Five Parsecs: Bug Hunt

Quite suddenly, I was bitten by the sci-fi bug (well, it might have something to do with reading the latest book by Christopher Paolini, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, a rollicking space opera). I wanted to play something skirmishy, with lots of characters & adventure, and first thought about starting a new 28mm project. Fortunately, I dissuaded myself from this idea, as I already have a nice collection of 15mm sci-fi stuff!

Longtime readers may recognize those guys from way back.

As COVID is still on, I wanted a game that was specifically designed for solo or coop gaming. At first I thought about using Joe McCullough’s Operation Last Train and bought the rules (for a donation to a charity, which is a nice concept). However, I then stumbled across Nordic Weasel Games’ Five Parsecs: Bug Hunt and immediately took a liking to the whole Five Parsecs family of games.

As the monsters I’ve ordered have not yet arrived, I quickly improvised some green alien blobs – one of the monsters featured in Bug Hunt. This was easily done with air-drying modeling clay painted in a nasty green and gloss-varnished.

Easy company carefully approaches the settlement.

Then I set up my table. Bug Hunt seems to be mainly aimed at Space Hulk-like settings, but I will use it for outdoor environments. I will also use my own background story, as I like to develop such narratives. Games like these have to be story-driven for me, so I will modifiy the rules to fit into my own narrative.

In Bug Hunt, you create a core set of characters and then get support options for your mission. I created four, as I’m already thinking of playing with a mate over Zoom or Discord and I want each of us to control two main characters. The game has a fun campaign phase, which allows you to track the development of your guys and girls and level them up.

Suddenly, nasty green blobs turn up!

For the first mission, I set up an abandoned colony outpost which has been overrun by aggressive alien vegetation. A small detachment from Easy Company of the 7th Toulmore Pedestrians is sent out to investigate. Drone reconnaissance has shown an abandoned patrol vehicle – this is to be secured and used as an escape vehicle in the case of enemy activity. There are also two other objectives.

Sir, I’ve got a LOT of blips!

I have to admit that I played this mission twice. My first try was a complete and utter disaster. A combination of stupid tactics and bad luck got me completely overrun by alien blobs before I could achive a single objective. Instead of resolving the campaign phase, I did the cowardly thing, pretended this never happened and reset the whole thing to try again.

We can’t hold them off any longer!

The second run was much better. I had a better understanding of the game and therefore my tactics were a bit more sensible. Also, I had reduced the difficulty by reducing the Mission Priority to 2 and the aliens’ toughness to 5. Incidentally, the last thing hints to something that bothered me a bit. In ranged combat, you have to roll to hit and then roll to penetrate the target’s armor (toughness). Both target numbers are usually quite high, which means that you fire a lot but achieve very little. This is fine if you are up against a handful of guys, but if you are staving off hordes of unstoppable monsters, it gets incredibly hard to make an effect. From a player’s perspective, this mechanic is a bit frustrating – and I’m saying this as someone who generally is not easily frustrated in games. But perhaps blobs are just very difficult monsters.

Five Parsecs: Bug Hunt is a neat and fast solo game. The activation mechanic is simple but allows for some tactical moves and the ‘blips’ provide a good sense of suspense. I like the character-oriented approach and the possibilities offered by the game system in general – especially since it can be combined it with Five Parsecs from Home, another solo skimirsh system which follows the story of an intrepid crews of ragtags (think Firefly). 

I’m not yet sure it if will become my go-to solo sci-fi game (I also want to try out Operation Last Train and maybe Black Ops), but it certainly has potential and I will have to play more missions to make an informed judgement. I also want to experiment with including elements from Five Parsecs from Home, setting up special-ops missions with other opponents than mindless monsters. Let’s see how this works.

Virtual Lard III

Like for many others, the pandemic has been a bit of a struggle. Due to preconditions, I’m very cautious and really try not to get this virus. While I usually don’t mind staying at home and this XKCD comic rings true for me, I do miss my friends and our gaming get togethers. While it was warm, we could at least meet in the garden, but this is no longer possible. So I started to look for other options. I already have a virtual RPG group using Discord, which was started before the pandemic because I wanted to play with friends living far away. I also run a play-by-email Kriegsspiel which is great fun and possibly one of my best gaming experiences ever (more on this some other time).

Listening to the TooFatLardies Oddcast, I heard them talking about Virtual Lard, an event where Lardy games are played over the internet. I wanted to try this out and got my chance to participate in a game of Sharp Practice at Virtual Lard III. The game, entitled “Bridge over the Tormes”, was set during the Napoleonic Wars in the Spanish Pensinula and was run by Bob Connor. Bob had a lovely table and three cameras, two static and one moveable. I played together with Wil from the US against Francis from Edinburgh and the Lord of Lard himself, Richard Clarke. We commanded the French Forces and were tasked to take a bridge which, as we were told, was only lightly defended by some Spanish militia. Of course the nasty British turned up, who’d have thought?

The game started with Wil and me struggling to get our men forward. Some interesting mishaps tormented my Voltigeurs, among them my main Leader being knocked out by a musket ball early on and some riled up bees attacking my line troops. All the while, the Allied forces peppered us and for a time, it seemed as if we would be unable to get a hold on the situation, let alone secure the bridge. However, I managed to work my skirmishers around the Allied right flank and Wil finally got his Grenadiers going, delivering a devastating charge right into the British line. This turned the game and in the end, Wil snatched victory from the jaws of my clumsiness.

