I Played a Mobile “Wargame” for a Full Month.

So a while ago I purchased a White Dwarf magazine from my local hobby shop. I used to read White Dwarf quite a bit, but fell off the wagon years ago as the magazine degraded into a flashy catalogue and I got busy with other things. This issue caught my eye because it included a dozen Warhammer PC game codes. I’ve got a few of the more prominent ones, but I thought it would be interesting to see what the good and bad of digital Warhammer games are these days and maybe squeeze a few reviews out of the deal.

One that immediately tripped me up as I went to redeem it was Warhammer: Chaos and Conquest. This was a mobile wargame in the tradition of Clash of Clans. Something I vowed, as someone who respects video games, to never willingly engage in. But here it was, a code for some free stuff to get you off the ground. A morbid curiosity grew in me, followed by a crafty rationalization to convince myself this would be a good idea. Why don’t I play using what this code gives me and see how long I can last?

The experiment opened my eyes to a sad reality. But I’ll get to that.

How Does Warhammer: Chaos and Conquest Play?

So there isn’t really much game here. The general gameplay loop revolves around timers. You want a high power score. In order to get a high power score, you’re going to need soldiers and defences for your fortress. This is accomplished by acquiring resources, constructing buildings, researching new skills, and training soldiers. It sounds pretty typical for a strategy game, but in Warhammer: Chaos and Conquest, as in most other mobile wargames, there is no real strategy involved. Each building linearly increases in value and power as it levels up. Some allow you to gain more resources, some to recruit more troops, some to let you scout farther or faster. None of these things require choice as there is room for it all in your base.

The true enemy is time. Every build requires resources and time. Some of the early timers are easy. 10 minutes here, 30 minutes there. But by the time I finally hit my limit, I was waiting a full week to finish researching tier three units. Of course, you can always pay real money to reduce timers.

Combat is another simple numbers game. There are plenty of AI ‘armies’ dotted around the world map that you can attack, but combat consists of selecting an army, a general to lead it that hopefully makes good use of your troops, and sending them on their way. Units do damage to each other, you earn some items for your trouble, and the army marches back.

PVP is where these games flourish, but the tragic part is that it will always come down to the player with higher power winning. There is no tactical choice to be made. I never lost a fight against a human player, mostly because I never engaged unless I had far superior power, but really, my safety came down to the true meat of these mobile wargames, clans.

The Social Trap of Mobile Wargames

Warhammer: Chaos and Conquest, like most similar games, heavily encourages players to join a clan. This helps reduce timers, allows players to share some resources, and creates a sense of community. The community aspect is frightening in its ability to quickly ground down players on the fence about spending. Each server wide event shows exactly how much help each member is contributing to a victory, and is quick to show relative power levels. Those who spend some money to help out and top off a win for their clan are greeted with praise by their fellows. Those who do not are, in my experience, just kind of ignored.

PVP being a clan versus clan thing also helps to inflame players and goad them towards spending money. Several times in my month I saw enemies from different clans swear across the open chat to out buy each other in an effort to win personal or clan glory. I also saw players spending in order to act as protectors for their weaker clan mates. It was almost baffling until I realized just how important these games could be to certain people.

The Vicious Necessity of Mobile Games

I tried to chat a lot with my clanmates while I played. Mostly about the limited strategies we could employ to improve our lot, but also about their lives. More of them than I expected were playing this because they couldn’t really do anything else. Several spoke openly about disabilities preventing them from playing other games or engaging in other hobbies. Others spoke of this game as their escape from a difficult world, using the easy mechanics and linear progression for a sense of satisfaction and fun, and even other seemed to have little else besides the game to spend their time and money on.

It made me more than a little sad, but also, I think, helped me understand why these games are they way they are. Yes they exist to bilk money out of their players at an absurd rate, but I also see that this connection of real money to in game prowess helps those who cannot find that power elsewhere to feel good about themselves. Is it an actual solution to real life problems? I don’t really think so. But I understand it now. For some, spending money on these kinds of games and participating in a community is an important part of their lives that fulfills them in a way they can’t or aren’t getting elsewhere. I’m willing to bet that if the real money component wasn’t part of the equation, there wouldn’t be the same sense of real impact.

