Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Blood Bowl: The Video Game

Way back in the 90s I bought the old Blood Bowl board game. We played it a few times and I have to say...I loved it.

The years marched on, I still have (most of ) the parts and pieces for it, but had not played it in years. When I heard it was coming out for the X-box 360 I was jacked. Really looked forward to playing it.

Still, I showed patience. It came out, I waited, the price dropped...I sprung on it. Bought it. Salivated. Planned to play it as soon as I got home from work.

If you have read this blog for long, you know how it goes for me when I look forward to a new Warhammer-related endeavor. Wardancers with the charge get routed by Night Goblin Spearmen, my power-mages get crushed by scroll caddies, my Dragon Ogre Shaggoth gets killed without getting into combat...

So yeah. I crank up the game, sit down to play the Orcs. The game starts well. I am putting together a great running game, causing mass casualties to the humans, and decide to blitz their guy to clear up a better running lane...only to find out I threw an interception because, without HD tv, the resolution on the tv is not good enough to actually see what is going on.

A couple days letter, I accidentally discover it is also out on the PSP. I ended up selling my DS and games and picking one up. And in the last few days I have been playing the game a lot.

For all the criticism Warhammer receives over balance, there is one critique I seldom hear; lack of fun.

And fun is certainly delivered by this port-over.

The variety is excellent. I read that Chaos is supposed to be a very difficult team as a starter and on the early levels, but narrowed my choices to them or the Orcs. Ultimately, I went Chaos because...uh...well, I just did.

And quickly I found why they are difficult. In the first game my opponents were the Wood Elfs. They scored on turn 2 after making a succession of dodge rolls with 2 and 3 tackle zones on them. Ouch.

I received the ball, marched down the field nice and slow, pummeling my opponents into submission as we went. I scored easily and was smiling. I would get the ball in the second half and do the same...

Except just before I reached the goal line, they got off a successful, if unlikely, blitz and knocked the ball loose. No problem, I had 4 turns to pick the ball up and move two spaces, and only 3 Wood Elf players were vertical.

4 consecutive turns I could not pick up the ball and the game ended in a tie.

It was gorgeous.

Since then, I have won the first two cups and only suffered one other tie.

Along the way, I have faced every type of team and am really enjoying the variety of tactics I face.

Games against the Orcs tend to be brutal, who causes the most casualties affairs.

The Wood Elf, Skaven, and Lizardmen armies are tough early as their incredible speed and ability to dodge through the most tackle-zone areas with ease allow them to threaten to score on any given turn.

Conversely, the Lizardmen Kroxigor, Orc/Goblin army Trolls and even the Skaven Rat Ogres can cause the Minotaur problems.

But perhaps the best games are mirror matches. Who developed their team better? Can I overcome the 420,000 GP "inducement" money granted to them to make the game more even? Will they have more than three players uninjured by the end of the game?

But enough of my gaming ramblings, lets get down to the review:

The graphics are outstanding. The game play is a very real throw-back to the board game, except you always have an opponent. The tournament schedule allows you to play the same team for a long time, allowing you to advance the players and develop a pretty specialized team.

The variety of team make-ups definitely allows for a nice variety. A game against the Skaven plays different than against the Wood Elfs, even though both are speed based, whereas the Orcs and Chaos provide different power-based options.

The AI is sometimes not too sharp as the Skinks in particular run backwards with the ball, though otherwise it seems fine. Occasionally they will make SPP-building throws, and apparently for that specific reason.

Also, it is hard to modify your set-up to get specific players where you want them in the initial set-up. The first guy is easy, but moving a second is still a mystery to me.

Those are very minor quibbles though.

Overall, if you liked the board game and want a chance to play a fun-filled football board game of mayhem and death, I strongly recommend picking this up on your platform of choice. It comes with a heavy dose of fun.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Balance; Why it is not such a good thing

What makes the story of Custer great is not that he won his battle but rather the heroic ideal of a last stand against overwhelming odds.

The same is true for Roland...sure, he perished in his attempt to take an outmanned, outgunned force and hold the un-holdable, it was the nature of the doomed hero standing up to his fate that gave him immortality.

One could discuss the 300 or the Texans at the Alamo and again...though defeated, it was the heroic, time-buying stand that led to ultimate victory for their side at the expense of their lives that we remember.

Let us turn now to some of the legendary generals of history. Robert E. Lee won battle after battle despite being out-numbered, out-equipped, and under-supplied. He did it through superior tactics and, occasionally, a lucky break.

