Jul 032014

There is nothing as fun and nostalgic as bringing out an older game and gazing upon it with fresh eyes. Recently, I had such opportunity, and not only to bring it out for play, but to play it with the same opponent I faced off against thirtysome years ago. It’s an interesting experience opening up the rules after so long, looking back on what we could remember and comparing those shadows of memory to the text before us.

The game summoned from its long slumber is the GDW classic Double Star, designed by the master of Sci-Fi gaming Marc W. Miller. When a gamer in the late seventies and early eighties wanted to get into Sci-Fi, a reliable source was GDW and one of Marc’s designs. Imperium, Triplanetary, and Belter are among some of the solid and fun games produced by GDW in those early days that reflect Marc’s approach: an interesting story to tell, a fantastic situation to be placed in, and interesting mechanics to resolve it all.

While I still have a copy of Imperium, we had long ago lost my friends original Double Star. Recently, in a determined and emphatic attempt to restore our originals, we’ve gone on a bit of a hunt to recover some of our lost treasures. Double Star was one of our first recoveries and thus one of our first old-schools to be played.

The premise of the game is intriguing. Two earth cultures, the Chinese and Islamic, have ventured to the stars and colonized two adjacent star systems: Chin and An-Nur respectively. These nova-humanitas, are now in conflict and have launched their armadas into space. Major worlds contain population (in millions), factories, bases, and defense systems. Fleets are composed of transports, destroyers, cruisers and battleships. An interesting concept revolves around the use of command cruisers, which permit the creation of fleets. These fleets have the inherent ability to train new formations which are then selected during inter-ship combat to enhance attack and defense power.

Destroying the opposing civilizations ability to fight includes devastating their production capability and annihilating the non-combatant population. If that sounds like the classical warfare of a bygone era then the classification is right-on; Miller strove for a feeling of barbarism and genocide with this title. One of the novel aspects of the game is the ability to break moons and smaller planetoids out of their orbits and send them hurtling towards your opponents planets. Needless to say these can cause devastating damage if they achieve a strike.

We played the short “raid” scenario just to get our feel for the game back. Next play will be the full game and the interstellar struggle for ruination or survival will be rendered to conclusion. Look for a piece on that experience in a future installment.

Two Islamic Cruisers have broken off the main fleet action for a raid while the planetoid Al-Akhir hurtles towards Chien.

Apr 292014

I’ve been active playing Shadowrun since 2003 in a group of people who have committed to that future world scenario RPG. Three of us are still there while four people have chosen to leave us on the way and three people have recently joined us. The player ages range from 23 to roughly 60 and we all enjoy the interesting and diversified gameplay that this pen & paper game provides.

Wikipedia says that Shadowrun is a science tabletop pen&paper game playing in the near future, but I don’t see science as a main driver for the gameplay. “Near future” means in our group that we are always set 70 years off from today as it was specified in the core rulebook in version 3 of the game when we started in 2003 (which was the current version then). In November 2013 the 5th version of the core rules was published bringing some slight improvements to the more complicated version 4 ruleset. The science part in Shadowrun is more a driver when it comes to the storyline that develops but you don’t need to be a tekkie to understand the important parts of the story (or to change the story in a relevant way).

The roleplaying game is played in the traditional way where there is one game master who is developing the story around the characters (at least one player has) created depending on the current set of rules the group has agreed on(V5 at the moment). Each character has a set of attributes and skills that define the set of possibilities the character has during the gameplay. These values are rounded off by a story about the history of the character that explains why that person is currently at that place in in this situation, in addition to some gear and a lifestyle.

Shadowrun gets another facet being open to the magic world and meta-human races of Orcs, Elves, Dwarfs and Trolls. The setting in 70 years time is quite hostile as politics and wars are being fought rather between corporations than countries, races and religions bring up new conflicts, and every person needs to care for her-/himself to stay alive. A (meta-)human live doesn’t count (cost) much and so corporations often rely on small private groups outside of their grounds and legislation to do their dirty work like killing someone (wetwork), kidnapping some important scientist (extraction) or simply sabotaging a site of another company, stealing their intellectual property. Corporations bring in the scientific aspect of the storyline, magicians and computerfreaks (running in the matrix of things) bring that freaky bit of the storyline that shadowrunners love so much.

