Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Beer, Pretzels and Drunken Gremlin Ninjas - Malifaux Mondays in the World of Warhammer

So some DC area fellas and I started playing Malifaux together a few weeks ago on Monday nights. The group is going strong - let me know if you'd like to join! We game in Falls Church, with three centrally located hosts to ensure the night is steady and reliable for participants.

This is a casual gaming group ... the whole purpose is to learn a game that nobody really knows (it just released a second edition) in a relaxing environment. We're also always open to combining a little Mixology in with the mess ... Malifaux and Mixology Mondays I guess.

So while I'm openly inviting any DC area folks to join for Malifaux Mondays, that's not the point of this post. The point is to share a little about why I like Malifaux, and why it is so well-balanced.

The point THEN ... and the main thrust of this post ... is to talk about how designing a characterful, well-balanced game is better for competitors and "beer-and-pretzels" gamers alike than "not caring about balance." This is directly relevant to the recent flurry of random additions to the game and the long-standing party line FROM Games Workshop that "you guys shouldn't be so concerned about balance and competition, this is a beer and pretzels game!" The worse the balance of a game ... the BETTER the game is for "power gamers," and the worse it is for average enjoyers of the hobby.

"Why Malifaux is Cool" (or "Learn to Love Drunken Gremlin Ninjas")

Malifaux is a Western Zombie Hillbilly Steampunk/Victorian Horror Fantasy miniature skirmish game. That's a mouthful, but it covers the gamut pretty well.

On any given evening, you may find yourself facing a crew of Western gunslingers in faded dusters, or a Victorian Pimp leading a crew of undead zombie hookers, or the manifested and horrific nightmares of a dreaming boy, or a mysterious criminal crew masquerading as a rail-building Chinese work gang, or even a Moonshining Gremlin and his team of besotted gremlin ninjas.

What makes Malifaux stand out right from the beginning is the dramatic diversity of deeply characterful factions and pieces it contains. Unlike some games where a specific aesthetic or race dominates the imagery, Malifaux manages to expertly weave together a vast diaspora of variant heroes and villains whose synchronizing thread is perhaps best summarized by one of the game's grimly droll taglines: "Bad Things Happen."

What's important to note is the various factions and crew combination possibilities are not just different in their theme, they're also different in their respective emotional impact. Some crews are clearly good, some are clearly bad and many lie firmly in the grey. Some possess a serious and appropriately grim atmosphere, while others are utterly horrifying and yet more are absolutely hilarious. Malifaux will never force a player to commit to the grimdark, nor will it leave them marooned on an island of inane imbecility. As far as the aesthetics go, it's exactly what you want it to be ... however you wish it to be.

But while ill occurrences befall even the most powerful of Malifaux's fictive figurines throughout the fluff and games, nothing could be further from the truth for those who play it. In the game of Malifaux, wondrous things abound.

I was first drawn to the game years ago during its inaugural release by the aesthetic and the fundamental game mechanic. These still abide. The mechanic orients around the complete absence of dice. Instead, Malifaux uses traditional playing cards ... a full 52-card 4-suit deck + the 2 Jokers (one black, one red). You should look into it yourself (and the late beta rules are nigh-on identical to the rulebook release), but fundamentally it orients around flipping cards off the top of the deck, adding them to a relevant stat, and hoping to reach a target number (or, when squaring off against an opposing model, hoping to beat your opponent's total). An array of environmental, strategic and characterful triggers and rules keeps this from feeling like the old-school flip-flip-flip card game of "War," and this is further made unique by the existence of what is called a Control Hand. At the beginning of each alternating-model-activation turn of Malifaux, players draw up to 6 cards into their hand with which they can "cheat fate" during the game, replacing undesirable card flips carefully with cards of a needed number or suit from their hand. This mechanic is incredibly deep in actual gameplay, and depth is what it offers. Additionally, it removes the dice-based possibility of "feeling screwed by luck." The nature of a poker hand limits the # of bad and good "rolls" that can happen during any one deckset of card flips, and the presence of your Control Hand means you either have good cards to sub in for bad flips, or you have bad cards you know aren't in the deck to bite you randomly. This fact couples w/ the power you have to decide when or if to use your Control Hand, yielding a resultant feeling that even if "bad things happen" in terms of your luck in a given turn ... it's at least a little bit your fault. You almost never have someone come out of a game raging about how "the dice screwed" him.

