There have been a number of games released lately that hope to capture some of the disappointed 40K players out there, much as Mantic's Kings of War has made major inroads in sucking away WHFB players who (rightly) hate GW's new Age of Sigmar rules.
None of these projects though, including my own, have the legendary name of Rick Priestley behind them. The very same Rick Priestley that helped design the original Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and Warhammer 40,000 games. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up a copy of the Antares rulebook some weeks back. Would it blow my project away? Would it be the next big thing in wargaming?
Well... Let me put it this way...
There was that opening scene with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, which was a little slow but still kind of cool. Even though something felt a little off about how it played out. Still, YAY STAR WARS!!!
But then they found [Expletive-Expletive] and things got all goofy and needlessly talky/political. And you kept hoping that it would get better, but apart from the pod race and one lightsaber fight at the end it never did?
Yeah, Gates of Antares (GoA from here on out) is a heck of a lot like that.
working on a competing game of my own, so I'm not exactly an unbiased observer. Remember that when you read what I have to say.
But on the other hand, having been working on a similar game for a number of years now, and also having experience teaching design subjects, I'm kind of uniquely qualified to talk about what I see that both does and doesn't work in GoA. In the same manner that I would if a student of mine dropped it on my desk as a final project.
That is why this article isn't so much a "review" of GoA, but a "critique". A blow by blow of the major areas where I think it succeeds and fails in its attempt to build a better 40K. I won't be talking about its miniatures, or running test games. Instead I'll simply be giving you my thoughts on how it's been designed overall.
So What's Wrong With It?
There's lots of nasty details to go over, but what I think it boils down to is the following:
- It's a product of the overly-insular Nottingham wargames development community.
- It cannot find the right balance of complexity vs. simplicity.
- The rules are not presented well, and actually insult the reader constantly.
- There is no character, no feeling, to the fluff at all.
Who's noticeably missing? Alessio Cavatore. The creator of Kings of War, and Priestley's co-author on Bolt Action. Why?
Maybe Alessio decided to concentrate on KoW, as it's gaining traction right now. Or maybe Mantic didn't want him working on a competing Sci-Fi game. Maybe Rick wanted to take a more front-seat design role on GoA, and not rely (as he described in a Bolt Action interview) on another designer like Alessio to do 90+% of the work with some input here and there from Priestley, who has mostly been working in producer roles since his early days at GW.
Whatever the reason, Alessio's simplifying (to a fault sometimes) influence is gone, and it's felt. In that, by and large, there was not an idea thought of for this game that didn't make it into the book.
The Forward to GoA hits all the right notes... in the first paragraph.
It then goes 3rd person in its writing style, which tries to evoke a presenter telling you what "our" game is, and what races/foes "we" will encounter. Which is... off putting... to a reader. Like you're listening to a carnival barker attempting to lure you into a tent show that's likely better in the telling than the showing. It breaks the 4th wall and keeps you from suspending your disbelief.
"Beyond the Gates of Antares was originally conceived as a game and that is where our journey begins. However our game is only the first step upon a path that promises to take us to new stars and undiscovered worlds."Are they also planning a TV series? Movies? Comics? Is this just overly-flowery writing? I don't know, but I really wish they would concentrate on presenting the game right now.
But we do get an idea (not so well stated) of what the game is supposed to be.
- It's a Tabletop Wargame
- It can be played with relatively few models.... or a lot (very non-committal).
- Possible to play with no more than 30 models a side (good!).
- Should take experienced players no more than an hour per game (questionable).
- The game is constructed to be easily scalable (still feeling non-committal).
- All the army lists are in the book (Yay!).
- You can play everything from a scouting force to a "full army of conquest" (hem...).
- Antares is a game of primarily infantry combat (yay!).
- Larger vehicles and machines play mostly a supporting role (yay!).
I mean smaller battles, vehicles as support-only, one hour games, and scaleability are all good things to shoot for in a post-40K world. Essential even. That's what I know from my own research that potential players are after. But my gut tells me that Priestley and his team weren't confident enough in making a smaller, simpler game than 40K to actually commit fully to doing it.
