Friday, 22 July 2011

Campaign 2011 - month 4

Month 4 was billed as a Mega Battle, and it sure was, in more ways than one.

I knew multiplayer games didn't seem to work well on a single table, so I had to cook up a plan for creating a mega, cooperative battle that could take place on separate tables. How would that work? And what effect would the battle have on the campaign? But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Gareth, one of our three skaven players, sent me the following message:
"... I am respectfully going to withdraw from our gaming group. The over riding factor in this decision is that I am primarily an historical figure painter/gamer and Warhammer was an entry point for me, however I was never really grabbed by playing it.
Its been very nice getting to know you all and I do hope to see you all again ... thank you for your hospitality and good luck with the campaign."

Now we are seven
Well, no disrespect to Gareth (who is a really nice guy), but a little bit of me was glad he dropped out. First of all he was playing skaven (and having three skaven players in a group of eight was a drag), then there was the Brettonnian debacle, and the last-minute dropping-out in month 3. Plus, every month Gareth's orders were "I'll do whatever you suggest", which wasn't much fun. On the other hand that left us with an odd number of players and since we only play one game per campaign turn, we need an even number.

Andrew (the poor guy whose house we descend upon once a month) said he might have a friend who would be interested in joining, but it wouldn't be until month 5. So the mega battle was going to involve seven players.

One serendipitous effect of all this was that we suddenly had a bunch of skaven territories that were up for grabs. Which solved the problem of how we integrate it into the campaign: the players who secure the best victories in the mega-battle are entitled to their pick of Gareth's territories (with the lowest two players missing out on the spoils).

The orc horde
I liked the idea of the mega battle being a battle against a single foe, otherwise it would be a regular battle by another name. Andrew had a huge orc army, and so did I, so maybe we could face-off against the other players? Well, I could face off against one, he could face two more, and the remaining two could play an orc-themed game.

The solution I came up with, was to play the three games in real time. The idea being that the three battles are happening nearby at the same time. That gave me the opportunity to have special rules that have a bearing on all three games, and these effects could change depending on the progress of the individual battles. You'll see how it works when you read the scenarios.

The stomp
I was beginning to get worried we had an imbalance of power. After only three games the best players were streaking ahead and dominating the map. And the more territory they owned, they stronger they became. What a perfect opportunity, then, for Gork to come stomping all over the map and even up the score a little. After the game, I asked every player to roll a dice for each of their territories. On a roll of 1, the area was stomped and they lost control of it. That meant that players with larger realms were bound to lose a few, while the little guys might get away with it. The ploy worked well, and sure enough the big players got a bloody nose, which also opened the map up a bit.

Tipping the balance
Part of the reason why the good players had prospered was that the victory spoils were incredibly imbalanced (though it took me three months to realise it). If you won a game, you not only got 4 EPs, but you stole your opponent's territory off him. He only got 1 EP, and lost a territory, so the good players were experiencing exponential growth.

With a quick tweak of the rules, victors now had to start paying for the privilege of occupying the territory they'd just conquered, at a cost of 2EPs.

I also flipped the rule in Mighty Empires that allows the top-ranking player a 100pt bonus, and turned it into an underdog bonus. And finally I changed the Mighty Empires rule that allowed an additional 250pts of troops to be purchased with gold, to only 100pts.

So far, these measures have slowed down growth quite well.

Tactical mining
Some of the players had suggested that gold was basically becoming a boring commodity. Everyone dug for it, everyone collected it, but then all you could do with it was spend it on extra troops (now a maximum of only 100).

They had a fair point. So I added the ability to exchange gold for EPs (or sell EPs to generate gold) and also the ability to spend gold in the events phase, meaning players could now play multiple events or events that had already been played. Hopefully that would add a more tactical dimension to both the pursuit of gold and the events phase.

Phew! So with all those extra rules, all I had to do was organise the game. The Omens, and following documents explain it all. I had to produce a few gaming aids. All of these are under creative commons license, so feel free to use them in your own games...

