Friday 27 March 2020

Practising my art upon the gnolls ...

Here are a few quick gnolls - demonstrating none of the artistry of Mr Nuth, but some quick 'n' dirty speed painting instead. using the same basecoat/drybrush/wash method of the last batch I did.

These work out as four shooter elements and a brute for MicroHotT or four gnoll longbowmen and a chief for Book of War.

Saturday 21 March 2020

The Book of War: a first game, a review and an idea for a D&D campaign

As I've been painting up more miniatures for MicroHotT, I've also been thinking about other "square-base" games in which I can use the same figures.

Warhammer is the obvious one: I have the first and third editions kicking around (though the second was probably the best. But ever since I first played Hordes of the Things, I've always looked back at Warhammer with a certain disdain. I'm all for the John Blanche and Ian Miller illustrations, and I'm all for the miniatures - especially the older ones. But the rules? Hmm ... they evoke a certain amount of nostalgia, but also memories of umpteen laborious and unfinished games. Time, all too often, ran out after two or three turns.

In that regard, the first games I played of Hordes of the Things were a revelation: quick games that were full of flavour, not least because they played to a conclusion. That's what I'm looking for in other ranked-up wargames.

Of Gods and Mortals is one example. We haven't played it here for a few years, but it's a great game and one that benefits from having regular mortal troops with square bases. We'll be playing it again in the near future.

Then there's the forthcoming Oathmark. I'm also keen to try Nick Lund's Fantasy Warriors, about which I've heard many good things. The free rules help! We'll be giving that a go sooner or later (sooner, probably, if current trends continue ...).

The Book of War
One game that I bought a while back and hadn't tried until yesterday is Daniel Collin's Book of War. It's designed to simulate D&D combat on a mass scale, so that monsters and characters from D&D can be represented on the battlefield with statistical fidelity.

That in itself is appealing. And the game also looks like a nice, neat set of rules that might play out in a similar timeframe to Hordes of the Things - but with very different flavours and emphases.

My son and I gave it a go the other day, and it lived up to expectations. We were also able to go beyond the MicroHotT-based figures to use those based on smaller square bases, as common frontage isn't a requisite for this system. In fact, Book of War is designed for infantry on 20mm bases and cavalry on 25 x 50mm bases, but we had most of our infantry on 25mm bases (as for MicroHotT), with only a few on 20mm.

A review of sorts
So how did it go? Well, we both enjoyed the game and we're both keen to play again. It's very simple, but very smooth. Combat is less dynamic than HotT (no pushbacks and automatic pursuit, for example), and you don't get much of the simulation of different fighting styles that HotT affords (e.g. impetuous warbands and disciplined blades and spears). There is some of that in Book of War with the rules for pikes, but we didn't have any in our game.

But if Book of War can't match HotT for variety in troop types, it can certainly outstrip it in terms of troop species. The whole of the Monster Manual (or whatever) is at your disposal for conversion to Book of War stats. And while trolls, ogres and giants are all Behemoths (or possibly Warbands, or even Brutes in the fan rules) in HotT, they're meticulously distinguished in Book of War.

Our game featured orcs, goblins, wolf riders, bugbears and a troll on one side, and lizardmen, lesser lizardmen (as human archers), cold-one riders (as elite heavy cavalry) and a jungle titan (statted as a hill giant) on the other. All of these creatures had different profiles, so there were nine different troop profiles on the table. In by-the-book HotT, they would have had just five or six different profiles between them (the lizardmen, bugbears and orcs would all have been "warband", for example).

We soon noticed that Book of War doesn't greatly distinguish between troops by their offensive capability, but rather by their armour. You don't get the equivalent of HotT Warband or Dragon Rampant Bellicose Foot: hard-hitting but lightly armoured shock troops (equivalent to Norse berserks, Dacians with falxes or whatever). Instead, the ability to take hits is the main distinguishing factor in combat.

We found the hill giant/jungle titan a little underpowered, especially when he stopped throwing rocks and engaged in melee. He was very hard to kill, but no more damaging to an opposition orc unit than a goblin unit would have been. He was, however, more damaging to the bugbears, who had more hit dice to soak up damage.

