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.

army_mlrs_1982_02

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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Weekend Haul + Updates (Appendix N Book and Wargame Wednesdays)

I’d been getting better about my book buying, but being in the same town as one of the best flea market book-stores in the state over the weekend meant another stack of paperbacks to add to my To-Read pile.  I’m being a bit more judicious about what I grab, simply because I have so much already, but I did not want to pass some of these up:  Sword of Rhiannon (Brackett), Hiero’s Journey (Lanier), Berserker (Saberhagen), a crumbly Incompleat Enchanter (deCamp) that was thrown in for free on account of being crumbly, as well as a book each by Norman Spinrad and Philip Jose Farmer (I don’t remember the titles offhand).  I passed up a pretty sweet looking Gardner F. Fox book in part because I’ve already got a huge stack of him in unread magazines (including the next story I have to read in the Fall 1945 Planet Stories!), but I may pick it up some other time if I make more headway in my stacks.

One guy at one of the place who has all sorts of cool toys and magazines and stuff (who I got some Astounding from before) continued to posture about how rare and expensive and hard to find Planet Stories was when I asked if he’d seen them (“Oh, some of them go for over a hundred bucks!” “most of the ones I’ve found, I’ve got for $8-$12, and I’ve got about a dozen of them” “Oh, well they must not’a known what they had!”), so if I’m going to keep collecting them, I’m probably going to need to turn to eBay (where they still mostly cost around $8-$12).  Then again, I really need to read all (or some) of what I have first.  These magazines have waited 70 years for me, they can wait until I’ve at least finished half of the stack I’ve got.

I’m about halfway through Sceptre of Morgulan, and I have so many thoughts about it, especially in light of Matthew Ryan’s guest post in which he cites Tolkien as one of his biggest influences.  His own tale is very un-Tolkienien, and while the D&D influence is obvious, the output is much more in line with pre-Shannara fantasy than it is with the sort of ‘pink-slime’ fantasy that normally comes out of D&D + Tolkien.  I am not kidding when I say it’s like “vampire-hunting in Lankhmar”.  Can the process be reversed?  Can Appendix N-like stories be extracted from D&D + Tolkien by someone who has paid careful enough attention to the implicit setting and mechanical minutia of demonology even without the benefit of directly having been influenced by those things literary forebears?  Am I giving Ryan too much or too little credit?  I don’t know, but his books are amazing and a breath of fresh air!

Jeffro’s at one of those stages of “done” with his Appendix N book that is somewhere between “completed” and “finished”, but when it is done done, you can bet I’ll be buying copies for my friends and try to bully local book clubs into reading it.  I’m hoping he will go for multiple formats, including a coffee-table edition with Doug Kovacs or Erol Otis dust jacket for myself and a student’s paperback edition I can snap up a few of for everyone else.

I was going to announce this earlier, but Wednesday came and went and a few hiccups resulted in delays, but everything’s good now.  I’ll be writing an occasional piece at Castalia House for Wargame Wednesdays.  I will not be moving my entire posting series over there, since there is a rotating weekly group of writers, but generally speaking, I’ll be featuring the first of whatever series I’m covering over there and the rest over here.  So, uh.  Avalon Hill’s Bull Run pt. 1 is up!  Part two will go up here tomorrow or Wednesday.

B&B Dev Update

Combat involves a LOT of dice rolling. Like Yahtzee or Farkle, so it might be fun, and I don’t really see any reason to change it.  Just roll a fist full of six-siders, pick out any kills and knock down some minis/scratch off your unit HP.

combat matrix

Morale rules are less fun and may be fairly incompatible with standard monster morale ratings from basic games.

morale check

I feel like a failure as a technical writer because I haven’t figured out how to better explain and simplify the morale rules yet. I want to at least include a faithful recreation of the base mechanics of Chainmail, even if I intend to leave out the historical flavoring optional rules, like ‘Swiss just murder everyone’ and ‘all Polish troops are elite’.  But Morale and Cannon fire are doozies.

