Monday, 26 March 2012

Randomness is stranger than Fiction

For reasons I intend to go into at a later date, I have been looking over the Warhammer 3rd edition army lists in Realms of Chaos. If you thought that the warband rules were random, capricious and unfair you haven't seen a thing. Parts are familiar, there's a selection of units that work much like units in regular armies, with the exception that most of them have to be used in multiples of their chosen Chaos God's sacred number (which must have been great fun for Tzeentch players, whose number is nine, in an era when minatures came in packs of four).

Things start to get weird when you look at characters. There are no standard characters, only Chaos Champions all of which must be randomly generated. For 100 points you get a random base profile, d6 chaos rewards and d6 chaos attributes. Or you can roll on a random table of pre-generated champions. If you want a wizard, you'd better generate one. You can upgrade them, but this means more rolling. For 25 points you can roll on the steed table, for 25 more you can roll for a weapon. You might get a daemon weapon, but then you might get a club.

But this is in no way the maddest part. You can chose to make some or all of your army from randomly generated chaos warbands. These are generated in exactly the same way as a standard warband. Generate a champion, give him rewards and each reward gives you a chance of some followers. Slaves to Darkness makes some concession to reasonableness by requiring you to pay points for each roll, but the Lost and the Damned turfs this right out of the window in favour of having you choose an aspiring, mighty or exalted champion at 200, 400 or 800 points, giving you d4, d4+4 or d4+8 rewards. This, at least, means a mighty champion will definitely get more rolls than an aspiring one, but it still means you can pay 800 points for a human and 6 goblins or 200 for a dragon-ogre and has friends.

You can also included monsters if you want by, stunningly, rolling on a random table. If modern Games Workshop is all about using wargame rules to sell miniatures, old Games Workshop was about using wargame rules to sell dice.

There is absolutely no interest here in using points to create balanced and competitive armies. The only reason to use the points is to place something approaching a boundary on the army. For 3,000 points you get 1 exalted champion, 3 mighty champions and 5 aspiring. Get rid of the points and you'd be rolling forever.

It's easy to think of this obsession with d100 tables as specific to Realms of Chaos and, certainly, it's particularly prevalent here, but it does appear elsewhere. In the early days of Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader there were no army lists, forces were largely randomly generated and a Games Master was expected to devise scenarios. Conventional battles with army lists came quite a bit later. Though even these retained some of the random elements. The first Warhammer 40,000 Ork armies mostly used random equipment tables, you didn't pay points for a weapon you paid points for a roll on the weapon table.

Which brings us to Ghazghkull Thraka.

This is Ghazghkull Thraka according to current Warhammer 40,000 lore:

But this is how he looked in first edition.

Now take a look at Generic Goff Warboss 1.

Ghazghkull is currently the Ork's foremost special character. Raised to the exalted rank of Warlord by virtue of a head injury that gave him an adamantium skull and a direct line to the Ork Gods of War. But Ghazghkull began life in White Dwarf 134 as the general of the studio's sample Ork army. Andy Chambers selected a warboss and randomly generated his equipment, including a roll on the painboy bionik bitz table. That meant rolling on a sub-table to determine which bit Ghazghkull had had replaced and then a second roll to see what special effect he picked up. This gave Ghazghkull a steel skull and a fearsome headbutt attack. But, because of the rules for head injuries, it also gave him a chance of re-awakening a dormant psychic power. Ghazghkull got lucky and picked up the Hammerhand power which gave him a close combat boost when successfully used.

Modern wargaming is often presented as a straight-forwardly competitive exercise. It's easy to forget the debt that Fantasy and Sci-Fi wargaming owes to Roleplaying games, which themselves grew out of historical wargaming. The first editions of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 started out more as combat heavy roleplaying experiences than battles between armies, for a start, both included Games Masters. Wargaming can be as much about story-telling as competition.

Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but sometimes random generation can lead to the creation of something you would never have invented from scratch. Some well placed random tables can do wonders to spark the imagination. More than that, a random army/warband requires you to work with what you're given, developing ideas and concepts around the resources provided rather than having a complete run of every troop type available.

There are a fair few wargames built around story-telling, particularly the GW specialist games, Mordheim, Blood Bowl and Necromunda, as well as Mongoose's Judge Dredd game. All of these have campaign gaming built in, the idea being to take a gang/squad/warband/team over a series of games. However, most of these give players total control. The only exception I can think of is Two Hour Wargames' Warrior Heroes - Armies and Adventures, a game which has more than a few things in common with Realms of Chaos. As well as being based on a randomly generated character and his followers, it's also not as tightly written as it could be and requires a fair bit of work by the player to get maximum value out of it.

