When it comes to the subject of “Print and Play” gaming, I’m definitely a fencesitter. As a gaming enthusiast PnP enables me to purchase more games within the constraints of my gaming budget, and it also allows more game designers to get their work out to the public (meaning, primarily, that creative games which “push the envelope”, and therefore might not otherwise have been gambled upon by mainstream game companies, actually see the light of day). Flipping the coin, though, I frequently have no idea what a game is like until I’ve actually purchased it, and some “designers” who shouldn’t be allowed within fifty miles of a gaming table make money from work of questionable merit.

From the end user standpoint, there’s also the “not so hidden cost” of PnP games, namely the paper and ink required to make a hardcopy of a game. My general rule of thumb is that if a set of RPG rules runs longer than 150 pages or so, I’m better off buying a print version (if one is available) rather than buying a downloadable PDF, since it’ll take one or two (depending on the number of illustrations) printer cartridges at $13 a pop to print the thing out. (And, while I’m thinking about it, here’s a public “thank you” coming straight from my wallet and my printer to Scott Casper for not going overboard on the number of illustrations in the PnP Hideouts & Hoodlums RPG rulebooks.)

I could devote an entire blog post to the relative merits and demerits of the whole “Print and Play” concept. But I need to get back to my original intent for this post: a review of a game series which combines the best and worst aspects of PnP, namely the Steel & Glory system by Avalon Games (not to be confused with the late, lamented The Avalon Hill Game Company of Baltimore which was a wargaming titan for more than four decades).

Avalon Games is a small game publisher which markets its extensive series of titles (over six hundred individual products are presently in their catalogue) as PnP publications through download vendors such as RPG Now. I’d previously seen listings for some of Avalon’s products and thought they looked interesting; I couldn’t find any reviews online (other than short little two-liners on RPG Now), so I gave their games a pass.

But I received an email from RPG Now this past Saturday announcing that Avalon Games was holding a special one day sale in which every single title in their catalogue could be purchased for a dollar apiece. Cheapskate that I am, I couldn’t let an opportunity like that slide by, so I dropped by for a look. I’d intended to purchase the Comic Book Heroes card game and its myriad expansions, but I was put off by the amount of color printing that would be required for the cards. While I was browsing, though, I came across a series of mini boardgames marketed under the collective “umbrella” title of Steel & Glory, and I immediately sat up and took notice.

I feel the need to mention at this point that I am a veteran of the “golden age of mini-games”, which spanned (roughly) the years from 1977 through 1985 (give or take a year). Steve Jackson Games got the ball rolling in the late 1970’s with a brilliant series of games which shipped in a small ziplock bag and consisted of a short rulebook on glossy paper, a board printed on cardstock (but which usually had a kind of “construction paper” feel to them), and a series of thin cardstock counters which you had to cut apart yourself. Toss in a couple of your own small dice and you had a complete game which would easily fit in the back pocket of your jeans and (best of all) didn’t break the bank: the initial run of these games cost just $2.95 apiece. The topics covered by these games were also highly unusual, quirky, and interesting: sci-fi tank combat, skirmishes between intelligent alien insects, prehistoric cavemen trying to bring down a mastodon or steal women from a hostile tribe. It was a “can’t miss” formula which was quickly adopted by all of the major game companies of the era. These mini-games were highly portable and fast playing, and during my high school and college years I used to see these games played all the time in homerooms, study halls, cafeterias, and libraries (Ogre and GEV were huge lunchtime favorites in high school). I still have a big cardboard box crammed full with dozens of these games, by Steve Jackson, Metagaming, SPI (producer of one of the all-time classic mini-games, the kaiju-inspired The Creature That Ate Sheboygan), and TSR.

So, obviously, I’m a huge fan of the mini-game format.

From what I’ve been able to discern, Steel & Glory began as a fantasy skirmish mini-game with the later addition of multiple supplements, each adding extra warbands to the mix. Some brainy mug at Avalon then realized that the core rules could easily be adapted to multiple genres, thus many additional games have followed the initial fantasy version of Steel & Glory. Naturally the Heroes Inc. series of comic book superhero games caught my eye, but as I did some more browsing I also discovered a smattering of pulp-oriented and martial arts games, plus a few supplemental rulebooks which let you add to the system. Seventeen bucks later (at the bargain basement price of a dollar a pop), I had a respectable little “virtual stack” of games with which to play around.

