Monday, May 30, 2011

Black Powder

This is one of those posts I started a while ago, last June to be precise. I read the rules to Black Powder around the same time that the rules for Warhammer Fantasy 8th Edition came out, which is why I make a few comparisons between the two. I like Black Powder a lot, although it's unlikely I'll ever get to play. I'll get into why that's the case later on.

Black Powder is a game covering the black powder era of warfare during the 18th and 19th Centuries. This covers many famous conflicts including the American Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Crimean War, the Zulu War, and many others.

The game is written by Rick Priestly and Jervis Johnson, best known for their association with Games Workshop. With this in mind I expected to encounter a typical GW style game, and instead found myself pleasantly surprised to find something quite different. To start with, there's no "buckets o' dice" mechanic here. Most combats look like they won't involve any more than half a dozen dice per side to resolve.

There's also none of the typical "tabletop carnage" involved in GW games, where players find themselves removing models from the table nearly as fast as they put them on there in the first place. Casualties are kept track of by placing tokens next to a unit, not removing models from it. Models don't come off the table until a unit is completely routed, at which point the entire unit is removed. I like this because after taking the time to assemble and paint an army, you want those models to actually stay on the table for a while.

Unfortunately, there are several factors that will keep me from ever playing this game. The biggest one is simply that I don't know anyone else around here who would be enthusiastic enough about playing to keep me enthusiastic enough to build an army. I'm past the point of being able to be the driving force behind generating interest in a new miniatures game. I just don't have the free time to evangelize for a new game.

Second, I don't have an army for the period. I'd love to put together a Civil War force using some of the Perry Miniatures plastics, but without someone to play against I don't really need to start another miniatures project that I would never finish.

Third, I don't have a big enough table. The game calls for tables ranging from 9' x 5' to 12' x 6', which are quite a bit larger than the standard 6' x 4' tables that are available around here. I have the room to put a bigger table in the garage, but would have to assemble it first.

So, why do I want to play this game instead of a more popular "big army" game like Warhammer Fantasy? There's a few reasons. First is the "herohammer" factor. In Fantasy it often all comes down to the character models, and this doesn't appear to be any less true in 8th edition. If I'm playing an army game, I want the army to matter. If I want individuals to be the deciding factor then I'll play a skirmish game.

Second, there's command and control. The one place that individuals should matter, is the one that Fantasy doesn't even model: command and control. With a few special exceptions based on the army you're playing, units in Fantasy do exactly what you want them to. That rarely happened in history, and I've found it's generally more entertaining to play a game where things don't always go according to plan.

I do realize that Warhammer Fantasy has a basic morale system, but as it exists in that game, I don't really count that as command and control. Units still do exactly what you want them to up to the point that they run away after taking too much damage and failing a morale check.

Third, the army construction. I want to play a game where you win on the tabletop, not in a database. I'm really starting to dislike army construction as a part of the game. I'm starting to prefer scenario based games where the forces are either based on history, or simply designated by the scenario designer.

These issues are absent in Black Powder. There are no "heroes" modeled in Black Powder. There is a command and control system that can lead to units not following your orders, and instead doing something else entirely. There are some very basic point values in an appendix for judging balance, but Black Powder is not an army construction game. It's a game intended to be played using individual scenarios either designed by a neutral umpire, or mutually created by the opposing players.

Overall, it's designed to be fun. Invite some friends over, have a few beers, and play out a scenario not to win at all costs, but just to see what happens.

Not that I don't like a competitive game, but it seems like all there is to the Warhammer games most of the time is the competition. Black Powder seems to bring more than that to the table.

While it's unlikely that I'll ever play Black Powder, the designers recently released Hail Caesar, an adaptation of the Black Powder rules to the ancients period. Given that I already have a partly assembled Roman army, it's much more likely that I'll eventually be able to get a game in using Hail Caesar, although it's still a longshot.

I don't have a copy of Hail Caesar yet, but after I get a chance to read it I'll try to post my thoughts on it, and I'll try to do it less than a year after I read it.

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