Breaking the Stranglehold (or ‘How I learned to stop worrying and love Privateer Press’)

Games Workshop make the best model soldiers in the world.

If you’re interested in tabletop gaming, the odds are that you’ve heard this slogan before. It’s bullish, corporate-mission-statement stuff. And for the most part, it’s widely accepted.

GW products, specifically the fantasy battle-themed Warhammer and the far-future-based Warhammer 40k, have been the staple of mass market wargaming for more than 20 years. The clear market leader, GW have developed a range of hooks for enthusiasts:

  • Compelling game-settings and mythology, which have spawned a range of successful novelisations and other features – AKA the ‘Fluff’
  • Beautifully-crafted models, supported by a culture of hand-painting and modification
  • A network of stores – or ‘hobby centres’ as GW style them – which provide an environment in which players of all ages can meet to stage games
  • Strategic play experience, which broadly rewards thought, insight and planning

This mix is something of a perfect storm; one which I understand very well, in fact. Taken in combination with another incredibly powerful factor, nostalgia, it’s what drew me back into the game after a long hiatus. GW have managed to create a brand which is potent enough to recall players in their late 20s and onward to the hobby of their teenage years, even when the specific models and rules have evolved beyond recognition from the original experience.

In the years since my return though, I’ve begun to question that brash, italicised assertion at the top of the page.

What really constitutes ‘making the best model soldiers in the world’?

This question goes to the heart of the unease that I have, as a gamer, with GW and their traditional priorities.

I believe the mission statement is intended to suggest that they create the best ‘model soldiers’ experience in the world; I’d define this as encompassing the actual sculpting of the models, the quality of the “fluff”, the ease and enjoy ability of the play experience… the entirety of the game and it’s components.

However, I suspect that GW have at various stages been too literal about interpreting this mission. Their focus has literally been on producing and selling the models, rather than on the game experience – and as a result, naive decisions have been made which have negatively affected gameplay.

Gameplay and neglect make uneasy bedfellows

I don’t see any need to rehash my previous description of the primary failings of 40k 5th edition; suffice to say, the overpowered nature of vehicles, compounded by the generous undercosting of various strong vehicles in Codices from Imperial Guard onward, left various players fairly disenfranchised.

The issue I want to raise here is about playtesting; specifically, about the potential for catastrophic game balance issues when it is neglected.

In 5th edition play, it was commonplace to find oneself facing off against the so-called ‘Leafblower’ Imperial Guard army list. The highly evocative name originates from the army’s propensity to destroy large quantities of an opponent’s forces in its first shooting phase; the joke was that one could simply remove the drifts of the dead thereafter like rotting autumn leaves.

Let me tell you, this was great fun to play against.

Leafblower was only possible as a result of Codex Imperial Guard’s generous army structure restrictions. Where other forces could select a comparatively small number of tanks, limited by their force organisation slots, IG were able to select several tanks as “squadrons” under a single slot, multiplying their advantage in high points-value games. As I mentioned earlier, their vehicles were also very good value for points. The possibilities were egregious.

Nonetheless, I told myself that GW had probably planned things this way; a remedy would doubtless be included in future Codices.

Allow me to relate the anecdote which left me holding my head in my hands.

A 40k tournament regular, posting on a popular forum, described his encounter with Robin Cruddace (author of the IG Codex) at a major event. Cruddace was playing a Guard army, as was our poster.

So far, so good.

Cruddace fielded what’s known as a “fluffy” army – a balanced force chosen for its depiction of an in-world IG platoon as much as for game strength. This is absolutely fine, albeit not truly competitive.

What’s really unsettling, though, is Cruddace’s reported reaction to the poster’s Leafblower army. He seemed surprised, but enthusiastic about its composition; the poster attributed to Cruddace several comments about “real mechanised platoons” and other positive fluff-related remarks.

Of course, our poster wiped the floor with the poor Codex author – who continued to express surprise throughout at the highly competitive traits of the list and the unwillingness of his opponent to agree reductions to his cover saves for narrative reasons.

My point is this: if this anecdote is accurate, the man who apparently designed the rules of a major gaming product was unaware of the widely understood impact of those rules.

Here’s what I took from this story:

  • Games Workshop is publishing rules which have been insufficiently playtested. Game balance issues ensue.
  • Robin Cruddace is not to blame for this problem. In a game as complex as 40k, an author cannot be expected to write rule books and also extensively playtest them.
  • Furthermore, GW is apparently not tracking the effect of products it has released on the game. If it was, the chances are that its game designers would recognise powerful army configurations when presented with them.
  • If there is no tracking, there can be no feedback to game designers. If there is no feedback, how on earth can we expect those designers to do things differently in future?

