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Cracked LCD- Warhammer: Diskwars in Review


My first reaction to Fantasy Flight Games’ Warhammer: Diskwars was “they’re bringing back Diskwars? What’s next, Vortex?” My second reaction, after reading the advance post of the rules was “hey, this actually looks pretty fun.” My third reaction after playing it was “holy shit, I’ve been waiting for this game my entire gaming life.”

Pause for confessional. Even though I’ve gone through spells over the years, I’m not much of a traditional miniatures gamer these days. I do not like assembling, painting and basing figures. I do not like building terrain. I’m not much of a craftsman. And aside from Warmachine, I’ve never found a miniatures system that had rules that I actually like. Sure- the lore of some of these games is awesome. Games Workshop’s Warhammer lines in particular. And I do generally like the concepts of miniatures wargaming, so it’s always been something of a quandary for me

So I’m usually first in line when an no-paint/no-build “alternative” miniatures game appears on store shelves, and to this end I ordered Warhammer: Diskwars the day it was made available at my favorite online retailer. Cutting to what matters most, this game is one of the best of these kinds of games to date, it blows away the competition because it bridges that gap between the awesome allure of the Games Workshop world and the low commitment demanded by casual tabletoppers such as myself.

But really, I had played Diskwars before it had the taint of Chaos. The original Tom Jolly (that’s Mr. Wiz-War to you) had a generic fantasy theme and I had a couple of packs- it was originally a collectible game. The Star Trek: Red Alert version was much better, an ultra- nerdy game that suspiciously looked like pogs for Trekkers. The high level concept is that Diskwars is a miniatures game but with cardboard discs instead of figures. All stats and abilities are printed right there on the discs- no need to reference a codex or rulebook. Put the tape measure back in the tool box where it belongs. You move these armies by flipping them end over end a number of times equal to a movement rating.

The Warhammer Diskwars core box comes packed with an unusually generous assortment of these discs representing Empire, Ork, Chaos and High Elf units. You get enough to field three regiments for each faction and a two regiment game is a de facto standard for a 45-60 minute, five round game. Adding another core box, of course, drastically increases your ability to customize army lists and gives you much more versatility. With that said, this is one of the most “complete” core sets I’ve ever seen and if the game never saw another expansion I think it would still represent one of the best values in hobby gaming today with a $28 street price. For less than the cost of a Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniatures unit, you also get a couple of 2D terrain pieces, deployment zone cards, dice (used only for ranged attacks), administrative tokens and a small pile of Command cards that drive the flow of the game. All you need other than the box is a $2.99 piece of 3”x3” green felt from the craft store.

Rules are simple but expect to lean on the rulebook for a couple of games. Setup is easy. Once armies are built (a simple point-based process, as expected), players draw a card that provides an overall condition for the battle as well as cards that define goals such as earning VPs for defeating enemy heroes or having units overlapping the other side of the playfield by the end of the game. Troops are deployed in deployment zones, which may provide cover or other special abilities. Terrain is placed for strategic purposes by both sides. It’s your choice rather to place that lake in the middle of the enemy’s deployment lane to slow their advance or to put it where it can provide some defense for your Bolt Thrower.

Then it’s on. Each player selects an Command card which operates on a rock-paper-scissors-dynamite scheme. These define the number of units you can activate that turn and any special advantages. Discs start flipping into place. Ranged units get to take their shots, rolling dice to see if there’s a hit, a critical, a scatter or the dreaded Mark of Chaos. Once every unit has been activated- or is pinned by another unit, initiating melee-all engaged units exchange blows in piles of engaged discs called “scrums”.

The catch is that units need to take enough damage in a single round to receive a wound because all hits come off at the end of it. So coordinating attacks is essential to eliminate units before the reset. Inevitably, an assault turns into a full-on fracas as defending units pile on to protect whoever’s on the bottom of the pile. Melee can be somewhat complicated when several units are involved in a scrum, but a simple top-down resolution order and simple comparatives between attack or counter attack values and defense numbers keeps things from bogging down.

