RockyMountainNavy, 22 September 2021 Thanks to the generosity of fellow Twitter wargamer Nicola (@6xW_a), I now possess a good copy of the boardgame …Combat for the masses or an unfathomable #wargame? The Hunt for Red October (TSR, Inc., 1988)
THE LATEST version of Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors series from GMT Games takes players to the battlefields of Medieval Japan. Indeed, Commands & Colors Samurai Battles (GMT Games, 2021) bills itself on the box cover as, “The exciting medieval Japan battlefield game.” If you are a Grognard and are looking for a lite, family wargame you will find a great one in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles…which at first appears to demand you buy into some fantasy. Just be warned; what looks at first to be “fantastical” will eventually lead you to a deeper understanding of Carl von Clausewitz.
Commands & Colors Samurai Battles takes Richard Borg’s proven (and very popular) card-driven Commands & Colors system and moves it to Medieval Japan. From a game mechanism perspective the move is a good one given the armies of the day were a mix of close combat and ranged attack units. The core rules for Commands & Colors is a relatively simple translation to this new era and long time Commands & Colors players will find the transition to this rules set very easy. New players to Commands & Colors will likewise have an easy time learning the rules and, like so many games in the series, can usually be taught how to play without even needing to read the rules.
Here there be Dragons…
Like every Commands & Colors game, there is usually some customized rules to reflect the peculiarities of the era being gamed. Be it Elephant Rampage in Commands & Colors Ancients or routing militia in Commands & Colors Tricorne or Form Square in Command & Colors Napoleonics, these extra rules add period flavor for their given game and take what otherwise is a very generic game system and make it highly thematic. Commands & Colors Samurai Battles is no different in adding customized rules for the period. The major difference between Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and previous iterations of the Command & Colors system is that one of those special rules outwardly appears fantastical and not historical. Thus, some have accused Commands & Colors Samurai Battles as being closer to the fantasy Commands & Colors derivative Battlelore than to more historic-centric designs like Ancients or Tricorne or Napoleonics.
In Commands & Colors Samurai Battles the period flavor rules are few but important how they portray the popular perception of combat in medieval Japan. The few special rules of concern in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and the page in the rule book the rules appears are:
- Army Commander & Bodyguards (p. 10)
- Enemy Command Tent (p. 10)
- Leader Seppuku (p. 19)
- Retreat & Loss of Honor (p. 20)
- Lack of Honor (p. 20)
- Honor & Fortune (p. 21)
- Dragon Cards (p. 22)
Commands & Colors Samurai Battles treats some of these rules in a very straight-forward, historical manner. The Army Commander & Bodyguards rule works in conjunction with the Enemy Command Tent and is a good interpretation of medieval Japanese battlefield headquarters.
Other flavor rules in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles seem drawn more from popular films and samurai myths than the historical record. Leader Seppuku has some historical basis, but the way the rule is invoked in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles seems to be based more on trying to recreate popular samurai movies on the battle board than true history. Historical or not, the rule admittedly does make Samurai Battles feel more dramatic.
A key game mechanism in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles is Honor & Fortune. Both players have a pool of Honor & Fortune tokens that they must manage. The tokens, “in a roundabout way serves to measure an army’s discipline, its honor and the fortunes of war” (p. 21). At first glance, Honor & Fortune doesn’t appear unlike morale rules in many wargames. When units retreat or are routed or otherwise defeated you lose Honor & Fortune tokens. If one doesn’t have a sufficient reserve of tokens, then the Lack of Honor rule takes effect. Lack of Honor is a quick path to defeat making it imperative one manages their Honor & Fortune tokens carefully.
Fortune from Above or just a Dead Hand?
The special rule for Dragon Cards in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles is seemingly generating the most controversy. From all outward appearances, the play of Dragon Cards appears to be an appeal to mysticism rather than the employment of sound tactics and strategy on the battlefield. I say “appears to be” because that is the easy (lazy?) interpretation of what Dragon Cards represent. Let me show you another viewpoint; I see the Dragon Cards as the dead hand of Carl von Clausewitz influencing the design of Commands & Colors Samurai Battles.
How are Dragon Cards in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and Carl von Clausewitz related? According to the Samurai Battles rule book, Dragon Cards are, “the gateway to legendary and mythical actions on the battlefield” (p. 22). While that certainly sounds like an appeal to mysticism, a closer look at the the 40 Dragon Cards in the game reveal they are less mystical and more fog and fortunes of war; factors even Dead Carl considered.
It seems fitting that Dragon Cards in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles are used in that “game of cards” for this battlefield game. A close examination of the Dragon Cards reveals that even the most “mystical” of them really are no different than a random event table in many wargames. Take for instance the “Blue Dragon.”
Play alongside your Command card.
Target: All enemy units on or next to a terrain hex with water.
Before ordering units, roll one die against each targeted unit. A symbol rolled will score one hit on the unit. Flags, Swords, Honor & Fortune and other unit symbols rolled have no effect.“Blue Dragon” Dragon Card
If we could ask the Panzer drivers who got bogged down in the marshes at Kursk I think they would agree that they came face to face with the “Blue Dragon.” So go all (but one) of the Dragon Cards in Samurai Battles—what outwardly appears as mysticism is really just the fickle hand of fate in war.
There is one Dragon Card in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles that is not fate, but a special nod to the period. The Dragon Card “Personal Challenge” again draws on popularized history to allow players to have those dramatic samurai movie moments. There is a historical basis for this card, and given that there are only two in the deck of 40 Dragon Cards and they can only be played if there are opposing leaders in a hex, it will likely they will be used only occasionally but in a very dramatic way.
Popular Samurai Battles
Some of you might of picked up on my repeated use of the words “popular” versus “historical” and “mysticism” in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and maybe think this Grognard doesn’t like the game. Quite the contrary, I love Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and am very pleased to get this game in my collection. At first I was a bit worried by some of the comments on “dragons” in the game and other “mystical” aspects but once I got the game to the table I see that Carl von Clausewitz is simply doing some cosplay here. Maybe samurai in medieval Japan sought to understand how fortune and fate worked on the battlefield and the easiest explanation was to describe it in terms of mystical events. In Commands & Colors Samurai Battles that frame of reference reinforces the theme of the game, but don’t for a moment think the game strays into fantasy. For historical and family wargamers alike, Commands & Colors Samurai Battles deserves to be part of your Commands & Colors shelf (but not the top shelf or you risk the weight tipping over the bookcase and destroying your printer as a multi-pound box full of mounted boards and little wood blocks comes crashing down…not that I would know…).
Out of the blue, this week a fellow local wargamer reached out and offered two games for sale. Thus, I now am the proud owner of two very near-mint copies of designer John Butterfield’s solitaire wargames D-Day at Omaha Beach (Decision Games, 4th Printing 2020) and Enemy Action: Ardennes (Compass Games, 2015). Both games are highly rated on BoardGameGeek coming in at Geek Ratings of 8.27 and 8.6 respectively. Indeed, D-Day at Omaha Beach is the #4 War Game on BGG with Enemy Action Ardennes coming in at #29 (which makes no sense given their ratings…but it’s BGG so who really knows how their ratings work?). Solitaire games are not my usual thing but I always liked the original RAF by Butterfield for West End Games back in 1986 so he has long been on my “approved” designer list.
