Saturday, June 13, 2015

Chronicles of Yore: Open Combat on a Drear Heath

A while ago, I had the privilege of teaching my room-mate one of my new favorite skirmish games, Open CombatOpen Combat is a fast-playing skirmish game. It's main strong points are: streamlined, easy-to-learn rules of play; an easy system for creating characters (more on that below); and a robust combat mechanic that makes for balanced, crunchy, strategic play (MUCH more on that below).

What follows is a battle report, as well as what I have to admit is kind of a bear of a game review. This has been a loooong time coming—I told Carl Brown, the author of Open Combat, that I'd do one way back when I first bought the rules last October (sorry about that, Carl, if you're reading.) 

(I've separated the rule discussion in italicized footnotes at the end, so that I won't bore anyone who's interested in the pretty pictures. If you just want to know what I think overall, you can skip to the bottom—you lout.) 

We set up on my then-new teddy bear fur gaming mat, with a fay circle of standing stones, some ancient barrow mounds nearby, a desolate spinney of trees on a ridge, and some cairns marking the long road between Skeldkryk and Drycud-upon-Gyre.

We decided on using the basic "Open Combat" scenario for simplicity, in which the goal is to reduce the opposing warband to their break point* and make them quit the field.

We also, for simplicity, played with (more-or-less) mirrored forces which I worked up in about 5 minutes.*

For setup, we rolled “Confrontation,” meaning that instead of board-edge or –corner deployment, we took turns placing figures anywhere on the table at least 8” from an opponent. I deployed the bulk of my troops in the circle of stones, deciding that the Fell Glendywr, my wizard, was trying to use the convergence of leylines to work some necromantic majicks, perhaps bestirring the denizens of the barrow-mounds…

Tom (my room-mate) very neatly set up to surround me. He also placed his ogre** (who he named Percival) as a guard at the barrows for, it turned out, this was the burial place of his ancestors and he would not see the place defiled.

I split my band into two forces. I sent one force (comprised of Brittleghast, the Gribbly-wight, and the Flayer of Shins) to pry Percival the Ogre and the Hunchyman Ludwig of Flür from the ancestral tomb…perhaps they would prove useful for Glendywr’s ritual…

I sent the rest of my band to guard the right flank using the standing stones as a defensive picket, with Glendywr supporting the line with his ensorcellments***.    

Above you can see as Bale Grimly positions himself to hold the gap between a carved head and a stack of (oddly cuboid) rocks. Meanwhile, Skjorn Boarkinder pushes along the right flank, supported by Greer. Together, they form a sort of loose battle line(****) protecting the edge of the ring of stones, while Glendywr begins his black chanting.

Greer stalks the flank of the field, looking for an opportunity to strike where the flesh is soft...

...and Tom's leader, Ulthar IV, strikes at my battle line, trying to ride down Bale Grimly before his demonic comrade could come to his aid...

Meanwhile on the other side of the circle, Brittleghast and his complement stop to bandy a few insults and prepare themselves...

...before charging uphill at a stubborn ogre. Percival, doing much honor to his forefathers, holds his attackers at bay on the threshold of the barrow before ultimately forcing them to withdraw back down the hill.

The fight for the standing stones intensifies as the individual duels converge, then break apart, then converge again. On my side, Skjorn is run through and left expire, while Bale Grimly succumbs to his many wounds. As revenge on Tom's side, Mel-tead B'tar and the Viscount of the Flies are bludgeoned into the mud. Tom's reserves begin to threaten my flank but neither side is able to gain the upper hand*****...

...until Ulthar and Greer are finally able to come to grips.

The scrum closes again, with Tom's reserves desperately trying to stave off the combined force of Brittleghast's sweetly swinging axe and the formidable intensity of Greer's battle-ire.  Desperation then turns to despair as Greer's heavy blade finds the breast of Ludwig of Peregrine and cleaves it open (causing Tom's warband to reach their breakpoint). Ulthar's men turn and flee at the sight, broken and lost to reason.

*Force Creation and Breakpoint: Characters in Open Combat have five stats—Speed, Attack, Defense, Fortitude, and Mind. To create a character, you just decide on values for each stat…and add them up. If you want to tweak a profile—say, add an extra point of attack, that change will cost one point. Likewise, all weapons and special abilities cost one point each. On the face of it, this system seems very easy to unbalance, but it’s not…but I’ll get into that at length.
The Breakpoint is determined by adding up the units FOR and MIN values and dividing by two. During the game, each player tracks his band’s total FOR and MIN (percentile dice come in handy for this) and once it reaches the BP, the band is forced to cede the field.

**Monsters and Mounted units are treated the same in OC. Mainly, they are able to push units farther in combat (which makes them quite dangerous among confined spaces) and they are slightly less reliable to activate: at the beginning of their activation, you roll a die. If you roll poorly, the character will only have limited actions, and if you roll very poorly your monster/mounted fighter won’t activate at all and your turn will end.  I find this abstraction very satisfying for this level of game, and it adds an element of risk-management into using your potentially more powerful units. (This mechanic, by the way, is borrowed from Blood Bowl—and it’s not the only one, as we’ll see.)

***Open Combat does not have a dedicated majick system—which may seem odd for a rule-set that purports to cover all pre-gunpowder periods both historical and fantastical. However, it’s important to realize that the special rules, though named in very concrete ways (dagger, shield, intimidate, etc.), are actually quite abstract and can be used to represent quite a lot. I find that the rules for psychological attacks combined with ranged weapon rules like Crossbow or Javelin can represent quite a powerful wizard; in fact, I find this to be much more flexible than the standard magic rules for SoBH (though SoBH supplements have rules for summoners, necromancers, illusionists, et. al., which OC currently lacks; however expansions are promised)

****Positioning is very important in OC, because attacking a character's rear facing means that that character will halve their defense value. This is usually the difference between rolling one, two, or three attack dice (see below) which can translate into a significantly greater chance of doing damage. And then when you consider that a character who is surrounded is likely to take damage when they are pushed back into an enemy, you begin to look for ways to get around your opponent.  Scrums in OC therefore, are often decided by who can maintain the integrity of their battle line while compromising that of their opponent. I find this both realistic and strategically challenging.

