Monday, October 27, 2008

A wargamey approach to D&D Miniatures

Most wargamers, even those with pretty eclectic tastes, will have certain types of games that appeal to them more than others. I've always had a weakness for man-to-man level skirmish games, for example. I own more than a dozen right now and have owned or played dozens more since playing Sniper! back in the 1970s.

Every wargame has to strike a balance between realism and playability, but higher-level wargames can mask some of their abstractions more easily than skirmish games. Few people who have never served at a higher-level military headquarters have a strong idea of exactly how an army works. But just about everybody can imagine very easily the potential moves of an individual soldier, so there's a strong incentive for a skirmish level wargame to become very detailed. The player knows that in real life the soldier could peek around a corner, so he wants his soldier to be able to do it.

Yet action at the skirmish level is fast and furious and a game that bogs down in too much detail runs the risk of failing to captures the chaos and quick reaction of a melee.

There's no right answer, and I've found games at both ends of the spectrum that do an acceptable job. Gunslinger, for example, may be one of the most detailed non-computer man-to-man shooter games ever published and is well-regarded and popular, But so is Cowboys, Worthington Games' newer game on the same topic that eschews much of the detail in favor of speed and ease of play. A 30-second gunfight in Gunslinger will often take a couple of hours to play. A similar gunfight in Cowboys will still take more than 30 seconds, but it's unlikely to take more than an hour.

My association with Dungeons and Dragons also goes back to the 70s. I first played with the original three books, although I never became a hard-core RPGer, preferring historical wargames instead. When I did role play, I soon moved over to the more tactically oriented Fantasy Trip which further evolved into GURPS. Interestingly enough, in its later editions D&D has also become more like a tactical skirmish wargame.

The D&D miniatures game is a simplified version of the D&D tactical system and indeed, it appears that there's not an awful lot of difference between them at this point. WOTC has recently (October) announced that it's going to discontinue new releases of the D&D Miniatures game in favor of making miniatures that are just geared toward the roleplaying game.

As a late comer to the D&D miniatures this is mildly disappointing, as I think it's actually a pretty decent light skirmish wargame, but there's a silver lining to the news, nonetheless.

Like most miniatures games these days, D&D Minis are collectible, with all the money sink potential that implies. It also means a business model heavily reliant on sanctioned tournament play that encourages constant purchases to stay competitive. While a successful approach for collectible card games, this has worked out rather less well for miniatures. The only long-running collectible miniatures game that seems to have held its own is HeroClix.

For non-competitive play, however, the end of competitive play means that after-market prices and availability of miniatures will improve and the freezing of the game's further development makes it much more favorable for casual players.

For those casual players, what does D&D miniatures offer.

It's a very straightforward man-to-monster level game. A 200-point game gives each player about a half-dozen to up to 10 figures that can battle on a square-gridded map. The usual battlefield has starting areas for each player and "victory point ares" for each that tend to lie on the opponent's side of the field. Occupying a victory area (presumably looting some treasure) provides victory points, as does eliminating enemy figures. This simple expedient encourages players to close and fight and provides a context for the battlefield maneuvers.

Combat is very simple, and is handled the same way whether it is a melee attack, a ranged attack or a magic blow. The attacking player rolls a 20-sided die (a D&D tradition) adds any modifiers and compares that result to the target's armor class (or its separate "defense" values for some kinds of attacks). If the result equals or exceed that armor value then it's a hit and it does the number of"hit points" (another traditional D&D term) indicated on the attacker's stat card. Once a target accumulates more than half it's Hit Point value in damage it is considered "bloodied" which often provides benefits for subsequent attackers. When damage equals a target's hit point value it's eliminated.

Various special powers apply various elaborations to this combat routine or affect movement or the timing of actions, but that's the essence of the game.

It compares in complexity to Heroscape or Cowboys and is a skirmish game you can definitely play with younger gamers, while the interaction of powers and the metagame of warband construction provides scope for more experienced gamers.

The miniatures are also fully usable with the role-playing game and include stats on the reverse side of the card for the role-playing rules. Having no game-specific data on the bases, the miniatures are also suitable for use with any other set of RPG rules or even other skirmish level games that use similar sized figures. (The D&D minis are billed as "28mm" scale.)

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