Thursday, 23 August 2012

Kickstarter for VTT monster tokens

Devin Night has a Kickstarter project to create more than 150 monster tokens for virtual tabletop games such as MapTool. It hit the funding goal of $6000 yesterday but is still open for funding that will get you the tokens and could enable stretch goals.

For anybody who is using MapTool or another VTT I'd definitely recommend checking this out, Devin's art is great and having a good selection of tokens is important to maximise immersion and avoid confusion. Just $25 will get you the full set of tokens, you can check out his earlier work here and at his blog.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Nexus 7 impressions

I purchased the 16GB Nexus 7 a week ago, this is the Google-branded Android tablet manufactured by Asus. I had delayed buying a tablet because I already had a Kindle as well as an Android smartphone, leaving relatively few areas where I thought a tablet could add value. Also since I'm usually lugging a camera, four lenses and various other photography-related stuff bag space is at a premium and carrying another device didn't really appeal.

With the release of the Nexus 7, the price/performance became a lot more attractive and I was curious if it could displace any of my other devices. A couple of clicks later an order was placed, with an outlook of 3-5 days for delivery. Just 27 hours later I had the Nexus 7 in my hands, so kudos to Google and TNT for making the order and delivery process work perfectly.

First impressions were good, it is a slick device with a quality feel to it. It started up quickly and after logging on to my Google account it synched my calendar, email etc. The larger screen provides some advantage when dealing with the everyday tasks, but after a week I still find myself reading email on the phone as often as on the tablet.

Compared to the Kindle the Nexus has several drawbacks. The screen, while great for other uses, does not provide the relaxing reading experience of E Ink and is much less usable in direct sunlight. The added weight is noticeable and depending on how the device is held I found it induces some wrist strain. Finally battery endurance is considerably lower. All things considered I don't expect the Nexus 7 will make my Kindle obsolete.

As far as apps are concerned, I've tested maybe 20 different apps and found the tablet provides a fast and stable platform. In fact I am very impressed with the overall performance of the tablet and greatly prefer using it over my phone. As an added bonus the Nexus 7 comes with a £15 Google Play credit that can be used to check out paid apps without dipping deeper into the wallet.

Browsing works well, with fast page loading and very few problems over a week of use. I did run into an issue with the captcha for Flickr login, it was displayed off-centre and partially obscured. Browsing high quality pictures works well on the tablet and is definitely preferable over using the much smaller phone screen.

YouTube video playback works well, but checking messages consistently generated an error message 'invalid response received'.

I used Skype video-calling for about an hour on the tablet. While it is not a certified device it worked great and I did not run into any problems. I used a Bluetooth Jabra Wave headset which again worked perfectly, with good sound quality and no connectivity issues.

Finally I tested the battery standby time by charging the Nexus 7 to full, then leaving it for 24 hours with Wifi turned off. Afterwards it was showing 96% battery charge remaining which I'm happy with.

In conclusion, this tablet provides a really great user experience at a very competitive price-point. If you've been thinking about getting a tablet I'd definitely recommend checking out the Nexus 7. The only exception is if you are looking primarily for a reading device as the Kindle remains superior for that particular use.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Warmachine Cygnar miniature shoot

I don't have any experience shooting miniatures so when a friend visited me this summer on his way home from a tournament I jumped at the chance. The minis are 28mm tall Cygnar faction for the Warmachine tabletop game from Privateer Press.

The setup was very simple, using just the big lamp in the sky, white paper and two prime lenses - a regular 50mm and a 100mm macro lens on a Canon 60D. No flash or reflector was used.

The full set is at Flickr. I really enjoyed the shoot and it was quite different from what I usually work with. My friend was very happy with the result as well.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Stronghold invader phase overview

Continuing my first impressions post on the Stronghold board game, this part covers the phases 2 through 6 of the turn sequence.

Phase two of each turn when the invader builds machines. In the basic games this includes covers which protect a rampart against marksman fire, something my opponent used to good effect. It also included ballista and catapult engines, with the former being used to kill defenders on the walls and the latter destroying wall sections.

Ballista seemed moderately effective, inflicting a casualty every other turn. Gradual attrition could lead to an eventual breach, but there is also an area-denial aspect as the presence of a ballista discourages placing a veteran on a wall section (due to the high cost of training them and the certainty that it will be targeted). I can see the threat of Goblin Frenzy combined with two ballista covering a single wall section being a real nightmare but thankfully my opponent used his Goblins for rituals instead after some early frustration with goblin traps.

Catapults have the same hit rate as ballista but with a new stone wall becoming available to the defender each turn this seemed less effective. Good results were achieved (much to my dismay!) when the Bloodstone ritual was used as this killed off a defending unit as well as destroy a stone wall. My opponent noted in the post-game talk that he felt that spreading the machines out was a mistake and that it would have been better to have two engines covering the same section.

Catapult deck with Bloodstone ritual marker and accurate shot tile, a deadly combination!
Phase three covers equipment such as banners, shields and bridges. As each is available in limited quantities it is important to have a clear strategy in mind when placing them. They will signal your intent so you can expect the defender to reinforce the wall sections you threaten with banners, thus possibly drawing in new victims for ballista fire or weakening other sections sufficiently to allow a breach.

Banners and bridges are very easy to understand. Shields are a little bit more confusing because they force the assault on a wall section to be calculated twice if the first assault generates a defender advantage. In the second calculation the shield value is added and casualties are only inflicted on the invader if the defender still has an advantage.

Unlike banners, the shield bonus is per unit so three orcs with banners and shields would attack with strength 7 (2+2+2+1; six for the orcs and one for the banners) and if the defender had 6 or higher strength then invader strength would be recalculated to 10 (2+2+2+1+1+1+1; six for the orcs, one for the banners and three for the shields) for calculating losses. This makes a huge difference and can really help invaders get a foothold on a wall section, letting them survive until the next turn when more units can be moved up.

Training is done in phase four, offering (in the basic game) artilleryman, master archer or saboteur. These are more valuable the earlier they are used and likely to be a focus in the first few turns. As Master Archer is placed on a rampart it is important to make sure there is a bridge guarding the path to that rampart first. Otherwise the defender can place a goblin trap, rendering the Master Archer useless.
A saboteur is in place at the cathedral, increasing action cost by 1 hourglass. One hourglass has been spent on marksmen blessing, normally it would require just one more to complete but will now require an extra hourglass. Sharpshooter in the tower has already been used this turn and is marked as unavailable.

It should also be noted that the Master Archer can be countered by moving marksmen away from any threatened wall section as Goblins can only shoot marksmen (other defenders hide behind walls). While forcing such a withdrawal may be useful, the defender can use Sharpshooter in the Tower or Marksmen Blessing to continue inflicting casualties on any rampart if he's willing to pay hourglasses. My opponent found it very annoying that I just moved marksmen away from threatened sections, replacing them with soldiers who would hide behind the walls.

Saboteurs seemed very important, increasing the cost of many actions by 50% and forcing me to waste several units sweeping them out. I lost more units to tracking saboteurs than to ballista fire! As they can be swept in any phase but only placed in phase four, there is an incentive to sweep them as soon as the third saboteur is placed. This can create interesting tension where the invader may not want to place a third saboteur at all.

Phase five is an opportunity for the invader to carry out fell rituals by sacrificing goblins. These rituals include the aforementioned Bloodstone which turns  a catapult into a deadly threat, but also spectres that turn defender casualties into undead warriors for the invaders and gale that adds extra hourglass costs to movement.

Gale probably has the clearest cost/benefit ratio. If the invader can use it to prevent enough reinforcements being moved to a critical wall section it could secure a win and in more marginal situations it could cost the defender enough hourglasses to at least grant a foothold and maybe some defender losses. While the extra cost was unwelcome I never found the gale to be very effective against me.

Three orcs and a troll, using banners and shields, attack a wall section guarded by two soldiers. Two stone walls protect the soldiers. A gale is making it difficult for reinforcements to join the fight. The defender's cannon can not target units that are already on the walls.

Spectres are a bit more unpredictable and were never used effectively in our first game as there was not enough defender casualties in the melee phase. They are perhaps best in the mid to late game when several wall sections are under pressure. Hopefully they'll see more use as we gain experience with the game.

Bloodstones were used to very good effect in our first game. While dependent on drawing a hit card for the selected engine the odds can be improved by using artilleryman training and accurate tiles. It was very frustrating for me when my first veteran stepped up on a wall section only to get a catapult bloodstone in the face, earning him an instant one-way trip to Valhalla.

Dispatch and orders are handled in phase 6 and covers the movement of troops and any special instructions. The mechanics are straightforward, with the phase card offering a major and minor dispatch. Each can be used once per turn and offers different number of units that are moved and different hourglass costs. A unit can only be moved once per order, but if both major and minor dispatch are used then a unit could be moved twice.

My opponent noted that after flipping the phase 1 card (which increases reinforcements from 14 to 16 per turn and prevents trading a unit for extra resources) in the mid-game it became difficult for him to move all units forward and his camp rapidly became congested, offering extra hour glasses to the defender.

After the defender spends the hourglasses from phase 6, the game moves on to the assault phase. This will be covered in the next post.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Stronghold first impressions

Stronghold is a board game covering a desperate battle between an invading host of orcs, goblins and trolls on one side and the human defenders of a castle on the other side. The eventual outcome is not really in doubt as the defenders can not get any reinforcements, but there is glory to be found in a quick victory for the attackers or a drawn-out defence for the humans.

Defender forces in starting positions. White squares are marksmen, green are soldiers. There are no veterans at the start. The red and green circular markers are the officer and warrior, two special defender units.
 The game can be played with 2-4 people, for our first game it was myself as the defender and my good friend Roberts as the attacker. Unlike a game like chess, the board, pieces and possible actions in Stronghold are asymmetrical. Defenders have the protection of high walls and strong gates, with various specialised buildings for assisting the defence. They use hourglasses generated by attacker activity to complete those actions.

The attacker has an off-board supply (where new units are drawn every turn), a camp (where units go if they are not used for something), two foregrounds where they arrive for battle and several ramparts where they move to attack the walls. The foregrounds, ramparts and walls on each side of the board are connected together but units cannot cross from one side of the board to the other.

Stronghold comes with two 20-page rulebooks, two boards, over 240 unit cubes, various tiles and more than 100 cards. This can be quite daunting even to veteran gamers, however the rules do a good job in illustrating what each piece is for and how it all fits together. There is also a basic game variant which uses only a subset of the possible invader actions, meaning that it is not necessary to immediately master all aspects of the game.

One weakness to be aware of is that the turn order overview on page 2 fails to mention an important point: the defender gets two hourglasses and one stone wall section each turn. This is only mentioned on page 7 under hourglasses and actions. It would have been useful to have a printed reminder on the phase 1 card for this as it is easy to overlook in the rules or to forget during game play. At a guess, people who report that the invader has it too easy has probably missed this rule.

Having navigated the rules and figured out which pieces go where, the next step for us was to remove the stuff that isn't needed for a 2-player basic game. This included the haste tile, all trebuchet and siege tower markers, the battering ram components, many tiles for rituals, training and equipment and a lot of phase cards. Doing this really cut down on the confusion level and I'd recommend everybody to do this as step one.

A variety of markers used in the basic game: the defender has placed a pole and a cannon (both yellow) and the green circular marker is an orc cauldron. The red shield, banners and bridge are invader equipment. The swirly marker is a gale ritual and there is a cover protecting the rampart (top right). Two trolls are on the wall section and about to fight two soldiers and the Warrior special unit.
One note here - the phase cards of the basic game identifies the actions available to the invader, however the summary on the back of the invader rulebook fails to highlight those same actions. It would have been helpful to have a star marking the basic game actions in the same was as they cards are marked.

The camp cards are also insufficiently distinct and caused a minor amount of confusion initially. A clear '2 player' or '4 player' mark would have been appreciated although it wasn't hard to figure out which card was right for us.

Setting up the game was very easy. The board is helpfully marked with colour-coded dots that indicate where each unit goes. A minor inconsistency is that there are no equivalent marks on the glory board for the 10 glory initially given to the invader.

Play then proceeded with the invader drawing phase one units and resources, after which nothing happened for a long time. This is one of the quirks of the game as the player is confronted with limited resources which are to be used over the next five phases and even a seemingly simple choice such as 'do you want sacrifice a unit to get additional resources' leads to immediate analysis paralysis for an inexperienced player.

If you are the defender, you may want to go get drinks and snacks. Experience will no doubt reduce the amount of delay here, but at least as far as the first game was concerned 'fast paced' would not be an accurate description. This is unfortunate because a large part of the defender tactics are reactive, meaning that you can't really do much planning of your own.

Once this hurdle had been cleared, each phase proceeded with reasonable speed. Actions used up resources and units for the invader while generating hourglasses for the defender. The latter were then used up by the defender in various ways to counter the threats posed by the invader. As the defender must use all hourglasses after each phase, there is a constant back-and-forth exchange of activity. This compares favourably with games that had massively long turns for each player.

Defender has placed two cauldrons, a wooden wall, a troll trap and a cannon as well as moved a veteran and a soldier to the courtyard, ready to reinforce any wall section. One stone wall has been destroyed (lower left)
 There is no fog of war so all pieces are always known, with the only uncertainties arising from drawing hit or miss cards for siege machines and from the unit draw at the start of each turn. Tension therefore mostly arises from the creation of multiple threats and the limited resources available to counter them. The stakes are high as a single breach will win the game for the invader, leaving no margin for mistakes.

For a breakdown of each phase, see the next post in the series.