IMAT – TIE Pilot helmet and flight suit


I’ve wanted to go to a con in costume since I knew people, you know, did that.  UK Games Expo was that con and this is the story of that costume.  I went to UKGE to play in the X-Wing Miniatures Game regional championship and Yavin Open Tournament.  The former had more than 100 players and the latter nearly more than 400.  I’m also intending to bring the costume along to EMF and spend some time out in costume there, assuming it’s not heatstroke weather in an all-black jumpsuit and helmet…

So I built a TIE Fighter pilot costume.  Mostly this is uncomplicated – a boiler suit, a belt, some boots, some gloves – so the complex bits are the helmet and the chest armour, on which I’ll be focussing.

I wasn’t shooting for complete screen accuracy, more for something that looked about right, was functional, quick, and easy to put together, and wouldn’t fall apart in a couple of days’ wear.  I can try for perfect screen accuracy on future costumes.

raw materials
The raw materials

I built this on the base of a baseball batting helmet which I saw used for a rebel pilot helmet in this tutorial, and picked up a lot of the techniques by osmosis from watching this youtube channel.  The majority of the rest was made from EVA foam as I’ve seen used in a bunch of cosplay and prop-making tutorials, as well as some pipe lagging, foamcore board, duck tape, and a clip top box for the chest piece – which also served as storage for (almost) all the kit I needed to play the game on the day.

This was the first time I’ve done anything like this, so I had a few false starts and wasted most of a sheet of foam getting things wrong, but that’s part of the learning process and I’ve now got lots of scraps left over.  I started out by patterning the most difficult part of the helmet – the curved detailing on each side – by sticking masking tape to the helmet, drawing the piece on, then removing it and cutting darts in the sides to allow it to sit more or less flat.

Lesson number 1: I should have masked the whole helmet, and cut the shape to fit right into the middle, which would then have let me glue it down and cut away the excess rather than needing to fit it on after constructing the central ridge.  As it was, it worked, but was more awkward to do, as the processes weren’t happening in the most favourable order – but conversely, doing them in the order I did let me get more done more quickly, as I was able to work in an sequence that meant I could get started at home before moving to the Hackspace to heat form parts.

It’s also worth noting that the patterning process went through several revisions as I didn’t account for the extra thickness the foam would add – I could certainly do this better another time.

The central ridge was next – I started out trying to make this a couple of different ways, by gluing down flat pieces the whole length of the ridge, then small sections the right width, but all of this didn’t work as the hot glue wouldn’t hold well across the curvature of the helmet and kept popping off.  Version 3 was the one which worked – I glued a thin strip down the lengths of centre and then two taller strips with the bottoms cut at 45 degrees down the sides.  These went on a touch wonky, but that’s life.  Then glued a long flat strip down the top, which worked well and is now holding very firmly.  At some point in here I cut the brim off the helmet and trimmed down the end of the ridge with a hand saw and added some detailing.

Lesson number 2: don’t try to hot glue onto smooth, non-porous curved surfaces, especially without scoring them first, heat forming the parts to be glued, or keeping them very thin and flexible.  Ideally all three.  Well, actually ideally I probably would have been using a contact cement rather than hot glue, but you’ve got to work with what you have.

Next was the mask.  Weirdly this was actually the easiest part to prototype – I taped a piece of paper to the inside of the helmet and drew the mask shapes on.  Then cut them out.  Remarkably, all of them fit first time, and I was able to work out where the bends and details needed to go from looking at the screen reference which is copious and detailed, and masking tape together the first prototype. (PIC OF PROTOTYPE)  I then heat formed the parts to shape and glued them together at the hackspace.  I experimented with a technique I’ve not seen used before to help here – I cut some loose tenons out of plastic packaging and used them to hold the joints in the right orientation whilst the glue set.  This didn’t work *at all* because the holt glue just melted the plastic.  I might try it another time with metal pins or wooden skewers, but I didn’t have any to hand, and some experimenting led me to think that it would deform the shape of the piece – not to mention that in practice, the piece worked out fine without the need for additional support.  I also found it helpful to thin down the foam on the back of tight bends like the one down the centre of the face plate by carving a wedge out of the back of the foam in the relevant place – a technique which I’ve since found on other foam-armour-making youtube channels and tutorials.

initial build
The mask after the initial day’s prototyping.

The eye lenses were made with pop bottle plastic held into rebates in the eye pieces, then coloured using a permanent marker on the back, and glued in with epoxy.  It’s very difficult to see out, but that’s manageable.  If I could have found some sunglasses to fit for cheap I would perhaps have used those for better lenses, but I doubt they would have had the right shape, which the pop bottle plastic was perfect for.

