Monday, June 23, 2014

Why Maelstrom Missions are Good and Bad

This should be a somewhat shorter post than normal.

So Maelstrom Missions add a couple of things to the game that are generally good, but they execute it in a way that is generally not so hot, at least in this gamer's opinion (after all, this IS a blog!).

Progressive / mid-game scoring requirements are good. They require you to proactively solve problems on the board throughout the game, instead of focusing on simply structuring late-game grabs. This diversifies list design in a positive way.

Additionally, this encourages engagement and CAN (if executed correctly) broaden the value of more units ... after all, if the game is something other than "camp wherever you need with super unit, then snag late with hidden throwaways" that's probably a good thing for those units that don't fill one of those two categories.

Several folks have been modifying Maelstrom also in some basic ways to get rid of the rando d3 value components, and to allow for immediate discard of impossible objectives, etc. etc. This helps as well.

BUT it's not all good, unfortunately ...
Where I struggle with Maelstrom, both conceptually and from having played with them, is that they turn the "Maelstrom" component of the game into the picture that started this article.

They basically give you an assignment, and tell you to go accomplish it as efficiently as you possibly can, so as to continue drawing new assignments. It's like power questing in MMOs, written into 40K. There's a certain element of flexibility required in accomplishing them, and you need to optimize your list for the many variables for accomplishment that are involved. That said, it doesn't make accomplishing them a tactically or strategically meaningful accomplishment. At least personally, I find it diminishes the feel of the game when the game itself says "immediately go do this thing, right now."

Let's compare this to a situation where you have multiple fashions in which to progressively score points during a game (i.e., objectives across the board are worth points if held). In a situation like that, the game is still telling you "collect points during play!" but it is not telling you "collect points during play by going to this exact coordinate on the board as quickly as you can."

To help draw the comparison, imagine if instead of Kill Points or Points Destroyed, you randomized your opponent's army into #'s based upon each unit, wrote those numbers sequentially on a deck, shuffled it, and then drew randomly from the top. You would only gain points by killing the current kill-assignment. Now, instead of figuring out the target priority and risks that will best win you the game, you literally just do what the cards tell you in each and every moment. It's like the game of 40k is playing your models for you.

The difference is perhaps subtle, but it's enormous. In the case of Maelstrom, the game is basically telling you what your tactics and strategy are. In the case of more player-choice progressive scoring, you're selecting from the myriad of possible strategic courses which one you think will best accomplish a net win in the end. Both approaches impact list design in very similar ways, and both of them are better than a simple "grab points at the end and who cares what you do until then" environment. By being random, specific, and force-targeted, however, Maelstrom still pales next to the gaming situation created by more player-choice multi-route progressive-scoring mission design.

So we're halfway there. We'll see if we can't get all the way there while echoing some of the soul of the Maelstrom with our heavily revised mission packet, due out by July 1 along with the FAQ.


  1. Just as devil's advocate, why is it "better" to encourage more units?

    Why is a game mechanic that encourages MSU style play "better" than a game mechanic that encourages (I hate this word, but...) "deathstars"?

    Both are forcing (some) players to play something different than what they want to play (if they want to be competitive, anyway).

    No horse in the race, just a sounding board.

    As for missions, for the most part any structured mission is going to be telling me what tactics (I hate using that word in man-barbie games too!) I need to use to win this particular game. Whether it does that at the start of the game (and whether or not I have some say so in what the mission will be) is different than having it happen during the course of the game, but it's still telling me what I have to do to win and defining what (ugh!) tactics are needed.

    In the 'kill a random opponent's unit' example above, a decision has to be made for short-term gain of a victory point by killing what is implied above as being a low-priority unit, or not socring a VP this turn to instead target prioritize to kill things that will make it easier for me to score more points than my opponent later in the game. This, in theory, is far preferable to me than sitting on poker chips all game trying to score points: force me to make decisions regarding short term gain or [i]potential[/i] long term gain. Give me a risk/reward evaluation to make instead of just finding a way sit on an objective with 20 different units that an opponent can't possibly kill all of and call that tactics (a gross oversimplification, yes, but done to make a point).

    All that being said, what I really like about the Maelstrom missions is the dynamic nature that requires so many different kinds of things in an army that it seems to preclude single list archetypes (ie Netlists) from dominating. It will could be (in theory) more about which player can adapt to changing mission parameters while preventing opponent from doing the same.

    What I strongly dislike is, as hinted at above, the non-player-interaction required in the Maelstrom process. I draw one single card and that's it. I get what I get and I don't get upset (as I teach my kids). Well, I'm not upset, but it's boring and dull (as said above).

    I think a combination of a lot of things can make the Maelstrom missions workable: those mentioned above (discard missions that you can't achieve, make them less random...which is at it's core a balance thing, you can't balance random, but since little else in the game is balanced either i'm not sure that really matters) as well as a mechanic that allows players to draw multiple cards and choose which they'll select as their current objectives.

    Another mechanic that I think would be a lot of fun (though this is thinking out loud, or as my Turkish co-worker says, "loud-thinking"), would be to give players a choice of revealing which missions they've chosen or keeping them secret...revealing would award more points.

    Gee, I wonder where all these great mission ideas come from...

    Thanks for another thought-provoking article Mr. Brandt!

    1. I agree, I think drawing 5 cards and discarding 2 immediately wold make it better. Its not fun holding an objective card that is impossible to my Tau sans psykers drawing the psychic power objective and holding it gfor an entire turn...WTF? It's almost as annoying as hold 3 "Secure Objective 6" cards in your hand.

  2. I'm under the impression that you can score the same card multiple times, but cannot have more than one of the same card in your hand at any given time (redraw). Not going to quote the rulebook as I don't have it with me, but I remember running into this issue and coming to that conclusion based on what I read. Am I wrong in terms of RAW Maelstrom rules?

  3. It's really an informative and well described post. I appreciate your topic for blogging. Thanks for sharing such a useful post.

  4. Hi Mike,
    I like your points. I loved the idea of Maelstrom missions when I first saw the rules, but after playing a handful of games I started to see some annoying downsides.
    I’m wondering how to fix those in casual games so that my friends and I can have fun with our current models.
    I’m also struggling to make a reasonable list for more competitive environment.

    I plan on play testing some of the options below, and I’d like more active player to give me their insight. The goal is to bring randomness to a manageable level and to include more long run mission planning.
    Ideas, a combination would work best and numbers in the example will need to be tested to reach a improve balance:
    - Draw 12 cards, discard 1 or 2. Choose 3 active cards and sequence the others to your liking. At the end of your turn replace active cards to a maximum of 3 from your pre-ordered pile. If the pile is empty pick from the deck.
    - Draw 5 cards, choose 2 which will be part of your opponents active objective, and would be worth 2 points each if achieved during the game (guidelines would be needed to exclude impossible mission, ex: killing psycher, winning a challenge for a tau player against a flying circus, etc.)
    - …