If you go down to Gotanda today ...

If you go down to Gotanda today …

On Sunday I played a quick(ish) game of Malifaux with two of my regular role-playing crew. This was my first ever game of Malifaux, and I was quite impressed – it’s a smooth and enjoyable small squad battle game, with a cute mechanic and powers that are easy to learn, as well as very pretty design and a rich atmosphere. This is a brief report of the battle, which ended in a brutal all-party conflagration in the middle of the field.

Don't go to the nursery, dreamer, you won't like what you see ...

Don’t go to the nursery, dreamer, you won’t like what you see …

I played the Neverborn, and my foes were the Resurrectionists and the Guild (I think). We played on an 8×8 battlemat, with two strategies each. My team were:

  • Zoraida, a leader with a heavy magical bent
  • Teddy, a big furry bastard with teeth
  • Baby Kade, a small and unpleasant child with nasty knives
  • Candy, a blank-eyed Goth Lolita with a bag of poisoned sweets
  • Terror Tot, your classic vengeful infant
  • Sorrow, some kind of spirit creature with a mean turn in misery and pain
  • Voodoo Doll, Zoraida’s totem and a big mistake

The Guild player, Big R, went for a small squad of Death Marshalls, the Scales of Justice and some random guy with a big hammer (?) who died. The Resurrectionist player, Aloha-san, went for an absolutely brutally murderous leader called Seamus, some gravedigger dude, a Flesh Construct that is famous for taking huge damage, and a woman who could bury herself. Which didn’t work. There was also a zombie punk samurai thing. My foes went for strategies based on putting markers down on territory, one of which was Squatter’s Rights, which led to a protracted battle between undead and guild members in the middle of the board.

Because Candy and Baby Kade both have “Manipulation,” which makes it a challenge for opponents to attack them, I went for two secretive strategies:

  • Deliver a message: Candy has to rock up right next to an enemy leader and use all her actions for the round delivering it a message. Standing in front of an enemy leader doing nothing is … a challenging proposition. But if you have a challenging proposition, why not put it to a blank-eyed Lolita with a bag of poisoned sweets?
  • Bodyguard: Baby Kade had to stay alive as long as possible; at turn 4 (with two turns to go) I had to reveal that he was the bodyguard; I got bonus victory points if he was still alive with more than half hits at the end of the game. Baby Kade is fiendish difficult to hit, but he is just a baby …
Ted shambles toward Bethlehem

Ted shambles toward Bethlehem

When the battle started I split my forces, sending Zoraida, Candy and the Sorrow one way towards the Guild’s forces, and Teddy, Baby Kade and Terror Tot the other to take on the Resurrectionists. What’s not to like about a giant, blood-stained teddy bear with massive teeth and two psychotic babies crawling into battle? I soon discovered the power of this gang together – Terror Tot and Baby Kade both have pounce, which means that they get an automatic attack on anyone who moves into their engagement range, and once Teddy gets his hands on you you aren’t leaving the engagement. This little squad of creepy doom caught the Flesh Construct just after he had placed a marker down on a victory point. The Flesh Construct lasted into the 2nd Turn, and my little team came out of that encounter unscathed. Oh Teddy …

Meanwhile I discovered the power of the Voodoo Doll in a tight group. Selecting it to start with was a mistake, because it moved so slowly that Zoraida’s first action was to summon a new one with a spell, causing the old one to die. I could have used those 4 soulstone points on magic of some kind! The newly-summoned Voodoo Doll also got to put a “Sewn Fate” on a Death Marshall, which makes it vulnerable to all other attacks and means it takes damage if it injures the Doll. Zoraida started throwing magic at it to make it shoot its own men (she has a pretty turn in domination magic!) and the presence of the Sorrow meant that the Death Marshall kept taking damage from failed willpower duels. In desperation Big R had this unfortunate Marshall shoot the Voodoo Doll down, killing itself at the same time, and Zoraida just immediately summoned another one, which put a sewn fate on the next closest Marshall. This Marshall did so badly from the presence of the Sorrow that it was reduced to 1 wound simply through badly-timed activations and failed willpower duels, before it had even been attacked. But before it died it did manage to kill a member of its own team (Scales of Justice) at Zoraida’s bidding.

