Tuesday, December 8, 2009

WH3: Product vs. Game

I have a hard time talking about Magic: the Gathering. It is a fantastic game, and I can say that without reservation. It is one of the best thought out, best designed games out there. I have said on numerous occasions that if you want to understand how to create game mechanics, especially RPG mechanics, M:tG is like a masters class in exception based design. It's fun to play, fast, colorful and fun. I bought into it when it first came out, when it was so novel that we tried to play with the decks we'd bought, and the Craw Wurm was terrifying. I've gotten rid of other CCGs over the years, but my Magic cards hang around [1].


I don't play it these days. Every now and again I am struck by a strong desire to bust it out, but it always withers on the vine as I stop and try to catch up on the state of the art. I'm uncomfortable with the pay-to-play model, and it gets you coming and going. If you follow the rules and limit yourself to current sets, you need to pay to stay current as they come out. If you go with one of the broader rulesets, then you can use more cards, but so can the guy who has spent thousands of dollars on his rares and cheesy combos.

This used to bug me a lot, especially when I was younger and much more broke. I'm less broke these days, and I'm less troubled by the idea of being able to use money to make up for a lack of time[2], but I still can't quite buy into the model. So I end up very torn on the topic[3]. I love the game, but I'm uncomfortable with the product.

Historically, M:tG was the only game that really presented me with this problem. 4e had some elements of it, but once you realize that you really don't need anything but a DDI subscription[4], it becomes entirely manageable.

I should not have been surprised when the problem raised its head again in the shape of WFRP 3e. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3e is a monstrously large box, full of components with the kind of production values that only a company like FFG can bring to the table.

It's a fun game, full of good ideas, lightly using a well loved setting. I enjoyed it a lot as a game, but I'm not yet sure how I feel about it as a product.

The most striking thing about the game is that you need almost nothing except what's in the box. You'll want a pencil and maybe some scratch paper for character creation, but you won't need them once the game starts. Everything in the game, and I mean EVERYTHING is represented by the components. Abilities, wounds and statuses are all cards. Duration, exertion and range are tracked with tokens. There are little cardboard standups for characters representing position. Even the equivalent of skill challenges/skill ladders use tracks you build out of cardboard puzzle pieces. Almost[5] everything else is offloaded to the dice. This is brilliant to behold in action.

But it's also a double-edged sword. Since everything can be done with the components, the components also represent the limit of what you can do. Adding new classes or abilities requires adding new components - even supporting more than 3 characters requires more components than come in the box - at least so long as you play by the rules.[6]

There is absolutely a lock-in element to the game, but there are some benefits to this as well. When new rules or items or whatever get added to the game by an adventure or the like, as long as you include the cards, those get folded into the core rules with a quick shuffle. Compared to needing to reference multiple books, that's pretty sweet.

It's also a pretty decent check against piracy. If the components are necessary to play, it doesn't really matter if illicit PDFs get out on the Internet. Making cards and tokens at home is enough of a pain in the ass to make enthusiasts likely to just decide to suck up the price.[7]

I dig that, and as a business decision I understand where it came from, but it comes with a cost. There are a lot of decisions made in the design of the game that make it very hard to actually reference things. Most notably, if there is information on a card, it is not mirrored anywhere in the text. That's a great protection against piracy, but it also means that there are no lists of talents or class abilities to consult - you need to flip through the cards.

Cards are incredibly useful for certain things, but this is not one of their strengths. It's awkward and clunky, and it's very clearly a decision to trade off ease of use for expandability (generously) and protection against piracy (cynically). That's not a dealbreaker, but it colors perception of the game when you get to fuzzier decisions.

As an example, most everything I needed to reference for play as a GM could easily fit on a single page, maybe two. I'd hope for a summary page, but when I don't get one, I normally wave it off as one of those terrible decision that people make in the name of page count, like excluding an index. Which is to say, I'd be unhappy, but I've got callouses over that spot. But when faced with a game where the business decisions are so apparent, it's hard to shake the feeling that it was left out to help pimp the eventual GM's screen.

Now, don't get me wrong. Having had time to think, I'm quite sure that the lack of a summary really is in the same bucket as a lack of index, but it took a lot of thought and time to reach that conclusion. At the table, as we were sorting through things and I was getting frustrated, it was very easy to reach the uncharitable interpretation. That's no good.

So thus I am back where I started. I really dig the game, but I'm uncertain whether I like the product. I'll be chewing on it for a bit, but I hope to delve a bit more into both sides of that tomorrow, now that I've laid bare my biases.

1 - So do my Shadowfist ones, but that's neither here nor there.

2 - I'm pretty easy-going about it with MMOs, for example. But they're also a different sort of game.

3 - Yes, this could probably be several posts on its own.

4 - And that that subscription is pretty much entirely mandatory. Yes, that's another type of "pay to play", but it's better for two reasons. First, there's no real problem with getting on and off the train - if I stop playing D&D and then come back to it, I have the same resources as anyone else. Second, it's not priced too badly, especially compared to buying a $30-$40 book every month (and in fact, the online subscription model means I don't need to worry that I missed a book during my time away).

5 - And this is definitely an "almost", and one I tripped over once or twice.

6 - It is entirely possible to play the game in a more traditional fashion, but it does require copying a lot of information from cards. I am genuinely uncertain how well the game would hold up under such a change. On one hand, it would lose the elegance of all-components, but on the other hand it might actually improve the experience. The all-component approach works better in some areas than others, so it might be interesting to be selective in its application.

