Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: On the Table

On The Table: Melee and Wizard!

I tell you, these games are something else.

Long, long ago I heard rumor of them in the introduction of GURPS. Elements of Melee and Wizard are of course baked into the classic Second Edition GURPS Basic Set and first edition GURPS Fantasy. But strangely enough, the group of high school buddies that went hog wild playing Car Wars and Ogre and Illuminati somehow never went beyond doing anything else beyond creating a few 100 point characters with those gaming materials that were supposed to be Steve Jackson’s magnum opus and the ultimate testament to his design genius.

But now today, thanks to these beautiful editions of Steve’s groundbreaking fantasy microgames, we could finally appreciate his astonishing contribution to the development of fantasy role-playing games. Hoo, boy! What games!! The best thing about them, of course, is that there’s nothing you can do with them except play them. And wow, is it ever easy to dive in.

I will caution people that pick these games up that the fighter cards that I think came with the Legacy Edition are NOT the way to introduce Melee to people. No, the CORRECT way to be initiated into The Fantasy Trip is by creating a figure of your own with no idea what you’re walking into. (Pregens considered harmful!)

My opponent picked a counter out of the stack and decided to run with Rapier Dandy– ST 10, DX 14(13), IQ 8, MA 10, Rapier 1d, Cloth 1 hit. (We later figured out that this figure was a girl. Haha!) Not wanting to throw the weird rules into play at once, I countered with Cave Man– ST 14, DX 10, IQ 8, MA 10, Club 1d. Needless to say, Cave Man got cut to pieces fairly quickly. Rapier Dandy got in a solid hit that gave Cave Man a -2 on his next strike. An 8 or less is not easy to pull off! A followup blow knocked him down into the -3 penalty for low hit points. This was an elegant demonstration of Melee’s death spiral mechanic where once you start losing, things go from bad to worse very fast!

Of course this one on one fight was rather simple– two figures closing to melee range and then trading attacks does not require a hex grid in order to adjudicate. If the whole point of this game is to repudiate the godawful combat systems of classic D&D which have absolutely NO TACTICS involved whatsoever, then this game really needed to step up its game.

So we tried again this time with Rapier Dandy being joined by Archeress “I”: ST 11, DX 13, IQ 8, MA 10, Longbow 1d+2, Short Sword 2d-1. Together they would take on Longsaber Shortie– ST 10, DX 14(12), IQ 8, MA 8, Saber 2d-2, Leather 2 hits– and Knife Girl: ST 11, DX 13(12), IQ 8, MA 10, Saber 2d-2, Main Gauche 1d-1, Cloth 1 hit.

In the opening my pirates ran across the board at maximum move, giving up their melee attacks to close the range. Then… Rapier Dandy managed to not only flank Knife girl but also engage both Knife Girl and Longsaber Shortie by placing them both in her three front hexes.

This meant that rather than engaging the Archeress and forcing her to was tea turn changing weapons, it was Knife Girl that ended up losing an attack while getting ganged up on by both of her opponents. (Doh!) My figures dealt their share of blows, I suppose, but the Melee death spiral soon returned as both my figures bought it. All because of a careless mistake on their positioning in the opening turn. Doh!

Rapier Dandy had now won two arena combats, thus gaining an attribute point to spend. She went up to DX 15, making her even more dandy than she was to begin with.

At this point I suggested we try out Wizard, but after a few minutes of perusing the spell list my opponent countered that we should try running his Melee figures against a mixed team of both a Wizard and a Melee figure. This is not surprising, really. Not even players settling in to a brand new B/X D&D campaign bother reading through the full spell list, much less take the time to think through some kind of spell use strategy. Expecting a new player to do something like that with Wizard over a couple of beers is a really big ask, even for a long time microgame addict.

Therefore I created Knife Girl II out of a desire to get that main gauch into play. I also produced Belboz: ST 10, DX 13, IQ 11, MA 10, Staff 1d6, Blur, Magic Fist, Staff, Avert, Clumsiness, Confusion, Fire, Summon Wolf, Summon Myrmidon, Illusion, and Rope.

Knife Girl II again charged across the board. Belboz hung back and created the illusion of a wolf. The next turn I’d hoped to cast a second spell, but Archeress “I” had a greater DX and went first in the attack face. She hit and did five points of damage! That combined with with the two points I’d spent on the wolf was enough to put me in the -3 to DX zone. The death spiral was rearing its ugly head yet again!

