Sunday, 22 January 2012

Sunday Sermon: Whose game is it any way?

Things do change, society moves on. So does the hobby.

A few months ago now I wrote a few articles about game balance, you can find them here if you are so inclined:

  1. Game Balance - Introduction
  2. Game Balance - Points Systems
  3. Game Balance - The Battlefield
  4. Game Balance - The Mission Objective
  5. Game Balance - Communication and Language

I suppose for me the most interesting thing about those articles is where they ultimately led me. No I don't mean up the garden path either, some of you can be really cheeky sometimes! In researching these articles I spoke to many hobbyists and industry types alike. I found though that they actually raised more questions than they answered. Always a sign of a good bit of research I believe. I'll hopefully get round to writing about them all at some point.

One of the most glaring questions though was one posed to me by Jake Thornton. A fairly simple question really, 'whose game is it any way?' This is something I've often asked myself in a roundabout way over my many years hobbying. But, never really tackled head on. It's not as easy, or as straight forward a question to answer as you might first think. Part of me wants to get all socialist on you and proclaim that it's our game 'brother', or 'sister', I'm fully equal opps here at Frontline Gamer HQ. That we the people own the games we play... but that's utter bollocks. And while I'm not adverse to talking complete and utter bollocks, even I have to draw the line somewhere. So whose game is it then? And why don't 'we the people' own them anymore? Well I think it's an interesting evolutionary process to talk about, and in my opinion much of the ailments afflicting the hobby stem from this power shift in game 'ownership' within the hobby if you will, and peoples varying relationships with it. And indeed the unsuitability of some of the 'owners' to take responsibility for their games.

What the hell am I talking about? Honestly, I rarely know myself! What is clear to me though is that there has been a mindset change within the hobby over many years. I myself can't fully appreciate the shift that has happened from the late 60's and 70's because I wasn't born. Although in 1979 the second coming of our lord and messiah was heralded, no I'm not talking about Maggie Thacther, NO, nor Gary Numan...  I was born! I'm a mere whipper snapper really, no snickering at the back! Even the early 80's will be hazy for me because I was a small child at the time. I was just learning the very basics about what it meant to be a 'geek'. But, what I do know from talking to my father is that the hobby I grew up in, was a different beast to the one he started out in. I also think it is totally fair to suggest that I too have witnessed a sea change in the hobbying environment. Mainly in the attitude of gamers firstly, and then the reaction of games companies to meet and fulfill the needs of these attitude changes. What I'm trying to say in a roundabout way is, we all got way more demanding, and dependent.

What gamers used to look like... apparently!

My father used to tell me about an innocent time in gaming. A time where Dungeons & Dragons gave you as gamers a chance to create your own worlds, your own stories. Liberating free form DIY gaming if you will. He also told me of wargames where there were no points costs... what?... wait, go back a bit! There were games with no points costs? Yes! I know weird concept right? Or is it? I'm going to offer up a bit of a defence here for the much maligned Jervis Johnson. You see my father was engaged in the hobby at the time when it was all small groups of friends who knew each other well. The idea was you'd know your opponents and would come to a gentleman's agreement about how you'd play both Dave and Bob. Dave being a better gamer than you meant you got a little bit extra on the board to make up for the skill deficit. Meanwhile Bob bless him was a hopeless, but lovable dimwit who had to be given a lot more stuff to balance out his ineptitude. I'm probably exaggerating a bit for journalistic purposes, but it certainly seems to me that things being 'balanced' wasn't really the aim. Obviously there were games with point systems, but I get the feeling from talking to those who were gaming at the time that these were seen as a 'rough guide' as opposed to 'gospel truth'.

I call this period 'The Age of Innocent Boundless Opportunity' or 'The Age of Old Guys Fumbling Around in the Dark'... oooh er missus! Game systems weren't rule sets to be obeyed but more tool kit's for creating the sort of experiences you and your friends wanted. Many early wargames were historical in nature, and therefore what wargamers were doing was trying to recreate famous historical engagements. They would do so with all the inequalities that were present in those actual historic engagements. This wasn't about balanced armies facing off against each other. No this was about trying to experience some of the tactical and strategic conundrums real life generals had actually faced at the time. So what happened if you discovered the rules for French Hussars or British artillery seemed massively over powered? You changed them yourselves. You came to an amicable agreement as to how you should proceed from that point forward, house rules were the norm. Jervis Johnson is from this generation of gentlemen gamers. A generation that were used to doing things for themselves. Gamers who weren't spoon feed solutions. I think Jervis Johnson wants us all to take back a bit of personal responsibility. Because that's how he see's the hobby, groups of people trying to get along and have fun.

I'm not necessarily saying Mr Johnson's position or attitude is the right one to have in today's environment. However, hopefully that will give some of you a little bit of context as to where he is coming from. Rather than just ripping him a new one, although for the Ogre's FAQ he deserves it. In some respects it was a simpler time. Yet in other ways it was a more intensive and complex time because you had to do much of the rules writing yourselves, for your little groups. The game was very much owned by those who played it, the companies providing miniatures and rules were pretty much enablers and catalysts rather than authoritative guides. So why did this start to change? I think firstly the hobby began to grow. You weren't just playing Dave and Bob any more. Nope you started going out to clubs and other places, or you wanted to. Hobbyists were meeting new people who had slightly different house rules. You also didn't know their level of competence. The fragmented nature of the hobby meant that ultimately it was hard to grow a community of gamers beyond a relatively small handful of people. It was fractured and disorganised on a global scale, even if it was potentially highly structured at a very local level.

