Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Imperial Assault Battle Report: a Bantha Too Far


In our last skirmish for Star Wars Imperial Assault, my friend Nicos and I were amazed by the destructive power of the Bantha Rider (RIP Princess Leia).  But was it unbeatable? We set up another game to find out. Instead of our usual goofy and thematic games, we took the gloves off and decided we'd try to make our armies as deadly as possible. 

All we needed was the right scenario...




And so the scenario we drew was "The Art of Robotics" from the Wookiee Warriors Ally Pack. Which side would triumph by exploiting secret cybernetic technology?

The map contained two Droid Prototypes (signified in our game by two Assassin Droids). At the end of each turn, controlling one of these Prototypes was worth a whopping 8 points. And, a player who controlled a Terminal would be able to move each Prototype up to 4 spaces. In other words, this was a scenario where control and position would generate a lot of Victory Points.


Development Facility (courtesy of Ibsh)

The Mercenaries set up in the blue zone, and the Rebels in the red. We were separated in the Northwest Corner by only a couple doors, but to the Southeast lay the valuable Droid Prototypes -- who could get there first? 


The Mercenary Force: Banthakrieg!

Deployment Cards: Bantha Riders x2; Beast Tamer (attached to one Bantha); Boba Fett; Nexu; and Hired Guns.


Command Cards: Celebration, Crush, Element of Surprise, Ferocity, Jundland Terror x2, Mandalorian Tactics, Opportunistic, Rally, Roar, Set a Trap, Size Advantage; Survival Instincts; Take Initiative, and Urgency.



"I will have my army of unstoppable Bantha Cyborgs!"

StrategyThe two deadliest resources available to a Mercenary player are Boba Fett and the Bantha Riders. So why not combine them? After all, they are oddly compatible. Both are alarmingly fast, rushing far head most other units. But they're also durable and damaging. My strategy was to soften up my opponent's toughest units with the charging Banthas. Then Boba (and the Nexu) could swoop in and prey upon the most wounded. It would be a blitzkrieg, but with water-buffaloes instead of tanks.


The Rebel Force: Gaarkhan and his Wooks


Deployment Cards: Gaarkhan, Wookiee Warriors x4.


Command Cards: Adrenaline, Counter Attack, Cripple, 
Furious Charge, Hard to Hit, Pummel x2, Rally, Recovery, Roar, Self-Defense, Take Cover, Urgency, Wookiee Rage x2.



So much Wookiee in such a small space.

Strategy: General Patton said "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week." With 9 rampaging Wookiees, the Rebel plan was all about violent execution. The Wookiees would charge hard and mince up anything that got in their way. However, to avoid having his Wookiees crushed en masse by the Banthas, Nicos tried to space out their attack, spreading his warriors out and dividing my own forces.

I honestly don't know how -- in a straight up fight -- anything in Imperial Assault can stand up to an army like this one. It's a matter of arithmetic. These 9 Wookiees have a combined health of 98. They can roll up to 18 attack dice on any given turn, including 9 of the deadly red dice. 

By way of comparison, my force has a total of 65 health -- which is normally quite good -- and rolls 13 attack dice.

However, one of the great things about Imperial Assault is that it's not a simple slugfest, as this mission will show...



Turn 1: First Blood


Hired Guns always get the worst jobs. In this case, they were given the task of seizing and holding the central Terminal in the face of the onrushing Wookiees. No probs.


What could possibly go wrong? By the way, have you heard from Greedo lately?

The Rebels were not far behind. While Boba Fett wounded a Wookiee Warrior with a long-distance shot, Gaarkhan used his Charge ability to rush the nearest Hired Gun and decapitate him. 



"Why do I keep taking these shit jobs?"

In the northwest corner, both the Wookies and the green Bantha Rider hesitated about attacking each other, thus leaving one Terminal unclaimed. But the Terminal in the centre of the board was possessed by Gaarkhan. Was possessed... until the red Bantha came barreling down the hall, shoving Gaarkhan out of the way and taking the Terminal. This allowed the Mercenaries to move and control one of the Droid Prototypes, generating an early lead.