Napoleon was great precisely because he could out-maneuver much larger forces to give himself the advantage at the decisive location.

The Spanish Conquistadors used superior fire-power and armor to eradicate the massive numerical disadvantages they faced to accomplish mighty deeds.

Chief Joseph and Geronimo held out against overwhelming odds for large periods of time and even managed to win a lot of fights.

The entire American Revolution was a clash between the under-trained, out-gunned, out-equipped, out-numbered Colonials facing the world's best-trained, equipped and led army and trying to avoid decisive battle until attrition and/or the intervention of the French forced the British to withdraw.

The point is, very seldom throughout history has a battle occurred between two evenly matched armies. Of course, not always has the army with the advantages won.

Many of Napoleons' victories were arguably affairs he should have lost, just as his defeat in Russia was arguably one he should have won. The affairs of Greece changed markedly when the invincible Spartan phalanx was vinced first by tactics and then by skirmishers.

Lee often won battles he should have lost through superior tactical maneuvers (though each time still proved a strategic defeat).

Conversely, I have seen it powerfully argued that, in the plains wars, the only battles Custer won were those where he had overwhelming superiority.

It is not hard to argue that William Henry Harrison was at best a mediocre battlefield general who made his reputation on one demolition of out-matched forces.

Sledge-hammer tactics worked for the Russians in World War II due to overwhelming numerical superiority while they waited for time and space to take its toll on the Germans. Given anything like even forces and the Russian nation might be no more.

In short, warfare is seldom a match between two evenly matched forces. If you were to take most popular gaming systems and match up the points, the times when "2000 points of Roman Legionaries" took on "1982 points of Germanic tribesmen" are few and far was more likely to be "10,000 points of Persians versus 3400 points of Greeks".

Yet when it comes to the table top, we demand something that is historically all but impossible to achieve; a parity of forces. We want 1 point to equal 1 point.

Yet how can you do that effectively? The Conquistadors were able to defeat forces hundreds of times their own size because the weapons of the indigenous peoples could not penetrate the armor of the Spaniards. Even with surprise on their side, the home-field advantage and huge numerical superiority, their attacks on say...the Coronado expedition resulted in huge casualties for the natives and few or none for the Spanish.

Even the famed Desert War saw both sides have overwhelming advantages over the course of it, but never did Rommell and Auchinleck have approximately equal forces (and, Montgomery lovers, neither did he...he always had overwhelming air, tank and fuel superiority).

The point of all this?

Maybe the inherent imbalances of the codexes are not as bad as many forums would have us believe.

Is the DoC Warhammer codex ridiculous? Yes it is. Are other books under powered in relation to the DoC, Dark and High Elfs, Lizardmen, etc.? Unquestionably.

This only matters if you have two gamers of relatively equal ability. 2000 points for me does not equal 2000 points for Joe Mama if I am the more skilled player. Conversely, 2K for me does not equal 2K for Joe Dirt if I am a skilled gamer but he is a master at it.

The games remain unbalanced even then.

Nor do points values take into account two very distinct skills for wargamers.

The first is list construction. Some people are highly skilled at conceptualizing an army build but train wrecks when it is on the field. Others are weak when it comes to building a list, but then more than maximize what they have and outplay their opponent on the field.

The truth is, even if say...any 1000 points of Dwarfs had the exact same capabilities as 1000 points of Orcs and Goblins, the game would still not be even because of the abilities of the gamers.

If you doubt this, build 2 identical lists, give them to 2 gamers, and have them play a dozen games. By the end, they will likely not be 50% win will have 60, 70, 80% or higher win rate.

Of course, if you then further give the better player the advantage of a codex where base troops have a 5+ ward save, 2 S5 attacks with WS5, and a lower cost than worse troops they are going to win an even higher percentage of the time.

Which brings me specifically to Warhammer.

I have spent the last few weeks carefully perusing the rule books for both Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. I have read most of the codexes again. I have read numerous battle reports.

This was largely spurred by the insistence of multiple people that each "personally know employees at Games Workshop" who INSIST that there is no target market for their materials.

I call shenanigans. The entire body of work has a very clear, oft-cited target audience and that audience is a clear indication that the "need" for balance in their army books is not there.

The casual gamer who is far more interested in the 'look" of his troops and the "fluff" that goes along with them is who the entire Warhammer hobby is set up for.

