Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865) Review

Ah yes, the good ol’ American Civil War. You can’t walk 5 feet in the wargaming sphere without tripping over 500 games set in the period. For good reason, as the war marked an evolution in tactics and strategy from the old Napoleonic style to the industrialized meat-grinders of the Russo-Japanese war and World War 1, so there’s a lot of interesting parts of the war to take a look at. The question is though, can a new game bring enough to the table to justify crowding further an already over-crowded setting? Well in the case of Grand Tactician, that answer is easily a resounding yes.

THE WAR OF SOUTHERN AGGRESSION

An early war engagement. Not to brag, but I whipped those rebels pretty easily.

First off, I want to say: boy, this game is gorgeous. It is easily the best-looking grognard game I’ve seen, with the battle maps and the overall map of the US being very detailed, coupled with a nifty transition from paper map to actual view as you zoom in and out. The cutscenes also feature live-action reenactments of Civil War battles, which adds a fun bit of extra production to the game. It can feel like you’re playing a Ken Burns documentary at times, and I mean that in a good way.

Grand Tactician is also absurdly detailed in many ways, with bridges and passes on the map being open for inspection, letting you see how many tons of food, metal, guns, ammo, etc. are transported through there in a timeframe. You can also see individual manufactories, what supplies they use, and what they produce. This information will almost never be relevant to the player, but it’s there, and the simple fact that it’s modeled certainly is something special.

Grand Tactician places the player in the vague shoes of commander of the military of the Union/ Confederacy, but also gives the player a fair amount of control over things like political policies and finances for the state. The focus of the player will always be first and foremost winning the war, and handily allows some AI control over most non-military matters to keep your tunnel vision on the task at hand.

The game plays out over a broad map of the eastern part of the US to the Midwest, cutting off around Oklahoma. The game is, shockingly, an RTS, something that scared the hell out of me the first time I booted it up. “You want me to control multiple armies over this vast expanse of country?” I said to my monitor, which didn’t answer. It’s a very daunting task, but your opponent is put in the same predicament as you, having to build armies (brigades at a time, so you can be very specific as to your army composition) and order them around the map, keeping in mind such obstacles as supplies, the support level of the state, the weapons the units are equipped with, the personalities of the officers in charge of the men, etc.

There’s a lot to keep track of, but the game does an overall pretty good job of teaching you. There is an extensive in-game manual that is very helpful, though I did have to learn some things for myself, such as how to send units to a destination by rail, or how to order special move-orders to units otherwise (hover over the orange symbol that appears after you give an order, a sub-menu appears). That all being said, things got far more interesting once I was able to muster my armies in the Spring of 1861 and finally get a look at how Grand Tactician handles battles.

WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

The battle mechanics aren’t quite like any other game I’ve played. There are echoes of Total War and the Scourge of War games, but Grand Tactician has its own thing going. Each division is tied to the divisional commander, and while these units can operate independently, there are order delays, as any orders on the battlefield must be issued from the commanding general down to the divisional commanders, and from there to the individual units. This means that long marches down roads to an occupied town can result in disasters as new enemies appear but the courier is still on the way to dispatch new orders to your lead brigade, which has now been caught in a blistering crossfire. However, the AI has to play by these rules as well; it’s quite satisfying to watch little models of couriers scurry from the enemy commander when you do something they don’t like.

The act of fighting itself should be familiar to players of Empire: Total War, or the Scourge of War games. Your guys have guns, point them at the enemy, eventually someone will run. There are a lot of additional factors to consider in this formula however, including such things as the officers’ traits, the range of the combat, any cover, how experienced the units are/ if they have any specializations, or even if smoke from other fighting could potentially obscure your lines, making firing less accurate. It’s definitely a game, but it’s a hell of a simulation as well. I always feel accomplished when I manage to outflank the enemy, but never feel that it’s unfair when my own units cut and run from combat in these cases rather than their units running. Green units don’t like to stick around in combat, even if they’re winning handily.

NOTHING BUT TOMBS

I can talk for a very long time about all the positives of Grand Tactician, because it is a very good game, and if you are interested in the period or in wargaming in general, you should definitely give it a try. That being said, there are some caveats I want to mention in advance. To start with, the AI can sometimes be a bit thickheaded. It’s rarely outright dumb, but it can be a bit slow to react at times. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is no multiplayer option, meaning that you can’t boot up a campaign against your old buddy you used to play co-op Total War campaigns with. The game sorely needs multiplayer, in my opinion.

