Friday, 28 December 2012

Antares 2401 Campaign: Mission IV succesful

Recently we finished the 4th game in our SciFi skirmish campaign, Antares 2401. The game involved four squads of StarMarines laying an ambush to a convoy of the Icycle Kingdom on the planet Polaris VI.

I will not write the usual game report, just show you some pictures. I will also outline the philosophy of the campaign - but let's first look at some photographs, shot by Bart Vetters.

General overview of the gaming table. The convoy is slowly
progressing along the road, but the ambush is not sprung yet.

The fighting has started. All squads appear from their hiding places,
laying fire on the poor Icycle Kingdom warriors.
Note the snowbeasts pulling large sleds with supplies.

Eddy, Bastiaan and Koen discussing the finer tactics of the StarMarines of SpecOps.

Ambush in full swing. Both sleds are demolished, and fierce small arms fire is exchanged
between the StarMarines of SpecOps and warriors of the Icycle Kingdom.
 The Antares 2401 campaign started as a combination of ideas. I had some 25/28mm science fiction figures lying around of various manufacturers (including some 80s Games Workshop Space Marines, the so-called 'beakies'), and I wanted to put them to good use. That was idea #1.

Idea #2 centered around my plans - several years old - of running a WW2 campaign featuring special operations. Every player would control a platoon of SAS/SBS/... soldiers, and games would involve several historical known and lesser known raids (Bruneval, St-Nazaire, ....). Between raids, surviving figures would gain additional abilities or special skills. This format would also allow players joining or dropping out of the campaign rather easily. Within the backstory of the campaign, it simply meant new platoons being added or withdrawn from the Orbat of the special forces.

Idea #3 was to experiment with open-source games design. Instead of laying down the game mechanics from the beginning, I wanted to start very simple, and add/change/modify rules as more games were being played, with a significant input from the players. The basic framework involved 2 mechanics:
  • Every figure has a number of action points which can be spent to move/fire/melee/special actions ... I borrowed it from one of my all-time favourite boardgames, Space Hulk. I think it works very well in a skirmish-setting, in which every player controls only a handful of figures. We have used this idea before in games like AquaZone (featured on CRISIS 2009).
  • A 2nd mechanic involves firing personal weapons. Since we play on a hexgridded terrain, we can easily count the distance in hexes. A shot is succesful if the roll of a die is larger or equal than the range. This is a very neat way of building in distance modifiers, and makes players think about crossing open terrain, moving through dense terrain with limited visibility etc.
So, the Antares 2401 campaign was born out of a combination of the above ideas. And I think the campaign works very well so far, which is a bit of a surprise, since wargaming campaigns are known for bogging down and grinding to a halt.

So what are some of the key issues that make this campaign succesful?
  • Personalization. Every player controls a designated squad, and every figure in the squad has a name. Figures can gain additional abilities between games, and built up a history of heroic deeds or heroic deaths. Moreover, players can customize their squads by providing names, battlecries, insignia (repaint the figures ...) and so on.
  • Mission Reports. After every mission, every player must write a mission report to Divisional Command. This serves various goals: it keeps players emotionally attached and it develops the backstory of the campaign and of each squad. But the most important aspect of the reports are the 'recommendations'. Each squad commander has to recommend/report to DivComm future courses of action. This can include suggestions for new missions or investigations (story elements), or new training procedures (new special abilities), new weapons (new equipment) etc. I use die rolls to decide the outcome of each recommendation, and write mission dispatches from DivComm to inform the players back.
  • Player involvement. As mentioned before, players can provide input for the campaign. But after each game, we usually have a short debriefing about what rules worked and what rules didn't. We update the rules after every game, but the GM has final say. Input from the players develops the game in a direction everyone (hopefully) likes, but the GM guards the coherency and elegance of the ruleset.
  • No pressure on participating. Games are played with the squads of players that can participate in a given game. If a player is not present, his squad simply does not take part in the mission, but then, his squad does also not get additional experience. This framework makes it easy for players to participate at their own pace, something that is often the deathknell of more traditional campaigns.
  • Variations in Setting and Scenery. Since the campaign is about special operations all over the galaxy, each game can feature a different set of scenery. We have played games on a jungle planet (Sardonis IV), a desert planet (Kalahari V), and 2 snow planets (Polaris VII and Polaris VI) so far.
I like the framework of the Antares 2401 campaign, insofar I am already thinking about expanding it to other settings as well. Perhaps a fantasy theme could include a tribe of warriors, each player controlling their own family or kin, and raiding the neighbouring countries - a Viking campaign could be a historical Dark Ages equivalent. We'll see. For now, we'll stick to scifi :-)

==> See also a previous blogpost about this campaign, Action on Kalahari V. It features some of the mission reports written by the players.

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