Something a bit out of the ordinary this week- a piece on game design looked at from the consumer perspective, rather than a review. Click to read on, or check out the Tactics Corner for more reviews and strategies in the normal fashion.
So, you may notice this isn’t my usual fare of articles; I generally don’t write op-ed pieces for a variety of reasons, but this time around I’m breaking my policy for two reasons. One, Psychic Awakening is updating all of the Eldar craftworld traits and obsessions, which means anything I write in the meantime on those is going to be missing some pretty critical information. And two, we have seen a significant change in the sea level of 40K with the release of the Marine codex and supplements, and that raises some questions about how to handle things going forward. So, instead of the normal fare, this week I’ll be talking a bit about the recent Marine release, why I think it’s an issue, and why so many players are looking at is an untenable situation rather than simply another iteration of “new codex comes out, new codex is good.”
So, for the past two years now since 8th Edition has been released, there has been a consistent trend- and it’s a trend that was clearly intentional and designed to benefit the game as a whole, because it stands in such stark opposition to previous editions. That trend is towards balance in the game as a whole; although we can certainly point to flaws in the pattern of releases (with some of them being below par and others being above it), as a whole 8E has probably been the most well-balanced edition to date. And that’s not an accident- GW has taken many different steps that indicate that they wanted better balance in the game: they have released timely and consistent FAQs, made a process of doing year-by-year reviews of balance and changing things as needed, and even explicitly discussed game balance in many of their announcements and articles.
Now, depending on your game background this might not seem particularly unusual or meaningful- after all, MtG, Infinity, Malifaux, D&D, various computer games, etc, all make such announcements and discussions as well, but if you have a grounding in the 40K of past years then you will know this is significant. In the past, Games Workshop didn’t present these kinds of issues as things that mattered to them, and it showed; their releases varied wildly in power level and the FAQs often had less to do with reigning in abuses and more to do with the design team’s pet peeves. 8th Edition has changed that, as the company has realized that tournaments and competitive play are not only a significant portion of their player base, but also something that drives interest in their game and creates sales and publicity by their very existence. They have (finally) cottoned to the fact that this is a market they need to appeal to and a game function that matters.
An important part of all of this is that it is not just the actuality of the game that matters, but also the perception of it. It may be that a list is not particularly dominant (e.g. Stormraven spam at the beginning of the edition) in terms of its performance in the game, but if it creates a bad player experience for a lot of people, then it is still a problem because the players game experience and perceptions are just as important as the reality of the game itself. For this reason, Games Workshop has been much more sensitive to community opinions, though of course all of this is moderated by a certain tolerance for the natural levels of complaining that will always be present on the internet and be safely ignored.
Now, to forestall some of the comments here, this sort of thing is not easy, which is exactly why they didn’t do it before. Game design is very, very hard as there are literally millions or even billions of interactions of specific rules that need to be considered, to say nothing of point costs, slot limits, etc, etc. Warhammer is a very complex game and understanding the ramifications of every single rule and every single cost is nigh-impossible for any single person or even any group of people, and that’s even before getting into such issues as formats, terrain, and the meta (all of which play a critical role in which lists are powerful and which are overlooked.) There are plenty of people who will say “of course Unit X was too powerful, it should’ve been obvious from the beginning because I, a person with 20/20 hindsight and the benefit of six months of experience seeing it at tournaments can tell that now,” but chances are those people weren’t saying anything of the sort the day the codex was released because of all of that complexity we mentioned earlier.
Now, that’s not to say there isn’t any way to predict things, and that’s the job of playtesters. Although they can’t possibly be as thorough and definitive as the player base as a whole is (since they are only going to be a few dozen people putting in a similar number of hours each, rather than tens of thousands of people putting in hundreds of hours each), the hope is that your playtesters can spot the worst of the mistakes and head them off before they happen. This doesn’t always work and problems do slip through, but they are fewer in number and of smaller magnitude than the problems you would face otherwise, and judicious use of FAQs, errata, and Chapter Approved can sort out the rest. And, so far in 8th Edition, this has worked.
But now we come to the problem: the Space Marine codex and its supplements. I talked earlier about the trend of 8E towards the middle line with power levels, and I am going to step out and say that the new Marine books are the first time we have a major diversion from that trend. Now, there have been other powerful books in this edition already, of course; Ynnari Imperial Knights, and Orks all stand out as major features that caused major changes when they appeared on the scene and were meta-defining lists for a time. However, the thing to remember about all of these were although they were powerful armies, none of them were so powerful that they were so clearly a completely different design philosophy than the books that preceded them, and they were all brought into line by degrees after their release by applying some cautious (and in a few cases too cautious) nerfs to the most problematic units. But understand what that means- it was possible to bring these books in line by tweaking a handful of specific problem units that were acting as standout performers above and beyond the rest of the field. Ynnari, without the benefit of Shining Spears and Dark Reapers, simply wouldn’t be the terrifying force that it was back then; the Castellan List, denied its 3++, infinite CP, and cheap Knight, does not have the punch that it had before.
