Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Bearded Men for Change - Age of Sigmar Rules Review

So... I could have made this like the rest of my reviews, and show off my painted work and some stock images of the line, and whatnot, but, well, I don't really find myself wanting to promote the line. I'll try to express objectivity in the matter.

A bit about my gaming history
In short, I've over time learned to be okay with silly rules sets, and while sexism in games isn't something I've been very comfortable with, I like games and enjoy painting toys with some skin showing as much as other pieces.

The slightly longer version:

40k was my, as with many others, first miniatures gaming experience. I played it competitively, thought I was good (rather than just having figured out some broken army composition), and then added Warmachine to my repertoire, which became my go-to game with a solid rules set until I got tired of "sports-machine" and their aggravating fluff (such as...), and eventually abandoned any real loyalty to a company or system, hopping between systems as I felt like playing a given part of my collection.

Eventually, I returned to 40k mostly because of the aesthetic, and have taken it on as a silly, beer & pretzels game when I want a wargame with pretty models and without needing to wrack my brain as with more competitive ones. Until recently, I felt I'd basically understood and embraced GW's sensibility of fun with a rejection of the competitive and played the game "right," minus some of the overly lax force composition rules of 7th edition.

Sexism is a problem in games, but the whole industry has it in some form so rejecting games with some sexism in them would basically be rejecting the industry. I think Malifaux has less than most, but have seen many other gamers defend their game of choice as more progressive than the rest so know not to trust my objectivity.

Oh, and on Warhammer Fantasy proper- I lightly played an older edition (around 5th IIRC?). Either way, I have enough knowledge of the system to get the idea, but by no means tapped in to the current scene.

On to the review...

The core rules
So, this is skipping the aesthetic concerns I might have, and moving straight in to the meat of the rules, released this weekend.

In the core pamphlet, this game has fewer rules than many more advanced board games. It's extremely light. For instance, GW's reaction to the mess with varying base sizes is that you're somehow supposed to measure from the model, not the base, which seems practically designed to cause problems in a competitive setting. Fine. It's casual.

There's a kind of cool feature where if you're losing, you can gain access to weird scenario objectives so theoretically anyone can make a comeback. Looks kinda' easy to game, but again, "casual." I think I'm going to be trying to justify a lot with that word.

The rules are written with GW's now-expected inattention to detail, with lots of assumptions, such as using "dice" to run, with the assumption that the players recognize it's a single d6, or no attention to the fact that bases are effectively large buffers since they take up physical -but not game- space, so will cause all kinds of problems with proximity in melee.

Then there are the two mechanical parts of the game that have me far more skeptical than anything else, since the rest could be written off as "free preview/starter rules."

Army composition consists of
"Armies can be as big as you like, and you can use as many models from your collection as you wish.
I think this means there's no requirement of balanced armies?

And the "Most Important Rule" is
"...there may be times when you are not sure exactly how to resolve a situation that has come up during play ... If no single solution presents itself, both of you should roll a dice, and whoever rolls higher gets to choose what happens.
Which consists of, "if we didn't want to write the rules clearly enough, or you disagree with your opponent (including outright cheating), there's a 50/50 chance you're right." This is extremely lazy writing (and also nothing particularly new to this iteration), but describing it as the most important just shows a rejection of their own rules. 

Combined, the two rules, as far as I can tell, consist of "I guess these are some loose guidelines for playing with your toy soldiers." I find this pretty embarrassing for the largest wargame company around: Many smaller companies have managed to make tight and most importantly clear and decently balanced rules. This isn't the 90's any more, and GW should have followed suit. Again, I'm all for "casual" as a mode, but this is taking that to an illogical conclusion.

Even if, let's give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment, this is some sort of early release incomplete rules set, and they're shortly going to release some way of balancing forces, it's still an embarrassment that a company as well-established as they are would put out such an incomplete product when re-launching their system.

Basic stats
I'm approaching this from the perspective of a rules writer and both casual and competitive player. It took the internet at large less than a day to figure out a combo that could effectively instantly win you the game without dice in one turn, so I don't think I need to prove balance issues, but am instead looking at the underlying philosophy.

So, the stat line and rules section has been vastly simplified. Like, "moderately complex board game" simplified. They have little graphic representations that are effectively the core model, with attack stat lines next to them. Plus an extremely simplified layout of "to hit" etc., rather than stats. It feels closer to Space Hulk's shorthand stats than any of the previous Warhammer(s). Also, now the save is the only defensive stat, removing Weaponskill and Toughness... at least it's consistent? They also have keywords at the bottom. These keywords work like many other games' in that they allow synergies and buffs related to specific thematically related models.

