Happy New Year!
So, you miniatures gamers know how this goes. One of your good buddies likes a game and decides to rope him in. Along those lines, my good friend the Consul gave me a lovely Christmas present: the starter box for Beyond the Gates of Antares!
Wow, that's a lot of stuff. And the rulebook is a hardback weighing in at over 200 pages. Pretty sweet.
But let's be honest, the current market is positively glutted with sci-fi battle and skirmish rules. From 40k to Infinity to Deadzone, to Tomorrow's War and others, there is so much choice. Could this game be good enough to take them on and carve out an enduring spot in the miniature gaming world? Let's take a look.
The Rules: Is it "Bolt Action in Space"?
One characterization of the game I have heard is that it is basically Bolt Action in space. To some that's a great compliment, to others perhaps not. Personally I was left a bit cold by Bolt Action for the following reasons: sameness of factions, the tight results curve of D6s, and a lack of variety in army lists and equipment. But Antares is different in a number of key respects. Antares uses the same dice activation mechanic as Bolt Action, i.e. you pull action dice from a bag to determine the next unit that will move. It’s a departure from “I go, you go” that works well. However, the rules for reactions and suppression are more robust and varied than in BA. In addition, the system uses D10s, not D6s, which adds much more granularity to results and allows a broader range of model stats.
Moreover, the factions are (mostly) quite different from one another, adding a lot of variety to the game. There is a huge variety of armor, weapons, and equipment packed into the book, which allows for a lot of differentiation of forces. As detailed below, I found the reaction system very refreshing combined with difference between forces, various weapons types, and granularity in unit attributes and dice results.
In short, I think Antares is a strong refinement and improvement on Bolt Action's basic structure. The science fiction setting has given the author much more leeway to differentiate the factions and the mechanics have been tweaked to add more tactical options. I think the rules are very solid, and are detailed enough to satisfy but fast and intuitive enough to play easily.
The Setting: Past is Prologue
The rules book is, as Rick Priestly has described, a bit of an homage to the original Rogue Trader 40k rules, which Rick himself penned way back when. Incidentally, 40k Rogue Trader was my first miniatures game. (Thanks, Rick for the past 25 years of gaming!) Where Antares resembles the original 40k is in the huge variety of weapons, armor and equipment listed, as well as the establishment of an entirely new (if not totally unfamiliar) universe for science-fiction gaming. There are a lot of special rules for equipment, weapons, armor, and vehicles, etc. so is "crunchy" like Rogue Trader. This is a bit of a retro approach, what with most systems moving toward very simple and streamlined rules at present, cf. Kings of War, Deadzone, current GW products.
Where Antares differs from Rogue Trader is that it has much better-defined rules and better balanced and streamlined army lists. Antares is not (at present) a sandbox experience, but a completed universe to play in. You will not be able to create (as I did at age 14) a game-breaking army of teleporting vortex bomb-bots to make your friend cry with these rules. But you will be able to have a balanced and fun game in competitive "matched" scenarios or create unbalanced, umpired scenarios in classic fashion. It is also differs from Rogue Trader in the maturity of its content. There are no space dwarf bikers or punk rock elves here (dark gods bless them), but instead variants of humanity which are interesting and different, but not as outlandish as their 40k abhuman forebears. The tone of the storyline is serious, not "grim dark" but a bit more believable although certainly still within the realm of the fantastic. Antares has, for lack of a better word, a more "adult" science fiction setting than 40k.
So far, Warlord games has released models for 5 factions of the 6 in the rules. There are Panhuman Concord, a morally ambiguous and clearly human superpower and the Ghar, a genetically-engineered ugly little human strain apparently bent on genocide of all other human subtypes, in the boxed set. I have painted up the Ghar battle suits for the report. In addition there are the Boromites, a strain mutated to work on high gravity worlds and your sort of space trade-unionists; the Isorians, a kind of (yet unreleased) dark-Gigeresque opposite to the Concord; the Algoryns, a sleek militarized society with spiky heads; and the Freeborn, a mercantilist mercenary society with strong fashion sense.
To be honest, none of these factions really grabbed me, at first. However, I grew to like the Ghar on account of the power suits and bloodlust, and the Boromites due to their scrappy "unions in space" vibe. I think the harder edge to Antares' sci-fi leads to more subtle and somewhat understated aesthetics, which makes it hard for the range as a whole to stand out . Hence the reason I chose the most "different" of the factions to collect and play.
Battle Report: Ghar vs. Isorians
To teach myself the game, I got my Ghar from the boxed set ready! I used an airbrush for the base colors and did hand-detailing. They painted up quickly and I thin came out well.
For their opponents, I chose to use my old Therian models from the AT-43 range to represent Isorians. These were already (pre) painted and share a strong resemblance to the preview Isorians in the rulebook with their bio-mechanical appearance and white masks.
I made up two approximately equal point forces. The Ghar had an assault squad and a battle squad. The Isorians had 3 senatex squads and one command group. I made a quick and dirty scenario where the two sides were both interested in a mysterious Alien Egg in the center of the board, and would award 1 VP at the end of every turn to the side that had a unit within 3" and no enemy within 3" at the same time. If either side broke, the other, that would constitute a win as well. The game would last the standard 6 turns.
The Ghar battle squad hides behind dense cover. In Antares tress can be light or dense. Dense cover is like traditional area terrain which blocks LOS.
