Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Epic Star Wars Campaign - The battle for Talathen Sector

Overview

The sector map, now in glorious A1 on my wall

So, you may have noticed less posts in the recent past. well that's because I've been working on a massive project for a Star Wars campaign.

Many years ago, I read West End Games "Rebel Alliance handbook" and thought, "damn, wouldn't it be cool to play a game as a rebel sector command, making all the decisions and fighting ground battles, space battles and doing spying missions and the like in one big setting.

It was always too complex to pull off in a role-playing game. Too fiddly to use those mechanics for all the different kind of fights and decisions involved.

Now, I don't have to.

With Armada, Imperial Assault and X-wing, I have the tools to fight space battles and skirmishes, all i'm missing is full scale military assaults, but "Onslaught at Arda 1" has game rules for those as well.

So I got my players together and we created the sector using shared world building. A "tourists guide" to the sector is available online if anyone wants to read it.

The idea is that the four players are playing different ideological factions within the rebellion with slightly different goals, and while they have a shared goal of defeating the empire. The intrigue and friction from having competing secondary goals should make for some excellent stories to be told. While they play the faction leaders, they will also be playing all the characters within their faction. 

The "winner" will be the faction leader who accumulates the most "glory" from their actions in the fight against the empire.

Finally, I am playing the "Chief of staff", a rebel officer from rebel command who is neutral and acts as the arbitrator and administrator of the rebellion.



How it works


The core of the game is the minor NPC's that belong to each faction. Now, each character is introduced to the game and each faction bids on their services. Once a character joins a faction, their actions occur on behalf of the faction and earn the faction leader "clout" (which is used for bidding on new personnel) and "glory" which will ultimately decide the winner of the campaign





Some of the 100+ characters in the campaign
Now, each character card is pretty straight forward. They have three stats. Martial prowess, social skills, and mental skills. Those values represent the number of green "FFG Star Wars rpg" dice they roll when doing a task. They also have character traits which boost rolls or provide other advantages.

In Lianna's case she is Diplomatic and Connected, Which means she will be rolling 2 green and 2 yellow dice on a diplomatic mission. She is also rich, which means when has financial power she can add to the rebellion cause. However, she is "wanted", so if a mission fails she is twice as likely to be captured.

Each charatcer is unique and has their own skills and strengths. And some are very mediocre, while others are skilled and amazing. Lianna is one of the better ones.

Each character is assigned, by vote, a job in the alliance. The job boards are below. Characters can be reassigned or fired later, it all comes down to voting from the faction leaders. 





Right now, you are probably thinking "Holy cow, that looks a bit complicated".

Well, it is and it isn't.

During the planning phase we go through the boards one at a time and decide what each group is doing. What planets the diplomatic core are visiting, what engagements the fleet or special forces are taking on. We simply use the star wars dice mechanics to determine their success. 

So, if someone fails a roll planning a fighter attack, well there will be more points of imperial fighters in the mission than if they had an excellent success. Starfighter battles will be fought with X-Wing, Fleet with Armada and Ground operations with Imperial Assault. 

There is also a group of "player characters" who represent the heroes of the rebellion. While the faction leaders are like Mon Mothma, these characters are the Han, Luke, Leia and Chewie of the sector. And will be doing roleplaying game "special missions" each game turn. 

Success on diplomacy will improve the rebellions standing on world and make missions easier, recruitment gets more NPC's into the alliance, training improves piloting and imperial assault skills, and R&D controls what upgrade cards are available. For example, at game start Squadron command only has Z-95's and a handful of missiles. They need to research, buy, or steal better equipment.

Intelligence rolls will determine what missions are available on the next turn. A failure might mean that some of them are going to be traps. 


The idea is to have a rules structure that makes decision interesting, without bogging them down in detail. 


Session 1 report. 


The first half of the session was spent rolling up the characters for the hero team. I'll tell you more about them after their first mission.

What we did do is bid on the first 16 NPC's available and assign them jobs in the Sector command.

The four characters at the top are the faction leaders, and their faction colour is in the circle. 


How it all shook out was very interesting. 

The faction of republic loyalists who are mostly interested in restoring the old republic gained control of the Fleet and Ground commands, setting themselves up as the military powerhouse of the rebellion. 

The Luxon militia, a fiercely independent planet who want's sector independence from both the Empire and republic gained control of Fighter command and the diplomatic corp. A strong and balanced position. 

The merchant guilds (who are secretly controlled by an AI) gained control of R&D, Intelligence and Logistics. A clear attempt to forgo direct military power and glory at the start of the campaign, but to focus on building the rebellion the way they want it.

And finally, the ecological union and anti-slavery movement grabbed Training and recruitment. In a clear effort to shape the people being recruited by the rebellion and to be the faction who decides who signs up. 


The interplay, the wheeling and dealing and general political grandstanding in this first phase of the game was amazing to watch and incredibly enjoyable. 

One NPC in particular, probably the single most powerful character in the first 16, who has a negative trait that he's a pompous git who earns half glory, failed to be elected to 4 different positions that he probably would have been better at than the person who finally got the job. 

Comedy gold. 

