Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Battlefleet Gothic Returns - as a RTS? (plus PC gaming related ranting included as free DLC)

I normally don't do "retweet" style posts but this looks pretty cool.

You can customise crew, captain, weaponry, sub-systems - surviving ships gain experience, promotions and upgrades.  SOLD!

 Giant flying cathederals in space are back, baby! 
Even at $40 the entire game will still be cheaper than a single battleship miniature...
 More details here. It seems they're retained the core BFG gameplay.

Space battles - with a campaign system? Shut up and take my money!*

(*Well, after they get it out of Early Access - bloody hell why doesn't anyone release actual complete, tested games anymore?  Silly question I guess - why would you when the world is full of idiots who will pay full price for an incomplete game AND pay for the privilege of being an alpha-test guinea pig. It's as stupid as the "pre-order" thing - give someone your money 6 months in advance for a game which may or may not be good.  Why?  Perhaps they will give you some "exclusive" digital gee-gaw in return for your $70 interest free loan? Perhaps you get to access the official servers 6 hours early? Wowza! Sometimes not even that - people obviously feel compelled to loan money to multi-million dollar companies)

I really like space RTS, but apart from Homeworld most tend to be 4X, which means (a) complex tech tree to memorize and (b) only brief fun sandwiched between the boring "build up" phase where it takes 2 hours to research a rudimentary frigate and the tedious "manage an empire so large it feels more like filing tax returns."  A campaign focussed on the pew-pew gets my vote!

*If you know about how DLC works you may find the comic below amusing.  DLC = downloadable content for a PC or videogame i.e. you pay $$$ for extra maps, missions, characters and weapons in a game.  Often it is stuff that is developed with the main game but actually removed from the game before release so they can sell it to you later.   Lately gaming devs have been selling a "season pass" a $50 collection of DLC that has yet to be released - yet another "interest free loan" for suckers enthusiasts.  Heck, with $80 for a base game and a $50 season pass it makes the old subscription-based pricing look attractive. At least then they had an incentive to make the game work and keep it updated as you could simply unsubscribe....  Now they get your money upfront, and screw you if you don't like the game, content or patches - they have your money and are going to repeat the process on a new game (or rather concept - they sell a trailer/concept rather than a game) in 12 months time.....

Sadly, this isn't really a joke.  This (slightly paraphrased) is appears on gaming forums all the time whenever someone complains about "exclusive" DLC....

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Relthoza, Halo and Spartan Rules Rant

While in a local hobby shop I noticed Halo: Fleet Battles - you get 50 ships for $150AUD, compared to 3 ships for $120AUD (Star Wars: Armada). It seemed quite well priced (well at least sensibly priced compared to the GW-esque price gouging perpetrated by FFG) , so I hunted out my unassembled Relthoza and my Firestorm Armada rules to remind myself what I was (or wasn't) missing.

The bases had some sort of adhesive on bottom, that will not come off.  The bases are just a perspex square, with a hole drilled in it, plus a pole.  
Definitely the worst space bases I've used.

The main problem is the rules. Which are essentially a dumbed-down version of Battelfleet Gothic, with less depth and more randomness.  Someone thought it would be a good idea to use these rules for four games - Uncharted Seas (a.k.a. Man O War), Firestorm Armada (a.k.a. BFG), Dystopian Wars (steampunk naval) - as well as Halo (Firestorm Armada copy).  Since it's essentially the same game with different models, they have product lines competing directly against themselves.  I never got into Dystopian Wars, for that very reason.  I mean, I didn't think FA was that good, so why would I pay $100+ of models to play the exact same game, only with steampunk? (The sculpts also didn't impress as they tended to the cartoon-y) It would be understandable if the rules were good, but they aren't.

I'm actually quite pleased with the paint job, considering they took me an hour and a half total to do them all(!).  P3 Blighted Gold drybrush on black undercoat, GW Chainmail highlights, and GW Enchanted Blue engines. Three colours. That's it.  No washes, extra coats, or even touch-ups. 

Some issues I have with the rules/minis:
-Buckets of dice, exploding dice that ensure skill is subservient to randomness
-Generic-looking ships, with generous mold lines (has improved lots since the horrifically bad v1 Dindrenzi sculpts, though) - I mean, the Terran, Aquan and Dindrezi stuff is very much lazy CAD work
-Ships are generic in game (think Chaos vs Imperial in BFG i.e. one side might get +5cm gun range or +2d6 broadside)
-100 pages of errata (I think the rules are only in their third incarnation, but they feel like they swap sculpts and rules more than GW); + poor rules layout (also a frantic/schizophrenic release schedule)
-Fighter rules about on par with BFG (i.e. lame)
-Big ships cannot even move their own length - visually feels like snail wars rather than space wars
-Bland, insipid fluff

My one word review of Firestorm Armada (and all associated games): "Meh."

