+ inload: Initial thoughts on Beyond the Gates of Antares +

+ Scout probe reports +

+ Thoughts on Beyond the Gates of Antares +

As an increasingly confident C3 brigade continued its relentless advance on Ordun, the Isorians in the north were at risk of being surrounded.
Attempting to escort the Saharduin emissaries to something approaching safety, the Isorians struck out along a long-disused phys-transport route towards Tertiary, harried by C3 Interceptors all the way.
<Omu, day 201>


+ '40k with blast markers – it's like they designed it for me!' That's selling Beyond the Gates of Antares a bit short, but it's a decent enough elevator pitch for what's proving to tick all the right boxes for me:
  • Infantry-based
  • Involving gameplay
  • Intuitive mechanics
  • Complexity rather than complication
  • Fun models to paint!
+ The picture at the top is one I took at the end of a test I ran through. I say test, rather than game, as it was very much a case of trying out the mechanics. With any new game, it's easy to make assumptions based on other games you've played, and when the core concept – skirmish warfare – is so similar to other games that I've played (various editions of 40k of course, but also Infinity, AT-43, Kill Team, Warmachine – even Epic), I wanted to make sure I was getting things right. +

To help highlight a couple of points, I have added some comparisons to various other games below. Let me be clear that this sort-of-review is not a 'which game is better' bash between BtGoA and 40k. Largely that's because I think that's a bit of a pointless exercise – after all, you can like both tea and coffee for different reasons – but also because I think games need to stand on their own feet. +

+ For me, a big part of the appeal of the game is the fantastic lore, but we're concentrating on the ruleset here. +


+ Initial impression +

+ I ran a game of three Isorian units – a human Phase Squad, a Tsan Ra phase squad and a plasma cannon – against two Concord Combined Command (C3) squads. Basically everything I had painted for the C3, and just large enough to see how moving, shooting and so forth worked with the order dice system. +

+ I ran through the test in about an hour, with a bit of flicking back and forth in the rulebook. I've been getting quietly enthused about the game for a few weeks, and immersing myself – even found myself listening to podcasts about the subject, which I very rarely do – so I was half-expecting to have built it up a bit too much and feeling a bit deflated afterwards. Happily, this wasn't the case. +


+ Postives +

+ Consideration for players +

+ All wargames rely on players collaborating to make a good game, and I sometimes think designers get a bit lost in the bushes and lose sight of that. Rather than trying to tighten the bolts on everything in a sisyphean attempt to account for every single possible interaction, Beyond the Gates of Antares leans into this, and makes a lot of small but sensible decisions to help collaboration and minimise unnecessary reference during the game. viz.:
  • Weapon ranges are taken from the closest figures, then abstracted for the squad. It's a neat way of ensuring you don't have to measure each figure in turn.
    • The small squad sizes and coherency distances prevent this from causing too many oddities.
  • The Order Dice and reaction mechanics ensure that both players are engaged and entertained, with meaningful decisions to make throughout.
  • Traditionally vague elements – such as how area terrain and buildings work – are provided for. 
    • The simple note that 'these rules are assuming an area of roughly 8 x 8in' goes a long way to help players decided where and how their figures interact with large forests, or whether you can fairly count a couple of intervening thin hedges as a single thick one within the spirit of the rules.
    • Buildings are likewise simply 'occupied' by units, rather than having to work out the precise placement of figures inside an enclosed building. Like area terrain, you're given a guideline size for a standard building, and larger buildings are subdivided.
+ These are, in the main, fairly subtle things, but they're illustrations of how refined the core engine is, and how it's geared towards how playing a game in the real world works. There's a real understanding of what actually happens when two or more people play a game. The 'crunch' of the rules works like a good butler: unobtrusive, but helping the enjoyment to run smoothly without getting in the way. +


+ Intuitive +

+ Once you've got the key actions – movement, shooting etc. – under your belt, the rest flows smoothly. Close combat, for example, is not really a separate set of mechanics, but a variation on shooting. Weaponry likewise all shares a common set of mechanics, and are distinguished largely by subtleties within the stat lines rather than special rules and exceptions. +

+ There's not a huge amount to remember: rather than unique for each faction, a lot of the weaponry is shared across the game – there are just three or four small arms, for example. Likewise, with the minor proviso of multi-order dice (MOD) units, everything from infantry to vehicles to drones works with the same core mechanics. Even how MOD units work is summed up in a few paragraphs that are aimed more towards clarifying how existing rules interact than introducing new ones. +