The rest of the curved side details were made up from pipe lagging.  I had some major issues here as one of the hot glue guns I used was WAY too hot for the lagging which immediately melted.  I tried it with my colder gun at home which worked, but still needed to be used only shortly after being switched on.  Waiting too long led to melting again, and I was running perilously low on the right size of lagging (and time to go and buy more) by that stage!

only finishing to go
The mask after completion of the construction – ready for finishing.

The chest armour was quite simple – a single layer of eva foam for each side, cut and heat formed then sealed and painted as below, with simple straps.  I didn’t bother with any of the greeblies on the straps, for time reasons.  The straps were originally going to be clip-buckle luggage straps, but these didn’t arrive in time so I bodged something up at the last minute out of gaffer tape and velcro which actually worked impressively well to the point that I’m not going to be replacing the straps now that the intended ones have arrived, and will instead save them for the next project.  I didn’t take any photos of these unfortunately, but basically I made them by sticking the gaffer tape to itself, sticky side in, then using that and some sticky backed velcro as the basis for the straps, which held very well and looked about right.

I also did some minor work on the belt buckle, which had a recessed Dunlop logo that I filled, sanded, and painted to match the rest of the buckle, but again, didn’t photograph that stage.

The chest box was the other complex piece.  The base of it was a clip top box from Wickes which I spray-painted the top of black – it was clear to begin with.  I should have primed it first, and a lot of the paint flaked off before the end, as did one of the buttons.  The details were made as follows: The square buttons are foamcore, painted with markers/spraypaint and sealed with gloss varnish.  The white lines are printer paper, held down by saturating it with PVA/water mix.  The rocker switches are eva foam with a wedge cut out from the bottom side, sealed and painted as below.  The cylinder is more pipe lagging, covered in black gaffer tape, as are the sockets for the breathing tubes, which are themselves electrical conduit from Screwfix, heat formed to rough shape at the hackspace and just press fit into their places, so they don’t stress the parts too much and it’s easy to disassemble.  The cogwheels on the sides I 3D printed at the hackspace, but I had backups made from pipe lagging just in case.  They would have looked fine at a distance.  The whole thing is held on to the armour with velcro, as it needs to come off to get the stuff out for play.  The cylinder stays on the armour but is also held on with velcro so it can be removed for easier transportation.

3D printing the cogwheel greeblies

13350357_1706573386260697_4523782452409229896_o 13403995_1706573382927364_1178849878762467230_o chest box attachmentThe detail of the chest box and how it contained my gaming gear and attaches to the armour.

And the final shot before finishing, including the heat-formed breathing tubes.

Finishing and painting:

This is a huge process; the EVA foam and particularly the pipe lagging cannot be spray painted until they have been sealed.  The propellant in the paint eats the foam of the lagging, and doesn’t cover well or provide a good finished surface on the EVA, which is quite porous, though not actually dissolved by spray propellant the way some foams are.  So the process is thus:

0: (Optionally) go over all the surfaces with the heat gun.  This smooths them slightly and seals them a little so the glue doesn’t absorb quite as much.  But be careful going over surfaces you’ve already hot-glued, as the heat gun is more than hot enough to melt the glue.  Also take care to keep the gun moving, it’s more than hot enough to scorch the surface if you stay in one place too long.  Which I did in a couple of places.  Blaster burns!

1: Smooth any rough edges and fill/radius the internal corners using latex mastic/caulk.  I used latex because of its flexibility though it’s a little harder to paint, but epoxy putty or even polyfilla would do at a pinch.  Ideally a sandable filler is good, but sandable, flexible and quick-setting is very difficult to get in a single filler.  I also coated the pipe lagging bits with two or three layers of mastic, before the PVA coat, both to seal and smooth them.  It might be tough to get the curved surfaces which had to have darts cut in them smooth, but don’t worry, it’ll look fine when painted.  If you have time and have good patterning skills, it’s more than possible to get them perfect, but I had neither!

2: Coat with as many layers as you have time for of PVA glue mixed 50:50ish with water.  5 layers minimum, preferably more, I think I was up to nearly 10 by the end.  The more layers, the better, too, it was noticeable to me that the surface finish on the helmet was better than on the chest armour, which received about half the number of PVA coats.  Drying with a hairdryer can help, but don’t use the heat gun, you might melt your joints, and that would be bad right now.  I understand that you can also use Plasti-Dip or latex for this stage, with which I have yet to experiment.

