Sunday 30 January 2011

Missing the Point

A few weeks back I wrote about the contrast between the very tightly written, tournament focused rules of Field of Glory and DBMM and the looser style favoured by Rick Priestly in Black Powder and Hail Caesar. Today I want to return to that theme but focus on a particular aspect of it - point values.

There is a tendency in the tradition of the more narrative focused, more loosely written games like Hail Caesar and Black Powder to be quite down on points based systems for army selections. Rick Preistly seems to be quite down on it in the interviews I've read, equating it with Tournament and Competitive play specifically. In fact Preistly is not particulary keen on army lists at all.
"we will do them as players feel they need them - in reality there's no surviving evidence to make these judgements but dedicated researchers have given us the WAB and FOG army lists and people feel they need them." (Miniature Wargames 333, January 2011)
Its interesting that Jervis Johnson, the Black Powder co-writer, also tried to limit the use of points in Epic: Armageddon for Games Workshop, creating tournament specific lists and leaving large numbers of older miniatures with rules but no points values.

The rather wonderful free Doctor Who Miniature Game also left out points values, justifying it with this statement
Points values are not given for models in the DWMG. This has been a subject of much debate, but my final word is that I think that balancing games with a fixed points limit on models limits creativity and encourages tournament style play. Most scenarios for the game involve mismatched forces – true to the episodes themselves – with victory usually obtainable by achieving specific conditions in each game.
I quote this statement because it sums up the view of many about points-based systems, that they encourage competitive, tournament style play and are not suitable for looser, narrative based games.

I'm not sure that I agree. I think it would be true if players expected points to provide a perfectly balanced rating system such that armies of equal points would always be of equal effectiveness on the table. But in practice I think gamers are more nuanced than that. Points values are there to provided a rough ready reckoner such that two players can quickly rustle up to armies and, 9 times out of 10, play a reasonably fair and balanced game.

But why should this be so important? As the statement from DWMG says, not all encounters will be between balanced forces. In real life armies are rarely of equal size or effectiveness. But the crucial thing to understand here is that these are Wargames, the Game element is as crucial as the War and in a game both sides need a reasonable chance of victory in order to keep it interesting.

I'm not saying that games have to be scrupulously fair or that players should enter into them with a 'win at all costs' attitude. I am saying that games in which players are pitted against one another require both sides to attempt to win and to have a chance of doing so in order to keep things interesting. Of course fair play and good humour is important, particularly in friendly games, but there is little enjoyment in playing a passive opponent or in being beaten without even the possibility of being able to fight back.

So where do points values fit into all this? Well, points values give players a ready reckoner for wants constitutes a balanced scenario. This is important if you want to make sure that both players have a roughly equal chance of success and helps to avoid a one sided game.

That isn't to say that all scenarios should involve forces of equal size or strength. There has been a Warhammer scenario since 5th edition called last stand in which one side has twice the points of the other and the underdogs only roll is to keep at least one unit alive until the end of the game, gaining a big victory point bonus for doing so. It is possible to tweak relative points values to allow for more unequal encounters or to handicap more experienced players.

The point that sometimes seems to be forgotten by games designers is that not everyone is like them. Which is to say, not everyone has a great deal of experience creating balanced scenarios and judging the strength of armies. Some years ago I was introducing a friend to a new skirmish game. I had two lots of models, one were supposed to be elite troopers the other raw recruits so I devised a basic scenario in which the raws outnumbered the elites 2 to 1 figuring this would be balanced. The elites got slaughtered, clearly because I had overestimated the effect of troop quality. This is the draw back of having no mechanism to help players judge the relative strength of the troops.

Of course not all points systems are fair and balanced and mistakes happen. But points can still do a lot of good in helping players to devise more interesting games.

Saturday 22 January 2011

The dangers of too much enthusiasm

It's interesting that when someone criticises a product, be it a car, a DVD player, a games console or a washing machine there will almost always be someone else ready to loudly defend it. This is not really surprising, our purchases say a great deal about our taste and judgement and when an item we have purchased, and enjoyed, is criticised it feels like a criticism of ourselves.

