Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Games Workshop Editions - The Good, Bad and Ugly

It's no secret that Games Workshop is about to drop 6th edition 40K on us. The rumors are pouring in now, a month or two away from release day. Some people are super happy about the changes, some are panicking, everyone else is somewhere in the middle. There are definitely some interesting rumors out there. If nothing else, it seems pretty clear that this is going to be a large change to the way the game is played. None of the rumors seem to point to a small fix.

This is not going to be another article talking about the rumored rules, either good or bad. it is not going to be another wish-listing blog post about all the things I think are broken and how I would fix them. If you want an article like that, it won't take you more than 5 minutes browsing through your favorite blogroll. Here's the thing. we can talk about rumors all day, but we'll end up getting all worked up over nothing. you can pull out all the rumors and try to talk about how it affects your favorite army, but if you miss a single rules change, or one of the changes don't end up in the final document, the entire picture changes.

The bottom line is that people get worked up every time a new edition of their game comes out. people start complaining and saying they will just keep on playing the previous edition forever. in the end, we'll all be playing the new rule-set, and will probably get used to it within a year. A few years from now we'll all be worked up about how 7th edition is going to mess up our game. so with that in mind, this article will be about something a little different. I want to talk about previous edition changes GW made and how they affected my experience. Disclaimer: I realize that my experience is not the same as many other players'. Feel free to argue with my reasoning, but I am merely talking about my own experience and thoughts on this issue of updating core rules.

I have been playing GW games for about 10 years now. I started with Lord of the Rings, right when the Two Towers expansion came out. the game wasn't great, but it was a fun introduction to tabletop gaming. It had its issues. games took several hours to play even a smaller game. some models were impossible to beat outside of specific scenarios (the Balrog could eat anything in the game, even Sauron). The way individual models moved around the table and fought in melee was clunky. It wasn't great but we had fun with it.

About 2 years later, I had a decent collection of models, and my cousin saw them. he asked if it was like warhammer 40k. I gave him a blank look and he gave me a mini rulebook for 4th ed 40K. I got hooked fast! the rules were way better than LoTR, and I quickly jumped ship and got an Eldar army going. I played 40K for the last 8 years or so, eventually building up to 4 complete armies (Eldar, Orks, Wolves, and Dark Eldar).

In the middle of that, I started up Fantasy. we have a decent crew of Fantasy players at the local club, and I watched enough games to get interested. I picked up some dwarfs and got started. I built a fairly standard Dwarf list, and did fairly well with it in local tournaments. I never expanded past the one army, and eventually stopped playing all together. More on that in a minute.

Now, I only play one of the three GW games that I started. In fact I have sold off everything I once owned for both of the other games. Both of these were at least partly due to edition changes. So let's look at the edition changes that I have played through.

The Good

By the end of 4th edition 40K, I had a sizable Eldar army, and a growing Ork horde. both were fun to play, and both worked well in 4th edition. 5th edition dropped with some big changes to vehicles, LOS and a few other changes big and small (like consolidations and several USRs). overall, it wasn't a huge difference. it made some tweaks and changed the game in a somewhat subtle way. new tactics and new models came out in the wake of the edition change. Some armies had an easy transition, some did not. Deamons were supposed to be the spearhead into 5th edition, but they didn't really hold up. My orks had a pretty easy transition. things changed, but the orks still played like orks. my eldar needed more changes. Skimmers suddenly cost too much, dedicated close combat units like Harlequins suddenly found themselves standing in the open and getting shot to pieces. My eldar slowly took the backseat to my orks and then on to newer armies. but at least eldar were playable.

5th Edition wasn't a sweeping change, it was more of a cleanup. it took care of glaring issues without shaking up the entire game. it made transition easy for veterans. it took care of most (if not all) the glaring issues people had with 4th edition. overall it kind of felt like edition 4.2. Honestly, that wasn't a bad thing. there was some complaining, but people adapted quickly.

