The Subtle Art of Game Rules Maintenance

Posted by Chris Hobday on

Escher Necromunda

All the rulebooks in the world won't shield you from a chem-thrower.

We’re used to games designers releasing FAQs in order to tighten up certain rules and improve aspects of gameplay. The Necromunda compendium is about to drop, bringing all the legit rules together in one place, and a whole new edition of X-Wing has opened up what was, to me at least, a very narrow meta. On social media it’s commonplace to see people complain about this, about how the hardback rules they bought are now largely redundant, or how the powerful units they invested in have been brutally nerfed.


But it’s also commonplace to see people complain about how they consider certain rules broken, or how they don’t enjoy losing to what seem to be overpowered armies. So when designers face calls to tweak something or rework it entirely, they have little choice but to find a way to do so, or risk losing players.

 

Invincible Army Infinity

Not so much a line-up of the Usual Suspects, more the Invincible ones.


What got me thinking about this? Well, two things, and how they illustrate the many different ways designers can change rules or promote a certain gameplay experience. The first is the release of new armies for Infinity the Game, by Corvus Belli. This anime and cyberpunk-inspired sci-fi skirmish game offers perhaps the most reactive tabletop miniature gaming experience, and the consequence of this is a certain amount of complexity. Thankfully, the basic mechanics are logical and smart, allowing everything else to stand on a solid foundation. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t FAQs and adjustments to be made here and there.


The second is my imminent return to 40k gaming. I got back into Warhammer 40,000 when 8th dropped, and I think this latest edition is fantastic. It’s a lot slicker than the old editions and I really like the switch away from templates. However, I have a game lined up on Monday, it’s been a little while since I last played 8th and there have been FAQs in the interim. So before I assemble my Dark Angels I’ll need to look into what’s changed.


Dark Angels

First Legion Forever.

I know about the proposed changes to deep-striking (which technically isn’t a thing anymore, but we still call it that) and this is an interesting update. For those who don’t play 40k, you used to be able to ‘infiltrate’ certain units on turn one that could cause real damage to the enemy line. I loved putting Azrael and a bunch of power-suited maniacs in a drop pod and getting in the enemy’s face early doors. I can’t do that anymore. Now, I understand why; having seen how the community is utilising the rules set, the designers seem to have decided that they don’t want games to end too quickly. They don’t want one player to come away with a negative experience because they took an Azrael to the face on turn one (and he is far from the scariest thing in the Space Marine faction, let alone the game). Also, it hardly looks good to passers-by to see a big empty battlefield because all the fighting is happening on player two’s board edge. So, in the interests of fun, business and spectacle, the rules are being changed.

 

Crater

'Looks like you had a good game, lads. Who won?'


What interests me isn’t just why but how the changes were made. I’ve been writing my own games, sometimes in collaboration, since I was about 11 or 12. They are usually skirmish-based, and usually sci-fi, but also included fantasy naval battle games and vast battles using card vessels or counters. I was always interested in crunchy rules that made narrative sense, rather than practical rules that could be processed quickly - although now I’m more focused in finding the perfect balance between the two - but one thing I didn’t like was making huge changes. Put simply, whenever it comes to tweaking a rule or a profile, I think of the Hypocratic Oath: first, do no harm. Make the change as small as possible so long as it fixes what’s broken.


So when faced by the balancing issue of deep-striking enemies, my instinct would not have been to insert an arbitrary rule about no deployment on turn one. Because to do that you have to contradict text in the rulebook and that’s the hardest thing to change. Instead, I would have just upped the points. You want to drop into the enemy deployment zone on turn one? Sure, you have the choice, but you have to pay more for the privilege. Don’t take options away, just value them more reasonably.

Space Marine Inceptor

'Sorry, got held up in traffic.'