Meanwhile, on the other end of the arena, Knife Girl II got cut down by Rapier Dandy. My wolf bit back and finished off Rapier Dandy. My wolf then flanked Archeress “I” while Belboz played the dodge option. Archeress “I” needed a 12 or less to hit with her bow, and she let fly… mercilessly killing Belbox. The wolf illusion then promptly disappeared, ending the game. Ah, if I could have survived that one attack, the Archeress would have had to change weapons and attack the wolf with her shortsword. Doh!

The moral of the story here is that a good archer has MANY advantages over a wizard character– namely, that archers can make ranged attacks without having to spend strength to do it!

Not quite the outcome I expected. On the other hand, we both immediately began discussing tactics for working around this problem and what we would do differently the next time we played– the hallmark of solid game design! And there will be a next time, too. These games are just too danged charming not to play obsessively!

Besides, Archeress “I” went up a level in DX after that third game and is itching to do it again!

On the Table: Car Wars Compendium Second Edition

I love this game.

It’s easily among the best values in gaming history and one of the greatest “everything you need in one book” games of all time. It was played to death and then revised… played to death again, revised again… and then played to death some more only to be tempered into one of the great achievements of gaming history.

There are many editions and variations of this game. I have tinkered with the rules a great deal myself and chased after many attempts to simplify what people tend to think of as a moderately overcomplicated game. But this weekend I decided to come back to my old flame and revisit the game that I originally fell in love with a long, long time ago. Not as it was in the small black pocket box edition that was the very first hobby games purchase I had ever made. But rather, as the end all be all, supercharged Second Edition Compendium release that was, perhaps, the last thing I would ever be excited to receive on a Christmas day.

That means playing with the “Advanced Collision” system that was first released as part of the referee screen– and the variant fire rules (“All Fired Up”) and a development of the “Advanced Maneuver System” from the pages of Autoduel Quarterly. Further, it meant going back to the original rules for ramplates– the days before some line editor decided to nerf the most efficient means in the game for converting a hot rod into piles of debris and obstacles. Finally, it meant embracing the Compendium’s speed modifiers as well!

How did it go…? Well, I’ll tell you.

I selected for our first scenario a Challenge Night event where two hot headed amateur duelists would get a chance to kill each other in the Dumbarton Slalom arena with sponsor-supplied Scorcher compacts. These have two flamethrowers in the back and a ramplate on the front. The idea was to get to a decisive and dramatic ending fairly quickly. The session did not disappoint!

The opening started straightforward enough. I managed to edge ahead by a quarter of an inch in the opening moves before we sped into the part of the drum where we’d gain the ability to fire. I cut right and let loose with my two flame throwers, but because my target was speeding across my back arc I had to eat serious enough speed modifiers that this shot was pretty well wasted. (Granted, a lucky hit could win the game if I set my opponent on fire– neither of us had fire extinguishers!)

My opponent then kicked it up to 60 mph while I dropped down to 40. His additional speed gave him a great deal of initiative. If he got to move at just the right moment, I was dead. But then… just as he was arcing toward me for a potential kill… he lost control and started to skid!

We exchanged shots and I put enough burn modifiers on him that he was in danger of catching fire. He then lost control again and skidded into the arena walls. His driver bailed out of the flaming vehicle and I ran the guy down before he could make it to a safe zone.

At this point I proposed changing up either the arena or the vehicle design or both, but this was evidently an intriguing enough match-up that it was worth another go. This one saw my opponent skid into the wall yet again even though he had slowed down a notch this time. I then accelerated and came in for the ram. He scored multiple flamethrower hits on me as I closed, but the ram completely destroyed his car. My driver was able to bail out of the flaming vehicle and escape before it had exploded.

Now… this was pretty exciting for me. I love love LOVE having a continuing Car Wars character that has earned all his wealth by defying certain death in the arena. My guy “Duncan Idaho” had a brand new Scorcher that had had only 2 shots fired from each flamethrower and was merely nicked on the back with four points of damage there. Compendium Second Edition is pretty generous with the “general” skill point awards, so while he didn’t gain any salvage from this event, he did gain enough skill points to go to Driver-1. This would give him a better chance for starting an event with improved reflexes and help him recover better than normal handling status at the end of each turn!

Going into the third and final event of the weekend, I had to ask… should I set this guy aside so what we could have a fair match where everyone was started the game with equal amounts of skill? My opponent didn’t think that was a problem. I mean hey, if you have a cool continuing character in a Car Wars campaign, you should get to use him. If he comes out of his third Amateur Night event with enough salvage that he actually stands a chance on the freeways, so much the better.