The Bad

I know I am going to catch some flak for this one. I hated the transition to 8th edition WHFB. I had been playing my Dwarfs for about a year when 8th hit. I had built a pretty standard Dwarf army, which included a ton of shields and multiple units to tie things down while cannons shot them down. I also used a ton of magic defense, and usually magic didn't bother me too much. I got decently good with my army, placing in local tournaments, and placing 3rd at regional 'Ard Boyz (not a huge accomplishment, but it meant I wasn't totally bad at playign the game).

8th edition was a huge change. everything was changed to some degree. even some of the smaller mechanic changes meant big changes to be made for armies. Suddenly my playstyle was completely invalidated. multiple small units didn't work so well anymore, you needed Horde formations. HW shield dwarfs didn't do much anymore, they all needed great weapons. hammerers needed big blocks to stay competitive. and magic wrecked my world. 

I could rant about the magic system quite a bit, but the short version is that it made me quit playing Fantasy. there were a lot of changes, many were good. but the one bad apple of magic ruined the game for many players. when a player could power scroll a purple sun onto my big unit of *fill the blank* and cast it with a statistically tiny chance of being dispelled (you had to roll a straight with 6 dice for it to not be irresistible), and that one spell could easily kill my entire unit + general in one shot, the game stopped being fun.

The community made it through the transition, and some love it. but a lot of us quit the game and sold our armies after a few months of the new edition. Just to make the game playable, the community had to band together and OUTLAW several pieces of wargear/combinations. if your players have to go in and remove stuff you put into the game, just to make it worth playing, you did a bad job.

The Ugly

A couple years back, GW decided to revisit the LoTR game. they combined all of the various expansions into one massive book, and literally changed everything about the game. from point values, to how squads functioned and were formed, to how charges were made. Characters and stats across the board got re-written. the models were the same, but even with existing models you needed new movement trays. everything had to be repackaged because the old boxes didn't have the right numbers of troops to form squads etc. meaning you had to buy a ton of guys just to get an old LoTR collection up to date with WoTR. It was such a huge undertaking that I decided not to do it right away. I would wait and see, and watch some games before updating my collection.

Other players didn't have too much trouble with it because none of them had the old game. suddenly 10-15 poeple in our club had full armies, our local forum started a new area just for the woTR guys. tournaments started. all signs of a game that had a new lease on life.

Then people actually took a hard look at the system. you thought net-listing was bad in 40K? there were 2 or 3 combos on each side that were game-breaking. every single good army had Gimli bombs. there were others that were discovered, but I don't even remember what they were now. the entire Austin WoTR scene died within 6 months of the release date. Gone without a trace. It was so fast that I didn't even have time to sell off my old collection to the new players before they were selling their new armies off and flooding the market. There was no community fix that worked to re-balance the game by outlawing a few bad items or models. the game was so unbalanced by a few bad combos that had obviously never been play-tested.

What About 6th?
So what does all of this mean about the upcoming 6th Edition? I see three issues to consider. One, how sweeping are the changes? Two, how much will it cost a player to update for the new system? Three, will there be balance between factions/ within factions?

As we've seen in the past examples, the bigger the changes, the worse the transition (In my own opinion of course). 5th ed was a good change. but it wasn't a big change, just some housekeeping. 8th ed Fantasy was a bigger change, and had some big issues. WoTR changed the entire game and was a train wreck. I am a little bit worried about 6th edition because of this. Everyone agrees that it will be a big change. GW is historically bad with big changes. I don't know who play-tests their stuff, but they are not catching the game-breaking abuses that good players will find. there is no beta testing phase, no PP-like field test to root out the stupid stuff. this means the bigger the change the bigger the risk.

Second, how much do I have to shell out just to keep playing? I play 4 armies. I know that's not rare, most players have 2 or more factions. if it costs a lot, I will likely sell off 2 or 3 armies to focus on one without breaking the bank. suddenly my personal investment in the game (and GW's market share of my gaming energy and time) is cut by 50-75%. or if it costs too much, I may never update my army and eventually stop playing. there's a wonderful new game out called Warmachine that wasn't factored in to previous re-designs. if I have to spend $200+ just to keep playing my out-dated codex, I will buy a new Warmachine faction with the money I get from selling my other 40K armies.

