Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Review: Dark Age Apocalypse Rulebook

Dark Age has a pretty visceral look about it, which isn't surprising considering the game was inspired by the Artwork of Brom. Speaking of Brom there is currently a highly successful Kickstarter campaign running for the production of a book of his works. The game tries to take his macabre and twisted creations as inspiration and then turn them into a brutal experience on the tabletop. As always I'll fess up right at the start, this product was sent to me free of charge to review after I did some research for an article introducing the game on this Blog. I wasn't sure I was going to like the game, but hey I thought I'd give it a blast as so many of my readers had asked me to take a look at it for them. Truth is I was reluctant to spend my money on it at first, so getting some review stuff really helped. I mean I have a lot of games to play right now and adding another didn't seem like a wise idea at first. Now? Well read on to see what I think of the game now.

Product Description

The Dark Age Apocalypse Rulebook is a 96 page full-colour hardback rulebook. Although there is a brief amount of fluff at the start of the book it is unashamedly full to the brim with crunch, or rules as 'normals' refer to them. So in effect it is 90 pages crammed with ways to play games of Dark Age, right from the basics as you'd expect, up to a full and extensive campaign system. The pages are a satin finish, and long-term readers of this Blog will know just how happy that simple pleasure makes me... yeah I'm a bit obsessed with my satin finished pages. I never claimed to be 'sane'.

Gameplay 7.5 out of 10

This is the reason we buy rulebooks isn't it? For the gameplay itself, luckily I happen to think Dark Age is a really tight and well considered set of rules. This rulebook is an uncomplicated presentation of these rules, uncluttered by fluff and all that sort of stuff, it's a stripped down rulebook designed for gamers to take with them and thus all that unnecessary 'weight' has been removed. That stuff is saved for the Dark Age Forcelists book I'll be reviewing tomorrow, trust me that is a hefty tome. Nope this core rulebook is as I've already said 96 pages of almost non-stop rules, interspersed with the bare minimum requirement of pretty pictures. There is something pleasingly utilitarian about this approach, and I quite liked not having to stop reading the rules to suddenly read a short story. The book is bunched into two main headings, Core Rules, which obvious cover the usual aspects of any wargame, and a second smaller but no less important section called Advanced play, which covers things like special terrain rules, scenarios, campaigns and that sort of thing. That's it, no painting guides, no history of Samaria just the 'good stuff' as pure gamers would say.

So where do I start in discussing Dark Age as a game? Well from a headlines point of view the game is typically played on a 4' by 4' board, although actually I've found that 3' by 3' is more than suitable for most games, and doesn't adversely affect any one particular faction. Like another of my favourite games, Infinity, Dark Age uses the king of dice the D20. Unlike Infinity however Dark Age doesn't mess with it's D20 system, a low roll is always good and a high roll is always bad. Roll a 1 and good things will happen, roll a 20 however... and... well, not so good things will happen. Normally to your face. This strict adherence to a one way relationship with the dice rolling mechanic makes things a lot easier to learn and keeps games flowing nice and quickly. The rulebook say standard games are between 500 to 750 points, but I have yet to settle on what I personally think is the sweet spot in terms of standard game size. For me 800 to 850 seems to be the points range that I'm currently most comfortable with. In an 800 to 850 point game you are likely to be fielding somewhere between 8 to 14 miniatures, which I think is more than enough for a good skirmish game, and games of this size will last you between an hour to an hour and a half from after setting up to completion. If you know the rules.

Indeed on a long enough curve everything does die... it's just a short curve in Dark Age!

A further point needs to be made though about 'forcelists' in games of 1000 points or below you are allowed only one forcelist, but if you really want to play huge games you can do so. But, for games between 1001 points to 2000 points you require two forcelists. Now I haven't got round to playing any games anywhere near this level so I'm not too sure how this really impacts on the game as a whole. However , there are certain troop choices and units that are restricted to a set number per-forcelist, so I think the rule only really exists so you can take more of the good stuff in larger games. I guess this does lead me on to the only possible negative comment I have about the rulebook as a whole, so I'll get it out of the way. The fact that there is absolutely zero forcelist information in this book means you will need to buy the forcelists book before jumping blindly into buying miniatures. You can download all the unit cards for free from here, but I think the rulebook could have benefited from maybe just a few examples for each faction, possibly the starter sets only to get people started quickly and with minimal fuss. But, on the whole I'm a fan of stripping most of this stuff out of the book.

