The Necrotechs Workshop LXII: The State of Warmachine

I’ve been slowing down on Warmachine while I focus on D&D – both writing my setting and playing a few more games, and it’s given me a bit of time to think about what it is about Warmachine that’s driving me into a bit of a lull. I do hope these things change and I can get back into the game in a year or two.

A Different Kind of War

When the current edition of Warmachine was announced back in 2015, it was greeted with a fairly strong sense of optimism, until leaked cards started showing up online, with a number of problems both in rules and in balance. There were a number of issues with model abilities, specific activated triggers, and various balance concerns that all, sadly, proved to be true with the release of the games full version in 2016. It was also at that release that we learned that there would no longer be what is called parallel development. Each faction for each game wouldn’t be getting new models and new rules simultaneously, but instead, the game would be released in small and distinct thematic chunks, called theme forces. Themes had been around since MKI, but this concept was being taken further for MKIII, becoming the main focus of the game.

At the time, I remained positive. They had proven fairly successfully that they could develop models that were, for the most part, solidly balanced. There were potatoes and rock stars, of course, but that isn’t an issue isolated to Privateer Press, and in addition to the theme books, we learned fairly early that they were going to be doing balance passes around the top and bottom 5% fairly regularly, which was one of the complaints about the game during MKII – that the game became stale and the meta stagnated without fairly significant balance tweaks.

This positive attitude was repeatedly shaken, first with the theme book announcement, and how it felt like it was transferring to a system that seemed very like the codex system that I had abandoned, very consciously, due to how it created a system of haves and have-nots. Now, nearly three full years later, that positive attitude is completely gone, and I only hold on to hope that Privateer Press can drag themselves back into a game that I absolutely love.

With all that said, I still enjoy playing the game, and I enjoy the camaraderie of the community. Most games are enjoyable enough, and the tournaments I go to are fun. What there isn’t, anymore, is the obsession that was there for 12 years. While playing this game is fun, thinking about it, building lists and the theory around it only elicits anger and irritation. let’s take a look at why that does it, to me, at least.

Book Learning

I’m going to start with the one that likely has the least effect on other and, disproportionately, a huge one on me, and that is the cessation of actual book printing. I understand that this can seem a bit hyperbolic and strange, but bear with me. Cards are the absolute hardest thing to learn from. They don’t present all the information in a concise and consumable way like the old books do, and especially on Warcasters and Warlocks, where you have to slide back and forth between different card screens in order to grab all the possible interactions. The card isn’t meant to be learned from, and its format wasn’t constructed with that in mind. Instead, it was built as a rules reference, and it reflects that design choice very strongly. Additionally, going back and forth comparing entries is painful. It’s not, once you find it, a simple swing back and forth. Its multiple button presses in an already pretty mediocre program to get between cards, even within an army. There isn’t a “scroll to next” option, which would be extremely helpful, but a back and forth that really breaks my cognitive process.

Additionally, New model updates and changes aren’t called out specifically except in out of context Developer Notes. These notes are extremely helpful, to be sure, but it doesn’t provide the story of what the model is now able/unable to do in totality, and this is, in turn, makes it hard to consume the changes that are made. Add into that the fact that the release notes are steaming piles of vapid garbage, which is a topic that really grinds my gears, and keeping up with changes is a constantly recurring disaster. Speaking of constantly recurring disasters:

CID timeframe

I want to move on from a problem that I know is likely one that I suffer pretty much on my own, to why the aspect of learning the new models being hard is much worse than it seems, and that is the absolute breakneck speed of the CID’s. Introduced fairly close to 2 years ago, this system was brought about to bring the players into the design space to help test models and catch issues when creating new models. At first, it seemed like an excellent idea, but it quickly, in my mind, collapsed into a pretty daunting scrapheap, the largest problem of which is both the scale and the timeframe of each CID.

Because the CID’s are chained to production schedules, the models that are allowed to proceed through CID are ones that are going to be available to purchase within a fairly short time. In order to accommodate having all the rules updated and ready to upload onto the various different platforms, the CID has to be concluded at a specific point in time. This has lead to a chain of CIDs that are, in my eyes, to compact for the community to participate in meaningfully, pushing out deliberate and thoughtful players who need time to digest and fully comprehend rules in favor of reactionary, knee-jerking hyper posters who have specific and demonstrable goals.

This specific ecology that has been created in the CID forums has essentially forged a platform for extra vocal players, and I don’t believe that most players have the heart of the game at the heard of their feedback. Instead, and rightfully so, most players feedback is centered on making their faction stronger and better when compared to the general meta. This is exacerbated by the generally held belief that a faction gets a buff when it gets a CID, and therefore creating complaints when a faction is neglected or blessed by the quantity of their CIDs.

The quick, two and a half to three-week time frame just isn’t enough to properly test models, as shown by Ghost Fleet, Body and Soul, and EE, where it took the community a ton of time to realize the broken combinations. Combined with the current, constant, CIDs, and you get a meta that is ever-changing, unstable, and suffers from the latest gotcha rules and new releases instead of a grind to try and find a solution to the latest problem.

Finally, on CID’s, I really think that this downtime that is currently happening without a CID is a squandered opportunity. This could be used to become the start of longer, stronger, CID’s for models that are farther in the future. I know that there is a risk of models simply never coming out, but I think that is a risk that we should be willing to take for the sake of more thoroughly balanced rules. Detach the CID cycle from the production cycle and let us test rules out for longer, so that we’re able to get better feedback overall.