Mercenaries: 8 points.
Rebels: 0 points.


Turn 2: The Fur Flies

In the Northwest corner, some Wookiee Warriors attempted to take control of a Terminal -- but the green Bantha, emulating his red companion, simply pushed the Wookiees out of the way and sat on the Terminal, preventing any Rebel from accessing it.  Meanwhile, the red Bantha rammed into Gaarkhan and his companions, killing Gaarkhan in a bloody stampede.


I love the smell of Bantha in the morning

But even as the red Bantha charged, a pack of Wookiees were slashing and stabbing at it. Ultimately, their furious attack took its toll and the great beast listed, groaned and fell, like a battleship heaving to the bottom of the ocean.




However, by occupying the bulk of the Wookiees, the Banthas allowed the Mercenaries to retain control of both Terminals and one Droid Prototype, garnering another 8 points for Boba Fett.

Mercenaries: 24 points
Rebels: 10 points


Turn 3: Red in Tooth and Claw

Although the Mercenaries had a commanding lead in the points, they were now grievously out-numbered in the centre of the board. One Prototype Droid was in Rebel hands and would be impossible to dislodge. To make matters worse, in the northeast corner, three Wookiee Warriors were finally able to bring down their big game prize. 


Aren't Banthas an endangered species?

The Mercenaries had only 3 models left: Fett, the Nexu and one Hired Gun. Reluctantly, Fett abandoned the idea of killing the swarming Wookiees and concentrated instead on controlling the one remaining Prototype Droid that was still in play. By barricading himself in a corner with the Nexu, the Rebels had no way of getting it. It was now a race to 40 points.


Guarded by the Nexu, Boba Fett  plunders the Prototype Droid


Mercenaries: 32 points
Rebels: 27 points


Turn 4: So Close and So Far...

Now the climax. The mass of Wookiees dominated the Terminals and could count on getting control of both Prototypes at the end of the round. Nevertheless, if the Mercenaries could earn 8 points by killing one or maybe two Wookiees, they would instantly win the game. Everything was coming down to one desperate push. 

Suddenly, the Rebels changed the entire complexion of the game by playing the Adrenaline command card, giving each Wookiee 5 additional health for the entire turn. Now killing these hairy bastards would be nearly impossible during this, the last turn of the game.


The Final Messy Melee
Undaunted, Boba Fett pounced on one Wookiee, slaying him with such extreme prejudice that not even Adrenaline could save him. Meanwhile, the last Hired Gun was killed, but not before mortally wounding another Wookiee. Although this Parting Shot wasn't enough to overcome the Adrenaline, it would give the Mercenaries a victory at the beginning of the next turn (when the Adrenaline wore off). In other words, the Mercenaries had triumphed, unless the Rebels could somehow win the game first.

And there was only one way to do this: the Wookiees must kill the Nexu. An not just any Nexu. An unharmed, nay, even frisky Nexu. And against the odds, that's exactly what they did. With a couple of powerful slashes, two Wookies Warriors slew the Nexu. Along with control of a Prototype, that was enough for a stunning, come-from-behind Rebel triumph.

Mercenaries: 32 points
Rebels: 45 points


Reflections


This was, hands down, the best game of Imperial Assault that I've played. Up until the last turn, it was unclear who would win, or how it would happen. More importantly, the pack of Wookiees baiting and bleeding their huge prey is an image I'll savour for many weeks.

What surprised me most was how close the Wookies came to losing the game. Although they were (by far) militarily superior to the Mercenaries, strength is not enough in Imperial Assault. Control of objectives and Terminals is vital -- and the Banthas's ability to (literally) sit on a Terminal, denying all other figures any access to it, is a potent strategic tool. 




Equally impressive was Boba Fett. He is so fast and so defensive, Nicos made the painful strategic decision to simply leave him alone -- it was too costly to try to kill him. Ultimately, I think this masterful act of restraint was what won the Rebels the game. And indeed, Fett was completely unharmed by the end. Well, that's all to the good. He'll take this defeat in stride. He won't make the same mistake again. He won't go... a Bantha too far.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Imperial Assault Battle Report: The Bantha Strikes Back

What happens when you release two rabid Banthas into a tiny space-space station? This question, and so many more, are answered in this week's post.