COVID and Gaming
These two titles are the 46th and 47th gaming items to enter my collection this year. Looking at where each was “sourced” from the majority (20 of 47 or 42.5%) are Retail Purchases. The next major acquisition source is by Trade/Local Purchase with 17 of 47 (36%) Even if I combine Kickstarters and Pre-Orders together, I only get 9 of 47 (19%). When I did my “By the Numbers” year in review of 2020 I didn’t track acquisition source so I don’t have hard data for comparison. What I do know is that I have 24 items on Preorder/Kickstarter and maybe nine might already be delivered if there were no shipping delays from COVID. The bottom line is that COVID is altering my game purchase patterns with a greater focus on retail and local purchase/trade, usually of older titles. The dearth of Kickstarter/PreOrder delivery of new games is likely affecting those who suffer from Cult of the New by giving them withdrawal symptoms!
Shelf of Shame
With the new game arrivals my Shelf of Shame also continues to grow, adding an additional incentive NOT to purchase more games. Yeah, I’m one of those who WANT to play my games, not just admire the boxes on the shelf. I’m really falling far behind and need to get back to a Game of the Week approach to gaming. Alas, Real LifeTM continues to interrupt. My Shelf of Shame, in order from oldest to newest arrivals, is presently occupied by:
- Space Empires: 4x (GMT Games)
- Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games)
- The Dark Summer: Normandy 1944 (GMT Games)
- Strike of the Eagle (Academy Games)
- Drive on Frankfurt (Pacific Rim Publishing)
- Commands & Colors: Samurai Battles (GMT Games)
- D-Day at Omaha Beach (Decision Games)
- Enemy Action: Ardennes (Compass Games)
That list might grow soonish. When I picked up these two games, the seller “mentioned” he has Combat Commander: Europe and Combat Commander: Mediterranean as well as several Battle Packs (all from GMT Games) he is thinking of unloading, but only as a complete set. I already have Combat Commander: Pacific so this is very tempting….
RockyMountainNavy, 16 September 2021 ~ #UnboxingDay It was my great fortune to …#UnboxingDay ~ The Hunt for Red October surfaces, from TSR
Say what you want about the dumpster fire Twitter can be, the wargame community in the Twittersphere is awesome. Fellow gamer Nicola sent me a game that I coveted for a long time but never got around to acquiring. Now The Hunt for Red October (TSR, Inc., 1988) is sitting on my game table being dissected. First impression…a lite family wargame that Grognards (and Grognard spawn) can embrace.
With RockyMountainNavy Jr. supporting his high school team, it was left for RockyMountainNavy T and myself to find entertainment for a short evening. So it was that Santorini (Roxley Games, 2016) landed on the table for several rounds. We usually play without the God Powers but this time added Simple Powers. We’re both not really sure what to make of it as the basic game is a great challenge while the God Powers seem…well, we’re unsure.
I came across the DragonCon book awards for 2021 and several caught my attention. That of itself is pretty incredible because I have a distrust of the political motivations of many industry awards these days. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir won Best Science Fiction Novel so I decided to give it a shot. Other ones are Gun Runner by Larry Correia and John D. Brown which won Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel (yeah…fantasy NOT!) and Firefly: Generations by Tim Lebbon for Best Media Tie-In Novel.
In a somewhat radical change of pace, I actually picked up a full deadtree version of a new roleplaying game. I was in my FLGS and ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game from Free League Publishing (2020) caught my eye and I purchased it.
Science fiction is my favorite genre for RPGs, but space horror isn’t exactly my thing, making this purchase of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game a bit bewildering to me. Regardless, I am a bit of an RPG-mechanic explorer so I like to play RPGs almost as much for exploring the core mechanic as the setting. ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses Free League’s “Year Zero Engine” (YZE). This is my first exposure to the YZE, and actually my first deep-dive into ALIEN lore as I haven’t watched all the movies faithfully.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game tries to sell itself as a somewhat low-complexity, moderately narrative game that focuses on the Xenomorphs as much as, if not more than, characters. The reality, as I see it, is that ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game would be better sold as ALIEN: The Roleplaying Skirmish Wargame.
“First assembly’s in fifteen, people. Shag it!” – Apone
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a 394-page tome. The space-black background pages would be very expensive (and draining) to print on your own. The book doesn’t need to be this big; there are some pages where the art takes as much space as the text.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses customized dice. Well, sorta. There are two die types required, both d6. A Base Die is a d6 with a special symbol in place of the 6. A Stress Die is differently colored from the Base Die and has that same special-use symbol in the 6 position as well as “Stress” on the 1 side. Honestly, you don’t need to buy the special dice (~$15 per set)—just use two different colors of d6 and remember which color is which die type.
“…Well, I can drive that loader. I have a Class-2 rating.” – Ripley
Character creation in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is actually simple. You start by choosing one of nine archetypes. Sure, they’re called Careers in the book but they’re treated as archetypes. Using a limited point-buy system, you assign Attributes (Strength/Agility/Wits/Empathy), Skills (there are only 12), and acquire Talents (pick one).
Player Characters in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game also need a Personal Agenda as well as Buddies and Rivals. Well, that is unless you are playing a Cinematic mode game (more on that later) where the Agenda is “predetermined by the scenario” (p. 31). If you are playing a Campaign mode game, there are “suggested” Personal Agendas listed with your career.
The end result of character generation in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a (barely) two-dimensional character. The real RPG elements of a character, Talents and Personal Agenda, are either so flimsy or pre-defined as to be near-useless to a player. The only real advantage of the character generation system is that it is quick and uncomplicated—for reasons I think will soon become apparent.
“My mommy always said there were no monsters – no real ones – but there are.” – Newt
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game revolves around three simple Themes: Space Horror, Sci-Fi Action, and a Sense of Wonder (p. 20). Take note of the order in which they are presented—it’s important.
To me, the movie ALIEN defines space horror in cinema. The movie captures the essence of a hopeless, helpless, unknown situation. ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game depends heavily on the lore of the ALIEN stories to create the game universe. You can physically see it in the book; dark pages, lots of Xenomorphs, plenty of death. Even the fiction is pitch-perfect. This is both a blessing and a curse; it is quite possible to have players that come to the table steeped in the lore, making it a challenge to the Game Mother to create a story as character knowledge and player metaknowledge may not be aligned.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game can be played in one of two game modes. The primary mode is Cinematic. For this one really needs to think of each adventure like a sci-fi action movie, especially ALIENS. Here, the Year Zero Engine works well as it is light on skill checks but more detailed on combat and panic. The Game Mother guide advises that in this mode the Xenomorphs need to be front and center.
Taken as a whole, the rules for ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game are very much akin to a set of skirmish wargame rules. The “Combat and Panic” chapter—the rules for combat—covers concepts like Stealth Mode (hidden movement), initiative, Slow & Fast Actions (all of which are combat related), ambushes, close combat, ranged combat, and damage. Combat is very deadly—player death is a very, very strong possibility (certainty?). Look no further than the d66 Critical Injuries table which not only has multiple ways to die (“Impaled Heart – FATAL – Your heart beats for the last time”) to healing time measured in days (assuming, of course, you can even get first aid).
A key element of the combat system in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is Stress & Panic. There are nine conditions that raise a Player Character’s Stress Level, as defined on p. 103:
- You push a skill roll.
- You fire a burst of full auto fire.
- You suffer one or more points of damage.
- You go without sleep, food, or water.
- You perform a coup de grace.
- A Scientist in your team fails to use the Analysis talent.
- A member of your own crew attacks you.
- A person nearby is revealed to be an android.
