It’s been a long time since leisure time and brain power have combined in sufficient quantities for me to get in some game time on the tabletop and then go all bloggy about it. With any luck, it will become more frequent than a once-a-year event…
Since it smacked down on the front porch of The Swamp Bunker about ten days ago, I’ve spent a number of interesting sessions playing Night of Man, the new sci-fi tactical shoot-em-up from Flying Pig Games — in fact, it’s FPG’s first boxed release (although it’s not like chief pig flyer Mark Walker hasn’t been around the wargame industry for a while now). In the interest of full disclosure, from time to time I write up bits of gaming goodness for FPG’s Yaah! Magazine. In return, from time to time, FPG sends me a magazine. They do not, however, send me free boxed games. (Sadly, one does not get rich writing for wargaming magazines.) I got Night of Man fair and square through the game’s Kickstarter campaign.
If, like me, you enjoy poking around at a large variety of tactical wargames, you’ve probably come across Mark Walker designed games before. In a previous business-y incarnation, he was responsbile for the squad-level Lock N Load system and the platoon level World at War (plus its close relative, Nations at War). Probably other stuff I’ve missed, too. When I first saw the Kickstarter for Night of Man, I had to wonder how many different ways one guy could come up with to “do” a tactical wargame.
Fortunately, it appears the creative Mr. Walker takes his coffee strong because Night of Man is Different with a capital “D”.
For starters, the game box needs a sticker on it (in large print) that reads “Sized for Old Farts”, or something to that effect. The physical presentation is generously scaled and very sturdy. Counters (including markers) are one-inch square — no tweezers required — and the four mounted maps are marked with a one-inch grid. I have in the past fussed a bit about the teeny superscript numbers and congested counter graphics in both Lock N Load and World at War, so it’s only fair that I heap praise on the Night of Man counters for their ease of use. Hell, I don’t even need to wear my reading glasses to play the game. For those of us who are in our squinty-eyed, fumbly-fingered phase, this game’s graphics are good therapy.
Past the graphics, some serious cleverness has been applied. Night of Man is a card driven game. No dice in sight. One big deck of cards handles everything. Each player gets a hand of four cards, and they take it in alternating impulses to play those cards for their actions — one action per impulse — with some reactions and “supports” (things that buff/nerf actions) mixed in. Hands are refilled at the start of each impulse. Cards are also drawn from the deck to resolve combat. “End of Turn” cards (four total in the deck) are also the timing mechanism; when a scenario-specific number of them have popped up, the turn is over.
The game engine is extremely streamlined, with simplified line-of-sight rules, a short list of possible actions, and combat resolution that requires not much more than first-grade math (as kids go these days, anyway). Ten pages of rules have you up and running infantry battles. Another page and a half add in basic vehicle combat. There are a few more science fiction-y bells and whistles beyond that, including some characters with brain-zapping powers, but none of it’s rocket science.
Combat is amazingly simple. Against soft targets, you calculate the attack strength (there are a very few modifiers), then draw a number of cards equal to the (modified) total. Each “Hit” result is a hit (very clever, that). One hit shakes the target; subsequent hits on shaken targets cause step reduction. Units typically have two steps. The whole process goes quickly with a bare minimum of mathematical trickeration. Armor piercing fire is only slightly more complicated, with a card draw to determine hit-or-miss and a second card draw to determine whether or not hits penetrate (and destroy the target).
As a veteran of many games of Combat Commander — another card driven tactical game — I’m impressed with the differences in Night of Man’s implementation of the card-driven mechanism. It’s considerably more straightforward and much less chaotic, although still with plenty of headspace for a player to wonder what the other guy might be holding in his card hand. There are just enough elements of card play in the game for you to realize that you’re playing a card driven game, but not so much that any of it gets in the way of having an old-fashioned romp around the cardboard battlefield.
When I go on an adventure into tactical wargaming, one of my most important Quest Items is always a good narrative — and a good narrative isn’t something that every game can produce reliably (maybe because I’m a picky old SOB, but that’s another matter). Some games tend to be too procedural or fragment the action too much. It’s not that they don’t produce a narrative, it’s that the narrative frequently doesn’t emerge until the end of the game, or at least not until you’ve gone a through lengthy sequence that feels less like a firefight and more like choreographing a marching band. No, for me the Ultimate Quest Item is a narrative moment that you and your opponent both realize is a great narrative moment while it’s happening — and by that I don’t mean a single important dice roll. A glorious charge fails, a tough position collapses, victory turns into a smoking pile of rubble — all in the space of a couple of minutes — something unravels so quickly that your opponent (or you…) can only sit there and wonder what the hell just happened.
For me, Night of Man has been pretty consistent at producing gaming moments like that. Game play is fast to begin with, so it’s easy to string together a game-altering sequence of actions in the span of just a few minutes. The alien MECA (infantry) fast-moving through a hail of opportunity fire to assault and force an Abrams tank (which his armor couldn’t seem to hit) from a key hilltop. Alien tanks and hover cars learning the hard way (their smoldering hulks litter the ridgeline…) about the sniper Larkin’s “hotshot” power. A coordinated fire-and-assault (on a “Command Ops” card) clearing out a critical alien-held building. The hilltop .50 cal killing everything that showed itself. At least one memorable story from every game — and that’s a pretty good record in my book.
The game isn’t without a few faults. Short rulebooks usually mean that there will be a few questions hanging, and that’s the case with Night of Man. Some of the card interactions and timing could be better explained. The effects of mix-n-match terrain types need to be explained. Nittering little details that are almost – but not quite – “derp” level still need to be specifically stated for those of us who may encounter a rules lawyer. As an example of this one, the world “shuffle” doesn’t appear in the rulebook. At all. When do you shuffle the action deck? Do you shuffle the action deck? It makes sense that you’d shuffle the deck before starting a new turn, but the rules don’t specify. Nothing major, but a bit aggravating.
Like most tactical wargames, Night of Man also has the tendency to become a Marker Farm, although it’s not the skyscraper builder that some games become. Usually two markers max, and that’s about it. But with markers for Fired, Moved, and Ops Complete, most of the time every unit on the map will end up with at least one marker before the end of the turn. Also, alien combat walkers are ‘built’ with the aid of half-inch markers for weapons and such that stack on top of the unit counter, so they tend to get a bit teetery on the map.
Minor dents aside, I’m having a lot of fun with Night of Man. The Kickstarter package comes with a set of solitaire rules — “Alone Against the Aliens” — that I haven’t cracked into yet, although they look like fun. I’ll report back once I’ve taken them for a spin.