Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In which our hero thinks aloud regarding the shrubbery

Miniatures? Check.
Rules? Check.
Terrain? Oh bugger.
I've been ignoring a pretty important part of the gaming equation so far, the tabletop and its scenics. Not to say that it hasn't been rattling around my brain, but I certainly have not been oblivious to it. Rather, I spend a lot of time thinking about the game board and the lack of action on the point is due more to paralyzation in the face of too many options than short-sightedness.
Here are a few of the conflicts I am up against...
My dining room table is 54" x 54" and it is remarkably unlikely that I will play any game anywhere else anytime soon. This puts an easy ceiling on the size of my gaming space right away, and this is certainly plenty of space for the kinds of games I want to play - in fact, for what I am working on right now I can squeeze down quite a bit.
But do I want to commit to a size at all? Deciding to use a 3x3 or 4x4 surface means losing or at least marginalizing other options. What is more, I am at cross purposes with myself - I would like to play both skirmishes and battles, and they are best served at different sizes. It is likely that if I commit to a base surface, then, that I will need to either get something that is modular, get two mats, or just play in a corner of a larger mat much as I would play in subsections of an undressed table if I skipped the base surface all together.
The options when it comes to the composition of the gaming surface are legion. Giving just the most likely choices produces the list: nothing, cloth mat, rubber mat, large tiles, and meaningful hexes. Not one of these is sufficiently superior to the others to trivialize the choice, though there is a huge difference in effort in getting the surface ready to play, more or less in the order listed. Four-inch hexes are something I am very interested in, given that they combine both a high degree of customization, but also the ability to do hex-based gaming, which with the decades of Battletech and Ogre behind me feels so right. Meanwhile, the Zuzzy rubber mats look very cool, but require painting, the Hotz felt mats are pre-finished but don't come in sizes that appeal to me, and the table is, well, just the table.
Some of the very first miniatures gaming I ever did at assorted conventions as an adolescent was on tables loaded down with Geo-Hex. First impressions being what they are, the notion of piecing together a board with smaller segments has been a constant desire in my gaming life. I have used wooden and foam squares of various sizes, I've got a decent GHQ Terrainmaker project for modern microarmor up in the attic. I even tried a scheme with self-adhesive floor tiles that almost worked. Despite, or perhaps due to this fondness for modular terrain I am increasingly unlikely to dive into it again. I just know from experience what kind of cost and time investments are involved, and how hard it is to be on the right side of the crap:quality outcome. I think that at this stage in life, I am willing to trade the ability to sculpt the layout of a battlefield for the ability to get it on the table quickly and easily.
Universality goes with modularity and must be considered. While I am only doing 15mm sci-fi right now, that doesn't mean I will never play another period. The ability to reuse the majority of the terrain in various guises is highly desirable. While the to-scale and to-period pieces on the table will be specific, I do expect that a base terrain which works well for sci-fi rockballs should serve well enough for other projects ranging from Back of Beyond to WWII Africa to Hellenistic ancients. It will certainly be less jarring than all those 40k games we used to play with my fantasy battle scenics.
While my threshold of pain as far as the price tag of a scenery solution goes is not as low as it once was, I still have no desire to sacrifice too much of what could be spent on figures on scenery instead. At the same time, I want scenery which is at least as attractive as the miniatures I am putting on it. Given that my painting is just above average, that becomes my target. Getting there will cost a few bucks, but less than I have spent on miniatures for the 15mm project to date. For once, it seems, expense is the least weighty variable in a new project, which must say something about how old I am getting.
The wet blanket factors are many. It must store well, it must set up and tear down fast, and it can't be messy. It's hard to ever be driven by reasonable and rational choices when you are a grown man playing with toys, but it's got to be in there somewhere - how well I do so remains to be seen.
It must be said, one reason Bloodbowl is so easy to love is that you don't have to fiddle with terrain. Yet some do. Go figure.
Every clear-thinking neuron (that would be seven, for the record) says to just build some scenics and play on the bare table, but when do I ever live up to the logic and reason I aspire to?
The conflict-avoiding compromiser in me will negotiate up to a game mat, but only if it rolls up and doesn't shed, but he's a pushover after all, so we can probably get more.
The engineer that lives in my head wants something modular and comprehensive, and really likes to huff styrofoam hexes if rumors are true.
The pushy aesthete wants to go way overboard on the whole project. That guy always bites off more than he can chew and leaves a wasteland of unfinished projects in his wake.
So, where am I at right now? I really don't want to use a bare table, but I also don't want to do hexes (not as the base surface anyway). I don't want to have to cut or paint to excess either.
What I like the idea of right now is getting a 4x6 Hotz mat with hexes, but without craters which I will cut down to a square (more or less as the hexes fall), using the remainder to make hills by gluing hex cutouts to the top of Terrainmaker hexes, and perhaps even having enough for a 2x2 skirmish board as well.
I am not going to worry about comprehensive scenic details off the mark - I can get by with just some buildings, some rocky outcrops, and some roads. Trees, rivers, shrubs, and the lit can come later, if at all.
To that end, I do have a mess of Plastruct sheets, rods, and tubes and have gotten a bit of a go on some small colonial shanty buildings and ruins, all of which will be useful no matter what decisions I make about the overall terrain project.
TL:DR version - Phil spends a lot of time and money on pretendy planet but not as much as he probably could have.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In which our heros shows off some Astagar

