Monday, 5 November 2012

A true original?

Poor old Jake Thornton, no sooner does he announce plans to self-publish a new skirmish game then the first comment, the very first comment, assumes he will be ripping off Games Workshop. I can't say I blame him for writing a blog post on the subject. Since Dreadball a vocal part of the wargaming community seem to have decided that he is simply copies existing games.

That said, me writing a whole blog post on the subject probably doesn't help. So, before I go any further, I should say that I think his skirmish game Eternal Battles sounds very interesting. The plan is for a modular structure with the basic rules covered in one volume and multiple add on modules to cover different periods. I will be watching with interest.

I still want to talk about the "rip off" accusation though because it illustrates something quite interesting about the attitude of some gamers.

It's odd that Dreadball attracted such criticism, actually. There have been dozens of mass battle, dungeon crawl, space ship exploration and skirmish games released without anyone batting an eyelid. Maybe it's because Blood Bowl feels like one of Games Workshop's few truly original ideas. I say truly original, but even then it's a splice of two existing concepts, Warhammer Fantasy and American Football. Nevertheless, it does seem to be associated with Games Workshop more firmly than any other game concept ad has a lot of loyal fans.

Still, the attitude to Dreadball suggests that its critics believe there is only one legitimate route to design a game. That is to start with a totally original concept and then right rules to simulate it. That is certainly the route taken by some games; Malifaux and War Machine spring to mind. But this isn't the only route.

Take a look at historical gaming. There are games for all different periods and conflicts and the most popular periods are supported by multiple rules sets. Fields of Glory, Hail Caesar, Clash of Empires, War and Conquest, as well as others, all cover the ancient to medieval period, but all do so in a different way. Some rules focus in on a very particular period, such as Beneath the Lilly Banner, Killer Katanas or Saga, while others cover a much broader period, such as Pike and Shotte. When Warlord released Bolt Action recently Alessio Cavatore and Rick Priestly didn't receive any criticism for writing rules based on a period that has already been covered by other games. Not to say there wasn't any criticism, but not for that. Possibly this is because in historical gaming everything is based on actual history so no-one can be accused of ripping anyone else off based on this.

But historical gaming also illustrates a different approach to designing a game, namely looking at an existing period or concept and trying to simulate it with a different set of rules. As far as I can see, with Bolt Action the designers had a unique selling point based on the rules, the order dice, and built the game from there.

Why is this not an appropriate approach to take to Fantasy and Sci-Fi gaming. If a designer has a new way of simulating fantasy skirmish or mass battle or even sport why not build a game around it? Surely not every game has to be completely unique?

Now lets take a look at the current state of Blood Bowl. It is still formally available, but has been tucked away in the Specialist games area of the Games Workshop website, with no formal support and no new models for years. Many of the existing models haven't been updated since the mid 1990s. The game is effectively retired. So what is a designer with a good idea for a sports-based game supposed to do? Forget about it because Games Workshop have a game vaguely similar they hardly support? Whatever else you might say about Mantic they certainly have big plans for Dreadball with three supplements and twelve teams planned and no shortage of additional material.

So from the perspective of gamers Dreadball looks like good news. It's an interesting rules set and the game looks well supported. Should the whole concept have been dropped simply because it is vaguely similar to a game Games Workshop have all but abandoned? I think not.

I'm already signed up to Dreadball, I put money into the Kickstarter and will be keeping an eye on Eternal Battle and I hope that no good games are strangled at birth because tehy are judged insufficiently original.

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