+ There are special rules, of course. The differentiation possible within the staline – even given the greater freedom of a D10-based system over a D6-based system – is minimal, but the special rules and exceptions are largely intuitive. By that I mean that, even taking into context the slightly fantastical nature of far future spacemen, things work roughly as you'd imagine. There aren't many mental jumps and rules exceptions in (say) moving across a marsh; and you can hide on one side of a hedge – but not the side nearer the enemy! It's a very common sense ruleset. +


+ Turn structure +

+ The Order Dice mechanic is a definite plus point for me. It's so elegant! You put a die in the bag for every unit, then draw them out (blind) one at a time. If it's your colour, you place the die next to the unit with the order you want uppermost, then activate your unit. Rather than the other player then taking an activation, you draw another. This can result in a string of activations for one side or the other, which I feel would add a lot to the tension and fun of the game – adding a bit of random chance without feeling unfair. After all, if your opponent has a string of lucky draws, you'll be in a better position to make a more daring counterattack, knowing that he or she has a lesser likelihood of drawing dice later. +

+ Besides this clever variation on alternating activation, the game also flows beautifully from turn to turn as a result. There's no end phase or interruption to remember, nor anything to track, because you'll either have dice in the bag or not. Again, it's a subtle thing, but it's another example of reducing the mental load: rather than having to bear in mind how the mechanics work, you're free to concentrate on the interactions of models on the table. + 


+ D10s +

+ This isn't a paean to funny-shaped dice. The poor old D6 gets a lot of criticism for not being granular enough, or not allowing enough variation, but by and large I've found systems that use different dice (or worse, proprietary dice – I'm looking at you, ill-fated Warcaster) don't really do much with the change to more sides besides using it to spread the probabilities more finely, or simply use it as a novelty. (As an aside, Infinity deserves a thumbs-up for a genuinely innovative use of the D20; though personally I found it a bit cumbersome to implement in-game.) +

+ I was therefore a bit leery of a D10-based system, but I was pleased to see BtGoA actually does something fun with it – and that's include a critical success and critical fail mechanic. These vary from place to place, but generally if you roll a 1 there's an advantage, and if you roll a 10 something bad has happened. +

+ In tune with the intuitive and considerate comments above, these tend not to be completely new mechanics, but rather to do things that already exist in the rules: taking an additional pin marker, for example; or allowing you, rather your opponent, to pick where the shot hits. Where your heavy weapons miss critically, they temporarily run out of ammo/overheat – but rather than giving that a new rule, you simply turn their order dice to the Down order. That last one is a good example of the interconnectedness of the mechanics; and how the clean rules can give such complexity. +

+ Some results are unique: a critical success on moving through terrain will create a path for others to follow for the rest of the game, for example. Hitting a Ghar battlesuit with a critical success will strike its plasma reactor(!); while missing critically with a plasma cannon represents the weapon overheating (well, 'fading') temporarily. These minor advantages (and setbacks) are all flavourful and interesting, and make fishing for 1s fun. +

+ A secondary point is that a D10 system has a greater ability to meaningfully balance modifiers than a D6-based system. That allows range, cover and conditions to add complexity to those few weapons we mentioned earlier, preventing them feeling samey. +


+ Psychology +

+ One of my favourite bits of Epic: Armageddon is the blast marker mechanic. When you're shot at, your formation sustains a blast marker that reduces your ability to reply. More are added for casualties or other traumatic events, and eventually even a massive formation can be rendered combat-ineffective by sufficient markers. +

+ Besides offering a great visual – the formations under fire make it obvious to an onlooker where the action is heating up – the mechanic neatly and smoothly encapsulates the psychology of warfare. Your forces might not necessarily be dead or injured, but your soldiers are too preoccupied with staying alive to return fire. +

+ BtGoA has a similar mechanic, with pin markers being placed when unit come under effective fire – that is, they hit. Even if the weapon fails to hurt them, your forces will be slightly more edgy than if they're fired at but the shots go wide. Pin markers are deleterious to your ability to issue orders, to your soldiers accuracy, and if they build up to equal your units' command ability, the unit is broken and removed. +

+ It's a neat and (dare I say?) realistic way of representing how people react under fire. A unit might not sustain any casualties, but if they're put in a stressful enough situation, they'll break and run. Equally, if well led and reassured, a unit can be whittled down and still be returning fire effectively. +

+ It works beautifully here; subtly different from Epic: Armageddon's mechanic, but retaining all the visual appeal and ensuring psychology and leadership – historically amongst the most important values in a military – plays a prominent role in the game. +