Once you've fallen in love with the aesthetics and learned the mechanics, however, Malifaux starts to really hit its stride in how you play.

As I mentioned, our group was created with an eye toward the "Beer and Pretzels." Participants are as far-ranging as 40k GT winners like Tony Kopach (and I suppose me) and die-hard "Casual" painter-first types like Shades Schaefer. You can summarize the game fairly directly based upon that ... in the world of Malifaux, both Tony and Shades are power gamers ... because every possible crew [within reason] is powerful.

Unless you're really trying hard, it's difficult to produce a "bad" crew in Malifaux, in part because of the design and intent of the game. It's a "list-tailor-by-design" system, and the various models and crews are all generally well-balanced anyway. The missions are also brilliant in concept. So here's how the basic game works in simplicity ..

Tell person your Faction (think: tell them your Codex)
Randomly determine the Stratagem (think: Mission (sidebar, see Stratagems below))
Randomly determine 5 available Schemes (think: Mission is worth 0-4 points, each Scheme is worth 0-3, I can pick two Schemes, and they're secret (sidebar, see Schemes below))
Build your Crew (think: build your army list)
Reveal your schemes (to make them worth more by virtue of your opponent knowing what's coming)
Play the game

A quick note on how Stratagems and Schemes work and are scored:
Stratagems - these are scored in a very minimalistic and clever way. Example - Reckoning is the basic "kill stuff" Stratagem ... after Turn 1 (so alpha striking isn't beneficial other than you've killed stuff) you get 1 point if you killed 2+ models that turn (think: units). That's it. Your opponent can get that too. If at the end of a Turn, there are no opposing models on the table, you also get 1 point (so, pyrrhic victories are possible here). This rather cleverly balances MSU and HVU (High Value Unit), in that having tons of units may enable you to better gang up on and kill big powerful units ... but if you can't get 2 kills a turn and he is getting 2 kills a turn, tabling him by the end of the game (turn 5+) isn't going to do you a lot of good. On the other hand, the "deathstarry" type of models aren't going to win just by winking a kill here or there while playing it safe. In a masterful dual stroke, the weakness of a mission like KP is rendered in stark contrast.

Another Stratagem example is Squatter's Rights, which places 5 markers across the centerline between deployment zones ... and allows you to spend actions to "take" these markers. Having 2 or more gets you a VP (so again, both sides can score it every turn) at the end of any turn after the first. Even if it's costing you casualties, it doesn't much matter if you can either get an early lead or at least maintain the pace ... holding on and getting involved in a close-fought match right from the get-go can net you a win regardless of cost.

Schemes - Schemes are an incredibly interesting mechanic. Some involve placing "Scheme" Markers around the board in various ways (i.e., placing them around an enemy Master and setting them off as mines ... or drawing a "line" across the middle of the board with them ... or defending markers you place near your deployment zone ... etc.). Almost all of them are entirely secret, however, and you choose 2 from a randomly determined subset of 5 pre-game (There are well more than 5 schemes, so you randomize 5 ... and then select 2 secretly). Because of this mechanic and the nature of Schemes, and the fact that accomplishing both of your schemes without even revealing them can equal the MOST points you can accomplish with the main Stratagem ... the net effect is you can use schemes to totally mess with the mind of an opponent and with careful Scheme selection ... can outweigh the problems posed by a bad match.

Example - Sunday night I got in a game with Owen, a member of the NOVA Open Executive Board. Owen had a combat crew ... and I had a shooty crew. While his crew was able to put up smoke screens and other things to sneak across the board out of line of sight, I had a couple of guys who ignored line of sight entirely and were very accurate ... meaning when he tried to bumrush me he'd get all shot up. He had a Scheme available, however, that oriented around him setting up markers in his own deployment zone. So Owen in the aftermath was able to devise a strategy in the replay whereby he could do a couple of things ... place down Scheme Markers even if he didn't have it as his Scheme (yup, you can "headfake" people by placing Scheme Markers in alignment with one you may  not have actually selected) in order to bait me out of my shooty position ... or flat out select a Scheme that forced me to either get out of a "Castle" or face a tie at best.

Summarization ... a combat crew could select sub-schemes that would directly counteract the advantages of a crew that went too far to the extreme on "mathematical" firepower in trying to counter the combat. Imagine if in a game against Tau, a combat-based army with a terrible match-up could avail itself of a couple of optional schemes that involved hiding in their backfield and setting up shop.