And finally, will a new edition fix balance issues? the balance is off in 40K. look at Adepticon. 40k had 50% Grey Knights in the second day of the championships. the guy who won wasn't even a good player, he just had a broken codex (seriously, watch the match. It was terrible). My WHFB friends say that the game has gotten more balanced, but that isn't a core rules thing. the army books have been written better and ended up being more balanced than before. it will be years before 40K has balanced codexes, and an edition change won't fix that. the imbalance may shift, but you can bet there will be new stupid broken combos that GW didn't account for that will make one or two codexes into the new Grey Knights (or just make Grey Knights better, who knows?).

All in all, I am not super optimistic about an edition change. I am invested enough in this game to give it a fair try. with 4 armies, I'm sure one of them will be good. The odds are good that at least one of my armies will become completely useless without major overhaul, and will likely get sold off cheap on eBay. If GW does a good job with 6th, that money will get funneled back to them to buy new models for one of my other armies. if they continue to disappoint (hello finecast...), there is another Gaming Company that has been getting 99% of my gaming budget this year....

1 comment:

  1. I always find it interesting reading peoples' thoughts on the game(s) over long periods of time.

    Here are a few of mine:

    - Rogue Trader -> 2nd Edition 40K was a huge change. I was a child at the time, and thoroughly approved, and it wasn't just me. The edition was a big success. I look back on RT with fondness now, but more to the style and freedom/creativity than the rules themselves.

    - 2nd Edition -> 3rd Edition was another massive change. I stopped playing (although bear in mind, I was growing up, about to go to uni, so we can't blame it all on rules). 4th and 5th are in my opinion both just revisions of the 3rd edition. This was the one that scrapped differing move rates for units, created range 'bands', created the distinction between assault/rapid fire, created combats between units rather than between individual models, brought in vehicle damage charts and speeds vs no. of weapons etc. Looking back on it though, I think 3rd was actually better than 2nd, once you accept that it was designed to allow large games to be fought quickly. I became interested enough in it to decide to get back in the game, but when I did so, 4th was just around the corner, so I waited until it came out before buying.

    4th Ed -> 5th Ed was a tidying up exercise, I agree.

    I played WFB between editions 4-5/6 and got fed up with the mathematical calculations and the power of heroes. Also with the scale. The rules just didn't work for me at that scale. I just couldn't get my head around units of 5 men not being able to see behind them, etc. 8th Edition tempts me, as it looks a lot of fun.

    LotR and WotR are really 2 very different games. I don't think it's fair to judge the second as a new edition of the first. I haven't played much of either game, but like the rules (for both) a lot. Where I think GW really dropped the ball with WotR is a total lack of community support, including a total lack of interest in addressing the problems you mention regarding power-combos. Those, combined with the abundance of magic in what is supposed to be a low-magic setting really blew the chances of what I think is fundamentally a fantastic game from taking off.

    I'm fairly hopeful for 6th Edition 40K. I'm pretty fed up with 5th now, so either 6th will be a fun improvement, or I'll adapt a completely different rules set and convince my friends to use it instead.

    One problem I detect is that GW's business model virtually relies upon creating new problems as fast as they fix old ones. Staggering army releases over such a long period of time is a recipie for rules-disaster, and rather than aiming to fix problems, by the time the majority of armies have finally been given rules, they create a new edition to sell rather than an improved revision. Each new edition has to be different enough to justify selling as an expensive hardback book, so there's no interest in fixing what may have been fixable.

    In my opinion the core mechanics on which 40K is based are also deeply flawed. A lot of decent games have been produced in the last 25 years, and although i understand why GW won't ditch the core mechanics (and upset an awful lot of customers) I think they're working with something that is not really up to the job, given what we've seen is possible. That's not to say that GW games can't still be fun - they can. But frequently that's in spite of the rules, rather than because of them.