Saturday, May 12, 2018

Interesting diceless mechanics in the mini skirmish game, Kobolds & Cobblestones

As a long time gamer, I am quite accustomed to all manner of dice, but I have always been intrigued by diceless luck mechanics using playing cards for some reason.

There was an RPG in the early 1990s called Castle Falkenstein which I believe had playing cards instead of dice, but I never got to play it as it came out after my gaming group disbanded.

I was thus intrigued when I heard of Osprey's recent rule book, Kobolds & Cobblestones..

and ordered it. It sounded like Mordheim, but with playing cards and it came from Osprey, which did Frostgrave. Two positives already.

I noticed there is virtually no buzz about it on Twitter or Boardgamegeek, and indeed, I had to make my own Reference sheet and post it there and here on my blog.

In this skirmish campaign, you control gangs of fantasy scum of all races, fighting in back alleyways and such in the city of Ordinsport, vying for the most gold, most notoriety, etc in a campaign. Sounds like many fantasy games, but here, you use poker hands for melee and ranged combat, and blackjack for magical spells. Every character has a fight and defend stat, which represents the amount of cards used to make an attack and such, after which, you rank what kind of poker hand you made with your opponent's hand.  Thus, if an attacking fighter has a Fight stat of 3, vs a defender's Defense stat of 2, you can theoretically score a Three of a Kind vs the defender's pair, with a difference of  2 (rank 4 less rank 2), resulting in a wound.

More powerful models can field even more cards, theoretically achieving a Royal Flush, a rank of 10.. Against a defense of a lowly pair, rank 2, that would inflict 8 wounds, killing most models.

You can bolster more cards with money and some abilities, to make things interesting.. but you can also bluff, potentially causing the other guy to squander good hands on nuisance attacks, biding your time for a bigger attack later.

Magical attacks or healing allies are similar,with the base being from 21 given its Blackjack.. If say, the wizard scored 20 and stands, vs the defender who scored 17, one wound is inflicted.

Wizards who bust greater than 21 may take damage on themselves.

My friend Jeff and I decided to try it out today, playing a one-shot scenario just to see if we like it enough for a campaign game.

You're supposed to play on a 2 ft by 2 ft playing area, but I decided on a 4 ft by 2 ft, as I wanted to dust off some old Mordheim carboard buildings, as well as other fantasy urban terrain I kitbashed, such as the aged copper statue and the ruined room.

I have few pristine fantasy buildings, which does not jive officially with the fluff, but I didn't let adherence to fluff stop me. Lots of gamers out there have lots of ruined buildings after playing Frostgrave and Mordheim and I imagine if they do play this game, they wouldn't stand on the fluff of a living and working city technicality either.

In the campaign game, you're supposed to start with 10 gold to build your warband, and can't take a wizard with you just yet. However, for this one shot, Jeff and I wanted to try out the rules, including magic, so we both rolled up a 30 gold one-shot warband each that included a wizard.

I took the opportunity to mostly used pre-painted fantasy miniatures lying around, but I did use my painted skeleton, orc and such.

We played the basic all-out brawl scenario in the rules for 6 turns, starting within 3 inches of either end.

Positioning in this game has some implications.. Not everyone in your warband is all love and peace, as there is still lingering hatred following some war I think described in the fluff.. Every warband member has an allegiance, red or black, and they might lose a turn if they are too close to a species they despise on the same team. I don't think I've ever seen that before in a miniature skirmish game.

Here, I put my 3 red allegiance guys together at the start on my left.. 

and all my black allegiance members on my right at the start.

However, I put my leader (black allegiance) with my Elf fencer (red allegiance) close to each other behind the statue at the beginning, just to try out an "animosity test."  If such mixed allegiance models are within 1 card length of each other at any time during a game, you draw a random playing card from the event deck to see if the model now active loses a turn. I was to see this later on as a bit of a nuisance.

Movement in this game literally takes using playing cards to the extreme.. Every model moves or climbs based on their movement stat, which would be either "W" or "L".. W meaning the width of a poker sized playing card, and L meaning the length of a playing card.. I have never seen this movement mechanic before!

On turn 1, my Elf archer climbed up the wall using her "L" stat.. I had to use my spare Joker to measure this up, and took another action to move forward also at L.

It was here on turn 1, I had my first kill.. My wizard used a spell on Jeff's archer that climbed up as well. Jeff drew 2 cards for blackjack and stood at 14.  He was worried that if busted in blackjack, it would mean his draw was 0.. Any card hit about 7 would kill him. I drew 21.. vs his 14, I had the 7 difference anyways and killed him.