With the power structure sorted for the time being, next week we will begin the first round of planning and get into some missions shortly after.

The war for Talethen sector has begun. 


Monday, 4 May 2015

Massive ANZAC Memorial diorama

About four months ago my regular Wednesday gaming group went on hiatus, you see they had pretty much all volunteered, along with a lot of NZ wargamers, to work on a massive WWI diorama.

For those of you who aren't aware, Gallipoli is considered a watershed moment in NZ history. Akin to the American revolution or civil war as a pivotal moment that helped define a nation. It's a story of a pointless war, for a dubious cause, in a far-off land, fighting for an imperial power.

It wasn't my sort of project, so I kept out of it, but I've been keeping an eye on their progress. And, with the official unveiling happening soon. Here are some of the mostly finished shots.

Great job to Peleral, The Scottish Play, the Ginger-Ninja, Lintman, Tank-Engine and all the other painters from Wellington who volunteered their time and their skills for the project. It's looking very very sharp.






 


I highly recommend looking at the link below to see more photos and shots of progress as the project continued. In addition, they will have more details of the full unveiling shortly.

Full information on this project over at http://anzacdiorama.blogspot.co.nz/

All pictures from Andy Palmer. http://www.acpalmer.com/


Monday, 13 April 2015

The Outcast dead (Dud) - A Horus Heresy review

Disclaimer


Spoilers abound in these posts, if you haven’t read the books and will get upset by finding out what happens just stop.

This is also not a recap, if you want a recap go to Lexicanium.

What The Black Library says about the book


The galaxy is burning. The Emperor’s loyal primarchs prepare to do battle with Warmaster Horus and his turncoat Legions on the black sand of Isstvan. Such dark times herald new and yet more terrible things still to come, and when Astropath Kai Zulane unwittingly learns a secret that threatens to tip the balance of the war, he is forced to flee for his life. Alongside a mysterious band of renegades, he plunges into the deadly underworld of Terra itself, hunted like a criminal by those he once trusted. In the face of betrayal, Kai must decide where his own loyalties lie and whether some truths should be buried forever.

What the book is really about?


Um….. yeah that’s a really good question.

This book took me forever to read, I found it quite unengaging. It wasn’t “OMG THIS SUCKS” bad or anything, but I found I just didn’t care about the story much, and more than a few times I was left a bit confused.

First off, the book feels like multiple short story ideas that were bound, kicking and screaming, to a central “Johnny Mnemonic” plot line about a guy with secrets in his head that everyone wants.

I was initially excited to see more of Terra, to learn about the City of Sight, the navigators, and how the communications networks of the Imperium worked. I thought the world building in the story was pretty good, and it was nice to see these parts of the setting get a spotlight, but the central narrative didn’t really do it justice.

Events happened in a weird order, and I’m still confused about certain aspects of the story. In this Story, Magnus arrives on Terra after the events of Istvaan to provide the Emperor with his warning about Horus.

“Hey Dad, I bent time and space to give you a warning about events that have already happened!”.

“Thanks son, cheers for ruining every psyker on earth and blinding us, you knob”

The outcast dead, the group of marines from traitor legions, also seems to have been imprisoned before these warnings arrive, especially the Thousand Son. I found this aspect of the book annoying.

So if anyone can explain the timeline of this book to me better, I’m all ears.

Anyway, we have a prison break led by a vanilla band of traitors who appear as caricatures of their legion. I.e, world eaters angry, Emperors Child is a pretty perfectionist, death guard dude is tough, and the Thousand Son is a Mary Sue, super awesome psyker who is awesome. It was hard to love these guys, and asides from Atharva, I didn’t care for them a jot. And the only reason I was engaged by Atharva was that he had agency, unlike most of the characters in the story.

Also in the prison is the Kai Zulane, who during the early part of the books is established as a broken man who was the astropath on a ship lost in the warp. And while he struggles to deal with his PTSD, he is being retrained to be an astropath and deal with his issues. Not long after he arrives at the City of Sight, Magnus does his thing, and in the chaotic wake of that event, his mentor receives a massive vision that burns her out, but not before she buries the content of the vision deep inside Kai’s Psyche. Kai is taken prisoner and sent to the same prison as the Outcast dead, who then break him out.

Now, this leads to some of the more interesting parts of the story, as Kai deals with his grief and self-loathing within his dreamscapes. The interrogation scenes are quite clever and they do a good job of showing how mindscapes work and how psykers interact in them.

So the Outcasts escape because Arthava is a Mary Sue who can overpower the minds of ……. Well, pretty much anyone. I really didn’t like that he was good at all the psyker disciplines of the Thousand sons, it seemed to cheapen the “cults” idea McNeill introduced in his last book. Ah well, at least he has a plan.

They escape to the “petitioners city”, a slum of the edge of the Imperial palace ruled over by a gang…… pursued by a very slow moving imperial force that seems to take a lot of time to do anything. We meander through encounters until the final battle in, what is essentially a temple dedicated to mourning and death.

Oh, and it turns out the gang is run by the former commander of the Thunder Warriors who was at the Emperor’s right hand when he conquered Terra, and that his right hand man is also a Thunder Warrior. They want marine gene-seed as they are dying, but what really confused me is that the Thunder Warrior henchman kills two marines without breaking a sweat.

