Forward Observer 22

The Shape of Things to Come?

I suspect most of you are already familiar with Warlord Game’s Black Powder, a release that has generated more discussion than anything since Empire, Piquet or WRG’s finest. It seems to have divided people into two camps; one very large and positive, the other with just a few dissenting voices! I have been tracking it since it was announced, because of the designers’ track record, and because it claimed to be both innovative and narrative driven. These are high scoring features for this old soldier, and I was rather pleased when Henry sent me a review copy. You will see why later!

The first thing to say is that BP is an enjoyable read and a quality production. I like the artwork a lot, while the writing is clear and, in the main, entertaining.  If one ignored the rules it could easily just be a good introductory book on the hobby, with old hands swapping tales and views, showing off their collections and massive tables. But at heart, BP is a set of rules and it is this aspect that I will concentrate on.

I am going to score BP highly on flexibility. This is because it uses a toolkit approach where the gamer is left to do some work on defining units and armies, assessing prowess and doctrine, and generating scenarios. Since miniatures gamers, unlike most boardgamers, are usually willing to do this type of groundwork and prep makes this an entirely sensible decision. Throughout, one is encouraged to change and modify the rules to suit, which is odd because we all do that anyway!

I like how BP handles this adaptability, in what I term the ‘object oriented’ style. The recent War of the Ring rules take a similar approach. In short, an infantry unit is just that – a plain, anonymous block of figures with little more than a period and a name. By adding attributes, weapons, size and various qualities to the unit, in exactly the same way that WRG have done for us over the years, you can shape and define the unit based on your historical beliefs. Granted, you have always been able to change an entire army of Sassanid EHC to D class if you wish, but there is a stone tablet quality to those army lists and feisty opponents to convince. Here, you have a sense of creativity as you take the light infantry unit armature and mould it to feel, and act, like the 95th. Once you have done that, you can start applying the same logic to brigades and divisions, artillery and cavalry. This feature I liked, and there is enough guidance in the sample battles to help if you are stuck. Warlord Games also have a forum where you can discuss the relative merits of landwehr and grognards. Whether BP offers us enough attributes and mechanisms to conform to history without further input from the gamer, and whether a ruleset can cover such a wide historical period, are questions that might take a while to answer.

But first, a mention of pricing. This is a £30 ruleset, though now down to £22 at Amazon, who presumably are still making a profit. My preference with rules is always to be able to buy as cheaply as possible. Tight?  Possibly. But mainly because I buy a lot of rules, liking to see as many as I can in all periods – even those that I don’t game. In truth, I am very unlikely to be using any of them in anger. 95% of all rulesets are much the same under the bonnet, and let’s face it how many rules are still being used after the first play, or after six months? Despite that poor hit ratio, I am always interested in what new sets offer. I want to know which mechanisms and dice they use, how they handle chaos, timing, friction, movement, C&C, doctrine, combat and morale, and, very importantly, how they fold in the history and period flavour. I long ago gave up on finding the perfect set of rules, but I am increasingly confident that I will soon discover some that are close enough. Peter Pig, Real Time Wargames, and GW’s War of the Ring have all scored near hits in recent months.

All the above is my personal preference. If the publisher chooses to present the rules in the format of a hardback book, with colour pictures and lots of padding that is their choice. Warlord are not alone in following this trend. I would prefer a £10 price tag, just the rules, diagrams and perhaps some design notes. So in most cases a PDF is fine, thank you very much. I have paid more, and will do so again, but £30 is a chunk of change. My criteria is simple: if I think Any Ruleset is likely to be good, innovative or otherwise interesting, I look at the price and the medium and decide. If I know a ruleset is outstanding, probably because I have played it, then price becomes less of an issue.

Normally, then, I would not be a buyer of BP as the price is toppish, hence my appreciation of a review copy. The situation is compounded because I don’t even think the photos in BP are that inspiring. I appreciate I am probably alone in this, but there you go. If you have the internet I find there is more than enough eye candy available elsewhere. I also don’t need potted summaries of history, or pictures of assegai and pith hat collections. I completely understand that other readers may find these useful or even indispensable. A beginner however may want some guidance on painting, making terrain and understanding figure scales, all of which are missing.

Regardless of price, in the case of BP I would like the rules to have been in one contiguous section, devoid of superfluous images and flavour sidebars. To me, a big hardback book is not ideal for actually playing at a table. But again, that is just me. I hope that we will be offered the option to purchase a distilled text only ruleset, perhaps incorporating initial errata and clarifications, at some time in the future.

So, at last, to the gameplay.  I set up a small but representive Napoleonic game with my 20mm plastics, all arms Spanish vs French, and used a 5’ x 3’ table, because that is all I have! Because of the now infamous giant moves, we exchanged inches for centimetres and laid out a lot of terrain on half the board to see if this curbed extended movement and fire. Again, flexibility to the fore. The same applies to figure scales and basing. It is, if nothing else, easy to get playing with these rules first time out.