It's not terrible - it's just not very good.

Actually, there is an upside - I often see them in the bargain bin section of online retailers (hence the fact I have 3 fleets) and the large size makes them suited to scale with Gundam-style games using 15mm GZG mecha with the rather good Lightning Strike rules (the original reason I purchased them).
 I find it weird how slavishly people copy studio paint schemes. It's a good argument for pre-painted minis if they all end up the same!  I do like the vaguely "Homeworld" vibe of the Relthoza but I think they still, like most FA minis, are a tad bland or "lacking" in some way.
Especially if the studio paints scheme isn't that crash hot.  I wasn't ever a huge fan of the pastels....
...and camouflage, by it's nature, does not help your models look more striking - I avoid it except when strictly necessary....

So why the swipe at Spartan?  Do you hate the company or something?  
Not at all. I wish them all the best.  I was very impressed by their customer service when I got one of the dreaded "dodgy" Dindrenzi boxes back in the early days of the company. However I'm not about to encourage mediocrity - like many blogs that seem to gush over rules and minis that are average at best.   Whilst their Halo box set is very reasonable (models work out at ~$3ea rather than ~$40ea of FFG) their track record for rules means I won't be buying them to play the same indifferent game mechanics which they're recycled three times already.  

Conclusion: Whilst the price point looks OK, I'm going to save my moolah for Dropfleet Commander which is looking better by the day - which combines sensor ranges, atmosphere and ground objectives to give what looks like our first genuinely interesting space game since... ...well, I can't remember.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Secret World PC MMO: Pulp Gaming Inspiration

As I have been "back to work" shed time has decreased but it's still possible to snatch a bit of gaming time indoors after the munchkins are asleep.

The Secret World
My latest game is The Secret World - a MMO about modern pulp.  Templars, Illuminati, and the Order of the Dragon investigating paranormal disturbances, wielding conventional weapons like swords, handguns and assault rifles alongside magic powers to fight Lovecraftian horrors.  Harry Potter joins the CIA, as you will.

 It starts out Walking Dead style....

The game is very much a "MMO" (easy to play - mash an array of buttons to auto-attack, without much hand-eye co ordination required) but pleasingly, can be enjoyed solo without the fruit loops other players that tend to frequent this game genre.  The storytelling is the greatest strength.  For example, the first "mission zone" sees you investigate Innsmouth Kingsmouth, where a lost trawler returns, followed by a strange fog which animates the living dead, and strange Davy Jones-esque fish monsters roam the bay.   Strange Illuminati symbols and runes are inscribed around the town by the founding fathers.  Exploring the uncanny environs of the town has been great fun, and further missions promise adventures in Egypt, Tokyo and Transylvania.   Whilst this MMO genre is not my usual cup of tea, it's genre, style and storytelling have me hooked.   There isn't a huge player base, which is a bonus, as outside the main "mission hubs" you rarely encounter other weirdos players, so it feels more "horror" as you battle your lone way through strange monsters and undead.  In addition, it does not lock you into the usual "classes" - you can unlock and wield every skill and power though you can only equip 2 weapon/magic types at a time.  If you like pulp horror with a Lovecraft vibe, you'll probably enjoy the stories and exploration in the game even if you aren't a gamer (and since it's a MMO catering to the lowest common denominator aiming for mass appeal, gaming "skill" isn't strictly needed). At $10 on Steam, it was a bargain.

..and takes a turn for the Lovecraft as we enter Innsmouth "Kingsmouth"

The game has inspired me to fiddle around with my modern pulp homebrew rules (best described as a mashup of the best traits of Infinity and SoBH) as well as looking through my Savage Worlds rulebooks.  The idea of secret societies fighting a secretive arcane "Cold War" whilst hunting down monsters with assault rifles and fireballs inspires my inner geek. 

Job well done... Templar wields gun, blade and blood sorcery....
Homebrew Pulp Magic
My current pulp "magic" system is based on a d10; mages must roll under a d10 to cast the spell.  Failing means they must miss an action next turn to recover and "recharge" their magic (or instantly regain it at the cost of losing their stamina - which acts as a LOTR might point).

The binary nature means balancing should be straightforward - without casting times, or a magic points pool etc - simply increase/decrease the difficulty in 10% increments until "balanced" in popularity/effect against other spells.

