Rocky Reads for #Wargame – From Submarine 2nd Edition (Avalon Hill, 1981) to Star Fleet Battles (@ADBinc_Amarillo, 1979) with The Enemy Below by Cdr. D.A. Rayner (Henry Holt & Company, 1957)

I recently pulled my copy of the novel The Enemy Below by Commander D. A. Rayner off my bookshelf for rereading. I am fortunate to have a first edition, second printing hardcover version (sans dust jacket) from 1957 published by Henry Holt and Company. This book was originally my father’s and although the dust jacket is gone the interior flaps of the jacket were preserved in the front of the book. Growing up, I think I read the book before I saw the 1957 movie on syndicated TV. As good as the movie is, I am very much in the camp of “book over movie” critics.

Action Stations!

When I started wargaming, one of the earliest games I acquired was Submarine designed by Steve Peek from the Avalon Hill Game Company. My copy is a 1981 Second Edition which I bought brand new soon after release. Even today, I recall sitting down and learning the rules to Submarine with The Enemy Below at my side. Back then, and even today, I judge the “realism” of Submarine on the basis of how well it can recreate situations in The Enemy Below. The book is ripe for a wargame setting as communicated on the dust jacket:

Then, for forty merciless hours, it was depth charge vs. torpedo, destroyer vs. submarine, crew vs. crew, and, ultimately, Captain vs. Kapitan. Attack after attack, the stratagems of the two masters cancelled each other out. Each hour the U-121 drew closer to its rendezvous and, sensing the fact, the Captain radioed for reinforcements. But before the Cecilie or fleet destroyers could influence the outcome, the absolute battle between absolute equals was played out to a startling conclusion….

The Enemy Below, Dust Jacket

Compare this to the introduction for Submarine:

One of the few remaining campaigns of World War II yet to be covered on a tactical level has been the submarine war against commerce shipping and naval fleets. It was a war of no fronts; of hit and run tactics; a one-on-one duel reminiscent of the air war of World War I, complete with aces and acts of chivalry. But it was also fought with no holds barred, a struggle in which a second’s hesitation or lapse in concentration meant the difference between death and survival….

Submarine is a tactical recreation of the submarine war. A player assumes the role of either a submarine or escort captain. He can launch torpedoes at convoys or combat ships or hunt down submarines with depth charge runs.

Submarine, 1.0 Introduction

Looking at those words, is there any real wonder how one could not link The Enemy Below and Submarine together?

Pop History?

In retrospect, I sorta laugh at myself when I think about how I judge Submarine. After all, I studied to be a historian so I should be looking at any wargame critically from a historical perspective, not through the lens of popular culture. It’s akin to gamers today who play the videogame Call of Duty and praise it for being “realistic.” Then again, The Enemy Below is popular not for being a techno-thriller (ala The Hunt for Red October) but for being a deeply human story. Which makes me admire The Enemy Below even more; the book simultaneously captures the human and technical with a proper balance between the two of them. When I play Submarine, it is the influence of The Enemy Below that helps me remember the human side battle which barely gets a nod in the game system (see rule 49.0 Crew Quality).

Interestingly, I have a second submarine-themed wargame designed during this era. Up Scope! Tactical Submarine Warfare in the 20th Century was designed by Joe Balkoski for SPI in 1977. I’ve owned this game since the early 1980s but have never played it (and only rarely opened it) in part because the Designer’s Notes make reference to it being a counterpart to Air War (SPI, 1977) and placing realism over playability. With regards to The Enemy Below, Up Scope! has even less human connection. That design approach, and lack of connection to the book, can explain why Up Scope! rarely (or never) hit my gaming table over the years.

The Enemy Below…the Stars

I also must thank The Enemy Below for its influence on another wargame from my early years. In 1966 the Star Trek original TV series Season 1 episode “Balance of Terror” featured the USS Enterprise hunting a Romulan Bird of Prey equipped with a cloaking device. It’s easy to see how the writers for this episode adapted The Enemy Below story. Romulan warships equipped with cloaking devices appear in the wargame Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) which uses Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) as canon for the setting. I spent many, many hours of my youth playing Star Fleet Battles and always enjoyed the challenge of hunting a Romulan under cloak.

