So, one of the things they’ve been doing at the Southern Ontario Open for the past few years was getting together all the Warmachine talking heads into one big room for a discussion on the state of the game. This year, I thought I would share my thoughts in a written format, as I’m not cool enough to have a podcast and don’t have the voice for radio anyways.
Evolving Meta or Power Creep?
They started off with a discussion about how the meta seems to be constantly evolving, and how it was great to see people constantly trying out new stuff. However, I would argue that this has less to do with a meta where people are trying interesting stuff to try to counter what other factions are playing, then other players trying to counter the new interesting stuff, then that leading to a state of flux as everyone cycles between rock, paper, scissors, lizard and Spock, trying to stay ahead of everyone else. I think it has more to do with the CID process breaking down a little and causing some power creep. I mean, when one considers all the boogeymen that have reared their head in the meta over the past year, just about all of them save perhaps Nemo3 was a direct result of some new release or rules change that may have been slightly overtuned as a result of clamouring in CID.
I feel like the competitive balance of the game is healthiest when there is no boogeyman. While I’m not necessarily the best player, I think the few months between when Una2 got taken down a notch and someone figured out that Ghost Fleet is good was a great time for Warmachine, where there weren’t really any extreme outliers dominating the tournament scene, and people were doing a lot of experimentation. Since then, the internet chatter feels like it’s been just one boogeyman list after another.
I think the proof is going to be in the pudding in the next few months. With Privateer Press taking a CID break, it will be interesting to see if the meta settles down a little and we start seeing more flux and experimentation or if people are still going to be complaining about Lord of the Feast and Iona until the next new hotness drops.
A large portion of the cast was devoted to the question of whether Privateer Press should start eliminating models from their range and from the game, and the general consensus seemed to be that it is time to do it. Two rationales were discussed for this – the idea that there are just too many SKUs clogging up the supply chain and making it hard on retailers and distributors, and that the number of models is a barrier to new players.
To be honest, I’m not sold. I’m not sure that SKU bloat is that much of an issue, because I’ve only ever seen one or two stores actually attempt to stock at least one of everything, and both of those stores do online sales as well as in person. Most stores tend to stock a limited number of models and get in some of the new releases, but for the rest, they generally order on demand.
Rather than cut SKUs by eliminating models, if SKU bloat is an issue, then what PP could do is consolidate some SKUs by bundling existing products. The three Man-O-War units could be combined into one multikit with the same bodies and different arms. Units could be bundled with attachments and non-character solos instead of sold separately. And, more importantly, PP could help provide stores with a little more guidance as to what products in their back catalogue are the sort of things that are popular or are starter products and should be stocked, and what you can get away with being special order only. Perhaps just classifying all those SKUs as starter, core, and supplemental would help a retailer with the daunting task of figuring out which of these hundreds of SKUs they should stock. They’ve already made steps in that direction by changing how they did distribution and by doing direct order for new huge based models that tend to sit on shelves for a long time and not move.
Not to mention that if the goal is to help retailers and distributors who are carrying Warmachine and make them more likely to want to carry the game, rendering a portion of the stock that they currently have on the shelves completely useless is likely going to have the opposite effect.
As for the idea that the sheer number of models is hard on new players, I have to counter that with one question: are new players really being turned off from Warmachine because they keep getting their faces kicked in by Assault Kommandos and Kossite Woodsmen? Or is the real negative play experience for new players running up against Iona and Lord of the Feast and not knowing that they need to place all their models exactly 3.2 inches apart and answer a geometry final exam question with shield guards and blocking models to not instantly lose? And, of these, which of the two is a new player more likely to actually run into in the first round of his first tournament?
I get that the sheer scale of WMH can be overwhelming, but I don’t think the solution is simply cutting models from the game. Miniature games fundamentally aren’t card games. There is a more intense connection with game elements in a miniatures game than there is in a card game. Hobbyists spend hours lovingly crafting and customizing their models and sometimes even take models in their army based on their visual appeal more than their combat effectiveness; telling them that they can’t use them anymore is going to frustrate a lot of people. There are ways to address this such as through promoting limited formats and lower points games where there aren’t as many models on the table with rules that need remembering that aren’t as drastic as telling people they can’t play with their toys anymore.
Which brings me to Champions.
As for Champions, the main problem is that it has an identity crisis. People think that it is supposed to be a limited format to make it easier for new players, but if you actually read the document and the dev notes in the CID, that’s not what it is. It is supposed to be an alternative format for experienced players to prove their skill; one where the limited roster changes up the meta and allows these players to showcase the skill with all their faction’s casters (including the off-meta ones) as they rotate through ADR, not just stick with the few in their faction that are the most powerful and/or slightly broken.
The problem with that is that the ADR has historically been somewhat difficult to balance; there is often one or two factions that are on top because their restrictions are that they are only allowed to take the best stuff in the faction, while everyone else has to try to counter it with their B-team. Further, removing the painting requirement also took away one point of distinction between it and masters.
However, the fact that people keep saying that Masters is an introductory tournament format indicates to me that there is a recognition that there is a need for this sort of thing. In my opinion, if you want a truly limited format for new players, you need lower points and a more static, more limited roster that only includes the relatively straightforward things in each faction and fewer really obnoxious gear checks. Call it Warmachine: Core and push it as an alternative to no-restriction steamrollers. The catch is that with the current community, at least those who regularly go to events and are loud on the internet, getting them to embrace anything that isn’t standard, 75 point steamrollers is a challenge to say the least.
Bringing in new players
As is par for the course in these “state of the game” podcasts, Evan hit the nail on the head when he identified onboarding new players as the biggest issue with the growth of Warmachine. While part of it has to do with the density and steep learning curve of the game, it is also the fact that the community, while it can be very friendly once you get into it, can also be very intimidating for new players.
Another important point that was made was that people get into WMH because it is fun and because they identify with the cinematics of the game and the badass warcasters that they love. The ones that got hooked had some exciting cinematic moments that brought them to the edge of their seat; for me it was getting my ass handed to me by Haley2 until I figured out how to assassinate people with Sorscha1. From that moment on, I was on Team Sorscha and refused to play Butcher because he was the jerk who killed Sorscha’s dad.
I didn’t get into this game because someone told me that it is the most competitively balanced tournament game and that I should look forward to getting my face kicked in 50 times before I am able to git gud enough that every game isn’t a miserable experience. If I was that masochistic, I would play competitive Starcraft or some other e-sport.
However, as someone who is currently in the process of dragging a coworker into this world, I think the biggest challenge is that to an outsider, competitive Warmachine doesn’t look fun. You generally have two people crouched over a flat table with flat scenery and unpainted models, staring intently at the apps on their phones. As often as not, one of the two players is frustrated and afterwards, they engage in a loud discussion about what is OP and what needs CID and what little things they hate about the game. That’s not conducive to bringing in new players.
At its finest, wargaming is a social affair. It requires much more agreement and back and forth between opponents as you discuss movement, measurement, terrain, etc. While one of the strengths of Warmachine is that there is a lot of clarity in the rules and it lends itself to competitive play about as well as any wargame can, pure competitive gaming can at times be a little soulless and doesn’t look fun to outsiders.
Perhaps this article ended up being a little more negative than intended, but that wasn’t my intention. I love Warmachine. I love the steampunk aesthetic, the bell curve probability distribution of 2d6, and the resource management and push your luck aspects of the focus/fury system. And I’m not on the doom train; I think this game is going to be around for a while and I’m excited for things like Archons and Oblivion.
But, while I disagree with a few of the points made in the cast, these conversations are important. So much of the growth and longevity of the game is down to the community these days. We can’t just rely on being the system that is the default for castaways ragequitting That Other Game.
Moreso than a lot of other games, a player’s experience in a wargame is directly related to the people they play it with. Even if we aren’t up to the task of being community leaders, it’s up to all of us to make that community and each other’s experiences the best that it can be.