Additionally, while the devs have done a great deal to make such a detailed game accessible, there are still elements of the UI or game concepts that are still difficult to parse, or, in some cases, just completely imperceptible. The economic arm of the game is one such example: I left the economy in the hands of the AI in my first campaign and ended up being millions of dollars in debt and having terrible credit, which affected my ability to recruit new units or build new ships. I tried to assert my dominance over the game systems by learning how to make the economy work to my favor, but there’s really no explanation as to how you can do anything about it, other than maybe investing in industrial subsidies in early 1861.

But at the end of the day, why should you care so much about industrial subsidies when the act of striking blows against your opponent in combat is so much fun? Because it is fun, and even thrilling at times, which is more than I can say of many of Grand Tactician’s contemporaries. I am following the future updates to Grand Tactician and the further games from this team with great interest.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull

SGS Heia Safari Review

Heia Sofia does several things for me right out of the gate. One, it’s another of SGS’s boardgame-like wargames that carry on the spirit of my beloved AGEOD series. Two, it’s set in an interesting and underdone theatre of war. Three, the barrier to entry is tiny comparative to a lot of other wargames on the market. In short, it’s a very particular style of wargame, but it works for me in a way that makes it easy to play game after game.

For the First Time Into Africa’s Great War

There may be others, but as far as my experience goes, this is the first digital wargame to focus entirely on the East African Campaign of the First World War. Focusing mainly on the exploits of German General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, the narrative of this campaign sees a small but determined force of German colonial and native soldiers fighting an expansive and successful guerrilla war against the overwhelming forces of the British Empire and their allies, Belgium and Portugal. It is a fascinating campaign not only because of the totally different nature of combat in East Africa, but also because of the difficulty in maintaining supply lines, dealing with disease, and the impact of the war on local populations.

One of the first lectures I listened to from Dr. Timothy Stapleton, a colleague at the University of Calgary, was about the societal impact of this campaign on the peoples who’s homes it was fought over. Most striking to me was the absolutely brutal toll inflicted on porters and carriers. While British army personnel suffered approximately 10,000 casualties from all sources, though mostly from disease, their porters suffered around 100,000. While the German forces kept worse records, research points to around 300,000 civilians dying in the region as a result of disease and famine brought on by both sides requisitioning food and supplies during the fighting.

It is a sobering thought, but one that makes it all the more important that there be any media that touches on this subject. I wish that SGS Heia Safari probed a little deeper into this side of the war, but I do appreciate that unrest, disease, and resistance to occupation in the relevant colonies is worked into events and action cards.

How Does SGS Heia Safari Play?

Those familiar with the SGS series of games will feel right at home. There is a certain comfortable boardgamey feeling to the overall play of SGS games. Tokens represent forces comprised of multiple units that can be split and merged. Movement is area to area with terrain playing a role in battles, movement cost, and Heia Safari’s case, attrition. Cards are central, with their use governing historical events, replacements and special circumstances. Battles are fought over several rounds, where units roll dice trying to score low enough to deal damage to the enemy force. Breaking the enemy may allow for pursuits, and there are special considerations for artillery, ambushes, and fortifications. Really, everything one would expect in an operational game is present, from supply to replacements to naval and ground combat.

Overall, the Heia Safari is very quick to learn. Play advances through a set of phases, first for one player then the other, with turns comprising of one month increments. It doesn’t take very long to figure out which units are reliable, which need to be protected, and where the war is likely to turn hot. The only really learning curve is figuring out what kind of cards might come up, but managing your deck is an important part of play. There is nothing really revolutionary here besides the setting, but a good wargame is good regardless of whether or not it reinvents the wheel.

The Good, and the Not So Good

I loved my time with Heia Safari. I should get that out of the way. I love board wargames as much as digital wargames, and this title, like most SGS games I’ve played, fit nicely into that niche of digitized wargames that simplify the hassle while presenting a clean, fun, and easy game to get lost in.

The setting is the star of the show. The campaign forces very different play styles for the Entente and the German forces. The Entente player must use their resources to capture German territory without overcommitting. The fact that the commitment level is a game mechanic with meaningful impact on the Entente victory conditions is an excellent step towards forcing the player to consider exactly how important a measured advance is to a long term victory. The German player must husband scarce resources and protect a vast territory. With the game pointing to key settlements and a railway to make sure the German player can’t get comfortable running forever.