I'm not trying to say it was all beer and pretzels... mainly because pretzels hadn't been invented!

So to be able to add Paul, Simon and Gary to your gaming circle you needed a firmer set of rules, and a better 'common gaming language' with which, to communicate your gaming activities on the table. Gamers had to give up a little bit of their own autonomy to those designing games. The aim being to achieve a more universal appeal that would allow us all to throw down with anyone we liked anywhere in the world. Depending on your own particular perspective this was either the beginning of a slippery slidey slope... or the welcome onset of modern wargaming practices. You see, if we are going to have a universal approach to the wargaming hobby, where in effect two complete strangers can meet and play a game. Without the need to enter into a contractual obligation, or at the very least extensive negotiations, we need a strong central gate keeper of the rules. We need a robustness that we can all have confidence in. In short we no longer need a tool kit that enables us to create our own experiences, we need a firm rule set that needs to be obeyed and strictly defines those experiences for us.

Ironic that those wanting to re-enact this had their own civil war
As a hobby gamers gave up a certain level of autonomy to those who created rules, in return for a more cohesive, unified and universal form of wargaming. This wasn't a democratic decisions. We didn't have a vote about it and there were those who did, and still do oppose this mindset shift. In the late 70's and right throughout the 80's we entered 'The Age of Hobbying Upheaval'. It wasn't a bloodless or victimless revolution. It claimed the likes of my father who liked toiling away creating rules and tweaking things. It reduced his gaming circle and divided them. Ultimately the 'old timers' or conservatives (with a little 'c' I might add) were ostracised and left out in the cold. Some companies went to the wall too. We suddenly got points systems that on the surface seemed robust. Solid core rules and FAQs and erratas that were 'official' and not dreamed up by you, Dave and or Bob. Or for that matter Simon, Paul and Gary either. No some omnipotent being somewhere decreed these things were so and theoretically ended any arguing over such matters from afar. We had an adjudicator that did all the hard work for us. All we had to do was stick to their plan and everything would be fine. Or that was the idea.

I have no idea why this picture is here... I just thought you could do with some light relief!

This period of arguing and strife, this 'Age of Hobbying Upheaval' took us into the early 90's, where we ultimately got the 'Rationalised Age of Gaming'. The champions of this approach were Games Workshop and to a slightly lesser extent FASA. I'm not going to sit on the fence anymore, mainly because it is uncomfortable. I like firm rule sets and I like knowing where I stand. I don't want any ambiguity or miscommunication. I like the idea of point systems that are ostensibly balanced and allow us as gamers to generate 'balanced' games, even if it is an abstract version of balance. So to me this age of gaming is the one that I personally associate with the most. It speaks to me as an analyser of systems. I'm also a social creature, despite being a geek. As such I like the idea that in theory I can take my miniatures with me to anywhere in the world, where any specific game is being played and play that game, hopefully without too much hassle. It might not be liberating in the sense of the actual gaming mechanics or experiences you can create, but it is massively liberating to know that if I ever upped sticks and emigrate to another country I won't necessarily have to start from scratch with my hobby again. Besides for many the idea of having to 'fix it' for themselves was quite a daunting one. I guess you could say globalisation came to wargaming... you know if you were all pretentious about it *ahem*.

Games designers started acting like A boss
Make no bones about it, it is this 'professional' and 'autocratic' approach to rules systems that has enabled the hobby to grow and to spread out across the globe in the way that it has. It's this approach that has served Games Workshop so incredibly well over the past two decades, allowing them to grow their Imperium (admit it you thought that link would take you somewhere else). They were the champions of strict rules and balanced games. Well sort of. It is though what gave rise to gaming systems that actually enabled the 'competitive' tournament scene to not only exist, but to also thrive and flourish in the way that it has done. Much of the framework and language that we gamers use nowadays stems from this approach, 'balanced', 'broken',  so forth and so on. Yet it is this very language, the language developed around the Games Workshop hobby that is now used to chastise them. Why? How is it that the company that gave rise to this autocratic and rationalised view of the hobby is now the whipping boy for many of the champions of this approach? What the hell is going on in our hobby right now?

Well it's seems somewhat bizarre, I think you'll all agree, but it feels very much to me at least that the hobby has gown to such an extent that actually what we're getting back round too is requiring those tool kits again. The very largest rule sets out there, lets give them their proper names, Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40k, are now played by such a divergent group of people that I'd humbly suggest that Games Workshop are almost between a rock and a hard place. Almost! How in Gods name are they meant to keep us all happy? Once more it seems the hobby is lurching towards the idea of tool kits for enabling people to create the experiences they want. I'm sure that's got some of you frothing at the mouth, but I can explain myself. So please hear me out before you send out the lynch mob, or pull up your angry chair. I used the word 'seems', because I'm not 100% sure it's happening in quite that way. It feels forced to me, almost like the autocrats at Lenton Lane and other places have had enough of being in charge and trying to keep us all happy. It's a thankless task, and they are trying to foist responsibility back on the gamers. Rather than the vast swathe of gamers wanting the responsibility back.

