Thursday 3 July 2014

Game Design #14: "The Forgotten" - Terrain, Victory Conditions, "Deathmatches" and Balance

I've already suggested a balanced "point system" is an impossibility, but I'd like to look at how terrain and victory conditions effect the value of a unit/piece/miniature, and how these are poorly managed in most rulebooks.

The impact of terrain and missions on gameplay are seldom well explained in most rule books. Most rulesets do not even mention their expected "terrain" layout  - which can radically alter the gameplay and game balance between factions.  Most rulesets offer only a very few alternate victory conditions (i.e. "scenarios" or "missions"), and even then, they are added as an afterthought. It's ironic that rules typically devote half their page total to "fluff" whilst neglecting factors that strongly influence the actual gameplay.

The value of a chess piece would change if the conditions for victory change. I.e. "kill half the enemy pieces" vs the usual "capture the king."  Missions/scenarios likewise change the value of war gaming units. 

Alternate Victory Conditions (a.k.a Missions/Scenarios)
Too many games simply have a "kill em all" or "deathmatch" gameplay where the game continues until one side "breaks" due to failed morale checks or simply gets cut down to the last man. Most games don't offer more than 4 or 5 missions at best, and usually it's obvious the mission part of the rules has been added as an afterthought.

Not only do scenarios add to the replay value of a rules set by adding interest and minimizing repetition, but they also alter the balance of units individually, and armies as a whole.

Let's use a chess analogy.  Since in chess the "victory condition" is "capture the king" the king is... pretty much priceless.  However, if the victory condition or "mission" was changed to "wipe out half or all the enemy pieces" then the queen, and probably also the bishop, knight and rook would be more valuable. Changing the victory conditions for chess would radically change the relative value of the piece.

In the sci fi skirmish Infinity, combat hackers are a useful option but not a "must-have" inclusion in most armies. In missions that require hacking, they suddenly assume paramount importance. It's not always so black and white though.  In a mission that requires you to move to and seize objectives, fast units (and thus the armies that possess them) might have a substantial advantage.

Scenarios or missions need to be designed in such a way that accomplishing objectives is attractive.  Too many times, missions devolve into a "deathmatch" anyway - when one player realizes it is simpler to accomplish his mission objectives when his opponent is dead.  For example, Malifaux has a impressive array of scenarios, and also fun "side missions" where player secretly nominate an objective that their opponent is unaware of.  However more than once when someone is spreading out his forces to grab objectives at corners of the table I've seen another player ignore his "mission" in favour of simply killing his opponent with a massed "blob" of troops, then accomplishing his objectives at leisure.

Dropzone Commander is a game that works well with scenarios

Missions/scenarios need to actually be playtested and balanced.  Just like every other part of the game.  I review a lot of rulebooks. The vast majority of rules have a "mission/scenario" section of two pages, maximum.  Sometimes the missions and scenarios are actually written and released after the rulebook as a moneygrab expansion. It's obvious from the writing that most missions/scenarios are hastily "tacked on" after the rulebook was complete.  I strongly doubt most commercial wargames rules are balanced around anything except "deathmatch" games. How often do you hear people say "oh, in XY mission faction Z always wins" or "in this scenario the attacker always loses."  That's a sign of poor mission design.  (Unless, of course, it is a historical scenario, a la Battle of Little Big Horn)

A "Good" Example: A game that does "alternate victory conditions a.k.a. missions) well is Dropzone Commander.  It seems designed purposefully to fit with various scenarios  - you tend to need infantry to capture and hold objectives. However infantry themselves are absmally slow and rely on dropships to get them to objectives. Since dropships can bypass enemy forces to go straight for objectives, and, once on the objectives, infantry are difficult to evict, you can't just roll around in a big deathball of mechs or mega-tanks killing everyone to win your mission.  The game mechanics thus support the missions provided. I strongly suspect the designer would have been playtesting various scenarios at the same time he was designing the core game. 