For the record, almost everyone I spoke to while playing the game said they had a budget they were keeping to, though I suspect some were pushing it. I know these games do everything they can to get players to fork over cash, and I really do wish there were some better ways for people to get at that same sense of community. But for some, this seems like all they can do, and I can’t fault them for that.

I took all images from Steam. Don’t spend money on this game if you can avoid it.

Age of Sigmar 3.0: A Test Game

My friend and I decided to finally take the plunge and try out the game that replaced Warhammer all those years ago: Age of Sigmar. A lot has changed both in terms of rules and in terms of the game’s background lore, and wading back into Age of Sigmar for it’s 3rd edition release was actually a lot more fun than I had anticipated.

As a brief reminder of my tabletop qualifications, I’ve been a steady player of Warhammer Fantasy since my 12 year old self managed to scrap together enough for a 6th edition starter set. My friends and I all slowly chipped away at armies using our middling-at-best understanding of the rules and a lot of proxy-hammer to have a grand old time romping around the Old World. We’ve stuck with miniature wargaming, dipping into 40k, historical, and skirmish games all while continuing to build and play to Warhammer Fantasy. Until Games Workshop destroyed it.

Since Warhammer died and we took a bit of a break, we’ve been playing (when not COVID restricted) One Page Rule’s Age of Fantasy Regiments, which I’ve said numerous times on this blog and elsewhere is my favorite game system ever. But now that things are open and a new edition of Age of Sigmar just dropped, we thought we’d give it a shot.

The Realm of Ghur

The Age of Sigmar

Our battle, as per the 2021 General’s Handbook, takes place in the feral plains of Guhr, a realm suffused with wild magic and a vicious will to survive. Our battle plan (read: scenario) was “Savage Gains” rolled from a list in that same handbook. While we both anticipated a grueling weight-lifting competition, instead we found a fairly standard ‘control the enemy’s objective’ scenario with a little twist. Objectives were worth more the further into enemy territory you went, and on the 3rd turn of 5, the player going second was able to remove a single objective, denying remaining points.

Our armies, my wife’s wonderfully painted Warriors of Chaos and my friend’s High Elves (Now Slaves to Darkness and Lumineth Realm Lords in Age of Sigmar parlance) were arrayed across the beautiful and Guhr appropriate table at our local gaming store Game Knight League, ready to fight.

The Lumineth host before the lines met.

The Battle

Earning the first turn, The Lumineth Realm Lords calmly organized their detachments. Archers, spearmen, and the dreaded blade masters maintained a tight formation while they move to secure key junctures of the rapidly flowing rivers that cut through this region’s mountains. Their leaders, wizards all, cast wards of protection and accuracy on their soldiers, only minorly bothered by the tug of Chaos at the edge of their minds. On the far flank, a lone Hero emerged from the undergrowth to deny passage to any Chaos warriors who might try to get the drop on his allies. Spying only a pathetic Chaos Spawn, the Hero swiftly put it out of its misery with several well placed arrows. Back on the other side of the battlefield, archers opened fire. Sensing the oncoming taint of corruption, arrows loosed at high arcs towards unseen targets. Drawn to the immense power of a Demon Prince of Nurgle, several shafts found their mark, but it was not enough to bring down the beast, who quickly healed himself using his dark god’s power.

Bolstered by the laughter of their dark god, the more mobile forces of Nurgle charged across the rivers, Chariots crashing through the water and demonic steeds leaping the gap to come down with thunderous weight on the other bank. Seeing an unholy speed that belied the gross bulk of the warriors approaching them, the Blade Lords holding the center repositioned themselves at the edge of a tangled wood, blocking the path to their home objective and dominating a pass between two mighty peaks.

