Saturday, August 9, 2014

War. Game. Wargame.

Hello and good day readers. I know that the pace of my release schedule has slowed drastically, and the blade cuts both ways. Certainly I have felt a bit starved for inspiration (my gaming hours having been cut short of late), but so too have my pleas for drive or subject matter seemingly fallen on deaf ears with you, dearest reader base. I'm left a bit at a loss for words, as I felt previously we were so ready, anxious, and otherwise eager to feed off one another and am not quite sure what's come between us. Nevertheless, I come again, with an article pulling me well and truly back to my roots, the foundations of game design I hold most dear. I'm going to dismantle and offer perspective on what I think, what I like, and what I don't like in games, in general. So, hit that break, and follow me.

We'll open on the softest imaginable note: the driving force behind this. Even more than my opening thoughts before the break, I was stirred to write this by watching Egoraptor's "Sequelitis" video series, the most recent of which dissects A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. The video is far from perfectly abstract, as Arin allows no small amount of his adventure game bias shine through over the role playing elements played up in Ocarina, as well as his refusal to acknowledge the uncharted waters Ocarina had Nintendo delving into. Alas, that is neither here nor there as it not only fails to address personal failings (I wish Marines were more exciting for me) but also it glosses over the fact that Arin very genuinely knows a lot about good game design, and is beyond capable of dissecting games at a sharply mechanical level. For the best parts of that, watch the full "Sequelitis" series. Specifically Castlevania and Mega Man X.

Don't lose those thoughts, as we'll return to them after a brief foray into our first word of the day: War. You see, war, war never changes. And nothing makes this more clear than Sun Tzu's revered text on the matter: The Art of War. This bible of military strategy is still studied today, by military and civilian minds alike. In it, the author describes principle rules for conducting warfare successfully. Among these is one we've batted back and forth on the site before in both print and podcast: war is not about killing, but about defining and securing objectives. Killing, in the absolutely best case scenario, is simply a means to an end. Remember that now. There's a series of rules leading up and to that one, but ultimately it defines why, especially in Eastern culture, Go is the game of warfare, rather than what many Westerners will think of: Chess. Go is a game of territory control, Chess is a game of killing. The most important of the additional rules, in my appraisal, are these: do not seek war until victory is assured, and do not attack the enemy where he is strong - instead out maneuver him.

I've made it a point to try to study up on the tome and it has redefined my play, especially starting with my pre deployment assessment of a match. I know that I as a player play better games if and when I play to the strengths of these teachings, and struggle to be satisfied with my performance when I fail to adhere. So, all of this considered, war is a game of objectives which is easily won and lost before any forces are mobilized. Naturally, this ignores aspects of chance, as there is no dice rolling in Go, but I'm getting ahead of myself again...

Pulling back to my motive, let's talk games. First and foremost, above all, games allow for something nothing else in this world does. Games teach experientially. Books and stories can tell us lessons, but nothing about them compels us to learn anything new. A game can compel you to learn or develop a new skill in order to progress. This, in turn, means games should be simple, ultimately relying more upon the player's ability to learn and execute to provide a "satisfyingly difficult" feeling, and subsequent reward to the player. On the subject of that simplicity, when was the last time you read a game's instruction manual. Admittedly, that's a split point as games have forced... Compulsory... Tutorials... Ick. But it still stands. The game is here to test your play (mostly) rather than your reading comprehension. Cool. For an immediate demonstration of this, look at the recent patch notes for popular MOBA League of Legends. The game added a few features to the UI specifically to drive home that the game should be about your skills and choices, especially in the moment, rather than simple rote knowledge.

Likewise, simplicity emphasizes the play experience above all. We all much prefer playing the game to spending endless hours digging through our rule books. This is why playing Chaos Space Marines offers such a dissatisfying experience, as there's an almost inescapable amount of time that ends up spent on the Mutation table, lest your army have ignored a rule it pays for. Conversely, consider Magic's design philosophy, which tops out at featuring six or seven lines of text on one card, and restricts such wordy cards to being few and far between (more complex cards carry higher rarity symbols, to speak plainly). Both games have done extensive work key wording their abilities, but we see significant divergence between the two in how non-keyworded abilities are handled. Though this is a bit of an apples and pears comparison, it serves to segue into an in depth analysis of what the three main miniature systems (40k, WM/H, X-Wing), and along the way we'll touch on our pear comparison further with Magic to see how it fares when graded on design.

Finally, players want options. This ties into my next point, but also reflects the teachings of Sun Tzu. Players want the ability to compose forces or create characters which are either reflective of themselves, and compliment the way they play and think, or are opposite themselves, and force them to think in new ways, ultimately expressing a variety of strengths and weaknesses. This helps play up the notion of player skill as it relates to game play, as well as adhering to the notion that a commander must use the right tool for the right job.