Today's transparent cry for attention is a few of the Critical Mass Games Astagar Mercs that I am presently plugging away at.

The blue is a bit vivid under the flash. Truth be told, it's a bit vivid all the time, but I wanted them to stand out a bit. They're fearless space pirates, raiding frontier systems and stripping them of anything useful, so subtlety is not really the point. Still, they could probably use another dark wash just to dim the lights a bit.

To follow up on my previous ramble about how to base them, I wound up forcing them onto a 5/8" washer. You can see a step-by-step for how to do this easy and with a fairly low breakage rate - the steps being to first cut away the area under the raised coil in the middle of the base. Next, bend the tail carefully about 90 degrees, then glue the critter to the base. Trying to cut the tail from the base where it touches the ground nearest the end didn't work out too well when I tried that approach.

I suspect I am going to wind up greenstuffing a few extra uniform details onto the remainder of these guys - at least some shoulderpads and helmets on most, mainly just because I like the way the armor details look on the pieces that have them.

All in all, I like these guys. They're definitively alien, but still fit in well with the other stuff I have going on around the table.

Monday, December 20, 2010

In which our hero judges books by their covers

So, now that I have minis, I need a game to play, or three.

While the generic nature of the 15mm SciFi miniatures scene has the advantage of being liberated from specific systems and restrictions, an embarrassment of freedom is the difficulty in settling on a set of rules.

But after much intertubes and skimming books, I seem to have narrowed the field down to three games that I will probably actually bother playing.

The first set of rules I splashed for was the .pdf pre-release of Tomorrow's War from Ambush Alley Games. This game gets great press and enthusiastic reviews everywhere, thanks mainly to the near-universal fondness for AAG's previous titles, Ambush Alley (rules for contemporary asymmetrical fights), and Force on Force (small, symmetrical fights anywhere in the last century or so). I had also heard the creators interviewed on the Meeples and Miniatures podcast (I am addicted to podcasts, listening to Stuff You Should Know as I type this), and I liked their vibe.

All of which is to justify spending 20 bucks on a .pdf file. Or two actually since I got the bundle with TW and FoF, as the pre-release version on TW is a bolt-on rather than a full game.

Still, I expected a great game, and a great game is worth it, and to be honest, with an iPad, a .pdf rulebook isn't bad.

So, is it a great game? Yeah, it is, but I won't play it a lot.

To explain, I typically prefer games with high levels of abstraction, very simple mechanics, and a firm tilt toward the game side of the game:simulation continuum. Not that I don't enjoy a good realistic game too, but I am for better or worse a member of the beer & pretzels crowd when I am playing with other people and looking for something without a deep tactical detail when playing solo.

TW is a fairly detailed, reality-grounded game. The mechanic are excellent and interesting, but nine times out of ten, it just isn't the game I want to play, which is entirely my fault, because it is a very good game and I look forward to enjoying it when it is the game I want to play. FoF has definitely made a return to WWII gaming more possible in the future, given how much I disliked Flames of War and how much better FoF would be for the period, and will definitely be in the mix for any game I play set in the 20th century.

As a fistfull of dice aficionado, I really like the core mechanic of TW/FoF, which boils down to the attacker and defender rolling a dice for each model in the fight and matching up results. Combined with the use of multiple types of die for different quality troops (d6, d8, etc) this basic system is both surprisingly effective and just plain fun. The tendency of firefights to degenerate into confusing webs of reaction fire is probably my one real complaint with the game - while this system is at the heart of the realistic outcome of the game, it can be a bit much on a crowded table and is not fun to negotiate in solo play in particular, where some of the 'F you' charm of reaction fire is lost.

