Friday, 30 March 2012

Game Theory, part 6: Cinematics

So far I have dealt mostly with different ways to handle specific rules issues. This week I want to discuss something more abstract and subjective.

To start with, I should mention that I grew up on 40k and other GW games. Now, these games are commonly thought of to have serious rules and balance issues, and I will not dispute that. But they are fun. There is always something crazy going on - units teleporting to unexpected locations, tanks blowing up, huge monsters cutting down entire squads of men, powerful heroes dueling with swords and psychic powers, alien hive mothers birthing fresh warriors right there on the battlefield... never a dull moment.The interwebs call this "cinematic" gameplay as it focuses more on telling an exciting story than it does on making sense.

In contrast, historical games are completely down to earth, with rulesets that (hopefully) encourage good real-world strategy and tactics and where the most outlandish event you can hope for is that a weak unit beats a stronger one with some lucky dice rolls.

I'm not saying that this sort of "realism" doesn't have its place, and I enjoy a straightforward contest of tactical ability just as much as the next guy, but I can already do that in board games and computer games. When it comes to miniature armies that took me weeks or months to assemble and paint, I'd rather see them do something interesting.

I haven't delved too deep into 15mm rulesets yet, but from what I've seen so far, they favour the "realistic" approach. In part, this probably comes down to the disconnect between miniature lines and rule systems. Skirmish games like Warmachine can add a lot of excitement through special rules catered to each model, but in 15mm this approach would be nearly impossible as  the rules have to be generic enough to handle all the various miniature lines available. Gruntz 15mm is a convenient example here as it is a straight copy/paste of the core Warmachine rules, but without any of the model-specific powers that make Warmachine a dynamic and unpredictable game. These are replaced with a unit builder and a list of generic abilities, of which only a handful can noticeably alter the flow of battle. This makes for a game with solid core rules but little in the way of exciting things to do with your units besides moving to a good position and selecting an optimal target to attack.

As I have already said in a previous article, the 15mm scale isn't particularly conductive to highly individualized models in the vein of Warmachine or Infinity. The figures are too small to tell apart easily and too numerous (at least at the level of engagement I want to play at) to keep track of unique abilities for all of them. But surely there must be some happy middle ground between the dry, "realistic" approach of historical games and the exciting, "cinematic" gameplay of 40k, Warmachine, Infinity, Necromunda...

As long as we are using the term "cinematic", let's consider war movies. I'm not really a fan, but the ones I've seen generally focus on one or a few individuals whose efforts have the potential to turn the tide of a larger battle. This could be a way to inject some excitement into the game - supplementing a typical army with a few potent models whose abilities can have a much greater impact on the game. I'm not talking simply about bigger guns here but special abilities to support allies, disrupt enemies, or otherwise affect the battlefield in unique ways, perhaps in the manner of psykers in 40k (or, even better, wizards in Warhammer Fantasy, but without the spells of mass destruction) and hackers in Infinity. Careful allocation (and elimination) of these assets while the main forces engage the enemy could become almost a sub-game within the main battle and would, hopefully, affect the balance of power without diminishing the importance of "normal" units and tactics that would still make up the majority of the game.

It would be tragically arrogant to think this approach hasn't been done yet, so if you know of any 15mm sci-fi rulesets that play like that, please let me know. Also, feel free to share your thoughts and preferences on the general topic of realism and cinematics (as pertaining to this article). Ta ta!


  1. To some extent, Tomorrow's War might be able to adapt to cover what you want. However, from what I've read, Blasters and Bulkheads could be more what you're after. If you take a look on Dropship Horizon, they have reviews of all the rules aimed at 15mm which could give you an idea. I think there is also a space opera version of Songs of Blades and Heroes which might work for you.

  2. You should try 5150 Star Army from Two Hour Wargames. It catches pretty much what you are looking for.

  3. One way to inject excitement and character into a mass-battle game might be giving specific forces (sides) very characterful special rules/unit types/weaponry. And not just minimal adjustments of the core rules (like in FoW), but up to a point that lets you have very asymmetric engagements in terms of numbers, tech, etc.

    Another thing that IMO adds to cinematic feel of a game is having varied scenarios (possibly even different for both sides) integrated into play, so that you're "playing a mission", instead of just exterminating your opponent.