Musings on Game Design…Or, Can 40k Ever be “Good”?

You find me in a philosophical mood. Maybe it’s the time of year, maybe it’s the copious amount of whiskey flowing through my veins in an attempt to shift this cold I’ve acquired…

In any case, I’ve found myself surfing a few forums like TMP and Dakka and coming across rafts of… debate, let’s call it, about the state of Games Workshop and 40k in particular. Broken units, no balance, people furious about their favourite unit suddenly being made overpowered or underpowered or invalidated altogether. Then you have players of games such as Adeptus Titanicus annoyed about the lack of “support” – ie, new stuff – they’re getting (to be fair, they’ve got a point – GW’s Facebook post about the box of new Warlord Titan weapons “will have a Warlord in it too” was such an utterly hilarious and terrible marketing/PR decision that you can’t help wondering if they’ve been moonlighting for Boris Johnson’s campaign team)

Picture linked from Fawcett Avenue Conscripts blog:  http://wpggamegeeks.blogspot.com/

Anyway it got me thinking. If you “support” a game, that means you expand the setting, you add new stuff – we’ve got similar things planned for Apocalypse: Earth, delving deeper into each faction’s history and more esoteric units, but seeing as it’s just the two of us writing it all and one of us is holed up with a cold it’s safe to say we won’t be releasing anything anytime soon. Now this is all well and good up to a point, but if you’re GW and your business model depends on releasing New Stuff year on year, at some point you’re going to overload your core system – the rules can only take so many New Things.

Why? Two reasons: Granularity. 40K & Age Of Sigmar are built round a D6 system – nothing inherently wrong with that, our game is too – but it does put a limit on the number of variables a unit can have. Particularly in the latest (8th) edition where things like vehicle fire arcs and armour facings have been done away with. Eventually you’re going to introduce New Things that are statistically identical to the Old Things. This brings me to the second consideration: GW is fundamentally a model company. Even the most diehard 40k/ AOS fan is going to buy waaaaaaay more models than they are books. Their monthly magazine, White Dwarf, is primarily a marketing tool to sell more of the latest New Thing (yes, there are useful and interesting articles in there but at it’s heart it’s a GW product with the primary function of selling more GW products) – but for a player, there has to be a reason to by the New Thing. It has to be functionally better than the Old Thing it goes alongside or replaces – for example, why buy a new Invictor Tactical Warsuit model if the Dreadnought that you’ve already got does the same job? And this inevitably leads to power creep, as each faction gets New Stuff to counter the other guys’ New Stuff to the point where your basic grunt is utterly useless, just there to die on Turn 1. At which point the games has to reset and hello, New Edition. And so the cycle continues.

Of course, if GW doesn’t sell new models and bring out new things… well, Duncan, Peachy and co have bills to pay. The stores don’t heat and light themselves. Without the constant commercial imperative powering everything then the company would fold and there’s no 40k for any of us (never mind the hundreds of people out of a job and the death of one of the few business success stories the UK can be proud of). So GW really is a victim of it’s own success – failure to release significant quantities of New Stuff means that players accustomed to this level of “support” feel they’ve been abandoned, whereas “support” past a certain point pushes the game into power creep where only the newest and shiniest of models are worth the cost. Not to mention the constant slew of codexes, Chapter Approved and FAQ books… I read (admittedly on Dakka, so this may not be 100% accurate) that there are now 144 documents needed for playing 40k. Now I’m sure this is an exaggeration, but really, more than 2-3 books is surely nuts.

Is there a solution? I think no – not for GW, anyway, they can’t stop expanding and evolving their models and rules. If they stop, they die. No new models/ rules? What do you put in White Dwarf this month then? One Page Rules do a good job of combatting this, but I can’t see GW going down that route, it wouldn’t square with their production values and codex-based business model.

For us, we’re doing the core book for each system and eventually a sourcebook for each faction and that’s it, anything else we think of we’ll add to the blog and make available as a free download (like the Kugelpanzers back in April).

So there we have it, bit of a ramble this month, but I’m full of whiskey and bird flu and wanted to get this off my chest – what are your thoughts on the thorny issue of “support” for a game? Am I right about the inevitable imbalance of a big name game system like 40k? Do Privateer Press or Fantasy Flight Games have these issues? Drop a comment and let us know – meantime, stay thrifty out there and see you again soon!

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11 thoughts on “Musings on Game Design…Or, Can 40k Ever be “Good”?

  1. Great post. You raise some very fair points. To be honest I play GW games in full knowledge of this and accept it for what it is. Though I think part of the problem for Adeptus Titanicus not getting support us that it is not as popular as other systems. Necromunda gets lots of support and I know lots of people playing it. I’ve just finished a 9 player campaign of it and the next one will have 12 players in. GW are about making money, they are a company after all, so they will always maximise their returns where they can. Adeptus Titanicus always struck me as rather pricey to get into so I’m not surprised the sales are lower and hence less support for it.
    Cheers,
    Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah I think that is an issue for the players- GW have since at least the late 90s when my friend was an area manager for them worked on doing a new edition of their rules in and endless cycle. Just off setting WFB (as was) and 40k. Personally Ilike to think I know the score on that when I spend my money. That said I mainly play the skirmish games rather than 40k proper.

        Cheers,

        Pete.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s it, that’s the trap set for themselves- they have to keep making new models and ever better rules to ensure sales.. the One Page Rules guys get away with it because they don’t have the infrastructure to support that GW, FFG etc do, and as a result those games just work. There must be some way for GW and co to take onboard some lessons from that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed the read! I think I fell foul of constant change with Warmachine, particularly after the first major rules re-vamp, change in points system, subtle but noticeable changes to some unit capabilities. Support did keep coming, along with new models, usually getting bigger all the time, but in the end the whole flow of it seemed to just change for the worst (but remember, this is my personal experience) and maybe got too big for me! In the end, the group of us that played just gradually moved on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. See, then to me that’s an example then of support killing a game off- they’d have been better off leaving it alone after a certain point. But if you’re a games company, can you actually do that? Especially if you’re making most of your money from model sales… It’s a tricky one

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well said, and something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. I think it’s no coincidence at all that the best tabletop wargames I’ve played — hands down — have come from companies that don’t sell miniatures. They just make rules. When you start to do both, it begins a slippery slide toward making rules that maximize the use of *your* miniatures, and then warping gameplay to maximize those returns. It’s disappointing, but you can absolutely overcome this phenomenon with a little awareness, and an open mind about trying something new.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Patrick, I think you’re right in that it’s an inevitability- a company GW’s size is effectively trapped by it’s own success in that regard. Which is a bit of a shame, I love the 40k universe and the models, but the game is just do anticlimactic by comparison 😕

      Like

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