Friday, March 27, 2015

Spring Cleaning: Checking under the hood for gaming

Spring is in the air. Fresh breezes, new beginnings, an an end to hibernation for many, including myself. After an intermittent dry spell in gaming as I've gotten some of my affairs in order, it's high time for me to do one of my routine self checks. We're a year into 7th, and in that same year, I've really reached into other systems. How am I feeling, what am I seeing, what are different games missing, hit the break and let's see what the diagnostics have to say.

For 40k, we've had a huge year and seen 7th come in with style. Ten releases in about as many months. Wow. Did you blink and miss some? Orks, Space Wolves, Grey Knights, Dark Eldar, Tyranids Wave 2, Blood Angels, Necrons, Harlequins, Khornate Daemonkin, and now Adeptus Mechanicus. Whew. Try saying that 5 times fast. Not all of these are full codices (Grey Knights starting to feel like it shares more with Harlis and Ad Mech), not all of them got model releases, but most of them got supplements. Sure, we've still got the tricky question of "why play the base book when there's the supplement?" but it feels better internally balanced. It feels like there's actually a choice, and quite a complex one at that. In and with this, we've seen the brand new dataslate unit entry format, and, in the wake of Necrons, the 'dataslate' codex.

This, for me is where things get quite heady and forces some necessary if uncomfortable parallels. Since its inception, to my knowledge, WM/H has had theme lists. And at times I've attacked or assailed them on the notion or basis that they're either irrelevant or the buffs they offer are so significant that they "must" be taken, leading to net-listing or cookie cutter list design. And yet, all the while, I and other writers have bemoaned the fact that GW doesn't balance units individually, and likewise in no ways offers any incentives in favor of fluffy army composition. My bias causes me to believe that the Necron codex offers an extremely well rounded play experience. The book has a good standalone internal balance, and their decurion is full of interesting choices. Sure, the Canoptek Harvest is going to pop up in a lot a lot of places, but it feels like the biggest pain point for balance in the book by a wide margin.

But there's a deeper issue or matter lurking here and it is this: at the release of 6th edition, the BRB allowed for two full FOCs at 2k. The outcry and backlash was immediate as large scale events almost unilaterally went to 1999+1. We here at Rites even weighed on this along with a significant chunk of the blogosphere, supposedly finding evidence or articles or interviews and quotes where the devs purportedly had claimed balance for 40k lay at the 1500 point level, and so many of us clung to this notion after years of seeing leafblower guard, Draigowing, and Loganwing wreaking havoc at 1850. It was a convergence that at 1500 the game became rock paper scissors, and many codices could max out certain types of effectiveness at 1850. Likewise, after the release of Apocalypse wherein these massive planetary conflicts were decreed to be 3k+, 2k seemed a big game, one that wasn't the scope of 40k. In the years since, we've seen 'skirmish' games rise. WWX. WM/H. X-Wing. 40k even reissued Kill Team. All or many of these are designed for 50 minute rounds and 4'x4' tables. Where did that leave 40k? Especially as codices have gone to the "everything is a detachment and you take a lot of them" format.

I've been coy about this, but my recent experiences with multiple GW systems, combined with the 'removal' of Apocalypse, the rise of the skirmish game, and the rapid onslaught of the detachment or formation army composition structure leave me to believe very very strongly that 40k is most balanced at about 3000 points. That's really heavy, and I may be totally wrong, but considering that the number of objectives has risen unilaterally, and that Maelstrom, in the absence of large points totals or unit volumes, seems only to reward mobility more and more heavily, I feel I have a strong argument. Let's consider Fantasy and 30k, GW's two other systems. Most of the playerbase I talk to for these systems feels strongly convinced that they're designed as 3k systems. If the same staff is involved in each, would their metrics or methods really change so significantly that this would no longer be the case? And by that same token, I keep hearing a larger number of voices in 40k saying that it's about a company level engagement for marines. Furthermore, as we talk about rock paper scissors at 1500, and how some codices maximize certain choices better at 1850, this does not in any way stipulate that there won't be a tier 1 at 3k, or that some codices are not better than others at large point values, but rather to highlight that most every codex has some more 'niche' options that are often eschewed at 1850, in favor of the maximize X mentality. The razor edge that my argument hinges on is that those same codices or players won't continue to only maximize X at 3000 points, and lead to matchups where players have to bait and switch and apply proper firepower to vulnerable targets or settle for adequacy in the interest of maximizing results in a few spots mid battle.

