Tuesday, September 28, 2021

[REVIEW] SPACE WEIRDOS: A SKIRMISH HEARTBREAKER - get your off-brand NecroQuisitorGraveFlyWars action on!

 SPACE WEIRDOS: A SKIRMISH HEARTBREAKER is a fun and inexpensive new set of miniature skirmish rules by Casey Garske, author of the "DOOM"-like military Sci-Fi RPG hack, STAY FROSTY.  For Space Weirdos, think Necromunda-type games, but simpler. A lot simpler. The game is sold as a 16-page B&W zine in .pdf on WargameVault, sister storefront to DTRPG.com, for $4.99 USD. [Affiliate link] With purchase, you also get a 4-page supplement with some nice dedicated rules for playing solo. 

DISCLAIMERS: I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. This review is based on reading the rules, playing two games using the solo rules, and engaging a bit with the author and the game's community on Discord. The link above to purchase the game is an affiliate link, which helps support this blog's activities at no added cost to you - thanks! 


SO ... WHAT IS THIS? 

Well, that cover art sets the tone right away: zany sci-fi action with guns and swords and hideous beasties, not tied to any I.P. line, with a decent amount of polish but lots of room for hacking in your own ideas, too. Garske's short introduction is worth quoting to sum up the game's intentions.

SPACE WEIRDOS is my "Skirmish Heartbreaker." ... a lot of old school D&D people are discovering or re-discovering miniatures wargaming and starting to write rules when they find the big name games too expensive and convoluted. So here's my heartbreaker. ...

More than anything, the goal of this game is to get your minis on the table and killing each other. Break out your oldhammer, your newhammer, your Blanchitsu and Inq28's, your kitbashed Heroclix, the weird 90's minis that you don't remember what game they're from anymore...whatever you got, and get Weird.

So that's pretty straightforward; this is another way to grab some eccentric models and get going (so, a Blood Angels Chaplain, a Wookie, and a Dalek walk into this bar...). Honestly, I think the self-effacing talk of 'heartbreakers' is under-selling the game a bit. The intro initially makes it sound a bit like Garske just discovered wargaming but knows how to do it better. :-) Except, of course, all those references to Inquisimunda-type games sort of give the truth away, right? Indeed, Garske's obviously no stranger to different approaches to pushing minis around a table. Again, from the introduction: 

Some games might aspire to minimalism and totally get rid of anything that might require a token. Some games are more simulationist, with lots of modifiers and rules for all situations. Space Weirdos is sort of in the middle, leaning towards minimalism, but not totally embracing it. There are a couple tokens to use, there is measuring, but it's easy with the sticks, and there are modifiers, but it's fun because you get to use all your D&D dice.  

Space Weirdos immediately makes me think of the venerable, original Rogue Trader that got the 40k line rolling so many years ago - but a far simpler, 16-page pamphlet...So, don't think of the stripped-down detail evoking a certain company's official product line in Grimdark Future Firefight; instead, think of Craig Cartmell's old, delightful faux-40k skirmish game, In the Emperor's Name (Space Weirdos is even less detailed than ItEN, but if my memory of ItEn holds, Weirdos is more dynamic and tactical). The use of diverse polyhedral dice reminded me of Pulp Alley (Space Weirdos omits any narrative elements baked into the rules, but Space Weirdos is less fiddly, and I prefer its combat!). Space Weirdos (as written) won't give you the campaign-able richness of (relatively) more detailed games like Five Parsecs from Home or the recent Stargrave. Space Weirdos is more suitable for hot one-shot games (unless you want to hack in your own campaign system), but what it lacks in detail it compensates for in an elegant, fast to-the-table and even faster on-the-table system. 


WELL, OK THEN ... HOW DOES IT WORK?

The first thing to know out the gate: this is a deliberately simple game offering a good and flexible chassis to support further tinkering if you want to add stuff. The game plays well RAW, but this sort of game isn't meant to offer a million bells and whistles. What impresses me about the design is how flexible and elegant some of the core design choices were. It's simple enough that I'm going to have to think carefully about not giving away the game rules in my description of them. :-) Actually, that's probably not even too much of an issue; what works best about this game isn't Rule X + Y, it's the ways the simple rules interface with each other and with a judiciously limited battery of special conditions and choices. 

