Sunday, March 15, 2020

[Review] Five Klicks from the Zone, Ch 1 - Post-Collapse Skirmish Campaigns

In a temporary diversion from the blog’s usual RPG content, I turn today to review Five Klicks from the Zone, the new solo/coop skirmish and campaign war-game rules for post-apocalyptic action from Nordic Weasel Games! Equip your band, trade for ancient relics, hold off mutant reavers, and try to make the wasteland safe again! 


CAVEATS/DISCLAIMERS/ARCANE LEGALESE: I received a .pdf copy of these rules in exchange for an online review, though of course no conditions were placed on my review. I should note that I am a fan of Nordic Weasel Games’ products in general, and I correspond every few months or so with the author/publisher to discuss matters of game design or play. Also, please note that weblinks here to WargameVault and/or DriveThruRPG are affiliate links, which add no extra cost to purchases but help support this blog and its content. Ok, on with the show!

Nordic Weasel Games, the vast business empire (just kidding) of one Ivan Sorensen, offers an almost shocking number of affordable, straightforward war-game rules. To be fair, none of NWG’s products will win prizes for graphic design or layout, but the rules themselves tend to produce highly enjoyable games with elegant mechanics that reinforce specific design goals for each title. As I mentioned above, I’m a big fan of the line. Among NWG’s many systems, some of the more popular of late have included Five Parsecs from Home (science fiction), Five Leagues from the Borderlands (fantasy), and now Five Klicks from the Zone (post-apocalyptic; $12.99 USD at Wargamevault). Like its sister games, Five Klicks provides genre-suitable:

+ tables for generating a random post-apocalyptic warband, with a very basic life-path/background system for each character

+ a robust “campaign turn” system, also relying on numerous random tables, allowing you to advance your squad’s characters and gear or pursue other long-term goals in a rich procedurally generated narrative between combat missions

+ and, finally, straightforward skirmish combat rules built from the ground up to favor solo or co-op play.

Let’s walk through each of those elements and see how they fare in play. 


GETTING STARTED: RECRUITING YOUR OWN IRRADIATED PSYCHO HEROES 


I like that the game clearly evokes its genre, yet remains open to significant player creativity. No explanation for the apocalypse is assumed (or required, if all you want to do is blast mutant bugs or raiders). The campaign framework assumes that the player is building up a base, enclave, or stronghold of some sort - but the player is left to determine its nature; because the actual combat fights will occur while out on patrol in ‘the Zone’ the base can be given as much or little detail as desired. However, some abstract Stats are used to track its overall condition and development. 

Ultimately, you can make whatever you like of the setting. That being said - this volume plays as a complete game, but self-advertises as the beginning of a larger series (thus the subtitle "chapter 1") - something similar happened with Five Parsecs from Home, which now has many sci-fi expansions. The tone of this volume is a little closer to Mad Max than to Gamma World; although you may tangle with mutant plants or creatures, for now large monstrosities and killer robots, etc., are apparently reserved for future entries that may appear in the series. 

So. To get things started, you randomly generate your 8-person squad. Over time, you’ll have the chance to recruit more characters, but during skirmish fights you’ll always be limited to a crew of 8 on the table (which should fix some of the complaints about Five Parsecs’ Gang Warfare supplement, which could lead eventually to impossibly strong player bands). I suppose you could make your band non-randomly, but I would advise against it; this isn’t a game of carefully curated point lists for balanced matches, it’s a game of seeing what you can make of the cards you’re dealt - and the random, haphazard results you end up with absolutely nail the post-apocalyptic trope of random survivors banding together. For example, after generating my own starting squad, I wound up with the following team: 

1 Ash Merchant [4, 7, +1, 2, 0] from a Safe City (+1 Medical skill). LEADER trait, 1 Grit. 
  • Zone Exposure, Betrayed, Traveled with Nomads
2 Ash Merchant [5, 6, 0, 2, 0] from an Isolated Enclave
  • Zone Exposure
3 Ash Merchant [2, 4, +1, 3, 1] from a Frontier Settlement / Rallied Event - also gains Leader Trait 
  • Survived Bandit Raid
4 Enforcer [2, 4, +1, 4, 4] from some Roaming Survivors 
  • Made a personal Enemy 
5 Caravan Guard [2, 4, 0, 3, 2] from a Trading Post (Speech skill +1)

