Monday, 26 March 2018

Shadow War Armageddon retrospective: or, in defense of bad games

Back in the autumn, I joined in the Shadow War Armageddon campaign put on by the fine young people of (deep breath) the Cambridge University Roleplaying and Tabletop games Society, hereinafter CURTS. This was just after Shadow War Armageddon had come out, and I was keen to put my Orks to good use. The campaign has now wrapped up with a big final bash, and although I missed a few sessions I feel like I played enough to prompt some thoughts.

Splatgut takes aim with his Big Shoota
So, first off: it seems like I spend a lot of time talking to people who care a lot about game design, and I sort of care about it myself. This leads me to think about games in design-y terms sometimes. In those terms, Shadow War Armageddon is ... well, I don't know if it's a bad game, but it ain't great. It has the following flaws:

  • Although its core mechanic is the simple Warhammer 40K second edition ruleset (which is simple to me, at least, because I grew up with it), it piles on layer after layer of exceptions and special conditions, virtually guaranteeing that you will forget at least one of them during a match and feel like a dummy. Special rules for the weapons, special rules for the scenario, special rules for the factions. I admit that I am not a rules guy at the best of times, so maybe this is just me. 
  • It is, hands down no foolin', the worst-organised rulebook I have read, or at least it has the highest ratio of budget to quality. Not all the kill teams are in the same section! Kill teams and their special ops are in two different parts of the book, except only for some teams. Some teams have their weapons in different sections, but others don't. I realise that this is because some teams are "core" and others aren't, but how is that relevant? That's not how people actually play the game, a fact that ten seconds' reflection would have revealed.
  • Despite its complexity, its advancement system is so limited that it's not really all that much fun. 
  • It is not balanced for toffee. In particular, the rules were designed for a game where everybody starts out with a Move of 4 and a BS of 3 (and an I of 3 as well) and gunsights are limited. I'm not just bitter because I spent a lot of time pinned, but when a significant chunk of your opponent's team starts the game hitting on 2s, there's only so much cover you can take. Similarly, the introduction of kill teams with a move of 6 should have made the designers rethink the scenario rules. There are loads of scenarios which try to prevent turn-one charges with 8" distance restrictions, which is not a big deal for kill teams where some or all of the models have move 6. 
  • It does, to some degree, compensate for its lack of balance by being random as anything. I think my win-loss was about 50-50, or slightly less, but I cannot attribute this to any tactical merit on my part. I just slugged forward and sometimes I got into optimum Ork range and shredded my opponents with sustained fire and face-punches, and sometimes I didn't. I did sometimes win by remembering to focus on mission objectives, but that's partly because I just find missions with objectives fun.

The Grotmob advances, ready for action!
Now, all of this sounds like I didn't like the game, but actually ... my view on it is much more equivocal. I had a good old time playing in this campaign, although getting all the terrain to a place far from my house was a bit of a nuisance. Still, I was getting the hang of it by the end. I'm gonna buy one of those crates with the little rolly wheels.

Sorry, yes -- I enjoyed it! I mean, it's not going to win any awards, and if it does there's something fishy, but its very goofiness works in favour of it. Its high level of randomness and its goofy exceptions wind up provoking more laughs at the table than frustration, and it produces the kind of wargaming moments everyone likes -- moments that illuminate the personalities of the players and get retold at subsequent sessions. The thought of one of my Orks running around carrying a lectern, proudly proclaiming that he was the Boss now because he had a table, or Badlug squishing people like grapes with his power klaw and then, surrounded by the corpses of his foes, deciding it was time to bottle out, is good for a laugh.

I've mentioned that randomness cancels out the balance issues to some degree, but another thing that can compensate for balance issues is a general attitude of insouciance and/or inexperience. In a group that was half veteran killers and half total rookies, the weird disparities between some of the kill teams would have been frustrating, but in a group mostly composed of beginners no one really tried to build some ultimate murder squad. I encourage this attitude.

GW games are expensive, but they have this weird effect where their shared vocabulary works in favour of them. If Shadow War Armageddon were released as a spin-off for, I dunno, Beyond the Gates of Antares, no one at CURTS would play it, partly because they wouldn't already have models knocking about to play it with and partly because it would be unfamiliar to them. It was really interesting to see how the one guy in the group who didn't have a lot of familiarity with 40K struggled -- you sometimes forget that not everyone grew up with this game and take for granted the ability to, I don't know, tell a flamer and a meltagun apart at a glance and assess their relative capabilities.

(I feel bad because I think I was a little hard on that guy, actually; I am 90% more chilled out than I was when I was younger, but sometimes I still get impatient and I ought to learn to relax about stuff more.)

My main point is that the familiarity does have genuine benefits. On paper, Shadow War Armageddon is a hard game to learn. In practice, a huge segment of the gaming population already owns the miniatures and already understands what the statline means.

This may be for historical reasons that are more to do with savvy marketing and fun IP than how good the game is, but here's a question for you: who cares? Game designers, I have no doubt. Other than them?

So take a look at that photo. That's the final game, with seven players playing on an 8 x 4 (ish) table. You can see that there's painted terrain, stuff scratch-built out of foamboard, fantasy terrain, terrain made from junk, army man toys, I mean the whole bit. The whole thing's a mess. But it was a ton of fun.

