40k 8th Edition Isn’t Any Less Messy, But Could Be At Least As Great

There’s rightfully a lot of buzz around 40k’s 8th edition even among people not currently engaged with the game, e.g., among the X-Wing crowd here, and I’m hoping we can recruit fresh new players into our local community. So this morning I sat down with the leaked rules to be prepared to run demo games at a release party tomorrow.

Literally almost instantly one of my biggest fears about this edition seemed confirmed: The rules are at times sloppy and inadequately specified, a casualty of mistaking shorter text for streamlined gameplay.

By absolutely no means is that to say they’re unplayable, broken, or won’t be fun. I’m looking forward to the edition and think it could be great. But we shouldn’t go into this new era of Warhammer 40,000 with unrealistic expectations that the game is suddenly free from significant open rules questions, let alone balance issues.

Coherency

The example that leapt out at me immediately is unit coherency, one of the core concepts in 40k and one distinguishing it from many other types of miniatures games wherein models act individually or in strict formations.

7th Edition

Here’s how 7th edition defines coherency:

… once a unit has finished moving, the models in it must form an imaginary chain where the distance between one model and the next is no more than 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically. We call this ‘unit coherency’.

Main rules on coherency for 7th edition.

This is a fundamental mechanic of the game that’s simple in essence but surprisingly somewhat tricky to capture fully. As such its main rule gets an entire page in the 7th edition rulebook (pg 19). In addition, there is an earlier note explaining the intent that “Units fight in loose groups with gaps between each model…” (pg 9), and special provisions for vehicle squadrons (pg 79) and independent characters (pg 166).

This 7th edition definition is already not ideal. What is an “imaginary chain”? That’s not a formal game term with any precise meaning. The rule relies on the reader’s understanding of an intuitive concept. That’s problematic on its own, but then the two “X” formations given as permitted formations exacerbate it by not actually fitting a typical natural idea of a chain as a single linear sequence of links, e.g., a necklace or lock. The definition relies on an intuitive understanding that isn’t applied in a totally clear and straightforward fashion.

In contrast, you could define coherency simply and unambiguously with plain text like:

A unit is in coherency if for every pair of models in the unit a sequence can be listed from one to the other of models in the unit each within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of its predecessor.

Or, spelling out some of the implications just a bit more:

A unit is in coherency if for every pair of models in the unit they are either within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of each other or a sequence can be listed from one to the other of other models in the unit each within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of its predecessor.

Both of these definitions are intuitive, unambiguous translations from formal graph theoretic terminology, in which you would concisely define coherency via:

The graph over models in the unit with an edge between every pair of models within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of each other must be connected.

Regardless of these more clear specifications, the text and figures in the 7th edition rules get the concept across solidly and concisely: Models in a unit are supposed to move and fight in close proximity. If you came to the game knowing nothing about it, you would quickly understand that models in a unit cannot be spread all over the place.

8th Edition

Here’s how 8th edition defines unit coherency:

A unit must be set up and finish any sort of move as a group with every model within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of at least one other model from their unit: this is called unit coherency.

Coherency rules in 8th edition.

This is a short, concise rule. But consider this unit of four brave 2nd edition warriors divided into spread apart pairs with the paired models each 2″ apart:

A unit of 4 models in coherency under 8th edition rules.

Assume they deployed that way or properly moved “as a group,” all at one time rather than switching between units. The pictured unit is then inarguably in coherency under 8th edition rules. To quote: “Every model [is] within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of at least one other model from their unit.” All of the models meet all of the given criteria. Yet there’s that 12″ gap in the unit completely against all previous concepts and rules of unit coherency.

That gap could be arbitrarily wide, and there are a lot of reasons you might want some configuration like this. Just off the cuff: You could take a unit of heavy weapons, divide them up into pairs, and spread them all across your deployment zone so that you have a mini-fireteam positioned on each shooting lane. This generally would not have been a particularly helpful before, but in 8th edition all the models can target different enemies so it could definitely be useful. More problematic, you could take a portion of a unit and put it in an essentially unreachable location so that it effectively can’t take wounds. Such near invulnerability could be very powerful if a model or models are providing an ability, stat, buff, or acting as some kind of battery for the unit.