This introduces the idea that the Thunder Warriors were more badass than Space Marines, although with limited life spans. I can’t say that this sat well with me at all. I figured they would be good, but the Thunder Warrior does better in a stand up fight than the Custodes does later on in the same novel. I figured they should have been a match for the Astartes, but making them tougher than a custodes?

The final battle is…… terrible.

Multiple forces converge on the building, but for all intents and purposes the writer loses track of that and it ends up being about two specific fights and a demon thing appearing and killing mooks until it gets “Deus exed” by a Primarch turning up. The Thunder Warriors arrive with a big announcement, but aren’t mentioned in the fight narrative. I guess the author was trying to be clever so he could do his last page reveal, but it just bugged me that characters were “on-screen” and then suddenly “off-screen” without anyone making a remark about it. No one went, “what the fudge happened to those Thunder Warriors”

In the end, Kai comes to terms with his PTSD, gives the Emperor the message via a dream scape, and then commit suicide. The outcast dead are dead, and nothing of any real consequence happens.

The Hero-Protagonist McGuffin – Kai Zulane


Kai is presented through the story as the main character, but the reality is that he isn’t anything more than a plot device. Arthava is the one calling all the shots and making all the action happen.

Now in other books, this can work. Kasper Hawser is a McGuffin in the role of protagonist as well, but I feel like he’s making his own decisions within that framework. Kai wombles from one drama to another without being able to decide what he wants to do.
Now from a character point of view, he’s interesting enough, as we explore his experiences on the Argo, what life as an astropath is like, how he deals with the vision and his predicament. But he makes precisely one decision in the whole story, and that is to kill himself.

Also, you simply don’t care about the prophecy he has in his brain as we know the outcome of the Horus Heresy. A mysterious prophecy locked in someone’s brain could be a compelling story, but not when we already know the story. It’s like that BS “he is the chosen one who will bring balance to the force” junk from the Star Wars prequels, we all knew he was going to be Darth Vader, so who cares about the prophecy.

Why are their humans in my book about super-powered Space Marines?


A lot of human NPC’s in this one. Nagasena is interesting enough as the straight and honest hunter of rogues, but WAY too much effort is made “japanizing” him. It’s the year 30,000, someone is unlikely to be so damned 18th century Samurai at this point in time. And yeah, i get that it’s what his character is meant to be, doesn’t mean it’s isn’t stupid. Can anyone recall meeting someone claiming to enact the rituals and language of Ur?

Roxanne is interesting for the brief moments she is in the book, her story of a noble navigator working in the slums after the Argo incident is compelling and would have been a good short story. But I feel that she is drowned out by the sheer number of characters and threads in this book.

The same goes for Athena and Hiriko, who fade away as the book progresses, Evander, who’s arc seems to go nowhere as he kills himself, Palladis, who dies an anti-climatic death.

So many characters, but none of them really make you feel for them much.


MVP – Arthava


Without this character, there is no story. Still, he’s a bit of an archetype, the super-clever Thousand Son who is 10 times more powerful than a normal space marine. But at least he drives the story along, with Arthava, nothing would have happened.  

He's still pretty bland though. 

Worst Character – The Outcast Dead


Well, we had an opportunity to have some tight writing about a group of cut-off marines from traitor legions. There was plenty of space to explore these characters and develop some neat quirks. Asides from the friendship between the Death Guard and the Emperor’s children marine, they seemed really really bland.

You’ll notice I’m referring to their characters by Legion, as I didn’t get attached to them enough to call them by name.

The entire story could have been done solely with Arthava breaking out and finding Kai. That may have been better as it would have allowed for tighter writing and the two characters exploring what it means to be a psyker.

Yep, I actually think “the outcast dead” would have worked better without the outcast dead. Or that these characters should have been in a totally different story.


Get to know your Legion – The Astropaths


Well, we don’t get to know a Legion in this book, but we do get some insight into the Astropaths and the City of Sight. This is the major redeeming feature of this book as the plot and action isn’t great.  

We get to explore how astropaths send messages, and how it’s entirely in imagery and symbols. I really like that idea, and how messages need to be interpreted to be understood. It makes it so much more difficult and technical than Morse code or a phone call from outer space, and WAY more difficult than the communications tech in say Star Wars or Star Trek.

I also liked the idea of Astropaths having massive piles of symbols and writings from their visions, it really made it feel like a “mystic art” rather than a simple exchange of information.

And as disappointing as Evanders plot arc ended up being, I also really like the idea of the “bleed”, where message fragments and subtexts end up and a second layer of interpreters sift for themes and concepts.

I wish the book had examined this more as opposed to the rail-road action sequences later on.


Get to know your Primarch – Rogal Dorn


Dorn turns up, but that’s about it. It seems Dorn turns up a lot in books. Can’t say we saw anything new about him asides he can kill a marine with a headshot. But we probably knew that any way.

Why the Emperor is a giant douche


Thanks for unlocking the secret message in your brain Kai, no one can know this, only winning move is not to play.

