Aces & Eights

By on 31 July 2008

Aces & Eights is a Western game, set in the “Shattered Frontier” – a alternate history version of the Wild West. I’ll come back to the setting in a bit as I’m going to review the book chapter by chapter as it’s a massive beast at 400 foolscap sized pages and is going to take me a while to read through properly. If you’re after a “system lite” set of rules then this game definately isn’t for you.

First of all though I’ll talk about the actual book – it is indeed a thing of beauty! A leather bound hardback with some lovely full colour plates inside by period artists it weighs half a tonne and is very satisfying to take hold of and flick through. It also appears to be very well bound and lies flat on the table if opened at any page (which any GM will tell you can be a godsend!). Apparently there is a softcover version but I’ve never seen this and there are 2 other versions of the rules – Showdown – this just contains the gunfight rules and is intended as a wargame and the Players Guide which is the combat rules and the setting information (I think), again I’ve not seen either of these so I can’t comment on their production values. As an aside, the hardback version comes sealed due to it containing “shot clocks” – clear plastic sheets with a grid printed on them, used during gunfights. This of course makes it impossible to flick through if you find a copy in store, you’ll just have to take my word for it – it looks as great inside as it does on the outside!

Onto the meat of the book:

Chapter 1: Welcome to Aces & Eights
1 page, a basic what is a role playing game, what you need to play etc. Only deviation from the norm here is that the author explains why he went for an alternativy history for the setting – basically the roleplaying is made better by freeing everybody from the inevitability of a true historical setting.

Chapter 2 : The Basic Game
8 Pages, a stripped down to the bare bones version of the combat rules with very simple character gen. This is only included (as far as I can tell) to get players used to the combat mechanic in the game, you’re advised by the author to try these out before going on to the main game and to be honest experienced RPG’ers or wargamers could give it a skip, it is however pretty good fun to just roll up a couple of dudes and have them go at each other without worrying about losing your character. I’ll save any actual discussion of the combat system for the relevant chapter as it’s quite involved.

Chapter 3 : The Advanced Game
115 pages, this is where things start getting complicated! Covered in this section:
Character Creation
Advanced Scrapes (the full combat rules)
Wounds & Healing
Advanced Chase Rules

First off, if you don’t like random character generation then you’re going to have to come up with some house rules here, stats are totally random on this game! Having said that, you do get some “build points” to round your character off and buy skills but that won’t really help you any if your rolling is particulary crap!
Characters have 7 abilities, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity,Constitution, Looks and Charisma. I’m assuming if your reading this you have a pretty good knowledge about how RPG’s work so I wont go into details other than abilities are rolled on 3d6, the higher the better. Here’s where the added crunch sets in (yes already!), in that you also need to roll a percentile when generating attributes. This is used to see how close to the next ability score you are, eg a score of 12/33 means you’re closer to 12 than you are to 13 ability wise. This doesn’t really effect the game though except for Strength – a 13/58 can carry a little bit more than a 13/12 character. When it comes to spending your build points you can increase the percentile part to gain higher stats.
There are lots of tables to roll on, ranging from place of birth, to reasons to go West. There’s also an option to work out height and weight according to your body mass index! Quirks and Flaws give you options to take aspects for your character to earn more build points, which you can spend on skills or advantages. Quite a nice mechanic, in my opinion, is that you get more BP’s for randomly selecting flaws than if you pick them yourself. Also you get less points the more flaws you take which stops metagamers from racking up loads of minor flaws in order to gain lots of BP’s. The list of advantages (or Talents as they are called here) is quite a bit smaller than the quirks and flaws and most of them are combat orientated, they do however all seem quite usefull.
The skills list for this game is truely massive, for example there is a Survival skill but a seperate Fire Building skill also! What I initially found to be strange was the fact that your skills all start at 100% and get lower as you improve them. THis may sound weird but as you have to roll over your skill on a percentile to succeed it does kind of make sense. If you don’t like this (and I’ve seen some people say on the internet it has put them off buying the game) I don’t see any reason why you can’t just swap the system around and just reverse any modifiers.
There is a bit of maths involved in sorting out your skills, build points you spend improve your skills but the amount of improvement is based on the skills governing statistic (or statistics in some cases) and a dice roll. The size of the dice and the build point cost is different for different skills, ie, Photography costs 1 bp, is based on Int and you roll a D8 when improving the skill. Prospecting costs 9 bp’s, is based on Wis and you roll a D6.
Next come the Advanced Scrapes rules, a lot of the hype (and the bad press from some quarters) for this book surrounds the combat rules, as far as I’m concerned they are some of the best I’ve ever read! For sure they are very detailed but the basic premise is quite simple.
Combat rounds are split into 10ths of seconds, after rolling for initiative each action you take has a speed, measured in 10th’s of a second, each player chooses an action and as the count increases players move/shoot etc when the count reaches their speed.
Included in the game are 2 “shot clocks”, clear plastic sheets with a circular grid split into sections. When you shoot at a target you don’t choose a hit location, instead you place the “shot clock” over a silhoutte (2 are included in the book with more freely available online), centered on where you want to hit. Then you roll to hit, needing to get 25 or more on a d20 (with modifiers obviously, eg +8 to hit if less than 5 feet away) to hit in the centre of the clock. Between 24 and 15 on the roll can still be a hit, if a number between this is rolled you draw a card from a standard poker deck, the card will correlate to a section on the clock, if it’s over the silhouette then you’ve still hit.
This may sound complicated but after a few trial combats I’ve found the system to go fairly quickly. This is helped by gunshots being very lethal indeed, so fights are usually over a few seconds. They are also very faithfull to the genre, with shots going wide, people flinching, and players agonising over whether to go for an inaccurate quick shot or hope their opponent misses and going for the aimed shot. My explanation probably doesn’t make it sound too appealing, there are videos on youtube (a bloody good idea!) that show you how to do it, also shotgun shots are a little more complex as each pellet is tracked individually, however there is a seperate shotcun clock and it’s only slighter longer to use than with a normal shot, again a video is on youtube showing how it’s done.
There are loads of optional rules in the advanced section, ranging from facing, weapon malfunctions, critical hits and flinching at close scrapes. Physical and melee combat is also covered (this uses the basic shot clock too). To be honest, when I first read it it was all a bit overwhelming, it is however easy to add the extra rules in bit by bit and after a few gunfights they do go really quickly. I can’t recommend strongly enough though that with so much to keep track track of it’s important to use miniatures, a hexed battlemap and a counter/speed chart to keep track of what sequence you’re in, who goes next etc.