The game does use points for force creation (with no pretense of perfect balance), but designing a new soldier for your gang is quite simple; in fact, as-written, the rules limit your choices so designing your team is quick and emphasizes a key concept or role over endless fine-tuning. If you don't want to mess with points, there's also a page of sample gangs/warbands suited for a variety of iconic sci-fi settings, from hard-shelled alien bugs feasting on colonial marines to battle nuns vs forces of "Xaos" in a grim future, or cyber-rigged punk ladies fighting steroid-juiced gangers (ahem...are Houses Escher and Goliath in...the...house?). If you do take the (brief) time to design your own warband, you'll find very simple but evocative key attributes to distinguish your warband from others. I mentioned limits, up above...most non-leader figures only get 1 missile weapon, 1 piece of special equipment, etc. (Isn't half the fun of these games tinkering with your squad creation? Sure, but Space Weirdos opts instead for more iconic warbands that will actually get on the table sooner and feel different in play). Well, a Cyborg gang can choose an extra piece of equipment per figure. A gang of Soldiers get Heavy Armor, Grenades, or Medkits for free. Lots of different ways to create diverse gangs, quickly. Your limited weaponry choices will have real effect, however, with (for example) one kind of gun being more reliably accurate, while another hits harder. 

Depending on the size of scrum you want to play out, you'll end up with a small handful or a large handful of these 'heroes.' Here's what a 'character sheet' looks like: 


The use of polyhedral dice stands out at once. Stats are rated at d6, d8, or d10, but a variety of tactical effects and command choices can raise them up to d12 or drop them down to d4 during your turn. Worth noting: you need two of each of these, but combat rolls are opposed, so convenient play calls for at least 2d4, 2d6, 2d8, and 2d10 per side (along with a single d20 for AI activation, if you use the solo rules). 

2x2' or 3x3' is adequate for a battlefield (I used one of the new Warcry 22" by 30" battlemats). 

Speed and Actions are nicely done; all figures get 3 activations per turn, and Speed tells you how many of those activations can be used to move; Actions describes, basically, the rate of fire of each weapon (so the auto pistol listed above could fire three times, should Velda Dark spend her entire turn blasting away at someone in LOS). All movement uses 5" sticks (though if you already have 6" sticks lying around for another game, as do I, it shouldn't hurt anything to use them consistently instead). Weapon range is essentially unlimited (I am so glad to see this becoming more common in skirmish shooter game design), though a few smaller weapons do have a penalty to shoot past 1 movement stick. 

No IGO-UGO here - except for the solo rules, kinda; in the normal competitive mode, players roll off to win initiative, and then take turns with alternating figure activations. So you'll need to stay at the table instead of going for more chips and calling your Mom during the enemy turn. In fact, stay as close to the table as possible, because gameplay is dynamic. Combat rolls are opposed (roll to hit, then roll on a hit effect table that can be modified by really high to-hit rolls, but can also enable enemies to fire back in a little firefight!). What's more, each commander has a very small pool of command points. 

I really liked the way the game uses command points. 

I am increasingly dissatisfied with any shooter skirmish ruleset that ignores things like overwatch or suppressing fire. No need for perfect simulation (!?!?) but let's try to include some element of that, no? Well, Space Weirdos lets players spend a command point to take a shot on overwatch. In other words, every one of your figures is ALWAYS potentially on overwatch, as long as you've got command points left to spend that turn. This keeps an important tactical element in play, without any need to sit around thinking, umm, should I put this guy on overwatch, or that guy? But it's a tradeoff, because those command points are good for lots of other things, too. Dodging into cover; pushing to move just a little bit faster; shooting a little straighter; etc. Or, if you've finished the turn and never found the right way to spend 'em, you can cash in any remaining command points to better your chances at seizing the initiative on the next turn. Your pool of command points is quite small, making each use a deliberate and precious statement about your tactical priorities. All this means a really simple, one-brain-cell command and control system that nonetheless keeps the player engaged in meaningful decision-making throughout every part of the turn. Nicely done, Garske. 

