As much as Battlefleet Gothic was an often entertaining game, it suffered from a number of issues that I feel show its age, and show how wargame design has developed; while its factions have numerous flavourful rules and are very distinct, most of these rules do not work particularly well to create a fun game. There is absolutely a place for a game which focuses on flavour and narrative over strict statistical balance, but BFG never, I felt, committed enough to doing this and what was left was a game with two well-thought-out factions balanced against each other and a number of strange, often very thematic but not fun to play or face factions. There were numerous other mechanical idiosyncrasies that got in the way of it being a good game; small ships were unviably weaker than large ones and the special order system added far too much unnecessary variation to games by requiring a leadership test on often randomly-generated leadership.
Having now finished both halves of Trails in the Sky I feel it is a game that does very little new, but does almost everything incredibly well and with enough charm and character that it is consistently enjoyable to play and highly engaging. I have explained in previous articles how its escalation of scale from small personal problems to an ultimately nationwide threat is well-paced (over around 60-80 hours of gameplay across two games) and turned into a key piece of character development. What is more, the personal aspects (which are what make the game memorable) are very well-woven into the main plot; characters appear in sidequests and then become plot-significant, for example. In a game where a good amount of the story is about trying to work out from zero information what is going on, having the NPCs feel like they are people living lives and carrying out plans that intersect with the party’s travels is a good, immersive touch.
NB: This review touches on plot details from Trails in the Sky SC and FC, and discusses the game’s themes and storyline in some depth.
I have not played Games Workshop games for quite some time; the latest rules revisions of both Warhammer Fantasy Battle (now rebranded Age of Sigmar) and Warhammer 40,000 were not to my taste. It is fair to say my initial negativity towards Age of Sigmar has softened somewhat as subsequent updates and revisions have added more to it and addressed my initial complaints – however, while it has become a solid, basic wargame with a quite distinct aesthetic it remains a game I would not choose over the various competitors on the market (and I do question whether it being introduced as a wholesale replacement for the very different WHFB was the best course of action). Nevertheless, I have been following GW‘s shifting strategy as a company and I think they are going some way to improving; while their prices remain comparatively high, they are introducing bundles like the “Start Collecting” sets which seem sensibly put-together and represent a significant discount over buying things individually. Similarly a return to boxed games and the rumoured return of “Specialist Games” ranges like Blood Bowl seem to be reflective of what consumers have asked for, and so it is heartening to see a positive shift in direction.
Note: This article deals with events from the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Trails in the Sky SC, as well as the ending of Trails in the Sky FC
Something I observed on Twitter today was that Trails in the Sky, despite working with quite limited sprite-based graphics has a strong emphasis on personal, intimate character details. This was embodied by the fact it has a set of sprite animations for characters hugging each other; as all cutscenes are done in engine, the repertoire of animations each sprite has limits what actions can be depicted in a cutscene and a good number of things such as sitting down or standing up are elided over with fade effects. Yet nevertheless there are animations for giving a character a hug, a very specific action which is used incredibly well to add a personal, emotive touch to numerous scenes – there is a storyline in First Chapter about an orphanage that is burned down, and so it is natural that there should be scenes of the matron comforting her charges.
Note: This article contains details of the ending and story of Trails in the Sky First Chapter, and should probably be read only by people who have played the game or do not mind knowing its story.
When I began playing Trails in the Sky FC I was impressed by its small scale and sense of unwilling, unusual escalation; it was a game that, I felt, very well justified its game mechanics of levelling up and gaining rewards through diligent searching for secondary objectives by framing the entire story as an extended examination. The two main characters were being tested, sent on a series of journeys to cities which as a quest was completely secondary to the main plot. A lot of games have their heroes put into the main plot by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or through a mission which changes parameters as the “real” villain shows themselves. In many ways, Sky does this, but does it in a subtle and charming way that, I feel, quite credibly justifies why the unlikely heroes continue being heroes.
The Capitoline Knights, newly under the command of Reinhard Muller (following his return from retirement at the time of the outbreak of war) were among the first Laufpanzer units to head to the frontier in 1927. Inclement weather, the remnants of a fierce sandstorm that had immobilised the Novis Eger Rifles (preventing their return from scheduled maneuvers at the time of the invasion), had delayed Muller’s advance and as he approached the supposedly friendly town of Hargas to resupply and rendezvous with the Imperial Academy Supply Unit he was surprised to see it had already fallen into Meravian hands.
