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"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

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

5th Edition Evolution

Most of you don't know this, but I love to design games in my spare time. Board games, RPGs, and dozens of things that never even get played by my friends... it's just what I love to do. Making and modifying games has been a big part of my life for over a decade and a half now, and with any luck it will someday become my career.

40k is my big obsession. Despite it's flaws, there's really something about the universe and the basics of the system that appeals to me. It's fun. But it could be better. A lot better.

6th is dropping soon, and things aren't going to get better. How can we know that? Few reasons:

1.) GW doesn't playtest. Or if they do, they do an absolutely shit job of it. The problems that get missed in their products are so incredibly obvious it takes most of us all of a day to identify most of them. This applies to everything they put out, from board games to codecies to rulebooks.
2.) All the rumors are bad. When people point out that you can't judge individual rumors in isolation, that's true. However, what we are hearing is absolutely terrible. Will random charge distances ruin the game? No. Are they still bad? Yes. Nothing we've heard actually seems to be a good change, everything points to a totally random and un-fun experience.

3.) Every edition is a new game. Here's the real killer. GW only ever VERY loosely bases their new edition rules on the old. Every edition is practically a brand new game. That's an issue, because it means that everything we learned about the game over the past few years is worth nothing. You think the problems of 5th are going to be fixed in 6th? Maybe, but only by accident. Instead, you can say hello to a whole edition's worth of new problems.


So let's talk a bit about how you should be designing and balancing a wargame. A few points that relate to the above:

1.) You must playtest. And you must do it an obnoxious amount. If you do it right, it feels pointless, because everything is working. This does not happen during any of the first few games. If everything seems to be working, it's not. Some things aren't obvious until many, many games. Your best playtesters are also your most annoying ones: the ones who break everything, don't really care about the fluff, and build lists that make people want to quit. Like a lot of the people on the internet. =)

I designed a mech RPG once, where characters could design custom battle suits by filling hard points. It worked really well our first few sessions, but then players started to break things. There were suits that were all linked chain-guns with a specific anti-armor class bonus, suits that eschewed everything but armor and a single heavy weapon and were invincible, and most notable, a suit that had a weapon that increased in power the more energy you put into it, and about a billion batteries. These weren't obvious problems during my design process, as they were all what I thought were minor, balanced things that would work. It was only when players decided to max things that their crazy nature became apparent.

D&D 3.5 is an awesome example of a problem of assumption and lack of (good) playtesting. D&D 3.5 was not a balanced game, not in the slightest. Some classes are so absurdly better than others that it's a total joke. But it's not totally obvious. The wizard is an excellent example class, because if you play it traditionally
it's totally balanced. By traditionally, I mean as a “blaster” wizard, that is, you take spels like fireball, lightning bolt, and a few support things. You DPS and life is good.

However, someone figured out a build that has been dubbed the
Batman Wizard. And it's awesome. The basic idea is that you don't need to be slinging damage as a wizard, because you can be much more powerful with utility spells. You basically max out your save-or-suck and save-or-die spells. Fireball is cool, but it turns out Mass Sleep is much better. Prismatic Spray wins combats, not Lightning Bolt. If you're group has a wizard like that, everything sort of goes to hell. He's way more powerful than his group members, you can't just tailor encounters to him. All your really left with is house ruling, player agreements, and maybe you go really far and fundamentally alter the game system to bring him more in line.

That's where most problems come up in games: you designed something to work a specific way, (like thinking that all wizards will be blasty) and then someone with a totally different viewpoint comes along and breaks it in half, because they just use it in a fundamentally different way.

That's why you NEED playtesters: to catch things that you can't, because your brain just doesn't go there.

(Okay, yes, I know GW has actual playtesters.  And maybe they are good and the designers just ignore them.  All I know is what I see on the end, and the product makes it pretty obvious.)

2.) Randomness should be reduced when possible. But it shouldn't be eliminated. Rolling dice is an essential part of the wargame, and actually does add to the fun.

That's an odd kind of statement, at first glance, because dice rolling itself isn't really fun. Nobody ever gets into really rolling a die, it's the stuff behind it that makes it meaningful and fun.

I designed another game that was a sort of medieval battle simulator. (I had a lot of those kind of models back in the day...) I decided to completely eliminate dice from it, instead units would have set stats and bonuses that interacted. You'd move, attack, and you'd just do a bit of math to figure out damage, so no chance could screw you over!

