Monday, September 30, 2013

Sandbox Games and Bring and Battle Games

There are two basic approaches that beer and pretzel wargames take towards balance and competition -- elements that I have been thinking about for my own game.

The first, I'll call the sandbox games.  A sandbox game provides a rules structure, but expects the players to create scenarios and forces to use it.  The players are largely responsible for making sure that the sides in the scenario are balanced (or not -- sometimes you may want to play a last stand or something) and that everyone has fun.  This sort of setup is quite common for historical games, especially those that focus on modeling a particular historical conflict. 

Warlord Games'  Black Powder, Hail Caesar and Pike and Shotte are a recent mainstream, casual set of sandbox games. The core rule books lack army lists or points, and (for the most part) expect players to make up their own ratings for the models in their collection.  I really love this approach -- it's hugely freeing.  It is also, however, a lot of work, and puts the burden on the players to  pool their collections and do some design work.

For this reason, most sandbox games begin to transition into the second type of game, the bring and battle game. A bring and battle game comes supplied with army lists and points.  Flames of War, Warhammer, Saga and so forth exemplify this very familiar type of game. Each player can look at their collection, independently, and assemble a force based on published points and rules.  Then the two players can meet at a mutually agreeable time and place (usually the local game store) and play a game at a set point match. They do not need to negotiate or design anything ahead of time, and they don't need a game master.  Bring and battle games are also natural for tournaments.  Send out a call on the internet, assemble some players for the weekend, and people from a larger-than-local region can meet new players, see new armies, and have some fun.

Bring and battle games have a huge social and organizational advantage over sandbox games, which is one reason that games that originated as sandbox games tend to accumulate lists and become bring and battle games.  (Anyone remember the old days of Warhammer 40k, when you needed a game master?)  It's what's happening now with Hail Caesar, too. 

The disadvantages of the bring and battle format, however, start to become apparent as the limits of the games are tested by ever larger numbers of people in a competitive environment.  Bring and battle games depend on the game publishers to create a fair, fun set of lists and to "balance" the power of the different factions involved.  As a bring and battle game grows in complexity, the task of controlling and balancing the meta-environment becomes ever more daunting.  Moreover, because the job of balancing lies with the publishers, it is inevitably slow, unwieldy, and top-down.
Players in a bring-and-battle system cannot easily affect or change the system unless they just want to return to being a sandbox game, by introducing their own local house rules.

A bring and battle game should (ideally) have a tight, limited set of lists, which have been play tested to destruction.  Because many bring and battle games started as sandbox games, they often lack a systematic, well-thought out mechanisms for balance. Herein lies the root of the problem with many large tournament games such as Warhammer 40k

So what does this mean for my game?  Well, right now it's a sandbox game.  It kinda has to be, since I'm writing it all myself and don't have (m)any playtesters.  But at some point, I'd like it to become a bring and battle game -- it must, if it is going to grow and attract players.  And that means I need to think about major questions of balance, now, while it's still small.

To that end, I intend to spend a column or two analyzing existing games, to see what makes them work (or doesn't).

Monday, September 23, 2013

ePublishing's Potential

It seems to me that epublishing has the potential to change the way wargames are distributed and played.  Wargamers and wargaming companies currently spend a lot of energy on printed army books -- which then usually last for 5-6 years before seeing any revision.  If army books were exclusively electronic publications, this cycle could be a lot faster.

Right now, printed army books act as a drag on games like Warhammer 40k or Flames of War.  Once publishers have printed a book, they are naturally reluctant to modify it. They may have stocks of the book which they want to sell.  They may want to prevent confusions among players.  They may not want players to feel their purchase is incomplete or outdated.  Few publishers correct mistakes between printings.  If a company issues errata or FAQs, they try to keep them as short as possible.  People who own the book don't want to have to carry printouts with them, or modify their books.

There's a huge drawback to this model, however.  If there is a problem with a rule or a balance issue revealed with a unit's cost, these errors can persist for years before the book is revised.  That's a crazy long cycle in this, the age of the internet.

