Or 'A Wargamer's Guide to Surviving a Global Pandemic'
First up, I know it's been a long time since I've posted anything up here. I can only apologise for simply being too busy. It's just the nature of my work and family commitments I'm afraid. Oh, and what happened with my gaming. Let me tell you the story...
So, in a nutshell, the Coronavirus, or Covid-19 as it became known, or indeed, any one of the variant names that followed, happened. As I write, Delta is the current worry here in the UK, and according to the WHO, my beloved Scotland currently has five of the ten Covid hotspots in Europe all to itself. Cases are soaring, (death's thankfully aren't so much, but let's be honest, one death is too many) and Englandshire is about to declare open season on new variants by opening everything up. So you never know, what I'm about to write may be useful if all this goes belly up in the coming weeks, although I seriously hope it doesn't.
With a nation in lockdown and the chance of gaming becoming absolutely zilch, I decided I would use what free time I had around my work to actually paint some toys. I know, radical concept or what!?!? The first six months of Covid Restrictions saw me painthing. At first it was a bit of everything. Some Stormtroopers here, some Nighthaunt there. And then a while stinking wodge of Death Guard. Suddenly I had an alternate army for 40K. Something other than my Ultramarines I've been playing forever. So sucks to you newbie 8th ed onwards Ultra players. You're reading the ravings of someone who played them when they were totally NOT the posterboys they are now.
And then something magical happened. I got invited to play a game of Sharp Practice with some wonderful people and good friends. In lockdown. With no indoor gatherings allowed. How could this be, I hear you say. Well let me tell you, good chaps and chappesses.
By the power of t'interweb!
We played on Discord. One overhead camera showing you a topdown view of a the table, another on a little stand that could be moved about to let you see up close and personal. Now, despite the joys of cameras occasionally going down, and the resultant choice words that appeared when it did so, I'd have to say that was the best game I've ever played. Yes, you could argue that it was Sharp Practice, so I was bound to love it (it is my favourite system after all). Yes, I was gaming with friends I hadn't seen since Deep Fried Lard, so the company was a tonic. But this experience just opened my eyes to the possibility of gaming remotely.
Hot on its heels, I was introduced to Virtual Lard 3, where I was able to play two amazing games: What a Tanker in the morning, and my first game of Infamy, Infamy in the afternoon. Through this, people I had met years before on Twitter began to appear in person on my laptop screen, some of them bearing absolutely no similarity to their profile pics at all. Before I knew it, the big scary pandemic-infested world began to shrink a little, and familiar people I'd message on Twitter became familiar faces across a virtual gaming table. The miles simply disappeared. And before I knew it, I'd introduced my gaming friends who usually appeared around my dining table week by week to some week by week virtual gaming. Months of no gaming, became the regular schedule of games. And along the way, as my confidence grew, I went from playing in Virtual Lards to actually hosting a game. I've been privileged to meet some fantastic people in the Lard Community along the way, and found myself gaming with new found friends in Belgium, Vermont, Norway, Sweden, Australia and probably a dozen more places I can't remember right now.
Thanks to Virtual Gaming, I discovered I could run games with people I otherwise couldn't game with because of the distance (and often continents) between us.
And that, dear reader, is mind-blowingly amazing!
So, in the hope that this might be either helpful to you in having a go at this brave new world way of gaming, or at the very least something you've an interest in, I thought I'd share some of the things I've learned along the way.
1. Stuff You'll Need
(I'm assuming you have access to the internet, otherwise, how are you reading this?!!?!!!)
This next bit is really important. If you're going to game like this, you're going to need all the terrain, figures, counters and anything else you need for the game you're going to run. This means two opposing armies. And on top of all this usual stuff, you're also going to need the following...
Preferably two. Now these come in all shapes and sizes, but bear in mind you're balancing two necessities: allowing people to see what's happening, and making sure your camera isn't such an insanely high resolution that it jams up your bandwidth. Personally, I'm using two of my older mobile phones. This is great, because it gives them a use long after the contract is up.
