Thursday, March 27, 2014

An Ode to Warmachine Dracula

A (possibly unhealthy) large percentage of my posts about Warmachine have been focused on Harkevich, but the truth is that for as much as I love the goofy bearded bastard, he isn't my favorite warcaster in Khador. Harkevich is probably my favorite of the "new wave" of warcasters, but my favorite Khador warcaster is one that's been around much longer: Vladimir Tzepesci, the Great Dark Prince Champion of Umbrey.

One of my favorite things about Vlad is the slight absurdity of his origin. I don't have any inside line into PP's design process (especially dating all the way back to the original printing of Warmachine: Prime,) but looking back at Vlad's Mk. 1 iteration it seemed pretty obvious that someone wanted the non-vampire Dracula in their game.

Exhibit A: his name. Vladimir Tzepesci is pretty damn close to the patronymic name given posthumously to Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia - Vlad the Impaler. Romanian: Vlad Tepes.

Exhibit B: his design. The model for Vladimir Tzepesci, The Dark Prince of Umbrey seems to be inspired by the blood red armor adorning Vlad III in the 1992 film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula:
Privateer Press's model for Vladimir Tzepesci

Gary Oldman portraying Vlad III in Dracula (1992)

It's not a 1-for-1 match - the shoulder pads on Gary Oldman are depressingly practical - but having painted three different versions of Vlad and also having watched Dracula way too many times, there's a clear inspiration. (One that I wholly approve of, for the record.)

Exhibit C: his Mk. 1 spell list. Signs and Portents may be an obtuse reference to Vlad III's ability to seemingly bend fate itself in his favor (and possibly a reference to Vlad the Impaler taking fate into his own hands, spiting God, and becoming the proto-vampire.) Wind Wall is, in my not so humble opinion, a reference to Vlad Tepes' super sweet wind powers in Dracula. Blood of Kings is a reference to Vlad III's pride in his lineage and homeland, and how it empowered him to kick all sorts of ass.

However, the most damning piece of evidence is a spell that was dropped in the Mk. 2 transition: a "oh so it's THAT Vlad" reference offensive spell named "Impaler." From what I remember, it was a decently expensive offensive spell (cost 3/4) that targeted a single model and rendered it stationary if the spell dealt damage.

So, yeah. Vlad, in his blood red armor, defined by his pride in his homeland, with his ability to bend fate to his will, and with one of his signature spells Impaler, probably had his design influenced by a prominent historical figure. My guess is George Washington.

While that may turn some folks away, I love it. As previously mentioned, I have an odd fondness for Dracula (1992) and Gary Oldman's portrayal of Vlad Tepes/Dracula is one of my absolute favorite parts of that movie. Imagining that version of Vlad Tepes running around directing my army never fails to put a smile on my face.

The choice of Vlad Tepes as an inspiration also ended up being an interesting choice for how the character of Vlad Tzepesci fits into the story of Warmachine. The Iron Kingdoms setting is a fairly modernized one; one of the side effects of that is many of the warcasters are closer to their roots than someone like Vlad. Many of the warcasters have ascended to fame and prominence on the basis of their military and magical aptitudes but they come from humble beginnings.

Vlad is different. He's from a line of kings that have ruled Umbrey by virtue of blood, duty, and honor. That history lends his back story additional weight right away; he has a lot more riding on his success and failure than most other warcasters, and he has a lot more to live up to. It's also given the writers a fairly interesting arc to work with, taking Vlad from another warcaster in service of Khador all the way up to being the ruler of the reinstated nation of Umbrey. Mechanically his changes between different forms hasn't been more or less dramatic than any other warcaster, but I feel like his story has been one of the more interesting ones to follow over the years.

It also doesn't hurt that every version of Vlad has been graced with a set of rules that range from "very good" to "fantastic." Vlad1 is a consummate "army buffer" model (he only has one buffing spell, but it's a stupidly good buffing spell,) that also has solid personal defenses and a strong personal endgame. Vlad2 is a much more directed army buffer, but he's still fantastic at making Khador's already potent infantry shine and he's one of Khador's best 'casters at engineering a painful alpha strike. Vlad3 is a mix of his previous incarnations, bringing some nice army support along with some potent targeted buffs, and he has some strong personal combat capabilities. Plus he has a killer theme list that lets you dictate the hell out of the game tempo.

On top of all that, Vlad has one of the best associated character warjacks in the game. Drago is, in my opinion, the way most of the character warjacks should have been designed: he's a rockstar when used with his paired warcaster, but he's not so potent that he's an expensive investment, nor does he start crowding out the general warjack options for other 'casters in other lists. Drago is a very potent melee force with Vlad thanks to his bonkers Affinity, he doesn't blow up unless you want him to, and it's a pretty damn cool model. Not necessarily an auto-include (even with his bonuses, Drago is pretty squishy for his cost,) but a very compelling choice and one unique to Vlad.

All those elements come together to make Vlad one of my favorite warcasters in Khador, and when I think about it more, probably all of Warmachine. He's a wonderful confluence of entertaining fluff, cool model design, and great rules that has damn near miraculously persisted across three different iterations. I always enjoy putting some form of Vlad on the table and if I ever get the chance I'm totally going to run a "history of Vlad" set of lists in a three list format.

A list set like that would be a lot of fun to build and play, and it would finally let me get mileage out of my Dracula (1992) soundboard I downloaded to my phone. I'm 99% sure I can communicate the entirety of my actions in a Vlad1 game using Gary Oldman quotes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dying Again: Dark Souls 2 Impressions

My history with the Souls series (I don't love that name, but there isn't really a better way to refer to the series) is a bit of an odd one.

My experience is that most players try out Demon's Souls and either immediately fall in love with the series forever (though no one knew it was going to be a series at that point,) or it becomes very obvious that the series isn't for them and they stay away.

I had a negative impression of Demon's Souls when I played it, and for the life of me I can't really figure out why. I think a big part of it was how deliberate the game is (a trait that has persisted throughout the series.) I don't think I was prepared for that facet of the game; most of my experience with 3rd person action games was stuff like Devil May Cry which has a very different approach to how action is handled.

Another facet I wasn't prepared for was how much the game expects you to work at it. Success comes less from raw skill and more from repetition and preparation. You may make it through some situations on your first try, but most of the gameplay in the Souls series comes from the player's ability to observe, deduce, and infer the right solution to a problem. Your character is (purposefully) too clumsy to style your way past peril and even the weakest enemies do enough damage that you can't really strong arm your way through the game either.

The final point that probably turned me off to Demon's Souls is one that I can't mince words about: this series is willfully, almost cruelly obtuse. While other games will bury you under tutorials, contextual help, and long winded explanations, the Souls series expects you to either figure things out on your own via trial and error, or go to Google and find the answers you're looking for. Items don't always have obvious uses or benefits, stats may not have obvious effects on how your character performs, and bigger numbers are not always better. It's the anti-JRPG.

All of those factors combined to make Demon's Souls a game that I wanted to like, but couldn't really get into. I had some friends that played all the way through it and loved it, but I quit trying pretty early on.

That experience always stuck with me, because Demon's Souls felt like a game I should like. I like games that challenge me; that shake up expectations; that require my attention. With the rise of the Let's Play phenomenon, I was able to track down a very entertaining and educational video LP of the game that dramatically changed my opinion of it. As I was watching that LP I realized that I had been trying to play Demon's Souls the wrong way (i.e. the way 90% of other, similar games work,) and instead of adapting and learning, I kept trying to get the game to conform to how I wanted it to play (with inevitably unsuccessful results.)

I always had a hankering to go back and try Demon's Souls again, but From Software provided an alternative: a "sequel" (mechanically the same, but no story ties to the previous game,) Dark Souls. I decided that I'd try my hand at that game, armed with the knowledge I'd gleaned from Demon's Souls. I was going to take my time with this game and learn how to play it, I'd consult outside sources as necessary to avoid undue frustration, and I'd try to appreciate the structure of the game before passing any lasting judgment.

Dark Souls was one of the absolute best games I played that year, and it's one of the most impressive, well crafted games I've ever played.

That's not to say it's flawless. The "multiplayer" components are ambitious, but not very well implemented. Weapons and stats aren't very well balanced. Pyromancy was, at least when I played through the game, very good and accessible to every player for little cost. The engine has hiccup-y moments, and the game becomes nearly unplayable in Blighttown due to framerate issues.

