Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Lords of Mars Play-Testing

TLDR: We play tested the three phases of my mini-game Lords of Mars: character play, air battles, and big land battles in preparation for a full edition.

My Monday night crew play tested Lords of Mars (in a brew pup!) using a scenario designed to hit all three phases of the game: character play, air battles, and big land battles (in that order).

Green Martians by Juan Ochoa

The Scenario 

The player-characters were part of a diplomatic mission (and show of force) to Zodanga. A week ago the Zodangans suddenly requested that Helium send representatives to talk over mineral rights in the lands north of the Iss, after several years of intense conflict in the area. Despite the seeming urgency of the talks and the presence of the force from Helium, the Zodangans have been delaying any progress for days. One day, Hamu, the mouthpiece of the Jeddak of Zodanga, informs the Helium representatives that his master has a severe headache. Another day the excuse is some high festival in over which the Jeddak must preside. The crew of The Pride of Hastor (a battleship) and the marines aboard are getting restless; there have been a few drink-hall scuffles with palace guards and now they are confined to the ship.

In the middle of this mess, a robed figure runs into the ambassador's chambers – stumbling and foaming at the mouth (obviously poisoned). He gasps out "Treachery!! An army of green men approaches Namur while we dawdle in the land of these treacherous swine! Never trust a Zodangan! Aaaaaargh." (Collapses into a lifeless heap.) Guards come rushing down the hall shortly after saying they are hunting a spy.

The Scenes

The first scene is character driven. PCs must negotiate, sneak, fight, or find some other way to get to the ships and lift off. Hamu and the Zodangan guard will try to delay or even detain the PCs, at first with mealy-mouthed rationalizations and warnings that an early departure will endanger the talks. If the PCs escape within the hour they score 1 point. (Mark it with a die but don't explain it much, it will matter in the final scene.) The body of the spy may be at issue – do the PCs hide it or take it with them? The Zodangans won't resort to violence but may stage accidents (like attaching fueling lines to the Hastor's ray tanks and taking a long time to get them detached or having a group of guards chasing someone through the halls "run into" the PCs and "clumsily" entangle them.)

In the second scene, the PCs must run a blockade of Zodangan attack boats. The PCs have a battleship and three scouts vs. two Zodangan attack boats. The battleship carries a unit of elite marines that will be needed in the fight for Namur. (The PCs or the captain of the Pride of Hastor will know that Namur does not have enough troops and no air support for repelling a whole army of green men.) The PCs are extremely unlikely to lose the air battle here, though they may lose a scout. The goal of the Zodangans is, again, to detain or even cripple the battleship, but they are mostly open about it at this point and will fire on The Pride of Hastor if it doesn't turn back. Smart PCs may try to send a scout boat ahead to warn Namur and score 1 point.

In the third part of the scenario, an army of several thousand green men, riders and warriors under the leadership of a savage warlord, are closing in on the small city of Namur. Settled in the wastelands between Zur and Hastor, Namur is an important mining site, as it Helium's main supplier of the 8th ray (used to power airships). A few troops are stationed at Namur because of the site's strategic importance, but they are badly outnumbered until the PCs and their airboats/marines show up.

The Big Battle

Units are set up with a character-general on each side. If the PCs sent a scout boat ahead it is there as well and the encounter distance begins at 18". Otherwise the units start at 12" apart. Initiative is rolled and battle is joined.

Every PC turn they roll a d6. On a 6+ the PCs, the Hastor, and any remaining scout boats show up. If the PCs scored points earlier, they add those to the roll (i.e. +1 or +2). When the Hastor arrives it can enter the battle immediately, but if it ever wants to land the marines it must take a turn off doing anything else to do so.

Obviously the PCs goal is to not let the green men overrun Namur and to save as many red martians as possible. Even better is to capture the enemy warlord and establish a firm link between the Zodangans and the Warhoon tribe.

Playing with temp counters on a brew pup table, about 3' x 4'

How the PCs Fared

The players were very successful. Aonghais made a silver-tongued orator, and JJ a green Thark guard. We established that JJs character was a deep country scout who had, defying all expectations and code, rescued a red man and returned him to Helium. (That seems like a story for another day!) Hence his estrangement from the tribes and his inclusion in a diplomatic mission. Aonghais' character was clearly the diplomat!