Oh...except that if you're playing the solo rules, and the enemy have a psychic champion who is out of LOS and keeps rolling well and keeps stealing your command points with a psychic disruption cloud...then you just gnash your teeth. No bitter personal experience there. Nope. 

Yeah, there are psychic rules. Or should I say rules for psykers? Like everything in Space Weirdos, those rules are compact and limited, but also effective and highly evocative. Psychic powers are really fun and powerful, but also risky; roll too low, and face a psychic backlash on your own figure. 

Tokens: yeah, the game uses some tokens, but I think the author's claim is accurate: it uses just enough of them. Mainly, these track movement rates (this felt a bit fiddly at first, but the tactical payoff of tracking movement becomes clear as soon as you break into combat). Downed and Staggered markers also help keep track of wounds (but also incorporate a very basic Suppression system). 

The game includes three different scenarios (and four in the solo rules). Of the solo scenarios, some options keep a fixed number of opponents on the board, and others allow for enemy reinforcements to keep cycling into play. That offers a range of play-styles, but do be aware that scenarios with enemy reinforcements can take longer and become a bit of a grind (that's no fault of this ruleset, but in my experience, it's just a consequence of that kind of scenario. They just take longer to play out). 

So about those solo rules...  The dedicated 4-page solo expansion offers a LOT more than just "um, try to think about the best move for the baddies." The solo rules rework a few of the core game's rules, offering a different turn structure (figures near your leader move, then the opponents go, then the rest of your force activates). They also rely on 7 different kinds of Bad Guys - 'classes' if you will - ranging from grunts and goons to "bigguns," "big shooters," and "psychics." The game's Discord page includes sample themed warbands created by fans - like a Tyranid list and a Chaos Cultist list with stats for troops in each of these 7 categories. The best part of the solo rules comes in a page of dedicated activation tables, one for each of the 7 Bad Guy types. When you need to activate an enemy figure, check whether it's in LOS, out of LOS, or in contact with one of your figures; then roll a d20 on the relevant table, and follow the instructions. Those instructions are tailored for each troop-type's expected range of behaviors, and they offer a pleasing range of unpredictable but basically plausible AI actions. That cultist around the corner might hunker down, cowering, or it might rush around the corner in a sudden charge...or something else again...

For my two games, I actually used the solo rules for cooperative play, by splitting a pool of 3 command points among 3 friendly players. It worked fine. 


SOME ASPECTS THAT STOOD OUT TO ME...

- Again, the gameplay feels very dynamic and tactical. You're always involved (dividing the force in 3 for co-op play weakened this aspect a bit, but not too much), and command points elegantly handle things like overwatch. Suppression is kind of handled by the fire effect tables (there's some small chance of returning fire, too). Gameplay is really fast. In our first game, we actually killed half the enemy force by the end of Turn 1, but the process felt engaging and meaningful (and then we started taking heat thereafter, anyway; it seemed a good sign of the game's tactical potential that one of my kids concluded we were too cocky after Turn 1). 

- modest range of ability levels and potential for lethality: you'll be running figures with d6/d8/d10 stats. That really amounts to "low, average, or high" ability scores - which is not a finely nuanced scale! The different weights definitely make a difference, but there isn't a tremendous discrepancy in power levels between your grunts and your dudes in power armor. Since in-game actions and choices offer ways to boost or lower the dice ratings, you'll regularly find that the lowest guys do have a real chance of threatening their top foes, and even elite troops can miss. This brings a more gritty, perhaps realistic flavor to the world of blasting evil space thugs. So, while this game looks a lot like a 40k-lite wunderkind, it evokes (for me) the kind of "Vietnam in Space" ethos of the original Rogue Trader. This isn't a great game if you insist on commanding unstoppable warrior dudes who reliably scoff at any hail of gunfire. Potentially, all it takes to kill your figures is one shot each, though you're also just as likely to pull off amazing lucky breaks under fire. 