The Omens Month 4
Game 1
Game 2
Game 3
Month 4 gaming aids

The scenarios called for two orc themed tables. I needed two idols of Gork (or Mork, or maybe one of each), three orc "totems", an orc encampment large enough to hide an army and a whole bunch of venom thickets and fungus forests (I limited the forest types to these two because they felt the most orcy).

Now, I'd already put hours into writing up the scenarios and extra rules. How the hell was I going to do all this in time? Well, I must admit, there was method in my madness. All of the rules and scenarios had been written with solutions in mind - old models, half-completed projects and other junk that was lying around unused in my cupboards. Finally, this stuff would get to see the light of day again.

The venom thicket and giant spiders were easy enough because I had already made a load of spiders' webs years ago for a skirmish game, along with five giant spiders from Heresy miniatures. A quick rummage in the attic unearthed twelve spiders from Warthammer Quest who, when sprayed black, could dress up the venom thickets a bit and give that "spider infested" look.

I had buried away in my cupboards two of the excellent orc encampment terrain pieces made by Games Workshop in 2000. They'd released a few of these tough foam terrain pieces (a bit like the ones Ziterdes make) to coincide with the release of the 6th edition army books. I thought they were super cool, but if you tried to play a game of warhammer with them, you quickly realised they blocked off half the battlefield, so they were retired to the back of the cupboard. Finally, they would have their day in the sun once more.

The only problem was that two of these made for a very small looking camp. So, as weird as it sounds, I ended up buying another off ebay - now quite rare and costing me about £20. Sigh. Still, three of those babies looked more convincing, and would look super cool with a great big Idol in the middle.

My original thought was to chop up the orc terrain pieces and have individual huts, walls and totems (heck, I was even planning on making extra huts and walls, but of course I ran out of time). I was planning on using the three little totems in the other game, but with those still fixed to their base, I had to make my own. These actually worked out quite well - three bits of chopped-up foam with a lick of paint. Hey presto - orc totems.

That just left the Idols. Man, I scoured the internet for all sorts of things to use - toys, halloween decorations, aquarium ornaments - but nothing worked for me. Then during a desperate search in my local pet store I saw them. Incredulously, my saving angel came down in the form of... Spongebob Squarepants. Squidwards house made a fine idol and looked the part too. Of course, they look better as goblin totems because of the big noses and they don't have pointy ears. And of course, I planned on converting them so that they had big spiky lower jaws and trophies all over them. And of course, I ran out of time. But I did paint one of them, and managed to reduced his goofiness sufficiently to look pretty cool.

On the night
As you can imagine, after all that, I was a wreck. I was totally stressed out, and spent the first hour setting up everyone's terrain and explaining the rules. I was also pretty interested to see how it all turned out, so I was in and out of our two gaming rooms like a yoyo.

My game didn't go well because as soon as Craig set up his chaos army I realised the scenario had a fatal flaw. I had written the orc camp scenario with the intention of a close-combat army having to plough through massed orcs in an attempt to bash the idol into bits. But as soon as he plonked a hellcannon onto the board, I realised it was all over before we'd begun. I had simply forgotten that he had that sort of artillery at his disposal! Sure enough, two turns of hellcannon shells and the idol blew into smithereens much sooner than expected. That had a terrible effect on two of the games, and meant our game wouldn't be lasting many turns. If I did it again, I'd add "no artillery" in the scenario rules.

I guess what bugged me more was the fact that Craig was playing it ultra-cautious and competitive, and simply refused to use the mystery items he got from ransacking the orc camps. My intention was for crazy, funny things to happen throughout the game, but I made the mistake of making the cards optional. That meant he chose not to play any of the cards until the final turn, when he knew he had won the game and there was no risk to him (and when they wouldn't make any difference to anyone). Damn, it took me hours to think up all those cards and write them, but what could I do? I tried suggesting he played some of them during the game, but he just said "no way! they might hurt me!" Sigh. Yeah, they might hurt you, dude, but they might also make the game more fun. If I did it again, I'd make them compulsory.

