Battleground: Review & battle report

If I had as much time as I wanted, I’d probably be a miniatures gamer. I love the intricacy, the skill, the sheer aesthetic delight of painting minis. The maneuvering, the planning, the feints and the luck of battles. And it’s great to see it all happening before you in 3D. (So long as what’s happening is actually representational.)

But, of course, I don’t have time for all the geeky hobbies I’d like to. Is there a way to get some of the aesthetic thrill of miniatures combat, without taking as much time? What if you could, say, eliminate all the painting time?

As I mentioned a while ago, one of my favorite podcasts for tabletop games is Roll 2d6, “With Adam and Nate”. In Episode 9, they reviewed a game called Battleground. Their review is quite in-depth; I recommend giving it a listen.

Concisely put, Battleground is a miniatures game played with cards. The cards are bird’s-eye views of combat units, so one card is approximately one stand worth of figures in most miniatures games. The scale is about 25mm, so the game uses about the same space as a 3D miniatures game: basically, a tabletop or large part thereof. The game also uses (a different kind of) cards for its command and control system.

Adam and Nate made Battleground sound so enticing that I had to try it. Several months ago, I bought some sets for the humans, elves, orcs and undead. The packs currently run around US$12 for a basic faction pack, so a minimum of about $25 for a playable game. Add the (optional) $7 reinforcement pack for a faction and you get about twice as large an army, so about $50 gives you a pretty big range of armies — either two really big ones, or four moderate size ones. Not super-cheap, but compared to the expense for two or more full armies of painted 25mm miniatures, it’s definitely on the affordable end.

Having those armies in Battleground means many different possible scenarios: different factions, different armies within those factions, different terrain setups, different goals, etc. It’s really a full 25mm-scale wargame, with all the scenario possibilities inherent in that. Minus: No cool 3D miniatures to look at. Plus: a complete playable minis game fits in a small bag.

Photo of Battleground game components, all fitting into one bag

A few weeks after buying it, I finally got around to play-testing the game by myself and trying to figure out the rules. (By myself? Yes, this is another plus of the game: it’s pretty easy to play solo. Adam and Nate mentioned that solo play was a possibility, which I think was what finally tipped me into buying the game.) It’s possible to give a unit orders and then let it keep going, based on those orders, through the entire game. One unit type, the Crazed Goblins, have the permanent order “Close and Attack”, meaning that they basically run on autopilot.

So I played a couple games. The first battle was a small group of humans versus the crazed goblins; the second battle was a small group of humans against a similar group of crazed goblins. Both games were around 415 points, which is considerably smaller than the recommended 1500-point starting game, but a nice small scenario seemed to work well for coming to grips with the rules. Both games lasted about 45 minutes from start to finish.

I happened to have a map of Lake Superior available, so I used it as impromptu terrain. The scenario: after years of development, the humans have encroached on the orcish lands, and now they’ve sent a small scouting party (some sword-fighters, a unit of archers and a unit of peasant militia) to claim Superior Pool. The orcs, enraged, try to resist.

The humans formed up, trying to protect the archers while they peppered the goblins from a distance. The goblins tried to close as fast as possible and get rid of the humans.

Photo of Battleground game in progress

The sword-fighters destroyed two units of goblins before falling. Eventually, it was down to just one unit of goblins and the archers. The archers weren’t especially hurt, and in spite of their lack of melee prowess, they prevailed. The archers had plenty of damage boxes left, so they weren’t really in danger. But still, it was tense! And very well-balanced — it felt like the battle could go either way, every turn.

Playing the basic game was pretty enjoyable. All movement and range is in multiples of card dimensions (width, length, ½ width, etc.), so you always have ready-to-use rulers available. There’s a fair amount of die rolling, which is aesthetically pleasing. The game seems very well balanced, and there’s a real sense of battles coming down to critical moments of morale and tactics. The peasant militia routed at their first contact with the goblins, which just makes sense.

I later did another scenario, this time elves vs. orcs, to try out the Basic game. This includes far more of the rules, with the command cards coming into play, fuller combat rules, etc. It was actually somewhat hard to follow. This may be because I’m out of practice with wargames.

Another possible factor is the way the rules are presented. First off, the game way overuses bold type. There are paragraphs where it feels like every other word is bolded, often for seemingly no purpose. There was one paragraph where the word “battlefield” was bolded. Why? It’s like reading a pre-owned college text where someone else has gone wild with a highlighter — often for what seems like bizarre reasons. Similarly, some of the graphical design could be clearer. For example, units’ attack values are rated as [icon of a sword] (X) Y/Z. X is something like accuracy; Y is something like chance of armor penetration; and Z is damage after penetration. But they’re all just presented as a string of numbers in a row. I got more used to reading these combat stats as I played, but it’s still pretty easy to get confused.

