Power Dolls

I think the wargamer in me has been subconsciously prepping for WWIII for the last couple of months. Not only did I start playing Fallout 3, I was, until last week, embroiled with a double header of NATO: the Next War in Europe, and over the weekend, I devoted several hours to one of my favorite childhood video games, Red Storm Rising. I’ll tell you what: RSR is the best Tom Clancy based game there is, was or ever will be.

But today, I want to spotlight Power Dolls, a game that I’ve been playing the past couple days and did some live tweeting of last night.

There are two things I love that I am always in the look-out for in combination – hexbased wargames and the real-robot genre. There are a handful of examples out there, but many have a very steep language barrier, such as the Gihren’s Greed series or the line of Mobile Suit Gundam hex & chit board games, and for whatever reason, many Japanese tactical wargames go for squares, rather than hexes, which are nigh intolerable (especially in cases where there’s no unit stacking).

First thing I’d note about Power Dolls, it has a lot more stuff going for it than you would expect of a game whose primary hook is “everything is piloted by women”.

There’s something about a war between earth(maybe) and colonists on this planet, and you’re playing as the colonists’ defense force in a bid for maintaining independence. Or something. I should really probably go back and go over the settings stuff again. But for whatever reason, the entirety of the defense force is composed of women who pilot mechs and air-planes or drive self-propelled rocket artillery.

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Pew, Pew!

There are apparently only 10 missions, but given how long one of them takes to play through, that’s probably plenty.

Each mission starts with a large operational view of a theater, showing the situation, the mission, and the disposition of both your troops and the enemy’s. You have the option of selecting different pre-defined plans for the operations, which determine things like when forces get dropped, when air support is available, etc.

You have up to three drop-teams of mechs (depending on the operation; the first missions so far have only used two), a drop-team of off-board rocket artillery and a couple squadrons of air support.

Before each mission, you assign mechs, planes and artillery to your pilots, hopefully giving them some sort of configuration of gear and weaponry that compliments their skills. You then have to assign pilots to each landing group; the number of mechs in each group will determine how much air-lift it takes to bring them in; I’m sure that will matter more in later missions, since there are both heavy carriers and light carriers with some air-to-air capability. Any pilots not tied up in air-lift can be assigned fighter-bombers to offer ground support in one of the fighter wings.

So, what goes down, and gets depicted in the operational map, is your long-range artillery gets airlifted into position, then your first drop-team flies in and gets deployed on the tactical map, and as the mission progresses in 5 minute 1-turn increments, your troops are flown in according to the selected plan for the operation.

While the gameplay isn’t as crunchy as Battletech (there aren’t individual components that are tracked), it has a pretty robust selection of actions you can take during a turn. Each mech has three different rates of movement to choose from, which vary in per-hex movement cost, passive spotting radius, and defense against opportunity fire. Attacks are based on the equipment a mech has, but include everything from sub-machine guns and rifles to grenades and smoke screens. Units can drop weapons that are out of ammo to increase the number of realized action points. They can also call in air-strikes and indirect fire anywhere on the map.

I screwed up in a lot of places in the assignment of gear and deployment of forces in the second mission, partly because I didn’t pay enough attention to the mission briefing. I’d landed my troops around the bridge-head I thought I needed to defend, when really I should’ve air-dropped a handful of recon mechs to act as spotters and call in air strikes and off-board indirect artillery strikes while the enemy armored column moved south along the road. Instead, I had a massive tank division more or less punch through my scattered lines. By the time I’d started calling in indirect fire, most of my units who could spot were dead, cut-off or just trying to run away.

I may have to restart this mission so that I can go back at it with both better equipped units (fat lot of good my air-to-air missiles have done in this mission with no enemy aircraft) and better unit placement.

So, the good:

-Fairly nuanced tactical game; you have a lot of customization available to you in terms of how you can outfit your pilots. There are also a lot of different things each pilot can spend their action points on during your turn.

-The operational overview map is really cool. Even though you don’t do much on it, and so far only one mission has allowed for employing different “plans”, it’s a cool part that gives the game a wider feeling of scope than otherwise; for instance, you can SEE where your off-board artillery are located in relation to your front-line troops.

-The character art is pretty good; it finds a decent spot between ‘cute girls in mechs’ and the rougher look of more serious mil-sf animes. There is a character, though, who’s clearly an homage to Emma Sheen from Zeta Gundam.

-Hexes. They use hexes, man, HEXES!

