Sunday Summary – Go with the flow of #wargames & #boardgames? Finding Foundation and running blades in LA with @FreeLeaguePub // @FoundationDietz @stuarttonge @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub #roleplayinggames

Shipping woes…slowly ending?

Slowly, ever so slowly, it looks like the flow of wargame and boardgame pre-orders is starting to move again. Let’s review what I know about my incoming games.

At least two games I have on Kickstarter are moving forward and reported being a step closer to delivery. 1979: Revolution in Iran (Kickstarter) is supposed to arrive to Jim Dietz at Dietz Foundation for in early October for immediate turnaround to fulfillment. 2 Minutes to Midnight (Kickstarter) by designer Stuart Tonge opened the pledge manager this week. However, not all is coming up totally roses—AuZtralia Revenge of the Old Ones and TaZmania! (Kickstarter) reported that production started but they will miss the planned November delivery due to the draconian (my description) lockdowns in New Zealand.

I am hoping that GMT Games finds a way to get the four titles that are at “At the Printer- No Ship Date Yet” moving. The latest update from Gene tells me that Tank Duel Expansion 1: North Africa is in a container somewhere between China and California and will be charging early October. Hopefully this means that backlog will work off over the next few months. I look forward to a regular GMT P500 delivery schedule.

I might also be better informed if I watched the Compass Games Live / Town Hall on YouTube every week but it goes live at an inconvenient time for me to easily catch it. I have five titles on preorder form Compass and, as best I can tell, none are scheduled for delivery through the end of this year (deep sigh).

My lone Multi-Man Publishing title on preorder shows that the preorder goal was passed. I guess that means it is moving forward in production, but when that is remains a mystery to me.

Boardgame Profits

The big boardgame industry news this week is that Asmodee is looking for a buyer...and they want 2 BILLION Euros. This past year+ of COVID certainly has seen the boardgame industry do well, but with the current raw material shortages and shipping challenges is it truly sustainable at those high levels? I almost feel like the VC group that owns Asmodee is trying to take their money and run. Remember, one of the oldest adages in business is“Buyer beware.”

Foundation and Role Playing Games

I rarely watch TV these days, but I did indulge in the first two episodes of Apple TV’s new series, Foundation:

I thought about rereading the books before the series started but I am glad I didn’t as I am looking at the series with (sorta) fresh eyes and just taking it in. I am especially enthralled with the world-building. I read articles about how the producers were trying to establish a look for the series that is neither Star Wars or Star Trek (Warning: Minor spoilers at the link). If I was put on the spot, I would say that there are many elements of Marc Miller’s Third Imperium setting for the Traveller roleplaying game. Or maybe it’s better to say there are many classic space opera elements in the Third Imperium and Foundation is just catching up. I have to admit I also enjoy watching the series with the RockyMountainNavy Boys who have not read the books (I know, Bad Dad!). They are taking it in without any preconceived notions. So far they like it, which is high praise from the hardcore Stars Wars fans they are.

From Foundation to Blade Runner

What’s this? Hot on the heels of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Free League has announced publication of Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game in 2022.

Free League put up a website which gives a few details about the new Bladerunner RPG. From a game mechanism perspective it appears that Free League’s Year Zero Engine will be used like it was in ALIEN: The RPG but with some new wrinkles:

The core game and its line of expansions will push the boundaries of investigative gameplay in tabletop RPGs, giving players a range of tools to solve an array of cases far beyond retiring Replicants. Beyond the core casework, the RPG will both in setting and mechanics showcase key themes of Blade Runner – sci-fi action, corporate intrigue, existential character drama, and moral conflict – that challenge players to question your friends, empathize with your enemies, and explore the poisons and perseverance of hope and humanity during such inhumane times.

Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game, The Game

Investigative RPG’s are an interesting subgenre of roleplaying games. Some game systems, like Gumshoe from Pelgrane Press, are designed from the ground up for investigations. Other systems rely on a form of “social combat” game mechanism to handle player vs. PC interactions. Indeed, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) has a separate mode of play called Social Encounters that covers investigations. It will be interesting to see how Free League adapts the Year Zero Engine to handle Bladerunner-style investigations.

Although I didn’t totally enjoy ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game I am nonetheless happy to see Free League lean into the 1980’s sci-fi IPs and turn them into RPGs. Philip K. Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for the movie Bladerunner and is a very deep story. I hope the game does real justice to the IP.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame…K-Pop? Republic of Korea Navy Damage Model vs. Harpoon V (admiraltytrilogy.com)

Thanks to Rex Brynen at PAXSIMS for pointing out some recent modeling & simulation (and wargame) professional reading. One of the articles is from a South Korean journal and discusses the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy wargame model for ship damage.