Also, the game’s writing is often unclear. The rules will frequently define something in a way that makes it unclear whether it’s an “ought” or an “is”. The way the Final Rush rules are presented, for example, make it unclear whether units can do a Final Rush, or must do a Final Rush. There’s a section that carefully defines indirect fire, but then apparently gives no mechanical difference for how indirect fire works. And there’s no index in the supplied rulebook, so it’s hard to find where a given rule is mentioned for the first time. (There is an index for the online advanced rules, but that’s then the advanced rules.) I also think there are too many modifiers to keep track of: terrain, morale, facing, range, etc. etc. all get factored in with + or – modifiers, which can lead to a little too much on-the-fly arithmetic for my tastes.

The game is definitely problematic from a diversity perspective. The rules assume masculinity as the default in a bad way, for a start; they always use “he” or “his” to refer to players, and say “bowmen” where the perfectly gender-neutral “archers” could work instead. Why call the one faction the “Men of Hawkwood”? Also, their illustration of the Dark Elf “lashmistress” is pointless titillation.

There may be some racism in there, too. The orc army in Battleground may be an example of the “evil races” stereotype, though I’m not sure about that. (Do the Crazed Goblins make this worse? Again, I don’t know.) And the Umenzi Tribesmen faction may or may not play into racist tropes. I haven’t bought it, because to be honest I’m afraid of discovering after the fact that it’s drenched in troglodytic ideology. I’d definitely welcome reports on that front.

Aside from those problems, Battleground is very fun. I played out an entire solo moderate-sized wargame conflict in about half an hour, which is something not a lot of games can do. The flavor of the command cards — choosing which unit’s orders to change, deciding whether to try for a new command card or not, etc. — is quite fun. There’s lots of drama in the dice, but doesn’t feel like the game relies too much on luck. It feels like the die rolls mean something. “Ooh, they get hit, but their armor absorbs it!” or “Ah, those wily elves dodge the goblin onslaught!” The combination of command cards, special abilities, etc. gives a good feel of character to the armies: the elves gallantly holding their ground, the goblins charging forward with a “waaarrggh!”, etc. Rout tests, troops lost to enemy attacks, etc. all add to the sense of drama.

Mostly, it’s just neat how you can put an entire miniatures-like wargame in a small pouch.

Divination in RPGs

The Thursday night group recently wrapped up play-testing a game that includes divination as a major PC ability, so I’ve been thinking more lately about prognostication (fortune-telling, foreknowledge, etc.) in RPGs.

As I see it, divination tends to move towards one of two extremes:

  1. The character has perfect foreknowledge of what will happen. This makes the future inevitable, which means that the characters as a group don’t have much choice in the future course of events. This way of handling foreknowledge usually seems to drive the game towards railroadiness. It also reduces the sense of agency, tending towards (as it’s called) deprotagonization.
  2. The character’s foreknowledge of events is unreliable, and the PC merely gets hints as to what will happen. This means that the character’s divination abilities aren’t especially useful. If this is a major subset of the character’s abilities, they feel useless. This also tends towards deprotagonization.

As I said in Blade & Crown:

Actual foreknowledge of game events can be very difficult to implement. Forcibly designating the future of events in-game can make it feel like the characters are railroaded; divination that’s flexible enough to allow for real free will may be too wishy-washy to be satisfactory.

Thus, divination can fail in either of two different directions, Importantly, I think either extreme is easy to fall into. Just a bit of sense that the future is written in stone, or a bit of a sense that a character’s cool ability is actually just lukewarm, can be enough to sour the game and make a player feel powerless.

Games are fundamentally, for me, about making important choices. Put another way, games are about the ability to change the outcome of events, and the ability to not be subject to the usual rules of the mundane world. Divination and foreknowledge mess with that formula, quite easily resulting in a loss of player choice, and of player agency.

