The Necrotechs Workshop – LVIII – Themes in a Different World

This post is going to be something that I’ve been working on for a while in my head. It’s going to be hard enough to convey the message that I want, so I’ve shied from actually typing this one up. However, I think now is as good a time as any. Lets get this out of the way. 

I hate themes. Let’s talk about why! 

It is probably not what you think

The statement of my thoughts on themes isn’t something that should be new or surprising to those who’ve heard me talk or read what I write. I don’t think I’ve ever lauded themes or heaped upon them much praise, if at all. Currently, its the defacto status of the game, so I play with it because I have to, not because I want to. In my heart of hearts, I dislike them as a forced choice, a method to make the life of the game designer easier while making the life of the player neither easier nor better. But that isn’t why I hate them. If everything that I write up next was to go away, I could easily suffer themes without really thinking about them all too much as anything but a dumb game design decision that I don’t agree with. Instead, the problems I have with Themes aren’t based completely in balance or diversity, but on a system that feels poorly thought out, cobbled together, and only half-baked. They are ill fit for human consumption. 

But you know what: it is our fault as players. 

This is something that I don’t think is acknowledged hard enough or often enough. As much as the themes seem like a lot of poorly thought out mish-mash, it is something that we, the players, brought on ourselves. 

When MKIII was announced, and the new format of releases was revealed, there were a lot of problems right off the back. I’m going to go on a tangent here, it has nothing to do with the theme rules but bear with me. When they announced the new version of the game and the method that they were going to be releasing models, I was appalled. Not a little, but drastically. There was a not insignificant portion of me that wanted to completely quit the game. One of the major draws of this game, when it came out, was the release cycle, and how it was equitable among all factions. Their balance might not equal among factions, but everyone was constantly getting something, and the story was progressing forward at a fairly proper pace. With the announcement of MKIII and the changes that were coming, it absolutely felt like they were spitting on the absolute best parts of their business plan. They were replacing their release and story schedules with some form of hideous abomination that flew in the face of everything that they had stood for prior. There were going to be definitive winners and losers. Factions were going to suffer from not having models released – especially at the pace that they were used to, for long stretches, and I remembered how that felt with Asphyxious 3 and the 13-month wait between Cryx releases. 

It is in this air that the first theme force was revealed. I believe, and I could be mistaken, that it was Heavy Metal. Cygnar got the first release to no one’s surprise, and it was really good. Not good in the way that we’d become accustomed to, but good in a way that made the rest of the game cease to function in the manner that we all had accepted. The addition of free models and unit attachments imbalanced the game in a way that wasn’t expected. As more and more themes were released, and more groups of models were left behind as the themes dominated the game, which I feel is something that could and should have been foreseen, the cry became louder and louder – if themes are to be the new existence of the game, the players wanted to have all their models available in themes. Out of theme play was something that simply wasn’t a viable option due to the points disparity. The cry was long and loud, and PP listened, felt it wasn’t unjust, and over a year into the game, at the end of September in 2017, released these themes unto the world. There was a lot of speculation leading up to the releases, and there were spoilers and teasers everywhere about how cool lists were, what they felt was a good list, what made the theme shine, and all the other marketing buzz you’d expect. 

But, and thanks for bearing with me, this is the origin of the problem. Late into the nights leading up toTheme Day,  we were told that the staff was hard at work crafting themes, making sure all the models were in a theme force and ready to go. That everything was in the shape it was expected to be. And this is where I think we fell down. The themes feel bolted on because they weren’t granted enough time. From Lock and Load 2017 until their release is only some 55 working days. They targeted the end of the year, and instead, they had – let’s just say 7 themes were released – worked on and lined up benefits for around 52 themes. That is a theme a day. Written, built, playtested, stress tested, and stamped for approval. Now, I assume it wasn’t as simple as that, and that they were working on multiple and were putting the finishing touches on all along, but it doesn’t feel like it was a long time plan that was simply hurried to the end. that they had to add Mercs in makes it feel even more so. The process feels rushed. 

Just Tell Me Already

At this point, I’ve tried to set the stage for the basics that are going to follow here. My problem with themes isn’t that they are unbalanced, to the contrary, the game feels as balanced as it has been in a long time. Caster and model diversity is up, to the point where many people are simply throwing up their hands and admitting they can’t cover everything with a list pair, the game plays smooth and runs without any major rules hiccups, and the general enjoyment of the game is much higher, overall, than it was at the end of MKII. 

My problems with Themes are layered.

First

My first and largest problem is that it feels like an addendum to the game that was never intended or desired, and is a rather knee-jerk decision to balance problems. It likely isn’t, but that is how they wear upon my conscience. Going right along with that is the general discordant feeling that more than a fair share of models generate by simply having themes exist. These models advertise synergies that either no longer exist, are extremely sub-optimal, or that when forced generate irritation rather than elation. I have a couple right off the top of my head. 

Skarre 1: She is a Satyxis Raider caster, and she is terrible in the Satyxis theme. In order to get her working at an optimal and balanced level, you have to sacrifice two expensive models a turn. There are no good targets for Ritual Sacrifice, and there isn’t a proper spell slave to get work out of. Skarre 1 isn’t even particularly potent with the Satyxis, and it feels really stupid that she’s unable to run a list that feels like her home. Her synergy simply no longer exists. 

