Oh boy. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at rulesets, even longer since I’ve written my impressions on them. So why not kick it off with something that has been eagerly awaited?
For a long time, there has been a lot of discussion about a tabletop game from Black Powder Red Earth. Keen eyed readers may remember the Spectre models that were made to represent Ember team from the graphic novels and I am continued to be annoyed we didn’t get any further sets. There was also a board game prototype that they had been working on and that has evolved into the subject of today’s Impression piece, Black Powder Red Earth 28mm.
Also before we get started, slight disclosure – I am a backer of Black Powder Red Earth on patreon at the lowest level, enough to give me access to the piles of PDFs they have.
For a bit of context, I should probably go into just what Black Powder Red Earth is. More commonly abbreviated to BPRE, Black Powder Red Earth is a series of graphic novels and games from Jon Chang, with illustration work done by Josh Taylor and funded in part by an ongoing Patreon. Split over several arcs each set in a different hot-spot (Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the North African fictional state of Awbari), the stories are all action thrillers involving Cold Harbor, a US PMC that is hired by various government and private entities to provide training and direct action capabilities. Each book is filled with incredibly striking and stylistic artwork of operators operating operationally – gear and tactics are intricately researched, helped by some of their close contacts and partnerships with companies like BCM, as well as Mr Chang having been a co-founder of Hayley Strategic, and all with this aggressive colour scheme, the visuals almost searing themselves into your eyes. The tone is similarly realistic – technological advantages may help Cold Harbor stack some bodies but a lot of the guys in red still go down during the numerous firefights. And all the way through, the setting is presented in a way that is gripping and interesting to read – as I’ve said in the past, the thing that pushed me into making my own setting is seeing what Echelon has done with this series, in it’s graphic novels, video games and sourcebooks.
With the baseline information aside, I should probably say the first controversial thing – I’m not actually the biggest fan of the graphic novels.
Okay, I can already see the comments being written and the tabs closing. Let me explain.
I do enjoy the artwork and the world building each issue includes. The broad strokes of the story and the setting, the dedication to showing the real world (with all it’s shades of grey) and showing the tactical operations done right. Where I think the series falls down, in my opinion personally, is that while the world sticks with me, it fails to grab hold quite so much with the more specific drama – the focal characters mostly merge into one of two archetypes (grizzled operator or suit wearing leader), while the story seeming to meander it’s way through the first three books before rushing to the inevitable “Book 4 Big Dramatic Twist” (that usually leaves everyone you might have liked dead). I am cautiously hopeful for the latest series Awbari – the first issue already shows a dramatically improved amount of recognisable characters and less focus on the gore/spectacle of the action over actually delivering a plot.
So, coming from that I must really dislike the game, right?
Oh no. I really, really like it. I think this is a game I’m going to keep coming back to.
Set in the Awbari storyline, BPRE 28mm is a skirmish wargame focused on one thing – night raids by the Cold Harbour team Scorch against enemy positions in the border clades. Each mission lets you take a selection of Cold Harbour operators and send them against the local insurgents and their Hongbin mercenary handlers. The front of the book is a big chunk of lore describing the situation, giving anyone who may have missed the first volume of the new graphic novel a lowdown on the situation. It’s very evocative, conjuring the images of the world and the forces into your mind. At the back of the book there is also the action scene from issue 1 of the Awbari arc, giving you some more inspiration for the games to come and just how your tabletop actions will look in your mind’s eye.
As a side note, I think it’s worth mentioning about how book writes about one of the sides you’re expected to play. As in the comic, the religious fanatics of the Aayari Network and the Chinese backed, North Korean Hongbin troops are written as the complete and utter bastards they are (the Hongbin Merc standing out as especially moustache twirling villains while the Muhtsib are exactly what you expect when someone says “Religious Fanatic”). Unlike the comic however, one player is going to end up having to control them. Ultramodern Wargaming is full of these situations and it could be argued that it’s one of it’s defining traits. It’s interesting just how all out they go making them “the bad guys” without the shades of grey that often come into play. It should be said, this is not really a critique, more an observation – plus, as I discovered with a certain player at SESWC (they know who they are) some people really enjoy playing the bad guys.
I also want to talk about the presentation of this book – it’s fantastic. BPRE has evolved a style all of it’s own and the book lives and breathes it. The punchy fonts, the colour scheme, the very clear diagrams in a pictorial style – all of this helps to make the book feel like another entry in the graphic novel series, while still getting across information needed to play the game. In fact, the only downside is maybe some of the print quality – like the graphic novel volumes, the book is a paperback printed by Amazon locally. While this is great for the environment and better for Echelon Software, it’s not so great for having the premium feel that other rulesets like Osprey’s big books can give you. As my eager reading of Silver Bayonet this week can attest, a little bit of gloss and a hardback cover can go a long way, especially with all the great design work already in the box.