I also want to clarify that Malifaux isn't entirely focused around list tailoring. Just the ability to marginally tweak for mission - and select appropriate Schemes to suit the matchup - enables a player to realize what's across the table, and come well-prepared.

The straight-up balance is ALSO well done ... with almost every model we've fiddled with so far fitting very nicely in with all the rest. Everything seems to have a time and place for its use, even if that is sometimes just when tweaking for a specific Strategy or Scheme. In the net, the result is that everyone always feels like they are playing on a level field regardless of their competitive bent ... there's no real dramatic ability to "power game" from a list-building perspective, there's a lot less impact of streaky bad or good luck, and so the games come down to what you do on the table ... and not how much money or time you put into trying to break the game ahead of time.

If it isn't clear yet, Malifaux has given us a window into how the concept of power gamer vs. casual gamer vs. whatever gamer changes when a game is well-designed from a balance perspective. The "ideal" of balance can be seen in a game like Chess, where the difference between White and Black is by definition marginal. In Malifaux, every crew feels like White, and the ability to tweak and custom-select from a Scheme set leaves you feeling like if your chess set is missing a bishop there's a way to get it back AFTER you've started playing. You lose that feeling of "well I'm going to lose this, his list is cheesy" that can happen between casual and more committed players in 40K. As a result, by being BETTER designed for fair competitive play among ANY number of players ... Malifaux is also better for Beer and Pretzels players. In fact, it's arguably better for ANY player.

So is this me bagging on 40K? No, not at all. Anyone who wants to take the time to prepare can show up to any sort of 40K tournament and have a damn fine chance to compete against just about anybody else. It's just fine, as a matter of fact. Few people look at 40K and EXPECT the game to be balanced in a true across-all-models sense. We all realize you shouldn't show up with Pyorovres (I reserve the right to change this specific example come January) and expect to table a Seerstar.

No, this isn't about tournament talk. Malifaux is GREAT for tournament play as well, as far as I can tell, but that's not really the point. The point is about Beer and Pretzels gaming. The point is about how to design a game in general.

The more rock-solid a game is from a balance perspective, the easier it is for just about anyone to pick it up, learn the basics, and get into a fun and engaging / competitive game regardless of their opponent's experience level. In 40K gaming groups, you have to set an expectation level that goes BEYOND just "we're playing at this points level." A paint-first guy who chooses models because they look cool does not want to walk blindly into an "1850 gaming night" with Tony, me, Andrew Gonyo, James Watkins and Eric Hoewrger (all nice, fun-loving local buds who often hang and game together ... and also five multiple GT winners). This isn't because we're jerks or power gamers or anything else, but because 40K is so ill-balanced WITHIN its codices ... and so ever-changing from a release perspective ... that it's very difficult for the average player to have any idea where they have to be to have a "Fair" game against others. In a sense, without expectation setting 40K isn't one game ... it's 10. It's as if you had a big giant bag of Chess pieces to choose from when you first purchased the game, and the rules told you how to play Chess but didn't tell you how all the pieces worked or how many were suggested in terms of working together. So if you show up to a night with a bunch of veteran Chess Players ... even if you understand the tactics and rules really well ... you won't necessarily know how many Bishops or Knights or Queens you're supposed to put down on the board. So while the regulars who play each other every week know exactly how many their group has agreed on ... you've got no idea as a first-timer unless they explicitly tell you.

Malifaux, on the other hand, is more like a game where nearly every possible pre-purchased combination of chess pieces works just fine if you know the basics of the rules. So if you show up to play Malifaux with a bunch of strangers or want to join in on a Beer and Pretzels weekly game night ... well, read the rules, pick a crew or faction you think is cool, and go to it ... you'll fit in just fine.

So how do we summarize this, as it's been a long post already.
No matter how a game is designed, if the mechanics are sound and the overall Codex-equivalents can compete against each other more or less, it's FINE for tournament play. Arguably, it's fine in general. The game's fun "cap" is determined thereafter by the aesthetics, core mechanics, etc. In this, MOST of the current tabletop games are pretty similar, whether you're talking 40K or Infinity or Malifaux. Players of equal skill level and commitment to the game will do well enough in 40K regardless of Codex (with an acknowledged nod to the more recent ones having an edge). The most skilled and/or most committed players will bring the "Best" combos and armies and will also do fine against each other.

