For the September gathering of the Second Saturday Scrum Club, seven of the nine official members managed to attend either the first or the second of the day's games. At 1:00 p.m. I put the board game Battlestations on the table, a game I bought during the pandemic in anticipation of playing with the club once we all could gather in person again. The main event, however, is always our 4:30 game, and this month the club tried another set of wargaming rules new to most of us, To the Strongest! John and Steve organized the game and taught the rest of us the rules.
To the Strongest!
The Scrum Club sometimes flagellates itself for a bit of ADHD when it comes to jumping from one ruleset to the next from month to month. In the four years we've been meeting, I think we've only once played the same set of rules in two consecutive months (Chainmail in January and February of 2020). In fact, that's the only set of rules we've played more than once at an official Scrum Club gathering besides John's Star Schlock rules, which we've played at several gatherings now.
While I don't regret our omnivorous appetites--it has led to us playing a lot of really cool games that we always mean to return to--it does sometimes feel like we're neglecting the opportunity to build mastery with a ruleset or construct little campaigns that would present us with opportunities for overarching narratives.
I also recognize that there are two other dimensions behind this tendency, one being that unlike a lot of other groups, we do only officially meet once a month, and so committing to playing the same system a half dozen times means committing to it for a half year! The other issue is that our group really likes to game master at conventions, and so we're often in a situation where one of us needs to playtest a scenario or set of rules in the forgiving environs of Scrum Hall before trotting it out at a con for strangers. Invariably when HistoriCon or Barrage approaches, we often see the Scrum Club's dance card fill up in the preceding two or three months as several of us try to finalize and playtest games we want to run at those events.
We've decided, however, to buck that trend after getting in a game of To the Strongest last weekend by immediately scheduling it for October, too. Nobody had claimed the October slot yet, and we also all really enjoyed these rules. They were very quick to pick up, and I could see with even more familiarity that future games could make good on the book cover's promise of "fast-moving."
That said, we didn't actually get through a full game on Saturday, but it did feel like things were moving along at a decent clip for most of the night, with lots of dramatic back-and-forths in the action. If anything, the game might be a bit too swingy for some, but that tendency actually made for some of the most memorable moments of the evening.
The basic mechanics of the game simplify and abstract a lot of details that can bog down other rulesets. Movement is conducted on a grid (so no rulers) and every player has a card deck that takes care of everything from unit activation to combat. It all felt very intuitive, and freed us up from getting too bogged down in adjudicating the edge cases that sometimes crop up.
The rules are designed for "ancients and medieval wargaming," and the figures Steve and John had on hand put us squarely in the medieval era. It's always fun playing with the figures those two gentlemen put on the table. I liked the rules enough that I bought my own copy of the game and immediately started researching to see if anybody had started down the path of making it playable with fantasy armies. Some industrious gamers have been doing just that, and have generously been sharing the fruits of that labor in an unofficial supplement they're calling To the Strongest: Monsters and Magic free on a dedicated website.
I frankly don't remember the particulars of the scenario, but the objective was basically to kill and route the other army. Good enough for me!Note on photos: The below photos are not a recreation of the unfolding action in the game but rather a smattering of shots at various points to provide a flavor of the proceedings. Sadly, my wife--the Scrum Club's dedicated combat photographer and source of most of the photos on this blog--had an SD card malfunction in her digital SLR camera and lost all of the photos she took except for a smattering snapped with her iPhone. As a result, these photos are the products of many hands, including John, Josh, Zach, Rich, Ellen, and myself. (Click any photos to enlarge.)
|Rich, John, and Zach in pre-game strategy.|
|We ride at dawn!|
(left-to-right): Joe, Steve, Francesco
|The dreaded ace, the lowest card in the deck, which can end your turn.|
We started the day at 1:00 p.m. with Battlestations, a self-described hybrid role-playing and board game. In all honesty, the only overt RPG-like elements are the fact that you can play short "campaigns" of linked games in which the players' characters can accumulate experience, skill, and gear from one game to the next. There aren't any real opportunities for role playing outside of impersonating your favorite Star Trek or Star Wars characters as you send your pieces scurrying around the board.
One of the genuinely neat aspects of the game is that it takes place on two boards, one of which represents the action on the "macro" level in which your starship navigates through space contending with asteroids, planets, photon torpedoes, and other starships, while another modularly constructed board represents the "micro" level, that is, the floorplan of your actual starship (and sometimes an adversary's) via an interconnected grouping of tiles that represent your engine room, helm, sick bay, torpedo room, etc. It is on this board that your little 28mm characters run about the ship attempting to navigate it toward some objective without being destroyed in the process.
I played the putative "GM" while the heroes were played by Rich, Francesco, John, and Josh (who contributed painted versions of the miniatures from his own set of the game). I don't think I'd want to play it with fewer than this number of players, and one of the things that attracted me to the game in the first place is that it purportedly accommodates up to nine players.
We had a good time with the game, and it was the first time trying it for everybody but Rich, who had played the first edition a few times several years ago. We started with the introductory mission, finished it fairly quickly, and started the second mission. That's when the wheels started to come off a bit, taking some of the shine off of this game for me.
The core box required to play doesn't actually come with a full rulebook, but rather a few pages of "starter" rules and eight "teaching" scenarios. On the face of it, that's not a terrible approach to this sort of thing. Unfortunately, that "starter" booklet is rife with ambiguities, omissions, and flat out errors. I thought I had perhaps caught them all when I took the extra time to print out the three-page errata sheet I found online and cut and pasted lots of clarifications and corrections directly into my copy of the starter rulebook, but even then there were some problems with core terminology that made the second mission impossible for the players if played as written.
These problems with the starter set rules are particularly irksome for anybody who bought this $100 game in the hopes of having a smooth experience right out of the box. I even watched three preparatory videos on running it before game day to try to ensure a bump-free ride, and we were still thwarted. To get the full experience of this game (and presumably a better edited set of the rules) you need to buy a $60 hardback sold as the "Advanced Edition" of Battlestations. That's $160 right there just to play the game as intended. And if you want some small plastic ships to put on the outer space board instead of cardboard chits, that'll cost you another $20. It all feels pretty cheeky on the part of Gorilla Games, the manufacturer. I bought all three straight from the game's designer because I wanted to support his efforts, but after my first attempt at playing the game, I wish I'd shopped around and saved a few bucks.
By later trawling the Board Game Geek message forums we were able to tease out an answer to the problem we (and apparently several others) had with the rules nomenclature and how it undermined our attempt to play the Mission 2 scenario. Given that fundamental level of frustration, you'd think we might be ready to give up, but we're going to give it all another go. There is obviously a really fun game in this concept, and I'm hoping that chucking the starter rules and familiarizing myself with the "Advanced" rulebook will help us find that fun.
|(back to camera): Rich, (facing camera, l-to-r): John, Francesco, Joe|
|The modular spaceship, Redundant II.|
|The second board for tracking the ship-level action.|
|(left to right): Josh, Rich, John, Francesco.|
|The rules as written resulted in just too many damn missiles on the board in Mission 2.|