Wednesday 28 June 2023

Wargames I Should Love... But I Don't (Game Design #92)

I have been digging through my cupboard, finding rules to match with unfinished projects (hoping for 'inspiration').

Taking out some Gripping Beast vikings, I was eyeing my Ragnarok ruleset - but then put both minis and rules back.  Naaah.  A campaign skirmish game about magic vikings fighting monsters?  Why am I not wanting to play this?

The intent of this is not to attack Ragnarok (which I've reviewed and guardedly recommended) but rather to look at why a game might not get much play time. Although I am using specifics, it's the general principles that interest me. The rules and game aren't bad. So why am I not keen?


Too bland. It's weird to say this about magic vikings battling monsters - but it's cos everyone has identical warbands. Imagine a game of Mordhiem where everyone could only be the one faction. Also, your models only increase stats and don't gain skills. Imagine Bloodbowl where your players only change stats. So even when upgraded warbands remain pretty samey, with only a few warband-wide Godspark powers to give flavour. 

Inaccessible Models/Lore. There is a huge bestiary, but half the critters are not readily available/do not work with other game systems. I could probably scratch-build a scoffin (multi-legged dragon) or eotin (two-headed giant) - but it's a lot of effort and expense. I could make corrupted skraelings by painting oversized 32mm minis grey or a fire steed by painting a horse with fiery yellow mane - but... again it's a considerable effort. There's this whole rich lore and I can only easily access a small portion of it. I can't grab models from my collection or even easily buy them 'off the shelf' - and if I do make/paint models specifically for this game, I can't use them readily elsewhere. One of the 6 scenarios requires several trolls (not cheap) - which would be an issue if I didn't play MESBG. Again, accessibility isn't considered.

Too Fiddly. The "overhead" (effort to learn/memorize rules) is rather high. The (many) stats are not named intuitively.    If prone, a model is -3SP, -1 Size, -1MA. Also +1MA and -1 RA vs prone models. <- something as simple as lying down is fiddly and not very comprehensible. 

There are many keywords. "A Lush Forest has the keywords Difficult, Heavy Cover and Obscuring." This is so awkward to read. Rules have to be easily accessible.

The Gimmick isn't thaaaat Good. Godspark. A magic resource you can share around OR supercharge and attach to a specific warrior. Technically it's cool, adding a layer of resource management, but you just get it by rolling well in your general dice-ing. So you are (a) constantly tracking it and (b) there is no risk/reward. The more rolls you make, the more magic you generate - so why not just shove everyone into the middle of the board and chug dice?  Also, you gain more Godspark by beating the required score; so if you pick a weak enemy (low score to beat) you can generate more Godspark. Hardly heroic - or risk vs reward.

It's kinda a snowball effect as well. Roll well and you get both a good result now AND magic to use later? Imagine if in say 40K every time you rolled a 6 in general play you also got a free re-roll to use later whenever you wanted. You get punished twice if luck is with your opponent. While it does add a resource to set itself apart from similar games, Godspark does not add as much to the game as it could.

2D6 as a core resolution mechanic. While not a deal-breaker, I'm not a huge fan. The bell curve gives consistent results, but makes modifiers worth different amounts based on where they are relative to the 7+ 'break point' on the curve.  I prefer 2D6 used somewhere there are little/no modifiers. For example, in MESBG "Battle Companies" I would prefer 2D6 be used for the standard warriors' wound table. A straight D6 means you could get screwed over and have too many men out next game. A 2D6 would mitigate this. 2D6 used as a core mechanic in Battletech Alpha Strike means squishy small mechs could become 'unhittable' with the right combo of modifiers and could result in players 'gaming' the bell curve. 2D6 isn't a deal breaker, but I mention this as Ragnarok using 2D6 was called the "Morpheus Engine" so I presume it is a key feature which might be re-used in other follow-up games - so I lump it in with the "Gimmick" above.


Again, let's focus on the big picture (rather than a character assassination of Ragnarok, which isn't a bad game). I think the key issue is accessibility/overhead. Is it worth the effort? I think the game creates needless barriers for itself which in most cases are easily fixed.

Everyone gets the same viking warband (with slightly different magic) - Desirability/Customisation

Fix: Allow factions of trolls, shapeshifters, svartelves, dwarves, valkyries etc. Make several viking sub-factions. Allow gain of special rules/traits like Blood Bowl, Battle Companies etc.

