Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hell Freezes Over: Relic Knights Delivered

Relic Knights, published by Soda Pop Miniatures, started out as a boutique line of minis - no rules or game system, just some nice looking models for painters and hobbyists. I stumbled across them at one point and always found myself coming back to their models. Of all the companies out there producing miniatures, they were one of the few that did a good job of capturing an anime aesthetic, and some of the model designs were impressive.

So when SPM announced that they were going to be doing a Kickstarter for a tabletop game version of Relic Knights, I was on board. I shared the link with some friends who were likewise excited, and we all bought in (to varying degrees.) We were all super excited to play this new game, with these cool new models. 2013 was going to be an awesome year!

Anyone familiar with the Relic Knights Kickstarter knows just how wonderfully naive that thought was. It was the first Kickstarter for all of us, and we didn't know one golden rule of Kickstarter (at least when it comes to miniatures): the question is not if the project will be delayed, but how long.

More after the break.

Relic Knights ended up being an infamous example, and a harsh lesson to SPM, as well as anyone coming after them. The Relic Knights Kickstarter was massively successful, and a big part of that success was that SPM kept adding cool stuff to the pile as stretch goals. What no one really considered was that every miniature they added was another they had to produce, and by the time the Kickstarter had finished SPM had easily tripled the size of their production run. The backers and SPM were very excited by this breakout success, but it soon dawned on everyone that SPM may have bitten off way more than they could chew.

Over the next year and change, SPM worked towards fulfillment, one painful step at a time. The massive increase in project scope resulted in production starting later and taking longer than estimated; instead of delivering it 2013, we're just now getting it in 2014. That irritated a lot of backers, and understandably so (I'm sure a lot of them were "first time" backers like myself and our group.)

For what it's worth, I don't hold any ill will towards SPM or their original publishing partner, Cool Mini Or Not. There were some serious mistakes made with the Kickstarter, but I feel that they were well intentioned mistakes; they wanted to generate as much excitement as possible and start Relic Knights off strong. It has been pretty clear based on posts from SPM staff that they realize their mistake, and if they had to do it over again they'd be more conservative. But I can totally see getting swept up in that moment. CMoN seems to have learned a similar lesson: they recently helped produce Wrath of Kings, another game that could have easily gone the same route as Relic Knights, but they were much more conservative with the Kickstarter updates.

Thankfully, all of that is in the past. Relic Knights production is complete, and backer orders are now being fulfilled. I'm one of the lucky ones to be on the early half of shipping, so I received my order last week.

Here it is arrayed in all of it's glory:

Cat sold separately

I ended up buying quite a bit - four full factions, all told - though I'm not the one of our group who purchased the most. I sincerely hope he takes a picture of the crate that shows up when his order arrives; it will dwarf mine. Moving onto early impressions:

The production quality of the line is pretty good. There are some boxes that are oddly colored - all white instead of their faction color - and I'm not sure if that's an error or intentional. Either way, not a big deal, but something I'd hope they sort out. The boxes themselves are good quality, with a nice layout and eye catching artwork. They're also made of a pretty good cardboard, so they can serve as materials for other hobby projects if you use cardboard for anything.

Some folks on the forums have already come up with a good secondary use for the boxes:

The rulebook is very nice, based on my limited criteria for what makes for a nice rulebook. The cover is solid hardback, the book is very colorful and vibrant, and it all seems to be well bound.

Two things I can't speak to quite yet: organization and fluff. I haven't had time to sit down and read the fluff yet, so I can't comment on that aspect of it. I'll probably give it a shot at some point, but I didn't really buy into this game for the fluff so I'm probably not the best person to be reviewing that part.

One thing I am very interested in and mindful of is how well organized the book is as a whole. I've played a number of miniature games at this point in my nerd gaming life and one thing that always drives me a little crazy is when a book isn't logically organized. If I find myself flipping to the wrong sections to find answers to rules questions, if I have jump around a lot to figure out an interaction, if the rules aren't particularly clear; all of those things drive me crazy, and they're only really put to the test "in the moment." My initial reading of the rulebook is positive, but I'm withholding judgment of it's organizational quality until I'm frantically trying to find a rule mid-activation.

This is another one that is going in the "withholding judgement" bin, as I haven't played any games with the final rule set yet.

I will say this much: Relic Knights feels like it has benefited tremendously from player feedback during the Kickstarter. The initial set of rules that players were given to playtest and provide feedback for were a good first draft, but they were extremely rough. Massive model imbalances existed, which isn't surprising at that early stage; the much more worrisome part was how much of a mess the scenarios were.

Relic Knights is much closer in spirit to something like Malifaux than Warmachine, and much like Malifaux it is going to live or die by how much the scenarios allow for the game to be played as intended. Also much like Malifaux, the first draft of those scenarios was generally terrible; the second draft (which is what made it into the final rules) is 1000% better, and much more reassuring.

