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Retro Review: The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire is a sourcebook from Steve Jackson Games for Castle Falkenstein and Gurps: Castle Falkenstein covering, as the title suggests, the Ottoman Empire. I am a huge fan of Gurps sourcebooks and this volume lives up to the high standards of the line. As with most Gurps sourcebooks, the concentration is upon background, setting details and ideas rather than rules so that, even with it being dual-formatted for both systems, you do not find yourself bogged down in rules.

As with Castle Falkenstein (and, I presume, the Gurps edition), the sourcebook is largely presented in the form of in-setting writings – mainly the memoirs of Eberhardt Starkmann, who is travelling through the region and getting into all sorts of thrilling adventures (which actually make for quite enjoyable reading in their own right!), supplemented by various other sources as befits different topics and general commentary from Tom Olam (the chap from our time cast into this alternate history).

Unlike New Europa, the lands and history of the Ottoman Empire are largely the same as they were in reality. Although this is maybe a little disappointing in terms of alternate historical possibilities, it does, at least, avoid the irritations of Castle Falkenstein, where major changes to the world and history seemed to have little real impact on things. In addition, by sticking closely to real history, this book is not only Gurps: Castle Falkenstein: The Ottoman Empire, but Gurps: The Ottoman Empire – in other words, if you ignore the few Castle Falkenstein-specific elements, you can use this as a historical sourcebook like all the others from Steve Jackson Games (although, of course, it does tend to focus on the empire in the late 19th century rather than earlier or later periods).

In addition to the information specific to the Ottoman Empire and Arabia, there is also a great chapter on Jinn, the Middle Eastern equivalent of Faerie, that is full of great ideas.

In all, this is a fine historical sourcebook that greatly expands upon the world of Castle Falkenstein, whilst suggesting many interesting roleplaying possibilities. Whether you play this particular setting or any other Victorian setting, or are just on the lookout for interesting ideas, then I would recommend that you pick up a copy of this sourcebook.

Review of ‘Wraith Recon’

There is one particularly strong case for the presence of gaming shops in the world of online purchases – the opportunity to walk into a shop and browse the shelves can reveal products that you would probably never have come across, let alone purchased online.

I was intrigued by the Runequest II version of Wraith Recon, a game of special forces combat in a fantasy milieu, an obvious nod towards Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon. It is a novel, yet oh-so-obvious idea that got my attention the moment I saw it. It is always interesting to discover a game that does something new with fantasy, rather than merely rehashing the pseudo-Tolkien tropes of D&D.

Reading through the volume, I felt as if I had purchased two games for the price of one. There is Wraith Recon itself with special forces and, then, there is the world of Nuera which, as presented in the background material, didn’t quite feel as if it belonged. Don’t get me wrong, I loved much of the background – there are some great ideas here, especially the descriptions of the new races – but it just didn’t really feel as if it went together with the central premise. Although there were a lot of great ideas, it all seemed a bit too traditional fantasy to me, overall. Part of the problem is that we are told there are these other countries in the world, but they are ‘too small’ to appear on the maps or be given write-ups. So, at a stroke, a vital part of the background is lost. Special forces games should be about situations analogous to Vitenam, Afghanistan and Iraq, with maybe a little James Bond thrown in, not rehashing the standard tropes of fantasy. My immediate reaction was that I would love to play a Wraith Recon game, but would need to tinker with, or change altogether, the background to accommodate it, whilst also being very interested in the world of Nuera and wanting to run a more traditional sort of fantasy game there.

Reading the supplied mini-campaign, The Heart of Tzarkesh, essentially Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness, it was clear that the setting could lend itself to the sort of game envisaged, so it is a shame that more wasn’t done to accommodate the correct style of play.

Overall, the physical quality of the product is good and it does avoid rehashing anything much from the Runequest II rules that are required to play, so everything between the covers is new. The spelling and grammar were a little slipshod and there was a peculiar discrepancy between the world map (in which the kingdom of Dardarrick, home of Wraith Recon, is about 2000 miles across) and the national map of Dardarrick where it is about 250km (approximately 150 miles) across; the former fitting with the concept of various pocket kingdoms, the latter doesn’t.