It's what they'd like us to believe is happening - Original

This position is partly of Games Workshops own making, and partly a function of the larger community they now find themselves having to service. Arguably the first issue they have is the length their games have existed for. Both Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40k have their early beginnings in 'The Age of Hobbying Upheaval', over twenty years ago now. They gave birth to the 'Rationalised Age of Gaming', they've kept a kind of continuity going throughout this period. A golden thread if you will. The primary driver being to ease people during the transition from one edition to another. But, it also serves to welcome to the fold those who left the hobby once before, and to enable their reintegration without too much effort. Alongside this consistency or stagnation, depending on your viewpoint, has come Games Workshops desire to grow the size of the armies required to play their games. Or to be more precise, to increase the amount of miniatures you need to buy to play their games. Their antiquated systems were not originally designed for the size of conflicts they now hope to see on the tabletop. This mismatch or dissonance between the traditional game system at the core of their product, and the commercial realities of needing us all to buy more miniatures is what has caused them more grief than anything else.

The other extraneous variable that they've thrown into their own toxic cocktail isn't necessarily one of their own making. In fact I'd argue it's almost certain that we gamers are partly to blame for it, and that's choice. Yep rampant consumerism is the irresistible force that drives most things in our society it seems. It's not just the age of the core mechanics at play, or the growth in size of standard games. It's also the choice we now have within these games. We all want more unit types, more army types, we want more and more choice. Don't say it's not true, look at the complaints levelled at newer game systems like Kings of War or more recently in these parts Bushido. People often say 'well there aren't enough factions' or 'there's not enough choice in those factions'. I lived through the gimme, gimme, gimme period of Games Workshop hobby in the mid 90's. Trust me us gamers wanted more and more options, and they gave them to us. We were given more army choices AND more options within those armies. It grew to silly proportions, and in some cases things like Forest Goblins eventually got culled. Why is this choice a problem? Well because it leads to massive headaches for those trying to 'balance' game systems. In short there can be too many variables to keep check of for the autocrats. Fundamentally they've created a problem for themselves and there are two solutions open to them as a company:

  • Option 1 is to bite the bullet and just accept that their game systems are no longer suitable for what they are wanting them to depict on the gaming board. They need to scrap much of what they have done over the years and start again from the ground up. A total rebuilding of their games to service the hobby, and product they wish to sell.
  • Option 2 is the the far easier option for them at face value. As it pretty much requires no work. Put quite simply it is handing responsibility for the rules back to us, the gamers. Let us define what is right and what is wrong. Allow us to determine the experiences we want. All they need to do is convince us all it's what we want.

I suppose it's unfair of me to say option 2 is all a one way relationship though. Let's be brutally honest about it, many Tournament organisers have in effect yanked some of that power back from the likes of Games Workshop, and indeed Privateer Press and Wyrd Miniatures. How? Via that often discussed topic, comp. Comp at tournaments or house rules, whatever you want to call them are a tug of war. Its gamers trying to take some power ownership back from the games producers, because as a collective they don't like something. You could argue they're doing this because of inherent problems in these systems, but their solutions aren't universal. Meanwhile others yet see no problem at all.

Full game add on, or 'hobby guide'? You decide...

But does it work? Can it work? In my humble opinion I don't think so. The industry has established a way of doing things and it has now become so ingrained that actually it seems jarring that Games Workshop are trying to retract a little bit and devolve (or abdicate) some of their power back down to the hands of us gamers. You can see this attitude in the articles in White Dwarf written by Jervis Johnson amongst others, and in product releases such as Storm of Magic and Blood in the Badlands. I feel given this 'context' these products don't seem so bad, it's just not what a generation or two, or maybe even three are used to. I'm also not a massive fan of the idea of 'comping' a game at a tournament, why? Because it brakes down that universality of a system and gives us a horrible mix of both systems, one that's restrictive and yet annoyingly poorly defined, ambiguous and ultimately divisive to the wider community. Why play a game at a tournament if the game you are playing is a doctored version of it? Ultimately you aren't playing that game.

It's not just Games Workshop either, to be clear that are almost abdicating their responsibility and 'empowering' gamers either. I have recently started to take a look at the historic range of games produced by Warlord Games. In particular Black Powder and the idea of maybe looking at doing some Napoleonic wargaming. The real kicker that some of you might not be aware of is that the game doesn't have points costs for any unit type. Yep my dad would be proud of me! It's an interesting concept and actually one I might not be so unfamiliar with. I was reminded while writing this article that I actually never used to play games early on with 'points'. I just used to put stuff on the table and rock and rolled with what seemed right to us. I can actually remember the first time somebody asked me what 'points' I wanted to play and thinking what the hell are they on about. So perhaps things were better when I was younger and more innocent. I happen to quite like the idea of more co-operative type of wargaming amongst my closest gaming buddies, but not in the broader sense of the community.

I must be getting old, as this looks like fun now!

