Monday, August 17, 2009
Arcane Legions demo report and review
A demo copy had been languishing at The Citadel for a few weeks, so I offered to go ahead and take the demo kit and run a game. It's hard to have hard and fast opinions based on a single incident, but my initial impression is that this game is going to have a hard time breaking out. The game is from the founders of WizKids and brings together elements reminiscent of such varied predecessors as Heroscape, Warhammer, DBA and of course Heroclix. The premise is variation off our historical world where some sort of magic force sweeps through in the last few decades before the common era. Three great empires vie for dominance in this world" The Roman empire under Octavian, a Greco-Roman-Egyptian empire under Cleopatra and Mark Antony and the Han Chinese empire with a strong contingent provided by Japan. It's a "mass combat" game, in other words an army-fighting game rather than a skirmish-level game. It's also a collectible game, with all the features and drawbacks of that sort of marketing. In this case the common units are made up of unpainted soldiers (although some shields are painted) while the uncommon and rare heroic and magical creatures are painted. The key game concept is the basing system. Each piece has pegs which can fit into holes on a plastic base. Which holes are available, however, is determined by a card that overlays the plastic board. As a further variation, there are generally more open holes than pieces in the unit. The precise capability of a unit is based on which holes are occupied. For example, look at this card for a Han Chinese unit called Escort for an Immortal: Some holes are marked with a red die image. If occupied, that entitles the unit to one red attack die. Other holes depict a white defense die, and for each of those occupied by a piece the unit gets to roll a defense die. Combat involves rolling the appropriate number of attack and defense dice and comparing them with each defense die that equals or exceeds the attacking die cancelling it. If there are an excess of dice of one color or the other the excess are compared to "phantom" dice that are an automatic "2." So, for example, let's say the Escort for an Immortal attacks (with 6 red dice) an Egyptian unit that has just 2 white defensive dice. If, for example, the attack die were 6-6-5-3-1-1 and the defense were 6-3 the results would be as follows: The Defending 6 cancels one attacking 6, but the other attacking 6 is matched by a defending 3 and therefore hits. The attacker's 5 and 3 each exceed the"phantom" 2 and hit, but the phantom dice block the two attacking 1s. So a grand total of 3 hits are inflicted, which will normally remove one piece from the defending stand each. Naturally, as a collectible game, this basic structure can be modified by all sorts of special abilities and the like. For example, some of the Han Chinese infantry are "terracotta warriors" who have a special characteristic of being "fragile" so nay time they take a hit in combat they take an extra hit! Movement is likewise determined by which slots with little chevrons are occupied on a unit base. For example, the Escort above has two slots that give a total of 3 movement points. One of those is marked in yellow and can only be occupied by a Hero, in this case the Immortal. If the hero occupies the starting space (shown by the small name next to the circle) then the unit gets two movement factors (plus a special ability shown by the diamond). If the hero is moved to the other yellow cicle then the unit gets an attack die AND a defense die, but loses the special ability and those twor movement factors which cannot be replaced by a common trooper. The only other movement factor space can be occupied by a common trooper, but there's no red or white die associated with it so the unit's combat ability will suffer. Naturally losses will also tend to degrade a unit's capabilities. All in all it's a clever system, although it might involve too much manipulation for some tastes. The actual movement of the bases is fairly straightforward. All distances are expressed in terms of base lengths with each movement point allowing a stand's worth of movement. Turns are handled with a special turning tool that fits into notches on the bases. Bases that come into contact with other bases or terrain "snap" into alignment with the contacted item, similar to DBA. For the most part this works well, discouraging any kind of millimeter-by-millimeter silliness and keeping the game moving quickly. The Demo includes units from all three armies but only enough bases to field two of them at a time. each demo army comprises four full-sized units (three melee and one missile) typically containing 10 figures and one "sortie" (half-base) unit which is comprised of 3-5 special magical style creatures/heroes. The orders system is pretty straightforward. Units can be given close combat, ranged combat or movement orders with self-evident consequences. They can also be ordered to reorganize, which allows a player to switch pieces around on the base and units with a special ability can get an order to activate it. Units can be given one order per turn without penalty and, judging from the Demo, it appears that the design intent is to have slightly fewer orders available than units eligible to execute them. In a distant echo recalling their earlier Clix designs, units in Arcane Legions that have already been ordered can be "pushed" and ordered again, at a cost of one eliminated figure. One aspect of the game that some will consider a feature but was definitely a bug for me was the need to assemble the figures. Not only are the common figures unpainted but they are still mounted on the sprue and many of them have separately cat shields, weapons and limbs that will require glue, even if you don't paint them. Warhammer players will be familiar with this, but as someone with little talent and less time for model-building this was not a plus. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course, and a couple of guys who were waiting for another game to start were willing to take a go at it. They played long enough to exercise all the movement rules and the combat system, with the final board result appearing below: Essentially the Greco-Egyptian army was able to close successfully with the Han Chinese was was well on its way to victory when the game was called due to the desire of the players to start their other game. Victory is assessed by casualties caused, with each full-sized unit being worth 2 points and each sortie worth 1. Dead heroes were worth an additional one, so the elimination of the Han Escort of an Immortal was worth 3 victory points to the Egyptians. Occupying the "control zones" (squares marked with stripes) was worth another 3, so the score at the end was 8 to 5. First player to 15 wins, which in the demo basically would require occupying both control zones and killing nearly all the enemy force. Altogether I consider it a mildly interesting game design, but not one likely to be a breakout hit. I think the collectibility will be a drag on interest. There's only room for a handful of collectible games in the market at any given time. It's not historical enough to lure away any Axis & Allies miniatures players and not cool enough to take away the Magic: The Gathering players. It doesn't have a license tie-in or relation with another popular game, so I don't think D&D, Star Wars or World of Warcraft players will switch.