Although I read the rulebook to Heroes Inc. first, the game which attracted my attention was Men of Bronze, a cool little 1930’s pulp adventure game. After reading the rules to Men of Bronze and then looking at some of the other genre rulebooks, I realized that all of the rulebooks are identical except for some very slight cosmetic and terminology tweaks – thus it’s “learn one, play all”.

The learning curve for the S&G games is pretty minimal. Although the rulebooks weigh in at about twenty-five pages apiece, there are only about nine pages of actual “game mechanics”; the balance consists of the title page, the TOC, a few scenario ideas, and a couple of advertisements. To save on ink, I cut and pasted the actual rules content into a Word document and wound up with a slim 7.5 page black and white rulebook. It might be possible to learn this game in less than fifteen minutes if the rules were organized a bit better.

Taking Men of Bronze as an example, what do you get for your $5.99 investment? You receive the aformentioned twenty-five page rulebook, nine pages of full color character cards and tokens/pogs, a twenty-page character book, and eleven pages of map tiles which allow you to configure the gameboard in an infinite variety of ways (and the more tiles you print, the larger and more varied the mapboard you can create).

The rules of the S&G game series seem to have been heavily inspired by the Star Wars Collectible Miniatures Game, with a smattering of mechanics from the Heroclix CMG (in the section regarding the effect of different-sized characters on line of sight). In fact, the whole S&G experience feels and plays almost exactly like a CMG. Each character in the game is worth a set number of points; you start the game with x points with which to construct your team/force/warband. After the players pick their characters, they take the cards and tokens/pogs for them, setting the tokens up on the mapboard according to the scenario instructions. Move order is in order of the characters’ Speed values, which determines the numbered turn segment on which a character acts. “Name” characters tend to get multiple activations a turn, while common mooks usually only get to act once.

When a character activates, it can take two actions: move, attack, some “special” dictated by any extra abilities printed on their character cards, or a combination thereof. Many of the extra abilities incur a cost (called “Power” points in the superhero game or “Adrenal” points in the other games) to use them. Think “Force” powers and points in the Star Wars CMG and you’ll get the idea. Hand-to-hand and ranged attacks are simple to resolve: add the attacking character’s “Attack” value to the defender’s “Defend” value and you get the number you need to tie or beat on 2d6 to hit successfully. Damage inflicted is determined by subtracting that “To Hit” number from the dice total. It’s that simple; even the list of combat modifiers is pretty minimal.

The “specials” are the real meat of the game. Higher-costed characters not only have better “numbers” but better “specials” as well. In Men of Bronze, these specials run the gamut from guns or armor to weird powers and abilities.

As I mentioned, the overall effect of S&G is that of a collectible miniatures game, both in the rules (which play much like WotC’s Star Wars Miniatures CMG) and in the game mechanic of giving characters fixed point costs. When selecting your forces you can tailor your team a number of different ways, allowing you to make some interesting and crucial decisions before the game itself even begins. In a 50-point game, should you go for a couple of high-point “name” characters, a “name” character with a sidekick and a couple of minions, or a “swarm” team of nothing but nameless soldiers and henchmen? Each of these can be a valid strategic choice which in turn is influenced by your skill in handling the team tactically on the board during the actual game.

The Men of Bronze setting centers on battles fought by the Sky Patrol against the Masters of Terror during the 1930’s. The setting is deliberately derivative, drawing from 1930’s movie serials and pulp novels, 1940’s aviator comics, and present-day pastiches such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The Rocketeer. Two of the game’s characters are direct knockoffs of famous pulp and comic characters: “Doc Bronze”, the leader of the Sky Patrol, is lifted from Doc Savage, and “Sky Boy” is a direct cop of Airboy. This isn’t a criticism at all; these characters (and the others in the game, all of which are fairly stereotypical of the genre) will give players who have even just a passing familiarity with the source material a definite (perhaps even necessary) sense of familiarity. The game provides seven unique “name” characters and a generic “minion” character (of which multiples are allowed) for the Sky Patrol player, while the Masters of Terror player has a choice of four “name” characters and a generous selection of four different minions, including soldiers, giant robots, and mechanically-enhanced jungle gorillas.