The Isorians deploy behind the treeline, and plan to stick to cover and concentrate fire on the powerful Ghar battlesuits.
Turn 1: Both sides advance, with no fire exchanged.
Isorians take cover and maneuver.
Turn 2: The Ghar draw first order and advance the battle squad to fire on the Isorians in the open. However, the Isorians pass a reaction test (8 or less on a d10 thanks to their good command stat) and "Run for Cover", a reaction that allows units fired at from over 20" away to make a run move. This gets them out of LOS of the battle squad behind the egg (incidentally contesting it) and wasted the Ghar order. I think this is a great example of the flexibility of reactions in Antares.
The Ghar got the next die and the assault squad rushed in the punish those dodging Isorians.
In Antares, the first part of an assault action is "point blank fire" where both sides exchange fire before swinging their fists. I think this is a nice touch which emphasizes that sci-fi combat is primarily shooting combat. Here, the sides exchange simultaneous fire. The Ghar have vicious disruptor grenade launchers which kill three Isorians and cause 2 pin markers. Isorian fire manages to kill a Ghar (he rolled a 10 to save (which is an auto-fail!) and causes one pin on the Ghar.
Before anyone even gets to swing their fists, the Isorians need to take a break test for taking 50% casualties. They have two pins which subtracts 2 from their Command stat, now a 7 due to the leader's death by grenade. They fail this roll and break.
Isorians activate next and take a Fire action, putting another pin on the Ghar. The Isorian squads' plasma carbines can barely scratch the Ghar armor, though each squad has a plasma lance capable of taking them down. Pinning the Ghar is the answer, and another Pin marker puts the Ghar assault squad in a tough spot.
The next die pulled is the "Disruptor" die, which represents the Ghar's dangerous technology ripping holes in space. When the die comes up, the next die pulled is affected with a "down" order, which represents hitting the dirt. In effect, they lose their turn and have to rally from the down order later. It can hit the Ghar, too, by the way. This is another piece of chrome which adds flavor to the Ghar a a faction and therefore to the game as a whole.
The Ghar score one VP for holding the Egg at the bottom of Turn 2.
The Ghar get a taste of their own medicine and the assault squad gets hit with the disruptor die. As a result, they get a down order.
The Isorians capitalize and fire on the pinned and down Ghar. Hits on downed units must be re-rolled to represent the downed unit taking cover. The Isorians do not cause a casualty but add a pin. The Ghar miraculously pass a break check for having as many or more pins than models.
The Dhar attack squad goes next, opening fire on the Isorians in cover. However, the Isorians pass a reaction test and engage in a "Fire Fight" with the Ghar. This is a reaction where a unit is less than 20" away and can get a "Fire" order in response to being fired on.
However the exchange goes poorly for them and the Isorians take three casualties while only causing a pin on the Ghar. The Ghar battle squad has versatile weaponry and they used disruptor ammunition which ignores cover to eliminate three Isorians and add 2 pins. The Isorian remnants pass their break check, however.
The Ghar get another VP for holding the Egg on turn 3. Ghar lead 2-0. If anyone is curious, the ISorian command team has been staying behind terrain and lending moral support to the Isorian unit engaging thE Ghar assault squad. With only 3 weapons, none heavy, they are not inclined to get into firefights yet.
Isorians pull the first order and Fire at the Ghar assault squad. They destroy another suit and add a pin marker!
But the stubborn Ghar commander pases his break test with a 3!
The Ghar battle squad Fires at the Isorian squad on the left and finishes them off. Isorians are now at 50% of their starting dice. On more unit lost and they will be Broken.
The Isorian command activates and finishes off the Ghar assault squad by adding a fifth pin marker. This time the Ghar cannot pass their break check and the unit is eliminated!
The Ghar go up 3-0 for holding the Egg at the end of Turn 4.
Turn 5: The Isorian command advances to contest the Egg.
The Isorian squad activates and Advances to shoot at the Ghar. The Ghar pass a reaction test and engage in a Firefight, getting a Fire order. Can you guess what happens?
4 Isorians fall to the rapid-fire mode of the Ghar battle squad, but the sole survivor passes his break test. The Isorians succeed only in pinning the Ghar.
No VP scored in Turn 5. Ghar lead 3-0
Turn 6: The Isorians win initiative and throw caution to the wind and advance to try to do something to the Ghar suits.
But once again the Ghar pass a reaction test to engage in a Firefight with the Isorian command squad. They predictably wipe them out and take only a pin in return. This breaks the Isorian force.
The last Isorian turns tail and runs! Ghar win 4-0 by holding the Egg at the end of Turn 6.
Result: The Ghar take possession of the Alien Egg! What secrets will they unlock with the contents? Will they simply eat it, being the giant bores that they are? Will the Isorians come back with more heavy weapons? Tune in next time on Beyond the Gates of Antares theater to find out.
Conclusion: Beyond the Gates of Antares is a solid and interesting rules set. From my reading of the rules and admittedly limited experience, I enjoy it more than Bolt Action or Tomorrow's War. It is more thematic and crunchier than the former and much faster and elegant than the latter. It also fills a niche in between skirmish games like Infinity and larger battle games like 40k (although it appears it can handle those). I think Antares is a great rules set for the more experienced crowd and for newer players looking for something different from 40k. Give it a try!
PS-I apologize for any rules errors in advance.