Game Rules Introduction
There's lots of interesting stuff in the introduction.
- The game mostly uses D10 dice, but also some D4, D6, and D8 dice too.
- All rolls are lower-is better. So 1's are auto-pass, and 10's are auto-fail.
"Rolling 3D6 in series has (to-hit, to-wound, save) has 216 possible combinations, but only 42 unique results.So by going with a 1-always-passes, and a 10-always-fails system, they've actually got no better than, and possibly a bit worse than, the number of possible test outcomes in 40K. So there's no real advantage there, except for rolling one less die (most of the time).
Rolling 2D10 in series (to-hit, to-wound) has 100 possible combinations, but only 40 unique results."
But using D10's is also about having more room for modifiers in each roll, as these charts show:
In a D6 system like 40K's, where ones always fail, and sixes always pass, you have a 4-point spread within which to establish a base roll, and add or subtract modifiers (if 40K had any). Which gives you a useful modifier range of +/- 2 points from the average of 4.
In a D10 system like GoA's, where ones always pass, and tens always fail, you have an 8-point spread to work with. Giving you a useful modifier range of +/- 4 points from the average of 5.
But here's the kicker:
If your D6 system (like Flames of War and my project) only auto-passes if you need a 1+ to hit (or whatever), then you have a full 5-point spread to work with, and a useful modifier range of +/- 3 points from your average roll of 4. Or a full 75% of what you get from GoA's D10 system.
So for all the trouble of moving from D6 dice to D10's, GoA loses a bit of unique result range vs. 40K, while only gaining a 1-point improvement (+/- 4 vs. 3) in the number of modifiers they can use versus the D6 system of a game like Flames. I consider that to be kind of a marginal gain really.
- Minimum table size is 4'x4', while they assume we have 6'x4' tables.
Love it or hate it, GoA uses the same dice-in-bag system to determine unit activation that Bolt Action does. I guess it's considered a 'Priestley' mechanic now. But in any case you draw a die from the bag, and if it's your army's color, then you pick a unit to activate, turn the die to the order you want, and then carry it out.
And in case you're wondering... Yes, this is a single-activation system that's similar in many respects to Epic:Armageddon; as so many alternative 40K games are. There are plenty of fans of E:A (Nurglitch is probably jumping for joy), but I was hoping for something more original myself. Priestley is old-school GW though, so I can understand the choice he made in adapting one of their better designs.
Yep, in true Epic Armageddon fashion, you put pin markers on units when they're hit. The ones included with the GoA box sets do have some nifty dials on them that range from 1 to 12, but the numbering is so small that they're almost impossible to read. I got these from a local shop owner who said he'd never use them because of this.
A unit's stats are as follows:
Agility (used for difficult moves)Nice and simple. Nothing to complain about here.
Accuracy (how well you hit)
Strength (close combat hitting power)
Resistance (basically your armor save)
Initiative (similar to E:A's usage)
For unit types you have Infantry, Light/Heavy Weapons Teams, Drones (various types), Vehicles, Mounts (both bikes and beast), Beasts, "Humongous Beasts", Commanders, and Probes.
The additions of drones and probes are very welcome and long overdue in a Sci-Fi Wargame, but "Humongous Beasts"? Just wait, because this is but the first example of Priestley doing verbal somersaults to avoid using ANY term for something that GW also uses. Such as the much less silly "Monstrous Creature".
"Units" is used earlier to refer to groups of models, but "...units of two or more models are always arranged into a formation." Which is needlessly confusing. Is the term "units" interchangeable with "models", or "formations"?
|Don't cry Mantic space dwarf!|
Word silliness aside, a 1" coherency (yes I said it!) is ridiculous, and will lead to the same movement-tray unit movement mentality as Alessio's struggling Warpath. Flames of War has a 4" - 8" coherency (depending on the unit type), and this allows models in the same unit to separate out a bit and hug cover much better. Leading to a much more cinematic feel overall.
