Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wreck Age: Post-Apocalyptic Wargaming Done Right

For me, the gold standard for a miniatures game has little to do with the fiction that created the world where the game takes place, and even less to do with the miniatures. Miniatures are awesome, and I have a lifelong love affair with them, but I don't think that the quality or look of the miniatures has anything to do with whether the game is good or not. The fiction might augment a game that's already good, but if the game is bad, it's like putting beautiful, fresh cut flowers on top of a festering garbage can. In short, many things can aid a good game and make it great, but the window dressing is just that: something to augment the game. 

To that end, everything that surrounds the rules themselves, from weapons and equipment, skills and perks, and the most important factor - campaign rules - are what make any miniatures game worth playing, in my opinion. It's what makes Strange Aeons so incredible, for instance. Now, I've held  "Wastelands 3: Total Meltdown" up as the gold standard for any post-apocalyptic miniature skirmish game because its campaign is so well devised and executed that everything else that I have ever played prior to that looked like a rotting horse carcass in comparison. Well, to a great extent, the new miniatures game, Wreck Age, has trumped it because of the level of depth involved while remaining understandable and playable for experienced miniature gamers.

Wreck Age, simply put, is an RPG with deep skirmish rules as the core, driving mechanic for the game. To me, it's not unlike Robotech RPG in that many people buy the entire rulebook, but only play the skirmish rules. This book is every bit of 244 pages long, and is full of beautiful artwork, charts, and little flavor text sidebars that give examples of play. It reminds me a lot of Bablyon's Burning in that much of the book is written in the form of stories, and that just the stories alone make it worth reading, despite the fact that there's also a game. The artwork adds to that, because it is some of the best artwork I've ever seen in a post-apocalyptic game, and it adds so much to the reading, since storytelling has become such a visual medium these days. If nothing else, the art makes it easier to explain the scope of the game to players, since a picture is truly worth a thousand words.

The theme of the game surrounds this very rich fiction about the depletion of the world's resources, the plan to leave Earth, and a giant lie told by the aristocrats that left much of Earth's populace left behind to wither on the vine. Not only is it plausible, but the story and rules were written in such a way that the story is integral to the game play, therefore making your adventures in post-apocalyptic Earth fit seamlessly into the narrative presented in the built-in scenarios and characters. 

One of the things we all really dug about this game is that it has a very strong "western" influence on the theme; sure, there's plasma weapons and laser rifles, but there's also revolvers. The art exudes this and everything about the game is linked in some way to the theme of humanity rebuilding itself after we, essentially, mined the planet dry and the richest folks got the hell out of Dodge. It's really irrelevant to the game itself, but with the whole kind of "space-faring age mixed with western frontier sensibilities" vibe to it, we really kind of dug it. I'm a Firefly guy; not a superfan or anything, but I like the show and the theme, so this kind of hit that same note with me.

A major difficulty we faced in reviewing this game as a whole has everything to do with the fact that while I am a former RPG player, none of the others in my group are, or ever have been except for Mickey, who would never admit to it. The first 33 pages are nothing but story that develop the narrative, and it is an amazingly well written and engaging read that frames the game. This was primarily meant for RPGers, so that GM's can give the context to players the sessions and explain "the reason" for the situation, as well as provide a backdrop to the campaign. For me, all it did was give me a really great story to read while sitting on the commode, and give me a lot more paper to print and bind. In fact, the rules themselves don't actually come into play until the 50th page, so from the standpoint of reviewing the "game", that's where I'll start. Before I go any further, I need to divulge that I got the PDF sent to me by the publisher, Hyacinth Games, and furthermore, I did some editing and writing work for them, pro bono, because I believe in the game. I elaborated more on this and my experience with it, which can be found at the bottom of this review for your amusement.(*) The short version is that I got one Adepticon promo model and the PDF download version of the rules from them, and it's worth mentioning this kind of stuff because it's important that my readers know everything about these sorts of transactions so that you can weigh this information against the review. Anyhow, let's carry on.

As far as mechanics go, at its core, it's a simple D6-based game that has you chucking small handfuls of dice at one another, with the central goal of passing tests. If you're looking to shoot someone, you need to pass a shooting test which entails rolling the amount of dice equal to the shooter's skill at shooting, and rolling above the weapon's target number at the given shot range. There are modifiers to the target number, such as the target being under cover, but the long and short is that each die that hits the bogey is counted as a success. If a hit was scored, the attacker and defender roll against each other, with the attacker rolling his weapon's power value against the defender's; if more attacker's dice succeed, the damage done is equal to the number of dice that were not "blocked" by the defender's successes. 

