I've noticed a trend towards stylishly presented games with a strong mood and evocative imagery - but not much game behind it. No, this is not GW or the big companies. These are indie games.
Usually the world is grimdark or whimsical (or a mix of the two) and it is well served by excellent photos or art (often with kitbashed minis). They tend to advertise minimal rules as a bonus.
A new age of style over substance - for indie rules designers?
I wonder if the 'draw' is just the excuse to be artistic? For example the weirdly compelling world of Turnip28: Napoleonic-Medieval W12-trench warfare with tubers! I am struck with the urge to kitbash some of my plastic kits - but I can't see myself actually playing the game more than once or twice. My initial fiddle with the rules was - "it's OK".... but there simply wasn't much to 'hold' me to keep playing. It was just minimal d6 (roll to hit, roll to save) homebrew rules with 'stress' tokens that build up, and a phase where leaders can move units first.
I'd also include "Forbidden Psalm" - 1980s metal/horror vibe (I don't know how to describe it but I recognize it) but it's another very minimalist game where rules (stat+d20 vs 12 to do everything) are very much an afterthought to the quirky setting - helping a mad wizard find forbidden tomes - and lost socks.
Flicking through Osprey's catalogue I see an upcoming title "The Doomed - Apocalyptic Monster Hunting." Monster Hunter Necromunda? Bands of hunters fighting each other and giant monsters in an abandoned, fallen world? Sign me up! My imagination is already running wild with possible warbands and scenery. But hang on a minute. The author seems familiar - he once did a ruleset called "Grimlite?" I find an article on the Osprey blog that confirms it's a similar game.
Now the final product may be a lot shinier. But the rules are basically you roll above 3+ (hero), 4+ (average dude), 5+ (rookie) to do everything. Roll hit hit? Roll to save? Sprint? Climb a wall? Everything is this one stat. Like Song of Blades - but with even less going on. Special skills tend to just allow you to re-roll failures in certain situations (i.e. 'agile' = re-roll a failed climb roll). I'm pretty sure the game is similar to Grimlite as I recognize the "No measuring, No Stacking, No Tracking." Now I love a good game design philosophy, so I'm going to quickly look at these even if it is slightly off-topic:
No measuring. This means unlimited movement and firing. However it necessitates a LOT of terrain. If you don't have it already, that's a huge commitment to an indie game - and such a barebones one at that.
No stacking. This basically means no stacking modifiers. There's only four in the whole game: -1 if the target is in cover, melee attacks get +1 if the target is knocked down, extra movement gets +1 if you can see your leader, and recovering from being knocked down gets +1 if you have an ally next to you.. It's good to keep modifiers to a minimum - agreed - but most players can remember more than four. Has the game lost too much in ability to differentiate situations?
No tracking. This is a topic I have often wrestled with. Do you allow counters to mess up your table? Do you have a unit card on the side of the table to track stuff? Regular blog followers will know my hatred for hitpoints. The author says I can’t abide seeing a beautifully landscaped table, adorned with
lovingly painted miniatures, despoiled by cardboard tokens saying things
like “pinned” or “poisoned” and the dreaded red die acting as wound
counter. I wanted to make a game that just didn’t require tracking at all.... I agree with the sentiments, but ackshully the game does require a way to show which units activated so this isn't "no tracking."
I do remember one cool thing - a "2d6 Shock Table" where when a wound
gives a range of cinematic effects i.e. you may die, be able to crawl
off, have a friend return fire - a bit like an injury table in Blood
Bowl; but it is applied as it happens which was quite cinematic. Again I'm just going off my test run of Grimlite but from the blog it sounds pretty much the same.
Now my intent is not to assassinate a yet-to-be-released game (I want indie authors and Osprey to do well!) and hopefully many readers will go "this game sounds right up my alley!". I just want to use it to illustrate the rules-lite ruleset. There's not much actual rules for a $50+ hardback which is self-proclaimed rules-lite. Are you paying mostly for a nice book with a cool concept and atmospheric, evocative minis and art?