It's especially crazy when you consider that there are huge internet forums, filled with thousands of gamers, who will mercilessly dissect a book as soon as it is released, looking for loopholes, bargains, and killer combos to exploit.  We gamers usually find the balance problems in any book within about a week after it is published -- none of which typically be addressed until the book is revised, at which point you can be sure you'll be paying another 50$ and find new, different exploits.

Most of the balance problems, in army books or in rules sets, are well-known.  Right now, every 40k gamer knows that the Helldrake is deeply undercosted.  So is the Vendetta.  Certain units are overpriced.  When was the last time you saw a Mutilator or a Howling Banshee on the table?  How long did Flames of War players wait for a fix to the Brummbar price point or revised flamethrower rules?  Sometimes pricing is obviously inconsistent across books.  Why do different Space Marine books pay different costs for the exact same tank?  Why don't they just add a friggin flakk missile to every army with a Missile Launcher for 10 points?

Because companies don't want to mess with their legacy printed books too much.

What if all army books were electronically published? Exclusively.

Last week, I reviewed Games Workshop's ibook codices for Warhammer 40k.  One of their most interesting and revolutionary features is the ability to "push" Errata, FAQs and other content directly to a book on the iPad. You could use this technology to push periodic updates to all existing books, without worrying about invalidating a printed product.

I propose that army books should be a periodical publication.  So instead of buying a printed Army Book: Free Martians, you would purchase access to a digital file.  Maybe this would take the form of an ebook.  Maybe you would purchase a subscription to the company's website and download PDFs.  The book would update every few months.  (Every quarter sounds about right.) The game designers could regularly revisit the books to fix known balance issues across the entire game, balancing all released books against each other using feedback from their online community.

Ideally, these balancing updates would be free or monetized for a small subscription fee.  So rather than selling you a big colorful printed book every few years (the current model), game companies would be in the business of selling you a more responsive and pleasant game-wide meta-enviornment.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Considering the eCodex

The Gutenberg Bible. Wikipedia.
For the last several releases of Games Workshop Warhammer 40k Codices, I have been purchasing the electronic iBook versions, most recently the new Space Marine Codex. They have some very convenient features and (I think) some powerful ramifications for the future of the wargaming hobby.

I was, at first, skeptical. But I like having the books for all the armies I play or might encounter readily available, and that means I buy a lot of books and then have to store them, cart them around to tournaments, and keep up with the FAQs and errata.  So, I figured, what the hell, and bought the last (5th ed) Space Marine Codex .  Since then, I have kept purchasing them.  They are horribly expensive (but so are the paper versions.) Other than that I have been favorably impressed.

The iBook version of a GW Codex is laid out similarly to the printed version, with the same headings, top and bottom art widgets, and pictures.  To accommodate the iPad's size, each page has been split in half (more or less), so that each page in the physical book is two pages on the iPad. There are the usual sections: an introduction, a background section, the rules for the units, pictures of the models, the actual army list, and then some reference sheets.

Navigation (as on any ebook) is something of a pain. I quickly realized exactly why western culture abandoned the scroll about 1400 years ago. (1)  However, you can return to each section's ToC with a finger gesture, and then cycle through the sections.  You can also scroll through the whole book.

The iBook is extensively hot-linked.  If you click on any game rule, a box will pop up containing that rules' complete text.  It's incredibly handy for referencing rules without searching.  (What does "Zealot" do again?) Some rules are, however, hidden in these boxes.  If you want to know what a psychic power or warlord trait does instead of just reading its fluff text, you have to click on it -- annoying. The different sections are also hot-linked together; if you are in the description section and want to see the model or move to the army list, you can (in theory) click a link to do that. I've found it's only hit and miss, whether it works properly all the time.  GW quality control at its finest.

There are also some multimedia features.  You can rotate the images of some of the models, to view them from all angles.  There are little buttons in the Space Marine codex, that when you click on them, will read the flavor text boxes out loud.  Why you'd ever want to do this, I have no idea.  It is also impossible to make them STOP if you click the play button by accident.  (Strangely, they are also read in an American accent.  Isn't the grim darkness of the far future British?)

