Wednesday, 30 September 2015

First Impressions of Kings of War

Fantasy gaming has never really been my thing, but occasionally the bug strikes and I dip a tentative toe into the bog. There have been many comments recently on various websites and blogs about the of Warhammer and a lack of enthusiasm for the Age of Sigmar replacement. It seems that Kings of War (KoW) (published by Mantic, 2010) is viewed as a possible alternative and has attracted many favourable comments. I have never played Warhammer, but I have played a few games of Wahammer Ancient Battles (WAB), so I have a vague idea about the mechanics. In addition, I do actually have a copy of Warhammmer (7th edition possibly?) plus a few codex’s which I have bought at various bring-and-buy stalls bundled together with other items that did interest me. This Warhammer paraphernalia has lain dormant in the attic for many years. I also possess roughly 150-200 miscellaneous fantasy figures acquired in the same ad-hoc manner; some are painted, some not; some are mounted on round bases, others on squares; and there is no dominant ‘army’ groupings represented.

 001.JPGMantic have made KoW (a slimmed down version) available free to download from their website, together with ‘basic’ army/unit lists. This is a great idea because it allows gamers to have a ‘taste’ before deciding whether to invest in the full, published version. So that is exactly what I have done! From my disparate collection of figures I was able to assemble a pair of 1,500 point armies of ‘Goodies’ and ‘Baddies’. The ‘Goodies’ comprised a mix of Dwarves, Elves and Men; whereas the ‘Baddies’ had Goblins, Orcs and Skaven. Using these armies I have played a couple of solo battles (both won by the ‘Goodies’) and these are my thoughts on the rules:-

Aspects that I liked:

  1. Movement, particularly wheeling. There is no measuring outside arcs when wheeling, instead units are allowed to pivot on the unit centre point once during their move, and interpenetration is allowed so long as unit footprints do not overlap at the end of the move. Such a simple idea that speeds up play and works well.
  2. Combat, both ranged and melee. Units have a defined number of attack dice with a hit number (very few modifiers), and successes are rolled against the target defence number (again few modifiers) to get the final tally of hits. Only the attacker rolls dice, if the defender survives, then he can counter-attack during his next turn and inflict some reciprocal damage. Like WAB, there is the ‘buckets of dice’ syndrome (which some gamers hate), but the number of steps is reduced (no toughness versus armour rolls etc.). There is also no counting up of the number of figures in each unit, or number of ranks, nor whether some figures have multiple attacks or wounds, nor remembering that war-horses also attack etc. I often found combat resolution using WAB rules too slow and cumbersome. In KoW, combat is fast and furious.
  3. There is no figure removal because accumulated hits on individual units are recorded using dice or other markers. I really like this facet of the game. It allows me to use my figures on movement trays so how they are based, and how many figures in the unit, does not matter. The decimation of units (due to figure removal) seen in many Warhammer games is not visually apparent and your nicely painted figures remain on the table longer. Finally, I can imagine dedicated KoW players creating interesting diorama’s instead of simple units of individual figures.
  4. Morale, or Nerve testing. Again very simple, roll 2D6 and add the accumulative hits, then compare the score to the units defined Nerve values (there are two values listed). If the score is equal or higher than the lower value the unit ‘Wavers’ (which limits its possible actions next turn), or ‘Routs’ from the game if the score is equal or higher than the second value. This mechanism is so quick and simple to use.
  5. The role of Leaders or Heroes. These are not the super-heroes found in Warhammer, instead their primary role is to inspire units nearby who may have failed Nerve tests and Wavered, by allowing them to re-roll the test. I have never liked the all-conquering leaders found in most fantasy games, who are ladened with magical items that smite foes in vast numbers and rarely succumb to mere mortals. I like my heroes to be more interested in leadership, and if you foolishly let them be attacked by a foe who outnumbers them, then they should go down.

The above all seems very promising, but there are a few disappointments:-

  1. There are no Command and Control rules! I feel this is a real omission. Similar to Warhammer, all units move as desired, no problem. I must admit to liking rules that prevent armies from moving totally freely. One of the command decisions a player needs to make is the prioritisation of actions based on an element of risk; not everything will happen as planned; units will stand still instead of advancing, your men on the other side of a wood will not act as intended etc.
  2. The one aspect of movement I disliked was the necessity of charging units to face up and conform to the target unit’s front/flank/rear. This invariably requires shunting/shuffling of units, and weird gaps and congestion appear in battlelines. I think that stopping at contact is far more simple and efficient, causes less friction between players and just feels better.
  3. Although many (most) units have some ‘Special Rules’, I feel they may still appear a bit ‘bland’ to Warhammer gamers who are used to more variation and colour in their army profile.
  4. Magic. In KoW spells are very basic and limited in effect. I suspect that the larger published rules will expand on the range available, but in the downloadable rules the range is small and again, bland. Even if the magic rules are not expanded, I quite like the limited magic idea. Too often, it seems, that games can be decided by super-spells, and this does not feel right.
  5. The army lists supplied may also cause some angst to Warhammer gamers. Are Orcs tough enough, or are Elves too powerful etc. I am not experienced enough to really comment on this and am happy to accept Mantic’s KoW assessment, but I can imagine that Warhammer players may have serious problems living with the changes. One of the beauties of fantasy gaming is that a designer has total freedom to rule as they feel fit. If a designer wants Dwarves to be weedy, nervous beings then who is to argue? In comparison, historical wargame designers are restricted by history e.g at what range is a 6pdr AT gun effective against a Panther tank, and what is the probability of successfully knocking it out? Therefore any special rules or characteristics are determined by the rule designers imagination, and players may agree or not, but they cannot complain on the grounds of inaccuracy.


