So, the Expo turned out to be rather fun: reflections on the Warmahordes Nationals and my Frugal picks from the indie developers’ hall can be found elsewhere, but that’s not the agenda here. Here, I want to talk about Malifaux, which I’ve been snuffling around for quite a while, but which had a few barriers to just picking up with not much aforethought. The card-based mechanic is interesting but warrants trying before buying; the breadth of possible objective combinations (schemes and stratagems both up for player choice) led to concerns about competitive viability; and I was struggling to see how a game with five or so models per side encourages further investment beyond the starter box – because rest assured, it will do so. Wyrd are a company like any other, they want to make money (just look at those expensive propietary accessories and terrain, for crying out loud!), and if they’re at all smart they won’t assume an endless parade of new customers available to drip feed them £40 at a time and then fade away.
Fortunately I was able to answer these questions and more on Sunday; over lunchtime, I sat down for a demo game with a thoroughly nice chap who turned out to be Tarragon from Miniature Wargame Conversions, and chatting with the distributor who was overseeing our demo rapidly sorted out a few essential truths.
Malifaux is designed as a list tailoring game. You establish the choice of crews (factions), scheme and strategem (scenario) with your opponent and then build your list with an eye to those conditions.
A large collection therefore equals a significant advantage; more models means more rules, more rules means more options and more access to hard counters for the faction you know you’re facing.
I really wouldn’t like to be the new guy in a group of established Malifaux players with large collections, or start out with a group that had wildly disparate levels of disposable income and no negotiated caps on the pace of collection; likewise, teaching new players strikes me as an exercise in self-restraint.
Competitively, it would seem to have more stability than expected. Turns out that all the strategies and schemes reduce down to a 0-8 scoring system which is used for establishing strength of schedule in events. Haven’t had a chance to look them all over but it seems like a fairly sensible basis; no matter how different the objectives are they all have comparable results.
“But enough of these meta-concerns!” I hear you cry (or at least ask insistently). “How does it play?” The answer is “Rather well, to be honest; but not unreservedly so…”
The basic card-flipping mechanic is pretty simple to wrap your brain-meats around; the complexity in the game comes from the volume of rules attached to each of the models in your crew (and frankly I’m glad there aren’t too many of them) and the difficulty of planning ahead when your opponent gets to intersperse their moves with yours.
Learning the complex array of symbols and terms that express Malifaux’s mechanics in a format that actually fits on the card strikes me as a bit of a task, but once it’s mastered that should make things flow slightly more easily, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that Wyrd have taken the unorthodox step of starting out with rules bloat. It’ll be interesting to see how they add new pieces without breaking the game.
Oh, and I won, for whatever that’s worth; drawing Rasputina for the demo and discovering she plays in pretty much exactly the same way as the Cryx starter box helped lots with that, since the tactics just plopped into place and left me free to concentrate on the mechanics.
Despite my concerns about affordability (£6 per metal mini and a definite strategic advantage to completism) and long-term design strength (so many abilities, and so many of those triggered by random card flips and so not always in play – strikes me as hard to balance), I have to say I quite enjoy Malifaux. I’d have to proxy-test several of the crews, I think; pick one I like and invest in depth. Hopefully it’ll be one where the miniatures themselves can pull double duty as IKRPG characters or extra Field Allowances for Cryx pieces or something. I think it’d be a good one to do a Tale of X Gamers with – moderating the pace of expansion and keeping everyone on the same playing field in terms of access to options seems like the way to keep it fun and friendly without giving advantage to whoever has the fattest wallet.