+ Short musical interlude

+ Phew! Lots of words. Let's take a short intermission to look at some models, shall we? I gave myself the challenge to paint my Isorians over the Christmas break... and predictably failed to do so. Nevertheless, it's worth persevering – after all, failing a self-imposed challenge should simply spur you on, not make you feel bad. The perfect's the enemy of the good, after all (Just ask Ferrus Manus). +

+ To that end, I've been plunging on with the Isorians, and polished off the X-Howitzer (a giant mortar) and spotter drones. You can see them all below. +

+ I just can't get all that excited to paint tanks and machineries of war, so I'm always quietly relieved with crew-served weaponry – more interesting figures to develop, and they're often in cool poses. +

+ Here, the three crew members are carrying a variety of spotting, loading and firing equipment. I added a small circle of plastic (cut from a blister pack) to the spotter's equipment, giving the impression of a transparent screen. A couple of dabs of green ink and superglue created some holographic blips on the screen. +

+ The unit as it would typically appear in-game, with just one spotter drone. +


+ Negatives +

+ Ease of use +

+ It's not all rosy. The discursive nature of the writing means that the rulebook is hiding a rather elegant game within it. That's not to say it's obtuse – simply that the rulebook is written in quite a conversational tone. Anyone familiar with older rulesets like Rogue Trader or 2nd edition Warhammer 40,000 will be familiar with the style, where slight asides or background touches creep into the 'crunch' of the game, making the text longer and more discursive. +

+ As a point of comparison, modern 40k has handy bullet points and, crucially, an index – much better for quickly finding references during a game. Familiarity with a system will probably go a long way to resolve this, but even in the little test game I played I found myself thinking 'now, I'm fairly sure I read that somewhere...' and flicking back and forth in the rulebook 'til I found things. +


+ Uniformity +

+ I've noted the stripped-back nature of the units and weapons as an positive feature above, but the flip side of that is just how similar things are. I ummed and ahhed about whether to list this in the negatives, but decide that lack of options is probably a bad thing, on balance. However, this is likely a matter of taste – if (like me) you like your sci-fi wargames being what amounts to WWII in costume, rather than giant over-the-top stuff – you'll appreciate the fact that your soldiers are basically identical to the opponents. Consider:
  • An Algoryn Armoured Infantry warrior is naturally tough, so has a Resistance (Res) value of 6, boosted to 7 by his armour. +
  • An Isorian Phase Trooper has base Resistance of 5, boosted by his Phase Armour to 7 (at mid-range)
  • A Concord soldier has base resistance of 5, and his Hyperlight armour boosts that at mid-range to *drum roll* a value of... 7.
+ In fairness, there are differences, but they're fairly subtle, and the test I played didn't really highlight them. Perhaps the difference between the underlying body and armour type does become clearer in larger games, or with more experience. +

+ Secondly, everyone moves the same basic distance. Like Epic: Armageddon, you can pick orders that trade off the option to shoot to move twice, or even three times. This would be fine – except for the fact that then there are special rules for Fast and Slow units that are an exception to this. Why not just include a movement stat that would account for this? Despite what I've said above about clarity and consideration, there are still odd bits like this here and there. +

+ Finally, table size. 6 x 4ft is assumed as the basic table size, and you're encouraged to have a bigger space. One of the things I like best about 9th ed. 40k and modern games like Kill Team is the realisation that most people play on their dining tables or equivalents – considerably smaller than 6 x 4ft. As far as I can see, there's no scaling for table size based on game size in Beyond the Gates of Antares, so whether you're playing a 500pt game or a 3,000pt game, you'll be using the same real estate. That's a shame from a visual point of view: the car parks that modern 40k can be are ameliorated when you're encouraged to play on bigger boards for bigger games, and on the other end of the scale, the twenty-five or so figures I had in my test looked positively lost on the board. +

+ In fairness, I'm not really sure what could be done to fix this, beyond a drop in scale. The weapon ranges are much longer than 40k, and while not infinite, as in Kill Team, most of them may as well be. That in itself is quite nice – even a pistol can reach out to 30in with a lucky shot – so perhaps table size is a necessary evil. Still, I'd like to see some consideration placed on it for second edition, to scale better. +

