Monday, 9 May 2011

Game Retrospective - Space Marine

My very first set of wargame miniatures for anything at all was a set of 6mm Ork Raiders purchased from Games Workshop mail order (as it was known back then) in 1990. I was attracted by the promise of hundreds of Orks and dozens of battlewagons and hadn't fully realised the implications of the scale. When they arrived I was slightly disappointed by their small size, but I quickly forgot this when I lined them up in ranks on the table (not very Orky, but I was new to the game).

Games Workshop players with long memories may remember that before Lord of the Rings came along, there was another 'third core game'. A 6mm battle game set in Warhammer 40,000 universe, it went by different names, but generally referred to as Epic, a term used by Games Workshop to describe scale in a canny piece of marketing. The first edition consisted of two games Adeptus Titanicus, a game of giant robot Titans and Space Marine which introduced infantry and tanks. But the version of the game that made the most impression on me was the second edition.

Also released as Space Marine (GW knew what its audience liked even then), it was a game of infantry companies, tank divisions and vast war machines like the Titans. Infantry were mounted five to a base and tanks appeared in squadrons of three or more. The appeal of Epic to a teenager in the 1990s was obvious and diverse. For a start, infantry was produced entirely in plastic at a time when vast majority of models were metal. Getting hundreds of models for the cost of a couple of weeks pocket money was hugely tempting. Then there was scale. Warhammer 40,000 might see one or two tanks a side, in Epic there would be dozens and even the smallest game was huge in scope.

Second edition Epic had deceptively simple rules. It used an alternating activation system, still unusual in GW games, with players moving and shooting with whole formations at a time. Troops profile and weapons were all recorded on one stat line. Shooting generally consisted of a roll to hit and, if opponent was lucky, they got a saving throw modified by attackers weapon. Most infantry got none. Some weapons, referred to as Barrage weapons, used templates. The whole formations barrage points were totaled up and the higher the score more templates used and the more damage done. For close combat, every model had a close assault factor (CAF). Each player rolled 2 dice added CAF and highest score won. The only additional complication was war machines, such as Titans, which used a targetting grid and damage charts depending on where you hit.

The games other innovation was order counters. Players placed them face down next to formations at start of turn. They were fairly basic with only three different types: First Fire, Charge and Advance. The choice of order determined the actions available to the formation. First Fire allowed units to shoot with increased effectiveness but prevented them moving. Charge meant you couldn't shoot, but moved fast and could enter close combat. Advance was a compromise with normal movement and shooting. The orders did not have a huge impact on the units behavior, but failing to place them prevented the unit moving and left them shooting with reduced effect. This forced the player to pay attention to his units and what he intended to with them at the start of the turn.

My favourite feature of Space Marine was its army selection system which used army cards instead of an army list. Players selected army cards, paid their points and received the units listed on the card. There were three main types of card, Company, Support and Special. The core of your army would be company cards, representing large formation such as a Space Marine company or an Ork horde, usually consisting of several squads and some kind of command unit or units. For each company card you took you could have up to five support cars, generally a single squad or one large tank. You could have one special card for each company, these would be characters and big stuff like Titans. All points costs were divisible by fifty, so totalling up your points was quick and simple.

Army cards also showed the break point, how many units had to be destroyed to force the formation to fall back, and victory points, the number of victory points your opponent got when you did it. This Neatly combined moral and victory rules with the army lists.

There were some variation in the use of Army Cards for different armies. Ork support cards added to their company formations making for vast mega formations with massive break points worth large amounts of victory points. This made Ork army powerful and durable, but few in number and prone to sudden collapse. Chaos replaced all cards with Greater Daemon and Minion cards. Each Greater Daemon had to have 3-5 minion cards. This added some character to the army while still keeping the lists straight forward and largely consistent.

So in principle a straight-forward and simple game, but in practice this was not quite true. Three main supplements were produced to accompany the game - Armies of the Imperium, Renegades and Warlords, each with the rules and cards for two armies. Each expansion introduced new troop types and almost all of them had special rules unique to them, even if it was as simple as restricting the units choice of orders. Some of these were a lot of fun such as the Ork Dragster, which featured a force field that bounced enemy attacks in a random direction and Eldar Wave Serpents which used a special template for shoving enemy units out of the way. The upshot of this was a game that was quirky and characterful but became bogged down in special rule interactions and the need to reference different books.

After all the supplements and models had been released, Space Marine plodded on two or three years supported in White Dwarf with one or two articles a month. It was very much the third game, but still one of Games Workshop's big three. This was to change with the release of Titan Legions.