The effect that losing my idol had on the other tables was disastrous. There Andrew was, poised to move onto the table an absolutely enormous orc reinforcement force. And just as he was about to do so...BOOM my idol explodes and he is immediately banned from bringing them on. This really ruined his game, and the next few turns he had to manage with the rather sparse collection of models he already had on the table. I suppose I should be glad that the real-time aspect was playing out with unpredictable results, but I did feel bad. If only I'd remembered the hellcannon, then we could have all carried on for a couple more turns.

The spider game was by far the most successful. The table looked amazingly cool with idols, totems, spiders and webs all over the place. By all accounts the game was pretty balanced, and the random, crazy element of dangerous giant spiders roaming around the battlefield made it lots of fun to play. I was really proud.

Stranger in our midst
Our host Andrew, had been looking for someone who could be our eighth player and had brought along someone who was showing interest. It was understood that he wasn't going to play, merely lend an assist to Andrew, who was facing two opponents.

Now, this blog is not the place to bitch about my gaming companions - it really isn't. But let's just say this was really not the best night for me to meet this guy. Sure, he was friendly and enthusiastic, and bounded about with the boisterous exuberance of an excited child. It would have been quite charming, but the guy saw me as "the one who wrote all these rules" and bugged me constantly throughout the night with questions and queries. Not particularly good-natured, either. I don't think he realised how critical he was coming across: "You're playing three games in real time?! How is that even possible?! Why the hell are you doing this, it's completely ridiculous?!" Then, showing an interest in Andrews game, he started rules-lawyering the ass off me - quoting my own rules back at me, finding loopholes he could exploit, stretching every nuance to his advantage. He was absolutely loving it. I wasn't.

The night nearly killed me, but I also had a lot to be proud about. Sure, I'd screwed up in places and that nearly ruined two of the games, but that's the problem with flying by the seat of your pants with no play-testing. One out of the three games was a roaring success, and I'd just have to learn from the other two. Our guest had taken a lot of the shine off the evening, and the whacky real-time rules hadn't turned out to be quite so whacky as I'd hoped (which wasn't really my fault).

The main thing I took away from it was proof of concept: it's possible (nay, cool) to play a mega battle by having a number of real-time games running concurrently linked by a narrative element. The idea was sound and had a lot of potential.

So a bitter-sweet experience.

The final map
The players scoring the best victories got first share of Gareth's old, abandoned skaven territories, and we had just the right number of players for that system to work well. At the end of it all, the map looked like this:

Month 4 map (with added Mork stompy footprints!)

After all the weirdness, I figured it would be better for everyone to save up their EPs this month and spend them at the end of Month 5.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Campaign 2011 - month 3

In drawing up the schedule for the year, I'd tried to create a programme of events that would keep things fresh and avoid us going through the same old routine every game. So I added in three special features:
  1. The final siege of Mortendorf in month 12. I reckoned it would be good to have a resolution to the narrative element, but more importantly we can all have a super-mega-final blow-out with stupidly unbalanced, epic things happening as a bit of fun and a chance to celebrate the end of the campaign.
  2. Two so-called "mega-battles" during the year. I didn't know exactly what they would involve, but I had some ideas. More on that later.
  3. Four games with special rules - a chance for us to try slightly different approaches to playing the game: scenarios, alternative battlefields, special objectives etc. I hit upon the idea of theming the games around the four chaos powers. Since the gods of chaos are so ancient, I figured they would have a presence in the constellations. So according to an astrological calendar, each power would be dominant at some point, subtly exerting an influence on the whole Olde World. I'm particularly chuffed with this idea, because it presents what would have been a fairly arbitrary inclusion of special rules in a really characterful way that roots it right into the Warhammer universe.
So in this month, it was Khorne's turn on the throne of ascendancy. Since I wanted to get the character of the thing across properly, I put more effort into the Omens and wrote some sections of fiction. Here's what I sent round:

Month 3 - The Omens

The first piece of fiction refers to the Dark Elves' crushing defeat in month 2, introduces the idea of Khorne being ascendant in the heavens (referred to by the Druchii as the "moon cycle of Khaine"), and explains the Dark Elves' motivation for invading the valley (with the obligatory hint at incest thrown in for good measure). The second explains more explicitly what is meant by Khorne being ascendant, and illustrates how the gods subtly influence the behaviour of everyone in the Olde World, not just their own worshippers.