Yes, its time for another battle report for Imperial Assault. I sat down with my friend Nicos to fight out the "Incoming Transmission" scenario, and (more importantly) to see how the new Bantha Rider models perform in a skirmish game.
Your slicers have discovered a small space station whose comm systems receive secret communications from the Kuat Drive Yards. As you approach the space station, an enemy shuttle appears on your scopes. You fire on each other, but you both prove evasive. Sensors indicate the enemy shuttle's carrying whale-sized life signs. WTF? You board the station and prepare to fight...
The map was the Kuat Space Station. My army of Bantha-heavy mercenaries began the action in the blue docking bay. Nicos' force, entirely consisting of Rebel spies, started in the red zone. Each turn, the three relay stations (marked with X's on the map) accrue more victory points -- a player who controls a relay station can activate it in order to collect these points and discard the station.


Kuat Station (courtesy of Ibsh)


The set-up contained no surprises. Both sides divided their teams in 2 parts -- with one half aimed at the Northwest relay station, where the armies were separated from each other by a pair of blast doors. The second half of each army was poised to pour into the rest of space station. The Mercenaries had the first move.


The Mercenary Force: The Bantha Extravagantha

Deployment Cards: Bantha Riders x2; Beast Tamer x2 (attached to each Bantha); Tuskan Raider x2; Nexu; Hired Guns; and Punishing Strike.

Command Cards: Jundland Terror x2, Size Advantage; Survival Instincts; Crush; Ferocity; Roar; Close the Gap; Single Purpose; Celebration; Element of Surprise; Opportunistic; Rally; Take Initiative; and Urgency.


Wildlife crowds the Mercenary's docking bay

Strategy: I'm not sure I can dignify my approach with the term "strategy". I would rush my opponents with the Bantha and use stampede and trample to mash them into pudding. To assist this, I could exploit the many command cards that enhance creatures (and especially Bantha Riders). Finally, my Tuskan Raiders would throw their Gaffi Sticks around, applying weaken or (with the help of Punishing Strike) stun.

(N.B. I realize now that I should have only had one Beast Tamer , since it is a unique Deployment Card. Oops. Thankfully, my easy-going opponent didn't protest. In any event, the 2nd Beast Tamer was not in much use.)


The Rebel Force: I Spy You

Deployment Cards: Leia Organa; Combat Suit (attached to Leia); Verena Talos; Loku Kanoloa; Mak Eshka'rey; C-3PO; Rebel Saboteur x2; Targetting Computer x2 (attached to each Rebel Saboteur); and Rebel High Command.

Command Cards: Hide in Plain Sight; Master Operative; Heart of Freedom; Slippery Target; Stealth Tactics; Recovery; Coordinated Attack; Hit and Run; Self Defense; Deadeye; Element of Surprise; Hard to Hit; Take Cover; and Urgency.


Princess Leia prepares to lead from the Rebel's centre

Strategy: Despite it's strong theme (i.e. all spies) this is a well-balanced force. Verena and the Saboteurs hit hard up close, while Mak and Loku snipe from a distance. Everyone (except C-3PO) can benefit from command cards like Hide in Plain Sight and Slippery Target, making this strike-team exceptionally good on defence as well. The key is to keep mobile, and to get lots of use out of Leia's Battlefield Leadership ability.


Turn 1: Banthageddon

The game started off slow, with both parties tentatively sending out skirmishers through the halls of Kuat station, hoping to draw their opponents out. C-3PO ambled forward, oblivious to the Hired Guns fanning out around him. Meanwhile, the Rebels deployed their snipers into shadowy corners, hoping to wreak havoc next turn.


C-3PO takes point

The Mercenary's Nexu stalked into the med-bay along the South wall, hoping to catch an isolated Rebel.


Death in the glow of the Bacta Tanks

Only toward the end of the round did things begin to hot up. The Rebels opened their blast door. On each flank, their Saboteurs almost incinerated some Tuskan Raiders, but in both cases their attacks missed because of long range. 

