Monday 23 May 2011

Thanks for all your support

For some time there has been discussion in the online Wargaming community about the lack of support for Warhammer Ancient Battles from Games Workshop of late. This has only escalated since the sudden arrival of the Ancient rules boom, with fans of Hail Caesar and Clash of Empires keen to declare WAB dead and gone.

During the early years of WAB, it was well supported by range of supplement books that generally choose a particular era or conflict as a theme and provided background, scenarios and Army books. This proved to be an eclectic mix, with supplements chosen seemingly by whatever subject an author felt like doing. But they were much loved by the wargaming community due to their high production values and comprehensive detail. Since Forge World took over the running of Warhammer Historical. Since the much delayed release of WAB 2.0 there has been now further support. This has, understandably, lead to much grumbling.

Interestingly, there has been strong opinions expressed that the further support from Games Workshop really doesn't matter. This does not seem to be motivated by any great love of GW, but more by a belief that a rule set does not require continuous support to be viable.

I find myself personally divided. I own a copy of WAB 1st edition, but have never really played. I toyed with the rules when I first started looking into Samurai, but was put off by lack of a dedicated supplement. The long promised (and unfortunately named) Divine Wind has been endlessly delayed. This is the essence of the WAB problem, the extent to which the lack of support bothers you is dependent on whether the supplement you want has been released.

This raises the question of why we as gamers want "support"from games producers. If the rules work use them. The key is the extent to which the game is complete. We don't hear demands for further support of Warhammer: English Civil War, because rules and army lists are all in the book. Field of Glory similarly saw a complete set of army book released and then the supplements stopped with no sign of complaint. DBM is similarly complete in its four comprehensive army list supplements.

It's instructive to contrast Games Workshop's approach WAB with its approach to Warhammer Fantasy. Here we have a game that could do with a good deal less support. There has been a complete set of rules and army lists since 2nd edition twenty years ago. And apart from the addition and loss of a small number of armies, everything released since has been a re-jig of everything that came before. The latest trend is full colour hard back books.

If anything it would be nice if the company stopped producing new army books. Most players have no desire to buy a new book and reorganise their army every four or five years. Wargaming is not computing, there is no need to update rules to keep up with technological change. The only motivation for the endless cycle of re-releases is a need to sustain interest in a product that has already been completed. Interest in Warhammer waned when GW stopped new releases.

This leaves gamers and game producers in conflict. Popular and successful gamers justify a rapid run of releases, which means they run their course quickly and interest has to be artificially sustained with unasked for releases. In contrast, less popular or niche games see slow and incomplete support stretched out over a period of years.

So what does this tell us? Possibly that gamers will always want what they don't have or that the commercial interests of games companies will always conflict with their customers, but mostly that Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer Ancient Battles need to swap players.

Monday 16 May 2011

I go, you activate

When Mantic Games released its Kings of War rules there were complaints from some quarters about its use of the IGOUGO turn sequence. The phrase, an abbreviation of "I go, you go" refers to a game in which one player takes a turn moving, shooting and fighting with their miniatures and then the other player does the same. This is contrasted with something that might be called "alternating activation" in which one player chooses a miniature and does something with it, then the other player, then back to the first and so on until the turn is over.*

IGOUGO has been criticised for being unrealistic as it does not allow players to respond to their opponents actions and because the 'passive player' has to wait for long periods of time before being able to do anything. These long waiting periods can make IGOUGO seem dull or jerky in contrast to AA's fluidity or dynamism. There is even a tendency to regard IGOUGO as slightly old fashion or out of date, a complaint that was leveled at Kings of War and at each edition of Warhammer that continues to use it. When Privateer Press announced their new big battle supplement for War Machine, stating that it would use AA, many applauded it as a step forward. As though the move represented a progressive shift, instead of a simple rules choice.

Alternating activation often goes along with the abandonment the of traditional turn sequence. Specific movement, shooting and fighting phases are usually lost in favour of allowing units to move, shoot and fight when they are activated, before another model does the same. One notable exception was Rackham's Confrontation, which used AA in its movement phase, before having separate shooting and close combat phases afterwards.