I touched on some of this above, but this is a growing pain point for me: mobility in 40k. I know we keep touching on it, but the more Fantasy and other games I play, the bigger an issue it becomes. Now, Godfrey is absolutely right, mobility has always been king in 40k (and even significantly in actual warfare), but let's examine why. First and foremost, more units than not move 6" in the movement phase, and if they want more, they have to forgo shooting, or have an enemy unit in range to assault, which poses its own set of choices. Where this goes awry is the fact that 'fast' units, everything from bikes and jump infantry to imperial knights and fast tanks move a full 12", double that of the standard. There's no gradation. That's a problem, especially when not only do those fast choices get more mobility up front, many of them get speed in other places and areas. There's a unique knight who runs and shoots and bikes or fast tanks can forgo shooting to move incredible distances, rather than the random d6" to 6" that many other units move when they forgo their shooting. That's huge, especially when objectives must be a minimum of 12" apart. It's not impossible to hop from one to another, but when you throw terrain between the two points (something increasingly ignored by the fast stuff) it's nigh impossible for a 'normal' unit to pull the quick change for objective control in something like Maelstrom.

And then there's the broader implications: lists which use early mobility to deliver a crushing victory in the opening turns, and those who try to weather the storm (in no small part by means of evasion) and at the end, swoop in to hold objectives as the clock runs out and the game is scored. In some ways, it feels like we're at a very stagnant meta for a game like Magic. We've forced players into two archetypes: control and combo, and in so doing have stifled or choked out midrange or weenie decks. There's no room to grind and create advantage over time, and it's similarly trying to attempt to simply choke the enemy on volume of bodies. Ask Godfrey. He'll tell you he knows all too well that the 30 man boyz blob simply gets kited into oblivion by any half competent Eldar or Dark Eldar player, or even simply run over by marine bikes or bestial daemons lists. At this point, my complaint no longer hinges on GW's inability to properly balance offense, defense and mobility against the points cost of a unit, but instead falls directly on mobility, especially as highlighted or in light of Maelstrom of War missions. It's to the point where I wonder if it's even a worthwhile endeavor to play by the old battle mission rule of "you control a point until an opponent takes it from you" as those turn 6 lists still sweep that format.

This helps us segue beautifully into 30k, a system that myself and many others are hungrily eyeing and tearing into, especially as rumors of plastic kits swirl. And why shouldn't we? Gorgeous kits, eventual love for every legion in the form of kits, upgrades, characters and rules. For me, 30k is sounding a siren song because it offers so many of the best aspects of both 40k and Fantasy. It gets away from what I feel are some of the toxic elements of 40k (movement system) by playing something closer to Fantasy and normalizing or standardizing more points costs. Yes, this leads some to complain that the system is bland or samey, but I feel strongly that the legion rules, rites, and unique units will allow player to adequately distinguish themselves from one another.

We've spoken to this point before on the podcast, but the unique legion aspects and individual player preferences, especially with 3000 points to play in, offer some of those compromising firefights, where you've got to apply firepower correctly to specific opposing threats so as to protect your optimal counters to their list and playstyle in a way not dissimilar to chess. Yes, I've ranted endlessly about my love of Go especially as it applies to wargames, but for your consideration: if you know your opponent loves to utilize their knights, and he knows you prefer your bishops, it's a series of moves and counter-moves for each of you to try to divest the other of those preferred resources while preserving your own.

