Charge Your Firelock: Solo Gaming During Quarantine

By Colonel (Retired) Bill Gray 15 Apr 2020 3

Well, this is inconvenient, and sometimes downright deadly. But I do have to admit hunkering down and hiding from COVID-19 has allowed me to reflect on one big advantage digital and cardboard wargaming have over miniatures. This is solo wargaming. If you play a computer game, you obviously have an easily set up game with an AI opponent. If you are into counters and hexes, well, SPI guru Jim Dunnigan has long noted the vast majority of these games are played solitaire. Here about the only quarantine sticking point is having the ankle biters home 24/7, but if you live with a cat (because nobody owns a cat) you likely have a solution prepped already.

With miniatures, not so much. The very things that make this wing of the hobby unique and resistant to eventual assimilation into electrons, doesn’t help during a Shelter in Place order. In particular, a miniature wargame is more a social event than historical competition, more like model railroading, or an evening at the pub. The interaction of eight mates around the table is what makes all the research, money, painting, and set up time worth it. But during stay at home until God knows when, that’s gonna be tough to pull off for two people much less eight, and you simply can’t play miniature wargames solo.

Or at least I thought so. But Firelock Games, purveyors of the uber popular Blood & Plunder pirate themed product line, may have just proven me wrong.

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Tabletop Simulator to the Rescue

OK, I know there are some computer games out there with a distinctly miniatures presentation. I also know there are some computer games that are actual ports of miniature wargaming rules into digital. They play like miniatures and look like miniatures, down to the exquisite uniforms and flags, not to mention having correct basing with the proper number of figures per stand. Here Field of Glory II and Pike & Shot Campaigns (aka Field of Glory Renaissance rules) are the supreme examples. But then there is the AI, which takes a lot of the inherent pewter pusher fun away by doing all the calculations, measurements, facings, formation changes, and die rolling for you. Yes, people really do like to roll dice. Bummer.

So, enter Tabletop Simulator, which sells for $19.99 on Steam but is always popping up on sale at places like GOG. The concept here is a design package that will allow you to convert a tabletop game into a computer game BUT normally without any AI, database or calculation support. The software allows you to play a board game manually, just as if you had it on the table in front of you with hexes full of counters and combat results charts off to the side ready to consult and dice ready to roll. Take a game like the old SPI 30 Years War Quad.

Tabletop Simulator allows you to move counters around, but you have to determine movement rates from the rules and drop the counter in the right destination hex. If you cheat, and move that Swedish brigade two extra hexes, the software will let you. Tabletop Simulator also rolls digital dice, but you have to manually drop a Disordered counter on top of the loser if that is what’s called for. The game will not do it for you and will not penalize you if you don’t.

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The ultra-spiffy thing is that getting the game off Steam also allows you to subscribe to a plethora of free (and legal) customer designed board replicants of titles from SPI, GMT and others. When you start Tabletop Simulator you will see a home screen and a large button with a green person icon titled “Create”. Click here and you will see an option to open a Single Player, Multi-Player or Hot Seat game. Whatever you click, if you have subscribed to a Steam hosted module with that player option, they will appear on the next screen under the heading of “Workshop.” Then click on a game, it opens up and you can start dragging and dropping to play the game.

Suffice it so say I have 34 game titles in my package through Steam subscriptions, including a lot of stuff I never bought in paper but always wanted to try.

Pandemic Stomping with Oak & Iron

Now admittedly there have been a few Steam Workshop miniature wargaming modules for Tabletop Simulator, but most are existing rules sets and a whole lot more Warhammer 40K rather than anything historical. However, this entire Coronavirus mess seems to have been a spark of genius for Firelock Games and their newest miniature wargaming product line, Oak & Iron – Historical Naval Battles in the Age of Piracy. Here is what happened and what this up and coming firm did in response.

Oak & Iron’s release date turned out to be about the same time the pandemic hit full fury and governments started shutting down everything but the mizzen mast. For Oak & Iron this mean that as of 31st March 2020, customers were informed preorders could be as much as two weeks away for shipment. Getting the product produced was one thing, but shipping times were beginning to actually crawl. And here we aren’t talking about only rules that could be digitized into a PDF file, but a $ 69.99 core set that also included maps, islands, cards, measuring sticks, tokens of every possible barnacle, and a small fleet of 3D printed sailing ships to release full force into battle.

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So how does one soothe the frayed nerves of the masses awaiting their wares or keep interest high for those considering a purchase of the game during a time when furloughs gut the uncommitted shekel piggy bank? The solution was to release a Tabletop Simulator version of Oak & Iron, not just the game, but of the entire core set minus Admiral Cards. Rather than being a replicant of an existing product, the Tabletop Simulator version would act as a preview of an upcoming release. This would include a complete copy of the paper rules, which had always been offered as a free PDF download anyway. Thus, folks anticipating their physical purchase could get an Oak & Iron fix while waiting, and everyone else could take a test drive of the game in a sort of try before you buy environment.

The result was a very eye-catching and very faithful representation of the Oak & Iron Core Set. As noted before, only the Admiral Cards for the game are missing but in substitution Firelock included some new Beta info game cards (Double Rations?) that are not actually on the books yet. The game’s sea mat is nicely dropped on a finely crafted wooden table, with game accoutrements on all sides. These include measuring tools, range finders, a bunch of dice, bags of game tokens, island templates, and even 3D miniatures ships – presented unpainted right out of the box – mounted on their proper stands.

There is even a tablet PC on the table displaying the Firelock Games homepage and clicking it will take you right there within your own Web browser. The only special instructions advise changing Tabletop Simulator’s Lift Height to minimum, while the game rules were very easy to drag, drop, enlarge, and flip the page.

Bottom Line. If you managed to snag Tabletop Simulator somehow via Steam, you can subscribe and soothe your pandemic-created miniature craving with a top notch game.

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Full Sail, Second Star to the Right, and Straight on till Morning

So how does it play? Well, you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for that. I actually do have a physical copy and do intend to pen a detailed review, but you can bet your sweet carronade I’ll now be playing two versions of the game and comparing them with each other as well.

But additionally, I can’t help but think Firelock may well have upped the ante here for the entire hobby. Yes, this solution was likely borne as an antidote for a nasty bug. Nevertheless, might not using this software to host free demos for pewter based rules suggest a new business model requirement for the hobby? Hell, I punch out free “test drive” scenarios for my own rules in the same vein, but you still need table, terrain, troops, and an opponent to make it work. Time will tell, but I’m considering coding my own rules into Tabletop Simulator because all of a sudden, I don’t think this is Kansas anymore.

This article was kindly donated to Wargamer.com by the author.

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