Monday, 26 January 2015

Warband - Designer's Diary Part 1


Warband is intended as a rule set for competitive play between balanced forces, and this has influenced much of its design.  As rules for fantasy wargaming, they are mostly freed from the need to simulate or replicate historical battle frictions (although during play testing we played a few ‘historical’ battles with some rather pleasing results).  This makes the rules firmly a game and this goal has been at the heart of how the rules were developed.  It meant that I wasn't try to replicate any specific historical battle results or the ways in which ancient armies interacted with each other.  This is both a problem, in that there's no standard to assess when I got things 'right', but also very useful and it meant I had the flexibility to define what a 'successful design' looked like.

If the rules are played as intended, with balanced 500 point armies in competitive ‘tournament style’ games, players should get the best out of them.  Of course that doesn’t stop players using them for other types of play, including narrative battles, unbalanced engagements, and so on.  They should work well for these types of game too, especially if you introduce victory objectives other than simple 'kill 'em all'.

How this intention framed the development of the game was simple - I was looking to ensure that everything in the rules was balanced. 
In building a force, it should be difficult to 'math-hammer' (or min-max) the game so that you optimise a build and gain a skewed advantage in the game.  

Of course army design is still vital so a player can and should look to make a warband they enjoy playing with and which fits their play style (whether a cautious defensive player or wild attacking player).  Players should find that while you can create a focussed force, that will be secondary to good tactical play.
In playing during a game turn, if you lose an advantage in one part of the turn, you should be able to gain an advantage elsewhere.  Hopefully players will find fairly quickly that this is the case, in particular in the tensions between movement, shooting, and melee sequences.

Of course, its also desirable to have an element of randomness in the mix too, and trying to get the right balance army building, tactical exploitation, and random chance is tough.  There are certainly 'pinch points' in the game where good or bad luck can throw your designs, plans and tactics into disarray.  However, the spread of dice rolling across most actions means that a player shouldn't get totally wrecked by a couple of bad results.  Without this randomness, each battle would be predictable and rather dull.


The development of Warband was guided by four principles, that they should be;

  • Simple to learn
  • Balanced
  • Challenging to master, and
  • Fun to play

The rules were also written under the ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ premise and so most of the rules in the book are there because during development and playtesting I found it to be something that was necessary to make clear.  Every rule was tested by asking:

  • Is it simple and intuitive?
  • Does it unbalance the game?
  • Does it add to the challenge of playing?
  • Does it add to the fun of a game?

Rules that failed any of these tests were either redrafted, or where found to be unnecessary, removed entirely.  Less is more I think and with the simple application of common sense, players should find the rules flow simply and 'as expected'.

Hopefully there shouldn’t be anything too convoluted or complex in the rules, although to ensure the game plays properly, there is no doubt some wording that sneaked through the ‘keep it simple’ net.

So, something the players won't find in the rules is anything devastatingly innovative.  I've found that many rule sets that try to do this, just feel a bit...well...gimmicky.  I've tried not to reinvent the wheel but instead to refine, hone, and make intuitive, what I think needs to happen in a set of rules for a game to work well.  After all, all wargame rules have to do the same basic things:
  • Command and control
  • Movement
  • Shooting
  • Fighting
  • Morale

In my view, these basics should happen without too much thought on the part of the players, or you end up 'playing the rules' rather than 'playing the game'.  

I don't want Warband players to have to stop their excellent strategems and tactics to trawl through arcane rules on how to determine the morale of their troops.  Hopefully I've achieved that.


Therefore, core mechanic is kept as simple as possible, mostly to get it out of the way of playing.  A common characteristic of many rules is that different elements of the game use different rules principles to achieve their results.  This means you have to remember which rules you need at each stage. 

Warband uses a very simple core ‘engine’ that is the same for all task resolutions across the game.  Movement, shooting, melee, and protection is handled in the same way, which means that once you learn this, and the small number of conditional modifiers, it stops getting in the way of you playing the game and lets you concentrate on trying to beat your opponent.  After all, that's where the fun is, isn't it? 

Warband’s task resolution is all done using ‘dice pools’, i.e. a variable number of six-sided dice.  These dice are rolled against a fixed ‘target number’ which means all you need to do is assess the number of dice you roll and pick out the 4, 5, and 6 results to determine how successful you have been.

Why use this method?  Well, the maths, calculations, and considerations are therefore simple and linear.  This makes the game accessible to players of all ages without bogging them down in complexity. 

Also, a units' basic ‘dice pools’ are matched to its points cost which keeps the game balanced.  Powerful units cost more and are therefore rarer on the battlefield.  This inherent balance is affected by two main processes; conditional modifiers, and commander’s influence. 

