Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons: Segmenting a Market

If you study entrepreneurship, you’ll hear the same mantra over and over: focus on the customer. As part of that focus, you’ll be told to narrow your idea of “the customer” as much as possible. The goal is to find a limited number of customers–a small market–and then design precisely what they want.

Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons was built on that principle.

From the broadest perspective, AvC is a miniatures wargame. In play, miniatures wargames can look like this:

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That’s pretty amazing! Narratively, I can pick out heroes (gold armor and wings help us find them even in a small picture) and villains (the people in the lower-right are wearing skulls and spikes, which has to be a clue). From a tactical perspective, there’s infantry and some fantasy cavalry: winged troopers for the heroes, roaring monsters for the villains. Whether I’m looking for a story, a simulation, or both, it’s clearly here.

Of course, miniatures wargames don’t start out looking like that. Instead, they arrive like this:

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It’s a long way from here to the winged, heroic leader in the first picture.

For some players, this is A-OK. For some it’s even great! Building the toy soldiers, modifying them, combining pieces from different kits to make new characters, painting them–these “hobby” elements are selling points for many.

To those who don’t enjoy the hobby aspect, though, building and painting is a huge barrier to entry. Across the decades, this was dealt with through a never-ending series of advice columns, podcasts, and other resources meant to get players up to speed with minimum effort. The theme of all of these was “we know you hate this, so here’s how to get through it relatively quickly.”

Does it sound like there’s an unsatisfied part of the market to you? If so, you’re thinking like an entrepreneur.

Companies spotted this division among players, and focused in on the segment of the wargaming market that wanted to play toy soldier games but didn’t like the preliminaries. Miniatures wargames started to appear with pre-built, pre-painted toy soldiers that were ready right out of the box. A decade ago we saw early efforts, like AT-43 and Confrontation 3rd ed. The big hit, though, was FFG’s X-Wing, which has become a top-selling line.

That was one hurdle cleared. However, there was another one waiting: the ready-to-play miniatures are quite expensive. Games Workshop will sell you 10 Age of Sigmar skeletons for $30. A single TIE Fighter for X-Wing retails for $20.

Admittedly, one needs fewer TIE Fighters than one needs skeletons, and the X-Wing miniatures can double as nice models for a display shelf. The sales figures demonstrate that the price is acceptable to many. Still, the question had to be asked: what if I could have good, fast, and cheap?

Gaslands is the major attempt I’m aware of to segment the market again. It’s played with Hot Wheels cars, which cost about $1 at grocery stores. What’s more, it’s great! It’s a serious miniatures wargame, played with pieces that are inexpensive, look good on the table, and are intrinsically fun to push around.

Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons tries to segment the market still one more time. Gaslands is cool, but it uses the Hot Wheels cars largely representationally. You, as a player, aren’t expected to zoom them around, and combat is resolved using dice like in most wargames. The Hot Wheels cars are cheap, fast, and good, but they’re not important.

When I play Gaslands, though, I really want the cars to be important. My personal favorite moment in the game is when they don’t sit quite where they’re supposed to because they’re on wheels rather than a static base. I’m playing with toys, and I want that playfulness to come through more strongly.

That’s what AvC is all about. It’s a game for those who want to play a miniatures wargame, are open to using toys as the miniatures because they’re good representations that don’t require preparation, and who–since we’re playing with toys anyway–want the toys themselves to matter.

A painstakingly set up flanking maneuver comes to fruition

I’m in that category. If you are, too, Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons releases on this Saturday.


Age of Sigmar: New-ish Rules for a More Narrative Focus?

Let’s start from the assumption that Games Workshop’s Age of Sigmar is all about telling good stories. Let’s further assume that it’s best when a game’s rules directly support what it’s about. Given those two assumptions, these rules are noteworthy; they feel like an effort to push the game in the direction of having exciting things worthy of having stories told about them happen on the table.

In sum, the rules linked cap the number of models each player can have, but not how good those models are. Players with significantly worse models are the “underdog,” and have access to a bunch of ways of getting victory points that the player with the advantage does not. These special means of scoring are aimed toward things a weaker army might be able to accomplish: don’t get wiped out, focus fire on one single model until it’s destroyed, etc.

“Don’t get wiped out” and “focus fire” might not sound like great stories, but think about how they might work out in play. A small force organizes itself into a spearhead to reach the enemy general; beleaguered defenders fall back step-by-step, trying to hold on. This is the stuff of cinema, and the rules are encouraging it to happen.