7 - That is, until someone copies the information from the cards and comes up with the aforementioned rules for playing without components. I expect this to happen quickly, so I hope there's not too much weight put on this particular pillar.


  1. A good comparison. I'm eager to here your thoughts on how the game plays, as well.

  2. I'm glad you made footnotes 6 and 7. I don't feel the game is unplayable without the components, and in fact I believe that if you truly like the system and the game quite apart from the game's components, then it opens up rapidly to homebrewing once you eliminate the need to have everything on a card.

    You don't really need every player to have their own action cards (the ones everybody gets), for instance. You can keep track of things in other ways. Scratch paper and a good PDF character sheet with room to write down all the important details will serve. I think you could even fake the dice with dice blanks, too,it just wouldn't look as pretty.

    To me, the key point about which the game hinges is not its tactile elements but its gameplay, the rules behind the aesthetic. And I think it succeeds there, so it won't necessarily die a fiery death if the component thing becomes an issue.

  3. This game (and most games in the FFG line fall into the same category) is designed for junkies like me that love lots of fiddly bits; it's what FFG does best. But I see where you're going with it. FFG already has plans for a player's Tool kit with 4 new careers and lots of cards as well as extra packs of special dice for sale. That's followed up with an entire campaign for the setting with even more fiddly bits. I'd be curious to see how it would look if distilled down into a 'traditional' RPG book format.

  4. @cam Yeah, I don't want to get into it more than a footnote because it's really its own thing. I think there's still some fiddliness - for example, I'd probably end up using post-it flags to handle things like stance and swapping talents in and out - and there maybe issues I haven't really anticipated yet, so I don't want to say it's *definitely* an option, but it sure *looks* like it is.

  5. @Cinderella Man - That actually raises an important point I didn't mention. Almost any big games these days has a certain number of near-mandatory supplements. I think I had thought that WHFRP would not fall not this category because of it's price point and boardgame-like design. Those things suggested to me something reasonably self-contained (or which is supplemented on a boardgame schedule, not an RPG schedule) but the flaw there was in my assumption.

    It's entirely possible that after a small number of supplements, the core rules will be expanded enough that it will not feel like there's a need to keep up with supplements. If so, it'll definitely still be a pretty-expensive buy-in, but I'll be much happier if that proves to be the case.

    -Rob D.

  6. I agree with your sentiment and echo it as far as Warhammer Fantasy Battles is concerned. I live 1 block from probably one of the most persistant gaming clubs left in North America ran by a tireless Warhammer Champion who spends his days crafting professional quality terrain and teaching kids how to paint well enough to win contests. I've played Warhammer a lot over the years but these days, even with all the great support and play opportunities I have by virtue of my location I just cannot bring myself to choke back Games Workshop's business model which quite honestly makes my ass long for a soothing cream just thinking about it.

    What's more upsetting though is that Wal Mart has made overtures to carry GW miniatures and games in the past. If GW had let them, and lowered the prices of their miniatures to something reasonable instead of the 20,000% markup they currently enjoy (I'm pretty sure that's an accurate estimation) then we'd likely be seeing a far more mainstream wargame hobby currently rather than the tiny fringe it is right now.

    Unfortunately GW has a mandate to screw over any retailer that isn't an official GW store and stands by that mandate while their computer game offerings which are sold in any store that sells such things fly off the shelves and have made them one of the most profitable game companies out there right now the last several years running.

    Warhammer has some of the best miniatures out there and a genuinely fun set of games, but their business model is so offensive that I can't bring myself to play them anymore.

  7. I have to say, you are compelling me to buy this. I was already one fishhook in at GenCon, but I am really intrigued by what's going on with this game. I used some of the elements of the abstracted combat for my fluid rules, but really want to get my hands on those dice, roll them around and see how the full thing comes into being on the table.

  8. Hey Rob,

    There is a magic the gathering video game on xbox live that is about ten bucks, and has a limited card set so there is no Mr. Suitcase. Downside is it seriously lacks in the deck creation end. However that gives you one set of rules to relearn, and a level playing field, plus there's no arguing about the rules.

  9. @clyde I have, in fact, eaten that game up with a spoon. I wish it had deck construction, but I've played the hell out of it all the same.

  10. I never got into MtG because of the economics and being turned off that model, and I can see the parallels with WFRP, and that does make me a little uneasy.

    It seems like house rules, and fan creations might be harder to integrate, or at least harder to accept even if it's just because they just don't look as nice. That could be stifling.

    One thing: I'm curious why you say a D&D insider subscription is mandatory. I know people who play D&D with just the 3 core books, and I know in previous editions, I had a policy of pretty much banning anything not from core unless the players bought me a copy of the supplement.

  11. @darren It's playable with just the core books, but even with just that, it is _vastly_ easier to level characters up, keep track of bonuses and such by using WOTC's character creator, which is one of the DDI subscription elements. It also makes GMing much easier (with monster references) but that's not as big an impact.

    Still, with just the core books, that's a fair tradeoff, but if you have any interest in staying current, or even getting just a little more into the books (since, hey, it's all official now) then the bookkeeping becomes insane without software.

    That said, you also get all the rules text of all the books as part of the subscription, so I don't condemn it. A lot of folks pay their monthly fee and just don't buy the books, and it's cheaper for them. I admit I kind of respect that option.

    -Rob D.

  12. I totally agree with you. I like the game well enough, but the strong component aspect gives me a strange pit in my stomach.

    (Also, "Shadowfist". Yes!)


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