How wrong is @sowronggames about Talon (GMT Games, 2016)?

ziyx3sp8_400x400If you have not listened to the boys from So Very Wrong About Games you certainly need to. Like the title of their podcasts says, they relish in pointing out what they like, and especially what they don’t about boardgames. They are not shy about offering their opinion, which is what makes SVWAG a worthy listen. Be warned though; if you have your own opinions and cannot listen to your games taking criticism then you will not be happy. Further, if you are a wargamer, you could become agitated as one of the hosts, Mike Walker, is not a wargamer and openly (at least on the show) despises wargames. On the other hand, co-host Mark Bigney is a wargamer, and apparently an old-school wargamer at that.

Given this split in the interests of the hosts, I was mildly surprised to hear their review of Talon (GMT Games, 2016) on their podcast recently. Like the hosts themselves, what I basically heard it come down to was an old Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau, 1979+) player versus a new Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (Fantasy Flight Games, 2012+) player. One wanted fast “pew pew” starfighter play with ships dashing across the board while the other relished (anguished) over the decision points brought out by the “ponderous” movement of behemoths in space. My first reaction was like that of the old school Bigney – Talon is a spiritual successor to Star Fleet Battles only Talon does the resource management in a much more playable manner. To Walker on the other hand, the game was just too slow with not enough action.

Neither of them are right, and neither of them are wrong.

If you are looking for a manual videogame version of the Star Wars universe and enjoy competition play through buying ships, adding “power-ups,” and then throwing miniatures down on a mat then X-Wing is definitely your game. This is game Walker wants; Talon is not going to give it to him.

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Courtesy GMT Games

But…if you want another view of starship combat, one where managing resources (power) is interesting to you, then you may want to look at Talon. This is the game Bigney relishes; a game of tight resources and decision points.

For myself, I think I have made it clear before that Talon is more my preference. Sure, there is an element of “chits on the table” in Talon like Walker complains about but in this game it all fits thematically. In my more recent plays, I have also come to more deeply appreciate the ingenuity of the dry-erase ship markings and how they portray information that before was consigned to ship data sheets and the like. To me, Talon delivers an experience of starship combat through a game whereas X-Wing delivers, well, just a game.

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Courtesy BGG.com

One problem with Talon may be it’s age. Designer Jim Krohn has offered up a very modern interpretation of “I need more power, Scotty” science fiction battles. To us grognards, Talon is a refreshing look at an issue that was first tackled nearly 40 years ago in a little pocket folio game from Task Force Games. But what started out as as just over 100 counters and about a dozen ships blossomed into Master Rulebook of over 460 pages.  Even with that you still need pages and pages (and binders and binders) more of ships and scenarios to play. Although the core game mechanic of energy allocation was reimplemented and much streamlined in Federation Commander, the fact remains that to play these games requires a major investment of money for materials and time to learn, and play, the games. Talon on the other hand returns to a much simpler implementation of the core mechanic using a different streamlined approach and mixes it with graphics right on the counters to help convey the information quickly and enable speedy play on the table. But how do you explain all this design beauty to a generation of gamers that grew up on Star Wars and barrel rolls in space and never had to fill out an Energy Allocation Form, or as some call it, Accountants in Space?

I doff my cap to the Boys at So Very Wrong About Games for talking about Talon even though it was clearly “not in the wheelhouse” of one of the hosts. In the end though, Mike and Mark actually do science fiction boardgamers/wargamers a great service. The real take-away message from the podcast is that games come in many different forms. The only wrong message one could take away from their them is that there is not a game for you out there. On the contrary, So Very Wrong About Games shows us why the industry is so right; we are very lucky that we can have both X-Wing and Talon.

…But I can’t help but wonder how they would handle Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, 2018) with its AVID displays and 3D vector movement in space. For sure I think Walker would have a meltdown….

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Squadron Strike: Traveller AVID (courtesy Ad Astra Games)


Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek

Fangs Out!* #FirstImpressions of #Talon (@gmtgames)

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Courtesy BGG

Way back in the day I was a Star Fleet Battles (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1979+) player. My first game was the pocket edition in the half-size plastic baggie. In junior high and high school my friends and I obsessed with SFB. One of my friends designed the original TK5 destroyer. I even got into the strategic game, Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) that eventually evolved into Federation & Empire (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1986+). When I pack all my SFB stuff together it overflows a medium-cube moving box (that’s 3 cubic feet of stuff).

