Tuesday, June 20, 2017

All the Emperor’s Men

Half the fun is playing around
with the miniatures....
After enjoying Daniel Mersey’s Victorian skirmish rulesThe Men Who Would Be Kings – I had some inspiration to adapt them to other periods for which I have miniatures. Although it would have been easier to start with the French and Indian War (FIW) or American War of Independence (AWI) considering their historical proximity to the original rules, I decided to try porting them to Star Wars to use my collection of 25mm painted miniatures and engage my son’s immediate enthusiasm. I have modest numbers of stormtroopers, Imperial army troopers, Rebel troopers, bounty hunters, and a few other models that could muster into appropriate units, plus a host of terrain to simulate desert, forest, or other environments. And I have a more-or-less willing opponent in the Little Guy, whose interest in Star Wars seemingly waxes and wanes with the moon’s phases but otherwise enjoys playing with Daddy’s toys (though he’d prefer to play during the Clone Wars era...). So I set out to customize The Men Who Would Be Kings for Star Wars miniatures.

One might think I’d use West End Games’ Origins-award winning miniatures rules, Star Wars Miniatures Battles, released in 1991. This was well before I joined the company as editor of the Star Wars Adventure Journal, so I don’t know much of the backstory about how this product moved from concept to release. It probably had its origins in a few elements inherent in the company at the time. West End got its start producing chit-and-board wargames, including some early titles for Star Wars; the jump to miniatures rules wasn’t a long one given the staff had experience with this kind of design and technical presentation. I’d always assumed the principle author, art director Stephen Crane, was drawn more to wargaming than roleplaying, and the comprehensive rules text and scenarios for the miniatures game reflect this (I never knew his co-author, Paul Murphy). The game itself relied on the basics from the roleplaying game – attributes, skills, die code values, Force powers, handfuls of six-sided dice – providing a solid bridge between wargamers and roleplaying gamers in a common system and setting. Yet on a recent reading I realized the game relied too heavily on system conventions from the roleplaying game, shoehorning many rules into a miniatures wargaming format that seemed to make for an overly detail-oriented simulation. This works for some people, but not for me, and certainly not for the Little Guy. I’m biased, of course, by my current attitudes as both a gamer with limited resources (time, money, focus) and one who advocates simple yet elegant game mechanics to draw newcomers into the hobby (especially kids). At first I thought I’d give the Star Wars Miniatures Battles a try on its own, but I found myself quickly overwhelmed by a time- and attention-consuming horde of attributes and skills, squad rules, movement and attack factors, squad generation points, and weapon stat minutiae. This was not a quick skirmish wargame I could easily set-up and teach my son, it was a comprehensive miniatures wargame for dedicated grognards*.

So I turned to a game designed for skirmishes, The Men Who Would Be Kings, which I’d admired for its streamlined, intuitive mechanics, fast but engaging play, and adaptability to a variety of Victorian-era conflicts. While it exemplified the differences between a well-trained military force and tribal warriors with a variety of often-inferior weapons, it still provided a framework within which I could work. I immediately set about examining the core game concepts and adjusting them to reflect the kind of action I wanted from a Star Wars skirmish.

Rebel Troopers prepare to defend their
supply cache from stormtroopers.
I had several goals: to customize The Men Who Would Be King rules and unit stats to play out skirmishes using 25mm Star Wars miniatures; to adapt the rules and stats to work with the kinds and numbers of miniatures I already own; and to distill all rules changes onto unit reference cards. With these goals in mind I minimized the role of leaders, though they still play a part in ordering units to engage in less-likely actions. I also bent the rules for special units, notably the Imperial probe droid and minor Jedi, both of whom use powerful effects on the battlefield. I increased ranges to reflect blaster weapons, particularly rifles, and added a simple (and therefore deadly) rule for using grenades and thermal detonators, balanced by their extremely short (12-inch) range. Obviously some actions like Form Close Order and Volley Fire didn’t make sense in a universe where soldiers just seemed to spread out and shoot at each other; I kept ones like Gone to Ground as they were, since some units could use it and I didn’t want to unnecessarily change things just to sound better for a home-brew Star Wars game. Deciding on game stats for the different forces proved a bit more challenging than I’d thought because the system of assigning such values in relation to unit points in The Men Who Would Be Kings was not readily apparent. I extrapolated such a system, however, from starting with the core stats for regular infantry and adjusting elements up or down as necessary. While I chose to use the leadership mechanic – a necessary core mechanic of the original game for determining if units could take action or rally – I simplified it, giving units a random leadership roll between 5 and 7 (with 8 for leaderless units) with no further modifications from the “Leadership Traits” table in The Men Who Would Be Kings.