The helmet after sealing with mastic and PVA.

3: Spray paint.  I primed grey then used gloss black for the majority, including giving the whole helmet a once over to cover any of the marks and layout lines.  I used gloss white for the white rocker switch, and gray primer for the grey switches and buttons; these just happened to be what I had on hand, then gloss varnish over the whole caboodle.  Make sure you mask any areas of exposed foam, for instance the inside of the helmet and the inside of the tubes.  I should, as noted, have primed the box lid first though, the black paint peeled very easily.  And the foamcore buttons got eroded by the propellant/solvent from the varnish, but that’s not a huge issue.

The helmet after priming – please ignore the expanding chaos of my workspace!

The whole thing was done… ooh, hours before I had to leave for the expo, as the straps for buckling the armour hadn’t arrived in time so I completed the makeshift straps the day before leaving.

The finished product:

The photos with green-screen background are the photos taken for the cosplay competition by Thanet Cosplay, used with their kind permission.

13350534_1706573249594044_3282413408630284085_o 13346244_1706573246260711_1704801998831445427_o

painted - front 13340229_1706573329594036_8790161538539721659_o

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I didn’t produce detailed plans for this, and what plans I did produce were very specific to the helmet I bought, but what the hey, I traced around them before I glued it all together.  There’s a rule in the photos for scale, which are available on request.  Please comment or post on the hackspace boards if you’d like to get access to them.

During and after the con:

It went down a storm with my opponents at the tournament, and with the con in general.  I entered the cosplay competition, coming in the top 10 in a very strong field with which I was extremely pleased.  It wasn’t actually too hot to wear, because it was easy to remove the bulk of the hot parts and take the top half of the boiler suit off when necessary to cool down.  Te worst part of wearing it was the blister from the boots which I hadn’t worn in a while.

There were some casualties as a result of the con.  Quite a lot of the paint, both gears and one of the buttons on the chest box popped/flaked off – 5 minute epoxy glue did an OK job but was never going to be amazing at holding these things down – and the helmet got a bit bashed and dinged in places, but mostly these bashes could be covered up with permanent marker.  Beyond that, the costume actually stayed basically undamaged.

The overall cost was about £150, but much of that was in the big parts – the gloves, the original helmet, the boiler suit which between them accounted for around half the cost of the costume, and the straps, plus the glue gun which I bought as we didn’t have one at home.  Many of these parts can be re-used or will be useful in other contexts, and I ended up with a lot of scraps of more or less usable sizes, and a full sheet each of EVA and foamcore left over.  The only pieces that were used as bought were the gloves, the motorcycle balaclava that went under the helmet and I ended up not bothering to wear after all, and the boots.  Even the boiler suit received some minor alteration – I added a button and buttonhole to the point of the collar so I could pull it up around my neck.

Minor issues: the helmet was a bit the wrong shape; it would have been better if it had descended a little further down the back of my neck.  I could have fixed it with some more foam, but I didn’t really feel inclined to add more enclosure to something that’s already hot and poorly vented, and it would have made it a lot harder to get on.  The faceplate was a little long.  This is just a drafting issue I think, I could have shortened it by nearly an centimetre further in total and made it look better, and that’s having shortened it a centimetre or more from the original plans.  It was at least partly related to having made the eye piece a touch too large, but I’m glad I did that – any smaller and it would have been almost impossible to see out.  Finally, I should have taken way more photos, but time was short, and this is the first time I’ve tried to fully document a project like this.  It’s surprisingly hard to remember to take photos when you get into the flow of making things.

But really, this went about as smoothly as I could have hoped, doubly so for a first attempt at doing a project like this.  In particular, I’m amazed at the solidity of the construction of the helmet – youtube viewing had led me to believe it would be flimsy and deform easily but it’s remarkably rigid, possibly because of the base helmet being a lot stronger and more rigid than the all-foam constructions I’ve taken inspiration from.

10/10 would build again.  Hopefully with more time next time though!

I’m already planning next year’s costume!

New year, new start

I’ve been quieter than I’d like for the past couple of months.  There are a range of reasons, not least typical winter blues, but also something of a slowing of games and gaming generally over winter, with one notable exception.  I’ve also not been doing much painting, because it’s dark, and not much woodwork, because it’s cold, and not generally having a lot of free time because of a variety of evening commitments.

So, that exception, then.  It’s X-Wing, and it’s bitten me pretty hard at the moment.  I’ve gotten pretty heavily into it, and went to my first tournament this weekend.  I acquitted myself better than I expected but worse than I hoped, but I’m still pretty pleased with my performance getting 3 losses (two with some MoV in my favour) and one win, plus a bye in the last round which I spent playing a friendly against the TO.