The whole idea behind the S&G series is very cool; it’s a kind of CMG skirmish game for people who don’t want to (or can’t afford to) shell out the money for (arguably overpriced) collectible miniatures games. For less than the price of a CMG booster pack, you can buy a complete game, the size of which is limited only by the amount of components you want to print. Just as in CMGs, playing pieces are accompanied by a handy character card showing the stats and special powers/abilities, and you can print as many as you want. Need more Sky Patrol Troopers? You don’t have to buy more booster packs or purchase individual figures from some online vendor – just print off as many as you want.

And, while I’m thinking about it, I did a very small amount of printing for a working copy of Men of Bronze. The character cards in S&G games are really aesthetically pleasing but tend to be completely unnecessary, as the “specials” typically aren’t explained fully on the card – the explanations are in the Character Book. Unfortunately for me, the playing pieces tend to appear on the same page as the corresponding character card. So I cut and pasted the round character tokens into a graphics editor where I sized them to a uniform 1” diameter. I did a similar cut and paste for the “Trap” and “Poison” tokens, sizing them to three-quarters of an inch. When I was finished, I had a single 8.5” x 11” sheet of color tokens to print out. I then cut and pasted the character stats and corresponding “specials” from the character book onto individual sheets, omitting the pictures of the characters (illustrations which are on the tokens anyway). I also cut and pasted the core rules from rulebook into a Word document. I ended up printing sixteen character sheets and eight pages of rules in black and white on plain paper, plus the single page of color tokens on cardstock. (If I continue to play S&G regularly, I’ll invest in some inexpensive 1” wooden disks [available at craft stores for about a dime each] and glue the round character pieces to them to make the tokens more sturdy.)

But what about the map? Since I’d sized the character tokens to 1” diameter, I’m able to use the existing maps for both the Star Wars and D&D CMGs: the original Wizards of the Coast maps (plus my two sets of Star Wars Galaxy Tiles), the cardstock Paizo ones I have, plus a smattering of maps from other sources. I can also pull from my large collection of Heroclix maps; the squares are a bit bigger, but that’s certainly not a gamebreaker.

Another cool aspect to the S&G system is that the games are designed to be cross-compatible (though I’ve not yet tested this); that’s exactly the reason why I also purchased the first two games in the Department 13 series, a set which seems to draw on Men in Black and Hellboy for its inspiration. For me, the attraction of Department 13 was the inclusion of zombie Nazi soldiers; the pogs and character sheets for them alone were worth the extra dollar, just so I can use them in my Men of Bronze pulp games.

Another crucial (for me) S&G purchase was the advanced rulebook. While the extra rules certainly provide additional depth and interest to the game, the really important section of the book (in my opinion) deals with character creation. The set of metrics and guidelines allow you to add your own characters to the S&G system. Now stop and think about that for a minute. What if Wizards of the Coast published their in-house guidelines for creating characters in Star Wars Miniatures – the info on how the designers arrive at Attack, Defense, Damage, and Health stats, as well as Force powers and points? Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to devise your own characters for the game? I’d be breaking out the old West End Games Star Wars RPG books and be cranking out new character cards like a house afire.

Now let’s come back to this advanced rulebook for S&G. Avalon Games is selling us the proverbial “keys to the kingdom” here, allowing us to create our own characters for the game. Couple those guidelines with a program like Token Tool (which lets you drag and drop any graphic into the software to create a printable round token) and you can create an endless variety of characters and minions for games like Men of Bronze – it’s like having a CMG for which you can create literally anything and as many of them as you want. I’m already thinking of adding classic pulp characters like The Shadow and Margo Lane, The Avenger and Justice Inc., and The Spider, Golden Age comic characters like The Batman and The Blackhawks, as well as “retro” characters like Indiana Jones, Sky Captain, The Rocketeer, and Jake Cutter. That doesn’t even include separate genres (like westerns) which haven’t been covered yet in a S&G game; you could find online photos of Eastwood, van Cleef, and Wallach, pop them onto pogs using Token Tool, type up some character sheets, and you’re all set.