 Lack of cover on a map means long range units will tend to dominate and be more "powerful" relative to their cost.
Anyone who has played Infinity will tell you the importance of line-of-sight blocking terrain. For a decent game, you NEED a terrain piece every 4" or so.  Without it plenty of cover, forces could decimate each other from their starting zones and HMGs and snipers would rule supreme. Their relative "value" would be much higher.  Indeed, even one tall building can totally mess up the balance of the game, allowing one side to dominate the board with sweeping, lethal fields of fire.  Close-range weapons such as shotguns and flamethrowers tend to be only effective on the most cluttered of maps.

In the average game of LoTR, a game where a usual 4x6 table would be very open, with at most 3-4 terrain pieces scattered at random on it, I notice that my terrain-heavy boards rendered archery very ineffective, and thus worth less than their listed value.  My goblin army, which can climb over and around obstacles with no penalty, always did exceptionally well on these boards.    My table changed the value of various units and armies.

Another example: I've been playing a PC game based on the Battletech franchise called Mechwarrior: Online.  In this game,  close range "brawling" mechs equipped with lasers and rockets can only work effectively on the very few cluttered maps where you can close to point-blank range.  However, 80% of maps have very little cover and are full of wide open spaces which allows sniper mechs to easily out-range them and tear them up before they can close. On paper, the mechs are balanced. However due to the nature of maps (terrain), the sniper mech have an advantage the vast majority of the time, and thus in practice are far more "powerful."

On my typical cluttered gaming boards, my agile goblins punch above their weight against bow-armed elves.

Conclusions - Terrain
We can see terrain plays an important part of game balance between armies, and can change the nature of the game itself.   However while all rules explain the bare mechanics of how terrain works "in rough going halve movement" and "-1 to missile fire through soft cover" they seldom explain how much and what type of terrain is required, which can radically impact gameplay.

Games like Infinity the Game need an entire chapter devoted to it, as setting up an Infinity table is something of an art, with great care given to the effective placement of LoS-blocking terrain.  Playing Infinity with a industry-standard "40K" level of terrain would result in an unpleasant, bloody experience with the game likely over by the end of the first turn.

 Most rules neglect to say what a "typical" table would look like and how you should set it up.
 This article gives  good rundown on how to set up an Infinity table.  This information should arguably be included in a rulebook, ahead of "painting guides" "fluff" and other things less essential to gameplay. 

I'd like to see all rulebooks come with a "terrain placement guide" - which could be as simple as a rule dividing a table into 12" squares and making sure at least half of them have a terrain piece in them. Or it could be a dice-based "terrain generator" Or a series of top-down photos or maps of gaming tables explaining how the terrain impacts the gameplay.

"How a Warhammer player sets up an Infinity board" 
(alternate title)  "How the **** Did All My Guys Die in Turn #1?"

Conclusions - Missions (a.k.a. Alternate Victory Conditions)
As scenarios/missions can drastically alter how the game plays, and the relative effectiveness of certain units/armies, they need to be rigorously playtested and balanced just like any other part of the rules.

Scenarios and Missions need considered DURING game creation, rather than being tacked on as an afterthought. In fact, a player who is setting out to design a game should ask himself "what missions and objectives are going to be in my game?" and make sure his game mechanics mesh with those. 

Care must be given to
(a) provide a range of missions that do not just favour one army or one unit type
(b) give both sides in any given "mission" a reasonable chance of winning
(c) make completing mission objectives more attractive than just "killing em all" so players don't just turn the game into a deathmatch anyway

As you can see, that is a pretty demanding set of requirements and would take more thought and explanation than a single page at the back of the rulebook.

TL:DR  Whilst game designers like to think they are budding novelists, I'd like to see them put less effort into "fluff"  and more into neglected areas like terrain layout and scenario design, that actually matter to how the game plays out.

Battle Games of Middle Earth: Hobby Magazine

I was always aware of their existence, but never owned any. Recently picked up a set of issues #1-#25 from a local secondhand shop for $12.


I'd call them "What White Dwarf Could Have Been."

Modelling guides show simple, achievable paint schemes with 4-5 colours, and introduce "advanced" techniques like drybrushing later.

What impressed me were the painting and hobby articles. The paint jobs shown were very simple, achievable paintjobs, not masterclass works by Golden Demon winners, that occasionally added in (and explained) "advanced" techniques such as shading paints, drybrushing and washes.   The simply painted miniatures were used in the battle reports as well.  