Once past the lore, the meat of the book is the rules. And lets just cut to the chase: I am kind of amazed at just how slick the core of the rules is. Take for example the enemy of rules writer everywhere – character profiles. While most games include separate stats for combat, leadership and equipment options, BPRE cuts it down to four things: How fast can I move, How well can I hit the bad guys (the hit roll), how easily do I go down when shot (the save roll) and what special things can I do (special rules). Having just come off Necromunda’s literal list of values, this was quite a breath of fresh air! And yet, despite this dialling back of complexity, the character types still have a different feel to them – I’ll go into more details later but while playing the bad guys, the difference between the local Aayari troops and the Hongbin mercs comes across hard thanks to the tweaks in the different values.
The rest of the core fundamentals are pretty damn solid as well. Shooting is a two stage process (roll to hit, roll to save) with very few additional modifiers (at most maybe a single numerical one) with details for cover included in the attack roll. Rolling high on either of these is good, while 20’s give you either an unsavable kill (useful against S-Vest and body armour users) or ignores the staggering effect of being shot. Cover is also simple – it’s all done from the top down perspective you are either out of Line of Sight, Obstructed or in the open (with any additional line of sight rules covered with some handy diagrams). Doors on the battlefield, key in a CQB engagement, also paly a part, blocking line of sight unless movement is spent to open them. Activating a character at any point drops an ACT chit on them, with specific rules for this varying during whatever stage you are in.
A final general rule element is facing – rather than 180 degrees or 90, BPRE goes with 135 degrees, or 90 degrees to their left and 45 degrees to the right. While at first puzzling, it made a little more sense when I thought back to my airsoft trips, during which your visibility to your right is usually filled with at least some element of your armament during a close quarters engagement.
Four things I really want to cover are the Turn Structure, Intervention Cards, Warfighters and setting up each scenario (with the potential to arrange a full on Night Raid).
Each turn in BPRE is split into three phases: Direct Fire, Maneuver and Finishing. Players take turns activating within each phase, meaning there is a quite pleasant back and forth, especially with how little action paralysis you’ll experience. Additionally, the Assaulting player always goes first – each game of BPRE is a very short engagement, not really enough time for the initiative to swing back and forth
The Direct Fire phase is probably the phase where most of your pre-planned shooting will take place. Any attacks during this phase gain a bonus to the hit roll and by going first makes you think about setting up firing arcs in the previous turn. This phase also lets you toss out frag grenades, which lie in wait until later in the turn. Interestingly, this is merely place a token in the location you want to throw the grenade, leading to some fun mechanics later on.
The Maneuver Phase allows units that did not shoot in the Direct Fire phase to move around and, at any point in that move, engage an opponent within line of sight. If you are unfortunate to move into the line of sight of a model that has yet to be activated (or god forbid start activating within that line of sight) then an interruption can occur and a Immediate action take place (at the loss of some accuracy). My favourite feature of this phase though (aside from being able to drop support fires on your opponent) has to be rules about cover. While you can move around the waist high cover dotting the area, you can also attempt to cross it. This comes with a risk though, you have a 50/50 chance of fluffing your attempt to climb over the obstacle and end up staggered and on the far side of it – good when running to cover, bad when crossing some to keep advancing.
The Finishing Phase begins with the clearing of all Activation chits, preparing everyone for one final chance to act in the turn. This is followed up by the re-appearance of those frag grenade chit that were dropped in the Direct Fire phase. However, rather than simply detonating where the marker was placed, there is instead a chance for it to scatter a short distance (stopping at walls) and then detonate. This makes grenades a pretty interesting trap, flushing people out of cover as you always sure exactly where the final template will be. This turn also ends with close quarters Finishing Attacks taking place, with each player taking turns to deliver a final blow to any opponent within spitting distance of your forces – useful for finishing off anyone not killed by the frag grenades.
Now, you might have noticed that I mention ways to attack your opponent in every phase there and that’s correct – this game is fast and bloody. In the games I managed to play, we were dropping bodies frequently, with several games ending way before the 7 turn time limit just by tabling the opponent. This makes sense for the close quarters action the game entails and makes most moves feel like dancing on a knife edge.
