Monday, 30 March 2015

Book Review: Master of Sanctity by Gav Thorpe

In my Review of Ravenwing I said it would be beneficial if you had read Gav Thorpe’s Dark Angels standalone magnum Opus Angels of Darkness but that it was no means necessary to enjoy Ravenwing. Sadly I cannot say the same of Master of Sancitity, at all. There are too many threads picked up to ignore. you will really need to read that first to have a better understading of what is going on. Master of Sanctity makes a lot more reference to Angels of Darkness than Ravenwing and features a couple of the same characters. Even thought the main thrust of the narrative is placed elsewhere. It also ties loosely into Purge of Kadillus, Thorpe’s Space Marines Battles Novel but you can safely ignore that (though it’s by no means a bad read) Sadly Master of Sanctity falls short of the promise showed in Ravenwing, It is also vastly inferior to Angels of Darkness being that difficult bridging installment in an overall story arc.

And of course that Arc involves The Fallen. Im not sure exactly when the Dark Angels turned into Pokemon collectors (gotta get em all!!) but it’s getting to be a little tiresome now. Of course hunting the Fallen was never a new thing for the Dark Angels, they have always striven to apprehend their traitor brethren since the end of the Heresy, but rather than being a quirk of the chapter it is now their overriding reason for existence and it’s all getting a bit silly. What really doesn’t work is the levels of secrecy revolving around the whole affair, the amount of ignorance that the lower echelons of the chapter display is absolutely staggering. It’s very hard to credit that they could be so naive such is the ease with which the wool is pulled over their eyes, and they come across as swaddled in bedclothes until they grow up enough to learn all about the big bad nature of Chaos. I can imagine the other chapters sneering away at the Dark Angels ‘Can you believe Azrael’s lot? They don’t even know about traitor marines and DAEMONS! HAHAHAHA!!!!’ Its all a bit tragic for the 1st Legion, an ignoble portrayal of a difficult and awkward concept.

Still it’s a narrative mechanic and here it follows much the same function as in Ravenwing. The Dark Angels bimble about, by and large unaware of what they are actually up to, just following orders. Of course the privileged few DO know and go about their business of tracking down the Fallen. The same characters from Ravenwing feature here, though they don’t really do a lot and are given limited scope for development. Telemenus in particular (promoted to Deathwing by virtue of simply SEEING one of the Fallen in Ravenwing) is incessant in his insecurity and far too much time is spent dwelling on how much he is struggling to measure up to the standards of the Dark Angels Elite. This was understandable I guess when he was a lower ranked marine but to see it in this capacity is just awful. It’s painful watching this waste of space of a Space Marine lumber around ineptly until something actually happens. It really does make a bit of a mockery of the Dark Angel heirachal system having such an insecure and doubt riddled member of the Dark Angels elite.

The main thrust of Master of Sanctity is not Telemenus (praise be to the Emperor) however. Instead this book focuses more on the Interrogator Chaplains. The main duo in this book are Sapphon and Asmodai. Sapphon is in the ascendancy and the titular Master of Sanctity, his cool and collected methods preferred by the Grand Masters of the chapter. Asmodai is considered too volatile, his brutal and compromising methods bringing too much controversy and attention to a chapter that prefers to keep to the Shadows. However, Sapphon is under pressure to deliver results and Asmodai is constantly trying to undermine him to gain his position. The power struggle between these two is one of the better parts of the book and where it works it works well. It is never really taken to the full extent of its potential though and Asmodai in particular comes off as a little one dimensional. However the interplay between the two is pretty good and personifies the different aspects of the chapter well.

The Fallen also have a much larger presence in this book, particularly Astelan from Angels of Darkness. In this book the Dark Angels use him to track down other members of the Fallen. As you might be able to appreciate this DOES not go down well with Asmodai, creating a great deal more conflict and drama. And I think that is the real problem here, drama. The story is overly wrought about stuff that as the reader we just don’t care about. At times the dialogue gets a bit cheesy but overall it’s not too bad but it helps the already inconsistent pace of the book not one jot. Unfortunately it is around here the plots starts to meander a lot, a nondescript and pointless trip to a daemon world ensues but is nothing more than a red herring setting up the real climax of the book. Now admittedly the cliffhanger the book ends on is pretty exciting and will entice you to read the next installment Unforgiven, but it sure comes out of the blue with no real foreshadowing and I’m not really sure where it is leading.

