Theory: The Unsolved Problem of Ongoing-Release Games

Warmachine recently unveiled a new format: Champions, in which only certain pieces are legal. Champions is probably a great solution to some troubles Warmachine has been having. It also, however, points up an interesting design problem: how to keep games that have more and more content released manageable without resort to rotation.

By way of background: up until now every piece ever created for Warmachine was tournament-legal. It didn’t matter whether the piece’s rules just came out a month ago, or whether it was the first piece ever released for the game. Absolutely everything could be put on the table.

Over time that system has become less and less manageable for players. The sheer number of pieces and combinations has become overwhelming. Can your army handle a general like Morvahna, who can manipulate dice in her favor? What if she instead focuses on endlessly resurrecting her army? Deneghra can flatline your army’s stats for a turn; will you survive? Bradigus and the High Reclaimer both block line of sight, but in entirely different ways; can your army see through both? Saeryn’s army can’t be engaged in close combat for a turn, while Vlad can shut down most ranged attacks; you’ll probably want both options so you can always get through losing one. Sorcha will freeze you in place if you don’t have a way to become immune to ice attacks . . . .

The list goes on, but you can see the problem. It’s impossible for any one army to deal with all of these threats. As a result, players inevitably started to get into rock-paper-scissors matchups, wherein they didn’t have ice immunity or the ability to stop resurrection or whatever. Unsatisfying games invariably followed.

Magic: the Gathering had a similar problem of multiplying complexity, and answered it with rotation, a system in which older cards are excluded from tournaments as new cards come out. Rotation proved so effective at keeping complexity manageable that it’s become the accepted answer to the problem of “how do we keep releasing product for this game without rendering it incomprehensible.”

Warmachine will, I think, benefit from having a rotation; only needing to think about Saeryn without also needing an answer to Vlad will be a big help. Privateer Press’ form of rotation is even especially generous to players, since older pieces will rotate back in over time; Magic forces players into “eternal” formats when they want to use their old cards.

Nevertheless, I find I’m a bit disappointed. Rotation is a good solution, but it’s only one solution. I have to think that there are others, if we’re imaginative enough to find them.

The specific form of rotation Privateer Press has chosen demonstrates that there’s still thought to how it should be implemented. I’d still like, though, to push out the boundaries in this area. We know rotation is a good tool; now let’s put our energy into finding some equally good alternatives!

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