6 Scavenger [2, 4, 0, 4, 3] from a Stable Settlement

7 Enforcer [3, 4, +1, 3, 3] from a Nomad Camp 

8 Reclaimer [3, 4, 0, 3, 3] from a Safe City (+1 Medical skill)

To keep these stalwarts safe from the horrors of the wasteland, I also generated some starting combat gear: 2x bows, 1 musket, 2x “scrap rifles,” 2x shot guns, 1 civilian carbine, 2x military rifles, 1 light melee weapon, 2x heavy melee weapons, and 2x suits of “scrap armor.” 

The numerical stats above are: Initiative, Speed, Combat Bonus, Toughness, and Nerve. Those stats have been modified not only by character type but also by the specific life path Events affecting some of the characters. This squad illustrates one of the benefits of Five Klicks’ random generation process. When I began, I imagined creating some kind of paramilitary group carving out law and order in the wasteland…how original. After looking over my results, however, I saw an unexpected theme coming through: with three “Ash Merchants” and a Caravan Guard, half my squad had some association with commerce. This was not what I’d expected, but as I thought about it, a new vision for my team emerged. I decided they were founding a small caravanserai near an ancient route through the mountains; their goal was to re-open long-distance trade and thus bring some stability and prosperity back to the region. Fans of OSR RPGs will be familiar with the ways random tables can stimulate your own ideas but turn them in unexpected directions; that kind of thing happens all over Five Klicks. 


MAKING A LIVING AFTER THE END OF THE WORLD


Once you’ve got your team built, you turn to the campaign rules. They are simple and straightforward, relying on a wealth of random results rather than rules complexity. The game provides a menu of suggested campaign victory conditions, allowing players to tailor each campaign to their desired tone and length. 

You get a limited number of Action Points each campaign turn, and can spend them to do things like: train or recruit troops, look for resources, spend resources to upgrade your Base, buy semi-random Trading access to merchants (who might have junk, or might have really helpful goodies to outfit your team), etc. Then you send your team out on an exploration patrol. Depending on the dice rolls, you may find yourself responding to a variety of special events, or encountering a variety of travelers, exploiting further resource opportunities - or (most likely) fighting a battle in the wastes. 

I should note that the character XP and advancement rules seem more structured and balanced than those in Five Parsecs from Home.  

Here’s how my first two campaign turns played out. 

Campaign Turn 1: 
Play began with a special EVENT - Economic Upswing, receive +1 trade points this turn (a fitting opener for a merchant group!). I chose to spend my action points gathering scrap for resources - some of which I sold off this turn to boost my “trade roll” even more. Spending 4 trade points gave me 4 random trade results, any 2 of which I could choose to keep. What was available for trade? A suit of military-grade armor, a crummy suit of scrap armor, a medical ‘diagnoser,’ and some water tablets. I kept the military armor and diagnoser, which can help when treating wounds after combat but also fit the randomly generated medical background of some of my characters. Finally, I tried to recruit another squad member, but the attempt washed out. 

I then sent out my patrol. Unfortunately, they encountered a nastier EVENT - hostile flora (mutant man-eating plants for the win!) injured one of my Ash Merchants - meaning that he’d have to sit out the action for the next campaign turn (this was just the result of a few dice rolls, not a pitched skirmish). 

Campaign Turn 2: 
The weather started getting worse, which would limit any use of the “survival” skill bonus. I spent some action points looking for more scrap, but decided to save my “earnings” so I could invest them later in improvements to my home base. More limited investment in trading therefore earned more limited results for now, but I was able to recruit a new squad member - a rookie that I armed with one of our bows (if only so I could use my old GW archer-with-mohawk miniature in my next fight). As it turned out, that rookie would earn his keep…right away! 

