Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Thoughts on Warmahordes MKIII PT2


Game play:

 

              I believe you should value a game for what it is—not what you want it to be.  Put differently, it is unfair to complain about how little variety there is in tick tack toe VS. Chess because they are fundamentally different games that happen to share a board design.  There is value in the comparison from an analytical point of view but not from the standpoint of personal preference.  I mention this because I am going to compare warmachine to several board games in the following article.  That comparison is not meant to say that one game is better than another—just that different systems have different strengths and weaknesses.  My opinions are just that—the preferences I have gained through 20 years pushing around tiny combatants.

 

              Warmachine is what I call a tactical game.  Tactical games are micro systems in which each element (trooper, jack, caster…etc.) has multiple ways to affect the board state.  The order of activation, the particular action chosen, and your opponent’s response create complex decision matrices.  In contrast, 40k is a strategic game.  The focus is less on the individual model and more on the macro impact of the entire force.  Many strategic games are decided at deployment—who has the weight of momentum and the benefit of terrain.  Model actions are batched into single large rolls for unit shooting, magic, and hand-to-hand.  Dice tend to be rolled by the handful.  I love strategic games for the sheer scale of the combat.  Over here a tank takes out a unit from across the board.  Over there a unit of monsters overruns a strongpoint.  The narrative is as compelling as the competition.  I love tactical games because the “skirmish” rubric lends the experience an intimate atmosphere.  When you roll for twenty models at a time there is a distancing affect.  When each roll signifies one model’s survival I am personally vested in every outcome.  The competition feels more skill-based than many larger games.

              By that definition, MKIII warmachine is one of the best tactical rule sets in distribution.  The power up mechanic makes it possible to utilize jacks without resource starving casters.  Losing the psychology rules cut a rarely used and inconvenient element.  Removing skill tests simplifies activations while making models more reliable.  Game-wide premeasurement eliminates a huge level of uncertainty.  Small changes like the use of “control range” underpin the rules with an easily intuited lexicon.  Even the recent change limiting power attacks to target enemy models was a step up.  These simplifications make game play considerably more vibrant.

              Part of that vibrancy stems from PP’s design consistency.  Unlike every-other-game-in my portfolio, warmachine has made an effort to maintain a consistent ambience throughout its iterations.  I play with the same models as in the primitive days of MKI—occasionally updated for materials and esthetics.  Sorscha still freezes her enemies with her icy gaze.  I still roll a couple d6 for my checks.  That being said, MKIII represents the first time PP has broken me out of that feeling.  At issue is the end of physical stat cards.  I know, I know, you can get them in PDF.  You can get them through war room.  Unless you do not have a smart phone that can handle the app or you do not want to have to arts-and-crafts your way into physical cards after each update.  I understand Privateer Press’s desire to simplify production.  In theory cutting the physical cards eliminates confusion.  In practice I have found the opposite.  People do not read war room as closely as they should—they just assume the stats have not changed.  People use whatever printed materials they have on hand—even if it is out of date.  I am willing to pay a couple bucks per card if it means getting useable reference materials but as of now…no dice.  Some units are just fine using the original MKIII cards.  Others like the gun carriage have been rewritten such that the original card is useless.  This is one of those small details that chafes my nether parts.  What, now I have to keep an extra battery charger for my phone or hall a bunch of binder sheets around to keep track of my models?  It just feels weird and inconsistent and generally beneath PP’s execution standards.

              My only major complaint with MKIII game play is the continued reliance on steamroller tournament rules.  I have played many tournaments using a variety of systems over the years.  I was most active back in fifth edition 40k when I took several first place trophies around the state.  Now a days, I catch a magic pre-release or FNM occasionally—nothing regular.  I appreciate a good competitive system that lends itself equally to high level and casual play.  The best competitive games in my experience are based on a rock solid mechanical foundation with a little extra clarification for the given format.  If you play in a magic tournament the basic rules, victory conditions, and restrictions apply plus some deck construction tweaks for EDH, draft, standard…etc.  The same is true of the bloodbowl living rulebook.  Your roster might change depending on league but the basic game remains the same.

              These systems have precise rule sets that set the tone regardless of how the landscape alters.  The fundamental victory conditions do not change.  I think Privateer Press intended warmachine to operate under the same model.  Unfortunately steamroller has become a balancing tool and design limiter.  Each year PP revises the tournament rules to account for new material and competitive trends.  The community spends the following year optimizing around that format until the process renews with the subsequent year’s SR update.  Outside of battle box and journeyman leagues—both of which are. Precursors to larger games—the hobby defaults to steamroller.  Take the SR 2017 rule set.  PP wanted to encourage lists with a balance of jacks, solos, and units.  They changed the rules so that only certain models could score on certain objectives.  They published theme lists that reward well rounded rosters.  If you are a regular tournament player there is no issue.  If, however, you are a casual player just getting into the game, you read the base rules.  You read the sample scenarios.  You get to your LGS and everyone is playing with the SR rules—which are objectively different than those in the main book.  You have to go back and rethink your lists because models have different value in the new format.

              Further, the game has defaulted to 75-point lists.  I know, the designers always intended that to be the case.  My challenge is that many casual players do not have the resources and time to operate at this level.  I honestly prefer playing around 50 points.  That is the level of complexity and time commitment that best fits my needs.  Unfortunately, the SR format’s gravitational pull has warped the perception such that anything other than 75-point lists is not taken seriously.