- You encounter certain creatures or locations, as determined by the scenario or the GM.
In ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Stress can lead to Panic. Many times a Panic Action is mandated by the rules. This lack of player agency and forced narrative goes far towards creating a helpless, ultimately hopeless feeling.
Ship combat in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses a “bridge crew” approach to battles where the PCs are usually part of the action. It is interesting to note that in addition to all the ways a ship can be damaged, combat comes down again to the individual and their Stress Level and Panic. It’s quite possible that your PC could “Run to Safety” abandoning their bridge post.
Sense of Wonder
The third theme in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a “Sense of Wonder.” To be frank, my “sense of wonder” when playing ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is, “I wonder how anything survives.” One would think that the second mode of play, Campaign Play, would be where the Sense of Wonder comes from. I started reading the rules for ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game expecting that this is where elements of the story in ALIENS: Prometheus would shine. The Game Mother guide advises in this mode to save the Xenos for something special, but the game system as a whole doesn’t really support that. I mean, the game doesn’t really hide this fact as even the fiction in the chapters usually start with a party and ends up with…nobody alive. Instead of Prometheus the rules give us something that is more Firefly meets ALIENS. i.e. instead of finding stories that can explore discovering alien and human origins we get space truckers and death.
The lack rules support for a true campaign of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game may actually not be as big a loss as it sounds since there is little to be discovered in the game universe thanks to the extensive lore presented. This seems like a conscious decision by the writers, unlike Battlestar Galactica: The Role Playing Game (Maragret Weis Publishing, 2004) or The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) and many other large franchise-based IP games that pick a starting point in the lore and let the players and GM build their player universe from there. Sure, you can do the same in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, but given the extent of lore presented it’s much harder to exclude the metaknowledge.
“…and they’re gonna come in here AND THEY’RE GONNA GET US!” – Hudson
The problems of character survival in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game can be traced all the way back to character generation with those, frankly, shallow characters. It’s as though the writers knew that character lives are cheap and to invest too much time in creating them is a waste. Then there is the game engine, and the Stress rules which can be used to ensure success…but at the
risk near-certainty of being helpless as a player.
Given the rate of deaths in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, I searched the Game Mother guide for advice on what to do when a player character dies in the middle of an adventure. I think it’s telling that when talking about the Epilogue to a scenario part of the advice reads, “EPILOGUE: A suggested sign-off message by one of the PCs, assuming anyone is still alive” [my emphasis]. Indeed, I can’t find anything in the Game Mother section talking about mid-scenario player death beyond in-your-face hints that it WILL happen.
Helpless, hopeless, loss of control. If those are the ALIEN franchise themes you enjoy the most then ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is certainly for you.
“That’s it, man. Game over, man.” – Hudson
At the end of the day I think ALIEN: THE Roleplaying Game is best suited for those one-shot adventures where player character backgrounds are less important. Oh heck, ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is really nothing more than a set of skirmish wargame rules with some roleplaying elements. The rate of death in this game is not quite like Paranoia (West End Games, 1982)…but if the Game Mother is not in a nice mood it certainly can be.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is TM & © 2020 20th Century Fox Studios and Free League Publishing. All rights reserved.
In the course of a recent Twitter exchange with Hethwill Wargames, I mentioned John Prados’ Bodyguard-Overlord (Spearhead Games, 1994) as a good wargame of intelligence activities, even it I feel it is maligned. Fellow Twitter wargamer Nicola asked me to expand on my thought, which I am always happy to do for a wargame…even if it isn’t. Confused? Read on…
Intelligence, Deception, and Preparations
The introduction of Bodyguard-Overlord is quite clear at what it is trying to do:
Bodyguard-Overlord is a simulation of intelligence, deception, and preparations preceding the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and their effect on the subsequent course of military operations. This necessary prelude to the Northwest Europe campaign of 1944-1945 made a great difference in the outcome of that massive enterprise.
The emphasis in this simulation is upon the often-ignored “fog of war,” the tendency for information to get mixed-up in the heat of the campaign, while other aspects of the game remain as simple as possible. As a result, this game is much less complex than many board wargames, and quite possible suitable for play by new players.Rule Book 1.0 Introduction, p.2
Do you see “combat” listed as a design goal of Bodyguard-Overlord? No, you don’t because, while combat is part of the design, it is not the goal of this “wargame.” More than anything else, I feel this distinction is the root cause of why some Grognards dislike Bodyguard-Overlord—it’s not enough “wargame” for them. So if Bodyguard-Overlord is not a “combat wargame,” what it it?
The Designer’s Notes by John Prados in Bodyguard-Overlord provide more insight into what the designer’s goal for this game was. I’m going to be quoting Mr. Prados at length here because his word describe his own game the best:
From the history of the 1944-1945 Campaign in Northwest Europe and the accounts of the Normandy invasion Operation Overlord, it was clear to me that Germany’s best chance of defeating the invasion lay in anticipating where and when it might come. Conversely, it was apparent that a key Allied activity had to be “misleading” the Germans (or as we would say now “perception management”) regarding invasion preparations and objectives. It was also clear the design would have to include spies, code-breaking, aerial reconnaissance, and the European Resistance movements. These elements were present in my thoughts from the very first discussions. The intent was to portray the intelligence activity surrounding the invasion and deployment preparations on both sides, either to support the invasion or to counter it.Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6
In addition to modeling intelligence activities, Mr. Prados made a conscious decision in Bodyguard-Overlord to NOT model complex combat mechanisms:
A parallel intention was to make the game simple enough to be playable by a novice gamer, and playable to completion in one sitting. This meant making an effort not to encumber the game (or the gamer) with excessively-detailed subsystems. In particular, given our focus on intelligence play, it meant resisting the temptation to insert complex combat mechanics.Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6
I’ve Got a Secret…
I feel the truth is that Bodyguard-Overlord is a very non-traditional wargame that was ahead of its time. There is a vital pregame segment called the Strategic Planning and Deployment Phase that is very non-traditional it its approach. In this phase, units are set up, mostly in holding areas for the Allies but on the mapboard for the Germans (a reflection of advantages in Allied reconnaissance). While that first part sounds much like any wargame set up, what followers certainly is not. After set up, the Allied Player plans their invasion by secretly noting four items:
- Invasion Date
- Invasion Site
- Partisan Trigger Signal
- Invasion Warning Signal
As pointed out in the rule book, “These pre-game choices provide a major focus for intelligence operations in the game” (p. 4)
The next step in the Invasion Planning Schedule of Bodyguard-Overlord is the creation of a chit pool of 40 chits followed by Allied placement of units in the North Africa and Great Britain Holding Boxes. This includes many dummy units. Partisans are also placed on the continent.
Play of Bodyguard-Overlord now proceeds to monthly game turns. Starting with the Allies, each player executes a Deployment Segment, Movement Segment, Combat Segment, Intelligence & Sabotage Segment, and a Broadcast Segment. While the first three are likely very familiar to wargamers, the latter two are what makes Bodyguard-Overlord unique.
In the Intelligence and Sabotage Segment of a Bodyguard-Overlord turn, players draw an Intelligence Card and carry out the action. Players then draw one or several intelligence chits from the Eyes Only cup. This draw is key for the rules of populating the Eyes Only cup direct placing matching chits for the Invasion Date and Invasion Site; if the German player draws these two matching chits they “know” the secret information. Conversely, if the Allied player draws this information, they effectively “deny” it to the Germans. In this segment players also Scout (examine hidden units) and Sabotage.
