Sergeants on the Table

During a brief fit of insanity a few weeks back, I decided that beyond a doubt I needed to take yet another miniatures game for a test drive. I don’t know what it is about “figure gaming” that appeals to me, but sometimes I see a game or read about it and I realize that I’m not going to get it out of my head until I give it a whirl.

So I sucked up my retail courage and bought “Day of Days”, the starter box set for the Sergeants Miniatures Game published by Lost Battalion.

When I ordered it, I understood that it wasn’t your normal miniatures game. It’s part of a gaming sub-genre that’s a cross between a miniatures game and a board wargame. Some of the elements of the game are familiar to every miniatures gamer: 20mm figures, pre-fabricated bases and a ruler for measuring distance. In place of a large tabletop strewn with model terrain, however, the game is played on a highly stylized board and uses cards — no dice — to drive the action and resolve combat. Continue reading

Geometry Is a Harsh Mistress

Tactical wargaming is probably my favorite gaming genre, at least judging by the amount of playing time and money I have invested in the stuff. For my purposes of looking at usability in wargame design “tactical” includes unit scales that range from fire teams up to platoons, mainly because games set at those scales tend to try to accomplish many of the same things regardless of the specific design mechanisms. “Skirmish” scale games — where the game pieces represent individuals — are a bit of a different beast, so they lie below my definition today.

One of the things that strikes me about graphic design in tactical games is how little things have changed in more than 40 years. Compare the counter layout in 1970′s PanzerBlitz to the counter layout in a more modern game like PanzerGrenadier, World at War or Conflict of Heroes. Looky there; numbers in the corners, artwork in the middle. Is that one of those unwritten game design “standards”? I’d think it is, especially considering that one of those contemporary games — World at War — is so loath to part from the standard that it actually screws up usability by cramming too much information into too little space.

World at War counter

World at War: 11 values? Count 'em. And squint.

Note that I’m not advocating sticking values in the middle of a counter. But I will point out that the geometrical judgement is fairly harsh: Cramming 10 values into four corners is simply not a recipe for great usability. I like the World at War system quite a bit, but I don’t get it on the table as often as some other games (or buy as many of the add-ons, to make an economic point) simply because of the usability issues.

Within the limitations of a square counter format, how many practical options are available for a designer to experiment with alternative, useful locations to place information? Some designers have experimented with alternative locations that weren’t so useful — the teensy values for command range or whatever they were (it’s been a few years) on some of the Fortress Berlin counters come to mind here — but are there any realistic options for the format? Continue reading

Dust Tactics: Hit the Beach

One of the questions about Dust Tactics that I encounter most often is, understandably, an important one to most of the wargamers I know. While many folks have read by now that it’s a board game, what exactly does that mean? Is it a highly stylized “board game” with a wargame-like theme layered on top along with some nice plastic bits, or is it a wargame squeezed into a board game format?

My two cents is that it sits pretty firmly in the latter category. It’s a wargame that takes advantage of many of the conventions of the board game genre to regularize play and create appeal for a cross-over audience that otherwise might toss it off as just another tabletop figure-pusher.

The square-gridded gaming surface does indeed stylize play, but no more so than a hexgrid stylizes play in games like Memoir 44 and Tide of Iron — or ASL, for that matter. Important details like weapon ranges may seem contrived and “board game-y” to tabletop purists, but when you compare the interaction between weapons and movement in Dust Tactics to the same dimensions in popular game systems like Warhammer 40k, the numbers aren’t out of line at all. And has anybody noticed that the 4-hex range of the basic Soviet rifle squad in ASL is exactly equal to an infantry squad’s unaugmented one-turn movement allowance of 4? In Dust Tactics, “standard” rifle fire has a 4-square range and the average squad of grunts can move a maximum of 2 squares in a turn. Continue reading

Dust Tactics: Iron and Blood

So far in my explorations of Dust Tactics, I’ve written at length about just one element of the force a player has at his disposal — his grunts. But the infantry units in the game, whether protected by heavy armor or not, aren’t the whole focus of the game. To play well consistently, and to get the most enjoyment out of the game, you also need to work the game system’s vehicles and individual heroes into your battle plans.

Reflecting a World War II era style of classification, both sides have light, medium and heavy combat walkers. A single “chassis” is available for each class, but they feature a number of different customizable weapon fits. The Allied medium walker box set, for example, ships with four different configurations: a 17-pounder tank-killing long gun; a short 75mm howitzer; a wicked short-ranged napalm thrower and a nasty artillery version with a rack of bombardment rockets and a “petard” mortar. The weapons easily interchange by snapping on and off the walker’s turret. Continue reading

Dust Tactics: Hard Knocks and Flamethrowers

After a few games of Dust Tactics, I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty happy with the results. But that statement bears a word of caution to my fellow minis enthusiasts out there: Dust Tactics is not a tabletop miniatures game. As I noted at the end of my last post, it is first and foremost a boardgame. As a standard of comparison, it has more in common with a game like Memoir 44 than a tabletop game like Command Decision, or even Warhammer 40k. The very nice mini figures aside, it is not in any way an attempt at alt-history simulation. But it is a lot of fun.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Dust Tactics has plenty in common with many tabletop rules sets; it’s much more than a military “themed” boardgame. Sound wargaming tactics will win games more often than not, but there are elements of stylized boardgame play that you have to account for in order to succeed consistently. “Classic” fire-and-maneuver play, for example, is certainly viable in the game, but it depends on what the terrain allows and your style of play. Continue reading

Dust Tactics: A Quick Overview

A significant amount of time has passed since the last time I wrote about my Particular Addiction. Much as Sherlock Holmes had trouble resisting the siren call of his seven percent solution, I occasionally fall victim to the allure of “plastic crack,” known to the wider world as wargaming miniatures.

Like many other, more serious, forms of addiction, the urge to fiddle around with plastic crack can go into remission for long periods of time, but the addict is never truly free of it. Sometimes a glimpse of some new product can trigger a collapse; at other times, the irresistible urge seems to manifest for no particular reason. And sometimes I simply cave in after a lengthy struggle against the gnawing idea that something new looks like a lot of fun.

It’s that last one, this time. “Dust Tactics” isn’t exactly new, but it has now officially arrived here in the Swamp Bunker. “Arrived” with a big thump, more specifically, because I recently snagged a good deal on one of the game’s “old style” core box sets, which ships in one of Fantasy Flight’s giant-sized game boxes. Continue reading