- addictive Weirdo-gang construction: choosing and statting up new figures and gangs doesn't take a lot of effort, and you don't need many figures to play, so once you start working with these rules you also start daydreaming up new warbands. The Marine in Terminator armor and close combat claws, with a Teleporting ability, backed up a fireteam of tactical Space Marines? Check. My little squad of kitbashed armored tactical troops? Check. A patrol using my son's skitarii? Check. For another kiddo, the killer robot with his power-armored ally and their sharp-clawed, bug-eyed alien monster pet? Check, of course. They're Space Weirdos


ANY CRITIQUES?

Enough gushing, Gundobad! The game isn't perfect. I had some quibbles, though they are pretty easily handled.

- As written, the game doesn't clarify adequately the limits for activating Downed figures (they can't take any actions until they spend one to Get Up). The rules implied that, but I had to write to the author to confirm my understanding was correct (it was). Casey Garske's quite active on the game's Discord page, and getting an answer to the question was quick and painless. :-) 

- The solo rules' activation tables for enemies are great. Mostly. In our second game, I found that some of the entries really don't make sense; nobody in the "no LOS to a foe" column should be receiving an order to spend their turn blazing away at foes. These situations are easily fixed by a little judicious ruling on the spot (and in solo play, what's really at stake?) but it was irksome to have what looked like a well-oiled activation machine occasionally spit some of the oil back at me. 

- The game has a one-page summary sheet that is helpful and visually appealing. Unfortunately, it omits the short list of modifiers to Shoot/Fight rolls. They can be written down by hand on the side of the sheet, but...

- Climbing! "Climbing a terrain piece as tall or slightly taller than the model generally costs one action. Use your judgment." Although I applaud the empowering spirit here, vertical terrain adds so much to Necromunda-style games that I'd love to see a more defined stance here. At any rate, this too is easy to rule to your own taste. At our table, we just decided, somewhat permissively, that a figure can climb up to one-half-movement-stick in an action, so long as they can end on a flat surface that supports the model. 


The setup for one of our games. Lots of terrain and lots of stuff to climb over. Does it look like fantasy skirmish terrain? No no, silly, xenoarchaeologists have uncovered an old ruin and now space thugs are en route to claim the loot...but don't worry - the good guys are hidden, deployed behind the walls at left.


Wow, what a crippling and exhaustive list of critiques. Not really. To sum up, in fact, the main thing to critique is also one of the main things to praise: this is a nice, dynamic chassis that will get you down the road, while allowing and perhaps calling for whatever add-ons you want to hack in on top for your own purposes. 


SUMMARY AND FINAL RECOMMENDATION

Some games get labelled Beer & Pretzels gaming. To me, Space Weirdos fits in the category of "Beer & Pretzels, but with microbrewery beer and gourmet pretzels." It effectively evokes the experience provided by more complex game systems, in much less time; enjoyment of the game will likely depend on whether one wants a quick hit of that experience, or the full deal, with all the labors and time required. 

Therefore, I definitely recommend this - strongly - to a certain kind of gamer. 

WHO SHOULDN'T GET THIS? Gamers interested in a light game but with closer and more detailed adherence to a certain British company's IP may enjoy Grimdark Future more. Gamers desiring a complete and detailed simulationist toolkit won't find it here. Anyone wanting a 'tournament tight' way to challenge Bob in Accounting should look elsewhere. Those looking for extensive campaign development won't find it (or they'll need to borrow or make a fan-built version; I've seen one simple offering on Discord). Campaign-focused sci-fi gamers might check out Five Parsecs from Home or Stargrave instead. 

WHO WOULD ENJOY THIS? Gamers with a variety of figures, eager for narratively flexible action in sci-fi settings of their own imagining, will find a very useful basic toolkit here, for 5 bucks. Gamers who want decisive, quick-playing gameplay that demands meaningful decision-making throughout the game can pull in here. Anyone who wants the experience of tailoring their own warband and then trying it out in action without that process taking much time should like this. 

RECOMMENDED

Happy gaming. 


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