Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Relic Knights - First Game Impressions

After years of waiting and weeks of assembly (due to purchasing probably too many models,) I was finally able to get a legit (i.e. non-starter box game) of Relic Knights in last week!

As this was my first game, this recap will be less about tactics and strategy - I have zero feel for either in this system yet - and more about my impressions after finally trying out the game proper.

Setting Up the Game
There are a lot of little things going on in Relic Knights. As such, setting the game up feels like it takes longer than a game of Warmachine, though not dramatically so, and I think some of that will go faster as we get more familiar with the game. As an example: we took a decent chunk of time just getting cards and tokens out, but I'm sure we did the same thing when we were still learning Warmachine as well.

Relic Knights does require two things beyond what most Warmachine players may be familiar with: terrain and space.

Terrain is something I'll touch on more later, but it's worth noting right off the bat that you need quite a bit of it. Relic Knights is a skirmish level game, and like most skirmish games (or at least the other ones I have experience with) the recommendation is to have a lot of terrain on the table. I've heard an estimate along the lines of 3 pieces per square foot of board, which ends up being a lot of terrain even on a 3'x3' table.

Considering how sparse Warmachine tables are in comparison, that can be a pretty big shift from what you're used it, and it can also present a very practical problem of having enough terrain for one or more Relic Knights tables. So that's something to bear in mind if you're planning on branching out.

Space is another thing you need, and by that I mean space beyond just the actual gaming area. One of the things that surprised me the most about Relic Knights is how much of a footprint the player area takes up. It uses an amount of space comparable to a splice between Warmachine and Magic: you have a set of cards you're managing that you need to keep in front of you (and in a certain order,) you have a deck and discard area, plus you also have tokens and rule cards floating around.

The upside is that you can pretty easily come up with the space for all that on a 4'x4' table; just block off 6" on each end for the player's tracking area and you end up with a 3'x3' board that has plenty of room for all the stuff you'll need during the game. I'm a bit concerned about how that will work out when playing 75+ points (where the game jumps up to using a 4'x4' board,) but we'll cross that bridge if and when we come to it.

To sum up: if you're coming at this game from a Warmachine background, be prepared to use a lot more terrain and have more stuff in front of you than you're used to. It's not at all a bad thing - the game feels very different from Warmachine or even Malifaux, which is good for it's market identity - but it's something to bear in mind when making the jump.

Playing The Game - General Mechanics
Mechanically, Relic Knights is a very straightforward game to play: models activate in sequence through your ready queue (that you set up and maintain throughout the game.) As each model activates, they get an initial move, an action, and a follow up move. For your action, you either can afford to pay for an action or you can't; no attack or defense rolls necessary (though your opponent does have defensive measures available to them.)

Even though that doesn't seem like a big difference from something like Warmachine, it has a surprising effect on keeping the activations brisk. You can either do something or you can't, and your opponent can either stop you/mitigate it or they can't. Players also refresh their hands at a very frequent rate (you essentially always have 5 cards at the start of any model's activation,) so you don't feel the need to camp resources as much as in other games (though you definitely want to keep specific esper cards handy for some abilities.)

The trickiest part of the game comes from keeping ability information straight. Relic Knights is a game of keywords, and each of those keywords has a definition in the core rulebook but no descriptor on the card. That choice was done to save space, and its something they needed to do with how much text some of those cards have, but it does mean that you need to reference the rulebook decently often.

This isn't too bad for two reasons: 1) each starter set comes with a mini rulebook, so at least in our game all players had one comfortably on hand as a reference, and 2) since the definitions are static the need to reference them should decrease as we become more familiar with the game (and since they're universal keywords that experience should carry across factions.) But it is something that is likely to slow the game down in places, so be ready for some book flipping (and/or keep the book open to the reference in the back!)

One downside to having so many keyword abilities is that there are a number of them that sound similar, so keeping them straight can be tricky. What's the difference between Reave and Lifeleech? They're both very similar, but they produce a different result (and dovetail into an issue I'll touch on later.) Likewise, the ability Knockback sounds like it should move models around but it actually doesn't (it knocks a model out of the ready queue.) Over time these little things shouldn't be as confusing, but when you're learning the game it's a lot to keep straight.

Playing The Game - The Ready Queue
The ready queue falls under basic mechanics (in many ways it is one of the two core mechanics of the game) but it's interesting enough to get its own section.

At first glance, Relic Knights seems to be a bit of a mix between Malifaux and Warmachine: it has the relative scale and model count of Malifaux, but it maintains the squads and "big" models (in terms of game rules, not just stature) that you more commonly find in Warmachine.

In a lot of ways, that is accurate. The game absolutely plays like a skirmish game with Warmachine influences/nods - squads scale in power based off of size, character models tend to have a lot more impact than non-character models, there are "big critters" present (Warmachine has things like warjacks on up to colossals, whereas Relic Knights has things like the Diamondback Armor, Dahon, and the Relic Knights themselves.)