Conditional modifiers come from a player's ability to plan and manoeuvre their units to gain tactical advantages (such as flank attacks) and they reward good play by weighting the dice balance in that player's favour.  There's also an element of tying this into how a player structures their army and places terrain at the start of the battle.  A well structured wood elf army, with well deployed woodland terrain will give the player inherent advantages, especially if that player then plays a tactically sound game.  Of course the opponent will be trying to do the same!

A warband commander’s influence comes from the variable ‘command points’ ability which allows the player to decide where in the battle they want to further weight the dice balance.  A commander's influence at the right point can change the battle completely.  That said, players will probably find that most games will pass through three stages, and using a commander well at each stage is vital.  What these stages are and how to use the commander...well figuring that out will be all part of the fun!

Thus the core mechanic provides the player with a simple and readily understandable set of probabilities that will help fight a challenging battle and play a fun game.  Of course as we’re dealing with dice, those probabilities will always be subject to the tyranny of randomness!  This is also designed into the game, as wherever possible we’ve tried to make each action or decision uncertain.  You can never be quite sure your troops will move where you want them to, or fight quite as well as you expect, or stand instead of running, and that means you’ll face constant tactical challenges throughout the game.

Around this core mechanic, the remaining rules are kept as simple as possible.  Where there is necessary complexity, I've tried to lay out the rules into clear and linear sequences.  Follow these and what seems difficult should become simple, and this lets you get on with having fun playing the game.

Friday, 23 January 2015


It's funny how life works out sometimes, and if you're anything like me you'll have lived what has felt like a series of different lives.  I'm currently bumbling through a fairly hum-drum life working in privacy law (via archaeology) in 'the real world' (although I've always rather felt that spending 8 hours a day riding a desk is somewhat unreal).  Weird things happen though, and this week something in that vein happened to me.

I've mentioned a few times on this blog here, here, and here over the past year or two, a little project I've been beavering away on, and this week it budded into the public realm.

What is that, you may ask?  Well its the release of a set of wargame rules I've written, now enshrined as...

It became self-aware on Pendraken's forum 21st Jan 2015.

Why is this weird?  Because it all sort of happened by accident, or rather without intent.  My general approach to life is fairly laid back and I've often found that things unfold in their own time, usually as they should, and so it has been with this particular venture.  

I'll step back a bit and give you a little background.  This all began a few years ago when my gaming group and I were casting round for a set of rules to play our 'A Very British Civil War' games.  You'll find a fair bit about that on this blog.  Not happy with any of the rules we used, I set about cobbling together some simple and home-brewed.  They didn't quite fit and so I shelved them.  

I've been a lifelong reader and writer, and my current job involves writing and ideas that range from legal, technical, procedural, to public marketing messages.  This part of my job I very much like as I enjoy ideas and words and systems and structures; and playing about with those.  Myers-Briggs tells me I'm INTP.  I also spend a lot of time writing fiction, and of course that first novel is always 'nearly ready'.  One day, one day, when the time's right...

Anyway, a while later I was playing a few different games, including Impetus and 'big battle' Hordes of the Things.  Building the HotT armies, I was using Pendraken's excellent 10mm fantasy miniatures.  I had a bunch left over and got to thinking that I really liked Impetus' 'big bases' and it occurred to me that rather than four rather downtrodden figures on a tiny base (the WRG standard) a HotT army with big bases would look excellent.

I threw together a base of orcs and it was really a revelation.  It was clear that Pendraken miniatures really came into their own massed up on a big base, and as a vignette.  I want an army like this, I thought.

OK, so, I like the DBx stable of games, and played DBM at tournament level for several years (not that I was much good mind you), and while I love HotT, it is ultimately a bit 'hollow' in terms of game play, so I wanted a set of rules that would accommodate fantasy games with these new big bases.  Casting about I found little to inspire me so I dug out those old AVBCW rules, which I thought had some interesting concepts in them.

Thus began a long, arduous process of designing, redesigning, play testing, developing, and generally bashing into shape a set of rules that I provisionally titled 'Warband'.

Tentatively I put on a game or two for my group of friends.  They held together, or rather 'didn't fall over'.  'Interesting', I thought.  Time went on.  More testing and development ensued.  I gave them to some friends in other groups to playtest, and surprisingly got a lot of feedback, mostly (but not entirely) positive.  

So the beavering, tinkering, twiddling and tweaking continued, and soon I was looking at what appeared to me to be a fairly mature and decent set of rules.  At this juncture I shall set about blowing my own trumpet.

