Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Monday, November 25, 2013

Squanto Was Awesome

Eat me.
In traditional American thanksgiving mythology, Squanto appears at the "friendly Indian" who helped the Pilgrims survive their first years at Plymouth.  This story is true (ish) but wholly inadequate.  The long-suffering Tisquantum was actually born in a Native American village in the spot where the Pilgrims would later settle.  He was kidnapped, sold to Spain as a slave, won his freedom, then hung out in England for years, hoping for a ride home.  The English eventually dropped him off in New England, but he discovered that his entire tribe had died of disease.  So he moved in with his neighboring Wampanoag.  When the Pilgrims showed up, settling in his old village, he apparently felt more loyalty to his old home than to his adopted tribe, and assisted the newcomers.  Of course, the Pilgrims were ungrateful European religious fanatics, who ended up conquering most of the neighboring tribes later anyway.  So, all things considered, Squanto's choices may have been a bit unwise.  But he lived a fascinating life.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

More 40k Thoughts

I think it's pretty clear that Warhammer 40k has long had serious problems of game-balance.  I enjoy casual games with the system, but in a tournament or other highly-competitive environment, it's far too easy to create lists that are abusive. (40k's woes are in marked contrast to the relative stability of Flames of War, as I discussed here.)

Naturally, I'd like my own game to avoid similar pitfalls, so I've been thinking about the origins of 40k's balance problems, and how to escape them.  I have concluded that 40k's woes stem from several sources, and that there is no single, simple fix for them.

Abusive versus Competitive

Let's start with some definitions.  40k's problem is that its current set of codices too easily permits players to produce abusive army lists.

My first definition: "An abusive army list is an one that maximizes one axis of the army's capabilities to such an extent that it overwhelms the opposing capabilities of any likely opponent."

Any particular army a player can choose has different elements, such as numbers, armor, vehicles, flyers, and so forth.  It also has certain countering capabilities: anti-tank weaponry, high-AP marine-killers, anti-air weapon, and so forth.  Any of these axises of capability can be increased (usually at the expense of some other axis of capability).

Naturally, players have choice about exactly what kind of army they want to play, and what trades of capability they find desirable.  And, indeed, competitive list building (deciding what parts to maximize or minimize or emphasize) is an important and enjoyable part of a bring and battle wargame. Most players try to build lists that emphasize one capability, so that opponents will have trouble countering it.

The difference between a competitive list and an abusive list is then largely a matter of degree.

There are, of course, some necessarily subjective key words in my definition.  How much advantage is "overwhelming"  and how much is a normal part of the variety of armies?  Exactly how does one decide what's likely in an opponent?  Some local environments will be different than others.  But even if there's some fuzz around the edges, I think the core meaning remains clear enough: an abusive army seeks to win the game before it is played, by fielding a force that a "typical" foe simply will not posses the tools to counter.

My second definition: "A balanced meta-environment is one that does not permit the creation of abusive army lists."  Simple. The game lists should prevent any army from becoming so distorted that it's abusive.  (Now, it well may still be possible to create an underwhelming army that stupidly forgoes certain key elements, like an army entirely made of lasgun-toting guardsmen, but that's a different issue.) 

Abuse Me

An abusive army overwhelmingly maximizes a particular capability.  An army list can reach this threshold in any of several ways, or (more subtlety) by some combination of them.  Here are the most common offenders:

Under-costed Units

Some units just cost too little for what they do.  I'm sure we can all think of examples from 40k.  And, honestly, I have a lot of sympathy for the mistakes of game designers.  It's difficult to tell, before publication, what's the appropriate value for a unit, because there are so many factors involved.  But an under-costed unit is easy to abuse.  Take a lot of them, and whatever capability that unit represents will increase with every duplicate choice.  Or, if the unit is a mandatory choice, make it as small as possible, so that you have more room elsewhere in the list for your desired axis of capability.  (Ie, take only 2 small units of Cultists so you can have more Heldrakes, or take 5 man Dire Avengers squads so you can have more Wave Serpents.  Or whatever. ) 

Over-costed Units

This is the not-so-evil twin of an undercosted unit.  It basically makes any army taking them bad, which of itself does not lead to abuse.  But if, for example, all of army A's anti-infantry is really good, but all of army B's tanks are too expensive, it may force army B into a bad match-up.  For example, armor 14 might be a counter to many abusive builds, but Land Raiders have long been just a bit too expensive.  So few people take them.  Subtle, but it's a factor.