Anyway, to accommodate using morale from basic games for the S3M, I’ll probably need to make some major changes in how retreat and end of melee works.

I’m almost done with the core mechanics, but I find myself doubting the usefulness of B&B as a product.  I’m hoping that the S3M & Unit Cost Guide will justify and validate its existence in the OSR.  Unlike HALLS, though, I intend to see this through, because if S3M works it will actually be a functional cross-system module/mini-game that any group can use for platoon to company level fantasy combat.

Battlefields & BroadswordsTM

Battlefields & BroadswordsTM is an attempt to take a look at Old School fantasy miniatures rules and find a way to effectively bring them back into play as part of an Old School RPG campaign.

One of my biggest complaints about OD&D is that it is very poorly presented and rather messy. My biggest praise for Basic is that it took the workable mechanical ideas strewn across over half a dozen booklets and put them into something that was much more player friendly. I can’t help but wonder if some of the needless complexity as a result of organizational sloppiness sprang from the limitations of how many pages Gary could saddle stitch into a single booklet. Would the information have been presented better if Volumes 1-3 could’ve been perfect bound? Who knows.

In any case, Chainmail is a much easier to pick up and better presented system, though being complete in a single booklet definitely helps. The version I have has additions and various rules for incorporating elements from Dungeons & Dragons into the game. The base game needs very little work done to it because it works as-is. I may clean up the formatting a bit and make it look nice, but aside from removing certain historical reference elements. For my purposes, I don’t feel the need to have a specific unit of “Swiss” with their own mechanics, and though defining where assorted Turks, Janissaries, and Flems fall into in terms of units may be interesting, I’m content to let that be an exciting artifact of the Chainmail for those who discover it.   I think defining units based on their equipment or natural abilities, in the case of monsters, is more appropriate to my purposes. As such, I’ll be also changing a few terms: while “Light” troops remain “Light”, “Heavy” troops become “Medium” and “Armored” troops become “Heavy”, with these values corresponding to typical fantasy RPG armor ranges based on the described equipment).

Where is the value add in Battlefields & Broadswords?

Chainmail is great is if you’ve got a giant playing area and hundreds of miniatures. What it’s not great for is your typical gaming group who has limited space and only a handful of minis.

What I want to do with Battlefields & Broadswords is bring the mechanical simplicity of the Chainmail system to a scale small enough that players with only a few minis can still engage in medium scale battles. Personally, I find the War Machine mechanics from BECMI to be a dismal number crunch where one tediously feeds in a bunch of information and gets a battle result spat out. As a wargamer, I love the thrill of high level tactical combat, which is all but missing from most tabletop RPG experiences simply as a matter of complexity.

I hope to accomplish the following goals with something I’m calling S3M or the Simplified System for Single Miniatures:

  • Scale Old School miniature rules to a scope where groups with just a few minis and a board or hex-map can work mid-sized tactical combat into their games.
  • Provide an easy tracking system for units; players may wish to have mini-character sheets for their troops, though GMs can treat troops as stat-blocks as necessary.
  • Provide quick ways for players to figure out the cost to create, equip and maintain different unit types based on commonly used prices from old school gaming sources.
  • Adapt certain elements which generally require multiple miniatures to adjudicate (such as blast areas from siege engines) to use simple results tables.

I have my work cut out for me, but I’ve got to admit, I’m really excited about this!

Make it a Table

That’s my modus operandi here.  If I can take stuff that’s embedded in text and make a table out of it, I can’t help but feel like I’m making improvements.

Fire Rates

Luckily, the version of Chainmail I have is the 3rd edition, at which point fantasy rules WERE being incorporated, including mechanics for various monsters and spells which wound up in the more well known versions of D&D.