So why am I OK with Warlord Games being designed in a way that hands total control back to us gamers in effect, yet I'm unhappy with Games Workshops approach? Is it because I'm a hypocrite? Well it's a distinct possibility, and I certainly wouldn't rule it out. But, in this case I'm not so sure I'm being hypocritical. Warlord Games Black Powder was designed from the ground up to be this way, as I said in the first line. It's in the games very DNA. You know what you are getting when you buy into the game and if you don't like it, look elsewhere. That isn't the case with Games Workshops core games. This devolution of gamer responsibility is not what we all signed up for is it? It feels like a cop out to me. A capitulation and an admission of defeat that the company can no longer properly control and govern the games they've created. It's like they've accepted things are in a bad way and can't be bothered anymore and want us all to sort it out for ourselves. It feels half baked, we have a points system they say is 'balanced' yet tell us to sort it out ourselves because it's 'your hobby'? Crock of crap I say!

I thought you might need more light relief... and I REALLY like Tron. Honest!

For a historical games, it almost seems fitting in a way that control is handed back to gamers, because the emphasis isn't on fairness or balance, but accurate representation of historical conflicts, which were never perfectly balanced. If they were perfectly balanced they'd still be going on... or we'd have all destroyed ourselves long ago. This sort of gaming is about the experience and reproduction of history rather than poised competitive play. I'd never thought about it, but it's possibly one of the reasons I find Flames of War such a difficult game, conceptually, to wrap my head around at times. The Nazi's shouldn't have a cat in hells chance in the later stages of the war, because the Allies won. Primarily due to America's industrial might as well as lots and lots of exceedingly brave individuals. I'd never thought about it, but the idea of playing the D-Day landings with 'balanced' forces seems strange to me. They were clearly not balanced. So is the points system the right way to go for Flames of War? Many gamers would say yes. Besides, the inclusion of a balanced points system doesn't stop my friends and I recreating conflicts in WWIII with all their inequalities does it? It also shouldn't stop tweaking in other game systems either.

The games companies that I actually like right now don't get off lightly either. Anyone who struggled with HoMachine during its MkI period will undoubtedly still suffer from post traumatic stress. Although it has got a hell of a lot better with MkII. There's no question that optimal lists and more 'valid' choices exist within their game systems though, but it is less jarring. Points don't always seem right either, but on the whole the game is in a far better place right now. Nope it's Wyrd Miniatures that are the current holder of the title 'Most Bloated Rule System in Existence'. As fun as Mofaux can be at times, and luckily for Wyrd, it is still fun, it has almost turned itself into the pin up for gentlemen gamers. You have to sit down and agree which sick tactics and units your opponent and yourself aren't going to take. Then all that's left is to decide the version of the rules you're going to use. To be honest I'm starting to wander why the hell I just don't write my own rules for Mofaux, it'd certainly be easier and more expedient in the long run. Why some people are still intent on thinking it is a suitable game system for tournaments is honestly beyond me. But with the right crowd and a bit of negotiation it can be great fun still.

Hofstadter - If you see this man scream at him
I haven't even mentioned the 'meta' yet. Oh bugger I just did. We can all thank Douglas Hofstadter for popularising this concept. Not just for wargames but bloody everything, quite literally. I normally don't like taking about the 'meta' or 'meta's' (yuck) if you prefer. Mainly because I think that most people that do, actually tend to sound either up their own arse, or so far out of their depth that they're drowning. Simply put the meta is the idea that there is a game within a game, or perhaps more accurately a game about the game at a higher level. Now I'm starting to sound like an arse, It's the idea that the game itself somehow has a life off of the table. That there is an arms race of sorts away from the table that gives rise to optimum lists or strategies or a singular truth. A reduction of all the experiences that we have disparately into a cohesive whole. Possibly that different locations have different 'meta's' (double yuck) that flavour, or give rise to a... oh screw it, it's an utterly toss subject that quite frankly bores me. It belongs in poor art's and humanities dissertations. But what it does throw at games designers is the idea that their games do actually have to deal with all of those playing it, and their individual foibles. Nightmare right? Plus it's highly unlikely any game system could ever properly address all potential variables in a totally even handed many. At some point guys and gals we have to take responsibility for our own actions on and off the tabletop and can't keep blaming the game, or its designers can we?

So do I have any solutions, conclusions or sage words of wisdom to impart after what has been an intolerably long ramble? Do I know whose game it is? No, I'm not some kind of genius! I'm sorry but I have no clear answers. I'm not too sure there is one single answer though, there is very little in life that is so easily answered as being one thing or another. I guess the simplest answer would be that it's horses for courses. That each approach can be utterly inappropriate, and totally appropriate as well depending on the circumstances, and we shouldn't any of us be overly prescriptive about it. What I will say though is that if your game system includes some form of points system, then that is there as a guideline for balance within it. To put it bluntly it should do its job. When these points systems are then found to be weak or fundamentally flawed, it is not answer enough to say 'well it is your game'. That is just a fob off, or get out of jail free card. You can't slice it both ways, and that is what some games producers are currently doing. It isn't just Games Workshop either, I can point fingers at Wyrd miniatures with Mofaux, Privateer Press with HoMachine and Battlefront miniatures with Flames of War. I can even look disapprovingly at Corvus Belli with Infinity, and that games paucity of official missions. But whereas Games Workshop have given up, it seems to this observer, on balancing their games, the others are still committed to the cause.