Combat, for that matter, is wholly brutal and swift, which makes the game sail along at a brisk pace. One wound damages a character's abilities, two wounds put a character out of action for the rest of the encounter unless they can make a very lucky roll at the end of a round, or if someone else stabilizes them, which downgrades them to wounded status. Now, a third wound essentially delivers a mortal wound, and without prompt help from a friendly, they will absolutely die; no lucky rolls can save them. If a fourth wound is delivered, that character is immediately killed in action, dead on the spot, and is FUBAR. Wounds are cumulative, so an out of action character who is unable to defend themselves is a very, very delicious soft target. I cannot tell you how many times I've placed an improvised mine on a downed figure, just to watch him roll that lucky 6 on his end-of-round saving roll and subsequently to burst like a ketchup-filled water balloon thanks to my unavoidable mine. Watching the hope disappear from an opponent's eyes when he rolls that first 6 to get back up from death's doorstep, but then fails to block the explosion....that's fucking priceless, right there. That's what Ameritrash is all about - standing on the brink of the pit where hope goes to die, and watching your buddies fall down it. Even more so when you're the one who pushed them in.

Anyhow, all of the game's actions are resolved in this manner, by either a test against the character's abilities, skills, or traits, or in the form of an opposed test where another player is actively seeking their ruination during the endeavor. This is a simple, very fast playing system that is not really all that novel, but the fact is that even though this is a "me go, you go" alternating activation system, it really seems to be faster playing than many other skirmish games. There's just not that much fucking around with Wreck Age; you can surely min-max "power game" to try to be more competitive or something, but at the end of the day, it's much more of a narrative game than a tournament game, although they are having some promotional tournaments at the Harry Carey Ballroom during Adepticon this year.

What sets Wreck Age apart is that it integrates a great many of the RPG elements into skirmishes, so that instead of simply being pigeonholed into an "accomplish X task or kill all the bad guys" kind of game, it can be as deep and complex as you want, and there's underlying rules to support it. This allows huge flexibility in actions taken by a character, and the framework of the rules allow people to do off-the-wall shit, agree on the difficulty of the task if it's not specifically in the rules, and then perform a test to see if it worked. 

As an example of the system's ability to create varied scenarios, one I recently played, which incidentally was the first I ever played, has you attempting to send suicide-bomber boars into a settlement to destroy a gate. In contrast, another stock one I played has you attempting to infiltrate a village through ancient sewer tunnels in order to subdue and kidnap the opposing force's players and their patrons in order to harvest their organs...while they're still alive. This kind of richness allows for players to have widely varied experiences in a campaign, and the book includes several skirmish scenarios which are all quite different. Additionally, you can download a short, 3-scenario campaign which we used to review the game, amongst others found on their forums, such as the aforementioned kidnapping scenario.

The beauty of the system is that players such as myself, who just want to engage in skirmishes or skirmish campaigns, can easily put these together because there are a sea of character archetypes, complete with point values, to drop into play. To a great degree, if you want to create interesting and plausible scenarios, this is where all that potty reading comes into play, because you have numerous locales and "motivations" to draw from in order to craft them. Thus, players and GM's alike can create these on the fly, without really thinking too hard about it, choose a point value, and outfit their crew using the point values, expressed as "resource units" to fit their play style. There is a very broad range of weapons, weapon classes, skills, and traits to choose from, and the rules allow for after-action cleanup which allow a player's crew to advance in skills, change archetypes, or purchase and craft new, better equipment.

Additionally, there are numerous factions to choose from, ranging from stoic settlers to desperate raiders and from technology worshiping ideologues to drug-addled, hedonistic sociopaths. Every faction has its strengths and weaknesses, and there's a sort of "faction purity" mechanic that disallows cross-pollination between factions to a great extent, so games are generally played as a force-on-force skirmish between two or more factions. At one point we played a five-player skirmish I came up with in about 10 minutes, where the goal was to explore an abandoned military base and recover its caches of supplies, for example. Each player took command of two to three members of a faction, using pre-built characters, and we had an incredible time. It was a bloodbath, to say the least, and in the end, only four characters survived and most of the battleground was littered with half-recovered supply crates and bodies.

