And if this sounds like a premise for a B-movie then you’d be absolutely right – Iron Sky is a modern sci-fi B-movie, sprinkled with dark humour and not-so-subtle satire. The female lead is the very cute Julia Deitze too, which is a bonus.

Sadly, but possibly to no great surprise, the film wasn’t a massive success with the critics or majority of the movie-going public. It’s tricky subject matter, let’s be honest, I thought it a fun B-movie, and it works on that level. But this isn’t a review of the film but of the board game of the film, released in the same year.

Published by Revision Games, Iron Sky: The Board Game is a boardgame – arguably a wargame – for two to six players, a more accurate description would be for two, four or six players. Players play as either the Reich side (the returning Moon Nazis) or the United World Confederation (the forces of the various Earth nations defending the planet); each pair of Reich/UWC players faces off over a map-board depicting (broadly) two Earth continents.


The components (all cardboard, no plastic) are of decent quality and appearance consisting of:
Three map-boards, which side-by-side show a global map,
Six sets of unit counters (paired sets of Reich/UWC forces in blue, yellow and green)
Six different decks of command cards
Two decks of combat cards
And a handful of counters for scoring and various other purposes
The rulebook is appropriately bi-lingual in English and German, nicely illustrated and quite comprehensive; although the layout and order of the rulebook while certainly good enough, would benefit from changing the ordering of the book a little.


The basic premise of the game is – as I’m sure is no surprise – that the invading Reich forces are trying to wrest control of the Earth from the defending UWC forces. Each continental board has seven territories (worth between 1 and 4 victory points each at the end of the game) which initially start off under UWC control, while the Reich forces start in orbit above the planet. Each map-board has three orbital zones from which the classically saucer-esque Reich units descend onto the planet surface (and indeed can retreat to orbit where necessary or to move to other territories or continents). While each player deploys on their ‘own’ continent (or in orbit above, for the Reich player) and concentrates on winning the war in their own territories, it is possible to move from ‘your’ map-board onto the other continents to assist your compatriots. Since final victory or defeat is decided per faction rather than player, aiding your fellows may prove to be vitally important.


Each player represents a specific commander with a unique command deck and abilities; the UWC commanders are politician, general and agent while the Reich commanders are all generals (specialising in ground assaults, orbital bombardment and rapid raiding). Each turn sees all the Reich players act (simultaneously) first, then the UWC players take their (simultaneous) turn. Command cards have a given cost (in command points, political points or dollars) that must be paid to play them, but as many cards may be played per turn as the player can afford. Players receive new resource points at the start of each turn according to how the battle is faring on their particular continent.

Available commands are pretty straightforward including:
Recruit, Mobilize (move and/or attack)
Raid (recruit and mobilize combined)
As well as implementing electronic warfare or terror attacks (to restrict movement of the opponent’s forces).
The concept of combined arms is not a feature of the game – all units are effectively the same, no matter which player or faction they belong to.

Destroyed UWC units are returned to the owning player, making them available for later recruitment. Destroyed Reich forces however are gone, and stored for end-of-game VPs by the UWC player responsible for their defeat. There’s only a limited supply of Nazi UFOs, which is only to be expected!

Combat is straightforward once you’ve got the hang of it, but it’s very different to any game system I’ve previously played, so it helped to actually see it in action during the first play.

Under the basic rules two players involved in a conflict choose, defender first, one combat card from their available choice of two. The cards are chosen face down so that the exact effects of the card are unknown, but an estimate may be made from the icon on the card back which identifies it as being mainly defensive, attacking, or balanced in its effect. The cards are then compared, hits are doled out/defended against, casualties are removed, and if one side is completely eliminated, the territory is held/taken by the remaining units. Command cards can be played in any order as long as resources to pay for them are available, so for example a second attack could be launched to finish off a weakened foe or reinforce a newly taken territory.

