My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Miniatures Wargaming over Skype

One of the 'new things' that I wanted to try over the Christmas holiday was wargaming over the internet. That does not sound very new, especially because I have already been wargaming over the internet, such as when I won that BattleLore campaign run on Vassal (gloat, gloat). No, what I wanted to try was playing a miniatures game over the internet and not using Vassal (besides, there is no module for what I wanted to try, Tin Soldiers in Action).

My Prussian J├Ągers are aching to get into action!
I have heard about webcam gaming, which is basically pointing a web camera at your table or using a handheld and showing your opponent what is going on, the state of the units, and so on. Your opponent may or may not have a similar setup on their own side. Sounds interesting but my main gaming space has a weak internet connection, so it would not support the amount of bandwidth I needed. I would either need to clear a large space in the house, risking the wrath of my wife, or I would need to scale something down. Fortunately, I had already done this exercise with Neil Thomas' rules Wargaming Nineteenth Century Europe 1815–1878 in my article Converting Rules to a Grid and a Small Gaming Space. As Tin Soldiers in Action (TSIA) is already on the grid, all I needed to do was to convert it to a small gaming space. Basically, scale the table down in size.

The scenario I was to play was Invasion of Back Cup Island, which comes from the back of TSIA. The scenario in TSIA is nine squares wide by 12 squares long, so with 6" squares that means a 4 1/2' by 6' table. Nope. I would need it down much smaller than that.

Although I have a good 4' by 4' space on the dining room table, because of its height, it is very hard to reach all of the way across. I usually game on the table by either making a game board out of foam core board or poster board. The foam core boards are generally 20" by 30", but you can buy larger ones like 30" by 40" and 48" by 96". I did not have any of those larger boards around, so I decided to use poster board that I had, which are also about 20" by 30". That meant I would have to use 2" squares. Pretty small! (In hindsight, I should have gone out and bought a 30" by 40" board and used 3" squares. More on that later.)

A simple game board drawn on poster board
Unit sizes were 12 figures per unit, so in order for that to fit in a 2" square, bases sizes would have had to be 1/2" or less (four figures wide by three ranks deep). It was starting to look like I would have to use 6mm figures and not use figure removal, but a roster system for tracking casualties.

The next surprise was that the scenario was not horse and musket, but a Jules Verne scenario set in about 1870–1896 due to the technology used. Well, all I had sufficient quantities of were 6mm Napoleonics or 6mm Space Marines, Space Elves, and Space Orcs. I was running out of time (the game was slated for the day after Christmas at 2 PM), so I bit the bullet and decided to make counters. ­čś×  Had I decided upon 3" squares at the start I could have used my fledgling Austrian and Prussian 1866 armies for the game, and quickly made unpainted units for the ones that were missing! But the stores were closed and I was running out of time.

Actually the counters were not so bad. I was able to put the unit name, stats, and 12 hit boxes comfortably all within about 1 3/4" square. This allowed me to use a pencil to mark off casualties as we went along, so the unit was the roster. I drew up a sheet of unit counters in Word using tables, printed it to paper, and glued them to wood squares in order to give them weight, so no accidents would happen with a gust of wind.

Pieces used for the game. The "O"s are the hit boxes.
I was all set up, ready for my game with R├╝diger Hofrichter (the author). I would be the attacker and he would be the defender (which is running a static defense, to be honest). The game is well balanced, but I knew it was going to be tough for me because it introduced a lot of new elements that I had not played, like fortifications, entrenchments, houses, modern artillery, siege artillery, and armored gunboats for starters.

As I said, the scenario is a Jules Verne-like story. The Evil Count (Blue defender) and his pirates kidnap a scientist and forces him to make not one, but two Ultimate Weapons. The International Force sends out their military to invade Back Cup Island, where the scientist is being held, to rescue him and destroy the weapons. The problem is: the Ultimate Weapons kick some serious butt.


The map above shows the layout. The International Force (Red attacker) enters the board on row 12. The four victory squares are C2, G4, G6, and G9. You must capture and hold all four by the end of the game (turn 9, although it could end at turn 7 or 8); failure to do so means the International Force loses.

