Wargaming Differences

The group of gamers I know who have been playing 40K have basically called it quits and are looking for a new game. So someone recently asked me, “What do you think of Warmachine?” Now, I haven’t played Warmachine under the most current set of rules, but I played a pretty mean Khador list under the last set of rules… And I mentioned my lack of current experience in my answer but basically said, “It’s a cool game, I think it’s great, but it’s not for me.” And of course, the follow-up question was, “Why not?” I was at work at the time so I was saved from answering on the spot – but I’ve had time to think about it, and I realized that it really comes down to differences in how wargames/minis games play. Everything from how turns are played out to how armies are built, and some other stuff in between.

First, and easiest to put out there, I’m frustrated by playing minis games/wargames where one side takes its whole turn and then the other player goes… this works well enough for me in Risk, but there’s a reason I like Diplomacy better… I mean, after all, I can’t tell you the number of games of Godstorm Risk have been decided on the final player’s final turn… but I digress. My favorite miniatures games of this style I’ve ever played are Battletech and D&D/Star Wars minis. What was so refreshing about them is that things happened in waves, or segments of a turn. For example, in Battletech, everyone moves and then everyone shoots – and all the action is happening in a continuous manner. Initiative matters a lot for critical positioning and tactical movement, but even the final impact of initiative can be mitigated with solid play. I much prefer this to the Warhammer/Warmachine experience of getting hosed by someone’s whole army and having no real response because, you know, everything on my side is dead… (which is an exaggeration, but it makes the point, and has happened a few times).

I played Mage Knight and HeroClix and D&D Minis and Star Wars minis (and do you get the impression I like these types of games?) but the experience of MK and HC was always a little tainted for me by the turn order issue – though at least these two games attempted to mitigate this type of play with limited activations. Frustrating. With D&D minis the flow was nice – I activated a few guys, then you did, then I did, then you – until we’d activated everything. The give and take made the game more tense, interesting and fair. We (as the incredibly generalized community I’m calling, Gamers) talk all the time about balance and OP stuff – but this basic tenet of game play is, for me, one of the worst offenders against quality play.

The second part of my answer is also reflected in the parallels between games.* I find myself frustrated by the “deck-building” and “arms race” mentality of a lot of these style of games. Look at 40K. The new editions, new codex books, sub-rules, etc. Honestly, I can pretty much step up to a 40K table and tell as soon as I see the other guy’s army if the game is worth playing. By which I mean – is the next 2-3 hours of my life going to be a fun experience even when I lose – or – is the next 2 hours going to be me wishing I was at home reading a book because I’m wasting my time being target practice for this other player. And that’s completely discounting play-skill… The potential imbalances in that game are that serious. I’ve had similar experiences with Warmachine, but again, I haven’t played the newest version of the rules.

Heroclix has the same problem. We had a rule in the shop where we played that you could just flat-out refuse to play someone if their team was too “twinky.” Didn’t stop people from playing twinky builds – just meant less games ended up getting played. Which is both good and bad.

Again, I prefer (and these are only my opinions) the play style of Battletech. The game is tied very closely to its fluff (something I’ll come back to in a minute) and so the “arms race” mentality doesn’t really exist. It isn’t about the hot, new rare pieces or the signature characters – I can pretty much guarantee that if two sides in a battle are balanced by BV that the game will be a tight one, no matter what’s on the field… this, of course, presumes that the players are playing with the same tech level. But again, that’s tied to the fluff and so it’s likely they will be. And any imbalances created by the universe (such as the initial appearance of the Clans) is quickly balanced and accounted for – or is built into scenarios as a handicap.

The point is, I don’t want my wargame to be Magic: the Gathering. I don’t want the battle pretty much decided before my opponent and I even take the field. I want to be sure that what we play matters – but how we play matters more.

Finally, I don’t like exceptions… Specifically what I’m pointing out here is things like 40K’s army organization charts… You have to have one HQ and two Troops – except… How many times have I played an all Terminator army? Because, you know, they all count as troops because I included so and so in my army… Really? Really? That’s only one example, but 40K is full of rules that make no sense like this – because they are exceptions to core rules – most of which were designed to make the game work a certain way. And when altered, the game doesn’t play that way anymore. And that’s a bummer.

As an aside on the fluff issue… I started playing Battletech and getting into the fluff of the universe. One of my favorite things is that the fluff and the game mesh very well. The same thing can be said of 40K, I started playing and getting into the fluff. I love the 40K fluff – but I can’t stand the game. One component of that is the fact that the game and the fluff are divorced. They don’t reflect one another and the play of the game does not, in any way, match up to what the fluff sets up. Frustrating.

As always, thanks for reading – and if you know of any games that play more like Battletech and less like 40K but have a fantasy bent, I’d love to hear about them.

*Please note – I’m not trying to make a judgment of these games – I recognize that a lot of people love 40K and Warmachine. Heck, I think Warmachine is a very clever game made by people who love what they do… it’s just not for me. And these are the reasons why. That is all.

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10 responses

  1. Warmachine is a really, really great game that’s trying to do it’s absolute hardest to be the worst game it could possibly be. At the Battlebox level, it’s really a thing to behold… but because it’s desperate to ramp up to levels the system simply can’t support it’s terrible.

    I’ve really grown to hate the crap out of it.

    1. I’m sorry to hear this… you were the one who introduced me to the game a few years ago and I know you really liked it.

      1. In a way, I’m sorry to say it. I loved the shit out of the game for a good year and a half… but they keep scaling it up where it shouldn’t be instead of scaling it down where the game sings.

