[Theory Thursday] The Ultimate Spirit of Wargaming

Part I – Dethroning Pedantry


There’s a story behind this, but it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that, toward the end of my time with Warmachine and Hordes, I had to go and hunt out the first No Quarter that I ever bought, just to make sure I remembered “don’t quibble about millimetres in a game of inches”. Finding it gave me a few slaps in the face and reminded me what a sinner I am. I have kvetched about #3 and #4, I will be dead before I cam capable of #7 and I have indulged in #8 a few times, admittedly because I’m either dying of heatstroke or because someone’s due a bye anyway and I’ve had three miserable games. Finding it also vindicated me. See #1, #6, #9 and #10.

When I started playing (2005, would you credit it?), Playing Like You Had A Pair didn’t involve sticking the lip of your base right-next-to-but-not-within the woods so you could have the bonus without the penalty, or hanging one laser-calculated millimetre inside someone’s melee arc so you didn’t take a free strike. We accepted that blast templates are awkward, that one careless buttock passing by the table could send everything whole inches out of place, and that these awkward tactile objects of ours mean we’ll never be perfectly precise in our measuring and placing. We got on with the business at hand and gave a certain benefit of the doubt provided that intent was declared and mutually understood as acceptable.

Nowadays it seems unreasonable to expect a quiet game of giant robot smackdown fun after work without precision-cut measuring widgets in a range of sizes, a grab-the-geometry scenario presented in layers of legalese, a laser line and a cry of GOTCHA! for when someone forgets exactly what one of the two hundred or so warlocks or warcasters in the game can do.

At some point in the last decade, the game I loved has been taken over by, and become engineered for, rules lawyers and pedants and bean-counters. I find the resulting culture toxic: it brings out the worst in people who are often perfectly pleasant away from the game. Back in the day the most hardcore competitors I knew were the most chill, at-the-end-of-the-day-it’s-just-toy-soldiers guys you could imagine, and I can’t imagine anyone from Komitatus revelling in the pedantry that characterises the modern game.

I don’t begrudge people their high-end BE! ALL! THAT! YOU! CAN! BE! HUT HUT HUT! playstyle, if that’s what gets them through the day, but for me to have my fun I need at least a few people to cool their tits and remember that wargames will earn no paycheques, save no lives, and herald nobody’s place in Valhalla.

Part II – The Apparent Hypocrisy of Nigel Stillman


Something similar was recommended to me in the Dark Ages of Warmachine (Mark I!) by a fellow from the Komitatus. “You people spend too much time and money on this shit,” he said. “Pick an army, pick a points value, build it, paint it, stick to it.”

When we discussed this over on the House of Paincakes, Stillmania was referred to as “a purist’s form of pick-up gaming”, and I think in this extreme form it is. The thing is, despite my general contempt for the pick-up form, this holds a certain weird appeal to me.

I think it’s the opportunity for closure. Malich over at Tabletop Gamers UK brought this up a while ago: when is an army finished? In the past my efforts have often petered out once the event which stimulated me to collect the force in the first place is gone, or once I’ve had enough of the league (or game system), or simply when there’s a lack of regular gameplay to encourage me. The last few models have lingered, either unpainted or forced for completion’s sake – and it’s always obvious when a model was forced above and beyond the normal level of “I don’t know if I like painting…”

Stillmania offers a rigid, unyielding sense of completion. It includes the deep and fundamental obligation to create Your Dudes and abide by them. It refutes the theoryhammer tinkering beloved of people who spend too much time talking about wargames on the Internet. It forces people to paint and to reject the czars of fashion. It is… compelling.

It is also not how Nigel himself seemed to end up doing things. When unleashed at article length the great Stillmaniac acknowledged playing smaller games with a champion and a handful of followers, and building the 1000-2000-3000 point blocks that were commonplace back in the Day. There’s an implied flexibility and nuance there which isn’t present in his principles as directly articulated… and it’s that flexibility, that sense that I have my 3000 point army and will pick units from it and make small variations for smaller games, that I’ve managed to achieve only once in my long career of wargaming.

It’s what I’m edging toward doing with the Chaos lads, though. I have a vision, with its core elements strictly defined, and other things not collected until they have ceased being nebulous and collapsed into something concrete. The list itself is tinkered with, thought about, adjusted as part of a process in which the collection grows and changes, but it will one day, probably when just shy of Apocalypse, be considered Done. There will be a collection to which no further models are added. There will be a List or two for games of various sizes and these Lists will only change when the rules on which they are based change. I am going to get this right, one more time.

Part III – Pick-Up Gamers Are Doin It Rong

Before any game, players must agree how they are going to select their armies, and if any restrictions apply to the number and type of models they can use.
— Warhammer 40K rulebook, ‘Choosing an Army’, emphasis theirs

I’m of the opinion that ‘any’ might as well read ‘every’.

We take this stage for granted: in the interests of a nice easy game we speed through this section and rely on unspoken standards, un-negotiated social contracts and undiscussed expectations.

This is why new players get flattened by melts who throw three Knights at them in their very first game. This is why tournament players wail and lament when they encounter an army that doesn’t use their preferred comp. This is why I reject the pick-up game: the idea that I and Joseph K. Meltsworth, who I don’t know from Adam, can whip out our respective 1500 point lists and have that be “good enough”, ready to play, sight unseen.

This is barking mad. I don’t know if Joseph has the same understandings of what is and is not acceptable as I do. I don’t know what he considers to be fluff, or cheese, or beard. He may have brought the latest donkeyflop laswing tri-Knight D-spam 30 warp charge psychic malarkey and I may have brought a handful of desperate Chosen tooled for melee and hiding out behind Cultists and shambolic vehicles.