In the gaming community this phenomenon is even more acute. People put an enormous amount of themselves into their hobby, selecting and painting miniatures, devising scenarios and playing games. It's for that reason that I and so many others publicise our hobby on a blog. We want to share our interests with others.

Games companies rely on this passion. Extracting value from a roleplaying game or a miniature requires a lot of time an effort. There is little immediate gratification and the collection of plastic, metal and cardboard that spills out of a box, at first glance, never lives up to the promise of the examples on the box. Until the miniatures are painted, the rules read, the players assembled there is little value in the product. Value requires effort and effort requires enthusiasm and passion.

It is for this reason that so many games companies encourage a community or like minded hobbyists to develop. The game requires other players, but more than that it requires enthusiasm and encouragement. In recent years the principle tactic has been to set up message boards and forums, but it has been going on for years by encouraging gamers to support their Local Games shop, attending conventions and, in the case of Games Workshop, through it's own chain of stores.

The draw back of encouraging this kind of enthusiasm is what can happen when it's turned against the company.

Part of the problem for Games companies is that image projected of them are small, very personal operations created by a single hobbyist or a small group with a dream of making their job their hobby. No-one with sense gets into the gaming industry hoping to make a fortune, most hope to make enough money that they don't have to do another job to supplement their income. The rise of the Internet has only increased this perception as more and more garage companies appear selling direct to the consumer. The direct engagement of so many companies with the customers through conventions and forums increases this view.

This works well as a marketing technique. Customers like to feel they are dealing with real people and not faceless corporations. Gamers are more likely to spend more money if they can see it going to a real person and a fellow hobbyist and can accept higher costs more readily when they trust that they are the result of increased costs and not greed.

The problem is that what may seem like a sensible business decision or transaction to a company can be perceived as betrayal by the fans. One of the early examples was when Citadel miniatures bought out Games Workshop and shifted it from a distributor and seller of a wide variety of games to specifically producing and promoting miniature games. The Roleplaying craze was on the wane and the decision might have made good business sense, but this was small consolation for the players of the abandoned games.

There have been numerous examples since. Rackham's abandonment of metal models in favour of pre-painted plastic, Wizards of the Coast shifting its focus to collectible card games and every new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Every controversial decision angers a new group of fans and one 'betrayal' can leave someone bitter and suspicious of all games companies.

Two recent examples bear this out. I previously mentioned Wyrd Games program to replace the cards for Malifaux with the new revised versions. This program sparked some discussion on their message board. Most contributors saw it as a generous gesture by a company trying not to rip-off its fans. But there were a few who questioned every aspect of the program, in particular the decision to run it only between January and March 2011. One person in particular seemed excessively concerned that someone might accidentally acquire an earlier card after the deadline and demanded all manner of expensive plans including stickers on boxes and lists mailed to games shops in order to rectify what he saw as a terrible injustice. When it was pointed out that the cost of his solution would be prohibitive he accused the company of not caring about gamers.

A second incident occurred just recently when Wargames Factory announced a change of ownership. I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the situation at this point (though there is certainly a blog post in it), but there has been much bitterness and acrimony from the old owners and from customers, with many announcing a boycott of Wargames Factory's products unless the old owners are restored.

I'm in no position to say if the old owners were treated unfairly or not, but the willingness of customers to stand by the old owners says something about the loyalty of gamers to a company or an individual and their willingness to make purchasing decisions based on that loyalty.

Passion, enthusiasm and customer loyalty is the backbone of the gaming hobby. But as long as companies rely on players seeing them as more than just a business supplying a product, the more danger that former fans will become mortal enemies.

Games companies need to consider carefully the danger of alienating fans. But more than that, gamers need to distance their enthusiasm for a game or a range of miniatures from the company producing it or risk being hurt by their hobby.

Sunday 16 January 2011

The Rise and Fall of Collectible Miniatures

The announcement by Wizards of the Coast that they are ceasing production of their prepainted Dungeons & Dragons plastic miniatures had prompted a number of people to comment that this is the final nail in the coffin of prepainted plastics. Others are scratching their heads as a development that was once heralded as the future of miniature gaming seems to have all but died out.