I’m not 100% happy with my list as it stands, but importantly, I have practiced with it a lot, it’s reasonably fun to fly, and with only two ships it’s competitive whilst not being too draining in terms of brain or time.  And one way or another, whatever happens, it’s quick.

But I digress.  For the new year then, I have only two really firm resolutions:

  • Do more cool things
  • Be nicer to myself

I’m keeping it simple this year, so as not to set unrealistic goals.  I have a range of ideas for cool things which I’m working on at a variety of rates, and being nice to myself is varying from exercise, to baking, to making, to eating out and going to the theatre, to treating my wife to a nice birthday present, to occasional job-hunting when I can work up the give-a-shit.

My first cool thing of the year was this.  Well, technically it was last year, but I’m not gonna quibble.dec 15 2It’s a dazzle camouflage Lambda class shuttle from x-wing, mostly as a test of concept for doing the same thing to a bigger, harder-to-paint Decimator once I can figure out how to mask it without messing it up.  I’m pleased with the overall effect, and the engine glow in particular looks nice.  I’m looking forward to having a game to play where I can paint the minis and actually have them see the table often, which has been an issue with painting minis generally.  I think this is also going to set my overall scheme (at least for Imperials) which will be Stormtrooper colours – pure, bright white and stark dark grey/black.  It’s a scheme that looks really good on my Phantom, though I don’t have pics of that yet.  Not sure about my Rebs and Scum yet, but I’m not really planning on getting vast amounts of Rebels yet anyway.  Scum are more my jam.

So, I really enjoy X-Wing.  I’m going to write up a full blogpost later on the game, because I think it’s worth reviewing.  I’m pumped to get into a reasonably deterministic, high-strategy game with a strong community which shows little or no sign of stopping releases any time soon, unlike 4e which was already somewhat in decline when I started, and never really satisfied my competitive streak.

There’s probably more to say about this past month or two but I’m going to leave it here for now.

29 November: This Week In…

RPGs: more Phandelver, more 5e being mediocre and uninteresting. Meeeeeeh.

Board games: little happened other than a game of X Wing, which prompted me to buy the core set and probably to spend a loooot of money over the next few months/years on X-Wing.

TV: this season of Who finally managed to hit one out of the park, at long last; Heaven Sent was awesome, at least until the last 5 minutes.  Proper spooky Who in the vein of Blink.

Books: finished The Phoneix Code by Catherine Asaro, which was good.

Not much more to report.

14 November – This Week In…

RPGs: continued with Lost Mine of Phandelver.  5e continues to precisely meet my expectations, which are that it will be a mediocre system that doesn’t actually help to tell interesting stories, but that it will be enjoyable enough to finish the mod.  I won’t go back to it, though; I could stand to cut something out of my rather busy hobby life anyway.

Board games: tried out Fury of Dracula, as Dracula, which I enjoyed a lot, though I found it very difficult.  The starter game advises removing most of Dracula’s powers, but leaves the Hunters at more-or-less full strength, which made it really quite tough to play the game effectively.  Plus I didn’t really get a couple of the mechanics properly.  I’m looking forward to playing it again though.

TV: Doctor Who continues to be mostly meh as hell this season.  It’s just… not lived up to its potential at ALL with Peter Capaldi.  I’d’ve liked to see it go to much darker places, to really use his acting chops more, and it’s just not got there for me.

Books: finished Starfarers by Vonda N McIntyre.  Definitely an enjoyable book, a neat combination of tense politics and fun space travel, plus interesting characters and relationships.  Really nothing to fault it on, and I’ll be picking up the rest of the series if I can.

Making: the Ada Lovelace Hackathon took place at OxHack today.  I wasn’t up to much making, but I facilitated where I could, helped out with finishing the 3d printed difference engine carry, and mostly constructed a paper automaton, and a balsa wood ornithopter, though I actually completed neither project.  A number of others did, though, which was gratifying.  Plus, we got out second hand Roland CNC mill up and running, which I’m really looking forward to trying out.  A good day overall.

4 November 2015 – This week in…

OK, so it’s more like this fortnight in, so sue me.