There’s lots of great detail. Firing a Helblaster cannon into a scrum might result in it accidentally hitting your own units if it scatters. Or you might get a result that causes the damn thing to malfunction, flipping over and killing the Talabheim Greatswords unit you have protecting its flank. Some units do damage as soon as they pin another. Others fly, avoiding terrain penalties. Magic users are a great way to get those guaranteed extra two hits or so that you need to put an enemy hero down- provided that they’re not magic resistant. There are units that can scout before the game actually begins and others that can deploy from any side of the playfield to flank the enemy. Every unit plays differently and has unique strengths and weaknesses. And above it all- most importantly- it totally feels like Warhammer even though diehard WHFB players will likely lament the distinct lack of wheeling formations.

Bottom line is that this game is fun. The rules complexity is just right, avoiding the sacrifice of either accessibility or depth. The units are exciting and offer lots of tactical possibilities within regimental builds. It’s an effortless design that has clearly been heavily analyzed, redeveloped and sharply refined not only to smooth out the Diskwars system (no more dropping ranged attack counters from above the table, for example) but also to make it work for Warhammer. This is the best game that Fantasy Flight has released since X-Wing. Go ahead and sign me up for every expansion.


Cracked LCD- Relic in Review


The answer to your first question about Fantasy Flight’s Relic is “yes, this game is pretty much a mildly redeveloped Talisman with Warhammer 40k illustrations and text”. The answer to your second is “Yes, in some ways it’s actually better than Talisman but not quite as expansive so both are worth having on your shelf.” Thirdly, “No, it’s not any shorter so expect to spend at least three or four hours flipping cards, rolling dice at them, groaning, and laughing.”

If you’re already a Talisman or Warhammer 40k fan, that’s probably all the review you’re going to need to validate a $60 purchase but there are some important details that are worth mentioning. First off, this whole, bloody and really quite beautiful production has been overseen by John Goodenough, the FFG company man also responsible for bringing Robert Harris’ classic adventure game design into its fourth and current edition with a few respectful and now indispensible tweaks. I think he was the right man for both jobs. He gets it. “It” being what has kept the Talisman name in the minds of fun-first gamers for decades.

I won’t bore the seasoned reader with describing how the Talisman engine driving Relic works. If you’re not familiar, it’s a very long and rather capricious roll-and-move adventure game. If that doesn’t drive you away, the short version is that it’s a super-light RPG where the goal is to maneuver your way through three tiers of locations to get to a central objective while you gain levels, equipment, allies, and other helpful abilities along the way.

Mr. Goodenough has taken the core of Talisman and bumped up the complexity ever so slightly by giving characters three upgradable skills, a more robust leveling mechanic with character-specific rewards, a built-in short-term goal concept by way of mission cards, three different types of color-coded adventure cards that give players a touch more choice about what kinds of challenges they’ll face, and power cards that let you use a flat number in lieu of a die roll or as a special effect. Most importantly, there is now the sinfully tempting taint of corruption that often lures players into damnation in exchange for bloated appendages, extra arms, or other abominations of the mind, body, and soul. It’s also another way to get eliminated- get six corruption cards and you’re lost to Chaos.

Although the only PVP is handled (very well, actually) by some mission cards and certain powers rather than direct attacks, it’s a highly competitive race. You’ve got to keep up with the power curve as players move toward the center and the final, grueling gauntlet to reach the ultimate goal- which is obviously no longer the Crown of Command, but 40K-specific objectives. There’s also no longer a need to find a Talisman- instead, you get a titular Relic for completing three of your mission cards and that grants you access to the game’s final stage. As in Talisman, the strategy comes from gauging your strength and taking calculated risks. The drama comes from misgauging your chances and blowing the odds with bad die rolls. There are noticeably more choices, whether strategic or not, laced throughout the game. Many events, for example, allow players a benefit in exchange for one of those oh-so-alluring corruption cards.

The 40K material is rich, vast, and thorough. Everything from Cadian snipers to the Sisters of Battle are represented, Orks and Eldar sharing table time with Space Marine Tech Priests and Genestealers- there’s even a Space Hulk location on the board. The artwork is exquisite, the board looks amazing, and the graphic design is wonderfully baroque, as the Emperor commands. It’s a pity that FFG apparently isn’t allowed to produce full miniatures for the game and instead we get these very nicely sculpted but terribly implemented character busts of the 10 heroes.

There’s a part of me that wants to blast this game for being, effectively, a reskinned fifth edition of Talisman. There’s a part of me that wants to get angry that the really great changes that Mr. Goodenough has made aren’t in the already well-expanded Talisman product line. And there’s a part of me that bemoans the fact that I’ll helplessly buy every expansion for this game that FFG flogs.