Wraith Recon is a brilliant concept and the book has lots of great ideas in it. However, it is flawed. Whether these flaws are present in other versions of the game, I do not know, although I suspect it might be a little less effort to play the Pathfinder version as the unit is heavily reliant on magic items and Runequest II doesn’t really handle standard enchantments. I don’t think there is really anything in here that a GM wanting to run a fantasy special forces game couldn’t devise for himself, but it is well worth mining for ideas. Recommended, with reservations.

Retro Review: For Faerie, Queen & Country

Having been overshadowed by Castle Falkenstein, it is inevitable, if unfair, that this review will be comparing the two games, despite For Faerie, Queen & Country actually having preempted Castle Falkenstein by a year.

For Faerie, Queen & Country has much the same premise as Castle Falkenstein – a world much like our own in the Victorian era but inhabited by Faerie, with the Unseelie Court waging a proxy war with humanity. That they draw upon the same history and folklore, it should come as no surprise that there are distinct similarities. Where they are different is that Castle Falkenstein embraces steampunk and Victorian literature, whilst For Faerie, Queen & Country sticks closely to history and folklore, explicitly rejecting Victorian SF and steampunk embellishments. Where Castle Falkenstein works in broad strokes and attempts to set mood, For Faerie, Queen & Country works to recreate the Victorian world with accuracy and a dash of (faerie) glamour.

In some ways, the volume is a decent enough primer to Victorian Britain for the unfamiliar, although it falls somewhat into the nomansland of neither quite enough of the reality (and accuracy) to be truly useful for historical games, whilst failing to provide enough detail on the fictionalised side of things: like Castle Falkenstein, it is rather light on how history has changed in this alternate world, although what we do learn – such as a semi-independent Scotland, Faerie-backed pagans clinging on in Ireland, powerful spirits thwarting the British in India and Africa and the defeat of the USA in the war of 1812 – is intriguing, although it does prompt some awkward questions – if the Faerie have propped up paganism in Ireland, why has Christianity evolved much as it did in reality, save for some name changed? And, if the spirits of Africa and India could keep the British out, why have those of the Americas seemingly failed so poorly against them and other colonial powers? And, equally, what about the spirits/non-British Faerie of Europe?

Unfortunately, whilst its description of the Victorian world is quite good, For Faerie, Queen & Country has its flaws. For example, the attempt at an introduction to the Welsh language is laughable – not only is their pronunciation guide bizarre (somehow I doubt that this was an attempt at depicting an alternate evolution of the language!) but they even mispell Eisteddfod. Welsh is only a difficult language to learn if you insist on rewriting it and mangling the way it is spoken! Equally, whilst they are more sensible than the authors of Castle Falkenstein in deciding that the British have gone metric – 100 pennies to the pound making far more sense than 200! – the change is given no mention and I was left uncertain as to whether they hadn’t realised that decimalisation had only occurred in the late 20th century or if the authors just thought the math too hard for delicate American brains… A decimal Pound was unlikely then as not only was the decimal system regarded as dangerously foreign and revolutionary, but the Shilling was the unit of currency at the heart of the system (and closest in value to the Dollar and Franc) – even when decimalisation did occur, the Shilling rather than the Pound was strongly favoured. I just feel that, if you are going to play in a specific nation or era, then you should seek to emulate what made it distinct, not turn it into your home town with funny accents.

Although the greater adherence to reality does perhaps mean a great similarity to the real world is plausible, the changes that are mentioned should probably have had a far greater effect than they are credited with. Unfortunately, it does seem that the Faerie Victoriana genre doesn’t receive the treatment it deserves.

For Faerie, Queen & Country uses the Amazing Engine percentile system and requires the rules booklet to play. The system has never particularly excited my imagination and doesn’t really capture the feel of the period or genre in the way that Castle Falkenstein does, although it doesn’t impede it, either. Certainly, it will be favoured by more traditionally-minded gamers than the rival game’s system is likely to be.

