Before I start prattling on about this game I need to inform you all that when I contacted the guys at Dark Age Miniatures to ask some questions about the game they decided they wanted to send me some mini's and the rulebooks. So as always keep that in mind as you read this 'first look' at the game. I personally don't think I'm that easily bribed, but you might have differing opinions. Right I'm going to be honest with you here, the whole post apocalypse road warrior thing has been done to death in many walks of life. Be it comic books, films, novels or indeed wargames. The dark, destroyed, dystopian future where humanity has descended into a mass of unruly, brutal sects hell bent on clubbing each other to death, with whatever household implements, or piece of masonry they have to hand... and then probably eating their victim. We've all seen it and we're all I'm sure familiar with many of the themes. Sometimes it's done really well, and other times it's done not so well. Part of me loves the whole genre, and another part of me detests that many don't try to do anything new with it or spin it in a different way.
|Concept art mutilation Juggernaut|
So for me Dark Age sat of to the side along with two other skirmish level games, Eden and Urban War, amongst others, as products that were potentially a bit samey and covering similar ground, certainly in terms of broad brush strokes and a few visual ques and themes with the miniatures. So when it came to looking at them for these articles I knew I'd have to decide on one and just run with it. This was because I couldn't really muster the will to go out and learn the differences between the three products to decide if any of these post apocalypse skirmish games were for me or not. In short I benched them all, this despite many of the miniatures from the ranges looking cool and appealing to me personally. I decided I'd stick with games I could distinguish from others easily and shoot for them first. Then I started getting into the swing of things with this series of articles on 'games that intrigue me'... and I started getting requests from readers to cover certain games. A few raised my eyebrows, as quite frankly I wasn't expecting them to be of much interest to many people.
Amongst that list, nay, right at the top of that list was Dark Age, while none of its post apocalyptic competitors have received any requests at all. It was almost a two pronged assault actually, what happened was I got a lot of people asking me if I had looked at Dark Age as they were interested in playing it and would appreciate my thoughts on it... and the second group were a very small (but vocal) handful of readers who played the game and told me I should cover it because it's a great game. Now I'll be honest, had that small group of devotees sounded like slavering poltroons with barely a brain cell between them I might have skipped over the game again, but they didn't. They actually sound like grizzled wargaming veterans, like me, and the more I prodded away at who they were and their gaming experience, the more they started to sound like me. They told me I'd enjoy the game and that I should at least get myself a copy of the free quickstart rules. So yeah I became intrigued...
Company: Dark Age Miniatures are actually their own company, there has been some confusion amongst me and my friends, and indeed wider hobbyists as to whether or not the game and miniature line were now fully owned by Cool Mini or Not. Turns out it's 'or Not' as Bryan Steele has informed me. The game is published by Cool Mini or Not and David Doust obviously owns a stake in both parties, but Dark Age Miniatures is its own entity. So Dark age is currently brought to us by 3 games designers, David Doust, Michael Shinall and Bryan Steele. Obviously they're not the only people involved, and there are an impressive array of people all over the world supporting the product, too numerous to list them all. Now here's something that genuinely surprised me to hear, Dark Age has been going for over a decade now as a game and product line, it just goes to show how many good games have been going for so long under the radar. I knew it had been around a fair old while, but I am very surprised to hear it actually predates HoMachine. So the fact that it has stuck around this long bodes well for it in the future, plus it seems to be gathering a bit of momentum. There's also the added bonus that with Cool Mini or Not behind them as publishers you have a pretty strong firm. They seem to be growing in strength what with their Zombiecide and Sedition Wars Kickstarters they're really fashionable right now.
Starting cost: They're not too bad actually. You can actually download the rules for free, which will save you a bit of money when starting out, and you can pick up the various starter sets for £27. Hell if you wanted to you could pick up the full hardback rulebook for £13.49 from the likes of Maelstrom Games. The rather splendid looking and large Forcelist book can also be purchased for £26.99 from Maelstrom Games. Do you need both books right away? No, as I say you could just download the free rules to start with, but I do think the Forcelist Book is pretty essential, so it's handy it's a damn good read full of excellent artwork (full review soon). I would imagine you could happily start off with the £27 starter sets and free rules, but to do it properly, with a few extra miniature options you're probably looking at around £90 to £100, that's with all the books too.