Wounds and healing covers wound modifiers in combat, healing time and rules for infection and diseases, as well as poisons and the critical hit charts. This game certainly pulls no punches in the deadliness of the gunfights, even if you survive the actual fight you can still die from infected wounds!

Brawling is one of the first “mini games” covered in the rulebook. These rules are really only to be used if you want a big brawl to be used as a centre piece for a scenario. The normal combat sequence is thrown out the window, instead players get a number of poker chips based on their attributes, these are traded in to give bonuses to hit, damage etc, once you’re out of chips you’re out of the fight. You can spend more chips to pull off special moves as well. I’ve not actually used these rules myself yet but they do look quite simple and fun, the only problem I see is that it’s yet more rules in a pretty rules intensive game to learn, I definately wouldn’t want to use them in a one off or convention game but in an ongoing campaign they would make a nice change.

The FIrearms section details several guns from the period, with actual photo’s of all of them in the book. It’s quite extensive and there’s also a nice size comparison chart at the end. One thing to mention is that in the aternate timeline the game is set in, advances in weapons technology happened a bit quicker than real life, so although real guns are used here some of the dates might be different. (Not sure if this is true for this book but I thought I best mention it for any history or gun buffs out there.)

As every Western fan knows, a Cowboy’s best friend is is hoss, and the horses section goes into quite a lot of depth, for an RPG! There’s different breeds, marks and colouration and other qualities such as temperament and horce vices! Also detailed is the methods for breaking a horse and horse ranching. The horses section leads directly into the next mini game, advanced chase rules. This uses a standard poker deck, which you lay out in a line with each card representing 50 feet between pursued and pursuee. The colour of the card represents if it’s an obsticle or not and the value represents the severity of the obstacle. Also used are poker chips, much like the brawling rules these depend on the statline of your horse and are used to move faster or slow down for obstacles. Again, I’ve not used these myself yet and they do seem a little clunky compared to the brawling rules but I’m sure that they add a little bit of interest if used sparingly.