The hobby articles actually showed how to MAKE stuff cheaply out of household materials like cardboard and paddlepop sticks, not just how some studio artist painted the latest $100+ premade plastic gothic ruin.

Modelling guides show how to actually make things from simple stuff like tape and cardboard. Not simply how to paint the latest $100 GW terrain piece.

Why this enthusiasm over "average" worksmanship?  Well, I know we all need something to "aspire" to, and there are some incredibly talented painters and modellers out there.  Whilst these people are well-represented in online blogs, I'd estimate they actually make up less than 10% of gamers you actually meet and play against.   In fact, a far higher percentage (I'd estimate 30-50%) of local fantasy/sci fi players I've met think nothing of fielding units in black undercoat or bare metal.  A common excuse is "I can't paint well, so I don't bother."  I'd argue magazines like White Dwarf fuel this rather defeatist, lazy attitude by setting impossibly high standards the average gamer cannot hope to achieve.

Inspired by the "low standards" shown, I rebased some old, rather simply-painted goblins I had painted years ago, using simple techniques shown in "Battle Companies."

People often talk about the "price barrier" to games like 40K but I wonder if Games Workshop is also accidentally adding a perceived "skill barrier" through their own advertising catalogue ahem, hobby magazine.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, I found the "Battle Games" articles with simple paintjobs and home-made terrain very inspiring, in the "I could do that" sense.

After reading half a dozen articles, I actually dug out my old LoTR models to repaint them. I then took more care in basing said models (usually I am very lackadaisical with basing), due to a simple article I saw in the magazine.

Not exactly Golden Demon material, but an improvement on what I had.  I mean, that's what a "hobby" magazine should do, right? Get you involved in the hobby and out there painting and building?

Furthermore, I went and bought some more LoTR miniatures (OK, they were eBay ones) - something White Dwarf (essentially a glossy ad for Games Workshop products) has failed to do for 5 years.  So if you see more LoTR content in this blog over the next few weeks, blame it on Battle Companies.  A hobby magazine that actually encouraged "the hobby" rather than "The Hobby"(tm)

PS: If anyone has issues #25-#75, I'd give them a happy home...

Heavy Gear Miniatures - the ultimate DIY metal minis?

RANT WARNING:  The reason I say it is the ultimate DIY kit is because there is a LOT of "do it yourself." In fact, the models require so much "prep" work you might as well carve the robot yourself out of a chunk of pewter ore. 

I took less time building the entire game table than I did some of the models!

I recently bought some Heavy Gear models at half price (i.e. "somewhat acceptable" instead of their usual "laugh out loud ridiculous/Games Workshop" level) - but I still feel a bit ripped off.  With all the prep work to get the model to a reasonable standard, they should be paying ME. After all, I am doing most of their job for them. 

Considering each metal 28mm miniature costs RRP $12+, I think the miniatures are squarely in the "boutique" range for pricing.  But they certainly are not "boutique" quality. 

Here are a few issues I have encountered:

Mold lines
On 2/3rds the models. Difficult to remove. Can't think of any good reason why the mold lines should exist.  It's not as if the models are dynamic, intricate sculpts like Infinity the Game. They are pretty simple, staid sculpts, in multiple parts.

These are "general purpose" Jager/Hunter squads and required a fair bit of trimming and drilling.  The fire support mechs were much harder to put together but the recon boxes were not too bad. 

Tags of metal/bits of sprue miscast on model
Some are very large and chunky (i.e. so big they require tin-snips - you can't simply file them off.)
Sprue > Limbs/Weapons
Arms/weapons are flimsy compared to the uber-thick sprue they are irrevocably wielded to. Removing them from the sprue invariably leaves chunks of sprue on the arm/weapon, requiring more filing and unsightly marks.

 They look so innocent now....
Arm joints/sockets are terrible
The arm sockets are never drilled out properly - you'll need to drill out each and every one yourself.   In addition, the "plugs" that are supposed to fit into the socket always outsized and have to be laboriously filed down.

Lack of Instructions
A few times I had to go online to identify what a part did or how to put it on.  If instructions like this are needed, it should probably come in the box.  For $12+ a mini, I'd expect a full-colour data card. In the very least, the ability to put it together.

