Black Ops: A Capsule Review

Is that what you call it when you write up a review of a game where you’ve only read the rules?  You’ll get a proper review after we’ve had a chance to take these bad boys for a test-drive.

These rules are great.  in just about every sense they hit the sweet spot between extremes.  Guy has somehow managed to put together a rule set that straddles a number of lines in ways that feel familiar, but fresh and new.  Not only that, but he has put together a modern day skirmish that manages to give you all the options you need without bogging the game down in minutiae.

The basics of the game consist of a card driven initiative system and a model stat line that describes each figure or fire team’s abilities.

Your figures break down into four different types of figures: heroes, specialists like hackers and heavy weapons types, standard mooks, and civilians.  Any old deck of cards can serve as your intiative deck with the four figure types each assigned a face card, and jokers thrown in to add that piquant flavor of unpredictability.  Your leaders can use their card to issue orders to specialists and mooks, and figures can forgo their activation to go on overwatch.  Overwatch works as an interrupt, just like most other wargames, but facing is all important for who figures can interrupt.

The stat line consists of the four standard stats for moving, fighting, morale, and toughness, with weapons and special equipment bolted on.  A typical shooty combat consists of a roll to hit and a roll to save with cover and concealment factored into the saving roll.  A typical melee consists of a dice off with both figures rolling against their melee skill.  If your dude makes his roll and the other guy doesn’t, then you win.  If you both fail, nothing happens.  If you both succeed, whoever has the better melee weapon hits.  If you can get your little man to charge a model in the back, he doesn’t get to defend.

That last bit can play a crucial role in stealth missions, the real raison d’etre for this ruleset.  While the standard game feels like a stripped down skirmish game, and it can certainly be played that way, it is clear that a number of critical design choices were made to enhance the play of stealth incursion missions.  The melee system in particular is designed to allow for taking out sentries in a single, silent attack, but only if you can get the drop on him.

The stealth rules incorporate blind markers, semi-random sentry movement, and a sort of event driven countdown timer.  As the infiltrators move around, take out guards, and approach their goal, they will inevitably make noise.  Each event results in a noise counter that attracts nearby guards and has the potential to alert the defender’s heroes and specialists.  Too many noise counters, or one poorly aimed sniper shot on a guard, and the alert will be sounded, triggering the activation of the hero and the arrival of reinforcements.

Taken alone, nothing in this ruleset is particularly innovative, but the way that Guy Bowers has integrated everything is pretty well seamless.  Everything fits together in a way that is easy to understand, builds on each other, and fits together like one single unified system.  All too often the infiltration missions feel like a bolted on separate game that is played before the knock-down drag-out battle.  In Black Ops the stealth mission feels like an integral part of the battle.  That is no small accomplishment.

The game also includes six scenarios, a brief paragraph on using near-future tech, and the obligatory rules for force construction.  A stand up fight will consist of 12-20 models per side, with infiltration missions having 3-5 covert ops up against 10-12 mooks and 3-5 heroes and specialists.  You will need plenty of terrain to get the most out of these rules, though.  As with any modern wargame, wide open spaces will make for a short and bloody fight, and a shorter and even bloodier black op.

Other positives include clear, concise rules written for us old timers that have been through the ringer before.  A first time wargamer could probably suss out how these games are played using this ruleset, but he would have to make a few leaps that experiences gamers know intuitively.  While not terribly complicated, there are better introductory games out there for first timers.  As a non-first timer, I was glad not to have to wade through yet another wargaming primer.

On a related issue the book is easy on the eyes both in the artistic sense and the legibility sense.  The artwork, both painted works like the cover and examples of miniatures in play, is attractive, inspirational, and present in just the right quantities.  The text and tables are clear print on backgrounds uncluttered by noisy graphics.  A definite bonus for us grognards with failing eyesight.  Combine that with the terse conversational writing style, and this book is just plain easy to pick up, read, and understand.