How I write Skirmish games: Bloat, Creep and Grognard Capture
That’s an appealing collection of words for a title, right? For those unaware, those unpleasant sounding terms are all things that can happen to game systems over time, I’ll take a second to explain what they mean, or at least what I mean by them. Bloat is when more and more content is added to a game with additional releases, usually additional forces, over time. The result tends to end up being either forces that are significantly generic because the necessity for new units being able to do something new in a limited design space results in every side being able to do everything, or systems with so much content that keeping up feels like a full time job, and not a very pleasant one. Creep is the tendency of some systems to introduce more and more powerful troops as time goes on, either to keep pushing the excitement envelope or to sell more books and models, ending up with entire forces that are practically useless and a badly unbalanced system. Grognard Capture is a process that takes place when a system comes to a second edition and turns to its loyal fans to ask what it should include. When people start playing a game some people are bad at it, and find themselves consistently thrashed in when playing it, they stop playing, and the people who previously lost most of their games now lose all of them, and stop playing, and so on until a relatively elite group of ‘Grognards’ remain. It’s often around that time that the game’s creators come to their active fans and ask what to put into the second edition, and are told in no uncertain terms and end up with a game that totally fails to appeal to anyone other than those loyal fans who then demand in all future editions a game that will only ever appeal to them, locking both creator and fan into a mutually dependent cycle that’s increasingly unsuccessful and uninteresting to everyone else.
Clearly these are questions that only really come up if you’re producing second editions, or at least extra content for your game, so they are questions that mean you’re in a privileged position. However, they remain interesting I think, and they’re questions that we’ve been working out some ideas in relation to the second edition of Gaslands and the ongoing content of Time Extended, so I thought I’d go into a little (at least my position) on these questions in relation to Gaslands and design generally.
Bloat can happen for a few reasons. The bad one is that you just want to sell a new book and you need something to put into it. This is an understandable position for companies to find themselves in, its pretty hard to put your hands up and say that a popular product is perfect as it is and move onto the expensive and uncertain process of developing a new one. Also, its really fun to contribute to bloating. Let me explain that slightly odd sentence.
Gaslands is a world I love, it’s a set of solid mechanics that interact in wonderfully interesting, chunky and crunchy ways, and I’m a game developer/designer. I’m a games developer that Mike Hutchinson has allowed to play around and tinker with the world that he’s built, and its immensely fun to do so. For me it’s the best toy chest imaginable. What would happen if we built a team of all helicopters? Or bikes, people like bikes right? Hey, there are zombies in the wastes yeah? And we’re doing horror teams anyway aren’t we? If it were down to me, Gaslands would be so bloated with teams it’d be incapable of standing up. This is partly because while Mike is the designer of Gaslands and I’ve been the developer, when it comes to the teams that relationship has pivoted a little in reality. Generally, a designer comes up with the idea, then the developer makes them work, the designer gets to have flights of fancy while the developer has to be realistic with it. For the basics of Gaslands there were things that much of the public never got to see, if you ever see us at conventions ask about the version where changing gears made the doors fall off, or what was casually known as the ‘no right turns for you’ version. Mike was good enough to listen to my editing back then, and to let me play around with designing the teams, and in return he’s been editing my deluge of ideas for teams ever since.
This isn’t because we’re making money off it, if you know Gaslands you’ll know that we give out TX (Time Extended, a semi regular Gaslands feature) for free, its for the sheer love of expanding the world. However, free or not, bloat can be fatal to games, and Mike has put something of a moratorium on additional teams and their associated perk trees (I still think I can get the zombies out of him if I catch him a few beers down at Halloween though), and he’s been right to do so. But its hard to stop doing something when you’re doing it for love, and when the fans want to see it, so how do you stop bloating?
That’s a tough question some of it is to do with meta and creep, which I’ll get onto in a second, but I guess the answer is, don’t give people what they’re not asking for, while knowing what it is they didn’t know they wanted. Mic drop and walk away.
So, for example, people know they want new teams, they’re writing their own new teams, but they’re not asking for more of them. The ball is rolling the mechanics are out there, people are creating their dino riders and their hyper racers and they’re all amazing. We enjoy doing it too, but every time we have that bit of fun it’s a team everyone has to learn and accept into the game, when we do it, its bloat rather than fun. We need to accept that whether we want to play in the toy chest for our own fun when we do we’re foisting it on people whether they want it or not. For us if we’re going to offer something new to the fans it has to be a jump to the left for them. Something they didn’t know they wanted yet. Bloat is fun, but its also lazy, and easy, and not what’s best for everyone. We need to work harder and smarter, and if something is right, leave it be. Gaslands Refuelled is a good example of that. It has some new teams that spiced up and evened out some bits of the meta and gave some good options, it widened out the scenarios, particularly with a campaign, and it tightened up some of the points while clarifying the rules. That’s enough. On to what’s next.