It is the reason things like the Warriors of Chaos "Forsaken" troop choice exists. It is why Dwarf Slayers, zombies for the Vampire Counts, army rules like the Animosity and Waaaagh for the Orcs and Goblin armies exist.

The truly talented list builder will seldom if ever take a 25 man block of Chaos Warriors. First, they are too expensive. Second, against good gamers, they suck. They are too slow, not rugged enough, and can either be entirely ignored through maneuver or else devastated with weapons and magic that ignore armor saves.

The talented list builder will never, ever, ever take Forsaken. Ever.

Core Saurus Warriors will seldom be seen. I could go on and on, with examples from almost every book (admittedly, I can find a use for pretty much every unit in the DoC book).

Yet if you read the battle reports, the fluff, and the lists built by the staff that repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly says and does things "because it would make a better game", you find numerous instances of most if not all of these things.

Take the "Move and Fire" article in White Dwarf 363. No "good" list builder would find a place for 14 Dark Elf warriors in that list. Or the dragon slayer in the Dwarf list.Nor, from the same issue, would he count on any unit of Beastmen capable of ambushing being also able to do actual damage.

It illustrates an inherent disconnect between how many Warhammer players play the game and how it is set up to be played.

We are assumed to be putting out big blocks of infantry with just a handful of select units that can actually hurt each other. They expect lists that have 50%+ of the points to be spent on core units.

They expect armies that are blends of powerful units with cool units...and there is a clear distinction there.

This is not to say it is the way people should play the game. That is one of the beauties of the game. In our own group, off the top of my head, I can name several over the top, over-powered builds I have seen:

- the 12 levels of Magic including a Dragon and 4th level D-Prince Warriors of Chaos list (which, ironically, was dominated in magic by 4 total levels of Bretonnian Damsels)

- the Dwarf gunline that had no close combat troops and mass overlapping cannons

- the 100+ shot Dark Elf army

At the same time, I have seen a lot of armies that nicely fulfill the ideal they have set forth.

- any Ogre Kingdom army that sees the table
-any all-goblin army that hits the table
- the Wood Elf army balanced between Glade Guard, Dryads, and casualties...err, Wardancers
- the Dark Elf all close combat army
- every Empire army I have seen

and so forth.

But I am not discussing our own little group here but rather the hobby as a whole.

The plain truth of the matter is I have seen games where armies from the first list in the wrong hands were at a disadvantage against armies from the second list in the right hands.

And that is where the game most closely resembles history.

If historical battles are intriguing not when they are between two evenly matched forces, but rather when disparate forces meet and strange outcomes result, why should we not want the same thing in our wargames?

Frankly, the idea that you could strike a correct balance between a 4 point "worthless" model and a 600 point hero is absurd. The idea that you can accurately find a points balance that matches an army with no shooting but excellent armor against an army with multiple great shots and multiple ways to invalidate armor while at the same time matching both of those with an army that has a little shooting, a little armor, a little magic...well, methinks you ask too much and unreasonably.

At some point, it is up to the individual player to decide; will they buy into the Warhammer/Games Workshop philosophy and try to build an army they like the look and feel of regardless of its capability of winning...or will they take a list that ignores the built-in weaknesses and ends up with 2 minimum-point core choices and everything else being a tricked out unit/hero.

There is no right or wrong answer...except in the context of a specific group.

In our group, for example, I would absolutely hate to see someone pick up the DoC because I know it would completely change the way lists are built. I want to see more things like the Doomwheel, the scouting gors/ungors, the Marauders, the Witch Elfs, the skink/Saurus armies.

I want to see games like the WoC/Dwarf game where there were 5 or 6 epic collisions in two turns. I like seeing games where people are arguing for rule breakages that favor their opponent in favor of a better game.

Frankly, between army choices and tactical acumen, I do not believe it is possible for our own little group to have a truly balanced game. There are built-in advantages for some of us do to the armies we play...and for others due to our grasp of how to put a list together or how to use it.

I know the same is true in the larger community. On one of the sites I frequent, I recently put up a few different strategic options and, to my surprise, people really did not understand what blocking forces were, fields of fire, concentration of fire, and a few other strategies I thought were pretty basic.

That means if I were to randomly play any of them, I start out with an advantage, even if they have a marked points advantage. I can echo the tactics of Lee and pull out a victory I have no business winning.

Does that mean the game is broken?

Depends on the player.

If you buy into the GW philosophy and do not cheese out your list...not at all. It just provides more opportunities for you to go all Napoleon on your enemies...until you meet Wellington, anyway.