Distinctly Underwhelmed
Each 28mm miniature took significant prep work.  I'd estimate at least 20-30 minutes to get each model to "acceptable" level. Every model needed lots of drilling, filing and trimming.  Imagine the outcry if each GW Imperial Guardsman was so full of molding faults it took 30 minutes to assemble.  If Dream Pod 9 advertise "made in Canada" as meaning better quality - then all I can say is no wonder Canadians are lampooned on American TV.

These are literally some of the worse models I've had to assemble (except perhaps for the miscast Firestorm Armada resins) and certainly #1 for poor price/quality ratio.  When I compare the quality of a $12 "Gear" to say a Red Star/Empress 28mm modern trooper (~$3ea) - the discrepancy is glaringly obvious.

I've teetered on the brink of "getting into" Heavy Gear for years - lured by the interesting setting but put off by the price. If you are in a similar situation, I'd now say "don't bother."

You may recognise the "buildings" - they are mostly the plastic packaging from the models themselves!
If you are the sort of person who would happily whittle a perfect 1:1000 scale model of the titanic out of a log of firewood, or you are an advanced modeller who doesn't mind paying boutique prices for a incomplete product, then I can recommend the Heavy Gear models with good conscience.  Otherwise, save your money and avoid the frustration.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

In Which I Say Nice Things About a Games Workshop Ruleset

..actually, it isn't as remarkable as you might think.  Blood Bowl, Epic and Battlefleet Gothic all have rule mechanics I admire. But they are all Specialist Games that got swept under the rug. We kinda expect GW to deep-six any interesting rules, rather like Fox cancels good TV shows, so they don't count.

Actually, it's (surprisingly) one of their current Big Three. Specifically, Lord of the Rings. The Strategy Battle Game, of course. Not the mass-battle War of the Ring they pushed on us to sell more miniatures. I'm talking old school LoTR, (not the "Hobbit" reboot as I consider paying $90+ for a rulebook...   ...well let's just say "more money than brains" doesn't even come close.)

My dwarf warband - normal dwarf warriors and Khazad guard upgrades for Battle Companies

"Clean" Rules
I remember reading somewhere one of the LoTR authors was proud of how "clean" LoTR:SBG had remained through dozens of sourcebooks and expansions and I have to say I agree.   In contrast to the convoluted bloat of, say, Warhammer Fantasy this is even more evident.  The stat line is descriptive, familiar and simple and "special rules" are kept to a minimum. So you won't be losing due to forgetting an obscure rules combo *cough* Warmachine *cough.*

Whilst you can min-max in any points-based wargame, LoTR has more a focus on playing the game rather than winning by building the "uber army" list like, say, 40K.  This suits me as I don't think pre-game decisions should be the ultimate factor in winning the game. I want the best general to win, not the best army builder/recruiting officer.  Whilst LoTR does have powerful units and heroes, and indeed gameplay revolves around them, there aren't really any "must have" inclusions that will singlehandedly steamroller the enemy force, and a hero can usually be reliably bought down by equivalent points worth of grunts, due to the limited nature of his heroic "might." 

Your in-game decisions tend to determine if you win or lose, rather than how you deployed your armies at the start. Rather than being decided in 4-6 turns like most GW games, LoTR games can often go to 20+ turns, giving more time for the battle to ebb and flow. 

The rule mechanics are simple - you can pick them up in the first few turns of a game - and thereafter you would almost never need to refer to a rulebook. 

Solid Mechanics
Whilst not boasting anything as revolutionary as Infinity's ARO system, the initiative system (side A moves, side B moves, side A shoots, side B shoots) is more adaptive and organic than usual IGOUGO fare. There are far more player reactions and decision points within a turn. In addition, spending Might Points allows you to activate units and act out of sequence, adding a layer of both gameplay and resource management, and making the game more fluid and less predictable.  It's a lot harder to cheesily halt a unit 1" out of enemy charge range. 

There are rules for all sorts of skirmish-game things like climbing, jumping and falling but they all use the same simple, consistent mechanic - roll a d6 and "1" = a bad result, "2-5" = is an expected result and "6" = is a great result.   In addition, different races move at different speeds - which does have an impact on the game.