WH:AA seems to be quite popular at the moment, with several blogs out there dedicated to the exploits of the random heroes, all of which focus on story-telling more than rules. Which tells me that there is an appetite out there for more story-focused gaming and, perhaps, it's time for a bit more randomness in wargaming.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Joy of Simplicity

Last weekend MLB and I had plans to get in a game of Warhammer 8th edition. We wanted a rematch of the game between my Greenskins and his Ogres that we played at Christmas. Him to test out his 16th birthday present, the Blood Sail pirates, me to erase the stain on my honour caused by my previous ignominious defeat. In the end we found ourselves with less time than we had expected and the game was put on hold until Easter. Ultimately we ended up playing Dwarf King's Hold in front of the TV.

DKH is by no means as straightforward as Warpath and Kings of War, it has a few quirky features that take some getting used to, but it is in keeping with Mantic's preference for straightforward fuss-free game play.

There's no getting around the fact that we have a hobby with a complicated infrastructure. After the assembling, painting and scenery building there is the simple practical concern of setting up and putting away. I am one of the fortunate who can maintain a hobby room with a permanent gaming table. In my younger days getting in a game meant squeezing onto the dining room table, or clearing a substantial patch of floor. When you combine this with a less that straightforward set of rules, the game can start to feel more like work than fun.

This is why I question Games Workshop's choice to push bigger and bigger armies. It makes sense as a marketing strategy to get your players to buy as much as possible, but if the net effect is to make playing the game increasingly a chore, it can only be counter-productive in the long run.

Of course Mantic have also pushed the big army concept, but are at least attempting to marry it to a simpler, quicker, more straight-forward set of rules. But, as I wrote in my last post, one of the most refreshing things about Warpath was how quick it was to get through a game with the models in the box. MLB and I took no more than an hour. Double or triple the number of models and we are still talking about a game we can get through comfortably in an afternoon, even with setup and pack up time.

Rules complexity isn't solely about length. I wrote at length about the poor presentation of the Infinity rules, but once you get your head around the unusual turn structure it actually isn't that difficult to play. Though I would recommend producing a summary sheet with your models profiles for quick reference. What slows down Warhammer is the sheer number of special rules and exceptions of which you have to keep track.

I suspect part of the problem is trying to scale up a game that works better with smaller numbers. Warhammer 3rd edition has proven ideal for skirmish games between Chaos Warbands, but I expect it would be horribly cumbersome at the 3,000 point level recommended by Warhammer armies.

All of the above is really a round about way of saying that in my old age I increasingly appreciate simple and stream-lined rules. If nothing else, Mantic is good at providing a wargame experience with a minimum of fuss.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Warpath - First Try Out

The Obligatory box cover art shot

Last night, after some frantic last minute sticking earlier in the day, MLB and I played our first game of Warpath. We used the miniatures from the box and the sample scenario with a few bits and bobs of scenery dug out of my cupboard.

The focus of Warpath and Kings of War has been on simple rules that allow big battles with a minimum of fuss. But there is another side to that, playing small and medium sized battles extremely quickly. We got through the game in less than an hour and that included checking the rules a few times. The rules are basic, but flow very nicely and logically. We didn't come against any situation were the rules were less than clear or obvious or where different rules clashed.

The potential drawback is that it could become quite stale and repetitive with limited tactical options. I'm not sure yet. With the forces in the starter box, the Forge Fathers are heavily outnumbered, but have far superior long-ranged weaponry, while the Marauders have to use their numbers to weather the heavy fire and get into close combat where they will pretty much slaughter any of the Forge Father units. That could get repetitive very quickly, but I'm not sure how much some additional units will affect the game play.

MLB took the first game, losing two units of Marauder Grunts and his Raptor before ultimately slaughtering my Forge Fathers with his remaining two units. I think my mistake was in concentrating my fire on his damaged raptor and one grunt unit on turn two and leaving two more units unscathed.