Jeff and I both looked at each other. Magic could be very deadly in this game.. and we were to discover as well, due to the Blackjack mechanics, more swingy than expected. 

The next couple of turns, we used our playing cards to move close to each other..

While Jeff similarly advanced slowly, as he had many warband members moving at  the slower"W" instead of "L" distance.

until, on my right, I spot Jeff's halfling bowman skulking about and taking a shot and missing me.

followed right behind by his wizard, using the magical dark arts against me.. Since it's magic, we have to play Blackjack with the common "event deck" between us, as before. I drew a 19 and stood, but so did Jeff, and he declined to take another card, as he feared going bust and potentially taking damage to his wizard for amounts greater than 21. His magical attack fizzled,

Over the next 5 turns, I would constantly thwart Jeff's magical attacks playing Blackjack, drawing many 19s, 20s and 21s to his frustration.

Physical attacks are done using poker from your combat hand, not the communal event deck.. I closed on my right and attacked the halfling with a melee attack..

My goblin's fight stat was 2, meaning I could at most, inflict a pair on him..As mentioned earlier, you don't use 5 cards like a regular poker hand, but just the amount of cards indicated by your fight stat, so you're not typically playing one full five-card poker hand against another full five-card poker hand.. You just use your cards, however limited in number, to make a poker rank.

We simultaneously showed our cards.. I thus played a pair of sixes against his high card of King (rank 2 vs rank 1), inflicting only a "stun" not a wound..

We realized that the weak guys with Fight Stats of 2 or 3 were not going to do much damage, as the most they could do is 1 stun (rank 2 (a pair) vs rank 1 (a high card)) or maybe 1 wound if the other guy declines to play any cards (rank 2 (a pair) vs 0 (no card played)).

Jeff and I couldn't see the incentive to never not playing at least one card as one always has the ability to draw new cards all the time.. Why play no card if you don't have to.

You can use gold you bring to a fight to do such things as go through your discard pile from your combat hand, which gives you an added incentive to play cards from your hand a lot.

When you play cards, you may trigger a critical hit, which generates abilities found on your model stats that were dormant.. There are tons of abilities/critical hits.. It took me a whole page to list them for my reference sheet..

Sometimes, these effects last until the end of the next turn, so we had to devise a method to remember what is happening to each character. I had to improvise and write out effects and placed them near the character. I imagine a clever fellow will make a warband roster that will make it easier to track which crits are in use, and which ones aren't.

Meanwhile, on my left Jeff was skillfully avoiding my archer by hugging the wall and moving to my right out of LOS, while in the centre, I was stuck with a lot of bad blood between my elf fencer and leader as they were from different factions, as the elf and the leader both at different times failed their Animosity Tests, drawing a black card, losing a turn.. I guess this simulates suspicion and excess caution against former enemy races.

though I did manage to push those two clowns into the ruined room eventually..

On my left, I was frustrated with Jeff's hide and seek and got my archer in an excellent position, looking  right down at his throat..

Though I inflicted some minor wounds and a blind effect, I wanted to lure him out and draw pressure away from my right. I positioned my human bruiser in such a way that if Jeff came out from behind the wall to engage in melee, he would be in the LOS of both my archer and wizard..

On my right, his two rat men scurried about in the alley facing my goblin.

While in my centre, I got my Elf fencer to finally advance into the building and block off his hulking blue guy who was heading toward, and threatening, my right..

I drew some critical abilities though, and managed to hold my own against the blue guy.

Meanwhile, my plan to lure him out backfired, as he used his leader to charge my human bruiser, killing him outright, and using a poison ability on my elf archer.

My left was starting to crumble, and Jeff sent another big guy, his golem (represented by a book golem) charging my wizard.

Things stabilized however next turn, when I used blackjack magic on the golem, again, like on turn 1, killing him outright..Again, very swingy..

While on my right, my skeleton seemed at first hardpressed by 3 enemies

but my goblin was coming to the rescue when the scenario ended on turn 6.

A very interesting game, one of which Jeff and I discussed about these unusual playing card mechanics.