AA is very common for skirmish games, possibly because the quick back and forth between players better mirrors a dual or brawl than the careful maneuvering the characterises a big battle. There are, however, some big battle games that use this approach. Games Workshop's Epic Armageddon is one example and soon War Machine will follow. However, one aspect of large scale battles that is not easily modeled by AA is co-ordinated attacks.

In a game that uses IGOUGO game, with the turn divided into stages, it is easy to have one unit or miniature attack another and then be joined by a supporting ally. The actual combat resolution doesn't happen until later allowing multiple units to join the attack. This is much more difficult to model in AA. If one unit or character activates at a time, with no separate phases, then one unit completes its attack before another can join. It is possible to have combat engagements last over several activations, but this requires the initial attacker to survive the first attack.

Imagine a situation in which two weak units attack a stronger one. In IGOUGO they can both engage and the combat is worked out in one go. In AA, the first unit has two attack and survive a potential counter attack before its ally joins it.

There are ways around this problem. Malifaux has a companion rule that allows some groups of models to activate together, for example. However, these are generally compromises or fudges that work around the natural flow of the rules and arguably undermine the fluidity of Alternating Activation.

The point is that AA feels more fluid and sometimes more real, because the way the miniatures or units activate feels closer to simultaneous. However, the fact that allies cannot easily act in concert undermines that by demonstrating that it is still turn-based. Wargaming is necessarily a fudge that does its best to simulate the effect of real warfare whilst allowing players to actually play a game. Ultimately, Alternating Activation is as much a compromise as IGOUGO, they just have different strengths. Alternating Activation simulates the back and forth of combat, IGOUGO is better for co-ordinating strategies and careful maneuvering.

*This is a slight simplification as many games that use some variation of AA have a mechanism that allows one player to activate two or more miniatures or units in sequence. Broadly we are talking about a system in which one player gets to activate some, but not all, of their models and then the other does.

Monday 9 May 2011

Game Retrospective - Space Marine

My very first set of wargame miniatures for anything at all was a set of 6mm Ork Raiders purchased from Games Workshop mail order (as it was known back then) in 1990. I was attracted by the promise of hundreds of Orks and dozens of battlewagons and hadn't fully realised the implications of the scale. When they arrived I was slightly disappointed by their small size, but I quickly forgot this when I lined them up in ranks on the table (not very Orky, but I was new to the game).

Games Workshop players with long memories may remember that before Lord of the Rings came along, there was another 'third core game'. A 6mm battle game set in Warhammer 40,000 universe, it went by different names, but generally referred to as Epic, a term used by Games Workshop to describe scale in a canny piece of marketing. The first edition consisted of two games Adeptus Titanicus, a game of giant robot Titans and Space Marine which introduced infantry and tanks. But the version of the game that made the most impression on me was the second edition.

Also released as Space Marine (GW knew what its audience liked even then), it was a game of infantry companies, tank divisions and vast war machines like the Titans. Infantry were mounted five to a base and tanks appeared in squadrons of three or more. The appeal of Epic to a teenager in the 1990s was obvious and diverse. For a start, infantry was produced entirely in plastic at a time when vast majority of models were metal. Getting hundreds of models for the cost of a couple of weeks pocket money was hugely tempting. Then there was scale. Warhammer 40,000 might see one or two tanks a side, in Epic there would be dozens and even the smallest game was huge in scope.

Second edition Epic had deceptively simple rules. It used an alternating activation system, still unusual in GW games, with players moving and shooting with whole formations at a time. Troops profile and weapons were all recorded on one stat line. Shooting generally consisted of a roll to hit and, if opponent was lucky, they got a saving throw modified by attackers weapon. Most infantry got none. Some weapons, referred to as Barrage weapons, used templates. The whole formations barrage points were totaled up and the higher the score more templates used and the more damage done. For close combat, every model had a close assault factor (CAF). Each player rolled 2 dice added CAF and highest score won. The only additional complication was war machines, such as Titans, which used a targetting grid and damage charts depending on where you hit.

