Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dreadfleet: First Impressions (1)

“First Impressions” has become a rather accidental series here on A Gentleman’s Ones, which I suppose is a symptom of my recent interest in several systems beyond (or at least adjacent to) my usual 40K interests. It began with Kings of War, has continued with Warmachine, and this third installment has lead me to believe that I should politely proceed in a similar vein.

And so I intend to push forward in the same spirit and style that inspired the previous posts (namely, a simple discussion of four basic elements: the game dynamic, the universe, the minis, and the cost). As before, I intend to describe my explicitly subjective experience fairly, and with good manners.

So, last Saturday night I was able to sprint out to the suburbs for deep, fresh, and briny breath of gaming air. Thank you, Chris, for hosting a spirited and eventful evening. 

I have read some genuinely scathing reviews of Dreadfleet here on the internets. I have read a few glowing reports. I am really quite pleased and relieved to say that my impressions are much more of the latter than the former, but not obnoxiously so.

In sum, I had a blindingly good time playing this new game. I used the word “relieved” above because, by happy accident, I recently discovered that I will be gifted a lovely new copy of Dreadfleet for my birthday later this month. Given that I know what I know, I will admit there were several moments last night when I sighed, inwardly, “thank god it doesn’t suck” -quite the contrary in fact. I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed an entirely brand new game so thoroughly. Here’s why:

[One note: Please accept my sincerest apologies for the shocking state of the photos of actual gameplay. While the scenery shots are just fine (and offered the first real reason to shoot imagery with the stock blue background that came with my little box), the photos from the actual games are brutal. Alas, we must content ourselves with the dreadful (no pun) quality of these photos that I took the other night in a basement with my phone. It is a shame that the photos fail to show the brilliant work Chris put into the ships. As for the other scenery… more on that next time.]

The Game Dynamic: 
 In roughly six hours, we played three solid games -two of which included the entire fleet on either side of the exchange. In my opinion, that is a lot of gaming for reasonably little effort. The timeline here includes ample wastage during which we chattered like school girls about the Necrons, discussed in sophisticated (perhaps even refined) tones the Necrons, moaned about “the company,” lauded “the company,” complained about it some more, and generally enjoyed ourselves tremendously. Oh, and we all learned the game from the boards inward, as only one member of the collective (nine individuals over the course of the evening) had anything that might approach “experience” with the game in question. The second-most experienced individual had exactly one game under his belt.

That’s not a bad bit of gaming glory for a single evening really.

So. With a modest bit of collaboration, Dreadfleet seems a quick learner. I really enjoy the strategic opportunities of the I-go-you-go sub-phases in each turn, and both movement and combat not only seem amply suggestive of the things they are meant to represent but also maintain a level of abstraction that keeps the game from running aground (ahoy) with cumbersome rules.

(Digression) -The Universe:
More importantly, the game is impressively evocative. I have absolutely no register on the fluff, yet from our first learner scenario (a rescue and break mission) I was caught in the personality both of the individual models and the collective forces.

To be fair, some of it feels a little over the top. I’m not complaining about the skulls here. In this instance, I quite like the now standard proliferation thereof. No, I am thinking more about the practical need to make the ships readily distinguishable and representative of their unique narrative and/or personality. That is a tricky challenge for designers, I am certain. At times, the need to make each model so much more than simply a ship also requires a potentially grand bit of exaggeration that can be distracting if one spends too much time staring too closely (Araby ship).

And yet, to be even fairer to this fairness digression, how about that Skaven ship, eh? That’s just an absolute blinder. It’s just stunningly vile …and I love it. Then there’s the undead floaty ship? Brilliant.

And yet, there’s a slightly sad note in that each ship represents the unique and lonesome type for its race. I, for one, would love to build an entire fleet of vampire ships… but that would be another game. So we are left to enjoy the hodgepodge fleet of improbably aligned individual ships (which brings to mind –why on earth should desiccated mummies think they aught to voyage asea?) and take this monster at its own impressive value.

(End Digression, and back to) –The Game Dynamic:
Perhaps as a suitable transition from this digression, it would behoove me to state that the game is positively oozing drama. The ships are characterful, and the damage card dynamic is so fraught with hazard that it should curb any of the average captain’s impulses to take the game (or himself for that matter) too seriously. In this particular photo, you can see the Swordfish failing to achieve its goal on the final gasp of the final turn by. just. one. inch.  Oh, the sound of the cheering at that roll. Glorious. Even the scurvied ends of that equation were pleased enough to that the game just felt fulfilling, bugger the outcome.

Dreadfleet is a lighthearted, whimsical game, and demands that one approach it thus.

There are some loose ends. The otherwise beautiful cloth table needs to be nailed down somehow. Likewise, we did have some modest trouble keeping track of a few of what, at times, seemed to be extraneous baggage in the game mechanic (a quirky ongoing Fate effect, and the odd encumbrance or two) which was perhaps added with an eye on more professionally-orientated gamer. I suspect that these details would become reflexive once we learned the game properly, but the constantly shifting wind, as an example, seemed to burden the game slightly only for the sake of it. As it turns out, we demonstrated an intuitive skill at simply ignoring that wind anyway.

I have seen elsewhere the Fate card mechanism criticized quite forcefully. While I do not feel harshly on this matter, we were all left a little flat in game number two when a disproportionately invasive card was drawn at the beginning of a late turn …and summarily ended the game by sinking the Elven ship. Quite rude, really.

Thankfully the rest of the game was dramatic enough to thwart such a crass attempt at stifling our inexperienced enthusiasm, and the final game brought us right back apace with drama, cinematic volleys, and general mayhem.

That said, I might have a nose through that Fate deck when it comes to my possession and have a proper think about what belongs and what should be left aside. At the very least, I expect to “house rule” that mechanism at my abode, and halve or otherwise limit the number of Fate drawn in any one turn.  Simple problems have simple solutions.

Next time, I intend to summarize my impressions while keeping one eye on the miniatures and the relative cost of the game as well.

See you then.


Loquacious said...

So glad to hear you liked it. I warned someone away from it due to the universally terrible reviews I'd seen. You're far kinder to an unknown product than I, friend.

The Inner Geek said...

The game looks interesting, I just can't get excited about the multi-national fleets. I think I would have preferred a game with two single race fleets... of course, it would then lack some of the flavor it has now. Thank goodness I don't design games!

Sidney Roundwood said...

Brian, that's a very fair, fine review. I liked the personal insight you brought to it. The scenery looks very good indeed, BTW. Three solid games ni six hours is pretty good going for any game - and it sounds cinematic and fun. 4 out of 5 stars would you say, or is that a bit high (or low)?

Unknown said...

Very nice review. I have yet to put my Dreadfleet together, as I'm backlogged with projects, but, it's nice to hear some kind words about the game so I know it's not a waste of my time putting it together.

Cheers mate!

Brian said...

@ Loq. Thanks. I try to be positive generally.

@ The Inner G. I know what you mean. It was a (mercifully short) hurdle for me as well. In my post today, I discuss the possibility of converting a few ships for fleet purposes. The soft and informal nature of the game seems ideal of "house rules" purposes. We shall see.

@ Sidney. 4 of 5 sounds both fair and accurate. Good idea about that rating business. I suppose that would certainly help create a shorthand summary of my total impression. The less keen reader my get lost in my digressions.

@ Dr. K. I felt very much the same upon learning that I will be getting the game for my birthday.