The iBooks are constantly updated.  Whenever there is a new errata or FAQ, an update becomes available for the codex, and the text is replaced or otherwise fixed.  I love, love, love this part of the iBook.

Games Workshop keeps adding new features to their ebooks. At first, the iBooks only had the 360 degree pictures, hot-linking, and updates. The 6th ed. Space Marine Codex is the first to add (useless) sound.  I was also pleasantly surprised to see that it updated (yesterday?!) to include Apocalypse data sheets and a mini army list program.  (This being GW, the army list program doesn't actually seem completely functional yet, but it's still a nifty thing.)  They are also branching out from the Apple platform.  You can now get versions for other tablets; these cost less, but have fewer features.  Never having used one, I'm not sure which features are missing.  If they are complete static, this would be a shame and considerably reduce their utility.

I'm thinking eBooks are the future of wargaming rules.  Wargames companies spend an ridiculous amount of energy printing, distributing, updating paper books, and wargamers spend ludicrous amounts of money buying them, storing them, and giving themselves lower back pain hauling them around. The difficulty of printing and distributing is also a hurdle for anyone who wants to write and sell a game.

But the bit that has me really excited is the capacity of the iBook to push updates.  This feature alone has enormous potential ramifications as I will elaborate in my next post.


(1) Your useless trivia for the day.  "Codex" is the Latin term for a bound book, with a spine and pages, as opposed to the older technology, the scroll.  Therefore, as a historian I find it hugely ironic that I must now "scroll" through my Games Workshop "codex."

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Steam Tank #4

Today I present the Steam Tank (#4) from Ironclad Miniatures.  It's the third tank model I'm considering for my Martian Colonists. 

I painted this one with a red and brown camouflage -- just to be different.



Like the WWI British Mark IV and the WWII Churchill, I selected it because it looks clunky and primitive -- something my Colonists would build in a desperate attempt to counter the Ancients' walkers.

I like the overall design.  The turret recalls the USS Monitor from the civil war.  Likewise, the odd-sized tracks look like some old Victorian bicycle.  The cannon looks formidable enough to take on an Ancient walker credibly.

On the negative side, there isn't much detail on the model.  The road wheels and tracks are pretty simple. 

I'm also not taken by the whole "steam tank" idea.  I'm no engineer, but steam-powered tanks seem like a rather dubious development.  Wouldn't it be more plausible to assume any potential steam-tank designers would just ahead and invent the gasoline-powered internal-propulsion engine? 

Also, what's the big slit in the front is supposed to represent? I painted it as having a glass shield - but most real-life tank vision ports are much smaller and less vulnerable.

Anyway, of the three tanks, this one looks the most fantastical, and the least historical.  Depending on your taste, that might be a positive or a negative.  Me, I think it's endearingly funky.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Bolt Action Churchill

For the second of my potential Colonial tanks, I present the Bolt Action Churchill.  I picked this model up from their booth at Historicon


It's a really crisp, beautiful sculpt. The detail on the road wheels and tracks is just awesome.  I couldn't be happier with the model itself.  

 I'm not sure, though, that it fits my army aesthetically, however. 

My Colonists are working with few resources and at the edge of their technical capabilities, in a desperate attempt to counter the Ancients' Walkers.  So I want a tank that looks somewhat clunky and hastily-made. 

The Churchill is a pretty funny-looking tank -- bigger and longer than the main line of tank evolution, the culmination of the basically obsolete concept of Infantry tanks.  The turret is also clunky-looking.  (What's with the Brits and their high turrets, giant rivets and general oddness?)  But even so, it might look a little too advanced.

Perhaps I will try a Matilida I or II instead.

So, in conclusion, if you want a model for WWII and Bolt Action, I think it's a winner.  If you're building a retro-scifi force, like I am, it might be a bit too modern.