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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Somethin' Else Sunday: Freeblades by DGS Games!

Some of you may have heard about or even played a demo of Freeblades, a skirmish game put out by DGS Games.  I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on a demo during Adepticon and thoroughly enjoyed myself!  (as an aside- a wedding was going immediately adjacent to one of the main gaming halls.  The people did not look pleased to share restrooms with a throng of gamers.  I overheard one bridesmaid mutter "This is hell.")

The game itself is a battle between Freebands (groups of Freeblades) who are fortune hunters that operate under a warrant from one of numerous factions set in the perilous world of Faelon.  The models are beautiful 32mm fantasy figures with all sorts of character.  I picked up two starter sets for the Trillians (who are essentially elves) and The Grular (Sort of a combination of Mongolian raiders and.. uh... demons).  The setting is well thought out and has a lot of depth, but does suffer a bit from being a fantasy setting that doesn't break a lot of new ground.  Freeblades seems a bit like a D&D campaign setting dreamed up by one of the guys and expanded upon as the years progressed.  This isn't necessarily a knock- hell, The Elder Scrolls series was apparently created in the same way!  There is some real depth to the world and the book is full of "historical" data and beautiful maps.

The book itself is of a very high quality.  It's soft cover, but the binding seems very solid (which is something worth noting on this blog...).  The graphic design is great, though a few of the map images seem stretched or pixelated.  The whole book is chock full of full color artwork as well as lots of "in game" pictures.  Every example is accompanied by great full color photos.

Before I give a brief overview of the mechanics, I have to say one thing.  Freeblades is one of the most well written rulesets I've ever read.  Reading the mechanics actually made me excited- they're speakin' my language man!  It's written very clearly, logically, and with plenty of examples and descriptive pictures.  Flavor text and rules text are clearly separated, while keywords are always strongly bolded.  Someone technical went through this ruleset and tightened up any ambiguous language.  Extreme kudos there!

The core game is centered around a tiered dice system.  Your dice level for a particular ability is, quite simply, the size of die you get to roll.  A character who's good at melee but bad at shooting might have a Melee Attack Roll (or MAR) of d12, while his Ranged Attack Roll (or RAR) is a mere d4.  Certain abilities, boosts, or penalties can improve or reduce dice levels.  A boon that raises our example character's RAR by 2 dice levels, for example, would see his shooting incrased from d4 to d8 (upping first to d6 and finally to d8).

Performing actions thus requires a skill roll against a target number.  Unless otherwise specified this target number is 4, but typically in combat it's your opponent's armor rating, defense abilities, etc.  As an aside- one very cool feature of Freeblades is the ability to roll a skill check for just about anything- if it's a skill not listed on the character sheet he has a default ability rating (usually d4 for peons and d8 or so for heroes).  But the real fun of the game comes in the exploding dice.  Players of games with exploding dice already will be familiar with this concept, but those who aren't it's simple- if you roll the highest number on a die, you get to roll again and add to the result!  In Freeblades, you can do this as many times as you keep rolling that high number!

This leads to another core concept: the "Crit".  If you score 10 higher than the target number, you score a "crit".  Thus, if you get lucky and your dice "explode" a few times, you can easily exceed your target by 10 or more.  Almost all actions have 3 outcomes: a fail, a pass, and a crit.  Spell effects are amplified, additional damage is done, etc.  The crits add a level of unpredictability- you can't count on them but they can swing the tide of battle quickly.

The Freeblades rules get Skirmish right.  The rules are crunchy and detailed, adding much needed depth to a game of few models.  Many skirmish games I've played felt like smaller versions of games meant for larger battles- abstracting too much at the skirmish level makes results lose impact.  Freeblades has the level of granularity just right.  Each character, for example, has a mini character sheet (which is a bit cumbersome, but acceptable for the effect) that clearly lists their skills and abilities.  Your characters' abilities are greatly varied which adds a lot to your tactical decisions and affects the flexibility of your Freeband.

Battles themselves are scenario driven, with some really unique concepts.  Objectives aren't always about clobbering each other- sometimes it's about gathering the most loot while in one mission both sides are pitted against an unending wave of beasties while trying to accomplish their goals!  

The rules take a lot into account.  There are rules, for example, regarding your models' facing (their "front" is 180*, behind which they are far more vulnerable), traveling through narrow gaps in terrain, making a Discipline check to hold an action, etc etc.  Almost any eventuality is covered by the rules which is a blessing and a curse.  Most situations have elegant and sensible solutions, but I do fear your first several games may see you thumbing through the rulebook quite a bit.  On the other hand, having most situations covered by the rules is one of the aspects that makes a game easy to learn the basics but difficult to master- which is a good thing in my opinion as it keeps you coming back.  I've only played one demo game so far, but my two starter factions are being painted by our good buddy Jeff Sonbae, so check back for pictures of them and a battle report or two!

In conclusion, Freeblades is a very well done skirmish game with a great ruleset and great models.  It may suffer a bit from a familiar setting though I always have room in my life for more pretend worlds.  With elegant mechanics, a growing range of miniatures, and a first class rule book I can confidently say that Freeblades is sure to be a hit with gamers interested in fantasy skirmish.  Though I've only played it once, so I must reserve judgement on how it actually plays, I can certainly say I am excited to form my freeband and go tearing across Faelon!

Rule book provided courtesy of DGS Games.
Free Blades play aid.
Trillian character sheets
Grular character sheets

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