Lots of monsters but there's no models for them as they are very norse-specific? Accessibility/Overhead

Fix: Focus on models which are more readily available. Just have a 'giant' vs 'two headed giant'. Make frost/fire giants simply a trait to a normal giant. Where possible use photos of existing models and list manufacturer.

Fiddly rules - lots of unintuitive stats and keywords. Accessibility/Overhead

Fix: Well, just a better editor I guess. Or having someone who hasn't played/is invested in the game read for comprehensibility. Compare to mass produced rulesets.

Gimmick (Godspark) is a pain to track (every dice roll) and encourages lots of rolls. No risk vs reward. 2D6 isn't as amazing as they seem to think.  Accessibility/Overhead

Fix: Only gain Godspark when facing a scary/tougher foe, outnumbered or in a duel (challenge enemy hero 1v1). Or if initial roll is difficult. I.e. you get it from taking a risk or being heroic, not beating up weaker mooks. Get Godspark reimbursed if use it in a heroic way. Don't make a series of 2D6 games under the impression 2D6 is the dogs bollocks cos it ain't.

As you can see, most things could rather easily be fixed. Remember this isn't "why x is a bad game" rather - "what underlying factors might prevent people from playing a game?"


Actually it's be interesting to compare this to Frostgrave - another game I don't play but for different reasons* - I know the reason I don't enjoy Frostgrave (admittedly back in 2015-2016, newer editions may have changed) is more due to my personal preferences - random, swingy d20, simplistic combat, my pet-hate (hitpoints) which hardly seemed needed with how fast models could die...  ...rather than general issues like accessibility everyone is likely to share. Interestingly, while Frostgrave is one of the biggest games in the indie scene, I can hardly find reviews or blogs about Ragnarok - which kinda underlines my point.

Frostgrave has very distinct warbands. There are 10 wizards each starts with 8 spells and belong to specific 'schools' of magic. An apprentice has the same spells but weaker. Now I don't think the wizards are balanced (well they weren't in my 2015 edition) and having a 'clone' apprentice is a bit dull but you also get 15 soldiers/specialists to choose from. You don't just get vikings.  Leader viking, better viking, weak viking, sneaky viking, dps viking, healer viking -> the limit of Ragnarok customization.

Frostgrave is very accessible for minis. Now not only does Frostgrave have its own miniature line, but you can also use generic wizards or any soldier minis you already have.  It only has ~20 monsters not ~80 in Ragnarok, but they are all generic ones - skeletons, zombies, giant rats - which you can easily buy or probably have already; or are generically described - i.e. a 'construct' could be a Warjack or a golem vs the very specific norse monsters from Ragnarok. Frostgrave, like Ragnarok - also has a rich lore  - but it is simply much more easily accessible.

Frostgrave book is easier to use and read. It's not a shining example of its craft, but it's both easier find stuff and just much more flowing and coherent to read. Just reading similar sections of both books underlines the clunkiness:

Frostgrave: Models jump up to 4" if you have moved the same distance in a straight line prior the jump (run-up). Can jump 1" without previous move (standing jump). If you fall under 3" no effect, otherwise suffers HP damage = inches x 1.5. I.e. 4" fall does 6HP damage.

Ragnarok: You can spend 2AP to move a model up to SP in a straight line. Ignore any terrain keyword Hazardous or Rough it crosses if it does not start in that Terrain Element. Some Terrain is keyword Jumpable. Models may jump from higher Jumpable Terrain to one Level lower as part of Jump Movement without suffering Falling Damage (Which is: inches subtract size equals ST of attack against models RS)

Frostgrave magic is easier and has better risk vs reward. While Godspark could be more, in effect it is just a resource you have to record, generated by checking every dice roll's success. Frostgrave magic has much better risk vs reward; tricky spells = can damage you if you fail. More spells and more powerful spells = more risk. You don't even have to track anything, let alone check the success of each dice roll.

2D6 vs D20? Maybe a tie here. I'm not a huge fan of Frostgrave combat. The d20 makes it feel swingy and random. It's probably simpler (stat+d20) vs (stat+d20) but there is a little math involved so it's not more accessible. Plus there is HP*.