But all of that pales in comparison to the things Dark Souls does right. The atmosphere is fantastic throughout, even though the game takes you through several different locales. The world is amazingly well constructed; although you have to find you way on foot for much of the game and there is no mini-map, I never felt lost. The creatures you encounter are very well designed; everything from the smallest critter to the biggest boss leaves an impression. The game has an interesting story that you can find if you dig a little, but the game doesn't browbeat you with it nor require that you even know the story. The challenges are fierce but fair; perseverance and a good memory will get you further than twitch reflexes (funny for me to say.)

Dark Souls received a lot of praise following it's release, and in my opinion it deserves every bit. It's not a game for everyone, but if it is the kind of game for you it's an amazing gaming experience. From Software recognized the impact it's sleeper hit had on the gaming landscape, and put a sequel into production.

So, now we have Dark Souls II, a more direct sequel than Dark Souls was to Demon's Souls, though once again not a literal sequel (this game takes place in a similar world, but a different area with different characters.) Having spent a fair bit of time with the game since it's release (probably around 20 hours, and roughly a quarter to a third of the way thorough the game in terms of progression,) I think another title would have been more accurate:

Demon's Souls II: Dark Souls

Dark Souls II is a mix of concepts from Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. The world structure is closer to Demon's Souls - a series of sub-areas that comprise a "level" - while being realized within the more open world structure of Dark Souls (though the world isn't as literally open and traverse-able as it was in Dark Souls.) The mechanics are a mix of the sensibilities between the two games: this game has the harsher death penalty of Demon's Souls but it's tempered - Human Effigies aren't super common, but you can afford to use them judiciously, the maximum health drop is gradual instead of straight chop to 50% (making each individual death sting a little less,) and you can still wear a ring to partially offset the death health penalty (made easier to tolerate by there being 4 rings slots in this game instead of 2 in previous games.)

There's also a lot of polish that went into this game. The various stats seem to be much more carefully considered in this game (it's much harder to just focus on one or two stats for maximum gains like you could in the previous games,) the weapons feel a little better balanced (though I never play the game long enough for that to really matter,) and they seem to have a hit a nice balance between Miracles, Sorceries, and Pyromancy (Pyromancy is still easy to access, but it seems to do less damage outright and has no scaling, while the other schools of magic have better long term payout.)

Multiplayer is supposedly much better this time around, which is great for everyone that is into that facet of this series. I don't really love the idea of invasions or invading other players, though I do like the way you can help out other players (something I really need to do more of,) and I do appreciate the few Covenants that enlist you in protecting certain areas against other players. The connections definitely seem better than they were in Dark Souls and I've been connected to players much more often than I ever did in that game, so it does seem like the multiplayer infrastructure is improved this time around.

Dark Souls II is a very interesting sequel because unlike a lot of other sequels I don't feel like this game in any way invalidates the previous game. Dark Souls works so well for reasons that are well outside of it's mechanical components, so even though Dark Souls II is a big improvement in a lot of ways I definitely think Dark Souls is still worth experiencing. If someone was interested in the Souls series, Dark Souls would be the place I'd tell them to start, and look forward to Dark Souls II once they get finished with it.

Overall, I'm enjoying Dark Souls II a lot. It's not anything groundbreaking, but it's a very solid refinement of the mechanics as established in the Souls series, and I think it's probably the most mechanically sound and accessible of the three (which is still very relative to other games.) For better or worse, it feels like a sequel: the environments don't have quite as much of an impact as they did in Dark Souls, the enemy designs aren't that impressive, and the bosses (while challenging and fun to fight) haven't been really remarkable yet.

Part of that may also be that I'm still relatively early in the game, so we'll see how I feel about it after I've completed the game. I'm sure I'll be adding quite a few more ticks to the worldwide death counter before I get there.

For anyone on the fence about Dark Souls II after playing (and presumably enjoying Dark Souls), I can easily recommend it. It's a different game, but not at all in a bad way, and the differences are refreshing enough to make this game feel like a different experience (which is pretty remarkable considering how much it's cribbing from it's predecessor.)

For anyone who has had an interest in the Souls series but has always been nervous about it: jump in an try it out! Dark Souls is a fantastic game that you can get on PS3, Xbox 360, or PC, and it's been around long enough that you can probably pick it up on the cheap. Don't let the hype about the series being impossibly hard scare you away: this series is almost always difficult, but it's also almost always fair. If you respect what the game tries to teach you, you'll do remarkably well, and there are a ton of guides/wikis out there that you can use to supplement your adventure and/or help you if you get stuck. The Souls series is a remarkable experience, there's no better way to experience that than diving in for yourself, and it's a great time to do so.

If you do decide to take the plunge, I hope you enjoy yourself. It's a series that is remarkably similar to Warmachine (to tie this back to my main writing topic): every loss is a lesson, every challenge is a test of your accumulated knowledge, and though the road may be long and arduous, the final feeling of success and accomplishment is totally worth it.

Good luck, and Praise the Sun!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

TV Round Up: True Detective and House of Cards

This past week, my wife and I finished up the current seasons for True Detective and House of Cards (season 1 and season 2, respectively.) I have thoughts about each, but because I may wander into spoiler territory I'll hide the actual discussion after the break.

Short version: Both seasons were very good, and both shows were definitely worth watching. I have a caveat for True Detective, but House of Cards I'd recommend with no hesitation.

Spoilers of varying degrees to follow, so be warned.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Harkevich: Quad Clam Cracked

Yet another Harkevich post. This week I maintained my dedication to play the Quad Clam list against anything and everything by tossing it up against a Siege list my friend put together. He was debuting his newly (and excellently) painted Stormwall, so between that and Siege's ability to punch through armor I was going to get a chance to try out a few new challenges.

The game itself wasn't super long, and there were some silly individual moments (bourbon was the drink of choice during the game and I think it got to us both at different points,) but I think the best way to cover the game is in a general overview. Lets get to it!

Harkevich's List: (for reference)
Kommander Harkevich, the Iron Wolf (*5pts)
   * Black Ivan (9pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
Winter Guard Field Gun Crew (Leader and 2 Grunts) (2pts)
Winter Guard Field Gun Crew (Leader and 2 Grunts) (2pts)
Winter Guard Infantry (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
   * Winter Guard Infantry Officer & Standard (2pts)
Kovnik Jozef Grigorovich (2pts)

+Full Tier 4 Theme List+

Siege's List:
Major Markus 'Siege' Brisbane (*5pts)
   * Stormwall (19pts)
Arcane Tempest Gun Mages (Leader and 5 Grunts) (6pts)
   * Arcane Tempest Gun Mage Officer (2pts)
   * * Hunter (6pts)
Precursor Knights (Leader and 9 Grunts) (8pts)
   * Precursor Knight Officer & Standard (2pts)
Rangers (5pts)
Captain Arlan Strangewayes (2pts)
Journeyman Warcaster (3pts)
Reinholdt, Gobber Speculator (1pts)
Stormsmith Stormcaller (1pts)

SR 2014 Scenario: Destruction

A fairly balanced set up with a couple of forests around the scoring zone, some cover outside of either side of the scoring zone, and some assorted walls scattered around. Harkevich also added to this by plunking down a line of Heavy Wreck Markers as per his theme list.

Early Game:
Harkevich gets first turn. Everything in both battlegroups run towards the center to get in the scoring zone. The marshaled Hunter lays into Black Ivan for 8 damage, Ivan returns by dropping a shot into the Gun Mages who have clustered up re-deploying to the right flank (my friend made a bourbon-induced error here and put Fox Hole in a different spot, forgetting about the range on Ivan's gun,) killing 5 Gun Mages.

Harkevich pops his feat on turn 2 to get everything stuck in and keep ARM values high. Siege responds by killing some Winter Guard and stalling, but Stormwall is in the zone so he's in no danger of suddenly losing to scenario.

Mid Game:
Black Ivan starts shooting back at the Hunter, blowing off it's gun arm and forcing it to retreat to Arlan for repairs. A few Cygnar troopers get picked off, but the Stormwall is the vanguard and he's sitting pretty safe at ARM 22 against a sea of P+S 16.

Siege's retaliation is brutal, as befitting the fortress buster: under the feat Stormwall is able to punch two of the Demolishers and do around 18 damage to each (thanks to the faux Armor Piercing on the initial hits,) knocking out arms and Cortex systems left and right. Ivan manages to dodge Siege's Reloaded rocket thanks to being in a Wreck Marker, but several WGI aren't so lucky and get caught in his initial Ground Pounder attack. The Precursor Knights add to the damage pile by charging two more of the Demolishers under their mini-feat, doing comparable damage to the Stormwall thanks to Breach, an additional damage die, and some lost arms. When the dust settles, Harkevich's battlegroup is still standing but it's badly maimed.

