It has been just over two weeks since Dark Space Corp launched their funding campaign for “Beyond the Gates of Antares” on Kickstarter. Rick Priestley’s new 28mm Sci-Fi game is generating a healthy amount of interest. Although at this early stage in the development process, perhaps not as many backers as some of the more glitzy pre-order board game campaigns have attracted thus far.
Nevertheless there have been a few videos posted the last few days by Rick, discussing some of the key rule mechanisms they are looking to implement in the game, and it is those I wanted to take a bit of time out to comment on here.
For quite a few years now I have harped on about how I felt Games Workshop was holding 40K back as a game from being more dynamic and interactive. I appreciate it is an entirely subjective viewpoint and clearly there are a lot of players who are getting a huge amount of satisfaction out of playing 40K still. I say kudos to them, I really wish I was in the same boat. But unfortunately ever since I was introduced to Starship Troopers and its more flexible action and reaction style gameplay I have never looked back since. Other than the fact it is Rick Priestley designing GoA (Beyond the Gates of Antares), and I have a lot of confidence in his abilities as a games designer, it is actually the brief outline of the rules that has secured my backing. Even if you haven’t read through the overview on the forums, I recommend watching the short videos Rick recently posted on the website as these give a great introduction to how an action based turn sequence works in principal. They are very bare bones, but do get two really good concepts across: An action pool based turn sequence, and a combat status.
Action based turn sequence
Units are ‘activated’ one at a time and assigned an action to perform. If you have ever played Epic: Armageddon, then this system should be very familiar to you because it is broadly the same. One player picks a squad and performs an action, their opponent then selects a squad and performs an action with it. The turn sequence passes back and forth like this until both have exhausted the number of actions they can spend that turn. In Epic the mechanism which controls who has priority on the activations is initiative. This is not a new or unique design and there are plenty of games which successfully use an activation type turn sequence; Babylon 5: A Call to Arms also springs to mind.
Actions that squads can be assigned include:
- Manoeuvre – An action which allows the squad to move up to double its movement rate, but not engage the enemy at the end. I have seen this action called “On the double” or “March” in other games.
- Engage – An action which permits the squad to make a single move and then shoot at the enemy.
- Rest or Regroup – Actions specific to combat status and readiness (more on those later)
- Support – A deferring action. Squads put on a support footing can then perform the same action as another squad within a pre-determined distance. The example Rick gives is a for a squad performing an ‘Engage’ action. The squad placed on support can then add its firepower to the ensuing engagement.
This type of alternating action design results in a much more back and forth style of gameplay, with both players fully engaged throughout the turn. However, there is one mechanism which I really loved in Starship Troopers and that was the reaction rule. It is something GoA also uses, albeit with a slightly different slant. In Starship troopers, any action which completes within 10″ of an enemy unit allows that unit to make a reaction for free. The reaction can take the form of any of the normal actions, such as shoot or move. This resulted in a lot of dynamic engagements with Arachnid’s charging and being repelled by reaction fire from Mobile Infantry, or the reverse with players knowing as soon as they opened fire at short range, they were going to get a face full of angry Arachnid Warrior if they failed to kill it. I found that much more engaging than moving forward, then shooting with a squad, only for my enemy to quite obligingly stand still whilst I railed on it until either killed, broken, or given permission to do something else only when it was its turn to move and shoot. At which point my troops would of course obligingly do nothing at all in return.
My understanding of GoA’s early design is that certain actions can trigger ‘reactions’ from nearby enemy units. One example given is an engage action triggering a firefight as a reaction. Again, this isn’t a unique idea, Space Hulk and Epic both famously used deferred actions like Overwatch to allow them to react to an opponents moves out of sequence.
