Monday 30 January 2012

Re-forging the Ring - Updated

After a period of rumours, the news is officially out that Games Workshop is re-releasing its Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game. With the Hobbit movies on the way that this would happen sooner or later is hardly surprising, though GW's rapid move suggests they want everything sorted out and in place well before the official Hobbit miniatures are due for release.

One interesting shift is that War of the Ring is, apparently, to be more or less dropped from sale. Shuffled off into the Specialist games hinterland with the focus on the old Strategy Battle Game. Presumably GW have concluded that it has run its course, whether that means it failed or simply that they had gotten as much out of it as they could is less certain.

The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game has actually been a remarkably stable rule set by wargaming standards, let alone GW's. Technically it is still on its First edition. Although three rule books were released in quick succession, one for each movie, these were really just expansions of the original rules rather than new editions. The current rulebook essentially consolidated the same rules with only a few small tweaks, has been around for seven years and is not due to be replaced now. As far as I am concerned this is very much a good thing as the essential rules work well at what they are designed to do and don't need re-writing for the sake of it.

That said, I am much less enamoured of the new that the current run of source books is due to be droppped, with the exception of the Lord of the Rings Journey books, and replaced with five "army books" covering the major forces of Middle Earth. I am sure some people will welcome the news, particularly Rohan or Isengard players who have been left without a dedicated supplement since the release of the new edition. And the existing books are hardly a coherent collection, some focus on regions, others on conflicts and some on armies or races.

However, the move to, what sounds like, a more Warhammer/Warhammer 40,000 model of army books, albeit ones that cover more than one army list, is, I think, unfortunate and threatens to undermine some of the unique characteristics of Lord of the Rings as a game in contrast to its Warhammer counterparts.

As a relatively rare licensed war game, LOTR is set in a world that was not created to be a wargaming back drop. It is not a world of eternal warfare in which neatly defined races, each with their own distinct armies can be neatly picked out and pitted against one another. The story of Middle Earth is one of intermitant warfare, punctuated by conflicts between specific forces and nations. What that means is that certain combinations of armies never fought one another and others fought only briefly. The full army of Isengard, for example, was only ever employed in one battle, Helm's Deep.

Of course some players, quite reasonably, ignore this. They take their favourite armies and fight against one another without consideration for the background or history that inspired them. And their is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, others, including myself, prefer their games to be grounded in the setting, preferring to play games that recreate battles that Tolkein described, or ones consistent with the world he created.

In some senses LOTR is actually more like an historical wargame than a fantasy one. Like an historical game it attempts to reflect defined conflicts that were defined outside of the company producing the game without consideration for its use as a game. Both use a wide variety of army lists, many of which blur together, covering a long period of history. Also, as with some historical armies, some LOTR armies are drawn very firmly from the source material, while others are more speculative, based on only partial accounts.

The other feature that sets LOTR apart from Games Workshop's other games was that it was designed specifically to support scenario-based gaming with heavly unbalanced forces. The Hero rules were written so that namd characters would behave quite differently from regular troops and that the most powerful characters from the books, Gandalf, Aragorn etc, could fight single-handedly against a horde of nameless enemies. In that sense, LOTR is entirely unlike an historical game.

The three supplements that most supported this approach, and which are, thankfully, still being kept in print, are the three Journey books that cover the three volumes of the Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring supplement, in particular, is one of my favourite gaming supplements, because it combines rules, scenarios and scenery building workshops and presents them in the order that they are needed. This means it is possible to work your way through the book from start to finish preparing models and scenery as you need them for the scenarios. Of course some compromises have to be made to suit the narrative of the source material. So it is necessary to tackle the comples Weathertop project quite early on.

Sadly, Games Workshop quickly abandoned this approach with their supplements not based directly on the books. After Fall of the Necromancer scenery building ws dropped and scenarios became less and less important. By the time of the Mordor supplement, Games Workshop had even abandoned location or conflict based supplements, creating what was, in effect, an army book.

And sadly, that is where we find ourselves now. Five supplements books are to be released covering the different LOTR armies. These are themed not by conflict, narrative or location, but simply by sticking the armies that seem most similar together. So we have one for Men, one for Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits, one for Mordor, one for Moria and Angmar and one for all the other evil armies (or the fallen realms, as they are calling them). The design of these books is looking less than inspiring, with single stills from the Movies on standard blue covers. They will, at least, contain scenarios, but it is hard to escape the feeling that this is an attempt to produce Warhammer style army books to allow gamers to pick armies to agreed points values and with only a limited interest in the Middle-Earth back drop.