The Broadcast Segment of a Bodyguard-Overlord game turn simulates diplomatic, propaganda, and communications. Every turn the Allies must broadcast one of 15 phrases with one being the Partisan Trigger Signal and the second the Invasion Warning Signal. If the German player draws one of the phrases and it is broadcast, the German player may initiate unlimited attacks against Partisan units immediately.
Victory in Europe
Once the Allied player announces the First Invasion in Bodyguard-Overlord, the Allied player has two turns to reach their victory condition. Although this might seem I short think it fits well with the game design goals—if the Allies have succeeded in deceiving the Germans then the invasion should come in areas the Germans are not as ready to defend thus making Allied victory easier. Conversely, if the Germans have pierced Bodyguard, then they are more likely to be in the right place at the right time to deny the Allied victory. The Basic Victory Conditions involve occupation of a certain number of areas depending on the invasion site. Taken as a whole this means a game of Bodyguard-Overlord doesn’t drag on and move its focus from intelligence to combat.
All this is not to say Bodyguard-Overlord is a perfect game. One common criticism is that several of the Intelligence Cards are too powerful. These complaints likely center on the Intelligence Coup action.
As you can see, an Intelligence Coup in Bodyguard-Overlord often reveals an absolutely vital element of Allied plans. While some might see this as overpowered and creating too swingy a game, I feel they are narratively quite appropriate. If the German player gets that lucky break, Bodyguard has broken down and the Allied player must now try to make the best of things. This doesn’t necessarily mean the invasion will not happen (an auto win for the German player) but it may not meet its objectives as quickly as the victory conditions (politicians? public?) demand. I don’t see this as a mark of a poor design; rather, I see it as a recognition of the hard realities of Bodyguard.
Wargame…or Strategy Game?
While Bodyguard-Overlord has its roots in a “traditional” wargame, the game design also breaks from many “classic” wargame standards. From map areas (not hexes) to cards to a chit pool, not to mention the entire non-combat intelligence play segment, when put together makes this game mechanically very distant from wargames like Enemy at the Gates (Dean Essig, The Gamers) which won the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best World War II Board Game in 1994. In this respect, Bodyguard-Overlord may have been ahead of its time. In 1994, the use of non-classic wargame mechanics was still relatively new. For example, Mark Herman’s We the People (Avalon Hill, 1993), the first Card Driven Game (CDG), was just a year old.
A more recent strategy boardgame that does much the same as Bodyguard-Overlord is The Fog of War by Geoff Engelstein and published by Stronghold Games in 2016. Fog of War is described as, “World War II without units but with planning and intelligence.” In other words, it gets at the same core design goals as John Prados did nearly 30 years ago but in a very non-traditional wargame manner.
I wonder if Bodyguard-Overlord was printed today if the reception to the game would be different than it was 30 years ago. I feel that gamers, and especially wargamers, are more receptive today to “non-traditional” wargames than they were 30 years ago. Here I include myself; in 2017 when I rated Bodyguard-Overlord on BGG my rating of 6 came with the comment, “Focus on espionage, intelligence and deception is both its strength and weakness. Much better as an add-on like module to other games.” In 2017 I had very recently re-engaged with the wargame hobby and was bringing myself up to date from my limited (immature?) 1979-1999 baseline of knowledge. In light my current understanding of this game, I think I was misguided as I saw Bodyguard-Overlord back then as an expansion module, not an entire game. As a module it may be a 6—but as a game? I should rerate the game at least a 7, placing it just above, not below, my 6.56 game rating average.
Bodyguard-Overlord is an “intelligence wargame” that was ahead of its time. While maybe not as refined as more “modern” strategy wargames, it still has much to say about campaign-level intelligence activities. One just has to embrace the message and not try to pigeonhole the design into something it isn’t.
It appears that the article that I wrote for the Armchair Dragoons, “An Active Defense of Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1” is in a second round of voting for the 2020 Charles S Roberts Awards. Thanks to all who voted so far. Like I told Brant, the only way to be wrong is NOT to read all the articles.
Wargames Cross Over with Roleplaying Games
My published thoughts this last week focused on why Traveller: The Role Playing Game is the best way to “wargame” David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers universe. Comments about how RPGs are basically skirmish wargames will be addressed in a future Wargame Wednesday.
This weekend I did a deeper comparison of Hammer’s Slammers wargames by digging into how Striker II (GDW, 1993), Dirtside II (Ground Zero Games, 1993), and Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible (Pireme Publishing, 2010) stack up against each other. Look for these thoughts in Wargame Wednesday.
Roleplaying Games Cross Over with Wargames
I’ve been exploring Free League Publishing’s ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game this week. Thoughts coming in next week’s #RPGThursday. **Spoiler – A skirmish wargame**
Bored Enough for a Boardgame
Not really, but we finally got a boardgame to the table. On a weeknight no less. This summer I traded for Tiny Epic Kingdoms (Gamelyn Games, 2014) which is a really simple action-selection game. My Humans took on the Undead of RockyMountainNavy Jr. and the Dwarves of RockyMountainNavy T. Our first play took more than the 30 minutes advertised but was rather fun. RMN T took the win as often does by laying low and breaking away at the end. RMN Jr. gave it a thumbs up. I expect to see this one land on the table regularly as a quick weeknight after dinner adventure.
A Slow Ship From China
International shipping challenges continue to, uh, challenge the wargame/boardgame industry. Several of my Kickstarter projects updated with news this week. It’s mixed messaging.
- 1979: Revolution in Iran (Dan Bullock/Dietz Foundation). Sep/Oct 2021. Supposedly onboard a ship with imminent departure. Jim Dietz is guessing that delivery could be as early as next month.
- AuZtralia: Revenge of the Old Ones & Tazmania (Schilmil Games). Nov 2021. Looking to try and ship from the factory in November.
Last week, in an answer to @TheGascon, I wrote about what my preferred rules for playing wargames in David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers universe are. That response was predicated on the assumption (unstated by Jim or myself) that we were both looking for the best wargame rules. While I stand by my conclusion in that article that Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible (Pireme Publishing, 2010) is best set of wargame rules for playing in the Slammerverse, the deeper truth is that Traveller: The Role Playing Game is actually my most preferred set of rules to use for Hammer’s Slammers. No, I’m not talking the combat systems in Book 4: Mercenary or Frank Chadwick’s Striker miniatures rules; I’m talking about the character generation and mercenary tickets found in Book 1: Characters and Combat and expanded upon in Book 4: Mercenary as well as later supplements like Mongoose Publishing’s Hammer’s Slammers (2009) and Spica Publishing’s Field Manual (2011).
A Bitchin’ Sailor is a Happy Sailor
Why do I prefer a roleplaying game over wargame rules for Hammer’s Slammers? That’s because, to me, the core of a Slammer’s story written by David Drake is not the blowers or the combat cars or the powerguns. It’s the people. Look at the first line in the first story in The Complete Hammer’s Slammer: Volume 1, “Under the Hammer:”—“Think you’re going to like killing, boy?”
Nothing here about iridium-ceramic tanks or powerguns; just a very personal question. The story goes on to tell us about Rob Jenne and his first day in The Regiment. The day he meets Chero, or Sergeant-Commander Worzer. The day he also meets Worzer’s father, an ex-Slammer who is now a priest. The same day [spoiler alert] that Rob has to call artillery in directly on top of Worzer.