But that begs the question... Has ANYONE in Nottingham played a popular wargame (X-Wing, Flames, Warmachine, Infinity, Malifaux) that hasn't been designed in Nottingham? Alessio is the only one who seems willing to demonstrate new ideas there, though for all we know they're the exact same ideas he had for 40K when Jervis Johnson pushed him out of GW.
But in-game it seems to be a rule that applies to certain kinds of probe units, wherein they are issued orders slightly differently, or can join other units and follow their orders. I'm really not sure.
The turn sequence is pretty simple, and is similar to Epic:Armageddon's.
- Draw an order die from the bag.
- The player whose die was drawn assigns it to a unit and picks an order.
- If need be, the player tests to see if they can follow the order.
- The player's unit performs the order.
- Return to the first step.
- The dice are put back in the bag and a bunch of upkeep stuff happens.
Get ready for some more verbal silliness...
- Fire (shoot at stuff with a bonus)
- Advance (move, and then shoot at stuff)
- Run (move double without shooting)
- Ambush (don't call it Overwatch)
- Rally (get D6 pin points removed)
- Down (don't call it Go to Ground)
And Then There's
Way back when Priestley was pitching his failed GoA kickstarter, one of the first sculpts they showed off was a mercenary-ish looking bloke who they later named Hansa Nairoba.
A nice sculpt to be sure, but somehow between then and now this somewhat generic looking foot soldier became the mascot for GoA, and periodically shows up to offer 'advice' to you as you're reading through the rules.
Which is sort of similar to how Flames of War's rules use little cartoon officer heads with word bubbles to help explain rules.
|This is useful to learning the game.|
Except that Hansa doesn't actually help you. His 'advice' is either incomprehensible gobbledygook, or simply outright insults.
That's right, they're explaining
Here's a hint guys: PUT THEM IN AN ADVANCED RULES CHAPTER INSTEAD!!!
As a counter-example, X-Wing does a wonderful job of explaining the basics first, and leaving the more complicated stuff for later in their rules. That GoA needs to put in these kinds of "whoah-there-young'n" bits everywhere is evidence of an incompetent structuring and layout of the GoA rules. If we're not ready to use something, then wait until later to introduce it. Even 5th Edition 40K does a better job of presenting its rules in easy to swallow chunks than GoA does.
(Oh, and Hansa's hand-drawn illustrations make him look like a young black man, but whenever you see pics of his miniature, he's painted up like a pasty old white dude. Classy.)
But in any case, he's just as annoying as Microsoft's "Clippy" ever was, and has shown up in "macho" posters for the local FLGS that the owner promptly discarded because he felt like they'd drive customers away from the game. Not good.
And Now The Craziness Really Starts...
Hansa aside, we've just talked about the basics of the game so far. But now we're going to get into the meat of the rules, where everything quickly goes off the rails. How? Let me give you some examples.
No Pre-Measuring, Even For Movement
This is really an interesting choice, as Priestley had (during his Kickstarter videos) said that he'd come to favor pre-measuring as a way to avoid arguments during a game. But instead he went even more restrictive than GW and decided that you can't even pre-measure for movement.
That's right, when you move your models, you have to describe to your opponent where you intend to move them in detail. Then you get to measure how far they can actually move toward where you said they would go.
Did they play-test this?
In what appears to be yet another example of Priestley going out of his way to avoid doing anything the GW way, he has standardized movement on 5" multiples instead of 6". In fact, all of the weapon distances are also based on multiples of 5.
But why? You can't divide a 48" x 72" table cleanly into 5" lengths. Which means you'll have trouble defining deployment zones that your enemy can't immediately shoot into, and any attempt at mathematically quantifying the value of a particular movement or weapon range in relation to the table's dimensions will be extremely frustrating.
Does he not know that abstract game rule mechanics cannot be copyrighted? That GW cannot claim to be the first or last game to base movement and shooting distances on 6" multiples? Even if he didn't want to use 6" as his base distance, he could have chosen 4" or 8", which is what Flames mostly does (it still uses 6" for infantry). Both of those numbers will divide evenly into the length and width of a 4' x 6' table.