The games other innovation was order counters. Players placed them face down next to formations at start of turn. They were fairly basic with only three different types: First Fire, Charge and Advance. The choice of order determined the actions available to the formation. First Fire allowed units to shoot with increased effectiveness but prevented them moving. Charge meant you couldn't shoot, but moved fast and could enter close combat. Advance was a compromise with normal movement and shooting. The orders did not have a huge impact on the units behavior, but failing to place them prevented the unit moving and left them shooting with reduced effect. This forced the player to pay attention to his units and what he intended to with them at the start of the turn.

My favourite feature of Space Marine was its army selection system which used army cards instead of an army list. Players selected army cards, paid their points and received the units listed on the card. There were three main types of card, Company, Support and Special. The core of your army would be company cards, representing large formation such as a Space Marine company or an Ork horde, usually consisting of several squads and some kind of command unit or units. For each company card you took you could have up to five support cars, generally a single squad or one large tank. You could have one special card for each company, these would be characters and big stuff like Titans. All points costs were divisible by fifty, so totalling up your points was quick and simple.

Army cards also showed the break point, how many units had to be destroyed to force the formation to fall back, and victory points, the number of victory points your opponent got when you did it. This Neatly combined moral and victory rules with the army lists.

There were some variation in the use of Army Cards for different armies. Ork support cards added to their company formations making for vast mega formations with massive break points worth large amounts of victory points. This made Ork army powerful and durable, but few in number and prone to sudden collapse. Chaos replaced all cards with Greater Daemon and Minion cards. Each Greater Daemon had to have 3-5 minion cards. This added some character to the army while still keeping the lists straight forward and largely consistent.

So in principle a straight-forward and simple game, but in practice this was not quite true. Three main supplements were produced to accompany the game - Armies of the Imperium, Renegades and Warlords, each with the rules and cards for two armies. Each expansion introduced new troop types and almost all of them had special rules unique to them, even if it was as simple as restricting the units choice of orders. Some of these were a lot of fun such as the Ork Dragster, which featured a force field that bounced enemy attacks in a random direction and Eldar Wave Serpents which used a special template for shoving enemy units out of the way. The upshot of this was a game that was quirky and characterful but became bogged down in special rule interactions and the need to reference different books.

After all the supplements and models had been released, Space Marine plodded on two or three years supported in White Dwarf with one or two articles a month. It was very much the third game, but still one of Games Workshop's big three. This was to change with the release of Titan Legions.

Titan Legions had been intended to be a fourth supplement, but was delayed time and again, swelling up with new rules as it did so until it became an entirely new game. Andy Chambers, in his designers notes, lamented that focus of Epic had shifted from Titans to infantry and tanks. Titan Legions was attempt to address the balance. The game was not a new edition, but an expansion of the existing rules with some tightening up and the introduction of some new unit types. It introduced titan companies, large formations of three titans that acted as company cards and reintroduced the Knights, one man Titans that had been around in Epic first edition.

So far so good, but more was to come. As with all Games Workshop games of the period, Titan Legions came in a big box with lots of new plastic miniatures. These included the massive Emperor Class Imperator Titan and the Ork Mega Gargant. These cost as much as a small army (the Imperator was 2250 points) and brought in whole new level of Complexity to game. Each one had two card templates, one a hugely complicated damage location chart plus damage tables and second to track crew, damage and effects of weapons.

This was point where complexity of second edition Epic reached critical mass. It didn't help that only Orks and Imperials had access to Titans in this class, leaving other armies looking underpowered. Then Introduction of new army, Tyranid, with a whole new set of, hexagonal, army cards complicated matters further. There was still a lot of fun to be had with the game, but without self limiting their army lists players could become horribly bogged down in special rules.

The game had become unwieldy. But at the same time the universe described by Epic had diverged from its Warhammer 40,000 parent. Both were supposed to be set in the same universe, but armies and models often bore little relationship to one another, many Epic miniatures had been designed based on a much earlier edition of the game. A new edition was inevitable, and most players accepted it, but when it happened it was not well handled

For a start, Games Workshop took 2nd edition Epic off the shelves months before the release of 3rd edition. When 3rd edition did come they rebooted the whole range with almost entirely new models. These were some of the most spectacularly detailed sculpts they ever produced, but they were expensive, the first range cast entirely in lead free white metal. They also changed the packaging, the late 2nd edition blisters had contained pictures of the painted models, the new packs looked like a collection of semi-identifiable blobs. Then there was the infantry. Epic Infantry had traditional been based on 20x20mm squares in a cross pattern, like the 5 on a six sided dice. Now they were based in a line on 40x10mm strips. There was no strict requirement to re-base, bu the alternative was to have an inconsistently based army or use nothing but old style infantry. The decision added an unnecessary complication for existing players.