Two key river junctures on the left and right, with a mountain pass in the middle, made up the battlefield

The lone Hero, satisfied at having removed the taint of the Chaos spawn from the realm, almost didn’t hear the wingbeats that brought a second Demon Prince of Nurgle hurtling out of the sky to land almost on top of him. Far away, The main host of Nurgle advanced, drawing closer to the arranged elven warriors, the sky about them darkened with a plague of flies. Lumineth archer showed their skill as arrows filled the sky and managed, beyond all reason, to navigate the clouds of flies that surrounded the oncoming horde to find gaps in armour and slits in visors. The horde was slowed, but not stopped.

Eventually arrows could do no more and the mighty hosts clashed. Chariots crashed into steady ranks, wreaking bloody havoc before being brought down by pin point accurate blades and spears. The Spearmen of the Realm Lords, emboldened by their leader’s magic, were a glowing engine of death. Dozens of hulking warriors and even a demon prince fell before their efficient onslaught. It took the might of the Putrid BlightKings, scions of Nurgle’s Will, to turn the tide. As the spear elves slowly began to fall before weight of the advance, the weeping of the Scinari Cathallar took the pain of his fellow realm lords and weaponized it, turning their suffering and sorrow into pure energy that wracked the brains of the assaulting Chaos Warriors. When the dust settled and the flies were silenced, none but Fecula, Sorceress of Nurgle remained on that bloody field.

Warriors of Chaos and Lumineth Spearmen and Blade Lords move to meet on the critical juncture, a now desolate plain that will forever be known as the field of flies

A mountain away, The advanced forces of Nurgle’s host were struggling. The Blade Lords used the forest to their advantage, striking out at the Chaos Kngihts as they blundered through the gigantic trees. Even farther afield, The Lone Hero dueled with the Demon Prince over control of a key ford. He put up a valiant fight but could not contain the fury of the beast. Eventually, a triumphant and bubbly laugh signaled the Demon’s victory, and the capture of the ford. The triumph was short lived, as the Hero had managed to stall the beast long enough. The battle had shifted and the ford he died beside was no longer strategically critical.

While their soldiers butchered each other on the wide plain that would evermore be known as the field of flies, The Chaos Lord confronted the Leader of the Lumineth. It was he who Nurgle had told his champion to slaughter, and so he did swifty, the sorcerer no match for the god touched warrior. His success was met with a great boon, as Nurgle saw fit to bless him with Demonhood, elevating him beyond mortality.

It was clear that the elves were in danger of losing the field of flies and therefore the key river junction. Leaving some Blade Masters to hold their flank against whatever forces might come, the archers and remaining Blade Masters repositioned themselves to take back the field. The newly minted Demon Prince, arrogant in his new form, dove upon them alone, intent on finishing the puny elves and taking the pass for his god.

A Great Demon of Nurgle

His hubris would be his undoing, as the combined might of the remaining archers was more than enough to send his newly twisted soul into the void of Chaos. This left only a handfull of BlightKings and a Demon Prince alive on the field. Though the BlightKings pulled their weight in the final moments of the battle, they were brought down, leaving the Lumineth Realm Lords in control of the key remaining juncture and their own home area.

Though the Field of Flies will remain rotten for generations, the three key mountain passes remain in the hands of the forces of Order, the Lumineth earning a sizable, if costly, victory over the forces of Chaos.

Demon Prince and Lumineth Realm Lord

Game Review

Age of Sigmar is fun! At first we were both overwhelmed with the sheer number of special rules we had to look up. I’m sure we both missed some here and there. But the management of Command Points, Hero Abilities, and combat activations made every turn feel important and full of meaningfully tactical decisions.

The victory conditions, tied to objectives instead of merely killing opposing forces, kept the game up in the air until the final couple of turns when in quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to overcome the Lumineth lead.