        It’s okay, though, I’ve finally started offloading all of my WM/H stuff just over the past few weeks. I’ve still got a heap of stuff to list, and I’ve already paid for my next ~2 40K armies.

  2. What you look for in war games, is the same thing that is one of my primary requirements of board games – I can’t be a passive observer for too long.

  3. I think you would enjoy the “Lord of the Rings: Strategic Battles Game”. Each turn is resolved “in waves” (using your own words): one player moves his troops, then his opponent does the same, the first player resolves his ranged attacks, then his opponent, and finally all melee are resolved at the same time. No player has time to get bored. It’s really exciting.

    Another option would be “Battles of Westeros”, based on the books by George R. Martin. The battlefield is a hex-board (sorry, I don’t know its proper name in english) and the basic box contains all the troops you need for Houses Stark and Lannister. Each turn both players alternate giving ONE order to one or several of his units (which can usually move and/or attack). No player has to wait for the other to finish moving all his troops (as in Warhammer, for example). The game has a strategic depth that no game of WH or WH40K that I’ve seen so far could achieve. You should really give it a chance, for your words I think this is what you’re looking for. 😉

    1. I did tinker with the LotR battle game. I liked it — I just didn’t have anyone to play it with — and I think your point about 40K is valid. It doesn’t have a lot of strategic depth. This is something I’ve talked with others about a lot.

  4. I know exactly what you are talking about here. I agree and think that the “all of my turn then all of your turn” is simply lazy design philosophy. This is especially true in games where those turns can take a load of time due to other negative elements in the game, such as excessive analysis paralsis and mechanics that add a ton of depth or breadth without really improving the tension or enjoyment. These are the reasons I’ve been soured by wargames in general: the satisfaction/time quotient is just too low.

    Though I hadn’t seen Battles of Westeros in action yet, I heard it was well made. Other suggestions I have are not really wargames per se but more like boardgames that simulate the epic feel of wargames without the huge time commitment. Games like Chaos in the Old World, A Game of Thrones and many of the other games by Fantasy Flight are just superb at this. And they also understand the necessity of predetermined game length limits, which prevents garbage like sitting back, building up your empire and waiting for your opponents to make a mistake just so you can have a single titanic battle when the opponent is too tired or bored to care anymore.

  5. Dave,

    That’s an interesting point about fixed game lengths. I’m actually not a fan of fixed game lengths (again, taking something like Risk: Godstorm for example). The turns and the fixed length become an element that a player who just wants to win can bank on. Like I said, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a game go to the last turn and then everything happens in that last moment to change everything. I’m sure they have the fixed length can have upsides if it is handled better. Do those games do anything to prevent that?

    1. Well sure, game designers have the capacity to design in ways to prevent that type of thing. IMHO, most of the Risk: Dicegame series are based on the limited strategic decision making so the core mechanic “dice game” doesn’t get covered up too much. Sure, they throw in alot of theme and fluff, but there isn’t a whole lot to improve it overall.

      Both of the games I mentioned use these design strategies…

      Chaos is an asymmetric strategy game where the players are the ruinous powers trying to destroy the “Old World”. There are multiple paths to victory, and everyone’s paths to those goals are not the same. For example, the blood god gets stronger when they kill enemy figures, while the others get stronger when they corrupt different types of regions. The areas they are interested in are generally random game to game so their interests may or may not overlap, leading to a great deal of replayability. Also, if the game ends without a winner (defined in three different ways, with priority given to harder ones), then the Old World wins. It doesn’t pay to wait, because you have to make use of your energy while you have it to further your goals, while trying to limit the advancements of your rivals. There are also limited (and asymmetric) unit counts, so even unopposed, you’ll be “maxed out” pretty fast, so to speak. This game is best with 4 or 5 players (if you have the exp).

      In A Game of Thrones, the players have only a limited number of “armies” they can have, which is defined as an area with 2+ units, because that is limited by supply (one of several strategic resources). All regions can receive an order, which are placed secretly during the planning steps (ala Diplomacy), but only a limited number of “attacks”, “supports”, “raids”, “consolidate power” etc. The players also have limited house-themed cards to influence combat. Ties are broken through the ingenious use of the three influence tracks: basically Throne, Sword and Raven. Throne determines turn order, with first place having the power to decide non-combat ties. The Sword track the same for combat (with +1 strength once per turn for first place) and the Raven gives access to better orders and the special ability to swap an order for first place. Players bid their available power on these auctions (also a strategic resource). These elements allow the game to be totally dice-less! Players try to aim for enough cities/fortresses to get an instant win. Even without that, if the game ends after 10 turns, there are many ways to break ties, and if somehow those all match up anyways… it’s simply a draw. It’s not so simple to look at the board at-a-glance and tell which way the ties would breakdown. This game is probably best with 4 for the base game, with anywhere from 3-6 for the various expansions.

      The “necessity of predetermined game length” comment was more a tangential statement to the point of “all of my turn then all of your turn” that I felt was still an important design element that makes some games shine, while other similar games suck. It’s what separates games like Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Chaos from games like Munchkin, Illuminati, Risk… and hell… even Monopoly. The former games will end whether you are ready for them to or not, while the later games really only end if someone “wins” with Munchkin and Illuminati being famous for “balancing” the game with so called “screw you” powers that only serve to drag the game out longer. The former grouping have increasing tension as the game end gets closer, while the later has increasing frustration as the game end is pushed away yet again.

  6. I see. I missed what you were getting at. I’ve played plenty of games of Illuminati where the game just refused to end because everyone worked at screwing up anyone who came close to their goal even more than trying to win themselves…. while this can be fun(ny) sometimes, other times it’s just a pain.

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