              I am not saying that steamroller is bad.  I am saying that with an already complex base rule set, model stats changing constantly due to CID, and the yearly changes of tournament rules, there is a material bar to community play for a lot of us less hardcore players.  Warmachine is dead in my area in large part because of these barriers.  I wish PP had picked three or four tested scenarios and stuck with them for competitive play save narrative campaigns.  The constantly changing landscape is harming the community even as it seeks to restore balance.

              In summary, I like playing games in MKIII.  This edition is a straight up improvement over past offerings.  However the inconsistency of the larger play experience and the need to constantly check online references is disappointing.  My impression is that even though PP had three years to put project egg roll together, the final product needed more playtesting.  My next and final article will focus on the community relations and design aspects of this edition.  Until then, stand firm my brethren.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Thoughts on Warmahordes MKIII 1 year in


 

Preface:

              I love warmahordes.  It is the longest running of my mini hobbies.  So, when I heard MKIII was inbound I had astronomically high hopes and proportionately terrible fears.  How was my pet game going to change?  Was I going to like those changes?  How was my style of gaming going to fit in the new sandbox?  It is difficult to separate my feelings about the new edition from my feelings about the associated decisions PP has made since the initial release.  The PP faction forums were a daily touchstone—the first thing I checked when I woke up and the last thing I checked at night.  Their loss, regardless of the reason, is indelibly associated with MKIII in my head.  I cannot objectively review the new edition without considering the changes to the surrounding bureaucratic architecture.  So, I am going to write a couple of rambling reviews on a variety of subjects.  Be advised that this is all personal opinion.  I am a long term casual player.  I do not get to play much.  So, errors are my own—salt to taste.

 

List building:

This edition often feels like it is just a little off—like a pair of jeans cut for someone not quite my size.  For example, in MKII standard list construction was 50 points with average war jack points of 6.  Double that for the edition change and you get 112.  In MKIII the system is balanced around 75-point lists with an average of 28 battlegroup points, totaling 103.  So, even though the relative point ranges were doubled, we are working with less wiggle room when adjusted for inflation.

              From one perspective, having all those war jack points makes it feel like you are getting a bargain on battlegroup models.  The catch is that 25 of those points used to be unencumbered.  This forces us to build lists that more closely resemble PP’s vision but it also puts us in a compositional box.  Those points are not free—

They are just a force composition requirement.

              Theme lists further complicate the matter. I prayed that theme forces would be less prone to abuse while providing for a wider range of lists.  Initially I was thrilled with the new template.  As I played a couple games and read about tournament composition though I lost that good feeling.  Theme forces do not expand list building options.  Rather, they ask the question, if you do not use a theme list, can you overcome the qualitative and strategic disadvantage posed by forfeiting 8-12 free points and associated bennies?  Too often the answer is no.  Mercenaries exist primarily as add-ons for faction lists.  How appealing is it to grab a unit of steelheads or dwarves, even with a ranking officer, if that choice puts you at an 8-12-point handicap?  What combination of mercenary solos provides such a boost that you can give up 8 free points to field it?  Further, sometimes I just want to take a unit of doomreavers with my man-o-war.  What if there is no theme force that combines both of those choices?  So even when I am not looking to get my merc on, I find myself wondering whether it is worth it to go themeless

 

Note: As I was writing this piece, PP started a CID development cycle with limited theme mercenary access.  I will go into design impressions later but suffice it to say that this gives me some hope that someone somewhere is listening.  It does not resolve the inherent imbalance in free models but progress is progress.

 

 

              These issues are not a big deal individually but collectively, they have a profound effect on list construction.  I feel as if privateer press looked at the MKII list trends and said, “We are not going to tell you how to have fun but we are going to strongly encourage you to do things our way.”  So, while I still enjoy playing the game, I also find this forcible design style concerning.   What bothers me the most about this scenario is that this sort of nonsense is exactly what I was afraid would happen.  Unlinking theme forces from specific casters provides for some list flexibility.  However, keeping the discount rate mechanic means that theme forces still break the basic point-based economy.  The ability to pick your caster just means you have more ways to capitalize on the disparity.

              I might not feel as bad about list construction if I was not playing in the only faction without light jacks.  Ever since the berserker chassis was edited into obsolescence, I keep coming back to the same jack subset.  Cutting the destroyer down to 14 points certainly helped but not to the extent I would like.  At issue seems to be the gap between the way PP wants Khadoran jacks to perform and the way they actually behave.  Granted, this is just my experience.  Others may have a different double penny.

              My impression is that Khador jacks are supposed to be the near invincible juggernaut—hitting hard and darned near untouchable without dedicated armor cracking.  While armor 20 and 34 boxes is a difficult nut to crack, it is far from invincible—lose an arm and you may be in the game but without a way to affect the board.  I judge a jack’s worth based on utility.  What job do I need 25% or more of my army to perform?  What tools do I have to make that possible?  The problem is that Khadoran jacks design philosophy is inherently defensive.  High armor, low defense, multiple boxes assumes that the way we get to battle is by weathering the storm.  This requires me to take damage to get stuck in.  Presumably our low speed and relatively poor shooting is to compensate for our toughness and melee strength.  These factors combine with a lack of cheap supplemental platforms (no light jacks) to push me toward the most efficient and effective models.  I cannot afford to dabble in the jank because all my choices are 10 or more points and I do not have cheap filler to cover all my bases.

