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All Together Now: 'Sellswords & Spellslingers' and the Pleasures of Cooperative Gaming


I've always enjoyed a good competitive match as much as the next guy, whether it was sports in high school or video games (HALO, etc.) in my thirties. But regardless of the game, I've always been partial to team play, and the best cooperative games put all of the focus on succeeding as a team. That's one of the reasons I was enthusiastic about getting Andrea Sfiligoi's latest release, Sellswords & Spellslingers (Ganesha Games), on the table for this month's Second Saturday Scrum Club gathering.

Last year I had organized a Halloween game (recap) to beta-test Sfiligoi's Run From the Dead, which is built atop the same cooperative mechanics as Sellswords. I was surprised when I discovered these rules were re-skinned for the fantasy genre and released last December ahead of Run From the Dead. Hopefully, the zombie apocalypse version of the rules is not too far behind because I definitely think Run From the Dead is the best tabletop miniatures rule set I've seen for the genre, and believe me, I bought and read at least a half dozen.

We all had been busy at work in the weeks running up to the April game day, and so it was good to have a game that we could get on the table without a lot of preparation, using pre-existing scenarios that were relatively light in terms of terrain needs. We played the first scenario in the book, "Through the Badlands," which only needed a 3'x3' mat and enough bits of brush and brambles to cover about a third of the playing area (we used a bag of lichen and some mossy decorative terrarium "rocks").

We had four players for the evening's game—Steve, Jared, Francesco, and myself—which all agreed felt like the ideal number: any more, and play would have bogged down. As it was, the scenario still took us about four hours to power through with three characters a piece (for a total of 12). The learning curve for the game isn't steep, so I'm guessing the pace will pick up considerably on subsequent plays. If we find ourselves with more players on hand, then I'll probably encourage everyone to only create two characters a piece in order to keep play from becoming a grind.

Before the game, I was compelled to create a single-page character roster for easier reference, allowing players to record the stats for up to four characters on a single side. Wargaming axiom: The fewer sheets of paper one has to shuffle through during play, the better! (Download the sheet in PDF or MS Word.)


The Usual Caveats

Rather than try to provide a blow-by-blow after-action report, I am going to simply share a bunch of photos with sporadic commentary to provide a flavor of the game. Most of the photos are by my wife Ellen (barring three or four contributed by me and Jared). She enjoys popping into our games for a spell at some point in the evening and snapping pics of the miniatures, terrain, and us having a good time. Hopefully you enjoy this glimpse her photos provide into our evening!

Click on any photo to enlarge.


A shot of the battlefield mid-game.


Steve's recent rereading of Elfquest inspired him to name these dark-skinned figures after Cutter and his fellow Wolfriders.

This troll and orc found themselves on the receiving end of a fireball spell (hence the template he's standing on).
My fireball blast template is a bit small for this game...I'll need to make one matching Sellsword's specifications.



Bodies of orcs and heroes both were starting to stack high at this point.

Some dead orcs looted and removed from the field.

Some of Francesco's heroes standing atop a pile of fresh orc corpses.

A scrum, indeed!



Many trolls wandered into the battle, and we managed to put a good number of them down before we ourselves fell or broke free for a mad scramble to the opposite end of the field.



An orc brute making his way for Francesco's battered little band.

An eventual break in the lines allowed my wizard to make her run for it.

So many orc hordes cycled into action that none of these casualties stayed out of the battle for long.

Cutter may have felled more orcs than any other hero in our band.

This wizard managed to resuscitate both of his fallen comrades, making Francesco the only player to get all three of his characters off the field alive.





At this point, every succesful activation was spent trying to get her out of harm's way.









A quick prayer to the dice gods never hurts...and helps even less!


(left to right clockwise) Jared, Francesco, Steve, and Joe

(left side) Francesco and Jared / (right side) Steve and Joe


The way the dice probabilities work out in this system, most of the creatures started right atop us, putting us immediately on our heels and making it hard to break free to dash across the battlefield and out of the Badlands. (See my 'Final Thoughts' below for more on this issue.)







Some of the miniatures that didn't make it onto the table this night. Patience...you'll have your day of glory soon enough!





FINAL THOUGHTS AND PARTING SHOTS

There's much to like about Sellswords & Spellslingers.

The rules are easy to pick up and fairly intuitive. It's a cooperative miniatures skirmish game, which there is a dearth of on the market. If you play so that everybody gets to move only one figure at a time round-robin style, then all players stay engaged, especially since anybody's failed activation roll can result in your character being the target of some foe's ire. It also has a really solid campaign system in which characters and "warbands" can grow from one scenario to the next, with a novel and extensive list of between-adventure campaign activities to engage in that include everything from working as a laborer for extra silver coins to carousing with courtesans to worshiping at the altar of your chosen deity. It's a colorful, narrative-evoking way to handle using your experience points and loot after an adventure.