Kai kills himself.

Thanks Emperor dude, you could have intervened and saved the guy, let him live out his life inside your inner sanctum or mindlocked him and said to Dorn “dude is off limits”.

But nope, you got what you wanted and then he killed himself to protect you. What a douche.

Moustache twirling evil-bastard award – Golovka


Golovka is such a clumsy and awkwardly written character. I get that he’s a fascist bully boy, but the scene with the apothecary in the petitioners city is just cartoon villainy. Lazy cartoon villainy that made every other character around him lazily participate in what is essentially a war crime. I guess we were supposed to feel something at his act, but all I felt was “wow, that’s some lazy writing”.

Quirky reveals and other coolness


Probably the most interesting things revealed in this book are around Psykers on Terra.

In particular, we’ve always been told that Magnus turning up on Terra made the Emperor lose his marbles at him. What we didn't know is that it blew the minds of many psykers and rendered Terra essentially blind for a period of time. The guys arrival was like a psionic nuclear shockwave that destabilised Terra. That really makes the Emperor’s decision to sanction him a lot more logical.

We also get lots of hushed fears about the Hollow Mountain and what happens to psykers who fail.

Oh and we get all that information about Thunder Warriors being badass, I still think that was unnecessary and detracted from the story as a whole.  

The writing – technical review and evaluation


Oh Graham, you took a giant step forward with “A Thousand Sons” only to take a giant step backwards with this book.

Too many bland characters, a McGuffin concept that you just don’t care about, and a messy and anti-climactic finale, mark this book as average at best.

My conclusions are that a series of short stories would have been better. One about what happens at the City of Sight around Istvaan and Magnus’s arrival. A dirty dozen story about the Outcast dead trying to escape Terra. And a tight two person story about Arthava rescuing an oracle and trying to bring him to Magnus. Pulling all these threads together into one story simply left us with a bit of a mess.

This book gets a “Read it for the fluff, but don’t feel you need to read this book at all” rating.

 *disclaimer, borrowed art is borrowed. 







Thursday, 19 March 2015

Forbidden Stars - 40k Boardgame

Bring fire and bring shell and heap all upon the pyre. With flame and gun we shall make an end to the withered husk that is human life. And in the blazing furnace of battle we shall forge anew the iron will of a yet stronger race.
   –Warhammer 40,000

So Fantasy Flight Games have announced a real surprise here, and a game I think a lot of people didn't know they wanted. 

But now it's been announced, all I can think is "Is this really the first time we've gotten to play a grand strategy 40k game?"

Let me be blunt. 

I love the 40k setting, I think it's really evocative and compelling. I prefer 30k for personal reasons, but the whole Warhammer 40k experience is one of my favorite IP's ever. 

It's one of the few settings that gets me interested in a game before I even look at the content of the game. 

That said, I've given up on Warhammer 40k itself as a wargame, it just doesn't do it for me anymore. But I'm always on the lookout for ways to enjoy the setting without having to play 40k itself. 

So this game is a something i'm really excited about. 

  


First up, FFG have provided us with teaser information, but not a lot else. What we see so far is pretty exciting though. Yep, that's fleets and troops on the map and who doesn't want Eldar, Chaos, Marine and Ork fleets to move around. 

FFG made Twilight Imperium 3, one of the great "Space Empire" games, and the initial impression of Forbidden Stars is a cut down version of that. Which is good, for all TI3's majesty, it has a long play time. 

The board design is modular, and I cannot adequately express how good a decision that is. 

Variable boards simply add replay value like few other modifications to a game can. 

The zoom in of the board shows an unusual art style. And it appears that each sector receives orders, rather than each region like many other games. 


The game also reports to be objective focused rather than annihilation focused as well. This is good, as games that focus on defeating the enemy in their totality can drag on, far past the point where someone can actually fight back and win. 

The combat system seems to borrow ideas from both Horus Heresy and Starcraft by FFG.  

During combat, you will play combat cards that have a certain benefit. However, if you match the combat card to a specific unit, you gain an additional advantage. 

It's a curious mechanic that, depending on how cards are drawn, can be either very random (if you draw before the fight and get perfect cards) or very strategic (you plan your moves based on the cards you have in hand to take advantage of them). 

I'm curious to see how this is implemented in the final game.

Another interesting mechanic, which is very thematic, is the "Warp storm" shown below.  

This storm is impassable, but can be moved. There are multiple Warp Storms and you take turns moving them around each turn. This can be huge as smart placement can open up attack lanes, or make vulnerable systems impenetrable, bad placement can leave you vulnerable as well.

It's a curious mechanic, but a clever one that really suits the setting. 


Can I just say, I like seeing games that embrace a setting, rather than shoe-horn game mechanics into it. 

The four factions are a good choice, Ultramarines, Khorney Chaos, Iyaden craftworld and Evil Sunz Orks. I'm not sure if I like that they picked specific chapters/warbands/craftworlds or not, I guess it depends on how thematic and varied the play styles are.

Because if the only difference between Orks and Ultramarines is the pieces, I will feel a little let down. I hope they play quite differently, as that adds to replay-ability as well. 