Plus there's the issue of asking players to perform fractional math in their heads during a game, which is a big no-no. This (and other stuff that follows) really has me wondering if they did any real testing before releasing these rules, or whether they just winged it and published their first set of rules concepts instead.
Lucky Hits & Dud Shots
Rolls of 1 are "Lucky Hits", and rolls of 10 are "Dud Shots", which each have needlessly complicated special rules attached to them. Dud shots can't be re-rolled (among other possibilities), and lucky hits will have target-specific rules like possibly blowing up the plasma reactor strapped to the backs of one of the faction species.
Does a competitive wargame that's meant to be played in an hour or less have room for such Jervis Johnson like random nonsense? No it doesn't.
Moving In Area Terrain
Twenty-Eight? Are they on crack? Now I'm almost sure they never play-tested this game.
But it gets worse. Here is the procedure for moving through Area Terrain:
- Roll an agility test (see specific type modifier) to see if you can actually enter the terrain.
- Step #1, in a feat of terrible editing, is repeated again on the next page.
- Even if you're already in area terrain, you still have to test to move.
- Pass the test and you move your full normal movement through it.
- Fail the test and you move half your normal movement through it.
- Unless you rolled a 10, in which case you can't move.
- Pass the test with a 1, and you've found a "way through". Meaning you'll pass any further rolls.
- Moving through Area Terrain is harder for large models, not easier.
|Typical Woods In The American Midwest|
Plus, have these guys ever been in a real wood? In anything short of a tropical jungle, the only potentially impassible part of a wood is generally its outer edge. So slowing a unit's movement by a set or pseudo-random amount makes sense. But this D&D-like fixation on "realism" is not something that works in a wargame where movement needs to be quick and simple to do.
Now, there's a couple of ways that you can handle blast weapons in a tabletop wargame. You can have a scattering template, where everyone underneath is hit automatically (40K). Or, you can have a non-scattering template that just defines how many troops/things can be hit using an attack roll that might or might not ignore cover modifiers (Flames). Or, like Warpath, you can just say that blast weapons do D6 (or whatever) hits to the unit targeted.
Well, Priestley's GoA doesn't pick any of those methods. Instead it uses an unholy union of all 3. Here's how it works:
- You declare that you're using a blast weapon and place it where you want to hit.
- You roll a D10 to determine where it scatters, using the pointy end for direction.
- You then roll the D4, D6, or whatever the weapon type defines to see how many models are hit.
- Any model in the unit can take the hits, but those under the template must take them first.
But there is one rule, tacked on at the end, that makes me scratch my head. Because as an idea it should have been much more front-and-center and developed in the game as a whole.
This rule applies to "Instant Transporters" that allow models to move instantly from one room in a building to another. If there's a unit between the section you're moving from and the section you're moving to, you can't use them. That's it.
My primary complaint with the weapons of GoA (besides the odd ranges and blast rules) is that there's precious little that I, as an Earth citizen of the 21rst century, can relate too. Which is also a fault with the fluff of the game as a whole.
The rules go into much loving detail about "compression technology", and how it allows for nearly unlimited ammunition loads (think of the movie Ultraviolet). But when the most recognizable weapon is a "Mag Pistol" that decompresses its ammo, and then magnetically fires metal spikes or plugs at an enemy... Well, like the movie above, this is a world that you may not understand. And like Ultraviolet it becomes hard to care about the world we're shown.
Because while such advanced weaponry would be fine for an elder race, or a super-advanced faction, there is no low-tech faction to which I can identify. GW's Imperium of man has some wild, weird shit in it. But the Imperium is still recognizably human in a way that we can relate to. Their guns go boom, and lasers are still something we can understand today. They have missiles and whatnot. They have feelings that are affected by what goes on around them.
But "X-Sling"? It's a type of micro-grenade launcher. Not to be confused with the "Micro-X Launcher". Then there's the Mass Compactor whose description is more impressive than it's simple cover-denying effect.