Chapter 4 : The Campaign Game
The Aces & Eights Campaign
Reputation & Fame
Profession Paths

Some good advice on running a Western campaign with 2 towns detailed (both set in the alternate “Shattered Frontier” default setting but easily transposed to a realistic one if you want) and some good scenario hooks. One of the towns is apparently going to be used for a town/campaign setting so only gets the basics here but what there is looks good. This section also has some very atmospheric period photos of real towns. There’s a big list of sample NPC’s ranging from a baker to a wrangler.
Reputation and Fame shows how to detail the fame or notoriety of your character and the in game effects that follow and Awards details character advancement. Aces & Eights uses a career system much like WFRP but it’s much less rigid. Basically you can choose any career you want at any time, each career has a Profession Path – this details several aims or goals that you need to achieve to gain build points – eg, for a Buffalo Hunter your initial aim is to equip yourself for hunting, you then get points for finding a herd and then shooting buffalo, ranging up to killing and selling the hides of 200 buffalo.

Chapter 5 : The Ongoing Game
Cattle Ranching
Running a Cattle Drive
All that Glitters…
Goods & Services
Frontier Justice
Drinkin’ & Drugs

Lots more rules in this section! Additional mechanics for Catle ranching and driving, prospecting and running courtroom trials. Again these all are mini games that have their own seperate mechanics, I won’t go into the details as again I haven’t used them and to be honest there’s not going to be much call for the cattle driving or prospecting unless your players want to go for it as a career, however, as with most of the book they are a very atmospheric read and they look like they will run very well. The rules for trials look very nice and lots of fun with the defence and prosecution having to try and sway the juries opinion over the course of the trial.
The gambling section includes the rules for several different types of card games, including poker and the rules for cheating at said games.
Goods & Services does exactly what ot says on the tin and is a list of products and their prices. Drinkin’ & Drugs is also pretty explanatory and describes the rules for intoxication and addiction to several illicit (or not) substances.

Chapter 6 : Appendices
History of the Shattered Frontier
Quirk & Flaw Descriptions
Skill Descriptions
Talent Descriptions
Detailed Character Backgrounds
Frontier Slang

A fairly detailed description of the Shattered Frontier, somewhere here a history buff could probably point out where the setting deviates from the real world but I honestly couldn’t point it out. In this world the Civil War ended in a stalemate, Texas is it’s own republic and New Orleans is owned by the French and the Mormons have set up Deseret, there’s also the Indian nation of Sequoyah. There’s some nice maps and it all reads very plausibly to me.
The descriptions of the Quirks, Skills etc are all written well, the skills section on particular is quite good, giving you good examples of what difficulty levels certain tasks are in relation to the skill being used. I do feel that these might have been better of placed closer to the character generation section but it’s not a biggy.
Detailed Character Backgrounds is another section that in my mind should be nearer the front of the book, basically it’s loads of random tables for building up your characters back story prior to the start of the game.
Frontier Slang is a list of period slang – I always like these kind of things in RPG’s and it’s full of nice littel words and phrases that will add colour to your characters.
Index – apparently this was missing from the 1st printing but it’s made it into the 2nd and it’s quiite comprehensive.
2 silhouettes are included here – a gunfighter holding out his gun – front and side view. This is one of the biggest dissapointments of the book for me, I was hoping for a lot more variety but then again there a quite a few available as a free download on the Kenzerco site. I’ve also asked my brother to whip me a few up and I’ll post them up here if anybody is interested once I get them.

Overall I am very impressed with this game, recently I’ve been a bit of an “Indie” game fan and have been shying away from rules intensive games. However Aces & Eights manages to pull everything with such panache that I can’t help but get excited about it. On initial read of the combat rules I though it was clunky and unplayable with way too much detail and archaic system design. On playing it though it just clicks together. Yes, it is a bit slow and your first few gunfights are going to take a while, especially if you use all the advanced rules, but they are just so much fun! The feeling of satisfaction you get when you get that perfect 25 and hit some horsethief right between the eyes is amazing. The mini games look to be lots of fun and I’m itching to get a campaign going so I can try them out. The game also has very good support on the web with lots of downloads (which reminds me of one other bad point – there’s no character sheet in the book, it’s only available online) and a fairly active forum that has the developers appearing and answering questions as well as joining in the banter!
If you really hate crunchy systems then my feeling is that you’re probably not going to like this game however and I feel the system would require quite a heavy modification to use it for any genre other than Westerns.

I have been looking for a Western system for quite a while, I’ve read a few and none of them grabbed me like A&8 has. So much so that my Mrs has become totally fed up with me buying “classic” Westerns and “wasting” money on cowboy minis!

Now all I’ve got to do is start saving for the upcoming supplement “Rustlers & Townsfolk”.

Reviewed by Jez Grey

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Guest isn't a real person, but this review has been written by one (a real person that is). They kindly submitted it for publication here. Their details are contained in the body of the review.

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