Personally I don’t think this is the designers’ intent, it’s just too big a change to the feel of the game and too awkward. Granted there have been substantial changes made in this edition, but none of the official previews have flagged this as one of them. Regardless, absent official FAQ or errata, intent doesn’t matter, because you could argue it either way. Consider interacting with a newcomer to the game:

  • They set up a bunch of Devastators spread across their deployment zone.
  • You say they can’t do that.
  • They ask you to show them the rule saying they can’t.
  • You claim the designers intended for units to fight close together.
  • They ask you to prove it.
  • You say it’s always been that way.
  • They point to any number of rules that were “always that way” and now aren’t.

Maybe the designers do now intend for models of a unit to be able to fight off in pairs because at least as long as they have a buddy backing them up they’re able to operate semi-independently? It would be scarcely “crazier” as an intended change than independent characters not being able to join units.

So, now what to do? For better or for worse this updated rule potentially changes the game quite a bit, reducing one of its differences from skirmish games. A configuration like this is completely against previous ideas of coherency so most players with even minimal experience are going to think it’s wrong. Having units all over the board will definitely slow games down. Worst of all, it will be extremely frustrating if someone tries to exploit what is probably an inadvertently granted ability to hide away a battery or ability-granting model while other elements of its unit operate elsewhere.

Casualties

Here’s another problem circling 8th edition coherency that doesn’t require anything but a very possible outcome in very traditional and straightforward play: What if a unit takes casualties such that it is no longer in coherency and cannot get back into coherency in a single move? This is not uncommon, for example, with any decent sized unit that loses models in the middle of a stretched out line, and there is no rule forbidding or preventing a player from allocating wounds in such a way.

Previous editions had a simple paragraph of text explaining that the unit had to try to move back toward coherency as best as possible at each opportunity to do so. Rules-as-written in the 8th edition text though, that unit is immobilized. If a unit “must be set up and finish any sort of move as a group with every model within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of at least one other model from their unit” then it cannot make a move that ends with it out of coherency, plain and simple. There is no other provision to move given, so a unit that has its coherency broken and cannot restore it in a single move is thereafter stuck.

Units getting immobilized like this doesn’t seem like anything that would be reasonably intended. It’s very non-intuitive, frustrating gameplay, not explicitly described, a major change, and not a previewed one. Presumably most people will play as before and move toward coherency as best as possible. But then: Do you have to advance, or is it enough to just move? Previous editions explicitly noted that you had to run as well if you were out of coherency and could not restore it in a move, but there is no such note about advancing in 8th and it would not be absurd for someone to not assume such.

To that point about assumptions, what if you’ve never played before? How do you know what to do when coherency breaks? Being stuck clearly isn’t going to seem right but the straight rules text doesn’t let you move or provide other guidance, so now you’re putting your game on pause to deliberate on what should happen, potentially consult forums, and so on. A chunk of the time savings gained in speeding up the game just got burned up, and that’s for a very simple question with immediately likely answers.

In sum: Many people will simply say “Don’t be that guy, just play the obvious way and don’t exploit the rules.” But why shouldn’t I play to win within the given rules? And what if you’ve never played before? Who decides what’s obvious and fair? That obviously should be and largely can only be Games Workshop, but as they have so many times in the past, they’ve abdicated that role on these example questions.

Streamlined

Many people think of ambiguous and unclear rules as problems mostly for tournament players. But that’s entirely wrong. Despite the various communities with their own FAQs and such, tournament players are the most prepared to mitigate and obviate these kinds of issues. Playing with strangers and in a competitive settling quickly exposes rules misunderstandings and uncertainties, forcing their resolution. Tournaments also have the people, structure, and impetus to develop and disseminate FAQs as needed.

Casual players don’t have any of that. They’re on their own, encountering problems ad hoc and coming up with ad hoc solutions, and then potentially hitting entirely different solutions when they do go play other people, even casually. What happens to people at home playing 40k the first time unit coherency is broken and they have to figure out what to do next? Their game just stalled as they work it out. Worse, what about some young newcomer who builds a whole army strategy around breaking up their heavy weapons into mini-fireteams and then shows up at weeknight open gaming only to be told that’s not how the game works even though the rules don’t actually forbid it and they have no a priori way to know that? That’s going to be devastating.

