Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Blasters & Bulkheads Part Four - The Review

Now that we've had some time to play a few games of Blasters & Bulkheads, it seems like it's time to give the book a detailed review.  Hopefully this will help anyone who hasn't made up their mind whether or not to buy this game.  I ran these points by Scott Pyle last week, and he gave me some very quick feedback and helped clarify a few design elements for me.  I've included his comments in the relevant sections below.

What works well
  • Character creation is quite a bit of fun.  There's a good selection of background an traits, each one adding little wrinkles to the gameplay.
  • It doesn't take long to pick up the core mechanics.  There are lots of special rules, but they only tweak the handful of core rules.  
  • The fate dice are an amazing feature... they can really make a difference at times when you should be completely outmatched.  
  • The vehicle rules are surprisingly robust for a game this size.  Usually these are ignored in skirmish games, or bolted on in a way that doesn't really work with the character-vs-character nature.  But they seem to work extremely well in this game.  
  • The post-battle section is equally robust.  You'll very quickly see your characters develop their own personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.  And you get chances to improve them, without going completely over-the-top with upgrades and levels.  

What should to be tweaked
  • A quick reference sheet of some kind would be VERY helpful.  I know I'm only two games in, but it seems impossible to play this game without a great deal of flipping pages.  Scott told me this is something they could easily create in the future.
  • Having separate range bands for every 10cm doesn't help with the page-flipping.  I think this could have been simplified to fewer increments at 15cm each, but I'll confess that I'm not a fan of range bands in general.  Scott said the feedback has pretty much been that way - people either love or hate them.
  • There needs to be a few more alien archetypes in this book.  Some alien figures in my collection would be easy to make (pick a human and give them heightened sense for a Khurasan Felid, etc.).  But how do you represent something fast-moving like a Critical Mass Astagar?  Scott pointed out there are rules for developing custom races.  He also said that a few more races and occupations would be great fodder for a future supplement, so that's something to look forward to!
  • The standard movement value (6cm for humans) feels too short.  Essence Warriors aren't able to get into energy blade range for at least three rounds.  I'm going to modify it by using Ganesha Games-style movement (front of base to back of base).  Scott suggested trading fate dice for additional movement as another option.
  • An FAQ will definitely need to be published.  There are a few situations I ran into that weren't addressed, at least not in a way that was easy to find mid-game.

What simply doesn't work
  • I'm afraid this game simply isn't suited to solo play, at least in its current form.  The greatest weakness to solo gaming is actually the game's strength - the fate dice.  You only have so many you can use in a turn.  I found it was easy to favor certain characters over others by having one use all his fate dice and another "save his for later."  This is definitely a game to play with your friends/RPG group!

This all seems very familiar...

And just to get my biggest gripe out of the way... When you read the book's description and first few pages, you get the feeling that this game was designed to support any kind of space opera you could imagine.  A bit later and you start thinking the designers had a bit of a Star Wars bias.  Then you read a bit further... and the Star Wars analogs become completely overwhelming.

It's especially noticeable in the printer friendly version, which replaces the color photos with several quotes from notable characters.  Around half of these quotes are Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original film, just with a few words rephrased.  Two or three of those?  Sure, no problem, a great mood setter.  But so many of them?  Where are the quotes from Bad Reynolds, Captain of the smuggling ship Glow Worm?  Or a one-liner from Commander Spacebuck, hotshot fighter pilot aboard the Warstar Galacticus?  Seeing Star Wars quotes all over the book leads me to believe that it's only designed to emulate one possible universe, at least on a cosmetic level.

Scott assured me this wasn't the case.  They really did intend for B&B to cover a wide variety of universes.  The overwhelming Star Wars feel wasn't intended.  Why are so many of us getting this feeling from a first impression?  Well, Star Wars is the most pervasive space opera in our culture.  It's no coincidence that we see Star Wars first, even when a certain element could have been inspired by a different work.

The actual rules allow for far more flexibility (example: the Cyborg rules didn't remind me of any specific characters from Star Wars).  You certainly CAN create forces without any "Essence" Warriors" (Jedi).  But it seems you're only using 75% of the game's potential if you ignore that section.  Essence powers aren't an appendix - they are definitely a core mechanic of the game

But we have seen these types of powers outside of the Star Wars universe.  What about telepathic and telekinetic abilities in Babylon 5?  The power of certain artifacts found in the Star Trek or Stargate franchises?  The Essence Powers actually handle these quite well.  I just wish the designers would have taken some time to open the system up to a wider variety of universes.

Overall conclusions

Make no mistakes - this really is a great narrative skirmish game.  Playing a campaign will feel like watching a movie or reading a book - far more satisfying than "line up and shoot" or "occupy objectives 1-3."  I'd love to see this game grow and expand into a major franchise within itself - and it seems like Scott and company are on the job.  And it very strongly reinforces our belief that 15mm is the perfect scale for narrative games - not just for company-sized battles!


  1. Totally agree on all points. My group helped playtest B&B. It really is meant for 1 on 1 games and didn't hold up to bigger games with more players. One thing Scott didn't address that came up alot were the way the games devolved into "shoot a guy til his Fate is blown, then cut him down". I don't a have "gamey" group by any means, and we kinda left B&B for In the Emperor's Name. But don't get me wrong. Scott has put out a quality product that lots of people will like.

  2. Great review, thanks for the heads up about the Star Wars influences. The heavy hand of the Galactic Empire is everywhere ... including, it seems, in rulebook publishing!

  3. Is it 'evocative' of Star Wars? Sure. I would have liked to have seen other related quotes as well. But really, even on the first read-through, I could see using it to play all sorts of other games: Star Trek, Thundercats, Flash Gordon, Thundarr the Barbarian, etc., with only minimal work.

    If they didn't put in the Essence powers, fans of the game would just have to write them, because Star Wars *is* that big an influence on the space opera/scifi-fantasy genre. But that's not a bad thing. Just because the original D&D was, well, based off Tolkien and a couple other sources doesn't mean there wasn't a whole lot more that can be done with it.

  4. Oh, and BaronVonJ, your comment of "shoot a guy til his Fate is blown, then cut him down"? Uh, that's also pretty much how the movies work. The big bad throws a horde of nameless mooks to take out the hero and his sidekicks, and the heroes have to take out the villains quickly, or they will be slowly overcome and get captured (maybe setting it up for a jailbreak scenario next game) or be forced to retreat (setting it up for a pursuit scenario.)