In all fairness I kept my first edition copy of the Star Wars Miniatures Battles rules on my desk as I typed up my notes. The old rules served as a good reference for 25mm movement rates, weapon ranges and damage, Force powers, and other factors I’d figure into my house rules. In some cases, though, I just went with intuition. While stormtrooper weapons have longer ranges than Rebel trooper blasters, they aren’t as accurate. Armor remains truly effective only in close combat. Probe droids have a host of actions, don’t have to roll leadership to take actions, and can fire or target enemy units (giving allied units a bonus to hit). Minor Jedi on the battlefield have even more options through various manifestations of Force powers, though they can only use one per turn. I’d already created my own unit reference cards for The Men Who Would Be Kings, so I ported the template and customized it for each possible Star Warsunit. I printed the reference cards, set up the wargaming table, and tested my rules interpretations with a small skirmish.

The Little Guy could barely wait to get downstairs and give the rules a try. For the first, very basic scenario I set up a small Tatooine building with some supply crates and a few desert hills. Each side had about 10 point, smaller than the half-strength forces The Men Who Would Be Kings recommends for trying out the rules; the Rebels had a squad of troopers and a poorly trained heavy repeating blaster crew, while the Imperials had a full stormtrooper squad and a half-strength scout trooper unit (using the only six scout trooper miniatures I have). The Imperials needed to retrieve the stolen supply crates from the Rebels. Unfortunately the Little Guy’s overall gaming strategy tends toward the safer side, so his units held back and hid behind the hills until Daddy got impatient and moved both his forces forward (out of cover) to engage. Obviously the Imperials slaughtered the Rebels in good order, but it gave me a chance to see how The Men Who Would Be Kings ported to Star Wars miniatures. The Little Guy seemed to grasp the basics of the rules fairly easily, though at times he seemed more interested in playing around with his figures than using them for an organized game (something I’d expect from a seven year-old anyway).

Rebel troopers cover the A-wing pilot's escape.
It wasn’t long before he was demanding I run another game for him, this time using different terrain. After a complete wargame table reset I had forested terrain with a crashed A-wing starfighter in the center with a Rebel pilot figure to rescue or capture. With this goal in mind the Little Guy was a bit more aggressive in moving toward the objective, but he failed to use the probe droid’s targeting ability to give his other units a firing bonus, preferring instead to keep the droid close to his clustered troops and shooting rather than targeting. The Rebels rescued the pilot and escorted him to safety. In a replay of this game I set a few face-down markers around the A-wing, with only one indicating the presence of the hiding pilot. Both the probe droid and minor Jedi had powerful influences on the battlefield beyond simple combat value. The Little Guy later demanded I add more and more miniatures, including Darth Vader (completely unbalancing the game...), but I think that was more from an interest in playing with the minis. He’s quickly grasped the concept of balanced forces and a scenario set-up; no more can I just throw some minis on the table and have them blast each other...now he wants a story setting up the confrontation.

I’ll admit the conversion to Star Wars erased some of the Victorian nuances of The Men Who Would Be Kings. Failed leadership rolls still stymied some units; I’d used a variable system for assigning leadership values before the game, rolling 1d6 with 1=7, 2–5=6, and 6=5 as leadership values. Without variable leadership traits there were fewer bonuses and penalties arbitrarily forced on unit leaders and their performance. With all forces considered regular infantry the standard number of figures in each unit remained 12 and didn’t have cause to vary upward as with tribal infantry, ensuring most units had pretty standard strengths. The earlier games felt like blaster slug-fests, a result of fielding only a few units instead of full 24-point forces (with about four units on each side). Later games, with more complex battlefield layouts and mision parameters, had a bit more maneuvering and tension. For all their extra abilities and the ability to take any action as free, the probe droid and minor Jedi seemed underpowered; a solid attack or two from a near full-strength squad could easily take them out, even in cover. Overall, though, the rules for The Men Who Would Be Kings provided a solid framework for running Star Wars miniatures battles; I’ll continue to experiment with them and refine some of the less successfully ported concepts.

* grognard: ultra-hardcore wargamer (wargames – Advanced Squad Leader, Combat Mission, etc.). Comes from French word that means “grumbler” (www.urbandictionary.com).