The one thing that I'd caution prospective players on is that this is not Heroscape. It's not a simple, cut-and-dry skirmish game by any standard, and for a group that plays many skirmish games it was quite accessible and easy to play, for someone unfamiliar with deeper skirmish games it will take a few games to really get their head wrapped around it, so to speak. There are a great many charts and tables in this game, although much of it is more tuned for the RPG referee/DM/narrator, but there are complexities in the game that makes it special, and I'd argue that it's worth the slight amount of extra time to learn them. One example is that weapons and equipment have a quality rating that represents the level of maintenance done to it. A cheap, homemade rifle is not going to be as resilient or accurate as a factory, out of the box assault rifle, for instance. There's also weapons malfunctions, morale checks, and other factors that come into play which all add up to it being a very good simulation of a skirmish. 

If there's one truly egregious failing of this game, it's that while there's random scavenging rules, there's not really any random campaign or scenario rules. I know this is asking a lot, and I begged them to include something, but as it rests, you can't sit with a group and roll some dice to figure out what you're going to play that session, using their crew to drop into the scenario. This very thing is what set Wastelands 3 apart from the pack, and the fact that there's 244 pages in the book, but very few that would allow players to just sit and play a random scenario, is an oversight in my opinion. One redeeming feature is that If you want to get your feet wet with an entry-level scenario that you can just sit down and play, you can download the quick start rules (once they've revised them...right now it's a 404 error), download the character cards, and throw whatever models you have lying around onto the table to have a go at it. 

Now, this company will likely not make much money on the books, because there's not much money to be had in it unless your initials are "GW". What they hope to make money on is on their line of models, which are incredible. They've contracted sculptors such Tom Mason, Michael Jenkins, Pierre Francois Jacquet, and Sylvain Quirion to create their models, and I shit you not, they are amazing. I've purchased three of the box sets and several blisters myself, and while I've only painted a few, I can't wait to get the rest of these done. Thus far, I've been playing with the now-defunct Mega Miniatures models I bought during the last days of their reign, as well as some "Nova Corps" Reaper models from Kickstarter

While they originally sold packages of models ranging from $40-$50 for 5-9 white metal models made up of a faction per box set, they're in the middle of changing their box format to "scenario packs" which contain several figures from one faction and then several more from another. Each box will contain a scenario or campaign, the cards for the models, and a set of quickstart rules. On top of that, they're going to be selling a package deal with the softcover rules packed with a starter set of models, although I'm not privy to the price at this point. All I can tell you is that you're not going to find a collection of metal, post-apocalyptic models that are this nice anywhere, except maybe from Lead Adventure's "Last Project" line, and even they are far too "GW cartoony" for my tastes, although I appreciate that they're very nice models.

They also have a bunch of terrain and scenery, which will be packaged into some of these packs, not the least of which are their resin crates and vendor carts, which are very, very nice. In fact, one of the owners just announced today that they'll be launching at some never-before seen terrain at Adepticon, this week in Chicago, and from the look of them they're easily on par with Armorcast and others as far as quality of the models.  

The long and short is that this game is nearly flawless, in my mind, and if you're interested in a great skirmish game that has depth and accessibility, this may be the one. The models are fantastic, the art in the book is mostly very good, and we all really enjoy playing it. Unlike so many reviews where after we've undergone the process we're ready for a break from the game, we'll probably be playing this next weekend or the weekend after. That's pretty telling, since it's a pain in the ass to get my game room rearranged to allow our big six by three table out to play these kinds of games. 

Why I'd Stick Around After The Exodus:
- The models are outstanding, and most of the art is wonderful
- Of 244 pages, maybe 40 constitute skirmish rules, and it's easy to learn and play
- The use of sidebar stories to explain mechanics is genius
- Built-in scenarios and "quick start rules" make this easy to get to the table often

Why Wreck Age Might Be A Train Wreck:
The lack of randomized campaigns and tons of scenarios really chaps my ass
- Where the artwork isn't outstanding, it's dodgy as fuck, and doesn't fit in well
- Of 244 pages, maybe 40 constitute skirmish rules, and the rest are fluff and RPG content
- The lack of randomized campaigns and tons of scenarios really chaps my ass (**)

I can't recommend this enough to fans of the post-apocalyptic genre, or really, any miniatures gamers who prefer narrative games over Warhammer 40K-style mass army deployments. Although I know absolutely fuck all about what a modern RPG should look like, from the standpoint of a richly detailed skirmish game, I can't recommend it enough. I put my money where my mouth is, and all of the Circus folks really enjoy it. Hell, Dave Roswell from Fortress: Ameritrash liked it, and he's a hard sell on anything. 

