Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish

Since the untimely demise this year of the Warhammer Fantasy setting, and thus the three decades of games that it spawned, one might have expected the edifice of fantasy wargaming to crumble away without its keystone to hold it together. After all, many (myself included) were introduced to fantasy gaming through Warhammer and would have never known roleplaying games or wargames without it. Even though Warhammer was itself first inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, it somehow became both unique and iconic of the gaming hobby, sporting a well defined aesthetic and ethos, a rich background setting that always came to the fore and largely consistent design principles (even between diverse spin-off games). In short, Warhammer was an institution and a tradition, which, although it had certainly evolved over time, evinced remarkable affinities to its earliest versions and indeed its earliest inspirations.

So recently I took it upon myself to survey the field after the solemn dirges for lost Warhammer had faded to a hush. I admit that I was a little surprised by the results. Instead of a dearth of fantasy games, I found the burnt remains of Warhammer had engendered the soft shoots of life to spring up, with many new games eager to grow out of the shadows of the votive offering of Warhammer Fantasy. In many cases, these games seemed to both honour the old and in many ways also break from tradition, particularly by trending towards quick and simple gameplay. While making appeals to Warhammer’s principle aesthetics and form, such games cut dramatically away from the crunch and complication for which Games Workshop has always been known (for those that missed it, the last edition of Warhammer Fantasy was as thick as a telephone book). In this way, Mantic Games’ Kings of War kept the rank and file troops but dropped the combat and casualties of individual models, just as Osprey’s Frostgrave kept the team-skirmish scale of Mordheim but entirely dropped the tables and charts for a simple 1d20 resolution system. While I appreciated the strong sense of aesthetic continuity with the past in each of these games, I also felt that the rules were too simplified, too streamlined to really harken the feeling of traditional games.

It therefore caught my eye when I came across Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish, the new game by the eponymous Otherworld Miniatures. If you are unfamiliar with the company, Otherworld has pride of place among miniature companies for manufacturing figures with an unabashedly “old school” style, so much so that their sculpts are perfect representations of the original AD&D Monster Manual drawings. Would Otherworld Miniatures’ obvious care and concern for old school aesthetics result in an even stronger sense of gaming tradition in this new ruleset?

Well, at first it was difficult to find out. Extremely difficult. In fact, so much so that I would level the charge at Otherworld Miniatures for poorly handling their own game. For example, the blurb on the Otherworld Miniatures website still advises that the rules will be due out on the 19th of August. (It is today December 27th.) More importantly, the company has released extremely few details about the actual inner workings of the game… no quick start rules, no rules explanations… not even a PDF preview. Likewise, the independent “reviews” so far available are of the noxious “right, got this game, had a go, was a bit of fun, yeah?” type that offer frustratingly little insight into the game itself. All of this was made especially difficult since the only places that sell the game are seemingly in the UK (although this may change in the future, one might think that four months is time enough to send the game over the pond to some American distributors). Worse still, there are hushed rumours in dark corners of the internet that one can purchase (if brave enough!) the game as a PDF, although this is not mentioned on the Otherworld website or their Facebook page. Indeed, one must rap the correct number of knocks on the door to “,” a bizarre website that introduces itself as some strange combination of Etsy and Patreon. Again, there is no official endorsement of this website, so I suppose the PDF that I purchased from there was not actually sanctioned by Otherworld Miniatures, but by some petty thief with a stolen file and a dream.

Right, so enough complaining, what in the world is this game like?