Because ultimately I do love it- stupidly, completely, and shamelessly. Like Talisman, it feels like an irresponsible fling even though it’s a few IQ points over its progenitor, it’s the very epitome of the old school “beer and pretzels” style game. You don’t play it because it tickles your intellect, makes you feel smart, or engages you with “clever” mechanics. It’s Big Dumb Fun. But this year’s model is Big Dumb Fun carrying a Storm Bolter, and I am totally down with that.

Warhammer Quest coming to iOS

Classic games workshop dungeon crawl Warhammer Quest coming to iOS in 2013

There are relatively few classic board games of the 80’s and 90’s that haven’t seen a modern reprint in some form or other. High amongst the list of those that remain is Warhammer Quest, the culmination of a series of dungeon crawl games from UK publisher Games Workshop. But it’s not going to be on the list for much longer.

Mobile developer Rodeo Games, responsible for the acclaimed Hunter series of games, has announced it’ll be releasing an iOS version of the game some time in mid 2013. Given that it has a famously high random factor and is well suited to solo play, this looks like a shrewd move.

Games Workshop have been characteristically tight-lipped about the possibility of a physical Warhammer Quest re-release following widespread speculation in the wake of its surprise re-issue of acclaimed classic Space Hulk a few years ago. Still no news on that, but it seems possible that hot iOS sales may tempt them into considering a re-working of the tabletop version.

Warhammer 40k: Relic Looks Pretty Neat

Yeah yeah yeah, I’ve been lazy about posting anything lately partly because I’m irresponsible, partly because I’m in the middle of both selling and buying houses, and partly because I’m ashamed to be a part of such an anti-Batman site as evidenced by some of the attitudes of its staffers. Anyway, this here board game looks pretty good and I thought I’d share.

If you don’t care to visit the advertisement site, Relic is a new title coming from Fantasy Flight Games that is effectively to Talisman what Scooby-Doo Monopoly is to regular Monopoly. That’s right, it’s a Warhammer 40K roll-and-move adventure game with most of Talisman’s mechanics more or less intact but with several coats of 40k paint (most likely overpriced and shoddy Citadel ones) layered over everything. I am 100% OK with this, although I would have been happier with a Timescape expansion for Talisman. Yeah, I liked it. There are at least 17 more of us out there.

No word on a release date, but it’s $60. I’ll definitely let you know how it is.

A Different Kind of Digital Warfare

Combat Mission Shock Force real-time tactics game

If you read my column on board wargames this time last week, you may have been struck by something I glossed over completely. Namely, if the focus of the wargaming community is so squarely on simulations that it results in games so long and complex that they verge on the unplayable, why don’t they play more computer simulations where the processor can do the heavy lifting? To which the simple answer is that I have no idea.

I can see why a board game may be more appealing than a computer one: you have a face-to-face opponent to interact with and a complete grasp of the game state so you can develop a mechanical approach to the strategy. But those things are, surely, anathema to the idea of making the game into a simulation of something that’s real-time, chaotic and in which no one person ever has a total understanding of the situation? Furthermore if you want to model something that requires complex rules, isn’t it a better idea to program all those rules into a computer and let it handle the detail rather than spend hours internalising rulebooks? These things seem obvious to me and that’s why I like my board wargames to be relatively light and quick-playing and why I like to play my conflict simulations on the computer instead.

To their credit, wargame designers (along with the more enlightened members of their target audience) realised this early and got in on the act. During the 80’s, Avalon Hill and Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI) relased a constant stream of turn-based wargames across all sorts of scales, times and theatres. One of the best of these was the tactical game Steel Panthers which spawned two sequels. All of these did exactly what I was alluding to in the introduction. The player was given only the briefest understanding of the mechanics behind the game, much of which involved some fairly complex physics under the hood to determine whether shots hit and penetrated armour, and there was a complete fog-of-war effect in which the computer hid everything you couldn’t see, leading to some real trouser-wetting moments when entire brigades of infantry would suddenly appear at close range and devastate your armoured columns. As well as a wealth of historical scenarios to play through in each game, they featured scenario generators where each side could pick their equipment and forces and campaigns in which surviving units improved slowly with experience from one game to the next.