Of course, Games Workshop have always focused primarily on spectacle and narrative; it’s the player base that has driven the competitive side and demanded balance (which, in most narratives, and in most battles, is nowhere to be found - an element of fact that the 40k lore has always mined). So the choice to change text rather than points, and to radically alter the role of deep-striking units in the meta, promotes games in which the armies actually progress up the table, rather than rely on sitting back and letting the jump packs and big guns do all the work. In tandem with the proposed new stratagem that allows player two to count all units as if they were in cover on the first turn, this works to help games go the distance. The battles won’t be over quite so quickly. Passers-by will be more likely to walk past and see something cool.


But there are other ways to change the meta, or to nudge games in other directions and towards slightly different experiences. Which brings me back to the recent update to the Infinity army lists. I’m not going to talk about Varuna or the Invincible Army of Yu Jing, but instead about cute little alien fellas called the Libertos Freedom Fighters.

 

Libertos Infinity


Essentially, the Liberto is a cheap and lightly armoured unit available to certain armies. He’s camouflaged and can be equipped with mines that are also deployed when he is placed. He has a template weapon which hits automatically and ignores cover. He’s an absolute gem.

Now, I would argue that what the Liberto does is promote a certain type of gameplay experience. Here’s a cheap chap who won’t rambo up the field and win the game for you. He’ll collapse when faced by Tactical Armoured Gear like a Guija or a Szalamandra. But thanks to his camouflage, and if carefully placed, he’ll slow down cheap enemy fireteams. No bunch of tightly-grouped single-wound models would want to risk it against a chain colt and an antipersonnel mine.

Guija Infinity

It's hard to stop a Guija.


Also, the presence of such a unit in your DZ would deter - or at least reduce the horror that could be unleashed by - infiltrating enemy close-combat units like the Fidays of HaqqIslam, JSA’s ninjas or the sinister alien Speculo Killers. I’d suggest that this is a clever way to make it harder, or at least riskier, to use such potentially devastating units. With the introduction of the Liberto it is now harder, against certain armies, to neuter them on turn one with an infiltrating unit.

How clever, eh? A potential change to the way games develop, and to the way battles are fought, and to the experience we have of participating in them - not by changing rules, increasing points or reducing options, but by adding a new unit that’s so cheap anyone (if they’re running certain lists) can access it. Genius.

 

Aliens Motion Tracker

It's nice to know when the enemy is going to stop by. 

 

So in light of this, how could 40k have dealt with deep-striking assaults on turn one, aside from raising points costs? Well, you could introduce units that specialise in dealing with deep-strikers, or explore the use of Stratagems. Space Marines have the Auspex Scan stratagem allowing them to shoot at enemies that appear within a certain range. You could make this universal, and cheaper in terms of the Command Points cost. Or even allow it to be used more than once per phase, so if a horde shows up on your doorstep you can burn all your CPs on a withering fusillade of firepower. Add something, rather than take something away. Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem of ensuring that games provide a spectacle to a potential audience… which is probably why the GW team didn’t run with such a solution, and why their rules change ultimately makes sense.

Whatever changes are made, and however we feel about them, I think it’s crucial that at some point a definitive rules set appears. This isn’t the same thing as a change in edition, just a gathering of relevant documents. As someone about to take the plunge into Necromunda, the new compendium couldn’t be coming along at a better time. And while players who invested in the previous books might feel slightly irked, it’s a great thing for the community. After all, it’s easier to get people into a game when they just need one set of rules, than to have to say, ‘read this, then this, then download this.’

Necromunda Rulebook

It's gonna be handy having it all in one place.

Ultimately, we should be thankful that designers are listening to our complaints or tinkering with systems in order to promote the best possible experience for the player base. Sure, it might mean the ground shifts beneath our feet every now and then, and we have to change our lists or get a new book, but in the end, isn’t this a price worth paying for what is, in theory, a better game?

 

Thanks for reading, but before you go, a brief word about Christmas post. For our friends across the pond in the US, you'll need to make your orders by the 7th of December if you want your gorgeous new tokens in time for Christmas. For UK post, the last date is the 18th. Any queries, email us at enquiries@artofwarstudios.co.uk.

Also, we're getting your Black Friday orders out at quickly as possible. Please bear with us, we'll keep the delays as minimal as possible. Thanks for your patience. 


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