So ultimately are we starting to see the emergence of another paradigm shift within the hobby? After all it's quite common for these sorts of trends and phases to be cyclical. It's certainly an option I'm not willing to discount. Then there is the other possibility I've been contemplating of late, and that is that we might be starting to witness a schism in the hobby. That maybe the hobby has matured to the point where it can now not only support multiple gaming companies and their systems. But, also multiple different paradigms and approaches to governing them. Or it could all be nothing at all. People like me who are very heavily invested in the hobby could just be seeing trends where there are none. Still won't stop me looking for them though. Why? Because it's what those of us who are overly involved in the hobby, with an excessively active brain and far too much time on our hands actually do. It's an affliction really, you should all pity me, because sadly this is but one question my delving into the 'state of the hobby' has produced. Honestly there are just loads more, and I will be covering them hopefully before I die. No doubt I'll reach absolutely no conclusions with those questions and articles too, like I have with this topic. God I'm frustrating at times.

OK, one last piece of 'light relief' as this was long!

The biggest shock for me though in this long and rambling monologue is that in it I've hardly touched on the most important thing. The individual. I've been drawing together some pretty heavy topics to dump onto this blog over the next few months. In doing so I have often had cause to speak to others about their hobby experiences. Gamers with a larger and broader experience than my own vast experience. Games designers from all ages, levels and experience within the industry. I've read countless articles by fellow bloggers or even some academic papers in my pursuit of knowledge. Many of those involved or responsible for this output, and input I would call my friends, and some my mortal enemies... on the tabletop of course. They all have one thing in common though, they vary rarely if at all talk about the individual as a component of either design or the game. The biggest variable, the most important factor, YOU, is rarely discussed or considered. Call me a psychologist if you want, but I find that a particularly odd state of affairs. Fundamentally all that matters in any given single game is that you and your opponent know the score, and are working together to ensure you both have an engaging and hopefully fun experience. When it comes down to it we need to stand up for the hobby we want and be counted. Ultimately that is up to us as individuals, but games producers can give us a helping hand. Peace out!


  1. Lexington and I have had a similar conversation to this, a few times... did I ever write one down? I did, I did!

    That idea of taking ownership of your gaming experience is (I think) central to the RPG and yes, to the old-school wargame - seen from that perspective, Jervo does indeed start to make more sense (although his authorship of 40K's most restrictive current Codex, and the production of its blandest under his oversight, less so). I have to admit that I've tried WFB 8 with a 'just slap our collections down on the board and trust to luck' mentality and you know what? Still pretty fun.

    I also agree with you that part of the appeal of GW games is that playability. I've moved house rather a lot in the last five years and it is nice to see a Games Workshop sign and go 'aha, I know what'll be going on here'. You don't get that when the hobby is a bunch of blokes in sheds, playing by gentleman's agreement. As much as I like it when games end up that way, the standardised start point is kind of useful.

    1. Yep, and if that's what you want then its fine. The question becomes far more tricky if you don't want that though doesn't it? The point I made about FoW as a system I think could be applicable to all games. The approach should be to aim for balance on the part of the games designer, cut out any ambiguity. Then if you and your group want to start treating it as a tool kit to tinker with that's up to you. It's your choice and your game. I think this horrid mess GW's games seem to be in is because they've given up on the whole balance thing and are now just falling back on the tired old marketing phrase "it's your hobby"... why yes indeed it is my hobby! And I'll be playing something else thank you very much! lol.

      On a slightly unrelated note you bounder I've just noticed you don't follow my blog! You Kerr! After all the shout outs I've given you as well. :P

    2. I haven't clicked a 'follow' button in bloody ages, not since I started using RSS feeds. However if it'll shut you up I'll do it when I've finished making excuses. :p

      And yes, taking ownership of your experience doesn't excuse companies from putting out something solid in their own right. Games where you have to do half the designers' work for them = not very good. I don't think either of the GW games are that bad - most of the fanhammering that goes on with comp systems and rules packs and the like is more borne out of personal dislike for how the current systems are than it is out of any integral failing on the part of those systems. Most of the WFB variants appear to be crude attempts to get seventh edition back because someone didn't want to roll with the punches but didn't want to nail their colours to the mast and say 'fuck it I'm still playing seventh edition' like the Oldhammer guys have with third.

    3. I'm not so sure that's what's happening with comp in 8th. I think what we're seeing is the same sorts of comps that we saw in 7th. Because the things that were sick in 7th are still sick in 8th. I've yet to see the comp that said lets remove steadfast and random charges. Although I've seen plenty that try to limit magic. Although when they do take away mind razor or mages like Teclis and a few magic items it then makes certain armies like High Elves even worse. Reality is the system is utterly fecked! The problems exist between army books and although 8th has in effect exacerbated many of those disparities it's not actually the sort of game you can tinker with to bring the balance back. Sad truth is, with the current state of affairs in Fantasy that balance has gone for good unless they do a Ravening Hordes type expansion and set the armies to zero again. Not too sure how gamers would feel about that though having just brought shiny new books.

    4. PS thanks for joining the party. Ultimately you won't regret it because being a member will pay off soon if all things go to plan...