The game is still a long way off, Q3 of this year...... which by FFG standards means the end of this year. So they will be doling out information over the next few months. 

Still, interesting news, lets keep expectations managed :)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

XCOM Solo - One man against the alien scum

XCOM the Boardgame is an app assisted board game set in the XCOM universe and was developed by Fantasy Flight games. 

It's designed as a co-op game, but it can actually work well as a single player experience, if you are insane a like mental anguish and having information overload that is. 

So, I took on the challenge of playing it solo, i've done that 4 times now and won twice and lost twice. The first time I attempted this report on my 3rd play through, I took a bunch of photos, and then found the camera data card in my computer........ so this is attempt four. In all it's glory. 

I'm always cagey about session reports, as i think they always soudna little like Rimmer from red dwarf, talking about the time he rolled a 3 and a 1 in a game of risk. 

Anyway, here it is. 




One of the refinements i made after my first attempts was to optimize the layout so that everything was easy to find in a hurry. Several of the actions in the turn have less than 10 seconds, so knowing where things are in crucial. It's also important to remember to use you cards, so i placed all the "timed phase cards" right in front of me. 

The mission is "domination", which appears to focus more on the air-war than other missions, my HQ was in Australia (which allowed me to zap 1 ufo a turn) and the Aliens were a reasonably easy assortment of outsiders, Sectoids, Sectoid commanders, Mutons and Muton Elites. The game was set to normal difficulty. 

Each turn will have two images, one from the end of the timed phase, and one from the end of the resolution phase. 



Turn one - And so it begins





I drew an unusual assortment of tech cards, and decided to go for dollars to keep me in cash for the whole game, so selected elerium and UFO power. Combined, these would give me $4 extra a turn, which would be helpful. 

Arc thrower was also there and as far as i'm concerned, it's a must have. That said, no floaters or thin men in the enemy deck, but alien special powers truly suck. UFO power and Arc thrower are obtained!


Crisis cards were laughable this round, Elite soliders don't get an extra dice and discard all salvage. Awesome, none of either of those. 

I slightly overspent this turn on Air and Space defence, thinking more aliens would be attacking later in the turn. But i figured that it would be good to stay on top. as it stands, the Satellites stuffed up and left a UFO alive....

The base was attacked by a Muton and Muton elite, and it took 3 rolls to kill the Muton. So i figured letting the base take 1 hit was better than losing 3 troopers. 

Which turned out to be a great move as the mission went horribly wrong. I passed the first check, then boom. An Outsider kills 2 soliders and the mission is failed for now...... 

I also forgot to increase panic by 1 in the lowest panic continent, oops. 

So after turn 1, things are looking pretty solid asides from some casualties in the troops. 







Turn two - More incompetence from squad command. 






Turn two i was focused on getting good tech and rebuilding squad command, so i really dipped into emergency funding to get the extra resources. 

Light activity in the skies again meant a minimal commitment there, and with troops training to be elite and out on the skyranger, I could commit few troops to the mission and base defence. 

Xenobiology is a great tech card as it allows you to get that extra tech a turn, and with arc thrower i wasn't too concerned about Outsiders not being salvageable. Firestorm also popped up, and it's a very useful card. Along with the Australia commander card, that's 2 dead UFO's a turn. 

Firestorm and Elerium tech's obtained this turn. 

Crisis cards were moderately annoying, increas panic in North America by 1, exhaust the Satelitte uplink and players cannot roll more than 3 times against each task. 

Space command again failed at the first step leaving two ufo's in orbit, and i remembered to increase panic this time. 

My base defender took 3 rolls to kill the sectoid, so i let the outsider damage the base again. 2 hits on the base, i think you can afford to take 1 a turn without getting too panicked, plus i am short on troops, despite buying 2 this turn. 

However, the mission again turned out to be a graveyard. Both soldiers died on the first roll, and with no satellite uplink or weapons tech, i was in trouble. 

After turn 2, XCOM is holding steady, things aren't out of control, but i'm not that well set up. The big thing is I now have an extra $4 a turn to spend. 







Turn 3 - Squad command finally does something. 




Ok, so far so good, but my soldiers need some toys to fight the aliens or they are going to keep dying. 

Money isn't too tight so I spend six credits on tech and raid the emergency funding hard. I have about $20 to spend, which is a lot in XCOM. The new techs on the agenda are Alloy cannon and light plasma, to help out the troopers. 

It's a clean sweep on the techs and i'm feeling good, despite spending all my salvage and six credits to get them. 

The air war heats up a little, and I commit a modest amount to it. It's a good turn in the skies as we nearly clear them for the loss of two interceptors and two satellites damaged. 

Base defense is again poorly done, and the 2 troopers struggle to kill the Sectoid Commander. I let the Muton Elite damage the base and trigger the invasion special, which does nothing. Also, no crisis cards this turn as the sole crisis "kill two soliders" was dealt with by the skyranger. 


Finally, the mission is one and my Squad Commander is saved from a summary execution. Winning the mission also reduces panic and grants me two additional troopers. 

Asides from being a little short on interceptors, things look really good heading into turn 4. 







