Wednesday, April 20, 2011

HelgaCon IV - Siege on the Borderlands

I've run this game a couple of times now (see links at bottom). Interestingly, it's never run the same way twice in the number of times that I've played it. There's a really interesting scramble at the beginning of the game as each player tries to feel out the new (to them) rules, finds it not working exactly as they first expected, and then spar with cat-and-mouse adjustments. Here's possibly the most interesting run to date -- this occurred on Saturday afternoon at HelgaCon, out on the porch (which gave delicious lighting, although somewhat out-of-theme for the dead-of-night monsters-over-the-walls action). I had two players whom I'll call Ms. A (attacker) and Mr. D (defender). Ms. A had never played a wargame before, but was very intrigued. Mr. D had done stuff like this before, and had great helpful comments at the end. Here's how it went (remember 1 figure = 10 men scale, Book of War escalade rules):

Summary of Play

Turn 1 -- Setup. Attacking monsters in blue (setup anywhere by player choice), defending men in red (fixed start per the classic module). Ms. A has setup her monsters about how I always personally envision -- and yet, she's the first monster-player to ever do so. She's got the weaker types ringing the lower outer bailey (goblins, orcs, hobgoblins with crossbows), and the stronger types positioned against the higher inner bailey (ogres and giants; some goblins too). This is advantageous because the higher bluff at the back is harder to climb (potentially even a fatal fall), and the giant-types counteract that with their higher strength. There are also some reinforcement monsters currently left off the table (see the chair at the top).

Turn 3 -- Advance. Here, you can see two turns of monster move attempts up the bluff. On Mr. D's first turn, he made a highly unexpected move: "Is there any requirement that I keep men in the outer bailey?", he asked. Receiving an answer of "uh... no", his first move was to immediately pull every unit out of the outer bailey, consolidating them all in the higher inner bailey (as you can see below). Privately I was thinking, "Oh crap, that's broken, I'll have to institute a rule penalizing lack of defense for the civilians in the lower town..."

Turn 5 -- Insertion. So with no one defending the walls of the outer bailey, the monsters could pull up their crude ladders and scale over the perimeter freely. Below, you can them packing in as tightly as possible, having entirely taken over the outer bailey (and the main gate). Now they're starting to exchange missile fire with the men atop the inner fortress (the inner fortress gives 2 figures complete protection, but others are hittable on a "6"). Again, all of this was unprecedented action.

Turn 6 -- Giants! Don't forget that there are ogres and a squad of giants trying to climb up over the higher bluff/wall of the outer bailey. The giants were delayed for several turns as they served artillery-fire with thrown stones at anyone in sight on the rear walls. Now that red has tired of the losses and retired from the wall (those 3 figures in the keep fortress are also invulnerable from missile-fire), the giants have ascended and are about to boost each other over the wall. (In a recurring theme for me this HelgaCon, frost giants are again the featured antagonist.)

Turn 7 -- Multiple Breaches. So here you can see that giants and some ogres have both gotten into the outer bailey, and are stomping on anyone in reach. (Frost giants have taken 3-of-10 hits; there are also some unfortunate goblins who have suffered falling deaths and routed.) But here's another intriguing move by Ms. A: instead of rushing ahead helter-skelter with her big mob of monsters (which is usual thing) she's showing the utmost patience, degrading the red defenders from a distance with missile fire as much as possible before moving from her position in the outer bailey. One figure in each tower is fully protected, but there is still one figure in the inner fortress that is a valid target, and there are a lot of hobgoblin crossbows firing each turn.

Turn 10 -- Collapse. The orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins in the outer bailey are now surging forward en masse. Partly they're trying to scale over the wall of the inner fortress, and meanwhile they're attempting break down doors into the towers on either side (one unit of orcs is now in the west tower, battling with red defenders). Ogres have been mostly killed, but the giants have actually stormed the main keep fortress and cleared out all of the defenders there!

Turn 15 -- The End. The defenders actually kill quite a number of monsters as the fighting turns hand-to-hand through each tower and building. However, the jig is clearly up. Below you can see one of the last defender units in an extremely bad situation. (Hey, it's almost like I designed those tower-tops to exactly fit that figure base or something...)