...But that was only the beginning of the Rebel's woes. The Banthas were getting restless.


"What's behind this door?"

The first Bantha Rider (the green one) charged at Verena Talos and her team of Saboteurs in the Northwest corner. He stampeded and stomped one Saboteur into jelly, and left Verena mortally wounded. And then the second Bantha (the red one) surged out towards the centre of the station. Spurred by his Beast Tamer, he covered a tremendous distance, crashing into Leia and Mak and injuring both. Mak used Slippery Target to back away, but how to escape from such a big monster in such a small station?



A Bantha gores Princess Leia

Just as the 1st turn seemed about to end, things got even worse. I was lucky enough to draw both copies of Jundland Terror for my initial hand of Command Cards. This deadly card allows a Bantha to take a move and then perform an extra action/attack at the end of the round. Why not use them both, one on each Bantha? 


Threepio, Mak and Loku meet a hairy end

Thus Verena Talos was hit again -- but worst of all, the red Bantha now had a clear path to plow into C-3PO, Mak and Loku. Using his Stampede ability, he sat on all three heroes of the Rebellion, ignominiously killing them with his great shaggy buttocks.


Turn 2: That's No Way to Die

The second turn was over quickly. The Rebels, who now had initiative, tried to save Leia. She activated early, frying the Nexu and trying to back away to safety. But the red Bantha Rider, impelled by the Beast Tamer, gave chase, crushing Leia to death against a wall of the space station. After that, the rider still had the wherewithal to shoot and kill a surviving Mon Calamari Saboteur. Meanwhile, his mate, the green Bantha ran down Verena. 

Such an ugly end for two beautiful heroes.


Verena Talos fights to the bitter end

At this point, we called it. We've seen some one-sided games of Imperial Assault, but this was the worst. Besides losing the Nexu and one Tuskan Raider, the Mercenaries were almost unharmed and had access to 2 of the 3 relay stations. The Rebels, on the other hand, were Bantha Fodder.


Reflections

When I fielded two Bantha Riders, I had no idea they would be so deadly. They have great speed, a decent long-range attack and tonnes of staying power -- plus a devastating range of abilities in close combat. The narrow confines of the Kuat Station made this combination irresistible.  And all for only 9 points!

We are left with the question: what beats a Bantha Rider? Or worse, what beats 2 Bantha Riders? Darth Vader?  An AT-ST? A tribe of Wookie Warriors? I have a sense that Nicos and I will find out soon...





Friday, May 13, 2016

Jewish Characters in Fantasy: a follow-up


Thanks to everyone who left so many thoughtful comments about my post on Jewish characters in fantasy settings generally (and in Citadel miniatures in particular). Although this was a pretty obscure topic, to my surprise, it turned into one of the most popular posts I've ever written.

There's much to say as a follow-up, but I'm going to limit myself to three quick points.




First , one of the observations that several people made is that Jewish history, language and culture were inspirations for the Dwarves of Middle-earth. It's unclear how intentional this was at the time of writing, but Tolkien himself acknowledged the connection much later. As he said during a 1971 interview:
“I didn’t intend it, but when you’ve got these people on your hands, you’ve got to make them different, haven’t you? The dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic."
One particularly important connection between Dwarves and Jews is the theme of exile. Medieval Jews were defined by their banishment from Israel. And when we encounter the Dwarves in The Hobbit, we also meet them as exiles. Nobles, warriors and great craftsmen are reduced to wandering like tinkers, singing mournfully about their lost home in the Lonely Mountain. But when we come into The Lord of the Rings, we understand that there is a much greater and more painful exile troubling the dwarves: the long banishment from Moria.

By seeing the connection between Dwarvish and Jewish history, we can better appreciate the motivations of a character like Gimli, and his keening for Moria. This connection is also important because it adds another layer of poignancy to the friendship of Gimli and Legolas. I sense in their reconciliation a hidden hope of Tolkien that centuries of strife and mistrust -- in both Europe and in Middle-earth -- can be amended in the wake of horrific war.


As K. Friedman says, they ain't making Jews like Jesus anymore.