Turn four - Holding steady, gaining power. 




Emergency funding is cleaned out, but that's ok. Our job here is to keep powering up for the final mission and making our troops as good as they can be. 

It's a full trooper tech selection, with Plasma Cannon, Plasma Sniper and Blaster Launcher. I think all 5 of these is overkill normally, but my other options were average at best. I used xenobiology to get Hyperwave comms in the timed phase to immediately reduce 1 continents panic by one. 

Both normal weapon tech's are obtained and my soliders are over the moon. 

I balls up a little by only having 1 satelitte this turn, as i forgot the crisis card was "spawn two ufo's in orbit". I spent my money on buying new interceptors, instead of placing satellites, oops. 

Base defence is easy this turn, with the 3 aliens all dying under a hail of good dice and new tech. The squad commander also rockets through a mission that reduces panic. Good round by squad command, and heaps of salvage for next turn. 

The only major issue this turn is those 4 UFO's in orbit. 



Turn five - Final mission, the push to win, oh god, what's that in the skies. 



Things really heat up in the skies this turn with 9 UFO's heading to Asia in one turn (the eight above, minus one from the Australia card)

I'm confident, that with two missions complete, that the final mission will be up this turn or next. So I continue to gear around that. 

I use xenobiology to get arcangel armour, and promptly gain more salvage for my tech rolls. The amazing UFO navigation is available, as is carapace armour. Cards that should really help me with the final mission (3 alien dice rerolls!)

Crisis cards are manageable, panic up in Africa by 1 and resolve the invasion critical effect. Not too scary. 

The Air and Space battle goes remarkably well..... sort of. I kill most of the UFO's on the board by interceptor command is in dire condition at the end of the turn with only 2 serviceable fighters. 

Base defence goes smoothly, with the sniper and heavy not even having to roll to kill the Muton due to our awesome weapons tech. 

Three soliders are committed to the final mission, and in retrospect, that was probably a mistake. I should have gone all out on it. 

The outsider dies under a hail of tech upgraded weapons, but I need 3 success on the next task. Two obtained, but 3 alien dice rerolls all end in a dead squad. 

While we are looking good to win if we survive this turn, the state of fighter command is really worrying. Africa becomes the first nation "in the red". 







Turn six - We need to nail this now!




At the start of the turn i reduce panic in Africa by 1.

This turn is all about survival and letting the strike team win the final mission. I discard two techs looking for "Shiv", but find Interceptor repair. Xenobiology brings that too the table immediately and two more fighters arrive at fighter command!

I fumble a bit this turn as it's a hectic one and don't make all the best decisions. I get revive as a tech, but fail to keep a support around to utilize it. No matter, just no one die this turn. 

I had to discard 3 techs and spawn 2 ufo's thanks to crisis cards. This game can't go much longer as Elerium, Xenobiology and UFO Power go in the bin, great techs, but i need to win this turn. 

The alien UFO fleet turns up in force, and despite that, Fighter command has a blinder of a turn, keeping the air above North America clear and reducing the alien fleet. There are some panic increase, but it's still very manageable. 

Base defence is again very smooth thanks to easy to beat aliens and weapons technology. 

The final mission comes down to 1 roll of 3 dice, and another roll of 2 dice, thankfully, I have 3 alien dice rerolls. And you know what..... i use all of them on the second roll.

Final mission nailed..... but as a solo game, you can't really 5 five anyone in victory. 


In the end, I felt I had good control through the whole session. getting Elerium and UFO power early on really helped, despite losses in fighter and squad command, I could just afford to buy dudes back. 

And while those big UFO swarms mad me feel I could be in real trouble, some good rolls on those turns really did help keep me in the game. 

My advice for XCOM players is this. Sort your economy out early and don't overplay on the first few turns, and don't be afraid to skip a mission for a turn or take some damage on the base. 

Once you have a small number of resource providing cards, the game becomes a bit easier to manage. And while I had Elerium and UFO power, revive, interceptor repair, alien construction, xenobiology, defence matrix all save you money over the course of the game. 

Once you are set up, you can then push to complete missions and build your squad for the finale. 

Oh, and take the time when it is offered. "Pick a mission" and "emergency funding available" have long timers, use the extra seconds to think about your next tech purchase or what timed cards you have available. 

I recommend XCOM solo to anyone who really likes a formidable mental challenge under pressure. 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Age of Darkness - Horus Heresy review

Short stories are a pain to review. I don’t want to overcook each story, because I’ll be here for an ice age. But I don’t want to gloss over them too quickly, so let’s see how this goes.

Honestly though, this short story compilation was pretty flat. Tales of Heresy had many good stories, but this compilation, well…… a lot of it felt like filler.

Two stories stand head and shoulders above the rest in this compilation, but I’ll let you wonder what those are without spelling it out her.

It’s not that they were all bad stories in this book; some of them were quite interesting. But several of them were just an extra brush-stroke in the background painting of the Horus Heresy, while others seemed relatively pointless or even harmful to the world building.


And remember, spoilers abound in these reviews. If you don’t want spoilers, go elsewhere.