However, the ready queue does a lot to set Relic Knights apart from the games that are related to it. It's a pretty straightforward mechanic that has a surprising effect on how the game plays, and how you approach putting a list together.

In Warmachine, "more" is in many cases better than less. You get to activate every model in your list during your turn, so additional models bring more actions to the table, as well as giving you more models your opponent needs to remove before your fighting force is rendered ineffective. There are other concerns - timed turns/Deathclock, list synergy, possible list counters - but for the most part in Warmachine you're trying to make the biggest list you can that operates as effectively as possible.

In Malifaux, more activations are almost always better than fewer activations. Deaths and disabling aside, you're guaranteed to activate every model in your crew during your turn. Having more activations than your opponent gives you the opportunity to stall activating your most important/powerful models until after they've activated their important/powerful models, which often gives you an edge. As with Warmachine, there are other concerns - cheaper models tend to be weaker, not good for some Strategies, Insignificant trait, etc - but as a general rule you want to have a certain number of activations relative to the point level, and all the better if it's more than your opponent.

In Relic Knights, having more units (aside: in this game "unit" refers to single models or a squad) isn't necessarily better. Every unit must pass through the ready queue before it can activate, so there are only so many units you can have prepared to activate at any given time (scales by game size, usually between 2 and 4.) Anything outside of that ready queue isn't going to activate for at least 'x' activations (x = number of units in front of it in your queue + your opponent's queue.) That means that having a particularly voluminous army isn't necessarily beneficial; once your queue is filled those units are just sitting around.

It can actually even be detrimental to bring a large cadre. Relic Knights games are scored via VPs which are gained through a variety of means - primary objective, secondary objective, faction objective, and kills. Killing an enemy unit gets you 1 VP, so bringing more units is also putting more models on the table you'll need to be willing to protect, lest those turn into VPs for your opponent.

The ready queue is a mechanic that I'm equal parts impressed and mystified by. I'm impressed by the way it seems to naturally encourage players to build lists that look like you'd expect the game to: a core of models based around a powerful Knight, versus just spamming models in overwhelming numbers. I also like how the ready queue forces some decisions about when you want to activate a unit, as you need to plan that partially based on your queue and partially on your opponent's queue.

On the other hand, I'm kind of mystified by how best to manage the queue. Your Knights are unarguably the most powerful models you have on the table, so it makes sense to essentially always have them in the rotation. That means that the other slots - 2 remaining slots in a 50 point game, what seems to be the "average" game size - are supplemental filler. Which is all well and good, but that also means that parts of your list are just going to be sitting around for at least part of the game.

Thinking about it a little more, I suppose that makes sense: if the Knight is the core of the army, the choice then becomes what elements to activate around them to supplement them and in what order. As units get picked off, the choice becomes more streamlined, and at the end of the game just the Knight remains (and thus gets to essentially chain activate with it's Cypher.) That does follow the feel of something like an anime a lot more. It is also a bit of an adjustment from Warmachine, where the warcaster tends to play more of a support/secondary role for most of the game, or Malifaux, where your Master is powerful but still relatively vulnerable (depending on the Master) so you need to play them semi-conservatively.

Playing the Game - Game Flow
One thing that is very different about this game: no rounds, no turns. Players simply alternate activations back and forth (filling the queue as you go along,) until either one player runs out of models or scores the required number of VPs in order to win.

I'm totally fine with that approach - it lends the game a speedy feel even if the game itself may not actually be playing faster than if we had rounds or turns - but the one downside to it is that I'm not really sure how the hell you're supposed to put together a cohesive battle report of the game. Without those rounds/turns you don't really have a time to key off of as a reference point.

One possible approach may be to pick a model and use that as your timing point. Since the Knight in each cadre feels like a model you're going to want to activate regularly, it may be possible to use them to bracket off rough "rounds" of time.

Rules and Rulebook
At a basic level, the core rules for Relic Knights are pretty simple and easy to understand. It's a different enough system from others out there that some preparation is probably a very good idea (though the rulebook is available online) but once you get the basic flow of things down everything seems to flow pretty smoothly.

The rulebook is well set up and poorly set up at the same time.

First, the good: the rulebook has a pretty thorough reference section at the back of the book that lists all of the keywords (not super critical but nice to have handy,) ability names (crucial and something you'll reference a number of times,) common esper actions, boost descriptions, and detailed breakdown of the turn sequence and timing of when rules resolve. All of those things are very good to have handy, and that part of the rulebook is invaluable.

Next, the bad: the actual meat of the rulebook has issues with phrasing, re-use of terms in different contexts, and periodic vagueness. They aren't dealbreakers and this rulebook is one of the better 1st edition rulebooks I've read, but there are definitely things that can be confusing or seem contradictory based on how things are written. Those who are familiar with or used to Privateer Press' rule composition standards may be in for a bit of an adjustment.