What about basic mechanics of the game? Well I've mentioned rolling a 1 being good, this is called a critical success, and rolling a 20 being bad, this being a critical failure, I haven't however mentioned how you get your target score yet. Well it's a simple set of compare and contrast various stats for most things, with some modifiers for range thrown in for good measure (no pun intended). None of it is overly complex, and if you have your profile cards to hand it's all really straight forward. There are the wargame staples of movement (MV), armour (AR), defence (DF), psychology or psyche (PS) hit points or wounds (HP) amongst weapon stats etc. If you play wargames none of the terms or concepts will be all that alien to you. Each weapon a unit has also has it's own statlines including things like Assault (AS), which is how good the unit is at using this weapon. It is important to note that these stats are unit specific and not weapon specific, so just because another unit also uses a weapon with the same name it doesn't mean it will have the same weapon statistics. It's all straight forward stuff and pretty much fully explained on the cards themselves.

The one concept in the game you will need to wrap your head around though is the Action Points (AP) mechanic. This is integral to pretty much everything in the game. You will win and lose a game because of how you deploy your units and use their AP. Action Points or orders aren't an entirely alien concept to games, in fact many games use them, but there is no getting away from the feeling that in Dark Age it feels like the game was designed around this mechanism first and foremost. Each unit has a specific number of AP's, from 1 to 4 with 3 being the most common amount of AP's units have. Although 4 AP isn't anywhere near as rare a 1 AP, I've only found Pud's in the Brood faction that have 1 AP. AP's at their basic level are the number of activities a unit can participate in, in a single game turn. These range from movement, using close and ranged weapons to casting. Without the required AP to perform an action you are scuppered, and often wasting AP on a bad decision can leave a unit exposed to a far more carefully considered attack from your opponents. It's important to note that sometimes choosing to not actually spend all of a units AP might actually be in your best interests, as a failed charge or range attack will give vital information to your cunning opponent. You can also choose to put units 'On Hold' by spending the appropriate AP. This will allow the unit to act 'out of sequence' to 'get the jump' on opponents by making ranged attacks or evading when triggered. This adds another level of tactical depth to the game and can be the difference between winning and losing at game when it gets down to the nitty gritty.

Other mechanics to be aware of are game status effects that are split into positive (warning counters) and negative effects (Hazard Counters). You will definitely need counters to represent these effects as keeping track of them without suitable markers becomes tricky as games move on, as is the case with many games. In fact if anyone knows of a company that produces Dark Age templates or counters I'd be grateful if you could drop a link in the comments below. Other things to be aware of is the difference between individuals and squads. One of the few things in Dark Age that does get a bit confusing at times, given the limited number of miniatures you'll have on the table, is that unlike most skirmish games of its size not every individual miniature is treated as it's own separate entity. You activate all miniatures in a unit at the same time whether this is 1 or 6 miniatures. At first this led to a few confusing moments over AP usage but eventually you get used to it and it becomes second nature. It's just for a game played at such a small scale having units like this seemed awkward at times. The best thing though is that the game does not use 'arcs' to determine line of sight. It is assumed that anyone living on Samaria is so used to danger coming from every angle that they actually know whats going on around them at all times. Wise move.

So what is a game turn like? Well a game turn is split into four phases. Phase 1 is the 'Preparation Phase' where any lingering game effect from previous turns are resolved and worked out. Pretty standard fare. Phase 2 is also pretty short, it's the 'Initiative Phase'. Simply put players each roll a D20 and the person with the lowest score wins initiative and can choose to go first or second. It's not as powerful as it could be in some games because activation of units is alternating, as you'll see in... Phase 3, the 'Activation Phase'. This is the meat of the game turn, and it's where most of the game action takes place. Players take it in turns to activate each of their units until there are no more activations to make. Once activated you must use all of that units AP, by moving, shooting and beating people around the head with a big rusty nail encrusted baseball bat! If you move on without spending any AP, you can't go back (unless you put them 'On Hold'). Phase 4 is the aptly named 'End of Game Turn', this is where you both check to see if the victory conditions have been met... or just if one opponent has been utterly obliterated has no one left standing... if this happens it should be bloody obvious who has won! The game is designed to last no longer than 8 turns, but can frequently last less if one of you screws up big time.