Titan Legions had been intended to be a fourth supplement, but was delayed time and again, swelling up with new rules as it did so until it became an entirely new game. Andy Chambers, in his designers notes, lamented that focus of Epic had shifted from Titans to infantry and tanks. Titan Legions was attempt to address the balance. The game was not a new edition, but an expansion of the existing rules with some tightening up and the introduction of some new unit types. It introduced titan companies, large formations of three titans that acted as company cards and reintroduced the Knights, one man Titans that had been around in Epic first edition.

So far so good, but more was to come. As with all Games Workshop games of the period, Titan Legions came in a big box with lots of new plastic miniatures. These included the massive Emperor Class Imperator Titan and the Ork Mega Gargant. These cost as much as a small army (the Imperator was 2250 points) and brought in whole new level of Complexity to game. Each one had two card templates, one a hugely complicated damage location chart plus damage tables and second to track crew, damage and effects of weapons.

This was point where complexity of second edition Epic reached critical mass. It didn't help that only Orks and Imperials had access to Titans in this class, leaving other armies looking underpowered. Then Introduction of new army, Tyranid, with a whole new set of, hexagonal, army cards complicated matters further. There was still a lot of fun to be had with the game, but without self limiting their army lists players could become horribly bogged down in special rules.

The game had become unwieldy. But at the same time the universe described by Epic had diverged from its Warhammer 40,000 parent. Both were supposed to be set in the same universe, but armies and models often bore little relationship to one another, many Epic miniatures had been designed based on a much earlier edition of the game. A new edition was inevitable, and most players accepted it, but when it happened it was not well handled

For a start, Games Workshop took 2nd edition Epic off the shelves months before the release of 3rd edition. When 3rd edition did come they rebooted the whole range with almost entirely new models. These were some of the most spectacularly detailed sculpts they ever produced, but they were expensive, the first range cast entirely in lead free white metal. They also changed the packaging, the late 2nd edition blisters had contained pictures of the painted models, the new packs looked like a collection of semi-identifiable blobs. Then there was the infantry. Epic Infantry had traditional been based on 20x20mm squares in a cross pattern, like the 5 on a six sided dice. Now they were based in a line on 40x10mm strips. There was no strict requirement to re-base, bu the alternative was to have an inconsistently based army or use nothing but old style infantry. The decision added an unnecessary complication for existing players.

Finally the rules. After the over-complication of second edition, third's simplification was welcome. And the rules contained a lot of new ideas to like. The concept of blast markers was introduced. These markers were placed on formations when they suffered casualties, but also when they came under fire at all and reflected the suppressing effects of fire. A formation was broken when it had more blast markers than units. Plus the markers in the box were card explosions which had the effect of making the unit look as if it were truly under fire.

But the new rules also dramatically changed way units worked. What had been quirky and grungy, became abstract. Most infantry in any one army were the same except for one or two simple special generic special rules. Units were now abstracted into formations which fought as a collected group. For example, shooting was carried out by totalling up the fire power values of an entire formation and cross referencing on a table to find how many dice to roll.

As unit rules got simpler and more abstract army lists got more complicated. Instead of the elegant card system, formations became hugely complex custom creations. Army lists had multiple types with multiple options that could be built up from scratch. The idea was to create a number of custom formations and record them on the supplied record sheets. But this required considerable advance work and could be baffling to new players.

Although embraced by many, particularly games designers, third edition was such a radical shift from its predecessor and from other Games Workshop games that it is hardly surprising that it was never fully accepted. It received far less White Dwarf coverage than second edition and ultimately shuffled off into the wilderness as a never well supported 'Specialist Game.'

The story of 4th edition Epic, also known as Epic Armageddon, is a little better known. A strong rules set developed by Jervis Johnson, the original designer of first edition, was boosted by considerable assistance from online play testers. It was a synthesis of the strongest elements of 2nd and 3rd simplifying formations and giving units individual stats, but keeping blast markers. The new edition warmly received by the player community, but just as it was taking off Games Workshop hit major financial difficulties and the game was all but abandoned, with only the Imperial, Orks and Eldar armies released. Since then, a dedicated group of online fans have updated rules and produced new army lists, while the models are still available from the Games Workshop website (for now at least). But essentially Epic Armageddon feels like a half-finished game.

Although in many ways Fourth edition is the best and most elegant Epic rule set, I will always have a special fondness for the second edition. It was the version of the game I first built armies for and played the most. But more than that, it was the version of the game that could stand proudly as the third Games Workshop core game.

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