Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: Gale Force 9 Space Mats

Beachside dolly zoom, Lucosts and US$80 bucks to burn… here’s the low down on my experience with 2 of Gale Force 9’s excellent space battle mats.

Gale Force 9 has a well-earned reputation for smart game aids. I maintain that their Warmachine tokens are still the best by far. They dabble in terrain production and make other useful products for a ton of games. But these vinyl play mats are the focus here, and are particularly well-suited for the Star Wars X Wing Miniatures Game which I must like a lot because I keep playing the game over almost everything else. And I keep bringing it up. Star Wars X Wing Miniatures Game.

I will look at these mats first in terms of fabrication and then the practical use for the two space-based table top games I play and let the perceptual lenses fall where they may. I guess I should state now that the high/low on my opinion comes down to the tension between outlay of cash for the mat retail vs doing this all yourself (which I have done).

Space Station Game Mat

This one I bought first, around Thanksgiving ’13 and it has seen just under 50 games of Star Wars. The feeling at the time was that I already had a 4’x4’ space board painted for Battle Fleet Gothic by yours truly and so, I wanted a mat that would travel along with Star Wars (which was inherently not a star field) and I was really drawn to the stark graphic of a Death-Star like landscape. By far, this mat draws the most feedback of any of the three space surfaces I own, which I will get to after the next paragraph.

Fabrication: Vinyl, well printed and devoid of noticeable repeating objects. It is very clean, graphically. I was worried that there would be strange print blur, artifacts or noise on this image but there was none. Gale Force 9 claims you can use dry erase markers on it but I wouldn’t dare. I’ve seen red markers stain vinyl in my time so I didn’t test that here; take the claim for what it is. It comes rolled up in a study plastic storage tube with enough space to let the plastic breathe and move in the container.

PRO TIP: Alternate the direction you roll each time to offset “storage curl”, where the outside and innermost edge shapes into a curve around the roll. Roll it East-to-West one time and North-to-South the next and it’ll lay flat every time. Lastly, the cuts were true, very clean 90 degree corners which would’ve driven me nuts had they not been. There was little vinyl smell beyond what had me daydreaming about 70’s and 80’s Halloween costumes. Mmmm… flammable.

Practical Use: So what is it about this mat that elicits so much commentary? It is the print itself. It’s like that thing when you stare at a chain link fence and it does that optical veeEERRRT and the foregrounds  and backgrounds sorta swap back-and-forth? Like the chief’s beachside vertigo in Jaws? It’s called a “Dolly Zoom”. Yeah, it is sorta like that. The printed contrast is so dark and the colors so toned in grey that while I think it actually helps sell the scale of ships upon it, well, for Star Wars anyway, they can really blend in. To me, that is an interesting effect.

This reminds me of when I painted my Mage Hunter (Eiryss proxy) for Khador to blend in with the snow terrain and trees I made. I’d deploy him in the tree line and not move him at all. My opponent usually forgot he was there until Disruptor bolts started slinging on the bid for caster kill. So the effect this mat has on players is the same in how it messes with people’s concentration of a coherent image or maybe, their reliance on short-term memory if visually, things are cluttered… which to me is interesting. The Battlefield Mat is like a terrain-heavy board visually even if it isn’t an actual physical or rules constraint.

Nobody that I play with hates this print for Star Wars but some people do remark that it is challenging. Add to the equation that most Rebel ships really are tonal cousins for the overall print color and you have what I think is a cool visual challenge. Collectively, we liked this print a lot less for Battlefleet Gothic both because the scale of Battlestation-to-Gothic cruiser was 2 townships past Disbeliefield and also because 3’x3’ is REALLY small for most Battlefleet Gothic. While the mat had very little in terms of moment-ruining sheen it is still vinyl and so, models can skate a bit more than they do with your average felt mat. That said, I’ve never once seen a high-stakes game ruined by slickness of the mat. 

My Value Opinion: Medium/High. I think it is interesting for all players to try once while dodging IP-inflated Lucas costs (Lucosts?) of a licensed Star Wars product. You have to answer for yourself if the average US$40 price is worth it but I’d wager it is for most Star Wars games; remember the super-huge Tantive and Rebel Transport are coming out soon and you may find 3’x3’ too small if they are to be contained in that space. For Battle Fleet Gothic I would say the mat is less useful due to size and print and it is an unknown to me for other space games since I do not play much else… though Star Trek Attack Wing could rationalize the background as a stylized Borg Cube background.

All told, I give it an A for myself and a collective B+/A- for the herd, based on responses ranging from “love it!” and “what the hell is going on with my ocular acuity?” I’ve tried to pay attention to which camp the gamer vets and the freshmen fall into, but so far it just comes down to matters of taste and tastes are fairly distributed across both sides.  Lastly, it photographs well, though the ship-blending effect should be pretty apparent by the pics. I just wish they were bigger than 3’x3’. Even Star Wars needs a tad bigger space, in my opinion.

Frozen Planet Game Mat

Of the two Gale Force 9 mats, this is probably more popular by an appreciable margin though I’ve had it the least amount of time (about 2 months at press time). It summons up thoughts of Hoth and the glory days of Rebels running an Imperial blockade; for me, a time paradoxically before and after Deathsticks and James Earl Moans. For Battle Fleet Gothic, it can easily be a primary biosphere or Outer Reaches. For any other game, it is what it is… a beautiful space scene. What else do you need?

Fabrication: Vinyl, graphically very beautiful and clean of artifacts. A great background for space fights. Like the Battlestation mat, it comes rolled up in a study plastic storage tube and has all the same tolerances, material and finishing.  One other thing that I noticed was that since this mat is dark and has a large star field, the material sheen was more apparent compared to the Battlestation, since it was predominantly dark. I did notice what may have been a dried production solution sorta clouding the mat here and there. I was able to wipe some of it off and ignore the rest. No idea if this is just my mat or what. You wouldn’t see this on the lighter print Battlestation mat if it had it.

Practical Use: I would argue this is the more useful mat for most people. The imagery obviously evokes space and is definitely more useful for more games that don’t have Death Star in the lexicon. This background allows ships to take center stage visually, where they pop a lot more than the Battlestation mat. Personally, I prefer something that feels cold, like this mat, instead of some of the other prints based in warmer reds and yellows, though I will probably get one like that soon. We’ve also had fun with gravity rules centered on the planet while playing Star Wars (a free boost towards the planet for any ship in range one). What isn't practical is availability. I heard from my FLGS that this print was sold out but I have not verified that with Gale Force 9.

My Value Opinion: High. I would score this one an A/A-. If it was larger at this price and the mysterious production fluid cloud was missing… it’d be totally perfect. It photographs really well and people relate this more to space battles than the other. I’d struggle to paint something like this on my own with such clear quality, not to mention the time it would take. So again, marks are given for time I save in fabrication which I can instead spend trying to play Battlefield 4 as it crashes and deletes my saved data non-stop.

In conclusion, I would say if you won’t spend the same amount of money or less on felt and spray cans then the value is apparent. 

If you peeps have experience with these mats or something similar, feel free to riff below!