The enemy AI has so far been pretty good with tactical decisions, but less so with strategic. Playing as Germany, I was pleasantly surprised at the Entente AI’s ability to keep me on my toes and, most importantly, keep me from running roughshod over their borders. They continually applied pressure where I was weak and forced me to fall back into my own territory whenever I got greedy. Strategically, it was difficult for them to get a toehold in my territory in the first couple years of the war. British forces continually attacked near Kilimanjaro, making it relatively easy for me to set up a defense in depth to meet their attacks. The AI was competent enough to give me a run for my money in that campaign eventually, but I wish it was a little more situationally aware of the wider strategic goals. As always, Player versus player will be the best choice, but I thoroughly enjoyed the AI’s ability to punish my mistakes and to present difficult tactical situations, especially around the southern border where they were freer to maneuver.

Final Thoughts

I know I’m predisposed to like these games, but I really do think that Heia Safari presents an interesting enough campaign to warrant diving in. That is, of course, if one is alright with the boardgame style and use of cards. The game is significantly different enough to warrant two playthroughs before moving on to multiplayer.

SGS Heia Safari is dynamic, colourful, simple to learn, and an eye opening look at an important but underrepresented battle.

-Joe Fonseca

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Let’s Talk About Wargames received a free game code for the purposes of this review. You can check out the game’s website here.

Warhammer 40k: Battlesector Review

This review took me a lot longer to write than I anticipated. I managed to write about each of the preview builds that Warhammer 40k: Battlesector experienced but when it came time to write the review of the full game, I didn’t really know how to go about it. I had already talked about how the game plays, what I thought was good and bad, and what I had hoped would change for the full release. I guess seeing that nothing had really changed between the preview and the final build threw me off. It made me want to finish literally everything to do with the game before I wrote out the review. But that didn’t happen for a long, long time.

So, apologies, but here it is:

Once More into the Battlesector

For those who missed out on our previews, Warhammer 40k: Battlesector is a tactical turn based wargame focusing on positioning and managing unit abilities to stem a ferocious tide of Tyranid invaders on a desert moon. On the surface it looks like a fairly simple game, and while it isn’t as complex as some of the other things we cover on this blog, there is still enough tactical decision-making to make it interesting. This becomes more true the deeper into the game you get. When you’re looking at the relative firepower and accuracy drop off of the bolters carried by your Primaris Marines and your Sisters of Battle to try and properly equip for a mission, it feels like a good amount of thinking.

Each mission is accompanied by a story, told through the perspectives of different heroes you get to bring along, before opening up to force composition. Equipping a force for each scenario is fairly open and, coupled with investing points into upgrades that benefit different troop types, has a lot of potential for variety.

The missions themselves tend to play our similarly each time you go through them, so Battlesector falls into one of wargaming’s (potential) traps by becoming more of a puzzle: Here is the challenge this mission presents, here are the forces you’ve built up for the mission, how will you apply those forces to this puzzle? I don’t think this is a bad thing. It gives some replayability to the game, and if you’re like me, you’ll feel drawn to completing missions a few times to try and minimize casualties.

The Really Good Bits

Since I’ve written so much about this game already, I thought I would just try to hammer down the bits that I really like, and the bits that I’m not so keen on. As always, let’s start with the good.

The narrative and presentation is suitably 40k, and that’s a lot of fun. Yes the story is hokey, but it actually pokes at some of the interesting aspects of the universe’s new changes. How would first generation Space Marines deal with this upstart second generation? What does this new crusade mean for the cherished old ways? It never really dives too deep, but it is fun. It helps that each character delivers their cutscene lines with the kind of over the top gravitas everyone expects from a 40k property.

The tactical considerations related to range elevate what could have been a turkey shoot. The enemy, being Tyranids, are aliens that tend to rush towards your soldiers in an attempt to overwhelm them. Therefore dealing with the monsters while maintaining low casualties comes down to the correct application of your force’s firepower. Each weapon has an optimal range, and it is incredibly important to make sure you’re taking advantage of that with almost every shot. Failing to do so will mean gruesome death for your marines and sisters.