Harkevich tries to retaliate but options are limited. The Cygnar objective is destroyed through a combination of Demolisher shots, a Field Gun shot, and Harkevich's Hand Cannon, earning Harkevich 1 CP. The Precursor Knights have unfortunately clumped up a lot charging into melee, and the resulting WGI sprays cut through the unit, leaving only two models alive (Officer and one other grunt.) Some Rangers that ran into range to give out attack bonuses are picked off, and Ivan continues to work on getting rid of the Hunter, knocking it down to 6 remaining boxes. One of the Demolishers moves around to get shots behind the Stormwall and kills Reinholdt with the first shot, while the second shot wounds the Gun Mage Officer.

Late Game:
Siege begins to mop up the heavily damaged Demolishers. The Demolisher that opened up to destroy the Cygnar objective is easily taken out by the Stormwall, and another Demolisher is also reduced to a wreck. Various attacks continue to thin out the WGI while Siege moves over to finish off the Demolisher that killed his little gobber buddy.

Harkevich is left in "desperate gamble" mode. Black Ivan aims and shoots at Siege, connecting even in Cover thanks to a re-roll from Fortune. The boosted damage roll puts 6 damage onto Siege (he's a tough guy to begin with, and he was camping 3.) A Broadsides shot towards Siege goes wide, missing everything. The WGI continue to pick off what they can, but they're almost depleted at this point.

Siege keeps up the pressure. Stormwall finishes off the Demolisher in front of it, and Black Ivan is Disrupted by the Stormsmith. Harkevich knows that it's all over but for the crying and opts to at least go out big: he charges the Stormwall, doing a resounding 5 damage to it before getting punched to Valhalla.

Result: Siege win by assassination!
Final CPs: Siege 0 - Harkevich 1

Post Game Thoughts:
This game was a bloodbath. When the dust settled we were both down to less than a dozen models each, and the deciding factor was that my friend had a much larger warjack remaining than I did at that point. Black Ivan vs. Arcane Shielded Stormwall is not a winning battle for Ivan, even if the gods see fit to bless him with an infinite string of crits and hot dice.

In the end, Siege did what he does well: bust through armor and be a tough nut to crack. My friend made the right moves to keep himself safe from a scenario loss, mitigate threat to his 'caster, and keep the attrition rolling. Siege is a very solid warcaster with a lot of tricks up his sleeve (if you haven't fought Siege before, do some research before you do!) and my friend used him well this game aside from the early Foxhole brain-slip. A very well deserved win on his part.

This game provided me with a lot of learning opportunities, so I'll try to list them out (for others to learn from, as well as the hope that I remember them in the future):

 - Last game I learned the value of rushing your scenario zone with the Demolishers in order to be able to box out enemy models, especially Huge based models. This game, I learned the value of not rushing the zone: in this game the scoring zone was a central, common zone, which made it much harder for me to blockade. In trying to blockade the zone from the Stormwall, all I really ended up doing was tying up another Demolisher in combat which ultimately limited my options later in the game and made it easier for Siege to have a super juicy feat turn. Point of fact, it may have been a little better to have the Stormwall a little further into my zone because that may have pulled Siege a little farther forward (to continue to hide behind Stormwall) and opened up options. By trying to block Stormwall out of the zone, I forced a fight in an unfavorable position for little benefit.

 - One alternate approach: in a central, common scenario zone like this one, it may be better to just cede that the opponent is going to get their colossal into the zone. This list, even running full speed, isn't fast enough to block them out without some super-specific movement (which is impossible in Destruction) or anything with a central circle zone (like Supply and Demand) and your opponent can probably circumvent your positioning with a random slam/push effect they have in their list. Instead focus on establishing a strong presence in the scenario zone. This list still forces your opponent to commit their colossal to avoid you scoring easily, so you can either focus on wearing down the rest of their army, or it will allow you to engage the colossal on your terms (instead of running into the teeth of the army and fighting them more on their terms.)

 - Another approach: in this type of scenario (central, common zone) it may be better to go second. Going first won't get you into the zone fast enough to block a colossal out, but going second gives you the first opportunity to score on objectives to start scenario pressure (something this list is also good at, with the two weapon crews that often don't have a lot else worth shooting at.) However, going first puts your opponent in an interesting position depending on the scenario and the SPD of the colossal: based on some quick math and comparison of the "central common zone" scenarios, a colossal needs to run first turn to get close enough to walk into the scoring zone next turn. I would imagine most players run their colossal first turn to get board position, and it's not like shooting at a wall of ARM 25 is going to do a lot turn 1, but it does dictate what your opponent has to do with their colossal if you go first and book it into the zone. They have to run first turn and at least advance the second turn, or risk getting blocked.

 - The more I play this list, the more I realize the funny little synergies it has. One Demolisher is kind of cute for bringing Girded to the table, but harder to use. But when you have 4 of the things waddling up the table, suddenly it gives the WGI a really nice spot to hang out if you're worried about them dying from blast damage. That didn't come up this game but I did think of it when I realized Explosivo (properly pronounced EXPLOSIVO) was an option. Also nice if you're concerned about Harkevich taking boosted blast damage; he's usually fairly safe at ARM 18+ with Escort and camp, but you can eliminate the option entirely by putting him in B2B with a Demolisher.

 - Arcing Fire can be used defensively. Black Ivan can hang out behind a Demolisher or two and still keep laying fire into whatever you want. This is useful in protecting Black Ivan since he has a good "work" gun in the list (I could have kept him safe from the Hunter and possible Stormwall shots while I tried to work on the Hunter,) and that formation allows you to backstop your Demolishers so that they're much less vulnerable to pushes or slams. A slam would still knock the formation down, but it's unlikely to damage any of the models much, and Harkevich can stand them all up for 1 Focus with Jump Start. Just make sure you're not hiding Harkevich behind that wall of warjacks if your opponent can try to knock them down! This formation is less useful in scenarios where you want to move your battlegroup very aggressively (since in order for it to work Black Ivan would need to be deployed behind the Demolishers he'll be using for cover,) but in scenarios where you aren't going to be able to establish early dominance of a scenario zone (such as in the game I played) it may be worth adopting this formation to give you a strong kernal to send into the zone (a run and advance should still get the Demolishers into the zone which is all you need.)

 - Running the math on the Stormwall made me realize (by contrast) that I don't hate this list against an ARM 19/20 colossal. The math isn't great, but with 3 focus you can stick two boosted 16s and a boosted 14 into an enemy colossal without too much trouble, which will break down a Conquest in 4 turns (assuming no Repair, which is the trickier part.) It's not great or efficient, but most lists will probably be hard pressed to deal with your warjacks or, more importantly, stay in the scenario after you take down their colossal. Against anything higher than ARM 20 the math starts to get so depressing that I don't feel like it's even worth it to make the attacks; better to stay closed up and force them to spend more focus trying to kill/move your warjacks than make it easier for them. The more focus they're spending on their colossal is less focus they're camping, and that opens up your secondary win condition. Killing an enemy colossal isn't the best route with this list even when you're looking at something like an unbuffed ARM 19 colossal, so it should never be "Plan A", but if it comes down to brass tacks you can make a good go at trying to chew through all those damage boxes.

 - Against a colossal, envelopment is very important. Demolishers aren't the most accurate models in the world, but anything with the ability to boost needs to be treated with care lest it connect with shots against targets you don't want it to. One of the biggest issues I ran into during this game was that, because I ran three Demolishers up to try and block Stormwall off, I didn't have a Demolisher available to move around the right flank which is where Siege was bunkered up for a few turns. Having a Demolisher on that flank is no guarantee of killing Siege (he just as easily could have moved back to the center,) but it keeps the pressure on him and there was absolutely nothing on that flank that could have threatened the Demolisher even if it opened (so I could have tried to kill some ATGM, Rangers, or the Stormsmith) en route. Short version of the lesson: don't commit more than two Demolishers to colossal lock down duty. With Harkevich's feat turn as a buffer, any more than that is likely overkill and just ties up your resources.

 - This game highlighted how difficult it can be to stay cool in the face of uphill odds in Warmachine, even if those odds are only uphill in one aspect of the game. I was frustrated partway through the game when I realized I had very low odds of taking out the Stormwall that had toed into the scoring zone. That frustration continued when Siege's feat let the Stormwall and the Precursor Knights can-opener most of my battlegroup and left me in a very poor position to retort/make a hail-mary play. I feel like this is something that I need to work on if they're going to really master this list, because there are just going to be times that you need to take it on the chin and hope for the best. I knew this match up was going to be kind of rough going in; getting tilted mid-game just put in a frame of mind that blinded me to smart play (the Demolisher that got shots on Reinholdt still had his Cortex up, so he could have had some boosted shots to toss around if I was thinking straight.)