At the moment I'm trying to make up a list of generic spells, in the Savage Worlds style - i.e. describe the effect rather than the trappings (i.e. a "disguise" or "charm" spell might work the same as "invisibility" and share the same rules - i.e. enemy must pass a Will test in order to attack) thus minimizing the actual new rules to learn.  My current short list includes:

Dispel/nullify magic (AoE/single target)
Force field (AoE)
Arcane defence/deflect (self)
Heal (self/single target)

Fireball/lighting etc (AoE/spray/beam)
Pull/push (spray)
Magic/telekinetic strike (melee)
Super speed

Mind control

Super speed
Super jump/levitate

The rules are nice and generic and can be used to describe a range of effects.  In fact, I want innate abilities to share the same rules as magic i.e. a vampire's ability to leap or fall great distances can be mimicked by a mage's levitate spell; the only difference is the mage must pass a magic test  dice roll, and the vampire automatically can accomplish it (or perhaps tests against his Agility).  Furthermore, technology can also share the rules (i.e. rocket boosters/jet pack or steampunk spring boots can also have the same in-game effect).   I'm gunning for the maximum range of abilities and magic, with the minimum amount of actual special (extra) rules on top of the core mechanics.

My main issue with massively multiplayer games is they are full of other people.  Spot the human player in the street ahead of me - yeah, the one dancing Gangnam style.... I swear this genre attracts the biggest tossers in online gaming...

Speaking of special rules....
I often harp on about how special rules are over-used under the incorrect assumption they are simpler than stats (i.e. the poster child, SoBH, has only two stats but ~100 special rules; compared to the more conventional LoTR's 5 stats and ~30 special rules, that's actually 3x more things to remember/look up. That's not simpler!)

Anyway, I recently have noticed a few recent rules (such as Deadzone 2.0, and another which I forgot) now switching back to stats - i.e. adding in a movement stat, etc - in order to "...simplify and add differentiation, and remove confusing special rules."   Is the pendulum finally swinging back the other way into the common sense zone?

Below is a quick reminder of why I don't usually play MMOs.  Thankfully the oddballs primarily hangout in the non-mission social hubs where they can show off their dubious taste in monster hunting garb - the missions themselves are pleasantly deserted....

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Book Round Up #8: Promise of Blood + Thousand Names + Iron Elves (Flintlock Fantasy)

My only previous "Flintlock Fantasy" was the rather forgettable A Darkness Forged in Fire (which had elves, dwarves etc) so it was with trepidation I dipped my toes into the waters with some more recent releases in the genre.   The new entrants are very much Revolutionary France with the numbers filed off, plus magic.  

Thousand Names (Django Wexler) 3
This was "Napoleon in Egypt" meets "Indiana Jones hunts occult relics" but was more the former than the latter.   Most of the book had no magic at all - definitely more "flintlock" than fantasy.   Magic is more low key and plays no part in battles.  When the fantasy bit came along it lifted the book from a rather boring B-grade historical fiction which compares unfavourably to Sharpe et al to something unique.

You'd leave it:   Had the historical-fiction tendency to overly detailed exposition.    More for the Napoleonic fans than fantasy buffs.  Slow-paced - drags in the middle of the book.  He's OK, but not a great writer.  Strictly B list. A bit unclear at times where the book was going.

You'd read it:   Definitely a "first novel" and the writing improved in the second book. The main characters seemed walking cliches but actually improved beyond 2D cardboard cut-outs. The "big picture" is slowly revealed, and points to interesting sequels.   An interesting world building and concept.  A lot of people loved this book - perhaps I'm overly fussy.

A Darkness Forged in Fire (Chris Evans) 2.5
This was read a while back but I'm including it for completeness - but it isn't as fresh in my mind as the others. It's mostly about an elf trying to rebuild his regiment in the face of evil bureaucracy. 

You'd leave it:  I found the plot confusing and lacking in interest, and the attempt to overturn cliches was a bit too obvious and "try hard" i.e. elf who hates forests, dwarf with no metalworking skills etc, but the actual plot was pretty dull and ordinary. It was an obvious "book #1 of a big series" with no real ending, and it wasn't good enough to make it worth while to be worth seeking out book #2.  I think I recall only one battle in the book.

You'd read it:   If you really want more elves, dwarves, evil witches etc in your flintlock fantasy and you're read the other two books on this list. It's not that badly written, just a "meh."

Promise of Blood (Bruce McClellan) 3.5
Warmachine warcasters and gun mages meets the French Revolution.  Magic is more common and established - "Privileged" standard sorcerers, "gun mages" who snort gunpowder for increased abilities and "Wardens" twisted creatures mutated by magic.  The characters include the revolutionary leader - a war hero who is avenging his wife, and his son - a gun mage; and a dedicated private investigator.

