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What I Play, Why I Play

20/01/2012

I was reading one of Frontline Gamer’s Sunday Sermons recently and it got me thinking. This, in and of itself, is not unusual. I’ll often see, or read, or hear something that sets the old gray matter in motion. This was just one of those times where the motion turned out to be useful. A bit like the time I realised my favourite musical genre is ‘Soundtrack’.

The entry discussed how gamers are usually broken down into two groups: Win At All Cost (WAAC) and Fluff At All Cost (FAAC). The titles are fairly self-explanatory, but just in case: WAAC gamers will bring anything to the table that will ensure their victory, will be vainglorious in victory, and will insufferable when defeated. FAAC gamers, on the other hand, insist on taking a more narrative approach to the game, even insisting that ‘fluff equal rules’. Frontline Gamer goes on to describe how this simplified method of defining gamers is, basically, a complete load of bollocks and that actual gamers are a lot more nuanced. There’s a bell curve and everything. It’s well worth reading, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Anyway, I got to the end of this article and felt that familiar sensation of my brain starting to process and interpret what I had just read. Overall, I agreed with the article. There is a lot more than two types of gamers, not just in general either. Each different game system has its own strata of gamer types. The more I thought about it, the more I realised my position within each game was more or less the same. I’m a fluffy player. Not re-enacts battles from novels fluffy, more fluffy lite. I let the story inspire me, but ultimately the rules are still in control. Before I go on any further, I should perhaps provide a little background.

My first wargaming experience was a very casual one. It consisted of plastic WWII vehicles and infantry (the sort you can still get from companies like Airfix) and a set of rules I found in an old book about designing wargaming rules. I didn’t understand all of the theory behind how they came up with the rules, but the rules they used as an example were straightforward enough that I just used them. I copied them into a now long-lost notebook then pulled out from models and tried them out. The result was an entertaining half hour or so of pushing figures around on my desk, measuring ranges, and rolling dice. All in all, an entertaining experience, and one that took place many times over the following months.

With a little work I could even recreate the famous battle between the U.S. Cavalry and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I started high school a couple of years later (which was called a college to the perpetual confusion of my American friends) and discovered Games Workshop’s range of products, in particular Warhammer 40,000. This was a massive step up from my WWII desktop reenactments. There were a lot more rules, much bigger models, and a whole new way of putting an army together. I don’t recall the exact method the WWII rules used for ensuring some balance between the opposing forces, but it wasn’t a points-based system. It took a little time to get my head around, but it all came right eventually.

It was then that the number crunching began. Trying to get as much punch for my points as possible became the name of the game. Not a fluffy way to play at all, but then I was young and hadn’t really read any of the game’s already expansive background. My inexperience also meant I was often picking things either at random or because they sounded fun or powerful. Any experienced gamer will tell you this is not the best way to pick an army, but I was young and foolish. I also tended to limit my unit choices to the models I had available; the word ‘proxy’ not yet having entered my vocabulary. This led to some rather odd armies, but back then it was more about the fun of the game. Running over an entire squad of Eldar Dark Reapers with a Space Marine Rhino was enough to hold my interest in a game.

As time progressed I became aware of gaming tournaments. This is where things started to go downhill. I was fine with playing casual games with friends. Nobody complained if your models were poorly painted, or didn’t carry all of the equipment you had purchased for them. Tournaments were a wholly different affair. Models had to be painted to a certain level, weapons and equipment had to be modelled, and games were a lot more serious. The more experienced gamers took things very seriously, making battle plans and calculating probabilities of success for different actions. It was like playing a game of Chess where the Bishop weilds with a rocket launcher and the Knight can race across the board and start wailing on your King on the first turn.

Kinda like this. Kinda.

It didn’t take me long to start disliking tournaments. Sadly, this seemed to be the way the hobby was progressing. Games became less about having fun, and more about preparing for the next tournament. Army lists were trialed, refined, then trialed again. Frankly, it all became a bit boring. Eventually I just stopped playing altogether. I still bought the models, glued them together, and even occasionally put some paint on them, but that was it. Then, in the early years of the 21st Century a new game came along. It was the dawning of the age of Warmachine.

Playing Warmachine was a bit like playing Warhammer 40,000 back in the day. Armies were smaller, and play was a lot more casual. Also, proxying was fairly common, especially at first. Privateer Press didn’t command the same resources as Games Workshop, so it took a while for all of the models featured in the first book to be released. It was a fun time, even if some of the characters were a touch more powerful, or simply easier to play with. For the first time since I gave up on GW I was able to enjoy casual gaming again.

As Warmachine grew, however, things started to change. More models meant more variety, but the internet was very quick to break down these models into the ones that were ‘good’ in a game, and the ones that weren’t. People started working out the best combinations of characters and units, and the first net lists appeared. A net list is basically an army list that some has posted on a forum or blog. Often times these lists are particularly potent, and sometimes aren’t too far from being cheesy or broken. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against these lists. Not everyone has the free time to play a dozen games and test out a list of their own creation. Also, not everyone will play a list the same way. What’s unstoppable for you might never even come close to winning for a friend.