The development of prepainted plastic miniatures and specifically collectible miniatures followed a similar path to that of collectible card games some years earlier. In both cases a genuinely new game idea arrived, took off like a storm and had the old guard fearing the end of gaming as we new it. CCGs were going to kill roleplaying, CMGs miniature wargaming. In both cases, the initial success fizzled out somewhat and the gaming industry has carried on, changed but not revolutionised. But CCGs, including the original Magic the Gathering, are still very much around. The market has contracted somewhat since their hey-day, but they remain in place on the shelves of friendly local games shops. In contrast, CMGs seem to be all but dying out. So why the difference?

It's interesting to note the parallels in the development of CCGs and CMGs. In both cases, the concept was kicked off by an independent game that existed in its own universe (Magic the Gathering and Mage Knight) but was followed up by a number of games based on existing properties.

CCGs based on television and films such as Star Wars and Star Trek appeared as well as CCGs based on existing game universes including Vampire: the Masquerade, Lord of the Rings (based on Iron Crown Enterprises Middle Earth Roleplaying) and Dungeons and Dragons. They received a big boost with the arrival of the Pokemon game, based on the video game, and Yu Gi Oh, based on a Manga. Similarly, after the success of Mage Knight, Wizkid games biggest success came with Heroclix. Wizards of the Coast started producing D&D and Star Wars miniatures from existing licences. Video games followed, with CMGs based on World of Warcraft and Halo. Even Horrorclix, Wizkids suposedly independent game licenced Call of Cthulhu, Aliens vs Predator and Freddie vs Jason as well as borrowing concepts from films and TV programs.

Games based on unlicensed concepts were produced, of course, but for the most part failed to have the impact of the licenced products. It's significant that WOTCs only original CMG universe, Dream Blade, was also its most shortlived (a shame as it contained some interesting concepts and very nicely produced figures).

The advantage of all these licences was that it broadened the market for the games. The Star Wars miniatures, for example, were bought by existing Star Wars fans as much as wargamers and roleplayers. As well as the traditional games shops, CCGs and CMGs went on sale in comic shops, book shops and video game shops. It was this crossover appeal that helped these types of games develop ino a craze.

Both markets have declined, possibly because the novelty has worn off, possibly because in a rush to jump on the bandwagon some less successful games were produced. But CCGs have carved out a niche for themselves and now have shelf space in most games shops as well as a number of comic shops and video game shops. CMGs have not proved quite so resilient.

But there is another factor at work. Below is a list of the major CMGs and their manufacturers, I can't claim it's totally comprehensive, but I think I have most of the major ones

Wizards of the Coast - Dungeons & Dragons
- Star Wars
- Dreamblade

Wizkids - Mage Knight
- HeroClix
- HorrorClix
- Halo ActionClix
- Mech Warrior

Sabretooth Games - Lord of the Rings Combat Hex

Upper Deck - World of Warcraft

Privateer Press - Monsterpocalypse

Wizkids were bought up by Topps and then dropped when they stopped making enough money (or so the official story goes). They survived, but one gone for about a year and in that time most of their games died off. HeroClix is back and Halo ActionClix has returned, but without the power of Topps behind them they are seen much less than they were, at least in the UK. HeroClix were once all over the comic shops and Game Shops, now a few boxes can be found at much higher prices.

Wizards of the Coast dropped Star Wars along with the Roleplaying game, officially, because the Licence proved too expensive to be worthwhile. Dungeons & Dragons had never been very successful as a game in it's own right and now WOTC seems focused on cheaper cardboard tokens instead of miniatures for its RPGs.

Sabretooth cut their losses with Lord of the Rings when the films ended. Upper Deck lost the WOW licence in dubious circumstances.

The point is that when one or two companies are responsible for the bulk of all CMGs available it just takes one to go down for the market to collapse. With Wizkids going out of action for so long and returning in a diminished state and WOTC pulling out of the market then the market itself contracts hugely.

