Friday, 22 November 2013

Babylon's Burning and Zombicide

How many times should you play a game before you write it off as a bit meh?

Xander and I kicked off round two of the Play All The Systems grand tour with a game which has apparently been haunting him for some time.

Babylon's Burning, from what I gather, was produced as a genuine, big budget attempt to take on Games Workshops offerings head to head. Its lack of a Wikipedia page - a resource who's editors can provide a staggeringly detailed and lengthy page for every single transformer and obscure anime character - speaks to how well that adventure ended.

Apart from making several questionable business decisions the problem is the core rule-set feels very rough, which is a pity as it has some great and very enjoyable concepts.

It was just as well that Xander, despite not having played a game seemed to know the rules pretty well. I thought I'd given them a good look over, but they get complex rather quickly and I soon found myself out of my depth.

The core of the system is the Orders mechanic, which is the best part about it. Orders need to be written down and give to each unit. An order can't be as vague as 'kill every enemy,' but shouldn't be so detailed as to assign ever model the exact coordinates he must move to. The example given is along the lines of 'Squad A to move to position X and hold until relieved or has sustained 3 casualties.' If you want to change an order, an officer, or an order over radio or sent by runner must change the order of the unit in question. This gives it a great Post Apocalyptic feel, with runners dashing across the battlefield to deliver messages instead of every unit moving to some omnipresent sky gods prescient will.

I divided my forces into a fire and a manoeuvre team, with a sniper acting as overwatch, and an officer with two runners assigned to him.

A rather poorly lit photo of my force. Manoeuvre team on the left, fire team on the right with an LMG in the bunkers firing slit.

But here the problems begin to crop up. At what point runners deliver their message in the initiative sequence is not explained, meaning that a squad may loose a turn because they activated before the runner. How much initiative a squad can take is also subjective. Can they take cover if they come under fire with no orders other than 'stick around' or do they have to stand around and take it like a man chump? These questions need to have answers, especially if you're trying to capture the same market as Games Workshop seem to attract. I can easily envisage imaginative interpretations of written orders being the instigators of many a hissy fit as well.

So, my warband shuffled forwards and took up positions, taking a few potshots at Xanders 'cannon fodder' unit. Meanwhile, his elite soldiers took up residence in a building overlooking my troops and instantly killed my sniper, who had climbed a watch tower.

The snipers spies Xanders troops taking up position.
Shooting is resolved by rolling a D10. 7+ is a success. Simple enough, except that there are modifiers for EVERYTHING. There's a modifier for what king of weapon you're using and how you're using it, what the shooter did this turn, what the target did last turn, the relative elevation of the targets, another modifier for the range, per weapon, (unless you're firing full auto in which case a 2 different modifiers apply), what the phase of the moon is and how much alcohol the mother of the shooter drank while he was in utero. This makes taking even a single shot time consuming, and in a lot of cases, extremely difficult as negative modifiers stack up like crazy.

By far the biggest offender, however, is the strictest implementation of True Line of Sight I have ever seen. You know how most systems take the cover value from the object being hidden behind (heavy cover, light cover etc.) and you supposed to assume that individuals are ducking and diving and that swords and banners and helmet plumes stretching skywards don't count for the purposes of targeting? Yeah. Not so much here. You get a modifier based on on how much of the figure you can see. So it's not a given that a soldier will crouch behind a perfectly serviceable two foot wall, no, it's assumed that he'll just stand there in full view like a lemon. This hurt Xander particularly badly as his elite troops rather obligingly stood silhouetted in the big picture windows of the sandstone building like the juiciest coconuts at the fair.

Another irritating oddity is the targeting mechanism which allows individuals to shoot at individuals. To paraphrase Xander, it has an individual based mechanism in the middle of a squad based game. It's usually assumed that squads fire at squads and then the defending player assigns hits. Flames of War takes this one step further with certain weapons being able to prioritise certain vehicles or infantry units types, but the general rule is, everone takes a hit before anyone takes two hits. This stops gamey players from focussing all their fire on a squad's heavy weapon or leadership element. Here it's just a free for all, meaning that I poured all my fire on Xanders LMG and exposed commander while ignoring parts of the squad that were less valuable. It should be noted that because of the modifier party semi-automatic rifles really come out as the weapon of choice, having an intrinsic accuracy bonus while allowing multiple shots to be fired over respectable ranges.

With his elite troops whittled down, my manoeuvre team actually attempted to manoeuvre and, reinforced by the officer and his runners, began to advance. Some bursts of ineffective close range fire closed out the game as Xander decided to concede.

Get 'em lads! They're mostly dead anyway. Mostly.
Clunky is probably the word I would use to describe Babylon's Burning. I can't find its' creators lacking in heart (for this was surely a labour of love) or balls (for valiantly taking on GW's hegenomy), but the systems just drags in so many places. Which is a pity, because imagine where it could have got with a couple of editions. I mean 40K has had what? 8 editions and look at where it's got... Ok bad example, but it's a lot more playable than the original Rogue Trader.

The written orders mechanic is so satisfying and it makes the feeling of commanding a real force so much more real. It's just a pity a bit more work didn't go into the rest of the mechanics.

I don't know if I'll be revisiting Babylon's Burning, but as I asked at the start, can you really write a system off after only one game?

Hopefully I've helped Xander get it out of his system. Next on the Big Pile o'rules is After the Horsemen.

But before that, Zombicide. I love this game. I can't believe I didn't hear about it on Kickstarter. I'm not going to wax lyrical as I'm no doubt already late to that particular party, but I cannot overemphasise how much fun I had!

Thanks to Xander and his lovely parter for letting me take up their living room for the majority of a day to move little men around and roll dice.