The game was a large one (at least compared to the games I ususally play), but it moved along at a brisk pace. We did play for four hours, although it didn’t feel that long. I guess that Bob must have been quite exhausted, as he had to run around the table, move the figures and keep the game going. But it worked exceedingly well. Bob drew the chits out of the bag and anounced which Leader was activated, we gave our commands and rolled our own dice. Dice rolling is a good way to keep the players involved and give them at least a bit of the haptic experience of tabletop gaming. Of course it’s not the same as standing around the table, but it still feels like a miniature wargame and not a computer game. Banter is a bit more difficult on Zoom, but we still laughed a lot.

All in all, it was a great experience I very much want to repeat. I’ve ordered a webcam two weeks ago, so I think about setting up a game for my friends and, after I have some practice, maybe even one for Virtual Lard – Richard Clarke told me that they want to continue with this format, as it is more than just a substitute for face-to-face gaming. And I agree that gaming with people from all over the world adds another quality. I’m still looking forward to seeing my friends at the table, but virtual gaming is also a fun and rewarding experience.

WATU: The Book, the Movie, the Game

WATU stands for Western Approaches Tactical Unit. This was an organisation of the Royal Navy tasked with developping and teaching anti-submarine tactics for convoy escorts during the Second World War. A recent book by Simon Parkin, titled A Game of Birds and Wolves, presents the fascinating story of this think tank.

There are several remarkable things about WATU. First of all, under the command of Cmd. Gilbert Roberts, they used war games to analyse, develop and teach tactics. Those games were played on the floor with model ships, with the ships’ commanders being stationed behind curtains so they could only see a small portion of the playing surface. They also couldn’t see the U-boats, whose courses were marked in a colour that was invisible from further away – quite an ingenious means of restricting information.

Another remarkable thing was that Wrens – women belonging to the Women’s Royal Naval Service – played a central role at WATU. They not only plotted the courses of the ships, but many of them also played themselves, taking on the roles of U-boat commanders or escort commanders. They became very proficient in the game and often played against Navy commanders who came to WATU to learn the new tactics.

Parkin’s book tells this story in a lively and dramatic way. Concentrating on the persons, he highlights the essential role of Wrens for the success of British anti-submarine tactics. He also stresses the importance of games as a means of analysis, innovation and communication. Highly recommended!

Coincidentally, when reading the book I also stumbled upon the new Tom Hanks movie Greyhound. K. and I decided to watch it and we were both pleasantly suprised. Nowadays, we watch almost no movies – most of them are too long, too loud and too corny (maybe we are just getting old). This one, however, had a sensible length (only 90 minutes), with the pleasant effect that it told a condensed and straight story, concentrating on the actions of the commander, played by Hanks. The only weak point was the uber-villanious U-boat-commander sending threatening messages to the convoy – a rather stupid contrievance that had no relevance for the plot. Still, all in all it’s a movie I’d recommend if you like naval stuff.

All of this made me consider gaming convoy actions. Fortunately, indefatigable naval wargames rules writer Dave Manley is already working on a solo game where the player controls a convoy escort ship. I’m looking forward to trying my hand at defending a convoy from dastardly U-boats! 

The Battle for Ringsend

For the last two months, I have been running a play-by-email game for four friends. It was a kind of Kriegsspiel insofar as the players had limited information, but the map and the rules were more akin to board games. After my last experiences with Kriegsspiel, I wanted to have better structured rules – I thought it would make it easier and quicker to write orders and to process those orders. This worked out only partially: As the rules were written a bit hastily, there were many loopholes and inconsistencies and I had to modify them along the way. I’m very grateful for the player’s patience!

My set-up.

The game was set in a fantasy world I called “Ringsend”, with four kingdoms vying for control: The Wood Elves, the Dwarves, the Orcs and the Humans. However, the humans really were undead – the human leader was a necromancer and I gave him some special abilities to integrate his enemy’s losses into his army. Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, I really didn’t think it through properly and it caused some frustration with the players (after one turn, another player took over). I also changed the special abilitiy several times to find a balanced mechanic.

The other special abilities were rather predictable: the Elves were quick, the Dwarves had advanced siege equipment and the Orcs couldn’t be too sure how many of their troops would turn up at a battle.

Players could also assemble heroes and give them tasks, such a retrieving an artefact or trying to assassinate an enemy leader.

The Battle of Ilsig

At the start of the game, the Elves and Dwarves quickly expanded while the Orcs and Humans took some time to get off their feet. Virago, the Elf player, was very methodical in his approach and managed to occupy the most locations. He also forged alliances with the Orcs and the Dwarves. Dwarves and Elves soon began a campaign against the Humans, while there was some skirmishing between Orcs and Humans. The campaign culminated in a big and chaotic battle at the town of Ilsig, which covered the entrance to the Necromancer’s fortress. The battle was a lot of fun for me as a game master, as the Orcs unexpecetly pitched in, but as they were not allied with the Dwarves, those suddenly began to fight against each other.

The Necromancer managed to get the help of a dragon, but had little chance against the combined might of Elves and Dwarves. He sent two assassination parties to the Elvish court, but neither of them succeeded. In the end, his fortress was overrun. His realm was destroyed, but, like any good villian, he himself escaped on the back of the dragon…

As the Elves and Dwarves quite liked their alliance and did not want to break the peace, we decided to end the game here.

This is the end score (numbers indicating locations occupied):

Elves: 12

Dwarves: 10

Orcs: 4

Humans/Necromancer: 0

The final positions.

The Dwarves had a number of well placed armies and a surprise strike against the Elves would have been interesing. But alas, the players prefer peace!

It was great fun running the game and I hope the players also enjoyed it, even if the rules were shaky and rather fluid sometimes. But the narrative turned out great, and at least for me, that’s the main thing.

I’m already planning another such game – this time in a sci-fi setting. Let’s see how it works!