Master of Sanctity is a deeply flawed book. Thorpe is not a bad writer, or at least not deserving of the vitriol normally levied at him, but his handling of the Astartes here is just not right and in all honestly the Dark Angels come off as a bunch of arguing bumbling idiots. Especially Telemenus who is meant to be a member of the Deathwing for crying out loud! Still, Gav has done his homework and there are some passages that make for great reading. Some of the action scenes are pretty gripping and the sections on the daemonworld are delightfully old school if wholly forgettable. The pacing is also well off, with the end being shoehorned in and most of the climax of the book taking place is a startlingly short amount of pages. Some of the characterization leaves something to be desired too, with some cast members either being dull stereotypes or wholly unlikable. Another thing I must mention are the mistakes. AGAIN. Ravenwing had a few of these and they really jarred me out of the narrative as wrong names were used in vital places. Sadly Master of Sanctity is no exception and again there are errors. For example. Asmodai is described as having a white skull like helmet. EVERYONE knows Interrogator Chaplains do not wear white skull helms. Later on in the book we are told a Terminators backpack hits the roof of a corridor (ok this one is perhaps a little uncharitable) even though terminators don’t wear ‘backpacks’

The thing is I could understand these errors in a hired gun, a freelance writer who might not have in depth knowledge of the 40k Universe., but Gav Thorpe has been working with Games Workshop since before I got into the hobby! He is a veteran Game Designer, Codex Writer AND Black Library Author, this aint his first Rodeo. Hopefully this is all sorted out and the last book is a stormer. Otherwise the only one Unforgiven will be Gav Thorpe.

3 out of 5 Fallen

Game Review: Star Wars Armada

Unveiled last year it has seemed an intolerable wait for Star Wars Armada. Due in January it has been delayed a couple of times now and we've had the unprecedented event of a second wave being previewed before the core set is even released! Indeed i was starting to fear it might not appear before Star Wars day. Thankfully though, it has at last been released and i can finally see if it lives up to the hype.

And such hype there has been! Ever since the release of X-wing people have rather been clamouring for the larger ships in the Star Wars universe to be featured. The problem is at that scale a Star Destroyer would be in the magnitude of several meters long and entirely impractical in game. The most Fantasy Flight Games were able to do was come up with some roughly scaled medium size ships such as the Rebel Transport and CR90 Corellian Corvette, and even then these ships required a different rule set so far removed were they from the agile dog fighting depicted in X-wing .In addition, games of X-wing were becoming somewhat bloated, with large scale games involving more than half a dozen ships per side becoming somewhat unwieldy and cumbersome.

Enter Armada.

Star Wars Armada is FFG's answer to all the above, a completely different game at a totally different scale.  Based around capital ships, it finally gave the gamers the Star Destroyer they had been demanding. Well Kind of. More on that in a bit.

We'll discuss the game and first impressions of the rules in a bit. First lets look at the box. The first thing you notice is that it is substantially bigger than the Core set for X-wing, the box is comparable to the box for Imperial Assault though i'm not sure it needs to be, especially the depth. Still, it does set it aside from the MUCH cheaper X-wing (we'll discuss price later too) and it does look FANTASTIC. The models are presented much the same as X wing at the bottom of the box and i must say the Star Destroyer in particluar does look impressive. Most impressive..

The box may be oversized but it contains ample goodies. 
Upon removing the lid and getting to grips with the ships you can see the detail is pretty fine, its certainly up to par with the X-wing models though the paint is lacking a little in places. Still quite a few people actively repainted their X-wing ships and i don't see it being any different here. They are certainly serviceable enough for prepaints and STILL light years ahead of the Star Trek Attack Wing equivalents. It is worth noting that there are a fair few more fragile elements to the ships though, care will need to be taken to prevent breakage of antennae and the like. This fragility is extended to the Squadron ships which are by necessity a lot smaller. These are not prepainted and are instead coloured plastic with much reduced detail though i'm sure they can also be improved should someone feel the need to apply some paint. Be careful when putting these into their bases as too much Force (sorry) could see you snap them.

Finally, a Star Destroyer, albeit only Victory Class. .

And there is a fair bit of assembly required overall with much more involved than X-wing. Shield facings have to be attached to bases and the Squadron bases are pretty complex due to their many features, though of course everything is up to the usual FFG quality and slots together nicely. Once its all together it looks mighty impressive and its clear there is a lot more plastic in Armada than X-wing. The fact that moving dials and tabs on the base mark activation and remaining hit points is very cool and makes book keeping much more simple.

The Rebel Ships are also rather nice. 

Other than the ships its the usual cards and tokens and such, though you get the sense they have tried to keep the tokens to a minimum compared to X-wing which could often become cluttered with effects tokens and maneuver templates. For example commands and maneuvers are now dealt with by a dial, which adds more plastic to the deal. Also worthy of mention is the maneuvering template, Rather than use the set templates from X-wing to represent fighters sharp turns and loops, a bespoke plastic template has been designed around an impressive movement system designed to emulate the movement of capital ships. Again, we'll get to that in a sec.