In order to play games quickly and with strangers possessing their own set of assumptions and experiences, you need clear rules, regardless of how competitive or casual the match. Ambiguity is detrimental to the experience of all types of players.

I’m all for streamlining games. Being able to play games quickly is one huge positive. Clear and concise rules with an underlying elegance often also yield more strategic depth. But note in this area at least that nothing has been streamlined, the rules are just marginally shorter in text. The original coherency rules were two short, clear paragraphs that adequately captured a simple mechanic even as they could have perhaps been made even shorter and more clear. Instead, now there’s almost as much text as before, the game is no simpler, and a number of additional questions are generated even with only cursory investigation. Frustratingly, this isn’t even a space saving issue—there’s plenty of whitespace on that page immediately below the rule that could have been used to define coherency just as well as before or better.

Maybe I’m way off base and despite all indications the new coherency rules are indeed intended to permit splitting up units into pairs. But how to act when coherency is broken seems like an outright omission. It’s a straightforward one so probably it won’t be too much of a problem. But these are non-trivial, completely unnecessary problems that did not exist before and come up within the first minute of reading the new rules, literally in the third paragraph. How many other similar issues are there going to be in these “streamlined” rules? How many of them are exploitable to distort the game? Even setting aside Games Workshop’s track record on these kinds of issues, encountering such questions so quickly at minimum warrants some skepticism about what else will come up in the rest of the rules once read in depth and on the table.

Play

One of the risks in simplifying a game design, especially in revamping a large, complicated ruleset, is over-streamlining. Miniatures games are complicated. It’s often very difficult to spell out intended mechanics and behaviors in a short, simple way. There are many edge cases that need to be covered, and people come at rules with a broad spectrum of assumptions. Simply cutting text is not the same as clarifying and speeding up the game. Just a few more sentences here—carried over from previous editions, no less—would have averted non-trivial potential for confusion and abuse.

Despite the observations in this post I’m optimistic about this edition and excited about the enthusiasm around it. I think it quite likely to turn out really fun to play and a huge boon to 40k. But we should not be over optimistic that it is magically free of open issues or not already, even before release, in need of FAQs and erratas. There are multiple reasonable indications to the contrary and it would be completely appropriate to assume so of any essentially new ruleset for any game. Rebooted 40k also may not be intrinsically more suited than it has been in the past to either competitive or pick-up battles, as opposed to play in small, repeat groups that develop a shared consensus understanding of the rules.

The good news though is people have made all those viable in past editions. So, yes, we’ll probably still need to hammer out FAQs and complain about balance and construct missions to address various issues and so on. Eighth edition could and should be great, but just as with past versions I also think it’s going to take work. The real question then becomes: Is this a better basis from which to do that work? I think so, and I certainly hope so. We’ll start finding out tomorrow!

Update

This post discusses a few concrete examples of duplication and ambiguity problems cropping up as the codexes and supplements come out.

First Round Gaming Tournament Seeding

This post discusses the challenge of first round pairings for wargaming (and boardgaming) tournaments, and an idea for improving them in larger events. My primary interest at the moment is organizing narrative events for Warhammer 40,000 (40k), but the discussion is largely not specific to that game or style.

Clubbing Baby Seals

One of the great virtues I see of tournaments, even and perhaps especially for fairly casual game players, is that if they’re well designed and run then they more or less ensure that by the end of the event everyone will be playing competitors of similar skill and/or equipment (army list, deck, etc.). However, the opening round presents a challenge. In wargaming and similar there’s typically no information to go on, no meaningful persistent rankings from which to seed the initial matches. High level chess, checkers, go, Magic, and other tabletop gaming tournaments that can do so are by far the exception rather than the rule. In nearly all events players are just paired randomly in the first round.

Random pairings can obviously lead to highly mismatched games between a very skilled and well equipped player and a much less skilled or well equipped opponent. In scoring systems where points earned go directly toward overall rankings that’s an unfair advantage for the better player versus other potential top competitors who faced more even competition and weren’t able to run up the score. That issue can be lessened, though not eliminated, by awarding separate normalized points for major win/win/draw/loss/major loss or similar. But much more importantly, getting clobbered by a random mismatch in the opening round is a terrible first experience for newcomers and discouraging even for veterans, lessening their enjoyment of the event and potentially the hobby as a whole.