We did agree to change up the vehicle design and keep the same arena layout. Here’s our all-new low end vehicle we whipped up:

S’most — Medium Reverse Trike, x-hvy chassis, hvy. suspension, large cycle plant, platinum catalysts, 3 PR tires, driver, FT left linked to FT right, fire extinguisher, targeting computer. Armor: F 20, R 15, L 15, B 20, T 4, U 4. Accel. 5, HC 3, 2,518 lbs., $7,986.

Division 10 option — Make tires and armor fireproof and add heavy duty brakes. Equip driver with body armor and a grenade. $9,997.

We played without the Division 10 options, hoping for another short and decisive event. Rolling in, I took a stray flame thrower hit early on and caught fire. My fire extinguisher failed to put it out until the next turn– everything on my car had taken one hit of damage! Things did not look good for my awesome continuing character, but on the next pass, my opponent found himself in the exact same shoes. Suddenly, every single die roll we made began to matter a whole lot!

I admit, my opponent had done much better than me in terms of dishing out the damage in this round. I was the better driver and cruised around the arena with no chance of losing control. Meanwhile, my target veered away from me toward the arena wall and the damage that I had done was just enough to make this hazardous. He made one control roll after another… then needed to make just one more. His luck ran out, though, and he crashed into the wall for the third game in a row!

Now things were serious. My opponent has just gone into a skid and so was at -6 to-hit for that until the end of the turn. I had continuous fire bonuses and could control exactly how the pass played out. I managed to get my hit against the stationary target. Time to check for fire one last time. I needed 8 or less on two dice to light him up. I got it! My opponent needed 4 or less on two dice. Not likely! But then… he got it anyway. Doh!

Now to check for fire extinguishers…. My opponent made his roll of 3 or less on one die and his vehicular fire went out. Me? I failed… and my car went up in flames along with my continuing character!

Absolutely brutal!

Now my opponent’s character “Borf” is the guy with a promising future. He has two skill points in Driver and six in Gunner. He has a very beat up reverse trike with two points of damage to each of the tires, one point of damage to each internal component, 7 points of damage front, 8 points of damage left, 7 points of damage right, one point of damage top, and 1 point of damage to the underbody. (Whew!) Though if it was up to me, I’d rule that the event sponsors would totally give him a brand new division 10 model of that vehicle to drive home him.

The game play for this round was much more random due to the loss of the ramplates. In order improve this design in terms of how it plays fighting itself, here are the changes I would make:

S’most II — Add bumper spikes and upgrade fire extinguisher to IFE. Armor: F 18, R 13, L 13, B 14, T 4, U 4. 2520 lbs., $8,402.

(We did get to one rules question game. Obviously, the fire modifiers stack up as are explained in the rules. What we wanted to know was what happened to the fire mods when a fire extinguisher puts out the fire. Do they disappear or do they stick, continuing to set fires on later turns again and again…? We went back and forth on this until we agreed that it would be more fun to have the FE wipe them all out when the moment a fire extinguisher puts out a fire. Your mileage may vary!)

But how do things set in the aftermath of three quick playing duels…? “Borf” now respects the control table enough to slow down a little but… but not enough to persuade him to put extra skill points into driver skill. He is eager to get back into the arena for a chance at nabbing enough salvage that he could pimp out his ride in a substantial manner. He is liable to want to fireproof everything if he has any say in how the next cars are designed.

But most importantly… he can’t imagine playing Car Wars any other way than with the Super Advanced™ rules accretions that 1980’s gaming addicts laid down in order to strike just the right balance between simulation-feel and smooth game-play.

If you’re in the camp of those that think they want simpler rules in order to open the game up to more casual play, think again! Everything you need in order to speed things up can be addressed by playing with identical makes and models a la Amateur Night events, restricting dueling vehicles to driver only, outlawing pedestrian equipment, and greatly increasing the ratio of weaponry to defense in the vehicle designs.

Drive offensively!

Nine Kzinti Ships Take on the Death Probe…!

I dunno why my son was so keen on this one. He’d had his Kzinti fleet picked out for weeks in advance: five frigates, one FFK, and three war destroyers. He was convinced that his waves of thirty-six drones per turn could easily annihilate me. What he didn’t count on was the fact that the Death Probe could move at speed 32. And more… it can make two high energy turns per turn. This means that not only can the Death Probe pick the range that fire will be exchanged practically every turn. It also means that drones are all but useless against it.