Culture clash

I attribute a significant part of this disconnect to a cultural clash:

  • GW don’t design with truly competitive players in mind; reading between the lines, there may even be a distaste for that cut-throat sensibility.
  • However, spiky tournament players DO exist – and in the Internet age, where their strategies and optimised army lists can be widely shared, their influence on the game is pervasive.

This understanding frustrated me for some time. Other modes of gaming I enjoyed understood the impact of the competitive information cascade. Why couldn’t tabletop war gaming do the same?

An appealing alternative

Feeling as I did, it now seems inevitable that I would encounter and respond to Privateer Press.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Privateer Press are the publishers of the Warmachine and Hordes games. Like 40k, they are tabletop war games; however, they boast two particular advantages in terms of gameplay:

  1. Scalability – Warmahordes (as the two compatible systems are collectively known) is designed to be played at a range of common points values. The largest values allow large armies which might be familiar to players of 40k, but the smallest provide for skirmish games which can be played with tremendous ease. My last 15pt Warmachine game involved the use of 4 models by me and 5 by my opponent. Simplez!
  2. Competitive sensibility – The Warmachine rulebook contains a text as important to competitive gaming as the Magna Carta is to civil liberties: it’s called page 5. On Page 5, Privateer Press lay out the philosophy of their Games System, explicitly enshrining cut-throat competition alongside good conduct and respect for opponents. It’s a fine statement of how to play hard but honourably – and it highlights the apparent gap in GW’s understanding of the player base.

The famous (or infamous, dependent on your perspective) Page 5

These two factors convinced me to sample the game, because they dovetail neatly with two of my own personal objectives since becoming a Father: getting value for my time and money. If I can play games involving less models, I’ll be able to complete them faster; I’ll also have less of a setup cost.
But what am I sacrificing by playing Warmachine in my free time rather than 40k? Faced with this question, I reverted to my original matrix:
  • Compelling game-settings and mythology – this isn’t really an issue for me, but from what I’ve seen, this is still an area where GW have a significant edge.
  • Beautifully-crafted models – in this area, Privateer Press hold their old manfully. The steampunk ‘Warjack’ sculptures are as easy on the eye as any Tyranid monster.
  • A network of stores – without a retail arm, Privateer rely on local hobby stores to present their products and provide a gaming environment. This certainly isn’t as reliable as the infrastructure GW has in place, but as a multi-format gamer I can attest to the excellence and community import of the best independent stores; I am innately more sympathetic to companies which support them through their marketing plans.
  • Strategic play experience – Privateer are no slouches on the strategic gameplay front. There are multiple factors to consider in every player turn and the importance of sequencing actions correctly cannot be understated. I feel that there’s a huge amount of depth in Warmahordes play – and I look forward to improving my understanding of it.

It’s clear that Privateer don’t have all the answers, but after starting small over a decade ago and working hard to build a following, they certainly are bringing something that hasn’t existed before: a challenge to GW’s dominance. I’m not the only gamer who feels this way – some quick forum research will turn up a host of similar remarks from players frustrated that GW hasn’t been catering to them.

Why Privateer Press is the best thing ever to happen to GW

Here’s where things get interesting.

I’m not privy to the inner workings of GW, so I can’t tell you that serious competition has directly inspired change. What I can tell you is this:

  • The community buzz around 40k 6th edition suggests that, for the first time, GW may have conducted large scale playtests with gamers external to the company – specifically gamers who understand the competitive play environment.
  • As I’ve previously mentioned in this blog, 40k 6th Edition “fixes” some of the marquee problems with the previous versions of the game – problems which, if the earlier Imperial Guard anecdote is to be believed, the game designers were not sufficiently aware of in recent years.

Perhaps GW aren’t analysing their competitors – it would be grand hubris, but it’s possible – and responding to comparative weaknesses in their game.

If they aren’t, they are at least listening to the concerns of their customers; those customers are, to a greater or lesser extent, being influenced by the existence of a genuine alternative against which to compare 40k.

The result is the same: as a 40k player, instead of griping about problems of game balance, I get to enjoy a system which has been tuned to a greater degree by input from serious gamers.

Let me clear about this: I am delighted, because I love playing 40k. While much of what I’ve written above is critical of GW, it’s the criticism of someone who remains invested in the game, rather than the rantings of a partisan fanboy.

The future’s bright – the future’s multi-format

My exploration of the wider tabletop world has given me a sense of profound optimism.

On one hand, I’ve discovered a new game which I’m approaching with the enthusiasm of an excitable beginner; on the other, I’m reaping the rewards of my favourite pseudo-monopoly wargame producer being exposed to healthy competition.

The end result is a net positive for both companies: instead of spending my limited cash on Magic Online, I’m now musing over the purchase of additional flying Hive Tyrants and the Butcher of Khardov

I hope that, in years to come, GW’s motto, Games Workshop make the best model soldiers in the world will come with the invisible addendum because the young bucks breathing down our neck force us to.

It’s a great time to play tabletop wargames.

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