Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Thoughts on Warmahordes MKIII PT2

Game play:


              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.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Thoughts on Warmahordes MKIII 1 year in



              I love warmahordes.  It is the longest running of my mini hobbies.  So, when I heard MKIII was inbound I had astronomically high hopes and proportionately terrible fears.  How was my pet game going to change?  Was I going to like those changes?  How was my style of gaming going to fit in the new sandbox?  It is difficult to separate my feelings about the new edition from my feelings about the associated decisions PP has made since the initial release.  The PP faction forums were a daily touchstone—the first thing I checked when I woke up and the last thing I checked at night.  Their loss, regardless of the reason, is indelibly associated with MKIII in my head.  I cannot objectively review the new edition without considering the changes to the surrounding bureaucratic architecture.  So, I am going to write a couple of rambling reviews on a variety of subjects.  Be advised that this is all personal opinion.  I am a long term casual player.  I do not get to play much.  So, errors are my own—salt to taste.


List building:

This edition often feels like it is just a little off—like a pair of jeans cut for someone not quite my size.  For example, in MKII standard list construction was 50 points with average war jack points of 6.  Double that for the edition change and you get 112.  In MKIII the system is balanced around 75-point lists with an average of 28 battlegroup points, totaling 103.  So, even though the relative point ranges were doubled, we are working with less wiggle room when adjusted for inflation.

              From one perspective, having all those war jack points makes it feel like you are getting a bargain on battlegroup models.  The catch is that 25 of those points used to be unencumbered.  This forces us to build lists that more closely resemble PP’s vision but it also puts us in a compositional box.  Those points are not free—

They are just a force composition requirement.

              Theme lists further complicate the matter. I prayed that theme forces would be less prone to abuse while providing for a wider range of lists.  Initially I was thrilled with the new template.  As I played a couple games and read about tournament composition though I lost that good feeling.  Theme forces do not expand list building options.  Rather, they ask the question, if you do not use a theme list, can you overcome the qualitative and strategic disadvantage posed by forfeiting 8-12 free points and associated bennies?  Too often the answer is no.  Mercenaries exist primarily as add-ons for faction lists.  How appealing is it to grab a unit of steelheads or dwarves, even with a ranking officer, if that choice puts you at an 8-12-point handicap?  What combination of mercenary solos provides such a boost that you can give up 8 free points to field it?  Further, sometimes I just want to take a unit of doomreavers with my man-o-war.  What if there is no theme force that combines both of those choices?  So even when I am not looking to get my merc on, I find myself wondering whether it is worth it to go themeless


Note: As I was writing this piece, PP started a CID development cycle with limited theme mercenary access.  I will go into design impressions later but suffice it to say that this gives me some hope that someone somewhere is listening.  It does not resolve the inherent imbalance in free models but progress is progress.



              These issues are not a big deal individually but collectively, they have a profound effect on list construction.  I feel as if privateer press looked at the MKII list trends and said, “We are not going to tell you how to have fun but we are going to strongly encourage you to do things our way.”  So, while I still enjoy playing the game, I also find this forcible design style concerning.   What bothers me the most about this scenario is that this sort of nonsense is exactly what I was afraid would happen.  Unlinking theme forces from specific casters provides for some list flexibility.  However, keeping the discount rate mechanic means that theme forces still break the basic point-based economy.  The ability to pick your caster just means you have more ways to capitalize on the disparity.

              I might not feel as bad about list construction if I was not playing in the only faction without light jacks.  Ever since the berserker chassis was edited into obsolescence, I keep coming back to the same jack subset.  Cutting the destroyer down to 14 points certainly helped but not to the extent I would like.  At issue seems to be the gap between the way PP wants Khadoran jacks to perform and the way they actually behave.  Granted, this is just my experience.  Others may have a different double penny.

              My impression is that Khador jacks are supposed to be the near invincible juggernaut—hitting hard and darned near untouchable without dedicated armor cracking.  While armor 20 and 34 boxes is a difficult nut to crack, it is far from invincible—lose an arm and you may be in the game but without a way to affect the board.  I judge a jack’s worth based on utility.  What job do I need 25% or more of my army to perform?  What tools do I have to make that possible?  The problem is that Khadoran jacks design philosophy is inherently defensive.  High armor, low defense, multiple boxes assumes that the way we get to battle is by weathering the storm.  This requires me to take damage to get stuck in.  Presumably our low speed and relatively poor shooting is to compensate for our toughness and melee strength.  These factors combine with a lack of cheap supplemental platforms (no light jacks) to push me toward the most efficient and effective models.  I cannot afford to dabble in the jank because all my choices are 10 or more points and I do not have cheap filler to cover all my bases.

              Put another way, I tend to shy away from melee jacks without MAT 7.  If I am going to be slower than my opponent, then I tend toward destroyers and behemoth as my ranged jacks to offset my snail-like pace.  I tend to avoid non-character jacks that cost more than 14 points.  The decimator, which used to be one of my favorite jacks, just does not get enough work done to justify its cost—thus losing out to the destroyer.  What hurts old doser hand even more is that I can take 2 destroyers and exactly expend my battlegroup points giving me

Maximum list building flexibility for my unencumbered resources.

              Infantry suffers from the same malady.  If I am going in-theme-and let’s be honest most people are, then my first choice will probably be a full unit of ‘X’ plus a unit attachment, and a free support solo.  That combination just feels boring—especially if you double up—that is almost half your army pre-selected as auto-include by virtue of the theme force.  When lists just build themselves it does not feel like there is much undiscovered territory left to delve.

              Finally, I feel as if I am missing something every time I look at the points values for most of the range.  Part of this is that the system is still not granular enough to account for certain models.  Alten Ashley might or might not have been underpriced at 5 points but at 6 he is definitely over-costed—especially since they made it so his gun cannot stop huge models from healing.  Man hunters, MOW Kovniks, and the spriggan all suffer from this disorder as well.  They have utility but not quite as much as their points would suggest.  This problem also crops up when you find you only have 1 or 2 points left…what do you do?  I feel like most solos are slightly over-costed but cutting them down a full point would be too much.  I also feel that in designing the model point matrix PP overlooked what happens when you only have a couple points left over and nothing to fill it.  For some models like bombardiers, a mere point cut would not be enough to make them generally viable again but for others like the spriggan, it would be enough to give it serious consideration if it came down to the 16 or 17-point range.  The math just pushes me toward certain choices and the spriggan and manhunters are not down that path.

              I know PP had a lot to balance with this edition—over a thousand models, 13 factions, supplemental pieces from hordes and minions, multiple formats, and a wealth of fan expectation could not have made the development process easy.  I have a lot of sympathy for the designers tasked with fulfilling this devil’s bargain.  I want this edition to be successful even if it takes a few false starts to make it.  Unfortunately, I cannot give my seal of approval to the list building component yet.  The rules are better than MKII but theme forces, high war jack point quotients, and a limited pool of high-value choices finds me unimpressed so far.  (Next up, game play.)