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Review: Hot War by Contested Ground Studios

September 29, 2008 | | Comments 1

In the real world, the Cold War never turned hot. NATO played a careful game of diplomacy, saber-rattling and the occasional proxy war with the Warsaw Pact to maintain the peace. Thankfully, saner minds prevailed and no one knew the horrors of global war.

Hot War ”  posits a world where the great powers unleashed their arsenals against each other in vicious combat around 1960.  Nuclear weapons devastated cities, but other weapons, weapons drawn from the dark spaces between dimensions or spawned of blackest magic ravaged the world. Entire regions now belong to these dark powers and their borders are expanding…

In the ruins, a desperate society hangs on to existence in the face of horrors from beyond.

Upfront Review: “Hot War ” is a role-playing intensive post-apocalyptic campaign that focuses on the survivors and their relationships. Firepower and combat are far less important that other games of this genre.  The game rules are simple to learn and  the graphic design of the rulebook is quite clever (it looks like an army manual.) Art is limited, but effective when used. Fair warning, this is a VERY role-playing intensive game. Players must contribute in a substantive manner to the storyline to get the most out of “Hot War.”

I enjoyed this book immensely  and recommend it to anyone looking for a post-apocalyptic setting with heavy role-playing.

Full Disclosure: I paid full retail for this game and receive no benefits from any sales or links from this review.

Keep reading for the full review.

Setting:

“Hot War” describes a London devastated by nuclear weapons and dark powers in the 1960s.  Yes, the entire game is based in and around  London. Since “Contested Ground Studios ” resides in the UK, this is not a surprise. Their knowledge of the city and its environs added a level of detail to the game I really enjoyed.  I once worked in London, so their horrific descriptions of places I lived/worked was quite entertaining.

London is now a city in ruins with a fascist, decaying government trying to restore the devastated nation. Food coupons are the difference between life and slow starvation, black marketeers profit from the misery and foul things prowl London’s deep fog. Even the various parts of government jockey for power and resources. The army might steal critical supplies from the navy to advance their own interests. Trust is in very short supply.

Recruited into the “Special Situations Group” by the government as troubleshooters,  players try to complete their assigned missions while advancing their own, often contradictory,  agendas.

System:

The system is deceptively simple in design, but complex in execution.  In the sample below note that the statistics are the minority on a character sheet full of story points for the PC. Numbers and dice aid the story, not the other way around.

Hot War Character Sheet

There are three primary statistics: Action, Insight and Influence. They represent physical actions, mental actions and charisma respectively.  When the PC or the party wants to do something, they create a dice pool based on the appropriate stat, add in any traits or relationships that are applicable for extra dice and roll that against the opposing dice pool (d10s). Remove ties and compare the remaining dice on a one-for-one basis.

A quick (and greatly simplified example, there are more ways to add/subtract dice) is Lt. Cmdr. Beaumont  trying to cover up the fact he forgot to lock a door and monster walked into headquarters.  Beaumont is trying to convince his commanding officer that it was not his fault. He gets four dice for his influence score, plus one additional die for his trait of “cover up his mistakes” for a total of five.  (see “Traits” in the bottom left column) Beaumont’s commanding officer also has five dice. They roll.

Beaumont 10, 9, 9, 8, 5

Commanding Officer 10, 7, 6, 4 3

The tie “10″ dice cancel, leaving Beaumont four dice  higher than the opposing dice pool for four “successes.” Beaumont then uses these points to influence the story

This is where the role-playing gets deep, more so than most games I have ever played. The successes do not just mean you convince the CO you did not make a mistake, although you are free to use them that way. You can also use the successes to modify your character. Perhaps you want to add “skilled liar” to your traits or “distrusts authority” to your sheet. Perhaps you add a trait and slightly influence the CO. How the points affect the game is strictly up to the player. Should the NPC win, then the GM can uses these points against the party or to further the story.

The game is less about individual actions (I fast-talk my CO) than entire “scenes” of action (I trick my CO and learn how to lie better at the same time.) Once the dice roll and successes determined, player collaborate to describe the action as it unfolds.  This system, while great for role-playing is ripe for abuse by a renegade player.

Dice aside, the entire game puts collaboration between players and GM at the campaign’s heart.  Players have early input into what kind of campaign they want and the GM moderates and guides the story. Even character creation requires negotiation between the GM and other players. “Hot War”  runs best for a GM and players who have a great relationship and put the story before individual character development or a player’s bruised ego.

As I said at the top, this is a role-playing intensive game.

Design:

Most game companies pride themselves on creating a beautiful product, with dozens of lovingly rendered color prints scattered throughout their tome. “Hot War” takes a different approach. The entire book, from the table of contents to the appendices resembles a military training manual. The typeface, images and style are  “government ugly.”  The images are either black and white evidence photographs or  government propaganda. Every font looks like it came from a 1960′s government surplus auction typewriter. Given the material and time period, this spartan graphic design choice is very effective.

Hot War Text Sample

For a better look at the game images and setting, you can download the “Hot War Preview .”

Although not  strictly a design feature, there is also an excellent appendix of books, games, movies and TV shows that might inspire a “Hot War” game that deserves mention. I found this section quite enlightening because some of the referenced material is not widely known in America. It inspired me to add a few items to my Netflix queue.

This review is running long, so I will come to a close. Bottom line is that this is a well-designed, edited and thought out game setting with a heavy role-playing focus.   Even if you choose not to use the system, the descriptions of London after the bombing  make a great addition to any horror or post-apocalyptic campaign.

“Hot War” is available as a 200-page PDF from “Indie Press Revolution ” at this link for $13.00. A bargain in my opinion and the version I purchased. There is also a dead-tree version available from Contested Ground , but with international airmail shipping the total cost to a US purchaser is around $35.00.  Let your budget be your guide.

I also had the opportunity to interview Malcolm Craig, the author of Hot War last week. He gives some insight into the development of the game and his perspective on gaming. You can read the full interview here .

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

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About the Author: Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

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