Sunday, February 13, 2011

In which our hero remembers what fiction is

So, we like to joke that I am essentially illiterate. Not that I can't read, or that I don't, because I actually do read quite a lot. Rather it is The case that I partake of nothing resembling literature. For what it's worth, I simply am more compelled by non-fiction - and as a science fanboy you can be sure to find me daily with something along the lines of Pinker, Dawkins, or Diamond queued up on my Kindle.

This, however, was not always my sorry state of affairs. Long ago, when I was far less obsessed with reality, I was an equally-voracious sci-fi reader. The point of all of this biographical grandstanding being that one of the books I read as a teenager was a collection of David Drake's Hammer's Slammers short stories.

Turns out that all these years later, the Slammers are a pretty well-served gaming property, with the glossy new edition of Hammer's Slammers: The Crucible at it's heart.

To be honest, it took me a long time to finally pull the trigger on picking these rules up. Despite a very favorable review on Meeples and Miniatures, lots of positive chatter on TMP, and a website with some of the best eyecandy around, the final decision to buy was not easy.

First off, I just wasn't sure what kind of game was hiding in that book. Reviews typically lingered on how beautiful the book is, how much Slammers world background they included, but other than some vague positives, actual discussion of the game mechanics was nearly impossible to find.

This uncertainty, combined with the high price, in the neighborhood of fifty dollars, left me pretty hesitant to buy.

Eventually, though, I could resist no longer.

And so, book in hand, I can say that it's a pretty good armor-on-armor game, and the book itself is straight up tank porn.

I can see why few reviewers can get too far past the book's aesthetics. The full color pages are jammed with photos and illustrations. Pretty much every page has something to stare lustfully at. The models photographed for the book are all big 28mm pieces, most painted by Kevin Dallimore, who is far too talented, and are shot among some wonderful scenics. The eye candy in this thing stands up with any of the biggest names in the mini biz, and surpasses many. The thing can almost pass for a coffee table book.

And lest I be guilty of penning another drooling review with no mention of mechanics, it has a pretty fun game mixed in with the pretty pictures.

First off, know what you getting. Crucible is a light, tank-on-tank game, and unapologetically so. It is not a deeply technical armor sim with lots of penetration charts nor is it a game that is rooted in the lessons of contemporary conflicts. The Drake stories are rooted in cold war-era conflicts recast in iridium hovertanks, and this game has that feel. This is a game about blowers, and the MBT's are the kings of the table, swift, deadly, and stout. All of which make for a game that is flat-out fun, uncomplicated, and purposeful.

The mechanics are slim and (usually) efficient. Units are activated in detachments, of which a player will control one or more of, depending on the game size, and the order is determined each turn by a combination of base leadership added to a die roll.

Once order is sorted, players roll again to see how many command points the active detachment has for the turn. These are mainly used for movement and are modified by leader quality and casualties. I like this mechanic, as it adds some random chaos to the way battles unfold as a point-starved or poor leader, or a hot streak can have a real effect on how units scurry about the table. A good commander with a small detachment, though, will usually have little pressure to deal with, though, which is probably accurate, but can be less fun (all the more reason to avoid the superhuman fluff character optional rules).

After the tanks have rolled around a bit, it's time to blow something up. For a game that is otherwise very light and abstract, the four-step shooting process does feel a bit drawn out. Still, compared to the calculus exams buried in many armor games, it's easy fare that builds dramatically to completion rather than getting mired in figures and cross-referencing.

After everyone has wrapped-up direct fire and the blowers have left smoking piles of molten goo all around them, missiles and indirect fire are resolved, troops roll to remove suppression and so forth and then the whole process starts back up from the top, to under-describe the whole thing, but still say more than I usually find, which makes this a public service of sorts.

Generally, there's just enough flavor and detail to just barely miss the beer & pretzels label, but not so much detail to cast the game in the simulationist mold either. It's fun, flows reasonably well, and gives treadheads the kind of outcomes they probably wanted even if they didn't get to argue about points of fiddly minutia while doing so.

Ultimately, though, the game does need to thoughtfully brought to the table. While there are points, this is not an army-list, balanced force game. Not all tanks are created equally - the front three-quarters of the blowers are almost impervious to anything below their lofty station, and combat cars can spend all night rattling small arms fire off one another. Players need to be sure the scenario design and force composition are in place to produce an enjoyable game - a bring'n'battle could be ugly.

I doubt I will suddenly redirect my mini buying to include forces specifically from the Drake universe, but there is little other than the effort of hacking some unit cards between my current collection and these rules. The sample units are fairly comprehensive and a fair template can be found for most. I do wish there was a true pointing system available, both to aid in integrating non-Slammers miniatures and for balancing pickup games, but I wouldn't be shocked to see something of the sort appear in the community at some point either.

In the end, waiting seems to have been pointless. I like gaming tanks, I like light game mechanics, and I like drool-worthy pictures. When you get all three, seems to have been worth the money afterall. This is a game I will play a lot.

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