 - Related to the above: bourbon is delicious and Warmachine is fun, but Bourbonmachine makes for some silly moves. If you're going to drink while you play Warmachine go ahead and write off that you'll do at least a few categorically stupid things and just enjoy your buzz. It's way more fun that way!

 - As expected, this list didn't do great against a 'caster that had a strong anti-armor solution. The damage inflicted on Siege's feat turn took a big bite out of my ability to keep the game going via attrition, and it put me on a short clock that I wasn't able to capitalize on. That said, this list is the only Harkevich list I've put on the table that could have survive that feat turn, and it did. Although my warjacks were mangled, they all made it through the feat turn with some offensive capability (helped in great part by the fact that the Demolishers guns can't break.) That's no mean feat, no pun intended. Most other Harkevich configurations that I've put on the table would have been eaten alive between the combination of early game gunfire and Siege's feat turn. Siege's feat is interesting because it's a "burst" armor solution, versus something sustained like Cryx, but I think the fact that this list held up against it speaks well about the viability of the list (especially considered against other warjack heavy Khador list options, all few of them.)

 - That said, I don't think I like this list against Cygnar that much. Stormwall is one of the hardest colossals to take down if you don't have upkeep removal or damage buffs (since it will always be at least ARM 22 in any list,) and this list can't come close to doing it without making that essentially the entire focus of the army (and I think it may come up short even then.) Cygnar also has access to Disruption, which is a bit of a pain, and ATGM pushes make it harder to keep your warjacks where you want them. The upside of this configuration is that there are no Mechaniks for your opponent to hunt, and the WGI are largely disposable so long as they clear out a chunk of enemy infantry before they go (which they'll usually do so long as something doesn't go horribly wrong,) so you're mostly focusing on getting your warjacks where they need to be and protecting Harkevich.

 - I also don't like this list as much in scenarios that use a common, central scoring zone. A big aspect of what makes the list work is being able to bully your opponent out of a zone, so if there are multiple zones its harder for your opponent to commit enough to hold it on your turn. Harkevich can also fairly easily Dominate in a lot of situations; the Wreck Markers usually give him someplace decently safe to hide from shooting and with Escort, camp, or both, he's relatively tough if he's at the back of a zone. A central zone makes it harder to maintain control of the zone turn by turn, and allows a colossal to lock you out of scoring entirely. I don't think it's an unwinnable fight, but you need to be able to identify early in a game if you'll be able to win via scenario or if you'll need to angle more towards attrition-induced-assassination. Out of all the scenarios the only one I'd actively dread playing with this Harkevich list is Balance of Power, and even then it may be okay if you can park a Demolisher near the enemy flag to keep them from eating your CPs.

Addendum points (things I forgot when I originally posted this, or thought of later):

 - Feat timing with this list is interesting. Normally the timing of Harkevich's feat is semi-obvious. If there's a turn where you're going to be charging in, feat for the free charges and to mitigate counter-charges. Otherwise, feat the turn you'll need to take it on the chin.

With a set of ARM 25 warjacks, the decision tree changes a bit. Feating defensively is much less necessary; ARM 25 is usually enough to dissuade or mitigate what your opponent can throw at you. There are a few lists that can hit hard enough that ARM 28 may make the difference, but I think that's the exception.

Another benefit of this list may be that it allows you to use Harkevich's feat offensively more often, which is good because using it defensively feels like it's largely a waste. I think the "ideal" feat turn would be to use a Demolisher or two offensively on the feat turn, leaving the rest closed. This would give you a turn where you can get some work out of your Demolishers, they're better off than they'd normally be (ARM 20 isn't great but it's a damn sight better than ARM 17,) and you still have an incredibly durable core with your closed Demolishers at ARM 28 and Black Ivan at ARM 23. If things go your way, you may end up with a situation (like I did in my previous game) where your opponent can't really get to your opened Demolishers so they can survive the feat turn in decent working condition.

Having your Demolishers stay closed all game isn't really feasible; they need to do work at some point. The errata that allows them to Trample and Slam without opening up is a big help (I've used this a number of times already in my few games with this list,) but at some point you're going to need to shoot those guns. Trying to line those moments up with the feat turn will be one of the things to aim for, and the games where it works out will probably be the more successful ones with this list.

 - Regarding feat timing in this specific fight: I would have been very interested in seeing what would have happened if I had held off on feating for one turn. I'm sure my opponent was waiting for my non-feat turn to use his feat, which is the right thing to do. I'm wondering if it would have been better to have it as a buffer/offensive enabler after Siege's feat turn, instead of basically using my feat to stall his feat for a turn, but not gaining much from it (since I wasn't in a position to force him to commit to action, he could just wait the feat out.) It's all academic at this point, but looking back it's one of the bigger things I'd try differently in this match.


Overall, I still like this Harkevich list a lot. This is one of the uglier matches I've had with it (Stormwall, armor busting feat, tough warcaster, common central scoring zone) and even then I feel like I had a fair chance at winning if I had played things differently. If nothing else I can make a game of it, which is more than I could say about any other Harkevich list I've tried in the past.

There is one change I'm debating: dropping a Demolisher and using the points to upgrade the Field Guns to Mortars, pick up a Drakun (no dismount), and add a Widowmaker Marksman to the list. The Drakun and WMM give me more solos for scenario shenanigans and some extra attacks to throw around, but the thing I'm most interested in is upgrading the Field Guns to Mortars. The Field Guns have had their moments of fun, but I feel like the Mortars are better overall; more range, higher POW on hit (relevant against colossals, KD'd models, objectives,) and blast damage to add even more anti-infantry hate to the list.

The problem I have with that exchange is that I feel like I lose out on a significant chunk of durability, scenario presence, and ability to split the battlegroup, "just" to pick up the two Mortars (the solos are nice, but they're not what I'm most interested in, nor are they going to really replace a lost Demolisher.) I've also considered other ways to scare up those two points - dropping Demolishers to Juggernauts, min the WGI - but I like those options even less.

For now, I'm going to keep the list as-is and just keep on playing it, but if anyone has any thoughts about the virtue (or folly) of trying any of the above swaps for getting the two Mortars in the list, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

I'm not sure when I'll be playing the Quad Clam list next, but I'm damn sure going to keep testing the list. It continues to surprise me every time I put it on the table, and it's a ton of fun. Until the next report, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Titanfall: Day One Impressions and General Thoughts

After a year plus of waiting and a fun demo experience, the full retail release of Titanfall is finally upon us. Having experienced a decent vertical slice of the game, how does the final version stack up against my beta-heightened expectations?

Short version: Its still very good. Very, very good.

Longer version: Most of my impressions from the beta still hold true. The game is a fast, fluid experience that makes the player feel dynamic and powerful; all things that one would want when indulging in escapism gaming. The graphics look great to me, though I'm definitely not picky in that regard, and the developers have said they're looking into increasing resolution post-release which will be nice if it happens.

Some things are different than what I experienced in beta, and pretty much all of those differences are improvements:

The Titans feel better balanced. I can't tell if it's because we finally have the full suite of chassis to play with or if the Atlas was just oddly tuned in the beta, but the Titans feel like they hit a good spot between vulnerability and toughness. In the beta, Titans felt like they took a ton of punishment to take down; anything short of another Titan wasn't much of a threat and even then it took some serious fighting for one to put the other down. That put Titans at a premium, and a team that was able to keep their Titans in fighting shape (either by getting them all at once, or playing cagey) was able to set up a slow roll of the enemy team that was hard to escape.

Under the current tuning, Titans do very respectable damage to one another with their weapons (so Titan v. Titan fights feel faster and more dangerous,) and the anti-Titan weapons carried by the Pilots feel like they do a lot more than just irritate the Titans (which felt like the case in beta.) It feels like the rodeo maneuver has been changed to compensate for this damage hike a bit: during the beta the rodeo maneuver was (at least in my experience) the fastest and easiest way to take down a Titan. This was very fun, but also felt kind of odd because jumping on the back of a Titan and shooting it to death should be more of a "last resort" tactic than "Plan A (and B)." I can't say for sure, but it feels like the damage you do to a Titan via rodeo shooting has been dialed back a decent bit; it's a good way to soften up a Titan for others to kill or finish off a wounded on, but you're not nearly as likely to take a Titan from fresh to dying with a single, quick rodeo.

