On Games Workshop’s Rules Designs

I made a comment on Twitter this week about how the main rules mechanics for GW’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40K games are ‘stuck in the 70’s.’  I was asked what I meant by this, and 140 characters simply isn’t enough space to even start talking about what I was getting at.

First, a little background for people coming here via Twitter who don’t know me.  I’ve been playing miniatures games since the early 1980’s.  I’ve played several versions of WHFB & 40K, along with many of the GW specialist games.  I’ve also played plenty of other games, including many historical miniatures rules sets over the years.  This has given me a fairly broad perspective when it comes to looking at rules systems as well as an “outsider’s” viewpoint on the GW games.  On the whole I would state that there have been many more rules design innovations on the historical miniatures side of the house in the last few decades.

Second, while the “Stuck in the ’70’s” comment is snarky (it’s Twitter after all), I’m not a hater when it comes to GW’s rules.  I’m starting to play 40K again and have enjoyed the games I’ve played.  The core rules are pretty simple, but so are the rules for chess.  Complexity does not automatically make a game ‘better.’  My point with this article is to talk about some other options when it comes core rules mechanics, and hopefully give gamers who are used to GW games some food for thought.   I’m just getting back into the GW games so if I get something wrong here, I’m happy to be corrected.

Let’s go over some of the core mechanics in GW’s games (I’ll use 40K as I’m more familiar with it, but the basics are pretty much the same for WHFB).

  • It uses an IGO/UGO turn sequence.  I move, I shoot, I charge, then you do the same thing in the same order & we continue trading off like this for the rest of the game.
  • Once initiative is set in the first turn, it stays that way for the rest of the game.
  • Short, concrete movement rates for most units.  For the most part, you know how far your units can move every turn.
  • You can do something with every unit, every turn.
  • You use basic D6 rolls to hit, wound and attempt to save.  There’s a lot of die rolling every turn.  Some gamers love this, others hate it.  I personally am fine with this approach.

There is more to the rules than those items, but that’s pretty much the guts of it.  If you go back and look at some of the ‘classic’ or ‘old school’ wargaming rules from back in the 1960’s or 1970’s (Charles Grant, Peter Young, Donald Featherstone, Peter Gilder, etc.) you would see rules with very similar, simple mechanics.  Plenty of historical miniatures gamers still enjoy playing games with similar rules sets today.

In GW’s case, I believe that they have focused on these rules sets for the following reasons:

  • Simplicity.  Let’s be honest:  GW makes a lot of money off of getting new gamers (especially younger gamers) into the hobby with the cool miniatures designs and the background.   Giving them a simple, easy-to-digest rules set helps get them into the hobby and spending money.  A more complex set of rules would raise the entry bar into the hobby which is good neither for the new gamer nor GW’s bottom line.  
  • Continuity.  Somone who hasn’t played 40K since the Rouge Trader days (raises hand) should be able to get a feel for the game after a few turns.  
  • Competition.  The competition scene for both 40K & WHFB (the latter more than the former IMO) is an important consideration.  The game structure is designed to come to a decisive conclusion in a handful of turns taking no more than three hours or so.  This also means that the game as it comes out of the box, is all about equality.  Players build armies with the same number of points and play a series of preset game scenarios.  This, along with GW’s long refresh cycle for codexes, seems to lead to more discussion about ‘meta’ and killer army list designs more than it does in-game tactics from what I can tell.  There are a group of favored armies that competetive/Win-at-all-costs players prefer, with a handful of army designs around them.  (The High Elf “Teclis” or “Non-Teclis” lists are ones that come to mind right now).  Also, “Death Stars” and “Buses” are part of the Warhammer lingo I’m trying to pick up.  I could go into the competition angle more, but that’s a separate article most likely.

There are other reasons I’m sure, but those are the ones that stand out to me. It’s definitely not because the rules authors think the GW core rules can’t be improved upon.  Rick Priestly’s Warmaster (and follow-on variants Black Powder & Hail Caesar), or Alessio Cavatore’s “Kings of War”,  or “Bolt Action” show that these gentlemen keep thinking of new mechanics to use in tabletop gaming.

While there are clubs and groups that will do more of what GW calls ‘forming a narrative’ with custom scenarios & perhaps unequal points values, I’m willing to bet that a majority of games played will be of the ‘standard’ variety.  Creating scenarios that work takes time, and many gamers aren’t interested in taking that time.  Also, creating scenarios that lead to fun games is a skill, and one that takes time to develop in my opinion.   With GW”s focus on new gamers, that skill is often not present.

Right.  Now that I’ve laid out my view on the rules and why they exist, what areas do I think are old fashioned?

  • Unit Activation/Command Control – I’m a big fan of ‘friction’ (as described by Clausewitz in Vom Krieg).  In a very oversimplified nutshell, war is a mesy sy business; no plan survives contact with the enemy; and things never go totally according to plan.  Many rules (especially ones oriented towards competitive gaming IMO), allow gamers to have way to much control over their forces on the tabletop.  In the GW rules, every unit can act every turn.  There are a few rules to limit this (Animosity, stupidity come to mind), but for the most part, you can do what you want when you want to.  In other rules, your ability to get your troops to do anything other than just stand around or find someplace good to hide may depend on their training, their current condition, and how far away they are from their general.  This can lead to a more chaotic game where your best laid plans may not always turn out, and the keen general needs to be ready to improvise.  The Too Fat Lardies series of rules, as an example, are all about friction.
  • Turn Sequencing – The IGO/UGO style of rules, especially when combined with simple or non-existent C3 rules, can lead to a very stylized game, similar to chess where certain armies have ‘gambits’ that they run over & over again. A number of other rules sets feature a turn structure where units activate at random ( a card draw system is common) & they can take their turn (moving and/or shooting depending on the rules set), and then you draw for the next unit.  This can lead to runs of initiative where two, three or more friendly units can do something before the other side can react.  Another common structure in wargames is a more interactive turn sequence, where your opponent is able to react to certain actions your unit takes.  A common one in modern or SF games is the ability to reaction fire at enemy movement, while a common one in ancients/fantasy games would be to allow a unit to opportunity charge or counter-charge enemy units that pass close to them.  This runs counter to the GW turn sequence where you can move up and shoot your opponent with impunity.  Advancing on the enemy becomes a riskier operation.
  • Initiative – In games that don’t feature random activation, there are often mechanisms to allow initiative to pass back and forth between sides.  This can lead to situations where one side may get to take two turns in a row (which can alter the course of a game dramatically), or give them the option to move and/or shoot first, which can be tactically significant.
  • Movement.  Some other rules use more random movement rates to throw a wrench in your plans.  This can either be by rolling dice to determine movement rates or, like Rick Priestly does in Warmaster/Black Powder/Hail Caesar, by rolling against a command value and, based on the roll, being able to do a single, double, or triple move, or possbily no movement at all.
  • Shooting – The GW games place a lot of emphasis on the individual weaponry each model is equipped with.  Some modern/SF rules sets place more emphasis on the quality of the firer of a weapon versus the weapon itself.  The Ambush Alley rules sets (Force on Force for moderns, Tomorrow’s War for SF) are an example of this.  The weapons a unit carries are abstracted, and fire combat is based more on the firer’s ability to use his or her weapon to its greatest effect.

There are a number of alternate rules sets for SF gaming that people are using for their Warhammer 40K games.  The reasons for doing so include being bored with the 40K rules, or perhaps boycotting GW’s regular rules refresh cycles but still wanting to use their models in a game.  A few examples that I’ve seen are:

Interestingly, I’ve been following the Kickstarter for Rick Priestly’s new “Gates of Antares” rules set that is in development, and a blog post this morning describing the proposed rules mechanisms reminds me a lot of “Bolt Action”, which actually makes me more more interested in contributing to the Kickstarter for this project.  Even if the new figures or fluff is lackluster, you could still get some interesting new games using your 40K models that flow differently that what you’d be used to.

Hmm.  What started off as a fairly simple tweet on my part has bloomed into a full-blown ramble.  I guess this is as good a place as any to cut it off.  Anyway, for gamers who wanted to know more about why I said what I said about GW’s rules designs, I hope this provides some context.  I’ll be happy to discuss this more in the comments or on twitter if you like.

Happy Gaming!

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2 Responses to “On Games Workshop’s Rules Designs”


  1. 1 Monkey's Blood January 30, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    I’m intrigued by Gates of Antares also – I’m a fan of Bolt Action and Warmaster, so I’m keen to see how it turns out. The issue will be of course finding an opponent – it’s straightforward to do so for Warhammer 40k or even Warmachine, but anything more obscure than that can be tricky.

    • 2 Bart February 4, 2013 at 8:57 am

      Thanks for your note. I think you’re correct: the popularity of the GW & PP games systems is predicated in part on the large gamer base that supports them. There are more 40K gamers at one local store near me than there are Napoleonics wargamers in my entire state, and they break down into multiple cliques based on figure scale and/or preferred rules.

      With any new game I think you have to be prepared to supply starting armies for at least two factions and then play it in public often enough to convince others to invest.


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