              Put another way, I tend to shy away from melee jacks without MAT 7.  If I am going to be slower than my opponent, then I tend toward destroyers and behemoth as my ranged jacks to offset my snail-like pace.  I tend to avoid non-character jacks that cost more than 14 points.  The decimator, which used to be one of my favorite jacks, just does not get enough work done to justify its cost—thus losing out to the destroyer.  What hurts old doser hand even more is that I can take 2 destroyers and exactly expend my battlegroup points giving me

Maximum list building flexibility for my unencumbered resources.

              Infantry suffers from the same malady.  If I am going in-theme-and let’s be honest most people are, then my first choice will probably be a full unit of ‘X’ plus a unit attachment, and a free support solo.  That combination just feels boring—especially if you double up—that is almost half your army pre-selected as auto-include by virtue of the theme force.  When lists just build themselves it does not feel like there is much undiscovered territory left to delve.

              Finally, I feel as if I am missing something every time I look at the points values for most of the range.  Part of this is that the system is still not granular enough to account for certain models.  Alten Ashley might or might not have been underpriced at 5 points but at 6 he is definitely over-costed—especially since they made it so his gun cannot stop huge models from healing.  Man hunters, MOW Kovniks, and the spriggan all suffer from this disorder as well.  They have utility but not quite as much as their points would suggest.  This problem also crops up when you find you only have 1 or 2 points left…what do you do?  I feel like most solos are slightly over-costed but cutting them down a full point would be too much.  I also feel that in designing the model point matrix PP overlooked what happens when you only have a couple points left over and nothing to fill it.  For some models like bombardiers, a mere point cut would not be enough to make them generally viable again but for others like the spriggan, it would be enough to give it serious consideration if it came down to the 16 or 17-point range.  The math just pushes me toward certain choices and the spriggan and manhunters are not down that path.

              I know PP had a lot to balance with this edition—over a thousand models, 13 factions, supplemental pieces from hordes and minions, multiple formats, and a wealth of fan expectation could not have made the development process easy.  I have a lot of sympathy for the designers tasked with fulfilling this devil’s bargain.  I want this edition to be successful even if it takes a few false starts to make it.  Unfortunately, I cannot give my seal of approval to the list building component yet.  The rules are better than MKII but theme forces, high war jack point quotients, and a limited pool of high-value choices finds me unimpressed so far.  (Next up, game play.)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Frost Grave, again Still!


              Yesterday, WMTG and I gave FG a second run.  This was his Father’s Day event so I showed up with a couple six packs and miniatures in hand.  I forgot the darned mat again (profanity on the ride over.)  Whatever, pidge and Ceri went to the movies.  So, it was just WMTG, me, and the animals.

 

              We played the living museum scenario.  We placed 6 treasures in the middle of the board in a 2x3 grid as if on a museum floor.  Behind each treasure was a “statue.”  Any time one of us claimed one of the treasures, a random statue converted into a medium construct monster.  Our objective was to run off with as much treasure as possible.  Killing a construct was worth 25 experience.  WMTG did the normal +1 hp and fight from his last game advancement.  He also bought a +1 ring of protection for his wizard (he probably did other things too but that is what I remember.)

              Start of game, we deployed on our usual sides.  WMTG pulled off reveal secrets thanks to grabbing a tower for his base.  I failed my roll.  My side of the board was covered in large buildings.  I split my forces with the apprentice, my 2 archers, a thug, and a crossbowman to the left of a freestanding castle.  My wizard, a thug, an archer, a crossbowman, and my war hound went to the right of the building between its wall and a low house.  I was not sure how the game would go.  WMTG had optimized around movement.  I optimized around financial value.  We had similar but subtly different toolboxes.  Turns out Siri will pick random numbers between certain ranges; so, apple was my die roller for this game.

              I started off by casting power word from my wizard for the heal spell—yeh, I learned that lesson.  Everyone moved forward for a double move except the hound which waited for the soldier faze.  Wmtg made some movement and maximized leap.  My apprentice used telekinesis to grab a treasure out of the central box and carry it over the 1 inch retaining wall border.  All of his guys moved forward except one archer.  WMTG did some more movement shenanigans.

              Turn 2, it was on.  WMTG had his wizard cast decay on my marksman’s crossbow.  I…I did not even know he had that spell.  I pulled 2 more treasures out of the central box and grabbed all of them with my thugs and one of my crossbowman.  WMTG waited till after I committed a crossbowman to the treasure before gimping the marksman..well played.  He got his 2 treasure hunters and a thief into the box ready to nab treasures next turn.  Since I picked up treasure the robots started activating.

              After turn 3, shit got real.  Robots started charging all over the box.  Since my guys were out of the zone, WMTG’s guys took the brunt of the assault.  I sent my hound in to base with one of the treasure hunters to tie him down.  Constructs do not keep you in combat, so WMTG walked away with the other treasure hunter only to have me push an enemy into him on a sweet bank shot.  I failed a furious quill casting and lost the hound but WMTG was delayed enough that even with a thug to assist, the sheer volume of attacks started taking its toll.

              In the end, he lost both treasure hunters, killed 4 constructs, and escaped with 3 treasures.  I snagged 4 treasures, killed 2 constructs, and cast 10 successful spells.  After my apprentice got down to 1 health, he left the board.  My wizard got down to 5 health and kept having to camp and empower healing spells.  WMTG’s wizard got down to 1 health thanks to empowerment.  Both of us spent a lot of effort barraging the constructs with missiles trying to farm experience.  My crossbows were helpful but multiple bone dart castings highlighted my lack of easily cast zap magic.