Finally the rules. After the over-complication of second edition, third's simplification was welcome. And the rules contained a lot of new ideas to like. The concept of blast markers was introduced. These markers were placed on formations when they suffered casualties, but also when they came under fire at all and reflected the suppressing effects of fire. A formation was broken when it had more blast markers than units. Plus the markers in the box were card explosions which had the effect of making the unit look as if it were truly under fire.

But the new rules also dramatically changed way units worked. What had been quirky and grungy, became abstract. Most infantry in any one army were the same except for one or two simple special generic special rules. Units were now abstracted into formations which fought as a collected group. For example, shooting was carried out by totalling up the fire power values of an entire formation and cross referencing on a table to find how many dice to roll.

As unit rules got simpler and more abstract army lists got more complicated. Instead of the elegant card system, formations became hugely complex custom creations. Army lists had multiple types with multiple options that could be built up from scratch. The idea was to create a number of custom formations and record them on the supplied record sheets. But this required considerable advance work and could be baffling to new players.

Although embraced by many, particularly games designers, third edition was such a radical shift from its predecessor and from other Games Workshop games that it is hardly surprising that it was never fully accepted. It received far less White Dwarf coverage than second edition and ultimately shuffled off into the wilderness as a never well supported 'Specialist Game.'

The story of 4th edition Epic, also known as Epic Armageddon, is a little better known. A strong rules set developed by Jervis Johnson, the original designer of first edition, was boosted by considerable assistance from online play testers. It was a synthesis of the strongest elements of 2nd and 3rd simplifying formations and giving units individual stats, but keeping blast markers. The new edition warmly received by the player community, but just as it was taking off Games Workshop hit major financial difficulties and the game was all but abandoned, with only the Imperial, Orks and Eldar armies released. Since then, a dedicated group of online fans have updated rules and produced new army lists, while the models are still available from the Games Workshop website (for now at least). But essentially Epic Armageddon feels like a half-finished game.

Although in many ways Fourth edition is the best and most elegant Epic rule set, I will always have a special fondness for the second edition. It was the version of the game I first built armies for and played the most. But more than that, it was the version of the game that could stand proudly as the third Games Workshop core game.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Totally addicted to base

When a player of predominantly Fantasy or Sci-Fi games shifts their attention to historical gaming they quickly become familiar with the question of basing. For the fantasy and sci-fi gamer this largely a non-issue as most miniatures are tied to a specific game and come supplied with the appropriate sized round, square or even hexagonal base. In the case of Malifaux and War Machine base size is even part of the miniatures stat line. For more generic miniatures it is more open, but for the most part fantasy gets square and sci-fi gets round.*

It can come as something of a shock to open up your first box of insanely cheap historical plastics and find either no bases or a sheet of bases of mixed sizes and shapes. This is certainly a hidden cost for the historical gamer, though still a very small one given the price difference between fantasy and historical miniatures.

The problem stems from a lack of consistency in how different rule sets expect models to be based. This isn't simply a question of size and shape, but also the number of models assigned to each base. This is usually a question of the smallest game element that can be removed at a time. For Warhammer (Ancient Battles or English Civil War) single models can be removed, and so models often need to be based singly. The DBM/Fields of Glory family uses 'elements' bases with consistent widths (40mm or 60mm depending on scale) and varying depth with 2 or more miniatures on each depending on type. For Impetus a unit is a single element and some spectacular examples of diorama style unit basing can be found with a bit of googling. Scale also plays a part, 6 or 10mm models are usually multi-based, for 15mm and larger it can vary considerably.

Of course it isn't even that simple. The requirements of moving dozens or hundreds of models around a table mean that many players prefer to multi-base their models regardless of scale. There is a long and venerable tradition of placing 4 28mm models on a square base and then marking them with dice as casualties are removed or keeping a small pool of single based models to show them.