"Spam" is internet slang for a duplicated unit.  If someone takes three Heldrakes, or three Landraiders, or six units of thirty Chaos Cultists, then they're "spamming" that unit. Spamming is an obvious way to maximize a particular capability: take a unit that has that capability, then take a bunch more.  Now, spam is not always abusive.  I could take six identical tactical squad units, with a flamer and missile launcher, and no one would care.  Spam usually only works if the unit has some really special ability or is under-costed already.  Nor is spam entirely the same as being undercosted.  There are plenty of units that if run in small numbers are not abusive for the point cost, but if run in large numbers can be. Most armies can deal with one Riptide.  They probably can't deal with four.  Spam is essentially abuse of the Force Organization chart, and it becomes more common (and annoying) when using multiple FOs, due to allies, high point games, or whatever. 


It's also possible to spread a capability out among many units, in such a way that when they are combined, the end result is abusive.  For example, one unit with an Ignores Cover weapon is an annoyance.  An army that takes Ignore Cover weapons on multiple different units may end up with so many weapons that cover (an essential part of the game) just becomes meaningless.  Or, there are abilities that can be countered separately, but together "stack"  into something crazy good.  (For example, the Screamer Star or the Jetbike flying Seer Council.)

Healing the Broken: Is is Possible?

There are systems of "Comp" that try to layer a second set of rules or choices on top of the existing set of Codices -- by limiting force org choices, or forbidding duplicate units, or requiring set percentages of different unit types.  But I'm skeptical: I don't think 40k can be fixed in any easy way.  The game designers would have to rewrite the line of codices and (I think) fundamentally alter and limit the Force Organization chart. 

So what are the lessons for my game?  I have a couple of take-aways:

1) If I expect an army to consist mostly of a particular type of unit (like infantry) I must require armies to take them.  Low minimums will be abused.  So, for my game, I think the core of every army will be three basic squads of troops. 

2) Conversely, especially powerful units like vehicles, that don't have a natural counter, should be limited in number.  So, for my game, I think armies will be limited to 0-3 light vehicles and 0-1 tanks.

3) Avoid powers that stack.  I think all my Doctrines will be limited: only one will affect a unit at a time.

4) I have to get the point values right.  If and when I don't get the point values right, I must immediately correct them.  Even if it requires errata and FAQs.

5) I must provide game-balance whether I like it or not.  Even if I, as the game designer, do not care about creating a tournament-capable, balanced meta-environment, and say so, like Games Workshop has done, people will still play tournaments with my game and then be surprised it's not balanced. 

Enough complaining.  Next week: Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Among the Ancients

 For four days after my crash, I wandered across the trackless desert, drinking but sparingly of my hoarded water.  By night on the third day, I let the final drop wet my parched lips as I struggled on, for I was determined not to perish.  When dawn came I despaired, knowing the day would kill me.  Then the heat haze lifted, and in the distance I saw salvation (or so I thought): a walled city, alive with flags and lights, of the very image as I imagined of ancient Ur, or Nineveh, or the Baghdad of the thousand and one nights.   It was all I imagined the wasted cities of the south once had been, before whatever catastrophe had rendered them ruin.  I commenced to hail and to wave, until at last men and horses sallied forth from its gates and brought me inside.  There I found every horror, and for twelve years I yearned and struggled to escape the evils of that walled city and to return to the parched desert whose privations and even promised death I now imagined as a blessed surcease.

-- Tyrone Patrique, Memoires de la D├ęsolation (1946)

Krak des Chavaliers.  Wikipedia.

The Army of the Ancients

 The Ancients army consists of the powerful warmachines of the Ancients themselves supported by the masses of their slave troops, hired mercenaries, and their fanatical enforcers.  Their warmachines should be the toughest in the game, but expensive in points.  Their slaves are inexpensive and poor in quality, drawing on elements from the Brute and Free Martian lists.  The mercenaries are similar troops, but of average quality.  Their enforcers, "the Immortals," possess higher quality motivation, skill, and equipment, but are correspondingly fewer in number.

