[WM/H] Symptom of the Universe – the absence of a Mark III review

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
— Henry David Thoreau

I had every intention of doing a full readthrough of the new core rules for Warmachine and Hordes, focusing on what had changed from the rules I ‘learned’ in 2005 and attempting to amuse the lay reader (those faithful few who come here for the Planescape reports, the Ravenloft ramblings and the ill-considered belchings on progress and the nature of things) as I went.

The thing is, reading this document cover to cover, paying close attention to every key word and every clause of every sentence and how it affects the operation of the game as a whole… well, that may be what’s demanded by the Zen Masters of the Privateer forums, but I tried to do it this morning and then naffed off to do the washing up instead.

The text is pedantic, semantic and hung up on niceties. I would call it autistic, in the sense that devilmen commonly use that word, i.e. to mean ‘desperately spoddy and inclined to excessive complexity’, but speaking as an autist I refuse to be associated with this sort of thing. As a player of the game I understand why such clarity is necessary to resolve those little snags and snickets which come up all the time, but reading the rules does not make me want to play the game in the slightest.

I have come to understand two things.

Firstly, why Privateer Press is so keen to have the Word spread through demonstration games rather than people just buying the books and giving them a shufty. If you start with the rulebook and attempt to learn a game like this before playing, you are either a twelve-year-old with time on his hands and wasted potential, or you are going to give up very shortly and get Settlers of Catan out instead because board game rules, and even the best of RPGs, are structured much more experientially. What’s the first thing you’ll want to do? Set up the game so you can start playing. This game starts with explaining the legalese used in its rules. Can you think of a less thrilling introduction?

Secondly, why an old schoolmate of mine, upon turning eighteen, abandoned all games to which his grandmother would not know the rules. This standard is not universal – some people’s grandmothers play bridge, a game so Byzantine it would make Anna Komnena blush, while my grandmother struggles with anything more complicated than Snap – but nevertheless, the choice makes more sense to me this morning than it did last night.

There is an elegant simplicity at the heart of this game, and others to which I have reacted with such sudden revulsion, but it is lost behind – OK, let me give you an example. I’ve played Magic: the Gathering, and the basic business of the lands, the mana, the creatures and the spells are all clear to me. Instants, Sorceries and Enchantments take a little semantic juggling, especially when explaining them to someone who doesn’t quite get it yet, but there is a clear difference that can be understood (“you can use that one whenever, that one on your turn before or after your attack, and that one on your turn before or after your attack but it sticks around until something gets rid of it”). When you get into the stack, and how to resolve the complex “this happens then that happens then – wait, I play this in response to that” timings, the red rage rises in me and I wonder why the fuck we’re doing this. When play becomes about these complexities, about maximising the potential of what can be done at each step of a complex process and ensuring the opponent can do nothing to stop you, if they even understand what’s happening in front of them, I throw all my cards out of the window and start drinking, irrespective of the sun’s position re. the yardarm.

I don’t want to offend any of my chums who play this game, nor my acquaintances who have worked on Mark III and are doubtless proud of what they’ve accomplished here. I don’t think you’re at fault here. I think it’s a symptom of the universe, really, Complexity emerges as surely as entropy increases, and one has to kill one’s darlings on a genocidal scale (I’m thinking third edition 40K levels of revision and abolition here) to bring it back under control. Meanwhile, as age wearies me and the years condemn, I am in less and less of a position to appreciate the myriad mechanisms on offer here. My reluctance to engage with this material is down to me too: there is an innate issue here but let’s be fair and admit that I am more affected by it than countless others will be. I’m still going to play Mark III but sitting down and assimilating the rules as a thing in themselves just isn’t going to work.

One thought on “[WM/H] Symptom of the Universe – the absence of a Mark III review

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  1. You have, I think, distilled the source of my current fatigue with speculative fiction gaming in general. Rather than facilitating play, the mechanics of the game have become the play in-and-of themselves. Squeezing every bit of advantage from a set of rules certainly requires skill and cunning, however, it also changes what we might call the social contract of the game. Rather than trying to win through some pale shade of military tactics, the game is changed to an engineering problem or courtroom drama.

    I will not say that one approach is correct (though, I might think it rather loudly). Nonetheless, I have no interest in dreaming up ways drive my opponent from the table before me can make a move lest he does the same to me. Nor do I wish to win a game of toy soldiers through sophistry.

    For all of their problems, the Original D&D, AD&D, and some of the better organized Warhammer editions are remarkably simple and elegant systems. There are things that by their nature must be complex. Yet, when we set out to create something we have to ask ourselves ‘does this need to be complex?’ Complexity is a sad necessity, not a goal or achievement.

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