In some settings this may not matter or may be unavoidable. If the goal of the event is establishing who is actually the best player, then a pure tournament bracket or other mechanism will work fine from a random seeding. In fact, if you do have the necessary information via a qualifying run or such to properly seed the bracket, then first round pairs should be in reverse order, with the best entrants competing against the worst. The entrants for such an event should also understand that it’s quite possible they’ll be clobbered. Part of the appeal for many tournament-goers is in fact gauging exactly where they stand—though in the moment it’s always tough to lose.

Nearly all gaming events though are not this clinical. Most cannot be simply due to the time involved in running enough rounds for a mathematical tournament, let alone other factors such as randomness. The NOVA GT is one of the few exceptions in 40k especially and wargaming generally, running an actual elimination bracket over a grueling 3 days of matches for the eventual winner. Instead, most gaming tournaments approximate a bracket through variations of Swiss pairings and accumulated scores rather than straight win/loss elimination.

A single-elimination tournament bracket, which most gaming tournaments more or less try to approximate and a few implement.

A single-elimination tournament bracket, which most gaming tournaments more or less try to approximate and a few implement.

Clubbing Baby Seals… But With A Story!

More fundamentally though, most gaming events are trying to balance being a competition with also being fun. I as an event organizer am particularly interested in fun, thematic narrative tournaments and campaigns rather than pure competitions. Surprisingly to many people, these also face the mismatch problem. I argue it’s actually an even worse issue than in a straight tournament: Many casual and fluff oriented players will come out for these events that would stay well away from highly competitive events, but, conversely, many competitive players will also come out for these events. That sets up a clash of expectations and styles than must be addressed mechanically.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of many narrative oriented events actually permit players to be repeatedly clobbered by stronger competitors. For example, this is a frequent inherent design limitation of classic map-based campaigns run outside of small, reasonably matched, friendly groups: There’s no guarantee that the adjacent or encountered players are not simply much better and will win every round.

Addressing this is a big part of why my narrative events are usually fairly abstract, permitting control mechanisms to be applied. For example, most of my narrative events arrange match pairings in a strategic, team-oriented fashion such as one team puts forward a player and a mission, and the other team responds with an opponent and a board/table. By restricting that response to being within the same win/loss bracket, teams are prevented from consciously or unconsciously throwing a newbie at a hardened vet or vice versa. Otherwise teams frequently apply logic such as “Well, that opponent has a lot of tanks, so we should send this player who has anti-tank specialists,” without accounting for one player or the other simply being vastly stronger overall and dominating that logic into irrelevancy. In my events we’ve also tried to address the issue by having team commanders chosen or coached to guide the decision making to account for the whole spectrum of considerations, including player experience. But then there’s still that challenge of opening round mismatches and how to prevent them without yet having any information about the players and their relative abilities.

First round, NOVA Narrative 2014, I am about to get crushed by Eric, who just minutes before had finished competing in NOVA's GT Invitational...

First round, NOVA Narrative 2014, I am about to get crushed by Eric, who just minutes before had finished competing in NOVA’s GT Invitational…

Questionnaires

One clear response then is to get some information about the players. Some time ago, a friend and I were talking about similar challenges in bicycle races, which I also organize, and he mentioned a scheme he’s seen in martial arts. There they have the additional challenge of many cross-discipline competitors, i.e., somebody that has a high rank or belt in one form of the sport that may or may not have real bearing in other forms. So some events begin by having a panel of experts quickly interview competitors and seed them into initial groupings based on the panel’s judgement of their experience level and skills applicable to the current event.

I have no idea how common or successful that is in martial arts. But it seems like a reasonable idea, and I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how to apply it to miniatures wargaming (and boardgaming). In particular, later this year I’m leading two (hopefully) large-ish events, the new LibertyHammer narrative event, and the popular NOVA 40k Narrative track. In both cases I will have no usable a priori knowledge of the vast majority of the players, but I’d really like to roughly seed them so that the first round pairings can be constrained and mismatches reduced.

libertyhammer-bg-560px

nova

To do so, I’m thinking of giving a short questionnaire to players as they check in. Those will then be used to roughly correlate players and constrain initial pairs.