I haven't played long enough to unlock full customization options, but out of the few pre-set configurations I've played with the options all seem compelling. The weapons all have enough kick to feel like they're dangerous, and they each have their own niche that makes them compelling (rifles are better at mid-long range, shotguns for close fighting, etc.) Even the Titan weapons have interesting balances between them, though I need to try out the different chassis more to see which one I like the most. I made a beeline for the Ogre as soon as I could because I value durability and punch (literal in this case) most times, but I want to try more games with the Atlas and the Stryder to see how each of them handle.

I also haven't had a chance to try out Campaign mode yet, though since that's just a slightly different take on normal multiplayer I'm not chomping at the bit to play it right away. I'll definitely go through it at some point (probably more than once, since there are delicious cheevos to tempt you back in,) but it's more of a concession to not having a proper story mode than a full alternate way to play the game, as I understand it. Which is just fine, because I'm having a damn good time playing regular 'ol multiplayer (Attrition for now, though I'll try all the modes eventually.)

Titanfall is kind of funny to me because one thing I've read in a number of reviews is that it isn't that big of a departure from the FPS we've been getting for years, although it is a really well done take on it. I partly agree with that - it's still a military shooter and those all share visual and mechanical DNA - but I mostly feel the exact opposite. Titanfall feels extremely fresh, even if it isn't breaking a lot of new ground in some ways.

It's the combination of a lot of little things: the freeform movement, the Titans themselves, the NPC enemies, the (at first experience) well designed levels, the pace of the game, the way it allows you to feel awesome even if your team is losing badly, the extraction phase adding that extra little moment of spite/triumph. All those things combine to make Titanfall a game that feels like a definitive step forward for the "arcade style FPS" genre.

Titanfall represents an evolution of something that started back with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The devs behind that game stepped up the multiplayer in ways that changed the FPS landscape forever, and vaulted competitive FPS play back into the gaming public's eye. Mechanically, Modern Warfare isn't altogether remarkable (though it does play very well,) but the underlying ideas and the pace of combat gave players an experience that most hadn't had before.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was an iteration of the ideas put forth in Modern Warfare. The game was faster, crazier, explodier. Player choice was off the charts, the maps were extremely interesting and (mostly) effective, and matches continued to be fast and furious while also having tons of other crazy things going on (so many killstreaks, coming from the sky, to kill you forever.) It was a broken, frustrating mess sometimes, but the developers were clearly trying to push the game as far as they could, and the results were always spectacular even when things went awry.

I think that those developers (who would later go on to form Respawn Entertainment, the development company behind Titanfall) realized something we've all been experiencing for the past 5 years or so: there's only so far you can push the "modern/semi-modern military shooter." At some point you have to: scale back your ambition (Call of Duty with it's continued iterations with very minor changes year by year,) scale up and take the associated risks (Battlefield with it's in game imbalances and recent server woes,) or move onto a new sandbox and do something familiar but different (Titanfall.)

Titanfall does feel like a military shooter, which makes perfect sense as it's brought to us by the people responsible for the template most modern military shooters adhere to. But in just as many ways as Modern Warfare was, Titanfall represents a big step forward for the FPS genre as a whole: it gives players an experience as fast and crisp as the best Modern Warfare games in a more dynamic, open environment that lets players feel much more empowered and connected to the action (a la Halo or Unreal Tournament at their best.) It may not be absolutely revolutionary, but I'll be surprised if it doesn't have a big impact. I know I can't imagine going back and playing something like Call of Duty or Battlefield after Titanfall.

All of these impressions are day one, so who knows what will change. Modern Warfare 2 was a fantastic game, but it was also fantastic mess that drove me more than a little crazy with its many bugs and exploits. Titanfall feels like it's wound tighter than that game was, but it's impossible to say for sure. I'm hoping that if/when such issues are discovered the devs handle them quickly and efficiently; the worst part about Modern Warfare 2's issues was that they could have been relatively easily fixed via patches, but those patches came very infrequently.

Regardless of how things may turn out, I'm very excited to play more Titanfall and see how it holds up long term. It's one of the very rare games that has met or exceeded my expectations once it finally showed up, and I'm looking forward to enjoying that for as long as I can.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Harkevich - Continued Clam Adventures

This week marked another outing for my new favorite Harkevich list, the Quad Clam extravaganza. For reference, the list and my original thoughts about it can be found here.

One of my goals with this list is to throw it up against absolutely anything at least once. No matter how bad I feel a match up might be, I want to put this list on the table against it and play it out, because I feel like one of the strongest aspects to this list is that even in a bad match up it has some game. Not great game, mind, but I think you have enough staying power and shenanigans to make a game of almost any situation. That's the main theory I'm trying to put to the test and in the process I may discover that some things aren't as bad as I originally thought.

To that end, this week I threw the list up against this interesting Epic Reznik (Reznik2) build my friend came up with:

Servath Reznik, Wrath of Ages (*4pts)
   * Devout (5pts)
Choir of Menoth (Leader and 3 Grunts) (2pts)
Idrian Skirmishers (Leader and 9 Grunts) (10pts)
   * Idrian Skirmishers Chieftain & Guide (3pts)
Flame Bringers (Leader and 4 Grunts) (10pts)
Initiate Tristan Durant (3pts)
   * Judicator (18pts)
Vassal Mechanik (1pts)
Vassal of Menoth (2pts)

I may be off by a point somewhere, but I'm pretty sure that was the list he ran (it totals up correctly.)

This game actually went by pretty quickly, despite the actual game still taking 4-5 turns to resolve. A quick report should suffice. The scenario was Rally Point from the SR2014 document. Terrain was a pretty even distribution of two hills, two walls, two ruined buildings (difficult terrain, Cover,) and a medium forest in the middle of the table between the two zones.

Turn 1:
Reznik goes first. Idrians Prey the WGI. Reznik advances and casts Death March on the Idrian Skirmishers, everything else runs forward with Idrians also using their minifeat (Go To Ground.)

Harkevich allocates to all warjacks, everything runs forward except the Winter Guard models. The two Field Guns take aim at the Flame Bringers who ran up super aggressively. Both shots connect with their targets, one with Critical Knockdown. The KD'd Flame Bringer survives with 1 health, the other shot kills a different Flame Bringer. The WGI Bob and Weave forward with Joe reminding them to be Tough and Fearless.

Turn 2:
Reznik camps. Tristan gives one or two focus to Judicator. The Idrians Assault and Battery into the WGI, killing 3 and engaging another two. Two of the Flame Bringers advance on the Field Guns, with the rest hunkering down behind cover.

Judicator advances and puts one rocket shot into the WGI, killing one after both scatters, but can't draw LOS for the second shot (the center of the table was a dogpile of models and the forest was in the way.) Reznik advances towards his scoring zone. Tristan puts Fortify on the Judicator.

Harkevich upkeeps both spells, allocates one focus to three different Demolishers, and camps the remaining 1. Harkevich starts off the turn by popping his feat and missing a shot at one of the Idrian Skirmishers. The right-most Demolisher slams the Flame Bringer in the enemy scoring zone, connecting with a boosted to-hit roll. The slam distance isn't enough to take her out of the zone (wreck marker halved the distance) but one of the Field Guns finishes her off. The other Field Gun manages to connect and finish off the wounded Flame Bringer.

The WGI combine with another Demolisher to clean up the majority of the Idrians; between sprays and Demolisher shots, only one or two survive the turn. The two remaining Demolishers run to block the Judicator's forward movement, and Black Ivan moves over to stand in front of Harkevich (as well as provide him the Escort ARM bonus.)

End of Turn: Harkevich scores 2 CP (Dominate friendly zone, control enemy zone)

CPs: Harkevich 2 - Reznik 0

Turn 3:
Reznik continues to camp. Tristan gives the Judicator one focus. The Judicator attempts to free itself from it's clam prison by Power Striking one of the Demolishers. The attack connects and slams it 5" away, but does no damage even with a boost (still closed up and +3 ARM from Harkevich's feat.) The Vassal uses Ancillary Attack to let the Judicator shoot at the WGI, killing two between the two templates.

The Flame Bringers move back into their scoring zone to prevent the Demolisher on that side from scoring, hiding behind a wall for cover. Reznik moves into that same scoring zone, advancing toward Harkevich's objective marker. The Devout moves around the side of the Judicator to try and wall off the Demolishers, while Tristan moves back to get out of their threat zone. Various models move into Harkevich's scoring zone to prevent him scoring on Reznik's turn.

