Friday, 8 January 2016

Preliminary Earth recon complete. Findings inconclusive.



An alien reconnaissance team landed in the Battleshed recently, but they soon returned to the monthership with some confusing intel.

Earlier this week, I resumed my regular Wednesday evening gaming after the Festive break with my good gaming buddy, Sam Pate, for our inaugural game of the much anticipated UFO Squad from Crossover Miniatures. As mentioned in a previous post, this rule set is inspired by the original X-COM video games using the Songs of... Ganesha games engine - which my reader will know both Sam and I are big fans of.  We're kinda Songs of Groupies

However, the Battleshed session this week ended after a lengthy discussion and no game.

To be fair, this wasn't entirely down to UFO Squad as we had much to catch up on. A right old chin-wagging session was had! From the latest movie releases, (Sam has gone surprisingly all Dark Side with his critique of The Force Awakens), new rules, miniatures and the Festive gaming haul.

We'd both had a brief skim of the UFO Squad rules prior to the planned game, with the core mechanics appearing reassuringly familiar. The Ganesha three-dice activations were there along with the familiar character stat lines, combat and movement systems, all bracketing the 'meat' of the new rules adapted by Russell Gregory (Rusti) from Crossover Miniatures - the campaign system.

As we were looking for a quick standalone game for our first mission, we thought we'd just pick one of the 6 supplied scenarios, choose a 'points' limit for each squad and deploy as usual. This is where we came unstuck.

Quite rightly, the rules follow it's XCOM provenance:

Each UFO Squad can have up to 15 members, but only up to 8 will be deployed on the table at a time, as that’s the capacity of the Huron dropship. These 8 will be referred to as a ‘chalk’.

Fine. So Sam choosing to command the brave earth defenders, could only deploy eight miniatures. In that case, we thought, he'd enhance his squad with a few Special Rules within our agreed point limit from the list provided. These represent extra abilities added to each character's stats, a familiar Ganesha mechanic.

However, although there was a whole page of Special Rules provided, we couldn't find any mechanism for applying them. No 'point' costings are provided or indeed, as far as we could find, via any online 'warband' calculators similar to those on the Ganesha site. This then led us to question how the characters in the two UFO Squad/Grey Alien lists provided were being generated?

With much flicking of our respective rules books, with an explosion of escaped PDF sheets now covering the Battleshed table, we searched through the campaign section to see if we were missing something.  However, apart from one oblique reference to 'one-off' games we still couldn't find any quick squad building mechanism.

The campaign system does include a section on spending accumulated Resource Points but this appeared to be restricted to Recruitment, the TechTree or buying equipment for the teams. Not the Special Rules.

By now were becoming frustrated, and then started to question ourselves. Maybe we were both missing something? With time getting on, we decided to abandon the game and seek further guidance, if available, online. 

Unfortunately, there was little support available that I could find for UFO squad, other than a few blogs like mine heralding the arrival of these rules. So I decided to persevere and contact Crossover Miniatures directly.

The good news is that I had a very prompt, friendly and helpful reply from the designer Russell Gregory (Rusti) over in the US. He answered my questions which I've copied below. Hopefully this will provide some support for any prospective UFO Squad players out there:

Thanks for contacting me.  You've come to the right place for the question.  I adapted the rules and will try to answer you as best I can.

'However, we could not see any mechanism for 'purchasing' or gaining Special Skills? This then led us to question how character points, for example Grey Alien Warriors at 5 points, are being generated? '

I experimented quite a bit with the special rules and in the end I left them out of the advancement mechanics for simplicity's sake.  I tried a few different things, like if you threw a grenade and hit your target you could roll for the 'chucker' skill, and also if you tried to gain a Quality stat point and failed, you gained a skill (at random or one you could justify) instead.  I like both systems, but explaining them became cumbersome, so in the end I left out how to earn them but couldn't leave them out of the rule book as I figured more experienced folks would appreciate the ability to add them for flavor.  I use them in scenarios to give a little help to a newbie or just to add color[sic], and if someone does something memorable it really adds to narrative to give them a skill as a reward.