So, my job is going to be taking what’s there, figuring out how to make it make a little more sense and provide some play examples.  I’m going to use the monster sections from both Moldvay and Cook to translate the monster mechanics, with an focus on what GMs will typically want to use (stuff like greenskin, undead, and some iconic larger monsters).  Like with OD&D, I’ll provide certain options for leader vs. leader combat and leader vs. monster combat that can be used if players want to break off for a round and take a few swings before the chaos of battle whisks them out of range again.  Kind of like how the old Dynasty Warriors games would sometimes cut to one-on-one fighting-game mode when two generals start dueling.

I really want to play this.

Bar-Lev Take 2: Conclusion

It may have been a near run thing, but once the tables turned in my favor, they turned hard.

Had I lost one or two more tanks in Syria, the Jordanians would’ve been able to punch through to my artillery and force me off the map. Things were a bit better in Egypt by sheer virtue of the fact that I simply could NOT be dislodged from El Shatt which gave me both the village and the Bar-Lev defensive bonus. Still, I only had a few troops screening for three or four times as much artillery.

The Israeli double fire rules combined with Arab morale break made all of the difference. I had nearly 100 strength points of artillery fire on both sides of the board and was able to distribute it effectively against the heavy tanks that I couldn’t get ground odds on. Any tanks that weren’t destroyed by the first barrage would easily be insta-killed by the second.

With the ground situation in Egypt slightly more under control, I made sure that I had enough bombers in Syria to keep the Jordanians from giving the Syrians any meaningful advantage. So while my tanks and planes dealt with the Jordanians to the south, my artillery blew away what was left of the Syrian center.

The Egyptians finally lost their last best bet to beat me when the armored corps bearing down from the north and wearing away at my defenders in the hills were annihilated by boatloads of artillery fire. I even freed up enough that I was able to start taking out the short range artillery that had been shelling me from Suez. With the last southern bridge blown, I was able to start pressing north again, extending my forces out in strength and numbers I hadn’t had at all until this final point.

My dad surrendered, when we assessed the situation in Syria. Though Egypt would probably be kept to a draw (I don’t know that I could actually push across the canal with anything but heli-troopers, since the Egyptians were going to start blowing their own bridges), almost all of the units left in Syria were artillery. I could’ve spent the next two turns picking apart the remains of the Syrian army with bombers and self-propelled artillery. The only reinforcements Syria had left were militia that would only activate if I came within two hexes of any Syrian village, and eliminating all units on either map grants an instant victory, we decided it was just a matter of time.

My original air strategy changed by early mid-game. Once one side had shown a bit of weakness, it really did just make sense to keep flying against it. I split my forces some, but ultimately I spent way more time pounding the Syrians than the Egyptians. The Egyptian bombers couldn’t do much because I was concentrated in such a small area that I was fully covered by AA missiles until late game. With the Syrians so easily broken, air combat turned into a snowballing massacre with each turn.

The biggest difference in how our two games turned out was that I kept my artillery alive. As the Arabs, I would not suffer the presence of any Israeli artillery and would blitz past any other targets to make sure that the long range self-propelled artillery was taken out ASAP. MOST of the Israeli strength points are out there as Artillery, so keeping mine alive also meant that my Morale didn’t break as quickly, because I was able to recycle enough light troops to keep the churn going.

Anyway, I can’t recommend Bar-Lev enough if you’re into hex-and-chit style war gaming.

But speaking of wargaming, I’ve decided to make a go at doing a retroclone of Chainmail tweaked for use with Basic D&D. While D&D updated and incorporated stuff from Chainmail, I don’t know that there’s been an attempt to update Chainmail to incorporate stuff from D&D. I mean, I’m sure there has been, but I kind of want to rewrite Chainmail as a supplement to Basic. I hope it’s a good idea, because I’ve already sunk some money into a sweet cover.

The problem I’ve had with OD&D has always been that whatever rules are there are presented in a lousy format and are kind of confusing because of that more than anything wrong with the system itself.  I don’t think I can do the bangup job that Eric Holmes did with OD&D in his Basic edition, but I want to at least try to see if I can make something out of Chainmail that folks can pick up and use in their Basic games without a lot of headache.