Finally, the game looks and sounds great. It is nice to see such effort placed into these departments. The included photo mode is also a fun addition that allows you to highlight some of the more interesting clashes you’ll find yourself in.

The Not Really Good Bits

This is my biggest issue, and one that I complained about during the betas. Each mission ends with you mopping up every Tyranid unit on the map. Sometimes, this isn’t really an issue. Other times, there are two units left and because you sent the majority of your force one way, you need to spend turns shifting them the other way in order to finally mop up. So few missions benefit from this that I really struggle to understand why it was included.

There are only two playable factions. This game has the potential to be a fun multiplayer game and a good proxy for Warhammer 40k on the computer, but it is going to have a rocky start if there are only two factions and the rest are gated behind DLC and time. I understand why this is how it happened, but I’m thinking about the long term survivability of the game.

Conclusions

It’s fun! That’s really the take away here. Warhammer 40k Battlesector is a fun tactical wargame. It’s not overly deep, but it’s not too shallow to prevent any tactical decision-making from occurring. It’s a good romp through a well presented bit of the 40k universe with some interesting mechanics surrounding range and optimal ability use. It won’t be for everyone, but it can be for many.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

-Joe Fonseca

Slitherine/Matrix provided us with a copy of this game for the purposes of this review. Check out the game here. We get nothing if you click on that link.

Unity of Command 2: Moscow 41 Review

Been awhile, huh folks? Sorry for the delay getting this review out, it’s been a really crazy chunk of time. Speaking of crazy chunks of time, I’m here to talk about the crazy point in time during the defense of Moscow in late 1941, where the Soviet forces were constantly being pushed back, throwing haphazard globs of units into the lines to slow the advancing Germans down (more or less, anyway).

You as the player will be taking the fancy hat of Soviet Marshal, seeking to halt the German advance or at least provide speedbumps, made of lots of conscripts. It’s grim stuff, with many units bearing the “1” tag on their unit cards, signifying they will not return in future battles, likely meaning that the unit in history was wiped from existence. In practice, this means that a LOT of your units, particularly during the early part of the campaign, are expendable. It’s a strange thing to wrap your brain around, after a base game and 2 DLCs worth of campaigns based around keeping core units alive, but you will become hardened, and give nothing more than a curt nod to your conscripts as you toss them into a combat with the projected result of “5:0.”

Note the amount of reconstituted units.

All that being said, you do need men to man the lines, and can’t get too crazy with throwing bodies under tank treads. While some of the missions involve counter-punches to over-extended German lines, a lot of them are “hold these cities or else, Comrade.” Defending is an interesting change of pace from the rhythm of “attack attack attack” in the other campaigns, and I’m not wholly sold on defending in the UoC2 model. Sure, you can protect your supply lines and use your limited command points to tell your guys to pile up sandbags or use that nearby concrete truck to build a fort, but it’s a lot more passive than being on the offensive. Obviously.

Perhaps it’s because of the largely replaceable and ineffective nature of your units, but I wasn’t grabbed by this DLC like I was with the other ones. Where we had daring rushes across large stretches of steppes to seize a railroad checkpoint, we have several hexes of units twiddling their thumbs, waiting for their turn to have the German army quite literally drive over them. The places where Moscow 41 shines are where it encourages you to push back against the attackers, though frequently doing so is a fool’s errand. A particularly cunning general can take advantage of extended German lines to sneak around and cut them off, and there are a fair amount of opportunities for this, but doing so is damn hard.

120% losses, folks.

Speaking of difficulty, there’s been a bit of hubbub regarding how hard Moscow 41 is, compared to the other campaigns. I think that Moscow 41 is pretty tough, but not unfair (lest we forget Unity of Command 1). While I gripe about the passivity of sitting on the defensive, holding points is generally straightforward and attainable. The bonus objectives, which are meant to be tough to nab, are indeed very tough to capture, due to your inferior position in most of these scenarios. It’s not a campaign you should try for a “perfect” score on, by any means.