Some take-aways, observations and comments

  • Errata: Not clear why the Halfling bowman on page 36 has a Dodge stat instead of Defend
  • Errata: No description of "Broken Bones" in the abilities or critical hit stats anywhere.
  • While my friend Jeff liked the humour, I was turned off by it.. I don't find stuff like naming an Elf "Barry" for instance, particularly amusing to be honest.  Games Workshop makes similar attempts at humour. It must be a British thing. 
  • You could tell the author wanted to keep this game very high level and simple, with no rules on reloading, or interrupt the other guy's movement, etc.
  • All in all, Jeff and I liked the combat and magic. There is some bluffing elements in physical combat which are fine.  You can attack twice of course in an activation if locked in combat, and can bluff with bad cards, or pay gold to go through the discard pile to pretend you're looking to make an inside straight when you don't have it.. etc. 
  • Magic is swingier than I thought for some reason as I said using blackjack, which is fine for a magic component. 
  • I imagine at the start of a campaign setting, it will be mostly lots of low ranking fights happening, with people using just pairs on each other. This could be boring for new gamers. A suggested tactic at the beginning of a campaign would be for runts to stick together to gang up a lot to get the ganging up bonus, in order to be able to get more than one pair. Only later when you get more powerful characters, can those guys go off by themselves and attack all by their lonesome.  
  • Speaking of the ganging up rules, should it not apply when defending as well?
  • Some rules clarification particularly around movement is needed.. 
    • Climbing: The author notes this is an urban setting, but there are no examples about moving over and around rough ground.  Even in a busy urban setting, what are the rules for climbing non-buildings. Is climbing just for buildings, or must you take a climb action over rubble, barrels, wagons, etc?  I suspect that many people will house rule that all "terrain" obstacles an inch or less can be jumped over, instead of wasting a free walk to either go around it, or waste a climb action over just 1 inch. 
    • Presumably, you must climb down, representing jumping down, as well? Or is jumping down considered a free walk?
    • Falling rules: What are the falling rules? Since you can climb up buildings, and there is the shove ability, your model can fall.. So what happens then?
    • Rotating the card: The way the rules are written, it seems you cannot rotate your card around bends (which is unbelievable for an urban setting) and must go the full distance L.  Can you only do move A a shown below? On page 9, it's written " Holding the card so that one end touches the goblin's base, you can rotate the card around the base, and once happy, can move the goblin up to its maximum move so that the rear of the base touches the other end of the card."  This implies that you have to go to end of the card and not around bends, or you can move to half the card at the corner and stop for this movement.. Or can you? In the example below, is movement B allowed (moving L for a total of 3.5 inches?

  • Overall, the use of the cards physically to move are interesting, but it can get difficult to use in tight places. 

  • The base to base rules should be relaxed, to have all combat within models within an inch or half-an-inch of each other. One guy could thus block off an alleyway effectively, requiring strategy. 
  • The breaking off rules need to be clarified if it applies during movement, when an enemy is passing by on the way to somewhere else. If the enemy model can just be 1 mm away from touching the other guy's base, the way the rules are, it sounds like they can keep going without any consequences. For an urban setting in tight places, this could make a difference, and open up needless disputes.
  •  Not clear if you can use your Stash twice in the same activation?
  •  There are rules for wizards using support to heal allies.. Presumably, the wizard has LOS to their own person, and can heal themselves?
  • The LOS and reload rules don't have a distance limit, but the game we're told on page 6 will "typically"  be 2 feet by 2 feet. "Typically" implies bigger area games can be played, so arrow range is fine at 6 feet away?
  • The campaign seems a bit light, as you don't level up individual models, but just buy better troops. The magical items list needs to be beefed up with more gadgets.
  • It's not clear if  you can have more than one campaign objective to win the campaign.. Can one person declare a winner if they are the most wealthiest, while another can claim the winner if being the most notorious?
  • I imagine the betting and lending rules in the campaign will only lend themselves well to gaming clubs, not a  small group of buddies.. Wargaming clubs are common in the UK, but not so much in the US and Canada. These rules thus are a waste of space to players like Jeff and I.
  • One scenario, the Runaway Carriage, should only be played once in a campaign.. How many times will there be runaway carriages situations realistically?
  • If there is ever to be an expansion, some additional races, as well as dogs/mastiffs, should be added. Also, rules to custom make your own species and leader and how it's point costed. Lastly, gunpowder.

All in all, not a bad game. I imagine we'll try again. I suspect we'll have to house rule some small things, but the playing card mechanic is a nice change from dice.


  1. Thanks for posting the session report. How long did it take to play through a scenario? It sounds like there are some rough edges, but the unique mechanics have me interested enough that Ill probably drop the ~$15.

    1. It took a couple of hours, with the usual page flipping to learn the rules. At the end though, we took less and less time.

      My friend Jeff and I will try to do a campaign and house rule where we have to.