If you can hook up your cameras direct to the national grid courtesy of a nearby socket and compliant cable length, then you're sorted. But if not, then you're going to need another way to ensure your cameras keep working throughout a game. Virtual games take longer to run than an in-person game, so be prepared! And if you're using an old mobile phone like I do, remember that the battery life probably wasn't so great by the time you upgraded. I use two power banks to keep my cameras going. And because, at times, that's for over four hours, you're going to need enough juice to keep them going. Power banks are great for this, especially for the one you move around the table. A short cable that comes with you, rather than one attached to a socket, normally means that as you move around the table, your lovingly painted models don't get caught up in it. This is a very good thing.
Video Conferencing Software.
This is a matter of personal choice. I began setting up my own channels on Discord, but found that the software didn't like the fact that I was using three cameras a lot of the time. (I'll explain that one in the next section.) By this time I had played a game on Microsoft Teams which seemed to work really well. And I'd also played some games on Zoom, which seemed a really stable platform. Now, there are many options available to you, so there's going to be an element of finding what works for you. But also bear in mind that whilst most are free to download, and that works just fine if you're a player, it's a whole different ball game if you're the one hosting the game. Many companies offer a free version, but it's limited. Normally, as host, you'll be allowed to have two accounts running for as long as you want. But add a third and suddenly you're getting only 40 minutes, after which time you're session will be brought to a sudden end. Which is pants. Coz thatS going to happen the minute you add a single player into your two camera mix. My solution? I bit the bullet and went and paid a subscription to Zoom. Being self employed I needed to find a simple programme that was easy to use for my work, so this allowed me to kill two proverbial birds with the one stone, so to speak. And then, only in the last week, I had an opportunity to try Jitsi. It worked really well, and even better, it's completely free!
Things to look for when thinking about your meeting software? Does it allow you to share screens? Can you set up a private chat between players on the same side? Can you pin your chosen camera to give you the biggest view of the game? Do you want to be able to set up private audio channels for the players? All these desires will affect which software is best for you. I'd recommend downloading the free versions of as many as possible and spending a bit of time faffing around with them to see what they can do. That way, when it comes to spending your hard earned cash, you know you're making an informed choice rather than a wild stab in the dark..!
Whatever cameras you use, you'll need to find a way to prop the cameras in place. The easiest way of doing this is with a tripod. You'll probably need a decent sized one to give an overview of the table, and a smaller one to give a more detailed view.
Okay, so you've got your equipment, and now you're wondering how to make it all happen. Well, you're going to need to be creative depending on what software you're using. If it's Discord, you need to create accounts for each device you use. So you'll need to have an overhead camera account, a roving camera account and so on.
But a lot of the other software, where you're using email accounts, can I suggest you set up a Gmail account? Let me explain why. You can set up multiple accounts using the alias function in Gmail. Just add a '+' after your name followed by something like 'camera' @gmail.com. You then can invite each camera when you set up the game from your main Zoom account. I've had no trouble using three mobiles in this way, and my laptop cam in operation, with up to six people joining my games online.
And I've had just as much success in doing it in Zoom in this way as well. Set up your meeting, send the link to your friends. Then add to your calendar. As long as your account is in your mobile phone, and you've downloaded the Zoom app, you can click the calendar notification on your mobile. It then opens Zoom. First time it will ask you to add a name. Do that. Then you can let the phone into your meeting. Not even had to set up alias accounts. Just saying...
Setting up a virtual game will take longer than you expect. Especially if your software plays silly beggers with you before the game. How long will it take? Well, I can't answer that. If you have everything to hand in in a custom built games room, you're laughing. It probably won't take all that long at all. But if you're like me, using your dining table and bringing everything you need to it from multiple locations (including the loft), then you're going to take a lot longer. Plus you're going to need to make sure that you've remembered to charge everything that needs charging hours before you play. This is especially true if you have to charge power banks.
Lists are always helpful. They're great to tick off stuff as you look it out and take to your table. If you're pressed for time, you're going to find this really useful. It's also super helpful for the next time you play that system, because all the head scratching about what you need will have already been done. Unless, of course, you wrote that list on a scrap of paper and have lost it. So get a notebook. Trust me, you'll be glad you did!
