Kirb your enthusiasm!


"Pink isn't a color. It's a lifestyle." - Chumbalaya
"...generalship should be informing list building." - Sir Biscuit
"I buy models with my excess money" - Valkyrie whilst a waitress leans over him

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Company Embraces the 'Net

Recently, I've become quite charmed by Dystopian Wars. (That's a portion of my badly photographed fleet to the left. WHY U NO WORK CAMERA?!)
For those of you who don't follow the 'lil wargames that pop up, Dystopian Wars is a combined arms steampunk wargame, primarily focusing on naval engagements. It plays quite well, even though the rules are quite MK1.

The first thing I always do when I start up a new game is go look at the forums and fansites. I don't think I have to tell any of the readers of this blog that the e-community is probably the fastest way to getting good at your wargame of choice.

Now, something strange happened when I got onto Spartans forums, particularly the rules section. The mods seemed to be handing down official rulings... actually, not the mods, those are the game designers. Not only clarifying/shaping rules, but actually watching and occasionally posting in conversations all over the site.
Then, there's stuff like this. (Yes, each word is a link.) Turns out Spartan wants to balance their game badly enough that they're willing to patch it on the fly, updating old models, re-balancing fleets and even rewriting core rules; then releasing them on the internet before any official revised printing happens.

The thing I find so interesting about this is that it means Dystopian Wars is a wargame that has, basically, a living rule set. It's a freaking blissful thing to have, and good god do I wish all companies would do it. Why?

1.) It allows for the ultimate playtest group: everyone. Spartan monitors the forum in addition to their own playtest groups, where there is constant discussion of unit balance and game function. If something's terrible, or way to good, they know about it fast.

2.) Units can be patched. Entire armies have already received much-needed buffs, and many underpowered units have recieved significant upgrades. (And downgrades, as needed.) I don't have to worry nearly as much about buying a unit and having it be useless until the next dex, as new stats could come out at any time.

3.) Rules can be clarified before publication. Everyone knows that wargaming rulebooks are often a nightmare to navigate and understand, with scattershot rules and very specific, and often very vague, wordings. By releasing rules ahead of time, and reading what the community is asking, unclear rules can be tidied up in time for publishing, and important rules can be better signposted.

This kind of dedication has really captured me, because it makes it abundantly clear that spartan wants to deliver a quality product when it comes to models AS WELL as rules.

Something that's been killing me with 40k is that it's pretty obvious the games designers aren't actually very good at designing- they seem to be there primarily to write fluff and come up with cool units, but they aren't very good at the actual implementation of rules. When you enjoy a strict, balanced game, like a lot of us do, it's really a killer. Eventually, every new 'dex is just depressing: "Oh, I see that you released about 1-2 good units in every slot. Won't this be fun. I pity the people who just buy models because they look cool."
Honestly, this kind of embracing the 'net is what wargaming as a hobby needs. We need patching, and we need balance, because not only does it improve the game, but it brings the community together.

Something I find very interesting is that the divide between "hobby" and "competitive" wargames exists with a LOT more distinctiveness for 40k players than it does for a lot of other systems. In some games, like warmachine, it doesn't seem to be a thing at all.

I can't bring myself to attribute this to a size-of-playerbase kind of thing; after all, Warmachine is still pretty big but it doesn't have that problem. Why is that? I think it's because Warmachine makes much more of an effort to be balanced. Even the suboptimal choices in Warmachine are very rarely actually BAD; they just tend to be a little less good than some of their counterparts. But in 40k, bad units really are BAD- generally completely worthless except for a few, corner-case situations.

So in a game like Warmachine or Dystopian Wars, if you pick the suboptimal units, you can still play. Even if you know very little about army building or composition, even if you only pick models off of what "looks coolest", you can still be reasonable sure you won't get stomped when playing some random at the club. Not so with 40k; more often than not if you bring your "cool" army you'll get wrecked. What's even worse is that the army the fluff will lead you to believe that you should build will often lead you to some of the worst lists you can make.

I think that's the basis of most of the divide, then. Because if all you care about is fluff, aesthetics and the universe, it's only enough to let you play on the very basic very shitty level. Being good at 40k requires a lot of research, list building, and comparative analysis, because it's not well balanced and so the best lists squeeze the most mileage out of every one of your 2000 points. As a "hobby" player, it's incredibly frustrating to show up at the store and get completely stomped just because you didn't bother to research what the best lists are bringing and why... is it becoming obvious why so many people disdain "netlists"?

Thus, the living rule set. Up-to-date unit cards, balanced factions, and no worries that a "fluff" fleet and "tournament" fleet are so miles apart that it isn't even the same game. An integration of gameplay, and thus an integration of the community.

I do also understand the counter-argument to the rules update, which is that some people just don't want to have to check. I get that, it's a lot of work to keep up with lots of changes over time, and not get confused by a shifting set. But I don't think that's a very good excuse at all. For one, changes tend to be minor- a re-balancing of what we have, not constant huge changes like new editions of 40k. Second, it tends to be a good thing. After all, have you heard any complaints after the older marine codecies got updated wargear in the FAQs? 'Cause I sure didn't. Third, it doesn't have to matter: the gamer at home, who plays with his group of friends and doesn't check for updates, doesn't need them. The game for him is fine as is; re-balancing doesn't matter. For the gamer at the store, there's always at least ONE person who is plugged into the net, and keeps people up to date. These things work themselves out nicely when released into the community.
I doubt that many companies will follow Spartan's lead and really embrace the idea of a living ruleset, but it is an intriguing idea and a good design policy. It's rapidly making Dystopian Wars one of my favorite games, so you can all look forward to hearing about it a bit more in the future. (Cue complaining, too bad!) It's real fun and the company impresses the hell out of me. Stay classy, Spartan.

And a haaaaaaaaappy neeeeeew yeeeeeeeeeear! =D

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