Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why rules should be written for the casual player

"It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience."Albert Einstein, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics,” the Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford, June 10, 1933.

I first discovered wargaming when I was 18 .  The W40K introduction set for 2nd Edition was my first taste of what has become a nearly 15 year obsession with little metal (or plastic or resin) men, and forcibly drew in both the analytical and creative sides of my psyche.  The models were fanciful and unlike anything I had seen to that point, and when fully painted presented a vivid picture of war that I immediately felt a craving to replicate.  The game it had lots of niggling little details to remember, plenty of nuance in how units inter-related and in short many ways to engage my mind in feverish study and calculation - while still being entertainment.

Fast forward nearly 15 years.  I'm now married with a child, a full time job and a part-time attending college addiction (chasing that bachelors degree I never got in my 20s).  Compared to my 18 year old self, the block of time I can set aside for 'me' is pretty limited.  Typically it entails checking at least two people's calendars (my own and my friends), making sure I'm not trampling any family obligations, and most certainly ensuring that I have plenty of husband points to burn off.  I suspect I'm not that dissimilar to many other Americans out there - who for some reason have some innate pathology that makes us budget our time poorly from a work-life perspective.  And because of these time constraints I'm looking for games that are approachable and accessible from a causal gamer's perspective.

Naturally, that begs the question - what does 'being casual' mean?  Well, first off - it doesn't mean you have to be simple.  Games with rules that approach the simplicity of Go (which has incredible depth despite that simplicity) are certainly casual; but that doesn't mean a casual war-game needs to be that simple.  Part of the appeal of a war-game, at least from a rules perspective, is the complexity of interaction between different components - you want some level of rock-paper-scissors in play to give a feeling of depth and tactical achievement.

Yet too many games today are still designed to be innately complex, with either rules that are complicated and hard to grasp (unless you play over and over again) or model interactions that are dazzlingly intricate.  Both are failures rooted in either a blindness about where the market is heading or a desire to keep a game 'pure' and true to its original roots.

Many historical wargames fall in the first trap with their desire to replicate history as closely as possible; the classic example is having humidity tables to determine if your flintlock rifle can fire or if the powder has become too damp.  Sure, that's an exaggeration - albeit a humorous one - but some games are still wrapped up in the idea that gamers want convoluted play that matches some idea of reality.  There are some players out there that want the minutiae of each conflict to be played out the same way over and over again, or that want so much detail because it's required to match their expectations for verisimilitude.  The problem is that, unless your playing the same game over and over again, those little details get lost - and you spend more time looking up rules than playing.  Or even worse, arguing about interpretations of said rules corpus which says X here and Y there, but shouldn't apply because Z says this instead.  The level of commitment required to make these games work just isn't something I can muster anymore, and while I wish the audiences that enjoy these games well I am encouraged to find that most games are (slowly) recognizing this design theory as a flaw.  Leave these details for computer games - where an impartial judge can keep all these factors and more in mind - and make the game easy to pickup after you've blown the dust off.

Unfortunately, several modern games fall into the second trap (complex model interactions) in an attempt to provide the perception of 'depth'.  Each unit seems to have its own special rule, and that rule interacts with another models rule in a different way. Throw in thirty or more models, and six or seven factions, and you get a game where you can't just pickup and play whatever models strike your fancy.  Instead you have to spend time online, figuring out if you have the interactions down pat or not and what sacrifices you have to your ideal lineup for the sake of a fun game.  And even more frustrating, your local group's meta-game (the collection of models in play) may differ from the meta-game discussed online or at conventions, rendering any advice you ferreted out largely inaccurate.

Warmachine and Malifaux seem to be two good examples of this tendency, requiring that you play several games before you 'get' just exactly what your activation order (and action choice) should be against a single opposing force.  Throw in new armies, and you have to learn how to play your own models all over again, as the old tricks just don't work.  My recent drift away from both games has been specifically because of the requirement to keep up to date with what all models can potentially do in order to have a fun, challenging game.  When the folks I play with brought their Crocmen to the table for the first time (Blindwater congregation), my Cryx was quickly tabled in a rather unfun game.  After three games I had developed a decent rythm to know what to do; then he shifted his army layout as a new caster came to the table.  Same basic army, very different style of play - and one I wasn't as prepared for.  Thow in a change to dwarves on my part and we're on game 5 and still feeling each other out.

At the end of the day, I find myself drawn to games written to be easy to pickup no matter how long between play sessions it's been.  Common rules for all models that I can easily reference, a lack of model specific rules and a relatively flat heirachy of unit interactions are what I can find time for these days.  I leave complexity to computer games, and want something I can enjoy as a social event between friends whenever I can find time to meet up with them.  I just wish more wargames understood this trend and made accommodations for it.  To paraphrase Einstein, "Make things as simple as possible, but no more".  Is that too much to ask?


  1. I think I actually have some sympathy for your point of view. I certainly have had my digs at Malifaux of late. It seems to have forgot it was originlly a small simple fun game. I don't look at it in terms of complexity though. For me its layers of rules and the interactions between layers rules. For instance Infinity has an awful lot of rules, but they're each quite simple and importantly are universal. But they're detailed not layered. Malifauxs issue is that all these different layers mean you need to know them all and sadly none of them are universal. The other thing I look at is time commitment. Not only to collect and paint my miniatures but also to play a game. I now find it rare I get the time to play games that last longer than 1 hour 30 mins. Luckily most the games I play fall into this category.

  2. PS, are you actually following my blog?

  3. @FG Yeah, that's been my big turnoff with Warmachine and Malifaux - keeping up with the Joneses in that game is a PITA because of all the special rules. It's partially why I like HG, FoW and Infinity; once you know the rules, you know what to expect, even if one particular army does something with that core set a little differently. That kind of meta-game I can handle.

    And I was 'following' you in the classical sense, but not actually 'following' you in the Blog sense. That's corrected ;D