Of course the fact that one company sees no future in CMGs and another couldn't support itself with CMGs alone doesn't say much for the future of the concept, but the small number of companies providing products of this type means that circumstances specific to those companies can play a very large role in determining the fate of the market as a whole.

So CMGs as a concept may still have some life left in them, but maybe only if Wizkids recovers or a new company decides to invest the time and effort to push a new game.

Saturday 15 January 2011

HOTT Fantasy Chinese

I've been wanting to put together a Hordes of the Things army for some time now. For people not in the know HOTT is a set of general fantasy wargame rules for use with any models. It's part of the same family of games as DBA and DBM and uses many of the same rules and basic conventions. Conveniently it is now available for free from the Wargames Research Group website (though for reasons unfathomable to me and surely unpolicable you are limited to one copy per person).

HOTT uses 'element basing' so several models are clumped together on one base to produce a single element. The elements are all generic types such as Blades, Spears and Shooter or the more fantastic Magicians, Heroes and Dragons. The great strength of HOTT is you can pretty much define your models as any element you like leading to some pretty outlandish armies - like Narnians, Winnie the Pooh and Invisible Men (an army of floating hats, seriously).

I had wanted to put together an HOTT army, but had no desire to rebase my existing Warhammer models or rehash the same thing again in HOTT form. So I had been subconsciously looking for a hook for a while. Inspiration struck when a news update on TMP alerted me to Black Hat miniatures range of Fantasy Chinese figures. Finally, I had my hook.

Black Hat provided me with the fantasy figures I wanted, but I wanted a decent range of more general troops. Black Hat did some, but they were quite pricey and, somehow, didn't grab me. So I found myself at Curteys miniatures purveyors of all things East Asian. I went back and forth over which era to go for, before ultimately settling on the Song dynasty because it was they who faced the Mongols and because of some seriously lovely Heavy Cavalry models of which more below. Armed with my shopping list I set off for Warfare Reading, where both companies would be in attendance, and after two months painting the results are below.

Song dynasty Swordsmen and Halberdiers. These are all Curteys miniatures. I went with earthy browns, red and greens and tried to make them not too uniform while still looking coherent. The Song dynasty didn't have a standing army as such, raising local militia from villages as needed.

These guys are quite heavily armoured, but I thought that was appropriate for the fantasy theme; armies of well armed soldiers that can be rendered easily in CGI fit better than a rag tag band of peasants (though I may well return to the peasants in future).

In HOTT these are elements of Blades and Spears. Curteys do a set of Song dynasty spearmen, but I liked the halberdiers more.

Song dynasty crossbows. An obvious choice of weapon for militia as anyone can be trained to use them quite quickly. In HOTT these are shooters.

I love these Song Heavy Cavalry. I did my research and used the colour scheme seen in a couple of different Osprey books, with the exception that I changed the jackets to black to give a bit of contrast with the red. In HOTT these are treated as Knights.

The General and army standard. Another Knight Element. As well as his eleborately barded horse, the General has a blue cloak to help him stand out from the rest of the Knights.

Temple Lion Riders from Black Hat miniatures. These were the miniatures that pretty much sold me on the whole concept of a Chinese Fantasy army and I spent a fair bit of time on them. I'm very pleased with the shining gold armour and the glowing eyes of the Lions. In HOTT these guys are paladins.

A pair of flying Wizards who get about by Cloud. I treat them as Magicians in HOTT and justify their extra big base by saying it represents their increased freedom of movement, though they don't count as flyers in the rules. I wanted them to be brightly coloured and stand out from the rest of the army as they are not really soldiers and are just along to provide additional support. These are also Black Hat miniatures.

The army isn't done yet. I still have an element of Monks to paint (Clerics) and it was only after I put it together that I realised how few fantasy elements it contained. Black Hat do some stunning Chinese Style minotaurs that I have my eye on. But I do have enough now for a game. One of the great things about HOTT is that armies are comparitively small and it doesn't take an excessive amount of time of effort to get one together.

After these are done I have further plans for Fantasy HOTT China. Being Song dynasty I need some Fantasy Mongols for them to fight and have my eye on Goblin Wolf Riders. Black Hat also make a model of the 'Chaos Queen' and some guards, hand maidens and Chinese Zombies so I think there might be an army in that. And of course theres always the possibility of Samurai.