And that's really important for me to remember. Like a lot of people who are into miniatures gaming, I spend a lot of time paying attention to the writings and works of people who are much better painters and terrain makers than I am. When you do that, it can be easy to feel frustrated about what you perceive as your own lack of progress. But this game was set up pretty quickly and there were all kinds of interesting sightlines and tricky angles and people cursing the terrain and people forgetting where models were hiding, and much laughter. And it has stuff people made themselves, and creative use of found objects -- the things I love!

The buzzchoppa isn't the most supremely pointless weapon in the game, but it's close.

Boss Badlug is your basic Evil Sunz boss: a status-obsessed meathead consumed with the need for the latest gadgets.
I have often lamented that there doesn't seem to be a sci-fi Frostgrave. I have to confess that I haven't tried Mini Gangs yet, even though I have the rulebook, and I have backed the Factious Waste Kickstarter, so I guess there's that, but I haven't found a game that gives me the simplicity and the ... interesting swinginess? ... that Frostgrave does. I absolutely accept that it isn't perfect, but right now I think it's very close to my preferences in a skirmish game. I just want the same thing but with aliens and zap guns, which may be the root of my problem.

These Ramshackle Games terrain pieces make great cover and great objectives.
High above the deck of the Space Hulk, Badlug battles the dreaded Nunboss!
In short, then, I have had a good old time over the last two terms playing a game that is ... let's call it flawed. My enjoyment of this may be more revealing in terms of my priorities than the actual game, but as I've got older I've found that I care about games in the abstract less and much more about my own priorities -- this is because I'm no longer really interested in universalising from the stuff I care about. I'm just interested in meeting my own specific goals.

And that's why a game that isn't all that great can still be a lot of fun.


  1. I agree with the rule book being one of the worse organized GW books I have used in ages but like yourself I really enjoyed the 'throw stuff at the table' aspect of the game.

    Balanced it is not, but it can make for a great narrative.

    1. Yes, and I think I might use it as an engine of convenience for a narrative campaign with different force lists and maybe a more generous experience system.

  2. The book is a mess, no question, but just like you , we've had great fun with that anyway !
    Many of us are looking for that Sci-fi skirmish grail Rogue Stars failed to deliver, something that says "frostgrave in space" as you say. New Necromunda relies on known fondations like you mention (statlines, weapons and all) and I feel like we're getting to the point where it might become that toolbox we seek although it's of course not the "one list, one die" kind of game Frostgrave excels at being.

    1. I feel like GW games can get away with not being one-list games because they're ... a language I speak? My preference is for simplicity but if I can't have that I'll take complexity I already mostly understand. I haven't played new Necromunda, mainly because I am wary of investing, but perhaps I can con one of my Necro-playing friends into showing me how it works.

    2. For that matter, some of us (I have yet to fully jump on that wagon) are using Dracula's america as well, really simple rules, few special rules to give factions their own taste.

    3. I keep hearing good things, but another skirmish system ... I dunno.

  3. I have no familiarity with the game, but I'll take your word for it, as the game pics look like loads of fun, and those orks have awesome paint jobs. ;)

    1. Thanks! I don't know why I decided to get into Orks other than that I got a load cheap on eBay -- I never played them as a young'un. These days I'm very attached to those rowdy idiots.

    2. Ditto for me too James, except I picked my lot up at a con years ago :)

    3. Mine came off a sweet EBay buy. Cheap and with more minis then was listed.

  4. I guess fun players & nice miniatures can compensate for bad design. Actually, that, along with brand loyalty/recognition and the fact that most gamers don't really care about rules, is pretty much the secret behind GWs continued success. It's surprising Frostgrave (which as a game is not particularly well designed either) ever managed to become such a hit.

  5. I totally agree with you about the familiarity of the GW "system". It's just a norm for "us guys', only ever realising that it's not THAT intuitive until we meet non-GW players.

    I'm kind of having the same experience atm with my RP group. We're playing 1st ed WFRP. And apart from myself and the GM the players have no clue about the Warhammer world. But this is actually quite a good thing, coz in the Old Wolrd setting most of the population know nothing of the reality of's all just rumour and old wives tales.

    So from that perspective, not knowing anything about the game beforehand is great. But for a wargame? I don't think so. Wargames usually require less knowledge of the setting. Just lay down your minis and slog it out kinda thing.

    I only ever played the game for the BOYL weekend, so I'm far from being an expert with the system, but I had fun playing it nonetheless. I suspect that most of the enjoyment was due to the company more than the ruleset though.

    Very interesting post James :)

    1. I think BOYL illuminates that pretty well! The Helsreach game wasn't quite Necromunda, wasn't quite RT -- but we all pretty much, more-or-less know how the system works, and that's good enough for the kinds of games we want to play. It'd never fly in a genuinely competitive environment, but that sounds like somebody else's problem.

    2. Oops, I think I didn't explain myself clearly in that last paragraph. I've played RT a lot, just only ever played SW for the BOYL WHW game.

      I totally agree with your sentiments about the BOYL Helsreach game too. What a great game :)