Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Too much rules makes my brain hurt!

When getting used to a new set of rules, the first few games tend to be a pretty uneven affair, characterised by a lot of flicking back and forth through rulebooks and checking stats. I'll admit that these early games are not always a lot of fun to play; I'm far too busy trying to keep track of the rules to think about tactics and victory or defeat all to often depends on whether you got the rules right.

It's for this reason I find myself gravitating back to Warhammer so often. It's not that I think it's the best set of rules, it isn't, but for most of the 1990s it was, for me, literally the only game in  town. I have played it so much over the years that the fundamentals are second nature and when new editions come along, I just have to be on the look out for the changes.

This is why I think Mantic have been very smart with Warpath and Kings of War. Here we have two examples of a set of rules that are designed to be easy to learn and play at the exclusion of all else. This can lead to some odd quirks. Nevertheless, I am more willing to play these two than a number of games I have previously played more, simply because I know I am not going to have to look very much up and I can concentrate on the business of actually playing.

The trend in Fantasy and Sci-Fi gaming in recent years has been towards smaller scale skirmish games. This has the advantage that I can build a usable force more quickly and cheaply, even when individual models cost more than Games Workshop (at least until the advent of  Finecast). If you I need five to ten models a side, you're much less likely to baulk at paying £10 a model. And you can focus more time and effort painting individual models and still get them painted more quickly. I have a larger proportion of my Anima Tactics models painted than I ever have with Games Workshop.

The drawback is it does tend to split my collection across lots of different games. Money and time I would have spent building up one army, ends up diffused across multiple gangs, crews or factions. And this means more rules to learn. Unsurprisingly, I find myself gravitating towards the systems where the rules are easiest to learn.

I have all but abandoned Malifaux, largely because it combines an unusual random mechanism, based around playing cards, with a large number of special rules for most models and a complicated abbreviation system for keeping track of them. Then there's Bushido, a game I like and really want to play more, but which, unfortunately, has one mechanism for activation (two short or one long action per turn), one for special abilities (points that are accumulated turn by turn, but which can be stored across multiple turns) and another for combat (a pool of combat dice that have to be divided between attack and defence and which can be sacrificed to produce additional effects).

One of the things I have always liked about Anima Tactics is that it has very few mechanisms to control things. Activation is based on action points that are renewed at the start of the turn, special abilities are mostly special actions that work in the same way and most effects are resolved by rolling a d10 adding a stat and modifiers and comparing it to a target number or the opposing players roll. Dreadball, and soon Deadzone, use a similar mechanism of rolling multiple dice, trying to equal or exceed a target number and counting the number of successful rolls. Even the badly presented Infinity rules, have the advantage of a single dice mechanism which covers most situations.

I wonder how often 'ease of learning' is factored into rules design? I know Jake Thornton has said he favours rules that are quick to learn but with plenty of tactical depth. But with some designers it feels like depth is being confused with complexity. I also wonder if my experience with Warhammer tells us anything. When your playing the same game day after day it becomes second nature and it's all to easy to forget how baffling it can appear to outsiders.

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