 

Musing:

1.       After the end of game rolls, we did not lose any models permanently.  I ended up with 795 gold, plague of insects, and wall grimoires.  WMTG got a +1-fight staff, a couple potions, and a horn of destruction.  I got 350 experience which put me firmly on level 5—10 away from level 6.

2.       I upgraded fight, health, and lowered the casting cost of reveal secrets by 1.  I bought a kennel upgrade for my base.  I replaced my thugs with treasure hunters, dismissed my 2-remaining crossbowman, and bought 3 marksmen to fill out my warband leaving me with 95 gold.

3.       WMTG and I talked a bunch after the game.  The flavor of play changes drastically with different scenarios and wizard types.  I love how the warband is so small but the tactics are so fluid.

4.       With 4 marksmen, 2 treasure hunters, 2 archers, and a war hound, I will have some quality pieces next game.  My goal is to upgrade my archers to rangers after the next game and then just start kitting out my guys.  If I lose some, oh well.  I want to buy a couple more spells but I did not want to throw money at that goal until my base warband is up to snuff.

5.       I thought I would find a sigilist slow and clunky after playing my summoner.  Instead, my cheap utility spell approach is a lot of fun.  It is nice to have inexpensive options—especially such a wide variety of spells.

 

 

That is all for now.  WMTG and I probably will not get a game in for a bit.  In the meantime, I will finish off my existing miniature projects and he will print out some more terrain.  I love frost grave more and more the more I play.  Here’s hoping the next game is not too far off.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Frost Grave, a new beginning


              Sunday, Phoenix and I set to a classic game of frost grave.  In some ways frost grave is the minis game I have always wanted.  It is simple, internally consistent, and beautifully free of fiddly bits.  It is also a game that benefits from scenario and campaign elements over the long-hall.  The core game is a straight forward resource competition.  The campaign variant through multiple scenarios dilutes the lethality while retaining the resource acquisition race.

 

              Phoenix and I opted for a starter game with new war bands.  I went with a sigilist using my Khador models.  Butcher was my two-handed weapon wielding scholar.  Yuri was my two-handed weapon wielding apprentice.  The rest of the band comprised 2 archers, 3 crossbowmen, 2 thugs, and 1 war hound.  My spells were:

·       Elemental bolt at 16

·       Telekinesis at 10

·       Furious Quill at 10

·       Power word at 14

·       Push at 8

·       Reveal Secret at 16

·       Heal at 10

 

I wanted a utility kit with a bunch of cheap affects and a couple quality investments.  Normally I would have doubled down on campaign spells like absorb knowledge and the creation variants but I did not know how long this campaign would run.  Honestly it feels kind of cheesy going balls to the wall in a 2 person league.  So, we will go all out in-game but I am not going to sweat the little things.  This selection puts half my spells at 10 or less so I have options without having to empower everything.

       We played the mausoleum scenario on a 4x4 table.  In retrospect, I should have brought my 30x30 mat.  Distance really matters in this for engagement range and resource access.  In previous league play deployment zones were 6x6 inch blocks on larger boards where 6 players hammered it out.  We did not place treasure before choosing deployment.  With 2 people you have to place the treasure before picking deployment zones; otherwise the game degrades into a contest for who gets the best side with the treasure placed near the board edge.  It also encourages treasure distribution such that no matter where someone else sets up one has a fair shot at the money.  Doing it the other way means players tend not to interact much—they just rush the treasure off the board and try not to lose models.

       The mausoleum went in the center of the board with a treasure at each corner.  I put my discretionary marker at the top of the tallest tower.  I figured to bate Phoenix’s troops out.  Maybe I could blast them off the tower.  Phoenix put one in the upper floor of a ruined farmhouse.  Then we dropped several skeletons around the board.  I put mine in blocking positions.  Phoenix did much the same.  Phoenix won the roll and chose her board edge—I got the other—neither of us wanted to move from our arbitrarily chosen starting sides.

       The game started well.  I got my reveal secrets spell off—phoenix failed her roll—so I had one guaranteed treasure.  Phoenix sent a couple of grunts for the 2-special treasure on her side of the mausoleum and her 2 treasure hunters after the loot in the farm house.  I sent a pack of archers, crossbowman, and my war hound after the farmhouse treasure with my apprentice.  Butcher moved forward and pushed one of the archers forward enough to grab one of the special treasures.

       After this, things got “complicated.”  Butcher pushed people forward and back, getting his 2 ranged models well on their way toward removing the treasure off the board.  On the other side, my apprentice and company got tied up with a skeleton.  Phoenix, correctly noticing that my left flank was over-committed, sent her apprentice to assist.  Two scatter shots and a couple archers later and my war hound was down and my caster had been 2 shotted.  The apprentice tried to cast heal several times and just hurt himself more.  At 2 health, he retreated for the board edge.  Butcher had teleported on top of the farmhouse treasure but with 2 treasure hunters closing in and no support available, he retreated into the apprentice’s ranged strike.

       I ended the game with 3 treasure tokens of which 2 were special markers.  I successfully cast 5 spells so earned 240 experience.  Butcher lost a couple toes and .5 inches of movement.  The war hound survived in tacked.  I rolled up gloves of strength, 3 potions (healing, demon in a bottle, and elixir of life), and a ring of feather fall.  I put my two-level advancements toward fight and hp.  I sold the demon in a bottle spell netting me 310 gold.  I bought a ring of power 3 (for the danged apprentice), upgraded my apprentice and wizard to two-handed weapons, and purchased a marksman to replace one of the crossbowman.  I picked treasury for my base since the extra money could not hurt and the chance for an extra treasure is always nice (need to roll that before the next game.)  That leaves me with 0 gold and 40 experience toward the next level.

