My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Special Abilities (Part 2)

The original post on Special Abilities versus Standard Rules got some good responses, and I thank everyone for that. The sad part is that I clicked the Publish button before I was done with my rant. The wife called me away for a "Honey-Do", which was quickly followed by a scheduled online game, so I forgot to go back and add more. But here it is.

Rules that use special abilities are not in and of itself bad, I think, it is how some approach it that seems to rub me the wrong way. Take four examples of rules that use special abilities: Warhammer 40,000, Flames of War, Saga, and Munchkin. (I know, you are probably getting tired of me mentioning the last two.)

Warhammer 40,000 (WH40K) is the epitome of what some have termed "The Codex Creep". Essentially, in order to play any force you are required to buy at least one "codex", or a book of units stats, force composition rules, special abilities, and special items that can be purchased. Some "factions" get codices more frequently than others, leading to more options and special abilities, all more finely tuned for competition, and thus desired by gamers wanting that "tactical edge". In Episode 23 of The Second Founding podcast the guys talk about GW's "creeping imbalance" and intentionally maintaining a "perfect imbalance". Now some may call these guys cynics, but their theory is that GW's figure and codex designers are beholden to their Corporate Lords and thus they generate new, cool figures that people will want to buy while the codex designers make them the Next Big Thing so that they have to buy them (and not just one) in order to remain competitive.

The "creeping" part of the imbalance is that the latest codex produced tends to be the strongest. This generally pushes people to at least purchase the codex, to see what they are going to face in games. I remember the second time I got back into WH40K I bought the Tau codex, a battle box, and a couple of extra blisters to flesh out the forces. It was an escalation league, so forces were small. But it quickly became obvious that I needed to buy more stuff if I wanted to be competitive. The Chaos Space Marines pulled out some gizmo with a special rule and caught me unawares. The Space Wolf Space Marines attacked with surprise from the rear because they had a special rule I was not aware of. The Orks … well let's just say this sort of thing went on and on we every opponent; they each had their tricks and special rules, and the only way to really be aware of what they were capable of was to buy and study their codex. So, as I said, even if you did not buy an army for whatever new codex came out, you really needed to buy the codex itself, at the very least, so you would know how to fight it.

So as time wore on, and people came to realize that The New Badness could not be countered by your army with its five year old codex, they started collecting new armies. However, this is where the "perfect" part of the imbalance starts to come in. The example the podcast gives is that once upon a time Chaos Space Marines were the things to have in the Chaos codex, but then a new version came out and it was the Obliterators. So you loaded up on Obliterators (or whatever) and the next codex comes out and Obliterators are now nerfed, with no real explanation. However, the army is still strong (it has a new codex, after all) but it is this new Chaos Heldrake – which is a $75 model, by the way – that is The New Badness, and you can buy two of them in a standard point army!

The net result of all this is that it produces codex sales, then army sales, then unit sales for the players in it for the long run. Of course, if you read The Miniatures Page, or about any other forum, including WH40K fanboy forums, you will have already read all of this. GW has their model, and to be honest, they draw new people into the hobby. As their business model eventually puts off most of their gamers, and some of those who quit join the ranks of historical gamers, we should probably be grateful. My point, however, is not the grinding aspect of their business model, but how that model is supported by adopting a fairly thin set of core rules and adding layers of special rules and exceptions through specially purchased expansions. I will give GW props for one thing, however: unit special abilities are now codified as names ("Infiltrator", "Rending", "Fearless", etc.) and the rules for those special abilities are in the main rules. You still need to codices to know who gets these special abilities, but if your opponent tells you in the game that he has a Fearless character with Infiltrator and a Rending weapon, at least you have access to the rules ahead of time. There is still a little problem of special weapons and wargear, but hey, they can't fix everything in a single edition. They still need you to have a reason to buy the codices.

Of course, there is nothing to stop you and your buddies from buying one army and one codex apiece and then playing the heck out of that and having fun, not getting caught up in the spiral of the creeping, perfect imbalance. But honestly, it is hard finding two balanced armies at any point in time, and a new codex will upset that balance, so players would need to agree to freeze their codexes to a point in time. Not likely to happen.

Now we move to Flames of War (FoW). One could say that their army books are codices. They contain force compositions, unit stats, special rules, and exceptions to the normal rules. A big difference between FoW and WH40K, however, is that there are generic army lists with the main FoW rules set (not the mini-rulebook, however) and they generally are competitive. The books are really only required if you wish to start a new period (Early-, Mid-, or Late-War), theater, or campaign. As the older books contained force compositions for both sides, it was an automatic buy if you were interested in that period, theater, or campaign. However, when they went the way of separate Axis and Allied books, some people did not buy both books. It will be interesting to see if they go back to books that contain something for both sides, to induce everyone to buy it.

Generally speaking, FoW is much more forgiving than WH40K, in that there are fewer surprises in the book, it is generally easier to get unit stats without buying every book, and the unit special abilities are in the main rules (e.g. "Awkward Layout", "Semi-Indirect Fire", etc.). Like WH40K the codices primarily give you access to the highly competitive lists. Again, you and your gaming buddies could agree to play generic lists, or find balanced lists and freeze them, but that is not likely to happen for very long. Variety is the spice of life and both WH40K and FoW promise a lot of variety over time.