RPGs: The Lost Mine of Phandelver 5e starter pack campaign.  So far, so mediocre.  The combat is quick, but very, very dull.  The intention of the mod seems to be that combat should be avoided, and out of combat stuff done instead, but thus far we have been ambushed no less than 4 times, including once when we successfully negotiated a settlement beforehand.  And even when we do try to do stuff out of combat, there’s no avoiding the fact that a: the majority of character resources are combat-based, and b: out of combat stuff is dull as piss, there’s nothing new or different to any prior edition here.  It’s still the same old high-variance d20 roll under.  I doubt I’ll carry on much longer, but I’ll give it at least one more week.  And the less said about the Moon Druid the better…

It’s not that I’m not enjoying it.  I am.  But the system isn’t helping in any particular way; there’s not enough optimisation and tactical nuance to the combat to satisfy my tactical brain, and there’s almost nothing to really help with the non-combat, so… what is there?

Before that, also played a round of Fiasco (White Hole) which was highly entertaining, and really shows up the flaws in D&D generally, especially with prewritten mods.  There was a lot more invention in that one evening than there has been in three sessions of Phandelver so far, and a lot more enjoyment as well.

I really need to learn some more systems.  And we as a group need to get used to more group-driven storymaking.

Board games: Codenames rocks, it was great fun, and crucially, my wife enjoyed it, which is a rare and precious thing!  We played with 3 and 4, and whilst it worked with 3, it was definitely better with 4, and I can see it improving still further with more.  Train of Thought was OK.  Between Two Cities also arrived, albeit in French, and we played a quick 3p game, but I suspect it’s at its worst with low player counts.  It was nonetheless interesting and tactical and quick.  And Jamey was outstandingly quick in resolving the accidental Frenchness.  Also played Pharoah’s Favour again.  Plus a few other games that have long since slipped my mind.

Finally, am growing rapidly more obsessed with X-Wing having finally been able to try it out once, and been list-building on my phone ever since.  I’ve really enjoyed it thus far, it’s good a good balance of skill and luck, although I have to say I’m really not much of a fan of dice-based combat resolution.  But it does have a decent amount of dice manipulation, and there’s a lot of strategy and tactics in both manoeuvring and list-building.  Good game, but very expensive in the long run.  Still not sure if I’m going to invest.

Making: I put together a quick drawstring bag for the Between Two Cities bits using my wife’s sewing machine which went very well and quickly.  Also did some chocolate covered shortbread for office cake rota which went OK but I suck at piping.  Need to do some more making, lots of backburnered projects that haven’t seen the light of day in months, and EMF 2016 is fast approaching…

Hackspace move

So, this is a big one for me; OxHack, my local hackspace, has finally, finally moved to its new premises.  We’re working in partnership with Science Oxford; they get a functional prototyping service and a lot of expertise, we get a shiny new space and plenty of nice tools.  The nice tools will be ordered soon, once the air handling is in place.

So, there’s a lot more still to do, sure.  And I’m looking forward to doing it.  But the important part is that a HUGE weight is off everyone now; the move has happened.  We’re in, and now we can start building a relationship with the folks at SO, and start working with them to do more cool things.

I’m looking forward to restarting the Dalek project, especially as the Dr Who anniversary is coming up again shortly, and I really want to get  it ready for EMF next year.  I’m looking forward to picking out the woodshop tools and finally getting started in learning the practical knowledge I want to go with all the theory I’ve been immersing myself in in my free time recently.

I’m really looking forward to the A0 laser cutter.  I need to spend some time designing the furniture I want to make with it, and working out where to source the plywood.

Overall, it’s a time of fairly major change for us.  We have a bigger, brighter future ahead of us, and I want to know where it can take me.  It’s going to be quite a ride.

It’s already been quite a ride, for that matter.  I’ve done a decent chunk of work to get where we are today, and I’m well aware that there are others who’ve done far, far more.  We’re still in progress on any number of minor things, including the logo competition which I’ve spent a lot of time on, and come out with some ideas I’m really pretty pleased with both alone and in collaboration with fellow hackers.

I need to spend more time on making.  I’ve gotten out of the habit since the Summer when I put our wedding clock together.  But I’ll get back into it soon.  I hope.


paperbackPaperback is a neat little game based heavily on Dominion, so of course, I like it.  But, oddly, I like it for rather different reasons than I do Dominion; I like it in large part because it’s an entry-level game.  I can play it with friends who I normally wouldn’t play board games, in the hope that that might change.  Like Ticket to Ride before it, it’s an excellent gateway game.  People can play it who are used to playing Scrabble on Facebook, and they can enjoy it for the word-game aspects, whilst I enjoy the deckbuilding aspects, and hopefully, they learn a bit about them as well.  Plus, I actually quite like word games anyway.