The volume is significantly thinner than its rival and, whilst it has some good ideas and includes a great map of the UK, it fails to supply anywhere near as much inspiration or world detail – just compare the half-dozen NPCs in the back of it with all those in Castle Falkenstein! In fact, it is almost as if Castle Falkenstein is a reboot of For Faerie, Queen & Country, putting flesh on its bare bones. Like the other Amazing Engine ‘Universe Books’, it presents a brilliant idea and then fails to deliver more than a cursory look at it. Strangely, despite their proximity in date, this feels much older and more amateur than Castle Falkenstein.

Overall, it has some merits and provided me with a nice sense of nostalgia as I reread it, and it is likely to be a fraction of the price of the other, but, overall, For Faerie, Queen & Country doesn’t really live up to expectations.

Retro Review: Castle Falkenstein

Published in 1994 by R. Talsorian Games, Castle Falkenstein by Mike Pondsmith is a game of adventure in the sorcerous steampunk alternative reality of New Europa, a world as much of Victorian and Victorian-set fiction and fairytale-styled magic, dragons and fairies as of real history.

Castle Falkenstein was a game that I was very interested in when it came out, but although I enjoyed reading through an adventure for it in Roleplayer Independent, I never did get hold of it or have a chance to actually play it. With its focus on Faerie in the Victorian era, it is quite similar to For Faerie, Queen & Country from TSR (published in 1993 – obviously Victorian Faerie was flavour of the moment!), a setting that I rather enjoyed at the time. Where it is different is that it focuses a little earlier in the period and upon the continent, rather than Britain, primarily the German states: Bayern (Bavaria) is a leading member of the Second Compact that is battling against Prussia and their Unseelie allies.

Unlike many roleplaying games, Castle Falkenstein starts by building the world with the rules coming almost as an afterthought. Partly, this is due to the conceit that the book is actually the edited writings of a computer game designer, Tom Olam, who was ‘spellnapped into New Europe where he helped restore King Ludwig to the throne of Bayern and thwart the ambitions of Prussia to dominate New Europa, and who has sent back his journal and various notes to his friend, Mike Pondsmith, in our Earth. The rules, in turn, are supposed to be one ones he designed for his friends in his new home, hence some the variations from gaming norms. In some ways this conceit is useful, for example by allowing Tom to describe how things are different to our reality. Unfortunately, it does have its drawbacks, both in terms of the limitations of Tom’s knowledge (this is not a game for GMs who want to know every last detail about everything) and the increasingly irritating references to the way events are liable to turn out from the perspective of someone who has lived post-World War II – had these been in-universe statements, they would have been amusing in a ‘hilarious in hindsight’ sense, but Tom (as we do) already knows how things panned out in our universe, so the sly references are just annoying – you know about the war, we know about the war, why be so coy about it?

The basic idea of the setting is a great one and I really wanted to love it, but it doesn’t quite work. Although ‘it isn’t our world’ is invoked as an excuse for both designer and Host (GM) when things don’t quite match with real history – and, let’s face it, with fairies, dragons and weird science, you were hardly expecting an exacting historical simulation, were you? – I found the fact that it was modeled so closely upon real history, despite major divergences, distracting. It is not only the fact that the presence of Faerie, dwarfs, dragons and sorcery have failed to have much of an impact upon history, but that, in the one case where they apparently did, specifically a Faerie Lord transforming the middle of Germany into a sea, it has had no real impact upon the course of history! It’s not that I’m expecting a highly-detailed alternate history timeline, nor that I have a problem with the basic concept of borrowing from history and fiction, it’s just that I’d like to have seen the differences acknowledged more. If you can ignore such issues, then you will doubtless enjoy the setting without reservations, but I would have to rewrite a chunk of background, either to modify history to reflect the changes or make it so that the public appearance of Faerie and such like is more recent, allowing older history to remain much the same due to their influence being behind the scenes.