All right, so S&G is cool; so far so good. But you’ll recall that I said that this game combines the best and worst of PnP products. So what’s the downside?

The rules themselves are poorly organized and, in one case, seem to be badly playtested. The section on throwing objects and other characters is a complete fire drill, containing rules which are sometimes completely contradictory. When one character throws another, the rules in one instance state that the thrown character takes no damage from the initial attack and that the normal damage value calculation is used simply to see how many squares the character can be thrown. In the very next line, it says that the thrown character takes damage from both the initial attack and the impact (if he hits a wall, for example); this assertion is later repeated in an example of play. Elsewhere it says that the distance a character or object may be thrown is determined by rolling 1d6 and adding the Strength of the throwing character, instead of being determined by the damage of the initial attack as I mentioned above. Ultimately I’m going to have to either revise this section or pitch the whole “throwing a character” concept entirely, primarily because it provides a “free” way to do extra damage; the way my sons avidly search for exploitable rules “loopholes”, the whole game will likely devolve into nothing but a silly melee of flying bodies if the rules for throwing characters aren’t scrapped or revised.

The graphic accompanying the section on character facing is also counterintuitive. You would think that the three squares adjacent to the top of the character’s head (referring to its picture on the token) would be the character’s “front” facing (as it is in all other games using similarly-styled counters), but it’s the other way around – those squares constitute the rear facing. I’ve already houseruled this one to reverse it, putting it more in line with other games and thus less confusing.

But my single biggest gripe with all of the text components of S&G is the author’s and editor’s over-reliance on software spellchecking. Sure, spellcheck can tell you when something is spelled dead wrong. But it can’t make contextual corrections.

I’m sorry, but there’s not only a grammatical howler on every printed page of every S&G product, but one in dang near every paragraph. I’m not just talking about the myriad minor mistakes such as the frequent lack of an “s” to make a word plural. I’m talking about some fairly serious stuff here. The writer doesn’t only not know the difference between “than” and “then”, he reverses their usage. A German villain from the Department 13 game is named “Heir Schomer” (the German word for “Mister” is “Herr”, an heir is the person who gets your stuff when you die). When the rules talk about small throwable objects such as crates, the words is written as “creates”, including this example from one of the tile sets:

Or this one, from the very next page of the same map tile set, which made me cry aloud, “Oh, holy sweet mother of NO!”:

This header was on a page of cutout machinery and Star Trek-style computer consoles. A consul is a person, which is something entirely different.

In the the special rules for the dog Patches (from Men of Bronze), the dog is interchangably referred to as “Patches” and “Rex”. From the same page, there’s confusion resulting from the inclusion of Patches’ “special” which allows him to sniff out hidden characters. There’s a problem here: there are no game mechanics for hidden characters in Men of Bronze. I can only assume at this point that such a mechanic might be found in other S&G games (such as invisibility rules from the superhero or fantasy games), or that Patches’ ability would be useful in countering the “hide in the shadows” specials which user-created characters like The Batman or The Shadow might possess.

There are also a boatload of stylistic problems with the writing which result in some seriously overburdened text. Here’s an example:

“Time after time agents of Department 13 tried and failed to defeat Shomer and his
allies, but in the end he was trapped in Berlin’s as it fell to the red armies advances.

That’s a 2-for-1 deal right there. First, “Berlin’s” what? Has a word been omitted? Or is this a typographical error that should just read simply “Berlin” instead? And why not just “Agents of Department 13 repeatedly failed to defeat Shomer and his allies”, which is more concise and imparts the same information. The last phrase should read “Red Army’s advance” (the text’s “red armies advances” makes it sound like multiple armies were trying to force themselves upon some women).

Or this, from the same page:

“Once each generation there comes a mind of pure brilliance, one that can
understand the workings of the universe and unlock the mechanics of science and logic.
The twelfth century watched two such minds reach for the greater glory of science,
Einstein and Shomer. Where Einstein was sane and full of life, Shomer was mad and
consumed with the need to dominate all about him.”