Of course, if you’re looking for a game that’s railroady, or where the GM is largely revealing a pre-determined story, this is more of a feature than a bug. And if you’re writing a piece of prose fiction, it’s entirely fine for events to be pre-determined — since they are, assuming you’ve already written the whole piece before the reader interacts with it. But this is almost never the kind of game I want, however.

crystal_ball_1aNaturally, I like the way Blade & Crown does it. In B&C, a foretold future event creates a narrative ‘pull’ on events, but doesn’t lock characters into doing a particular thing. Seems like games that use similar methods of player narrative control (Traits, Aspects, etc.) should be able to implement similar forms of narrative pull. We tried something similar for the game we’re playtesting, and it worked fairly well. (‘Fairly’, because I still felt that tension between falling into utter foreknowledge and complete uselessness. And it felt vaguely unfair that I got to declare the future and no one else did, even though the declarations were wobbly and not especially reliable.)

This kind of narrative gravity is an aspect of RPGs that interests me a lot. Next year’s Con of the North scenario, The Dooms that Came to Chaegrae, is in many ways an experiment to see how well this can work. In that game, the PCs will all have strong senses of their fates — their Dooms, that is — that will drive them towards heroic deeds, and probably both into and out of danger.

It’s important to note here that I’m talking specifically about prognostication — foretelling the future. If, instead, a character’s abilities/fate/spirit leads them towards knowledge of the past, that’s completely fine in an RPG. Indeed, a large part of many RPGs is trying to figure out what has gone before. We call this ‘investigation’ or ‘mystery’.

And this mirrors how we feel about real life. (Well, most of us, anyway.) We all have a sense that the past is written in stone, because it effectively is; none of us can change the past. But prognostication can make the future seem inevitable, and reduce our sense of free will. Divination about the past, on the other hand, is what we all have already: memory. None of us have free will about the past, because we can’t change it. (And perhaps we can’t change the future, either; but most of us like to at least operate under the assumption that we can.) So divination about the past is something that already happens in RPGs. We usually just call it investigation, or exposition.

I’m sure there are other ways of handling foreknowledge in RPGs, but I’m not thinking of them. Do you have ideas for ways that prognostication can be included in an RPG without reducing player agency? I’d love to hear them.

Snippets from Calteir: the Rutter of the Pirate Sea

The Rutter of the Pirate Sea is a series of maps and notes by an unknown Morensian pilot from approximately 650 SR. The maps and notes are quite accurate, describing many places to the west of Morensia, and appear to describe locations as far away as Eastern Orsamos.

A few sample passages from the Rutter:

Do not accept coins from merchants of Erekios. Their coins are trustworthy, but they are not. Ask an Erekian man for 1000 coins and he will give you 996.

The Wine Festival of the Kina states is very enjoyable. Bring a good wooden mug. Pottery will not last more than five breaths. Do not venture into the festival with anyone you do not want to see naked.

Day 45. We come to a broad bay, flanked by flaming lights. This is the port for the City of the Incense-Eaters. The whole town is full of fragrant smoke. Many sailors wanted to linger here.

The people here use lion teeth for currency. Only great heroes can afford to buy anything of value. After haggling unsuccessfully, the sailors wanted to move on.

Here, 106 days into my journey, I met a madman who spoke flawless Morensian. He greeted me with a friendly hello, but could not tell me his name nor his history. He was not a slave, nor a pilgrim, nor did he seem especially poor. I could not determine what brought him here.

Had a pleasant chat with the pirates who had beset us. They discussed the Cult of the White Sun and how it had driven them to piracy. We exchanged a few secrets.

Fisherfolk here subsist on floating wood, fish spines and gravel. One of the locals invited us to a feast of bricks and dirty rags. The constellations were warped and unfamiliar. We left in great haste.

Day 240: This morning, a single feather was borne to us on the wind. About noon, another feather arrived. An hour ago, the same thing happened again. Yet there are no birds here.

To many Morensians, the “Pirate Sea” includes the whole Ocean as far as the Middle Sea. This is true of the Rutter, as well; this is why the book covers places as far away as Eastern Orsamos.

The notes are written in fairly hard-to-read Morensian Script. Some copies of the book try to faithfully reproduce the bad handwriting; others try to interpret it into understandable Morensian. There are at least a few different variants, depending on who is doing the interpreting. In fact, at least one modern scholar is trying to compile a Collected Commentaries and Treatises on the Rutter of the Pirate Sea.

Several scholars also purport to own the original Rutter. The Monastery of Mother Ocean of Peshinath in Gyrthbae has perhaps the strongest claim to having the original, with a detailed record of provenance. The notes on whose hands the Rutter has passed through is almost as interesting as the Rutter itself: the monastery’s copy has been owned by a Rhodian merchant who lost it in a bet with a pirate-queen of Yolatra, who in turn lost it shortly before becoming Queen of the Samorol region of Morensia.