My wargaming group and I are fairly free-roaming and we play an awful lot of different games (currently Bolt Action's getting the limelight).  For a good while, my interests took me elsewhere (including extensive Dux Bellorum and Dystopian Wars battles), and I also became involved in roleplaying and board gaming groups (after a hiatus of some years subsequent to my latest relocation away from the Shire); as a result Warband was left collecting dust.

One thing I think anyone who buys Pendraken's products probably notices is the exceptional customer service and customer-focussed ethos the Leon, Dave and the team have.  I'd go so far as to say they're second to none in the hobby, and that very much endears them to me.  This means that you'll probably end up chatting with them, maybe even getting to know them (as a vendor at least).

I don't remember exactly when or how, but I found myself talking to Leon about wargames rules, and why Pendraken don't do their own.  That may even have been at their stand at one of the many shows they attend.  My memory ain't what it used to be, but then it never was - ask my wife.  A while later I dug Warband out again, having forgotten about them, reread the draft - it needed work but I thought 'you know what, if I'd bought these I'd play them'.

And so, the discussions with Pendraken continued and our interests aligned.  Yeah, so I now found myself in the position of writing a set of rules, sort of for a company I'd been a long loyal customer of.  

It got real.  

I put my head down and started to take things seriously, spending a lot of spare time writing and testing in earnest.  If this was going to happen I didn't want to let Leon down.  Also, when I do something, I like to do it well; after all a professional is just someone who does something + time.  Doing things well is often an aspiration more than a realisation though.  Yoda was wrong.

Many more highly enjoyable test games and redrafts later, that weird thing hit again...and now I find myself potentially added 'game designer' to my somewhat eclectic CV.

We're at pre-release stage, but these rules I've lived with for a couple of years now will be on sale soon and they will no longer be mine.  To be honest, they already don't feel like mine...

I've no idea what people will think of them; the best I can hope is some people enjoy playing them.  I'm looking forwards to becoming one of those players.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Bolt Action Russians: Part 2 - the cavalry arrives!

With the 'core force' done I'm steadily building up and trying out various options.  Reading through the rules, army lists, and with a few practice games under my belt, the effectiveness of close assault has become quite evident.

My core force: this has turned out to be a highly successful 1000pt build so far.  Aggressive, flexible, and able to achieve most objectives in most of the scenarios.

So the possibilities of cavalry look quite appealing.  I put an order in to Copplestone, whose figures are pretty much exceptional quality across all their ranges.  From their Back of Beyond range I ordered two packs of White Russian Cossacks and a pack of White Russian Cossack Standard Bearers.

When they arrived however, the standard bearers were missing and a pack of Caucasian Cossack Cavalry were included instead.

The erroneous Caucasians lurking in the box.

Bob loves this wheat-based packing material for some reason.  She's not happy that we stop her from eating it though.

So I emailed Copplestone to raise the issue.  A few day's later this arrived!  

Copplestone simply sent the missing pack, not asking for the return of the pack sent in error etc.

All I can say is thank you Copplestone!  Excellent customer service well above and beyond the expected level.  

Anyway, I'll be painting these chaps up in the next week or two ready to take into battle.  They look splendid.  Great sculpts, well cast with minimal flash and beautiful crisp details.

The standard bearers don't come with flag poles so I'll have to pick up some brass rods next time I'm at the model store.  I normally have some knocking about but I appear to have run out.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bolt Action Russians

I guess I should engage in a bit of throat clearing as its been a good while since I posted to my blog.  I've actually been really busy with real life, other less blog-friendly games (like board gaming and roleplaying) and also working on a wargames project that has taken a good deal of my time and attention.

And of course during that time I've also been wargaming, but I've neglected the blog here for various reasons.  I shall take the shame.  I also noticed that the last few posts showed the start of a few projects without then covering the finish.


So, anyway, I'll kick off again with a basically completed project:  Bolt Action Russians.

A good while ago, when Warlord first released Bolt Action my group and I gave them a go.  We were in a different place regarding our gaming interests at that time and the rules got shelved.  However, of late we've been playing 'bitty' games, not really settling on anything and we decided we wanted to put something on the table that would be tournament based, good fun, simple, with lots of pretty toys, decent rules, and gaming that encompassed list building, as well as good solid game tactics.

We tried a few games that didn't quite fit the bill, including Bolt Action.  Then we played Bolt Action again.  And again.  And we looked around at our collections and said, 'hey remember those figures we bought for Rules of Engagement and never used?!

Yeah, so...its safe to say we've been playing Bolt Action pretty solidly lately, with proxies to learn the rules as we build up our tournament forces.

As ever, I've gone for Russians.