That’s Hammer’s Slammers.
Narrative in Wargames
These days, I often look for a wargame that not only teaches me a bit about the history of the conflict or battle but also creates a story along the way. Some wargames do this in surprising ways, like the naval simulation Harpoon (now in a 5th Edition from Admiralty Trilogy Games) which author Tom Clancy used to help write a chapter in his novel Red Storm Rising. Personally, I find wargame narratives good in a very Clancy-esque techno-thriller way; i.e. where the focus is the technology instead of the people. David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers stories are the inverse where the focus is on the character and not the tech. All of which is to say wargame rules, while able to recreate the technical conditions of a Hammer’s Slammers story, don’t quite capture the emotion.
A Cold Look at Rolling Hot
In my Wargame Wednesday Hammer’s Slammers article, I focused on the final battle in the novel Rolling Hot as my gauge of a good Hammer’s Slammers game. Let’s look at the description of the battle again:
Blue Three’s sensors had greater range and precision by an order of magnitude than those crammed into the combat cars, but the cars could process the data passed to them by the larger vehicle. The sidebar on Ranson’s multi-function display listed call signs, isolated in cross-talk overheard by the superb electronics of the tank pretending to be in Kawana while it waited on Chin Peng Rise north of the tiny hamlet.
There were twenty-five individual call signs. The AI broke them down as three companies consisting of three platoons—but no more than four tanks in any platoon (five would have been full strength). Some platoons were postulated from a single call sign.
Not all the Yokel tanks would indulge in the loose chatter that laid them out for Task Force Ranson like a roast for the carving; but most of them would, most of them were surely identified. The red cross-hatching that overlay the relief map in the main field of the display was the AI’s best estimate thus far of the the armored battalion’s disposition.
Blue Three was the frame of the trap and the bait within it; but the five combat cars of the west and east elements were the spring-loaded jaws that would snap the rat’s neck.
And this rat, Yokel or Consie, was lying. It was clear that the leading elements of First of the 4th were already deploying onto the southern slope of Sugar Knob, half a kilometer from the store and shanties of Kawana rather than ten kays their commander claimed.
In the next few seconds, the commander of the armored battalion would decide whether he wanted to meet allied mercenaries—or light the fuse that would certainly detonate in a battle more destructive than any citizen of Prosperity could imagine. He was being tested….
The two sharp green beads of Lieutenant Cooter’s element settled into position.
She heard a whisper in the southern sky. Incoming.Rolling Hot, Chapter 12
That description is a good wargame scenario, but it only hints at the human factors. Let’s go back to the beginning of the story and meet the commander of Task Force Ranson. Here is how she is introduced to us readers:
Camp Progress was a Yokel—was a National Army—training and administrative center, while for the Slammers it served as a maintenance and replacement facility. In addition to those formal uses, the southern sector gave Hammer a place to post troops who were shoeing signs of having been on the sharp end a little too long.
People like Junebug Ranson, for instance, who’d frozen with her eyes wide open during a firefight that netted thirty-five Consies killed-in-action.
So Captain Ranson had been temporarily transferred to command the Slammers’ guard detachment at Camp Progress, a “company” of six combat cars. There’d been seventeen cars in her line company when it was up to strength; but she couldn’t remember a standard day in a war zone that they had been up to strength…
And anyway, Ranson knew as well as anybody else that she needed a rest before she got some of her people killed.
But she wasn’t going to rest here.Rolling Hot, Chapter 1
How do you portray Junebug Ranson in a wargame? Sure, one can play with rules for training or morale. Personally I like how Dirtside II/Stargrunt II from Ground Zero Games use Quality Die for different training. I also really like the morale rules in a game like Panzer/MBT from GMT Games where advances aren’t automatic and crews more often than not bail out of tanks after the first enemy round clangs off the front. But none of that capture what is going on in Junebug’s head.
The only way to do so is to roleplay the character. Here is how the “Character Roster” entry for June ‘Junebug’ Ranson is presented in Mongoose Publishing’s Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook written for Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition:
Playing Ranson: At her best, Ranson is a very intellectual commander, breaking every problem down into the sort of question that might be posed at an officer’s exam. She is adept at using whatever resources she has, even when this puts her troops in a difficult position.“Character Roster,” Hammer’s Slammers, p. 87
As cold an calculating Ranson sounds, she is not totally heartless:
“Speed’s essential, Hammer resumed. “You have authorization to combat-loss vehicles rather than slow down. The victory bonus’ll cover the cost of replacement.”
“I’ll be combat-losing crews, Colonel,” Ranson’s voice said. “But they’re replaceable too…”
Cooter gasped. Wylde grunted something that might have been either laughter or pain.
Hammer opened his mouth, then closed it with an audible clop. He opened it again and spoke with a lack of emotion as complete as the white, colorless fury of a sun’s heart. “You are not to take any unnecessary risks, Captain Ranson. It is necessary that you achieve your objective. You will accept such losses as are required to achieve your objective. Is that understood?”
“Yes sir,” said Ranson without inflection. “Oh, yes sir.”Rolling Hot, Chapter 4
The core rules for both every Traveller RPG edition, be it Classic or Mongoose or T4 or T5 has the Army and Marine career fields. Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary, like Mongoose Traveller Mercenary, expands those career fields into a more detailed character generation system. Both books also have another of those famous Traveller sub-games, in this case “Mercenary Tickets” which is a contract resolution system for mercenary units. Mongoose Traveller’s Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook provides a very detailed look at The Regiment (and other mercenary units) and has rules for continuing a career beyond the military into a mercenary unit. All of which helps a player to create and play a mercenary character like found in Hammer’s Slammers.
It also comes down to the situations a mercenary is in. While the final battle in Rolling Hot is certainly dramatic, such a large battle is the exception, not the rule. Here the front narrative from Spica Publishing’s Field Manual is more inspiring:
“Well, sergeant, what we have here is an Instellarms Forager scout car, six wheel drive, three man crew. On gunner, commander and a driver. They have a cover on the turret, hmmm…did you guys see anybody get in or out, troop or the like?” I shook my head as he scrutinized the vehicle as it ambled around the airfield.
“That thing doesn’t have the power for an energy weapon, and ordinarily has a troop compartment unless they mount something heavy. I think from the profile though…” He squinted into the glasses and concentrated. “Uh huh, there’s the designator, and the periscope…sarge, that’s a Hyperion Mark 18a2 rocket launcher…Obsolete, but it still packs a punch. Problem is, there is no telling what’s in it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said, exasperated.
Rourke looked at me over the field glasses. “What it means is, the Hyperion launchers are a multi task weapons system, they’re designed to fire about a dozen different munitions, and I mean a lot of different stuff, AP, antitank, you name it.”
I could tell by his look just then that the same thought crossed both our minds.
“Let me guess, anti aircraft too, right?” He nodded at that.
“Sarge, if they deploy when the shuttle gets here…” Just then, we could hear the engines as the dropshuttle came into view, not three klicks out.
“Shit, boys, we gotta take the RV out, let’s hustle!” Rivalries forgotten, Rourke took team two as I moved in with team one…we had no more than three minutes to cross three hundred meters of field and blow away the RV before they nailed our shuttle and the platoon of men aboard.
No doubt about it, I thought as we moved onto the field…I need a raise.“A Bad Thing in a Small Package,” Field Manual, p. 4
I’ll admit this is good fodder for a skirmish-scale wargame like Stargrunt II (GZG) or Tomorrow’s War (Osprey Publishing), but at the end of the day it’s characters and personal motivations that make it distinctive. For that, there is no substitute for the Traveller RPG.
