Black Ops was a small wargame published by the prolific Osprey Games last year. I picked up a copy as the idea of a stealth wargame sounded intriguing and I’m pleased to report it’s a little gem of a game.

The author (Guy Bowers) explains the idea behind the rules pretty simply: he has played way too much Metal Gear Solid, and wanted to bring some of that to the table. I think he’s done an excellent job of that, and in fact exceeded his brief. At 64 pages it’s a short punchy rule set that packs a lot in, although a couple of sections could use fleshing out a bit.

German guards scramble to the farmhouse

At its heart Black Ops is a game about a small crack team of experts sneaking into an area defended by a larger force that don’t know they’re coming. The attacking player has to use stealth and dirty tricks to try to sneak past or subdue the guards, but at some point the alarm will be raised and the shooting starts. There are variations on that theme, but that’s the game’s default setup.

Activation is by cards, and each side will probably have about 5-20 troops and maybe a vehicle occasionally. That size game will play on a  4ft table  in 2-3 hours, but you will need plenty of terrain, so the time and money you save on lead is going to go into wood and resin.

You can see a report of a recent WW2 game I played using the rules here: Black and White Ops.

Force Composition

Black Ops uses a point system and army lists are in the book for various faction types, ranging from local militia to military special ops and secret agents. Each faction has its own restrictions on troops types and weapons, and they each have a unique special rule and a limited choice of upgrades for their force. For example, the militia have cheap, crummy troops with few big guns, but have an option to take the fun-sounding “endless” upgrade which allows them to recycle all their casualties and bring them on as reserves. Think Mogadishu for that one, with the hard-pressed professionals digging in hard as waves of  locals hopped up on khat charge at them with AKs.

The options and upgrades are where it starts to get interesting IMO, as it can give your little army some real flavour. For example, Special Ops troops can fast rope or even HALO into battle, while Intelligence Agencies can disguise themselves as civilians and have universal access to silenced and suppressed weapons, so they can hide in plain sight and then gank sentries quietly.

There are also some variants of the basic lists included, such as PLA and IDF variants of the Conscripts list, and one for turning the Professional military list into a police swat team. The authors also give some notes on real squad organisation for some current armies.

Some military types take on the local militia boys

Some military types take on the local militia boys

Overall the lists give a nice mix of solid real-world options and the more weird and Hollywood stuff. You can field accurate squads of US infantry battling Islamist fanatics in some far-flung dust bowl, or you can have secret agents entering the table using rebreathers. There’s even a brief nod to sci-fi with the “five minutes from now” section covering things likes power armour and handheld railguns. For fans of Jesse Ventura the Mercenary list also has an option for a manpack minigun (although the ex-armourer in wishes it didn’t).

There’s no reason you have to stick with the ultra-modern lists, either. The rules include full costs for everything so you can point up other stuff. I’ve used the game for WW2 commando actions and it works absolutely fine. Anything 20th century or later is no problem, so whether you’re storming an Imperial German Zeppelin or arresting perps in Mega-City One the game can hack it.

Command and Control

Black Ops is a card activation system, using a standard deck of playing cards. Different troop types all activate on the turn of their card. For example, basic troopers are jacks, leaders are aces and heavy weapons are kings. So when a black king comes up, all heavy weapons from that side can activate. Alternatively a model can go into reserve when activated, this can do one of two things. It functions as overwatch, allowing the model to fire at anything entering its arc. It can also be used to defer that model’s activation until a friendly within 6″ activates. Say you had a leader (ace) and a team of troops (jacks) that wanted to breach a door and enter a room together. If the ace card came up you’re not going to want to send the leader in all by himself, so you’d put him on reserve, then when a jack came up you’d activate them all together.

One obvious bonus of using this type of card activation is that the game isn’t IGOUGO, activations can seesaw back and forth between either side, or you can get runs of activations on one side. That’s unpredictable and keeps both players involved, which I like. In a turn everything will activate, but it’s just a question of who activates and in what order. If you’ve played games like Muskets and Tomahawks this will seem familiar.

The fact that a deck of cards has four suits also means the game can scale up to four players without any problems, you simply activate when your cards come up. If you want to go the other way the stealth phase would work brilliantly well as a solo game.

Movement

All models move as individuals, you can move up to 3″ and fire without penalty, 6″ with a penalty or run 9″ without firing. Stationary troops have better accuracy and often more shots, too.

In a hostage rescue scenario, spec ops rocket launcher covers the advance of his fireteam

In a hostage rescue scenario, spec ops rocket launcher covers the advance of his fireteam

In the stealth phase of the game all guards react according to a dice roll. While things are still quiet this is pretty random, but as more noise markers are placed they start to be less random and tend to move towards the source of the noise. It’s a nice simple mechanic, but does require some common sense and agreement between players about what is a sensible way for a guard to act.