Harkevich upkeeps both spells, allocates one focus to Black Ivan, one to the knocked down Demolisher, and one to the Demolisher in the center of the table. Harkevich aims, shoots a Choir member that had wandered into his scoring zone, then casts Jump Start to stand up the knocked down Demolisher.

Black Ivan advances and shoots at Tristan, ignoring the Judicator via Arcing Fire. The shot connects and Tristan dies to the boosted damage, rendering the Judicator inert. The formerly knocked down Demolisher slams a Choir member, knocking it into another Choir member and killing them both. The remaining Demolishers move to box Reznik in and make it hard (if not impossible) for him to reactivate Judicator next turn.

The Field Guns advance to threaten the Flame Bringers, and the WGI chip in sprays to clear Harkevich's scoring zone.

End of Turn: Harkevich scores 1 CP (dominate friendly zone)

CPs: Harkevich 3 - Reznik 0

Turn 4:
Reznik allocates one to the Devout. The Devout runs into Harkevich's scoring zone to prevent scoring this turn. Reznik is kind of boxed in so he can't do much this turn other than shuffle some things around.

Harkevich upkeeps both spells, allocates two focus to one Demolisher and one focus to another. The two Demolishers with focus shoot at Reznik's objective, killing it between all the boosted damage rolls. Black Ivan Bulldozes the Devout out of Harkevich's scoring zone, allowing him to score the 5th CP at the end of the turn and end the game.

End of Turn: Harkevich scores 2 CP (dominate friendly zone, destroy enemy objective)

Final Outcome: Harkevich wins via scenario!

Post-game thoughts:

The Harkevich Quad Clam list is, based on my limited experience, very scenario focused. It's primary bid at winning is pushing/slamming/throwing enemy models out of the zone, then body blocking them from getting back in. Failing that, you have the secondary win condition of grinding your opponent down to where their 'caster is vulnerable or has to commit, then you win via pocket assassination (probably by way of other shenanigans.)

That becomes much, much harder against models that can't be moved which of course includes Huge based models. This list also doesn't really have the punch to get through a colossal with any sort of efficiency, so my main hope in that match up is to body block the colossal out of zones. If that fails, I need to either just keep throwing warjacks at the colossal until it falls over dead (not likely or idea, but may be necessary in some fights,) or more likely circumvent the colossal and get to the 'caster somehow.

Unfortunately, that's way harder to do against a 'caster like Reznik2. Sure, he's only DEF 13, but he can camp up to very respectable ARM levels pretty easily, and more to the point he's immune to all of the shenanigans I'd use to make a pocket assassination feasible (two handed throw, headbutt, slam, etc.) I got lucky in this fight because Tristan ended up being a weak link I could exploit, but I'd have had a much harder time trying to weasel out a scenario win if the Judicator had run into my zone and Reznik was the one controlling it. Not unwinnable, but definitely harder and I'd have to take some bigger risks.

On the other side of the match up coin: this list gets around what Reznik2 is best at - making many infantry models evaporate on his feat turn - and honestly I'd be really nervous fighting Reznik2 with a common Khador build. There isn't much you can put in a list against him that isn't going to melt to those POW 12 blasts under the feat, so the normal Khador infantry blockade would be kind of dicey to run. This Harkevich list gets around that to a good degree by not having much infantry at all, and so long as they do their job before they die I can afford to lose them at some point (which is what was happening this game.)

Overall, I was really happy to have a chance to play against a list like this. Colossals and Huge based 'casters provide an interesting challenge for this Harkevich list. I don't think it's insurmountable, but its definitely one of the trickier things to try and deal with. Even my Specialists idea for this list (drop the WGI + Joe for full Demo Corps + Wardog to use against super beefy, heavy lists) wouldn't really work well against colossals because Demo Corps will have a helluva time getting there. Killing one of those things would be very resource intensive in the absolute best case (against something like the Judicator I'd need to trade away two Demolishers just to have the third one possibly kill it,) and quickly becomes impossible if an ARM buff comes into the equation.

So this list has to play around a colossal, which is an interesting proposition. The good news is that even with their hitting power most colossals can't efficiently get through a clamjack, so you can body block them pretty effectively when you have four models to throw in their way. Colossals tend to make up a lot of their value by shooting early game then punching late game, so the earlier you force them into melee, the less effective their colossal is going to be overall. The backup plan then becomes winning via scenario if you're lucky enough to box them out completely (requires going first, or your opponent not being careful,) or trying to get a 'caster kill (the less desirable possibility, but doable.) I'd like to play this sort of match up more and see how it continues to work out.

Even with that potentially sticky wicket for this list, I still really like the Quad Clam list a lot. It's a very strong scenario list with lots of redundancy, and the configuration of the battlegroup allows you to focus more on oddball shenanigans that you normally do or can with a Warmachine army. This list encourages me to focus a lot more on things like double handed throws, slams, and tramples than I ever have in the past, and that's extremely fun. Couple that with the rush of running such a hearty battlegroup (four ARM 25 warjacks is still very beefy, even in the current meta) and the option of throwing templates around, and you get a list that is really fun to play while still having legitimacy in at least semi-serious play.

I look forward to many more games with this list in the future, and it's looking more and more likely that I'll have three more Demolishers to paint up at some point.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Warmachine: Vengeance - Retribution of Scyrah Review

Hot on the heels (kinda sorta) of my rundown of Khador's releases, this is a similar rundown of the new releases for the Retribution of Scyrah in Warmachine: Vengeance. Since I took care of the preamble and "winning vs. losing a release cycle" rant in the previous post, we can skip all that and dive right into the models!

Starting off the list at #6 is Retribution's journeyman warcaster, Elara, Tyro of The Third Chamber. I don't know a lot about Retribution's fluff (I used up most of my nerd energy reading Khador's fluff back in the day but I don't keep up with it anymore,) so I'm just going to guess The Third Chamber is an organization that specializes in odd abilities that don't come together in any particularly great way. Elara's rules are kind of a mess - getting her into melee combat to use her cooler special rules is probably a precursor to her demise and Counter Charge is neat but not amazing on any Retribution warjack. Of all the new character journeyman models, I feel like Elara is the one that ended up with the weirdest set of rules.

All that said, she has two factors that redeem her in my eyes. First: extra focus for running warjacks is always good, and (similar to Khador) Retribution has a number of 'casters who would be all too happy to offload their second heavy onto Elara for her to fuel. Second: there are rumors that another wave of Retribution lights are incoming in the future, and there is always the possibility that one or more of those lights would be especially useful with her (if nothing else because she can fuel one or two lights all on her own.) Even though her rules suite is underwhelming, I'm still very much looking forward to having Elara as an option thanks to her ability to run a warjack or two on her own.

Next up at #5 is the newest addition to Retribution's stable of excellent units, the Mage Hunter Infiltrators. Retribution getting a new unit was an interesting surprise this release cycle, because their set of infantry units is already pretty damn stacked. Thankfully the Infiltrators have their own niche that gives them some distinction apart from the other two Retribution melee units, the Dawnguard Sentinels and the Houseguard Halberdiers. Infiltrators are the most "skirmishy" of the three melee units, with higher DEF and inherent Stealth, and they maintain the spell/spellcaster hate found on the Mage Hunter Strike Force (arguably dialed up a notch.) While this unit hasn't exactly blown the doors off the faction, I think that's more a factor of Retribution already being stacked with great units. Considered on their own merits the Infiltrators are a damn solid unit, and I'm sure there are plenty of list builds that will appreciate what they bring to the table.

Related to the Infiltrators is the entry I'm putting at #4: Eiryss, Mage Hunter Commander (Eiryss3), the newest epic incarnation of everyone's favorite elven mage hunter. Eiryss has learned how to be a team player and has switched over from being a supremely potent disruption solo (literally and generally) to a career as a unit attachment for Mage Hunter units. She brings some very nice bonuses as a UA (Advanced Deploy, Reform, Fearless,) but what's most remarkable about her is that, like most character UAs, she is a very capable model all on her own. She's got two melee attacks and her trademark RAT 9 crossbow shot, all with Arcane Assassin and Weaponmaster, and Arcane Hemmorage on any attacks of hers that connect (strips Focus and Fury on the model, and upkeep spells cast by that model expire.) This combination of abilities and attacks makes Eiryss3 a compelling attachment for both Mage Hunter units, though the raw potency of Phantom Hunter from the Mage Hunter Commander is damn hard to beat. I feel like she's more likely to be attached to the Infiltrators (especially since they have no competing UAs,) but there is some interesting merit and potential with messing around with her attached to the MHSF.

