Monday, November 13, 2023

Wargame Design: We Don't Need Another Warhammer


Those of you who have been reading my blog, interact with me online, or heard some of my interviews know one of my key maxims as a Wargame Designer.  Innovation is Over-rated.  Therefore, you maybe a bit surprised to see an entry with this title.  

I often think of my own development as a wargame designer as Path A.  I started with Dungeons and Dragons in the mid-80's.  Saw and advert for Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader and got into that.  Played that for a long time.  Did time playing the Specialist Games. Then, eventually moved over to historical and other games at some point.  I have heard this exact same story from so many gamers and wargame designers.  Hence, why I call it Path A as it is so common.

Due to this Path A, there is a common Indie Wargamer joke that we all started out trying to build a better Warhammer.  The first "published" rules I ever had were for a variant set of rules called "Jungle Fight" that was published in Firebase #7 a fanzine I found on the Old Warseer forum.  I am pretty sure you can still track them down.  Indeed, much of my early work was "Modding" Specialist Games to fit my campaigns and wants.      

I have sad news for everyone though.  No one actually wants a new Warhammer, well; at least not from you.     

The Balancing Act 

As a Game Designer there is a delicate balancing act that you need to walk between two points, and the wire you are on is very narrow.  You see, players have certain expectations about what a genre or a game is going to deliver when they open it.  If you stray too far from these expectations the likelihood of rejection is higher, but if you stay too close to what they all ready have then the likelihood of rejection is also higher.  You are trying to navigate between these two points. If you go too far one way or the other, your game design falls.   


 Point A: What Players are Comfortable With

-------- to ---------- 

Point B: What Your Game Does

Wikimedia Commons, Kevint3141

Point A- What Players are Comfortable With
As a designer, we almost always start at Point A: What Players are Comfortable With.  This is where looking at an existing and established game can be very helpful.  By looking at what people are all ready playing and comfortable with, you get a feel for what they are comfortable with. 

Here is a quick and dirty look at some popular rulesets: 

- Hit, Wound, Save
- True Line of Sight

- Momentum PIPs
- Battle Line formation/deployments

- Movement Reveals
- Special Rules Cards

Bolt Action
- Dice Pull Initiative
- Pin Markers

- Action/Reaction
- Unique Model Rules

- Heat
- Armor bubbles

Of course, these are broad generalizations and each rule system does much more than what I listed.

However, each of these is what is "expected" from the game and the players are comfortable with these mechanics and ideas.  Looking and knowing what players all ready have access too and use helps set the guidelines for what Players are willing to do within the scope of a game.  It is these guidelines that create the expectations of what is possible for a game. 

For example, if you bring a big, stompy robot game to the table and it does not have some sort of Heat or similar friction mechanic people look at it sideways.  To them, Heat management is considered an expectation of big, stompy robot games.  If you come to an Ancient battle and do not bring a focus on battle lines, players wonder what the designer was doing because Battle Lines are now considered core to Ancient games.  If you do not meet these expectations players are more likely to reject what your game IS trying to do.   

However, no one really needs or wants duplicates of these existing games.  If you completely re-skinned a game like Warhammer 40K and released it, there would be a small audience.  Look at Void as a great example.  It was Warhammer 40K rules with minor cosmetic or mechanic tweaks.  After playing Void, players ultimately wondered why should they switch over from Warhammer 40K to Void?  You can see the same thing with countless Historical, SCi-Fi, and Fantasy games out there.  I am sure you can all think of a few knock-offs right now.  Heck, I may have even written a few of them!  

Building a Better 40K?  No. 

Point B - What YOUR Game Does
One point you will notice about the games I used as an example earlier is that they all had something distinct to bring to the table.  Warhammer doesn't use Heat like BattletechX-wing doesn't use Pin Markers like Bolt ActionDBA does not use  Action/Reaction mechanics like Infinity.  Each of those games is bringing a new spin or unique set of tools to the table. 

Every game needs that "secret sauce" that makes it stand-out in the marketplace of games.  A simple re-skin of an existing game is not sufficient.  Why not just buy the original game?  As the designer, you have to have a compelling answer to that question in your design.  No one wants another Warhammer Ancient Battles, another DBA, another War Machine because those games all ready exist.  

There are a couple ways to go about creating something unique for your game.  You can create a really cool Hook  or you need some interesting Chrome.  These are what YOUR game does different from the others.  

Cavalry kind of sucks in Men of Bronze!  Is that Point A or Point B?  

The Right Mix?
Of course, here is the hard part.  There is no guaranteed formula for the right mix.  Every player and game group is different.  I would offer this completely arbitrary and unmeasurable rule of thumb.  

