In a previous article about the card game Netrunner, among other topics, I discussed how board games can combine thematic design with mechanical synergy – and how it is something which counteracts the lack of a narrative in something designed to be played over and over again. Board games, and to a similar extent miniatures-based wargames, need to be repeatable, almost non-narrative experiences because they involve large amounts of direct, unpredictable player interaction. Video games, on the other hand, have the scope in offering single-player experiences to tell a story – there may be different routes through that story, or different scenes to be selected, but there is still a story being told and the aim of the game is to experience it. This is ultimately the crux of the story versus theme dichotomy; the level of variance in the experience, and whether the narrative is crafted as part of the entire work, or emergent from interaction with it.
Fantasy and SF wargaming is a quite different prospect to other kinds of board gaming in terms of engagement with theme; flavour – the creation of an entire setting that must justify various permutations of game-state – is a major selling point. A wargame must offer both a unified aesthetic across a miniature range but also a wide range of themed sub-ranges to differentiate factions (and thus the theme-mechanics relationship, which Netrunner achieves, return). There is much more pressure to be all things to all potential players than, say, a card game – games with significant variety of theme such as Yugioh and Magic stand out in their game-medium compared to the more thematically narrow games like Netrunner or Game of Thrones. Consider this in comparison to Warhammer 40,000 – arguably the poster-child of thematic smorgasbord wargaming. Its broad pastiche of a theme encompasses every imaginable science-fiction and fantasy cliché and endeavours – with varying degrees of success – to make them work in appropriate fashion in-game. It is broad-church design in its simplest form, made possible by a ruleset built around exceptions and factions that ignore different aspects of the rules.
It is fair, I think, to say Warhammer 40,000 armies are designed mechanically around ignoring rules to provide advantages as much as capitalising upon them. Space Marines, the poster-child faction, ignore the bulk of the morale rules because they are heroes. Tau, the high-technology faction, ignore many of the shooting rules, because they have the best guns. Daemons, the mysterious, magical faction, ignore many of the usual army design rules, because they are chaotic and unpredictable. The opposite attitude to design – being better at something – usually comes from ignoring restrictions rather than basic statistical improvement without some counterbalance. Tau have stronger guns to offset weaker melee skills, but their real strength is in ignoring cover and other such limitations. Where this interacts with armies that are based around advantages, problems occur. What use are abilities that rely on exploiting morale rules against a faction that is all but immune? What use are abilities emphasising melee against a faction that has powerful shooting to stop melee ever occurring? So mechanically, the broad-church efforts to be everything possible in one ruleset is apparently a failure. It does not work as intended, a lot of the time.
Furthermore, the theming that is represented in-game by these rules rarely works because the rules do not work as intended – and the theming is weakened by redundancy and the need for genericism in core rules design. Each faction, for example, has a differently-named upgrade that ignores the effects of rough ground on vehicles. Whether it is called Ghostwalk Matrix, Sensor Spines or Dozer Blade, it does the same thing but has a different piece of flavour text. Yet every faction also has the ability to make its line troops superior at holding ground to other units – but that is a genericised rule called Objective Secured that is given very little flavour justification and at times actively makes no sense. Some factions’ non-line troops are supposed to be the heroes of the army, special forces and tactical genuises. Yet they are less good at managing and winning a battle than a rabble of grunts or conscripts because of a genericised rule in a game that is trying to be flavour-driven. Even the Warhammer rulebook keeps returning to a concept it calls forging the narrative, trying to emphasise the flavour of its world. Players should pick factions based on the aesthetic and background. The rules claim to prioritise cool things happening, which is why there are random tables, and rules for challenges between mighty leaders, and the opportunity for a falling giant robot or crashing plane to wipe out troops below it. But at the same time, many unit abilities are just genericised keywords that can seem contrary to the flavour built up by individual army lists. This is, arguably, because Warhammer 40,000 is an army-scale game – it needs genericisation to reduce bookkeeping and rules bloat. It would not make sense for each faction to have a different name for its line troops being good at holding ground. But at the same time it apparently does make sense for each faction to have a faction-themed name for its vehicles being better at traversing rough ground. What is more, the combinations of some flavourful, and some not flavourful names for abilities – across a wide model range – ends up causing confusion. Some army lists simply instruct the player to reference a genericised rule in the main rulebook, while others reprint the rule. The arbitrariness of adding “flavour” undermines the flavour of the entire game because generic rules are being applied across factions the flavour – and other rules – are trying to make non-generic.
In comparison to this, there are two useful extremes within the genre; Infinity and Malifaux. Both are much smaller scale of engagement games than Warhammer 40,000 – and both take diametrically opposed attitudes to flavour and mechanics. Infinity has almost no flavour in its core rules. Everything is genericised – factions all use the same pool of basic weapons (called, plainly, “Rifle,” “HMG”, “Rocket Launcher” and so on) whether they are advanced robots or near-future SAS operatives. There are very few faction-specific abilities or rules, and those that do exist are needed only for corner cases highlighted as particularly exceptional in the background (like alien creatures which can mutate.) There is not the exception-based faction differentiation of Warhammer – all factions have a number of troop archetypes along the lines of light, medium and heavy infantry, some form of combat drone, a missile artillery piece, and engineers and medics. The aim is to depict different nations’ armies, rather than a range of alien race cliches – and even those aliens that do feature in Infinity use the same order of battle, but generally slightly better-equipped.