In the first scene the PCs combined argumentation and a bit of force to get out and get their scenario point. In the second scene they blew up the Zodangan ships and got a scout off early to warn Namur, gaining a second point. In the final battle then, they got +2 to each roll to see when the characters/airships would show up. They arrived in the second or third round of combat, I forget which. They never landed the marines, instead choosing to use the awesome power of the battleship to blast away at the Warhoon. In the end, they captured the Warhoon chieftain. They lost one scout and about half of the Namur garrison. A small number of green men escaped back into the desert. 


It went well! The land game is solid and only needs one or two minor tweaks. The air battle is good but kinda fuzzy. We talked about it and I think I have the fix, so it was a productive evening. I also tested out a system for "costing" units to balance scenarios. Here are the detailed notes.

Unit Costs

I worked out unit costs on a spreadsheet ahead of time.

Click to embiggen, summary data below

Basically, I wanted the red men of Mars to have an advantage once the whole force was assembled, but to have a disadvantage at the outset. I think I might have given them too many ranged troops to start with. Next time I'd like to try a "cover" rule (see below) and shrink the number of ranged troops.

In any case, the Reds had a total of 20 units for 83 points, but 5 units and a full 40 points of that force, including their air support, starts in Zodanga, many miles (er, I mean Haads) away. The Greens have 15 units worth 74 points. Mainly the greens are tough and fast. The Reds have more range and variety, and ... eventually ... air support.

The balance worked pretty well, actually. I don't think I need to change the formula, especially since we added the necessity to spend a Pip to use ranged weapons (see below).

Tweaks to Air Battles

  • The air battles need a sequence and a range map. The sequence we worked out moved the air game a bit more in the direction of the land game, but still holds on to enough differences to make it feel special. 
  • The range map will show bands numbered 0 to 9. The enemy forces sit on 0 and friendlies start at the range band determined by starting encounter distance (d6+2). The map is an abstraction of 3-dimensional air space.
  • The sequence will be Initiative (once for the battle), Pips, Targeting, Spends. Initiative is a simple dice-off to see who goes first. Pips is a d6 roll, as in the land battle, for action points. It costs a pip to move a ship and a pip to fire with it. (Which necessitates a small change in the land game discussed below.) Once Pips are established but before they are spent, each ship indicates another ship that it is acting "against." This is the targeting phase. I'm guessing I will put little arrows on the airship counters to make this easier. (You would turn the counter to "target" an enemy ship, saying which one if it's unclear.)
  • Spending Pips. In the spend phase Pips are spent to move and/or fire with ships (until the Pips run out). Ships can only chase/flee or fire upon the ship they targeted previously. 
  • Ships that flee roll 2d6, add their speed, and subtract the speed of the fastest ship targeting them (if any). The result is how many range bands they move away from 0. 
  • Ships that chase roll 2d6, add their speed, and subtract the speed of the ship they targeted. If the result is positive, the range is decreased by that many bands. (Friendlies always move, so a chasing enemy "pulls" a friendly in closer, whereas a friendly chasing an enemy moves itself closer.) 
  • If chasing/fleeing ever seems wonky, remember you are working with three-dimensional space. The flat map may not be telling the whole story. Just go with it.
  • Firing is a 2d6 attack roll (+Attacks) vs. the targeting ship 2d6 (+Attacks) with the difference accounted for in hull damage to the loser. Ships that are fleeing roll 2d6 but do NOT add their attack value. Ships may end up firing multiple times if targeted more than once in the same player's turn, but each ship can only fire once via Pip spend. E.g. if it's "my" turn I can spend a Pip to fire ship Arcturus on ship Cadmus. Then I can spend another Pip to fire ship Belan on ship Cadmus. Ship Cadmus "fires back" twice. However, I could NOT spend a second Pip to fire Arcturus again in the same spend phase. 
  • Disabling Roll. This was added for the land battles but I think I like it for the air battles too. If a ship takes hull damage but is not destroyed, roll a d6. On a 1, the ship is disabled and must withdraw for repairs, land, or go down in smoke. (The last option might be if it wants to get one last shot in?) This rule might replace tracking damage to hulls. IOW, no damage tracking just like in land battles. You either get enough damage to take a ship out or your don't. And characters on-board with applicable specials can attempt to repair ships that are forced to withdraw.
  • Other bits. Airships can't stack. I can't remember if I said that in the rules. Characters with an applicable special add +1, per the rules. It may not be worth policing "applicable special" and just say Characters add +1. But there might need to be a max set on that. IOW, what if 5 characters are on the same ship, does it get +5!?  