This was all a sideshow to the main action, though, which was the battle on the raised central area. Aloha-san and Big R had both selected a strategy which required taking and maintaining control of squares in the centre of the board, and they were beating the living (and un-living) crap out of each other for possession of those marks. The Resurrectionists were summoning zombies from the dead, and Seamus was blasting hell out of anyone who he could see, but Lady Justice (the Guild leader) was doing an awesome job of mincing his crew. This gave me plenty of time to pull my crew into the battle unharmed, and I entered the centre of the table with no injuries and a full crew. At this point I had to reveal Kade’s bodyguard status, and Seamus immediately went to town on him with his pistols – but Baby Kade was on his own now because in order to win I had to get Candy right up to the base of the nearest leader (Lady Justice) within 2 Turns (the game ended at Turn 6). She could get within 4″ in Turn 5, but in order to deliver her message in Turn 6 she couldn’t move (it uses a full action). Fortunately, I could get Teddy to within striking range of Lady Justice. Once he hit her, he could push her 4″ and get into base-to-base contact with her, activating his “gobble you whole” power.

Turn 6 started with Candy in base-to-base contact with Lady Justice, Terror Tot in pounce range, and Teddy ready to munch, but with one other Guild crewmember within missile-fire range. Seamus, the only remaining Resurrectionist, was letting rip with everything he had on Baby Kade – an unfortunately terminal situation for Baby Kade. Initiative was drawn – and Big R won! Lady Justice could act first, and dismember Candy before she could deliver her message! Except … that in the previous round one of my crew (Zoraida?) had cast a spell that induced “Mood Swing” on the other Guild crewmember, allowing me to choose to activate that crewmember in place of any other Guild crew at a time of my choosing. I chose now, so Lady Justice didn’t get to tear Candy apart, the activated crew member failed to kill her, and she delivered her message:

You are going to die

After which all my crew whaled on her, finishing, appropriately, with Teddy delivering the killing blow and swallowing her whole. The other Guild crewmember died during this Turn too, as did Baby Kade, which left me with all but one of my original crew, the Resurrectionists with just their leader, and the Guild completely killed, their leader eaten in one bite by Teddy.

But when we added up the points from our strategies we were all on equal victory points.

I think that’s the definition of a Pyrrhic draw, at least for the Guild. But at least Teddy didn’t go home hungry…

Malifauxcent thoughts

This game was excellent, and the battles and magic so much fun that it was hard to remain focused on strategies – we all just wanted to have at each other and see what happened. The basic mechanic involves drawing a card that resembles a standard playing card (but with very pretty gothy designs), using the number plus an attribute to determine success. The symbols on the cards can act as triggers for additional effects. Every round you also have a hand of 6 cards you can use to “cheat fate,” basically swapping your drawn card for one from your hand to get a better result. Sometimes you get “+” or “-” which are like advantages/disadvantages in D&D 5th Edition (you pull two cards instead of one and choose the best or worst respectively). The abilities and talents of the creatures are all on easily accessible cards, and there is a minimum of tokens and other fiddliness. All you need to do is flip over your card to see what it can do, then do the card draws as required. Soulstones (if you have any) can be used to further cheat these draws.

This mechanism is really fun and, in conjunction with the wide range of sneaky and devious manoeuvres on the cards, generates a really rich and challenging combat environment. Once you’re used to the rules – which are very easy and quick to pick up, and all there on the card – it’s really easy to make decisions and work out what to do, and with just 5-7 crew members it’s not hard to get abreast of your options. Overall it seems like a really well-designed and fun system. There is a role-playing game of Malifaux coming out soon, and I think it could make a really cool system and game world. This game is well worth trying if you get a chance!

Manifest Destiny

Returning to Hearts of Iron 2 after a long hiatus, I finally struck the motherlode and annexed the USA after months of trans-atlantic hide-and-seek. The forces of imperialism and racism refused to surrender, showing much more bravery and persistence than my top social researchers had credited them with, and after I captured all of mainland USA they moved their capital to their offshore imperial holdings: first some godforsaken place on the Atlantic coast of latin America, which of course I liberated; then Greenland, which is easy to invade because there is nowhere for US soldiers to hide; then their colonial possessions in Iceland. Getting to Iceland required that I declare war on Portugal and capture the Azores, sinking the Portuguese Atlantic fleet in the process. This was unfortunate, but ultimately my continental European campaign will be made easier by the availability of a second front – I am after all at war with Republican Spain, and a second leaping-off point for the invasion of Britain will be handy.