So, the meat of the thing:

Size and price. The game is small enough to be chucked in a backpack and brought out at need, though it’s a little large for that compared with say, Hanabi or Love Letter.  It takes a bit more room to play, but that’s not usually a problem for me.  It was also cheap enough to be an impulse purchase, and one I was glad I made.

Speed.  It’s a word game, so it could go a bit slow if people aren’t creative/vocabulacious, or the luck of the draw happens to be against you, but mostly it’s a lot quicker than, say, Scrabble.

Quality.  I got both the first Kickstarter printing (then donated it to the Hackspace), and the later retail printing, and aside from some cosmetic damage to the box on the first, and a couple of errata being needed on it too, they were both excellent.  Solid box construction, nice, weighty cards, some nice cubey cubes, well-printed and well-written rules and, well, some space for expansions, I guess.  There’s not a whole lot to the game, but what there is, is good.

Balance.  It feels like a game that’s been well playtested and is mostly well balanced, though there are some issues in places.  The kickstarter bonus Common tiles feel a bit off, in particular the space bar one, to the point where I’ve stopped using it, because it just makes the person who gets it SO much better.  And the (kickstarter bonus) special power tiles are similarly a bit off-balance.  So I guess the lesson here is that kickstarter bonus stuff in a game like this is often less carefully playtested and less well-balanced.  And that’s borne out in a lot of games.  Meh, it plays well just fine without the bonuses.

Errata.  The errata were only minor, but they were kind of irritating nonetheless.

That about covers it really.  A short, sweet review for a short, good game.  It’s of less value for my gaming group, we don’t play it much and tend to go for crunchier mechanical stuff over word games, so in that context not more than a 6 or 7, but it gets 9 out of 10 for me personally, as a gateway game my wife is willing to play!

11 October: This week in…

Books: I finished the biography of Alexander Graham Bell which I’ve been reading.  It was long, a bit of a measured pace, and deeply inspiring.  Bell is far from the one-trick pony history seems to make him out to be – the telephone was among the earliest and is certainly the best known of his inventions, but he pioneered thought and invention in so many other areas from flight to tetrahedral frame construction, from the precursors of fibre optic technology to among the earliest thought on climate change and non-renewable resources.  The biography was also very well-written, and a highly enjoyable read, and I’d probably pick up something else by that author again.

I also read my first Pratchett since his death; it really affected me, and I’m going to write a longer post on it at some point soon.

Board games: Played Roll for the Galaxy twice and Navegador once.  I continue to not quite GET Navegador; I just couldn’t get my head round the trading mechanics in it, so I did a race to the finish on exploration tokens.  I didn’t do BADLY, but I came 3rd of 3.  It’s a game I don’t mind, but I don’t think I’ve played it enough to grok it, and I don’t think I’m inclined to either.  Roll ftG I really like; it takes the fun tableau building elements of Race, and removes the awkwardness of handling and assessing massive hands of cards and shuffling massive decks.  I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to expansions.

I’m also pumped for two Stonemaier games which will be going through major developments soon – Between Two Cities should be delivered before the end of the month, and Scythe goes into kickstarter next week, and will be a day 1 back for me.

3 October 2015 – This Week In…

RPGs: Descent counts right? Right?  Anyway, finished Act 1 of D2e, which is more than we’ve previously got to, and with the same set of characters too.  However, I’m mildly regretting choosing the Spiritspeaker Healer, it feel a bit weaker than even the other base set option.  Also, having finished the last encounter of the last quest at about 2130, we thought we could do the interlude – how long can an interlude be?

Four fucking hours later.  It was great fun, but it was long and sloggy.  Longer than a single quest.  Arg.  Still looking forward to act 2.

Board Games: Played Caverna again for the first time in a while.  It’s still enjoyable.  I continue my unblemished record of never coming in better than second.

Making: gearing up to redesign my version of the OxHack logo.  Also made another Dobos Torte for my sister and her husband to celebrate the birth of my nephew, which went well.

Books: continuing to enjoy the biography of Alexander Graham Bell.  Fascinating man, fascinating book, but I’m not finding anywhere near as much time as I’d like to actually READ it.

Firefly: the game

fireflyI found Firefly spectacularly disappointing.  It’s a game which epitomises the idea that complexity and depth are definitely not the same thing.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy playing it – I did.  In a similar way to the way I enjoy eating a bag of crisps or a giant chocolate dessert – the taste is quite nice, but halfway through I start feeling a little gross, and afterwards I realise that what I just did was actively bad for my health…

So, the good bits:

Component quality.  The components in Firefly are pretty solid; the minis, the cards, the cash, the dice, and the board are all well-turned out and agreeably presented.  The chits for fuel/passengers/parts are a bit wanting though.  And you can tell that a lot of work has gone into the art and the graphic design, it has a lot of great little details to notice, more if you happen to read (I think it’s) Mandarin.