I always boot up my laptop first and then go and get stuff. Gives it time to decide if it's going to play up or not, giving you time to fix it long before the game is due to start. You don't want to be ready with all your scenery, models, dice, counters and stuff, then boot the laptop and find it's playing up less than five minutes before you need to go live.
Now, let me tell you something really, really important. I set things up a bit differently to other virtual gaming hosts I've been privileged to game with as a player and not a host. Everyone focuses on two cameras which, as I have said above, normally translates to an overhead view, and a close up cam. I do this as standard. But unlike others, both of those are my old mobile phones. I don't central line one of the cameras right into my laptop.
This is where I differ from everyone else I've played with.
I use my laptop camera to show myself to my players.
Why? Well if you don't, you may well hear your host. You will certainly see your host appear at the periphery of the camera as they dash around the board checking measurements and asking what you want to do. Their hands will also appear on camera as they move models around. But you won't see their face.
Now forgive me if you have a different opinion, but for me at least, wargaming is a social hobby. We invest our time, money and talent on researching, planning, purchasing, painting and basing our troops. We make scenery for them to battle over and around. And we meet like minded people and game with them around a table. Having that camera so I can address my players is a big boon for me to help make my players feel more like they are in the room with me. It helps the banter. It makes it easier to have as close as possible a face to face gaming experience. I'd never consider gaming without it.
Oh, if you're playing a game that uses stat cards, I have been known to use another camera as well so people can see them too.
3. Hosting a Virtual Game
It's important to recognise that hosting a game virtually will take longer than it would in person. Only one person is doing all the movement of models during play. So give yourself time. It shouldn't be a stress fest of unrealistic expectations.
There are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, depth perception might be off a lot more than normal for your players. You might have made a beautifully contoured gaming surface, either with modular boards or by placing stuff under a gaming mat. But that overhead camera is going to be about as useful as all the aerial recon photos taken by the allies ahead of D Day: it all looks flat. Make sure you explain the terrain to players before the game begins so they know what everything is.
I also offer to make any measurements players ask for, whether the game rules allow this or not. Years of gaming at a table will help you intuitively guess how far a unit is away from another. But you can't do that effectively on a screen. I know this. I've played a lot of games as host, and a fair few as a player.
I make full use of my laptop camera whenever I need to answer a question, or offer any advice. I'll do this whether I'm in effect a GM host, or a playing host. Sure, I could have probably not mentioned a thing or two in my games, which would have given my troops an advantage. But that's never been the way I play. I want my players to know their options, and make sure they make the decision that is best for them at the time. Has it cost me a game? Yes, on more than one occasion. But I'm good with that.
One thing about Virtual Gaming is the quest to make things visible for players. It's easier to see 28mm models than it is 6mm for example. So think about the colour of your gaming surface. I have a lovely Killing Fields teddy bear fur mat. I absolutely love it. Get down to model height and the bases disappear. Your troops look like they're walking through long grass. It's an incredible sight. But your players aren't going to get down to that level. From an overhead point of view, it's rather dark. And models tend to disappear. So I've been using my modular terrain boards and Deep Cut Studio mats to make sure that any models can be more visible on the table.
If you're using a chit or card driven activation system, make sure they are visible to your players. Keep your hand in the open so they can see no bias is involved in the draw. I much prefer using chits over cards where an activation system requires them. But I'll be honest, cards are so much easier for players to pick up on the overhead camera. In the same way, micro dice used to record shock or casualties is nice and unobtrusive when it comes to in person gaming. But they are a nightmare when it comes to virtual gaming. Sure, tiny dice behind your troops can be read if you're stood with the troops on the table in front of you. But they are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard when you're dashing around the table, squinting at them as a host. I've purchased various tokens to make this easier. But also remember that Warbases (and probably some other places) do casualty bases where you can see a number far, far clearer...
I hope this has been helpful to you. And whether we are all about to emerge into a world where in person gaming makes this obsolete or not, do remember your friends who live too far away to get an in person game in these days. Virtual Gaming is a great way to connect and let the miles between us slip away as we enjoy good company, good games, and hopefully a few good dice rolls!
As always, thanks for stopping by!