I’m a Creep
Creep is a weirdly insidious thing, and again, it doesn’t have to just be because of the drive to sell a new book, though that can be a big driver for it. All games develop a meta, no matter how hard you fight against it, once they become popular. For those unaware, in gaming terms, the meta is the game beyond the game of power players. For example, a game has forces A, B, C and D. A annihilates B and C while B and C crush D, but D thrashes A. At first everyone takes 25% of each, but soon more and more people take A, because it beats 50% of the armies out there, until 75% of people have force A, which means that force D now beats 75% of armies out there. So, everyone takes D, which means that suddenly B and C beat everyone, and around and around it goes. Hopefully if things are done well this shifting meta is actually fun and organic and interesting to the people who enjoy that sort of thing. Sometimes its not, or if it is its moving rather too slowly, so a release comes out to balance the meta, for the best of reasons. This is rather like throwing weights onto a scale that hasn’t yet settled with the intention of balancing the two sides more quickly. The result us usually that one side becomes more powerful when the meta next swings around and so the shift is less likely to happen. So, say in our first example we noticed that D was behind everyone else from the get-go, so we gave it a unit to help it against B, this time when its time for the meta to move on from D being dominant, that happens a little more slowly. So to help it along we toss a few units onto army B and C, but B needs a bigger one because of that unit that we gave D earlier, and so on and so on, with the units thrown into the mix getting bigger and more powerful each time.
The upshot tends to be that before long, the only units worth considering are ones that have been tossed into the mix during the balancing process and no one touches the ones that the forces were originally built from. This is all exacerbated since new units always appear more powerful than old ones, because people aren’t used to their tricks yet. The designer ends up with an unbalanced and wildly wobbly system that they can’t get right again, the players have a game that’s not only unbalanced but one that’s perceived as having a ‘pay to win’ structure as each new book is more powerful than the last and no-one’s happy.
So, has Gaslands got a meta? Well, I’d say not, at least, not one that people ever reached. There are people who will disagree with that and they’ll mostly quote things like rocket buggies and Miyazaki. The thing is that its very hard to get a true meta without a keen tournament scene, and its tough to get a serious tournament scene around a game that regularly seats five and ends with the winner upside down and on fire. I wouldn’t suggest baking in excessive chaos as a way of fixing the issue though, and in all honesty, its not what fixed it for us. What helped us was the fact that we didn’t think we’d ever get a second book, and the second book was so long after the first, and the first was so very popular, that things settled before we were stupid enough to throw weights onto the scales. We fudged a few points and stuck in a few meta sponsors and things seem pretty even off of that. Not that having a slow schedule on follow ups is a good fix either. I think what I’d advise to avoid creep is to trust your first instinct from when you built the game, and to let things settle out, a meta will happen, its natural, its part of the circle of life, and it might not be a bad thing, let it sit down before you drop things onto the scale. That’s hard to do, so if possible get a publisher to tell you that you can’t make any changes for two years.
What’s the best bait for Grognards?
Whatever it is, its probably terrifying. Grognard capture is a problem that most designers will never have to worry about, and it’s a bit of a champagne problem, you know ‘Oh dear, my system is so popular that its content hungry fans that are dedicated to supporting it through an infinity of re-iterations are directing its evolution’. Yeah, poor baby.
That said, it can be a real issue, particularly when a system has roots that are quite light. Some don’t mind it, Malifaux has gone too Grognard for my personal taste, but its still a very popular system. On the other hand, the X-Wing miniatures game was originally sold to, and was dependant on a lot of its success from, casual players. However, its new system of constantly changing points values based on an active tournament scene smacks of Grognard capture, and from what little I can tell has cost it something in more widespread popularity. Usually at this point I’d say that Fantasy Flight know better than I do about these things, but then Runewars doesn’t absolutely fill me with faith in that statement.
So, how do you avoid Grognard capture, and how do you tell if you even should? It helps if you have a brilliant designer as partner, or possibly it helps if you have an overbearing developer as a partner, depends on your perspective. Gaslands would be a very different game if it were down to me, a game that I’m pretty certain would be less fun to everyone apart from me and I’m absolutely certain that would have done rather worse. I’m also loud, opinionated and fairly certain when I think I’m right that everyone else is an idiot. There was a point when Mike had to decide what was and was not Gaslands and defend that core idea from me and my absolute certainty that we could have real-world physics and that mutual damage makes no game sense (positions that I’ve had to whole heartedly take the opposite side of since). I suspect that having that idea forged in the fire of that defence make knowing what it was and was not when we went to the community for the second edition much easier. I know that I’ve gotten to a place where I can turn down ideas from my playtesting group on the grounds of it being insufficiently ‘Mike’s Gaslands’ without needing to offer it to him for approval thanks to that process. Gaslands is not a game best guided by the Grognardians out there (hopefully we’re about to make them much happier in a few months, or at least the sort of intellectually intrigued that passes for joy among the old grumblers). It has a space for them, and it can be played at a very high level with a lot of subtlety, but that space only exists because it is a game that’s too big for just one group and if we went to for a capture version of Gaslands, it wouldn’t sit right for anyone.
In conclusion, we seem to keep getting lucky with this stuff. In retrospect I’ve tried to pin down some of the reasons for it and I hope that doing so has been, if not useful, at least interesting for someone. If anyone has opinions on Bloat, Creep and Grognard Capture in their own games, I’d love to hear them, particularly the ways in which they can have a positive effect. Are there any games that you enjoy that other people have accused of Bloat or Creep, is there a game that you suspect that you’re locked in the cycle of Grognard capture with?