Both events will use something like the propose/respond mechanism above. Especially for NOVA though, there are enough players (~100 total in that event if we sell out) that we can’t do that across everybody in a reasonable amount of time. So the players will be dividing into groups of about 12 and pairing up within groups simultaneously. In later rounds those groups will be determined by win/loss brackets, mitigating clubbings.

Going into the first round though we could use a questionnaire to populate the groups. If it’s a short list of yes/no answers all phrased toward a positive answer being a sign of a more competition-oriented, skillful, experienced, or better equipped player, then for each player we can count the number of “yes” answers, sort everybody by their counts, and then split that sorted list into groups and arrange pairs within them.

Probing Questions

This is a very rough first draft of such a questionnaire:

Please check off the following “yes” or “no” regarding your participation in 40k events. PLEASE NOTE: None of these are in any way to be construed as negatives and your answers will not affect your ranking or options throughout the event. They are simply a survey of our players that will be used to group like-minded and similarly experienced players together in forming the first round pairings.

  1. Are you more focused on gameplay than on hobby aspects?
  2. Do you read frequently online about tactics and army construction?
  3. Do you consider yourself a strong player?
  4. Do you play in tournaments more than once or twice a year?
  5. Have you played in any Grand Tournament (GT) or similar regional or national level competitive event at any point in the past two years?
  6. Is your primary faction Eldar, Chaos Daemons, Necrons, or Space Marines (generic codex)?
  7. Is your army comprised of more than a single detachment or formation?
  8. Does your army use more than one source (codex, campaign book, supplement, etc.)?
  9. Does your army include any single unit type more than three times?
  10. Does your army include more than one superheavy vehicle or gargantuan creature?

General Questions

The first five questions above are fairly general and get at the inclinations of the player. The intent here is that the more “yes” answers someone gives, the more likely they are to be at least more competition-oriented, if not indeed a stronger player. I don’t want the total newbie to get crushed in a bad mismatch. I also don’t want the fluff bunny who’s been playing for years but is primarily in the hobby to go pew-pew with his lovingly converted and painted toy soldiers to happen to be paired in the first round with someone fielding a barely prepared clone of the Internet’s latest and greatest all-conquering army list. I don’t though have a problem if someone regularly playing competitively or convinced they’re the Blood God’s gift to 40k goes up against a tough match, they can take it.

In addition to being ok with that outcome, it would also just be hard to ask quantifiable, objective questions about ability given hugely varied participant pools. So the questions ask more about mindset and participation rather than results. It wouldn’t mean much to ask “Have you won a tournament in the past year?” because events are so varied. But I think it does say something for someone to have played in a Grand Tournament recently.

Army Questions

The last four questions are more specific to 40k and what the player is fielding. These questions are intended to be very rough indicators of stronger armies, or at least armies coming from a similar mindset. For example, having more than one superheavy/gargantuan, detachment, or source book is by no means at all necessarily an indicator of a stronger army. But it is a good indicator that you’re not still playing from a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th edition mentality and set of expectations as many players arguably are. There’s nothing wrong with that, but ideally as the organizer I’d like those players’ first taste of the event to not be facing someone coming from a radically different take on the game. Obviously a lot can be said on the topic of superheavies/gargantuans and their balance and appropriateness for 40k. Although we’re permitting them in this year’s NOVA Narrative (LibertyHammer’s points levels are too low), we are doing a fair bit with our mission design and rules to counter some of the issues that do exist while still allowing the freedom to play full 7th edition. Regardless, despite that inclusion, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hedge my bets on players’ initial experience by attempting to group similar mindsets together. Potentially it would be better to ask about player’s support for those elements being in the game rather than using them theirselves, but I don’t have good wording for that at the moment.

Your weapons are useless, fleshlings!

Your weapons are useless, fleshlings!