The Frag Borer (a "Fractal Cannon" sub-type) is the best idea, in that it's a heavy weapon that once locked on a target hits it with increasingly powerful blasts each turn. So there's some good stuff here to be sure. But where are the weapons we have and know now, and to which we can relate? The wild and crazy stuff would seem all the more wild and crazy if we had a simple laser-rifle or an RPG to compare it to.
There are 12 missions in GoA, split between "Matched Scenarios" and "Narrative Scenarios".
The presentation of the missions is, in a word, horrible. The first two scenarios don't even have deployment maps, and the diagrams that are provided for the others are ugly and unhelpful. Flames of War remains the gold standard here for presentation and clear wording.
Much of the text seems to be someone's attempt to expand a shorter set of development notes into something far too wordy for the information it actually conveys, and there are constant references throughout to rules on other pages. Ridiculously, some of the rules reference (with a page number) rules on the same page. While the "Game Duration" rule inexplicably references itself (with page number). Even GW isn't this sloppy.
Beyond the first, basic scenario, there's not a whole lot that looks interesting. Most seem like half-developed ideas. But there was one mission that I found amusing, as it's quite similar to one I outlined a few years ago for our game, WarStrike. It's called (in both games) "Bridgehead".
Here's our (rough) deployment map:
Since I've had some contact with one of the assistant GoA designers on LinkedIn before, I know that they are at least aware of our project. But while I don't mind them trying to improve on one of our ideas, I am sort of insulted that they obviously did zero testing on it.
Why? Because they just plopped the Transmat Portal right down in the middle of the table instead of considering the need for some distance between the portal, its defenders, and the attacking forces that would arrive. Or the fact that they're essentially wasting all the space behind the portal opposite the table edge where the attackers will come on. Their kind of setup would only make sense if the attackers could enter from all sides. Come on guys!
And Finally, There's The Fluff
As we all know, Warhammer 40K hasn't survived for 25 years now because of the perfection of its rules. Mostly, we all just like the world GW has created, and as long as the rules aren't unplayable, and the prices aren't too high, and other people play too, we'll give it a go.
But part of making a compelling game world is finding a way for us to care about the people in it. In 40K you have hundreds of very human stories of mystery, treachery, joys, sorrows, prophesies, and all the things that we find easily relatable as humans.
This is where GoA really falls down. Hard.
The basic premise of the game isn't all that bad. Sometime in the near future, humans discover a stargate in our solar system and figure out how to open it. Our ships are then transported near-instantly to the "Star" Antares (there are actually two stars in that system, but they say it's a red giant), which isn't actually a star but a giant machine that acts as the nexus of an intergalactic set of stargates. On its surface, you pop out of one gate, and then head for the gate of the system you wish to travel to. Most of the time spent in a journey is on the surface of Antares (which is almost as big around as our solar system) traveling from one gate to another.
So empires rose, humans specialized into a variety of forms, and then Antares started glitching. For long periods the gates wouldn't work at all, and when they did work again their positions on the surface of Antares were shifted around. This happens every so often now. Mixing up the territories of the empires willy-nilly.
Cool. But that's as deep as it gets. The fluff describes the two major powers, the various sub-species of human, and how nearly every human lives in a Libertarian post-scarcity paradise where they don't want for any basic need.
So... um... why do they go to war?
The fluff goes on to describe how every civilized planet is crawling, inside and out, with nanites; and how these form the basis for global computer networks that all humans and AIs can access easily (some better than others). It talks about how when you get on a spaceship your isolated colony of nanites creates a shard, which then merges with the world-brain of your destination... blah blah blah.
The Earth and all of Sol's inner planets were destroyed long ago, but they don't say how or by who. They go through the history of seven ages and how this or that race did X, Y, and/or Z. They talk about the character of the races and what they value most.
Then they go back to describing technologies. Such as how the gates open, and what "Critical Depth" is. Which is about as interesting as the last 15 minutes of technobabble in every episode of Star Trek: Voyager.