Now, we did have a chance to work some more kinks out of the game. We finally had a need to mark the white boxes on some of these counters with a distinguishing color. Looking up the finer points on damage allocation, we discovered that when targeting weapons or engines, “skipped” hits don’t do any damage at all! It finally dawned on me why it was that it didn’t make sense for drones to do side slips. My son realized that being in a long line was actually a horrible fleet formation. We agreed that the rules really didn’t indicate that ships or drones would lose a hex of movement when executing a high energy turn. And finally, we figured out how these frame hits are really supposed to work so we could finally blow up some starships by the book for once.

But I have to say… this Death Probe scenario is just stupid. Everything that was interesting about that session where I fought against the gigantic B10 with a ragtag fleet of smaller ships was missing here. All of the excitement of that big plasma duel we played the other day was gone. A speed-32 ship with a couple of phase-4’s might sound awesome on paper, but in real life… it’s just lame. This is a ship that makes maneuver completely irrelevant. (Was I playing something wrong…?)

On the other hand, we discovered that handling a fleet of nine ships all at once in Federation Commander isn’t that difficult. Compared to Star Fleet Battles, you need only a quarter of the usual amount of real estate to track a ship. The cards stack nicely and the energy track combined with the weapons fired boxes make it easy to stay on top of what’s going on. As a result of this, I’m about ready to try a big fleet battle. A dreadnought with cruisers, destroyers, and frigates… all at fleet scale. I don’t care what they are as long as something gets crippled or blown up every turn.

But that speed-32 Death Probe with two HET’s a turn…? Never again!

On the Table: Federation Commander Boosters #0 and #8

I don’t think I’ve ever played a real “Plasma Ballet” type scenario with Star Fleet Battles. Between having much simpler rules and also a twelve-year-old around that will ask to play all of the crazy stuff, times have changed for me. And given that the point values for the ISC Star Cruiser and the Romulan KR Command Cruiser were so close, this duel was practically inevitable.

See, we have just the one ISC ship from Booster #0, so my son naturally gravitated to it. Not only does it look cool, but it has six plasma-F launchers facing to the rear which he thought he could unload on me all at once. (They’re actually intended to be defensive weapons; you can only fire one from each bank each turn if you’re targeting an enemy ship. This was a major letdown when the ship finally hit the table.)

Anyway, one of the problems with this game is that novices are liable to simply pull up to range one or so and just hammer away at each other until one person dies. And if people are maneuvering around, it’s possible to have a battle pass where not much really happens. But having two factions fight which both depend primarily on plasma torpedoes solves this problem.

Here’s what I mean:

My KRC is getting pummeled with sixty points of damage there. My son’s CS has ninety points of damage threatening to smash his ship on the next impulse. This is the sort of situation where emergency deceleration would be the end of you. Closing to point blank range when plasma torpedoes are heading your way would take a supreme amount of self control. (Sometimes it really is a good idea, though.) Every hex of movement counts. Every point of power counts. Everything about the precise steps of the sequence of play is suddenly matters immensely.  And whatever happens, people are going to take internals. This is just stupidly fun.

I’ve always been more of a direct fire person with this family of games simply because it’s easier to learn and play those sorts of rules. But after this game, it’s pretty clear that I’ve been missing out on some great battles.

One thing with this matchup here is that you have to put your advantages up against your opponent’s weaknesses. For instance, the KRC can (if he centerlines his target) launch 110 points of plasma at one time. This is way more than the ISC can manage. The ISC has a second problem in that his plasma is coming in two waves which means that his opponent can see that it hits different shields. What to do?!

In the first pass of this game, I came out with nine more internals scored against my son than he got on me. In the second pass, I managed to come just short of destroying him. And granted, the ISC ship is designed to be a part of a fleet formation. Can it give the KRC a run for its money?

Well, the ISC cruiser not without its advantages. The PPD is a pretty good weapon even though it’s liable to get shot off fairly often. Combined with its grand total of eight phaser-1’s, I think it can dole out some serious damage even when it’s waiting on its plasma to be reloaded. The ISC really needs to hound the Romulan every single turn in order to make up for its less impressive torpedo array. (If it can put that firepower on a shield that’s about to take plasma damage, that’s even better. Better check the sequence of play to see if that’s even possible!)