But time changes things. Whereas in my younger years I absolutely loved the excessive energy management required in SFB, and the long scenario play times, I gradually moved away from the game. I tried other games, like the FASA Star Trek: Starship Tactical Simulator (1983) or Agent of Gaming’s Babylon 5 Wars (1997). In the mid 2000’s, I tried to get into Federation Commander (Amarillo Design Bureau, 2005), the SFB successor, but it just didn’t click. Indeed, my game of choice for starship battles became Ground Zero Games’ Full Thrust (1992) or a derivative.

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Courtesy BGG

In 2017, GMT Games offered a reprint edition of Talon, originally published in 2015. My interest was peaked by a series of post in the Castiliahouse blog where they were playing Talon. So I pulled the trigger on the P500. The second edition game delivered not long ago.

Upon unboxing, the first thing that struck me was the large, coated counters and the wet-erase markers. You mean I am going to write on my counters? Then I started digging into the rulebook.

And I am in love.

The basic rulebook is a slim 16 pages. The game mechanics are very straight-forward and explained in just 9-pages of Basic Rules. What I love is that energy management still is important, but instead of allocating everything (aka SFB) or several things (FC), in Talon one chooses “power curves” which are in effect “presets” for Power/Speed/Turn Radius. As a general rule, as a ship’s speed increases, the Turn Radius likewise increases while Power decreases.

Simple…Fast…and Fun!

Moving away from the SFB Power Allocation sheet, or the FC Ship Status Display, to info on the counter also helps with the fun. This makes the game easy to teach, an important consideration these days as I my main gaming partners are the RockyMountainNavy Boys.

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Courtesy BGG

My plan is to get Talon to the table, probably in the next few weeks, using the Advanced Rules (just gotta have rule 15 THE BIG GUNS). I think the RMN Boys will like Talon; they like Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game and I know this will be a step up in complexity, but not nearly as much as Federation Commander or (shudder) Star Fleet Battles. Maybe someday I will play those games with them, but I am not so sure it will ever really happen. My taste in gaming has changed in nearly 40 years (go figure). In my early days my craving for simulationism was fulfilled by games like Star Fleet Battles. These days a more player-friendly game, like Talon, is welcome on the gaming table.

*Fangs Out:  Aviator-speak for when a pilot is really hot for a dogfight.

#StarTrekAdventures RPG – What Do You See?

In the most recent Star Trek Adventures RPG living playtest email from Chris Birch at Modiphius he wrote, “Hope you like this new image!” I usually don’t have any real opinion of art in RPG products. Honestly, I rarely even think about it. But this time I did and I definitely have a reaction to it. But before I tell you what  I think about this picture a little of my Star Trek RPG history may help you understand where I am coming from.

My Beginning – FASA Star Trek

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Courtesy Grognardia

My first Star Trek RPG was Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game (FASA, 1983). The art in this product consists mostly of screenshots taken from The Original Series. In later products FASA commissioned artists for original artwork and by that time Paramount had released several Star Trek movies which heavily influenced the look. For instance, the first sourcebook, The Klingons,

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RPGGeek

had a “new” Klingon on the cover. The art content fell broadly falls into two categories; people and ships. The people art was generally staid with little dynamic action; what I term “poser” art. Then, like now, I find the artwork very neutral – indeed almost too neutral – and not exciting or deeply inspirational.

Call to Action – Prime Directive

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Courtesy RPGGeek

As I was a fan of the board game (and miniatures) of Star Fleet Battles, when Task Force Games brought out their RPG for that universe I scooped it up – with mild disappointment. But looking back on the artwork of Prime Directive, I see a few things that I like. For instance, the cover has action. Here I see what is likely a Federation Prime Team, with jackets on and phasers ready, in a temple-like structure being attacked (?) by an alien wielding a long spear with a bladed end. Take note that the team is facing the threat. Later versions on Prime Directive, especially the more recent d20 and d20 Modern variants, went to a style of art that I am not a fan of, but still harken back to core themes of the Trek universe. Like this cover from D20 Modern.

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RPGGeek

Here I see another Prime Team with each character acting in an iconic fashion; the blue-shirted scientist is pointing out something, the red-shirted security guy is getting ready to die, and the gold-shirted commander is leading. Not a lot of action, but each character captures (inspires) a role to play.