- 80% Point A/ 20% Point B

Of course, you can lean into more Point A or more Point B but the more you do the greater the risk of player rejection.  Of course, there is no absolute right answer, this is just an estimate. 

Final Thoughts 
I know many of us miniature wargame designers often start by wanting to build a better Warhammer.  STOP!  No one wants that, and you don't either.  The market all ready has Warhammer.  

That said, it is a balancing act to get the right mix of NEW and IMPROVED versus Tried and True.  Too much one way or the other can impact the likelihood of folks playing your game.  There is no scientific answer on the ratio as Game Design is also an art.  However, an 80/20 mix of expected vs. new is probably a good mix.  

Easier said than done.

Bonus Content:
The most common game I have played this year is Games Workshop's Kill Team.  This has been very useful at our local club in attracting eyeballs and new players.  Considering the "club" started last the summer of 2022 we have seen pretty good growth in our rural area.  

I managed to get in a three-way game between my Eldar Corsairs, Legionary Chaos Marines, and some Ultramarine Primaris types.  We played the standard 3-player mission found in one of the rulebooks.  The scenario tries its best, but the person in the center has a disadvantage.  

 As usual, my Shuriken Catapults with aim did a great job eliminating enemy troopers.  I hung back a bit at first, and the Chaos Marines were able to get an early lead going into the third turning point.  However, I had kept my troops well hidden and in cover until I was ready for the decisive push.  

The Primaris Player and the Chaos player duked it out and wore each other down.  Their factions natural hatred of the other playing into my filthy, xenos hands.  We surged out from our locations behind some grimdark shipping crates and managed to knock the Chaos Marines off the center objective and flip it for the last two turning points.  The Corsairs sneaky Tac-ops helped out with this alot.  However, the Chaos Marines were full of special rules and nasty tricks of their own.  

At the end of the battle, the Corsairs tied the Chaos force 2 VP to 2VP.  I was a touch too slow to get to my special objective, but it was not from a lack of effort.  However, I took a morale victory because the Primaris and Chaos forces had been incapacitated to the last man.  Meanwhile, I had only lost 4 Corsairs.  Normally, when I win I only have 0-2 guys left standing so this was a big improvement.  

A good game overall.  We had a couple of new players and a handful of veterans at the club day.  I am very happy how the club is growing.  So far we mostly play Kill Team, but we have also played Castles in the Sky and Wars of the Republic.  We are also working on a Force-on-Force game in a Cold War Gone Hot setting.  

The club has managed to grow in a low population, rural area for a few reasons:
1. We have a set, bi-monthly place, date, and time to play 
2. We have a monthly painting clinic
3. We advertise online and physically
4. We poach folks from local board games, CCG, and RPGers
5. We have a good communication network via Social Media and other methods
6. We are a welcoming, friendly, laughing, and smiling group 

Anyway, I think I might put some thought together on the long, hard work of community building in the future.  

Happy gaming. 

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  1. OnePageRules pretty much offers nothing more than a decluttered and streamlined version of WH40K and other GW games, and it's doing pretty well it seems. So rip offs can work, if done the right way. Not saying these are good games, just that they can attract players.

    1. I do not disagree. However, the 20% "new" IS the streamlining with OnePageRules. :)

    2. LOL, you can look at it like that, but it rates rather low on the innovation scale :-)

    3. No creo que busquen la innovación.
      Creo que sí tanto confían en su sistema, no deberían "inspirarse" tanto en otros juegos y apostar por algo más agnóstico/vainilla.

    4. In a certain sense, it reinforces my point in the post. Innovation is scary to most gamers and not needed, but there has to be something to draw players in. One-Page Rules whole schtick is that it is 1-page. There is not intended to be innovation in design beyond that.

  2. Creo que casi todos hemos intentado hacer un nuevo Warhammer, y veo factible ese 80/20.
    La sombra de Games Workshop es muy grande, y ha perjudicado a muchos juegos.
    Soy un admirador del sistema de dados múltiples y a muchos jugadores les chirría salir de un D6 (o un D10), o los sistemas de tiradas enfrentadas por eso mismo.
    Un gran artículo para reflexionar, muchas gracias de nuevo.
    Un saludo.

  3. It’s spelled “already”

    1. Awesome.

      I have a ton of stuff you can edit for me! Drop me a line and we can work something out.

    2. Gracias, era " y a todos" no "ya todos". Siento la errata.
      Escribo en español, no se en qué idioma me lee usted, a mí el traductor me juega pasadas a veces...

    3. Sería un honor escribirle algo, prometo ponerme en contacto con usted.