Once I had overrun Iceland the USA continued its flight, like Gaddafi or Hussein; they moved their capital step by step across the Aleutians and the Manchukuo 8th Division followed them, in concert with one of my more hardened units of marines; after the Aleutians had been entirely occupied they disappeared for a month or two, but I finally discovered them cowering on a slip of land in the Pacific called Tinian Island – right under my nose, in fact, because the neighbouring islands were garrisoned by my home guard. So, in went Manchukuo’s famous 8th, once again, and the final battle was joined. This was a battle of bureaucrats as much as anything else, because the US lacked soldiers, industry or equipment, and was hiding in what was essentially a coral atoll. The president himself, his family and the few retainers and functionaries of the surviving government of the USA were all that remained and, I’m sad to say, they fought to the last family member. Or so the grizzled veterans of the Manchukuo 8th told me. Only the most barbaric of peoples would force even primary-school aged children to fight! Such a shame they all had to die … though I hear there was rejoicing on the streets of America (or what’s left of them, in most cases) after 6 years of war were finally brought to an end.

So now I find myself facing off against China, who declared war on me 2 years ago and in the first heady stages of that war managed to seize huge amounts of territory from me – all of India, Burma, Nepal and Tibet, in fact. I hold them in a line from the border of Burma through Guangzhou and up to Qingdao, and also the northern areas around Beijing, but it’s been a desperate slog for both sides, as huge numbers of my soldiers have been tied up in the USA and getting them back can take months of reorganization. I’ve now started landing forces around Qingdao and western Thailand ready for the big counter-attack: my aim is to cut off huge chunks of the Chinese army at Tianjin in the North and Sittang in the south, and then destroy them, before pushing into the inland from Beijing and Guilin and working an encirclement the size of a continent.

In many ways China have been harder than the US, because they US focused its industry on naval and airforce units, and when I finally landed on the mainland they had very little infantry for me to roll up – in fact a good 3-6 month period of the war on the west coast was taken up with defeating a large Canadian land army. But the Chinese have an enormous land army, that is fielded in great clots of men – 100,000 here, 200,000 there, maybe a million in total camped around Beijing and Tianjin and constantly trying to break through that poor beleaguered city. Every victory is followed by a defeat, and battlezones like the plains south of Beijing or the karst landscapes of Guilin have seen our armies crossing and re-crossing the killing zones for months. The nature of the Chinese campaign, with so many soldiers, makes it very hard to conduct encirclement operations, because they have so many soldiers that they have an excellent defense in depth. I have to wait for them to push a salient towards the sea, then snap it off in counter-attacks that are costly in time and men. So far I think I’ve captured about 100,000 men (10-12 divisions) at the loss of 20,000 of mine, and I have the enemy teetering on the brink of collapse. I regularly devastate their industrial centres, and their capital is a smoking, radioactive hole – Chengdu and Chongqing have both been nuked, and thrice hit with conventional missile attacks, as have many of their industrial centres. I’ve captured Nanjing, Guangzhou and some of the mountain approaches to the South, and hope soon to overrun Guilin. I know that they’re unable to maintain reinforcements for their army, feed their populace and keep dissent under control without abandoning all other industrial tasks. I think soon they will lose the ability even to control dissent and reinforce their troops.

In anticipation of this, I’m now reorganizing my naval forces to start starving the British, with a naval blockade of Britain itself and a submarine force set to prowl the Caribbean. China is going to take another year to beat, and I’m going to need to leave a huge force there in readiness for any aggression by the Soviets, but I think in a year’s time I’ll be in a position to start attacking Western Europe. I hold the Azores and Iceland, so a simultaneous attack on Portugal and the UK is a distinct possibility. But first I’m going to clean up the UK’s Caribbean territories, to ensure there is no way they can stage counter-attacks on the US.