Building your “Faction”
Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish (henceforth, “Otherworld”) is a skirmish wargame based on the action:engine system at the heart of Crooked Dice’s game 7th Voyage. You build a small “faction,” paying gold pieces for each warrior, who is described in game terms by abilities, attacks, special powers and seven stats (speed, defence, hits, strength, agility, intelligence and morale). There are three different levels of warriors, including legends, companions and minions. The former are the most powerful characters that lead your party, while companions are second-rate heroes and minions are simple followers (a distinction not dissimilar from Frostgrave’s wizards, apprentices and soldiers). Interestingly, you can build your army as you please, and while your warband is called a “faction” in the rules, there are no real “factions” here at all. Instead, the book gives you a long list of legends, companions and minions from which you may pick and choose freely, with only one small caveat: legends and companions both have alignments (good or evil) and you cannot mix alignments in the same party (minions have no alignments). Otherwise, there are no hard rules about faction composition or size. You could play a game with one model versus one or more enemies (one of the minion options includes a Dragon… I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest), or you could play with very large hordes. There is no maximum or minimum count for the three types of warriors (legends, companions and minions), so you could potentially create the backstory that your group of legends is lead by the Beholder (*ahem* Eye Tyrant) minion that is mind-controlling them. Or maybe by a lowly townsfolk mayor, who cannot fight well but is their rich employer? Or maybe you have a group of fresh-faced companions, out on their first adventure? Or maybe you just have a clan of troglodytes and leave it at that?

Each of the legends gets a full page with a line art illustration from the terrific Paul Gallagher; basic statistics, abilities and attacks; and a special power unique to their type. The “good” legends in the book are: Blessed Crusader (a paladin with the ability to heal and turn undead and demons), Daring Rogue (a thief who may pickpocket), Enigmatic Enchanter (a magic-user with an innate magic missile attack) and Valiant Warrior (a fighting-man who can attack all enemies within reach). The “evil” legends provided include: Callous Corsair (a rogue who may set traps), Immortal Fiend (a demon-possessed warlock who gets stronger when wounded and can flood the enemy’s mind with dark thoughts), Merciless Warlord (a berserker chief) and Sinister Sorcerer (a sorcerer that can injure himself to boost spells and may conjure a defensive barrier). Each of these legends has a base cost of 50 gold pieces (“gp”), which you may increase by either buying higher statistics (you also get an initial pool of 3 points to increase your statistics without cost), by boosting or buying new attacks (essentially weapon proficiencies) or by purchasing magic items. Oddly, the ability to purchase magic items is not granted; rather, you must take the magic item ability a number of times equal to the magic items you wish to purchase. Not every legend has this ability, but each legend may choose three extra abilities without cost when they are hired (and more abilities can be earned by taking “disadvantages”—a kind of negative ability which penalizes the character in some way). In total, a fully upgraded legend would probably be in the range of 70 to 80 gp.

Apprentices are, as you might expect, weaker heroes and cost a mere 25 gp each. They have the same options as legends, but they are generally fewer or weaker bonuses (for example, only two points for stat increases and two extra abilities). The good companions include Aspiring Acolyte, Brave Burglar, Wandering Minstrel and Wild Ranger, while the evil companions include Cruel Conjuror, Monstrous Myrmidon, Savage Slayer and Wretched Priest. Each has a special quality much like the legends, but generally weaker and more tuned towards a supporting role.

Minions are the lowest rank of warriors in your party and have the same sort of abilities, attacks and stats as legends and companions (most, but not all minions, lack special abilities). One minion in your faction can be upgraded to be a henchmen, which gives them a boost in stats and abilities to make them nearly as powerful as a companion. The list of minions is dizzying and includes (perhaps unsurprisingly) entries for seemingly every model produced by Otherworld Miniatures. Here you will find your classic hirelings, humanoids, beasts and dungeon vermin, monsters, undead, devils and demons. Regardless of whether your heroes are good or evil, you may cherry pick from this massive list to customize your warband. Otherworld also took a different approach to upgrading minions that gives them a unique feel—while legends and companions pay to upgrade their stats and abilities, minions pay to upgrade their equipment and type. The latter might include upgrading one of your Bugbears to be a chieftain or it might be upgrading your hill giant to a stone giant or your giant snake to a constrictor or a viper. Each upgrade allows you to tweak the feel of your warband without utterly transforming the unit types. With a total sixteen hero classes and seventy-four basic minion entries (almost all of which have further upgrade options), you do feel there is enough room to make an interesting warband (in comparison, Mordheim had 49 entries of henchmen and heroes, while Frostgrave has 15 soldiers and 10 wizard/apprentice types).