A typical double page spread in the rulebook.

The last thing I think I need to talk about in term of the core game and what you need to be aware of is terrain requirements. The rulebook itself does actually give some guidance on exactly how much terrain needs to be used. But it is vague and actually contradictory. The rulebook states you need at least 10 pieces on terrain on a 4' by 4' board. It also however, says that you could look to place between 2 to 3 pieces of terrain per 1' by 1' square on a board. Given the average size of game should be played on a 4' by 4' board that's between 32 to 48 pieces of terrain, way more than the initially recommended 10. So what's about right? Well the game actually requires a good mix of terrain in my experience. It's no where near as intensive on its requirements as a game like Infinity, but neither is it as easy going as HoMachine or Warhammer Fantasy. I'd say that on a 4' by 4' table each quarter (2' by 2' square) needs at least 1 decent building sized piece of terrain to act as a focal point / line of sight blocker. Added to this 2 or 3 foliage type terrain pieces thrown around the board to proving some different types of terrain should be enough at first. However linear terrain that provides cover for advances and attacks does become more useful as you learn the rules and how to play, but I'd put no more than 10 such pieces of terrain down on an entire board. As always with wargames, it'll be a bit of trial and error as to what works for you and your group.

Even the terrain in Dark Age is deadly. Some Advance terrain rules.

As to the Advanced rules I've only really the quite extensive scenario rules, which have 20 individual scenarios in all. These can be decided by roll of a D20 or if you are feeling friendly by mutual consent. sure some of the mission are in effect really similar, but there is a great deal of variance I've found, and I'm sure there's something for everyone in there. There are also more complex terrain rukes that also include attacking buildings and terrain with weapons and more involved game effect than just impeding progress or blocking line of sight. I would have liked to have had more experience of these rules, and to be able to give you examples of how they improve or indeed impede gameplay. But, I genuinely can't comment, suffice to say I think these rules actually look really exciting and look to add a considerable amount of spice to proceedings. Finally I have to mention the campaign rules. They are only 10 pages long, but they are more than enough for a gaming club to set up a quite involved and complex campaign system. I have yet to use them, but opponents willing I hope to rectify that in the not too distant future. There inclusion in the core rulebook is however a really welcome move, for me this is something other small skirmish games could stand to learn as well, these sorts of sized games lend themselves well to campaigns at clubs, and if they have campaign systems it's a major selling point to many.

The campaign rules are brief, but certainly more than detailed enough to provide interesting campaigns.

So what sort of games does all this lead to? Well in my own experience, which is probably more limited than I'd like given how fastidious I am about such things, it is a very, very brutal game. The marketing tagline for Dark Age is 'Everything Dies'... and normally in a game of Dark Age most things that start on the tabletop will not be there by the end of the game. You will lose entire units, as will your opponent, and quite often games come down to a handful of miniatures on either side fighting over an objective of some sort in a desperate last ditch attempt to win the game. You need to accept in Dark Age that you will lose units, you can't keep them all alive if you are going to try and hurt your opponent as well, you will have to commit your forces and be prepared to sacrifice some. Just make sure you are sacrificing the right ones... because any slip ups in Dark Age are going to be punished mercilessly by even semi-competent opponents. And here's the thing, Dark Age is a tactically astute and complex game, knowing which units to move where and when is difficult and requires skill. But. Even a novice or n00b can grasp the central themes and tactics to the game quickly and provide you with a good game if you aren't on the ball.

