Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Review of Imperial Assault - the Skirmish Game

If you've ever imagined what the opening scene of A New Hope would have been like if Darth Vader had boarded the Tantive IV ahead of the Storm Troopers, then Imperial Assault is the game for you.

And so, after writing a series of posts about the miniatures of Star Wars: Imperial Assault, it's time to take a look at game itself, and how the rules stack up against some of its competitors both ancient (Rogue Trader, Spacehulk) and modern (Saga, Bolt Action). 

Imperial Assault is interesting in that it can be played in a campaign mode (in which 2 opposing players play through a scripted set of encounters with ever-improving characters); and in a skirmish mode (in which 2 opposing players play a one-off battle against each other using custom built armies). After playing both the campaign and the skirmishs, I've found that the skirmish mode is much more fun, so that's what I'll focus on for this review.

Imperial Medical Bay by Henning Ludvigsen
The Imperial Medical Bay Tile
Since the battlefield is constructed out of a set of tiles (rather than a large, free-standing table top), the set-up is quick and doesn't occupy a lot of space. In this sense, the game is like Space Hulk, rather than Warhammer 40K. It helps that the tiles are so detailed, featuring artwork that's very evocative of the Star Wars Universe (much thanks to illustrator Henning Ludvigsen). The tiles also have an important influence on the game-play: they frame a compact battlefield, leading to games where violence and drama start right away.

Customization is another element of Imperial Assault that I enjoy. You build your army by assembling miniatures (whose point cost and abilities are set out on illustrated "activation cards") -- and then you build a second deck of special abilities (called "command cards") that you will get to play against your opponent throughout the game. Such cards might let you heal, hide or activate a character's special powers. The synergies are endless. Yet it's an easy system without book-keeping or army lists. Altogether this system furnishes great scope for new strategies and to experimentation.

This customization gets at the heart of something that Fantasy Flight Games has made into an art form: creating a dead simple rule set, but adding thematic flavour and strategic complexity through cards, which bend or enhance the rules. So, for instance, all characters are capable of dealing critical hits (called "surges") but each character's surges have different effects -- and these effects are all set out clearly on their cards. This system adds depth without complexity. (The army lists of Bolt Action or the battle boards of Saga are other ways giving your army unique abilities, but I find that these mechanics can get convoluted and tie the players down to a rule book).

But my favourite thing about imperial Assault (besides STAR WARS) is the way they handle luck. Many (most?) skirmish games depend on a 6 sided dice (something that goes right back to Rogue Trader). The main advantages of 6 sided dice are that they're simple and everyone has some. But there are problems: the d6 creates a highly random system (since there is no curve, as you would get with rolling two 6-sided dice for a total between 2-12). Plus, even the smallest modifier (+1 or -1) changes the odds a great deal. The result is a game without much nuance, and where the players are dependent on luck to kill or preserve the most important models on the table.

Imperial Assault breaks out of this paradigm by using a simple solution: customized dice. The game features a variety of differently coloured 6-sided dice to determine attacks, each with its own combination of pips representing attack strength, range and critical hits. The pips are distributed in a way that softens the naked randomness of a roll between 1 and 6 (for instance, no attack die has a blank face, and no die has a face with more than three pips on it). As a result, while luck certainly plays a roll in the skirmish game, most attacks deal a fairly predictable amount of damage, giving the players more scope to focus on strategy and card-play.

E-Web Blaster, Imperial Assault (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

What are the drawbacks to Imperial Assault? Well, certainly cost is one. The game itself is expensive ($99 USD), and the additional miniature packs are not cheap either, especially considering that the figures are neither resin nor metal. Also, the range of miniatures is limited. To date, there are only 22 different miniatures sculpts (with about 10 more sculpts in development). I hope Fantasy Flight picks up the pace -- but given their commitment to so many other games, it's unclear if this will happen.

A more significant problem flows from the game's very strengths. The dependence on miniature-specific cards means that your investment in the game could evapourate if and when Fantasy Flight Games decides to release a second edition with new rules. (Something like this happened when Imperial Assault's sibling game, Descent, transitioned from the first to the second edition. Fantasy Flight ameliorated the situation by releasing a "conversion pack" that issued new 2nd edition cards for the old 1st edition miniatures). This risk, of course, is not really a problem for historical wargames like Bolt Action or Saga, where an army of Saxons can always leap from one rule-set to another.

Nexu, Imperial Assault (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)
I've written about how we're living in a golden age of board games. I see Imperial Assault as part of that picture - a conscious effort to improve on old games using new and creative mechanics. Like Dead Man's Hand, it uses a deck of cards to enhance simple rules. Like Saga or Bolt Action, it uses customized dice. And like classic games like Heroquest or Space Hulk, it uses colour tiles to create a beautiful battle-board that anyone can access instantly, without a whole lot of modelling and set-up. And finally, like Warhammer 40K, it offers great possibilities for army building. But what Imperial Assault does that's unique is combining these elements into one cohesive game. Frankly, I can't wait to bust out Darth Vader and take another run at those Rebel Troopers...

My favourite activation card

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Rough Trade: an Orc Baggage Train

"The rag-tag followers that trail after an Orc & Goblin army are vile, destitute and quarrelsome beyond even the disgustingly low standards set by Orc warriors. Heavy and multiple-dugged Orc womenfolk make up the majority of the baggage train. Their mewling off-spring, the aged, whelps and assorted hangers-on make up the rest."

"Those too infirm, old or stupid to be drafted into the army can make a good living by 'workin' the baggage'. Drivers, leather workers, smiths, bunko-artists, and all manner of worthless scum can profit by hanging round the army. Taking advantage of the confusion, they loot pillage, burn and steal along with the rest of the army as well as sharing in the fun (torturing captives) and spoils (eating captives)."

