I believe you should value a game for what it is—not what you want it to be. Put differently, it is unfair to complain about how little variety there is in tick tack toe VS. Chess because they are fundamentally different games that happen to share a board design. There is value in the comparison from an analytical point of view but not from the standpoint of personal preference. I mention this because I am going to compare warmachine to several board games in the following article. That comparison is not meant to say that one game is better than another—just that different systems have different strengths and weaknesses. My opinions are just that—the preferences I have gained through 20 years pushing around tiny combatants.
Warmachine is what I call a tactical game. Tactical games are micro systems in which each element (trooper, jack, caster…etc.) has multiple ways to affect the board state. The order of activation, the particular action chosen, and your opponent’s response create complex decision matrices. In contrast, 40k is a strategic game. The focus is less on the individual model and more on the macro impact of the entire force. Many strategic games are decided at deployment—who has the weight of momentum and the benefit of terrain. Model actions are batched into single large rolls for unit shooting, magic, and hand-to-hand. Dice tend to be rolled by the handful. I love strategic games for the sheer scale of the combat. Over here a tank takes out a unit from across the board. Over there a unit of monsters overruns a strongpoint. The narrative is as compelling as the competition. I love tactical games because the “skirmish” rubric lends the experience an intimate atmosphere. When you roll for twenty models at a time there is a distancing affect. When each roll signifies one model’s survival I am personally vested in every outcome. The competition feels more skill-based than many larger games.
By that definition, MKIII warmachine is one of the best tactical rule sets in distribution. The power up mechanic makes it possible to utilize jacks without resource starving casters. Losing the psychology rules cut a rarely used and inconvenient element. Removing skill tests simplifies activations while making models more reliable. Game-wide premeasurement eliminates a huge level of uncertainty. Small changes like the use of “control range” underpin the rules with an easily intuited lexicon. Even the recent change limiting power attacks to target enemy models was a step up. These simplifications make game play considerably more vibrant.
Part of that vibrancy stems from PP’s design consistency. Unlike every-other-game-in my portfolio, warmachine has made an effort to maintain a consistent ambience throughout its iterations. I play with the same models as in the primitive days of MKI—occasionally updated for materials and esthetics. Sorscha still freezes her enemies with her icy gaze. I still roll a couple d6 for my checks. That being said, MKIII represents the first time PP has broken me out of that feeling. At issue is the end of physical stat cards. I know, I know, you can get them in PDF. You can get them through war room. Unless you do not have a smart phone that can handle the app or you do not want to have to arts-and-crafts your way into physical cards after each update. I understand Privateer Press’s desire to simplify production. In theory cutting the physical cards eliminates confusion. In practice I have found the opposite. People do not read war room as closely as they should—they just assume the stats have not changed. People use whatever printed materials they have on hand—even if it is out of date. I am willing to pay a couple bucks per card if it means getting useable reference materials but as of now…no dice. Some units are just fine using the original MKIII cards. Others like the gun carriage have been rewritten such that the original card is useless. This is one of those small details that chafes my nether parts. What, now I have to keep an extra battery charger for my phone or hall a bunch of binder sheets around to keep track of my models? It just feels weird and inconsistent and generally beneath PP’s execution standards.
My only major complaint with MKIII game play is the continued reliance on steamroller tournament rules. I have played many tournaments using a variety of systems over the years. I was most active back in fifth edition 40k when I took several first place trophies around the state. Now a days, I catch a magic pre-release or FNM occasionally—nothing regular. I appreciate a good competitive system that lends itself equally to high level and casual play. The best competitive games in my experience are based on a rock solid mechanical foundation with a little extra clarification for the given format. If you play in a magic tournament the basic rules, victory conditions, and restrictions apply plus some deck construction tweaks for EDH, draft, standard…etc. The same is true of the bloodbowl living rulebook. Your roster might change depending on league but the basic game remains the same.
These systems have precise rule sets that set the tone regardless of how the landscape alters. The fundamental victory conditions do not change. I think Privateer Press intended warmachine to operate under the same model. Unfortunately steamroller has become a balancing tool and design limiter. Each year PP revises the tournament rules to account for new material and competitive trends. The community spends the following year optimizing around that format until the process renews with the subsequent year’s SR update. Outside of battle box and journeyman leagues—both of which are. Precursors to larger games—the hobby defaults to steamroller. Take the SR 2017 rule set. PP wanted to encourage lists with a balance of jacks, solos, and units. They changed the rules so that only certain models could score on certain objectives. They published theme lists that reward well rounded rosters. If you are a regular tournament player there is no issue. If, however, you are a casual player just getting into the game, you read the base rules. You read the sample scenarios. You get to your LGS and everyone is playing with the SR rules—which are objectively different than those in the main book. You have to go back and rethink your lists because models have different value in the new format.
Further, the game has defaulted to 75-point lists. I know, the designers always intended that to be the case. My challenge is that many casual players do not have the resources and time to operate at this level. I honestly prefer playing around 50 points. That is the level of complexity and time commitment that best fits my needs. Unfortunately, the SR format’s gravitational pull has warped the perception such that anything other than 75-point lists is not taken seriously.
I am not saying that steamroller is bad. I am saying that with an already complex base rule set, model stats changing constantly due to CID, and the yearly changes of tournament rules, there is a material bar to community play for a lot of us less hardcore players. Warmachine is dead in my area in large part because of these barriers. I wish PP had picked three or four tested scenarios and stuck with them for competitive play save narrative campaigns. The constantly changing landscape is harming the community even as it seeks to restore balance.
In summary, I like playing games in MKIII. This edition is a straight up improvement over past offerings. However the inconsistency of the larger play experience and the need to constantly check online references is disappointing. My impression is that even though PP had three years to put project egg roll together, the final product needed more playtesting. My next and final article will focus on the community relations and design aspects of this edition. Until then, stand firm my brethren.