The upside is that the rules forum is active and those in the know seem to be pretty quick to respond to questions, and the game already has an FAQ/Errata on their Media Page that helps to clarify murky areas. Between those two resources our group has been able to answer all of our questions, which is good, and hopefully Soda Pop Miniatures will continue to update the FAQ as necessary to keep it a useful resource.

Although it kind of falls in with rules, terrain deserves it's own section of discussion due to how critical it seems to be to the game.

Like other skirmish games - Malifaux and Infinity most directly - Relic Knights encourages players to use lots of terrain. Unlike other skirmish games I think that Relic Knights requires terrain that is different from what you're normally used to putting down.

For example: in Malifaux you can have a fine game with a table that has some low walls, a few sets of trees, and a couple of buildings. So long as you distribute them accordingly, you should have enough terrain to block LoS and give Cover as necessary.

In Relic Knights, that same set up is going to result in a game where almost no one is going to get Cover, and lots of people are going to get spelled/shot. Or at least, that's what has been happening during our games.

After thinking about it for a bit, the key factor seems to be not even the density of terrain (we've had quite a bit on the tables when we've played) but the size of the terrain. In other skirmish games the average model size is roughly human (size/height 2 most of the time for terrain purposes) with smaller things being possible (or even frequent in the case of Malifaux) and larger things being the exception.

Contrast that with Relic Knights, where the only small model each side is going to have is their Cypher (and not even all of those are small) which is kind of a glorified token due to how it plays in the game anyways. There are plenty of models that are size 2, but every faction also has plenty of models that are size 3 and often a couple that are size 4 or greater. And the Noh Empire are all exclusively size 3+ (again, excluding Cyphers.)

When combined with the Cover rules (if any part of your base is not behind terrain, you do not get Cover) it quickly becomes apparent that the terrain set ups that worked in Malifaux or even Infinity aren't really going to work in Relic Knights. Having a battlefield with a distribution of size 1/2 walls, a few total LoS blocking buildings, and forests isn't going to be of use to most size 3 models as they won't have anything to hide behind nor many things to actually get Cover from. Even the size 2 models aren't going to be loving that setup as the size 1 walls aren't doing much for them but providing Cover, which is better than nothing but still not as good as having something to fully hide behind.

I'm not saying the whole table should be size 5 impassible buildings; that would just result in everyone bunkering up and playing shoot and scoot around corners all game. But I definitely do think that Relic Knights necessitates "bigger" terrain - larger footprints of the terrain pieces, and a larger intended size to allow a wider range of models to have possible sources of LoS blockage/Cover.

The core terrain rules of Relic Knights seem to support this as well: unlike many other game systems Relic Knights has a rule that allows for models to move over/through objects (terrain, other models, markers) that are equal to or less than their size without penalty. Likewise, the terrain rules waive the need for a model to climb up any surface it's height or less. Meaning that putting more size 2/3 terrain out isn't going to inhibit movement nearly as much as we may be used to in other games. It also may lead to a more meaningful use of Cover and Protection during the game.

At the very least, I think this game is going to require loads more terrain that Warmachine players are used to (not uncommon with skirmish scale games) and it probably requires a different approach to terrain than even something like Malifaux (which already pushed us to make and use a lot more terrain than we would have otherwise.)

Final Thoughts
Overall, I enjoyed my first game of Relic Knights. It ran relatively smoothly and didn't take too long all things considered (lots of time spent initially setting things up and figuring out rules questions early on.) The game definitely offers something different from it's competitors with it's structure and approach, and it certainly seems like it could play very aggressively and quickly.

I do have concerns about long term balance and scenario play, but they're very early concerns. Because of the structure of the game - you have to pay for your Knight, and you can activate them as frequently as they make it back into the queue - I'm having a hard time reconciling if Questing Knights will compare favorably over time against Relic Knights.

Regarding scenario play, our group has a concern that the Primary Conditions and even Secondary Conditions may be too difficult to pull off relative to how much easier it is to keep dumping damage into the enemy. There's a general concern about that which I've read elsewhere, and I can absolutely see that being the case at lower points, but I'm reserving judgement on that issue until we get some more games in and possibly change our terrain approach (which would make killing more difficult and possibly encourage scenario play.)

Also, there are the usual concerns that some models seem awfully potent for their cost, or that some models seem kind of lame for their cost. The upside is that SPM seems to be willing to errata things that turn out to be "off", so if there are model or rules concerns hopefully they get addressed before it starts to damage the meta for this game.

And its worth emphasizing that any "first edition" of a game runs into problems just like these. Relic Knights is actually starting off in a very good spot relative to how some other games have started (Malifaux and Warmachine started off in a much more rough state,) so if SPM is willing to iterate/errata their rules this game could end up with a pretty solid rule set in a decent time frame.

The biggest thing is going to be to get in some more games to try things out and really get a feel for how the game plays. Hopefully that will happen in the coming weeks and months, and I'll be sure to share my impressions of any future games I play (along with a semi-coherent recounting of the game, circumstances willing.)

Until next time, thanks very much for reading!

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