Life’s a Forge
There are many character generation systems and I know that not everybody like Traveller’s career-path generation approach. Why not just buy a character? For me, the character generation sub-game in Traveller, with it’s legendary “die in character generation,” is way more inspiring. I really enjoy rolling up a character and seeing how they come into being. The character generation process is more informative (and formative) than any idea I might have going into the game. I actually play the game as I roll along. Let me show you how it works…
Joining the Slammers – My Way
Let me introduce Brant Wayhead, a young man just finishing high school on a low-technology world.
[For my example I am going to use Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition (MgT1e) as found in the Pocket Rulebook (Mongoose Publishing, 2008). This is not my current preferred Traveller rule set, that being Cepheus Engine as found in Independence Games The Clement Sector. I’m using MgT1e as it is “supposed” to work with the Mongoose Hammer’s Slammers, especially in terms of the skills list. In the interest of time I am also not going to use the advanced character generation system found in MgT1e Mercenary.]
The Universal Personality Profile for Brant is 7D7765 (Strength-Dexterity-Endurance-Intelligence-Education-Social Status). That “D” is hexadecimal for 13. This yield a +2 Die Modifier (DM) for all Dexterity-related actions and -1 DM for anything involving social graces. Brant hails from a Low-Technology world and comes out of school with Survival 0.
For his first term, Brant successfully joins the Army and is posted to a Cavalry (tank) unit. As this is his first term he acquires the basic Service Skills of Drive (Tracked) 0, Athletics (Coordination) 0, Gun Combat (Pistol) 0, Recon 0, and Heavy Weapons (Launchers) 0. Brant finds himself in the middle of a brutal ground war (Event 6) and successfully avoids injury and picks up skills in Gun Combat (Pistol) 1 and Leadership 1. Brant survives the war but fails to advance.
Still looking to make something of himself, Brant reenlists for a second term, again posted to the Cavalry. This time he learns to fly rotary wing aircraft (Flyer-Rotary 1). He finds himself in the middle of an Urban War (Event 4) and learns Stealth 1, Streetwise 1, and Recon 1. Not only does Brant survive this term, but he is also promoted to Rank 2.
It was during his second term that Brant met the Hammer’s Slammers. He decides to leave the Army and join the Slammers. On his way out of the Army he takes 10,000 Credits, a pistol, and is allowed to keep his Neural Comm implant.
Brant Waytread. Age 26. 7D7765. Two Terms Army (Cavalry). Rank 2. Homeworld – Low-Technology. Skills – Athletics (Coordination) 0, Driver (Tracked) 0, Gun Combat (Pistol) 1, Flyer (Rotary) 1, Heavy Weapons (Launcher) 0, Leadership 1, Melee (Knife) 0, Recon 1, Stealth 1, Streetwise 1, Survival 0. Possessions – 10,000Cr, Pistol, Neural Comm Implant.
[We now leave the Core Rulebook and move over the Mongoose Publishing’s Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook and the “Character Creation” chapter.]
Leveraging his two terms as a tanker in the Army, Brant successfully joins the Hammer’s Slammers as a Tank Driver. He picks up Driver (Hover) 0. Brant immediately makes an impact on The Regiment, distinguishing himself in battle (Event 12) and earning a battlefield commission to O1. Staying on with the Slammers for a second term (fourth overall), Brant is promoted to Tank Commander. The event roll this turn is “6 – Slammers Event Roll” which means I have to decide what era of Slammers history Brant is living in. I chose “Under the Hammer” and resolve Event 6 – “You befriend on of the other Slammers. Gain an Ally” as Brant is befriended by Danny Pritchard. The friendship may be professional as well as personal since Brant is promoted to O2.
Brant Waytread. Age 34. 7D7765. Two Terms Army (Cavalry)/Two Terms Hammer’s Slammers (Tanker) . Rank O2. Homeworld – Low-Technology. Skills – Athletics (Coordination) 0, Comms 1, Driver (Hover) 0, Driver (Tracked) 0, Flyer (Rotary) 1, Gun Combat (Pistol) 1, Heavy Weapons (Launcher) 0, Leadership 1, Melee (Knife) 0, Recon 1, Stealth 1, Streetwise 1, Survival 0. Processions – 10,000Cr, Pistol, Neural Comm Implant.
Brant is now 34 years old and his age is catching up with him (mandatory aging roll) but Brant keeps himself in shape and there is no effect. For the purposes of the game, I now move to “Chapter 10 – Conflict” in the Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook and see what the latest Slammers contract is.
The Pope Can’t Help You Now
This contract takes place on a planet (New Rome) that is 8,000 km diameter (.7g) with a Standard atmosphere but only 30% water covered. The hundreds of thousands of people on this world are all part of a company/central government. The law level is low (2) but the world has a Type B starport to go with its very hight technology level (TL11).
[Worlds are created using the standard world generation rules in the MgT1e Core Rulebook.]
While the core rules have a table for determining cultural influences, I decide to use the Cultural Influences table found in the sourcebook Chapter 10. I roll a 26 on the table which yields “Catholicism.” Hmm….
I decide that this planet is a Young Colony. Since this planet is young and ruled from offworld there is a -3 DM on the Seeds of Conflict table. The result tells me that this is a “Rebellion against parent world.” The parent faction, The Trade Federation, has a Faction Strength of 16 with advantages of Space control, Superior Equipment, and Planetary Capital. The rebels, who call themselves the Moderate Alliance and have a Faction Strength of 8, have the advantages of Familiar Terrain and Popular Support.
For The Contract, the Trade Federation wants to end the war quickly and hires Hammer’s Slammers (Elite Mercenary) to support its contract Regular, Green armed forces. The Moderate Alliance hires Ander’s Legion (Average Mercenary) to put some backbone in it’s Irregular, Militant forces.
Using Resolving the War, I roll to see how the first month of the war develops. Both sides must make a Conflict Check which is:
2d6+Faction Strength+Commander Tactics+Mercenary DMs+Mission Result DMs
Since this is the first month I gave the Slammers a +2 Commander Tactics DM. Rolling each faction gave the following results:
- Trade Federation – 2+16+2+7*+0=27
- Moderate Alliance – 7+8+0+2+0=17
- * [The Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook lists a +9 DM for the Slammers but because The Regiment is in an earlier “Under the Hammer” era I rule by GM fiat that the modifier is +7 because, as events in “The Butcher’s Bill” show, there are times even Hammer got a bloody nose.]
The Trade Federation loses no Faction Power but the Moderate Alliance loses 5 bringing it down to 3. After both sides pay their mercenaries the Trade Federation is at Faction Strength 13 and the Moderate Alliance is now 2. However, the Moderate Alliance leverages its Popular Support to gain back a single Faction Strength, bringing it up to 3. Even so, it looks like the Moderate Alliance cannot last another month unless something spectacular happens.
I now move to a Mission Scenario. As each scenario takes place over a two-week period I decide there will be two played with the results feeding into the next Conflict Check.
[Looking to generate a mission, I fall back on MgT1e Mercenary and the “Mercenary Tickets” chapter. I randomly roll that the mission is a Cadre-Training mission. This makes sense as the mission is described as, “Cadre missions of this type tend to be ‘hands on’ training runs that let the mercenary unit help one side of the conflict learn how to survive and hopefully be victorious” (Mercenary, p. 47).]