You'd leave it:  The writing is obviously a first book and lacks polish.  It can be a bit heavy handed at times and the characters are predictable.  The magic system is a bit arbitrary (that's probably the wargamer in me).  The "dead wife motivation" and "debauched church" are rather tired tropes.  The characters were a bit flat, and the female characters are insignificant/non-existent which may bother the feminazis.

You'd read it:  Unlike Thousand Names, you don't have to read 2/3rds the book before you get the "big picture" - the plot moves along more briskly.  More actual plot and story than battle descriptions.  If you like the Warmachine universe, you'll love the gun mages.  Magic, whilst not overly prevalent, is an established part of the setting, so it avoids Cornwall comparisons.  Dark but without Abercrombie or Martin levels of grimness and pessimism.  Highly readable, and a very decent debut novel.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Pulp Jets

I'm fiddling around with house rules based on the "principles" of CY6 sans the written orders, probably with a d10 mechanic instead of the 2d6/bucket of dice used by most other aerial games.

I'm going to use a alternate-pulp-history.  I'm focusing on early jets before the advent of air-to-air missiles.  I.e. 1945-1955. The weird and wacky designs of a "transitional period" are more interesting than the more streamlined, copy+paste planes of today, and have less "historical" connection than iconic 60s and 70s designs like Phantoms, MiG21s, Mirages etc.   I really like "just strap wings and a bunch of cannons to a rocket" design philosophy in an era when a "special gunsight" could still be chewing gum stuck to the canopy.   The metallic paint and colourful paint schemes are attractive as a modeller.  

Each aircraft will have a special rule to give it unique flavour, and be "somewhat" based on its historical counterpart.   This is pulp, after all. There will be handwavium, aliens and flying carriers.  However I want the flight model/basic mechanics to be as realistic and straightforward as possible, so I can transfer it to other periods (i.e. 1960s-70s jet warfare in Middle East/African Imagi-nation, maybe 1930s prop fighters).

The P-80 - American's primary post-war fighter, just screams "pulp."  Just the sort of thing to dogfight flying saucers....

Warning: Rambling fluff ahead
I don't want to be stuck with straight Luft '46.  So I'll give a nod to history without outright committing to it:

It is years after the Global War, where the unimaginable power of the Vengeance weapons tore rifts in the fabric of reality.  The world is a very different place.

Wormholes created by the devices gape menacingly the skies above, creating tunnels to alternate universes.   Humanity is fleeing our devastated planet, to the world beyond.  However not all these worlds are unoccupied....  ...and the War may be over, but it is not forgotten.

Human Forces
The Fourth Empire
They unleashed the apocalypse, and are now evacuating the ruins of their nation to the worlds beyond.  The first to develop jet tech, they rely on modifications to older designs due to the strain on their industrial capacity.
Fighters: Ta183, Me262, Ho229, He162, Me163
Bombers: E55, Ar234

 Of course, Horten flying wings need make an appearance...

The Collective
V-weapons left half their nation scorched and ruined.  However resilient, numerous and hardy, they are rebuilding.  They are convinced that the peace with the Empire will not last.  This time, they will be ready.
Aircraft: Yak 23, MiG9, MiG15, MiG17 (MiG19, Yak25)
Bombers: IL-28, Tu16, Tu14

The Yak-23 exemplifies the "jet engine with wings added" approach of the 40s and 50s.

Commonwealth of Albion
After their island nation was destroyed, the survivors spread out to their Colonies.  Like the Legion, they are bitter about the perceived "betrayal" by the Federation and the truce with the Empire. 
Fighters: Vampire, Venom, (Hunter), Meteor;  Sea Hawk, Sea Vixen, Sea Venom
Bombers: Canberra

 The quirky twin-boom Vampire is one of my favourites. 

Legion Lafayette
Once fighting to free their nation from the clutches of the Empire, the Legion has evolved into a mercenary force of considerable strike power.
Fighters: Mystere, Ouragan (Super Mystere)
Bomber: Vautour

I always preferred the look of F9F Panthers over the more famous Sabre.

Relatively untouched by the Global War, the Vengeance weapons brought home the horror of war.  The Federation remains riven; many want the Federation to assume its place as a global superpower, the current policy is isolationism, rebuilding and avoiding conflict. An unusually high number of "volunteer" units explore the galaxy, and the Federation's flying carriers can project power to counter alien incursions.
Fighters: P-80, F-84E, F-86E, F94B, (F100);  F9F, F4J Fury, F3D, F2H
Bomber: B-47, B-52, B-57

The Aliens
The Scythe
This AI force has sophisticated hacking, stealth and EW which is relatively useless against the human's analogue/mechanical computers.  Blazingly fast, their supersonic fighters struggle in atmosphere. 
Fighters: Studio Bergstrom Scythe Fighter
Bomber: Studio Bergstrom Scythe Transport

These are close human cousins, perhaps spacefaring humans from the era of the Pyramids. They would like to "destroy all humans" (or at least rule them) but find themselves vastly outnumbered by humanity.  Not at all inspired by Buck Rogers. Possibly lead by a megalomaniac ruler with a wispy goatee or hot exotic woman wearing lots of leather.
 Fighters: Studio Bergstrom independent factions (not-Wing Commander ships)

These classic aliens fly saucer fighters. Our first contact with other races, in 1947.  Crashed saucers gave humans their first antigrav designs which inspired the flying aircraft carriers.  Originally a slave race of the Reptilians, they will work with humans. Manipulative, though physically weak. They seek human genetic material to revitalize their dying race.
Fighters: War Rocket Zenithians (Type 1)

Because everyone needs shape-shifting, blood-drinking reptiles as enemies.   These are relatively long lived but few in number, and try to rule by manipulation and deception.
Fighters: Undecided   (any suggestions?)

So this is pretty much a Buck Rogers-Weird War III-Stargate mashup, using generic tropes?
Yup.  The theory is that there is a sort of Cold War state of affairs - everyone is still reeling from the devastation of the Global War, with old alliances split, and sides both hindering and helping each other covertly.  There is a new age of exploration, spearheaded by aerial forces (due to the airborne wormholes) and fighting tends to be small scale - the larger nations are afraid of igniting a major conflict, and private "air forces" of a dozen or so planes are used to "protect" expeditions by private companies and even religious groups against aliens and each other.

The alien races tend to be vastly outnumbered by humanity, but they may be simply small reconnaissance forces themselves....  .....and all are in diplomatic contact, trying to manipulate the human governments for their own ends. 

In short, a setting where human forces can fight against and alongside each other (and aliens) with an emphasis on small-scale jet combat. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Game Design #62: What Should the Commander Know?

Note - this applies more to historical games. Sci fi games you can do what you want - you have the magic of handwavium.

I was thinking about this when playing with my aeronef game. I think it is linked with these questions:    How many units?   What command level?  How much detail?

Knowing the answer to some of the questions gives you the answer to others.

For example, in a platoon-level game, the role of the player is platoon commander.

(a) Should he control individual soldiers?
(b) Should he control fire teams?
(c) Should he control squads?

I'm not a historian, I'm presuming (c) for WW2 games and perhaps (b) for more modern scenarios.  In any case, (a) is out as I find it doubtful a WW2 platoon leader would be precisely controlling each and every individual soldier.  (Perhaps only if they were standing right next to him?)

Now we know what level of abstraction to work at:

We'll probably activate soldiers as groups.
We might assume a 360 unit facing as we won't precisely note the facing of each individual soldiers
We probably won't count individual ammo or grenades - squads might have orders to "conserve ammo" or "mad minute"
Effects like suppression are applied to the squad as a whole
The precise location of individual soldiers in a squad might be elastic as it is the "footprint" or rough location of the squad we are interested in; i.e. we use area terrain instead of "true LoS" as the "squad occupies the house" rather than "Private Parts is standing in the attic window"
We won't bother with stats or special for individual soldiers, as we are interested in the squad as a whole (except perhaps the squad leaders, who do impact the squad as a whole)

...and so on.  The point I'm making is the "command level" determines the "amount of detail" - or gives you a good guideline of what to abstract and what to keep "concrete". 

Let's apply this to a naval game (a genre famous for rivet-counting detail and "complication").  Let's take Jutland for example.   If you're Jellicoe and control 100+ ships including 28 battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 34 cruisers and 78 destroyers....  would you really care if one of those 78 destroyers lost its "B" turret?  Would someone even bother to tell you?  Would you care if they did?  Maybe the squadron commander would care, but would a fleet commander?

A fleet level wargame that includes that much (too much) detail, is, I would contend "unrealistic."

I'd suggest as commander of such a vast fleet, you would only be interested in the antics of squadrons or divisions of a half a dozen to a dozen destroyers or so.   Actually, given the communications of the era, the fleet commander didn't know a lot at all.  Which is a topic in itself, but I'll touch on it briefly here.

Communications obviously influences the level of control a commander has over his subordinates.  You know how I thought a platoon commander in WW2 might only control a squad, but a modern platoon commander might control fire teams? That's because of the proliferation of individual radios and communication devices.

Too much detail is unrealistic.  Elsewhere I've discussed how gamers tend to make the mistake in saying games are either "fun or realism" or "simple or realistic."   This is wrong.  They aren't opposites, or even related.  They certainly aren't mutually exclusive.  It's like saying "tall vs good looking."

Gamers tend to equate a complicated, detailed set of rules as being "realistic."  Tracking every bullet fired, and if a 5 knot crosswind would effects them, is not neccessarily more realistic.  It's more complicated, sure, and takes longer to resolve.  It might even be appropriate in some circumstances (a 1v1 sniper duel?).  But in the terms of our platoon level game, it is unrealistic. So more complexity and detail does NOT equate to more realism.

Wandering off topic slightly, I tend to like the terms:

Decision points - do you as the player have lots of decisions/opportunities to influence the game? (Within the scope of your actual role i.e. as platoon commander or whatever). The decisions you make can be realistic (reflecting real-world tactics) or unrealistic. Good game design should encourage you towards the former.  IGOUGO tends to have few decision points.

Process/Resolution - this is how you do it (the dice rolling, measuring, stats/special rules, recording etc). This can be either simple vs complex, or detailed vs abstract.  I tend to prefer as simple and easy as possible while giving sensible results.   The process is NOT a matter of realistic or unrealistic - we're tossing dice on a table, for goodness sake.  The key question:  Is the process as simple as possible consistent with lots of decision points and realistic results?

....Results - are the outcome of your decisions and the resolution process. Your results tend to be realistic or unrealistic.  You don't have 'simple' or 'complex' results. Is the outcome realistic?

A good game....
So it follows a good game will have lots of (relevant, realistic) decision points, simple process/resolution methods, and give realistic results.  And you can see simplicity/complexity and realism don't conflict.

....anyway, back to the topic, which was "what should the commander know" or perhaps "what gets detailed, and what is abstracted?"  My final point is:

Tradition vs Innovation.
I suspect what we abstract or detail is based often more on tradition (i.e. previous games in the genre) than what is realistic. We copy activation and mechanics from other games because that's "normal" for, say, a WW2 game.   Chain of Command has innovative deployment with a "mini game" showing scouting and determining setup.   I'd say 95% of similar WW2 games (of which there is a huge range of rules) is "deploy your models anywhere 12" from the table edge."   Having the actions of scouting, terrain features and "first contact" with the enemy determine your deployment seems sensible; more realistic than units facing off neatly in flat rows across the battlefield (aka FoW "tank carpark").

Why is this so "innovative"?  Because every other WW2 game follows tradition, copying deployment mechanics from other games without considering "why?"  Actually, the CoC deployment rules will be a handy example:

The whole mini-game is sensibly abstracted with tokens - as we are interested in the platoon vs platoon clash, the actions of individual scouts/pickets are ignored in favour of simpler play. The abstraction is even more realistic - the platoon leader could not direct the individual pickets movements personally nor would he necessarily need a blow-by-blow description of every shot fired, (even supposing a scout would fire and thus attract attention), but is rather interested in the location of enemies and good deployment points for his own troops.  If the player as company leader could direct the individual actions each scout, it would be unrealistic as well as overly detailed and complex. The results are realistic, even if moving tokens around the battlefield are a simple method of resolution, and the player even has some decision points as to how he moves his "scout tokens."

What do you as a commander need to know? If it's not important, can you abstract/simplify it?  Your command level sets out guidelines for your game design.

Too much detail can be unrealistic.  It's not "simplicity vs realism" at all.  Abstracting or simplifying things can add realism.

This all links in with holistic game design principles - it helps to find realistic "decision points"  what to simplify in your "resolution" and  is checked against your "results."

Finally, tradition can lock us into particular mechanics or methods - we need to focus on the results and see if there is a simpler way - and ask "why" something is abstracted or (perhaps more pertinently, if we seek simplicity) why it isn't. 

There's quite a bit more to explore (i.e. tangents I didn't wander down, and things that could have been better explained) but my 2 year old needs "some 'tention" from her Dad.  This does link with similar topics - Realism in Wargames and Realism Revisited  - this is obviously a horse I enjoy flogging.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

My Yearly Games Workshop Rant

If you're new to this blog, this is merely rehashing old news.  However, if like me many readers have avoided GW stuff for years an occasional "update" might be of interest.  (Actually I think it's a year since my last GW-related article, so one is due...)  Also, who doesn't enjoy poking fun at GW's expense?

When looking over the 40K wannabes Maelstrom, Warpath, Beyond the Gates of Antares (as usual, 40K clones by ex 40K designers) and to a lesser extent, Deadzone (which is more skirmish) I was thinking over a few things - "defining skirmish gaming" (which I've already covered); the classic "make 40K better" (which we probably all did as teens but Mantic and Warlord et al are doing at a professional level). I wondered where GW's games would be at now if 10 years ago they had let their more creative game designers have more latitude like they now have, since they moved on to work for other companies.

Further, as a PC gamer I've noticed the upcoming release of Warhammer: Total War.   Mix the excellent Total War series (well, it was great until Rome II) with the fantasy lore and magic of Warhammer - should be a winner.  Maybe it could boost their sales - you know, people play the PC game, then realize there are models allowing you to play it on the tabletop.  But wait.... that game - Warhammer Fantasy - is being pushed back - behind Age of Sigmar...   I shook my head.

Morbily curious as to what GW have been up to lately, I came across this article (by a shareholder, not a neckbeard):

Here's the bits that stood out to me: 

The company’s attitude towards customers is as clinical as its attitude towards staff. If you don’t like what it’s selling. You’re not a customer. 

If you don't like what we're doing - you're not a customer. And we don't care.

The company believes only a fraction of the population are potential hobbyists, and it’s not interested in the others. The move to one-man stores has reduced the number of customers, sometimes by 30%, but the stores are profitable now.

They also state only 20% of their customers are gamers - yet they do no market research*, so I am curious how they arrive at this figure.
*From their 2014 Investor Report: "Our market is a niche market made up of people who want to collect our miniatures. They tend to be male, middle-class, discerning teenagers and adults. We do no demographic research, we have no focus groups, we do not ask the market what it wants. These things are otiose in a niche"  
(I find it weird a major company does no research and weirder still to be proud of it.)  

If the rules aren't important - why is X Wing so popular?  Wizards of the Coast produced prepainted Star Wars stuff for years and I don't recall them making waves like X Wing.  Heck, I tend to find most people I played GW games with didn't even bother to paint their armies (this is anecdotal, but hey, it's as scientific as GW's "market research.")  (I think they claim in their 2015 Financial Report, their main audience is teenagers, then claim hobbyists/collectors are their biggest fanbase. I mean, they aren't mutually exclusive but it's a tad inconsistent)

If their business model is primarily collectors, not gamers, then Age of Sigmar is in a weird place - because it seems designed specifically to be easier for gamers to get involved with.  You'd think gamers would also buy more product.  Collectors don't buy 6 Eldar tanks because they are flavour-of-the-month/OP. Gamers do.  I wonder if the "it's all about collectors" is a smokescreen to cover up mistakes.   Normally I assume big businesses know what they are doing because they have access to stats and research I don't.  But since they don't do research, and stats can be interpreted as you wish (and given GW's "lalalalala fingers-in-my-ears" approach, I bet they do), I reckon my guess is as good as theirs.

Games Workshop has willingly vacated genres. Why willingly give up market share?   Mordheim, Necromunda, Space Hulk, Blood Bowl, Epic dominated their respective spheres.   I can't think of a 6mm sci fi game more recognizable than Epic.  Bloodbowl and Space Hulk still stand above the pretenders.  Necromunda and Mordhiem still get playtime even in the crowded skirmish gaming market, despite being completely unsupported.  "Unprofitable" Battlefleet Gothic was replaced by Firestorm Armada while its seat was still warm.

You'd think this market share is important, as one of the "pulls" of 40K/WFB is "all your friends have it" and it's "easy to get a game."  Well, when Age of Sigmar landed I was curious and tried to "have a game" at the local store.  No one had it.  Only a few had tried it.  The local hobby shop stocks only a small shelf - it is dwarfed by X-Wing, Warmachine, Malifaux and Infinity.  Even 40K is way down the pecking order. Without the player base it once had, GW will increasingly get judged on its miniatures, rules and pricing. And they've got big issues with the last two.

I wonder how a re-release of Mordheim would have been received compared to the rather "mixed" response to Age of Sigmar.  That was your cheaper, entry-level game for Warhammer Fantasy. I'm not sure a complete reboot was required.   I also find it strange that they pretty much completely abandoned their IP.  Yes, rebadging everything makes them more "copyrightable" but GW always seemed pretty on top of things when it came to protecting copyright.  (<--Understatement of the year nominee)

Along with other games like FoW, X-Wing and Infinity, some companies like Mantic have deliberately and methodically moved into the breach, replacing many of these on a 1:1 basis aka Dreadball, Deadzone, Dwarf King's Hold.  Kings of War  has outright  replaced Warhammer Fantasy in many places including some official "Fantasy" tournaments.  (I thought it was quite canny that Mantic allow GW armies in their game system - that's a real "jump ship" invitation)
Now it seems Game Workshop has finally "woken up" and Specialist Games is being rebooted along with all the old favourites.  It seemed so sensible I thought it was a hoax.  But have they let their competitors gain too much of a lead?  (Also, unsurprisingly, LOTR/Hobbit is being scaled back... hope I can score cheap minis on eBay again)  (thought #2 - I wonder what would happen if FFG got the LOTR IP....?)

It's like... duh. I imagine they had a meeting that went like this.
"We're losing market share to X-Wing and Armada. We need our own space game!"

"Umm. We had one. It was called Battlefleet Gothic."
"Really? Also, something to compete with Infinity and Malifaux in the skirmish gaming market."
"Mordheim and Necromunda?"
"And there's this game called Dreadball, a sports board game. We have a PC game called Bloodbowl that's similar - can't we do it as a boardgame too?"
"And I see this Dropzone Commander is popular.  Can't we do a small scale game in 6mm or 10mm but set it in our 40K world?"

Finally, in a world where social media is king, and viral promotion is desirable and twitter likes = money, Games Workshop's resolute avoidance to interact with its consumer base is...  ...anachronistic.
(Actually antagonistic is probably a better word - I bet any social media accounts would overflow with toxic comments - and why is that?)  I had a browse on their website the other day but it wasn't really a website - just a splash page with new releases on it.   Now I think about it, for a company whose "magazines" and "website" are just giant ads, they (at least in Australia) do no meaningful advertising.  

Talking about communication, I also recently read an article about TSR's demise and how Wizards revived the D&D franchise.  When Wizards were trying to figure out where it all went wrong, why inexplicably decisions were made....

In all my research into TSR's business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found - one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available.
No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No "voice of the customer". TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive. The management of the company made decisions based on instinct and gut feelings; not data. They didn't know how to listen - as an institution, listening to customers was considered something that other companies had to do - TSR lead, everyone else followed.

I know now what killed TSR. It wasn't trading card games. It wasn't Dragon Dice. It wasn't the success of other companies. It was a near total inability to listen to its customers, hear what they were saying, and make changes to make those customers happy. TSR died because it was deaf.

Does this sound eerily familiar?

I'm curious - if Games Workshop started its business 5 years ago - or even, say, at the same time as Privateer Press (2003) would it still be in the same financial position? Would it still be solvent?

Finally, if you want an amusing explanation of GW, visit 4chan - that site of all that is noble and good. I especially like their scholarly and well-researched history, which begins with:

The original Games Workshop was established several hundred years BC, originating in China. However, when the Emperor placed a commission for thousands of life sized soldiers, this predecessor began to collapse, as with all production geared to the creation of these soldiers, they were unable to introduce price rises. As one, their board of directors resolved that they must fall into hibernation, to wait out the storm, screaming defiance at the one man who ever defeated them. 

In fact, I think I will leave the wags at 4chan with the T;DR

This attitude towards one's IP, company history, and misunderstanding of one's own consumer base is now known as the "Games Workshop handstand", or the "fecally incontinent handstand".

It is the 3rd Millennium. For more than a hundred months Games Workshop has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Nottingham. It is the foremost of wargames by the will of the neckbeards, and master of a million tabletops by the might of their inexhaustible wallets. It is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with business strategies from the early Industrial Revolution Age. It is the Carrion Lord of the wargaming scene for whom a thousand veteran players are sacrificed every day, so that it may never truly die.

Yet even in its deathless state, GW continues its eternal vigilance. Mighty battleforce starter-sets cross the online-store-infested miasma of the internet, the only route between distant countries, their way lit by a draconian retail trade-agreement, the legal manifestation of the GW's will. Vast armies of lawyers give battle in GW's name on uncounted websites. Greatest amongst its soldiers are the Guardians of the IP, the Legal Team, bio-engineered super-assholes. Their comrades in arms are legion: the writing team and countless untested rulebooks, the ever vigilant redshirts, and the writers of White Dwarf, to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from other games, their own incompetence, Based Chinaman - and worse.
To support Games Workshop in such times is to spend untold billions. It is to support the cruelest and most dickish company imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of sales discounts and Warhammer Fantasy Battle, for so much has been dropped, never to be re-published again. Forget the promise of cheaper digital content and caring about the fanbase, for in the GW HQ there is only profit-seeking, Space Marines and Sigmarines. There is no fun amongst the hobby shops, only an eternity of raging and spending, and the laughter of former employees who left GW to join better companies.