    5. I'm seeing a lot of messing about with magic, line of sight and unit size caps (that last an endeavour to prevent Steadfast from triggering and thus keep the same aesthetics, though unit sizes, and mechanics, through units 'ever running away', as seventh).

      I think there's an issue with imbalance between the books and I think there's a separate issue with differences between seventh and eighth editions. Linked, but not entirely mutually inclusive. And you're right, most of the comp systems are trying to do the same things to books - they're just adding a tighter grip on some of the least popular mechanics.

    6. To be fair Von, limiting unit size was something that happened quite a bit during 7th. All steadfast has done is convince others of the need to limit unit size of more things. Yep I'm seeing comps for magic, but if you mess with that then you need to mess with something else. The mesh up between the core 8th ed rules and army books actually means that although certain armies are at a disadvantage as a whole, you can still make them work with magic. Tweak that and suddenly you have to say certain armies can't take certain things like steam tanks because other armies can't actually hurt them. It's like a house of cards built on shifting sands. The further down the rabbit hole comp'ers go the less likely they are to find that balance and Nirvana in my opinion. Me? I'd just point certain things correctly, Dark Elves are way too cheap... everything is way too cheap. Skaven Slaves should not have steadfast, because they're F'ing slaves!!! lol. I don't have a problem with how any unit in the game works at all. The points costs however? Yep that I take massive issue with. Did do throughout 7th and have continued too throughout 8th. I look at profiles and points sometimes and ask, how did they think that was right?

  2. I remember reading an article in White Dwarf some time ago by Jeremey Vetock, who plays games with his mate Dave, I can't remember his second name. He was on about a campain that the two of them had going on, and rather than worry too much about 'points,' they planned out their armies to what they reckoned was balanced. They said what a refreshing experience that was, which I guess after years of gaming it probably is. However they are both old enough to remember the time you describe where this was pretty much normal; I couldn't conceive the possibility of playing a game with no restrictions on what you can and can't take.

    Bearing in mind that I've only ever played the Games Workshop games, the idea of saying to someone 'take whatever you like and ****holes to the points' is terrifying. I couldn't count on a great many people not to bully me with dirty cheesey armies if they know the game, and complete beginners would tend to take everything anyway whether they wanted to or not. But I tend to play in a shop environment, and while I do know most of the regular gamers in person and get on with them, I wouldn't consider them friends in the usual sense of the word. As most of them are quite young this is partly out of necessity as much as anything else; I work as a guitar teacher and having the contact details of somebody under the age of 18 is just asking for trouble. But I've really only got one close friend who plays wargames... and he'd never dream of playing a game of 40K without writing an army list.

    When I was running games in the shop, the best ones would be the ones where we went outside the rules in the book; mission objectives went out the window and the battle took on a storyline of its own. The apocalypes battles, where the Imperium denied the Orks their cover by spending a turn destroying the ruins of the city they were supposed to be defending. The desperate defence of a Lizardmen Temple that resulted in an alliance between Empire, Dwarves and... Ogres? My own personal favourite was when we managed to get 8 different people in 4 playing the same game on a 6x4 board, with an overarching battle aim, but also with individual objectives that encouraged plotting, schemeing and betrayal, only to find that none of it mattered anyway because while the 3 sentient teams were squabbling, the team that had the Tyranids swarmed across the board and wiped everybody out, as it their nature.

    I guess - and I really don't want to bring things like FAAC into this, but - the best games for me are the ones that tell the story. Gamers like me need the rules as they are to get a unified set of standards we're all going to understand and follow. What we do with the points system and even the rules after that is up to us. The best game of 40K I ever played 1 on 1 was my Chaos Space Marines against this other lad's Space Marine army. We followed the rules when it was convenient, which most of the time it was. But even though I had him on the back foot for most of the game, the guy was still making a fight out of it, a desperate struggle to keep hold of his bastion at any cost. If that wasn't representative of how a game of 40K is supposed to be, I don't know what is.

    So if I was going to conclude anything from all of this it would be: Don't be afraid to bend the rules, write your own, or sometimes ignore them completely, if that would be conducive to you having a good game.

    1. Matt I really wouldn't disagree with any of that. In fact I'd go as far to say I agree with it all. I've had some of my best and most challenging games when there's been a mission to play of some special rules we've dreamed up. Not just with GW product either. But having a balanced core set of rules doesn't preclude you from doing this does it? So saying our rules aren't balanced because you're supposed to play it this way, ironically is more autocratic and perhaps somebody ought to point that out to the likes of Mr Johnson at GW.

  3. Well, now...

    Hobby is what you make of it, ultimately, I believe.
    However, I also believe that any system needs firm ground to build upon, and that means beginning with a good ruleset.

    Otherwise, we might as well invent our own games altogether, like when we were kids in a sandbox.

    Mini games are not a 'labor of love' anymore, they're a business.
    Big business, in fact.
    Profit is what will inform decisions surrounding our games now, for the most part. This includes the rules.
    It is what it is.

    1. PS- curse you and yer links, sir.
      I saw Alice in Chains and Jane's Addiction back in the day, and thanks to you I'll hafta listen to them all day now.

      My fighting trousers are at the cleaners.

      You are totally forgiven though, due to the Scarlett pic.
      Hubba hubba.