One last note is worth making about minions. Minions include both summoned/animated models as well as wandering monsters, both of which begin the game off-table until actions or events bring them into the game. The latter group are especially interesting, and include models that the defender (and only the defender) can bring into the game during a scenario and place near an “adventure token” (very similar to the treasure tokens that are the victory objectives in Frostgrave, but much more of a randomized event that could represent treasure, a trap or a wandering monster). This is a very clever mechanic that both simulates a dungeon delve in the middle of a competitive wargame, while also furnishing a potentially useful mechanic for a future campaign system (perhaps weaker warbands could compete against stronger ones by gaining free purchases of wandering monsters for the duration of the battle, much like inductions in Blood Bowl). Wandering monsters are a clever feature of the game that ooze theme, create a nasty surprise for a greedy opponent and open the door for future campaign play.

Playing the Game
The game plays out over a number of turns in which each player has the opportunity to act with some (but not all) of the models in their party. The turn sequence is simple, comprised of only four steps: determine initiative, first player acts, second player acts, resolve end-of-turn upkeep. Despite the derivative nature of the turn sequence, Otherworld does make a few interesting diversions from the customary wargame experience. For instance, the initiative roll (each player rolls a six-sided die and the player with the highest roll gets to act first) also doubles as a mechanism to determine fate points: little bonus tokens that are very useful to either boost die rolls (even after they are rolled) or purchase additional activations. Considering that all rolls in the game use six-sided dice, a +2 added after the roll for a couple of fate tokens is a pretty significant thing. The number of fate points available each round is the difference in the initiative rolls, split evenly between the two players (a slight advantage going to the winner here, as odds are rounded in his favor). Fate tokens provide an interesting way to make the game more dynamic and make things happen that might not have otherwise happened. That said, you usually will only have one or two of them and you can not bank them between turns.

In your action phase, you gain a number of activation tokens equal to half the number of your warriors on the table. Each activation token is first assigned to one model and then you may resolve two actions for each activated model in turn. It may seem odd that you can only activate half of your warband in any turn, but this does tend to create some tension and hard choices about what you want to accomplish in a round. There are also a few ways to get more activations, including the aforementioned option of spending two fate points for one extra activation (somewhat expensive, and you may want to keep your fate points to boost die rolls later on instead) as well as activating legends, companions and minions with the leader ability. When your models do act, they may take up to two actions, including moving, aiming, shooting, attacking in melee or performing some other, special action (such as casting a spell). They may even choose to take the same action twice, with the exception of shooting or aiming. In addition to this, there are a number of “free” actions that pop up at different places in the rules, including opening doors, dropping items and making a “free” attack of opportunity.

Models are free to move in any direction (with the usual penalties for terrain), although the final facing of a miniature is important for flank attacks and so on. Most models move a default of six inches, although some (such as the Ooze) are as slow as two inches while others (like the Purple Worm) move at a rapid eight inches per move action. If you move into contact with an enemy that was at least three inches away at the start of the activation, you are counted as charging and gain a “free” attack at -1 to hit (in addition to any normal attack you make with your second action). Other movement options include jumping, going prone, climbing, falling (!), swimming and dragging another model.

Most of the die rolls you will make during the action phase are either attacks or statistic tests, and this is where the game seems to take the most cues from Warhammer Fantasy or Mordheim. Each warrior has a number of attack options in their profile which correspond to different weapons (for example, the Hobgoblin has brawl 4+ and spear 4+, but may be upgraded to also have a bow 5+ or exchange the spear for an axe 4+). When you shoot or make a melee attack, you choose one of your weapon attacks and roll a die. If your roll is higher than the number in the profile, modified by a short list of ten situational modifiers and any status conditions on the model, then you hit (a result of “one” always fails, regardless of modifiers). If the hit is successful, you will roll for damage (unless a melee attack is used to force back or knock down the enemy instead). Damage is determined by a die roll on a chart that is functionally identical to the Warhammer Fantasy “to Wound” table. The default target is 4+ on a single die to inflict a point of damage (i.e., a wound), but this target is modified up or down for each point of difference between the attacker’s strength and the target’s defence (like Warhammer, bows and crossbows have their own strength value). If the damage roll is successful, the target loses one hit point and, if this was the last hit point, the model falls and will become a casualty if their hits are not restored by magic or other means before the end of the turn. Hits can be negated by certain abilities, including “equipment” abilities like light armour (6+ save), heavy armour (5+ save) or shield (6+ save alone, or +1 to other save rolls). Note that the vast majority of minions do not have access to the armour abilities.