All in all I've found Dark Age to actually be a fun game to play, with misfiring weapons that are just as likely to be deadly to your own forces as they are the opposition, and soldiers that will beat up their own side if they try running from battle. These moments of dark comedy and grim humour do lighten the atmosphere in terms of the tactical decisions on the board. No question, but the player who wins a game of Dark Age is the player who best used there assets, made the right tactical decisions at the right time and who knew what risks were worth taking. The best player 9 times out of 10 will win at a game of Dark Age. Sure the dice Gods play there part as they do in any wargame, but Dark Age gives gamers the tools to effectively manage chance and risk... it's up to you to use them properly. Will Dark Age Apocalypse appeal to everyone? No it won't, I think some of the dark and sexualised / BDSM imagery will put some off of the game. It has round by me, and I'd be lying if I said some of the miniatures being as unnecessarily naked as they are sat well on my shoulders. I guess though if this is your cup of tea, or you can look past these aspect like I have, you'll find a ge of a game behind its visual veneer.

Detail 8 out of 10

I think this is arguably one of the easiest rulesets in recent years I've come across in terms of picking it up. That's not because the game is blisteringly simplistic, it's clearly not simplistic, nope it is because the rules are so well written and clear in their examples. Plus there are a lot of these written examples throughout the rules to clarify each and every single rule, usually multiple examples at that. These have proved very useful in clearing up any potential rule disputes and will actually stop most disagreements dead before they even get started. Then there are the diagrams, again these are clear, easy to follow and explain things quite nicely thank you very much. As with the written examples, these diagrams are frequent and plenty and are useful at helping you grasp the rules quickly, often they are paired with a decent written explanation too. Given that this rulebook is a pure rulebook, it is only this attention to detail that is worth mentioning. Sure the pictures are pretty and the photographs of miniatures look nice, but this book exists to achieve only one thing and that is teach you the rules of the game, and it does that pretty damn well.

Quality 8.5 out of 10

I like hardback books that are stitch bound. If you are an avid gamer like myself, and carry your crap around with you then you'll understand the sort of punishment that our rulebooks take. They take a right beating, and sometimes softback rulebooks do not cut it in this harsh world of gaming. The Dark Age Apocalypse book is cut out for the harsh realities of wargaming. The hardback cover is actually really heavy duty and stands up to quite the pounding, I've dragged this book all over the place with me while I've been reviewing it. It even ended up in a hold bag bound for Spain which, was clearly handled by ass hats of the highest order. The bag itself was severely damaged as were some items inside the bag... apart from a indent in the cover this rulebook survived the ordeal pretty darn well. The quality of the print job on the pages is also extremely high, and the equal of pretty much anyone elses product you could care to mention. The binding is stitched, and it just feel like a good quality product in your hands.

One of the few pages that isn't devoted to game rules in any way!

Service N/A out of 10

It's not really fair of me to judge the service, considering I didn't pay for it. But, what I can say is that the package took about two weeks to get to me front the USA and was pretty well packed.

Price 9.5 out of 10

Personally I was really surprised to see the actual price of the Dark Age Apocalypse Rulebook in stores. Maelstrom Games here in the UK have it for sale at £13.49. Its RRP here in the UK is £14.99 and that in itself is a bloody good price for a quality rulebook like this. Honestly, with the discounts you normally get in your local stores Dark Age Apocalypse represents fantastic value for money in my opinion. I'd happily part with my scant resources to buy the book if I were required to do so again.

Overall 8.5 out of 10

Well if you read my article about this game 'intriguing' me you'll know that actually I wasn't going to take that close a look at it. I play a lot of stuff, as you can see from the banner at the top of the page, I possibly play too much stuff. So while some of the Dark Age miniatures appealed, not all of them did and as such the game didn't grab me. The setting at first glance didn't grab me either. However, I had plenty of people ask me to seriously consider taking a look at it. So I'm not one to ignore such a groundswell of opinion. A fair few months and games on I'm now really quite pleased that I did. Dark Age is a brutal game of risks. It's about managing those risks and knowing when to throw all your chips down on the table as it were, and when to hold back and not show your hand. Sure fortune favours the brave in Dark Age, but it can treat the foolhardy quite savagely. It is uncompromising and brutal. Mess up and your opponent will make a significant mess of you and your forces. Yet despite all this nerve jangling tension it remains raucous fun... well raucous for a wargame... we are mild mannered nerds after all. It has certainly been worthy of forcing it's way into my current gaming regime, and I'm glad it has. If you fancy trying something a bit different nip along to the Downloads Section of the Dark Age website and try the game for yourselves with some proxies. You never know, you might like adding some danger to your hobby life. Peace out!