The second thing that surprised me about the commentary on my post was that nobody mentioned the Land of Shem invented by Robert E. Howard in his Conan stories. Howard's Hyborean Age has many thinly veiled parallels with our ancient world, notably the association of the Shemites with the ancient Israelites. "Shem" is, after all, the son of Noah who was the legendary progenitor of the Hebrews, Assyrians and others. Howard himself wrote that his ancient Shemites would become our "Arabs, Israelites, and other straighter-featured Semites." (The Hyborean Age, 1936). Straight-featured Semites? Is that a thing?

In any case, Howard's portrayal of the Shemites flirts with well-worn stereotypes (hook noses, a love of money, dishonesty). However, Howard is capable of moving beyond caricature and supplying some memorable Shemish characters. The most important of these is Belit, Queen of the Black Coast: a pirate, a lover of Conan, a savior from beyond the grave, and a possessor of heaving bosoms:
She turned toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing...
She had looped the necklace about her neck, and on her naked white bosom the red clots glimmered darkly...
...he saw the blaze of her dark eyes, the thick cluster of her burnished hair; her bosom heaved, her red lips were parted...   (Queen of the Black Coast, 1934)
That'll put steel in your thews.



"Arnold - take this rock!" by Amelia Fink

Finally, I don't want to leave the topic of Jews in fantasy worlds without mentioning Hello from the Magic Tavern. This is a podcast that's broadcast from a tavern called "The Vermillion Minotaur" in the magical land of Foon. The podcast does an excellent job of poking fun at many of the conventions of high fantasy, including the customary absence of Jews.  If you haven't listened to Hello from the Magic Tavern, give yourself a treat and start at Episode #1

Or, you can fast forward to Episode #45 and listen to an interview with the First Jew of Foon. Just remember --- IT IS NOT REAL.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: A Knife in the Dark


Chapter 11 of The Fellowship of the Ring

In this chapter, Strider leads the hobbits into the wilderness in a failed attempt to evade the Black Riders. The chase culminates on Weathertop hill, where Frodo and the Chief of the Ringwraiths stab at each other, with perilous results for the hobbit.





This is an exciting and terrifying chapter -- but it's also important for a more subtle reason: it's the first chapter where Tolkien begins to fragment his narrative: he gives various characters different perspectives on the same events, and delays reconciling these perspectives for the reader until much later in his story. Although this fracturing starts out small, like all cracks, it grows and grows -- until it eventually will divide his story into two separate but devilishly interrelated portions: Frodo's journey on one hand and the war in Rohan and Gondor on the other. 

My argument is that this fragmenting of the story creates increasing tension for the reader -- and when Tolkien finally resolves this tension by giving us the full picture, it provides a great measure of the satisfaction we feel when we read The Lord of the Rings.

In "A Knife in the Dark" the fracture begins right away: Tolkien switches perspective to a brief vignette of the the Black Riders invading Buckland and storming Crickhollow. The Shire hobbits blow horns in alarm and the Ringwraiths ride off in search of Frodo. Immediately after this, Tolkien pivots back to Frodo in Bree, whose sleep is troubled by dreams of "galloping hoofs... and far off he heard a horn blowing wildly." This is just a tiny crack: two different perspectives on the onrushing wrath of Mordor.