It was awful.

If you just move units into each other, it's dispassionate, it's boring. There are games that do this and do it well, (looking at you, Chess and Go!) but they're also games we know are balanced, and have very restrictive rulesets. (Comparatively speaking)

In essence, the more balanced your game is, the less it needs randomness. The less balanced it is, the more you need randomness to cover it up. If your game is not very random, but it is very unbalanced, that will be extremely obvious right away to anyone. It takes a lot of skill to see two 40k lists and know that one is clearly better, but if a chessboard gives one side 2 additional queens, you don't need more than a glance to tell what's wrong. That's why my game wasn't any fun, because it wasn't balanced. (And I probably wasn't a good enough designer at the time to make it.)

However, dice and chance serve one other very important function: they bring the player into the game. There was an interview a while ago on BoLS with Alessio Cavatore, and he said something that stuck with me: he said that rolling dice is fun, or more specifically, the “gambling element” is fun.

That's not really true, though. What's fun about dice rolling is that it physically brings you into the game in a way that moving models doesn't. When you pick up a bunch of dice to fire your boltguns, there's a sense that you're the one
firing, and there's at least a little bit of a sense that you're on the field, waging the war. It's immersion, allowing the player to interact with their troops, the enemy, and the game universe. THAT'S what's fun about rolling dice.

That's also why some rolls make sense, and others are just a pain. Dangerous terrain tests, for instance, aren't really fun. It's gambling without a prize, and it doesn't make sense. One of the things that just gnaws at me every time I see it is when Tyranid Gargoyles fly into a forest... and 1/6 of them hit trees and die. If birds had that kind of record in real life, they'd be extinct. That kind of dice rolling isn't fun, because it doesn't make sense, it's just an arbitrary punishment, where the only outcomes are punishment or status quo. It's nothing like making combat rolls!

That's also why thing like random charge distances are bad- all it can do is mess with someone's strategy, it doesn't add anything to the game, except make it more random to cover up the deficiency. People say that 8
th ed Fantasy is much more balanced than 7th, and I believe it- it's certainly a hell of a lot more random, so I don't know how you can even really tell what is and isn't in line.

I don't know if 8
th ed Fantasy is doing worse (though I can say it's all but dead locally). I can, however, point to another GW game that was EXTREMELY random that completely tanked: Dreadfleet. I actually own a copy, and it's sort of fun, but it's about as balanced as two horses tied to a see-saw, and completely, utterly random. And it failed. Sold terribly, eventually a lot of copies were recalled and destroyed.

There's no reason 40k can't slim down a bit on the rolling, but that can only happen with good playtesting and continuous rules design. Which brings us to our final point:

3.) You should update your edition, not abandon it for a new one. Every time a new edition of a GW game comes out, it completely changes the rules. Yes, basic things stay: to hit rolls, to wound, armor, vehicle damage chart existing, etc. But that's not enough.

GW doesn't really playtest, but when you change editions, you actually have the biggest, most valuable playtest of all already complete: the last edition of the game. That's what you should look at, not “Let's rewrite from scratch and put in crazy stuff” but “How can we fix what we have to bring it more in line with what we want?”

th edition is broken. We like to say that it's the most balanced edition yet, and that is true. However, no one would say it's perfect. It has a bevy of issues that need to be addressed.

Too bad GW has
no idea what they are.

And they never will, because they never evolve an edition, they just make a new one instead. Also, I would be shocked if they actually kept up with blogs and tournament winners.

The studios byline has always been that 40k is a “beer and pretzels” game, that shouldn't be played seriously. That everyone should just enjoy rolling dice, and that competitive players should lighten up. That no one should care who wins or loses.

I don't think that way because I'm not five years old. Any kind of competition has a winner and a loser, and being the winner is better. That's something so basic that I just don't even feel like explaining it. I understand why some players have that view: they play very casually, to blow off steam, they don't really care about the outcome. (Though in the end, it's always more fun to be the winner, even in that situation.) That's fine. I don't really care about those players, however you like to game, more power to you, etc. I'm glad they enjoy it. But for a designer to have that attitude is, frankly, insulting.

Games should be designed around their highest level of play. If you can achieve something close to balance (it's never perfect, but you can get pretty close) then it trickles down: all your other, lower levels get balanced as well. Sometimes you have to make a few small, other tweaks, but for the most part, it's all good.