I haven’t gotten to try these rules myself, but I very much like the direction they suggest for the game. Age of Sigmar seems to be positioning itself as being for those who aren’t engaged with tournaments and instead want a more narratively-driven experience. Rules that give every casual game the potential to turn into an exciting scenario are a great way to provide that, and are something really different and interesting in minis gaming.

Links: Free Minis Rules

Minis wargaming is an important part of the gaming hobby, and thus it’s worth being conversant with its broad strokes even if it’s not your cup of tea. Recently we’ve seen three high-profile industry players make rulesets freely available, which makes it very easy for curious designers to get a sense for how the genre works. Any of the rules below would be a good starting point for a designer who wants to understand the people moving toy soldiers around at their FLGS a little better.

Privateer Press put the Warmachine and Hordes rulebooks—the entire books, art, story, and all—online. “Warmahordes” (the games are compatible, and are usually viewed as a single whole) may be the biggest tournament minis game today, and its community is intensely focused on high-level competition. If you want that kind of experience, this is the game to look toward.

Mantic Games has long offered the rules for its games free online. They’ve followed that pattern with Kings of War 2nd Edition, a game of mass fantasy battles (akin to the big set-piece fights in The Lord of the Rings). Kings of War is an easy to pick up ruleset, one that people new to minis games can learn in a turn or two. Never played a minis game before? You might profitably start here.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Age of Sigmar rules, available at no charge from Games Workshop. Age of Sigmar seems to be aimed directly away from competitive, tournament play, focusing instead on people who want to participate in narrative campaigns, use the coolest looking models without regard to whether they’re “points efficient,” and generally follow a beer-and-pretzels approach to the hobby. For those who fall in that category, Age of Sigmar has a lot of potential.

Any of the rules above and a few cut out pieces of paper will be enough to play a trial game or two. Give one (or all of them!) a try. The time will have been well-spent even if you decide not to invest in this genre of games.

Theory: Infinite-Size Units

One of the most interesting things in the Age of Sigmar rules, I feel, is allowing units of any size. Age of Sigmar makes that work by tossing balance aside as a design goal: hordes of troops (or, for that matter, hordes of gigantic firebreathing dragons on the wing) are OK because the opponent has bought into facing them. That leaves open, however, the question of what a balanced version of the idea would look like. How a game would have to work to allow players to take units of any size, and have it remain fair?

This is challenging in part because of the obvious arithmetic benefit to having lots of pieces (more weapons means more hitting), and in part because of the synergies inherent in most miniatures games. Such synergies exist because minis-game units generally exist in a rock-paper-scissors dynamic: tanks are vulnerable to tank hunters, tank hunters lose to massed infantry, etc. Having lots of one thing overloads the opponent’s ability to play the counter: the opponent probably has enough hunters for one tank, but if there are ten tanks the hunters can’t keep up.

So, we need a system that doesn’t directly reward having lots of troops arithmetically, and we also need to avoid RPS mechanics that might fall apart because no one could possibly have enough rocks to break an open-ended amount of scissors. Here’s my first pass:

Imagine a minis game where unit size determines, not mathematical power, but narrative role. Putting a single spearman on the table means that spearman is a mighty hero, the focal point of the story, capable of amazing things. A small number of spearmen (say, 5-10) is a disciplined unit meant to work as a team. Putting lots and lots of spearmen on the table makes them into a rabble, a horde, disorganized but threatening via sheer numbers.

All of these have the same overall power: a hero can mow down a rabble, and a rabble can swamp a hero. (Whether heroes should be mowing anyone down is a worthy question, but outside the scope of this exercise.) The challenge is that the different unit sizes access their power in very different ways. Heroes, for example, might be good at removing specific models (what chance does a member of a rabble have against such a terrible warrior?), but bad at exerting control over the battlefield as a whole. The rabble exerts lots of control (they’re everywhere!), but is weak until it can leverage that control to put lots of attacks on the hero at once.

All of that assumes, of course, that removing the opponent’s models is the goal. We could go even further, looking toward an asymmetric arrangement where the players win in different ways. Heroes accumulate victory points by performing remarkable acts of derring-do. Disciplined units earn points for keeping in formation and working together under pressure. The rabble gets rewards for shoving forward and taking over the board.

Now, the truth is that this might not work. So much of a minis game is in the math, and I haven’t even begun to consider what the math here would need to look like. Finding a way to handle combat where numbers are relevant but don’t directly add power is not trivial.

I still feel, however, that this is a worthy thought experiment. A miniatures game where numbers really don’t matter would be quite distinctive, a design that breaks new ground. There’s a lot to be said for pursuing that.