The problem is that two Ultimate Weapons have been built, are functional, and are manned by crews. They are entrenched in E2 and G8. In game terms, the Ultimate Weapon is the biggest and baddest artillery defined in the game (WW I siege artillery) in an era of muzzle-loading, rifled field artillery and early breechloader naval guns. They hurt. Worse, they can hit any unit on the board that they have line of sight to.

Essentially the attackers have four infantry brigades, an artillery brigade, and an armored cruiser to punch through all of this. The assessment of this scenario by the author is that you only have about two turns where you can delay. Otherwise you need to keep moving in order to reach the opposite end of the board by the time the game ends. (For reference, an infantry unit moving flat out – no firing – can move two squares a turn.) All that sounds good, but you do not have the space to spread out and use your superior numbers.

If you have read previous battle reports then you know that my style is to see if I can break the rules. Although I felt that I had already sufficiently field-tested TSIA, there were so many new elements introduced that I decided before the game to go into 'break it' mode 1. I knew I was going to be beaten, badly, because I was warned that this was a tough scenario for the attacker, yet well-balanced, and heavily playtested.

I am not going to go into a blow-by-blow, as this was not really intended as a battle report as much as it was a 'miniature gaming over Skype' report. How did we pull it off mechanically. First, one of the core components of a TSIA game is the card deck. There is one card for each command on each side. In the case of Red it had six commands, while Blue only had two. Thus the deck consisted of eight cards, mixed together. So one of the players has to be responsible for the deck, creating it, shuffling, pulling cards, and calling out (or showing) the card pulled 2. I let R├╝diger handle that.

The other element of chance are dice (lots of dice!), so you typically have three methods: roll your own, use an die roller app, or let one player roll all of the dice. Actually, this last option did not really dawn on me, but R├╝diger suggested it and I was game. He would roll all of the dice and call out the results. (I would not even have the excuse of bad die rolling given that I was not rolling any dice!)

Game play was pretty easy, actually. I was like playing a modern version of Battleship. A card would be drawn and that would indicate which command would act next. The player would then indicate the unit in that command to take action by calling out the unit's name and grid coordinate location, state the action, and if the action were a move, what grid coordinate it would move to. If it was a double move I would simply change it to 'taking a double move' and then state the grid coordinate of the second move square. It actually worked very well and moved along very quickly.

When it came time to combat, we would state the unit firing, the target unit by grid coordinate, and then work out the dice together. R├╝diger would roll the dice and call out the hits. The only hitch was when the die roll was so horrendously bad against me I think he felt a little twinge of guilt and wanted to show me the roll. I was saying "no, no" but he would fumble with the camera and try to get it aimed and zoomed in.

As you can imagine, gaming this way requires a certain amount of trust between the two players. If you have that level of trust then I say forego completely trying to show your opponent the die rolls as it slows the game down. If you are the type that likes to roll your own dice, I would still say to forego showing the die rolls to the opponent, unless you have some two camera setup (which I am not even sure is possible with Skype). If the trust level is not quite there, or you want to keep a record, you can easily use an online dice roller like Rolz to handle the dice for you. It is easy, free, and you can get a private chat room so no one else comes in and starts rolling dice.

In my case, I did not have any trust issues, don't care if I roll the dice physically, virtually or not at all, and the last thing I want to do is look at the actual dice that just chewed through half a unit without the ability to fling them across the room! ­čśä

I really like playing gridded games and scenarios, so as I find good version of both, I have a tendency to make game board from foam core board or poster board so that replaying the scenarios are much quicker and easier to set up. As I continue to expand my minimalist 12mm armies (like the Prussian J├Ągers 1866 and 1870, at the start of this post) I can see doing more game board using 3" squares. My bases are exactly 3" by 1 1/2" (although the artillery are 1 1/2" by 3") and infantry can comfortably fit 12 figures on the base, I could potentially have 24 figure units. Cavalry would be four to eight figures per unit. Or I could just put a removable label on the base and use hit boxes to indicate the number of figures in the unit, as I did with these counters. In any case, I can see using these armies to explore new periods in a small space (2' by 3'), using a gridded board.