The bad:

-The music is incredibly repetitive. For how long you’ll be playing this, you’re not going to be thrilled hearing the same bad midi-theme playing constantly.

-Speed of play. Not only are the turns incredibly long, this is exacerbated by the fact that the AI turn processes fairly slowly. Enemy turns take too long by most wargame standards. One mission of Power Dolls could easily eat up an entire evening, which is a double whammy when you realize you’re in a losing position after having sunk several hours in. I am probably going to have to go back to a save from nearly 4 hours of gameplay back to take another stab at the second mission (and hopefully this time silver haired yellow cat-eyes, cocky green-eyed brunette, and blue-bandana blonde won’t get blown up).

-The Fog of War doesn’t make sense when you’ve got air superiority and one or more fighter wings overhead. I get why spotting works the way it does, but it would be nice if there was a multi-step fog of war so that planes could spot units out in the open if they’ve bombed a target – even if they’re actually “gone”, you’d have an idea of the troop disposition from the previous turn as your pilots saw it on the way to and from their attack run.

There are also some complaints about the game’s AI; I can’t really judge yet, because if it’s bad, my strategy is probably worse than it is, at least until I figure out what I’m doing. We’ll have to see.

They’ve apparently made several sequels, but I’m not sure if any of them were ever translated into English. There’s also, apparently, a mediocre OVA based on it.

I’ll say that, for now, despite its flaws, I’m really digging Power Dolls. It’s definitely niche-within-a-niche, and the only other game that springs to mind along the lines of this is Cyberstorm (and that game was a very special kind of ugly). I’d love to find something that is mid-way between this and SSI’s Panzer General game, or even in a completely different direction, mid-way between this and Atomic Games/Avalon Hill’s V for Victory series. But as it is, if you’re desperately thirsty for hex-wars and giant robots, Power Dolls will definitely tide you over for a bit. You can find it at most abandonware sites.

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Civil War pt8 – The South Wins! (Sort of)

I won.  I can’t believe I did it, but somehow I won.

No, I did not win the Civil War as the South; in fact the South lost the war quite badly.*  But the requirements for the North to win the game are brutally stringent to compensate for their overwhelming superiority in numbers, naval capabilities, and near infinite supply and rail capacity.

The final point different at the end of turn 19 was 71; the Union needs 75 more Victory points than the South by the end of the game to get a marginal Union Victory.**  And yes, in the end, all of those points around the margins DID make a huge difference.

Jackson’s late war raids into Tennessee didn’t net any permanent point changes, but kept the bums Grant left in charge from taking any of the Deep South cities that would’ve been freebies.  He did keep my dad from being able to double-score Alabama by taking back Decatur before Rosecrans took Montgomery, which was a huge deal.  Before the end, he was wiped out, as was AS Johnston, both taken as POWs and with the latter the disgrace of losing not one but two whole armies to the Union foe.

The final battles in the east were a bloody mess.  Grant, with a smaller force, attempted to lure Lee away from Richmond, all while wreaking havoc on my already scant supplies, but Lee had to stand against Sherman, who was leading the Army of the Potomac.  Luckily, late war, I had managed to keep the odds against Sherman just narrow enough and was fielding great generals to my max modifier limit so that every attack resulted in a Union defeat. ***

The wildest part is that I can say Earl Van Dorn (historically an inept fool who botched things in my home state pretty badly until he was murdered by a jealous husband) actually won the game for me.  In the last two turns, I managed to eke out a few extra points, with Hindman marching out from the fortress I’d built in Blytheville, AR to take Paducah, KY and AP Hill taking the Florida militia from Pensacola to liberate Meridian, MS.  But the 2 Victory Points worth of cities Van Dorn took in Kentucky late-mid game and his last turn (nearly last move of the game, in fact) move to retake Norfolk and its 3 Victory Points were absolutely the difference between winning and losing.

So, what could my dad have done different to win?  There are so many things that one wants to do in a turn of this game which one may not end up getting the opportunity to do for any number of reasons.  Well, one thing I’m beginning to think after having played this game 3 times in my life now, is that battles between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia tend to be strategically among the least productive moves either side can take: the North should be making marine invasions of the Deep South and the South should be trying to avoid pointless losses, as they get no reinforcements for the second half of the game.  Had Curtis, who had given me so much trouble early-mid game, kept on marching south into the undefended swamps of Florida, there were more than enough victory points to win free for the taking.  I could have never gotten anyone down there to stop even 1 or 2 SP of union troops.  Also, if Rosecrans had sent any of his generals with independent commands to steal up some open cities.  While Armies have their purpose, I think that one of the keys to winning is using one and two star generals to take small forces off in different directions to either lure the larger forces away or simply snatch up unguarded cities.  Even if these small forces get crushed by a large one, they divert command points and attention away from more vital strategic goals.