Before we dig into those specific per system analyses, we have to come to an understanding on something, and that thing is this. No system is free of abstraction, and it falls equally to designer and player to establish immersion in order to alleviate those abstractions which are made in the name of simplicity. No game which is ever played from an omniscient third person perspective will ever depend on your ability to pull a trigger and make a shot. Here we defer to The Art of War and understand that commanders can only make the best tactical decisions available to them, but must ultimately rely on troops in the field to obey and execute as required. Now, without further ado, analysis!

For our scoring system, we'll assume a base 5 out of 10. Shocking, I know, I'm not assuming systems are not designed at all, but rather randomly compiled, and therefore begin at zero. Points will be awarded for good design choices, and deducted for poor ones. Scores below 5 indicate poorly designed systems, and above 5 indicates something well designed. A ten isn't some Holy Grail and automatically should become someone favorite game, as there are outside features to account for, but nevertheless I'd like to be able to say "though not my cup of tea, it is well designed". For the purposes of this exercise, no credit is awarded for models, balance (internal or external), pricing, or release schedule. We are looking solely at design.

We shall begin with X-Wing, a game still in its infancy, still being beta tested so to speak. In fact, they're still sorting out some of the finer balance tweaks, to the tune of two FAQs this past week: one to the rulebook and the other to tournament play. And at first blush, X-Wing really really rocks at simplicity. For a game that bills itself with a 50 minute play time, it delivers (mostly, there is some fuss with setup) and such a feat isn't possible with a system that requires any significant amount of time spent in rule books. Pilots contain a whole three lines of text about the rules they do or don't break, and there's not an exceptionally high degree of interaction or counter play so much as there is decision making with actions and/or expending tokens. However, the game does demand a certain degree of rote memorization to determine how movements shake out, and there's a significant degree of abstraction to be found in in the way range bands work, as well as their dice system which doesn't manipulate quality of dice, but simply quantity. Unfortunately, likewise, Sun Tzu did not live in an era in which dogfights were possible, and his remarks ring only half true for X-Wing. Territory is hard to control or contest in dogfights, but nevertheless maneuverability is key to victory in many ways for this system. Let's call this system a 7 out of 10 for design. It is still young, but nails it big time on simplicity. That said, there's still significant memorization, and playing missions beyond "kill each other" requires a player of each faction and some manner of scenario creation, either from designed missions, or from cooperation with your opponent. The game nets a 7 through pick-up-and-play rules and easy to grok (grasp, understand, fully comprehend) pilots which allow for deviation from base rule set, and extensive options allowing for a broad diversity of player in choice for list construction. The system neither wins nor loses points for the structuring of "opposing faction" mission design, as it promotes immersion at the cost of player choice. Finally, the system loses a point for the mechanical skill associated with memorizing movement types and flight patterns. The system's major abstractions are that the game only takes place in 2D space, rather than the 3D of a true dogfight, and lasers all seem to have the same arbitrary range that they fall off at. A solid start, let's see if any of our seasoned competitors can do better.

Next, we'll hit WM/H. Again, this is another straightforward system. No charts to memorize, terrain behaves predictably, and per unit information presented on stat cards, not unlike X-Wing. It should then likewise come as no surprise that the system "must" be so straightforward, for the sake of its similar 50 minute round time. Key wording is more extensive than the simple symbol key codes associated with X-Wing, and the terms are logical. If X-Wing took home three points for its design positives, I am compelled to award WM/H 4 points, for the system offers even more diversity, in spite of per model customization, courtesy of theme listing, and a variety of war casters. Likewise, this same list theming would ordinarily award the system a point toward immersion, but it is offset by the understanding that partaking of a theme list means your odds of encountering someone with "identical" forces spikes (there's a commentary coming on the legend rule for Magic, mark my words). Unfortunately, I have to dock the system a whopping two points for one reason above all others, the caster kill. This, almost single-handedly, is the worst piece of design in any of the game we are discussing here, as it conflicts with the remainder of the system's design philosophy on a fundamental level. Having your caster die means you lose, which compels you as a player to either play defensively with your caster (whatever happened to play like you've got a pair?) or you can play aggressively and watch as the game becomes frustratingly akin to playing tag with a rocket launcher. Otherwise, notable abstractions are a lack of "defensive" commands for units (they're assumed to be fighting for their lives already), and the fact that quality of dice is never improved or reduced, but your prowess is only reflected through volume of skill, and additional dice may be bought through resources and dice are treated as a raw stat. This leads to a few odd moments where infantry can rip apart a warjack but that same jack can fail do much more than give the other guy a cut on his face, hinging on the volatility of your dice at any particular moment. Thus does WM/H net itself a 7/10. Similar to X-Wing, but if you're a fan of Go, you'll likely find WM/H's adhesion to Chess bothersome.