The next candidate was's Alien Squad Leader. A game with massed basing, claiming to mix the best of DBA and Warmaster and espousing a pulp ethic - pretty much catnip to Our Hero. And stylized abstraction is something ASL delivers on, along with a set of excellent army lists, and a good bit of unapologetic fun.

As mechanics go, the movement, spotting, and shooting systems are all pretty standard fare. The mechanical highlight for me is a command system reminiscent of Warmaster, which is still one of my favorite game mechanics ever. Driving the game with the command roll mechanic is a good way to inject random chance and tactical foresight simultaneously, and the sudden shortened turn or impossible but critical success enliven the table every time.

While the game mechanics are understated but effective, the heavy lifting of the game's design seems to be in the 14 army lists included in the book. The flavor which isn't overly-developed in the rules to differentiate forces is instead lavished on the force selection guidelines, in their variety of units available as well as their few special rules which are nowhere near as heavy-handed as the force-specific rules in, for instance, Flames of War.

An interesting aspect of these lists which makes ASL look different on the gaming table are the large number of archaic, primitive, and feral units used as auxiliaries and cannon fodder by many of the armies profiled. These options are a welcome change of pace over the ubiquitous Halo-esque troopers that make up the force lists of most games.

As much as this bit of color excites me, there really is a paucity of SciFi-specific primitives and beasts on the market. Historical ranges can yield up lots of colorful troops, as with fantasy ranges obviously, but they will always look like a stand of fantasy elves or zouaves even if you paint their skin blue. Khurassan notably does make a number of pulp and SciFi creatures to fill these roles, and kudos to them for doing so.

The third system I picked up, almost as an impulse buy when ordering ASL, was USEME from While the handful of reviews of this system (whose name is an acronym for Ultra Simple Engine for Miniatures Engagements) were positive, I was skeptical that a game which was designed to be completely generic and very brief simply wouldn't convey much army character or mechanical novelty. Ultra-basic generic systems are an old standard in gaming, and few are wildly popular, though a handful, like DBA are. Given that the game was about six bucks, I figured it was worth a try anyway.

USEME is pretty much what I expected it to be, and for that reason, or perhaps despite that, it is the game I more likely to use for skirmish games over TW. The mechanics are thin but effective, stylized but not unbalanced, and yield a well-worthwhile game. There is very little to differentiate forces but what is available, chiefly the elan score and varied move rates chosen in initial force construction can yield two forces with core troops that play very differently and can model a number of concepts very well. While a player could simply construct a force that will min-max these option for tactical effect, players with a more purposeful objective can produce a surprisingly specific theme for their force through subtle profile sculpting.

As a long-time evangelist for simple games, USEME is a game I would point to as a success. It produces a fun and fair fight and rewards purposeful force design. Certainly it is not going to be a detailed, gritty, game which integrates many minutia taken as a requisite by many games, but if you want to play a quick, casual game with small-to-medium forces, it is an excellent choice.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In which our hero finally paints that Tomb Guardian

They say better late than never.

That said, they never really seem happy with waiting.

Fickle, they are.

Anyway, at long last I present my completed Khemri team.

Yeah, this was no small project. You find the one mini in the bunch without a lick of greenstuff and you win a prize.

I was going to use this post to tell the whole story of the Khemri team once and for all, but after typing out page after page of backstory and excuses I finally realized that not only was that story too long, and probably going to get me a call from a lawyer, but no one really could care less about how the team wound up so screwed up.

Besides, in the end, no matter what happened to the project outside of my control, the stuff I made was not good enough, period. Garbage in, garbage out.

Whatever, I really can't talk about these figures without getting depressed and defensive and making excuses. It will never matter how incredible these figures are and I will never have any pride in this, far and away the best work I ever did because it was all built on a foundation of failure and regret.

This team started out as a vindication, worked it's way through validation, catharsis, and disappointment, and in the end, I can't feel anything for it. It was never enough to validate the original, if flawed concept, never enough to show the world that I had the chops to do a team of figures that deserved to be an official release. Ultimately, not only could they not overcome my frustration with the Khemri team, they couldn't even pull out the painting prize at a tourney.

Emo much?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

In which our hero shows off some Titan Marines

And after much fiddling with colors, I seem to have settled on this...