Now many players raised on D&D will not have my hatred of hitpoints (thanks to being exposed to Starfleet Battles and Battletech) but I'll merely observe:

(a) Frostgrave mooks tend to quickly die anyway, rendering HP kinda pointless in this instance

(b) humans are not like 20,000-ton warships that may need to get their structural integrity nibbled away incrementally

(c) speaking of nibbling, when a model can lose 9HP from an axe wound one move, then lose the final 1HP from a rabbit bite the next and instantly drop dead.... it's just stupid.  /rant

While I don't enjoy Frostgrave combat, that's more specific personal preference than a universal flaw (or no one would play D&D either!)

Accessibility is King

While both have rich lore and as compelling background, Frostgrave is simply more accessible on almost every level (easy to find miniatures, more 'readable' rules), as well as being more attractive in terms of customizing warbands (superior 'out of game' experience). Ragnarok's gimmick of "Godspark" (resource management but requires recording) and 2D6 (mechanics) isn't enough to carry it over the barrier created by its lack of accesibility.  Given the relative popularity of both rules, there's probably a useful lesson in there.

Monday 26 June 2023

Lord of the Proxies

I've a week's holiday and a few projects ahead of me. My son wants some 6mm 100-Years-War armies for his birthday. An unusual 8th birthday present, but *shrugs* apparently dad's superior wargame 'toys' have kinda spoiled his interest Bakugan, Transformers, Ninja Turtles and such. He found some old DBA bases from my teen years, hence the interest. He seems interested in mass battles as he loves the look of ranks of troops - the opposite of me, who dislikes painting endless duplicate models who act as hit counters. I wonder who will end up painting them? Hmmm.  In the same Eureka order I'm getting a few dozen gasmasked 1980s USA and Soviet for a homebrew Pripyat/STALKER game.  My son likes my LotR dungeon crawls so I might do it with moderns. Tyrannids might make good Alien-style monsters to hunt...

 Obligatory LotR models painted:

I was very impressed by these Wargames Atlantic spiders. A bit fiddly to assemble but very poseable and extremely creepy. The wrapped hobbits (complete with hairy feet) on the sprue makes them perfect for MESBG. They even come with lasergun arms for alien arachnids.

A king's champion, standard bearers and the two minor Moria heroes. Finally affordable as a 3D print.

Some dual-wielding Iron Guard. Dwarves being split into several factions in MESBG means the original dwarves don't have much variety. They got a bit short-changed compared to the new Hobbit dwarves...

I think there is an actual original metal Khazad Guard in amongst the proxies?
Two new vault wardens along with an original. 
...and some freebies included in my order - what I presume are recasts: which I cannot tell apart from the originals. 

My LotR paint total sits at 291 for 2023. I thought I was done last year, but 3D prints have allowed me to 'fill in' and complete armies I would not have bothered with. Harad and Corsairs are next to investigate - they have almost no models currently available from GW but I'm sure there are good alternates out there...

The Workbench

Besides the pending STALKER and 6mm medievals, I've got a few things sitting out - to finally paint my Dropfleet Commander starters (some of the nicest, best fitting minis I've ever owned) as well as finally tidying my Cruel Seas MTBs (coastal forces is one of my interest areas but I'm not sold on the rules). I've also got an Imperalis Aeronautica box which I keep procrastinating on. (I can never make up my mind what fighter variants I want to build). 

I'm also building some 40K kill teams from my 15-year-old models (but have no desire to play the eponymous rules... so...) and have also been eyeing off Necromunda mostly cos the kitbash-style of the terrain suits my propensity to repurpose dollhouses etc. I just never enjoyed the actual miniatures which kinda stifles my interest. Apparently my opinion of 1980s fashion kinda extends to miniatures. Also, GW seems to have figured out how to monetize Necromunda - how many books did you say?

More left field, I have troops of quar I dug out of a box last Christmas as well as some Gripping BNeast vikings I started in a burst of enthusiasm prompted by Ragnarok (then I kinda realised I didn't actually want to play the game). Hmm - I wonder if they would work as Dunlendings? (I reckon Victrix vikings suit better though).

Shower Thought

Tradition tends to sequence wargames move-shoot-melee-record keeping/tidy-up. Usually moving first.  I'm trying to think how things would change if this order was altered - i.e. say shoot, then resolve recording, then move last after everything else is done. Would it change appreciably, change tactics-wise? Modern tactics are called 'fire and maneuver' after all....

