When I came to write Gaslands, I had just finished Hobgoblin.
Hobgoblin is a flexible, setting-less miniature wargaming rules system for fighting huge fantasy battles with massive fantasy armies. In Hobgoblin, as a reaction to games such as The Big Fantasy Battle Game that was killed in 2015, all the rules for all of the units for all of the possible armies were boiled down to one page of unit types and three pages of purchasable upgrades called “Strengths” and “Weaknesses”.
In this system, the players are free to take the generically available ingredients and cook up any fantasy army that they want. Much of the playtesting effort centred around ensuring that each of these options was sufficiently balanced, at least in a “stone-paper-scissors” sort of way, such that no single unit and upgrade combination was clearly stronger than all the others.
I am proud of this approach and proud of this system. It shows that one does not required hundreds of pages of rules to generate thematic variety and tactical breadth on the tabletop. A carefully chosen handful of thoroughly tested options is all you need to create mighty armies of evil warriors, bands of slender elves, walls of stalwart dwarves, hordes of undead fiends, seas of goblins, or spears of noble knights.
When I came to write Gaslands, I had just finished Hobgoblin. I looked at the rows of matchbox cars arrayed before me and I said: “yes, a generic system of upgrades is right and proper for a game in which all players are selecting from the same basic vehicle types”.
Many of the games I play – Malifaux, Infinity, WFB, X-Wing, Man-o-war – require players to select a faction, and each faction provides unique options in terms of units to field on the battlefield. The budding games designer in me rebelled against the idea of factions in wargames. “When I design games,” I thought to myself, “I shall simply do a better job of making balanced and interesting tactical options. The players will want to choose from the different options, rather than being forced to.” I wrote a list of vehicles and a set of weapons and upgrades. I had yet to write the skill lists, knowing that the rules were still too unstable to bother until later.
I showed the lists of vehicles and upgrades to my friend Glenn. He pointed out that I don’t have factions in this game. “Yes, that’s right,” I agreed proudly. This game doesn’t need factions. “This game needs factions,” said Glenn.
He explained. Everyone can have everything. Given a single list of choices; there is always going to be a best option. Even if this best option is only subtler better, and only reveals itself to be better over a long period of time, there is always going to be a best option. This best option then suggests a best tactic. There is a single way to win and a single set of things you need to win in this way.
I want players to be able to choice freely from building teams that focus on speed, others on guns, others on tricks and maneuvers. But with a single list of choices, there is always going to be a best tactic. That makes sense. Particularly when you are only selecting between two and eight vehicles. I am fooling myself if I think I can test and balance the game so that every tactic comes up equal, and the range of options support these tactics equally. That eight bikes are as likely to win as a tank. What a horrible problem. My game is solvable.
Can we fix this with scenarios? With scenarios, you can defuse the dominance of a single best play-style by varying the conditions of victory, the terrain, or the in-game activities. With scenarios, you can ensure that no one set of options is always the best and no one team configuration will always have the advantage. In this way, in theory, you promote a range of “best” options. However, I have observed in other games that you cannot FORCE players to play different scenarios. What if a group of Gaslands players love the Death Race scenario and only plays that? What if another group of Gaslands players just wants to fight skirmishes in the wastelands and doesn’t care for more involved victory conditions? In these play-groups, there will emerge a single best option for their table. These players will say: “Gaslands was fun for a while, but we’ve kind of solved it now.”
If we use scenarios to ensure that different option are best at different times, the game is not tolerant to users electing to play the same scenario every game. This is insufficient game design. If players get bored of my game, having “solved” it, this is the failure of the games designer, not the failure of the players. We need another answer.
The second answer is factions. Given that certain options are only available to certain faction; players can select a tactical play-style and optimise towards that. If you want a speedy team, you can choose the speedy faction. If you want a more shooty team, you choose the shooty faction. Both are great at what they do, and ordinary at what they don’t do.
With factions, we have an uneven field again. There may well be an “optimum” shooting list, but that is only one of six possible “best lists”. Now we need to ensure that the shooting-really-well faction doesn’t always beat the driving-really-fast faction, but this is a simpler task. In the case of Gaslands, it means ensuring that the mechanics of shooting are not so powerful that running away is not an option, or that the mechanics of running away and not so powerful that attempting to shoot people who are running away is never a clever choice.
The other advantage of factions is that they give players a “leg up” in choosing a unique and personal feeling team among their friends. Without having to invent anything themselves, six players can choose uniquely flavoured teams just by taking the different factions at face-value. The narrative and tactic baseline starts broader. Now, if a player wants to play an agile and trickster team, they are not penalised for choosing the “wrong” tactic. Their faction can do things that no-one else can, and if they play to these strengths they have an advantage over others. The player next to them will be doing the same thing, but with their weird science team.
Wait. Doesn’t this mean Hobgoblin should have factions?
Maybe. Hobgoblin is a game of sweeping epic fantasy battles. The design goal of Hobgoblin was to let you take your existing collections of fantasy armies and build lists to fit your thematic understanding of the units. In building a massive fantasy army, the hobbyist is unlikely to want to paint two hundred copies of the same miniature, simply because it is the optimum choice. Except this is totally a thing at a competitive level, so if Hobgoblin ever had organised play rules, I might well introduce factions to silo collections of options.
Looking at all the popular, well-played, competitively-player games systems: can a wargame without factions be long-lived? The current landscape suggests not. Games without factions are universally smaller and more niche.
Hats off to Malifaux, Warmachine, Warhammer, Infinity and everyone else. I get it now.