And what works in North Africa doesn't always work in The Low Countries

It was around this time that the first official Warmachine tournaments were held. It was then that I realised something. One of the things that had attracted me to the game (aside from the giant steam-powered robots) were the rules. Privateer Press spent a fair bit of time making rules that were concise and easy to understand. There was very little ambiguity and this led to smooth gameplay. This also meant that tournaments were much easier to run, with rules questions kept to a minimum. It also made it easy for people to game the system in a way. Once again, certain unit combinations fared better than others and, soon enough, these were the ones that appeared the most. Yes, tournaments are about winning, encouraging this sort of behaviour, but as with 40k it began to spread to casual games.

Once again I found myself becoming disillusioned with the gaming scene. I tried to stick with it but eventually I stopped playing Warmachine, just as I’d stopping playing 40k. I kept buying the models and books, however, because Privateer Press had built up a genuinely interesting world for the game to inhabit, one which advanced its plot with every release. The cynic would see it as a way for PP to justify bringing out a whole new selection of models each year, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t always happy with the plot’s direction, but it never got bad enough for me to pack it in altogether.

After a few years, Privateer Press decided that Warmachine, which now included the sister game Hordes, was getting a little plump around the edges and needed to lose some weight. Warmachine Mk 2 released, bringing with it two things that were new to the game. First were the Elves of Ios, complete with bright white armour and weapons that looked more sci-fi than fantasy. Next were the Theme Lists. Each Warcaster gets one; basically some special army selection rules that limit the models available, while granting bonuses for including certain models in the army. Each list ties into the fluff while also encouraging people to field models they might not normally use.

The Theme Lists are a great addition to the game. Not everyone’s a fan, especially those whose favourite Warcaster ended up with a not so good list. The lists are purely optional, of course, but the very idea of them got my mind going. It was soon after that I figured out my preferred method of gaming. I realised that I prefer to play themed armies. Not strictly Theme List armies, but ones that have their own internal logic. Here is an example:

Captain Damiano’s Filthy Fifteen – Mercenary Four Star Syndicate List

This list is loosely inspired by The Dirty Dozen and features 15 named character models. While it sounds like fun, this list would probably have a lot of trouble taking on massed troops or multiple heavy warjacks. It would still be fun to give it a go, and the low model count would certainly make it easy to collect and paint.

(Click the links to take a look at the models)

The above list is not even close to fitting within Captain Damiano’s Themed List. It’s purely there as to show what I want to get out of the game. I have no doubt there are one or two good combinations of characters in there (Eiryss is pretty nasty on her own), but that isn’t deliberate. I simply picked 35pts worth of models (Warmachine works on a different points scale to Warhammer) that fitted my rough concept. I am kinda tempted to put this list together (I already have half of the models) and try it out on the table. Maybe one day. Maybe.

In the last few years I’ve also become involved with other, smaller games. Infinity was the first I actually spent money on, largely due to an interesting setting and beautiful models. The other attraction was that the average army consists of even fewer models than either Warmachine or Hordes, with forces less than a dozen models strong being the norm. It is a proper skirmish wargame, a fact which it plays up with its innovative (and often annoying) Reaction mechanic. It’s a regular occurance for an army to be shot at during its own turn more often than it gets to shoot back. The first expansion book also introduced something similar to theme forces: Sectorial lists. Each faction can be divided up into two or three distinct themes, each of which gets its on optional list that bends the force construction rules in the main book.

If it’s easy to build a fluffy list in Infinity, it’s downright encouraged in Malifaux. This steampunk magic gothic horror game is set up so that each of the leaders, called Masters, work best with certain units. As with Infinity you only need a handful of models, and once again the models are high quality. I picked up a couple of Masters and their crews at GenCon last year: C. Hoffman, master of machines, and the hag Zoraida. If you follow the links you’ll see that they even recommend the best Crew choices for each Master. I haven’t gotten around to putting them together yet, but I’ve gone through the available units (there’s a list builder on the official site) and already have some ideas of where to go next.

One game I was interested in, but eventually drifted away from was Dystopian Wars. It features an alternative history where imperial armies battle each other on land, at sea, and in the air with vehicles that are a century or more ahead of their time. It’s steampunk on a grand scale, but it just hasn’t grabbed me. I suspect the reason for this is that there is so little variation in the models. At such a small-scale it is hard to customise the models to make them stand out from one another, so a Britannian army will end up looking like every other Britannian army, differing only in livery. Maybe in a few years when they’ve released some more models I’ll have a change of heart, but for now I’m happy just watching.

Not like that!

So there you have it, the real reason I don’t attend wargaming tournaments any more. It’s not that I’m no good at playing games, it’s more that they simply don’t do anything for me. If you thrive on the stress that comes with playing in a tournament then that’s marvellous. I hope you have fun and win all your games. As for me, I’ll be over in the corner putting together Legion of Everblight army where every model can fly.

MyJanWriMo Update
This post’s word count: 2381
Total word count: 10435

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