CONCLUSION

Moscow 41 is an interesting and intermittently fun diversion from the other campaigns, though more hit-or-miss in terms of standout scenarios. The focus on defending can mean a more passive gameplay approach, and this coupled with many expendable units can result in an exercise in using human molasses to stop a tank, which isn’t always fun. But when it offers chances to strike back, this is a great sample of wargaming. Also, Soviets are always fun in WW2.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull

SGS Afrika Korps: Tunisia Review

Going into this review I must admit something important. Something that some of you may find disturbing and unnatural. I am a HUGE fan of the classic AGEOD series of wargames. I mention this because SGS Afrika Korps: Tunisia comes to us from Philippe Thibaut, designer of the original Europa Universalis and the AGEOD series, and his team. The AGEOD legacy is clearly evident, and while I’m about to go in depth as to how Tunisia differs, it’s best to remember that I have a personal attachment to this game’s forbearers.

How does SGS Afrika Korps Play?

Afrika Korps: Tunisia is a turn based operational level wargame where players take command of either side of the 1942-43 Battle for North Africa during the Second World War. Players take control of American, Commonwealth, and French forces or their German and Italian enemies, moving brigades, air support, and supplies around a colourful area map of the region.

Gameplay is more regimented than most wargames, with several distinct phases controlling the flow of a turn. These phases cover reinforcements, the play of special strategic cards, air attacks and movement, ground movement, battles, and any post-fighting shuffling that might happen. Personally, I enjoyed this structure because it helped minimize some of the analysis paralysis I know was a problem with older AGEOD titles. Being presented with a giant blank canvas full of units and options made those classic games a challenge to approach. Here I found the familiar ground presented to me in a clearer and more concise format.

Secondly, the structured turns, in addition to the card play mechanics and transparent dice mechanics, gives SGS Afrika Korps a distinct board game quality, one that is reinforced by the overall presentation of the game. As my wall of board wargames will attest, I like the feel of a good board wargame and found SGS did a solid job of presenting itself as such. This is an aesthetic and gameplay choice that some might not mesh with, but those who appreciate board wargaming and like the transparency and simpler rules that a board game-like PC game provides will be happy with SGS Afrika Korps.

Battles, whether they are air bombardments or conventional ground based attacks, operate along similar lines. Both sides will take it in turn to attack the other in rounds. Units like artillery will fire first, and certain special units, like Panzer Brigades or scouts, have special rules that will alter the standard flow of battle. I appreciate that a lot of the obfuscated information that hindered AGEOD games is now out in the open in SGS. Each unit’s roll of the die will be laid out during the battle to fly by as quickly or slowly as players like.

The importance of unit composition, like including artillery, air support, and scouts in most fighting formations gives players clear goals to strive towards, highlighting the supply and reinforcement issues that plagued this campaign. It will often be difficult to bring a balanced force to bear against your opponent, but when it happens, it really feels like you made it happen.

The cards may put some people off, but I enjoy what they add to the game. Like with board wargames, cards with special situational events on the help to simulate the wider war without bogging down players by forcing them to learn a million extra rules. Just know that the skillful use of tactical cards during battle and strategic cards during a turn will be an important part of SGS’s wider strategy.

Visuals and Feel in SGS Afrika Korps

Visually, I like what Tunisia has to offer. It is a relatively standard tabletop set up, but the unit graphics and photographs on the cards are nice. The only complaint I have here is that some unit art appears to be recycled, and I found myself highlighting units to remind myself if this indistinct French infantryman was a Zouave unit or a mechanized brigade. It’s odd because so many units have their own art, but not all.

There are several ways to control units, and that seems like a nice accessibility feature. moving stacks can be done by dragging and dropping or by right clicking, which brings up a coloured radius of areas that the stack can reach. A lot of information can be toggled on and off including supply maps and area stacking limits. There are a few video tutorials, but for those unfamiliar with the old AGEOD games, a few turns of trial and error will probably be necessary to come to grips with how Tunisia flows.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed my time with SGS Afrika Korps: Tunisia. It felt like a natural evolution of the AGEOD formula into something more accessible, understandable, and perhaps enjoyable for those who might have been put off by that series’ complexity. I appreciate the board game feel and aesthetics, but understand that some might be put off by the transparently game-y aspects of Tunisia. I think it’s worth exploring and am looking foward to more from SGS.

-Joe Fonseca

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A fun, accessible, and pretty game that carries the AGEOD feeling into a new era. Definitely not for everyone, but for board wargame lovers or those who liked the concept, if not the execution, of the classic AGEOD titles.

A Steam Code was provided to Let’s Talk About Wargames for the purposes of this review. The game is available on Steam and through the SGS website. LTAW doesn’t get anything if you click that link.

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