I can't help but feel that this is another  missed opportunity from a company unwilling to be creative or take risks any more. Despite War of the Ring not proving successful enough to keep going as a mainstream game, Games Workshop still seem determined to Warhmmer-ise LOTR. This requires them to play down all the elements that make it distinct from Warhammer, a setting not designed for Wargaming, unbalanced narrative scenarios, a strong role for heroic characters and a game that could be played very comfortably at a number of scales.

Time will tell whether this move proves to be a success or not, but, personally, far from rekindling an interest in the game, all they have managed to do is put me off it.


Since writing the above, Games Workshop have released some more information about the new books on their blog.

I'm not very reassured by this. The scenarios are welcome, but the examples they cite are either generic or essentially re-prints. The new army list format also seems to add an unneeded layer of complication to what was a very simple system. It is now a requirement to include one hero for every 0-12 regular fighters. It isn't a major restriction, but it does feel unnecessary. Why add a restriction where none is needed?

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Presentation Problems

With so many more of my Infinity models painted I have been turning my attention the actual game. Despite having had the miniatures for over a year I have only managed one game so far, with My Little Brother, and we got a lot of the rules wrong. I have in mind to try a practice game against myself in order to get my head fully around the rules and so I have been re-reading the rule book.

Infinity: the Game has attracted considerable praise from some quarters and it certainly has a number of distinctive features that particularly suit it's small scale approach to future warfare. That said, it also has a significant flaw. It's not that the rules are poor, but they are extremely hard to follow.

This sort of criticism inevitably attaches to games that have been translated from their native language. The wargames industry being far enough from the mainstream that they have to communicate by email, it can't always afford the highest quality localisation. That said, in my experience, a translated rule book, though often featuring a few linguistic quirks, can, on occasion, be even better explained than rule books in their native language if only because of the need to be precise. Confrontation 3rd edition and Anima Tactics have both struck me as rule books that do an excellent job of presenting the rules in a clear fashion.

Despite their success with Confrontation, Rackham also managed to produce one of the worst written rule books I have ever seen, for their skirmish board game Hybrid. To give an example of how poor this book was each miniature in the game had a single 'Natural value' that was used to determine most of their actions. Although it was possible to make an educated guess, it took an errata in the games expansion to spell out where to find this number on the miniatures stat cards. For anyone with a copy who actually wants to play Hybrid I would recommend exploring Board Game Geek to find example of the rules re-written by fans into something passing for coherent.

However, Hybrid's faults are not a problem of translation but of presentation. The book simply fails to clearly spell out how they work, relying on players to fill in gaps the writers have neglected to explain. This is a problem for all rule books, not simply translated ones.

Turning our attention to rules written in English, not simply translated into it, I have written before about the tendency of modern Games Workshop to gloss over crucial rules questions that need answering in an attempt to shorten the text. In contrast, the DBA/DBM/HOTT school of thought relies on hyper-precise sentences that, while covering absolutely every possible circumstance, practically require a degree in Logic to unpick. For example:

An element in front combat with an enemy flank or rear edge, or aiding an attack on a stronghold, disregards the outcome listed below, but recoils if a friendly element in contact with the enemy's front recoils, flees or is destroyed or enscorcelled.
Infinity's problem is somewhat unusual. It is all about layout. A very strange problem as throughout the extensive background sections the various sections and sub sections are clearly labelled and divided. But when it comes to the rules, tiny text is seperated by less than explicit headings. One section blurs into the next and figuring out where to find the actual rule you are looking for is extremely difficult. When reading the rules through from start to finish this is not so much of a problem, though small text can cause eye strain and some sentences require a couple of read throughs to sink in. But when trying to find what you're looking for in the middle of a game you are lost, stuck in a rules Antarctica with no compass, no map and no frame of reference.

Warhammer 8th edition gives whole, clearly differentiated, chapters with massive page headings to the different phases of a turn. In contrast, the only think separating shooting from close combat in the Infinity rule book is a one line header in capitals, not even in bold. And this is one of the better labelled sections. Trying to find the rules for a specific key word listed by a model's profile is all but impossible (though when you find the right section it is at least ordered alphabetically) and made worse by the fact that certain common words, the difference between Impetuous and Non-Impetuous models, is somewhere else entirely. A somewhere else that doesn't appear to be in a section, orphaned and free floating by itself.

The above page spread is taken from the free PDF version available online, the colours are different and the book says "Rules" and not "Reglas", but the layout is the same. We have Damage as a heading and a sub-heading, though the heading is hardly clearly labelled. Bold is used for first emphasis and these lines often stand out better than the titles. Then we have the apparently random use of bullet points in the second column and the paragraph first line indentations that serve no useful purpose at all.