Wargame is a simulated military operation with certain rules, specifications, and procedures, in which soldiers can virtually and indirectly experience the war. The ROK Navy operates the Cheonghae model, a training wargame model for helping commanders and staff master the procedures for conducting the war. It is important for commanders, staff and analysts to know whether a warship can perform its missions and how long it can last during a war. In existing model, the Cheonghae, the probability of kill of a warship is calculated simply considering the number of tonnage without any stochastic elements, and the warship’s mission availability is also determined based on predetermined values. With this model, it is difficult to get a value of the probability of kill that makes sense. In this dissertation, the author has developed a probabilistic model in which the warship vulnerability data of ROK-JMEM can be used. A conceptual model and methodology that can evaluate the mission performance of personnel, equipment, and supplies has been proposed. This can be expanded to a comprehensive assessment of wartime warship loss rates by integrating damage rates for personnel, equipment, and supplies in wartime.

Bong Seok Kim , Bong Wan Choi , Chong Su Kim, “Methodology of battle damage assessment in the naval wargame model – Forcusing on damage assessment of warship,” Journal of KOSSE 17, 1 (2021). [In Korean]
North Korea sank ROKS Cheonan in March 2010; the ship was later raised and put on display (Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour)

Although the article is in Korean, many of the graphics are in English, and figuring out what the various algebraic equations likely relate to is possible in places. As I read what I could in the article, it struck me that I had seen much of this before from the Admiralty Trilogy Group (ATG), designers of my beloved Harpoon V naval miniatures wargame.

Cheonghae (“Blue Sea”)

The abstract from the Korean article makes it sound like the original ROKN damage model is quite simple; “In existing model, the Cheonghae, the probability of kill of a warship is calculated simply considering the number of tonnage without any stochastic elements, and the warship’s mission availability is also determined based on predetermined values. I find this a bit astonishing because I can’t think of a single commercial tactical naval wargame in my collection where ship damage is solely a function of tonnage. I mean, even my 1975 version of General Quarters (NavWar Productions) or the 1978 edition of Bismarck (Avalon Hill) has hits against different ship components.

The ROKN study goes on to explain a new methodology that is, “expanded to a comprehensive assessment of wartime warship loss rates by integrating damage rates for personnel, equipment, and supplies in wartime.” While this certainly sounds like a “modern” approach, I have to point out that the damage model in the commercial tabletop wargame Harpoon V already does this through a Critical Hit damage mechanism.

Harpoon V from ATG

Fortunately for naval wargamers who want to understand the Harpoon V damage model, ATG publishes on their website a series of presentations from various conventions they attend. These presentations provide some insight into their games, with more than a few being game design “peek under the hood” content. This allows us to do a limited comparison between Cheonghae and Harpoon V.

ATG Harmonization

In the mid-2000’s, ATG realized that the various damage calculation methodologies used in their three principle games (Fear God & Dread Nought for World War I, Command at Sea for WWII, and Harpoon for “modern”) were unsynchronized. Thus, they embarked on a “harmonization” process. A major component of the harmonization process was a rebuild of the ship damage model in the game.

At the 2006 Cold Wars convention, ATG designer Chris Carlson presented, “Weapons Effects and Warship Vulnerability” (Cold Wars 2006) where he identified weapons damage effects on warships as one of the biggest issues in the Harmonization Process. The conclusion of his presentation shows where they are going:

  • Weapon damage effects across the Admiralty Trilogy games are now consistent with basic physical principles
    • –  Convert all damage mechanisms into energy terms
    • –  Use standard explosive theory equations
    • –  Eliminates model distortions (edge effects)
  • Damage point value changes vary based on weapon type and warhead size
    • –  Torpedoes have the greatest change
    • –  Less so for bombs, shells and missiles
    • –  Smaller warheads become more lethal, very large ones are less

At Cold Wars 2008, Chris made another Admiralty Trilogy Seminar presentation titled, “Variable damage Effects in Naval Wargames” (Cold Wars 2008). This is an excellent review of many popular naval wargame systems and how they model damage. More than a few here use a stochastic model, but it is also interesting to see how many use something more. Again, the conclusion provides great insight into where the ATG designers were going, and maybe also how far ahead of the ROKN:

  • Damage variability is a high interest item for players
    • Variability drivers: Location, warhead performance, secondary effects
    • Admiralty Trilogy games don’t use specific hit locations
    • Warhead performance variability isn’t realistic
    • Secondary effects the best option for our games
  • Damage effects are very difficult to model
    • Significant tension between playability and accuracy
  • Revised model gives greater variability in fire and flooding critical hits and in the DC [Damage Control] die rolls
  • Delayed implementation of some critical hit results means ships aren’t instantaneously crippled

Cold Wars 2012 saw another presentation, “Staying Power: Assessing the Damage Capacity of Ships” (Cold Wars 2012). As the presentation says, “Quantifying damage is vexingly complex, and any approach is hard to defend because it is a subjective estimate.” What follows is another review of historical approaches to solving this problem, and how ATG designers are approaching it for their games. Along the way they identify two main models; deterministic and stochastic:

  • Two main approaches to damage effects modeling:
    • Deterministic Model: A ship sinks when the cumulative damage exceeds the ship’s life
      • NWC [Naval War College] Fire & Maneuver Rules and RN [Royal Navy] 1929 Wargame Rules
      • Combat capability and mobility decreases with damage
    • Stochastic Model: A ship sinks, not from cumulative damage, but from a catastrophic event, such as a magazine explosion or excessive flooding
      • U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance developed this model during the war
      • Striking Power of Air-Borne Weapons Study, ONI, July 1944
      • Another way to look at it is as a loss of function model

From the limited portions of the Korean study I can read, it sounds like the original ROKN damage model is Deterministic and the goal of the new Cheonghae version is to add Stochastic elements. The ATG approach to damage in their games always has been to create a hybrid. ATG pointed out—back in 2012—that, “Wargaming is best served by a hybrid approach to damage effects (deterministic/stochastic elements).