The big problem I’m having with this game is that the computer never surrenders. Even when I have reduced it to a rump of two provinces, with no military or industry, it still refuses to surrender. This drives me crazy, because it means I waste months trying to find and capture every single territory the enemy possesses, even coral atolls like Tinian. I even once tried starting the game from a saved game as my enemy, and suing for peace with myself, but the computer wouldn’t accept my generous offer. This makes the endgame of every war unrealistic and is going to be a particular pain in the arse with Britain – conquering Africa is sooooo tedious.

Other than that, though, I’m having  a great time. The main question I have to put to my readers: what shall I call America? It’s clearly no longer the USA, so what should I call it?

Britain’s rioters have been returning Games Workshop products, it has emerged.

It’s 1943, and in honour of the Japanese recovery from the Great Hanshin Earthquake I have installed my first nuclear reactor at Fukushima. We are, of course, talking Hearts of Iron 2 here. I’ve captured China and established the Empire of the Sun God (better names accepted) and I’ve also installed a rocket research facility in Niigata, and managed to gain access to the ICBM technology option. My plan, obviously, is to beat the USA to nukes. I figure that if the USA develops “electronic computer technology” and I develop a nuclear capable ICBM, then nuke Seattle, I can interpret that act as nuking Microsoft.

Which would be a good thing.

In 1943 I’m struggling to produce enough supplies and raw materials, and my oil stocks are dwindling – this despite owning all of China – so I’ve decided the only rational option is to invade the Netherlands. They’re colonialists, so it’s cool. Only bad people will die. Bad dutch people, even. What have they ever done for you? Sadly I’ll never be able to annex the Netherlands, because I don’t have transports with that kind of range, but I can capture Indonesia and West Papua. In the real world I would liberate them both, but in the game I can’t do that, but capturing the territory gives me access to their oil, plus a jumping off point for Australia, and a possible redeployment point for my V2 missiles (which are worthless; which is why I only made 1). I’m not sure if it’s worth bothering with the Phillipines, but I probably will.

The big problem arose on 21st September 1943, when the computer offered me the option of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. This gives me the benefit of a short term advantage in naval conflict, but in the long term leads the US to gear up for war. I would have decided against this option, and gone for war against the Netherlands only in the short term, but alternate history has turned in my favour. In this instance of Hearts of Iron 2, the USSR invaded Germany in 1940 (which justifies Germany’s real-life decision in 1942, clearly). They annexed Germany in 1943, which is further proof that you shouldn’t rouse that particular bear. France declared war on the USSR a few weeks later and their allies followed, so currently the USA, UK and France (my key enemies) are embroiled in a war with the USSR. This means that I have a good 3 years before the USA can turn its sights entirely on me, and if the lessons of history are any guide, France is completely and utterly doomed. With the collapse of France on the continent I can capture their territories in Asia – I wonder what happens then? Anyway, this should neutralize the USA’s traditional industrial and supply advantage, and if I join a military alliance with the USSR I’m guaranteed to win the game. Alternatively, if I quietly develop nukes and ICBMs, I can destroy the USA’s infrastructure and take them from the flank while they’re embroiled in a continental war of stupendous proportions.

Unfortunately, my naval forces have proven weak and this is a big problem against the USA, who are right now building about 15 aircraft carriers with the express purpose of destroying my navy. But they have some tough decisions to make with Russia about to stomp France, so maybe they’ll change direction and leave me to capture the Phillipines, Indonesia and PNG. Then I’m going to have sufficient oil and troops to do the dirty and capture England and Vietnam…

Interesting times in WW2. Stay tuned for the tale of Japan’s development of nuclear weapons…

I can’t find much information online about how to win Hearts of Iron as Japan, so I thought I’d try it again for myself. I played once before, and got all the way to 1944 before it all collapsed in a heap. The reason that time was that I failed to plan certain things properly from the beginning, and didn’t understand the territorial conquest system properly, so I ended up in an industrial- and manpower contest with the USA. That’s not an easy contest to win.