Plenty of information is included on things such as currencies, militaries and period culture, but there are some odd points. For example, rather than the 240 pennies to the pound of reality, the UK of New Europa has 200 pennies – yet the pound is equal in value to other currencies, making the British penny worth half anyone else’s pennies, rather than the pound being worth two of the other currencies; which is just so weird, especially as, in reality, the Shilling would have been the unit closer in value to the Dollar and Franc. As far as I can tell, the idea was to slip in jokes about stuffy old Brits and their odd currency without forcing innumerate Americans to actually handle a weird currency. The whole situation is further exacerbated by the frankly bizarre comment that the British insist that you convert your currency if you want to purchase things in their shops. So, not only is every other currency equal in value – no exchange rates in this world – but it seems that you can spend them freely anywhere in the world… Why not just state that a Single European Currency has been established, if that’s what you want? I know these are essentially minor, easily overlooked issues, but they are exactly the sort of thing that derail my enjoyment and make me want to throw the book across the room, as much for the way in which the author is insulting all the intelligent Americans I know by presenting a narrator who embodies the worst archetypes of idiotic American incomprehension of anything beyond their shores. Plenty of research obviously went into creating the setting – there is an extensive bibliography – yet utterly silly things like this slip through…

Which all translates into a feeling of disappointment as it’s a game brimming with great ideas that I want to use. The Faerie races are interesting and enjoyably close to folk lore whilst equally being reflective of the, more prevalent today, Faerie as fiction or dream made manifest. The dwarfs and their connection to the Faerie is unusual and, most of all, the dragons are a very interesting departure from the norm, being magic-using descendants of pterosaurs rather than the more usual giant-lizard with wings. I have a feeling that, as fun as it is to read, it might just have been better had Tom Olam not been the narrator…

As for the rules, they were the opposite of the setting in that they work, but did little for me. They use cards rather than dice and are a little too fiddly for my tastes. I just want to resolve events simply and a dice is perfect for that. Keeping track of cards is just too much hassle for the sort of run-of-the-mill events that are likely to come up and, whilst there are some interesting rules for dueling, which attempt to recreate the actual cut-and-thrust of a sword duel, they are even more fiddly and gimmicky, undermining their novelty. They do, however, evoke the intended feel of the period and are workable, so there is no real reason, if you can tolerate them, not to use them.

The one area, though, where the rules did shine was the rules for magic use. The use of cards works well here to simulate the way sorcerers build energy and the rules for Harmonics, where different types of energy (represented by different suits of cards) are woven together to power a spell, are interesting as they cause spells to go awry in interesting and imaginative ways, whilst still achieving their effect – and the likelihood that you won’t have all the cards to cast a spell without a Harmonic effect means that players of sorcerers will need to balance the risk of unintended side-effects against the necessity of casting a spell as soon as possible. If you want magic that works in this way, then this system may be worth importing to other settings.

Overall, Castle Falkenstein is a game full of neat idea that don’t quite add up, at least for me. it is a great read in itself and is well worth mining for ideas, but I’m not sure it is worth playing as it stands, although it would doubtless be an excellent setting if tweaked a little. Certainly worth a look if you enjoy mixing magic with the Victorian period!

Review of ‘Fantasy Freaks And Gaming Geeks’

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is a book by Ethan Gilsdorf, who is attempting to reconnect to his youth as a roleplayer by immersing himself in various aspects of the gaming and related hobbies. He reads The Lord of the Rings and watches the movies before visiting New Zealand to see where they were filmed. He slings a few dice and, eventually, rediscovers his own D&D gear, adding to the nostalgia. Later, he tries his hand at LARPing and the Society For Creative Anachronism, as well as online gaming.

Throughout the book, he ponders the appeal of gaming and other pursuits he perceives as geeky, and wonders how they ended up becoming so mainstream compared to his youth. As much as it is an examination of gaming and related cultures, this is a book of self-discovery, as he comes to better understand himself.

In the end, as interesting as some parts were and as much as there were ‘that’s true’ moments, I largely felt as if I were reading an account of these hobbies by somebody who didn’t really ‘get’ them. By that, I don’t mean he misunderstood them as badly as some people do, who just cannot get their heads around them, after all, Gilsdorf had gamed in his youth; but, his observations and musings frequently come across as surface and unsure. Nothing is particularly inaccurate, but its all just ever-so-slightly, annoyingly off, and that meant I couldn’t really enjoy reading the book nor pay much heed to his assessments. In addition, the brevity of each overview meant that the book is seldom as interesting as it might have been. Perhaps, if he had concentrated on just one specific area, such as D&D, he might have been able to properly grasp it and write something insightful.

