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.

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