So, last week I loaded up Hearts of Iron 2, and decided to try again. For those unaware of this fine game, it’s a strategy war game that pits all the major nations from world war 2 against each other, starting in 1936 and running until 1953. It’s an enormously detailed system, in which the player has to choose policy settings, research technology, do trade deals, plan intelligence operations, build and plan units and even take control of supply convoys and unit leaders. The player can choose the level of control, but managing all the details requires a specially compartmentalized brain. I play with some settings – particularly convoy management and choice of unit leader – mostly automated, and tend not to fiddle with the policy settings or government ministers (much). I mainly focus on balancing industrial capacity and research, trade, and building new units. Combat alone in this game takes most of my attention, since you can’t beat another nation – even a weak one – without careful attention to supply lines, who is supporting who, and where your armies should go next. Basically, if you want to destroy your enemy you need to encircle chunks of their army, destroy them, bite off another chunk, and so on.

So, this time around I wanted to play Japan as a kind of benevolent Asian power, possibly even aiming to ally with the comintern against the Nazis, but things sadly didn’t go quite according to plan. It’s very clear that the liberal democracies of the inter-war years are a fickle and untrustworthy bunch, heavily involved in colonialism, and in fact the region around Japan is infested with British, Dutch, Portuguese and US colonies or puppet kingdoms. Through the 20s and 30s, of course, we know that the colonial powers – especially Britain and the US – were increasingly infringing on Japan’s rights, and had aggressive plans for the region. For example, if you look at the map in 1936, you can see the French possessions stretching right up to the southern Chinese border. Is this the behaviour of responsible citizens?

So, both to protect Japan from colonialism and to ensure the continued peaceful growth of the region I felt that Japan could play a leading role establishing a kind of Asian alliance, that might stave off the western powers. I could see a kind of zone of free commerce and peace in the region, a co-prosperity sphere if you will, and hoped that this would be sufficient to protect both my own nation and the region under my benevolent guidance. Unfortunately at every turn the Chinese stymied my plans, sending spies to my nation and attempting to turn world opinion against me – I think they even saw the presence of a few militia units in Manchukuo as provocative, rather than simply in the interests of my ally’s internal security, and the Chinese began arming up. But they were also playing cosy with the USA, and I could see that in the long-term the conflict would undoubtedly end badly for Japan (and by extension the region) unless I could increase Japan’s industrial capacity, and secure a greater range of supplies.

Given the instability on its borders, and the threat of incursion from the south by an aggressive communist insurrection within China, I figured the best way to make everyone in the region safer was to send a security stabilization force into Shanxi, a kingdom between my colonial possession my ally Manchukuo and Nationalist China. This force wasn’t even mainly Japanese, being at least 50% divisions from Manchukuo. Unfortunately the Chinese misread this as a sign of colonial intentions, and reacted by annexing Shanxi, invading the Guangxi Clique on their Southern border[1], and declaring war on me!  Fortunately I had a rapid reaction naval force in Dalian, and I responded to this act of naked aggression by landing it in Shanghai and fighting Northwest towards Shanxi.

This pincer movement weakened the Chinese in my region, but I subsequently discovered that their weakness was partially due to overreach – they had also declared war on and invaded Yunnan to the Southwest, and Sinkiang to the West. So, my suspicions were proven correct all along – they planned to expand their own territory, obviously counter to any plans for peace and prosperity in Asia. They also seemed to have become embroiled in a war with France, which seems a bit stupid, but also confirmed my suspicions that the colonial powers had designs on the two unconquered great powers of Asia. The only solution to Chinese aggression was to overthrow their illegitimate leadership, and the only language that liberal democracies understand is force, so I had no choice but to prosecute a war against China to the fullest extent of my powers. So, I adopted a policy of rapid amphibious strikes on the Chinese coast, with the incursion forces pushing inland to encircle Chinese resistance and mop it up, and simultaneously pushing Northwest to meet my forces as they descended from Shanxi. In the first year, large numbers of Chinese divisions were cut off and destroyed this way. Of course, I’m a benevolent power, so the survivors are treated well, and are being held in facilities where they are educated daily in the benefits of a greater Asian unity under my leadership.