So the winner in probably the most lopsided game to date: Ms. A playing the monsters in her first-ever wargame. That said, Mr. D was incredibly gracious at the end of the game, giving great compliments on how it played out, and saying how impressed he was that his pull-everyone-back move failed to break the game (among other observations). At the end we realized that there's a specific rules clause already built in naturally that made it a very bad move to vacate the lower bailey -- but no one (including me!) really understood what the ramifications of that move were until very late in the game. At some point when Book of War is released I'll link back here and see if you can spot what they key rule is. Really fascinating play and an opportunity for some emergent-behavior discoveries. I'll skip the "what went right" section (pretty much everything, so no need to pat myself on the back too much)...

What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)

  1. Paint in Doors. An important part of the gameplay involves the monsters reaching inward-facing doors to the castle towers, bashing them in, and then meleeing with the defenders inside (thereby accessing other walls, the inner bailey, etc.) Every time I play there are numerous question from players about exactly where the accessible doors are, where they lead, I should have a map of B2 to confirm where they are, etc. Mr. D made the point that I could just paint in those doors to visually indicate where they are. Yeah, I painted in almost everything else except the one feature that's actually critical to scenario gameplay. Big "duh" for me, and great observation from him.
  2. Doors should Close. On the same point, I've been playing that once a tower door gets bashed in, anyone can freely move through that access point from then on. Mr. D made the point that's not exactly realistic, that winners of the tower should probably be able to board it up again, hoist the door, block it with shields, etc., thereby forcing other attackers to break it down again. I think that's good, and it has the further advantage of not having to remember which doors are in place and which aren't. (A secondary-level priority for my game is to not have any record-keeping other than what's immediately visible on the table.) So that's what I'll do next time.
  3. Morale on Bluff. One thing I'm a little wiggly on is the propensity for monster units climbing the high bluff to take a loss from falling, fail a morale check, and then get committed to climbing back down the dangerous bluff (as you can see for the goblins in the photo of turn #7 above), possibly taking more falls and more deaths. That's kind of a judgment call about what seems more dangerous: the deadly precipice below, or the looming defended castle wall above? Not sure where to take that. (Suggestions?)
Some prior games of Siege on the Borderlands:


  1. I'm guessing it has to do with the rules for being in an enclosed space, such that letting the monsters get into one unopposed gives them a big advantage. Makes sense; the outer bailey also gives them cover which they didn't have out on the plain.
    - Tavis

  2. Grunk: "Hey, deez humanz iz crayzee! Dey haz no doorz!"

    Grunt: "Grarargh! Run away!"

    Human watching from inner bailey tower: "See? Told ya painting the doors same color as the walls was a brilliant idea! Now let's go see to these giants knocking on our back door..."

    (In all seriousness, can't wait to see your BoW.)

  3. And... muleabides wins the quiz. Good jerb. :)

  4. This looks fantastic! You should come down to Texas to run your game.

    I was gonna ask what scale the figures are, but I recognized a frost giant from the D&D Minis/Heroscape games, so I'm guessing you're using 28mm figures. Do you have a breakdown of precisely what figures you're using?

    Also, what are the approximate dimensions of the keep? What did you use for the base?

    Oh, and when and where are these mass combat rules coming out?

  5. Hey DS, thanks for the comments! You're right, I do use 25/28mm miniatures so I can cross-purpose them with D&D and Warhammer. I tend to have monsters from Reaper or D&D miniatures (like giants & re-based orcs here), Warhammer stuff (like ogres & men with bows/crossbows), and also an old Hasbro boardgame called Lionheart (spear/shield & plate/axe guys: see here). Hasbro actually made a few boardgames with lots of same-scale plastic minis around that era (1997), but I can't recall what the others were.

    That model is 16x19" and about 7" high (really nice to box up and carry, I've even taken it on a train a few times). The base is several layers of foam core with stone-look paint added (oddly, that was a total rush job the night before the Recess game, and it came out surprisingly nice). The towers & buildings are posterboard or paper-towel cores.

    Publishing those rules is definitely an "A"-list item for me. Very soon, I hope!

  6. Thanks, Delta. I'm like you; I want to get the most out of my minis by using them for different games. I've repurposed old Warhammer and 40K figs for Hordes of the Things, and I use my Heroscape minis for Song of Blades and Heroes.

    Have you posted a tutorial anywhere on how you made your keep?

  7. Really good question -- I haven't done that yet, but that's a project that does rattle around my head once in a while. Not sure if that's best as a one-off article, a whole booklet on castles, a YouTube video, etc. (?)

  8. Even just a short opst outlining the materials and construction methods would be helpful.