4/5 Stars

Check Hyacinth Games out here...

...and be sure to check back regularly (after 2 weeks) because a lot of changes will be made to their web store, their product line, and the whole shebang. Also keep an eye out for the PDF on BitTorrent, because it will eventually be seeded there by Hyacinth Games in order to get people into the game. 

(*)While I receive absolutely no money for it, I did some writing for the Hyacinth Games guys. I've been following this game and its development for over a year, having found it by sheer accident while looking for an heir to my previous favorite post-apoc game. I got to preview the rules in a closed Beta, or something resembling one, and it was a fucking train wreck for the most part, but the good parts were so good I wanted to get involved. The fact is that these guys were frustrated and spent, and if someone didn't help them soon, the game would never be "released", and I would be denied my new favorite shiny, so fuck that shit. I volunteered because I wanted to see the game for sale at some point in my lifetime. The "rules guy" had great ideas and a great game, but he seemed to lack the skill set to effectively communicate them in writing, which is what I do for a living, and so I stepped in as an editor/writer to help them, on a pro bono basis. Turns out that I'll never do that shit again, as long as I live, because it's thankless, tedious, demanding work.

After almost a month or so of working 8 hours a night on it, going back and forth via Skype text messages, I sent it over to them and was utterly shit on by the guy who did the original rules, primarily because I re-wrote and formatted them in their entirety. The original was what amounts to a poorly-devised flowchart that he was actually going to clean up, then publish as-is, which would've looked like all kinds of ass and been totally fucking unplayable unless he was there, explaining it to you as you played. Anyhow, it was a total blow-up with cursing, and yelling, and nastygrams, and so I walked away from the gig at that point. To reiterate, I just re-wrote the existing rules up and moved sections around to be better organized and more understandable, and I rewrote some of the other content so it made sense, or sounded better.

As it turns out, all the fussing was for naught, because the final version contains almost all of my edits and most of the writing changes I made (and fixes to my text where I got rules horribly wrong, to be fair), so I am a little biased, to say the least, despite the writing/editing/dealing with the Hyacinth guy being one of the most painful, frustrating experiences I've ever had in this life or lives past, and one that should've totally soured me on this game and had me plot to destroy them wholly and utterly, forever. I explained the experience to my wife like this: It's like giving a kid a car for his 16th birthday and having him tell you he hates it, subsequently pouring gas all over it and burning it on your lawn. Then, the next day, that same son steals your wallet, buys the EXACT SAME CAR, but with a different color and some different options, and parks it next to the smoking ruins of your gift. Just fucking ugly all around, but it worked out OK, and many months later we're friends. They're good guys, but they were just under a LOT of stress. Shit, they still are, but now at least they have a bad ass game to play with their bad ass miniatures.

Because of my involvement, I have recused myself from the scoring of this game and as an added insulation, I didn't divulge to the Circus that I had been a party to the writing; I simply told them that Wreck Age was finally out, and I wanted to try out the new rules with them. Now, they knew I was working on ~something~ but I was working on 3 different games at the time, one of them for a well-known publisher, and I don't share the details on what I'm doing until it's ready for play-testing. So, when taking this review into consideration, please remember that while I was a party to the editing and formatting, and only then in the rules sections, this review is unbiased from the scoring perspective given by the rest of the Circus group. As I said, I received no money for this endeavor, and I have not received anything from Hyacinth Games that other reviewers have been offered. In fact, they are going to be seeding the PDF, for free, on BitTorrent to get more people into the game. Finally, I did put my money where my mouth is, spending almost all of my GenCon budget last year buying Wreck Age models, scenery, and markers. So far, I've spent around $230.00 on their product. If I had been able to vote in the scoring sessions, though, this would be a 4.5-4.75, with the real bitch being the lack of randomized campaign rules. I'm currently trying to integrate the Wastelands 3 campaign rules into the Wreck Age world, solely because they are simply the most extensive, awesome set of rules I've ever seen.

(**) This is NOT a typo. This fucks me off so much that I had to list it twice.

No comments: