Sunday, January 16, 2011

[Project Ork] In Which I Drink the Kool-Aid

It's about time I wrote a bit about my big project for 2011. But first, some background.

As I've written about recently, this is my year for re-invigorating my atrophied miniatures hobby. Back when I first got into gaming, miniatures wargaming held as strong a pull on me as RPGs. (Strangely, these two interests never really intersected - I've never been a big fan of using miniatures in RPGs.) I picked up Fantasy Warriors within a year of my first-ever gaming purchase (the Mentzer Red Box) and was soon painting armies with great enthusiasm (if not so much the skill to match).

The following year a friend of mine received the boxed set of Warhammer 4th edition and I received Space Marine (the forerunner of Epic 40K) the same Christmas, and we were thrust headlong and screaming into the abyss of Games Workshop fandom. For the next eight years or so, we played a wide variety of GW games: Man O' War, Necromunda, Mighty Empires, as well as lots and lots of Warhammer and Epic. For a variety of strange and obtuse reasons too byzantine to get into here, we never managed to add Warhammer 40,000 proper to our roster of games.

As much as we were enthusiastic players of GW games, we also experienced all of the usual dubious joys that come with that territory: the price gouging, the planned obsolescence, the corporate policy of not supporting  long-time players in favor of bringing in new blood, and so forth. Not to mention we were playing these games during what could be termed the nadir of Games Workshop in terms of both rules and figure quality ("Herohammer," kiddified marketing, atrocious plastics, and so forth). In due time, we hit the point of burnout on our GW hobby. Armies were sold off, plans were made to move on to other, more "indie" genres.

Those plans never really panned out. As a historian by training and interest, I found myself drawn towards the historical miniatures genre. Certainly the fractional price point of 15mm figures compared to Games Workshop was a big draw. Unfortunately, this was still in the dawning days of the Web, and I found myself largely adrift without guidance or any idea of how to get jump-start my new hobby. This was back before games like Flames of War and Warhammer Ancients revolutionized the historical miniatures hobby by introducing concepts to rulebooks such as readability, color photos (or images period), decent page layout and organization, or addressing themselves towards a newbie audience.

Over time, however, even as these things got better, I found myself well along a path towards increasingly idiosyncratic interests, ordering minis from backyard manufacturers around the world, picking up obscure reference works from Ukrainian distributors, and pursuing increasingly arcane projects. This culminated with my long and largely unrequited interest in World War II miniatures (which, if nothing else, has left me very well grounded in the history of that war and of the 1940s in general) ultimately taking the form of a collection of 1/72 scale plastics modeled on an obscure and little-known campaign.

Cut to a couple months ago.

I had finished painting up our fantasy armies and was planning to (yet again) re-base my WWII miniatures in preparation for yet another permutation when I realized I was done. After 15 years of collecting and painting WWII minis, I felt I'd reached my end. Not just for the Second World War, but for 20th Century wargaming in general. I wanted to branch out to something more colorful, and also something less close to our own time.

So I started thinking about a new project. I made a decision: to sell my WWII collection and use the ensuing funds - and only those funds - to start the new project. After due consideration, I settled on returning to an old, unticked box, and drink the Kool-Aid: I would at long last start a Warhammer 40,000 project.

This is a huge step for me. Apart from a brief dalliance with Mordheim about six or seven years ago, I haven't played a Games Workshop game in a regular way since 1996. I've attempted to start a project or two, but even then the last attempt was years ago.

Another significant element of my decision is the fact that I'll only be collecting one army. I've gotten into the habit over the past few years of collecting two armies at once. This is because I've largely been the sole torch-carrier for my hobby, even in its greatly reduced state. That meant I couldn't rely on others to collect their own armies for me to play against, and that I had to make sure I was able to supply an opponent with an army if they were interested in playing a game here and there. By choosing to collect just the one army, I'm basically accepting that I'll be going out to play with strangers, something I've never done in the past.

On the one hand, with a 40K army I'm sure I won't lack for potential opponents. On the other hand, these opponents will be drawn from a pool that is notorious for having among its numbers, well, petulant little bitches. Obviously that's a vocal minority, but they do exist.

My goal going in to this project is to aim for aesthetics over "playing to win." This is kind of my philosophy when it comes to miniatures games to begin with, but I'm really pushing the former category with this project since I have no idea when I'll be sending my troops into combat. Also, there's a definite culture of conversion in the 40K universe, so I'm looking forward to jumping into that and doing some extensive customization of my forces, focusing on painting, modeling, and producing a visually compelling collection.

Speaking of my forces, I've decided to go with Orks. Reasons are twofold. First, my old Epic 40K army was Orks, so I have a definite sentimental attachment. Second, all 40K minis are, shall we say, a bit on the cartoony side. This was actually a turnoff for me when I was taking a fresh look at 40K, but I like that Orks are unapologetically so. I like their sense of fun, their ridiculousness, the fact they don't take themselves too seriously. In terms of setting, they're a refreshing break from the relentless seriousness of the other races. I like that they fight for the love of it, not because they're EEEVIL or because they're grimly determined or inscrutable or what have you.

I've decided to go with the Blood Axes clan. Call it my contrarian nature at work again, I suppose. The Blood Axes are hardly a popular choice of clan, even in the canon (despised as they are by the other Ork clans). But I like them because I saw an opportunity to do a bit of an homage to the World War II origins of this project - the Blood Axes pattern themselves on human military conventions. I found a company in Poland (there I go ordering obscure shit from Eastern Europe!) that does resin Ork heads with German-style helmets. I've decided to evoke a sort of Germanic flavor with my boyz, modeling camouflage patterns on WWI German camo, for example. I'll post more details about individual units as I work on them, but for now the old minis have been sold and new ones are arriving as I type.

Some observations so far: After so many years of toiling in obscure corners of the miniatures hobby, it's a pleasant surprise to find the Internet such an embarrassment of riches in 40K resources. Galleries, how-to guides, tactical overviews, and - most critically - lots and lots of great discounts on the second-hand market. I've been able to put together an (at least) 1,000 point army on $260, not bad for a "horde" army like the Orks.

Despite my mixed feelings about returning to the Games Workshop fold, ultimately I'm excited about this project and enthusiastic about seeing how the minis turn out.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Armies of Arcana Battle Report #2

After far too long of a break, I was able to play my second game of Armies of Arcana the Sunday after Christmas. It was also the first game played with our new armies (our first AoA game way back in April '09 utilized our old Fantasy Warriors armies as a sort of compare-contrast test of the new rules). I'm happy to report that our armies both performed to expectation and AoA continued to prove itself a simple yet elegant set of rules. (Of course, there were a couple rules oversights that affected things, although I don't think enough to change the eventual outcome; rather, the game went on for a couple extra turns beyond what it might have otherwise.)

In accordance with our usual practice, I set up the table and let Des choose table edge. I actually set everything up a couple days before we played and ended up culling out some of the trees on the right-hand side of the table - I have to break my habit from years of skirmish games that more terrain is always preferable. For these mass combat games, you need to allow room to maneuver and gain line of sight!

Initial Setup
Above is the initial setup. The offending forest that was winnowed down is on the near side of the table. The table surface covered about 5x4. I think for future games I'll use the whole 6x4 setup my table area allows, as I discovered that AoA is much more a game of maneuver than Fantasy Warriors was.

Des chose her side and we deployed our armies. We chose to play the "Attacker/Defender" scenario and Des won the dice roll and chose for her army to be the attacker. She reserved her peltasts on Infiltrate and set up the rest of her army accordingly, then I followed suit.

For this scenario, for every 2000 points (or part thereof) of their army, each player nominates one victory objective that the other player must achieve. Since we have 3000 point armies, that meant we were each nominating two victory objectives. I nominated the ruined temple as terrain that the Amazons had to occupy and my Necromancer as a character the Amazons had to defeat. Des chose two characters as victory objectives, her Priestess and the avatar of Athena. The scenario had been laid out: the necromancer Germanotta had been despoiling a sacred ancient temple to Athena and had to be stopped! In return, Germanotta had ordered the death of her rival, the Priestess, and the destruction of the avatar the Priestess had summoned!

The Temple Objective

View from the Amazon Lines
As planned, the game opened with me sending two powerful flanking units off in a wide pincer movement. My unit of Skeleton Knights wended through a narrow stretch of the woods to their left, making for the ruined temple. The Undead Mammoth meanwhile lumbered off along the right flank with objective of smashing the Amazons on that side and hopefully drawing some forces away from contesting the temple while aiming for either the Priestess or the Avatar in the bargain. My archers, meanwhile, moved up and prepared to unleash a volley of arrows into the Amazon ranks (lesson learned: missile units can't fire if they move more than half their move in a turn; in the future, I'll be sure to creep my archers forward, allowing them to fire every turn).

Undead Moving Out

As anticipated, Des tapped her Infiltrating peltasts as my cavalry approached the temple, deploying them directly on top of the victory objective and launching a volley of javelins* at the undead knights as they emerged from the woods. Clearly the temple was going to become a focal point of the battle...

*The Undead as written in the rules are Missile Immune, meaning they take no damage whatsoever from missile weapons. I didn't particularly like this rule despite the benefit it allowed me - it just seemed a bit too heavy-handed and unrealistic. Accordingly, we've adopted a common houserule giving the Undead a fixed armor save against missiles. The result is that it's very difficult to hurt Undead with normal missiles, but it is possible to get a couple hits in. Much better.

The Amazons are a very fast-moving army, and they were quickly countering my moves not just with the infiltrating peltasts but with the centaur cavalry and light chariots charging across the table. The centaurs, in particular, greatly concerned me as they were making a bee-line for my Necromancer! If they managed to take her out with the peltasts holding the temple, the game could well have ended just as it was getting under way!

The Amazon Counter-charge

View from the Undead Lines
The chariots smashed into my archers; crucially, I forgot that my archers could "Stand and Shoot" as a charge reaction. This balanced out since we didn't apply the reaction to the peltasts when they were charged by my knights, and we remembered the rule from that point out.

In an act of desperation, I turned my pike unit 90 degrees and marched them in front of my Necromancer. They didn't have enough movement left to turn back to face the oncoming Centaurs, so I knew I would have to take a flank charge, but that was fair trade for protecting my remaining victory objective.

Germanotta was already one wound down from a Centaur arrow...

The knights charge the peltasts as the Amazon queen joins the fray

Battle is joined

Athena watches the battle for her temple shape up..., on the other flank, my mammoth bears down on a hapless unit of axewomen
(Incidentally, in the last picture you can see my latest tree basing scheme in action: trees are mounted on a fixed base but are removable for when units pass through. It worked a charm - finally a forest terrain system I'm happy with!)

The chariots made short work of my archer unit but lost one of their number in the bargain. The remaining chariot charged on into my Great Reaper. Meanwhile, my pikes drove off the centaurs and began marching towards the temple to reinforce the knights, who were slowly being whittled away (my few attempts at casting Raise Dead to bolster my numbers were shut down by counterspelling from the Amazon spellcasters - drat!)

The knights surrounded
My Great Reaper drove the chariot off but was nearly killed in the bargain - he would play no further role in the battle. My mammoth smashed into the axewomen and sent bodies flying. Meanwhile, a major melee began to brew up in the center as my remaining archers along with my unbloodied unit of skeleton warriors engaged the other unit of axewomen and the slingers. At the temple, the last of the knights were felled just as my pikes emerged from the woods.

The Big Brew-Up

The Pikes Try Their Luck
With the knights finished off, the Amazon Queen directed her trusty sabretooth steed towards my Necromancer and an epic combat ensued:

Let's face it: when two half-naked chicks riding monsters square off, everyone's a winner!
(Actually, the combat was a bit too epic; due to a misreading of the morale rules, we didn't start making morale rolls until a couple turns after when we should have. Ah well, all part of the learning process...)

Meanwhile, my mammoth trampled and scattered the last of the axewomen and made straight for the Priestess lurking to the rear of the Amazon lines. In a desperate act of bravery, the remaining light chariot, which had rallied in an earlier turn, charged the mammoth despite being down to a single wound. Predictably, it was turned to matchsticks as my mammoth charged on.

Meanwhile, the phalangites finally got into the battle by utilizing a nifty trick called unit exchange, in which they (with a successful morale check) swapped places with the slinger unit pressing my warriors' flank.

(Another rules goof occurred here: my warriors sent the unit of axewomen to their front fleeing around this time. They were now fighting only the phalangites on their flank. Turns out, after one turn of flank combat they should have been allowed to turn to face front; instead, they fought on their flank the whole time. Fortunately this didn't make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, but it's an important point to remember for future battles in case the phalangites or my pikes [which rely on facing forward to gain combat bonuses] get charged in the flank.)

The Situation Towards the End of the Battle
 Combat continued to swirl around the temple as the peltasts gradually wore down my pikes. The phalangites (who had been reduced by a nasty hit from my catapult that killed seven with one blow) were wearing down my warriors (that Fearless rule is great for Undead staying power - it can really pin units down!), as my mammoth closed in on the Priestess.

The Swirling Melee

In a desperate move, the Priestess (as a master of Water magic) tried to call up a geyser beneath the oncoming elephant, but the creature's great mass easily weathered the jet of water and the Priestess was crushed beneath a bony foot.

With each of us having achieved a victory objective and my mammoth now making for the Avatar of Athena, all attention now focused on the ongoing battle between my Necromancer and the Amazon Queen. Both individuals were taking morale tests every turn at this point (like they should have been doing for at least two turns earlier...ahem...).

At last, both failed their morale tests on the same turn! Germanotta fled directly away from the Queen - and off the table. Just as well, as she was down to one wound. With my Necromancer driven off the table, that was enough to count towards the Amazon victory condition. The game ended with an Amazon victory!

Run Away!

Last Turn
In the end, despite my defeat, I was very pleased with how my Undead performed. I was also duly impressed with the Amazons, who proved to be a satisfyingly tough opponent. Their dominance of the magic phase with two spellcasters was particularly vexing, especially since my army, like Undead armies in every fantasy wargame, benefits greatly from buffing spells. Perhaps I'll promote my Great Reaper to a Lich or add a second Necromancer at some point.

Speaking of magic, that was one facet of the AoA rules we hadn't really explored with our first game, and I found it to be a real highlight. The rules are nicely balanced to keep magic from dominating the game while adding a real tactical element with choosing when to counterspell and when to save up power points.

Despite the inevitable learning curve oversights of certain rules, the game itself is very much in the "easy to learn, difficult to master" category that marks any good set of rules. I can't wait to trot our armies out again for a rematch.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

(NSFW) Amazons

Following up on yesterday's post, here are the pictures of Desiree's Amazon army. The choice to do an army of Amazons was born of her experience playing a Dwarf army in our Fantasy Warriors games: she wanted her "from scratch" army to have the numbers and the speed that the Dwarves lacked. The matriarchal, all-female nature of the army appealed to her as well. Miniatures were drawn from two sources, primarily (both Australian companies, interestingly enough - I'll leave the sociological analysis to another day): Eureka and Shadowforge Miniatures. Although there is an official Amazons army list for Armies of Arcana, it's a more "Frazetta-esque" take on Amazons, what with Sabretooth Tiger cavalry and so forth. Fortunately, AoA is eminently adaptable, and I found someone online who had put together a more Grecian-style Amazon list specifically inspired by Eureka's line.

Of course, as these figures are based on Ancient Greek battle garb, they tend to be rather scantily clad. Even the "heavy" infantry of the phalangites have bare thighs, and the skirmishers are about one-third buck naked. Therefore, consider yourself warned that many of the following pictures may not be entirely Safe for Work (if you work at the sort of place where your boss objects to naked one-inch-tall metal women). Fairly warned be ye says I.

The centerpiece unit of the army and by far its hardest-hitting melee unit is this group of 21 phalangites. Due to their Phalanx rule, all 21 of the figures can potentially fight in a melee if facing forward! I like their death iconography; Des and I have agreed they're some sort of "death guard" unit of specialist undead fighters - clearly Germanotta is not the only rogue necromancer running around the campaign world!

An interesting counterpart to the phalangites is this unit of 19 peltast skirmishers. Despite their lack of armor and completely opposite fighting doctrine, the peltasts cost almost exactly as much as the phalangites. This is due largely to their ability to infiltrate the battlefield and spring ambushes. They proved their worth several times over during our last game, as I'll document in my battle report. (A few of the shield designs are hand-painted, but most have decal transfers.)

The vulnerable flanks of the phalangites are guarded by two units of 10 axewomen, pretty much bog-standard infantry.

While a unit of scantily-clad slingers advances in front of the melee units, blocking line of sight and providing harassing fire.

The fast units in the army comprise two light chariots and a unit of centaur archers:

Finally, the characters. The "leader" of the army is another Hasslefree figure, a barbarian queen atop a sabretooth lion mount (a sort of homage to the original Amazon list, I suppose). I gave her a more Grecian-style mace clipped from an extra Shadowforge leader figure in place of the oversized battle axe she came with; I figure she's a sort of Macedonian-type ruling over the more "civilized" Amazon (i.e. Greek) subjects.

The army's spellcaster is this priestess:

And what good is a priestess if she can't summon an avatar of Athena to fight for you?

I forgot to put a regular miniature next to Athena for scale, but that miniature is about 40-50mm tall, as you'll see in the battle report pictures. Not only is she a badass fighter, but she can also cast spells! The Amazons having two spellcasters to my single Necromancer proved a real setback for me in last weekend's game. Might have to try and even things up somehow...
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