Lumineth Realm Lords

The most important part was that the game was entertaining and led to a lot of fun emergent narratives. The duel between Demon Prince and Lone Hero. The Sad-ening of my warriors killing most of the unit, and the overeager Demon Prince spawning out of my general only to be shot down with his hubris. It helped that we had mostly painted armies and a beautiful battlefield, but I’m more than ready to hop into a new Age of Sigmar Army. It was a great night out, and isn’t that the point of tabletop wargaming?

Paper Time Machines: Live Stream with Volko Ruhnke

Hello everyone! It’s my pleasure to announce here on the blog that Sunday September 19th and 9:00AM EST, Jack and I will be hosting the Paper Time Machines talk by legendary designer Volko Ruhnke!

Please come check out the stream for an enlightening talk about science fiction and historical simulations! Here’s the official description:

“Boardgames can transport us to different worlds by showing us on a tabletop how these worlds work. This is as true of fantasy and science fiction boardgames as it is of historical simulations, because great fantasy and science fiction draws from knowledge of human history to make its alien worlds work in coherent and realistic ways. Historical boardgame designer Volko Ruhnke will show how science fiction and fantasy boardgames and historical boardgames all share and can reveal facets of human affairs, including:

• The flow of resources in warfare: DUNE and Falling Sky (Caesar in Gaul).

• Medieval military operationa: War of the Ring and Nevsky (Teutons and Rus).

• Insurgency and counterinsurgency: Star Wars Rebellion and Fire in the Lake (US in Vietnam).”

We’ll be there to moderate questions and comments so if you want to get some words in with the big man himself about wargaming and conflict simulation, drop on by!

Link to the Event

Sunday, September 19 2021, 9:00AM EST

-Joe

HighFleet Review

Thousands of meters above a sparse desert, filled with ruins and angry warlords, a small fleet of combat airships cruise to their next objective. The commander of this grand fleet sits in his command room, staring at a map. Various lights blink and alarms buzz intermittently. Encoded messages are intercepted by the comms team as the fleet sends out a strike force to hit the upcoming town before they can call for reinforcements, just as tactical nuclear missiles are fired at the main fleet by an enemy strike force some hundreds of kilometers away.

HIGHFLEET RULES.

The player is, of course, the commander of this (high)fleet, a group of massive war-airships (air-warships?) stuck without help in NotAfghanistan, as the heir to the NotRussian Empire. The tutorial helps explain the premise of the game tidily, and introduces the main story beats, which I won’t spoil too much because although it is basic, it is a good concept. Along your journey, as your (high)fleet cruises between towns in a desolate desert you learn more about the world and the characters you can call upon for help in your time of need. And boy, will you need help.

Your (high)fleet will spend the game cruising around enemy territory, going from town to town to assault enemy defenses, grab repairs and supplies for your ships, as well as hire mercenaries to supplement your relatively tiny force. In my time playing, I’ve only had a fleet up to about 10-12 ships at max, and enemy formations can vary from just a few ships to having about an equivalent number. Worse still, the enemy seems to have easier access to big fuck-off cruisers that will pummel your ships into oblivion given the chance.

So, that’s enough lead-up I think. Let’s talk about the meat of the game: the cool-as-hell combat.

LIKE A FLASH GAME (BUT IN A GOOD WAY)

So, when faced with an enemy formation, you are given the ability to organize your fleet’s combat order, the first ship will go out to fight first, then when that one’s retreated or blown up, the following ship will come in, and so on. I thought this was confusing at first, given that the enemy will have multiple ships deployed at the same time, but Highfleet is, at its heart, a 2D aerial shooter. Your ships can fly along the x and y axes, facing off against enemy ships who want your blood. The action is difficult to sell through text, but as your destroyer thrusts above the enemy to fire several rounds of 120 mm high explosive into the roof of an enemy vessel, causing it to catch fire and careen wildly out of control, deploying escape pods before it hits the ground… well that in the industry is what we call “the good shit.”