I’ll give you a few examples here from time to time by updating you with our current storyline as played in our favorite local pub. As I’m mastering the group consisting of  five players with a very heterogenious set of characters. We have two magicians and a technomancer (computer freak) who come from a corporate background and only run through the shadows to get some relief from the office life. They started off with a small run to get one of their buddies freed from a street clinic where he wanted to get some technical exchange body parts. As that small tour went well the security lead of their corporation decided to use the team as a undercover infiltration team to persue the corporate goals (and maybe some of his own). The were introduced into a team of urban brawl fighters to get a legal background for running in the shadows. Urban brawl is a very popular “sport” in Shadowrun where two teams fight with lethal weapons against each other while trying to score shooting a ball into the enimy’s goal. This is broadcast live through the future TV stations (Trideo).  Playing in that urban brawl league two more players joined the shadowrun team from the other fighters.

This team of five currently has the objective to infiltrate the cottage of a very old elf in the Outer Hebrides and retrieve a collection of extremely powerful and invaluable magical artefacts and possibly dispose of the old Lady. The team does not yet know who and how they are going to fight against their enimies, but they are heavily armed and full of good spirit…

Mar 152014

The art of wargaming has evolved over the past fifty years and that is a good thing. I don’t mean to take away from the wonderful designs of the past, I myself am an avid collector and player of classic wargames. Designers have introduced new mechanics and modern elements to wargames; and I speak not just of Card Driven Games (CDG), Point to Point movement (P2P), or Area Control; but of the way rules are written. Modern, well-written rulebooks are clear and precise when compared to earlier efforts. Also, in terms of components we now have excellent map artwork, accessories, and storage.

Yet with all of this evolutionary glow we still suffer from the pox of 1/2” punched counters.

There is no single element that has caused me more consternation than 1/2” counters. Hard to place, difficult to pick up, and lo-the-chaos caused when tightly stacked on small hexagons in a line or formation. It’s as if the original intent of these micro-cardboard chits were to unhinge the gamer who naively believed he could keep his French grenadier lines straight in his Waterloo game.

I can just hear the Sergeant of the Grande Armee saying from under his bearskin hat, “Do you know how hard it was to keep a formation orderly?” I am sure they took quite a bit of discipline and drilling to achieve, but must we suffer this while playing a simulation of the battle?

I have this vision of Charles Roberts, the founding father of modern wargaming, setting upon the task of representing units in his watershed title Tactics in 1954 and reaching for what was handy and available: a 1/2” die cutter. For decades afterward the 1/2” counter and hex grid continued to appear. Yes, there were a few titles that deviated from this as time went on and gamers were grateful, but the mini-counter reigned supreme.

To compensate for the difficulty of using 1/2” counters, gamers have invented various techniques of coping. The most well known of these is “clipping”, where a diagonal cut is made at each corner of the counter. One step up from that for those who can make the investment is rounder tools; I personally use a 2mm rounder tool on my sets. Both clipping and rounding permit for easier handling of the counters by offering more grip on the corners. The most extreme mitigation I’ve seen is reproducing the counters in a larger size and remounting them at the gamers own cost.

It is 2014, and last month I received a copy of Blood & Roses from GMT. There in the box, 60 years after Mr. Roberts first took hammer to punch, were sheets of 1/2” counters.

Attention game publishers! It is time to move beyond 1/2” counters. With modern production methods we can do better. Make them 3/4”, set that as a new standard, and your customers will be happy. You will have support for the very modest increase in cost for this. The economic environment of the 1970’s no longer applies, and we, your struggling, grasping, pinching, tweezing customers, would be forever grateful.