The one problem we ran into was that the method for randomly dispersing foes at the beginning of the game wasn't as random as one might believe. The playing area is a 36"x36" square, and foes are placed by rolling two six siders and multiplying the results to determine the coordinate on the X axis and then rolling again for the coordinate on the Y axis. I knew this method would skew placement, but Francesco crunched the probabilities mid-game and found what we discovered in practice: that with this method all of the foes are likely going to congregate on one end of the playing field. In our case it meant having hordes of orcs starting practically in our laps, making it quite difficult to even break free from our starting positions before getting entangled in melee.

To remedy this issue for our next game, I'm going to adopt the placement rules for foes as outlined in Run From the Dead, which divides up the play area into 20 units (i.e., 1.8" per unit on a 36" square field). I'll create a frame with half-inch trim boards to place around the play area with the measured units clearly demarcated. In this way we can put away the tape measures, and a quick roll of two 20-sided dice will give truly random coordinates for placing foes as they arrive throughout the game. (See the photo below for an example of how I handled this in my Run From the Dead campaign.)


The other thing to note for newcomers to these rules is the need for an abundant stockpile of miniatures of a single type, be they orcs, skeletons, or whatnot. At any point in our game we had as many a 20-25 regular orcs and seven or eight orc "brutes" in play, in addition to several trolls. The idea of "hordes" of monsters rampaging across the battlefield at players' characters is central to game play, so you'll want to make sure you have plenty on hand. And though the rules say the game can accommodate up to six players, note that this multiplies the number of foes you'll need to be able to put into play. Personally, I hate proxying miniatures, so I probably won't even suggest playing certain scenarios without ensuring ahead of time that we have enough of whatever type of hordelings the scenario calls for.

Finally, you'll also need to print out some decks of cards that come as PDFs with the game (or buy them pre-printed online). I regularly use my laser printer, Avery perforated business card sheets, and a laminator to make cards for some of my home-brew game projects (see my dungeon delve game), but the Sellswords cards are formatted "tarot" size, which meant I had to shrink them a bit to print them to the dimensions of a business card. The already small text is now a little smaller than ideal, but after spending about three hours pulling these decks together, I'm not going back. And one of the benefits of getting these PDFs and making one's own decks is that I can seamlessly create new cards to integrate into the decks if I want to change the frequency of how often certain events happen in a particular scenario or even create completely new events to match a particular narrative (which I did extensively in my play test of Run From the Dead).


Jared and Steve both remarked in post-game emails how much they enjoyed the break from competitive gaming, with Jared claiming it was the most fun he has had gaming in months. It's probably a game that won't make it to the table when we have larger Scrum Club gatherings, but I do look forward to giving it another whirl soon. In fact, Steve emailed the following day that he was already brainstorming on how to adapt Robert E. Howard's "Beyond the Black River" for these rules. It's honestly hard to imagine another fantasy story better suited for this game's mechanics. So, after waffling about what sort of game I wanted to submit to run at Historicon this summer, I asked Steve if we could collaborate on his idea so I could run it at the con. If approved by the convention's organizers, I'll be running it in Lancaster, Pa. in July. Here's the description I submitted last night for the convention program:

"Play Conan, Balthus, and their companions as they attempt to survive Pictish hordes, forest devils, and other unspeakable horrors in a linked set of scenarios in which the heroes race to save a group of settlers from encroaching doom! Will the heroes survive long enough to make it back across Thunder River? Only you and Crom know the answer! This co-operative game uses the new Sellswords & Spellslingers rules and will debut the latest pulp fantasy figures from Above the Fray Miniatures."

I'm looking forward to seeing what Steve and I work up together, and it'll be a nice way to shine a light on what is hopefully a Kickstarter in progress during the convention for my Icons of Pulp Fantasy figures that will mark the first release from my fledgling little company, Above the Fray Miniatures.


Comments

  1. Great report Joe! Sorry I missed out, but hoping to make it to the May game day. I'm a little rusty on my Howard, but Conan typically fought human foes. Could you swap out the orcs for Stygians or Picts or what have you? I think I know somebody who has a ton of ancients figures that haven't seen the light of day in a while if you need them ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely need miniatures for the Picts and whatnot, so I would very much welcome the use of your ancients figures! Thanks, friend!

      Delete
  2. Apart from some boardgame/miniature game hybrids I must admit I hadn't heard of a cooperative miniatures game before. Sounds like a lot of fun and perhaps something I can play with my sons. The big advantage will be the fact we either are all going to loose or all going to win, something they are very sensitive to 😁😉.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I believe it would be a fun game to play with one's children, even though I myself don't have any. Good opportunity to have them experience "heroic self sacrifice" because invariably some of the characters will get killed so that others can make it to victory.

      Delete
  3. My old eyes are not nearly as good as they once were. I am planning to print out the cards in their current size to see if that is large enough to work for me. Hoping so. But I checked the downloads and there are no card backs in any of the files. Where did you get the artwork shown on your card backs? They look very nice!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Nice summary! Reminds me of the fact that I finally have to try out this ruelset.

    ReplyDelete

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