 

Thoughts:

1.       The d20 mechanic is challenging.  Phoenix owned that game.  She walked off with 4 treasures and killed my caster.  However, she never rolled less than a 17 against my wizard.  I could not even roll a 10 for heal.  I lost .5 inches of movement on my caster but gained a much better pile of loot than Phoenix.  The problem with d20 is that any one result is just as likely as any other.  Over time the average will shape up around 10.5 but the average requires hundreds of rolls to normalize.  In the meantime, the variance is high.

2.       I forgot that moving imposes a -1 to ranged attacks—outside of spells.  There is an additional -1 for every model and piece of intervening terrain.  It would not have changed the result but is worth remembering.

3.       I went with a treasury base.  The temptation was to take a tower or a laboratory but ultimately, I wanted resources.  It came down to an inn or the treasury and the inn lost on account of making the warband bigger.

4.       I get to play 1 or 2 frost grave games tomorrow.  I am looking forward to the experience as much as to test my metal as to just throw down some dice.  I got greedy last game…none of that shit this time.

5.       Frost grave has a quaint almost Indi feel.  From the stream of thought writing to the minimally sized book, it has a nice off the beaten path taste.  The production values are high enough to justify the price and low enough to match pace with the game’s aspirations.  It falls second to PP games and only because I have so much blood and tears behind that worthy.

 

That’s all for now.  Butcher, the red pen, shall stride the frozen city tomorrow.  Woe to those who would stand in his way…especially the harbingers of probability😉

Monday, June 12, 2017

Week day warmachine


              Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of facing Cane III.  My friend Corc came in from out of town to do battle on the field of honor.  Cygnar has ever been my nemesis so I figured this would be an excellent learning opportunity.  I seared a couple steaks, had a great dinner, and faced down PP’s newest bad-boy.

 

My list or bringing the big guns:


·       Conquest

·       Man-o-War Shocktroopers (full)

 

Corcs list or I’ll prove to you that size does not matter:

·       Caine's Hellslingers

·       Charger

·       Charger

·       Hunter

·       Ace

·       Journeyman Warcaster

·       Charger

·       Thorn Gun Mages


 

 

This was a basic test run.  We just wanted to try our lists out against someone competent and get a feel for new product.  I got conquest back from my painting god a couple weeks earlier and yearned to see him on-table.  Corc does not get much chance to play and wanted to see if his concept was valid.

              The only relevant terrain was a big forest splotch in my lower right-hand quadrant and a bunker building midway up the field on the right-hand side.  I won the roll and chose first.  Against swans you have to cover that ground or you’ll be cut to ribbons by defensive fire before you get close to combat.  Victory favors a long-range gun and a strong shield wall—or so I hoped.

1.       I set up in the middle of my zone with the shock troopers in shield wall, conquest on the left, and Zerkova behind the man-o-war line.  Corc set up mostly on the right hand far line with the thorn gun mages farther left for a flanking move. The mage hunter went far right and out front.

2.       I ran my boys up and right, pushed conquest to the edge of their line, and put Zerkova behind the metal wall far enough to be out of range of black penny.  She dropped the cloud wall and I passed the turn.  Corc ran most of his list down my right flank, using the bunker as cover.  Jr. put arcane shield on the hellslingers.  The gun mages jinked left to flank my forces.

3.       I walked my shock troopers forward in shield wall, moved conquest forward with a failed scatter attempt toward the elf, and Zerkova moved up with feat popped and dropped a couple clouds in front of the iron wall.  Zerkova was up against the forest with the shock troopers to her left and conquest on the left of their shield wall.  Corc checked the wording on my feat, and moved to consolidate in anticipation of next turn.  The gun mages moved farther down the left flank.  2 chargers cut loose on the shock troopers doing a grand total of 3 damage.  Eiryss ran down to the forest edge hoping to disrupt Zerkova next turn.

4.       I checked a bunch of ranges, saw a ton of targets and promptly forgot about the plan.  After my last game against Sloan, I was so happy to actually get in range of things I neglected the larger strategy.  Also, I probably should have read Cain’s card before playing…but enough excuses.  Conquest powered up, moved back a bit, and used its main gun to one-shot the gun mages into oblivion.  I hadn’t allocated him any focus and figured what the heck, might as well use those secondary batteries.  It was not as if anyone was going to be charging into a creeping barrage.  I unloaded 4 shots into the nearest charger.  I managed to scratch it for 3 damage…until the last shot which scattered and killed JR outright—truck ya high explosive!  Zerkova activated, hit Eiryss with a fatal frost hammer, and backed up on five camp.  The MOW had no range to charge so backed up to the maximum range of their shield cannons, shield walled, and cut loose on the nearest charger—immobilizing it but otherwise leaving it fully operational.  Cain activated, moved up, popped feat, and started the math train.  The center MOW took a shadow fire shot for a couple damage after Cain and company scratched the paint on the unit.  A couple chargers shot through the MOW, darned cheaty shadow fire, and splattered zerkova.  Game—Swans.  I am going to take Cygnar down one of these days.