Neither of us is Doin It Rong but both of us think the other guy is. We need to discover that before we begin preparing to play, not when we’ve already sunk time into writing a list and packed our case and come straight from work to get our game on. That way lies madness, disappointment, and Nerd Rage.

Fie on that noise. Skip the pre-game agreement and negotiation stage at your peril. Curate your experience. Don’t be afraid to say no to a game if you can’t agree on how to play it. No gaming is better than sad gaming and good gaming is better than either.

GW doesn’t develop its games to be played in the way that we normally play them. Look at all the occasions on which they describe building an army as “organising a collection” – you collect the dudes and then you fret about the army list and the Detachments and the Formations.

We have turned our back on this Way for valid reasons: an army we’ve planned is a collection and an expense we can  control, a pick-up game using by-the-book scenarios relieves us of potentially having to say no to someone. Nonetheless, when we play pick-up games, we are Doin It Rong in a subtle and insidious way that extends beyond the unwritten rules and assumptions that we all bring to pick-up games and which are far more valid on a subjective level.

I no longer drag myself down to the Friendly Local Gaming Store once a week for a ‘blind’ game against whoever’s there. I only really play wargames a handful of times in a year, by appointment and arrangement, in this more curated environment where we have to make agreements about things in order for the game to happen at all.

According to Da Roolz, this seems to be the Right Way. The Ultimate Spirit of Wargaming, at least as Games Workshop envisages it.


[Hobby] Painting Principles

I am a man of many principles (but only one scruple, which I keep in my wallet with the loyalty cards). These are a handful of the ones which have become Relevant to How I Do My Hobby. I’m going to try and explain each of them in about 100 words. I will fail to heed this restriction, because I over-write as a lifestyle choice, but hopefully I will fail in a manner that makes things clear.

Branding = Chod

Brand loyalty is a sign of closed gates.  If you can only conceive of building your Citadel miniatures with Citadel tools and Citadel glue, painting them with Citadel paint and basing them with Citadel sand, you’re in a terrible mind trap and you need to get out. These models are painted with an oddball mix of Vallejo and Citadel Colour and Formula P3 and Bob Ross’ art supplies – whatever worked.

Your Dudes

My wise and patient friends have taught me, and I agree, that it’s good to have Your Dudes, and to make them Yours. Imitating the house style of a proprietary manufacturer is a sign that you have the brain worms discussed above. You don’t need to paint exactly like the books. Neither do you need to chase whatever technique is currently fashionable on CMON merely because it’s what the good painters are doing and we all have to rush towards getting gud without thinking if it’s worth it.

Arm’s Length Painting

This isn’t Von’s Amazing Macrophotography Blog. I don’t paint things to look good under close-up 4000 dpi super-snappy camera-wrangling. I paint them to look good from the distance at which miniatures are traditionally viewed, i.e. arm’s length at best, while they’re on the table.

Three Chances To Impress

Every model has three chances to impress itself on the viewing eye. Firstly, as part of an army: a bunch of dudes who are all painted up semi-decently. Secondly, as part of a squad: a smaller bunch of dudes who are in some way discrete from all the other dudes around them. Thirdly, as an individual dude, discrete from the squads, yet still manifestly part of the army because of the common elements. Key point: not every dude has to impress on this level. Vehicles, monsters and characters have to. Everyone else can afford to blend in.

Colour Palettes and You

Better colour theorists than me have talked about the whys and wherefores of this –choosing paints and manipulating colour and putting a colour scheme together. Another really good theorist of the hobby has spoken at length about stylistic choices and selecting appropriate colours with which to make a statement. What it all comes down to for me is deciding what I want an army to look like and only selecting pieces which can fit in with that overall aesthetic direction. Or selecting an overall aesthetic direction which suits every piece I might conceivably include.

Lead with the scary bits

Iron Warriors have this so much easier, what with being able to slap hazard stripes on anything they feel like, but it still helps if the sharpest, pointiest, most murderiest bits of the model stand out somehow. This is Robbie’s old trick, which I attempted to adopt on my abortive Tyranid army and, to an extent, on my Retribution. I’m wondering, at the moment, if you can even use it to signal ‘bullet catcher’ status by not making a weapon/fang/gnarly bit stand out, or reserving the technique for special/heavy weapon guys and leaders.

Bases and Faces

I forget where I took this idea from, but it’s a good one, an alternative to the ‘scary bits’ approach above. If a model’s face looks good and stands out, it looks… well, ‘alive’, for want of a better word, sort of personal and personable. If a model’s base looks good and stands out, it’s easy to distinguish from the tabletop and it’s tied in to all its friends.

Bases as Extensions

I took this from Brian, the gentleman of ones, the man who would b. smoove. The base should be treated as an extension of the model. This means it should be treated with three colours and a wash at the very least, same as the rest of the model. It should also share its colour palette with the rest of the model. The visceral hate directed at those Goblin Green bases from the mid-Nineties is often down to Goblin Green having NOTHING in common with the colourscheme of the model above, particularly if that model sported the vivid shade of Blood Angels Orange which characterised the Red Period. Red/green clash. It’s an invitation to colourblindness.

There. I think that was relatively restrained, don’t you?

If you’ve made it this far, have a picture of my best paint job to date: the only model I’ve done where I think all these principles are successfully upheld.

Skarre, Queen of the Broken Coast – still the best model I’ve ever done

[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.