Hargas had fallen, but at significant cost to the Meravians’ momentum. The XII Corps, dispatched to capture the surrounding area, had been commanded by the late Tuggeneral Eda bin-Ekber, an unpopular and ruthless officer whose death from a sickness that swept through the XII Corps’ infantry and devastated its command structure was hardly unwelcome. Her successor, Binbasi Kadir Kaan, however, proved no less competent or popular. Kaan demanded his tanks advance through the sandstorm to capture Hargas ahead of Muller’s arrival, and while they succeeded morale was low, many of the men were still recovering from sickness and supplies were hard to come by; the Prenzeran supply repository Kaan had captured had been sabotaged by the retreating Supply Unit.
Thus when Muller fell upon Hargas, Kaan’s forces were in no position to put up good resistance. The battle was fierce and short, resulting in almost total destruction of the XII Corps’ armoured fighting capacity (its infantry having fallen back to the second-line resupply and medical bases), but at the same time the damage sustained by Prenzeran forces and the loss of the vital fuel and ammunition supplies at Hargas slowed Muller’s advance significantly.
The Second Front At Kavakeyli
In the early months of 1928, the Oscanian City-States mobilised in support of their Prenzeran allies, opening a second front at the Eceabali Peninsula via numerous airborne landings and naval attacks. They were able to proceed with significant speed up the largely empty peninsula, sustaining a critical impetus and breaking through the ill-prepared Meravian defences. As the Meravians’ initial objective had been a push towards the Prenzeran capital, they had left Eceabali comparatively lightly defended; the Oscanian Navy was able to avoid the forts guarding the Marmuran Straits and attack the seaward-facing guns in force from inland.
Kavakeyli was the point where the Meravians committed their main force in the region, the under-equipped XXIV Army Corps under the transitional command of Yarbay Halide Handan. Handan was ordered to hold the Oscanian advance as long as possible and then begin an organised retreat towards the port of Sarlice when the situation became untenable. Equipped primarily with equipment from before the mass industrialisation, Handan’s army ended up out of position and at risk of an Oscanian encirclement; with morale poor, water supplies low and the enemy in hot pursuit, the retreat from Kavakeyli was the point where the Oscanians confirmed their control of the peninsula…
As my wargaming club continues to embrace Horizon Wars fever, I have begun to properly make army lists; not simply basic documents to aid gameplay by reminding players of stats but proper orders of battle with some imagined flavour text and history for units. A narrative aspect is vital to me in wargaming; devise a reason for the armies to fight, come up with notable characters and make units feel like something more than simply game pieces to be moved about. And so my alternate-history setting continues to gain life.
The Ambush At Celakli
One of the earliest battles of the Third Meravian War was fought over the remote town of Celakli; Albay Bourak bin-Asard had been sent to occupy the town until the remainder of the invasion force caught up with the rapidly-moving front, and ended up fighting a fierce defence against an impetuous counterattack from an armoured force led by Oberst Hugo Albarea. Albarea had been en route to rendezvous with Isla Clausell’s Novis Eger Rifles, freshly returned from a period of rest and resupply at the fortress Novis Racik, when he had received news of the fall of Celakli. Presuming this would present an opportunity to cut off the Meravian advance, Albarea brought his tanks around to attack the town.
Military historians describe Celakli, with the benefit of hindsight, as a double trap. Asard was able to effectively draw in enemy vehicles into a battle on his terms, with the estates outside Celakli providing an effective firebase for his artillery – but it is widely believed that his entire presence there was part of a wider trap to draw out Prenzeran forces and set up Asard’s actions, against his knowledge, as a casus belli between the two nations.
The battle itself was inconclusive, despite heavy Prenzeran losses of materiel. Asard returned home at its conclusion with almost a full complement of vehicles, but almost all were heavily damaged and it is believed the logistical disruption the return of a vast number of wounded men and damaged vehicles caused on Meravian supply lines disrupted their advance far more than had Albarea wiped the enemy out. This was, however, small comfort for Albarea himself, who saw the heavy losses sustained in Asard’s trap as a personal failing.