Vehicles are covered and generally move about twice the speed of dismounts.

Deployment

The rules contain both tables and scenarios, and if you want to randomly generate a game you roll to see which one of each you get. You could be playing an assassinate missions on the airport table, or an escort one on the city table, or vice versa. This will affect when and where you deploy. There are some interesting options, like an ambush mission where one side enters the table in a convoy of vehicles. In practice though, you might be quite limited by what terrain and miniatures you’ve got.

Defenders generally start with a percentage of their force on guard, with the rest inactive. The attackers enter the table and do their sneaky thing. When the balloon goes up there will be a mad scramble as the defender tries to get the rest of their troops out of bed and into action.

Defenders also get reinforcements. These are extra troops that they can bring on later in the game. If they choose to reinforce quickly they’ll probably get a few guys on foot, but if they hold out for longer bringing on a vehicle is a definitely possibility (this is the bit in the movie when the bad guys bring up their tank and good guys have to leg it…)

Combat

The mechanics here are pretty familiar, when activated a model generally can take about 1-3 shots depending on their weapon. Roll to hit, and the target makes a save. Models which fail their save go down, and if there’s no medic they stay that way. Medics can make a roll on wounded models to see if they can bring them back (they’ll generally remain injured to some degree).

There is a good suppression mechanic; instead of rolling to kill you can instead choose to suppress. You get a +1 to hit, and for each hit you make you put a suppression marker on the target. It’s then up to the target what to do, if they choose to stay down or crawl away then they’re safe, if they stick their head up then they have to roll to save against all the hits immediately. It’s a nice simple mechanic and works.

Surprise!

Surprise!

All firearms that aren’t silenced or suppressed generate noise tokens. Silencers are only available for the smaller weapons, but are completely quiet. Suppressed weapons still generate noise counters that can up the alert state, but the noise can’t be used for observation tests. Essentially this means the enemy know something is up, but will find it hard to locate the shooter (good for snipers).

Hand-to-hand combat has both sides roll, whoever score most hits wins (you get extra dice for flank and rear attacks). If an attacker beats a guard in a single round of close combat then the result is a silent kill, otherwise it’ll generate noise tokens.

Morale and Psychology

Generally troops in cover will behave themselves, but being caught in the open is bad for morale and hits on lone models or casualties on groups will trigger a morale check. When a whole side has taken very heavy casualties (50%) then that side takes a morale check every turn to avoid wavering or falling back. The mechanic here is similar to other Osprey games like Ronin; once you start wavering you’re probably finished.

I’ve already mentioned the suppression mechanic above, it’s probably the most important psychological rule. Shooting to suppress is a legitimate tactic, and you can force the enemy to fall back from a position using it.

Victory Conditions

The attacker will have a specific objective defined by the scenario (take out the enemy leader, escort a target, sabotage a thingmybob, etc). The defender generally just has to prevent this and force the attacker to withdraw. The fact that the game splits into two phase (stealthy and noisy) means the way you approach your objective often changes, if the alert is raised there’s no longer any point in sneaking about so all hell breaks loose.

The rulebook presents a nice system of several different table themes (lonely outpost, airport, urban) and also a range of objectives. You roll for one and then the other, which may result in some slight tweaks to actual setup. In practice however you’re unlikely to be able to play on all the tables unless you’ve got a ton of terrain handy. Do you have an airport terminal or enough buildings and roads to do 4x4ft of a city? I know I don’t.

Yes, but is it fun?

Yes, the card activation mechanic is a pretty well-proven one, and there’s enough detail and randomness in the rules to generate dramatic moments. But more than that, Black Ops is unique. It allows you to play scenarios where stealth is just as important as firepower, which is something you don’t normally get in wargames.

There’s no reason you’re limited to the 21st century, either. The whole 20th century has plenty there to inspire you for stealthy combat:

  • Home Guard Auxiliaries carrying out sabotage raids. These guys weren’t “Dad’s Army”, they were elite suicide squads designed to be left behind and cause havoc behind the lines of a German army advancing across Britain.
  • German parachutists (some disguised as nuns) infiltrating a village protected by Home Guard
  • Commando raids on German secret weapon factories (a la Heroes of the Telemark?)
  • French, Soviet, Italian or Yugoslav Partisan raids, assassinations and sabotage missions
  • 1930s Pulp adventures with hat-wearing archaeologists sneaking into secret bases guarded by Nazis, Bolsheviks, cultists or other exotic bad guys
  • Plus about a million weird cloak-and-dagger scenarios you could dream up for VBCW.