|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:
- Game Balance - Introduction
- Game Balance - Points Systems
- Game Balance - The Battlefield
- Game Balance - The Mission Objective
- 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.
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|
|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|
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.
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|
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!