After a predetermined number of turns (eight in the basic rules) the game ends victory points are totalled up for:
Territory held by each faction
For destroyed Reich units
And for VPs shown on the blitzmeter on the side of each continental board (a very clever concept, which I liked a lot that determines resources per turn as well as end-of-game VPs).
The Reich player gets awarded the VPs from this scale according to their strongest moment of
The UWC player receives VPs for their end-of-game position. 
It may pay the Reich player to hit very hard and fast, even if subsequently some of the territories so gained are lost.

There are optional rules that add powerful use-once-and-discard command cards, secret personal objective cards for additional victory points at game end, UWC Special Forces units (expensive to recruit, very resilient but grant the Reich player bonus VPs if destroyed) and a couple of options to reduce the randomness of the combat element. The unknown game-length rule is a must include in my opinion to avoid the last turn all out syndrome. The optional rules aren’t complex, and I would suggest most should be included once a player has learned the basics of the game.

Before heading into a conclusion, I have to say that I’ve only got this to the table as a two-player game against my partner. With more players playing each faction and with more map-boards in play, the chance to aid and be aided by your allies exists; as well as the threat of the highly mobile Reich saucers zipping along the orbital zones at the top of the map, suddenly turning up where least desired, would increase the challenges and tension.

Once we’d got to grips with the rules in action, the game played very quickly.

Our first play used only the basic rules, but using the optional ones didn’t really add any noticeable time to the games, which is less than an hour per play. We were a bit disappointed, because we both wanted to enjoy the game as much as the movie, but the two-player game felt rather thin, basic and a bit small. There’s only one map-board with seven locations to fight over. There’s an artificial, but workable mechanism to represent the ability of the other continents to provide aid while they fight their part of the war off-screen, unseen. The theme was there, but it didn’t capture us.

The biggest game issue we had was with the combat resolution via the combat cards.

Even having (theoretically) a rough idea of the nature of the card you were choosing, the effects could still be arbitrary and unexpected. This is particularly true when playing the basic rules; the optional rules (initiative & controlled combat) give more control and flexibility in combat, and do improve the game-play, but a significant random element remains.

I’d love to be writing a more positive review of the game than this. Being a fan of the movie I naturally hoped for the game to be good. Would playing the game with four or six players make it significantly better than with only two? A bit, probably, if the other players were also into the film.

Sadly, the theme doesn’t feel integral to the game, and with such a vivid concept that’s a missed opportunity. There’s not enough meat to the game to make it a solid wargame, and the theme isn’t strong enough within the game to enable me to overlook the weaknesses. Described on the publisher’s website as a middleweight strategy game it’s actually fairly light; at least for an experienced gamer, even though first glance at the rulebook may seem daunting!


A sequel, Iron Sky: The Coming Race is slated for 2015/2016; we can speculate whether this may bring about a reprint or improved edition/sequel of Iron Sky: The Board Game.
   

Saturday, 11 October 2014

More Pictures of Ogre at Blast-Tastic


The set up.  North American Combine forces are on the top right of the picture ready to sweep forward, the Pan European Federation bottom left forming a defensive line. This is the basic 16 armour units and 18 infantry platoons, and I should've given more thought to the Combine's deployment.
Now my partner has processed the images taken last week, here are some more pictures of Ogre.  So far I've been invited to attend three other show next year with my Ogre miniatures.  I can afford one, maybe a second at a push, but three.  I'm so flattered, what can I say.

If SJG were still pushing Ogre as game that they wanted demoed then their would be more incentive at one level.  Though to be absolutely frank the rewards versus cost of being an MIB are at best marginal.  And again I don't demo the game for the freebies SJG send me, they are for me bunce.

The ceasefire agreement has collapsed and now the North American Combine have escalated their attack by bringing on the big guns, in this particular instance a Mark 3 Ogre.  Rolled for when the initial attack failed to see if the attack escalated.
Given that the miniatures are out of production, and the game is out of print, this takes everything down a peg.  I will go and run a game next year for the simple reason that I like playing Ogre/GEV.