Orc Villagers C46, Citadel Miniatures (1988, sculpted by Trish Carden)

Thus reads one of my favourite passages of writing in the entire body of Warhammer literature: the description of Orc & Goblin baggage trains contained in Warhammer Armies (1988) by Nigel Stillman. It embodies perfectly the colourful, grotesque and wry world of classic Warhammer.

As I've written before, I think a fantasy army is incomplete without a proper baggage train -- there's no better way to give your force its own unique personality. Certainly, my hapless and profoundly inebriated orc army, Krapfang's Backwood Bandits, deserved a suitably sordid group of camp followers. I wanted to give them a carnivaleque feel... one part Bruegel the Elder and one part Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Treasure Chest C39, Citadel Miniatures (1984, sculpted by Rick Priestly)

An orc army is spoiled for choice. The starting place is the range of Orc Villagers (C46) released by Citadel in 1988. Trish Morrison (now Trish Carden) is sometimes maligned -- and Crom knows, I've never loved her work for Marauder. But these Orc Villagers are the bees knees. They are especially gangly and awkward sculpts, even for orcs of the Kev Adams era. For Krapfang's army, I was immediately drawn to the blind drunk orcs, which I put together in a mini-diorama. I also wanted some looters, so I chose a male orc stealing a ham and a female orc stealing a halfling (it's the other white meat).

I rounded out the booty with one of the rare miniatures sculpted by game designer Rick Priestly -- a strong box from the C39 range of Treasure Chests. Who knew RP could sculpt very tiny furniture? The man's talents never cease to amaze.

Orc Villager C46, Citadel Miniatures (1988, sculpted by Trish Carden)

But I wanted something special for the centerpiece of the baggage train. And that's when I hit on the idea of putting together a pathetic gang of human captives that the orcs are getting ready to sell for beer money. The slaves' presence would lend Krapfang a much needed air of cruelty -- and they can also function as a nice objective for any opposing army. The slave-master was an easy choice: a Goblin charioteer (from Marauder MM33), wielding a highly motivating whip. But finding the slaves was a harder matter - eventually I settled for some non-Citadel miniatures to fit the bill... some lovely sculpts from Iron Wind Metals.

Goblin MM33, Marauder Miniatures (1989, sculpted by Aly Morrison and Trish Carden)

Thrown together, I think they make a fairly unsavory tribe. The little touches in the sculptures are what I love the most: how the captured halfling is wagging his little legs, or way the eating orc wraps his lips around the leg of ham, like an octopus absorbing his prey.

Now, won't someone come and rescue those slaves?

Orc Baggage Train, C46, Citadel Miniatures (1988, sculpted by Trish Carden)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Painted Imperial Assault Miniatures

Fantasy Flight Games continues to release Star Wars miniatures for their skirmish game, Imperial Assault. And as often as they release 'em, I'm compelled by a deep, salmon-spawning instinct to paint 'em. They could release a dollop of burning plastic, and I would have to paint it up. 

Han Solo, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

Lucky for me, the Imperial Assault sculptures seem to be getting better and better, with little touches that add a lot of character. So, for example, this model of Han Solo (from the "Han Solo Ally Pack") is transformed by one simple detail: the corner of his vest flares out, giving us the feeling that he's just whipped his body around to face a new threat.

A thoughtful person painting Han Solo is faced with an insoluble dilemma. Do I paint the hideous yellow shirt that he wore in A New Hope? Or the crisp white one that he wore in Empire Strikes Back? If you are indifferent on this issue, then ask yourself why you are reading this blog in the first place. 

Ultimately, I opted for authenticity -- this miniature looks like the younger Han, a man unafraid to commit crimes against both the Empire and fashion.

Han Solo, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

Chewbacca turned out to be a surprisingly difficult miniature to paint. This is because his fur is not a uniform brown, like Cousin Itt. Instead, the more I looked at Chewie, the more I realized that his pelt was a complex mass of colours. His face is a chestnut brown, but the top of his head is streaked with black as if he combs it with Brillo. And the fur under his arms is graying. Finally, his upper lip seems to sport a dark mustache. Painting these variations without letting them get out of control was a real challenge. In any case, I like this sculpture -- it has a nice sense of movement.

Chewbacca, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

It breaks my heart that since the game is set right before The Empire Strikes Back, we are unlikely to see a miniature of Obi-wan Kenobi. I may have to brew up my own, if I can find a decent figure to convert. If any of you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

On the upside, Fantasy Flight has released some excellent models of the Rebel Troopers. These hapless soldiers are the first people you see when watching A New Hope. They (and their big hats) symbolize an insurgency that can't stand up to the power of Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers. I still can't look at them without wanting to bellow, "If this is a consular ship, where is the ambassador?!"

Rebel Troopers, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

Another interesting Ally Pack is the Rebel Saboteurs. These green aliens are Duros, although their big red eyes are hidden behind some sort of night vision goggles. These visors are another lovely detail -- they look like something as much from Dune as from Star Wars. I painted these Duros with the same palette as the Rebel Troopers (buff trousers, blue shirts, black vests and boots) because I'd like my Rebels to have a consistent look.

Rebel Saboteurs, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

Rebel Saboteurs, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

It drives me crazy that Fantasy Flight has not yet announced a miniature for Princess Leia. Having miniatures of Luke, Han and Chewie (not to mention the soon-to-be-released C3-PO and R2-D2), but no Princess is maddening. Leia's sarcasm was the only subversive part of A New Hope. A game without her is missing a vital spice. And aren't women an important part of the gaming market? Besides, don't they know how good she'd look with a cocked sporting blaster? Is it hot in here?