Climbing, swimming, reading scrolls, testing morale and perhaps countless other odd situations call for a statistic tests. To make this test, you compare the relevant statistic (usually strength, agility, intelligence or morale… I could not find any tests for speed, defense or hits) to a table that is largely similar to the ranged “to Hit” table from Warhammer Fantasy. For example, if you have the rather average stat of 3, you need to roll a 4+ to succeed on the test. Opposed tests (such as breaking from melee with an enemy) can be made by each player rolling a die and adding the relative statistic (in this case, agility) with the highest roll winning. Much like Mordheim, morale tests are called for when a model is all alone, near a feared enemy or whenever your faction has lost half or more of its models. The latter test is only taken by the companion or legend with the highest morale in your party during the end phase, thus giving an edge to factions that include those warriors, and failure results in a dice roll of your models disappearing from the battle as they lose their bottle.

Finally, the magic system is also vaguely reminiscent of other games as well. To cast a spell, a model must take a special action and roll one or more of their casting dice (they have a number of these equal to their Magic ability rank, usually two or three at most). If the total, plus their Intelligence statistic, is greater than the casting difficulty number of the spell (these range from 8 to 16, with 10 being the most common value) then the spell is successful. If any die result shows a “one,” the magic user may not take any further actions that turn, as he is drained from the attempt. The odds of a successful casting might seem harsh, since even a legend-level spellcaster will only have Magic 1 and Intelligence 4 by default, but the odds can be improved by spending a special action to chant (+2 to the casting roll) and by using fate points. Even then, I think most wizards will allocate some of their free ability slots and even take a disadvantage or two in order to boost their Magic ability rank a few times. This is also significant, since you can only choose a number of spells equal to your Magic ability rank. Disappointingly, there are only a mere 18 spells to choose from, at least four of which have to do with summoning or banishing creatures (and are thus mechanically similar) and only one spell that actually does damage (although recall that the Enigmatic Enchanter has an innate magic-missile ability which does not require the magic rules to use).

Creating a Scenario
While you could simply plop the models on the table and have a brawl, Otherworld comes with six generic scenarios (or “encounters”) that you can play with little preparation, as well as an amusing “barroom brawl” introductory battle to learn the rules and three more narrative scenarios to showcase more story-driven gameplay. Each encounter describes an ideal setting, the deployment of the forces, victory conditions and any special rules that will be used. These rather typical scenarios include battle (essentially capture the flag), escape, race (a treasure hunt), skirmish, slay (an assassination mission) and steal. The potential of the scenarios, and the possibility to create homebrewed encounters, is greatly elevated by the use of adventure tokens and the adventure deck. Eight or more of the former are scattered about the battlefield by the defender and represent unknown prizes or perils. Only certain models in the attacker’s faction (those with the Treasure Hunter ability) can reveal and secure these tokens, and they must spend a special action to do so. Thirteen of the thirty-two adventure cards, or approximately four in ten, are devoted to wandering monsters, another four cards are traps (pit, spikes, swing log and poison), nine are treasure cards (essentially victory points) and the final six cards are split between attacker and defender special cards (which provide a one-time bonus when they are played). The latter are designed to be lighthearted “in-jokes” about roleplaying, but a few of them made me roll my eyes (“Chainmail Bikini,” for example). While the function of these cards is still fairly modest, the possibility for expansion they offer is appealing. For example, you could include one or more cards tied to certain events in a homebrewed scenario, or you could replace each treasure card with a random magic item card. A number of cards could be included to represent undead rising from their shallow graves to attack the nearest model regardless of whether they are the attacker or the defender. Perhaps some cards might represent the satchel charges that the attacker needs to gather to demolish the castle wall and end the siege. The room for development and expansion of this clever little rule will be very interesting for scenario and campaign designers.

Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish shows a lot of promise. The rules are simple but feature great room for customization and the developer has announced a manual of monsters supplement to expand the game further. (One can only hope that a full set of campaign rules are not far down the path as well.) The downsides to the game, at least for some, will be how much it derives from other games (such as Warhammer Fantasy). There is nothing particularly new in the attack and wound procedure, or even in the way morale or magic works. That said, there are some new ideas here, including the rules for activation and the adventure deck and tokens, and certainly the immediate familiarity will be a positive factor for many gamers. Even for new players, the core game is extremely simple and intuitive and can be picked up quickly. Because the core game mechanics are so simple, however, Otherworld adds detail by focusing on special rules… a lot of special rules. In fact, there are eighty four abilities to keep track of, six conditional statuses (dominated, immobilised, on fire, scared, stunned and weakened), twenty eight magic items and forty seven weapon and bestial attacks (with seventeen weapon effects). In this sense, the game is very much in the line of later Warhammer Fantasy games, where troops were largely distinguished from each other by their special rules. Unfortunately, by centering the most interesting mechanics of the game around special cases, a game of Otherworld will likely be an experience in page-flipping for a long time before the players acclimate to the rules.

The warband construction system, on the other hand, is both a blessing and a curse. By lacking a clear feeling for distinct factions, and by lacking a setting for the game, players may have a hard time getting interested in the game enough to invest in it. At the same time, the flexibility of the party building rules means that you have total access to everything in the game and are not restricted to playing one race or kingdom. You could have a motley group of good heroes who raise dead and keep company with ogre mages and a group of orcs. If you wanted something more believable, you could always just play a tribe of kobolds with a pet rust monster. This inherent flexibility leaves the burden on the player to create his own backstory, instead of selecting from a list of iconic forces within a clearly articulated fantasy world. Lastly, the latent creativity of the open faction design tools are hampered somewhat, as a player that chooses only minions is missing some key elements of any successful party, including the ability to take morale tests when casualties start to mount and, quite often, the Treasure Hunter ability which is required to access the significant adventure deck side of the game.

At the end of the day, Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish feels very much like a sandbox skirmish game. It is great if you have gobs of miscellaneous figures and can run it in a semi-competitive, semi-cooperative fashion with homemade scenarios and campaign play (although the latter is currently missing from the game, a good gamemaster could quickly cover the essentials). Ultimately, this is one of the funny things about the game. Otherworld is a wargame that is really begging for a gamemaster… it does not need it absolutely, but it feels like it works better with players trying to tell a story more than deploy a winning strategy. It is a game that lacks overt roleplay elements and yet feels more at home when they are restored. After all, if you are allowed to use the entire palette of creatures and heroes, and the game expects you to fill in the blanks and tweak the play experience to your liking, why not go all in and gambol in the narrative elements?

Despite the game's flaws (some of which are ironically also its strong points), Overworld Fantasy is worth a close look. It is a gorgeously illustrated and professionally laid out work, with beautiful line art flourishes from the unbeatable Zhu Bajie and characterful heroes from Paul Gallagher. While the rules are clear that you do not need them to play, Otherworld Miniatures are attractively displayed in action-packed diorama photos throughout the book and certainly provide plenty of inspiration for collecting and painting. The game looks to be well supported, with token, card and dice packs available now and new supplements on the horizons (including a reference to future "published encounters"). There is certainly plenty of room to expand, and the scant mention of using square grids instead of rulers to play (in order to take advantage of the Dwarven Forge terrain seen in several dioramas) suggests that Otherworld Fantasy Skirmish could become the new go-to game for Warhammer Quest fans. Will it overtake the other options out there, including the popular Frostgrave? For those who want more crunch and more options, it is perhaps already more suitable than Osprey's game. For the rest, it is worth waiting to see how the game is expanded in the near future.


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