Exploration resulted in a battle, modified by the special condition “scouts report” - I could randomly select 2 enemy groups and choose my preferred opponent. A d20 table offers a score of possible opponent types for each skirmish, each with particular stats, weapons, and tactical behavior. About 75% of these are some form of human opponent, perfectly suited to a Mad Max-like game: nomads, bandits, outcasts, rad-tainted mutants, local militias of various strength, hardened warlord retainers, etc. The other 25% bring in the post-apoc zany: packs of infected dogs, “snarler beasts,” mindless zombies, or my favorite - “hunter bugs…predatory insects big enough to knock down a door” (time to get those tyranids back off the shelf…). 

In this case, the dice said my choices were to challenge a band of cautious Nomad Scouts or aggressive Raiders. As being attacked by Raiders fit my narrative better, and because I wanted a more challenging contest to prepare for the review, I decided to fight the Raiders. As one of my kids declared as I set up the battle, “they want to eat us.” Better not lose, then. 


TO ARMS, HOOLIGANS! 


The game provides a handy random-terrain generator that sets up the battlefield in 8” wide chunks. I liked this scenery randomizer a lot and may use it for other games in general. Deployment is fast and uncomplicated, basically involving the standard “you line up over here and we’ll line them up over there” approach near different board edges. Depending on the terrain generated, your skirmish might also include some “Suspicious Features” - little objective-like targets that either side can explore. I quite like the rules for these features (and would prefer they show up more frequently!). On the one hand, the player who diverts troops to investigate might find helpful loot inside, but might also trigger some obstacles or problems - so there is a bit of a push-your-luck element at work. Based on that alone, these mini-objectives might be a little “meh” - but there’s a catch. The AI-operated enemies can also investigate these special features - and they have a very different table of possible results…which can include triggering enemy reinforcements right in the middle of the battle. So the player might need to guard these features whether or not they want to unpack them  - a cost-benefit analysis that might shift back and forth throughout a single skirmish (my test game didn’t include Suspicious Features, but I really like them after reading the rules).  This is a neat addition to the 5 Parsecs etc. rules series. 

Five Klicks uses, and builds on, the same core combat mechanics of its sister games Five Parsecs and Five Leagues. Writing combat rules for solo play can be tricky to get right; you need an enemy AI that is interesting and somewhat realistic but not too finicky to manage, plus own-side command & control rules that provide interesting decision points to the player without overburdening the processing power of the only brain working the table. I think Five Klicks does a fine job of addressing these needs. Each enemy type has a tactical posture - cautious, tactical, aggressive, or psycho - that determines the default behavior of each model in combat. The aggressive raiders played easily and quickly under this system; they felt aggressive but not in a way that required abject stupidity on the part of the miniatures. :-) They did pose a real danger and there were some tense moments in my test-play.

The command-and-control model works really well for making solo play interesting each turn. You roll 1d6 for each character still active in your squad, then assign each die to one of your troops. Depending on their initiative score, each character’s assigned die allows it either to act before the enemy, or after. This typically leads to tense decisions - two characters are under pressure on opposite sides of the fight, and you just don’t have the dice to let each one act before they’re attacked again…who gets the priority? Leader abilities usefully allow extra action, and careful consideration ofyour fighters' tactical situation and their dice assignments makes a real difference in the battle. 

Shooting at people involves rolling 1d6 and adding a combat bonus if you have it. There are three target numbers - for foes in the open at close range, for foes in the open, and for foes in cover; these target numbers make the value of cover clear pretty quickly once the dice start flying. There are some very simple effects to evoke suppression/pinning (much less sophisticated than in Nordic Weasel’s other games, but I found they did the job perfectly adequately for the quick-solo-skirmish-between-campaign-turns niche here). Weapon ranges matter; usually I am not fond of this, having been converted to Infinity-style infinite ranges on a small skirmish tabletop. In this case, it works out ok; your weapon’s range is not its maximum range, but its maximum easy snap-fire range; you can extend your range by 4” if you skip movement, and at any rate you can still shoot at a target beyond your range, but you will only hit it on a roll of 6 on the d6. The opportunity to gamble a wild long-shot came up several times in play; in retrospect I’m happy with the way these rules limit the death-dealing capacity of waste-raiders, without nerfing the player’s ability to try when they really want to shoot at extreme range. 