Finally, in the last few pages, we get some stories centered around Hansa (the rules bully), and his friend Bovan Tuk. But they're not all that well written and your brain is already fried from everything that came before. Which reads like a historical timeline of events absent any real human story about those events. It's like reading the drier parts of Tolkien's The Silmarillion.
There's nothing that compares to 40K's immortal Emperor, his conquest of the galaxy, and his ultimate betrayal by half of his own children. There's nothing that tugs at the heart like the fall and racial shame/sadness of the Eldar. Or the inevitable doom presented by the Orks or Tyranids. There's nothing that, against a backdrop of grimdark, gives you some hope for the future like the Tau do.
Evidently, nobody thinks that Antares is some sort of god/demon, and worships it. There are no cults, no legions, no meta-story of interest. The fluff section reads like a universe primer for a sci-fi show like Battlestar Galactica. Where later writers are expected to write human-centered stories within a well-defined setting. And if they need to know what Critical Depth is, or how a gate is opened, they can look that up so as not to contradict an earlier or later episode in the series when it comes to the details.
Well, the game sucks, and not just a little bit. It's high on aspirations, and is more interesting than average because of that (and Priestley's name), but it fails to deliver a compelling experience IMO.
The gameplay can be summed up as a D10 version of Epic:Armageddon with WAY too much complexity in certain parts to meet its stated goal of 1-hour games. Frankly, it's too complicated to compete with skirmish games like Necromunda or Infinity, where you expect more detail.
The presentation of the rules is shoddy, ill-ordered, uninspired, and at times insulting. Making me think that they rushed this thing through production as fast as possible just to get it out there. Which reminds me of an industry saying... "A game can only be late once, but it's bad forever."
The fluff is bland and generic, being more concerned with the technology and social structure of the game's factions than in telling a compelling history that would make me care about them. As a result, when I look at the models for sale in the shop, I feel nothing about the races/characters they represent.
|All of these dioramas are beautiful.|
On the bright side, the illustrations are ok, and many of the diorama shots of models are fantastic looking. Somebody really went to a lot of trouble to make these look good. It really shouldn't be the best part of the book, but it is.
From a marketing perspective, they've got the box sets figured out properly, as you can buy a starter force with a hardcover rulebook inside for $112. If the rules were decent, that wouldn't be a bad deal at all, and certainly is better than anything GW offers its beginning players.
But overall I'm disappointed, and maybe that's because I always liked Rick Priestley during the early days of GW. It's easy to look back and see his sidelining within the company and eventual ouster as a big reason for GW being in the sorry state it is today. Like he was the creative soul of the company trying to keep it grounded in its pre-IPO roots.
But when I read this book, I don't see the work of a long-neglected genius. His design basically builds upon a prior GW property (Epic:Armageddon), lacks the confidence to use everyday gaming terms that we're used to seeing, and he seems almost as prone to needless narrative random LoL-sies in his designs as Jervis Johnson is. Really, he's not that different in his design approach to his then-peers as maybe I liked to think he was. And maybe he's worse at certain things, like world creation, then some of them were. That's a curtain that I really never wanted to peek behind. It makes my inner 16yo self tear up a bit.
And... Maybe this is Warlord Games failing to support his work properly with a good editor, but there's been no obvious effort to pare the game down to its basics, to discard the silly and insulting bits, or even to organize the presentation of the rules properly. Or even to see to it that the diagrams don't look like they were created in Microsoft Paint. Seeing certain bits like the dioramas excel while so much else fails really speaks to a lack of product leadership in the form of a good producer. But seeing as how Priestley has spent most of the last 20 years producing rather than designing, I don't know whether he tried to do both at once, or what his balance between those responsibilities was.
But in terms of this being a competition-friendly game, it's a no-go. If you're willing to discard the more time-consuming nonsense and create some house rules, it could be an OK casual game. But frankly there are just better options out there for casual play. Including Dust and, I'm sad to say, Warhammer 40,000 or (cough... cough...) Age of Sigmar.