Game: First things first you can download all the quickstart rules to Dark Age yourself and give the game a blast, as I said above in the starting cost section. In my other articles in this series on games that 'intrigue me' I have lambasted other companies for not having the balls to put thier product out there for people to sample and make informed choices. So Dark Age deserves credit for making all the counters, profile cards and rules available for download. That takes guts and shows they have a confidence in the product they are producing. Kudos guys! So how does it play and is it worth having a look at? Well I always think if a games company actually puts its rules out free of charge for us gamers to look at then it's worth playing at least one or two proxy games... and I'd urge you all to got out and do that, because Dark Age is an absolute riot of a game. I was expecting much, but when I play new games I normally go in wearing my skeptics hat. If after 15 minutes of a game I've already got a beaming smile on my face I know it's not a bad game.
The other thing I like about the game is that it uses D20's, so the collection of D20's I've collected for playing Infinity get to come out for another game. Why do I like D20's? The range they give games designers to bring in subtle changes and nuance, which I'm very pleased to say seems to have been fully exploited by Dark Ages games designers. Whereas Infinity rolling high tends to be good in Dark Age it is 1's that are what you want to be rolling. Dark Age is all about getting in close and smashing, slashing and slaughtering people. It's an interesting game to play on the tabletop though, because there is powerful ranged technology in the game, and if it works it can be utterly devastating. But, it comes with a serious level of risk. You see the technology in the game is old, and badly maintained, and if it goes wrong, which from my experience is often it's just as likely to melt the face off of the poor schmuck operating it as their target.
|Pinnacle Recovery Bot concept art - The Core|
That's the crux of a good game for me though, risk and reward. You want a game to give you choices and options as a player, you want a game to entice you to engage the enemy to go for it. You want fortune to favour the brave... but not too much. You want a balance and on the whole, although I haven't exactly played much of Dark Age, it seems the balance is there. It tempts you to throw people forward, to engage your opponents and to take some of those risks. But it also rewards clever tactical play as well and if you spread your forces too thinly, or don't fully commit to an attack you'll fail. You certainly need guts to play this game and win, it doesn't do half measures... but I like that. Some people won't though, because it can be very, very harsh when you are first getting to grips with the game. It doesn't reward being careful and timid, it rewards being brave and trying to take the initiative.
Because quite often the first person to get a heavy blow in can carry that attack and if you allow your opponent to get too many first blows in on your force you are going to struggle horribly. Giving you some broad brush strokes in terms on mechanics in the game though Dark Age uses alternating unit activation, so player 1 activates a unit and then player 2 activates a unit until both players have activated all units in their force and then the turn ends. This actually brings about an awful lot of bait and switch tactics and also stops one side getting too far out in front from one turn of total domination. The next important concept in the game are action points. this is a mechanic that I think isn't used enough in games for me, it's a great way of differentiating between units, but also giving players tactical choice, you spend Action Points doing things like move, shoot and twat somebody with a giant lump of concrete, and how you spend them is up to you. Just use them wisely... it's a really cool little resource mechanic and using them right is crucial. But the other resource that quite often you don't think about clearly in other skirmish games are wounds, because like chess you'll have to lose some to take some off your opponent, and sacrificing the right things at the right time is more important in Dark Age than many other skirmish games.
So it has some clever mechanics, and some very tight rules. It feels to me like a game that's had plenty of time to mature. It's probably not perfect because no game is, but my first impressions are that despite it giving off the fun, bombastic and explosive vibe it's actually quite a deep and involving game. It's entertained and impressed in equal measure... and I'm going to have to admit I wasn't expecting that. I'm not too sure what I was expecting to be honest with you. All I know is that Dark Age probably wouldn't have been a game I'd have walked into a shop and picked up. Well actually I've picked up Malifaux, Infinity, Hell Dorado, Anima Tactic and most recently Freebooter's Fate over it. Every time I picked up a new game Dark Age was in the equation, it really was, but for some reason I always passed it by. I'm now slightly regretting that decision, but hey I guess better late than never, right? So I'd like to say to all of you out there who asked me to take a look at the game for you, thanks. You've done me a favour, because this is a game I will be playing from now on. Now where did I put that PVC cat suit and gimp mask, I need to get into character!