The Mark 3 sweeps down the flank and is about to destroy a howitzer.  At this point the valiant  freedom loving Pan European defenders think they are going down hard.
This reminds me that one really doesn't need the official miniatures though.  There are lots of 6mm manufacturers who make appropriate models to play Ogre with; apart from the Ogre itself, but even that need not be a problem.  So I plan to show off my third army, made from other manufacturers, and will pimp other ranges that I like, too, in due course.

NB: To answer Clive's question of why I brought so many extra painted miniatures than needed for the game the simple answer is just because more is always better.  The other reason is choice.  Had anyone wanted to change the ratio of units they could've have.  I believe that allowing choice is a good thing.

Finally, another blog with a report about Blast-Tastic! here.
  
  

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Ogre at Blast-Tastic! 2014


With Steven leaning back as his Ogre prepares to destroy my Command Post.  I was just explaining a rule before he chortled with glee as the Ogre's missile reduced the target to rubble.

Well we got back from Blast-Tastic! pretty much creamed crackered from driving down to Bristol on the Friday evening, setting up for the show and then driving back via way of Reading for a meal out with our friend Clive (who came to provide moral support for my demo of Ogre) on Saturday evening.  This was the first time Michael of Angel Barracks had run Blast-Tastic!  It was a small specialist SF&F wargame show, which will hopefully grow and fill the space left by the SFSFW Ragnarok shows of years gone by.

I had gotten myself into a bit of a tizzy over preparing for the demo.  This meant I ended up painting for a few hours everyday last week to get the North American Combine forces presentable.  Note the description, presentable.  There is still another lot of painting to do to get them finished.  I was lucky that everyone was kind enough to not notice, and or even say how good the miniatures looked.

Regardless of my panic, I had a blast running the GEV variant of Ogre with a scenario of my own devising called Escalation.  It's a variant of the Ceasefire Collapse scenario where at the end of the game the loser rolls a D6 and gets bonus victory points.  The loser can either use these points to turn their loss into a victory, or buy more forces to continue the attack.  My opponent who lost the initial attack chose to escalate and was able to bring on a Mark 3 Ogre, and the game came down to a nail biting last throw of the dice.

I still need to polish the scenario victory conditions and point values, and I hope to write it up for Miniature Wargames & Battlegames in due course.  In the meantime I will be submitting a review of the show for Henry in the next week or so.
  

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Blast-Tastic Next Week

   
Well hasn't time flown by, next week it's Blast-Tastic and I shall be taking all my Ogre stuff along to show people.  That means the Big Box of Ogre, and my miniatures you've seen me paint here on my blog.


So here are a few more shots of the last Dragonmeet to remind all of my readers what you will be seeing, or missing as the case may be.  Don't worry if you can't get to Bristol, though you shall be missed, as I will be posting a Blast-Tastic AAR for you edification and delight in due course.


Come and see me point my finger at the crucial moment just before the dice hit the table.


Come and play a game and see if you can stop the Ogre.  Actually, a total fabrication in this case, because I'm running the scenario Ceasefire Collapse, which means while there can be Ogres with the need to crush command posts, the scenario has a few twists; mobile command posts being one.
  

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

19th August: Blog'ish 5th Birthday Huzzah



Another year, and only one day late in marking another milestone, or should that be millstone for this blog?  You can blame LonCon 3, as I was at the 72nd World SF convention all weekend schmoozing with friends and fellow writers, promoting myself by being on panels.  I'm paying the price now as I fight off a chest infection.  Oh noes, gurgles as alien bursts out of my chest, kind of thing.  You can read all about the great time I had over on my other blog, here.

OK this post celebrates five years of me writing this blog.  Over the past year I seem to have been totally focused on Ogre, which given that my intent was to be a BattleTech blog is rather ironic, doubly so since I was seduced into playing Heavy Gear.  But a they say That's Life.

