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Chaos and Control: Balancing Strategy and Narrative in Game Design

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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I have to apologize in advance, because this post is going to dig into the nuances of Warhammer 40,000 a bit. But I’m holding out hope that the conversation remains relevant to a broader (i.e. not just 40K) audience! You can let me know how I did at the end.

As I touched on in a prior article, I’ve been designing “ProHammer,” which is a custom ruleset for the “classic” versions of Warhammer 40k that unifies 3rd through 7th edition. I recently completed a big milestone in the project, the result of which is a completely rewritten rulebook from the ground up and nearly 70-pages of densely packed rule goodness.

Overall, this writing process (along with much playtesting over the past 6 months) afforded me a deep understanding of which types of rules led to what types of questions and situations arising during play that the player would be forced to grapple with. And ultimately, how deep or interesting these choices are says a lot about the level of strategy or tactics at hand in the game. But it also speaks to broader questions about how the intended experience of a game is shaped, and how the levers of design can be used in crafting it.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Horus, we have a problem

40K has long suffered from a problem where much of the “strategy” of the game has little to do with playing the game itself - which is to say the actual table level interactions - but rather in the creation of your army list. What units you field in your army, how they work together, how efficient they are at attacking the enemy or securing objectives has always played an outsized role in the game. But this facet has become even more dominant in the “modern” 40K editions (8th and 9th edition).

People often criticize modern 40K as starting to feel like a CCG (e.g Magic: The Gathering), where the equivalent to deck construction (i.e. army list building) is stealing the show. As a bit of evidence, go look up tactics articles for 40K or tactics discussion forums. The overwhelming majority of content relates directly to “what units do I put in my army” and very little to do with traditional tactics like position and maneuver.

I do recognize that for high level competitive play, deck construction becomes somewhat of a “floor” to your competitive success, and with all top level players having highly tuned and effective decks, the tactical choices of play becomes the deciding factor. But outside of that, a well-optimized deck is going to routinely lay waste to a poorly made one, regardless of player skill. For 40K it is much the same, and certain army lists are nearly auto-wins versus others.


From gallery of Mezmorki
A Challenge of Customization

Given the above situation, how does one devise the rules for a game, be it a tabletop miniature game, a CCG, or some other form of customizable game in a way that emphasizes in-game strategy and tactics, and player skill, as much as possible? This was the challenge I was initially looking to surmount in the design of ProHammer.

There are a number of areas in the rules to make interventions. At the broadest level, and getting directly at the dominance of list building, I considered the following thought experiment: What would 40K look like if it was modeled after chess? What if every battle was a mirror match, with a symmetrical table layout and deterministic combat results (in lieu of die rolling). If this were to happen, then the army building aspect of the game would be gutted and the game would be entirely down to player decision-making prowess on the table.

Obviously the game is never going to be played in a perfectly chess-like manner (nor would I want it to be), but might moving certain design needles in that direction help? If so, what needles needed to be nudged?

One element that stands out to me are the rules governing army list creation. Older versions of 40K were more restrictive and limited player choice. You had to take a certain number or percentage of your army’s points in basic “troop” units, you couldn’t have more than three of a certain type of specialist unit, and so on. Later editions of 40K did away with much of this, with formations and variable detachment types essentially letting people build whatever army they wanted.

In a certain respect, this is to be celebrated because players have “freedom” to play wherever combination of forces they want. But on the other, this “freedom” means that the opportunities for building especially powerful (ahem, overpowered) combinations are much greater - and the needle moves further away from chess.

Ultimately, the mere existence of more powerful lists drives the “meta” of the game towards more narrowly defined army lists that can compete in the meta. And this situation in turn feeds into undermining the table-level tactical play. This is a case where restrictions can breed invention. By forcibly narrowing the range of army lists, we might reign in power differentials and thus keep differences in lists focused at a finer, less impactful scale. By making everyone take a slightly more “chess-like” army we put more emphasis on the ensuring tactical gameplay choices.


From gallery of Mezmorki
Victory Conditions

The next rung down is another crucial aspect of the game play and it’s strategic potential: mission design. One of my great lamentations about the current 40K game (9th edition) is that essentially all of the official missions are actually the same mission, based around securing “control points” with minor flavors and variations in what specific points earn more or less VPs. The result of having effectively just one competitive mission is that players can continuously optimize and refine their army list to do that one exact mission as best as possible.

This poses two sticking points. The first is, when coupled with greater freeform for list building, players can just zero in on optimizing for one set of mission parameters, which further reinforces “skew” lists (moving away from chess). I must acknowledge though that, like the competitive Magic: the Gathering example, if everyone is bringing a highly optimized list, then it should push things towards player skill and tactical choice again. But this leads into the second issue!

The second issue is that given one single set of mission/victory parameters, certain factions and styles of army lists are simply better suited for those missions than others. In the current “meta,” armies with durable elite infantry that can both move very quickly onto objectives and can hold out on those objectives and fight well in close combat have a big advantage. Armies that can’t do this as well, are at a distinct disadvantage regardless of how much freedom the players might have to build their list.

How ironic is it then, that by giving greater flexibility for army list creation, but with a singular style of mission, that we end up in a situation where only a narrow range of those possible army lists are strong performers?

One partial solution to this conundrum is providing a more diverse range of missions, and specifically having these missions require a broader range of army capabilities (i.e. a more flexible list) in order to be successful. By restoring restrictions on army composition (to create a bit more homogeneity between armies) in conjunction with broadening the range of mission challenges, the focus of the gameplay tips towards “how” you are using your army rather than “what” is in your army. This is foundational for making a more strategic game.