Categories: Books, Sailing

Method Con 2

This past weekend was Method Con 2, this year’s MnStf fall relaxacon. As usual, it was a pleasant weekend of conversation, gaming, food and generally hanging out with a bunch of cool people.

Games I played

As a MnStf relaxacon, gaming is a major focus of Method Con. There’s a dedicated gaming room where people start gaming early and keep gaming late. Most nights, the gamers are the last people to go to sleep. And I bet that the gamers are the last people hanging out at the con, right now. I played quite a few games this weekend:

Our posters from Let's Build a World at Method Con 2

Let’s Build a World: In the same mode as I’ve done several times now, this was collaborative worldbuilding in the span of 75 minutes. We started with a few elements of atmosphere: Methane, Oxygen, permafog… oh, and perma-frog, too. It is permanently raining amphibians on this world. The mood was also set as ‘skeptical’. A common sentiment on this world is “That is awesomely wrong“.

I was again fascinated by the tendency towards goofiness here. The geology (seen above) was pretty straight: a nickel-iron core, a very old planet, the mountains were ground down by glaciers, the mountains were not crushed by frogs, etc. Yet there was, overall, a lot of gonzo detail, such as constant background music, the people being furry and yellow, and the volcanoes erupting green lava in time with the music. I continue to be interested in how this game tends towards gonzo.

Star Traders: We managed to get together a game of this, which was nice — we haven’t had enough lately, due to the main players being in different cities. The game was full of wild deals, hilarious laughter and memorable moments. I had to write one down:

Matt picked up a cargo, causing a race with Emily. Matt put an envoy on himself, then paid me to use a Piracy card on Emily as a Lose a Card effect (since I was playing the Pirate). Emily asked, “Does anyone have an Avoid Calamity card?” Matt and I both raised our hands and said, “I do!” Thorin sold Emily an Avoid Calamity card, which she then used. Matt was going to pay me to use a You Are Lost card on Emily, until Emily paid me to use an Avoid Calamity card for her, which I then didn’t do because Matt didn’t pay me to use the You Are Lost card in the first (second?) place.

Star Traders generates this kind of convoluted silliness quite naturally. That’s the main reason a lot of my friends like to play it. We discover new bizarre situations and make new tangled deals every time we play. It has a lot of the wonderful narrative possibility of tabletop RPGs. In many ways, in fact, it is an RPG.

The game is also part of an interesting group of games: those that include the entire universe as a subset of themselves. It is possible to make deals for anything in Star Traders: “Let me use your station and I’ll go get you some potato chips”, for example. This is not an especially strong inclusion of the entire universe, unlike other games, but it’s still in there.

Another thing I’ve noticed about Star Traders: the endgame is largely about who can outlast everyone else’s Calamity cards. And when we play it as inadvisably late as we did Friday night, it’s also about who can stay coherent the best with the least sleep. In two different ways, then, it’s a game of endurance as much as anything else.

Moneyduck: We had a few rounds of this Saturday night. This is another goofiness engine. Tons of hilarious NSFW comedy came out of this.

Blockhead: The last game Saturday night. This is about balancing things on top of other things, in the same general class as Jenga or Pick-Up Sticks. So, not a lot of intellectual stimulation, but a good game for playing late at night.

This is another example of games that contain the entire universe as a subset of themselves, in that you can use “any object on the table” to help set up the structure. We used a Kit-Kat wrapper and parts of a Sudoku-like puzzle as Blockhead pieces.

Timeline: I’ve reviewed this before. We played the Inventions version and again got into disagreements with the game about when a given thing was invented. Would you, for example, say that the water clock is more ancient than the sundial? The game does. Not sure I agree there — surely, the sundial is as old as the first time someone stuck a stick in the dirt and used that to tell what time of day it was. Still, the game was enjoyable and a good way to pass 20 minutes or so.

PDQ:A fast-playing word game that I hadn’t played before. Three cards are revealed; each has a letter of the alphabet on it. Everyone seated at the table tries to come up with a word that uses all three letters, in order. Longest word wins ties. It was pretty fun and got us saying some very weird words quite loudly.

Roll Through the Ages: This is, as I’ve described it before, a combination of Yahtzee and Civilization. It’s a fun little game that gets the flavor of a historical simulation while being pretty fast. It has a very well-designed record sheet that includes nearly all the rules, and it plays quite well solo. Our game ended up being very close: the victory point totals were 21, 20 & 15. (An interesting aside: the scores vary widely depending on the number of players in the game. In my experience, the total points scored equal ~60 points; and if you’re playing solo and you don’t get more than 50 points, you haven’t ‘won’.)