Tweaks to Land Battles

  • Not a whole lot do do here!
  • Initial range. Land battles need a similar rule to air battles about determining initial range. It probably should be 9 (surprise!), 12, or 18"
  • Terrain events. I want to add the option of a d6 table for interesting terrain events. E.g. maybe on a 6 the ground shakes and all units that move lose 3" of movement on that turn. But this would really be a bit of scenario flavor more than a strict rules add. In fact, I've already modeled this above with the Hastor arrives roll. 
  • Champion battles. If two stacks that are engaged each have a character in them, the champions can fight separately (independently) of the stack. First the units roll against each other (still adding +1 for the characters.) If characters on both sides are still in the action, each side chooses a champion and they fight with a 2d6 + adds roll. I could see this playing out multiple ways. The most obvious would be to add the Tough stat, weapons, armor, and specials. But I could also see one champion fighting (using Tough) while the other tries to talk him into changing his ways or allegiances (using Clever). The GM would have to rule on whether this is an effective tactic and what the stakes are for when one character is defeated.
  • Pips for firing are now required. It costs 1 Pip to fire, in addition to any Pips spent to activate the stack. Activation costs are as written previously. So a stack of 2 tokens with ranged weapons would cost 2 Pips to move and attack in melee or 3 Pips to move and fire or 1 Pip to sit tight and fire. A melee attack is included within the move activation, but you can't fire without spending the additional Pip and if you fire you don't get the "free" melee attack. Hopefully that's not too confusing. I suppose it begs the question, if a unit doesn't move but is engaged in melee, does it cost 1 Pip to do the melee attack or do I have to spend Pips equal to the tokens in the stack? Honestly, I think it's the latter. Melee is a lot more exhausting and takes more time than laying down fire.
  • Air ships in land battles. They hover over the battlefield with line of sight to everything (and vice versa). Air ships cannot fire on troops engaged in battle with other units unless they don't care who they hit! (In which case, randomize which side gets blasted and that side takes all the damage. GM, don't allow any meta-gaming here – an airship wouldn't fire on its own troops, would it?) 
  • Airship movement. Like any other unit, it costs 1 Pip to move an airship and 1 Pip to fire with it. Airships can enter the battlefield at any point. Once on the battlefield they can either move at their speed x3", land, or fly high for the spent Pip. If they fly high they are removed from the battlefield until a Pip is spent to re-enter the battlefield (at any point). A ship can fire and then fly high, or re-enter and fire (2 Pips cost). But a ship can't both fly high and re-enter the battlefield on the same turn. Ships roll 2d6 and add their attack value, but do not count themselves as ground units do. (Or maybe they do, and I need to adjust the attack values to 0-4 instead of 1-5, so that it's 1+AV.)
  • Other bits. Add a ruler on the book cover! (Thanks JJ!) Also I need to spell out a general rule for units - each unit can only move once and attack once per spend phase. Exception, when a unit moves and joins with another unit, it can then move with that unit. Ramming? Probably a ship that does this rolls an attack vs. the target ship or unit and then does double damage if it wins. Either way it explodes.

What's Next?

Well. I'm going to make some counter art to include in the game, and begin redoing the text as a digest-sized zine. The small rulebook is cool, but it's too limiting and hard to read (font size) in dim light. I'll implement the above tweaks too, but after that it may sit a while as I finish the Gygax 75 challenge. (Just two more weeks to go!)

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