Throughout this process, the Americans have been trying to destabilize me, and the Germans have been subject to considerable international pressure, even being forced to annex certain territories to their immediate East, such as Czechoslovakia, in order to ensure their security. This proved remarkably foresightful, as the USSR declared war on the Germans in 1940. I haven’t joined a full alliance with the Germans yet, but I had a hard and protracted fight against Communist China, and I can see how the Germans must be scared of the Soviet Union, so again I need to consolidate my hold on fractious China before the situation in Europe stabilizes.

Currently, however, the war has become somewhat bogged down. I have established a huge pincer on the southern and northern sides of China, with forces stretching as far as the border of Mongolia to the north, and as far as the southern foothills of Sichuan to the South, where Chengdu is in sight. In the middle stand some 30 or 40 divisions of Chinese troops, who have put up bitter resistance against my forces. There is a river that flows between the old Communist China and Xi’an, and the battle has reached something of a stalemate there, with the Chinese defending the ancient capital of Xi’an ferociously. I think I have finally established a foothold on the southern side of that river, though, and captured Xi’an. The battles to cross the river have been huge, spanning multiple provinces and involving tens of divisions on both sides, only to end every time in a bloody stalemate. To the south the battle proceeds valley-by-valley through the mountainous regions near Chengdu, and in the hills to the East of the mountains has been slowed by dogged resistance. However, I am confident now that I have strangled much of China’s access to resources and industry, so that they no longer have sufficient capacity to reinforce their soldiers and supply their civilian populace; and the tide of battle appears to have turned recently after I developed the technology for modern infantry, and upgraded my battlefield divisions. I am also pressing a new unit of modern motorized infantry into the fray, and think I can complete a massive pincer movement cutting off some 20 or so Chinese divisions within a few months. From there only mopping-up operations will remain, and I can annex the entire territory.

This is necessary, because it is now mid-1941 and the tide of history suggests that within a year or two I will be at war against the most vigorous and acquisitive power, the USA. They may not have many colonial possessions now, but their intent towards the Pacific is clear. I need to be able to shift my industry – and the newly captured industry of China – to the production of coastal fortifications, radar stations, and aircraft carriers for the long war to come. Plus, I have a nuclear reactor and a rocket research facility to build, and as yet my armoured divisions are very backward and in need of upgrades. I am confident though that if I can capture China I will be well-placed to turn its industrial capacity to the task of conquering America.

This game has one cheat that I really hate, that makes things a lot harder and which I think doesn’t reflect historical realities. Basically, you can’t gain access to a nation’s industrial capacity until you annex the nation, which means capturing all its key regions (which have “victory points”). So, when you get close to capturing one of China’s puppet nations (e.g. Shanxi, which would have increased my industrial capacity by 15% or more), the computer annexes that nation. This eliminates the nation from the diplomacy board, and prevents you from annexing it. You then have to conquer all of China before you can free up the industrial capacity of those regions that were in the puppet nation. I don’t think this is a realistic model of conquest, but the computer’s use of this trick has denied me access to the industrial capacity of two whole nations for about 3 years (I captured all the regions of Shanxi and the Guangxi Clique in about 1938). So, although I’m going to try a legitimate victory, if the battle drags out in China’s huge western provinces I’m going to use a reverse trick. Every time you load a saved game you can start as China instead of Japan. So I’m going to load a saved game as China, and then make a peace offer to Japan on ludicrous terms that reduce China to only a handful of useless provinces. Then, I will save, quit, enter that game as Japan, and annex the regions I have been ceded by China. I can then invade the remnants of China and take my time about it, having siezed the key industrial capacity ahead of the looming war with the US.

Last time I lost this game due to a sudden collapse of manpower, and the inability to out-produce the US. Part of the reason for this was that I failed to adequately capture all of China (in fact, I don’t think I even tried), and so spent a lot of time and industrial capacity without gaining any long term benefit. This time I shan’t be so foolish. Once I have captured China I will commence my nuclear power program (in 1941!), build a super-fleet of carriers, and aim to have troops on the US mainland within 3 months of going to war – this is the only way to prevent its productive capacity from completely swamping me.

Perhaps then we can begin to consider a co-prosperity globe, rather than merely a region…

fn1: Which, fair enough. No nation with the word “clique” in its name can mean well, can it?