Sunday 18 June 2023

LoTR: Easterlings in 3D + 'Battle Companies' Thoughts

 I've often wanted to bolster my rather bare Easterling army and finally - thanks to 3D printing - I can afford to.

 First some squishy glass cannons. Acolytes of the Dragon Cult. I think I recall they have 'supreme agility' - +2 to fall/climb rolls and don't count doorways and walls as 'in the way' - making them hard to stop. Quite detailed sculpts and I like the fighting claw-on-a-rope.

Next a war priest (foot+mounted) and some sort of hero/commander I got as a freebie.

 Dragon Knights. They look sooo flimsy. Thematically the 3D prints (again, Davale?) fit with my existing models.

The 3D prints are similar in height but rather frail looking. Centre is an old Easterling Warrior, vs some 3D printed Easterling warriors who serve as 'Black Dragons' for me. I'd probably like them ~5% larger to compensate.

But most out of scale were 'evil men' aka Black Numenoreans, who are noticeably smaller than the Gondor men at arms on the right. They really need to be 10% bigger. On the table they are OK, but side by side they look kinda puny. 

Again, not perfect but (a) the models are much more fluid and detailed than the 20-year-old GW ones and (b) being 1/3rd to 1/4 of the price means I can get a bunch of unique heroes and elite or even OOP units for the price of a box of Easterling Warriors.

Battle Companies: Thoughts

I've plans to play Battle Companies with my son - it's basically LoTR Mordhiem and in typical GW fashion most warbands tend to be: when a rank and file gains XP you often 'upgrade' to a unique (read: expensive) Forgeworld model.

The old White Dwarf Battle Companies rules didn't have this problem. I think ME:SBG is probably a better game with more options and cinematic flavour, but if I was going to dip my toe into LoTR I'd recommend the old LOTR:SBG A3 blue book - cheaper and simpler $10 secondhand - I also think RoTK had a lot of profiles etc.

Finally I can afford the rare models - and buy them in small quantities.  I've also got some Wargames Atlantic spiders awaiting assembly on my desk, and eying Victrix Vikings for Dunlendings - along with Khand the only faction I don't really have. 

Whilst I don't think Battle Companies captures the lightening (or nostalgia) in a bottle that is Mordhiem, it does have a campaign map, injury rolls, experience  - heroes level up on a Bloodbowl-esque chart while ordinary warriors merely change to a more elite profile i.e. Rohan foot might become mounted, or orcs might become the tougher Morannon variety - which streamlines things a bit. Units also earn 'influence' which buys wargear and reinforcements. Also like Blood Bowl, inferior warbands get extra re-rolls and influence to compensate for the mismatch. There is armoury to buy wargear and equipment from weapons, maps and climbing ropes and you can hire mercenaries and pets - like hunting dogs - or wargs! There's 38 warbands - some you can build with a box set or two, others require unique and rare (and sometimes OOP!) models.

You start with 3 minor heroes (a leader and two sergeants) who start with a single Might, Will and Fate each - and have more complex injury, level up tables etc - like Necromunda and Mordhiem. The other models (up to a total of 15) are just 'mooks' who have simpler record keeping - they can level up to become a better troop type, and when injured merely skip a game or outright die - streamlining things. There are 18 missons which is well above average - although one requires you to own 24 wargs - as you do. Typical GW.

Despite pretty much finishing my LoTR painting project last year - 500-600 secondhand minis I bought pre-children, which I rediscovered after a 10 year hiatus...   ...I've gone on and painted 265 LoTR in 2023.

There are also locations with special terrain/effect rules, from Mirkwood to dwarf halls or Moria mines. LoTR has always been very strong in narrative/thematic play and Battle Companies just leans into this. There are even 5-6 extra 'narrative' missions to help link a series of missions into a greater whole. There are also ideas for including your battle company into larger battles.

Finally there is a map campaign - where players 'expand' their territory on a hex map of Middle Earth, and can expand and capture hexes as you win missions. You can capture special hexes/territories which confer bonuses - Lothlorien, Osgiliath, etc - from the books/movies.

