Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Case Against Consimworld, part 2

Let me give you a couple more examples.

Sword of Rome, as published, has a very simple if unusual combat resolution system, which has the possibility of producing surprising outcomes when the opposing forces are strongly mismatched. Now Wray Ferrell had spent the last few years reading and thinking about the period, and many of us were prepared to believe he knew what he was doing. It was simple, it worked as a game, and if there is one thing you learn if you read any history at all, it's not to be surprised by "surprising outcomes". Nevertheless, a small but vocal bunch of grognards set up the cry of "historically inaccurate!" by which they really meant "it doesn't fit with my narrow ideas of how a wargame should work" - I don't believe these people have any serious knowledge of history at all. Poor Wray, a novice designer, caved in to pressure, and now we are all stuck with a messy exception to what was once an elegant and interesting mechanic. What is worse, I believe the end result is possibly less historically accurate than before, as it eliminates the possibility of those shock upsets that are a regular feature of military history.

Barbarossa to Berlin - this time we are dealing with an experienced designer with a stellar reputation. Soon after its release, some grognards on Consimworld started who whine that they had lost as the Soviets because they did not get a big reinforcement card in their initial hand. Ted's reply, very properly, was "It's a card-driven-wargame, one of the skills you need is to play with the hand you're dealt." Nevertheless, the outcry continued, with howls of "It's broken!" In the end Ted allowed himself to be browbeaten into adding a messy mulligan rule, which can have the Soviet player hunting through the deck looking for the card he wants. But why play a card-driven-wargame at all if you want that degree of scripting?

As Chris pointed out in his comments yesterday, what is really needed is for the designers to grow some balls. As an honourable example, I present to you Rick Young, novice (at the time) designer of Europe Engulfed. A large part of his vision for this game was a short rule book, and again and again he faced down demands for exceptions, clarifications and extra chrome from the Consimworld crowd. Unfailingly polite and helpful, he nevertheless refused to let his game be ruined by the vocal minority on the forum. Years of refining and developing the game had obviously given him confidence in his design that after the hue and cry had died down, its excellence would shine through.

Finally, I don't believe that Consimworld represents the whole wargames market, not by a long way. I can think of three of my regular wargaming opponents who never use it, not even as lurkers. Why should their experience of wargaming be spoiled by the vociferous minority rabble on the Consimworld forums?


Anonymous said...

Another positive example is Jerry Taylor and Tom Dalgliesh – Designer and publisher of Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex. Use CR as an example – it was released earlier this year and there were a few issues – primarily with game play and balance. There were some changes and clarifications but they were minor and responsive. The rulebook is still 12 pages and still about 30% commentary and historical background.

However, I might say this is a positive outcome that is due to the existence of Comsimworld – the designers got negative but constructive feedback and they made adjustments. No, they didn’t cave in – they kept their vision for the game intact and didn’t respond to every rules-twisting question with a rules change: they let the fan base respond to the obvious. In this case, it seems to have worked. Rules set 1.4 turns this into a very, very good game.

Chris Farrell said...

To address your points one at a time...

Sword of Rome: As one of the people who was irritated by the CRT, let me say that it had nothing to do with historical accuracy. My complaints had to do with the inability of players to have any impact on the outcomes. Because of the stacking limits, limited range of leader capabilities, lack of specialized combat cards, and non-trivial defensive advantages, most battles were just almost-straight-up affairs with a big range of random outcomes, over which the players had at best limited control. Fine in a short game, less so in a 5+ hour game. I think Wray has tried to address the complaints about how it works as a game by giving the players more options. The simulation value of Sword of Rome was never great anyway, other than from a flavor perspective.

My feeling is that his response was a legitimate attempt to counter some legitimate criticism, and was always an optional rule anyway. That having been said, I'm not sure it helped enough, and given everything is the way it is, taking a pass probably would have been the right answer in retrospect. Plenty of people like the game as it comes out of the box, and the fix is probably not going to assuage the critics.

The real issue here might be with the rules. I found the version that came in the box to be clear, but the living rules updates seemed to make things progressively murkier.

Barbarossa to Berlin: This is a classic case of a mixed blessing, IMHO. On the one hand, the Consimmers did stress the game in ways that regular players do not and uncovered some legitimate play-balance issues, or such is my understanding. I never really played B2B enough to know for sure, but the claimed Soviet weakness once the Germans mastered the game certainly sounded plausible, and if it's true, it's good they found it.

On the other hand, I have learned from writing software that if you're going to fix a problem in a shipping product, you want to do it in the least-intrusive, lowest-risk way possible. This course was decidedly not followed in B2B, and the level of eratta (particularly card changes) was seriously nuts, and I think some of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the immediacy of the internet.

An interesting case study in my opinion might be Empire of the Sun. This is a game that had such incoherent rules, and such obvious, major problems out of the box, and had so many major rules revs, you have to wonder if a) it was released in an incomplete state with the intent of using ConsimWorlders as the last couple rounds of playtesters, and b) if ConsimWorld didn't exist, they would have been forced to either get it right or not ship it. The other games you mention basically work, and someone with no exposure to CSW can play them quite happily without ever knowing about the various controversies. For Empire of the Sun this is not the case; anyone who opens the box is going to have to go online to figure out what's going on.

This to me is the big threat of CSW - it may encourage laziness by the publisher prior to publication. If most things can be fixed with a quick living rules update, and if everyone knows there is an active forum for rules questions and discussions, the incentive to get everything right first or make the rules as absolutely clear as they need to be might be too low. GMT certainly seems to sometimes fall victim to this.

Ray Freeman said...

At the risk of putting foot in mouth I have to disagree somewhat with Anonymous's comments on Crusader Rex.

However, first, let me say I think the Hammer system is brilliant and I love the game. It is the newest game I actually play as much as I possibly can, which has to count for something. (At least in my book).

I thus wanted to like CRex badly and I do play it. (And generally like it..although not nearly as much as HOTS) However, it had serious balance problems right out of the box. For some reason, the playtesters never explored what seemed to me to be the obvious Saracen strategy of anacondaizing the Christians to death. It was never closer than 5-2 in my early games, and every single game played at Conquest-SF last year verified this.

The " fixes" Tom and Jerry (NOT THE CAT AND MOUSE) have come with HAVE helped quite a lot, but there was a lot of nearly knee-jerk reaction in the process. This IS an internet problem. I think a more measured approach may have been better, because it seemed that some rules were whipsawing back and forth rather much for my tastes.

I actually haven't tried the latest rules...we played with a variation on v1.3 and the result was eminently satisfactory...easily the best (and closest) game of CRex I and my usual opponent have had.

Is the game now fixed? I doubt anyone will know for a while...that takes lot's of practical play by a large number of people...followed by sharing ideas. This is not a fast process. I have some professional examples to back this up if anyone's interested.

OTOH, it took decades for most people to figure out that VITP was very nearly broken play balance-wise prior to the WBC and the internet.

Moral: It's Future Shock. The info and opinions come too fast for most of us to process carefully and e-mail and the web have accelerated everything in life to the point of absurdity. Still, it's not necessarily a bad's simply a very good tool that can be misused.

Ultimately, the changes to CRex have been positive. It was a bit painful getting there though.