Another thing the ISC can do is look at exchanging plasma at a longer range. The utility of the Romulan’s plasma-F’s are blunted at the longer ranges. Also, it ISC still has six plasma-F’s. Sure, it can only fire two at the Romulan each turn… but if it can figure out how to use them for something besides padding, so much the better. At the same time, the Romulan can fire its plasma-D’s every single turn as well… and if the ISC turns up the heat too much, it can even cloak!

So yeah, I’d play this match again. I’d even switch sides to what looks like the lesser ship just to see if I could turn things around. You know, I’d read about people thinking this way with tournament battles at Origins over the years. But with Federation Commander– and my son being old enough to get into this– I can finally experience what I only daydreamed about doing with Star Fleet Battles. I was always concerned about leaving behind the way that things “really” worked in this more simplified implementation of the game, but the fact is… we’ve been too busy playing it to run into the things that I thought were going to be a problem here…!

On the Table: Axis & Allies, Revolution!, and Exploding Kittens

I have been playing games besides Federation Commander these past few weeks. (Yeah, the boys do give me a say every now and then, really they do.)

I really felt they needed to be exposed to this classic of tabletop gaming. In reality, explaining it was not easy, having to distinguish between cruisers and destroyers was positively maddening, and worst of all we had to pack it up before my son could take his second turn as Japan. On the other hand, I really like how the boys play. They don’t take nothing except infantry the way so many of my high school friends did. They don’t play conservatively, but buy cool units and make daring attacks. On turn one, Germany bought two aircraft carriers. On turn two, they used them to attack Great Britain! If my AA guns hadn’t shot down a couple of planes, I may well have lost it!

This session reminded me (yet again) that I should get rid of this crappy mass market edition and get the superior 2004 version. But that can wait until the boys are old enough to be able to play until 3AM. It’s just that sort of game!

My son had wanted to play Revolution! instead of Axis & Allies, so I made a point to fit this one in. I was surprised when my daughter insisted on joining in. She summarily crushed us, too.

(See, my son typically went for the middle row of influence spaces… my daughter went mostly for the top row… and I was left picking up leftovers and occasionally spoiling other peoples’ picks. If someone can take the top row largely unopposed, they pretty much have the game no matter what else happens.)

One thing I like about this game is that while the game has a scoring track, it’s not always obvious who is actually in the lead. (People tend to not account for the control of the board locations when they read the board.) A side effect of this is that people won’t gang the actually leader just to keep him down… and the secret and simultaneous decision making makes it impossible to do that if they want to! This works to keep novices from feeling picked on or from being conscious of just how far behind they are, which means they will actually play this even if they don’t have the “gamer gene.”

Exploding Kittens is stupid. I mean yeah, it’s stupid in a funny way, sure. But it’s also stupid from a game design standpoint.

See, it’s a player elimination game. You know, the type of game that is the reason why Risk and Monopoly are universally hated and why so many normal people assume that boardgaming must be a really  stupid hobby. Popular games like Uno produce one person that is a “winner” in the course of a play. Player elimination games like Exploding Kittens produce a string of losers until there is only one person left.

When we played this one, my son of course made an attempt to put his sister out of the game. (Man, I never saw that coming!) She left the table in tears. We called her back for a repeat without my son at the table and she caught my wife trying to throw the game to her! That actually made her more upset. (“You act like I’m stupid!”) She was so angry about it, it actually caused her to call into question previous victories that she had earned fair and square. That’s right, that awesome game of Revolution! that we just got done playing the week before… she decided that I must have let her win, too!

So this game. It is not a family game. It’s a game designed for hipsters that don’t actually like games. As such, it should only be played socially with people that have had at least three beers. It’s supposed to be a fast paced game that you play quickly and laugh about. The reality is that play comes to a halt every time someone puts the exploding kitten card back into the deck and that feelings are reliably hurt when someone gets singled out for an attack. I’m telling you… I can’t stand it!

And that would have been the end of that game at my house except some kids came over to my house a few days after this happened. And I heard them from across the house screaming and yelling and shouting. I was very concerned at what might have happened and rush to see if someone was hurt. But there they were… four kids, playing Exploding Kittens, talking smack, and hollering with every development of the game.

My daughter informed me a few days later that now that she’s beaten her friends, it’s now her favorite game. And in the weeks since they she’s played it almost constantly. Sometimes fights break out. But on the whole, this game has unseated Uno for the moment. Not bad for an intentionally silly hipster game.