If there is one thing that Necromunda has taught me, people love having hands of cards to let them modify how the game is played. BPRE 28mm is no exception, giving each player a small hand of cards at the start of each game. The use of these cards is something that lets you change the game, upending the core mechanics and letting you twist the hands of fate.
Think your fanatical Muhtasib is about to die due to all the Scorch guys around him? Drop “Front Towards Enemy” and suddenly the Scorch player is frantically hoping you roll a Stagger or higher to prevent an explosive end. Your Scorch Recce man stuck in the open? “This is Bat Country” lets you claw a touch more movement in the Finishing Phase. Your Assaulter shot entering a room by a Hongbin Merc? “Save the Last Bullet” lets you attempt to take that son of a bitch out before you go down.
You are only allowed three of these cards, and picking it as important as picking your team. None of the cards feel overpowered or useless – they are all minor tweaks rather than any game changers and only a few are raw “add +2 to a dice roll” – too many of that is when you know a designer is frantically trying to pad. It’s also a mechanic that can inspire some really great plays and memorable moments – exactly what you need in a skirmish game.
As I mentioned before, the units you select may be simple in profile but all feel different and have their place. Some of them (like the Machine Gunner or anyone with a fires asset) are limited to specific numbers within the force based on it’s total points, which is a neat bit of balancing without hugely overcomplicating things.
For Scorch, you have the Advisor, Assaulter, Automatic Rifleman and Recce. Assaulter are probably the “main” part of the force giving you a reliable shooter and a frag deploying machine. Recce are a slightly tweaked Assaulter, giving you a host of special rules and extra movement to make you perfect at kicking in doors. The Automatic Rifleman is the main killing power in the team, great at both Immediate Actions and dropping a handful of attacks every opportunity (thanks to the LAMG). Finally, the Advisor is a better Assaulter who also brings an area of effect explosive drone to the field.
For the Aayari guys, you have the Muhtasib and the Shurta, as well as the Hongbin Enabler and Mercs. The Muhtasib are your Assaulter equivalent, although cheaper and less skilled. They are however all wearing S-Vests – you want to stay away from these guys as that explosive packed vest isn’t just a reaction to a critical save fail, it’s an option to self-detonate in the Maneuver phase as well. Taking a Muhtasib also lets you take four Shurta and oh boy, these guys are terrible. No save rolls, a middling Hit Roll and honestly probably likely to shoot through their own team if they are in the way (yes, that’s a special rule). But, coming in at a quarter of the price of an Assaulter (a Muhtasib and a Shurta equals a single Assaulter), you can get more than enough numbers to overwhelm the Scorch guys. Alternatively, Hongbin Mercs give you a Lite version of the Automatic Rifleman who can also frag while the Enabler is the equal of any Scorch character while also giving you a pair of Loitering Munitions that simply drop a lump of metal directly onto a single enemy figure if you really need them dead (Automatic Riflemen and Advisors for the most part).
The limited numbers and lack of equipment options means it’s very easy to make a list for every game, without have to do a pile of mental maths or fill out tons of paperwork. I also like how each side only has four types of soldiers as it means you don’t need piles and piles of reference cards or a table to hold them all (looking at you Warhammer 40,000/Age of Sigmar). This also means that after a few games, you might find yourself remembering the Attack and Save Rolls (especially with Scorch where everyone but the Advisor has the same Attack Roll and they all have a standardised Save Roll). I may be jumping the gun, but if this game was to be expanded, I think it’s better to swap out ALL the cards for a side, rather than tacking on more and more – four is the right number.
Organising your Night Raids
So as you can probably tell, I like a lot in the core parts of this game. Where the game really shines though is in the scenario generation system and how these operations can be turned into a 3 or 5 mission night raid.
If you want to play a single mission, you will need to grab your tasking cards, your battle-space cards and your atmospherics. Taking one from each will determine your objectives, the layout of your AO and any large scale effects that might help/hinder your forces. The taskings are split into three types (Infil, Action On and Exfil) but these don’t determine a particular style of mission or anything specific – there is a good mix in each section so you won’t find yourself doing the same thing twice if you play multiple Infils. Additionally, not all of the missions has Scorch on the assault – something I was worried on my first read as going first in every mission might make it annoying for a Aayari player. The scenarios then detail Setup, anything required in your team makeup and how to win. I was very glad to see that not every mission is a simple “wipe out the bad guys” – from placing thermobaric charges to holding an exfil point, there is plenty of cool things to be doing.