They look pretty good, definitely look like bad guys, but I will admit that it can be a bit hard to pick details out on from table height. In the end, though, I just wasn't happy with anything lighter or higher in contrast, especially the face masks, which seem to have to be black despite my wishes to the contrary.

(And yes, the bases still need to be landscaped, I just didn't feel like doing it. You get what you pay for around here.)

I generally want to do figures this small in lighter shades and lots of contrast, but going too light with bad guys is a tricky venture - you can go with an all-white Imperial Stormtrooper look, I considered doing them in red, but the one was too derivative and the other too impractical, which of course are criticisms that are completely interchangeable.

Given that the underlying theme for this faction's aesthetic, what with the halftracks and coalscuttle helmets is to conjure up images of jackbooted thugs I really didn't want to wander too far from grey and brown, and in the end, I pretty much stuck to grey and brown.

The miniatures are good enough to do whatever your skill can do with them, though The surface detail doesn't get lost, takes washes well, and has innate separations to guide you around the project. It's a lot of work for 15mm miniatures, given that an internalized reason for doing this scale in the first place is supposed to be speed, but that said, all five took about what I would have spent on the same figure in 28mm scale getting to the same effective level of detail. Good thing I'm not in a hurry.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

In which our hero asks a simple question

That question being, where are the jump infantry?

I am nearly certain that I have, by now, found pretty much every 15mm SciFi line of note on the interwebs, and what I have come to realize is that in all of these lines there is nary a hint of a jetpack-equipped infantry. Sure, some of the power armor types have big honking things on their backs that might be jetpacks, but they aren't presented specifically as such, and no where have I found, to my memory anyway, a regular infantry so equipped.

Yes, this is somewhat surprising to me. Twenty years ago jump infantry was very much the norm. There was jumping in games from Ogre (Battlesuit, to be precise) to Battletech and even early 40K had on on the back of every Space Marine. At that time, it was a genre staple. Yet, here we are without a line of jumpers in any range at this scale created in the last few years?

Why is this so?

Could it be that the inability of engineers in our real lives to deliver a viable jetpack has rendered the notion too farsical even for speculative fiction games? Not likely since they stick to the notion of flying cars and tanks.

Could it be that the tactical utility and viability of such troops has come to be seen as lacking? Doubtful, as infantry able to move quickly over rough terrain and uneven elevation is a general's dream.

Could it be that the current crop of in-fashion rules sets simply overlooked these types and the figure lines being sculpted, mainly to be useful in the current systems have similarly ignored them? Entirely possible.

Whatever the reason, I want my jumpers. I suppose that I will just find some relatively good models to use as a base and break out the greenstuff and convert up my own, but it sure would be nice for all of us if the bouncers would just come back from obscurity and play a part in the genre's battles again.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In which our hero travels back in time

So, over the last few days I've gone through the effort of replacing the images I've used in the blog posts prior to this one. Turns out, the iPhone really isn't up to the task of doing miniature photography with any real gusto. I'd hoped that the ease of using my ever-present phone would encourage more frequent, or at least more hassle-free posting, but the sacrifice in detail wasn't worth it.

In the end, I just pulled out my camera and reshot the old pictures, and went through all of the accompanying file transfer, cropping, resizing, and uploading shenanigans.

I do it for you.

What have you ever done for me?


In which our hero receives a package from Critical Mass Games

Arriving today we finally get some Critical Mass Games Astagar mercenaries to play with. 

First of all, they're big. These are guys I would not want to have to fight in some crumbling future city. They aren't out-of-scale big, but just imposing figure big. 

While that extra size makes them perfect for my planned fearsome alien raider force, and promises some nice minis to paint and admire, what is also does is make basing a fiddly thing.

The commander and the close-combat brawler are going to mount on my 5/8" washers just fine, the latter will need some slight base trimming to do so, but the three long-based figures have bases that measure pretty much right at 5/8". 

They will mount on the bases, but will look a bit awkward.

So, do I get bigger bases or do I adjust the figures?

If I was doing strictly single-figure-per-base gaming, a 20mm or 25mm base would be no big deal. However, I want to be able to have some multi-figure options available for different rules sets or just to speed up unit moving in others. The two base types I am trying are bases with a magnet and drilled templates.

The magnetic bases are just a wooden base with a magnetic sheet on top, painted similar to the miniatures' basing color. This approach is easy and flexible and would accomodate the 25mm bases well enough.