From gallery of Mezmorki
Chaos and Control

At this point, we might toss up our hands and say, “well if there is a huge variety of amy lists, and a huge range of mission types, doesn’t the whole thing become a kind of crap-shoot then anyway (albeit one with more types of lists that might be able to randomly win)”? In a way it does (and I’ll get to why that might be a GOOD thing in a moment), but in a way it doesn’t.

It doesn’t because players are now rewarded for learning and gaining a broader set of decision-making heuristics. Being able to read the mission, and the table setup, and looking at your army and your opponent’s army and devising a “unique” plan of action for the situation at hand is perhaps the most important skill of all in the game - and is much preferred (by me) than the “skill” of making a highly tuned and optimized list (which you can just look up on the internet).

This greater level of “chaos” is, in my opinion, a good thing for the game as a whole for one very good reason: narrative. Having fundamentally different types of missions with lots of different viable types of army lists, creates more opportunities for novel and interesting situations to emerge, which is the hallmark of games that create a story through their play. And for all of this to be successful, the game’s mechanics as a whole need to find a careful balance between player control and chaos - to allow for enough chaos to let the unexpected happen and also to take the pressure off a competitive mindset, but to have enough control that player choices still matter and that players feel invested in the outcome of the game.

This tension - between chaos and control - strikes at the heart of trends in modern gaming. And this was my “ah-ha!” moment that prompted me to write this post. It was a realization that perhaps Warhammer 40k, starting in 8th edition (in 2017), wasn’t being designed so much as a narrative-making game (Ameritrash if you will) as it was being designed for the competitive and “challenge” oriented crowd. As I realized this, I started seeing the evidence all over the place.

For example, modern gaming “sensibilities” often take the view that “output randomness” is a bad thing, or something to be mitigated. And so we see one of the biggest changes in 8th edition: the introduction of the command phase. The command phase allows players to spend command point resources on “stratagem” actions - the overwhelming majority of which are strictly designed and intended to counteract randomness. Don’t like a die roll? Spend a CP to re-roll it. Moved a unit into a bad spot? Spend CPs to boost their armor save. Shooting didn’t go your way? Spend CPs to take another chance at shooting.


From gallery of Mezmorki
Shifting Sensibilities

Another, more cynical, manifestation of this shift from chaos to control is to suggest that the modern “challenge” oriented player doesn’t actually like contending directly with their opponent. Designer-controlled games, like many modern Eurogames, are designed explicitly to challenge a player but also in a manner that doesn’t require them to really contend with the psychology or actions of their opponent. Players, it seems, often want to win or lose “on their own merits” rather than win or lose relative to the performance of their opponents.

There’s a bit of coddling involved. And the festishization of army list building plays right into the above notion. Perhaps, again cynically, the push towards list building and narrower mission design (as discussed earlier) becomes a way for players to absolve themselves of their own mistakes in a loss. It’s much easier to say “well I just didn’t bring the right army list to beat your army list” than it is to say “I got outplayed and made mistakes.”

Now, a confrontational game like Warhammer 40K is still vastly more directly interactive than many modern eurogames. Yet I can’t help but feel like Warhammer 40k “the tactics game of position and maneuver” is, bit by bit, giving way to Warhammer 40k “the resource management combo-building game.” It is becoming less a game of who can outsmart who on the battlefield, and more a contest of who can bring the better optimized force to the table.

Ironically though, there is a limit to how far down the “challenge” pathway modern sensibilities seem to want to go. We’re still quite a ways short of chess, which is a far more intense, direct meeting of the minds with no outside factors (list building, die rolling, etc.) obfuscating the competition. It’s direct and brutal - but despite the pretense for competitive mindsets, I don’t think 40k players really want to know who the better player is in quite such stark relief.


From gallery of Mezmorki
Priorities in Design

So what are the implications for the design of Warhammer 40K specifically, and the design of other games more generally?

My takeaway is that this exercise and process of building a “better” 40K is, like all game design efforts, a matter of balancing priorities. Are we designing a game to “really” test our mettle and see who the better player is? Are we designing a game to challenge our logistical minds and combo-hunting faculties? Are we designing a game to see who can better manage risk and chaos and adapt to uncertainty on the fly? Are we designing a game to, first and foremost, tell a story through the act of playing it? How do we balance these competing demands?

To some extent, my approach to designing ProHammer has been a gradual realization that designing to balance these different priorities results in an imperfect solution, one riddled with contradictions and elements working at cross purposes. In short a mess. But maybe a beautiful mess for the right participants.

On one hand, I’ve designed and intended many facets of the game to add more meaningful decision points where none existed before - in order to make the gameplay more interactive and support a back-and-forth dynamic. Yet on the other hand, the outcome of these choices continues to rely heavily on the luck of the dice, which I’ve kept “unmitigated” as much as possible. So more decisions are in the player's hands, but ever more outcomes are left to fate.

It’s a strange paradox and I think appreciation of games that are “messes like this” require a certain attitude and outlook towards what type of experience is desired. Clearly, this is neither a challenge oriented design like a Eurogame, nor a “hard” challenge game like an abstract. It is perhaps most of all a story-telling game, but one where the choices and efficacy of player action weigh heavily in shaping the overall narrative, but not necessarily its details. It’s a game that will challenge players, but is ultimately best enjoyed when the players don’t put too much stock in the outcome. Just like the good Dr. ordered.
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