A review of The Department from the department of reviews

You may have noticed that updates have been a little sparse lately. That’s because our place is undergoing renovation, so I have no place to
a) paint
b) play
c) take pictures

All of these things make life a little harder, but I’m going to soldier on, and start off with something I should have done a while ago, a review of The Department. It’s a 15mm scale,  Bladerunneresque skirmish/investigation game. As an added bonus, it can also be cooperative. More details are available straight from the bumf.

On paper, The Department looks like a perfect fit. Small numbers of miniatures required, a very small table footprint and scads of atmosphere.  Being the sucker that I am, I purchased both the PDF and the print copy. I also picked up the official Department miniatures, because I’m a sucker for things like that. Unfortunately, they’re not painted yet.

The game itself is based on something called Goalsystem by Scott Pyle, which I confess I have never heard of. Either it is quite obscure or I am woefully ignorant of modern trends. Or both, I suppose.

Regardless, the game works as a cross between an RPG and Ambush Alley-style games, in that your skirmish characters (of which there are 1 per player) have skills which are checked by rolling a slew of d6s and using results of 4+ as successes. The number of successes required is dependent on the difficulty of the task, as one might expect. Opposed checks require rolls from both parties.

All of the game’s participants are either rolled up in a similar manner to creating an RPG character (for the players) or simply taken from one of various charts (for the OPFOR). All will end up with various skills (Climbing, Ranged Attack, etc.) Oddly, some selections have no in-game effect. Chalk one up for playtesting.

I purchased this game based on their Kickstarter and, more importantly, on this description of play. In this, you’ll see “Since this is a 15mm game, the game takes place on a 24cm x 24cm board”. However, the rules themselves state:

Players using 15mm figures should use a 2′ x 2′ (60cm x 60cm) or 3′ x 3′ (90cm x 90cm) play area.

That’s a gigantic difference. In fact, even using the smallest recommended table  that’s 4.3 times as large as I was expecting. As this is a game set in a dense urban area, the terrain requirements for that kind of area get steep really fast. If you go for the 90 x 90 area, that’s a whopping 14 times the area suggested by their example of play.

As characters move 6cm per turn, you can see that it will take at least 10 turns to move down one board side. Much more if you have to go around buildings (or through them), as is often the case in a dense urban environment.

After creating a character it was time to dive into a scenario, so I picked the first one and roped my wife into playing it.

And then the problems began.

Scenario 1

Synopsis: Game events in Scenario 1 are resolved by moving up to the subject of interest and rolling on a table. On a roll of 6 the subject will run away and require actual fire and maneuver.

In actual practice, the game went like this.
1. There was some brownian motion by the NPCs due to the random nature of their movement
2. The players approached, rolled on the table and did not receive a “6” result, so some information was gained (which is used for currency for advancing the campaign).
3. Repeat steps one and two.
4. The end.

I checked the forums (which oddly have no visible link on their main page) to see if I had missed some important aspect. In fact, there should have been no motion at all by the NPCs until the players had moved to them, which would have made the scenario even less interesting.

At this point my wife left in disgust, so I went on to play Scenario 2. It went much like Scenario 1, except that it took slightly less time because I didn’t have to wait for her to move as well. The after action report can be summarized accurately as per the list above.

Analysis

The problem with The Department doesn’t lie in the resolution mechanics (which can really be replaced by almost any skirmish rules) but in the scenarios themselves. The tables are are just too random and nonsensical. Even worse, they often produce results which serve only to propel you to the next scenario without having to indulge in tabletop action. Because of this, it seems like actually setting up the table is a pointless exercise.

There are other flaws, too. The Fate die mechanic, which effectively gives a character a significant number of extra dice per turn, means that the odds of losing a combat (if you ever have one) are very small.

Some of the other scenarios have other bizarre random results:

  • Scenario 3 can have multiple murderers as the table can be rolled on repeatedly.
  • Scenario 4 only has a 1 in 6 chance of the OPFOR actually resisting if you manage to avoid the crowds.
  • Scenario 5’s objective is to not be seen, which, if successful, will result in only movement. While dramatic tension is nice in game play, this particular approach is rarely successful in miniatures gaming.

Aside from the scenarios, the OPFOR is based entirely on random table rolls with no weighting of any kind. This makes for great unpredictability, but not very much versimilitude. Also, not very much point, as moving a figure d3 cm doesn’t really change anything. My bases are 2cm in diameter, so 66% of the time the figures will move less than the distance of the base. Why bother moving them at all?

This is all a very great shame, because I wanted to like The Department. The setting is interesting and doesn’t involve large shoulder pads. Making noir building and terrain would be nice change from the usual desert hills and machine gun nests (in fact, I made a large pile of it before I even bought the rules). It could have been marketed primarily as a moderated game or an RPG, in which case it has some promise. With a talented GM in place to add some sparkle to the story, the game would shine. As a miniatures game for solo or coop play, though, it’s bland and, much worse, boring.

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