But - on rereading the rules - I see that we were doing something wrong. The giant should have had +2 to hit (kill, effectively) because of his eight hit dice, while the bugbears should have had +1 because of their three (every three HD provides a +1 bonus to the attack dice). Both would have been much more deadly. So if I have a very mild criticism of the admirably clear rulebook, it's that the sample profiles for bugbears and hill giants should have included the bonus in the 'Notes' section, so that first-time players remember the rule!

I should add that the rules are not only clear but beautifully written and edited too. Those are rare qualities in wargames rules and to be celebrated when they occur!

And while the rules are simple ("IGOUGO", 1d6 per figure in combat, etc.), they've got a very elegant morale system. A deft formula ensures that a unit's breaking point shifts according not only to the number of troops remaining but also to how they compare with the casualties taken that turn. That feels intuitively right: 200 men who have just lost 100 of their comrades seem more likely to break than 150 men who have just lost 10. It also means that "brave survivors" who have come through heavy losses with their morale intact have more staying power than in other systems (e.g. the Rampant games). Heroic last stands are thus quite likely if troops don't break when they lose the bulk of their comrades earlier on.

So why play Book of War rather than HotT? Well, there's no reason why you can't do both! HotT is the game for simulating the battles of fantasy literature, and it's a terrific tactical challenge. But Book of War certainly integrates with RPGs better. And while a battlefield strewn with gnolls, goblins, hobgoblins, dwarfs, elves, halflings, trolls, ogres, bugbears, ettins, giants and dragons might be a little crowded for the classic feel that HotT goes for (though Narnia provides counter examples), it can be a lot of fun. Book of War offers in spades what critics of HotT miss in that game: differentiation between fantasy species. And it does this without crowding the game with stats (as Warhammer does).

Book of War's rock-solid mathematical underpinnings are also attractive. Any D&D PCs who find themselves on the battlefield will have their powers replicated down to the very level. And a fixed figure-scale of 1:10 also helps. I also like the small minimum unit size: three figures, or 30 soldiers. That helps visualise the battle (HotT is more abstract) and allows for great mini-projects: three gnoll archers, say, as a skirmishing unit.

Skirmishing's an interesting consideration here. Another criticism of HotT is that it doesn't cater for skirmishing troops (other than through the ambushing lurker elements). In Book of War, you can use fast-moving light infantry with missile weapons to harass larger and heavier enemy units with ease, simply through the interaction of move rates and missile ranges. Those three gnoll archers could be quite handy, as you'd expect them to pick off one enemy figure per turn at close range.

One question I have after our first game is quite how attacks are converted from D&D. A troll in Book of War has two attacks. But a troll in ODD has eight (if I remember correctly - one per hit die?) and three in the Monster Manual. Two works seems right, but I wonder how the author arrived at that.    Lizardmen have two attacks in ODD and three in the Monster Manual; both would seem overpowered in Book of War. The answer may be lurking somewhere in the rules or in the author's excellent blog.

An idea for a D&D campaign
The first thought that Book of War prompted in me was that you could flip its initial aim (to allow
big battles to be fought out as they occur in conventional D&D campaigns) by making big battles the main focus of a campaign. This may sound identical to a wargaming campaign, but I'm thinking of something slightly different.

If you think about historical adventurers, you quickly run into conquistadors, bashi-bazouks, Vikings and wandering tribes of every sort. The Fellowship-of-the-Ring-style adventuring party is a bit of an anomaly; if adventurers are set on cleaning out an orc's lair or exploring a lost island, why on earth wouldn't they take several companies of soldiers?

So, rather than running a campaign in which most combats are man-to-man skirmishes with the occasional big battle, you could run one in which the PCs try to tame the wilderness or the wild men to the north (or whatever) with big battles as the default. You'd still have the same amount of roleplaying, intrigue and scheming, and plenty of opportunity for action on a smaller stage. I think that could work well, though current circumstances are likely to prohibit the requisite round-the-table experience for some time. But when things improve, Book of War looks like a great way to achieve this.

Thursday 19 March 2020

More things of chaos

Two more beastmen to go with the mantis-man. The bony fellow will be a 'beast' element in MicroHotT; the other two are 'hordes'.