Bolt on Themes

Following up on CID’s, I get to the part I like the least out of all of the changes, that themes still, three years into the edition, feel like a bolt on to the game. I know this is literally what happened, with the developers working their assess off to get themes out the door and to the players after those same players rioted once the theme rules were revealed because each theme was granting the faction who had it massive, insurmountable benefits.

However, three years later feels like a long, long time to not have ironed out the small, irritating issues that still crop up in themes. I’m only going to speak from the point of view of a Cryx player, but I know from talking to other players that there are a number of similar issues that exist throughout the factions. The first and most obvious one is Skarre 1. She is a Satyxis caster that in the fluff is the queen of the Stayxis. However, the Satyxis theme is absolutely one of the worst, if not specifically the worst, theme to use her in due to her mechanics and the limitations of the theme. With the loss of the scarlock from the theme, she is unable to cast her signature spell, Ritual Sacrifice, without paying a too-steep price for it. Yes, the theme was given a fairly unique and cool scarlock-esque model, but part of that model’s rules is that, in order to cast a spell from the casters spell card, she has to kill a model. When the spell being cast also requires a model to be sacrificed, and the models in theme are all useful, elite models that you can only bring a fairly limited number of, you’re just not going to bend over that far backward to bring what should be the most thematic caster for the theme, in the theme.

Other issues crop up with Deneghra 3 and Soul Trappers, Goreshade II and Scrap thralls, and other small nuisances. These aren’t, and I know this, huge problems that break the game, but it instead showcases that themes aren’t an integral part of the game, conceived and organically built into the very fabric. It makes themes feel clunky and awkward when they should be the very building blocks.

This is also evident in the Mercenary exceptions that the game has now. The limit of 1 selection of each mercenary slot simply does not make sense with the current design philosophy of themes themselves. When you automatically start suffering huge penalties in the form of losing free cards when you break a specific threshold of non-theme benefit generating cards, these mercs are twice-penalized in a game that, for the greater part of 15 years, had unlimited mercenary options. Remove the limit on Mercs.

Positioning Plus/ Pre Measuring

While the first three complaints I have with the game are pre-gameplay problems, these last three are all part of playing the game itself that make thinking about the game much worse for me.

First, and in my mind foremost, is the form of the current game. With the ability to pre-measure, a very good change and a necessary one that I really enjoy, the game has compounded with the other issues below, shifted from a generally risk-reward game to one of positioning, threat range dancing, and attrition. This is something that I find anathema to the very concept of the game from 15 years ago. I do understand that many people find this to be an enjoyable and fulfilling method of play, but I do not. I want to play the game with model abilities, rules, and skills. It is a hard concept for me to fully articulate because I want plenty of concern about threat ranges, carefully considered plans, and knowing how and when to commit forces to be part of the game, I simply don’t want that to be the greater part of the game. Combining this type of gameplay with a greater feeling that the meta has become a complicated game of rocket tag, where few things miss their attacks, and fewer things still fail to kill their intended target, means that dice, and the recovery from inevitable bad dice, plays less of a part in the game. This goes all the way back to players not having the best interest of the game as a whole at heart, but instead want to improve their faction and not waste attacks, models or resources. It makes the game less fun, overall.

Scenarios

In concert with the game becoming more position oriented, the game has simultaneously shifted to be more scenario oriented. I remember, way back in the old days, when scenarios were thought of less as a way to bring about victory, but a thing to pay attention to while to make sure you didn’t accidentally lose.

The evolution of the scenario to its current state, in providing a strong and often swift method of victory, has always bothered me. I’ve always enjoyed assassination and quick games, but it seems that that format of the game is gone. Keep your caster safe, grind out the game losing fewer models than your opponent and win on the scenario at the end, or jam the opponent out of the scenario and swiftly win without much of a game at all. Both of these are good endings to the game and are valid strategies to win games, along with working towards a clock victory or a 7th turn AP win if needed. I won’t hesitate to use any of these win conditions and don’t hold any ill will to those who use them. Instead, I wish they were a much smaller part of the overall concept of how to win a game of Warmachine. These victories are incredibly unfulfilling and instead of leaving me itching to play more games, they leave players with a sense of inevitability, that no matter how the game started or progressed, it would have, undoubtedly, ended the same way.

I do not like the current scenarios, and think that the whole system needs to be scrapped, starting over from the ground up to encourage the type of risk based, action packed games of earlier editions.

Assassination Difficulty

Lastly, and many may have seen this coming, is the changes over time have made assassinating casters much more difficult. Over time, casters have evolved from being wary of placement on the battlefield to, often, a piece that, no matter the frailty, can wander pretty much freely around the board. Their ability to shrug off even the heartiest of rockets will often save them from many but the most concerted of assassination efforts. This means that it is often folly to even attempt an assassination, as the resources you’ll need to take down the caster leave you overly vulnerable to the remaining army when you fail.

I know that many people don’t want their casters to be fragile and easily killed, but that was the glory of the rubberband that the game had built in. Even if you were down on scenario and your army was being whittled away, you still had a shot at the caster. Cut the head off the snake and win the game. As the game has progressed, however, more and more durable casters have made it into the game, and the damage prevention via focus has risen to be similar in concept to fury, often preventing a rubber band effect, and allowing casters to be less careful as the game progresses, instead of trying to largely keep their head down and not get killed, losing the game for their side.

Honestly, I don’t expect that there is much that Privateer can do to bring me back into the obsessed fold. I still like the game, and the community is great, but they seem committed to the course they are on, and its not really a course I find particularly attractive.

Well. Until next time!