I need to start a tag for “projects for a 25th hour in the day” . . . .

Theory: The Last Step on the Age of Sigmar Road

I read the Age of Sigmar rules over the weekend with great interest. Even knowing some of what to expect, it was certainly disorienting when I realized that there’s absolutely no limitation on what players are allowed to put on the table. I don’t mind that, though; in fact, I think it’s possible that Games Workshop didn’t go far enough.

That probably sounds insane—there’s nothing about balance, how could they go further than nothing—but hear me out. Over the weekend a friend likened Age of Sigmar to Magic: the Gathering’s Commander format. Commander is a casual approach to Magic that only works when the players sit down in advance and discuss what kind of game they want to play: super-competitive, slow and casual, etc. So long as the players do that, though, it’s great.

Age of Sigmar seems to be built on the same principle as Commander: the game allows players to make what they will of it, and trusts them to figure out as a group what that’s going to be. Does everyone want to play a story-driven narrative game, with scenarios based on an overarching plot and armies that grow and shrink with their nations’ fortunes? That’s fine. Would the players prefer instead instead to play regimented armies marching in formation? That’s supported. Just want to play a bunch of dragons that breathe fire on everything because it’ll be SO METAL? Awesome, you can absolutely do that.

For all of that to work, however, the players have to be on the same page—and the Age of Sigmar rules never actually suggest that the players should talk. Every new-player article about Commander makes it clear up-front that groups picking up the format need to decide on their own ground rules, and that people coming into a group must find out what the group’s rules are. The Age of Sigmar rule sheet lacks that guidance, and given how outside the norm that kind of discussion is in miniatures circles I think it’s going to be sorely missed.

I’m excited to give Age of Sigmar a try. As I read over the rules, though, I can’t help but wish that Games Workshop had taken a page from recent paper RPGs by stating not just what the rules are, but why they are that way. I want Games Workshop to take the final step on Age of Sigmar’s road: having built a game that puts players very much in the role of scenario designers, be open in telling them so.

The Best Game of 40K Ever

More than twenty years ago I played the Best Game of Warhammer 40K Ever™. This was in 2nd Edition, using the Dark Millennium expansion and its strategy cards. Before turn 1 my opponent played the “Virus Outbreak” card, and my Imperial Guard army was wiped out. I went from a horde of troopers to having three models on the table: two characters who were immune to the virus and the one single soldier who was lucky enough not to catch the disease. My entire army was destroyed during deployment!

Here’s the thing about that game: it was so much fun. No single match of any minis game I’ve played before or since—and there have been many—has given rise to such a great story. Sure, the Best Game of Warhammer 40K Ever™ wasn’t balanced or reasonable. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now! The tale of the three plucky survivors trying to play without the army they were meant to be a part of is worth more than ten fair games.

I haven’t bought new Games Workshop product in decades. The forthcoming Age of Sigmar edition of Warhammer Fantasy looks to change that, however, because it appears (we haven’t seen the full item just yet) to be all set to create great stories. Where most miniatures games strive for tournament balance, Age of Sigmar has the courage to say “this is a game, it’s meant to be fun, do remarkable stuff and don’t worry about it.”

You see, most minis games are designed around the central principle that any given match should be even. The players have different armies with asymmetric capabilities, but the overall power level is to be the same at the outset. Usually this is accomplished through a “points” system: each model/group of models is worth a certain number of points, and players spend their budget of points to build their armies.

There are two problems with this. First, as a practical matter, points systems are very hard to get right. Jake Thornton, an expert of long standing at point-driven games, has even described points systems as “invariably doomed to failure” because there are innumerable contextual factors they cannot realistically incorporate. He explains that we use points systems because “they are . . . the best tool we currently have for picking reasonably even forces from variable lists,” but “they do not account for everything and . . . the more seriously you take the requirement for balance, the poorer job they do.”

The second issue is that fair is not always synonymous with fun. In focusing on equality of power points systems tend to ignore the question of whether an army is joyless to play with or against. Any minis gamer of even brief experience can cite examples of armies that are moderately effective but highly aggravating.

Age of Sigmar seems, at least based on the information available so far, to be directing its attention away from fairness to emphasize fun and the social nature of miniatures games. Balance will be maintained at least in part through social contracts, or just disregarded entirely in the name of awesome. There is much concern that this will make the game unplayable in a tournament setting, to which I say–

So be it. I have many miniatures games that promise fairness, and achieve it to a greater or lesser extent.

I want to add a game that promises fun to my library. One that promises, and delivers, great stories. If Age of Sigmar is that game, sign me up.