What this says to me is that a good, even great, rules set can be seriously harmed by being conveyed poorly. This can be because of bad writing, bad translation or simply poor presentation. Reading the Infinity rules end to end is not so bad, but as reference work to be used in the game it is hopeless. When trying to play you want to minimise time spent rummaging through rules and the worst possible outcome is not being able to find a rule at all.

In the case of Infinity is could have been fixed so easily. Use bigger and bolder headings, make better use of bold and bullet points, make text larger and clearer and include an index, if only for the rules section. The contents page is, at least, better laid out and does help, but only if what your looking for has its own heading.

I will persevere with Infinity, the rules, setting and models are too strong a draw, but Corvus Belli have done themselves no favours with the way they have presented them.

Sunday 15 January 2012

From my painting table

I have had two major painting projects on the go since just before Christmas, both of which will be revealed in due course. But for today I wanted to talk about Infinity.

Infinity's Anime/Manga aesthetic and hi-tech Sci-Fi look have appealed for some time. I have actually have two decent-sized forces, one for the Nomads and one for Yu Jing, but I haven't really know how to go about painting them and they have been sitting around neglected. In December of 2011, I finally figured out how to proceed and here are the results: 5/6 of the Japanese Sectorial Army starter box.

The aesthetics of Infinity is quite different from that of most other games I have played. Just about everything is armoured, but not in the huge bulky style of GW Space Marines. They are very intricate designs with a lot overlapping areas and narrow gaps between armour plates. My general painting style has been to paint each large area in a different colour, but that doesn't really work when there are no large areas.

I am used to painting areas of cloth, which need multiple levels of highlighting to pick out the changes in colour over raised and recessed areas. But here we have a lot of essentially flat, smooth areas sitting next to one another. Limited opportunity for highlighting, but I needed a way to pick out the differences in areas.

Still, painting a new style of model encouraged me to try some new techniques. I ended up limiting my highlights, and using a lot of ink washes. I have used them before, but sparingly, usually on faces or rusty armour. I have never been able to get them to work well, often making models look dirty or disappearing entirely after a few highlights.

Here, though, they worked perfectly, picking out the details on the armour and differentiating the different areas nicely.

My second painting experiment was to try Games Workshop foundation paints. I had decided on a yellow colour scheme for my Kempetai and Keisotsu Butai. I was inspired by a video game, see if you can guess which. I have always struggled to paint yellow before. It doesn't paint over black undercoats at all and, when used over white, often seems to come out very glossy and unreal. But the GW foundation worked perfectly over my black undercoat and I am very pleased with the results.

Thursday 12 January 2012

What can we learn from D&D?

So Wizards of the Coast have announced a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

Although not a wargame as such, Dungeons & Dragons is very much a descendant of the same tradition and it has influenced and been influenced by wargames. Plus there is considerable overlap in the audiences for wargaming and roleplaying (and of course in the early days Games Workshop was the UK distributor of D&D).

It's fair to say that 4th edition D&D divided its fan base (and slightly less fair to say that it actively sought to alienate them). It was a radical departure from its predecessors and many of its innovations were, supposedly, focused on the fans of PC MMORPGS. The goal was, apparently, to introduce a new audience to the game, though it also succeeded in driving much of the existing fan base away.

The announcement of the new edition has been seen many of 4th editions harshest critics as an admission of defeat. Certainly the statement "we want this to be a version of the game that embraces the entirety of D&D’s history" suggests a reaching out to those players of earlier editions put off by 4th. There seems to be a genuine desire to get back the players that 4th edition lost.

The interesting question, and the one relevant to wargaming, that this raises for me is who exactly Wizards of the Coast should be trying to attract with their new edition. Should a new edition focus on existing players or should they cast the net wide in attempt to grow their market?

I have seen some argue that WOTC should be trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience and even that they should be looking at the same players as Cluedo or Monopoly. This strikes me as ambitious to the point of foolhardy, but if roleplaying is in decline, what else can be done attempt to attract new players?

The problem for roleplaying is that there was once a time, during the very early years of D&D, when it was avowedly mainstream, particularly in the US. D&D was available in high street shops, appeared on television and lead to spin offs like the D&D cartoon and range of action figures. There is still a part of the fanbase, and probably within Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro as well, that hearkens back to that time and even feels that it could be achieved again if the game were only marketed correctly.

It's hard to know whether roleplaying really can be a mainstream pass time or whether it is a fad in slow but irrevocable decline. As a pass time it has only existed for thirty five years or so, the blink of an eye in historical terms.