Miniatures: Ah yes the 'shinies'. I'm yet again going to be honest here. When I first glanced over the miniatures range there were the odd pieces that stuck out, and not always for the right reasons. Like many small skirmish games Dark Age is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to miniatures. We're essentially talking about companies operating on limited budgets and time frames to get a decent sized range out so their game can thrive. In these situations the odd duffer is bound to appear, plus as Dark Age has been going so long I'm certain having seen some of their recent miniatures in the flesh that some of the ones I'm not so keen on are probably old sculpts, given the game has been going for over a decade. It's an inevitability, even Infinity with its miniature range, which is commonly marked out as being the highest quality in the industry had some right duffers early on. Malifaux too has issues with some pieces and the 2D static pose syndrome. I think on the whole the Dark Age range is average, with some really, really nice miniatures and some right duffers thrown in. So it's like a lot of these skirmish games, Malifaux, Bushido and so forth and so on.
|Both the male and female Outcasts are 'treated' in the same way|
What you're looking for then from a miniatures company is normally to be 'characterful', 'distinct' and 'unique'. I'm glad to say that almost all Dark Age miniatures are indeed 'characterful'... in a PVC cat suit and gimp mask sort of way. The factions themselves are clearly distinct from one and other, but on the 'unique' scale, there are a lot of post apocalytic miniatures ranges out there. Doesn't matter who predates who really right now, there are some unique things like the Dragyri and little touches though, I'm just pointing out it's a crowded marketplace. It's also fair to say that as time has gone by it's clear that the standards and levels achieved with the sculpts for Dark Age have increased somewhat. Especially the newest faction, the Outcasts, who for example are all pretty much splendid looking (starter set review coming soon), and I'd imagine that the next faction 'The Core' will also look pretty darn sexy I'm sure. None of the miniature stray into truly awful territory, and not many are outright bad. But, as an entire range there is a massive lack of consistency, and there's no getting away from that. But on the whole I think the range does have a certain rusty nail ridden baseball bat charm to it, and soupcon of S&M gimp mask wearing freakery.
|Some never before seen 'greens' for the Outcast faction. Looking good!|
For the main the miniatures are pretty standard bondage gear wearing post apocalyptic tropes, which is no bad thing, because lets be clear that look is very, very popular. We all love a bit of latex in the morning and cyberpunk stylings... right... right? No just me then? OK but it's not all leather chaps and nipple rings, nope there are two factions (soon to be three) that break with the overarching style of the game, and that really helps the visual aesthetics of the game and breaks it all up a bit and helps Dark Age stand out a bit. Firstly the biological weapon faction called the Brood, and secondly the alien faction called the Dragyri. They do break the mould somewhat from the staple human warrior with lump of masonry / iron pipe. The Dragyri look weirdly feline-esque in the face shape, but without the fur, think thundercats crossed with smurfs in a Turkish harem and you're probably most of the way there. Meanwhile the Brood have a touch of the mutant zombies about them, maybe even a hint of the Flood from Halo universe. So there is variance in the setting and miniatures range and with the robot deathmachine faction the Core coming soon it'll get even more varied.
Background: One of the things that rarely gets spoken about in terms of backgrounds with wargames is the artwork. Seriously, we flick through the fluff skim reading it and decide if we like the background or not, but I wander how many of us truly appreciate the artwork in such books? Many companies also overlook the importance of having lots of nice evocative artwork in their rulebooks, and they become filled with diagrams and walls of text, with a smattering of art because they have it hanging around the office after having some concepts drawn. The people behind Dark Age deserve a massive pat on the back for the shear amount of awesome and interesting artwork that surrounds the world of Dark Age. It seems to me that the artwork wasn't just produced to give sculptors a sense of what they wanted from the miniatures, but that the artwork was intended very much to set a visual tone for the whole game, it feels integral to the vision of the game. It's a real strong suit of the game for me, it has given me a very real sense of what the world of Dark Age is really like. It creates a very strong image in your mind and I love that. Is it a bit sexy and racy some of it? Yes. Would some of it look out of place in an S&M club or fetish porno? No. It has some mature content, and some people won't like that, but at least it has a different look, and this week I've been thinking about the portrayal of women in the hobby, and yes there are women who are naked or wearing bondage clothing... but the men on the whole are treated in the same way. That's not always the case in our hobby, so again that deserves a mention.
I guess this is where I talk a bit about the world of Dark Age. The planet the game takes place on is called Samaria, it was never really a great place to live on to begin with. It was situated in a remote part of the galaxy, far away from law and order (I bet it still had a Starbucks) and was always a bit of an inhospitable hell hole. A place where nasty corporations went and did questionable things and developed questionable products. So what went wrong? Well the corporations fecked off and left loads of people stranded on the planet fighting for survival... and... well fighting each other. Sounds like a lovely existence! So who has been left behind? Lets start with the Foresalken, these are the human remnants of what the various corporations left behind on Samaria. They have formed a sort of civilisation with agriculture so forth and so on, they have however rediscovered religion and they are sort of the religious whack job faction too, with born again 'saints' leading crusades all over the place to crush the other various elements on Samaria.