I don’t believe that Space Marines are even in the same realm as these other problems that the edition has faced so far. People are unhappy about the Iron Hands list running triple Repulsor Executioners with support characters, because it is brutally dangerous- and they absolutely should be. But some of the talk I’ve seen is as if that is the only dangerous part of the supplements so far, and that if you get rid of the Ironstone, or the IH supplement, or some of the Executioner’s special rules then suddenly things are back down to a level playing field. I don’t think that is the case at all- in fact, I agree with many of the other competitive players that I don’t even think the Ironstone Gunline is the best Iron Hands list that you can build, to say nothing of the best Space Marine army or the best Warhammer army. It is the current boogeyman, but I don’t think it is anywhere near the final form of the list or what will ultimately reign at the top, because all of the other Space Marine supplements (possibly with one or two exceptions) have incredibly powerful tools available to them as well and we are only starting to scratch the surface there.
This isn’t a problem that can be solved with a few points changes and an errata or two. (And Chapter Approved for this year has already gone to the printers, so there’s no chance that it will cover the SM codex in any case.) This entire wave of releases is problematic, because there are dozens of different things that are all so powerful that they put the SM books head and shoulders above all of the other codices in the game- including, yes, the current “top level” lists- in a way that leaves virtually no chance of actually competition. As has been pointed out elsewhere, most of the most talented competitive players are just moving over to Space Marines in numbers that are pretty unforeseen up until this point. This isn’t a case of “they are the new hotness and everyone will move to something else soon,” this is a complete change in the game’s dynamics where all previous books are on one level, and the new Marines are on another.
This is absolutely something that should have been expected- and, to judge from the few snippets we’ve heard from the playtesters, it was expected. Games Workshop is not obligated to follow every recommendation that its testers give it, and in this case they seem to have gone against their advice to at least some degree (though exactly how much is impossible to know for sure.) But since we know they do have playtesters, and they are competent ones, and that they would have been just as aware of these problems as everyone else who has even given a cursory glance to the Marine book is, it does put us on the spot: how much slack should we cut Games Workshop for this. Because make no mistake, this is going to be a problem for the game.
If you’re a Marine player, you might be riding high right now because it’s finally your day to shine. And that’s true, to an extent- but also remember that you have to play this game with other people, and if those people consistently have a negative experience playing against your army then that is going to hurt attendance at tournaments and player participation in the game as a whole. We saw a lot of this with 6th and 7th Edition, as player numbers for most tournaments dropped precipitously by the end, with many events losing 50% or more of their earlier numbers by the end of the cycle. We remember 8th Edition as a big upswing in interest in the game partly because of these massive losses, as previously-alienated players started to cautiously return and try their hand at things again.
If you think this is just the first of a new cycle of books which will all be on the same power level- well, those exact same concerns should still apply. We are two years into the edition and there are several armies that still don’t have a codex yet; what do you think are the chances that Games Workshop is going to put the time, effort, and money into updating all of those books that never got a first release into getting an updated one that will actually keep them on par with Marines? And do you truly believe that other armies will get access to just as diverse and powerful of tools as Marines have gotten, despite being vastly lower sales? Worse yet, even if you assume that every other book will get these same upgrades, that process takes time- a lot of time, if the current release schedule is any indication. It might be nice to know that someday in the future the game will be perfectly balanced once again, but enduring twenty-four months of being at a crippling disadvantage is a larger burden than most players are willing to bear and during that time the game will bleed off players who have gotten frustrated with their book being obsoleted.
The earlier parts of 8th Edition re-established a certain trust in Games Workshop from the player base as a whole- they indicated, through their various actions, that they were working to make the edition better for everyone and keep the worst excesses of the game in check. Having been burned during the previous two iterations of the game, many people were hesitant to give them that trust again, but up until now I think that Games Workshop had done a good job of making amends for previous failings. However, with the problems of the Marine codex and supplements being so glaringly obvious that they could only be an intentional choice, it seems as though the company has backslid into 7th Edition again here- and that betray of trust is potentially quite damning, because virtually no one remembers the end of 7E with fondness (and for those that do I’d be more than happy to demonstrate with a Ynnari/SoS army exactly why they probably shouldn’t do so.)
Now, it may be that all of this is for nothing- I am not prescient and I don’t know what the next 3-6 months are going to look like for the game. But, judging by the information we have now and what we know about the game (as well as the limits of the release schedule and economics), it does not look promising. It could be that there will be an FAQ this Friday that reigns in all of the problems with the Marine supplements- a two dozen page document at the very least, I would hazard to guess. But to me, at least, the immediate future of the game does not look very optimistic at all, and the burden of that failure rests solely on Games Workshop’s shoulders.
What should we, as players, do about this? I honestly don’t know, because there aren’t any easy or pleasant solutions. We could resort to banning the supplements or the independent FAQs that dominated 7th Edition, but those are distasteful at best and divisive at worst, so I don’t think either idea will gain much traction. I think many players will choose to quit the game (or at least the competitive scene), either temporarily or altogether- and that, also, hurts quite a lot because it means undoing many of the gains that the edition has seen so far as well as individuals losing a source of enjoyment for themselves. Rules like “If It Sits It Fits” and magic boxes can attempt to patch some problems over, but leave others completely unaddressed and I don’t think will take the game far- because soon enough they become full-on FAQs that rewrite the rules of the game on some level in order to try and maintain balance, and very often they have unintended consequences.