Here's another chaos creature for MicroHotT (and The Book of War, on which more shortly). This guy has a GW beastman head, a Frostgrave gnoll body and right arm, and a tyranid claw.

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Another batch of beastmen - and handling bigger beasties in MicroHotT

Here's another batch of beastmen for my MicroHotT project. These will all be 'horde' elements in MicroHotT.

The ability to churn out horde elements quickly is a big part of the appeal of MicroHotT. Some of these kitbashes were originally destined for regular HotT horde elements that I started work on a couple of years back. I got five done - but I've knocked out ten MicroHotT elements in a fraction of the time. The reason's obvious: a MicroHotT element is a single figure, whereas most of my HotT horde elements contain at least five.

We played another game of MicroHotT at the weekend. The joy of this version of the game is being able to use very large numbers of elements without overwhelming the table. We played with about 64 AP each, but found that a single PIP roll (1-6 PIPs) worked fine.

Because you can split groups at will, as in any version of HOtT, you get a constant stream of command-and-control decisions. Those are a often a bit more crucial than in HotT, because you're having to assess the relative threats of various blocks: "Will six warband elements be a match for the fourteen hordes over there, or should I keep the group of ten together to make sure?"\

The only downside that I've noticed so far is that it looks a little odd when you have a single spear or warband element backed up by another. The aesthetics are better in standard HotT, because you get a square group rather than a tiny column. But in practice, it happens rarely and not for long: if you have two warbands fighting one, it makes more sense for one of the two to overlap or flank than to provide rear support (there's a greater chance of a kill with +3 vs +2 than with +4 vs +3, as the chances of doubling are higher). And, of course, you're normally fighting with much larger groups of elements than this.

An idea I tried out in our latest game was using "double-based" elements to represent very large monsters - or, rather, monsters that don't fit comfortably on a 25mm frontage. I happen to have a couple of beasties based in that way from an abortive Mayhem project a few years back (we ended up just playing it with doubled-up HotT elements). And I also have a giant painted to match my Nick Lund orcs that fits nicely onto a temporary 50 x 50mm base. 

Using these beasts (two behemoths and a dragon) required a slight adjustment to the rules. Here's what I came up with:

1. Double elements cost twice the points of a normal element minus one (for 1-2AP elements) or minus two (for 4-6AP elements). So a double warband costs 3 (like the unofficial brute and phalanx rules) and a double dragon costs 6. The lower cost represents the fact that a double element is less manoeuvrable and thus less flexible than two single elements. For example, two ordinary dragons can range the battlefield mopping up hordes and other vulnerable foes, while a single "double dragon" will take a lot longer to do so. A double element can't "close the door" as two single elements could. Also, double behemoths, dragons and gods, etc., can flee, flee off the battlefield or dematerialise at a stroke, whereas two dragons, etc., would be likely to last longer.

2. Double elements can attack twice per bound if they are in front-edge-to-front-edge contact with two enemy elements. If they are in such contact with a single element, they automatically overlap it. So a double dragon fighting a single warband element is on +6 vs +2.

3. Double elements only suffer the negative consequences of close-combat outcomes if they receive only negative or neutral outcomes in a given bound. So, a double dragon that is beaten by one element but destroys or pushes back another does not flee from the table. A double element that is doubled by one opponent and merely beaten by the other is destroyed. A doubling and a draw result in a kill, and a beating and a draw result in a recoil (or fleeing the table for a dragon). Positive outcomes work as normal (a double element won't pursue if it's still in contact with a foe).

4. When double elements fight each other, they fight as normal elements of their kind. So a double dragon vs a double behemoth is +6 on +5 with normal outcomes.

All of this sounds a bit fiddly, but it worked just fine. The doubled elements were a lot harder to defeat in close combat, but they could still be flanked and destroyed by determined foes. The points costing felt about right.

The doubled troop types allow me to use monsters that are a bit two big for Warhammer-sized cavalry monsters but slightly underwhelming on an conventional HotT 60mm frontage. And using appropriately sized bases keeps the miniatures more suitable for other games - notably RPGs - which is one of the main goals of MicroHotT. The swelling horde below is just screaming for a dungeon to populate ...