Tiny little fighters, not to scale but then how could they be?

Cards wise, Armada does feel a little light. there are a few upgrade cards and ship cards and of course the ubiquitous damage deck but you'll have to wait for more expansions to build up decent decks. There are cards for upgraded versions of each ship in the box though so a bit of variety is imparted and unlike X-wing there are objectives rather than scenarios, these also are presented on cards and you choose one of 3 to complete should you be playing that kind of game. The Dice also differ from X-wing as the core mechanics for combat are vastly different.

So that's what you get in the box and its all really rather nice though it does seem expensive for what you get. But how does it play? Well i'd hardly let the day pass without getting a game in so i dragged the space board out and Lee and I had a game. I took the Imperials and Lee was to command the Rebel scum. I didn't take notes for a full battle report so think more of this as a rough idea of how the game went with a rules review for added flavour. First up we had to choose our commands. This is one of the rule mechanics that make Armada a much more tactical game than its fighter based cousin.

In the command phase you choose what special tactics your capital ship is going to use. The great thing about this is that you have to plan ahead, some ships you'll be choosing what you will be doing a turn from now and in the case of the Victory class Star Destroyer (not a full Imperial Star Destroyer im afraid, though that is in wave 2) you have to plan even further in the future! Basically you have a stack of command dials and when you choose your command you place it at the bottom of the stack. Its an intriguing mechanic and adds a lot of strategic depth representing the reaction time of different ships extremely eloquently. There are four different commands you can choose from and ill get to them all in turn in a bit.

'Aaah, our first catch of the day'

Once command dials have been chosen you reveal them alternately firing and moving each ship in turn starting with whoever has initiative which switches players turn to turn. It is important to note that you shoot first and THEN move. Of course this meant that the first turn Lee and i both picked the NAVIGATE command for our ships as we knew we'd be out of range. this allowed us to increase or decrease speed and perform an additional turn. Lee had initiative and so moved his nimble Rebel Corvette. He hadn't moved in range of my Star Destroyer and the Imperial ship was already at its maximum speed of 2 so i couldn't do a great deal this turn.

After you attack and move the capital ships you take turns activating up to 2 squadrons at a time. These can either move OR attack  not both and have a very short range. As you activate each one you push a tab through to indicate that it has taken its action. /its a great way of keeping track of what you have done and who you still have to move. Once all the squadrons are moved you reset any used tokens and its the end of the turn..

The second turn things finally started to happen! My Imperial Star Destroyer chose the CONCENTRATE FIRE command allowing me to add a dice to my attack pool. Now the way shooting works in Armada is also completely different from X-wing. Each facing of a ship has attack values be they red blue or black which represent dice. How many of these you will get to roll will depend on range. At close range all three colour dice are used, at medium red and blue and at long range only reds. My Star Destroyer only got to fire its reds but it was enough to strip the shields of the Imperial Corvette on the front (Shield values are also per facing)

Things heat up as the Star Destroyer takes a battering before obliterating the Corvette. 

Lee's return concentrated fire stripped down a couple of shields from my Star Destroyer,and such was the positioning of his Corvette he then dealt damage too as he was able to hit it with two facings worth of attacks! Rolling accuracy results  on the dice meant i couldn't use my defence tokens. (there are no defence dice in armada, instead you use tokens to mitigate the damage, but if you use it again before the end phase you lose it) In one thing that IS like X-wing  critical damage cards are dealt face up losing me a defence token permanently as my crew suffered the brunt of the Corvettes fury.  The Squadrons buzzed round each other, blasting chunks out of one another, the X wings on top.

With the initiative back with him in turn 3 Lee had chosen ACTIVATE SQUADRON for his frigate as his command allowing him to activate an amount of squadrons equal to his ships squadron Command factor  early, The X wings blasted one of my TIE squadrons to pieces and put even more hurt on my Destroyer. But figuring by this point i would have taken damage i had chosen REPAIR as my action at the start of the game which gave me engineering points i could use to recover. Plus my Star Destroyer had ended up more or less nose to nose with his Corvette. I unleashed the full firepower of its prow weaponry (3 red and 3 black) utterly destroying the rebel ship. Knowing my destroyer had taken a bit of a battering i moved it away from the remaining rebel frigate.

With the Star Destroyer completing a leisurley circuit of the board corner, Lee tries to finish off my TIEs

The next turn i repaired as well (again chosen three turns ago) as Lee did his best to take out my squadrons. However the TIEs were coming out on top, even though i was still losing squadrons. Lee tried to use his frigate to help but it was of limited use.

