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.

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