    2. Man I love Alice in Chains, and Jane's Addiction too. Grew up listening too them. Made me want to play guitar instead on poncy piano!!! Love the Pumpkins too. And Tool, and Pitchshifter and... oh you get the idea. Beau Garret and Scarlett were for you buddy while drinking your coffee.

    3. See Tool live before you die if you haven't.
      Really good band live.

      I'm getting ready to watch 8 Legged Freaks and paint some stuffs, cuz I wanted to see something, uh...Scarlett-y.
      Iron Man 2 was awful, but that'll prolly be next.

      ...I swear yer like, the worst influence ever.
      You post one more of those 'Games I'm interested in' posts and yer off the friends list, buddeh.

    4. Ah, the delightful Miss Johansson! Wait, whenever you put a pretty girl in these posts I lose my train of thought, blast you! Erm, yes, I remember as a wee child I'd always just throw all the things I had onto a table. It was a shock the first time I tried to play Warhammer in a GW store and found out there was some sort of restriction on the number of wizards I could take. Shocking! :-D Getting older I have always found that the best games I've had have been with friends I completely trust, as they tend to produce the most memorable (and often comic) events. The Shako game that saw the French cavalry dash itself to pieces on the flank, the 40K game when I was recovering from the night before and managed to make 1.750pts of IG fit into a 1,500pt list (man, I still haven't lived that down nine years later!), and the games of Apocalypse where we just decided to abandon the idea of infantry, and had IG superheavies and one-offs attempting to blast a collection of Tyranid monstrous beasties - these all stick in my mind. The last was exceptionally good, as we cheerily decided to use a Vulcan Megabolter I'd stuck on a Chimaera chassis, which managed to hit absolutely nothing with its fifteen shots at BS3. We fell about laughing, then next turn a Carnifex made like a can-opener with the thingy! I have always been a bit of a rebel when it comes to GW rules, though - ever-suspicious of the very concept of points values precisely because it seemed so ahistorical. happily, I have long since made the transition from grousing about it to guffawing!

    5. @SinSynn I've seen all the bands I did links to multiple time live. Tool were amazing. Alice blew me away first, second, third and a year ago a fourth time with the new line up. Bloody amazing. Pitchshifter were amazing live. Pumpkins all 3 time I saw them were brilliant, although the Machina tour disappointed me a bit because I saw them in a big stadium whereas before it was smaller more intimate venues. Janes it depends on whether Perry's in the mood but they blew me away of the strays tour, unbelievably good that night.

      @Pete, hands off Miss Johansson, we have an understanding. I think sometimes people forget games are meant to be fun. That doesn't mean if a game is unbalanced and you don't find that fun it's your fault... nope. What I'm saying is, if you don't like it because the balance is all out of whack then try something else, or hell write your own rules. I've done that myself a few years back.

  4. Man, I am really diggin' these sunday posts. Thought provoking, they are! Parts of this post flipped two switches for me. Here's to hoping this comment doesn't end up as long as the post! It's two issues of bleed through from other areas that i think contribute to some of the problems you've mentioned:

    1) M:tG and the meta game issue. The idea of a metagame is an extremely important one for competitive M:tG players. But it makes sense there - there's an ACTUAL professional group of players playing for real money with a card pool that ranges from a few hundred to over 10,000 cards depending on format. There's a ton of information to parse and a ton of money on the line. M:tG is a lot like chess in that way - a large worldwide game, actual reward for performing and a dedicated player base - many of whom can live of their winnings if all goes well.

    Then we have wargaming... which is fun, but is missing all of the key components to support a true metagame. With the added bonus that responding to the metagame is a time consuming endeavor. Unfortunately, a large number of wargamers have decided that the concept of a metagame is a great way to lend creditably to their own tournament scenes and have started to clumsily apply it to whatever they play without a real understanding of what their on about. or maybe they just want to sound like smart people. So long story short, I hate it too, but we know where it's coming from.

    2) I'd be willing to be that the current culture of hard rules, the ideas of balance and brokenness and even the demand for quick FAQ fixes is another borrowed concept for wargamers. This time from the video game industry. I was reading your post and I got to the bit on the culture shift in the 90's and a light bulb went off. That's when the multiplayer video games started taking off on the PC. Specifically, Doom and it's deathmatch and the early RTS titles.

    1. Meta makes my head hurt. Not because it's a difficult concept, but because it's over used and rarely used correctly. I think you might be right about MtG being the catalyst for it's use in wargaming. Ultimately though the idea of a Meta as proposed by Hofstadter does my freaking nut in. How he won awards for that book I'll never know. Perhaps it was just the right amount of pretentious twaddle, pseudo intellectualism and clever observation to make people think it was earth shatteringly good. If an academic makes the best sellers list its because they're saying nothing important in an interesting way. Grrrr, that book made my eye want to melt.

      I'd wandered too about the impact of computer games but less so with patches etc. More to do with the instant hit and strict rules that govern play. They're highly organised worlds and are very 'contained' experiences. Your tools for interaction are limited and indeed how you interact. But they do provide a solid return in terms of experience. This highly structured nature does mean that you know what you're getting with a game too. Ultimately though it was a few companies desire to make a global product and sell to a global market. That is what will continue to drive this model I think. Interesting points though.