Sadly, I can’t recommend the book, as it fails to live up to its potential. Which is a shame, as it has a lot of potential and Gilsdorf isn’t a bad writer as such. I am sure that with more focus (or with a different subject) he could write something truly entertaining. Sadly, this isn’t it. If you have the opportunity to borrow a copy, you might enjoy a quick flick through, but I really wouldn’t bother buying it.

1938 : A VERY BRITISH CIVIL WAR – Part Two

1938 :  A Very British Civil War is a great ‘what if’ setting for wargames (see my previous piece for full details) and I was very pleased to track down some further volumes in the series. Those mentioned in my previous piece are those most useful and necessary for understanding the setting; these ones are ‘optional extras’.

The Army of Prince Albert, Lord Protector details the Albertine faction of the civil war, desperately attempting to restore sanity to a fractured and disunited kingdom, but finding it difficult to unify the anti-Edwardian factions. The usual mic of background information and wonderful colour plates illustrating troops and personalities are supplemented with some uniform details.

The County Forces, Militia and Yeomanry is a two-volume look at the uniforms of the English militaries during the Civil war (Scotland and Wales are not yet covered). Part One covers the counties upto M, and Part two covers those from N onward, as well as cavalry. These two volumes are purely uniform guides intended to provide uniform details and inspiration to model painters. Their scope is, thus, rather restricted and not for everyone, although they do what they set out to do very well. Personally, I would have liked actual information about the different forces – but, even though I am not currently modelling figures for the setting, and probably wouldn’t have sought out the volumes solely as a guide if I was, I found looking through these two volumes strangely compelling and fascinating. Certainly not a necessity, but potentially useful and fun, too, although those willing to put the effort into their own research might prefer to actually look up and details of period uniforms themselves and extrapolate for fictional units.

A Guide To Tanks and Military Vehicles does just what it says on the cover, with some general details on the development of armour in the period, along with copious photographs of models to inspire the gamer to create their own weird and wonderful contraptions, as well as colour plates and an article on converting a die-cast vehicle into an AFV. It is a fun volume and full of inspiration, but it will not be of much use if what you actually want is hard data.

The North Somerset Campaign is one of the meatier volumes in the series. As the title suggests, it details the campaign of the Somerset Freedom Fighters in the north of the county. It provides an enjoyable write-up of the background and events and some basic rules for replaying the campaign (originally held as a convention event). Although in no sense essential to understanding the setting nor for playing battles in it, it could prove useful if you need help setting up a campaign game or would like a ready-made campaign without having to research the terrain and politics of a local area.

As with the previous volumes, the £8 cost for each slim A5 volume is steep, especially for the uniform and vehicle guides, although the lavish use of colour and the wonderful photographs and plates readily justify the cost. Although it didn’t seriously bother me, there are quite a few typos and the grammar and spelling are not great, which is a shame. Whilst I enjoy the series as a whole and did enjoy these particular volumes, I would not recommend any of them particularly highly unless you specifically require the information for a project, although completists will satisfied with them.

1938 :  A Very British Civil War is a great idea that the sourcebooks don’t quite do justice to. I would love to see all the information compiled into a single, high-quality volume with the text written to match the quality of the photos and colour plates. It has proven successful so far, but I think it deserves an even wider audience. being an absolutely brilliant idea for a wargame.

Wargaming Magazines

With Battlegames entering the mainstream, there are currently four wargaming magazines available on the British High Street (ignoring White Dwarf, which is dedicated solely to Games Workshop product). These are Wargames Illustrated [WI], Wargames: Soldiers and Strategy [WSS], Miniature Wargames [MW] and Battlegames [BG] (sister magazine to Miniature Wargames and recently given away as a sample issue with that magazine, prompting this comparison). Given the variety, I wanted to examine each of them and see which offered the best value to gamers.