Notably absent are a point value and most weapons options (for example, a Dwarf Lord gets the option of a ride or not (for no points since there aren't any) and no other weapon or armor choices, while a Dwarf Engineer gets four weapons and an extremely vague physical description, which may be describing fluff or may be describing your engineer's gear is WYSIWYG .

I guess gear as incorporated stat lines and keywords are as close as we get to GW catching up with the times?

Okay, I know I said no pics, but this is a lot faster than describing it all.
There's something to be said for simplicity. There are lots of games that I've appreciated for their simplicity, and many have longevity because of it, while others seem more elegant because they've managed to express their rules so concisely. The problem is, even with so few rules in the new edition, GW managed to get them wrong, with the same ambiguity and assumptions we're used to... and then some brand-new problems.

Getting in Character
Most units have a few specific abilities, with plenty of the standard "if within x" of y..." or "when fighting a hero..." variety. But, Games Workshop has decided you haven't been having enough fun. So, you can find stuff like
"Old Grumblers: In your hero phase, you can complain about something in a suitably Dwarfish manner. For example, the hardships you endured when you were younger, how the youth of today don’t respect their elders, how expensive beer is etc. If you do, this unit of Longbeards will join in and you can pick one of the grumblings listed below. The effects last until your next hero phase.
...which I find pretty stupid, but, sure, whatever. It's their game. It's the same thing as the Nintendo first-party games where my circle jokes "It's Nintendo- Have fun with it!" in reference to enforced Wii mechanics for physically turning the key or lining up the shapes or shaking the controller, which could have been a regular button command. In other words, it's just enforcing their idea of having fun.

Similarly, sure, if GW wants you to force you to do something goofy for bonuses, whatever. They can. It's still not nearly as bad as McDonald's goddamn creepy/voyeuristic random drawing exchange of recording and distributing your so-called "Lovin' act" for free fast food promotion they did earlier this year.

It's kinda' going too far, but everyone's going in to it willingly. Wario Ware's goofy things you're supposed to do makes it a pretty good party game, but, well, that was the point of Wario Ware.

Which goes from that to the more ludicrous
"The Endless Dance: If you are dancing while rolling the dice for the Masque’s attacks in the combat phase, you can reroll any failed hit rolls. If, at any point, you can coerce your opponent to join in, you can re-roll any failed wound rolls as well.
Well, assuming you're not being encouraged to force your opponent to dance through threats or force, it's just a complete waste of rules space, with the rules designers indulging themselves with a stupid joke that should have been in the flavor text instead of in the rules.

These rules show an astounding immaturity on the part of the designers, in assuming that players interacting with their games don't have the creativity or initiative to have fun on their own, and that this is how they should want to have fun.

With the absolute looseness of the composition and dispute rules that basically consist of some vague guidelines of a starting point of how you play with your toys, plus the bizarre constraints on how the players are supposed to interact with each other and goof about, it's like Games Workshop assumes you need help knowing how to play with toy soldiers.

Now, obviously one could make the argument that, in essence, this is the core of all miniature games. And "what makes a game" is a very broad concept. Mancala is a game; D&D is a game; Tarot is a game. The Age of Sigmar is apparently a game too, though clearly not a competitive one and seemingly not one that extends much credit to the imagination of its players. The forcibly injected sense of humor alone means it's unlikely to be a game I want to play.

I prefer games with a tight set of rules and a clear effort towards balance, such as Infinity or Dominion, where it's already a bit of a step outside my comfort zone for something as light as 40k, so I admit my bias against Age of Sigmar. There's nothing wrong with games with characterful or even funny rules built into them (they were certainly a selling point of Malifaux, even if they sometimes get a bit abstracted), but AoS certainly feels like it's trying too hard.

If the problems I've mentioned were all that seemed wrong about it, I might have just shrugged it off with a "meh." Or I might have decided to give it a try because it was something different. I was really on the fence until recently. But GW takes things further, and it's the following "rules" that have inspired a much stronger dislike for a project I was already unsure about.

"Special" Rules
The above are examples of antics GW wants to encourage you to perform, since it's fun to make up little stories about your characters and their tactical or lucky victories and defeats (so why not force players in to them?). However, there are also rules like
"Enthusiastic Young Assistant: Kraggi is an apprentice Runesmith who has barely been smithing a century, but his youthfulness makes him very eager. Kraggi can attempt to unbind one spell in the enemy hero phase as if he were a wizard. You can re-roll the unbinding attempt if you are younger than your opponent.
So it begins. Rewarded for age. Seems stupid but innocuous, but, well, it's a combination of ageism and too much information. As someone else pointed out, there's absolutely no reason you should be expected to give out your age to a complete stranger.