  5. Very interesting article, Frontline. And something that's weighed heavily on my mind often, as I'm often criticized for coming off like I own a game (when I'm just a fan). I think what you're seeing is that as the hobby as a whole has expanded it has brought more and more creatives back into the fold. Especially people with a critical eye and a passion for whatever game they have chosen; people who advocate for a game while understanding its flaws. Add the Internet - a platform for their (my?) eccentricity and you see at least some waves back towards the creativity you talk about. But there's not much uptake for custom rules anymore - most people want just the stock rules. There's a network effect with standard rules like that - the more people that play a standard ruleset, the less they are willing to entertain deviations from that. That's been my experience, at least.

    As for meta in a game; I think it depends on the game. But I commonly use that phrase to refer to the mixture of armies in a local area - Heavy Gear is sensitive to the disposition of armies and terrain. So what works for one group won't work for some other group - each group's 'metagame' is important to talk about, to establish a baseline for discussion. But I do agree it's heavily overused.

    1. Cheers IceRaptor, I'm sure it's something that has weighed heavily on many peoples minds. I think as gamers we own what's on the table in front of us at that moment. The rules though invariably belong either to the wider community, or more specifically the company that produced them. That's fine though as long as there is a dialogue between rules producers and gamers. Also I think if a some group of gamers in isolation say we want to do X with the rules then they still can. Chuck it out to the wider community after the kinks have been ironed out and you might have produced something others might like.

      As for your use of the Metagame, that is at least how I'd see it. Infinity if similar. I often scratch my head when people say certain things in Infinity are broken and then you ask, "what sort of scenery do you play on?" and they show you a picture and it suddenly becomes abundantly clear as to why they're having issues and when you explain it they go "Oh so having one really tall building in the middle of the board is dumb?" I'd also guess if people didn't take certain things in their lists, hackers being a prime example, some things might seem difficult to deal with. The first person in a group to then take a serious hacker in Infinity seems like a genius. lol. Cheers for your thoughts, they're always interesting.

  6. All I have to say is... Its Algebra, not Calculus, and if you go dividing things by 0, (a-b)=(a-a)=0, then of course you get a silly answer.


    As far as wargaming goes, I still don't understand why GW can't write a set of properly indexed and referenced rules, which use properly defined terms. Its no more effort to write things out that way, and it provides a much easier set of rules to follow/expand on. Seriously GW, WotC have been doing this for years! Wake up!

    1. I was wandering if somebody would spot that. ;)

      The original image which didn't display at all well was an impossible equation. I don't think GW care to be honest with you. Seriously when was the last time you saw anyone from GW HQ act passionately or looked like they care? Honestly it hasn't been for a while. Around the time of 6th edition WFB there were lots of people I'd have described as passionate working there. But now they all just seem very... beige and bland. They seem to just churn crap out and know full well that there are plenty of people willing to purchase it!!!

  7. Hey that was really interesting. I'm always late to the party lately though :(

    You probably already know what I think about "the metagame" (it's nonsense), balance by points (seriously overrated), and comp (totally fine with it). But I think your question about the individual is pretty intriguing. Maybe the reason we don't discuss it much is because wargaming is not about individuals? There is not one of the games you discussed above that can be played alone. Every game, of the sort we are concerned with here, begins with an agreement between at least two parties, of a specific form: We will play a game according to x rules.

    Agreement between individuals is a pre-requisite of wargaming, so it's not surprising that the biggest problem facing players is the same one that faces any two negotiators, i.e. how do we both get what we want. And the biggest problem faced by designers is that faced by every producer in the free market - how do I please the most people?

    1. Better late than never James. lol.

      Honestly I do think it's important to put the emphasis on the individual in all design. I guess I would though as a psychologist by training. To be honest though it went further than just individuals, hardly anyone spoke of 'gamers'. Or people actually playing the games. It was like people were talking about the game as if it ran itself without our input. Very bizarre. Obviously for most games you need at least two to tango, be they board, RPG or Wargames. Just felt that maybe it was an interesting observation. Not sure what it means though, or if it means anything of any importance. I'm not sure designers in the free market all think about pleasing the most people either. It's more how do we please enough people to make this stack up? I.e. at what price does what we're doing become viable as a business and will the market take it?

  8. I've been playing 40k since late 3rd edition and have enjoyed 5th the most. I have not dabbled in any other games because of limited disposable income and not wanting to clutter my mind with multiple rule-sets. That said, upon reading through the "leaked 6th" pdf it has jolted me. I ask myself why I'm still playing 5th. I have always liked rules mechanics and the thinking and planning that has to go on behind it all; finding the balance between Play-ability and Realism.

    Realizing that as I continue to have a limited group of people I play with, and not going to tournaments, that what's to stop me from tinkering with my own homebrew changes to 5th edition or writing my own rules to use my multiple armies.

    Another recent disruption to my gaming life has been being introduced to Force on Force by Osprey. Very simple and elegant game mechanics there. Quite the change from d6 for the whole game.

    1. Jon there's absolutely nothing to stop you tinkering with the rule as you and your friends see fit. I have done similar things in the past. re-written key rules, or just bloody ignored them because they were stupid. Haven't play force on force but I have only heard very good things about it from those who have. I might try and get a look at them. Cheers for commenting.