As my Star Destroyer kept moving away it became clear i had to worry about going off the board so i put a NAVIGATE command at the bottom of the stack. Thinking so far ahead was proving a real novelty and he game had got very tactical. Lee had managed to get round the back of the destroyer but at long range wasn't really doing damage. It was up to the squadrons to provide entertainment and their numbers dwindled still fewer as they continued to battle.

this was pretty much the way of it for the next couple of turns as i JUST  managed to keep my Star Destroyer going off the edge of the board (and losing me the game) with my well timed Navigate options. By the time my Star Destroyer completed its circuit it had also managed to repair much of the damage done to it, We had lost time of how many turns we had played but agreed the game was probably over as Lee had little chance against my Star Destroyer coming up behind his frigate. The squadrons were also all wiped out except one stand of TIEs. We called that it and agreed a lot of fun was had.

So that was our first game of Aramada. Verdict? Its VERY good. More depth and a far more tactical game yet somehow STILL quicker and easier to play than X-wing. FFG have totally nailed that capital ship feel and this new ruleset would be much more suited to WizKids Star Trek Attack Wing than the system currrently used (a rip off of X-wing's). This is not just X wing with different ships, the whole system has been overhauled. The Movement is great and the new template a thing of wonder. The models are solid and look fine without being spectacular and the way the shields are represented on the base is a masterstroke, doing away with tokens on cards and other such record keeping.

Wave 2

The way shooting works is also great, with the reduced dice at each range step proving a major factor when allocating your attacks (you only get two per ship activation and they must be from different facings). It all just WORKS and i cannot find a damn thing to fault with the rules or the balance of the game after this brief taste. Everything is different without a vast variation in stats too The ships just FEEL different from one another, from the lumbering, three turn in advance command, slow Star Destroyer to the nippy, quicker to react, smaller rebel ships. X-wings are slower but stronger than TIEs but are much better at attacking capital ships. I cant wait to see the rules for dedicated bombers when they show up in a wave one expansion. It was almost like playing BFG all over again and i cant wait to get more games under my belt and pick up some more ships. We played a very basic game with no upgrades or hero squadrons (you can use Luke and Howlrunner as elite squadrons) so there is even more depth to be explored at a later stage. More ships would have prevented the slightly less dramatic end stages but i don't feel that this is a game that will work with massive fleets. I really would say that 3-4 Capital ships per side would be ample. Especially when you factor in the Squadrons that you would accompany them with.

In fact the ONLY bug bear i can level at the game is its price. at nearly 3 times the cost of X-wing it is a substantial outlay for a core set, Yes it is a much bigger box (something i think FFG have done on purpose as it doesn't need to be quite so deep) and yes you do get a lot more for your buck. The Corvette and Frigate are about the same amount of plastic as the three fighters you get in x-wing and when you factor in the additional plastic in the command counters and the bases and also the squadrons then the deal you get does seem to get a fair bit better, There is no arguing you get more of an idea of the full experience with the Armada core set than X-wing but i still think that £80 is too expensive. 50-60 seems fair. Of course there are a number of potential reasons for this inflated price...

1: Imperial Assault. As i said in my review of this excellent Skirmish Combat game FFG lost a court ruling regarding board game licencing and have to pay a levy to Hasbro for each copy sold. It could be that Armadas higher cost is designed to mitigate this loss.

2: Decreased additional sales: I don't think  as much will be spent expanding fleets in Armada as it was in X wing. As i said 3-4 Capital ships and a dozen squadrons either side seems to be the most i can see being comfortably fielded. I shudder to think how much i spent on X- wing over the years but i don't think ill be dropping quite as much on this game (or at least i wont NEED to) certainly in getting duplicate ships. this may explain the increased buy-in cost. I certainly wont be picking up multiple copies of the core set to bolster my forces..

Wave 1. But mostly more of the same. I'll have the squadrons but other than that its Wave 2 for me. 

3: Because they CAN: X-wing is HUGE, much bigger than anyone expected. It is a very popular game and FFG  have struggled to keep up with demand leading to several shortages (Millennium Falcons were going for frankly silly money not long ago... )  Armada must have seemed like a licence to print money. Maybe FFG finally succumbed to the Dark Side.

Also wave 2: spot the Falcon!

In the end i suspect it might be a combination of all three. Nonetheless there is no denying Star Wars Armada is a fantastic game. An amazing effort that really drives home the feel of capital ship combat. The two expansion waves announced thus far will surely not be the last, though i don't recall there being quite as many capital ships as fighters to choose from in the Star Wars universe. Though its high price point may dissuade the casual fan and prevent the impulse buys that X-wing enjoys, it is giving the fans what they want albeit at a premium price and lets face it, Games Workshop created an Empire from that.

Price aside its a 5 out of 5 game for me.