And we continue a little to...
"Honour of the Clan: It is a Thane’s duty to uphold the honour of his clan, and his fighting prowess is as deadly as his beard is magnificent. You can re-roll any failed hit rolls when attacking with a Thane so long as you have a bigger and more impressive beard than your opponent.
Yes, dwarves have beards, and some of the sillier dwarf players like to make comparisons to their own facial hair. It's a fun fluffy buff, right? Well, except for the other half. Yeah, that other half.

Even more than the anachronistic rules, I find this attitude embarrassing. It should have never gotten out of the "what if...?" phase when brainstorming a new line. It's the sort of thing where you're joking around and someone says "what if... beards?" and maybe you laugh about it, but then within a couple minutes, or, if being conservative, a couple drafts of alpha rules, you drop it because of, well, the sexism.

I'd written a chunk on political and social theory here, but decided it was neither clear nor concise, so I'm instead going with an anecdote which will, I think, demonstrate the problem.

My wife and my sister-in-law are both casual gamers*, with my wife being fairly politically sensitive and my sister-in-law not so. I told them both about the above rule, in the midst of some of the other major changes to the game, and their reactions were surprisingly similar- while phrased differently, but essentially boiled down to "Haha, that's pretty f... wait, why can't women get that?"

...Which, again, is about how long it should have reasonably taken the design staff, but, instead, apparently, GW has decided that it's fine to say "no, not you" to you as a female gamer, or to your sister or wife or daughter or mother who's playing or considering playing.

There are rules** that you, as a woman, have no access to. GW's design team off-handedly decided to throw in some jokes that were either so ignorant as to not consider women, or considered them but then rejected them as inconsequential. The problem is, passive discrimination is still discrimination. While it's not as bad and not as malicious as something actively hateful, at the end of the day, at a point in history when it feels like you can't go a week without a fight over social politics, GW has blithely stepped into the ring on the side of last millennium, with their blindly sexist rules.

* As in, having played a fair number of board, RPG, video games, etc., but would probably never be accused of being power gamers.

** No, this isn't an anomalous rule, there's a roughly analogous one about mustaches for the Empire.

Getting Your Head out of the 80's
This is hardly the first time GW has said "no" to the ladies.

Space Marines come from the same place of passive rejection- only teen boys are allowed to become glorious Space Marines. (Hmm, I wonder who makes up the bulk of their market share?) This came up not so long ago when my circle were designing characters for Black Crusade... "Wait, girls can't be Space Marines?!" Yeah, there it is again, with their most iconic IP.

Except that was a few decades back at this point, and it was in the era where 40k Rogue Trader was still very much a pulpy game, and the fantasy/sci-fi genre was still largely in its infancy, and it was influenced by a bit of a punk aesthetic so it might have even been a tongue-in-cheek joke back then. Either way, the social climate was different then, and if I can appreciate Heart of Darkness despite some ridiculous racism, I can certainly tolerate Rogue Trader despite some sexism. While it isn't laudable, it isn't something I'd condemn them for.

This was the same era where other such wince-worthy concepts as the Iron Hands leader being named "Ferrus Manus" or the Raven Guard being led by Corvus Corax were considered passable ideas, and they've stuck around along with Space Marines evolving from teen boys so I don't consider that the same sort of affront. GW even put the token Sisters of Battle token (*cough* separate but equal *cough, cough*) bolter-wielding, power-armored army in their game, presumably as a somewhat misguided attempt at gender equality.


Well, now it's the second decade of the twenty-first century. Games Workshop should be embarrassed for this design... I would call it "choice"? But that implies too much intention.

I've nothing against GW's design philosophy of simple and light, but their ignorance of both clear rules and social progress shows a clear lack of connection with contemporary gamers and, for that matter, society.

Vote With Your Wallet.
This is the first time I've done this, but, I'm going to make a call for anyone on the fence about GW's new Age of Sigmar to take a pass and buy something else with your hobby money.

I'm not calling for you to get rid of your entire hobby collection in protest of some stupid rules, but I find there to be little to redeem the new edition of this game, and I do suggest rejecting this game. Whatever image of continuity or connection with their fans they portray, GW's got no loyalty or connection to you, and if they ever did, I believe this edition demonstrates how profoundly they don't now. There's no reason you should maintain some sort of loyalty to their product, and, hell, if enough people reject their direction, they might get a clue.

Try playing other games, try experimenting with new rules sets (if you haven't noticed, there are a lot of growing or established alternatives out there, usually with more ambitious and refined rules, if not WHFB's weight of decades of background), use your collection for other systems (other wargames or RPGs), maybe support some little kickstarter game that shows some promise instead of paying into the behemoth, or even keep your loyalty to the setting and rules, and just play an earlier edition of WHFB with your friends without rewarding these out-of-touch rules.