Rules of Engagement



I guess this story, or a story like it had to appear at some point. BEHOLD THE GLORY OF THE CODEX ASTARTES, ISN’T GULLIMAN THE SMARTEST.
The origins of this meme :)

This story really annoyed me because it pulled the old “bait and switch” on me. I don’t like “but it was all a dream” type stories, and this enders game-esque series of simulations boils down to that.

When your entire story is about simulations, that means nothing real happened.
At first you are led to believe that the “new rules of warfare” from Gulliam, (aka the codex astartes) is helping the protagonist (who I will call Ender) win a series of nail-biting encounters in Ultramar. There’s even a scene where one of his subordinates gets entirely bent out of shape because he thinks lives are being thrown away needlessly. But of course, Ender wins the wargame using his awesome strategy and everyone hi-fives him.

There are multiple engagements that Ender wins, until he loses to a “Sons of Horus” army led by Horus himself, or Gulliman cosplaying as Horus….. whatever. The lesson being, that the Codex is awesome and stuff, but Gulliman is more awesome.

To me, this isn’t a short story, it’s fan service. And it’s bad fan service.
Considering the last thing of McNeills I read was “A Thousand sons”, which in my opinion is his best work. I was really let down by this story.

Lair’s due



I quite like James Swallow as an author, but I feel he has been let down by the material he has been given to write. Secondary stories and side paths, what he does really well is “the horrors of the warp” as shown in Eisenstein.
This story has none of that, and it’s one of those stories that bugs me. Not because of how well it’s written, because the writing is fine. But because of the elitist assumptions it operates under.

In this story, one Alpha Legion operative moves to a world, does some stuff and the world falls to Horus out of hysteria and fear. My issue is that it’s simply too easy for him, and you never feel like his plans are in danger. The locals are, almost without exception, presented as sub-normal hicks completely lacking in cognitive reasoning skills.

The locals fall to in-fighting and side with Horus because of a few tricks the agent pulls with their communications. But it relies on assuming the people in a backwater planet are all idiots. There is one particular scene where a local man accidentally kills another one because of his panic, and then lynching’s occur….
I just don’t buy it. People can be dumb, but the dumbness of everyone involved was so amplified that it destroyed the believability of the story. In short, backwater hicks are retarded, so you can tell them a few lies and they will do exactly what you want, each and every time. That’s the hubris of an urban writer looking down on small town people if ever I saw it.

As an adenda, this short story is essentially a rewrite of a twilight zone episode

Forgotten Sons


Nick Kyne. I’ve never read anything of his before, but a quick scan of his background shows that he’s a “go to guy” for writing stuff about the Salamanders. And to be honest, we are 16 books in to the series and diddly squat has been said about them, so I was excited to see that a Salamander character was going to be one of the three protagonists.

Well, I thought there were going to be three protagonists, a Remembrancer, an Ultramarine and a Salamander, but it turned out that the Remembrancer was simply a “woman in a refrigerator” a trope I find lazy and tired.

So, this story is an odd one. The two main characters are pretty flat, and the Ultramarine in particular is a complete ass of a man. It’s meant to be about a negotiation, but the marines suck at negotiation, so it ends up being a scrap between the Marine characters, an Iron Warrior and an assassin/shapeshifter thing.

The twists in the plot are painfully obvious as well, OH LOOK, THE SHAPESHIFTER CHANGED TO LOOK LIKE ON OF US, BUT I COULD SPOT IT………. And THE IRON WARRIOR WAS ACTUALLY BLOWING THE PLANET UP.

Unlikeable bland characters, a female character introduced and killed for some thin character development, a cliché t-1000 fight and a predictable outcome to the story. I also still have no idea why the Salamander dies at the end……

By this stage of the short story compilation, I was feeling very let down. None of the stories so far have been good. I was starting to get annoyed, but I pushed on and…



The Last Remembrancer


Just when you think you’ve read enough lazy fiction, you stumble across and excellently constructed story that is engaging, thought provoking and well written.

It pays attention to my golden rules of short story writing.
  • ·         Don’t try to do too much,
  • ·         Focus on a few characters only,
  • ·         Explore one central theme well.

In the last remembrancer, we have three core characters, two of which we are already familiar with. This helps out immersion into the story immediately, we know the “half-heard” from the first four books, and Dorn is reasonably well established by this point in the series. So two established characters are meeting a third new character to hear his story.

It’s such a simple setup but it works incredibly well.

The central theme is this, the greatest remembrancer of the order (Voss) has returned to Terra in a ship clearly sent by the Warmaster. Dorn and Qruze go to interrogate him, to see if he’s a spy or has been turned.

The beauty of the story is that he hasn’t been turned, not as such. But his message is that the imperium they have fought for is already dead because the necessities of war have already curtailed freedom of expression, and it is a powerful one. It has resonance with our current condition, as a lot of good sci-fi does, as we tackle the issues of information security, personal freedoms, terrorism and fear in our society.

The line explaining the Warmasters motivations for sending Voss back is especially good. “He wanted you to feel the ideals of the past dying in your hands”. Dorn is stuck with an uncomfortable paradox, let Voss go and risk his truths creating more fear and unrest, or murder an innocent man simply because his truths are bad for the war effort. 

