Friday, December 14, 2012
Playtesting "This Is Not A Test"
Last week we had our regular game night at Games Plus, a venerable gaming establishment in suburban Chicago. Tim and I were planning to try out This Is Not A Test, a forthcoming post-apocalyptic ruleset being developed by Joseph McGuire. (Full disclosure: I did a bit of contract editing work for Joey on this product -- mostly grammar and proofreading -- but of course it won't color my impressions one way or another.)
I was somewhat skeptical that This Is Not A Test (hereafter TINAT) would fit with Chicago Skirmish Wargames' club philosophy -- that is, we enjoy fast-play skirmish games that are lite on rules and heavy on imagination. Our TINAT playtest rulebook was a hefty thing, but luckily the core rules are only about 20 pages long and we mastered them after a few turns. The rest of the book is devoted to weapons, armor and equipment, as well as fluff, faction-specific army lists, and a well-developed campaign system.
For the game, Tim and I whipped up two warbands at the game's prescribed point value: 600 points.
Tim fielded his Neo-Soviets using the Peacekeepers' army list (sort of like frontier lawmen, but with K-9 units). Here they are on the edge of our skirmish battlefield.
I fielded my Kolony Ferals using the Tribals army list to reflect their primitive equipment. Here they are, in the ruins opposite Tim's Neo-Soviets.
In the interest of getting down to brass tacks ASAP, we intentionally compressed the battlefield a little bit. The game suggests at 4x6 playing surface (pretty much the standard for most games) but we downsized to a 4x4 table and didn't suffer any ill effects. We both ended up putting about 15 guys on the table for each of our factions.
In TINAT, every figure is an individual -- there are no squads or unit coherency to track. Personally, I like this, as I've always felt squad-based mechanics aren't a good fit for 28mm battlefields. Warbands are composed of models of various power levels, from "green" all the way up to "legendary," though the rulebook notes that it's unusual to see figures from both extremes on the table at the same time.
Each turn, players dice off for activation (TINAT uses d10s) and then take turns trying to activate figures one at a time. If you pass an activation test, that figure gets 2 action points to use immediately, then you continue activating more of your figures. If you fail, you get 1 action point to use, then play passes to your opponent, who then tries to activate some of his guys.
The turn continues like this until everybody's figures have activated. Because activation can pass back and forth several times, it wasn't uncommon for our turns to proceed like this: I activate 3 guys, then Tim activates 5 guys, then I activate 1 guy, then Tim activates 2 guys, then I activate 8 guys, then Tim activates 6 guys. When everyone has been activated, the turn is over and you roll initiative for the next turn.
We sort of seesawed back and forth each turn, activating different groups of figures (or not) which in turn drew our focus to different areas of the battlefield. The fact that I didn't get to activate all of my guys at the same time presented some very nifty tactical situations. Do I press my advantage on the flank where most of Tim's guys have already taken their actions, so they can't hit me back this turn? Or do I try to take the fight to his 'fresh' troopers who haven't yet taken an action, in order to force them to respond quickly to my aggression?
The terrain is all homemade: Tim built the foamcore buildings in the background, a fellow gamer in Kansas built the overgrown ruins, and I did the big ol' pipe sticking out of the ground.
By the middle of the game, we had a good handle on the rules. My tribals were all armed with blunderbusses, which had a range of only 6 inches, so I had to really get in close to do any damage to Tim's Neo-Soviets. His guys had assault rifles, which had range of 24 inches. Luckily I had given the tribals some metal armor, which was a bit heavier than the Neo-Soviets' armor and thus increased their survivability as they crept through the ruins.
The game handles shooting damage by making it mostly simultaneous -- that is, if you hit, you don't roll to wound immediately, but you put a little wound marker next to the victim and continue with your activation. Only when you fail an activation roll (and play passes to your opponent) do you resolve all those outstanding wound tokens. Thus it's possible for a guy to take hits from several enemy figures in a single turn. In our game, Tim shot one of my guys with two assault rifles and a flamethrower, just to be sure. We rolled for damage all at once for all 3 hits -- the guy died for sure. You can't always be certain that a single hit will knock out an enemy, so the game encourages you to really pour the fire onto important targets.
However, there is a downside to the simultaneous damage thing: We found that we needed a variety of colored markers to track the various conditions on the battlefield in a given turn. Check out the in-game photo below. The blue markers indicate a figure that has moved and shot during its activation (this is important because figures that have moved gain a defense bonus). The yellow markers indicate figures that have been hit by a flamethrower, but we haven't yet rolled for damage yet. The green markers note that the figure has made a ranged attack but didn't move. The black marker indicates that the figure has been hit by a blunderbuss but we haven't yet rolled for damage.
Remember, at the end of each turn there is a "cleanup phase" where you can remove all of these tokens. Tim and I didn't have a problem using markers to track these conditions, and they're not expressly mandated in the rules, but not everyone is a fan of lots of little markers on the tabletop.
Melee combat works a little differently because damage is applied immediately (melee being a much more decisive type of combat compared to shooting).
Beyond that, we had a lot of fun with the game. Interesting sidenote: Both Tim and I were accessing the playtest rulebook on electronic devices (him on a Kindle and me on a Samsung Galaxy S3 smart phone) and I've gotta say, this really enhanced our gameplay experience. Just the ability to use the "find term" function on a smartphone or tablet was a godsend and avoided lots of needless rulebook flipping (or finger swiping, since we're using touchscreen devices).
Coupled with the background material, factions and well-developed campaign framework, Tim and I agreed that TINAT seems to be on the right track. It's not a skirmish game, nor is it a combo-rific game like Warmachine, but it's also a tighter, more focused ruleset than something like Necromunda. Check back for more updates as we playtest this game again!
-- Patrick, Chicago Skirmish Wargames club member