This makes me interested in what sort of army the Trade Federation has. Here I lean on Striker Book 2, “Rule 73: Military Spending.” To determine the Gross National Product one must know the Tech Level of the planet (11 or 14,000Cr) and any trade characteristics (Non-Industrial x0.8). Using a d10 to determine that planet has ~700,000 people, the budget is 14,000 x 0.8 x 700,000 should be 7.84 Billion Cr. I decide that the planet, depending on its parent world has only spend 1/3 of “what they should” giving a budget of ~ 2.6 Billion Cr.
Not wanting to get bogged down in building an entire Army, I stop at this point and go back to Striker Book 1 and build a basic Conscript Infantry Company of 100 soldiers that are 55% Recruit, 25% Regular, 15% Veterans and 5% Elite (Book 1, “Rule 5: Force Composition”). As this is a Cadre-Training mission I decide that Brant is assigned three blowers that are supposed to teach the local conscripts how to work with and not fear the supertanks.
For scenario specifics, I decide that Brant is in charge of an understrength platoon of three M1A1 tanks. These are first-generation blowers and as such they are more lightly armored and carry a 15cm powergun as compared to the “standard” M2A1 with the 20 cm guns. The Trade Federation conscript (green) troops generally have Gun Combat (Rifle) 1, Athletics 1, and no other real skills. They are armed with Flechette Rifles (TL9) and wear Ballistic Vests (TL 8, Protection 5). The Moderate Alliance Irregulars also have Gun Combat (Rifle) 1 and Athletics 1 but are armed with Assault Rifles (TL7) and wear anything from Jack (Protection 1) to a Flak Jacket (Protection 4). They also have more than a few Buzzbombs and tank mines. The situation is an ambush as the Slammers tanks and Trade Federation infantry are on a training march…
“Reason Six to all Reason Elements. Halt and lager. Take 15..” Lieutenant Brant Waytread watched through his tank’s optics as the local conscript platoon that the three Hammer’s Slammers tanks were working with paused awkwardly, looking around at one another until the few regular or veteran leaders barked out commands that the recruits, seemingly reluctantly, followed. The infantry troops spread out, mostly seeking shelter from the midday heat instead of taking good defensive positions.
“If they want to cool off that much, can I just run them over? They’d really like the fans.” That was Sergeant Vern Gamt in Reason Two. He didn’t have much patience for locals, unless they were of the female persuasion.
“Cut the chatter,” called Brant. “We’re here to train them,” he said with as little enthusiasm that he felt.
An icon winked on his HUD. The orange square with a “2” next to it was behind him and a bit further out than the platoon perimeter was supposed to be. The AI, by displaying the “2,” was warning Brant that something was amiss. As the hair on the back of his neck started to stand up he shouted, “Reasons! Button Up!” at the same time he hit his panic bar to lower himself into the turret—and not a moment too soon as buzzbombs lanced out at Reason One. Almost too late, Brant remembered the Automatic Defense System—ADS—was turned off because of all the “friendly” infantry nearby.
There were actually three buzzbombs, all coming at the rear of Reason One. Two hit while the third bounced off ineffective. Brant hadn’t been strapped in tight and he bounced around the turret. His helmet saved him from smashing his head against the cupola edge, but the electronics in it blanked.
[Buzzbombs are found in the “Equipment” chapter on page 119 of the Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook. They have a range of “Rocket” and score 1d6x6 damage if hit. Two hit, both 36 points each. Neither can penetrate the (still) impressive 120 points of rear armor on a M1A1, though both automatically score an Armor hit reducing the rear armor to 118.]
Blinking hard, Brant activated his Neural Comms implant. “Reasons! Advance and circle back. Get out of the killing zone!” Before he even finished the order Reason One surged forward, which just served to throw Brant off-balance again. The bright white flash from outside his tank momentarily blinded him. He saw the friendly icon for Reason Three change from a green square to a red X.
[Since this was an ambush the rebels had planted their few tank mines in the field. Reason Three drove straight over two mines that detonated near-simultaneously—close enough I treated them as a single attack.. Tank mines are found on page 172 in the “Vehicle Combat” chapter of the Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook. Against a heavy vehicle they detonate on a roll of 4+ and score 12d6 hits each. The combined attack of 41+45=86 hits overwhelms the 66 belly armor and translates to a Triple Hit against the Power Plant using the Expanded Damage Rules on page 173. Technically the tank should only be disabled but I decide to give the rebels a not-in-the-rules luck roll that (incredibly) is snake-eyes and therefore rule the plasma bottle is penetrated and the tank destroyed.]
Dead. Like he would be in a few moments unless he acted quickly.
A few minutes later it was all over. Reason Three was a burnt husk; nobody got out. Both Brant’s tank and Reason Two had taken several buzzbomb hits. No enemy were found—they faded back into the woods as quickly as they appeared. About half the friendlies were missing too. Only a few of those that stuck around had fired their weapons, but those who did hadn’t aimed at anything. Brant was sure the few friendly KIA were the result of friendly fire.
“Colonel ain’t going to be happy,” Brant thought as he dialed up Central. It took a few minutes but finally the Duty Officer took his report. As his AI updated, Brant learned that his ambush was not the exception. Many Slammers and local units were ambushed around the same time.
The second Mission Scenario I decide to approach in a much more narrative manner. This is actually my preferred way of playing Traveller; as a kind of solo choose-your-own adventure. I look at the skill checks as decision points that influence the action. Truth be told, this is often how I GM sessions too—a loose idea of a plot and let the player actions fill in the details. Sometimes it goes like I expected; other times not. That’s what make it interesting!
“So just where is Sergeant Gamt?” Lieutenant Brant Waytread’s didn’t often raise his voice, but when he did those around him knew it was not a good time.
Corporal Emclub, Sergeant Gamt’s driver in Reason Two, swallowed hard under her commander’s withering stare. She responded, “I, uh, don’t know, sir. He went out.”
“Out?” Brant barked. “It’s dropping in the pot all over and he just went out?”
“He went to see his girlfriend,” Emclub said as she looked down at the floor.
“Oh, his by-the-hour girlfriend, right?” Brant didn’t need this, his helmet comm was full of chatter from other Hammer elements that all were reporting the same thing; the Moderate Alliance was striking at Trade Federation units across the continent, but most importantly they were striking at garrison units in cities that before had been off-limits. There were no attacks in this backwater town where Brant and his two blowers were training local infantry…yet. Brant had walked through town the night before and he sensed something was brewing [Successful Streetwise skill check.]
“Mount up. You’ll drive but slave Reason Two’s guns to my AI.” He didn’t have to tell his crew to do the same for they were already in the tank waiting for their commander. Brant turned and went down the hall to barracks room of the local forces. He entered without knocking.
“I need a two squads right now to search the town,” he declared out loud.
Blank stares came back at him from a few frightened recruits. Nobody moved. “Where’s your officers?” Brant demanded.
“It’s the weekend. They’re at home.”
“Well, your friends in the Moderate Alliance didn’t take the weekend off.” You could literally hear the sarcasm dripping off Brant’s words. “We need to go.”
“Via!” Brant exclaimed. It’ about to drop in the pot! Get off your asses!”