With so many historical elements to this army, I'm thinking of expanding it out so that I can leave out the Fantasy elements and use it as an historical army in DBA. I suspect I'll be spending a fair bit of time in the Fantasy Far East.

Sunday 9 January 2011

The Devil's in the Details

With Rick Priestly's recent departure from Games Workshop discussion of him has been all over the Wargaming community's message boards and blogs. As a consequence of this I've found myself reading a number of interviews with him both recent and old. Interestingly a prevailing theme has emerged. Take this comment from an unabridged version of an interview from Battlegames 21 February 2010 (sadly I've lost the link).
"Your sense of overview is very poor as a teenager, but your sense for detail is fantastically precise. That’s something that people sometimes forget, and even today, when I’m writing rules, some of the criticism I get, particularly from older gamers, whilst occasionally I’m accused of dumbing down, it’s usually, “Oh, this is far too complicated,” and my answer is, “Yes it is too complicated for you, but it’s not too complicated for kids! Anyone who is 14 can pick this up, and they’ll have grasped it like that!”
This struck a chord with me because it perfectly describes how I used to be when I first started out in Wargaming in the 1990s, obsessed with detail and rules and able to absorb and process them at great speed. I remember being actively dissapointed that when Warhammer moved from 3rd to 4th edition it shifted it's focus from d100 tables to cards. The tables seemed, somehow to be more detailed and 'rulesy', the cards were too straightforward.

The theme emerges again in an interview in Miniature Wargames 333.
"Asked what gap in the Ancients rules market has had identified, Rick replies that "Existing ones like DBM and FOG are based on tournament and competitive play and geared to 15mm. Black Powder is a really fun, enjoyable and refreshing games system that's not comercially orientated."
Later in the same interview he talks about the development of his Black Powder rules. They resulted from informal evenings with friends in which they had a curry and decided to push some miniatures around a board.

The contrast Priestly identifies is between, what he sees as, the prevailing taste among wargamers for very tightly written rules designed to cover all situations and his approach, which concentrates on fun but open-ended rules that players are encouraged to develop themselves.

I'm not sure how accurate his perception of the hobby is, nor am I sure whether it is intended to be read as a criticism, but his comments did strike a chord with me. In my more sanguine moments I can find myself nodding along with Priestly's comments and I certainly have no competitive streak or interest in the tournament scene. But in the middle of a game I often find myself flicking through rulebooks desperately searching for the elusive paragraph that explains an apparent contradiction.

Priestly's comments came back to me again recently when I read an announcement from Wyrd Games, producers of the rather unusual and wonderful skirmish game Malifaux. Since the release of the Malifaux rulebook, Wyrd have released a number of eratta, rules clarifications and rules tweaks intended to ensure balance in the game. They are now applying these updates to the summary cards packaged with their models and the new cards will be included with future production runs. At the same time, they are offering to exchange existing player's old cards for the new ones if they are posted to Wyrd along with a self-adressed envelope.

This announcement and the reaction to it has prompted illustrates a number of things about the Wargaming community that I intend to return to again, but the reason I thought of it in this case is because it chimes with what Rick Priestly had been saying.

Let me emphasise that this plan has not been prompted by a new edition of Malifaux and that the old cards are still compatable with the rules. The new cards only clarify a few words or make a few minor tweaks. This has been done in the interest of maintaining game balance.

At the same time, Malifaux is one of the most narrative based games I have seen. A good half of the page count of it's two rulebooks is taken up with story explaining the background of the game world and it's characters. The world of Malifaux is a bizarre hybrid of fantasy, victoriana, steam punk and the wild west, in which a western gunslinger can take on a victorian undertaker or an arachnid cyborg face a demonic baby with a doll and a knife. And yet, the creators of this stranged story-based game still feel the need to optimise the rules for tournament play. Treating the game as a strict competition.

It's worth noting that several of the changes have been incorporated to eliminate rules loop holes that, if exploited, can lead to a huge advantage to one side and a boring game for all concerned. There is certainly merit in the argument that if the rules are that lopsided something needs to be done to correct it.