But the crack will widen. The next break occurs a few days after the heroes strike out into the wilderness and before they've reached Weathertop. One evening, they notice something strange:
As Frodo lay, tired but unable to close his eyes, it seemed to him that far away there came a light in the eastern sky: it flashed and faded many times. It was not the dawn, for that was still some hours off. 
‘What is the light?' he said to Strider, who had risen, and was standing, gazing ahead into the night. 
'I do not know,' Strider answered. 'It is too distant to make out. It is like lightning that leaps up from the hill-tops.' 
Frodo lay down again, but for a long while he could still see the white flashes, and against them the tall dark figure of Strider, standing silent and watchful. At last he passed into uneasy sleep.
(FotR, Book I, Chapter 11)
Tolkien gives us no more information about this lightning until the Council of Elrond, when the reader (and Frodo) both learn that they were caused by Gandalf and his fire magic as he strove to fight off the Black Riders on Weathertop. Gandalf will tell them in Rivendell:
"I galloped to Weathertop like a gale, and I reached it before sundown on my second day from Bree-and they were there before me. They drew away from me, for they felt the coming of my anger and they dared not face it while the Sun was in the sky. But they closed round at night, and I was besieged on the hill-top, in the old ring of Amon Sûl. I was hard put to it indeed: such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war-beacons of old.
"At sunrise I escaped and fled towards the north. I could not hope to do more. It was impossible to find you, Frodo, in the wilderness, and it would have been folly to try with all the Nine at my heels." 
(FotR, Book II, Chapter 2)
It's also at this time that we learn that all the while that Strider and Frodo were venturing through the wild hoping to find Gandalf, Gandalf was also looking for them, sometimes just behind them and sometimes just ahead. Although Tolkien largely keeps us in the dark about Gandalf's half of this dance of miscues, he does tantalize us (and Frodo) with hints, like the strange sigil that Gandalf left on Weathertop or Glorfindel's tokens on the Bridge of Mitheithel.


Weathertop Hill (courtesy of LOTRO Wiki)



The drama of this fracture is tremendous. All that Frodo (and the reader) want is to know what happened to Gandalf. And indeed, what reader doesn't crave a description of exactly how Gandalf fought off the Witchking with his magic when they met on Weathertop. And yet this is precisely the information that Tolkien withholds. He teases us, and then ultimately leaves it to our own imagination to tell us what Gandalf's conjuring looked like up close. This is masterful restraint on Tolkien's part.

But my favourite disunion of perspectives comes at the end of this chapter, when Frodo and the Witch King fight each other. This one is easy to miss because in the entire Lord of the Rings, Tolkien only gives us Frodo's perspective on this encounter. But in his personal papers, Tolkien also wrote about the Witch King's understanding of what happened. Go figure... the Witch King was just as scared of Frodo as Frodo was of the Witch King:
He [the Lord of the Nazgul] had been shaken by the fire of Gandalf, and began to perceive that the mission on which Sauron had sent him was one of great peril to himself... the timid and terrified Bearer [Frodo] had resisted him, had dared to strike at him with an enchanted sword made... long ago for his destruction. Narrowly it missed him. How he had come by it -- save in the Barrows of Cardolan. Then he was in some way mightier than the B[arrow]-wight; and he called on Elbereth, a name of terror to the Nazgul...
Escaping a wound that would have been deadly to him as the Mordor-knife to Frodo (as was proved in the end), he withdrew and hid for a while, out of doubt and fear both of Aragorn and especially of Frodo 
[Marquette MSS 4/2/36, "The Hunt for the Ring". The italics in the quote are Tolkien's.]
In these papers, Tolkien also makes it clear that the Witch King was confused and scared by the fact that it wasn't Aragorn who was bearing the Ring. If this strange creature Baggins had the Ring instead of the mighty Aragorn, it meant that in some way Baggins was even more powerful than the lord of the Dunedain. How's a Nazgul supposed to cope? 


How's a Nazgul to cope?
Well, to return to my main point: the fracturing of the narrative starts out small, but it will grow to be one of the defining elements of the book. And just like in this chapter, some of the most interesting perplexing incidents in the trilogy will come when two or more separate narratives intersect: to give a later example, consider when Frodo struggles to remove the Ring on the summit of Amon Hen. The passage is obscure, until much later when we learn that Gandalf the White was striving with Sauron over control of Frodo's will (compare Book II, Chapter 10 for Frodo's perspective on this, and Book III, Chapter 5 for Gandalf's view).

Tolkien's willingness to fragment and overlap his characters' perspectives is a daring and modern approach to structuring a novel, and I'm not sure he gets enough appreciation for it. So, props Professor T. 

(Before I leave you, I'll just add that if you enjoy this sort of multiplicity, do yourself a grand favour and read or listen to The Seventh Voyage by the great sci-fi author Stanislas Lem. It's my favourite short story, and is an elegant fugue of conflicting perspectives.)



[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "The Black Riders" Giclee on Canvas.]


You can find my commentary on Chapter 10 here.