I also succumbed to Hawk Wargames who offered me a discount at LonCon 3 and bought a box of their new Resistance starter army.  What can I say?  Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.  They were also very nice to me and made flattering comments about my recent Ogre article too.  Top guys.  It was therefore heartening to hear at the end of WorldCon that they had done good, and that it had been worth their while to attend.  Awesome I say.

Oh yeah, forgot to add this, so late addition.  This was the promo for LonCon 3, exciting or what?


So thank you one and all for taking the time to read my blog, and leaving comments.  Remember I live for the comments, as they are what makes blogging fun; talking to friends about the hobby.  So here's to another year.
  

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Military SF Relationship to SF Wargames

   

I like playing games for many reasons, like they are fun.  Also, play is the foundation of learning.  There's lots of research supporting play as being one of the ways people learn new things.  It keeps your brain active to learn new things, which will help you live longer with all your senses remaining intact.  I'm going to be on a panel at the this years Worldcon, which is being held in London,  called LonCon3.  You can read about the panel on military SF I'm on here.

I thought it was as good as time as any to now talk about a few of the military SF books I've read over the years here.

The genesis of the military SF as a sub-genre of SF can arguably be traced back to G. T. Chesney’s seminal novella The Battle of Dorking, which was published 1871.  This tells the story of the successful German invasion of Britain from the deployment of a wonder weapon called the fatal engines; a plot McGuffin that once mentioned is then passed on by.  This novella is seen as a precursor story that influenced H. G. Wells’, in both his well known novel The War of the Worlds that appeared in 1897, and the his later short story The Land Ironclads of 1903.  The latter story has a description of a vehicle called a Land Ironclad, which the modern reader will recognise as a tank, which were invented, and first deployed during the First World War.  Of interest to me is the fact that Wells also went on to write what is arguably the first set of rules to play wargames with toy soldiers, called Little Wars, which I have the pleasure of owning a first edition copy of.  

I am not going to make the argument that SF is in anyway predictive of the future, only that writers were thinking about the future, and the possible changes that might come from the introduction of technology.  The truth is that writers mostly get this wrong, and when they do get it right they often fail to imagine what are called the second order effect of technology.

For example, Isaac Asimov, had one of his characters using a mobile phone in his robot detective stories.  There is a description where a character answers a call, only to reply that he can’t talk right now, because he will causing a disturbance in a public place (oh how we laugh).  While the social change that leads to that may yet arise, the complete lack of ring tones was another thing that was missed.  This isn’t to rain on Dr. Asimov’s abilities as a writer, but merely serve to illustrate that no matter how carefully one thinks things through, one is highly unlikely to get all the details right.  

When authors do predict the future, with what appears to be uncanny accuracy, it is probably a serendipitous outcome, arising from the synergy from the process of research and speculative writing (that's fancy speak for making a good guess).


Probably the most influential military SF novel written in the history of the genre to date is Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal 1959 novel Starship Troopers.  The novel discusses military service and citizenship.  Heinlein sets the story in a future where soldiers don power armour to defend the Earth, from alien bugs.  I believe the story is inspired by the history of the birth of democracy in Greek City states, which were protected by citizen soldiers called Hoplites, who went to war with their panoply forming up in phalanxes to fight; the Sixth Century BC  equivalent of power armour.  

Arguably the biggest influence for the ideas that Heinlein espouses, come from the works of Rudyard Kipling.  In Starship Troopers Heinlein uses his story to have his characters discuss the morals and philosophy of waging war, capital punishment, civic virtue and juvenile delinquency.  When described like that the book doesn’t sound like an exciting read, which only goes to show how good a story teller he was.  

The weaknesses of the story is that while Heinlein introduces power armour for his soldiers he doesn’t foresee the second order implications of the technology.  Therefore he fails to account for the lack of combined arms; in particular the use of close support orbital artillery fire, which would be a no-brainer in the setting.  He also ignores the wider context of waging war by focusing on tactics, and ignoring strategy and operations; this is very much the purview of the amateur military enthusiast.