Similarly, the question about having more than three units of a single type may not mean much at all. But I would guess that having four or more of any particular unit tends to be more common in competition-oriented lists. Here I’m not making any value judgement on that whatsoever. We set up the rules, and people should design armies under those rules to be as strong as they wish. Hopefully our rules, missions, comprehensive scoring, limited prizes, and other mechanisms mitigate against whatever issues 40k may or may not have with overpowered units and armies. However, I think it’s worthwhile in the first round pairings to try to group armies that are more likely to be designed for competition with other armies coming from a similar mindset.

The question about the specific factions is incorporating into the seeding some notion of the currently strongest factions in the game. Those particular four I think would be largely conceded as such by most players. But I cite as specific objective evidence for those four as the distinct top tier—and not also a few additional armies that might be commonly opined as such—the statistical analysis done by Variance Hammer of this year’s LVO results. Obviously this question isn’t dispositive, any given player could field a weak army for any of those codexes. There will in particular be a lot of weak Space Marine armies, just because they’re such a huge portion of the player pool. But the question is just one point among eight in what is only a very rough seeding function anyway.

Logistics

An important note is that any scheme for mitigating first round mismatches has to be practical. In this case, potentially the two classes of questions should be separated in some way, to more independently gauge players’ inclination toward competitive play and their take on the current makeup of 40k. But ultimately this has to be fast to execute; we have tight time constraints between checking everybody in, preparing the data, and turning around first round pairings. The questionnaire can’t be that complex for players to fill out nor for us to tabulate and use. Any other mechanism would have to be similarly simple and fast.

Conclusion & Other Ideas?

Player mismatches are an issue that many narrative events don’t adequately address. First round mismatches in particular are a general issue that many gaming tournaments could improve. Here I’ve sketched one idea to do so: Players fill out a quick questionnaire to check in, and organizers sum up the “Yes” responses and seed the first round pairings by sorting on those counts.

Does that seem reasonable? Are there other good alternative or complementary mechanisms to reduce first round mismatches? For this questionnaire method, are there better questions to ask? This is just a rough draft and some thoughts, and my fellow organizers and I would really appreciate feedback and other ideas. Reach us in the comments below or the various forums where this has been linked. Thanks!

Update: There is now a discussion on Reddit about this that makes a bunch of additional points.

40k: Alternate Maelstrom

One of the big changes to Warhammer 40,000 with 7th edition was of course the new class of official missions: Maelstrom. Upon first hearing rumors of it I was really excited, enough to pre-order the associated cards. They’ve been underutilized though because I found the final release so lackluster compared to its potential. In the tournaments and events I’ve run this year we’ve used an alternate set of Maelstrom-style tactical objectives and mission rules. They seem to work really well, addressing some of the big issues while preserving the positive aspects and adding some interesting innovations, so I thought I’d finally get around to sharing.

Into the maelstrom!

Into the maelstrom.

Just Roll Some Dice!

The heart of Maelstrom is randomized missions. In traditional 40k, players essentially compete for control over a set of objective markers placed on the board, or simply to kill all the opposing units. Maelstrom has players randomly determine smaller scoped objectives throughout the game. By drawing cards or rolling on a table, they’re directed to control specific objective markers, kill a stipulated type of unit, or even make particular actions in order to score points.

Official Maelstrom has many shortcomings. Some are easily rectified or mitigated. One such common house rule is to immediately discard impossible tactical objectives, e.g., if your opponent has no units of a necessary type. That this is so obvious an improvement only highlights how little effort GW put into their rules. It’s worth noting though what seems to be a frequently overlooked subtlety: Should tactical objectives be discarded only if they were never possible, or even if they’re impossible when drawn? The “Kill a psyker” goal highlights the difference: Can it be discarded immediately only if the opponent never had a psyker in their army, or can it also be discarded if all their psykers are merely already slain? I don’t have strong feelings either way and the two probably don’t offer vastly different experiences in practice, but this is a design decision to be made consciously.

Beyond a few such smaller problems, there are two design patterns throughout the stock Maelstrom that really gall me. Most obvious and frequently addressed in tournaments are random results. It’s absolutely deleterious to strategic play to have tactical objectives yield random amounts of victory points once achieved. A variety of reasonable house rules could address that and are frequently applied, e.g., always claim the maximum, or roll for the value when the objective is drawn. The latter actually imposes an interesting strategic evaluation of effort versus reward while maintaining the basic Maelstrom philosophy of unknown and variable objectives. That it’s such a small tweak but vastly better again highlights just how little design effort GW expends. In any event, a variety of hotfixes are possible for these objectives, but at some point you may as well just replace them.