Theme.  You definitely can’t fault it (much) for theme.  It ticks all of the Firefly boxes well, for the most part, and includes all of the in-jokes from the ‘verse that a dedicated fan could wish for.

Play time.  It’s at least short enough to play in an evening, or at least, it has been on the occasions we’ve tried it (and I’ve heard criticism that it can really drag, which given the randomness of it doesn’t surprise me).  But I couldn’t help but feel that just… watching the show… would have been a better way to spend the time.

Aaaand the bad:

Endless, unplannable, mostly uncontrollable randomness.  Everything in this game is drawn from one of no fewer than THIRTEEN random decks (though you can choose from visible discards when shopping for goods/crew or missions, they’re usually discards for a reason; very rarely will anything worth having end up in discards for long) or rolled for with random dice, or both.  It makes the whole game feel extremely arbitrary to me – which is fine if what you want to do is shoot the shit in a Firefly-themed pseudo-RPG for an hour or two and not care how well you actually do.  But when you want to… win… it becomes next to impossible to actively do anything to improve your chances other than trust to luck.  You can’t improve your likelihood of drawing the right cards (unless, as noted, you are lucky enough to get something good in discards), you can’t improve your likelihood of arbitrarily bypassing misbehaves or missions with keywords except by randomly accumulating more of them and hoping for the right draws.  Worse, on many of the win conditions, if someone gets lucky and gets ahead it’s functionally impossible to claw them back unless they happen to randomly lose (mostly by drawing and/or rolling badly, though I gather one of the expansions does go some way to fix this… by adding PvP which is something I dislike). It also has a major mechanical issue in that not being able to repeat the same action twice in a turn means you can easily find yourself in the annoying position of having to waste your second action – in a game where you might only get single digit numbers of turns and only double the number of actions – because, of course, of randomly failing a thing (usually a misbehave, sometimes a travel or shopping attempt leading to the wrong thing) which is super-painful because it’s half your entire turn you can’t do anything with.  It feels really anticlimactic to just… try, and fail, with no control and no recourse.  It feels especially irritating to botch a mission.  Doubly so when you flew halfway across the system to pick up the mission, then flew most of the way back to attempt it.  Then failed irretrievably in a manner over which you had no control.

As noted above, this is a prime example of the adage that complexity isn’t the same as depth.  There are, as noted, no fewer than thirteen decks of random, unique cards, which you more-or-less randomly might need to access, and might be able to access depending on how some other cards randomly screw or help you when travelling or attempting to do jobs or shopping.  Some of these decks randomly interact, so a bit of luck getting a keyword out of one of them will give you a free pass on one card in another, but you have no way of easily controlling access to that free pass, nor of drawing the specific, unique cards it works on.  So as a result, it’s a very complex game; most components are unique, things interact in a lot of fiddly, unpredictable ways.  But because they’re unpredictable and random, there’s no way to plan for them or optimise them unless luck is in your favour, so it feels shallow, like a complicated game of snakes and ladders with better theme.  There’s nothing for the engine-optimiser in me to enjoy, at all.  It’s nice when a combo comes together, but not satisfying in the same way it is in Dominion or Dungeon Lords or Caverna, because you’re not in control of whether it works, and you haven’t taken positive actions to make it work.