Finally, while Heinlein may not have written a set of wargame rules, like Wells before him, his story has inspired a board game from Avalon Hill, a tabletop miniatures wargame from Mongoose Games, and a first person shooter to play on the computer.  Not to mention several live action movies, and several animated series too. 

At the same time as Starship Troopers came out, Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai! series was first serialised in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, which told the story of a genetic super soldier whose story is about what it takes to command troops in war.  The genetics under pinning the novel are simplistic, which is not Dickson’s fault, as our understanding of how genotypes are the expressed in a person’s phenotype is far greater now than it was then.  The only reason I mention Dickson’s novels is because they were eligible for the Hugo award for best novel in 1960, which was the year that Starship Troopers won it.

From a military perspective there are many things that Dickson omits that would be present in his future, and the genetic stuff is outdated, though at the time I imagine it was thought provoking.  This series had a role-playing game supplement in the Combat Command series of rulebooks.  However, it lacks power armour, or any other mecha; as the Japanese refer to machines like the ones that Gerry Anderson put in his TV shows.

Also, for some reason, Dickson has his troops wearing synthetic leather uniforms, in field grey.  I wonder where he got the colour from?  If you have ever done any physically grueling exercises you will appreciate how inappropriate leather would be for doing said activity.  Unless stinking all the time is good for morale (this is a real problem when wearing NBC uniforms called Noddy suits in the British Army).


Keith Laumer was also writing military SF, and showed that he was capable of extrapolating technology, with stories about cyber-tanks called Bolos.  These first appeared in the 1961 short story, originally titled Frozen Planet, but later changed to Courier.

Laumer’s stories centre on huge sentient tanks that are portrayed as valiant heroes who will sacrifice themselves to protect their creators.  My only comment here is that he didn’t write enough, as I would have like to have read more stories set in the Bolo universe.  The stories are what I would describe as deeply rooted in the high concept of artificial intelligent tanks, but Laumer doesn’t go beyond the basic idea and tell stories about how the institution of war were changed from the introduction of the Bolos.

These stories, along with Colin Kapp’s Gottlos short story, inspired a board game called Ogre and a sequel called GEV from Steve Jackson Games, which feature combat between conventional forces having to face giant cyber-tanks.

I will mention in passing Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison, published in 1965, because it was written as a direct response to Heinlein’s novel.  It is the antithesis of Heinlein’s work, as Harrison despised the ideal presented in Starship Troopers, and deliberately set out to write a satire of Heinlein’s novel.  Harrison wrote from an unapologetic anti-military perspective from his experience of military service that made him anti-violence and distrustful of authority.

It’s a funny book, and a good read, because Harrison shared with Heinlein the ability to tell stories, but it only exists to counter-point Heinlein.  It describes military life from Harrison’s own perspective of experience of being drafted.  However, the novel fails to address any real implications of the military technology portrayed.  This is to be expected given that it was a subversion of Heinlein’s discourse, rather than a military novel per se, which is probably a reason why it has no board game or tabletop wargame.


The first novel to directly challenge Starship Troopers dominance in the military SF genre is arguably Joe Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War story, which has two thematic sequels.  The Forever War tells of a war between us and the alien others, using the author’s experience of the Vietnam War for its themes.  Some reviewers like to set this book up in opposition to Heinlein’s, but I think this is a false dichotomy for what can be better explained by the differences in social reactions to the respective wars that the novels draw upon.  

Heinlein is talking after the Second World War, where the struggle was seen as necessary, and broadly a right thing to do.  Whereas Haldeman is writing after Vietnam war, where the struggle was seen as not only unnecessary, but also as wrong.  The Vietnam War was also the first war in history to have real time news footage aired on television, which in and of itself has coloured the public’s perception of war, and resulted in the military’s response to manage information where public opinion can directly effect political opinion.  Something that neither Haldeman nor Heinlein foresaw.