Most upsetting to me though are the forced play tactical objectives, that award victory points simply for executing game mechanics. Instead of presenting a goal to work toward, they merely give away free points or, worse, dictate play. Many are actions you may be trivially doing anyway, such as Daemons and the “Cast a psychic power” condition. Others force you to make micro-level  moves that may not fit your army or macro-level situation at all—may the Greater Good shine on Tau that draw the “Make an assault” card! Scoring should be based on game conditions to be achieved, not making the player a puppet enacting pre-scripted actions.

Random results and forced play goals come from the same “Just roll dice & push models around!” mentality of Games Workshop that gave us random psychic powers and warlord traits. Otherwise stock Maelstrom could be solid with just a house rule or two and some card tweaks, but those aspects warrant substantial reworking.

A Games Workshop game designer shambles in to work.

A Games Workshop game designer shambles in to work.

Flexibility & Deathstars

At this point it’s worth noting what is in fact appealing about Maelstrom. The surface level attraction is just the variability of it. Sooner or later most everybody wants to play something different from the Eternal War missions that have been carried through editions under one name or another for literally decades now.

As an event organizer and game designer though, what really calls to me about that variability is the flexibility it requires of the players and their armies. To really capitalize on the Maelstrom tactical objectives, you need to be able to move all about the table, and to easily switch back and forth between killing specific units versus claiming objectives. The downside of this is that it encourages armies built around—and perhaps even spamming—small, highly mobile units. Arguably the format is imbalanced toward factions with more or better units of that style. However, given that many of the recent balance problems in 40k have revolved around deathstar units or even unstoppable single models, tipping the scales the other way is not necessarily unwelcome. In my events we mitigate the chance of going too far that way by generally also including other missions for which more “grind-em-out” style armies are perhaps better suited.

These guys are definitely here for the Maelstrom party.

These guys are definitely here for the Maelstrom party.

Logistics

In developing a revised Maelstrom mission as an event organizer rather than an individual player, I also had to keep in mind some logistics. If you don’t buy GW’s cards, stock Maelstrom missions are kind of a hassle to execute. Tracking which tactical objectives are in play, discarded, and achieved isn’t a huge deal, but it’s not nothing either. Without the cards you’re left just scribbling things down. In order to keep my events on time while enabling games to play out fully, and to alleviate the burden on our more casual, less frequent players, I really wanted to structure and streamline the bookkeeping. At the same time, this alternate format was developed for and used within small, monthly shop tournaments. In that context it’s not practical for me to print and/or make and give out whole new Maelstrom card decks as some bigger events like Adepticon have done.

A New Maelstrom

The core of my revised Maelstrom is this table of tactical objectives:

Screenshot_2015-10-21_23-37-21

[ Download as a PDF ]

Our mission packets include two copies of this for each Maelstrom mission. The players rip them out and each mark one up throughout the game for their bookkeeping. Mechanics are as follows:

  • To draw a tactical objective, roll a D66 and consult your tactical objective table. If that objective is already in play for you, has been achieved, or is scratched off, roll again. Similarly, if that objective would be provably impossible to score, e.g., your opponent has no characters remaining, roll again. Once a valid objective has been rolled, mark it as in play.
  • Targets cannot be nominated or chosen for a tactical objective marked with a † that have already been chosen for a † objective you have in play.
  • At the end of your turns, check the requirements for each tactical objective you have in play. For each fixed-value objective met, mark it as achieved and score the associated value in mission points (n.b.: not victory points). Tactical objectives with a value of X may be kept in play as long as you wish. At the end of any of your turns while in play they may be marked as achieved and scored as indicated. Once achieved, objectives are no longer considered in play and cannot be put in play or scored again.
  • Multiple objectives can be scored in a turn, caveat that you cannot achieve multiple tactical objectives with the same exact title in the same turn using the same marker(s) or unit(s). E.g., to score both Storm objectives at once, you would need to simultaneously control two separate markers in the enemy deployment zone.
  • At the end of your turn you may scratch out one of your tactical objectives in play to remove it from play.
  • Tactical objectives in play, achieved, and scratched out are not secret.