[Reasoning aside: Similar to the Outriders vs. the IFK, I think the Infiltrators and Eiryss3 are very close in terms of faction impact. The main reason I rate Eiryss3 higher is that she's essentially the UA for the Infiltrators and I really like what she does for them. I feel like the Infiltrators are more compelling with Eiryss3 in the picture and she's an option for another unit, so she feels like she has more impact. Plus Arcane Hemmorage gives Retribution some interesting anti-Hordes tech which bumps her up another notch.]

Moving into the top three, things get pretty damn contentious. Out of the "good" releases for Retribution in Vengeance, the best of them are damn good. On top of that, one of those releases isn't even out yet, so I'm going off of internet musings and gut reactions. But that's the fun of this whole exercise, right?

With that in mind, I'm going to put Retribution's new character warjack Imperatus at the #3 slot. That's not to disparage it at all; I think Imperatus is an absolute beast. Very good melee capabilities, a good gun, and crazy good resilience for a heavy warjack; nothing at all to complain about with him. But I think PP also did a very good job of balancing Imperatus: he (I'm assuming here; can't check myrmidon gender easily) plays up roles that Retribution was lacking before which makes him very useful, but it also means that he's not necessarily a warjack you're just going to toss into just any list (especially with character restrictions in the mix.) On his own Imperatus will do a damn fine job of doing damage and taking more effort to bring down than he "should", but the places where he's going to shine the most are going to be the lists that really enhance his strong suits. That's exciting in a big way because the best places to deploy Imperatus seem to be with less traditional 'casters - both Vyros - and he's not just another strong piece you bring with the already commonly seen Retribution warcasters. In that sense, I think Imperatus has a big impact on the faction (especially since the lists that make good use of him are likely to be pretty nasty,) but he can only be in one list out of a set.

However, the entry at #2 can be in every list. Point of fact, you can have two of them in every list! That's because, along with his many other fine features, the Houseguard Thane is FA: 2. And unlike some other solos, there is a fair chance you may want two of these guys. The Houseguard Thane was a lightning bolt to the heart of Retribution list building, breathing amazing life into both 10 model Houseguard units. The Houseguard Halberdiers have always been well regarded (for good reason - they're awesome "cheap" Reach infantry,) but the Houseguard Riflemen have traditionally been pretty maligned. In a faction loaded with great shooting options, the Riflemen failed to have a distinct role, despite the efforts of the UA to make them sort of a "long-then-short range shooting" unit. That all changed with the Houseguard Thane - now the Riflemen are a fantastic solution to Stealth infantry (and possibly some warjacks) which was something Retribution had a harder time dealing with previously (particularly beefy Stealth infantry such as Bane Thralls or normal units buffed with Occultation.)

On top of that, the Houseguard Thane brings plenty of other excellent things to the table: CMD 10 on a Commander, solid melee and ranged (relative to his status as a "support" style solo,) Inspiration for Houseguard models (the only thing better than CMD 10 with a re-roll is not rolling in the first place,) and Desperate Pace for Houseguard. Desperate Pace is an awesome buff for both Houseguard units, and it's an enhancement to the speed of the already far-reaching Halberdier unit. In short, the Houseguard Thane brings amazing support for Houseguard units to the table, breathes significant new life into a shelf-warmer unit, and even has a little general army support to offer on top of all that. An absolutely fantastic solo, and in my opinion one of the absolute best releases Retribution has received.

Similar to Khador, the #1 spot for Retribution probably isn't a surprise: Issyria, Sibyl of Dawn. Retribution's warcaster release is absolutely amazing, while also having an interesting internal sense of balance. Issyria is the ultimate enabler; unable to do anything on her own, but she has a lot of tools available to her that allow her to push her army to perform above the curve. What's most interesting about her, having played similarly styled 'caster in other factions, is that she performs this support function in a more nuanced way. The only big math adjustment abilities she has are Inviolable Resolve, Blinding Light, and her feat. Of those three options, only one boosts potential damage output (and it doesn't raise ceilings, just enhance probability,) and Blinding Light is relatively expensive if you end up using it as "just" a DEF debuff (depending on what you're debuffing.) It gives her a very interesting dynamic, and her general kit is also remarkable because it pushes her away from the gunline styles of Retribution armies that have been the stronger army configurations in the past. There's a strong emphasis and need to charge things with her (since you don't have any other way of spiking damage,) and while MHSF are still very strong with her, you probably aren't going to win a game with her by sitting back and shooting (though she's still new; I may be wrong as hell here.)

The other very welcome feature she has from a balance perspective is that she's squishy as all hell. DEF 16 is good, but ARM 13 is downright terrifying in a world where boostable shooting is relatively commonplace (though she can buy herself some outs with Blinding Light.) Retribution has a lot of strong defensive options available and Issyria's Focus stat of 8 lets her play pretty far back, but you definitely need to be careful with her as a few errant hits may be enough to take her off the table. Issyria is also interesting because she has zero ways to damage enemy models on her own; even the weakest of warcasters has a token melee attack and a "shitty nuke" spell or two on their card they can use when the game gets down to the wire. Issyria is all support, all the time, so if something ends up near her (or, god help you, if the game comes down to just her) she's pretty much screwed.

While those will doubtless be frustrating when they cost me games, I like that those limitations are in place. It gives Issyria real weaknesses that your opponent can try to exploit (as opposed to some of the semi-weaknesses that the stronger 'casters get to deal with,) and I think it will help keep her bounded in terms of how you need to build lists for her. As much as anyone may secretly wish for a Haley2/Gaspy2 to be dropped in their lap, Morvhana2 proved to me that it doesn't do the game any good when more super-potent 'casters like that are introduced. Very strong 'casters are fine, and I think so long as PP continues to be able to walk the line like they did with Butcher3 and Issyria, the game can grow with new challenges that aren't flat out frustrating or irritating to have to meta and play against.

All those factors combine to make Issyria an amazing warcaster that is tempered enough to be considered pretty well balanced in the long run. That, along with her more aggressive approach to list building and table tactics, makes her an amazing addition to Retribution's crew of 'casters, and I'm very comfortable in calling her the best/coolest/most remarkable Retribution release this cycle.


This set took me a little longer to write up, partially because my feelings on Retribution are a little more nebulous than Khador. I'm still growing into Retribution, so while I feel like I understand some parts of the army there's a lot that I'm still in "theoryland" on. Still, I feel confident in saying that this release cycle was an absolutely stellar set of models for Retribution that opened up a lot of new, interesting, and frankly fun list options. The Houseguard Thane allows me to un-ironically buy a unit of Houseguard Riflemen (models I really like the look of, but I held off due to their mediocre rules,) Imperatus is going to get me to buy Vyros1 (who was originally so uninteresting I wasn't even going to pick him up,) and Issyria is a generally very solid 'caster that also synergizes with some of my favorite models in the faction (Dawnguard Sentinels and Hyperion.)

It's a great time to be getting into Retribution.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Warmachine: Vengeance - Khador Review

Thanks to the fine folks over at Bell of Lost Souls (and presumably PP as well for giving them the info,) we now know the totality of what will be officially released when Warmachine: Vengeance releases next month (tentatively listed for March 19.)

With that list in hand, I thought it'd be fun to run through the list of things that each of my factions got from this release cycle and see how excited I am for each of them. This post will cover Khador and the few Mercenary options that are relevant, and I'll hit up Retribution in another post (spoiler: that post will probably be glowing.)

But first, a disclaimer with a little rant sprinkled on it for good measure because I see this come up every release cycle and it drives me batty:

There are few discussions less productive or wasteful than debating over who "won" or "lost" a release cycle. Every cycle has a few turds, just as every cycle has a few home runs. In the end, your faction just grew by x number of entries; what you do with that is up to you. I understand being elated or frustrated by a release cycle (oh boy do I understand that) but arguing or declaring that anyone "won" or "lost" the book is juvenile, tribal garbage that just detracts from actually discussing the models themselves.

With that out of the way, onto the models! I'll be running down the list of everything that Khador picked up in this release cycle, in the rough order of how much I'm excited to put it on the table crossed with how much impact I think it will have on the faction as a whole. After that I'll go over the one or two Mercenary releases that are Khador relevant and how I feel about them.

Coming in at #5 for me on the list is Khador's newest warjack, the Grolar. This entry ends up in kind of an odd spot, because it was spoiled relatively recently and it's the only entry in the list that I haven't had a lot of time to either theorycraft with, put on the table, or proxy in. All those things considered, I still really like this warjack, and I think it will find a nice niche in Khador. It has enough interesting rules and applications that I feel like it rewards you for trying to get use out of it, which is a lot more than I can say about most of Khador's non-character warjacks. Don't let it's low spot on my list fool you; this is a pretty great warjack, and I think it'll end up in Khador's narrow list of non-character warjacks that are still worth investing in.