With only a dozen spells, magic is simple and apart from the usual offensive spells ("transfix" an opponent in place, or blast them with missile-like sorcery) most revolve around buffs/debuffs such as raising the courage of allies and causing terror amongst foes, hampering missile fire or the like.  It's powerful, but not overpowering.

I like how the winners of a fight "push back" the loser which means losers who cannot retreat are more likely to die (realistic in that they are hemmed in by a crush of bodies and don't have room to fight) but this also can open gaps in enemy formations. The 1:1 modelling means you can form realistic formations like wedges, hollow squares, double/single lines - pretty much anything you can imagine.

My painting style emphasizes speed over elegance. But I never ever field unpainted miniatures, so I count myself amongst the righteous
Resource Management
My favourite part of the game is how heroes use of "Might," "Will" and "Fate". These stats have a finite supply, adding a layer of resource management and more "decision points" to the game.  Heroes ARE powerful, but they impact your game in more ways than simply being close-combat killing machines with huge stats.

Do you use your Might to re-roll dice and slaughter your foes in close combat? Or do you use it to move your allies into combat or fire off a volley of arrows before your opponent?  Do you use Will to cast spells or resist your enemies' magic?  Get bogged down in a fight for too long, and eventually your heroes' Fate will be depleted, leaving him more vulnerable to wounds.

Might is especially useful and I like using it to meddle with the initiative sequence and set up advantageous combats for my warband.  However spending my Might thus leaves me vulnerable to 1v1 combat with an enemy hero who has conserved his Might for his own combats.  Heroes are powerful and can have game-changing effects, but they get tired as the game goes on and their stats are drained.  

 The OOP Khazad Guard ($5ea!) I bought drove the price of my Battle Company up to $30 - most of my other forces cost $10 to $15. That's a very low entry point for a GW product. 

Campaign Games: Mordhiem/Necromunda Fan? Meet Battle Companies Redux
Found in White Dwarf #311 and #312 (and also free online here) this is a LoTR skirmish campaign with ~12 models a side.  You can recruit new soldiers, level up your heroes, and buy equipment. Think Mordhiem with better gameplay, less cheesy warbands and simpler/less complex advancement and equipment (and less superpowered heroes/wargear combinations).  You can play a game in 30-40 minutes - a campaign in an evening. When I review fantasy skirmish rules, people often ask me "is this the new Mordhiem?"   I wonder if they have heard of "Battle Companies."  It's a concept so good (and cheap to play) Games Workshop quietly shelved it. That's a pretty good recommendation by my book!

Considering LoTR:SBG also spawned historical skirmish campaign games "Legends of High Seas" (pirates) and "Legends of the Old West" (cowboys) as well as numerous derivative works ranging from steampunk to samurai, it has pretty good "skirmish campaign" pedigree. you're recommending a GW game - wait what?
Actually, yes I am. Whilst evolutionary not revolutionary, it represents a positive step forward from 40K and WHFB. It's a clean, simple rule set with familiar stats and mechanics yet some surprisingly subtle naunces, in particular the initiative sequence and the use of Might, Will and Fate. Your battles will more likely be won or lost by your in-game decisions, not in the list building or deployment stages.

The commonsense mechanics are used in a range of other rule sets for many different eras and the game scales well - from 10 minis to about 50 (after which it starts to bog down).  Furthermore, if you're seeking a way to get your Mordhiem fix, but don't love the complexity or cheesiness of certain wargear/hero builds, then Battle Companies offers a legitimate, affordable* alternative.

I know a lot of people who played LoTR briefly and tossed it aside as too "simple" or "bland."  I'd encourage you to dig it out and look at it with fresh eyes.  

*Although you WOULD be mad to pay the actual GW prices (it's $35+ for 12 plastics by the same Perry brothers sculptors who sell their own similar medieval models at $30 for 40+ plastics) - there is a thriving secondhand market.   A dozen secondhand plastics and some metals for a Battle Companies army would set you back $20 or less from eBay.  The softback A5 rules booklet from the Mines of Moria boxset (secondhand ~$10) and a Battle Companies pdf (free) and "voila!"