What’s Old is New Again

Given that I cannot fully read the new Korean journal report there is a fair chance I am missing something here, but I feel that I’m not far off in saying that Korean modeling & simulation may be a step (or more) behind commercial naval miniatures wargaming. I skimmed the journal article bibliography in the vain hope of seeing some reference to miniatures wargaming but alas, no. I find it a bit ironic that when comparing the damage model in Harpoon V to this Korean study, the Harpoon V model, long begrudged in some wargame circles as “too complex,” is in this case the “simpler” model in that it does not need a computer to run nor overtly resort to all the algebraic functions and the like. If one wants to recreate the math behind the ATG model, you can dig through back issues of ATG’s journal, The Naval SITREP, and find articles that show you the way.

There are some (many?) wargamers out there that proclaim Harpoon V (or any of the ATG games) are more simulation than game. I will rise to the defense of ATG here and say that these complaints have not fallen on deaf ears and the ATG staff makes tremendous efforts to make their games playable. Regardless of what you think about their success in doing so, they should nonetheless be recognized as serious game designers who can really math the wicked problems. One can both play and study with ATG naval miniatures wargames. Both players and researchers could benefit from their work with just a little more attention. Surely, adopting (or even adapting) a commercial-off-the-shelf model is less expensive than all the development work that is going into Cheonghae. More importantly, the ATG staff has worked hard to validate their model—I would like to see what Cheonghae says about many of the same cases ATG modeled. Now that would be a great comparison.

Can you figure out how many Damage Points were inflicted here?

Feature image – Ex-USS Ingraham being sunk a target in Large Scale Exercise (LSE) 21 (courtesy pacom.mil)

#Wargame Wednesday – Clausewitz Cosplay with Commands & Colors Samurai Battles (@gmtgames, 2021)

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.

In short, absolute, so-called mathematical, factors never find a firm basis in military calculations. From the very start, there is an interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad, that weaves its way throughout the length and breadth of the tapestry. In the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards.

Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Chapter 1, 21 (p. 86)

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.”

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.

Panzer crew deals with “The Blue Dragon” (courtesy hürtgenwald on pintrest)

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…).

Carl von Clausewitz is simply doing some cosplay here.

RockyMountainNavy, September 2021

Sunday Summary – Local #wargame players make for great gaming medicine with @Decisiongames @compassgamesllc @gmtgames

Wargames

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:

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….

Sunday Summary – Red October #wargame in September thanks to @6xW_a, some #boardgame Santorini (@roxleygames, 2016), conned into Firefly for generations, running guns with @BaenBooks, and hoping a Hail Mary reads well thanks to @DragonCon

Wargame

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.

The hunt has ended…or has it only started?

Boardgame

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.

Books

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.


RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#RPGThursday or a delayed #Wargame Wednesday? – Alien: The Roleplaying Game (@freeleaguepub, 2020) – as in “You’re all gonna die. Only question is how you check out.”

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.

Two can be found in chargen…

“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.

Space Horror

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.

Sci-Fi Action

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.

Cinematic play is the game mode used to simulate such stories, creating short, focused, and intense movie-like experiences that the PCs will be lucky to survive.

“Cinematic Play”, p. 215

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.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

#WargameWednesday – An intelligence #wargame ahead of its time? My impressions of Bodyguard-Overlord by John Prados from Spearhead Games, 1994 (inspired by @Hethwill_Khan and @6xW_a)

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?

Bodyguard-Overlord box back. Are you sure this is a wargame because I don’t see hexes….

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

Spymaster Generals

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.

“A second important aspect of the design is the mechanism, however tenuous, by which the German player may discover the actual invasion target. In this regard, the game benefits from the realities of conducting an enterprise as ambitious as the Normandy invasion, an endeavor so enormous that its planning required a target area and date selected long in advance. Thus, the Allied player must choose his invasion site and time and note them before play begins. Without forcing the player to plan the actual execution of the invasion project, this mechanism creates a secret which can then be the focus of intelligence activities. The tension between preserving the secret of the invasion while marshaling the forces to conduct it recreates the dilemma faced by the Allies in 1944, while the desperate desire to unlock that secret confronts the German player.”

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard-Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

Wargame Plus

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.

Bodyguard-Overlord mapboard…NO HEXES!

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.

Intelligence Cards in Bodyguard-Overlord…where’s the stats for Tiger tanks?

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.

Broadcast phrases in Bodyguard-Overlord…no “You sank my battleship!”

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.

Intelligence Coup

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.

Coups in Bodyguard-Overlord can ruin your (invasion) day…

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.

“Moreover, this game creates for the first time, a coherent set of mechanics to incorporate campaign-level intelligence play into a traditional wargame environment.”

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

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.


RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0