Wargaming never had Roleplaying's main stream appeal, but has had a longer and more stable history. That said, much of the concerns of Wargame publishers mirror those of WOTC. Do they appeal to an existing fan base or risk trying to grow the industry? Chasing an established fan base may be more secure, but can lead to companies competing for ever smaller slices of what may be a shrinking pie.

In contrast, one of many criticisms levelled at Games Workshop has been that they chase new players and ignore, or are even hostile to, veterans. This is part of the reason why, in the UK at least, so many wargamers start with GW, but can bite them badly, as happened when Pokemon certainly took a huge chunk out of their market or when the Lord of the Rings bubble burst and  they suddenly found they had a much smaller fan base than they thought.

I don't have any answers to these questions, but I will be watching the development of fifth edition D&D with interest to see what lessons, if any, can be learned by the Wargaming industry.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

What do I get out of Wargaming?

I have been reading a lot of discussion of late about randomness in wargaming and in Warhammer 8th edition in particular. There is a school of thought that 8th edition has introduced so much randomness into the game that all, or most, tactical skill has been lost to the detriment of the gaming experience.

I was particularly intrigued by this blog post which suggests that the randomness may be a leveller attempting to eliminate the disparity between experienced and inexperienced gamers, thus making for a more rewarding experience for younger gamers.

A few days ago I finally got round to playing some Warhammer 8th edition with my little brother, who had taken the opportunity at Christmas to get his Ogre army up to speed. For my part, I had recently indulged myself by grabbing an Arachnarok and so was in a position to field 2500 points of Goblins against his Ogres.

There was certainly no shortage of randomness over the course of the game. There was the moment when my Night Goblin Great Shaman killed himself with a poisoned mushroom on the last turn, having previously suffered another wound due to dodgy mushrooms and one because of a miscast. Then there was the Ogre Iron Blaster misfiring and taking itself out of the game for two turns. Or the Ogre Slaughtermaster losing control of the great maw which subsequently ate two of his own Ogres. With nine fanatics in play randomness was certainly in evidence there, most spectacularly when a unit of nine Ogre Ironguts, including a Tyrant, charged through two fanatics, only to lose the subsequent combat because of the goblins superior rank bonus, unexpectedly break and flee through the same fanatics killing all of them except the Tyrant.

I'm not really sure how much tactical skill was really in evidence, be we had an absolute blast playing it. In fact it was a lot more fun than the game of Malifaux we played two days earlier. To be fair, we were both trying out new factions and MLB got the hang of his a lot faster than I did. The end result was pretty one-sided, but hats off to him, he won fair and square. To a large extent, this was a less enjoyable experience simply because we had to spend so much time checking the rules.

Another highly enjoyable Christmas diversion was the Lego game Heroica, probably the most random game of all. A simplified dungeon crawl experience, essentially a race to the end of a dungeon, were everything is determined with single dice rolls. Heroica has been floating around the wargaming blogosphere and has received much praise because of its simplicity and accessibility.

The point about all of this, is that the amount of enjoyment I get from a game is not proportionate to the amount of control I have.

I can certainly understand the complaints of more competitive and tournament focused gamers of Warhammer 8th edition, but it is isn't a perspective I can share. For me, I am getting something entirely different from the experience.

I came to Wargaming at about the same time as Roleplaying and while I could never properly interest my friends in Dungeons & Dragons, wargaming proved to be more popular. For me, much of the enjoyment now comes form army building, painting and the creation of some kind of narrative in my gaming.

My recent forays into Realms of Chaos taps into a similar idea. There is far more fun to be had creating champions and warbands and telling their story than in any kind of competitive engagement. Especially when the generation of warbands is so random and straight forward competition so, necessarily, unfair.

All of which serves to explain how I was able to extract such straight forward enjoyment from my post-Christmas Warhammer.  I am simply not a competitive person and wasn't in it for the tactical contest, it was more fun to line up my troops, direct them as best I could and watch the carnage unfold, regardless of outcome.

While Games Workshop's new spirit of randomness may be off-putting to many, and I can fully understand their complaints, for me it adds, rather than detracts, from the enjoyment.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Something of a Review of 2011

It has been quite a productive year for me in wargames terms. I got a few games played, a lot of miniatures painted and a a lot more blog posts written and even read. I haven't quite hit my once a week target for new blog posts, but I've been not far off and a lot more prolific than last year.