The Vanguard of My Imagination

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Courtesy readstartrekbooks

There is another influence on my “expectation” of a Star Trek RPG, coming from the Star Trek Vanguard series of books. This series appeals to me because it is an Original Series-era setting but with a more confrontational and mysterious adventure. In terms of their book covers, they all consist of ship art and are full of action. I especially like Reap the Whirlwind which shows off the small USS Sagittarius daringly passing in front of a much larger (and dangerous?) Klingon ship. Now that is adventure inspiration!

 

A Call to New Star Trek Adventures

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Modiphius Games

Which brings me back to the new Star Trek Adventures. Much like FASA Trek before, the art shown to date consists of ships and people. In this case the ships are trying to evoke a nostalgic reaction as they portray the iconic Enterprise across the TV series’ and movies. But it is the people art that catches my attention. To me, the people art shows how the writers and publishers of this game see their own game. Through those images they show me, the player (and customer), how they think the game should inspire me to play.

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Courtesy Modiphius Games

The first people image I saw was a crew on the bridge of what appears to be a Original Series ship. I like  that it is Original Series and that it is full of action. But to me it is the wrong action. I see a Federation ship that has been boarded by Klingons with at least two injured (dead?) already. The Captain is desperately fighting another ship even as the Klingons board his ship and threaten his bridge. This doesn’t look like it will end well. Indeed, this image reminds me what I see as an overused trope in too many Star Trek movies; Abandon Ship! How many times has the Enterprise now been destroyed? I personally am tired of the trope and it infuriates me because I see it as lazy writing for it has been used too many times to do nothing more than generate emotions (nostalgic longing for the ship) move the adventure off the to a different location.

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Courtesy Modiphius Games

The next image very different. It changes eras (to the Next Generation) which I am only “meh” to (except if we are talking about the alternate Federation found in Yesterday’s Enterprise). There is a lot of action going on here; from an exploding planet above to collapsing towers in the background to explosions. I also see a blue-shirted scientist studying a mystical hologram while two gold-shirted security guards are near a mysteriously glowing obelisk. A red-shirted officer is pointing, probably commanding the group since she is the only one wearing the red-shirt of command. On the far left we see a second blue-shirt scientist racing towards the group. That is a lot of action, and I see this as the moment the plan has gone sideways and the PCs are faced with a choice. It is the classic “Oh, Crap!” moment.

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Courtesy Modiphius Games

This picture, the one that that started all my ramblings, appears to take place shortly after the previous “Oh, Crap!” moment. The scientist previously seen racing towards the group is now racing away. He is being followed by a somewhat acrobatic gold-shirt security man. Our intrepid red-shirt leader is also on the run with the blue-shirt scientist previously studying the hologram(?) now also sprinting away. In the right top, two more characters not seen in the previous image are visible; a red-shirt being rescued by a gold-shirt. There are also at four characters in the left background; two (?) gold, a blue and a red-shirt.

There’s at least ten people in this scene. I’m going to assume the blue-shirt hippie dude, the acrobatic blue-skin gold-shirt, red-shirt leader and blue-shirt hologram scientist are player characters. A fifth PC may be the other gold-shirt security in the previous picture. That means this scene has a PC party of five with five supporting NPCs. To use the words of the man in the White House, “That’s yuge!” I have to wonder if Star Trek Adventures is playable only by large groups. Is there something in the game mechanics that makes this necessary or desirable or is it optional?

In a bit that I find very important all the characters seem to be running away from the threat. This runs (no joke intended) counter to what I see as a core tenet of the Star Trek universe; characters always face the threat. I am not saying that a strategic withdrawal is never in order but to show me a scene where everyone is running away – it makes me think of Doctor Who where the characters are always running. If I want to play game with running, I’ll play Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (11th Doctor) which I already own.

I can already hear some critics saying, “It’s your game. Play it like YOU want to play!” I heartily agree, and will do so, as long as the mechanics of the game allow me to!

“How do you like this image?”

Sorry, Chris. I don’t.

I don’t like it because although it looks Star Trek (the uniforms and alien species) it doesn’t look like the heroic Star Trek I expect – and want – to play.