This is the essential tactical dilemma of the game. Individual miniatures are not removed, instead each unit accumulates damage. At the end of the shooting and close combat phases units that have been damaged this turn must test their nerve, with a failed test suppressing or destroying the unit, depending on how badly it is failed. What this means is that no matter how effective your shooting you can't be sure of eliminating a unit until the end of the phase and you can always pile on more damage. I was concentrating fire to make certain that a unit would be removed, when I would probably have been better off spreading out fire and getting chance at removing several units. As it was, the two Grunt units that survived the game were completely unscathed.

If spreading you fire across multiple units is effective then it makes tactically advantageous to have lots of small units rather than a few big ones. Although smaller units can take less damage individually, you can spread their fire across multiple targets more effectively. Something to think about for the next game.

Warpath has been criticised for its simplicity, but I found a welcome lack of complication for the sake of it. There are games that are justifiably complicated, because they intend to simulate small actions in great detail, Infinity is a case in point. Warpath seeks to do the opposite, simulating larger actions in no more detail than is necessary. Whether it has the balance right is difficult to determine from one starter game, but so far, it feels refreshing not to get bogged down in detail.

It will take a few more games with a larger number of models to determine whether Warpath has the balance between detail and quick play right. But if you want a quick game with a minimum of fuss and bother it seems like a good system.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Warpath - Taking the Plunge

So I have finally taken the plunge and grabbed a copy of Fate of the Forgestar. Or, more accurately, split the cost and contents with MLB with him taking the Marauders and myself the Forge Fathers. I wrote a little while back that the contents of Warpath's starter box failed to inspire me, but a 40% reduction to £30 from Dark Sphere overcame that objection rather comfortably. Whether the reduction indicates the inevitable failure of the game, Mantic as a company and possibly the entire wargaming industry or whether Dark Sphere simply picked up a few too many starter boxes remains to be seen. But for £15, I felt it was worth a punt.

A big stack of semi-assembled Mantic goodies

In terms of sheer numbers, MLB has done rather better than I have. He got 40 Marauders and a Raptor, for my 20 Forge Fathers and a Heavy Hailstorm cannon. That said, five of my twenty are veterans made from plastic-resin and in points terms we are pretty close to even. I have also benefitted from a bonus five forge fathers thrown in. Actually there are six, but as you can only use squads of five and there are only enough bases for five I give Mantic props for not advertising six.

The plastic troops are rather better than I expected. Much has been made of Mantic reusing their fantasy sculpts, but it works better than might be expected. In the case of the Forge Fathers its barely noticable, with only the backs and legs and optional heads coming straight from Kings of War. The legs integrate nicely with the stylised armour and the addition of some goggles take off the fantasy edge of the bonus heads. That said, that half the squad have cloaks is a little odd. They have also inherited a problem from the Fantasy dwarves, the pieces don't quite fit together properly meaning you either have to file down the backs or put up with a small gap between pieces.

The Marauders have proven a lot better than expected. It helps to see both types of sprue, the one with two bodies and the one with three. They are clearly intended to work in combination as the two body sprue comes with a number of spare heads, weapons and accessories that help customise the rest. With a little imagination and effort you can easily put together a good variety of decent looking poses.

As for the rest, the resin plastic is solid, free of flash and mold lines and sticks comfortably with super glue. On the down side, not all pieces fit together as well as I would like; the raptor is going to need some filing work and the veterans heat cannon cables do not in any sense join up with their back packs.

We haven't had a chance to try the rules yet (we only got them last Saturday) but they seem refreshingly straight forward. There is something rather appealing about the idea of a game we can get through in an hour or so without masses or page flipping and cross referencing. I am very much in favour of Mantic's commitment to getting everything into as few pages as possible. The presence of vehicles and multiple weapon types within a squad add a little complication over Kings of War, but nothing particularly confusing.

Also in Mantic's favour is the inclusion of a double sided scenario sheet designed to use the models in the box and with summary rules for all of them. Something that Games Workshop pointedly failed to include in Isle of Blood. The sheet does call the set Fate of the StarForge on a couple of ocassions and, less forgivably, fails to include the rules for the Anti-Tank gun on the Marauder Raptor, but, overall, it is a highly welcome inclusion and ensure that the set can function as complete game. That said, any truly new players are going to need to invest in some dice pretty soon, the box comes with ten but the Heavy Hail storm cannon alone rolls 16 for each shot. This is a definitely a "buckets of dice" game.

I am certainly looking forward to getting everything assembled and painted and giving it go. Is it worth fifty quid? Based on what I've seen so far, probably. Is it worth thirty? Most certainly.