Saga is an interesting study, because each new faction that comes out is unique in some way, sometimes creating completely new rules (Irish champions, for example). However, the exceptions to the core rules are usually very short and have to be gone over before a game. For example, when a player with Irish Champions runs three single figures around, the opponent is going to know something is up. As you almost always have to run through your forces at the beginning of every game, pointing out who is Hearthguard, Warrior and Levy, and discussing armaments (not everyone has duplicates of their Hearthguard with and without Danish Axes), that is a good time to go over the few special rules a faction may have. There are some, but they are generally very few.

Where the main difference lies is with the battleboards. What I have started doing is making a photocopy of each battleboard (for personal use only!) so that each player can play on their own battleboard and use the copy of their opponent's battleboard as a reference sheet. That way they can see every trick their opponent can pull and can ensure that they are pulling it legally! (We are still learning, so sometimes we try and play an ability in the wrong phase. Purely unintentional!)

So, if a new expansion comes out, not everyone has to buy it. At the start of the first game playing against a new faction the owning player would go over the troops used, as normal, and cover any special rules, if any. They could then hand them a copy of their battleboard (for use during the game only – I am not suggesting they let their opponent keep that copy) for reference during the game. Although your opponent might be a bit surprised by something the new faction possesses, you probably don't know how to properly play them either, so it quickly comes out in the wash.

The difference is that only those who are interested in the new period, theater, or campaign has to buy the expansion. Even if you don't share a copy of the battleboard as a reference during the game, the battleboard's composition itself is not kept secret, so your opponent can always read up on the abilities; everything is out in the open and available to your opponent without having to have everyone buy the expansion in order to remain competitive.

Finally, we get to Munchkin. Each card contains the special rules. When the card is played, the special rule kicks in and everyone sees the rule. Yes, you might play better if you knew all of the cards of a given expansion and thus knew what was possible, but given the highly random nature of the game (random card draws, etc.) there is really no way to plan or take advantage of that knowledge. Essentially this is a game full of special rules and exceptions, but essentially near-complete transparency for the players.

Special rules, in and of itself, is not the problem. It really is about the dissemination of that information to all players. Does it require the player to invest a lot of time and money in order to get "perfect" information about what is possible for your opponent? Does that information change at a rate that seems excessive (in terms of time or money invested to keep up)? Does the lack of information lead to outright game losses or merely momentary disadvantages? Do these special rules act as "tricks" that allow the player to win despite bad or poor gameplay? All of these factors lead to one's enjoyment of the game.

I see games that have core rules and nothing else as "pure", but not necessarily a better gaming experience. For me, these sort of pure games require some form of scenario (which in turn has scenario special rules) in order to ensure the game does not quickly get stale. Whether it is giving one side more points, better force composition, a terrain advantage, or a task to complete, something has to give. DBA is a good example. All core rules with all of the army lists in a single book. The army lists themselves give force composition advantages (or disadvantages), but also give a potential terrain advantage (in the form of an Aggression rating, used to determine who sets up terrain). But let's face it, some army match-ups in DBA will result in one side winning the majority of the time, because it is designed to be historical. DBA is a fun game, but instead of buying multiple books and expansions for the same figures (as with WH40K and FoW) you buy multiple armies to get the variety. (I probably have more than a dozen armies and I think Don said he had more than 60. The Schmidt's, who introduced our club to DBA had more than 160, if I recall correctly.)

Maybe this is where my American Revolutionary and Napoleonic gaming has been falling flat. When I was a kid our Napoleonic gaming was fun because we played a big battle scenario every month. The club had upwards of 20 members and had a collection numbered in the tens of thousands of 25mm figures. There was a points system that ensured variety in the force composition (although the French Cuirassiers seemed to make a lot of appearances) and the terrain always varied (and yet was always the same; to understand that riddle I refer you to my Tactical Exercises and Micro-Games post), plus there were almost always some kind of scenario special rule, like when the reinforcements came on or what turn an objective had to be taken by in order to gain extra victory points. In that kind of setting it is not hard to get variety. Now, however, the only collection is mine, and I provide both sides. I usually provide the terrain also, so all the options are fewer. I think that gaming FoW and Saga, and others like it, have led to gamers expecting equal-point scenarios. This makes it hard to replicate the gaming successes of the past, which were never equal point games. (They weren't always balanced affairs either, but we tried to make them that way.)

It is ironic that we can play an unbalanced scenario in Memoir '44 – play it twice in fact – but cannot do so with Flames of War. I know that the primary reason we can do that with Memoir '44 is because we can play once on each side in a single gaming session, but that was impossible with Flames of War. We could have played it once for each side in two gaming sessions however, but that never seemed … right.

The board gaming industry does not seem to have a problem putting out game with unbalanced scenarios, but so much of the miniatures rules industry does have a problem with playing games where the perception is that the sides are not balanced. Sure, there are players that don't use points systems and there are people that play unbalanced scenarios (I do not mean "missions", a la FoW and WH40K when I say "scenarios"), but they really are few and far between. In fact, I cannot think of a single set of miniatures rules that I play, or do not play but is played locally, that do not use equal points as a means of producing a "fair" game.

Ah well, let's leave points systems to a rant for another day. Sound off! Let me hear you thoughts on how points systems have changed gaming, for better or worse.

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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 50 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ (although I have a townhouse in Houston, TX and a small home in Tucson, AZ) working on a contract for "the next two years" that is going on five years now. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").