The next faction I'd like to talk about are the Skaard. These are the outcasts from the Forsaken factions religious revolution, the members of the Skaard were those who decided religion was a pile of old toss and stuck two fingers up to the emerging church. Yeah they'd clearly not heard about religious persecution, and guess what this rag tag bunch of atheists had to flee into the wilds to survive, which on Samaria is pretty hard to do... so you can imagine the sort of 'persecution' they faced. So far they sound potentially like the good guys don't they? Don't let that fool you. These poor schmucks ended up stumbling across a military research facility and unleashing all sorts of chemical and biological mutagens that have turned them into superhuman freaks, who are ever so slightly mad and with a penchant for the eating of human flesh. Yep, these guys have turned to cannibalism... well I guess it's one step above Starbucks. So this faction is all about poisons, chemicals and other such things, as well as a Blood Cult that well, aren't very pleasant. You'll be hard pressed to find a vegetarian in their ranks.
The Outcasts are my faction. So obviously they're awesome! Well actually they're a rag tag bunch of maladjusted loners who can't get their arses in gear to form a proper society. As such they're basically a collection of waring gangs and tribes that have to fight for their right to exist and survive. On the plus side there's no religion and as such no of the witch hunts that go on in Forsaken settlements. Also thankfully there seems to be a cheery lack of cannibalism. Basically these Outcasts hold their freedom dear and above all things, I like that. They also believe in the survival of the fittest, so they're Darwinian's... yeah so I'm clutching at pretty slender straws, but I wanted a human faction and religions nut jobs and cannibals weren't really for me. Plus these guys are the stereotypical post apocalyptic human tribes sort, you know a bit like Mad Max and hopefully stuff all like Water World! They're also the miniatures range that I happen to like the most so that's an added bonus.
The Dragyri are an alien race that actually bears a striking similarity to a certain brand of blue aliens recently unleashed on the world by James Cameron, in his film Dancers with Smur... I mean Avatar. However, the Dragyri actually predate that box office smash / awful film I believe and so I think that needs pointing out. Dark Age had them first. These Aliens were actually stranded on Samaria long before any human corporations turned up, so really it's there planet, but hey when has that ever stopped human colonisers? In a way the Dragyri are the 'Native American' faction. They were minding the planet for some type of crystal or other when a great big bloody asteroid hit. Yeah, Samaria sounds like a lovely place doesn't it? Their society has split in a few ways, firstly there are two distinct species, which they see as classes of the same race, the Trueborn and the smaller 'Slaves'... yeah, classes, that's what they sound like. I think their names pretty much describe what they are. The Dragyri have formed elemental casts, the only two I've found evidence for being the Ice and Air Castes, these are ruled by powerful Arbiters. These guys are an interesting faction to have thrown into the mix and I'm really glad they exist.
And so onto the Brood and also the Core. These two factions are the two sides to the same thematic coin if you will in the back story of Samaria. Both are the remnants of some very dodgy research into some rather questionable weapons of war. On the one hand you have the biological weapons of the Brood with their acid blood, regenerative ability's and no doubt really sharp teeth and slashing claws. There is a controlling intelligence behind the Brood known as the 'Mere', I think they're actually a really cool little faction. On the other hand we have Dark Ages newest faction, the Core, who are robotic deathdealers. Bugger all is really known about them, but the scope for an AI intelligence and old technology coming back to life is just too furtive a background to screw up. The concept sketches I've seen so far look utterly brilliant and I have to say I'm really looking forward to the expansion book that contains them as a faction. So that's your lot. That's my whistle stop tour of the world of Samaria.
+ Firstly I think I have to make it clear that I think dark Age is just a really fun little game.
+ There are already five fully fledged factions, with a sixth on the way shortly.
+ It's actually far more tactical than many people first think.
+ The two books, the rulebook and Faction book look fanbloodytastic. The artwork is splendid.
+ After 10 years the rules are very tight and not ambiguous.
+ Also as the game is 10 years old the fluff is well developed, so you fluff bunnies will be happy.
- The extreme bondage / tits hanging out look of the game won't be for everyone. Especially as the blokes sort of get the same treatment.
- Some of the miniatures in the range could do with being re-sculpted.
- The game is unforgiving, and although it's easy to learn and play, I can see it being difficult to master, for some they'll embrace that challenge for others... well they'll end up as a smear on the asphalt.
- Despite being around for 10 years or more the games profile isn't huge, and not many people seem to play it, certainly here in the UK (that's a genuine shame).
|Mutilation thrall Concept - The Core|