  1. Thanks for the breakdown! I haven't been able to get a game in yet, but I'm itching to now.

    I own a Saint Luke Forsaken force and both rulebooks. They're probably the nicest books I own. There is simply no blank piece of page anywhere. I also like the fact you can go cheap and just buy the rulebook and download the cards. If you like it, you can then add the enormous Forcelist to your collection.

    1. Dark Age won't be to everyone's tastes. As a game it functions, and functions well. Occasionally there are some bits that don't go as smooth as you'd like, but on the whole it is fun. It's biggest draw back is the highly 'mixed' in quality terms miniatures range. The Outcasts on the whole look splendid, as do the latest faction the Core. But some of the stuff for other factions is weak. The Skarrd starter box is well... 60% poor.

  2. This game has been on my radar for months now. It's great to see it get some more attention...now if only I had some cash available to pick it up! Maybe I'll have to enter some contest I saw floating around recently. ;)

    1. Well I hope people enter that competition. It's a risky move by me and I could end up with some egg on my face if no one enters!!!

      As to Dark Age, I had no idea when I first looked into the game that it had been going for 12 years. Only recently in my opinion has it begun to get some wider attention. We'll see what happens after the Devastation book is brought out and people get to see some of the cooler miniatures the Core have to offer.

      However, if I was advising CMoN I'd be telling them to slowly but surely go back through their back catalogue and re-sculpt a sizable chunk of their miniatures range. The problem they have is that there are some really stand out miniatures in their range that now show up the much older stuff very, very badly indeed.

  3. Didn't know there was a campaign system in the book. I need to try and drum up interest in my area again.

    1. Yep, campaign systems sell games. Especially small skirmish games. I think a few clubs round by me spend all their spare time trying to come up with campaign systems for games that don't have them. Perhaps people should look to play games that do?

  4. I was interested until the whole 'roll for initiative' thing.
    So I plan my attack, move my unit(s) into position, and then...
    Whoops, lose the roll for initiative.
    Since my opponent won the initiative, he kills that unit.

    I really don't understand why many games include this COMPLETELY RANDOM mechanic. If you can't count on something as basic as the friggin' turn sequence, you can't properly plan your tactics.
    Not for me. Sorry.

    Great review as always, though!

    1. You see I don't think it's as bad as all that with this game is I'm honest with you SinSynn. We've had this discussion befre about random turn sequence. I think you can't really say any one single game mechanic is good or bad on its own in isolation from the rest of the system.

      While I agree that my grump-o-meter is normally set off by random initiative rolls every turn I have to be honest and say that I do at least give games a chance to prove me wrong. Have there been times where Dark Age has made me clench my fist in anger at the random initiative? Yep, twice.

      However that's because I pushed all my chips into the center of the table as it were hoping to get initiative and steal the win. Didn't work out like that. But, it didn't ruin the game or cause such terrible losses that meant I lost. The alternating squad activations helps with that, so really you can plan for both eventualities.

      It's not a big influencer on the game tbh, just gives you another tactical dilemma as a general.

  5. awesome review thanks. I actually picked up both books and an outcast starter at gencon 2011. After I read your story competition yesterday I dusted em off.

    1. Well I'm glad my articles have convinced you to dust your books off again. I know what it feels like to buy stuff and then see it sitting on shelves gathering dust. It's fracking annoying... does this mean I can expect another story competition entry? Hope so!

  6. I realize this is an old review, but I felt the need to point out that 2 - 3 terrain features per 1' x 1' square, of which there are four on a 4' x 4' board, gives you 8 - 12 pieces of terrain, not 30+.

    1. My maths might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that 1 foot by 1 foot is a 12 inch by 12 inch square. Therefore on a 4 foot by 4 foot table you actually have 16 1' by 1' squares. You have four 2' by 2' squares... so sorry buddy, but I think you are wrong. as the book states 2 to 3 pieces of terrain by 1' by 1' square that's a low of 32 terrain pieces and a high of 48. Serious get a piece of paper and draw a 4cm square then divide that up into 1cm squares then count them.