[I decided this was a type of Rally action that would depend upon leadership and charisma. I decided that the lack of local officers was a Formidable task based on -2 DM for no officers present, -2 DM for lack of initiative, and -2 DM for the innate hatred the locals have for Slammer troops. I also ruled that Brant’s +1 Leadership was not in effect since the locals intensely disliked the Slammers. Even a die roll of 11 became only a 5 after the -6 difficulty modifier leaving an Effect of -3.]
From the back of the room somebody said, “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.” A few crossed themselves and bowed their heads.
“Newsflash, Father Book. The Mods don’t care about your Lord. I think today he’s foresaken you ,too.” Still, nobody moved.
“Via!” Brant repeated as he turned to leave the room.
[But what about that Effect -3? I decide that some of the local troops are secretly sympathetic to the rebels and will pass along a tip that the Slammers are coming. That Effect -3 will translate into a modifier for a surprise attack later on.]
Reason One and Two barreled through the gates to the compound and turned down the main drag of the town. “Do you know where to go?” asked his driver.
Brant had the hatch open but was lowered in the turret. “Gamt likes a place on the east side. Think it’s called Dolly’s.”
“Yeah, know it,” grunted his driver. “It’s expensive.”
“So I hear. It’s also in the old section of town with lots of brickwork buildings. Perfect ambush country. Keep your eyes open.”
The gunner seated beside Brant grimaced. ” We need some legs for this op.” Brant didn’t respond.
As they moved deeper into the east side the AI had difficulty tracking activity around them, On the display, the area covered around them kept getting smaller as even the advanced sensors on the tanks had difficulty penetrating the stone/brick buildings. Brant was on edge.
The first buzzbombs came at they prepared to pass through the gate that marked the entrance to the east quarter of town. Brant sensed as much as he saw the charges wired to the gate[Successful Recon check]. “Goose it, Reason! The gate’s wired!”
Reason One surged forward with Reason Two following close behind. The charges along the gate detonated but it fell just behind Reason Two [Attack roll 6=Fail]. Brant flipped the ADS to active…civilian casualties now be damned. The next few buzzbombs were swatted away harmlessly, but the streets were narrowing and the ADS would soon be ineffective.
The AI showed Dolly’s just a klick ahead. As Reason One and Two passed the last cross street the bright lance of a powergun shot out from a roof and connected with Reason Two. The bolt splashed off the turret.
[The powergun anti-tank cannon is found on page 118 of the Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook. Although it states that it is not useful against heavy vehicles, it still is worth a shot. Also, remember that Effect -3 from earlier? I decide that it doesn’t simply add to any surprise roll, but if a hit is scored it will add 3d6 damage to reflect the very short range and falling shot. It scores 9d6+6 Destructive damage which means the 34 hit points don’t penetrate the 132 side armor but it does reduce it by 9.]
“Hose the buildings.” [Brant, Significant Action/Coordinated Action. Leadership skill check. Die roll 10+ skill 1=Success with Effect +2] At the same time he worked to keep the data flowing between Reason One and Two. [Minor Action/Maintain Comms. Communications skill check. Die roll 9+ skill 1+ effect 2=Success with Effect +4.]
“Goosing it.” [Driver, Significant Action/Maneuver. Drive (Hover) skill check. Die roll 7+ skill 1 + effect 4 =Success with Effect +4.]
“Hosing the rooftops.” [Gunner using slaved tribarrel. Significant Action/Attack. Gunner (Turrets) skill check. Die roll 12+ skill 1 + effect 4 =Success with Effect +9.] Several rooftops collapse preventing at least 4 buzzbomb/anti-tank gun teams from attacking.
As Dolly’s came into sight the AI showed a green icon at the front door. That would be Gamt. Reason One slowed and passed the door while Reason Two came to a near stop to allow Gamt to board. Brant’s driver must have been watching his own AI feed because the tank accelerated as soon as Gamt was aboard his tank.
“Welcome, Sergeant. Glad you could join us,” Brant said.
Before Gamt could respond Brant was distracted. Reason One turned a corner and came face-to-face with a large barricade.
Brant shouted, “Goose and go. Fire!” [Coordinated Action (Leadership skill ). Die roll 7 + skill 1 = Success with no Effect.]
Reason One’s main gun shot at point-blank range at the barricade, but missed. [Attack Action (Gunner-Turrets). Die roll 3 + skill 1 = FAILURE with Effect -4.]
The 130 tons of Reason One hit the barricade, breaking through but slewing dangerously to the left as debris hung up on the tank. [Maneuver (Drive skill). Die roll 7 + skill 1 + effect -4 = FAILURE with Effect -4. Translate into two hits on the Front of Reason One. The Mine Net and Main Gun are hit.] Brant couldn’t do much as he was thrown around against his straps. Reason One finally straightened out.
“Uh, thanks for coming get me, L-T.” At least Gamt sounded a bit contrite.
Brant wasn’t in a generous mood. “Was she worth it?”
“Not really,” Gamt responded. “Matter of fact, she tried to kill me. I was lucky to have my pistol close by. Don’t worry, L-T, I’ll be keeping it zipped up for a while…”
In the next Conflict Check I rule that the multiple battlefield successes for the Moderate Alliance means the Trade Federation suffers a -2 DM for a Dismal Failure on the part of the Slammers. The next mission is a Partial Success (+0 DM) as the Slammers win but again civilian casualties work against them. Part of the reason the Trade Federation took casualties is that they decided to not let Hammer be in charge (no +2 for Commanders Tactics). The next Conflict Check is as follows:
- Moderate Alliance – 9+3+0+2+0 = 14
- Trade Federation – 4+13+0+7+(-2) = 18
A Conflict Difference of 4 on the Conflict Results Table says the Moderate Alliance loses 4 Faction Strength; it collapses while Ander’s Legion uses their Bond to leave quietly, and without full pay. The Trade Alliance falls to Faction Strength 12 before paying the Slammers reduces it to 9. The Trade Federation sends Hammer’s Slammers on their way, sure that they really didn’t need to hire expensive mercenaries to fight a rebellion that quickly collapsed. Colonel Hammer knows better; as he is given a cold send off at the Starport he feels in his bones that The Regiment will be back. This rebellion is not really over, just paused. The rebels tasted just a bit too much success on the battlefield to not come back in the future.
Brant takes heat for losing a blower but Captain Pritchard points out to higher command that many units were ambushed and the locals did little to support. He also is “counseled” about keeping better tabs on his troops. Brant retains his command of the tank platoon but is burning to remove what he sees as a stain on his reputation.
Every RPG is Narrative, right?
One criticism I often hear about the Original 2d6 Science Fiction Role Playing Game is that the “Roll 8+ on 2d6 for success” it that it is too simple. I hear complaints that the task system is too binary; success or failure. I vehemently disagree and point all those would-be detractors to the rules for Effect. Sure, the rules weren’t really codified until Mongoose Traveller but I can recall playing games in the early days (i.e. the early 1980’s) where we always asked what happened if you just missed a roll, or what happened if it was a blow out one way or another. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were already playing with Effect.
Effect can be used simply as a die modifier like in a chain of tasks rolls or it can be the key to opening narrative moments. That second use is what makes building a narrative simple—you don’t need a Big Damn Hero Die in Firefly (Cortex Prime) or a Drama Die in The Expanse using Green Ronin’s AGE or a Triumph/Despair roll in Star Wars Roleplaying (Genesys).
Building the narrative is what a Hammer’s Slammers story is really about. It’s not about the supertanks; it’s about the people. To play that you need a roleplaying game….
Feature image courtesy Beyond the Sprues.