This time last year, I put forward some predictions about where wargaming was going in 2011. With the year at an end, it's time to investigate and see how many, if any, I got right:

First the Games Workshop specific predictions
  1. A rush new edition of Warhammer 40,000 or LOTR.  I had this wrong, but perhaps not by much judging by the rumours of a new Warhammer 40,000 edition to come next year. 
  2. Previews of the Hobbit miniatures. Not yet, but I put that down more to film production issues than a lack of willing on Games Workshop's part. We'll see them before too long.
  3. Jervis Johnson to leave Games Workshop. Just straight wrong here. Not that I am entirely sorry to be wrong. Jervis is a great games designer and it's good that GW still have someone of his talent.
  4. Warhammer Historical to be closed down. Also still here, for the moment at least.
So 0 out of 4 and no points for nearlies.

On to the more general hobby predictions.
  1. Pirates to be big in 2011. Well the new Pirates of the Carribean movie sank without trace and although Cutlass and Freebooters fate are still going strong I can't say it was a big year for Pirates. In my defence, I wasn't the only one to get that wrong. Games Workshop sank money and effort into Dreadfleet only for copies to be littering the shelves come Christmas.
  2. Loads more historical plastics. Maybe not loads, but Warlord, Wargames Factory and Victrix and still churning them out and Fire Forge Games have announced the Teutonic Knights.
  3. More generic plastics. Sadly none that I've noticed. Though Wargames Factory's, frankly less than impressive, range of Trenchcoat Sci-Fi infantry continues to grow.
  4. Osprey to announce at least one new set of Wargaming rules. Yes I had this one right. Tomorrow's War is out and Field of Glory Napoleonic is on the way.
So 2 out of 4, maybe 2 and a half if you're feeling generous. It seems I am slightly better at predicting general trends than the actions of Games Workshop, but mostly that I suck at predictions.

Given that, I have decided to only make predictions that are incredibly unlikely to come true so that, in the unlikely event that I turn out to be right, I will look like some kind of prophet and can found my own religion.

With that in mind here are my predictions for 2012:
  1. Games Workshop realise that constant price rises are failing to grow the hobby and cut all their prices in an attempt to stem the tide of their inevitable decline.
  2. A massive rise in the price of oil and an unexpected drop in the price of tin reverses the prices of metal and plastic models and makes all companies producing plastics look like idiots.
  3. Absolutely no-one produces a fantasy or sci-fi skirmish game for the whole of 2012.
  4. The candidates from the next series of the Apprentice are forced to choose wargame products and sell them at Salute 2012.
2012 has actually been quite an eventful year for wargaming. Games Workshop finally abandoned metal in favour of Resin, sorry Fine Cast, which divided the community, mostly because the roll out was a complete cock up. However, they weren't the first to see the high cost of metal as potentially fatal, Mantic and Black Scorpion have both made the switch to Resin.

The trend towards skirmish games continued and the subject matters diversified, giving us the renaissance era Carnevale and the Japanese inspired Bushido. With the size of this market, I start to wonder how many of these games will make it to 2013. At the same time, Gripping Beast and Tomahawk studios launched the highly characterful Saga Dark Age skirmish rules, suggesting that even the Historical community may be moving towards small scale games.

Games Workshop's pushed bigger and bigger monsters for Warhammer, culminating in Storm of Magic, a supplement that pushed big plastic beasties for everyone and which boasted a colour pallette inspired by a primary school art class. Their less than successful foray into naval wargaming has been mentioned above.


Mantic finally launched Warpath, a futuristic sci-fantasy wargame in no way similar to Warhammer 40,000. They expected a lot from fans, offering pre-orders before any models were even seen. The Forge Fathers, when they arrived looked okay, but the Marauders used the Fantasy Orcs sprues as a base and suffered criticism for looking unlike the concept sketches and featuring too few poses. That said, the early images of the Corporation models look stunning. At the same time, Dwarf Kings Hold proved to be a massive hit, showing that their is still a market for quick play self contained games.

Overall, a year of diversity and contradictions. The rise in metal prices pushed up the prices of models and forced the switch to new production models. All highly favourable for skirmish games. At the same time, the rise and rise of plastic continued unabated, and Mantic and Games Workshop continued to go their own way pushing for bigger and bigger games. If anything gamers are now spoiled for choice with more games and models than ever before, more easily available through the Internet then ever before, even if some companies really need to sort out the websites.

2012 promises to be a busy year for me. I still have a number of projects left over from 2011. This time last year I was only working three days a week, which at least gave me plenty of time to paint. Now I have more money and less time. That said, I have my hobby room the way I want it and have actually been getting on with things. All going well I should have a few new things to show off soon, more pictures, hopefully more battle reports and, once I get my act together, more posts on old White Dwarfs. So watch this space and Happy New Year.