Oh, boy. The passages begins with “Once each generation there comes a mind” (singular) but then goes on to discuss two geniuses. “Where Einstein was sane…” should read “While Einstein was sane…”. And, forgive me if I’m wrong, but aren’t we talking about two men from the twentieth century instead of the twelfth?

Now please understand, I don’t want to come off like a crotchety schoolmarm here. I’ve never encountered any rulebook which is entirely error-free. But the rules, character sheets, and other verbal components of S&G read grammatically like something a twelve year old kid put together over a couple of days at recess. It’s actually pretty painful to read in places, especially after you check the game’s credits and learn that S&G wasn’t a “one man” operation: there was a separate editor who also didn’t catch the huge cornucopia of gaffes.

This brings us full circle to where you came in. The Steel & Glory series of mini-games is positively brilliant: the idea that you can play, modify, and customize what is (in essence) a collectible miniature skirmish game (very similar in style and play to Star Wars Minis) is stone awesome. I’ve had just a small portion of the complete line for about forty-eight hours and I already think I’m in love. If S&G had been left to the mercies of an established “boxed, plastic component, available only in toy/hobby shop” game publisher, it might never have seen the light of day. The fact that an enthusiastic game designer using readily available software tools (as I strongly suspect that the map tiles were made using public domain graphics in any of the plethora of free mapmaking programs, and the tokens look to have been made using Token Tool) can get something this cool out to the public as a PnP effort is staggering to an old grognard like me who used to have to wait for a game to appear in a “brick and mortar” toy store before I could even see it, let alone buy it. And the fact that I bought these games for a measly buck apiece in Saturday’s special sale earns Avalon Games a huge “THANKS!” from me.

Are the S&G games ultimately worth $6 a pop? That depends on your budget, your willingness to print out pages of color components, or your willingness to do some extra work (as I did) to reformat the material so as to avoid printing unnecessary pages. In my opinion, the gameplay value itself is an absolute steal for $6. I wish I’d bought the sci-fi games and maybe one or two of the fantasy games for $1 when I’d had the chance on Saturday (just to see how the character and weapon stats compare to the other genres) and, if I was made of money, I’d love to have taken a look at the Battle Axe card/minis system (which seems to be another printable game with a “collectible game” inspiration). As it stands, I’m happy with my purchases and will absolutely have a blast playing, modifying, and adding to this game.

The other variable in the “Is an S&G game worth $6?” equation is the amateurish look of the rules. You’re also going to have to tweak the rule set if you wish to use existing maps from other games (there are no rules for doors or multiple elevation levels) or if you want to correct the botched mess the designer made of the rules for throwing things. But most of the gamers I know love to modify games; in fact, they really can’t stop themselves from diddling around with rules and components. You’ll just need to be sure the scissors remain in the desk drawer until you finish reading the rules and character books, lest you be tempted to put your own eyes out as a result of the horrific grammar and syntax errors.

Worth $6? Yes! That’s far less than the price of a CMG booster pack, and it’s doubly worth it if you’re willing to do some reformatting (as well as some “map cannibalizing” from your game collection) in order to save some time and money on printing the components. I also heartily recommend the Advanced Rules for the character generation guidelines and, optionally, the Scenario Builder just for the ideas it provides (“optionally” because the $6 price tag seems a bit steep for what the booklet contains).

If anyone from Avalon Games reads this, please please PLEASE hire someone with some writing experience to polish up your products before publication, as well as editing your blog posts and website. The header to your web page has a link to a game series called Infinite Futres (instead of Infinite Futures). Most of your blog posts start with the word “Well” (sounding conversational if it’s done occasionally, but just a crutch if it’s done habitually), and the posts themselves are in dire need of editing (In the latest blog post, we learned that Avalon had a big sale on “Saterday” [sic] and the post ends with the statement that “fan love a good deal” [sic]).

I know a certain professional writer, blogger, and Internet marketer who’d be interested in a part-time gig polishing up your prose, and all he’d want in exchange is some free games. You know, some items like the Steel & Glory stuff he doesn’t have already. And then he’d be happy to start accepting Battle Axe materials in exchange for some editing work…

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.