Final score in the Far West?  2 points for burning down all of New Mexico for me, 4 points for burning down 8 forts in Texas and Oklahoma for my Dad.  And hey, my stupid Mexican banditos finally did something and managed not to raise alarum, allowing them to burn down one of the 4 forts in New Mexico.

I was a bit worried about my current win streak, but my dad took things in stride, largely because it was such a hard fought victory and, I think, because Civil War has so much less to do with chance than many tactical games tend to.  He got to win the war, I got to win the game, so it worked out nicely.  Another amazing things about this game is how there is no “death spiral”.  In games like Bar Lev, there comes a point where it’s clear that things will turn into an out-of-hand massacre, but Civil War, things are down to the wire: the Union cannot stop their full court press and the South cannot take even the smallest victory for granted.  North?  You have a navy and twice the manpower, so why aren’t you in Atlanta RIGHT NOW? GO GO!  South?  You have two great Army generals and a handful of magnificent bastards at the Brigadier and Major General Ranks, so try to keep at least two Confederate States from being burned completely to the ground.  Remember how you kept getting less reinforcement than the Union for the first half of the game?  Enjoy getting no reinforcements for the second!

What are we going to play next?  I’m not sure.  We might play Bismark, but as a boardless naval wargame, if we can’t conveniently play it in a space that doesn’t require hunching over two tables spread across a pair of double beds, we might need to try something else.  Maybe even Dragons of Glory?  I do know that my dad wants to play some more Ogre to cleanse the palate.  My dad will be out of town for a few weeks to have an honorary 33rd Degree conferred on him, so I’ll have some time to study some rules and come up with ideas for our next game.

*The only way the South “wins the war” is if they can keep the point spread to less than 50 by the end of the turn 17; if this occurs, Lincoln has lost his election bid to McClellan’s peace ticket.  Any victory for the South on turn 19 is strictly in game terms. 

**: As mentioned before, the way that victory points are scored are handled in such a way that the South doesn’t get very many, while the Union racks up a lot (because they’re going to be doing most of the conquering).  

***: Remember what I said about low-random probability?  If my dad had bothered to check the combat charts, he would’ve seen that it would have been impossible for me to deliver worse than D3 casualties against him so long as I could keep 10 SP and remain a “large force” unless he managed to get a few column shifts via terrain.  With weak odds, your best bet is to amass commanders with bonuses, who will ensure that your results are good despite your rolls.  My dad never got many leaders with modifiers with his armies, so even on his best rolls, he was getting around 6 or 7, while on my worst rolls, I was getting 7-8.  With Lee’s 3 rerolls per encounter, it generally meant getting between 9-12, (1d6+6 with 3 chances to reroll!)

Have you ever ‘dreamed’ a game system?

Last night I had a dream that I got a new board game. And I actually both dreamed and remembered it with enough details that I can recall the rules. And it’s a workable game! Normally, you dream, if it’s about a game, the rules would be roll the dice, and stand on your head because you rolled a 3 1/2.  This, on the other hand, could actually be turned into something sensible and playable.

The board is comprised of six large hexagonal boards (themselves divided into hexes). Each of these hexes represent a kingdom, and can be placed anywhere around a central piece which represents an impassible mountain.

Each board had a ‘capital’ city, some outposts and some ruins. At the ruins, there were randomly placed ‘treasure’ cards that gave your hero unit that found it bonuses. (I found a magic sword that gave my hero unit +2|+1 right before my 4|5 Castle garrison got overrun. Each player is given a handful of monster tokens to place around the boards to ‘guard’ locations (they can’t move these like they could their own pieces, and may fight them themselves).

Each unit had an attack rating and a defense rating, which determined how many dice they may roll in combat. For each 5 or 6 rolled, the opposing piece was given a -1 token, which subtracted from the unit’s dice pool. When the unit no longer has defense dice to roll, it is destroyed.

The goal is to control half of the kingdoms. In the case of fewer than 6 players, “neutral” kingdoms get standard garrisons in their towns (ala Risk).

There was some sort of economy for reinforcements and additional units, but I’ll have to extrapolate that from the rest of the rules.

I don’t remember how movement is determined, but I think it was a fixed 3 hexes for heroes.