When SSI was purchased by Take Two and eventually wound up, the Steel Panthers franchise went along with it, but the game was too much of a cult classic to die. In a slightly strange development two competing editions of the game appeared for modern PC’s, the free World War 2 and modern Main Battle Tank games from SPCamo Workshop, and the semi-commercial World at War from Matrix Games. The general consensus amongst gamers was that the free titles were actually slightly better, but Matrix added something new to make people part with their cash: Mega Campaigns. Rather than the simple linear chain of linked scenarios from the older games, these campaigns had a basic plot, a variety of new missions that didn’t fit the standard attack/defend template and a large number of branch points based on decisions and levels of success that meant two plays through could be completely different. I only ever played one of these and while it was a lot of fun, the bells and whistles couldn’t really justify the price difference between full-price and freeware. And given that they’re freeware, it’s well worth checking out the SPCamo games if you’ve any interest at all in the genre.

Meanwhile, as computer games entered a new era of big, mass-market productions, wargames in the traditional turn based model began to look exceptionally old fashioned. The last shot at anything like a mass-market wargame was Panzer General III in 2000, the final commercial iteration in a series well-beloved by gamers and, at the time, a damn good game. There’s currently a freeware implementation of the Panzer General games for Windows if you want to try it. But sales were relatively disappointing and the franchise wound up. The response from the development community was to utilise bigger budgets and bigger processors to do something wargamers had dreamed of since first laying out wooden blocks on a map two centuries earlier: model warfare in real time. The initial fruit of this direction were real-time strategy games which, of course, were certainly real-time but entirely devoid of strategy. But the games were nevertheless skillful and lots of fun to play, and they sold by the bucketload and completely dominated the strategy game market for the 90’s and beyond.

However, while real-time strategy games hogged the limelight, interesting things were happening in more niche areas of the hobby. The first shoots were the Warhammer Fantasy games Shadow of the Horned Rat and Dark Omen which featured fixed forces, realistic real-time maneuver and combat and a ground-breaking fully zoomable and rotatable 3-D map. Those games were, in a word, brilliant. They were also innovative enough to spawn a new genre, confusingly called real-time tactics even though they were actually more strategic and less tactical that their real-time strategy counterparts.

Historical gamers weren’t far behind. The most interesting early historical real-time tactics games were the Combat Mission series which blended turn-based and real-time game play by allowing players to program in orders and watch them play out on the screen. In common with Steel Panthers they also had a realistic physics engine underpinning movement and combat. More recently Matrix Games offered the Command Ops games that married real-time elements with a more traditional top-down view of the action, although thankfully without the burden of hex grids. These, however, are products aimed at specialist hobby wargamers. At the turn of the millennium, historical games got into mainstream the driving seat of the genre with the first in the Total War series, Shogun. Totally real time and highly realistic, Shogun and its various spawn set the standards by which other games in the genre would come to be judged. I also can’t help mentioning that I’m amazingly, spectacularly bad at them: I sit and form complex plots and strategies and then panic and freeze as soon as battle is joined, leading to my troops being massacred by the AI. But they’re clearly wonderful games and I went back to Steel Panthers highly disgruntled that I couldn’t get to grips with them better.

In the wake of the burgeoning success of the Total War series a slew of these sorts of games appeared between 2007 and 2009 but since then the genre seems to have slowed and stagnated. Partially I think it’s a victim of its own success: once you can provide a passably realistic real-time simulation of actual combat command it’s hard to see where you can go with the concept besides porting it to new times and places, and that’s going to get old very quickly for the usual video gaming hobbyist who likely isn’t overly interested in the specifics of history. It’s also fallen foul of the way in which massive budget first person shooters have come to dominate the hobby. But I can’t help thinking how amazingly well suited these games are for a touch screen interface: trying to control your forces in real-time pressure situations with the speed and sensitivity limitations of a mouse was a major frustration for me in playing games of this type. I haven’t seen any moves in this direction yet. Real-time strategy games abound but I got heartily sick of those a long time ago since they all basically seem to follow the same pattern of building up and then rushing the enemy. Wargames are almost non-existent on iOS and all the ones I’ve seen are turn-based, although just this week the very first “proper” wargame hit the iPad in the form of the eye-wateringly expensive Battle Academy. Curiously, they’re more common on Android, a result no doubt of the lower barriers to entry and the slew of wargamers who are also programmers wanting to try their hand at exporting their hobby to a mobile device. Perhaps hardware limitations are currently to blame but either way, I wouldn’t be surprised to see moves into this relatively unexplored territory in the near future.