This brings us to Warhammer Fantasy, a game which has ended (not really). By this, I mean many of us are currently aware of all the "Chicken Little" clickbait that's out there regarding the end of the end times campaign. And it's my understanding, still, that WHFB is not moving wholesale to round bases, nor is GW expected to squat any races (especially not my dear, copyright protect-able Lizardmen). In the midst of all this, the Escalation League has continued swimmingly at my FLGS. My wins are few, but it's been exciting, almost like a breath of fresh air. I've had two large and expansive armies to swap between and it has unquestionably spoiled me. Each week I get to crack open one book or the other and just try something that feels interesting. Like I said, the wins are few, but the learning experience is second to none, and my opponents have been caught off guard by more than a few things from the Lizards, as I seem to be the only one playing them, or at the very least, the only one they've played against. Furthermore, it's been really fun to delve into the unique intricacies of each of my two armies. They share potency in the magic phase, but to radically different ends, and for such a heavily standardized system, each feels wonderfully unique.

At long last, free from the GW systems! And why, you might ask, has been going on in the wonderful world of X-Wing? A big shakeup in the meta, in no small part due to the launch of a new large ship for each of the game's first two factions, as well as A THIRD FACTION! Welcome Scum & Villainy to the fight! So far, the faction has burst onto the scene by bumming three rebel ships, an imperial ship, and launching three of its own. So far, scum seems to be focusing on customization, trickery, and mobility. The ships aren't as overtly potent or powerful, but many of their unique options are extremely potent. This has helped to shake things up in the meta again, allowing greater diversity between swarms of 6+ ships, and new 'it takes two' lists with two elite, powerful ships, never minding hybridized lists working their way between those archetypes. Expect us (or at least me) to keep you guys abreast as Havoc picks up Scum, and that faction continues to grow.

This game has sadly been on my back burner for the last six months or so, as I bought the two player starter, tacked the Lawmen together, and saw my hobby time swallowed up by Lizards and my ongoing war on the Imperial product line. However, two things have lit a fire under me in rapid succession: first, having gotten to throw a coat of primer on my Lawmen (in the wake of talking about them on the podcast) and the second, THEY'RE BACK ON KICKSTARTER! Four new factions, killer deals and inroads for those looking to buy in, and, my personal favorite, aliens. Saw the first bits and pieces of the Watchers line and was hooked. Now, there's been a lot of knee jerk reactions to this: issues raised with the Mexican themed "Golden Army" being deemed "Dirt Farmers" and the Dark Nation faction being home to the "Savage". Might they make sense in the context of the universe or setting? I think so. But the point remains. Nevertheless, I've backed it, and can't wait to get my hands on some Greys. Here's to kicking the game into overdrive and a promising future from it!

Furthest away from all of the above content is Magic. And this part is a bit sad for me. For some time, I've complained, at least privately, about the state of Magic. It started probably around 10th Edition, as we saw legendary creatures reprinted in core sets. It felt really wrong to me, as, even though the Core set was supposed to still show or represent Dominaria (old central plane of the universe), it wasn't supposed to reference or acknowledge any specific point in the plane's history. It was supposed to represent the Core aspects and elements of Magic. Well, sure enough, after 10th, they went to an annual core set format, where planeswalkers and even old keywords or mechanics were reprinted, before, at last, in recent years, the set no longer necessarily represented the core of anything, as new cards were being printed there for the first time. It became a set without a plane, without lore, and without a purpose, so it was dropped. Now, here, at long last, after 6 years off an on of recycling old mechanics to fill out sets, and a horrible recurring habit of A B Z set design wherein the third set had little to nothing mechanically or flavorfully to do with the rest of the block. It was disappointing on many many fronts. So, that too is breathing its last. The design team has announced that the three set block is going the way of the dodo. Standard will still remain the same size pool of cards approximately, covering the last two years of product, and the release schedule will remain largely unchanged. But it feels like it's been a long time coming, and that rather than ask questions about the design staff, the staff decided to throw in the towel and change their product to suit their talent or abilities. Quality may go up, the game may be more enjoyable, but I'm burned by seeing so may failures result in a surrender.

And there we have it. It's been a big year for me in games, and here's a toast to another. It's had ups and downs, highs and lows, but despite my complaints, things really do just keep getting better and better.

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