The drilled template bases look better though, as they can be given the full scenic treatment and look more purposeful. 

My head says magnets, my heart says holes. 

While that nonsense sorts itself out, though, one thing is certain, if I put the Astagar on a 5/8" base somehow, they will be fine either way. I think I will give one squad a try and see what kind of repositioning the tails are capable of. Watch this space for results.

After all of that, I still havn't said much about the minis, and they should be given a chance to be complimented for certain. 

These are nice, well-executed sculpts and are faithfully and cleanly cast in good metal. There is almost no clean-up needed on these at all. The figure mix, with the gauntletted close combat mini and the carbine-armed troops definitely points to these being well-suited to an assault role, and the heavy weapon could be classified as anything from a rocket launcher to a light machinegun or pulse laser. They seem a pretty usable mux, which is good as I am trying to build an army force around a pack of five miniatures.

Given the paucity of variants I am tempted to get out the greenstuff and enhance them a bit, but truth be told, I doubt I need to. While the odd specialist or high commander might be called for, the rank and file should have sufficient variety in poses and utility in represented gear to do the job. 

Another highly-admired delivery I am going to enjoy painting soon. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

In which our hero shows some skin

I thought it would be nice to take a little break from obsessively reporting on my 15mm mobilizations, so here's another fantasy football team - my Valkyries.

When I say "my Valkyries" I really do mean mine - as in minis I sculpted in addition to having done the brushwork.

What ever must you think of me now?

Yes, they're immature and basal and pantsless, but they are also cynical.

I kept Phigs going for the better part of four years, and in that time, these ladies were far and away the only release that ever caught on. I'd like to think they were cleverly designed, expertly sculpted, and delivered a much needed new team concept to the fantasy football community.

But no, they're just half-naked chicks in metal thongs.

But then, I knew that at the time. I wanted to try to sculpt something that would actually stand a chance of paying for itself after losing so much on my first few releases. And it worked. I broke even. Huzzah.

I never claimed to have high expectations.

The point of Phigs was never really much more than crowd-sourcing the expense of getting minis I wanted to play with cast. When I lost sight of that and tried for things that might be commercially poignant, the Black Widows and the Multi-part Humans, the whole house of cards fell down as I lost interest and money in large portions. Turns out I really didn't know what people were willing to buy, and I really didn't want to sculpt things I wasn't interested in. I guess I just got lucky with the bare-assed nordic chicks.

So to speak.

Yes, despite their pandering to the lowest common denominator, I do like the minis myself, so you can toss my name into the childish bucket, but they really are good fantasy football minis.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In which our hero receives a package from Rebel Minis and is very impressed

Another delivery today, this time a few packs of Rebel Minis' Titan Marines and Titan Marines Heavy Weapons.


I loved these figures at the Rebel Minis website. They looked great, but I honestly expected those remarkable pics to have been the result of deceptively good paintwork or pre-production casts. Not a cynical expectation, simply a realistic one given how these things work - manufacturers want the best painting they can get and the first figures we have to get painted before going live with a release are the master proofs. 

But no, these minis are just that good.

They're a good deal, the regular grunts are 21 figures in five poses for $10.95 and the heavy weapon teams are $3.49 for 6 figures, which is two rocket launchers, two snipers, and two heat weapon troops. My only gripe with this allotment, and probably my only gripe with the figures at all, which goes to show you a) how little is wrong with these guys and b) how I can find the down-side of anything is that there isn't an obvious command figure and the mix doesn't part out to squads or fireteams logically without extras or deficits. 

The quality of these figures rivals some of the larger mini-makers out there in crispness and character. Excellent sculpts well-cast. These instantly became my favorite figures in this scale. Now, if only I could figure out how I am going to paint them.

The plan is to use these, as I am sure most people do, as "bad guys" in my space colony conflicts. Together with some Old Crow near-future halftracks they'll make some good stormtrooper types in the pulp neo-fascist vein. That rather unimaginative approach to using them definitely calls out for some grey armor, but grey armor is going to be featureless at a distance. I could go with an Afrika Korps tan, imitating the samples on the Rebel Minis website which I admire so much. I can also try to combine these two, with a brown jumpsuit under grey plates. I think I might try this and see what I think. It's not so terribly derivative of the stereotypical bag guy look that I won't feel like I've differentiated my efforts, but hat-tips the underlying reference well enough to make my gesture clear.

I'll let you know how it turns out.