Mutterings:

1.       I really really should have read Cain’s card.  Mage sight only affects models covered by the AOE.  It does not dispel clouds.  So, even if the shock troopers got shadow fired, if Zerkova was not under the template, she still would have benefited from the clouds.  Also, I could have just dropped a cloud on her.  Defense 17 is nothing to sneeze at even if he hit me with the template.

2.       I am not afraid of the elf.  In MKI she was the bane of my existence.  Now she just walks up and dies.  Premeasuring spelled the end of her hold over me.  I have seen her multiple times in this and the previous edition and she has fallen without affect every time.

3.       That was probably a winnable game.  If I had known my enemy just a tad bit better, I could have bated him out and killed Cain with Conquest.  Corc said that he had nothing to deal with a gargossul.

4.       I need to give her a try with hillbillies and Hutchuk.  That flanking crap would not have flown if I had ambushing knockdown and some cheap guns available on command.

5.       I liked conquest in theory.  Now I like him in practice.   High explosive will not fix every problem but it darn sure is worth gambling on.  I am not sure he is Zerkova’s best option but he is fun.

6.       Caster kill is no-fun in general play.  It is great to show you weaknesses in general mechanics though.  I only wish I could have played a couple more games before Corc had to hit the road.

7.       Shock troopers are just solid.  Armor 21 is beastly.  If I ever get my officer painted I really want to test them at full power.

8.       I am getting close to the point where 25 points and caster kill are not enough.  It may be time to switch casters and try a couple bigger games.

9.       I am solidly improving.  Getting my teeth kicked in is the best teaching method.  Here’s to losing gracefully…freaking Swans😉

 

That’s all for now.  I have to think on Zerkova.  I have this strange affinity for her clunky design and weird interactions.  There might be something wrong with me.  I keep dropping ice into my glass of bourbon and wondering when the god of air-conditioning is going to show up (fluff joke for those not acquainted with the setting.)  More militant recounting later.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Reviewing Zerkova I


              A couple months ago I started looking for a new warcaster to playtest.  I wanted to try something a little “different.”  I have pedestrian tastes—I am drawn to the original prime casters.  In spite of those preferences, I kept coming back to Zerkova I.  She looked tantalizingly off the snowy path.  I was vacillating between Sorscha and her when PP released her reskulpt—sold!  Thus I give you this review from a non-tournament playing, low experience son of the motherland.

 

              Lady Z is nothing special on paper.  Her 15 defense, armor, and 16 boxes are solidly mediocre.  At MAT 6 and RAT 5 she is barely better than a winter guard recruit.  Her twenty-eight battlegroup points are the MKIII warcaster default.  Cold immunity, pathfinder and sacred ward are useful grace notes.  Her sword is a standard magical melee weapon—there to check the magical armament box rather than for utility.  She is extremely squishy while posing a minimal melee threat.

              Zerkova’s value comes from her feat and spell list.  Her feat denies enemy shooting originating in her control range and stops enemies giving/receiving orders, making special attacks/actions, power attacks, and running/charging for those activating within her control range.  This is the mother of all denial feats since it cannot be shaken, shuts down shooting, and prevents models from doing most of the things used to supplant shooting (charging, trampling, running…etc.)  Since non-warnoun spells are special actions/attacks, it stops non-focus/fury users that activate in her control range from casting spells.  The only way to bypass her feat is to activate outside her control range and/or employ elements that can strike from more than 14 inches—hunters under Sloan’s fire group spell for example.  While the feat does not fix accuracy like icy gaze, it is also a lot harder to circumvent.  Add to this the fact that it hits infantry, warjacks, warbeasts, casters/locs, and huge bases equally and it becomes the centerpiece of Zerkova’s toolbox.

              The rest of her kit is less sexy but no-less useful.  Freezing mist lets her “place” a three inch LOS blocking cloud template within her control range for 2 focus.  Models within the template suffer a -2 to attack rolls—melee, ranged, and spells.  This lets her cut off line of sight with the vaunted cloud wall, trigger prowl/concealment, and debuff enemy attack rolls.  True sight and eyeless sight are rare outside legion and Cygnar—making the template bunker a hard counter to many lists.

              Ghost walk is her only spell that actively supports other models/units.  For 2 focus, it lets a target friendly faction unit/model ignore terrain and free strikes.  At first this looks like an inefficient way of deploying pathfinder.  In reality it is a versatile tool that lets Zerkova’s forces walk out of combat and run through terrain on command.  Since it is not an upkeep, she can spread it around.  The first couple turns it lets units move through delaying terrain features.  In the late game it lets Zerkova pull multiple targets out of combat without penalty—which is especially good against cheap jamming elements.

              Watcher is her only upkeep spell.  Once per turn, it lets a member of her battlegroup make a full advance followed by a boosted ranged or melee attack against an enemy model that moves within 6 inches of her.  I found this spell to be a bit corner case.  In theory it should enable out of action counterattacks and battlegroup blocker movement.  In practice it never came into play.  If Zerkova was close enough to the enemy to trigger watcher then her battlegroup was already engaged.  Zerkova has so much denial between her feat, her offensive spells, and her cloud wall that by the time enemy models got within six inches watcher was irrelevant.

              Lady Z has two damage dealing spells.  Frost hammer is a power 12 8 inch spray with critical freeze for 2 focus.  It is useful for dealing with multiple targets, especially if you can spare the extra focus to boost the to-hit roll and fish for the critical.  Considering that rod of whispers and hex blast top out at power 13, frost hammer is a strong offensive option for the points.

