Tuesday 10 August 2021

Game Design #82: The Token, Low-Effort, "Bolt On" Lite Campaign - Not worth the Effort

I've noticed a trend in skirmish games to attempt to cater to the Necromunda/Mordhiem crowd by tacking a token "campaign-lite" section of 2-3 pages on the end. I don't think anyone has hit the mark yet. I think the Holy Grail is a skirmish game with engaging modern mechanics and tactics, while having the depth, detail, character and background of GW's offerings. Something like the mechanics of Infinity, stripped down and bolted to Necromunda.

I find these low effort, tacked-on campaign rules a bit insulting. It's usually just a bunch of tables I could house rule myself in 5min. It's an afterthought, yet advertised it as a key feature.

Perhaps they genuinely think their 3 pages of "Coke Zero" campaign rules are the tits, but I regard them as a tease. They may as well not have bothered.

The problems are, for me there is no rules that meets all my criteria, which I'd say are:

#1. A deep, detailed complex campaign with lots of crunch and heaps to do "between games" 

#2. Engaging "modern" gameplay (i.e. we don't actually want to play 1995 Necromunda in 2021)

#3. Engaging "background" or fluff (why play this game over 101 similar rulesets?)

#4. Ability to be played semicompetitively in a club league (it's not merely a RPG/story generator).

Frostgrave has come close - it's got appealing fluff, plenty of supplements, and leans nostalgically on the "hunt magical warpstone artifacts" but to be frank the gameplay itself is not that good; and campaign-wise only the wizard is interesting and his second in command is just a clone.

The wargamesvault indie pdf rulesets often fall down on #3 and #4 - they are often a quasi-RPG with zillions of "off table" charts and busyness but it is more a story generator rather than a set of rules you could play as a Bloodbowl-style league - and the usual attempt to include any and all minis and settings means their setting is often bland and generic.

I'd like to discuss a few common issues:

#1. Overly Simplistic Campaigns

This is probably my #1 gripe. Most campaigns are cursorily tacked on with minimal effort. The trend is to toss 2-3 pages on the end with:

(a) random mission generator with 6 missions

(b) injury table with 6 injuries

(c) 3-4 advances/skill gain tables (which is usually terribly unbalanced)

(d) a super simple money making system (which is just "roll 3d6 x $$$")

(e) a (very limited) list of gear and/or weapons you can buy (about a dozen of each)

(f) a way to recruit new gang members (usually just a $ price and a max limit)

It's kinda like the old GW systems, but the trend is to make them as simple and short as possible. They do in 3 pages what the old school rules did in 30.

But we don't necessarily WANT campaigns to be simplistic and "lite". I don't want to be constantly consulting a rulebook when I'm playing on the table, but I'm fine with poring over it between games, given I'll be consulting tables and charts anyway.

Let's look at what Necromunda and Mordheim campaigns did:

Each character class within a warband got a unique range of (general) skills to choose from; some factions had unique mutations/skills. It usually also got a special skill or rule. Each faction got a faction-specific skill or two; and sometimes special mutations/skills/weapons/gear if relevant. XP and $$$ gains favoured weaker warbands. Each band was very unique.

(a) 9 random missions but provision for weaker warband to occasionally chose (range of ways to make $$$/win); weaker gangs getting more $$ to fight stronger ones (some missions allow you to win or lose territory off other gangs)

(b) injury table with 24 possible injuries

(c) 5-7 skill trees of 6 each; but combination of trees specific to factions and characters; mix of random and chosen skills & stats

(d) exploration table with 30 flavourful results for earning out-of-game cash or even rare gear; or a list of 19 territories you can conquer; bigger gangs earn less $$$

(e) buy about 100 pieces of gear/weapons, with some of limited rarity

(f) hire new crew and rent heroes/specialists; but bigger gangs mean more upkeep/less $$$

There was just so much to do, with lots of crunchy detail, describing each effect from a chart. A 3 page "campaign lite" isn't going to match this.  Now, some of the wargamevault pdfs by "RPG nerds" have an equal amount of tables and charts, but often miss the mark: the 5 tables you roll to decide your gangs backstory and motivations is just RPG narrative fluff which is not connected to the gameplay.

While I'm on this topic, FFS please balance campaign skills

A common problem I notice is wildly unbalanced skills, with skills being either must-have or worthless. It's a glaring sign the campaign system is an afterthought and can be spotted at a glance with even a smidgen of common sense.

Many skills are obviously comparatively worthless. I.e. a 1" increase to 24"+ weapon range vs an extra wound. Even a basic glance will tell you a ~5% increase in weapon range is not as remotely useful as the massive bonus of doubling your staying power on the battlefield.

Many skills are obviously extremely situational. I.e. "Re-roll for falling damage" - how often will a model have a chance to fall off a ledge in a game? This skill will probably never be used in most games.

Whether random or chosen, skills should neither be worthless or essential. A suggestion is skills are used as an "extra option" or "sidegrade" which works as a trade-off, rather than a straight buff.

Example: The "Sharpshooter" skill means a model may have +1 shooting IF they forfeit their movement; and they are restricted to 1 RoF. So you can sit and snipe better, but you forfeit something (RoF + movement) to gain the extra accuracy. It isn't a straight upgrade in every situation, like a simple +1 flat accuracy stat buff would be.

#2. Lack of engaging "Modern" Gameplay

This probably means IGOUGO won't cut it. Perhaps some nifty card activation or dice pool. Usually a range of D&D-ish dice (d8, d10, d12) or handfuls of d6 scoring "successes." A move away from d6 "to hit" "to wound" "to save" and a drift towards few stats and many special rules (the last due to flawed logic).  Maybe some sort of resource management. It probably has elements borrowed from boardgames - heck, even GW realises it can't copy 1987 Rogue Trader anymore. (Admittedly they did rereleased Necromunda in 2019 nearly identical to the 1995 version).

Gameplay should be slick, streamlined yet still offer lots of interesting tactical decisions.   There's a difference between simple and simplistic. On the rare occasions the campaign is the focus of the rules, the gameplay can tend to be rather uninspired and old school. There's a lot of "40K but replacing the d6s with d10s."

You should want to play the game on its own merits. It should be a good game, with a good campaign. While no one would claim Necromunda was peak gaming, it was of a par with its contemporaries. A modern skirmish game needs modern mechanics - not nostalgic 5th Ed 40K or Stargrunt reskins.  This is especially pertinent to historical themed games where the core tactics will naturally be somewhat similar from similar rulesets.

I'd have played the crap out of a simplified d10 Infinity with a Necromunda-crunchy campaign. (Actually I did start to make my own, perhaps I should dig out the file again)

#3. Lack of an engaging theme/background (see Game Design #83)

In an attempt to allow people to use any minis or game every setting (good), indie designers often create a generic, completely uninteresting background that copies common tropes, or no background at all. The few that do this well stand out. Frostgrave is one of the most successful of the recent skirmish-campaign genre and it certainly isn't for its scintillating or deep gameplay mechanics - it's because it's background and fluff of dueling wizard warbands is compellingly presented (and leans hard into Mordhiem nostalgia).

Having a strong theme does not automatically mean locking players into specific models. For example, my demon-possessed 15mm cultist stormtroopers can use any 15mm sci fi minis (thanks to the wonders of bioengineering) and my psychic-knights-on-dinosaurs can use any mounted medieval/fantasy mini + any $2 dino. There is a strong theme to each, but I can use a wide range of minis. Sometimes it does mean you have to concede you can't replicate every sci fi show with your rules - but should a single set of rules be expected to do everything well?

Having an interesting, unique background theme/setting can also inform your game design choices and help make your game unique to play, differentiating it from the 101 other generic skirmish campaign games. 

It's a surprisingly crowded market. Even in something as niche as Weird Wild West, there are many competing products.

#4. Ability to be played semi-competitively in a club "league"

Now Mordhiem/Necromunda was never balanced, but people being who they are, "narrative" games can quickly become "competitive."  Many indie devs are refugees scarred from competitive 40K or Warmachine, or RPG tragics - so they are often all about the narrative.  However, the baby has been tossed out with the bathwater.  Just because we know wargames can never be balanced, and campaigns (by their very nature) tend to snowball an early winning warband into an unstoppable juggernaut - doesn't mean we shouldn't tryBloodbowl isn't perfectly balanced but it's still fun to play a league. 

The campaign rules should have a range of clear victory conditions for winning (i.e. if you can't outkill them, maybe other objectives that allow VP; a bit like in Bloodbowl where you can just cause casualties if you can't score TDs).  Also the inclusion of "handicaps" that allow losing teams some edge to allow them back in the game - both in the campaign and the tabletop - after some early setbacks. 

Basically, it's all well and good to throw RPG narrative tables in, but designers need to be aware that despite their own prejudices, their rules may be played as a semi-competitive "league" game, and build their campaign rules with some accordingly with some safeguards and balancing mechanisms built in.


Everyone who makes a skirmish game nowdays advertises a "campaign" - usually a token 2-3 page job with a few charts that look like they were thrown together in a half hour with little thought and certainly no testing. It's always such a let down I'd rather they hadn't bothered (or at least bothered advertising it as a "feature" of note).

While games themselves should be easy to play without consulting a rulebook constantly; I think there is a market for gloriously crunchy and complex campaigns that give you a lot to do when off the table. 

This needs to be supported by a compelling background that makes players want to invest in unique warbands for the game world; but balanced with the knowledge players will be competitive despite the authors love of friendly narrative play, and the natural tendency of warbands to "snowball." Finally, it needs modern gameplay so it is actually fun rather than leaning nostalgically in game design from the 90s.

Found the perfect Necromunda/Mordheim replacement? 

Drop me a line in the comments - because I (obviously) haven't.


  1. I'm curious what your gripes with Frostgrave gameplay is. As I look at it many of your core game design principles are present. Activation is modified away from straight IGOUGO, ranged attacks are wildly safer than close combat and move: shoot favors shooting. The modified experience table for the wizard (used in the v2 rules but published on the author's blog for free) seriously reduces the benefits of killing your opponents units creating tension between deciding to go after enemy units (thereby putting yours in danger for minimal campaign benefit) and it playing it safer and focusing more on treasure (where the campaign benefit really is).

    I'd love to read a Frostgrave rules review!

    1. The gripe with Frostgrave is that there is no tactical gameplay. There are no meaningful choices, you just roll your d20 and add your mods. Even mod stacking is not that helpful and the d20 is super swingy. This could be fixed by limiting combat arcs, limiting actions a bit more, and making a models stats matter a bit.

      Plus, all the non-wizards are expendable chaff and the treasure system in every scenario is repetitive and boring UNLESS you add new scenario complications all the time.

    2. I love campaign systems, but agree that they have not progressed much from the Necro/Mord basics we have had for years. Last Days with the Seasons upgrade book comes much closer BUT the way you can use experience to simply buy the upgrade you want hinders it, there is no reason anyone would get a skill rather than an ability upgrade. Many players did not like the old Necro/Mord way of giving you random upgrades, such as your sniper getting a hand-to-hand improvement when all he did was snipe during the game.

      Also, campaign play and upgrades are SUPER HARD and time consuming to balance without making it a bit bland. Not even Blood Bowl with tons of people giving feedback over time has managed it successfully, and they have a huge and very active player base giving a ton of well thought out feedback. Perhaps Campaign systems are by default naturally unbalanced, and perhaps they should be?

    3. "Perhaps Campaign systems are by default naturally unbalanced, and perhaps they should be?"

      While I agree that campaigns default towards unbalanced, giving up completely turns it into a RPG (what I term the "narrative" camp). Also, exercising common sense with skill balance doesn't seem too much to ask.

  2. "I'm curious what your gripes with Frostgrave gameplay is.
    I'd love to read a Frostgrave rules review!"

    Reviewed it in 2015. Recommended it based on campaign as it was the "best we had so far." Noted gameplay issues, but knew others would like it.

    Eric has pointed some out:
    - Simplistic, swingy bland gameplay PLUS hitpoints (yeck)
    - Only wizards matter

    A game that avoids IGOUGO is nothing special, neither does favouring shooting make it good. It's a game where I like to read the rules, but have no desire to play it.

    1. I knew hitpoints we're an issue for you! My dad and I love to laugh at the rediculous deaths that hitpoints can give you - some unit at one hp, fighting abilities totally undiminished, puts down some hulking inter-dimensional bad guy only to stub their toe a moment later and die because that was the last hp. Tons of laughs in the right group, totally immersion breaking and frustrating otherwise!

    2. Cinematic, perhaps, logical, no.

      Every time I see hitpoints (i.e. unecessary recording) in a wargame that isn't, say, about giant spaceships, I assume it's a RPG player dabbling in wargames....

  3. Game designers are too much geared towards storytelling RPG examples, but perhaps they should check out old skool crunchy board wargaming instead for inspiration on stuff like resources, territory a diplomacy instead. Certainly if you want some sort of competition, RPGs with their emphasis on cooperation and collective storytelling don't have a lot to offer.

    Also, the "rule of cool" attitude that results in great miniature conversions might not be as useful when it comes to game design.

    1. You've nailed it.

      Many RPG-esque indie designers have 101 tables to enable you to randomly create your gangs motivations and backstory, but it's worthless for actual campaign crunch. There's no actual gameplay attached to the table,

      Stuff like owning territory, resources etc that impact the campaign add actual depth.

  4. Interesting you mention moving into RPGs and cooperative story-telling in wargames. That seems to be more of the trend lately to create a more cooperative experience and more RPG-lite.

    If you go by Hermann-Brain style thinking types, only 25% of the market in general is interested in competition, another 25% is more interested in simulation/process, another 25% is about social recognition through gameplay, modeling, clever stuff, etc, and another 25% want a relationship based experience.

    Therefore, it could be argued that the more socially geared and cooperative games have a larger market potential than the more competition geared or simulationist game approaches. The Recognition and Relationship gamers can be lumped into the social groups so a theoretical 50% market share versus 25% for comp and 25% for simulation.

    1. My counter suggestion: It's easier to fairly co operate with rules designed to handle some competition abuse; than it is to fairly compete with rules designed solely for co-op narrative play i.e. you can co operate with competitive rules, but not compete with co-op rules.

      My other thought: is a single competitive player more likely to make a co-operative group more competitive, than vice versa?

    2. ^ I guess I'm saying, games with some ability to handle SEMIcompetitive can cater to both groups, i.e. 75% market share.

      Also, I am referring specifically to filling the Necromunda niche; which I think all the wannabe RPG indie games are failing to do.

    3. Counter-counter-suggestion with a mix of a Dance, Dance Revolution:

      By adding Competitive mechanics into a game, you strangle the game as the only way to play will eventually default to competitive. It only takes one competitive player to make that the default style of play.

      Now, for the Dance Dance Revolution bit:
      Games explicitly designed around Competitive play have a short shelf-life and will fail due to self-immolation long before a Coop game.

      Guildball vs. Blood Bowl
      War Machine vs. AoS

      Like all things, the game must live on a shifting continuum between competitive and cooperative in order to stay viable and healthy.

    4. I agree that a game should live on a continuum between competitive and co operative. I just think it's unwise to abandon attempts to gang/campaign balance altogether in favour of pure storytelling and I feel this is 'A' reason most indie have never filled the Mordhiem niche.

      As for your "co operative games will outlast competitive games" I'm not sure what you are saying. AoS and Bloodbowl are co operative? Huh? (It's Friday afternoon in Australia so I may have been whooshed :-)

      Guildball (butchers vs tradies) is uninteresting compared to the brand recognition of Warhammer Orks V Skaven. So it was never destined for anything but a niche within a niche.

      Warmachine lost their Press Gang at the same time they moved to a new edition of the rules and they had to compete with many new games + resurgence of GW's new better policies.

      I'm doubtful competitive/co operative focuses had much to do with the decreasing popularity of either.

      I'm a co operative gamer myself, but designing a Mordhiem replacement without even attempting to balance for the inevitable competitive players seems to condemn a game to indie wargamesvault Lead Adventure Forum wannabe RPG.

    5. If you read up on the current state of War Machine, a common theme is they can not attract new players for two reasons:

      1. The old hands keep stomping them into the ground with the advice to "Get Gud". The learning curve is too steep.

      2. There is no room for "casual" games. They are always Steamroller (or tourney practice games) every time and there is no reason to ever have a sub-optimal unit/list.

      This is from the lips of War Machine players themselves in discussions dedicated to growing War Machine and the "State" of War Machine.

      Regarding Guildball, the developers of the game themselves said that they painted themselves into a corner. There was no place else to go with the game, and it was essentially too competitive for its own good. That is why they dropped it and moved on as there was no new factions or places to go with the game. The product had reached the end of its life cycle.

      Now, AoS and Blood Bowl can still be played competitively, but that is NOT the default assumption of the game. The designers of these games come from a position that the default mode of play is a laid back, good time, and to have a laugh with friends. Anything else is an added bonus.

      This difference in design Focus is what keeps a game from "eating itself" and giving itself space to grow.

      Now, that being said I think we are broadly in agreement. You need a token amount of balance, and where exactly that amount of balance lands on the spectrum is hard to say. 40K is NOT balanced yet it is the most popular game around. The key as a designer is to make sure your design focus is broad enough.

    6. Oh, one other thing! Thanks for even engaging in the discussion! I am probably over-stating my case to help drive the point and generate interesting discussion, but we are in broad agreement.

      Perhaps I should create a thread for discussion on the google group?

    7. Why not do a post on your blog?

      I think we are agreeing, but I'm just "pushing back" against a perceived tendancy to toss any attempt to balance out the window in favour of "storytelling" or just not bothering at all, rather than advocating for Warmachine tourney "grow a pair" mentality.

      The "intent" of designers is not always what the audience takes it as; i.e. I suspect GW has always viewed 40K etc as a "collect models and push them around" rather than a serious competition-ready ruleset. All rulesets that are player vs player are competitive at least in a literal sense.

      It may just be wording: I'd class AoS and Blood Bowl as casual-competitive games; a cooperative game is in my mind more one of those "survive vs zombies" boardgames or a RPG where you create a story together.

      So I think I'd class wargames as "storytelling no balance" -> "casual competitive with some attempt to allow balanced pick up games" -> "tournament competitive" rather than the "co op vs competitive" definitions we're using.

  5. Post on my own blog...... ahhhhhhhh..... looks like I have to run! Look at the time!

    1. Lol. I just meant so it would have a wider viewing than in the google group, and you could steer the conversation.

      Your blog is stickied here on the sidebar btw.

      Did you want to do the game design interview thing? I think you'd have interesting points of view that folk would appreciate

  6. Oh yeah! I think I responded to you, if you did not get my answers I will re-send again.

  7. Didn't come through to either hotmail or gmail accounts from what I can see

  8. Just sent again to your Hotmail. You can contact me at Eric@Bloodandspectacles.com if you do not see it in the next couple hours. I hope it does not go to SPAM. Let me know if you have follow-ups or need clarification.