Once you work out what you’re doing, the next step is setting up the play area. The battlespaces are all built from different arrangements of the same core elements (specific buildings, scattered vehicles, planters begging for you to leap over), meaning that it’s very easy to build up a board ready to play. I’ve got some opinions on these layouts (I’ll mention later) but we did notice that quite a few of them are very similar which might lead to some play space fatigue. However, each of them does have a nice mix of spaces to fight through, with plenty of thought put into keep plenty of cover in play.
Finally, the atmospherics determine just how much the fates hate you. One of them are pretty reasonable, with clear skies doing nothing. Too clear, with strong moonlight, and suddenly Fires cards are more deadly. Pull even worse and you might be in midst of a Sirocco (making fires less effective) or a Sandstorm (that basically reduces unskilled troops to staggering through the dust while better trained operators sneak past them) or, as we ended up in one of our playtest games, fighting through a BLOOD RAIN, a mix of the two that leads to some nasty close quarters fights.
With all this done, you pick your team up to the Capability value for the mission, pick your cards and begin to play. Each game will take around 30 minutes (we took about 50 in our first game as we were learning the rules) making it pretty ideal for playing over a lunch break. But what if you have more time?
Well, you can string them together into a full on Night Raid. Taking an evening to play through and comprising of either 3 or 5 games (1-2 Infil, 1 Action On and 1-2 Exfil), this is the main way to play the game. Now, wining operations will give you points but also potential very powerful Special Intervention Cards that sit in your hand for the rest of the Night Raid. Knowing you have the ability to control the Timeline (messing with the turn counter) or deny an enemy Fires card through jamming makes. At the same time, the atmospherics card you pick is going to last the whole time through, so you may need to plan around things like the Blood Rain.
Additionally, as each mission is a different engagement of a large force, there is no worries about injuries or the usual things that slow campaign games down. Lost a operation? Ah well, pick a new force, pick a new hand of cards and try again next operation. In our testing, it was funny watching my opposing player go from absolute elation at winning the first game to sudden concern once he worked out how many Mission Points I could snatch in the final games, despite having been bodied early on.
Much like with Necromunda and it’s campaigns, I think Night Raids is the way to play BPRE 28mm – all the joys of the main game but with the addition of playing the long game.
So overall, what do I think? Having managed to get a few games in, both playing through solo and against the Dastardly Regular Opponent, I managed to get my thoughts together.
Well first of all, lets say what this game isn’t. This game isn’t a replacement for Spectre or Sangin. While those games are multi-tools, providing access to a whole host of mission types and gameplay thanks to the piles of rules, Black Powder Red Earth 28mm is a really damn good screwdriver. It fits into the class of “Miniatures Boardgame” – it’s perhaps a step above playing on a fold out board with tile based movement but it definitely has the similar sensations. Between the small size of the arenas, a use of a pre-defined set of tiles for scenery and the low figure count, this would be right at home alongside the Dark Souls board game in your local hobby store.
That said, I think the game is fantastic. Razor focused on delivering close quarters and gripping firefights without being bogged down in minutiae, the fact you can play a game in a lunch break is pretty fantastic (and would have been perfect for when I was up in Edinburgh working). It’s easy to learn but still with plenty of depth. Even in our second turn, just after a Recce man breached and cleared a building, we were already getting excited about the possibility space.
In terms of downsides, as a miniatures gamer, I think the layouts are not the best. Overall they are very similar, to the point where after a while my Dastardly Regular opponent and I decide to just leave the arrangement in place rather than shift what felt like two buildings around. It might have been cool to see some layouts using less buildings but more low cover, shifting the style of play. If you’re wanting to play this with just the rulebook, I’d simply take the layouts in the book as guidelines and then arrange your own terrain into something that roughly equals the feel.
It’s also a game I’d be excited to see how it grows. With a powerful but simple core mechanic set, it would be pretty easy to add new units (perhaps local government forces) or even things like additional mechanics, adding things like stealth. Even after my first Night Raid, I was already thinking about how you might model other forces, always a good sign in a new system!
I strongly recommend having this game around. It’s ideal for a club night, something to break out if you’re missing a player for a bigger game or someone isn’t able to turn up. It’s also a great introduction into ultramoderns for people who maybe aren’t quite ready for something with the scale of Spectre, put much less of a mental load on your head if you just want to drop some tiny plastic bodies.
Ah, I see you’ve spotted the fact this article isn’t over yet. Lets talk about the bit of this game I’m much less enthusiastic about.
I have mentioned in the past that Black Powder Red Earth products are definitely boutique. With the expense of small production runs, some eyewatering shipping to the UK due to previous issues with past shipments going missing (and a guarantee that customs will get their blood money when they see the cost), all this adds up to explains why my copy of Hypernotes Ember is sitting without a hard copy of it’s Scorch counterpart. It’s also why I have greater understanding for all the guys in the US who complain about Spectre’s pricing and postage.