+ Gaps +

+ The conversational structure of the rulebook has its downsides as well as its upsides – and one of them is that the summaries in the rulebook don't include into on which units are heavy weapons. Since that's not a statistic or special rule, you're left to simply know that (for example) a plasma cannon is a light support weapon (and thus eligible to move and fire), while a mag cannon is a heavy weapon (and thus not). I understand that there's been a PDF released since to clarify this, which adds headings, so it's good that Warlord's on top of stuff like that. +


+ Summary +

+ I guess that my initial conclusion is that Beyond the Gates of Anatares isn't revolutionary so much as a very satisfying refinement of existing concepts. It incorporates some unique and innovative ideas that build well on what works, rather than being changes for the sake of change. +

+ Most recent games I've played – with the notable exception of the explicitly  veteran-gamer-courting Adeptus Titanicus (AT) – seem to have leaned into making a game that aims to competes with computer gaming: very abstract systems that get you going in just a few pages, but that are then layered with additions, exceptions and mechanics to create a satisfying complexity. In contrast, both BtGoA and AT give the reader a heavy read to get through, with interlinked  and interreliant concepts. It either all hangs together, or it doesn't. +

+ As an illustration, there are layers to 40k. You can play with the addition of the Crusade rules; of strategems; of secondary objectives... there are lots of modules that attach to the core game to let you customise it. BtGoA is, in contrast, a clean and complete system. Whether that means that it's ultimately less satisfying is obviously beyond the scope of the little test game I played, but I think it's worth highlighting that I enjoyed the process, and could feel my brain whirring on how the game would scale up in interesting ways; and how that in turn would add complexity on the tabletop, rather than in mental load (see below). +

+ On the rulebook's text style, I think it's likely a taste thing. The downside of bullets and clarity (and yes, I do think there's a downside) is that it can give a false impression of how 'clear' tabletop wargaming can be. Any wargamer will be familiar with situations in which it's not quite clear how far something is, or how certain outlier rules interact. The more roundabout style of Beyond the Gates of Antares carries explicit notes that it's not one of millimetres and exactitude. +

+ The label narrative gaming often comes with a slight sense that the rule engine can be 'let off', and be a bit rough around the edges or vague. Let me make it clear that, from my initial impressions at least, I don't think that's the case with Beyond the Gates of Antares. +

+ Where present, the additional text seems to be aimed at clarifying the intent behind the rules. It sometimes goes beyond what's necessary, but from my point of view at least, it's quite nice to have the writer explain that 'this doesn't do that, because I wanted to give this impression/avoid unnecessary rolling'. +

+ It is, at root, unabashedly aimed at what we can euphemistically call 'more mature' gamers – a ruleset to chew and mull over. I'm happy to report that it remains very intuitive: the complexity plays out on the table, with the rules, once absorbed, not getting in the way of the game. +


+ Mental load +

+ This isn't directly related to It's not something that had really struck me until recently, but a lot of games I play have quite a lot of what I term 'mental load': abstract stuff to remember. 40k's a good example of a game with increasing amount of mental load: there are multiple levels of non-visual, non-tactile elements to remember, from army special rules to stratagems to objectives and exceptions to exceptions. It's claggy, even slightly stressful, and it take focus away from actually concentrating on what's happening on the board – the fun bit of being an armchair general. +

+ Even Kill Team, which I think is a brilliant game with lots of innovative ideas that work well, has quite a few ongoing 'blind' effects and rules to bear in mind. BtGoA has very little of this; there seems to be an absolute minimum of book-keeping. +

+ Part of this, of course, is down to this being a very small game.

+ All adds up to make a satisfying game, with few heads-scratching moments – though I reserve judgement on that, given that this was a very small test game. I have heard that some armies (like the Ghar) have a lot of exceptions to the basic rules, so perhaps the BtGoA ruleset was flattered by my use of two fundamantally similar forces, the Concord Combined Command (C3) and Isorian Senatex. +


+ Bonus tracks +

+ Like the end of a 90s hard rock CD, you've read through the whole article... and at the end you've found the bonus tracks. Hopefully better than the 'hilarious' outtakes of the singer burping or the drummer's poorly-indulged twenty-minute solo, here are some models:

+ The Concord Combined Commend doesn't care what colour (or shape) you are; all panhumanity – and a few aliens – can sit in its ranks. I rather like the big-brained Vyess panhuman morphs, so will be integrating some of them into my C3 force. An example is above. +

+ ...and speaking of C3, I have a copy of the starter set, Strike on Kara Nine streaking its way across Antares to me. I won't be touching it until the Isorians are done, but I'd like to use it to do a buildalong. If you're interested in joining in, please let me know! +

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