Sunday, August 21, 2011

Starcraft Stargrunt: Playtest Report

Got together this afternoon for two games of 'grunt with Glisson, Matt, and Jared.  Glisson brought the paper rulebook this time, which was immensely helpful; I should probably print and bind my own copy from the pdf if I intend to play on a regular basis.  Glisson also brought a bag of green army men and a bag full of the original counters for the game, which were likewise wonderfully convenient; being able to mark the LD, quality, and morale status of a squad all on the board with the squad was a great improvement over tracking those things on a whiteboard, nevermind other things like In-Position and Suppression which were really problematic last time.

The first game we played was a straightforward battle between two forces of two platoons each of non-Starcraft units.  The game kind of dragged on, with units in cover remaining in cover and kind of poking at each other ineffectually, and with units who ran out of cover being mercilessly gunned down.  We did have a few rounds of close assault in some woods, and likewise managed to deny the enemy the hill on the south side of the map, but in general, it was a very entrenched kind of warfare.  On the plus side, we didn't see the kind of squad-wiping fire that we got in the previous game, but it was pretty slow and static, centered around defensive positions, nonetheless.

Not so the game with Starcraft Terran vs. Zerg.

There are several reasons that I believe this game went differently.  The first and most obvious was the availability of off-map artillery support to both sides.  This meant that sitting in a single defensive position the entire game was a recipe for attracting high explosives.  Second, the Zerg were compelled to close to melee by their morale rules.  The Terran player exploited this to great effect by putting a squad of firebats in the front, and managed to annihilate 8 zerglings with only two casualties.  Third, the general lack of support firepower meant that sitting and hammering at range was very difficult; the only unit with a SAW or SAW-equivalent on the map was the goliath.  Since ranged combat was relatively hard, we saw a lot more close combat, which required movement.  Fourth and finally, the availability of higher-mobility units, namely the overlord, goliath, and zerglings, encouraged players to make use of that mobility.

The game ran somewhat like this - a Terran force was set up on a hill on one side of the map, with the Zerg behind a hill on the other side, and a ruined town in the middle of the map (complete with hostile but terribly-ineffective villagers).  Zerg objective was to capture the Terran supply depot on their hill, while Terran's was to survive / prevent this outcome.  Both sides rapidly ran for the town, taking cover in the buildings, but quickly abandoning and hopping between buildings as the shells started to fall.  The goliath was primarily concerned with firing missiles at the overlord and suppressing two squads of zerglings, but the overlord's EW capabilities really put the nix on the missiles.  The firebats engaged and destroyed two squads of zerglings before being stomped into the ground by the hydras in melee, and the marines suppressed some zerglings before coming under murderous deviated artillery fire that they really shouldn't've survived - about 12 rolls between all three shells, impact d8, armor d8 should've been almost a complete wipe.  They took one casualty; Jared had some simply stupendous luck there.  However, that casualty was their squad leader, and when they were then close assaulted by zerglings, they broke and routed and fled off the map.  We finished with the hydras going up against the goliath and the last zergling squad being carried by the overlord towards the depot to assault Jared's command squad, who were holed up in the vicinity; they had been driven out of the depot proper by a dummy artillery marker.  We called it about then; it looked like the hydras would probably disable the goliath, and we ran the close combat out between the command squad and the zerglings; the zerglings took 50% casualties, and the marines were wiped.

Overall, we came away with one primary concern and two secondary concerns:

1) Hydras as powered armor are brutally overpowered in melee.  Matt and Jared agreed that they should not have been able to just stomp through the firebats like they did.  Solution: downgrade to normal armor (d8).  I'm still not convinced they shouldn't be considered armed with a close-combat weapon, but that's probably pretty acceptable.  Also considering upgrading their weapons to d12 impact to keep things on par with marines, but I think d10 impact and a CC weapon is probably a reasonable place to be.  Hence, Hydra 2.0 looks like normal infantry with d8 armor, 6" move, FP2, Impact d10, and a close-combat weapon for a 1-die shift in melee.

2) Goliath vs. overlord balance, and by extension electronic warfare.  The EW system was very dissatisfying, in that it ended up creating these ridiculous EW 'stacks' of Jared trying to counter Matt's counter to Jared's counter to Matt's jamming of the guided missile, which was annoying.  Then, had the missile actually hit (which it never did), it would have either totally obliterated the overlord or bounced off harmlessly, neither of which is a terribly satisfying outcome (in that squads, when hit, will likely survive to some degree.  Vehicles just go "Boom" or keep running fine).  There were also complaints regarding the infinite range and infinite movement of the GMS and the overlord; not sure what to do about these.  On the one hand, reducing speed / range is certainly an option.  On the other hand, it kind of sacrifices realism and breaks strongly from the SG standard of "VTOLs come in, drop off troops wherever, get out in two turns.  You need that infinite range to be able to even get a crack at 'em."

3) Zerg morale and suppression issues.  Zerglings, when suppressed and running on low morale, are a special flavor of hosed - even if they break the suppression, they have to keep running straight into the guns that suppressed them, whereupon they get suppressed again and eventually casualties add up and they just die off (whereas a normal squad might get a chance to break suppression and then fire back, suppressing their suppressors, or if morale got bad enough, it might break and run away from the suppressing squad, and then get far enough away to avoid being suppressed).  Matt proposed a rule similar to one by the Warbard for Xenomorphs, a similarly all-melee army, that each activation, a Zerg squad of a low-enough morale that it can't be in cover gets a free attempt to break suppression.  This seems fairly reasonable, but plays into the second concern that Jared had about Zerg morale, namely that as a Terran player, it was dissatisfying to watch the Zerg get bonuses for failing morale rolls.  On the one hand, yeah, they get bonuses to morale checks to enter close assault...  but on the other, they also have to close the range and try to get in close, even if it's a really terrible idea (one zergling vs. a squad of firebats for example).  I guess the thing was that while Jared was dissatisfied with the morale situation, he also used it to great advantage by provoking a squad of zerglings to engage (and be toasted by) his firebats, and was never really negatively affected by the changes, except possibly when his marines were assaulted by a squad of steady zerglings.  Since steady doesn't impede actions and grants a bonus to attacking in close assault for Zerg, it was actually strictly better than Confident for Matt (except in that it was close to Shaken, Broken, and so forth).  Not sure it's really a problem, but it was a concern which might need addressed.

But, other than those issues, the game went really well.  It was agreed by all sides that unit balance felt pretty right except on the hydras and in the overlord vs. goliath pairing, and the artillery kept the game moving quickly.  While artillery and close assault both involved a lot of rolling, neither side was bored during the process; with artillery scatter, it's always a "oh god oh god is it going to land on me?" type tension, and melee has many hand-to-hand opposed rolls.  It seemed to me that Jared and Matt became significantly more excited during close assault than during shooting; not really sure why that was the case, but hey, I'll take it.  I suspect that only having two players (I was reffing / advising, basically) improved gameplay because subsystems involving many rolls weren't horribly dull for the remaining players.  I do think we played CC wrong, in the handling of stunned units - we should've counted them as casualties for morale / withdrawing resolution, but didn't.  Likewise, I suspect there's something buggy in the way we played artillery, but I'll try to hunt it down later today maybe.

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