That's the thing: if you make a balanced high level game, everyone is happier. High level people are happier, because the field of competition increases and their army options explode. Mid level people are happy because the system makes sense and it's easy to see how it can be climbed. Low level people are happy because it means they don't run into nearly as many matchups against people who crush them purely on list strength.

And you can only achieve that kind of balance through evolution. Guessing, even when done with an educated gut, is wrong more often than it is right when it comes to game design. We need continuous updates and a staff that pays attention to the high levels of play. (After all, the high levels of play are essentially your continuous public playtest.) We need technical writing in the rulebook. We need designers who care that most units in most codices are considered to be godawful.

I could go on, but that's enough about balance for now, I think.


So what can we do?

We can evolve 5
th. That's not going to be easy. We'll need a lot of work, a lot of coordination, a lot of support, and a dash of luck. Anyone who off-the-cuffs a rules system is going to fail. That is a certainty. It will only work if big events start to get behind the new system. (And all it really takes is one, to “prove” it.) However, with GW exiting the independent tournament system, and 6th edition looking to be as bad as it is, now is the ideal time to try.

I don't know if I'm going to try to create an evolution edition for 40k. I'd love to, of course, if I can get the support. I'm well poised for such an endeavor, set up and about to enter a time in my life when I have time to work on it. It's my passion and a good portion of my thoughts, and I am seriously considering it.

For now, I've written down what I think are some of the problems in 5
th edition- these are some of the things that need to be fixed to make it really great. It's by no means an exhaustive list, I've only been working on it the past few days, and I expect it to grow by quite a bit. Some of these problems are small, some are large, and they're in no particular order. I have solutions for many of them, but I won't post them here. Perhaps I'll do a follow up with some, and my rationale.


1.) The AP system often doesn't come into play, and cover doesn't interact with other saves.
(This is probably the biggest complaint from new players- it's totally counterintuitive that taking cover, in many cases, does not help you weather fire.)

2.) Light vehicles are too difficult to kill, heavy vehicles are too easy to kill.

3.) Transports are too difficult to kill in melee, and provide too much assault-insulation to the men inside.

4.) Wound allocation can easily be abused to reduce casualties.

5.) Vehicles moving and shooting have poor rules.
(Another complaint, that tanks just shut down when moving, that is very frustrating.)

6.) Cover and LOS blocking are poorly defined, and vehicles and monstrous creatures suffer as a result.

7.) Building rules just suck.

8.) There's no defined amount of terrain types or sizes.

9.) Rapid-fire weapons just don't get much play.

10.) Weapon skill is too normalized at 4, and the chart doesn't have enough variation.

11.) Melta is better than plasma in almost all cases.

12.) Anti-infantry heavy weapons are almost always worthless when compared to anti-tank heavy weapon options.

13.) Assault is a lesser option to shooting i.e. you need to be able to pull punches or weather shooting.

14.) Instant death is too punishing.

15.) Death or Glory has odd placement.

16.) There's no reason not to find the most powerful unit and take it over and over again.

17.) There's a lot of rolling that adds nothing to the game, but punishes the player.

18.) Some wargear options offer a chance of penalty. Most wargear options are just bad.

19.) Rules are written scatter-shot throughout the book, making reference extremely difficult.

20.) Many rules are poorly, vaguely written, and need better definition.


It's not easy to fix a lot of these. It'll require a whole new book to be written, with solutions implemented and a line-by-line restructuring of the game. Basically, what a designer SHOULD be doing when putting out a new edition.

I'm already starting.  I want to be ready to go when 6
th drops.  I want to start getting support and infrastructure for the project going now.  I would call this something simple for now, like Project: Evolution, but I'm nothing if not a 40k junkie, so I think the name is already decided for us.

Time to start laying the groundwork on Project: Biomorph.

There will be no morning post to ensure this gets enough time in the spotlight - let the discussion begin.

EDIT:  There are some of you who think this is a waste of time, and that's fine.  But I don't really care.  Given that I spend most of my free time dreaming up games and thinking about game systems, this really isn't work for me, because it's the kind of thing I would be doing anyway.  Most of them never get played, and 95% never get played more than once.  I love the process, regardless the outcome.  If 6th does come out, and it's awesome, I'll just play that, but it seems quite unlikely.

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