Ships can vary between being floating fortresses, massive structures with massive cannon, missiles, and parasite planes attached, to what is essentially a thruster with some guns tied to them. Damage in combat is determined based on what type of shell/missile hits what part of the structure of your ship, and things will blow up/ fall off satisfyingly. Ships can easily spin out of control if one of their thrusters is damaged, and your landing gears can also be broken off, making landing for repairs (a mini-game you can do in towns to speed up the repair speed for a ship) a non-starter. Of course, that assumes your ship survives combat, which it easily couldn’t. Combat is generally pretty fast, with errant shots able to detonate ammo stores, but larger ships can duke it out for minutes, which feels like running a marathon. Fortunately, as your ship sustains damage against several enemy combatants, you can bring it to the side of the screen to retreat, and the next ship in rotation will appear, hopefully fresh and able to beat up on the enemy forces.

I really have to commend the developer, Konstantin Koshutin, for how good combat feels. It feels exactly as violent as it is, with ships weighing thousands of tons shooting heavy artillery at each other hundreds of meters in the air. The weight of movement and weapons feels right, and the action is visceral. A feature that is sorely lacking in Highfleet is a skirmish mode, as it would be fantastic to throw these massive beats at each other outside the context of the campaign. Speaking of which…

A MERRY TREK TO DOOM

As I mentioned above, the gist of the campaign is to move your fleet from one end of the campaign map to the other, your objective being the enemy’s capital. You are, except your current fleet, alone, and need to scavenge for supplies, ships, recruits, and allies on the way. This is an interesting and deep part of the game that I feel unfortunately doesn’t stack quite up to the excitement of the combat. Maybe I’m just not great at being the head strategist of the team, but to me, it can frequently feel like a lot of shuffling around between enemy cities to try to pick off lone transports or rushing an enemy oil depot to get a cheap refill of your tanks. It’s also very hard to come back from a losing situation, as you are being hunted by what feels like increasingly strong enemies, with your own fleet succumbing to constant attrition through skirmishes.

Thank you, Petr.

The campaign layer does have several interesting systems, such as various methods of radar detection, the ability to intercept messages from the enemy, which warn you of positions of their transports and terrifying strike fleets, and the ability to form up smaller task forces to strike around the region. These are interesting diversions on the campaign layer, but I feel like they can become just a bit of extra noise.

Added to the stack of things you have to keep track of, in addition to all the enemy fleets, your fleet’s status, the opinion of the people you’re “liberating”, you can also do some tinkering on your ships to customize them. This is a very cool feature that scares the hell out of me. All changes seem to take place immediately, and it’s not super apparent to me which part of the ship does what… through experience you can figure it out, or you might have a better idea than I do already. Unfortunately for everyone, including myself, I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts instead of an engineering degree, so this doesn’t come naturally to me, but I have seen other players cannibalize ships in their fleets to build ugly but incredibly efficient monstrosities that pulverize enemy forces. I hope there’s an update to the ship building system that makes it kinder in the future, as there isn’t much of a tutorial for it, and the fear of messing up one of your few valuable ships can be felt the whole time you’re refitting.

CONCLUSION

HighFleet is a unique beast. I have complaints about it, as I’ve said, but a lot of that comes down to my personal experience with the game so far, your mileage could vary with it. Maybe you really like building ships, or maybe the strategic layer is meant for you, there are a lot of you who would probably like that.

I can say though, one inarguable fact about HighFleet though, is that the game is absolutely dripping with style. The aesthetics of the game are great, with the screen shaking on hits in battle, bullet holes puncturing the UI, you can hear crew talking and sending radio messages in combat/ landings, as well as the ambient sounds of the ships in the campaign. And the sounds and looks of the guns in combat! It’s really something great to behold, and if you’re unsure about the game, I recommend taking a look at a video of this on Youtube, to at the very least appreciate the vibes.

You can convince some locals to help you through a card-based mini-game that feels somewhat under-utilized.

I can’t really compare HighFleet to any other wargames out now, as unique as it is. If you like experimental projects oozing with cool, check it out!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull