Tuesday 31 December 2013

"MacDonalds" Wargames Rules

Bolt Action's close adherence to the Games Workshop/Flames of War formula means it will be an easy crossover - appealing to the legions of fans of both franchises.  Without delving to deeply into the exact mechanics, I was thinking about what makes rules successful. I'd call Bolt Action a "MacDonalds" set of rules, but no one denies the money McDonalds makes.

So what makes a rules set a commercial success?

These are rules which dominate their period/genre:  
Without concrete data I'm only guessing, but there are some obvious names:
Warhammer Fantasy, Flames of War, Warhammer 40K, Warmahordes, DBx, Field of Glory.
Bolt Action is a rising star.  I'm tempted to add Infinity as it always seems to feature heavily in any online stores. 

Bolt Action, aka Warhammer 1939 aka Flames of War Skirmish. Generic, bland, unimaginatively copies tried-and-tested Flames of War/40K mechanics.  Bound to be successful.

Out of Game Experience
I don't know about you, but I spend far more time collecting, painting and assembling armies than I do playing. I'll break this down into a few subsections. 


Are the miniatures interesting and flavourful? Is there more than one faction?  (Not many people stop with just one army). Are the miniatures easily available?

Collecting & Army Building
A "points system" and/or "army list" is invaluable for collecting as it allows you to build acceptable armies for pick-up games or tournaments. I'm not going to go into the "scenario vs points" argument here but there is simply no reason NOT to include a points system. If you don't like 'em, ignore em. 
Scenarios rely on organization and planning - which may vary between clubs, and from week to week.  Games like Tomorrow's War who refused to do a points system for "philosophical reasons" simply hurt the long-term viability of the game - and ironically can frustrate scenario-builders who want a rough "rule of thumb" to balance scenarios. In fact, with scenario-only books like Tomorrow's War, there is little point in getting more than one rulebook for the entire gaming group.

In Game Experience
 Easy to find opponents
I have two Warmachine armies (even though I dislike the game on principle) as I know locally I can always get opponents (if I am that desparate). Again, points systems and army lists are important as it allows me to turn up and quickly get playing. These games are popular for tournaments which allow you to get in some solid gaming.

No fancy equipment  or terrain requirements
Nearly every game listed above uses the humble d6 and does not use any elaborate markers or templates. This includes things like terrain - the prime barrier to Infinity is the terrain requirements - not everyone wants to spend 3 weekends making "enough" terrain to make the game playable.

Simple, consistent mechanics, little record keeping
Not too many charts, math or modifiers, and no written orders thanks!  The game needs to be simple to learn. However some complexity is required or the game will come across as bland or shallow.  Rules are usually concrete (i.e. true line of sight, WYSIWYG).  Familiar mechanics are a bonus.  Many of the ex-GW writers continue to re-make the same game - heck Empire of the Dead is LOTR with d10s.

"Special" Rules
Sigh.  This is a personal bugbear, as games usually go overboard in this area (Malifaux, Warmachine, Infinity to name a few) which can result in players winning though having a better memory of the 157 sub-rules.  Nonetheless, "Special Rules" are important to add flavour between factions and makes your troop units unique.

Player control
One of the reasons IGOUGO is popular is it allows a high level of player control, allowing you to control your forces relatively unhindered during your turn.  All the more popular systems have very simple command and control - usually "stay within 4" of the other models in the unit" - and very basic morale systems (units test when take 50% casualties, and either pull back or flee the field).

Games should fit in the 1-3 hour range. This allows you to play multiple opponents, so you do not just have to play Fred with the terrible body odor the whole evening, and prevents games from "dragging" too much.
Chain of Command. Interesting, inventive, a little chaotic. Will be popular with groups or individuals, but will never achieve mass market appeal.  Basically, is the subtitled French comedy against the latest Adam Sandler movie.

A case study:
Bolt Action vs Chain of Command
Both have many interesting factions and readily available miniatures - you can use any WW2 manufacturer. However Bolt Action is closely supported by Warlord's own miniatures line. 

Though Chain of Command has suggested platoons and strives for historical accuracy, Bolt Action has both a points system and an army builder and seems geared for competitive or tournament play. 

Bolt Action is gaining momentum so it will be easy to get opponents familiar with the rules - or to convert them over from 40K/FoW, given the familiar mechanics.  Chain of Command is a different "style" of game which may not instantly appeal - and has the usual chaotic mix of mechanics typical to a Lardies game.   Bolt Action is going with the established audience. There's a commercial reason so many movies are sequels.

Both games have a sensible amount of special rules, but Chain of Command has a much more complex activation system which is a mini-game in itself.  The focus on "friction" means units may or may not be able to activate. In Bolt Action, you are guaranteed of moving each and every unit. Bolt Action, with its familiar mechanics and streamlined feel, plays faster. 

Is Bolt Action a better game?  I'd argue that Chain of Command offers far superior gameplay.  But it would take a braver man than I to bet against the superior commercial success of Bolt Action.


  1. I will be linking to this and discussing in my blog. I've thought about this as well. I even bought the BA rules cause I thought I'd finally found a system that was popular that I would play. I usually like the more obscure rules.
    I was excited that I could listen to the podcasts and read all the blogs of a game I was playing. However, after playing it, I lost interest.

    I'm not saying I won't play again...but it may be awhile.

    I'm going to give CoC a try this year in my search to see if I like gaming at this level.

    I really dig Blitzkrieg Commander II and it should go over fairly well - it has points, several scenarios and very straight forward rules. The reason it won't be as successful - no dedicated model line, flexible basing, and random activation (likelihood that you won't be able to move all the units you want.) with all those "negatives" it's still my favorite game.

    1. I reckon I'm going to make up a set of generic rules that "mimic" the plethora of ex-GW ones I see around, and put Messers Calvatore and Priestley out of work.

  2. I certainly see your point of why Bolt Action maybe the way to go, but I am tired of the GW inspired army books and the costs associated with them. I have also come to despise point systems for historical games in general but especially for WWII. My preference is to do a little research and come up with OBs for the various games. That's why Chain of Command appeals to be quite a bit more than Bolt Action. The troops on the ground didn't get to decide on the number of points they were worth or try and find that "special" weapon that would make their job easier. You make do with what you have.

    1. Bear in mind I'm not saying Bolt Action is a better GAME. Far from it. (Perhaps I wasn't very clear in my "summing up") However I think it will be VERY successful COMMERCIALLY as it ticks all the boxes for a "commercial" rules system, compared to CoC... Bolt Action is a typical generic "McDonalds" ruleset geared to be popular with the masses

  3. I think BA is just a game, just like Monopoly is a game about buisness. If you want to just have fun and not think about the overview of tactics/reality, BA, FOW and 40k is for you, and I have played them. But friction in warfare is the reality. You are not sure that platoon will move on up and commanders do not have gods eye view that come with those games. Who says warfare is balanced? Play chess. CoC makes you see the tactics, as most Lardie games do, which makes the conflict between the two players abilities to overcome the friction that is created.

    1. My particular "hobbyhorse" is what I like to term "decision points" - you should be constantly be presented with a range of difficult decisions, which are constantly changing. In mu opinion, a good wargames' challenge should be making tough DECISIONS, not remembering special rules or weird mechanics or bookkeeping.

      I'm not a fan of IGOUGO for this reason - it only has 4-6 key decision points in the game (i.e. when its your turn) - and it allows you to "chain" attacks and co-ordinate your units against a static, passive opponent.

      I've rambled about it a bit here


  4. Very good analysis. Glad I discovered this blog - I suspect you'll get a few more Lardie fans coming here after it was mentioned on the TFL list.
    Best in 2014,

  5. Your comments are dead-on. But I do think that there is a "point system" of sorts embedded in CoC in the form of the balance between two forces derived by adjustments to forces via the extra support units a less effective faction can bring to bear.

    All of the above games you've mentioned are ones I have either stopped playing or avoided playing because they are a money sink. They become boring to play after the first few games.


  6. You could say there is an indirect "point system" of sorts, but you can hardly say any TFL games are optimised for competitive or tournament play - which is popular with game store owners and are good for club events. They're also relatively easy to organize - simply say "it's 1500-point games next weekend"....

    Again this is not what I think is "good", but what I think is needed to be COMMERCIALLY successful.

    Like you, I dislike playing all the above games (except for Infinity, back before it got bogged down with 150+ extra rules from 2 supplements) but if I was aiming to make a commercial ruleset, they definitely are "role models" in how to sell a system.

  7. This a terrible indictment of the hobby as a whole. What you appear to be saying is that a good game, Chain of Command, cannot be successful as it does not pander to the lowest common denominator, whereas a poor game, Bolt Action will be successful precisely because it avoids challenging the gamer.

    1. Not precisely. I'm not even saying Bolt Action is "poor" - just very bland and generic - it has 90% of its mechanics in common with 40K/FoW. I'd even recommend it, as a good "introductory" game to WW2 skirmish.

      But I do think there are certain things "mass market" games have in common. And yes, the aim - to be commercially successful - is to cater to the widest possible audience. (or "lowest common denominator").

      Another feature of a successful rules set I forgot to add is SUPPLEMENTS/ARMY BOOKS. Every single game I've listed as "successful" has one or more "follow up" rulesets aka "campaign books" "army books" or "codexes."

      Also, I've noticed all of the rulebooks tend to be very "shiny" - glossy productions with lots of art, etc usually in the $30-$40 range (or more).

      It's good business. Why sell them a single rulebook with everything included, when you can sell them 2 or 3 extra books and make another $50 or $100 or so?

  8. the other marketing tool is miniatures. make a new faction, or revise an old one, that becomes temporarily invincible until the next new/revised faction is introduced into the market

    1. That probably fits with my "needs supplements/army books/codexes" comment above. ^

      However although I'm certain GW uses "power creep" or "codex creep" to sell minis, I'm not certain about the other companies. If you have enough "shiny" factions to choose from, players tend to swap amongst armies themselves, balanced or not. I don't even think you have to "unbalance" them for wargamers to chase the newest shiny thing.

      I know a few Warmachine players who played with an (unpainted - ugh!) army (worth hundreds of $$$) for a few games, then sold them on to someone the next week and bought another army simply because they didn't like the way it played.... as a company selling minis, that'd make you smile all the way to the bank.

      But selling miniatures is a bit outside my scope (I'm focussing on what sells rulebooks, not on what sells miniatures...) - you'd probably have to include more knowledgable folk in that conversation...

  9. I really liked your analysis of what is commercial and why. I also liked the "McDonald's" label. Perhaps it comes down to who the market is. If it is younger gamers, they want fun, simple games. Older gamers want something more historical. There are just more younger gamers looking for fun, than older ones looking for historical I guess. That and older gamers tend to adapt their own rules to play by.

    Good article. Your blog is bookmarked sir!

    1. I feel there are two main groups (well, at least in Australia)....

      The first are the (usually) older guys who hang out in someone's garage. They tend to buy only one rulebook to share around, and are more happy to proxy miniatures using their existing collection. They are more likely to try new game systems.

      The "club" or "gaming shop" scene tends to be dominated by commercial "MacDonalds" systems like Warmachine and 40K with its more points-orientated, tournament friendly focus. Stores promote this as it sells more minis. It tends to have a younger crowd, who are more happy to chase the "new shiny." (This is just a generalisation of course - some of the worst "magpies" and most overly-competitive players are older guys.)

      If I was trying to sell stuff, I know which group I'd rather market my game to...

    2. I think that polarisation of gaming types is true the world over. Come to think of it, it's why I left the club and bought a garage...

    3. I actually have TWO garages! One is solely set up for gaming. But my wife IS awesome (she even pretends to be interested in gaming and provides a handy opponent when I want to test rules...)

    4. Now that is awesome! My wife will play fantasy based wargames (and so will my daughter). But neither will play historical.

      I'll be getting part of the garage turned in to wargames area this year (the garage holds about 20 cars so we are closing off about a third of it for my wargaming). Have just had the builders install a new bathroom there to make. Next is some painting, shelves, and a coffee machine...

    5. OK, you win!

      ...I just have a hammock, TV and a fridge which I used to gloat about to my friends. Not quite to your scale though! ...But definitely a step up from my mum's basement ;-)

    6. LOL - the garage was the reason I bought the house. I don't have 20 cars (just one that's falling to bits), but as soon as I saw it I went "WARGAMES ROOM OF AWESOMENESS". Luckily the wife liked the house and said "you can have the basement".

      Really loving your wargame design series of posts. Some great thoughts there.

    7. I built a 3-bay shed, so I could use the 3rd bay as a man-cave/workshop. Then, I hinted I needed a new 2-bay shed to PLAY in. And got it!
      (I think I said I said it was so I could move stuff into the shed with baby on the way.. but I've kept it pristine for gaming!)

  10. I think you are correct as to the different types of players, and the different ways to market to them. I do think, however, that the advent of home 3D printing is going to topple a lot of the ivory towers that dominate gaming today. Free of the limitation of production costs, game designers will be able to cater to smaller audiences, and the bottom will fall out of the game companies still trying to squeeze profit out of a more traditional business model.

  11. Tristan, I agree that the widespread adoption of 3d printing will make its mark, as evidenced by Shapeways' success in marketing the more esoteric ww1 aircraft that they produce, as well as some of their scifi models. But I think the impact of this technology will not really be felt in the hobby until the printing resolution becomes fine enough to render layer boundaries between each pass of the nozzle much less distinct than they are now. In the small scales that we play in, resolution problems are still a big issue. But the technology is evolving at such a rapid pace, not to mention the price of adoption falling, that we should start seeing the phenomenon you describe emerging within the next couple of years. Although given the speed with which new machines are coming to market, this prediction might have to be measured in weeks, rather than years.


    1. I think the biggest breakthrough (for the "home modeller") will be terrain. I would be totally confident of designing buildings (which are a lot simpler than miniatures) and plugging the design into a 3D printer.

      Our school is getting one this year, so.....

    2. Enstock: that sounds about right to me. I am guessing a year and a half before resolution and cost hit a point where home 3D printing will be truly viable. Currently the printers that can handle the quality are in the $3,000 US range. Close, but not quite household yet!
      EvilleMonkeigh: terrain definitely, and the process is going to be much easier for those kinds of designs. Still, the market for professional design work with no production costs will explode, and there are already smart device attachments that can scan and produce a 3D render of a real piece. There will be a big market for print files, and 'black market' files of official models like space marines, for example. All of which will severely hurt the traditional 'control the production for profit' business models - napster all over again!

    3. True. A $5000 "Kickstarter" for example, is quite reasonable.

      It will be interesting how big companies handle it - for example, miniatures sales drive everything (including gamed design). Other rulebook-only companies like 2HrWG, Ganesha and Ambush Alley Games, should profit - if your rules can use models from all different suppliers...

  12. Interesting series of posts, I will be paying keen interest as it is very much in line with what I am looking into at the moment.

    Regarding 3D printing I have seen only one printer that is in the 'home market' price range that even remotely comes close to being about to produce a 0.007mm layer resolution for detailed miniature games. Even that one I would rather wait for the 'mark 2', but I think the REAL break though will be in 3D design software that is built specifically for miniature design without the requirement of a honours degree in graphic design to use to any effectiveness.

    I am already set upon getting a 3D printer once I am confident regarding the layer resolution but I will not bother without software as my artistic skills are crap but my mind is ablaze with ideas!

  13. You inspired me Sir.

    My next CoC game will be themed around road to Paris :

    Le fabuleux bombardement d'Amélie Poulain


  14. Interesting to re-read your post a year or so on - many of my friends have converted to CoC for gaming in our small group. However, they retain their BA skills for competitive play at events like CanCon, which CoC can never do.

    At the end of the day, like them or not, we have a lot to thanks BA and FoW for bringing more gamers out of the GW stupor to discover that there are other games out there and that some of the historically based ones are indeed fun.

  15. I like the "GW stupor" bit but I actually regard them more like boat people(!)

    We need more "similar to GW" rules but with different activation, and one or two cool ideas, that also perhaps differ from the 6" move, 24" shoot, 3" cohesion club just a little.... ...extend the education of the economic refugees....

    1. In Her Majesty's Name might fit the bill nicely, particularly as it only requires a dozen figures or so

  16. Well, coming to you blog very late, this review makes interesting reading. I bought BA v1 when it was published and played two games before ditching it for CoC which was published shortly after. My thoughts then were very similar to your’s. However . . seven or eight years later, I’ve dumped CoC and just got BA v2.

    It seems to me that CoC has some great innovations like the patrol phase and their pint size campaigns are gold dust. However, the actual combat mechanics are awful. Nearly all manoeuvre happens in the patrol phase and the rest of the game is a firefight decided by the first player to stack two units against one. I’ve played a lot of CoC and only very rarely does it end differently. Shock has little effect due to the targeting methods which means that firefights are decided by kills not suppression. In fact volume of fire is completely divorced from suppression. At least in BA hits mean pins (in the 2nd ed) which start to rack up. I do agree completely about the weapon ranges in BA, but find playing in 15mm largely solves that. I’m toying with using BA ranges as the effective range and making long range LoS. I’m considering using TFL pint size campaigns fought with BA combat rules coupled with a patrol phase.

    Anyway, my main point is the difference a few years makes. Great blog by the way. 😉

    1. My main complaint with CoC (or indeed any TFL rules) is the chaotic and varied dice rolling methods and mechanics make it a pain to play; it's like a bunch of random home rules thrown together without any consistent theme. I think I once counted 8 or so different mechanics in their aerial rules (Bag the Hun) using a range of different dice....

    2. Yep, that and an almost always incomplete index. This isn’t a TFL trait, but why do so few rules have a page reference on their QRS? I’d love to love TFL rules as I generally agree with their stated design intent. However. They seem to me to rarely achieve it, although they often get close. On the back of your reviews and comments, I’ve now got SOTR on order with the intention of bastardising CoC, BA, SOTR into something I like. I’m also trying out Fire Team Modern which looks promising.

    3. Agreed. I think I wouldn't mind if it was a pdf for $5 on Wargamesvault, but TFL stuff costing $40 for such a chaotic layout irks me to the degree I don't buy them anymore. Or the $20pdf - I mean, why do I need to pay $20 for an electronic download that costs literally nothing to produce. /rant

      SOTR is a decent set of rules. It's kinda like "if oldschool 40K was good" and even has vehicle creation rules. Illustratoins are pretty amateurish though.