Symbolically, the ideals of the imperial truth die with a single sword blow.

Rebirth


Can we please get Kharn’s character straight for once?

Is he a frothing madman as portrayed in this story or by Bum counter? Or is he the guy who is calm and collected most of the time, using his massive willpower to resist the nails, before occasionally losing it in battle? Thank goodness for Betrayer and ADB is all I can say.

And does he have teleport? I mean, he seems to have bounced from Istvaan to Propsero is a short amount of time, and then he’s out on the rim near Ultramar in another book.

This story started off strong, a group of Thousands Sons investigating Prospero after the Space Wolves levelled it. Ok, cool premise, I wonder what they will find……



They find World Eaters and Kharn? What?

The whole point of this story seems to be to talk ineloquently about the “butchers nails” in Kharn’s skull and how the thousand sons could help him remove them, if only he wasn’t so crazy. The Emperor couldn’t remove Angrons nails, which is why he essentially discards him in “After Desh’a”, so how could this random thousand son solve that issue.

Oh, and for the final insult, the Thousand son character escapes and runs off to fight another day.

I can’t express how pointless and incongruous this short story was.

The Face of Treachery


Well, this story is a solid story. It’s not great, but it’s certainly readable and it answers some questions that had previous been unanswered. Which is what you want from a Horus Heresy short story, a little more info, a little more of the world, or a concept explored that you hadn’t considered.

The World Eaters are again portrayed as absolute morons, a portrayal that bugs me a lot. But their stupidity is required for the story to work.

At least we now know how Corax escaped from Isstvan, and as this short story is by Gav Thorpe, who writes the next novel about the Raven Guard, we can view this as a preamble to “deliverance lost” (Which I haven’t read yet, so I’m assuming)

Asides from the awkward World eater problem, this is a passable, if bland short story. But at least it’s content matters.

Little Horus


When Dan Abnett writes, he uses a lot of repetition of passages to get his points across.

 “Of course when they reattached his face” is only used a few times in the story, but it feels far more frequent. I guess I’ve noticed this technique a lot more since Propsero burns, where he reintroduced the dream sequence a lot and “wet leopard growls”.

When Dan Abnett writes, he can get bogged down in trying to be too clever.
The core story is fine, as it deals with the recreation of the Mournival and focuses in on one of the featured characters of the first three Horus heresy novels. But I don’t really know what this story was about in the grand scheme of things.

It was almost like a postcard from the Sons of Horus.  “Hi everyone, Little Horus here, fought some white scars, lost my face, been dealing with that. Got new guys in the mournival, Abaddon is still being a toolbox. See you all on terra, love you pal Horus Aximand”

It’s not a bad story at all, Abnett writes well, but I don’t see much in this story. A little about him dealing with the ghost of Loken, but that’s it.

When Dan Abnett writes, perhaps I expect too much from him?

The Iron Within


The iron within is a fun, if completely nonsensical story, featuring the Iron Warriors and an impenetrable fortress.

Here’s some military strategy 101 for all you people out there. An impenetrable fortress means jack if it’s location isn’t strategic and it cannot be used as a staging group for operations.

The Schadenhold is on a planet that cannot sustain life, it’s garrisoned by a small group, and it’s a nightmare to take. It’s akin to building a super fortress on Svalbard, there is no reason to expend resources to take it, and you can blockade/isolate it and move on.

It is also a military maxim never to be drawn into an engaging on defensive terrain of your opponent’s choosing unless it is absolutely required. I never felt the author overcame the reasons to take the fort asides from Iron Warrior pride.
Get out! get out of there!
So, after putting military logic to one side, this story is quite a fun read as the extent of the fortresses defences are hilarious, it’s the “mary sue” of fortresses. Like a bunch of sci-fi nerds had a brainstorming session about the most impossible place in the universe to assault.

The real highlight of the story though is the conclusion, even if it is exactly what Kirk does in “search for spock”, it’s still quite clever.

Again, it’s a fun story, even if it is complete nonsense.

This is the Maginot line..... the Germans went around it, not through it

Savage Weapons


ADB is quickly becoming my favourite Horus Heresy author, and this is a great short story. First of all, it deals with some side-story issues we haven’t encountered before: The Dark Angels vs The Night Lords.

Secondly, the interaction between the Primarchs is really well written. Initially you would think that Johnson and Curze are so completely different that they would have nothing in common, but they explore a kinship between the two that I hadn’t considered.

Curze and Johnson also have an epic duel, and Curze’s words about the legacy of the Imperium and the Dark Angels role in the Heresy are well crafted.
The highlight of the story for me though is actually the interaction between the Night Lords and Dark Angels as they wait for their Primarchs. It’s a nice reminder of how similar legions are, despite their backgrounds and rituals. Astartes are closer to each other than anything else.

Great read, nice and epic as well as thought provoking.

PS. I hope Sevetar doesn’t become a “Lestat/Riddick” character the author falls too heavily for.

Rating


Only 2 great stories, a few “ok” ones, and a lot of forgettable material, only consider reading if you are reading the series, but don’t be too worried if you miss it.











 

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