Humans and Brutes

Ziggurat of Ur.  Wikipedia.
The streets of the city teemed with many sorts of residents.  The most numerous were human slaves: in race and complexion like those we first encountered upon establishing our colonies, golden-skinned, dark-haired and dressed in tunics and robes like the inhabitants of ancient Hellas or Rome.  There also were Brutes of many sorts: some with multiple limbs, most scaled like a lizard.  I feared them, for by their bestial countenances, I knew that fear and not nature had rendered them civilized and docile.  All of us were slaves together, subject to the lash and labor.  But the worse of all fates awaited those few called through the palace gates, for they did not emerge, save perhaps as mutilated and sectioned corpses.

Sometimes, I heard, we slaves might serve in wars between one master and another, driven forward to die for the amusement of the Ancients.  Others, more favored, the city's rulers contracted for arms, and these swaggered through the streets like nobles, armed with strange weapons and armored in steel, leather, and fur.

The Ancients employ both humans and Brutes.  The least capable are mobs of poorly-skilled and equipped slaves.  I imagine players using or reusing the same sort of models they use for the Free Martians or Brutes.  The mercenary troops will be basically identical to the standard troops of the Free Martians or Brutes. Players may wish to model them differently than their "free" equivalents -- with heavier armor or different weapons.

The Immortals

Ishtar Gate, Babylon. Wikipedia.
The universal face of the masters were viziers and overseers known by the name Immortal.  Most wore masks upon their faces, but those that did not could be terrible to behold.  Iron machines and strange growths molded their flesh, and made them immune to heat and cold and privation beyond the human.  When they strode into the slave warrens to purge or to cull, they wore iron plates strapped to their robes, and wielded strange devices that killed or pained as they willed.

Some humans have the Ancient's favor: their master's trustees, enforcers, and soldiers.  They follow the Ancient's philosophy of domination, trading service for a chance to make others suffer and obey.  The Ancients reward their favorites with enhancements biological and mechanical; the oldest and most trusted live for several lifetimes, and for this reason they are collectively known as the Immortals.  Together, they form a well-armed and disciplined troop.  They may also be attached as pairs or individuals to other squads; Doctrines will allow them to boost the leadership of the slaves they drive before them. 


Of the Ancients themselves, I saw only their  devices, in which they were rumored to reside whenever necessity or evil desire drove them into the streets.  These were of two types:  the first floated or flew by some unknown mechanism, capable as they were of great speed or of hovering in place with no visible wings or props.  These most often took a discus shape, or sometimes a lozenge trailing limbs, armored and barbed.  The second walked, sometimes on two legs, or four, but most often three, with a discus or carriage on top.  Some stood no larger than a man, others towered over crowds, many meters tall.  The largest I saw only once.  It overstepped the walls, needing no gate, more gargantuan than the highest building in Lyons-sur-le-Canal, and the sight of it filled me with despair for the future survival of all Earthly nations.

There will be rules for flying (or hovering) saucers, and for walkers.  Each vehicle will come in several size categories, to match whatever model players can produce.

Mars Described

As part of my general housekeeping, I'm collecting all my Martian background threads into a page.  The link to it is here.

General Design



The Martian Colonists

The Free Martians

The Brutes
The Ancients

Monday, November 4, 2013

Revising the Core Rules

My next task consists of revising my existing rules.  I want to create a playable Tier One rules set, along with some tools for using any models or armies with it.  Right now, there are several problem areas I'm contemplating:

  • Suppression: I want something simpler than I have now, more like Force on Force and less like Flames of War.  I think a unit will need to take a Leadership test every time it is fired upon and is wounded (whether it saves or not).  I may make recovery from Suppression automatic after a turn to compensate.
  • Firefight/Melee: I want to better integrating close-ranged shooting and melee.  They are both (essentially) a form of Assault, and I want to simplify them and review the basic math. 
Anyway, it's a bit of a slow month for posting, between my rules review, exam season, and National Novel Writing Month.

Shoot them some more!