By month 3, I'd realised just how much administration was involved, and if I was ever going to get to grips with it, I'd need to record it all in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet has developed in time, and has become an invaluable tool. I send a copy of it round to the players with each Omens (though I'm not sure how many really look at it). The latest version (which includes data for all the months so far) is here:

Campaign admin 2011

It includes a summary page which is important for the players to see where they rank, as well as how many EPs and GPs they have to spend.

The campaign rules themselves didn't require many changes, but I added a whole bunch of administrative clarifications: when to send in your orders, when generate gold etc. I added one new event card, which gives any player to option of fielding a mercenary army. And I also invented Wysiwyg, the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent goblin who bestows rerolls to players who can field a fully painted army.

Finally, I added some extra rules regarding Khorne. These weren't actually that important - I opted for Khorne to go first mainly to establish the premise of using special rules every few games. The rules themselves were simple enough and designed simply to reflect the bloody nature of the god. From a campaign point of view, it gave the strongest players a chance to do some challenging, which shook things up a little.

Sadly on the night, we had some no-shows, thankfully two, meaning their respective opponents could face each other, contesting the same territories they had originally been challenged over.

On the tables, the extra rules made little difference (one table entirely forgot them). That was fine by me, because my intention wasn't for these special rules to interfere too much with the action.

The Spoils of War phase went more smoothly this month, with the players getting into their stride. At the end of the month, the map looked like this:

Map month 3

Little did they know what events awaited them in month 4!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Campaign 2011 - month 2

I sent round the Omens for month 2 in the form of an email, embellished with a prosaic sentence or two to summarise the previous month's events:
The forces of destruction have drawn first blood. The brave men of Ironhelm were suddenly overrun with swarms of foul rats from the east. The peaceful high elves of Silverlake were butchered by invading Beastmen. After a bloody clash with chaos invaders, the elves of Evermere forest have readied the fae spirits of the wood for war.

At a time of war, people look first to their gods and a rash of temples, towers and totems rise up to the skies across the valley. The families of Mortendorf and the surrounding lands can only wonder what dark machinations are afoot, while they batten their shutters, man the watchtowers and pray to their gods to protect them.

All well and good, but not as lavish as I'd hoped. In following months I'd write the Omens in a separate Word document.

I updated the rules (the first few months saw quite a few changes as the rules bedded in). For historical purposes, the rules looked like this in Month 2:

Campaign rules v3

Incidentally, the current version of the rules is here:

Campaign rules 2011

Month 2 took a while to get off the ground because the players really hadn't got to grips with the campaign rules. I was still getting orders based on Mighty Empires. I think I must have written 20 - 30 emails explaining to everyone what they could or couldn't do.

For the battle itself, we had everyone turn up, and the four games seemed to go well. I was trounced, but then I usually am.

Again, after the game, I had to go through tons of emails to explain how they could spend their EPs. But we got there in the end. It was good to see the players were using some of the rules I'd invented - it was only month 2 but we had a rash of temples being built and even a sanctuary. I'd created enough empty tiles on the map at the start of the campaign to ensure that the first few months would offer players choices of how and where to expand their territories.

Gaz (Wood Elves) seemed to be building an inpenetrable woodland stronghold around his capital. Craig (Warriors of Chaos) was looking to build a mountain empire, and Pete (Beastmen) were inexplicably snaking round the edge of the map.

At the end of month 2, the map looked like this:

Map month 2

I was finding it really intriguing to see what the players would do next.