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.


  1. Really interesting post. At the end of the day "The rules and game aren't bad" just isn't good enough amongst the plethora of game options available right now. Thanks for taking the time to try and put your finger on the way though, I quite enjoyed it.

  2. A very nice writeup. I think you perfectly summed up why Ragnarok always misses the opportunity to hit the table with my group. Despite having bought the book immediately on its release, and being convinced it would get a lot of play time (Vikings, magic and monsters, what's not to like, right?), whenever we're looking to 'freshen things up' with a new game/system, the focus just drifts to a more convenient option for everyone in the group.

  3. Wow. That is such a good post. I think it's important to now that D20 isn't the problem with the swinging results of Frostgrave (which I happen to enjoy, but that's preference not mechanics), but the implementation. The D20 just allows modifiers to have flat increments of 5% which is great for customization and flavor between models, but when the result is the value of the roll minus tn you can succeed by 1 or 10, if the result is did you beat tn1 wound, tn2 kill, there are now only two possible results so the result can't swing wildly.

    I do wish model facing and more tactical options were included. I play FG with 180° facing, +3 to attacks from behind, and a handful of defensive bonuses based on placement. They're all stolen from other games and makes me give the mooks a little more thought as I play.

  4. One key feature for "commercial" success is you have to lean into the familiar. Frostgrave does that way better than Ragnarok does. Frostgrave leans into a lot of "ideas" that have been in fantasy gaming for a long time with a few minor tweaks.

    Ragnarok really doesn't. Worse tries to re-invent basic ideas with "non-intuitive" branding and layers too many mechanics on top.

    Look who won Origins Awards this year. Lion Rampant 2nd Edition? I like Dan Mersey games as much (or more than) the next guy, but Lion Rampant 2nd Edition really did not add much of anything to Lion Rampant. At best it nodded to a few house rules to make them official, and let you scope creep the game to bigger battles. There was nothing "new" in it at all.

    To summarize, Innovation is over-rated. If you want to be successful re-mix and re-package the tried and true mechanics of successful games of the past. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

    1. I see what you're saying, but that's an odd to mediocrity, isn't it? Or at best, to commercial success, which isn't *exactly* what's being discussed here.

      Lion Rampant 2 is a good example. If you peruse the groups and fan communities, tons of people re-buying essentially the same rulebook they already had -- LR2 *is* LR1 with a few cosmetic changes!

      Or worse, people buying the same game again under the name of Xenos Rampant. For the life of me I cannot understand the buzz XR made in the indie wargames community... don't people want to try *other* games instead of variant #32 of the game they already own?

      I'd rather a game tried something new and failed, than playing the same two or three variants of "accepted" rules.

    2. "An ode to mediocrity" -- damn autocorrect, and I cannot edit my comment.

    3. The answer is.... no. They really don't want to try something else. That leads to uncertainty and uncertainty is uncomfortable. They want to stick with what they know and only tweak it around the edges.

  5. To play devil's advocate: Shakespeare never had an original plot in his life and no one calls his work an 'ode to mediocrity.' He also was popular in his time. I'd say rehashing and mixing popular mechanics to make something new and fun is a skill in itself.

    Also identifying when a cool idea actually fits the game you are creating - often your 'cool idea' doesn't actually fit the game and it kinda ends up shoehorned in cos it is clever - not cos it is needed. Knowing when to deploy a never-before-seen mechanic and when not too is also a skill in itself.

    Being different for the sake of being different.... eh.
    I do agree a popular ruleset often gets used ad nauseam for situations it is unsuited (i.e. melee ancients rules gets adapted for shooty sci fi). It's basically the same game with a few special rule changes when really it should be a fundamentally different game as it simulates completely different warfare. It's forgiveable with indie authors as they need to leverage their small playerbase - they are likely to get more sales as people like what they like+it requires less playtesting+people are more keen to adopt a new set of rules if there isn't as much mental overhead.

    A vast majority of time change for change's sake, though is just different ways to roll dice. Like the "Morpheus Engine" in the example - rolling 2D6 and modifying up/down based on stat That's not actually innovative or even needed. Morale, game setup, move order - they all have an impact more than if you are using 2d6 or d10 or d20.

    1. > "A vast majority of time change for change's sake, though is just different ways to roll dice."

      Yes, to be clear I'm not saying every change is good. And a lot of "changes" are very shallow; if it simply leads to rolling dice in different ways for *the same* outcome that could have been accomplished by a simpler, established method, that's not a good change. For example, some games use cards when dice would suffice, and the effect is *exactly* the same -- you can tell the designers were trying to be novel for novelty's sake, but didn't realize you could easily replace their cards with dice rolls (or viceversa).

      That said, I'd rather designers risked it. I'd rather be annoyed by a game mechanic that is truly novel or thematic but doesn't work than bored with an iteration of the same old mechanics. I *know* those mechanics work -- I own the rules already! -- but I don't want to be constantly re-buying the same rules, only because the designers want my money. If nothing else, it feels boring. I like Lion Rampant with its limitations, but I don't want to try every variant with minor tweaks to the same engine.