Monday, 16 April 2018

Nazis and Dinosaurs in the Lost World

The fascination with dinosaurs continues....

After Operation High Jump in 1947 finally discovered and captured the main Nazi cave entrances to the Hollow Earth (the original entrances in the salt mines of Bavaria being dynamited shut in 1945) the Allies are finally exploring the lush jungles of Middlehiem, in search of the two divisions of Nazi troops and untold concentration camp slave labourers who disappeared into the underworld in 1944-45.

The charming log chalets of Nieu Deutschland were made with slave labour....

With mainland Europe devastated by the Z-Virus, and much of Eastern Europe still quarantined due to hordes of wandering undead, there is an eye to colonizing the Hollow Earth.

 The British Empire has found new lease of life, with their experience of "colonising" hostile regions...  They are one of the foremost nations exploring the Underworld...

But first, threats must be neutralized.  Without the ability to use air support or heavy vehicles, Allied light infantry troops must fight their way through the caves and jungles of Middlehiem.  Giant beasts, dinosaurs, and primitive tribes are not the only horrors they must face.


The armoured Bren suits are well adapted for exploring the dangers of Middlehiem...

The Nazis have brought many of their most deadly weapons with them: werewolf soldiers, light mecha and psychic troops wielding alien tech.  Warfare tends to be on a small scale; scout squads and light infantry recon platoons clashing in the remote jungle far from support, or battling in claustrophobic cave systems.  

 The Soviets, wary of their erstwhile allies, are also energetically staking claim to the underworld, through their Tunguska entrance.

 Their vaunted sniper teams are very useful for dealing with rogue dinos, and they use anti-tank rifles to good effect.

Already cracks are appearing between the old allies - there have been clashes between British and Russian troops, and their is talk of a "Cold War" as the Soviets attempt to establish a new Communist empire.  

Saturday, 10 March 2018

French and Indian Dinosaur Wars 1754

We all know how the French and British colonists in the New World clashed over the lucrative dinosaur trade. Dinosaur skins, teeth and other products provided an irresistible lure to those in search of wealth. Dino trappers and hunters roam the wilds, hunting dinosaurs which emerge from the cavern entrances to Middlehiem in the depths of the deep woods of the Ohio Valley. 

French and British troops, supported by allied Indian war parties, clash both in the deep woods and in the lost underworld of Middlehiem.

Here some French Compagnies de Marine explore the depths of Middlehiem, staking a French claim on the new lands of the underworld.

They are countered by Rangers who patrol to protect British interests.  Primitive grenades are effective in deterring larger predators like the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Indians are allied to both sides. They trade enthusiastically for muskets, whose .75 cal stopping power is very useful against larger dinosaurs. I'll need to touch the models up and base them properly, but I aim for "tableworthy-and-painted" as my #1 goal.

I love the French-Indian Wars as they have a very skirmish-centric focus with very different forces (militia, Indians, line infantry, etc). Plus, canoes! What could improve this? Dinosaurs of course!

I actually feel dinosaurs fit well with the hunting-trapping-exploring-the-deep-woods vibe of this era.  What would be more natural than to hunt and trap rare dinosaurs for their skins?

Toys dinosaurs are very cheap. This is two $10 packs of dinos from K-Mart, painted with cheap craft paints. The terrain came with it, and I think it's quite servicable, given the price point...

Again, this is another spin-off of the "lost world/jouney-to-the-centre-of-the-earth" setting of my Middleheim homebrew rules, which one may suspect merely serve as a vehicle for playing with cool toys (dinos ftw!).  I've been forced to make my own rules as the newer campaign skirmish games (SoBH etc) have "missed the mark" for me by adding 101 special rules and dumbing down the campaign aspect; whereas the Necromunda reboots and similar seem mired in 1990s mechanics with few changes.

I'm eyeing off "Aztecs vs Conquistadors vs Dinos" next but sadly my gaming budget is crippled nowdays (two young kids will do that!) so I may have to settle for "Vikings vs Indians vs Dinos" instead, repurposing some of my bow-armed FIW Indians and paint my Gripping Beast vikings (untouched since playtesting SAGA years ago) for earlier battles in the New World.  Or maybe Dinosaurs: The Vietnam War where Vietcong train dinos to ambush US patrols, and then their tunnel system extends into Middlehiem.  Hmmm, is a common theme emerging? Well, at least it isn't zombies....

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Psychic Knights Riding Dinosaurs: A Lost World

This is my current "default" Middlehiem setting for my homebrew skirmish campaign rules.  I thought I'd share some WIP shots and a bit of background on Middlehiem.

I suppose Middlehiem could be described as a underground "lost-world"(think Journey to the Centre of the Earth) where dinosaurs can be telepathically controlled by dino-knights - wearing plate armour. It has War of the Roses/late-Middle-Ages tech where gunpowder is in its infancy.  Middleheim's core setting may or may not be expanded to include not-African-tribesman, not-Incas, and not-Japanese samurai as my budget permits.





I think the genre I am aiming for is "medieval pulp" - high middle ages swashbucking rather than the usual Iron/Bronze Age Conanesque sort...


Underpinning this is my magic system. This is just typical psychic abilities from modern and sci fi, transplanted back to the Middle Ages. I'm not a huge fan of wizards in pointy hats - borrowing psychic powers means I have a "established" magical framework that works in a consistent, coherent manner.  Knights with psychic powers feels "new" but enables me to steal from established systems (cough Savage Worlds cough).

The ruling class are all psychics - the telepaths are the "dino knights"- they alone can control the giant beasts and tend to be the upper nobility of Middleheim.  They have an array of mind-focussed psychic powers - focussed on mind control and illusion. Typical abilities would include confusing foes, creating illusionary doppelgangers, mind control and mental attacks, and buffing/debuffing morale, and obscuring (invisibility) as well as limited precognition. They can also shield themselves and nearby allies against mental attacks.





Perry medieval plastics have been wonderful for making random minis; they have a myriad combos and extra arms/legs/heads make them awesome for scratchbuilding/body swaps...


The second, lesser noble class are telekinetics.  Typically fighting on foot, they tend toward physical powers - pushing, pulling, deflecting and directing projectiles, augmented blows, spraying fire, with some healing and limited levitation.  Deadlier in direct combat, they are less effective at commanding both men, and the mighty dinos that decide most battles.

The rank and file are equipped with long pikes and powerful polearms; well-suited to taking down large reptiles as well as armoured knights. Half of most forces are equipped with either powerful crossbows and longbows. Lately primitive muskets have come onto the scene, capable of propelling a lead ball through even the toughest dino hide.

The smallest military unit is the "lance" - usually a telepathic dino-knight and his apprentice squire, both riding raptor-sized dinos.  They are supported by several telekinetic men-at-arms, and up to half a dozen each of both bowmen and pike/halberdiers - usually over a dozen men total.

The models need a lot of polish but my aim was to give them a basic coat so I can playtest the rules...
I'm quite happy with the $1 dinos and I think they will paint up well with a bit of drybrushing and simple detailing... 

 Middleheim is made up of small duchies and city-states.  Battles are fought on a small scale - with hundreds per side being common, and large battles being rare.  The underworld is lit by luminescent plants and lava pools; the terrain can range from rocky desert to lush jungle.  Dinosaurs and giant creatures roam the wilds, with spiders the size of horses amongst the horrors of the wilds.

In Middleheim, the gamer controls a lance of mercenary dino-knights. They can hire out to fight battles for local lords, escort caravans through dino-infested terrain, and hunt down rogue T-rexes. They can defend settlements against Aztec raids.  The troopers in the lance can then "level up" in both psychic and physical abilities in a campaign. 


Anyway, that might give those who are interested a background on my homebrew skirmish rules' setting. It started as I felt dinosaurs were vastly under-represented in wargaming (compared to say, zombies/undead: which I am heartily sick of) and I wondered how I could include them. I noticed some of my 2-year-old's cheap $1 plastic dino toys fit with some 28mm Perry knights... and the rest is history....

Monday, 12 February 2018

Domina - Gladiator Management (PC)

This is an awesome game. 

It's also a good game if you're more wargamer than PC gamer. 

You manage your own ludus, with a stable of gladiators who rank up with training and successful fights.  Besides choosing their training regime (modifying their stats) and equipment through your doctore, and allocating gladiators to fights, there's a lot to do between fights; keeping nice with the town magistrate and military commander, organizing exhibition matches and pit fights, as well as organising an array of specialists (doctors, augurs, architects, spies etc).  It's a simple game with a lot to do. There are constant random events (usually with funny stories) that crop up in a RPG fashion.  I like how you can turn your gladiators into specialists, so you have a tool for every fight.

You can upgrade your ludus significantly with baths to assist healing, practice dummies, etc.

Unlike football management games where no one watches the boring actual games, the "games" in Domina contain hilarious and unexpected pixel violence.

If you want to control a gladiator in fights you can; I personally let the AI control the hilariously bloody pixel violence.  The bouts are varied; gladiators chained to the ground, lions, uneven numbers or gear. I haven't even explored the chariot racing yet.

Domina has a vaguely roguelike vibe (keep characters alive/fed/happy/permadeath) and I found myself trying to keep a few better gladiators alive while heartlessly feeding others to the meatgrinder. Everyone, though, is ultimately disposable, though (like X-COM) ending up with only rookies left late on would be punishing.

It's meant to be played in short bursts - there's no full-featured save; so you can't go back to an older save undo your mistakes - and wipe outs do occur (everyone starved to death in an early playthrough when I ran out of money...).

Why chariot race when you can fight instead?

Buy this game. You need no "gaming" skills. You don't need a good computer. You could download it on dial-up (it's 500MB). It's fun.

Do you like campaign or narrative wargames (Mordhiem etc)
Do you like gladiators?
Do you have a dark sense of humour?

If you answered yes to any of these, buy this game.  The downsides are: I suspect it could get repetitive/would be easy to "cheese"/min-max. It's also more a casual game than mainstay of my gaming time.

Recommended? Yes. A blood-spattered thumbs up!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Shadow War: Armageddon - The New Old Necromunda

"the more things change, the more they stay the same," (Alphonse Karr, 1849)
The "new Games Workshop" has returned with lots of new Specialist Games-style offerings.  Too many for me to afford or test, that's for sure.  Whilst the company policy apparently has changed,their pricing certainly hasn't - $70AUD ($55 USD/40 pounds) - for a softcover rulebook when Privateer is moving to free pdfs - I could buy a Malifaux or Warmachine starter box (with rules) for that price.

Since Shadespire is looking more like a CCG/boardgame hybrid than a miniatures game, my hopes of a "New Mordhiem" seem dashed. But what about the new Necromunda

Well, it's out. But paying  $250AUD for the box set...  ...THEN having to folk over another $50 book to play the campaign (wtf?!)... that's the old mercenary GW at it's best.  It's the equivalent of removing a faction in a PC game (like, say, Warhammer: Total War) so you can sell it later as a DLC.
The old Games Workshop style gouging at it's finest.  About to walk away, I paused when I came across a copy of Shadow Wars.

Campaign skirmish in a hive world? ....sounds familiar. 

That's because it is. Shadow War IS the old Necromunda, with standard 40K factions replacing the gangs, and a lot of interesting campaign options trimmed out/dumbed down.  In fact, you can pretty much stop reading now, as that sentence pretty much summed up these rules.

Shadow War is simply the Necromunda rules (now feeling clunky and outdated) rebadged as an expensive softcover.  They kept the worst bit (the rules themselves) whilst removing/simplifying much of the best bit (the campaign system.)  There's probably some subtle differences (I'm sure there's detailed blow by blow details on some 40K fansite somewhere) but from what I can recall, it's the same game. 

For those pining for Necromunda, Shadow Wars allows you to use your 40K models. Sadly, the rules are dated, and the campaign is simple and bland.

The Shiny
It's comparable to a $40 Warmachine softcover, but just $30 more expensive. It's pretty, but somewhat unintuitive to use.  Unlike the New 2017 Necromunda, it has 15 kill teams AND the campaign rules included (like you'd expect) - so there's that, I suppose.

Activation & Stats
Remember this is Necromunda (aka modified 2nd ed), pretty much word for word. So typical IGOUGO (ignoring any advances in the last 20-odd years) - you do everything with all your dudes, before the opponent can respond. And my goodness, the nostalgia - I haven't seen a stat line as long as  this:  M  WS   BS   S   T   W   I    A   Ldr - outside of a RPG, for years.

Movement
Remember when charging was a double move, rather than a random dice amount added on?  And - yay - not everyone moves 6"- some factions are faster or slower. Like the old Necromunda, there are rules for climbing, hiding, falling etc - and like the old Necromunda I'll still have to houserule what you can do if halfway up a ladder.

Combat
Yup, old-school tables which you need to consult before you can make rolls. And modifiers - lots of modifiers. I'd forgotten just how many. Shooting is very much old-school 40K - but models if hit are automatically pinned. Then there's the roll against toughness. Then a saving throw.  It seems clunky - there's too many steps and modifiers.  Tracking ammo is a pest, as is "flesh wounds"- that is a -1 to BS/WS for the rest of the game. There's good old-school overwatch. Models can usually fire 360d (wasn't the old Necromunda 180? not sure - if so it's the fist change I've noticed). Melee is a different mechanic - roll 1d6 per attack and add the best to the WS. Difference in score is the # of hits scored by the winner. 

Morale
Again, a new mechanic (well, the same as the old one, but this is the third or fourth dice rolling mechanic so far - very inconsistent design) - 2d6 and must roll = or under Ldr to maintain nerve.  If a friendly goes down close by, allies test morale to see if they break. Once 25% of the warband is downed or fled, a bottle test is made for the whole gang - if they fail the game ends.

The art and graphics are nice, but the rules are a bit unintuitive - nice to look at, not particularly handy for actually searching for rules...


Warbands & Campaign
You get up to 10 guys, (more if Orks) including a leader and 2-3 specialists.   Different factions get access to different skill trees.  You can use pretty much all the 40K factions - great! This is why I bought the rules - to reinvigorate many 40K dusty 40K models lying dormant since... 5th ed? 

But Shadow Wars is disappointingly streamlined - as there's no XP, territories, or sending guys out to do odd jobs. You can choose between recruitment or new gear; and you can choose exactly what you want - no need to roll for availability etc.  Even serious injuries are simplified to a d6 - I can see a lot of models will end up with Frenzy. You choose exactly which one character to get a new skill/advance each game. Sounds totally not open to being abused.....  Even on the skill rolls, you choose the type of skill and then roll twice on the table, choosing your favourite - so you have a great chance of getting exactly what you want...  No min-maxing opportunities here, no sir. 

So basically, the best part of Necromunda got dumbed down and ever easier to min-max; though it is much less likely you'd get the "snowball" effect where a winning gang becomes an unstoppable juggernaut after a few games. 

Finally, promethium replaces cash (it's kinda a mix of cash+VP) which you can use to win (once you accrue 15) or hire "free agents" to bolster your force. It feels odd.  Also, when replacing losses you can spend up to 100 points on a new recruit; but many troops cost over 100...   ...so you can't replace elite troops when you lose them?  Again, feels a bit "off."  The scenarios seem the same as the old Necromunda ones.

While I can finally get some use out of my dusty 40K models again, Shadow War leaves me feeling vaguely cheated. 

TL:DR
Well, you could have stopped when I said "exactly the same as old Necromunda, with 40K instead of gangs, with the campaign dumbed down." The new GW hasn't got better at writing rules, that's for sure - and why would they, when they can lazily rehash the older ones?  Worse yet, they streamlined the wrong thing - keeping old clunky game rules, whilst gutting many characterful campaign mechanics.

+ Does allow you to use 40K models to play a campaign game
- You could probably find fan-made 40K gangs on the net for old Necromunda and have the same experience (example links) if GW hasn't shut them down
- Same chaotic rule writing from original Necromunda; dated rules design
- Overpriced for what it is.
- Campaign overly dumbed down; easier to min-max... (seems more league rules than narrative campaign)
+ .....BUT less likely to get overpowered teams after a few wins
- I have to go looking for funky dice like scatter dice, artillery dice etc
- Quite a lot of token clutter for such a simple/old game
 - It feels like it needs house rules (and after spending $70, I'm resentful) 

Recommended: a guarded and resentful Yes merely as it allows you to re-purpose 40K models in an acceptable skirmish campaign; the small numbers needed to play make it affordable; even if the rulebook is a ripoff. But if you have old Necromunda you could probably find house rules on the net that do the same thing, for free. Worse: instead streamlining and modernizing the games rules themselves, GW mistakenly kept the old ones verbatim, but opted to trim the once characterful campaign system to be rather generic, McDonalds and bland.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Fighting Sail: Rules Review

Not sure what it is. Maybe it is the subject matter.  Naval wargamers are notorious rivet counters.  Napoleonics players are so anal retentive they can argue for hours about uniform buttons.  Mix them together in "age of sail" and perhaps it shouldn't surprise that the age of sail rulesets tend to be more chore than game. In the past, I've found the most playable ones tend to have more boardgame than wargame in their DNA.

A typical Osprey, Fighting Sail has a good mix of colour photos and pictures. 

Fighting Sail tries to capture the "feel" of age of sail without the book keeping.  It aims to allow squadrons and fleets rather than 1v1 ship duels.  It has a hint of old-school Warhammer about it; if you hated Trafalgar and Man O War, you are unlikely to approve of Fighting Sail, which is a streamlined descendent; where the odd damage counter is the most book-work you will need.

It is interesting as the victory conditions is to reduce the morale of the entire enemy fleet.

Templates and counters are in the back of the book. Old school!
The Shiny
Fighting Sail is an Osprey book - and all it entails.  Decent pictures, photos and illustrations, standard softcover 64 pages.  A quick reference and photocopy-able templates are at the back. The index isn't great but the book is so small you barely need it. Not a lot to add.  As usual, the price point ($15) is good and makes it hard to criticise.  The author is evidently enthusiastic and includes background info to "set the scene" at the start of each chapter.

Barrier to Entry
A handful of d6, some turn/wind templates (found in the back of the book), and 4-5 colours of tokens for damage, cannon, anchor which is all you need.  As for ships: I regard them as playing pieces, not elaborate models (rigging them with thread etc = sadomasochism) so I recommend Tumbling Dice's 1:2400; they are sturdy and cheap at ~$4ea.

Even in Langton's "Fast Play" rules, you can subtract literally hundreds of hit points in different locations...
 
...and consult charts.  If you love this sort of game, then Fighting Sail - with its odd token to record damage and minimal bookwork - will not appeal to you. Games can occur in an hour, rather than a day. 

Activation/Sequence of Play
Roll d6 to see who goes first.  It is not quite IGO-UGO (or "20 minute dick punches" --thanks for the quote MagicJuggler) - as it is broken into movement and shooting sub-phases;  Player A moves, then Player B moves, then Player A shoots, then Player B shoots.  

Movement
You have wind template to check the ship's angle to the wind. This matters, as each ship has "Sailing Points" - the amount of dice you throw, or "potential" speed.  The success chance depends on the wind angle: a agile frigate might have 5 Sailing Points. It rolls 5d6.  If it is reaching, it gets 2" movement every 4+ rolled.  If it is close hauled to the wind, it might only get a 2" each 5+; if in irons a '6' might be needed to move...    Ships can tack or wear; using a template provided in the back of the book.  There are rules for collisions, entangling, grounding etc as you'd expect.

Ship stats from GW's now-OOP Trafalgar.  Fighting Sail strips back and streamlines this still further - you don't need to record damage anywhere. 

Shooting
It's pretty simple; a 3+, 4+ or 5+ to hit on a d6 (at short, medium and long ranges) as long as the target is not within 30d of your bow (a template is available if needed).

A high roll can cause an "explosion" or critical hit - short range fire causes explosions on 5,6 and medium range on a 6. An "explosion" causes a hit and you get a re-roll.  Normally you only get one re-roll, unless it is raking fire, in which case you can keep rolling as long as you get explosions.

Squadrons of 2-3 ships can combine their fire under the right conditions.

Boarding combat is pretty quick and simple; both sides roll 4+ each boarding dice, and if the attacker wins he captures the ship; if he loses he is beaten off.

Damage
Ships get to roll d6 "saves" - as many d6s as they have "hull" points (so a 3-hull frigate would get 3 rolls) with a 4+ "saving" the damage.

Check the combined hits and consult a list; a single hit might just "disrupt" a ship's sailing ability; all the way to five hits that can cause catastrophic sinking damage.

Hits also cause damage to fleet morale; even if the ship itself is not sunk. This makes sense, as in this era ships were more likely to flee or be captured rather than decisively sunk. I like the focus on morale as a victory condition.

Ships can attempt to repair damage (remove a token). Accumulated damage can also cause a ship to strike as well as halving gunnery and sailing points etc.

A criticism: I think the damage section is the only area I had to re-read to understand; I think key info was spread over too many pages.

It's nicely laid out, but I'd have preferred less illustrations and some campaign rules added...

Morale
This is very important - morale is 10% of the fleet's total VP value. It can be lost through damage, sinking ships, boarding, collisions or capture - the latter is the most vital as captured ships ADD morale to the capturing fleet. Once morale reaches 0 the player loses.

Weather & Special Rules
There are "advanced" rules for weather, grounding, fog, squalls etc which are so straightforward they might as well have been part of the main game. There are rules for shore batteries, fireships, bomb ketches and multi-player games.

Fleets & Scenarios
This has a vibe of "40K army list" - you must have a commander, and you may have x amount of points to spend (Ships cost points: ~100 for a 1st rate, down to ~20 for a frigate.) Admirals and captains may have special abilities; a "Disciplinarian" or "Gunner" admiral can automatically pass a Morale roll or get an extra broadside once per game for his whole fleet.  There are also captain skills for individual ships:  a; a Navigator can re-roll '1's on sailing dice, and a Marksman can do the same when firing cannon.  There are also "legendary" captains and admirals with unique traits, and even some legendary ships such as the Bellerophon, Constitution or Victory with their own special rules.
Even fleets like Russia and Portugal are included.  There are six missions or scenarios ranging from protecting convoys to blockades to pursuits.

Tumbling Dice are my go-to brand for small scales; they are designed as gaming pieces first and foremost; they are very sturdy, practical, and have exaggerated features that "pop" well at tabletop distances. 
No campaign rules....
I really feel these rules would work great as a campaign, and I really felt their absence. The 64-page limit of Osprey probably is an issue here, but there was plenty of stories and background info included; surely even a simple campaign could have been squeezed in. I really feel this was an opportunity missed - my first reaction after reading the rules were "this would work great as a campaign...  ...oh, phooey."

The rules are simple, but there's still plenty of examples to show what is intended...

TL:DR
It has a definite "old school GW/Man O War" vibe and I'm sure age of sail pedants purists will find something to nit-pick, but it's a very playable set of rules for this era, without the book-keeping and fussiness that plagues most non-boardgames rules from this genre.  I found myself comparing it to GW's Historical's OOP Trafalgar - but Fighting Sail is much more streamlined than its forebear.  I'd say it's two biggest flaws are that the streamlining would make 1v1 duels a bit dull (the focus is squarely on fleet/squadron actions of say 6+ per side) and the lack of a campaign.

Recommended: Yes.  I'm actually painting my 1:2400 sailing ships at the moment. The other rules I've played I was content to try once with bare metal ships, and then quietly shelve.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

War Thunder: A PC Game Review for Middle Age Gamers (Air Arcade)

War Thunder is free.  It is about WW2 tanks, planes and (soon) coastal forces like MTBs and S-boats - sometimes mixed together on the same map.  It runs on a laptop or a complete potato PC.  It is undemanding on the reflexes, and favours tactics and cunning.  It comes in a range of difficulty from arcade (5 minutes of pew pew with a keyboard and mouse; minimum controls) to full sim (spend 5 minutes starting the plane's engines using joysticks etc).  It can be played single player, co-op or multiplayer. Perfect for the middle age gamer.  Actually, there's something for everyone.  It's even relatively kid-friendly (my 4-year-old spectates and offers advice like "shoot that one, daddy!")

I signed up back in early beta. Back then, I was a bit of a sim snob, and disliked the keyboard and mouse setup of arcade. I preferred IL-2: 1946 (which still is better if you want to just try 400+ WW2 warbirds).  Fast forward to November last year.  I now have kids - and my ability to play games is measured in minutes not hours.  Faced with the choice of a 5 minute game with human players, or no game at all (as long games are out of the question) I tried it again.  And was pleasantly surprised.

I am going to focus this review on Air Battles, Arcade Mode as that is the one I have the most experience in, though there is tank battles and (soon) coastal forces.

Fellow Aussies seem active in War Thunder. Quite a few Youtubers come from down under. 

What is it about
In teams of a dozen or so, players contest territory (occupying "hotspots" or capturing airbases) or try to destroy ground targets or similar.  There is arcade, realistic and sim modes - each with increasing complexity (and game length).  In arcade (which I play); I can fly with a mouse, spacebar (bombs), mouse click (shoot); right click (look around) and extra controls (WASD - elevators and rudder) with throttle bound to mouse wheel.  Super easy to pick up and play.  Tanks are even easier and more intuitive.

Graphics
Good without being amazing.  You can import custom skins if you have a favourite pilot's paint job you want to imitate.  I'd rate them as satisfying rather than mind blowing, although there is something that just feels "right" as sparkling tracers pour into a 109 which suddenly belches white smoke, or your plane glinting in the sun as it rolls, contrails feathering behind at 6000m....

Gameplay
I've found this to be pretty fun. In arcade you can mix up planes of all nations (i.e. 109s and Zeroes flying alongside and against Spitfires, Yaks, Mustangs etc), while realistic and sim stick to historical line-ups. My focus will be primarily on arcade, as I think it is friendliest to the time-strapped dad gamer with 5-10 minute games. Realistic and sim games can exceed 45min.+

Real air combat maneuvers work - yo-yos, Immelman/Split S, scissors all seem to come intuitively, and I am working on spiral climbs and hammerheads.  Energy management matters; a player with a height advantage has a speed and manoeuvre advantage; I tend to climb energetically whenever it is safe to do so.

Having a friend on voice comms is a huge advantage - such as dragging up pursuing enemies to drain their energy for your wingman to finish with an easy shot.  Aircraft are balanced by "battle rating" (BR) which is an average of your best three aircraft. If you die (in arcade) you can respawn up to half a dozen times if you have suitable vehicles.

In short, gameplay is good, fun, and you can play the mode that suits your taste.  Tactics and commonsense are more important in War Thunder than teenage twitch skills and fast reactions.

Italian and French forces are recently added, but vehicle choices are limited. 

Tiers & Balance
Sometimes you can face higher battle rated vehicles. This is more an issue in tanks where a high tier heavy can bounce your tank to easily (think Sherman 75mm vs Tiger); BR is less an issue in aircraft, piloting is the major factor as all planes tend to fly apart with a burst of gunfire, regardless of tier.

You "unlock" aircraft by playing games and earning XP (by destroying enemies, capturing zones etc); starting with biplanes and ending with Korean-era jets.  For example the British begin with the Gladiator and end with the Meteor, Hunter, Vampire and Venom; the Americans going from the P-26 Peashooter to F-86 Sabre.

Each tier has a different gameplay "meta" - early tiers tend to be swirling low-level dogfights pecking away with ineffective machineguns; higher tiers tend toward energy fighting and high altitude, fast boom-and-zoom with deadly quad cannons.  I enjoy the mid-war era of Spitfire IXs, early F4Us, 109Fs, P-38Ls and the P-39 Aircobra - which has a mix of aircraft types and combat styles.

If you only want to fly jets straight away; I recommend you spend $5 and buy IL:1946 instead; it will take months of regular gaming in War Thunder to "unlock" them.  However, most people will progress through a nation's "unlock" tree to enjoy all the aircraft and flying styles from all eras. Most of the players in multiplayer tend to hang around the middle tiers anyway, playing the iconic prop fighters like Mustangs and 109s.

The Tier system can be annoying; you have to own six aircraft from an era before you can progress to the next era; for example I might want to progress to a late-war Griffon Spitfire, but have to unlock a Beaufighter and Firefly first, even though I am not interested in them.

There are quite a few Youtubers dedicated to reviewing aircraft or teaching gameplay.

Damage Model
Planes don't have health bar; each bullet is modelled and impacts things like controls, pilot, wings, radiators, oil coolers, fuel tanks etc.  It can be annoying to spray an aircraft with bullets only to have it fly away as you didn't hit anything vital; and annoying to have your pilot sniped through the head by the lucky single 7.62mm round at 800m - but it's awesome to see a wing torn off by your P-39s 37mm as well....

Bomber Spam
A few complaints - in arcade most games are won by bombers (aka spacebar warriors) who just charge the target, dump bombs - and die. Bombers are easy to fly - just head level for the target and press spacebar.  The problem is, they can do this half a dozen times.  It's like a cockroach plague - and they can make the game end too quickly if they destroy all the targets fast enough. If you want to win games - fly a bomber. If you actually want to learn to fly and fight - fly a fighter.  It's a bit annoying that learning to be a good pilot and winning seem mutually exclusive.

I'm going to spam a lot of "how to" videos here in case anyone ends up trying War Thunder.  Most Youtubers have guides/channels dedicated on "how to fly" etc.

Killstealers/Accidental Team Kills
I don't mind someone swooping down to secure a kill. I DO mind when I have friendly cannon shells tearing into my plane from oblivious team-mates shooting "through" or past me to a target I am tailing.  This is mostly arcade; less common in more serious game modes.

Uptiering/OP Aircraft
Sometimes veteran players "game" the system and use, for example, under-tiered P47s to get into games against beginner planes such as CR.42s.  The tier system is far from perfect as it takes into account player results across the server as well as raw stats. Apparently, American players in general have eggplant level IQ as US planes tend to be very under-tiered given their performance, and Japanese players must be geniuses as their planes seem be rated much higher than their capabilities.

Lag/Ping
I live in Australia and play on US and Asian servers.  The game is very playable at high ping. About once every 10 games I have a game with packet loss; bullets disappear, or require way more lead than usual, but I can play around it. I've found the game very tolerant of bad ping/bad computer.

Air combat maneuvers work as they do in real life...

Hidden Costs
The game is free, but you can speed your unlock progress by paying for "premium" getting bonus XP, and buy "premium planes" usually captured or lend-lease aircraft (Soviets have P-39 and P-63; British have F4U and F6F, etc) but sometimes unique aircraft (not so good, as if they are unavailable except for money, they can be called "pay to win" if they are any good).  So you can pay, and progress faster to late-war planes, but it's perfectly playable without paying a cent.  I've bought a few premium planes including the P-38K (I love Lightnings) and some experimental planes like the XP-55 (because I love cool and weird planes; things like pusher prop designs are my "thing").

Remember, all the comments above apply primarily to War Thunder Arcade (Air) - I've played tank mode a bit but have far less experience (and have only played at lower tiers).

You can even get guides on control layouts... 

Why you'd play it
It's free
It's WW2 - aircraft, tanks AND coastal forces (sometimes in the same battle)
Play it co-op, solo or multiplayer
Choose your level of complexity/realism/time commitment (arcade/realistic/sim)
Huge range of planes from biplanes to jets.
Child friendly (no blood/guts/swearing if a young one wants to watch)
Real tactics work
Works on poor computers and laptops; pretty good netcode
You don't need expensive joysticks and gear to have fun

Why you'd avoid it
Sometimes frustrating matchups with people gaming the system
Annoying team mates
Unlock system/grind to get to a favourite plane
Bomber spam ending the game too soon
Russian company (i.e. never admits mistakes, censors forums)

Recommended?  Very much yes.  Try this game.  It's a free, flexible game that can be played how you want. It has all sorts of awesome and iconic WW2 aircraft and tanks.  If you want to manage every cowling flap and manually trim things, you can. If you want to mindlessly pew-pew with guns that magically reload in mid-air, you can.  Like Silent Hunter and IL:1946, it's hard to criticise, as if you don't like something; just change the setting or mode.