The Forever War book has also inspired a board game.  Given the limitations Haldeman creates in his future setting, from a military perspective The Forever War is also notable as it does introduce the problems of logistics on waging an interstellar war.


Then in 1979 David Drake’s short story collection Hammer’s Slammers was published, which became the first book in a series of short story collections, novellas, and novels that share with Haldeman the post-Vietnam sensibilities of The Forever War.  Drake uses the Hammer’s Slammers series to tell stories showing the effects upon his characters, as they become tools of war.

While I don’t enjoy Drake’s stories as much as I do Haldeman’s and Heinlein’s, what I do think he does through his work is illustrates the effects that the institution of war has on people.  He also shows how technology changes how wars are fought; in this case the deployment of blowers, which are effectively flying tanks.

Besides that, there is a rather excellent tabletop miniatures wargame called The Crucible, written I will add by two friends of mine: John Lambswood and John Treadaway

I have a particular interest in what happens to people when one puts them into armour that enhances their abilities, so John Steakley’s 1984 novel Armor, is important to the military SF genre for its depiction of the psychological effects that comes from doing so.  The extrapolation of the technology takes second place to inner turmoil of the main character.  The latter half of the novel takes place after the war, which serves as background for the events that happen on another planet.  So, Armor, as a story doesn’t fully explore the implications on the way wars are fought, or their impact on society.  However, it still remains one of the seminal power armour stories in the genre.


Robert Buettner’s 2004 novel Orphanage was the start of what is now called the Jason Wander Series.  The books explore the war against the alien others, with troops encased in power armour in a setting that features space and brown water naval action.  The follow-on sequel series features tanks, so Buettner is trying to write stories that cover the whole spectrum of war, and reasons why wars are fought.  The logistics and operational aspects arising when one wants to compel an opponent to stop doing what you don’t want them do is very much at the heart of the Orphanage setting.  All it needs now is a games company to produce a game for people to play in the rather unique setting that Buettner has created.
  

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Ogre Miniatures in a Shoebox



Well, another ogre miniatures thread has just bitten the dust over on the SJG forums, for which I'm probably partly responsible for, in that I posted a comment that lead to other people over reacting, and saying things that were best left unsaid.  I find the reaction to close the thread is evidence that my original comment, "The problem is the way Ogre is being handled is the problem; the miniatures is just a symptom of the bigger picture," has some substance.  IMO how this thread has been handled is a PR pratfall, YMMV.

Still, I was looking at my shoebox of Ogre miniatures, as one does, and musing that even after painting up my Pan European force in 2012, starting my new Combine force in 2013, which has run into 2014, I still have a shoe box of Ogre miniatures left to clean up and paint.  Ironic, because for years I had a shoebox full of unpainted miniatures, I now have a load of painted models, a load in the process of being painted, and probably have more unpainted castings than I originally started with.

I must be a true wargamer.

Looking back at how much I've spent on these, just over the course of this year it was $650.00, which was all the disposable income I had.  Unless I was the only person spending this kind of money with SJG I'm having a hard time understanding their position on the sales of the miniatures.
  

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Blast-Tastic Countdown


http://angelbarracks.co.uk/blast.html

I have sent off my details for the two passes I need for this show, and as the site shows there is only 96 days until the show.  So I must carry on painting the miniatures for the Ogre/GEV demo game I'm running.

I've been thinking about how to set up the Ceasefire Collapse scenario to get the maximum number of players around the table.  This means knowing the value of the units, so as to keep the scenario balanced, which is not my usual concern when setting up a wargame, but Ogre scenarios are touted as play test balanced.  So I feel I must remain true to the game's set ups.

However, this has set some thoughts in motion about an article for unbalanced scenarios, which if I get the time and inclination would make a good article for Miniature Wargames.  Don't hold your breath though.
  

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