So, has KoW inspired me? The rules gave a nice, enjoyable game, and I probably will invest in a copy of the published, expanded rules. I cannot imagine playing a lot of fantasy games, but every now and then I will get the figures on the table. I’m sure I will make a couple of house-rules to include a Command and Control element (possibly a simple mechanism such as found in the Black Powder/Hail Caesar rules), and I will allow units to stop in place when contacting the enemy. KoW has at least encouraged me to paint my unpainted fantasy figures (the results will appear in future ‘Off the Painting’ table posts). Will I buy more figures and expand my armies? Probably not, I’m happy with my Goodie versus Baddie split, and it does not worry me that Dwarves and Elves are fighting together. I cannot imagine buying all the figures to create a pure Dwarf (or whatever) army. I will occasionally buy figures from bring-and-buy stalls if they seem to offer a great bargain, and if my painting stocks are running low. To conclude, I’m not about to become a fantasy fanboy but these rules may at least get me to take some neglected figures out of their boxes once in a while.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Boardgame session: 27Sept2015

Val and Chris hosted this boardgame session and we decided to play ‘Alchemists’, a new game for both Elaine and myself. This is a ‘heavy’ game that took us over 3 hours to complete (i.e. the whole session)!

The game is basically about deduction, with an overlay of worker placement, and is from the same stable as Dungeon Petz. Therefore the graphics and rules contain a high level of humour, and have a high production standard with regard to components etc. Essentially players are alchemists producing potions from a wide range (8) of ingredients used in paired combinations to generate different effects in the recipient (customers, student or yourself). By observing and recording these effects the player can begin to deduce the active elements within each ingredient and publish their theory about each of these ingredients. Victory is awarded to the player with the highest reputation at the end of the game. The underlying combinations are determined randomly using an App which can be downloaded on to players smart phones, tablets etc. The use of this App is brilliant (and I am a bit of a technophobe!) and is easy to use. There is a manual mechanism supplied in the game but this would necessitate one person to act as a game master, who will merely secretly instruct each player on the potion result each time they make a trial. This would be an onerous task that I cannot imagine anyone taking on voluntarily, so an App is the perfect solution! The worker-placement part of the game forces players to decide on their turn actions; do they wish to gather more ingredients; make money by selling either ingredients or potions; buy useful artefacts; trial new potion combos on customers, students or themselves; or publish, or debunk, theories. There is a bidding mechanism to determine player order which is important. Reputation/victory points are gained and lost during game play, but the real determinate of victory comes at the end when reputation points are gained and lost after revelation (by the App) of the true elements that comprise each ingredient. These are compared with the deduced, published theories proposed or supported by each of the players, and reputation points are awarded or lost depending on the accuracy of their predictions.

So, how did we get on? I won the game which was surprising given the level of bafflement I experienced in the first few turns of the game, so how I achieved victory remains a bit of a puzzle. I think the purchase of artefacts helped me, and I did (somehow) make a good number of accurate theory predictions/endorsements. Both Elaine and I found the first turns bewildering, but slowly light began to dawn about what we were hoping to deduce and how to go about making our deductions and theories. I am still not fully clear on what the ‘null’ potion result tells a player, but I know it must give some important information. Half-way through the game I suddenly realised that selling to a customer did not just gain money, but also provided data on the potion effect similar to testing on yourself or a student. I still don’t know how the ‘debunking’ of existing theories works, only Chris carried out this action and apparently he did it incorrectly by failing to test his debunking theory on the App. I’m also not entirely sure about the ‘hedging your bets’ mechanism when publishing a theory, although I do appreciate that it protects you (to a degree) from the reputation loss if the theory turns out to be incorrect. The gaining of ‘grants/victory points’ for publication of related theories was again a bit of a mystery to me, but Chris awarded them as and when they were needed.

I think this is a game you can only learn by playing and it certainly makes your brain hurt trying to logically work out the random ingredient elements from the results of your potion combo trials. I applaud Chris on his efforts to explain the rules to a pair of newbies. For such a complex game this is not a task I would relish (in fact, this is the same reason why I have yet to introduce the game Merchants and Marauders to our gaming friends). Elaine and I began to see the logic and the mechanics lying behind the game only by the halfway mark, and I don’t think either of us fully understood exactly what we were doing even at the end! This game needs to be played a few times before a player can gain a better understanding, although the underlying logic required to make sensible deductions is fairly easy to grasp. I feel like I need a period of quiet reflection and thought to properly digest the rules and outcomes. I am sure as a player I should have acquired more information from the actions/results of the other players than I did, and that I could/should have been able to utilise this data to block/hinder others and maximise my worker placement decisions. My major criticism of the components is the vital player board; on at least two occasions players knocked this vital piece causing the inserted potion result tokens to fall out. Replacing these tokens correctly is virtually impossible and without this information a player will struggle. I think this problem caused Val to incorrectly mix a potion to sell to a customer and lost her reputation points and money (the look of disbelief on her face when the App told her she was wrong was worth seeing!). I’m sure that using your deduction record sheet you could correctly reconstruct the disturbed player board but this would be very time consuming and annoying. I think a better design solution would have been to have this component flat on the table, possibly as a folio document holder, with the player record sheet on the covering/hiding fly-sheet.

To conclude, this is great deduction game, well produced, that certainly tests a player’s logical analytical powers. It does make your brain ache! It is not a short game and I think even with experienced players you should expect to spend at least a couple of hours on each game, so for a gaming session this game will take up the whole time available. It is strangely enjoyable (not as enjoyable as Dungeon Petz) even though you feel mentally drained (and may have a headache) at the end. I hope we get to play more games of Alchemists, but because of its length it will not be played often.