Where things are different, however, is in "average" play ... pick-up play between strangers or beer and pretzels play between an influx/outflux group of regulars and semi-regulars. In 40K these groups are MORE difficult to sustain over time, because the various participants invest in, commit to and learn the game at dramatically different rates. Someone who isn't keeping up with the best combos, the best combos in reaction to new combos, the newest formations and dataslates and whosawhats, etc. is going to suddenly realize he's showing up to his semi-regular appearances at the game group and not doing nearly as well with the army he already owns. In Malifaux, this doesn't happen. As long as you have your basic range of models to choose from for your favorite Crew/Faction (and in 2E, the rules are a little simpler and the balance is a little better regardless of Crew ... so you don't have to have the entire Faction to do fine), you're going to do just fine at a Malifaux night. Even the point level is pretty fixed - the designers recommend you play at ONE LEVEL, while tacitly acknowledging you're certainly welcome to play outside it if you really want. I feel comfortable that if I showed up at a random group or game store's Malifaux night, they'd be playing 50 Soulstones (points) and my crew would do A-OK ... no matter whether that crew were comprised of quickdrawing gunslinger babes or tottering drunken ninja gremlins.

So when you hear someone say "Beer and Pretzels gamers don't care about balance," I want you to challenge them as follows. If you're in one of the "Beer and Pretzels" 40K groups that claims balance doesn't really matter, and you invite a stranger from the local store to start gaming with you, and he shows up with max Wave Serpent spam while your group "doesn't play that way," what's the outcome? At the LEAST, you're going to have to tell him to tone it down and bring something more along the lines of what you all think is OK. It's very likely he'll either not come back, or be excoriated for being a "spammy power gamer," or have a few false starts where his idea of toning it down still doesn't jive with yours, etc.

In a balanced game, that scenario simply can't happen. Nobody shows up to a Chess Game and gets yelled at for taking 2 bishops. People don't show up to Malifaux nights saying "how dare you take XYZ???!?!" In a Tournament Environment, a dearth of game balance isn't a deathknell - you have time to prepare, you can set your expectations at "prepare for the worst" from a "how hard will these things be vs. how soft" perspective.

The less balanced a game is at the "pick-up gaming / beer and pretzels" level, however, the more bad things happen.


  1. This is a very insightful article and it makes me happy to see that we hit a few of the targets we were aiming at with M2E. We definitely designed the game with the idea that a better balanced game benefits all players. We worked really hard to achieve that goal, and we're still pushing hard right now to keep it up with our Open Beta Wave 2.

    1. Massive bravo from me, Mack. I think what you did with the original game is nothing short of one of the best tabletop games I've yet played. I'm hoping to bring it to the NOVA as soon as I can.

    2. [fanboy alert] Mack, I had high expectations for 2E as soon as I heard you were on the project. I've followed your views on game design since your Dice Like Thunder podcast. And your fine job on Dust Warfare confirmed my faith in your ability to deliver clean, fun design with effective, clear writing.

      I had two false starts with Malifaux, largely because the profile cards were bloated with abilities, and the resulting combos were just brain-burning for a beer-and-pretzels guy like me. You accomplished your mission to make Malifaux accessible again by modularizing the complexity and streamlining/reducing the language and structure of the rules. Well done, sir.

      Now...when are you going to create a modern-designed, fantasy mass-combat game? I have a draft rules-system of my own with some fresh ideas, that you're free to use. Marry it with either the Chronicles of Amber or the Chronicles of Narnia licenses, and you'll be off to the races. :-)

    3. Well let's give credit where it's do, there is a whole team involved. I'm just the handsome front man. :)

    4. From one front man to another, the team never gets the credit where due ... but neither does it get the firestorm.

  2. I'm still meaning to someday get around to playing with the group, MVB.

    I picked up the new Lady Justice crew during Black Friday, but I just have no idea when I'll have the time to get them together (looking forward to that with those nice sculpts) and finding my way over to there. Someday... maybe in late December when other things get less busy.

  3. I agree whole heartedly. Never Played Malifux (mostly because I don't know other guys who play) but the idea that balance is good for everyone is correct. GW these days seem to go with the tought that people won't bring broken stuff...that people will do the game design by themselves and fix the balance by saying don't take x unit etc.

  4. Great article, Mike. Honestly this was enough to make me want to pick up the game. I've been enjoying infinity for the same reason. The army building aspect of 40k is a game all to itself, and I'm enjoying the refreshing aspect of painting and playing a game "just to play".