SPM also did a good job of giving all the models another round of balance passes, though it's impossible for me to tell right now how anything stacks up against anything else. Relic Knights is sufficiently different from every other game system I've played that I can't even hazard a guess; so much of it depends on how the Esper Deck works out, how scenarios work out, how players leverage common Esper skills, etc. So for right now I'm mainly interested in how the core rules play out.

When more of our group gets their orders we'll be playing some games, and I'll have some meatier impressions of the game then.

Now onto the meat of the initial impressions, and what most players bought into the Kickstarter for: the models.

The models themselves are honestly better than I expected, at least so far. Relic Knights was in a weird place: it spawned from a boutique line of miniatures but was transitioning to a line of miniatures meant to support a skirmish scale tabletop game.

From my perspective, some loss of fidelity/quality was inevitable (mass production vs. smaller production, material changes, etc.) My biggest concern was if the models would have the same "feel" and still be cool looking.

After putting together all of the Shattered Sword Paladin models and the Doctrine Battle Box, I can say that SPM exceeded my expectations. The models still look very good (the detail on some of them is remarkable considering the scale and the medium,) and the line retains the anime feeling that drew me to SPM's models in the first place. Some examples of assembled models:

Sebastian Cross, Shattered Sword Relic Knight

Shattered Sword Battle Box

Doctrine Battle Box

The models have mostly been very easy to assemble: all pieces are keyed in such a way that they can only go together in one way, so even if you have a potentially confusing set of pieces (i.e. pile of arms) it's pretty easy to figure out what goes where. The downside to this is that there is almost no ability to alter model poses without some fairly serious conversion methods. Not a concern for me, but something that might be worth noting.

All of the models are made of a resin-plastic mix (restic) that is very similar to the plastic used by Privateer Press. The mix feels a bit different than the PP plastics (these feel a little closer to hard plastic than resin on the sliding scale,) though the net result is the same in terms of hobbying: the models look nice, but are subject to bending, can be a little brittle, and are a bear to clean.

Extrapolating on that last point: you can't clean restic models the same way that you would a metal or hard plastic model. The material doesn't file well, so pretty much all of your cleaning has to be done using a hobby knife. That's not a big deal in and of itself - I'm sure some modelers do it that way regardless of medium - but it's time consuming. Doubly so when you're working with small parts on small models. Normally I kind of enjoy putting models together as it's relatively breezy, but these models take a good bit of focus and effort to ensure you get them as clean as possible before putting them together.

For what it's worth, the casters seem to have been mindful that these models would need some cleaning, and the mold lines are almost always in easy to clean places. That's a huge improvement over PP's plastics, which have driven me crazy in the past with mold lines located in places that made them very difficult to properly clean (and sometimes impossible to do so without messing up other details on the model.)

I do have one complaint and one concern, based on the models I've put together and looked at so far:

The Doctrine seem to have a scale problem with some of their models. A chunk of their "old" characters (ones that had models prior to the plastics) - Hasami, The Prefects, and Togan and Cecelia - appear to be smaller than other human sized Doctrine models. For anyone familiar with PP's model line, it's analogous to the scale difference between the Black 13th and the rest of the Gun Mages, though I'm not sure if it's that significant. 

It's hard to tell why these models are so off. My extremely uninformed speculation is that, because these were existing models, the existing models were used to create the new molds and somewhere in the process a scaling step was left out or miscalculated. The models in question still look good so I'm not too put off, but I know for some that would be a bigger deal. Hopefully that's an issue they can correct with future production of these models.

Addendum: After assembling some of these off-scale models, I think a couple of factors are at work: 1) the models themselves are a bit too small, 2) the Novitiates are a bit too large. Compared to some of the Shattered Sword Paladins, the Prefects don't look too far off; comparing the Novitiates to the same SSPs, the Novitiates seem to be bigger (which is amusing because the Novitiates are supposed to be schoolboys/girls.)

So a more accurate assessment is that there seem to be scale variances across the line, and those differences can add up to be pretty noticeable when they start to get too far one way or the other. The Novitiates and the Prefects seem to be the stand out example of that.

My concern is more universal: while the models look good and have some excellent details, I'm worried about those details getting lost in priming. Some parts are so minor or shallow that I think a "normal" coat of primer may obscure them, let alone what would happen after priming and applying a few coats of paint.

Some backers have painted some of the models and said that they come out fine, so it may just require a light touch when priming, and applying the paint in thin coats. I'm thinking that these models in general will require different techniques than I'm used to (the anime style faces are really throwing me off,) so I'm reserving judgement until I actually put brush to model.

Overall, however, I have to say I'm impressed with the Relic Knights line. A friend of mine who received his order first out of our group put it very well: for a company's first attempt at a full miniature line, SPM did an excellent job. Doubly so when you consider the scope of the project, the timeline they were on, and the medium they were working with. There are some hiccups here and there, but nothing that can't be sorted out in future iterations, and definitely nothing so bad it makes me want to ditch the line.

I'm very much looking forward to getting the models on the table and getting some impressions of how the game actually plays. That, more than anything else, is the key for me; the best models in the world are useless to me if the game has a mediocre rule set. Hopefully I'll have a report coming in the near future, so keep an eye out for it!

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