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last stand of the Crimson Phalanx. (Courtesy of mobileframezero.com)
Gaming on the Cheap: Mobile Frame Zero
by S1/c Arasin T.M. Staubly, HMS Saladin (DD-515)
2014.04.16 CE / 346.01.30 AL (MNB) – Back in March, Nuklear Comix put together the first Sumter FanCon, a gathering of several hundred people for a lot of fun. As the convention was winding down, I'd shucked off the heavy bits from my costume to take a break, when a fellow named Matt McAllister came over and asked me if I wanted to play Mobile Frame Zero. Normally, miniatures war games call for buying a lot of STUFF, and I avoid that, but I'm always up for at least trying a new game.
Right off the bat, this one looked different – the Mobile Frames ('mechs) were made from LEGO building pieces, as were the terrain features. While LEGOs aren't free, you can get a batch of them, and make/remake different figures for a few bucks for each mech. You've got your figures (which can actually be just about anything), some terrain, the rulebook (a donation-optional download), a sort of ruler, and some dice; all of which is less than the price of many miniature “starter sets.”
The first stage is to 'build' your Mobile Frame team (three teams per game is apparently the norm). Three to five is the normal team size. Mobile Frames have four slots to fill, six systems to choose from, and a limit of two of any one kind of system. The systems are hand-to-hand, direct fire, artillery, mobility, defense, and sensors. The rulebook uses slightly different terms but that's how I remember them. Your basic frame (with no add-ons) gets you two 'wild dice'—more on these later—and you'll get to slap on some 'free' one-shot missile launchers at the end. The range for hand-to-hand is one segment of the ruler, direct fire is from greater than one segment on out to the end of the ruler, and artillery is anything NOT reachable with the ruler. Mobility gives you more dice to roll for moving and lets you move "through" things instead of having to go around. Defense gives you more to roll for your 'don't hit me' value, plus having two of them lets you 'block for' an adjacent Frame without taking damage. Sensors are for your Spotting dice - Spotting is awesome and can be a game-changer! Extra Spot dice remove limitations on which Frames you can Spot.
The pre-game numbers part is to compare teams and calculate your unit values. Then you next set the field and place your figures. All the players have to agree that field is okay before you move on. Having the highest starting score (and the weakest team) gives you the advantage of best defensive choices. The lowest score (strongest team) has the worst ability to choose good defensive positions, to include a requirement to stick one frame out in the open. This felt sensible - the force that came most strongly loaded for bear is pushed to be aggressive and the weakest gets the option to be defensive.
That’s right, hide behind a leaf. No one’s gonna find a ‘mech there. (Courtesy of mobileframezero.com)
Time to bring it on. The turn order mechanism was the hardest part for me to understand. There's tactical order and there's combat order and they intermix. The easiest way for me to explain is that the highest score team activates a Frame and opens fire on an enemy Frame. Resolve that, and then the Frame that got shot at gets to pick a target. If it's one that has already been activated then the combat order ends and you give choice back to the team with the current highest score. If not, you keep rolling along with things in combat order. Once I got used to the mechanism, the game felt more dynamic, and I could envision the action ripple around the field of play as Frames fired and returned fire. On top of that there's a Doomsday Clock for each game that starts at 11 and ratchets down at least one notch at the end of each turn (each player can also choose to click it down another notch or not at that time).
The dice are another cool mechanic. When a Frame activates or has to respond to an attack you roll a small fistful of color-coded dice – one color for each system you have plus two white dice (the “wild dice”). If you don't have a specific color dice (i.e., no more movement dice), but want to do that action anyway, you use one of your white dice to get the action done. You can also use the white die to replace a color-coded die when the results just aren't good enough, but once you use a die that's it - you can't use it elsewhere until your next turn. The system is easy and versatile and has a fun feel to it.
Combat is also simple. You put your best attack die roll against their defense die roll minus any Spot tagged to that Frame (targeting laser, ECM, etc). Ties go to the defender. The difference between attack and defense tells how many damage dice you roll on the damage chart (varies by attack type and cover). When a frame takes damage the owning player has to pull off a piece for each hit, which means you lose a system (and its die). The visual you get from seeing the pieces scattered around the battlefield is a nice touch, especially since you can blow up terrain features like walls and trees as well. Each hit on terrain lets you pull off six bricks, so a lot of little bricks means a strong wall, and a few bigger bricks means a fragile wall. Again, that added fun to the game... and the Doomsday Clock keeps counting down every turn – twice if your opponent is winning!
Overall, I really like this game. I get a good initial impression of balance, such as stronger teams get a weaker initial position, a good splash of realism vs. ease of play, a range of choices but not too many. I like the flavor of rolling the dice, sorting the colors, and making choices for the Wild Dice. The mechanics are fairly simple, but I really feel like a unit commander when I work out movement probabilities vs. weapon ranges vs. Spot options and decide whether to blow away covering terrain or finish off an opposing frame. Finally, the rulebook itself points out that your Mobile Frames can actually be any number of things from any number of genres. I don't want to buy a bunch of LEGO pieces to build Mobile Frames, but I am absolutely going to print out some "paper-box Frames" and system stickers to make some 'foldable teams'.
In the end, you can enjoy all the things you love about miniature gaming, but at a fraction of the price. Really, though, the big draw for me is that Mobile Frame Zero is just plain fun!
The article’s over? It’s Old Tilman time! (Courtesy of mobileframezero.com)
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