If you hit, you allow an Armor Save (but most characters won’t have Armor) and then roll above the target’s Toughness to incapacitate them. Simple and fun. When you kill one of the baddies, the nearest foe makes a morale check and might flee the field; play continues until one side has no one left on the table. Winning gets you Loot and XP. 

You also are supposed to roll 1d12 along with each shot fired; there is a 1-in-12 chance of an ammunition fail, which has to be resolved by a reloading test (the way it’s described, it actually behaves more like a gun jamming or misfiring, leading to the possibility of losing use of the weapon if your clearing action fails). I sometimes forgot to roll this 1d12 - keeping it right next to a single set of dice for rolling shots would help - but there were a couple times in play when weapon failures suddenly made things much more tense and exciting. It also nicely evokes the ruined, broken-down atmosphere of the genre. 

Brawling, or hand-to-hand combat, is also provided for. Whereas Five Leagues from the Borderlands’s fantasy emphasis leads to a very detailed, multi-step brawling process, Five Klicks instead returns to Five Parsec’s simpler rules for hand-to-hand action. The game’s focus is mostly on shooting things, though weapon failures etc. may lead to more intimate action than you’d expect! 

To test all this out against those Raiders, I opted to play a half-size battle (I was a bit pressed for time), so I took a half-squad of four men and challenged five Raiders on a field of about 27" x 24". This allowed me to test the mechanics and was great fun. Have a few highlights photos, and then I’ll wrap up with my final thoughts about this game. [I will apologize in advance for the unspectacularly slapdash nature of these photos - I just threw together some stuff at hand with little attention to aesthetic beauty...how un-post-apoc of me...]


"Hey, Boss! What do y' suppose this strange white groundcover is? Hardened salt pan? The ancient ash of a desolate nuclear winter? Or the surface of an IKEA desk from back before The Big War?"
"Quiet, Rookie! We feed you so you can fire that bow, not ask questions!"

Suitably chastened, Rookie proves his worth by felling a Raider with a long shot from his bow. Unfortunately, his bowstring breaks immediately thereafter, leaving Rookie weapon-less! Is he out of the fight?

Hardly! With his Leader incapacitated by the Raiders' gunfire, our mohawked friend proves his mettle yet again - leaping into unarmed melee combat with a vicious Raider! It's the kind of stupid, suicidal move that could only be redeemed by a high/low split on the dice - oh, look! Incredible!!!

Take that, you wretched Raider dog!!! My Enforcer closes in on the already-wounded, last Raider.
Pro tip: you can tell the Raiders are the bad guys, because they're not even painted. Oh wait...what does that suggest about my Enforcer...errr, perhaps we need to review the terms of his employment...


FINAL RECOMMENDATIONS


Who should NOT get this game? 

If your primary considerations are having a visually fancy book, reading a fully-realized, defined setting instead of an open toolkit, crafting just the squad you want using a balanced points system, or challenging a human opponent to a very in-depth wargame, this won’t be the game for you. There are a number of post-apoc rulesets on the market you might look into, such as: This is Not a Test from World’s End Publishing; Mutants and Death-Ray Guns from Ganesha Games; No Hope in Sight, also from Nordic Weasel, but focused on in-depth infantry squad combat between two opponents; Fallout Wasteland Warfare (which, I think, calls for a specific miniatures line?); or, from Osprey Wargames, the brand-new Zona Alfa: Salvage and Survival in the Exclusion Zone, not to mention their 2017 title Scrappers. 


Who SHOULD consider this game?

If you are interested in post-apoc gaming, and ALSO interested in solo or cooperative play, narrative campaign development, and adapting to creative limitations rather than crafting exactly the team you desire, then I would heartily recommend Five Klicks from the Zone. 

Either way ... happy gaming!

2 comments:

  1. A nice long review, they do good stuff. (Side note) I am having trouble posting comments from my pc, but hopefully will be able to on my mobile. Ivor cogdell "Tears from the front" blog. I have posted about the issue, if you would like to have a look.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Ivor, and sorry to hear about the troubles commenting. I do see your comment here - and I'll try to comment back on your blog. Cheers!

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