Pleasingly, BP does a lot of the things that I like in a rule set. There is no figure removal, the game moves quickly, they are not dice heavy (a major problem in WotRing), combat can be deadly and usually conclusive, and there is a generous dollop of chaos. I also like the fact that the points system is sidelined and competition play is downplayed. In fact, BP is almost the nemesis for competitive gamers! On the downside, there are saving rolls, casualty figures (I used micro dice) and some strange movement antics and sequencing. I would also question some of the underlying maths, especially on the command rules. All these drawbacks would be tolerable if the game stood up as history…

Which it doesn’t. Without going into too much replay detail, the battle played entertainingly, but it all felt a little bland and generic. The units and play did not feel Napoleonic, nor was there a perceivable difference between the two sides – something I would have expected given those involved. The command system, while definitely giving rise to some chaotic situations, did not generate a period battle narrative with which I could identify – I was particularly concerned at the ‘narcolepsy’ effect where some units just grind to a halt for seemingly no reason. Neither were the rules particularly different in feel to existing sets, given that I was already familiar with the Warmaster command mechanism. Yes, okay, I might be able to fix this. But at best, I felt that I would have to invest a lot of time and effort just to get the rules working the way I wanted them, which quickly lead me to thinking I may as well do my own! “Ideally, to get to Tralee, you wouldn’t be starting from here!” So sadly, I have to score it low on historical flavour, narrative and innovation. As these were main selling points, I felt rather let down.

On the other hand, I felt that the rules were a lot more complete than I had expected and that, in general terms, some of the game systems worked very well for the horse and musket period. I really liked the morale/stamina rules, I liked the shooting and casualty system (rather reminiscent of Sharp Practice) and I enjoyed the chaotic outcomes of orders, movement and tactical timing, even if the actual process was hard to swallow. One can’t rate these rules as anything less than workable, and a lot of fun. Perhaps, in fairness, they are just a less than optimal fit for the period and may work admirably applied to ancients or 1866…

My conclusion? That Black Powder will go down as a solid marker in the hobby, and that many will buy it and play it. Some will love it. It is also possible that it will enjoy a longer life than most, and people may be playing it in two, or even five years. But we shall see. I think BP is a very personal statement by the authors, who justifiably feel their gaming style may be of interest to others. That is admirable, and if just one GW gamer recognises the headline names and jumps ship to HMS History, it will have been worth it. But I am not that impressionable, nor awestruck, and after 35 years in the hobby I know where I want to be. While I will always find another’s hobby approach interesting, it doesn’t mean I want to adopt it. BP has that slight tinge of evangelism, of a one true way, and that means I run a mile.  Well, okay, walk.

My major concern is that BP tries to do too many very different periods and in so doing loses the unique flavour and interactions of each. It also relies heavily on a Warmasteresque driver, which is not to everyone’s taste and, for horse and musket, I question what exactly it is simulating. Generally, I feel it pitches itself high on humour and gameplay, and low on history and realism, which is always a poor fit for crabby old General von Siggins. However, to avoid the curmudgeon label, I really can see what the authors are trying to do, perhaps a modern day Charge! or Little Wars, and I think for some gamers this book may well have a great impact on their hobby. It may even become their hobby. As I said, I really enjoyed the book and the whole ethos. I am pleased to have it on my shelf. But sadly, as a rule set, Black Powder is not for me.

He’s having a Go at the Perries now!

The hard plastic splosh has become a ripple, and slowly but surely new boxes of exciting troops are arriving at Gandamack Lodge. In the next month there are no less than three major releases to look forward to. With Immortal Miniatures, Gripping Beast and The Plastic Soldier Company all offering plastic perfection, how long before others join them? Airfix have some 20mm WWII British announced, and I would think some of the other big names, and new start-ups, will soon join the bandwagon. Good times. And I must buy some Renedra shares!

Meanwhile, the trailblazers – Victrix and Perry Miniatures – are well into their stride. The latest Victrix sets of French infantry are very nice indeed and each one adds to the conversion possibilities. Their British artillery set looks amazing, and who knows what the Perries will counter with? I love healthy competition! This is all truly manna from heaven, although I still need some gaitered legs please… The Perries have delighted with the War of the Roses and French heavies, but I have to say that the Dragoon box is disappointing. The horses are the same poses as the cuirassiers, there are bases and casualties I don’t want, and, worse, the dismounted leg poses are all the same. The casualties are particularly annoying. Clearly just filling, I would have preferred some early period long coattails, weapons, spare heads, baggage, even a discarded saddle. A real shame, because I thought the Perries ‘got it’. None of this stopped me buying two boxes, as I suspect you guessed, and the forthcoming Hussars look amazing. I’m so fickle.

Apart from plastics, I have been very careful with purchases. I cracked on Curtey’s new 13th century 28mm medieval range which have really set a new standard in the field. Okay, with a little bit of analysis we can see that they haven’t made that many dollies, or done much in the way of animation, but what we have are excellent. I also like that they have got LBMS to provide timely transfers for heraldry. All in all, a fantastic range and I am watching out for new additions.

Mike Siggins