Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Across the Dead Earth – A Review

Something has changed since the last time we played Across the Dead Earth. The game has been up issued a couple of times, but the core mechanic doesn’t seem to have changed, nor do there appear to be major changes in the available equipment or character options. Nevertheless, the experience was significantly improved. Perhaps it was because we were already familiar with the rules, but my opinion of Across the Dead Earth has gone from ‘meh,’ to ‘this is probably the most fun I’ve had with a PA ruleset,’ in a single afternoon.

That’s not to say it’s without issues - oh my no! – meaning that I’m contractually obliged to nit-pick like it’s going out of fashion! With that, let’s get this party started!

This review is going to be in the style of my Babylon’s Burning review, in that it’ll be part battle report, part review.

This time starring the Legally Distinct Jila Mockovitch and the Squirrel City SWAT

ATDE is a scuffle scale, post-apocalyptic wargame with integral campaign rules that found much success on Kickstrater and seems on the verge of delivering the physical goods. Play proceeds model by model, with players alternating turns. An action system regulates what models can do, with most models having 2 actions. As if you didn’t know that already. A PDF of the rules has been doing the rounds and now seems to be out of BETA.

Xander – my gracious host – and I decided to go for a distinctly rural setting, with both forces converging on a forest camp. After locating the setup rules (more on that later) we decided to play a ‘Capture’ mission, designating the four shelters as the objectives.

Can you hear the banjos too?

I made my first mistake when I selected a primarily ranged force with Xander going for a more balanced force. Jila Mockovitch was an attempt to recreate my cross board rampage from our first game where she was responsible for the destruction of most of Xander’s band, including his machine gunner.

Not Pictured: Bullet time

She was so effective in that first game that I think she influenced both our force choices with neither of us taking automatic weapons and Xander going with a largely melee based force (although that might have just been intelligent planning… Maybe…)

Shooting was where ATDE really let itself down in our first game. Despite a healthy proliferation of firearms, shooting really failed to achieve anything. I compared editions and couldn’t find anything different in the modifiers so it might have been down to our stupidity. While Skill checks are made with 2d6 under base stat, Shooting checks are made with 2d6 plus modifier over base weapon to hit (because consistency) and we may have used the former mechanic for the latter, rendering shooting almost entirely ineffective. As it was, Xander’s scout managed to take up a forward position early in the game and plink away at my sergeant with her pistol with a relatively good chance of hitting him. She didn’t, but I actually felt threatened where as in the first game nothing but the closest ranged shooting seemed to hit.

Speaking of which, weapon ranges are a serious issue, or rather, the relative ranges.

The image above shows the relative ranges of a few weapons. As you can see, something is off. Pistols outrange bows and have 2/3 the range of a sniper rifle. In fact, with an order (an action transferred from a leader), a model can cross the entire board and engage in hand to hand combat with a sniper in melee before he even gets chance to get a shot off. The laughably short range of the LMG (12”) is what got Xander’s gunner killed in the first game we played. He made a beeline for a nice elevated position that in most other games would have locked down the battlefield but upon arriving there discovered that all my troops were out of range.[1]

This works with the arcade-y feel of the game, but it is certainly very jarring with nary a designers note to explain it.

Unencumbered by such heavy weapons both our forces advanced. Xander quickly claimed the centre and I set up a firing line along the Western perimeter.

Note Xander’s cunning tactic of placing his men out in the open directly in front of my riflemen.

Jila snuck up one flank with an order from the sergeant and attacked a rogue flanker, initially failing to hit but eviscerating him the next turn.


Melee fighting is quite satisfying actually. It’s an opposed roll with attack and parry bonuses depending on the weapons being wielded by the attacker and defender respectively.

That being said, the melee weapons list is riddled with stupid and is deliciously exploitable, ranging from the odd niggle to ‘we’re going to have house rule this out to avoid rampant abuse’.
There are some really strange entries on the list. Starter for 10, why does an ‘Iron Pipe’ rate a separate entry to ‘club’? Surely an iron pipe is functionally indistinguishable from a club or is everyone after the apocalypse spending their time crafting shillelaghs? Scimitar and rapier make the cut but longsword doesn’t and what the hell is a Saw Edged Sword? It makes me think that people are carrying bandsaws around the wastes. A Flamberge maybe? Why does an uncommon, largely ceremonial, German weapon merit a mention in a game explicitly set in the UK?
But we haven’t got to the real cheese yet. Want a +8 bonus to your parry roll? Take the Touche special rule and take a rapier and a riot shield, something that I can assure you, as a fencer, would obviate most of the advantages of carrying either.[2] Hell, forget the rapier, just carry two riot shields, there’s nothing to say you can’t, and as a bonus they’ll give you a combined +4 bonus vs ranged attacks - more than heavy cover does, and +7 when actually in heavy cover!
All this is forgiven, however, as it is possible to dual wield spears, and it is glorious!

Xander’s spent the next turn spamming his melee fighters into buildings, locking down the objectives including a daring push right across the courtyard into the Nissan hut on my side of the board. It was at this point that I realised I’d fatally miscalculated the direction the battle would take. I’d expected a systematic advance, covered by sporadic covering fire and now faced the prospect of having to dig his dedicated melee fighters out of buildings with my purely ranged soldiers.

Not pictured: Intelligence on behalf of yours truly

I moved my sergeant into the camper van – the only objective still unclaimed – snapping off a few ineffective shots. Xander’s RPG man, unable to reach the soldiers behind the wall a few meters away, shot at the sergeant and missed allowing Jila to dash across the courtyard and attack Xander’s exposed leader. The idea was to kill him, then send her on a rampage, reminiscent of our earlier game. Unfortunately, she fluffed melee spectacularly, allowing Xander’s leader to withdraw and shoot her dead with a shotgun at point blank range.

So very, very dead

With my only melee capable figure dead, we decided to call it, with Xander winning 3 to 1.

And yet, we had fun! Remember that? Fun? The 2d6 mechanic is a little clunky at first but the fact that there are only up to a dozen or so figures a side means play is fast (miscellaneous strangeness like the infinite bullet trick – phone now, ask me how! - aside) and flows rather well. I am looking forward to playing with the event cards. Oh yeah, there are event cards. I love event cards!

The rules themselves are a mixed bag. The art is great, the landscapes especially are gorgeous, and there’s some good fluff (I’ll be nicking ‘Choobies’ for my next PA RPG).

Readability is an issue, however, with rules being in unintuitive places and often presented in walls of text mixing rules, examples, and advice for new wargames. A rather intrusive conversational style often interrupts what is supposed to be explanative text. More subjectively, there’s a tendency for odd turns of phrase, and a rather juvenile fixation with the acronym for the setting (abbreviate Formerly-United Kingdom again! Teehee!) I really hope the rules see a professional editor before going to print.

So what’s next? Well Xander and I have decided to start a campaign of ATDE, and if that isn’t a recommendation I don’t know what is. 400pts, no automatic weapons, sniper rifles, heavy weapons or combat shotguns, one rare item and no skills (Oh yeah, there are skill trees too. I like skill trees!) other than a single Leader. I’ve got some models to showcase as well as some fluff, but that’s for another day.

[1] While we’re talking about ranged combat, what’s the difference between a Sniper Rifle and a Scout Sniper rifle? Is one supposed to be an ‘anti-material rifle’, for lack of a better word? Methinks someone has been playing too much Counterstrike…
[2] Also as a fencer, touche means touch. The word is used when someone lands a hit if you’re a twat French. Why is this word being used to name a rule about PARRYING!… I might have some issues to work through…