 I haven't played the new Battle Companies so I'll refrain from a verdict (this is read+opinion not a proper review), but it's basically Mordhiem-lite with a bit of a Blood Bowl progression system for heroes and less detail for the mooks. More streamlined, less meaty, but I do like how weaker warbands are rewarded which (along with the constant reminders to have a set campaign length) should help avoid the dreaded snowball effect. It's another way to play GW's best game (Yep, Blood Bowl nerds, you heard me).

Sunday 11 June 2023

LoTR: 3D Prints

A quick post to show a few 3D printed LoTR I tried. With many 'bread and butter' troops becoming Forg$world or simply out of stock, or at best a few stiff poses of 20-year-old design... why not?

Goblin Blackshields. 4 for $14AUD (3.50ea) vs $140 for 16 ($9ea).  They fit well thematically (two normal gobbos to the right). 

Goblin shamans ($8ea) vs 2 for $50 ($25ea); and a maruader ($11 vs $49). I think the STL are Davale games?
An elf mage ($8) vs a set of 3 command for $55 ($18ea). This one has a home-made staff as the original was dropped and it sprayed arm and staff fragments explosively, everywhere across my shed.

Verdict: Yes, I''ll buy more. Being 3-4x cheaper makes those command units and heroes finally 'reasonably' affordable. The price means even a rare unit or one you'll probably seldom use is worth picking up. It always felt crazy paying the same price for 2-3 minis as it did for a plastic 24-pack.

For Battle Companies being able to buy them in small quantities is a bonus (i.e. I may only need 3-4 Blackshield goblins rather than 16 - and if I need more, I can buy what I need).

The poses are better than the early-2000s GW stuff and the detail is better as well.

Here an original GW dwarf warrior is sandwiched between two 3D printed ones.

The downside: My 3D printed models were fragile. Obviously not all such printed minis are made from the same stuff, but of the ones I had, I broke several while painting them (OK, I did drop one, but plastic or metal would have been fine) and one came broken in transit despite being beautifully and carefully wrapped. 

Verdict: Since my 7-year-old plays with me, I doubt I would use them for rank-and-file (and the cost saving vs bulk plastics isn't noticeable anyway). For heroes, small unique units or anything from Forg$World, they are definitely worth it. A dragon for $30? 3 trolls for $40? Yes please.

I'll be getting more as I've held off buying Easterling mages/knights/cultists and various corsairs until now (and I've seen some not-Black Numenoreans which incredibly are still unavailable by official means) but finally I can expand my forces without sacrificing a kidney.

This is a half-finished game with my son, where his men of Gondor are exploring ruins. A bit Space-Hulk-y, I roll each turn (and also whenever he explores a building) to see if orcs 'spawn in' on a random table edge out of LoS. He has explore - then dice roll - in each room find relics from the ruins of Osgiliath and escape before being swarmed. 

We play in a very narrative and cinematic way, with rolls of '1' or '6' always having an accompanying comments: 'the orc narrowly missed shooting his own foot' and 'the axe knocked his head clean off and it rolled across the room.' 

However, I do appreciate a 'points' system. It makes it simple to roughly balance forces so he he is likely to win but not too obviously - in a competitive sense, points systems are always broken at a fundamental level - but for an easy 'rule-of-thumb' balance of a homebrew scenario they are great.


Due to the first 4 random reinforcement dice rolls always coming up on one table edge, my son was swarmed from one direction... we'll see if he survives to claim his loot. Hopefully his Dol Amroth hero can swing the fight after some one-sided dice rolling saw his superior archers cut down by a bunch of orc bows rolling 6s...

For someone who is usually a major critic of GW rules, I must say I've always enjoyed LoTR - for me it hits a sweet spot of familiarity, simplicity, and common-sense with enough decisions to be interesting. Quick but somewhat engaging activation (A move-B move-A shoot-B shoot), some resource management (might-will-fate), allowing minis to move independently - but actually allowing/rewarding some formations; interesting heroes, having some decisions/tactics in melee, as well as catering to warbands of 10 to 50 or so. While ME:SBG has certainly complicated the old LOTR:SBG rules, it still has a reasonable balance of special rules vs stats and simple mechanics. I was impressed that my son correctly predicted, when jumping off a wall, that: a '1' would be bad (fall), 2-5 would be OK, and 6 would see him merrily sprint off - based on consistency with other, similar rules.

As a bonus, they have a solid background in 'the' OG fantasy book and the best-ever movie trilogy (no, Star Wars does not count).