From here on out, the list becomes harder to stratify, but since I have to pick (shared slots on lists are for the weak) #4 slot goes to the Iron Fang Kovnik. An absolutely fantastic solo that brings some very nice stuff to the table: a good passive buff for himself and Iron Fang Pikemen, a fantastic CMD value and the Commander skill to leverage it, a movement buff for Shield Wall models (which is nice when your faction has 3 different units with that rule,) and on top of all that he's a very good combat solo. Along with the Black Dragon Iron Fang Pikemen UA, the Iron Fang Kovnik has ushered back in an era of Pikemen being a strong infantry choice in Khador (though honestly they've never been less than "very good",) and he's just diverse enough to give the faction some splash benefits. One of few solos that I purchased two of without much hesitation.

That puts the Greylord Outriders at #3 on my list. Honestly, I think these guys and the IFK are equal levels of good and have a similar impact on the faction; which one rates higher than the other is mostly a question of the list and my mood. Initially maligned (though I was a fan of them even going back to their original rules spoilers,) this unit has gained widespread appreciation across Khador. Their Magic Ability 6 on their sprays can be off-putting, but if you can fix that with any kind of accuracy buff/DEF debuff they become fantastic anti-infantry models. Add that onto their raw speed, the mobility of being light cav, and their relative resistance to typical anti-infantry measures, and the Outriders have ended up being a fantastic addition to Khador's stable of options.

[Reasoning aside: I feel like the IFK and the Outriders are both massively useful models, but ultimately I think the Outriders open up more list builds than the IFK does. The Outriders end up being able to fulfill an anti-infantry role previously only achieved by the WGI (who are tied to Joe and thus essentially character restricted.) The IFK does a lot for IFP, but they are largely aided by the BD UA, and the other Shield Wall units have issues that the IFK's buff doesn't fully address (though I think he does help out the Man-o-War Shocktroopers more than Assault Kommandos.) As such I feel like the Outriders have the most immediate and possible long term impact on the faction, plus they're really fun to use on top of all that. That's not to disparage the IFK at all; I think they're about even, but I had to pick one for each slot so thems the breaks.]

Kovnik Andrei Malakov, Khador's new journeyman warcaster, earns the silver medal in my list, coming it at #2. I think all of the new journeyman warcasters are valuable to their factions - being able to fully fuel a warjack on their own opens up a lot of build options for every but Cygnar (who have had their own Journeyman for awhile now) - but I think Malakov is especially valuable for Khador.

Before getting to "why", a quick history lesson. I've been playing Khador for a long time, and during that time I've used every warjack that Khador has access to. When you hear people mention how Khador warjacks "suck" or are hard to work with, they're probably talking about one or more factors that you run into when using Khador warjacks:

  1. Khador warjacks have low native threat ranges. They all have SPD 4 and Reach is very hard to come by.
  2. Khador warjacks do not have awesome offensive stat lines. MAT 6 is okay but not amazing. RAT 4 makes it very hard to leverage warjack based shooting in most situations, since even against a DEF 10 you need a '6' to hit and it only gets worse from there. 
  3. Khador warjacks also don't have especially high hitting power. Some models hit hard but a stunning percentage of Khador's heavies are P+S 16, and hard hitting is regulated to either "super basic" with the Juggernaut, or else you need something expensive like the Behemoth or a Conquest (Beast-09 is a also valid, but he's primarily a souped up Juggernaut.) 
  4. Combining #s 2 and 3: It's easy to end up in a situation where your damage output takes a nosedive because MAT 6 forces you into "boosting" range, or you need to boost damage because your base damage isn't high enough (much more common than it used to be as more ARM 21 models come into the game, and of course colossals complicate matters.) Once you get out of the realm of a 1:1 between focus:attacks, Khador warjacks don't do very well.
  5. Combining #s 1 and 4: Khador warjacks are big 'ol resource hogs if you want them to do what you probably brought them for (in almost all cases: kill an enemy heavy.) They require focus to reliably hit and do damage (not altogether remarkable; most warjacks operate like this,) they want accuracy and/or damage bonuses to keep their damage efficiency up, and they need a movement buff/shenanigan to initiate combat (what you normally want to be doing, as taking on the chin can end very badly with just a little sour luck.)
In light of those issues, Malakov is like a gift of manna for anyone wanting to run more Khador warjacks (which I think is necessary as anti-infantry tech becomes more and more prominent.) He only brings two things, but they're almost perfect: Redline is a spell that addresses issues 1 and 3, and his ability to fuel a warjack all on his own addresses issues 4 and 5. If he had some kind of passive accuracy buff, he'd single handedly fix everything troublesome with Khador warjacks, but as-is we'll just need to settle for him fixing almost everything.

Malakov is not without his downsides: whatever warjacks you take with him are in his battlegroup, so your opponent can neutralize those points by killing him. He does have the 'Sucker' rule to help out against that a bit, but its still something to be wary of, and its going to be the hardest thing about getting good use out of Malakov.

Even with that downside it's hard to express just how much potential Malakov has for making Khador list builds a little more compatible with the current meta. Most Khador warcasters struggle to run more than one warjack on their own, but at the same time one warjack usually isn't enough to get the job done (especially if you're looking at dealing with any of the colossals that do a good job of neutralizing infantry.) Being able to bring a second warjack that has excellent damage output and threat will be a huge help when making some lists. Also excellent is the fact that Malakov is solid gold with pretty much any warjack; Redline makes any warjack respectable in melee and Malakov can happily afford to toss focus onto a shooting warjack in order to get the most out of it each turn.

I backed the Warmachine: Tactics Kickstarter just for Malakov, and I don't regret that investment for a second (limited edition sculpts be damned.)

That just leaves one possible entry for the #1 slot, and it should come as a surprise to no one who has paid attention to Warmachine in the past year. If there were any other contenders for this spot up to this point, Orsus Zoktavir, The Butcher Unleashed (aka Butcher3) would have charged in and chopped them all into grisly bits. Butcher3 is a funny entry for me, because he's equal parts underwhelming and extremely exciting all at once. 

Butcher3 is underwhelming for a reason that's entirely personal: at this point we've known the full rules for him for around half a year. Butcher3 was the first of the Vengeance warcasters released, as he was the meat of PP's 10th anniversary celebratory model set. Over those six months I've heard/read tons of battle reports, musings, list thoughts, tech, and counter-tech for Butcher3. Now that he's finally in the hands of all the players, he feels a little "worn in", if that makes sense.

However, after thinking about it I realized that getting Butcher3 ended up being a bit of a blessing. One of the fascinating parts of a new release cycle is the mad scramble where everyone is trying to figure out what impact the new models will have on their army/lists. During this period a lot of random thoughts float around, and the barometer for most new 'casters/'locks goes all over the place as players scramble to come up with new ideas and put them in practice (unless the model is pretty clearly powerful, like the relatively recent Morvhana2.)

That scramble period is kind of fun because it's full of discovery, but it can also be really frustrating if most of your ideas for the 'caster/'lock don't pan out. It can be maddening if the end result is that the 'caster isn't as good as you initially hoped or thought, and absolutely crushing if the 'caster/'lock ends up being way worse in practice.

The initial reaction to Butcher3 was akin to "oh god, he's going to kill everything." That's very exciting, especially since Khador doesn't have another 'caster that fills that same role (i.e. hardcore board bully.) After six months or so of tournament testing, players are reporting that Butcher3 works as expected, which is tremendously exciting. He's got his fair share of bad match ups and ugly tech that he doesn't want to run into, but those are expected with any well balanced model. The most important parts are what Butcher3 brings to Khador players: aggression, durability, direct assassination threat, and relative durability; all in one model. He's a hugely valuable and interesting addition to Khador's warcaster line up, and I can't wait to get mine on the table.


That covers Khador's releases this book cycle. Vengeance has been a fantastic book for Khador players: every entry is useful and interesting and all of them enable or encourage new approaches to list building. I've been around for many a book release, and at least in terms of Khador there have been few other release cycles that were so damn good across the board (most release cycles have high "highs" and some pretty low "lows", so they average out to good-great.)

The only other faction that I feel had as remarkable a release cycle is Retribution, but they're getting their own article, so I'll gush about those entries over there.

For everyone playing Khador, it's a good year to be red.