I presume the new published book has a much more fleshed out campaign and scenarios so I'm not going to comment on them but... ...even if it ended up with a Mordhiem-esque deep campaign, I wonder how much I'd actually play the game? No measurement = lots of terrain to make and store. That's a commitment. There is very basic mechanics (beat 3+ 4+ or 5+ on everything) with no modifiers as such (less tactics needed to manipulate %). I quickly tired of Song of Blades and it was a mechanically deeper and more involved game. It was also a $5 pdf at the time - not a $50 hardback.
I guess this has prompted a few questions in my head:
When does a ruleset become too minimalist?
Is there a link between replayability and depth (is there a point where a wargame becomes too basic (or complex) for prolonged play)
I loved Infinity. But I no longer play it. But there was a point when the rules bloat became so crazy (5+ rules for stealth, 5+ rules of advanced deployment) I just gave up. I couldn't be bothered memorizing the possible combinations. There was so much depth and interplay between rules but they may as well not exist if you can't remember them. Also, the high-stakes nature (insta-death for a misplay) meant I found it mentally draining to play.
I loved Song of Blades. But I no longer play it. Well, I loved building wacky thematic warbands from Confrontation minis. But I quickly lost interest in actually playing the game which revolved around a single do-everything "stat".
I continue to play ME:SBG. While I think every aspect of its mechanics could be improved on, and there is nothing revolutionary in it (compared to the two rules above which in their time were quite progressive) it is a mix of familiar mechanics, and 'just enough' depth in all areas to be simple enough, yet hold my interest.
The Doomed feels a bit like my Quar rulebooks - a very cool coffee-table talking point and a brief piece of painting/terrain artistic inspiration - but will it get long-term play? I probably wouldn't be concerned if it was a $5 pdf. But if it was a $5 pdf without the 'style' and 'art' - would I be as interested and inspired to play? It's a bit "Catch-22."
Are STL files and 3D printers influencing rules?
It seems weird for indie rules to actually make the minis (kitbashed or home-grown) and art their selling point with the rules themselves being an afterthought (it seems a tad ironic as that is what moved many away from GW into indie games in the first place!)
I feel that 3D printers and also the proliferation of cheap plastic kitbash kits (Warlord, Mantic, Perry, Victrix etc) might be enabling creative folk to make their own minis/world. Perry plastics are my go-to but I saw some Victrix in the flesh the other day and I was very impressed - they seem on a par with GW offerings and you get a huge bag of toys. If matching toys are cheap and readily available, the focus can be more on the setting.
Is this a new dawn of "Setting Driven" Games?
Ages back I think I discussed the importance of having a focussed thematic setting which does not restrict your minis - I think the Doomed and similar games do this well. The game is focussed - hunting monsters in a post apoc world - but allows a range of warbands to allow you to use your existing (say 40K) models as factions in the setting. If you have a generic setting and generic rules - there's nothing to differentiate them from the 101 similar rulesets that exist already.
All the examples I've given are very much theme/setting as the main draw, with rules tacked on as an afterthought. Basically the rules merely exist to allow you to participate in the setting rather than a deep tactical system of their own. (I've thought for years this is how GW has always viewed their own rules - and they are confused by competitive players/serious players expecting deep gameplay).
I enjoy games with a strong setting or 'hook' - like Turnip28 - but The Doomed seems to allow you to use your own minis within that strong setting which is a major plus. It reduces the initial investment in a system but retains the 'pull' of an interesting world/narrative. For example, the Five Parsecs rules allow you to use any sci fi minis but the generic setting doesn't have the (more specific) lure of hunting monsters in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
There seems to be a increase in indie games which are all about an inspiring creative 'setting' and not gameplay. The rules are minimalist - more to allow you to participate in the setting.
They are inspiring and artistic but is there enough depth and replayability? Is there a point where a game is too simple to be replayable - or a 'sweet spot' of simplicity vs crunch and depth?
Is the advent of cheap plastic kits and 3D printing enabling this trend, by allowing designers to more easily recreate/display their game world?