Different rule sets tend to emphasise different aspects of basing. For Warhammer, each individual has a consistently sized base (20x20mm for infantry, 2x50mm for cavalry) with units varying in width and depth depending on the number of models. For the DBM family, base width is consistent, and depth and the number of figures varies according to type.

In practice, the rules may not always be as strict as they seem at first. Field of Glory lists the number of figures to a base as a maximum, so in principle you can line up 3 20x20mm based figures and call it an element. This works fine if you keep track of what element is what and don't lose track of which figures go together. The problem, is that in FOG and DBM the number of figures on a base is often used as determinant of type. The only difference between regular and irregular infantry may be that the former has four models per base and the latter three. This is not an insurmountable problem, but does add an additional complication if you figures aren't based according to the regulations as you have to find another way to record the different types.

With a number of new historical rule sets coming onto the market at pretty much the same time, all are vying for the attention of existing gamers. Basing is an issue, as no player wants to have to re-base their armies to play a new game and it seems to have become compulsory to advertise your game as having no rigid basing rules even if this is not strictly the case.

Clash of Empires, for instance, is keen to emphasise that its basing standards are only recommendations. The problem is that, like Warhammer, the number of attacks a unit makes against its enemy is determined by the number of models in contact. This puts models on larger bases (or at least ones with wider base space per model) at a significant disadvantage. Fortunately, the rules do have a way around the problem.

Working out how many models may fight can become a bit confusing, especially when two opposing player use different base sizes for their miniatures. If in doubt, refer back to the recommended base sizes, remembering to apply the concept that models in corner to corner contact will fight. For example, a unit of cavalry 6-wide has a frontage of 150mm and is fighting a unit of infantry. Just divide the cavalry's frontage by the opponent's individual base size (discarding any remainder) and add 2 to determine the number of models in contact. (Clash of Empires, p56)
I particularly like the use of the word 'just.' This is certainly perfectly doable, but it is not trivial, particularly in the middle of a game. Nor is it indicative of a game where "the base sizes are not critical to game play."(Clash of Empires, p8). The problem is that, as much as the rule writers may want basing not to matter, when the position of a model relative to its opponent has an impact on game play it does matter like it or not.

Of all the new rule sets, Hail Caesar probably has the best claim to be able to say that basing is not really important, because its smallest element is the unit. That is to say, individual models are not removed as casualties, casualties are recorded but the unit is destroyed in one go. The number of dice rolled by a unit in combat is determined by unit type and starting size, not by models in contact.

Hail Caesar does use unit width and depth to determine unit size, a rather abstract concept defined as standard, large, small and tiny. The width is imprecise and the number of models that should fill that width is up to the players to determine, and need not strictly be consistent. If one player wants their models mounted on 25x25mm bases and the other by 20x20mm bases it doesn't matter as long as all standard sized units have roughly the same width. Having said that, if you have you Roman Legionnaires based to Field of Glory standard you will need 12 Legionnaires to fill the width that a Warhammer-based army can fill with 9, which means FOG players are going to have to have rather more models to field the same sized army as their opponent.

Of course you could fix the number of models and fudge the difference between unit widths as long as it isn't too crazy. You would have to ensure that a particularly wide unit didn't get attacked in the front by two enemy units that were meant to be the same size as it. The bigger problem is terrain. A smaller unit is simply easy to manoeuvre through narrow gaps than a bigger one. To keep things fair players would have to look at gaps between scenery or at area terrain (such as woods) and decide in advance whether they are wide enough for a standard sized unit.

Most of these problems only really exist if players are following different basing standards. If bases are consistent then it rarely matters if they are 5mm wider than the rule book recommends. But these small issues can add up and armies based in a way inconsistent with the guide lines in the rule book invariably add an unwelcome obstacle to the smooth running of a game. Basing is an issue for historical gamers that rarely exists in fantasy and sci-fi gaming. And, unfortunately, rules writers can't simply stop it being an issue by declaring that it isn't on the back of the rule book.

*Hordes of the Things is the major exception to the Sci-Fi and Fantasy basing rules, following a similar system to DBA and DBM, but it is unusual in this respect.