*****Combat and game balance: remember how I said that the game is tough to unbalance? The reason for that is the combat mechanic, which is the heart of the game. 

Incidentally, it's also the heart of another great game: Blood Bowl. As it turns out, Carl Brown used to play in the GW studio league...and it was reading that little factoid on Gav Thorpe's blog that convinced me to give these rules a try. I could not have been better rewarded, because it turns out that combat in OC is a modified version of the block dice mechanic that makes BB so great.

Here's how it works. When you make an attack, you compare your character's ATK to your opponent's DEF. If your ATK is less than or equal to your opponent's DEF, you roll one attack die. 

On a 1, not only do you fail to do any damage, but your turn immediately ends (just like rolling a skull in BB). A 2 is basically a tie—no telling blows are struck. 3 or 4 allows you to push your opponent back, potentially doing damage by pushing them into other characters or terrain. A five does a point of damage. A 6 deals damage and allows you to push back. I've summarized these results and their probabilities in the table below, but it's basically a 1 in 3 chance each of doing damage, pushing back, or doing nothing at all.

1 Die
Turn Over
Pushback Only
Damage Only

Any Damage

Now if your ATK is greater than your opponent's DEF, you get to roll 2 dice and choose the higher one. This has the effect of skewing the probabilities towards the higher results. Instead of a 1/3 chance of doing damage, you have a chance slightly better than 1/2, while your chance for a turnover becomes minimal. Additionally, in close combat you have the opportunity to score additional hits (i.e., if more than one die comes up as 5 or 6). I've included a separate column with the odds for that happening.

2 Dice
Turn Over
Pushback Only
Damage Only
Additional Hit

Any Damage

Finally, if your ATK is more than double your opponent's DEF, you get to roll 3 dice and choose one. This skews the results even more, such that you have better than a 2/3 chance of doing damage, and about a 1/4 chance of doing 2 or more damage. Your chances of turning over are incredibly low (though not impossible) and you are equally as likely to score 3 damage as to score either a turn over or an impasse.

3 Dice
Turn Over
Pushback Only
Damage Only
1 Additional Hit
2 Additional Hits

Any Damage
The upshot of all this is that, yes, high ATK characters can be very dangerous. And high DEF characters are relatively difficult to take out. But here's the thing: no matter how weak or outclassed your character is, they always have a 1/3 chance of doing damage. (This is in contrast to some situations in games like SoBH—itself a reasonably balanced game—where weaker characters simply stand no chance of getting a positive outcome in a fight.) 

Furthermore, you can even the odds on a powerful character by swarming them with weaker characters. If you get the powerful model surrounded, this can actually improve the odds of  damaging the character to 2/3—since scoring a pushback into another character usually also causes damage (which would be 2 damage if you roll a six!). The only problem is that for each of these attacks you are at an increased risk for turnovers.

The alternative is to set up a group action that allows multiple figures to add their ATK scores together in one attack. The issue here is that none of the characters taking part in the group action can have activated...which means that you need to move them into combat the turn before and hope that they survive. 

However, if you know (or suspect, or are GMing a scenario in which) there will be a tough character to take down, you can design your force accordingly. Looking at the charts above, you can be pretty sure that your characters will survive if they have 3 fortitude or more when they are against an opponent rolling 2 dice, and that an opponent rolling 3 dice could only kill one character at most in a turn of attacks (using both actions to attack). This is true whether that opponent has 5 ATK or 50. Therefore it is easy to create a group of 4 or so fighters with low ATK and DEF but relatively high SPD and at least 3 FOR specifically to hunt your opponent's beefier characters. (They'd do even better armed with spears, which allow them to attack from an inch away). That profile would look like:

Spear or handweapon, shield

...which at a cost of 15 (or 14 without the shield) would allow you to field a small group of these guys for just over a 3rd of  your total cost in a 'standard' 150 point game. Just make sure they don't get ganged up on or targeted with psychological attacks, because they'll go down quick!

Okay, we're at the part where I tell you my overall impression. Still with me? Wow, that's incredible.

I really like Open Combat. The way it combines ease of play, ease of adaptation, and challenging strategy is highly satisfying. The only drawback, in my skinflint estimation, is the price, which at 10 Great British-style dollars (just over 15 of the US-type 'bucks') for the PDF is just a hair expensive, considering there are only 3 scenarios, no dedicated majicks, and no campaign system. By contrast, the first SoBH book comes with a basic campaign system and a couple more scenarios, along with a comparably abstract system for basic magic, for only 8 bucks. (And I guess now there's Fightin' Fungi which has similar stuff and a detailed magic system for 10 bucks).

HOWEVER, as of the completion of the successful Kickstarter campaign to bring the book to print, there is going to be additional content in the form of more scenarios and a campaign system—which, when you consider the excellent production quality, will certainly make it worth the price. (Which is still basically just bus money, compared to many other game producers we could point to.)

SO IN CONCLUSION AT LAST: I highly recommend Open Combat. It has become my new go-to game for fun, fast, exciting fantasy game play. The mechanics are solid, the design is solid, and the rules are robust, clear, and easy to learn. I also anticipate that it's going to take the pressures of narrative scenario design quite well. It's easily my favorite game I've played in the last year, and I see getting many more years of enjoyment out of it.

You can let me know what you think by writing three comments in the box below, then choosing the best one.

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