              Hex blast gives her a 10 inch power 13 small blast for 3 focus.  On a direct hit, all upkeeps and animi on the target expire.  Although somewhat expensive, hex blast serves as a useful debuf, ranged damage dealer, and mass removal tool.  I often found it difficult to decide whether to go all in on the hex blast root or to try and hit targets with multiple frost hammers.  One costs less with a potentially devastating critical while the other can do more damage.  In most cases frost hammer is the better choice since you can fully boost 2 frost hammers or drop 4 unboosted sprays.  Assuming you have the range, the increased output does more work than the extra point of power on hex blast.

              Zerkova has three magical items, each of which may be used once per turn.  A single casting may only benefit from one of her items.  Focus sphere cuts the cost of a spell by 1 to a minimum of 1.  This lets her protect her battle group’s advance with four cloud templates in the early game while transitioning to cheaper offensive spells later. This means Zerkova plays like a caster with 8 focus worth of resources but 7 focus worth of accuracy.  True sight only supplements spells, not rod of whispers; so is only relevant to hex blasts.  Lens of Tarvodh gives her a once a turn five inch range boost to a hex blast.  It lets Zerkova plink away at targets in the mid game while staying out of the danger zone. 

              Rod of whispers rounds out her kit with a 10 inch range power 13 ROF 1 magical gun.  If Zerkova kills an enemy living model with the rod, she can leave it in play, change its facing, and use it as an arcnode for the rest of that turn.  The model dies at the end of her turn whether or not she channels through it.  A lot of reviews paint the rod as her core strategy.  My experience is that its limited range, Zerkova’s low RAT, and the dearth of infantry in MKIII render it more of a nice if it happens sort of thing.  The gun is handy for removing pesky incorporeal solos.  If you get an assassination vector with grave door, so much the better but it is not worth building your entire strategy around its utility.

 

Play experience:

              It is difficult to pin Zerkova’s style down.  Most casters have strategic themes.  Some are generalists like Butcher I.  Some are support casters like Irusk.  Some enable other models through their personal offense like Sorscha I.  Zerkova does not fall cleanly into any one category.  I want to use words like generalist or versatile to describe her but these imply a breadth and depth that I am not sure she deserves. 

              Outside of watcher, Zerkova has nothing that specifically interacts with jacks.  She wants to keep her entire stack for cloud walls, attack spells, and camp.  Zerkova only has one spell that benefits infantry in particular (ghost walk.)  Freezing mist is a powerful tool for LOS denial, generating concealment, and debuffing enemy attacks.  She can throw down a magical storm with hex blast and frost hammer but lacks the threat potential of the butchers and Sorscha.  This leaves her dependent on her feat and clouds to deliver her army.  She does not speed up her forces.  She does not increase their accuracy or hitting power.

              I tried her with everything from Rorsh and Brine to demolition corps to a heavy jack list.  Her playstyle changed every time.  One game she bunkered her way across the board, completely shutting down the opposing list.  Another time she walked around removing enemy linchpins while a unit of demolition corps ran wild.  I am used to looking at problems and choosing from static options.  Zerkova has this tendency to morph into something unexpected.  True sight or a 5 inch range boost on hex blast lets her take a standard spell and change the game state.  Mage hunter coming up a flank? Here is true sight.  Got something you cannot target directly?  Charge a jack into combat with it and lob a 15 inch hex blast into its back and boost the blast damage.  Got a caster hiding behind an infantry screen?  Drop one of the screens with a boosted rod of whispers shot and nuke the caster.  Are your demolition corps tied up with a couple of jammers?  Ghost walk them into another threat.  Her toolbox is so eclectic as to lack focus but that very diversity gives her an unusual degree of tactical relevance.

              That flexibility still leaves her with a couple weaknesses.  Despite personal pathfinder and ghost walk, Zerkova runs slow.  She does not increase threat range.  The cloud wall defense tends to brick up her forces until she goes on offense.  If she wants to run, she has to setup the cloud wall before she starts her movement which limits how far forward she can push the LOS screen.  While this is fine for jacks and man-o-war, cavalry and infantry—especially forward scouting elements—have to choose between the bunker’s protection and maximizing their forward movement.  This can leave her behind on scenario even if she eventually delivers her army.

              Zerkova has to balance the desire to push her board presence forward with her need to avoid assassination.  On paper she shuts down enemy models.  In practice I found that after her forces broke from behind the cloud bunker, her 14 inch control range was not enough to shut down every threat vector—especially if she played behind a screen.  Playing conservatively limits her feat turn, cloud wall placement, and offensive range.  Playing aggressively enough to maximize her board presence leaves her sitting on 0 camp hoping her army and sacred ward do enough work to save her bacon.

 

List building:

              It is easier to say what Zerkova does not like than what she prefers.  Between the cloud wall and zap slinging, she rarely has enough focus to support more than two jacks.  This is not to say that she cannot support an all-jack force but that her toolkit prefers more independent elements.  Huge bases cannot be screened by cloud walls so require careful consideration.  Bigger units such as a winter guard circus can pose screening challenges—especially in larger forces where safe landing zones are at a premium.  I found that she does not do well with intermediate range shooting such as the decimator.  The dozer’s 10 inch range combines with Zerkova’s slower deliberate style to leave me wishing for range 12+ guns or a stronger melee presence.