Faction differentiation at its most fundamental falls into two things – small statistical variations (Pan-Oceania are slightly better at shooting but have less experienced medics, for example), and the distribution of equipment and skills to create niche troops from a palette of generic abilities. Thus significant variation between factions is possible largely in how widespread a particular skillset is within its order of battle – not a binary “does this skillset exist at all” as some Warhammer 40,000 armies fall prey to. Ultimately this is very thematic, fitting the setting despite being a very hands-off approach to flavour. In a high-technology military-SF setting, genericisation of technology across superpowers with similar technology levels makes sense – with nation-specific tactics and strategies the differentiator, not completely different arsenals. Infinity is not a world where men in flak jackets with rifles take on psychic elves or lightning-shooting robot mummies, where those drastically different species need completely different basic guns to properly reflect their nature. It is a world where French troops fight guerrilla war to make up for a lack of technology and materiel, while the private guard of the supreme government can afford to give every soldier a personal drone or cloaking device – yet both will be using assault rifles and support weapons. It is not easily condusive, really, to the creation of narratives – it is a setting of professional soldiers doing tactical things with great efficiency, quite different to heroic feudal space knights saving innocents from ravening space bugs with religious fervour while super-robots sword-fight and wizards cast fireballs. Indeed, the mission rules for Infinity have to force players to tailor lists quite strongly even to make completing multi-stage missions work. There are stringent requirements for “specialists” – medics, engineers, spotters and so on – to be taken.
Malifaux is the complete opposite to Infinity in cleaving far closer to what Warhammer 40,000 aspires to – a game where every action is tied inextricably to the theme and furthers the creation of a story. Given it can be played with around seven or eight models a side – and those models are rarely duplicated more than once or twice (whereas in Infinity one might take five or more basic riflemen with one or two heavy weapons for support), there is room for much more rules duplication to make sure everything fits a theme. Indeed, even similar-sounding abilities between factions may have subtle twists to make them more appropriate. There is much mechanical genericisation, but it is kept secondary to flavourful rules names. It is apposite here to return to an example above – of the Warhammer rule Objective Secured – for a moment. Objective Secured is blatantly a balancing act in an edition of Warhammer that removed many restrictions on force selection; many line units are weak compared to elite troops, and so a mechanical bonus was added to encourage people to take them whether or not it makes sense that a faction’s line troops should be good at holding ground, or even want to. Take the insectoid Tyranid faction. Their background says their line troops are basically stupid animals that require an overmind to do anything other than feed and survive. In-game, their line troops go feral if not overseen by “smarter” organisms. Yet these mindless bugs are supposedly better at holding ground than those actually intelligent organisms, thanks to Objective Secured. It is the same, curiously, with Space Marines, the hero faction. Their centuries-old veteran soldiers, who in the background drop into enemy territory to capture important targets, are less good at doing it than the army’s new recruits.
The game is being promoted as one that is about narrative above all, and yet its rules seem to try and undermine the background that is given such prominence in army books, rulebooks and dozens of supplementary novels. The armies that “win” games of Warhammer bear little resemblance to those depicted as successful in the background because for all the rules try to promote the background, they fail. Malifaux has a rule like Objective Secured; it means the model can seize control of enemy territory. The rule is called Legalese and is themed around a faction of corrupt government officials and attorneys as them cheating the opposition out of territory they have captured. This is a simple marriage of theme and rules – the rule has a flavourful name that reflects its effect, and is given to a model that would logically make use of it. By contrast, a territory manipulation rule in a different faction – one given to roguish miners – is called False Claim and works completely differently. Malifaux duplicates few rules between factions without variation, instead giving its different forces very different ways of interacting with missions that reflect their interests. For miners, the objectives are claims to land. For the undead, they are sometimes fresh meat. Indeed, different factions are often highly specialised to different missions – and the game facilitates this by giving the players a choice of missions each game. The game state is set by the players and defined by their faction’s theme – and indeed, often the marriage of theme and mechanics is so strong that a faction can seem completely inept in a fight because they are supposed to avoid fighting in their background. Lawyers or pigs or clerks or children or rats or a dead dog are not particularly valuable in a fight against demons, cowboys and robots. But they are not supposed to fight. For example, the lawyers do not need to in the background, because they own the town and make life difficult – so in game, all their abilities restrict the opponent’s actions.
This article has proved quite lengthy in its consideration of how in non-historical genres of miniatures wargaming, rules can – or cannot – support narrative. All miniatures games need a strong aesthetic as a selling point because they have a creative aspect, the player designs an army, paints and builds it. This aesthetic is backed by a backstory – be it Warhammer‘s space opera smorgasbord, or Malifaux‘s Wild West ghost story – that is intended in most cases to inform the mechanics by providing reasons for people to fight and information about how they are supposed to. The best games can effectively take those in-setting explanations and reflect them in the game experience.