Oddly, I’m going to put theme in here as well.  The theme is good and the cards are well-designed and have nice quotations from the show and a LOT of well-thought-out little details in their artwork, but there are a lot of thematic issues for such a thematic game: It’s weird that all the ships are Fireflies, despite Serenity being the only Firefly that actually appears in the show.  Albeit it’s implied in the show and stated in the expanded ‘verse that they’re fairly common ships, I’d really expect to see some other models on show, and they might add a little to the tactical elements of the game if you could choose between a fast light ship with little room, and a large slow ship with a tonne of space, for instance.  It’s weird that half the captains featured… weren’t captains, and quite a lot of the characters and items don’t really have any business being put into spaceships, let alone spaceships doing mercenary work and/or trading and/or crime (a lot of the items and crew are people/belong specifically to people who were firmly planet-bound in the show).  And things like Jayne’s hat and Kaylee’s dress showing up are completely meaningless to the wider ‘verse, though they’re instantly recognisable to fans, and add to the slightly… desperate feel of the theme; the writers seem required to include every single little thing from the show in the game, rather than designing a strong game that happens to be set in the ‘verse.  And it’s very weird that at least two of the captains (neither of whom were ship captains in the show) were dead before the end of the first (and of course, only) season, and never went into space that we knew of except as passengers.  It’s weird how easy it is to steal other captains’ crew when they’re disgruntled, despite the fact that family, and trust, and not screwing over your crew at a moment’s notice were core themes in the show.  It’s weird that you CAN freely trade crew during burn movement in empty space when you’re going in opposite directions (if I work, burn, then burn, work on two subsequent turns, and someone else does the same in the opposite direction, we can trade crew and things, despite us travelling at full pelt in opposite directions.  Accelerating and decelerating are THE most expensive things to do in space…  And I know, I’m very much of the opinion that games which ignore realism in favour of mechanics should be lauded, but… the freeness with which disgruntled crew can be bought is just another point where the randomness of failure within the game is problematic, because disgruntling is easy, re-gruntling is hard (and usually takes place in a different location), and losing the crew you’ve put a tonne of work into gaining is both easy and almost impossible to avoid if you’re unlucky enough to get them grumpy, so in this case this is managing to be both thematically AND mechanically bad!  So the theme, whilst it’s strong, feels tacked-on and ill-thought-out in places.  And at the same time, the theme is almost nonexistent in most of the missions – they’re frequently ‘got to $planet and misbehave to win’ regardless of what the flavour of the mission actually is.  Which often leads to the misbehaving being entirely irrelevant to the purported theme of the mission (because misbehaving, of course, involves doing a random thing drawn from a random deck, then rolling random dice to see how well you do), so you might find yourself trying to deliver a VIP to a planet and… getting into a bar fight.  Or having to break into a building.  And having a sniper rifle-wielding crewman make it easier.  Or a case of explosives.  Or a fancy hat.

Win conditions.  I found it really off-putting when halfway through my first play of the game having mostly enjoyed meandering around the board trading and doing merc work and missions and misadventures a fair amount, I realised that I was irretrievably in second place, and unless the person in the lead got unlucky, I had no way to catch up.  I really didn’t like the feeling that the game was punishing me for enjoying it and not really paying attention to the entirely arbitrary win condition – though, on the other hand, I had been paying at least some attention to the condition, and working as fast as I could to fulfil it whilst making sure I had a decent chance at success if I did, but I was still at least a turn behind the winner.  It felt a lot like it needed multiple win conditions, or a single generic endpoint condition (maybe that might be ‘someone fulfils the win condition’) with ‘most money/missions/points/rep/some combination of the above’ then deciding the victor afterwards.  It felt like despite having been fairly successful in the end at space trading and mercenarying, I still hadn’t actually succeeded at the game, which was disappointing, and the people who came in third and fourth were still further behind.

Basically, the question I found myself quickly asking after playing it, was ‘if it wasn’t for this being Firefly, if it was just a generic space or even high seas trading/piracy game… would I have actually enjoyed it?’.  The answer I quickly came to was ‘no, I wouldn’t’.  Even the funniest bits of the games we’ve played (such as completing a mission to blow up a party on Niska’s space base then immediately going and picking up a new mission FROM Niska in the same turn) were only really funny because of the references to the show.  If instead of Niska it had been ‘generic space mafia dude’ it would have been a lot less amusing.  It could be house-ruled to be better for me, but it would more or less involve rewriting the game to have stronger, more carefully balanced mechanics and dramatically fewer and less-mixed card decks and die rolls, less-random win conditions, and probably multiple possible win conditions so that there’s some semblance of chance for people who are behind, to actually work positively towards winning.  And when you’re basically reconstructing the game from the ground up… why not just play something better, then watch the show afterwards?  Although having a genuinely GOOD space-trading game would be lovely, because there really aren’t that many, and those there are are generally very flawed in one way or another, and I really like scifi games.

So, if what you want is to shoot the shit and reminisce about the show for a couple of hours, and for some reason you don’t want to just… watch the DVDs… this game might be worth the cost.  It’s not without its charms in that situation.  If, however, what you want is a balanced, mechanically strong, optimisable space trading/mercenarying game, look elsewhere, and don’t even glance at this.  It’s really not a well-designed game from that perspective.  I’d probably play it again but I would have to make a conscious effort to avoid thinking too hard about playing well or to win.  So for me, it rates no more than a 4 out of 10.

Or, to put it another way… why was I playing this theme-heavy mechanics-light super-random game when my preference is almost the exact opposite? (spoiler: because one of my group bought it and wanted to try it out)