              My favorite battlegroups for lady Z are 2 destroyers or Behemoth and a rager.  Both of them give a mix of 14 inch shooting and focus efficiency.  The rager package gets you a nice mix of offense and defense as well as a sacrificial objective holder.  The destroyer package perfectly spends her warjack points and functions just fine with the powerup focus until they get into melee.  Ruin is a great option with sacred ward and arcane vortex.  Juggernauts make great watcher targets.  The grolar has built in movement buffs and an accuracy fixer in its hammer.  I like all of these options but over and over again I found myself wishing for that 14 inch shooting.

              The big question I had to answer was to theme or not to theme.  Zerkova is one of Khador’s most mercenary friendly casters.  Her cloud wall protects utility pieces and heavy hitters.  Her spell list lets her zap out control solos and smaller units while her hired soldiers hamstring enemy fulcrums.  She benefits from Sylys or Reinholdt—my preference is Sylys for the 2-inch range boost and free upkeep but the speculator certainly has his charms.  Hutchuk, Gorman, and Ragman provide valuable damage boosts—Hutchuk also provides ambushing knockdown on a stick which is so so sweet.  A&H plus Valachev gives you spot removal and a nice damage boost.  While three models for 12 points probably seems a bad deal, it gives Zerkova much needed utility while keeping her model count down.  Orin and Alexia II are strong denial pieces.  Rorsh and brine give you boostable guns, a 14 inch non-linear charging heavy, and a strong assassination threat against living models.  Alten is expensive at 6 points but provides a RAT 8 14-inch gun with reposition, prowl plays into Zerkova’s clouds, and targeted shooting is always a good thing.  Eiryss II out performed expectations every time.  Opponents knew hex blast was on the table and decided not to risk taking the damage and having their upkeeps removed anyway.  Like Alten, she could move up, take a shot, and reposition into cover or behind the cloud wall—which really started to annoy opponents.  If you can pull off the bunker, lady Z gets a lot of use from utility models that would otherwise die before seeing much use.

              On the flip side, Khador’s themes provide strong incentives to stay in-faction.  I feel that legion of steel and winter guard are great for what they are but require Zerkova to manage too large a footprint—in smaller games perhaps but not at 50 and above.  Even though jaws of the wolf should not work with a non-jack caster, I think it is Zerkova’s best themed option.  At 25 points she can take Behemoth, a rager, and marshal 2 destroyers with 2 free forge seers.  The forge seers can empower which ever jacks they want taking the focus Burdon off Zerkova.  Even if the destroyers just sit and aim, they are hitting at RAT 8 under the marshal’s rule.  This list hides well in the cloud, ranges well, and offers a strong cleanup presence on feat turn for very little focus investment—expand to taste.

Theme or not, lady Z is a big fan of annoyance models.  Eiryss, eliminators, man hunters, kossites, and widowmakers pick at your opponent’s patience.  They get tired of dancing around and over-extend—just wanting to make the pain stop—and boom, the cloud wall comes down, the feat drops, and they get alphaed.  She rewards a patient player using list elements to bate out the opponent.

All that being said, Zerkova’s best games came with man-o war.  Full disclosure, I play big red because of these guys.  Any caster that boosts their stock gets my vote.  While bombardiers were so-so, shock troopers with officer loved the ability to run for a couple turns of cloud wall with impunity.  Ghost walk let them seamlessly transition from hammer to anvil and back again.  The unit my opponents hate hate hated though was demolition corps.  Especially in smaller games they ruled the field.  It was like having a mini battle group.  Cloud wall meant they got stuck in on their own terms.  Ghost walk let them walk from one target to another, usually leaving some poor sod open to a nuking.  Once they started trucking, they would not quit.  They made me wish I had more than one unit.  Sure, Sloan turned them into hamburger but that’s nothing new.  I cannot wait for the MOW theme to come out to see how Zerkova performs.

 

Fury’s Mutterings:

              Zerkova is one of those casters who would make the ‘A list’ with a couple tweaks.  I feel like PP looked at her arcane items and said “naaa, we have to give her limits.”  She deserves to be focus 8 rather than 7 with a once-a-turn discount.  That one change would make her feat far more dependable.  Along the same lines, I do not get why PP just did not give her full-fledged true sight.  This is par for the course for Zerkova.  She is fun to play but her design feels just a little bit clunky such as how her gun lets her create arc nodes but she only has RAT 5 or how most of her magic items are only really useful with hex blast.

              For me, Zerkova’s appeal is her unique factional toolkit.  The package lacks a unifying theme but provides a diversity of options that is fun to play even if it is not as competitive as I would like.  That novelty cuts both ways.  Opponents—used to Khador’s usual straight forward style—had trouble adjusting to Zerkova’s quirky approach.  One opponent remarked after my third premeasurement that I was unusually strategic for a Khadoran player…thanks?  If one wishes to be successful with lady Z one needs that level of strategic awareness.  Which brings me to the other thing I like about Zerkova.

              She demands a high level of tactical awareness.  I like casters that give me choices—that challenge my mechanical knowledge.  For all that I would like her to be a stronger competitor, Zerkova offers many choices in order of activation, defense, and offense.  For example, freezing mist can be placed in many ways—to block line of sight, to provide a +2 defense bonus against shooting and melee, to reduce shooting attack rolls, and to force counter magic resource expenditure.  She pivots quickly from offense to defense through a variety of tactical options.  So she is fun and demanding.

 

Conclusion:

              Zerkova is a solid caster.  She is fun to play if for no other reason than the variety of her feat and spell list.  However, her novelty does not mask her second tier status.  She is a great learning experience—just be aware of her limitations.