The good news for wargamers is that the basic rulebook is £25 in the UK, is on Amazon and is shipped by them (I even got mine next day). I think this is a fair price – there is a lot of work in the book and the system is definitely worth it (as this monster of an impressions piece should probably tell you). I feel like I’ve got plenty of value from the book already and as mentioned above, it’s a nice ruleset to have on the shelf ready to deploy.
At this point, I have to say that for the other bundles I’m working entirely off the images available on the BPRE 28mm site. I haven’t pushed the button on any of these so this is all working off information available from the BPRE 28mm webpage. As such, I’m no going to comment on things like material quality or whatever – it would all just be me talking out of my backside!
For $65, you can get a set of the Scorch Team figures. These are resin cast, multipart figures and from looking at them they are rather good casts of the Scorch team guys with a nice level of detail. The price works out at $6.50/£5+ each, dropping you well and truly into new model Spectre pricing (although with less broken gun barrel due to them being multipart).
If you don’t want to spend that much, it’s also worth mentioning that there are some other people already selling figures similar to this style (although not exactly due to the replacement of the Minimis in the Cold Harbor arsenal with the LAMG), especially if you have access to a 3d printer.
If you want to get the figures and the tokens, then you are looking at a jump up to $175. This is basically the “I want the rulebook now and I’m willing to wait for the rest of the game” or “I’m a $25 patron and got the book through that” bundle. In terms of tokens/cards, you are looking at a fair amount. As well as the cards in hand, there is a pile of tokens for Activation, grenades, objectives. And then there is the terrain – doors, building layouts, planters, air-conditioning units and parked cars all as 2D flat tiles.
Finally, to buy the whole bundle with the book AND figures AND tokens, you’re looking at a cool $200 USD. This is listed as “The Complete Target Package” except I see one tiny flaw with it – there doesn’t appear to be anything to be used to represent OPFOR. While I can perhaps excuse not including things like dice (they are relatively easy to find and frankly I’m getting sick of GW giving me more), not including anything to show for the Aayarians in a head to head game might cause a problem for someone picking up the box as a way to get into tabletop wargaming (which I think this game will attract from fans of the comic).
Now, it’s quite obvious why it’s this expensive. Black Powder Red Earth is proudly marked as manufactured in the USA, with none of the printing shipped out to China as is usually done by everyone else, from Kickstarter projects to even Games Workshop. And honestly, I can respect the team for sticking to their principles. It does come with the downside that this release is definitely among the more expensive on the market. And again another part of the boutique feel of the items that Echelon Software produces.
So for this reason, I’m left incredibly torn. I can full recommend picking up the rulebook for all the reasons I explain above. Go buy it, enjoy the sequence at the back and reading about Awbari and have the game ready to go for when you want to get the Ultramoderns on the table but don’t feel like all the rigmarole of preparing a Spectre or Sangin game. It’s fun, it’s quick and you’ll have a good time.
I’m less quick fire to recommend the larger bundles. To start with, I’d surprised you can’t just pick-up the cards by themselves – it seems like the type of purchase that would make sense for a miniature gamer just interested in the rules and with their own terrain.
I also have a bit of an issue with “the complete target package” when it’s missing half of the figures you need to play – Hongbin and Aayari are coming next year and there are no placeholders in the box to let you pick up and play. I have a feeling that the product as a whole may have been better served as a board game style release, especially through something like Kickstarter – provide the game as a box that’s good to go (complete with pushboard standees using the fantastic artwork you can see in this article as playing pieces) and then provide the miniatures, 3d terrain and any expansions as add-ons down the road or stretch goals. With a strong artstyle and a fantastic game, with the right word of mouth I could see this game doing pretty well. I did see some comments that a Kickstarter might be coming when the rest of the miniatures are ready, which would make sense, but doesn’t help someone wanting to get into it now.
This is going to be one that is very much a wait and see. I really hope that the game has the legs to stand on it’s own after the launch period and that Echelon keep it supported with the figures and maybe even gameplay additions (always gonna be extra taskings for Scorch to hit).
Anyway, I’ll see you guys in Awbari. Don’t forget to check those corners and keep an eye on the sky for any sign of lumps of Chinese metal flying towards you.
If you want to hear an alternative take on the game, the boys over at The Table’s Edge have done a special mini-episode on BPRE 28mm. It’s available directly from their Soundcloud or you can subscribe to them through the usual places – Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, etc