Yet I find myself thinking, if I found a loop hole that allowed me to win, but wrecked the game and rendered it no fun for myself or my opponent, wouldn't I just ignore it? In a sober moment, yes, but I suspect that I, and many other gamers, when faced with that situation in a game would exploit the loophole. Not due to any excessive competitive streak, but simply because when faced with the rules we feel obliged to play them as written and deliberately ignoring an advantage feels like a kind of cheating.

I have often thought there is a touch of the autistic in the wargaming community. Possibly I'm projecting because of my own diagnosis, but I think the obsession with lists and rules has an obvious appeal to the autistic mind. How much time to wargamers spend obsessing over the details of historical uniforms or the precise composition of an army? How much space is taken up on Forums on rules questions? Not that everyone does this, but plenty do. A literalist reading of the rules certainly fits into this characterisation. Not that I would see this as a criticism, getting the details right can be hugely important and a hopelessly unbalanced game is no fun for anybody, otherwise why employ playtesters?

So what conclusions can we draw from this? I'm not sure. Possibly a happy medium can exist between tightly written rules and the flexibility to be creative with them. At the same time, the next time I find myself uncertain of the rules I'll try to take a deep breath and thinking logically before reaching frantically for the rulebook.

Sunday 2 January 2011

New Year Predictions

With a New Year just begun now seems as good a time as any to take stock and plan for the future. It has been over six months since my last blog post, something I hope to rectify in the New Year. I'm not setting myself a specific target, that's a recipe for failure, but I do aim to write a lot more in 2011 than I have in 2010.

I also want to vary what I write, with a mixture of comment pieces, updates on my personal projects and a few Reviews of miniatures, rule sets and even conventions when I get the chance.

With all that in mind, I'm going to start with a few predictions about where the Wargaming industry will be heading in 2011. These are by no means expertly calculated, but are a mix of educated and just plain wild guesses. We'll see how many turn out to be true this time next year.

The Evil Empire

We begin with a few predictions regarding the love or hate super company of the wargaming hobby, Games Workshop.
  1. A rush new edition of Warhammer 40,000 or LOTR. Games Workshop relies on new editions to maintain interest in its games. In an attempt to boost flagging interest in its core products a new edition will be announced.
  2. Previews of the Hobbit miniatures. GW must be hoping that the Hobbit movie will provide a sales boost similar to the one they experienced with the release of their Lord of the Rings games. Consequently, preview miniatures will appear as soon as they can get clearance.
  3. Jervis Johnson to leave Games Workshop. With Rick Priestly gone, Jervis is one of the last of the old guard left. With GW taking less and less interest in rules writing he will either jump or be pushed.
  4. Warhammer Historical to be closed down. GW are losing interest in rules and independent projects. Warhammer Historicals days are numbered.
The Hobby in General

With the specific predictions out of the way, here are some more general predictions about the future of the hobby.

  1. Pirates to be big in 2011. With the new Pirates of the Carribean Movie on the way, the industry will be banking on pirates being big. Two Pirate skirmish games were released in 2010 (Freebooters Fate and Ron & Bones) and Black Scorpion have announced Cutlass. I am expecting at least one more next year and a load of new Pirate models from independent companies including a few 'Not Jack Sparrow's.
  2. Loads more historical plastics. A no brainer this, with the price of metal rising, VAT in the UK going up and the global economy still on shakey ground cheaper plastic models will be all the range. By the end of the year I expect to see plastic Samurai and Pirates covered by at least one manufacturer.
  3. More generic plastics. Wargames Factory have their generic sci-fi troopers and Orcs on the way. More companies will follow suit with generic Sci-Fi and Fantasy plastics.
  4. Osprey to announce at least one new set of Wargaming rules. Osprey have had considerable success with FOG and FOG Renaissance and Ambush Alley is coming soon. With GW vacating the market this is an obvious opportunity for them.
To reiterate, I am not writing with any insider knowledge at all, these are just guesses. Come back in 2012 to see how wrong I was.