We're playing 1000pts, so I've been steadily building a 'core force', plus a bunch of options to try out.  I suspect, as ever I'll end up with far more than I'll ever actually field!  Hehe...

So these figures are a mix of Black Tree Design minis that I bought a few years ago, some Copplestone stuff and the maddeningly fiddly Warlord plastics.  They all mix in quite well which is good. 

Here's my main force so far.

Russian Reinforced platoon (generic list), 1000pts.
The Lt is accompanied by a flag-bearer.  Their role is mainly to ride with the assault units and keep them going forwards, hence they are armed with SMGs.

Vasily!  Get that left flank moving!!
The platoon is supported by three teams with anti-tank rifles.  I've found them to be a really useful and flexible part of the force, able to take on light armour, enemy infantry dug in buildings, and also snipe and pin if no other targets present themselves.  Spread out across the battlefield, I can usually get at least one of them firing into the side or rear armour of an enemy tank!  Hehe...Also they are easy for the opponent to miss in the chaos f a battle and they have popped up from cover unexpectedly a few times.

My main armour is a T-28, which is a monster infantry killer!  As I've not been able to find a T-28 model this is a Copplestone Vickers MkIII - basically the same tank anyway.

And my tank killer armour is the BA-10, a highly mobile 'glass cannon' recce armoured car able to take out all but the heaviest enemy tanks with its main gun, and nippy enough to get itself out of trouble when the enemy returns fire.

Light, fast, and able to react as a recce vehicle to get out of trouble, the BA-10 carries a main gun capable of brewing up all but the heavy tanks it'll face.  Recce vehicles are a must in any Bolt Action force, and the crew of this BA-10 are speed racers, hooning about the battlefield and putting shells into buildings, or any enemy armour they can come across.
A unit of Guards with rifles and a Panzerfaust provide me with tactical flexibility and this unit usually ties all the other elements of my force together.

Hang on chaps, my bolt has jammed.  anyone know how to clear it?
 I also take advantage of the Russians free unit of conscripts.  Here they are armed with rifles and Molotov cocktails.  I use them mainly as reserves or to take and hold easy objectives. 

Brand new shiny kit, bayonets fixed, and burning vodka bottles at the ready!

Over there comrades!  Duck and cover...
A dreadful waste of good Hrenovuha if you ask me...
 My main attacking force is made up of two units of veteran assault engineers fully equipped with SMGs and a flamethrower team.  They usually start in the trucks, steam forwards of turn 1 to decamp into a solid position to launch a vicious close assault or close ranged fire.

The utterly brutal flamethrower - king of any Bolt Action table.
Oh, and I've made some useful little pin markers too.

Made from the Minibits 'dice herder' frames and Warlord's pin markers.  Very useful and unobtrusive on the tabletop.

So that's my main 1000pt force, but I'm steadily building a variety of options to try out. 

Standing ready in reserve.

A T34 of course.  I've not tried this out yet, as I'm trying to get to grips with the core force outlined above.  The T34 is an expensive points option to go with.  I might field it as the flamethrower variant though.

Grubby and oil stained as befitting a working battle vehicle.

I have a heavy field gun which I've used as a heavy howitzer.  Its utterly brutal, able to flatten whole buildings and wipe out units in one shot, but its basically a static unit and Bolt Action is definitely a game that requires mobility in your troops.

After a particularly heavy night on the turnip vodka, Alexei tries desperately to remember how to fire the field gun.

I've got a sniper team.  Not used these yet, but I pretty much face snipers in every enemy force so I should give them a go sometime.  I've found that when they're placed high up in a central building they can be devastating, but otherwise, not so good.
Zaytzev's got nowt on you Boris...right through that officer's cap-skull at 1000 yards...

I've converted a leader/commissar model to be a spotter in a camouflaged coat.  Russian WWII camo appears to have camera...

What the Hell are they shelling THAT building for!?!?  I said the church, not the tavern!

A couple of weapon teams next.  The MG team has been highly underwhelming on the table top.  In fact the Bolt Action rules have LMGs, MMGs, and HMGs underperforming in the hands of infantry, which is why my infantry don't use the iconic DP-28 LMG.  Not worth it.

And finally...bomb dogs!  Cruel I know, but these anti tank weapons appear to be highly useful.  I've not used them yet, but our British faction player fields a Churchill AVRE which is devastating.  I may need to spam bomb dogs against that monster! 

Woof!  Woof!  Woof!
Copplestone huskies with some Warlord backpacks glued on.  Simples!

Next up, I have some cavalry to paint.  Copplestone messed up my order though so I didn't get the flag bearers I asked for.  Might be a delay there then...  I've got enough to try out so far though so no worries!