Would I game over Skype again? Yes. I think this is a great way to teach someone the rules, for example. For me, as I love dissecting rules, it is a great way to game with an author of rules or someone very experienced with a set of rules I am trying out and not flub it so much as I did with Hail of Fire (Beta). On the other hand, me doing what I am doing now helps authors test the clarity of their writing. Just by seeing how badly I twist the rules they can get clues where they need to tighten it up.

Which is what happened in the game with R├╝diger and I. I don't think he will mind me revealing this little bit, but it turned out that there was a translation issue that had a noticeable effect on the game, or at least I think so. It turns out that when calculating the dice the English rules say "round to the next whole number" while the German version says "round to the nearest whole number". So when R├╝diger and I were calculating the number of dice to roll and it came up different, I was able to point him to the rule and ask why he was doing it differently. That is when he discovered the mistranslation. All in all, I feel good about helping him with these little tweaks and fixes. My understanding is that a second printing may be upcoming, so these changes might be able to make it in. For now, if I play any of you, just remember that the rules is actually round to the nearest.

Footnotes

1 Break mode is where I intentionally do things that I think should not work, but I do them anyway to see if I get an unexpected result. Now I know this sounds like a lame excuse for making stupid moves – and it is one – but it really does help me figure out if rules have thought about the 'edge cases', or unusual circumstances not normally covered by the main rules, or where the math is simply not well thought out.

2 Quick, funny story: I chose the Jack and Queen as two cards representing two of my commands. R├╝diger was in control of the deck and was using a standard deck of German playing cards and apparently the 'Jack' has the letter 'B' on the card instead of 'J', while the 'Queen' has the letter 'D' instead of a 'Q'. It took me awhile to get used to it. Apparently the German 'Jack' is called 'Bauer', which I find extremely funny given who Jack Bauer is in our television culture. The German 'Queen' is 'Dame'.

7 comments:

  1. Interesting experience. Like you, I don't have a trust issue with dice, my regular opponent and I play double blind games without any problem. Was mildly amused to see the potential problem of 'strangers' rolling virtual dice in your game.

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    Replies
    1. Yep, no trust issues at all either. However, my game buddies are far a few between and for similar reasons. These few gents are all laid back and can have fun regardless of winning or losing. For them and myself, its the joy of participating and experiencing how a given scenario unfolds into a great movie before your eyes.

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  2. Not sure if this will comment twice cuz my phone was fighting me...

    What if there were a way to view your opponents board in real time to scale, along with your own miniatures, dice, cards, whatever. I am building a prototype to play 3'x3' board miniature wargames and the like after moving across the country.

    Is this something that people mighr have an interest in? Let mw know your thoughts or questions!

    Thanks!
    Scott

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I think this sort of thing would be very much of interest to some games, given the thread on The Miniatures Page and the forums springing up on Facebook supporting remote wargaming and paint and chat sessions. Gamers are definitely starting to leverage the technology.

      I think the only issue would be that the tech might need to utilize a tablet, given that you are somewhat tethered to the internet (wired connections or limited wireless range). Wielding the camera on a laptop is not trivial, as my opponent proved in my first Skype game.

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    2. The system I am prototyping would use projectors and designated webcams to display both boards concurrently in real time. In its current stages it is able to stream the video feed and receive the other players via twitch and some free video processing software.

      I am building the first functioning prototype now, and am very excited to share it with my friends. I can definitely share more information as the project progresses, and some of the pics and video I have. I have had a hard time finding a good sounding board for it, so if you can point me in any particular directions, that would be awesome!

      Thanks for the feedback!

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    3. They do a bit of this on the Tabletop Commander's Forum on Facebook. You need a Facebook account and you need to join the closed group (which is pretty much automatically granted). https://www.facebook.com/groups/tabletopcommanders/ You will get a pretty good response there.

      Once you get to the point where you think you would like to talk about something substantial, you can definitely post an article to my blog as a guest author. Simply send me an email (which is in my profile) and we can discuss. I have done this before with others and they usually send me the material and I post on their behalf.

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    4. Dale,

      Thank you very much for the support! I'll be sure to keep you informed as well. So far everything has come together far better than I had ever hoped!

      Thanks again!
      Scott

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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 50 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ (although I have a townhouse in Houston, TX and a small home in Tucson, AZ) working on a contract for "the next two years" that is going on five years now. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").