Continuing along, we shall sample our pear. After all, we still bill our self as a 40k blog, and who would we be if we didn't size up each competitor before our poster child? Magic, just like the other two, comes out of the gate swinging. Each card contains all its own rules, and there's a finite amount that WotC has determined to allow onto any single card, and progress in design and errata has vastly increased the "ease of grok quotient", especially with further clarity being introduced as to how "layers" factor into gameplay (look up the cross reference between Humility and Opalescence; then, for added fun, throw in Night of Souls' Betrayal and a Theros god with adequate devotion: the rules all but explode, it's not funny, this kills judges). And let's not forget, the game has 20 some years of product, so players are beyond spoiled for choice (depending on format, but again, promoting choice). So there's a quick 4 points, especially when you factor in the consideration that "scale" is quite easy to from when players come to the basic understanding that a human, even a peasant or peon, is a 1/1. But, alas, here come the rant on the "Legend rule". In Magic, as in all games, there are dudes who are so cool, there's only one of them. Neat, huh? Well, back when the game started, if the other guy had one of these Legends in play, you couldn't cast your copy of that card, until it was gone. And this was icky. Telling folks "I know you wanna be the hero, but it's the other guy's turn now, so you have to wait" sucks. So, they did away with it. Instead, casting a second copy of a Legend caused a "fluffy" hole in the multiverse, and both dudes died. Nice mix of immersion and gameplay. And then, then we were told that having the other dude kill your stuff that way wasn't fun, and so, now you and the other player each only have to track the "Legend rule" for your own stuff. Supposedly this is more fun, but at the very least it's pushing the notion that you and your opponent are from different shards of the multiverse. There. We're done with that. Unfortunately, the game clocking in somewhere between an 8 and 9 on the design scale is a completely misleading conclusion for this exercise, as it does not relate to the principles outlined in The Art of War. At all. It's well designed, to be sure, but not without weaknesses or shortcomings.

And it all boils down to this. 40k. The big dog. The game immediately loses a point for the lack of simplicity. I know we here at Rites have begged for more complexity (especially compared to 5th) but it has been sorely mishandled. The quick reference sheet in the back of codices is doing its very very best to overcome this, but the game features a number of charts and tables which rivals D&D, which for a "competitive" game has made it almost agonizingly difficult to play in the 2-3 hours of a tournament round. Certainly we're all adults and able to remember quite a bit, but even the subtle nuances in wording probably cause us all to pull out each codex and rule book we're playing out of at least twice each (and that can really add up quick if you're using multiple factions). Per game. This is super icky. But this is where my personal tastes have to concede ground to good design. The dataslate format does an amazing job of condensing those rules and points costs which were formerly scattered between 3 or more pages. So, despite personal desires to the contrary, the dataslate is well designed, and therefore deserves to stay. Where 40k starts to reclaim ground is with options, and with a more realistic depiction of warfare, especially warfare as we see it presented by Sun Tzu. The game centers around control of territory and objectives, and construction and positioning of resources is key to victory. Not only that, but 40k has sought to make itself as much about the choices you make in the pre-game as the ones in the moment by removing measurement as a factor relating to victory. Measure any thing at any time and make the right choice based on all the available information.

This relates to Arin's comment on puzzles. Gameplay is satisfyingly difficult when we have only our selves (and sometimes our dice) to blame for things not working out, rather than the empty frustration we feel at "events conspiring" to our demise. Not only that, but it means that you and your opponent are being pitted against one another on a much more immediate playing field, where you're able to play cat and mouse, baiting one another, rather than ending up dissatisfied about wasted resources. The rapid fire rework serves a similar function, allowing for more mobility on most troops choices.Not only that, but the change to "everything scores and some things super score" helps emphasize that notion of controlling territory by proper application of general force while still rewarding the application of specific force.

This segues into the abstractions of the system, as well as its immersions. Abstractions are associated with a "dice quality" system, meaning that troops can fail even the simplest of tasks, from 3" charges, to point blank shots. Conversely, the game surrounds players with immersive fluff, especially in the new dataslate format which has brought with it faction specific objectives and formations, helping players identify the different ways different forces fight.

These factors sum up to award 40k an 8/10, even in spite of the complexity which is bogging down an otherwise excellent system (balance and price complaints notwithstanding). I'll be perfectly honest, I wasn't expecting to give 40k that kind of a score at the end of the day, especially with how much I've been enjoying X-Wing and how frustrated I've been with 40k at times. I know this review has been immensely refreshing for me in terms of stepping back and adjusting my focus, netting me perspective, and can only hope that between drawing attention to Sequelitis, and referencing some degree of outside sources, I've lent my argument credibility and offered new paths for you to travel down.

So, am I right? Am I wrong? Was I overly critical or too forgiving on some points? How about games or systems I've missed? Hit the comments and let your voice be heard!

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