Seasons: I only played a little bit of this before I had to run off to dinner. It gets compared to Magic: the Gathering, and with good reason; it’s very much about collecting magical power and trying to cast spells. But the goal is victory points, not killing your opponent, and there are some interesting effects related to advancing the turn (year & season) track. It was pretty confusing, due to not having enough time to really learn the rules and due to some poor editing, but I’d definitely like to play it again when I get a chance.

We also played a game of my own devising that I still haven’t worked up the gumption to describe fully online. I will say, though, that it is the game that pushed Blade & Crown’s product number up to 3002.

Other things

JOFCon: This convention got announced at Method Con’s closing ceremonies. It promises to be both stimulating and relaxing: it’ll still be a relaxacon, but there will be a track of programming about running conventions that I think will be extremely important. I’m hoping to help arrange a training for JOFCon on how to recognize and reduce harassment at cons.

Food: There was a bunch of great food, including catered Indian food Saturday night, good Chinese food Sunday night and generally tasty stuff the rest of the time.

Conversations: As always, a major part of a con is just the conversations we have with friends and other fans. Lots of personal stuff here, nothing worth saying on this blog. But all well worth saying.

Snippets from Calteir: The Arothaem Road

A pilgrim's map of the Arothaem Road

A pilgrim’s map of the Arothaem Road

The Arothaem (Old Morensian ‘Road of Aros’) Road is located in the Kreshar region of Morensia. It runs from Aropash, at its southern terminus, to Chaegrae at its north.

The Arothaem is the only Rhodian road in Morensia. As such, it is quite good and mostly paved with stones, except where people have taken the stones to use in their buildings.

Popular history has it that Aros built the road in one night, when a surly mountain god challenged him to a foot race. Rather than ruin his new boots (freshly made from troll-hide) on the uneven ground, he paved his path and then proceeded to beat the mountain god easily.

Although both Chaegrae and Aropash have good stone bridges, the Road strictly speaking doesn’t extend to those bridges, so the Road itself only crosses water once: at the ford between Lomengab and Aron. The political atmosphere at the ford is usually rather tense, lying as it does between the demesnes of Earl Loroud and Count Dobros. Numerous bearers work there, carrying people and cargo back and forth. Both Bailiff Lothtol of Lomengab and Baroness Sermae of Aron agree that bearers should not threaten passengers with ‘loss’ or ‘tripping’ mid-stream, but it still occurs pretty frequently. Tolls are higher when going to the west, but neither side is exactly cheap.

As with many roads in Morensia, the road is plagued by bandits, many of them holdovers from the Interregnum. Perhaps the most famous is Uraen the Red.

Category:Roads

Snippets from Calteir: The Veil

The Veil, on a clear day, showing her right eye
The Veil is the Morensian name for the main moon of Calteir. It is the most prominent astronomical feature of Calteir, besides perhaps the Sun and Calteir itself.

The Veil is usually pure white. Keen eyes can sometimes detect whorls and trails in the whiteness. Occasionally, and unpredictably, the whiteness clears and shapes are revealed. The shapes are unclear, but there are sometimes blue and green areas, sometimes a vast orangey-brown pall. A common type of prophecy is based on this.

A common belief in Morensia is that there is a woman hidden behind the white, and that the whiteness is her wedding veil. For this reason, some people call the moon the Bride. There are different myths as to who exactly she is to marry. Her face is almost never very clear, but there are parts that seem to suggest eyes.

The Veil makes its way around Calteir once every 28.15 days. The Veil therefore makes its circuit around Calteir 13.1826 times per year.

In Sashtia, the moon is considered to be a manifestation of Zarai.

Unknown to almost all residents of Calteir, the Veil is inhabited. By who or what, though, remains a mystery to even the wiliest of Calteirans.

Category:Celestial objects

It’s over 9000!

Bundle of Holding masthead imageThe Bundle of Holding is well over US$9000 now. So I get to use that headline in all sincerity. (Edit: As I check now, it’s over $10,000!)

And Julia Bond Ellingboe’s Steal Away Jordan has now been added to the Bundle. That’s a game I’ve long since wanted to buy and play, and now I get it as part of the Bundle of Holding! And so do you, if you’ve already bought this Bundle or if you buy it now. So go check it out if you haven’t yet.