Where Rick has taken this a little further is to also create an action pool; a limit on the number of actions that a player can perform during a game turn. I have no doubt this will split the votes a bit as it is normally something players either love or hate, especially if there are no limitations on the maximum number of actions that can be ‘spent’ on a single unit per turn. Personally, I am not as opposed to this as others seem to be because there always has to be a trade off due to being limited by a fixed pool to draw actions from. There is also the Rest and Regroup actions I mentioned above, which are specifically spent to bring a tired or even broken unit back up to a higher status of combat effectiveness. By ignoring fatigued units in favour of alpha-strikes your army is sooner or later going to quickly become ineffective and unable to react to opponents actions.
All of these mechanics create, in my humble opinion a much more engaging and tactical game overall. Certainly one that fires my enthusiasm, which is why I am happily backing it. You can see the video of Rick discussing the actions here on Vimeo.
But what of the other mechanism I mentioned?
In this video, Rick gives an overview of how Combat Status works. In effect a traffic light style mechanism which indicates the fighting readiness of a squad or unit. Units start off Active (green) and are fully functional, able to perform the full gamut of available actions and reactions that would normally be available to them. As they begin to take casualties, or fail courage tests, they become Depleted (amber). Still able to fight, they do however start to suffer combat penalties and cannot make reactions. Worse still is Exhausted (red). At this point the unit is pretty ineffective and the only action it can take is a Rest action to bring it back up to an Amber status. Finally, there is Broken (black) which forces the unit to take a rally test at the start of every turn. If it fails, it is destroyed, if it passes it rallies back to exhausted and can have Rest actions spent on it to bring it back up to a combat capable status.
Where I think this mechanism is particularly clever is how it is combined with the action pool above. Hand in hand the two game mechanisms challenge the player to really think not just how to out-gun or out-fight their opponent, but also how to balance that with keeping their force combat effective. In my opinion there is a lot of potential on show here and I am really looking forward to seeing how this develops as a game, especially considering these are quite literally just the bare bones mechanics at a very high level.
Yes, yes, evangelising about the rules is all well and good, but what about the models?
I suspect this is where potential backers are being a bit shy on being forthcoming with their hard earned cash. I can sort of understand why because at this stage there is very little in the way of design direction other than the rather rough human faction outlines on the website and a broad strokes backstory. The thing is, there is no real risk to backing the project at this stage because right up until the end date, backers can adjust their pledge down to pretty much nothing if the artistic vision isn’t heading in a direction that appeals to them. Here is the rub however. By not backing the project and staying on the fence, the likelihood of greens for any but the most basic factions getting fleshed out at the start is going to be even more unlikely. So in a way not backing GoA is creating exactly that problem. I’m not about to berate anyone for not backing GoA however, that just isn’t my style. I think everyone has to weigh up what their own personal pros and cons are and make their own decision.
One encouraging plus though is having both Bob Naismith and the superb Kevin White on the project. The frequent posts of Kev’s work in progress on the Kickstarter Limited Edition Hansa miniature has proven to be one of the highlights. It isn’t that often you get to see a green take shape stage by stage and actually have a say in influencing the design direction. Attention to small details like demonstrating trigger discipline in the finger positioning, or Kev’s natural and relaxed style of the poses are things I really like in his sculpts. Where Privateer Press and the GW Studio are exercising the maximum leverage out of their grim-dark designs and pushing the boundaries of what can be plastic or resin tooled, it is quite refreshing to see a more understated and aesthetically pleasing approach again.
And yes, currently the debate is mostly around the ‘tache’ and bum-cheek armour.
I’m going to wrap up my musings on this now and press on with the painting. I’d like to hope more folks will have the confidence to pledge support for Beyond the Gates of Antares because I genuinely think this could kickstart a refreshing and new gaming universe with a dynamic rulebook behind it. And God knows we could do with something new and exciting, there are only so many times I can keep re-treading the same old paths laid out in the 40K universe. It is probably why I have taken solace in Epic again; at least I get to demolish a few buildings. Anyway, enough of that. Next time more 6mm Space Marines and my views on everyone’s favourite pet peev currently (or so it seems), plastic resin, or is it restic?
Until next time, have a great week.