    1. Agreed. For the first time ever I actually did some reading about Malifaux after this article.

  5. It's worth emphasizing the sequence of events for setup -- specifically, each player defines their list *after* determining scenario/objectives. Practically no other game does this. It's significant in terms of balance, because it places a good portion of responsibility in the hands of the player, rather than relying entirely on the game designers and play-testers. Some responsibility lies with the player, because each player has the opportunity to optimize their crew for the scenario, right before the game begins.

    Also to achieve balance, this design favors scenarios over unit match-ups. Scenarios are won by a variety of methods. Raw firepower is simply one tool in a player's toolbox. List-building is an exercise that trades a variety of winning tactics, rather than being skewed towards achieving maximum killy-ness. While you certainly have options for melee beatsticks or ranged stand-offs, you also have tactics for manipulation, control, denial, defense, horde, reinforcement, and more, all of which form viable winning strategies for achieving scenario objectives.

    1. I think you are right you need to emphasize this more. It also ties better into the game's "prep" time. Once you own the Faction you like in more or less an aggregate of models, you don't have to do anything to get ready for that week's game ... you don't have to try to game the system or break a Faction for an army build or anything else. List design is reactive, and thus more suitable for Beer and Pretzels gaming ... show up, figure out your opponent's Faction and the mission parameters, and then build from your available tools to suit the job at hand.

    2. It also works well in tournaments. I'm running one in February at the LVO and I'm hoping to come away with a lot of data!

    3. Well you ought to come run one at NOVA as well :)

      I gather that it's well designed for tournaments as well; while it should be, however, I'm not sure that's as powerful a discriminator "out of the box" as it is for average gaming. It ends up being IMO far easier to get into even for people who've never tabletopped before (we have one such guy in our group). In a tournament, you're generally only attending if you're committed enough to have at least some understanding of what you'll be walking into ... less true than for a gaming night.

      Nonetheless I'm excited to see Malifaux in a tournament setting! :-) We had a successful event at NOVA a couple years ago but lost our lead. A new one may arise from this play group. Wouldn't mind adding a couple dozen Malifaux gamers to the NOVA's gaggle of 750.

    4. Starship Troopers, the 1st edition by Andy Chambers, did something similar with some tables allowing players to essentially game it out how they want their mission and deployment. This likewise avoids finding the board/mission/opponent wildly at odds with a balanced game.

  6. This "build your list after the matchup" concept sounds fantastic in theory... But concerns me from a practical standpoint as a potential new -- and very cash strapped -- player. How many models (and what level of spending) will I need to put together a playable faction?

    I've been resisting the siren-call of Warmachine/Hordes and Flames of War for a few years now, simply because building an army in any of the factions I found interesting (Pirates, Gatormen, Scottish Mechanized Infantry) was going to set me back as much as a new WH40K or WHFB army (or more likly a signifigant expansion to one of my existing ones). I've avoided Infinity simply because I find the rules an incoherent jumble (and I can take-or-leave the scifi setting, really).

    I love the look of Malifaux, the game design sounds fun as heck... But I have bills to pay.

    1. We've been playing pick-up just fine with an out-of-the-box crew and some add-ons. I imagine you could get close to an entire faction + the rules and decks for under $150 total, and you could be playable quite fine for under $100

    2. So... from a few days of searching around the internet, it looks like the "Hired Swords" box set feature Viktoria, her doppleganger, the Student of Conflict, Taelor, and three Ronin ($45), a Convict Gunslinger ($10), a Ronin blister pack ($20), and I'll have a decent force of gun-totin', sword-swingin' anime-cowboy hotties for less than $100? And its competitive enough NOT to get me laughed at/

      Okay. I think that just might have sold me...

  7. Thanks for writing this. It's always good to hear feedback like this after putting so much work into the game!

    1. I'm glad you were able to read it, Justin, and appreciate you reaching out. There's something pretty fantastic about the people involved with the game directly interacting w/ the community. We're working hard to bring Malifaux to the NOVA in large part b/c of the quality of company Wyrd presents itself to be and the excellent work you've put into the game.

  8. I'm late to this blog, but I like it (mainly because of how you disparage GW's insistence and claiming "Forge the Narrative" means they can stop giving a shit).

    Malifaux sounds great and I'm inspired to get a couple of starters to give it a bash with my mates.