Each particular mission will then have a rule controlling the number of cards drawn, similar to the various official Maelstrom missions. Two examples we’ve used include:

  • Standing Orders. At the start of your turns, draw tactical objectives until you have a total of six in play.
  • Into the Maelstrom. At the start of your turns, draw tactical objectives until you have as many in play as the current game turn number.

Rather earning victory points directly, at game end the players are scored by comparing mission points earned via tactical objectives achieved, and awarding victory points to the higher and lower scorer according to this table:

Screenshot_2015-10-21_23-51-31

Scoring in that indirect fashion rescales the substantial number of tactical objectives that might be achieved into the 9 VP primary objective cap around which our missions are designed (they also include secondary and tertiary objectives, for a total of 20 points available in each round). In doing so the results are also normalized a bit across matches, such that one player cannot gain an insurmountable lead in the tournament by winning with a ridiculous number of tactical objectives achieved, while another victorious player falls far behind despite also trouncing their opponent but by a less ridiculous amount. In general it’s important to normalize in some fashion like this to determine the strength of a result for a Maelstrom mission, given that the actual number of tactical objectives achieved can be so variable match to match. The specific value ranges here were determined by Sascha Edelkraut and seem to work well for our 9 VP cap.

Strategy

These new tactical objectives of course eliminate random results and forced play. However, Maelstrom’s overall variability and requisite flexibility is still maintained.

Further, the X-valued objectives are a novel mechanic I haven’t seen in 40k. They enable the player to make an ongoing strategic evaluation of effort versus reward for that condition, either pushing on to try and acquire another point or to cut bait and dump it for a new, hopefully easier, objective. Objectives that require the player to nominate a target also encourage players to declare a goal and then work toward it, rather than simply hoping they draw tactical objectives for markers they’re already holding. The several variations with one player putting forward several proposals and the other choosing among them are also an interesting twist, adding a new interaction and a little bit of adversarial forward thinking.

Last but not least, these tactical objectives rightfully focus heavily on controlling objective markers. However, a number also offer opportunities to play toward pure mobility, as well as annihilation-style kill point hunting. Particularly with the X-valued mechanic enabling players to work toward them for some time or not, this gives a real, conscious strategic choice about whether or how much to focus on the various types of goals, while still staying within the overall chaotic Maelstrom framework of variable objectives and necessary flexibility. You can’t win a tough match if you can’t play for both objective markers and kill points to at least some extent, but you do have some opportunity here to strategically focus your efforts on one or the other. In general that kind of choice in both play and army construction is a major goal of the mission format for our events.

Evaluation

We’ve used this format in a number of small scale tournaments (8–16 players) this year, and it’s worked very well. The logistics for me as event organizer are trivial, I simply include multiple copies of the tactical objectives sheet above in each mission packet. For players the bookkeeping is fast and intuitive to execute once explained.

To game design, random results and forced play are eliminated while still maintaining the variability and requisite flexibility of Maelstrom play. Further, a number of novel mechanics offer new and ongoing strategic evaluations to the players, as well as affording meaningful selections between different strategic concentrations and army styles.

One notable downside of this setup is that it’s not as tactile as cards. However, for a large enough event or as a one-off occassion it would be easy to convert the objectives table and mechanics into cards. A related note though is that several players have been disappointed at not being able to use faction-specific tactical objectives published by Games Workshop. This is unfortunate, but given the rampant problems among those with random results and imbalanced conditions, I don’t see any acceptable approach but to disallow their use in tournaments.

Play!

Again, the tactical objectives sheet is available as a printable PDF. For an example of how this format has been incorporated into a tournament, check out the mission packet for our June event, The Tournament of Blood. These rules and the objectives table are released into the public domain, so please copy, edit, and use as you wish. We would though love to hear about any use of these, as well as suggestions or questions, in the comments below.  Good luck in the Maelstrom!

Descent into the Maelstrom!

Descent into the Maelstrom!