Necrosurgeons: Necrosurgeons have always been a recycling tool for the living models of Cryx, and sometimes the models in an opponents army. Now, in their theme list, they no longer can take living models, of which Cryx has a solid contingent of good ones, without resorting to Mercs, which may force you into a position with a lack of enjoyment because all your spells state friendly faction, and the mercs simply aren’t, and eat into your free models. 

Mordikaar: Mordikaar has spells that work on living models, and abilities that work on void spirits. There is no way to build those two into your list at the same time out of theme, and the only way to get void spirits in a list is to take Despoiler and force him to kill infantry, which is the opposite of what he wants to do with Dark Shroud. It feels bad to build the synergies of the caster in there. 

I know there are a ton more, and they are all over the place. They lie around like a poorly shredded document, belying the evidence if you only took time to complete it. 

To me, this is corrected by making Theme forces based not on classifications of models, but instead on concepts. I know that they want every caster to be playable in every theme, but you have to look at how themes have been handled. There are clear indications that models that should have been reworked for inclusion in a theme weren’t, and it feels bad because they could easily have done it, given more time. Create the 5th Border Legion, Gravedigger ( I know this exists) and other reknown forces instead of basing it off models that look together. Create an interesting combination of models that lets every caster shine in their own way. If that means that you have to include scrap thralls and other basic models that have been around for a thousand years in every theme, that is fine. Make thinking about the game a little bit less like shoving coals into my gray matter. 

Second

I absolutely hate the fact, and feel that its an artificial carryover from MK II, that any Character jack is restricted at all. Just let them go. I think every character jack immediately gets used more, and people are happier overall. Its been shown with a number of CID’s so far that a character jack or two, even, is just fine. What I don’t get is their complete dismissal of making sure that every theme has at least a character jack, and that every character jack has a home. It’s criminal to have such cool models with interesting rules and powerful interactions, many of which were balanced around a MKIII that didn’t have a themepocalypse, cloistered off with their bonded caster, who sometimes (Xekaar) is worthless in their own right. Tying good models to shitty ones seems like a terrible Idea. 

Third

Gating is irritating and, in my opinion, terrible way to run a theme. I am often being restricted a smattering of units and a few generic or terrible jacks. By forcing me to hit specific thresholds for models, you’re incentivizing spamming the cheapest option available to the theme to hit the gate on the nose, whichever of those gates it is you’re trying to achieve, though it is often the final one. The amount of times I’ve stopped building a list because I cannot get a free card because the points don’t work out or the number of times I have stopped trying to magic my way into an exact number so that I can hit the gate is honestly beyond counting. It’s not the gate, either, that I am often interested in hitting. Instead, it is maximizing the points of the models that aren’t committing to free cards that is the key factor. Knowing that I only have ~15 points of flex in an infantry and often ~12 in a jack based theme really sucks. You have to consider the opportunity cost for each model that you will take that pushes you into a bracket where you get less free model very seriously. 

Fourth

Standardized benefits are better for rules and developers, but they are stale and kinda suck. give out better, deeper, and more unique bonuses to lists. There are a lot of you-pick-em abilities in themes, and that mostly sucks. 

Finally

Points are what make a game fair and equal. We all like to think that we’re playing a game based on some level of skill and capacity to play the game, and the players who are better win more. This leads to people trying to get an advantage in every way they can, and ending up with a giant case of Bonus Boner, which in this case is making sure to maximize those free points so that you don’t come into the game with loss points, and therefore a greater chance to lose. 

Solutions

If it was up to me, and it 100% is not, a theme list would work closer to this model. 

Theme lists allow all Warjacks and all Warcaters, straight off the bat. Models that are mentioned on casters cards are included in every list that they can be included in – if these needs to be by special rule or by adding them to every theme force in the faction, I don’t care. Similarly, models that are often used to create value or positive list construction goals are included as well. 

The artificial gates are lowered or removed, in one of two ways: In the first, the gates are lowered to about 50%  what they currently are: 60 points become 30, and all units/Jacks count towards free points. Solos would not be included. Solos would all either contribute to free points or be eligible to be free themselves, none of these random models that simply take up space in your list, making it so you can’t get points for having them into your list. Second, the qualifiers are removed completely and the theme simply gives you free models. In either method, though, I would propose having a points pool instead of an individual selection. It would still be the same selection of models that you can choose for free, I don’t want this to turn into madness machine but this allows interesting play because you can choose to take that expensive free solo, but you’ll be giving up on a pool of other models, likey. This also has the double benefit of making sure that the games are within a reasonable expectation of each other. I would spitball 15-18 points or some such. 

With these three changes and a change to make themes formatted closer to a specific company or regiment or force than a visual style, I believe that I would be less upset about what is going on. As it is, it just makes me angry to think about the game for any length of time. The only things keeping me going are the community, the game balance and the fact that I like to paint. 

 

PLEASE let me know what your thoughts are. I won’t take anything to hard to heart, so go at it!