The points are derived from me using the Ganesha games Flying Lead points generator on their site and then adjusting the points based on my experience, then rounded to tens and simplified.  So if someone was 47pts on the FL generator, I'd make them 4 or 5 pts based on my experience during play test.  I hate fiddly systems where you squeeze out a point here and there.

'...It appears that the campaign system is the core of UFO Squad (quite naturally so, given its provenance!), but the only acknowledgement to 'one-off' games appears on page 29 of the rules, where it states, 'Decide how large you would like your game to be, and agree on a point value to create your forces with-' How?'

Start with 50 points and see how you like it?  If you want bigger forces, use more points. It's up to you really.  I only added this as a concession to folks that can't live without points systems and pickup games.  I personally don't believe in completely balanced games or that it's really possible with wargames.  There is an army list section starting on p48, one person takes the greys and the other the UFO squad and points out a force.  Did I misread your question? Let me know if you need more clarification!
Thanks again to Rusti for the quick response. Not every designer will take the time to write a comprehensive reply. Leon from Minibits was right, Rusti is a helpful guy! So I'll follow up below with a quick synopsis and personal opinion from my findings on first contact with UFO squad:

Pros

  • Custom Campaign system: Its been designed to reflect the feel of the original X-COM games, with the core of the rules using the custom Campaign System. Here, UFO Squads are limited to teams of 8 deployable characters, usually split between assault and fire support teams, with promotions and new kit becoming available, representing experience gained battling differing aliens after each scenario.
  • Scenarios: 6 diverse and thematic scenarios are provided
  • The key sections of the rules - Basics, Combat, Weapons, Advanced, Campaign, Scenarios and Army List (basic UFO Squad / Grey Aliens)  - are colour coded to aid reference
  • Based on the Ganesha Games engine - always a good thing!
  • Quick response from the game designer.

Cons

  • No index / contents provided with my copy of the rules.
  • No Quick Reference Sheet
  • Confusion over inclusion of Special Rules (above)
  • No points system for basic pick-up games
  • No specific UFO Squad rules support/FAQs on Crossover site 


My conclusion

It's clear from Rusti's response, particularly the second reply, that although UFO Squad uses the Ganesha games mechanic it wasn't specifically designed with a balanced 'army points' system in mind. Which is fine, but I think this will cause confusion for regulars of the Ganesha mechanic where points systems are mostly used and for players who do want to just 'pick up and try'.

Personally, I have no problem with playing wargames without points- balanced sides. In fact, I'm more aligned to Rusti's view. This debate's been rumbling on in our hobby from the very early days of tabletop wargaming!

However, I think either this should be made clearer in the description of the rules or a basic squad generator should be included to broaden its appeal.

There appears to be an assumption here that those picking up a copy of UFO Squad will be experienced, or at least familiar, with tabletop wargaming and adapt the rules to suit. Given UFO Squad is likely to appeal to some of our video gaming cousins, many of whom may not have tried tabletop gaming, I think the concession of an established squad building system, for example, Flying lead (as mentioned in the reply), would be beneficial for UFO Squad's potential audience.

As an aside, this is certainly something I'm mindful of when providing feedback for the play-testing of Bread and Circuses. Rules, in my opinion, should be written with the assumption that the reader is picking up a tabletop gaming rule set for the first time. Experienced gamers will always skip to the 'advanced' section or adapt as they see fit. However, if a rule set wants to have a broad appeal then it should accommodate 'newbies'. Like many things in life, we form impressions on first contact, whether right or wrong, and that even relates to wargaming rules.

Will I persevere with UFO Squad? Yes, definitely. Other than the issues above, I'm keen to try out the campaign system which, reading through, has many intriguing elements to bring the X-COM simulation alive on the tabletop. That's very appealing to me and I suspect many others. It's clear this has been a labour of love for the author, and I'm keen to support it.

Couple that with a great range of miniatures from Crossover and Rusti's annotative response, I plan to get a Huron dropship deploying an intrepid UFO squad in the near future! After all, I've got a bunch of Greys for them to shoot at now!