Title                           Price              Pages (inc. covers)        Non-Ad Pages

WI #303                    £4.50               124 (3.6p per page)              99 (4.5p per page)

WSS #64                 £4.20                84 (5p per page)                 72 (5.8p per page)

MW #357                 £4.25                 72 (5.9p per page)               55 (7.7p per page)

BG #32                   £4.95*               52 (9.5p per page)             36 (13.75p per page)

* regular price (this issue free with MW #357)

As can be seen from these initial comparisons, whilst all four are similar enough in price for it to not make a huge difference between them in itself, Wargames Illustrated offers by far the best value for money, whilst Battlegames offers by far the worst, being three times the latter on a cost per page basis. But, what of their content?

Title                              News Pages              Scenarios     Setting Articles  

WI #303                            4                                        5                         3

WSS #64                          1                                        4                         2

MW #357                          9                                        2                          –

BG #32                             3                                        2                          –

Title                         Rules/Campaigns      Reviews         Tips*           Other

WI #303                                 1                            –                 1                 2

WSS #64                               1                           22                3                 6

MW #357                               –                            22                1                 6

BG #32                                  2                            5                 3                 1

* Suggestions on painting, modeling and such like.

Title                     Eras Covered

WI #303  WWI, WWII, French & Indian Wars, Victorian Colonial/Pulp, Swiss Civil War

WSS #64               Crusades, WWII, Sudan, Ancients, Marlburian, 100 Years War

MW #357                Wars of the Roses, Marlburian (?), Napoleonic, WWII

BG #32                   Crusades, AWI

Obviously, whether to purchase a magazine is not solely a question of overt value for money based upon page count; the reader will be influenced by what they want to get out of it. Although all four have substantial numbers of pages dedicated to advertising, Wargames Illustrated not only has the most, but manages that feat whilst providing both the most non-advertising pages and best value for money; it is also a close second in terms of number of eras covered, despite being both themed and incorporating a regular Flames of War section. It is also both the most lavishly illustrated (as its title should suggest) and the strongest in terms of supplying actual gaming material such as background information and scenarios.

If it is news that you want, Miniature Wargames is probably the magazine that you desire, whilst it and Wargames: Soldiers and Strategy tie on the number of reviews (the only area where Wargames Illustrated absolutely fails to deliver), making it a good magazine for those who want to know what is going on in terms of events and releases.

Battlegames could be considered the ‘advanced gaming’ sister title to Miniature Wargames, although nothing in it would really have been out of place in the latter. Although it contained some articles with interesting ideas and I really wanted to like it, it was just too lightweight in both terms of content and coverage to justify the high cover price (I probably wouldn’t pay more than £2 for it, to be honest). I’m not entirely certain what they are aiming for with the magazine, as it didn’t really seem to have a proper identity of its own; had they worked with the apparent ‘advanced’ idea, providing chunky and thought-provoking articles, it may well have been worth it, but not as it is…

Wargames Illustrated is the only one of these magazines that I regularly buy and, being on a limited budget, that is unlikely to change as none proved sufficiently interesting or useful to challenge it. Of the others, Wargames: Soldiers and Strategy would likely be my second choice. Overall, I find Wargames Illustrated the most interesting read – even articles on eras or topics I don’t have much interest in are still useful and interesting, many of the articles are the equal of a good history book in appraising you of the details of often obscure military topics, and the copious photographs and illustrations add to the written content in a way none of its rivals have managed to achieve. In essence, it feels professional, whilst the other three all feel amateurish by comparison, whilst also maintaining the lead in length and value. Of course, in an ideal world, I would be purchasing all four on a regular basis, as they all contain items of interest to inform and entertain, and, if you are lucky enough to have plenty of money, then go for it; but, if, like me, you are on a limited budget, go for Wargames Illustrated – in my opinion, not only the best value, but the best of the bunch…

(In the interests of full disclosure, I have had work published in both Wargames Illustrated and Miniature Wargames – although not for a long time – and, aside from Battlegames, this being the first time I had seen a copy, have read all three previous to this comparison.)